Tag Archives: YA

Review: Crooked Kingdom

No mourners. No funerals. No spoilers. I finally, finally got back to Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology, and today I’m reviewing book 2, Crooked Kingdom. You should read Six of Crows first, though. In case you need more incentive, it’s a fast-paced YA fantasy with a great cast of misfit characters, plenty of sleight-of-hand and plot twists, and lots of feel-good one-liners about resilience and compassion.

crookedkingdomAbout the book: The Dregs want their Wraith back, they want the money they were promised, they want safety for themselves and their hostage, and they want the power to choose their own futures. They’ve been crossed, and they’ll be crossed again, but only an idiot would cross Kaz Brekker and his crew and hope to get away with it. Even as the gang becomes the most wanted criminals in the world they refuse to give up hope and they keep fighting for better days. But what can six lost souls do when Ketterdam itself seems to rise against them?

“He often wondered how people survived this city, but it was possible Ketterdam would not survive Kaz Brekker.”

“None of them really knew what Kaz would or wouldn’t do. Sometimes Matthias wondered if even Kaz was sure.”

I’m probably in the minority about this, but I actually preferred Six of Crows to Crooked Kingdom. I thought the sequel would take this duology to new heights, but where Six of Crows constantly surprised me, Crooked Kingdom was exactly what I expected. I suppose it makes sense for books in a duology to be this well matched, but I was hoping for a bit more… chaos. A bit more uncertainty about who would win. Crooked Kingdom ties the loose ends from Six of Crows together, but it’s more predictable about it.

“I would come for you. And if I couldn’t walk, I’d crawl to you, and no matter how broken we were, we’d fight our way out together– knives drawn, pistols blazing. Because that’s what we do. We never stop fighting.”

Crooked Kingdom is more episodic than its predecessor, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but I find episodic tales (especially of this length) somewhat exhausting after a fashion. The plot twists are less thrilling because you’re expecting them, and the big shocks are less shocking because you know which parts are just for show. It gets a little tiring, knowing that everyone (or at least Kaz) knows what’s going to happen next, and you (the reader) are being left out for the dramatics of the narrative. In the first book, it made sense for Kaz to play his cards close and test the loyalty of his friends by leaving out some of the details. Now, there’s no reason for trust issues and the reader knows things won’t go as planned, so why not let us in on the plans?

“Well, Brekker, it’s obvious you only deal in half-truths and outright lies, so you’re clearly the man for the job.”

Perhaps because of that deliberate manipulation of information, my favorite parts of this book were the flashbacks– the backstories about Wylan leaving home, Jesper’s relationship with his parents, Inej’s experience at the Menagerie. It’s incredible to see the things that made these characters so strong. It’s also incredible to see their dreams for the future. For a band of criminals, they have some lofty goals; their rough pasts and hopeful futures make their criminality more a matter of necessity and survival than the sort of evil bullying they want to snuff out. The characters are the best part of this duology, and seeing their humanity through the flashbacks and future goals they’re all harboring gives them so much more color than the impossible feats they’re trying to pull off in the present.

” ‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ said Kaz. ‘I don’t hold a grudge. I cradle it. I coddle it. I feed it fine cuts of meat and send it to the best schools. I nurture my grudges, Rollins.’ “

Let’s talk for a bit about fiction. About how much harder it is to believe that the Wraith can enter a room with locked doors and barred windows, can walk a high wire with no safety net, that the bastard of the Barrel can plant or pickpocket anything on anyone without their noticing, etc. when you can’t actually see the tricks. It’s easier to write about sleight of hand than to perform it– but for the most part Bardugo makes the Dregs’ tricks seem plausible; the fact that they occasionally fail helps with that. But some parts of this books till seem… fictionalized. Manipulated. Written the way that they are because of reader expectations rather than natural facets of character. I know I’m being very vague, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Let me just say that something bad happens toward the end of this book, and I hated it not because it was bad or sad or less than ideal– I hated it because it felt unnecessary. Because it felt rushed and fabricated. Like Bardugo thought the ending would be too happy without something going wrong, so she had to throw an extra punch at the victors for good measure. I would’ve found the ridiculously happy ending more believable.

“But what about the rest of us? What about the nobodies and the nothings, the invisible girls? We learn to hold our heads as if we wear crowns. We learn to wring magic from the ordinary. That was how you survived when you weren’t chosen, when there was no royal blood in your veins. When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway.”

But don’t let my minor complaints fool you. Though I appreciated the finesse of Six of Crows more than the flash of Crooked Kingdom, the second book is still a phenomenal read. If you’re only going to read one YA fantasy set, let this one be it. It has so many good messages about finding (or fighting for) your place in the world, about demanding more than the crap the world deals you. The Grishaverse is bright and beautiful, the Dregs are dirty heroes out for justice rather than revenge, and the writing is imaginative and even occasionally poetic. This is the kind of story that inspires my own writing, and despite a few choices I would’ve made differently with Crooked Kingdom, I can’t recommend this duology enough. (Perhaps even because I would have chosen some things differently– it’s educational to read something you don’t agree with one hundred percent.)

“The world was made of miracles, unexpected earthquakes, storms that came from nowhere and might reshape a continent. The boy beside her. The future before her. Anything was possible.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had a fantastic time reading this book and I’m definitely going to pick up The Language of Thorns soon for more of Bardugo’s imaginative writing. I’ll probably keep an eye out for future Bardugo publications as well. I’m not as interested in reading her edition of Wonder Woman just because I’m not as interested in reading that whole superhero series, but the Six of Crows duology is such an improvement from the Grisha trilogy (which I though was also good, but not this great) that I’m definitely interested in seeing where Bardugo goes from here.

What’s your favorite YA fantasy?


The Literary Elephant


Review: Lady Midnight

One of my 2017 goals (that I failed) was to read all of the books Cassandra Clare has so far published. At the time I set that goal, Lady Midnight was the most recent title, but Lord of Shadows was imminent. Now I’m finally finishing those up because better late than never, right? I just read Lady Midnight, the first book in the Dark Artifices trilogy, which is a sort of continuation from the Mortal Instruments series. You can read Lady Midnight without going through all those other Shadowhunter novels, but you probably will have the best sense of who’s who and what’s going on if you do read Clare’s books in publication order. (You can check out my review for City of Bones if you’re just getting started!)

ladymidnightAbout the book: Five years have passed since the Dark War in which Sebastian (Johnathon) Morgenstern tried to take over the world with his evil army. Julian Blackthorn and Emma Carstairs are parabatai now, and still live in the Los Angeles Institute with all of Julian’s younger siblings, who rely on him as their guardian. After years of dead ends and false hope, Emma has finally found a clue that could crack the mystery of her parents’ murder, and of course the Blackthorns will help her en masse, no matter how dangerous or twisted the investigation becomes. The Fae, currently on the Nephilim blacklist, make an interesting proposition to the Los Angeles Institute regarding the murder investigation; it means more risk for Emma and the Blackthorns, but also brings Mark back into the family– at least for a little while.

” ‘The world is terrible,’ said Mark tonelessly. ‘And some are drawn down into it and drown there, and some rise above and carry others with them.’ “

There are beautiful and powerful sentiments scattered throughout Clare’s novels, and Lady Midnight is no exception. But the farther I get into Clare’s oeuvre, I’m noticing that those poignant sentences are hidden under a lot more fluff. The books keep getting longer (my copy of Lady Midnight is 669 pages before the extra content sections in the back) but it seems that less is actually happening. At this point, part of the problem is that so much space is needed to recap previous events in this massive series because everything in the Shadowhunter world is intertwined, and Clare loves name-dropping past beloved characters even when it’s not really necessary to her current plots.

Sometimes Clare hits it spot-on with the humor, especially in the dialogue. But the humor in Lady Midnight often feels forced. Jokes are often followed by explanations that ruin them, random comments are too unnatural and “silly” to be amusing. The same lines and phrases are used over and over again, or sarcasm is brought into situations where it feels out of place. It fell pretty flat for me in this novel.

I think if Clare had written this story in about 200 fewer pages, a lot of these little annoyances would’ve worked themselves out.

But let’s take a look at Lady Midnight‘s central characters:

“She felt suddenly old, not just seventeen instead of twelve, but old. Old in her heart, and too late. Surely if she were going to find her parents’ murderer she would have done so by now.”

  • Emma is described as reckless and brave, and the leader of the group– into battle, at least. But there’s a line between being brave and being careless, and sometimes it feels like Emma makes unintelligent choices just to further the plot, and the others dismiss her rashness too easily.
  • Julian almost falls into that horrible trope where a lack of communication is really the biggest obstacle to his perceived problems, but I do think Emma changes enough throughout the course of the novel that it’s justifiable that he doesn’t try to talk to her openly right away. Many of his “secrets” are obvious before they’re officially revealed, but he’s a good liar, which keeps him interesting.
  • Cristina is a brand new and intriguing character, but so far she’s pretty bland. I could see how eventually it might come in handy to have a main character outside of the Blackthorn family tree, though that hasn’t been necessary to the plot yet. Her backstory is interesting and she seems like she could have a strong personality if she’s developed a bit more, which would make her less superfluous.
  • And then there are all the younger siblings. It was hard for me to keep them straight at first because for a while the reader is only being told about them instead of actually seeing them moving through the novel. I was more interested in seeing them take part in the investigation than in seeing Emma and Julian describe their mannerisms and hobbies.
  • Mark is great. It’s fascinating to see him straddling the line between two worlds, two lives. There’s a depth to his character that isn’t immediately apparent but ensures that he’s more than an object in a tug-of-war between the faeries and the Blackthorns.
  • And Kit Rook– easily my favorite character. He has only a few POV sections and not much action yet, but the things he is involved in are game-changing. His knowledge of the Black Market and its visitors, his skewed view of Shadowhunters, his criminal father, and his eavesdropping on questionable critters from the basement suggest he’s going to provide a unique vantage point to this trilogy going forward.

” ‘Everyone is more than one thing,’ said Kieran. ‘We are more than single actions we undertake, whether they be good or evil.’ “

(On a side note, what is the point of the wild hunt? They’re always described so poetically but… vaguely. They ride among the stars, through storms, with the wind… but for what purpose? What do they actually do? Does anyone know?)

I just don’t love Clare’s books like I did back when The Mortal Instruments was just a trilogy that I binged on a whim. Even in my reread of those first Clare books last year I still had some love for the early novels, but the later books don’t have that same spark for me. The ‘forbidden love’ theme is getting boring, the actual plots– wars and murders and evil robots and whatnot– take so long to play out. But every time I read another book, I’m encouraged to keep going, just one more. I still like something about them, though at this point it’s hard to say exactly what. I guess I keep waiting for the Clave to get what’s coming to them. I’ve been waiting since their bad rules were introduced in City of Bones, but the Shadowhunters are taking an awfully long time to get around to fixing their laws.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a solid 3-star read for me until the last 50 pages, to be honest. Everything was really coming together well at the end and it made me so hopeful for Lord of Shadows (Lady Midnight‘s sequel). I keep thinking “maybe I’ll quit reading Clare’s books after this one,” but then once I start reading I remember why I appreciated them so much in the first place. My goal is to finish with the old releases so that I can read her new novels as they are published.

Further recommendations:

  1. Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows is the first book in an excellent YA fantasy duology. It features a group of misfits who are maybe friends or maybe just stuck together by circumstance. Either way, they have to work together to carry out an impossible heist. The stakes are high, the betrayals are vicious, and the characters are bold and lovable. It’s also full of underlying morals of fighting for equality, justice, and peace.
  2. Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series is a fantasy tale of romance and righting the wrongs of the higher powers in charge. If you like Clare’s battles between good and evil, Maas’s stories will probably also appeal to you. In my opinion, you just have to push through this first book to get to the good stuff in the rest of the trilogy, which is a similar battle to pushing through the fluff of Clare’s increasingly long novels for the excitement of the plot.

Are you a Shadowhunter reader? If you are, do you prefer her earliest books, or the latest ones? I guess I’m asking if the excessive length of her newer books is still worth the story? I’m on the fence.


The Literary Elephant

Update: here’s a link to my review of the next book in this series, Lord of Shadows!



Review: The Bone Season

I’ve read enough YA fantasy that it’s starting to all look the same, but this one fulfilled a slot on my reading challenge so I picked it up anyway. And what a shock I found. Most of this novel– especially the world it’s built in– is so utterly unique. I’ve read a lot of books, but never anything like this.


About the book: Paige is a criminal. All of the “unnaturals” are, just by existing. And in 2059 London, unnaturals have 3 choices: to work the black market under constant threat of death, to spend 30 years rooting out unnaturals hiding in society, or to be scent to Sheol I. But the only people who know about Sheol I are the officials who support its continued existence, and the kidnapped unnaturals who are forced into slavery there– and, of course, the Rephaim, inhuman creatures with a long-term world-domination plan. The Rephaim, like the unnaturals, possess gifts that span the realm between life and death. They can use their minds, their spirits, to connect to the aether– the dimension where souls exist without corporeal form. But the Rephaim, unlike humans, are frighteningly powerful and nearly impossible to kill. Paige has a rare gift, a rare form of clairvoyance that allows her not only to sense changes in the aether, but to cause them. Even this coveted ability, however, may not be enough to level the playing field between Paige and her captors.

This plot is weird, and intense, and I mean both of those descriptions in the best possible way. This could have been a great story with half the amount of detail layered into it, which means at the very least that the world is well-developed and the plot is constantly evolving, entirely unpredictable. The narrator, Paige, starts us out in a dystopian world that’s already significantly different than the real world we live in, but then things get crazy when she’s kidnapped and transplanted inside another little world that she didn’t even know existed. But it’s not just the alien nature of this other world and the creatures that inhabit it that make the book interesting– there are new elements constantly thrown into the mix: impossible tasks, terrifying monsters, battles between powerful beings, new technology, death threats. Every time Paige (and the reader) thinks she’s grasped the rules for survival, the game changes.

” ‘Normal’ and ‘natural’ were the biggest lies we’d ever created. We humans with our little minds. And maybe being normal wouldn’t suit me.”

There is a lot of new terminology in The Bone Season, lingo specific to the world of this series. Rest assured, there is a glossary at the back of the book (at least in my copy there is), but even that doesn’t cover all the new words. You have to pay attention just to keep up with the language, and the plot doesn’t slow down to let readers catch up. The Bone Season is not a quick read. It is not easy. But it is powerful.

“We are the minority the world does not accept. Not outside of fantasy, and even that’s blacklisted. We look like everyone else. Sometimes we act like everyone else. In many ways, we are like everyone else. We are everywhere, on every street. We live in a way you might consider normal, provided you don’t look too hard. Not all of us know what we are. Some of us die without ever knowing. Some of us know, and we never get caught. But we’re out there. Trust me.”

A sticky spot: Paige’s reaction to her enslavement. From her speech and her fight to help others who are oppressed, the reader can see that Paige does not agree with or support slavery in any way. There are occasions when she fights her own “keeper” as well, but she’s also shockingly obedient. Even in her thoughts she refers to her captor by his chosen title, Warden, rather than his name. In some things, she’s very careful not to cross him. She thinks and says, repeatedly, “It’s not like I have a choice,” when the choice of refusal is always there. There may be consequences for refusal, of course, but for someone so willing to fight and so opposed to slavery, it’s infuriating at times how easily she accepts Warden’s leadership. Even in moments when they seem to have found equal footing, she remains the underling until he announces their equality in the matter. Their relationship is odd, at best.

“I looked at him in silence, waiting for his judgment.”

Best aspect: the friendships and loyalties. Shannon is an author who’s not afraid to kill beloved characters, and she’s also not afraid to make her readers care about them first. Paige can feel like a very solitary character at times, with her unique gift and situation, but she does have a great support system and she can be just as supportive. In SciLo (futuristic London) and in Sheol I, Paige develops strong alliances. There are enmities, as well, and neutral conversations, but the scenes that tug the most at the reader’s emotions are the ones in which Paige is risking herself to help someone in need. When she’s doing something kind, no matter the cost. Sometimes her help is not enough, but that never keeps her from trying.

“I had no weapons– but I did have my gift. No longer my curse. Tonight it would save a life, not take one.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The only thing that help me back from loving this book was its density– there’s so much packed into these pages that it’s easy to get lost in the actions and the politics of it. But I will definitely read the next book in this series. I don’t like all of the characters and all of the details, but the unusual world and plot is undeniably captivating. I can’t say yet whether I’ll read the entire series, but I am curious about where it’s going next.

Further recommendations:

  1. Red Rising by Pierce Brown is a great choice for YA and adult readers who like dystopian/fantasy/sci-fi that takes plot twists to a whole new level. Nothing is predictable or boring, no matter what else you may think of the story. In the Red Rising trilogy, a lowly Red is taking on the unjust hierarchy by fighting the Golds from within their own system– on Mars. The plot keeps getting better as the books continue, and the characters never disappoint.
  2. Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows is another book for YA and adult readers alike who are looking for an action-packed ride full of crime and betrayals, as well as a little bit of magic. If you like powerful characters from the underbelly of humanity, working together against the odds and with opposing aims, check this one out.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, a novel for my 2017 reading challenge (a book from the year I was born) set in the turn of the 20th century. It involves an early psychologist, or alienist, trying to catch a gruesome murderer with science. I’m also reading Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s Saga: Book Two, the continuation of Hazel’s story as her parents fight for survival and safety in the midst of a war where they’re being hunted by both sides. Full reviews on both are imminent.

What are you hoping to finish reading before the end of the year?


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Truth About Forever

I could have chosen a picture book from way back to fill the “book from your childhood” slot in my 2017 reading challenge, but why go the easy route, even this late in the game? So I decided to reread my first ever Sarah Dessen novel, The Truth About Forever. I was 11 or 12 the first time I read this, and I did read it multiple times in those first few years, but it’s been a long time now. I wanted to find out if it was still one of my favorites. The verdict: it definitely is.

About the book: Macy saw her dad die. thetruthaboutforeverShe was there. If she had been with him just a few minutes earlier, she might have been able to get him help in time– or at least she might have had one last conversation with him before the unexpected end. That was over a year ago, but Macy and her family still haven’t learned how to cope. Macy and her mother strive for perfection and control in the aftermath, to keep themselves busy and to prevent any more horrible surprises. But when Macy takes over her perfect boyfriend’s perfect job for the summer while he’s gone, things really start to unravel. The job, it turns out, is not perfect for Macy. The one that is comes out of nowhere, in the form of a catering company. At first glance, Wish Catering is a disorganized mess, but its employees just might be able to guide Macy through her twisted path of grief with their whirlwind of controlled chaos.

“I am not a spontaneous person. But when you’re alone in the world, really alone, you have no choice but to be open to suggestions.”

This is a book that never gets old for me, apparently. I loved it for the story line when I was younger, and now that I’m wise enough to see through to the mechanics of the book, I still like what I see. There’s no single fantastic element I can point out that makes it so great; it’s just one of those books that has all the right pieces in their proper places. Everything works as it should, and it’s a worthwhile picture once it’s all together. Each of the characters is unique and important in their own way. The villains are human and sympathetic, and even the good guys make mistakes. All of the details mesh together, from the “Gotcha!” game to the Armageddon discussions, to the used-parts sculptures and the refurbished ambulance. Nothing feels like a cheesy and obvious plot device, although it’s all working toward the same themes.

“I just think that some things are meant to be broken. Imperfect. Chaotic. It’s the universe’s way of providing contrast, you know? There have to be a few holes in the road. It’s how life is.”

I think the biggest success in The Truth About Forever is the focus on coping with grief. Readers are rooting for the romance, but that’s crafted carefully under the umbrella of taking new chances, appreciating what used to be, but building something new from what’s left. Macy’s fear and sadness after losing her dad, and the struggle with perfectionism that grows from those emotions, are always at the forefront; when Macy befriends the male lead, there’s real substance in their conversations rather than a corny, forced romance. Love is secondary, and that’s what makes this one so strong.

“Grief can be a burden, but also an anchor. You get used to the weight, to how it holds you to a place.”

“That was the thing. You never got used to it, the idea of someone being gone. Just when you think it’s reconciled, accepted, someone points it out to you and it just hits you all over again, that shocking.”

I also think Dessen makes a wise decision with the level of honesty in this book. There are lies, of course, because any book about truth needs that balance, but it’s so refreshing for teen characters to be honest instead of playing games. Well, I mean, the honesty is part of a Truth game, but after the first round or two of the game, it feels like an excuse to talk openly rather than a real challenge. What I mean is, no one’s trying to impress their crush by pretending to be someone they’re not. I’m partial to that sort of blunt reality, especially in romance.

It’s like Gilmore Girls, wholesome but not in a cheesy and/or boring way. There are great messages in here for grieving teens, for perfectionists, for anyone struggling to accept who they are and take a chance on being themselves. And it’s fun uncovering them.

If there’s anything I might complain about with this book, it’s Macy. Now that I’m past high school senior age, she no longer seems much like a high school senior to me. (Or soon-to-be senior, I suppose, since the book takes place over the summer). She’s supposed to be a smart girl, and she is, but she’s also confused all the time. Many of her conversations include at least one instance of her needing to ask for clarification on what the other person is talking about. If she lacks strength at times, the reasons are apparent, but I will never fully understand her delusion of thinking that the way her mother treats her at times is an acceptable form of parenthood. There isn’t always a lot a child can do about bad parenting, but for a child of this age she should at least understand that her mother is doing it wrong. Especially if it’s a change as a the result of a recent grief, which suggests that most of her childhood was different. It wasn’t quite enough for me to find Macy truly annoying this time around, just… a little less impressive than I remembered.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I just love the Wish Catering crew. They’re funny and wise and… ordinary. They’re awkward and weird, they make mistakes, and they just feel more real than most secondary characters do. This book is the reason I’ve read almost all of Dessen’s books, and continue to pick them up, even though I’m past the age where YA contemporary/romance really appeals to me. I’m so glad I reread this one, and I will definitely read it again. Maybe I should reread a Dessen book every year. Or maybe I should just reread any old favorite once a year– around Thanksgiving, like this one was, to appreciate past loves and my reading growth. Rereading The Truth About Forever was too fun an experience to let go without establishing a new tradition.

Further Recommendations:

  1. If you’re looking for more Sarah Dessen, I suggest some of her earlier books more strongly, like This Lullaby, Keeping the Moon. Just Listen is probably the best contender if you like The Truth About Forever, because it has that same sort of mild romance under dealing with a past trauma, although the story is entirely different (as far as I remember. I really want to reread this one now, too).
  2. If you’re looking for more YA about dealing with grief– and especially with a missing father– try Emily Henry’s A Million Junes. This one is brand new in 2017 with a magical realism twist, but the main characters’ banter is hilarious, the messages are powerful and relevant, and the plot is certain to surprise. I’ve never read a book with a stronger father/daughter relationship that also feels so realistic.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Karin Slaughter’s latest mystery/thriller The Good Daughter, which is my first Slaughter novel. Parts of it feel pretty fictional to me so far, but the events are completely captivating and the writing style keeps pulling me back in. There have already been several murders and a girl buried alive, so at least it’s not boring. I can’t wait to see where it’s going. Stay tuned.


The Literary Elephant

Review: Six of Crows

Spoiler alert: I bought Leigh Bardugo’s new book of short stories, The Language of Thorns. I found a signed copy on sale and it looked good, so I bought it even though I knew I wanted to read the Six of Crows duology first. I almost started reading Thorns immediately, but instead I channeled that interest into finally (finally) picking up Bardugo’s Six of Crows, which has been officially and unofficially on my TBRs since about March. And now I’ve read Six of Crows! What. A. Story.

sixofcrowsAbout the book: Six resourceful teens set out together from Ketterdam to earn a fortune by stealing someone from the most secure prison in the world. One of them is a Grisha with a debt, another of them is a professional Grisha hunter. One is a sharpshooter with certain vices, and one is a high-born hostage with knowledge of maps and explosives. One is a deadly former slave who uses her acrobat training to act as the perfect spy, and the sixth, the leader and mastermind of this scheme, is an orphaned cripple with a long con of vengeance on his mind. They’re an unlikely group, and not entirely friendly, but they may be just the crew to pull off a break-in to the Ice Court prison. Even before they begin though, they know the bigger problem will be escaping again once they’ve succeeded in getting themselves locked inside.

“A gambler, a convict, a wayward son, a lost Grisha, a Suli girl who had become a killer, a boy from the Barrel who had become something worse.”

“The mood was jittery, and their laughter had the frantic serration that came with near disaster.”

It’s almost sad to call a book with a plot this strong and intricate a character-driven book, but Six of Crows is definitely that. The reader is hooked long before the heist begins because each of the characters is infinitely intriguing and could carry an entire novel on his/her own merit. But Six of Crows is a masterpiece of perspectives with each of the six main characters leading alternating chapters. The only scene that doesn’t fit this structure is the first scene, in the first chapter, which is told from Joost’s perspective. This is not the only chapter told from outside the POVs of the six main characters, and the relevance of its events does later become clear, but this first chapter is the only one that seems superfluous to me. Joost doesn’t seem as unique and captivating as the other characters and I didn’t care about him as much as I think the book wanted me to. Everyone else is pure perfection.

“Here’s the secret to popularity: risk death to save your compatriots from being blown to bits in an ambush. Great way to make friends.”

One of the best things about these characters (and the book as a whole) is their criminality. Several of the main characters are part of a Ketterdam gang, and all of them are morally suspect. The reader is allowed to view them as good people worth rooting for, but at the same time is exposed to the grit of their lives. They are thieves– some of money, some of secrets. They are soldiers. They are selfish. Although there is a bit of romance involved (very little, wonderfully subtle), these characters are not romanticized. They are willing to do bad things to survive, and that’s not passed off as an admirable lifestyle. They may may be thieves worth loving, but the narration does not condone or encourage thievery. These are not heroes. They’re not anti-heroes either, but there is no misplaced glamour coating the destruction they leave in their wake. It’s a delicate balance written exceedingly well.

“They were like anyone else– full of the potential to do great good, and also great harm.”

“There could be no judgment from a boy known as Dirtyhands.”

We’ve covered the greatness of the characters; let’s take a closer look at the plot. First of all, a heist is a perfect outline for an adventure book. I picked up this book without knowing anything more about it than I could glean from the blurb on the cover: “Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist.” It the word, “heist” that drew me in. But there’s so much more to the narration than that. Kaz (Dirtyhands, as referenced in the quote above) is the ringleader. The mastermind. The schemer. He’s great at performing tricks and scams because he knows people– he can see what drives them, and how far they’ll go. Most importantly, he knows which parts of the plan not to reveal, to avoid leaked secrets and betrayals. He tells each member of the team only what they need to know to carry out their own parts. This is a factor that works perfectly with the narration of the book overall because it allows the reader to follow each of the characters’ perspectives and still be surprised by the plan they’re all a part of. I did wonder how Kaz could have risked all five of the others’ lives by keeping the plans to himself that way when he could have been killed or separated from them, but otherwise Kaz’s methods and the timing of the book’s big reveals work seamlessly together. Many chapters end on little cliffhangers to keep the reader going, providing just enough information for the reader to keep guessing what will happen next. But even when you guess one part right, something you never expected is waiting in the wings. This is a book that’s fun to read the first time through all the surprises, but would be equally entertaining on subsequent reads, when you know which characters are secretly scheming and where their loyalties truly lie.

The true strength of the book, however, lies not in any one of these details alone, but in the way they’re all brought together with Bardugo’s writing. I’ve read and enjoyed the Grisha trilogy, but Bardugo’s writing in Six of Crows shines with a whole new light. She knows exactly how much to say, and how much to let the reader piece together for him-/herself. There are understated subplots and backstories, enmities and friendships within the group. The fact that these six people are working together, despite all of them hoping for different outcomes from the adventure, keeps the reader on his/her toes. Anyone could be capable of anything, and Bardugo uses every detail in every sentence to her advantage, leaving clues that are faultlessly woven into the fabric of the story. It’s a masterpiece. It’s YA for all ages, my very favorite kind. It’s completely fantastical, and yet utterly believable.

“Facts are for the unimaginative.”

Bardugo isn’t just telling a good story, though. She’s also using her book to talk about real-life problems like prejudice and misuse of power. Lots of books aim for big themes like these, but Bardugo does them well. The reader is guided gently to universal truths without being hit over the head with lessons that are easier heard than carried out. Six of Crows is inspiring. It makes me want to work harder at making the world a better place.

“We are all someone’s monster.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I started reading Six of Crows for the sake of wanting to read The Language of Thorns, which I still want to do, but I didn’t expect to find a new favorite book of the year (it definitely makes the list, at least). I absolutely loved it. I must read Crooked Kingdom, the sequel in this duology, ASAP. Bonus points for Six of Crows with its black page edges. Red pages don’t excite me (sorry, Crooked Kingdom), but I loved the black. It’s a beautiful book, inside and out.

“No mourners. No funerals.”

Further recommendations:

  1. Shadow and Bone is the first book in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy. If you’ve read the Six of Crows duology and want more from the Grishaverse, this is where to go. The first book is my favorite of the trilogy, and if you (like many others) have heard that the Grisha trilogy is not as good as the Six of Crows duology, I do recommend giving at least the first book a try. The Darkling is worth reading about.
  2. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy is a fantastic next choice for fans of Six of Crows. It follows another set of characters that rank somewhere between heroes and anti-heroes, the dregs of the planet uniting to make a big change. Main character Darrow must infiltrate the elites of the social hierarchy, which involves a sort of schooling system that sets the top students against each other in deadly ways. He’ll find unexpected friends (that he may need to betray) and dangerous enemies (who may find out he’s no more than a Helldiver) at the Institute, but will he make it out alive?

Coming up next: I’m reading several books at once again, and I’ve been extremely busy with work, but I should be finishing and reviewing Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane within a day or two. It’s a fantasy story about a couple of children who see things that the adults don’t, set around a pond that the girl calls her ocean.


The Literary Elephant

Update: Want to check out my review for the next book in this series, Crooked Kingdom? You can do that now!

Review: The Bane Chronicles

I wanted to read all of Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books this year, and at first I was unsure about whether that would include the two volumes of short stories, but clearly I’ve decided not to leave anything out. I just finished reading the first of the short story books, the collaborative The Bane Chronicles by thebanechroniclesCassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, and Maureen Johnson.

About the book: Near the end of City of Heavenly Fire, Magnus Bane gives Alec a little book full of some of the most important adventures of his life. Although The Bane Chronicles is written in the third person, I assume that this is the sort of volume that Alec received. The book contains eleven short stories, all around 50 pages, that take place at various points in Magnus’ long, warlock life.

Here’s a look at the stories –>

“What Really Happened in Peru” : 2 stars. There seems to be little point to this story. It’s a wandering tale that spans centuries, and the explanation at the end of the story does not answer the question that the narration set out to answer in the beginning. Some interesting things happen, and yes, it all takes place in Peru, but otherwise there is no coherence here, and Magnus does not even seem like the familiar Magnus Bane from the novels proper. It’s a weak start for this book.

“The Runaway Queen” : 4 stars. This one does take a more traditional story form, with mounting tension and a clear beginning and end. It starts a little slow, but the rest grabs the reader’s attention in true Cassandra Clare style. Magnus seems like his usual self again and the story feels like one of those crazy Shadowhunter and co. schemes that goes nothing like planned but is entertaining along the way.

” ‘Someday,’ Magnus said, looking at the crumpled royal person at his feet, ‘I must write my memoirs.’ “

“Vampires, Scones, and Edmund Herondale” : 3 stars. I found this one much more interesting than the previous two because it is directly connected to some of the main characters from The Infernal Devices. The backstory in that regard kept me engaged in reading this story, even though again, it was a wandering sort of story more fit to be a chapter in a novel than a complete story within itself. Short stories are supposed to stand alone, even if they connect to other stories, and this one does not.

“Magnus had been alive hundreds of years himself, and yet the simplest things could turn a day into a jewel, and a succession of days into a glittering chain that went on and on. Here was the simplest thing: a pretty girl liked him, and the day shone.”

“One can give up many things for love, but one should not give up oneself.”

“The Midnight Heir” : 3 stars. This one is addictively mysterious, ties even more directly back to The Infernal Devices, and feels just like a chapter from Cassandra Clare’s books. That was the problem with this one, though– it felt like a chapter, not a short story. If you’re not familiar with The Infernal Devices characters and plot, this story will make little sense, and seems to serve more as a glimpse back into that world than as a crucial event in Magnus’ life. Also, I was a little disappointed that the strength of a Tessa/Will/Jem reunion would take attention away from the struggling child in this story– it’s nice to see them again, but… priorities.

“The Rise of the Hotel Dumort” : 3 stars. The strengths of this story are its mystery and impending sense of doom. It’s weakness is that it features two disasters that should probably be linked in some way, but do not seem to be. If there is some connection, readers are left entirely to their own devices in making it. The setting is compelling, and both disasters kept me engaged in the story, but the end was not much of an ending. I believe some information about the vampires’ possible involvement might have tied it all together, but alas, that info was sadly missing.

“Saving Raphael Santiago” : 3 stars. This one starts strong. It opens with a mystery, and with a connection to The Mortal Instruments. It has strong, evocative and emotional prose in places, and the end is satisfying. But the mystery is concluded in the first half of the story, which kills most of the tension. I think this story would’ve benefited from a shorter page count.

“Love did not overcome everything. Love did not always endure. All you had could be taken away, love could be the last thing you had, and then love could be taken too.”

“The Fall of the Hotel Dumort” : 2 stars. Again, we have a mystery of sorts concluded too early, though the drop-off of tension was better managed. Unfortunately, the big details of the story are already clear from The Mortal Instruments– I knew what ailed the vampires because I remembered a comment Magnus made about it in TMI. And one has only to look at the date of this story and of TMI to know what does (or doesn’t) happen to Camille. The worst part though, for me, was the dreary descriptions throughout the story. Much like the underlying sense of gray and rain and confusion in the beginning of Clockwork Angel, the relentless heat and sickness and griminess pervading this story gives an unpleasant atmosphere to the whole story. I wanted to like this one, but all I got from it was a headache.

“What to Buy the Shadowhunter Who Has Everything (And Who You’re Not Officially Dating Anyway)” : 2 stars. I was happy to see some of my Mortal Instruments faves again, but sadly, this story felt more like a forced reunion with them than an actual story. Why couldn’t they have been doing something fun? Seeing Malec from Magnus’ perspective just makes them seem more perfect for each other though, so that’s a plus.

“The best one could hope for from Shadowhunters, if you were a Downworlder, was to be left alone.”

“Even the Shadowhunters Magnus had met and liked had been, every one, a trouble sundae with dark secret cherries on top.”

“The Last Stand of the New York Institute” : 4 stars. This was a step back in time from the last story, but I had been waiting for exactly this story to appear so I didn’t mind the jumble in chronology. The setting is great– the attention to timely matters, particularly– and the characters are portrayed loyally from details provided in The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices. This is the first story in the book that has a strong story arc without relying on dramatic mystery, and there are some great one-liners and avenues for thought about prejudice and equality. The title of the story is a bit misleading, but this is a strong piece of the collection.

“It was one of the few things he had to believe in, the possibility of beauty when faced with the reality of so much ugliness.”

“The Course of True Love (And First Dates)” : 5 stars. Yes. Just yes. A little predictable, especially since the timeline here is in the midst of The Mortal Instruments, but this story is wacky and sweet and as much unexpected fun as City of Bones.

“The Voicemail of Magnus Bane” : 3 stars. Although admittedly humorous, this one does not read like a story at all, which disappointed me. I love when a cool format tells a good story. But there was no plot here, and nothing unexpected after having read The Mortal Instruments. I was hoping to be surprised, but perhaps the only point of redemption for this “story” was the moment Raphael had to call Simon a babelicious rock god.

My overall reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. My average rating was actually 3.1. I want to mention (miscellaneously) that the illustrations at the start of each story were one of my favorite things about this book, but also that I was sad not to see more Mortal Instruments characters make an appearance. It’s fascinating to see a closer perspective from someone outside the main Shadowhunter thoroughfare, and Magnus has proved a great candidate for that– he’s a genuinely kind person, who sees beauty in almost everything, whether it’s a man, a woman, or an elegant piece of clothing. He gives readers a whole new look at Shadowhunters that is multi-faceted and not always flattering. It provides readers a rounder view of the Shadowhunter world by leading them into Downworld, and eventually combining the two very different ways of life. I am glad I gave this one a chance, but I don’t think I’ll ever be rereading it, even if I want to revisit other Shadowhunter books in the future. I will be reading Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy, from the same authors, in the near future.

What’s Next: I’m currently reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which is September’s classic of the month for me, and which I won’t review until my Sept. wrap-up. My next full review should feature Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice that I’m planning to pick up immediately after finishing with Austen’s classic. But I’m also extremely tempted to pick up one of my Book of the Month choices for September alongside my Pride and Prejudice quest, so don’t be surprised to see an extra review of undetermined title sneak in before Eligible. 😉


The Literary Elephant

Review: Because You Love to Hate Me

Because You Love to Hate Me is a set of 13 short stories about villainy– the reasons for it, the blurred line between it and heroism, the benefits of it, and so much more. Each story explores a bit of unexpected villainy, leaving the reader to wonder who is truly evil and whether it’s good to be bad. Ameriie, the editor of the collectionbecauseyoulovetohateme, opens the book with an introduction about the appeal of villains, especially in YA literature. From there, the collection shifts between the thirteen short stories from current, popular YA authors, and the thirteen prompts and responses from the Booktubers who collaborated with the collection. The response essays take many different forms, either reacting directly to the story they follow, or addressing a broader topic of villainy. Altogether, it’s a thought-provoking book about human nature, and the gray area in our moral codes. And now for a closer look at the stories:

“The Blood of Imuriv” by Renée Ahdieh. 2 stars. The stories are arranged in alphabetical order by author’s last name, which seems fair, but this is a weak story for the book to open with. There’s backstory, speculation, contemplation… but not much action. There seem to be no stakes whatsoever until the very end, and when I did reach the climactic moment, I still wasn’t sure who I was supposed to sympathize with: the killer or the victim. Neither seemed truly “villainous.” The response essay for this one also disappointed me, although I might have liked it more if it hadn’t been the first one in the book. It doesn’t address its story at all, and tries too hard to be funny/whimsical. Further Reading Status: I am still planning to try Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn, but this story didn’t encourage me to pick it up immediately.

“Jack” by Ameriie. 3 stars. This one has a good plot twist toward the end, but again, it’s slow and low-stakes through much of the story. The writing style is so informal, and I kept thinking this author would have been better suited to telling a story aloud than writing one down. I didn’t understand Jack’s motives for repeatedly climbing the beanstalk, or the giant’s fear of looking below the clouds, though good use is eventually made of both details. I enjoyed the ending, but not much else. The essay also seemed informally conversational, but this conversation was more my style, and I liked the way it used the story to talk about villainy in literature, but also about villainy in the real world. FRS: I would read more from Ameriie only if it came in another book like this in the future.

“Gwen and Art and Lance” by Soman Chainani. 5 stars. This story is written entirely in digital messages passed between the main characters, which grabs and holds the reader’s attention. Chainani uses this medium to subtly display his characters’ personalities, fitting the format and the plot together perfectly. Additionally, he uses a great blend of the traditional and modern King Arthur details; there’s enough history to feel familiar and enough modernity to feel fun and unpredictable. The essay also uses an unusual format to good effect. FRS: I’ve seen so many great reviews about Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil, but I don’t read middle grade books anymore. Nevertheless, I was impressed enough with this story that I’m adding it to my TBR.

“Shirley and Jim” by Susan Dennard. 4 stars. I wouldn’t say this story is atmospheric, but it’s definitely eerie. The characters come across as so mysterious and creepy, holding the reader’s attention even while nothing much seems to be happening (again). The format is a letter to the main character’s best friend, which gives just enough foreshadowing to the story to keep readers engaged before anything villainous goes down. The essay is formatted as emails exchanged between real and unreal persons, which was cool in concept, but felt a bit forced and also as though it were trying to be a story itself rather than a response essay. FRS: undetermined. I’m intrigued about Dennard’s writing now. I might try the first book in the Truthwitch series from the library and just decide from there.

The Blessing of Little Wants” by Sarah Enni. 3 stars. This story is wonderfully mysterious, but the big secret is too obvious. Luckily, there’s a little more to the ending than the reveal alone. The last sentence leaves so much ambiguity; I like an ending that’s really a beginning, but I wanted to have a better sense of what this beginning was going to mean for this character and her world. There’s so much left open. But I especially enjoyed the essay for this one: it explores the blurred line between good and evil. It’s intelligently done and engaging. FRS: I don’t know if Enni has written under a pseudonym, but I couldn’t find anything else written in her name.

“The Sea Witch” by Marissa Meyer. 4 stars. This one surprised me by being the best Meyer story I’ve read to date. It’s atmospheric and odd, but also well-characterized with that human connection that makes the whole story feel strangely personal. I really wish stories of powerful women had less to do with sadness over certain men not loving them, but this is a story of strength rather than woe, for which I was grateful. I wish some of the secondary characters had been a bit clearer, though; for instance, what makes Lorindel lovable in the first place? The accompanying essay is one of my favorites in the book, fun and also provocative. FRS: The only Meyer books I haven’t read already are Stars Above and Heartless, neither of which I plan to read, although I might read something new from Meyer someday.

“Beautiful Venom” by Cindy Pon. 2 stars. This story brings modern-day rape and victimization issues to the forefront, which in theory is good, but I disliked almost everything else about this story. The main character has so little agency, and 2 of 3 times won’t speak up for herself. She wants neither of the two life paths presented to her, which leaves the reader feeling adrift and confused: what or who are we supposed to be rooting for, when it feels like there are no viable options? I was left wondering whether I should be hoping for the main character to live or die at the end. The essay leans more on the morals of the story than the way the story is presented, which was a good way to play up “Beautiful Venom”‘s single strength–its subject matter. FRS: I won’t be reading more from this author.

“Death Knell” by Victoria Schwab. 5 stars. This is the sort of story I expected from this collection– it’s mysterious, it’s fun, it’s creepy, and it makes you contemplate who the real villain is (in a good way). There’s always something gripping about Death personified, which only adds to the beautiful writing and adept plotting here. I loved every sentence. The essay is formatted as a letter to death, which was one of the most interesting story responses in this book, even if some of the comments in it were less original than others. FRS: I cannot wait to read more Victoria Schwab writing. I’m starting with Vicious (soon, hopefully), and I’m more excited than ever to start.

“Marigold” by Samantha Shannon. 4 stars. I like not knowing who to trust, which becomes a real factor as sanity starts unfolding toward the end of this one. The world-building is great, the backstory is great, the characters are distinct, weird, and surprisingly surprising. I wish I had learned more about Isaac though– who his family is and why his reputation is so important. And why is George so shady? He’s inexplicably knowledgeable in some areas, and his giant ego covers any gaps in his intelligence. But why doesn’t he seem to understand humans? The essay for this one is thought-provoking, and does a great job tying old folklore lessons to this story, and also to modern life. FRS: I am planning to read The Bone Season, and probably further.

“You, You, It’s All About You” by Adam Silvera. 4 stars. Here’s a story that’s creepy and puzzling in the best way, though also unexpectedly violent. The mind manipulation concept is fascinating, and works perfectly with the second-person narration. The last sentence left me rethinking everything, and the essay afterward opens up even more possibilities about what’s really going on. The essay is fun and psychological, and adds extra layers to the story’s potential. FRS: I’ve been vaguely planning to pick up More Happy Than Not at some point, and this story reinforced that desire.

“Julian Breaks Every Rule” by Andrew Smith. 3 stars. This story uses first-person narration, but also directly addresses the reader to bend the line between narrator and audience. This is a story that’s aware of its existence as a story, and gives very NONSUBTLE (and annoying) hints about its foreshadowing. The concept kept me invested, but once I’d reached the end I realized none of the middle action had anything to do with Julian’s decision at the end of the story. All of the information that’s provided to the reader through Julian’s accidental rule-breaking spree is already available to Julian at the beginning, which left me confused about how he reached point B from point A. The essay saved it for me though; it leaves the reader questioning Julian, in a good way. FRS: I’m on the fence. None of Smith’s books really call to me, but I do like some things about his writing style.

“Indigo and Shade” by April Genevieve Tucholke. 4 stars. I found the secret identity of one of the characters in this story much too obvious, but the writing itself and the sense of impending change kept me going. This one is a twist of the Beauty and the Beast tale, which is recognizable from practically the first sentence, but will still surprise readers with its ending. This story feels like magical realism rather than fantasy, but it works. The essay following it is compellingly passionate, and harks back to that intriguing blurred line between hero and villain. FRS: I’ve read Wink Poppy Midnight, and thought I was done with Tucholke, but now I’m thinking I should pick up Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea because apparently sometimes I really like Tucholke’s writing.

“Sera” by Nicola Yoon. 5 stars. While the opening story and essay didn’t feel like the best beginning to me, this one made a great ending. The format switches between present day and one character’s life from birth to present, giving a few different perspectives and calling attention to the problematic nature of villainy along the way. Some villains do not choose evil, but have evil thrust upon them. And maybe they’re better for it. This story is wonderfully creepy but makes realistic points about the moral gray area. The accompanying essay is a sort of (humorous) villainous pep talk that encourages readers to embrace the things that make them different, and it’s another strong ending. FRS: I’ve already read both of Yoon’s published books, but I will definitely keep an eye out for her future releases.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars overall. My average rating was actually 3.7. Though I didn’t like all the stories in this collection, and my favorites were almost exactly which ones I expected them to be, I think this book was a great idea, and I had fun sampling the different authors’ stories even when I didn’t think I wanted to read any more of their works. Reading this book was helpful in fine-tuning my TBR, and I would definitely read more like this in the future.

If you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with me! I’m pretty sure this is my longest review to date, but it’s worth the discussion. I had some great quotes marked from this book, but I’ll add them to my monthly wrap-up instead of lengthening this post further.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds, an adult “speculative Western thriller” that I chose from Book of the Month. A gunshot murder occurs in a closed environment where no one is supposed to possess firearms, which already has me intrigued.

Who’s your favorite villain?


The Literary Elephant