Mini-Review | The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo

The Language of Thorns cover
Love speaks in flowers. Truth requires thorns.

Travel to a world of dark bargains struck by moonlight, of haunted towns and hungry woods, of talking beasts and gingerbread golems, where a young mermaid’s voice can summon deadly storms and where a river might do a lovestruck boy’s bidding but only for a terrible price.

Inspired by myth, fairy tale, and folklore, #1 New York Times–bestselling author Leigh Bardugo has crafted a deliciously atmospheric collection of short stories filled with betrayals, revenge, sacrifice, and love.

Perfect for new readers and dedicated fans, these tales will transport you to lands both familiar and strange—to a fully realized world of dangerous magic that millions have visited through the novels of the Grishaverse.

This collection of six stories includes three brand-new tales, all of them lavishly illustrated with art that changes with each turn of the page, culminating in six stunning full-spread illustrations as rich in detail as the stories themselves.

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This collection of incredibly inventive, dark, and atmospheric short stories was completely enthralling, to the point where I didn’t even mind that I had already read a few of the included tales. Where the stories draw inspiration from classic fairy tales, such as The Little Mermaid and Hansel and Gretel, it’s just that: inspiration. This collection frequently subverts the source material in unexpected ways, creating a world where true love isn’t the solution to all problems. It’s one of the rare anthologies where I loved every single story and can’t wait to give it another read.

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Review | Before the Devil Breaks You by Libba Bray

Before the Devil Breaks You cover
New York City.
1927.
Lights are bright.
Jazz is king.
Parties are wild.
And the dead are coming…

After battling a supernatural sleeping sickness that early claimed two of their own, the Diviners have had enough of lies. They’re more determined than ever to uncover the mystery behind their extraordinary powers, even as they face off against an all-new terror. Out on Ward’s Island, far from the city’s bustle, sits a mental hospital haunted by the lost souls of people long forgotten–ghosts who have unusual and dangerous ties to the man in the stovepipe hat, also known as the King of Crows.

With terrible accounts of murder and possession flooding in from all over, and New York City on the verge of panic, the Diviners must band together and brave the sinister ghosts invading the asylum, a fight that will bring them fact-to-face with the King of Crows. But as the explosive secrets of the past come to light, loyalties and friendships will be tested, love will hang in the balance, and the Diviners will question all that they’ve ever known. All the while, malevolent forces gather from every corner in a battle for the very soul of a nation–a fight that could claim the Diviners themselves.

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The only thing that has disappointed me so far with this series is the constant cover changes (seriously, please pick a scheme and stick with it, I need my series to match). After what seems like a 240284 year wait, I’m thrilled to say that Before the Devil Breaks You was wonderfully creepy and utterly perfect; if this series wasn’t already on my “all-time-favourites” list, it definitely would be after this book.

Before the Devil Breaks You is the highest-stakes Diviners book yet, and it’s also the creepiest. There are plenty of ghosts to go around, and further exploration of the 1920s political climate (racism, eugenics programs and the treatment of mentally ill individuals) adds extra weight to an already dark read.

Instead of focusing on any particular Diviner duo, Before the Devil Breaks You is group-oriented, letting all of the characters take their turn in the spotlight. While Evie and Theta will always hold special places in my heart, all of the characters have significant (and often unexpected) character arcs, some of which made me gasp out loud. I can’t wait to see where they go next.

Review | The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass cover
Lyra is rushing to the cold, far North, where witch clans and armoured bears rule. North, where the Gobblers take the children they steal–including her friend Roger. North, where her fearsome uncle Asriel is trying to build a bridge to a parallel world.

Can one small girl make a difference in such great and terrible endeavours? This is Lyra: a savage, a schemer, a liar, and as fierce and true a champion as Roger or Asriel could want–but what Lyra doesn’t know is that to help one of them will be to betray the other.

A masterwork of storytelling and suspense, Philip Pullman’s award-winning The Golden Compass is the first in the His Dark Materials series, which continues with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

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I read The Golden Compass for the first time when I was about 10 years old – while I didn’t understand a lot of the themes, I loved the armoured bears, witches, and Lyra. Naturally, when I came across a beautiful hardcover copy in Shakespeare and Company, I just had to pick it up again and see if it was as magical as I had remembered.

Lyra was just as much of a treasure as I had remembered. She’s precocious and clever, a compulsive liar (this behaviour is reflexive enough to earn her the nickname “Lyra Silvertongue”), and is filled with such love.

It’s also very easy to get sucked into the magical world that Pullman created: the daemons, witches, armoured polar bears, and mysterious energy called “Dust” are vividly imaginative and completely enthralling. I was pleasantly surprised that I remembered so many of these magical details (including one rather intense scene involving Iorek), although as a child their associated religious undertones went completely over my head.

Overall, I loved The Golden Compass just as much as (if not more than) I did when I was a kid and can’t wait to re-read the rest of the series.

Review | The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye

Vika Andreyeva can summon the snow and turn ash into gold. Nikolai Karimov can see through walls and conjure bridges out of thin air. They are enchanters—the only two in Russia—and with the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs threatening, the tsar needs a powerful enchanter by his side.

And so he initiates the Crown’s Game, an ancient duel of magical skill—the greatest test an enchanter will ever know. The victor becomes the Imperial Enchanter and the tsar’s most respected adviser. The defeated is sentenced to death.

Raised on tiny Ovchinin Island her whole life, Vika is eager for the chance to show off her talent in the grand capital of Saint Petersburg. But can she kill another enchanter—even when his magic calls to her like nothing else ever has?

For Nikolai, an orphan, the Crown’s Game is the chance of a lifetime. But his deadly opponent is a force to be reckoned with—beautiful, whip-smart, imaginative—and he can’t stop thinking about her.

And when Pasha, Nikolai’s best friend and heir to the throne, also starts to fall for the mysterious enchantress, Nikolai must defeat the girl they both love…or be killed himself.

As long-buried secrets emerge, threatening the future of the empire, it becomes dangerously clear—the Crown’s Game is not one to lose.

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The Crown’s Game had been on my radar for a while since its description sounded like a YA version of The Night Circus – a book that is easily in the top ten of my #absolutefavourites list. My love for The Night Circus combined with my love for Russian history gave me very high hopes for The Crown’s Game, and I’m sorry to say that it was not even close to meeting them.

Here are just a few of the ways that The Crown’s Game disappointed me:
The characters lacked depth and never really developed
All the instalove = too many forced love triangles
– A lack of worldbuilding, especially as it relates to the magic system
– There are a few neat magic tricks, but the stakes feel far too low despite the whole “duel to the death” aspect

Its redeeming features were that it was a quick, light read that was (mostly) entertaining. I did enjoy the ending, although since there is a sequel, I’m sure that the finality of only one enchanter being able to survive the Crown’s Game will be modified.

Overall, The Crown’s Game had a promising premise but very poor execution. If you want to read a book about dueling enchanters, pick up The Night Circus instead.

Review | The Anatomical Shape of a Heart by Jenn Bennett

23310763Artist Beatrix Adams knows exactly how she’s spending the summer before her senior year. Determined to follow in Leonardo da Vinci’s footsteps, she’s ready to tackle the one thing that will give her an advantage in a museum-sponsored scholarship contest: drawing actual cadavers. But when she tries to sneak her way into the hospital’s Willed Body program and misses the last metro train home, she meets a boy who turns her summer plans upside down.

Jack is charming, wildly attractive . . . and possibly one of San Francisco’s most notorious graffiti artists. On midnight buses and city rooftops, Beatrix begins to see who Jack really is—and tries to uncover what he’s hiding that leaves him so wounded. But will these secrets come back to haunt him? Or will the skeletons in Beatrix’s own family’s closet tear them apart?

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After seeing that adorable cover, The Anatomical Shape of a Heart quickly found its way onto my wish list. I went in expecting a cute story and lots of banter, and while that’s exactly what I got, I was strangely disappointed.

Since I love lists, here are some things I liked:
– Bex and Jack have open and honest conversations about sex. I loved how the discussion centred around making it comfortable and enjoyable for both parties, and emphasized that you’re not defined by the number of people that you’ve slept with.
Diversity. This book touched on a wide range of topics – from sexuality to mental illness – and the characters located within its pages were just as diverse.
Parents are present. They’re not conveniently absent; they pay attention to Bex and Jack’s comings and goings, and deal out appropriate punishments for breaking ground rules.
The romance is cute. There’s banter and fluff and snark and lots of really sweet scenes.

… & here are some things that didn’t work for me:
– Jack came across as a manic pixie dream boy, both in his descriptions (gorgeous, hipster, rebel with a cause) and the role that he plays in Bex’s life.
The characters aren’t particularly memorable. Sure, their interactions were cute, but a few days later, I find that nothing really stood out to me.
Everything was far too smooth. The main “conflicts” of the story were easily resolved, and centred around secondary characters who weren’t developed enough to make it compelling. To add to this, the “mystery” surrounding Jack was far too easy to solve, and didn’t cause the tension that I had anticipated.

Overall, I really wanted to love this, but unfortunately the manic pixie dream boy-esque love interest & unmemorable characters outweighed the positive aspects.

Review | Fairest by Marissa Meyer

In this stunning bridge book between Cress and Winter in the bestselling Lunar Chronicles, Queen Levana’s story is finally told.

Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Who is the fairest of them all?

Fans of the Lunar Chronicles know Queen Levana as a ruler who uses her “glamour” to gain power. But long before she crossed paths with Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress, Levana lived a very different story – a story that has never been told . . . until now.

Marissa Meyer spins yet another unforgettable tale about love and war, deceit and death. This extraordinary book includes full-color art and an excerpt from Winter, the next book in the Lunar Chronicles series.

4.5 cupcakes

I tend not to get along with novellas, but I just had to make an exception for Fairest – after all, The Lunar Chronicles is one of my new favourite series. While you don’t have to have read the first three books to appreciate Fairest, since any potential spoilers are fairly subtle, it’s more fascinating to learn about Queen Levana’s past when you know who she’s become.

As the title suggests, Fairest encompasses elements of the Snow White story. While there is an “evil queen” with a lovely stepdaughter, I was most intrigued by how Levana’s hatred of mirrors and obsession with beauty were explored. And what Levana looks like under her veil – not really Snow White related, but the reason for why her glamour looks the way it does is just… whoa.

I have a weakness for sympathetic, complex villains, and (surprisingly) Levana fits that bill. She has an incredibly low opinion of herself as a result of her sister’s abuse, and desires attention and affection more than anything else. As a result, she latches onto the first source of kindness that was shown to her: a married guard, Evret Hayle. This is unrequited love at its finest, and through it, we’re shown the lengths that Levana is willing to go to to hold onto her twisted ideas of love, power, and hope. This glimpse into Levana’s head was both sad and slightly terrifying, and I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for her; while it doesn’t excuse any of her actions, it’s hard not to pity someone who has (mostly) good intentions, but accomplishes them in the most self-destructive ways possible.

Overall, Fairest was a lot darker than the rest of The Lunar Chronicles books, but just as addictive. It painted Levana as a more real character without making her likeable, so I’m interested to see if knowing her backstory will colour my re-read of the series in any way. And, of course, I’m even more excited about Winter after those teaser chapters. Is it November yet?

Review | Winger by Andrew Smith

Ryan Dean West is a fourteen-year-old junior at a boarding school for rich kids in the Pacific Northwest. He’s living in Opportunity Hall, the dorm for troublemakers, and rooming with the biggest bully on the rugby team. And he’s madly in love with his best friend Annie, who thinks of him as a little boy.

With the help of his sense of humor, rugby buddies, and his penchant for doodling comics, Ryan Dean manages to survive life’s complications and even find some happiness along the way. But when the unthinkable happens, he has to figure out how to hold on to what’s important, even when it feels like everything has fallen apart.

Filled with hand-drawn info-graphics and illustrations and told in a pitch-perfect voice, this realistic depiction of a teen’s experience strikes an exceptional balance of hilarious and heartbreaking.

3.5 cupcakes

After hearing a friend rave about this book for the past few weeks, I just had to see if it was that good. Although I had a few complaints, I’m happy to say that Winger is a rather charming coming of age story that I quite enjoyed reading.

One of Winger‘s strongest points is its incredibly compelling narrative voice. Ryan Dean West, a fourteen year old junior and rugby player, reminded me a lot of how my younger brother was at that age: “hot” girls and sex occupy the majority of his thoughts, he tosses the word “gay” around carelessly, and makes a lot of penis jokes. Once I got used to the awkwardness and juvenile nature of Ryan Dean’s thoughts, I realized just how much I liked his narration. His adventures were so absurd and entertaining, and I loved how his own comics and graphs were interspersed in the story to quantify his thoughts and emotions.

The secondary characters were memorable, even if some weren’t particularly likeable. One character in particular stood out to me: Joey, the captain of the rugby team and Ryan Dean’s best friend. He’s sweet, dependable, and consistently the voice of reason in Ryan Dean’s friend group. I also appreciated how he pointed out just how problematic Ryan Dean’s behaviour was, since I frequently wanted to shake Ryan Dean and tell him that his treatment of the other characters (especially the women!) was not appropriate.

My main issue with Winger, though, lies in its ending. The last 40 pages or so take an incredibly dark turn that is completely at odds with the rest of the story, despite the fact that it did receive a bit of foreshadowing. I understood the reason for its abruptness, however the twist wasn’t appropriately resolved, making it seem very emotionally manipulative. All of Ryan Dean’s character growth was shoved into that final portion of the story, and I’m not entirely certain that he changed all that much.

Overall, despite its faults, Winger was a very enjoyable read. If it weren’t for the ending, this would have received a 4-4.5 star rating.