Title: Sal and Gabi Break the Universe
Author: Carlos Hernandez
Series: Sal and Gabi, #1
Publisher: Rick Riordan Presents
Release Date: March 5th 2019
“How did a raw chicken get inside Yasmany’s locker?
When Sal Vidon meets Gabi Real for the first time, it isn’t under the best of circumstances. Sal is in the principal’s office for the third time in three days, and it’s still the first week of school. Gabi, student council president and editor of the school paper, is there to support her friend Yasmany, who just picked a fight with Sal. She is determined to prove that somehow, Sal planted a raw chicken in Yasmany’s locker, even though nobody saw him do it and the bloody poultry has since mysteriously disappeared.
Sal prides himself on being an excellent magician, but for this sleight of hand, he relied on a talent no one would guess . . . except maybe Gabi, whose sharp eyes never miss a trick. When Gabi learns that he’s capable of conjuring things much bigger than a chicken–including his dead mother–and she takes it all in stride, Sal knows that she is someone he can work with. There’s only one slight problem: their manipulation of time and space could put the entire universe at risk.
A sassy entropy sweeper, a documentary about wedgies, a principal who wears a Venetian bauta mask, and heaping platefuls of Cuban food are just some of the delights that await in this mind-blowing novel gift-wrapped in love and laughter.”
“The entire back of the locker had become a portal into another world. I could see across dimensions into a whole new reality. Who knew what bizarre aliens lived there, what strange lived they led, what mind-blowing powers and technology they had?”
- Sal – This kid had me laughing out loud for almost the entirety of the book. He’s mischievous, sometimes sarcastic, and has a knack for getting into trouble (then talking his way out of it). What I really loved about him was how open he was to being wrong. It was so refreshing to see a young male character not let pride get in the way when it came to apologizing.
- Diabetes – I think this is the first time I’ve read a book about a character with diabetes and I’m so glad it was a middle grade novel. There is something about this age group that is so open that you know how important such a storyline will be for readers.
- Gabi – Gabi is fierce and stubborn. She’s smart and unafraid to challenge things she doesn’t understand (like Sal). I definitely want her in my corner. Family is so important to her and I love how she embraces her judgmental side with regard to them. She will judge you based on whether you accept her family for who they are.
- Light and heavy topics – The humor in the novel made me smile more times than I can count, but the emotional aspects are what kept me reading. Sal is still dealing with the death of his mother. His ability to pull things from other universes has intersected with his grief and sometimes he accidentally brings another version of his mother into his world. There is also Gabi’s storyline about her newborn baby brother being in the ICU. Both are handle with a lot of care and I really appreciated seeing the uncertainty and fierceness of these young characters when faced with issues that would make most adults crumble.
- Different familial dynamics – There are some unconventional familial relationships in this one and some that defy stereotypes. One such relationship that really stood out to me was Sal’s relationship with his stepmother. I loved their interactions and how she was never a roadblock for Sal’s growth but just another adult in his life who was always in his corner.
- The adults – I adored so many adult characters in this one. Loved that they didn’t hold the kid characters back, but were still ever-present. They didn’t talk down to child characters, but loved them and wanted what was best.
- Conflict – As much as I adored this one, I do think it could have done with a little more conflict to drive the plot.
Carlos Hernandez’s Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is a fun middle grade SFF novel with charming characters who always manage to get themselves in the best kind of trouble. I cannot wait to read the sequel.
★ ★ ★ ★
Title: The Queen of Nothing
Author: Holly Black
Series: The Folk of the Air, #3
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: November 19th 2019
“After being pronounced Queen of Faerie and then abruptly exiled by the Wicked King Cardan, Jude finds herself unmoored, the queen of nothing. She spends her time with Vivi and Oak, watches her fair share of reality television, and does the odd job or two, including trying to convince a cannibalistic faerie from hunting her own in the mortal world.
When her twin sister Taryn shows up asking of a favor, Jude jumps at the chance to return to the Faerie world, even if it means facing Cardan, who she loves despite his betrayal.
When a dark curse is unveiled, Jude must become the first mortal Queen of Faerie and uncover how to break the curse, or risk upsetting the balance of the whole Faerie world.”
“I know what happens next. He’s going to deliver the final blow. Lopping off my head. Stabbing through my heart. The strike that’s a kindness, really. After all, who wants to die slowly when you can die fast?”
- Jude – At the end of The Wicked King, it seemed that Jude had finally achieved her goal of attaining power; but after being betrayed, she must once again climb up from her lowly position and claim what she has rightfully earned. It was so rewarding to see how far Jude has come not just as a mortal in the faerie world, but as someone who is worthy of being shown deference regardless of who she is.
- Sisterly bonds – Seeing Jude and Vivi, and even Taryn, whom I haven’t been very fond of, come together in this one to assist one another was so delightful. It had me rooting for their relationship and hoping for an ending that united them.
- Madoc – In the first novel, Cardan is painted as Jude’s adversary, but as the series progressed and Cardan became someone capable of being an ally, another adversary emerged. Jude found herself pitted multiple times against her adopted father. This seemed appropriate on many levels. Madoc is her parents’ murderer, but also the strongest parent figure she’s had. He’s shaped her into the person she is, whether for better or worse. Ultimately, he sees her as an equal in a way most fae probably wouldn’t if pitted against her.
- Cardan – I loved seeing a more vulnerable Cardan in this one. He’s more open and you can see the positive influence certain relationship have had on him. He’s come a long way since the first novel and a lot of readers are going to be happy with his development in this one.
- Character deaths – This section is going to be vague on purpose to avoid spoilers. There was one particular character death in this one that I felt I was cheated out of. I feel like we had seen enough of this character in the previous two books to warranted readers being able to see them die rather than just hear about it. Another character lives who I expected to die and after mulling it over, I really wish we had seen them kick the bucket.
- Cardan – Although I did enjoy a more vulnerable Cardan, I did miss the dark side of his character. He didn’t feel quite as complex in this one as he had been in the previous novels.
- The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black has its share of flaws and isn’t quite as good as the previous two novels, but still manages to provide a satisfying ending to a twisty and dark faerie series.
★ ★ ★ ★
Title: Diamond City
Author: Francesca Flores
Series: Diamond City, #2
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Release Date: January 28th 2020
**This review is based on the bound manuscript of the novel received through a giveaway from the author, which does not influence my review**
“Good things don’t happen to girls who come from nothing…unless they risk everything.
Fierce and ambitious, Aina Solís as sharp as her blade and as mysterious as the blood magic she protects. After the murder of her parents, Aina takes a job as an assassin to survive and finds a new family in those like her: the unwanted and forgotten.
Her boss is brutal and cold, with a questionable sense of morality, but he provides a place for people with nowhere else to go. And makes sure they stay there.
DIAMOND CITY: built by magic, ruled by tyrants, and in desperate need of saving. It is a world full of dark forces and hidden agendas, old rivalries and lethal new enemies.
To claim a future for herself in a world that doesn’t want her to survive, Aina will have to win a game of murder and conspiracy—and risk losing everything.
Full of action, romance and dark magic, book one of Francesca Flores’ breathtaking fantasy duology will leave readers eager for more!”
- Aina Solís – Aina was left orphaned at a young age, but grew up under the tutelage of one of her city’s most notorious gang leaders, the Blood King. She has risen through the ranks as a skilled assassin, but has high hopes of one day being his equal. Her personal arc has her working out her complicated feelings for boss/mentor, reevaluating her worldview when it comes to the classes, and prioritizing her own needs over any potential romance.
- World-building – I really like the world Francesca Flores has built. It addresses classism, includes immigration, and deals with religious persecution in a really interesting setting. Kosin underwent a civil war years ago and many people, including Aina, lost their family. When the war ended, the lower class became even more powerless as the upper class, known as Steels, profited heavily from industrialization, but left places like the Stacks, overpoliced and subject to the laws of its gangs. There is also a magical element to the story involving diamonds, blood magic, and the worship of two goddesses known as the Mothers which I found really interesting.
- Teo – Aina isn’t the type of person who makes friends easily, but she found a kindred spirit in the mercenary Teo. He’s charming and though he lacks Aina’s efficiency, is still a very skilled killer. He, like Aina, has been forced into the life as a mercenary because people like them do not get the same opportunities as Steels. He’s driven by the love he has for his mother, whom he is desperate to provide medicine for. His friendship with Aina was my favorite in the novel. There’s is mutual respect and both are more vulnerable with the other than they are with other people.
- Ryuu – Ryuu is first introduced as a spoiled, out of touch upper class Steel, but he has a lot more layers. Unlike those in power, he does not have the same kind of disdain for those who worship the Mothers. He is more likely to help than to turn someone over for practicing their religion. His tenuous alliance with Aina opens both of their eyes to each other’s circumstances and they discover they have more in common than either initially believed.
- Too many potential love interests – I honestly didn’t know where to invest myself in emotionally when it came to all of Aina’s potential love interests. I wish the author had chosen one or even two, but there were three characters that Aina expressed interest in at one time or another. While I don’t fault a girl for being interested in multiple parties, it felt more like the author couldn’t decide who she wanted readers to root for. I will say that I did like how open Aina is in the end and how she wants to prioritize herself first.
- Stilted writing – Sometimes with debuts you come across some awkwardly worded dialogue or prose. For the most part this doesn’t bother me as I understand new writers are still finding their writing style. This is a bound manuscript review so these awkward instances may have been edited, but it definitely had me pausing and reflecting on how strange certain things were worded while reading.
Francesca Flores delivers a solid fantasy debut with Diamond City. With an impressive setting and an interesting set of characters, I will be keeping my eye out for the sequel.
★ ★ ★
Title: Woven in Moonlight
Author: Isabel Ibañez
Publisher: Page Street Kids
Release Date: January 7th 2020
**I received an ARC of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review**
“ A lush tapestry of magic, romance, and revolución, drawing inspiration from Bolivian politics and history.
Ximena is the decoy Condesa, a stand-in for the last remaining Illustrian royal. Her people lost everything when the usurper, Atoc, used an ancient relic to summon ghosts and drive the Illustrians from La Ciudad. Now Ximena’s motivated by her insatiable thirst for revenge, and her rare ability to spin thread from moonlight.
When Atoc demands the real Condesa’s hand in marriage, it’s Ximena’s duty to go in her stead. She relishes the chance, as Illustrian spies have reported that Atoc’s no longer carrying his deadly relic. If Ximena can find it, she can return the true aristócrata to their rightful place.
She hunts for the relic, using her weaving ability to hide messages in tapestries for the resistance. But when a masked vigilante, a warm-hearted princess, and a thoughtful healer challenge Ximena, her mission becomes more complicated. There could be a way to overthrow the usurper without starting another war, but only if Ximena turns her back on revenge—and her Condesa.”
- Magical system – Ximena’s magic is tied to the moon and the Illustrians magic all reflect this. There is a character who can read the stars and Ximena weaves moonlight into her tapestries. It’s a very beautiful and almost delicate kind of magic.
- Unlearning harmful prejudices – I do have some criticism when it comes to how this is done in Woven in Moonlight, but I did appreciate the concept of people belonging to certain oppressive groups having to reevaluate their worldview.
- Ximena and Catalina – Though we only get small glimpses into their relationship before Ximena is whisked away, I loved how close these two were. They grew up as each other’s families and even though you sense tension, at least from Ximena’s side, you can tell how much they care about the other.
- Rich cultures – It was interesting to see the Llascans from an outside perspective and even though Ximena remains bias for much of the narrative, it was hard not to be pulled in by the vibrancy of their world.
- Ximena’s POV – I struggled with the narrative for one reason in particular. The story from a privileged person’s POV, learning to confront their prejudices and realizing a marginalized group of people actually have value is one I’ve grown tired of. I question the novel being told only from Ximena’s perspective when there was another character whose story had more value. This would have been a very different read for me if we got a different POV to balance out Ximena’s prejudice. I was really disappointed that Ximena’s views really didn’t feel challenged on paper enough until the latter half of the novel and that readers as a result are forced to center her views for so long.
- Characterization – Unfortunately I didn’t feel like many of these characters were fully formed. Ximena, for example, was introduced as the Condesa’s decoy who struggles to find an identity outside of this performance she’s been doing for years. This could have also been a book about identity, but instead of being a running theme, it’s merely a cursory observation made at the beginning and never revisited again.
Isabel Ibañez’s Woven in Moonlight, while having a really unique magical system, falls short when it comes to its commentary on colonization.