ARC Review: Gilded Cage by Vic James

Title: Gilded Cage
Author: Vic James
Series: Dark Gifts, #1
Pages: 368
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Release Date: February 14th 2017
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher, which does not influence my review*

      “Our world belongs to the Equals — aristocrats with magical gifts — and all commoners must serve them for ten years. But behind the gates of England’s grandest estate lies a power that could break the world.
      A girl thirsts for love and knowledge.
      Abi is a servant to England’s most powerful family, but her spirit is free. So when she falls for one of the noble-born sons, Abi faces a terrible choice. Uncovering the family’s secrets might win her liberty, but will her heart pay the price?
      A boy dreams of revolution.
      Abi’s brother, Luke, is enslaved in a brutal factory town. Far from his family and cruelly oppressed, he makes friends whose ideals could cost him everything. Now Luke has discovered there may be a power even greater than magic: revolution.
      And an aristocrat will remake the world with his dark gifts.
      He is a shadow in the glittering world of the Equals, with mysterious powers no one else understands. But will he liberate—or destroy?

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Gilded Cage by Vic James has a unique premise, but never quite held my attention. It’s always disconcerting to go into a book thinking one thing and finding out it’s entirely something else. From the synopsis, I got the impression this was a historical fantasy; however, the novel is more in the vein of dystopian fantasy. In a world divided between those with unique Skills and those without, the Equals wield power through unconscionable means. Each citizen is required to fulfill ten years of slavery, most in the dilapidated slavetowns. When Abi arranges for her family to serve the Jardines, one of the most powerful Equal families, she hopes the decade passes quickly without incident. But her plans immediately go awry when her younger brother, Luke, is torn from his family and forced to work at the slavetown of Millmoor. Both will discover that Equals are far more dangerous than anyone imagined and there may be no stopping them.

Abi is a character that deserved a better storyline. She’s a hopeless romantic, but she’s smart and keeping her family safe is of utmost importance to her. Unfortunately, much of Abi’s story centers on her attraction to one of the Jardine sons. She spends most of her time inquiring about her brother or swooning over Jenner. Jenner was the least complex of the three Jardine brothers. None of the chapters are told through his perspective and he only shows up in order for Abi to silently wish he felt the same way about her. Abi’s crush is hard in itself to understand. The Equals are not known for their generosity and for whatever reason, Abi seems to forget that Jenner is part of the family that has enslaved hers. They literally treat a man like a dog, though Abi never struggles to reconcile Jenner’s supposed goodness with the acts of his family. There’s never a moment where he needs to prove himself to her as she’s all too ready to admire him based on the fact that he’s nicer than his brothers (which isn’t a hard thing to be).

Luke had the far more interesting storyline when he ends up working in harsh conditions, but finds light when he meets a group of commoners who aren’t ready to give up total control to the Equals. There’s a strong sense of community among them as they look after and provide for one another when those in charge see them as less than human. Their plans begin to expand as they get word that there is a possibility of the slavedays ending for good. Luke learns a lot through his time at Millmoor, but I did begin to wonder why neither he nor Abi had any real understanding of what went on in the slavetowns if everyone in the population, save for the Equals, was required to serve. Luke is just beginning to find his place in this group when he’s suddenly pulled right out of it. His arc comes to a chaotic close at the end of the novel that left me wondering if the rebellion really knew what they were doing to begin with.

The most interesting character was the youngest Jardine brother Silyen. He was manipulative and vicious and it was only when he was yielding power that I felt I had a grasp of what having a Skill meant. But even he wasn’t enough to save this novel. The periodic info-dumping didn’t help either, especially as I struggled to get through these chapters in particular. I was also never sure if this was a universe built upon real-world history or a form of alternate history as it never addressed colonialism and slavery, which I imagine would have an impact on how this new form of slavery would be received.

Rating: 2/5

★★

ARC Review: Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

Title: Wintersong
Author: S. Jae-James
Series: N/A
Pages: 448
Publisher: Thomas Dunne
Release Date: February 7th 2017
*I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, which does not influence my review*

      “All her life, nineteen-year-old Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, mysterious Goblin King. He is the Lord of Mischief, the Ruler Underground, and the muse around which her music is composed. Yet, as Liesl helps shoulder the burden of running her family’s inn, her dreams of composition and childish fancies about the Goblin King must be set aside in favor of more practical concerns.
      But when her sister Käthe is taken by the goblins, Liesl journeys to their realm to rescue her sister and return her to the world above. The Goblin King agrees to let Käthe go—for a price. The life of a maiden must be given to the land, in accordance with the old laws. A life for a life, he says. Without sacrifice, nothing good can grow. Without death, there can be no rebirth. In exchange for her sister’s freedom, Liesl offers her hand in marriage to the Goblin King. He accepts.
      Down in the Underground, Liesl discovers that the Goblin King still inspires her—musically, physically, emotionally. Yet even as her talent blossoms, Liesl’s life is slowly fading away, the price she paid for becoming the Goblin King’s bride. As the two of them grow closer, they must learn just what it is they are each willing to sacrifice: her life, her music, or the end of the world.”

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Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones has a gorgeous setting that begs to be explored, but its characters failed to draw me in. Liesl has grown up in a family that doesn’t quite appreciate her. Much of her life revolves around taking care of her younger brother, Josef, and helping him grow into a talented musician. Though Liesl once had her own dreams, she chose to bury them deep in order to help her brother succeed. Her relationship with her sister Käthe is much more rocky. Liesl’s practicality is juxtaposed with Käthe’s easy nature. Liesl is haunted by memories of an otherworldly childhood companion, memories that she is convinced are just a figment of her imagination. When Käthe is taken, Liesl can no longer deny these memories and must enter the Underground and claim her sister before she is lost forever.

Liesl is supposed to be a sympathetic character and for the most part, I did sympathize with her. She had loads of musical talent herself, but was forced to play second fiddle to her brother. Käthe was always looked at as the pretty one, while Liesl has come to accept that she is plain. Unfortunately, Liesl spent far too much time bemoaning these things. She continually put herself down and at every turn, denied her own talent because in her mind it would detract from her brother. What bothered me more was Liesl’s insistence on describing herself as plain. She seemed far too wrapped up in this fact and after a while, I tired of her putting such importance on how she looked. Liesl’s character does shine when it comes to music. A talented composer, Liesl has had little time to devote to her art and it was only when she was embracing this side of her, that I really felt moved by her character.

Liesl’s relationship with the Goblin King is confusing. Der Erlkönig is many things, beautiful and dangerous, one moment he is callous and the next surprisingly shy. Unfortunately, this made me feel like I was reading about two different characters that I was never able to reconcile. These contrasting traits made it even more difficult to feel anything when it came to the romance. Liesl and the Goblin King’s exchanges were at first filled with tension and it kept me reading, but quickly became tedious, especially when the protagonist didn’t quite understand her feelings and never really seemed to question them. We are told these two were friends when they were children, but are given little to no backstory regarding this. I would have liked a couple of flashbacks, just to put their relationship into perspective.

I did appreciate that Liesl finally came into her own and Jae-Jones had such beautiful descriptions when it came to the Goblin King’s world, but in the end I was left wanting more.

Rating: 2/5

★★

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. ValenteTitle: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Series: Fairyland, #1
Pages: 247
Publisher: Square Fish
Release Date: May 10th 2011

      “Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

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“But no one may know the shape of the tale in which they move. And, perhaps, we do not truly know what sort of beast it is, either. Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.”

Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is one of the most enchanting middle grade novels I’ve ever read. When young September finds herself whisked off to the unusual and magical Fairyland, she isn’t sure what to think, only that surely a great adventure awaits her. I was absolutely tickled by the challenging vocabulary in this middle grade book as it shows that the author does not wish to talk down to her readers and expects much from them. Valente’s beautiful and iridescent descriptions are a delight and with each page, her world grows larger and more lush. It is novels like this, with so much heart and vivid world building, that reminds one that perhaps the most important stories aren’t written for adult but for children.

From witches to wyverns and the occasional talking leopard, Fairyland is a place of mystery and delight. September crosses paths with a number of different creatures, most notably the kind and protective wyvern named A-Through-L. September’s good-nature and unwillingness to allow others to suffer endears her to all those she meets. The friendship that grows between September and A-Through-L (affectionately shortened to Ell) is sweet and lovely. September also meets the imprisoned Saturday, whom I am excited to learn more about in the next books. The Marquess, the pugnacious child-ruler of Fairyland, makes a worthy adversary. Her strict rules and unfair restrictions on the friends September has made immediately puts her at odds with the protagonist. The Marquess is a sly character, unyielding and manipulative. Unwilling to give up the autocracy she has built and desperate to hold on to her power, the Marquess will do anything to get what she wants, including threatening September.

With quirks reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and characters as memorable as those in The Wizard of Oz, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making begs you join September on her adventure.

Rating: 5/5

★★★★★

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Windwitch by Susan Dennard

windwitch-by-susan-dennardTitle: Windwitch
Author: Susan Dennard
Series: The Witchlands, #2
Pages: 400
Publisher: Tor Teen
Release Date: January 10th 2017

      “After an explosion destroys his ship, the world believes Prince Merik, Windwitch, is dead. Scarred yet alive, Merik is determined to prove his sister’s treachery. Upon reaching the royal capital, crowded with refugees, he haunts the streets, fighting for the weak—which leads to whispers of a disfigured demigod, the Fury, who brings justice to the oppressed.
      When the Bloodwitch Aeduan discovers a bounty on Iseult, he makes sure to be the first to find her—yet in a surprise twist, Iseult offers him a deal. She will return money stolen from him, if he locates Safi. Now they must work together to cross the Witchlands, while constantly wondering, who will betray whom first?
      After a surprise attack and shipwreck, Safi and the Empress of Marstok barely escape with their lives. Alone in a land of pirates, every moment balances on a knife’s edge—especially when the pirates’ next move could unleash war upon the Witchlands.”

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      “Speed was a mistake. Nomatsi roads weren’t meant to be crossed quickly. They demanded time. The demanded respect.
      So it should have come as no surprise when Iseult reached a clearing and the solid ground abruptly gave way. It should have come as no surprise when a net snapped up to yank her high in the trees.”

Susan Dennard continues to build on her universe and characters in her sequel Windwitch, the second book in her fantasy Witchlands series. Truthwitch introduced a world of magic where a truce between Empires was on the brink of collapse. At the story’s center is the unlikely friendship between Safi and Iseult, young women born into different circumstances, whose bond has get them both afloat. At the end of the first book, these threadsisters are torn apart and several Empires make their move to gain an advantage over the others. Both Safi and Iseult are desperate to get back to the other, but between them are several people with their own motives, who may just succeed in keeping them apart. One of the issues I had with the first book is how quickly readers are thrust into this new world with it’s complex network of witchery and how it took me a long while to get a firm grasp on Dennard’s universe. In this second book, I eased right into the story and instead of being bombarded by new elements, Dennard expands on the ones she has already introduced in the first book. There is still a bit of mystery when it comes to Void witches, but I have a feeling that the author is planning to explore this more in the third novel.

Though Safi and Iseult are the main players in this series, Dennard introduced Prince Merik in Truthwitch and much of this second story focuses on him and his people. Merik has worked hard to provide for Nubrevna, but at every turn he has had to contest with his sister Vivia, who is more than willing to use questionable methods in order to achieve the same goal. At the beginning of the book, we learn that Merik is presumed dead after a failed assassination attempt and so he stalks the streets with no name, hoping to discover the identity of his would-be murderer. I really liked the evolution of Merik’s arc as it not only helped in developing his character, but also aided in bringing Vivia to the forefront as well. Both characters have been defined by how their father perceives them and while much of Vivia’s hatred for her brother stems from the slights shown to her, Merik’s animosity for his sister lies in his mistaken perception not just of her but of himself. Vivia became a standout character for me in this one. Her aggressive attitude is a direct result of the misogyny she faces in her own court; her hard hand, a necessary attribute as she hopes to prove to everyone that she has more of her father in her than her mother. I was really glad to see that Vivia was much more than what she appeared to be in the first novel and really look forward to seeing where her arc goes from here.

Safi is a character who continues to grow. While she hoped for a brand new life with Iseult, she’s come to realize that her motives have been entirely selfish. She voluntarily goes with Vaness, the Empress of Marstok in order to help her friends, but as a Truthwitch, she is valuable to a number of players and their journey hits a roadblock. Safi has the privilege of influence if she would just take hold of all that she is capable of, something she continues to grapple with in this second novel. My favorite scenes by far were the ones between Iseult and Aeduan. As Iseult fights to find Safi, she enters into an unlikely and tenuous alliance with the Bloodwitch. A bit of an enigma in the first novel, Aeduan’s motives are hard to pin down, as is his character. On one hand, he’s ruthless and unstoppable, but on the other, he shows signs of being motivate by more than just a desire for revenge. As a Threadwitch, Iseult was taught to control her emotions in order to better interpret the threads of others. When her own emotions were hard to understand, she always had Safi to help her, but without her, Iseult feels like half of herself is missing. We also learn more about the mysterious voice that has been haunting Iseult’s dreams and the while Iseult is always desperate to shake off her past and the constant reminders of her shortcomings, these are the things that will continue to play a big role in who she becomes.

Windwitch is a fantastic sequel with great character development and breathtaking action and Bloodwitch, the third novel in the Witchlands series, cannot come fast enough.

Rating: 5/5

★★★★★

ARC Review: Ever the Hunted by Erin Summerill

Title: Ever the Hunted
Author: Erin Summerill
Series: Clash of Kingdoms, #1
Pages: 400
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Release Date: December 27th 2016
*I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, which does not influence my review*

      “Seventeen year-old Britta Flannery is at ease only in the woods with her dagger and bow. She spends her days tracking criminals alongside her father, the legendary bounty hunter for the King of Malam—that is, until her father is murdered. Now outcast and alone and having no rights to her father’s land or inheritance, she seeks refuge where she feels most safe: the Ever Woods. When Britta is caught poaching by the royal guard, instead of facing the noose she is offered a deal: her freedom in exchange for her father’s killer.
      However, it’s not so simple.
      The alleged killer is none other than Cohen McKay, her father’s former apprentice. The only friend she’s ever known. The boy she once loved who broke her heart. She must go on a dangerous quest in a world of warring kingdoms, mad kings, and dark magic to find the real killer. But Britta wields more power than she knows. And soon she will learn what has always made her different will make her a daunting and dangerous force.

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I was initially really excited to pick up Erin Summerill’s Ever the Hunted, but the plot inconsistencies and clichéd romance really disappointing me. Britta Flannery has just lost her father. With no one to turn to for help, Britta is forced to break the law in order to survive. But she is caught poaching, a crime punishable by death. In exchange for her life, she must hunt down her father’s murderer. With the kingdom of Malam on the brink of war with neighboring Shaerdan, Britta will soon uncover secrets that have consequences for both countries.

Britta is presented as a capable heroine, but the biases of her fellow countrymen keep her from accomplishing all she is capable of. Her mother was Shaerdan and the animosity between the two countries makes her an outcast. She’s always had her father and his former apprentice Cohen to rely on, but now she must hunt down her only friend, who is accused of killing her father. One thing I found infuriating about Britta is she seemed incapable of thinking of anything but Cohen. A lot of time is spent on her reflecting on him with the flashback scenes focusing on their relationship. It would have benefited Britta’s character for her to have spent some time thinking about her dead father. From the very beginning, we are told that Britta is incredibly loyal, but I found this laughable when she so readily believes her only friend to be a murderer. This becomes even more laughable when you see the direction the author intends to take Britta’s story at the end of the novel.

One major point of confusion for me was Britta’s mother’s story. At the beginning of the novel, Britta says that her mother was accused of giving Malam secrets to Shaerdan and was killed for it. Later, Britta becomes furious with her mother for choosing to leave her and her father after she was born to return to Shaerdan. This was a really glaring error that luckily doesn’t affect the storyline too much as the novel goes on. But nothing compares to the eye-roll inducing romance between Britta and Cohen. Every interaction felt so cliché: Oh, we’re forced to share a bed, how will I keep my feelings to myself?/Oh, we almost kissed, but you pulled away and now I’m going to convince myself you were just checking if I had something in my eye because you could never, ever love little ol’ me/Oh, you asked me to dance for no good reason which has nothing to do with the fact that you like me/Oh, we kissed, but it must be a mistake because I’m so pale and freckled, no one could ever love me. 

Ever the Hunted had potential when it came to the magical system, which is not explored enough, but too many other elements made it a disappointing read.

Rating: 2/5

★★

The Midnight Star by Marie Lu

the-midnight-star-by-marie-lu Title: The Midnight Star
Author: Marie Lu
Series: The Young Elites, #3
Pages: 316
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Release Date: October 11th 2016

      “There was once a time when darkness shrouded the world, and the darkness had a queen.
      Adelina Amouteru is done suffering. She’s turned her back on those who have betrayed her and achieved the ultimate revenge: victory. Her reign as the White Wolf has been a triumphant one, but with each conquest her cruelty only grows. The darkness within her has begun to spiral out of control, threatening to destroy all that she’s achieved.
      Adelina’s forced to revisit old wounds when a new danger appears, putting not only Adelina at risk, but every Elite and the very world they live in. In order to save herself and preserve her empire, Adelina and her Roses must join the Daggers on a perilous quest—though this uneasy alliance may prove to be the real danger.”

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“The woman’s eyes bulge. She lets out a choked scream as she falls to the ground and claws at the dirt. Behind her, the entire crowd flinches in unison as eyes and heads turn away from the sight. The terror flowing from her feeds directly into me, and the voices in my head explode into shouts, filling my ears with their delight.”

The Midnight Star, the final book in Marie Lu’s The Young Elites series, brings Adelina’s story to a close as she’s finally faced with the choice between darkness and light. Over the course of two books, we’ve seen Adelina transition from a very frightened girl to a ruthless queen. Her journey has largely been defined by the cruel treatment done to her and those like her. As a malfetto, Adelina has been defined as an abomination, her unnatural abilities a dangerous effect caused by a terrible plague. Rejected by her father and society, Adelina has learned how far those in power will go to rid the world of those like her. When Adelina loses someone close to her and is betrayed by her friends, she gives in to her grief and the seething hatred that gnaws at her day after day. Now as queen, Adelina is determined to conquer the known world by any means necessary.

Adelina’s transformation into this unmovable and vicious ruler is almost understandable. As much fun as it is reading about villains, having a backstory always helps in creating a dynamic character instead of a stagnant one. Lu was able to give us this backstory, to show the steps that led Adelina down this dark path, but she was also able to make us continue to care for a character who at times can only be described as blood-thirsty. Many of Adelina’s actions are motivated by her desire to right a wrong done to those like her. To reverse a system that treated malfettos as abnormalities. But her methods are cruel, she leaves little room for mercy and sees every unmarked person as an enemy meant to be punished.

While I do think that Adelina makes a really interesting character study, I’ve always wanted more from the other characters in this series. Most of the story is told from Adelina’s perspective with a few chapters here and there featuring Raffaele. His perspective is really important as his character acts as an antithesis to Adelina, though he’s endured unspeakable abuse, he does not give in to hatred. But it is characters like Violetta, Adelina’s sister, and Magiano, the thief who stays by her side, who I wanted to hear more from. Both are close to Adelina and have different reactions to her growing cruelty and especially with Magiano, I wanted to get more of a backstory from him because it would help to understand why he stays so loyal to Adelina despite her terrible actions.

It was really interesting to see Adelina interact with her former friends whom she now considers enemies, for them to find a common ground despite their differences, and for Adelina to finally face the darkness inside her head on, but ultimately, I felt underwhelmed by this conclusion and this may be because of the higher expectations I placed on it after the second book The Rose Society impressed me so much.

Rating: 3/5

★★★