Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Title: Sorcerer to the Crown
Author: Zen Cho
Series: Sorcerer Royal, #1
Pages: 371
Publisher: Ace
Release Date: September 1st 2015

      “At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, eminently proficient magician, and Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers—one of the most respected organizations throughout all of Britain—ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up.
      But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…

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“Magic infused the air; her every breath was haloed with green mist. Prunella felt as though she were standing at the brink of a sea of magic, watching a swelling wave gather force before it crashed upon the shore.”

I love it when a book that you haven’t heard a lot about completely surprises you. Zen Cho’s The Sorcerer to the Crown combines magic and historical fiction into a truly entertaining and enjoyable experience. Cho imagines a world where magic freely flows from Fairyland into our realm, but much like any kind of resource, those with power have found a way to regulate its use and keep it from others. In England, those gifted with magical abilities can join the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, but only if they are wealthy enough and male. Magic in England has been on the decline for years and no one is sure why. The Sorcerer Royal is under assault in every direction, both literally and figuratively. Determined to discover the reason behind England’s decrease in magic, Zacharias Wythe’s quest for answers puts him in the path of Prunella Gentleman, a young lady with extraordinary magical ability and a secret that may save England from losing all its magic.

Someone like Zacharias Wythe should never have been allowed to become Sorcerer Royal. Born to slaves, Zacharias’ skin color is enough for many to draw their conclusions about him. As a young boy, he was taken in by Sir Stephan Wythe, former Sorcerer Royal before his death. Zacharias has spent his life as an outsider, excelling at magic despite the skepticism from members of the Society. Despite what his detractors may think of him, Zacharias is a proficient sorcerer. Unlike his colleagues, he does not use his power or influence for any sort of personal gain, but is always thinking of how he can help England and her dwindling source of magic. He’s used to relying on himself and not expecting a lot of help from others. His feelings toward his benefactor and his role as Sorcerer Royal are complicated. There’s affection and gratefulness, but he has also suffered a great deal because of prejudice. I loved that this historical fantasy addressed issues of racism. Often times these books focus on white characters and we get an incomplete version of the time when slavery and colonialism played key roles in how the world operated.

Prunella Gentleman is a character I immediately took to. She’s bright, cheeky, and isn’t one to back down. At Mrs. Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches, Prunella has taken on many roles. Her father passed away when she was younger and she’s been under the care of Mrs. Daubeney. Mrs. Daubeney was familiar with Prunella’s father, who spent a considerable time in India where he met Prunella’s mother, but save for his name, Prunella knows nothing substantial about either of them. Many do not know what to make of the young lady, who’s brown skin and features speak of foreign origin, but who speaks as well as any English girl. In England, women are not allowed to practice magic, so instead they are taught to suppress their talents. Still, in a school full of magically-inclined young ladies a hex or two is known to be thrown. Unlike Zacharias, Prunella is prone to act before thinking. She is resourceful and strong-willed, but undeniably reckless. Magic has always been a part of who she is, but more than anything, she wishes for some sort of security in her life. In Zacharias, she finds an unlikely friend who understand the misgivings that come with being a part of a world that never wholly accepts you.

Cho’s writing made me fall immediately into this world. I loved how Cho combined magic and politics, showing that power and prejudice can have a huge influence on people’s views of the world. Sorcerer to the Crown is full of complex characters that are easy to fall in love with, an intricate world that addresses both racism and sexism, and is surprisingly amusing on top of all of this.

5/5

★★★★★

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ARC Review: Girl in the Shadows by Gwenda Bond

Girl in the Shadows by Gwenda Bond

Title: Girl in the Shadows
Author: Gwenda Bond
Series: Girl on a Wire, #2
Pages: 370
Publisher: Skyscape
Release Date: July 5th 2016
*I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, which does not influence my review.* 

      “Eighteen-year-old Moira Mitchell grew up in the shadows of Vegas’s stage lights while her father’s career as a magician soared. More than anything, Moira wants to be a magician too, but her father is dead set against her pursuing magic.
      When an invitation to join the Cirque American mistakenly falls into Moira’s possession, she takes action. Instead of giving the highly coveted invitation to its intended recipient, Raleigh, her father’s handsome and worldly former apprentice, Moira takes off to join the Cirque. If she can perform alongside its world-famous acts, she knows she’ll be able to convince her dad that magic is her future.
      But when Moira arrives, things take on an intensity she can’t control as her stage magic suddenly feels like…real magic. To further distract her, Raleigh shows up none too pleased at Moira’s presence, all while the Cirque’s cocky and intriguing knife thrower, Dez, seems to have it out for her. As tensions mount and Moira’s abilities come into question, she must decide what’s real and what’s an illusion. If she doesn’t sort it out in time, she may forever remain a girl in the shadows.”

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Gwenda Bond’s Girl in the Shadows, the sequel to her novel Girl on a Wire, tells the story of a girl who longs to be a magician like her father, but is destined for an even bigger stage. I haven’t read the first book in this series, so I was a little nervous going into this one, but this novel focuses largely on a different character and doesn’t necessarily require you to read the first. Moira wants more than anything to work magic for audiences, but her father has always been against the idea, despite the fact that he is a talented magician himself. I admire Moira’s drive, even with her father’s disapproval, she still continues to pursue her dream and becomes a gifted magician. One major drawback for her character though is her relentless need to take huge risks that didn’t feel necessary. She never seemed to learn from her past mistakes and even when another character pointed out that she didn’t need to take certain risks, she would inevitably do it anyway.

Moira’s love interest Dez was a character that felt largely incomplete and also graded on my nerves. When we first meet Dez, he’s exactly what you’d expect from a run-of-the-mill cocky, hot love-interest. His smiles are irresistible, his attention is flattering, and he’s hiding this softer side that only the female protagonist can see. What really annoyed me the most was that Dez was in constant need of reassurance. He continually would point out to Moira that he wasn’t good enough for her, that he didn’t deserve her, and they were too different. She in turn had to continually tell him he was worth it. This would have been fine if it happened once, but it felt like it kept happening over and over. I did not care much for their relationship, as it takes off rather quickly and really felt like it had no real depth.

There is an element of real magic to the novel that probably would have been more interesting if Moira had met someone with the same kind of ability she had, who was also an ally for her. Instead the protagonist must discover how to use her abilities on her own, with only vague clues to work with. The magical system felt very incomplete as a result. The adults were another part of this book that I didn’t like. Most of them seemed to be either infuriatingly passive or frustratingly overbearing. For the most part, they functioned as obstacles in Moira’s story and didn’t feel well-rounded enough. One saving grace for the novel is Moira’s dedication to her female role-models. Before every performance, she would take the time to dedicate her show to a real life female magician that she drew inspiration from.

Rating: 2/5

★★

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

A Gathering of Shadows Final

Title: A Gathering of Shadows
Author: V.E. Schwab
Series: Shades of Magic, #2
Pages: 512
Publisher: Tor
Release Date: February 23rd 2016

       “Four months have passed since the shadow stone fell into Kell’s possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Rhy was wounded and the Dane twins fell, and the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body through the rift, and into Black London.
      In many ways, things have almost returned to normal, though Rhy is more sober, and Kell is now plagued by his guilt. Restless, and having given up smuggling, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks like she always meant to do. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games—an extravagant international competition of magic, meant to entertain and keep healthy the ties between neighboring countries—a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port.
      But while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life, and those who were thought to be forever gone have returned. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night reappears in the morning, and so it seems Black London has risen again—meaning that another London must fall.”

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“The command rang out, echoing through the chamber, and between his palms the air began to thicken and swirl into shadows as thick as smoke. It billowed forth, and in moments the room was engulfed in darkness.”

V.E. Schwab once again impresses with her knack for world building and her larger-than-life characters in A Gathering of Shadows, the highly anticipated sequel to A Darker Shade of Magic. The dust has settled, so to speak, in Red London, where Kell, now the only Antari, deals with the aftermath of his choice to save his brother Rhy. The life bond formed between the two means neither feels pain without the other one experiencing it. There’s a lot of love between these two characters though their personalities are often at odds. Rhy is all charm, smiles, and recklessness where Kell feels the weight of the world on his shoulders at every turn. They’ve always balanced each other out, but this bond puts a strain on their relationship. Resentment and anger underline their once effortless rapport, making both long for freedom from one another. Kell, once revered by those in Red London, now finds himself on the receiving end of suspicious looks. Four months ago a darkness descended and many lost their lives; and while no one quite understands what happened, they know that their own Antari had something to do with it. Kell also experiences distrust within his own family, and as someone who never quite felt like he belonged, this is truly heartbreaking.

A Darker Shade of Magic explored the different Londons that exist beside Kell’s own Red London; in this sequel, Schwab opens up the protagonist’s world. The Essen Tasch, or Elemental Games, are set to take place and magicians from the three known empires will gather in London to compete. The competition brings back Lila Bard, who has spent her time at sea in hopes of realizing her dream of owning and captaining her own ship. Lila is coming into her own power, just beginning to discover what she is truly capable of. For Lila, life is full of endless possibilities. She’s got confidence and skill in spades and she is constantly surprising those around her. But Lila is also trying to prove that she is more than a thief from Grey London and her ambition, while exciting, lends itself to attracting trouble and in a world that is unfamiliar, this can be her undoing. New faces are also introduced in this second book, most prominently is Alucard Emery, captain of the Night Spire. The captain rivals Prince Rhy when in comes to charms, but it is his past, full of many secrets, that has me wanting to know more about him.

I thoroughly enjoyed the magical competition in A Gathering of Shadows. Up until now, we’ve only seen magic as displayed by Antari and the Dane twins, so it was such a delight to see other magicians and how magic doesn’t have to be deadly in order to be a powerful force. That being said, this second book did not have a clear conflict like its predecessor, making it at times feel very much like a place holder.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

Title: Truthwitch
Author: Susan Dennard
Series: The Witchlands, #1
Pages: 416
Publisher: Tor Teen
Release Date: January 5th 2016

       “In the Witchlands, there are almost as many types of magic as there are ways to get in trouble—as two desperate young women know all too well.
       Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lie. It’s a powerful magic that many would kill to have on their side, especially amongst the nobility to which Safi was born. So Safi must keep her gift hidden, lest she be used as a pawn in the struggle between empires.
       Iseult, a Threadwitch, can see the invisible ties that bind and entangle the lives around her—but she cannot see the bonds that touch her own heart. Her unlikely friendship with Safi has taken her from life as an outcast into one of reckless adventure, where she is a cool, wary balance to Safi’s hotheaded impulsiveness.
       Safi and Iseult just want to be free to live their own lives, but war is coming to the Witchlands. With the help of the cunning Prince Merik (a Windwitch and ship’s captain) and the hindrance of a Bloodwitch bent on revenge, the friends must fight emperors, princes, and mercenaries alike, who will stop at nothing to get their hands on a Truthwitch.”

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“Safi unfurled from her flip and withdrew her sword just as Iseult’s moon scythes clinked free. Far behind them, more explosions thundered out. Shouts rose up, the horses kicked and whinnied.”

Susan Dennard’s Truthwitch is action-packed fantasy with a strong friendship at its center. Dennard’s world is full of magic and mayhem, but is in need of a lot of exposition by its characters which often feels like readers are forced to play catch up. The novel is full of a lot of unfamiliar terms and a complicated system of witchery that made me wish I had a glossary to reference back to while reading. There are political games between leaders who we learn little about, prejudices against people that we are asked to accept without proper historical context, and different Empires all with different needs that we aren’t privy to as the characters spend most of the novel on a ship. While I will say some of the elements in the story were not fully explained, by the time I finished the novel, I felt that I had a much better grasp on the Witchlands world and cannot wait to explore it more.

Truthwitch‘s strength is its two leads, Safi and Iseult, and the powerful relationship between these two independent young women. Safi is ruled by her emotions, which often makes her impetuous and temperamental. At the beginning of the novel, Safi is a girl running away from a life she doesn’t want with a powerful witchery that can enslave her to anyone who gets their hands on her. She finds a companion in Iseult, a Threadwitch, running away from her own life. Iseult grew up in a strict upbringing that taught her to value control over emotion. Her people, the Nomatsi, are reviled throughout the Witchlands, but Iseult’s inability to perform all the magic a Threadwitch is called to has ostracized her from her own people. Her friendship with Safi is a saving grace for both of them; they compliment one another and are at their best when fighting for each other.

Truthwitch has some great secondary characters. While I consider Safi and Iseult to be the two main leads, Prince Merik of Nubrevna and the Bloodwitch Aeduan play important roles. Merik’s actions are motivated by his desire to save his people. He is uncompromising in his ethics despite having people in his life like his sister, who would rather take the easy route. He becomes an example of what Safi could be if she chooses to accept the role she was born to. Aeduan is ruthless, powerful, and truly ambiguous. I’m still unsure if he can be considered a villain or an antihero as his actions are those of both, but I’m very interested in finding out more regardless.

While hype initially scared me off from reading Susan Dennard’s Truthwitch right away, it’s a highly enjoyable fantasy novel with great characters and an inspiring female friendship.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

The Master Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

The Master Magician by Charlie N. HolmbergTitle: The Master Magician
Author: Charlie N. Holmberg
Series: The Paper Magician, #3
Pages: 216
Publisher: 47North
Release Date: June 2, 2015

       “Throughout her studies, Ceony Twill has harbored a secret, one she’s kept from even her mentor, Emery Thane. She’s discovered how to practice forms of magic other than her own — an ability long thought impossible.
      While all seems set for Ceony to complete her apprenticeship and pass her upcoming final magician’s exam, life quickly becomes complicated. To avoid favoritism, Emery sends her to another paper magician for testing, a Folder who despises Emery and cares even less for his apprentice. To make matters worse, a murderous criminal from Ceony’s past escapes imprisonment. Now she must track the power-hungry convict across England before he can take his revenge. With her life and loved ones hanging in the balance, Ceony must face a criminal who wields the one magic that she does not, and it may prove more powerful than all her skills combined.”

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“It’s like you have a checklist for dangerous criminals tucked into your pocket, and you won’t be satisfied until you’ve had a personal encounter with each.”

Charlie N. Holmberg’s The Master Magician is a solid conclusion to The Paper Magician series. Ceony Twill spent her school years at Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined hoping to become a Smelter, one who works with metals. However, due to the lack of Folders in the magical trade, after her graduation, she was assigned to Emery Thane, one of the few paper magicians. Over her apprenticeship Ceony and Emery have grown closer. Ceony has had strong feelings for her tutor ever since she saved him from a dangerous woman from his past. Though this relationship is not strictly forbidden, it is frowned upon and rumors about Ceony and Emery are beginning to swirl. Ceony is on the brink of becoming a full-fledged paper magician, but it’s difficult for her to stay focused when her ability to bond with different materials, something that should be possible, comes to the attention of a nefarious magician.

While I’ve admired Ceony’s drive and her desire to protect those she loves, her decision-making leaves a lot to be desired in this final book. I found myself frustrated with her inability to let others, who are more experienced, handle situations she wasn’t prepared to face. I understood her motivations, but not her actions, which I believe put her and those she cares about in more danger. Though I do find paper magic to be invariably charming, I did hope to explore other mediums more in depth than to just be told that Ceony had studied them in secret. I also found that her tumultuous relationship with her sister Zina lacked a firm foundation. The first two books focused heavily on Ceony’s apprenticeship and her family did not play a heavy role, so I didn’t feel very invested in their quarrel in this book and am not sure what purpose it really served.

What I like most about this series is Emery and Ceony’s relationship. Though the latter is not a full magician quite yet, they treat each other as equals. Emery’s concern for Ceony never takes on the I’m-worried-about-you-so-I-get-to-dictate-your-choices tone that I’m not particular fond of. The Master Magician wraps up this quick little series quite nicely, though I will say that I still would have liked to read more of the story from Emery’s point of view.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

Unmade by Sarah Rees Brennan

Unmade by Sarah Rees Brennan

Title: Unmade
Author: Sarah Rees Brennan
Series: The Lynburn Legacy, #3

Sorry-in-the-Vale has come under siege, with Rob Lynburn taking control of Aurimere and demanding the town offer him a sacrifice. To defeat him, Kami has become Ash’s source. In the aftermath of battle, Jared, the boy she’d been linked to her whole life, gave himself over to Rob to save Kami’s brother and his aunt. Unwilling to accept she’s lost Jared forever, Kami will do anything to get him back. With more people succumbing to Rob’s will, Kami is more desperate than ever to save her town. When Kami discovers a way to gain more power in order defeat Rob, she must decide how much she’s willing to give up, because defeating him may cost her everything.

“She lied to herself because she did not know how she would put herself back together if she fell apart.”

Unmade is the gripping conclusion to Sarah Rees Brennan’s Lynburn Legacy series. I’ve been holding on to this book for the past year because I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to this amazing series. Brennan is highly skilled when it comes to writing complex characters. It’s incredibly rewarding to see how each character has evolved over the course of three books, how small characters have become an intricate part of the story, and how characters you found off-putting have become ones you can’t help but like. Kami has come a long way since the beginning pages of Unspoken, when she was just a girl with an insatiable hunger for the truth and a drive that was infectious. Sacrifice has been an important theme throughout the series, and in this final book Kami must decide what she’s willing to give up in order to save the people she loves.

Jared is another character who has undergone a lot of changes, and his character development is perhaps the most rewarding. He’s always considered himself unworthy of being loved and struggled to connect with the members of his family when he’s always felt like an outsider among them. Throughout the course of the series, Jared has leaned to care about other people beside Kami, to see the value in others, and eventually finds his own worth apart from the girl who once defined his entire world. Brennan really knows how to let secondary characters shine. The people in Kami’s life are more than placeholders, they have real fears and desires; sometimes you agree with them and sometimes you don’t, but they are all incredibly well-developed. They exist on their own apart from the protagonist and I love seeing everyone interact with one another. From the wonderful friendship between Kami and Angela to the humorous interactions between Jon Glass and Lillian Lynburn, there’s something to love about any number of combination of characters.

My only real criticism for this final book is that these characters have been through so much, they’ve had to make sacrifices and lost people they loved, and I felt they deserved more than a chapter or two of happiness. Sarah Rees Brennan has an amazing ability to make you laugh and cry in the span of a single page, to make you smile and break your heart at the same time with this final book being no exception. I’ve enjoyed Kami’s journey immensely and am looking forward to Brennan’s future projects.

Rating: 5/5

★★★★★