Pegasus by Robin McKinley

I’m a newcomer to Robin McKinley. In all honesty I’m not sure I’m sold on this author. Which isn’t to say I disliked the book and won’t buy book 2 when it comes out. But I’m just not sure I would seek out another series by her.

On her twelfth birthday, Sylvi is bound with a Pegasus named Ebon, as all royal children are bound, as part of an ancient treaty between the humans and the pegasi when the humans first came to these lands. But of all the children who are bound to a pegasus, Sylvi is the only one who can clearly communicate with hers without the help of a magician. Some, like the king, hope this will help promote a closer relationship with the pegasi people who have long been their allies only in the most technical and official terms. But others believe that this is a symbol of something sinister to come for the kingdom. The appearance of old and dangerous enemies only seems to confirm this fact, threatening to tear Sylvi and her new friend apart.

Many parts of the story are fun and whimsical. Who wouldn’t want a pegasus as your best friend? (And as a short, small person, I could probably ride on one!) Who ever imagined them as intelligent people rather than simply mythical creatures?

For me, the weaknesses lie in the fact that everyone’s motivations are fairly transparent so there isn’t a lot of surprise or even mystery in most of what is happening (though I wouldn’t be surprised if perhaps the magician play some role in the increase of dangerous creatures arriving). I also dislike the fact that the pegasi are so unimaginably beautiful because it makes it more difficult to really think of them as real “people” and makes them seem more like myth.

There was no real feeling of danger or peril for most of the book, more like a feeling that eventually, at some point, maybe later, there would be danger. sure, her brother and her mother were out fighting all the time, but Sylvi was safely tucked away in the palace where the worst she had to deal with was an intimidating magician. I would have liked more, a daring escape form one of the dangerous creatures, a fall of Ebon during one of their illicit rides, something…

For anyone hoping that the novel would wrap up anything at the end of the book, it ended with a promise of things to come but no resolutions. Which is fine by me but not so fine for people who wanted a standalone book (since there isn’t really an indication on the cover that this is meant to be a book one).

It wasn’t a bad book by any means. I just wanted more. I think that the second will gives us more as it steers away from world building and setting up the scene and gets into the real conflict and danger.

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The Scarlet Stockings by Charlotte Kandel

Abandoned as a baby, Daphne has spent the first thirteen years of her life in the Orphanage of St. Jude. She dreams of being a ballet dancer and though she knows the chances are as slim as being adopted at age thirteen. But when she received a package containing a strange book, a mysterious riddle, and a pair of scarlet stockings, everything changes. The stockings promise her a chance at the life she has always dreamed of, if only she can solve the riddle.

The story itself is pretty solid, serving as a cautionary tale about how fame and success can go to a person’s head if they lose touch with their roots. (Think “Jenny from the Block.”) It also serves as a reminder to always hope, work for what you want, and the unconditional love of family and friends.

The story has a few weaknesses, to be sure. It moves so quickly from place to place that it is difficult to really settle in and get to know any of the characters particularly well. Daphne, the character we follow throughout, is somewhat inconsistent and not just because she changes. She claims to be closed off emotionally and somewhat shy, but all we ever see is her showing her emotions to anyone who will stand within twenty feet of her and a willingness to talk to just about anyone and put herself out there despite her lack of formal training.

The bigger problem for me is that the riddle is not really a riddle but a not so well written outline of what she will experience. There’s not actually anything for her to do or figure out so much as see how it comes true.

Despite this, there’s something fun and fanciful about this tale. It’s sweet and ultimately joyful, even when Daphne’s worst personality traits come out. Her pure and whole-hearted love of dance is something everyone can relate to.

Hunger by Michael Grant (Gone, Book 2)

Thanks to Sam, people are no longer disappearing from the FAYZ when they turn 15. Caine has been defeated and sent away, as has Pack Leader. But things aren’t smooth sailing. Three months have passed and food is running out. Sam is overwhelmed by the role of leader. More kids are developing abilities and the “normals” feel threatened by them (X-men anyone?). Lana is being pulled by the darkness to go back to the scary cave that the wolves dragged her to. And kids aren’t the only ones mutating. Animals are too, so we now have talking wolves, flying snakes, swimming bats, and man-eating worms, to name a few. Oh, and Caine is planning to retake the town but is perhaps not as in control as he’d like to think.

I would be lying if I didn’t say I wish there was one less element to the story. Specifically, I wish there was no darkness aka gaiaphage. It’s not that the story line is a bad one, it’s just that the others are so much better. So many fascinating issues are already happening within the town and with Caine, that the darkness seems like more of a distraction than anything else. (Plus it comes across as so much less scary than it is meant to be.)

The religious element was thankfully toned down this book while the other elements were ratcheted up. People stuck together in dire situations is always fascinating. It reveals a lot about human nature and Grant does a good job of exploring the different ways people can react.

To my surprise, I found main character Sam to be one of the least likable characters this time around. while I sympathize with the difficult position he is in, it does seem like if he took a few minutes to think about it, he could make things much easier for himself if he stopped insisting “I’m just a kid.” How many fifteen year olds ever think “I’m jut a kid”?

I’m also surprised that as smart and religious as Astrid is, she doesn’t think of one of the most obvious and biblical solutions to easing Sam’s burden. Specifically, to appoint judges to work under him (much Moses appointed judges in a hierarchy over the people: over thousands, hundreds, and tens, or like the country itself works with local, state, high state, and supreme courts).

There is a lot of poor communication that only makes matters worse as characters don’t explain themselves well, don’t explain themselves at all, or fail to pay attention to one another enough to see what is really going on. This I find sad but believable. It’s the sort of thing where you want to reach in and just shake someone, but in a way where you want to give up on the characters and book. It’s a difficult balance to keep but Grant does a good job.

With dozens more questions to be answered and more issues to come, I anxiously look forward to book three, Lies, which I have to pick up asap.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (book 1) by Cassandra Clare

When Clary goes to a club with her best friend, she witnesses three strangely marked teens murder another teen whose body then disappears without anyone touching it. They are Shadowhunters and the teen they killed is actually a demon. They fight to rid the earth of demons but it is a difficult battle and not all Shadowhunters feel the same way about who should and shouldn’t be left alone of the supernatural folk. When her mother disappears, Clary learns that there is a good deal about herself and her mother that she never knew. And she is more connected to the world of Shadowhunters and demons than she ever knew.

There is something about this series that reminds me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I mean the Buffy of season one who had just found out she could not just be a normal teen but had to fight vampires. The Buffy who fell in love with someone dangerous (Angel) who had secrets that would play an important role in her future. While I don’t find Clary as endearing as Buffy, she was still the perfect person to be the center of the story. As the newbie to the dark world, she is the perfect window to let us, the readers, learn how the world works.

There are a lot of complaints about the book and though I agree that this isn’t the most unique of stories, I didn’t find it to be as weak as some people say. It’s fun and full of dramatic teen angst and a slightly icky realization at the end that is anything but surprising to everyone but the actually characters. (It hold true with my general rule: if you don’t actually see people die or completely see the body, they are not dead! And even then sometimes not.)

The characters could use more development, but then, it’s a trilogy, so you can’t reveal everything all at once. I hope we get more on Isabelle because right now she’s sort of just “there” which is never appealing for a character. Perhaps the best character in the book is Luke who is much more complex than you can initially guess.

In the end, I will pick up books two and three. They won’t be the best books I’ve ever read but they are fun, quick reads and I’m curious to know what is going to happen. There is news that they will be turning this into a movie, which makes me wonder if it would be better or worse off for that. I could actually see this making a good TV show.

Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card

Card has returned with a vengeance in this newest series. Which is to say we had two stories going on at one.

The main, real story of the book was about Rigg who has always been able to see people’s paths. He can spot where people have gone and how old they are. This has only seemed like a small thing, until he learns that with the help of his friend Umbo, he can actually go back to those times. He also learns that his father has actually been training him for something he has not realized before. He is, in fact, the long lost son of the no longer in power royal family. And the sister he never knew he had has the ability to slow down time for herself to the point where she can become invisible. Rigg, taking his place with his family, must maneuver the political entrapments and learn what his real father was studying to discover there is a safe way through the wall that encloses their kingdom.

The second story, which we only get a little bit of in each chapter, is actually the origin story, explaining how people came to the planet, how the barriers came about, and how the world and its rules were established. Mostly, we learn about the dilemmas that take place as Ram Odin helps lead the ship meant to increase mankind’s hope of survival by spreading the human race beyond one planet.

The book has a number of themes going on, from the difficulties and intricacies or time travel to what it means to be human (does having the ability to manipulate time and space preclude you from being human?). On the one hand, these are interesting ideas, the kind of debates you would have in a college philosophy class. On the other hand, this book is meant for young adults. I found myself having a hard time following everything that was being said (meaning I had to pay really close attention to what I was reading) and I am generally very good at understanding these types of things. Which leads me to wonder, how many kids are going to be able to really follow what was being discussed? And was all of that discussion necessary?

In fact, this book was all about talking and debating. Who should Rigg trust? His mother or sister who may find him to be a threat because the once-royal family usually kills its males so only a female can rule? His guard who may be loyal to the government that overthrew the royal family all together? The man whose house he stays in who may be intent on overthrowing the government and using Rigg for his own goals? There were so many interesting ideas being thrown around but the truth is that very little actually happened. There is very little real and present danger. It also seems like a bit of a cheat that only the good guys have any magic.

Add to this the fact that none of the characters are particularly likable. Rigg puts his friends in danger without much care for what might happen. Loaf easily leaves his wife who he claims to love, rather than asking her to come along or even tell her what his plans are. Umbo, perhaps the most likable of all, begins the story by leading a crowd to lynch Rigg and though his confusion was understandable (he had thought that Rigg had intentionally killed his brother) does not really go beyond the sad boy who has a sad childhood with an abusive father. Rigg’s sister might be likable if she were visible for long enough for us to get to know. She’s certainly sympathetic, but we don’t know her well enough to really like her.

Now that I’ve complained a lot about the book, I want to say it’s not that I didn’t enjoy this book. But after the brilliance that was Ender’s Game, Pathfinder is a bit of a let down. Good enough that I will read the second book when it comes out, but not so good that I’m dying for it already.

Seven Realms: The Exiled Queen (book 2) by Cinda William’s Chima

The Exiled Queen follows Han Allistair and Princess Raisa as they spend the year in the academy in Oden’s Ford. Han Allistair, together with his friend Dances With Fire, goes to learn how to use his magic. They are joined by Han’s old friend Cat, who swears fealty to Han and goes to the music school there. Things aren’t easy for Han because the Bayars want to get back at him for stealing their amulet, the principal wants him to be party to overthrowing the Wizard’s Guild, and a mysterious man named Crow wants to teach him magic with a more sinister plan in mind. Meanwhile, Raisa, along with her personal guard and childhood friend Amon, attends the soldier school where she intends to get an education that will prepare her to rule. She must keep her identity and presence secret, which would be easier if the Bayars and Han weren’t in the area too.

Sometimes Raisa’s boy-crazy behavior makes her a little hard for me to relate too. Not that I doubt it is a real representation of a teenage girl, but it’s just not how any of my friends and I were at that age. Mostly, I found her inability to settle on just one person and her inability to control herself mostly annoying.

Han was not above some terrible decisions of his own, though he seemed to have a little bit less of a choice in the matter since everyone else was desperate to control him. He got caught between so many different people that it was hard to tell how much of his life he had control over. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of his struggles were the Bayar twins themselves, as it seems that Fiona, despite being part of the same family, does not share the same goal. Or at least, not quite. She’s as power hungry as the rest, but she doesn’t see why her brother should be the one to rule instead of herself.

There is so much scheming going on that you can’t help but wonder how the kingdom hasn’t collapsed already. There is hope though. As bad as Raisa’s decisions sometimes seem to be, it is clear that she intends to be and will be a strong queen. If she can avoid getting herself taken by Micah. I can’t help but wonder what her mother is thinking in all this, if she has been bewitched or just beguiled. How much of this is her conscious involvement and how much of it is magic? Can Raisa trust her mother? (And until she’s sure she can, why would she go to the queen?)

Fire by Kristin Cashore

Fire is a sort of prequel for Cashore’s Graceling. (On the book’s cover they call it a companion novel, but it takes place before hand, so I choose to call it a prequel.) It takes place primarily in the Dells, a kingdom in the mountains above the seven kingdoms where we spent Graceling, during the childhood of the King Leck. We learn about Leck’s childhood and how he became the evil king we know him to turn out to be. But though he plays his part in the story, it is actually Fire who we follow.

In the Dells, instead of having Gracelings (people with extreme gifts), there are monsters, beings of extreme beauty and allure. Fire is a human monster, so painfully beautiful that people instantly love or hate her, with the ability to exert her will over other people’s. She spends her life hiding her hair and wearing the simplest clothes she can manage to avoid attention–monster creatures desire her blood and men desire her in one way or another. Her father, also a human monster, was a destructive force in the kingdom and nearly drove the kingdom to ruin. The kingdom is still in trouble as other lords want to overthrow King Nash. Despite their distrust of her, this king and his family ask Fire to use her unique abilities to help save the kingdom.

Like Graceling, Fire is an engrossing novel of love and self-acceptance. It’s easy to love Fire’s personal journey and connect to her attempt to find herself in an unfamiliar world. She fights to resolve who she is against who she knows her father was. Is she, by her very nature, really a monster? Does that make her superior to other humans and give her the right to control them–as her father believed? Is it her responsibility to use her abilities to help protect the kingdom? On the one hand, her extreme beauty is something that teens may find it difficult to connect with. You can’t help but think “if only my biggest problem in life was that I was too beautiful.” At the same time, self-conscious teens might appreciate the idea that beauty is not as great as you would think it is.

My biggest issue is that I dislike this blending of worlds where there are Gracelings and monsters. It seems almost redundant, like the author couldn’t decide which magical world she wanted and which magical system she wanted and so she just threw them both in. While it was nice to see how Leck became Leck, it seems like the story would be stronger without the Graceling world at all. At the same time, Fire did need someone who could compete with her on her level, so I understand why she felt the need to include him. Perhaps what we needed was a second monster, a true equal, instead of a pseudo-equal.

I didn’t like this book as much as I liked Graceling, but it was still an enjoyable book. It’s strong point, for me, was in the way it dealt with Fire and her father.

The Scorch Trials by James Dashner (Book 2)

Thomas and the rest of the group have been rescued from the people of WICKED, or so they think. But then Teresa goes missing and in her place is a boy who says he went through the same experience as them, only he was the only boy among a group of girls. They also discover that there are tattoos on each of their necks, giving them an official title. Minho’s says “the leader,” Teresa’s (according to the sign on the door that they find) is “the traitor,” and Thomas’s says “to be killed by Group B.” And they have two weeks to get one hundred miles north to the safe haven, through sick and crazy people suffering from the Flare, an illness that turns them into animals (sort of like the Walking Dead really). Can they make it in time? Can Thomas survive? Will Teresa really betray him?

Book two of the trials, instead of answering any questions, only serves to bring up more questions. (Sort of like Lost right?) Thomas slowly gets some of his memories back, but they only serve to make things even more confusing. Is WICKED good, as Teresa first claimed while still in the Glade? Was Thomas really a party to all of it? (My only concern with this book is that once we have all the information, it isn’t really going to make sense, but that may only be because I haven’t thought of an answer that makes satisfying sense.)

This is the first time I’ve read a book where I can’t really think of where things are going. I can’t figure out how or why the different pieces we’ve been given fit together. I love it. Dashner packs the pages with never-ending excitement and terror. Hunger Games finally has an equal in terms of exciting YA novel. I know it won’t be for a while, but I can’t wait until book 3, The Death Cure, arrives.