Meagan Reads YA Fantasy: The Exiled Queen by Cinda Williams Chima

This is the sequel to The Demon King from the Seven Realms series. Possible spoilers ahead, so if you plan on reading these books, proceed with caution.

from Goodreads

In the continuation of this series, Raisa makes it to Oden’s Ford with her childhood friend and complicated love interest Amon Byrne, after having fled the Fells to avoid an arranged marriage to the wizard Micah Bayar, which would have set off a civil war among the clans and the Vale people. Meanwhile, Han Alister and his childhood best friend Dancer make it to Oden’s Ford after fleeing Marisa Pines after the death of Han’s mom and sister.

Though the two stories diverged at the end of the first book and remained as separate lines throughout most of this one, they eventually meet up again. This time though, Raisa, unable to be with Amon, falls for Han after agreeing to tutor him in the ways of the nobility. In their separate lives, Raisa continues to play the part of a noble lady named Rebecca Morley, while Han juggles various extracurricular training sessions in wizardry from the dean of the magic school and a mysterious tutor who only meets with him in a different dimension.

Needless to say, there is a whole mess of complex stories and characters going on in this book. And yet, the reader never loses track of who’s who and what events have occurred or how they relate. It’s actually really impressive how deftly Chima maps out the people, places, and events in a way that’s rich and layered, and yet never confusing. These books feel like Game of Thrones, but written by Tamora Pierce.

I think what helped the most with this though, is that Chima used the first chapter in the book to essentially act as the recap, like TV shows that use “Previously on…” Personally, I think series like these, especially in the fantasy realm, could use more of that structure. After all, they’re written in such an episodic way it just makes sense to give the reader a refresher on what came before (especially readers like me who read books with so much time in between). Maybe we can just create a website for that kind of thing.

The other element I really appreciate about these books, especially The Exiled Queen, is how the plot points mix with the every day issues, and that those issues act as parallels to our own real-world problems. For example, the dynamic between Cat Tyburn and Dancer shows how even those who come from marginalized communities (Cat is a Southern Isle native from the streets, but raised in the Vale) can still display prejudice and bigotry toward other marginalized communities (Dancer is clanborn).

I’d say one of the bigger flaws of the series is the rampant heteronormativity. There’s only one instance of LGBTQ+ representation, but it isn’t fleshed out and comes off as an afterthought. Two of Raisa’s cadet friends, Talia and Pearlie, are girlfriends. It’s mentioned that “women who prefer other women” are known as moonspinners. While I really like that new terminology for lesbians, this particular story point is brought up momentarily and immediately set aside. Presumably it’s because they aren’t main characters, but in the end, I felt like I could have gotten the same ending story without their inclusion, and that doesn’t make for true diversity and inclusion.

Overall, I really liked this sequel and I’m definitely looking forward to reading the continuation of this story. It’s complex enough to be intriguing, but not so much so as to overwhelm. Has anyone else read these books? What are your thoughts on the series? Let me know in the comments!

Meagan Reads YA Fantasy: Queen of Air and Darkness by Cassandra Clare

My last read of 2018 and first review of 2019. This is the third and final installment in Cassandra Clare’s The Dark Artifices series, another story set in the Shadowhunter world. I want to start by saying that Clare is one of my favorite authors. I adore her Shadowhunter world. It wasn’t until just a couple of months ago that I realized that what’s called urban fantasy was my all time favorite genre.

For those who plan on reading the books and haven’t gotten this far, beware! Spoilers for book two, Lord of Shadows, ahead.

qoaad_blogIn Queen of Air and Darkness, the Blackthorns, Emma, and Shadowhunter community as a whole are reeling from the events at the end of the last book, in which Livvy Blackthorn is killed, as well as the Inquisitor Robert Lightwood, Alec’s father (he’s a major character in The Mortal Instruments series, FYI). With the grief of losing his baby sister and the impending doom that is set to happen to him and his parabatai because they’ve fallen in love, it’s too much for Julian to handle. He decides to have his emotions magically muted, which leads him to become a different person that makes cold, calculating decisions, but not in the name of family and love, instead for the sake of militaristic strategy.

Battles in fairy lead to Emma and Julian traveling through a portal to another dimension called Thule, where the Dark War from the Mortal Instruments series went terribly wrong and Sebastian lived and ruled the land. Suffice it to say, this is not the kind of book you can read casually and pick up as a stand alone. You absolutely have to read at least the two previous books, and the other Shadowhunter series’ books. While it gives just enough detail to fill in those gaps to anyone who might be new to the world, it’s definitely written for die hard fans of Clare’s world.

Taking this book into consideration with the rest of the series, I have to say it wasn’t my favorite. It started off really strong and I was hooked and tormented all the way through the adventures in Thule. The events that unfold after that didn’t quite keep my attention in the same way. It’s not to say that I didn’t like how the story unraveled, but I definitely felt much of it could have been condensed.

There were a lot of moments that were meant to be character development, which is absolutely crucial to any story, but when it comes to the stories that Clare writes, that development must also carry the story forward. I didn’t feel like every detail written for the sake of developing characters did that. As a fan of the people and the world, I loved reading these details into each individual’s personality and thoughts, but as a reader of a novel as a whole, I thought many scenes bogged down the story that wanted to keep going. There was a lot that could have been saved as more “behind the scenes” tidbits, which is something the author likes to post on her social media. In short, it felt like much of the content in Queen of Air and Darkness was dedicated too much to fanservice, which hurt the overall story.

That said, I want to reiterate that I loved learning more about the characters. Specifically, I adored seeing the development of certain relationships between different character sets. Clare has a true talent for putting into words the complexity of human emotions and how those are influenced by and affect the ties that bind. The relationship that broke my heart the most was between Ty and Kit.

After the death of his twin Livvy, Ty leans on Kit for support in his insane endeavors to bring her back from the dead. Kit knows it’s a bad idea, but wants so desperately to please and help Ty because of the love that’s grown that he goes along with the bad idea. The way things end between them left me wanting to cry, but I’m hoping that that particular dynamic has more to come, and it seems like there’s room for growth with the way Clare wrote their ending.

I’m looking forward to reading about Kit’s story in future books and seeing how his story fits in with the rest of the Shadowhunter world. Have any of you read the books in this world and/or series? What are your thoughts on the Shadowhunters? Let me know in the comments!

Meagan Reads YA Fantasy: Bruja Born by Zoraida Cordova

There are spoilers ahead, so if you plan on reading the book, proceed with caution!

bruja born blog
From my Instagram page

Bruja Born by Zoraida Cordova is the followup to Labyrinth Lost, all part of the Brooklyn Brujas series. This book is told from the perspective of the older sister, Lula Mortiz, after the events of what happened in the first book. She’s still coping with the trauma and struggling to find forgiveness for her sister Alex’s actions. Meanwhile, Alex has embraced her encantrix powers, but still feels guilty , so she does everything for her sister to earn her forgiveness.

Lula is clearly undergoing the effects of PTSD, as she consistently states that she no longer feels like the same person. So much so that even the love of her life, Maks, doesn’t bring her the same joy he once did, but she’s so adamant at holding on to her old self that she clings to his presence and the relationship they once had that’s no longer there. After months of these trials and tribulations, Maks decides to call it quits, but Lula doesn’t accept that. She tries using her powers of healing to mend their broken relationship, but in that same moment Death herself comes for Lula’s school mates in a bus crash.

Lady de la Muerte comes to claim Maks in the hospital in the aftermath, but Lula won’t let go. She enlists the help of her sisters to heal Maks before Death can take him, but things go terribly wrong. He dies, and when he wakes up, he’s not himself anymore. When Lula tried to tether her life force to Maks’s, she accidentally did the same for the other victims of the bus crash, creating an army of casimuertos (almost dead). Now, the Mortiz sisters are in a race against the paranormal authorities and time to fix their mistakes, but in order to do so, Lula must learn to let go of Maks, and Lula’s sisters must let go of her.

Cordova’s characterization of Lula is adept, as readers see the Mortiz family now from her eyes. One of the things I found especially telling and heartbreaking was how Lula always had Alex glamor her scars away on her face. The scars are a remnant of what happened in Los Lagos in book one, so hiding them is a form of trying to forget the trauma she underwent. More than that though, it’s vanity.

I don’t say that to be condescending in that way sometimes teenage girls are treated for caring so much about their beauty. Lula herself recognizes that her need to cover up the scars on her face is connected to the fact that her whole life she’s been told that she’s beautiful, and she knows that beauty is power when it comes to being a woman. It’s not to say she values her other qualities less (i.e., her healing magic, her fierce loyalty, her strength), but she knows having been told her whole life how beautiful she is means the world puts value in her physical appearance, and by having a scarred face, that power has been taken away.

There’s only a few brief sentences in the beginning of the book about this power dynamic, but it’s so in line with what women in our world are constantly told. Cordova didn’t spend much time on it, but she didn’t need to. Lula said it all in those few short internal thoughts on that one page. She managed to convey a complex idea of feminism in such a small space, and that’s the mark of a great writer.

By the end of the book though, Lula has found power in her magic, her family, and her bravery and strength. In the end, she makes the ultimate sacrifice to save her family, friends, and the world, even if it means she doesn’t get to live to see it. Thankfully, Lady de la Muerte doesn’t take her life as repayment for the chaos she’s caused from her actions, but the price that’s paid isn’t cheap either. There’s clearly more to come in book three, but whatever comes their way, I’m sure the Mortiz family will overcome.

I’m also glad that Lula has found power and strength in her scars, literal and metaphorical, and that she grew into someone who is learning to live with the past, but not  necessarily holding onto it as a lifeline.

Have any of you read this book yet? What are your thoughts on the Mortiz sisters and their stories? Let me know in the comments!

Meagan Reads YA Fantasy: Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

I finished reading the first in the Brooklyn Brujas series, Labyrinth Lost, a few days ago. I decided to sit on my experience for a bit before writing about it. I want to talk about how I discovered the book in the first place. Thanks to various Goodreads book giveaways, the novel was put on my radar and I entered all the different times I could. The cover alone intrigued me as I immediately recognized its Day of the Dead decoration, which meant this had to be a Latinx protagonist (I hadn’t noticed the series title at that point yet). Then I saw the series title and I saw the author’s name, so I clicked on her profile. I found out she was Ecuadorian raised in New York, so naturally, yes, I had to read this book. I have Ecuadorian roots myself so that made me inclined to read this story. I’m so glad I did.

labyrinth lost

I’ve read plenty of fantasy books, between Tamora Pierce, Cassandra Clare, and Cinda Williams Chima. While I love those books and series, the mythology is heavily based in Anglo-Saxon culture and history. Even in fantastical, fictionalized worlds, Euro-centric stories prevail. I’m a fan of those authors and the stories and characters they’ve created, but even so, I never felt like I saw myself in any of those worlds or people. Enter Zoraida Cordova with Brooklyn Brujas and for the first time ever, in all the books about magic and myth and folklore that I’ve read, I saw someone like me. Alejandra Mortiz (the main character) talks about her Ecuadorian family who came to NY by way of Puerto Rico (shout out to my mom’s people). When I told my dad about this seemingly small, throwaway detail, he said, “Oh yeah a lot of us do that. That’s really accurate.”

My family has never practiced brujeria or anything like that, but I am familiar with the background of magic. Likewise, while we’ve never believed in or practiced witchcraft, the underlying concept of the power of ancestry and how the dead are never truly gone is something that resonated with me because in my family, we do believe that our loved ones are always with us, even when they pass. We believe in the other side, and that the veil that divides our worlds is rather thin. There’s even a moment in the book where Alex is describing the superstition of how dropping utensils indicates visitors will be coming soon, and depending on which utensil was dropped, that would state if it was a man or a woman. I couldn’t help but laugh, because my mom yells, “Visita!” every time one of us drops a utensil in our house. Again, we’re not witches, but it seems certain superstitions just run through our culture. To see my own family beliefs represented in this fantastical world of magic just felt so validating.

The other thing I appreciated about this book was the depiction of Alex’s bisexuality. The fact that she was bisexual had no influence on the outcome of events or the narrative of the story whatsoever. Sure, as most YA novels are wont to do, there was a bit of a love triangle, but it never played into a drama of having to choose one over the other, of being either or. It was accepted and no one batted a lash at the fact that Alex was in love with Rishi. It was just as natural as her growing feelings for Nova. While romance played a small role and was weaved throughout the plot, it never drove the story. If anything, the love for her family was the driving force behind the story, and the fact that her family never questioned or made a deal out of Alex having a crush on Rishi was just such a relief to see in a YA novel that was made to be about magic and family and the power a girl can have.

Overall, if you’re interested in a different culture’s take on magic and fantasy, I highly recommend this book. Labyrinth Lost was just such a fun adventure and kept me turning the pages. I read it in 8 days, and I can’t remember the last time I read a book that fast with my busy schedule.

Meagan Reads YA Fantasy: The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima

I’m going into my third year of the 26 book reading challenge (I’m a slow reader–sue me). For book 17, “a book by an author you love,” I went with Cinda Williams Chima’s The Demon King since I loved her Heir series.

A quick rundown of the story. It follows the lives of two characters: Raisa, the princess of the realm with a spunky attitude, and Han, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks just trying to get by. While Raisa is blissfully unaware of the injustices of the kingdom and dealing with her mother wanting to marry her off as soon as she comes of age, Han is trying to avoid his old gang life but still make an honest living by selling and trading to provide for his family.

In my Goodreads review, I said fans of Tamora Pierce’s Trickster duology or Bekah Cooper series would like this book, and that’s because it’s got classic fantasy elements with magic and wizards and political intrigue. The world building feels grounded in reality though, especially with the clan of Marissa Pines, a village outside of Fellsmarch, the royal city. There’s a clear dichotomy throughout the novel with the princess heir being of the rich elite living in the castle in the city, and Han being a foster child of the humble clans folk living off the land. Overall, it’s the equivalent of European colonialists versus the natives of the country.

I loved the descriptions Chima creates with how the clans people live, in tight knit communities that are in commune with natural remedies and trading goods for goods. It reminded me a lot of the smaller villages and towns I visited during my vacation to Ecuador 6 years ago. I could hear the crackling of the fires as the characters held meetings and shared stories under the open sky, surrounded by woods.

Throughout the whole book, I kept trying to unravel the mysteries that kept popping up with each new revelation. The reader learns things through the eyes of Raisa and Han, so when a new detail is brought to light that surprises or confuses them, you can’t help but feel blindsided too. There’s a parallel to the two characters in how they learn about the world they’ve been a part of this whole time was built on lies. For Han, he comes to feel like he can’t trust the people he grew up with or cares for, while Raisa starts to realize she’s far too ignorant of the strife going on around her in her own queendom. You can’t help but feel the pangs of coming of age, at that moment where you start to see things as an adult would, and not yet being ready for that responsibility.

In this world that Chima has created, there is a legend of an ancestral queen, Hanalea, who is abducted by the Demon King, a wizard, and forced to sacrifice her life for the greater good of the people. It is this legend that founds the people’s beliefs, and why the clan holds control of magic for wizards, allowing them the use of it through talismans for brief periods of time. The wizards serve the line of Hanalea, and thus royalty and magic can never marry.

Of course, as is apt to happen, some people don’t want to play by these rules anymore. This is where all the lies come undone little by little, and Raisa and Han must now make their decisions and judgments based on new truths, breaking from everything they’ve ever known. Wizards are dangerously close to regaining their old power, the clan is not as righteous as the legends would have it, Raisa and her royal line are in danger of extinction, and Han would rather have nothing to do with any of it but somehow is in the middle of all of it.

I’d have to say my biggest criticism of the book is its pacing. Especially in the beginning, it’s quite stop and go and you wish the narration would just pick a speed and stick with it for a while. The way the story reads at times is clumsy and expository, clearly setting the whole thing up for the next book. There’s lots of background information that’s conveyed through character dialogue, but it’s scenes in which the characters are specifically sitting down to have a meeting or talk, making it feel like the writer just couldn’t figure out how else to portray these details.

In conjunction with the pacing, and the fact that the reader knows this is book one of a series, Han’s and Raisa’s stories take way too long to intersect. Obviously, as each chapter jumps back and forth between them, we know they’re going to meet and have some kind of connection to one another eventually, but it wasn’t until about halfway through the book that the connection happens. And even then, there’s only 1 or 2 chapters in which they’re tied together before being severed into their individual lines again. This made the novel feel a bit fractured, so at times it was frustrating trying to read through. But overall, an excellent tale with many twists and fun characters.

Nubile

This is for last week’s prompt for the 52 week writing challenge, “a creation myth.” It got a little poetic, but I like it. Enjoy!

She set her fingers to work, diligent and earnest in her desire to make companions for her blue blanket above the heads of mortals. Oh sweet, sensitive sky, don’t be sad. You’ll be lonely no more.

With a touch of stardust from the heavens mixed with drops of salt water from the ocean below, she concocted the substance that would be the foundation of her new creations. The elixir would not be enough though, as with any sweeping gust or downpour of rain it would disintegrate through the sky’s open hands. No, she needed something to weave the potion into a tangible mass that wouldn’t fly away so easily, but float and hover until the end of time.

She glided over to the trees and asked the birds, May I borrow some feathers, my friends? I need to make companions for the sky, and they shall be your comrades, too.

The birds chirped and shook, dropping scattered feathers for her to gather in all shades of white, grey and black. She nodded her gratitude and brought the feathers back with her up into the blue, moving her fingers nimbly up and over, stretching and twisting the feathers with the stardust and rain mixture until a light and fluffy ball emerged, resting in place and wandering here and there, but never too far.

She smiled and marveled at the little wonder, then repeated the process. Over and over, each time producing a new sky beast. Some were fluffier, and some stretched out longer, but they all emitted a smoky skin and bobbed back and forth, in tune with their brother sky.

As the final puff took its place in the sky, she reached her arms out in goodbye and blew them each a kiss. Keep each other company, and no matter how far you may roam, I always know you’ll come back home.