Mo Wren has everything she needs, right on Fox Street, where she lives with her father, her little sister, and the memory of her mother. Except girls to play with; during the school year, Fox Street has decidedly few girls. Luckily, it’s summer, and that means Mercedes is back, staying with her grandmother. This summer, though, something is different. After a year living with her mother’s new, well-to-do husband, Mercedes now notices the shabbiness of Fox Street, its chipping paint and litter. And the lady with the roses, who terrifies all the kids, is being unexpectedly nice to Mercedes, and that after a lifetime of snubbing Mercedes’s grandmother because she’s black. And then there are the strange letters from a lawyer.

It’s a bit predictable, but lovely anyway. Mo is a great, well-drawn character and an entertaining narrator. Realistically, she’s extremely observant about some things, and completely in denial about other things. Fox Street is lovingly portrayed, its community close-knit but certainly not perfect. Mo’s grief for her mother is apparent but not overdone, likewise Mercedes’s confusion and conflicted loyalties and Mo’s sister’s need for attention and approval. It’s a simple, honest, and enjoyable book.

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What Happened On Fox Street ~ Tricia Springstubb ~ Tricia Springstubb’s Blog

The Exiled Queen The Seven Realms, Book Two

This review does not contain spoilers for The Exiled Queen, but it does contain spoilers for the first book in the series, The Demon King.

None of our heroes are welcome at home anymore. Princess Raisa is running from an arranged, unwanted, and illegal marriage, and Amon is trying to keep her safe. Fire Dancer and Han, newly aware of their wizard heritage, are no longer welcome in the camps of the tribes, their childhood home/refuge. Both pairs set off for Oden’s Ford, a university city unaffiliated with any of the Seven Realms, and therefore free of the civil wars and ethnic strife plaguing the area. As our villains, Micah and Fiona Bayar, are also young wizards, it’s hardly surprising that they appear in class with Fire Dancer and Han. All the important people from the Fells—all the important people of the rising generation—are assembled.

In Oden’s Ford—or rather, in the Dreamworld that Han learns to access—Han meets Crow, a mysterious stranger who refuses to divulge his identity but offers to teach Han advanced magic he won’t learn at the school—fairly nasty magic, truth be told. It’s pretty clearly a bad idea, but Han is eager to prove himself as a magician, eager to gain power, and extra-eager to protect himself from Micah and Fiona Bayar. Plus, Crow is going to be important in later books. We don’t know how, yet, but he will be. Meanwhile, Raisa—known as Rebecca Morley, her classmate unaware of her royal status—is learning military strategy and other useful royal skills, plus some of the unfortunate practicalities of life as a Grey Wolf Queen and Amon and Dancer are each trying to figure out how they can live their lives and be happy, after something important to them has been taken away.

It’s almost 600 pages of character development, and it’s damn good. The writing is excellent, it moves along at a good clip, everyone is interesting and human and, well, developing. The politics and interpersonal relations started in the first book continue to expand in interesting and promising ways. So far, I’m really enjoying this series.

September 2010

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The Exiled Queen ~ Cinda Williams Chima
My review of Book One, The Demon King

Louisa Cosgrove is unusual for a Victorian young woman: passionate about science, aspiring to become one of the first generation of female doctors, and far more interested in her cousin Grace than in any young man she’s ever met. Her name isn’t Lucy Childs and she isn’t insane. And yet, she finds herself taken to an insane asylum, where the apathetic doctor and sadistic matron insist that she is Lucy Childs, and that her instance that she is Louisa Cosgrove is a symptom of her insanity. The only consolation is Eliza, a kind, smiling, pretty young woman who works in the asylum.

It’s a sweet, romantic little book. Louisa’s emotions are realistically raw and painful; her early unfounded hope and her growing sense of betrayal as she realizes that she is not in the asylum through sheer accident are particularly difficult. Eliza’s gentle raising of Louisa’s spirits and energy following a further catastrophe goes slowly but with a sense of the inevitable. Both Louisa’s early passionate crush on Grace and her more mature and balanced esteem for Eliza ring true.

Wildthorn gave me less of a feel for Victorian England than I would have liked. Rather than feeling grounded in its period, it felt like a struggle between twenty-first century mores and late-nineteenth century ones. Though Louisa’s indulgent father is presented as an explanation for her freethinking ways, the ease with which Louisa casts off Victorian ideals is stunning, and though Eliza is in many ways more of a realist and more aware of the difficulties they face, her casual and open acknowledgment of lesbianism makes her a bit too obviously an angel dropped into Louisa’s life to rescue her. The supporting characters, though far less sympathetic than the romantic leads, have more depth and more awareness of the time, and the ending is surprisingly pragmatic—though happy, it resists the urge to become utopian.

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Wildthorn

The Agency Book 1: A Spy in the House A Mary Quinn MysteryThe Agency, Book 1, A Mary Quinn Mystery1

At age twelve, Mary Lang is convicted of housebreaking and sentenced to hang. This is Victorian London; she would hardly be the first nor the last orphan to meet such a fate. Instead, she is abducted on her way to the gallows and brought to the Academy, a school for girls that trains its pupils, many of them charity cases, in the usual subjects and a bonus in ambition and independent thought. Five years later, Mary—now Quinn, having reverted to her mother’s maiden name—is restless, unhappy with any of the traditional feminine options. Her mentors at the Academy provide an unexpected one: to join the Agency, an organization of female spies who take advantage of the general populace’s tendency to overlook and underestimate women. Soon, Mary is undercover in a wealthy merchant’s house, the secondary agent on a case of smuggled South Asian artifacts.

It’s exceedingly fun. The writing is smooth and engaging. Mary is a compelling heroine; accomplished, gutsy, and likable, but also fallible and liable to act on a whim. The case itself doesn’t stand out, but it’s certainly serviceable. The depth of the book comes from the social realities it portrays, from the negotiations and investigations behind society marriages to the limited livelihoods available to widows. The capricious debutante, the invalid mother, and the businessman father aren’t as simple as their tropes imply—and in keeping with the book’s theme, the women are particularly interesting, and particularly underappreciated by the men in their lives. Racism and the lives of Asian sailors in Victorian London are painted with accurately but without sensationalizing, and not only from the majority point of view. The potential romance is fine; didn’t really do much for me, but didn’t detract from the story or frustrate me. It make total sense that these two characters would have the hots for each other and it doesn’t take over the story.

The ending is frustrating, though in ways which are hard to discuss in a spoiler-free way. Suffice it to say Mary does something daft for the sole reason that this will let the author jerk us, and her, around at the end by denying us, and her, shiny knowledge. Which she does. I suspect this knowledge will come out in a future book, but if there’s a way for her to do so without it being an annoying deus ex machina, I don’t see it. Hopefully she has better plot-vision than I do, eh?

We’ll find out, because this book was highly entertaining and I’ll be on the lookout for the second book (coming in August!)

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1Yes, it says both of these on the cover. How many names does a series need?

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A Spy in the House ~ Y.S. Lee

Foundling Monster Blood Tattoo Book 1 D M CornishMonster Blood Tattoo, Book 1

Rossamünd was abandoned as an infant and grew up in a foundlingery, never an easy place but worse for a rather small boy saddled with a name more commonly associated with girls. Nonetheless, he’s been looked after carefully by a dormitory master and a parlor maid, and he’s made it through twelve years or so at the foundlingery with his sweetness and innocence intact, ready to be hired away—preferably by the navy—and live his life in the wide, monster-infested world. Maybe, if he’s brave enough, he’ll even earn a monster-blood tattoo, inked with the blood of a monster he’s slain. Instead, he’s hired to be a Lamplighter.

Rossamünd is a bit of an idiot—among other things, he thinks being a Lamplighter sounds unexciting, despite the fact that his almanac shows the relevant road to cut through sparsely-inhabited, and therefore likely monstrous, territory—so he finds his first and second adventures on his journey to the Lamplighters’ headquarters, and those adventures make up this volume. It also hints on several occasions after something strange about Rossamünd, but though the details remain unclear, it’s entirely too easy to guess the outline but never properly revealed in this book.

Despite these frustrations, it’s an enjoyable book. The world is incredibly detailed—the area in which the entire book takes place is only a very tiny portion of the full map included in the frontmatter, and there are about a hundred pages of glossary in the back—and generally interesting, complete with magic/technology riddled with limitations and side effects, a wide variety of monsters—in temperament and intelligence as well as in physicality. Rossamünd is sweet and has a decided capacity to learn, so by the end of the book he’s much less naive and daft than he started. It’s slow-paced, but aside from the ending—which comes forty pages or so too late—that’s not problematic; their world is slow-paced in such a way that the pace and the language really fits.

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Foundling ~ Monster Blood Tattoo

The Shifter Janice Hardy The Healing Wars, Book 1

Nya lives in an occupied city-state, struggling with odd jobs to make ends meet and trying to avoid the occupying soldiers. Her sister, Tali, is managing it easier; there are always jobs at the Healer’s League for a powerful Healer, gifted with the ability to both heal and draw pain from people and transfer it into unobtainium painium pynvium, a mineral valued for its capacity to store pain—and to release it again as a weapon. Nya is differently gifted; she can heal and draw pain, but she can’t dump the pain into pynvium; she can only transfer it to another person. Unfortunately, pynvium is a nonrenewable resource—it gets filled, it gets used as a weapon, it’s useless—and the cause of the wars that led to the occupation of Nya’s home and deaths of her Sorcerer father and Healer mother and grandmother. Now, as before the war, Healer apprentices are disappearing and there are rumors that the Luminary, the head of the Healer’s League, is looking for unusual variants on Healing abilities. When a well-dressed man starts following Nya and her sister joins the ranks of missing apprentices, Nya must break into the League, figure out what’s going on, and save Tali.

It’s really quite good. The world-building is solid and convincingly shades in an outside world while only really exploring Nya’s small corner of it.1 The darker side of healing—all healing; even typical healers experience the pain they draw before they can dump it into pynvium—and economics of pynvium as both medicine and weapon are interesting, even if the Healers’ grasp of triage and scarcity are a bit underdeveloped.2 The characters have distinct personalities with a balance of lighthearted and serious traits and they respond realistically to their shifting situations and the stresses on their society. Life is not easy for any of the characters, and they deal as individuals with the conflict between friendship and loyalty on the one hand, the drive to do what’s best for themselves on the other. Nya’s powers add an extra, difficult layer to the ethical issues she must navigate, and those powers—or at least, her knowledge of them—develop in interesting ways that fit seamlessly into the pattern of the world.

The U.K. title is The Pain Merchants. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: why do the U.K. and Australia get better titles than we do? (Except The Golden Compass, which is a better title than Northern Lights and, y’know, actually fits the His Dark Materials trilogy title.)

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1 Which seems to be in the southern hemisphere—unusual enough to be noteworthy and pretty cool. Nya’s home is in a sufficiently warm climate that she has never seen ice or snow; she only knows about it from her grandmother’s stories of their ancestors’ mountain homeland. When she thinks about leaving her city, she thinks about going south/toward the mountains. Yes, it’s possible that the mountains get snow just because they’re tall and are actually closer to the equator, but a southern hemisphere setting seems more likely.

2 Your main healing tool is a nonrenewable resource, scarcity of which is causing wars. Do you a) stop using it; b) use it to treat serious, life-threatening ailments but let minor bruises and cuts heal themselves; or c) bring all your patients back to full health, including minor bruises and cuts, even if it means not being able to treat as many patients? I see b) as a clear, sensible answer; apparently they think c) is a better idea.

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The Shifter ~ Janice Hardy

Magic Under Glass Corrected New Cover by Jaclyn DolamoreNim—Nimira—is a Trouser Girl, a dark-skinned singer and dancer from Tianshen—valued in Lorinar for little more than willingness to traipse around on stage in pants, traditional for women in her culture but exotic and erotic in a land of corsets and petticoats. During the day she scoffs at her fellow performers for their dreams of wealthy, handsome man whisking them from the grimy music halls and into high society, but when a well-to-do and attractive sorcerer offers her a high-paying job, she takes the chance. Even if the job involves singing with a piano-playing automaton and several singers have already quite, swearing that the clockwork man is haunted. Determined to stick it out, Nim doesn’t run when the automaton starts to moan; instead, she pays attention and they manage to communicate. He is, of course, a fairy who has been trapped in the automaton for thirty years (though, only really having consciousness when wound, for him it seems far less), and his very existence is threatened by a ranking member of the Sorcerer’s Council.

Magic Under Glass deals admirably with both racism and sexism; mostly this is apparent in characters’ reactions to Nim, but a potent mixture or racism and nationalism is also found in their views towards fairies and the nearby fairy country. Most impressively, this racially-tinged nationalism is seen even in characters who are not villains, while not being portrayed as acceptable; it condemns the anti-fairy sentiment while acknowledging that well-intentioned, kind-hearted people can say and believe things that make us cringe.

There are some interesting twists, especially in the limitations of magic, but there’s also a Jane Eyre parallel that falls rather flat. The portrayals of romance in the book are likewise mixed. The central romance, that between Nim and the man in the man in the automaton, is predictable and and its lack of development becomes problematic late in the story, when their circumstances shift and their emotions fail to respond. On the other hand, there are the visible remnants of a relationship that clearly was, at one point, deeply loving, but has realistically altered and shifted into something entirely different as the people and situations changed; an unrequited romantic interest—clear and hopeful, hesitant and uncreepy—further adds complexity and nuance.

The conclusion certainly paves the way for the forthcoming sequel, but it is a conclusion and not a cliffhanger or abrupt cut-off.

Magic Under Glass has strengths that far outweigh its weaknesses. Dolamore has pretty serious potential, and I’m rather intrigued by this sentence on her website: “My next book, Between The Sea And Sky, is about a mermaid and a winged dude. There is, of course, a love story and angst, and the vibe I was going for is Jane Austen meets Miyazaki.”

Jane Austen meets Miyazaki, from a writer who clearly has promise? I’m in.

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Magic Under Glass ~ Jaclyn Dolamore