Voices of Dragons Carrie VaughnKay is a normal teenager: bored of life in a small town, feeling pressured on the sex/relationship fronts, and quietly rebelling against her parents by doing something that either no one will know, or she’ll die doing it: rock climbing on tthe border with Dragon. There’s only been one period of open hostilities between humans and dragons in living memory: right after World War II, the dragons came out of hiding and they and the humans walloped each other before writing a treaty that gives the Dragons several chunks of land in the far north, humans the rest of the country, an agreement to never cross the border, and no ongoing communication between the two factions. As long as Kay doesn’t cross the border she isn’t breaking any laws, and she doesn’t expect to even see a dragon—they rarely come so close to the border.

But, of course, she does meet a dragon, who’s hanging out by the border for much the same reason she is: adolescent rebellion. The two develop a friendship, but it—and their peaceful lives—are threatened when the U.S.military starts encroaching on Dragon territory.

I found Voices of Dragons to be heavy-handed: about the war, about Kay’s best friend pressuring her to get a boyfriend and get laid, about the friendship between Kay and the dragon, Artegal. It tries so hard, but never quite pulls it off. The escalation of the conflict and changing public support was well done, but the military men behind it are charicatures and the politics and political figures behind them are never seen or explored. It’s refreshing and realistic that a straight, sexually active teenage girl would put pressure on another straight girl to become sexually active and Kay’s hesitant, nervous, and thoughtful approach to a relationship fits, but her thinking on sexual contact beyond kissing is unexpectedly flat and simplistic. In her other major relationship, it takes such great pains to give Kay and Artegal similar motivation and to emphasis the ways in which they are alike that it neglects to give Artegal a distinct personality. The strongest part of the book is definitely the middle; the beginning is slow and the ending resolves almost nothing—without being a clear lead-in to a sequel—but the middle of the book contains a powerful and compelling portrait of grief. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to rescue Voices of Dragons from mediocrity.

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Voices of Dragons ~ Carrie Vaughn ~ Carrie Vaughn’s blog, Filling the Well

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Astrid Llewellyn grew up to her mother’s tales of unicorns; far from fluffy pink ponies with dainty, sparkling horns, Astrid’s mother swears that real unicorns are beasts with razor-sharp teeth and equally sharp, venomous horns, preferring to gore people than to help them. They are vicious hunters, and the only humans who stand a chance against them are themselves hunters: virgin female descendants of Alexander the Great, bestowed by nature, genetics, or possibly magic with superhuman speed, strength, and aim—but only when unicorns are present. Plus, they’re immune to alicorn (unicorn horn) venom.

Naturally, sensible would-be-doctor Astrid doesn’t believe a word and is ashamed of her obsessed and possibly delusional mother.

Also naturally, Astrid’s mother is right. Except for one thing: Astrid’s ancestress did not successfully exterminate the unicorns. After two centuries without any sign of unicorn activity, they’re back, starting with the one who nearly kills Astrid’s jerk of a boyfriend. Astrid is promptly packed off to Rome, where a cloister for the training of hunters is being hurriedly restarted. Astrid doesn’t relish her new role; she chafes at the restrictions, the assumptions that different families of hunters have different unicorn-related specialties, the refusal to let her near any of the unicorn and hunter biology being studied. Still, she doesn’t see herself as having much of a choice, and generally constrains her opposition to sneaking out with her cousin to spend time with their new boyfriends.

The unicorn lore is detailed and consistent, showing signs of careful and loving craft. I do wish some things were a bit more spelled out; I’m sure the author knows what was going on with some surprises toward the end (relating to unicorn healing powers), but it would have been nice if she shared. The plot is well crafted and the pacing is interesting; it moves in fits and starts as life in the real world does, without dragging.

The characters are decidedly less fleshed-out than either the unicorns or the plot. Most of the hunters never develop distinct personalities; factions developed in the cloisters and had fairly messy disputes, but I could never remember who was on which side, who was related to whom, etc., because they were just names, not people. The worst offender is Lilith, Astrid’s mother. Her obsession with unicorns and desire for Astrid to gain glory as a hunter completely overwhelms any other personality traits. Even after a supposed sea-change and revelation, Lilith just keeps beating the same dead horse (er, unicorn?): unicorn hunting should be glamorous and exciting, as a Llewellyn Astrid should be the best of the best. It goes beyond obsession; reading it, I was uncomfortably aware of Lilith as a construct, rather than a person.

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Rampant ~ Diana Peterfreund ~ Dianna Peterfreund’s Blog

Rumors a Luxe Novel Anna GodbersenFollowing on the heals of Godbersen’s delightfully trashy novel The Luxe, Rumors continues the stories of several Manhattan socialites at the very end of the nineteenth century. It is also delightful, decently-written trash.

Sometimes, that is just what I need.

Unlike its predecessor, this volume is a bit scattered. The characters who were so deeply enmeshed in each others’ lives and troubles were pulled apart by the events of the first book, so this time their concerns are less shared and even the social events rarely include the entire cast of main characters. On the other hand, while the villainess remains one-dimensional, it’s rather fun to watch her try to act good, chaste, and well-behaved. Plus, there are pretty things (dresses, accoutrements, people) under discussion, emotional intensity of both good and bad varieties, and Victorian-era snarkiness.

Best of all, she ends it by raising the stakes not once but twice, and bringing those scattered characters back to a more focused point just in time to convince me that yes, I will read the third book.

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Rumors
My review of The Luxe

Wondrous Strange Lesley LivingstonKelley is a seventeen year old redheaded actress, who recently moved from The Sticks to The Big City to try to break into the wide world of theatre. She got herself a job understudying Titania in an off-Broadway production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and, low and behold, the annoying celebrity actress with the role broke an ankle a week and a half before curtain, so it’s up to Kelley to save the show. Of course, Kelley gets herself distracted by a kelpie who follows her home, a handsome stranger who follows her home, and a bunch of revelations about faeries, changelings, Central Park, and her own heritage.

I’m afraid it’s a bit of a jumbled mess. It lacks sufficient emotional connection between the rehearsals for the play and the main plot. Instead of providing a parallel to the plot and illuminating Puck, Oberon, and Titania’s characters, the play mostly serves as Kelley’s day job. It also lacks sufficient emotional connection between the romantic leads. Seriously: no chemistry. He’s into her because she’s hot and she was super-enticing while running lines in the park, not knowing he was watching her. She’s into him because he’s hot and she had a strange, completely unexplained dream during rehearsal. I know they are hormonal teenagers, but still, a reason to care about their romance would be appreciated. Especially as I think we’re supposed to believe it’s the forever kind.

A handful of minor characters distinguish themselves—Puck particularly—but while bit parts can upstage bland leads, they’re hard pressed to rescue an entire production from mediocrity.

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Wondrous Strange ~ Lesley Livingston

Wings Aprilynne PikeAdopted daughter of hippies, super-vegan (anything but fruits and vegetables make her sick), homeschooled for years, looks like a supermodel Laurel is starting at public high school in a new town. It’s not as bad as she expected; though she hates being inside all day and finds it odd to learn at someone else’s pace, she quickly makes friends- even a romantic prospect. Then a strange bump begins to grow on her back, eventually growing into a flower – loosely resembling a pair of wings.¹ A hot young man she meets on a visit back to her family’s old property tells her that she, like he, is a faerie; and science geek romantic prospect helps her figure out what that means.

The characters and, actually, the science are well done. Laurel’s confusion and fear are palpable but not overblown, as is her tentative reaction to possible romance, from more than one direction. David, the science geek, is perhaps unusually mature for a sixteen year old, but he’s so sweet and supportive and earnest that it’s hard not to like him. Tamani, the faerie, is also well-drawn, with his debonair manner only partially covering his doubts and insecurities. The writing is quite strong, with pacing that’s even while still maintaining tension and danger. It doesn’t forget that strange, worrisome things wreak havoc with our everyday lives and schoolwork, or that the start of a romance, especially a first romance, is scary and confusing – and can be made all the more so by strange, worrisome things.

Of course, I also have issues. When do I not?

The focus on Laurel in our world means we don’t get much about faerie culture or society; I wish we got more, so I could decide how strongly I object. The little bit we get makes me nervous:

“Winter faeries are the most powerful of all faeries, and the most rare. Only two or three are produced in an entire generation, often less. Our rulers are always Winter faeries.”²

Tamani hesitated. “I’m just a Spring faerie.”
“Why ‘just’?”
Tamani shrugged. “Spring faeries are the least powerful of all the faeries. That’s why I’m a sentry. Manual labor. I don’t need much magic for that.”³

Either it hints of discrimination, or I’m oversensitive.4 I don’t have a problem with different faeries having different magical abilities, but the implied level to which it determines their role in society and the valuation is less comfortable. I’m also not against showing prejudice and discrimination in books; I just want it acknowledged, dammit.

And then there’s the dramatic conflict. There are trolls! They want to mess up everything for the faeries! They are mean, ugly, and stupid because of evolution, and the faeries are beautiful and intelligent because of evolution. Congratulations, you just fell into the all-too-common sci-fi/fantasy “orcs are bad! elves are good!” trope. This trope has race/racism issues, especially when there’s such blatant blanket statements of physical attractiveness; it’s also just a really boring excuse for a conflict.

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¹It really is a flower, not wings; in this mythology, faeries can’t fly. Which, of course, begs the question: if there are no wings involved, why is the title Wings?
²P. 147.
³Pp. 148-9.
4Or both!

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Wings ~ Aprilynne Pike

The LuxeThe Luxe is Gossip Girl set in 1899, right down to the commentary from the newspapers’ society columns.

It’s actually well enough written to be an enjoyable read, spiced up by descriptions of pretty dresses (I will admit it: I’m a sucker for a good ballgown) and some hot scenes. Moreover, I was surprised by the end to discover that I actually cared about some of the characters. This was a long time coming; at the beginning, they’re all pretty despicable. While they’re still deeply, deeply flawed, for the most part the heroes and heroines spend the book developing a better balance between their needs and wants and the needs and wants of other people – which sometimes means paying less attention to their own immediate wants, and sometimes more. The villainesses, however, remain one-dimensional throughout, and I’m really hoping they get their comeuppance in the sequels. Because yes, there are sequels, and yes, I totally have to read them.

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The Luxe ~ Official Site

The ExplosionistIn a world where Wellington, not Napoleon, met his Waterloo at, well, Waterloo, it’s 1938 and the world is on the brink of war: a united Europe, complete with a conquered England, is being held barely in check by a Hanseatic League (Russia, the Scandinavian countries, and our setting, Scotland). Radios regularly pick up messages from the spirit world, and important members of government attend seances on a regular basis.

Fifteen-year-old Sophie is studying for exams, thinking about her crush on her chem teacher, trying to ignore suicide bombings, and worrying about her and her friends’ futures: university, the Army Ladies’ Auxiliary – which does allow women to serve in combat – or IRYLNS, the Institute for the Recruitment of Young Ladies for National Security, which supplies the important men of with secretaries and assistants of extraordinary caliber.

When a medium at a seance has a message for Sophie, her life quickly spirals out of control as she finds herself investigating a murder, something suspicious about IRYLNS, and possibly the roots of the terrorism plaguing Edinburgh. Unfortunately, the narrative also spins out of control; though the world is well-developed and interesting, the plot seems rather listless, jumping from one point to another. There aren’t major holes, it just feels discontinuous and unrooted. Sophie is a disappointment; she makes some efforts to influence her future and the world around her, but is frustratingly placid when her efforts fail and when choice is entirely taken away from her.

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The Explosionist ~ Jenny Davidson