Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Clearly I’m on a YA fantasy role here with reviews… Sometimes I get so thoroughly immersed in a genre it can be hard to pull myself out to switch to something else, something new and different. As I get to the end of a genre jaunt, however, my reviews tend to become a bit skewed, so take them all with a grain of salt.

Synopsis

Mare Barrow’s world is divided by blood – those with common Red blood serve the Silver-blooded elite, who are gifted with superhuman abilities. Mare is a Red, scraping by as a thief in a poor, rural village, until a twist of fate throws her in front of the Silver court.

Before the king, princes, and all the nobles, she discovers she has an ability of her own. To cover up this impossibility, the king forces her to play the role of a lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his sons. As Mare is drawn further into the Silver world, she risks everything and uses her new position to help the Scarlet Guard, a growing Red rebellion, even as her heart tugs her in an impossible direction. One wrong move can lead to her death, but in the dangerous game she plays, the only certainty is betrayal.

Review

Red Queen is part of a long line of YA fantasy books that have been written in the last five years or so to feature varying takes on power and poverty, haves and have-nots, and each primarily female author’s take on a strong, feminist, protagonist. The books that stand out are those that are spectacularly good or spectacularly bad. Red Queen is neither.

It is an enjoyable book with a serviceable plot and intriguing characters. Were it published at a different time, I would call it unique and original. However, it came out halfway through the present YA fantasy boom and the influence of previous works is evident in Aveyard’s storytelling. Similarities to GracelingThe Hunger GamesThrone of Glass and Shadow and Bone are easy to pick out if you are as well versed in the world of YA fantasy as most of Aveyard’s target readers.

The writing is decent, the twists and turns of the plot and the effort into world building that Aveyard puts forth are not missed, this review would be much more scathing if Red Queen lacked in any of these areas, but it doesn’t have the ineffable “stand-out quality” that makes me remember years down the road, makes me anxiously await the next book in the series. Red Queen is at it’s best, another decent YA fantasy debut, and at it’s worst, another YA fantasy.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780062310644 • 416 pages • first published in February 2015, this edition published June 2016 by Harper Teen • average Goodreads rating 4.08 out of 5 • read in May 2016

Victoria Aveyard’s Website

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Red Queen

 

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Time for another beauty by Renee Ahdieh! She is quickly becoming oNE of my favorite authors and when the ARC  (advanced reader copy) of Flame in the Mist came into the store, my coworkers were nice enough to make sure it wound up in my hands!

Synopsis

There was only ever one expectation for Mariko, a prominent samurai’s daughter: that she would marry. Her twin brother was the one trained in the way of the warrior while Mariko was left to nurture her love of science and invention in secret. But on her way to the imperial city, where she was to meet her betrothed for the very first time, her convoy is attacked and everything changes. The assassins kill everyone – or so they think. Despite almost being burned alive, Mariko escapes.

Driven by vengeance, she flees the forest and seeks out her would-be assassins, the Black Clan, joining their ranks disguised as a peasant boy. She’s determined to discover who ordered her death and why – and to make them pay. Little does she expect to fall in love. And never did she expect to have to choose between them and everything she’s ever known. But when the secrets of the imperial city, the Black Clan, and her family converge, choose is exactly what she must do.

Review

Firstly, YAY GIRL POWER! Reading a new book by Renee Ahdieh reminds me just how much I really do love her first duology, The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger. I had been holding off on reading Flame in the Mist until I was going on vacation because I knew once I got to the really good and juicy parts about halfway in, I wouldn’t be able to put it down – and I certainly did not want anything to interfere with my ability to read it straight through!

As with my review of Wrath and Dawn last week, I marvel over Renee Ahdieh’s storytelling. She creates such compelling characters and intricate plot lines that I love to sink my teeth into. She also has been some of the wittiest protagonists I have ever read to date. Her female protagonists are feminists – proud and fierce but still have their weaknesses and flaws. Her love interests for said feminist protagonists remind me of a certain male in A Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy in the sense that they are loyal to their women and encouraging them be themselves 100%.

But back to Flame in the Mist specifically – I love the take on Japanese mythology (it is not at all based on Mulan, whatever rumors you may hear) and how Renee Ahdieh twists in a bit of Robin Hood lore as well (whether it is purposeful or coincidence I’m not sure, but I love it!). Mariko is a protagonist to be admired as well, and Ahdieh’s now trademark style of romance is still swoon-worthy, even for the most callused and cold-hearted of readers. I recommend it thoroughly and I cannot wait for the second book in the duology next May!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $17.99 • 9780399171635 • 416 pages • published May 2017 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.03 out of 5 stars • read in August 2017

Renee Ahdieh’s Website

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Flame in the Mist

 

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

It’s been nearly two years since I read my first Leigh Bardugo book, Shadow & Bone, and was introduced to the Grishaverse. I enjoyed it greatly, but when I was reading it, everyone was talking about her newest book, Six of Crows, and how spectacular it was going to be. Well, two years later, I finally made it to Six of Crows on my lengthy TBR (to-be-read) list and I’m so happy I did because… 

Leigh Bardugo

I got to meet Leigh Bardugo! And I completely flipped out. It happened, I was sooooo excited! I promised myself I wasn’t going to freak out, but as soon as I realized there was a chance it might happen, I started freaking out. And I’m just so glad that Six of Crows lived up to the expectations I had for it.

Synopsis

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price – and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge; a sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager; a runaway with a privileged past; a spy known as the Wraith; a Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums; a thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction – if they don’t kill each other first.

Review

If Wonder Woman: Warbringer was a disappointment to me, Six of Crows is a redemption. I have now read three Leigh Bardugo books, Shadow and Bone, her first (review to come in a few weeks) novel and the first in the Grishaverse, Wonder Woman: Warbringer, and now Six of Crows, also set in the Grishaverse established in Shadow and Bone. And I know I read the second two a bit backwards (Wonder Woman isn’t even available to the general public yet), so it was incredibly refreshing to return to a world of Leigh’s own creation.

Leigh Bardugo’s writing is funny, insightful and full of surprising little twists that make every page fly by. Her characters are rich and well developed with enough backstory and interesting plot lines to make any of them seem like the main character. Told in 5 alternating perspectives – I can’t wait to find out her reasoning for excluding on of the 6 from having POV chapters – each chapter leaves you wanting more. Additionally, each of the characters’ motivations for participating in the heist are clear and they make a very dynamic group of players.

The plot is complicated, but not to the point that it becomes difficult to follow. It is easy to track and remember what is going on, even if you have to step away from the world of Leigh has created for a few hours. It ends with a mix of conclusion and cliffhanger – I cannot wait to start reading Crooked Kingdom!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $18.99 • 9781627792127 • 480 pages • published September 2015 by Henry Holt & Company • average Goodreads rating 4.46 out of 5 • read in August 2017

Leigh Bardugo’s Website

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Six of Crows

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson

If I had to pick a favorite genre of of the past year, it would be Young Adult Fantasy. It is the genre I go to when I just want something to read that will keep me occupied and be a fun and enjoyable read. Lately I’ve strayed more towards (auto)biographies, but YA Fantasy will always hold a special place in my heart. As such, I am aware of all the major series, and when Mary E. Pearson visited the bookstore I work at, I knew it was time to pick up her books!

Synopsis

In a society steeped in tradition, Princess Lia’s life follows a preordained course. As First Daughter, she is expected to have the revered gift of sight but she doesn’t and she knows her parents are perpetrating a sham when they arrange her marriage to secure an alliance with a neighboring kingdom to a prince she has never met. On the morning of her wedding, Lia flees to a distant village. She settles into a new life, hopeful when two mysterious and handsome strangers arrive and unaware that one is the jilted prince and the other an assassin sent to kill her. Deception abounds, and Lia finds herself on the brink of unlocking perilous secrets even as she finds herself falling in love.

Review

I am over tropes. I am over love triangles. I’m over stereotypes. I’m over weakass female protagonists. And I’m over high school drama repackaged as YA fantasy. Why do I say all of this? I bet you’re thinking that I’m listing the things I’m over because The Kiss of Deception checks all those boxes. Yes and no.

I love a lot of YA fantasy – GracelingThrone of GlassShadow and BoneSeraphina (all of which are forthcoming reviews!) – the list goes on and on. But I detest most YA realistic fiction. It’s not an assessment of the genre, simply my opinion – I didn’t like it when I was in high school, I don’t particularly care for it now. Half of the reason I love fantasy is the chance to escape to a place of magical creatures and alternate realities. The other half is for the characters – they are usually pretty spectacular and make for some great role models.

What does all of this have to do with this particular book? When Mary Pearson visited the bookstore I work at, she was part of a panel and asked questions about all sorts of things involved in the writing of great YA fantasy. And her answers? Spot on – exactly what I was excited to hear. The reality of her writing? Eh, not so much. So this is less of a review and more of a rant, but if you are looking for a book that crosses over between realistic YA and YA fantasy, this is the book for you. If that’s not your cup of tea, it’s one of the books on a long list of YA fantasy that you can feel free to skip.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9781250063151 • 512 pages • originally published July 2014, this edition published in June 2015 by Squarefish • average Goodreads rating 4.06 out of 5 • read in August 2016

Mary E. Person’s Website

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Remnant Chronicles

 

Classics, Fiction, Mystery

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Just like A Study in ScarletMurder on the Orient Express was one of the Modern Readers’ Magical Mystery Tour books from last summer. Every since I saw The Mousetrap, one of Agatha Christie’s plays, and watched the Doctor Who episode that includes Agatha as part of the storyline, I’ve wanted to read one of her famed mysteries.

Synopsis

Just after midnight, a snowdrift stopped the Orient Express in its tracks. The luxurious train was surprising full for the time of the year. But by the morning there was one passenger fewer. A passenger lay dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside.

Review

For years I wondered why Agatha Christie had such an appeal, until my father-in-law gave my husband and I tickets to see the stage production The Mousetrap in Philadelphia one weekend. And I now know why she is the queen of mystery writing. Her plot and pacing are superb – it is easy enough to follow along, the writing in her books and the dialogue in the play made you feel like you were in the hotel/on the train with the inspector as they attempt to solve the mystery.

Christie reveals enough details and suspicious that the reader can attempt to solve the mystery themselves, but she also allows for enough wiggle room for you to eventually be surprised by the final twist without feeling completely blindsided. While I have not been a mystery reader for a terribly long time (this could probably be considered my first true mystery novel, save for a Patterson novel I read shortly after college), I have quickly come to appreciate the differences in storytelling required for a good mystery versus a good novel.

Suspense is key, but in moderation. If the crime is committed at the start, then there should be enough background build up for each character that it doesn’t feel procedural. If crimes are continuing to be committed, it should feel like at least one character’s life is still under threat.

After reading Murder on the Orient Express, I immediately went out and purchased more Agatha Christie books – they make for a delightful, quick, beach or summer read and I have enjoyed them immensely.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9780062072495 • 265 pages • originally published in 1934, this edition published January 2011 by Harper Paperbacks • average Goodreads rating 4.15 out of 5 • read in June 2016

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Murder on the Orient Express

 

Classics, Fiction, Mystery

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Last summer, my book club, the Modern Readers, decided to go on a magical mystery tour, reading one contemporary, one Agatha Christie and one Sherlock Holmes mystery. We had a heck of a lot of fun and we will definitely do it again at some point!

Synopsis

Though endlessly reinterpreted, reinvented, and imitated, the Sherlock Holmes stories have never been surpassed. Sporting his signature billowing coat and pipe in hand, the genius investigator Holmes captivates readers with his alluring melancholy and superhuman intuition, while his partner, Dr. Watson, remains ever the perfect foil, a classic Victorian gentleman with brilliant intellect. Set in the seductive world of Victorian London, the stories of Holmes and Watson live on, as immediate and original in our time as in their own.

Review

When the Modern Readers decided to embark on a Magical Mystery Tour of a summer, we thought that we’d be ending the summer with what would be our favorite of the lot. We all loved the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. movies, we were a 50/50 split on the Cumberbatch mini series, but we figured that the source material would have to be great to inspire so many revisits and retellings.

But it wasn’t. And we all agreed that it wasn’t what we anticipated, it didn’t live up to our lofty expectations for it. We concluded that a good mystery lets you hypothesize, come to your own conclusion before the “big reveal!” Mystery writing, for all its nuances, really is formulaic – and it needs to be for a reader to fully engage in what they’re reading. Sir Arthur’s Sherlock doesn’t even attempt to let you try to solve the mystery with him. You’re given all the facts, not potential suspects, and then an extremely complicated backstory that even the great and wonderful Sherlock should never have been able to deduce as a means of explaining why the perpetrator did what they did.

There was no following along, no reasonable ability to follow Sherlock’s thought pattern. While this is understandably Sherlock’s MO, which we all knew going in as somewhat respectable Sherlockian aficionados, but in film and television, it’s easier to suspend believability and reality.

Rating: 5 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.00 • 9780140439083 • 192 pages • originally published in 1886, this edition published October 2001 by Penguin Books • average Goodreads rating 4.15 out of 5 • read in August 2016

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Sherlock Holmes

 

Fiction, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Legend by Marie Lu

In May of 2015 I traveled to NYC for my first BookCon, and what an experience it was – completely overwhelming, but wonderful as well. My favorite part of the experience, was a panel with Marie Lu, Sabaa Tahir and Renee Ahdieh and I told myself I would read all of their books! I started with Marie Lu’s Young Elites series, and when I found out she would be coming to the bookstore I work at in September, I figured I should read Legend as well!

Synopsis

What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic’s wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country’s most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.

From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths – until the day June’s brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family’s survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias’s death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.

Review

Marie Lu is a fabulous writer. And while not my personal favorite (Sarah J. Maas is), she is my favorite author to share with others. I love recommending her books to people because she has such wide appeal. Boys, girls, lovers of fantasy, science fiction, survival fiction (a la The Hunger Games), there is something in her books for everyone. Her writing is accessible to middle grade through adult readers. As a former middle school teacher, I understand the struggle that arises when trying to find books for 12 year olds that are challenging enough, but also appropriate to their maturity level. Marie Lu is one of very few authors that write about older teenagers in a way that doesn’t make parents of middle schoolers cringe.

In regards to Legend, I love how Marie Lu portrays her characters – June as a rule following member of the military, and Day as a kind-hearted fugitive. As their paths intersect, they both grow and evolve as characters, given the effect that each has on the other’s sense of responsibility and loyalty. Told in alternating perspective chapters, readers get to know both June and Day equally well and both are so intriguing that the balance is near perfect – you don’t want to skip either character’s chapters to get to the other’s.

I have been asked by customers at the store if Legend is too much like The Hunger Games or Divergent and while I mention that they are considered to be part off the same dystopian genre, there is a uniqueness to the diversity of characters that Marie Lu includes, as well as the story telling – in my opinion, she is a better writer than the authors of The Hunger Games and Divergent and therefore a better selection for young readers and budding writers.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780142422076 • 305 pages • originally published November 2011, this edition published April 2013 by Speak • average Goodreads rating 4.19 out of 5 • read in October 2016

Marie Lu’s Website

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Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

As a lover of WWII historical fiction, I had heard that Between Shades of Gray would most likely be a book I would enjoy. When I happened to find it by chance at a used bookstore in Center City Philadelphia, I knew I needed to get it. After meeting Ruta Sepetys back in January of 2016, I was even more excited to read it!

Synopsis

A knock comes at the door in the dead of night, and Lina’s life changes in an instant. With her young brother and mother, she is hauled away by the Soviet secret police from her home in Lithuania and thrown into a cattle car en route to Siberia. Separated from her father, Lina secretly passes along clues in the form of drawings, hoping they will reach his prison camp. But will her letters, or her courage, be enough to reunite her family? Will they be enough to keep her alive?

Review

First, I read Salt to the Sea (review to come later), in a day and a half – for a slow reader like myself, that was quite speedy. Then, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I couldn’t stop thinking about Ruta’s storytelling and gnawing, sinking feeling I felt while reading, knowing the MV Wilhelm Gustloff’s fate. And I realized that any writer who can tell a story that I cannot forget must be amazing, so it was time to read Between Shades of Gray.

Ruta turned her magic storytelling to a topic near and dear to her heart – the plight of Lithuanian refugees. The daughter of a Lithuanian refugee who spent years in refugee camps after suffering horrors during the war, she has a unique perspective on a war story not often told. She made the world of the Soviet gulags so real. The absolutely terrifying world of Siberia and the horrors of what the Soviets did to their prisoners. To women and children. I cried. I bawled my eyes out.

Not only to I love Ruta Sepetys’ storytelling. But, I also love how open and welcoming Ruta herself is. I had the opportunity to meet her again last month and when I ran into her outside of her autographing session, I asked her kindly if she had a quick moment. She said yes, and I proceeded to tell her how much not only I love her books, but my sister, Laura, does as well. She was exceptionally sweet and asked if Laura was with me. I said, alas she was not, but would love to have been able to come. Ruta then asked if she could send Laura a message, so I went digging for a notebook, and she said she wanted to send her a video! The result is below.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780142420591 • 352 pages • originally published March 2011, this edition published April 2012 by Speak • average Goodreads rating 4.35 out of 5 • read in October 2016

Ruta Sepetys’ Website

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Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Screenplay

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J. K. Rowling

I have loved the Harry Potter world since I was in 5th grade and one of my friends brought in the first book of the series and asked our teacher to read it. When Cursed Child was announced as a published stage play, I couldn’t wait – especially for the format – I’d written so many plays, I wanted to see one professionally published. Alas, I was disappointed, but that review will come later. I still had hope, though, and was very pleasantly pleased by the script for Fantastic Beasts!

Synopsis

When Magizoologist Newt Scamander arrives in New York, he intends his stay to be just a brief stopover. However, when his magical case is misplaced and some of Newt’s fantastic beasts escape, it spells trouble for everyone…

Inspired by the original Hogwarts textbook by Newt Scamander, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay marks the screenwriting debut of J.K. Rowling, author of the beloved and internationally bestselling Harry Potter books. A feat of imagination and showcasing a cast of remarkable characters, this is epic, adventure-packed storytelling at its very best. Whether an existing fan or new to the wizarding world, this is a perfect addition to any film lover’s or reader’s bookshelf.

Review

There are certain things to consider when sitting down to “read” a screenplay, the first being the fact that it is not particularly intended to be read – it is meant to be seen and experienced beyond the page. Second, reading a screenplay requires understanding that the format is different than that of a novel – it is primarily dialogue and stage directions.

One of the things that I love about stage- and screenplays is the opportunity to interpret so much more than what is on the page in one’s imagination. To read about the fantastical beasts before seeing the movie meant that I got to picture all of them in my head. Beyond the magic coming to life, the characters are very well developed, the thought and care that J. K. Rowling put into Newt’s backstory is evident – I have to imagine she’d been mulling over the story since she first started writing the Harry Potter series, or at least since Prisoner of Azkaban.

I loved the setting – I’m a sucker for a good Roaring Twenties story, and I’d always wondered what the magical world of the United States was like compared to the British world in the original 7 books. I highly recommend it, for anyone who loves Harry Potter, or just magical adventures set in the recent past.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Edition: Hardcover • $24.99 • 9781338109061 • 304 pages • published November 2016 by Arthur A. Levine Books • average Goodreads rating 4.22 out of 5 • read in November 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Website

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Fantastic Beasts

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Two years ago I attended BookCon in NYC and I’m so excited to be going back for the booksellers part, BookExpo, in just two short weeks! When I attended back in 2015, I attended a panel on which Marie Lu, Renee Ahdieh and Sabaa Tahir discussed the need for diverse books and I decided there and then that I needed to read at least one book by each of them. An Ember in the Ashes was the first I purchased, but the last I read, because for some reason, I couldn’t get into reading it, but, the audiobook really changed my impression of Sabaa Tahir’s storytelling.

Synopsis

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier – and secretly, it’s most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined – and that their choice will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Review

At the bookstore, I’ve become sort of the go-to YA fantasy expert, but I haven’t had the heart to tell all of my little “book-groupies” (as my coworkers call them) that my heart hasn’t really been in the genre lately and that half the recommendations I’ve been giving them are books that I haven’t actually read yet. An Ember in the Ashes was one of those books – one I had heard very good things about, but had not actually managed to read.

And to be honest, it took me three tries before I really found myself enthralled by the story. The first to times were “traditional” reading attempts, and thankfully, I still persisted after those two failed and I checked the audiobook out of my local library and, thankfully, was instantly hooked. So this review is equal parts story review and audiobook reader review.

As a story, Sabaa Tahir weaves together two characters from completely different worlds, making their paths cross occasionally, but without unnecessarily intersecting – a real challenge of writing in multiple perspectives. Laia and Elias’ stories join at important plot points, but without complicating the timeline or narrative. Both are strong narrators on their own which means that while one character is narrating, the reader/listener is fully immersed in that part of the story, not anxiously reading through to get to the other narrator, as is wont to happen in some multiple perspective plots. The two readers also do an exceptional job of conveying the urgency and emotion felt by both Laia and Elias in their individual and joint circumstances.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $11.99 • 9781595148049 • 480 pages • originally published April 2015, this edition published February 2016 by Razorbill • average Goodreads rating 4.32 out of 5 • read in March 2017

Sabaa Tahir’s Website

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An Ember in the Ashes