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Book Review | The Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros

From the publisher: Twenty-year-old Violet Sorrengail was supposed to enter the Scribe Quadrant, living a quiet life among books and history. Now, the commanding general—also known as her tough-as-talons mother—has ordered Violet to join the hundreds of candidates striving to become the elite of Navarre: dragon riders. But when you’re smaller than everyone else and your body is brittle, death is only a heartbeat away…because dragons don’t bond to “fragile” humans. They incinerate them.

Fair to say I’m not the #BookTok demo — for my taste, tropes are bugs, not features, books older than five years are a-okay, and I’m not being sponsored to promote Barnes & Noble. And then we have to consider the genre’s favorite trope: the spicy scene, which, in my experience, few authors know how to actually write in a way that doesn’t rely on repetitious language encounter after encounter. In other words, the whole phenomenon seems fundamentally limiting from a reading perspective, located within some venn diagram nexus of fantasy, young adult, and lightly erotic rom (plus maybe some com). That said, I decided to give Fourth Wing a go anyway, based largely on the then (insanely inflated) Goodreads 4.8 star rating. (*Check notes* — it’s still at a 4.66 with just under 390,000 ratings.)

In fairness, the novel starts off pretty well. Briefly, Fourth Wing follows Violet, a frail 20-year-old aspiring scribe in a violent, war-mongering world where she is forced by her general mother to join an elite school wherein students either become bonded with a dragon and take up the coveted mantle of warrior riders, or they die. Of course, there’s also a dangerous bad boy who also happens to be pathologically irresistible to Violet, as these things go. Given the presence of dragons and schools of fantasy and broody young men, it’s no surprise that the novel is marketed to the #BookTok-endorsed New Adult genre that straddles the Adult/Young Adult line. But make no mistake: we’re pretty firmly in YA territory from the get — meaning the psychological and emotional continuums presented are fairly histrionic and unhealthy.

For all that, the world-building is actually pretty intriguing, even if the structural skeleton in the early going is entirely cribbed from Divergent, which is a woof of a novel in itself. But much like Stephanie Meyer — yes, I’m just name-checking a bunch of YA touchstones here so you understand exactly how derivative this is — Yarros shows skill with ending chapters, encouraging readers to push through with speed, even if there’s a bevy of eye rolls along the way. But the organization of the world built here is fairly appealing from a fantasy perspective, at least enough to encourage investment in watching it unfurl further.

But given the marketing angle, I’d be remiss if I didn’t get to the spice. Sorry, let me be more specific to this novel: the deranged approximation of some pubescent fantasy of sex, which feels dredged up from the perspective of some middle school diary. We’ll keep it PG here, but suffice it to say that the book’s attempts at an R-rating are not likely to please readers going in for such books. The brooding #badboi also claims that the main character here “is going to be the death of” him a dozen or more times, because Yarros just doesn’t seem to have any idea how to write characters who aren’t operating from a place of emotional stability. Instead, she just keeps recycling the same cliches ad nauseam, all of which indicate the need for therapeutic intervention rather than wedding bells. The whole thing scans more like the abandoned script for some SNL sketch sending up super-nerd fanfiction. I’ve read sexier phonebooks.

Again, a good half of this offers easy-reading and propulsive fantasy fun; plus the ending introduces a wrinkle that promises an expansion of the established world, which should appeal to fans of expansive series development. And readers inclined to this sort of thing already aren’t likely to find the faults I did; it’s classic mileage-may-vary kind of book, and I’m absolutely not the intended audience. But as a quick PSA to curious but perhaps hesitant fantasy fans: if you’re happy to take your novels sans loonies slobbering all over each other and decrying life’s meaning in the absence of unhealthy obsession, you should probably pop on over to the next shelf.

Book Review | All Our Hidden Gifts by Carolie O’Donohue

From the publisher: While in detention, Maeve finds an old, unopened package of tarot cards. She quickly learns the meanings of the cards in the deck and begins giving eerily on-point readings to her classmates. Maeve enjoys the attention and the fact that she’s finally found something she’s good at–until Maeve wishes her ex-best friend, Lily, would disappear and she actually does. Suddenly, Maeve must confront her emotions about Lily– while investigating her disappearance– on top of struggles with her new friends at school, navigating her relationship with Lily’s sibling, Roe, and discovering how deep her connection is with the tarot all at the same time.

I was drawn to this book for its unique premise. I started reading the print version of this book, and I enjoyed the font and the cool tarot card designs spread throughout; the art is very unique. However, I struggled with the fact that the book is written in present tense. I hadn’t realized it before, but most of the books I read are written in past tense. This book dragged for a couple of long stretches, punctuated by scenes of excitement. After reading a handful of chapters and getting stuck at one of the draggier parts, I checked out the Playaway version. Not only did this format help me finish the book more quickly, but it also helped me notice the present tense writing less. I also really liked the voice performer, Alana Kerr Collins. It was charming to witness the characters develop, some of them in surprising ways, throughout the course of the story, and the realistic dialogue keeps the story fresh. Since this is the first book in a trilogy, hopefully Maeve’s connection to the tarot will be explained in more detail in the later books.

Book Review | Witch King by Martha Wells

From the publisher: After being murdered, his consciousness dormant and unaware of the passing of time while confined in an elaborate water trap, Kai wakes to find a lesser mage attempting to harness Kai’s magic to his own advantage. That was never going to go well. But why was Kai imprisoned in the first place? What has changed in the world since his assassination? And why does the Rising World Coalition appear to be growing in influence? Kai will need to pull his allies close and draw on all his pain magic if he is to answer even the least of these questions. He’s not going to like the answers. I love Martha Wells. It is not an exaggeration to say that her Murderbot Diaries series helped me get through the pandemic with my sanity intact. The Murderbot Diaries series is science fiction; Witch King is fantasy. But it is Read more »

Book Review | To Shape a Dragon’s Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose

From the publisher: A young Indigenous woman enters a colonizer-run dragon academy—and quickly finds herself at odds with the “approved” way of doing things.

Harry Potter meets Temeraire in this magical-school-with-dragons series launch.

Anequs lives with her people on a remote island, living a life her people have lived for many generations. They have an uneasy relationship with the Anglish, conquerors who see Anequs and her people as uncivilized barbarians. To have a dragon is a rare thing, and there has been no dragon among her people for many years. She finds a dragon egg, and the hatchling bonds with her. Her brother, who has left the island, tells her, “There’s a ministry for dragons. The Anglish have a ministry for everything. Dragons are supposed to be registered, and dragoneers need to be tested to prove they’re competent, because dragons are dangerous. There’s going to be trouble with the law if you don’t enroll in an academy.” (p. 27 of the advance reader copy)

An Indigenous person with a dragon is not something the Anglish dragoneers approve of, but there are some individuals working to change perceptions of the Indigenous people, and Anequs is reluctantly enrolled in an Anglish dragon school. Only one other girl is enrolled, and only one boy from an Indigenous people.

The world building is slow. You might even say languorous. We see what life is like on the island for Anequs and her kin. We hear about their food and drink. We hear their stories. We watch their dances.

Once Anequs makes it to school, the world building is also slow. She is hot tempered and often says and does things that are not wise. Most of her teachers and fellow students don’t want her there. They invent rules for her and the Indigenous boy. Everyone assumes she knows things about Anglish school that she does not. But she is also smart and clever, and she learns despite the odds against her.

I enjoyed To Shape a Dragon’s Breath very much, while also finding it a bit slow. Its strengths include world building, character development, and diverse representation. But there is also virtually no action until the end of the book, there are a LOT of new words/altered words to figure out, the author is fond of telling instead of showing, and some of the ideas she is trying to get across are repeated over and over. Still, I recommend it and look forward to the sequel.

I read an advance reader copy of To Shape a Dragon’s Breath. It will be published on May 9 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library in multiple formats.

Book Review | Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee

From the publisher: Ester’s family was torn apart when a manticore killed her mother and brother, leaving her with nothing but her father’s painful silence and an overwhelming need to kill the monsters that took her family. Ester’s path leads her to the King’s Royal Mews, where the giant rocs of legend are flown to hunt manticores by their brave and dedicated ruhkers. Paired with a fledgling roc named Zahra, Ester finds purpose and acclaim by devoting herself to a calling that demands absolute sacrifice and a creature that will never return her love.

This is a delightful little morsel of a tale, an entire story arc in less than 200 pages. I love fantasy, but so often a series is such a commitment, hundreds if not thousands of pages to get the whole story. Untethered Sky delighted me because it’s short, immersive, and complete.

This is a woman telling her personal story, not an author laying the foundations for her fantasy world, so everything is not spelled out, every element of the world is not detailed. There is grief, loss, growth, acceptance, friendship, love, all laid out in what feels slower than seems possible in a short novella. The most significant relationship the main character has with another human is not with the handsome and powerful prince but a gruff and awkward fellow ruhker.

I like how the author evokes both dragons and falcons in her depiction of rocs and their handlers:

“A bird as large as a roc is not elegant in takeoff or landing. Minu was a maelstrom of feathers and mad exertion as her massive wings pummeled the air. Darius had chosen this spot for its higher elevation, which made it easier for her to get airborne. Minu spread her wings and rode the downslope of the land, gaining speed, nearly skimming the ground. She pumped hard, once, twice, three times, flattening the grass below with the wind, and caught an air current that lifted her up and away from us in a straight line. When she was far enough to be a small silhouette, she curved in a long arc and circled back toward us. Darius watched her with one hand shielding his eyes. I watched too, my heart in my throat at her beauty.”

I have not read Fonda Lee before, but I will certainly seek out other titles by her based on this novella. If you are looking for a short immersive read that will probably make you wish a whole series will follow, I recommend Untethered Sky. I read an advance reader copy from Netgalley.

Untethered Sky is scheduled to be published on April 11, 2023 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library in multiple formats.

Book Review — Emily Wilde’s Encylopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett

Each January, the American Library Association hands out its Youth Media Awards to authors, illustrators, and creators. Top among those awards are the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, two of the biggest prizes in the world of books for children and teens!  Librarians, classrooms, book reviewers, and many others are finalizing their predictions as to which book or books they think will come out on top.  

Caldecott: 

The Caldecott award is given …to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.” (https://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/caldecott). Essentially it comes down to who created the best pictures used in a picture book.  Past winners of this medal include We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom and illustrated by Michaela Goade (2021 winner) and Watercress by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason Chin (2022 winner).   

There’s been buzz about a lot of titles in contention for the Caldecott. Here are a couple of our staff favorites:

Blue: A History of the Color as Deep as the Sea and as Wide as the Sky by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond and illustrated by Daniel Minter – Blue dives into the history and cultural significance of the color blue from Ancient Afghan painters to what we know it as today. 

Farmhouse by Sophie Blackall – take a glimpse into the daily life of the family that lives in this detailed farmhouse. 

Knight Owl by Christopher Denise – Owl always wanted to be a knight since he was hatched. Now he has his opportunity! Does he have what it takes to become one? 

Newbery: 

The Newbery award is given “…to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” (https://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/newbery)  Recent winners of this award include When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller (2021 winner) and The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera  (2022 winner). 

For this category, these books stand out among staff: 

The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat – dive into this Thai-inspired fantasy adventure where Sai must deal with the secrets of her past in order to chart the course for her future. 

Thirst by Varsha Bajaj – Minni (living in the poorest section of Mumbai) knows that water is scarce in her neighborhood and even sees it being stolen one night. She is surprised to find out however, that it runs freely though faucets in the high-rise building she just started working in. Now she has to decide if she should expose the water-mafia boss or keep her head down and say nothing. 

Have you read any of these books? Do you have other stand out favorites? Winners in these categories and many others will be announced on Monday, January 30, 2023. 

Genre List Highlight | Adult — Fantasy

Need some help choosing your next book to read? We’ve put together some lists of popular titles in different genres to help you pick! Each Wednesday we’ll highlight a new genre list. This week, we’re highlighting the Fantasy genre list, but if you’re looking for something different, visit the Readers Advisory page for more help!

HALF A KING by Joe Abercrombie

Betrayed by his family and left for dead, Prince Yarvi, reluctant heir to a divided kingdom, has vowed to reclaim a throne he never wanted.

But first, he must survive cruelty, chains, and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea itself — all with only one good hand. Born a weakling in the eyes of a hard, cold world, he cannot…

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Book Review | Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

From the publisher: After the fall of Summerland, Jane McKeene hoped her life would get simpler: Get out of town, stay alive, and head west to California to find her mother. But nothing is easy when you’re a girl trained in putting down the restless dead, and a devastating loss on the road to a protected village called Nicodermus has Jane questioning everything she thought she knew about surviving in 1880’s America. What’s more, this safe haven is not what it appears – as Jane discovers when she sees familiar faces from Summerland amid this new society. Caught between mysteries and lies, the undead, and her own inner demons, Jane soon finds herself on a dark path of blood and violence that threatens to consume her. But she won’t be in it alone. Katherine Deveraux never expected to be allied with Jane McKeene. But after the hell she has endured, Read more »

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