Saturday, February 12, 2011

Review: White Cat

White Cat by Holly Black
Published: May 4th 2010 by Margaret K. McElderry
Word Count: 76,600
Series:Curse Workers, book one
Source: library audiobook

My Grade: A+

Synopsis from GoodReads.com:
Cassel comes from a family of curse workers — people who have the power to change your emotions, your memories, your luck, by the slightest touch of their hands. And since curse work is illegal, they're all mobsters, or con artists. Except for Cassel. He hasn't got the magic touch, so he's an outsider, the straight kid in a crooked family. You just have to ignore one small detail — he killed his best friend, Lila, three years ago.

Ever since, Cassel has carefully built up a fa├žade of normalcy, blending into the crowd. But his fa├žade starts crumbling when he starts sleepwalking, propelled into the night by terrifying dreams about a white cat that wants to tell him something. He's noticing other disturbing things, too, including the strange behavior of his two brothers. They are keeping secrets from him, caught up in a mysterious plot. As Cassel begins to suspect he's part of a huge con game, he also wonders what really happened to Lila. Could she still be alive? To find that out, Cassel will have to out-con the conmen.


Holly Black has created a gripping tale of mobsters and dark magic where a single touch can bring love — or death — and your dreams might be more real than your memories.


A guy having dreams about and following a white cat? C’mon, that’s corny and dumb. What guy is going to want to pick that book up? Unfortunately, based on the synopsis alone, I don’t think many teenage guys will, which is a shame, because the synopsis does not do this book justice. [Edit: The synopsis from GoodReads gives a much better picture than the one I got from the synopsis on the back of the audiobook case!]

Having read Black’s Valiant, I was hesitant to give this book a shot. Valiant was just ok for me, and with a premise that sounded less promising than the previous read, I doubted White Cat was going to be better. But boy, was I wrong. White Cat is ten times better! The story is nuanced and layered with so much more texture to it that it at first seems. The relationships – especially within the Sharpe family – the con-artist lifestyle, the mafia type hierarchical system of powerful Worker families, the deals, schemes, double-agents, and especially the memory work that keeps you guessing the whole time all combine to keep the reader invested in the action.

Family is a big theme here. Along with betrayal, trust, lies, loyalty, cover-ups, and ties that bind, these prominent themes are all considered and explored through  the context of what they mean when they occur within a family. Cassel hates and loves his brothers at the same time – hates them for how they lied to him, for what they made him do, and for making him believe he had killed his best friend. But despite that, he still wants to save them from a fate born of the consequences of their criminal enterprises.

WARNING: SPOILER IN THIS PARAGRAPH
The most unique aspect of this book is that the usual YA fantasy premise has been flipped on its head. The protagonist is utterly normal, and everyone else around him has a special ability. I thought that was clever as it hasn’t really been explored yet. (At least not in anything I’ve read.) But after the first few chapters I started to suspect maybe Cassel is more like his Worker family members than he thinks. Then I decided I would be very disappointed if Cassel turned out to be a Worker and he just never knew it somehow. Because that would be soooo predictable and therefore, dull. However, while this does happen, Black provides an interesting twist that I didn’t see coming, and so I forgave her for the most obvious reveal in the history of YA fantasy protagonist self-revelation.

This book is the best type of book in its genre because it’s clearly fantasy (a percentage of the population are Curse Workers with magic powers and the larger population all know about them) without seeming to be fantasy at all. By this I mean that there are so many other real human issues, relationships, problems, and stakes that it is easy to forget the element propelling the story, which is the ability of some people to work curses. Yet at the same time Black has created a history for the Curse Workers that gives the fantasy element depth. She has seamlessly woven the telling of the Curse Worker history as well as its significance to the story into the fabric of the tale, so it does not feel forced, but natural. It fits perfectly into real human history and so does not feel foreign or ‘other.’  The fantasy elements support the ‘real’ human elements, not the other way around, which is the type of fantasy I like best. Also, I think it is the best type of fantasy for readers who are not fans of fantasy or are hesitant to pick up a fantasy book, because it shows how fantasy can be used to heighten and therefore highlight certain aspects of the human condition.

The writing is tight and the story well-planned. Although we are dealing with cons, which can easily get muddy and confusing and so can be hard to explain to the reader what is really going on, I never felt like I didn’t know what the score was. I liked that Cassel was clever enough to figure out what was happening but not let on that he knew what was happening until the right moment. I liked that he was confident in his conning abilities, almost like that was his Worker power, making up for what he thought he was lacking as a member of his family. I only hope that Black will not fall prey to the pitfalls of complex plots and subplots in her second book. I am more excited for the sequel to White Cat than I have been for a sequel in a long while.

Find it on Amazon: White Cat (Curse Workers, Book 1)

Visit the author's website:
http://www.blackholly.com/

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review: Clockwork Angel

Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare

Published: August 31st 2010 by Margaret K. McElderry
Word Count:131,487
Series: Infernal Devices, book one
Source: library audiobook

My Grade: A


Synopsis from GoodReads: When sixteen-year-old Tessa Gray crosses the ocean to find her brother, her destination is England, the time is the reign of Queen Victoria, and something terrifying is waiting for her in London's Downworld, where vampires, warlocks and other supernatural folk stalk the gaslit streets. Only the Shadowhunters, warriors dedicated to ridding the world of demons, keep order amidst the chaos.

Kidnapped by the mysterious Dark Sisters, members of a secret organization called The Pandemonium Club, Tessa soon learns that she herself is a Downworlder with a rare ability: the power to transform, at will, into another person. What's more, the Magister, the shadowy figure who runs the Club, will stop at nothing to claim Tessa's power for his own.

Friendless and hunted, Tessa takes refuge with the Shadowhunters of the London Institute, who swear to find her brother if she will use her power to help them.  As their search draws them deep into the heart of an arcane plot that threatens to destroy the Shadowhunters, Tessa realizes that she may need to choose between saving her brother and helping her new friends save the world...and that love may be the most dangerous magic of all.


I don't have much to say about this book except that it was a good solid read and exactly what I would expect from the author of the Mortal Instruments series. The similarities between Will Herondale and Jace Wayland were easy to see and satisfying to discover, but not so apparent that they seemed like the same character. Quite the opposite.

The plot twists were well devised and well disguised. Clare is a master at backstory and revealing that backstory slowly to provide revelations to the characters and the readers about what is happening in the present. Like in the Mortal Instrument series, I am interested to find out more about Will's  and Jem's pasts and especially Tessa's origins and parents' lives and what that may reveal about the nature of what or who she is. This first book in the Infernal Devices series, while being a satisfying read with a complex story and plenty of information to keep us on the edge of our seats, also seems like only the tip of an iceberg of a much bigger story that will unfold in the upcoming sequels.


Note: The last sentence in the plot summary is a bit misleading, I think. Tessa doesn't really have to chose between saving her brother or helping her friends, and I would say this book is less about love than its predecessor series, The Mortal Instruments.

Find it on Amazon:Clockwork Angel (The Infernal Devices, Book 1)

Visit the author's website: http://www.theinfernaldevices.com/

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Review: Fire

Fire by Kristen Cashore

Published: October 5th 2009 by Gollancz
Word Count:112,634
Series: prequel to Graceling
Source: library audiobook

My Grade: C+

Synopsis from GoodReads.com: Beautiful creatures called monsters live in the Dells. Monsters have the shape of normal animals: mountain lions, dragonflies, horses, fish. But the hair or scales or feathers of monsters are gorgeously colored-- fuchsia, turquoise, sparkly bronze, iridescent green-- and their minds have the power to control the minds of humans.

Seventeen-year-old Fire is the last remaining human-shaped monster in the Dells. Gorgeously monstrous in body and mind but with a human appreciation of right and wrong, she is hated and mistrusted by just about everyone, and this book is her story.


I decided to read/listen to the audio book Fire because I unexpectedly enjoyed Cashore's first book, Graceling, and Fire is the prequel to that. However, I sadly did not enjoy this book as much as I had hoped I would, mainly because I felt there was no emotional resonance, which is what I so enjoyed in Graceling. There were so many characters to keep track of and so many different couplings and love lives, agendas, and motivations that ruled each character, it was hard to connect with any of them. While Fire was clearly the protagonist, I still did not feel like I could connect with her or any of the characters enough to really really care about them the way I cared about Katsa and Po from Graceling. Even Fire's and Brigan's unlikely love story did not pull me in the way I expected it to. I could have gone either way where that relationship was concerned, and as the reader I should have much stronger feelings about it. Yet, the book was not based around relationships but larger events such as the war between King Nash and the rebel Lords Mydogg and Gentian. But that is no excuse. The characters and the relationships between the characters should be just as well developed as the plot.

Here are my main pet-peeves with this book:

 
I don't like the name Fire. I think it sounds silly, even if her hair is every color of the red-orange-pink spectrum. Speaking of her hair - I understand that Fire's hair is the one determining feature that distinguished her as a monster, but she seemed a bit too preoccupied with it. Describing it, what is was doing, if it was showing or not, if it was up or down. It got a bit tiresome even for me and I'm a girl who sometimes has a similar preoccupation!

This book is an odd creature. I say that because elements it contains, like the hair thing, would make you think it was written expressly for the female audience. Example number two to support this theory is another preoccupation Fire had with a feminine feature: her 'bleeding times.' Seriously, every time it happened she had to talk about it! Yes, we understand that monster blood attracts other monsters and so puts Fire in more danger, but it was not so integral to the story that it needed to be mentioned so often. "Another month had passed, and her bleeding time was on her again..." Just too stressed. But on the other hand, this book is full of soldiers, swords, raptor-monsters (similar to dragons), castles, twisted court intrigue, treachery, murderous plots, and schemes. Everything that the male fantasy audience enjoys. (But then again, I am led to believe the vast majority of young adult males don't read very much at all for pleasure anyways.)
 
I didn't really enjoy the adultery, casual friends-with-benefits arrangements, and premarital sex that occurred so much in the book. Maybe this book is based on a different axis of morality than the real world, but seeing has how Fire felt betrayed when she learned that an upstanding character was indeed adulterous by the end of the book suggests that she does pivot on a moral axis similar to our own. Therefore, I do not think the way this book treats sex and love is very exemplary for young girls who read it. Also, Fire is only seventeen but she acts like she's twenty-seven, and again maybe that's because she's a monster and not a normal human girl. But the maturity with which she went about having casual sex with her best friend Archer and the assurance and confidence she seems to have as she goes about helping the princes and the king with the wars just doesn't seem likely for a teenager.
 
Fire is hard to relate to because of the fact that she's not human, but a monster in the shape of a human. Strange ideas like this can win me over if written well. But while interesting to read, Fire just didn't fully convert me to this idea of a non-human protagonist. All her abilities made her too foreign. And that in itself is not what makes her hard to relate to (how many beloved superhero stories are there out there?). It's the fact that her powers are such a part of who she is, how she views the world, and how she interacts with other people. Fire can manipulate people's emotions and tap into their minds and make them believe things that aren't real or that they wouldn't normally believe, things like that. Such a character must have been thrilling to write. What implications there are for a person who can do such things!  But I needed that interpersonal element, that flaw or vulnerability, and it just wasn't there. Fire didn't let us in, in a way. She put up her strong front even to the reader. She never broke down, never showed us the stakes were too high for her. Even in challeneging situations, she was mostly sure of herself. Maybe I think she's just too perfect, even if her powers allow her to be all that I just described. 
 
There's no central story thread. Fire goes here then there and helps with war strategy but you don't get the sense that the book is really about anything until you're halfway through. There was way too much set up as well, where she explained the history of the princes' and current king's father and Fire's father, who are both dead. Cashore invested alot of her story in Fire's father, Cansrel, describing his personalty, his views, his traits - and this is a character who is dead before the book even begins. I understand why Cashore wanted all that back-story since it informs Fire's views and decisions, but we didn't need quite so much of it to understand its purpose.

I hate writing reviews that sound so harsh. But that's just my honest opinion of the book! It wasn't a bad book by any means but it just wasn't something I greatly enjoyed either.

Find it on Amazon: Fire

Visit the author's website: http://kristincashore.blogspot.com/

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  • Evermore by Alyson Noel
  • Fablehaven by Brandon Mull
  • Magyk, Book One of the Septimus Heap Series by Angie Sage
  • The Alchemyst: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
  • The Bartimaeus Trilogy: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud