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Princess on the Brink
by Meg Cabot
238 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/YA

Argh, I am so susceptible to bookstore advertising. This was an impulse buy, because the library only had the audiobook version (go figure) and I used to be a huge Princess Diaries fan--I own the first four books, two of them in hardcover. Cabot's novels are always very quick reads, but they sustain my interest in rereads and so are justified for purchase. So I tell myself, anyway.

Princess on the Brink is Volume 8 of the ongoing Mia series. I really like how Mia ages throughout the books, while still retaining certain trademarks (like gossipy notes). In this one, Michael is moving to Japan for a year, and Mia will do anything--even, le gasp, lose her Precious Gift--to keep him in New York. Complications ensue, of course. The ending is not exactly a cliffhanger, but certainly cruel and unsatisfying. Mia is idealistic but extremely sympathetic.

Although I wince at the cost for such a slim book, it turns out I'm still a loyal fan of the Princess Diaries. Not recommended for anyone just starting with the series, obviously, but for established readers I think it's worthwhile.
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The Shamer's Daughter
by Lene Kaaberbol
235 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/YA

This is Book 1 of the Shamer's Chronicles, and that fact alone nearly turned me away. But I checked it out from the school library on a crazy whim, and it seems my library-luck is holding firm. Although The Shamer's Daughter has classic characteristics of the first-in-a-series syndrome--especially the incomplete ending--it is short, quick, and satisfying.

Dina Tonerra, age 11, has inherited her mother's gift--or curse--as Shamer. She can look anyone in the eye and see their darkest secrets, rouse their conscience and sense of shame. But when her mother is called to Dunark Castle to investigate murders of the highest degree, Dina is drawn into a far different world from her tiny village hometown--a world of conspiracy, deception, blood and dragons. The Shamer's gift is not infallible, and there are (as expected) societal consequences attached.

The character development here is sketchy but interesting; the plot is political but also necessarily simplistic. Dina is only a girl, after all, not even a teenager; keep her age in mind, especially considering that half of the supporting characters are adults. I had issues with the unfinished, loose ending, but I've also come to expect such things from YA series. I liked how the magic wasn't all-powerful, or even a omnipresent--there are only extraordinary people, and dragons. Ultimately, despite my complaints, I'll be on the lookout for the next volume of the Shamer's Chronicles.
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Song of the Sparrow
by Lisa Ann Sandell
394 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Poetry/YA/Fantasy

Look, the first officially unfinished novel of 2008! I got maybe a quarter of the way in, and then it was due at the library. It never became remotely compelling, so I wasn't sad to give it up. Apparently the plot is about Elaine of Ascolat of "The Lady of Shalott" immortal fame; but she's a spunky redhead teenager and the only girl in Arthur and Lancelot's camp. And Guinevere comes in later, but I never got to that point. The story is spectacularly uninspired, but the format--a novel in verse--attracted my curiosity. Alas, I'm quite disappointed and will not be seeking out Sandell's work. (The poetry wasn't even that great--mostly first-person free verse whining.)
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Extras
by Scott Westerfeld
417 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/SF/YA

Aya Fuse is a kicker, a sort of futuristic video news blogger, but her face rank is in the two hundred thousands (out of one million) and she is constantly overshadowed by her famous older brother Hiro. In this novel, of course, Aya comes into her own and eventually shoots up to a much lower (i.e. better) rank. How low? About as low as you'd expect in a young adult coming-of-age story.

Suspenseful as usual, of the breezy but unmemorable type that I've come to rely on Westerfeld for. The interpretation of Japanese culture is overall deftly handled, especially the language barrier. The concept of a reputation-society was very cool, and it made sense for Japan. Every time they said "face rank," though, I thought of Facebook. Actually, I personally think that this standalone volume is better than the original trilogy. I certainly appreciated the less biased viewpoint of Tally, who is essentially self-centered (and since the trilogy is written in first-person, everything is filtered through her).

Recommended if you like this sort of thing (a very specific thing, which any of Westerfeld's books is an excellent introduction to).
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I Capture the Castle
by Dodie Smith
343 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Literary/YA

Over winter break, my friend and I (both shameless English geeks) decided to exchange book "assignments." She chose this (and I assigned her Tigana, to share the joy of GGK's prose). While our tastes differ dramatically--she disdains most fantasy, for one--I trust her judgment to a certain extent and I'm glad I had the chance to read I Capture the Castle.

Cassandra Mortmain lives in old Belmotte Castle with her sister Rose, her brother Thomas, her kind but outrageous stepmother Topaz, their steadfastly devoted servant Stephen, and her writer father--who produced one great work, Jacob Wrestling, years ago and hasn't written anything since. When Simon and Neil Cotton arrive from America (the story is set in England)--Simon has inherited Scoatney estate, which includes Belmotte--the Mortmain family changes for better and for worse. This is the story of Cassandra, told by her in three unique journals; but it's also the story of writing. Cassandra begins writing in an exercise book in order to teach herself how to write, and throughout the story her father is a shadowy background figure struggling (or in denial against) his writer's block.

This novel is old and obscure, but it deserves to be better known. Cassandra's voice is charming and the diary format works perfectly--I love the metatext especially, where Cassandra writes about writing, metaphor, inspiration, and creation. She feels young and old simultaneously, just as Simon says more than once. Certain parts were questionable--I didn't understand exactly why her father had writer's block for so long--but overall there were many other parts that I loved. The ending is bittersweet and wrenching (quite an open invitation for fanfiction); Cassandra's last journal entry is realistically abrupt, because she has truly grown up. At heart, this is a classic coming-of-age story.

Despite being purely "literary" fiction without a speculative element in sight, I quite enjoyed I Capture the Castle and recommend it to anyone fond of YA, or who has an interest in the unexpected details of writing.
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Singer in the Snow
by Louise Marley
304 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/SF/Fantasy

This is a young adult science fantasy, set on the ice planet of Nevya where the people rely on magic--not technology--to survive. The plot reads very much like typical YA fantasy, the coming-of-age story of several characters (at least the three viewpoint characters, and maybe more). It's the fourth in the series, a sequel to Marley's much older (publishing-date-wise) books in the Nevya world, which I've never heard of, but there's really no significant connection except for the usual character-returns and this could easily be a debut-world novel.

I have a perpetual non-issue with YA, in that it reads very quickly and I forget details at about the same speed. The story, while often admirable, never sticks in my mind. Singer in the Snow is fluffy, quick, and not particularly special--the prose feels slightly dumbed-down, the mirrored prologue/epilogue stick out like hammered thumbs, and the good vs. evil conflict is as crystal clear as my skepticism. The ending especially is unsatisfying for me, too cloying and expected. The characters, while interesting, possess an inherent child-like quality--even the adults, many of whom serve no purpose other than standing around and acting nice.

However, I'm interested enough to seek out Marley's other Nevya books, though it'll be difficult since they are all out of print, due to one factor: music. Marley is an accomplished musician in her own right, and it shows through her writing. The music aspect of this story captured me from the beginning and sustained me through all the other mediocre aspects. The title (which does her music-worldbuilding absolutely no justice) refers to Singers, but that's merely a title and prequisite to Cantor/Cantrix. The Gifted also play flutes and zither-like stringed instruments (one of the POV characters is a Cantrix with awesome power but was born mute). I adored the musical descriptions and the five modes and the halftones and quartertones and the non-Western musicality. The passion of the music (cliche as that sounds) made this book work for me.

Singer in the Snow is not significantly flawed, but neither is it significantly noteworthy. I would recommend it only to music geeks, since it's a quick book and could quite possibly be of redeeming quality. (Anyone here on [personal profile] yhlee's flist/talks to her IRL and can pass on this rec? I think she'd be one of the aforementioned music lovers. The modes and quartertones are definitely Cool.)

Oh, also: Louise Marley and Toby Bishop are the same person, if the latter name rings any bells. Sounds vaguely familiar to me, but I can't think what.
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I read the first two volumes of this trilogy a long time ago, but wanted to review all three at once. Really, many comments apply to all three. For instance, not exactly cheap suspense but not exactly valuable suspense either; everything hangs on the plot, and if that is circumvented all real curiosity disappears. The plotline is beautifully done, of course, but ultimately Westerfeld's books tend to the read-once-and-forget-about-it catagory. The vital question is how to get from Point A to Point B--not the journey of actually getting from A to B. I don't regret having invested the time to read these books, and will gladly continue reading Westerfeld (albeit strictly from the library), but they rank as solidly YA and simplistic enough that a second read would bore me tremendously.

The other major issue I have is with internal logic. Specifically, they are discussed below in the individual entries.


Uglies

by Scott Westerfeld
425 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/SF/YA

Tally's voice grabbed me right from the beginning and carried me through like hoverboarding on the old roller coaster. I did predict several of the plot twists and revelations--especially Shay's riddle, which was way too obvious to confuse Tally, in my opinion. (I.e. "the side you despise," which made me think of a certain scene immediately and about 50 pages before Tally did.) Also, how come Special Circumstances hasn't figured out where the Smoke is from returning runaways? It's specifically stated that some uglies can't take the lifestyle and return to the city; there is no evidence of any memory-control device/procedure, so wouldn't this be a huge security breach?


Pretties
by Scott Westerfeld
370 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/SF/YA

Still occasionally predictable, but I didn't mind as much. Major snag here was the love triangle, which made me groan almost as soon as Zane was introduced. They can be done well, I admit, but Westerfeld just doesn't have the knack of it. Also, the ending was weaker than I expected (perhaps an inevitable failure of the second book in a trilogy).


Specials
by Scott Westerfeld
372 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/SF/YA

I made the mistake of skimming ahead while only about a third of the way through this final volume, and then struggled for weeks to finish it. The reading is still fast, but tendency to skim increases exponentially and I had no urge to pick it back up after putting it down. The plotlines--including multi-book arcs--are tied up neatly and the ending is satisfying. I still didn't care much about either Zane or David, and the resolving of the love triangle worked for me about as well as the general principle did. That is, not much. But that may be very much a personal pet peeve; I can't think of any way that the love triangle could have been resolved to my satisfaction, and Westerfeld's way is efficient and practical.


A solid series for YA, and something I'd recommend to teens who read solidly in YA. For those who have experimented successfully in adult SF/F, though, it may well end up as a one-hit wonder. Not necessarily a negative attribute, but just something to keep in mind.
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Book of a Thousand Days
by Shannon Hale
306 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/YA

Under normal circumstances, this book would have been a thumbs-up for me; Hale is an established author in my books and has yet to disappoint. But this new novel is--take note, [personal profile] oyceter!--set in medieval Mongolia. And all of the characters are Mongolian (complete with in-text illustrations that portray these characters as clearly Asian). Hell, the research even seems thorough and authentic. It's almost too good to be true. For this alone, you should read Book of a Thousand Days.

Even if you aren't particularly interested in Mongolia, it's a worthwhile read. Breezy, like most YA, but also lyrical and touching. I cried at a one point even though I knew that this was a young adult fairy tale with certain ending constraints. Two of Hale's major themes are freedom and classism, both of which I heartily support. It was fascinating to observe Dashti's slow personal transformation. I felt sorry for her at first, but as time passed I found myself pitying Saren much more.

Nitpicks: The ending was a little too neat, although plausible. Lady Vachir's characterization is flat. And how did Tegus accept Dashti's last lie so easily? She's a proven mucker, after all.

But those are extremely minor. I can't recommend this novel enough, and not only because of MONGOLIA. (What does it say about the majority of fantasy/young adult books today, that I feel the need to shout?)
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The Last Days
by Scott Westerfeld
286 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/SF/YA

A nice light YA that captured my attention fully on the first reading, but not really something I'd reread. Interesting concepts--I love Alana Ray's synesthesia!--and a decent follow-up to Peeps. Complaints: The Astor Michaels subplot sort of just petered out. I still don't understand how/where Moz found the money to pay Alana Ray. And, um, [profile] ww2b's name is Pearl so I spent the first fifty pages squeeing whenever she  was mentioned. But that's hardly the book's fault.

Westerfeld's earlier space opera novels are still on my to-read list; I do like his style, so I'm looking forward to them. I find that both Westerfeld and Justine Larbalestier (married YA authors) hit about the same chord for me--i.e. breezy and excellent, but not special.
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Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy
by Ally Carter
236 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/YA/Romance

I started this book last night and finished it second period in class today--beautifully written with a strong voice, and gripping. This is the sequel to I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You, but it also works as a standalone. It made the NYT-bestseller list recently, and the publicity is deserved 100%. A speedy read that left me yearning for more.

I would compare this novel to the Clique or Gossip Girls series, only less petty and snotty. Cammie Morgan is a sophomore at the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women, ostensibly a rich private school--but really a spy school for geniuses. The foursome of Cammie, Bex, Liz, and Macey are well-drawn, both collectively and individually. My favorite character was Liz, but I have a weakness for book-smarts. Anyway, in this second volume an exchange group of students from the Blackthorne Institute for Boys arrives--including a cute and mysterious boy named Josh. I won't ruin the story any further, but the ending was a beautiful twist.

Highly recommended.
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Magic's Child
by Justine Larbalestier
291 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/YA

This is the last book in the Magic or Madness trilogy, which I've grown to like but still remains fluff. Not a bad thing; my brain is fried right now for concentrating on anything serious. The magic system and talents are original--Tom's magic is with clothes, for instance. Reason, who underwent a major change in Book II, must deal with the repercussions, and the nature of magic is finally revealed (in part). I felt like the revelation should have had more impact than it did, but the ending is surprising with realistic choices. However, I also felt that it was too open for the end of a trilogy--too many loose ends made it not completely satisfying.

Perhaps my strongest impression of this series is how Larbalestier plays with the usual YA rules on morality. Teenage relationships and pregnancy are starkly portrayed but not in an obivously negative light. Instead of telling her readers "Don't have sex!" Larbalestier shows the consequences of the act, both negative and positive. Although I don't support it personally, it's great to see someone at least acknowledge the happy side of teen pregnancy.
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Sealed With A Diss
by Lisi Harrison
248 pages (paperback)
Genre: Fiction/YA

If the Clique books weren't so short, popular, and available at the library, I wouldn't bother with them. But they are all of the above, and they're bearable. The characters, though annoying at times, are realistic if exaggerated a bit (not being a miniature NY private school socialite, I wouldn't know). Massie, Alicia, Dylan, and Kristin are all fashionable, at least. Except, I really do know a guy who likes The Notebook.

The ending is cliffhanger per usual so that the publishers can squeeze as much money as possible out of preteen girls. Seriously--$10 for one volume, when it's about half the surface area of a trade paperback? The plot is completely episodic. Not recommended except in very specific circumstances.
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Eclipse
by Stephenie Meyer
629 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/Romance/YA

I heard a lot of not-so-good things about this book early on, but I still jumped at the chance to borrow it from a friend (way faster than waiting for the library to finish cataloging). So let me say the non-spoilery things first. The story is told through tight prose, though the frequent inner monologues sometimes stumble. Meyer shines in the character development catagory like always--reader wish-fulfillment, certainly a good way to sell books.

Spoilers )

Overall, an engrossing read if one ignores the flaws and switches into fluff mode. It didn't pass the tears test though, so Twilight and New Moon are ranked ahead (in that order). Recommended if you've been keeping up with the series.
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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
2 hrs. 18 min.

Saw it this afternoon all by my lonely self, since everyone else had already seen it multiple times. It was a reasonably good adaptation--I only thought wistfully of a cut scene once. Bellatrix Lestrange and Luna Lovegood were beautifully cast, and of course the special effects were great.

I am still (irrationally) annoyed at Cho, though.
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Magic Lessons
by Justine Larbalestier
275 pages (hardcover)
Genre; Fiction/Fantasy/YA

A quick and breezy read. Reason, Jay-Tee, and Tom finally get magic lessons from Mere, while Jason Blake remains a looming menace and several plot revelations occur. This is book two of three, and it shows in the many loose threads left dangling by the end. The chapter endings were also often cliffhangers, teasing and slightly patronizing (although that might just be me overreading the subtext). There is more character development here than in Magic or Madness, enough that I'll probably read Magic's Child for the sake of completion (and because it won't take long). The metatext device of switching between Australian and American language is clever, but Larbalestier doesn't have a full grip on it. I found the Australian sections much more interesting--and would Danny, a native New Yorker, really say "littler"?

But still, this is a solid YA novel--kids will be engrossed in the story, and it only tends a little to the fluff side for adults. The love triangle, for one, is fascinating, and I love how Larbalestier doesn't shy away from mature issues that develop naturally from the plot. Recommended if it sounds like your thing, though read Magic or Madness first because there isn't much catch-up explanation here.
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The Beatrice Letters
by Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler)
? pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/YA

An interesting "supplementary" to the A Series of Unfortunate Events books, but not worth the $20 retail price (libraries are a wonderful thing). I'm too lazy to study the letters closely, or even decode the picture anagram. Not really a huge fan of Snicket/Handler anyway, but it was a quick browse for the sake of completion. Recommended only to devotees.
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A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories
by Robin McKinley
192 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/YA

A small collection of five McKinley short stories. All are strongly YA with young protagonists, life lessons, and plain prose; but the protagonists are compelling, the plots are suspenseful, and the prose is easily unobstrusive. McKinley writes with teens in mind without shying away from risks--(implied) premarital sex, a twist on the traditional Happily Ever After, girl proposing marriage to boy, and symbolism throughout are presented as a matter of fact.

My favorite story was "The Stagman," which deals with arranged marriage, different kinds of love, and quiet feminism. The last (and title) story, "A Knot in the Grain," is the only one that didn't work for me. It's set in the modern world and attempts a magic-realism mood but doesn't quite succeed. The result is a typical plotline (girl moves to new town, reminisces about her old friends) with vague hinting at magic. McKinley should stick to fantasy, which she excels at.

Recommended for fantasy readers of all ages, excepting the last story.
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The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl by Ma Yan (edited by Pierre Haski, translated from French by Lisa Appignanesi, originally translated from Mandarin by He Yanping)
166 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Nonfiction/YA/Diary

Another reading whim, this time from the tiny school library. The secondhand translation raised my suspicions a bit, but this slim volume lost none of its sombering, heartrending impact. To give just one quote (used on the inside cover): "My stomach is all twisted up from hunger, but I don't want to spend the money on anything so frivolous as food. Because it's money my parents earn with their sweat and blood. I have to study well so that I won't ever again be tortured by hunger."

And that sums up the book better than I ever could. Highly recommended to anyone and everyone, but especially all the Chinese people out there in the world. I wearied long ago of hearing my dad's childhood stories of poverty, but Ma Yan's story is so much more painful. There are thousands of girls like her in rural China--her diary was published only by a chance encounter. And here I am, living in prosperity, with my worst financial worry being unable to afford a summer writing workshop.

It really makes you stop and think, and give heartfelt thanks to fortune of birth, however unfair it seems.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/YA
385 pages (paperback)

I love BOGO book fairs! for just ten dollars total, I managed to buy four brand new paperbacks. Now I finally own all of Chris D'Lacey's fire dragon trilogy (in lowercase because I don't think that's the actual name)--I bought his second book, Icefire, a year ago but it was ruined by tea-boiled egg joice on the plane ride to China. Originally I was just going to get the two volumes I hadn't yet read, but I hated having a gap in the series. And then it was buy one get one free, so I picked up the latest Artemis Fowl as well instead of waiting for the library. Then I was really tempted to put off reading Vellum with easier, lighter stuff, so I read through The Lost Colony in a few hours.

Artemis Fowl is one of those books (or series, in this case) that you get the feeling you shouldn't like because it's terribly cliche, but you like it anyway. Sort of like my relationship with Stephenie Meyer's Twilight and New Moon, except I don't think Artemis is quite as bad as Bella. (Yes, I know no self-respecting literary person likes Twilight. See aforementioned complicated relationship.)

So anyway, now that I've rambled about other books, back to this one. Artemis is now fourteen and puberty is starting to kick in. Further character development occurs, especially with Butler. Juliet, als, is absent except in passing mention. Colfer's characterization is amazing--I can sympathize with every major character, even Ark Sool. This installment also introduces Minerva, a twelve-year-old child genius. It's an obvious romance setup, but it works.

The plot was also very interesting, and setting particularly vivid (especially when Artemis and co. are climbing out of the volcano). The climax has a tricky twist; I haven't decided yet if I like it, as it's a little bit cheating. Surprising humor is sprinkled liberally throughout the book, along with a few poignant scenes. Definitely a nice contrast to Vellum.

The only negative point I can think of, really, is the ruling out of any Artemis/Holly in canon. Their relationship is clearly platonic, though if not for Minerva perhaps it might blossom into something more. This is the subject of an ongoing debate with my friend, actually. I support Artemis/Minerva--I love girl geniuses--but she's adamant about A/H. Never mind the age/race/maturity gap...

keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/YA
198 pages (hardcover)

This is the fourth book in the Keisha'ra series; the others (Hawksong, Snakecharm, and Falcondance) were all better, in my opinion. Sadly, Wyvernhail doesn't look much good either, but I'll read it anyway for the sake of finishing. This particular book focuses on Oliza, the wyvern daughter of Danica (Tuuli Thea, ruler of the avian) and Zane (Diente, ruler of the serpiente). Her parents' marriage has ended a centuries-long war between their two peoples, allowing Wyvern Court to form--but not to truly flourish. The reserved avian and the fun-loving, casual serpiente are absolute opposites; their cultures are irreconciliable. Oliza, gifted with a partially dormant magic for seeing the future, is horrified by the futures ahead and takes steps to change everything.

I wanted to like this. Really, I did. I adore the Keisha'ra world, and I loved Hawksong to pieces. But Oliza's voice is unnaturally stiff--all of Atwater-Rhodes's books are written in first person--and her relationship with Betia, which is a major subplot, felt underdeveloped and too summarized. Betia's milestones--her first word, her first sentence--aren't earned and while Oliza expresses her feelings, they don't feel real to the reader (or at least not to me). Velyo is a flat, static antagonist who is defeated rather easily, and Oliza's ultimate sacrifice definitely seems too easy.

But some things I do like: worldbuilding, mainly. I love how minor characters are brought back and other groups in the society reoccur. For instance, in Snakecharm the white viper Adelina plays a huge role; here, Oliza lives for a while with the white viper guild and mention is made to the only two vipers who ever joined serpiente society. In general, I liked the minor characters more than the major characters. I never really connected with Oliza, so I didn't feel what she felt and all the important revelations had no meaning. I guess what I'd like to see from Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, an author I admire immensely (for more reasons than one), is exploring the avian and serpiente cultures more closely--like pair bonds, which are arranged marriages that seem to work out well enough.


And for shallow observations, the cover sucks compared to the previous three.

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January 2011

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