Posts Tagged YA fantasy

Romance Saturday Returns with Elizabeth A. Lightfoot’s “The Ugly Knight”

Romance Saturday is back at Shiny Book Review!

Elizabeth A. Lightfoot’s THE UGLY KNIGHT is about Korten, a not-so-handsome youngster out to make a name for himself. He’s resolute, steadfast, hard-working…you’d think you should hate the guy, except he’s so likeable, he wears you down.

Anyway, after apprenticing with a noted knight for many years, Korten rides off to seek his fortune. If he can defeat a dragon, he’ll become a knight and have the opportunity to marry a princess. So, of course, he’s on his way to the nearest castle that’s actually being threatened by a dragon.

While at the castle, Korten befriends an elderly servingwoman, and also becomes friends with a young and hard-working servant girl, Elzi. He feels much more comfortable with them than the princess, who’s rather snooty and looks down at Korten because Korten isn’t exactly a handsome lad.

But if you’re thinking “handsome is as handsome does,” you’re right. Korten has more to him than looks; he’s resourceful, honest, and has a bone-deep kindness to him. In some ways, he doesn’t like the idea of killing any dragons, even though it’s necessary to the plot that he do so…besides, dragons have a way to enthrall humans, and are big into manipulation and coercion. (In other words, they’re not nice critters.)

So Korten finds a way to kill the dragon. Which he must, or the story can’t progress.

The good thing about THE UGLY KNIGHT is that everything after this point is a little surprising.

Korten rejects the high-and-mighty princess and rejects his chance to rule immediately, partly because his heart has already been given elsewhere. Instead, he’s set his heart on Elzi.

But rather than settle down with her somewhere, he still wants to be a knight who does things that matter. So the two of them engage in some necessary action, all while trying to find out aspects of Elzi’s mysterious past…

Ultimately, Korten must forge his own, true path, while in the process figure out just exactly what being a knight is all about. Only then can he and Elzi have the future of their dreams.

THE UGLY KNIGHT is Ms. Lightfoot’s first novel, and is a welcome young adult fable. It has charm, a cute and age-appropriate romance, and there’s plenty of action.

The main problem I had with THE UGLY KNIGHT is that it’s only about 40,000 words — a very short novel, or perhaps a long novella in length. Because it’s so short, there are things I didn’t get to see that I wanted to see: namely, how did Korten and Elzi do as a couple, once Korten finally declares himself? And what happens to some of the other people introduced here, including the nasty princess, the handsome and somehow squicky squire Jelan, and the sprightly child Jelania?

In other words, THE UGLY KNIGHT is a good story. I enjoyed it, and I want to see more from the author.

But it should’ve been longer.

In addition, there are a few issues with the editing that concerned me. None interfered with the plot, thank goodness. But it was enough to take a book that probably was in the A-minus category as a debut effort and turn it into a B-plus instead.

Bottom line: THE UGLY KNIGHT is a fresh, fun, and enjoyable debut with a likeable protagonist and a sweet, old-fashioned romance, and is appropriate for anyone aged ten and up.

Grade: B-plus

–reviewed by Barb

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Romance Saturday Returns with Mercedes Lackey & Rosemary Edghill’s “Victories”

It’s Romance Saturday at SBR! So what could be better than a little YA romance coupled with suspense and neo-Arthurian myth?

VICTORIES, the fourth and final book of the Shadow Grail series by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill, again takes up where book three, SACRIFICES, left off. (Books one and two were reviewed here.) Muirin is dead, but her friends Spirit White (pictured on the cover), Spirit’s boyfriend Burke Hallows, and their BFFs Addie Lake and Lachlann “Loch” Spears are on the run from the evil Shadow Knights. They now know for certain that the head of Oakhurst Academy, Doctor Ambrosius, is not just evil, but is actually Mordred . . . and he’s been around since the fall of Camelot.

Why is this important? Well, Mordred was imprisoned in an oak tree for millenia, and only “woke up” as himself in the 1970s, only to then “borrow” a body from a biker for his own, personal use. Ever since, has been using his magic to recreate the conditions of Camelot — but on his terms.

And Ambrosius/Mordred knows very little about the modern world, despite the technology he and his school have been using throughout. Which is much more of a problem than it seems — but I’ll get back to that momentarily.

Anyway, Spirit and her friends end up being guided by the mysterious QUERCUS to a deserted missile silo out in the middle of nowhere. A strange woman, who seems to know them somehow, helps them get down into the silo, where food and rest awaits. Then, after they sleep the sleep of the truly exhausted (or maybe the just, I don’t know), they find out from this woman that QUERCUS wants to talk . . . via the very old computer equipment in the silo, which uses extremely old technology that has to warm up for quite some time to be used — but is still operational.

So far, so good. The story is told with breathless abandon, and the technology is explained enough that it passes and sounds logical, as it’s conceivable that this silo would be both abandoned and discounted by Mordred.

But QUERCUS gives Spirit some very bad news. He is the Merlin — yes, that Merlin — and he now exists solely as a computer program. Because of this, he’s been able to warn her and her friends . . . but because he no longer has corporeal form, nor any way to regain it (as he won’t do what Mordred did as it’s the blackest of black magic — possession), he cannot fight the Shadow Knights or Mordred directly. All he can do at this point is advise.

Making matters worse yet, Spirit finds out for certain that she and all of her friends — including the departed Muirin — are “Reincarnates” — that is, people who lived during the time of Camelot and have reincarnated at this time in place in order to fight Mordred one, last time.

In fact, Spirit was once Guinevere — the sword Spirit is carrying is actually Guin’s, in fact — and Burke was King Arthur. Addie was once the Lady of the Lake, famed for her healing abilities, and Loch — well, he was Lancelot. (I had hoped he’d be Sir Gawain, personally. Ah, well.)

And all of that is important, too, because these four must find something called “the Four Hallows” — four talismans of great power — in order to invoke their prior memories as these fabled people. Because they cannot beat Mordred if they stay the way they are, even with their magic . . . and they must beat Mordred, as Mordred’s idea of “winning” starts with all-out war and goes downhill from there.

Worst of all, because Mordred didn’t live through the Cold War (much; one assumes he wasn’t paying much attention after he “borrowed” the biker’s body he’s been using), Mordred has no fear of a nuclear holocaust. But his own Shadow Knights — those who fought on Mordred’s side back in the day, who have been reincarnated in our time and were awakened by Mordred — definitely do.

Which may give Spirit and the others an opening . . . (further reviewer sayeth about the plot — at least not yet).

There’s a lot to like about VICTORIES. It’s a rip-roaring action-adventure with some mild romance, a good amount of mystery and magic, and a believable fight against the darkest evil magician ever created for the highest of stakes — life itself. I loved the good characters, hated the evil ones, and wanted good to win out — all fine and dandy.

That said, because the book went by so fast, I missed some of the characterization I’d so adored in the previous three books. I like Spirit, Burke, Addie, and Loch, you see — but I wasn’t overly fond of Guinevere, King Arthur, the Lady of the Lake and Sir Lancelot. And while I liked how they faded in and out of focus — that is a very tough trick to pull off, having one soul with two full sets of memories in one body, and I give Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill full “props” for doing so — I mostly got annoyed whenever Guin, Arthur, etc., showed up to talk in “High Forsoothly” (what Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill called the more formal Renaissance-sounding English constructions, something that amused me very much).

Another thing that frustrated me a tad was the nature of Spirit and Burke”s romance. These two love each other in a somewhat chaste teenage way, which is sensible considering the context. (Who wants to make out in front of your two best friends in such close quarters?) But finding out these two had been married, and had many remembrances of being with each other as full adults, was a little tough for me to handle. I kept thinking that if I were Queen Guinevere and King Arthur, I’d want to steal away to some little grotto somewhere and just get it on — using proper safe-sex practices, of course — as these two supposedly had a legendary romance. And as Spirit and Burke were sometimes also Guin and Arthur, I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why they didn’t do that.

Maybe it’s a good thing that this element didn’t come into play, mind. This is a series meant for tweens and teens. Too much sexual activity would’ve perhaps taken the focus away from all of that action-adventure. But finding out some information through pillow-talk between Guin and Arthur would’ve been extremely interesting; having Burke and Spirit have to deal with the aftermath of that also would’ve been quite riveting.

The reason this is only a minor quibble, though, is because Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill clearly set it up that Guin and Arthur’s marriage was more one of state than one of love. (Which would be accurate for the times they lived in, granted. Damned few people married for love back then.) They were great friends, yes. And they cared about each other deeply. But there was actually more romance between Spirit and Burke in this time than there seems to have been between Guin and Arthur.

The other teensy issue I had with VICTORIES is that the ending goes by too fast. (Spoiler alert! Turn away now. You have been warned.) I wanted to see Mordred suffer, and I wanted to see our four heroes be able to luxuriate in the victory while thinking about how terrible it is that Muirin didn’t live to see the day — and while I got a little of the latter, I just didn’t get anywhere near enough of the former to suit me.

Bottom line? This is a nice evocation of the Arthurian mythos for the 21st Century Millenial crowd, and I enjoyed it very much. But it doesn’t stand alone — please read LEGACIES, CONSPIRACIES, and SACRIFICES first.

Grades:

VICTORIES — B-plus.

Shadow Grail series — A-minus.

–reviewed by Barb

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Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s “Night Calls” is Excellent, Rousing YA Fantasy Adventure

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s NIGHT CALLS is about magic on the American frontier.  As such, it’s both an alternate history and a fantasy.  And as its protagonist is the young Alfreda Sorensson, it’s a story that’s meant for all ages.

So you’re to be pardoned if you think, “Well, Barb, come on!  What’s so special about that?  You’ve already reviewed Patricia C. Wrede’s THE FAR FRONTIER, haven’t you?  Isn’t that the same thing?”

Well, yes and no.  It is the same type of novel, for certain.  But Ms. Kimbriel did it first, as the paperback edition of NIGHT CALLS first came out in 1996 . . . which means that if we’re about to have a showdown as to one-upmanship (really, do we need one?), Ms. Kimbriel would come out the winner even though both authors are well worth the reading.

But I digress.

More importantly than what specific type of novel NIGHT CALLS is — is it dark fantasy?  Is it alternate history?  Is it YA?  Is it all of the above?  (Yes, yes, yes, and yes . . . ) — you need to know one thing, and one thing only.

It was written by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel.  So it’s extremely good.

The plot itself is compelling, mind you.  Alfreda starts out at the tender age of eleven thinking she’s much like other girls, even though it’s clear from the start that she isn’t.  She has a few friends, she loves to read, she loves her family, but a crisis that’s precipitated by a werewolf thrusts her magic into the picture far earlier than she would’ve liked.  When her brother’s life is lost due to the werewolf, she wonders what good magic is — this mostly is subtextual, mind you, but it’s real and it’s there — which points out that no matter how much power you have, life is something that cannot be taken for granted.

This one thing helps to ground the novel from the start, and is a welcome change from many other contemporary dark fantasy novels.  (Yes, Stephanie Meyer, I’m looking squarely at you.)

Alfreda’s adventures as she grows into her young womanhood — some quiet, some decidedly not — are excellent and rousing.  She is not the type of young woman to sit on the sidelines and wait for men to do her work for her — no, she’s going to do for herself, thank you.  And as she learns and grows, she also becomes more and more herself and happy to be so, which is why I found reading NIGHT CALLS to be both life-affirming and something that lifted my spirits no end.

Look.  I know this sounds like I’m laying it on thick, but I’m not.  Alfreda, for all her strengths — and she has many — is no one’s Mary Sue.  While she’s exactly the type of young woman every parent would like to have, being resourceful and intelligent, she still has some weaknesses as she skews like a real person.  And while she obviously has magic, she sees it as a responsibility, partly because she’s a farm girl at heart and is used to doing all sorts of chores.

So there’s the value of hard work.  There’s the value of personal sacrifice.  There’s the value of human dignity.  There’s a good deal about religion and spirituality, discussed in a quiet, calm way that I found particularly appealing.  And there’s a rousing action-adventure going on throughout that makes you forget about all of the above until the book is over and you start thinking about how wonderful it all was before you turn back to read it all over again.

Bottom line?  NIGHT CALLS is excellent.  Truly, truly excellent.  It’s a can’t-miss novel with heart, style and wit that will please all ages.  Guaranteed.

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Ellen Renner’s “Castle of Shadows:” Solid Pre-Teen Fantasy Adventure

Ellen Renner’s pre-teen fantasy adventure novel CASTLE OF SHADOWS is a solid tale about a young girl of eleven, Princess Charlotte Augusta Joanna Hortense of Quale (called “Charlie”), and her struggles to grow up in a time of revolution, intrigue, and strife.  Complicating matters  for Charlie is that her father, the King, is ill and has turned over all active ruling functions to his Prime Minister, Alastair Windlass, while her scientist and physicist mother, the Queen, left five years ago, reasons unknown.

Now, you’d think with Charlie being a princess that she’d have an easy life, but that’s just not the case.  Charlie has mostly been neglected since her mother left, and has been “raised” mostly by the deposed butler, Mr. Moleglass, while the housekeeper, Mrs. O’Dair, clothes Charlie in the cheapest fabrics imaginable and feeds her scraps.  Charlie hasn’t been to anything approximating a school in years; worse yet, no one seems to care what’s happening to her as her father’s too ill to take an interest.

Charlie mostly isn’t listened to, except by Moleglass, who can’t do very much as he’s been banished to the basement.  So when she finds an unfinished letter from her missing and presumed dead mother to a mysterious woman known only as “Bettina,” she becomes extremely anxious, especially as this letter indicates that Charlie’s mother’s research had found something so dreadful that she actually burned all her notes about it.  Charlie realizes that the only clues she may have to her mother’s disappearance are in her mother’s long-disused and now-padlocked library; that’s why Charlie extracts a promise from Moleglass that he’ll get her someone who’s good with locks in order for her to see if there’s anything in that lab that might help.  But Charlie never expected Moleglass’s “locksmith help” to be in the form of the twelve-year-old boy who’s been blackmailing her for books, Tobias (“Toby”) Petch, though Moleglass swears Toby is reliable, dependable, and very good at picking locks.

Over the course of days, Charlie realizes that many things she’s taken for granted are flat wrong.  Her father’s condition, for example, is worsened by a “medicine” that he’s been given by O’Dair; this is why he’s always so distracted and uncaring whenever she goes to see him.  Charlie’s mother, who definitely did care about Charlie and her husband the King, may have fled for her life due to something she found out as a scientist — Charlie doesn’t really understand this, mind you, but what seems to be the case is that her mother discovered nuclear power in a world that doesn’t have any — and Charlie’s mother’s fate is all tied up with Windlass in an odd, confusing way that adds layers of complexity and intrigue to the overall story.

Speaking of Windlass, initially he’s seen by Charlie to be a “good guy” as he’s been watching over Quale due to the King’s illness.  But over time, Charlie realizes that Windlass is a highly dangerous man with secrets of his own that he’s not exactly willing to reveal. 

Other questions raised by CASTLE OF SHADOWS are:  why does O’Dair hates Charlie so much?  Why does Moleglass live in the basement?  How does the threat of revolution come into it?  And why, oh why, is it that Charlie has only two people she can depend on through the majority of this book, neither of which is a blood family relation of any sort?

All of these questions are answered, but every question that’s answered of course leads to another question.  Because when a mother goes missing — especially a royal, scientist mother like Charlie’s — there’s usually a good reason for it.  Unraveling the mystery of Charlie’s mother’s disappearance goes along with the main mystery for the reader — why has Charlie been neglected, and why doesn’t anyone care about this kid? — might be the main reason why Charlie becomes involved, but it’s assuredly not the only reason.  (Especially after she realizes, dimly, the concept usually expressed as “noblesse oblige.”)

This story is told for the most part through Charlie’s POV and at the level where a typical eleven year old would be able to understand it.  This is probably why Charlie, to show affection for the one age-appropriate friend she has, Toby, hits him and isn’t gentle about it.  It’s why Charlie is hot-headed, yet has a heart of gold that she can’t really show (except with Moleglass, and later, a bit with Toby).  And this is why Charlie’s own struggles are told in a breathless, fast-paced manner that matches the nature of the action-adventure, once that truly gets going in the latter half of CASTLE OF SHADOWS.

As for minuses, I would’ve liked to see a bit more about Toby’s situation, as understanding why it took him a while to warm to Charlie and go from blackmailing her over books to true friend and confidante would’ve strengthened things a mite.  I would’ve also liked to have had a bit of actual strife earlier on — as it stands, Charlie finds out the country’s in real trouble about halfway in, and we don’t really see any armed action until nearly 7/8ths of the book has been read — as that, too, would’ve strengthened things a bit.  And I never did get a good handle on why “the O’Dair” hated Charlie, except that O’Dair was a generally hateful person anyway — this may be enough for pre-teenage readers, but it wasn’t enough for me, the adult reviewer.

That said, this is a good, solid book about a child’s search for her mother amidst a whole boatload of confusion.  The subplots dealing with the restless peasantry and the erosion of the middle class are clever ways to keep adult readers interested, yet aren’t so heavy as to overburden a younger reader’s understanding of the way the world works.  And the female-male friendship makes sense, isn’t cloying, and adds depth and richness to Charlie’s character and the story as a whole.

I enjoyed CASTLE OF SHADOWS because it moved fast, it’s enjoyable to read, and Charlie’s struggles seem like something that could actually happen, even if the country of Quale is entirely fictional.  This is a good book for pre-teens, teens who might otherwise be “reluctant readers,” and adults (within limits), as it will keep you wondering who did what to whom, and why, because the storytelling here is absolutely first-rate.

Grade: B.

— reviewed by Barb

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