Following Ophelia by Sophia Bennett // contemporary queen proves a dab hand at art-inspired historical fiction

Today on the blog, I take a look at Sophia Bennett’s latest! (what do you mean I haven’t reviewed Love Song yet I AM TOTALLY ON TOP OF MY REVIEW SCHEDULE).

33256865Author(s): Sophia Bennett
Publisher:
 Stripes
Publication date: 9 March 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

London, 1857. Young scullery maid Mary Adams has swapped her old-fashioned Kent village for the grandeur – and grime – of Victorian London.

But it’s only when she sees John Everett Millais’ depiction of the tragic Ophelia that this new world opens up for her. Caught in the irresistible circles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, where passionate young painters break the rules of art, dress, and society, she finds herself drawn to a host of new friends and heart-pounding capers. To survive in London’s high society, she reinvents herself as Persephone Lavelle, but even as rumours abound about the mysterious new face of London’s exciting art scene, she will learn that keeping secrets in the glamourous city is not as easy as it seems. And if she must choose, what will she sacrifice for who she wishes to be – and be with? 

Known for her chatty, ultra-modern YA – from fabulous teen fashion début Threads to brilliant bastion of boyband lit Love Song – Sophia Bennett’s first foray into historical fiction is pleasantly accomplished. Colourful, descriptive and neat, her prose here perhaps lacks the laugh-out-loud, natural feel of her contemporary work, but displays a remarkable shift to suit the genre.

This is accessible teen historical fiction for fans of Catherine Johnson, Julia Golding and Jacqueline Wilson. In fact, I couldn’t help feeling as I read that this book was everything I would’ve liked, but never quite obtained, from a Jacqueline Wilson historical if hers were not so simplistically or formulaically aimed at younger audiences: there is a richness, a patience, a stylistic satisfaction to Following Ophelia that simultaneously makes the novel engaging and refuses to underestimate readers. Bennett takes some fairly familiar ingredients (young maid, Victorian London, a well-to-do family, a secret world where class lines blur, a possible romance) and spins a story with just enough pluck to keep you reading.

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Mary Adams has one foot in the busy drudgery of life as a scullery maid and another in the tantalising escape of Pre-Raphaelitism, where rash and gifted painters are enraptured by her red hair and pale face, seeing her not as a changeling or curse but as a potential muse for great works. Finding herself drawn to talented young artist Felix, they embark on Hades and Persephone: the painting that will win him renown and free her from servitude. Mary’s secret life as Persephone sees her in cahoots with the vivacious Kitty and her scandalous brother Roly (“the most dangerous man in London”), while her everyday existence is brought down to earth with a bump by the seemingly antagonistic Annie, mysterious acquaintance Eddie, and the plight of her cousin Harriet. As the stakes get higher Bennett brilliantly takes the opportunity to explore issues involving agency, class, sexism, and lack of education. A particularly interesting look at the relationship between artist and model makes for a book which has its themes woven superlatively between escapades.

The book’s premise caught my eye because of the art, and it held my attention because of it. The discovery of the Pre-Raphaelite movement turns Mary’s narrative to glorious technicolour, and brings out the shine in Bennett’s prose. It may occasionally feel as if everything is a little too beautiful, but with entertaining cameos from some famous artistic figures – Hunt, Rossetti, Millais – and glittering insight into London’s high society, readers will be swept away by an eventful plot which cleverly segues from grimy servants’ quarters for glamourous parties sometimes within the space of a single chapter. Solidly, though not exceptionally, researched, the book glosses over some darker issues of Victorian Britain but has moments of real skill and has sequels in the pipeline, making it both an enjoyable read and a worthy recommendation for 11-14s.

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Remarkably accomplished, eventful and enjoyable historical fiction with an interesting cast and some deliciously vivid description. I’m particularly excited to learn that this is the first in a series.

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a pair of reviews // seas, ships, and some very mixed results

That’s right folks, this week on the blog, you get not one but two reviews! These are both books I read in the spring and have meant to review for ages, and both feature seas and ships – though as you’ll see, the combination is approached very differently by each.

Salt to t28103790he Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Puffin
Publication date: February 2 2016
Source: NetGalley
Genre: historical fiction
Category: YA

Salt to the Sea weaves together multiple alternating viewpoints as the lives of four teenagers – Florian, Joana, Emilia and Alfred – briefly converge during one of the most catastrophic moments in maritime history: the boarding of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 off the coast of what is now Poland. Florian and Joana are stand-out characters, their courage and instinct for survival also yielding tremendous acts of kindness and companionship.

Serious, sombre and gut-wrenching, Salt to the Sea is hugely indicative of the skill of an author who has honed a talent for weaving little-known histories into novels ideal for YA and adult audiences alike. It’s the story of characters who’ve had to leave everything they’ve ever known behind, with much of the book taking place on their journey to what seems like a last chance for sanctuary. The prose is distinctive and fairly sparse, but it’s a compelling read.

Ruta Sepetys is a writer who can take what is essentially the typical, predictable set-up of her genre – telling the story of fictional, though plausible, characters facing individual and collective struggles against the backdrop of historical, and in this case, harrowing events – and prove that it’s still worth reading; that there are still myriad tales to be reworked from history, even in periods we’ve seen explored before. The story told in Salt to the Sea doesn’t even remotely appear on this list of historical fiction I’d love to see, but Sepetys continues to surprise with her ability to draw readers in to her subjects of choice. The book’s short chapters and tough topics mean it absolutely won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the depth of her research shines from the page.

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For fans of Elizabeth Wein, Sarah Crossan and Jennifer Donnelly, Salt to the Sea is a well-researched, incredibly sombre and often moving novel which expertly twines historical events with distinct, vocal teenage characters.

25950053The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: 3 March 2016
Source: NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, urban fantasy, sci-fi(ish)
Category: YA

The Girl from Everywhere caught my eye because of its premise: a swashbuckling tale featuring the motley crew of a time-travelling ship and a girl with the world at her feet and a whole menagerie of magical creatures and mythology at her fingertips? It sounded like a slam dunk read. Even the title and cover conjured up images of beautiful prose, luxurious detail and fantastical landscapes; storm-tossed seas, old maps, the creak of magnificent ships plunging from one world to another. I wanted spectacular fantasy, full of sweeping adventure. Unfortunately, the book fails to live up to its potential.

There are so many extraordinary things in this book’s world – pristine beaches, mystic creatures, exciting adventures – yet the writing does justice to none of them. To say this book disappoints is an understatement: it was published amid a torrent of hype, and as is so often the case, it was not worth that hype at all. The prose is brash and forced. Key details are mentioned as brusque asides. The book squanders its possibilities on secondary plots and one-dimensional characters, and the resulting story is unengaging.

At one point I actually wondered if I’d missed out several early chapters, but no, it’s just a book with totally inexplicable pacing. Maybe it would have worked if readers had any time to get to know the characters, instead of being flung abruptly into unexplained chase sequences and scenes which are probably supposed to have some kind of great significance but which flounder in a writing style that seems to reject meaningful description from the outset. I wanted to like protagonist Nix, but the writing style never allows for her character to be endeared to the reader. I liked Kashmir, but the rest of the cast fall flat: in trying to be all things to all readers, they end up lacking any depth. Later improvements in the book’s details and style are too little, too late: there’s no emotional resonance, no breath-taking descriptions or any real sense of thrill. Throw in underutilized dragons (I really do not like underutilisation of dragons), an out-of-the-blue love triangle and a plot which initially intrigues but lapses into predictability, and The Girl from Everywhere is, to put it mildly, a let-down.

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I’m a fairly generous reviewer, but I just wouldn’t recommend this one. Sarah J. Maas and Leigh Bardugo are still your best bet for sprawling YA fantasy, or if you’re specifically looking for a take on magic and maps, look to Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars.

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a pair of reviews // (mostly) marvellous middle grade

Today on the blog, I catch up on some middle grade I’ve been meaning to review for ages – this time, with plenty of action-adventure (and darkly-toned covers).

25613853Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden
Publisher:
Puffin (PRH)
Publication date: April 7th 2016
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Genre:  f
antasy, paranormal
Category:
MG/YA

An action-orientated series opener with a hero by the unlikely name of Denizen Hardwick, Knights of the Borrowed Dark borders that line between upper middle grade and younger YA. It reads rather like a comic book, its pages splashed with gaping cliffs, flashes of lightning and lurking henchmen.

Clearly written and sometimes humourously self-aware, its straightforward prose must stretch to encompass Denizen’s rocky beginnings, high-octane chase sequences, and of course, the mysterious order of knights who are revealed to protect the world from monsters. The book is full of ghastly orphanages and enigmatic acquaintances, though I would’ve liked more thoughtful exploration, several characters could’ve been better developed and it runs the risk of casting all odd-looking caricatures as villains. Perhaps drawing on the influence of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the book drifts a little too much toward being a burlesque of every gothic trope known to fiction, but with plenty of “but how do we get boys reading?!” appeal and blockbuster backing, this planned trilogy will likely go far.

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Knights of the Borrowed Dark takes familiar ingredients of unremarkable-boy-turns-unlikely-hero fiction and mixes them with the heightened atmosphere of the almost-gothic – a kind of Rick Riordan meets Lemony Snicket recipe – to create an accessible fantasy début, though it doesn’t avoid all the pitfalls of its genres.

25995832The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands
Publisher
: Puffin (PRH)
Publication date: September 3rd 2015
Source: NetGalley
Genre: historical fiction, fantasy, mystery
Category: MG

I read this book in 2015, and when I was looking for titles to add to my review list I couldn’t believe I hadn’t already reviewed it! I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. The Blackthorn Key is clever, sophisticated and completely engaging historical fiction. Brimming with mysteries, puzzles, codes, potions, clues, danger and friendship, it holds the reader’s attention and while it generally favours adventure over detail, it’s doesn’t fall into the upper MG trap of being too simple – it’s both challenging and exciting stuff.

It’s 1665 and fourteen-year-old Christopher Rowe is in busy, bustling London, apprenticed to a master apothecary. Benedict Blackthorn is teaching him the delicate balances and steady hands required to handle and create powerful medicines, potions, even weapons – but when mysterious accidents begin to befall the city’s apothecaries and scholars, Christopher finds himself torn from the shop he’s come to know as home with only a dire warning and a page of cryptic clues at his disposal. As they uncover secrets and the net of jeopardy closes in, Christopher and his best friend Tom must decipher a plot as pacy as it is intriguing. Unfortunately, some of the characters read like cardboard cut-outs – and I particularly would’ve liked to see more complex roles for the female characters, who are reduced to minor, stereotypical background moments in a book which, with all its alchemy and adventuring, has no excuse not to feature well-realized female leads.

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An awesome, though definitely imperfect, apothecary adventure. Action-packed and easy to read with a clever, engaging mystery-solving quest at its core. 

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The Last Beginning by Lauren James // even more wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff

Author: La24550848uren James
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 6 October 2016
Category: YA
Genre: contemporary, sci-fi, historical fiction, time travel (…it’s, er, complicated)
Series or standalone?: duology (#2)
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

The epic sequel to Lauren James’ enthralling début about love, destiny and time travel.

Sixteen years ago, after a scandal that rocked – and saved – the world, Kate Finchley and Matt Galloway  vanished without a trace. 

Stumbling upon their story, and wondering what it has to do with hers, in the present day, teenager Clove Sutcliffe is determined to find out what happened to them. But where do you start looking for a couple who seem to have been reincarnated at every key moment in history? Who were Kate and Matt? Why were they born again and again? And who is the mystery girl who keeps appearing at every turn in Clove’s investigation?

Lauren James’ The Last Beginning brings back much of what made her début novel The Next Together stand out: a multitude of timelines, a sci-fi twist on a star-crossed romance, and of course, more pieces of the puzzle in the story of Matthew Galloway and Katherine Finchley, who seem destined to be born again and again throughout history, changing the world – and losing each other – every time.  Unique, funny, chaotic and full of adventure, The Last Beginning picks up with a new heroine. A passionate knitter and whiz-kid programmer, Clove is smart, impetuous, hot-headed and prone to making slightly disastrous and immature decisions, but her heart’s (usually) in the right place.

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#clove’s life philosophy, tbh

Clove longs to be the world’s first time traveller, and lucky for her, her scientist parents have been working on a time machine prototype at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. A startling revelation, however, turns Clove’s life upside down, and sees her tackling time travel rather sooner than even she expected. Throw in multiple mysteries to solve, fugitives to track down and a prominent LGBTQ+ romance, and Clove, while not my favourite character in the book, certainly has her hands full in this plot-packed but surprisingly fast read.

My favourite character, of course, was Tom. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen my over-the-top livetweeting but just in case, let me explain: Tom is Matthew’s hot ex-hacker brother. Sharp, dedicated, quick-witted, and essentially a total softie, for me he stole the show in the first book and does so even more here. He’s hotter and more noble than ever. Oh, and at one point he trades science for rebellion and a motorbike. The novel has a relatively small cast and not all are vividly drawn, but newcomers Jen and Ella are solid additions, while Clove’s exchanges with sassy, soap-opera-watching computer Spart are a strong source of humour in the book.

Like with The Next Together, the book features historical, contemporary and futuristic sequences, twined together in a dizzying array of twists and connections. New for this book is the use of alternate universes – timelines which have diverged completely from ones the reader has been introduced to – and the huge emphasis on sci-fi. There’s so much going on, in fact, that it’s a little too confusing. The Last Beginning is so focused on hitting the beats and going through the motions of plot that it forgets to let the story breathe. It doesn’t spend enough time on scenes that matter, which lessens any sense of emotional payoff. It occasionally feels like a mere guide for filling in the blanks of the first book, and even then there are plot holes and unrealistic reactions which weigh down the text. There’s a lot of tell over show and the need to get through scenes as quickly as possible sees many characters acting, well, out of character. They’re so caught up in time-travel and sci-fi that the reader doesn’t get to see them as they are, as they could be. I would’ve liked to have seen more of Clove, Tom and Jen before the reveal, or more of Clove after meeting Kate and Matt – so much happens between them, but the book almost reads like important moments have been left off the page.

There is plenty to like about the book, however, and while you’ll need to have read The Next Together to make sense of this one (you can read my very excited 4.5 star review here), the duology remains one of the most unique on the UKYA shelf. The return of visual, often entertaining epistolary additions like letters, emails, articles, extracts, doodles, transcripts and powerpoints is particularly brilliant. The complexities of time travel are more than just navigated, they’re embraced: this is a book which throws its arms around things like anomalies and paradoxes and says, look, if there’s one there may as well be a hundred. More than anything, Lauren James has displayed a tremendous talent for concept and a willingness to add an unexpected twist or three to a familiar premise. I can’t wait to see where she goes with her writing next.

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Fans of Lauren James’ début will find a lot to like about this sequel: the return of much-loved characters, a multitude of timelines, a busy plot, great humour and a prominent romance make for a jam-packed semi-epistolary read. It’s not quite perfect and the narrative needed more space to breathe, but it’s an absolutely enjoyable time-travel page-turner.

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The Next Together by Lauren James // wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff

The Next Together by Lauren James has been out for a whole year! To celebrate, I’m reposting my review from the first time around (and just in case you haven’t read the book yet).

(You can read the original post here. Minor edits have been made to this one for typos and sentence structure.)

23266378Author: Lauren James
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 3 September 2015
Category: YA
Genre: contemporary, sci-fi, historical, time-travel (…it’s a bit complicated)
Series or standalone?: series (#1 of 2)
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

How many times can you lose the person you love?

Katherine and Matthew are destined to be born again and again, century after century. Each time, their presence changes history for the better, and each time, they fall hopelessly in love, only to be tragically separated.  Spanning the Crimean War, the Siege of Carlisle and the near-future of 2019 and 2039 they find themselves sacrificing their lives to save the world. But why do they keep coming back? What else must they achieve before they can be left to live and love in peace?  Maybe the next together will be different…

Take a look at any bookshelf this year and you’ll come face to face with a treasure trove of cutting-edge contemporaries and lush high fantasies. Look a little further, however, and you’ll find one of the most original UKYA débuts in years winning fans from all sides in the run up to publication. That début is The Next Together, a dramatic and enthralling tale of romance and intrigue split across three centuries.

We first meet Katherine and Matthew in a laboratory in 2039. And in 1745 before the Siege of Carlisle. And again during the Crimean War in 1854. And, in my favourite storyline, through post-it notes, power-points, e-mails, texts, status updates, diary entries and Tumblr posts from their lives in 2019. In fact, letters, articles, postcards and maps bring a touch of magic to all three of these otherwise straightforward stories, tying them together as they brim over with love, tragedy and hope. Kate and Matt’s romance draws you in and has you racing to discover their destiny; I absolutely adored it.

Their story is a veritable melting pot of themes and storylines, all rounded off with a distinct, economical and shamelessly British writing style. It has everything you could wish for and more: time travel, unusual settings, memorable leads, history, science, humour, LGBTQ+ characters, star-crossed lovers. It even brings us characters in a positive long-term relationship, something I really want to see more of in YA. The Next Together has so much going on, in fact, it almost shouldn’t work – but it does. Somehow, this patchwork quilt of a novel pulls together into a warm, comforting story readers will want to return to time and again. It’s inventive, sweet and down-to-earth.

There’s a sense that feisty, exuberant Kate could easily crash from one embarrassing situation to the next, but she’s witty, brave and bashful, and I couldn’t help but fall for her. This book is full of unexpected humour, and Kate is at the heart of it. She doesn’t hold back and she will grow on you. Matthew is her long-suffering partner in crime, but behind that shy smile and messy hair is a courageous, honourable and above all, deeply good guy. He’s a breath of fresh air against a backdrop of brooding YA heroes; it won’t be long before you fall for him, too. I loved Matt’s laidback brother Tom, too, and of course Kate’s cool, chatty grandmothers Nancy and Flo. I almost wished the book had been longer so as to spend more time with them – with all of the leading characters, really. It works as a standalone, but fans will be thrilled to hear a sequel, The Last Beginning, releases in October 2016.

Hit-and-miss pacing is an issue for an already compact book, as its early pages dawdle and later scenes are rushed. Some plot problems are just too easy for our leads to figure out and there are definite plot holes. I’d hoped for more passion and emotion in the writing (probably because I’d just finished reading Crown of Midnight, which is basically the written equivalent of a hurricane) and it’s missing illustrative description, so while it’s easy to let historical discrepancies slide as creative licence, readers will have to work to conjure up scenery and visuals. The book’s minor characters are hastily sketched at best and it doesn’t escape the age-old problem of tell vs. show, either.

Yet even in this constantly shifting sea of storylines, The Next Together does an excellent job of keeping you on your toes. Even the finale raises more questions than it answers. There’s something refreshingly innocent and old-school about the way this book looks at the world, though it’s modern and engaging. The first half of the book is a slow burn, but it’s full of mystery and by the time Kate and Matt start unravelling the threads of the conspiracy around them, it’s all kicking off: fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…

Okay, so only some of those things happen here. But I don’t quote The Princess Bride without good reason. If you’re looking for a début that packs a surprising amount of action into its pages, this book is for you. Lauren James writes such heartfelt leads, it’s impossible not to be swept up in the joy, and possibilities, of this storytelling universe.

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This book is like gold dust. Deeply romantic, refreshingly real and wonderfully original, it’s a stellar début from a talented new voice in YA fiction. The Next Together will capture your heart and your imagination. Charming, ambitious and surprising, once you’re hooked, you won’t want to put it down. It’s gut-wrenching, heart-warming, near-perfect and very, very funny. I can’t wait to see what Lauren James has in store for us next.

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‘Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?’ (or Historical YA Fiction I’d Love to Read)

Today on the blog we’re talking two of my favourite things: history and YA! Historical fiction can be a love-hate affair, conjuring up images of dense prose and dreary detail, but when it’s done well it can be fantastic. And it has so much potential. It has all of history at its disposal!

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So what would I like to see more of? Well…

First up: actual medieval fantasy/historical fiction. ‘Medieval’ has become a catch-all or default term for any historical fiction-meets-fantasy world, but really good Middle Ages-set (roughly between years 500-1500 JUST DON’T ASK A MEDIEVALIST ABOUT IT for the love of god) teen fiction is quite rare. And okay, it was 99% terrible for everyone, but there were still many interesting events and people that haven’t been written about yet! That is a long time. Centuries’ worth of stories. Peasants and princes and dramatic storytelling possibilities.

A classy spy drama with a capable, complex female lead (and great outfits). Me? Still bitter over the cancellation of Agent Carter?

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Fancy high-society discovering-secrets YA set in Edinburgh. Or anywhere that isn’t London, really. I know, I know, London was where people paraded around in their finery and where eligible heiresses were presented to the royal family so they could become even fancier and more eligible or whatever but there were surely interesting things happening somewhere outside it…

An Indiana Jones-style archaeologist-explorer adventure with a courageous heroine. Look, I know he’s not great at preserving Sites of Importance, but Indiana Jones is the big name in action adventure. Movies tend to objectify (yes, Lara Croft, I’m looking at you) but a female-led archaeo-adventure in YA would be A+.

ARTHURIAN ROMANCE. Epic quests, the Round Table, castles, magic, dragons, Middle English no one can read… WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T THINK HE WAS REAL

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#squad

YA set in the free-spirited 1960s. Or 1900s France. (…I have very specific tastes in historical eras.)

Historical fiction set in the Byzantine empire. I’ve never seen any young adult fiction set in the heyday of the Byzantine empire, but it was SO INTERESTING. There’s art and a whole different culture and my faves Justinian and Theodora *heart eyes emoji*

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More historical YA about badass ladies. This is bit of a theme when it comes to book requests from me, to be honest, but there are SO MANY AMAZING WOMEN in history. Warriors and daughters and musicians and teen heroines doing things. Badass covers a multitude: intelligent, hard-working, brave, skilled, honourable, flawed – or maybe ALL ALL OF THE ABOVE IN THE SAME PERSON?! *collective gasp*

Robin Hood. I’ve yet to read a young adult take on Robin Hood that I’d give five stars! I know there are movies and the BBC’s version is a strong television adaptation, but- WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T THINK HE WAS REAL EITHER

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And of course: historical fiction set in unusual time periods and places. I’d just like to see more exciting, different stories about teenagers in history. There’s so much to choose from, and what I’ve mentioned here barely scratches the surface. An amazing  book could be about a person you’ve never heard of or a place you know very little about (…except that they probably had badass ladies doing awesome things there at some point).

What about you? Historical fiction: love it or loathe it? What would you like to see more of in YA?

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And I Darken by Kiersten White // ambitious, enthralling alternate history

25324111Author: Kiersten White
Publisher: Corgi Children’s/Delacorte
Publication date: 7 July 2016
Category: YA
Genre: alternate history, historical fiction
Series or standalone?: Series
Source: I was kindly sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

No one expects a princess to be brutal.

In the perilous courts of fifteenth century Europe, there’s only one person Lada Dragwyla can rely on: herself. Abandoned by their father and used as pawns in a distant conflict, Lada and her brother Radu know their new home in the Ottoman empire is more prison than palace. Survival, let alone revenge, appears a slim possibility – but then Lada is no ordinary princess.

Lada has a thirst for power, but first she must find a way out of danger and back to the throne she believes is rightfully hers. A skilled warrior and a sharp tactician, even friendship with the sultan’s son, Mehmed, cannot quell Lada’s dreams of home – or her ruthless heart. Soon, however, Lada will find that the tangle of intrigue and suspicion which surrounds her is more complicated than she thinks.

A sweeping, elaborate alternate history with a ferocious cast, And I Darken is Kiersten White’s most ambitious project yet. I’m a fan of The Chaos of Stars, her entertaining, sometimes gorgeously written tale of starcrossed love, sunny San Diego and mythological sass. It’s a Stephanie Perkins meets Rick Riordan standalone with a great heroine. Also, when I reviewed it this happened:

(I JUST REALLY LIKE BOOKS OKAY AND SOMETIMES THIS MAKES VERY WORDY AND FULL OF FEELS also I’m doing my best to make this review one that, while enjoyable, will not provoke sobbing??)

YA is full of retellings, and still the premise behind And I Darken could make you do a double-take: it’s the reimagined what-might-have-been story of a genderbent Vlad the Impaler. It’s an idea most would never imagine as YA. It almost shouldn’t work – but somehow, it does. The writing style is detailed but familiar, weaving strong plot, page-turning intrigue and an interesting cultures into a novel which is both busy and clearly just the beginning of an epic saga. Throw in twists, turns, betrayals, lush backdrops and a well-written central trio, and this is enthralling historical fantasy.

It’s rare that a writer’s work matches up so fervently to their premise. To pull off its demanding hook, And I Darken has to commit to the possibilities of exploring alternate history. Kiersten White doesn’t underestimate her audience, but doesn’t assume they’ll invest in the idea either, and the result is bold but careful storytelling. By the end, you’ve forgotten Lada is supposed to be anyone but herself.

Lada is vicious, audacious, and prepared to do whatever it takes to save her own skin. She’s angry, blunt and spirited. I wrote that The Chaos of Stars’ Isadora is the kind of person you’d want on your side in a fight, but Lada is a completely different kettle of fish. She’s the person you’d want to be as far away from as possible in a fight, because she’s probably there to beat you. She’s brutal, though perhaps not quite as heartless as she thinks she is. She longs to see her childhood friend Bogdan again, has her curiosity piqued by new acquaintance Mehmed, and while she treats her brother Radu with the long-suffering sighs of someone fed up of her charge falling over and needing her to right them again, she does love him. Radu is the sun to her shadow, a welcome narrative relief who reveals secrets of his own. Mehmed is young, just finding his way around power, and may find that crossing Lada is a mistake not many would be brave enough to make.

There is a lack of positive relationships between Lada and other women, at least initially. Lada’s mother is written off almost immediately and the women of the Ottoman harem meet with her derision. White seems to notice this about a third of the way in, however, and while the book stops short of having Lada form deep, lasting female friendships, there are important female characters: power-hungry Huma; savvy, cynical Mara; bouncy, optimistic Halima; beautiful, coy Nazira. There are LGBTQ+ characters, several of whom I’d like to see more of in the sequels (which look set to be darker than this opener, but there’ll have to be happiness in there somewhere…)

The pacing is slow and while the first half is solid, the second half meanders in spite of action sequences. There are so many subplots they seem to merge together, hazy and hard to untangle. The jam-packed secondary cast can be difficult to keep up with and as the book tends to jump from place to place, I would’ve liked more vivid description to conjure the many scene changes. Fortunately, the book’s satisfying, unusual take on history was more than enough to keep me reading.

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And I Darken is fantastic historical fiction. Compelling, detailed and full of drama, it’s a challenging and unusual read with a ferocious heroine and an accomplished narrative voice. I’d love to see more YA take on ideas as ambitious as this. One of Kiersten White’s best books yet.

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