Now I Rise by Kiersten White // a brutal, bloodthirsty sequel

Today on the blog, I review another of my most anticipated reads of the year! You can check out my review of the opener to this trilogy (And I Darken) here, or see a full list of my anticipated YA reads of 2017 here. Warning: this review may contain mild spoilers for both books!

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Author(s): Kiersten White
Publisher: Corgi/PRH
Publication date: 6th July 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (The Conquerors’ Saga #2)
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All quotes are taken from this copy and may be subject to change in final editions.
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Lada has only ever wanted one thing: the Wallachian throne. But foes stand in her way at every turn. She has no allies. No influence. Even her small band of soldiers is dwindling. 

After failing to reclaim Wallachia, Lada is out to punish anyone who dares to cross her path. She storms the countryside with her men, including her childhood friend Bogdan, looking for a way in, but brute force isn’t getting her what she wants. She needs another tactic. But her silver-tongued brother, Radu, remains in the Ottoman Empire and thinking of Mehmed – now the sultan – brings little comfort to her stony heart.

Unbeknownst to Lada, Mehmed has sent Radu to Constantinople. He wants control of the city, and for that he needs a spy. Radu envies his sister’s fierce self-possession, but for the first time in his life, his tangled loyalties lead him to reject her requests of him. He must succeed in Constantinople if he is to ever to make the young ruler look upon him with the same longing Radu does. 

The Dracul siblings must decide: how much they are prepared to sacrifice for power? How much are they willing to risk for love? And as nations quake and fall around them, will either goal be what they imagined? 

A ruthless, bloodthirsty, fifteenth-century what-might-have-been saga about a genderbent Vlad the Impaler may be an unlikely choice of subject for young adult fiction, but it’s certainly an eye-catching one. After the success of trilogy opener And I Darken – it went straight to number four on the NYT bestseller list – Kiersten White is back for more of Lada Dracul’s vicious clambering toward the throne. Sweeping and dark, it’s a sequel that commands the reader’s attention.

One does not simply walk into power in Wallachia, and the ferocious Lada has come up against foes which have her bouncing around medieval Eastern Europe like a particularly murderous ping-pong ball. She finds an unexpected ally in the formidable John Hunyadi. The relationship between Lada and Hunyadi – the closest Lada may ever come to a ‘positive’ father figure, and even then only because he’s a celebrated warrior whom she grudgingly helped out of a skirmish – is a fantastic addition to the book. Lada’s still not quite as heartless as she thinks is, and watching her wrestle with newly-complicated decisions was riveting.

This series is, however, told in dual perspective. Radu fits into noblemen’s courts with a patience and diplomacy Lada could never achieve, and their split to opposite fringes of the Ottoman empire makes for a narrative in which he can really test his wings. Unfortunately, this doesn’t preclude him from making poor choices (the Dracul siblings, really, specialise in those). His blind belief that Mehmed will suddenly return his feelings if only he does the sultan’s every bidding can get a little repetitive and tiresome, but the story as a whole is rich and engaging. It’s rare that both halves of an interwoven narrative are equally compelling. I was so absorbed by each section I kept forgetting there was a different storyline coming up, and after I got over the momentary surprise at a switch, it’d happen all over again.

Resolute, clear-headed Nazira was given welcome prominence, while newcomer Daciana quickly makes her presence known. Her relationship with a rather bemused Stefan is an effective and balancing subplot. Long-suffering soldiers Nicolae and Bogdan (poor Bogdan, Lada is treating him much the same way as Mehmed treats Radu) also return. Mehmed himself takes up less of the narrative but still manages to make himself less likeable in that time, while the holdovers of a ‘romance’ between Mehmed and Lada seem rather redundant when it’s clear neither of them are willing to love anyone the way they love power. Or themselves.

A busy, action-packed plot is driven by Lada’s ambition in the lawless wilds of Wallachia and Radu’s activities as a double agent in Constantinople. It was this latter backdrop – much of the book takes place during the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 – that made the book stand out for me. It’s an immersive, brilliantly-conjured plunge into a superstitious, crumbling city. I’d like to see more YA set there. White’s writing style is closer to functional than illustrative, with some unnecessary intrusions from modern terms (e.g. ‘block’ for a street) but it does the trick. There are even flashes of flair (‘The moon did not take sides. But the blood-washed expanse of the Byzantine full moon seemed to promise otherwise’, ‘the teeth of the castle and the people it devoured’) and even, very occasionally, humour (‘the sultan is the son of a donkey!’) (donkeys get a very bad rap in this book, tbh). That said, it is at times too brutal, unnecessarily grim, and it definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It reads like the middle of a trilogy, with plenty yet to be resolved. I would’ve liked even more detail and history – though it is even clearer here than in And I Darken that this is reimagined historical fiction, and it remains to be seen if White will throw in some unpredictable twists for the finale.

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Now I Rise is compelling, effective and demanding alternate history with a vicious female lead, increasingly developed characterisation and a rich choice of setting. Sweeping and unputdownable.

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Girls Can’t Hit by T.S. Easton // funny, feel-good teen fiction

29102795Author(s): T.S. Easton
Publisher:
 Hot Key Books
Publication date: 20th April 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Fleur Waters never takes anything seriously – until she turns up at her local boxing club one day, just to prove a point. She’s the only girl there, and the warm-up alone is exhausting, but the workout gives her an escape from home and school, and when she lands her first uppercut she feels a rare thrill. Determined to improve, she goes back the next week. And the next. And the next.

Her overprotective mum can’t stand the idea of her entering a boxing ring, her friends don’t really get it either, and even her ever-polite boyfriend George seems concerned by her growing passion for the sport. But Fleur is learning that sometimes, you have to take a chance on yourself, and that sometimes the best things in life can come from unexpected places.

Well-written and hugely enjoyable, Girls Can’t Hit was one of the best surprises of this year’s spring UKYA for me. Straightforward, energetic and light-hearted prose makes for a fast read which is by turns warm and serious, entertaining and absorbing. Fleur’s story takes her from a reluctant new recruit to the first one out slapping posters on the walls when the local boxing club needs her help. Hers is a tale of friendship, boxing, skipping, food, bad driving, vintage costumes, more food, Friday movie nights (including Rocky marathons, natch), a collection of gangly ginger limbs, dodgy restaurants, battle re-enactments, defying expectations, and of course, finding your passion.

Scattered with pop culture references and entirely suitable description, fans of Sarra Manning, Holly Bourne, Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison will each find something to like here. And not to sound like Tom Jones off The Voice, but I loved the tone: pitched somewhere between teen fiction and YA, it’s deliciously, brilliantly funny. Filled with moments of sharp wit and wry observation, Fleur’s sense of humour and touches of sarcasm permeate her voice and shine when multiple characters get together. I love a carefully done YA comedy, and this book just flows. As clever as it is chatty, it had me laughing out loud and I loved it.

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Stubborn, hard-working and always ready with a quip, Fleur is an irresistible heroine. She’s determined, committed, and undergoes the kind of character development which is based on finding out more about oneself, rather than losing who you are. I liked her ambition, her lively characterisation, her active pursuit of her goals. She does things, wants things, makes mistakes and cares for those around her. She may even be one of my favourite contemporary teen fiction heroines of the year so far.

Fabulous, passionate and flawed best friend Blossom is wonderfully drawn while the gangly, awkward, kind-hearted Pip even gets an arc of his own (somehow involving Normans, Saxons, steampunk, time travel and sword-waving). npretentious supporting characters may only be described in a few throwaway lines, but most are sketched just enough for it to work. Fleur has a tricky but close relationship with her Mum and Dad, while boyfriend George is pleasant (or at least he is until the break-up caused by his inability to accept Fleur’s newfound skill and THEN HE IS DEAD TO ME). Also, I totally ship Fleur and Tarik. They’re so good together and I want to see MORE OF THEM.

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And it’s surprisingly feminist! Toeing the thin line between trenchant support and affectionately mocking (“It’s not a gateway drug to the patriarchy, it’s a custard cream”), the book’s feminism ranges from ardent (Blossom) to promising (Fleur) to thematic (portrayals of casual or institutional sexism met with noticeable examination and admitted realism). There’s awareness of feminist issues, recognition of the importance of talented, conscientious female role models and appreciation of the feeling of belonging a girl-positive feminism brings to characters, and real-life teen girls, like Blossom and Fleur.

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Fleur’s discovery of boxing and other sports makes her a force to be reckoned with not just physically but mentally, as she finds a level of self-belief, resolve and courage she never knew she had. The descriptions of her boxing are almost enough to make you want to take up the sport, but at the very least will see you noticing the book’s encouraging approach. Fleur has to work at her sport to get better and improvement is seen as an achievement in itself. Easton touches on its dangers and injuries, and has characters point out its embedding in violence and toxic masculinity, but primarily focuses on its positive effects for Fleur. There are a few missteps in unclear background characterisation and scene choices, but otherwise I raced through Girls Can’t Hit.

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Satisfying and clever, this is terrifically funny, affectionately feminist, feel-good teen fiction featuring great friendships, marvellous tone and a sporting twist. An unexpected addition to my favourite reads of spring 2017. 

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Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton // a strong sequel for sassy (and sandy) fantasy

Today on the blog, I’m (finally) reviewing one of the most exciting UKYA fantasy releases of the year – though it is a sequel, so there may be spoilers! If you need a recap, I reviewed the first book in the series, Rebel of the Sands, here.

31574408Author: Alwyn Hamilton
Publisher:
 Faber & Faber
Publication date: February 2nd 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (#2)
Source: NetGalley
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Teenage gunslinger Amani Al-Hiza has escaped the dead-end desert town of Dustwalk only to find herself caught up in a rebellion held together by an enigmatic prince and a handful of extraordinary Demdji.

Thrust into the most dangerous place for a revolutionary in their war-torn kingdom, Amani is trapped in the sultan’s palace, far from the source of her magic and from those she cares about. With unlikely enemies as well as unexpected allies lurking around every corner, she must do whatever it takes to help end the tyranny of the sultan’s rule. Or the rebellion, and the hope it brings her people, will be snuffed out at the cold and pitiless hands of a tyrant – father to her rebel prince, a man who would slay his own family before giving up the throne.

For Amani, freedom is blood and sweat and sand. It means friendship forged in fire and the tantalising possibility of a life with mysterious rebel Jin. If they can make it out of the war for Miraji alive, and bring a new dawn to an old desert.

Rich, exciting and enthralling, Traitor to the Throne – the second book in what is rapidly becoming one of current UKYA’s most dramatic and action-packed fantasy series – is a commendable follow-up to last year’s Rebel of the Sands. This brisk but immersive foray into the world of Miraji – where rough wild west meets mysterious desert sands and long-hidden magic abounds – sees heroine Amani once again elbow-deep in fighting for her freedom and that of her people.  Hectic, pacy and bursting with plot, it’s driven by sparky bravery, simmering revolution, outrageous treachery, daring rescues, thrilling escapes, surprise re-appearances, and more powerful magic than ever before, and I was gripped from start to finish.

Tough, courageous, reckless and not afraid to get her hands dirty, the badass Amani crowns a cast of ragtag rebels, menacing enemies and palace spies. Among my favourites were well-written newcomers Sam and Rahim, royal prince turned noble rebel Ahmed and returning warrior Shazad, whose acerbic skill and general ferocity have been joined by fantastic flashes of friendship and loyalty. Amani’s love interest Jin also returns, though Hamilton is forced to squeeze their romantic moments into the unlikeliest of narrative places – and of course there are tempestuous tiffs and tricky complications to consider. The secondary cast is overbusy and difficult to keep track of even with the help of a character list. Hamilton resists the temptation of the traditional book two love triangle, however, and I am absolutely intrigued to see how intense the finale may be after such a fizzing installment.

Ideal for fans of Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen and Kiersten White’s And I Darken, this undoubtedly feels like the middle book of a trilogy but is still full of twists (some I guessed and some I didn’t), and if you haven’t read Rebel of the Sands, it’s well worth doing so. In world-building that is efficient yet sweeping, Hamilton takes the opportunity to show more of the creations she’s spun, from Miraji’s neighbouring nations to the sumptuous and treacherous palace. Opening with a jump in time allows for the avoidance of some second book pitfalls, but sacrifices potential emotional power and resolution.

I would’ve liked more description in the prose as it’s become noticeably more punchy and dialogue-heavy, with, dare I say it, almost too many quips? The first half is basically a bunch of teenagers trying to take over the desert armed only with sarcasm and quick comebacks, which while awesome, doesn’t make for the most substantial of reading experiences. Occasionally the series’ wild west element is forgotten amid the unquestionable glitz and glam of magic, but then that magic is beguiling – and if anything, it leaves the reader longing for more. Particularly pleasing is the weaving of folk-tales and myth-style storytelling into the high-stakes, highly entertaining plot.

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One of the best UKYA fantasy fiction offerings of recent years, Alwyn Hamilton’s tales of rebellion and magic, though not flawless, are pacy and full of action. Dramatic, exciting and unputdownable. I really enjoyed this one.

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Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton // an accomplished, action-packed fantasy adventure

249340651Author: Alwyn Hamilton
Publisher:
 Faber & Faber
Publication date: February 4th 2016
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

She’s more gunpowder than girl—and the fate of the desert lies in her hands.

Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mystical beasts still roam its barren wastes, and rumour has it that somewhere, djinni still practice their magic. But there’s nothing mystical or magical about Dustwalk, the suffocating town talented sharpshooter Amani can’t wait to escape from.

When she meets the mysterious, devastatingly handsome Jin at a shooting contest, she figures he’s the perfect escape route – but in all her years spent dreaming of leaving home, she never imagined she’d gallop away on a mythical horse, fleeing the murderous Sultan’s army, with a fugitive who’s wanted for treason. And she’d never have predicted she’d fall in love with him… or that it would lead her to secrets that could alter the face of her world forever.

Rebel of the Sands is at once rough-and-ready, tooth-and-nail action adventure and intriguing epic fantasy. It has the bite of a merciless desert and the guile of a magic-laden kingdom.  The vivid collision of two very different worlds – the tough, gunslinging wild west in which Amani has fought to survive meets the ancient, mysterious realm of dangerous power and receding magic she’s rarely seen with her own eyes – is undoubtedly the most distinctive feature of this series opener. A highly-anticipated addition to UKYA, I first read it last year and it’s a solid début, with a fabulous cover to boot.

Led by the inimitable Amani, it stars a ragtag collection of heroes, rebels and, of course, lots of villains. Amani is kickass and courageous but her recklessness and smart mouth have a tendency to get her into trouble, particularly when she’s assuming the role of the Blue-Eyed Bandit. She’s a fitting lead for the book but there’s a definite sense that she has a long way to go from here in terms of development. Other notable cast members include the friendly, somewhat reluctant rebel Bahi and the unreliable, sometime-enemy Noorsham. My favourites, however, were the mysterious, charming Jin (love interest, prince, often on the receiving end of the Bandit’s barbs) and the strategic, brutally efficient warrior Shazad, who probably has a heart there somewhere, though she keeps it well hidden, at least at first, from the rebellion’s newcomer Amani. Unfortunately, the minor characters are a little harder to distinguish, as Hamilton seems to rely more on the reader remembering them by their abilities than by their individual personalities.

This is action-packed fantasy of the fairly short variety; it’s high impact, flash-bang, relatively contained stuff. If you’re a fan of Sarah J. Maas-level flowing prose and rich backdrops, you won’t find them here. It’s written in quite a concise style, with just a touch of the quips, sarcasm and verbal sparring YA readers will love overflowing where you might expect more lavish descriptions or ponderous musings. I would’ve liked more world-building beyond that which is established by this surface skirmish with Hamilton’s undoubtedly inventive Miraji, but if you’re looking for a fast, highly visual fantasy début which is light on techniques that sometimes slow down epic fantasy, like complicated histories or meandering detail, this punchy, cinematic alternative may be for you.

The plot is strong, too, with plenty going on and enough twists that it’s very difficult to review without giving away a whole sandstorm of spoilers. High stakes and an unravelling series of complications take Amani’s tale from mere escape to all-out rebellion. Hamilton expands Amani’s narrative horizons in familiar fantasy style as this kickass heroine finds herself reluctantly drawn into a fight for her kingdom. The climactic battle has a particularly pleasing sense of scale.  Its focus sometimes gets muddled and the pacing is occasionally uneven but the plot and intrigue keeps you reading.

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Striking, dramatic and memorable, this action-packed fantasy adventure sees a clash of two worlds woven together by magic, mirage and plenty of plot. It’s not without fault and it’s not the deepest of epics but it’s a well-contained, highly readable début. 

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