the winner's curse

Thursday, February 19, 2015 | | 3 comments
I feel as though I have two different standards when it comes to fantasy.  Either it must be fun and funny (in which case I will voluntarily overlook any number of plot holes – see: Croak, for sci-fi, Stitching Snow), or it must be serious, and of the absolute highest quality.  I’m not saying that a book can’t be both excellent and fun (after all: Unspoken), I’m just saying that there’s a strange dichotomy in my head that awards high marks to books that make me laugh.  All that to say… I like my thoughtful fantasy nearly flawless.  Know what?  Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse met and exceeded those expectations.

the winner's curse by marie kutkoski book cover
Winning what you want may cost you everything you love.

As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions. One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction.

Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin. But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.

Set in a richly imagined new world, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.

Kestrel is a privileged young scion in a society where there are two paths open to any young woman: military enlistment or marriage.  Luckily, she has a few years until she will be forced to make that despised choice – despised, because her true passion is music.  But as the daughter of a famous General living in a recently-colonized land, her options seem few and poor.  When she breaks her own rules and buys a slave at auction, Kestrel begins to see bits and pieces of the larger game she’s playing (cheating?), and she’s determined to win – but at what cost?

Oh, this book!  It’s smart and beautifully-written, and engaging, and… emotion-filled.  When I finished it I felt like I need to sit still and breathe deeply, to calm my racing heart.  That is talent.  In Kestrel, Rutkoski has created an intelligent, resourceful and caring heroine who has been steeped in strategy from birth and trained by the finest fighters on offer.  And yet, this is not a “fighting book” (by which I mean, a series of action sequences/battles described in great detail one after another)(though there are fights.  the knife on the cover doesn’t lie).  No, this is a story about a good person weighing the odds, calculating the outcome, and making impossible choices.  Kestrell is a badas$.  No qualification needed.  I love complex heroines!

This paragraph is where I usually summarize the plot.  Just, NOPE.  I can’t spoil this book for future readers.  If you want to know more, read it.  It’s flipping good, and you won’t be sorry.  What I will talk about is world-building.  This is non-magical fantasy.  What does that mean?  It’s set in an alternate world, and is vaguely historical in nature (no mention of electricity, no science that isn’t present on Earth).  There’s a sprawling empire, omnipresent military, and a barbaric stance on subjugated peoples.  Think Rome, but forwarded into at least the Renaissance era.  And what makes it all hold together?  Politics!  I can’t believe I’m saying this (because I’m an outspoken proponent of standalones), but I’m glad Rutkoski is writing this as a trilogy.  There’s so much to play with: economics, societal hierarchy, gender norms and expectations, and of course star-crossed love.

One comment on “love” – I was so, so pleased that there wasn’t instant adoration in this story.  I feel that in young adult lit romance is often forced on the reader, even if it seems to go against the natural inclinations or morals of the characters (and in this case it would have: there’s a master/slave dynamic, differing nationalities, and opposing goals in life).  I also appreciated the fact that the reader is never asked to fawn over the beautiful main characters.  Kestrel and Arin are described by their thoughts, actions and conflicts before their pretty faces are mentioned.  Maybe it’s just me, but that made the characterization sing just a little bit more.  Kestrel and Arin’s growing understanding ended up punching me in the gut (in a good way), and a large part of that reaction was due to the complex sentiment that Rutkoski built between the two main characters.

In all, this is an intricate, intelligent book, and it knocked my socks off.  Oh, and it’s fantastic entertainment – I couldn’t put it down.

Recommended for: fans of the fantasy and politics of authors Kristen Cashore and Sharon Shinn, those who appreciated the intrigue of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, and anyone who likes their fantasy magic-less and full of plot twists.

Fine print: I received an ARC of this book for review consideration from the publisher, but I ended up reading a final copy from the library.  I did not receive any compensation for this post.

glory o’brien’s history of the future

Wednesday, February 18, 2015 | | 4 comments
I’ve been hearing good things about A.S. King’s writing ever since I started blogging back in 2009.  Her books are blogger favorites, and though the buzz surrounding them kindled some interest, I was never so overwhelmed by the praise that I felt a need to pick up one of her titles.  That changed this winter when I participated in the final round of judging for the 2014 CYBILS awards, in the Young Adult Speculative Fiction category.  Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future was one of the finalists, so I was required to read it.  Reaction: **hands clasped to heart** I loved everything about this weird, wonderful book.

glory o'brien's history of the future by a.s. king book cover
In this masterpiece about freedom, feminism, and destiny, Printz Honor author A.S. King tells the epic story of a girl coping with devastating loss at long lasta girl who has no idea that the future needs her, and that the present needs her even more.

Graduating from high school is a time of limitless possibilities--but not for Glory, who has no plan for what's next. Her mother committed suicide when Glory was only four years old, and she's never stopped wondering if she will eventually go the same way...until a transformative night when she begins to experience an astonishing new power to see a person's infinite past and future. From ancient ancestors to many generations forward, Glory is bombarded with visionsand what she sees ahead of her is terrifying: A tyrannical new leader raises an army. Women's rights disappear. A violent second civil war breaks out. And young girls vanish daily, sold off or interned in camps. Glory makes it her mission to record everything she sees, hoping her notes will somehow make a difference. She may not see a future for herself, but she'll do anything to make sure this one doesn't come to pass.

Glory O’Brien is a soon-to-be high school graduate with no after-graduation plans.  Her mother killed herself when Glory was four.  Her mother was a gifted photographer, and Glory is a photographer herself.  She wonders daily (hourly?) if she’ll go the same way.  In the meantime, she’s trying to figure herself out through her mother’s images, playing with perspective, asking hard questions about her family history, and, on a whim, drinking a petrified bat with her best friend (?!).  She’s pretty sure the bat is what started the visions of the future.  Add one more item to the list of things that make Glory question her sanity. 

Glory is an isolated deep thinker (because who really asks the big questions anymore, especially fresh out of high school?), and she’s examining every part of her life for evidence of insanity.  That examination raises many questions: What is normal?  Is it okay to be not-normal?  Is everything predetermined?  What happens when people are confronted with suicide?  Are we all mundane?  Are we all special?  Even with all of these notions swirling around in her head, the story is concrete – Glory is solid.  Her story is about finding herself.  It’s about growing up, in mind and emotion, and letting go of the crutches of childhood.  Glory has a glimpse of the future, and it prompts her to look beyond the now, beyond herself, to reach conclusions about society and its inherent conditioning.  Glory might be a little weird, but it’s the good kind.

This book touched on so many important topics: the philosophical split in American culture, the patriarchy, a fascination with cult life, the societal “machine” that pumps out indebted college graduates, an obsession with sex, and the isolation of the individual.  It asked if the future is headed somewhere dark, and if it is, what choices are we making or not making that contribute to that future.  And yet, despite all of those issues, heavy as they are, this was not a dark book.  It was a quick, funny young adult read with heaps of literary merit.

How did it come together, then?  When it might have veered into too-quirky or too-sad territory, Glory and her unique mental dialogue pulled the narrative away from the edge.  Her sweet/bittersweet/hilarious take on growing up and away from childhood carried the book.  Glory’s voice was frank, healthy, and fit together in a way that managed darkly funny rather than horrid or melancholy.  I know that the book must have been a bear to piece together, what with flashbacks and bits of the future, but the prose is effortless and evocative, and that is a hallmark of incredible writing.

In all, Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future is an odd, intelligent book that manages to be weird as all get-out and awesome and extremely readable at the same time.  I foresee a lot of A.S. King books in my reading future.

Recommended for: fans of Francesca Lia Block and Kimberly Pauley’s Ask Me, and anyone who enjoys young adult fiction and magical realism.

princess decomposia and count spatula

You might take a quick glance at the cover of this graphic novel and think, “What is Cecelia doing, reviewing a gothic tale on Valentine’s Day?! She has her holidays mixed up.”  Bear with me for half a second!  The tagline on the cover is actually “Who says romance is dead?” and if you look closely, that vampire has hearts for eyes.  Unlikely as it may seem, this is actually the perfect read for the occasion.  Andi Watson’s Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula is all-around adorable and very, very sweet.

princess decomposia and count spatula by andi watson book cover
Princess Decomposia is overworked and underappreciated.  

This princess of the underworld has plenty of her own work to do but always seems to find herself doing her layabout father's job, as well. The king doesn't feel quite well, you see. Ever. So the princess is left scurrying through the halls, dodging her mummy, werewolf, and ghost subjects, always running behind and always buried under a ton of paperwork. Oh, and her father just fired the chef, so now she has to hire a new cook as well. 

Luckily for Princess Decomposia, she makes a good hire in Count Spatula, the vampire chef with a sweet tooth. He's a charming go-getter of a blood-sucker, and pretty soon the two young ghouls become friends. And then...more than friends? Maybe eventually, but first Princess Decomposia has to sort out her life. And with Count Spatula at her side, you can be sure she'll succeed.  

Andi Watson (Glister, Gum Girl) brings his signature gothy-cute sensibility to this very sweet and mildly spooky tale of friendship, family, and management training for the undead.

Princess Decomposia does the work of the kingdom while her invalid father King Wulfrun spends each day in bed.  Running a kingdom is hard (and hungry) work!  When the castle cook resigns without notice on the day before the werewolf delegation is due for dinner, Princess Decomposia (Dee for short) is thrown for a loop.  Luckily for Dee, vampire chef Count Spatula is an applicant for the new opening. The Count brings a certain flair for the experimental to the castle and the Princess’ life – but will it last?  Duty may yet trump romance (and baked goods)…

The plot is fairly simple: overworked girl meets new boy, the status quo changes, people react, girl makes a decision, there’s a revelation!, and with a little bit of work, the characters get a happily ever after.  As you might be able to tell from the title and cover art, this is all done in a tongue-in-cheek fictional paranormal kingdom, where the scullery maid is a clove of garlic and the zombie head of state makes boring dinner conversation.  Half the fun is seeing what sort of monster will make an appearance next, and what role they will play in the story.  The combination of subtle and overt humor is delightful.

Of course, with a character named Count Spatula, there are cooking- and baking-related adventures.  The Count doesn’t have the references of some applicants, but he is adept at caring for people (or monsters, in this case) and whipping up fantastical desserts in short order.  His unique take on Lemon Drizzle Cake looked crazy/good, and the Mud Monster Cake made me laugh out loud.  I find myself craving these fictional sweets as I read.  A mouth-watering problem, to be sure.

The art, with a few exceptions, is almost all arranged in 5 or 6 small panels per page, and done exclusively in black and white.  This is perfect for the ghoulish characters (who would mostly be black and white, anyway!), but at some points a proliferation of bones in one illustration or another would confuse my eye a bit – not enough contrast.  The style is cute and unfussy for what are usually grim, horrible creatures, and I loved that juxtaposition.  The art seems to invite the reader to laugh at or imagine the daily lives of traditional scary monsters, and that’s just fun, you know? 

In all, this graphic novel is a pleasure to read.  It’s quick, all-ages appropriate, and highlights the themes of asking for help when you need it, doing what you can to fix things when you make a mistake, and (of course) the joys of baking.

Recommended for: fans of both paranormal fantasy and graphic novels, and anyone looking for a brief, adorable read.

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula will be released on February 24, 2015 by First Second Books (Macmillan).

Interested in other food-related posts?  Check out Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking!

Fine print: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

2014 cybils awards

For the past two years, I’ve participated in the CYBILS award process.  Last year, I helped judge the first round of the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category.  This year I was a final round judge for Young Adult Speculative Fiction.  The other panelists and I read some fantastic novels, and making the final decision was difficult!  

In the end, we selected Matt de la Peña’s The Living.  My fellow panelists and I appreciated its teen appeal, diverse characters and distinctive voice.  Look out for my review of this CYBILS award winner and other finalists in the coming weeks! Check out the full list of winners (all categories) here.

the living by matt de la peña book cover
Shy took the summer job to make some money. In a few months on a luxury cruise liner, he'll rake in the tips and be able to help his mom and sister out with the bills. And how bad can it be? Bikinis, free food, maybe even a girl or two—every cruise has different passengers, after all.

But everything changes when the Big One hits. Shy's only weeks out at sea when an earthquake more massive than ever before recorded hits California, and his life is forever changed.

The earthquake is only the first disaster. Suddenly it's a fight to survive for those left living.

Thanks to both first and final round judges for their good taste and good cheer during the process.  If you’d like to learn more about the CYBILS and how you can be involved, be sure to check out

waiting on wednesday (85)

Today I’m participating in "Waiting On" Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. Its purpose is to spotlight upcoming book releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

I checked, and I've never reviewed a Donna Jo Napoli book here on the blog. This is a little (read: a lot!) unbelievable to me, because I devoured her fairy tale retellings when I first started reading young adult fiction (back in the last millennium).  I remember her Little Mermaid and Rapunzel retellings in particular, and I can definitely attribute my continued passion for the subgenre to those early reads.  When I got my weekly Edelweiss* email and saw Napoli's name in conjunction with fairy tale, I knew I had to put this one on the to-read list posthaste. Dark Shimmer will be released on September 8, 2015 by Wendy Lamb Books (Penguin Random House).

dark shimmer by donna jo napoli book cover
Set in medieval Venice, this captivating fairy tale retelling by award-winning author Donna Jo Napoli explores belonging, beauty, and the transformative power of love through the eyes of a teenage girl. Dolce has grown up hidden away on an island in a lagoon. She is a giant, a freak, tormented by everyone but her loving mother. She spends her time learning the valuable secret of making mirrors. Following a tragedy, Dolce swims away and lands on an island where people see her as normal, even beautiful. Marin, a kind widower, and his little daughter bring Dolce to live with them in their grand palazzo. Eventually, Dolce and Marin marry. She secretly continues to make mirrors, not realizing that quicksilver endangers her…and so evil begins in innocence.

What books are you waiting on?

*If you don't already subscribe to/have an account with Edelweiss, I recommend it. Great place to peruse publishers' catalogs, check out upcoming books, and request early review copies (if that's something you'd be interested in).
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