The Winner’s Crime

20443207by Marie Rutkoski
YA Fantasy / YAFiction
4 of 5 stars

I was pleasantly surprised by the first book in this trilogy, and I grabbed this one as soon as I could. I enjoyed it even more than the first! The few clunky missteps establishing the first book weren’t present in this one. It was smooth, cat-and-mouse royal court intrigue from beginning to end, and I loved watching it play out. As with the first book, I was never quite sure what would happen next, and that is the best praise I can give.

Kestrel and Arin are rarely together, which could have been disappointing, but I felt their plot lines were stronger when they were kept apart. The growing internal tension they both experienced made their decisions feel so real. Jess isn’t the dumb best friend that Kestrel assumed she was, and she pressed the flip side of Kestrel’s assertive nature with the declaration that Kestrel never does anything against her will. Despite feeling cornered and caught between horrible options, part of Kestrel’s trap is being known for going her own way, and this betrayal from her own nature was brilliant. Her internal unraveling under the unending pressure of her new life as the future empress made her character arc so believable, and I really fell in love with her in this book. Arin’s struggle to discover Kestrel’s true feelings amidst his own political responsibilities was equally moving. These characters came to life and I can’t wait for the final book!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Winner’s Crime is available on Goodreads and on Powell’s store website, here. Powell’s has several locations in Oregon, and is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas – A YA fantasy series following assassin Celaena Sardothien as she uncovers a plot in the kingdom and her own destiny. This has similar court intrigue with a bit more magic and adventure. See my review here.
  • Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo – The second in a trilogy about Alina, the Sun Summoner who realizes the kingdom’s most powerful sorcerer, the Darkling, isn’t all that he seems.
  • Rook by Sharon Cameron – A retelling of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Sophie Bellamy is pushed into an arranged marriage, then discovers her fiance is more than meets the eye. This is almost a relief, because she has a secret too. See my review here.
  • Graceling by Kristin Cashore – Katsa decides to rebel against her uncle the king when a foreign prince asks for her help with finding his grandfather. This is beautifully told and rich in detail. See my review here.
  • Scarlet by Marissa Meyer – This quartet about four different women from fairy tales is an excellent genre-mashing epic. Scarlet becomes concerned about her missing grandmother, and reluctantly trusts a street-fighter named Wolf to see if they can find her. But when Cinder crashes into their lives, things get more complicated. See my review here.
  • The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh – Shazi swore to avenge her best friend’s murder and kill the king responsible for so many girls’ deaths. But when she volunteers to be his next bride, she becomes entangled in the mystery surrounding his court of death. See my review here.
  • Prince’s Gambit by C.S. Pacat – (An m/m romance for mature readers). Damen and Laurent have begun to build trust between them to combat the regent’s schemes, but all of it could come crashing down at any moment if they don’t continue to stay one step ahead. The plot and characters are incredible! See my review here.

Backlist Bonus: Divergent

8306857by Veronica Roth
YA Dystopian
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel – April 25, 2011

Right after The Hunger Games, the YA shelf needed a dystopian series to catch readers, and the Divergent series won that battle. This trilogy follows 16-year-old Tris, who faces the momentous choice of which faction (and virtue) to dedicate her life to: will she remain in Abnegation (the selfless) with her family, or follow her heart to the Dauntless (the brave)? And what consequences will she face as a result?

I heard about this book from my best friend, who happened to attend the same university as Roth and wanted to share the excitement that somebody our age could sign a 3-book + movie rights deal. This was my first exposure to peers writing best-selling material for teens and I was thrilled that this was becoming more commonplace–honestly, I still am!

This was a fun story to read, and several key scenes were so cinematic and beautifully written through Tris’ sparse, direct voice that I couldn’t wait for the next installment.  As it turns out, I feel the first book is the strongest of the trilogy, but it was worth following Tris to the end, and this is still one of the better dystopian options out there, in my opinion. As an added bonus in this genre, there is no love triangle. Tris is a complicated heroine and her world has plenty of mysteries to unlock, but which boy she’ll choose isn’t one of them. I also enjoyed her constantly evolving relationship with her brother Caleb; he challenges her commitments in the best way. Jeanine is an excellent antagonist, with her own complexity and motivations. This small core cast of characters is what pulls you through the wreck of Chicago and its faction systems as Tris struggles to solve her identity and why the Erudite faction believes it should eradicate the Abnegation. Although the series didn’t go where I expected, I appreciated the author’s creative freedom and choices, and I’m curious to see what she does next.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Divergent is available on Goodreads and its parent company Amazon. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – The most obvious comparison, but it is very similar. Twelve districts must send two tributes to the capital to fight to the death on live TV as a reminder of the brutality the totalitarian state saved the people from decades earlier. Katniss volunteers to save her sister, but she quickly learns half of the game is mastering the politics and alliances surrounding her. See my review here.
  • Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve – As a literal interpretation of municipal darwinism, the largest cities are mobile and sweep across the world consuming and absorbing each other for resources and labor. Tom finds himself stranded on solid ground and must find a way to survive in this stark post-apocalyptic world.
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan – Mary spent her life in the fenced village deep in a forest, and she knows what happens if she leaves its protection – death by zombies – but she can’t stop dreaming about the ocean, and whether the Sisterhood is telling the truth when they say no one else survived. See my review here.
  • Delirium by Lauren Oliver – I haven’t read this yet, but Roth recomends it as an engaging dystopian trilogy that explores a world devoid of all love, and the consequences that brings to the very fabric of society.

The Blue Sword

131936by Robin McKinley
YA Fantasy
4 of 5 stars

I first encountered this story when I was around 12, the same time I discovered its companion prequel, The Hero and the Crown. That book went on to become my favorite novel–and it still is, 20+ re-reads later–but The Blue Sword faded into distant memory. I finally decided to pick it up again to see if I could learn why this happened. I enjoyed it so much more this time! It has a slower pace than its counterpart, which is probably why when I was younger I found it dull. McKinley is known for more description than dialogue in her work, and since these descriptions didn’t include slaying dragons, I set it aside once I was done and forgot about it. I was unjust!

Harry’s story of coming to a strange land and discovering an even stranger destiny for herself is rich with gradually growing emotion and stakes. Instead of the more “traditional” quest of Aerin, we follow Harry’s rather more realistic journey of learning about a new and ancient culture and her blind struggle to find her place in it. She feels the battle we all feel at some point–that we’re meant to do something important, but we can’t see the future, so we just have to hope that each choice we make is the right one. Typically a wise wizard hangs around long enough to give the hero the specifics of the quest, but in this case Harry forges her path alone with the barest cryptic hints. She is a lovable heroine, and the slow revelation of clues to her fate kept my attention with her wry narration of it all.

Fans of McKinley’s work will enjoy this, as will anyone who prefers a book meant for a slow read in a cozy chair. If you are new to McKinley’s style, I would suggest reading Aerin’s story first.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Blue Sword is available on Goodreads and its parent company Amazon. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch – Meira is part of a small band of Winterian refugees struggling to restore the rightful king to the throne and overthrow Spring’s invasion. Like Harry, Meira discovers her true destiny isn’t what she expected. See my review here.
  • The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski – Kestrel lives in a world of strategic games, whether it’s against her father’s plans for her future or society’s constraints. When Kestrel bids on and wins a slave named Arin, she realizes choosing her own path isn’t as simple as she hoped. See my review here.
  • The Chronicles of Chrestomanci Vol. 1 by Diana Wynne Jones – Two novellas about the enchanter with nine lives that keeps the magic of the Twelve Related Worlds in check. Before becoming the Chrestomanci, Christopher Chant and Cat Chant have a lot to learn about magic and their role in the multiverse. These are fun, inventive stories and some of my favorites by this author.
  • Gates of Thread and Stone by Lori M. Lee – Kai has always known she can see and manipulate the threads of time, but when her brother disappears, her quest to find him leads her to her own unexpected destiny. See my review here.
  • The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip – The first in a close-knit, heavily symbolic trilogy about Morgon and his betrothed, Raederle, as they try to solve some of the greatest riddles of their world and save it from the shape-shifters’ destruction. This has polarized reviews but McKillip is worth checking out.
  • Chalice by Robin McKinley – If you enjoyed The Blue Sword, this book is similar and beautifully written. It’s one of my favorites – a vague Beauty and the Beast retelling – and simply delightful. See my review here.

The Winner’s Curse

16069030by Marie Rutkoski
YA Fantasy / YA Fiction
4 of 5 stars

I was skeptical at first but this book won me over. At first glance it had too many tropes–the girl caught between two loves, one perfect but boring, the other fiery but impossible–the best friend who is just around to gossip, the militant father (in more than one sense), blond white people enslaving darker people, the fate of two kingdoms hinging on the relationship between Kestrel the general’s daughter and Arin the slave.

However, this book was nothing like I expected. First of all, the pacing was so fast! Instead of spending long chapters agonizing over issues, the short chapters with cliff hangers flew by–I couldn’t put this book down for long. The continually rising stakes in the cat-and-mouse games between Kestrel and Arin, Kestrel and… okay everyone she encounters, was incredibly satisfying. To have characters outsmarting and out-gambling their opponents was awesome. And it helped balance the few amateur mistakes made early on, because yes, Kestrel and Arin both had a few lapses in judgment that were exasperating. I’m still not entirely sure if I understand why they are in love–if it’s even strong enough to call it that–but I suppose everyone wants something forbidden.

Fast-paced, strategic, with an eye for efficient world-building and power plays–I’ll definitely be finishing this series!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Winner’s Curse is available on Goodreads and its parent company Amazon. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch – Meira has lived her whole life in exile, working towards freeing the kingdom Winter from Spring’s tyrannical grip. But the process involves more than luck and magic–it pits Meira into a world of politics and strategy that might be beyond her. See my review here.
  • Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo – Alina’s unique abilities present an opportunity to save her kingdom from the spreading darkness–if that’s all the Darkling truly wants. This has a similar relationship between two main characters and a similar tone. See my review here.
  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor – Speaking of star-crossed relationships that could ignite a war, Karou’s mysterious past finally finds her, but in the way she least expects. This is probably the most similar to The Winner’s Curse. See my review here.
  • Rook by Sharon Cameron – A fun, fast-paced adventure following another pair of strategists as they spy, plot and slip around each other trying to free innocent victims from the violent city’s regime. See my review here.
  • The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh – The evolving relationship between the king who killed so many girls after one night, and Shazi, the girl determined to avenge them, set against the backdrop of political intrigue and mystery. See my review here.
  • Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard – Mare Barrow finds herself with the people she hates most – the supernaturally powerful Silver-blooded royal family – after a strange display of her own gift. The gift she shouldn’t have, because she’s Red-blooded. Spies, plots, and twists abound as Mare navigates her new life and tries to find a way to free the oppressed Reds before she’s killed. See my review here.
  • Old Magic by Marianne Curley – Kate is inexplicably drawn to the new boy at school – and once she realizes it’s because she needs to break his family’s deadly curse, they have to work fast before he is the next victim. This is a light YA fantasy with some fun twists.

Silver in the Blood

22929540by Jessica Day George
YA Fantasy / YA Urban Fantasy
3 of 5 stars

To be honest, this is probably my biggest book disappointment of 2015. That sounds bad, but I actually plan to read the sequel! So let me explain myself…

All the right elements are there: it’s set in Romania, we follow cousins Lou and Dacia as they discover their family secrets, magic comes into play when they least expect it, and of course the cover art is gorgeous! From the blurb I expected….something completely different from what I read.

It doesn’t really matter that it’s set in Romania. Aside from (unending) descriptions of Parisian vs Romanian dresses, there are no details bringing Romania to life. It’s any typical urban fantasy setting of small towns and forests. The family secrets and magic take 204 pages to reveal. The book is not much longer than that….so for the majority of it I was sitting around waiting for something to happen as the cousins discuss how clueless they are, too. By the time things start happening, there’s been enough foreshadowing to remove the tension from most of the climax. This story shouldn’t have felt so dull, but it was.

Finally, the end of the book bothered me simply because I couldn’t figure out the tone of this story. It’s extremely light-hearted most of the time, with a few disturbing paragraphs thrown in that unbalance it all. I liked Lou and Dacia, but I couldn’t figure out what kind of story they were in, and unfortunately they couldn’t either.

Despite all this, I’m going to stick around for the next book! This one seemed to be a lot of setup, but now that the framework is in place, I’m hoping the sequels have a bit more zip to them.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Silver in the Blood is available on Goodreads and its parent company Amazon. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare – One of the chief comparisons to this novel, it has more magic, romance, and excitement. This is a really fun trilogy set in Victorian London. Tessa is a shape-shifter trying to discover her origins with the help of the London Institute’s Shadowhunters.
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray – The other chief comparison to this novel-this follows Gemma Doyle at a Victorian England finishing school where she accidentally unearths the secrets to an ancient power with the help of her three friends. This is a typical boarding school environment where the events between classes have you turning the pages.
  • Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede – An epistolary novel between two girlfriends as they handle English high society and a series of strange, magical events.
  • Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo – I hoped Silver in the Blood would be more like this…a Russian-inspired setting with dark magic and court intrigue. See my review here.
  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor – Set largely in Prague, this has more of the flavor and fast pacing that I hoped to find in Silver in the Blood. See my review here.
  • Twilight by Stephenie Meyer – When it’s a normal girl discovering some alarming shape-shifters within her community, look no further than miss Bella Swan, the hapless protagonist in this paranormal quartet. Before the wing, claw and smoke there were just some vampires and werewolves. I found the first book to be the most enjoyable but if the characters grab you, settle in for a thousand pages. See my review here.
  • Written in Red by Anne Bishop – Meg can see the future when her skin is cut. She escapes her captors and takes shelter among the most unlikely group possible-the shape-shifters known as the Others. See my review here.

The Wrath and the Dawn

18798983by Renee Ahdieh
YA Fantasy
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel – May 12, 2015
Book 1 in a duology

I was apprehensive about this book since I saw so many mixed reviews, but I’m glad I wasn’t dissuaded! I’m actually torn between 3 and 4 stars, but since I was sucked in enough to read it in two days, I feel it’s only fair to give the higher rating.

This is a retelling of The Arabian Nights and there is a good mix of homage and original material. The characters in particular feel fresh and unique. Shazi, Khalid, and even a few members of the supporting cast have their own tone and arcs, and the diversity was a bonus. Shazi made a few decisions that aggravated me, but overall her battle of feeling connected to her friend’s killer felt stubborn enough and understandable enough to me.

Minor spoiler ahead!!

Shazi first realizes she might have some feelings for him after he saves her from execution. It’s very normal to feel attached to anyone present for a traumatic experience, and since he did save her life I felt that was the only feasible way for her begin to soften towards Khalid.

Spoiler free!!

I sympathize with anyone taking issue with Shazi’s back-and-forth struggle to kill or spare Khalid, but given that she’s a 16-year-old girl I felt this vacillation was pretty realistic. It would have helped if Shiva was more present in Shazi’s mind–her grief was so distant that it was hard to pull for her rage against Khalid. Overall, I enjoyed the tension and conflicted feelings the characters experienced–that kind of complexity is what you encounter in real life and I loved seeing it in this story.

I would have liked to see more magic and quicker pacing when it came to giving us plot-moving information, especially since the writing felt a bit stilted. It tends to mimic the style of older fairy tale language which doesn’t feel entirely natural. There is a lot of sensory detail that pulls you into their desert world, and the dialogue still sparks. Shazi and Khalid kept me interested and curious the entire time, and I definitely want to see how things get resolved in the next book!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Wrath and the Dawn is available on Goodreads and its parent company Amazon. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir – A rebellious relationship under a tyrannical government kindles a revolution. I haven’t read this yet but it’s been getting great reviews and the characters have similar motivations to Shazi and Khalid.
  • The Arabian Nights by Anonymous – This collection of tales is assembled and translated by numerous people. Any version is going to have the stories you remember (Aladdin) and plenty of new tales to surprise and enchant. Some translations keep to almost biblical language (thee, thou) but there are more modern versions available if you prefer.
  • Gates of Thread and Stone by Lori M. Lee – A girl with the power to manipulate the threads of time will stop at nothing to find her missing brother. Together with her best friend, she also discovers what her power means and the destiny that is waiting for her. See my review here.
  • Dragonfly by Julia Golding – A detailed world of differing countries and a prince and princess that must learn to respect each other and their customs if they want to survive their kidnapping. This has a similar predicament and tone to it and is also a duology.
  • The Lost Years of Merlin by T.A. Barron – A retelling of the most famous wizard (prior to Harry Potter). It starts out middle-grade but by book two or three becomes a YA series exploring the adventures Merlin had before becoming the wizened adviser to King Arthur.
  • Chalice by Robin McKinley – This has hints of a Beauty and the Beast retelling. Mirasol feels thrust into a position of too much responsibility and must forge a relationship with the feared Master of the lands. More mature in tone, but similar to Shazi’s struggle with Khalid. See my review here.
  • The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi – A magical story steeped in Indian mythology. Maya is cursed with a horoscope that says she will bring death to any marriage. On her wedding day she’s swept away to a strange kingdom with a mysterious rule. See my review here.


5152478by Laurie Halse Anderson
YA Contemporary
4 of 5 stars

I haven’t read an Anderson book since high school, but Speak and Catalyst stuck with me for years, so I decided it was time to try another one. This was the darkest by far, and although it’s short, it is a gripping and harrowing glimpse into mental illness. Lia and Cassie’s toxic friendship is sealed by their childhood trauma and desire to be attractive, but it all ends when Cassie’s bulimia destroys her. Lia is left in a maelstrom of grief, confusion, and self-loathing. She’s trapped in her own mind, and the stream-of-consciousness/present tense narration makes you feel how each day is a long battle between her dysfunctional family, food, and herself. If she can become small enough, she’ll escape everything that hurts her.

This goes into some detail regarding anorexic behaviors and the side effects. Some people wouldn’t be comfortable with including the tricks Lia uses to make everyone think she isn’t losing weight, but in my opinion this is fairly balanced with the list of terrible health problems and side effects Lia experiences. A part of Lia knows that she is sick, dangerously sick, that she doesn’t see her body accurately, but she doesn’t know how to stop. There’s commentary here too, on the failings of counselors, therapists, and doctors. They tell her she’s a danger to herself, but then go on to say “your hour is up, make way for the next patient, you’re stable” and cast her adrift. It’s a balanced, excellent story that explores a disease too often treated with insensitivity or whispers.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Wintergirls is available on Goodreads and its parent company Amazon. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – Mary Iris Malone is not okay. When her father remarries and moves the family hundreds of miles away from her mother, Mim decides to go back to her mother alone. Her road trip doesn’t go at all like she expects. The tone isn’t as dark, but the internal struggle Mim feels is similar. See my review here.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – Quiet freshman Charlie confronts all the “firsts” of high school while dealing with the emotional damage of childhood trauma. It’s reflective but has its lighter moments, too. See my review here.
  • Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis – A more surreal story than Wintergirls, but Maren has a lot of the same mental health issues to work through. See my review here.
  • The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter – An intense look at the toxic relationship between a mother and daughter. Cassie intends to start her freshman year of college free from her mother and her past, but then her mom turns up promising all the love Cassie always wanted. See my review here.

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