Review of The Last Graduate, by Naomi Novik

The Last Graduate

Lesson Two of The Scholomance

by Naomi Novik

Del Rey (Penguin Random House), 2021. 388 pages.
Review written November 16, 2021, from my own copy, purchased via amazon.com
Starred Review

The Last Graduate is the sequel to A Deadly Education, and it looks like this will be a series with more to come — there sure better be more to come! (Both books ended with a dramatic surprise.) You definitely need to read the books in order, and I will try not to give away anything that happens in the first book from my description of the second.

This series is about a school for wizard children — but it upends everything you expect in such a novel. This school, the Scholomance, is out to kill the students. Or at least it seems so. But our viewpoint character, Galadriel, known as El to her friends, turns out to be an underestimated powerful wizard with a prophecy about her and who is only able to learn spells about death and devastation. Against her intentions, she has made friends with Orion Lake, whose favorite thing is killing the maleficaria (malicious monsters) that seek out the school and try to kill the students.

Since El and Orion are seniors in this book, my past experience with stories of wizard schools made me expect the series would end with this book. But I assure you, the story is far from over, though the next volume may not have a school setting.

Normally, every year the seniors make alliances in preparation for the day when they will be sent to the Graduation Hall — and only some of them will make it through alive.

This year, many expectations were upended because of what El and Orion did at the end of the first book. And the Scholomance has ways of making El take on a new mission.

Who knew that an original wizarding school story can still be told? The world-building in this series is amazing and imaginative. I’m not completely sure why it’s marketed to adults and not young adults, except that all the author’s other books are for adults. Teens can certainly handle the death and destruction found here.

And now I very much have to find out what comes next.

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TheScholomance.com
naominovik.com

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Review of Terciel & Elinor, by Garth Nix

Terciel and Elinor

by Garth Nix

Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2021. 338 pages.
Review written November 29, 2021, from my own copy, preordered from amazon.com.
Starred Review

A prequel to Sabriel! I preordered myself a copy as soon as I found out about it. It’s been a very long time since I read Sabriel, but I still recognized the names of the foes threatening the Old Kingdom.

Terciel is a young man and the Abhorsen-in-Waiting. Elinor is a young woman who has grown up on the south side of the border with the Old Kingdom, isolated in a manor house with her mother, a governess and the governess’s uncle, an old groom. She has been told that the mark her great-aunt put on her forehead when she was young is a disfiguring scar – rather than a charter mark giving her access to the magic of the Charter.

Elinor’s mother gets mysteriously sick, and then the Abhorsen-in-Waiting comes abruptly to her house just in time to protect her from the Greater Dead monster that has inhabited her mother’s body.

After barely escaping that incident, with those she loves dead, Elinor goes to Wyverley College to try to learn magic and go to the Old Kingdom. But another incident with the dead has Elinor traveling north sooner than she expected – and she becomes an important part of working with Terciel and the Abhorsen to stop a great threat.

I think you can read these books in whatever order you like, though I already know about the Abhorsens and necromancers and free magic and charter magic – I don’t know if it would be confusing for someone first picking up the books. But this unusual world and its magic and the dead who walk still has the power to captivate me. In fact, I’m soon going to need to reread Sabriel now that I’ve been reminded of this amazing world.

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epicreads.com

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Review of The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess, by Tom Gauld

The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess

by Tom Gauld

Neal Porter Books (Holiday House), 2021. 32 pages.
Review written October 29, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

This picture book gives a sweet original fairy tale about perseverance and devotion. It hit just exactly the right note with me.

As we begin, a king and queen (with different color skin from each other) are childless and want a baby. The king goes to see the royal inventor, and the queen goes to see a clever old witch.

They both asked for the same thing: a child.

And so the little wooden robot and the log princess come to life. They love each other and are loved by their parents and play happily together. But at night, the log princess turns back into a log when she goes to sleep and has to be woken up with magic words.

Usually, her brother wakes her first thing in the morning, but one morning he’s distracted by a traveling circus.

When he gets back, the log that is his sister has been thrown out the window!

So begins a long saga to rescue her. And then he winds down, and his sister needs to rescue him. And it all comes full circle in the end and we get a nice surprise at who does the ultimate rescuing before happily ever after.

And it’s just such a nice story that makes me really happy.

My favorite pages, though, are the ones about the adventures they have along the way, “too many to recount here.” For the little wooden robot, they are:

The Giant’s Key
The Family of Robbers
The Old Lady in a Bottle
The Magic Pudding
The Lonely Bear
The Queen of the Mushrooms

These adventures are listed on a page with a small picture for each adventure — so intriguing and fun! There’s a similar page when it’s the log princess’s turn to have adventures.

I suppose part of why you just have to love these characters is their smiley face features and the sweet simplicity of their determination.

This one would be good for young elementary school kids as well as preschoolers, so I’m going to mark it to booktalk next summer.

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Review of Dragonfell, by Sarah Prineas

Dragonfell

by Sarah Prineas

Harper, 2019. 261 pages.
Review written December 24, 2019, from my own copy purchased via amazon.com

People in Rafi’s village are afraid of him. He’s different. He’s got fire-red hair, he likes to hang out up high on the fell where a dragon used to hoard teacups, there’s a spark in his eyes, he isn’t bothered by heat or cold, and most alarming of all, he has been seen to start fires by looking at something.

But when people come from the factory owner from the big city and they notice Rafi, that’s when trouble starts up. They threaten his Da and threaten his village if he doesn’t come with them.

With one thing and another, Rafi sets out on a quest to find and save the dragons. But he’s being followed. The factory owner Mr. Flitch wants something from Rafi, and he’ll take it from Rafi’s village if Rafi won’t give it up.

I like the dragons in this book. They’re varying ages, abilities, and sizes, and they all hoard something distinctive, things like knitted items, or pieces of glass, or spiders. Rafi has to travel far to talk to the different dragons. Mr. Flitch is after the dragons, and they’re in danger. Is there anything Rafi can do about that?

I also especially like Maud, the companion Rafi meets along the way. She says she’s a dragon scientist, and she’s interested in dragons for the love of them. She’s not bothered or scared by the ways Rafi is different, and she helps him along the way.

Despite being chased, this book comes across as a gentle story of a kind-hearted boy who’s dragon-touched and is trying to figure out what that means.

sarah-prineas.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V. E. Schwab

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

by V. E. Schwab
narrated by Julia Whelan

Macmillan Audio, 2020. 17 hours, 10 minutes.
Review written October 5, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

This is the amazing epic tale of a girl who sold her soul to the god of Darkness.

She was at her wits’ end. She lived in a small village in France in 1714. At 23 years old, her family had decided she must marry an older man from the village. Her life stretched out before her bleak and hard. She wanted to live! And she wanted to be free.

But when she prayed desperately to the gods on the day of her wedding, she hadn’t realized that the sun went down and it was the Dark who answered. He was happy to give her the wish – but when she got tired of living, her soul would be forfeit.

However, in granting her wish to be completely free, the Dark cursed her to never be remembered. She could interact with people, but as soon as they turned their back or a door closed between them and Addie, they would completely forget her. And there was more – she couldn’t speak her name or tell her story. If she tried to write words or make any kind of mark, it was instantly erased. In fact, the only person who remembered her and knew her name was the god of Darkness himself.

First, her family and the friends in her village forgot her, as if she had never existed. But Addie quickly learned that it was difficult even to order food or rent a room. Eventually, she learned that she could steal, because that is anonymous. But if someone saw her stealing and was able to stop her, she would still suffer.

She could suffer – but she did not age or get illness or lasting wounds. She had immortality – and the Dark underestimated her stubbornness, as well as her excitement in discovering new things. She wasn’t willing to forfeit her soul. She even learned, over the years, that ideas are more lasting than memory. While she never could have an accurate painting or photograph made of her, she could and did inspire art and music.

But one day in New York City, almost 300 years from the day she was cursed, she brings a book back to a bookstore that she stole from it the day before – and the bookstore clerk remembers her! And it continues! She finds she can even tell him her name.

And so, after almost three hundred years, Addie LaRue’s life changes. But the reason why this boy can remember her brings with it a new set of problems.

This story tells about Addie’s long life and adventures interspersed with scenes from the present (2014), weaving a rich tapestry of an amazing life, which may not have been entirely invisible.

And of course it raises many questions. Would it be worth living a long life if you couldn’t leave any mark on the world? Is it possible to love people who forget you? What are the things that make life worth living? And of course the big one: What would you be willing to give up your soul to get?

The audiobook was wonderful, giving Addie a slight French accent and distinguishing the characters well, but it’s very long. I enjoyed a trip through Skyline Drive in early Autumn to finish it off, and it made the drive all the more incredible.

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Review of Da Vinci’s Cat, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Da Vinci’s Cat

by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
decorations by Paul O. Zelinsky

Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), May 2021. 278 pages.
Review written March 6, 2021, from an advance reader copy sent by the author
Starred Review

I’ll admit it – time-slip novels aren’t really my thing. My logical mind gets caught up in the contradictions inherent in changing the past, so that I can’t properly enjoy them. However, because this one was written by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, who won Newbery Honor the year I was on the committee with The Book of Boy, I was able to squelch my logical objections and enjoy this book. I suspect most kids will enjoy it, too.

In this book, we meet Federico II Gonzaga, eleven years old in 1511, in Rome as a hostage of Pope Julius II for his family’s good behavior. But he was treated well in Rome, became friends with his Holiness, and got to pose for the painter Raphael, as well as maybe see some of what Michelangelo was doing while painting the Sistine Chapel.

Then one day, there’s a strange large box, a sort of closet, in a deserted hallway, made by Leonardo da Vinci. A kitten comes out of it.

Federico has fun with the kitten, but it dashes back into the box – and disappears. The next night, it comes out of the box again – but now it is a fully grown cat.

Federico’s adventures really begin after the cat disappears again – and comes back with a stranger, wearing strange clothes. This man is terribly interested in Raphael’s and Michelangelo’s sketches, as well as seeing the paintings in the Vatican Palace “when they are new,” whatever that means. The man promises Federico a wonderful sweet called “chocolate” in exchange for more sketches.

But after a couple of adventures with this man, Part II of the book begins in the present day with a girl named Bee, who is house-sitting with her moms at a place in Brooklyn. When Bee finds a cat outside killing birds, she takes the cat to the house next door. The old lady there stares at her in wonder – and shows Bee a drawing of herself – drawn by Raphael. So later, when Bee sees a large box in that house in a hidden study, the reader is not surprised when she follows the cat into the box that looks like a wardrobe and finds herself in Federico’s time. And she’s got a quest – some things to set right.

Like I said, if you don’t let your mind get hung up on how this would actually work, but just accept that of course Leonardo da Vinci could have invented a time machine, the story is a whole lot of fun. I love the details of life in Rome in 1511 and what Federico thinks is normal, and how Bee can slip into that and pass for a page. Did you know that Michelangelo smelled terrible because he didn’t bathe? And that he and Raphael had a rivalry going? And that they hadn’t tasted chocolate in Rome in 1511?

A fun story of a cat moving through time and bringing two kids together across centuries.

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Review of The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T. J. Klune, read by Daniel Henning

The House in the Cerulean Sea

by T. J. Klune
read by Daniel Henning

Macmillan Audio, 2020. 12 hours, 12 minutes.
Review written June 29, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

I listened to this book based on several recommendations from my Silent Book Club Facebook group as a feel-good read. I was delighted with the story. It felt like a familiar children’s fantasy book opening, but then I realized the twist is that the main character is a man in his forties.

Linus Baker has worked for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth for seventeen years. His reports are meticulous and he cares about the children in the orphanages that he inspects. No matter what their alarming magical capabilities, children deserve to be well-cared for.

However, when Linus is not in the field inspecting orphanages, his life at the office and at home is gray and dreary. Besides the constant rain and the rows of desks a little too close together for someone of Linus’s girth, there’s a supervisor always looking for reasons to give demerits. So one day when she calls out Linus and tells him to report to Extremely Upper Management, he thinks he’s in big trouble.

But because of those meticulous reports, Linus has been asked to inspect an orphanage that is Classified Level Four because of some very unusual magical powers in the children. He’ll spend a month there, and he’s expected to keep an objective demeanor.

And that’s where if the story were a film, it turns from black-and-white to technicolor. The orphanage is a house on an island in the Cerulean Sea. And this is where the book turns to one of those stories where the adult’s life is transformed because of the love of children – but again, the twist is that this time we’re seeing it from the adult’s point of view. Oh, and also because the children are extremely unusual.

The master of the orphanage, Arthur Parnassas, is also unusual. As Linus gets to know the children and Arthur, he sees someone training some rather alarming children with wisdom and grace. He needs to stay objective, but he also wants to do what’s best for the children.

It’s not too much of a spoiler to tell the reader that one of the children’s files says he is the antichrist, and his father is the devil. If you know anything about what the Bible has to say about the antichrist, as I do, you’ll know that they get every detail about that wrong. However, if you can shake that aside and think of Lucy as a fantasy creature and a little boy who is presumed to be evil because of his parentage, and who plays on all the stereotypes of that parentage – but who Arthur teaches Linus to see as a child with as much potential for good as any other – then you will still thoroughly enjoy this book.

I didn’t like the narrator at first, because I think he puts pauses in odd places, but he grew on me and seemed right for Linus Baker, a bureaucrat who lives his life by the book – the book of Rules and Regulations that he carries around with him.

This is a lovely warm story of transformation and the wonder of children – even wildly diverse children. And there’s even a nice bit of romance.

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Review of Without a Summer, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Without a Summer

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Tom Doherty Associates (TOR), 2013. 381 pages.
Review written June 25, 2021, from my own copy
Starred Review

My sister Becky gave me this book years ago (Thank you, Becky!), but alas, like so many non-library books that don’t have a due date, I didn’t get to it right away. But the time was finally right when I signed up for the 2021 Jane Austen Summer Program, a four-day virtual symposium on Jane Austen, and Mary Robinette Kowal was one of the speakers, giving two wonderful talks about putting fantasy into your Jane Austen adaptation.

At the conference, I also learned that the year 1816 really was a year without a summer. The note at the back says that after a volcano erupted in the West Indies, the ash disrupted weather everywhere, and there was snow in Washington DC in July. In fact, Mary Robinette was able to determine the weather in London for the days covered in this book. I had assumed when I started reading that it must have been a side effect of magic – so I was quick to believe that people would have looked for magic users to blame for the strange weather, which turns out to be a key point in the book.

This book is another Austen-like story, with magic. The author does write each book as a stand alone. In this third volume of the Glamourist Histories, Jane’s sister Melody needs to find a husband and is running out of options in the country, so Jane and her husband take Melody to London while they work on a glamural for Lord Stratton.

The author worked in ideas from Jane Austen’s Emma as Jane tries and fails to be a good matchmaker for her sister. But there’s a lot more going on as well. Sir David’s despicable father wants to renew their relationship and meet his wife – but there are some plots afoot. And the coldmongers are getting blamed for the wintry weather in summer – even though that is not how glamour works. It all builds to a big climax that puts Jane and her husband in danger, with Melody’s happiness also at stake.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed Mary Robinette’s sessions at the Jane Austen symposium tremendously, and gained a new appreciation of her craft in writing these books. She wanted to write a fantasy novel similar to the books Jane Austen wrote – where the fate of the world is not at stake, but instead the happiness of a few people. She wanted magic, but in order for it to be one of the womanly arts, it had to be magic that didn’t do much. The “glamour” in these books is all about illusion. And it’s typically done by women – except for professionals glamourists, who of course are men. So Sir David working with his wife is breaking ground and defying convention.

Another thing I found out when I looked in the back of the book is that my sister-in-law Laura (then Plett) is acknowledged! She does calling for English Country Dances, and gave the author some tips about how the dances were done in Regency England. So it was fun to come across her name in the back of my book.

This series is lovely and highly recommended. I hope this will give me the motivation to set aside the recently published books I need to read for Capitol Choices and read a couple more Austen-with-fantasy books purely for my own enjoyment. There are two more in the series, and it’s high time I caught up.

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Review of The Hidden Palace, by Helene Wecker

The Hidden Palace

by Helene Wecker

Harper (HarperCollins), 2021. 472 pages.
Review written July 14, 2021, from my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com
Starred Review

I loved The Golem and the Jinni so much, I preordered this book as soon as I heard that there was a sequel. I think you’ll enjoy this more if you’ve read the first book (and you definitely want to read it!), but even though it had been eight years since I read the first book, the important parts came back to me as I read.

Like the first book, I’m tempted to call this Historical rather than Fantasy, because the historical details of life in New York, both the Syrian neighborhoods and the Jewish neighborhoods, ring true. This comes after the crisis of the first book, and talks about what’s next for the golem and the jinni, now they’ve found each other. How do you build a life when your lifespan goes far beyond your human neighbors?

Meanwhile, we find out about two other creatures like our heroes: There’s a golem whose master is the young orphaned daughter of a rabbi, hiding in an orphanage. And across the sea, there’s a jinniyeh, outcast from her own kind because she can tolerate touching iron, but who hears about the iron-bound jinni who lives across the sea.

Chaya the golem still hears the thoughts of all around her, so she discovers when they notice that she’s not ageing. She’s going to need to make a new life for herself. Ahmad the jinni is much less deliberate. When his partner dies, he becomes obsessed with making a palace out of metal inside their warehouse. And when someone who doesn’t need to eat or sleep becomes obsessed, he can truly withdraw from the world.

This is another rich tapestry of a book, dealing with two people who aren’t actually human, but who are full of nuance. Can they stay in each other’s lives, or are they too different? This book feels completely realistic as it explores this question. We also see how each one has become part of a community, and lives all around them are touched by their existence. And we’ve got further thoughts about what it means to be human from the perspective of those who, technically, are not human at all.

This is a wonderful follow-up to an amazing story.

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Review of A Heart So Fierce and Broken, by Brigid Kemmerer

A Heart So Fierce and Broken

by Brigid Kemmerer

Bloomsbury, 2020. 445 pages.
Review written October 31, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

A Heart So Fierce and Broken is the second book in the series begun with A Curse So Dark and Lonely. And no, the series is not finished yet. The first book finished with a dramatic breaking of expectations with big implications for what would happen next – and so does this book. Both books seem to resolve most conflict brought up in the book – and then our tidy sense of completion is totally disrupted.

The first book is a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” Harper is brought from DC in an attempt to break the curse. Meanwhile, the kingdom isn’t getting much governing, but she helps the prince get through that crisis and an attack from a neighboring kingdom. At the end of the book, though, without giving details, we learn there’s a secret older brother who should be the rightful heir to the throne. And he is the child of a magesmith and has magic in his blood.

This book is about that heir, who doesn’t want to claim the throne but also doesn’t want to be killed. We also follow the fate of a princess of the neighboring kingdom who was not chosen to be her kingdom’s heir but wants to see if she can bring peace.

I like the way the author puts realistic political problems (needing a harbor for trade) into the fantasy kingdom. There’s some horrific cruelty in both books which I didn’t like, though it does make the people working for peace shine more brightly.

I enjoyed this second volume greatly. It now doesn’t have much to do with the “Beauty and the Beast” story, but is an excellent tale of a group of travelers trying to navigate dangers on every side and figure out what course of action is best.

Yes, I’m going to want to read the next book. Amazon says it’s called A Vow So Bold and Deadly and will come out on January 26, 2021. And yes, Amazon says it’s the conclusion to the series. It’s been set up well.

brigidkemmerer.com
bloomsbury.com

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