The Exiled Queen

Rating:
Author: Cinda Williams Chima
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: Sep. 2010 (read Feb. 2019)
Series: Seven Realms #2

At the end of the day, I really liked this book, but similar to the first book, I struggled with some pacing issues. Overall, this month was a really bad reading month for me and I’ve been in a bit of a book slump, so I’m not sure if it was the book or just the timing, but it took me over a month to finish this! Granted, I put it down for a good chunk of time in the middle of the month, but that’s still a really long time for me.

I thought the pacing was odd because I was really into this at the beginning when I was fresh out of reading The Demon King, but the action quickly tapered off and it wasn’t really until the last 200 pages of the book that I really got into it again. For comparison, Raisa and Han don’t meet again until the last 200 pages, so I’ve come to the conclusion that this series is at its best when Raisa and Han are together. I like them both in isolation, but together they are wonderful! I was so much more invested in the plot once they were re-united. Until that point it was pretty much two separate stories being told in tandem, bringing the two stories together made for a much more interesting and dynamic plot.

In relation to this, my second complaint would be that this book was just too long. Oden’s Ford was fascinating and I liked the way the world building and magic system are expanded – I also love the whole magic/boarding school vibes – but I think a little less time spent on this part of the story would have helped with the pacing issues.

Anyways, let’s get on with what I liked about it, because despite my complaints, there was a lot I liked about this. The Exiled Queen starts right where The Demon King leaves off, with Raisa and Han both traveling to Oden’s Ford to attend different schools. Raisa believes Han to be dead and Han still believes Raisa to be ‘Rebecca’. There’s a fantastic cast of secondary characters – Amon, Micah and Dancer return in this book – and we are joined by several new characters.

Let’s talk about the main characters first. Consistent with my review in the first book, Raisa is hands down my favourite character! I really like Han and his story as well, but I was always a little disappointed when the narrative would switch from Raisa back to Han. Raisa doesn’t have a lot of power, but she is still an incredibly strong character. She is small and people are constantly underestimating her, to their own disadvantage.

Romance is definitely a side plot in this book, but it works so well! I find romance to be hit or miss sometimes in fantasy, but somehow Chima has me loving every single relationship in this book! All of these characters have such great chemistry together. I’ll be totally sold on one relationship and then Chima will switch it up in the span of a few chapters and have me totally shipping the new relationship. Raisa is such an inspiring character in that she’s not afraid to love, despite having been hurt, and in how thoughtful she is about the ways in which she might hurt people. I do think she is to be admired as a monarch because she is very thoughtful and intentional in her actions, even though she just wants to be a normal 16 year old and have a little fun.

I do love Han too. He’s pretty suave and I loved how much he grew throughout this installment. While I love Raisa, I do think Han was really the one to drive much of the story. Han arrives at Oden’s Ford as a poor street rat surrounded by wealthy aristocrats and he really doesn’t fit in. He is rejected by many of his classmates and teachers, but he is a quick learner and has an inordinate amount of magic, which helps him win over the dean. Micah is also a wizard at Oden’s Ford and he doesn’t hide his disdain for Han. Han is forced to constantly watch his back and is always at odds with the Bayars.

I have to say though, I kind of love the Bayars. Fiona is still a mystery to me because she’s definitely different than Micah and it’s really hard to know where she actually stands and what she thinks. I think there’s a lot of room to grow her character in future books and I’m interested to see what Chima does with her character. Micah is very confusing to me. He represented a bit of grey area in the first book. He had some shady morals, but you still kind of wanted to like him and he seemed to like Raisa. His character is much less grey in this book and acts as a huge foil to Han, but I still kind of loved him. He’s still complicated and I think he makes a great villain because of the chemistry he has with both Han and Raisa. He’s definitely evil, but it’s a delicious kind of evil if you know what I mean? I loved all the banter between him and the other characters and he did a great job in elevating the tension throughout the book.

There is definitely a lot of anticipation in this book. It was a little slow going in the middle, but I was always anticipating when Raisa and Han were finally going to meet and if Micah was going to attack Han or discover Raisa’s presence. There is always tension running throughout the story because the reader is first worried about Raisa being discovered and later the threat to her throne.

Again, I thought the last 200 pages of this book were delightful. After how long it took me to get through this book, I was planning to set the series aside for a little while, but I was way too intrigued to take a break and I ended up jumping right into The Gray Wolf Throne. I’m about 100 pages in already and it is proving much faster paced, so I’m hopeful that will continue for the rest of the series!

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All the Wandering Light

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Heather Fawcett
Genres: Fantasy
Pub Date: Dec. 2018 (read Feb. 2019)
Series: Even the Darkest Stars #2

I was REALLY REALLY hoping this would be a trilogy! I didn’t love Even the Darkest Stars that much the first time I read it, but since re-reading it, I’m pretty much trash for this series! I’ve read a lot of fantasy and to be honest, I haven’t been loving a lot of it that much. I took a 3 month break from fantasy and after reading mostly fantasy in January, I think I’m ready for another break.

But I LOVED this series! I haven’t felt this way about a fantasy series in a while and I loved the outdoor adventure aspect of this one. I can tell Fawcett loves the outdoors and I really related with Kamzin’s desire for adventure. I was really impressed with the depth Fawcett added to the plot and to her world building in this book. There were several subplots and a few mystery elements that ran throughout the series, like what is Ragtooth? What will be the long term impact of creating a contract with Azar-at? and what’s up with Tem and River?

But before I get ahead of myself, Even the Darkest Stars is a duology set in a fantasy world based on Nepalese culture and early exploits of Mount Everest. The legendary Mount Raksha is the focus of the first book, with Kamzin chasing after her dream to be a Royal Explorer by attempting to climb the treacherous mountain to claim a lost talisman so that the emperor can stop the witches from regaining their powers. In All the Wandering Light, Kamzin has succeeded in climbing Raksha, but failed in her task and the witches have regained their powers and now threaten the empire. When a falling star lands in the Ashes Mountains, Kamzin sets out to retrieve it and stop the witches from using it’s incredible power.

Even the Darkest Stars was told entirely from Kamzin’s point of view and in the second book, we get some more perspectives, mostly from River and occasionally Mara. Kamzin and River have split up, but because of Kamzin’s new contract with Azar-at, their fates seem to be closely entwined. Kamzin sets out with Lusha and Tem to claim the star, while River fights with his brothers about the future of the witches and empire. I wasn’t really sure what the focus would be of book 2, but I was glad it included more wandering around the wilderness. Kamzin eventually makes her way to the Three Cities, which changes the direction of the plot, but introduced some new elements and tension into the book. Up until Kamzin arrives in the Three Cities, the conflict in this book was mostly person vs. nature, with the exception of the internal and relationship conflicts. But the story becomes a bit more of a traditional fantasy when River’s brother Esha claims the witch throne and becomes the main villain of the story.

So what did I like so much about this book? Obviously, I loved the adventure element of the story and the fight against the natural elements. I really loved Kamzin as a character. I thought she was a fantastic heroine for the story. She is courageous, but extremely relatable. She makes a lot of mistakes, but is driven by a desire to shape her own destiny. She very much wants to be recognized and this desire sometimes gets her into trouble and causes her to make poor decisions. But ultimately she cares about those closest to her and will do everything to protect them.

I also really liked River’s character. He was so fickle in the first book and it always catches me off guard how detached he is. I like that Kamzin is driven by feeling, while River is mostly driven by logic, except in the case of Kamzin, who inexplicably holds a powerful influence over him. I think it’s because he’s never really been tested and is used to always being the best. Kamzin was the first person the challenge him. River is conflicted in this book and I loved the dichotomy of him wanting to free the witches, but also wanting to protect the empire he has grown to care about.

Like I said, the depth of the world building in this book surprised me. The first book was a little confusing, but the world building in this book felt fully formed, with just enough mystical elements to keep us guessing. Fawcett explores what is right and wrong and how our perceptions can be influenced by our experiences. The witches are undeniably evil in this book, pillaging villages and seeking revenge for the binding of their powers. But their rage is born out of having their powers stolen from them for the last 200 years by the emperor. At one point there was balance between the witches and the shamans, but that balance is lost and seeks to be restored. Kamzin struggles to think of the witches as inherently bad because of the time and experiences she had with River.

There’s also the question of what impact Kamzin’s contract with Azar-at will have on her soul and what kind of powers Ragtooth is actually hiding? I loved Ragtooth in this book (and the last book) and I was really happy to see Fawcett spend time on smaller plot points, because the culmination of all these thoughtful details is really what makes a book great. She also explores the power of the fallen star and whether power is always a good thing. All power comes at a cost and Fawcett repeatedly re-visits this idea in her characters.

My biggest complaint would be having this series only be a duology instead of a trilogy. I know now that the series was originally purchased as a duology, but I really think this series has the potential for a third novel and that it’s actually doing the series a disservice not to have one. I think the world Fawcett expanded on in this book outgrew it’s 400 pages. She took the story to more depth than she was able to resolve in the confines of this book.

The ending was very unsatisfying to me because I don’t think the conflict has been resolved. I no longer think Kamzin in interested in merely wandering the empire as an explorer, but rather that she wants to be an agent for change and for good in the empire. She’s one of the few people who understands the plight of the witches and questions the ultimate power of the emperor. I don’t think the witches would just roll over and move on after the showdown in the palace and I think there is so much room to explore more about the Emperor and where his powers come from. He’s a pretty big enigma in the story and it was never clear to me if he was eventually meant to be a hero or a villain. He’s up to some shady-ass shenanigans and I would really love to see his power explored more, as well as the relationship between the empire and the witches.

Mostly I just think this world and story has so much more potential. I’d love to see it expand and grow to include more character perspectives, like Tem and Lusha’s. I would say the character development of the secondary characters is probably the second flaw with this series. Kamzin has a wonderful character arc and I thought her development was really well done, likewise River. But I don’t think either Tem or Lusha’s characters were fully developed. Especially Lusha. She’s a bit of a controversial character in that she is so important to Kamzin, yet constantly acts as a foil to her. Lusha is really interesting and I’d love to know more about her history and the experiences that have formed her into who she is now. She’s a bit of a grating character, but I’d like to understand her better.

Don’t get me wrong though. I think this is an extremely strong debut series. I think there are ways it could be improved, but I had a great time reading it. Fawcett has already been signed for a middle grade series and you can bet I’ll be reading it! In the meantime, I’ll be lamenting the third book to this series that never was, but should be!

Even the Darkest Stars

Rating: ⭐
Author: Heather Fawcett
Genres: Fantasy
Pub date: Sep. 2017 (read Jan. 2019)
Series: Even the Darkest Stars #1

I’ve decided to write whole new review about this book because I was only a little baby reviewer when I wrote my first review and I have so many more feelings about this book after the second read-through. You can still read my original review here.

I remember liking, but not loving this book the first time I read it, but I was so impressed with the setting that I decided to round up my rating to 4 stars. I definitely loved this the second time around though and I am now 100% on board with my original 4 star rating. I found the beginning a bit slow on my first read through, but I totally flew through it this time. Kamzin is just so spunky! I definitely didn’t give her enough credit in my first review and I thought she was super funny at the beginning on the book and I loved how much her character grew throughout the course of the novel.

Before I get ahead of myself, let’s do a little synopsis of the story. Even the Darkest Stars is set in a fantasy world based very heavily on Nepalese culture and early exploits of the Himalayas and Mount Everest. I have always been really interested in climbing expeditions (as a reader, not a real person – I have to say this because my sister’s partner is like, obsessed with climbing and if he reads this, which I know he never will, but if he did, he would make me go climbing with him and climbing in real life is SCARY. That’s why I prefer to read about it.). I’m going to credit my early interest to Gordon Korman’s Everest series, which I read as a kid, and was totally obsessed with (yay for Canadian authors!). Actually, I was obsessed with most of Korman’s books and would highly recommend to middle graders!

I would sincerely like to meet this author because we both live in Vancouver (she may be one of those rare native born Vancouverites?) and despite not wanting to climb, I’m super obsessed with mountains and hiking and feel like we would both have a lot in common. So Heather if you’re ever looking for some adventure and book loving friends, I’m here.

But back to her book. The story starts in the small village of Azmiri, with our main character Kamzin. Because her father is the village elder, her older sister Lusha is slated to succeed him and Kamzin is expected to become the village shaman. The only problem is that Kamzin has zero interest or natural talent for shamanism. Her friend Tem is a great Shaman, but his talents go unacknowledged because his father is a yak herder and that’s all Tem is ever expected to be as well. But Kamzin wants to be an explorer. She is envious of River Shara, the Emperor’s Royal Explorer and is shocked when he arrives at their village one day.

There is only one thing that would draw the elusive River Shara to Azmiri, the even more elusive Mount Raksha – the tallest and most dangerous mountain in the empire. Kamzin has always aspired to climb Mount Raksha and even participated in an expedition with her mother to Mount Raksha when she was 11. Unfortunately the journey took the lives of the entire expedition, with the exception of Kamzin and Lusha. So when Kamzin learns that River is there to climb the great mountain, she sees it as her big chance to impress the Royal Explorer.

Kamzin, River, and Tem all set off on a journey to climb Mount Raksha, with Kamzin leading the way. Witches have been banished from the empire for many years, their magic stolen from them by a spell placed by the Emperor. But the spell is breaking and they must reclaim a lost talisman from the top of Mount Raksha to re-cast the spell.

I loved everything about this book, but the setting was by far my favourite. Fawcett creates this wonderful atmosphere throughout the story – it’s that lonely, reverent feeling you get when you’re out in the wilderness. An appreciation for the beauty around you and a respect for the destructive power of nature. There are internal and interpersonal conflicts in this book, as well as the threat of the witches, fire demons, and fiangul that call this unforgiving landscape home. But I really liked that this book also had the person vs. nature conflict as well. What Kamzin is really up against is the elements and her own personal competitiveness. She’s repeatedly told to turn around if the consequences become too dire, but she is driven by a need to explore the unknown and to prove her skills to the world. In many ways, she is her worst enemy.

I loved the little triangle action between Kamzin, River, and Tem. Tem has been Kamzin’s best (and really only) friend for her entire life and they share a special bond. But Kamzin also shares something special with River, the first person who truly seems to understand her drive and can keep up with her on the expedition. He’s the first person to really challenge her. But Tem is distrustful of River and Kamzin has to admit that he does seem to be holding back some important information from them. Something is off with River’s shaman, and Tem rises to the occasion, acting as the group’s shaman and setting protections for them.

This book also had some humour in it. Kamzin is so stubborn, but her stubbornness made me laugh at lot. I also loved that she had what is referred to as a “familiar”, which is an animal that is basically attracted to you from birth and stays with you. Her familiar was a mangy little fox named Ragtooth and besides being really sweet, I thought he made for some great comic relief.

I can see how this book might not be for everyone. Pretty much the entire book is devoted to the journey to the top of Raksha and I know not everyone love journey books. Like I said, I didn’t really love it the first time, I think because I kept waiting for them to get there so I could learn the “so-what” of the story. But knowing the second time that the whole book was going to be devoted to the journey, I enjoyed it a lot more. I think there’s just the right amount of tension between the characters and I liked how much Kamzin grew over the course of the novel.

There are still some unanswered questions and I’m looking forward to see how Fawcett further develops her characters in the next book. Does anyone know if this is a duology or a trilogy? Would love to know going into the second book!

The Belles

Rating: 
Author: Dhonielle Clayton
Genres: Fantasy
Pub date: Feb. 2018 (read Jan. 2018 as audiobook)
Narrator: Rosie Jones
Series: The Belles #1

Where to start with The Belles? First of all, I listened to it as an audiobook and I really liked the narrator! She had a great tone for this book and she was really enjoyable to listen to. As for the content? I heard this book had teeth, but about halfway through I was wondering when it was going to start to bite. I wouldn’t call it a slow start because the story is still pretty engaging, but it’s a bit repetitive at the beginning and it wasn’t until the second half of the book that the story grew fangs. But boy does it ever get intense! Because of the start, I thought it was a 3 star read overall, but the author definitely steps up her game in the second half of the book and I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel.

The Belles is set in a beauty-centric fantasy world based on New Orleans, called Orleans (or-lee-on). People have become grey in Orleans and only a select few talented Belles can restore colour and make people beautiful again. The Belles power come from their personal arcana (unsure of spelling because I read as audiobook) and they can change anything about a person, from hair, eye, or skin colour, to height and weight, to bone structure, and even the well-being of internal organs. In this world, people are obsessed with beauty and must pay for beauty appointments. However, the changes don’t last forever and the grey will always start to creep back in, so the rich are always changing their looks based on the latest fashion.

Camellia Beauregard is one of 5 Belles coming of age this year. She has spent her whole life training to be a Belle and she will have one chance to present her powers to the Royal Family, who will pick one of the Belles to be their favourite. The Favourite will work for the royal family and their courtiers, while the rest of the Belles will be appointed to other beauty salons around the city. All of the Belles want to be named the favourite, especially Camellia and her sister Belle, Amber.

Once the Belles start working though, they discover that working as a Belle is not quite what they expected and start hearing about strange things happening in the salons. The Royal Family is also in a state of upheaval because the time is coming for the Queen to declare her heir. By rights it should be her older daughter, Charlotte, but she has been in a bewitched sleep for years and has never awoken. If Charlotte does not awaken, the heir will have to be her younger sister Sophia, and the more the Belles learn about Sophia, the more they fear the kind of queen she might be.

The Belles had a really interesting plotline in that it’s really not clear for a while where the story is going. There is a large mystery element to the story and because we don’t learn the full depth of the plot until later, there’s a lot of world building taking place in the first half of the book. Like I said, I didn’t dislike the first half of the book, I think that Clayton did some really good world-building and really delved in to some of the intricacies of the world she’s created. But the plot feels a bit nebulous after the favourite is announced and I thought there was a disproportionate amount of time spent on various beauty appointments and treatments. It was interesting, but I just wanted the author to get to the point.

But I can’t really fault her because the time spent on world building definitely paid off in the second half of the book. The second half is nasty! Things get really dark and pace of the plot picks up immensely. I liked the ending a lot because Clayton answers some of the more pressing questions and mysteries, but still leaves enough threads open to propel us into the next book.

Clayton addresses a lot of really interesting social themes in her book, which is what made it stand out for me. It’s obviously about beauty and how highly it is valued by society and how we assign value based on beauty. In many ways, beauty is a social construct and is very objective. In our own world, ideas of beauty differ greatly from country to country, but looking at North America, there are certain attributes we tend to value greater than others, thinness being the most obvious one that comes to mind. However, like Orleans, we are constantly changing our minds on other attributes. The one that comes to mind immediately for me is eyebrows. In the 2000’s thin eyebrows were all the rage, while now big eyebrows are definitely in.

I found it interesting that Clayton’s world features a monarchy, but women still tended to be de-valued. She draws attention to the different beauty standards that exist for men and women, but how men still want to look good too. However there is a sexual assault scene in the book and I found it really surprising that in a matriarchal society such as this, people still went out of their way to excuse men’s actions.

Finally, the villains in this book are top notch. There’s a lot of drama and several villains, with varying levels of, shall we say evil? Our number one villain is totally nuts and will get right up inside your head. She reminded me of Umbridge a little bit because it’s the perfect example of how smug and evil a bit of power can make some people. I really don’t know where Clayton plans to take this story in the next book, but colour me intrigued! I already have an ARC for the next book, which is being published in March, so I’m planning to start it very soon!

The Demon King

Rating: 
Author: Cinda Wililams Chima
Genres: Fantasy
Pub date: Oct. 2009 (read Jan. 2019)

I’ve had the entire Seven Realms box set sitting on my shelf for some time and I finally got a chance to pick up the first book. I’ve been hearing really good things about the sequel series, Shattered Realms, which has the final book coming out this March. For this reason, it was a bit intimidating to start this one because if I liked it, I was pretty much looking at an 8 book commitment.

But I’m glad I finally picked this one up off the shelf, because I did end up quite enjoying it. It has a pretty slow start, so it did take me a bit of time to get into it, but around the 100 page mark it started getting really interesting!

I really like the characters in this book. It’s set in a fantasy world that is split into seven different realms, many of which are at war with each other. Our characters live in the Queendom of the Fells and are not currently at war, but fear war from the other realms. Queen Mariana is the current ruler and the throne is always passed down through the female line. The Queen is advised by wizards, who are closely watched over by the clans, who fear the wizards having too much power.

Our main characters are Raisa and Han. Raisa is the Princess Heir of the Fells and is approaching her 16th name day, when she will start courting and accepting marriage proposals. Her mother, the Queen, is caught up in planning a huge party and entertaining the guests, but Raisa is more interested in flirting with cute boys like the young wizard, Micah Boyar, and catching up with her friend Amon, who has just returned from soldier training after 3 years away.

Han is a reformed street gang lord who used to run with the Raggers, thieving to survive. But in an effort to protect his sister and mother, he gives it all up for a more honest life – until he runs into Micah Boyar using magic in the wilderness and steals the amulet that gives him power. Han has little interest in the amulet, aside from taking away Micah’s misused power, but he starts to wonder if the amulet may have cursed him when he repeatedly starts running into trouble.

It’s a bit difficult to explain the plot because there is a lot going on, but it’s never really confusing. The world building is slow, so you do have time to get acquainted with it. The only thing I found a little confusing was some of the history. Historical events like the Naeming and the Breaking are referenced throughout the book, but I’m still not really sure what they are and I hope it will become more clear in the next book.

Once this book gets going though, it’s a lot of fun and that plot goes in some really unexpected directions. Han is cool, but Raisa was totally my favourite character. I thought she was so feisty and I loved how she was just kissing boys all over the place without really developing any lasting attachments. She wants to have fun, but she also genuinely cares about the wellbeing of her queendom. I really liked Amon and their friendship and was super intrigued by Micah and what his motives were. My favourite part of the book was when Raisa and Han interacted together in the middle of the story. I thought that whole section and plot line was so fast paced and interesting! I was a little disappointed when Raisa returned to the castle because I thought it brought the energy of the book back down and I wanted to maintain the fast and fun pace.

So overall, a few criticisms with pacing, but I thought it was a great start to the series and I have a feeling the next books will be a lot faster paced. It takes time in high fantasy books like this to introduce all the characters, the magic system, and the world building, so I’m expecting the story to pick up a lot faster in book 2. Hoping to knock out this whole series over the next month or two and we’ll see if I feel like continuing on the the Shattered Realms series at the end or not.