First up is Emerald House Rising, an old paperback written by Peg Kerr and published in 1997. This book was recommended on a website and in a listserve that I am on, so I went out of my way to get a used copy from the only place that I could find one, Amazon.
It was worth the expense and effort to try and track it down, however, as I was gripped by the story from the first page through to the last. Here's the PW blurb: Jena Gemcutter's life as an apprentice jeweler in the city of Piyar is dramatically altered when the mysterious Lord Morgan commissions a new ring from her father, Collas. Jena and Morgan, both magical adepts, instantly partners as usual for wizards. When Morgan mysteriously disappears, it is up to Jena, Lady Kestrienne, Morgan's aunt, and the magician Arikan to not only find Lord Morgan but to protect the proper succession of the Diadem Throne. Another wizard, who wants to alter the succession by ways of magic, must be stopped if the future of the land is to be kept safe and secure. The plot is standard fantasy fare, but Kerr is a good writer and manages both to create a fully detailed new world and to integrate fantasy and romance without tangling the narrative. I found the book to be a bit of a thriller, historical romance, fantasy with a zing of science fiction added in for spice. The characters are fully formed and the protagonist Jena, though a bit wimpy at first, becomes much more of a force as the book progresses, and the other women who mentor her help stiffen her spine and help her to understand her magic. Though I wasn't quite as thrilled with her fiance, who seemed like a sexist jerk, he did come around in the end, and it would appear that Jena got her HEA. The prose gleams and glides along the adventurous plot, and though there are a couple of times where the discussion of gems and jewelry creation get to be a bit boring, the author is smart enough to curtail those moments and readers can move right along to the end. Unfortunately, there is no sequel to this novel that I can find, and Kerr apparently only wrote one other book that doesn't sound even half as charming as this one. A solid A, and I'd recommend it to those who enjoy romantic fantasy with an adventurous bent.
Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch is a debut YA fantasy that combines the mythos of Divergent and Twilight and Carrie Jone's pixies with a dash of Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments and the Winter/Summer fae from Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. Here's the blurb:
Sixteen years ago the Kingdom of Winter was conquered and its citizens enslaved, leaving them without magic or a monarch. Now the Winterians' only hope for freedom is the eight survivors who managed to escape, and who have been waiting for the opportunity to steal back Winter's magic and rebuild the kingdom ever since.
Orphaned as an infant during Winter's defeat, Meira has lived her whole life as a refugee, raised by the Winterians' general, Sir. Training to be a warrior—and desperately in love with her best friend and future king, Mather—she would do anything to help Winter rise to power again.
So when scouts discover the location of the ancient locket that can restore their magic, Meira decides to go after it herself. Finally, she's scaling towers and fighting enemy soldiers just as she's always dreamed she would. But the mission doesn't go as planned, and Meira soon finds herself thrust into a world of evil magic and dangerous politics—and ultimately comes to realize that her destiny is not, never has been, her own.
Sara Raasch's debut fantasy is a lightning-fast tale of loyalty, love, and finding one's destiny.
I really enjoyed Meira as a protagonist, though I found the love triangle between her, Mather and Prince Theron to be cliched and somewhat predictable. I don't know why it has become a trope in every YA fantasy that has a female protagonist for there to be two guys always vying for the hand and heart of our heroine. And of course, she's always conflicted as to which one to choose, until, inevitably, the choice is made for her when either one of them dies, or is handicapped somehow or imprisoned or shown to be not the person that everyone thought they were, as it was in this novel. This makes the female protagonist seem self centered, flighty, stupid and dull. Male protagonists are not required to have a love interest or be part of a love triangle, and are allowed to have adventures and go on quests and do good deeds by themselves or with people who are just companions, not love interests. They are not distracted, as Meira was, by wondering about the fate of the men in her life.That said, I did enjoy Meira's rise, fall and subsequent salvation of her people, and I loved that she was willing to get her hands dirty and use her battle skills to kill off bad guys. I also loved that Winter was a downtrodden group and a place that was perfect for the peaceful and good people who lived there, whereas Spring was ruled by an aggressive psychopathic maniac, who had to use his magic to enslave others and keep his kingdom docile. I've never been a fan of Spring the season myself, due to pollen and bugs and other things, but I do love Autumn and Winter, (Summer is too hot for me, and I don't tan) so it was nice to see those seasons represented as good places to be, while Spring and Summer were aggressive and not at all fun. That said, the Autumn ruler was a bit of a jerk, while his son was not. I sincerely hope that the Autumn king has realized the error of his ways by book two, which I assume will be out this upcoming year. I look forward to reading the further adventures of Meira in Primora. Another solid A, and I'd recommend it to high school age girls on up who enjoy fantasy and romance novels.
The Dark Monk was recommended to me, again, by several different listserves and by Shelf Awareness and other websites. It is the second book in a series that began with the Hangman's Daughter, and focuses on a 17th Century German hangman who also serves as something of a herbalist and detective for the town of Schongau in Bavaria. Here's the blurb:
1660: Winter has settled thick over a sleepy village in the Bavarian Alps, ensuring every farmer and servant is indoors the night a parish priest discovers he's been poisoned. As numbness creeps up his body, he summons the last of his strength to scratch a cryptic sign in the frost.
Following a trail of riddles, hangman Jakob Kuisl; his headstrong daughter Magdalena; and the town physician’s son team up with the priest’s aristocratic sister to investigate. What they uncover will lead them back to the Crusades, unlocking a troubled history of internal church politics and sending them on a chase for a treasure of the Knights Templar.
But they’re not the only ones after the legendary fortune. A team of dangerous and mysterious monks is always close behind, tracking their every move, speaking Latin in the shadows, giving off a strange, intoxicating scent. And to throw the hangman off their trail, they have ensured he is tasked with capturing a band of thieves roving the countryside attacking solitary travelers and spreading panic.
Delivering on the promise of the international bestseller The Hangman’s Daughter, once again based on prodigious historical research into Pötzsch’s family tree, The Dark Monk takes us on a whirlwind tour through the occult hiding places of Bavaria’s ancient monasteries, bringing to life an unforgettable compassionate hangman and his tenacious daughter, painting a robust tableau of a seventeenth-century Bavaria still negotiating the lasting impacts of war, and quickening our pulses with a gripping, mesmerizing mystery.
I read so much hype about the Hangman's Daughter and then this book that I was expecting to be grabbed from the first page on and not let go of until the final chapter. Such was not the case, however, as I found the dour Germanic people, the meanness, the murderous treatment of women, the dirt and filth and ignorance to be very off-putting. I am not a fan of all that is crude and German to begin with, having had German relatives and ancestors whom I've never found to be decent people. The prose of the novel is dull and lackluster, and the plot slow and meandering.The characters are something of a stereotype, with the b*tchy hausfrau married to the poor henpecked hangman, the HUGE and brutal hangman who is weary of death and killing, and the small but finicky medical man whose father is a harries him and is a charletan. The hangman's daughter is smart enough to get herself out of the terrible situations that she gets herself into by being snoopy, but she's a jealous shrew when it comes to any other women who encounter Simon, the medical man. I found her to be annoying and in fact all of the women in the book come off as being thieves, liars, stupid and mean, or all of the above. I do not feel this book lived up to it's hype at all, and I struggled for days to get through its more boring passages. I'd give it C, and recommend it only to those who love Germanic history and mysteries.
Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr is another YA fantasy that was recommended to me because I've read and enjoyed books by Maria V Snyder and Devon Monk and many others. Here's the blurb:
Rule #3: Don't stare at invisible faeries.
Aislinn has always seen faeries. Powerful and dangerous, they walk hidden in mortal world. Aislinn fears their cruelty—especially if they learn of her Sight—and wishes she were as blind to their presence as other teens.
Rule #2: Don't speak to invisible faeries.
Now faeries are stalking her. One of them, Keenan, who is equal parts terrifying and alluring, is trying to talk to her, asking questions Aislinn is afraid to answer.
Rule #1: Don't ever attract their attention.
But it's too late. Keenan is the Summer King who has sought his queen for nine centuries. Without her, summer itself will perish. He is determined that Aislinn will become the Summer Queen at any cost—regardless of her plans or desires.
Suddenly none of the rules that have kept Aislinn safe are working anymore, and everything is on the line: her freedom; her best friend, Seth; her life; everything.
Faerie intrigue, mortal love, and the clash of ancient rules and modern expectations swirl together in Melissa Marr's stunning 21st century faery tale. All teenagers have problems, but few of them can match those of Aislinn, who has the power to see faeries. Quite understandably, she wishes that she could share her friends' obliviousness and tries hard to avoid these invisible intruders. But one faery in particular refuses to leave her alone. Keenan the Summer King is convinced beyond all reasoning that Aislinn is the queen he has been seeking for nine centuries. What's a 21st-century girl to do when she's stalked by a suitor nobody else can see? A debut fantasy romance for the ages; superlative summer read. Though I felt for Ash, as Aislinn is called, I found her waffling between the two guys who are after her (AGAIN with the love triangle! UGH!) boring because it has been done to death in most all YA novels with female protagonists. And the fact that Keenan, the Summer King, is pushy and whiny and bullied by the Winter Queen is just more reasons to wish him dead or off the playing field. But wait! There's a former Summer Queen candidate who is in love with Keenan, and she is also bullied by the evil Winter Queen, and therefore wants Ash to stand up to the Winter Queen and become the Summer Queen that she couldn't be and destroy WQ, releasing her beloved and allowing summer back into the world. It was gratifying that Ash finally does get her power going, but does so on her own terms, and manages to keep her tattooed and pierced boyfriend Seth in the process. That alone elevated the book beyond the confines of the wimpy heroines of Twilight and similar novels. For that reason, I'd give this novel a B, and recommend it to high school age gals and beyond who enjoy fantasy novels with darker fae and goth teenagers.