Thursday, October 31, 2013

Book Review: "Defy" by Sara B. Larson


Love and conflict: it seems like you can't find the one without the other in most books. Of course we wouldn't want it any other way though. Being able to hope, ache, and follow the characters through their struggles is what allows us to form a bond with them, share in their triumphs and feel their pain.

Well, there's plenty of both romance and conflict in Defy, a new YA fantasy novel by Sara B. Larson. The book's general themes are listed as "Identity, princes, adventure stories, magic, and conspiracies." And that's a fair assessment of the book's key elements, but not of the plot itself, which is more imaginative than the one-word assessments imply.

Alexa and her twin brother Marcel are raised on the border of two warring countries, until their parents are killed in a raid. In order to stay together, Alexa becomes Alex, and both join the army. They rapidly move up the ranks until both find themselves in Prince Damian's elite personal guard. But when the war escalates, and Marcel is killed protecting the prince, Alex is left alone with her secret.

The next assassination attempt at the castle results in Prince Damian being taken captive, along with Alex and her fellow guard Rylan. But all is not what it appears: Prince Damian, outwardly a spoiled and entitled pain in the rump, has actually been working with those on the other side of the war to help end the violence. But Rylan, who has always been there to support and stand beside Alex, doesn't trust Damian or his motives. And the longer the three of them are stuck in close quarters together, the greater the risk of Alex's secret being revealed. Which, of course, happens eventually. Spoiler alert: Both Damian and Rylan already knew. Now in the midst of a daring plan to bring peace to her country and install Damian as king, Alex has to face down her feelings for both the men who love her: Damian, powerful and full of secrets; and Rylan, steadfast and protective.

While the agony of choosing between two people who have declared themselves to you is nothing new for a YA novel, it can be written very successfully. In my own writing, I've found the trick to be in making sure I don't treat the premise as something that's tired and overused; if in my mind I make it something new and novel, my writing turns out exciting too. Despite the exciting premise of this book, the setup for Alexa's character and the potential for her to be a Katniss Everdeen-like heroine, Larson's YA debut falls flat. When I was reading it, I felt like she didn't really sell some of the roles being played. For example, when Damian first starts opening up to Alex when she's guarding the prince's suite, there's no real prelude to it. No reason for him to suddenly do a personality flip from the spoiled brat he played to the sentimental, caring person for whom Alexa comes to have feelings.

This kind of unrealistic character is highlighted by the fact that Alexa's character is so very well developed. She's incredibly empathetic, with realistic fears for her country and her future, even as she feels helpless to impact any of it. Her only choice, she feels, is to continue the charade and hope that the situation improves sooner rather than later. And I felt those things for her too, by knowing her thoughts and seeing the story through her eyes. She is strong, capable, and earns herself a prestigious place as a prince's personal guard through her own abilities with a sword, instead of with stereotypical feminine wiles. Unfortunately, this strong character goes all to bits and pieces as soon as she figures out that two boys like her. Instead of a sword-slinging female warrior she degenerates into an emotional puddle of lovelorn insecurities, which I felt was completely unlike the character she was made out to be in the beginning of the novel. Thankfully she redeemed herself a little in the end when it came time to choose between Damian and Rylan, but I was still disappointed in this depiction of a woman becoming powerless and governed by her feelings alone when a love interest (or two) was introduced. The author set this up perfectly for a series that will eventually culminate in Alexa and Damian being together, but I'm hoping that in the mean time Alexa will have a chance to redeem herself as a strong female protagonist with some backbone.

Larson attempts to broach some serious topics through Alexa, like rape, war, and loving your country even when you don't necessarily agree with what its leader is doing. And during a period of change and confusion like adolescence, these are issues that many adolescents are working their own way through. But unfortunately like Damian's trite character, the language of the book is lacking to give depth and significance to these themes. Instead the social commentary aspect comes off as overly simplistic, becoming more a motivator for Alexa to succeed (which is still important) than a real topic to be addressed in its own right. Opportunities to open discussions about feminism, sexuality, and loyalty are, I felt, wasted in Larson's rush to reach the climax of the romance instead of further developing the story at large.

If you're looking for a fairly engaging but unsubstantial read to keep you entertained for a stormy weekend, and you liked the Twilight books, consider picking up a copy of Sara B. Larson's YA debut novel Defy. It will be available at your local independent bookstore starting on January 7th.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Best-Known Books Set In The States

Most Famous Books Set In Every State_02

Business Insider has come out with this awesome map of the US, with each state represented by what they've determined to be the most well-known book that took place there. And while I'm ashamed to admit that my home state of Washington is still so closely associated with Twilight, I think this is a pretty accurate list. Check it out!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Book Review: "Seven for a Secret" by Lyndsay Faye

I'm a strong proponent of the old caution to never judge a book - to read or not to read it - by its cover. The same advice should be applied to book titles, too; after all, The Name of the Rose is not about flower gardening. But at this point I have to make a confession: I picked up Lyndsay Faye's latest novel, Seven for a Secret, solely because of the title. It references a children's rhyme that's always been intriguing to me, about counting crows and what their numbers mean. 

As misguided as my motivations for picking up this book may have been, I haven't for a second regretted it. This is actually Faye's second mystery centered around main character Timothy Wilde, but it was a wonderful and entirely understandable stand-alone novel as well. It's 1845, and New York City is abuzz with three things: the Democratic party, abolition, and Irish immigration. As a member of the newly formed Copper Stars, Wilde is sworn to uphold the law. But when that means compromising his own moral code, he's willing to overlook legal routes in the interest of protecting common citizens. When a wealthy black woman comes to him for help finding her kidnapped sister and son, that will mean bending the law possibly even farther than he can justify in order to solve the case. 

Lucy Adams's family, free blacks from Albany, has been taken by blackbirders. Since slavery was illegal in New York but not in other parts of the country, many escaped slaves made for the empire state. However, they weren't safe even after reaching the north. A landmark court case had determined that slaves who were recaptured and identified must, as stolen property, be returned to their owners in the south. Unscrupulous whites looking to turn a quick profit would capture free New Yorkers of color and claim that they were escaped slaves in court. Although free, for all intents and purposes blacks had no legal rights, and so were nearly always carted away to be sold into slavery at a tidy profit. The conscienceless people who were responsible for this practice were known as blackbirders. 

What starts as a simple kidnapping case gets complicated fast. Wilde rescues Lucy's family with the help of his vice-ridden brother Valentine, another copper star, and the Adams family hides in Valentine's house until Mr. Adams is due to return to New York. But when Timothy Wilde comes to check on the family, he finds Lucy dead in Valentine's bed and Delia and Jonah missing yet again. 

In a race to uncover the truth behind the murder and keep suspicion away from Valentine, Wilde enlists the help of a craggy Dutch cohort and a group of free black vigilantes who were close with the Adams family. Wilde follows the case deep into the Democratic party and its immigrant constituency, through an old case of his and into the ethical gray area of racial tensions of the time. The closer he gets to uncovering the truth about Lucy Adams, her murder and her family, the more of his own life and career he risks. 

Faye takes an immensely complicated time in American history and uses it to build an incredible story of suspense. The subtleties of the politics of the time are presented with precision and detail, clearly laying out the conflicted nature of Wilde's position: he's a copper star with a sworn duty to protect New Yorkers, which he really takes to heart, but the law prevents him from standing up to people like blackbirders who prey on a particular portion of the population. Wilde doesn't believe in slavery, but during that time blacks competed directly with Irish immigrants for any kind of work. The Irish, as whites and therefore voters, made up the majority of the Democratic party that funded the Copper Stars. So being an abolitionist detective trying to solve the murder of a black woman at the expense of the party's image put Wilde in a very risky position. 

I simply cannot overstate the skill with which Faye wove all the threads of this marvelous, engaging story through to the end. There are enough references to the first Timothy Wilde mystery, The Gods of Gotham, that Faye can establish how the previous story line impacted Wilde, but characters from the first book who reappear are re-introduced with context. That way, I could understand the closeness of the relationships without having to see them form for myself. 

Another aspect of the times and setting to which Faye pays admirable attention is the language. She begins the book with a dictionary of "flash," the idiomatic slang of the lower classes. She stays true to this vernacular too, switching back and forth between flash and "proper" English as the situation and company in the setting dictate. It's frankly a fascinating language, and it brings a wonderful color to the dialogue. 

Most of us are not experts on the early history of New York City and the nuances of race relations there. Faye takes this courteously into account, and builds lack of experience with this into Wilde's own reactions to and discoveries. As a result he's constantly being reminded of the cruelties and inequalities to which even free blacks were subjected. Examples include admission of a black man's testimony in court (it was worthless) and blacks being barred from voting unless they owned a practically unobtainable amount of property. Every time he makes an egalitarian assumption that proves mistaken, Wilde reacts with shock at the way "free" blacks are treated, which reflected my own fascination and horror at the situation.

By virtue of the complex story line and detailed historical accuracy, I think that this would make an amazing book club read. Faye and her husband even put together a recipe for the Wildes' secret punch that you might drink at your book club meeting! If you like political intrigue that has more adventure and suspense than mayhem and gore, and are fond of colorful characters whose complex relationships play seamlessly into the plot, consider picking up a Timothy Wilde mystery by Lyndsay Faye. The Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret are both available now at your local independent bookstore.