Book Rec: Fiendish
Clementine DeVore spent ten years trapped in a cellar, pinned down by willow roots, silenced and forgotten.
Now she’s out and determined to uncover who put her in that cellar and why.
When Clementine was a child, dangerous and inexplicable things started happening in New South Bend. The townsfolk blamed the fiendish people out in the Willows and burned their homes to the ground. But magic kept Clementine alive, walled up in the cellar for ten years, until a boy named Fisher sets her free. Back in the world, Clementine sets out to discover what happened all those years ago. But the truth gets muddled in her dangerous attraction to Fisher, the politics of New South Bend, and the Hollow, a fickle and terrifying place that seems increasingly temperamental ever since Clementine reemerged.
Fiendish is the first book by Brenna Yovanoff that I’ve read—and it definitely won’t be the last. In fact, I’m currently devouring Paper Heart and liking it possibly even more than Fiendish. But first: Fiendish.
This book has atmosphere. Gloomy, strange, beautiful atmosphere. It evokes the country town of New South Bend so well that I could see it, smell it, hear it. And it’s perfect for the rich, close magic of the books inhabitants: the bizarre and sometimes terrifying fiends and the humans related to them.
One of the other things that I liked best is that closeness. This isn’t a book about saving the whole world, but just about saving a small town. The story takes place over just a few days, following Clementine and her cousin and friends, and it feels very intimate. A lot that is the great characterization—Yovanoff is a master at giving us small details about the characters that really make them pop.
But I also like that it is a story itself is set on a smaller scale than a lot YA. Especially because that doesn’t mean the book is less awesome or less meaningful than books where an entire civilization or a country or particular population is at stake. The stakes here may be smaller, but they are not small. And that’s something that I think that goes missing from a lot of YA on a publishing level. I mean, I love a huge change-the-world story as much as anyone, but sometimes I think that publishers pigeon hole all YA books with this idea. The idea that the stakes have to be all-encompassing, life or death, every moment heightened and intense. Those stories can be fantastic, but there’s room for other stories—and they can have just as all-encompassing an effect on the reader. Fiendish is a great example of a book like this, and one that I hope will bring some light to other books like it.
Book Rec: Kill Me Softly
A few years ago, I tried to get into the TV show Once Upon a Time. Some friends of mine really liked it, and it sounded right up my alley. Fairy tales? Check. Fractured fairy tales? Check. Awesome sparkly costumes? Check. Evil queens? Check. Heroines with unknown heritages? Check. So I sat down and watched a few episodes . . . and it just didn’t work for me.
A lot of it was the dialogue, which felt stilted and cliched to me. Some of it was that I have a low tolerance for The Cute Kid in most of that role’s standard forms (though Orphan Black actually does a great job in having a Cute Kid that I find authentically cute and sympathetic). Part of it was that I felt like the intersection of fairy tales and real life wasn’t as well done as it might have been—I kept getting caught up on “wait, couldn’t they just do this?” and “why doesn’t x happen on a regular basis?” kinds of questions. Whatever it was, OUAT turned out to be a show that I wanted to like much more than I actually did, so I eventually abandoned it. But I felt frustrated, because I really liked the concept. I just kept hoping that someone would do it better.
And, happily for me, someone has. I recently finished Sarah Cross’s Kill Me Softly and the associated short story, “Twin Roses,” and they totally hit the spot that I was hoping OUAT would hit. Here’s the scoop:
True love’s kiss just may prove deadly . . .
Mirabelle’s past is shrouded in secrecy, from her parents’ tragic deaths to her guardians’ half-truths about why she can’t return to her birthplace, Beau Rivage. Desperate to see the town, Mira runs away a week before her sixteenth birthday—and discovers a world she never could have imagined.
In Beau Rivage, nothing is what it seems—the strangely pale girl with a morbid interest in apples, the obnoxious playboy who’s a beast to everyone he meets, and the chivalrous guy who has a thing for damsels in distress. Here, fairy tales come to life, curses are awakened, and ancient stories are played out again and again.
But fairy tales aren’t pretty things, and they don’t always end in happily ever after. Mira has a role to play, a fairy-tale destiny to embrace or resist. As she struggles to take control of her fate, Mira is drawn into the lives of two brothers with fairy-tale curses of their own . . . brothers who share a dark secret. And she’ll find that love, just like fairy tales, can have sharp edges and hidden thorns.
I really, really enjoyed Kill Me Softly. Beau Rivage is populated (though not exclusively) by people cursed or blessed to play out roles in fairy tales: sleeping princesses, charming princes, beasts, evil stepmothers. Seeing the different permutations of various story roles fascinated me, from the singer who has to deal with coughing up jewels on a regular basis to the boy currently in the acting-like-an-ass stage before being transformed into a beast. And Sarah Cross does a great job of melding the curses/blessings into modern life—they never felt forced or awkward.
I also think she did a great job in terms of having a main character with specific fairy tale traits. Mira’s curse (which I won’t reveal for spoilers) leads her to have a lot of curiosity, sometimes pressing forward when she oughtn’t. She does some headstrong things, but she never crosses that line that makes me pull away in a “WTF are you doing, Main Character?” pique. She was believable as a girl trying to make her own path, yet also constrained by the terms of a fairy tale curse. The same goes for Blue, the main male character of the story. As an avid reader of fairy tales, I figured his curse out pretty much immediately, then enjoyed watching him pit himself against it. (Especially since it gives an actual reason for the initial-dislike-gives-way-to-affection trope!)
After finishing the book, I immediately downloaded “Twin Roses,” even though I had other books waiting in my queue. It follows two sisters cursed with the Snow White and Rose Red roles, is as fun and tasty as the cupcakes the girls sell at their bakery, and—extra bonus—deals with a question from the story that always bugged me as a kid. The related novel, Tear Me Apart, which follows one of the minor characters from Kill Me Softly, is out now, and I can’t wait to read it.
So: a big recommendation for lovers of fairy tales and OUAT, for readers who like a bad boy in their YA, and those who like a girl who figures her own way out of bad situations.
Leisurely YA Reads
I’ve been thinking lately about the differences between YA books and adult books. (Or, I should say, some of the differences between some YA books and some adult books, because making blanket statements about all types of books in a particular genre doesn’t lead anywhere good.) In any case, I just finished rereading Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin, the second book in her Farseer trilogy, which is the first of two finished trilogies and one just-begun trilogy about the same characters. They’re great books, ones I’ve loved for years; I’m rereading them right now because the first book in the new trilogy just came out and I’m one of those people who rereads all the previously books whenever the new book in a series comes out. (Yes, I reread the Harry Potter books seven times. I fear the next Game of Thrones book coming out.)
As I was reading Royal Assassin, thought, I started noticing the vast difference in pacing between it and the book I had read previous to it: Blood of My Blood, Barry Lyga’s just released ending to the I Hunt Killers trilogy (also an awesome set of books, but don’t read them while you’re home alone if you’re twitchy like me, as they are about serial killers). Blood of My Blood is a really fast paced novel; I read the whole thing in less than 48 hours, because it just keeps pulling you along, with the events happening over the course of only a few days. Royal Assassin, on the other hand, is much more leisurely paced; it takes a lot longer for the character and plot threads to unfold, the tension to ratchet up, etc.
Going from Blood of my Blood to Royal Assassin was actually a little jarring as a reader—I had to mentally slow myself down for Royal Assassin. And while Blood of My Blood is on the fast end of YA to begin with, it got me trying to think of YA books that are on the other side of pacing, books with longer fuses, as it were. One of the reasons I’m interested in it is that I think my own writing style tends to be a little slower paced than the average YA novel. I don’t mind that—it’s usually what my particular style of books need. (Though after my first draft I often have to do a rewrite with picking up the pace in mind, because my first drafts tend to come out a bit slower than necessary.)
What’s the advantage of slower pacing? It depends, but I enjoy the sometimes deeper sense of place you often find in more deliberately paced books, the ability to really sink into a fantasy world and its culture and myths. Often a deliberate pace means the book is going to take place over a longer internal time span—months or years rather than days or weeks—again, something that I enjoy and that I tend to gravitate toward in my own writing (though I would love to write a book that takes place over 24 or 48 hours just to see if I could do it well.) I also like books that, as my husband says, are Animal Crossing books (in reference to the Nintendo game). Books where it’s not life or death every moment, but that take time to show the characters just living life—going to the post office, having tea, picking out Christmas presents.
Am I saying that one type of book is better than the other? Not at all. Just like sometimes you want soda and sometimes you want tea, we need different book fixes for different moods. But because so many YA books are very quickly paced, I think it’s nice to also highlight the other side of YA.
So here are a few YA books for when you feel like something that takes its time a little more than most:
Chalice, The Hero and the Crown, and Shadows by Robin McKinley (actually, pretty much any book by Robin McKinley)
Ash by Malinda Lo
Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary by Pamela Dean (on the border of YA and not—I’ve seen them shelved both ways, as I have with several McKinley books)
The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper
Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle
Thirteen Child and subsequent books by Patricia C. Wrede
Chime by Franny Billingsley
The Safe-Keeper’s Secret and subsequent books by Sharon Shinn
Wise Child and Juniper by Monica Furlong
This Week’s Reads
Some of the books that I have been most impressed with over the last few years are Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone books. The last book, Dreams of Gods and Monsters, came out recently, though I was a little late in getting to read it, since I let my husband read our copy first. Given how much I was looking forward to the book, I think I deserve gold stars for this good deed. (And no, I will not revoke my gold stars just because I had about eight library books out at the time Dreams came out and I needed to read all of them and get them back to the library before incurring enormous fines. It was still selfless of me. Noble even. Totally gold star-worthy.)
In any case, Dreams of Gods and Monsters is a fantastic end to a marvelous series. It’s always great when a writer takes the narrative in a direction that you never saw coming, but that feels completely organic and natural and right. I can’t talk about too much of the plot of the book without heavy spoilers, but it both opened doors I had not realized were there and tied up threads that I knew were there in unexpected and satisfying ways. The worldbuilding expanded into new places that I hope (really, seriously hope) will be explored in additional books, though if not, I’ll still feel like this was a good place to stop.
One of the things that I have admired the most about these books is the humor in them. There’s wonderful romance, fantastic worldbuilding, high stakes, and devastating consequences, but threaded through it all are lines and scenes that literally make me laugh out loud. Sometimes cackle out loud. Out loud enough that you can hear me at the other end of the house and I once startled Zuul. (Who is, granted, startleable.) Being the last book in the series, this book has a lot more heavy lifting to do than the others, and is more serious in tone. But the chapter “Eyebrow Master Class” was one of the most hysterical pieces of writing I have read recently. I want to marry Zuzana. Or at least worship at her platform heel-shod feet.
In short, I’ve been saying for several years that these are among the best YA coming out now and the last book clinches it. If you haven’t read them, go now. Purchase. Borrow. Read.