Blog Tour and Series Cast: Quintana of Charyn by Melina Marchetta

I’m delighted to be participating for the Quintana of Charyn blog tour. As we all eagerly await the US release of the last in Melina Marchetta’s stunning Lumatere Chronicles series, I couldn’t help but ruminate a bit on all of the characters that we’ve come to know and love in Finnikin of the Rock and Froi of the Exiles.

I can’t help but cast characters in my head when I’m reading. Here’s how I imagine the characters in the Lumatere Chronicles series. (Warning: The pictures in my head often don’t match up to character descriptions. But it’s my vision, so change it if you don’t like it).

Finnikin

Isaboe

 

Froi

Quintana

Phaedra

Lucian

Check out the rest of the stops on the blog tour here.

Review: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Throne of Glass certainly seems to be one of the standout young adult fantasy titles this year. When I first caught wind of this release, my excitement owed as much to the fact that the story had first appeared on Fictionpress.net as it did to the intriguing premise. I’m a huge fan of sword and sorcery novels, particularly those in the vein of Maria V. Snyder’s Study series, so a novel with a female assassin protagonist sounded right up my alley. Ultimately, Throne of Glass didn’t enthrall me as I had anticipated going into the novel, but having perservered through a somewhat rough beginning, I’m glad I stuck with it.

As Throne of Glassopens, we are introduced to Celaena Sardothien, self-proclaimed (and universally acknowledged) master assassin. It took me a good while to warm to Celaena. A cool, calculating demeanor is only to be expected of an assassin, yet I wasn’t a fan of Celaena’s seemingly unflappable confidence, which I more often than not interpret as mere arrogance in literature. Yet, there have been a number of series where it took me many chapters, indeed, sometimes an entire book or two to feel sympathy for a seemingly acerbic heroine; Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels series and Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series are excellent examples. I’m glad to say that Celaena ultimately fell into this category, as Maas went down an unexpected route in the characterization of her protagonist. As we get to know Celaena, her haughtiness becomes more subdued (presumably due to her increased comfort with her surroundings and companions). It’s all well and good to assert that you’re the

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

best assassin in the world, but to me, the more you feel the need to proclaim your status to all you encounter, the more I tend to doubt your abilities. Luckily, Celaena quickly disavowed herself of the need to remind others of her experience, and I soon found myself rooting for her despite my initial disinclinations. What’s more, Maas imbued Celaena with an inherent girlishness that complemented the severity of her killing nature. Celaena might be ruthless when need be, but she’s also a woman and enjoys certain frivolities and vices. I particularly loved the Yulemas scene in which she receives and proceeds to eat a massive amount of candy, as it serves to contrast the harshness of her maturity with the innocence she is still capable of displaying. However, the thing I loved most about Celaena was the fact that she wasn’t afraid to admit when others were right. There is a particular scene in which she is told that, in order to win, she must forsake her pride. While most heroines would doggedly adhere to their convictions regardless of the wisdom such action would entail, Celaena laughed it off and conceded that the strategy was a good one. I loved that she was confident enough in herself to acknowledge when others had the right in the matter.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t as impressed with most of the other characterizations. I’ll admit, the love triangle is shaping up to be an interesting one, and for once, I’m not quite sure who I think would be the better choice for Celaena in the long-run (though I believe I know who her endgame will wind up being). Chaol is a good idea of a character, but we didn’t get to know him nearly well enough for me to really root for him at this point. I felt that Maas’s brief transistions into his point-of-view actually hurt the story by removing some of the doubt and ambiguity. I would have preferred to learn of his feelings gradually as Celaena did rather than having them gift-wrapped and hand-delivered to us. Dorian was a bit more interesting, yet I feel that he, too, served a limited purpose. His resistance toward his father’s method of ruling and belief in marrying for love felt too neat and did little to create depth of character; rather, they merely served to make him a stereotype for the ideals that Maas hopes to champion throughout the series. Still, I enjoyed Celaena’s interactions with both men and look forward to seeing how Maas maneuvers these relationships as the series progresses.

For the first half of the story, there were few magical references save mention of some fantastical creatures who inhabit the forest. I was glad to see Maas incorporate a heavier fantasy element in the second half of the story and felt that she handled the magical system she created well. We saw just enough to keep us intrigued while holding back ample material for sequels to explore. Overall, the world Maas created is an interesting one that, while not particularly unique, nonetheless manages to combine oft-used elements into an attractive whole in which action and magic meld together. Throne of Glass is a solid contribution to young adult fantasy, yet I’m hoping that Maas focuses more attention on creating depth in her characters in upcoming installments. If she manages to do that, I believe that this series could shine above many of its peers.

Review: Ironskin by Tina Connolly

I’ve said it before, and I’ll reiterate: I do not take authors messing with my Jane Eyre lightly. If you are going to attempt to paint a new gloss over something that has already been perfected to my eyes, you’re going to have to bring something completely new to the table. In this regard, I applaud Connolly’s efforts to entwine a fey glamour over the well known Bronte tale, but I can’t say that she pulled off all she hoped to achieve.

Ironskin suffers from a dissonance between Connolly’s desire to adapt Jane Eyre and her desire to write an original fantasy work. The result feels like Connolly’s take on how she would have written Jane Eyre had she gotten first crack at it rather than a reimagining or tribute. Nevertheless, Connolly introduces some interesting ideas and I can’t help but feel that she ultimately did herself a disservice by trying to shoehorn her story into such a well-known mould; she would have done better to eschew comparisons and simply tell her own tale.

Ironskin by Tina Connolly

Jane Eliot is fundamentally different than Jane Eyre. Perhaps, considering our own reactions were we placed in Jane Eyre’s shoes, many of us feel that Jane Eyre should have felt rage at her situation, yet the very fact that she didn’t defines her character. It’s what sets her apart from and above her peers, what gives her the beauty that shines through an ordinary exterior. Where Jane Eliot allows the rage to take root, Jane Eyre lived above it. Where Jane Eliot yearns for normality badly enough to take drastic, disturbing measures to achieve it, Jane Eyre accepted herself with pride and grace if not always with pleasure. This was one of my biggest points of contention with the book, for in the original it is Rochester who needs reminding that Jane is as she is and won’t be changed. In Ironskin, it is Jane herself who succumbs to shallow desires and embraces superficiality. Making the decision a supposedly crucial plot point does nothing to lessen my disappointment in Jane’s decision and underscores the fact that this is not the same Jane I’ve come to love.

Rochert had potential as a reincarnation of Rochester yet, like so many who have tried before, Connolly fails to grasp Rochester’s essential nature. His depiction quite confused me, really. We are told of his internal suffering, but it doesn’t truly play out on the page. Before we learn of his deep, dark secret, I had actually gained the impression that he was in fact a warm man, loving of his daughter and wife both, not doggedly attempting to hold back the defeating force of his past as Rochester was. We are given so little page time with Rochert that he is never fleshed out (never mind the utter lack of chemistry between him and Jane). I rather liked the dimension Connolly added with his somewhat addled composure concerning the fey, but this too is inadequately addressed.

The greatest interpretations of character for me were Dorie and Poule, as Jane must work at her relationship with both much moreso than in the original. Though I never warmed to Dorie (in truth, she freaks me out more than a little), her storyline was one of the few that suggested the story would have been better off told as an original work. Poule also intrigued me, particularly as she and Jane formed something of a team here, so unlike Jane’s wary regard of Poole in the original. I wish we could have learned a bit more about Poule’s heritage, as it was one of several threads of fantasy worldbuilding that offered a promising story yet was not fully explained.

Overall, I couldn’t tell if Connolly truly wanted to retell our beloved story. Aside from the character names and a rough outline of the plot, so few critical elements of the original story remain. The pacing barely reflects that of the original, throwing Jane into her new employ on the first page, rearranging key scenes and completely eliminating the character of St. John. Whether this is meant to be a permanent feature of the series or whether Connolly introduces St. John in the next book remains to be seen. Jane’s background is completely altered, which likely goes far in explaining her drastic personality change. Whereas the unforgiving environments of her aunt’s home and Lowood shaped Jane Eyre into a strong woman determined to resist the scorn thrust upon her lowly station, Jane Eliot’s abrupt reversal of fortune at a later age made her resentful and proud.

Ultimately, Connolly seemed to want to write a fantasy, and Jane and Rochert’s relationship suffered for it. While her take on the bedroom scene is a novel change, it failed to make up for the numerous other iconic interactions that defined both characters in the original, yet that were missing from this novel. Though I was initially intrigued by the mask plotline, this too wound but being merely a grotesque externalization of conflict that distorted the subtle genius of the original.

I was also confused by Connolly’s repeated references to other classic works. Surely Bronte was influenced by those who came before her, yet she allowed those guiding voices to shape her story without stealing heavy-handed elements. Connolly not only mentions tales such as Beauty and the Beast and Tam Lin, but she goes so far as to incorporate threads of these tales into the story, which merely adds to the disjointed feel. It’s a shame, since, divorced from recollections of her predecessor, I rather liked Jane. The fey world Connolly has created seems rather fascinating, but we are given the barest glimpses of it. I’m also not quite sure that this work is best described as steampunk, but that characterization will suffice. Overall, Ironskin had promise, but ambivalence regarding the extent to which this was meant to be a retelling ultimately resulted in a failed execution of interesting ideas.

Cover Reveal: Purgatory Reign by L.M. Preston

Today I’m happy to be a part of the cover reveal for Purgatory Reign, an upcoming young adult paranormal romance novel by L.M. Preston.

Purgatory Reign by L.M. Preston

Something evil this way comes, unfortunately for it, Peter Saints is waiting.
Seventeen-year-old Peter Saints’ life stinks. But things are about to get much worse. First, his parents are murdered in front of him. Then another victim dies in his arms.
 
Visions plague Peter with warnings that something wants him for a sinister cause. It desires the one thing that Peter refuses to give –  his blood.
 

On the run with Angel, a scruffy kid, Peter starts to unravel the mystery. It’s the one secret the heavens sought to hide from the world. Unfortunately, when Peter finds the answer he hopes that will save the girl he loves, he opens the door to a great evil that happens to be salivating to meet him.

Purgatory Reign will be released in e-book format in March 2013, with a print edition to follow in May 2013.

Review: Zombie Vs. Unicorns edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

I rarely read anthologies. Even rarer still do I review them. To be honest, Zombies Vs. Unicorns exhibited the vast array of talent representative of anthologies that makes me hesitant to buy them in the first place, so I’m not quite sure why I feel inspired to review it as well. Perhaps it is because, amidst the variable levels of quality, I found a couple of stories that I wish had been fleshed out into full-length novels. Maybe I simply feel like establishing my allegience (despite my love for eccentric animals, I am Team Zombie all the way). Whatever the case, I’ve decided to give some brief impressions of my Zombies Vs. Unicorns experience.

The Highest Justice by Garth Nix

It could be a symptom of having been the first story I read way back when I bought the book (and thus having had the most time to languish unremembered in my thoughts), but I don’t recall being particularly enamored of this first story.  2/5

Love Will Tear Us Apart by Alaya Dawn Johnson

I’ve never read any of Johnson’s work before. Alright, truth time, I’d never actually heard of Johnson before purchasing this anthology, but I’ll surely be seeking out more of her work in the future. This story, though short, packed a huge emotional punch, and it delivered on so many fronts: a zombie plague masquerading as an infection, resultant sentient zombie who’s torn between kissing and eating his lover, bonus points for boy/boy romance, and great musical references. Really, this story earned the highest rating possible when it started things off with an Arctic Monkeys-inspired chapter title.  5/5

Purity Test by Naomi Novik

My boyfriend and I had an hour-long drive ahead of us, so I decided to read a story aloud to pass the time. Forty minutes later, my head hurt, and not simply due to sore vocal chords. I could barely manage to finish this story, and I’m still not quite sure what it was hoping to achieve.  1/5

Zombies Vs. Unicorns Anthology

Bougainvillea by Carrie Ryan

Though I have The Forest of Hands and Teeth sitting on my bookshelf, the only piece of Ryan’s writing that I’d read thus far was a short story for the Enthralled Anthology (one of the only stories in that anthology that I wound up liking). Unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same for this one, as I found the nonlinear timeline confusing and the characters rather unsympathetic.  2/5

A Thousand Flowers by Margo Lanagan

This story felt like an Angela Carter tale: slightly confusing, otherworldly, menacing, and wholly uncomfortable. I would never have thought a story about unicorns could feel so wrong, but Lanagan managed to create possibly the most disturbing story of the bunch.  4/5

The Children of the Revolution by Maureen Johnson

I’ve read a few of Johnson’s books, and this story read much the same as her other writings. I found it fun, but without a whole lot of substance or innovation. Still, she managed to keep me interested, which is more than I can say for a lot of the stories in this collection.  3/5

The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn by Diana Peterfreund

I’m a huge fan of Peterfreund’s Secret Society Girl series, but I haven’t read any of her unicorn books yet. That might change, if my reaction to this story is any indication. While I wasn’t particularly enamored of the characters featured in this story, she created a unique world unlike any I’ve read before. I’d like to see how much farther she can take the concept of killer unicorns before it starts to feel contrived.  3/5

Inoculata by Scott Westerfield

Westerfield’s world, while somewhat intriguing, read far too much like the introductory chapter to a series. It didn’t stand on its own two feet, which is a shame, since I felt that he had a whole lot more to say on this subject. Kudos for a subtlely drawn girl/girl relationship. 3/5

Princess Prettypants by Meg Cabot

I’ll admit, The Princess Diaries series is a guilty pleasure. However, if this story is any indication of the tone of Cabot’s other series, I’ll be steering clear. Cabot was asking for ironic humorous chuckles, but I wasn’t feeling any. 2/5

Cold Hands by Cassandra Clare

I could go on for days about the various grudges I hold against Clare. Instead, I will simply say that, as usual, Clare has delivered an inadequately thought out world with a saccharine romance that just barely managed to keep me reading.  2/5

The Third Virgin by Kathleen Duey

While I felt the idea for this one (an addicted unicorn; who knew?) was novel, the writing kept me at a distance. It was too reminiscent of the detached prose of Patricia McKillip, whose writing I simply cannot get into no matter how much others might love her.  Still, I recognize the quality of writing, even if I didn’t relate to it personally.  3/5

Prom Night by Libba Bray

Many other readers raved about this story, but it didn’t draw me in like most of the other zombie stories in this collection.  Unfortunately, I skimmed much of it, and so don’t have a whole lot to say.  1/5

Despite a lot of average writing, Johnson and Lanagan’s stories really knocked it out of the park for me, and so they managed to bump the rating for the whole anthology up a notch. Check this one out if you have the time.

Review: Spark by Brigid Kemmerer

When I requested a review copy of Spark, I broke one of my avowed reading rules: never read a series out of order.  Yet I knew that Spark would only remain on NetGalley for a few days longer, and I had read so many rave reviews of Storm, the first in Kemmerer’s Elementals series, that I knew I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by. Requesting Spark wound up being a good move; after reading the descriptions for the first two books in the series, I have to say that Gabriel’s bad-boy-falls-for-smart-girl trope appealed to me more than his older brother’s storyline.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure that I’m intrigued enough by the world Kemmerer has built to seek out the first in the series, but if I happen to come across it I’d gladly give it a go.

Kemmerer deftly works two of my favorite underused themes into her new series: control of the elements, and brotherly love.  Usually, it seems like the latter is portrayed between a pair of siblings (see Rob Thurman’s Cal Leandros series, Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon series, and Supernatural).  However, Kemmerer isn’t content with giving us a measly duo, so instead we’re treated to a horde of brothers (two of them twins, at that).  Reviewers have been praising the dynamic Kemmerer has created among this sibling gang, and while I could see the underpinnings of something sweet, I believe this might be an example of why series are best started at the beginning.  I couldn’t help but feel that the foundations of these relationships were solidly established in Storm, and that Kemmerer took it for granted a bit in Spark.  Usually, I would applaud an author for foregoing the urge to rehash and repeat past

Spark by Brigid Kemmerer

events for the sake of new readers, but when I happen to be on the other side for once, I can appreciate why authors summarize.  I followed the story just fine, though I was a bit lost on some of the finer points.  It also took me a while to figure out who was connected to whom familialy and romantically, though I was pretty confident on this point midway through.  Still, I felt that something was missing (and no, it wasn’t a spark, although that would be conveniently ironic).  While I could see that these brothers cared immensely for each other, I felt too much like a bystander to their affections without getting a sense of how their personalities really worked together.

Apart from this criticism, I quite enjoyed the story, but it never elicited enough excitement to warrant a higher rating.  Gabriel was a good narrator, if a bit typical for his stereotype.  I would have liked to see him interact more with his twin brother Nick, as I felt that this was one of the relationships for which so much importance lay in the backstory that I wasn’t privy to.  I had a more difficult time connecting with Layne, much to my surprise and disappointment, as I usually love reading about the shy, brainy chicks (I am one myself, after all).  Yet Layne just seemed a bit too self-involved, despite her air of subservience and altruism.  I did like her relationship with her brother Simon and the way that this factored into her growing regard for Gabriel.  Still, I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing; it was a formula I should have loved, but it never quite got to the point where I was rooting Gabriel and Layne on.  I was more concerned with Gabriel’s potential conviction as the unknown arsonist, and felt that this storyline was insufficiently resolved.  I suppose Kemmerer intends to explore it more in the next installment.

Overall, Kemmerer’s writing feels exactly like the type I usually gravitate toward, so I struggle to pinpoint exactly what it is that prevents me from loving this series.  Perhaps I ought to give Storm a chance and see if it changes my impressions of its successor; at any rate, I think that the Elementals series is a great new addition to the young adult urban fantasy genre.

Blog Tour and Series Cast: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

I can’t help but cast characters in my head when I’m reading. Here’s how I imagine the characters in Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series. (Warning: The pictures in my head often don’t match up to character descriptions. But it’s my vision, so change it if you don’t like it).

Celaena Sardothien

“At a passing glance, one might think her eyes blue or gray, perhaps even green, depending on the color of her clothing. Up close, though, these warring hues were offset by the brilliant ring of gold around her pupils. But it was her golden hair that caught the attention of most, hair that still maintained a glimmer in its glory.”

Dorian DeHavilliard

“Yet there was something in his eyes, strikingly blue- the color of the waters of the southern countries- and the way they contrasted with his raven-black hair that made her pause. He was achingly handsome, and couldn’t have been older than twenty.”

Chaol Westfall

“He straightened from a low bow and removed his hood, revealing close-cropped chestnut hair…Captain Westfall was not excessively handsome, but she couldn’t help finding the ruggedness of his face and the clarity of his golden-brown eyes rather appealing.”

Nehemia Ytger

“She was stunning, long and lean, each of her features perfectly formed and smooth. Her loose white dress contrasted with her creamy brown skin, and a three-plated gold torque covered much of her chest and neck.”

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: A Guide for the Thrifty, Impatient, and Clever Visitors

After spending hours reading blog posts and articles recounting others’ visits to the Wizarding World, I thought I was prepared to visit Hogwarts and Hogsmeade in all their glory. Friends, I was wrong; the Wizarding World was even more magical than I hoped for, and while I can’t in all honesty say that I want to go back to Orlando again any time soon (heat, crowds, and gaudiness galore do not a happy Shortlatte make), I do so wish that the Wizarding World wasn’t quite so far away, because I would be holding season passes if I lived within a hundred miles of it.

Yet while my trip was as wonderful as I’d hoped it would be, I have a feeling that I might have been slightly less enamored of my experience if I hadn’t done so extensive research beforehand. As I mentioned before, many have written about their own trips to the park and have provided some useful tips to help get the most out of your visit. Unfortunately, most of these articles spend their time extolling the benefits of staying in an on-site Universal Studios hotel, as hotel guests get free express passes for the Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff rides as well as entry to the park an hour before the general public. Yet, when the boyfriend and I sat down to make travel plans, the pricey Universal package simply wasn’t an option, so I was forced to come up with some strategies of my own.

1. Do your research.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: there are a lot of useful tips that others have written about that will help you to navigate the park with the least amount of hassle and frustration. I won’t rehash what others have already said, but I will add that your research should span all aspects of your trip to the Wizarding World, including shopping. You might not realize it, but as exciting as the prospect of shopping in Hogsmeade might be, it also poses some serious logistical problems for park-goers. Shopping bags aren’t allowed on the rides, so if you’ve got something that doesn’t fit in a pocket, you’re going to have to rent a locker. Though lockers are free for a certain amount of time, there’s no guarantee that you will be through the waiting line and off the ride before the time is up, so you might wind up having to pay to stash your stuff. Not to mention the fact that the locker line is separate from the actual ride line, adding more time to your overall wait. Then there’s the pesky little problem of buying candy from Honeydukes in ninety-plus degree heat: many a Chocolate Frog have suffered a miserable melty fate from park patrons who insist on toting them around the park all day.

Obviously, visiting the Wizarding World without buying something isn’t an option, so my advice is this: don’t be afraid to do some shopping ahead of time online. I don’t suggest that you make any purchases, but the online shops give a good idea of the range of items available for sale, so you can get a sense of the souvenirs you simply have to take home with you. This leads to step number two: take advantage of the Potter merchandise for sale throughout Orlando. From the airport to the Universal shops in City Walk, most of the stuff available for sale “only” in the Wizarding World is actual available at other locations as well. My boyfriend and I stocked up on the items on our list, including those pesky Chocolate Frogs, upon arriving at the airport and visiting City Walk the night before. Not only did we not have to worry about the problems mentioned above, but we also didn’t have to wait in ridiculously long lines as we would have had we waited to buy our souvenirs at the park. That’s not to say that we didn’t make some purchases there as well, but we were able to wait until just before we were ready to leave the park.

2. Get up early.

Harry and company weren’t afriad to forego a little sleep when the occasion called for it, and neither should you be. As I mentioned already, if you don’t stay at a Universal hotel, you will be forced to wait in line at the turnstiles until the park officially opens. We got up at six and were at the park before seven, over an hour before the park opened to the general public. We were the first in line and were treated to an hour-long wait during which hordes of hotel guests breezed through the gates right in front of us. You will want to apparate all of those early entrants out of there, but it’s alright. The good news is that by the time you enter the park, the hotel guests have likely already ridden the Forbidden Journey, paving a clear path for you. So when you finally get in, powerwalk straight back to the Wizarding World and resist the urge to take pictures. Those shots of the castle will still be there in an hour, but the lack of line won’t be. We went straight to the Forbidden Castle and rode it without a wait, then went straight to the Dragon Challenge and did the same for both rollercoasters. By the time we got to the Flight of the Hippogriff, there was an hour-long wait, but we managed to experience the most popular rides relatively hassle-free.

3. Have a gameplan.

Ours was mentioned above. Yours might be different (though I highly encourage bumping the Forbidden Journey to the top of your list). Nevertheless, you need to have an idea of where your priorities lie and do those things first, or else the crowds will swamp you.

4. Once you’re inside the castle, slow down.

You can always go back through the castle on the single rider line or on a castle tour without having to wait on the monstrous line, but those only give you a limited view of the castle. So when you go through the first time, let people pass you as you go along and take pictures to your heart’s content. Stop and absorb everything, because unless you want to wait on the uber-long line more than once, this is the closest you will get to the good stuff.

5. Explore the shops.

The stores in Hogsmeade are crowded pretty much morning, noon, and night, but not unmanageably so. The only one that has a truly off-putting line is Ollivander’s, and we opted not to wait for the wand-choosing ceremony. Instead, we ducked through Dervish & Bangles into the adjacent store and checked out the wands there. If you’re really craving the ambiance of Ollivander’s but don’t want to brave the line, there’s a good wand set-up in the Owl Post that gives much the same feel.

6. Chow down.

You woke up at the crack of dawn and have been walking or standing for hours, so chances are you’ll be hungry early. We headed to the Three Broomsticks around eleven and were seated instantly. A few minutes later, the crowds stormed in, so if you can, eat early to beat the rush. You’ll get a great seat and be able to eat in peace. If you get thirsty, resist the urge to get a Butterbeer from one of the carts and head to the Hog’s Head instead; there’s rarely a line and you can buy the collectible mugs there as well. You can get pumpkin juice (and the delicious Hog’s Head Brew) there too, as well as in Honeydukes.

7. Explore all the nooks and crannies.

The designers did a bang-up job with this park. It feels like a real locale rather than a recreation, and nothing shows that off more than the details. Take the time to notice the subtle touches. Look up everywhere you go, because so much of the good stuff is hidden above your head. Duck out back entrances to the Three Broomsticks and down alleyways for unique angles of the castle not visible from the main road. Even the ATM’s and the bathrooms have little touches that bring the world to life.

8. Don’t neglect the kiosks.

Had I not taken my own advice and done some shopping research beforehand, I wouldn’t have known about the amazing Skele-Gro keychain sold only at the Wizarding World. As it turns out, it really is sold only in the park, as it’s one of the items not available in other Universal gift shops. Unfortunately, it also didn’t seem to be available in the Hogsmeade shops, as after several passes through I still couldn’t find it. Thankfully, I thought to check the outdoor kiosk outside the Castle, and I found it in all its glory.

9. Go back at night.

The Wizarding World is a totally different experience when as the sun goes down. The heat isn’t as intense, and the crowds die down a lot. Most importantly, the setting sun gives the town a beautiful glow that makes for great photo ops. Hogwarts truly is stunning in the dimming light.

Review: The Sweetest Dark by Shana Abé

What an unexpected little book.

I requested this one after only a cursory glance at the description. Based on the standard sleepy-girl-in-a-pretty-dress cover, I was expecting another typical young adult paranormal, complete with impossibly gifted heroine and two swarthy sides to a love triangle. And that’s what Abé gives us…sort of.

I was completely unprepared for the strength of Abé’s writing. Having read a lot of young adult books that mistake conspicuous word choice for depth, it was lovely to read prose that felt unselfconscious in its own beauty. Two pages turned to twenty, and before I knew it I was completely sucked into the story, even if I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. In an odd way, I count that as one of the book’s strengths; Abé’s worldbuilding isn’t particularly sophisticated, and upon closer scrutiny, it’s like a moth-eaten quilt. You get the feeling that there is a larger rationale connecting all the pieces (likely developed as a backdrop to her previous adult romance series), but the threads that we do have are pretty enough to prop up the weak parts.

The Sweetest Dark by Shana Abé

Perhaps even more surprising than my lack of scorn toward a poorly constructed magical system was my acceptance, even approval, of the “love triangle.” I set that off in quotations because it doesn’t fit the bill, exactly. Lora does develop relationships with two different young men, yet it seems clear to me that she considers only one of these to be romantic. There is no oscillation between options; she makes it clear who she wants early on, and she doesn’t feel guilty about taking what she wants because she never flirts with the alternative. The characters’ understanding of how the relationships stand is fairly universal; though one of the men admits to his strange obsession with Lora, I never got the sense that even he was truly invested in it from a romantic angle. It could be a bit disappointing, then, that I actually would rather have seen these two together in a romantic sense than who she actually ends up with, but to be honest I liked both guys. It’s a rarity in young adult paranormal nowadays, but Abé pulled off the impossible in creating two reasonably well-rounded male characters to root for. What’s more, she didn’t pull back on investing them with faults, though they are subtlely sown. Most importantly, Abé doesn’t try to convince or justify. Her characters are what they are, individually and in relation to each other, and you don’t have to approve of or understand the crazy fated turns that bring them together; you simply have to keep up with them. Regarding Lora’s romantic connection, it’s not epic, but nor is it the saccharine contrived mess that we are usually fed. It’s a dry love, giving only as much as it cares to, existing whether we believe in it or not.

As for Lora…I liked her. She’s snarky. She’s no pushover. She might be crazy, but she doesn’t spend time lamenting the fact. She’s endured some pretty horrible things in her short life, yet we hear only snippets, and those at unexpected points in the narrative. I love that, despite the occasional third-person perspective shifts to the two male characters, the story’s focus on Lora’s narration maintains the aura of an unreliable narrator. From what we see and hear through Lora’s eyes, there are a lot of unbelievable things occurring without much explanation or credence. Lora has thought herself crazy for years; who’s to say that she isn’t? It’s entirely possible that the events of the story are entirely a creation of her own imagination. Abé doesn’t provide us with an easy answer, and while I might be reading into this too much, that’s alright with me. It is, after all, the reader’s prerogative to interpret a story.

Following the ending of The Sweetest Dark, it’s not entirely clear whether Abé intends for there to be a sequel; it might seem odd, but I almost wish there weren’t, despite the melancholy tone that would lend to the story overall. Yet it’s a beautiful melancholy, a sweet ache as can only be accomplished by those surreal, unapologetic stories that are more Grimm than Anderson. Still, I suspect we will see more to come from these characters, though where Abé goes with this story from here is anyone’s guess; at the very least, it’s guaranteed to be a far cry from the standard fare.

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme created over at The Broke and the Bookish that allows us to list our top ten answers to a different question each week.

This week’s theme is: Top Ten Books for People Who Liked Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

1. The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner

These two talented ladies found inspiration in each other’s work, and it shows. There’s much of Howl in Gen, including an impossible wit and proclivity for temper tantrums. There’s also just enough fantasy to keep genre fans satisfied.

2. Nightrunner series by Lynn Flewelling

Flewelling’s series juggles numerous adult themes and so the tone is more mature than that of Jones’s classic children’s book. However, Alec and Seregil constantly snark at each other and get into hijinks reminiscent of Sophie and Howl’s adventures.

3. Graceling by Kristin Cashore

There’s decidedly less humor in Cashore’s series, yet fans of Diana Wynne Jones’ writing will surely find much to love in Cashore’s lush worldbuilding.

4. Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

Unlike Howl, Unspoken is set in modern times, yet Brennan has infused her story with the same wry humor that Jones was so well known for. Had Jones decided to write a gothic romance novel, Unspoken surely would have been its doppleganger.

5. A Matter of Magic by Patricia C. Wrede

Mairelon reminded me quite a bit of Howl, though he was rather less prone to histrionics. A Matter of Magic is a slower read than Howl and rather less funny, but it’s a great example of a fantasy of manners.

6. Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman can turn anything into gold, and his attempt at an original fairy tale is no exception. Both Howl and Stardust excel at not taking themselves too seriously, which I believe is an important but oft-overlooked elemet to any humorous fantasy novel.

7. The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

McKinley is the queen of fairy tale adaptations, yet her Damar stories are just as brilliant. While Howl fans should seek out McKinley’s entire catalogue of work, The Blue Sword is a good place to start.

8. The Princess Bride by William Goldman

If you’re after humorous fantasy, you can’t do better than The Princess Bride.

Some other titles that aren’t quite as similar yet that might interest Howl’s fans include: Chronicles of Lumatere series by Melina Marchetta, Study series by Maria V. Snyder, Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith, and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.