& Review: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski. Publisher: Square Fish March 2015

The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski. Publisher: Square Fish March 2015

Re-release of the first installment's cover.

Re-release of the first installment’s cover.

The Book Itself: I include two covers here, because I much prefer one over the other. I own the paperback copy on the left. Even though it’s a little bodice-ripper-y, with a swooning young woman in a foofy dress, it is well-photographed, the colors rich and the staging interesting. The cover on the right looks awkward, the model too fake and photoshopped (not that the one on the left isn’t photoshopped, but the one on the right just doesn’t seem to fit the story).

My Review: Winning what you want may cost you everything you love
They were never meant to be together. As a general’s daughter, seventeen-year-old Kestrel enjoys an extravagant and privileged life. Arin has nothing but the clothes on his back. Then Kestrel makes an impulsive decision that binds Arin to her. Though they try to fight it, they can’t help but fall in love. In order to be together, they must betray their people . . . but to be loyal to their country, they must betray each other.

Set in a new world, The Winner’s Curse is a story of rebellion, duels, ballroom dances, wicked rumors, dirty secrets, and games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.

I am told that I must thank my brilliant (beautiful, talented, humble) best friend for recommending this book and this series in the first place. I will never doubt you again.

With that out of the way…with a book that comes highly recommended, I approach it warily. Is it worth the hype? Will I like it the same way that someone I know liked it? In this case, very much so. I am writing this review and the reviews of the other two books after reading the entire series, so I might sound a little gush-y before it’s due, but this is a series that truly improves with every installment, and has characters, world-building, and a plot that I highly, HIGHLY recommend.

Kestrel (euuuggghhhhh…okay, I had to get over her name) buys Arin (“AH-ren,” not “AIR-en,” I’ve had disagreements with people about this and the author says it’s “AH-ren”!) at a slave auction and takes him to her father’s estate where he joins a multitude of slaves who serve the household. Typical love story things ensue: Arin does something wrong and receives undue punishment from a slave master, he hears her playing piano and loves listening to her play, etc. etc.

What makes this could-be-cliché story better is the well-structured world around it. Arin’s people used to own the land and even the houses that Kestrel’s people currently occupy. Kestrel’s father, a military general, was instrumental in the conquering, slaughter, and enslavement of his people. Intrigue! Conflict! Add to all that a plot to overthrow Kestrel’s people, which involves both of our protagonists (who are falling in love at the same time). And you have yourself a story.

Now, this first installment is heavier on the romance, light on the world-building and fighting. In a way it is one big set up to the books that come next: the real meat of the series. That’s not to say The Winner’s Curse here is bad. If it were, I never would have continued on. But it feels more superficial than the others. Far more time is spent dressing Kestrel in pretty dresses (although she does get to – spoiler alert – duel someone, so that’s pretty badass), and swanning around at various social engagements than actual political intrigue or grisly military battle. But it does have a buzzy undercurrent of things to come, of a pot of water just on the cusp of boiling.

And when the Big Event does arrive in this story, it is well-written, tightly wound, and has you gobbling up the pages. And then my favorite part: it doesn’t end there. It would be so easy to end the story at the end of a battle that is going to change the course of history for both sides of this world. It would be what most stories, and most writers would do. A movie franchise (please, please, please) of this might end as soon as the dust settles. But the book continues, shows the immediate aftermath, turns the tables between Kestrel and Arin and explores that different dynamic. THEN it forces Kestrel to make a huge, relationship-changing decision to round out the story. Not only hers and Arin’s relationship, but her relationship to her father and her people as well.

The romance is pretty spicy, too.

I will admit that The Winner’s Curse is my least favorite of the trilogy. But that’s not saying a whole lot, because I loved them all. Would highly recommend to those who liked the Graceling series by Kristin Cashore (a friend of the author of the Winner’s trilogy, actually), Sarah J. Maas’ fantasy series, Throne of Glass, and A Court of Thorns and Roses (my reviews of both of those to come), and Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha and Six of Crows series. And anyone who likes a healthy dose of romance in their light fantasy reads.

My Grade: B+

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& Reviews: The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh

The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh. Young Adult Romance. Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers. April 2016.

The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh. Young Adult Romance. Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers. April 2016.

The Book Itself: In the same style as the series’ first installment, this cover features a model meant to be Shahrzad, overlaid by a simple, graphic screen. I love the concept and I think it matches the mood and the setting of the series very well.

**Please do not continue if you have not read the series’ first installment, and intend to. Even reading the synopsis of this book will give you a spoiler for the contents of the first book. Thank you!

My Review: I am surrounded on all sides by a desert. A guest, in a prison of sand and sun. My family is here. And I do not know whom I can trust.

In a land on the brink of war, Shahrzad has been torn from the love of her husband Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan. She once believed him a monster, but his secrets revealed a man tormented by guilt and a powerful curse—one that might keep them apart forever. Reunited with her family, who have taken refuge with enemies of Khalid, and Tariq, her childhood sweetheart, she should be happy. But Tariq now commands forces set on destroying Khalid’s empire. Shahrzad is almost a prisoner caught between loyalties to people she loves. But she refuses to be a pawn and devises a plan.

While her father, Jahandar, continues to play with magical forces he doesn’t yet understand, Shahrzad tries to uncover powers that may lie dormant within her. With the help of a tattered old carpet and a tempestuous but sage young man, Shahrzad will attempt to break the curse and reunite with her one true love.

Last week I reviewed a book I was actually rather reluctant to read – The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh. I was reluctant because I’m pretty familiar with the plot of Arabian Nights/A Thousand and One Nights, and The Wrath and the Dawn sounded like an exact copy. While it did rely on that plot extensively, I thought both the plot and romance to be well-written, and worth reading the sequel.

The Rose and the Dagger picks up quickly after the events of the last story. Shehrzad and her luvah are separated, Shehrzad now with her sister, father, and childhood sweetheart (yay love triangles? Not really) out in the desert. We get a little bit more of the magic system with this book, as Shehrzad dabbles a little bit more in what she can do, and rides around on her magic carpet a little. She meets other magic users, and goes through a (very brief, rather skimmed over) training. The focus of this story is still the romance, with a little of that annoying love triangle thrown in. It also has one of the hastiest (most hasty?) and hurried endings I have ever read.

The writing is still so, so good. Ahdieh has a way of using description and scene that keeps you reading, but doesn’t make you feel like you’re missing anything. Shehrzad and Khalid’s love can feel a little overblown at times (they like their sweeping declarations), but I still like watching their relationship develop. And who doesn’t like a good reunion?! Seeing these two reconnect after time apart is just one of those warm-and-fuzzy reading moments that you flip the pages faster to read. You can’t wait until they get together again. Plus, it’s pretty hot when they do.

The magic definitely seems like a tacked-on theme. Not enough time or detail was paid to the magic system, or who can use magic in what way for it to seem fully developed. As it stands, it’s just a way for Shehrzad to seem a little less helpless in her world. It’s a shame that magic is treated so half-heartedly. It could have been a really cool aspect to the story, but I am left with a lot of questions about its place in this fictional world.

My biggest problem is the ending. Both books are very well-paced, with characters making decisions and moves that make sense for their personality. But the last thirty pages are so jam-packed with EVENTS, none of which truly get enough time for us to feel them as readers, or for them to truly impact the characters. It feels like Ahdieh was given a finite number of pages that she absolutely could not go over, and when she was writing, she suddenly realized that she needed to wrap it up, and SOON (I know in all likelihood, this is not how it happened, but that’s how rushed it feels). Too much happens in too little of space, that I feel cheated out of an actual, satisfying and well-crafted ending.

It feels quite like the series finale to the TV show Castle, which felt similarly shocking and rushed to me. Although in the Venn Diagram of “People Who Have Read the Conclusion to The Wrath and the Dawn“ and “People Who Watch Castle“ there is probably a very narrow spectrum of people in that middle space. Comment if you are one of those people, so I can justify this paragraph.

Overall, the duology is good, if very rushed at the end, and a bit underdeveloped in certain aspects. It is a romance first, with a sprinkling of magic for color.

My Grade: B-

& Review: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. Fiction. Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. Fiction. Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

**I received an advanced copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.**

The Book Itself: There’s no doubt that this is a romance! And also no doubt that it has just a little bit to do with a certain, real life, royal wedding.

My Review: American Rebecca Porter was never one for fairy tales. Her twin sister, Lacey, has always been the romantic who fantasized about glamour and royalty, fame and fortune. Yet it’s Bex who seeks adventure at Oxford and finds herself living down the hall from Prince Nicholas, Great Britain’s future king. And when Bex can’t resist falling for Nick, the person behind the prince, it propels her into a world she did not expect to inhabit, under a spotlight she is not prepared to face.

Dating Nick immerses Bex in ritzy society, dazzling ski trips, and dinners at Kensington Palace with him and his charming, troublesome brother, Freddie. But the relationship also comes with unimaginable baggage: hysterical tabloids, Nick’s sparkling and far more suitable ex-girlfriends, and a royal family whose private life is much thornier and more tragic than anyone on the outside knows. The pressures are almost too much to bear, as Bex struggles to reconcile the man she loves with the monarch he’s fated to become.

Which is how she gets into trouble.

Now, on the eve of the wedding of the century, Bex is faced with whether everything she’s sacrificed for love-her career, her home, her family, maybe even herself-will have been for nothing.

I loved this lovely book. Seriously, I finished it around one in the morning, tears in my eyes, and as soon as I woke up the next morning, it was in my mind again. It’s cheesy, even hokey at times, and it’s definitely a storyline you’ve seen or heard of in books and movies before, but it’s done so, so well here.

The Prince & Me, The Princess Diaries, What a Girl Wants: all stories about women happening upon royalty. In The Royal We, Bex Porter gets the chance to achieve that lifelong, little-girl dream: becoming a princess. But of course, there are Strings. Like estrangement from one’s twin. Having to give up passions, jobs, and friendships to better serve the monarchy. Dealing with the constant absence of a prince-in-training, who is also, one believes, the love of one’s life. And really mean people on the Internet. Gotta hate the really mean people on the Internet. How Bex deals with these issues is believable and heartbreaking.

It’s pure wish fulfillment, this book. And you get to really like Bex. Nick. Their friends and confidantes. From the very beginning of the book, we know that it’s the day before their wedding, and Something Big has happened that just might cancel said wedding. So we know that 1.) They stay together, get engaged, plan a wedding. And 2.) All the backstory that makes up the bulk of the book is leading up to the Something Big, because it’s the crux on which the whole book, and our two main characters’ relationship, hinges on.

But here’s the thing: even though you know that they stay together long enough to get to the night before their wedding, it still guts you when they have problems. The self-doubt, the people that come in between them…I kept flipping pages to see how they’d get through it, even though I already knew they would!

It’s not without its little issues. Both Bex and Nick come off as a little too unrealistically good sometimes. Nick, especially. I mean, sure, he’s been drilled on manners from a young age, trained to be a gentleman and rehearsed in royalty since diapers. And while he contributes to some of the relationship problems, he’s overall just a little too dreamy. Bex, the flawed American, does the lion share of the mistakes. And both of them are eloquent to the point that even in a fight, they say just the right thing. It’s a nice thing to read, but perhaps not super realistic.

And the secondary characters do feel a little 2D. Gaz, Cilla, Bea, Gemma…most of them are just there to be Bex’s support group (she literally hires half of them to coach her once she’s a royal fiance). They’re excellent friends, but not overly complex.

But I think those are very minor gripes. It’s a superb, escapist read. It played out like the best romantic comedy, and I fell in love with the people in it. I will reread this book, and I don’t usually do that (I find it hard to re-experience something I already know all the secrets to). And I’m jealous for all the people who get to read it for the first time! If you like the occasional romance, read this one, as it’s excellently built and might just make you shed a tear or two.

My Grade: A

& Review: This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner

This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. Young Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Publisher: Disney-Hyperion

This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. Young Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Publisher: Disney-Hyperion

The Book Itself: I like the space-y background! I’m just not always a fan of the use of pretty models to sell YA books. Kind of forces you to imagine the characters this way, when this is not how I would choose to see them. I think the cover would be awesome were it just the watercolor stained space landscape.

My Review: Jubilee Chase and Flynn Cormac should never have met.

Lee is captain of the forces sent to Avon to crush the terraformed planet’s rebellious colonists, but she has her own reasons for hating the insurgents.

Rebellion is in Flynn’s blood. Terraforming corporations make their fortune by recruiting colonists to make the inhospitable planets livable, with the promise of a better life for their children. But they never fulfilled their promise on Avon, and decades later, Flynn is leading the rebellion.

Desperate for any advantage in a bloody and unrelentingly war, Flynn does the only thing that makes sense when he and Lee cross paths: he returns to base with her as prisoner. But as his fellow rebels prepare to execute this tough-talking girl with nerves of steel, Flynn makes another choice that will change him forever. He and Lee escape the rebel base together, caught between two sides of a senseless war.

Ah, the sequel. I said just a few weeks ago that Golden Son (review here) was one of the best sequels in a series that I’d read. And if you remember, I looooved this series’ first book, These Broken Stars (review here). Unfortunately, This Shattered World did not fare so well.

Give me a moment to gripe about a character name. Jubilee. Jubilee. The fact that she’s just sixteen and somehow deemed mature enough to be a captain in a branch of the military in this fictional world (which she proves she’s not…she falls in love with a fugitive, after all…), but that name is 1: annoying. Any time Flynn says her name in a bout of wistfullness or luuurve, I cringe. Just say it out loud. JUBILEE. Ick. and 2: is inappropriate? Is that the word I want? The definition of the word jubilee is “a special anniversary of an event, especially one celebrating twenty-five or fifty years of a reign or activity” (thank you Dictionary.com). So…why is that her name? Why can’t she have a regular name, what is the point of naming her after a celebration, when nowhere in the book is the tone one of celebration?

Okay, sorry. The name really distracted me at times. So…Jubilee, who I will refuse to call that, and will from now on call “Lee,” meets Flynn at a bar where actually much of the story takes place. They flirt, he turns out to be in disguise (although later he needs to change his entire appearance – skin tone AND hair color, in order to walk onto the base…so how did he just walk on before in a soldier’s uniform? Does he or does he not need to look completely different to go unrecognized?), he takes her hostage and takes her back to the rebel base, deep in this swampy marshland supposedly difficult for the soldiers on the base to navigate (although at several points in the book, they make it to key places just fine…). There’s a rebel who is trying to usurp Flynn and use violence to solve the problems between them and the soldiers. Underneath all this, a sickness of a sort called the Fury tends to take over only the soldiers, and not the rebels. It takes over their mind and causes them to kill anyone around them, regardless of them being allies or enemies. Victims of the Fury are simply shipped off the base for a desk job. Everyone stationed at Avon (the swamp planet we find our story on) eventually succumbs to the Fury. The goal? Find out what the Fury is, and why Flynn seems to think an entire base slips in and out of existence on some faraway island.

It’s a meandering story path. Characters die, Lilac and Tarver (why do the girls in this series get stupid names?!) from the first book play a big role, but honestly, it feels a little like the same story as its first installment.

I don’t want to spoil things. But what originally seemed like a completely separate story turns out to merely be a lackluster continuation. Lilac and Tarver play a bigger role, it seems, than Lee and Flynn. The same powers are at play, similar culprits, similar stakes. I wished it would be more unique than this.

This book is also more romance than action/sci-fi in tone. There are a lot of sweeping declarations, a lot of aching to touch each other, conflicted feelings because of the opposite sides of the battle they supposedly fight. And yet….not a lot of romance truly happens. They make out a couple of times. But even at the end of the book, there’s no conclusion with them. Are they in luuurve? Lee is so standoffish throughout the whole book (because of that whole being a teenage officer thing), that you don’t even know if she wants to be with him! It’s all sexual tension and teenage hormones, and nothing really real. In These Broken Stars, at least the teenage characters had to grow up fast because of that whole stranded-on-a-deserted-planet thing. They seemed more mature, even though they were roughly the same age.

Overall, it’s unsatisfactory, as sequels go. Unfortunately, if you want to read the whole series, you’ll need to read this one to make sense of the events. But this one really feels like it’s merely a bridge to the final chapter. Maybe the last one will go back to Lilac and Tarver. They seemed to have just as much, if not more spark than the main characters in this one.

My Grade: C