*I was assigned this book for SPFBO7*
The Lady of Kingdoms, although marked as #2 in a series, can be read as a standalone. It's part of the Watchers of Outremer series, and A Wind in the Wilderness, the first book, made it to the finalists of SPFBO6 (review here).
The Lady of Kingdoms primarily follows the story of Marta Bassarion, a Syrian girl who, from the beginning pages of the book, faces many unwanted circumstances. In a series of events, she is transported from the AD 600s to the 1100s, without her family, entirely alone. Things, of course, have drastically changed in the years she missed. She finds herself unable to speak the language of those in Jerusalem and the surrounding area, and is forced into servitude weaving. She is quite good at it, and is bought by the prestor of the Watchers, a group of people committed to doing good and righting wrongs. This Watcher has an artifact she recognizes as her father's, something called the Brassarion Lance, which is a magical spear that makes its holder unstoppable in battle.
Another character this book follows is Sybilla, sister of the king, with ambitions for the throne. She marries a warrior, hoping that between his might and her intelligence, they can make an unstoppable bid to be named the king's appointee for the throne when he dies. The king, Baldwin, is also called the Leper King. He's had leprosy since he was a boy, and I really enjoyed his character. He struggles between doing what is right, and what is necessary, whereas Sybilla has no qualms to do whatever is necessary to get what she wants. She is, in fact, quite ruthless. She manipulates others for her own ends.
Miles of Plancy is a squire to the prestor, and Marta and he strike up a friendship when she is brought into the Ibelin family. Marta falls for him, and he for her, but Miles is also ambitious. A bastard, he has no inheritance, so he must forge for himself a name in order to obtain a fief. He irked me, to be honest. Marta, who is sweet tempered and will stand up for what's right no matter what, is often passed over by his ambition. I wanted to wring his neck.
There is magic in this book, mostly centered around demons and Fiery Ones - angels, to be exact. Marta is protected by the angels, and can often escape harrowing situations by the righteousness of her soul. She is "kissed" by a Fiery One on her forehead, and can sense evil intentions when the scar from the kiss burns. It was a fascinating addition to the book.
One aspect I really enjoyed was the politics. Although this is an alternative history story with some splashes of magic thrown in, the politics seemed quite real, with infighting, religious factions, treason, war, and believable motives by all those involved. Another part I really enjoyed was the friendship between Marta and King Baldwin. Marta has a lot of compassion for him, and he clearly is drawn to her. Their friendship was a bright spot in an otherwise dark book filled with people who were out for their own ends. And the King being disabled was done quite well.
Marta is a very strong main character. In fact, all of the characters in this book are good, even the ones you're supposed to hate. But Marta in particular is strong in her convictions, always wanting to do whats right (even if it gets her in trouble), and always willing to stand up for her friends.
There are a couple of complaints I have, but they aren't too strong. One thing is the plot - it meanders a bit, with several inciting events that aren't necessarily cohesive. There's a lot of plot lines going on, and although they were easy to follow, I feel like it could have been a bit tighter. Perhaps it makes more sense in the larger context of the series? But since I haven't read A Wind in the Wilderness, it does read as a bit haphazard. Second, I was a bit confused by the climax of the book. So as to not throw in any spoilers, I'll just leave it at this: there is a certain scene between Marta and Baldwin that didn't seem to fit in with the book as a whole.
Otherwise, this is an enjoyable read. Fans of good politics, intriguing characters, historical fantasy, medieval fantasy, and a healthy dose of magic are sure to enjoy it.
*I was assigned this book for SPFBO7*
Birthright starts off with a group of young girls in a group home playing hide and seek. Right off the bat, I assumed this was a Middle Grade story. The writing was more simple, we have a young protagonist named Arleth (great name!) who is clearly without a family. You get the sense that these girls ARE her family. And the headmaster of the group home is likable and Arleth definitely loves her.
So I'm innocently reading along when suddenly - yeah, this wasn't a Middle Grade story. Monsters appear out of a portal and attack the group home. There is blood everywhere, people are dying, being thrown into walls, more blood... it was a bit disconcerting, to be honest. The monsters were really well done. Like, truly scary.
Fast forward a few years, and we find Arleth having escaped the awful attack and is now enslaved to a true psychopath. Her owner was completely, outlandishly narcissistic, with a son who loved to torture Arleth.
I must admit, I ended up DNF'ing the book at this point. The plot, while it seemed to be well done, didn't quite fit with the simplicity of the writing. I was having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that, although it's written with a Middle Grade style (which I typically don't go for Middle Grade books) the content was definitely adult. I just couldn't get over it. I apologize profusely to the author. It's one of the downfalls of SPFBO; we judges are randomly given a batch of books, whether we like them or not. I wouldn't ever pick up a story like this in real life. But I'm sure there is an audience for this story. I'm just not not it.
Fans of Middle Grade books who don't mind adult themes, with scary monsters and truly hateful antagonists will probably like this one.
*I was assigned this book for SPFBO7*
*TW - graphic suicide
Blood Spells caught me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting it to be what it turned out to be, and that’s a good thing. I expected a typical YA fantasy with lots of romance and teenager angst and a hunky guy who the girl pants over. What I got instead was a well-done whodunit, set in a very unique world, with deep themes of grief, loss, friendship, and a girl struggling with her identity.
The story is told from the first-person POV of Madison, a POC teenager who has lost her mom and dad. The book opens at a very graphic suicide. Maddy finds her stepmother with her wrists slashed, in a bathtub. Almost immediately, the reader is immersed in Maddy’s world turned upside down. She’s already lost her parents, and now she’s lost her stepmom, too. They had a loving relationship, and Maddy’s world is rocked. The reader gradually gets the sense that this world is modern, yet the existence of magic is a given. There is very little telling, which I appreciated. You experience the world as Maddy does - so some things are assumed.
The worldbuilding was done quite nicely. There are fault lines underground that house water, and inside these water lines live those who can practice magic. Also within these lines, magic messes with technology, making it almost unusable. Cars shut off, cell phones don’t work, especially the farther into the magic side you get. There are particles of magic that float within this boundary. Users create spells using their blood. Those who can practice magic are viewed with a healthy dose of fear, yet for the most part magic is seen as something to avoid unless you have the proper training. There is a Bureau that monitors magic users, and decides who can practice and who can’t, depending on their training. One spell, that of summoning the dead, is dangerous, and comes up quite often in this book.
Maddy strongly suspects her stepmother was murdered. The rest of the book is about how she and her two friends, Lauren and Marshall, investigate her death. Maddy is determined to figure out what is going on, and rushes headlong into it, putting herself and her friends at risk. What I found particularly different about this book than most YA books is that her friends push back on this erratic behavior instead of simply going along with Maddy’s often risky and irrational decisions. Marshall is often uncomfortable with Maddy’s illegal use of magic, challenging her on it. Lauren also challenges Maddy when she places their lives at risk, insisting to be treated with respect, and that her life matters. This theme of healthy friendship is played out throughout the book. Yes, Maddy’s friends are loyal and courageous. But they don’t let her walk all over them.
One theme I also found insightful was that of grief and loss. Maddy struggles with who she is now, apart from her parents and stepmother. She longs to summon them, and tries to a couple of times, providing a few powerful scenes of closure for Maddy as she gets to interact with the dead. She is better able to mourn them. It doesn’t make it easier for her - if anything, it’s harder for her - but the reader can’t blame her for wanting to see them again.
My only complaint with this book was the rushed and predictable ending. I don’t want to give anything away, but it ends exactly how I thought it would. Other than that, this was a good read, and fans of YA, urban fantasy, and strong themes are certain to enjoy it. This is perhaps one of the best YA books I’ve read in quite a while.