The Kiss of Deception, by Mary E. Pearson

This post originally appeared on The Prattle of Hastings on 02 April 2015. It is being re-shared now in anticipation of our Coven Chat on The Beauty of Darkness and The Remnant Chronicles.

The Kiss of DeceptionFleeing an arranged marriage to a stranger, Lia, youngest child and only daughter of the king and queen of Morrighan, runs away with her friend and settles in a village at the other end of the country. There she develops a new identity, living in a cottage and working in a tavern. Soon two men show up in town: the prince to whom she was betrothed, and an assassin sent to kill her to prevent the marriage from ever happening. Their identities are secret from Lia – and, indeed, from us.

The way Pearson deals with this is probably the cleverest part of the novel. The vast majority of it is told from Lia’s perspective, but we get a few short chapters from the points of view of The Prince, The Assassin, Rafe and Kaden. Rafe and Kaden are the names the two men give Lia, but, while we know that one is the prince and one is the assassin, we don’t know which man holds which role, and Pearson keeps it that way for more than half the novel, until the assassin makes his move and reveals his identity.

Lia’s voice is lyrical and contemplative; she reminds me quite vividly of Phèdre no Delaunay de Montrève from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series. Her voice befits not only her character, but the world she inhabits. That being said, it probably contributed to what I found to be the greatest weakness of the book: the pacing. At times it felt like the book dragged, particularly when Lia’s settling into her new life. Even so, I think that may have been a deliberate choice, much as it takes Tolkien absolutely forever to get his hobbits out of The Shire in The Lord of the Rings. In both cases, by showing the minor facets of life, we see just how much that life means to the characters, in a way we wouldn’t if it were rushed.

Pacing aside, this book sucked me into the world and the characters. I can’t wait for the sequel!

Nicola is drowning in books and tea, just the way she likes it.


Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle

The Raven Boys

This post originally appeared a year ago but as we are having our Coven Chat about the series on Friday, we are re-posting it now. -CBC

A few weeks ago, Allison, Alyssa and I talked about the liminal space between YA and adult fantasy, particularly highlighting books we thought were more adult-oriented that had been classed by publishers, bookstores, or other bookish organisations as YA. Today I’m recommending a series that fits into that liminal space. It’s a firmly YA series, about a group of teenagers struggling with the demands of school (including finding the funds for university), troubles with parents (ranging from healthy rebellion to abuse and bereavement), and other themes that place it solidly in the young adult category.

In Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle, Blue Sargent is the only woman in a house full of psychics with no supernatural ability. She’s distressingly normal, except for one thing: everyone who has ever read her fortune has told her that if she kisses her true love, he will die. When she meets a group of boys from a nearby prep school, she doesn’t consider herself at particular risk of falling in love with any of them – but she adheres to her strict no-kissing-just-in-case policy, regardless. Over time, however, she becomes wrapped up in their quest to find the tomb of the Welsh prince Glendower, befriending and coming to care for them and, just possibly, falling in love with one of them.

The Dream ThievesAlthough many of the themes are quintessentially YA, it’s also a series that I think would appeal to a lot of adult readers who have either been hesitant about trying YA or who have read a few YA books and found them not to their tastes. For one thing, the adult characters are given as much care and attention as the teens. Rather than being relegated to the periphery or antagonistic roles, as they so often are in YA fiction, the adults in this series are not only fully-developed characters, but also people who affect and are affected by the plot. They even get their own POV scenes at times, a rarity in YA books.

The use of multiple POVs is another way in which this series has a more adult feel than a lot of YA, which is so often told from a close first-person perspective. Though most scenes are told solidly from a particular character’s perspective, there are times when the narrative veers into third-person omniscient, as well as relating events from the perspective of a minor character, such as the wife of one of the teachers at the boys’ school. It’s a narrative choice many readers of adult fiction will be more familiar with than those who stick to the YA section, though I think it serves this story well.

Blue Lily, Lily BlueThe pacing, too, is more adult than YA, particularly the first book. It crossed my mind at one point around halfway through that, if pressed, I’d struggle to summarise what had actually happened so far, and yet I was utterly absorbed in the story. The small interactions between the characters, the magical quality to their pursuit of the Glendower myth, all these subtle elements create an overall atmosphere that draws the reader in.

The series’ strengths aren’t only in the ways it appeals to adult readers, of course. As I said before, it is a solidly YA series, and a wonderful one at that. It features rich, mythical world-building whose magic is enhanced by the real-world setting. It’s also the first YA book I’ve read since The Princess Diaries where the protagonist is not only an outspoken feminist, but one identified as such by herself and other characters.

Nicola lives and reads in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she’s eagerly awaiting the release of The Raven King. If you want to get in touch, your best bet is Twitter.


The Darkest Magic

The Darkest MagicA few months ago I recommended Morgan Rhodes’ A Book of Spirits and Thieves, the urban fantasy spin-off to her high fantasy Falling Kingdoms series. Last month the sequel, The Darkest Magic, was released. Carrying on from where ABOSAT left off, The Darkest Magic explores the consequences of Farrell’s decisions, the darker side to Maddox’s magic, and what Becca’s supernatural heritage means for her family.

As I mentioned in my recommendation for ABOSAT, the sibling relationship between Crys and Becca is nuanced and realistic; they’re neither best friends nor constantly bickering. The Darkest Magic adds a new level to this, with Becca’s burgeoning supernatural connection. It’s not something Becca wants, and it’s not something she benefits from in any perceptible manner, yet it’s undeniably important in terms of stopping Markus and Valoria. This leaves Crys envious of her sister’s importance, because it dawns on her that she’s the only one in her circle who is replaceable. At once she envies Becca and realises how ridiculous it is to envy Becca for something like this. It’s such a very sisterly thing to do, to both envy her sister and realise she shouldn’t, and I love that Rhodes doesn’t shy away from such contradictions.

Although Crys and Becca’s relationship is my favourite, the character whose POV I enjoyed the most was Farrell’s. At the end of ABOSAT, he accepted the third mark from Markus, subsuming his will to his master’s. While reading the book, it’s never quite clear how much of his thoughts and actions are truly his, and how much of them are Markus’. At times he clearly appears to be acting under Markus’ influence, while at other times he appears himself. And yet it’s in those moments that we’re faced with the undeniable truth: We’ve never ‘met’ Farrell as himself, because he was already under Markus’ command when he was introduced. What results is a character whose motivations are nebulous even when we’re reading his own internal narrative.

This depth of characterisation will be familiar to readers of the Falling Kingdoms series, as will Rhodes’ willingness to heighten the stakes and create heart-stopping plot twists. The Darkest Magic will have you on the edge of your seat, desperate to learn what happens next. Without spoiling anything, there was one moment in particular near the climax of the novel that had me frantically reading ahead, unable to peel my eyes away from the page.

The sequel to ABOSAT is a thrilling, emotional installment that will leave you eagerly awaiting the conclusion to the trilogy.

Nicola has been reading more Canadian fiction than usual lately, and she thinks you should too. You can find her on Twitter.


Faeries, Fate and Free Will

Wicked LovelyYou know those books you pick up excitedly and you can’t wait to read, but just never seem to get around to it? Wicked Lovely was one of them for me. It’s been on my TBR for, oh, two or three years now, and every time I saw it mentioned I thought, “Ooh, can’t wait to read that!”, but never got around to actually picking it up. Then on Saturday evening I was looking for a bedtime read and felt inexplicably drawn towards it. I don’t know why I picked that book on Saturday, when I’d passed over it for so long, but I’m so glad I did, because it’s one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in a while.

Wicked Lovely tells the story of 17-year-old Aislinn who, like her mother and grandmother, is gifted – or perhaps cursed – with the Sight. She can see faeries, and she doesn’t like what she sees. All her life she’s been taught to conceal her Sight from faeries, her Grams certain that such information being out in the open would make her a target, but when she finds herself the target of a particular faery’s attentions regardless she decides she’s done with hiding and running and ready to find out what they want from her.

I was utterly entranced with Marr’s faeries, right from the start. They’re at once the creepy, grotesque faeries of Celtic myth and multifaceted, sometimes even sympathetic characters. They’re clearly dangerous, many of them viewing humans as nothing more than playthings, yet not all of them are evil and cruel. Indeed, the core conflict of the novel stems from the fact that the Summer King is trying to protect his court from the encroaching Winter, and to do that he tramples on Aislinn’s life.

One of the most compelling aspects of the novel is the way that it plays with the paranormal romance genre. It sets up a relationship between Aislinn and Keenan, though with a catch; he may be a devastatingly handsome immortal, but all she sees is one of the race who invisibly pinch humans in bars or carry them off to their courts. He is convinced she will become his Queen, but she finds the notion repulsive. And through their developing relationship Marr explores the notion of free will versus fate; from the moment Keenan chose Aislinn, her future was inextricably bound to his, yet she still fights to carve out the life she wants.

Keenan chose Aislinn, and in doing so cut off her chance at a normal, human future. It slides into a wider theme throughout the novel, of how women in the faery world hold great magical power, yet are not treated as equal to their male counterparts. There’s a fascinating contrast between the magical power of faery women and their comparatively little social power and human women’s greater societal agency but impotent against faery magic. To add another layer to it, human women can and do become immortal and transform into faeries, at once gaining magical prowess but losing independence, but the only examples given are those girls Keenan has chosen and hoped to be his Queen in the past; although they ultimately make a choice as to whether or not to seek the throne, by the time they have reached that point they have been irrevocably changed by Keenan’s choice rather than their own.

Throughout the novel free will is a recurring theme – the free will of humans versus faeries, of men versus women – and Marr plays the grey line between choice and fate expertly. Are Aislinn’s choices truly choices when Keenan’s choice has already irrevocably changed her future? Was it even Keenan’s choice in the first place, or was it her destiny all along? These questions are never answered, but are left to be pondered.

Wicked Lovely is an enthralling, magical tale about choice and destiny, love and duty, that recalls faery stories of old and yet is wholly new. It forms a compelling start to a quintet that I can’t wait to continue.

Nicola lives with her husband in the ancestral home of the fey, down the road from the absolutely terrifying statues of kelpies


Exit, Pursued by a Bear, by E.K. Johnston

Exit, Pursued by a BearBy now you’ve probably figured out that I’m a fan of E.K. Johnston’s work. I’ve already recommended her debut duology, The Story of Owen, as well as A Thousand Nights, her Arabian Nights retelling. Her fourth novel is a bit of a departure from her earlier work, as it features no magic or other fantastical aspects, but it carries the same themes of female agency and strength through struggle.

Summary from Goodreads:

Veronica Mars meets William Shakespeare in E.K. Johnston’s latest brave and unforgettable heroine.

Hermione Winters is captain of her cheerleading team, and in tiny Palermo Heights, this doesn’t mean what you think it means. At PHHS, the cheerleaders don’t cheer for the sports teams; they are the sports team—the pride and joy of a tiny town. The team’s summer training camp is Hermione’s last and marks the beginning of the end of…she’s not sure what. She does know this season could make her a legend. But during a camp party, someone slips something in her drink. And it all goes black.

In every class, there’s a star cheerleader and a pariah pregnant girl. They’re never supposed to be the same person. Hermione struggles to regain the control she’s always had and faces a wrenching decision about how to move on. The assault wasn’t the beginning of Hermione Winter’s story and she’s not going to let it be the end. She won’t be anyone’s cautionary tale.

I loved how Johnston’s cheerleaders are first and foremost athletes. They’re ordinary teenage boys and girls who love the challenging and engaging activity they do. It’s a far cry from the snooty blonde girl who waves pom-poms for the boys’ football team so often seen in fictional representations of cheerleaders. Hermione’s love for the sport is apparent in her devotion to her training and her dedication towards leading her team to nationals.

Johnston goes out of her way to set Hermione up as a ‘lucky’ rape survivor – and then systematically deconstructs the very idea of a lucky rape survivor. Hermione has a fantastic support network, from her cheerleading team and friends who rally around her, to the doctors and police officer who treat her with compassion and respect. She has weekly sessions with a therapist who doesn’t view her as a career-making case, but as a human being in need of his help. And all of this support does nothing to change the fact that a boy drugged her and raped her.

The fact that she was drugged, and remembers nothing of the assault, is the other thing Johnston does to set Hermione up as ‘lucky’. And yet instead of being haunted by thoughts of her attacker, Hermione instead fears every boy on her cheerleading team because any one of them could be her attacker – along with any boy from any of the other teams in Ontario that attend the camp – and every day at practice those boys are touching her and holding her, and she doesn’t know if one of them is doing so after having raped her and left her for dead. She has panic attacks whenever she smells pine trees or hears the song that was playing at the dance when she drank the spiked punch the night of the attack, because even though she doesn’t have any conscious memory of the assault, those things still trigger a deep-seated fear that she struggles to control.

The novel is crystal clear on one fact: No matter how events may unfold after the fact, rape is rape and it simply should not happen. End of story.

I mentioned that Hermione receives some amazing support after her assault. This leads me to a rather spoiler-y moment, but it’s simply far too important for me to leave out, so skip this paragraph if you don’t want spoilers. When Hermione learns that she is pregnant, she states, in front of her mother, best friend and doctor, that she’s having an abortion. And immediately the doctor gives her advice on the proceedings. Never once does Hermione second-guess her choice, either before or after the abortion. This is so, so rare in YA fiction; I can’t even remember another book where a woman has an abortion, for whatever reason, without there being some angst or indecision. The fact that Hermione knows immediately that abortion is the right choice for her, and that her doctor and close friends and family agree, is HUGE.

A core component of Hermion’s support network is her best friend, Polly. From the moment Hermione wakes up from her drug-induced state, Polly is beside her, protecting her at every turn and standing behind all of her choices. It is Polly that drives Hermione to the clinic for her abortion, Polly who takes her home from the school dance that played the song from the night of her rape, Polly who is steadfastly by Hermione’s side. It’s a beautiful friendship, and one of the things I liked most about it was that Hermione’s and Polly’s lives diverge in the latter months of their final year at school, with them ultimately choosing universities a five-hour drive apart, but though their lives grow more distant, their relationship doesn’t. Often in fiction when teenage girls face separation as their high school years come to a close, it’s painted as a bad thing, or at best bittersweet, but for Hermione and Polly, it simply is. They have their own goals and dreams and they don’t love each other any less because they won’t be doing them together, and I think that paints an important portrait of teenage friendship for YA readers.

I’ve focussed a lot on the rape culture and feminist aspects of this book, and rightly so, because that’s essentially what this book is about. But it wouldn’t be doing justice to Hermione to not talk about the other reasons to read the book, because Hermione spends her grade 12 year deliberately rejecting the idea that her rape defines her, so I’m going to also talk about the things that make this book unique in a way that is utterly unrelated to its treatment of rape culture and misogyny.

The first part of the book is set at a cheerleading camp on Lake Manitouwabing, north of Muskoka. I attended summer camp in Ontario throughout my childhood and teenage years, and Exit features the first fictional depiction of camp that really feels like camp. I don’t know if there’s a certain culture that’s unique to summer camps in Ontario or what, but Johnston absolutely nails it. When Hermione described the annual feeling of returning home from camp, I was immediately transported back to my own summers at that age, because Hermione (and therefore Johnston) gets it. She gets the way life at camp is ruled by bells, the way summertime friendships may be eternal or fleeting, but always intense, and the way life at home always feels a bit ‘off’ when you first get back.

Perhaps it’s because the book is set in the same part of the world I grew up in that its depiction of camp resonates so clearly with me. My camp was in Algonquin, not Parry Sound, but they’re both on the cusp between Northern and Southern Ontario, that place where city-dwellers seek to harness the wilderness, and from hints throughout the book I’m 90% sure Hermione’s hometown is in the same regional municipality as my own.

This isn’t something I coud say about many books. I grew up in the Golden Horseshoe, the most populated area of Canada, and yet often fiction by Canadian authors obfuscates its roots. A book like this could easily have been set in Anytown, North America, with the nearby abortion clinics located in invented towns, not Waterloo and Toronto, but Johnston never seeks to hide the fact that the book is set in Southern Ontario. Hermione’s therapist complains there’s no Tim’s (ie, Tim Horton’s) in Hermione’s hometown, while Hermione and her teammates discuss what universities they’ll attend – all real institutions located in Ontario. In the end, Hermione’s nationality is as much a part of her identity as her sport.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a poignant tale about one girl’s struggle to regain control of her future after being assaulted, and the heartwarming friendship that supports her at every step of the way.

Nicola is a Canadian expat in Scotland. You can probably find her going through all her old camp photos, lost in nostalgia.