Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Spy Princess by Sherwood Smith, 2012

When twelve-year-old Lady Lilah decides to disguise herself and sneak out of the palace one night, she has more of an adventure than she expected – for she learns very quickly that the country is on the edge of revolution. When she sneaks back in, she learns something even more surprising: her older brother Peitar is one of the forces behind it all. The revolution happens before all of his plans are in place, and brings unexpected chaos and violence. Lilah and her friends, leaving their old lives behind, are determined to help however they can. But what can four kids do? Become spies, of course!

Lilah is a member of nobility and the king’s niece in the semi-magical, fictional kingdom of Sartorias-deles (which readers may or may not recognize from Sherwood Smith’s other book, including Crown Duel and Sartor – I, for the record, do not because I have not read them). However, her high position doesn't stop her from jumping to join the revolution of the people, who are tired of taxes and over-exploitation. The book is split into three sections that are basically the brewing rebellion, the rebellion itself, and the consequences of the rebellion. It's a pretty long book, so it's hard to summarize much more than that. Lets just say she has an older brother deeply embroiled in the whole mess, and she doesn’t just spend the whole time hiding away from the danger.

So first, I have to say that it didn't start out very promisingly. In essence, Lilah sneaks out of her castle dressed as a scruffy boy by the name of Larei for, apparently, the un-elaborated-on pressing desire to "see life outside the castle." Then, oops! She just happens to stumble across a group of kids (her age, of course) who not only are pumped about a revolution, they blab about it to her, this unnamed "boy" who they just met. "Larei," of course, goes, "Cool!" and promises to come back again.

My favorite scene, however, is when her older brother sees her out of his window, and comes to talk to her and explain how he is actually helping to lead the rebellion, he's sorry they've never been able to show their "true selves" to each other before this conversation, and he really thinks they can change (cheesy music here) the lives of everyone for the better. All this, but a bit more jumbled up. Then he asks Lilah, in essence, "wanna help?" And without even thinking about it, she goes, "Ooh, fun! Okay!"
Don’t get me wrong, I know nobles and even children can really care about a rebellion. It’s just that Lilah didn’t face any doubts about this, or about betraying her own uncle. To her it’s basically a game, and while she comes to realize it’s serious later on, she still never regrets or double thinks her allegiance to the sometimes dubious efforts to rid the country of its king.

Still, don’t think I hate the book. I really did have an enjoyable few hours reading it. The plot still interested me enough to keep reading, and I was rooting for a happy ending – but at the same time, I could sense deep down how everything was headed (I didn’t read ahead or anything, it was just the kind of book that has a predictable ending) so it seemed a bit . . . long. And rambling. And a teeny bit (or a lot) contrived. Right around the middle of the book, after the rebellion has started, I seriously had to ask myself what editor hadn’t chopped through the book a bit more. I mean, I kid you not. They go hide out for a while in a magical place where by some unexplained phenomena people can fly. And it’s just part of life there. It truly didn’t add anything to the story at all (basically, some of the houses they visited were up high), and it left me thinking that a ten-year-old had outlined the story. 

I later learned that Sherwood Smith wrote The Spy Princess when she was young, and after publishing many other books set in Sartorias-deles, she decided to publish this one. It’s very impressive for such an early endeavor, but it certainly smells like an early attempt. A very, very impressive early attempt that’s actually not that bad. But compared to the big leagues, it has some major drag in enough parts that you’ll be rolling your eyes once or twice. I’d say give it to younger readers for some of the (not really that plentiful) flights of fancy that is really best geared to ten-year-olds, except for the fact that it’s a revolution and – ahem - I’ll just point out the French Revolution and say revolutions aren’t exactly kid-friendly. It’s not gory, and bad things are usually viewed after the fact, but still too heavy for the same age group who delights in main characters getting the ability to fly. Thus the problem with this book.

All in all? It’s a fine book that I read in a few hours (it’s got some heft to it at 400 pages, though, so slow readers might want to steer clear altogether), had some fun with, and as soon as I finish reviewing I’m positive I’ll forget it. I say read it, but go in looking for a scrape-the-surface read, the kind you look for when you really don’t want any more Hemingway-esque books. It’s the kind of book that people who like rebellions or empowered girl protagonists are going to like, but it’s not going to offer anything revolutionary (pun not int – okay, yes, that pun was intended).

Monday, December 16, 2013

Knightley Academy by Violet Haberdasher, 2011

Synopsis (from Amazon):
Henry Grim is a servant boy at the Midsummer School until he passes the elite Knightley Academy exam, a test that every Midsummer boy has mysteriously failed the past five years. Henry suddenly finds himself one of the first commoners studying at the Academy, alongside the cleverest and bravest--and most arrogant--young aristocrats in the country. But someone isn't too happy about Henry, and two other commoners, who have been let into the prestigious school. And that someone is out to sabtoge the three from becoming full-fledged Knights of the Realm--the goal of every student at the Academy. As Henry and the two other boys try to ward off their classmates' attempts to thwart their paths, they soon uncover a conspiracy that violates the Hundred Years' Peace treaty--and could lead to war! Can Henry manage to save his school and country from their enemies--and continue to study at the Academy?

Delving into this book for the first time years ago, I had no idea what I was reading - a boarding school was involved, I knew that. A smart commoner who rubs shoulders with the elite. Danger, excitement, and intrigue. And really, I was hooked before I even knew anything else.

Henry is an orphaned servant at the posh Midsummer Academy. On the outside he is indistinguishable from any other servant, with a rough childhood and no foreseeable prospects. Dishes and dirty chalkboards are the only things in his future – or so it seems. You see, a professor at the academy, Professor Stratford, has been teaching Henry things far above his class. Henry can speak at least five languages, knows how to do math, and science, and all those other fancy rich-people subjects. But it’s not until he gets a chance, that these skills will ever do him any good. You see, the most elite school of all is Knightley Academy, a school that draws the best students from each of the best schools. Henry takes the entrance exam through a loop-hole (they never said entrants had to attend the school, just that they had to live there!), and lo and behold, he gets accepted! In fact, they even let in two more students from a pool of commoners, just because of him. And so the adventures begin. 

Knightley Academy follows Henry and his fellow misfit friends Adam and Rohan as they navigate their classes in fencing, etiquette, and medicine and train to be knights. Oh, I forgot to tell you, didn’t I? Yeah, it’s a school to train to be knights. But knights don’t actually fight, or kill, or go to war. A treaty was signed decades ago between the three countries of Britain (each independent), promising they would never train for battle or go to war against each other. Instead, Knightley Academy trains students to be knight protectors, knight police, knight medics, etc. All is right and peachy, until Henry, Adam, and Rohan realize that someone is out to get them expelled. And then Henry discovers something that shows their peaceable neighboring country (which happens to be communistic) might not be as peaceful as they thought, and things take a spiral toward excitement.

Before I get any farther, I have to talk about the fact that this book is a sort of tribute to Harry Potter, a parody, as it were. Except maybe I shouldn’t use the “p” word in connection with this book, because then people might not read it. Before you either quietly slip away rolling your eyes in distaste, or you run out and buy a copy just because I said the magic words (no pun intended!), no, this is not a laughably bad parody about a kid with parent in a coma who didn’t know he had the ability to tap dance while standing on his head. And it’s not a commentary about the good/bad things in the Harry Potter books. Pure and simple, it’s a work of love by an author who enjoyed Harry Potter so much she took the basic outline, twisted it, and then put it back together a bit skewed. There is no magic, Henry’s far from being a famous celebrity (try infamous, by dint of being the poorest), and his sporting abilities are pretty appalling.

It’s a lot of fun to catch all the parallels to Harry Potter in this book, but even if I’d never read Harry Potter in my life I’m convinced I still would have heartily enjoyed Knightley Academy and its sequel (still waiting for the third book, Ms. Haberdasher!).

Anyway, back on topic. I get the feeling my first book review might wind up a little long. Bear with me here.

The characterization in this book is not the best I’ve ever seen, and sometimes I felt like Henry was just a little too perfect. You know, good grades, speaks about five languages, always ahead on homework (speaking of Harry Potter, I’d actually put him closer to Hermione – without the know-it-all-ness), and still humble, kind, and a great friend. Really, I just want to wrap him up and make him my best friend/homework helper. You’d think that you would come to not like Henry, but I think because of all the odds stacked against him (and his great sense of humor) you really just commiserate with him and cheer when he gets any form of acceptance or praise from the snobby students around him (who aren’t really all that bad – most of them, anyway).

As for setting, well, the book is set somewhere around the Industrial Revolution. I think. Sorry, I’m taking so much AP European History right now, it’s all slushed around in my head. But they have primitive automobiles, and watches (signs of the Industrial Revolution), but it’s set in an alternative Britain where each of the three countries (Ireland, Scotland, and England) have completely different names and histories, and each is independent.

I have to say that I fell in love with Knightley Academy from the first description of its rambling grounds and mismatched buildings. Whether it’s overused or not, there’s something about a rather eccentric boarding school (and the rather eccentric new headmaster who let Henry attend) that just makes me curl my toes, snuggle up in my blankets, and wish for some hot chocolate to sip while I read. Not that I ever have any, however, because making the hot chocolate would entail getting out of bed.
So do I recommend this book? Yes. In fact, both Knightley Academy and its sequel, The Secret Prince, made it onto my Christmas wish list this year. It’s the perfect book for people who don’t want to/aren’t allowed to read Harry Potter, but who don’t want to miss out on all the good parts. It’s also a book for people who have read Harry Potter, because if you like Harry Potter, odds are you’ll love this book . . . well, not just as much, because really. That’s just not possible. But maybe, I don’t know. Three-fourths as much as Harry Potter.

Which really, in my book, is pretty much true love.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A new day, a new blog

So here we are, my first blog. A blank page for me to write on, my handprint on the world - oh, who am I kidding? I'm not philosophical enough to keep going like this. I'll be real here, I don't really know what I'm doing. Am I jumping on the blogging bandwagon? Yes. Have I ever blogged before? No. How old is my Goodreads account? Um, less than a year. But despite all these things in my way, I am convinced that I am going to make this work, and that people are going to actually read it. Someday. If I bring *cough* drag them here myself. But for now, here's a bit about me to all the fantasy readers I'm imagining out there right about now:

My name is Jaina. Except it's not, really, because I can't give my real one for safety reasons. I have three Poodles, a Dalmatian, and a Maine Coon cat. Wait, nope, not true either. That one isn't for safety, I just thought that sounded fun! I do have one Boxer, though, just about the cutest and sweetest dog ever (maybe I'll post a pic sometime!), and a cat who's . . . Um, a cat. 
Let's see, what else? My goldfish just died two weeks ago. We put his tank up in the attic today, and I'm grieving a bit right now. Rumor on the street is that brine shrimp (whatever those are) will be under the tree next week, though. I'm told that yes, those really are real animals. And people really keep them as pets.
I'm a teen (no, don't leave! I don't read vampire books! Or devil books! Or books where everybody dies! Or - well really, I think that just covered everything in the teen section). I'm the oldest kid in my family. I say that means I know what I'm doing, but my siblings say it just makes me bossy. Hmmph. 
I love to read, so so much. That's why I'm book blogging instead of just making a regular blog - I'd rather talk about books than about myself. I also love to write; my first book was finished a while ago and I'm plugging away on the next. Haha, don't be too impressed! When I say "finished," I mean I hit "The End." Which, true, was really hard - but it's nowhere near ready for publishing. Much as I would like it to be, considering how much I hate editing. I pull the manuscript out now and then, glance it over ruefully and make a few minor changes, but always just stick it back where I found it and turn away in despair before I can get any real work done on it. Yes, I know I'm lazy. No, that doesn't mean I'm fine-tuning it anytime soon. Anyway, it's the holidays. I'm busy. *crafty grin*

Anyway, there's me. As for the books? Well, I'll review 'em as I read 'em. Nothing rated R, no baby books, just . . . Well, the stuff in between. YA is my forte, and I believe no one is too old to read it.

Here's Jaina, signing out. Happy reading!