Sunday, 22 July 2018

Review | West by Carys Davies

by Carys Davies

My Rating: 

When Cy Bellman, American settler and widowed father of Bess, reads in the newspaper that huge ancient bones have been discovered in a Kentucky swamp, he leaves his small Pennsylvania farm and young daughter to find out if the rumours are true: that the giant monsters are still alive, and roam the uncharted wilderness beyond the Mississippi River.

West is the story of Bellman's journey and of Bess, waiting at home for her father to return. Written with compassionate tenderness and magical thinking, it explores the courage of conviction, the transformative power of grief, the desire for knowledge and the pull of home, from an exceptionally talented and original British writer. It is a radiant and timeless epic-in-miniature, an eerie, electric monument to possibility.

I received an eARC of West from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

West is the debut novella from an established short story writer, and it feels like a debut novella from an established short story writer. Carys Davies' writing is stunning, and I love how sparse her writing is; each word she chooses is there to serve a purpose but she chooses each one with such skill that, although her style isn't flowery it is lyrical in its simplicity.

That being said, I finished this story wishing I'd gotten a little more from it. West is set in 19th century Pennsylvania, where widower Cy Bellman reads an article describing the large bones that have been found out west. Though there are no pictures in the article, Cy is so taken with the idea of creatures so big that he simply has to see them, so he leaves his ten year old daughter, Bess, with his sister and sets out on his quest, and while he deals with the dangers of his journey it appears that Bess isn't entirely safe without her father's protection, either.

There's a lot about this novella that I really liked. Cy's obsession with these bones and the descriptions of his fascination with them set West up to feel like a kind of 'fool's journey' story, in fact when Cy eventually finds himself being assisted on his quest by a First Nations boy West started giving me Don Quixote vibes. There's something about these bones, about these creatures no one's seen, that fills Cy with the most feeling he's had since the passing of his wife years before, and I loved how his behaviour could be read also as a man still dealing with grief and loss and perhaps even mental illness. There are mentions of him keeping everyone, including his daughter, at a distance for days at a time following his wife's death, which read to me like a man struggling through clinical depression in a time when no one understood what that was.

Having said that, I loved Bess and the sections of the novella about her a lot more. Cy and Bess were both well realised characters, but there was something about Bess that made her feel more substantial to me as a character. As her story went on she started to grow into a little human while Cy seemed to become less of a person and more of a parable of foolishness. That being said, Davies never mocks Cy or his desperation to see these creatures and know what they are. Other people he meets along the way might think he's crazy but Davies never does, and I appreciated that while his journey does become rather foolish Cy himself can never be completely described as a fool because so much of what he's doing is wrapped up in grief and a longing for something beyond himself.

While I loved Bess, though, there were aspects of her story that frustated me a little. I really liked the juxtaposition of her father facing the wilderness and Bess growing into womanhood in a world where men might try and take advantage of her with no father to keep her safe, but it feels like a story I've seen before and I didn't think Davies was really saying anything new. I don't want every story I read to be a lesson - stories can just be stories and be enjoyed as such - but this story is so short already that I thought it was a shame that so many of Bess's sections were taken up with scenarios I've seen before, particularly in historical fiction. There are two men in particular who have horrid intentions and, to Davies' credit, she never writes gratuitously about their desires, but she does write in a way that's unnerving and makes us genuinely worry for Bess's safety. Even so, the young girl without parents being pursued by bad men is something I've seen too many times before, and I thought it was frustrating that the aunt she's been left with is useless in this regard. I would have thought that Bess's aunt, more than anyone, would have been aware of the kind of things that might happen to Bess without her father there to protect her.

All that aside, this is a beautifully written piece of literary fiction and a melancholic exploration of the fool's journey and the consequences of that journey for 'the fool' himself and those around him. I look forward to seeing how Davies continues to develop as a writer, and if you're in the mood for something short and sweet with a Western Frontier vibe, I'd recommend giving West a go!

Friday, 20 July 2018

HUGE second half of 2018 TBR!

I'm hoping to finish Emily Skrutskie's The Edge of the Abyss tonight which will mean I'll have read 17 books so far this year. That's definitely less than I was hoping by July - although three of those books have been 5 star reads that I've been raving about since finishing them - but this year I've been writing a lot more than I've been reading, which has been wonderful.

That being said, 2018 has also become the year that I've rediscovered my love for High/Epic Fantasy, not that it ever completely went away, and also the year that I've rediscovered my love for YA Fantasy in particular and I'd like to be reading more. The main reason I haven't been is because I haven't been making time for it, which is my own fault, so something I'd like to try and do the rest of this year is make more time for reading. I don't want to be super strict with myself because I don't want reading to turn into homework, but I am giving myself a TBR (an incredibly unrealistic one) for the rest of this year full of books that I'd like to try and have under my belt.

Will I get to all of these? Probably not, but I'd like to try and get to some of them and I'm creating this list today so I can keep track of my progress. The first 20 of these books are books I've been sent for review, mostly via NetGalley, and I want to get on top of my NetGalley reads - especially as I've had a lot of these for a while now! The others are a mix of 2018 releases that I'd like to read this year and some other books that I simply should have read by now and I'm annoyed that I still haven't.

So, grab yourself a drink and a snack, and on with my list!

West by Carys Davies: A few years ago I organised a book launch that Carys Davies read at and her writing was beautiful. I've been meaning to read her short stories since then but still haven't, story of my life, but West is her first novel - more of a novella, really, at around 160 pages - set in 19th century America. As it's so short I'm hoping to read and review this one soon!

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss: Another very short one, Sarah Moss is another author I've been meaning to read for a while now and Ghost Wall sounds amazing. I believe it follows a young girl taking part in an archaeological experiment with her mother and her abusive father who has an obsession with the brutal lifestyle lived by Britain's Iron Age people.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt: I know Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight wasn't the biggest fan of this one and I've been curious to see what I think of it ever since, especially as it's a fictional account of the murders of Lizzie Borden's father and stepmother - murders Lizzie was suspected of committing herself.

The Good People by Hannah Kent: I adored Kent's debut, Burial Rites, so it's about time I read this one, too. I just haven't been in the mood for it yet!

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: My only experience with Pat Barker is her WWI era novel Regeneration which I had to read during sixth form, but her latest novel, about the women of Troy after the Trojan War, sounds brilliant. It follows Briseis who is awarded to Achilles as a prize of war, and after I read and adored The Song of Achilles last year it'll be interesting to read a book set during the same conflict from the women's point of view.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar: This book has been everywhere this year and I've actually already read a bit of it, but it didn't grip me like I hoped it would. I do want to finish it, though, because the writing is beautiful and I think there's the potential for it to be a real fun romp of a novel.

The Cursed Wife by Pamela Hartshorne: This novel is described as a psychological thriller set in Elizabethan London. That's all I need to know.

The King's Witch by Tracy Borman: There have been a lot of historians turning to historical fiction lately, in fact there are two more on this list, and Tracy Borman is a Tudor and Stuart historian whose documentaries I've always enjoyed so I'm intrigued by her first foray into fiction.

Lady Mary by Lucy Worsley: Unlike Borman, Worsley, another historian who makes fantastic documentaries, has turned to writing fiction for younger readers to spark their interest in history, and I believe Lady Mary is her third novel. I'm really interested in reading a novel from the point of view of the young Mary I during the dramatic break-up of her parents' marriage.

Riddle of the Runes by Janina Ramirez: Once again, Ramirez is another historian whose recently turned to writing fiction with the first in a children's series about a young viking detective. This one sounds really fun and I'm looking forward to reading some more Middle Grade!

Sea Witch by Sarah Henning: Put witches in a story and I'm 1000% more likely to pick it up. I'm not usually a big fan of villain origin stories, mainly because they always seem to be tragic love stories and I find a broken heart as an excuse for villainy pretty boring, but what I love about the sound of this one is that Henning has combined The Little Mermaid with Denmark's long history of witch hunts and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory: This one sounds absolutely bizarre and I'm ashamed to say I've had it for a year and still haven't read it, mainly because when I started reading it I fell pretty ill - I ended up in hospital overnight - and now I can't stop thinking of how lousy I felt the first time I started reading it. I'd still like to read it, though!

The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: If you've been following my blog for a while you'll know I'm a huge fan of Moreno-Garcia's work so I'm annoyed I still haven't got to this one yet, but I'm hoping to read it soon!

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden: I'm determined to read this one this winter, it's been on my TBR too long!

The Vanishing Throne by Elizabeth May: ... I don't even want to admit how long this one's been on my TBR, but hopefully I'll finally read and review it this year.

Gone by Min Kym: I haven't read much non-fiction lately but this memoir sounds fascinating so I'm hoping to get to it this year. Perhaps I'll read it for Non-Fiction November!

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng: This historical fantasy follows a woman who must travel to the land of the Fae to find her brother, a missionary, who's gone missing there. It sounds amazing so it's about time I got to it!

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang: I've been eager for some Asian and African-inspired high fantasy this year and I keep seeing this novel everywhere. It's giving me Mulan vibes, so I'm hoping to love it.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See: As much as I love historical fiction I've been on such a fantasy kick this year that it's a genre I haven't been gravitating towards as much, so novels like this one keep getting left behind. It sounds really interesting, though, so I'd like to get to it at some point.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: I'm really interested in the history between Japan and South Korea, something this novel covers, but I've also seen so many mixed reviews of this one that it's made me a little hesitant to pick it up. I'm hoping to get to it sooner rather than later, though!

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi: This novel has been EVERYWHERE this year and I still haven't read it even though I haven't seen a single bad review yet. This is one I'm hoping to read very, very soon.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu: More Asian-inspired fantasy! This is another novel I've already started and have enjoyed so far. I'm on a bit of a YA kick at the moment, but I'm planning to return to it soon.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland: The American Civil War and zombies? Yes please. This one sounds really fun and I've seen some great reviews. As it has zombies in it I think I might save this one for Halloween unless the mood takes me.

The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta: This is one of the few books on this list that isn't out yet, but it's Italian-inspired fantasy with an LGBT+ romance. I'm all for LGBT+ fantasy and I love Italy so I can't wait to read a setting inspired by it.

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence: Assassins and nuns. Yes. I couldn't get on with this the first time I tried to read it but as I'm now completely back in a fantasy frame of mind I want to give it another try and I'm hoping to love it.

The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton: This is a fantasy retelling of King Lear in which three sisters vie for their father's throne. It sounds excellent.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik: I'm planning to buddy read this one with Natalie @ A Sea Change, which should be interesting considering she adored Uprooted and I thought it was okay. As this is a retelling of my favourite fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin, however, I'm hoping I'll love it.

Circe by Madeline Miller: I fell in love with The Song of Achilles last year so I can't wait to read Miller's second novel.

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty: This novel features a heroine who is a con artist in 18th century Cairo and includes a genie. That's all I need to know to want to read it.

Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh: Since reading Six of Crows and The Abyss Surrounds Us this year I've developed a love for duologies, so I'd like to start this one set in Feudal Japan and featuring a girl who poses as a boy - one of my favourite tropes.

On the Front Line with the Women Who Fight Back by Stacey Dooley: The only other piece of non-fiction on this list, this is Dooley's first book. I love her documentaries so I'm hoping I'll really enjoy this, too.

Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli: I haven't really been in the mood for Contemporary this year but I'm planning to read this one soon because I always enjoy Albertalli's novels.

The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee: I really enjoyed The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue last year so I can't wait to get my hands on this one!

My Mum Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson: I haven't read any Wilson in years but she was my favourite author for the longest time during my childhood and I can't resist her new book in which a character I grew up with, Tracy Beaker, has become a mother herself.

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend: This is another book I haven't seen a single bad review for so I'm hoping to get to it soon.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch: I recently read the first page of this and could feel myself getting sucked in, but I wanted to finish The Edge of the Abyss before I let myself get pulled into another series. I've heard great things about this one and I believe this has a setting inspired by Venice, and I will take all the Italian-inspired fantasy I can get.

IT by Stephen King: I'm slowly making my way through this one and I'd like to finish it this year, especially as I loved the new film adaptation last year.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood: I still haven't read this one and I need to rectify that asap.

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers: I love Chambers' sci-fi so I can't wait for the latest addition to her series.

Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft ed. by Jessica Spotswood and Tess Sharpe: An entire anthology of stories about witches? Yes please, give it to me now.

The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo: And lastly, as I'm sure you all know by now I adored Bardugo's Six of Crows duology earlier this year and with the news that one of the main characters from that duology is going to make an appearance in her new book being released in January, I think it's about time I read the trilogy that introduced the Grishaverse. I've actually already started Shadow and Bone and I can already tell I'm not going to love it anywhere near as much as I loved Six of Crows, but I still want to read it and appreciate it for what it is so I completely understand this fantasy world by the time her new book comes out.

If you read all of this, I salute you! 

Also if you haven't seen it already I'm currently hosting a giveaway for one of my favourite reads of 2018, so head on over here to enter!

Have you read any of these? Do you want to read any of these? And are there any books you really want to cross off your TBR by the end of the year?

Friday, 13 July 2018

Review | Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

by Leigh Bardugo

My Rating: 

Criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker has been offered wealth beyond his wildest dreams. But to claim it, he'll have to pull off a seemingly impossible heist:

Break into the notorious Ice Court
(a military stronghold that has never been breached)

Retrieve a hostage
(who could unleash magical havoc on the world)

Survive long enough to collect his reward
(and spend it)

Kaz needs a crew desperate enough to take on this suicide mission and dangerous enough to get the job done - and he knows exactly who: six of the deadliest outcasts the city has to offer. Together, they just might be unstoppable - if they don't kill each other first.

I can't remember the last time I read a book and fell so head-over-heels in love with an entire group of characters.

People have been recommending Six of Crows to me for a long time now. Not only have I seen so many other readers bursting with love about this book, and its sequel Crooked Kingdom, but friends of mine such as the lovely Natalie @ A Sea Change have been singing its praises for what must be an age. It's a book I've always meant to get to - who doesn't love a heist story? - but this year I finally sat back, opened it up and was sucked into the seedy underbelly of Leigh Bardugo's fantasy world.

As someone who hasn't read Bardugo's Grisha Trilogy this world was entirely new to me, and I loved it. 2018 feels like the year in which I'm rediscovering my first love, fantasy, after several years of being intimidated by it for a reason I still can't quite put my finger on, and Ketterdam has to be one of my favourite fantastical places now purely because Bardugo brings it to life so vividly.

While Ravka, which we hear of but don't go to in this book, seems to be a Russian-inspired country, there's no doubt in my mind that Ketterdam is a fantastical version of Amsterdam, with its waterways, merchant-run economy, and the entire districts whose cogs are kept whirring by a constant stream of gambling and prostitution. The Barrel, not at all dissimilar from Amsterdam's Red Light District, is ruled by gangs, and one gangster in particular has Ketterdam in his pocket.

Kaz Brekker is one of the most compelling protagonists I have come across in a fantasy novel in a long time. From the blurb I thought he would be very different to the kind of boy he is, but I love how Bardugo has imagined him; she straddles the line between 'criminal prodigy' and 'only a 17 year old' beautifully, creating a character who's had to grow up far too fast and has the dirt of the worst and best of humanity wedged under his fingernails. He's like that first sip of a bitter coffee in human form. It was also so refreshing to read about a protagonist who needs the assistance of a cane to walk and I'd like more protagonists like this please!

What makes Six of Crows really sing is its characters. The setting is brilliant and the plot is wonderful, but the characters are what make this book - dare I say it - perfect. Alongside Kaz we have his right-hand woman Inej Ghafa, who was stolen from her home and her family as a child and sold into human trafficking before she began working for the Dregs. Known as the Wraith, she's an expert at going undetected and is yet another example of Bardugo's wonderfully complex characters. Inej's faith is important to her and her morality is something she struggles with when she has essentially become Kaz's personal assassin, but how else is she supposed to survive in a land that sees her as a commodity that can be sold for profit?

I loved Bardugo's exploration of religion through Inej and through Matthias, another protagonist from Fjerda, the country next to Ravka, who has essentially been raised in a cult of witch hunters whose own religion teaches that Grisha aren't human. Like all six of the protagonists in Six of Crows, Matthias has found himself washed up in Ketterdam by accident, beginning the novel in prison thanks to a Grisha, Nina, who serves as another protagonist. I'll be saying this for all of them, but I loved Nina, too. A child soldier from Ravka, she was forced to work with Matthias, a boy trained to kill her, after the ship they were on sank and they found their way to Ketterdam. Nina is bubbly and vivacious and loves food - who doesn't? - and I particularly loved her friendship with Inej. There's no competition between them, just the utmost affection and respect and when I say I want more female friendships this is what I mean.

Then we have Jesper Fahey, another member of the Dregs who loves gambling and guns a little too much, but another character who is complex and, though flawed, incredibly loyal to Kaz. I adored his sense of humour and his shameless bisexuality. Finally there's Wylan, a boy with a knack for explosives and keeping secrets. He's the kind of character that grows on you as the story progresses, and once you get to know him you can't help but love him.

Six of Crows works because each of its protagonists are fleshed out and such fun to follow separately, but they also have brilliant chemistry as a group, too, which is for the best considering they have to rely on each other to pull off a heist that's believed to be impossible. Kaz makes a deal with one of Ketterdam's merchants to break into the Fjerdan Ice Court - a place that has never been breached - and smuggle out a prisoner associated with a drug that, when used on Grisha, turns them into unstoppable weapons who crave the drug more and more and eventually die as nothing more than husks of their previous selves.

Kaz doesn't take on this mission out of the goodness of his heart to liberate the Grisha who are being mistreated or to bring order back to the world of the merchants, he takes on the mission because each of them will be rewarded with an inordinate amount of money that will pay off their individual debts and set them up comfortably for life. What ensues is a twisty, turny heist story that keeps you guessing at every turn and makes you genuinely worry for the characters' safety. I love that Bardugo doesn't make this story safe. Kaz has a plan and his plan has a plan, but when things go wrong - and they really do - these kids are forced to improvise if they're going to live to claim their reward.

It's been a few months now since I finished this book and I'm still thinking about it. The plotting and character development is exquisite. I fell for this book and these characters and this world so hard, and it's safe to say that this duology is now one of my all-time favourite series and this book has definitely earned a spot on my favourite books of all-time list. It was such fun to read, and it reignited not only my love for fantasy but also my love for YA done well. I escaped into a different world where all the threats and the tears and the love and the smiles felt real, and I will be gushing about it for a long time. And I'm not sorry.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

This Week in Books | 04/07/2018

This week I'm joining in with Lipsy @ Lipsyy Lost & Found to talk about the books I've been reading recently!

Now: Ever since I read Six of Crows (yes I will mention it at every chance I get) I've been on a duology kick, so right now I'm half way through the second book in Emily Skrutskie's duology about pirates, sea monsters and girls kissing girls. I'm enjoying The Edge of the Abyss a lot so far and I'm looking forward to seeing how this series wraps up!

Then: I finished The Abyss Surrounds Us at the weekend and really enjoyed it. I haven't decided yet if I'm going to do separate reviews or a series review, but look out for a review of some kind at some point!

Next: I first read The Goblin Emperor in the summer of 2015 and, if someone put a gun to my head and made me choose, this is the novel I'd say is my all-time favourite novel. I've re-read or re-listened to it every year since I first read it, and I feel myself craving it during the summer because of my first memories of it so I think I'm going to re-read it again next.

What are you reading?

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Top Ten Tuesday | USA TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted at That Artsy Reader Girl. Each week you compile a list of ten books which coincide with that week's theme. You can find everything you need to know about joining in here!

This week's theme is ' Books with Red, White, & Blue Covers (In honor of the 4th of July in the USA. Choose covers with your own country’s colors if you prefer!)', but I decided to do something a little different and talk about some books on my TBR that are set in the USA instead! Oddly I've noticed that a lot of these would be good books to read near Halloween...

The Diviners by Libba Bray: I've been meaning to read some Libba Bray for years and still haven't, and this series set in 1920s New York sounds so fun.

Devils Unto Dust by Emma Berquist: The first of two novels on this list to feature zombies, this book is giving me serious Blood Red Road vibes, which I loved, and I have a soft spot for characters called Daisy and Ben so I really should get this one.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland: More zombies but this time on the battleground of the American Civil War in this YA alternate history novel. This is another one that sounds really fun!

Leah On the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli: Can't wait to get to this one - huzzah for bisexual representation!

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt: I love books about witches and witch trials but I don't read much horror at all. Hex sounds so creepy and cool, though, so I'd like to get to it at some point.

The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager: I read and enjoyed Final Girls last year and this one sounds like it'd be a fast-paced thriller to read over the summer!

Things Half in Shadow by Alan Finn: This one's been on my TBR for years and every Halloween I mean to pick it only to get distracted by something else.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal: This is a new release that's giving me Hidden Figures vibes, something of a sci-fi alternate history novel about women wanting to get involved with the colonisation of Mars.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: I've heard great things about this novel so far, about a group of siblings who learn when they're going to die and how it effects the rest of their lives.

Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman: This one sounds like Sleeping Beauty gone wrong meets a western, which is a story I didn't know I needed until now.

Which books made your list this week?

Monday, 2 July 2018

International Giveaway | Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

I recently had a wonderful spurt of five star reads when I finally got around to reading Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows duology and, just before that, Joy McCullough's wonderful novel in verse, Blood Water Paint which I reviewed here.

Combining historical fiction with poetry, Joy McCullough has brought the story of 17th century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi to life. Artemisia Gentileschi is my favourite artist; a woman who took revenge with paint after she was sexually assaulted by a man her father hired to tutor her and, remarkably for her time, chose to press charges against him.

I devoured this book in one sitting and absolutely adored it, I'm confident it's going to remain one of my favourite books of 2018 and beyond, so I'm going to give a copy away! I'd love to see more people reading this book, so if you'd like to win a copy take a look at the giveaway information and leave a comment below telling me what your favourite read of 2018 has been so far!

  • This giveaway is open internationally to anywhere that the Book Depository delivers to
  • If you're under 18, please make sure you have your parent/guardian's permission to give me your address which I'll need to send the book to you (I can promise you I won't share such personal information with anyone)
  • I'll be getting in touch with the winner on the 1st August, so make sure you check your emails if you enter!
  • Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, 29 June 2018

Review | The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine

by Gail Carson Levine

My Rating: 

When plague strikes Bamarre, Princess Addie must fulfill an ancient prophecy.

Brave and adventurous, Princess Meryl dreams of fighting dragons and protecting the kingdom of Bamarre. Shy and fearful, Princess Addie is content to stay within the safety of the castle walls. The one thing that the sisters share is their unwavering love for each other.

The tables are turned, however, when the Gray Death leaves Meryl fatally ill. To save her sister, meek Princess Addie must find the courage to set out on a dangerous quest filled with dragons, unknown magic, and death itself. Time is running out, and the sisters' lives—and the future of the kingdom of Bamarre—hang in the balance.

The Two Princesses of Bamarre is one of those books I've seen so many people rave about as a childhood favourite, but it's one I never came across as a child. My earliest taste of Gail Carson Levine's work was in my last year of primary school when I came across a copy of Ella Enchanted in the library, but even though I liked it I never sought out any of her other books. Recently I was in the mood to dive back into Middle Grade, so I figured it was about time I picked up a copy of this one.

Had I read this when I was little I would have absolutely loved it and I'm pretty sure I'd still be looking back on it fondly now as a must-read fantasy novel for younger readers. As an adult reader, though, I didn't love this one as much as I was hoping. Obviously I'm not the target audience for this book but I do believe that a good Middle Grade novel should be able to be enjoyed by children and adults because children deserve books that don't talk down to them.

That's not to say I didn't like this book, because I did, but so I can end this review on a high I'm going to talk about what I didn't like first. One of my biggest issues with the novel was that it seemed to drag on for a long time for a novel that's really quite short, and I think this is a case where the blurb contributed to that feeling for me. We know from the blurb that Meryl is brave and Addie is not, but that ultimately it's Addie who's going to have to go on an adventure to save Meryl and all of Bamarre when Meryl falls sick, and I felt like quite a large amount of the book had passed before Addie had even come to the realisation that this task was going to be hers. I appreciated that we weren't thrown immediately into the action and we had a chance to learn about the sisters and their kingdom, but when Meryl fell sick the plot seemed to stagnate for me before Addie finally set off on her quest.

A lot of that probably also has to do with the part of the novel that most surprised me, and that's that Meryl and Addie don't remain children. We're introduced to them as children, but if I remember correctly it's not until Addie turns 16 and the Gray Death has already killed a lot of people in Bamarre that she leaves home. I love well-written child narrators, either in MG or adult fiction, and because this is a novel aimed at younger readers all about being brave and how being brave isn't the same as not being scared, I thought it was a shame they were given a 16 year old heroine rather than a heroine closer to their own age. Particularly because Addie and Meryl continued to sound a lot younger than 16 to me.

I can understand the logic behind Addie being a little older so that it's feasible that she would be allowed to go on her quest alone, except it makes no sense to me that a kingdom with one heir to the kingdom on her deathbed would allow their only other heir, who has no experience outside of the castle walls, to go on such a dangerous quest alone. I know it's a fantasy novel and we have to suspend our disbelief, but for me there's a difference between suspending disbelief and disregarding belief altogether. What baffles me is that Addie gets permission from her father to leave - I honestly don't understand how that man is still king, he's useless - when I would have found the whole scenario far more believable if she'd just snuck out instead.

All that aside, there's so much more I liked about this book. Firstly, any book that focuses on the love between sisters is a winner in my eyes, and I loved that even though she's a princess and heir to Bamarre Meryl starts out as more of a 'Prince Charming' in training with her love for knights, heroism and violence, but she's ultimately the princess confined to her bed while her cowardly sister is forced into that 'Prince Charming' role to save her.

Coward seems like such a cruel word, but it's the best way to describe Addie and that's no bad thing. Addie is terrified of everything, especially of not having Meryl around anymore to help her feel safe, so it's far more satisfying to see her face her fears as it would have been to watch Meryl. Addie has to learn to be Addie, and not just Meryl's sister. I personally loved that Addie was genuinely cowardly so, when she was brave, it was a very different kind of bravery to what Meryl's would be. Her friends give her various magical objects before she leaves so that she has some kind of assistance when facing all of the dangerous creatures that roam the wilds of Bamarre, all of which were so fun and imaginative, and I loved how Addie used them to both help herself and to fight and outwit her enemies.

Her greatest enemy in the book is a dragon who takes her captive, and while Meryl probably would have slain it at first sight (or tried to) Addie learns its weaknesses and eventually escapes the creature with her brains rather than her fists. There's a whole pantheon of dragons in fantasy literature, but this one is probably one of the most sinister ones I've come across and definitely one I'll remember!

I think what I enjoyed most about this book, though, was the ending. There's very little I can say without spoiling it completely but I think it would have been easy for Levine to give us a perfect, sunshine and daisies ending even though this is a story about a kingdom that has been suffering at the hands of a dreadful disease for years. Instead I thought she made some very brave choices and I really admire her for making them, and it's because of the ending that I understand why this MG novel is a favourite of so many people, particularly people who read it during their childhood.

Did I love it? No. Would I recommend it? Definitely.