Review – Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Simon & Schuster, 2012

Aristotle – better known as Ari – is a boy defined by the things he doesn’t say. His family don’t talk about his father’s experience in the Vietnam War; they don’t talk about why Ari’s older brother is in prison, or why they seem so afraid that Ari will follow him there. Then Ari meets Dante, a boy who defines himself by talking about everything. He loves birds, poetry, art, words – and he loves being Ari’s friend. With Dante around, Ari finds himself beginning to unravel the mysteries that have kept him quiet for so long. Maybe eventually, Ari will even understand himself.

Aristotle and Dante is set during the 1980s and both main characters are Mexican; there’s a thoughtful and nuanced exploration of culture, family and identity woven through the novel, but never slowing it down. While very different characters, Ari and Dante are both vividly written and incredibly engaging. The rest of the cast, particularly the boys’ families, are equally well-rounded, with a wonderful warmth and realism. There was one moment that jarred me – without including spoilers, towards the end of the story Ari discovers something about his brother that I personally felt should have had a greater narrative impact. Overall, though, this is a beautiful story about friendship, love and truth. Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s latest book is The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, published earlier this month.

Review – Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda – Becky Albertalli

Balzer + Bray, 2015

Sixteen-year-old Simon Spier likes to put on a show, but he prefers it when the drama stays on the stage. The only person in his life who knows he’s gay is Blue, his anonymous online friend, and the only one who knows Blue is gay is Simon. Their friendship is slowly evolving into something new when the wrong person finds out about the emails and Simon suddenly finds himself blackmailed into the role of reluctant matchmaker for the most annoying straight boy ever. He has to find a way to get out of this situation before he’s dragged any deeper into someone else’s disaster of a love life – and before it wrecks his own.

The premise makes this sound like a slightly darker book than it is. While Simon’s predicament is definitely treated as a serious one, Simon vs. the Home Sapiens Agenda is overall a light-hearted, witty and sincere story and all its characters are written with a warmth and sensitivity that makes even the less likeable ones very well-rounded. Simon is a delightful protagonist – I was particularly charmed by the relationship he has with his sisters – and the question of Blue’s identity is given some good twists. Albertalli’s next novel, The Upside of Unrequited, is slated for release in April.

Review – Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy

Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy – Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson and Robin Wasserman

Walker Books Ltd., 2016

Simon Lewis is a hero. Or so he has been informed. He can’t actually remember his heroics thanks to an encounter with a demon and a sacrifice that saved the lives of friends who are now strangers to him. But Simon has a way to get it all back. In the wake of a devastating war, the Nephilim are recruiting ordinary people to join their ranks, who will be trained at the newly re-opened Shadowhunter Academy and – should they prove worthy – will drink from the Mortal Cup to take on the strength of the Angel’s warriors. Simon wants to be a hero again. More than that, he wants to work out who he really is. He hopes that his time at the Academy will give him a chance at both those things, and maybe even understand what the hell the blazing, famous Isabelle Lightwood ever saw in him. All he has to do is survive training with a group of ferociously competitive would-be demon-killers…and then there’s the demons themselves.

This is a book for established fans of Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter series only. It is a collection of short stories centred around Simon Lewis, a character from the Mortal Instruments series, though other characters from the Shadowhunter books do show up. The short stories were originally published as standalone e-books, in the same style as The Bane Chronicles, which means there’s a bit of repetition when you’re reading them all together. I wasn’t always very interested in the Academy plots but most of the stories had other layers to them, weaving in parts of Shadowhunter history, and having read all the previous books, I was delighted to see backstories filled in and favourite characters return. The story I enjoyed most was ‘Born to Endless Night’ just for the Lightwood family shenanigans, but there’s a lot to love here for Shadowhunter fans.

Review – The Raven King

The Raven King (The Raven Cycle No.4) – Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic Press, 2016

Gansey has spent half his life searching for the legendary king Glendower. Together with his friends, he is closer than he’s ever been to achieving his quest – but another power has already woken in Henrietta, reaching for Adam through the ley line and infecting Ronan’s dreams. Noah’s ghost is disintegrating. Blue’s home is under attack. And Cabeswater is dying. If they want to save it, and each other, they need magic that is stronger than a demon…and to survive long enough to use it.

This is the fourth, final and in my opinion, the best, of Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle. Every character arc is given space and depth, and the newer characters fitted in seamlessly. Laumonier was brilliantly creepy. I found the resolution for Glendower somewhat dissatisfying and was more interested in some plot threads than others, but they were woven together well and the writing is beautiful. The series began with The Raven Boys and continued with The Dream Thieves and Blue Lily, Lily Blue.

Review – Lady Midnight

Lady Midnight (The Dark Artifices No.1) – Cassandra Clare

Simon & Schuster, 2016

Emma Carstairs was born into a world of monsters, and she has spent most of her life killing them. As a Shadowhunter, it is her duty to protect mundane society from demons, rogue vampires and werewolves, the malice of Faerie and every other danger that the rest of humanity doesn’t believe exists. It is not an easy life. Her parents were both murdered five years ago and Emma is willing to move heaven and earth to find who – or what – was responsible. When an opportunity comes her way not only to get answers, but also to help protect her best friend Julian’s family, Emma leaps at it. There is something ugly hidden at the heart of Los Angeles. And Emma is not the only one looking for revenge.

This is not so much the beginning of a series as a good jumping on point for anyone interested in Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books. She introduced her world in City of Bones, the first book in the Mortal Instruments sextet, and fleshed it out further in the prequel trilogy The Infernal Devices (opening with Clockwork Angel). There are spoilers for both previous sets of books in Lady Midnight and it will mean more if you’re familiar with the older characters – having read all the previous books, it was particularly interesting for me to see the effects of choices made in the last one – but The Dark Artifices has a fresh cast in a new location.

Emma is a dynamic protagonist and the domestic realities of her day-to-day life with the Blackthorns added welcome depth. I am a sucker for stories about sprawling families and ones that focus on the relationships between siblings, so I particularly liked that aspect Lady Midnight. The support cast contains characters who are LGBT, POC and neurodiverse, and there are several gender tropes that get firmly flipped. I am not a huge fan of ‘forbidden love’ romances, so I didn’t enjoy that part of the plot as much, but I do like all the characters involved in Lady Midnight’s romantic tangles. The Dark Artifices continues with Lord of Shadows, slated for release in April 2017.

Review – Gates of Thread and Stone

Gates of Thread and Stone (Gates of Thread and Stone No.1) – Lori M. Lee

Skyscape, 2014

The rule to survival in the city of Ninurta is simple: don’t get noticed. Outside the walls lies a wasteland and within, a cramped world ruled over by Kahl Ninu, the one person left in the world with magic. Except that isn’t true. Ever since she was a child, Kai has been able to see and manipulate the threads of time around her. She doesn’t remember her parents or how she came to live with her foster brother Reev, but she knows it can only be bad news if anyone finds out what she can do. Then Reev goes missing. And the only way Kai can find him is to disobey every rule she ever knew.

Gates of Thread and Stone is a post-apocalyptic fantasy and Lee’s first novel. Kai is a vibrant, likable protagonist; her friend Avan is intriguing and it’s good to see a significant bisexual character. As with many dystopias, this one could have used some more world-building to explain how it worked, but the rapid pace of the story is what made it a fast, enjoyable read. The story continues with a sequel, The Infinite.

Review – The Shadow Cabinet

The Shadow Cabinet (Shades of London No.3) – Maureen Johnson

Hot Key Books, 2015

The rules have changed. Since she arrived in London, Rory Devereaux has been hunted by homicidal ghosts, infused with a power she doesn’t understand, joined a secret paranormal police force and fallen for a boy who just died to save her. But he’s not exactly gone. If she is ever going to see him again, she has to stay in London – but with the leader of a dangerous cult determined to find her and her own disappearance causing waves among those who love her most, no decision looks like the right one. Wherever she goes from here, she’s off the map.

These are fairly dark books, despite the strong thread of humour running through – I mean, this one opens with a mass murder – and Rory as a character feels increasingly out of her depth. Her bonds with the other characters are getting strained, which is part of what made the introduction of Freddie abrupt and a bit unconvincing to me. I’d have preferred to see more of Boo and Callum, who were not as visible in this installment. The new villains, however, are very promising. The Shades of London series will continue with a fourth novel, but the title and date of publication have not yet been released.

Review – A Thousand Pieces of You

A Thousand Pieces of You (Firebird No.1) – Claudia Gray

HarperTeen, 2014

The token artist in a family of scientific geniuses, Marguerite is used to letting her parents’ wilder theories wash over her head. That, however, was before her father’s car was sabotaged to crash into a river and his protégé Paul disappeared with a prototype of the Firebird: a revolutionary device that allows the wearer to travel between dimensions. Marguerite is desperate for answers, and revenge. When her father’s other student Theo finds a way for them both to follow Paul between worlds, nothing can hold her back. But the further she travels from home, the more the ties that bind her to both men – and even her own family – shift and change. Across an infinite number of realities, can you really ever know someone?

Gray has an intriguing premise and while she didn’t explore all the avenues I’d have liked – this is primarily a YA romance/ thriller, pretty light on the science fiction side – there is a clever examination of the highly dubious ethics that come along with the Firebird’s invention and the emotional complications were well handled. I wasn’t particularly engaged by Paul or Theo, but Marguerite’s journey kept me interested and the plot moved at a good place. This is the first in the Firebird series, which continues with Ten Thousand Skies Above You.

Review – The Bane Chronicles

The Bane Chronicles – Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan and Maureen Johnson

Walker Books, 2014

When you live forever, it is your duty to be as fabulous as possible. As a warlock, Magnus Bane is half human and half demon; he has outlived monarchies and empires, acquiring extraordinary anecdotes along the way. From a ballooning trip across Paris with Marie Antoinette to running a speakeasy in Prohibition America, to that time he started a llama stampede in Peru, he has lived many lives. These eleven stories are only a glimpse into his glittering, volatile world.

The Bane Chronicles will only make full sense to someone who has read all of Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books, beginning with book one of the Mortal Instruments series, City of Bones. The biracial, bisexual High Warlock of Brooklyn Magnus Bane is a secondary character throughout those books, if an increasingly significant one, but here he takes centre stage. Each story takes on a different time in his life, many of which connect to events from previous books and give rich backstory to other secondary characters, such as the vampire Raphael Santiago and warlock Catarina Loss.

Due to his massive experience, Magnus often comes off as a kind of time traveller, a little separate from the rest of the world – maybe that’s why I found the historical stories less convincing than the more contemporary ones. There are fascinating ideas here, and delightful references for any fan of the Shadowhunter universe. Clare has also written a steampunk prequel trilogy to the Mortal Instruments books, called the Infernal Devices, which begins with Clockwork Angel. Characters from all the books feature in The Bane Chronicles.

Review No.124 – Adaptation

Adaptation (Adaptation No.1) – Malinda Lo

Little, Brown and Company, 2012

When the first plane falls, it seems like a terrible accident – but as reports of crashes come in from across North America, panic sets in. Waiting for the flight that will take them home to San Francisco, teenagers Reese Holloway and David Li are trapped in the ensuing chaos as airports across the country go into lockdown. Their only option is to drive through the desert. On a stretch of empty highway, a bird flies into their headlights and Reese loses control of the car. The next thing she knows, she’s waking in a military hospital so top secret no one will even tell her where she is. And that’s only the beginning of her problems…

I started Adaptation with very little idea of what it was about and I’m glad I did, because not knowing what’s happening is what gives the opening chapters their punch. The plot becomes a bit bogged down in the middle – Reese is an awful communicator and generally a pretty inaccessible person, making her dialogue with almost all the other characters rather frustrating. This could be intentional, but it didn’t work for me and I liked her friends better. It’s good to see so many significant characters who are QUILTBAG and/or of colour, which is a rarer experience than it should be. Towards the end the pace picks up again and there’s a lot to be explained in book two, Inheritance. Malinda Lo is a co-founder of the Diversity in YA blog and her other books include Ash and Huntress.