Posts Tagged ‘book review’

200px-Seraphina_book_cover_(US_addition)I was browsing the shelves of the library the other day when I came across a book with a cover of a dragon in a medieval city and “Seraphina” scrawled over it. I was intrigued by the hint of fantasy oozing from it, but what I found was something more than dragons and swords. Seraphina takes readers to a rich world where, after centuries of fighting, dragons and humans have come to a shaky peace. The knights of old who slew dragons have been banished and dragons shift into a human guise to interact with humans. But while peace may have been established between the two groups’ kingdoms, understanding between humans and dragons is still far off. Humans see dragons as monsters incapable of feeling and dragons think humans are at the will of emotion rather than logic. A group of radical citizens called the Sons of St. Ogdo continues prejudice and violence against dragons and a prince of the ruling family was mysteriously murdered in a dragon-like fashion just before the start of the story.

There is certainly action and intrigue (weighted by a hefty sense of realism mixed perfectly with fantasy), but the core of the story is something more personal. Caught in this turbulent time is the protagonist, Seraphina, the daughter of a well-known lawyer with a secret that could cause tremendous grief to both him and Seraphina if the truth were exposed; Seraphina’s mother, her father’s first wife, was actually a dragon. As a half-dragon, half-human child, Seraphina has been kept out of the public eye as much as possible, taught not to draw attention to herself and forced to lie to keep her dreadful secret safe. She is caught between two groups who cannot seem to see eye-to-eye and both of who condemn intermingling. In a world that rejects even the possibility of her existence in disgust, in which neither group accepts what she truly is, how is she supposed to accept herself? This question hangs over both the readers and Seraphina as she struggles with self-acceptance and trust in her interactions with the other characters, as she draws closer to acquaintances and pulls back for fear of being rejected and exposed. It doesn’t help when she’s constantly reminded of these differences, from the silver scales on her wrists and waist to the strange people and memories that inhabit her dreams and if left unchecked, cause her to collapse.

But while Seraphina may struggle with who she is, she is not going to let that keep her cooped away her whole life. She possesses the inner strength to go after her love of music, landing her a job as assistant to the court composer. Through this job, Seraphina suddenly finds herself more in the public and in the thick of things than ever, between a job tutoring the second heir to the throne, Princess Glisselda, and a meeting with her cousin, Prince Lucian, and a personal connection with dragons like her uncle Orma. With an important anniversary of the peace treaty approaching, Seraphina is drawn into the mystery surrounding the death of the queen’s son. Her knowledge and connection to both dragons and humans may prove vital, but she must also keep her secret hidden as she grows closer to Glisselda and Lucian. But the lies she tells to protect her secret could ruin those thin connections.

The whole story is very well done and interlaces various elements and themes seamlessly. It has a good pace, balancing action with internal struggles and character development in a way that keeps readers engaged on several levels. I found myself curious from the first page and very quickly hooked. Finally, while there was a bit of romance, it never became the main drive of the story, which I appreciated. Romance done well is fun, but I often see it become the central factor in novels with female protagonists. This seems to perpetuate the stereotype that the most important event in a woman’s life is finding love. However, in novels like Seraphina, writers show that romance is an important event, but many of things contribute to the adventure.

In the end, the title says it all; as much as this is a story of political intrigue, prejudice, and medieval fantasy, the heart of the story lies in a girl named Seraphina’s journey of self-acceptance and discovery. And that journey, I think, is something that almost all of us can relate to on some level.

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As soon as I saw the title on this book, I had to read it. While I don’t consider a character strong just based on their physical strength, with a name like that, I had a feeling I was in for an adventure about a tough female character. The question was, would she make more than a statement about how she can swing a sword?

“A Sword In Her Hand” starts off in 1347 with the Count of Flanders on pins and needles as his wife is giving birth to a child he hopes above all else will be the son and heir he’s been praying for. It’s a girl. Say hello to the protagonist of the story, Marguerite van Male! Readers watch as Marguerite grows from a small child looking for the love of a father too bitter over the loss a male heir to give her that, to as the book says, a “headstrong, sharp-tongued, sword-wielding” young woman searching for freedom in a male-dominated world. Her father may have wanted a strong-willed boy, but girls with such attitudes just won’t do. Marguerite will not be as her father might wish her to be; she’s watched her father pine over a male heir and her mother waste away, having been only a tool to produce an heir. She does not want to end up like that. Soon, Marguerite won’t just be fighting her father, she’ll be confronted with the pressure of politics as well when a marriage to a foreign prince is arranged for her.

Going into this book, I had no idea what it was about, including the fact that this reasonably short novel is roughly based on a real historical figure of whom little information is known. I’ll admit, I imagined war and frequent sword fights. While there is a war and some sword fights, the story was actually different from what I’d initially thought it would be like. Instead of a keep-you-on-the-edge-of-your-seat action novel, it’s much more a story about Marguerite’s journey as a character and dealing with her life as a strong-willed girl in the Middle Ages. Don’t get me wrong, there is action; from the secondhand account of a war to Marguerite’s adventurous activities. And for those of you out there itching for a sword fight, there’s a great one at the end. However, despite there not being a lot of action in the form of wars and the like, there is plenty of tension and gripping moments that had me flipping through pages furiously to see what would happen next. This is especially true for when the arranged marriage plot line comes into play. Marguerite is constantly fighting a world that would have her be docile and there are wonderfully satisfying scenes in which she openly refuses to keep quiet and play along. This is a female character who is recognized for her vivacious personality and strength of character rather than her looks (which, according to history, weren’t considered beautiful). As Marguerite grew and her challenges in life became harder, I grew to like her more, feeling frustrated with her and cheering her on when she takes a stand.

While this book may not rank as a keeper for me, it was certainly enjoyable. If your heart is set on a sword fight in every chapter, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you’re looking for a Young Adult novel about the struggle of a young woman fighting against the control of the men in her life and her society, “A Sword In Her Hand” will provide you with a well-paced and satisfying story.

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The Twelve Kingdoms

This week I’m going to tackle The Twelve Kingdoms, a book and anime series that has given me some of my favorite female characters. I’ve been thinking about reviewing this series since I started this blog so I figured it’s about time I did. (It’s also a break for those of you who were getting sick of hearing about princesses.)  I found The Twelve Kingdoms several years ago when the original book series by Fuyumi Ono was being translated and published by the now extinct TokyoPop. What initially attacked me to it was two things: 1) In the first book, the main character is a girl who, from the looks of the paperback cover seen on the left, appeared capable, and 2) a plot that was intriguing. Always on the look out for new female characters that don’t make me cringe, I picked it up. Once I did, I was hooked. Unfortunately, the book series has never been completely translated, stopping at four books in English, and the anime series never finished either, but I will review what I can of it. (Since the stories are self-contained that’s not something to stop you from picking this one up.)

The Twelve Kingdoms

The stories all revolve around an intricate fantasy world made up of 12 kingdoms (thus the name). Each kingdom is ruled by a king or queen, a person chosen by a mythical creature called a kirin who then serves the ruler after he/she has selected one. The books focus on various characters, meaning characters who were side characters in one book might come back in another as the star, fleshing out their stories further and the stars of one book will not appear at all in the next, but reappear in the one after that. Admittedly, I was dubious of this system initially as I grew attached to the heroine of the first book, but I ended up liking it very much; it keeps the stories self-contained, as I mentioned, and allows side characters that I liked to get some of the spotlight. The first book focuses on Youko Nakajima, a high school student living an unremarkable life in Japan. That is, until a blonde-haired young man suddenly appears before her, pledges his loyalty to her, and whisks her away to the world of the Twelve Kingdoms. There they are separated, leaving Youko in a strange, unfriendly place and no idea why she was brought there or what to do next. Oh, and did I mention monsters are chasing her, too?

The Twelve Kingdoms

But for those of you unfamiliar with The Twelve Kingdoms who think this sounds like any old fantasy with teenage girls and cute guys fighting monsters, let me stop you. The interesting thing about this series is while action does take place and is important to the story I would argue the key feature of Ono’s stories are the characters. And Ono creates such rich characters! One of the reasons I love The Twelve Kingdoms is the fact that it is never about whether the character is female or male, young or old. It’s about the person and the journeys (emotionally and physically) that he/she takes, plain and simple. Yes, some characters are female and some are male, but this isn’t really focused on. In The Twelve Kingdoms it doesn’t matter as the characters aren’t restricted by stereotypes that lamely let the audience know “This character is male because he likes guns and breasts and never shows emotion!” or “This character is female because she has breasts, thinks of some boy 24/7, and is reliant on men!” In addition, this fictional world, women don’t have the gender roles seen in reality; women regularly join the army, are officials in the government, and can rule countries without the need to marry. (Interestingly, women also don’t bear children, but I won’t get into that in this post.)

The Twelve Kingdoms

Ono does a fantastic job of realistically sculpting out believable and relatable characters with very complex and realistic emotional journeys. Take Youko for example. Youko starts off as a girl who has lost herself in the effort to please everyone around her. She wants everyone to like her and doesn’t want to disappoint. However, as we all know, it’s impossible to honestly agree with everyone and make everyone happy. In the attempt to do so, Youko dulled her real opinions and personality.  Then, after being betrayed numerous times in this new world, Youko becomes the opposite, so consumed with distrust that she decides to only look out for herself. I love that Fuyumi Ono takes her characters to these dark, unpleasant places–it’s not all rosy and smoothed over. There’s plenty of trial and error which makes them seem all that much more human and stronger because the audience is shown how much the characters struggle to get there. The series is full of characters with depth like Youko. Two other heroines of the series, Suzu and Shoukei, also are shown to have less than admirable moments; Suzu wallows in self-pity and Shoukei, who I discussed more in-depth last week, begins jealous and ignorant. Often, it’s very psychological and the emotional journey is just as nail-biting as the physical journey of civil strife, betrayal, political schemes, and rebellions. These characters don’t feel like caricatures and seeing them go through inner changes created makes one appreciate the characters all the more.

The anime series has slight differences in the way it’s set up (mainly in the part based on the first book–Youko sends long periods alone with her own thoughts in the book so the anime had to make adjustments) so, if you can, check out both the book series and anime series. The books are going to be harder to find since they’re out of print now, but the anime series is still being made and I believe is being released on Blu-ray now.

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Ask a person for an author who writes young adult novels with strong female characters and undoubtably someone will mention Tamora Pierce. Pierce is the author of several series and debuted with a series by the name of Song of the Lioness, a four book installment with the good old plot centering around a girl, Alanna who wishes to join the army (or in this case, become a knight) and, barred from it because of her gender, must pretend to be a boy to do so. But the book I am writing about today is a sequel to this series called Trickster’s Choice which follows the adventure of Alanna’s daughter, Alianne–or Aly, as she’s often called (it makes things a lot less confusing that way). Therefore, if you haven’t read Song of the Lioness and would like to, you may not want to read this review or Trickster’s Choice just yet as it does have some spoilers for that series. 


Taking place years after the conquests of Alanna in Song of the Lioness, Alanna is still a famous knight, but now she’s also a mother. Aly is one of Alanna’s children and quite the troublemaker for her mother and father. At sixteen, Aly yearns to become a spy like her father, but as the only daughter of her parents they are reluctant to let her assist in such dangerous work. Because of that, Aly spends her time without a goal to achieve, flirting with boys without any seriousness, butting heads with her very driven and often absent mother, and occasionally dying her hair blue while turning her parents hair white with exasperation. After a fight with her mother, Aly decides to take her boat out to get away from her mother for awhile, but is captured by pirates along the way and sold into slavery in a neighboring realm, the Copper Isles, known for its instability between its luarin conquerors and raka natives. But just as Aly plans to make her escape, a god appears before her and offers her a wager: keep the children of the family she’s been sold to, the Balitang, safe through the summer from political schemes threatening to sweep them up and the god will make her a spy as she always wished to be. Unable to resist the temptation of the reward nor the intrigue of adventure, Aly accepts.

Initially, Aly does come off as an unserious, slightly rebellious teenage, but Pierce does a good job of deepening the character beyond that. First of all, neither Aly or her mother are made out to be the bad guy who’s come around just to make the other person’s life miserable (even if it may seem that way at first). As happens all the time in real life, both Aly and Alanna have good points and good intentions, but butt heads with each other because personality differences and different opinions without taking the time to slow down and consider the other person’s point of view. In some ways, Aly and her mother are very similar and this also causes them to clash. I came to really like this relationship in the book as it shows such an honest and even view of this dynamic between some parents and children.

Pierce also manages bringing favorite characters back from previous books without making readers cringe. Tell me you haven’t had this happen at least once; you read a book/manga or watch a movie/TV show and just love the story and characters to pieces so, when the tale comes to an end, there’s a bit of sadness. Then you catch word of plans to continue the story somehow (an unexpected sequel perhaps). Oh, the joy! You wait anxiously for it, counting the days on your calendar, but when you finally read/see it, it fails the original so badly you wish the creators had just left it and the characters alone. Luckily, I felt Pierce keeps the integrity of the old characters.

As for the new characters, they’re excellent! My other fear when people make sequels about the children of the main character from the original story is that the child will be a copy of the parent. Aly’s character is well done, however. Readers of Song of the Lioness will recognize similar traits in Aly to those of her parents, but it’s a good mix, making Aly a fresh and unique character. She’s strong-willed like Alanna, but where her mother’s skill was fighting, Aly’s is her cunning. This is excellently portrayed early on when Aly is captured by those pirates. Thinking quickly, Aly deduces her situation and realizes she could easily by sold as a “bed warmer” as Pierce puts it. To avoid this fate, Aly purposely takes a beating before the slave auction begins, not only to ruin her looks, but also to mark herself as a troublemaker and therefore much less desirable as a slave. It takes some guts to let yourself get beat up and some brains to think that far ahead in such a bad situation. I also like the fact that when Aly is later offered the chance to erase scars left over from that beating and fix the bump created from breaking her nose, she declines, preferring to live with them.

But as most fiction with a strong female lead, Aly isn’t the only strong female character. Two of the Balitang children from the lord of the household’s first marriage are key players in this story. Teenagers Lady Saraiyu (Sarai) and Lady Dovasary (Dove) are part-raka and part-luarin, an unusual thing in a place where many luarins look down on the native raka and many of the raka hold deep feelings of hatred for the luarins who stole the land from them in the first place and now receive poor treatment. Because of their mixed heritage and noble bloodlines, Sarai and Dove are in the middle of those political schemes I mentioned earlier. However, these are no damsels-in-distress. Sarai excels at the sword despite being barred from practicing because of her gender and captivates people with her charisma. Her younger sister Dove is often overlooked because of her quiet nature and collectedness, but Dove is often just as sharp as Aly, reading situations and seeing between the lines before even her parents (and she’s excellent with a bow and arrow). As a bonus, the relationship between the girls is petty cat-fight-free. Other strong female characters include Dove and Sarai’s step-mother and the house cook who are also not to be underestimated.

Trickster’s Choice is yet another entertaining read from Tamora Pierce and the tension steadily builds as Aly and readers alike try to figure out just what others are hiding and scheming. I recommend this book for anyone who has read Pierce’s other works, those who are starved for more strong female characters, and/or anyone looking for a good fantasy filled with political plots, a little romance, and a lot of great characters. There is also a sequel to this book by the name of Trickster’s Queen.

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Kristin Cashore’s Fire is not only a very entertaining and gripping story, but is a true gold-mine of deep questions concerning men and women. This was the impression Kristin Cashore’s second book, Fire left on me after I’d finished feverishly reading it, unable to wait to read what happened next in the story. Some of you may be rolling your eyes at that. Very cliché, I know, but honestly, I’m a person who has very high standards for my fiction and limited time so, if it doesn’t wow me I tend to meander with my reading a bit. (That, and I have a habit of picking up too many books to read at once, but that’s another issue.) Fire, however, had me completely enthralled in its rich tale and left me thinking long after I’d finished it.

The story follows Fire (yes, that’s her name), a young woman with an interesting and unwanted origin: she’s a “monster,” born dangerously alluring to people and with the power to control minds. If that didn’t make people wary enough, her father, Cansrel was a monster in both body and mind, using his “monster” abilities to control the previous king and spread violence throughout the kingdom until his death years ago. Together with her legacy and her given powers, people are filled with suspicion and hatred for her (if they’re not blindly lusting after her). Fire has stayed away from those who might harm her, living in a village with the former army commander Brocker, who has become a father-like figure to her, and his son Archer, her friend and lover. But when circumstances lead her to the King’s City, Fire becomes tied up in dealings with the royal family and suspicious activities.

When I read Cashore’s debut novel, Graceling (Fire is a prequel of sorts to it) I liked it in many ways, but I wasn’t wowed at the time. Don’t get me wrong. The lead female character in it was very good and it was also thought-provoking so, I still liked it and would not hesitate to recommend it, but I did have a couple of problems with it. The flow of the story felt a little uneven at times and the main antagonist had me yawning a bit (a little too pure evil and a little less realistic and fleshed out in my mind). (I will say that I read Graceling years ago and this was just my first impression.) In fact, when I finished Graceling and read the preview of Fire in the back of the book, I initially wasn’t interested in picking up Fire since it focuses on the same antagonist and, let me to tell you, even as a kid, this guy is evil. Obviously, I liked Graceling enough in the end that I did pick up Fire and I am extremely happy that I did. Fire succeeds in fixing the problems I had with Graceling as Cashore’s writing and story-telling goes to the next level. Where Graceling was good, Fire is breathtaking.

So, you may have question marks floating over your head about this “monster” power. Here is another story about a pretty girl who has to beat the guys off of her because there are so many interested in her (Hi Bella Swan!). But despite sounding like a petty cliché, this was actually a very interesting aspect  of the story. People constantly objectify Fire because of her looks and because she is female and desired, her beauty becomes a danger to her since it often draws the unwanted attention of men. Some men are fine, but as I said earlier, others are the type to blindly lust after her and don’t use control. In Fire, the situation is exaggerated by Fire’s inhuman beauty, but Cashore brings up an interesting question; is it more dangerous for a woman to stand out? Here’s one quote in particular that struck me: “Cansrel had loved attention, Fire thought to herself dryly. More to the point, he had been a man. Cansrel had not had her problems.” (Cashore 181) Her father held a powerful position and was infamous for being tough and cruel and, while everyone should understand that men can most definitely be victims as well, women still are at higher risk to be attacked. Fire is perceived as less of a threat, perhaps in part because people see a female who, unless proven otherwise, are often equated with fragility. Rape and gender issues are something that is discussed seriously within the story. (By the way, for those of you who are wondering, although it gets into deep and serious issues, rape is only discussed and never depicted in Fire.)

It should also be noted that Fire isn’t actually an easy victim, even if she may seem to be. She’s become tough, both mentally and physically and can hold her own. Fire does have issues which she must work out and that is a big part of the story, but she’s no damsel-in-distress. Fire dislikes her powers and has a fear of following the path of her father who misused his power, but can use them when need be. Keeping on the issue of how people tend to objectify Fire, some of my favorite moments showing off Fire’s strength are when people attempt to force her into the role of a pretty little doll. Fire does not allow others to objectify her. For example, after a long and hard journey with some people Fire doesn’t really care much for, she’s given the chance to bathe and change into some slinky dress. She doesn’t have much choice, but thinks twice about the bath “because she sensed, and resented, that its purpose was to prettify her” and blatantly refuses to walk around in a sexy dress, defiantly throwing a man’s long, heavy coat over it. (Cashore 367)  She also uses her beauty and assumed docile nature to her advantage. There are plenty of other strong female characters in the story as well.

This is a fantasy that delves headlong into issues like relationships, birth control, rape, and coming to terms with things. The romance of Fire is mature and realistic and the plot is well thought out and paced. This was one of those books where I was struck frequently by just how thoughtful and provoking some of the issues were in the story. It just goes to show you that you can’t underestimate a young adult book!

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!!Spoiler Warning!! If you don’t like spoilers and plan to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, don’ t read on. 

Lisbeth Salander, the main woman in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. The name has circulated like wildfire amongst book readers and pops up often in conversations about strong female characters. But rather than sparking great inspiration in me, the name Lisbeth Salander leaves me feeling cold. Of course, this is only my opinion and I have only managed to read the first book, but this is why Lisbeth Salander, despite all the hearsay, is not a strong female character in my eyes.

  1. Her chillingly cool demeanor.

Lisbeth Salander from the movie based on the book.

Lisbeth Salander has not been treated well, has a troubled and (apparently) violent past, and does not connect well with other people. She’s also a hacker and doesn’t particularly think it’s a good idea if people find out about that little secret. In short, she doesn’t let people get too close.

But her coolness toward other characters goes further than that, extending past the normal aloof character that just takes a little more time to warm up to. People often complain that female characters are too emotion, but Salander has almost a total lack of emotion and a no mercy attitude. In reviews I have read on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, this is one of the aspects that many readers link to her supposed strength as a strong female character. For me, however, it reminds me of a male archetype of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s characters: unrealistically emotionless (maybe they were trying for stoic?) and shoot-the-gun-then-asks-questions type. Actually, I felt I couldn’t connect to Lisbeth Salander as a realistic female at all. Sure, she’s supposed to have psychological issues that may play a part in her borderline sociopathic behavior, but that still doesn’t make her a strong female character. Lacking emotion is no better than having too much emotion in the strength department and the only emotion Salander shows best is anger.

2. Her reaction (or non-reaction) to a woman’s worst nightmare.

Perhaps a moment of emotional attachment was supposed to come when young Salander is taken advantage of by a guardian of hers. Since she is seen as being unable to take care of herself, especially her money, she has a guardian to keep tabs on her. Thus, when Salander’s pervious guardian passes away, the new guardian, a man, decides to force the attractive charge to perform sex tricks on him for her own money. This is shocking and has the reader on edge; how is Lisbeth going to handle this? Fall to pieces or find strength to do something about it?

Of course, she does what any woman would do; cold, hard, violent revenge and blackmail. There is seemingly no feeling over what happened besides Salander’s anger over knowing she’s been used by some sick monster. She tortures him, giving him a taste of his own sadistic nature, and thus solves the problem. But where is the empowerment in that? To me, this act does not eliminate feelings of victimization, but rather just makes Salander an angry victim. That is not strength and definitely not empowerment. Perhaps if I knew what was going on in her mind it would make me feel differently, but there is nothing given to me as a reader but hollow revenge by a hollow character.

I believe we as a society are a little confused about what makes a strong female character. There are Kill Bill types: deadly women who know how to sling a weapon and take cold revenge, but have little or no realism and, frankly, remind me of a common, Dirty Harry male character stereotype projected onto a female character. Or the Elizabeth Swan (Pirates of the Caribbean) types: tough women (either mentally, physically, or both) placed into a damsel-in-distress position who have the strength not to cry about it (whoopie), not to mention are attached to a male character in some way (who will no doubt save her). (Let’s not even get into undermining “strong female characters” by sexualization.) Neither of these are truly strong female character types. Perhaps I am the only one who sees this in this particular character, but I feel that when I look at “strong female characters,” I should not think of the man she is in love with nor of an unrealistic male stereotype, but a person, whole by herself and fully able to take care of herself whether that means living on a prairie in the wild west or saving the world.

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