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Posts Tagged ‘young adult novels’

Imagine a world where magicians aren’t just the hocus-pocus men with a cheap-looking cape who pulls colorful tissues from their pockets and coins from your ear at a 10-year-old’s birthday extravaganza. We’ve all dreamed it at some point in our lives, right? But what if a world filled with magic wasn’t as lovely as many of us like to imagine? In a bleak parallel world of The Bartimaeus Trilogy, magicians are the elite, power-hungry, and self-serving people who run the British government, suppressing the commoners (that would be you and me) by keeping them ignorant or, if that doesn’t work, by intimidation and brute force. Surveillance spheres reminiscent of Big Brother are set up about London allow the magicians to watch the commoners going about their lives constantly. The commoners aren’t the only ones the magicians suppress. In The Bartimaeus Trilogy, magic isn’t some obscure skill that allows a person to make something levitate or shot sparks from her fingertips; a magician’s power comes from the demon he summons into his world, enslaves, and forces to do his bidding. You may have read fantasy novels about magic before, but this series is unlike any other.

If magicians sound like terrible, unsympathetic beings, well, the author, Jonathan Stroud, won’t let readers off so easily. The first book of the series, entitled The Amulet of Samarkand, introduces us to Nathaniel, a 12-year-old apprentice magician trying to work his way through the cold system. Like all magicians, at a young age, he was separated from his parents and placed under the care of a full-fledged magician to cultivate those skills. Under the strict eye of his uncaring master, young Nathaniel was raised and studied the basics of magic. At last he is going to summon his first demon. That’s when his path collides with Simon Lovelace, a charismatic and established magician who cruelly and mercilessly humiliates the boy at a social gathering. Enraged by the mistreatment Lovelace inflicted on him and betrayed by his master who did not raise a hand to stop him, all in order to preserve his own image, Nathaniel plots revenge. Summoning Bartimaeus, a witting demon of power beyond the usual capabilities of a young apprentice, his first order is for the demon to steal a powerful magical item from Lovelace. With that one order, Nathaniel finds himself wrapped up in plots of murder, espionage, and rebellion.

Some of you may have noticed that I make no mention of a female character. Indeed, there is no lead female character in the first book. This disappointed me a bit. While I was somewhat unconvinced that the story was anything amazing at the beginning, the more I read, the harder it became to put it down; I ended up reading The Amulet of Samarkand quicker than I’ve read any book in a while and loved it by the end. I thought it would be that much better if there were just a female character who played an active part. Well, Stroud didn’t disappoint and upon picking up the second entry, The Golem’s Eye, I was introduced to the strong-willed and determined Kitty.

Unlike Nathaniel, Kitty is a commoner. As a young child, Kitty and her friend experienced the inequality of their government firsthand when a magician attacked them and then easily convinced the court system that he only acted in self-defense. Many of the commoners around Kitty are too scared or ignorant to do anything about such a corrupt system, but not her. Soon after this incident, Kitty joins a small group who have chosen to resist the magicians’ rule.

While Kitty only makes one brief appearance in the first book, in the second and third she is just as important a character as Nathaniel and Bartimaeus; she isn’t just some token female character created to appease female readers. The series is set up so that each main character gets chapters from their point of view which creates a feeling that each of them is equally vital to the story. And like the rest of the colorful cast, Kitty is a complicated character who avoids stereotypical traits. For once, the female lead is not involved in a romance (nothing against romance, but it’s a nice change) and it is made clear that she is a force to be reckoned with. Kitty gets my seal of approval.

In the three books that make up this trilogy, Stroud paints an addicting tale full of complex and fleshed out characters in a dark world. Flipping between the narratives of Nathaniel, Bartimaeus, and Kitty, he allows readers the insight of circumstances of each major group (magicians, demons, and commoners) that gives the series a well-rounded and more complex view of events. As these characters try to maneuver in the dangerous world where one wrong step could mean disaster, collide with each other, and grow, one can’t help but get caught up in their lives.

The series is young adult fiction and suggested for kids aged 10 and up, but Stroud’s masterfully crafted story allows older readers well beyond that of the suggested age group to enjoy it, too. It is humorous, thinks to Bartimaeus’ snarky and witting commentary, and adventurous yet full of social commentary, deep characters, and darker elements of the plot that ground it in the realms of reality and add intellect not seen in all of fiction. The trilogy is an original take on magic and the plot is filled with truly unexpected twists. If you liked Harry Potter, especially the later half of the series, or are just looking for a well-crafted and intelligent fantasy that will suck you in completely, I can’t recommend The Bartimaeus Trilogy enough.

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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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