March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Teens Review New YA Fantasy by Rachel Hartman, Sarah J. Maas, and E.K. Johnston

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SLJTeen’s new teen review group has pulled out all the stops for its inaugural column. We have eight reviews, including two very different opinions on Melinda Salisbury’s The Sin Eater’s Daughter. And as you read on, you’ll see that paranormal, fantasy, and dystopian fiction are still thriving, in more new worlds and embodiments than you ever imagined.

The Kitsap Regional Library Book Groups all hail from Kitsap County, WA, which is across the Puget Sound from Seattle on a beautiful peninsula. Our six groups are from Bainbridge Island (Bainbridge Public Library, Woodward Middle School, Odyssey Middle School, and Hyla Middle School), Port Orchard (Port Orchard Public Library), and Poulsbo (North Kitsap High School). Our teen reviewers have diverse opinions and reading tastes and will be sure to give you insightful, honest, and often hilarious commentary on YA literature. We’re excited to be on board!—Stefanie Graen, teen services librarian, Bainbridge Island Branch

ALAMEDA, Courtney. Shutter. Feiwel & Friends. Feb. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781250044679.

ShutterGr 8 Up—It’s hard enough being a Helsing with superior blood, but even harder for Micheline when she finds herself caught between fear and love. In this awkward romance book, Micheline will do battle with a ghost that no mere tetrachromat can defeat. Will she save the lives of her friends? Or die at the hand of this familiar ghost?

I found it compelling that the conflict was always apparent and there was always something happening that made me want to keep reading. Whether it was horror, spy action, or romance, I had to figure out what happened. Those are the best kinds of books. The only part I found disappointing was that the characters swore, using the “Lord’s Name” in vain. Micheline, of all people, should’ve known not to do that. I wished the author had edited those parts out, not disrespecting the Church, but rather, believing in it.—Sam G., age 13

HARTMAN, Rachel. Shadow Scale. Random. Mar. 2015. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780375866579.

Gr 9 Up—Shadow Scale was a fabulous follow-up to Seraphina (2012) and had all I wanted from it, except maybe a safe, sound Orma with everything intact. In it, Seraphina must gather the ityasaari from across the Southlands in order to prevent the Old Ard from destroying everyone and everything she loves. We finally find out who exactly Jannoula is, the writing is gorgeous, the humor is spot-on, and the characters are as fantastic as ever. On top of all that is the terrific world-building and the discussions of Mootya linguistics that never feel info-dumpy. Which brings me to the two most compelling points.

shadow scalePoint one is the fact that Hartman has created a unique and beautiful world that breathes beneath the pages. You can see everywhere that Seraphina visits as she does, and it’s incredible. Point two is Jannoula. Oh my god, Jannoula. With the exception of Vincent Nightray and Jack Vessalius, I’ve never loved and hated a villain in such equal measure. Jannoula is perhaps the most busted-up, broken-down, mentally scarred, codependent, and needy character I’ve read in a long time. Notice I said character, not villain. While Jannoula does fulfill the role of antagonist in an amazing and skin-crawly way, she is also the sort of character you just feel incredibly awful for. Her backstory rivals most shonen manga characters’ pasts in terms of tragedy and sheer awfulness for her. She’s been tortured and abused since birth, bred simply to be an experiment. Seraphina was the only person who showed her any kindness, and so Jannoula is still obsessed to the point of worship with Seraphina, whom she refers to as “beloved sister” even when saying things such as “everything you love is mine.” She’s nuanced and intense, and one of the most fascinating characters in a book full of interesting characters.

There was only one reason to be disappointed with this book, and that was because it veered away from the cloak-and-dagger, under-the-table world of Goreddi royal politics that was so intrinsic to the first book. Instead, it follows what I like to call the standard Fantasy Road Trip plot with the “Hey, let’s go to a bunch of interesting countries and collect magical <fill-in-the-blank> !” motivation, complete with a return home in the middle of a climactic battle and sneaking into the enemy’s interestingly scientific lair. (I’ve always loved fantasy villain lairs. They’re the best). It’s a silly complaint, but in light of how original Seraphina was, it’s a legit disappointment.

While I never, ever want Seraphina and Shadow Scale to become live-action films, they would make amazing anime. There’s something so intensely personal yet cinematic about these books.—Ella W., age 15.

JOHNSTON, E.K. Prairie Fire. (Dragon Slayer of Trondheim: Bk. 2) Lerner/Carolrholda. Mar. 2015. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781467739092.

prariefireGr 7 Up—This book follows the travels of a dragon slayer named Owen as told from the perspective of his bard as they go through adventures that don’t all end happily ever after. The best thing about this book is easily the dragons. Johnston works dragon slaying and lore into crevices other authors would have left blank and it makes the world feel alive in a beautiful and corrupt way.          I loved this book though the ending was a bit sad for my taste. This is a great book that gives new meaning to the word dragon.—Ari J., age 14

KROSSING, Karen. Punch Like a Girl. Orca. Apr. 2015. Tr $12.95. ISBN 9781459808287.

punch like a girlGr 9 Up—Punch Like a Girl is about Tori Wyatt overcoming a horrendous moment in her life, and learning how to face it with the help of her friends and family. She doesn’t know how to handle things at first. She is thrown. Going through something as awful as rape is hard. But Tori sees that her friends and family have her back.

I love the cover because it ties in to a really sweet part of the story. It almost belies the very difficult topic the book addresses. I like how it informs young girls to speak up if they ever encounter a problem like rape or other advances that put them in an uncomfortable situation.

I love this book. Love isn’t even the right word for it; it seems too shallow. I just have to say that this book is incredible because it raises awareness of a problem in the world that is truly horrible. It teaches girls to fight back, speak out, and be strong.—Grace D., age 12

court of thorns and rosesMAAS, Sarah. A Court of Thorns and Roses. Bloomsbury. May 2015. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781619634442.

Gr 9 Up—When Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beastlike creature arrives to demand retribution, dragging her back into the mystical and dangerous land of the fae where she learns that the beast is one of the lethal high lords from legend named Tamlin. As she dwells on his estate, she finds her icy hate towards him melt into a burning passion, putting to open flames the lies and warnings she has been told about this beautiful, dangerous world. Then Feyre realizes there is an ancient, wicked shadow falling over the faerie lands and she must find a way to stop it or risk dooming Tamlin and his world forever.

Apart from the usual frustrating drama, something that disappointed me were the times during the dialogue when the language felt too modern. I would have thought faeries, being nearly immortal and ancient, would speak as such, as to us, they seem eternal yet out of time. It was just a jolt into the real world whenever they starting cursing. –Meghan S., age 16.

SALISBURY, Melinda. The Sin Eater’s Daughter. Scholastic. Feb. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545810623.

Gr 9 Up—The cover is gorgeous and slightly eerie, with the girl curled into a vial, red drops like blood spilling around her. The color scheme is vibrant and a little lurid, like the content the book promises. Unfortunately, the promised content isn’t delivered, and the cover of The Sin Eater’s Daughter is a total bait-and-switch. It promises alchemic fantasy, and that’s what the inside seems to sort of maybe want to be. However, that chills-inducing cover is just a coat on a sub-par high fantasy novel that cannot decide if it wants to be romance-based dark fantasy or a gory geopolitical horror fantasy retelling of the Pied Piper.

sin-eaters daughterThe most compelling aspect of The Sin Eater’s Daughter is the setting. Lormere is realized, and it has a religion with central tenets, mythology, and rituals. There’s an underlying roughness and brutality to the religion, from the creation myth, to the idea that Daunen Embodied has poison in her veins. It’s almost as if the author mixed up the worlds of Black Spring, the Tortall Quartets, and the darker side of the Vocaloid-‘verse and somehow made it work. It’s bloody, savage, and scary, and I loved every moment of set-up, with Twylla in her red robes pacing the dark halls of the castle on her way to an execution. The setting was everything I wanted and more, although, fond of dark fantasy as I am, a bit more blood or a few more execution scenes would have been nice. Main characters who kill people are my favorites because it gives them internal conflict and gives the author a chance to ask huge questions.

I was hugely and unbearably disappointed with this book. Essentially, I went in expecting gore, morally ambiguous main characters, and a touch of romance. I thought I was going to be reading an ambitious geopolitical dark fantasy with horror elements and fully realized subplots. Instead, I wound up reading a lot of teenage angst with randomly capitalized words and a villain so evil I couldn’t love to hate her. In fact, her very evilness made her my favorite character. Queen Helewys was also a source of constant annoyance though. She was just too nasty. Brutal sadist? Check. Emotionally distant? Check. Poisoner? Check. Liar? Check. Wants to marry her own son? Check. The incest was just the cherry on top of the cake of overdone villainy. However, she was more appealing than the insipid main character Twylla and her two interchangeable love interests. There is no one truly nice in this book but the king, and he’s barely a character. Despite this, no one is actually morally gray. People are good or evil, nothing in between.

In The Sin Eater’s Daughter, Twylla finds out she’s not Daunen and has been living a lie as part of a government conspiracy. When Twylla finds out she’s not poisonous, all her scars evaporate. She also immediately stops believing in the gods with absolutely no reason other than that everyone lied to her. Then she goes and has a romance with her guard that feels like it should be in a fanfic, not something actually published. This is complete with weird and slightly gross descriptions of making out, involving copious use of awkward synonyms. Definitely what one expects from fanfic, not a published novel.

And then there is the subplot with the Sleeping Prince. It’s completely and utterly awkward, and the novel should just make up its mind about whether it wants to retell the Pied Piper as gory high fantasy, or if it wants to be a crappy romance novel pretending to be high fantasy. However, the legend got short shrift for the love story between Twylla the Weak and Boring and Lief the Angsty Cardboard Cut-Out Bad Boy. By the final page, I was completely fed up with this book.—Ella W, age 15.


The Sin Eater’s Daughter is a captivating novel filled with devastating lies, broken royals, cruel destinies and impossible choices. Readers will be enthralled with Twylla, a girl with fiery hair and an angelic voice, as she searches through the twisted maze of the castle to discover the truth about herself and the choices she never knew she had.

As Duanen Embodied, Twylla is cut for the world by her own poisonous skin and palace executioner status. But when a new guard arrives, and a terrible secret is revealed, Twylla is forced to question everything she believes in, even her own identity and fate, and break free of her chains.

What makes this book special is that the heroine is not at all flawless; she often makes mistakes and decisions that I think are wrong, cowardly, and selfish. But this is most refreshing after reading hundreds of perfect, kind, and brave main characters, and, in the end, Twylla makes the right choice for herself. Salisbury is not afraid to create a complex and compelling heroine that defies what it means to be brave.

SPOILER ALERT: I think that the twist at the end about Leif not really loving Twylla wasn’t dramatic or believable enough. Half the book revolved around their romance—and then suddenly he was just a selfish liar? And Twylla’s reaction was definitely not strong enough. “I run from the room…sickened by what he had said…shaking as I heave” is just not enough feeling for such utter betrayal, if you ask me.— Juliette S., age 13

SIMMONS, Kristen. The Glass Arrow. Tor. Feb. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780765336613.                      

Gr 8 UpThe Glass Arrow book takes place in a sort of, emphasis, sort of, dystopian society, where a war has happened, and women are hunted, captured, and auctioned off to try and keep humanity from going extinct. Aya is caught, leaving a broken family behind. She’s brought to a place meant to prepare girls to be sold for whatever the buyer wants, usually for pleasure, and to produce heirs. Aya is particularly valuable because she was raised outside the city, and has double the chance of being able to produce an offspring. She fights to escape and to keep from being sold so she can return to her family outside the secular city walls.

Glass-ArrowI loved the theme. A girl shouldn’t give her body to anyone if she doesn’t want to. I love how the author didn’t glorify or praise the fact that the book has a lot of prostitution. This book had the potential to turn very sexual, but instead, the theme was about keeping your body to yourself, not to pass yourself around to anyone who wants you. I think a lot of girls need to be reminded of that.

This book was better than Divergent (HarperCollins, 2011) and Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2008) put together, and personally, those books have great story lines, but terrible characters, and almost no character development. But that’s an entirely different conversation.

I love how the author introduced the potential love interest. In most relationships portrayed in books, they meet, and then take each other’s shirts off. Nope, not this time. They met, he chucked a knife at her, and a week later he comes back. Took her a week to say anything, and then he didn’t say a word for a month and a half. Then it was another four days to kiss, and it wasn’t graphic or sexual at all. This book met all of my high standards. No cussing, no sex scenes, no dry or underdeveloped characters, and a beautiful and a meaningful story line that didn’t have the typical headstrong butt-kicking female character. I am the pickiest reader I know, but this book blew me away.—Kara, age 15

WHITING, Sue. Portraits of Celina. Capstone/Switch Pr. Apr. 2015. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781630790240.

Gr 8 Up—I kind of have a thing for Australian horror. I blame an original English-language (OEL) manga I read in sixth grade and still have nightmares about. There’s just something about the stories of people missing in the bush, far away from anywhere, that really intrigues me. Portraits of Celina intrigued me with the promise of this type of horror. It got me really excited to read a murder mystery that wasn’t just spilling guts all over the place but was rather more elegant and softly chilling.

The first pages, with the elegant descriptions of rain and death, had me eager for a story where the haunting would be chillingly figured into an increasingly fragile normal life, and I was absolutely ready to become absorbed in something that would make me jump at small noises and want to sleep with the lights on, but I was incredibly disappointed by this book. The horror it promised never materialized, and instead it was all about the angst-ing of the incredibly idiotic main character. The love story was also so, so dull. There was no chemistry between Bayley and Oliver, just a sort of “eh”-ness. It wasn’t good or bad, just really, really boring and predictable.

portraits of celinaThe cover is gorgeous. Unfortunately, the cover doesn’t reflect the interior content. This is far more of a mundane young adult ghost story than the cover alludes to.

I prefer my horror very dark and very chilling, and the haunting was never realized very well. Celina could have been so much more vengeful and manipulative. Bayley could have started slowly acquiring Celina’s personal traits and becoming less and less like herself until nothing was left. Instead, she spent the entire book worrying about what Oliver thought, with Celina only showing up occasionally, especially at the super predictable showdown in the last five chapters. It wasn’t that Portraits of Celina was bad, it was just so, so mediocre. I liked this book, sort of, but it was just so bland. I can’t rant about it because there wasn’t anything to rant about. I can’t rave about it either because there wasn’t anything to rave about. It just was words on a page, making a slightly incoherent story.–Ella W, age 15.

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  1. I really enjoyed the reviews from the teens. They were well written and insightful. The most useful teen book review IS from a teen. Thanks everyone! I would love to read more.