The Dark Days Club and The Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman
This YA fantasy trilogy is set in the Regency period in England (think Jane Austen). Lady Helen learns she is a Reclaimer, gifted with the strength and talent to fight Deceivers, people possessed by demonic spirits who feed off the life energy of others. Some of the fantasy elements struck me as just silly, especially when I tried to picture them visually, or say the made-up words aloud, but if you just go with it (an approach necessary for enjoying much fantasy) it pays off. The period language is fun, as is the juxtaposition of proper speech with scary, violent situations. Lady Helen is an admirable heroine, brave and selfless. She spends a significant portion of the second book in men’s clothes. Details like period dress, locations, and history are well-researched and informative. Lord Carlston, who inducts Lady Helen into the Dark Days Club and teaches her to be a Reclaimer, qualifies as a classically inscrutable and intense Byronic hero. Supporting characters, especially Darby, Lady Helen’s stout maid, are well-drawn and interesting. The plots are structured around mysteries that Lay Helen ably solves–at considerable personal cost.
I was particularly impressed by the ending of The Dark Days Pact. Goodman set her climax inside a real historical murder, explained the mystery of Lord Carlston’s illness and his strong connection with Lady Helen–and then revealed a complication that will keep them apart. Goodman is currently working on the third book in the trilogy, which doesn’t yet have a release date.
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
This YA novel is about a young couple falling in love…and suicide. The male lead and half-time narrator Finch is a manic pixie dream boy–and the key word there is manic–but he’s very endearing and romantic. He partners with Violet for a gimmick of a class project that forces them to explore unusual places in their state, Indiana. There’s some real talk about grief, and some real family dysfunction that isn’t quite overcome. It has an ending that is both surprising and expected, that’s sad without being entirely bleak and depressing. The love story is sweet and hard and perplexing, one that doesn’t have to last forever for the survivor to emerge wiser and stronger. As romantic as the story is, it thoroughly avoids romanticizing suicide.
And I Darken by Kiersten White
I liked White’s paranormal romance series, so I was interested to pick up this historical/fantasy series as well. This story is about a brother and sister, children of an Eastern European prince in the Middle Ages. They are sent to live in the court of the Ottoman Empire as assurance of their father’s cooperation. There they befriend the sultan’s son and take part in many intrigues and adventures, from an aborted coup to a failed siege. The story is dark and violent, with Lada, the sister, as a particularly prickly and tough warrior-princess. Her insistence on receiving military training, and on assuming command of a regiment, pushes gender boundaries. The climax is exciting, and the ending bittersweet. It’s YA, but probably on the ‘mature’ end of the genre.
The sequel, Now I Rise, comes out this year.
Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare
This novel begins a new series in Clare’s Shadowhunter universe. Previous related books were the Mortal Instruments series and the steampunk-inspired Infernal Devices trilogy. With the exception of Clare’s messy first book, City of Bones, her novels are well-written in a way that’s typical of the YA fantasy genre. It’s definitely light reading, but I find this universe fun and rich, imaginative and humorous. I think Clare has been improving with more writing experience. Her characters, especially the male leads, get stronger and less annoying each time she creates a new set of them. And the characters from previous series (yes, even the one set in the 1800s) make cameo appearances, as the universe grows in complexity and population.
This story begins five years after the end of City of Heavenly Fire and concentrates on the Los Angeles institute, where young Shadowhunters are still dealing with the fallout from the Mortal War. Julian has responsibility for his younger siblings since his father’s death. Emma is still dealing with her parents’ murder and nurtures revenge fantasies. These two are parabatai–a ritualized relationship for Shadowhunter best friends that enables them to offer each other extra protection and support. But the problem is that they’re falling in love, and parabatai are supposed to be strictly platonic. That’s the source of the book’s sexual tension and angst. The action starts when some fairies show up at the institute and ask Emma and Julian to solve a series of murders that she thinks might be related to those of her parents.
The sequel, Lord of Shadows, is coming out later this year.
The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black
This fairy story begins with a vision of a horned boy asleep in a glass coffin, and a small town’s troubled relationship with the fairy world at its border. The sleeping fairy prince in his unbreakable box is a tourist attraction and a site of illicit high school revels. The action gets started when one morning the horned boy is gone, his coffin shattered.
The main characters are brave Hazel and Ben, her gay brother who has an amazing musical talent, gifted from a fairy. As children they made a game of protecting the town from dangerous fairies and hags. Years ago, Hazel made a bargain with a fairy, the results of which are revealed slowly and dramatically. Their friend, Jack, a changeling, also becomes involved as the fairy court intrigues are uncovered.
This is just the kind of YA fantasy I love. A mystery. Two love stories. A dangerous but enchanting fairy world hovering just below the surface of reality. Complex relationships and moral questions and issues of guilt and complicity and unintended consequences. Nontraditional gender roles. A story that works on a metaphorical level as well as literally. Startling, strange, and fantastic descriptions. Sparkling sentences. Highly recommended to anyone who likes this genre.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
I had so much fun reading this modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. I met Curtis Sittenfeld at the Southern Festival of Books and got excited about reading this book when she read an excerpt of Liz and Darcy’s smoldering banter. There was plenty more sexual tension, and the two proposal scenes did not disappoint. Sittenfeld turns the classic into contemporary “chick lit,” while maintaining much more faithfulness to the original than Bridget Jones’s Diary, or any other retelling I can recall. The title comes from a reality TV show in the book that’s inspired by The Bachelor. I enjoyed the Cincinnati setting, and the discussions of the meaning of growing up in, leaving, and returning to a place like Cincinnati.
Sittenfeld’s Liz is considerably less likeable than the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet, about whom Austen said, “I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.” Liz is a judgmental busybody, pushing her family members to make more responsible choices when they don’t want to. She puts her parents’ house on the market for them and makes her younger sisters move out and get jobs. She’s right, but she crosses some boundaries to get her way. However, the issue of likeable female characters is fraught. It is not necessary that a character be likeable, only interesting, and Sittenfeld’s Liz qualifies. Her Darcy is perhaps more likeable than Austen’s, merely reserved rather than frequently rude.
Sittenfeld’s changes are not necessarily the ones I would have chosen, but they work well within the universe she has created. Mr. Collins is less obsequious and less objectionable for Charlotte Lucas to pair with. There is no entail, obviously, and Collins is just a tech-rich cousin. Lady Catherine de Bourgh becomes a stand-in for Gloria Stienem, and she has no connection to Darcy or action in the final chapters. Sittenfeld’s answer to Wickham the cad is more pathetic than despicable, and he also disappears early in the action and doesn’t come up in the story’s resolution. Mrs. Bennet’s silliness becomes shopaholicism and moderate racism and transphobia. She may be the character most true to her roots in Austen, which may be why her mania for getting her daughters paired off seems so anachronistic, although she surely has her counterparts in today’s reality. The biggest stretch may be the big deal made over Lydia’s elopement. I heartily recommend it to any romance fan and especially to fans of Austen.
Longbourn by Jo Baker
This is the behind-the-scenes story of Pride and Prejudice, from the point of view of the servants of the Bennet household. The drama of the Bennet daughters with Bingley, Darcy, Collins, and Wickham happens in the background, as this action centers on Sarah, Elizabeth’s maid. This focus really shows how privileged Austen’s heroines are, despite the novel’s handwringing about their relative poverty. Instead of hiding it behind kitchen doors, this book foregrounds the back-breaking physical labor that enabled comfortable upper class life in Austen’s day. This quick quote summing it up nicely: “If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.” One interesting twist is that the Bennet family’s cook had had a long-ago affair with Mr. Bennet, resulting in a son who could have saved the family all that trouble, if only Mr. Bennet had condescended to marrying a servant. That long-lost son turns out to be quite a romantic figure, with a Darcy-esque temperament and a checkered past, when he returns and falls in love with Sarah.