The Belles


The Belles
Dhonielle Clayton
Freeform Publishing
February 2018

In the kingdom of Orléans, beauty is power, and with enough money and access, you can change your look with the help of the Belles. The Belles are born with special powers to sculpt the people of Orléans, who are born “gris” – grey and shriveled – into normal-looking people, at the least, or with enough money, extraordinarily beautiful people. The book follows an ambitious Belle named Camellia as she outgrows her training and competes against the other Belles to be the Favorite, top beauty augmenter to the royal family and their court. When Camellia gets what she wants, she learns just how naïve she was. She’s required to keep the cruel, blood-thirsty Princess Sophia happy and is made to do dangerous, immoral things with her powers. Camellia struggles to balance her ambition with her conscience while fulfilling her duties. Mysteries around the retired Belles, illegitimate Belles, the disappearance of one of her “sister” Belles, and whether her powers can help the ever-sleeping Princess Charlotte, heir to the throne, occupy Camellia’s mind, as does her romance with one of the princess’s suitors. Palace intrigue deepens to a dramatic ending that will have you longing for sequel.

Two things stand out about this book: the world building and the social commentary. Orléans, made up of a collection of islands illustrated in a map on the end papers, has obvious French and at times Cajun influences. Each island is unique with its own industries, customs, and reputation in the kingdom. A seemingly omnipresent system of balloons does everything from delivering mail to taking photos and notes for journalists and the “tattler” gossip rags. As you can imagine, the world has a booming fashion and beauty industry with its own ever-changing trends and products that are described in lavish detail. There’s also some dark customs – leeches to clean the Belles’ blood, the abject pain of getting beauty work done, the use of blood in various contraptions to spy on others.

Though it takes place in a fictional dystopian society, The Belles has a lot to say about our own society – the premium put on beauty; the value of women and the work they do; economic stratification and classism; even animal cruelty. Gender fluidity and same-sex relationships are treated as a matter of course in Orléans. The queen has a female mistress, and a royal cousin trysts with her female servant, which is hidden for class, not gender, reasons. The race of characters is a funny thing when people have the ability to choose and change their skin color. Race is meaningless as skin color is based on personal preference and seems to carry no stigma. Kudos to the publisher for putting a woman of color on the cover.

The Belles mixes modern sensibilities with old fashioned imperial systems, magic with technology into a fresh and original book that stands out in the seemingly unending teen dystopian fantasy landscape.

More YA beauty books

Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

YA palace intrigue read alikes

His Fair Assassins series by Robin LaFevers
Graceling by Kristin Cashore


The Wonderling


The Wonderling
Mira Bartók
September 2017
Reviewed from advanced readers edition; art not seen

Human-animal hybrids called “groundlings” are second-class citizens in this Dickensian tale of a one-eared, humanoid fox named 13, growing up in misery and forced slavery at Miss Carbunkle’s Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures. With only a scrap of blanket and a key to hint at his past, 13 dreams of finding his roots, if only he could escape the orphanage. Escape he does and he takes off to the big city where his escapades with a gang of jolly groundling thieves alerts him to a plot to steal all the music from the world, a plot that takes him through an underground world and leads him right back to Miss Carbunkle and her henchmen in the orphanage. The Wonderling offers plenty of substance for talking about classism, bigotry, and resistance of power. The world is well constructed and the Victorian steampunk atmosphere charms. While not everything is resolved happily in the end, the final chapters are peppered with eye-roll-worthy platitudes.

Animal fantasy read-alike

Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy

Half the World


Half the World
Joe Abercombie
Del Rey
February 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

Thorn, a girl training to be a warrior of Gettland, has to work twice as hard in the training ring for half the respect (sound familiar, ladies?). When she is questionably accused of murder, it takes the minister of Gettland, Brother Yarvi, to rescue her from execution and start her down the road to become one of the greatest fighters in the kingdom. Brand grew up training with Thorn, and in defending her against the murder charge, gets his own warrior dreams dashed. Luckily Yarvi sees potential in him as well and recruits Thorn, Brand, and a band of misfits from different kingdoms to accompany him on a diplomatic mission to gain allies that will help the king and queen of Gettland lead an uprising against the High King and his abusive minister Grandmother Wexen. Thorn and Brand each have their moments to be the hero of the journey, but when they return to Gettland a year later and without as much support as they had hoped for, they find things have changed and war is threatening to bear down on Gettland. They must be ready to fight. Strong female characters and a thrilling duel at the end makes Half the World a compelling read that stays true to its high fantasy roots but includes a much more diverse characters, including people of color and some kick-ass women. Books like this move the genre in the right direction.

Half the World is the second book in the Shattered Sea series. I didn’t read the first book and never felt like I missed any information from the first book, Half a King. The next book, Half a War, is already out and is going on my to-read list.

Read Alikes

Graceling by Kristen Cashore
Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin



Daniel José Older
Arthur A. Levine Books
June 2015

In the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn, Sierra Santiago passes the time painting murals, hanging out with her tight-knit Puerto Rican family, and partying with her friends. One day her mural starts to shed tears and her abuelo, a recently bed-ridden stroke victim, comes out of his half coma and starts mumbling “lo ciento” – “I’m sorry.” Soon after, Sierra finds herself the target of attacks by some zombie-like creatures. An enchanted photograph, some research, and a couple of dates with sexy loner and artist Robbie lead her to the conclusion that she and many of her family members are shadowshapers, people who are able to control spirits by giving them form through art, basically causing their art to literally come alive. Robbie, also a shadowshaper, shows her how to use her power and it soon becomes clear that she has a natural talent for shaping. However, Dr. Wick, an academic who studies the supernatural, including shadowshaping, seeks to destroy the shadowshapers and take all their power for himself. Sierra must find a way to stop Wick and save her powers, her friends and family, and herself in order to take her destined place among the shadowshapers.

Shadowshaper is the urban fantasy I didn’t know I wanted until I read it. Beyond the story, which is fresh and suspenseful, this book has some serious meat on its bones. Themes covered include art as power, gentrification, gender equality, body image, cultural diversity, colonialism, and on and on. Sierra, the narrator, is strong yet insecure, street smart but not jaded, artistic and modern and impeccably written. I had to remind myself that a man was writing this character! I think he was a teenage girl in a past life. Read chapter 12 and you’ll know what I mean.

Daniel Jose Older has set the bar for contemporary urban fiction. I’ll be book talking the shit out of this book at my juvenile detention visits from now on.

Read alikes

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

NaNoReadMo: The Thief


The Thief
Megan Whalen Turner
December 2005 edition (originally published in 1996)

The king of Sounis’s magus – his closest advisor – believes he knows the location of a mythical stone, Hamaithes’s Gift, that will grant its owner sovereignty over the neighboring kingdom of Eddis. Lacking the skills it will take to retrieve the stone, the magus chooses Gen, a known thief who is in the Sounis dungeons for stealing the king’s signet ring. Gen can earn his freedom back if he is successful in getting the stone; if he doesn’t, it is back to the dungeon. Gen, the magus, and a few companions set off, crossing treacherous terrain and pretty much bugging the crap out of each other. They reach the location where the stone is rumored to be – a temple to the Greek-esque pantheon of gods in this world that is hidden by a river and very rarely accessible. Gen only gets a handful of tries at a couple hours each in terrible conditions. The scenes in the temple are pretty suspenseful, so you’ll have to read it yourself to find out if he is successful. Either way, in the end it turns out the only thing more mysterious than the stone is Gen himself.

For better or worse, The Thief has several hallmarks of classic high fantasy – an epic journey by an unlikely band of companions, indulgent setting descriptions of dramatic landscapes, vaguely medieval kingdoms, mystical polytheistic religion, and the possibility of magic or, at the very least, divine intervention. While I like this style of fantasy to a point, but it also has its drawbacks, particularly when it comes to kids. It takes a long time to get to relatively brief bursts of action, which are broken up by a lot of word building and description. The Thief also has the Tolkein-like feature of keeping the story going long after you think the main plot has ended. It pays off in the end but can make the book feel like a drag in the final 50 pages or so. Fast-moving, plot-driven fantasy like the Percy Jackson books and even the super deep world of Harry Potter have mostly put high fantasy for children out of vogue with young readers unless they are very advanced or very patient readers. But if high fantasy is your jam, The Thief is the real deal and there are three more books in the series.

Read alikes:

Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander
The Dark is Rising 
by Susan Cooper
The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

NaNoReadMo: His Fair Assassin series


Grave Mercy
Dark Triumph
Mortal Heart
Robin LaFevers
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

In 15th century France, the devotees of the convent of St. Mortain carry out his will – death. Each of the books in the His Fair Assassin trilogy follows a different member of the convent. Grave Mercy introduces Ismae who has escaped an arranged marriage and sought refuge in the convent. She trains to become “death’s handmaiden” and is sent away to court by the abbess to spy on Duval, a man she believes is a threat to the duchess. When Isme falls in love with her target, will she be able to maintain her position with the convent? Or perhaps he isn’t who the abbess thought he was in the first place.

Isme’s friend, training mate, seductress, and confirmed head case Sybella is the focus of Dark Triumph. She comes from a well known noble family complete with abusive father, creepy incest-y brother, and innocent younger siblings that she had to leave behind in order not to go completely mad. The convent sends her back into the arms of her destructive family to root out a conspiracy against the duchess, but Sybella hopes it will be a chance for her to seek revenge against these people who hurt her so much. Of course, she finds love in an unexpected place – spoiler alert: not with her brother! Ew! – and he turns out to be the perfect compliment to both her inner rage and her deadly talents.

In the last book, Mortal Heart, Annith, a trainee who has lived at the convent her entire life but never achieved full death’s handmaiden status, is finally given an assignment, but rather than one that will send her to court like her friends, she will be locked away in the convent for the rest of her life. Unable to come to terms with what her life would be like, she runs away and becomes the prisoner/traveling partner to a band of brigands, the leader of which she happens to become quite fond of. Annith does eventually make it to court, only to find that everything she thought she knew about her life is basically a big lie. As enemies circle the duchess one last time, death’s handmaidens must decide where to place their loyalties and who will live and who will die.

I love these books so much. My attempt at summarizing them above doesn’t come close to doing them justice. The handmaidens of death are totally kick ass – specializing in everything from weapons to martial arts to poisons – and they have a sort of mystical ability to see a special mark on the people they are meant to kill. The romances in each book are unique and respectful and never force Isme, Sybella, or Annith into a position of weakness. Being a Game of Thrones fan (the TV shows; I haven’t read the books…yet!), I was also really into the political intrigue at court and the place of the abbess and the convent in politics. The convent’s loyalties are thrown into question quite a bit throughout the series, adding to the suspense of whether the convent and its devotees are killing for the right reasons and if their missions are truly divinely inspired.

Read alike:

Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Seraphina Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

NaNoReadMo: Lair of Dreams


Lair of Dreams (Diviners book #2)
Libba Bray
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
August 2015

The mystics of Manhattan, first introduced in The Diviners, are back. Evie has gone public about her ability to read people’s pasts through objects and hosts a hit radio show that has turned her into a celebrity. Sam and Jericho are trying to save the “creepy crawlies” museum from tax collectors at the same time that Sam tries to track down his long lost mother and keep up a sham relationship with Evie for the cameras. Theta and Memphis are having a hard time with their relationship because of Theta’s secrets from back home in Kansas. Mabel is still just pining around. Not a ton of surprises here. Out of all the characters, there are really only two new plot lines here. One is a “sleeping sickness” that is sweeping through Chinatown after some construction workers disturb an old subway tunnel. People fall asleep, dream about a woman in a bloody dress and/or a man in a stovepipe hat and never waking up again, dying after a few days and covered in bloody blisters. Dream walkers Henry and Ling, a new character who is half Irish-half Chinese, accidentally get involved with solving the mystery of the sleeping sickness while trying to find an old acquaintance of Henry’s via the dream world. The other new story is that there are mysterious government operatives following the diviners around, torturing people, and generally being really creepy.

Lair of Dreams suffers from second-book-in-a-series syndrome. It presents a lot of intrigue and mystery with almost no resolution to any of it, with the exception of the sleeping sickness. It’s a ton of exposition – like 613 pages’ worth – with little pay off. If I didn’t understand that this is book two in a four book series and fully recognize that Libba Bray is setting up the next book, I would feel seriously ripped off. All will be forgiven if books 3 and 4 rock, which if I know Libba Bray’s work, I think they will.

Hands down my favorite thing about this book is the role tunnels play. I don’t know what it is, but I love it when scenes in books are set in tunnels, sewers, catacombs, crawl spaces, or any mysterious, forgotten, subterranean space. Maybe it comes from reading too much Victorian literature, but there is just something about these spaces that is so automatically atmospheric. Nothing good happens in an abandoned tunnel or sewer. How cool is it to think about a whole other world below our feet and all the shady things that may be happening down there? I think “lair” in the title really captures this feeling nicely.

In honor of lairs, this read alikes list is dedicated to the books in which people go underground and face some creepy stuff. I’m forgetting or missing a lot of good ones. Add subterranean books in the comments.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
by Stephen King
Under Wildwood by Colin Meloy
 by Terry Pratchett
Drood by Dan Simmons
Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafon