Review: Passenger and Truthwitch

Today’s review is a special double issue in anticipation of Kepler’s Books upcoming event with the authors, Susan Dennard and Alexandra Bracken, on Friday,  January 15th, 2016, at 7:00pm. You can find full details of the event here: Link

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Review:

Time travel is about to be in vogue if Alexandra Bracken’s Passenger is any indication. Sprinting across a plethora of time periods and locations, the adventure is almost as dashing as our heroes.

Making characters who are both likeable and flawed is a tricky balancing act, but Bracken succeeds. The heroine, Etta, is the logical product of a modern generation pushed to be the best: she is driven, fearless, but a little spiky. She knows things are being hidden from her and she refuses to ignore it. The hero, Nicholas, is thoroughly that — a hero. Honor, duty, and courtesy burn at his core, even as he faces incredible racism and hardship because of the circumstances of his birth, but he takes nothing passively: his manners hide an old, festering rage at a world that will never respect him.

Because the characters are so strong, the story flows easily around them. The pace is swift without leaving the reader behind, and Bracken takes enough time in each location to give us a vivid picture of what each slice of time and place feels like, down to the way strangers stare at the heroes on the street. And they do stare. Neither the characters nor the world around them let us forget that, even in some parts of our modern world, Etta and Nicholas would be in very real danger for walking side-by-side.

Bracken’s inclusion of issues of race and gender in Passenger was powerful precisely because we see them through the eyes of those most affected. Most importantly, these issues do not disappear as the characters move forward in time. Too much time travel fiction either ignores these issues or paints them as something that happened in the not-quite-real world of long, long ago, as if the actions of the past didn’t shape our present. While Etta at first believes that her world of 2015 is a paradise compared to Nicholas’s world of 1776, Bracken makes sure to remind her characters (and the readers) that these problems are as much ours as our ancestors’.

However, at the end of the day, Bracken isn’t telling a story solely about the injustices of the world. Indeed, she doesn’t settle for that: she adds a whole new set of horribleness with the inclusion of powerful, malicious clans warring for control of time so that they can each secure their own interests. It’s a unique kind of political subplot and it helps breathe new life into the old trope of people going back in time to change the future.

By the end of the book, readers will be itching for #2. Passenger has a little of everything: romance, historical fiction, fantasy, Indiana Jones-style adventure, family drama, and cunning plots to end (or save) the world. If any of those appeal to you, I highly recommend you give this one a try.

 

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  • Release Date: January 5th, 2016
  • Author: Susan Dennard
  • Website: http://susandennard.com/
  • ISBN: 9780765379283

Review:

I’ll be blunt: Truthwitch isn’t for every reader.

I don’t mean that I didn’t like it. Quite the opposite! It’s been a while since I last read a novel that remembered that epic fantasy can be fun. Although Truthwitch has a commanding political subplot and its share of ill-intentioned characters, it doesn’t plunge into the dour, “grimdark” mire popularized by Games of Thrones. Epic fantasy isn’t as strong with the YA crowd as with their younger (and older) counterparts, but Truthwitch is a great example of why it should be.

That said, the very thing that makes it so appealing to one set of readers might turn off other. Truthwitch is a swashbuckling, romantic action flick of a novel and it isn’t trying to be anything else. Those familiar with Tor Books won’t be surprised when they find that Truthwitch is a product of their YA imprint: it’s entertaining and heavy on the world-building, but not deeply philosophical. If you’re looking for something full of memorable lines about the deep truths of the universe a la John Green or Stephen Chbosky, this isn’t going to be your thing.

Speaking of universes, the world of the Witchlands is beautifully complex. Dennard deftly juggles several kingdoms, clans, religious sects, and pirate crews — many of whom are fighting amongst themselves — without falling back on tropes and stereotypes to tell us whom to cheer for. You get enough details of the world’s history to make it come alive, but not so much that it becomes tedious or overwhelming. The magic system is fresh: witches as a whole have a stunningly broad range of abilities, but just like any skill, individuals have specialties, and specialties have limits.

I was delighted that the plot focused on two women and their friendship. Most fiction, even YA, seems to find that excessive: if the lead is a woman, then all other women are tagalongs in an underdeveloped clique, dead or distant mothers, or catty rivals. Truthwitch works hard from the first page to hold up Safiya and Iseult as not only friends, but sisters in all but name, and the story gives equal weight to each of them.

That said, I found the character dynamics lacking by the time everyone’s paths had crossed. Not to spoil anything, but the main romance was…uncomfortable. I have a knee-jerk reaction to “my hatred disguises a deep and irresistible attraction” romances, and I cringed as otherwise likeable characters descended into one.

Will Dennard change my mind in the sequel? Maybe. I certainly look forward to finding out. And at the end of the day, that is what is going to carry Truthwitch to success: it has pluck and charm, and it knows how to hook a reader. Fans of Terry Brooks, Robin McKinley, and Sarah J. Maas are in for a big treat with Truthwitch.

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After a decade on the web, I’ve had a lot of social media platforms to shout from: Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, various teenage blogs with bad early-2000s aesthetics, etc. Now, after a year as a bookseller and with a lot of book reviews, opinion pieces, and anxious mumbling about my own projects cresting on the horizon, I’d like to strike out in a more professional direction.

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