Review of “The Prince of Valour” by Django Wexler

This flintlock fantasy (meaning that it employs a Napoleon-Era-like setting and wars that are fought with muskets, bayonets, and artillery . . . and magic) is the third book in a series that began with The Thousand Names and continued with The Shadow Throne. The first book was in many ways a war chronicle. The second focused on the home front after the military victory obtained in the first book, and to the Royal Palace at Ohnlei, where the king was dying, and his only heir, 20-year-old Raesinia, was scheduled to become Queen.

In the first book, we became aware that in this kingdom there were forces of darkness operating, members of a shadowy church employing supernatural powers. They apparently started out as a movement to destroy the evil demons of the world, but ended up very much in their service. These “Priests of the Black” have mostly died out, but seek a return to power.


In this book, the revolution against autocracy has taken place, and ostensible power in Vordan supposedly is now in the hands of the people. But the Black Priests have managed to corrupt the Chairman of the Directory of National Defense, Johann Maurisk, who is doing their bidding by trying to destroy all their enemies, which includes the new queen. Maurisk is even employing his own version of the guillotine, called “The Spike,” to which increasing numbers are sent for expressing any doubt about Maurisk or even just looking at soldiers the wrong way.

On the other side, helping Raesinia to end the tyranny orchestrated by the dark priests, is the Army of the East, headed by General Janus bet Vhalnich. As the book begins he is, however, away from the capital, battling other kingdoms threatened by Vordan’s example of elected democracy.

One of Vhalnich’s best military leaders happens to be Winter Ihernglass, a brave, resourceful female disguised as a male. Her command includes the all-female Fifth Volunteer Battalion, led by her lover Jane Verity.

Winter has another card up her sleeve besides her own talents. In the first book, she had taken into herself the demon Infernivore during the battle to secure the Thousand Names. “The Thousand Names” refers to the religious plinths that delineate the naaths, or names of demons that, if translated and spoken, will give the speaker the power of the demon. As one character explains:

“The naath only have power inside a human soul. The letters are only sounds, until they are spoken aloud. The naath binds to the soul, and the soul must be strong enough to bear it.”

Winter apparently did have such a strong soul, and now she “houses” Infernivore. If Winter lays a hand on another demon-carrier, she could will Infernivore to come forth and devour the other creature, killing the host. For Vhalnich, this made Winter a potent weapon against what he called the true enemy: the Priests of the Black and their Penitent Damned – those who have already absorbed very nasty demons to do the bidding of the priests.

The forces of good have another secret weapon besides Winter: the enemy of their enemy, namely, Malik-dan-Belial or The Steel Ghost. He is the last of an order also working against the abh-naathem (deviant priests). He believes if the Priests of the Black get hold of the Thousand Names – the only archive of naath still outside their control – it may mean the end of the world.

Not all demons are inherently evil – unknown to most people, Queen Raesinia herself also had a demon placed inside her, one that will not let her die. No matter what happens to her, its power restores her to perfect health, repairing her flesh almost as soon as it is injured. She also no longer ages, nor needs to sleep.

Vhalnich finally vanquishes those immediately opposed to Vordan, returns to the capital city, and removes Maurisk from power. In the process, however, he lost the Thousand Names. Vhalnich tells Colonel Marcus d’Ivoire, his personal liaison, that they must recapture the Names, as well as go the Elysium, home of the Priests of the Black, or they will never have peace. To that end, Raesinia appoints Janus the First Counsul of the Kingdom of Vordan to finish what they had started. Still she has her doubts: “‘Be wary of Vlahnich,’ the Steel Ghost had told her, ‘He plans deep.’”

Discussion: In this book we learn much more about The Thousand Names, and we see a lot more of the bravery of the women who join with the men to fight for their country. We also get additional exposure to some of the better characters of the previous book, including the mysterious Mrs. Felda, who provides food and shelter for the rebels; the amazing 14-year-old Cora, whose knowledge of finances helps Raesinia and her forces to effect their aims; two of Winter’s most trusted lieutenants, Cyte and Abby; Raesinia’s close advisor Sothe, and the naive and loveable Colonel Marcus d’Ivoire.

I was surprised this series is intended to go on longer than for a trilogy, but not disappointed. The characters and plot developments are interesting enough to make me want to continue with the story. I also love the strong roles for women in this series, and the ways in which lesbian relationships are just integrated into the plot in the same way as are heterosexual relationships. Both types of interactions are realistic, without gratuitous prurience, and without dominating the main political plot.

Evaluation: This isn’t really a standalone book, but I hope that lovers of both fantasy and books with strong female characters will discover this series, because it is quite entertaining, has a number of memorable characters, and most of all, is very unique in its use of females in central roles in a typically male-dominated military setting.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by ROC, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA), 2015

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Review of “A Torch Against the Night” by Sabaa Tahir

I think that this second book in the series that began with An Ember in the Ashes is better than the first book, and the first book has been wildly popular. This second is definitely not a standalone, however.


Note: Spoilers for Book One, but none for this book.

In Book One, we met Laia, a young woman determined to rescue her brother Darin from the prisons of the Martial Empire. Laia and her family are Scholars, enemies of the Martials. Laia manages to enlist the help of an elite Martial soldier named Elias Venturis. Elias, though skilled in killing, has somehow remained good on the inside, and is sickened by what the Empire asks of him. In particular, he loathes the sadistic commandant, who happens to be his biological mother.

As Book One ends, one of the worst of the Martials, Marcus, has become Emperor, and Helene, long the best friend of Elias, has become (not by choice) Marcus’s chief assassin. Elias decided to flee the Empire, and he and Laia are on the run, racing to try and rescue Darin from the notoriously bad and impenetrable prison to which he has been taken.

This book is almost all action from the moment it begins – taking up right where the first book ended, and adding even more violence and brutality to the tale.

The focus shifts back and forth among Laia, Elias, and Helene. All of them struggle with competing loyalties, and accommodation to their roles in the changed Empire. The females are intelligent and brave, at least up to a point, but there is no doubt they are the heroes of the saga. [Note if I said “heroines” it would imply they were only sidekicks to male heroes. So one has to choose the “masculine” form of the word to indicate their prominence in the story.]

There is also a time limit to something that will happen in this book, adding a lot of tension and energy to the story, and making one want to race through to the climax.

Discussion: There is more depth to this book than just the usual YA tropes, of which there are plenty. But there is also much sadness, loss, pain, suffering, and a sensitivity to feelings of loneliness and horror. There is guilt, loyalty, and love, and triangles, albeit with fuzzy edges.

The books raise questions we continue to face in real life: how, in the face of tyranny and threatened death, can we stand up for justice, and at what cost to ourselves and our families? Is it wrong to take the “easy” way out? How do we live with ourselves for the bad choices we have made?

There is also an ongoing theme of the fear of hurting those we love, and the advice not to lock oneself away from others because of it: “What point is there in being human if you don’t let yourself feel anything?”

And perhaps most importantly for these fallible characters, there is the admonition not to let failure defeat them:

“Failure doesn’t define you. It’s what you do after you fail that determines whether you are a leader or a waste of perfect good air.”

In the Acknowledgments, the author thanks some of her fellow YA fantasy authors for their friendship and chats, and interestingly, I can see the influence of some of them in this work. When one of the characters speaks of love, it particularly reminds me of Renée Ahdieh:

“You are my temple. You are my priest. You are my prayer. You are my release.”

Evaluation: It isn’t often that a “book two” of a series is better than the first book, but I think it is true in this case. I didn’t always like the choices made by the characters, but couldn’t help liking them or hating them for who they were, and really enjoying the story.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016

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Kid Lit Review of “Strange, Unusual, Gross & Cool Animals” by Charles Ghigna

Animal Planet and Time Inc. Books have produced a collection of cool (not to mention, strange, unusual, and gross) animal facts sure to delight any kid.


There are more than 200 photographs in this book that is divided into four different focuses: “Galleries” to explore a theme, “Featured Creature” to spotlight particular extraordinary animals, “Creature Collections” with groups of animals to compare and contrast, and “Macroview,” showing tiny details.


The featured animals are just amazing, and include the blobfish, the deep sea octopod, the ghost octopus (just discovered in 2016!), the red-lipped batfish, banded gila monster, and as you can tell by the names, a host of unusual creatures. To me, the most incredible animals are those hiding way below us in the ocean, but the book also includes animals we might hope to see on land (or in some cases, hope not to see….)

The milky white ghost octopus, nicknamed “Casper the Friendly Ghost” by Twitter users, was caught on cameras mounted on the craft at a depth of 4,290 meters.

The milky white ghost octopus, nicknamed “Casper the Friendly Ghost” by Twitter users, was caught on cameras mounted on the craft at a depth of 4,290 meters.

I especially love the theme galleries. They include “Fabulous Feet,” “Vanishing Creatures,” “Squirters and Spitters,” “See-Through Creatures,” and my favorite, “Glow-in-the-Dark Creatures.”

The see-through glasswing butterfly photographed by David Tiller on Wikimedia Commons

The see-through glasswing butterfly photographed by David Tiller on Wikimedia Commons

On all of these pages, you learn astounding facts about what makes these animals so unusual.

The book includes a glossary, annotated links to find out more, and an index.


I really appreciate that a portion of the proceeds from the sale of books benefits the principal partners of R.O.A.R. (Reach Out. Act. Respond) – Animal Planet’s project to help make the world a better place for animals.

We used to have this "unusual, gross, and cool" gila monster living along our driveway in Tucson

We used to have this “unusual, gross, and cool” gila monster living along our driveway in Tucson

Evaluation: This overview of a fascinating topic is sure to inspire kids to seek out further information. The books from Animal Planet (as well as their television series) prove that learning can be fun.

Published by Liberty Street, an imprint of Time Inc. Books, 2016


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Review of “Crosstalk” by Connie Willis

I adored this romantic comedy which is coupled with a focus on the pervasiveness of nonstop social media and information overload.

Connie Willis is an author who often invokes the theme of miscommunications – sentences only half spoken, misunderstood, never conveyed, conveyed too late, or lost in dreams. In this book, she stretches the idea a bit further and explores what happens when there is too much communication – not only the inundation of thoughts on Facebook, twitter, and texting, and their instantaneous transmission, but to the idea of telepathy itself.


Readers may also recognize this premise from Patrick Ness’s “Chaos Walking” series, a dystopia in which living creatures are constantly bombarded with each other’s thoughts. Willis takes a different approach: while her book may be characterized as a fantasy or perhaps science fiction, it is much closer than Ness’s series to “real life.” And it is full of humor even though it has suggestions of the dark repercussions of too much information and lack of privacy. The tragic as well as comedic consequences of communicating too much or too little serves to provide dramatic tension as well as sociological commentary.

Briddey Flannigan and her boyfriend Trent Worth both work at Commspan, a smartphone company that is a rival of Apple. After a whirlwind relationship, Trent has talked Briddey into getting an EED – a minor surgical procedure that “increases your ability to connect emotionally with your partner.”

The results are not what they planned.

Briddey finds herself suddenly connected telepathically not to Trent but to C.B. Schwartz, a reclusive technician at Commspan.

C.B. has actually been working on a phone that reduces one’s connectivity: a “sanctuary phone” that lets you politely block calls you don’t want. He explains to Briddey:

“Commspan promises . . . more communication. But that isn’t what people want. They’ve got way too much already – laptops, smartphones, tablets, social media. They’ve got connectivity coming out their ears. There’s such a thing as being too connected, you know, especially when it comes to relationships. Relationships need less communication, not more.”

He illustrates his point by examples with which everyone can relate:

“If people really wanted to communicate, they’d tell the truth, but they don’t. . . . ‘No, I don’t think that dress makes you look fat.’ ’Of course I want to go.’ ‘Of course’ is a dead giveaway that you’re lying. ‘Of course I didn’t sleep with her.’ ‘Of course I like your family.’ ‘Of course you can trust me.’”

“And you know who people lie to the most? Themselves. They’re absolute masters of self-deception.”

Briddey comes to understand his latter point as well.

And when Briddey begins to hear the voices of other people, she learns something else. She tells C.B. how horrible the thoughts were that she overheard. C.B. replies:

“‘Actually, they were just your average [people] … Vulgar? Vindictive? Spiteful? Scheming? I’m afraid that’s what people sound like in the privacy of their own heads.’ He gave her a wry grin. ‘I told you it’s a cesspool in there. … They can say out loud the nice stuff they think…. Inside their heads is the only place the bad stuff can come out, which tends to make their thoughts disproportionately unpleasant. But also, people are brutish, hateful, greedy mean, manipulative, and cruel.

“But everyone can’t be awful.”

“You haven’t listened to them for as long as I have.”

The ensuing action, as Briddey tries to hide this unintended consequence of the EED, cope with the voices, and cope with Trent, turns into a first-class adventure story and race against time, as with Willis’s best fiction.

Evaluation: There is a reason Connie Willis has garnered so many awards – she has won eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards — more major awards than any other writer – and that she has such a rabid fan base. (I include myself in that category; her book Doomsday is on my list of top ten favorite books ever!) Her stories are just a delight.

This book is more social satire than science fiction. It is also a humorous look at modern management and mores, with a fairy tale overlay that includes a fairy godmother, and a prince in disguise. I have yet to be disappointed with Connie Willis!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2016

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Review of “Saga, Volume Six” by Fiona Staples & Brian K. Vaughan

This outstanding graphic novel series, often referred to as a “space opera,” continues the story of the little family of Marko and Alana – a mixed-race couple – and their daughter Hazel. The family is struggling to stay together in spite of a war between their two races.


Alana is from the planet Landfall, where inhabitants have wings on their backs, and Marko is from its moon, Wreath, where all people have horns on their heads. The two defied all convention (and propaganda, viz: those people have horns on their heads!) and fell in love. Hazel was born with both horns and wings, and it is Hazel who narrates the story.


There is an ongoing intergalactic hunt for Marko and Alana, because their love story gives lie to the party line that the people from these two species can’t, and never will, get along.

The series features a number of species and characters involved in the hunt for them, such as the members of the Robot Kingdom, who have CRTs for heads. [A very funny ongoing joke in the series is how other people think these CRT-heads all look alike.]


There is also a killer for hire named “The Will” who, in this volume, has become addicted to the drug “Heroine” which, as one character explains, makes you see and hear your “first love,” even if that first love is no longer living. We also re-encounter a pair of journalists investigating the story for the tabloids.


Hazel’s observations often seem like sociological commentary, as when she notes:

“We’re all aliens to someone. Even among our own people, most of us still feel like complete foreigners from time to time.”

Hazel’s teacher also adds insights that transcend the story itself:

“ . . . anyone who thinks one book has all the answers hasn’t read enough books.”

This volume features some unlikely collaborations among former enemies, a jail break, and a surprise development at the end.


Discussion: Again, and in spite of ongoing violence and killing, it is love and loyalty that take center stage in this series. And there is never a dearth of nuance and pathos; in spite of the small space for picture and dialogue in the graphic novel, even the worst characters are miraculously made into beings eliciting our compassion and understanding. My heart went out to The Will, to Hazel, to the Robot Prince, and really, to them all.

And yet there is always a subtle sense of humor in this series as well, that tempers the gravity of what is happening and lets the reader feel delight as well as sadness and joy.

Hazel and her grandma - note how much emotion is conveyed by their expressions

Hazel and her grandma – note how much emotion is conveyed by their expressions

Illustrator Fiona Staples was voted the best female comics artist of all time in a major fan poll at in 2015, which certainly doesn’t surprise me at all. Writer Brian Vaughan asked her to draw for the series as an equal co-creator. There just aren’t enough superlatives to describe the amazing imagination of this team.


Evaluation: This is an outstanding “saga” whether you like graphic novels or not. This is not by any means a series for kids – you will see graphic (in both senses) depictions of childbirth, oral sex, anal sex, masturbation – just about anything you can think of (or more accurately, might have never thought of!).

No one gender or race has claim to any particular qualities, whether courage or compassion. But overall, the females tend to be more formidable, powerful and tough, and the guys more nurturing. The political commentary is as powerful as it is subtle. This series is hilarious, moving, exciting, romantic, action-packed, and crazily mentally stimulating, all at once.


This series is really not to be missed, but should be read in order.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Image Comics, 2016

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