Levine - Book Reviews

***** - Excellent
**** - Good
*** - Okay
** - Bad
* - Terrible
+ - Half-star

Arabella of Mars
(The Adventures of Arabella Ashby, Book 1)
David D. Levine
Tor
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****

DESCRIPTION: Since Captain William Kidd piloted the first sailing vessel to Mars in the late 1600's, the solar system has opened up to trade and colonization. Ships ply the spaceways on solar winds, as wealthy Europeans establish plantations and colonies on distant planets. Thus it is that Arabella Ashby, though human of English parentage, was born and raised on the family's Martian lumber plantation, learning of her race's homeworld through dry books while experiencing Mars under the tutelage of her native nanny and tutor, Khema... until her homesick mother, fed up with her "unladylike" ways, drags her and her sisters back to England.
She would never see her father alive again.
Miserable on Earth and made moreso with her beloved father's death, Arabella finds herself shunted off to her cousin Simon's home - a relative who always resented how her family, not his, benefited from the entailed Ashby estate. When Simon finally snaps, determined to finish off Arabella's brother (the only remaining male heir standing between him and the family fortune), the seventeen-year-old girl rushes off to stop him... and ends up plunging headlong into an interplanetary adventure.

REVIEW: I purchased this on impulse, drawn by a cover that promised a Jules Verne-flavored, old-school adventure yarn in a fanciful interplanetary Regency era. That's almost exactly what the book turned out to be. Levine creates a spacefaring world that wouldn't be out of place in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, with Venusian jungles and a canal-riddled Mars, only with (thankfully) updated attitudes on gender, race, and colonialism, though the characters themselves are still, by and large, firmly residents of their (alternate-history) era. Arabella makes for a plucky, clever heroine, somewhat impulsive but always striving her best. Her skill with Martian culture and automatons - lifelike clockwork "robots" based on actual creations of the 1800's, whose abilities and intricacies astound even today - carry her far, and while she does (as one might predict) have to hide her gender for a good portion of the tail as she works her way back home aboard a Martian trading ship, she ultimately must learn to stand on her own two feet without deception. Other characters aren't necessarily deep, particularly the bad guys, but this is really more of an adventure story reveling in its wondrous retro concept. Some elements of the ending felt rushed and a little weaker than they might have been, but I rather enjoyed it, and look forward to Arabella's future adventures.

You might also enjoy:
The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury, Fiction - Collected tales and vignettes relate humanity's exploration of Mars, and the fall of two civilizations)
Red Rising (Pierce Brown, Fiction - A Red slave from the mines of Mars seeks justice and vengeance by infiltrating the ruling Gold class of the interplanetary empire)
A Princess of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fiction - A Civil War veteran finds himself transported to the hostile, dying world of Mars)
Star Sailor (Chris Fox, YA Fiction - A young girl sails a raft through the stars, having adventures)
Starflight (Melissa Landers, YA Fiction - Teen orphan Solara and spoiled son of privilege Doran become entangled with a peculiar starship crew in a cross-galaxy race against multiple enemies)
The Piratica series (Tanith Lee, Fiction - In an alternate world, a teen girl sets out to become an honorable pirate queen, based on faulty memories of her mother)
The Bloody Jack adventures (L. A. Meyer, YA Fiction - The legendary adventures of an 18th century London girl, who escapes certain death on the streets by posing as a boy aboard a warship)
The Airborn books (Kenneth Oppel, YA Fiction - A courageous boy in a world of airships explores strange wonders in the stratosphere and beyond)
Larklight (Philip Reeve, YA Fiction - In a Victorian-era space adventure, two British children embark upon a singular adventure through the aether of space)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne, Fiction - Three men become unwilling guests on a madman's submarine)
Quintessence (David Walton, Fiction - In an alternate 16th century where alchemy is real, an expedition sails to the very edge of the flat earth)
The Leviathan trilogy (Scott Westerfield, YA Fiction - An alternate-history World War I pits German "Clanker" machinery against "Darwinist" fabricated life-forms)
Treasure Planet (2002 movie DVD - Disney's imaginative animated take on Treasure Island features starfaring sailing ships and alien pirates)

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Ella Enchanted
Gail Carson Levine
Trophy Newberry
Fiction, YA Fantasy
****

DESCRIPTION: When Ella was a baby, a well-meaning but blundering fairy gave her the gift of obedience, a gift that is more of a curse. Anything anyone tells her to do, Ella must do, whether it's going to bed early, giving away her money, or letting an ogre eat her alive. She is determined to break the curse, but she can't find the fairy who gave her the gift, and nobody else seems to know what to do about it. When her understanding mother dies and her cold father brings home a new lady, Ella's life takes a drastic turn for the worse. She must find a way to cast off the fairy's gift before it ruins her life and the lives of everyone she loves.

REVIEW: This book would have merited five stars had it not suddenly decided to be a Cinderella retelling midstream. Granted, the name was a hint that this might happen, but the story and the characters didn't need that crutch, and it only served to redirect and prolong the tale. Ella comes across as a strong and intelligent heroine, and I liked her and those in the supporting cast I was supposed to like. An entertaining tale with a great concept, but it could have - and should have - stood on its own.

You might also enjoy:
Bright Shadow (Avi, YA Fiction - A dying wizard gifts a girl with magical wishes, a gift that proves a terrible burden)
The Lost Years of Merlin (T. A. Barron, YA Fiction - The boy who will become Merlin must learn to cope with his terribly potent and unpredictable powers)
The Dragon King and I (Adrianne Brooks, Fiction - In modern Atlanta, a cursed woman seeks help from her fairy godmother and a handsome stranger)
Things Not Seen (Andrew Clements, YA Fiction - Waking up one morning to discover he's become invisible, a boy quickly learns the pluses and minuses of his unusual affliction)
The Inkheart trilogy (Cornelia Funke, YA Fiction - A bookbinder can read characters into and out of stories, which proves more curse than gift)
Which Witch? (Eva Ibbotson, YA Fiction - A white witch tries to mimick the evil ways of her coven-mates to win the heart of a dark wizard)
The Lives of Christopher Chant (Diana Wynne Jones, YA Fiction - A boy enjoys being able to visit other worlds through his dreams, but hates the responsibility that comes with his gift)
Hatching Magic and The Dragon of Never-Was (Ann Downer, YA Fiction - A modern Boston girl's encounter with a medieval wizard's pet wyvern wakes her own latent powers, gifts she isn't sure she wants)
Summoned (Rainy Kaye, Fiction - A modern-day genie is enslaved by a crime lord)
The Two Princesses of Bamarre (Gail Carson Levine, YA Fiction - When her brave older sister falls deathly ill, a fearful princess must set forth on a dangerous quest to find a cure)
Cinder (Marissa Meyer, YA Fiction - A teen girl cyborg, hated by her stepmother and society, stumbles into a plot that might enslave the prince and destroy her world)
Merlin's Mistake (Robert Newman, YA Fiction - A boy seeks out the wizard to undo a botched christening gift)
The Circle of Magic quartet (Tamora Pierce, YA Fiction - Four children with elusive, potent gifts must learn to trust their magic and each other)
The Percy Jackson & the Olympians series (Rick Riordan, YA Fiction - A modern boy learns that having a Greek god for a father isn't always a great thing, when monsters out of myth keep trying to kill him)
The Harry Potter series (J. K. Rowling, YA Fiction - An orphaned boy learns of his magical heritage, a gift tied to a burden of prophecy)
A School for Sorcery (E. Rose Sabin, YA Fiction - A girl learns the scope and depths and dangers of her magical gifts at a special boarding school)
The Princess and the Firedrake (Jim Stinson, YA Fiction - Cursed by being too clever, a banished princess must save her kingdom from an angry dragon)
Princeless (Jeremy Whitley, YA Comic - In a fairy tale world, Princess Adrienne refuses to sit around waiting to be rescued and married off)

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Fairest
Gail Carson Levine
HarperTrophy
Fiction, YA Fantasy
****

DESCRIPTION: In the kingdom of Ayortha, two virtues are prized above all others: singing and beauty. Residents sing almost all the time, for themselves or with others, in joy and mourning and anywhere in between. The girl Aza sings with a voice like no other... but her face comes nowhere near her voice in terms of beauty. Big and pale and awkward, she nonetheless is loved by her adoptive family, the keepers of the Featherbed Inn. Though she can sing like a lark, mimic voices, and even throw her voice, many inn guests can't see past her homely face to the warm heart within.
A chance invitation brings Aza to the king's court to witness the wedding of aging King Oscaro to a young commoner from another land: Ivi, whose beauty is beyond compare, but whose untrained voice, alas, is nowhere near the kingdom's standards. When the vain young queen learns of Aza's skills, she plots to use the girl to cover her own vocal weakness... but the simple deception soon becomes a tangled web of court intrigue and power plays - a web made all the more tangled by Aza's attraction to the young Prince Ijori.

REVIEW: This retelling of Snow White (with a little trace of Cyrano), set in the same world as Levine's Ella Enchanted, reads fast and offers some nice takes on the age-old struggle of inner versus outer beauty. Unlike Ella, I didn't feel quite as jarred by the jump to the fairy-tale formula, though like that book I couldn't help thinking that the heroine could've managed her own, non-derivative story. Some of the names started bleeding together, and a little of Levine's Gnomish speech (with reversed capitalizations and punctuations) went a long way, but otherwise I enjoyed Ayortha and the characters in it.

You might also enjoy:
Heart of a Tiger (Marsha Diane Arnold, YA Picture Book - A shy, gray kitten wants to earn a tiger's name on Naming Day)
I Was a Teenage Fairy (Francesca Lia Block, YA Fiction - Pressed into fashion in modeling at a young age, a girl deals with self-hatred and abuse with the help of a pinky-sized fairy queen)
The Throwaway Princess (Elinor Busby, YA Fiction - A princess is passed over for the throne due to a physical deformity)
Dragon's Keep (Janet Lee Carey, YA Fiction - Born with a dragon-claw finger, a princess is pressured to conceal the flaw and find a cure)
Jennifer Murdley's Toad (Bruce Coville, YA Fiction - A homely girl who longs for beauty is sold a talking told by an old man in a magic shop)
Bedlam's Bard (Mercedes Lackey with Ellen Guon, Fiction - A musician learns that his music channels magic)
The Ship Who Sang (Anne McCaffrey, Fiction - A human mind lies at the heart of an interstellar starship)
Dragon's Fire, Wizard's Flame (Michael R. Mennenga, YA Fiction - Shunned for being flameless, a young dragon boldly sets out from his sheltered homeland to "find his fire")
Cinder (Marissa Meyer, YA Fiction - A teen girl cyborg, hated by her stepmother and society, stumbles into a plot that might enslave the prince and destroy her world)
Six-Gun Snow White (Catherynne M. Valente, Fiction - A half-native girl named Snow White flees her wicked Puritan stepmother in the Old West, in a surreal fairy tale retelling)

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A Tale of Two Castles
Gail Carson Levine
HarperCollins
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+

DESCRIPTION: When Elodie left the small family farm to find her fortune in the city of Two Castles, her parents gave her plenty of advice. Never correct your elders. Keep your thoughts to yourself. Beware the false friend - the whited sepulcher, in common parlance. Be truthful. And above all else, avoid the company of ogres and dragons! Ogres are brutish and unreliable, able to assume any animal shape at will, and dragons... well, they won't even trust a human enough to reveal their gender. There is only one of each in Two Castles: Count Jonty Um, the ogre who owns the castle not held by the greedy king, and Masteress Meenore, who has lived among the people since IT hatched a century ago and has yet to incinerate a single soul (so far as anyone has seen.) The odds of Elodie meeting either seem slim to none. Besides, she's going to Two Castles to apprentice herself as a mansioner - an actress - and likely will be on the road before long. But from the first day, her journey goes wrong... and she finds herself apprenticed not to Master Serow of the mansioners, but to Meenore! The dragon fancies ITself a detective, despite most people in Two Castles only valuing ITs services as a water heater and roaster of meat-and-cheese skewers in the market square. Under Meenore's wing, Elodie discovers new uses for her acting talents, as she helps investigate a dangerous plot that might shake the city, and the kingdom, to its very core.

REVIEW: I've read and enjoyed other works be Levine, and I liked the idea of a draconic Sherlock. For what it is, it's not a bad little jaunt. Elodie must learn to trust both her heart and her brain, rather than relying on others and their advice to do her thinking for her. Meenore makes a decent detective and an interesting dragon, ITs behaviour just unpredictable enough to remind Elodie, and the reader, that IT is not just a scaled human being. As for the other characters, most have a little more to them than initially meets the eye, as befitting a mystery. For some reason, though, I just didn't feel it came together quite as neatly as Levine's other books. There were almost too many elements vying for attention: Elodie and her mansioning dreams, Meenore the unappreciated detective, hints of international espionage, a worthless glutton of a king, a message about prejudice... all mixed into a story that takes Puss in Boots and turns the tale on its ear, with the ogre being more sympathetic than the miller's son or his cat. My attention kept getting interrupted as this or that element rose up in my path. In the end, though, it proves a fair read, with a good mix of suspense, danger, and even humor, all suffused with fairy tale magic.
As a closing note, in the bonus material Levine mentions that she might revisit Elodie and Meenore in future sleuthing adventures. It might make for a fun series.

You might also enjoy:
Sherlock Holmes: The Breath of God (Guy Adams, Fiction - Holmes investigates a mysterious murder tied to the occult Order of the Golden Dawn)
Midnight Magic (Avi, YA Fiction - A charlatan mage and his apprentice must solve a ghostly mystery for a powerful lord)
A Bad Spell in Yurt (C. Dale Brittain, Fiction - A barely-competent wizard takes a job with a small kingdom, only to discover an elusive evil force inhabiting his new home)
The Sisters Grimm series (Michael Buckley, YA Fiction - Two girls learn that fairy tale characters are alive and well... and capable of committing crimes)
The Familiar Dragon series (Daniel Hood, Fiction - A murdered wizard's familiar forces a bond with a detective)
The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (Catherine Louisa Pirkis, Fiction - A late-1800's lady detective investigates crimes in and around London)
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (Terry Pratchett, YA Fiction - A con-artist cat and his talking rat associates discover a dark secret)
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Patricia Wrede, YA Fiction - A headstrong princess in a fairy-tale world gets tired of being "proper" and runs away to live with dragons)
A Plague of Sorcerers (Mary Frances Zambreno, YA Fiction - A young mage and his skunk familiar investigate a magical plague)

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The Two Princesses of Bamarre
Gail Carson Levine
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Fantasy
****

DESCRIPTION: The daughters of King Lionel of Bamarre could not be more different. Elder Princess Meryl yearns for adventure, determined to challenge every last ogre, specter, gryphon, and dragon that plagues the kingdom. Princess Addie can't even confront a spider, wielding nothing more dangerous than an embroidery needle. Meryl can't wait to leave their castle home, while Addie fears the wild, monster-filled world. Despite their differences, they love each other dearly... so when Meryl succumbs to the Gray Death, Addie can scarcely contain her terror. Nobody has ever survived the plague, even with the help of elven healers; it is said that the fairies might know a cure, but nobody has seen them in centuries. Determined to save her sister, timid Addie screws up her courage and sets forth on her own quest.

REVIEW: Not a perfect story, this nevertheless entertains. Addie makes an atypical hero, especially in a genre where women tend to be either fainting damsels in distress or tomboys chafing at society's constraints. She doesn't want to be brave, but fear of failure trumps her fear of adventure. Levine crafts a magical, if lightweight, fantasy kingdom, with just enough history and heft to it for a good adventure yarn. I particularly enjoyed her take on dragons, distinctly inhuman beings seemingly cursed by their own conflicting needs and instincts. The story itself moves at a fair pace, building up to a tense finale and an ending somewhere between happy and bittersweet. It kept me reading for a full afternoon, which is more than I can say for some grown-up stories I've read lately.

You might also enjoy:
The Book of Three (Lloyd Alexander, YA Fiction - A rustic boy, caretaker to an oracular pig, becomes part of a dangerous adventure)
Bright Shadow (Avi, YA Fiction - A dying wizard gives a humble servant girl the gift of wishes that work)
The Frog Princess (E. D. Baker, YA Fiction - A clumsy princess turns into a frog when she kisses an enchanted prince)
Dragon (Jody Bergsma, YA Picture Book - A peaceful prince meets an angry dragon)
Plain Kate (Erin Bow, YA Fiction - In a superstitious land, a girl sells her shadow to a witch for safety, then must win it back)
The Green Rider series (Kristen Britain, Fiction - A girl finds a dying royal messenger, and reluctantly agrees to take his final missive to the imperiled king)
The Throwaway Princess (Elinor Busby, YA Fiction - Ineligible for the crown due to a foot deformity, a princess must go on a quest to save her imperiled realm)
Dragon's Keep (Janet Lee Carey, YA Fiction - Born with a dragon-claw finger, a princess must confront the fiery beasts threatening her kingdom)
Tuesdays at the Castle (Jessica Day George, YA Fiction - In a magical castle, young princess Celie and her siblings resist efforts to steal the crown and kingdom)
Princess Academy (Shannon Hale, YA Fiction - A royal decree forces mountain girls to attend a special school, from which the lowlander prince shall choose his bride)
The Tales of Jig Dragonslayer (Jim C. Hines, Fiction - A cowardly, nearsighted goblin inadvertently becomes a hero)
Cinder Edna (Ellen Jackson, YA Picture Book - Cinderella's neighbor, plain Cinder Edna, relies on brains and pluck rather than fairy magic)
Dark Lord of Derkholm (Diana Wynne Jones, YA Fiction - The fate of an enslaved fantasy world rests on an unwilling "Dark Lord" and his peculiar family)
The Eyes of the Dragon (Stephen King, Fiction - An evil magician frames a good prince for murder, putting his weaker brother on the throne)
Ella Enchanted (Gail Carson Levine, YA Fiction - A fairy's gift of obedience turns into a curse for a young lady)
Un Lun Dun (China MiƩville, YA Fiction - Two English schoolgirls find their way to the bizarre "abcity" mirror of London, where one must become a hero)
Merlin's Mistake (Robert Newman, YA Fiction - A boy sets out on a quest to fix Merlin's botched christening gift)
The Rover (Mel Odom, Fiction - A halfling librarian finds himself swept away on a grand adventure)
The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien, YA? Fiction - A wizard sends a reluctant hobbit friend on an ill-advised adventure to the lair of the dragon Smaug)
Princeless (Jeremy Whitley, YA Comic - In a fairy tale world, Princess Adrienne refuses to sit around waiting to be rescued and married off)
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Patricia Wrede, YA Fiction - A headstrong princess in a fairy-tale world gets tired of being "proper" and runs away to live with dragons)

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Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly
Gail Carson Levine
HarperCollins
Nonfiction, YA Writing
*****

DESCRIPTION: Maybe you have a hundred stories in your head, but when you try to pin them down they never work out right. Maybe you enjoy reading books so much that you just have to try writing one yourself, but can't seem to figure out how to start. The author of Ella Enchanted and numerous other books gives advice to writers of all ages, interests, and abilities, offering numerous exercises and examples from her own life and works.

REVIEW: I'll admit I rated it with the young adult target age in mind, but it's still an excellent, clearly-written book about writing with advice that will benefit any would-be author of any age. Her short chapters cover the basics (coming up with a story, deciding on a voice, revisions, characters, etc.) and the not-so-basics (such as the overuse of adjectives and the great said/asked vs. other dialog verbs debate.) Each chapter ends in a writing exercise or two emphasising the matters discussed, with constant reminders to "have fun" and save everything, even the "junk," because you never know what you'll want to use a year or ten down the line. Regardless of whether or not you want to write fantasy (what she's best known for), you should find something of value here. Now, if only I could make myself sit down and do more of those exercises...

You might also enjoy:
How This Book Was Made (Mac Barnett, YA Fiction Book - An author explains how a picture book is written and published... more or less)
No Plot? No Problem! (Chris Baty, Writing - A no-nonsense guide to writing a novel draft in 30 days, guaranteed)
The Art of War for Writers (James Scott Bell, Writing - A no-nonsense look at how to be a writer)
The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them) (Jack M. Bickham, Writing - A book on writing)
Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life (Terry Brooks, Writing - Anecdotes and advice from a popular author)
How to Avoid Making Art (and Anything Else You Enjoy) (Julie Cameron, Nonfiction - A humorous book about ways to avoid creating)
How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (Orson Scott Card, Writing - Notes on writing imaginary worlds and exploring ideas from a bestselling genre author)
Little Red Writing (Joan Holub, YA Picture Book - The brave pencil Red sets out to write a story for class, but finds a big bad pencil sharpener instead)
Reflections (Diana Wynne Jones, Nonfiction - A poshumous collection of essays and articles by the noted author)
Tarot for Writers (Caroline Kenner, Writing - Using tarot cards to create and enhance stories)
Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror (Laurie Lamson, editor, Writing - Essays and exercises for the genre writer)
Schaum's Quick Guide to Writing Great Short Stories (Margaret Lucke, Writing - Learn how to craft a compelling short story)
The Fire in Fiction (Donald Maass, Writing - The top agent offers advice and exercises to make your novel stand out in the slushpile
Spilling Ink (Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter, YA Writing - A guide for young writers)
Fantasy - A Writer's Short Guide (Linda McNabb, YA? Writing - A basic course in writing fantasy)
Writers Write (William Meikle, Writing - Advice on writing, from start to finish)
Do Not Open This Book (Michaela Muntean, YA Picture Book - A writer struggles to finish a story as a reader insists on turning pages)
How I Wrote My First Book: The Story Behind the Story (Lida E. Quillen and Anne K. Edwards, editors, Writing - Essays by writers on their first works)
Wonderbook (Jeff Vandermeer, Nonfiction - An imaginative, illustrated guide to writing)
Where Do You Get Your Ideas? (Fred White, Writing - How to generate ideas and develop them into stories)
The Writer's Digest Complete Fantasy Reference (Writer's Digest, Writing - Cultures, religions, magical systems, and more)

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