Cybils season is almost over. I really enjoyed participating in Round 1 this year, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about a few of the nominated titles each week. As it does every year, the Cybils force me to read books I never would have read otherwise, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by many of them. That said, it’s going to be really nice to kick off 2015 reading books that I’ve been so eager to dive into but have neglected due to Cybils duties (The Winner’s Crime, I’m looking at you).
Here’s my last roundup of Cybils titles for the year.
Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant
I generally don’t read short story collections. They’re usually uneven, with some stories that are fantastic, some that are awful, and most that fall somewhere in between. Monstrous Affections is no different, though I’m glad I got a chance to read the standouts.
Out of the fifteen stories in the anthology, I really dug two of them: Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (the Successful Kind) by Holly Black and Wings in the Morning by Sarah Rees Brennan. Black’s story is set in outer space and has a sort of Firefly feel, but it’s a touch darker and uses the second person perspective in a clever way to great effect. Plus it has aliens! Brennan’s story is set in a world populated with humans, harpies, elves, and other magical creatures who must keep their border safe from invaders. It opens with our protagonist’s mother telling him he’s half-harpy because she has needs when his father is away and she hooked up with a harpy once because she’s rather adventurous and well wouldn’t you know, the harpy is his biological father and not the human man who raised him. It’s done in such a funny way, I was hooked immediately – there’s so much character and voice in the story. The bulk of the story is a romance between the main character and his best (male) friend/enemy, but there’s also some interesting stuff with the elf culture, whose gender roles are the opposite of humans’ traditional roles. I would definitely read a novel-length book about these characters and their world.
Honorable mentions go to Patrick Ness and Joshua Lewis, whose stories I liked but didn’t love. Also of note is the Introduction, which may be my third favorite “story.” It includes a fun, funny little quiz that sets a great tone for the collection. The book itself is beautiful, slightly oversize with a unique cover and designed with ample white space. It would sit very pretty on your shelf.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
Sixteen year old Ava narrates this book, telling first the story of her grandmother, then her mother, focusing mainly on the way love has destroyed their lives. This family has always been foolish when it comes to love, and Ava – a girl born with wings – is perhaps no different. The events of the story, beginning with Ava’s grandmother and her doomed siblings, all lead up to a terrible tragedy hinted at by Ava’s brother in cryptic language that becomes clear much too late.
This is a beautifully-written book, using magical realism in a way that makes you hurt. It’s also a tremendous downer. It’s certainly unique and ambitious – it tells a three-generation story in about 300 pages, and it feels fully developed. I think it’s successful in what it tried to do, but it also gave off a very strong adult feeling to me rather than YA. Perhaps that’s because the teenage narrator never felt like the main character – she has an omniscient POV and narrates in a somewhat detached way. It’s her mother, whom we see as a child, then a young woman, then a middle-aged woman, who feels like the most central character. She’s also the one who seems to grow the most. The Goodreads description is a little misleading since Ava herself (as a character, not a narrator) doesn’t enter the picture until pretty late in the book. This is a Candlewick book, which doesn’t surprise me in the least.
Death Sworn by Leah Cypess
Ileni was a magical prodigy, brought to a magic school that promised to sharpen her talents. Key word: was. She’s been losing her magic steadily, trying to hide it from her teachers. Ileni supposes they’ve suspected this, because she’s sent to be the new magic tutor for a group of assassins with whom the magicians have an uneasy alliance. The last two magic tutors died mysteriously, and Ileni figures they were probably murdered. Though Ileni figures her assignment is a death sentence, she’s determined to survive as long as she can, and hopefully figure out what happened to her predecessors.
This is a high fantasy novel with a very strong sense of place. The assassins live in a set of caves, giving the book a claustrophobic feel and enhancing Ileni’s sense of being trapped. It also features a complicated backstory, with shifting alliances, exiled magicians, assassins who may be rebels, and lots of political maneuvering – off the page and on it. What is said is not always what is meant. Ileni must learn to listen for subtext; her life depends on it. She also must learn to defend herself without the aid of her magic, and hide the fact that her magic is disappearing as long as she can. As a reader, I felt Ileni’s persistent danger keenly, and I appreciated that Ileni showed fear and didn’t always know how best to protect herself. There’s a minor romance here, but the real highlight is the plot, whose pieces fall together so neatly and brilliantly at the end. I’m a sucker for a well-plotted book, and this one fits the bill. This is a great read for fans of high fantasy – it’s got magic, kingdoms, royalty, war, and all the other good stuff we love so much.