Hello readers! It’s time for another round of Mini Reviews, where I talk about some of the books I don’t write full length reviews for. This installment, let’s chat about: The Kingdom of Back, Girls With Sharp Sticks, Sword in the Stars and Aru Shah & the Tree of Wishes.
The Kingdom of Back | Marie Lu
Two siblings. Two brilliant talents. But only one Mozart.
Born with a gift for music, Nannerl Mozart has just one wish–to be remembered forever. But even as she delights audiences with her masterful playing, she has little hope she’ll ever become the acclaimed composer she longs to be. She is a young woman in 18th century Europe, and that means composing is forbidden to her. She will perform only until she reaches a marriageable age–her tyrannical father has made that much clear.
And as Nannerl’s hope grows dimmer with each passing year, the talents of her beloved younger brother, Wolfgang, only seem to shine brighter. His brilliance begins to eclipse her own, until one day a mysterious stranger from a magical land appears with an irresistible offer. He has the power to make her wish come true–but his help may cost her everything… Goodreads
“I am going to tell you a story you already know. But listen carefully, because within it is one you have never heard before.”
Before reading this book, I had no idea that Mozart had a sister, much less that she was a child prodigy who performed alongside her brother for a time. What was more surprising however, was the magical element added to the story. Historically speaking, this narrative stays in line with the facts but I’m very curious to know exactly how much of the siblings making up a fantasy world on their travels through Europe is true.
While I found the magical elements more than a little bizarre and hard to follow, the story does begin to become clearer after a while as Nannerl completes quests to save the Kingdom of Back. However, the magical aspect remains rather superficial and I was hoping to see it play a more prominent role in the story. What I really liked about this book was that despite Nannerl’s struggle with the knowledge that her performing days are limited, that she can never hope for the acclaim that her brother receives with such ease despite her own talent for composing, the bond between the Mozart siblings stays strong and Nannerl remains by her little brother’s side no matter what.
Overall, this was a beautiful read that gives us a glimpse into a largely unsung talent and makes one think about how many talented artists have gone unrecognized throughout history merely due to their gender.
Publishing Date: March 3rd, 2020 (G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books For Young Readers)
Girls With Sharp Sticks (Girls With Sharp Sticks #1) | Suzanne Young
The Girls of Innovations Academy are beautiful and well-behaved—it says so on their report cards. Under the watchful gaze of their Guardians, the all-girl boarding school offers an array of studies and activities, from “Growing a Beautiful and Prosperous Garden” to “Art Appreciation” and “Interior Design.” The girls learn to be the best society has to offer. Absent is the difficult math coursework, or the unnecessary sciences or current events. They are obedient young ladies, free from arrogance or defiance. Until Mena starts to realize that their carefully controlled existence may not be quite as it appears.
As Mena and her friends begin to uncover the dark secrets of what’s actually happening there—and who they really are—the girls of Innovations will find out what they are truly capable of. Because some of the prettiest flowers have the sharpest thorns… Goodreads
Girls With Sharp Sticks is a dystopian sci-fi thriller reminiscent of both Replica and The Handmaid’s Tale in a boarding school setting, where girls are taught to be proper society ladies. But Innovations Academy hides a dark secret, as Philomena begins to find out, when one night, she skips taking her nightly vitamins.
This was a suspenseful and at times, rather disturbing read, and definitely a shocking one. However, I did have issues with the pacing of the story which almost made me give up on this multiple times. The action comes in all at once towards the end though, and sets things up for a very interesting sequel. The bond between Mena and her friends was beautifully depicted, especially as they all begin to learn the terrible truth about their lives and stand together through it all.
This was my first time reading one of Suzanne Young’s novels, and I really liked her writing style. Overall, though the base concept of this story is one I’ve seen in a few other novels, I liked the execution in this one the best and I can’t wait to read the sequel.
Publishing Date: March 19th, 2019 (Simon Pulse)
Sword in the Stars (Once & Future #2) | Amy Rose Capetta & Cori McCarthy
Ari Helix may have won her battle against the tyrannical Mercer corporation, but the larger war has just begun. Ari and her cursed wizard Merlin must travel back in time to the unenlightened Middle Ages and steal the King Arthur’s Grail—the very definition of impossible.
It’s imperative that the time travelers not skew the timeline and alter the course of history. Coming face-to-face with the original Arthurian legend could produce a ripple effect that changes everything. Somehow Merlin forgot that the past can be even more dangerous than the future… Goodreads
“Reality inspires legend, but legend is not history.”
Now admittedly, I was rather hesitant about picking up this sequel, since there were several aspects in Once & Future that I did not enjoy. Any complaints I had though, were completely made up for in this book. Ari and her friends have travelled back in time to Camelot, during the early days of the original King Arthur’s reign when he is yet largely untested and his legendary Knights of the Round Table are nowhere in sight. The trip through time itself goes wrong however, and while they all end up in the right era, they are flung across continents and arrive months apart. The result: by the time Merlin and Ari make it to Camelot, Gwen has been there for several months and is now Arthur’s Queen Guineviere. What seemed like a quick in and out mission to grab the chalice now turns into something far more complex and dangerous as they struggle to find their footing in the prejudiced Middle Ages and do their best to avoid changing the narrative.
“They were the original love story of the Western canon,
two girls from the future hidden in the folds of the past.”
The plot itself was much more pulled together than Once & Future, which was a huge relief, as nothing puts me off a book faster than an excessively meandering storyline. It was quite interesting to see Merlin, who is still de-aging dangerously quickly, deal with his counterpart in Arthur’s time and face some old demons he has long forgotten. Of course, far more interesting was to see our main characters struggle to maintain the happenings of the original legend, only to begin to realize how much of it has been warped through the ages by patriarchal and racist societies to fit their idealized versions.
While this story spent much longer in the past timeline than I expected, it served as a good way to get to know more about Merlin’s past, and of course, Nin’s motivations and less than good intentions – and what they mean for Ari who is the latest reincarnation of Arthur in this seemingly endless cycle.
All in all, Sword in the Stars is miles better than the first book, and it constantly kept me on the edge of my seat, wondering how things were going to play out. This duology is one I’ve really enjoyed and I would highly recommend this unique take on King Arthur’s tale.
Publishing Date: April 7th, 2020 (Jimmy Patterson)
Aru Shah and the Tree of Wishes (Pandava Quartet #3) | Roshani Chokshi
War between the devas and the demons is imminent, and the Otherworld is on high alert. When intelligence from the human world reveals that the Sleeper is holding a powerful clairvoyant and her sister captive, 14-year-old Aru and her friends launch a search-and-rescue mission. The captives, a pair of twins, turn out to be the newest Pandava sisters, though, according to a prophecy, one sister is not true.
During the celebration of Holi, the heavenly attendants stage a massage PR rebranding campaign to convince everyone that the Pandavas are to be trusted. As much as Aru relishes the attention, she fears that she is destined to bring destruction to her sisters, as the Sleeper has predicted. Aru believes that the only way to prove her reputation is to find the Kalpavriksha, the wish-granting tree that came out of the Ocean of Milk when it was churned. If she can reach it before the Sleeper, perhaps she can turn everything around with one wish. Careful what you wish for, Aru . . . Goodreads
War is on the horizon, and when news arrives that a powerful clairvoyant and her sister have been found, Aru, Mini and Brynne are sent to rescue them, and more importantly get them to the Otherworld safely so that any prophecy the clairvoyant issues cannot be heard by the demons. Things go awry however, and not only do the demons manage to hear said prophecy, but the two girls rescued, Sheela and Nikita, turn out to be the last Pandavas. As the devas race to do some damage control and handle the situation, Aru interprets the prophecy to mean that they need to find the Tree of Wishes, the Kalpavriksha, to win the war. This sets off a series of quests on the path to finding the tree which has been well hidden by the goddess of forests, with Rudy, the Naga prince joining them for the wildest ride yet.
I felt that Aru was markedly more mature in this book in some aspects, largely due to her discovering the side of the Sleeper who was just a man who wanted to be her dad before he became a monster. While it maintains the trend of a light hearted narrative, complete with hilarious pop culture references from Aru, the underlying serious tone was unexpected and I really did not expect a middle grade series to take this route – but I’m very happy that this story is starting to gain some significant depth, because I’ve always found it hard to take the mythological aspects in this series seriously. As someone who has learnt the real stories growing up, these characterizations are somewhat bizarre, and I tend to gloss over them and pay attention to the plot instead. However, this particular installment handled a few of the myths very well indeed. One nice touch was the scene at the Yamuna river with Mini – that was one particular incident I never thought would be mirrored in this series, and it was quite well written too.
I wasn’t too fond of the two new additions to the team, and there wasn’t all that much character development for either of them apart from a few glimpses into their life before they entered foster care. However, I’m looking forward to seeing more of the twins in the next book – but I’m even more excited to see what becomes of that brilliant cliffhanger. Another humorous, entertaining, fast-paced adventure in this series, and by far, the best one yet.
Publishing Date: April 7th, 2020 (Rick Riordan Presents)
Have you read any of these books or do you plan to? I’d love to hear your thoughts on them!