The Queen’s Gambit (Book Review)

The Queen’s Gambit (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you enjoyed Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Queen’s Gambit (Book 1 of Imirillia)

By Beth Brower

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Don’t confuse this with Walter Tevis’s chess novel. It’s completely different.

I adored The Q, so I’m making Beth Brower’s books a priority. This one is far less complex (and much shorter) than The Q, but it’s still a worthy read, especially if you love character-driven royal dramas with lots of politics.

The bountiful land of Aemogen is a self-contained country that has little to do with the surrounding nations. When Imirillia, a battle-hardened nation to the north, declares war on the soft Aemogen people, the queen, Eleanor, must figure out how to ready her peaceful farmers for war against a foe that is more numerous and skilled than they can ever hope to be. It’s like The Shire vs. Mordor.

She finds unexpected help when Wil Traveler, a wandering soldier, arrives at court. Asking him to train her troops is a gamble, but she takes the risk.

This book moved slowly, without too much high action. This first installment in the series is more about establishing character dynamics, which, I’m sure set the stage for the second and third books. The characters are good—flawed and riddled with issues. There is also a lot of worldbuilding to clue us in on the traditions and ethos of the two warring nations. I think this is important to know going in.

There’s also a slow-burn romance that is not cheesy. Executing a romantic subplot without cheese on top is no small feat, but I love the way Beth Brower approaches it. You can hand this to any teenager without fear. It’s clean as a whistle without feeling sanitized.

This book doesn’t provide a ton of closure at the end. It doesn’t completely satisfy as a standalone book. The external plot wraps up, but the internal plot is just getting started, so you do feel compelled to read the next book. That’s also important to know going in.

I’m notorious for reading the first book in a series and never continuing. But, I might just keep going with this YA medieval adventure!

4.5
The Master of Tides (Book Review)

The Master of Tides (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want to read a hidden gem by an author with a Christian worldview

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Master of Tides

By Jamin Still

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

An unlikely crew of young people must save the land from an evil sorcerer

The setting for this story is really refreshing. I haven’t read anything with quite this mix. Here, in the first book in the series, we start in a seaside industrial town. Then, we’re on the road with a circus. Then, we’re in a dark, fantastical wood. Then the open sea. It’s not typical medieval times in Hibaria.

I enjoyed Cora as a heroine, but I think I liked Will more. He was much spunkier, and Victoria was a tortured soul. But Cora makes sense as the protagonist because she has the most growing to do.

I know that authors sometimes fear dumping too much worldbuilding on the reader, but, because Hibaria has such a unique mythos, I kept forgetting certain aspects that popped up later, such as the role of the constellations and Augrind’s backstory.

Even though this is the first book in the series, and it ends with setup for the next book, there was good closure here. No cliffhangers, just a few twists.

I think that kids around 12 and up would enjoy this, and the morals are sterling.

3.8
The Book of Three (Book Review)

The Book of Three (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want to read a kid-friendly quest-story that feels like Lord of the Rings

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Book of Three

By Lloyd Alexander

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

An unskilled young boy is forced into a quest where he must face menacing, magical foes

My 7- and 8-year-old boys REALLY enjoyed this. This is the first book in a fantasy series in the tradition of LOTR (the parallels are unmistakable). So, it would be a fun series for kids who aren’t quite ready for Lord of the Rings yet—or, on the other side of the coin, kids who have read LOTR (bless them) and want something that feels similar.

This book is a rescue/quest. Taran, our preteen hero, has just one job: keep the magical pig in her pen. But, when an evil warrior and his minions ride into the vicinity, the pig runs for her life, and Taran runs after her.

The story starts quickly and there’s swift pacing throughout. By chapter two, we see Taran plunge into the forbidden woods after the pig. From there, he meets many friends and foes. He’s tested and transformed. It’s got everything you want in a medieval adventure.

The reason why I gave it four instead of five stars is because the climax was a bit soft, and the ending abrupt. This is the first book in a series, so, hey, there’s more! But as a book in its own right, the ending was a bit wah-wah.

Content warnings: There are the normal swordfights and battles that you’d expect in a book like this. The description of the Horned King (pictured on the cover) may be a little much for sensitive kids. There is one quick mention of the bad guys making human sacrifices (gross). And one of the female foes has a particularly wicked interaction with our main characters…but it’s easily self-censored if you’ve got littler kids listening.

4
Tress of the Emerald Sea (Book Review)

Tress of the Emerald Sea (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re a fan of swashbuckling underdogs and strong narrative voice

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Tress of the Emerald Sea

By Brandon Sanderson

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A cup-loving small-island girl is forced out of her comfort zone to rescue her true love in a fantasy world where pirates roam the spore seas

Brandon Sanderson wrote this book for his wife, Emily, and he wrote it in secret, without telling a soul except her. He wanted to write something that would entertain and delight her. In his Postscript, he said he wanted to write something free from business constraints and fan expectations. His goal? A fairy-tale-adjacent story that appeals to adults. Something with a similar feel to The Princess Bride and Good Omens.

The result? Pure FUN. As I was reading, I could feel how much fun he was having. The book feels light and effortless, even though it ventures into grave danger and looks into the face of evil. Like Bride, it’s making fun of itself slightly. Like Bride, it doesn’t feel dark. In fact, it’s downright optimistic.

If modern writers can draw any conclusions from Sanderson’s experiment, it seems to me that writing free of business and fan pressures is a great place to start. Sometimes, when I’m reading a book, I can sense the social and political stress that the author was feeling—make sure you check these boxes…definitely can’t say X, Y or Z…just go ahead and sanitize the book of any real meaning, but fill it with messages that have been approved by the culture at large. Kay?

Those books confuse me. But books like this ring clear as a bell. And I absolutely adored Hoid’s narrative voice, and, can I just say, Sanderson is a genius to include a world-hopping character like this in all his books. Talk about giving your fans something to discuss forever and ever amen.

Content warnings: There are the usual things you’d expect with a swashbuckling rescue story, such as death, fights, and such. But there is nothing overly graphic. Very few curses (if any) and no sex.

4.9
The Black Cauldron (Book Review)

The Black Cauldron (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want to read a high fantasy rescue story filled with dramatic dilemmas

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Black Cauldron

By Lloyd Alexander

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Everyone’s favorite assistant pig-keeper is off on another adventure, but this one will test him to the core.

Dilemmas. That’s why this book is so good. The characters are faced with one impossible choice after another until the very last chapter. My boys and I really enjoyed this second installment in the Prydain Chronicles.

The evil Arwan is gaining power. To stop him, Gwydion gathers a crew of loyal Prydainians to sneak into his fortress and steal the black cauldron—the wicked pot he uses to create undead warriors for his army. Naturally, everything goes wrong, and Taran must learn what it means to make hard choices—all by himself.

This book was better than the first one, and I think it’s worth reading the first book in order to experience this sequel more richly.

This is HIGH fantasy in the same vein as Tolkien. It’s hard to miss the parallels between LOTR and these books. But, these books are much shorter and accessible to a younger audience. My 7- and 8-year-olds wouldn’t be able to read them solo, but they can understand them perfectly well when I read aloud (and clarify some of the high-brow vocab). The books are written in a lofty, grand tone.

Again, this book was great because of the series of difficult choices that the characters faced. I felt like the plot was tight and economical. Overall, YES.

Content warnings: Nothing overly concerning. Several characters die, and one must sacrifice him/herself in one scenario.

4.9
The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams (Book Review)

The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
only the most creative of children’s books will do

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams

By Daniel Nayeri

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

It started slow.

Reading this at night as a fabulous yet decidedly middle-aged mommy who is worn-out tired by the end of the day…I will admit that I found myself nodding off during the first half of this book.

But the second half is worth it!

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a kids’ book with such a grand payoff at the end. I almost don’t want to write anything more so that you can enter this book as blindly as I did.

Now, I will say that the first line of this book is a knockout, but after that, I was a little disoriented and unsure where it was all going. It took me a few chapters to get my bearings and figure out which characters were important. This book isn’t nearly as disjointed as Everything Sad Is Untrue, Nayeri’s debut. It’s much more cohesive with a linear plot and all that. It just took me a bit to sink in.

The plot picks up greatly after we learn that Samir, who is not the protagonist, is being pursued by several colorful bounty hunters. What could be a tense chase is rendered by Nayeri into a thumping frolic along the Silk Road.

I’m a sucker for a solid theme, and this book has one. Friendship and family—what are they, and is life worth living if you have none? What are friendship and family worth, and what would you trade them for? The worldview is not overtly Christian, but there is good moral soil here.

HOWEVER, this book does not shy away from the truth that people are complex. For example, Samir is kind and loyal, but he’s the folkloric version of a used car salesman, exaggerating and outright lying on the regular. Most characters are a mix of good and bad, which makes them interesting, but some young readers will need guidance here.

Content warnings: Samir is almost assassinated six times, but these encounters are not overly gruesome or graphic. As long as your kids are mature enough to understand what a bounty hunter is, then they’ll be fine. Some parents will want to know that a mix of faiths are shown here, and none with great reverence. Samir often lies that he belongs to a certain religion so he can butter up a customer. I find this good material for age-appropriate discussion with kids.

4.5
The Breeder Cycle (Book Series Review)

The Breeder Cycle (Book Series Review)

You’ll love it if
you wish you could reread The Hunger Games for the first time

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Breeder Cycle (Breeder, Criminal, Clone)

By K. B. Hoyle

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Here’s a YA dystopia that isn’t bleak

Wow. I inhaled this trilogy, and I’m very picky when it comes to my teen dystopias. This series has a lot in common with The Hunger Games, but it’s much less depressing. In fact, it is incredibly life-affirming. But it’s most definitely for teens—no younger.

So, we’ve got a strong female lead, who lives in a futuristic society that’s tried to rid the world of inequality by making people the same—as “same” as they can get them. All aspects of life are controlled by the powers that be. Our young, female protagonist works as a Breeder. Her job is to birth babies for the new world. You already recognize a slew of elements from other popular YA books, right?

Well, something happens to our main character, Pria. She begins to feel discontented with her “perfect” life. She begins to ask questions—gasp! This puts her in danger, and she must face the truth about her society and the role she plays within it.

The strength of this series is the plot and pacing. It’s tight and effortless to read. There is a satisfying character-driven B plot.

Honestly, if you’ve got a thing for YA dystopia, this series is a really great choice!

4