Review: The Crimson and The Frost by John Williams and James Colletti

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I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

The Crimson and The Frost
by John Williams and James Colletti

CreateSpace, 2013

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The verdict: A modern tale with classic holiday themes best suited for young readers who won’t overthink it.

Kids bored with the annual Christmas specials have something new to look at: The Crimson and the Frost. For whatever reason—maybe the cover art—I expected this book to target a slightly older audience, but it really fits best for middle-grade readers. That said, Williams and Colletti’s novel creates a Santa-Clause-meets-Polar-Express holiday adventure aimed at the gadget-loving, phone-tapping children of the twenty-first century. While the dialogue and conflicts are often trite, the authors mix in plenty of humor to reach their intended audience and keep the plot humming along. The storyline draws on traditional scenery with some creative twists, making a modern Christmas tale with classic themes and messages that parents won’t mind their kids reading.

A 17th-century whaling ship encounters the terrifying and magical King of Winter, but a mysterious and even more powerful force rises to oppose him. In the present day, young Billy Hampton competes for popularity by showing off techno gadgets from his dad’s company to his schoolmates. When Santa’s sleigh lands outside Billy’s window—driven by two bumbling elves who’d left home for a day of New England lobster fishing of all things—he sneakily stows away and winds up in Christmas Town. Along the journey, however, Billy accidentally loses the all-important jewel that powers the sleigh. Billy’s hosts try to hide the news and fix the problem themselves; meanwhile, Jack Frost seizes the opportunity to make his long-awaited move against the toy-building hamlet. While the elves and Billy seek help from Santa, Christmas Town goes on alert as Jack Frost lurks dangerously in the hills.

You see Billy, sometimes the decisions we make seem trivial to us, but can have a profound effect on others.

The light-hearted comedy definitely drives the story, and the elves’ personalities—either endearingly crotchety or hilariously hapless—play off each other to add some laughs. Billy’s tour of Christmas Town approaches something satirical even, which doesn’t mesh with the supposed gravity of the missing jewel and impending danger. Young Billy is a misfit in his own right, struggling to fit in among elves and ruining everything he touches, yet he rarely faces consequences. Even as Frost looms in the distance, the expected catastrophe never truly comes. A later reveal that losing the jewel wasn’t entirely Billy’s fault limits his character development, and the story never reaches the requisite gravitas for a power-packed moral. Still, Billy works toward an others-orientedness, which provides a necessary message for kids of any age. The authors present their take on the true meaning of Christmas directly from Santa’s mouth—a celebration of generosity and joy—but Santa’s own backstory and flashbacks are less interesting than the elves’ present-day conflicts. Critical readers will likely find some editorial issues and mid-section point-of-view shifts distracting, but a thrilling final act uplifts the story to show that even the most unlikely among us can be heroes. The Crimson and the Frost provides a kid-friendly, modern take on Christmas themes. Recommended for young readers looking for a fresh storyline with familiar holiday characters.

Be sure to check out John Williams’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

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Seraphina
by Rachel Hartman

Ember (Reprint Edition), 2014

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The verdict: Original, stirring, epic in scope and intimate in nature, Seraphina pushes beyond the frontiers of dragon fantasy tales.

A friend recommended this book and promised it wasn’t just a typical YA novel, and after diving into the fantasy kingdom of Goredd, I admit that I’m a fan of Seraphina. Hartman’s novel is a true labor of love, showing years of her dreaming and patience in the complex world building and thorough characterization. What struck me even more so was Hartman’s lyrical prose, creating a story that’s not just intelligent but actually beautiful. Seraphina’s musical talent features prominently in the novel, and the chapters themselves contain a sort of melody, adding layers of emotion to a plot already ripe with tension and conflict on many levels.

In a world where dragons can blend into society by taking human forms, Seraphina is a rare half-breed—and she closely guards the secret of her dragon lineage. Her position as a palace music assistant places her in view of numerous characters, including Princess Glisseldsa, sincere yet naive in her entitlements, and her cousin, Lucian Kiggs, a closeted intellectual betrothed to the wrong woman and not quite belonging in the regal world. When a murder in the royal court presents potentially disastrous implications for the long-standing peace treaty with the dragons, Seraphina finds herself teamed up with Kiggs to solve the mystery, and they find more commonalities than first meet the eye. In a strict caste system where the scaly beasts are forbidden to relate too closely with humans, Seraphina’s very existence risks upending the societal detente, but staying silent may be more dangerous still. It’s a story about dragons, royalty, and romantic adventure, but it’s also a story about identity, forgiveness, and the necessary challenge of loving oneself.

“Sometimes the truth has difficulty breaching the city walls of our beliefs. A lie, dressed in the correct livery, passes through more easily.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Hartman’s novel is Seraphina’s “garden,” a mind palace of sorts where she mentally retreats to sort—and contain—the emotions and memories passed down from her dragon mother. In a land steeped in religious traditions, rituals, and moral rigidity, Seraphina’s struggle to belong starts off a bit run-of-the-mill, and readers could quickly tire of sharing her burdens. In the early pages, even her musical talent manages to make her a misfit. Yet several unexpected elements—including the mind palace—save Seraphina from whining too much about her self-imposed isolation, and a strong supporting cast keeps the narrative moving forward. Seraphina’s father is progressive yet cynical; her uncle is peculiar yet instructive. In several clever scenes, dragons must adjust to having not only human bodies but also human emotions, for better or for worse. Where Seraphina soars is in how the reader senses a clear right and wrong while at the same time hesitating to name any one character as all good or all bad. The action slows down enough for readers to form opinions as varied and complicated as the figures in Seraphina’s mind garden, and the challenge of knowing one must act but not quite knowing how to act summarizes the plight of human existence. Thankfully for fans, Hartman already has more in the series. A marvelous exploration of the sacred and profane, the dignified and the ugly, the truth of knowledge and the truth of experience, Seraphina should be on every fantasy lover’s reading list, human, dragon, or otherwise.

Be sure to check out Rachel Hartman’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray

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The Diviners
by Libba Bray

Little, Brown, and Company, 2012

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The verdict: Deeper than many YA novels of its type, the first book in Bray’s series delivers a spunky heroine and solid adventure despite its unanswered questions.

If last year’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them created a hankering for more 1920s occult in New York City,  Libba Bray’s The Diviners might be the just the fix. It’s hefty for a young adult book, nearly 600 pages in the first edition, and at times the novel feels bloated with supporting characters, back stories, and wandering side plots. The central mystery, though, creates enough intrigue to keep the reader interested, and the conclusion provides an action-packed finish while leaving the door open for more to come in the series. As a plus, Bray’s extensive research into the setting lends authenticity to the happenings and places, making the paranormal elements all the more chilling.

Seventeen-year-old Evie O’Neil, a wannabe flapper girl with a secret supernatural gift, is sent from her dull Ohio hometown to live with her uncle in New York City. A grisly murder leads the police to consult Evie’s uncle, a curator of a museum dedicated to folklore and superstition, and Evie soon finds herself involved in the investigation. As the story progresses, readers meet a growing cast of teenagers with mystical powers, each with his or her own secrets, history, and ever-unfolding romantic tensions. Told in short chapters with changing perspectives, the novel revolves around Evie’s hunt for the killer, who proves to have otherworldly origins and growing powers of his own. Some of the secondary plotlines drag in the middle without contributing much to the main attraction, and at times the overlap is a bit hard to follow. Yet, despite the bumps, the last act delivers enough suspense and thrills to lure the wandering reader back in and refocus on Evie.

“‘Oh, sure. Of course, they say now that we’ve got Freud and the motorcar, God is dead.’

‘He’s not dead; just very tired.'”

While Bray easily could have left it at just a good old-fashioned ghost story, she doesn’t, and the push into deeper themes of identity adds a welcome complexity to the novel. Interspersed among the clues toward the murderer are questions of race, class, and religion as victims of abuse and personal tragedy take turns on center stage like the different acts of the Ziegfeld revue. Readers see not just the gruesome violence of a ghost-killer but also the human-led exploitation, prejudice, neglect, and lasting calamity of dreams long deferred. As Evie sneaks out to speakeasies and roaring parties, she remains largely naive to the darkness and hardships of those around her, but the reader gets a front-row seat. Evie’s uncle directly voices the question Bray paints throughout the narrative, wondering, “What sort of god would let this world happen?” Where the novel falters, however, is in Evie’s distance from these issues. Her rebellious attitude starts off as endearing but lacks a pivotal revelation to bring about maturity. Evie largely romps through the city without consequence or second thought while everyone else around her suffers, and she needs little personal sacrifice to obtain what she wants. Even in the most perilous moments, she escapes on her own without needing support or admitting any weakness. As a result, the novel falls flat instead of offering strong responses to the questions it raises, and readers are stranded in the same dark world they start in before the rise of a ghost killer. In the final chapters, it’s unclear who the real enemy is or what’s at stake for the many characters other than learning that sometimes the world can disappoint. Still smarter than many of its peers, The Diviners appeals to lovers of urban fantasy and YA romance, especially with a paranormal twist.

Be sure to check out Libba Bray’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.
If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.