Tournment of Books Round 3: The Walls Around Us vs. An Ember in the Ashes

Man, this was a tough choice. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma and An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir are both really strong titles. They are just so different.

The Walls Around Us is “Orange Is the New walls around usBlack” meets “Black Swan”. Violet is a promising young ballerina on her way to Julliard. Three years ago, her best friend Ori was convicted for murdering two ballerinas in their company. But who exactly actually committed the crime? Our other narrator is Amber who is serving time in a women’s juvenile detention center in Upstate New York for murdering her stepfather. Throughout the story, the reader is confronted with questioning the guilt, innocence, and reliability of all three girls. Suma’s writing is creepy and strange. She twists reality in ways that push this book beyond realistic fiction, but not quite into paranormal fiction either. The Walls Around Us deals with female relationship dynamics, bullying, revenge, violence against women, and the tremendous pressures of young adulthood.

An Ember in the Ashes is a really well-fleshed out fantasy saga. Elias is a top military trainee in a martial society (this book was inspired by ancient Rome). He has all the privilege and power a citizen of the Empire could want, yet, he doesn’t actually want it. He detests violence despite being a skilled fighter and strategist. His struggles with morality within the confines of this oppressive world are wholly original and genuine. Laia is on the opposite end of the spectrum. She is a Scholar, the conquered people ruled over by the Martials. A Mask, the type of soldier Elias is training to become, takes Laia’s family from her. Thus, she chooses to become a slave to the violent Commandant of the military academy in order to spy for the Resistance who promises to help break her brother out of the Empire’s prisons. Yet, of Elias and Laia, who has more freedom? Who is making better choices? This struggle for agency and humanity is what makes this book stand out among similar fantasy/dystopia novels.

While Tahir’s fast-paced story is more engaging, it feels almost unfair to compare a well-fleshed-out fantasy saga to something that is pushing the boundaries of realistic and paranormal fiction. Tahir has more to work with just because of the ember in the ashesgenre; fight scenes, mind-reading immortal creatures, explosions, sexy revolutionaries, spies, torture, sexual tension, etc.  I think Nova Ren Suma is more skilled as a writer. Tahir’s similes and metaphors are often clichéd and repetitive. Suma uses her writing to confuse the reader; the plot relies on her strong imagery and characterization through internal monologues. Tahir’s writing, however, is simply a vehicle to deliver a great story. She relies on dialogue and action to deliver the punches far more than Suma needs to.

While I respect Nova Ren Suma for doing something really unique, I have to pick An Ember in the Ashes as the winner. Sabaa Tahir’s characters grapple with interesting challenges both internal and external in a well-built world. She has great command of the plot. She maintains the tension to keep you reading (to the point where you might skip ahead to the next chapter when she switches narrators). As my meter for readability is “Which book made me late for work the most?” I have to go with An Ember in the Ashes.


Reviewed by Kim Naples, Prospect Heights Public Library District


Tournament of Books Round 3: Red Queen vs. The Alex Crow

This was an interesting match-up for two reasons. 1) I have issues with Andrew Smith. 2) I really liked The Scorpion Rules, and was disappointed that it didn’t move to the second round. Despite my personal feelings, I tried really hard to judge both of these books on their own merits.alex crow

The Alex Crow is made up of four intertwined male-centric stories. Two of the storylines follow Ariel, an orphaned refugee from a never-explicitly-named country, who has been adopted by an American family and sent to a Kafkaesque summer camp for boys to bond with his new brother, Max. A third storyline follows the schizophrenic melting man on an epic road trip. The fourth is a diary from a horrific sea voyage undertaken by a ship named The Alex Crow, which provides backstory to the rest of the novel.

Although I was captivated by the Ariel’s camp story and background story, Smith made it hard to judge The Alex Crow on its merits when he had Ariel think things like, “I hadn’t known [my adoptive mother] very long, but who could ever get to know that woman, anyway?” This thought repeats sentiments Smith has expressed in an interview. So, I wasn’t able to set aside my biggest issue with Smith. As much as I enjoyed Ariel’s two storylines, I was disappointed that the female characters are so underdeveloped. Besides the unknowable mother, there are Mrs. Nussbaum (a Battleaxe Nurse trope) and Crystal Lutz, an accordion-playing figment of the melting man’s imagination.

Still, the good stuff is really good. The boys’ experiences at camp are funny. I even chuckled at Max’s constant stream of masturbation jokes. Ariel’s refugee experience is gripping and heartbreakingly believable. I would have liked The Alex Crow better if Smith had stuck to Ariel’s two narrative strands, and devoted more creative energy to developing his female characters. The melting man turns out to be a red herring, anyway; and the voyage of The Alex Crow could have been condensed within a short passage from Mrs. Nussbaum’s book, which Ariel reads at camp.

red queenI began reading Red Queen a few days ago with high hopes. I generally enjoy fantasy, scifi, superhero, and dystopia stories – all elements contained within this attractively-bound book. In a nutshell, Mare Barrow is a member of the oppressed Reds who discovers that she has a special power that simultaneously makes her useful to and a threat to the wealthy, powerful Silvers. Complicating matters are three guys with three different agendas, all pulling her head and heart in three different directions. Can she use her newfound ability and position to help her people? And which guy will she choose? It had me at hello.

Then Silver blood was spilled, and my brain had trouble suspending disbelief. Humans with silver blood? I found myself wondering what could make blood that color, and went so far as to google it. Did you know there is a species of Antarctic fish that has translucent white blood? It’s because it has no hemoglobin! That doesn’t explain how a race of humans could evolve to survive without hemoglobin in their blood (the fish don’t need it because they live in very oxygen-rich water). Never mind, let’s just assume that aliens were involved. If the Silvers are a new race of alien/human/mutant/superheroes, though, did they really need to be white? Silvers turn white when they blush – they are literally the whitest people ever.

Still, when I was able to shut off my brain and not think too much, I enjoyed Red Queen. It features a plucky heroine, some good action, a few pleasing twists, and plenty of teen angst. Though the big twist suffers from too much foreshadowing, I did get swept up in the climactic battle at the end. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late to elevate Red Queen from the middle of the dystopia pack.

Granted, it really just needed to rise above The Alex Crow. The truth is, when I think about Red Queen, it wasn’t just the silver blood that bothered me. Aveyard’s world-building in general wasn’t very thorough; and while she created a Strong Female Character in Mare, her other characters seemed a bit flat. I actually wanted to learn more about Evangeline, Mare’s main rival. She was depicted as a heartless bitch, and I felt like she got short shrift. Descriptions of places were vague, and the kingdom of Norta never came to life for me. I wish I could have seen the map that Mare studied at Summerton.

That’s why The Alex Crow is the victor in this battle. As flawed as it is, Ariel and Max lived and breathed from beginning to end. Maybe I’m a sucker for orphans and masturbation jokes?


Reviewed by Donna Block, Niles Public Library District



Tournament of Books Round 2: Mosquitoland vs. Red Queen

Mosquitoland by David Arnold deals with issues of depression, blended families, divorce and mental illness. Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard is a fantasy with royal power struggles and a society divided by blood type which is an interesting concept in world building.

It’s all M’s in Mosquitoland – Mim Malone travels from Mississippi (Mosquitoland) to visit her Mother. Her parents have remosquitoland_finalcently divorced, the dad remarried quickly and the new family moved to Mississippi from Ohio.   Mim, a very unhappy member of these new family, hops a bus on the overdone road trip plot device of Young Adult Fiction. Of course she meets interesting, strange and dangerous people who engage her in philosophical moments as she comes to enlightenment. I found most of the characters perplexing. Although road trip fiction is a well-worn device, I do not mean to trivialize this book since mental illness is serious and Mim is an empathetic character who is coping with loss and depression.

Venturing from realistic to fantasy fiction, Red Queen transports the reader to a world of Silver elites with supernatural powers who control the Red underclass with cruel tyranny. While serving royalty in the palace, Mare Barrow discovers she has the ability to control lightning in a freak accident. Since Reds do not have powers the Queen must present Mare as a long lost Silver Princess and she becomes engaged to the Prince. The political intrigue that follows is fascinating and frightening. Mare Barrow is an intelligent, compassionate and strong female protagonist. The well edited writing and twists and turns plot devices provide an exciting and fast paced reading experience. Characterization is complex with psychological queen

Mosquitoland and Red Queen are both notable works of teen fiction. Red Queen has similar elements of the avalanche of dystopian trilogy novels but its uniqueness stands out as Victoria Aveyard masterly inscribes an intricate world. Red Queen moves on to the next bracket.


Reviewed by Mary Miller, Niles Public Library

Tournament of Books Round 1: The Alex Crow vs. Ink and Bone

Two books- one set in (mostly) modern day with a splash of sci/fi vs a dystopian fantasy novel- which one will win and move on in the tournament?! alex crow

The Alex Crow written by Andrew Smith is weird, Weird, WEIRD. Smith’s books typically revolve around teen boys and extreme situations, and this book follows suit. There are several seemingly unrelated stories that somehow end up intersecting and are relayed through different narrators. The narrators and different story arcs include a boy named Ariel from the Middle East who survives his town’s slaughter and then his journey to freedom and eventual adoption by an American family, a schizophrenic man on a mad mission, a failed naval expedition to the Arctic from the late 1800’s, maladjusted boys at summer camp and a tech company that is developing biological implants. Ariel and his adoptive brother Max’s adventures at camp are absurd but terribly honest, and you learn about one hundred different and raunchy ways to say masturbation. This is a layered story that is deeper than one might think in the beginning, with thought provoking issues. If you resist the urge the put the book down in the beginning, you will not be disappointed with the end!

ink-and-boneInk and Bone written by Rachel Caine was the opposite reading experience, where I was intrigued in the beginning, but let down at the end. In a steampunk dystopian alternate world, the Alexandria Library never burned, leading libraries to gain great knowledge to be kept hoarded away from the masses, with personal ownership of books outlawed. Jess Brightwell, whose family business is smuggling books to the rich, is accepted as an apprentice to be trained to enter the Great Library’s ranks. He and his fellow recruits are winnowed down to a smaller group by their teacher Scholar Wolfe, and later sent on a dangerous mission to help retrieve some original books from a war torn region. The book has several parallels to the Harry Potter series such as students trying to find their footing at a new school, a cold teacher who is not what he seems, and fighting against a powerful evil. I tire of almost all Science Fiction/Fantasy novels having to be series, often leading to long winded and confusing plot lines. As expected this book is the first in a series, so the ending is set up to continue storylines that were left open ended.

Both books deal primarily with male main characters, include a large group of motley side characters and are action driven, making them well matched. I liked both main characters, but Ariel in The Alex Crow was the more enduring of the two, with me rooting for his hard won happy ending. While Ink and Bone had many merits and I originally thought it would win, I wasn’t invested enough in the story, due to its several convoluted plot threads, to want to continue the series. Thus, the stand alone novel, The Alex Crow, is the winner!


Reviewed by Nancy Reimer McKay, Ella Johnson Memorial Library

Tournament of Books Round 1: Court of Fives vs. An Ember in the Ashes

In Court of Fives by Kate Elliot, Jessamy wants nothing more than to participate in the Game of Fives which includes rigorous obstacle courses. Some of the paths can be deadly if you don’t make sure you have your footing right. Much to her dismay, there is no way that her father would ever let her participate in the trials but Jessamy has no intention of following his orders.
court of fives
On the day Jessamy is to participate, her father comes home from war as a hero and she is torn between trying to be the dutiful daughter or following her heart and participating in the Fives. What happens next is a complete undoing of the world she has come to know. Not only will she meet someone during the game who will play an intricate role in her future, but her whole family will be torn apart all to serve another man’s greed for power.

This book has a older world feel to it that would perhaps be best compared to early Paris or Rome. Wars constant and men are judged by their valor and how many sons they have. There is also a very firm hierarchy of classes and a firm belief in folklore which is passed down through the generations. The book is a page-turner but there are times when the story slows down or goes too much into the historical that I did feel a little disinterested though these were few and far between. Overall I would say this is a book I would recommend to fans of dystopian or historical fiction of this time period.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir contains a world that works like a Roman Empire which is filled with nothing but danger for all. Two individuals from opposite worlds, but share a common view for their own future, just might have the courage to break the bonds that chain them.

ember in the ashes
Laia is a Scholar slave, the lowest of the low in the ranks of the Martial Empire is fighting to find her brother and break him out of prison. Elias is a Mask, a warrior who has known nothing other than fighting and training as an empire soldier since age six. Two completely different lives yet the both only long for freedom from this world which is filled with violence and uncertainty. Both live in fear and both want to change the world. Elias wants people treated equal but lives in fear that he will be discovered deserting and will be killed. Laia just wants to survive her time as a servant under the watchful and terrifying eye of the Commander. Death is a possibility for her every day and the Commander is merciless. Yet Laia tries to get information to the Resistance in order to gain her brother’s freedom.
But when Laia and Elias meet, worlds collide. Both are guarded against each other yet are yearning to find out more about the other. Especially when they discover they have the same views. But to let people know they know each other is almost certain death and they both have something much bigger to survive.
This is an edge of your seat book in a world determined to crush all those who don’t follow the rules. You will be amazed at Laia and Elias’s will to survive and the trials they will overcome. The world and the characters are realistic and moving. Not a book to be overlooked and an amazing production for a debut author.


Reviewed by Shelley Daugherty, Library Media Specialist at Richwoods High School, Peoria, IL

Tournament of Books Round 1: The Red Queen vs. The Scorpion Rules

The Scorpion Rules is set in a world where climate change has nations warring over water. Talis, the keeper of the “peace” turns to an ancient method for forcing nations to be civil to each other. Sons and daughters of world leaders are raised scorpion rulestogether in Prefectures, where they go to school, farm the land, and live with the constant knowledge that if their parent declares war on another country they will be killed.

Greta is the Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederation, a “child of peace” held hostage in the Prefecture. Greta is dignified and restrained. She is a leader amongst her peers and knows the importance of following rules. Enter Elias. Due to a newly declared war in the former United States, Elias becomes a child of peace as a rebellious teen. Elias ignores the rules, endures punishment for breaking those rules and continually pushes the boundaries in the Prefecture. This fractures Greta’s world a little bit. She begins to question her role in this elaborate system and discovers truths about herself and her world that change everything and lead her to make a startling sacrifice.

The Red Queen is set in Norta, a kingdom where society is divided by blood type. Silvers are on top. They rule the world and everyone else in it. Their silver blood gives them super powers that they use to control water and fire and even get inside other people’s heads. Reds are born either to serve the Silvers, or to fight their wars.

Mare Barrow is a Red. She is a skilled pickpocket who ends up working inside the king’s castle where she unlocks a power she did not know she had. Mare has the power to control lightening even though her blood runs red. If one drop of her blood is seen it could topple the Silver Empire. To cover up the truth, the king forces Mare to play the role of a long lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his sons. Mare takes this opportunity to work as an insider with the Red rebel group, the Scarlet Guard, and learns that she has more enemies and more allies than she thought she did in her fight for justice.

The verdict…..So, let’s red queenstart with full disclosure. Of all the books I could have been given to review, The Scorpion Rules had me excited in a way that no other book ever has. Not only am I married to a Canadian, I’m married to a Canadian who is from Halifax, and I spent two wonderful (albeit broke and chilly) years living there. Each time Halifax was mentioned it added a little spark of excitement to the story. I read those passages aloud to my husband and had fun talks with my daughters (who spend their summers in Halifax with their grandparents) about where the castle would be located (Citadel Hill is what we decided, in case you are wondering). I LOVED that. But I promise, it didn’t sway my verdict, just added to the fun.

While The Red Queen seems more familiar, with themes that have been played out before, it was done so well that I thoroughly enjoyed it. The Red Queen was a bit of a slow burn that started quiet and then ramped up, didn’t stop and then ended with a wonderfully wicked twist. The Scorpion Rules had me engrossed at the start. Erin Bow’s storytelling and world building are outstanding, but the story got a bit buried in the details and it couldn’t quite hold my attention at the end. I think that, in this dystopian death match, the best way to pick a winner is to consider which sequel I will be more compelled to read, and that book hands down is The Red Queen.


Reviewed by Joanie Sebastian, Des Plaines Public Library

Round Two: Lying and Cursing

I was given the difficult task of choosing between We Were Liars and Winner’s Curse. Because I gave five stars to both of these books after I read them the first time, deciding between the two involved rereading and reevaluating the reasons why I loved them so.we were liars

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart is about Cady, her affluent privileged family, and a mystery surrounding her sudden illness. Liars is narrated by Cady, an unreliable character, and this sets the mysterious tone. Her family is all about appearances and although Cady doesn’t share this philosophy, she suffers it until she meets Gat. Gat isn’t just a handsome, charming Indian boy; he’s the antithesis of the Sinclairs and what Cady wants to be. In the process, she develops a crush. Her desire to impress him causes her to suffer fools and to make a life-changing mistake. The Sinclair family is reinterpreted by way of King Lear through short fairy tales and these tales cause Cady to see her family for what they are-three women manipulated by their father. We see Cady grow through these stories and by the end of the novel, she no longer “suffers fools,” in other words, become angry with stupid people.

Liars has lovely characters that all contributed to the story. Although it’s been done before, weaving King Lear and Wuthering Heights into the novel provided an alternative way of telling a story about love, family, and friendship. Given that most teenagers reading this novel don’t have their own island, the desire to be different from one’s family and to be loved for who you are, is relatable.

Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is about Kestrel, a seventeen year old Valorian, who’s the daughter of the general. In a land where you are either in the military or married, Kestrel must find a way to achieve happiness with her inevitable decision but her life becomes derailed when she buys a Herrani slave.

Let me begin by saying that Kestrel is a badass and by far one of the best heroines I’ve read in a long time. Since the invention of Katniss, female protagonists in YA fiction are all great fighters or fast runners or the chosen one with all the good magic. What happened to the Hermiones? To the girls who use their brain to outwit their opponents? That girl has returned and her name is Kestrel Trajan. Although Kestrel is the daughter of a general and receives combat lessons on the regular, she is not a good fighter or does she pretends to be. She is a strategist. Throughout the novel, Kestrel’s father possesses strong philosophies of war and weakness and winning. Kestrel listens intently and manages to use other people’s weakness to defeat them. She outwits her father, the leader of the Herrani revolution, and the emperor. Winner’s Curse is a love story that takes its time to build a world of powerful empires and forbidden love.winner's curse

Verdict: Both novels are beautifully written and have powerful themes. Liars is very black and white. It’s about a girl who doesn’t like her family and manipulative granddad and makes a horrible mistake-that’s it. After the tragedy, the family doesn’t change. They relish in their new celebrity status. Cady says she’s changed because she no longer “suffers fools” but because the story ends so abruptly, we don’t know if she truly changed. Does she do charity work? Does she go to college and become a different person than her family? We don’t know. Liars is a great story but there are no other themes or lessons other than there are consequences to your actions-very black and white.

Winner’s Curse however contains many gray areas. It’s not just a love story but about a girl who struggles with her duty to her people and her father or helping the slaves and the man she loves. It’s not just about war but about defeating your opponents through their weaknesses-love, gossip, and pride. It’s about the choices one makes to let a loved one go and the sacrifice of oneself for the greater good. Winner’s is slow and purposeful and exciting.

Although We Were Liars is a literary novel and deemed “good literature” and Winner’s Curse is a fantasy, Winner’s Curse possesses more themes and life lessons.

Winner: The Winner’s Curse