Posts Tagged ‘YA Historical’


“I punched my fists skyward in victory before sweeping my arms out to either side, stretched wide as wings. I felt for that fleeting instant as if I really were the goddess Morrigan in flight, swooping low over a battlefield to collect the souls of the glorious dead.”

About :

Fallon is a Celtic Princess with an ax to grind: Julius Caesar killed her warrior-sister in his battle to conquer Britain (or Prydain, as the Celts call it) and Fallon trains to one day get revenge on the Roman conqueror. But when her father betroths her to her boyfriend’s brother, instead of asking her to join his royal war band, she’s sure she’ll never get the chance after all.

While tracking down her betrothed to confront him, Fallon’s life takes another sharp left turn: slavers capture her and bring her to Rome, where her greatest enemy, Caesar, buys her for his gladiatrix training academy. While Fallon’s Cantii spirit still cries for freedom, she trusts the will of her goddess and trains hard to become the best gladiatrix in Rome. The Valiant is YA Alternate History authored by Lesley Livingston and published February 14th 2017 by Razorbill.

Thoughts :

The Valiant opens with Fallon successfully completing the fabled chariot stunt known as the Morrigan’s Flight, wherein a warrior steps from the chariot’s carriage to the shaft between the running horses and hurls a spear at her target. This lushly detailed and action-filled opening sets the tone for the rest of the book. The first third sucks readers into Fallon’s journey from Roman Britain to Rome itself with the thrum of chariot wheels, the stench of corpse-fouled wells and the chill of the metal torcs that mark you as royalty—or slave.

Then we reach the promise of the premise: Caesar buys Fallon for his gladiatrix training school. The “school” trope is one of my favorites in YA, and this very trope is the “twist” that makes The Valiant an alternate history: though rare, individual female gladiators did exist; but Livingston imagines elite training schools to prepare the female warriors for the Colosseum battles. As in the first third of The Valiant, Livingston brings this premise alive with great details.

One of my favorite examples: when Fallon is training for the Colosseum, she analyzes the different styles and strategies of gladiatorial combat, such as what classes of gladiator the women belong to, depending on their weapons—and what Hunger-Games-like strategies they use to please the crowd of spectators:

Gratia fought in the style of the murmillo gladiators, with sword and heavy shield. It suited her physique—and her penchant for thoughtless brutality—and made her something of a force to be reckoned with in the arena. It also compensated for her utter lack of personality.

And that was something that the masters of the ludi, the gladiatorial games, coveted above all else.


The rest of the plot feels a little stringy and predictable to me, but Fallon’s journey to the school and her struggles there draw the real focus anyway.

And although the character psychology doesn’t always ring true, the politics of identity, race and culture give strong flavor to character interactions and agendas. For example, Fallon chafes against her bondage, disgusted by the idea of battling to satisfy this foreign Roman bloodlust; she can’t understand how the Romans can stomach forcing their slaves to fight like animals. But she also realizes that her tribe and family kept, worked and sold slaves just like the Romans:

We bought them and sold them the same way as we did out cattle. Slaves had meant swept floors and lit fires and clean water carried in heavy clay pots. I was ashamed to admit I had never given them much thought. They just…were. I had been so very blind. And stupid. And now I was learning what it was like to have someone else decide my fate.”

While I expected some action and hoped for some good historical detail, I didn’t at all expect this kind of historical depth. It was such a great surprise!

Overall :

This is exactly what I’m looking for, when I pick up a YA with a historical bent. I want the entertainment and the detail. Balanced pacing, slam-bang action and an engaging level of historical awareness raises this YA Alternate History above the market average. It’s very well edited with invisible prose, active description and almost none of the “telling” that can drone on and on and kill the forward motion in historical fiction.

Recommended To :

Readers who wish Rosemary Sutcliff had written more YA. Or, you know, anyone who likes the idea of reading about female gladiators 😀

****4/5 STARS

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“We’d set out from Crowe at first light, and the grassland seemed endless. But after another few minutes, a crack appeared in the prairie. As we trotted closer, with every second the crack widened and deepened into a vast canyon that spread to the horizon.

A sunken world within our own. Water and glaciers and time had scooped it out, leaving behind a windy river and tall weathered buttes and mazes of ravines. The steep slopes showed all their ancient layers—tawny, black, gray, red—like the diagrams in Father’s geology books.”

Many reviewers have heard this novel described as Indiana Jones meets Romeo and Juliet, and that’s exactly what it is.

Premise :

Professor Cartland and Professor Bolt feud like the Capulets and the Montagues. But these two American professors war over something brand new on the 19th century western frontier: dinosaur bones. Particularly the bones of what young Samuel Bolt likes to call the “rex.” When Samuel Bolt and Rachel Cartland, the teenaged offspring of the rival professors, fall in love, the race to find the rex gets even more complicated. YA Crossover Historical/Western Romance thing. Published October 11, 2016 by Simon and Schuster. Goodreads. Author Link.

Thoughts :

I knew from reading Kenneth Oppel’s Airborne that I could easily love his work. His enthusiasm for the details is contagious and his prose is flawless. His novel Airborne lacks narrative drive and the character development that would have made it a spectacular read, for me; but I was still amazed by the details of the airships and all the research that went into portraying the luxury airliners. So when I saw Every Hidden Thing, I was immensely curious to see how Oppel had developed his writing.

Samuel Bolt and Rachel Cartland narrate the book. Samuel is a budding paleontologist hampered by his father’s reputation as a passionate but unschooled and impoverished “professor.” He knows they must travel to the Badlands to find the dinosaur of dinosaurs, which he dubs “tyrannosaurus rex,” in order to secure their fortunes and reputations.

Then he meets Rachel.

Rachel Cartland is a serious student of paleontology who dreams, above all, of getting a college degree and rising high in the field. She’s a tough girl who recognizes the possibilities that women should and don’t have, in the late 19th century. When she makes a risky but successful move, out in the field, her father reacts badly, and she thinks,

This was not the reaction I’d been hoping for. If I’d been a boy would he have praised me for my devotion, my initiative?”

But she never feels sorry for herself. She just pushes on to the next opportunity. She works hard to get to the Badlands with her father, and when they find one of the rex teeth, she becomes as determined as Samuel to find the prize.

Some reviewers are complaining that Rachel seems cold and unfeeling. On the contrary, I find Rachel the most compelling protagonist of the entire cast. YA often tries and miserably fails to portray the plain, but unusually bright teenage girl. Oppel pulls it off with a brainy first person narration, paired with the life experiences that would realistically go along with her characteristics. I think he imagined Rachel with fantastic precision.

The relationship between Rachel and Samuel brings them both to life, just as the rivalry brings their fathers to life. Rachel doesn’t drive the plot, the way Samuel does, but she does drive Samuel onward. Sam wants nothing so much as to be loved, and Rachel’s admiration and liking inspire him to man up, instead of letting his father run his life. I love their relationship so, so much, although it does get a little more, er, adult, than I would normally green light for a YA novel. It’s just done so well, though!

A few reviewers complained about the romance being “awkward,” and I’m pretty sure I know why. This book breaks all the YA romance stereotypes and I LOVE that about it. But not everyone will. It feels like a historical fiction romance…because that’s what it is. This is not an airbrushed romance because there is nothing discreet about an archaeological dig in the 19th century badlands. In addition, real relationships are hard and require communication; unlike this novel, the typical YA romance fails to accurately convey that reality.

I also love how Oppel brings a personal quality to every subject he examines. Samuel and his father are Quakers, and Oppel manages to share the heart of the Quaker faith while also showing the very fallible representatives humanity can be of faith. The book also takes our travelers straight into the territories of two Native American Plains tribes: Lakota Sioux and Pawnee. Oppel carefully portrays the multitude of confused perspectives on Natives during this time period, then personalizes the Natives and their problems.

Samuel on his pre-badlands experience with Natives:

I didn’t know much about Indians. The only one I’d ever seen, at a circus back home, turned out to be a man in face paint who was actually speaking Latvian.”

But later on, Samuel interacts with the Natives and gives their plight a lot of thought. After he and his crew narrowly survive an attack by an unspecified group of Natives, he offers the perspective,

We’d fight, too…if it were the other way around. Wouldn’t we?”

The Booklist review complains that the ending of the book “smacks of cultural appropriation,” but I love how the ending brings the Sioux mythology to life.

Other Stuff :

I did have two major complaints: (1) The beginning of this book really should tell readers when the book is set. The author’s note at the back helps, but teen readers may not check there and may not realize that the book is set during the late 19th century. (2) The plot involves a few major coincidences, related to finding the rex bones. Thankfully, the book really isn’t about the plot—it’s a very character-driven work.

Overall :

Plot: 3 Stars
Setting: 5 Stars
Characters: 5 Stars
Writing: 5 Stars

The average of these scores is 4.5 stars, but I don’t care. I’m rounding up to five stars because this book deserves every single one. Not only does Oppel perfectly develop the characters and the dry hope of the American dream out West, he examines religious life and Natives with the same amount of care, all in the context of a gripping drama.

*****5/5 STARS

Recommendation :

I’m going to recommend ages 16+ on this one, mostly because of the schmexy scenes (yes, there are multiple). [It explores the rocky beginning of a marriage. (hide spoiler)] But really…I loved this book. Highly recommended to fans of historical fiction and crossover YA. I already got a copy for my library!

“Your mother is Wallachia.”

Premise :

The young royals Ladislav and Radu Dragwlya are sold from their homeland of Wallachia into the heart of the 15th century Ottoman Empire. Lada never stops dreaming of her country, but Radu finds a new home in Islam and in the friendship of Mehmed, son of the Sultan. But even as prince Mehmed works his way into both Lada’s and Radu’s hearts, he dreams of ruling and even expanding his father’s empire over more lands like Wallachia. As the three friends grow up together, their very different paths and desires strain the bonds of love.

YA Historical, published 2016 by Delacorte Press.

About :

And I Darken focuses primarily on the desires and nuanced relationships of the three main characters. But within this context, the book also explores the period politics.

If we were not pushing, fighting, claiming what is ours and challenging what is not yet ours, others would be doing it to us. It is the way of the world. You can be the aggressor, you can fight against Crusaders on their own land, or you can stay at home and wait for them to come to you. And they would come. They would come with fire, with disease, with swords and blood and death. Weakness is an irresistible lure.”

It’s a simplified, intensely character-driven Game of Thrones, Ottoman royal teen edition. Except…this really isn’t fantasy. It’s historical fiction with a twist: Vlad the Impaler is a girl.

What I Liked :

(1) The characters. The perfectly mapped, clear desire lines of the two narrators, Lada and Radu, relentlessly drew me through the pages; this is their shared Bildungsroman. But the characterization continues far beyond just them. The author writes all the characters with care, including Mehmed, Lada’s hilarious cohort of Janissary soldiers and even minor female characters of the harem.

I love how different women characters explore the power dynamics available to them, especially Lada, the female version of Vlad the Impaler. She’s so careful as she weighs her options [highlight to read spoiler: of ruling her own country, or co-ruling the empire that conquered her country in the first place. Mara’s defeat of the harem system seems to inspire Lada’s rejection of “the woman card.”].

Lada’s chapters give me almost everything I wanted from this book. They show off the Ottoman landscape, politics and battle-tactics. Lada considers herself a freedom fighter, and she professes her patriotism well, in an exchange with prince Mehmed:

I would sooner see my country burned than see it improved under Ottoman rule. Not everywhere needs to be remade in your image. If we were not so busy constantly defending our borders and being trespassed by other nations’ armies, we would be able to care for our own!”

My favorite part of Radu’s chapters is his devotion to Islam and the devotion of other characters who led him to it.

(2) The prose works overtime to bring each character and setting to life. For example, Radu wishes he could see the prince, as they march to one of the crusades, but…:

“But Murad’s and Mehmed’s forces were on different ends of the procession, separating Radu and Mehmed by a full day’s march. The sheer logistics of moving this many men and this much equipment was staggering.”

They’re in the same war party, but they’re separated by a full day’s march?! That is staggering! It really brings home the enormous size of these battles.

What I Disliked :

While the love triangle is both unique and well-written, involving sibling rivalry and themes of patriotism vs. love, it does steal some of the focus from the politics and war, especially at the end. The tension ratios are thus:

35% love triangle, mostly thanks to Radu’s chapters; 65% war and medieval secret service.

This is actually a great ratio, for YA; but while I enjoyed some of the romantic scenes, angsty drama does get old. I preferred Lada’s scenes because she’s constantly plotting some exhibition of her battle skills or saving Mehmed from assassination. I wanted to know more about her study of war strategy. I wanted to spend more real time with her crew of Janissaries.

I wanted to hear less of Radu’s whining.

Basically, I wanted this to be “Bernard Cornwell writes the Ottoman Empire.” I got about 70% of that, and it was awesome. But the rest consisted of historical romance + teen angst – hot sex.

The Ending :

Overall, the book doesn’t finish as strongly as the first 370 pgs predict. The ending feels sloppier than the carefully-plotted beginning and middle—the protagonists “discover” the antagonist’s grand plan with vague guesswork; plot points are suddenly explained in brief dialogues, instead of experienced; the prose slackens with lazy physical telling. It feels a little like the author tired of revisions or ran out of time for them.

Thankfully, a great plot twist saves the book from a so-so climax. I also love the final scene [highlight to read spoiler: at the Wallachian border. Even though the ending is bittersweet and totally reminds me of Gone With the Wind, I cheered when Lada and her men returned to their homeland. It’s irritating that she and Mehmed can’t just work something out, like making Lada be a warrior queen and keeping their relationship. Couldn’t they build an alliance, but still remain separate countries? I’m sure that’s completely historical untenable, but this isfiction! Haha. That would have been a cooler ending, imo. Just sayin’.].

Recommendation :

Perfection for fans of YA fiction. In fact, if you like YA at all, I’ll almost guarantee you’ll like this book. Fans of Bernard Cornwell’s historical action/adventure may have a more lukewarm response because neither Lada nor Radu do a lot of fighting. Fans of historical romance might really enjoy the book, though, if they don’t mind the lack of bedsport 😉 I will definitely recommend this book to some teens (in fact, I already have), despite the annoyances of teen angst.

After all, teens are living through it. I’m sure it’s more interesting to them.

4.5/5 STARS