One of the exciting things that happens on Jan 1 is the announcement of the Cybils Award shortlists. If you're looking for good childrens/YA books to read, these lists are a great place to start. This year I'm judging the YA Speculative Fiction category, so I get to read all seven of these books and discuss them intensely over the next few weeks with my fellow judges. (If anyone has any tips on how to get a bunch of images to line up neatly in Blogger, I would welcome the advice!)
Thanks to the Round 1 judges for an appealing and very diverse list to judge amongst! I can't say anything more about them until we make our decision and announce a winner.
So, in the meantime, I'll review another new Rachel Neuemier novel that came out this year.
The Mountain of Kept Memory is "technically" an adult book (Neumeier's words), I suppose because the characters are older than typical YA protagonists, but I think it totally works as YA. That gorgeous cover is just perfect for it: conveys the really beautiful world-building—kingdom in peril, prince and princess trying to save it—but with a hint that this isn't your typical magic kingdom fantasy, because it isn't.
Oressa is one of my favourite princess characters yet. In the opening scene she is crouched uncomfortably in a hiding place so she can overhear the King and his counsellors decide that the best way to placate an invading prince is to marry her off to him. I love that she is clever and subtle, afraid to be noticed, but defiant enough that she will have none of this. She and her brother come up with their own plan, which might count as treason depending on how you define treason ...
I love the relationship between Oressa and her brother Gulien. I love the way royal family dynamics are so true to families everywhere but with nation-changing implications. One of the things Neumeier is very good at is having multiple characters with conflicting agendas, all of which you can empathize with and get invested in. Even the really bad guys—they have plans that make perfect sense given their understanding of the way the world works. And the interplay between everyone's different understandable motivations makes for an interestingly twisty plot. It can't be possible that everyone you've come to care about actually gets what they want in the end!
Another thing Neumeier does well is invent original magic systems that are cool and interesting and make complete sense. I particularly enjoyed the is-it-magic-or-is-it-technology fantasy elements in this one. The Keiba and her mountain were very cool, and the kephalos is an awesome character. (I can't tell you anything about the kephalos without spoilers, sorry!)
There's a little bit of highly satisfying romance, but mostly this is a coming-of-age story (two, actually): a prince and princess each discover the role they were meant to play, and then choose to make the sacrifices necessary to accept that role. (I think my favourite kind of plot involves characters making hard choices that allow them to become who they really are.) It's a standalone (another mark in its favour), but I would grab a sequel if she decided to write one.
White chocolate gingerbread blondies: a really delicious square that I tried to make for Christmas this year and utterly failed (sometimes it doesn't matter what size the pan is, and sometimes it really, really does). Have to try again.