Monday, May 29, 2017

Book Review: Royal Bastards

If you read my reviews/blog, you know how much I love tropes. And I love the skill it takes to weave these tropes into a good story without sounding derivative. The YA dystopia thing has hit that level since everything just kind of sounds like everything else. I finished a book today that is the very definition of the Exactly What It Says On The Tin trope: Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts. And it was terrific.

Royal Bastards is described as "Game of Thrones meets the Breakfast Club" and it is literally exactly what it says on the tin. It's damn near perfect and s thoroughly enjoyable YA fantasy adventure that plays with the tropes of epic fantasy with a terrific YA voice. And that's one of the many things that blew me away about this book. It takes tons of elements from the GOT show/book while blending them into that '80s aesthetic of THE BREAKFAST CLUB....he even pulls off a training montage in the middle of the book that I literally could hear HEARTS OF FIRE playing in the background.  

If you've followed my blog, you know that I've crafted my own YA Game of Thrones book, but this book really made me sort of realized where I had failed. Shvart's voice is just amazing. From the opening page, you are just drawn in with the way he's telling this massive tale. I'll often complain about 1st person POV in a book like this, but Tilla's voice in the story was well drawn, inclusive and just very...well, Tilla. 

The worldbuilding is stellar. He paints a clear picture of the world (since I had an eARC, I didn't get a map and according to the author, it's spectacular!) and the people in it without overwhelming you with it. Shvarts uses every tool to do so and does it really, really well, including a brilliant use of the "useful idiot" narrative tool. My former agent introduced me to this concept, the useful idiot is a character used to explain something the reader doesn't know without just info dumping it in the narrative. From the individual provinces, of which we only see a sliver, to the Zitochi tribesmen, a well-drawn, just complex enough group that could have easily turned into the stereotypical savaged but come across more like "Aiel Lite" (and I mean that as a compliment). Using the Avatar: The Last Airbender method, he fills the world around him with wildlife dangers that sound familiar but just different enough that we know we aren't in Kansas anymore I'm eager to see how the rest of this world is introduced to us.

The plot is stellar. Familiar enough but written with skill and panache. (Wow, I just used panache in a review.) It moves quickly, just one the edge of breakneck and it's one of the things I liked most about the book. Shvart's pacing is terrific and he gives you just enough moments to catch your narrative breath (and these are the perfects spots that he injects his outstanding worldbuilding) between the moments of high tension that rely on the craftiness and skills of the said bastards to get out of the various sticky situations that arise as they run to save their world. The twists and turns are great and while I predicted some, it didn't diminish my enjoyment of them in the least. Shvart's skill shows through. He sets up the next book almost brilliantly with his wildly satisfying solution that seems to take parts of bunches of other things and blends them together into a nice smoothie.

I really loved this book and it's another book that I'm jealous of because it's so similar to what I wrote and shopped but didn't quite stick the way that I'd hoped. It showed some of my story's shortcomings and things I could probably improve on when I give it a shot again. I can't rave about this book enough. It's easily on my Best of 2017 list and it'll be a contender for the top book of 2017. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Book Review: The Duke of Bannerman Prep

As an English teacher, I'm always curious with retellings/reimaginings of the classics. It's one of my standard "creative" projects I give at the end of a book or unit. (I usually give one traditional essay and one creative writing project.)  I even drove a co-teacher crazy as we did the whole "rewrite Romeo and Juliet" assignment. Every year it feels like these reimaginings go through cycles: Shakespeare, American lit then Victorian age then myths then back to Shakes. Gatsby was inevitable after the flashy Baz Luhrman/ Leo DiCaprio extravaganza from a few years back (that I thought was quite excellent) and THE DUKE OF BANNERMAN PREP is one of those books. And it's an excellent book. I ALMOST single served it (according to Z's Review Glossary: SINGLE SERVED: Reading a book in one "sitting," almost always in a single day), having read the first quarter of the book over a few days then finishing the rest in one day. It kept me riveted, wanting to find out next, which is what you really want a book to do as a reader and a writer.

Nelson does a terrific job of retelling the Gatsby without making it a beat for beat rewrite of Gatsby. It's clever and helps the story stand on it's own two legs while clearly being a giant nod to the source material. She takes the big pieces from Gatsby, reshapes them into what she wants them to do and, most importantly, leaves out the things she doesn't need to tell her story. Where Gatsby is clearly Gatsby's story and Nick is our eyes and ears, DUKE isn't necessarily The Duke's story but Tanner's story. And it's one of the reasons the story really worked for me. I understood Tanner. In a way, I could've been Tanner.

Tanner isn't a Nick Carraway rehash, he's a kid from "the other side of the tracks." It's a well-worn trope that goes back since the cavemen were telling stories around the campfire and Nelson uses it well. She shines the trope up, giving us a different spin on the character, making us yell at the book for the way he's acting while completely understanding that in the same circumstance we would ignore the screaming reader that was reading our story yelling at us. The Duke is closer to the source material and that works, the mysteries are slowly unraveled throughout the story without clunking us on the head too much, though there are a few heavy handed moment that don't detract from the enjoyment of the story in the least. The other characters are a little cardboardy in spots, more out of necessity than any reflection on Nelson. They just don't have a lot to do except be there, but Nelson gives them enough to do so that they are more like colored in paper dolls where Tanner, The Duke, Kelsey and Abby are much more well-rounded.

As much as people are comparing this to Gatsby, I think that it owes just as much to the television show GLEE, but instead of show choir it's debate team. Nelson knows her stuff and doesn't crush you with jargon. I still had to Google a few things and that isn't always bad. The world of debate teams, in this day and age, deserved a book and it got a darn good one.

My only gripe, more to do with me the reader than the book, is why are we falling back on the steroid laced jock a-hole trope as the bad guys again. Jocks are just as well rounded as debate team members and theater kids and skateboarders. Nelson does address this, putting a-hole characters in these cliques. I also understood the type of character Nelson was writing, but at times it fell way to into cliche for me. But there seems to be a resurgence of the "Johnny Lawrence" character lately and we're more complex than that now.

THE DUKE OF BANNERMAN PREP is a fantastic book. A complex story but a quick read with just enough twists and turns to keep you wanting to find out what's next in the story. Definitely going to make the Best of 2017 list.

(An ARC was provided by the publisher through a contest.)