Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Review: The Invisible Library

21416690Title: The Invisible Library
Author: Genevieve Cogman
Genre: Steampunk, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:The first installment of an adventure featuring stolen books, secret agents and forbidden societies - think Doctor Who with librarian spies!
Irene must be at the top of her game or she'll be off the case - permanently...
Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities. And along with her enigmatic assistant Kai, she's posted to an alternative London. Their mission - to retrieve a dangerous book. But when they arrive, it's already been stolen. London's underground factions seem prepared to fight to the very death to find her book.
Adding to the jeopardy, this world is chaos-infested - the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic. Irene's new assistant is also hiding secrets of his own.
Soon, she's up to her eyebrows in a heady mix of danger, clues and secret societies. Yet failure is not an option - the nature of reality itself is at stake.

I had heard many awesome things about The Invisible Library, and the premise sounded pretty cool. I was really excited to read a steampunk novel that also featured Librarian-spy-thieves. I love characters who love books, and I love reading about spies and thieves, so naturally I loved Irene. I wasn't as in love with the book as a whole though. My main complaint was that the mystery moved too slowly, and I didn't really like Kai for most of the book (or his relationship/banter with Irene). When you don't love one of the two main characters, it gets hard to stay invested in the story. But Kai grew on me eventually, when he was done brooding and spilled all his not-so-hard-to-guess secrets.

The world building in this book was really cool. I loved the concept of the Library that exists in a parallel dimension, with portals to worlds all over space and time. I also really liked how more Chaos-filled worlds had technology and/or magic that defied reason - it was fun to see how crazy things could get.

I can't put my finger on why I didn't love this book, but I did have fun reading it. It's quick and enjoyable, although sometimes the big reveals and twists aren't actually that hard to guess before they're revealed.
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Sunday, August 27, 2017

Review: City of Stairs

20174424Title: City of Stairs
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Genre: Science fiction, fantasy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world. But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city's proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world's new geopolitical power. Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the quiet woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov's oppressors. Unofficially, Shara is one of her country's most accomplished spymasters — dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian. As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem — and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well.

The world of City of Stairs has a pretty cool premise: A nation enslaved by another revolts, kills the Gods of their rulers, and then takes power for itself...but there's more to the story and we are just on the verge of discovering what really happened. I loved that the nations weren't based on medieval western Europe; the main characters come from countries based on south Asia, Russia, and Scandinavia (as far as I could tell, anyways). I also thought it was very cool how the cultures of both countries were well-developed and influenced how the characters from different places viewed the world so differently. The world-building in this book is top notch.

That said, I didn't love this book because it just felt very slow and plodding. I was bored throughout the middle. It just felt like the book was longer than it needed to be. There were political machinations and progress made on the murder mystery throughout the book, but what I really wanted to know was what happened in the cataclysm so long ago and what the ramifications were for "now". I got the answers I wanted eventually, complete with epic battle sequences, but it just took so long to get there that I nearly didn't finish.

I did enjoy this book, but I probably will not be continuing with the series.

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Friday, August 25, 2017

ARC review: Mask of Shadows

29960675Title: Mask of Shadows
Author: Linsey Miller
Genre: Fantasy, young adult

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class and the nobles who destroyed their home.
When Sal Leon steals a poster announcing open auditions for the Left Hand, a powerful collection of the Queen's personal assassins named for the rings she wears -- Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst, and Opal -- their world changes. They know it's a chance for a new life.
Except the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. But Sal must survive to put their real reason for auditioning into play: revenge.

The premise sounded so cool (Assassin school! politics! revenge!) and I was really excited about the genderfluid MC, but sadly this is no Nevernight.

I usually really like flawed/morally ambiguous main characters, but Sal was borderline psychotic, so I had a hard time rooting for them. Mild spoilers, but all of this is mentioned in the premise/back-of-the-book-blurb, so I think it's fair game to talk about. Within the first chapter or two, we've established that Sal is an excellent thief and is great at sleight-of-hand. Somehow an advertisement flyer is enough incentive for Sal to violently kill someone and audition to be one of the Queen's elite bodyguards. Wtf, Sal, how did you think you would make it through the audition with a bunch of trained killers when you've been a common thief all your life? And even suspending disbelief on that, it was so hard for me to swallow how easily Sal justifies the murder and never acknowledges it again. And the clincher, you don't even find out Sal's true motivation for all this until much later in the book. I spent so much of the beginning questioning why Sal was making the decisions they did, which made it really hard for me to get on board with the whole premise. There were a bunch of other "wtf" moments for me throughout the book, again mostly stemming from Sal doing things that made no sense and not responding like a normal human being to disturbing situations.

And now to talk about the genderfluidity of our main character. I love that this book features an LGBTQ main character, and the book definitely helped me understand what it's like to identify as genderfluid. I also really liked that gender fluidity was accepted in this society, since many characters were familiar with the concept and what pronouns to use. And yet, there are still the assholes that refuse to make the effort to use the correct pronouns and acknowledge gender fluidity. I liked that these detractors existed, because it highlights the all-too-real struggle of minority groups of all kinds fighting to have their voices heard and identities acknowledged.

On the other hand, I was irritated by Sal's irrational anger towards people who made pronoun mistakes. Her reason behind the anger? "I dress like I am, plain as day." This rubbed me the wrong way, because it reinforces the idea that men and women must dress a certain way. There's no concept of people having the freedom to dress/present themselves as "femme" or "butch" depending on how they are feeling that day. I get that this book takes place in a medieval-inspired setting, and that women wear dresses and men wear pants in this world, but if we can bend historical truth a little to make gender-fluidity an openly accepted part of society, why not gender expression?

Now that I have my main complaints out of the way, I can talk about other things I enjoyed. I loved Maude, who was extraordinarily resourceful. She was a fully realized and important character with her own agency, which is so rare in servants and minor characters, especially when they are women. I also really liked how slowly the romance developed. It wasn't one of those cases of instalove or star-crossed romance (well...maybe a little bit of the latter), which was refreshing. I also really liked the different personalities of the elite members of the Queen's guard. Despite being masked and generally aloof, Emerald, Ruby, and Amethyst had distinct and lovable personalities. They are all dangerous but none of them are needlessly cruel, which was interesting given their job description. Just brownie points all around for featuring so many women who actually interact with and have bonds/relationships with one another, which is so rare in fantasy.

Overall, a quick and fun read. I definitely want people to read this because of how it brings in diversity to the usual cis white male-dominated fantasy world, but at the same time I had substantial reservations about the plot and the main character's sanity. I guess this is one of those see-for-yourself books!

A free eARC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Reading Quest Update

I was on vacation for about a week, so that's why I haven't posted anything in a little while! Now that I'm back, I wanted to give you all an update on my first week of The Reading Quest.

I ended up shuffling the books that I picked for the Mage, some of them I replaced and some I moved to side quests. I got a bunch of library books off of holds all at once, so I was trying to make most of them count towards the Reading Quest! And as always, I want to try to read more stuff by marginalized authors/about diverse MCs so I might end up shuffling some more if I can find more diverse books to read :)

I also made a spreadsheet to keep track of points:

Definitely spent waaaaaaaaaay too much time picking the perfect fonts for my headers HAHA

So far I've finished two books for side quests and I'm currently reading two more for the Mage. The ones I've finished are The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi (which was okay), and The Tiger's Daughter by K.A. Arsenault (which was INCREDIBLE). Thanks to those two books I'm finally at 50 points and have leveled up to Level 2!

I'm almost done with Foundation by Isaac Asimov, and I just started the audiobook for The Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh. I didn't know Renee Ahdieh was biracial, so it was really cool to find out that both The Flame in the Mist series and the Wrath and the Dawn books are both ownvoice books! I loved The Wrath and the Dawn so I'm very excited about this one.

I think I'm in pretty good shape to finish the Mage quest on time and hopefully at least half of the side quests! If I still have time after that I'm planning on starting Knight or Bard. I'll see what library books land in my lap and go from there :)

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Book vs Adaptation: The Magicians

The Magicians is a pretty irreverent fantasy series: the whole point of it is to be subvert common fantasy tropes, like the idea of a heroic Chosen One and magical boarding schools being joyful experiences. The books are so snarky and subversive, and I wasn't really sure if the TV show would be able to capture that without being grating and annoying.

I can't really say if I like the books better or the TV series better, because they each do some things better than the other. The TV series made the main cast of characters a lot easier to relate to, and the casting was absolutely perfect. I found Quentin a lot more likable in the first season of the show compared to the first book. In the book he is just so broody and directionless and depressed (which is the whole point, but it's still tough to get through a whole book of angsty Quentin). Quentin on the show is all of these things as well, but the faster pace of the show means he grows out of it quicker and it's less painful to watch. The first season of the show is also more dynamic, weaving in story lines from the first two books instead of only focusing on the first book. That means we get a lot more screen time with Julia early on, and I found her story more compelling in the books, so that was a welcome change. I also absolutely LOVE Margo (Janet) and Elliot on the show. They are so sassy and preppy and just absolutely perfectly cast.

Another thing the show does better than the book is being more explicit about how racially diverse the main characters are. Penny is played by Arjun Gupta, who is of South Asian descent, and Margo is played by Summer Bishil, who is biracial. In general the minor characters are also pretty diverse, and there are quite a few queer characters on the show. At the same time though, the show can sometimes miss the mark (in one episode, for example, a queer WOC is introduced and then dies in order to further the development of a white woman).

As much as I enjoyed the first season of the show, I feel like the second season started to grate on my nerves. It's tough to play a character like Margo or Elliot and still maintain a level of emotional complexity, and there were some scenes where the actors did a great job of that and other scenes where I just wanted Elliot and Margo to shut up. The same is true for Alice, I liked her initially but once she becomes a fixation/hallucination of Quentin's she's pretty painful to watch too. I think the sarcastic tone of the show just got too grating to me. It's so much more obvious and in-your-face when you're hearing quips from a bunch of characters instead of reading biting social commentary in between the lines of a book. 

There was also the whole Marina storyline which was so unnecessary. But if that storyline is the reason Kady is in the show, I'll deal, because Kady is easily one of my favorite characters. She's smart and resourceful and doesn't take shit from anyone. I loved seeing her relationship with Julia (best bitches forever!). 

The books grew on me and I liked each book better than the last, but I felt like I couldn't stick with the show after two seasons. Each book sees the characters grow up and make sacrifices, but on the show everything seems too flippant. Maybe this will change with later seasons, but I definitely need a break from the show for a while!
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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review: Crooked Kingdom

28937572Title: Crooked Kingdom
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Genre: Fantasy, YA

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn't think they'd survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they're right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz's cunning and test the team's fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city's dark and twisting streets—a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world.

Okay it's been four months since I read this book, so forgive me for the vague review - I don't really remember details anymore :/

I really enjoyed Six of Crows, because I love stories about heists and morally ambiguous characters and friendships, and SoC had all of these things in spades. Crooked Kingdom was also pretty enjoyable for all the same reasons, plus it was easier to get into because I already knew the characters. Still, I didn't enjoy it quite as much as SoC. I felt like the book was a lot longer than it needed to be, and there were points in the middle where I was thinking to myself, "Okay, there's no way this plan is going to work because there's still 300 pages left..." Thinking about the page count was definitely a sign I wasn't totally sucked into the story. I did enjoy all the twists and turns though; it's nice to have a villain who is cleverer than you would expect.

I think a big reason a lot of people love this book more than Six of Crows is the cross-over with the Grisha series. I have only read the first book of that series and I didn't really like it, so I haven't bothered to continue with it. I missed all the references and characters that crossed over from the other series, so I didn't get to experience the fun of drawing connections between two connected worlds.

I really liked how all of the characters and their relationships developed in this book. Mild spoilers, but I'm glad Kaz doesn't magically get over his phobia of touching people with his bare hands by the end of the book. It's something he is working on, and I really appreciate that this is portrayed as a process and not a simple flip of a switch. I'm also thankful that the other character(s) involved don't push him and give him space to overcome his fears on his own terms. While I really liked that aspect of Kaz's character, he's just a bit too broody and self-hating for me to actually like his character as a whole.

Inej, on the other hand, continues to be my favorite. She has experienced a lot of pain and triggering events, but she powers through them because she won't ever let herself be held back by her past and the people who want to use her. And of course, Jesper and Wyland were adorable. One of my favorite parts of this book was Jesper's character arc and how his complicated relationship with his father develops. Nina's struggle with parem withdrawal was also really well-done and unsurprisingly painful to read about. I really liked seeing how Nina and Matthias' relationship was strained by the parem but they still found ways to love and support each other.

The ending was pretty shattering, and I'm glad that for once there wasn't some last minute deception or twist about the fate of a particular character. That's one of my pet peeves, when you mourn a tragedy that has befallen a character, only to discover that it was all a trick or that somehow the character has magically healed/escaped/been brought back to life. At the same time, I felt like the tragedy befell the least surprising character. The events that transpired are the direct result of actions that this character chose to take, so it's not like the consequences came out of nowhere. I wasn't actually upset about what happened to this character as much as I felt bad for the other characters dealing with its repercussions.

I think I would recommend reading the Grisha trilogy before reading this book, simply because I felt like I was missing a lot by not reading the other series. It's not my favorite fantasy heist novel, but it was still fun.

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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review: Seveneves

22816087Title: Seveneves
Author: Neal Stephenson
Genre: Science fiction

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:What would happen if the world were ending?
A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.
But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain . . .
Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown . . . to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.
A writer of dazzling genius and imaginative vision, Neal Stephenson combines science, philosophy, technology, psychology, and literature in a magnificent work of speculative fiction that offers a portrait of a future that is both extraordinary and eerily recognizable. As he did in Anathem, Cryptonomicon, the Baroque Cycle, and Reamde, Stephenson explores some of our biggest ideas and perplexing challenges in a breathtaking saga that is daring, engrossing, and altogether brilliant. 

I absolutely loved the first 2/3 of the book, but the last part took some effort to get through. Overall an astonishingly inventive, profound, and entertaining piece of hard science fiction. I'm definitely going to be reading more by Neal Stephenson!!

Having been warned that Neal Stephenson really puts the science in "hard science fiction", I was expecting this book to be a lot more dense and pedantic than it actually was. His writing style in this book was really straightforward, with a wry sense of humor throughout. Many of the characters choose to face the end of the world with their sense of humor and sarcasm intact, which is a blessing because it made everyone seem more human in the face of global calamity. It's clear that Neal Stephenson knows how different kinds of people react in stressful situations, because every character responds to calamity differently, and yet they all have understandable motivations. My favorite part was all the tongue-in-cheek observation about sexism in our world. Mild spoilers, but when a man is chosen for a leadership position despite a very competent woman being a natural choice, it's explained along the lines of: "he was chosen because of his charismatic nature, ambition, and other words, because he was a man."

Another thing I loved about this book was how many diverse perspectives it incorporated. Sure, it is yet another sci-fi novel written by a white man, but at least half of the cast are POC characters and there are also a few queer characters. One of the annoying thing about "end of the world" TV shows, movies, and books is how it always ends up being a bunch of white people in space with a token POC thrown in. This book really makes an effort to include people of many diverse backgrounds, be it racial, cultural, or religious. The fun part is seeing how so many people with different ideas about the best way to preserve humanity's future compromise (or not) and manipulate each other to get what they want.

That said, the part that fell flat for me was the last third of the book, which takes place after a giant time leap of 5,000 years. I thought some ideas were really cool, like the language and different warring factions that developed. It was also cool to see how people we got to know in the first part of the book are perceived 5,000 years later. I wasn't sold on the whole genetic aspect of the future humans though. In some ways I felt like they had evolved too quickly, and in other ways I felt like they hadn't evolved enough (both biologically and culturally). I can't remember specifics, but I remember questioning many characteristics about the future humans. It was also tough for me to get attached to a whole new set of characters in the future. I did like how the people of the future tried to rectify the mistakes of the past, though. I also liked how the story ended in an open-ended but satisfying way.
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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Bookish Eats: Soft Pretzels and The Queen of Attolia

In case you haven't been keeping up with me on Goodreads or Twitter, I recently re-read The Queen of Attolia (5 years after I read it initially). The first time, it was rough. I was bored, I was an impatient reader, and I didn't pay attention to the subtleties. I discovered after re-reading Name of the Wind that sometimes when you read a book years later, there's a chance you might like it a lot better! So I decided to re-read The Thief and The Queen of Attolia. Excellent decision, because now I am absolutely in love with the series, and King of Attolia is one of the best books I've read all year (and it's been a great year for books).

Image result for the thief megan whalen turnerImage result for queen of attoliaImage result for queen of attolia

So.... what does this have to do with pretzels?

Quite a bit, actually! Like with Queen of Attolia, the first time I made soft pretzels from scratch, I was pretty impatient and didn't pay any attention to the subtleties of pretzel-making. For example, I didn't wait quite long enough for the yeast to make the dough rise, so the dough wasn't quite as puffy as it could have been. That led to overall less dough, which means overall less pretzels :(

As for subtleties, I didn't pay attention to the amount of time you had to boil the pretzels in basic solution before baking them. I just kind of dipped them and took them out, so they didn't end up golden brown like pretzels are supposed to be. But despite these kitchen misadventures, the finished product ended up being pretty good!

But the second time I made pretzels, I went more slowly and actually paid attention to the little things (much like my Attolia re-read), and the finished product was SO MUCH BETTER. Much better than I expected, you could say ;)

Look, I actually left the pretzels to boil for a whole minute!

And for a less abstract parallel between soft pretzels and the Queen of Attolia: The Queen of Attolia is surprisingly quite a plot-twisty book, so it's only fitting that twisted up pretzels are my culinary tribute to the book. Just when you think you understand a character, revelations are slammed at you and you have to rethink everything you thought you knew. There's the obvious giant bombshell in the middle of the book, but there's also the less bombshell twist at the end, and all the twisty political intrigue from Attolia, Eddis, and the Mede.

look at those twisty pretzels :)

So yes, devour this series the way you'd devour freshly baked pretzels because this series is definitely worth immersing yourself in...just be sure to take it slow.

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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Review: Stormdancer

13538816Title: Stormdancer
Author: Jay Kristoff
Genre: Fantasy, steampunk, YA

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:(read at your own peril, I recommend picking this book up blind!)A DYING LAND
The Shima Imperium verges on the brink of environmental collapse; an island nation once rich in tradition and myth, now decimated by clockwork industrialization and the machine-worshipers of the Lotus Guild. The skies are red as blood, the land is choked with toxic pollution, and the great spirit animals that once roamed its wilds have departed forever.
The hunters of Shima’s imperial court are charged by their Shōgun to capture a thunder tiger – a legendary creature, half-eagle, half-tiger. But any fool knows the beasts have been extinct for more than a century, and the price of failing the Shōgun is death.
Yukiko is a child of the Fox clan, possessed of a talent that if discovered, would see her executed by the Lotus Guild. Accompanying her father on the Shōgun’s hunt, she finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in Shima’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled thunder tiger for company. Even though she can hear his thoughts, even though she saved his life, all she knows for certain is he’d rather see her dead than help her.
But together, the pair will form an indomitable friendship, and rise to challenge the might of an empire.

I haven't gotten this emotionally wrecked by a book since The Raven King, and that's a high standard to meet! I don't know how to accurately describe this book, but the closest thing I've got is "exquisitely painful." The characters endure so much physical and emotional pain, and some of the passages were heartbreaking (I cried, there was a particular scene where I literally had to put the book down and make myself some tea because I was so overwhelmed about the possibility of a certain thing occurring). Yet despite all the blood and fear and betrayal, you keep reading because the writing style is so absolutely lush, rich, and captivating that you can't look away.

That's quite a lethal combo.

I am always excited about sci-fi and fantasy set in Asia, because there are so many rich cultures and mythologies from the East that would lend themselves to those genres. So when I saw "Samurai Japan" and "steampunk" used to describe this book, I was completely sold! I had absolutely no idea what the book was about besides those two phrases, and I think that was a big part of why I enjoyed the book so much. I was as confused as Yukiko and had no idea what was coming next, and I loved gleaning more facts about the steampunk world with every chapter. Looking back at the blurb, I think it ruins far too much about the book. Do yourself a favor and go into this book blind.

For that reason, I'm going to be very vague about what I loved about this book. Other than the fact that I was incredibly emotionally invested and entranced by the writing style, I also really loved the political intrigue. There are a lot of fierce and smart women in this book, showing strength and power in their own ways. I love that about all of Jay Kristoff's books; he doesn't resort to stereotypes about "strong female characters", he sketches real people with his words and incidentally a large portion of them happen to be awesome women. In a genre so rife with objectification and stereotypes, I am immensely thankful for this book.

My favorite thing about this book is the incredible friendship at the heart of it. I am always a sucker for stories about the platonic equivalent of soul-mates - friends that truly belong together and would move worlds to protect and help one another. This friendship brought tears to my eyes :)

The one thing I didn't like about this book was the romance. Yes, it was great to see a young woman who had agency and wasn't waiting for the guy to make the first move, and yes it was great to see a woman who was unashamed about her desires. At the same time, I felt like the preoccupation with the "green-eyed samurai" weakened an otherwise incredible character. When she is dealing with actions and consequences that are literally world-shattering, it seems silly that she thinks of green eyes, even if she instantly chastises herself for it. The whole messy romantic situation did actually further the plot though, so I guess it wasn't completely irrelevant the way most YA romance subplots are?

I guess that's another thing, I wouldn't necessarily categorize this is YA even though it's marketed that way, because to me it read like adult fantasy/science-fiction. Sure, the protagonist is a teenager, but the way I draw the line in my head between YA and adult fantasy/science-fiction is the level of subtlety and complexity in the plot/characters/writing style. It's a perfect cross-over title, I think people who usually read YA and people who usually don't would all find things to love about this book.
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