Monday, August 31, 2015

The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart

The Honest Truth is a novel for younger teens about a boy struggling to come to terms with yet another bout of cancer and his feelings that life is no longer worth living.

The story opens with twelve year old Mark at the bus station in Wenatchee with his beloved dog, Beauchamp (Beau). He purchases two tickets for the bus to Spokane, supposedly for him and his father. Except Mark is not with his father. He's by himself with Beau and has a train ticket to Seattle because he's on a very important mission. A mission based on a promise.

Seven years ago Mark first got sick. Playing with his best friend and his neighbour, Jessica (Jess) Rodriguez outside, they watched as his mother went inside to answer the phone.  And from where they were they saw Mark's mom crying. Jess is puzzled, thinking that maybe her mother has called Mark's mom. But for Mark that is when it all started.

When Mark goes missing, his parents call Jess to ask if she's seen him. Jess doesn't know and so Mark's parents call the police immediately informing them he is missing and that his disappearance is concerning because he's sick with cancer.  At first Jess is not sure what to think but as she learns that Mark has not been found on the bus in Spokane as expected, she begins to think about why Mark might have left. This leads her to remember their secret spot for leaving each other messages.

Mark arrives in Seattle at nine in the evening. At an all night restaurant, he orders toast and scrambled eggs with a side of bacon for Beau who is hidden in his duffel bag. While he's eating his food, Mark sees the Missing Child report come on the television screen in the diner. He's terrified that someone in the diner will recognize him when his name and school picture are shown and the town of Wenatchee is mentioned. However, the waitress doesn't see the picture and thinks Mark is upset because he's led her to believe his father isn't around. From the television he learns that the police now know he did not make it to Spokane and are searching towns along the bus route believing he may have gotten off the bus enroute.

After leaving the diner, Mark is followed and robbed by a group of teenagers who beat him and take all but twenty dollars of his money. Suffering from a black eye, bruised and bleeding, Mark sneaks into a Mexican restaurant, San Cristobal's Restaurante, to use the washroom to clean up. When he is discovered by the three women cooks, Mark tells the women in Spanish that he needs to call his parents. However, instead of doing this Mark calls the Washington State Law Enforcement Tip Hotline to tell the officer that he's seen the missing kid in Moses Lake.

Meanwhile back in Wenatchee, Jess remembers their secret hiding place and she finds a note left by Mark for her. He tells her where he is going and why but he trusts Jess not to tell anyone. Marks parents learn that someone called the tip line with information that Mark was seen in Moses Lake but police know the tip is a false lead as they have traced the call to a restaurant in Seattle. Despite being deeply conflicted, Jess decides to keep Mark's secret even though she knows she can help find him.
"Mark's last wish: whether or not it came true depended on whether or not she told.
She knew how torn up his parents were; she knew how miserable their last twenty-four hours had been. She knew how sad and scared and desperate they were. They just wanted their sick son back. Whether or not they got him back depended on whether or not she told."

On the bus to Paradise, Mark meets six year old Shelby who is traveling with her older brother to visit their dad. Shelby's parents are divorced and she is understandably angry at her father. Mark encourages her to forgive her father. When he reaches Elbe, Mark manages to sneak onto the bus traveling to the Paradise Visitor's Center in Mount Rainer National Park. However, at Ashford, the driver kicks Mark off the bus. Feeling bad about what he's done, the driver offers to take Mark back to Elbe on his way down. Despite the fact that it is raining and there is a nasty storm brewing, with thirty-one miles to go, Mark decides to walk the rest of the way with Beau. With the weather worsening and Mark and Beau near exhaustion, can he make the final climb to Mount Rainer?


The Honest Truth is a book that deals with several very interesting issues surrounding seriously/terminally ill children, refusing treatment and death. Mark undertakes what he believes is a final journey to climb Mount Rainer. The impetus for this trip is based in the relationship he had with his beloved grandfather who loved to mountain climb and who planned to take Mark to climb Mount Rainer when Mark recovered from his cancer. Unfortunately, when Mark recovered, his grandfather became ill. Instead of taking that trip, Mark watched as a grandfather's health gradually declined until he passed away. His grandfather made Mark promise to climb Mount Rainer for him. When Mark's cancer learns his cancer has returned he is devastated but determined to climb the mountain and die there. Having no idea of the problems that might befall him, he saves his money, leaves a note for his best friend, Jess and sets out.

On his walk up the mountain road from Ashford,  Mark meets Wesley, a park biologist who offers him a ride in his pickup truck and who recognizes Mark from the news bulletins. What he doesn't know is why Mark is on the mountain and why he has left home. Wesley tells Mark that he can relate to the worry and fear Mark's parents are experiencing because of the loss of his own son in Iraq. Mark wants Wesley to take him to the Visitor's Center so he can do the last leg of the climb he promised his grandfather. At first he tells Wesley that the only thing he has left to choose is his death. He's tired of "being that poor sick kid"and that "Maybe he wants to be the hero for once. Maybe he's had everything else taken away from him. His friends. His family. His future. All the stuff he wants to do. His life. So maybe all he's got left is his death. That's all that he's got. And so he wants it." Mark himself is tired of the treatments. He tells Wesley, "...And hospitals suck. And treatments suck. And friends watching you be sick sucks. And watching your parents cry sucks. So maybe he just wants to climb a mountain and disappear."

This creates intense conflict and confusion for Wesley who is still coping with the death of his son in Iraq. He wants to help Mark mainly because he couldn't help his own son. He definitely feels Mark's pain but he tells him that "Life's a tricky thing, idn't it son?...Figuring it all out, I mean...But sometimes there's just no knowing which way to go." He struggles with what to do. "How can I let you do it?...How can I let you go when I know...when I know..." In the end, Wesley drives him to the Visitor's Center because Mark tells him that he is only going part way up the mountain and will call his parents when he returns to the Vistor's Center, that he has gear and food.
"Please," I said. "I've gotten no choices. For my whole life, no choices. Let me choose this. Let me have this one thing before all my choices get taken away again."

When Mark first meets Wesley he wonders "...why anybody would try to stop me. All I wanted to do was die. That's the truth." However, once on the mountain, and having almost lost Beau, Mark realizes that he doesn't want to die, that he was overwhelmed by what has happened to him but that there are people along the way who have helped him and who still want to help him.
"I thought of all my sickness, all my anger, all my fear. All that was just the darkness, just the storm. I got lost in it. But there's always the other side of the storm. And the people who get you there."
All the world's a storm, I guess, and we all get lost sometimes. We look for mountains in the clouds to make it all seem lie it's worth it, like it means something. And sometimes we see them. And we keep going."

The reader never learns who called the hotline; if it was Wesley or Jess or perhaps even both. Left for the reader to consider are questions about how we help children cope with serious illnesses like cancer and how treatment can affect their quality of life. It becomes obvious that Mark was completely overwhelmed by the return of his cancer. We are never told exactly what Mark's prognosis was until the very end, but based on his mother's reaction, the reader knows that initially it was not good. Wesley indicates that the news reports state that the missing boy has a chance but only if he comes back for treatment. And after he is rescued and while recovering in hospital, Jess tells us that although it will take a miracle for Mark to survive, the doctors believe he has a chance.

The Honest Truth is told in two narratives, that of Mark and that of his friend Jessie who fills in the reader on the search for Mark as well as her own increasing conflict. Jessie faces a serious moral dilemma when she learns the truth about Mark's disappearance; to honour her friend's request not to tell even if it means his death, or to tell and save his life. A major theme in the novel is therefore the concept of friendship and loyalty; the friendship between Mark and Jessie and the friendship between Mark and his beloved dog, Beau.

The Honest Truth is a moving story about a young boy's rediscovery of the will to live, even in the face of terrible odds. It is about the honest truth that life is hard but that it is those around us who make that struggle worthwhile. As Wesley tells Mark, "We're all in this together."

Dan Gemienhart was inspired to write this novel by the death of friend (his sister's fiance) who loved mountain climbing and who also had cancer. A teacher-librarian, The Honest Truth is Gemienhart's debut novel. Look for more wonderful writing from this amazing children's author.

Book Details:

The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart
New York: Scholastic Press     2015
229 pp.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Million Miles Away by Lara Avery

A Million Miles Away is a weird story about a girl who assumes her twin sister's identity because she can't bring herself to tell her sister's boyfriend of her tragic unexpected death. The resulting hurt and chaos this brings into everyones lives

Seniors, Kelsey and Michelle Maxfield are identical twins, so identical in fact, that few people can tell them apart. But that's where the similarity ends. Michelle is a budding artist who studies hard and can speak French. Kelsey is a dancer, more interested in keg parties than school and who dreams of making the cheerleading squad at KU (University of Kansas).

At a keg party at their home, Kelsey sees Michelle's latest boyfriend, Peter who is a soldier due to ship out to Afghanistan the next day. The morning, at breakfast Kelsey meets Peter who at first thinks he's talking to Michelle. While waiting for Michelle he tells Kelsey they met outside a concert three months ago and are quite serious about each other.

After Michelle does not return from driving Peter to the airport, they learn that she has been killed in a car accident. After the funeral, Kelsey's friends, Gillian and Ingrid try to comfort her and offer her support telling her not to worry about school. Weeks after Michelle's death, Kelsey still is unable to express the tremendous grief she feels over the loss of her sister. Her parents meanwhile have volunteered to host a support group for people grieving the loss of a loved one. When a postcard from Peter arrives for Michelle, Kelsey drives to the army recruiting office to see if they can help her locate Peter. However, the woman is unable to help Kelsey who does not know Peter's last name nor the unit he's with. This entire experience leaves Kelsey shattered and she breaks down at home.

Kelsey spends the next few weeks managing to catch up on her homework with the help of her long time boyfriend, Davis.Kelsey plans to audition for the University of Kansas Rock Chalk Dancers in May. Meanwhile Kelsey's mother asks her to cancel Michelle's facebook. After sending off an email to facebook, Kelsey is stunned to see Peter appear on Michelle's Skype. The connection is bad and even though Kelsey tries to tell him who she is, he believes he's talking to Michelle. Before she can go much further in telling him that Michelle has died, the call drops. A week later, Kelsey takes a second call from Peter who believes he's talking to Michelle and asks why she wasn't on to take his call last night. Kelsey learns that Peter's family know he has a girlfriend but not her identity so there is no way they would know that Michelle has died. Unable to tell Peter who she really is, because he seems upset by what is happening on his tour of duty, Kelsey promises to write him. Believing that Michelle "would protect him, at least until she could find a way to let him down gently, she feels she can't tell him by text or email.

Soon after, Peter's letters begin arriving. Filled with details about life in Kunar Province and the other soldiers in Peter's company, the letter tells Kelsey how much Michelle means to Peter. Kesley makes several unsuccessful attempts to write a letter to Peter. A third call from Peter sees Kelsey continue to pass herself off as Michelle.  Through these calls she has met his best friends, Sam and Rooster.
Peter tells her "Everything you say to me about home is, like, nourishing. You get it? It's like each memory is a piece of food that I can eat --"  Faced with the comfort she can bring to Peter and how pretending to be Michelle makes the hurt she's feeling somehow less, Kelsey decides to continue her deception.

When the call ends, the contrast between the comfort she gives Peter and the pain of grief she hears from her parents support group makes Kelsey decide that she does not want Peter to experience that kind of pain. But how long can Kelsey continue the deception and at what cost to herself and to Peter?


A Million Miles Away is a story about a young woman who struggles to cope with the loss of her identical twin and to rediscover her own identity amid the pain and chaos she's feeling. At it's heart is a theme of identity.

Kelsey finds that Michelle's death has changed her irrevocably and that she's unable to move forward. As twins, both Michelle and Kelsey would be attending college next year. But with Michelle gone, Kelsey already recognizes that her death has changed her. "She wasn't herself. No matter how much she tried, she wasn't sure she ever would be herself again. The next phase in her life seemed impossible. It was impossible."

Kelsey feels her face, so identical to that of her dead sister, is a reminder to everyone around her, including her father, of Michelle's death."She was a reminder to everybody. She had no choice. People in the hallways, people on the sidewalk, people in the grocery store. Their eyes widened and they drew in breath...Michelle used to make people smile, not cringe."

When the art teacher, Mrs. Wallace asks Kelsey about how she is coping with her sister's death, Kelsey tells her "It's like, I had my opposite my whole life...So I knew exactly who I was. I knew who I was because I knew who I wasn't. And now she's gone." Mrs. Wallace reminds Kelsey that she has her whole life to figure out who she is. However, for Kelsey, pretending to be Michelle helps her cope with her own pain and makes her feel like moving forward in life. Also getting to know her sister better has the ulterior motive of aiding her in her deceit, even though she doesn't admit this to herself.

Kelsey not only pretends to be Michelle when she's talking online with Peter, she also begins to act as Michelle would - she takes Michelle's Art History class. When her friend Gillian discovers that Kelsey has not told Peter about Michelle's death, Kelsey tells herself "With Peter, I can pretend it never happened. And I like talking to him..." Gillian reminds Kelsey that she has a long time boyfriend as well, who also will be hurt to discover her carrying on a relationship with Peter. Eventually her deception leads to larger lies and bigger deceit when she goes to Paris to meet Peter and his friends, pretending she is Michelle. Peter's friend, Sam, does however see through Kelsey's deceit and reminds her that she needs to tell him. She also meets his family, pretending to be Michelle and eventually becomes intimate with Peter, also with Peter believing he is with Michelle. This all leads to the terrible confrontation between Peter and Kelsey when he finally returns home and the truth is revealed to him.

It takes Kelsey's mother to explain to her what she should have known all along, that what she did was selfish and wrong,even though as Kelsey explains, "I missed her...I really didn't mean to pretend to be her...It was mostly just wanting to be close to her again, you know? Even closer than I was when she was alive."

While it's understandable that Kelsey doesn't want to do anything that might endanger Peter while he's on his tour of duty in Afghanistan, it seems remarkable that she couldn't find some other way to notify Peter about what happened to her sister and his girlfriend. Especially after she learns his last name and that his sister has been trying to locate Michelle on Facebook. It was difficult to read this novel, suspending the belief that somehow this might have been handled better by Kelsey and trying not to focus on how immature and selfish she was. And the ending is completely predictable - Peter and Kelsey resume their relationship after a brief breakup. Because of course, Peter acknowledges that Kelsey kept him alive during his difficult tour, which while true, doesn't seem to make up for the incredible deception on Kelsey's part. He seems to have no problem forgiving her and is eager to resume the relationship with Kelsey, making one wonder just how much he really did care for Michelle.

Most of the other characters in A Million Miles Away are very underdeveloped and even insignificant. This includes Kelsey's friends, Gillian and Ingrid, her boyfriend of three years - Davis, and her parents who seem completely consumed by their involvement in their grief support group.

Overall, a strange twist using the familiar trope of identical twins assuming each others identities.

Book Details:

A Million Miles Away by Lara Avery
Boston: Little, Brown and Company 2015
306 pp.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Burning Kingdoms by Lauren DeStefano

Burning Kingdoms is the second novel in the Internment Chronicles. The novel opens with Morgan Stockhour, her brother Lex and his wife Alice, her fiance Basil Cowl, her best friend Pen (Margaret Artmus) and her betrothed Thomas, Princess Celestine, Judas Hensley who was accused of murdering his fiance Daphne, Daphne's sister Amy and their grandfather, Professor Finnian Leander arriving on land below the floating island.The professor refuses to leave the machine which they used to escape Internment but the rest are immediately taken by car to a large building which they learn is called a hotel in the capital city of a kingdom called Havalais. There they meet a man named Jack Piper who is the adviser to Havalais's ruler, King Ingram IV. Piper has five children, Jack Jr. known as Nimble, Gertrude who is called Birdie , Riles, Marjorie and Annette.

Jack Piper tells them that the hotel is closed for the winter. In the summer people travel from all over to stay at the hotel, view the floating island and visit the nearby theme park. Piper offers them rooms to stay, clothing and invites them to take meals with his children.

Based on what she's seen so far, Morgan believes that Internment is probably slightly ahead technologically of society on the ground. Life on the ground is very different from that on Internment. One thing that strikes Morgan is the amount of open space on the ground. "Even the water on the horizon is gray and white. It sparkles as it fades into the distance. There is no train framing this city. There is no limit. It could well go on forever, to a horizon it would take ten lifetimes to run to." The world on the ground seems boundless. The food is strange, mostly coming from animals, there are birds which are never seen on Internment, people drive vehicles called cars which have black wheels and the people bury their dead in the ground in places called graveyards. The also learn that there is war going on between Havalais and another kingdom. Evidence of that war appears when they see bombs dropped on the city in the distance.

One night Birdie decides to sneak out of the hotel from Pen, Morgan and Celestine's bedroom, and they decide to accompany her. Taking the ferry to the city they go to the cinema and also to a speakeasy where the group drinks gin, something not allowed on Internment.

The next day Celestine informs the group that since she is the daughter of the king ruling Internment, she intends to let King Ingram know that her father will support him in the war. Pen is thankful that the people on the ground are unable to reach Internment meaning that Internment will have little chance of being involved in the war. However, Celestine states that this will likely not be the situation much longer because they have planes that are able to almost reach the floating island.

Celestine and Morgan are taken to meet King Ingram.He questions them about the craft that brought them to the ground, leading Celestine to reveal that Internment has no planes of any kind. Hoping to undo the weakness that Celestine has revealed about their inability to return to Internment, Morgan tells the king that they never intended to return to Internment and consider themselves explorers. Celestine also tells King Ingram that her mother is very ill and is in need of treatment that can be obtained on the ground.

King Ingram realizes that he can use Celestine as a bargaining chip with Internment; her mother is dying, her brother is incapacitated and therefore unable to rule and she has no way to return to Internment. King Ingram tells them that Internment lies in the stratosphere which can only be reached by a special plane called a jet. Development of the jet has been slowed by the war with King Erasmus of Dastor. Conflict over an archipelago that sits between Havalais and Dastor is revealed to be the cause of the war between the two kingdoms. The islands in the archipelago contain a natural substance in their soil called phosane which is capable of providing cheap fuel. Celestine offers her father's help and the use of Internment as a base of operations if they are able to return them to Internment and treat her mother. This request deeply disturbs Morgan.

When Morgan and Celestine return to the hotel, Celestine asks Morgan to keep secret her mother's condition, which she agrees to. Morgan does however tell Pen and the group about what she's learned from the interview with King Ingram. Later when they are alone, Pen questions Morgan about what she learned about phosane. When Morgan insists she didn't learn anything else except that it can be used for fuel, Pen decides they must visit a library to discover as much as they can about this mineral. At the library, their research leads Pen to wonder if in fact Internment was once part of the archipelago in dispute and then broke away into the sky. Pen believes that this is very possible because of the similarities in their soil and rocks. On Internment the rock is called sunstone but on the ground it is called phosane. She tells Morgan that it is what the glasslands on Internment are comprised of and it is what's used to make their betrothal rings. Pen insists that no one must know about this. "If this king knew he had something so powerful hovering right over his greedy head, Internment would cease to be the magical floating island it would fast become a mining opportunity. It would be finished." Morgan agrees to keep her secret.

Pen accuses Celestine of trying to "play queen and save the day" by attempting to broker a deal with the king. She states "I know that it's separate from the ground for a reason." and is worried that linking Havalais with Internment could have serious consequences for their home. Later on while drinking gin at a speakeasy with Pen and Morgan, Birdie reveals that her father is the heir to the throne in Havalais as Jack Piper is King Ingram's illegitimate son by a servant. When King Ingram's wife produced no children, Jack became his surviving heir and is now his trusted aide.

Meanwhile, Celestine tells Morgan that King Ingram does not seem eager for an alliance with Internment and has told her that his focus is on his kingdom. Morgan warns her to expect her plan to fail and that they may never return to Internment.After another meeting with the king, Celestine learns that he is not going to retaliate against King Erasmus.

As winter passes into spring, Pen begins sneaking out and repeatedly getting drunk on gin but when she almost drowns while inebriated, Morgan realizes that Pen and maybe all of her group need to return to Internment. With this on her mind, Morgan makes a decision that may change forever, the destinies of the kingdoms on the ground and floating island in the sky.


Burning Kingdoms is a typical second installment, bridging the story between the first novel and the anticipated final novel in the trilogy. DeStefano focuses on furthering her story line. Once a key element of the plot of Burning Kingdoms is revealed - the presence of the much coveted phosane on Internment, the story follows the predictable path that King Ingram will blackmail Internment into allowing Havalais planes to land on the island in exchange for the return of the only viable heir to Internment, Celestine.

DeStefano doesn't construct the world on the ground in great detail, instead providing bits of information throughout Morgan's narrative. For example, we learn from the group having dinner with the Pipers that people eat mostly animals. Part of the problem is that Morgan and her fellow citizens from Internment spend the entire book in a hotel, with a few excursions to an amusement park, illegal bars to drink gin and the beach and interact with only a select few people from the ground. Even the times when Morgan experiences things unique to the ground such as birds and thunderstorms, the descriptions fail to engage.

Morgan and her friends have escaped the restrictive life on Internment with its rules and punishments only to find that the world on the ground is not what they expected. Very quickly Morgan realizes that "Internment is an imperfect world that sits atop another imperfect world." Not surprisingly we learn that there is a war going on between two kingdoms, Havalais and Dastor. Based on what she now knows, Morgan begins to suspect that King Furlow may have known about the violence happening on the ground and tried to protect his people. "The king was putting people to death for trying to leave, but while his actions were deplorable, I'm beginning to think that he saw this as his only way to protect the city. Keep the people safe. Keep them in the sky. Maybe he saw through the scopes what was happening on the ground."

What Morgan realizes is that King Ingram of Havalais is not much different from King Furlow in that he tells his subjects only what he wants them to know.; King Ingram keeps the presence of Morgan and the others from Internment a secret from his people, deciding that should anyone ask they will say they are relatives from a neutral island called Norsup. When (strangely) the banks are closed after the first bombings which serve as a warning, King Ingram does not tell the people. Instead he waits until a more devastating attack comes, then announces how there is a city atop the floating island, called Internment and how they will share their discoveries to help them win the war. "King Ingram means to announce to his kingdom the news about the jest, now that the country is war-torn and broken and the people are most likely to cling to the hope that there is something in the sky to save them." His decision has tragic consequences for the Piper family and many others in Havalais, it also reveals the king's true nature as a master manipulator keen on retaining power and winning a war at any cost.

All of this leaves Morgan questioning her future. Unlike Celestine, Morgan does not feel that she will necessarily stay in Havalais or in Internment. "But when I look to the future, I'm not certain I see myself here. Nor am I certain I could see myself returning home. I feel very much that I am floating in a sky full of stars, with nothing to cling to."

Overall this novel is a decent effort to further the plot with many revelations about Morgan's family and the world she lives in. Readers will find the pacing off, with the beginning of the novel slow and dreary. What remains to be revealed is the backstory behind Internment's placement in the sky as well as the answers to many other questions. What will become of Internment when the people of Havalais arrive? Will the people of the floating island be able to fend off involvement in a terrible war between two kingdoms on the ground? Will Morgan and Pen return to Internment or choose another path?

Book Details:

Burning Kingdoms by Lauren DeStefano
Toronto: Simon and Schuster      2015
312 pp.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Wrath And The Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

"He murdered my cousin. And now he has Shahrzad. This is a man with nothing but evil in his blood. The only thing to consider when it comes to Khalid Ibn al-Rashid is how many times I wish he could die at my hands. And how unfortunate it is that the answer is only once."

Renee Ahdieh's debut novel is an imaginative retelling of the story of Scheherazade, a Middle Eastern folktale. Scheherazade was the Arabic queen who told her husband stories to stave off being killed the next morning. In the story, known as the Arabian Nights, Scheherazade, the daughter of a vizier, volunteers to marry Shahryar a Persian King who has been taking a virgin bride only to have her killed the following morning. The King began murdering his brides out of anger over the unfaithfulness of his first wife and the infidelity of his brother's wife. Believing that all women are the same, he sets out to murder each wife. Scheherazade manages to stay alive for 1001 nights, each of those nights telling a story that leaves the King wanting to learn the ending and so sparing her life. When she no longer has any stories to tell her husband, her life is spared because by this time Shahryar has fallen in love with her.

The Wrath and The Dawn opens with the murder of yet another bride of the King in the early morning. Although not explicitly mentioned, this is Shiva, Shahrzad's best friend. General al-Khoury and his son, Jalal are on the rooftop terrace of the King's palace in Rey, Khorasan when they receive word that the King's bride has just been killed. It begins to rain and Jalal tells his father that the murders cannot continue as the people are rioting. The General indicates that they must if the kingdom is to stay safe, seeming to imply that the rain is a sign of this.

Sixteen year old Shahrzad has volunteered to be the King's next bride to avenge the murder of her best friend, Shiva. As Shahrzad is being prepared for her wedding night her father, Jahandar al-Khayzuran visits her, bringing a single budding rose. Her younger sister, fourteen year old Isra, has remained at home. Shahrzad comforts her father telling him this will not be her last sunset. Strangely, the rose he gives her begins to unfurl, releasing a strong scent, then withering and dying. Then Shahrzad is led to the throne room where she meets Khalid Ibn al-Rashid, the Caliph of Khorasan.

Meanwhile, Tariq and his friend, Rahim have been out riding, accompanied by Tariq's falcon, Zoraya.When they return home, Tariq's father tells him they received a letter from Shahrzad revealing that she has volunteered to marry the Caliph in an attempt to avenge Shiva's death. Tariq is in shock because he loves Shahrzad who is his childhood friend. His father tells him they must all deal with this and that Tariq will learn to love another woman. Furious,Tariq leaves determined to save Shahrzad.

Shahrzad awaits the Caliph's appearance in her bedchamber. After they make love, in a passionless manner, Shahrzad requests that she be allowed to tell him a story and in return for explaining why she volunteered to be married to him knowing she will die at sunrise. As expected, he is captivated by her story of Agib, a poor sailor and a thief who discovers a magical chalice. Accusing her of trickery he grants her one more night to finish her story. The next morning Shahrzad meets her handmaiden, Despina who tells her she has been sent to spy on her.Despina reveals that the Caliph is so taken with her that he has assigned a member of his personal bodyguard, the Rajput, to attend her at all times. Shahrzad is told that Khalid is an excellent swordsman, meaning he is likely a brilliant strategist as well, something she will have to take into account.

Shahrzad decides to explore the palace, and along with Despina, finds herself at the training grounds. There they encounter Jalal al-Khoury, Captain of the palace guards and son of the Shahrban of Rey. Shahrzad asks Jalal to help her learn how to shoot a bow and arrow. However, Shahrzad has been expertly trained by Tariq. As they practice, Jalal tells Shahrzad that he has known Khalid since he was a small boy, and was very close to his older brother Hassan who died. His father died a year after his brother and something terrible happened to his mother. Khalid was only fourteen when he became Caliph. Jalal tells Shahrzad that she has completely unnerved Khalid and that this is a good thing. He informs her that at one time Khalid was a kind, intelligent person but is now very broken and he asks Shahrzad to help him fix Khalid.

During this time Shahrzad's father, Jahandar, and her sister have fled their home for Tariq's family home in Taleqan. Before leaving Jahandar retrieves a special book which he keeps from Isra. At night Jahandar opens this ancient blackened book written in Chagatai and begins translating it so that he can uncover its secrets. This book contains black magic that will make him strong.

His daughter meanwhile meets Khalid for a second night. After making love once again, Shahrzad realizes that after one day of being his wife, she does not see evidence of Khalid as the blood-thirsty monster she thought he was. Shahrzad continues the story from the previous night about Agib, but when she tries to move on to the next part about Aladdin and the magic lamp it is already dawn. Convinced this is a new story, Khalid does not move at first to stop General al-Khoury who has come to take Shahrzad to her death. However, Khalid intercedes and introduces Shahrzad to the shahrban as his Mountain of Adamant - a reference to the mountain of the same name in her first story. Because of the magic in the mountain, it pulled ships towards it, causing their destruction. Once in the grasp of the mountain, sailors could never free themselves and their ships broke apart and sank, killing them. Khalid recognizes now that Shahrzad is his Mountain of Adamant or his undoing.

Tariq and Rahim journey to the city of Rey and stop at the compound of Reza bin-Latief. Reza's daughter, Shiva was killed by Khalid when she became his bride and his wife died three days later. Reza tells Tariq that Shahrzad is still alive and the city is filled with speculation and rumours as to how this has come about. Tariq tells Reza he has come to rescue Shahrzad. Reza decides that he will sell everything he has to help Tariq. Tariq will be the leader of the cause to destroy the Caliph. Reza will seek out others who might be willing to support their cause such as the Emir of Karaj.When Tariq mentions that he will return home to Rey with Shahrzad's family, Reza tells him that no one knows where they have gone. The next morning Tariq tells Rahim he will leave for the Badawi tribes along the border of Khorasan and Parthia and asks him to continue on to Taleqan.

On her third morning, Shahrzad learns from Despina that the King has never sought out any of his brides until her. Despina wants to take her to a new bath, but Shahrzad decides she wants to see the swordsmanship tournament. The two watch the tournament hidden and Shahrzad realizes that Khalid will not be easy to kill as he is very skilled with the shamshir. Their presence near the tournament leads to a run-in with General al-Khoury who tells her that he sees her as a threat to the Caliph and intends to eliminate her. That night Khalid does not come to her bedchamber and in the morning, Shahrzad is dragged from her bed by soldiers. A silk chord is placed about her neck as Shahrzad realizes she is about to be executed. However, Jalal and Khalid save her at the last minute and before he leaves for Amardha, Khalid tells her that he will see that she is not harmed again. He calls her his queen.

While Khalid is away, someone attempts to murder Shahrzad by poisoning the sugar used for her tea. Whether it was Despina or someone else, Shahrzad knows she can trust no one. As queen, Shahrzad receives Khalid's first tutor, Musa Zaragoza who has come to visit the palace.  Musa inquires as to what kind of man Khalid has become and Shahrzad tells him "A joyless one. A calculating one. A bitter one..." Musa tells her the story of Khalid's mother, Leila who was his father's second wife. Leila told stories to Khalid at night just as Shahrzad is doing. However, his happy childhood ended when Khalid's father discovered his mother involved with another man and slit her throat in front of the six your old boy. Musa encourages Shahrzad to love Khalid and to help him recover from this traumatic event in his life. Musa also reveals to Shahrzad that she has a special gift, unknown to her and tells her should she wish to learn more about it to contact him. He gives her the strangest gift, a tattered rug, telling her "It is a very special carpet. When you are lost, it will help you find your way,"

When Khalid returns from his trip, Shahrzad feels herself weakening in her purpose to kill him and decides she must take immediate action. That night Khalid tells Shahrzad that because of his mother's behaviour, his right to rule as Caliph of Khorasan is called into question by the Sultan of Parthia on a regular basis. His position as heir of the caliphate was also called into question by his own father. Shahrzad is shocked. She tells Khalid that he can make amends for the attempt on her life by allowing her to go out into the streets of Rey with him and without bodyguards. Her purpose is to poison the Caliph while they are out. However, things do not go according to plan when they are accosted by a group of drunken men. Despite having the opportunity to kill the Caliph, Shahrzad cannot. As she struggles to confront the conflict raging within her own heart, Shahrzad becomes determined to know why he killed all his other brides. The shocking truth hints at a terrible fate that will befall all of Rey. And against the advice of his Uncle Aref, Khalid decides to spare the life Shahrzad, no matter the cost to himself and the people of Rey.


The Wrath and the Dawn is one of those novels so captivating, so exquisite a story it feels impossible to wait for the sequel. That is the mark of a wonderful writer. Ahdieh is a master story-teller, weaving a tale of love and revenge, of deception and betrayal, of curses and promises. Telling a story whose ending is mostly known is challenging because it's difficult to make the story fresh and engaging. However, Ahdieh succeeds brilliantly by weaving three narratives together and developing several themes in her novel. The dominate themes in this novel seem to be those of revenge and redemption, both of which are intricately related.

Shahrzad marries the Caliph solely to avenge her best friend's horrible death. This act in itself shows her to be courageous. To accomplish her revenge Shahrzad knows she needs to survive that first night. In doing so, she shows herself to be both resourceful and intelligent. However the unexpected happens. As she learns more about this enigmatic man, Shahrzad also becomes deeply conflicted. Her hate and anger begin to be replaced by pity and then by love.

Before Shahrzad even meets Khalid she refers to him as "The monster from my nightmares." When she does meet him on their first night together she describes him as cold and forbidding, "this boy-king, this murderer". She finds him callous and arrogant. When Shahrzad meets his friend, Jalal,  he tells her that Khalid has changed greatly from when he was a boy and that now he is broken. He asks her to help him heal Khalid. Expecting Khalid to a be a bloodthirsty monster, Shahrzad quickly realizes that she does not fear him because he is not as she expected. "In the single day she'd been his wife, she'd seen remarkably little of the bloodthirsty monster she'd expected."  When Khalid visits her,  after the attempt by the soldiers to hang her, his kindness towards her makes Shahrzad realize that she is attracted to him and wants to kiss him. "As he placed his palm against the side of her face, Shahrzad realized something horrifying. She wanted to kiss him...It was one thing to return his kiss; she'd been prepared for that. But it was another thing entirely to want his kiss...another thing entirely to desire his affections. To melt into the arms of Shiva's killer at the first sign of adversity."

Shahrzad is horrified to find herself developing an attraction towards Khalid. After she learns from Musa, his tutor, of the trauma Khalid endured as a child, she is encouraged by Musa to love Khalid. He tells her, "In my life, the one thing I have learned above all is that no individual can reach the height of their potential without the love of others. We are not meant to be alone, Shahrzad. The more a person pushes others away, the clearer it becomes he is in need of love the most."

As Shahrzad's heart begins to betray her and Shiva, she struggles with the contrasting emotions of shame and desire. "How can I desire him? After he killed Shiva? After he killed so many young girls, without explanation?" Following the passionate kiss in the souk, Shahrzad is forced to admit that her heart is beginning to betray her. "Caring about him meant he had real power over her. That he held sway over her heart." As her feelings for Khalid deepen, Shahrzad's conflict deepens. "She was not here to spend time troubling about her appearance. Such childishness was beneath her. She had come to the palace with a single-minded purpose: to discover her enemy's weakness and destroy him with it."

Because his actions towards her are inconsistent with his behaviour towards his previous brides, Shahrzad is determined to learn the reason he is murdering his brides. She is certain that "Khalid Ibn al-Rashid was not a madman from line of murdering madmen, hell-bent on a senseless brutality. He was a boy with secrets." Shahrzad promises herself she will "discover the truth and seek justice" for Shiva. When Shahrzad asks him to tell her his terrible secret while they begin making love, Khalid angrily refuses leading Shahrzad to know for certain that she is his one true weakness. But at this point she is still determined to learn the secret and destroy him.

When she discovers Khalid's terrible grief over the deaths of each of his brides and learns the number of women he has killed she is filled with horror. Shahrzad realises that she was hoping there would be a reason for the murders but when she cannot find one she is determined to follow through, despite her love for Khalid. 

When Shahrzad learns of Khalid's terrible secret sheis horrified. Khalid however is determined to protect her and his kingdom until he learns of Shahrzad's love for Tariq. When he offers himself to her so Shahrzad can accomplish what she came to Rey to do, she refuses. "Hate. Judgement. Retribution. As you said, revenge will never replace what I have lost. What you have lost. All we have is now. And our promise to make it better."

Central to this story is the character of Khalid who first appears as a cold, calculating young man who seems to have no compunction about dispatching a new bride. However, as the story progresses he is revealed to be someone much more complex. Captivated by Shahrzad who does not seem repulsed nor afraid of him, Khalid is also determined to understand why she volunteered to be a bride, knowing her life is forfeit.  In Shahrzad, Khalid discovers someone he wants to be worthy of and someone he cannot live without because it would be like being without air. Khalid attempted at first to do the right thing and not do what the curse of his father-in-law indicated. But in an attempt to save his people and his kingdom, he began to do what the curse asked. Far from the cold monster he seems on the outside,  each of the women whose death's he ordered have caused him deep grief. "And you should never forgive me for what I've done. As I will never forgive myself." When he learns of Shahrzad's reason for marrying him and the death of her best friend Shiva, Khalid offers himself to her while also giving her the opportunity to escape. He is willing to die to atone for Shiva's death.

The only weakness in this novel is the absence of a list of characters to help the reader keep track of who's who. This difficulty arises because of the way in which Ahdieh tells her story, revealing bits and pieces and having three different story threads.The first story thread involves Shahrzad and Khalid, the second involves the journey of Tariq and Rahim, and the third more minor one which has the most impact on the climax of the novel is that of Jahandar and Isra. So below is a list:

Cast of Characters

General Aref al-Khoury - Khalid's uncle and head of security at the palace

Captain Jalal al-Khoury - General al-Khoury's son and Khalid's cousin, Captain of the Palace Guard

Khalid Ibn al-Rashid - Caliph of Khorasan, eighteen years old

Shahrzad al-Khayzuran - young girl who marries Khalid and tells him stories each night in an attempt to save her life and avenge the murder of her best friend

Despina - Shahrzad's handmaiden who is Jalal's lover

Jahandar al-Khayzuran - Shahrzad's father, vizier for the previous Caliph

Irsa al-Khayzurn - Shahrzad's sister

Tariq Imran al-Ziyad - son of Nasir al-Ziyad, emir of the fourth richest stronghold in Khorasan

Reza bin-Latief -  Shiva's father and Tariq's uncle

Rahim al-Din Walad - friend of Shahrzad and Tariq


Salim Ali el-Sharif -  Sultan of Parthia
Yasmine el-Sharif - daughter of Salim and childhood friend of Khalid

Omar al-Sadiq - sixth emir of Badawi

The Rajput - a member of the Caliph's personal bodyguard

Musa Zaragosa - Khalid's first tutor

Ahdieh does include a map showing the relative locations of Khorasan and Parthia to help her readers understand the setting. At the back is a glossary of the many Arabic words used throughout the story.

Readers who have loved the Arabian Nights and who enjoy a delicious romance paired with conflict and tension will want to read The Wrath and The Dawn. At its heart, is a love story filled with redemption, forgiveness and loss. The Wrath and the Dawn is really a love story which focuses on how love can redeem even the most horrible of people.

The sequel, The Rose and the Dagger is slated for publication in 2016. Cannot. Wait.

Book Details:

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons        2015

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Heart of Betrayal by Mary. E. Pearson

The Heart of Betrayal picks up exactly where the first novel, Kiss of Deception, left off. Princess Arabella Celestine Idris Jezelia known as Lia and Rafe are prisoners of Venda's Assassin, Kaden,  who is taking them to the barbarian kingdom of Venda.  Lia is struggling to cope with her brother Walther's death at the hands of the Vendans who massacred his entire patrol. Kaden has disobeyed his Komizar's orders to kill her and instead is bringing her back alive.

Taken to the seat of power known as Sanctum Hall, Lia meets the Legion of Governors and the Komizar, a man not much older than her brother Walther. Speaking in Lia's native Morrighese, he treats her with derision. Kaden tells the Komizar that he spared Lia's life because she has "the gift" and could be of use to them. To intimidate Lia, the Komizar singles out Wather's baldrick from the spoils collected from Lia's brother's patrol and chooses it for himself.

Lia is placed in a room with Prince Jaxon Tyrus Rafferty, whom Lia knew as a farmer named Rafe in Terravin and whom she fell in love with. When Lia fled from her arranged marriage to Prince Jaxon in Morrighan, he pursued her because she was a political embarrassment to him and because she aroused his curiosity. But now he loves her and she him. Rafe tells Lia that help is on the way in the form of four of his best men. Lia is unconvinced that four men will be able to help them and warns Rafe to guard his words carefully as the Komizar does not miss a thing. Afraid that he has lost her love, Rafe tries to convince Lia that he will redeem himself. "I deceived you. I'm not the farmer I claimed to be, but I hope I can make you fall in love with me again, this time as a prince, one day at a time. We've had a terrible start -- it doesn't mean we can't have a better ending."

Immediately the Komizar sets out to humiliate Lia by having her wear a cloth sack that barely covers her and parades her through the Sanctum. Lia and Rafe are brought to see the Komizar and Kaden in front of the governors and citizens of Venda. The Komizar concedes Lia may have value, but wonders about Rafe. To prevent his execution, Rafe tells the Komizar that he is an Emissary for Prince Jaxon, sent to determine if Lia really fled from her wedding or if it was a planned retaliation. Lia's marriage to Prince Jaxon was to create an alliance between Morrighan and Dalbreck. To ascertain if Rafe is telling the truth, the Komizar calls in Griz who has seen Prince Jaxon and his court in Dalbreck. Griz recognizes Rafe as Prince Jaxon but does not reveal him to the Komizar. Rafe falsely informs the Komizar that the King of Dalbreck will die soon and that the kingship will pass to Prince Jaxon who is seeking an alliance with Venda. Prince Jaxon will allow Venda to have all of Morrighan except for a port. Rafe tells the Komizar that once the King is dead, the Prince Jaxon will meet with him in a neutral area in the Cam Lanteux. The Komizar is skeptical and tells both Lia and Rafe that if Rafe has lied he will be sent back to Morrighan in pieces.

Meanwhile Pauline and Gwyneth are on their way to Civica in Morrighan to see the Viceregent. Pauline hopes the Viceregent will tell the King in a way that will help Lia. However, Gwyneth sends a note without Pauline's knowledge to the Chancellor requesting a meeting. When Pauline learns of this she is furious because the Chancellor hates Lia, but Gwyneth tells her that everything must pass through the Chancellor's office first. If Pauline went straight to the King and he refuses her, they have no other options. When Gwyneth finally meets the Chancellor she tells him that Princess Arabella has been abducted by the Vendans. The Chancellor's response is one of disbelief but he promises to speak with the king and queen. To Gwyneth and Pauline's dismay, Lia's parents, the King and Queen of Morrighan do not intend to rescue her and are now more concerned about Prince Walther who has disappeared. They do not know he has been murdered by Kaden and his Vendan soldiers.

When Lia attempts to drive a wedge between the Komizar and Kaden, he warns her that if she kills him, she will be the next Komizar, just as he did when he was eighteen. He tells her that the bond between him and Kaden has many years as he rescued Kaden who was starving on the street. Calanthra, a one eyed  woman who has been assigned to care for Lia, escorts her to the Sanctum Hall for a meal with the Komizar, Rafe and Kaden in attendance along with many others. At this meal the Komizar ridicules Lia who is still wearing the ill-fitting sack. That night the Komizar assigns Lia to Kaden's quarters in an attempt to cause friction between Kaden and Rafe. Concerned for her well being Kaden gives her clothing and a place to sleep but does not touch her. Lia also learns more about the city - that it was built on the ruins of another great city of the Ancients. Kaden reveals that there is a vast underground network of tunnels and caverns and that the bridge Lia entered the city by is the only out.

The next morning Lia is brought her warm boots by a young girl named Aster. Aster reveals that Venda has been killing many patrols and that war booty has been arriving in the city frequently.  This becomes very evident to Lia when Kaden takes her to meet the Komizar and she sees wagons of Morrighese wines arriving. The Komizar, who is leaving for Balwood Province in the north, assigns Kaden as the Keep - the person in charge while he is away. He tasks Kaden who is part of the Rahtan, soldiers united in their allegiance to the Komizar, with the execution three young soldiers who ran away during a raid. During the Komizar's absence, Kaden takes Lia to the jehendra to have some clothes made for her on the Komizar's orders. Efferia makes Lia a riding outfit but also a beautiful dress.

Kaden also explains more of Venda's history to Lia: that one of the ruins was once over 600 hundred feet high and that it was a monument to one of the Ancient's leaders. Lia knows that after the devastation, paper records were not preserved but that the scholars of Morrighan were skilled at interpreting the rare documents that did survive.

The next day Lia discovers a secret passage out of Kaden's room that leads to the Sanctum. The passage allows her to visit Rafe where they catch up on what has been happening. She also tells him about stealing documents from the Royal Scholar's library, one an ancient text called the Song of Venda. This text tells about Venda, the wife of the first ruler, who "told stories and sang songs from the walls of the Sanctum to the people below." Lia tells Rafe that the song foretells about a dragon who would rise, one that fed on the tears of mothers" and that someone named Jezelia would challenge the dragon. However, Rafe is unconvinced and worried that the stress of their situation is affecting Lia.

Lia makes an astonishing discovery during her exploration of the tunnels. In a vast cavern beneath the Sanctum, she discovers robed figures who are not Vendan and who are scholars. They indicate they are simply providing knowledge but do not specify exactly what that is. All of the mysterious happenings seem to suggest to Lia that something terrible is about to happen. The kavah that does not fade, her discovery of the Song of Venda and its mention of a woman with her name, the Royal Scholar of Morrighan hiding books and hiring a bounty hunter to kill her are all very strange. Can Lia uncover the mystery of all these events and escape from Venda with Rafe?

Lia has been sitting out on the wall for several days and soon feels compelled to share aloud her "remembrances" or prayers. The crowds soon flock to listen to Lia especially when she is given a dress of the oldest clan of Venda, the Meurasi. While the people love her, the dress serves to inflame the wrath of the Council, especially Malich and the Governors. Kaden warns her to be very careful. At night Lia learns the names of the Governors and the Rahtan. The Komizar returns after having located the new governor of Balwood and sends Kaden out to find the other missing one. However, before he leaves, Kaden reveals his true heritage to Lia; he is the bastard son of a Morrighese lord who abandoned him. When his mother died, Kaden was given to passing beggars.

With Kaden gone, Lia is taken by the Komizar to many hamlets in Venda. In each he tells them that Lia fled Morrighan to join Venda and brings them supplies to help them through the approaching winter. Without Kaden to watch her, Lia along with Aster explore the tunnels and discover a vast room filled with more books than the library in Morrighan. Lia sees men in robes sorting through books, keeping some but discarding most. Aster quickly steals a book for Lia. This book is very different from the ones Lia has seen and she does not recognize the language. Lia now knows that the scholars in the caverns beneath the Sanctum are translating the lost books of the Ancients. The question is why? As Lia struggles to find a way to escape from Venda with Rafe, she comes to know the terrible secret the Komizar is hiding from his people and the possibility that her presence in Venda is no accident.


In The Heart of Betrayal, Pearson weaves an intricate story that involves two kingdoms at odds and the discovery of a betrayal that may destroy one of them. This second novel works its way to a major revelation that the cruel Komizar of Venda is preparing for war with Morrighan. The Morrighan patrols are being destroyed so as to hide something important, something Morrighan would never suspect of the barbaric, backward kingdom of Venda. As Lia unwillingly prepares to become Queen of Venda, she is shown the Komizar's plans to invade Morrighan and destroy it with a massive army. Furthermore this enormous army is very advanced because it has been built on the technology of the Ancients, uncovered by traitorous scholars from Morrighan, from the vaults beneath Sanctum Hall.

Based on what she has read from the Song of Venda, Lia believes the song foretells of a "terrible greatness rolled across the land" and that a woman named Jezelia would confront the dragon. As Lia continues to have visions of Venda in the Sanctum, she begins to realize that the fact that she shares the same name as the woman in the Song of Venda is no coincidence and that maybe she is the one who will have to confront the evil of the Komizar. This further intensifies the conflict between the two main characters, the Komizar of Venda and Princess Arabella (Lia) of Morrighan at the beginning of The Heart of Betrayal. In this novel, the Komizar has the advantage. He has Lia as his hostage and is preparing to force her to marry him. The marriage is a pretense, serving as an aid to him ruling in difficult times as he starves his own people while building a huge war machine and to sow discord in Morrighan when they learn that their Royal First Daughter is a traitor. It also prevents Lia from returning to Morrighan to tell them what she knows. Her only chance to stop the Komizar is to escape with Rafe. With the help of his men, Lia and Rafe manage to do this but at a great cost. Both the Komizar and Lia are seriously wounded. However, novel ends leaving many questions unanswered; the reader does not know whether Kaden has been killed by Malich, whether the Komizar has in fact been killed by Lia, and what has happened to Lia and Rafe. The cliffhanger ending leads perfectly into the next novel which will likely feature the war between Venda and Morrighan and lead to a direct confrontation between the Komizar who is the dragon and Lia who also bears the name of Jezelia.

Pearson has written in a love triangle that involves Lia, Rafe and Kaden. While both Rafe and Kaden love Lia, she loves only Rafe to the point that she is willing to marry the Komizar in order to save Rafe's life. It's a love triangle that does not dominate the story but sees Lia having to play a role that makes her seem interested in Kaden while ignoring Rafe publicly in order to deflect the Komizar's attention. She knows Rafe's playing a role which if discovered will cost him his life. All this makes Lia a strong character, determined, intelligent and self-sacrificing. Surprisingly, Rafe is really a minor character in this novel until the very end. Lia's arch-enemy is the Komizar whose real name is Reginaus. Pearson excels at developing this character as the cruel, manipulative man reminiscent of an evil dictator, a destroyer who stops at nothing to achieve power.

Pearson gives us a hint as to who the Ancients were and where Venda is when Lia and Kaden come across a huge broken temple with "great slabs of white stone" and "the enormous sculpted head and partial shoulders of a man." They find one large slab of stone engraved with the letters F REV R. It's obvious that this is the remains of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and that the story is set in post-apocalyptic America.

The Heart of Betrayal is a very long novel, slow in the middle as it sets up for the stunning revelation near the end and the exciting climax. Pearson knows how to capture her reader's attention and maintain that interest, revealing pieces that fit together nicely. The theme of betrayal is central in the novel. There is the betrayal by the scholars of Morrighan; "He pushed back his hood, and my stomach turned with nausea. He was my tenth-year tutor, Argyris. One by one, the others pushed back their hoods too. These weren't just any scholars from remote regions. These were the elite inner circle, trained by the Royal Scholar himself. The Royal Scholar's second assistant, the lead illuminator, her fifth and eighth year tutors, the library archivist, two of my brother's tutors..." When Lia questions Argyris about his betrayal he states, "We're not exactly traitors, Arabella...We're merely scholars, Princess, doing what we do...What others do with our findings is not our business. We simply uncover the worlds these books hold." It is from Garvin that Lia learns of the Chancellor's role in subverting Morrighan.

Likewise Lia comes to understand the terrible betrayal perpetrated by Kaden. Lia remembers Kaden "holding me as I watched my brother die, saying how sorry he was. Kaden with his steady eyes. His deceptive calm. His devastating betrayal." but now realizes that while he was telling her he was attempting to save her life by bringing her to Venda, he and his Komizar were planning to kill everyone who matter to her. Kaden tells her that they will march on Morrighan and remove those in power. Her sense of betrayal runs deep because she has been used as a pawn in a plan for vengeance against his father. Although he attempts to tell her that he has an agreement with the Komizar, Lia reminds him that such agreements bring little to those who will die in Morrighan.

There is also the betrayal of Lia's parents, the King and Queen of Morrighan who seem not to care about their daughter and who do not believe her friends who insist that she was taken against her will to Venda.

The Heart of Betrayal is even better than Kiss of Deception. Pearson does fantasy well and her third novel in the Remnant Chronicles is eagerly anticipated!

Book Details:

The Heart of Betrayal by Mary E. Pearson
New York: Henry Holt and Company     2015
470 pp.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

DVD: Insurgent

The second installment in the Divergent movie franchise was released in theaters in early 2015 and was recently released on DVD. 

Insurgent is a much more mature film than its predecessor in that it includes a sex scene, plenty of murders that are shown off screen including the murder of Jeanine and some bloody scenes involving one on one violence.LIke the first film,  Insurgent is packed with action, plot twists, and moments of romance and betrayal.

Where Insurgent succeeds is in telling the story in a more cohesive and succinct way than did the novel. Usually it's the other way around, but the hot mess that Insurgent was as a novel, has been significantly cleaned up in the movie due to good screenwriting. The movie differs significantly from the novel from the very beginning. For example, Eric is never put on trial but is simply shot by Four when the Dauntless traitors led by Eric attack Candor. Evelyn murders Jeanine rather than Tori and there is no secret box discovered under Tris's parents home. In the novel, Jeanine's development of a new simulation that is capable of affecting almost all Divergents is the driving force behind Tris's determination to take her down. The effect of the simulation was only a small part of the movie. However, the creation of the box containing a  message from the founders that only the Divergent can open, creates a bridge between Insurgent and Allegiant that did not exist in the novels.

Exciting action scenes, such as when Four is being chased from the Amity community and he races to beat the train which will separate him from Eric and the soldiers, are the mainstay of the movie. However, these same action scenes are part of a weaker aspect of the movie because Shailene Woodley, with her (too) slim build and lack of musculature, doesn't come across as capable of the physical feats shown.

Woodley's performance is not as strong in Insurgent, where she lacks the same connection with the character of Beatrice that was present in the first movie. Several excellent scenes were designed to demonstrate the internal conflict Tris is experiencing over the death of her friend Will and her parents; when she experiences the truth serum of Candor and is questioned by Jack Kang and when she fights through the Dauntless sim involving her mother. Woodley also seemed to struggle recapturing the connection between her character, Tris Prior and her mentor and companion Tobias Eaton known as Four, that was so powerful in the first movie. The actress admits that it was challenging to establish that connection when they filmed the Amity scenes at the beginning of the movie because they were so different from the Dauntless scenes in Divergent.

Miles Teller who plays Peter, one of the pivotal characters in the novel, impresses in Insurgent mainly because his performance as the traitorous Peter who saves Tris is believable.  Insurgent also introduces the Factionless, those who do not fit in with any faction or have left their faction. The leader of the Factionless is Evelyn, Four's mother played by Naomi Watts who seemed, at first glance, too young for the role in some scenes. Of course this leads into another problem involving casting for this movie series. Four is played by the handsome Theo James who is thirty years old but who must play an eighteen year old man - and eleven year age difference. James is excellent in the role, looks the part physically, and exudes a kind of hero image, but he doesn't look nineteen. To get around this problem, in the movie he is said to be twenty-four which makes his relationship with sixteen year old Tris creepy.

Overall, Insurgent is a good second movie in the dystopian series. It will be interesting to see how the final book is presented as a two part movie.

The final novel in Veronica Roth's series, Allegiant will be split into two movies, the first of which will be released March 18, 2016.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke by Anne Blankman

Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke is the sequel to Prisoner of Night and Fog. This novel wraps up the duology about two young teens, one of whom is Jewish, who attempt to warn the world about the danger of Hitler coming to power in Germany in the early 1930s.

Now living in London with Doctor Alfred Whitestone's family, Gretchen Muller is struggling to adjust to life in a new country. She's been living the Whitestones for seventeen months. Alfred considers Gretchen his "daughter in every sense of the word that matters." Gretchen had met Alfred at her mother's boardinghouse in Munich where he had been studying the rise of Adolf Hitler. It was Dr. Whitestone's intention to write about Hitler's strange psychological profile in a medical journal in order to obtain a position at a London hospital. However, in order to protect Gretchen and Daniel, he has forgone this opportunity. He continues to work at the Oxford Psychoanalytical Clinic.

Gretchen and Alfred arrive home to a surprise 18th birthday party for Gretchen. Although she turned eighteen years old seven months earlier, they are staying true to Gretchen's fake identity which changed her birth date. Also there are Alfred's wife, Julia and their three sons, twelve year old Colin, ten year old Andrew and eight year old Jack and Gretchen's friend Mary. The best surprise though is the presence of her friend,  Daniel Cohen who is working as a reporter at the Oxford Mail, writing a society column. It is a job he's not happy with especially after working in Germany at the Munich Post, writing about Hitler's rise to power and the National Socialist Party.  However, Alfred encourages Daniel telling him eventually he will prove himself.

Alfred brings to the attention of Daniel and Gretchen, Winston Churchill's words at a debate at Oxford University. Churchill at a meeting of various unions indicated that Germany was on the threshold of war and that there are rumours about Jewish persecution. However no one seems to be listening to Churchill whose time in English politics seems to be over. Daniel's experience has been that most Members of the English Parliament were also not interested in what he had to say about Hitler.

Unfortunately, Gretchen's birthday party is interrupted by the Whitestone's cook who tells them that Daniel's landlady just called to let him know a telegram from Germany arrived for him. Daniel races home leaving Gretchen very worried. She worries because of what her own family has experienced back in Germany. Her father was killed nine years ago by Hitler because he knew that Hitler had been diagnosed as a psychopath while in a military hospital during World War I.  Hitler shot Gretchen's father during a street fight between the National Socialists and the German police. Despite losing the presidential election, Hitler and the National Socialists continue to be favoured by the German people and just last month President Hindenburg had appointed Hitler as German Chancellor.

When Daniel doesn't contact Gretchen the next day she visits his home on Iffley Road and is given a letter by his landlady. The note informs Gretchen that his cousin, Aaron Pearlman was attacked and is not expected to survive. Aaron was attacked when he refused to salute the National Socialists as they paraded through Munich. Daniel has returned to Germany to see that the men who attacked Aaron are brought to justice. Gretchen is horrified that Daniel has returned to Germany as she believes he is facing certain death if caught. For the next six days Gretchen struggles to go through daily life. Then one night they learn that the previous night, February 27, the Reichstag which is the seat of the German government, was set on fire. The blaze was believed to be the work of either the Nazis or the Communists who are battling for control of Germany. Gretchen and the Whitestones learn that President Hindenberg and Chancellor Hitler have declared a state of emergency and suspended "all major civil liberties including freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom to assemble."  Gretchen knows this means that Daniel will not be able to contact her and that all correspondence will be monitored. The newspapers reveal that twenty-four year old Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested for arson. Five days later, Gretchen receives a note from Daniel's editor at the Oxford Mail telling her that he received a mysterious telegram hinting that Daniel may be in serious trouble in Germany and that he is wanted for murder in Berlin.

Against the advice of the Whitestones, Gretchen decides she must return to Germany as quickly as possible. Alfred drives her to the train station and gives her five hundred pounds to help her in her hunt for Daniel. Gretchen arrives in Munich to find the SA (Sturmabteilung) have stormed the office of Fritz Gerlich's newspaper, the anti-National Socialist, Der Gerade Wag. Gerlich tells Gretchen that he saw Daniel a few days after he arrived in Germany. He had been beaten and his money and false papers taken. Shortly afterwards, the party-sponsored newspapers announced that Daniel was wanted for the murder of a woman named Monika Junge. Daniel has not been seen since and the city is under attack by the SA who have been pillaging businesses. Gerlich informs Gretchen that nothing is done to stop the attacks because the SA have now taken over Munich's police force, with Heinrich Himmler now Munich's acting police chief. As Gretchen is leaving, Max Amann the head of the Eher Verlag, the National Socialist publishing house arrives to arrest Gerlich. Flashing her swastika necklace to Amann, Gretchen is allowed to leave, while Gerlich is heard being beaten.

Her next stop is the office of the Munich Post which she hopes the SA have not yet attacked. However, she's too late. Desperate, Gretchen decides to visit her girlfriend, Eva Braun who is now Hitler's companion. She contacts Herr Hoffman's Photography shop where Eva works and asks her to find out if Daniel Cohen was arrested during the raid on the Munich Post. When Gretchen and Eva meet in Englischer Garten, she learns that Daniel was not arrested. Eva tells Gretchen that Hitler still talks about her and that she is not safe in Munich. Taking Eva's advice, Gretchen travels to the Hauptbahnhof where she plans to take the train to Berlin. Unexpectedly she meets Daniel who is also taking the same express train and they board together staying in a double compartment. Daniel tells Gretchen he cannot leave until he clears his name. Daniel fills Gretchen in on what happened when he arrived in Munich to investigate Aaron's death.  He learned from his friends at the Munich Post that the kind of attacks Aaron succumbed to are happening all over Germany. After leaving the offices of the Post he was assaulted by the SA and his papers stolen. He believes the SA in Berlin learned of his return to Germany and he was framed for the murder of a young woman. Daniel tells her that "If I can get proof that the National Socialists are behind the murder, I'll give it to a foreign correspondent friend I have in Berlin. He'll have the story printed in his paper in England. It'll be an enormous scandal for the National Socialists. All eyes will be on Berlin, and they'll have to let me leave the country." Daniel believes that he might even be able to bring down the National Socialists.

Just how difficult this will be is demonstrated when Gretchen and Daniel barely escape the train at Dachau as it is being searched by the SA. Cold, exhausted and hungry they make their way to Gretchen's grandparent's farm. Gretchen is shocked to discover her mother living in abject poverty and not welcoming towards Daniel. They travel to Daniel's parent's home in Berlin where his parents are not welcoming to her and his mother reveals the depths of Daniel's unhappiness in England. Knowing that both their families do not accept either of them, Gretchen and Daniel set about the task at hand; to determine who killed Monika Junge and why Daniel was framed for her murder. As they dig deeper, they soon uncover a plot that leads them back to the Reichstag and the fire of February 27.


Blankman has crafted a good piece of historical fiction that incorporates one of the most significant events in the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany, the burning of the Reichstag which was the seat of the German Republic.  Blankman's story revolves around the mystery that surrounded the fire at the time. The Reichstag was set on fire on February 27, 1933, days before parliamentary elections were to be held on March 5. Chancellor Hitler was determined to see a majority of Nazis elected and anything that would push the German people to vote for the Nazis was encouraged.  A lone person, Marius van der Lubbe, who was an unemployed brick layer with links to the Communist party, was arrested for the arson. When Hitler heard that a communist had been arrested he was furious. He was quoted as saying, "You are now witnessing the beginning of a great epoch in German history...This fire is the beginning."

The Nazi's used their radio and press to put forth the propaganda that the fire was evidence the Communists were planning to seize control of the government. The fear of a Communist revolution led to the immediate passage, the day after the fire, of the Reichstag Fire Decree. This decree suspended all democratic rights for the German people, including the freedom of the press and the freedom to associate.

However, many people both in Germany and throughout the world, believed that the Nazis were responsible for the burning of the Reichstag. They could then use the fire to gradually pass laws that would restrict the rights of the press and the people, setting the stage for Hitler to eventually become dictator. The Enabling Act, which Blankman mentions in her novel began the process of creating a dictatorship in Germany.  As Blankman writes, "On March 23, the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, effectively voting itself out of existence." Within a month almost all Communist deputies were incarcerated.

Although Blankman states in her Author's Note that research after World War II appears to conclude that the fire was the work of only one man, van der Lubbe, controversy still exists as to who really set the Reichstag ablaze.

In her detailed Author's Note at the back of the novel, Blankman writes that while many of the main characters in the novel are fictitious, there are many real historical figures included in the story. These include Adolf Hitler, Marius van der Lubbe, Eva Braun who committed suicide along with Hitler as the Russian army entered Berlin, Ernst Hanfstaengl, Ernst Gennat, Fritz Gerlich, Max Amann, Sefton "Tom" Delmer and of course Winston Churchill. She provides a brief sketch of each of these historical figures.

Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke is really a mystery romance with Daniel and Gretchen racing to clear Daniel of murder before the Enabling Act is passed. Blankman does an excellent job of portraying a Germany slowly slipping into brutality and anarchy. People begin disappearing, people on the street murdered or beaten and no one stops to help them out of blind fear. Any newspapers in opposition to the Nazi's are sacked, their reporters intimidated, arrested or murdered. The average person struggles not to stand out so as not to attract the attention of the SA or the dreaded SS. The terror, which could happen at any moment, is well demonstrated when Gretchen and Birgit are walking on the street and a car appears. Ordinarily this would not be a frightening event but life in Germany is anything but ordinary.

"Up and down the avenue, men stopped walking, their shoulders tense, their heads swiveling as they watched the car drive past....
The car doors sprang open. Men scrambled out, about five or six of them. They wore the brown uniforms of the SA. In their hands, they clutched truncheons...
The SA men strode to the nearest shop. As she watched, they raised their truncheons high, then smashed them down on the darkened shop's windows. The glass shattered.
Break everything in sight!" one of the men shouted.
Comprehension flashed through Gretchen's mind. It was a Strafexpedition, an excursion made by National Socialists into a Jewish or Communist neighborhood to punish the people who lived there."

The book takes its title from a conversation that Hitler once had with Gretchen's father, who was a friend of Hitler before he murdered him. "They'll swallow anything if it's repeated often enough, he had said, clapping her father on the shoulder. Like blood and smoke, eh, Muller? The truth doesn't matter. Only the appearance of it." As Gretchen ponders these words she wonders what Hitler meant by them.
"She frowned. Hitler had said that he didn't need to tell the truth; he merely needed to appear as though he did. He had sounded as if he were planning on deliberately misleading others. Like setting fire to Berlin's seat of government, a terrorist attack reported all over the world, and then blaming your strongest political opponents for it."

Overall, Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke is a fitting conclusion to the story of Gretchen and Daniel. At times Gretchen's narrative is overwhelmed by her romantic feelings towards Daniel. Blankman even creates a bit of romantic tension between the two when Gretchen learns that he has not been happy in England and she wonders if they have a future together. Perhaps a little less romance and bit more editing would have helped.

Nevertheless, fans of historical fiction will delight in this fine novel about a very interesting and frightening period in world history.

For more information on the Reichstag fire the following websites may be helpful:

The Reichstag Fire of 1933

World War Two Database

Book Details:

Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke by Anne Blankman
New York: Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers 2015
393 pp.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

I Am The Traitor by Allen Zadoff

I Am The Traitor is the final book in the Unknown Assassin trilogy. In this final installment Zach finally learns the truth about The Program as he searches for his father. The truth however involves some terrible revelations about Zach's family and his father's involvement in The Program.

The novel opens with Zach waiting to meet Mike in his hometown of Rochester, New York, in the hopes he can rescue his friend, Howard, whom the Program has captured. It might be a trap but Zach has to take the risk if he is to free Howard. Zach first goes to the University of Rochester where his father was once a psychology professor, attempting to meet Professor Abraham Silberstein, who was his father's former research partner. He manages to find the room where Dr. Silberstein is lecturing but when Silberstein recognizes Zach in the class he abruptly ends the lecture and flees. Zach pursues him losing him when he runs into Mike dressed as a campus cop. Mike knows that Zach is searching for his father and tries to convince Zach that what he told him in New York was misunderstood. Mike tells him that he should be angry at his father because he is the one who brought the Program into his life. He also warns Zach that he is in serious trouble having gone rogue on his last two missions. He attempts to convince Zach that both his parents are dead and that the Program should now be his family. Hoping that eventually he can get more information from Mike, Zach decides to play along. Mike informs him that they need to clean up the mess he made and kill Howard who is being held at a house in upstate New York. Zach believes that Mike is either telling him the truth and giving him a chance to set things right, or he is lying and by killing Howard, Zach will destroy any chance of learning the truth about his father.

They travel to the house Howard is being kept but before going in Zach is contacted by "Mother" who tells him she has no upcoming assignment for him and he's to relax. Zach believes that Mother knows about Howard and his hacking into the Program server and that she's setting a trap for him. Mike tells him this is not a trap but an opportunity to clear his name with the Program.

In order to gain entry to the home where Howard is Zach calls 911, bringing firetrucks to the house. He quickly finds Howard along with another girl, Tanya who is also being held. Zach gets both Howard and Tanya out of the house but is confronted by several Program soldiers. Outside the house Mike kills the Program soldiers as Zach, Howard and Tanya escape in the Honda Accord. They stop at a diner in Courtland to give Zach a chance to question Howard who is somewhat groggy from the drugs he's been given. Mike contacts Zach at the diner to tell him he's coming after him. Zach finds tracking devices in both Howard and Tanya's clothing. As they head towards Binghamton, New York, Tanya tells Zach she needs to contact her Nana who will be worried. Trusting her, Zach allows this while he and Howard discuss the disappearance of Zach's father and mother. Howard believes that the Program would have had to create a cover story since Zach's parents were both well known researchers.  Howard discovers that the Program faked an accident which killed both of Zach's parents. After locating the accident report they head to the police station at Horseheads to talk to Sergeant Manning who wrote up the accident report. Not surprisingly they learn that Manning died from a heart attack two days earlier.

After escaping from Mike who tried to run them off the road at Horseheads, Zach is contacted by him and learns that his parents' are dead but not as a result of the accident which was staged by the Program. He tells Zach to get rid of Howard and Tanya. The next morning Howard does remember Zach. Zach needs to find out more about his father and to that end he needs to access the Program's server. They decide to pay Dr. Silberstein a visit but they need to know where the mag-stripe security pass that Zach stole from him is from. Howard learns that the card is from the Mercurio Institute and that's where they head next. Impersonating Joshua Silberstein, Dr. Silberstein's son who was Zach's best friend when they were younger, Zach gains access to the doctor's lab. Dr. Silberstein offers Zach more pieces of the puzzle about his parents but each step leads to the destruction of the people Zach meets and demonstrates that the Program is willing to do just about anything to stop him from learning the truth about what really happened to his parents.


I Am The Traitor is a suspenseful, fast-paced novel that is impossible to put down. Like the two previous novels it is characterized by plenty of action and a fair number of dead bodies including several very cruel murders by Zach. In this novel Zach is determined to find his father because he no longer believes what he's been told by the Program. He never suspects the truth that is revealed to him near the end of the novel.

** spoilers**

When Zach does find his father, the reality of what his father's involvement in the Program entails,  leads him to realize that he cannot allow him to continue his research. Zach learns that his father initially designed a chip to suppress fear in soldiers. However, the chip didn't seem to work completely the way they wanted. Soldiers still experienced PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome). His father discovered that if the chip was implanted in children twelve or younger, it seemed to function better. So he deliberately turned his own son over to the Program and made him a test subject for a controversial research project - the implantation of a chip that was designed to suppress fear in soldiers. As part of that project, Zach was trained to be an assassin.  Zach states, "Instead of making them soldiers, you made them assassins." His father does not believe there is anything wrong with this, instead he tells his son that the Program was a brilliant way to test the chip. As Zach became older he began to rebel against the Program, something his father believed was the result of the chip. So he developed a new chip, one that removes all feelings and remorse, in effect creating soldiers without a conscience.   "Once this chip is inside you, there will be no more feelings. No questions, no mistakes, no need for disloyalty."  When his father tries to force Zach to have this new chip implanted, Zach realizes he will never be free of his father or the Program unless he acts to put an end to it.

Although Zach kills many people, most of his murders are in self defense except for the last two. He sees no way out of the Program other than to kill the two people who created the entire operation, although realistically, with so many Program assets it's hard to see how this would solve Zach's problem in the long term. 

The character of Tanya in I Am The Traitor is rather interesting. She seems to represent a typical Bond girl in this Bond-type story;we really don't know if she is for or against Zach. At first she appears to be a helpless girl caught in the Program's net and Zach doesn't seem much interested in her. But soon it's apparent that she is much more than helpless; she can handle a gun and she can fight. Very quickly she and Zach become romantically involved further complicating their relationship. Zach doesn't know what her motives are or whether he can trust her, but he does. In the end she decides to fight with Zach.

Zadoff manages to maintain suspense until the very end of the novel with several other plot twists. Zadoff has stated that the idea for his Unknown Assassin trilogy came from a character who was a trained assassin who assumed a new identity for each mission. Those missions were usually to kill the parents of the teens he was to befriend.

Overall, I Am The Traitor is an action-packed thriller, with plenty of twists, some very disturbing murders, a touch of romance, and a solid, good ending.

Book Details:

I Am The Traitor by Allen Zadoff
New York: Little, Brown and Company     2015
292 pp.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Cage by Megan Shepherd

The Cage is a science fiction novel about a group of teenagers kidnapped from Earth by an advanced species of beings known as the Kindred and placed in a type of cage. They are part of an elaborate experiment to determine if humans are capable of evolving into the Kindred's definition of intelligent beings. They claim they are also attempting to save some humans since there is a 98.6 percent chance that Earth will be destroyed.

The story opens with Cora Mason, daughter of a U.S. Senator, waking in a burning desert filled with rolling dunes. Only minutes earlier, sixteen year old Cora had been in a car with her brother, Charles, driving to a ski resort to meet their parents and scribbling the lyrics to a song. Now she has no idea where she is or how she got here, only the memory of a man's handsome bronzed face. Climbing a towering dune, Cora discovers that seven different habitats have been placed abutting one another in a way that seems impossible. There is a farm with fruit trees and fields, and arctic tundra where it is snowing,an ocean adjacent to the desert, a forest, a cityscape, grasslands with a few trees, and a forest.  On the beach Cora finds a dead girl in a white sundress while out of the forest trudges a boy wearing a leather jacket, jeans and a white shirt whose name is Lucky. Lucky knows who Cora is because he's followed what happened to her family on the news but Cora has no idea he knows her. The accident that had torn apart her family had ruined his too. After sharing names they both indicate that the clothes they are wearing are not their own and they notice that pieces of jewelry are missing and that they have tattoos of dots on their necks.

Cora and Lucky decide to walk to the city but as they get closer Cora realizes that what looked like a large city is really just ten small buildings. There are shops that line a town square, each in a different architectural style and from different time periods, making the town look strange. In the town, Cora and Lucky find two boys, a red haired pale boy dressed in a military jacket named Rolf and Leon who is a huge boy of Polynesian descent with black tattoo lines around the right side of his forehead and eye. In the toy shop they also find an Asian girl in a black dress whose name is Nok. They learn that Rolf who is fifteen and from Oslo, Norway,  is studying observational reasoning at Oxford, Leon is from New Zealand, and Nok is a "model" from London, England. Rolf tells them that he has explored the stores with Nok and found that there is six of everything including toys, dressers filled with clothing. When Leon tells them he's leaving, Rolf explains that they cannot leave, that "It doesn't matter which direction you head. You'll just come back to where you started." Rolf explains that this is what is known as an infinity paradox and it is also responsible for the terrible headaches they are all experiencing.  They also notice that there is a black window in the toy store which emits a humming sound. Rolf suggests that these windows might actually be "viewing panels" allowing their captors to watch them. They notice that the toy store contains puzzles which must be solved, indicating to Rolf that these might be how their captors are gauging their intelligence. Rolf notices that his eyesight has been corrected and he no longer needs glasses and later on Nok discovers her asthma also has been cured. Rolf also feels that if this is some kind of psychological experiment then there is likely someone who is a control, someone on the inside who is a mole and not being manipulated.

Various strange things begin to happen. First they notice that the black windows are everywhere, meaning they are constantly being watched. Whenever Cora solves the puzzles she wins more tokens than the others. They also hear the song that Cora wrote while in the car with her brother on the radio which creeps her out. Outside the light gradually fades to later afternoon and a trapdoor in the diner opens to provide them with six trays of food. That night they all try to sleep although Cora finds it difficult to do so.

The next morning a man who calls himself their Caretaker, suddenly materializes in front of the group. He is an impressive man, very tall with bronze/copper skin that has a metallic sheen and eyes that are completely black. Cora recognizes him as the man from her dreams. He tells them they are on an aggregate space station far from their solar system and that the different habitats are meant to imitate those found on Earth. Cora is horrified to realize that everything around them is not real. When she asks the Caretaker why they have been brought to the station, he tells them that his people are called the Kindred and that they "are the stewards of endangered species" such as humans. They are told "Earth is a dangerous and unpredictable world. The practices of your species are unsustainable. So we have brought you here, to this enclosure, where we can ensure the survival of your race regardless of your planet's well-being. Here you have ample sustenance and a microcosm of the various habitats and cultures in your world. We have given you a variety of stimuli to exercise your minds and bodies. You will find these enrichment activities to be rewarding."

The Caretaker's description of the eight enrichment puzzles in the biomes and the eight in the settlement areas lead Cora to realize that they view humans as children, even as animals. The Caretaker also tells them that each of them were chosen for their valuable attributes such as beauty, morality or strength. He also indicates that they have three rules they must obey if they are to avoid "removal". They must solve the enrichment puzzles, maintain their health by eating the food provided and they must engage in "procreative activities" to create more humans. While the Kindred realize that rule three is difficult, this must be accomplished by day twenty-one or they will be "removed". Just as he is about to leave, Cora grabs the hilt of what she believes is a knife and vanishes with him.She finds herself on the other side of the black window, in a room able to see the others sitting on the grass in the town square.

The Caretaker tells her the hilt is not a weapon but something that allows him to dematerialize. Cora manages to force her way into an adjacent room and sees four Kindred soldiers along with the body of the dead girl who was on the beach. The Caretaker tells Cora they are examining the girl's body to detect any changes in her physical evolution and attempts to calm her by reiterating that they mean them no harm. When another Kindred appears the Caretaker introduces him as Fian who is the Warden of the station. Fian both frightens and threatens Cora and the Caretaker tells her that the Warden believes she is unsuitable for this enclosure and should be removed. When the Caretaker returns Cora to the cage he tells her that there is another way into and out of the Cage, a fail-safe exit in case there is a problem.

Upon Cora's return she tells the group where she's been and what she's experienced. Nok and Leon are deeply upset that they are trapped on the planet but Rolf seems to want to stay in the cage, insisting that it is a matter of survival. Leon believes they are going to die here, but Cora tells him that "The Kindred brought us here, which means they can take us back." She reasons that because they appear to be physically similar to humans and because the Caretaker appears to have scars on his face, they can be attacked. She tells Rolf that they should do the puzzles, earn the tokens and use them to buy the "toys" some of which can be made into weapons. Rolf is skeptical but Lucky and Nok believe it is a plan that could work. They also plan to map out the different habitats to try to locate the fail-safe exit and to this end, they divide into groups, Nok and Rolf investigate the swampy area, and Lucky and Cora the forest. Leon meanwhile is sent to check out the mountains. Their reconnaissance of the different habitats reveals that Rolf was correct in his initial theory - all the paths lead back to the town center.

When the group is taken in for medical check-ups, Cora is held back by the Caretaker.  Cora attacks him wondering if he feels pain, sympathy or desire. In response the Caretaker reveals to her that they feel all these things but these emotions are considered signs of weakness. They have learned to suppress their emotions in public. This leads Cora to realize that the Kindred can read their minds as she did not express this question verbally. The Caretaker tells her that he's kept her behind because she's not following the second rule by eating and sleeping. Cora tells him that she wants to go home and that her name is Cora, not Girl Two. She tells him that in order to sleep, she just needs to go home. "What I require?" Her throat felt dry. "To go home. For all of us to go home, and that girl in the cage too, while you're at it." However, the Caretaker tells her this is impossible, "Your life here will be effortless. We will provide everything. All you must do is enjoy it."

Cora questions him as to the real motives behind their kidnapping and he tells her that the Kindred are an astral species, living among the stars and that they are now interested in elevating humans to be an intelligent species. The Caretaker tells Cora that they define advanced intelligence as perceptive abilities of telepathy and telekinesis. He insists Cora's theories about why they are prisoners are incorrect, denying they are being manipulated or that they are test subjects. Instead, he tells them each was chosen based on their genetic attributes and personal traits. The Caretaker also reveals his name to be Cassian.

At Cora's request, the girl in the cage, Mali, is placed in their enclosure. Mali tells them that she was taken from Earth when she was four years old and reveals to the group the extent of the humans in captivity and that there are four intelligent species; the Kindred, the Mosca, the Axion and the Gatherers. She warns the group that they must cooperate with the Kindred if they wish to remain under their protection. Mali's appearance causes a shift in the group's thinking. Based on the information she has given them, Rolf no longer believes they should try to escape, especially after she tells Cora that it's unlikely she will find the fail-safe exit.

Rolf tells Cora that they should not fight against "creatures who trade human body parts." He intends to "buy the painting kit. Take up art. Enjoy myself." However, Lucky is determined to help Cora find the fail-safe exit.

Mali continues to reveal what she knows about the Kindred. She tells the group that the Kindred cloak their emotions in public so as to give them greater control over their perceptive abilities such as telepathy. One way to block their mind reading is to create pain as this hides thoughts. As Lucky and Cora continue to map their enclosure, Rolf and Nok become closer and eventually become intimate, fulfilling the third rule. By the fifteenth day, Cora begins to realize that the Kindred have been manipulating time as no one's fingernails have grown nor have the boys grown facial hair.

Gradually the group begins to lose its cohesion and its desire to escape. Lucky and Leon want to fight rather than solve the puzzles and Leon wanders off to live by himself believing he is responsible for Girl Three's death.The food in the trays disappears except for one and the group believes Cora, who is the Caretaker's favourite has been taking their food. Nok and Rolf spend all their time making love. In desperation, Cora tries to break one of the black windows. In an attempt to help Cora, Lucky explains how he knows who Cora is and the connection he has to her family. But this only convinces Cora that everything has been carefully planned and she is more determined than ever to escape. Even when Cassian warns her about her defiance and gives her rain and the stars, Cora remains intent on escaping and Cassian only stimulates her curiosity about what is outside their cage. In the hopes that if she learns what his world is like she will want to remain in the cage, Cassian shows her parts of the aggregate station and explains to her more about the Kindred. But Cora, perceptively discovers that Cassian is not telling her the entire truth. When Cora returns to the cage she tries to enlist the help of the other captives trying to counter their belief that Earth is destroyed and their desire to remain. Cora begins to formulate a plan to escape but can she convince her fellow prisoners to abandon a world built on lies for a chance to return home?


The Cage is reminiscent of the Star Trek episode entitled "The Cage" which was shown on October 4, 1966 in which the captain of the USS Enterprise, Captain Pike (who preceded Captain Kirk) is captured by the Talosians to create a colony of humans on Talos IV. The Talosians are able to create an illusory world, making it almost impossible for humans to determine what is real and what is not. Pike eventually escapes his captors, but Starfleet bans all contact with Talos IV on pain of execution. Parts of The Cage episode were rebroadcast in the two part Menagerie episodes that ran later in the year in November.

Despite having all of the characters narrate (with the exception of Cassian), The Cage really focuses on Cora and her attempts to escape the Cage and try to return to Earth. Unlike her fellow prisoners, Cora cannot accept living the rest of her life in the illusory world created by the Kindred, nor does she believe them when they tell her that the Earth does not exist anymore. As the rest of the group begins to lose touch with reality and becomes increasingly paranoid, Cora becomes determined to escape. However, she is also deeply conflicted because as the days pass she does not want to leave behind the other members of the group even though they no longer want to leave the Cage. This conflict is further aggravated by her blossoming friendship with Cassian.

Shepherd does a good job of portraying how the various members of the group gradually begin to lose their desire to escape and come to accept their captivity. At first Nok is horrified that the Kindred want them to procreate. "They want us to sleep together!" Nok sank to the grass next to the supine Leon, their earlier fight forgotten. "They want us to have babies so they can do god knows what, probably torture them or raise little human slaves." Her face went white. "What if they eat them?" She is equally horrified at the prospect of spending the rest of her life in the Cage. "So this is is?" Nok cried. "We're here for the rest of our lives? No more walks through Hyde Park, or old Star Trek reruns, or any of that?" However Nok begins to accept staying in the cage because of Rolf, who has a plan to make him and Nok happy. He tells her "I know this place was scary at first. But it really is engineered to keep us safe and happy....I don't care what Cora says. I know I'm supposed to hate it here and want to go home, but the truth is, life was bad for me there." Rolf who is brilliant, felt like he was trapped into studying engineering. The cage, instead of being a prison for him, offers him freedom to be himself. Nok is in a similar situation; her life on Earth was terrible, one step away from being a prostitute. Rolf and Nok's lives devolve into a kind of comical craziness; they make love constantly and are seen with candy-stained lips in their underwear painting one another. Even Lucky tells Cora, "But this is our home now. The others already know it. It's time we grow up and admit it too."

It seems that Cora's relationship with Cassian helps her to maintain her sanity while the others begin to unravel. Time spent with Cassian allows her to put the experiences in the Cage in context and to understand how illusory the cage really is. It is because of this however, that Cora cannot accept her fate. "She was done being caged. This couldn't be her life. Four walls made of endless trees and mountains and a ceiling made of limitless sky, and a man with black eyes who thought giving her the stars could make this world real."  Even when Cora reveals to Cassian that she knows where the fail-safe exit is and he tries to talk her out of attempting to reach it, she tells him "I can't stay here," she said. "None of us can. Through the ocean is the only way. ..Don't you understand? None of this is real. We can't live like that." 

As Cora and Cassian come to know the other, how they view each other changes. "When she had first seen him, she had though him such a terrifyingly beautiful creature. Their captor. Their jailor. Hew was still these things to her, but he was something more...This was what had changed, and it was so devastatingly simple: she had become a person to him; he had become a person to her. Human, Kindred, it didn't matter." Cora also realizes that although the Kindred had arranged everything so that she and Lucky should have fallen in love, it hadn't happened because "Love wasn't' just a combination of matching physical and personal criteria. It was something you couldn't put into words, just a certainty, a twist of fate, a spark. "   Instead, she has fallen in love with her captor, an alien, despite knowing this is wrong. Partly this is because Cassian also views Cora differently than people on Earth did and how Lucky does. She's not a victim to him. Instead he sees her strength and her potential. And Cassian is captivated by Cora, so much, that he helps her escape.

Readers will likely be surprised at the twist near the end of the novel, with Shepherd leaving many questions unanswered. Cora survives Cassian's experiment and her blossoming psychic abilities have merely strengthened her resolve to change how the Kindred view humans, not as test subjects but as a force in the universe to be reckoned with. Megan Shepherd's novels are wonderfully distinctive and refreshing;  the Cage being another fine example of Shepherd's creative storytelling.

Book Details:

The Cage by Megan Shepherd
New York: Balzer + Bray      2015
385 pp.

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