Judged by Jo • Find her on her blog
First of all, a HUGE shoutout to Beth and Katie for making it possible for me to participate this year! Last year I was a scatterbrained pregnant lady, and now I’m a sleep-deprived mom with a teething baby, and keeping up with a calendar has never been my strong point on a good day. So THANK YOU! I’m so excited to be back!
This year I have the pleasure of judging two mostly-MG books, one written the year I was born and the other the year my daughter was born, which is a nice kind of symmetry and also an indication of how very different they are. Without giving away my decision, I can honestly say that I don’t particularly think either of them deserves to win the entire competition, though at least one of them is a lovely fun little read that had me giddily twitching trying to keep my laughter to myself while the baby napped. The other is an ambitious but deeply flawed work that might have made it into the next round had the ending not made me want to throw my tablet across the room.
Oops, have I said too much?
Onto the books! Spoilers abound, natch.
First, The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet tells the story of Linnet (best friend Sayra, not Green Finch, and that’s the last time I’ll make that joke I promise), a just-turned-twelve-year-old from the village of Lourka in the wrinkled (read: magical) hills. Lourka is known for its lourkas, some kind of stringed instrument that only boys are allowed to make and which under-twelve-year-old girls must ABSOLUTELY NOT TOUCH, unless they wanted to be taken to Away by The Voices. Linny, having a strong predilection for music, is literally tethered to another girl named Sayra to prevent her from Doing The Thing.
Of course, she not only Does The Thing, she Makes The Thing, and a not-so-throwaway comment about their tetheredness from Sayra, spoken in the wrinkled hills where stories come true, results in the Voices taking Sayra instead of Linny. Sayra’s best hope can be found down the hills in the Plain, which is a not-wrinkled place full of science and medicine and maps. With help from Sayra’s beau Elias, Linny sets out to rescue her friend.
Or maybe I should say The Wrinkled Crown is the story of Linny, a girl who sets out to rescue her Taken best friend Sayra but instead gets embroiled in the politics of the Broken City, a half-wrinkled, half-Plain town split by a river and also by its citizens’ differing outlooks on how wrinkled or Plain the world should be. Linny and her lourka arrive looking like something straight out of legend—of course, because Linny is from the place where stories come true—and must find the Crown of the first Girl with the Lourka in order to make the Broken City whole again. But in the midst of world-shattering chaos, she also has to rescue her friend Sayra.
But also there’s this guy called the Tinkerman, who wants to go to Away so he can tap into it to power the Plain’s electric grid, but also his name is Arthur Vix so sometimes the narrative calls him that. Also a magical arms dealer basically sells Elias to a group of anti-Plain rebels called madji and he ends up working with them. And there are Voices who are really more the absence of voices, and also Linny’s mother is from the Plain but got stuck in Lourka but anyway her sister Mina is at the exact opposite end of the world from Away but she has the medicine to rescue Sayra so they have to go see her, and
Somewhere in The Wrinkled Crown’s mess of two novels stuck together is a good, solid narrative. (Even the title is misleading—it relates almost entirely to the Broken City plot and has approximately nothing to do with the search for Sayra.) When I first started the book, I was almost instantly excited—Sayra and Linny’s relationship is absolutely lovely, and I am ALL ABOUT strong sister bonds (especially between best friends) and also girls who are irresistibly drawn to Doing The Thing, and I was even excited about Elias and Linny having to learn to work together and balance their jealousy of each other with their desire to rescue Sayra. The whole set-up of the novel is well-paced, and the descriptions of the absent Voices are chilling. And Linny’s mother, preparing to send her away? And Linny, determined to be brave and recognizing that part of it is not letting herself think about all the things that can go wrong? Heart-rending.
And then instead of heading down the hills, Linny and Elias head up the hills and into a line of action that goes nowhere fast, which is basically what could be said of many of the lines of action (I hesitate to call them “plots”) in this book. That section exists to get a silk rose back into Linny’s hand, which ends up being pretty unnecessary. The entire Broken City politics-reclaim-the-Crown-festival-Girl-with-the-Lourka-also-there-are-madji (which is such a vague Orientalism-ish word and totally unnecessary) bit, while gripping (in parts) in its own way, ends with Linny tossing the crown into the crowd and then running away because she still has to, you know, rescue Sayra. And then at the end of the novel there’s talk of the whole village of Lourka going down to fix it, like a bright neon blinking sign screaming SEQUEL, which is when I really put the book down in disgust.
And even the subplots go nowhere. There’s a certain sense that the author is trying to put Linny through a series of failures for some purpose, but the purpose remains obscure and the effect on this reader is just pure frustration. I slogged through the whole Broken City bit (which wasn’t a slog at the time, but developed into one when it became it was ultimately going to have jack to do with rescuing Sayra) only to travel to the far end of the Plain to get the antidote from Auntie Mina, only to have the freaking Tinkerman DRINK THE ANTIDOTE, thus rendering the whole trek to Auntie Mina pretty much pointless. It maybe wouldn’t have been so frustrating if a) the author didn’t insist on ruining the Tinkerman’s creep factor by also giving him a regular name, b) the sheer number of villains in this story who had nothing to do with rescuing Sayra wasn’t overwhelming, and c) –and this one is particularly important—the actual villains who took Sayra in the first place—the Voices, so chillingly and wondrously described—WERE NEVER EXPLAINED. I can only! Care about so many things at once!
I reached the end of the book, and after the last page there are acknowledgments, since the thing to do in books these days is shout-out all your important fancy author friends (I don’t actually know if that’s true in this instance, but it’s a thing I see fairly regularly in YA work and it just feels like—that’s why you have a dedication page, you know? Acknowledgments are when you’ve spent a decade doing research on a historical figure for a biography and you need to thank all the archives that gave you access to people’s letters and the like). The first people Nesbet thanks are various editors and beta readers, and I literally started shouting NO, NO DO NOT THANK THESE PEOPLE, THEY DID NOT DO THEIR JOB.
As I told my husband, I would sum up the general feel of this book as one of a first draft whose editors then treated it as though every sentence and every scene and every plot was essential and therefore untouchable. The style in particular was incredibly loose, and not in a way that felt intentional. Random mid-paragraph interjections in present tense or second person occasionally worked but mostly felt jarring, like the author wanted to make a point outside of Linny’s point of view and so went ahead and made it, regardless of whether or not it contributed to the novel’s coherency. (Though as I’ve said, coherency is not the novel’s strong suit.)
The river’s edge became busier the farther she went, and although her heart pounded a little as more and more people showed up on the streets or even brushed by her, she calmed down some once she realized that no one took notice of her. To them she was just a girl hurrying on some errand, not a fugitive from the madji. Not the Girl with the Lourka. It is a pleasant feeling, being anonymous in a city.
It’s not that difficult to change that last sentence into “She decided it was a pleasant feeling, being anonymous in a city,” or something along those lines, but as it stands I had a literal visceral reaction to that sentence. Mostly because I have been anonymous in a city. It is a pleasant feeling to be wandering about Florence with a general sense of where you are and that somewhere else in the city is at least one person who knows you are there and cares about you. It is not a pleasant feeling to get off the bus in Paris and realize you have no idea how to get where you need to go, haven’t spoken French in a week, and are almost certain that absolutely no one you know is currently in the city too. It’s the kind of feeling that you could end up dead in Central Park and no one would think to look for you for at least a couple of days.
But if I’d just been given the sentiment from Linny’s point of view, I would have disagreed with her and moved on. Or been a little relieved for her, given the danger presented by non-anonymity, and moved on.
Speaking of, Linny really is a treat, although I wish a little more had been done about her sense of her own wickedness, which ebbed and flowed but really could have been a neat character thing, à la Briony in Chime. But she’s very brave and keeps trucking ahead and I liked her a lot. (Debbie’s description of her, now that I’ve finished and peeked at her judgment, is spot-on.) I also liked Elias a lot, which meant I was not entirely pleased with the fact that he disappeared for at least five chapters and only got maybe one mention in all of them, which, again, coherency.
And some of the writing truly is gripping. Nesbet demonstrates a gift for describing the somewhat indescribable. Individual scenes stand out: the opening, like I said, but Linny’s travel through the tunnels, and standing at the edge of the Plain Sea (you must think that’s a hell of a long time; personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird). The ending, with reclaiming Sayra and Linny stopping the electricity with her hands and their whole walk back home, had some really lovely bits in it as well. The worldbuilding, with the juxtaposition of wrinkled and Plain, started out a bit clunky but smoothed into something more developed. And the underdeveloped themes of storytelling and music/art vs. logic (but of course not vs. at all) had some interesting potential, and all the characters who kept getting introduced and then dropped (aside from the Tinkerman, who got to come back whyyyyyyyyyy) had hints and tidbits of great characterization.
There’s a lot to love in this book, and it’s certainly very ambitious. But at some point if you’re winding down your book talking about rewriting the story and thus trying to imply that you’re trying to write a book that is in some way about storytelling, it would help to decide what story you actually want to tell. Both stories (rescue-Sayra and Broken-City) have enormous potential! The worldbuilding gives you all sorts of fun things to play around in! But instead of keeping me turning pages in excitement, the meandering lack of focus led to me skipping ahead to see if anything was going to come of what I was currently reading. The longer the story dragged on, and the more things kept happening but ultimately not mattering in a way that kept the story going, and the more people kept getting introduced only to disappear again (Eliaaaaaaaaas) and remain a vague afterthought for pages at a time (including Sayra!)…well, the more frustrated I became.
And then I got to the sequel-bait ending, and I was over it.
So sorry, The Wrinkled Crown! You wanted so very much to be good. You tried so very hard, and in some places you did actually achieve something not just enjoyable but also thought-provoking. But in the end, I wanted to throw you against the wall, but I was reading you as an ebook so I couldn’t. Farewell, and may your sequel be turned over to an editor with an eye for pacing.
I have much less to say about Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, Being the correspondence of two Young Ladies of Quality regarding various Magical Scandals in London and the County by Patrician C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. I first read it fifteen years ago and haven’t read it in at least a decade, but it was almost as charming and engaging as I remember. That is to say, the first time I read it, I devoured it (and its sequel, when it arrived) and read it several times and felt VERY STRONG FEELINGS ABOUT ALL THE CHARACTERS, and this time around, slightly jaded by a few college English classes, I pretty much felt the same.
As is only proper, it’s an epistolary novel (and the source of all my attempts to co-write novels in this fashion, though as I’m a terrible correspondent, none of them have worked out), telling the intertwined story of two cousins in Magical AU Regency England. Cecelia is stuck at home in the country while her cousin Kate accompanies Kate’s sister Georgina on her first Season in London. (It is also Kate’s first season, but as the less pretty sister her Aunt Charlotte is much less concerned about her.) Kate finds herself embroiled in a magical rivalry in London, while Cecelia pieces together the rest of the scandal from her father’s house. Intrigue, magic, impossibly odious and mysterious gentlemen of fortune, pretty dresses, waltzes, false betrothals, attempted murder, and classical Greek follow.
It is not an ambitious novel. It sets out to tell two interlocking stories and succeeds brilliantly, tying up all its loose ends as it goes. Kate and Cecy are both delightful and individual, as are their eventual love interests, Thomas and James. The secondary characters, from Aunts Charlotte and Elizabeth to Georgina to even Patience Everslee, are fully fleshed out, and overall there’s the impression of a much larger world in which this one particular story is occurring. The style is a little loose at times—this is definitely more Heyer than Austen—but it still left me walking around the house saying things were “charming” and “smashing.” And the magic is fun, if a little more Victorian than Regency.
And also there is Thomas Schofield, whom I absolutely adore, even if he is maddeningly stubborn. I love that both Kate and Cecy have exactly zero patience for the boys’ attempts to shut them out or keep them from participating. I also love the friendship between Thomas and James, which is mostly hinted at rather than directly stated but still has that deep essential affection and the bonds of War (HOW MUCH DO I WANT TO READ ABOUT THEIR ADVENTURES WITH WELLINGTON, VERY MUCH). I like that Dorothea and Georgina are both given development and depth, that they’re different within their trope of The Belle of the Ball, and that little time is wasted bemoaning the fact that they are prettier than Cecy and Kate. (Well, some time is spent on it, but it’s not wasted, as the development of Kate and Thomas’s Most Adorable romance is mostly an under-the-table thing.)
And when I read this book, I had fun. I did have to expend a little bit of energy just wondering how Aunts Elizabeth and Charlotte were related to the girls, and there are a few questions (where are their mothers?) that go mostly unanswered, but overall I could immerse myself in the story and it always delivered on its promises and protected my trust and investment without letting me down. Also I squealed over Thomas (and to a lesser extent James). And giggled. And enjoyed all the little cultural and historical tidbits, and loved that the girls were a bit vain as well as being clever, and was entirely satisfied by the ending. And I’m not saying a story has to have a romance to keep my interest, but sometimes it helps.
Another judge might decide to reward ambition over simplicity and flashes of genius over steady, solid writing; but I am not that judge. Had The Wrinkled Crown been able to pick a story—even if it had managed to end with bringing Sayra home, instead of teasingly reminding me that AN ENTIRE CITY HAD BEEN ABANDONED AND WHO EVEN HAS THE CROWN NOW AND WHAT ABOUT THE DAM AND SERIOUSLY, WHY DID YOU CALL THEM MADJI, IT’S JUST, WERE YOU GOING FOR AN ARABIC THING? BECAUSE NOTHING ELSE IN THE NOVEL IMPLIES AN ARABIC THING IN THE SLIGHTEST, AND IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE AND FEELS AT BEST VAGUELY APPROPRIATION-Y—it would have almost certainly won. Sorcery and Cecelia, while mostly perfect for what it is (versus last year’s The Perilous Gard, which is actually perfect in every way), doesn’t have the makings of a champion. But it accomplishes what it sets out to do in every way, and it’s fun, and that’s enough for me to declare it the winner.
Congratulations to Sorcery & Cecelia, which moves on to round 3!