Thank you!

This thank you is split seven ways: to the judges, to the commenters, to the sounding boards, to the people who suggested books, to the people who told me I really did have time to run a battle this year, to the people who read and wrote even with Big Life Stuff going on, and to you, if you have stuck with Harry this battle until the very end.

In all seriousness – this battle wouldn’t have happened without all your encouragement and all your feedback and all your time dedicated to reading and writing and responding. I appreciate it so much.

Final Round: Jellicoe Road vs. The Penderwicks in Spring


Judged by Kris • Find her on Goodreads

I feel a bit like Goldilocks, wandering into the midst of this battle to try and make a decision which book I’m going to steal forever.

Jellicoe Road tells the story of Taylor Markham, a girl mostly alone in the world. Her mother is an enigma, having abandoned Taylor at a 7-11 at the Jellicoe Road when she was only a girl. It’s artistic and atmospheric; a book to be savored because of its craft.

The Penderwicks in Spring captures the further adventures of the Penderwick family, centering around the spring of nearly 10 year old Batty and her younger brother Ben as their lives move unheedingly into the future. It’s a book of parallels: both sweet and sad, simplistic and complex. It’s a book taken in big bites, easy to swallow.

Both were compelling, emotional reads. Both involve the painful reality of truth and how its revelations can shape and change a world.

Except: Jellicoe Road is too messy.

And: The Penderwicks in Spring is too neat.

To be fully transparent in the forthcoming rambling: I had read Jellicoe Road before. I had enjoyed it superficially and then set it aside. I also did not read any of the first 3 Penderwick books to prepare for this battle.

If we step back from Jellicoe Road, it’s easy to see some of the holes that left it messy. Where are the adults? How convenient is it that all three of the children who survived the car wreck on Jellicoe Road end up at the same state school so near to where the wreck took place? Why does no one take Webb’s disappearance seriously? What is up with Jude, seriously?

Are we truly supposed to find no issue with Hannah willingly agreeing to distance herself from an emotionally fragile 11 year old? Is the relationship between Taylor and Jonah supposed to seem stable and not slightly unhinged? (The text even acknowledges this! Taylor labels her relationship with Jonah as “intense” several times, and has her eager to see him gone “[b]ecause I need to know that I can still breathe properly when he’s not around. If something happens to him, I have to know that I won’t fall apart […]”. Which—don’t misunderstand—is probably the healthiest gorramned thing Taylor does the entire book, but it really highlighted the unhealthiness of THE ENTIRE REST OF THEIR INTERACTIONS.)

(PS: Having a boy tell you that you saved his life when you interrupted his suicide attempt doesn’t feel romantic to this cynic. SORRY TAYLOR PLEASE TAKE YOUR TEENAGE ANGST STORM ELSEWHERE.)

Ultimately, it felt like the core of Jellicoe Road is exceedingly flawed, but when you’re immersed in the story, the accessories are engaging: it has lovely prose, humor, that artistic flare that makes it feel like a Big Story.

Meanwhile, The Penderwicks in Spring is just… tidy. There’s a rambunctious family made up of two smaller family units and everyone loves one another. Everyone is super good at the things they like to do and there are no Lingering Issues. (There are Issues, but they are resolved with talking and hugs!!) There’s just… family, everywhere. So much family. It’s “after school special” neat—for the most part.

Of course I have complaints. In this metaphor I’m a pigtailed monster, yes?

Beyond the façade of the oh-so-happy family are glimpses of attitudes that are frightening. As previous judges have alluded to, Skye is told she must consider the feelings of her family before sending away her harasser. Rosalind’s split with her former S.O. is characterized in much the same way: the Wants of the Family outweigh the Wants of the One. It’s kind of a disconcerting thread, running under what otherwise is a happy-go-lucky family comedy.

Otherwise, the story revolves around Batty resolving a long-buried fear that roars to life when her sister drops some plot into the middle of an otherwise unrelated conversation. And the pain of that revelation is brutal and harsh, but well drawn, even though it’s resolved with talking and hugs!!

I found myself questioning the core plot points far less with The Penderwicks in Spring: I had issues with it, but none of them fully disengaged me from the text the way those in Jellicoe Road did. I didn’t throw it down in frustration because I was curious how the little-family-that-could would overcome the despondency of their oldest-of-the-youngest Penderwicks.

So with neither book being just right, how am I to choose?

I’m left with two books that, with additional scrutiny, begin to fall apart. Should Jellicoe Road and its grand webbed artistic nonsense win? It’s a beautiful story. But the moment I started asking any questions of it, I discovered that the veneer was the only thing that I liked. The heart of it—the story of an isolated, hurt girl finding her history and love on the Jellicoe Road—doesn’t quite land for me. There wasn’t enough substance behind the pretty words and grandiose metaphors.

And while The Penderwicks in Spring isn’t a perfect book, it felt far more like its flaws were accessories after the fact, rather than central to the plot. Should they be overlooked? No. But they matter less to the overall story, the story of Batty mourning her mother and her own role (or non-role) in her mother’s death. It’s a real enough pain that it withstands the other flaws of the story.

This year’s YA/MG battle winner is…

The Penderwicks in Spring.

Round 3, Match 2: The Penderwicks in Spring vs. Sorcery & Cecelia


Judged by Brandy • Find her on Goodreads

The curse of being a Round Three judge is choosing is never easy. At least it hasn’t been for me yet. Every year you wonderful judges in the first two rounds have left me deciding between two books I love. This remains true this year. Even as I’m typing this introduction, I have NO IDEA which book I’m advancing. That is a first. (The previous two years, while loving both, there was a clear winner from the moment Beth emailed me.)

Sorcery and Cecelia is everything I love rolled up into one book: fantasy, Regency romance, epistolary.  It is a comfort read for me in so many ways.  The first time I picked it up it felt familiar, like coming home when I didn’t know I’d been away.

I am always on the look out for YA books that do friendships between girls well. I appreciate it myself, but my female students feel this lack in their reading and are always asking me for more books that handle it like this one does. Loyalty, devotion, and a shared history make the letters Cecelia and Kate exchange so real. The way they commiserate with each other, cheer each other, and give advice brings both of their characters to vibrant life. There’s just as much to read in what is not said between them as what is. Reading their letters feels like I’ve stumbled on an actual correspondence between two very real people.

I do love a good romance as well. It helps that this book has two.  And one of them involves a fake betrothal. I have no ability to resist that trope. It is made even more fun here in that the poor boy doesn’t even know he is fake betrothed. The path that romance takes is one of my favorite things about this book. As greatly entertained as I am by Cecelia and James, Kate and Thomas are what made this book for me on the romantic level.

Add to that this book is so much fun. It is laugh out loud funny in some places, but quietly amusing and subversive in others. The crazy plots and schemes the characters come up with make for quite a ride while reading, and I adore how the women are the ones who sort out everything in the end for the boys who get themselves tied up with their overthinking and schemes sometimes.

This book means a lot to me, but so does The Penderwicks.

I have been there with the Penderwick family since the first book came out. I eagerly anticipate each new book and have spent time debating with people in kidlit land exactly how the Jeffrey question should be handled. (Birdsall is using Little Women as her frame. If Jeffrey is the Laurie to the Penderwick girls March sisters, should he get the same ending Laurie does? Should it go down the same way? And I have a lot of THOUGHTS on this.) The Penderwicks in Spring definitely upped my love for this series by a factor of a million.

Batty was never as annoying to me as she was a lot of other Penderwick fans, but she was my least favorite of the sisters because she was just the little cute one. This book changed that dramatically, shooting Batty to the number one spot in my heart. Birdsall handled her story so beautifully. I love how she took this fragile, introverted, talented, sensitive girl and let her shine in different ways than her vivacious older sisters. Showing Batty’s slow unraveling and sinking into sadness and depression was so well done. Hound’s death taking place off page was a brilliant move as was allowing Batty to deal with the fallout months later and its connection to the deep sadness her mother’s death left in her that she didn’t even know she was carrying around. This book was as cathartic for me as a reader who has journeyed through the years with these characters as it was for the characters themselves. The confrontation between Batty and Skye was inevitable. I think it was also inevitable given their personalities that it be an indirect confrontation. The way it resolved is so realistic too. Batty and Skye are very different people, and even with this no longer between them, there will always be a certain amount of tension in their relationship.

Birdsall did an excellent job of breaking up the hard themes and character pain with humor too. Ben and Lydia add a fabulous dynamic to the Penderwick family. Rosalind’s bad dating choice and the family’s varied reactions were perfect comedic moments.

And then there was my favorite person other than Batty in this book. When I wrote my original review for this, I said I found it interesting that my two favorite books in the series take place on Gardam Street and how much that has to do with the presence of the Geiger brothers. In this case, Nick, who is the best thing given to the world of children’s literature in quite some time. I always appreciate when MG writers include adults who aren’t caricatures or stereotypes. Writing nuanced adult characters seen through the eyes of a child is difficult, because you really have get into a child’s mind and remember how you viewed adults as a child. Birdsall is good at this, but with Nick she hit new levels of good. His relationship with the little Penderwicks makes my heart smile. I liked how this showed the importance of community too. Martin and Iantha are good parents, but even good parents miss things and need help.

I do have one major quibble with the book that I missed on my first read, but I can’t disregard after a reread. That is how things were handled with Jeffrey. Don’t get me wrong, I found Jeffrey obnoxious on my first read, but rereading it I found everyone’s attitudes about that situation troubling. Skye has told him no and to back off repeatedly. His trapping her in a dark hallway and interrogating her is not cool. Everyone acting like she was the one in the wrong rubs me the wrong way.  I get he is the Laurie to her Jo, but someone needs to sit the boy down and tell him it’s not the 19th century anymore and a girl doesn’t owe him anything she doesn’t want to give including an explanation. I feel like her family should respect that more and be understanding of her boundaries. Obviously she can’t ban him from interaction with her entire family, but no one seems to be concerned with him forcing his attentions on her over and over when she’s clearly said she’s not interested and how uncomfortable that is making her.

So which to choose? I typed all of that and still couldn’t make a decision. I’ve changed my mind a dozen times all for different reasons. I’ve seriously contemplated flipping a coin. (I never thought I would sink to that, but here we are.) Except I can’t bring myself to do that either. I have to do the hard thing.

Because I’ve journeyed with them for so many years and they’ve made me feel so many emotions culminating in this penultimate book in the series, I’m choosing The Penderwicks in Spring.

Congratulations to The Penderwicks in Spring, which moves on to the final round!

Round 3, Match 1: First & Then vs. Jellicoe Road


Judged by Melissa • Find her on Goodreads

I was glad to get this pair for my bracket. I loved both of these books and hoped they would end up facing off against each other, because they have some interesting similarities while still being completely different. What struck me, though, was that both books are about aimless girls—two young women who for different reasons are disengaged with life. In both cases, this aimlessness made it hard for me to connect with the protagonists, but the ways they grow out of it—grow into caring about others–ultimately made them two of my favorite characters in the entire battle.

Our first aimless girl is Devon Tennyson of First & Then, who describes herself as “stunningly average.” As the book opens, she’s so resistant to the idea of doing anything that would get her into college that at first I thought she was meant to be a rebellious teen, but no, she just doesn’t have any motivation. And I found that extremely off-putting.

Devon is so committed to the notion of being average that she never voluntarily takes action to become something else. She’s driven to become a staff photographer because college is something her parents want for her; she comes to know Ezra, the stolid, standoffish (she thinks) star football player because he takes an interest in her cousin Foster; she takes a trip to the only school she’s remotely interested in because her counselor arranges it.

And yet somewhere in the middle of this, she became interesting. Possibly it’s the moment when she’s at Reeding, the college whose postcard intrigued her, and discovers that going to school there is something she wants. Or maybe it’s her growing attachment to her goofy cousin, who turns out to have a gift for kicking a football. I’m not convinced by the remarks someone makes that Devon is “easy to talk to” or that people enjoy talking to her, because we never see it, but I am convinced that she turns into someone who does care about other people and, in turn, is worth caring about.

Then there’s Taylor Markham of Jellicoe Road. Unlike Devon, Taylor’s disconnect from everyone around her arises from a deep desire not to rely on or be relied on. Too much has happened to Taylor, specifically her abandonment by her mother and the desertion of Cadet Jonah Griggs when she tried to find her mother, to allow her to trust easily. When her friend and mentor Hannah disappears as well, Taylor retreats from her new responsibilities as leader of her school. That drove me crazy.

Taylor accepts the role not because she wants to be in charge, but because she hates the idea of being under anyone else’s control—and proceeds to screw up repeatedly because every time things get tough, she retreats to Hannah’s empty house. I hate it when people agree to do something and then ignore their responsibilities. It was probably most of a hundred pages before I started caring about Taylor. She has a lot further to go than Devon does.

And then I really cared about her. Once she starts letting people in, she’s engaging, tough, and loyal. She does have the ability to lead, and demonstrates it repeatedly, from brokering a peace between the three factions of school, Townies, and Cadets to finally tracking down her mother. I was impressed by Taylor’s strength and determination as well as her weaknesses—ultimately, by her humanity.

While Jellicoe Road’s structure is brilliant, First & Then has a less-obvious frame that’s still very good. First & Then is not a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, thank heaven, because I’m not sure Emma Mills is up to that challenge. What it is is informed by Pride and Prejudice, taking just enough elements of that book to make exploring them interesting.

Devon is definitely prejudiced about almost everyone she meets, starting with the “prostitots” in her freshman gym class, whom she describes in painfully cruel detail. I had to wonder why there weren’t any girls like Devon had been as a freshman, all pimples and braces and awkwardness. And, of course, she’s prejudiced against Ezra, partly because of his behavior to her in their first meeting in that same gym class, but also because of the attitude her friend Cas, a fellow football player, has about him: All-American Bowl team, star player, the guy who always makes the touchdowns. Cas is jealous, and Devon, loyal to him because of her unrequited crush, lets that attitude influence her.

Ezra doesn’t make a great Mr. Darcy, and again I say, Good. He’s much better as he is, someone awful at making conversation, incredibly intense, and loyal to his friends. Jordan, the super-charming offensive back and the “coolest guy in school” sees a different side of Ezra, and it’s through him that Devon first begins to understand that maybe she’s being a little hard on Ezra. That, and his treatment of her cousin Foster.

So First & Then worked for me, but the structure of Jellicoe Road, with its intertwining stories, really won me over. I like having a challenge when I read, and Hannah’s “novel,” told out of sequence, was wonderfully challenging. Despite having trouble remembering which of the five characters was which to start, I found myself looking forward to the narrative intervals to see if I could puzzle out what happened. As a conceit, it’s a little too perfect—coincidentally the order in which Taylor reads the story reveals the truth in exactly the right order to keep her (and the reader) guessing, but the story itself is so compelling I was willing to give it a pass.

What also worked for me is how that narrative ended up bringing the three factions together and undoing some of the misunderstandings that had arisen with time. At the beginning, it doesn’t look as if Taylor and her people can ever be friends with the Townies, headed by Chaz Santangelo, and the Cadets, led by Jonah Griggs (with whom Taylor has a history). And somehow they manage to stumble toward an accord that’s managed by the fact that both Griggs and Santangelo are essentially nice guys who have to work really hard at being jerks.

This is ultimately a story about restoration: restoring Taylor’s faith in others, restoring her relationship with her mother, restoring the original understanding between the three factions. It also has a lot to say about how most people are essentially good. One of my favorite scenes is a very tense meeting between the three faction leaders and their seconds, where they can’t maintain the tension because the seconds are all musicians and drift away into an argument about amplifiers.

The secondary characters in both novels are fantastic. First & Then may even go overboard with how many there are and how much story each of them has behind them, from super-popular and kind Jordan to the overachieving Rachel to perfect and sweet Lindsay to mysterious Emir and…I could go on. The fact that all of these amazing people are part of the background is, I think, a strength of the novel, because it reinforces Devon’s character as someone who only sees people on the surface. Part of the novel’s journey is Devon learning to be less prejudiced, whether it’s realizing that one of the prostitots is seriously brilliant or discovering that Lindsay really is as good and kind a person as she seems, even if she is capable of doing mean, selfish things—or maybe because of it.

But it’s Foster who really dominates the novel. He’s possibly my favorite character in this story. He’s awkward and unfashionable, but he’s not a bully magnet and he has unsuspected depth. I’m not sure his path to football stardom is realistic, mainly because I don’t know much about high school football, but it feels genuine that a team would want a kicker with his talent on varsity no matter his age. And his friendship with Ezra is truly charming, even before we find out why it started. Foster is never put off by Devon’s bad attitude toward him, is never conscious of how nerdy he is, and I love that he makes friends in all social classes, from the freshman girls to the jocks on the football team to his science club pals.

Jellicoe Road has just as many powerful secondary characters, but where in First & Then Devon never truly gets to know them, in Jellicoe Road everything’s ultimately tied to Taylor’s story. This is not a weakness of First & Then because I think in that book the point is, as I said, Devon’s character being reinforced. Exactly the same thing happens in Jellicoe Road, but Taylor isn’t like Devon and her character is revealed by her allowing others to rely on her and be relied on in turn. And it’s not just her House members like Jessa and Raffaela or anyone else in school, such as Ben or even the detestable Richard; Santangelo and Griggs, who originally seem like typical bullies, turn out to be some of the best friends she could ask for.

Griggs fascinated me, and not just because he’s the love interest. He’s got as tragic a history as Taylor and is broken in his own way, and I love that their story begins long before the book does. He’s violent and mean, but it’s clear early on that this is something he puts on for show, a way of protecting himself. He’s conscious, as I think most children in his position are, of how much of him is like his abusive father, and the contrast between his more brutal behaviors and his tenderness toward Taylor makes him compelling. I found him as fascinating in his own way as I did Foster.

But it’s the romance that gets me, every time, and in both books we have some beautiful ones. Devon begins the book in love with Cas, who doesn’t care for her as anything but a friend. It was painful watching Devon dance around trying to get Cas to notice her. (Until the literal homecoming dance, where she learns Cas knows how she feels about him and has been trying to spare her feelings, pitying her all the time she thought they were good friends. That was beautifully tragic.) As a result, she doesn’t realize she’s falling in love with Ezra until she can’t ignore it any longer.

It’s a long, slow, satisfying romance, with a satisfying ending: Ezra reading Jane Austen because he thought that would give them something to talk about. Ezra saying he wanted to show Devon he could be decent to Foster, because he really just wanted Devon to like him, and that’s how it all started. And Devon’s reaction to that: “It was said in such a guileless manner, like one of those first-grade notes, DO YOU LIKE ME, CHECK YES OR NO.” That just killed me with its sweetness. I really enjoyed reading this the second time, being able to see what was behind Ezra’s actions even if Devon couldn’t. I had trouble warming up to Devon, but Ezra was easy to love.

As for Taylor and Griggs, it’s clear early on that he cares for her, but their relationship isn’t so much romantic (though it’s that too) as based on mutual need. The third story in this book, after the primary plot and Hannah’s story, is the truth about what happened when the two of them ran away—an episode that linked them both so it was inevitable they would ultimately come together. And yet that mutual need is as compelling a romance as I could want. The moment that brought them together, for me, wasn’t their first kiss or spending the night together, but the point where Griggs tells Taylor why he was on the train platform that day. Romance comes later—though Taylor has to point out to Griggs that he’s been romantic—and it’s incredibly satisfying. I can easily see the two of them lasting as a couple because of the depth of their connection.

I found a lot to love in each of these books, and choosing between them was harder than I’d thought when I was first handed this pairing. I loved both books for their craft, for their depth of characterization, and for some wonderful romances. But in the end, First & Then was a sweet story, but Jellicoe Road had a power that stayed with me long after I finished reading. So I’m choosing Jellicoe Road to advance to the next round.

Congratulations to Jellicoe Road, which moves on to the final round!

Round 2, Match 4: Sorcery & Cecelia vs. The Wrinkled Crown


Judged by Jo • Find her on her blog

Greetings all!

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!