Crown Of Coral And Pearl by Mara Rutherford

In Varenia beauty is everything. Beauty is honor, esteem, and escape. Or at least Nor believed it was for her entire childhood, until a series of unexpected events lead her to the land of Ilara to marry Prince Ceren.

In Crown of Coral and Pearl we are introduced to twin sisters Zadie and Nor, their entire lives have revolved around an archaic ceremony where the most beautiful girl in Varenia is chosen to be the wife of the Prince of Ilara. Nor, the main character, was left with a scar on her cheek due to an accident when she was younger leaving her identical twin sister to be chosen as the next Ilarean Princess, but tragedy strikes and Nor is forced to take Zadie’s place in secret. But, there are secrets lurking below the surface of the Ilarean castle and Nor is determined to uncover them for the sake of the starving Varenian people.

Crown of Coral and Pearl nails its characters. The good guys are people you want to root for and the bad guys will fill you with rage. I was particularly intrigued by the antagonists, specifically Nor’s mother and Prince Ceren. Nor’s mother hurt me to my core, her mother is so obsessed with the idea of her daughters being chosen that she dictates their entire lives and even goes so far as to call Nor damaged. One quote really got me, her mother tells her, “Without your beauty, you are nothing.” I found that line to be so unforgivable that I just wanted the mom to die. Such a terrible thing to say to your own child. Mara Rutherford’s character building is so convincing, I really hated the antagonists. Prince Ceren is also just the worst. He gets off on making people uncomfortable and is abusive in every way imaginable. I couldn’t stand the idea of a character like him existing.

The world building is also enjoyable while relatively small scale. This is not Westeros, so it does not contain the overly complex map that you never want to look at, it’s easy to follow and I liked that. While simple, it does not come off as under developed. The land is rich with a history to follow. The contrast of tropical Varenia and the Ilarean castle embedded in the mountain makes an interesting plot point. Nor’s constant yearning to be by the ocean and in the sun really makes you feel for her. Watching her descent into an entirely different landscape is suffocating and you suffer alongside her.

The magical elements in this book are subtle. You will find magic used in very strategic ways, for me it was a pleasant surprise. Traditional aspects of fantasy are buried in this novel, such as monsters and special gifts, but they don’t steal the spotlight from the storyline. The backseat approach to magic was a refreshing change in my opinion.

The book has a lot of good lessons to teach. It focuses on the beauty within and one section really embraces that idea, “I felt the eyes of every woman as I passed, and I reminded myself that I was doing this for them, and for every young girl in Varenia who would spend her life wondering if she was beautiful enough.” This quote stuck with me, most girls go through a self conscious phase wondering if they are beautiful enough to be loved. This idea really added a layer to Nor that made her relatable, she is so different from the girls in our world, but still very much the same. Nor is tough and she fights for those who have been stepped all over, I love that about this character. She is rough in all the right places but she isn’t annoyingly tough. She knows her strengths and limitation and will use them to make a difference in the world.

Another point that really hit home is that, above all else, family and love are what matter most in this world. “Home was not a house, or a village, or a sea. It was family, and love, and the space where your soul could roost, like a seabird safe from a storm.”

If you ask me this book has a well rounded story and complexities to make it unique within th YA genre. It truly stood out to me and I think Crown of Coral and Pearl will make an impact on its readers. 5/5 stars for this one.

Crown of Coral and Pearl will be released on August 27th, 2019. Thank you to NetGalley and Harlequin Teen for allowing me access to this book.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

One of the greatest elements in horror is making you question whether the greatest evil of all comes from within. In Katsu’s The Hunger we are posed with evil from all angles, external and internal. This novel does not make its monsters a secret, we get our fill of bloodthirsty creatures stalking the night, but what it does hide beneath the surface is the secrets and atrocities that the people next to you are capable of committing.

In The Hunger we get to see the Donner Party re imagined as they make their great western trek across America. While most people already know how this story ends, Katsu offers up a different explanation for the Donner’s cannibalistic demise by throwing monsters into the picture. But, this is not your typical hack and slash monster story, it has a depth that was unexpected and truly impressed me. I was left more curious about the evil that lies within human beings than anything.

We follow the party along their journey viewing the events through the lens of many different travelers. The most prominent being Charles Stanton, a lone traveler with a secret, Tamsen Donner the wife to the patriarch and leader George Donner, and James Reed a family man with a fatal flaw. The wagon train is going well until George Donner makes the irrational decision, influenced by the hack Lansford Hastings, to turn away from the Oregon trail and set course through the mostly untamed trail heading toward Weber Canyon with the expectation to take an easier trail through the Wasatch mountains. No such trail existed. Instead they faced hardship after hardship through the Great Salt Lake and meeting their eventual demise in Sierra Nevada Mountains. The unexpected twist is that the party is under near constant surveillance from creature lurking in the trees, the party starts questioning who or what the creatures are and as more of the pioneers disappear or go mad the panic begins.

I have a, probably, unhealthy fascination with the way gore is described in novels, and Katsu does this very well. Nauseatingly well. I have always had an admiration for people who can make my stomach turn just through description, Katsu truly did not let me down. Here’s an example that gave me the creeps, “The head was intact. In fact, if you only looked at the face you wouldn’t think anything was wrong. The boy’s eyes were closed, long brown eyelashes stark against chalk white cheeks. His fine blond hair was plastered against his skull, his tiny mouth closed. He looked peaceful, as though he were sleeping. But from the neck down…” This description is just so fitting of the novel altogether. At first glance it seems like it will be a normal story about pioneers, but underneath it festers with something evil. Another of Katsu’s abilities, is the ability to instill fear. One of her descriptions of the monsters sent a shiver down my spine, she wrote, “His fingers grazed the very end of the rifle stock. Slipped. But the thing had him now, had a mouth around his ankle- Stanton gasped in terror as he saw human eyes, a human nose…” Something about this imagery just paralyzed me. As much as I would like to include a few more sentences from that section I can’t because it would give too much away. Just trust me when I say that this book is freaky.

It is very clear that Katsu dedicated a lot of her time to researching the history for the Donner party so that she could perfectly execute an adjacent story line. She has a familiarity with the history that creates an intimacy between you and the party. It feels like you are peeping in on the hidden lives of the Donner party, non of her creative liberties feels disingenuous or implausible. It inspired me to read up on the historical background of the Donner Party and it is crazy for me to think about the sheer amount of research that she must have put in. A lot the history and people are accurate, it takes the term historical fiction to a new and impressive level. Katsu didn’t just take a moment in history and use it to loosely base a story on, she embedded herself in the history and based her fiction as closely on reality as possible.

I’m a sucker for horror, but I do not believe this made me biased towards this novel. This novel truly deserves any praise that is receives, and for me it is an easy 5/5 stars. I was entertained throughout and had such a hard time putting the book down. Horror novels have a tendency to speed up and slow down as suspense intensifies and wanes, but not The Hunger. The internal and external conflicts are so intense and well written that it is hard to lose interest for even a second.