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Book Review: Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

Book Review: Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

“I felt like I’d been out in the cold my entire life and had just for the first time stepped into a warm house with a crackling fire. I looked around, from face to face. We all knew the same thing. We were in this together. Until the very end.” -Royal Bastards, p.144

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Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

Cover picture of the book 'Royal Bastards' a throne on a blue background

Cover blurb (from Amazon): “Being a bastard blows. Tilla would know. Her father, Lord Kent of the Western Province, loved her as a child, but cast her aside as soon as he had trueborn children.

At sixteen, Tilla spends her days exploring long-forgotten tunnels beneath the castle with her stablehand half brother, Jax, and her nights drinking with the servants, passing out on Jax’s floor while her castle bedroom collects dust. Tilla secretly longs to sit by her father’s side, enjoying feasts with the rest of the family. Instead, she sits with the other bastards, like Miles of House Hampstedt, an awkward scholar who’s been in love with Tilla since they were children.

Then, at a feast honoring the visiting princess Lyriana, the royal shocks everyone by choosing to sit at the Bastards’ Table. Before she knows it, Tilla is leading the sheltered princess on a late-night escapade. Along with Jax, Miles, and fellow bastard Zell, a Zitochi warrior from the north, they stumble upon a crime they were never meant to witness.

Rebellion is brewing in the west, and a brutal coup leaves Lyriana’s uncle, the Royal Archmagus, dead–with Lyriana next on the list. The group flees for their lives, relentlessly pursued by murderous mercenaries; their own parents have put a price on their heads to prevent the king and his powerful Royal Mages from discovering their treachery.

The bastards band together, realizing they alone have the power to prevent a civil war that will tear their kingdom apart-if they can warn the king in time. And if they can survive the journey . . .”


I received a free copy of ‘Royal Bastards’ in exchange for an honest review. For more information, please see my review policy page.

What I liked:

I’ll just say this up front- ‘Royal Bastards’ is great. It’s well written, the characters are engaging and the story is new, yet familiar. Shvarts relies on some tried and true fantasy tropes but in the best way possible. The book is being marketed as “the Game of Thrones for teens,” but I’ve never read or seen GoT, so I have no idea if that’s accurate. (I know, right?) I can say, though, that I really, really enjoyed it.

The book is traditional high-fantasy, set in an alternate medieval land. However, the dialogue and internal monologues are written in modern language. For me, it made the characters more realistic and more relatable. Tilla and Lyriana (the main female characters) defy some stereotypes, while fulfilling others. They’re multi-dimensional and they respect each others choices. The male characters sort of fill traditional roles: the broody warrior, the comic relief and the nerdy guy. As the story progresses, though, every character becomes more complex and more interesting.

As in all great stories, the emotional core is the relationships between the characters. These too felt realistic and relatable for modern readers.

What I didn’t like:

I honestly don’t have a lot of complaints about ‘Royal Bastards.’ I was starting to get annoyed about a specific literary trope (**spoiler alert** love triangle) but that sub-plot is resolved in a satisfying way.

There’s one specific piece about the ending that I really didn’t like. It made sense in the story, and it had the intended emotional impact, but I’m still mad about it. I’m not usually a very emotional reader, but I’ll admit ‘Royal Bastards’ made me cry. If you’re someone who gets “the feels” easily, you’re going to have a hard time.

Would I recommend this book?

Yes! No caveats.

**Spoiler alert/sensitive content warning** Since a medieval war is the backdrop for this story, it’s unsurprising that there is quite a bit of violence. Some of it is pretty graphic, and Shvarts also includes situations of torture and rape (both of which are described, but not “live” for the reader.) In one instance, a female’s sexual assault is used to further a male’s story line. Based on the characters involved, and their histories, I see why this choice was made. That doesn’t mean I’m happy about it, or that I agree with it.**

**There are some interesting modern parallels to draw from ‘Royal Bastards.’ One character is the epitome of a bitter “friendzoned” guy. Shvarts plays with some of today’s social discussions. Where is the line between being polite and leading someone on? How do you make it clear that a man is not entitled to a woman’s time or affections, regardless of their history?**

Additional thoughts:

Two of the main characters are non-white! And their race isn’t a direct source of conflict! I was pleasantly surprised by this fact. High fantasy isn’t known for being inclusive. In ‘Royal Bastards,’ skin tone is overtly mentioned, but isn’t the underlying cause of social prejudice. The political and historical tensions between the territories are the source of conflict. The royal family, and the most powerful magic users are black. Zell’s family is described simply as “brown”. There’s a lot to unpack there as far as power, divine right, and stereotypes.

Like I mentioned above, there are some interesting gender dynamics at play in ‘Royal Bastards.’ Women fall on both sides of every line: magic and non-magic, good and evil, religious and not. Additionally, it is openly acknowledged that one of the House Lords is gay.

I think that’s all I’ll say about it, though. You’ll have to read it and let me know what you think!

‘Royal Bastards’ is an excellent addition to fantasy, and to teen fiction. It retains the traditional-fantasy feel, but for a 21st-century audience. Simply put, it’s just a really, really good book.
Book Review: If We Had No Winter by D.L. Pitchford

Book Review: If We Had No Winter by D.L. Pitchford

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If We Had No Winter by D.L. Pitchford

If We Had No Winter (Billie Dixon Book 1) by [Pitchford, D. L.]


Cover blurb (taken from Amazon): “Can a father who turned his back on a child want her when she’s an adult?

College freshman Billie Dixon has always found solace in calculations and her secret drawings, hiding from the more difficult parts of life—her mother’s alcoholism, her inability to connect, and of course, her estranged father. That is, until she arrives at Bradford College in Vermont, where the Math Department Head is her father.

After a semester of avoiding him, her father insists she join him for the winter holidays to rekindle their relationship, and Billie is at a loss. While she tries to uphold the status quo, her father refuses to be pushed to the sidelines and forgotten. Just as she realizes she doesn’t want to lose him, her meek and shy father kicks her out of his home during an argument. Can Billie swallow her pride and make amends with her father or will she lose him forever?

If We Had No Winter is a gritty coming-of-age tale about loss, love, and learning to try again.”


I received a free copy of ‘If We Had No Winter’ from the author in exchange for an honest review. For more information, please see my review policy page.


What I liked: 

Where do I even start? There were so many things I liked, and so many things I want to talk about.

There’s a deep honesty about this whole book that’s really remarkable. The characters are deeply flawed, and the relationships are realistically complex. Pitchford doesn’t treat her characters gently. There are things to love and hate about nearly everyone. I absolutely loved the relationship between Billie and Jimmy. **Possible spoilers ahead** How often do we get to see a healthy friendship between a straight boy and girl that doesn’t include unrequited love? Jimmy loves Billie the way a best friend should. He accepts her for who she is, and challenges her to be a better version of herself. There’s no implication of a relationship there, just a solid, functional friendship.**

I was very happy and impressed with the way Pitchford wrote her male characters. Most of the supporting characters are college-age boys. There are some stereotypical behaviors (drinking, etc.) but Pitchford makes sure that they aren’t one-dimensional. These are young men who are emotionally intelligent, and good listeners. They aren’t perfect. Like Billie, they are each flawed, but they try.

‘If We Had No Winter’ isn’t a light, fluffy story. It deals with a number of heavy topics, but feels accurate to the age range of the characters. There isn’t a lot of fiction written about college-age characters. There are a ton of teen books set in high school but I don’t see as many books set on a college campus. I think this is getting better, but I can say that when I was a freshman in college, this book would have been invaluable.

What I didn’t like:

I got frustrated with Billie the same way you get frustrated with your friends in real life. You understand their motivations, but that doesn’t mean you always like their decisions. As the book progresses, Billie’s internal monologue doesn’t necessarily match up with her actions. I started to get annoyed with her unwillingness to see things from anyone else’s point of view. Having said that, though, I think Billie is an accurate portrayal of someone her age, with her life experiences.

‘If We Had No Winter’ was a quick read for me, but some of the middle chapters were a little slow.

Would I recommend this book?

100% Yes.

**Sensitive content warning/spoilers** ‘If We Had No Winter’ deals with divorce, sex, abortion, drinking, alcoholism and a possible eating disorder. Pitchford doesn’t necessarily go into great detail, but doesn’t pull punches either.

**The sexual encounters in this book were really, really interesting to me. I  recently wrote a post about annoying book tropes, and dramatic sex was one of the discussion points. In that post, I said that I wished more authors would include realistic sex. ‘If We Had No Winter’ was exactly the kind of book I want to see more of. Billie loses her virginity in the book, and the reader is present for the entire encounter. Billie and her partner have a discussion first, use birth control, and the love interest makes sure that Billie is comfortable and enjoying herself. There is another encounter that goes differently, but I was happy with the way both scenes were written.**

**Super-mega spoilers** An abortion takes place during this book, and Pitchford handles it beautifully. There isn’t any moral shaming, just support, love and understanding.**

Additional thoughts:

I really loved this book. I loved all of the nerdy references, and the accurate portrayal of real-life hardships.

From a diversity standpoint, ‘If We Had No Winter’ doesn’t go into much detail. There are a few mentions of LGBTQ+ issues (trans men in fraternities, for example) but otherwise it isn’t discussed at length. It seemed to me that most of the main characters are white (based on hair color and tan descriptions) but it’s never stated outright. Most of the conflict in this book is internal: Billie trying to deal with herself. Mental health concerns are never directly addressed, but referred to. This novel is labeled ‘Billie Dixon Book 1’ so I’ll be curious to see if these issues are addressed later.

If you are a fan of Laurie Halse Anderson (author of Speak), you’ll like D.L. Pitchford. ‘If We Had No Winter’ is a book I wish had been available to me when I was in college. I’m looking forward to reading more from this author, and more about Billie Dixon.

Book Review: Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Book Review: Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

“Today she looked menacingly into the mirror and said: ‘I’m Sierra María Santiago. I am what I am. Enough.'”- Older

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Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Publisher’s blurb: “Sierra Santiago planned to have an easy summer of making art and hanging out with her friends. But then a corpse crashes the first party of the season. Her stroke-ridden grandfather starts apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep real tears… Well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on.

With the help of a mysterious fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a thrilling magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one — and the killer believes Sierra is hiding their greatest secret. Now she must unravel her family’s past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for herself and generations to come.

Full of a joyful, defiant spirit and writing as luscious as a Brooklyn summer night, Shadowshaper marks the YA debut of a brilliant new storyteller.” (Arthur A. Levine Books ©2015)

YA Fantasy. Art. A Diverse Cast. Magic. Spirits. YES PLEASE!

I really enjoyed this book. It has everything a teen fantasy adventure should have: a feisty main character, a fun supporting crew, a (not annoying) love interest, magic and a family legend. This is a great addition to the genre for a couple of different reasons.

First, it’s just a good story. The magic/spiritual structure was a little unclear at first, but it all gets explained, and I loved the combination of music, art, and spirituality. It’s set in real-world Brooklyn, and the magic element somehow feels modern and grounded. The character’s opinions about NYC all felt realistic too; they visit new hipster coffee shops and Coney Island, and occasionally discuss the changes to the neighborhood.

Second, I’m so so happy to see a genuinely diverse cast in a YA fantasy novel. The main character is Puerto Rican, with African and Taíno ancestry. The love interest, Robbie, is Haitian and the supporting cast includes people of every race, and a lesbian couple. It felt very true to Brooklyn, and I was extra pleased with the way Older dealt with social issues.

At some points, they have conversations about who gets to study whom in anthropology, what it feels like to internalize racial prejudice, and police discrimination (one of the secondary character’s brothers was killed by police). Race is a part of the story, but it isn’t the driving force. Gender issues are also present: cat-calling, and patriarchal family expectations play a role in Sierra’s journey. Older weaves the details of real life in seamlessly with a traditional “chosen to save the world” narrative.

If you’re bothered by the “chosen one” trope, the main character might annoy you a little bit. I’m not, so I enjoyed watching Sierra come into her powers and discover herself. The family mystery was well done, and I thought I had figured out the twist at the end, and was pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

Two sequels have been announced, and there’s also a novella which follows one of the supporting characters after the conclusion of the book.

I would recommend ‘Shadowshaper’ to anyone who enjoys fantasy or YA literature. I suspect it’s going to become one of those books that I bring up in every possible conversation (probably to an annoying extent). I want everyone to know, especially publishers, that it’s possible to write a widely-popular fantasy novel and include diversity in a genuine way. It doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Summary: Read this book. It’s awesome.