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Offline copy: The Tarnished: Fantasy’s equivalent to a warm hug

E.S. Christison has been one of my favorite authors to work with over the past two years. I reviewed her debut YA fantasy novel, The Blameless, two years ago and read it aloud to my 8th graders during virtual homeroom in the height of virtual education. Christison's story spoke with nuance and developmental consideration about the trauma and heartache of loss as well as the hope and renewal of found family and firm friendships. Her story was of selflessness that grants magic, a princess fighting to save her kingdom from corruption, and a group of magicians (known as the Blameless) who will sacrifice everything to love and protect this frightened and lost young woman. Christison took the time to virtually visit my classroom, and my 8th graders were overjoyed to meet, in their minds, a superhero. They could not believe that she was a mother, a nurse, AND an author. The love she puts into motherhood and nursing pulses like a steady heartbeat throughout her writing. Her work is tender but unafraid to explore hurt. You can rest assured, however, that despite the dark moments, the light of healing will always come through.

Christison was kind enough to invite me to review the sequel to The Blameless, The Tarnished. If we're being completely honest, I read this book in the span of less than 24 hours. Her writing draws me in and maintains my interest because, unlike many YA fantasy novels, the focus on exposition and world building does not feel too heavy handed. Rather, Christison is able to slowly unveil more aspects of her magical world as her growing cast of characters travels ever further from home and encounters ever greater perils. Christison also adds in more twists and surprises than book one. Now, some of these surprises were predictable after years of reading YA, but some of these surprises even made me gasp. A new character is introduced, and you definitely will not guess their true identity!

The opening chapter, like the first book, began with a heart-pounding, emotional moment. Brie dreams of everyone she loves dying before her eyes and must grapple throughout the novel with the weight of responsibility to keep them and herself alive while also serving her people. I love that Christison does not pass over difficult moments lightly. Brie had been captured and held as a prisoner for weeks in book one, so it is realistic that Brie struggles emotionally and mentally after her capture. She feels a renewed purpose to protect her people and to become stronger as a warrior and a Blameless. However, with this growth comes many stumbling points. Brie, like any 14 year old, has points of such repeated recklessness and impulsiveness that the adults in her life are shocked and worried sick. However, Brie does grow significantly over the course of the novel, and it is hard to condemn her actions. Yes, she does put others at risk repeatedly, but she does it out of feelings of empathy and outrage at the injustices she sees. If that doesn't make the formula for a perfect YA heroine, I don't know what does.

The brightest point in Christison's novel is by far the found family. Brie is lovingly embraced by her "uncles," new "sisters," and friends. They share many moments of banter that will surely bring a smile to anyone's face who's ever butted heads with their sibling. One of my favorite tropes in any kind of literature is having someone being cared for when they're sick or hurt, and the tenderness and compassion that flows when someone is in danger is deeply moving. Brie's teenaged best friends provide plentiful comical relief, and the hints of romance, while never explored fully, are budding in greater number. Every single character seems to have a perfect match floating in and out of their life, and I am hopeful that Book 3 will bring some of our weary and hopeful characters greater joy. While Brie and her friends are too young for a wedding any time soon, I'd happily settle for a romantic first kiss scene soon!!! For lovers of fan fiction, there is plenty to "ship" here. I also love the idea of selflessness that is in each relationship. All of the characters understand that they must make sacrifices for the benefit of others and the greater good. Flinton must leave his pregnant wife to protect Brie from danger. Cassie and Taeo must leave behind the safety and security of home to accompany Brie and her journey. Brie must leave behind her home for the second time to ensure the safety of everyone she loves. The losses and the heartaches pile up, but each character does their part to bring humor and kindness to the others. The balance of wholesome fluff and heart pounding decisions is masterful.

Christison again leaves me wanting more, and I hope my wait will be shorter for book 3. If you're looking for a YA fantasy this winter, this cozy but eventful read will check all of the boxes for you!

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