A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Dissects the agency and freedoms women are denied in a patriarchal society and in a society plagued by religious extremism and oppression. This encourages readers to think about women in this power struggle throughout history and around the world today. Some of the magic is based on the principles of the classical elements -- air, wind, water, earth -- a concept about the nature of the Earth that dates back to ancient civilizations around the world.
So much food for thought on how difficult it is for women to claim their own power. There's a difference between power being "allowed" by established rules of society, whether it be those set by a male-dominated class system or a religious one, and power women claim for themselves on their own terms. Should one work within the system for change or tear the whole system of oppression down? Also, courage is a thing you choose, and it means trusting your own voice. From one minor character, a reminder that "making something illegal doesn't abolish it. It only chases it into the shadows, where those who trade in it don't have to play by any rules but their own." And a sage sentiment from Fen that "revenge doesn't fix what's past…. It just blinds you to what matters."
Positive Role Models
Four main female characters share the spotlight: Matilde, Sayer, Aesa, and Fenlin or Fen. They all come from very different backgrounds, and all exhibit teamwork and perseverance as they uncover the true power of their magic and are persecuted for it. Matilde is a coddled society girl at first who doesn't mind keeping her magic a secret that she gives away to men who pay. Then she sees how the system oppresses her and other girls with magic. She makes the brave decision not to hide who she is when it's important and to work to change the world. Sayer, when she learns to claim her magic for herself, sees it as a weapon for revenge and then realizes how much other girls like her need her. She commits to working for them in the shadows. Aesa fears her power and feels shame over it at first, but comes to realize how it can be used to protect others and that her strength is a blessing and not a curse. Fenlin, an orphan, a gang boss, and an accomplished thief, denies her talents for so long to keep herself safe until she realizes how vital it is to connect with others.
Women's rights and strong female characters discovering their own power are at the center of the story. Two of the main female characters are attracted to each other. While most of the characters are White, a male love interest is described as dark-skinned. The four main characters come from every defined class in this fantasy world and every kind of family background: multi-generational households, single-parent households, orphanages, mansions, city slums, rural seaside homes.
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Violence & Scariness
Attacks with crossbows, knives, and magical fire and wind end in some deaths, one of them heavily mourned. A flood also kills some. One woman killed by poison; others are drugged to sickness or unconsciousness. Imprisonment and threats; one woman is found after being tortured in a prison cell, bloody and barely able to move. Sexual violence includes nonconsensual groping and kissing. Verbal abuse and death threats thrown at women who don't adhere to male-dominated religious ideas. Talk of main character's physical and verbal torture by her caretaker, with vivid descriptions of one whipping. Talk of a woman's partner being hung as a criminal.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
A few passionate kisses and a few kisses used as magical transactions (the magic only works if it's consensual). Much talk of affairs, two that ended in pregnancies, one lied about and the other where the father refuses to support or acknowledge the child. Talk of brothels.
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The phrase "ten hells" is a favorite of the characters. "Bitch" and "bastard" used sparingly.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Many scenes of social drinking, mostly hard liquor and wine, and sometimes to excess. The ages of the main characters aren't discussed, but it's clear they are considered old enough. A man smokes a cigar.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Nightbirds is the first book in an exciting fantasy series by debut author Kate J. Armstrong. If you're looking for a book to discuss with high school girls especially, look no further. In this story about four young women discovering their magic and their place in the world, there's so much food for thought on how difficult it is for women to claim their own power. There's a difference between power being "allowed" by established rules of society, whether it be those set by a male-dominated class system or a religious one, and power women claim for themselves on their own terms. Each of the main characters haling from diverse class backgrounds has their own way of fighting for this power. Expect some heavy drinking, wine and spirits, especially at social gatherings; some passionate kissing; very little swearing ("ten hells," "bitch," "bastard"); and violence that includes some deaths by crossbow, knife, and poison. There is some sexual violence that doesn't go beyond kissing and groping and a jarring childhood recollection by a woman who suffered whippings by her caretaker for having magical abilities.
Is It Any Good?
There's so much to love in this debut fantasy that is equal parts thrilling magic, well-drawn characters, and compelling feminist themes. And all weave seamlessly together like a well-cast spell. The magic the Nightbirds wield morphs dramatically. At first they are masked young women in beautiful dresses giving away spell-laced kisses for money. At least Matilde, the most upper crust of the group, thinks giving away her magic is the right, safe thing to do and never questions why it's not hers. But as their lives become more dangerous and exposed, they discover what they can really do. And no one is more afraid of the Nightbirds' power than the mostly-male government and a religious sect called the Red Hand. They want to tame it, possess it, and put women in their place. If women are the only magical ones, of course a church like that one thinks there's some evil afoot.
The best part about the characters is that each of the women has a very different take on how to handle her power in the face of all the danger it poses. They are sisters in the struggle, bound together by the elements they mold, but also driven and conflicted for their own reasons. Some battle shame and fear that they will cause harm, one yearns to use her power for revenge but knows the costs, and one is desperate to find a way to invoke change from within so the persecution stops. By the end of the story, after all the chases and kidnappings and jailings and narrow escapes, it's sad when this exciting and empowering story comes to an end. But luckily there's more magic from this series to come.
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