I have developed my following by being 100% honest, whether or not a book is popular. I think this is especially important in the YA genre, when many books are over-hyped in a way that comes across as incredibly artificial and manufactured at times. I'm sorry, but you can't all be the #1 best-selling YA book, especially not if you're all doubling down on the BLANK of BLANK AND BLANK forgettable title game. I mean, come on. I can barely remember my own name half the time, let alone a baker's dozen worth of best-selling YA titles that all sound virtually the same.
HOUSE OF SALT AND SORROWS appealed to me, in spite of my misgivings, because of several things. 1) it's a faerie-tale retelling and I love those. I love them a lot, in fact. I was raised on faerie-tales from all over the world, and I will never stop feeling that same magic and mysticism from reading them. 2) it is a gothic novel and if you have been following me at all, you know how much I love me a dark and creepy novel set in some crumbling manor home on a cliff and peopled with ghosts. It's bomb. Combined? That's a c-c-c-combo breaker to the MAX.
The book is about a girl named Annaleigh. She and her sisters are the daughters of this incredibly rich dude who lives in a crumbling manor home on a cliff. Her sisters are dropping like flies, beginning with the death of their mother, and some say it's because of a curse. We meet them when they're all gathered at the funeral of their latest dead sister, and mood is grim. Helpful and oblivious stepmother Morella thinks it's time that morning be over because she's preggers and wants to party. Never mind that she is the same age as her stepdaughters and they'd so Parent Trap her sorry behind if their mother was still alive. As it is, they're stuck with her, but at least they get new shoes out of it.
Mysteriously, the new shoes end up tattered within a week. And other weird things start happening. Images of their dead sisters. Parties that nobody remembers. Suspicious deaths. A love triangle-- oops, scrap that last one. That's not weird at all, just par for the course in YA land. A whole bunch of other stuff happened, too, but I skimmed the middle of this book pretty heavily because I wasn't really amused by the sad descriptions of the heroines lackluster attempts at Nancy Drewing.
In the last act, the book manages to valiantly rise to the task of bringing this book to conclusion. There are some truly creepy scenes in here, and honestly if the whole book had been like that, this could have been a four- or even five-star read for me. If you've read this, you know what I mean. That ballroom scene. YES. I also think the author could have played up the use of the creepy masked man, instead of having him pop up only twice and immediately be a figure of suspicion. That's the problem; if the middle is SUPER boring, I'm going to jump on exciting things when they happen, and everything is going to seem super obvious. I figured out the "surprise" twist right away.
The writing in here is decent and the author is capable of setting the mood well when she so chooses. But someone-- the editor-- should have cut about 100 pages from this book and had the author rewrite the beginning to be more suspenseful. Likewise, there was some inconsistent characterization in this book, as Heather pointed out in her review. Morella was all over the place, as were several of the sisters, and the father went from being an oblivious patsy to kind of abusive and scary? As I said, foreshadowing would have fixed ALL of this and made the ending feel less... convenient.
I was going to give this book a 2-star review, but the ending sufficiently wowed me enough that I feel like I can be generous and award a paltry half-star. I'm definitely not blown away by this like some of the other preliminary reviews were, though, and while this author is definitely a cut above the rest when it comes to some of the other BLANK of BLANK and BLANK authors, I'm not sure I loved this enough that I'd instantly race out to acquire anything else she writes. But maybe. The jury is still out on this one. My rating, however, is decided.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
I know I have a reputation for being a "Meanie McMeanerson" when it comes to book reviews, but honestly that's because my most popular reviews are all my negative ones! I wish my positive reviews were more popular because I'd really like to showcase the ones that wowed or surprised me-- case in point, this book. I almost didn't apply for WE RULE THE NIGHT because that breathless summary sound so much like many of the other Basic Girl YA™ books that have been coming out in droves. But I kept coming back to it, again and again, drawn by the cover and the idea of a bunch of girl fighter pilots in a world of forbidden magic. Girl, you know I'm a sucker for some fantasy, and if it's about female friendships and magic, I really can't say no.
THIS BOOK WAS SO FREAKING GOOD THO. Seriously, why doesn't this have more of a buzz? Most of my friends either haven't read this or didn't like it, so I want to know who to address my complaints to for not hyping this up like it's Bottomless Mimosa day at the local brunch joint, avocado toast 50% off. I don't think I've felt this exhilarated about a book since reading THE HUNGER GAMES. The world building, the characters, the stakes were all done so right. It's modeled off a fantasy version of the Soviet Union and the persecution and suppression are REAL.
Rather than going on and on about my squee in paragraph form (although I could totally do that), I'm just going to lay out everything I adored about WE RULE THE NIGHT in handy bullet point format.
✔️ That cover. It's gorgeous. Obviously a cover has no bearing on what's inside the book, but that's what made me pick it up in the first place, so good job, cover artist. You earned that paycheck.
✔️ The world building. As I said, it's set in a Soviet Russia-like fantasy counterpart called the Union of the North, which is at war with another country called Elda. The politics is pretty well done and even though we don't really get much about what the world-at-large is like, the landscapes and culture and intrigue were all really well done (the author apparently lives in Europe and serves as a tour guide, so this actually makes sense). Magic is forbidden, although there are exceptions, as the two female leads find out when they're forcibly enlisted in an experimental all-girls' squadron.
✔️ The girl power theme. Holy Glass Ceiling, Batman! The girls are not respected at all, and people try to undercut and sabotage them at every turn. They have to work 150% harder with 50% less than the men, and even when they succeed, nobody cares. It's soooo frustrating and I was right there with the characters the whole time. It's so relatable and I hate that, but love how it was represented here.
✔️ Female friendships. There's basically no romance, only friendship. The two leads, Revna and Linne, hate each other at first, but the book gradually develops their relationship so they come to an understanding of one another. Linne is a military brat who sneaked into a male academy, Mulan-style, to learn how to fight. When she was caught out, she was sent to the girls' squadron and she feels like this is a punishment. Revna is disabled and has prosthetic legs. She is constantly having to prove herself and have people either doubt her or baby her (and she hates both). When she's caught doing forbidden magic, it's either the squadron or treason, and at least the squadron will feed their family. We also get to meet other girls, and they're all so delightfully, well, girly. Their problems and personalities are done with such care, and with such realism, that they felt fully dimensional. Even the cat fights had reasons behind them, and it was never just hate for the sake of hate.
✔️ Disability rep. This could have been done so badly, but Revna was a great character. She wasn't just her disability although it features prominently because of the physical demands of training and how she constantly has to push against her limits to succeed. I loved that she was the most daring flier and the best magician, and how much that validated her. Her bond with her family and how it affects a tough decision she has to make at the end was also well done. She also isn't the one who breaks first, although there are several trying moments that test her psychologically.
✔️ Dangerous hot shape-shifter spies. The Skarov, man. I'm Team Tannov all the way. He reminds me of Dmitri from VAMPIRE ACADEMY-- smoldering and broody, but also charming. LOVE.
✔️ The ending. LOL JK, I HATE IT. THANKS. Please tell me there's more, because there's no way the book can end like that without a sequel. It was sequel-baiting like crazy. All I see in the author's bibliography right now is something called THE WINTER DUKE, which does not appear to be related to this series at all. Girl, I'm so down but also, and again, seriously, WHERE IS BOOK TWO.
All in all, I really loved this book. I'm actually going to keep it because I think it will be really fun to reread the next time I'm craving a high stakes adventure. The battles, the navigation, the training, the friendship-- IT WAS SO FREAKING GOOD. Trust in me, and read this book. You'll thank me!
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
I have been buddy-reading these books with my Goodreads pal, Sage. We started with THE DEMON OF DARKLING REACH. It's ever so much fun. Honestly, I picked it up on a whim because the summary sounded good and it was a freebie on Kindle Unlimited, and it ended up becoming a new favorite romance of mine. There's a bit of Beauty and the Beast to it, but it's so much darker, and style-wise, reminiscent of authors like Grace Draven or Tanith Lee.
Isla unwittingly agreed to a betrothal to a demon in order to spare her sister, Rowena. At the time, she did not know he was a demon, but a demon he was. Despite that, the two of them end up forging a bond that's more than just a marriage of convenience, and Rowena, initially vehemently opposed to the idea of marriage to a man she didn't choose herself, becomes bitterly jealous and vengeful over the fact that her sister ended up with the better match, after all.
This book starts off in the past, chronicling Tristan's transformation into demon. We actually get to see him as a human, and find out how he got possessed in the first place. This makes up a pretty huge chunk of the book and I wasn't prepared for it at first, but once I got used to the idea of an extended back story, I was sold and it ended up becoming my favorite part of this book because of how dark it was. After that, the book continues from where the last book ended: with Isla's impending wedding to Tristan in the rocky castle of Darkling Reach. She and her family and the rest of the wedding procession are forced to make the perilous journey alone while Tristan wraps up loose ends, and tension abounds as Isla begins to have misgivings and Rowena's vengefulness gains momentum.
I liked this book a lot but it did suffer somewhat from second book syndrome and ended up feeling a lot like filler. Once Tristan and Isla reunite, I definitely got BREAKING DAWN vibes, especially towards the end, when he begins to remake her in his own image and she becomes extra special. This is not a healthy relationship by any stretch of the imagination, but it helps that it doesn't pretend to be. You never forget for long that Tristan is not a good guy, and if you do forget, the author is quick to remind you exactly what he is. I liked that a lot-- even when the book becomes romantic, Tristan never loses his edge, and the knowledge of that always looms in the back of Isla's mind.
If you like dark romances about villains and brainy heroines, you should pick up this book. It's exceedingly well researched and while it does have a lot of info dumps, you actually learn a lot of stuff about the middle ages while reading this book. Plus, the writing is gorgeous, and the author does a great job with morally grey characters and complex side characters. It's like a Gothic soap opera, and I freaking love it. Definitely going to be checking out book three next, after a breather.
Whoa. That was one of the more difficult books I've struggled to get through in a while-- not because it was bad, but because it was so unrelentingly brutal. After finishing this, all I could think was, Game of Thrones, eat your heart out, because there's a new bad bitch on the block. Only since this is about a bisexual elf and a gay dragon, I guess you could call it Gay of Thrones. Or, my favorite alternative title: Lysander Can't Catch a Fucking Break.
IRON & FIRE continues where the first book, SILK & STEEL, left off. Humans, dragons, and elves are at war. Eroan, the elf, was captured when he tried to assassinate the dragon queen. Obviously, that failed, and he ended up as the prisoner of the royal dragons. Lysander is the young prince, and the black sheep of the family because he's gay and unbreedable and also because everyone thinks he's sniveling, weak and pathetic. He drowns his shame in alcohol, but after meeting the elf and seeing him remain unbroken, he starts to want to drown in something else... like that booty. The feeling even seems like maybe it's mutual.
Of course, this is not your mother's romance novel, and absolutely nothing works out. There is rape, slavery, torture, violence, incest, and abuse, and basically a whole entire rainbow of trigger warnings. The book ends with both leads apart and hating each other once more because of a betrayal. Eroan must return to his people as an outcast to convince them to fight the dragons, and Lysander ends up being an abused and broken plaything, only to be reborn like a phoenix from flames as a fucking death machine fueled by Kill Bill levels of revenge and rage, including a certain elf.
The plotting and the reveals in this book were really great. Second books often end up falling short because they end up as placeholders for the series finale, and have mostly expositions and padding. Not this book. There were expositions, yes, but it was an entire roller-coaster of W-T-F getting there, and if you thought the first book was dark, this one is where Nash really snuffs out all the lights.
Knowing what I know now about the dragons, I'm dying to see what happens in the last book. I can't wait for the epic showdown I know is going to happen. I keep hoping Lysander will catch a break, or six, and that Eroan will get his head out of his ass long enough to realize that he doesn't really know everything. Also, I actually don't want Akiem to die. He's a psycho dragon, but he's my psycho dragon, and he's one sexy mother-fucker (literally, yikes) of a villain and I'm kind of obsessed. You should see his fight scenes and read some of his one-liners if you don't believe me, damn. He's fire. ...more
GUEST is a middle-grade novel about faerie folklore, and reminiscent of stories like Mirrormask or Labyrinth, in which the fairy tale is an allegory for a coming-of-age morality play. It definitely reads as though it is written for a young audience, but it doesn't condescend to its audience, either, and would appeal to readers of Diana Wynne Jones or Vivian Vande Velde.
Mollie is the daughter of two peasants, and her parents have recently had another baby, Thomas. Thomas is a beautiful, good-natured child, and her superstitious parents have taken precautions to ensure that his presence doesn't catch the attention of the faeries who live in the nearby forest. Mollie screws all that up, though, by wishing him away, praising his beauty, and then stealing the charm of protection from him because she thinks it's a pretty bauble and selfishly wants it for herself.
Spoiler, as you can guess from the title and the blurb, this does not work out well. The baby is stolen and replaced with a changeling that they end up calling Guest, because he's an unwelcome visitor the family wants gone as soon as possible. Abandoning or killing him is out of the question, because ill-treatment to the changeling means ill-treatment for the human child, so Mollie's father storms out in a man-baby temper tantrum, leaving Mollie's mother to care for him in an increasingly exhausted stupor. Mollie feels sick with guilt, but isn't above treating Guest badly herself, resenting and insulting him by turns, while plotting all the while on how to retrieve Thomas.
The journey element of this was really well done. I liked how this story was steeped in folklore, and it kind of reminded me of this book I read when I was really young, Bruce Coville's SONG OF THE WANDERER. It has that same epic-fantasy-for-kids vibe, which I found nostalgic and appealing. Mollie is a terrible character, though. I hated her. She was so selfish, and stupid. I get that kids can be dumb, but she literally made the same exact mistake 10 times. It was hard to suffer. Guest, on the other hand, is a really great character and by the end of the story, I basically adored him.
Anyone who enjoys middle grade novels or has a kid who enjoys them, and would like a fantasy novel that is easy to read but does not talk down to its young audience will probably enjoy this book a lot. I don't normally go in for middle grade novels, but I thought this was well done and pays homage to faerie folklore in an informed way. It even has elements of Tam Lin, which I liked.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
Nobody can tell me that I didn't give ANYA AND THE DRAGON a fair shot. I valiantly struggled through 200+ pages of this book before deciding that it probably wasn't for me.
There are a lot of things that make this book seem promising: the beautiful cover, dragons, the Russian-Jewish culture, the background of oppression and potential for revolution. This book takes place in an alternative version of Europe where magic is banned and Jewish people are still being discriminated against. Anya has magic and is also Jewish, and is inwardly raging at the cruel minions of the czar who are exacerbating her family's debt. If she can beat the evil Northern European dragon slayer to the dragon, she can help pay it off... but are dragons really evil?
I love the idea of monster hunters and in fact recently read and reviewed another book with monster bounties called NOT EVEN BONES, although it's much darker than this book and intended for an older audience. By contrast, ANYA AND THE DRAGON doesn't even bother to hide the fact that it's intended for middle grade, and the result is a narrative style that is bland and patronizing.
I know some people find this style of book cozy and inoffensive, but I like some grit in my reads. I think a lot of kids do, too. They want to read things that made them feel grown up, not talked down to. I'm not saying that we should try to scare children, but it doesn't hurt to make characters nuanced and worlds scary; kids understand complicated topics as long as it's explained in a way they can understand. And I know middle grade can do this, because I've seen Holly Black and other authors carry it off. But Anya is such a little Mary Sue and nothing about her or her world grabbed me, so I think I'm going to save myself another 100+ pages of frustration and call it quits while I'm ahead.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
THE BONE HOUSES is amazing, but I don't really think I agree with the comparisons to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and SKY IN THE DEEP-- if anything, it's like a cross between SABRIEL and THE BLACK CAULDRON. THE BONE HOUSES is a fantasy set in a place that seems to be based off Wales. Aderyn is a grave-digger who lives with her sister, Cerridwen, and her brother, Gareth. Their mother is dead, and their father and uncle have both disappeared mysteriously, leaving them all effectively orphaned.
Aderyn goes into the forest to forage, but is mindful of her father's warnings that dangerous things rove in the trees after nightfall, including the "bone houses": or, the animated dead. They only stay in the forest and they only come after dark, but lately, Aderyn has been noticing that they have been venturing closer and closer to the edges--until one day, they're out.
In the meantime, their village has been graced with the presence of an unusual boy: a map-maker with chronic pain, who won't tell them his surname or why he's come to their village. Aderyn meets him when she saves his life and they end up forging an unusual alliance. Both of them need to go into the forest to find a legendary castle in the lands of the faerie, and a cauldron rumored to give life.
So, this was fifteen different kinds of amazing. The writing was lush and gorgeous, and it set the scenery of the village and the forest perfectly. I was very impressed by how richly-imagined this world was, considering that it was relatively simple. It does for Welsh folklore what Naomi Novik did with Eastern European folklore in SPINNING SILVER and UPROOTED. The faerie legends and the nod to The Black Cauldron made me so happy, and the Medieval village setting was so well done.
Other things I liked about this book were the chronic pain rep (understated, but rare in fantasy), especially since Ellis was never painted as weak or as a victim. Aderyn is a strong female character who doesn't need to be brash or throw her weight around (just her axe, heh heh) to be respected. I loved her close relationship with her siblings and the family goat, and her slow-burn attraction to Ellis. The way she fought back against the injustice of the village lord who wanted to ruin her family in his greed, and the hero's journey she goes upon to find the reason the dead are rising, were both really empowering for the character and instilled her with agency. She was never passive or bland.
Anyone who likes strong female fantasy characters and Welsh settings should pick up THE BONE HOUSES when it comes out, especially if, as I mentioned before, you enjoy Naomi Novik's work, or enjoyed SABRIEL and UPROOTED. It has that same fun, folkloric fantasy vibe, with a gloomy, Gothic edge to keep things interesting. Apparently it's a standalone too, so no need to commit. ;)
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
So, I guess the new YA trend isn't just to write books that are derivative, but also to title them in derivative ways, as well? If so, good plan, because THE MERCIFUL CROW is a book that feels like dozens of books I've read before. Caste-based fantasy with an assassination plot gone wrong, and a plot to overthrow an evil ruler with a band of crude-talking underdogs. Yep.
I'm extra salty because my luck with books has been amazing lately, and I've absolutely loved some of the YA offerings that 2019 has brought me, but THE MERCIFUL CROW just didn't cut it. The heroine, Fie, was so annoying. I just couldn't stand her attitude or her smugness or her personality. She was the worst. I thought naming all the castes after birds was super lame, and didn't really understand what the point of the caste system was or what they even did (and no, the index didn't help).
The writing was great, but nice writing doesn't do anything for me if the world-building is a disorganized mess and I hate the main character. I probably could have forced myself to finish this if I'd really tried, but I didn't want to try. Who names their cat Barf? Oh, and guess what, the Crows have a stupid dance called "Money Dance" when they want to be paid. They actually stomp around and everyone acts like it's sooooo scary. LOL, no. Goodbye, book.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
Fairytale retellings are hard-- ideally, you're taking a story that most people are intimately familiar with and trying to put a spin on it that keeps it fun and fresh, while also reminding people about why they loved the original so much, too. STEPSISTER is interesting, in that it tries to keep to the dark, original retelling. When we first meet Isabelle, our heroine, one of the evil and ugly stepsisters, she is cutting off her toes to fit into the shoe--
Unfortunately, her evil plan is outed by birds that are friends with her sister, Ella. Ella goes off to marry the prince and Isabelle and her sister, Tavi, are left alone, ostracized by the rest of the town for their deeds. Only their mother, who is slowly going mad, will speak to them without anger, and even she is embittered about her daughters' new and lowly state. It seems like Isabelle is doomed to a life of ignominy but Fate and Chance have other plans.
I wasn't sure what to expect with STEPSISTER, but it was much more than I had anticipated. Isabelle is a strong, brave heroine with agency. Her sister, Tavi, is bookish and fiercely intelligent. Neither of them are attractive and both of them have done terrible, selfish things-- but so have the other characters in the book. But neither of them get a free pass because they are ugly. The book is all about beauty, forgiveness, and second chances, and what it means to truly redeem yourself.
I'm giving this book a three-star rating because I did like it, but it didn't wow me. The plot was great and I liked Isabelle's redemption arc, and how the human manifestations of both Fate and Chance were both fighting over her future as she (maybe) decides to go off and save a kingdom. The story just felt a bit "young" for me, especially with all of the unnecessary sidekicks. I don't think it was badly done, but I have a bias against sidekicks-- that's just my preference. I think for those who are tired of impossibly pretty and perfect heroines, STEPSISTER will be a breath of fresh air.
It's a shame my magnificent four-star rating streak has ended, but at least now you now I'm not secretly a bot. Or, if I am, I'm a far more devious bot than you ever imagined. YMMV.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
If you pitch something to me as Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Fight Club, I'm going to read it, no questions asked. I might be a little skeptical about how two such very different concepts might pair, but I'm still going to read it anyway. And then, I'm going to be proven wrong, because it's going to be amazing-- at least, that's how it worked out with CASTER.
This was such an amazing book. A much better way of describing it, though, is The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter. Aza lives in a vaguely dystopian world ravaged by pollution and poverty, where people pay tribute to bad people to protect their businesses. Aza's older sister used to handle their finances, but she died mysteriously, and now that terrible task has fallen to Aza.
In this world, magic is forbidden because it comes at a cost. When magic is cast, the earth and the caster both take a heavy toll. People blame casters for the world's current state, and being caught doing magic could mean death-- or worse.
Which is why Aza is shocked when she finds out that her sister, Shire, was involved in a secret underground magic fight. When she lands an invitation herself, she ends up involved despite knowing that she shouldn't-- it's not just a way to save her family's business from certain doom, but also a way to figure out what really happened to her sister, and why.
Oh my God, this book was so good. The world-building was dark and amazing and I loved the checks and balances of the magic system, when all too often, you read fantasy books where magic is basically a clever party trick people can perform at no cost. It actually reminded me a little of Brandon Sanderson's MISTBORN series, the way they relied on physical focuses with different properties and doing too much could take a physical toll on you (including death). Everything flows very naturally and I felt like I was allowed to sink into the fantasy element as if it was a hot bath instead of having it poured over my head like a shock of cold water. It was done very well.
And the battle scenes! I don't want to say too much because spoilers, but this book was action-packed and I think it's really going to appeal to fans of THE HUNGER GAMES, who put down MOCKINGJAY somewhat disappointedly (some more so than others) and found themselves wanting more, although I feel like Aza is a better heroine than Katniss in some ways, because of how she struggles with guilt and morality-- that cliffhanger, man. How am I going to wait for book two? (There is going to be a book two, right? I need to know what choices she ends up making.)
I'm so excited for September to come, because it means I'm going to be able to squee over this series with friends. Right now, I'm the only one who's read it-- and I'm just aching to spill the beans.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
The "Affair of the Poisons" was an actual historical event in 17th century France, in which many members of the nobility purchased poisons and other illicit services from a woman named La Voisin, and other mystics and alchemists, to "take care of people" who served as an impediment to their ambitions. Hundreds of people were implicated and it understandably caused a lot of fear and paranoia. If you've heard of this and aren't sure why, it was mentioned in Versailles. That was how I first learned about it, watching the TV show with my mom.
AN AFFAIR OF POISONS takes that event and runs with it, spinning it out into a tale of historical fantasy with real alchemy and magical poisons. There are two narrators: Mirabelle is the daughter of La Voisin and a powerful alchemist. She aids and abets her mother and her sorcerer lover, Legrange, who are both part of the Shadow Society working to overthrow the nobility. She inadvertently starts a violent revolution when her mother uses one of her poisons to murder the king of France. Josse is the bastard son of the king and lives in the shadow of his favored older brother, Louis. His father's murder fills him with angst over the lack of closure, and the determination to protect what remains of his family from revolution.
When our characters meet at first, they do not like each other very much. Mirabelle has been taught her whole life that the Shadow Society are helping the commoners escape from the yoke of noble rule. And Josse has her society to blame for the murder of his father and the persecution of his siblings. However, La Voisin has lost sight of her original mission and soon proves to be utterly corrupt with power, willing to do whatever it takes to secure her foothold in the control of France, even if it means using the people she originally sought to protect as pawns.
I really enjoyed AN AFFAIR OF POISONS and I'm honestly surprised it doesn't have more reviews or buzz. First, it's a standalone in a genre being overrun by multi-book cash cows. When was the last time you saw a young adult fantasy novel that wasn't at least three books long? Second, Mirabelle is a strong female character and Josse is a flawed hero who doesn't act like an abusive creep. Both of them have a lot of character development over the course of this book, and make mistakes with grievous consequences. There is a lot at stake, and the author isn't afraid to show that. Third, it's a fantasy reimagining of Revolutionary France, and if you took one thing away from my review of Paula Volsky's ILLUSION, it should be that that is a concept I'm all over like white on rice.
AN AFFAIR OF POISONS is a good book and if you're tired of books like THRONE OF GLASS and the like, you should pick this up and also read up on The Affair of the Poisons while you're at it.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
Ever since I read C.S. Pacat's CAPTIVE PRINCE, I've been looking for other dark fantasy books that have that same fantasy bodice-ripper vibe. SILK & STEEL comes the closest of all the other books I've read to capturing that same balance of unapologetic smut and court intrigue, kind of like if GAME OF THRONES was written for the female gaze. Honestly, though, it had me at angsty dragon prince and arrogant warrior elf.
Prince Lysander is the younger son of a sadistic dragon queen who has physically and sexually abused him his whole life. He's treated as "broken" because of his attraction to men, and now she's trying to sell him and breed him with one of the other dragon clans, one that revels in violent orgies. Oh, boy. Eroan, on the other hand, is an elven assassin charged with the murder of Lysander's mother; he would have succeeded were it not for Lysander himself, who was the only one able to cut him down in battle. Now he's a prisoner in the dragons' tower, and finds himself perplexed by the silent, brooding dragon prince who has taken it upon himself to be his gaoler.
I think the most crucial point to mention for this book is that it is NOT for the faint of heart. It has all of the same triggers that CAPTIVE PRINCE did, and a lot of the world-building centers around rape or sexual violence. I didn't feel like the rape was romanticized, and the relationship between the two heroes isn't based on rape, but it is very much present in this book and committed by both men and women alike. There's also incest, which is gross. Nash also doesn't shy away from violence-- the fight scenes in this book are really well done, but part of what makes them so is no small amount of gore.
One thing I really liked is that this isn't GFY; Eroan is bisexual and has had relationships with women. Lysander, on the other hand, is gay and identifies as such; it's a huge problem for him as a prince in a homophobic dragon court that keeps trying to breed him with women. He's subjected to a lot of abuse because of that-- not just from his mother, but also from one of the other dragon clans that ends up drugging him into a stupor so that he'll be too blitzed out of his mind to realize that he's having sex with a woman. I think these scenes might be really hard for some people to read.
On the other hand, I liked that this book was so dark and didn't shy away from getting down and dirty in order to tell the story the way the author intended. It really did remind me of a bodice-ripper, not just because of the darkness, but also because of the globe-trotting adventures, alliances, betrayals, and fight scenes that made a lot of those 1970s bodice-rippers so much fun to read. This book is decently long, and yet the pages just flew by. I was never bored and was always wondering what happened next, and I wasn't even too mad when the cliffhanger I totally predicted happened because I had the other book in the series on stand-by, which I'm going to be buddy-reading with a friend.
If you enjoy dark fantasy novels or bodice-rippers and don't mind books with lots of trigger-warnings, I think you'll really, really like this-- especially if you're familiar with Pippa DaCosta's other work and want to see her try her hand at something different. ON TO BOOK TWO.
This book is so good and honestly, it's a crime that it doesn't have ten times the reviews that it has. THE DEMON OF DARKLING REACH is an incredible story, with amazing world-building, set in a faux medieval world where demons and sorcery exist. The story kicks off with Isla's father announcing her younger sister, Rowena's, betrothal to a sinister and sinfully handsome duke named Tristan. Rowena is in love with a local lordling and throws a hideous temper tantrum; she's too shallow to consider the more sinister implications of her engagement-- that the duke does not seem to be quite human, and there are rumors of dark sorcery and cannibalism.
Isla volunteers to marry the duke in her sister's place, freeing her sister from the engagement and putting herself in mortal peril. At first, he seems coolly amused and condescending about everything she says and does, but after a while, he seems to warm to her. And Isla, always the awkward elder child, begins to find a voice to express her many frustrations with the oppression and cruelty inherent in their society's rules and religion, as well as finding the words to express her own feminist principles and concerns.
If you're a fan of Grace Draven's work, I think you'll find this to be a similar story. The romance is slow-burn, and Isla and Tristan discover each other as people before they discover each other as lovers. Tristan is not a misunderstood figure who has earned his reputation unfairly; he is every inch the monster Isla thinks he is, and his ability to hide that is like a bejeweled sheath around a lethal blade. Sometimes this book seems slow because of many info-dumps that are clearly the products of extensive historical research, but couched in those long descriptions are some insightful meditations on religion, philosophy, love, and gender roles; and in between all of the comedy of manners and the gritty and yet still charming rendition of a medieval village, there are some truly horrific scenes.
THE DEMON OF DARKLING REACH is a book that will appeal most to a specific audience: people who don't mind waiting for a good payoff, who like literary romances that are smartly written and dabble in TED talk-like bursts of information and trivia, and dark anti-heroes who don't fit the typical cookie-cutter mold of the derring-do hero with the chiseled jaw and innately good heart. I can honestly say that this is one of my new favorite romances and I can't wait to read the other books in the series. It's free if you have Kindle Unlimited, but even if you don't, it's worth the price tag.
SUCH SWEET SORROW is one of the weirdest fantasy novels I've ever read, and I honestly kind of loved that about it. The book is about Hamlet and Romeo making an unlikely alliance to go into an underworld rooted in Greek and Norse mythology, braving trials and dangers to rescue Juliet and bring her back.
Hamlet, when we meet him, is still grieving over the loss of his father and filled with fury over Claudius's betrayal. He's not just the Prince of Denmark, he's also a seer who can communicate with the dead and who acts as a guardian for the portal into the underworld. Romeo comes to his kingdom after communicating with a witch of the toil and trouble variety, and as luck would have it, Hamlet is the first person he and his friar buddy speak to when asking around about the seat of a murdered king. Oops.
The journey to the underworld is honestly really well done. Other reviewers have said that the author throws in one supernatural being after another, which is true. Right when they first get into the tunnel, they run into valkyries, and then shortly after that it's ice trolls, then sirens, a giant maggot worm, the Elysian fields, and even Fenrir himself. It really shouldn't have worked, but each scene was so well developed and there were some truly horrific moments in here, like the mirror hall and the thing with the buffet table, that served up chills.
In case you didn't know, Jenny Trout is the same person as the Jennifer Armintrout with an 'I' that I've been book-stalking over these past few weeks. I'm halfway done with her Armintrout backlist, and thought it might be fun to mosey on over to her Trout list and check out her first young adult novel. It can be hard for adult writers to switch over to YA, and vice versa. While there is a lot of cross-over appeal, they're marketed in different ways and have different standards with regards to sex, violence, and language. I honestly thought Trout did a great job keeping true to her trademark edginess while also shading it for a YA-appropriate audience. The only qualm I have is that the ending was totally gearing things up for a sequel, and yet I see no sequel before me. What's with that, huh?
If you want to read something strange that shouldn't make sense, but does, and follows that dark young hero's journey in the vein of stories like Mirrormask and Coraline, check out this book.
Reading these books gives me the same sense of heart-in-throat whimsical awe that I get from watching The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, or from listening to Halestorm. It's a combination of enjoying something epic and basking in essence of girl power.
What I love most about the Lightworld/Darkworld series is that each book stands on its own while contributing to the series. As I said before in my review of CHILD OF DARKNESS, QUEENE OF LIGHT is a star-crossed love story with an underdog, and CHILD OF DARKNESS is more a tale of courtly intrigue. VEIL OF SHADOWS is a different story still: a more traditional fantasy-style epic featuring love, redemption, and betrayal.
If I told you I didn't spend most of this book figuratively gnawing on my fingernails, I'd be lying. Armintrout proved early on that she was not averse to killing off beloved characters, and unlike Game of Thrones, where you expect it and even become inured to it, with these books it always came as an unpleasant shock and never really stopped hurting. I'm still upset about the second book.
One thing I noticed some reviewers saying in their reviews of CHILD OF DARKNESS was that they hated what Ayla became and thought Cerridwen was even more annoying. I think that's fair, but Cerridwen was a spoiled and sheltered child, distanced from her parents and anxious to - literally and metaphorically - spread her wings. Her actions at the end of the second book sent a major tragedy in motion, and when we begin this book, Cerridwen is still struggling under the enormous burden of her guilt. She matures a lot over VEIL OF SHADOWS, learning not just what it takes to become a good person but also what it takes to be a good queen. It's a hard lesson, and it's meted out in pain.
Speaking of pain, let's talk about Cedric, who suffered almost as much as Cerridwen in the previous book. I liked Cedric from the get-go, because he's a master assassin and a faery babe, and that's hot AF. He wasn't a love interest until this book, and his growing relationship with Cerridwen seriously hurt my heart. There were two moments in here where I was on the verge of tears. I'm a huge fan of the tortured hero trope (see my review for THE COMPANION), and Armintrout is good at it.
Between the doomed romance, the epic battles, the creative world-building, and the court intrigue, there's just some really good scenes in here that will stay with you. My favorites were the first sex scene between Cerridwen and Cedric (even though it hurt me), and the scene when Cerridwen rides to challenge her enemy in tattered, blood-stained robes on the back of a white bull. Holy cinematic moment, Batman! I really, really recommend these books to anyone looking something different.
I'm going to go weep quietly, now. What a way to end the series.
Everyone on my friends list is bitching about Game of Thrones and threatening to cancel their HBO subscriptions. Meanwhile, I'm sitting here reading the Lightworld/Darkworld series and shaking my head and thinking, "Nobody in the world knows my suffering." I didn't start this weekend intending to bum myself out, but that's exactly what happened, all thanks to Jennifer Armintrout - and even though that doesn't much look like it, that's a compliment.
Most people know Jennifer Armintrout, now Jenny Trout, for her popular blog about books and pop cultural hot takes. She's also a writer, and I've been diving into her rather underrated faerie fantasy series, Lightworld/Darkworld. QUEENE OF LIGHT, the first book in the series, is about a young faerie assassin named Ayla who starts out as an unwitting pawn in a serious game of thrones, and ends up becoming a powerful queen in her own right, with her star-crossed lover, the fallen angel, Malachi, ruling by her side as royal consort.
Second books are hard, because if a book series does well, each book should assert itself as a complete work in the series that also builds off the world-building established in previous books. My expectations when I picked up CHILD OF DARKNESS were low, because I've read a lot of really bad second books - second book syndrome is a serious problem in the literary world - but this book, like the previous one, surprised me. In fact, after thinking about it long and hard, I actually think I liked this book better.
CHILD OF DARKNESS is a much different book from QUEENE OF LIGHT. QUEENE follows the typical rise of the underdog storyline, even if it does it with a slightly untraditional style of fantasy setting. CHILD OF DARKNESS is about Ayla, twenty years in the future. Her mortal consort is aging and even though she physically looks the same, ruling has made her colder and virtually unrecognizable from her younger, idealistic self. She's also struggling with motherhood and the problems of raising a daughter who's chafing at her constraints and expectations. It actually reminds me of this movie I used to have on VHS, called The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea.
In Little Mermaid II, Ariel has walled off Eric's kingdom from the rest of the ocean and has forbidden her daughter, Melody, from the water, because Ursula's younger sister has threatened them all with revenge. Obviously, making the ocean forbidden actually ends up making it irresistible and Melody ultimately ends up making the inverse bargain that her mother made, trading her legs for a tail. CHILD OF DARKNESS is similar in that in trying to protect her daughter, Cerridwen, and keep her from the Darkworld, Cerridwen becomes an expert in dodging her guards and wandering into the Darkworld in disguise, where she ends up falling for one of the Dark Elves that her own Lightworld kingdom is on the verge of going to war with. Her flouting of convention is much like her mother's, and yet in her own pride, Ayla doesn't see this until it's almost too late.
There's also a new fantastic villain in this book - waterhorses. I was wondering about the seahorse on the cover, and it's excellent foreshadowing, because waterhorses are terrifying. I thought nothing was going to surpass the heart-trees in UPROOTED in terms of things that authors have invented to give me nightmares, but Jennifer Armintrout gladly rises to the task and she succeeds - horribly. (Also, it just occurred to me that the neon colors are probably supposed to be a nod to the "other sight," in the book, the ability of the Faeries to see life energy written out in pulses of light - neat.)
But amid all the horror and the intrigue and the life lessons, there's also some truly poignant emotional scenes that you don't often see in fantasy novels (especially fantasy novels written by men). The scene when Malachi goes to the sacred pool where he made love to Ayla in the first book and prays to her gods knowing that he might die in the final battle. The scene when Cerridwen realizes who her father really is when he's about to die. Basically any scene involving my poor, darling Cedric in this book, but especially the scene when he comes to the abandoned Gypsy camp. I didn't expect all the deaths and betrayals to weigh so heavily on me, but they so totally did.
Everyone is crying over Game of Thrones, but I'm crying over this book. That ending was so good. The fight scenes - the consequences - the character development. Seriously. What an amazing triumph of character development, and solid proof that foolish mistakes do not always go unpunished. I can't wait to read the final book in the trilogy.
THE AGE OF ODIN falls into a genre of books that I like to call "lad lit," AKA, "by dudes, for dudes." It's basically The Hurt Locker with Norse mythology thrown in for shits and gigs, set among the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic icy hell, and honestly, that concept works better than it should. I picked up the first book in the series many years ago, with the same sense of disbelief. Greek gods using technology to conquer mankind? But yeah, it worked. It was silly and ridiculous AF, but somehow, it bloody worked. Now brace yourselves, and hold onto your hot cocoa: there's spoilers ahead.
It's the near future and the entire world has plummeted into an Arctic winter. Places that never get snow, like the Caribbean and Florida, are encrusted in ice. Gideon and his friend "Abortion" are ex-army guys with injuries who hear about something called the Valhalla Project, where men like them get paid big bucks for paramilitary duties. They seek out the compound but get lost in the woods, and Gideon is horrified to see his friend torn apart by wolves (I don't consider that a spoiler since it happens early on).
Gideon is rescued from a similar death by mysterious people all going by Scandinavian-sounding names, who take him to the compound he was looking for. Other ex-army guys are there, with charmingly PC names like "Backdoor," "Paddy" (he's Irish), and "Chopsticks" (he's Asian). It takes Gideon a painfully long time to put together that his benefactors are all calling themselves the names of the long-lost Norse gods. Harmless eccentricity, he thinks - until it seems to feel more cult-like.
Because Denial isn't just a river in Egypt, Gideon decides that they're all crazy and he's bitten off way more than he can chew. But a magic tree, talking ravens, and supernatural home video session change his mind. Humans just aren't as gullible as they used to be, I guess. Too many Nigerian Prince scams to teach them to be suspicious. The gods tell him that they are raising an army because Ragnarok is coming, and they've got to stop Loki, God of Mischief, from destroying them all in an arctic blaze. How does Loki manage this, you ask? Well, that's a pretty major spoiler - and the twist is... surprising.
I used to read a lot of lad lit when I was younger, before I realized how much of it actually offended me with its portrayals of women and minorities and sexuality. I'm not going to lie to you - there is a lot in THE AGE OF ODIN to be offended by, and I'm not really sure if this is just Lovegrove trying to write a realistic, uneducated, blue collar, ex-army guy and succeeding wildly, or if it's indicative of the author's own personal biases. But yeah, the rep of women in here was not great - they're all wildly attractive, ball-busting women, regardless of whether they're good or evil. The one Asian character is nicknamed Chopsticks and gets killed, and the other minority character is a bad guy.
Also, there are many moments in this book that come off as transphobic. Gods are gender-fluid in this book, and one in particular can assume forms of the opposite sex. This is something that elicits disgust from all the characters, and there's a number of jokes and remarks about it. I didn't like that. What made it even more irritating was that I'd just read another urban fantasy novel about immortals who were also gender fluid (which was also written by a man), only it was handled with care and not made out to be some kind of sick joke. That book was Indra Das's THE DEVOURERS, and you'll be happy to know that it has characters of color who aren't killed off as plot points.
I did think THE AGE OF ODIN was entertaining but reading this made me wonder if the previous two books in this series were just as problematic, or if Lovegrove was just trying to make Gideon seem rough and unlikable. Either way, I think this is worth a read for the world-building and the artistic license the author takes with Norse mythology, but maybe not if you're easily offended and would feel uncomfortable reading about any of the scenarios I mentioned in the previous paragraphs.
There's a certain type of romance novel published in the 90s that I really don't like. These are 90s bodice rippers. They frequently have all the gender stereotypes of their rapey predecessors, but try to "empower" the heroine by making her spunky and annoying. Why do I bring this up, since this is YA and obviously not a vintage historical romance? Because the main character, Ember, is cast in the mold of these foot-stomping, "feminist" heroines.
I'm honestly surprised that people were saying that this felt historically accurate and that they felt like they were literally in the middle ages. Honestly, that's more testament to the power of their imagination than anything the book accomplished, since it felt anachronistic AF. The way people dressed, the way people talked, the dialogue - the heroine's name, for God's sake. I wouldn't have guessed that this was set in the 1400s.
Apart from the annoying heroine, there's a full cast of other idiotic fools, and one okay character (the love interest - obviously). The story is slow and plodding, mired in its own foolhardy sense of self-importance. This honestly reads like someone heard about Game of Thrones and decided to write their own lame version of it, only the leader of the evil uprising is an idiot and a fool, as well. I never would have finished this at all if I hadn't been trapped on a bus with nothing else to do or read.
I was describing this book to someone as Game of Thrones, only set in a desert where magicians are responsible for bringing the rains and water is the ultimate currency. But honestly, that doesn't quite do this book justice, as it's much better written than Game of Thrones and doesn't quite wallow in the physical and sexual violence like GoT does - not to say that this isn't a brutal MF of a book; it is.
Set in the Quartern, a desert land in which water-sensitive magicians called "Stormlords" are responsible for bringing water, THE LAST STORMLORD is about a land in the middle of political and environmental upheaval. All that magic has brought about climate change and water is becoming scarce in a land that desperately needs it. The last stormlord is dying without a replacement, and hostile factions who have been oppressed by the stormlords are rallying forces to seize powers in the void and resort back to scavenging.
The two main characters are Terelle and Shale, both teenagers. Terelle is a young woman who was sold into a brothel when she was a child by her cruel stepfather, and now lives in dread of reaching puberty and being auctioned off for her virginity like a prize mare. One day she decides to escape, hoping to become a dancer, and instead discovering that she's capable of much more. Shale, on the other hand, lives in the outskirts of the Quartern, called "the Gibber," in a labor camp where people mine for resin. His father is an abusive alcoholic, but freedom comes when Shale realizes that he has the power to detect and manipulate water. Unfortunately, his powers bring him to the attention of very dangerous people on both sides of the water war who will stop at nothing to capture him alive.
Lately, I've found myself reading more and more fantasy by women because for the most part, male fantasy authors don't really deliver what I want: complex, nuanced world-building with a rich tapestry of culture; strong female protagonists who aren't sexualized and whose agency isn't wrapped up with that of the male hero's; and heroes who don't style themselves after the Chuck Norrises or Tyrion Lannisters of the world, punching holes in trucks or laughing drunkenly in the fate of death. THE LAST STORMLORD is set in an original world that deals with poverty, climate change, colorism, racism, sexism, and so much more.
Oh, and this book is brutal. I've seen dudes scoff at female fantasy, but there isn't a whiff of romance in this book yet. Shale is a strong character but also flawed realistically. Terelle has agency and interesting powers, and doesn't need no man in her life to tell her what to do. Taquar Sardonyx was an excellent villain (and does it help that he's brooding and good-looking? But ofc.) It's also a pretty grim world, with mages who can bleed all the water out of people and leave them dried out husks; flesh-eating beetles called "ziggers" that like to burrow into people's eyes or noses and eat them alive; child prostitution and slavery and evil nomads who live by honor and enjoy torture as punishment.
I also loved the machinations of the royal family. There's definite Cersei/Laisa and Joffrey/Senya parallels, which is maybe why I found them such a pleasure to hate. The Lannisters were always my favorite characters in Game of Thrones just because they were so unabashedly evol. There's a lot of heavy thoughts about power and how sometimes you do harm when doing good, and vice-versa. When I saw that the author lives in Malaysia working on rain forest conservation, the climate change messages made a lot of sense. This is no heavy handed Ferngully - it's very nuanced, and very good.
P.S. CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL AND YOU'RE A FUCKING IDIOT IF YOU THINK OTHERWISE. DON'T @ ME.
I have a lot of favorite genres to read, but one I find myself coming back to again and again is fantasy. You could argue that any fictional book is escapist, but fantasy (and science-fiction, to a lesser extent) is the genre that involves literally escaping to another world, and I find it so amazing that we as humans can actually dream up entire alternate universes, populate them with living things, and then put all of that imagination to paper.
KILL THE QUEEN snagged me with its blurb, which says that it's a cross between Gladiator and Game of Thrones. Even though I profess to hate those "X meets Y" blurbs and find them lazy, they still work on me, because I am a trash can. The book is also only $1.99 in the Kindle store at the time of my writing this review, which also helps. I can't say no to cheap or free.
Everleigh is minor nobility in a treacherous kingdom fraught with intrigue and betrayal. She lives in a castle, working as a servant, because in a hierarchy based on magic and might, she, as a lowly "mutt" doesn't have much power. Of course, she's not as powerless as anyone thinks - she has the ability to immunize herself against magic - but her mother swore her to secrecy about this ability, and now her mother is dead by assassination, so clearly she must have known something about treachery, right? Right. So Everleigh allows herself to be treated like crap until the crown princess, Vasilia, decides to pull a Red Wedding on the day of her betrothal, killing her husband-to-be, his entourage, her subjects, and then, last but not least, her own mother.
Everleigh escapes the fray only barely by using her powers against the magical assault. She ends up wandering and lost, still stunned by what she witnessed, until she happens upon a gladiatorial camp in the middle of the woods. It's headed by a woman who I'm not entirely sure isn't Brienne of Tarth (her name is Serilda), and Obligatory Hot Man Candy
™, Sullivan. They aren't exactly eager to welcome her into the fold, but Everleigh proves her worth, so they do - only it turns out that at least some of the people at the camp have a ~mysterious~ connection to the castle.
So here's the thing, this is a love-it or hate-it type book. If you're a die-hard fantasy purist who likes everything to be by-the-book and Tolkienesque, you're probably going to hurl this book out the window. I looked at the positive and negative reviews before buying it and they are totally on the ball, in my opinion. Regarding the naysayers - no, KILL THE QUEEN doesn't quite live up to the brutality of Game of Thrones, and I think the main tie-in is the massacre in the beginning of the book (hence why I didn't tag it with a spoiler; it's mentioned in the Goodreads blurb and happens super early on in the story). The Gladiator comparison has more merit, but it's not the focus of the story.
KILL THE QUEEN is also a bit of an odd duck because it doesn't really have a clear setting. It could be, as another reader pointed out, anywhere from early Medieval to 18th century, and the language the characters use in dialogue is very modern-sounding. The end result is something anachronistic and odd, that feels about as cheesy and unrealistic as a small-town Renaissance Faire. There's also a bit of a romance thrown in here, but it feels like a flash in the pan because 1) it's kind of insta, and 2) it doesn't come into fruition at all, so what was the point, even? Hot Man Candy
I did like the heroine, though. She had to struggle for what she accomplished, and the author wasn't afraid to make her work for that happy ending. There were a couple scenes in here that reminded me of ELLA ENCHANTED, in how the main character's intelligence and ability to be a quick study ended up saving her ass in a way that might have otherwise seemed like a deus ex machina. I liked the call backs to things that seemed irrelevant in the beginning; I like an author who plans.
KILL THE QUEEN is a wonky book and does some truly odd things, but I enjoyed the story and the characters, and I'm curious to see how the plot will develop with the release of the second book. If you're looking for something that'll keep you turning the pages, and doesn't require too much effort, KILL THE QUEEN is a solid choice, and proof that good can exist from great, and that's OK.
Nothing - I repeat, nothing - beats a good old-fashioned fantasy romance. Something about the combination of a high-stakes romance and magic gets to me every time. In that regard, the Malediction trilogy more than delivers. STOLEN SONGBIRD, the first book in the series, is a Labyrinth-like story about a human girl who is kidnapped to be the bride of a troll prince who is imprisoned along with his people under a giant mountain. It's hate at first sight until she realizes the tenuous position he holds in his court, and how much he has grown to care about her after getting to know her. HIDDEN HUNTRESS takes place where the last book left off, after Tristan, the prince, has released Cecile for her own good to be back among the humans. She's resumed her singing career under the care of her mother, but the bond between her and Tristan remains, and she can sense that he is in trouble.
One of the major twists of the last book - SPOILER - is that Cecile is actually a witch. Humans and trolls have different types of magic, and while she and Tristan are separated, Cecile begins to really tap into her power ... including dabbling in the Dark Arts. Tristan, meanwhile, is subjected to all manners of torture for his "treachery", as both is father and his father's enemy, Angouleme, have wasted no time in scapegoating him for their own foul purposes, turning even Tristan's sympathizers against him. He's helpless to do anything to aid or protect Cecile, even though he knows she's in danger, because the witch who cursed his people is still around, and Cecile is the key to finalizing her revenge and destroying both him and the rest of the trolls for good.
I love it when sequels build off the previous books, and HIDDEN HUNTRESS made Cecile a force to be reckoned with while also developing the romance between Cecile and Tristan. I'm a huge fan of captive romances but it was great to see them reunite on equal footing. Tristan never got a chance to court Cecile, even when he was falling for her, because it was too dangerous. In this book, he gets to court her for real and it's actually romantic. There's also new characters - Cecile's mom, Genevieve; Sabine, Cecile's best friend; and Julian, her mother's young lover/protege. We also get to see more of Lessa, who was introduced towards the end of the previous book and really becomes a menace here.
Did I guess the major "twist" of this book pretty early on? Yes. It was pretty obvious. Do the hero and the heroine spend most of this book separated? Yes. Is this book more character-driven and less action-driven than the previous book? Yes. Those seemed to be the biggest criticisms of those who were disappointed by the sequel, and that's fair. I would venture to say that HIDDEN HUNTRESS is a different sort of story than STOLEN SONGBIRD, as this is more of a "girl finds and develops her secret powers against dark forces while trying to protect those she loves" story whereas the prequel is "girl is kidnapped by a boy she falls for, and their star-crossed love is hated by everyone" story. Cecile has much more agency in this book and the romance is much more companionate than lustful.
That sequel was evil AF, but I guess it was only a matter of time before magic made its way back into this world. Thank goodness I already own book three, but I think I need a break before diving back in. There were a lot of new developments in HIDDEN HUNTRESS and I need time to process them.
I saw someone in my feed post a status update today about hating books that you might have otherwise liked because of the main character and - um, yup, feeling that pretty hard right now. AIR AWAKENS was one of the most frustrating books I've read in a while because it had a lot of potential, but a lot of that potential was squandered away on Vhalla, the Worst Heroine in the World.
AIR AWAKENS is very similar to Avatar: The Last Airbender in that it takes place in a fantasy land where certain people have magic powers, each based on one of the four elements. Each part of the world is known for possessing a certain type of these magical powers and yup, air, the rarest, was wiped out by an enemy kingdom and our heroine, Vhalla, is the Last Airbender. Oops, I mean Airwalker. She finds this out by complete accident due to her magic powers oozing themselves like magic snot all over an envelope that finds its way into the hands of a trained sorcerer, who then pays her a little visit and patiently walks her through her powers and explains to her who and what she is -
LOL jk, the sorcerer is Prince Aldrik and he pretends to be the Phantom of the Library (no, seriously, he signs his notes "Phantom") and leaves her little notes in the books that she's reading that are half-insult, half-hints at greater knowledge he won't share. When he finally introduces himself to her in person, he asks her if she's ever masturbated before (no, seriously) and then pushes her off a roof.
The argument for this is that her falling is necessary to be Awoken ... but she doesn't float to the bottom or anything with her air magic. She literally hits every spire and roof on her way down and is in so much pain from her bruised, broken, and fractured everythings that the sorcerers have to use magic to heal her. Aldrik later tells her that he only did it because they have a ~bond~ and he knew she wasn't going to die, just get hurt, and if he'd known how badly she would have been hurt, he wouldn't have done it - but then he insults her some more and gets mad at her for not wanting to be #TeamMagic despite the RoofGate incident which... is one thing I'll give Vhalla. I would not exactly want to be #TeamMagic either if some self-righteous a-hole sexually harassed me + tried to murder me, even if it was "for my own good." But anyway, the deed is done. Vhalla has magic now -
Only she doesn't want it. And here's where my big issue with AIR AWAKENS (e.g. Vhalla) comes into play. Vhalla does nothing but whine, cry, complain, sulk, pout, cower, when she's not making moony eyes at her not one, not two, but three love interests. She is the most useless waste of space. The way she treats her alleged friends, Sareem and Roan, is disgusting. She whines and cries so much and threatens to give up her magic (called Eradication) to the point where her would-be magic tutor allows her to take a ridiculously long time to decide whether she wants training because Vhalla is such a special snowflake and such an overall pleasant person to be around, of course he would do her this solid. Probably he just wanted to postpone having contact with her as long as possible. Her personality can be described in one word: books. If there's a book around, Vhalla is going to tell you about how much she wants to read it, and if a person's around (unless it's Aldrik), Vhalla is going to tell you about how she'd rather be reading a book than talking to that person. I get that she's a library apprentice, but this "my whole personality is books" thing feels very lazy to me, and was overused way too much to make up for her lack of other hobbies or personality traits (besides bitchiness).
Also, her romance with Aldrik came out of the blue, honestly. I thought she had a crush on Baldair but no, as soon as she gets over the RoofGate incident (it takes like one day) they become BFFs and have lunch dates and garden parties and sketch under the sunset, even though he called her a worm after he nearly killed her. But honestly, any clout he gets for being a fancy lunch date disappears when Vhalla is framed for treason and held on trial and Aldrik just sits on his royal heiney and does nothing while Vhalla stares at him with big helpless eyes and cries some more. Oh, and the reason she was framed in the first place was because she didn't listen when Aldrik told her not to run into danger, saying, "I'LL SAVE THE DAY WITH THAT MAGIC I HAVEN'T TRAINED WITH YET BECAUSE I'M A BIG STUPID LOSER WHO DOESN'T DESERVE AN OWL OR A HOGWARTS LETTER!" gets to the scene of the danger, realizes she can't do anything, and cries for Aldrik to save her - which he does, because love interest. I was honestly kind of glad when she got tortured, tbh. I spent most of the book wanting to punch her in the face and then at the end someone does it for me.
I hear the series gets better as it goes on, so maybe this is a debut author problem. I noticed a lot of technical errors as well, such as words being used incorrectly or incorrect tense usage, whereas in the author's Loom saga, the quality and style of the writing was objectively better. New book, new you. The problem for me was that AIR AWAKENS was so hyped that my expectations were very high. I read a lot of fantasy and have very particular preferences of what I like, and it didn't help that I'd just read another fantasy romance novel about elemental magic right before this one called THE FIRE-LORD'S LOVER that was so much better. I ended up comparing the two unfavorably the whole time.
On a positive note, there were a few things I did like. Kova doesn't shirk from violence and she knows how to use it in a way that adds dramatic effect without feeling gratuitous. Some of her scenery descriptions are lovely (and more in line with what I expected from this book after reading Loom which I'm thinking now might have had a better editor), and I also liked that Vhalla isn't a virgin when we first meet her. It's refreshing to see heroines that have experimented with sex before meeting the love interest. I'm thinking part of the reason this book is so popular is that the audience reading it seems to be younger and not romance- or fantasy-genre readers, but YA-genre readers, so they're happier with taking things at face value rather than demanding explanations and back story for everything (like me). I know I'm pickier than most and sometimes this makes me look like a jerk when it comes to how I rate, but that's how I am. Your mileage may vary (and odds are, it will vary for the better). If you're a fan of books like CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE and THRONE OF GLASS (both of which I hated, FYI), you'll probably like this. Also, the cover's pretty. So there's that.
Mulan is my favorite Disney movie, so while perusing books to read on my Kindle, in between bouts of flu-induced naps whilst curling up in a ball and asking what sins I've committed to deserve this suffering, there was really no question about indulging in a bit of Mulan fanfiction to make myself feel better. REFLECTION is part of the Twisted Tales series that Disney has put out, in which the corporation asks, "What if...?" hypotheticals that put spins on their original retellings of the story and then hire out young adult authors to write them. Most of the books are written by Liz Braswell, but they actually got a Chinese author to write the Chinese story - how woke.
REFLECTION takes this new approach to Mulan: instead of Mulan getting slashed by Shan-Yu (and betraying her identity as a woman), Li Shang takes the blow for her instead. The wound is fatal, and to save him, Mulan makes a deal with King Yama, the ruler of the Chinese Underworld (Diyu) to find and rescue him and escape from the 100th level of the underworld before time runs out and she's imprisoned there - forever.
I'm a sucker for underworld retellings, and this one smacked a bit of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as Dante's Inferno, but with Chinese mythology instead. The writing was pretty simple (I think this book is for a middle grade audience) but could be vivid. At times, I could imagine this as one of those direct to VHS sequels that were so popular in the 90s. It really should be a movie; it'd be amazing.
There are a lot of call-backs to the movie, which is to be expected, and I thought the author did a good job staying in keeping with the characters as they were portrayed in the movie, although Mushu fell somewhat flat here in comparison to his portrayal in the movie. While I enjoyed the portrayal of the Chinese underworld and the trials Mulan had to undergo, at times the pacing was inconsistent and the middle section in particular got kind of tedious, although it picked up again by the end.
Overall, this was much better than the cash cow I was expecting. It entertained me and even moved me to tears at a couple points. If you're a fan of the Mulan movie and have always wanted more, you should pick up REFLECTION.
THE LAST NAMSARA was ... okay. I liked it, but I'm not in love with it, which I guess puts this book in the reader equivalent of the "friend zone." It's better than a lot of the YA fantasy that's been coming out lately, but falls short of reaching that level that would put it on my favorites list or make me truly invested in reading the sequel. Which is a shame, because it contains a lot of things I love, like court intrigue, dragons, forbidden love, and curses. It could have been amazing but the execution and world-building failed it.
Asha is the Iskari, or the death-bringer. A cursed god for a cursed girl, after she brought fire to her kingdom by telling the forbidden stories that lure the dragons who cause wanton destruction. The same stories that killed her mother with their power. Everyone in her kingdom despises her, except her father, who sees her value as a dragon-slayer despite the scars that mar her face and body - oh, and her super creepy fiance, Jarek, who sees her as an interesting conquest that might be fun to overpower.
Knowing her reluctance to marry Jarek, Asha's father gives her an ultimatum. If she can kill the most powerful dragon of all - the same dragon that scarred her face and body - before the date of her wedding ceremony, the engagement is off and she will be free. Asha agrees and sets out on her quest, only to experience a vision from one of the older gods instead, who has different plans for her. And this time, when she meets the dragons, she's in for a surprise.
So there were many things this book did right. Asha is a powerful heroine, scarred and not particularly beautiful - it's her personality and her strength that make her attractive. That's a refreshing change from heroines like those from - shudder - THRONE OF GLASS, who double as super-models when they're not incompetently trying to defend the kingdom. Ciccarelli also just has her characters swear instead of making up cutesy fake swear-words for her characters, which I'm sure the pearl-clutching parents of YA readers love but actual YA readers would much rather just see the swear-words. Otherwise it feels like your parent grabbed her book from you and censored out all the good stuff (take note, fuddy-duddy YA authors). The political intrigue was also really well done. There were a couple twists in here that I didn't see coming, and as a jaded reader, I appreciated that.
I think what dropped this book down a couple stars for me was 1) the characters didn't really feel fully fleshed-out to me. I kept comparing this book to THE WINNER'S CURSE, which has a similar plot and similar forbidden romance between a noble and a slave, but in my opinion did it a lot better with more character development, higher stakes, and more emotion. 2) the world-building was not very developed and it kind of felt like you could have picked up this world and plopped it down in virtually any other fantasy novel, and still had it make sense. The best fantasy novels have worlds so strong that they're practically characters in and of themselves. This book didn't have that.
All in all, THE LAST NAMSARA was a pleasant surprise. My expectations are pretty low when it comes to YA these days, but NAMSARA gets more things right than it does wrong and that has to count for something. Plus, dragons. I'm a sucker for dragons. (And if you're also a sucker for dragons and dragon-riding, I highly recommend you read Mercedes Lackey's JOUST, if you haven't, already.) This wasn't a bad debut, and even if I might not continue the series, I anticipate her other works.