Kate’s Review: “The Whispering Dead”

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Book: “The Whispering Dead (Gravekeeper #1)” by Darcy Coates

Publishing Info: Poisoned Pen Press, May 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a paperback copy from the publisher.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Homeless, hunted, and desperate to escape a bitter storm, Keira takes refuge in an abandoned groundskeeper’s cottage. Her new home is tucked away at the edge of a cemetery, surrounded on all sides by gravestones: some recent, some hundreds of years old, all suffering from neglect.

And in the darkness, she can hear the unquiet dead whispering.

The cemetery is alive with faint, spectral shapes, led by a woman who died before her time… and Keira, the only person who can see her, has become her new target. Determined to help put the ghost to rest, Keira digs into the spirit’s past life with the help of unlikely new friends, and discovers a history of deception, ill-fated love, and murder.

But the past is not as simple as it seems, and Keira’s time is running out. Tangled in a dangerous web, she has to find a way to free the spirit… even if it means offering her own life in return.

Review: Thank you to Poisoned Pen Press for sending me a copy of this novel!

Up until this point I had read two Darcy Coates novels, both of which were SUPER scary and unrelenting in their horror themes. So when Poisoned Pen Press approached me asking if I was interested in reading more of her work, I leaped at the chance to do so. So for the next few weeks I am going to read and review her “Gravekeeper” Series, which involve a young woman named Keira, who wakes up in a strange cemetery with no memory of who she is, and realizes that she can see ghosts. The first in the series is “The Whispering Dead”, and while I thought I knew what to expect from Coates, it caught me off guard with a difference in tone and imagery. And this is overall a good thing.

Being the first in the series, “The Whispering Dead” has to set the stage, and I thought that it did, for the most part. I did enjoy the ghostly heart of the story, as well as the mystery of why Keira is seeing the ghost of a forlorn woman that wanders the cemetery grounds she is now calling home, AND the mystery of who she is given her lack of memories before waking up in said cemetery. I’m so used to Coates having really scary moments in her books, so the more dark fantasy vibe of this one was a surprise, though it was definitely a welcome one. While there are certainly creepy and spooky moments, be it ghosts wandering a cemetery and looking through windows, or building suspense in seemingly abandoned buildings and landscapes, Coates has some horror-esque elements that are pretty accessible to not just die hard horror fans, but also those who may like ghost stories but perhaps not the really scary stuff that can come with it. I was pretty invested in the reasons as to why Keira can see ghosts, and why there is a specific ghost that keeps popping up and how that ties to the town’s history. I am also interested in just what the deal is with Keira’s memory loss, and who she was before she suddenly woke up with no recollections of who she is. This book lays a lot of groundwork, and my guess is that it’s going to be a multi-book arc.

And I also mostly liked the characters at hand. I’ve seen this series compared to the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Scooby Gang as well as other horror/dark fantasy friend groups, and I think it’s pretty accurate. Keira is a good leader/protagonist, and I also like seeing her growing friendships with med student Mason (who may also be a romantic interest? I’m on board!), and with Pastor Adage, who has let her take up residence in the abandoned cemetery groundskeeper cottage. There is also weirdo Goth girl Zoe, who I am warming up to for the most part, but the problem is that she is VERY much a conspiracy theorist and while I know it’s supposed to be kooky and charming, these days conspiracy theorists generally leave a bad taste in my mouth due to the Q stuff and a lot of the racist and anti-Semitic building blocks that create a lot of conspiracies. I don’t think Zoe is that at all! But it just feels a bit uncomfortable. OH, and there is also a cat named Daisy, and we all know how much I love a feline companion. Overall it’s a well rounded cast that complements the tone of the story, and I think it’s charming.

I will be going forth in the series, with “The Ravenous Dead” up next week. I am eager to see what more Keira finds out about her mysterious past, and what ghosts are in store for her visions and second sight. “The Whispering Dead” is a good start to a series I look forward to continuing!

Rating 7: A spooky set up to a series with a quirky cast of characters, “The Whispering Dead” is some horror lite and perfect for people who want to explore Darcy Coates without being scared out of their minds!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Whispering Dead” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Horror Novels Written by Women and Non-Binary Femmes”, and “Bring On the Creepy!”.

Serena’s Review: “She Who Rides the Storm”

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Book: “She Who Rides the Storm” by Caitlin Sangster

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Long ago, shapeshifting monsters ruled the Commonwealth using blasphemous magic that fed on the souls of their subjects. Now, hundreds of years later, a new tomb has been uncovered, and despite the legends that disturbing a shapeshifter’s final resting place will wake them once again, the Warlord is determined to dig it up.

But it isn’t just the Warlord who means to brave the traps and pitfalls guarding the crypt.

A healer obsessed with tracking down the man who murdered her twin brother.

A runaway member of the Warlord’s Devoted order, haunted by his sister’s ghost.

A snotty archaeologist bent on finding the cure to his magical wasting disease.

A girl desperate to escape the cloistered life she didn’t choose.

All four are out to steal the same cursed sword rumored to be at the very bottom of the tomb. But of course, some treasures should never see the light of day, and some secrets are best left buried…

Review: Honesty time: this book has been languishing on my Edelweiss+ TBR pile for quite some time. Mostly it’s just because I’ve been intimidated by the length and never felt confident that I really had the time to slot this one in. But then I strayed across the sequel that is coming out next month, and I knew that if there was ever a time to make this one happen, now what that time! So let’s dive in to this beast of a book!

History does and will repeat, even in the most diligent of societies. So it is in the Commonwealth where once terrible shapeshifters plagued the land with their disturbing magic that fed on souls. And now when a tomb of one of the most powerful of these shapeshifters is discovered, one would think it would be wise to leave it alone. But the Warlord is determined to dig up the past, and so an unwise venture begins. However, four others are determined to gain the treasure rumored to be hidden in the tomb for themselves, each with their own motives and means.

So, as I mentioned above, this book is definitely living up to the “epic fantasy” standard, coming in at a whopping 608 pages. Now, this can often go two ways. Either that page count is necessary and utilized to its full extent to create a vivid, complicated, lived-in world. Or…it can be squandered and leave the reader slogging through pages of exposition. I’m please to say that this is definitely the former. It is slow moving, however, and takes its time showing its hand. This isn’t a criticism, per se, but a warning to readers who make like a faster plot. The book simply begins, plopping readers down in the midst of this world and only revealing facts about it as they come up naturally in this story. As we have four characters’ POVs to get through, the reader really has to be ready to sit back and let these details slip through slowly.

I also liked all four of our main characters. They all had distinct-sounding voices and very different ways of looking at the world. I particularly enjoyed when we jumped from one character’s perspective directly to another’s and seeing how they interpreted the same event in completely different ways. They weren’t all likeable all the time either, making each feel like fully developed individuals. That being the case, however, I also felt a bit detached from them all at times, as well as frustrated. As a reader, we are primed to expect certain things and to look for certain narrative cues. That being the case, it’s hard to not want to shout at characters when they make decisions that we, the reader, know are going to end up going badly! But I will say, to this book’s credit, at least these bad choices made sense based on each character’s priorities and approach to life and were generally coming from a place of wanting to do good, as frustrating as it was to read at times.

This book also ends with a bang. For all that it can be a bit of a slower read (and those 600 pages are no joke), it did manage to keep up a pretty steady pace throughout and then ratchet up right at the end. Indeed, there were several twists and turns that came right at the end that I definitely wasn’t expecting. And this is one of those situations where my delay in reading this has paid off as I now get to go straight into the second one. I’d say this book is probably a good choice for those fantasy fans who enjoy large amounts of world-building, but the heist plot itself was definitely more of a back-burner element than the description implied.

Rating 7: A solid fantasy novel that manages to balance its four characters and sprawling world deftly, though it’s long page count and slower plot could prove challenging for some readers.

Reader’s Advisory:

“She Who Rides the Storm” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Archeology in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Kate’s Review: “Lone Women”

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Book: “Lone Women” by Victor LaValle

Publishing Info: One World, March 2023

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Blue skies, empty land—and enough room to hide away a horrifying secret. Or is there? Discover a haunting new vision of the American West from the award-winning author of The Changeling.

Adelaide Henry carries an enormous steamer trunk with her wherever she goes. It’s locked at all times. Because when the trunk is opened, people around her start to disappear

The year is 1914, and Adelaide is in trouble. Her secret sin killed her parents, and forced her to flee her hometown of Redondo, California, in a hellfire rush, ready to make her way to Montana as a homesteader. Dragging the trunk with her at every stop, she will be one of the “lone women” taking advantage of the government’s offer of free land for those who can cultivate it—except that Adelaide isn’t alone. And the secret she’s tried so desperately to lock away might be the only thing keeping her alive.

Told in Victor LaValle’s signature style, blending historical fiction, shimmering prose, and inventive horror, Lone Women is the gripping story of a woman desperate to bury her past—and a portrait of early twentieth-century America like you’ve never seen.

Review: Thank you to One World for sending me a link to an eARC of this novel on NetGalley!

Rejoice, horror fans, for we are once again blessed with a stunning new horror story by Victor LaValle. It has been awhile since I’ve dived into a LaValle book, and I was very, very stoked when “Lone Women” ended up in my inbox. And I was even MORE thrilled when Book of the Month had it as a choice for March, because I DO LOVE A PRINT COPY OF A GREAT HORROR NOVEL! I had high expectations for this novel, following a Black woman named Adelaide who decides to try and homestead in Montana in the early 20th Century, and who has a mysterious steamer trunk she just needs to keep an eye on and keep closed. Because that premise alone is VERY enticing, and when you throw in LaValle, you know it’s going to be even moreso. This man knows how to craft a well done horror tale with lots of subversions, after all.

I can’t really talk too much about the horror aspects of this novel, as I really don’t want to spoil too much because I do think that part of the appeal is the slow reveal and the surprises that come with it. What I will say is that LaValle has once again taken something that we’ve seen before, but turned it on its head and made it feel fresh, unique, and tragic on top of the scary. Adelaide is running from a violent moment that has changed the course of her life, and she is bringing with her the literal baggage that comes with that violent moment, and we have no clue as to what it is. But what we do know is that she is desperate to keep that baggage contained, whether it is the actual bag that she has brought with her, or the trauma that has been inflicted upon her and her family due to the circumstances that fell upon them all. I loved the slow tension of the trunk with the lock, and I also loved the slow burn horror elements that were more steeped in realism. I was just as nervous of Adelaide when she was surrounded by suspicious people whose motives we had no clue about as I was worried about just what it was that she was lugging around in the trunk. And I REALLY loved what exactly it was what was in said trunk, as it reminded me of a specific story that I had enjoyed at one point, but have turned my back on as of late due to questions of ethical consumption of it. And that’s all I will say.

And I won’t tell so as not to ruin it. (source)

But it is also the very gritty and realistically bleak historical fiction aspects of this book that jump off the page. LaValle weaves together a tapestry of not only the American imperialist ideals of Manifest Destiny, but also the way that the American Government would use this to its own advantage, and how it could appeal to a group of Othered women. Whether it is Adelaide due to her race as well as her horrific burden, or neighbor Grace and her son Sam who are functioning as a single mother and child trying to make it together, or Miss Bertie and Fiona Wong who are not only women of color but also two lesbians who have to hide who they are, the idea of being ‘lone women’ and trying to make a life in isolation, as well as while carrying various secrets that may keep them emotionally isolated, was profound as hell. The grim realities of trying to make it in an unfamiliar place with harsh winters, the danger of being a woman alone with strangers passing through, the way that the haves will try and take advantage of the have nots, all of it feels very real and unromantic takes on the idea of the West. This book absolutely feels like a Western, but it doesn’t make it seem like a charming simpler time you may find in a John Wayne movie. It highlights the misogyny, colonialism, and racism of that ideal. And I loved that.

“Lone Women” is another fantastic novel by Victor LaValle that takes on horror themes and tweaks them to feel more resonant and poignant than one may expect. I always love LaValle’s horror works, and this one is, I think, my favorite of the lot.

Rating 9: Breathtaking horror and gritty historical fiction rolled into one, “Lone Women” shows the tenacity of outsider women with secrets, some of which are otherworldly.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Lone Women” is included on the Goodreads lists “The Best Historical Horror Novels”, and “Horror to Look Forward To in 2023”.

Not Just Books: March 2023

While we do love us some books, believe it not, we do have a life outside of reading. So to highlight our other pop culture interests, on the last Monday of each month, we each will highlight three other “happenings” from the last month. Big events on favorite TV shows, new movies we’ve watched, old movies we’ve “discovered,” etc. Pretty much whatever we found of particular interest outside of the book world during the last month. Share your own favorite things in the comments!

Serena’s Picks

Movie: “Antman and the Wasp: Quantumania”

I have mixed feelings about this movie. On one hand, I went to it the third weekend it was out, so I was well aware that it wasn’t being reviewed well and was generally underperforming. And, yeah, I can see why. But it’s also not as bad as I was expecting. There’s just no denying the strength Paul Rudd as an actor who you just like to watch. But even more impressive was Jonathan Majors’ villain, Kang the Conqueror. I had already seen Majors portray a variation on this character in the show “Loki” but we really got to see his strengths here. However, I was a bit disappointed with how his character was dealt with in the final bit of the movie. I also have to say that I’m getting a bit tired of the “brilliant teenage girl” character who, what do you know, also becomes a super hero. Look, I know that the typical hero characters are also very often similar men with similar histories. But the very fact that we want to add more diversity (of all sorts of the word) to the hero line up doesn’t mean we should just add another single note character, even if it’s different than the usual 20-something cocky man. Young women can come in all sorts, too, with different strengths! They don’t all have to be quippy science girls. It’s verging on the Marvel universe answering trope to the “manic pixie dream girl.” But anyway, that’s a super subjective recent pet peeve of mine, and not really a testament to the movie as a whole.

Netflix Movie: “Your Place or Mine”

I had just been noting (whining) to my husband the other day that I felt there was a distinct lack in the romantic comedy business. I grew up in the 80s/90s/ early 2000s when there was a real boom in this genre and I think I got kind of spoiled that that’s how it just always was. But honestly, before watching this movie, I can’t tell you the last new romcom movie I’ve seen! And this one really hit the spot. It hit a lot of the same notes I get when I read Emily Henry, particularly in this movie’s case, her book “People You Meet on Vacation.” I also have to say that I haven’t seen Aston Kutcher in anything for quite some time and I think he’s definitely one of those cases where he’s gotten better looking with age. Damn those men and their aging into even better looks!

Movie: “Titanic”

Technically, I saw this back in February but I wasn’t able to slot it into our post for that month. I love this movie and I will fight you over it. Especially all of the people my age who seem to have forgotten (willfully so) that they probably saw it in the theater three times when it originally came out. So for me it was a no brainer that I was going to take advantage of the one week that it was being re-released to the big screen for its 25th anniversary (one year late, technically, due to, what else, Covid). I also dragged my husband with me who had never seen the movie before and who was one of those individuals who was making it a point of pride never to see it at all. Well, I remember warning him early when we were dating that he probably wasn’t going to make it on that goal if we stayed together. And low and behold, I pulled the “Valentine’s Day” card and he ended up with his butt in a seat, not only watching the movie but paying for the privilege. Really not much else to say about this movie that hasn’t already been said a million times!

Kate’s Picks

Netflix Show: “You”

While the TV show version of my beloved “You” books has REALLY diverted from the literary threads and storylines, I’m not that mad about it. For one reason, it means that I get to be in suspense and on pins and needles regarding the mysteries and thrills that the show unravels. For another, Penn Badgley is such a good Joe, as he gets the darkness, intensity, and the black humor that comes with the character. We are at Season 4, split into two parts, and I’m still hooked. After killing his psychopath wife Love and trying to follow Marienne, who fled to Paris, Joe has found himself in London, with a new identity and a new job working as an English professor at a prestigious University. He finds himself drawn to Kate, a cold art gallery owner who runs with a posh, upper class circle of friends. After attending a party at a social club with Kate’s lover, Joe gets trashed, and when he wakes up in his apartment he finds Kate’s lover, dead, with no memory of what happened. Now he has to figure out if he killed the man. And if not, who did. Oh Joe. Still getting up to nonsense.

Film: “We Have A Ghost”

I really love Christopher Landon’s comedic and heartfelt horror movies. Whether it’s the “Happy Death Day” films or “Freaky”, I like the humor and heart that he brings to very well done slasher films. Enter “We Have A Ghost”, Landon’s newest film that is his usual quirky and emotional takes to a haunted house story. And David Harbour is in it as the ghost! When a family moves into a dilapidated old house, angsty teenager Kevin goes up to the attic to investigate a strange sound, and finds “Ernest”, a ghost in a bowling shirt who can’t speak and can’t remember who he is. Kevin wants to help Ernest, while his father sees dollar signs after a video of Ernest goes viral. But when more and more attention comes upon Ernest, a top secret government group takes notice, and wants to take Ernest back to a lab. David Harbour always delights, but I’ve loved Jahi Winston ever since he was on the criminally underrated (and cruelly cancelled) “Everything Sucks”, and their chemistry is fantastic. And yes, like with the “Happy Death Day” films, I totally cried.

Film: “Scream VI”

We slasher fans are so blessed in that the “Scream” franchise has basically been consistently pretty okay to great (yes, I would put “Scream 3” as pretty okay, sue me), and my Terror Tuesday friends and I were hoping that “Scream VI” would continue that trend. I’m very happy to report that it did, and our field trip excursion to the Alamo Drafthouse to see it on the big screen was the best way to experience it. A year after the events in “Scream 5”, Sam and Tara Carpenter have moved to New York City with the Meeks Martin twins, Tara wanting to move on to college and Sam wanting to protect her sister. But then a new Ghostface has started killing people, and is planting masks with the DNA of former Ghostface killers at the scene. Sam is the number one suspect thanks to Internet rumor, and the sisters and the twins team up with Gale Weathers and Kirby “Scream 4” Reed to figure out who is behind it this time. And while I’m sad that Neve Campbell wasn’t going to be compensated at the amount she should have been and declined to come back because of it, I’m also happy that poor Sidney Prescott just got to take a goddamn breather this time around. LEAVE SIDNEY ALONE! SHE’S BEEN THROUGH ENOUGH!!

Serena’s Review: “Paladin’s Grace”

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Book: “Paladin’s Grace” by T. Kingfisher

Publishing Info:  Argyll Production, February 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Stephen’s god died on the longest day of the year…

Three years later, Stephen is a broken paladin, living only for the chance to be useful before he dies. But all that changes when he encounters a fugitive named Grace in an alley and witnesses an assassination attempt gone wrong. Now the pair must navigate a web of treachery, beset on all sides by spies and poisoners, while a cryptic killer stalks one step behind…

Review: That’s right, it’s time for another T. Kingfisher book review! I felt that enough time had passed since the last one that I could allow myself to read another. I’m reaaaaally trying to spread out her back catalog and not just binge read them all at once. But I have to tell you, it’s a tough ask. This is the first book in a trilogy, none the less, which will make it all the harder to try out the time between finishing this one and picking up the next. We’ll see how long I can make it, I guess.

After his god died a few years ago, Stephen lost the central core of his existence. His entire life had been built around serving the god as a holy berserker, trusting in his god’s power to keep him from harming innocents while caught up in one of his brutal rages. Without this fail safe, he and his fellow paladins have been eking out a quiet existence serving the White Rat and trying to avoid any trigger that may send them back into a berserking rage. So when he meets a perfumer who starts to stir deeper emotions within him, Stephen is fearful that allowing himself to feel anything for this woman will only lead to more tragedy. For her part, Grace is running from her own past and has only now felt as if she’s re-created a life for herself. But when she’s accused of murder, she can see it all crashing around her once again.

It will come as no surprise that I really enjoyed this book. It has all of the components I’ve come to expect from T. Kingfisher: witty writing, sympathetic main characters, a lovely romance, and, of course, funny animal companions. For the latter, this time we get an adorable weasel/cat hybrid that sounds perfectly cuddly, and I want one now, please and thank you. For the rest, this book is set in the same world as a few of Kingfisher’s previous books, so certain elements of the world will be more familiar to fans who have read those. I don’t think any of them are necessary to read before picking this one up, but there are definitely references to things that took place in other books that are nice to stumble upon as a reader in the know. There’s even the return of a favorite character of mine who we spent a lot of time with in “Swordheart.”

Also per the usual, I really liked both Stephen and Grace. T. Kingfisher does this great thing where she routinely writes characters and romances featuring adults in their 30s and 40s. Now that I am in that age group, I can’t say how refreshing it is to read a romance that features characters who have lived a life up to that point and all that comes with it. Here, Grace has already experienced an ugly romance in her first marriage and is going through the tedious process of starting up her life again later in life. Stephen, too, is grappling with the fact that the life he had drawn out for himself originally is not the one he is currently living. And yet, they find new love and new pathways before them in one another. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the typical 20-something romances I read as well, but it’s nice counterbalance to find romances like this that grapple with second loves and the lives and joys that can be found after initial disappointments. In particular, a weird little thing, I liked how this book briefly discussed how people are very different in what they enjoy or feel is romantic. It was just a small thing, but I think it touched on a greater theme to be found across love stories where all individuals are depicted as enjoying such and such thing, while that may not be the case for many people.

I do think the stakes in this book were a bit lower than they were in other stories by this author. I never felt much concern for Grace as she dealt with her murder accusation. And, rightfully, Kingfisher didn’t prioritize this aspect of the story overly much. Instead, the novel focused much more heavily on Grace and Stephen confronting their pasts and then grappling with how they chose to move forward with their lives. There was also a creepy background story that dealt with a “Ripper-esque” murderer going on a decapitation rampage. This subplot took some really surprising turns, and it’s clear by the way this book ended that Kingfisher is setting this plotline up as one that will carry over through this “Paladin” trilogy.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. There are books by this author I liked more, but I have yet to hit upon one by her that I didn’t like at all. Indeed, other than being able to list one or two absolute favorites, I’m not sure I could rank the rest at all: I simply enjoyed the heck out of them! This book will definitely appeal to fans of this author or for those looking for a solid fantasy romance that isn’t explicit.

Rating 8: Sweet and sympathetic, a fantasy romance that speak to the lives we can rebuild from the ashes of hopes and dreams that may have faltered originally.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Paladin’s Grace” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Fantasy Romance.

Kate’s Review: “Codex Black (Book 1): A Fire Among Clouds”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Codex Black (Book 1): A Fire Among Clouds” by Camilo Moncada Lozano & Angel Di Santiago (Colorist)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, April 2023

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from the publisher.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Navigate through monsters, mysteries, and the will of the gods with two young extraordinary adventurers in fifteenth-century Mesoamerica as they search for a missing father.

Donají is a fearless Zapotec girl who, even though she’s only fifteen, is heralded as a hero by her village. In Codex Black, Donají sets out on an adventure–accompanied by the god that lives inside of her poncho–to find her missing father. Along the way, she meets an 18-year-old winged Mexica warrior named Itzcacalotl, and over time their temporary partnership blooms into an incredible friendship.

The search brings the young pair closer to danger and deeper into mystery than either could have predicted. What exactly was Donají’s father involved with? And how did a simple search for a missing relative lead Donají and Itzcacalotl into a fight with a terrifying bat monster to defend an entire village?!

Review: Thank you to IDW Comics for sending me an eARC of this graphic novel!

I told myself that I was going to try and do more graphic novels this year, as I felt like 2022 was a bit more sparse than it should have been. And with that goal I’ve found some pretty fun reads, some of which have been suggested to me or offered up, and were therein probably not been on my radar without the outside help. And that’s really worked out in my favor! The most recent of these is “Codex Black (Book 1): A Fire Among Clouds”, a young adult fantasy graphic novel that takes place in a pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and involves two teenagers who have found themselves with magical abilities and powers. The premise alone sounded awesome, and when I saw the artwork I was even more eager to dive in!

“Codex Black: A Fire Among Clouds” is a really enjoyable first volume in the series. It has a lot it has to do in terms of setting up time and place, as well as a cast of characters, AS WELL as building a fantasy world within a historical context. We meet our two protagonists and see where they fit into the story, and Lozano does a great job of not only introducing them and making them connect, we also get a great sense for who they are. The first is Donají, a Zapotec teenage girl from a mountain village, is determined to find her father, a man who left their village and never returned, but did leave behind a poncho that houses the God Chicahualizteotl, who is there to assist her on her journey. The second is Itzcacalotl, a teenage Mexica boy who, while on a caravan with warriors, falls into a cavern and is gifted with crow wings. These two teens eventually come together and begin a journey of fantastical proportions, as Donají looks for her missing father and Itzcacalotl comes along for the ride and stumble upon thieves, monsters, and historical figures. I really loved both Donají and Itzcacalotl and their characterizations, and how Lozano slowly peels back and explores their personalities, strengths, and flaws. Dojaní is feisty and strong willed, while Itzcacalotl is a bit more reserved but also very determined to prove himself, and together they make an endearing team. I loved seeing them start to realize the powers that they both are wielding, be it the protectiveness of Donají’s poncho or Itzcacalotl’s wings, and how they interacted with friends, foes, historical figures (like Cosijoeza, one of the last coquitaos of the Zapotec people), and monsters from Mesoamerican lore and myth.

But what stood out to me most in this graphic novel was the VERY well presented historical context and information that was provided at the back of the book. As a woman who went to an American high school at the turn of the 21st century, I have VERY little working knowledge about Mesoamerican/Pre-Columbian civilizations and cultures (outside of a grade school unit on the Mayans). I’ve learned bits here and there through other books I’ve read, but it’s not extensive. So I LOVE that Lozano has such a great, accessible, and thorough historical notes section at the end of the book. It talks about the various myths of these different groups of people, and also gives historical notes and context to the events that were going on in Mexico during the time of this book before European imperialism started to take over. Given that I had been opening multiple tabs on my browser to look up some of this context, finding a good deal of it at the end of the PDF was really refreshing.

And finally, the artwork. I like Lozano’s style, with clear influence by manga and anime, with all the intricate details that harken to the cultures and styles of the people that the story is about. It’s varied and unique and I really liked it.

(Source: IDW Comics)

I will definitely be going forward in the “Codex Black” series. It’s so unique and filled with so much heart, I really can’t wait to see where it goes next.

Rating 8: Filled to the brim with fantastical mythology, engaging and well presented history, enjoyable characters, and lots of heart to spare, “Codex Black: A Fire Among Clouds” is a great introduction to a fun fantasy adventure!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Codex Black (Book 1): A Fire Among Clouds” would fit in on the Goodreads list “Mesoamerican Mythology in YA and MG Fiction”.

Serena’s Review: “Angels’ Blood”

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Book: “Angels’ Blood” by Nalini Singh

Publishing Info: Berkley Sensation, March 2009

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Vampire hunter Elena Deveraux knows she’s the best—but she doesn’t know if she’s good enough for this job. Hired by the dangerously beautiful Archangel Raphael, a being so lethal that no mortal wants his attention, only one thing is clear—failure is not an option…even if the task is impossible.

Because this time, it’s not a wayward vamp she has to track. It’s an archangel gone bad.

The job will put Elena in the midst of a killing spree like no other…and pull her to the razor’s edge of passion. Even if the hunt doesn’t destroy her, succumbing to Raphael’s seductive touch just may. For when archangels play, mortals break…

Review: A new book, a new chance to find a decent urban fantasy series to follow, as many of my previous go-to’s have ended. Also per the usual, what a terrible, terrible cover. I don’t get it. Do the publishers want to produce books that have the sorts of covers that make readers embarrassed to be seen reading the book in public? Honestly, it just seems like a losing strategy all around. If it’s a money thing, I can’t imagine that a simple, plain cover with a basic decal (say angel wings, for a book like this) would cost much more. And voila! A book that you can read in the airport without getting side-eyed (not that I approve of judging of others’ books, but in all honesty, we know it happens). Anyways, on with the review.

Elena has created for herself a straight-forward life. While tragedy and horror lie in her past, she’s determined that her future should be one where her skills as a vampire hunter are put to good use and she can return to the quiet, comfortable, solitary apartment that is her home. But when her most recent job comes down from one of the most powerful beings in the city, perhaps even the world, the archangel Raphael, she sees only disorder and danger ahead. Now, she’s not only working for an archangel, but she’s been put on the path of tracking down another rogue archangel, one so powerful that he could level entire cities.

First off, I want to warn any potential readers who may pick up this book after reading this review, this is definitely one of those urban fantasies that falls solidly within the “paranormal romance” genre as well. This may be right up some readers’ alleys, but for others who are looking for a strict urban fantasy, this one definitely contains some pretty graphic romantic scenes and such. So, if that’s your thing, great! But if you want a more traditional urban fantasy, this might not be it.

That said, as an urban fantasy story, I do think it’s pretty good! One of the things I always look for in urban fantasy is a unique take on the paranormal elements. Often these types of book include similar fantasy elements and beings. You see a lot of vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, angels (more recently), witches, etc. That being the case, it can be a challenge for an author to make their take on these classic creatures stand out. And I think Singh really excels at this. Here, she’s created a very interesting mythos that ties the angels and vampires together in a unique way. Not only does this differentiate these two paranormal species from others of the same sort seen on the page, but it creates a unique dynamic and internal society between the two.

Likewise, Elena’s hunter abilities are unique from other characters like her. She’s both very powerful in certain ways, but very human and limited in others. Of course, the make it or break it element of books like this often comes down to the main character, and I really liked what Elena had to offer. She was determined and brave, but she was also realistic about the impossible situations she often found herself in. Her bravery was not foolish, but more of the sort where she understands that putting on a tough face will likely not change the outcome, but it’s the only thing to be done to maintain her sense of self and self-respect. It was a very interesting internal dynamic, and an important one in the face of a romantic interest who was a very slow learner when it came to respecting his partner’s abilities.

Like many paranormal romances, I do think the romance faltered at times. I understand the supposed appeal of the supremely powerful, alpha hero. But Raphael did have scenes where I felt like this aspect of his character went too far and left me with a bad taste in my mouth. We do see him express regret for some of these choices later, so I was able to finish the book without entirely writing him off. But, again, this is an important thing to note for readers who are picking up this book and may have different levels of tolerance for some of this “dominance” stuff.

Overall, I think the world-building was incredibly interesting, and Elena was a very sympathetic leading lady. The author also chose an interesting path where she hinted at a lot of events that occurred in Elena and Raphael’s pasts, but didn’t reveal that much in this first book. All of that together, and I thin I’ll continue reading the series. My interest has definitely been piqued!

Rating 8: A solid urban fantasy/paranormal romance with a unique take on angels and vampires.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Angels’ Blood” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Best ADULT Urban Fantasy, Fantasy and Paranormal Romance and Kick Ass Female Heroines in Paranormal Genre.

Kate’s Review: “Lore Olympus: Volume 3”

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Book: “Lore Olympus: Volume 3” by Rachel Smythe

Publishing Info: Del Rey, October 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: All of Olympus–and the Underworld–are talking about the God of the Dead and the sprightly daughter of Demeter. But despite the rumors of their romance, Hades and Persephone have plenty to navigate on their own.

Since coming to Olympus, Persephone has struggled to be the perfect maiden goddess. Her attraction to Hades has only complicated the intense burden of the gods’ expectations. And after Apollo’s assault, Persephone fears she can no longer bury the intense feelings of hurt and love that she’s worked so hard to hide.

As Persephone contemplates her future, Hades struggles with his past, falling back into toxic habits in Minthe’s easy embrace. With all the mounting pressure and expectations–of their family, friends, and enemies–both Hades and Persephone tell themselves to deny their deepest desires, but the pull between them is too tempting, too magnetic. It’s fate.

This full-color edition of Smythe’s original Eisner-nominated webcomic Lore Olympus brings Greek mythology into the modern age in a sharply perceptive and romantic graphic novel.

Review: We are back to my favorite deity filled soap opera/love story “Lore Olympus”, this time diving into the third volume. This story has been taking over our book club as almost everyone has at least started it, and I cannot stop fawning over it because of every single beat it hits that just work for me. And “Volume Three” keeps the streak going, as, once again, I loved this.

Now let’s get into why! THIS IS GOING TO BE LONG! (source)

Both Persephone and Hades have some huge emotional summits they are starting to climb in this volume, and it’s still fairly separate outside of them being at work in the Underworld together. As Persephone has started her first job, Hades is trying to remain professional and emotionally disconnected, and she is trying to find her footing while dealing with a lot of feelings she needs to sort out. We still don’t really know a lot about Persephone’s time in the Mortal Realm before all of this, all we know is that she has been given a scholarship by The Goddesses of Eternal Maidenhood to go study in Olympus so long as she commits to remaining celibate. We finally get to explore how she started this journey in this volume, as we see how she was approached by Hestia, how she got paired up with Artemis as roommates, and how she may be a little hesitant about the whole thing. But then there is something else that is being hinted at. Something about Persephone’s nature, and how there is perhaps something else that she is trying to leave behind, and how Demeter is trying to cover something up. Smythe starts laying out these clues in a more earnest nature this time around, with hints towards a more fiery temperament, hints towards Demeter changing her mind on a dime about Persephone’s place in the mortal realm, and hints about a destiny to be fulfilled. Seeing all of this in tandem with Persephone’s anxieties about fitting in at school, anxieties about working at a strange job, and anxieties about her crush on Hades makes for a VERY compelling character arc, and I just love what Smythe is doing with her.

Hades, too, is dealing with his own inner battles, mostly with trying to avoid Persephone as he feels like his feelings for her are inappropriate and that he’s reading far too much into it. So of course he’s decided to make it official with Minthe, the scheming and manipulative (but also very much hurting and damaged) nymph that works for him and has been is on again, off again girlfriend for a long time. But as Hecate finds more and more reasons to try and push him and Persephone together, he starts to wonder if perhaps he has a connection to her that has been in place even before he saw her at that party. Hades as a guy who is doing his best to not be a creep and doing his best to repress his feelings, because of his fear of hurting her but also because of a hinted at past trauma (if you know the broader mythology you can probably guess it), is a bit refreshing, as it puts a lot of the agency on Persephone, which is a VERY good thing in reimaginings of this tale. He also isn’t left totally off the hook when it comes to how he is probably using Minthe, while also conceding that in some cases BOTH parties can be very, very bad for each other. It all leads to a very heartbreaking sequence for the both of them. Arg, complexity when portraying the character getting in between my ship? How very dare you, Rachel Smythe?!

But the biggest stand out for me this volume was Eros. (There will be mild spoilers here because I need to spoil to talk about why I loved this!) Eros is a figure that happens to be at the center of my second favorite Greek Myth (that of him and Psyche), and while we are getting some hints that we are moving in that direction for his plot, his main function as of now is to be a kick ass and supportive friend to Persephone as she starts to come to terms with her rape by Apollo. I think that it would be an easy out to make Eros a very flamboyant and over the top romance fiend, because Eros, BUT Smythe instead makes him, yes, a bit of a drama llama, but also SO in touch with love and appropriate ways to show love and boundaries. His reaction to Persephone’s reveal was so, so perfect for the character, and it hit me right in the feels. We are also getting a little more insight into his own background and baggage, specifically about Psyche, and how something he did has put Aphrodite into a tenuous position, and it makes him all the more complicated and interesting. I just love the role he’s playing, and very much look forward to seeing his role continue to grow and evolve as the series goes on.

Oh and also there is a lot of interesting Hera stuff here too in that she knows that something happened to Persephone, she thinks she knows that Apollo is involved, and when she tries to investigate further Zeus decides to sweep it all under the rug because PATRIARCHY. I really love what Smythe is doing with Hera too, because again, she could have just been a shrewish wife to Zeus as she seems to be portrayed in the original myths. But in this we get to see why she is so damn frustrated and weary, and it’s because she is having to remain by the side of a man that she doesn’t REALLY like who won’t even give her a modicum of respect, or really any respect to ANY women. I’m always for calling out Zeus, but I especially love it when Hera gets leeway while still being complicated.

So obviously I’m still all about “Lore Olympus” and “Volume Three” is continuing the love. It’s just so well done. I’ve pre-ordered “Volume Four”, so you know that when it comes out this summer I will be back on my fan girl bullshit.

Rating 10: Oh be still my heart, so many feelings this time around. You’re killing me, Greek Gods and Goddesses! In the best, best way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Lore Olympus: Volume 3” is included on the Goodreads lists “Greek Mythology Retellings!”, and “Hades and Persephone”.

Previously Reviewed:

Joint Review: “A House with Good Bones”

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Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “A House with Good Bones” by T. Kingfisher

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, March 2023

Where Did We Get This Book: We received eARCs from Edelweiss+ and NetGalley.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: A haunting Southern Gothic from an award-winning master of suspense, A House With Good Bones explores the dark, twisted roots lurking just beneath the veneer of a perfect home and family.

“Mom seems off.”

Her brother’s words echo in Sam Montgomery’s ear as she turns onto the quiet North Carolina street where their mother lives alone. She brushes the thought away as she climbs the front steps. Sam’s excited for this rare extended visit, and looking forward to nights with just the two of them, drinking boxed wine, watching murder mystery shows, and guessing who the killer is long before the characters figure it out.

But stepping inside, she quickly realizes home isn’t what it used to be. Gone is the warm, cluttered charm her mom is known for; now the walls are painted a sterile white. Her mom jumps at the smallest noises and looks over her shoulder even when she’s the only person in the room. And when Sam steps out back to clear her head, she finds a jar of teeth hidden beneath the magazine-worthy rose bushes, and vultures are circling the garden from above.

To find out what’s got her mom so frightened in her own home, Sam will go digging for the truth. But some secrets are better left buried.

Kate’s Thoughts

We are back with another joint review, doing another horror story from T. Kingfisher, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I really like it when both Serena and I can provide various insights into one book, and Kingfisher may be joining Silvia Moreno-Garcia as one that we both read and review. This time we have “A House with Good Bones”, a haunted house story with dysfunctional family dynamics, insect archaeology, and so many vultures! I can tell you that if you are someone who wants to dabble in horror, but don’t really like feeling the various intense feelings that horror novels can convey, Kingfisher is a good option. This is definitely a haunted house book, but it’s horror-lite, and it’s horror-lite done well!

I enjoyed our protagonist Sam slowly starting to realize that there is something weird going on in her grandmother Gran Mae’s old house, that her mother has now moved into. In life neither Sam nor her mother got along so well with Gran Mae, but now Mom is not only nervous to speak ill of her, she is also following rules that she used to ignore or at least acknowledged were bunk. One can kind of see where this is all going, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Kingfisher builds up the suspense regarding the weird goings on in the house, be it the vultures that have come to roost on the property, or the sudden ladybug infestation, or the slow recovery of memories of Gran Mae’s weird habits and abusive tendencies when Sam was a child. Kingfisher knows how to balance the suspense and genuinely scary moments with a lot of good humor and quirky characters that make the book a good horror story without more intense elements that could turn some people off. I also liked the way that some of these horror elements manifested, as they felt unique and interesting and outside from how other horror authors may have approached it. I really like how Kingfisher brings in the dark fantasy stuff to spice up the genre a bit, and it always feels like it melds well. And finally I liked the more thematic elements of this story regarding family dysfunction, generational trauma, and the way that parents can sometimes make mistakes that take a toll on their children that may take time to process and heal from. It doesn’t bog down the story with too much melancholy, but I liked that it was an underlying theme.

I enjoyed “A House with Good Bones”! Kingfisher is a great choice for people who want to do horror but aren’t as into visceral or intense scares. It’s a fun and creepy haunted house story to be sure.

Serena’s Thoughts

I second what Kate said: it’s so fun when we get to joint review a book, and T. Kingfisher is another author who intersects well with both of our genres, writing horror and fantasy. Plus, like Kate said, Kingfisher writes the type of horror that is still approachable for those of us who are big fraidy-cats about the very dark stuff. And this book is another perfect example of it!

While I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of where the horror aspects were going, once they actually showed up, they were sufficiently horrific. In particular, the last quarter of the book went into a very creepy place. There were some genuinely freak visuals and the book masters a classic horror trope: the solid ending that feels just off enough to leave you in suspense! But even during these darker moments, there were parts were I was laughing and also feeling strangely sad for the horrible creatures/people. It was a very mixed bag of emotions that worked really well.

I also really liked the themes about family trauma and abusive relationships in families. Again, all of these things were touched on in ways that felt very true to life but never made caricatures of any of the characters involved. Sam was an excellent main character. Her scientific background was unique (lots of interesting tidbits about insects and archeology) and lead her to handling certain scenes with ladybugs with a lot more calm than I would have had, that’s for sure! She also was a great example of casual body positivity. It’s not her entire identity, but she’s comfortable with who she is and how she moves through the world.

Kate’s Rating 8: A creepy haunted house story with family trauma and vultures galore, “A House with Good Bones” is a horror-lite haunted house read that will leave horror fans satisfied.

Serena’s Rating 8: Sufficiently creepy for this fantasy fan while also tackling important themes like family trauma and body positivity.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A House with Good Bones” is included on the Goodreads lists “Suburban Gothic”, and “Horror to Look Forward To in 2023”.

Serena’s Review: “The Fairy Bargains of Prospect Hill”

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Book: “The Fairy Bargains of Prospect Hill” by Rowenna Miller

Publishing Info: Redhook, March 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: There is no magic on Prospect Hill—or anywhere else, for that matter. But just on the other side of the veil is the world of the Fae. Generations ago, the first farmers on Prospect Hill learned to bargain small trades to make their lives a little easier—a bit of glass to find something lost, a cup of milk for better layers in the chicken coop.

Much of that old wisdom was lost as the riverboats gave way to the rail lines and the farmers took work at mills and factories. Alaine Fairborn’s family, however, was always superstitious, and she still hums the rhymes to find a lost shoe and to ensure dry weather on her sister’s wedding day.

When Delphine confides her new husband is not the man she thought he was, Alaine will stop at nothing to help her sister escape him. Small bargains buy them time, but a major one is needed. Yet, the price for true freedom may be more than they’re willing to pay.

Review: While I still haven’t gotten around to reading the second two books in the trilogy, I really enjoyed Rowenna Miller’s fantasy novel “Torn” when I read it several years ago. This is definitely one of those situations where my failure to complete the trilogy is completely due to my own lack of self-control in managing my TBR list and nothing to say about the series itself. That being the case, I was excited to see that the author was releasing a stand-alone fantasy novel this spring. Phew! Can’t drop the ball on a stand-alone!

While the world continues its steady march forward into modernity and industry, the family who owns the orchard on Prospect Hill still understand and honor the old, magical ways. A woven hay wreath for prosperity. A twist of nickel and ribbon for a good harvest. And while these time-tested bargains are reliable and sure, it is understood that the Fae are never to be trusted. But when two sisters find themselves confronting the limitations of a world that sees only limited roles for women, they must chance a new bargain to create a way forward for themselves and their family.

It’s no surprise that this book was a hit with me. There are so many things I like, right there in the description! A story with a historical setting that tackles the culture and challenges of that period of time. A plot that focuses on the softer, wilder side of magic. And two characters who are sisters and must navigate the beauties and pitfalls of that relationship. And Miller came through on all three points!

I really enjoyed the way this book navigated the historical time period during which it is set. Throughout the book, we see Alaine and Delphine come up against the limitations placed on them by a society that doesn’t yet recognize women’s value. But change is also in the air, with many references to the suffragettes who are hard at work fighting for women’s rights. Alaine and Delphine represent the everyday women in this period of time. Neither would label themselves as a suffragettes; indeed, Delphine’s politically-minded husband wants her to have nothing to do with the “radical” movement. However, they are still fully realized characters and women and thus quickly come up against the limitations placed on them. Delphine is interested in art and learning, forming a friendship with another female scholar. And for her part, while Alaine operates a farm and is active in local agriculture decisions, we see her again and again come up against those who would wish to see her fail. I especially liked a conversation and theme that came up towards the end of the book about how if something is a challenge for one person, there’s a good chance it’s a challenge for others. And that’s why it’s important to work towards changes that will benefit society as a whole, rather than just oneself.

I also really liked Alaine and Delphine as characters in their own right. They both felt like complete, fully-fleshed out women, complete with their own unique strengths and their own personal failings. But I particularly appreciated the way they were portrayed as sisters. The story alternates between the two of them, so we very quickly learn to see how each sister is misinterpreting and misunderstanding the other. Here are two women who are as close as you can be, but their relationship is constantly strained by their inability to clearly see the other one for who she truly is without viewing it through their own lens. It was such an honest and relatable portrayal, and I think the most successful depiction of adult sisterhood that I’ve seen in some time.

This is definitely a slower, quieter story. It takes a while for all of the pieces to come into place, so readers must be prepared to spend a good portion of the beginning of the book setting up our characters and their relationships with each other and the world around them. But then about two thirds through the book, the story takes a massive shift in what it’s doing. I wouldn’t say that it ever becomes action-packed, but it definitely went in a direction that I wasn’t expecting, but that I enjoyed the heck out of. Looking back on the read as a whole, this left me feeling as if the pacing of the book felt a bit choppy. But as I enjoyed both halves of the book so much, I’d hardly hold this against it.

Rating 8: Fairy circles and whimsical magic weave in and out of a thoughtful, quiet fantasy story that tackles important themes of sisterhood and feminism.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Fairy Bargains of Prospect Hill” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Everything Fae.

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