Kate’s Review: “My Dearest Darkest”

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Book: “My Dearest Darkest” by Kayla Cottingham

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, March 2022

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

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

Book Description: WILDER GIRLS meets THE CRAFT in this Sapphic horror debut that asks: What price would you be willing to pay to achieve your deepest desires?

Finch Chamberlin is the newest transfer student to the ultra-competitive Ulalume Academy… but she’s also not what she seems. Months before school started, Finch and her parents got into an accident that should have left her dead at the bottom of a river. But something monstrous, and ancient, and terrifying, wouldn’t let her drown. Finch doesn’t know why she woke up after her heart stopped, but since dying she’s felt a constant pull from the school and the surrounding town of Rainwater, like something on the island is calling to her.

Selena St. Clair sees right through Finch, and she knows something is seriously wrong with her. But despite Selena’s suspicion, she feels drawn to Finch and has a sinking feeling that from now on the two will be inexplicably linked to one another.

One night Finch, Selena, and her friends accidentally summon a carnivorous creature of immense power in the depths of the school. It promises to grant every desire the girls have kept locked away in their insecure hearts―beauty, power, adoration―in exchange for a price: human body parts. But as the cost of their wanting becomes more deadly, Finch and Selena must learn to work together to stop the horror they unleashed, before it consumes the entire island

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

As someone who loves horror as well as soapy academic settings, it’s probably not a big surprise that “My Dearest Darkest” by Kayla Cottingham grabbed by attention based on that summary alone. She also had me at the promise of a Sapphic romance with hints of “The Craft”, a film that I hold near and dear to my heart (and which will be referenced again soon on this blog…). I hopped into this horror novel with certain expectations, and while there were a couple stumbles here and there, there was a lot of potential and lot that was well executed.

I’m actually going against my usual process and will opt to start with the negative first, mostly because I feel like the positives are greater in the long run and I want to tackle them second. In terms of characterization, “My Dearest Darkest” is a little more on the weaker side than I was hoping for. I really liked misunderstood ‘bad’ girl Selena St. Clair, as her inner conflicts regarding toxic friendships, fear of rejection due to her bisexuality, and hardened spirit due to a traumatic event at the hands of someone she trusted makes for a complex character. She’s rough around the edges, but you also see just how big her heart is. Selena is the exception to the following critique. Everyone else is just kinda dull, from Selena’s mean girl friends to Finch, the new girl who has a strange connection to Nerosi, a strange being that has awakened on the school grounds who can grant favors to those who ask, if only for something in return. Finch has tragic background and a connection to a supernatural threat, but compared to Selena she fades a bit, falling back on meek characteristics we’ve seen many times before. I liked Selena and Finch as a burgeoning pair, but that, again, may have more to do with Selena. And don’t even get me started on various side characters, who are just there to provide exposition when convenient and little else.

But the horror elements. My GOSH the horror elements! Cottingham is not messing around here, bringing in multiple subgenres like body horror, Gothic horror, and Cosmic horror with some ghosties for good measure, and it all works really well. I wasn’t really sure of what to expect in this regard, as sometimes YA authors err on the side of caution and make horror moments a little less intense, hedging their bets in case there are readers who may need some restraint. Not this book. There were multiple moments where I was like ‘oh shit!’, from people pulling their teeth out, to descriptions of cosmic limbs in all their tentacled disgustingness, to a VERY creepy moment with a ghostly being that moved in jerky, uneven spurts. Which is totally one of the things in horror movies that really freaks me out.

It certainly didn’t help that I had just rewatched “Kairo”, the movie with this scene which nearly gave me a panic attack the first time I saw it. (source)

I also liked the Nerosi mythology and mystery, from an eight eyed stag familiar that brings nothing but trouble to an urban legend about a band that may be based in truth who disappeared years prior. At the end of the day, I pick up a horror novel because I want to be scared in some way, shape or form, and there isn’t any question that “My Dearest Darkest” was super creepy, with knowing nods to Lovecraftian ideas as well as the likes of “The Craft” and “Jennifer’s Body”. And what a glorious amalgamation it makes.

So while I thought that a lot of the characters were pretty cardboard in their execution, I really did like the horror elements, which elevated the book over all. I am very interested to see what Kayla Cottingham comes out with next, because their horror prowess is pretty solid!

Rating 7: While some of the characters felt a bit two dimensional and stiff, there was plenty of gnarly body and cosmic horror to make up for it!

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Dearest Darkest” is included on the Goodreads lists “Spooky Books with Bi Characters”, and “Queer Horror”.

Serena’s Review: “The War of Two Queens”

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Book: “The War of Two Queens” by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Publishing Info: Blue Box Press, March 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: bought the ebook

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

Book Description: From the desperation of golden crowns…

Casteel Da’Neer knows all too well that very few are as cunning or vicious as the Blood Queen, but no one, not even him, could’ve prepared for the staggering revelations. The magnitude of what the Blood Queen has done is almost unthinkable.

And born of mortal flesh…

Nothing will stop Poppy from freeing her King and destroying everything the Blood Crown stands for. With the strength of the Primal of Life’s guards behind her, and the support of the wolven, Poppy must convince the Atlantian generals to make war her way—because there can be no retreat this time. Not if she has any hope of building a future where both kingdoms can reside in peace.

A great primal power rises…

Together, Poppy and Casteel must embrace traditions old and new to safeguard those they hold dear—to protect those who cannot defend themselves. But war is only the beginning. Ancient primal powers have already stirred, revealing the horror of what began eons ago. To end what the Blood Queen has begun, Poppy might have to become what she has been prophesied to be—what she fears the most.

As the Harbinger of Death and Destruction.

Previously Reviewed: “From Blood and Ash” and “A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire” and “The Crown of Gilded Bones”

Review: This was another massive book, so as much as I wanted to get my review out as close to the release day as possible, here we are, a few weeks later. It was partly the length. But it’s also partly that I (and a lot of others, it seems!) had a lot of thoughts and feelings about this book, so it’s taken a bit to get my mind in order with what exactly I wanted to say about this book. But, be warned, there will be spoilers for the book in this review, so read on with that in mind. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Casteel finds himself in the last place he ever wanted to be: trapped in a dungeon and in the grasp of the cruel Blood Queen. But he’d do it all again, at least Poppy is free out in the world. For her part, Poppy is lost without Casteel. Newly made queen of a people and country that barely know her, let alone trust her, she knows only that she must save Casteel as soon as possible. She is joined by Kieran, Casteel’s best friend who hurts almost as much as she does with Casteel’s loss. Together, they will work to save their King and overthrow the Blood Queen once and for all.

The way I’m going to review this book is as follows: I’m going to start with a review of the objective state of this book, then move out to my own interpretations, and then briefly discuss the fan reaction. So, first off, my general impression of this book. Anyone who has read my reviews of these books before will note that I’ve always been hesitant to say much in favor of the general quality of the writing and world-building in these books. They’ve all been bloated, poorly edited behemoths of books. I’m not sure if it’s because of the popularity of the series or what, but it seems that the publisher has taken a very hands-off approach to editing this series. This book showed many of the same flaws.

The pacing was snail-paced, with very little happening for huge chunks of time. What we do learn about the world comes through exposition. And there are so many “reveals” about the world and Poppy’s own heritage that it is well past the point of ridiculousness. I will say that I thought there were more actual grammatical/spelling errors in this book than the others. But for the most part, if you’ve read the other books, you’ll know the flaws you’re working with and none of them are improved in this book. Four books in, these flaws of bad world-building and endless secrets begin to feel as if the author just never planned her series. At some point, the story needs to move past the “discovery” phase and into the “action” phase. Either way, none of this is truly shocking. Indeed, I’ve said repeatedly that I’m really only there for the romance. And that’s where we get to the subjective portion.

This book gives us Casteel’s perspective for the first time in the series. And I think this was actually part of the problem. What should have been an exciting addition (finally the heroes perspective!) was actually a flaw that made what was happening in the rest of the story all the more uncomfortable and unlikable. We have Casteel’s thoughts almost entirely focused on Poppy and how glad he is that he is the one locked up and suffering instead of her. And Poppy? Whelp, she’s off sharing a bed with naked Kieran, developing feelings for him, and getting asked why her husband’s best friend is acting like her husband by family friends. Her answer? “It’s complicated.” Yeaahh, it reads pretty bad and checks all my marks for emotional cheating in my book (honestly, bordering on actual cheating with that naked sleeping scene). On there own, these actions are pretty condemnable from a partner who is in an established exclusive relationship. It’s all the worse when contrasted with Casteel’s thoughts of her. So, subjectively, this ruined most of the series for me. Like I said, I was here for the romance, and this effectively crushed that. Even when Poppy and Casteel are reunited, Poppy’s mentally bemoaning Kieran not being around. It’s uncomfortable, unlikable, and decidedly NOT what I want from my “soulmates” romance stories.

And this last bit gets to the general fans reactions and the author’s approach with this series. Look, we here at The Library Ladies believe in “Every book its reader, and every reader their book.” But the converse of that is true: some people make choices of what to read based on what is and what is not in their books. For romance readers, this is almost even more important than for general fiction readers. There is an unspoken but strong understanding between the author and the readers of what they are there for, be it happily ever afters, smut, etc. And this book was marketed, spoken about by the author (she repeatedly said that Cas and Poppy were the main/only relationship for the last several years), and then set up for THREE BOOKS as an exclusive soulmates-style romance.

If the author had wanted to write a polyamory romance, that’s fine! There are readers for it, and I’m sure many would have gobbled it up! Many are probably already loving the series anyways! The problem is what I said before: that’s not what this series set out to be (or at least there’s no rational interpretation of the previous books or author’s statements that could lead you to thinking otherwise). So when devoted fans get to book four and see what looks pretty clearly like emotional cheating and then a polyamory relationship, they’re going to feel misled and cheated by the author. What’s more, I’ll go as far as to say that had the author set out from the beginning to write a polyamory book (beyond the fact that she failed to truly set that up in any real way), this was a truly bad way to go about it. I can’t imagine anyone from that community would like the parallel drawn here between their accepting and consensual love with the kind of emotional cheating that Poppy and Kieran were getting up to behind Casteel’s back and without his knowledge. This is not good representation and instead plays into very negative stereotypes about the entire lifestyle.

This was a huge disappointment for me. Objectively, it has the same flaws as we’ve seen in the rest of the series. Subjectively, the romance was the only reason I was really still here, and that was badly damaged/ruined by the emotional cheating from Poppy. And thirdly, the author seems to have broken a social contract with her readership by creating a soulmates romance story, publicly calling it such for years and writing three books setting that up, and then blindsiding them with a poor representation of a polyamory relationship at best or emotional infidelity at worst.

I’ll probably check out the reviews of the next book when it is released, but I’m probably out. These books were huge time commitments, and I’m the type of romance reader who reads for the happily ever after. And emotional infidelity isn’t it, friends.

Rating 4: A case study in how to turn your rabid fan base against you and misunderstand why they’re there in the first place.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A War of Two Queens” is on several lists, but I think it most deserves to be on this one: Most Disappointing Sequels/Prequels.

Kate’s Review: “The Resting Place”

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Book: “The Resting Place” by Camilla Stem (translation: Alexandra Fleming)

Publishing Info: Minotaur Books, March 2022

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

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

Book Description: A spine-chilling, propulsive psychological suspense from international sensation Camilla Sten.

The medical term is prosopagnosia. The average person calls it face blindness—the inability to recognize a familiar person’s face, even the faces of those closest to you. When Eleanor walked in on the scene of her capriciously cruel grandmother, Vivianne’s, murder, she came face to face with the killer—a maddening expression that means nothing to someone like her. With each passing day, her anxiety mounts. The dark feelings of having brushed by a killer, yet not know who could do this—or if they’d be back—overtakes both her dreams and her waking moments, thwarting her perception of reality.

Then a lawyer calls. Vivianne has left her a house—a looming estate tucked away in the Swedish woods. The place her grandfather died, suddenly. A place that has housed a dark past for over fifty years.

Eleanor. Her steadfast boyfriend, Sebastian. Her reckless aunt, Veronika. The lawyer. All will go to this house of secrets, looking for answers. But as they get closer to bringing the truth to light, they’ll wish they had never come to disturb what rests there. A heart-thumping, relentless thriller that will shake you to your core, The Resting Place is an unforgettable novel of horror and suspense.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Last year I was really impressed with Camilla Sten’s horror novel “The Lost Village”, as it not only creeped me out throughout the narrative, it also felt like it was a fresh take on a story that’s been done before. I kicked myself for passing it by initially, and I told myself I wouldn’t do that again with Camilla Sten’s next novel. Which brings us to “The Resting Place”, the new thriller by Sten that has made it from Scandinavia to the U.S. I picked it up right as our Minnesota winter was starting the Great Thaw, and the thought of a new scary thriller with a snow storm element was detached enough from the doldrums of our eternal winters that I figured it would be fun (I’ve probably jinxed us with an April snow storm now, however). And I said that I wasn’t going to let Sten pass me by again, after all. However, “The Resting Place” probably didn’t need the urgency I assumed it did.

But what did I like? We will start there, as always. A few things to be sure! For one, the setting and atmosphere was awesome. I love me a Gothic thriller and mystery, and “The Resting Place” is bursting with that sensibility. I loved the isolation of the Swedish country home of Solhoga, which has the potential to be tranquil and peaceful but due to a poorly timed blizzard and a potential killer on the loose makes it far less inviting. The isolation tactics are well worn, but effective nonetheless, and I felt like I could see the snow, the old home, and the landscapes. I also did like the dual narratives, the first being Eleanor et als’ dangerous time at Solhoga and the second being diary entries of Anuska, a servant in the 1960s who knew Vivianne and her husband due to her employment and other, more secretive, ties. I thought that the slow unveiling of the mysteries, be it what Vivianne was hiding, or who is out to perhaps kill those who were left behind, was an entertaining plot that kept me reading. In terms of characters, I liked Eleanor enough as she grapples with the trauma of walking in on her grandmother’s murder, as well as the guilt that due to her prosopagnosia she couldn’t be of any help as a witness. The tension that is there not only within her inner self, but also between her and her boyfriend Sebastian, is just another factor in the tension that is slowly rising in this narrative.

But entertaining as it is, we aren’t really doing much new here. Outside of Eleanor’s face blindness, I guess, though even that is something that could be easily done away with with some tweaking and none would be the wiser. While it’s true that I didn’t really guess a few of the big reveals, I did guess others, and the big reveals I didn’t guess felt a little underwhelming because of how they felt like a bit of a cheat. It wasn’t so much farfetched as too easily explainable under kind of nutty circumstances. Ultimately, while I thought that “The Lost Village” did a lot of new and interesting stuff with the genre it was within, “The Resting Place” didn’t feel all that unique to me, and more like the kind of thriller I read once and then don’t really think about again. Serviceable for sure, but nothing that made me say ‘now THAT was a ride!’

I am eager to see what Camilla Sten does next, as this was by no means a book that made me lose my faith in her talents. But “The Resting Place” didn’t have the oomph I was hoping for going into it.

Rating 6: Pretty standard thriller. Serviceable for sure, but nothing really wowed me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Resting Place” is included on the Goodreads lists “Bring On The Creepy!”, and “The Most Anticipated Mysteries and Thrillers of 2022”.

Not Just Books: March 2022

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

HBO Show: “Station Eleven”

I know Kate has read this book, but somehow I never got around to it. For one thing, I know I have a limited ability to read post-apocalypic fiction; if I read too much of it within too short of a time span, I just get depressed about humanity. I blame “The Road,” the most grim of all grim stories. So I went into this mini series a bit wary. But low and behold, I really enjoyed it! I do thing there were some fairly large plot holes regarding the villain of the story, but I loved the main character’s arch. The story jumps back and forth in time, and I think this style worked really well in tying together a lot of disparate storylines that came together in very cool ways throughout the series. I definitely recommend this one to fans of post-apocalyptic stories, especially those looking for stories with a bit more hope at the center of the story.

Netflix Show: “After Life”

Apparently, I was in a grim mood this month (though, like I said, “Station Eleven” was more hopeful than I had predicted it would be when I started it). This one, however, the story of a man grieving the loss of his wife, was definitely pretty dark at times. There ultimately, again, a message of hope at the end. But the story went into some pretty shockingly dark places before it got to that point. It was an odd mix of laughing out loud one second and being extremely uncomfortable the next. There’s a second season out for this show, but even with the hopeful ending, I still think I need a breather before getting to it. This was a great show, but people should definitely go in knowing that the story tackles dark subjects like suicide, drug use, and some fairly nihilistic thought paths.

Movie: “Chaos Walking”

I was a huge fan of the “Chaos Walking” book series. That being the case, I was skeptical about the success of a movie based on the story. There are several elements that would be particularly hard to bring to the screen. Then the movie released and garnered a pretty large number of negative critical reviews. And that’s when my inner contrarian struck, and I felt the need to actually watch the thing. And, all in all, I really enjoyed it! I think the movie came up with a really clever way of depicting the “Noise” (men’s thoughts that are projected outward for everyone to hear). And the casting all around was excellent. They had to change quite a bit of the story, knowing that it might have to stand alone as a film without the second two parts that the books have. So that being the case, the Mayor, the most complicated and interesting character in the books, had to be reduced down quite a bit and dealt with in a different way. That said, I still liked what they managed to do with him. Plus, Tom Holland’s sheer charm and charisma is enough to carry almost any movie for me at this point!

Kate’s Picks

Film: “Scream (2022)”

1996’s “Scream” was my foray into slasher movies, as I know that I saw that in middle school before I dipped my toes into the “Halloween”s, “Friday the 13th”s, and “Nightmare on Elm Street”s of the world. “Scream” remains one of my favorite horror movies. I even mostly like or at least appreciate all the sequels! When they announced that a fifth movie was coming out, I was hopeful but nervous. After all, it had been awhile, and we’d left the Golden Trio of Sidney Prescott, Dewey Riley, and Gale Weathers alive and well. But my horror movie club finally sat down to virtually watch “Scream 2022” (or “Scream 5” or “5cream”) after a few of us had passed on the theater experience due to Omicron…. And it was so damn fun! Set about twenty five years after the first movie, a new Ghostface has started targeting the teens of Woodsboro, the victims having some connection to the original killers and their friend group. When Samantha’s sister Tara is attacked, Samantha reaches out to Dewey for help in hopes of stopping the killer. And Dewey, in turn, reaches out to Gale and Sidney, who come back to town for one more showdown. With sly nods to the original, more subversions of the genre, and a really likable cast, I thought that “Scream 2022” was a good new installment!

Film: “The Runaways”

My love for punk music started in high school, my Discman having a healthy rotation of Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Clash, Patti Smith, and others at the ready. One of those bands was The Runaways, the teenage girl punk group that launched the careers of the likes of Joan Jett, Lita Ford, and Cherie Currie. But oddly enough I had never seen the biopic “The Runaways”, which centers on Jett and Currie, and how the band rose and crashed. That is, until this month! And while I knew pretty much all the facts that it covered, it was still a really enjoyable, if at times difficult, watch. When teenage Joan Jett forms an all girls band called The Runaways, their manager Kim Fowley recruits Cherie Currie to be the lead singer. As the girls become popular and start touring, drugs, mayhem, and Fowley’s manipulations and exploitation starts to take tolls on all the girls, Currie in particular. Dakota Fanning is good as the unstable Currie, Kristen Stewart was BORN to play Joan Jett, and Michael Shannon brings the right levels of disgusting sleaziness and eccentricity to their piece of shit manager Fowley (I mean, after all, this is the guy who thought it was a GREAT idea to sexualize fifteen year old girls for profit). And the music, of course, rocks.

TV Show: “The Righteous Gemstones”

I’m always up for some good satire that takes on and takes down the hypocritical machinations of zealous religious organizations and the people who run them, so I don’t know why it took me so long to watch “The Righteous Gemstones”. Especially since I have a deep deep affection for John Goodman (it’s a damned crime that man has never even been NOMINATED for an Oscar!). But I finally started it this month, and hoo boy, it’s hilarious. It follows the Gemstones, a family of televangelists who have created an empire based on fire and brimstone theatrics. Goodman is Eli, the aging patriarch, whose adult kids are all aching for the fame and fortune that he has created as he mourns the death of his wife. But when oldest son Jesse (played perfectly obnoxiously by Danny McBride, who also wrote the show) finds himself the subject of blackmail, he enlists sister Judy and brother Kelvin to help keep the Gemstones family getting the money and attention they have become accustomed to. Every character is awful (outside of Keefe, a former Satanist who was ‘saved’ by Kelvin and is now his bestie), but all the actors play their roles VERY well. And the dark humor and take down of religious grifters is great! Oh and I have a not so tiny thing for Walton Goggins and he’s in it too, so bonus!

Serena’s Review: “A Thousand Steps into Night”

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Book: “A Thousand Steps into Night” by Traci Chee

Publishing Info: Clarion Books, March 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: In the realm of Awara, where gods, monsters, and humans exist side by side, Miuko is an ordinary girl resigned to a safe, if uneventful, existence as an innkeeper’s daughter. But when Miuko is cursed and begins to transform into a demon with a deadly touch, she embarks on a quest to reverse the curse and return to her normal life. Aided by a thieving magpie spirit and continuously thwarted by a demon prince, Miuko must outfox tricksters, escape demon hunters, and negotiate with feral gods if she wants to make it home again. But with her transformation comes power and freedom she never even dreamed of, and she’ll have to decide if saving her soul is worth trying to cram herself back into an ordinary life that no longer fits her… and perhaps never did.

Review: I’ve had really good luck recently with Asian fairytales (see: “The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea”). Not only have the stories been knock-outs, but the covers have been to die for! And this cover is right up there with the rest; just lovely. And while it didn’t quite hit the highs I was looking for, it was still a solid read and a definite recommendation for those looking for fairytale-like stories not based on Western myths or set in the West.

While Miuko has never fit into her small, dying village (too loud, too honest, too willing to push the limited boundaries given to women), she has resigned herself to life as an innkeeper’s daughter. Her father, at least, is loving if a bit bemused by his extraordinary daughter. However, when she comes across a demon one late night on the road who curses her to slowly turn into a demon herself, Miuko is forced to flee in search of a cure. On the way, she picks up a magpie shape-shifter friend and learns that she may not be the only one suffering a detrimental curse.

While this book wasn’t quite what I hoped it would be, it was still a fast, fun read. What stood out to me immediately when starting this book was just how funny it was! I wasn’t really expecting that at all, but the book had me laughing out loud at times. What was especially clever about these amusing aspects were that they were strewn across the story and characters, not simply restricted to dialogue, something you often see with authors who rely on their characters’ sarcasm to carry the comedy load. Instead, the narration itself was funny, and you would even find jokes imbedded in the footnotes.

Yes, footnotes. That was a very unique aspect of the story. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the style choice to include footnotes in an otherwise fairly straightforward fantasy story. But in the end, I think they really worked. For one thing, they allowed the author to use much more of the original language without worrying that readers were not picking up on important aspects of the story or nuances between concepts. Some readers may find them distracting, but for me, they worked very well. And, like I said before, the author was smart enough to continue her light-hearted tone even into these parts of the story.

I also really liked our main character, Muiko, and her pal, the magpie shapeshifter, Geiki. Muiko was immediately relatable, but it was really when Geiki came onto the scene that the characters fell into place for me. The two had a great rapport, and Geiki himself was the funniest part of the entire book. There’s no romance in this book (something that I always want to see, but that’s purely subjective). But I do think that these two and their friendship served as a solid stand-in for a romantic plotline. And it’s always good to see books that focus on different relationships as their central relationship, like friendships and sibling relations.

My main critiques of the story comes down to the pacing and some of the choices made in the middle of the book. It does take a bit for the story to get going, but I found that I was invested enough in Muiko to wait out this slow start. On the other hand, towards the middle of the book, the story started to feel a bit formulaic and predictable. Muiko and Geiki seem to go on a near-endless number of side quests essentially. Not only did these begin to add up, but the theme of them all began to feel a bit too predictable at times, with capital “L” lessons. I get that the society found in this book is very patriarchal and the author was looking to explore the various ways that women and others suffer under such a limited culture, most particularly in their very ability to live safely. But at a certain point, it began to feel like the author had a checklist that she was working through, so much so that the plot began to feel more like a device than an organic story that explored these concepts in a natural way.

Overall, however, I thought this was a really fun read. Even if I had a few critiques about it, it’s very likely that other fantasy fans will find it perfectly enjoyable as is. Honestly, the footnotes will probably be the biggest controversial item in the book, with some readers loving them and others hating them.

Rating 8: A fun, unique fantasy novel with an excellent leading character and one of the best side-kicks I’ve read in a while!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Thousand Steps into Night” can be found on this Goodreads list: 2022 Book Releases by Asian Authors

Blog Tour and Review: “Secret Identity”

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Book: “Secret Identity” by Alex Segura

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, March 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley as part of this Blog Tour.

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

Book Description: From Anthony Award-winning writer Alex Segura comes Secret Identity, a rollicking literary mystery set in the world of comic books.

It’s 1975 and the comic book industry is struggling, but Carmen Valdez doesn’t care. She’s an assistant at Triumph Comics, which doesn’t have the creative zeal of Marvel nor the buttoned-up efficiency of DC, but it doesn’t matter. Carmen is tantalizingly close to fulfilling her dream of writing a superhero book.

That dream is nearly a reality when one of the Triumph writers enlists her help to create a new character, which they call “The Lethal Lynx,” Triumph’s first female hero. But her colleague is acting strangely and asking to keep her involvement a secret. And then he’s found dead, with all of their scripts turned into the publisher without her name. Carmen is desperate to piece together what happened to him, to hang on to her piece of the Lynx, which turns out to be a runaway hit. But that’s complicated by a surprise visitor from her home in Miami, a tenacious cop who is piecing everything together too quickly for Carmen, and the tangled web of secrets and resentments among the passionate eccentrics who write comics for a living.

Alex Segura uses his expertise as a comics creator as well as his unabashed love of noir fiction to create a truly one-of-a-kind novel–hard-edged and bright-eyed, gritty and dangerous, and utterly absorbing.

Review: Thank you so much to Maris Tasaka of Macmillan for sending me an eARC of this book via NetGalley and for including our blog on the Blog Tour of this book!

My enjoyment of comic books and therein graphic novels was solidly influenced by my mother, who was an avid DC fan as a child. During a childhood trip to visit my grandparents in Iowa, my mother managed to find a huge box of her old comics, and I had a grand old time reading through them and familiarizing myself with Superman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Batman (I feel like this was her favorite title; SO MANY BATMAN COMICS). I definitely spent some time thinking about this as I read “Secret Identity”, a new literary mystery from Alex Segura, that has its main thrust and story in the comics industry during the 1970s (about ten years after my Mom was reading the various heroes of DC), and starring a young woman named Carmen who loves comics and is working with them, though not at the capacity she’d like. Because misogyny and racism, of course! That alone is compelling as hell, but when you add some ghost writing, an unstable ex, and a murder to boot? That’s even more tantalizing.

“Secret Identity” is fast paced, suspenseful, and it sends the reader back to 1970s New York City with ease. As I was reading I felt deeply immersed in the time and place, able to picture everything that was being described. The setting makes for a great mystery, given that 1970s New York City was gritty and grim in many ways, and Segura gives us a solid whodunnit with a fantastic detective at the forefront. I really loved Carmen as our protagonist, as she is determined and ambitious, as well as very relatable and likable while trying to balance her gender, ethnicity, and sexuality in a very patriarchal vocation and society. I was righteously indignant for her given the fact that she is a Latin woman working in a boys club industry during a time of changing gender dynamics, and her experiences very much reflect that. Be it being dismissed by her boss, being seen as a secretary and not much more, being hit on by men and having to fend them off while hiding the fact she’s into women, or being excluded from her coworkers, even in inadvertent ways, Carmen has to deal with a lot of shit. And she does it because she loves comics, she lives and breathes comics, and that makes her tolerate it all…. Until a coworker named Harvey approaches her for creative help on a new character they call The Lynx, a female superhero that subverts the norms. Carmen is the force behind the best parts of her, but Harvey takes the full credit because of course he does. Carmen’s anger about this is kind of short lived, however, as before she can confront him he is murdered. And the reason for that may be because of the Lynx. Combining this violation of her creative property with a murder mystery makes for a very complicated journey for Carmen, as while she has to frame it as wanting to find justice for her friend, there is the deeper component of wanting to reclaim her character, but also being in danger BECAUSE of the character. The mystery is very well crafted, and Segura lays out the clues and has a number of well placed red herrings to boot.

And this entire story is a true Valentine to superhero comics and the way they can sweep a reader up and influence them, while being realistic about what the comics industry was like during the time period. Carmen is not only a great noir-esque amateur detective, but I loved how Segura made her love and passion for comics so evident and believable, and how honest he is about the highs and lows of the comics industry. Carmen’s enthusiasm and knowledge is really fun on the page, and we even get to see some of the pages of the comics of The Lynx as the story goes on and when the themes are relevant (given that Segura is also a comics writer, these moments were extra awesome and felt really authentic). And while this takes place in the 1970s, my guess is that some of the issues are timeless, and Segura takes on mediocre writers who get promotions based on sex and race, misogyny, idea theft, and other toxic realities of being a woman and POC in the comics industry. It adds another layer to the mystery, given that Harvey was more than happy to steal the credit from Carmen and figured that there wouldn’t be anything she could do about it. It all comes together nicely and in a way that adds to the plot and makes it all the more complex and interesting.

I definitely enjoyed “Secret Identity”, and already have a wide swath of people in mind as to who I would recommend it to (my Mom, for instance)! The buzz around this book is absolutely spot on. Anyone into superhero comics from the era, or just comics in general, should pick it up!

Rating 9: A solid mystery, a love letter to comics, and a stirring character study, “Secret Identity” is a must read for comics fans and mystery fans alike!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Secret Identity” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books for Geeky Girls”, and “About Comics”.

Other Stops on the Blog Tour:

Jessicamap Reviews (March 10)

Serena’s Review: “A Promise of Fire”

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Book: “A Promise of Fire” by Amanda Bouchet

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Casablanca, August 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

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

Book Description: Catalia “Cat” Fisa lives disguised as a soothsayer in a traveling circus. She is perfectly content avoiding the danger and destiny the Gods-and her homicidal mother-have saddled her with. That is, until Griffin, an ambitious warlord from the magic-deprived south, fixes her with his steely gaze and upsets her illusion of safety forever.

Griffin knows Cat is the Kingmaker, the woman who divines the truth through lies. He wants her as a powerful weapon for his newly conquered realm-until he realizes he wants her for much more than her magic. Cat fights him at every turn, but Griffin’s fairness, loyalty, and smoldering advances make him increasingly hard to resist and leave her wondering if life really does have to be short, and lived alone.

Review: This book ended up on my TBR list for a few reasons. For one thing, I’m still on the hunt for a new urban fantasy series to follow. And while this book wouldn’t technically fall into that category, the fast action and quippy heroine is definitely on par with what you find in that subgenre. I’ve also been perusing various romantic fantasy recommendation lists and this book has popped up on a few of them. So I went in with high hopes. Alas, this one was definitely not my cup of tea.

Cat has slowly built up a quiet and unnoticeable life as a soothsayer in the circus. There she has found not only freedom from attention but a found family in the others who don’t quite fit into the world and see the circus as a place of acceptance. But apparently Cat isn’t quite unnoticeable enough, as one day she draws the attention of a warlord who sees her magical abilities for what they are: the power to tell truth from lie. Now, captured and hauled across the kingdom to work for the warlord’s Queen, Cat begins to find her past rising up to catch her once again. Slowly, however, she begins to feel herself drawn to this warlord and his band of merry men. Could there be another future for her?

I was so disappointed with this book. And that’s mostly because when it started out, I was sure I was going to love it! I got through at least of a quarter of it and maybe closer to a third still thinking this. The writing is quick, the action is entertaining, and the dialogue was quippy and funny. Cat herself was immediately likeable and relatable. She seemed like the perfect kind of heroine to lead up a story like this (and did feel very “urban fantasy” like, for what it’s worth). I also had high hopes for Griffin as a love interest. He was definitely holding down the “dark and brooding” fort pretty thoroughly.

But then, as the story continued, it became clear that the dynamic between these two wasn’t going to change in the way I needed it to to enjoy it. The writing began to feel more juvenile. And the twist of the story began to feel so predictable and convenient that I couldn’t help being bothered by it. I almost had whiplash at how fast I went from really gobbling up a book to really struggling to even finish the thing.

I got on a pretty big soapbox when talking to a friend recently about romance novels and how the “problematic” approach to romance as a genre needs to be tempered with the escapism that we always look for in our fiction. Obviously, the terrible situations found in horror and thrillers novels are not something we would approve of in real life. So some of the relationships in romance novels may have elements in them that we wouldn’t love in real life, but because they are romance novels and have an essential promise of safety and love between the characters, it’s essentially a safe place to experience romantic arcs. Alas, this little speech doesn’t work for everything, and shortly after I made it, I came across this book.

Like I said, I wouldn’t not recommend this book because of the “problematic” relationship at its core. Indeed, this is a fairly high rated book on Goodreads. It was only that in my completely objective scale of what I can appreciate about in the traditional “alpha” romantic hero and what I can’t stand, this one fell too far in the negative direction. Obviously, the story starts out with kidnapping, so there’s a power dynamic at play there from the very start. And I was totally fine with that! It was just that as the book went on, I kept waiting for Griffin to essentially realize what he’d done in taking way Cat’s choices and, given his growing respect and love for her, giver her the choice to stay or go. Sadly, that didn’t come. Instead, Cat essentially talked herself into staying based, at least in my observation, on very few truly positive qualities to be found in Griffin and his band. Again and again, Griffin would ignore Cat’s language rebuffing him. We the reader know that she’s into it, but he didn’t come around to any of the respect I need these alpha types to have to keep my scale balanced. This is one of the reasons I’ve liked the “From Blood and Ash” series so far; the hero there has all of the moments of respect and understanding of his heroine that I definitely need to see in my romances.

I also began to be annoyed by Cat’s inner dialogue. Initially, I found her spunky and fun, just the right tone of snark and sarcasm that I like in my action fantasy heroines. But then she said “Ack!” one too many times in her head and…yeah, I couldn’t stop seeing it from then on. I really dislike this writing technique. I’m not sure what it’s meant to add, but it made Cat seem childish and silly. Something I definitely didn’t need from a heroine who is supposed to be standing up to her alpha male captor. Definitely don’t need anything that tips that power imbalance to an even worse degree.

Some of the supposed reveals were also really easy to spot. I don’t think this would have been a problem had I not been already struggling with the romance and Cat’s inner monologue. I didn’t go into this book expecting epic style twists or world-building that shocked and amazed. But on top of the other flaws, these weaker aspects also began to hurt the book more and more as it went.

This was so disappointing. Like I said, it was worse because I was so excited as I was reading the first part of the book. I even had the second one all lined up on my library hold list, that’s how sure I was that I was going to gobble this series up. And then it just tanked. Again, this book has pretty high ratings on Goodreads, and it did have that fun, quick reading style that some (including me at times) love, so this may still be for you. I really think it comes down to your tolerance level with alpha male leading men.

Rating 6: The “hero” of this book was not so heroic in my estimation, and the heroine’s inner dialogue was very cringey at times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Promise of Fire” is on these Goodreads lists: Slow-burn romance and (strangely) Sci-Fi/Fantasy with Healthy Relationships.

Kate’s Review: “Dark Stars: New Tales of Darkest Horror”

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Book: “Dark Stars: New Tales of Darkest Horror” by Joh F.D. Taft (Ed.)

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, March 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

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

Book Description: Dark Stars, edited by John F.D. Taff, is a tribute to horror’s longstanding short fiction legacy, featuring 12 terrifying original stories from today’s most noteworthy authors, with an introduction by bestselling author Josh Malerman and an afterword by Ramsey Campbell.

Created as an homage to the 1980 classic horror anthology, Dark Forces, edited by Kirby McCauley, this collection contains 12 original novelettes showcasing today’s top horror talent. Dark Stars features all-new stories from award-winning authors and up-and-coming voices like Stephen Graham Jones, Priya Sharma, Usman T. Malik, Caroline Kepnes, and Alma Katsu, with seasoned author John F.D. Taff at the helm. An afterword from original Dark Forces contributor Ramsey Campbell is a poignant finale to this bone-chilling collection.

Within these pages you’ll find tales of dead men walking, an insidious secret summer fling, an island harboring unspeakable power, and a dark hallway that beckons. You’ll encounter terrible monsters—both human and supernatural—and be forever changed. The stories in Dark Stars run the gamut from traditional to modern, from dark fantasy to neo-noir, from explorations of beloved horror tropes to the unknown—possibly unknowable—threats. It’s all in here because it’s all out there, now, in horror.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this collection!

“Dark Stars: New Tales of Darkest Horror” was a long time coming! As has been a theme for some books in the past two years, it was initially supposed to come out at one time, then got bumped back by a number of months due to various issues. It had been on my radar for awhile, as it was sporting the names of a number of my favorite authors (Caroline Kepnes and Stephem Graham Jones, what’s up?), AND was set up as an homage to horror anthology collections over the years (the title alone harkens to “Dark Forces”, a horror anthology from 1981 that is considered a game changer for horror short fiction in many horror circles). Those two things alone were enough to make me shrug off my nervousness about tackling a short story collection, when my experiences with such things are mixed. Granted, lately I’ve had a pretty good run with short story anthologies, but as a pessimist I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop!

I’ll break it down first with the stories I liked best. And the ones I’m picking are a mix of the obvious but also something new.

“The Attentionist” by Caroline Kepnes

Kepnes is one of my very favorite authors, so no duh she ends up as a top story in this collection. “The Attentionist” is a story that has a huge focus on sisterly rivalry, with a heavy dose of the original 1970s “Black Christmas” thrown in for good and horrifying measure. Maeve and Reg are teenage sisters, both desperate for the attention and approval of boys. They both have fantasies about being swept off their feet and live vicariously through each other, especially when Maeve gets a phone call that Reg answers and it leads to a fantasy about a potential boyfriend… But when Maeve picks up the phone, it isn’t a dream boy, but a threatening stalker, who keeps on calling, much to Maeve’s horror… and excitement. Kepnes is so damn good at making creepy and disturbing content go down with ease thanks to snark, sarcasm, and satire, and I was both very unsettled by this story while also being highly entertained. I liked the pacing, the turn on a dime reveals, and the way that Kepnes easily shows the consequences of her teenage girl characters being so deeply warped by society’s message about male approval at any cost.

“All the Things He Called Memories” by Stephen Graham Jones

Another favorite author makes it to my favorites list from this collection! And he did not disappoint, which isn’t surprising. “All the Things He Called Memories” is a blend of a few kinds of horror themes: isolation, the unknown, and the fear of not knowing a person you think you know. Jones sets his tale during the height of the first year of COVID-19, with married couple Bo and Marcy not leaving their home and trying to find ways to pass the time, Marcy suggesting they talk about their fears and the scariest thing they can remember from their lives. Bo talks about the feeling of always being watched whenever he was alone in his house, and feeling a presence around him…. And then, that presence starts to creep back into his psyche. But is it something supernatural, or a symptom of COVID restlessness.. or something worse? This story, like many Jones stories, has a deeply human element to it, with relatable characters and a slow build of creepiness that set my teeth on edge, and as Bo tries to figure out what is going on, Jones lays out many possibilities, only to have a very unsettling outcome that is going to stay with me for awhile. As someone who also has a terrible irrational feeling of being hunted while on the steps in my house, afraid of what may or may not be in the dark, this one was a home run for me.

“Challawa” by Usman T. Malik

I hadn’t read anything by Usman T. Malik until this short story collection, so I really didn’t know what to expect going in, but “Challawa” was fantastic. Karima and her husband Ed have travelled to India, with Karima interested in folklore and history of a small town that was the location of an English backed match factory during the Imperial occupation of Britain. As Karima learns of the folklore and mythology of the region, she is also dealing with her husband’s infidelity, the stillbirth of their child, and how their relationship has been reeling because of it (and other issues). As Karima gets closer to her guide and the lore, the history of violent colonialism bleeds in and leads up to a terrifying realization. This one was probably my favorite in the collection as a whole, as Malik not only has some great South Asian monster lore he’s working with, but also very real horrors of misogyny, racism, colonialism, and the traumas that all come with it. I’m reluctant to use this comparison because this is very much an Eastern story and shouldn’t have to have Western analogs, BUT, there are definitely similar universal themes that made me think of “Midsommar”. But given that I didn’t like “Midsommar”, I’m not going to say that “Challawa” is akin to it in all ways. It stands on its own as something unique and SUPER scary.

And while there were standouts from a couple more authors (I do want to acknowledge Alma Katsu’s story “The Familiar’s Assistant”, because man did that nail vampire themes!), the rest were mixed. There were some that were okay, or at least kept my attention, and there were others that really didn’t work for me, be it because of strange style choices, scattered narratives, or some slight to expansive appropriation of Indigenous cultural stories and themes. That last point aside, I’m sure that the variety of story types and subgenres means that there will be something for everyone in this collection, but as someone who is already wary of story collections the number of misses merely confirmed my wariness. There are certainly gems here, as you can see above, but having to get through the stories that weren’t as interesting was a bit of a chore.

If you are a horror person who really enjoys short story collections (and I know a few!), “Dark Stars” is a pretty good example of that. I’m always happy to find more authors I connect with, and that is something that this book provided for me.

Rating 7: A third really stood out, a third were okay, and a third were not for me. All in all, a mixed collection.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dark Stars: New Tales of Darkest Horror” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror to Look Forward to in 2022”.

Diving Into Sub-Genres: Urban Fantasy

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We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

Urban fantasy is a very distinct sub-genre of the larger fantasy genre. I believe it’s a fairly polarizing one as well: fantasy readers either really love it or really dislike it. Like some other sub-genres in much greater sprawling genres, it also gets a lot of snobbery directed to it as “low brow” fantasy literature. I think most of this comes down to the fact that urban fantasy is typically fast-moving, action packed, and focused more on an individual lead character than on creating a massive, complex world, magical system and cast of characters.

A few features that are common in urban fantasy typically come down to setting and the type of fantasy elements involved. As the title of the sub-genre implies, most urban fantasy is set in an urban environment. Almost always, urban fantasy takes place in some alternate version of our own world, with real cities featured as the backdrop. However, “urban” by no means is limited to major cities, as there are plenty of urban fantasy series set in fairly small to medium sized metro area (or even some that take place mostly in rural locations). The thing that mostly stands out is that they are decidedly NOT second world fantasy and don’t include entirely made up lands.

They also typically feature a cast of magical creatures. The leading character usually has some connection between these worlds, the world of the humans and the, often underground, world of magical beings. You see a lot of vampires, werewolves, demons, and fairies in these types of books. Urban fantasy also typically features one or two leading characters and is highly focused on following their particular tales across a series of books. And, as I mentioned above, the writing is often fast paced and has an emphasis on quippy dialogue and action set pieces.

Book: “Moon Called” by Patricia Briggs

Patricia Briggs writes almost quintessential urban fantasies. She has two major series, but her “Mercy Thompson” series is her longest running with the other series coming in as a spin-off. Mercy is a coyote shapeshifter, but she starts the series trying to live primarily in the human world as a mechanic. This doesn’t last long, however, when she gets caught up in an on-going mystery involving her handsome werewolf neighbor, Adam. As the series continues, the world expands massively to include vampires, ghosts, demons, and a bunch of other less well-known magical creatures. This is a fast-paced story with a heavy emphasis on Mercy’s own quippy narration.

Book: “Storm Front” by Jim Butcher

I haven’t read a lot of Butcher’s “Dresden” series myself, but there is no way to talk about urban fantasy and not mention this incredibly popular author. There’s a pretty large stereotype that urban fantasy is written by women, for women, and features women, but Butcher’s “Dresden” series puts paid to that idea as it’s probably one of the biggest series out there. The story follows Harry Dresden, a wizard who also works as a private investigator for the Chicago P.D. when ordinary crimes present with decidedly unordinary elements. Because the main character is a P.I., these books mix elements from urban fantasy, mysteries, and crime fiction into action-packed bundles of fun.

Book: “Forest of the Heart” by Charles de Lint

Charles de Lint is the author I go to when I’m looking for cross-over between urban fantasy and literary fiction. Unlike the first two books on this list, de Lint’s stories operate at a slower pace and place a stronger emphasis on description and scene-setting. Technically, “Forests of the Heart” is in the middle of one of his series, but many of his books stand alone, and this was one of my personal favorites of his. The story features Bettina, a part Native American, part Mexican woman who is a witness to the ongoing conflict between the spirits that came over with settlers and the native beings who roam the land. She calls these dark beings, the ones from the other lands, los lobos and stays well clear. Until one shows up on her doorstep.

Book: “Feed” by Mira Grant

This is another book that has a lot of cross-over appeal, this time between urban fantasy and horror. Zombies exist in a kind of nebulous realm where both horror and fantasy claim them as beings to be found in their own genres. So, we’ll give zombies to urban fantasy with this one. The story is of two siblings and bloggers, Georgia and Shaun, who are documenting the ongoing zombie apocalypse. This is also a YA book (all the rest of these are technically listed as adult fiction, though I’d say they can also count as new adult). The story does lean into the gore and horror side of things, so strict fantasy fans should be aware of that. But the story does meet a lot of the other criteria for urban fantasy: fast-paced storytelling, a contemporary setting, and two main characters featured heavily at the heart of the story.

Book: “Written in Red” by Anne Bishop

Anne Bishop’s “Others” series is another wildly popular urban fantasy series. And, while it meets many of the standards of the genre (urban setting, werewolves, nature spirits, etc.) it is decidedly not a fast paced book. Instead, this is the urban fantasy series for those fantasy fans who really like to revel in the world itself. A lot of emphasis is placed on the characters and the world structure, and a lot on the politics between the humans and the fantasy creatures. Less emphasis on action, with there often only being one or two action scenes, some even happening off page. It does present an incredibly unique setting and world where the colonizers of North America found that they were by no means the most powerful to walk the land and have to find ways to not tick off the powerful magical forces that rule this continent.

Book: “Rosemary and Rue” by Seanan McGuire

And to round out my list, we return to another very popular, very traditional series of urban fantasy. Seanan McGuire’s ongoing “October Daye” series is probably one of the best out there. I, for one, am a huge fan! The story follows the titular October Daye, a changeling who is part human and part fae. Like many of the main characters in urban fantasy series, she starts out trying to maintain a life that distances herself from Faerie, a place where she feels she has been betrayed. But, so too, she doesn’t quite fit into this human world either. After a murder falls into her lap, Toby is pulled back into the fae world and must take up her old role as a knight errant. From there, the series unfolds with her becoming more and more enmeshed in the goings on between Faerie and the human world. This series stands out because of Toby herself. Given her unique situation (no spoilers!), she’s a bit of a darker character than some of the other leading urban fantasy ladies we’ve seen.

What are some of your favorite urban fantasy books?

Serena’s Review: “Scorpica”

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Book: “Scorpica” by G. R. Macallister

Publishing Info: Saga Press, February 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: e-ARC from the publisher!

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

Book Description: A centuries-long peace is shattered in a matriarchal society when a decade passes without a single girl being born in this sweeping epic fantasy that’s perfect for fans of Robin Hobb and Circe.

Five hundred years of peace between queendoms shatters when girls inexplicably stop being born. As the Drought of Girls stretches across a generation, it sets off a cascade of political and personal consequences across all five queendoms of the known world, throwing long-standing alliances into disarray as each queendom begins to turn on each other—and new threats to each nation rise from within.

Uniting the stories of women from across the queendoms, this propulsive, gripping epic fantasy follows a warrior queen who must rise from childbirth bed to fight for her life and her throne, a healer in hiding desperate to protect the secret of her daughter’s explosive power, a queen whose desperation to retain control leads her to risk using the darkest magic, a near-immortal sorcerer demigod powerful enough to remake the world for her own ends—and the generation of lastborn girls, the ones born just before the Drought, who must bear the hopes and traditions of their nations if the queendoms are to survive.

Review: It seems like I just finished up reviewing a book with a very similar concept to this one. “The First Girl Child” was also a fantasy with a plotline centered around the sudden loss of girl babies being born in the land. This book’s set up, however, promises to tell a very different story, centering the tale around a matriarchal society where the dearth of women means a loss of leadership, military prowess, and much more. So I was very excited when the publisher reached out to me with an eARC to review this book. Let’s dive on it!

The world is made up of five nations, all queendoms ruled by powerful leading women. This world order, so stable for so long, is suddenly thrown into question when girl babies suddenly stop being born. As the land shifts beneath their feet, each Queen must confront the peril that comes with this delicate balance being thrown into chaos. Alliances are broken. Trust is shattered. And fear seems to rising in every sector of the land.

While this book wasn’t quite what I hoped it would be, there were still several things that were quite well done. The world-building, at first, did come off as a bit simplistic with its five little kingdoms neatly divided into specific traits, such as an emphasis on military prowess, bureaucratic guile, or magical abilities. It’s kind of a YA tactic that I’ve seen all too often: a get-out-of-jail free card to replace complicated culture building when peopling one’s world. But, luckily, here, as the story continued to unfold, I did find more work put in to this world than just these easily defined kingdoms. Through the various queens we see, the nature of each people became more complex, making for a more interesting interplay between these kingdoms.

The story is also committed to it’s slower style of story-telling. This is a very dialogue-light tale, with a lot of work done in the narration itself. Sometimes this worked, and other times, less so. It took quite a while for me to become invested in the story, partly due to this slower pacing and partly due to the split POVs (a pet peeve of mine and by no means an objective ding to this book.) With less dialogue on the page, it did take a bit longer to feel like I really understood the difference between the characters. But again, as the story built, I did find myself becoming more invested in certain characters (less so in others, always my problem with multiple POV books it seems).

In some ways, the book was almost too believable. In the face of such a sudden, completely unexpected devastation as the loss of girls in a matriarchal society, most people have no idea what to do, including many of the queens we see here. On one hand, looking at how real-world countries struggle to take meaningful action in the face of disasters that happen on such a grand scope (pandemics, climate change, etc.), it’s easily believable to see the struggles of these leaders to react in any true way. Largely, many of them came off as very passive in the face of this disaster. I was pleased to see one of these queens actively moving forward, and it’s no surprise that her story was my favorite.

Overall, I liked this book fairly well. It’s definitely a slow-moving beast and is dedicated to the minutia at heart of the situation created. Those fantasy readers who enjoy geopolitical stories will likely find lots to like here. If you’re more into action and quick dialogue, however, this probably isn’t for you.

Rating 7: An interesting concept and world that is ultimately hindered by being maybe a bit too realistic.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Scorpica” is on this Goodreads list: Upcoming 2022 SFF Books With Female Leads or Co-Leads.

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