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”

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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.

Kate’s Review: “The London Séance Society”

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Book: “The London Séance Society” by Sarah Penner

Publishing Info: Park Row, March 2023

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

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

Book Description: 1873. At an abandoned château on the outskirts of Paris, a dark séance is about to take place, led by acclaimed spiritualist Vaudeline D’Allaire. Known worldwide for her talent in conjuring the spirits of murder victims to ascertain the identities of the people who killed them, she is highly sought after by widows and investigators alike.

Lenna Wickes has come to Paris to find answers about her sister’s death, but to do so, she must embrace the unknown and overcome her own logic-driven bias against the occult. When Vaudeline is beckoned to England to solve a high-profile murder, Lenna accompanies her as an understudy. But as the women team up with the powerful men of London’s exclusive Séance Society to solve the mystery, they begin to suspect that they are not merely out to solve a crime, but perhaps entangled in one themselves

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

I was very enamored with Sarah Penner’s previous novel “The Lost Apothecary”, as it told the story of women who had to take their lives and sense of justice into their own hands during a time when there were so few options granted to them should they be abused by powerful men. Talk about cathartic! So I knew that when she came out with a new historical thriller/mystery I would definitely want to check it out. You can probably guess that when I saw that her new book was called “The London Séance Society”, I was VERY excited. Not only was Penner doing another woman centric historical thriller with a feminist bent, but she was also maybe bringing in GHOSTS! Or at the very least the ideas of ghosts, mediums, and séances from the Victorian Spiritualism movement!

The thriller and dark fantasy elements of this book worked really well together, branching out from her previous genre that’s steeped in non-supernatural themes and doing so with success. I really loved the mystery as renowned medium Vaudeline and her apprentice Lenna are pulled into the mysterious death of Vaudeline’s friend Mr. Volckman, who was the head of the men’s only spiritualist group The London Séance Society, and how both women have their reasons for wanting to find the truth about him and his group. For Vaudeline, she is trying to keep the reputation of spiritualism untainted, and the LSS is rumored to be a bit suspect. For Lenna, it’s that her sister Evie (a former student of Vaudeline and aspiring medium) was murdered, and Lenna is trying to figure out what happened to her, while realizing that she, too, may have gifts that she doesn’t really believe in.

We had a couple perspectives, the first being a third person perspective of Lenna as she tries to solve her sister’s murder. Lenna is skeptical and grief stricken, but is also finding herself growing more attracted to Vaudeline as they prepare to conduct a séance with the LSS. The other perspective is that of Mr. Morley, one of the high ranking members of the LSS, and his is in the first person and generally in the past. With both these perspectives we get the pieces of the two puzzles, and we start to wonder who can be trusted and what is real and what is not. I did find myself questioning the motives and perspectives of a few of the characters, and I was surprised by a few of the reveals. It’s a well done mystery with some moments of true suspense, as well as some solid supernatural bits and elements that worked well. I liked Lenna enough, I REALLY liked Vaudeline, and most of the characters had interesting moments and felt pretty grounded in reality given the time, the place, and their motives. I also liked that from the jump we know that while Lenna is skeptical, Vaudeline has a very real gift and talent, and that the ghost aspects of this book were leaned into and made for an interesting fantasy angle.

I really do have to gush about the setting of this story, as the Victorian Era has something of a special place in my heart due to the fact I used to work as an interpreter in a Victorian mansion in St. Paul. Penner hits the nail on the head with the historical tidbits when it comes to spiritualism, séances, gender and class divisions, and superstitions of the time period, and uses it all to create a well conceived mystery with it’s fair share of timeless themes. I loved that our protagonists Vaudeline and Lenna are two women mediums who are trying to solve the murders of Volckman and Evie, but are coming up against a men’s only group that has taken the skills of women mediums, twisted them for monetary gains, and has banned women from the group altogether while creating fraudulent practices that endanger the reputations of real spiritualists like Vaudeline. I mean, how freaking typical (and also true! The LSS is based on the actual Ghost Club from that time period, and no, women were NOT allowed even thought it was women who were the pioneers of the spiritualism movement, fraudulent as it was). There is also a very handy historical note at the back of the book that puts a lot of this into context AND has recipes for a couple refreshments of the time period AND has a candle making guide! This is my total jam and it was a fun surprise at the end of the book.

I enjoyed “The London Séance Society”, and Sarah Penner has started a streak of engaging historical thrillers. I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next!

Rating 8: A compelling mystery that puts women mediums at the forefront and explores spiritualism, misogyny, and an obsession with the dead during the Victorian Era.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The London Séance Society” is included on the Goodreads lists “Bone Book Club” and “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2023”.

Serena’s Review: “Flowerheart”

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Book: “Flowerheart” by Catherine Bakewell

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, March 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Clara’s magic has always been wild. But it’s never been dangerous. Then a simple touch causes poisonous flowers to bloom in her father’s chest.

The only way to heal him is to cast an extremely difficult spell that requires perfect control. And the only person willing to help is her former best friend, Xavier, who’s grown from a sweet, shy child into a mysterious and distant young man.

Xavier names a terrible price in return, knowing Clara will give anything to save her father. As she struggles to reconcile the new Xavier with the boy she once loved, she discovers their bargain is only one of the heavy secrets he’s hiding. And as she hunts for the truth, she instead finds the root of a terrible darkness that’s taken hold in the queendom—a darkness only Clara’s magic is powerful enough to stop.

Review: This is definitely one of those books that I first looked at because of the cover. It immediately stood out when I was scrolling through Edelweiss+ planning out my spring reading schedule. Tons of books with daggers and swords on the covers, lots of duo characters drawn in that cartoonish style that is so popular right now (not that I dislike this style per se, just there’s a lot of it). This cover’s unique art immediately stood out and had me clicking through to the description. So well done there!

Clara has always struggled to control her magic, so much so that the local leaders have presented her with a terrible ultimatum to prevent her from injuring others. But before she can go through with it, the worst happens and an innocent touch causes her magic to sprout poisonous plants in her father’s chest, dooming him to a painful and slow death. When an old friend offers to help her tame her magic in an attempt to save her father’s life, she doesn’t even hesitate in the face of the steep price he requests. But when it becomes clear that Xavier is caught up in much darker forces than she had previously known, Clara begins to wonder with just whom did she strike her perilous bargain?

One thing that I found interesting when I was looking into this book was that it was marketed as a “cottage core” fantasy novel. What does that even mean? As far as I’m aware “cottage core” is a style of interior decoration. I’m not sure how that translates to a genre of book? Digging deeper, I discovered that there seems to be a recent trend of labeling some books “cozy fantasy,” which I imagine is just a spin-off from the more popular “cozy mystery” subcategory. Based on the latter, I’d guess that a cozy fantasy novel would be a story that avoids darker themes or graphic descriptions. Like cozy mysteries, they would focus on lighter topics and have happy endings, essentially. All of this to say, while I could see how cozy fantasy would apply to this story, I still have no clue about “cottage core.” And honestly, I’m not a fan of that description; interior decoration styles and genres of books are just not the same thing. Sorry, not sorry.

Anyways, that rant aside, I can definitely see how this book could fall into the “cozy” category. Overall, it does stay on the lighter side of things and the plot wraps up with a nice bow at the end. But this book also highlights why a lot of cozy mysteries don’t work for me either. Look, I don’t need tragedy around every corner and tons of graphic violence, but if you paint in only bright colors, without any shades of grey, the entire thing starts to just lose focus and interest. Clara is fine. Xavier is fine. This world and magic are fine. But I didn’t care about any of them.

I also found the magic system and world to be barely fleshed out at all. Towards the second third of the book, we begin to learn about a magical illness that is going around that leaves its victims comatose. This was the first thing to trigger my interest, but even that quickly sank into the quagmire of dullness that I found this read. Nothing was objectively bad, but it all was just so flat feeling that even small points of interest quickly faded away.

There was also an attempt by the author to deal with mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety. And while I applaud the effort, I don’t think it quite hit the mark. At points, it felt incredibly over-simplified and the metaphors heavy-handed. And then Clara has this weird relationship to her own magic where she speaks to it as a living, thinking being using this strange internal dialogue, which I wasn’t a fan of. It turns out that this particular choice plays a larger role later in the story, but that was still too late to save my reading experience through which I had been perpetually annoyed by this.

Overall, this book wasn’t for me. I do think that readers looking for something in the cozy category may enjoy this one more, but I’ve started coming to the conclusion that “cozy” any genre is just not my cup of tea.

Rating 6: Perhaps other readers looking for just a quick, cozy read will enjoy this, but I found everything from the world-building to characterization to be a bit too watered down to enjoy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flowerheart” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Books that inspired or are similar to Studio Ghibli / Hayao Miyazaki films and CozySFF

Kate’s Review: “Piñata”

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Book: “Piñata” by Leopoldo Gout

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, March 2023

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

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

Book Description: A Head Full of Ghosts meets Hereditary in Piñata, a terrifying possession tale by author and artist Leopoldo Gout.

Carmen Sanchez is back in her home country of Mexico, overseeing the renovation of an ancient cathedral into a boutique hotel. Her teen daughters, Izel and Luna, are with her for the summer, and left to fill their afternoons unsupervised in a foreign city.

The locals treat the Sanchez women like outsiders, while Carmen’s contractors openly defy and sabotage her work. After a disastrous accident at the construction site nearly injures Luna, Carmen’s had enough. They’re leaving.

Back in New York, Luna begins acting strange, and only Izel notices the chilling changes happening to her younger sister. But it might be too late for the Sanchez family to escape what’s been awakened

Piñata is a bone-chilling story about how the sinister repercussions of our past can return to haunt us.

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

I love it when a horror novel really gets under my skin. The kind that I can’t really shake while I’m reading it, and the kind that just sits on my consciousness when I’m doing other things or when I have finished it. When I saw “Piñata” by Leopoldo Gout on my various timelines and Goodreads feeds, I decided to request it because it sounded fairly promising. Sure, it was a possession story, which tend to be hit or miss for me, but I do love a good social commentary in my horror, and this one sounded like it had some good potential for thoughtful take downs of colonialism. So I started it, thinking it would be interesting at least. And almost immediately after starting this book, I was deeply, deeply unsettled, and knew I wasn’t going to shake this one for awhile. And it’s not even the supernatural beings in this that did that to me.

For someone who doesn’t usually gel with possession stories, “Piñata” is one of those stories that absolutely works for me because it makes it feel unique, or at least turns it a bit on its head. I really liked following Carmen and her daughters Izel and Luna as they spend time in Mexico, and I loved seeing the slowly building unease as Luna starts to behave strangely after an accident at the Church site on a restoration project that Carmen was working on. From Luna not quite acting right, to weird hallucinations of butterflies and a strange old woman, to ghastly imagery of rage filled demons that torment Carmen and those around her, Gout really knows how to create a visceral horror moment. I also loved the subversion of the more traditional Western possession stories and how it incorporates pre-Columbian folklore and mythology, as it feels less about the Christian idea of demons and more about otherworldly beings with a score to settle.

I’m still very much into reading horror novels that take on greater social themes, and “Piñata” may be one of the more harrowing and upsetting ones that I’ve read. The theme here is that of colonialism, and the way that Indigenous people in Mexico (and the greater Americas) were victimized, abused, and destroyed by Western invaders, and in this book it is specifically the Spanish and the Catholic Church. The prologue alone had me floored and shaking with abject horror and rage, as it really sets up the story of angry spirits in a Mexican church that find themselves awakened and hellbent on revenge. Gout doesn’t shy away from the atrocities that the Spanish and the Church perpetuated against Indigenous groups, and it makes for unrelenting horrors as we see the long lasting effects of the colonizers, not just through a possessed child but also through violence in Mexico, dangerous situations at the border, and racism and colorism. It’s upsetting and it should be upsetting.

The one thing that took me out of this book, however, was the uneven pacing of it. I love a slow burn and slow build in my horror, especially when the slow burn knows how to tap into anxiety and to ratchet up the tension until it is practically at the breaking point. I liked the way that Gout carefully builds up the tension regarding Luna’s possession as well as the visions that our characters are seeing. The problem is that when it all comes to a head, and a LOT has to come to a head, a great majority of it happens practically in the last fourth of the book. And it feels like a lot of whiplash as all the action starts to barrel forth and almost in an out of control way. It then leads to a wrap up climax that almost felt too quick on top of all the REALLY fast things leading up to it. It doesn’t ruin the story by any means, it just makes it feel disjointed.

Uneven pacing aside, I thought that “Piñata” was a disturbing read with a lot of really good themes about colonization and the damage it has done and continues to do. Gout just devastated me out the gate and found the horrors within history and applied it to a modern story, and I really enjoyed it.

Rating 9: So many intense moments and such great commentary about the destruction that Colonialism brought to the Americas. While there are some pacing issues, overall “Piñata” is scary and mesmerizing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Piñata” is included on the Goodreads lists “Latinx Horror/Fantasy”, and “Men of Color Dark Fiction Writers”.

Book Club Review: “The Witch’s Heart”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is retellings and re-imaginings.  For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Witch’s Heart” by Genevieve Gornichec

Publishing Info: Ace Books, February 2021

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

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

Retelling/Re-imagining: Norse Mythology

Book Description: Angrboda’s story begins where most witches’ tales end: with a burning. A punishment from Odin for refusing to provide him with knowledge of the future, the fire leaves Angrboda injured and powerless, and she flees into the farthest reaches of a remote forest. There she is found by a man who reveals himself to be Loki, and her initial distrust of him transforms into a deep and abiding love.

Their union produces three unusual children, each with a secret destiny, who Angrboda is keen to raise at the edge of the world, safely hidden from Odin’s all-seeing eye. But as Angrboda slowly recovers her prophetic powers, she learns that her blissful life—and possibly all of existence—is in danger.

With help from the fierce huntress Skadi, with whom she shares a growing bond, Angrboda must choose whether she’ll accept the fate that she’s foreseen for her beloved family…or rise to remake their future. From the most ancient of tales this novel forges a story of love, loss, and hope for the modern age.

Kate’s Thoughts

While I have a pretty extensive knowledge of Greek Mythology thanks to an obsession with it in grade school, Norse Mythology is pretty outside of my wheelhouse. I know some of the basic things, and have a general working knowledge of the various Gods and the whole concept of Ragnorak, but it’s sparse when compared to other people I’d imagine. So I was going into “The Witch’s Heart” without much idea of what to expect when it came to our protagonist Angrboda, the witch who eventually gave birth to Loki’s monster children who help usher in the apocalypse myth. But that just made me game to give it a shot, especially since it was getting the “Circe” treatment and retelling a story with a character who doesn’t have as much to do in the original myths. And for the most part, I enjoyed “The Witch’s Heart”, but that may be because I had few expetations.

For one thing, I really liked the emotional exploration of Angrboda as a woman used by powerful men, as well as the emotional exploration of her as a mother to her children, as atypical as they may be. And by atypical I mean a half corpse daughter, a wolf, and a serpent. But I really got a sense of her love for all of them and the way that she was desperate to protect them, while also falling for Loki no matter how dysfunctional that relationship was. The way she was written to me made me believe it, even though sometimes I wanted to shake her and be like ‘SERIOUSLY, THIS GUY?’ (so does her huntress friend Skadi, a character that I also found intriguing though I think I needed more of her. Also, damn you Tom Hiddleston for making Loki so damn likable, because this version, while more true to the myth, was a punk). The relatable emotional bits were what really kept me engaged, as I was deeply invested in her relationship with her kids event though I did know that it would all end in tears because of the myths they are based upon. That being said, I also thought that there were bits where it kind of dragged after abrupt tone shifts that didn’t work as well for me. I was far more interested in her being a mother in the forest as opposed to the end of world action that was inevitably going to take place.

Ultimately I was entertained by “The Witch’s Heart”. I’m still into these outside the box retellings of mythological women, and would love to see more that push beyond the obvious Greek stories, so that made this one all the more enjoyable.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’m fairly familiar with Norse mythology. Not an expert, by any means, but I already knew the story being retold here fairly well, as well as the major players involved. That was both a plus and a minus as far as my reading experience goes. Like Kate, I’m really enjoying this current surge of books being published that reimagine or create stories for lesser known characters, often women, from mythology. I also really like the fact that we are venturing beyond the much more popular Greek pantheon.

Angrboda was almost a perfect character for this sort of retelling. She doesn’t have much as far as the original lore, so there was a lot of room to portray her story. And somehow I think the author both did too much and too little. On one hand, the story was very faithful to the major plot points of the Norse story from which it is derived. But almost too much? I would have liked a few more creative interpretations brought in. Also, like Kate said, I think Angrboda’s character was given some interesting themes to cover, especially with regards to her relationship to her children and to her unhealthy relationship with her husband, Loki. But on the other hand, I felt like she was a bit more passive of a character than I would have expected or hoped for from a woman who has birthed literal monsters!

I also agree with Kate that the pacing of this book felt a bit off. The first half is fairly slow with a lot of time spent with Angrboda hanging out in a cave in the woods. The storytelling was also interrupted by lots of banter from Loki. Which, on one hand, I liked a lot of the dialogue, but I also felt like there were times where the author got rather self-indulgent with it. And then there’s a massive tonal shift in the second half where we’re fulling into the world-shifting dramatics.

Overall, I felt like this book was a bit all over the place. Are my expectations unreasonably high from “Circe?” Probably. But was this the best that could have been done with this story or these characters? I don’t think so.

Kate’s Rating 7: A retelling of a source material I have not so much knowledge of that kept my attention and had some emotional moments, though also some dragging ones.

Serena’s Rating 7: A bit uneven in pacing as well as characterization, but something that will likely appeal to readers who are looking for a different pantheon to explore in their mythological retellings.

Book Club Questions

  1. How familiar are you with Norse Mythology? Could you predict how things were going to go based how much you knew about it?
  2. What did you think of Angrboda as a protagonist? What did you like or dislike about her?
  3. What did you think about Angrboda’s relationships in this story, whether it was Loki, Skadi, or her children?
  4. Did you have any thoughts on how Loki was presented and interpreted in this novel?
  5. There have been a lot of marketing comparisons between this book and Madeline Miller’s “Circe”. What did you think of this marketing choice?
  6. The parts of this book were separated out in very deliberate chunks of time and very deliberate themes. Did you have a part you liked the best?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Witch’s Heart” is included on the Goodreads lists “Hot Girl Mythology Books”, and “Loki: God of Mischief”.

Next Book Club Pick: “Great or Nothing” by Joy McCullough, Caroline Tung Richmond, Tess Sharpe, and Jessica Spotswood

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