Serena’s Review: “Angel Mage”

41951611Book: “Angel Mage” by Garth Nix

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: More than a century has passed since Liliath crept into the empty sarcophagus of Saint Marguerite, fleeing the Fall of Ystara. But she emerges from her magical sleep still beautiful, looking no more than nineteen, and once again renews her single-minded quest to be united with her lover, Palleniel, the archangel of Ystara.

A seemingly impossible quest, but Liliath is one of the greatest practitioners of angelic magic to have ever lived, summoning angels and forcing them to do her bidding.

Liliath knew that most of the inhabitants of Ystara died from the Ash Blood plague or were transformed into beastlings, and she herself led the survivors who fled into neighboring Sarance. Now she learns that angels shun the Ystaran’s descendants. If they are touched by angelic magic, their blood will turn to ash. They are known as Refusers, and can only live the most lowly lives.

But Liliath cares nothing for the descendants of her people, save how they can serve her. It is four young Sarancians who hold her interest: Simeon, a studious doctor-in-training; Henri, a dedicated fortune hunter; Agnez, an adventurous musketeer cadet; and Dorotea, an icon-maker and scholar of angelic magic. They are the key to her quest.

The four feel a strange kinship from the moment they meet, but do not know why, or suspect their importance. All become pawns in Liliath’s grand scheme to fulfill her destiny and be united with the love of her life. No matter the cost to everyone else. . .

Review: I’m not caught up with all of the books in the “Sabriel” series (know that’s not really the name, but it might as well be), so it’s been quite a while since I’ve read a new book by Garth Nix. So when I saw this title pop up on Edelweiss+ it seemed like a perfect opportunity to revisit a past favorite.

Long ago, Ystara, the homeland of the patron archangel Pallenial, fell amidst horror and terror. It was suspected that a powerful angelic mage, Liliath had something to do with this fall, but no one knows the truth of it. After many years pass, however, Liliath miraculously returns, still young, still powerful, still driven to accomplish a plan only known to her. Caught up in her ambitions are not only the remnants of the Ystaraian people, now shunned by the countries they live in as refugees, but four specific young people. Not knowing why they are connected or what Liliath wants from them, a medical student, a scholar, a musketeer, and a scribe must work together to not only discover their own role, but help aid or thwart Liliath in her grand plans.

This is another great example of a lesser used source story (similar to “The Republic” and “The Lady and the Tiger” that we seen earlier). Here, Nix is clearly drawing from “The Three Musketeers,” and it’s pretty excellent. He perfectly finds the balancing point between making enough references to the original as to make it recognizable to most readers and layering so much new world-building and plot that the story remains feeling completely unique. In many ways, it seems that Nix had an original idea, world, and magic system teed up to go and then looked through some of his own fan favorites and discovered “The Three Musketeers.” This is in no way a criticism of the story. More so, it’s a testament to his skill that he can superimpose favored elements from another story in a way that makes it clear he is largely wanting to just play in that world while still ending up with a book that so completely stands on its own as unalike anything I’ve read before.

The “Mustketeer” elements are most evident in the style of writing, especially in the dialogue between the characters. It’s hard to put my finger on it for this review; it’s more a “know it when you read it” kind of thing. The culture is also heavily influenced by the France that we see in that book, with much of the style of dress, honor system, and conflicting political and religious powers ringing as familiar. These political/religious conflicts were particularly intriguing. Nix spends a good amount of time setting up the different power players in the story and their differing connections to the angelic magic that plays such a large role in society. And each of our four main characters has a unique connection to these divisions and their differing priorities.

All four of the characters were very well-drawn. There is excellent diversity between them all in most every way you can ask for. I enjoyed reading all of their sections equally pretty much, but I will say that I particularly enjoyed the portions that dealt with Agnez, our musketeer in the making. For those who read my Animorphs reviews, Agnez is a very “Rachel-like” character: she’s brave, a bit reckless, and has a clear view of right/wrong/and what should be done, regardless of others’ perceptions of it. She’s also the most clearly connected to the original Musketeers, with the same charming bravado.

The story is also blessedly free of a romance between any of these four members. I love a good romance at the heart of my story, but I must confess that I’m pretty burned out on these YA fantasy ensemble stories (usually heists), particularly with the romances at the heart of them. They’ve gotten incredibly predictable and almost farcical in their similarities to each other. And at the heart of each are yawn-inducing, lazy romances that are built completely on the fact that they are what readers expect to find in these stories. No work is done to make any couple/pairing particularly relatable or believable; it just is because they know that’s what readers expect. So it was a breath of fresh air to open this book and have the more sibling-like relationships between these group members laid out fairly early in the story, immediately putting to rest any mental predictions on romantic pairs that the reader may already be forming.

I also enjoyed how much time we got to spend with Liliath. In many ways, she’s just as much a main character as the four others. We learn her motivations, her strengths, as well as the ambitions and single-mindedness that drive her. We see her plans play out while the four main characters must piece things together, all while we, the reader, are still not clear on Liliath’s endgame. This makes for a nice mixture of mystery and tension as the story plays out.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this book. It’s definitely different than anything I’ve read before, and anyone going into with expectations derived from what’s popular in YA fantasy right now may be disappointed. This a slower moving story with world-building at its heart. The connections to “The Three Musketeers” will also be appreciated depending on the reader’s familiarity with that story. Readers looking for a unique, fresh-feeling YA ensemble fantasy, this is a great place to start!

Rating 8: Enough hints of “The Three Musketeers” to add some extra fun, but stands on its own with an incredibly unique and fresh world.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Angel Mage” is a new book, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists. But it should be on “Angels & Demons.”

Find “Angel Mage” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Ghoster”

31934011Book: “Ghoster” by Jason Arnopp

Publishing Info: Orbit, October 2019

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

Book Description: Jason Arnopp – author of acclaimed cult hit The Last Days of Jack Sparks – returns with a razor-sharp thriller for a social-media obsessed world. Prepare to never look at your phone the same way again . . .

Kate Collins has been ghosted. She was supposed to be moving in with her new boyfriend Scott, but all she finds after relocating to Brighton is an empty apartment. Scott has vanished. His possessions have all disappeared. Except for his mobile phone. Kate knows she shouldn’t hack into Scott’s phone. She shouldn’t look at his Tinder, his calls, his social media. But she can’t quite help herself. That’s when the trouble starts. Strange, whispering phone calls from numbers she doesn’t recognize. Scratch marks on the walls that she can’t explain. And the growing feeling that she’s being watched. Kate refuses to leave the apartment – she’s not going anywhere until she’s discovered what happened to Scott. But the deeper she dives into Scott’s digital history the more Kate realizes just how little she really knows about the man she loves.

Review: Thanks to Orbit for sending me an ARC of this novel!

Back in 2017 I was flying back from New Zealand and was totally enthralled by “The Last Days of Jack Sparks” by Jason Arnopp. While I am not usually super into nor affected by possession and exorcist stories, the uniqueness and genuine creepiness of this novel completely blew me away and was one of my favorite reads of the year. I waited anxiously for a new book by Arnopp to drop, and when I saw that he had a new book called “Ghoster” coming out, I was ecstatic. I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of “Ghoster”, and once I had finished a couple other books that took precedent, I dove right in. “Ghoster” isn’t a possession story. At least, not in the way that we normally think about them. But it is a story about obsession, and how things can seemingly take you over in unexpected, and dangerous ways. 

Oh, and we once again get some creepy and unsettling imagery that freaked me the hell out.

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Sometimes I just had to step away. (source)

Kate, or protagonist, is a bit of a complex and unreliable character. We know that she has had obsessive issues with social media and romance in the past, and after her lover Scott seemingly disappears on the eve of them moving in together, you wonder if her need to find him is based on worry for his safety, or a dark jealousy that is hinted at from her previous relationships and actions. It’s first person, so we get into her mind and how quirky and obsessive it can be. She is convinced that Scott has left her, or has tricked her, and since it isn’t often that she stops to think that maybe something bad happened to him it makes you question a lot about her mental state. Is she a woman with a legitimate beef, or is she a bit more unstable than she’d like us to think?  It sets a tone that is already uneasy and makes it all the more jarring. I felt bad for Kate, but I also wasn’t sure if I could totally trust her and her perceptions, or the story that she was telling us. It’s true that there were a couple of times where I thought that her strangeness was laid on a little thick, but for the most part it was well done and a great way to make the reader question even more about the story than they already may have been. It also makes it so that when the very strange things start happening, we have to wonder what is real and what isn’t. I wouldn’t say that Kate is likable, but she sure doesn’t have to be. It’s not like Jack Sparks was a likable character, after all, so why can’t Kate also be that way? It didn’t make me any less invested in her story.

The creepy elements and plot of this book aren’t as amped as Arnopp’s previous novel, but they are still there and they are still done in a way that left an impression. As Kate slowly tries to trace Scott’s steps and whereabouts, she finds more and more things that suggest something is afoot. She has his cell phone, and is able to see his browsing history, which implies that he may not have been the person he said he is. There is a missing woman that may have a connection to him. And on top of that, as she stays in Scott’s apartment and her obsession with his phone and social media footprint intensifies, she starts to see things that shouldn’t be possible. I don’t want to go into specifics, but I will say this: one of the things that gets me really freaked out in movies and books are the images and descriptions of people and things moving in ways that they shouldn’t be moving. Be it jerky motions or weird contorted moving, it’s going to mess me up every single time. Arnopp does something like that in this book, and boy did it hit all the nerves. Arnopp has always been very good at describing an incredibly visual medium and making it work on the page and within the reader’s imagination. All that said, I did think that the metaphors about technology and social media having a malevolent hold on people are pretty well played out at this point, so that wasn’t as strong as I had hoped it would be, commentary wise.

“Ghoster” was another satisfying and spooky read from Jason Arnopp. It’s a great one to pick up right in time for Halloween, and now that I’ve read it I’m back to square one and not at all patiently waiting to see what he comes out with next! 

Rating 8: A spine tingling and tense horror story about relationships, social media, and obsession.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ghoster” is new and isn’t on many relevant/specific Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Fiction Involving The Internet”.

Find “Ghoster” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Halloween Giveaway!

Happy early Halloween everyone! It’s Kate’s favorite season of the year, so naturally we had to celebrate this time of scares and spooks by hosting a giveaway of two deliciously creepy reads, “The Devils You Know” and “Ghoster.” Kate’s review for the latter, “Ghoster,” comes out tomorrow, so check that out as well. Make sure you have a bucket full of candy (to “give to the kids” naturally) on hand and sink into a cozy chair with all the lights on to read these two!

“The Devils You Know” by M. C. Atwood

33830830

Publication Info: Soho Teen, October 2017

Book Description: Plenty of legends surround the infamous Boulder House in Whispering Bluffs, Wisconsin, but nobody takes them seriously. Certainly nobody believes that the original owner, Maxwell Cartwright Jr., cursed its construction—or that a murder of crows died upon its completion, their carcasses turning the land black. If anyone did believe it all, there’s no way River Red High would offer a field trip there for the senior class.

Five very different seniors on the trip—Violet, Paul, Ashley, Dylan, and Gretchen—have reasons beyond school spirit for not ditching the trip. When they’re separated from the group, they discover that what lies within Boulder House is far more horrifying than any local folklore. To survive, they’ll have to band together in ways they never could have imagined and ultimately confront the truths of their darkest selves.

“Ghoster” by Jason Arnopp

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Publication Info: Orbit, October 2019

Book Description: Kate Collins has been ghosted.
She was supposed to be moving in with her new boyfriend Scott, but all she finds after relocating to Brighton is an empty apartment. Scott has vanished. His possessions have all disappeared.

Except for his mobile phone.

Kate knows she shouldn’t hack into Scott’s phone. She shouldn’t look at his Tinder, his calls, his social media. But she can’t quite help herself.That’s when the trouble starts. Strange, whispering phone calls from numbers she doesn’t recognize. Scratch marks on the walls that she can’t explain. And the growing feeling that she’s being watched.

Kate refuses to leave the apartment – she’s not going anywhere until she’s discovered what happened to Scott. But the deeper she dives into Scott’s digital history the more Kate realizes just how little she really knows about the man she loves.

Enter to win!

Giveaway Details: Giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and runs through Sunday, October 27, 2019.

 

 

Serena’s Review: “The Art of Theft”

36510437Book: “The Art of Theft” by Sherry Thomas”

Publication Info: Berkley, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes has solved murders and found missing individuals. But she has never stolen a priceless artwork—or rather, made away with the secrets hidden behind a much-coveted canvas.

But Mrs. Watson is desperate to help her old friend recover those secrets and Charlotte finds herself involved in a fever-paced scheme to infiltrate a glamorous Yuletide ball where the painting is one handshake away from being sold and the secrets a bare breath from exposure.

Her dear friend Lord Ingram, her sister Livia, Livia’s admirer Stephen Marbleton—everyone pitches in to help and everyone has a grand time. But nothing about this adventure is what it seems and disaster is biding time on the grounds of a glittering French chateau, waiting only for Charlotte to make a single mistake…

Previously Reviewed: “A Study in Scarlet Women” and “A Conspiracy in Belgravia” and “The Hollow of Fear”

Review:  Continuing my week of Sherry Thomas reviews! While “The Magnolia Sword” took me by surprise (I didn’t realize it was coming out until late in the game, and still later figured out the author was Sherry Thomas), I’ve been impatiently waiting for the release of the latest “Lady Sherlock” story. Thanks to Edelweiss+, I had early access to it on my Kindle, and due to a complete lack of willpower, I ended up reading this book a few months ago but still wanted to review it closer to its publication date, so here we are. And while this wasn’t my favorite book in the series, I’m still enjoying the heck out of these stories and, again, am anxiously awaiting the next.

After helping Lord Ingram escape a false murder charge in the last book, Charlotte Holmes once again finds herself at the service of one of her close friends. This time it’s Mrs. Watson who has been contacted by a friend from the past who is now caught up in a mysterious blackmail/art theft situation. But this time, Charlotte and co. must do more than simply unravel the various players in this charade, but now find themselves playing an active role within the events themselves. Now she must not only discover who is at the heart of this conflict, but find a way to walk the narrow line between solving the case and not becoming a criminal herself!

Many of the strengths of the original books are still present here. Charlotte, as always, is a perfectly realized character, now comfortably familiar in both her quirks (her sense of fashion and preference for sweet treats), her strengths (obviously), as well as her weaknesses (challenges with navigating complicated relationships). One of the pleasing things about a long(ish) running series is this solid comfort with a character who is understood and beloved, but it also come with challenges. Here, while Charlotte is still at the heart of untangling the mystery, it feels like she is not the main character in her own book. That is, there is very little ongoing character development or a unique arc that is devoted to her. Much of this character work is picked up by the others in the book, but for a series that is called the “Lady Sherlock” series, this book was the first that did begin to show some signs of not quite knowing where to go from here with its titular character.

Luckily, the series has already set up a good number of side characters in the first several books so a shift of focus to them, while not preferred, also still feels earned. And I was already invested enough to feel that their conflicts were enough to carry much of this story. Mrs. Watson, of course, is at the heart of this story, and I loved learning more about her past and those who played a role in it. We see, again, both the strengths and weaknesses that lead her to where she is today. She also serves as a good mentor for Livia who ends up taking on a much more active role in this story.

Throughout the series, Livia has always played a bit of a strange role. A decent amount of page time is devoted to her, but she’s typically no where near the action and her development has moved at a fairly glacial pace. Here, Livia finally gets to come out of the shadow and play with the big kids. I loved seeing her come out of her shell, even if it was an uncomfortable process for her. Through her, the story also spends a bit exploring, again, the limitations on women in this time period. And, while Livia’s life has by no means been a happy one, she comes to realize the privileges that she has taken for granted.

I did enjoy the mystery itself as well. After the more active role that Charlotte took on in the previous book, it was nice to see that approach used once again here with Charlotte and co. essentially staging a heist. The story has definite “‘Ocean’s 11’ but in Victorian times” vibes, which I thought was a clever change of pace from the other, more typical mysteries of the first books. There were some surprises sprinkled throughout, as well, and, overall, I found the conclusion and explanation satisfying.

However, for all the answers we do get, there were a few too many loose ends left hanging. This was clearly done on purpose, but there were just one or two too many for me not to begin to feel slightly frustrated and anxious. For one thing, these mysteries are complicated. It always takes a bit of thinking on my part to fully put things together and still I’d have a hard time explaining it all later. But to add more unsolved clues on top of all that, clues I can only assume will come into play in a later book and that I will need to recall…it’s a bit too much. For me, I was left feeling a bit worried that I was not only missing things in this book, but will now likely miss even more in some future story.

The book also ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, which I’m not sure was necessary. It’s not the type that gnaws away at you, but more just introduces the topic of the next book. But it seemed liked a strange choice for an established series. It’s the kind of thing you do in book one or two, just to keep readers interested. But here, it was more like an unneeded “coming next week” preview for a well-watched and established TV show. Just leave it out and let the book end on a note relevant to this book’s story. The next book can take care of itself without page time given to it here.

Those quibbles aside, this was another solid entry in the “Lady Sherlock” series. I’m definitely excited for the next book as it seems like it will focus on a character who wasn’t much seen in this story. And I hope that Charlotte’s more active role continues. However, I also hope that she gets a bit more character development and a more defined emotional arc in future stories. I enjoy the side characters, for sure, but I’m mostly here for Charlotte. All of this to say, if you’ve enjoyed this series so far, you’re good to go on this one as well. And never fear, there will be another; it’s all set up right there at the end of this one.

Rating 8: While Charlotte fades a bit into the background and there are a few too many dangling clues, I enjoyed the addition of a heist plot onto another solid mystery.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Art of Theft” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads’ lists, but it is on “Historical Mystery 2019.”

Find “The Art of Theft” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Institute”

43798285Book: “The Institute” by Stephen King

Publishing Info: Scribner, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: From #1 New York Times bestselling author Stephen King, the most riveting and unforgettable story of kids confronting evil since It—publishing just as the second part of It, the movie, lands in theaters.

In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”

In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help. But no one has ever escaped from the Institute.

As psychically terrifying as Firestarter, and with the spectacular kid power of It, The Institute is Stephen King’s gut-wrenchingly dramatic story of good vs. evil in a world where the good guys don’t always win.

Review: Whenever a new book I really want to read is about to come out, I try to get myself positioned high on the request list at the library. When this doesn’t work, I will make sure it’s going to be available at my former job on the day it comes out, as copies from that branch don’t go to the request list. And then once it’s publication day, if I can I will rush to that branch before opening, and become that patron that I used to kvetch about: the one who hangs out outside before the doors open and rushes the new wall as soon as they do. This made it so I got a copy of Stephen King’s “The Institute” at the library the day it came out, and yeah, I was a bit of a sore winner when I snagged it off the display. We are kind of in the midst of a King Renaissance right now, from new books to adaptations of his works in movie theaters and on TV and computer screens. I’m always going to be stoked for anything King related, and he has so much content to explore that you have a lot to work with. Unfortunately, on the flip side of that is the fact that not everything is going to be a winner, and “The Institute”, for me, was not a winner.

But like usual, we’ll start with the good. Even in books he’s written that don’t quite click with me, I am almost always happy with the way that King portrays childhood experiences and childhood friendships. From “It” to “The Body”/”Stand By Me”, the way that he can capture the innocence and yet importance of these childhood bonds and put them on the page is almost always incredibly effective. He brings this talent to “The Institute”, as whenever he focuses on Luke Ellis, Kalisha, and the other child prisoners it feels like you’re seeing real kids interacting with each other. I was worried that the innate precociousness of the children, especially super genius Luke, would stunt the dialogue and relationships, but I greatly enjoyed all of them whether they were playing, scheming, or mourning. While I didn’t feel like I got to know all of them as deeply as I got to know The Losers Club or the four boys who went looking for a dead body, I still liked seeing the glimpses into the relationships that we did, as it was always entertaining. With a resurgence in popularity of ‘kids solving mysteries/fighting back against more powerful entities’ because of “Stranger Things”, I definitely get tapping back into that kind of tale. It is also very hard to deny that, given the horrific reality that children are being imprisoned in cages at the Southern Border, some of the themes are all the more resonant in this story. King does a good job of drawing comparisons without treading into distaste, and given that I’m sure this book had already been submitted to the publisher before some of the more recent developments I definitely couldn’t help but connect his story to the horrible things our Government is doing. Especially as the slow reveal of The Institute’s true intentions is carefully peeled back. Plus, the pacing was well done and it never felt slow, so it was mostly entertaining.

The reason that this doesn’t get a higher score from me is because “The Institute”, while being entertaining, didn’t quite evoke the emotions I have come to want from Stephen King novels. Yes, the concept is horrible and scary, and there were certainly thrilling aspects of the plot as we reach the end, but I never felt the actual tension, elation, sadness, and fear. For whatever reason it just didn’t connect with me. I think that part of it was that this felt less like a horror novel and more like a conspiracy thriller, and while that’s fine and I generally like a good conspiracy thriller, this one just didn’t quite click. And I think the other part I already kind of touched on earlier, in that while I liked the characters and the relationships they had with each other (the kids especially), I don’t think that we got to know them well enough for me to really connect with them. And if I’m not as connected, I’m not as invested. I don’t think “The Institute” was a bad read by any definition, but if a book falls into these traps that I’ve mentioned, I’m just not going to enjoy it as much.

I’m so happy that Stephen King is still writing, and that he’s getting all kinds of attention right now. While “The Institute” was a miss, the man is still my favorite horror author of all time. And given that there’s already rumors of this book being adapted into yet another TV series based on King source material, it may be in your interest to give it a go regardless of what I thought!

Rating 6: While “The Institute” was an entertaining read and had its moments and details that I liked, overall it fell a little flat for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Institute”, surprisingly, isn’t included on many relevant or specific Goodreads lists. But I think that it would fit in on “Conspiracy Fiction”, and “Books like Stranger Things”.

Find “The Institute” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan”

44059557._sy475_-1Book: “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Tu Books, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: CHINA, 484 A.D.

A Warrior in Disguise

All her life, Mulan has trained for one purpose: to win the duel that every generation in her family must fight. If she prevails, she can reunite a pair of priceless heirloom swords separated decades earlier, and avenge her father, who was paralyzed in his own duel.

Then a messenger from the Emperor arrives, demanding that all families send one soldier to fight the Rouran invaders in the north. Mulan’s father cannot go. Her brother is just a child. So she ties up her hair, takes up her sword, and joins the army as a man.

A War for a Dynasty

Thanks to her martial arts skills, Mulan is chosen for an elite team under the command of the princeling–the royal duke’s son, who is also the handsomest man she’s ever seen. But the princeling has secrets of his own, which explode into Mulan’s life and shake up everything she knows. As they cross the Great Wall to face the enemy beyond, Mulan and the princeling must find a way to unwind their past, unmask a traitor, and uncover the plans for the Rouran invasion . . . before it’s too late.

Review: There are certain stories out there that I always think about wistfully. They are the ones that have so much potential and yet, while tried, have still not (to my mind at least) come out with a definitive version (like “Beauty” by Robin McKinely is for me for “Beauty and the Beast). Even worse, sometimes, are those that have so much potential and have been attempted only to muck it up badly. “Mulan” is one of those tales. It has all the right ingredients to make a great story and to be (seemingly) easily adapted into a story that is sure to appeal to many readers right now. And yet…for me, it definitely falls in the latter category of disappointment: attempts have been made but not only are they not the definitive version (again, my own opinion of it at least), but I had varying levels of frustration with these attempts. From boredom to out-right anger. cough”Flame in the Mist”cough. But…but…finally!

Mulan has spent much of her life disguised as a boy and training to compete in an age-long duel between her family and another over the possession of two incredible swords. Her days are filled with swordplay, catching flying arrows while blindfolded, and other incredible feats. She has defined her life around this role, though secretly mourns the loss of her own identity as her father’s only daughter. But when war strikes, thoughts of the duel are set aside and duty rises to the forefront. Now, marching to battle, Mulan finds herself in the company of a handsome prince who seems somehow familiar. And all too soon her fighting skills are put to the test, not in an organized duel, but out in the wild with death on the line.

I was incredibly hopeful for this version of “Mulan” when I saw that Sherry Thomas would be the author writing it. Not only is Thomas a Chinese American who was born and lived in China during her childhood, but she’s successfully tackled retelling other well-known historical stories, like her “Lady Sherlock” series (guess what review you’ll be reading from me next??). Like that series, here Thomas not only masterfully recreates the character of Mulan but deftly draws a version of early China that not only feels authentic but is very informative of a time and culture that many Western readers may not be familiar with.

The central conflict, for example, doesn’t center  around the ubiquitous, largely undefined Huns as many past versions have done. Instead, it dives into the various political maneuverings of North and South China, their differing cultures, and the challenges of bringing together a nation as large and diverse as that. It also speaks to the seeming randomness of borders and how being on one side or another can define much about a person and have lasting effects on the way one group is perceived over time.

But don’t get me wrong, the story isn’t just an exploration of cultural definitions in China; Mulan and her fellows are going to war. I very much enjoyed the action of this story. From the beginning, we see the differences between how Mulan has been raised to fight, seeing it as something bound in duty and a form of art, and what fighting looks like on a battlefield when your life depends on your choices. Here we see Mulan struggle not because she is a woman and has to somehow overcome more due to this “deficiency” (no, she is largely acknowledged as one of the most skilled fighters from the beginning), but because she is human, and being human makes fear and courage very real things that must also be learned and mastered. Here, we have not only the exploration of these themes through Mulan’s experiences, but some really great examples seen in the princeling himself.

I think of them all, much as I love Mulan herself, the princeling struck me as the most interesting character. Thomas goes some surprising routes with this character and deftly sidesteps the pitfalls that other versions have fallen into where his “manliness” is used to bluntly contrast Mulan’s own femininity. Much as I love Disney’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” song, this version provides a much more layered character and one who contrasts Mulan, but not in the ways one would expect.

I’m not terribly familiar with the original tale of Mulan, but this one feels right. The added layer of the ancient sword duel and the use of this aspect of the story to delve into family, honor, and trust fleshed the story out beyond the confines of a war story where a girl disguises herself as a man. Mulan’s conflicts are not only battles and war tactics, but the challenge of understanding one’s parents and the choices of those who came before us. Through this understanding, she is better able to find peace with her own walk of life.

I absolutely loved this story. It’s everything I could have wanted for a “Mulan” retelling. If I had to ding it, HAD to, I would say I could have used a tad bit more of the romance. But this is such a niggling thing that it barely is worth mentioning. Overall, I found the romantic plotline, like everything else, to be very satisfying. This story not only retells the known tale (at least what most readers know of it, probably, again, based on Disney), but it adds new layers to the main characters and the conflict itself. If you, like me, were waiting for the version, your wait is over! Check out this book immediately!

Rating 9: Absolutely brilliant. Thomas has done for “Mulan” what she did for Sherlock: taken a challenging-to-get-right story and blown it away!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Retellings of Mulan” and “YA East Asian Fantasy.”

Find “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Mooncakes”

44774415._sy475_Book: “Mooncakes” by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Lion Forge, October 2019

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

Book Description: A story of love and demons, family and witchcraft.

Nova Huang knows more about magic than your average teen witch. She works at her grandmothers’ bookshop, where she helps them loan out spell books and investigate any supernatural occurrences in their New England town.

One fateful night, she follows reports of a white wolf into the woods, and she comes across the unexpected: her childhood crush, Tam Lang, battling a horse demon in the woods. As a werewolf, Tam has been wandering from place to place for years, unable to call any town home.

Pursued by dark forces eager to claim the magic of wolves and out of options, Tam turns to Nova for help. Their latent feelings are rekindled against the backdrop of witchcraft, untested magic, occult rituals, and family ties both new and old in this enchanting tale of self-discovery.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

I know that not everyone has the same love and affinity for all things horror that I do. And while I know that for me the month of October is all about the ghosts, ghouls, slashers, and monsters that I want to associate with, for others that may not be as appealing. So for today’s Horrorpalooza book, we’re actually inching away from the horror, and looking at a kinder, gentler kind of book of the season, where witches and werewolves fall in love, and magic can lead to self discovery. Today I’m going to talk about the sweet and romantic graphic novel “Mooncakes” by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu, a story about a witch named Nova and a werewolf named Tam and the magic that surrounds their lives, for better or for worse.

“Mooncakes” takes the kinder, gentler witch story and gives it some new and unique twists. Nova’s family life is the familiar matriarchal witch household, as she is living with her grandmothers Quili and Nechama and learning about magic and spells from them. While I do love a vengeful or spiteful witch, or one who has legitimate grievances with society and the patriarchy, I do have to say that I also like the positive stories of witches empowering other witches through education, family, and love. “Mooncakes” really embodies this positive trope, and Quili and Nechama are the perfect supportive and bustling mother figures that fill the void of Nova’s parent’s deaths. Nova herself is a unique main character. She is Chinese American, so her culture influences not only her home life but also her magic. Along with that she also has hearing aids, and after she lost her hearing she began to master the art of nonverbal magical spells, a concept that we may see (as sometimes witches don’t have to say ANYTHING to make magic happen in stories), but is rarely explored. But it’s her romance with Tam that is the center of the story. Tam and Nova were childhood friends, but Tam left town and has been wandering on their own, living as a werewolf and distancing themself from an abusive home life. When Tam and Nova reconnect, their lingering feelings for each other start to re-boot. Their romance is sweet and not terribly complicated, and I liked that Tam’s nonbinary identity wasn’t the focus of the conflict, and that they were easily and readily accepted by the other characters.

The plot and the magical aspects of this story, however, weren’t as strong as I had hoped they would be. We know that Tam is being targeted for some kind of nefarious spells, as when we meet them they are in conflict with a horse demon in the woods. Nova is there for Tam and is determined to figure out what is going on, but I never felt like that aspect of the plot was really focused on. We get hints as to who may be behind it, and while I feel like Walker tried to hide the culprit, it felt pretty obvious as to who it was going to be. While we are told that Tam is in some serious danger, it never feels like the stakes are all that high. And once we got to the big showdown, things resolved themselves rather easily, and threw in some obvious tropes that have been seen many times before for good measure in terms of resolution. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily! I love a ‘the love for the other person is able to fight through a spell’ twist as much as the next person, but when the rest of the magical plot and conflict feels a little haphazard, that doesn’t exactly make the twist seem stronger. I think that had this story paid more attention to building up the conflict and magic issues, it would have worked better. As it was, it felt more like an afterthought.

The art, however, is totally adorable and sweet! I really like Wendy Xu’s style, and I love the details and designs that she brought to the characters.

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(source)

If you want a sweet romantic story with magical elements, “Mooncakes” could be a good choice. I wouldn’t go in expecting a whole lot of magical system building, but it does have charming characters and some great representation. And if you don’t want something scary this witchy season, it’s a good alternative.

Rating 6: A cute and romantic story about witches, family, and magic, “Mooncakes” is filled with a lot of sweetness, though not much complexity.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mooncakes” is included on the Goodreads lists “Comics for Witches”, and “Graphic Novels Featuring LGBTQ Themes”.

Find “Mooncakes” at your library using WorldCat!