Kate’s Review: “Falling”

Book: “Falling” by T.J. Newman

Publishing Info: Avid Readers Press/Simon & Schuster, July 2021

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

Book Description: You just boarded a flight to New York. There are one hundred and forty-three other passengers onboard.

What you don’t know is that thirty minutes before the flight your pilot’s family was kidnapped. For his family to live, everyone on your plane must die. The only way the family will survive is if the pilot follows his orders and crashes the plane.

Enjoy the flight.

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

So it’s not a sub-genre of action movies that I find myself watching too much, but I do enjoy a good ‘a plane is in peril’ kind of movie. My favorite is 100% “Con Air”, though I recently experienced “Air Force One” for the first time and thought it was a hoot. Understandably these kinds of films aren’t really a thing anymore, but they can be a lot of fun, if a little mindless. I kept thinking about this genre when I picked up “Falling” by T.J. Newman, and figured that I would pick at it over a couple days and then go rent “Con Air” or something. Well, the Soupy Brain was back, because I read the entirety of “Falling” in one night, staying up way too late to do so.

Me as I read this around 11pm, caring not for the fact I had to wake up to care for a toddler the next morning. (source

“Falling” is a highly addictive thriller that sucked me in from the get go. Bill is a pilot who has picked up a shift, much to his wife Carrie’s chagrin, as he had plans with her, their son Scott, and their baby Elise. But almost the moment Bill leaves, Carrie finds herself and her children held hostage, and Bill is soon relayed a message by their kidnapper: crash the plane, or his family dies. From there, we jump from perspective to perspective as Bill has to try and figure out if he can have his cake and eat it too, while contending with the fact that there is another terrorist on board who is perhaps keeping tabs to make sure he doesn’t do anything. We have settings for Bill, for Carrie as she is interacting with her kidnapper, as well as flight attendant Jo, and various people on the ground who get leaks of information and try to track down the culprit. In a lot of ways it feels like “Speed” in the air, and frankly, the works for me on basically every level. “Falling” keeps the pace and tension going and rarely lets up, as every breakthrough of good news can potentially lead to a new problem, and every reveal can have something lurking that you don’t see coming. As mentioned above, I kept reading far later than I should have until I had finished. It’s entertaining as hell.

Character wise, it was a little bit of a mixed bag. By far my favorite people to follow were those of the flight attendants, led by the fearless Jo, as they try to figure out how to keep the passengers safe when things start to take turns. What I loved most about Jo is that she and Bill have a very close relationship, but Newman never falls back on hackneyed ‘there could have been something there’ nonsense which would motivate her to trust him so much. Bonus, she had great interactions with her coworker Big Daddy, another no nonsense flight attendant who was always good for a laugh. I also liked seeing Carrie interact with her kidnapper, and seeing her slowly pull out not only information from him, but how she also connects with him and builds a bond that could keep her and her children more likely out of harms way. I love seeing compassion used as a weapon, for lack of a better term, as sometimes it isn’t valued as much. Oddly enough, the least interesting character was Bill himself, as the main action and how it’s affecting him in the moment is really the only thing we learn about him. He’s a good man in an impossible situation, which was a bit bland, but ultimately, that’s really what you get in stories like this (hello, Nic Cage in “Con Air” and Keanu Reeves in “Speed”!).

But what I found to be one of the most compelling aspects of this novel (and a bit of a relief as well) is the character of Sam, who has taken Carrie, Scott, and Elise hostage and is making Bill make the choice between his family and his passengers/crew. I’ve been talking about airplane action movies a bit, and for the most part the bad guys are terrorists, criminals, psychopaths, and a lot of the time they are very two dimensional and chew the scenery until there is little left. That can be fun, but it can also be very problematic, and in the aftermath of September 11th terrorists taking over planes has become more of a touchy subject. In “Falling”, Newman manages to walk a very fine tightrope with Sam (mild spoilers here, in regards to a bit of his motivation, just so you know!). Sam is definitely doing something very bad, in which innocent people are going to die. But Newman slowly shows us Sam’s background through flashbacks, and his own words. I was super worried that he was going to be a Middle Eastern terrorist, but instead he is Kurdish, and through horrific trauma and loss he has lost himself in the desperation of both wanting revenge, but also to just be seen when he feels like the atrocities that his people are constantly falling victim to are not only preventable, but due to American jingoism as well as American indifference. Does it always land? No. Are there still some sticky elements that we’re treading into by making him a terrorist? Sure. But I thought that he was supremely compelling, and he was the character that I felt for the most.

“Falling” is a REALLY fun thriller, and if you haven’t picked it up yet this summer, do so! If you have some pool or beach time ahead of you, this will be a GREAT read to complement it! Though proceed with caution is air travel goes along with that…

Rating 9: SUPREMELY addictive and suspenseful, “Falling” feels like an airplane disaster movie of the 20th century, but with more rumination on how devastation can lead to violence.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Falling” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery and Thriller 2021”.

Find “Falling” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Half Sick of Shadows”

Book: “Half Sick of Shadows” by Laura Sebastian

Publishing Info: Ace, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Everyone knows the legend. Of Arthur, destined to be a king. Of the beautiful Guinevere, who will betray him with his most loyal knight, Lancelot. Of the bitter sorceress, Morgana, who will turn against them all. But Elaine alone carries the burden of knowing what is to come–for Elaine of Shalott is cursed to see the future.

On the mystical isle of Avalon, Elaine runs free and learns of the ancient prophecies surrounding her and her friends–countless possibilities, almost all of them tragic.

When their future comes to claim them, Elaine, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Morgana accompany Arthur to take his throne in stifling Camelot, where magic is outlawed, the rules of society chain them, and enemies are everywhere. Yet the most dangerous threats may come from within their own circle.

As visions are fulfilled and an inevitable fate closes in, Elaine must decide how far she will go to change fate–and what she is willing to sacrifice along the way.

Review: I’ve had a fairly sketchy experience of “King Arthur” re-tellings. But my most recent example, Kiersten White’s “Camelot Rising” series, has been excellent all around, so I was primed to jump in for another go at the topic! “Half Sick of Shadows” was also billed as a feminist reimaging of the tale while also incorporating the story from “The Lady of Shallot.” Color me intrigued.

Growing up surrounded by magic and her friends, Elaine’s life should be full of joy and wonder. However, she knows what is to come, and it’s almost all tragic. Gifted (or cursed) with the ability to see the future, Elaine’s view of the present is always tinged to be seen through the lens of what is to come. Slowly, slowly the pieces begin to fall in place as their roles begin to solidify, and the friends find themselves thrust into the world of Camelot, a place where their magic is outlawed and their fates await them. But is the future set? Or can Elaine’s choices make all the difference?

So, let’s just get it out of the way. I didn’t really like this book. I’m going to start this review off with a backhanded compliment. If anything, this book was too creative. Frankly, the less familiar readers are with the original Arthurian tale and, to a certain extent, the original ballad of “The Lady of Shallot,” the more enjoyable this book would probably be. There’s a fine line when re-imagining a classic tale such as this between reinterpreting well-known aspects of the original and bounding away completely into left field and leaving readers who are familiar with the original bewildered and frustrated. This one was definitely the latter.

Most of the characters were so completely re-worked that other than their name they would be unrecognizable from their origins. Arthur, for example, was such a nothing character, so naïve and silly, that it was almost impossible to imagine him becoming the legendary king. The relationships between the characters were also completely re-worked. Mordred, for example, is not Arthur’s son, which has a pretty big impact on the greater story, as fans of the original know. The classic love triangle is also re-worked. To some extent, that can be refreshing (again, the “Camelot Rising” went a completely different direction with this, too, to great effect), but my bigger problem came with the fact that as these large, familiar parts of the story fell, there was less and less tying any of it to the original Arthurian epic. Even small things, like the fact that Merlin seemed to either not really care about the events going on around or him or actively root against Arthur as king, just felt off to the point of distraction.

I also didn’t care for Elaine herself. She was continuously self-guessing and doubting her choices. Much of her eternal dialogue I found to be annoying. Until the very end, she seemed to struggle to take any initiative herself, often running to others for help. I also struggled with the way she presented her story, jumping back and forth in time through her visions. Her romance was also so tinted by the doubts and concerns over the future that it was barely enjoyable.

I also struggled with the original set-up of the story. Why are all of these characters at Avalon, growing up with all of this magic? There were explanations for a few of them, but it almost felt like some wacky school story with a bunch of teenagers running around having adventures in magic-land. There were also some re-imaginings of characters having magical connections that were a bit strange. Some of them I could get behind, but others, less so.

Lastly, I’m not sure why this book is being heralded so strongly as a feminist story. That word can mean a lot of different things to people, but at its most basic sense, book-wise, I would think it means strong female characters in a story that, in the past, largely side-lined its women characters. So, sure, Elaine being the focus changes that. But she’s not a particularly great example of a strong, female character. And don’t get me started on the changes to Guinevere. Way too much magical wand-waving over her character, as if giving her fantasy aspects somehow makes her “strong.” If the only way you can think to make your female characters strong is to give them magical abilities, I’m going to side-eye you really hard.

So, yeah, this book wasn’t my cup of tea. There were too many changes from the original tale to not be constantly distracting and distressing. I also didn’t enjoy the main character or many of the side characters either. Perhaps those less familiar with the original story might enjoy it, but I think there are better examples of re-tellings out there.

Rating 6: The story strays too far away from its origins and drowns beneath a plethora of added fantasy elements.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Half Sick of Shadows” is, questionably, on this Goodreads list: Feminist Interest 2021.

Find “Half Sick of Shadows” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Final Girl Support Group”

Book: “The Final Girl Support Group” by Grady Hendrix

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, July 2021

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

Book Description: A fast-paced, thrilling horror novel that follows a group of heroines to die for, from the brilliant New York Times bestselling author of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires.

In horror movies, the final girl is the one who’s left standing when the credits roll. The one who fought back, defeated the killer, and avenged her friends. The one who emerges bloodied but victorious. But after the sirens fade and the audience moves on, what happens to her?

Lynnette Tarkington is a real-life final girl who survived a massacre twenty-two years ago, and it has defined every day of her life since. And she’s not alone. For more than a decade she’s been meeting with five other actual final girls and their therapist in a support group for those who survived the unthinkable, putting their lives back together, piece by piece. That is until one of the women misses a meeting and Lynnette’s worst fears are realized–someone knows about the group and is determined to take their lives apart again, piece by piece.

But the thing about these final girls is that they have each other now, and no matter how bad the odds, how dark the night, how sharp the knife, they will never, ever give up.

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

I’ve mentioned it many a time before, but I really enjoy slasher movies. They’ve been my jam since I was a middle schooler who was way into the likes of “Scream”, “Friday the 13th”, and “Halloween”, and as time has gone on I’ve explored many a franchise, many a slasher killer, and many a Final Girl. It’s a trope that’s a bit rooted in sexism and misogyny, as the virginal ‘good’ girl is usually the one to live to the end, though that’s been subverted a number of times in the past couple decades (“Scream” was probably the first to really do it right). Problematic or not, I do love a good Final Girl. A few books in the past few years have decided to explore what life would be like for a character like this after the monster movie has ended, and the newest foray into such exploration is Grady Hendrix’s “The Final Girl Support Group”. Because no one can deny that any Final Girl who survives a slasher killer, sometimes over multiple movies, would undoubtedly need therapy.

So much therapy…(source)

“The Final Girl Support Group” has a number of members, all of whom are middle aged women who have survived horrific, traumatic attempted murders that were then turned into film franchises. While the characters are technically original characters by Hendrix, all of them are clear analogs for some of the most popular Final Girls ever seen on screen (and their first names are usually the same as the actresses that portrayed these characters, with a couple subversions. It’s super, super fun). Marilyn (the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” analog) has married rich and dove into charity work; Dani (the “Halloween” analog, though a reference to Danielle Harris in later movies as ‘Jamie’ would probably be too on the nose) has become a gun hoarding hermit whose only companion is her wife, Michelle; Heather (“Nightmare on Elm Street”) has dived deep into conspiracy theories and addiction, as no one believes that her monster is, indeed, supernatural; Julie (“Scream”- another name change but her last name is Campbell) is wheelchair bound and now an activist; and Adrienne (“Friday the 13th”) has turned the summer camp of her trauma into a mental health wellness organization for women who have been affected by violence. But our first person protagonist is Lynette, who survived an attempted murder by a man whose dark obsession with Santa Claus drove him to kill people while wearing a Santa Suit (a la “Silent Night, Deadly Night”), and she is the one who probably needs the group more than the other members. When the other group members are wanting to disband, Lynette clings to the group, and when Adrienne is murdered she immediately believes that they are all in danger. It was an interesting choice to have our protagonist be Linnea Quigley’s character from “Silent Night, Deadly Night”, as technically, she isn’t a final girl- in the movie, she doesn’t survive, much less fight back against her would be killer. So in this, as a ‘real world’ version, Lynette has been kind of thrown to the wayside since she was too incapacitated to earn her Final Girl stripes. But it opens up a wealth of possibilities, and it makes Lynette somehow more vulnerable than the others in her insecurities and need to belong since she isn’t seen as a ‘fighter’. And in turn, that makes the story and the desperate choices she makes as they all try to survive once again compelling and frustrating, as well as very, very sad in some ways. While I think that Hendrix could have done more with her, and perhaps it would have been more interesting to follow another of the Final Girls (honestly, I want an entire book about Marilyn. I LOVED her), it felt correct that Lynette was the one we got, because she’s almost the one we could trust the least (outside of Heather. DAMN, poor Heather).

In terms of the plot as Lynette tries to figure out how to keep herself and her group mates alive, and to figure out who is targeting them, I was able to predict a few things here and there. I wasn’t as invested in that aspect of the story, as it’s pretty run of the mill. What makes this book work is that Hendrix has penned both a love letter to slasher movies, and found a way to deconstruct them and take them down a few notches without being smug about it. The slasher genre absolutely has problems with sexism and exploitation, and Hendrix makes us confront that by seeing just how incredibly messed up and traumatized these women are. Final Girls are seen as heroic in the movies because of their resilience and ‘goodness’, but in this book all of these women were basically brutalized by men, and then their lives were ruined because of it. However, that point doesn’t make it any less fun to see him play with these characters, and leave in all the fun easter eggs and treasures for readers who love the movies that their characterizations come from. I was grinning ear to ear throughout a lot of this book. And Hendrix, while making our Final Girls a little tragic and traumatized, also makes a few of them VERY funny. Marilyn had me in stitches half the time, and Heather has some hilarious snipes and sarcastic moments. Hendrix is still having fun, and the reader knows that you are allowed to have fun as well as confronting what the actual fallout of this kind of character would have be face.

“The Final Girl Support Group” was a really fun read for this slasher movie fan! It’s horror with heart and humor, and fans of the genre really need to check it out.

Rating 8: A fun love letter to one of my favorite horror movie genres, “The Final Girl Support Group” will be a blast for fans of slasher movies everywhere!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Final Girl Support Group” is included on the Goodreads lists “Slasher Fiction”, and “Horror To Look Forward To in 2021”.

Find “The Final Girl Support Group” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Book Club Review: “Parable of the Sower”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub 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 “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

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: “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia E. Butler

Publishing Info: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Award: New York Times Notable Book of the Year

Book Description: When global climate change and economic crises lead to social chaos in the early 2020s, California becomes full of dangers, from pervasive water shortage to masses of vagabonds who will do anything to live to see another day.

Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives inside a gated community with her preacher father, family, and neighbors, sheltered from the surrounding anarchy. In a society where any vulnerability is a risk, she suffers from hyperempathy, a debilitating sensitivity to others’ pain.

Precocious and clear-eyed, Lauren must make her voice heard in order to protect her loved ones from the imminent disasters her small community stubbornly ignores. But what begins as a fight for survival soon leads to something much more: the birth of a new faith…and a startling vision of human destiny.

This highly acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel of hope and terror from award-winning author Octavia E. Butler “pairs well with 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale” (John Green, New York Times)—now with a new foreword by N. K. Jemisin.

Kate’s Thoughts

Back when Trump was elected, I started hearing whispers from my friends and acquaintances about a book called “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia E. Butler. Many of them were saying that “Parable of the Sower” predicted the society in which a person like Trump could be elected, along with the existential crises that come with it. When we were deep in the shit of the Trump Administration, I couldn’t bring myself to read that book, as even though it sounded supremely fascinating, it also sounded too real. A story written in the early nineties that seemed to predict the shitshow of climate change, social inequity, and an incompetent and narcissistic president? On the nose! And therefore too stressful to read. So when someone in book club chose it for our first Award Winners read, I was happy that I finally had a push to read it…. And then I read it, and was sent into an anxiety spiral.

Basically my face during my entire reading experience.

“Parable of the Sower” is a bleak and terrifying dystopia where climate change, vast social and financial disparities, and corporate corruption has created a society where people are either gated in, hoping that they will not fall victim to rampaging violent nomads, or trying their best to survive in a violent and dangerous wasteland. We follow Lauren, a teenager who lives in a gated community who has dreams of a better future for herself, and who starts to develop and discover a new religion/life she calls Earthseed due to her faith and a condition in which she has hyper empathy to those around her. Butler creates a terrifying world where mass violence is always a threat, and it’s only a matter of time until a person faces the bleak and staggering reality of having to survive. I found it to be incredibly well written as well as horrific. It’s told in mostly epistolary devices, with Lauren recording what is going on each day, and I thought that the slow crumbling of her life and then rebuilding in a chaotic and unpredictable landscape to be compelling and very suspenseful. There were so many moments that not only set me on edge, but felt like they could potentially happen if we don’t get a hold on many existential crises that plague our world at the moment. Engaging to be sure, but it also made it hard for me to sleep at night.

I think that if I were a more religious person (in that I’m not at all) I may have connected a little bit more with the aspects of Lauren’s journey that involved ‘discovering’ Earthseed, and her self assurance that everything was going to work out because she was discovering and bringing forth a new religion that would save society. From the Biblical references to some of the blind faith aspects of this book, I didn’t connect as much to the moments where Lauren was creating a whole new belief system. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t intriguing; I definitely found myself enjoying the mythos that Butler was creating in this story, and liked seeing Lauren connect to it. I’m not sure that I have the emotional wherewithal to continue in the series (especially given that it’s incomplete; Butler passed away before she could complete it), but what I saw in this book really hit home how incredibly gifted Butler was for creating complex and horrifying alternate realities while also giving us a little bit of hope to cling to.

“Parable of the Sower” is a rough read, but I definitely think it’s worthwhile. Butler was a true talent, and this showcases the world building, and premonition, that she had as an author.

Serena’s Thoughts:

For being a long-time fan of the science fiction and fantasy genre, it’s kind of crazy that I hadn’t read any of Octavia Butler’s books before this. And I can’t really tell you why! Perhaps, like Kate mentioned above, when her books began coming up more and more in the public consciousness recently, I wasn’t really in a good mental place to dive into this type of story. Margeret Atwood is a similar author for me: I can recognize the supreme talent she is and appreciate her books, but I can only manage to read one every five years or so and inevitably spend those five years half terrified of the “too real”-ness of her stories. But, also like Kate said, I was glad to have the push to read this.

I agree with everything Kate wrote. I, however, come from a more religious family so in that way, I did connect more to the aspects of the story that were focused on the development of a belief system and the role that would play in Lauren’s management of the challenges of this society. Blind faith is a particularly challenging topic, even for those have a religious life. Most who are honest with themselves, I think, would say that faith itself is a constant challenge. It can provide some assurance in the midst of strife and unknown, but it, too, can cause its own form of strife, in that faith, at its core, is not necessarily a comfortable thing. I liked the way that Butler dug into this topic and her use of Biblical references went beyond the usual uses we’ve all seen a million times over.

I do think I’ll eventually read the next book, but like I said above, it will probably follow a pattern similar to my reading of Atwood’s stories. It’s a credit to just how powerful a writer Butler was that her presentation of a future world feels too read to inhabit for overly long without it causing real-world anxiety! If you haven’t checked this one out yet, I definitely recommend it.

Kate’s Rating 8: Terrifying and bleak, but well written and sprinkled with some hope, “Parable of the Sower” is a glimpse into a could be futurescape.

Serena’s Rating 8: Hope wars with terror in a version of the future that feels all-too real at times.

Book Club Questions

  1. The future that Butler paints in this book has a lot of mirrors to a reality that we seem to be nearly living in. Do you think that what happens to society in this book could happen in a similar fashion in real life? Why or why not?
  2. Even though Lauren is living in an unstable society and there is lots of violence and despair, she still seems to want to have kids some day. Why do you think that is?
  3. Does Lauren’s religion or belief system of Earthseed connect to you? Do you see it as a new religion? A cult? Something else?
  4. At one point Lauren says that she isn’t inventing Earthseed, but discovering it. What do you make of that statement?
  5. At one point Lauren and her group pass by the settlement of Hollister, which seems to be pretty stable and safe. What did you think of them continuing on their journey instead of stopping and settling?
  6. What did you think of the concept of hyper-empathy?
  7. What did you think that Butler was saying about religion in this book?

Reader’s Advisory

“Parable of the Sower” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sci-Fi That Will Change The Way You Look At Life”, and “SFF Books by Black Authors”.

Find “Parable of the Sower” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Kiersten White.

Serena’s Review: “The Empire’s Ruin”

Book: “The Empire’s Ruin” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor Books, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The Annurian Empire is disintegrating. The advantages it used for millennia have fallen to ruin. The ranks of the Kettral have been decimated from within, and the kenta gates, granting instantaneous travel across the vast lands of the empire, can no longer be used.

In order to save the empire, one of the surviving Kettral must voyage beyond the edge of the known world through a land that warps and poisons all living things to find the nesting ground of the giant war hawks. Meanwhile, a monk turned con-artist may hold the secret to the kenta gates.

But time is running out. Deep within the southern reaches of the empire and ancient god-like race has begun to stir.

What they discover will change them and the Annurian Empire forever. If they can survive. 

Review: I was so excited when I saw an ARC of this pop up on Edelweiss several months ago. I really enjoyed both the original “Unhewn Throne” trilogy by Brian Staveley as well as his companion/prequel stand-alone, “Skullsworn.” I knew he had another book in the works, but I hadn’t been paying overly much attention to when it was slated for release. Call me jaded, but epic fantasy isn’t the most reliable of genres for timely releases! But it arrived at last, and I wasted no time before diving right in.

Five years after the events of the first trilogy, the Annurian empire is scrambling to hold itself together. Adare, unable to use the kenta gates, the magical doorways that allow the sitting empire to quickly travel throughout the land, is desperate to hold her world together. To do so, she recruits a thief-turned-monk who promises he can teach her how to use the magical passages. But the empire is weak in more than one way. With the Kettral depleted, Gwenna is sent on a perilous mission to travel south into a land riddled with madness and monsters in search of Kettral eggs to bring back in the hope of rebuilding the powerful fighting force. And on the edge of the Empire, revolution has struck and two priests discover that their may be more Gods in the world than they had thought. And a new one has arrived with plans of conquest.

The story is split between three characters (sadly, Adare is not one of them). While the book is approachable to new readers, long-time fans of the series will be most rewarded. Gwenna, the Kettral warrior, had POV chapters in the last two books in the original trilogy. And Ruc, a priest of the Goddess of love who resides in the swamp-surrounded city of Dombang, was a character readers met in “Skullsworn.” The third character is a priest who grew up alongside Kaden whom readers briefly met in the first book. Gwenna is the most familiar of the three, but this prior knowledge of their stories does add depth to their arcs here, and fans of the previous books will be rewarded with little tidbits and references throughout the story.

This book is definitely the first in a series (duology? trilogy?). In that way, much of the story is set-up for the larger conflicts to come. We see that in the carefully laid groundwork that plays out in our three main story lines. Each drops several small pieces here and there to the larger plot, but none of the characters have a full view of the greater picture. Indeed, their plot lines barely even brush each others, all three living out very different experiences in far-spread parts of the world. Due to this, the story definitely progresses in a slow, careful manner. There are some tense action scenes, probably the best coming in Gwenna’s chapters, but the overall plot is mostly concerned with setting the stage.

However, the writing is as strong and compelling as ever. So while the book wasn’t a fast read or full to the brim with a moving plot, I was still completely engrossed. As we see some pieces fall into place at the end, it’s also gratifying to know that these disparate plot lines will come together in a satisfying way eventually. Given Staveley’s last trilogy, I felt satisfied with this book as a solid introduction to where he is heading eventually.

The characters themselves also largely go through “beginning of the book” syndrome. In that, each of them spends the majority of the book having their understanding of themselves and how they exist in their world broken down piece by piece. This is, of course, necessary for many character arcs as it allows the story to then focus on the rebirth of a character into a new form. But unlike the traditional arcs we see play out in single works, like the plot, this book treats its character arcs as ones that span the entire serie. So a first book sees only the first steps in this process.

At times, it can feel like a bit much. It’s definitely not a fun read to see favorite characters go through existential crisis after existential crisis, regardless of how necessary it is for their ultimate growth. Gwenna, in particular, has a roller coaster of a ride, with some true highs alongside some very dark, lonely lows. However, again, towards the end of the book, we begin to see the direction these characters are headed in, and I have faith that their continued stories will retroactively justify some of the lows we experience with our characters here.

I really enjoyed this book. It was so exciting to be back in this world. The familiar characters and scenes were a joy to return to, and the expanded world and mythology felt like it perfectly slotted in with what we already new of this universe. The book is long and, at times, slow moving, but fans of the series will likely be so thrilled by a new entry that this slower pace just seems like an excuse to revel in the story. Fans of epic fantasy are sure to enjoy this, though, while it’s not necessary, I recommend reading Staveley’s other books first, particularly the first trilogy.

Rating 8: An excellent return to the world of the “Unhewn Throne,” though the book is definitely focused more on setting up the bigger story than in creating a self-contained plot.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Empire’s Ruin” is a new book, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021.

Find “The Empire’s Ruin” at the library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Bubble”

Book: “Bubble” by Jordan Morris, Sarah Morgan, & Tony Cliff (Ill.)

Publishing Info: First Second, July 2021

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

Book Description: Based on the smash-hit audio serial, Bubble is a hilarious high-energy graphic novel with a satirical take on the “gig economy.”

Built and maintained by corporate benevolence, the city of Fairhaven is a literal bubble of safety and order (and amazing coffee) in the midst of the Brush, a harsh alien wilderness ruled by monstrous Imps and rogue bands of humans. Humans like Morgan, who’s Brush-born and Bubble-raised and fully capable of fending off an Imp attack during her morning jog. She’s got a great routine going—she has a chill day job, she recreationally kills the occasional Imp, then she takes that Imp home for her roommate and BFF, Annie, to transform into drugs as a side hustle. But cracks appear in her tidy life when one of those Imps nearly murders a delivery guy in her apartment, accidentally transforming him into a Brush-powered mutant in the process. And when Morgan’s company launches Huntr, a gig economy app for Imp extermination, she finds herself press-ganged into kicking her stabby side job up to the next level as she battles a parade of monsters and monstrously Brush-turned citizens, from a living hipster beard to a book club hive mind. 

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

In terms of podcasts, while I’ve dabbled outside the non-fiction realm, I really haven’t listened to many fiction series. I did “Welcome to Nightvale” for awhile, I listened to “The Black Tapes” (probably my favorite of the fiction ones I’ve listened to), and I tried out “Limetown”. But overall, it’s gotta be true crime, movies, or books for the topics I wanna listen to. So I had never heard of the podcast “Bubble” when I saw that it had been adapted into a graphic novel by Jordan Morris and Sarah Morgan, the creator and a writer for the show itself. While I wasn’t certain about what to expect, the premise was promising and intriguing: a dystopian world, a stunted society that seems perfect, and a dangerous wilderness of creatures that could kill you? That all sounds great. Throw in some humor and it sounds even better. So I gave it a go, because I hoped it would stand on its own two feet, outside of a podcast shadow. And I don’t think that it quite did.

That isn’t to say that this is “Welcome to Nightvale” levels of inability to stand on its own. Here is what I liked about “Bubble”: the premise really is a good one. I liked the idea of Fairhaven, a typical city that runs on capitalism and the gig economy, and the people who live there and work within that economy. Satire about the drawbacks and pitfalls of a late stage capitalist society is kind of ripe for the picking, but “Bubble” does it well. Our main character, Morgan, is a woman living in Fairhaven now, but was raised in the surrounding wild area called The Brush, which is inhabited by creatures called Imps that are dangerous and prone to attack humans. Morgan knows how to deal with them, and when an Imp gets into Fairhaven she will kill it and bring it to her roommate Annie who will make it into drugs. Morgan’s company, however, starts up a social media gig app (think Task Rabbit) that will give people the ability to go kill Imps for profit. Throw in a hapless Postmates delivery guy named Mitch who is attacked by an Imp and given powers, and you have some fun main characters who are just trying to get by in a gig economy whose stakes are pretty damn high. I liked Morgan and Annie, and Mitch feels very Chris Pratt in “Parks and Rec”, so he’s pretty charming. And really, the entire idea is fun, especially when they all have to go into the Brush on a mission, involving a mysterious stone and the Brush living father Morgan left behind. SO much potential, right?

The problem I had was that “Bubble” never quite explored the potential enough for me. This is a story that really should have some pretty wide and complex world building to it, both inside Fairhaven and outside in The Brush. And we see bits and pieces of both when our main characters are interacting within. But we don’t really have the time to explore backgrounds, histories, or dynamics, as the plot is constantly moving forward. It’s entertaining, it’s quite funny at times, and the characters have lots of fun things to say to each other. But I never really felt like I got a true feel for the setting they are in. And the only character that I feel really got a lot of depth was Morgan, while everyone else, outside of a few hints and tidbits here and there, really kept in static place as the tale went on. There just wasn’t much room to breathe, and I don’t know if that is because that’s how the podcast goes, or if it’s more a limitation when translating the podcast story to a graphic novel. I suppose that I could go listen to the podcast to find out, but the story we have at hand isn’t really compelling enough for me to go and do so.

That said, I really liked the art! Tony Cliff has some vibrant color schemes that feel sleek and futuristic, and I enjoyed the character designs as well. The Imps in particular are pretty cool.

(source: First Second)

“Bubble” has its moments and some great ideas. I just think that it could have gone further.

Rating 6: A lot of entertaining moments, witty banter, and cool imagery. But it feels very rushed and not well expanded upon, world building wise, and some of the characters fall flat.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bubble” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Podcast Books”, and “Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Graphic Novels”.

Find “Bubble” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Red Wolf”

Book: “Red Wolf” by Rachel Vincent

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: For as long as sixteen-year-old Adele can remember the village of Oakvale has been surrounding by the dark woods—a forest filled with terrible monsters that light cannot penetrate. Like every person who grows up in Oakvale she has been told to steer clear of the woods unless absolutely necessary.

But unlike her neighbors in Oakvale, Adele has a very good reason for going into the woods. Adele is one of a long line of guardians, women who are able to change into wolves and who are tasked with the job of protecting their village while never letting any of the villagers know of their existence.

But when following her calling means abandoning the person she loves, the future she imagined for herself, and her values she must decide how far she is willing to go to keep her neighbors safe.

Review: And here we are, the third “Red Riding Hood” book that came out this summer! It’s actually really impressive how all three of authors pulled from the same inspiration (at least somewhat) but ultimately created such different stories and worlds. Unfortunately for “Red Wolf,” it was third to come out and third for me to read, so it had some big shoes to fill after the first two were such hits. However, I don’t think I would have enjoyed this lackluster outing much more had it come first.

Red has grown up in her small village, a little community of safety surrounded by a dark wood full of monsters. For most, this forest represents a natural boundary to their world, one they won’t ever need to venture within. For Red and her family, it is something very different. Within those dark depths, she, like women before her, protect that small village, prowling the woods in the form of a wolf. Soon enough, however, Red’s life is thrown upside down when the path she had seen before her begins to twist and turn into choices she had never imagined making. Will she be strong enough to protect those she loves?

First off, props to another gorgeous cover that definitely played its part in getting me to request an ARC for this book. All three of the “Red Riding Hood” books this summer had neat covers and each was distinct from the others, so that’s pretty neat. Unfortunately, most of my compliments end there.

This book wasn’t terrible, or anything, but it did seem to have an endless list of mild frustrations and then a wackadoodle ending that made the entire experience feel a bit like death by a thousand cuts. It starts out well enough, with an atmospheric village and woods and a young girl who must venture out to her granny’s every month. And then, of course, she discovers she’s so much more than she thought and the book should be off to the races.

Unfortunately, it felt a lot like an engine that kept rolling over and couldn’t quite get going. Adele’s character is set up as a fairly typical teenager, a bit stubborn, but empathetic enough to be challenged by the choices presented her throughout the story regarding the nameless many vs the the known few. But there also wasn’t anything about her that was particularly gripping or made me feel truly invested in her. I also felt like the story go a good head of steam going with some of these moral quandaries and then, somehow, never fully resolved them. The ending, especially, felt strange and disjointed from the greater conversation being presented in the book. It felt rushed and left me with a lot of mixed feelings about Adele herself.

It was also not a great sign to see Adele happily paired up at the beginning of the book. You know it’s never going to last in a YA fantasy when the main character is already happily in love when the story starts. And, alas, my predictions came true and the dreaded love triangle emerged. It could have been more annoying, I guess, but that’s hardly a compliment for the choice to have one in the first place. The other side of the triangle also felt very rushed, with Adele herself mentioning that she couldn’t believe how quickly she’d fallen for so-and-so. If the main character can barely believe it, I definitely can’t.

The writing was also a bit challenging. I can’t point to any particular quirks or style choices, only that it didn’t capture me, and I was very aware that I was actively reading as I turned the pages. I couldn’t sink into the story, for whatever reason. There were some legitimately creepy and interesting fantasy aspects in this world, but the story itself felt like the framework was too flimsy to fully hold the ideas themselves.

Overall, I was pretty disappointed in this book. It did a lot of things just OK, and then didn’t have any big wow moments to pull it up from just middling. And, of course, love triangles are almost always a detractor in my enjoyment of story. Readers looking for a more middle-grade, young YA might enjoy this, but I’d recommend “For the Wolf” and “The Wolf and the Woodsman” as your “Red Riding Hood” books of the summer before this one.

Rating 6: A big ole “OK.” Love triangles and a lackluster heroine didn’t help this story get off the ground.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Red Wolf” is on these Goodreads lists: YA Fantasy Standalone Books and Red Riding Hood Across Genres.

Find “Red Wolf” at the library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Firekeeper’s Daughter”

Book: “Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley

Publishing Info: Henry, Holt, & Co., March 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: As a biracial, unenrolled tribal member and the product of a scandal, eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. Daunis dreams of studying medicine, but when her family is struck by tragedy, she puts her future on hold to care for her fragile mother.

The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team. Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, certain details don’t add up and she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into the heart of a criminal investigation.

Reluctantly, Daunis agrees to go undercover, but secretly pursues her own investigation, tracking down the criminals with her knowledge of chemistry and traditional medicine. But the deceptions—and deaths—keep piling up and soon the threat strikes too close to home. Now, Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she’ll go to protect her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known.

Review: Sometimes, when you are reading a book, there is a moment where you just know that it is going to knock your socks off. I couldn’t pinpoint where it was in “Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley, but I know it was early. I know there was a moment where there was a switch that flipped, and I said to myself ‘this is going to be fantastic’. I bought it after hearing a bit of buzz, but it admittedly sat on my pile for awhile. I happened to pick it up the same day that I had the pleasure of seeing Boulley talk during a virtual conference, and what began as ‘oh, that’s cool serendipity’ shortly thereafter morphed into something more.

It was very this. (source)

I loved this book. I LOVED it. Angeline Boulley is a fantastic writer who has a gift for imagery, characterization, and plotting, and the result is a hell of a debut novel. The mystery at hand as so many layers, and not just in terms of evidence and components, but also in terms of the consequences and difficult realities that it has because of the community it is affecting. Our main character, Daunis, is such an effective and complicated but easy to root for protagonist, and she is completely believable in every step she takes based on her experience, background, and personality. We slowly learn her backstory while we are meeting her in the middle of a huge traumatic change, as her maternal grandmother has just had a stroke and months previously her maternal uncle was found dead of a meth overdose. Daunis is feeling adrift, even when she has already felt a bit adrift, being the biracial daughter of a white mother and an Anishinaabe man, so her very existence was a huge scandal (parentage aside, her mother was a teenager when she became pregnant, and shortly thereafter he left her for another girl he’d also gotten pregnant). Daunis has had to straddle the privileged white identity as well as her Indigenous one, and has never felt truly and fully accepted by either side of the family, no matter how much love she feels from both sides. Her need to find herself, and her need to avenge the death of her best friend Lily (whose murder she witnessed), as well as her uncle, drives her even more. Daunis is such a compelling main character, I just loved her and loved everything about her. When I saw Boulley speak during the Virtual U.S. Book Show, she described Daunis as a ‘Native Nancy Drew’, and while meth is a bit more high stakes than secrets in old clocks, her pluckiness and likability is totally an homage to young women detectives in literature. And yes, her chemistry with Jamie is…. it’s just wonderful, and heartbreaking, and beautiful, and that’s all I am going to say about her and Jamie. Because you gotta read the book.

But Daunis’s Indigenous cultural identity plays a huge part in this story, and Boulley weaves it all in spectacularly. I think that in a lot of YA thrillers in which a young adult protagonist would be asked to be a CI for the government, it may be a hard and dangerous decision, but on that they would ultimately do for ‘the greater good’ without many personal qualms outside of danger. But that isn’t so in Daunis’s case, nor can it be. Her decision to work with the FBI and the BIA is certainly not one to take lightly, given the terrible history both organizations have with Indigenous people in this country (really, the United States Government in general has just been awful in this regard). But once she’s in it, we get a gritty and suspenseful, as well as critical, look at what it means to be a CI, as well as the way that the FBI and BIA approach communities with such systemic and cyclical oppression. Daunis approaches this as ‘the greater good’, but never truly trusts Ron, the FBI agent, as his motivation is to stop the criminals, as opposed to helping the community that is being affected by the meth supply heal and get better.

There is also the complicated relationship that Daunis has with her maternal side, in particular her Grandmary, who absolutely loves her granddaughter, but is racist towards the Indigenous population in the community as seen through flashbacks and second hand accounts. While it could be written that Daunis either completely excuses her grandmother, or completely shuns her grandmother, instead we find a very realistic and complicated middle ground for her. Along with both those really complicated examinations, every time we get information about Daunis’s culture, be it through conversation, demonstration, or flat out explanation, it is done in a way that is so natural that it always fits the moment. It feels strange to say that it’s ‘unique’, as the uniqueness of it probably comes from the fact that Indigenous voices in literature have been underrepresented for far too long, but it was certainly a fair amount of new information to me, someone who grew up on Dakota Land and has spent a lot of time north on Ojibwe/Anishinaabe Land.

AND, as if I haven’t gushed on long enough, BUT I’M GOING TO CONTINUE, the mystery is also great. I may have guessed some parts of it, but that didn’t even matter to me because it was well crafted, complex, and it was really able to hit home the tragedies of meth running in this community and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that are at the center of the mystery. There is so much power in this story. As well as a lot of darkness (content warnings here an there, from domestic abuse to murder to a sexual assault that happens off page, but is definitely upsetting). But the darkness always has a bit of hope and resilience to go along with it, and that made all the difference.

“Firekeeper’s Daughter” is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Do yourself a favor and read this book. It is almost assuredly going to be on my Top Ten list this year.

Rating 10: It’s just fantastic. A healthy and powerful mix of a well done mystery and a meditation on being Indigenous in the 21st century, “Firekeeper’s Daughter” blew me completely away.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Firekeeper’s Daughter” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books by Indigenous Women”, and “Hello Sunshine YA Book Club Book List”.

Find “Firekeeper’s Daughter” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Highlights: July 2021

It was a super hot June here in Minnesota, and while we aren’t missing the snow and ice by any means, it would be nice if July would settle down with the heat waves. But that said, between holiday weekends and longer days, we are taking advantage of all the outdoor time when it isn’t uncomfortable to do so. And we have some titles that we are looking forward to read on these hot summer days! Here are our picks for July’s Highlights!

Serena’s Picks

Book: “Red Wolf” by Rachel Vincent

Publication Date: July 27, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Well, I have to go for the Triple Crown of “Red Riding Hood” stories for the summer, of course! But after enjoying the first two so much, I’m not going to lie, I’m a bit nervous whether this one will keep up or break the streak! In many ways, with its story of a girl named Red who must venture into a dark wood every month to bring supplies to her grandmother, it’s definitely the one of the three that sounds most similar to the original tale. I guess that could either be a good or bad thing, in the end! Either way, props to the art department for another stellar cover. All three definitely knocked it out of the park on that front.

Book: “The Empire’s Ruin” by Brian Staveley

Publication Date: July 6, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I’ve really enjoyed all of the books I’ve read by Brian Staveley in the past, both his original “Unhewn Thrown” trilogy and the stand-alone “Skullsworn” set in the same world. So I was beyond thrilled when I saw that he was coming out with a new book. Even more so when I saw the cover featuring a rough and tumble redhead, promising more adventures for one of my favorite characters from the original trilogy, the fierce Gwenna. She shares the book with a character we met in “Skullsworn,” Ruc, as well as with a thief-turned-priest who grew up alongside Kaden before his adventures began. I’m a bit sad not to have more chapters from Adare’s perspective, but I’m excited to see the fallout of the world after the events of the first trilogy and to see what is in store next for my lovely Gwenna! The book description promises new locations out side the Annurian empire as well as the return of some powerful force. Could we be getting even more history regarding the Nevariim and Csestriim?

Book: “She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan

Publication Date: July 20, 2021

Why I’m Interested: This book is billed as “Mulan” meets “The Song of Achilles.” While I haven’t read the latter, even the barest hint of “Mulan” is usually enjoy to get me to pick up a book. I’ve had on and off success with retellings of this story, but this book looks particularly interesting as, as far as I can tell, the only real “Mulan” connection is a Chinese setting and the story of a young girl taking on the identity of her brother. This leaves a lot of room for original storytelling. The book is also billed as being queer, so I’m curious to see how that romance is worked into the story. There are also a number of references to our main character, Zhu, doing whatever it takes to survive, so I’m hopeful for another ruthless, powerful warrior character there. Also, again, the cover art here is fantastic!

Kate’s Picks

Book: “Falling” by T.J. Newman

Publication Date: July 6, 2021

Why I’m Interested: This book is getting a lot of buzz, and while it took me awhile to actually look into the hype, once I did I was VERY interested. “Falling” is billed as “Jaws” on an airplane, and given that “Jaws” is a much loved movie in our household, anything that has shades is sure to please! Bill is an airplane pilot with a loving wife and two kids. But one flight, he is suddenly given a message: crash the plane, or his entire family dies. Once he confirms that his family is, indeed, in danger, Bill has to figure out how to save both his loved ones, and his passengers and crew. Talk about high stakes! It may damper my perception of flying for awhile, but hey, I’m not getting on a plane until probably next year, so whatever!

Book: “The Book of Accidents” by Chuck Wendig

Publication Date: July 20, 2021

Why I’m Interested: While “Wanderers” had some pretty glaring misses for me, overall I enjoyed Chuck Wendig’s writing style and approach to a story filled with darkness as well as hope. When I found out he had a new horror novel coming out, I was absolutely on board, and thus we have “The Book of Accidents”! Nate is a man who overcame an incredibly abusive childhood, and now has wife Maddie and teenage son Oliver to care for and love. When his father is on his deathbed, he offers Nate the childhood home, and while Nate has bad memories, his family is interested to move for a change of setting. But once they move in, they all start experiencing strange things. And a dark entity has it’s sights on all of them. Sounds creepy, which is great, but knowing Wendig you can count on a lot of genuine heart as well.

Book: “The Final Girl Support Group” by Grady Hendrix

Publication Date: July 13, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Well I mean, come on. I’m sure you can guess. 1) I love slasher movies, especially those that deal with Final Girl heroines and tropes. And 2) Grady Hendrix has never steered me wrong. Lynette is part of a support group for Final Girls, women who has survived a slasher killer and whose story became entertainment for the masses. But when one of their own ends up murdered, Lynette is convinced that they are all in danger. Now Lynette and her compatriots have to try and figure out who is going after them, and see if they can survive again…. especially since survival has been hard to cope with for all of them. Anything slasher is going to be a home run for me, and Hendrix has the knowledge and the wry sense of humor to make this a really fun ride.

What new books are you looking forward to this month? Let us know in the comments!

Monthly Marillier: “Wildwood Dancing”

“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books. I’ll be posting a new entry in this series on the first Friday of every month.

Book: “Wildwood Dancing” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Alfred A. Knopf, January 2007

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: High in the Transylvanian woods, at the castle Piscul Draculi, live five daughters and their doting father. It’s an idyllic life for Jena, the second eldest, who spends her time exploring the mysterious forest with her constant companion, a most unusual frog. But best by far is the castle’s hidden portal, known only to the sisters. Every Full Moon, they alone can pass through it into the enchanted world of the Other Kingdom. There they dance through the night with the fey creatures of this magical realm.

But their peace is shattered when Father falls ill and must go to the southern parts to recover, for that is when cousin Cezar arrives. Though he’s there to help the girls survive the brutal winter, Jena suspects he has darker motives in store. Meanwhile, Jena’s sister has fallen in love with a dangerous creature of the Other Kingdom–an impossible union it’s up to Jena to stop.

When Cezar’s grip of power begins to tighten, at stake is everything Jena loves: her home, her family, and the Other Kingdom she has come to cherish. To save her world, Jena will be tested in ways she can’t imagine–tests of trust, strength, and true love.

Review: Obviously, I love fairytale re-tellings. But as the genre goes, there are definitely more popular fairytales than others to receive this treatment. For example, there are a million and one stories reimagining “Beauty and the Beast” or “Cinderella.” And just this summer, we’re seeing three separate books coming out retelling variations of “Little Red Riding Hood.” But two of my favorite fairytales, “The Seven Swans” and “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” definitely fall in the “less likely” category for stories to be rewritten. Luckily for me, one of my favorite authors has written my favorite versions of both of these stories. I’ve already covered “Daughter of the Forest,” so now it’s time for Marillier’s take on “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”

To others, Jena’s home may seem strange and even possibly dangerous. But she’s always loved the ramshackle castle and the mysterious woods that surround it. Wandering the wilds with her beloved frog, Gogu, Jena know that magic exists in this place. Every full moon, she and her four sisters travel in secret to the land of the fairies where they spend a night dancing and enjoying the revels of that strange world. But when Jena’s father becomes sick and leaves the management of the household to Jena herself, the magic that once made up her life seems to begin to turn dark. With threats looming in both the world of the fairies and in her own, very human world, Jena desperately tries to find the strength within to hold on tight to those she loves.

There are many things to like about this book. For one thing, it’s one of the first YA fantasy stories I read by Marillier. As such, the tone of the story and the trials her characters face are different than her adult books. While the story still has darker moments, overall, the tone of the story is light and bright. The wonders of the full moon balls were probably some of the best scenes of the book, perfectly capturing the magic of these visits with small details about the music, ballgowns, and strange attendees who made up these affairs. It is easy for readers to immediately come down on Jena’s view of this magical world, both the joys it can present but also the dangers that lurk beneath the surface.

I also really liked the side characters in this book. All of Jena’s sister felt distinct and had their own moments and mini arcs/stakes at play throughout the story. I would at turns find myself rooting for each of them and then, conversely, massively rolling my eyes at some of their nonsense. Tati, for example, the eldest sister who falls in love with a young man from the fairy world, is always a struggle for me. “Dying for love” is just not something I can really get behind, especially not in the circumstances given here where Tati’s lack of will to live, essentially, is not only dooming herself but leaving her sisters alone to cope with the very real, very present challenges before them.

I also really enjoyed the various relationships highlighted in this story. Obviously, there’s quite a lot of attention given to sisterhood, espeically as Jena sees her role in regards to her sisters, learning lessons about the difference between loving someone enough to let them make their own way and holding on too tightly. But there’s also a lot of attention given to friendship, that between Jena and her frog, Gogu, as well as the increasingly tense relationship between Jena and her cousin, Cezar. There we see how the choices we make not only change ourselves, but they change the relationships we have with people as well. The romance was also very sweet and original in this story, taking a winding path and drastically veering away from the traditional fairytale’s version.

Jena is also an excellent main character. And part of what makes her excellent is how very frustrating I often found her to be. If there’s on criticism that I’ve leveled the most against Marillier’s books up to this point, it’s that her main characters are a bit too perfect. That is definitely not the case here. Jena is presented as a highly capable young woman, but this same high level of ability is also her greatest weakness throughout the book. Again and again, we see Jena fail to trust those around her to help her deal with the challenges before her. Instead, she attempts to manage things (and people!) that aren’t her responsibility or things she has no right to direct. There are a couple of choices and moments that are very tough to read, as Jena so clearly ignores the common sense and warnings that the reader is picking up on. However, all of this is also very intentionally written in and included in Jena’s overall arch of self-discovery and growth.

This is one of my favorite Marillier books to go back and re-read. I’ve included it in lists in the past as a comfort read type of book, and that it remains. The story is fast-moving, the magic is beautiful and unique, and I love the friendships and romance at the heart of the story.

Rating 8: The best version of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” that I have yet to find.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wildwood Dancing” is on these Goodreads lists: Books about Faery and 12 Dancing Princesses Retellings.

Find “Wildwood Dancing” at your library using WorldCat!