Serena’s review: “The True Queen”

Book: “The True Queen” by Zen Cho

Publishing Info: Ace, March 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: When sisters Muna and Sakti wake up on the peaceful beach of the island of Janda Baik, they can’t remember anything, except that they are bound as only sisters can be. They have been cursed by an unknown enchanter, and slowly Sakti starts to fade away. The only hope of saving her is to go to distant Britain, where the Sorceress Royal has established an academy to train women in magic.

If Muna is to save her sister, she must learn to navigate high society, and trick the English magicians into believing she is a magical prodigy. As she’s drawn into their intrigues, she must uncover the secrets of her past, and journey into a world with more magic than she had ever dreamed. 

Previously Reviewed: “Sorcerer to the Crown”

Review: Kate and I both read “Sorcerer to the Crown” for bookclub a few months ago. It had been my pick, a book that had been sitting on my shelf inexplicably unread for years. Boy could I have kicked myself for that after getting through with it! I loved the fantasy of manners feel of the book, and the main characters were incredibly compelling. I also liked how the book tackled complicated issues surrounding race, identity, and sexism all within a book that, overall, still felt light0hearted and fun. With all that to recommend it, I was fully committed to continuing on with the series as soon as possible. And, while I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much of as the first, I still had a blast reading this second entry.

Muna and her sister Sakti wake up on a beach with no memory of who they are or where they came from. They know they are sisters, but nothing else. Muna is satisfied to lead a quiet life, but when Sakti begins to succumb to a curse that sees her slowly disappearing, Muna must venture forth to save her sister. But with no magic to her name, Muna’s task is a perilous one. In a foreign country, and with the aide of the powerful Sorcerer to the Crown, Prunella, Muna must convince everyone that she is in fact a powerful magical force in her own right. Soon, she is more steeped in magic and magical beings than she ever would have wished. But to save her sister, Muna will brave most anything.

One of the main things that still stands out to me when now reading this second book by Cho is the perfect marriage of old-fashioned-style writing and unique, fantasy elements. If there weren’t dragons and talk of the land of Fae in every other sentence, it would be easy to imagine one is simply reading a good Jane Austen novel or any other historical fiction story written in that time. Now, the mileage of that style of writing really varies from reader to reader as, indeed, it’s a style that lends itself towards long, drawn out sentences. But I love this type of verbose writing, so this kind of book is right up my alley.

10 Most Unforgettable JUSTIFIED Quotes | Movie TV Tech Geeks News
Regency authors and Boyd Crowder apparently have a lot in common.

I was also pleased to see that while Muna has the majority of the POV chapters, we also returned to Prunella as well. In fact, the contrast between the two almost made each stronger. Prunella was still her confident, action-oriented self. However, Muna was a much more reserved character. From the start, she is only pushed into this adventure in a desire to save her sister. For herself, she would have been happy with a quiet life, only faintly disturbed by her missing memories. She was an excellent foil to Prunella, and, while the two faced similar barriers to their roles in society (as women, and, worse, women with magical abilities), we see how Muna is affected by these forces and reacts differently than Prunella.

I also enjoyed the additional layers that were added to the fantasy elements in this story. Most especially, I enjoyed the deeper look into the world of Fae itself, with its strange habits and fearsome (and sometimes very funny!) cast of characters. It was also interesting seeing how various nations understood this magical world, and the different ways they approached their relationship with this powerful place and its people.

Once again, the book also delved into some social aspects and themes that aren’t often found in a historical work like this. I’m not quite sure if this was as successful as the first book was, however. The romance between the two women, for one things, feels very out of the blue and tacked on at the very end. It is definitely possible to read this as a building romance between the two the entire time, but when one character is in a straight relationship for almost the entire book only to suddenly switch at the end…it’s just not very deftly handled.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It contained much of what I enjoyed from the first book, and Muna was a fantastic new main character. I’m still very intrigued by this world and would love to re-visit it whenever Cho chooses! Fans of the first book should definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: A smart, Regency fantasy that continues to build on the excellent foundation of social commentary that the first book established.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The True Queen” is on these Goodreads lists: LGBT Scifi and Fantasy 2015-2020 and Asian Adult Fiction 2018.

Find “The True Queen” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Arsenic and Adobo”

Book: “Arsenic and Adobo” by Mia P. Manansala

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, May 2021

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

Book Description: The first book in a new culinary cozy series full of sharp humor and delectable dishes—one that might just be killer….

When Lila Macapagal moves back home to recover from a horrible breakup, her life seems to be following all the typical rom-com tropes. She’s tasked with saving her Tita Rosie’s failing restaurant, and she has to deal with a group of matchmaking aunties who shower her with love and judgment. But when a notoriously nasty food critic (who happens to be her ex-boyfriend) drops dead moments after a confrontation with Lila, her life quickly swerves from a Nora Ephron romp to an Agatha Christie case.

With the cops treating her like she’s the one and only suspect, and the shady landlord looking to finally kick the Macapagal family out and resell the storefront, Lila’s left with no choice but to conduct her own investigation. Armed with the nosy auntie network, her barista best bud, and her trusted Dachshund, Longanisa, Lila takes on this tasty, twisted case and soon finds her own neck on the chopping block…

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

I’ve said in the past few months that I’m trying to expand my literary experiences this year in terms of genres. First that meant that I was going to read more romance. And then after our Book Club read “The Widows of Malabar Hill” I thought that perhaps I would give more cozy mysteries a try. Admittedly my preconceived notions of cozy mysteries usually involve crafting or baking themes, and also usually star white women. Whether these were accurate notions or not, they were the notions I had before Book Club opened my eyes. And then I stumbled upon “Arsenic and Adobo” by Mia P. Manansala on NetGalley, and I decided that it was time to finally dive in. And what better way to do it, but with a story that takes place in a Filipino restaurant in small town America?

The premise is pretty simple: our protagonist Lila has returned to her small town after a bad break up that made her flee Chicago. She rejoins her Tita Rosie, as well as her grandmother and her meddling but well meaning aunties, and is helping at Rosie’s restaurant. Things get sticky when Lila’s old boyfriend Derek dies after eating the food at the restaurant, and also after arguing with Lila. So Lila has to clear her name, as well as help save the restaurant from going under. Simple stuff, but Manansala writes with such joy and verve that it’s just a fun story to read in spite of some of the more simplistic aspects. Lila is a fun character to follow, as she is a good balance of a bit self absorbed and frazzled, but also clearly cares about her family and her friends. She’s the perfect amateur detective for a story like this, getting into trouble but charming her way (or sometimes bumbling her way) through her investigation. I also liked the other supporting characters, from her loving Tita Rosie to her busy body aunties. My favorite, however, was definitely her high school best friend Adeena, who is both spunky and yet sensitive, and provides a good foil to Lila both in positive and negative ways. Really, the entire cast is fun, it’s diverse, and we are getting ideas as to what parts they are going to play as the series goes on.

As for the mystery itself, it’s entertaining and perfectly alright. The stakes are high, given that Lila’s freedom and her aunt’s business are both threatened, but it never feels like things aren’t going to work out, one way or another. I know that’s one of the things that appeals about cozy mysteries, but as someone who reads some pretty dark shit I’m not as used to it, and it was a bit refreshing. There are a wide array of suspects and some red herrings, but when all is said and done it was pretty predictable as to what was going on and who was guilty if you knew what to look for. I guessed the culprit long before I was supposed to, but since the journey with the quirky characters was enjoyable I wasn’t too frustrated by that. And it was well done enough that I will probably be seeking out the next book in the series.

Also, RECIPES! I’m sure that there are many cozy mystery series that have recipes and crafting instructions and such if those are the themes, but that didn’t make it any less delightful when I saw that we get some really delicious and simple recipes in the back of this book! I am fully intending to try my hand at a few of them. If the COVID-19 Pandemic has taught me anything it’s that I can distract myself with a recipe and experimenting with new ones is fun as hell!

I can now make bagels, challah, and a mean green bean casserole, and can’t wait to add some Filipino recipes to my three ring binder. (source)

“Arsenic and Adobo” is super fun, and I’m glad that this is the cozy mystery series I decided to take a chance on. Whatever Lila is up to next, I will surely be on board. I can’t recommend stretching your genre comforts, guys. I’ve been having a ball.

Rating 7: A fun mystery with enjoyable characters, “Arsenic and Adobo” was a little predictable, but a good time. Also, recipes!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Arsenic and Adobo” is new and not on many relevant Goodreads list, but I think it would fit in on “Filipino Authors”, and “Culinary Cozy Mysteries”.

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

Serena’s Review: “The Shadow in the Glass”

Book: “The Shadow in the Glass” by J.J.A. Harwood

Publishing Info: HarperVoyager, May 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Once upon a time Ella had wished for more than her life as a lowly maid.

Now forced to work hard under the unforgiving, lecherous gaze of the man she once called stepfather, Ella’s only refuge is in the books she reads by candlelight, secreted away in the library she isn’t permitted to enter.

One night, among her beloved books of far-off lands, Ella’s wishes are answered. At the stroke of midnight, a fairy godmother makes her an offer that will change her life: seven wishes, hers to make as she pleases. But each wish comes at a price and Ella must to decide whether it’s one she’s willing to pay it.

Review: I’m always up for a good fairy-tale retelling. The story of “Cinderella” is probably right up there with “Beauty and the Beast” as a favorite in the genre as well. There are a bunch of them out there, with some I like better than others. “Ella Enchanted” will probably always be my favorite, and I was alone in the crowd as being underwhelmed by “Cinder.” But it’d been a while since I’d read one, and the summary for this version seemed to indicate a darker take on the classic tale. The darkness delivered. The rest of the book….well.

Ella had once had a future. One filled with coming out balls, high society, and if she was fortunate, a wealthy marriage. But when her wealthy sponsor and the lady of the house dies, Ella finds herself in very different circumstances. Now, a lowly maid with no prospects, Ella spends her nights sneaking into the library and dreaming of what once was. When she triggers a magical event and a powerful fairy appears offering her a way out, Ella is quick to bargain. But as she wishes for more and more, will the price be more than she is willing to pay?

So, like always, I’ll try to start this review with the things that I liked. The biggest pro I have for this book unfortunately ties into a negative aspect as well, but we’ll go for the good side first. The story is definitely a darker re-imaging of the classic tale. There were moments that were legitimately creepy, and I enjoyed the way these darker portions of the story built one upon another, ramping up the tension and sense of inevitable doom as the story progressed. This is definitely not the floofy, Disney version of Cinderella, and it was refreshing to read a very different take on a well-covered story.

On the other hand, this darkness began to overwhelm the story. The deep dive into the psychological aspects of what having wishes that will grant you almost anything can do to one’s own moral compass began to feel a bit exhausting. Ella continues to make the same mistakes over and over again, seemingly learning very little from her previous errors. It also ends up making Ella a very unlikeable character much of the time. She quickly becomes incredibly greedy and self-centered. And while I thought this exploration of what wishes can do to a person was interesting enough, the actual reading experience of it was not very enjoyable.

As part of this dark feel to the book, the story delves into a few tougher issues. They weren’t botched by any means, but I also am not sure the author really covered them as well as I would have liked. The atmosphere of the story is very grim and it did begin to feel stifling at times, made all the harder by my dislike for the main character.

I appreciate that this story wasn’t like many other cookie-cutter versions of the “Cinderella” fairytale, and at times the Gothic feeling of the story was quite successful. The version of the fairy godmother, in particular, was striking. But between the almost oppressive tone of the story and unlikable main character, it wasn’t for me. Those you enjoy darker fairytales might enjoy this, but if you’re a reader who goes into books hanging most of your hopes of enjoyment on your main lead, this probably isn’t for you.

Rating 6: Not to my taste, but an interesting take on a darker version of “Cinderella.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Shadow in the Glass” is a new book, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, yet. But it is on 2021 Gothic.

Kate’s Review: “Empire of Wild”

Book: “Empire of Wild” by Cherie Dimaline

Publishing Info: William Morrow, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A bold and brilliant new indigenous voice in contemporary literature makes her American debut with this kinetic, imaginative, and sensuous fable inspired by the traditional Canadian Métis legend of the Rogarou—a werewolf-like creature that haunts the roads and woods of native people’s communities.

Joan has been searching for her missing husband, Victor, for nearly a year—ever since that terrible night they’d had their first serious argument hours before he mysteriously vanished. Her Métis family has lived in their tightly knit rural community for generations, but no one keeps the old ways . . . until they have to. That moment has arrived for Joan.

One morning, grieving and severely hungover, Joan hears a shocking sound coming from inside a revival tent in a gritty Walmart parking lot. It is the unmistakable voice of Victor. Drawn inside, she sees him. He has the same face, the same eyes, the same hands, though his hair is much shorter and he’s wearing a suit. But he doesn’t seem to recognize Joan at all. He insists his name is Eugene Wolff, and that he is a reverend whose mission is to spread the word of Jesus and grow His flock. Yet Joan suspects there is something dark and terrifying within this charismatic preacher who professes to be a man of God . . . something old and very dangerous.

Joan turns to Ajean, an elderly foul-mouthed card shark who is one of the few among her community steeped in the traditions of her people and knowledgeable about their ancient enemies. With the help of the old Métis and her peculiar Johnny-Cash-loving, twelve-year-old nephew Zeus, Joan must find a way to uncover the truth and remind Reverend Wolff who he really is . . . if he really is. Her life, and those of everyone she loves, depends upon it.

Review: I missed Cherie Demaline’s YA dystopia novel “The Marrow Thieves” when it first came out, and still haven’t really rectified that. Honestly, it’s on my list! But it took me a couple moments to realize and make the connection that “Empire of Wild”, a book I ordered during the height of the 2020 timeline of the pandemic and then let sit on my shelf for far too long, was by the same author. Having let another book of hers miss me again, I decided that it was time to fix at least part of my problem. “Empire of Wild” caught my eye because of the phrase ‘werewolf-like creature’ in the description. Feeling like I need to read more werewolf fiction, I went in excited to see what that could mean. But let me tell you, this isn’t your average werewolf story. The folklore, mythology, and symbolism go to more interesting and unique places than that.

The plot is both deep and yet very simple. Joan is a Métis woman who left her small, fractured town in Canada, and came back with a husband named Victor. He was the love of her life, but one night after a fight he left and disappeared. Joan has been mourning the loss for almost a year, and while everyone around her thinks he’s left her for another woman, she is convinced she can find him. So when she stumbles upon Victor one day, but he’s a Reverend of a Tent Revival group and says his name is Reverend Wolff and has no clue who she is, things get interesting. And then her grandmother, one of the elders in the town where there are few left, is killed by a wild dog. Or perhaps a wolf. What you think you’re going to read is not what you’re going to read. Dimaline finds layers of loss, grief, generational trauma, and love within this story, and you so desperately want Joan to find Victor, and when she does, but doesn’t, you are invested in how it’s going to turn out for her. It’s mostly following Joan on her journey, though we do get chapters interspersed in of others. The most significant are the chapters from Victor’s POV, as we slowly find out what happened to him in the woods the night he disappeared from her life, and it’s written in such eerie, surreal exposition that it slowly builds up the dread. There are also some chapters that follow various antagonistic forces, which never really get explored too much, but that’s okay. Because this is Joan and Victor’s story.

It’s also the story of a rogarou, a folk tale that has been seen in numerous cultures and can be compared to werewolf stories. A rogarou in the Métis lens in this story is a wolf like creature that haunts roads, searching for people to devour. From the get go we see that there is, indeed, some kind of threat like this, as Joan’s grandmother, Mere, is killed by some kind of canine early in the story. She also happened to be one of the few people who knew how to deal with rogarou. Joan eventually turns to another elder named Ajean for help, and Dimaline uses this opportunity to show aspects of the folklore and how it relates specifically to the Métis people. I really liked how this was woven into the story, and thought that it fit well.

But the most striking theme at the very heart of “Empire of Wild” is the insidiousness of colonialism, and the violence it has committed (and continues to commit) against Indigenous people. The fight between Joan and Victor that sent him into the unknown was based on him wanting to sell the land that she inherited from her father, as developers are constantly looking to buy Métis land, which has led to a fracturing of an already fractured community. The tent revival group that Joan finds Reverend Wolff leading has an explicit motivation to convert Indigenous people to Evangelical Christianity, and therein take more of their culture from them as well as taking them away from the devotion they have to their land (and therein allowing developers to take it and profit from it). The loss of culture and family is seen in many ways, from the land loss to the shrinking number of elders, to Joan’s nephew Zeus who is slowly losing his connection to his identity and turning his back on traditions as the story goes on. Even the Métis version of the rogarou myth has angles about people being devoured not just in body but also in spirit. If Victor has, indeed, been the victim of a rogarou, the focus is more on the mind and identity that has been erased as it takes on his body. All of this comes together in ways that directly challenge imperialist and colonialist motivations, and how Indigenous pain is profited upon over and over again. I loved this searing commentary.

“Empire of Wild” is unique and suspenseful, and filled with a lot of heart and ardor. If you want something a little different from your average werewolf story, this is where you should look for it.

Rating 8: A truly unique dark fantasy tale about love, loss, the violence of colonialism, and wolves, “Empire of Wild” is a haunting read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Empire of Wild” is included on the Goodreads lists “Anticipated Literary Reads For Readers of Color 2020”.

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

Book Club Review: “Annihilation”

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 “Outside the Genre Box”, in which we each picked a book from a genre or format that we don’t usually read.

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: “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer

Publishing Info: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2014

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide, the third in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another. The members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within weeks, all had died of cancer. In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition.

The group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.

Genre/Format: Horror

Kate’s Thoughts

This is not my first time reading “Annihilation”, as a few years ago I picked it up thanks to the recommendation of a circulation supervisor at a library I was subbing at at the time. Along with his rec, one of my good friends also said that she loved the series. Reading it through the first time was a weird, unsettling, but rewarding experience into weirdo gonzo sci-fi horror. So when Serena chose it for book club, I was pretty amped to give it a re-read.

And on the second time around, I was once again really into “Annihilation”. Vandermeer creates such a unique, creepy, and mysterious environment that feels like a character in and of itself. Area X is an unknown entity that dooms those who enter it, many of whom just straight up never come back, and those that do come back, well… They’re changed. As our characters (all nameless, referred to by their occupations in the expedition) start to fall prey to Area X, as well as their own paranoia and potentially even their compatriots, the first person Narrator, The Biologist, leads us on a confusing and convoluted journey where you don’t really know what’s going on. And that, in and of itself, is scary.

Vandermeer’s greatest strength is building up the unknown through the things we cannot see. For me, the scariest aspect was an entity referred to as The Moaner, which lets off terrifying baying sounds at dusk and night. I mean MY GOD. It’s things like this, as well as nefarious scheming that we see happen without much explanation, and the general breaking down of the explorers’s sanity, that kept my dread levels pretty high up on both reads. While other books may slowly start to peel back reveals, with foreshadowing, twists, and ah ha moments abound, those aren’t the kind of things that you find in this book. And our book club was pretty split as to how we felt about that. For some of us that worked. For others, it didn’t. But that just meant the conversation was great as we all peeled back the various layers.

“Annihilation” is weird. It doesn’t feel a need to give you many answers. But if you like weirdo Sci-Fi horror with a hint of eco-terror as well, it is absolutely the book for you.

Serena’s Thoughts

When we came up with this round’s bookclub theme, I knew immediately that I wanted to do horror for my pick. Not only is it good to dabble in the genre that my co-blogger routinely writes about and reads, but I’ve found myself enjoying a decent number of horror-y book that have come across my reading pile recently (“Mexican Gothic” comes to mind right off the bat). But, of course, being me, I couldn’t resist a choice that also seemed to dabble in science fiction themes as well. And thus, “Annihilation!”

I really enjoyed this book. It’s definitely a strange one, and I feel like my comfort reading epic fantasy novels where you’re routinely thrown into worlds full of strange words and rituals that are never really explained paid off really well for me. This book is weird and it’s only marginally interested in explaining itself. What does get explained only comes up in the last 20% or so of the story. So that leaves almost the entire book with the reader being just as (if not more) clueless than our nameless main character. It takes a long time to even get an answer about why there are so few answers to start with! A convoluted idea if ever there was one.

In many ways, the reader is left feeling unbalanced and confused throughout most of the read. This helps increase the building tension and fear when, for most of it, very little is actually, physically, happening. Instead, the book leans into the sense of doom and the greater fear of an unknown that you can’t see or understand rather than the monster that is richly described in detail for you.

The narrator is also an unknown. Much of her story plays out in a series of flashbacks to her life before entering Area X. She is is definitely a strange entity all on her unknown. I wasn’t quite sure if her oddness was an intentional choice on the author’s part or if he struggled to write from a woman’s perspective? Or some combination of things? I will say, characterization is perhaps not his particular strength as a writer, but the narrator was definitely serviceable in delivery all the oddness and spookiness inherent in Area X itself.

In the end, I think I was left with more questions than I had answers. Most of bookclub was just one big question: “What the heck did we just read?” But for me, this was a good question, and I’ll probably add the second book to my TBR pile.

Kate’s Rating: Super weird but incredibly fascinating, “Annihilation” is very unique in how it tells a story.

Serena’s Rating 8: Bizarre in the best way, this book dials into the fear of the unseen in a really great way.

Book Club Questions

  1. The main character’s past and her relationship with her husband directs a lot of her thoughts and actions. In what ways were these flashbacks important to her story? Was there any one moment/flashback that stood out to you as touching on the greater themes?
  2. There are a lot of unknowns in this book, from bigger mysteries surrounding Area X down to smaller details like characters’ names. How did this prevailing sense of the unknown affect your reading experience? Were you able to predict any of the reveals?
  3. What do you believe Area X is? Does it have a goal, and if so, what is it? Any theories regarding the meaning of the writing and the writer?
  4. This story walks the line between horror and science fiction. What aspects of the story/writing best represented each of these genres?
  5. This is the first book in a trilogy. Do you have any predictions for where the story will go from here? What are you most curious to learn more about?

Reader’s Advisory

“Annihilation” is included on these Goodreads lists: Best Weird Fiction Books and Cli-Fi: Climate Change Fiction.

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

Next Book Club Book: “Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close” by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman

Monthly Marillier: “Seer of Sevenwaters”

“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: “Seer of Sevenwaters” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Roc Hardcover, December 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The young seer Sibeal is visiting an island of elite warriors, prior to making her final pledge as a druid. It’s there she finds Felix, a survivor of a Viking shipwreck, who’s lost his memory. The scholarly Felix and Sibeal form a natural bond. He could even be her soul mate, but Sibeal’s vocation is her true calling, and her heart must answer.

As Felix fully regains his memory, Sibeal has a runic divination showing her that Felix must go on a perilous mission-and that she will join him. The rough waters and the sea creatures they will face are no match for Sibeal’s own inner turmoil. She must choose between the two things that tug at her soul-her spirituality and a chance at love…

Review: Unlike the first Sevenwaters trilogy which jumps generations with each book, the second trilogy remains focused on one generation: the daughters of Sean and Aisling. We’ve met, or heard reference to, them all before either in “Child of the Prophesy” or the previous book, so there’s an element of familiarity and expectation on each’s story from the start. Clodagh was a fantastic first pick for this new set of books, and it seemed only natural that Sibeal, her reserved, mystical younger sister would be the next choice. Unfortunately, for as much as I liked Sibeal’s character in “Heir to Sevenwaters,” her story has been one of my less favorite Marillier books, and so it remained with this re-read.

Even without the power of a seer, Sibeal believes she knows what will come of her life. She is soon to take her final vows to become a druid and join her brethren in the services they provide, that of wisdom, story-telling, and powerful, magical insight into the world around them. But this clear, straight path takes a sudden turn when Sibeal discovers a young man washed up on the shore with no memory of who he is. Suddenly, her life becomes much less clear and mysteries appear around every corner. For his part, Felix knows next to nothing about himself, with only dire hints at his own past and what paths he had been trodding before meeting Sibeal. Together, each must take on a perilous journey not only of self-discovery but to unlock wonders in the very world itself.

I really liked what we got from Sibeal in “Heir to Sevenwaters.” She didn’t have much page time, but she was a refreshing breath of fresh air in the midst of a family who was all treating Clodagh fairly poorly. Sibeal, alone, believed Clodagh and provided what support she could in the journey set out before her sister. Alas, as a main character, Sibeal wasn’t nearly as compelling. For one thing, her voice and perspective are not as distinct and unique as I had hoped. In too many ways, she seems similar to the other female protagonists we’ve seen in these stories and lacks the spark needed to make her stand out from the pack.

What’s worse, for the first time in this series, the narrative is split between Sibeal’s chapters and Felix’s, the romantic interest. And his are even worse than hers. Not only does the bare fact that splitting the narrative this way lesson the page time we have to get to know Sibeal as a character (perhaps this extended page count would have allowed for more development for her), but Felix himself brings next to nothing to the story. Amnesia stories are tough in this way, and Marillier falls into the same trap that many authors do with this type of arch: there’s just not enough to build upon when your character doesn’t know himself or his history. Beyond that, Felix’s chapters feel almost too similar to Sibeal’s. I’m not saying that there is a “male” and “female” way of thinking/speaking, but I definitely don’t want my two main characters to sound almost indistinguishable.

I also didn’t enjoy the overall story in this one as much as I have in Marillier’s previous Sevenwaters books. The mystery itself was fairly obvious, with numerous clues laid down well in advance of any characters piecing them together. It also all felt disconnected from the rest of the Sevenwaters story. In many ways, I feel like you could almost lift this book out of the series and no one would miss it.

Marillier’s writing remains strong, but with weaker characters and a weaker story overall, some of her tried and true go-toes become a bit more obvious as well. Some of her turns of phrase feel a bit tired and over-used, even. I did enjoy reading the final act of the story, where I felt like the pace picked up a bit more and my interested was piqued somewhat. But overall, it wasn’t enough to justify the rest of the story.

I remember being very disappointed when I read this book and wondering whether it might not be for the best that Marillier just hang up the Sevenwaters series altogether. Luckily (spoilers!), I did enjoy the last book in this series quite a bit, so that helped me recover from this reading experience. Luckily there are very few duds in her work, but this is definitely one of them.

Rating 6: The weakest Sevenwaters book of the lot with two main character, neither of whom are particularly interesting.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Seer of Sevenwaters” is on these Goodreads lists: Hidden Gems: YA-Fantasy Novels and Best Reconciliation Romance Books.

Find “Seer of Sevenwaters” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol. 9): The Kindly Ones”

Book: “The Sandman (Vol.9): The Kindly Ones” by Neil Gaiman, Marc Hempel (Ill.), Richard Case (Ill.), D’Israeli (Ill.), Teddu Kristiansen (Ill.), Glyn Dillon (Ill.), Charlie Vess (Ill.), Dean Ormston (Ill.), & Kevin Nowlan (ill.).

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1995

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The Penultimate volume to the phenomenal Sandman series: distraught by the kidnapping and presumed death of her son, and believing Morpheus to be responsible, Lyta Hall calls the ancient wrath of the Furies down upon him. A former superheroine blames Morpheus for the death of her child and summons an ancient curse of vengeance against the Lord of Dream. The “kindly ones” enter his realm and force a sacrifice that will change the Dreaming forever.

Review: If I’m being totally honest, as I was going through my “Sandman” re-read, “The Kindly Ones” was the issue that I was most dreading. For one, it’s long. It’s the longest of all the volumes. Normally length doesn’t daunt me, but knowing what was coming, added thickness just wasn’t getting me stoked for this part of my re-read. And the bigger reason, without spoiling too much, is that “The Kindly Ones” is really where the big, sad, frustrating and beautiful climax happens for this series. Yes, we have one more volume to go, but that’s all release and wrap up. “The Kindly Ones” is the action part of the finale, and it packs an emotional wallop.

Pardon me while I go stare aimlessly at a wall for a good long time. (source)

“The Kindly Ones” is the volume in which everything comes to a head. In “Worlds’ End” we saw a haunting funeral procession in the sky. In “Brief Lives”, Morpheus finally released Orpheus from his eternal life, though the consequences were sure to be dire. In the middle of the series, a faerie named Nuala stays in the Dreaming to live her life in a lonesome way. And way back, early in the series, we saw Morpheus tell Lyta Hall that her son Daniel would always belong to him in some way, as a child conceived in the Dreaming. All of these moments come together in “The Kindly Ones”, and lead to a huge consequence that destroyed me the first time I read this book. And knowing it was coming didn’t make it any less painful. But let’s move back a little bit.

“The Kindly Ones” is about vengeance, and retribution, and paying the Piper. It opens with an image of a ball of string, and ends with the image of a ball of string, symbolizing the circular events that this series has always been about, at least in part. Plot set up wise, Lyta Hall’s son Daniel is suddenly kidnapped. She assumes that not only is her only child, and last tie to her dead husband, dead, but it is at the hands of Dream because of what he told her about Daniel way back when, that he would always belong to Dream. Lyta, already a bit emotionally unstable because of her husband’s death, is basically destroyed, and hellbent on revenge. So she turns to The Furies (also known as The Kindly Ones), hoping that they will grant her vengeance against Dream and all he holds dear. It’s been building and simmering awhile, and now it has come to fruition: Lyta’s rage has serious consequences through the Furies, and characters that we met and have grown to love, or at least expect to be there, are victims to her wrath.

And it all feels inevitable, like the pages in Destiny’s book. Gaiman pulls out all the stops and spares nothing, and as we are reunited with some characters, we say goodbye to others. And all the while, we watch Dream as he has to meet with his own destiny, and has to do so in the same lonely, isolated way that he’s had to endure so much before this. My God, it just hurts as you read it. Through the entire series Dream has been about responsibility above most other things, sometimes to his detriment, and because of his responsibility to another character he made a promise to in this arc, it leads to a terrible fallout. It feels both devastating and incredibly in character for him. We also have a lovely and incredibly painful call back to the first time we saw Dream and Death interact, amongst a flock of pigeons, as they have their inevitable moment before everything changes. Gaiman, you monster!

I will say, however, that “The Kindly Ones” has probably my least favorite artwork of the entire series. I know some people who love it, and hey, to each their own, but it feels discordant when compared to what is going on in the narrative.

“The Kindly Ones” is arguably the most epic and consequential of “The Sandman” series. It was a hard read again, even knowing what was to come. Up next is the epilogue to this series, “The Wake”.

Rating 8: “The Kindly Ones” isn’t a story that I really ‘enjoy’ because it hurts so much, but it’s a really well done bit of storytelling from Gaiman.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.9): The Kindly Ones” is included on the Goodreads lists “Death Gods and Reaper Protagonists”, and “Mythic Fantasy Comics”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.9): The Kindly Ones” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “The Princess Knight”

Book: “The Princess Knight” by G.A. Aiken

Publishing Info: Kensington, November 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: Gemma Smythe dedicated her life to the glory of battle. With her fellow War Monks, she worshipped the war gods, rained destruction on her enemies, and raised the dead when the fancy took her. Until her sister Keeley became the prophesied Blacksmith Queen, and Gemma broke faith with her order to journey to the Amichai Mountain and fight by Keeley’s side.

The Amichai warriors are an unruly, never-to-be-tamed lot, especially their leader-in-waiting, Quinn. But when the War Monks declare support for Gemma’s ruthless younger sister Beatrix, the immaturity of her key ally is the least of Gemma’s problems. She has to get to the grand masters, dispel their grudge against her, and persuade them to fight for Keeley and justice. If her conviction can’t sway them, perhaps Quinn’s irritating, irreverent, clearly unhinged, ferocity will win the day . . .

Previously Reviewed: “The Blacksmith Queen”

Review: I read “The Blacksmith Queen” a few years ago and enjoyed it well enough for the wacky thing it was: a fantasy, romance, kind of comedy, kind of urban fantasy, bizarre little story. I hadn’t read anything else by the author, so I really didn’t know what I was getting into. But I did like the main characters, especially Keely, and usually that’s enough for me to want to continue on with a series. I requested this sequel quite a while ago and only got around to it recently, however. I’m glad I finally did though, because I thought it was a lot of fun!

Gemma has always been a warrior, fighting her elite force of monks. But her loyalties are tested and refocused when her sister becomes the fabled Queen. But the War Monks don’t follow her, instead choosing her younger, and more brutal, younger sister. But Keely’s efforts need their support, and it is up to Gemma to persuade them back. Perhaps, she wonders, they will respond better to someone equally unhinged? Perhaps the infuriatingly handsome and unruly fighter, Quinn? With so much at stake, Gemma must find a way to bridge these divides and bring aid to her sister’s fight.

As I said, I hadn’t read this author’s previous series (same world), so I wasn’t familiar with out multiple books in the same story really operated. I was pleased to find that this one continued forward with having several POV characters and that, most importantly, Keely still featured heavily as a main character herself. I was excited to read about Gemma, of course, but I wasn’t looking forward to totally forgoing Keely who I’d liked so much in the first book and who, being queen, still had a large role to play going forward.

The characters, overall, still remain my favorite part of this story. I was particularly interested in reading Gemma’s story and her attempts to balance her loyalties between her sister, the queen, the fighting force of monks that she had been fully committed to prior to the last story. Her history around the worship of the death god that the warrior monks serve was also very interesting, as well as, of course, their practice of raising the dead. I did struggle a bit to become fully invested in Gemma’s story, however, because Keely was still such a presence in this book, and I knew her a bit better. But I did enjoy the fact that Gemma was distinctly her own character. She was much more wary and paranoid than her more trusting and accepting sister, something that I think works with her warrior’s background.

The romance also takes a back seat in this book. I enjoyed it well enough, but it was definitely not the most compelling part of the story. They had decent chemistry, but there wasn’t a lot of spark, more just a steady burn of comradery that turns into a relationship at one point. I like this kind of love arch, too, so I was ok with it. But, like I said, if you’re tuning in for a sparkling romance, this probably isn’t it. Instead, the story focuses much more heavily on the battles and political maneuvers that Keely and her force must employ to protect her queenship from the various other heirs who are still hoping to unseat her. These action-packed scenes were a blast, and the story really felt like it was on its most solid footing during these points.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Perhaps a bit more than the first, even, just because I knew a bit better what to expect from it. I was also pleased with Gemma as a new character, while also not having to give up my beloved Keely, which I took as a big win. Fans of this author and her work are sure to enjoy this one!

Rating 8: Light on the romance, but it compensates with a fast-moving, action-packed story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Princess Knight” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Badass Female Leads!

Find “The Princess Knight” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Hour of the Witch”

Book: “Hour of the Witch” by Chris Bohjalian

Publishing Info: Doubleday Books, May 2021

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

Book Description: A young Puritan woman–faithful, resourceful, but afraid of the demons that dog her soul–plots her escape from a violent marriage in this riveting and propulsive historical thriller from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Flight Attendant.

Boston, 1662. Mary Deerfield is twenty-four-years-old. Her skin is porcelain, her eyes delft blue, and in England she might have had many suitors. But here in the New World, amid this community of saints, Mary is the second wife of Thomas Deerfield, a man as cruel as he is powerful. When Thomas, prone to drunken rage, drives a three-tined fork into the back of Mary’s hand, she resolves that she must divorce him to save her life. But in a world where every neighbor is watching for signs of the devil, a woman like Mary–a woman who harbors secret desires and finds it difficult to tolerate the brazen hypocrisy of so many men in the colony–soon finds herself the object of suspicion and rumor. When tainted objects are discovered buried in Mary’s garden, when a boy she has treated with herbs and simples dies, and when their servant girl runs screaming in fright from her home, Mary must fight to not only escape her marriage, but also the gallows. A twisting, tightly plotted thriller from one of our greatest storytellers, Hour of the Witch is a timely and terrifying novel of socially sanctioned brutality and the original American witch hunt.

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

Back in middle school I decided to read “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller, after my drama class chose it as one of the scenes that we’d perform and I was voted to be Mary Warren in said scene. After reading the whole play my thirteen year old self was super indignant, and I basically have had a seething anger deep in my soul for any kind of witchcraft or Satanic Panic fueled hysteria ever since. Because of this, I was eager to snatch up the new historical fiction thriller “Hour of the Witch” by Chris Bohjalian. I’ve enjoyed Bohjalian’s stories in the past, I love me a good historical fiction thriller, and demolishing the Patriarchy in Puritan times? We ALL know how I feel about that!

Yes please. (source)

Now I don’t want anyone thinking that “Hour of the Witch” is a pro-Witchcraft-As-Way-To-Smash-Misogyny kind of tale. Instead, Bohjalian takes the idea of a community turning on a strong minded woman and tries to tell it in a way that would be realistic towards the time and culture. Mary isn’t a woman who ends up turning to Satan because it’s the only clear path to agency in her life. Instead, we get a tale of a woman who dares stand up for herself and wants to advocate for her health and happiness against an abusive husband while still being God fearing and devout, and while also questioning power structures that are hypocritical. I admittedly don’t have as much breadth of knowledge in this part of American history and Puritan times, but from the historical notes in the back it seems like Bohjalian did his very best to make it realistic, and therein I found Mary to be believable. Her story of trying to divorce her abusive husband Thomas, and being the target of scorn and then witchcraft accusations for daring to push against the misogynistic norms, is suspenseful, frustrating, and incredibly readable. I loved Mary as a character, and seeing her fight in the face of powerful and abusive men was both cathartic, but also tense, as we all know how the power structures during the Puritan times could easily cry ‘witch’ and have a person killed (that said, while this story really does a good job of addressing the oppression that women faced, little is noted of the Indigenous groups in the area. I’m not sure how Bohjalian could have tackled such a huge aspect from Mary’s perspective without feeding into paternalistic or oppressive views, but when the groups were mentioned it felt like a nod without doing much work beyond that. Take that as you will).

In terms of plot, “Hour of the Witch” is definitely steeped in suspense, as well as a little bit of mystery. Working against Mary in her endeavors are her husband’s standing in the community, the fact that no one has seen him hurt her as he’s always careful to do it when they are alone, and the fact that some three tined forks were found buried in her yard, which at the time were thought to be ‘the devils tines’ due to the three prongs resembling a pitchfork (side note: when I worked at a historic fort that had a context set during the Georgian period, a dining demonstration did mention the lack of three tined forks in America in spite of the fact they were prevalent in Europe. We didn’t talk about ‘the devils tines’ aspect, however). The questions are 1) is Mary going to be able to escape her husband without being convicted of witchcraft, and 2) who IS the one who is setting her up to look like a witch? Such moments will make you shake with rage, but it also just goes to show that some things never change. Mary is accused of lying for attention, lying to offset the fact she hasn’t been able to have children as of yet, lying because she’s lustful, and lying because she’s a witch. These days, maybe we don’t see as much ‘witch’ stuff, but the rest of those accusations against an abused woman in hopes of painting her as a liar are all too familiar. And as for what is really going on with the buried forks in her yard, I really enjoyed trying to figure out what was going on there, as Bohjalian has a whole SLEW of suspects and possibilities, some one which are not as they seem. I was left on pins and needles worrying about what was going to happen to Mary, as well as wanting to spit nails out of rage when looking at how the men in the community (with a couple exceptions) and some of the women were treating her because of the misogyny that was rife. BE PREPARED TO BE MAD.

Overall, I thought that “Hour of the Witch” was a pretty good read, with a unique setting that felt timeless all the same. It may not be the Satanic feminism that I tend to love, but I still enjoyed it!

Rating 8: Suspenseful and unique in voice and setting, “Hour of the Witch” tells a tale as old as time about misogyny, women, and a society that uses one to keep the other in its place no matter what the outcome.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Hour of the Witch” is included on the Goodreads lists “Witch Hunts in Historical Fiction”, and “2021 Gothic”.

Find “Hour of the Witch” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Highlights: May 2021

We’re fully into Spring now, and as the temperatures trend upwards we have dreams of summer to be sure! That means long walks, outside activities, and a long weekend here and there for a little bit of relaxation. And with a new month comes a new list of books we’re excited to check out! Here is what we’re looking forward to this month!

Serena’s Picks

Book: “The Shadow in the Glass” by J.J.A. Harwood

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

Why I’m Interested: The cover immediately caught my eye when I was browsing through the books coming out this month. Looks like a fairytale retelling to me! And, of course, it is. And this time we’re diving into a dark re-imaging of the Cinderella tale. After her wealthy benefactor passes away, Ella’s future, which once was filled with balls and a wealthy marriage, has taken a turn, her days filled with toil and hardship. But when a mysterious figure arrives on night offering Ella the chance to regain the life she lost, Ella must face the fact that all wishes come with a price. And for these, the price might be too high. “Cinderella” isn’t my favorite fairytale, but I do like darker versions of the classics, so I’m excited to see what this one has to offer!

Book: “Black Water Sister” by Zen Cho

Publication Date: May 11, 2021

Why I’m Interested: I’m not typically a big fan of contemporary fantasy, but I really enjoyed Cho’s “Sorcerer to the Crown” when we read it a few months back for book club. Plus, the premise of this one sounds pretty unique! Jess is a young woman who doesn’t feel as if she knows herself. After moving back to her native land of Malaysia, Jess’s credits the current stress of her life as the cause for the strange voice in her head. But before she knows it, she’s caught up in her dead grandmother’s world of ghosts, feuds, and gods. With such players on the stage, will Jess sink or swim as she forges her own way forward? Also, this is another fantastic cover!

Book: “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng” by K. S. Villoso

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Well, obviously! I’ve been enjoying the heck out of Villoso’s “Chronicles of the Bitch Queen” trilogy. Each entry has been higher stakes than the last, and with the dire state of things in the last book, with Queen Tali imprisoned in her own country, I was eager to get my hands on this final entry. With so many forces aligned against her, Tali must once again pull together all of her strength and the aid of the few people she trusts to attempt to save not only herself and her son, but her country. To get there, however, she must delve even deeper into the hard choices that her warlord father made before her. And with the lingering threat of dragons long returned, will Tali be up to all of these challenges? There are a lot of string to tie up in this last entry, so I’m really excited to see how it all comes together!

Kate’s Picks

Book: “Hour of the Witch” by Chris Bohjalian

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Though I find it to be a very frustrating and maddening time to read about, I also am deeply fascinated by the Puritans in American during the Colonial era. Especially the Witch trials and accusations of witchcraft in general (and I love to see a story that shows a woman taking control of her own destiny in this setting, of course). So when I read about Chris Bohjalian’s “Hour of the Witch”, I knew that I had to read it. It covers those topics, but also is described like a modern woman in potential peril thriller. Mary Deerfield is a young woman living in Boston in the 1660s, and she is married to an abusive man who is a well liked member of the community. One night he goes too far and she demands she be granted a divorce. But then someone finds three tined forks buried in her yard, and people start to whisper that perhaps she is a witch, and it puts Mary in even more danger. I love a suspenseful thriller, and this time period is an awesome aspect of this one.

Book: “Arsenic and Adobo” by Mia P. Manansala

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Since this is a year that my reading goal is expanding my genre choices, I was kind of interested in giving another cozy mystery a shot after enjoying “The Widows of Malabar Hill”. But I didn’t want to go full on ‘woman who owns a yarn store solves mysteries’ into it (not that there’s a problem with that, of course). Enter “Arsenic and Adobo” by Mia P. Manansala. It follows Lila, a woman who returns to her small town after a break up and who helps out at her auntie’s diner. When her ex boyfriend eats at the establishment, they get get into a huge fight… and then he drops dead from poisoning. Now Lila has to not only figure out who killed her ex to save her auntie’s restaurant, she also has to clear her own name. The cover is cute, the story sounds fun, and there is promise of recipes in the back. I’m in.

Book: “While Justice Sleeps” by Stacey Abrams

Publication Date: May 25, 2021

Why I’m Interested: Like many people during the past couple of years, I have come to greatly and deeply respect Stacey Abrams for the fantastic political mind and organizer that she is. There is no way that Georgia would have gone blue in the Senate run offs this year had she not been at the helm. What I didn’t know until recently was that Abrams is not only a political powerhouse, but she’s also a fiction author! And her newest book is a political thriller! “While Justice Sleeps” follows Avery Keene, a law clerk for the powerful and notoriously cold Supreme Court Justice Wynn. When Wynn is suddenly hospitalized and falls into a coma, he leaves Avery as his power of attorney, which shocks everyone, Avery included. As Avery starts to look into his work, she finds that he’s been digging into one of the cases that is supposed to go before the court… one that could have sweeping and controversial medical implications. And it could be a reason that someone would want him dead. Another genre I’m not as familiar with, but Abrams is more than enough to gt me to check it out.

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