Serena’s Review: “The Stardust Thief”

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Book: “The Stardust Thief” by

Publishing Info: Orbit, May 2022

Where Did I Get this Book:

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

Book Description: Neither here nor there, but long ago…

Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.

With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan’s oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.

Review: I’ve had really good luck with Middle Eastern fairytales, especially ones that focus on the ever-popular jinns. Honestly, I can’t think of the last time I read a jinn story that I didn’t really enjoy. Indeed, the last few have made my favorites lists for the year. This is both a blessing and a curse: I get super excited whenever I see another jinn story coming down the pike, but I get more and more nervous that this next one will be the one to break the streak. Well…NOT TODAY, book gods, not today.

Loulie’s entire existence, her success, even, depends on her anonymity. Selling ill-begotten magical goods is not the type of business that does well with light shone upon it. So when she saves the life a prince and unwittingly draws the eye of his father the sultan, Loulie is dismayed to find herself in the last place she wanted: out in the open and on a mission to find the impossible. With her jinn bodyguard, said cowardly prince (though she may not know it), and a cold-eyed thief with loyalties of her won, the group heads out into a desert known for its secrets…and the fact that no one returns from its endless dunes.

This was one of those interesting books where when I started it I wasn’t quite sure that it was going to be a hit. On one hand, Loulie’s character immediately jumped off the page. But than I realized it was a multiple POV story (both the prince and thief have their own chapters), and I was less immediately enthralled with either of them. It also has a bit of a slower start and is paced is an interesting manner. There are a lot of side quests/stories in this book, which initially kept jerking me out of the main thrust of the story. But as the book continued, I began to see how the author was tying in a great number of the stories from “One Thousand and One Nights” and how each of these smaller excursions all slowly wove together towards our final conflict. By the time I had read the first third, I was totally engrossed and it was nothing but a positive reading experience from there!

Once I understood what the author was doing with the book, I greatly enjoyed it. I also came to appreciate both of the other POVs. Mazen is a bookish, fairly cowardly prince who is clearly entirely out of his depth on this mission with two powerful women, but his story of self-discovery is satisfying in every way. For her part, Aisha, the older prince’s thief and eyes and ears on this mission, begins to learn that she must rely on her own decision making and her own belief of right and wrong to move through the world. What once was a simple mission of revenge quickly begins to look like something else. Loulie, or Layla, also goes through an arch of self-discovery. After having her entire identity centered around her role as a merchant and her reliance on her jinn bodyguard, Layla must confront who she is without these powerful forces. Is her power all a façade?

I also really liked the exploration of stories and myths themselves. How they have incredible power, but also how they can be twisted and used over time for nefarious purposes. The power of the storyteller is central, but the listener can also make their own power from how they interpret what is being told to them. I especially like the history and powers of the jinn, and the role they play in each of our characters’ stories, for both good and bad. While I could predict a few of the twists, there were also a fair number of surprises in store throughout. The book also ends with a bang, leaving the reader ready and eager for the next installation. I for one will definitely be picking it up!

Rating 9: Centered around the power of stories, this book explores themes like self-discovery and self-determination in a magic and adventure filled romp.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Stardust Thief” can be found on this Goodreads list: 2022 Book Releases by Asian Authors

Serena’s Review: “Phoenix Unbound”

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Book: “Phoenix Unbound” by Grace Draven

Publishing Info: Ace Books, September 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

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

Book Description: Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire’s capital – her fate: to be burned alive for the entertainment of the masses. For the last five years, one small village’s tithe has been the same woman. Gilene’s sacrifice protects all the other young women of her village, and her secret to staying alive lies with the magic only she possesses.

But this year is different.

Azarion, the Empire’s most famous gladiator, has somehow seen through her illusion, and is set on blackmailing Gilene into using her abilities to help him escape his life of slavery. And unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.

To protect her family and village, she will risk everything to return to the Empire and burn once more.

Review: For the most part, I’ve really loved Grace Draven’s books. Nothing has quite lived up to “Radiance,” but it’s definitely a win when I’ve read a good number of books from one author and never actively disliked any of them. This trilogy (comprised of three stand-alone books set in the same world with overlapping characters) is due to be finished up this coming November, so I thought it was a great time to dive in and set myself up to review that last book when it comes out (if all goes well with the first two books, of course!) And I’ll say, if the second one is like the first, I’m definitely already excited for November to come!

It is the Empire’s cruel tradition: each year, every village must sacrifice one of its women to travel to the capitol and be sacrificed on the pyre for the entertainment of the masses. But one village has been able to escape that fate, for they have a fire witch, a woman blessed with fire abilities and able to survive this doom. Only to have to relive the horror each and every year. But this time, when Gilene travels to the city to meet her fate, she is unmasked by the famous gladiator, Azarion, and he has a deal for her: together, they will escape this awful place and he will reclaim his birthright. But Gilene knows that whatever this man promises, she must return to her village before another girl is sent to her death.

Honestly, I didn’t really look at the book description too much for this one before I went in. Part of that is due to my general comfort level with the author: Draven regularly writes romantic fantasy that is approachable and entertaining. The other part was…I don’t know, laziness? Either way, it made the reading experience interesting. For one thing, I’ll say this book was darker than I had expected. Yes, said skipped book description mentions the fact that women are regularly burned alive in some sadistic festival every year. But it fails to mention that the same women are offered to the gladiators the night before for their entertainment. Thus, our heroine’s yearly horrendous experience includes not only walking to her “death” with other women who she knows won’t survive the experience like she will, but she must also allow herself to be assaulted every year. And her magical abilities do nothing to lessen this part of her ordeal. So yes, that’s a dark thought. Even more so since Gilene is not the first fire witch of her village, and she doesn’t expect to be the last.

Her entire journey, even once she has escaped with Azarion, is about her single-minded focus on returning to her village to spare another innocent woman this fate. And knowing that another girl will be born who will have to be trained to take up this horrific mantle after Gilene becomes too old to accomplish it. Her courage in the face of this reality is incredible, but we also see her grapple with the anger that would come in belonging to a village that so fully takes advantage of her abilities. It’s a tough balance, because Gilene acknowledges the lack of real choice before her people, but also simmers with rage that her existence is so reduced to this object of torment to spare others who spend the rest of the year uncomfortably looking away from her with shame. It’s a very interesting exploration of humanity under the pressure of terrible choices.

I also really liked the romance at the heart of this story. It’s a true slow-burn, enemies-to-lovers story. While Gilene and Azarion aren’t necessarily true enemies in the basic sense of the world, they do have opposing goals and spend much of the first half of the book at odds with one another. Their growth to understand and care for each other feels natural and a product of the journey they take together. Each has been brutalized by the cruel Empress and her regime, but that alone isn’t enough to form a lasting relationship. Indeed, in some ways, each is less trusting than they would be due to the nature of their experiences. The growth and slow-gained love for one another is beautiful and heart-warming.

The story also doesn’t take the easy way out in its solutions for the problems thrown at our main characters. The world they live in is brutal, and the power structures they are up against are strong and persistent. I really liked the bittersweet nature of the final fourth of the book. There were no easy solutions presented, and each character remained true to themselves and their goals, neither sacrificing their core essence just because of their romance. But it also ended in a very satisfying way. I can also see easily who the next character will be in the second book, and am very excited to read her story! Fans of Grace Draven or romantic fantasy should definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: A bit darker than I expected, but with two strong main characters and a swoon-worthy romance, this one is definitely a win!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Phoenix Unbound” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Slow Burn Romances that are not YA or Erotica and Fantasy Romance

Serena’s Review: “Bryony and Roses”

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Book: “Bryony and Roses” by T. Kingfisher

Publishing Info: Argyll Productions, April 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

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

Book Description: Bryony and her sisters have come down in the world. Their merchant father died trying to reclaim his fortune and left them to eke out a living in a village far from their home in the city.

But when Bryony is caught in a snowstorm and takes refuge in an abandoned manor, she stumbles into a house full of dark enchantments. Is the Beast that lives there her captor, or a fellow prisoner? Is the house her enemy or her ally? And why are roses blooming out of season in the courtyard?

Armed only with gardening shears and her wits, Bryony must untangle the secrets of the house before she—or the Beast—are swallowed by them.

Review: The day I discovered T. Kingfisher was a happy day, indeed. The day I realized she had written a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling? Ecstatic! It’s also worth noting that this will be the second book that I’ve read in the last month where the author has written an afterword citing Robin McKinley’s influence on their work. Here, Kingfisher notes McKinley’s less well-known “Beauty and the Beast” book, “Rose Daughter,” as her direct inspiration for this story. And then the author of “Echo North” also referenced McKinley’s “Beauty” as one of her beloved reads. “Beauty,” of course, is well-known and beloved by many fans of this fairytale. “Rose Daughter,” however, is less popular, so I was excited to see that, of the two, it was this work that sparked Kingfisher’s inspiration for this story.

On her way home, Bryony is caught in a storm and finds her only option for shelter in a mysterious manor filled with invisible enchantments. When she unwittingly takes a rose, she finds herself caught in the magical house itself alongside a Beast. But as she spends her time there, she begins to question whether the Beast is also trapped in this strange manor, for while the house seems kind and giving one moment, it’s forces turn dark and violent at the flip of a switch. Determined to get to the cause of this, Bryony sets out to discover the secrets of the Beast himself.

Both Kate and I are firmly on record as loving the “Beauty and the Beast” fairytale. Honestly, I think most librarians prefer it simply because of the library themes. And, luckily, there are a decent number of good retellings of this story, most notably, Robin McKinley’s “Beauty.” There are also, sadly, some that I haven’t enjoyed. But that doesn’t stop me from immediately jumping into the next version I come across. Given how much I’ve enjoyed other books by this author, I was unsurprised to get to the end of this book and find that I had another great one on my hands!

There are so many things to like about this book! While it follows the standard tale fairly closely, there were a few notable differences. One, the curse itself plays out in a way that is completely unique, with the house itself taking on a role that I haven’t seen before in a tale like this. When the reveals come with regards to the curse itself, this, too, was a surprising twist on the way the story is often told. There were few particular surprises here with regards to the classic tale that I thought were absolutely fantastic! Can’t really go into much detail without ruining it, but you’ll know it when you see it.

Fans of McKinley’s “Rose Daughter” will be familiar with a very important twist at the end of that book, and I was pleased to see T. Kingfisher take on this route as well. I have my own preferences for the end of a “Beauty and the Beast” story, but I think there are a solid number of fans in each camp. And Kingfisher pulls off this particular twist in an excellent way, fully earning this final choice.

I also loved Bryony as a character. She was funny, strong, and determined. She was also flawed and not the most creative of thinkers. There were times when I was reading that I came up with solutions for some of the problems she was facing. But, in one of the best aspects of Kingfisher’s writing to date, the author recognizes this about her character and has Bryony’s sister especially point out some of these flaws in our heroine. It was gratifying to know the author was well aware of what she was doing the entire time, and these things that I had thought were plot holes were in fact intentional parts of the story.

I also really liked the slow-burn romance at the heart of the story. This is, of course, a crucial part of any “Beauty and the Beast” story. Beast and Bryony are both hilarious, sweet, and equally trapped in the horrors of this curse. I liked that the story pretty much side-stepped the whole “Beauty is afraid of the Beast for a while” bit. Bryony is quite a different heroine in that way from the other Beauty’s we’ve seen. Beast, too, played a more active role in attempting to solve the curse they are both living with. It was nice to see him actually trying to help Bryony figure out how to save them both, rather than the more passive Beast character that we often see.

Overall, I loved this book. It was so well-written and refreshing. Any fan of this fairytale will love it, and I can’t recommend it enough for any fairytale fantasy fan!

Rating 9: With an endearing heroine, a lovely romance, and a refreshing take on the original fairytale, this one is sure to please all “Beauty and the Beast” fans!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bryony and Roses” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Magical Books, Libraries and Bookstores and Beauty and the Beast Across Genres.

Serena’s Review: “Hall of Smoke”

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Book: “Hall of Smoke” by H.M. Long

Publishing Info: Titan Books, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

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

Book Description: Hessa is an Eangi: a warrior priestess of the Goddess of War, with the power to turn an enemy’s bones to dust with a scream. Banished for disobeying her goddess’s command to murder a traveler, she prays for forgiveness alone on a mountainside.

While she is gone, raiders raze her village and obliterate the Eangi priesthood. Grieving and alone, Hessa – the last Eangi – must find the traveller, atone for her weakness and secure her place with her loved ones in the High Halls. As clans from the north and legionaries from the south tear through her homeland, slaughtering everyone in their path, Hessa strives to win back her goddess’ favour.

Beset by zealot soldiers, deceitful gods, and newly-awakened demons at every turn, Hessa burns her path towards redemption and revenge. But her journey reveals a harrowing truth: the gods are dying and the High Halls of the afterlife are fading. Soon Hessa’s trust in her goddess weakens with every unheeded prayer.

Thrust into a battle between the gods of the Old World and the New, Hessa realizes there is far more on the line than securing a life beyond her own death. Bigger, older powers slumber beneath the surface of her world. And they’re about to wake up.

Review: I heard great things about this book last year when it came out. I diligently researched it on Goodreads and quickly added it to my TBR list. And then….I waited over a year to read it. Sometimes this works out well for me, and this was one of those instances! If you wait long enough, sometimes your local library will acquire the audiobook. And sometimes that audiobook will have an excellent narrator. And sometimes all of the procrastination pays off with having a great book to listen to throughout the week while you clean the house and care for kids!

Hessa’s entire life she has been centered around a task set her by her priestess and her goddess: she must kill a particular man when the signs align. But when that time comes, Hessa is swayed by mercy and stalls her hand. Now banished by her goddess and with her village razed, Hessa struggles to re-organize a world that has gone mad. Gods are fighting and dying. Strange beings are rising and claiming that these gods are not even gods at all. And an entire history and world order that Hessa thought she knew is beginning to crumble before her. What’s more, it seems the role that she and the man she spared will play is much bigger than she could ever have imagined.

There were many things to like about this book. Hessa herself goes on an incredible journey of both understanding herself and understanding her world. She starts off as a priestess who, while currently out of grace, still understands who she is and who she serves: her warrior goddess Eang. Throughout time, the goddess’s priestesses have fought and served her, and in return she has given them her blessing and abilities to quell their enemies with a magical scream. But as the story continues, Hessa begins to question Eang and her entire world order.

Unlike many other fantasy books that include a sprawling pantheon of new gods, this one is unique in the fact that the gods themselves are very much characters in their own right. They walk the land, fight amongst themselves, and interact with their followers. It was such a unique take to have these gods present in this way. Like Hessa, we see Eang and her fellow gods and begin to question the stories they tell about themselves and the roles they play for their followers. Eang, of course, is central, and her coolness and cruelty towards Hessa immediately raises eyebrows. But an entire lived experience and history of one’s own people is not easy to dismiss, so Hessa’s journey towards self-discovery and her decision to take the reigns of her own choices is slowly earned over time.

Beyond the sprawling history of gods (there is Eang and her fellow gods, a set of gods that she and the new gods defeated, another set of gods who may have come before those, and then another god making his own way onto the scene, to the dismay of Eang and her brethren), the world itself is quite large and peopled by a variety of cultures with their won practices and gods. I believe there is a map in the physical book, so this was definitely a struggle with the audiobook. I really enjoyed the narrator, so on that front, it was a complete win. But with such a big world with so many lands and peoples, I had a hard time keeping track of where exactly Hessa was on the map and where she was headed.

The story is also very narrowly focused on Hessa and her own personal experiences. There are a few side characters who play important roles, but no side-kick, no love interest, and no quirky best friends. Her world is burned down on the first page, and the story doesn’t shy away from the very unbalanced individual that is Hessa after this fact. While I always enjoy love interests and friendships, Hessa’s story was also completely satisfying on its own.

Readers who enjoy sprawling epic fantasy where you’re plopped down in a completely new world with very little initial explanation, this is definitely a book for you! It’s a nice balance of focused character work and grand-scale storytelling.

Rating 8: With a world equally peopled by its gods as its human characters, this is epic fantasy at some of its best.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Hall of Smoke” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021 and Vikings and Viking-inspired Fantasy.

Serena’s Review: “Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan”

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Book: “Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan” by Liz Michalski

Publishing Info: Dutton Books, May 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: eARC from the publisher!

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

Book Description: Life is looking up for Holly Darling, granddaughter of Wendy–yes, that Wendy. She’s running a successful skincare company; her son, Jack, is happy and healthy; and the tragedy of her past is well behind her . . . until she gets a call that her daughter, Eden, who has been in a coma for nearly a decade, has gone missing from the estate where she’s been long tucked away. And, worst of all, Holly knows who must be responsible: Peter Pan, who is not only very real, but more dangerous than anyone could imagine.

Eden’s disappearance is a disaster for more reasons than one. She has a rare condition that causes her to age rapidly–ironic, considering her father is the boy who will never grow up–which also makes her blood incredibly valuable. It’s a secret that Holly is desperate to protect, especially from Eden’s half-brother, Jack, who knows nothing about his sister or the crucial role she plays in his life. Holly has no one to turn to–her mother is the only other person in the world who knows that Peter is more than a story, but she refuses to accept that he is not the hero she’s always imagined. Desperate, Holly enlists the help of Christopher Cooke, a notorious ex-soldier, in the hopes of rescuing Eden before it’s too late . . . or she may lose both her children.

Review: There are a few fairytales (for lack of a better word, I guess) that are particularly hard to re-tell. In my opinion, “Peter Pan” is notorious for this. Not only is the original very much of its time with a plethora of modern pitfalls for a contemporary adaptation, but the entire situation is bizarre. How much of a child is Peter really, given his long life? Is it kidnapping, what happens to the Darling children? How does one balance the whimsy of the entire situation with a story grounded in real emotion and energy? In my experience, it seems that the more successful an adaptation is the more it has deviated from the original story. All of this to say, while I’m always excited to check out a new version of the story, it’s definitely one of those tales that I go into with the quite a bit of wariness.

Secrets linger in Holly’s past, though she has become an expert at hiding this fact. And these are more than the ordinary familial secrets. For what many think is just a story, Holly knows as a pernicious but very real part of her own family history: that is, Peter Pan. And when her daughter, Eden, who has long existed in a comatose state suddenly disappears, this shadow-ridden past comes roaring back into Holly’s life. Desperate for help, Holly turns to an ex-soldier. But will it be enough to confront the magical forces aligned against them?

While this book wasn’t quite the smash hit that I was hoping it would be, there were still quite a number of things going for it. For one, I really liked the generational aspect of the story. I’ve read a number of books about Wendy herself or her daughter, Jane. But instead of focusing on these characters, the author chose to remove the story down another step, focusing on Holly, the granddaughter of Wendy. We then even go a step further down the family line with the inclusion of Eden and Jack, Holly’s children and Wendy’s great-grandchildren. Through this focus, we truly see the effect of a character like Peter who never ages but is a persistent presence in one family’s life. Each woman has had a different experience of him. Indeed, part of the focus of the story is reconciling these various experiences with the truth of who he is.

This isn’t the first dark!Peter story I’ve com across. Indeed, the once-popular TV show “Once Upon a Time” is partly best-know for its creepy take on Peter (or perhaps its very attractive take on Hook, who knows?!). So this wasn’t unique ground solely found in this book. But I will say it was much, much darker than I was expecting. Perhaps even too dark for me. I wasn’t quite prepared to deal with some of the themes at the heart of the story, but I do think the author handled them well. Mostly, if you love Peter Pan, be prepared to kill your lovelies, because there’s nothing redeemable about this character. For as bad as he is, I do wish we actually got to see a bit more of him. In some ways, his villainy was a bit too easily hand-waved away as “he’s just always been bad.” Instead, it might have been a more interesting take to see how a character that might have been morally ambivalent originally could be corrupted by the nature of Neverland and this existence.

I did struggle a bit with the pacing of the story. It starts out well enough, but I felt like things began to drag a bit by the middle of the tale. Part of this was my own lack of real connection to Holly. I’m not sure what exactly the problem was, but I never felt fully invested in her arch. When the action and the mystery were at the forefront, I sped along. But when the story slowed for some of the character moments (usually my bread and butter), I found myself having a harder time focusing. I also wasn’t super invested in the romance, though, again, there was nothing obviously wrong here.

This was definitely an interesting retelling of “Peter Pan.” It’s definitely on the darker side in some ways, but I think the decision to focus on Peter’s impact on several generations of women in one family was very interesting. Fans of the original (and those not too attached to Peter himself!) will likely enjoy this one.

Rating 7: A bit lacking on the character front, but an interesting reimaging of the effects that Peter Pan would have on a generation of women whose lives become entangled with the magic of Neverland.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan” is on this Goodreads lists: Peter Pan Retellings.

Monthly Marillier: “The Well of Shades”

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“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: “The Well of Shades” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor, May 2007

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

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

Book Description: Juliet Marillier continues the epic fantasy begun with” The Dark Mirror, ” which” Interzone” called: “A fascinating evocation of life in Pictish England and an emotional roller coaster of a story.” King Bridei is a man with a mission. His wish to unite his kingdom seems almost within his grasp but there are forces working to undo his dream. He sends Faolan, his most trusted advisor (who is also a master assassin and spymaster) out into the world to ferret out the truth of who is friend and who is foe. Along the way Faolan will uncover many truths. Some may hold the key to Bridei’s future. But more important, they may unlock the secrets that Faolan has held deep within his soul for decades. And offer him the chance of redemption.

Previously Reviewed: “The Dark Mirror” and “Blade of Fortriu”

Review: While there are some books by Juliet Marillier that I feel confident I could review perfectly without even reading them again (due to the millions of re-reads I’ve done over the years), there are others where I have practically no memories. The Bridei trilogy is probably my least-read series of all of her books, and thus I have the fewest memories of these books individually. I had a few vague ideas about the first one, a fairly good memory of the second one (the only one I’ve re-read of the bunch), and now absolutely zero memory of this third book. I mean, I guess I remember there being a mom and her kid involved, but you can also see that from the cover, so that’s really no props to my memory. So it was fun getting to almost read this book again for the first time.

After his recent adventures (and disappointments), Faolan is sent on yet another task by his king, Bridei, in his continuing mission to bring together his country. With dark secrets that have plagued him, Faolan has made a life for himself focusing solely on these missions. But this time, the mission brings him up against that which he has sought to run from for years. Along the way, he meets a young mother with secrets of their own. Together, can they find a way to heal their pasts?

While I didn’t particularly care for Faolan in the first half of the previous book, by the end, he and the situation he find himself in is quite sympathetic. That being the case, it’s no surprise that Marillier chose him as a focal point for this last book in the trilogy. She does love her broken heroes, doesn’t she? She’s also excellent at writing this type of character, so it naturally follows that Faolan continues his trajectory as an increasingly compelling character in this story. His arch of personal reconciliation and redemption is both compelling and emotional. There were a few twists and turns in his story that I remember being fairly surprising, and, in the end, I really liked what the author did with this character.

Ellie and her daughter, Saraid, were also excellent characters. I’m always a bit of a hard sell on child characters. And while Saraid did have her moments of “preciousness” that I struggled with, overall, I did like her quite a lot. Ellie’s story is also dark, and her journey to trusting both herself and, in particular, Faolan, is slow but emotionally fulfilling. Their romance is definitely of the “slow burn” variety, which is just what I like.

The story also switches between Faolan’s journey and Bridei’s court. There’s a lot of work to be done in this book to wrap up all the various plot lines, and Bridei’s ongoing political conflicts do make up a good amount of the story. There were also a lot of twists and turns here that were fun to see, serving as good payoffs for groundwork that was laid down earlier in the book. It’s also always nice to revisit our favorite characters from the first two books.

Due to the nature of this story, with its flip-flopping between two narratives, I did struggle a bit more to fully connect to either story line. I never really felt myself being fully drawn into the book. But I still enjoyed it! It just wasn’t as immersive as some of Marillier’s best books are. Fans of the trilogy should definitely complete the series and should enjoy this final entry!

Rating 8: A satisfying conclusion to this trilogy that focuses on two broken characters learning to find a safe haven with each other.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Well of Shades” is on these Goodreads lists: Books With Heroes/Heroines Who Are Assassins and Character Driven Fantasy Books.

Blog Tour: “The Murder of Mr. Wickham”

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Book: “The Murder of Mr. Wickham” by Claudia Gray

Publishing Info: Vintage, May 2022

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

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

Book Description: The happily married Mr. Knightley and Emma are throwing a house party, bringing together distant relatives and new acquaintances—characters beloved by Jane Austen fans. Definitely not invited is Mr. Wickham, whose latest financial scheme has netted him an even broader array of enemies. As tempers flare and secrets are revealed, it’s clear that everyone would be happier if Mr. Wickham got his comeuppance. Yet they’re all shocked when Wickham turns up murdered—except, of course, for the killer hidden in their midst.

Nearly everyone at the house party is a suspect, so it falls to the party’s two youngest guests to solve the mystery: Juliet Tilney, the smart and resourceful daughter of Catherine and Henry, eager for adventure beyond Northanger Abbey; and Jonathan Darcy, the Darcys’ eldest son, whose adherence to propriety makes his father seem almost relaxed. In a tantalizing fusion of Austen and Christie, the unlikely pair must put aside their own poor first impressions and uncover the guilty party—before an innocent person is sentenced to hang.

Review: There is a truth universally acknowledged: the more ardent a fan of Jane Austen a reader is, the more critical that fan will be of any and every Jane Austen adaptation/sequel. I feel fairly confident making a generalization like that, and I would easily include myself in it. There have been times when my snobbery has reached levels not seen in any other favorite genre or beloved series of books. But I’m glad that I didn’t let this lesser self dictate whether or not I picked up this book, cuz, man, other than “Death Comes to Pemberley,” this is probably my favorite Jane Austen continuation yet!

In Emma’s view, a house party is always just the thing to cheer matters up! So she and her husband, Mr. Knightley, gather a large group of friends, acquaintances, and family members to share in a visit at their home. This cheerful event is made much less so, however, when the disreputable Mr. Wickham shows up one dark and stormy night. And what’s worse than an unwelcome guest? One that is rude enough to get themselves murdered on the premises, thus leaving all the remaining guests left as suspects. With so many members of the group having motives for thinking the world would be better off without Mr. Wickham, the Darcy’s oldest son, Jonathan, and the young Juliet Tilney decide to tackle the mystery themselves. But as they get closer and closer to discovering the murderer, the more horrifying the truth becomes, because it must have been one of their dear friends!

It’s immediately obvious that the author is herself a huge fan of Jane Austen. This book is so clearly a love letter to all of these characters and to all of the fans that it’s impossible to miss. This also makes the reading experience entirely dependent on one’s familiarity with these characters and stories. There are so many small nods and inside jokes that will only be appreciated by ardent fans, that the reading experience will likely be vastly different for those familiar with these stories and those who have been less-exposed. And because the story includes characters from all of the books, the reader pretty much has to have all six novels well under the belt to appreciate the work the author has put into creating in this story.

As fun as all of these Easter egg clues were to spot, what really made this book stand out was how well the author understood the characters she was working with, in all of their strengths and weaknesses. Most especially, she envisioned how these personalities would play off one another, both between each other and within their own marriages (since, due to the nature of Austen’s books, we see very little of what these characters’ lives are like in the marital state). Gray doesn’t shy away from pointing out some of the flaws in these characters that could drive wedges into their marriages. However, everything is handled with such care that you never feel like any of these choices or actions are out of character with the originals. Instead, we see how many of them grow even further once some of these characteristics are exposed to the harsh light of day.

From a purely preferential state, I was glad to see that Emma and Knightley were by far the most stable of the couples. Not only do they know each other much better than anyone else (Emma having grown up with Knightley as a good friend from the very beginning), but the original book does a good job dealing with each of their flaws to begin with. Fans of “Mansfield Park,” however, may be dismayed to see that Fanny and Edmund, on the other hand, probably have the most work to do. Again, this never feels like an overt critique of the original story, but instead seems perfectly in line with these two characters and the way their romance played out (honestly, one of the more weird ones when you think about it). It’s satisfying to see Fanny come more into her own and Edmund be forced to reckon with some of the ways that he didn’t do his best with regards to Fanny and their relationship.

All of this written and I haven’t even touched on the mystery! I honestly can’t say enough good thing about this as well. It’s truly impressive how well Gray managed to work Wickham into all of these characters’ lives in ways that felt completely natural and inline with their stories. Not once did his relationship with these characters feel forced or shoe-horned in to fit the narrative. Instead, it felt completely organic and believable. Thus making the entire thing so stressful! It starts to become truly horrifying wondering how this mystery is going to be resolved without vilifying one of our beloved main characters!

I also really enjoyed the original characters of Jonathan and Juliet. It’s tough work to create new characters and stand them up against classics like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, but Gray manages it! For one thing, the book features so many viewpoints that Jonathan and Juliet are by no means the sole focus. We get plenty of time with our other favorites, but I also began to appreciate both Jonathan and Juliet in their own right. I was also pleased to see that while there are hints of a potential romance between these two, the story didn’t commit to anything in this arena. There simply wasn’t enough time in this book to not do a disserve to the mystery by trying to force in a fully-fledged romance as well.

All of this to say, I highly recommend this book to any Jane Austen fan out there! The more familiar you are with the originals, the more you’re likely to enjoy this!

Rating 9: Simply excellent and sure to please even the most picky Jane Austen fan!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Murder of Mr. Wickham” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Jane Austen Sequels and Pastiches.

Serena’s Review: “Echo North”

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Book: “Echo North” by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Publishing Info: Page Street Publishing Co., January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

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

Book Description: Echo Alkaev’s safe and carefully structured world falls apart when her father leaves for the city and mysteriously disappears. Believing he is lost forever, Echo is shocked to find him half-frozen in the winter forest six months later, guarded by a strange talking wolf—the same creature who attacked her as a child. The wolf presents Echo with an ultimatum: If she lives with him for one year, he will ensure her father makes it home safely. But there is more to the wolf than Echo realizes.

In his enchanted house beneath a mountain, each room must be sewn together to keep the home from unraveling, and something new and dark and strange lies behind every door. When centuries-old secrets unfold, Echo discovers a magical library full of books-turned-mirrors, and a young man named Hal who is trapped inside of them. As the year ticks by, the rooms begin to disappear, and Echo must solve the mystery of the wolf’s enchantment before her time is up, otherwise Echo, the wolf, and Hal will be lost forever.

Review: I’ve always loved the fairytale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” but for some reason, it’s one of those stories that has proven difficult to adapt and reimagine. I’ve read quite a few re-tellings over the years but have never found one that really clicked for me. But hope springs eternal, so I’ve had my eyes on this one for a bit. When I saw that there was a companion book coming out in May, I knew now was the time so that I’d have a chance to read that one, too, if I ended up liking it. Well, I have my ARC in hand for book two, so there’s your spoiler for what I thought of this book ultimately!

Echo believes her father is lost forever when he leaves home and doesn’t return for six months. So she is shocked to discover him one day in the woods, near death. More surprising still, he is guarded by a talking wolf who promises to save her father if Echo comes and lives with him for a year. She agrees and so starts a year filled with magical wonders and horrors, all found in a mysterious house within a hill. There, Echo grows closer and closer to the wolf and a mysterious man found in the magical library. But she strains against some of the magical rules of this realm, and when she breaks one near the end of her time, she begins an entirely new adventure.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve read a decent number of adaptations of this fairytale. One of the particular challenges of this story, I think, is the turn it takes about halfway through the tale. The heroine is instructed to never look at the face of the man who sleeps beside her every night. And then, of course, she does, and this is what sets off the second act of the story where she must travel north to battle the troll queen to save her love. So it’s a bit challenging to write a heroine who is doomed to make what seems like a really silly mistake. Of all the magical challenges that you see heroes/heroines tasked with in fairytales, simply not looking at someone at night is about as easy as it gets. And the reasoning for these heroines making this mistake is often weak and hard to recover from. But that’s one of the best things this book did!

Echo’s story is different than the classic tale in a few ways, and I don’t want to spoil them all here. But I do think the author did a much better job than her contemporaries have for providing Echo with a reason for making this mistake. It’s both understandable and doesn’t harm our perception of her going forward. Instead, it’s easy to understand making the exact same decision she does, given the circumstances of her year in the magical house and her connection with the wolf and mysterious man she meets in the library regularly.

The story also took a very surprising twist in the final third of the book. I don’t want to spoil it, so I can’t say much about it. But it was an aspect of the story that I didn’t see coming at all, and one that also managed to tie up a few loose ends that I had been wondering about previously. There was, however, another revelation that came about in this twist that I thought impacted the romance in a pretty negative way. The book works through Echo’s thoughts and feelings pretty well, but as a reader, I was less forgiving of the fall-out of this twist than she seemed to be. It left a kind of sour note in my mouth, all the more disappointing because it came right at the end as the story seemed to be ready to end on a super high note.

Overall, despite this last second reveal that I disliked, the book was an excellent retelling of this fairytale. Definitely the best one I’ve read so far (I’ll just scrub my mind of that last little bit). That being the case, I’m very excited to read the second book! We briefly meet the protagonist of that story here, and her situation seems just as compelling. Fans of fairytale retellings should definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: Despite a misstep at the end (a very subjective one, at that), the best “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” story I’ve read so far!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Echo North” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Polar Fantasy and East of the Sun and West of the Moon.

Serena’s Review: “When a Princess Proposes”

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Book: “When a Princess Proposes” by Kerrelyn Sparks

Publishing Info: Kensington Books, April 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

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

Book Description: All Princess Eviana needs is an escape. Possessed of an unfortunate and unusual Embraced gift, which she’s been banned from using, she required no training. Now, her overprotective parents want her to wed. As a result, the palace is crammed with obnoxious noblemen. . . . Until Quentin, the enigmatic eagle shifter and royal spy, maneuvers several of the unsuitable suitors into revealing their most embarrassing secrets before the court. Finally, Eviana has an excuse to free herself. If only her family knew the blow that’s shaken her: golden-eyed Quentin’s refusal to let her near . . .

Heroic, but low born, Quentin’s infatuation with Eviana is as inappropriate as it is unshakable. He must keep away from her, for his own sake. But after a series of suspicious deaths, and the princess’s narrow escape from kidnapping, Quentin knows that only together can they expose the danger stalking Aerthlan’s Embraced. On foot, in disguise, they’ll need trust and quick wits to uncover the vicious conspiracy closing around them. But finding the truth might break down their own defenses as well . . .

Review: I’m always trying to strike a balance between epic fantasy, often full of dark, depressing wars and political machinations, and the light-hearted fare to be found on the other side of the spectrum. I stumbled upon this book while browsing NetGalley one day, and thought it was just the sort of lighter read I was in the mood for. I realized that it was the third book in a series, but it seemed the sort of series that focused on new characters and stories with each book, so I thought it safe enough to jump in without reading the others first. And, while it turned out this was actually something like the fifth book in this series/world, it was still a fun enough read on its own, if not really what I was hoping for it would be.

The Embraced are those born on a particular day of the year, and with this date comes a magical gift. No one knows what their gift may be, whether it will be useful or silly, but the Embraced all have something. It is Princess Eviana’s curse that when her gift shows itself it’s of the sort that her over-protective parents see as more of a threat than a blessing. As such, Eviana has been kept home with her main social opportunities being only the ever-constant search for a betrothed. For his part, master spy Quentin has loved Evian from afar. While he knows that he is unworthy of her hand, he also knows that these supposed suitors are even worse. So when he reveals some of their duplicitousness, Quentin and Eviana’s paths finally overlap. Soon they find themselves on a greater adventure than either could have imagined.

So, like I said, I knew this was a book in the middle of a series when I picked it up. But, being a romantic fantasy series, I quickly noticed that there had to be far more than three books out already. And that’s because you could spot the previous couples around every single corner! It became a sort of game, picking out the various couples that featured as main characters in the other books. And while this book wasn’t really my favorite in the end, some of these other characters did intrigue me. So, who knows? Maybe I’ll go back and check out their stories.

This is definitely a more light-hearted fantasy story. There’s a lot of emphasis placed on characters with only the lightest touches on world-building and magic systems. More than anything, the Embraced reminded me of those with Graces in “Graceling.” The same random gifts bestowed on seemingly random people, some of them being immensely popular and some ridiculous to the point of uselessness. In this world, however, and with the known factor of the Embraced, the story lost me almost immediately with Eviana and her gift. I won’t spoil what it is, though it does come out pretty early on. But I will say that it’s of the sort that could in no way be the most powerful or most dangerous gift that has ever come about. It is definitely powerful, but its advantages seem to pretty clearly outweigh any supposed concerns there could be over it. All of this immediately makes the entire premise of the book a big question mark: that her parents have restricted her choices and life so drastically over this supposedly dangerous gift.

It may seem like I’m harping on a small bit of the book, but ultimately, this book lives and dies by its small moments. The plot itself is very straight forward and simple, which leaves a lot of room to think about these minor flaws. On top of the weirdness around her abilities, I struggled to really connect with either Eviana or Quentin. Everything felt too shallow and too low stakes. I never felt any true concern for either of them or any true investment in the various conflicts thrown their way. They’re perfectly fine characters, but that’s a “fine” in the most dull sense of the word: nothing offensive but nothing to inspire either.

The writing was fine in a similar sense. While the story flowed well enough, the style lacked any sense of flair and unique voice. Instead, it felt very standard and bland. Like the characters, I never felt myself feeling particularly invested in the outcome of the various plot points we move through the story. Honestly, I’m struggling to come up with much more to say about this book, so I’ll just leave it here. This author has quite a few books out, so there are definitely readers out there who will connect with this. And for those looking for a light-hearted romantic fantasy, maybe this will be for you. But for me there was just something crucial missing from the book.

Rating: Fine writing. Fine characters. Fine story. But with three “fine’s” comes a pretty poor reading experience, in my book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“When a Princess Proposes” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Humorous Paranormal Books.

Serena’s Review: “Murder at Queen’s Landing”

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Book: “Murder at Queen’s Landing” by Andrea Penrose

Publishing Info: Kensington, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

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

Book Description: When Lady Cordelia, a brilliant mathematician, and her brother, Lord Woodbridge, disappear from London, rumors swirl concerning fraudulent bank loans and a secret consortium engaged in an illicit—and highly profitable—trading scheme that threatens the entire British economy. The incriminating evidence mounts, but for Charlotte and Wrexford, it’s a question of loyalty and friendship. And so they begin a new investigation to clear the siblings’ names, uncover their whereabouts, and unravel the truth behind the whispers.

As they delve into the murky world of banking and international arbitrage, Charlotte and Wrexford also struggle to navigate their increasingly complex feelings for each other. But the clock is ticking—a cunning mastermind has emerged . . . along with some unexpected allies—and Charlotte and Wrexford must race to prevent disasters both economic and personal as they are forced into a dangerous match of wits in an attempt to beat the enemy at his own game.

Previously Reviewed: “Murder on Black Swan Lane” and “Murder at Half Moon Gate” and “Murder at Kensington Palace”

Review: Back again for my seemingly monthly review of a book from the “Wrexford and Sloane” series. I’ve had my up and down moments with this series, but now I am beginning to catch up to the author’s release schedule, so it’s becoming a bit of a goal to complete it at this point. Overall, I was pleased with this entry, which just makes it all the more easy to move forward with this series!

Wrexford and Charlotte have begun to make a bit of a name for themselves in the crime-solving department. Of course, each is pursuing these goals under the guise of various other personal personas: Wrexford, a rather grumpy, scientifically minded member of the gentry, and Charlotte as the hidden genius behind a popular satirical cartoonist. But their friends know of their abilities, and it is these friends who call upon them when Lady Cordelia and her brother go missing. As Wrexford and Charlotte dive into the fray, they find themselves getting caught up with players who are more powerful than any they have grappled with before.

I really liked this entry into this series. There were a few things that were changed up that really gave the books the boost they needed. There had been a bit of a rut forming prior to this, so I was pleased to see the author address this. We had two changes made to the general story. One, there were a few chapters where we strayed from Charlottle and Wrexford’s particular stories. Instead, we got to see what Raven was up to. Raven and Hawk have been excellent side characters, but they had been becoming a bit predictable in their “street wise” ways. So having a few chapters where we saw Raven in action helped personify him more as a character in his own right.

We also had a few scenes where our characters were transplanted outside of their typical London domains. It was refreshing to see them interacting in new ways and to explore new locations other than the dark streets of the city. It opened up new angles on our characters and seemed to brighten the story considerably.

The mystery itself was also good. They typically have been, so that wasn’t really a surprise here. I will say, however, that this one walked a fine line of being almost a bit too complicated. I applaud the author for using each book to explore a different unique scientific or economic force that was prevalent in this time period. To do this, however, there is a necessary amount of explanation that needs to be conveyed to the reader in each story to fully lay out the stakes of the situation. And here, too, we got to explore how new concepts that were just entering the scene could be used and manipulated, for good and evil. It just so happened that the way some of these wove together got to be confusing and hard to keep track of as the story unraveled.

I was pleased to see the relationship between Wrexford and Sloane progress nicely. I think this will be a welcome change for many fans of the series. On the other hand, a lot of the emotional stakes for this particular mystery were centered around characters that we knew very little of. Lady Cordelia and her brother, while familiar to a certain extent from previous books, just didn’t have the same pull as the previous mysteries that tied more directly to our two main characters. That said, it is nice to see the cast becoming more fleshed out.

Fans of the series will likely be pleased with this book. It took a few steps forward in important aspects of the story, though I feel like, strangely, the mystery itself was the biggest challenge. Though, I still enjoyed that well enough, too.

Rating 8: Another solid entry. If you’re looking for a reliable (but not mind-blowing) historical mystery series, this one’s a good bet even four books in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Murder at Queen’s Landing” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Historical Mystery 2020 and Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.

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