Serena’s Review: “Under the Whispering Door”

Book: “Under the Whispering Door” by TJ Klune

Publishing Info: Tor Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead.

Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.

But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.

When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.

Review: First off, props to the publisher for another awesome cover for one of Klune’s books. Does it subtly imply that it’s a sequel to the massively successful “House on the Cerulean Sea” with its similarities? Yes. Is it in fact that? No. However, as it’s still a neat cover in its own right, I’ll give it a pass. The fact that there are so few good standalone adult fantasy novels also supports that pass. Let’s dive in!

Young and successful, Wallace never dreamed the end could be so close. But when a reaper shows up for him, he realizes it must be so. Angry and confused, he meets Hugo, a magical being who helps ferry souls to the beyond. Soon Wallace begins to discover that the life he had thought was fulfilling had been an empty thing, bereft of all that makes life well-lived in the end. With only a few precious days remaining to him, Hugo and Wallace set out to give Wallace that last chance at discovering a true life and his true self.

There was a lot to like about this book, but it also wasn’t the high I had been expecting after enjoying Klune’s previous book so much. To begin with what did work, however, Klune’s flair for comedic moments was on point. In particular, the beginning of the story and the flames thrown towards corporate drones were hilarious and apt. As the book progressed, there were several other laugh-out-loud moments. However, as the story continued, even these sometimes began to feel a bit repetitive.

The characters were also quirky and compelling. This is largely a story of Wallace’s transformation from said corporate drone into an emotionally-realized individual, so nailing his character was key to the book working. And for the most part, this works. His interplay with Hugo is well done, and the two characters and their relationship is heartwarming.

However, as I went along, I kept wanting more. The characters were ok, but really just ok. The romance was sweet, but lacked the true heart that I was looking for. And most disappointingly, the message of the book, that of living one’s best life, felt at times trite and repetitive. There were a few times even when the moralizing fell completely flat, with Klune trotting out platitudes that have been overused many times before. Given the general set-up of the book, I knew what I was getting into. But I had hope that Klune would shine a new light on the topic. Or at least offer up some unique ways of looking at a common topic. Alas, not so.

Overall, the book was by no means bad. It just wasn’t what I had hoped to find. It’s perfectly acceptable in what it sets out to do, but knowing Klune’s previous work, I can’t help thinking he could have done better. There were parts of this book that almost felt phoned in, and the story started to drag towards the middling, struggling to keep up its pacing and momentum. Fans of Klune’s work will be pleased to see his trademark humor and strong characters, but he’s also had stronger outings in the past.

Rating 7: A bit disappointing, relying too heavily on tried and true platitudes instead of carving its own space.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Under the Whispering Door” is on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Queer SFF and 2021 Contemporary/Romance Releases.

Find “Under the Whispering Door” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Daughter of the Salt King”

Book: “Daughter of the Salt King” by A.S. Thornton

Publishing Info: CamCat Books, February 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: As a daughter of the Salt King, Emel ought to be among the most powerful women in the desert. Instead, she and her sisters have less freedom than even her father’s slaves … for the Salt King uses his own daughters to seduce visiting noblemen into becoming powerful allies by marriage.

Escape from her father’s court seems impossible, and Emel dreams of a life where she can choose her fate. When members of a secret rebellion attack, Emel stumbles upon an alluring escape route: her father’s best-kept secret—a wish-granting jinni, Saalim.

But in the land of the Salt King, wishes are never what they seem. Saalim’s magic is volatile. Emel could lose everything with a wish for her freedom as the rebellion intensifies around her. She soon finds herself playing a dangerous game that pits dreams against responsibility and love against the promise of freedom. As she finds herself drawn to the jinni for more than his magic, captivated by both him and the world he shows her outside her desert village, she has to decide if freedom is worth the loss of her family, her home and Saalim, the only man she’s ever loved.

Review: I’ll be honest, I requested this book way back in February the month it was coming out. I remember being intrigued by the description (I’m always in for a good jinni story) and happy to find an adult fantasy novel featuring a leading lady (something that I had been struggling to find at the time). But…then it just sat on my Kindle. And the reason I never looked at it to remind myself? The cover! Yes, I was one of those people who definitely started judging it on the cover and what my judgement was saying was: wow, that looks dull. And that’s too bad, because this book is way more exciting than the rather lackluster cover suggests.

As one of the more beautiful daughters of the Salt King, Emel has never understood why she can’t fulfill the only purpose her father allows her and her sisters: to seduce potential suitors whose connections wouldn’t benefit the Salt King. With a harrowing deadline growing steadily closer, Emel dreams of escape. As cracks begin to crumble around her seemingly all-powerful father, Emel stumbles on the secret to his success: a captive jinni who must fulfill his every wish. Soon Emel and Saalim form a strong attachment, but even with Saalim’s power at their fingertips, it’s a volatile thing, more like to harm them than help them. However, other forces are moving and soon their hands will be forced.

This book was such a pleasant surprise! Sometimes it seems that I know from the very first few sentences that a book will be for me. It’s something in the writing: longer, detailed sentences with expert use of a large vocabulary to begin drawing in the reader right away. This was definitely one of those stories. I felt immediately drawn to Emel, even when first meeting her in very tough circumstances when her choices are very much of the practical, if difficult, sort and not those that we often see from the “strong, feisty” heroines at the heart of these stories. Instead, half of Emel’s story is her growing to dream of more for herself and to slowly take control of the limited choices she has before her to direct that future into existence. She still made some puzzling choices, but they felt natural to this type of growth from a character’s whose life has been completely directed by an outside force for the entirety of her existence.

I also loved the romance. While this is a fantasy story first, the romance is a strong, driving element in the overall plot, so readers have to be onboard with that from the get go to enjoy the novel as a whole. I love a romantic fantasy, and both Emel and Saalim were compelling individually and even better together. It wasn’t exactly a slow-burn romance, but it also wasn’t instalove, with enough suspicion and miscommunication to ensure it read as realistic. The foibles that are set up before them also felt earned and also significant. I had a few ideas for how to get out of one snag or another, but most of the time the author quickly stomped out these plots, slowly twisting the screws on our tragic couple.

The world and magic were also interesting. There wasn’t anything incredibly unique to it all, being at times a fairly standard desert fantasy featuring a jinni with the usual abilities. But there added histories and beliefs tangled up in the magical elements that slowly began layering on top of one another as I read, until, in the end, the tapestry felt appropriately detailed and nuanced. In particular, I liked the brief exploration of the goddess behind the jinni’s power and his own backstory.

I really, really liked this book. It was simply solid in every way. It’s only lacking that 10 rating for having a few inexplicable character beats and having pacing that was a bit disjointed early on in the story. But those are real nitpicks on my part. There was also a fairly decent cliffhanger at the end. So, in this way, I was rewarded for dragging my feet about getting to this one as now my wait should be shorter before the second book comes out. Fans of jinnis and romance-heavy fantasies should definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: A wonderful surprise with two main characters you can’t help but love.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Daughter of the Salt King” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021 and Desert Fantasy.

Find “Daughter of the Salk King” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Wildwood Whispers”

Book: “Wildwood Whispers” by Willa Reece

Publishing Info: Redhook, August 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: At the age of eleven, Mel Smith’s life found its purpose when she met Sarah Ross. Ten years later, Sarah’s sudden death threatens to break her. To fulfill a final promise to her best friend, Mel travels to an idyllic small town nestled in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains. Yet Morgan’s Gap is more than a land of morning mists and deep forest shadows.

There are secrets that call to Mel, in the gaze of the gnarled and knowing woman everyone calls Granny, in a salvaged remedy book filled with the magic of simple mountain traditions, and in the connection, she feels to the Ross homestead and the wilderness around it.

With every taste of sweet honey and tart blackberries, the wildwood twines further into Mel’s broken heart. But a threat lingers in the woods—one that may have something to do with Sarah’s untimely death and that has now set its sight on Mel.

Review: I don’t often much magic realism fiction (or women’s fiction…not sure how I feel about that even being a subgenre category…), but the book description for this book was giving me major “Practical Magic” vibes, so I thought it was worth checking out. The cover art was also beautiful, and my mood fit well for a more quiet, reflective read. This one wasn’t a perfect fit for me, but I think it’s a solid entry for fans of these genres.

Growing up bouncing around in the system, Mel could never find her home. That is until she met Sarah, a young girl who had recently been orphaned. Together, the two made a home for one another in their enduring bond. Years later, Mel once again feels the sand shifting beneath her feet when Sarah dies. To fulfill a promise, she travels to Sarah’s childhood home. There, she discovers there was much more to Sarah than she had understood. And as the dark woods whispers and family secrets swirl through the town’s quiet streets, Mel begins to see a new place for herself.

I liked the idea of this book more than the book itself, in the end. Those familiar with the blog will know that I love a sisters book, which this is. I also really liked the imagery of a small, quiet town in the mountains, having grown up in one myself. There’s something compelling about the quirks and histories that come out in places like this, strange to all but those who have grown up with them. Mel’s exploration of the two, people, and woods was particularly poignant for me in this way.

I also liked Mel herself, especially the brief flash we see of her as a child when she first meets and bonds with Sarah. She was definitely started out on a strong note here, a defiant loner who discovers kinship with a younger girl. But the adult Mel was more difficult for me to handle. The flashes of defiance and strength seemed muted, and there were many early moments between characters that left me scratching my head. Mel comes to the town, a complete stranger, and then strikes up some really bizarre conversations with various locals. I couldn’t figure out what was going on here. Was it poor writing that made these portions of dialogue read as odd? Was it on purpose? Either way, it hurt Mel’s characterization as I couldn’t understand her lack of human reaction to these weird happenings.

I also struggled to identify with several other plot elements. The antagonist was easily spotted from the beginning of the story (even if the motives were left murky for a bit longer). And the romance felt tacked on and, again, unnatural. I didn’t feel any real chemistry between these characters other than the fact that the author simply designed them to be together, so they were. r

I liked the magical elements that were interspersed throughout the book, but was left wanting more. This is a point that is particular to my taste, however, as a lot of magical realism stories are light on the magic. The exploration of grief, family, and home had moments of depth, but, again, never struck any real chords for me. Ultimately, it was a bit too sentimental for me.

Readers who enjoy quiet, thoughtful books and magic realism will likely enjoy this story. If you’re looking for a fast plot, strong romance, or strong characterization, this might be more of a disappointment. I don’t regret reading it, but it’s enough to prove that a little goes a long way for me with this kind of stuff.

Rating 7: Decent for what it is, a sentimental story of a woman processing her grief and discovering a new sense of self and roots.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wildwood Whispers” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantastic Women’s Fiction with Magical Elements and August 2021 Book Releases.

Find “Wildwood Whispers” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Bronzed Beasts”

Book: “The Bronzed Beasts” by Roshani Chokshi

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: After Séverin’s seeming betrayal, the crew is fractured. Armed with only a handful of hints, Enrique, Laila, Hypnos and Zofia must find their way through the snarled, haunted waterways of Venice, Italy to locate Séverin.

Meanwhile, Séverin must balance the deranged whims of the Patriarch of the Fallen House and discover the location of a temple beneath a plague island where the Divine Lyre can be played and all that he desires will come to pass.

With only ten days until Laila expires, the crew will face plague pits and deadly masquerades, unearthly songs and the shining steps of a temple whose powers might offer divinity itself…but at a price they may not be willing to pay.

Previously Reviewed: “The Gilded Wolves” and “The Silvered Serpents”

Review: So far, my enjoyment of this series has been very on again, off again. My general likes and dislikes have remained consistent throughout the first two books. But as one of the “likes” is the characterization of the, arguably, two main characters, I’ve stuck around. I’m very much a character-driven reader, so if you’ve tackled that portion well, there’s a good chance you’ll hook me. That said, this author’s style of writing has never been my favorite. But I made it through the first two, so I was excited enough to see how it would all wrap up!

The race is on, with the Divine Lyre, a seemingly all-powerful magical device, within sight at last. But the group of friends is broken and distrusting. To many, Severin seems to have revealed himself as a betrayer and cold-hearted being to his core. But as they follow a few scattered clues, the group begins to wonder if all is not as it seems there. For her part, Laila can’t reconcile a Severin who would abandon his friends (and her) so easily with the man she’s grown to love. But her time, too, is limited as the clock that rules her life ticks down. For them all, the end is coming. What will it bring?

This was a pleasant surprise. The first book had been enjoyable enough, but I really struggled with the second one. So there were really only two options here. But luckily, it went the good route and ended on a strong note. Strong enough, even, for me to feel pretty good about reading the entire series, even with its low points.

Much of my enjoyment, again, came down to the character arcs. The middle book had felt like a lot of treading water and forced angst for our group, with emotional conflicts coming left and right that felt neither earned or natural. But here, with the end in sight, it was clear the author felt more comfortable again with these characters and their paths, while not devoid of twists and turns, felt stable and satisfying across the board.

Obviously, I’m mostly here for Severin and Laila, and I really, really loved what we got from them. It was incredibly cathartic to read some of the later scenes between them after the roller coaster ride that had been the first two books. That said, I was incredibly pleased to see their story take a few turns that took me completely by surprise. The ending, in particular, was very unexpected, full of bittersweet but cathartic notes.

I still struggled with some of the writing, with certain scenes and descriptions not painting a clear, crisp image. Chokshi’s style is now well-established, so I wasn’t surprised to see this. But it is probably the biggest reason why her books will likely never be huge hits for me. Too much emphasis is put on pretty sounding turns of phrase even if the words themselves fail to convey much of anything, sometimes even making things murkier and more difficult to follow.

Fans of this series will likely be completely satisfied with this book. Chokshi delivers on everything that she’s set up for the first two books. There is action aplenty and enough twists and turns to keep readers on the edge of their seats. The romance finally pays off in a big way, as well. I was pleased to end on this high note.

Rating 8: A definite improvement on the second book, including a strong, surprising ending for our beloved characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bronzed Beasts” is on these Goodreads lists: Series Ending in 2021 and 2020 YA/MG Books With POC Leads.

Find “The Bronzed Beats” at the library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Song of Flight”

Book: “A Song of Flight” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Random House, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Bard and fighter Liobhan is always ready for a challenge. So when news arrives at Swan Island that the prince of Dalriada has gone missing after an assault by both masked men and the sinister Crow Folk, she’s eager to act.

While Liobhan and her fellow Swan Island warriors seek answers to the prince’s disappearance, the bard Brocc, Liobhan’s brother, finds himself in dire trouble. His attempts to communicate with the Crow Folk have led him down a perilous path. When Liobhan and her comrades are sent to the rescue, it becomes clear the two missions are connected–and a great mystery unfolds.

What brought the Crow Folk to Erin? And who seeks to use them in an unscrupulous bid for power? As Liobhan and Brocc investigate, it will take all their strength and will to continue pursuing the truth. With the safety of their loved ones in the balance, the risks they must take may cost them everything.

Previously Reviewed: “The Harp of Kings” and “A Dance with Fate”

Review: This was another of my highly anticipated reads for this fall. Overall, I haven’t loved this trilogy as much as I did the “Blackthorn and Grim” trilogy that preceded it. But that’s kind of been my experience with Marillier’s work recently. I tend to really like one trilogy and then be less thrilled with the next. For example, I didn’t love the “Shadowfall” trilogy that came before “Blackthorn and Grim” as much as I did that one, either. So, on and off it goes! That said, I’ve always enjoyed Marillier’s work in general (I’m doing an entire series of reviews of all of her books, for heaven’s sake!), so I was excited to see how she concluded this trilogy.

About a year has passed since the events of the last book, and everyone is more or less where we left them. Liobhan is training a new recruit to become a Swan Island warrior, balancing her relationship with Dau who is now located on the mainland from the island. The two’s untraditional arrangement is only allowed due to this distance and the fact that they are not allowed to go out on missions together. But when a prince of the realm goes missing, and Dau is sent out to locate him, Liobhan finds this distance challenging. All the more so when they begin to suspect the involvement of the Fae, an area of expertise much more for Liobhan than Dau. Brocc, for his part, is living in the Fae realm with his young daughter and Fae wife. But his secret work with the Crow Folk draws tensions in this small family, and soon enough Brocc finds himself walking a lonely path.

I really liked this conclusion. There were a few things about it that really stood out. For one, Brocc’s story became more compelling. He was the character I struggled to connect to the most in the previous books, but here, his storyline becomes much more important. I was also relieved to see the direction the story went with his relationship with Eirne, his Fae wife. In my review of the second book, I was fairly scathing towards this relationship, and I was relieved to find here that that dislike on my part was justified and clearly part of Marillier’s overall plan.

The Crow Folk have played a big role in the series so far, but it’s also been very unclear what they are and why they do what they do. Brocc has slowly uncovered pieces of their story up to this point, but here he really dove into it. There was some really interesting magic and backstory involved, and I really liked the direction it went.

We also saw the return of my beloved Blackthorn and Grim. Naturally, the two play only very small roles, but I’ll take any crumbs I can get as far as those two go! It was fun to see some familiar locations and to get a closer look at what their lives look like now, so many years after the end of their trilogy. The one downside here was the fact that it did only remind me how much I preferred these two to these main three characters. Blackthorn, especially, was an excellent character and far out shown Liobhan, Dau, and Brocc.

I was also pleased with Dau’s story. There were some loose ends that seemed a bit strange in the second book but were solidly tied up here. There were a few instances in Dau’s story that felt a bit to contrived, with people and clues showing up right when they needed to, but I still enjoyed his arc and the resolutions of his ongoing family drama.

Liobhan probably fell the most into the background, which did make me rather sad. Her story was still good, but this was definitely more the Brocc/Dau show. Luckily, I think she’s the strongest character of the three, so her storyline was best able to take a hit in the plot department and still be compelling based solely on her characterization. I thought that the romance between her and Dau was done pretty well, though I do wish these two hadn’t be separated for quite so much of the story.

Everything else was kind of what we’ve come to expect from Marillier: very atmospheric writing, a strong reliance on stories with stories and folklore, and a solid, heartfelt conclusion. If you’re a fan of this trilogy and Marillier’s work, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one.

Rating 8: Overall, this wasn’t my favorite set of books by Marillier, but this was a strong conclusion to the hole and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Song of Flight” is a new book, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. Funnily enough, it’s on this one: Julie, Julie, Julie.

Find “A Song of Flight” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Last Graduate”

Book: “The Last Graduate” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: At the Scholomance, El, Orion, and the other students are faced with their final year—and the looming specter of graduation, a deadly ritual that leaves few students alive in its wake. El is determined that her chosen group will survive, but it is a prospect that is looking harder by the day as the savagery of the school ramps up. Until El realizes that sometimes winning the game means throwing out all the rules . . .

Previously Reviewed: “A Deadly Education”

Review: Yep, definitely couldn’t wait until September to read this one! But I also wanted to time my review in a better manner than just randomly throwing up here three months before anyone can get their hands on it. I’m not a monster to torture you all like that! Sadly, there is still several weeks left before it’s available even posting it now. But I wanted to give everyone plenty of time to get their pre-orders in early, because, yes, it is that good.

El, Orion, and their friends have successfully helped the previous class graduate with (hopefully) few casualties. This year it will be there turn. But as they prepare, a grueling ordeal of classes and a killer (literally) obstacle course, it becomes clear that their actions last graduation are having a ripple effect on the school itself. Things are not behaving as they should, and El is frantic to find a way to save this small group of people who have, shockingly, become her friends. As her relationship with Orion grows as well, despite the warning from her mother, El begins to realize she will need to chart her own course, even if it’s one totally unexpected.

So, obviously, I loved this book. I was a bit nervous (really only the tiniest bit, since Naomi Novik has never let me down yet!) when I heard that this series had been conceptualized as a duology but then was extended into a trilogy. For further insight into my thoughts on this strategy, see my scathing review of “Blood & Honey.” Luckily, this series had a few things going for it that made this type of extension not only possible, but supremely enjoyable.

First, I’d probably be happy enough to just read a non-fiction style textbook about the world that Novik has created here, especially the Scholomance itself. The first book had some massive infodumps (I remember being several chapters in and coming up for air only to realize that practically no action had taken place), but this book proves that Novik was only scratching the surface of her imagination. Here, we get even more details about how the school was created, how it runs, and how it functions as an individual entity with “intentions” and “will” of its own. We also looked closer at the divided society that makes up those with magical abilities in this world. The “haves” and “have nots” are starkly divided, and we see how this happened, how it continues, and how it’s not really good for anyone.

The other thing that makes this “extender” book work is the characters. They’re all so very real and compelling. El, of course, is a masterpiece of a main character. She’s very human in her flaws, her only partial understanding of herself, and her will to keep moving forward and adapting even when the world, quite literally, is against her. As a narrator, she’s also hilarious, with witty observations of the world and those in it that had me cackling out loud more often than not.

The supporting characters are equally good, especially Orion himself. In the first book, he was very much portrayed as a “Harry Potter on steroids” type savior character. Here, we still have that. But we also get a closer look into how this image of himself has shaped Orion’s worldview and value of himself. There were a few reveals here that really fleshed him out. If I had any criticisms of the first book, it might have been the fact that we seemed to only scrape the surface on what makes Orion tick. But that was fully rectified here and in some truly interesting ways.

I also love the romance that continues to develop between El and Orion. It was very believable in its slow crawl of progress. Even better, it was clear that while it was important to each of them, their romance didn’t consume their attention or lives. Indeed, it’s very much a secondary consideration at almost every moment. I can’t say how much I appreciated this presentation of a teenage love story, or any love story, really. Yes, love makes the world go round and all of that. But other things, people, and important decisions exist as well, and filtering everything through the narrow lens of one’s current love affair is by no means healthy (or realistic.)

This book is again heavy on the descriptions of the world/magic and lighter on the action. But that said, there was more action in this book than the first. It builds steadily towards a very tension-filled climax. Major warning here: there is a serious cliffhanger at the end of this book. Much more so than the first. So if you’re the type of reader who can’t stand that sort of thing, you might want to hold off until the third and final book comes out. Heaven knows, I couldn’t hold out even two days, but there are stronger people than me out there! Fans of the first book are sure to love this one and now I’m back, once again, anxiously waiting for the next installment.

Rating 10: I loved it so, so much. My pre-order has been in place for months now.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Graduate” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy Trilogies and Fantasy Books Releasing in 2021.

Find “The Last Graduate” at your library using WorldCat!

Monthly Marillier: “Wolfskin”

“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: “Wolfskin” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor Books, August 2004

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Eyvind can think of no more glorious future than becoming a Wolfskin, a warrior devoted to the service of the mighty war god Thor. His closest friend, Somerled, a strange and lonely boy, has his own very different ambitions – yet a childhood oath, sworn in blood, binds these two in lifelong loyalty. Meanwhile, far away across the water, on the Light Isles, the king’s niece Nessa is beginning to learn the ways of the mysteries – though neither the young priestess nor her people can realize what lies ahead for them.

Eyvind and Somerled seem set to follow very different paths: one becoming a fearless servant of the Warfather, the other a scholarly courtier. Then a voyage of discovery, led by Somerled’s brother Ulf, brings the two friends together again in accompanying a group of settlers to some beautiful islands rumoured to lie across the western sea. However, their good spirits are dampened by a tragedy on board, which Eyvind begins to suspect may not have been an accident.

Ulf’s new settlement begins in harmony with the native islanders, led by King Engus. But one day, on a trip to a holy place of the Folk, a brutal murder occurs and that peace is shattered. It is now that Eyvind begins to feel the restraining ties of his boyhood oath…and to realize what sort of future Somerled had in mind for himself all those years ago.

Review: There really is no rhyme or reason to the order in which I’m picking the books I read for this series. The “Sevenwaters” series was an obvious starting point, but I’ve been jumping around ever since. However, I do remember that this book was the first of her books that I encountered where she used multiple POVs. All of the “Sevenwaters” books, her “Wildwood” YA duology, and a few of the other stand-alone she has are all told from a single, female perspective. So it was kind of a shock to start this one and find more than one narrator. More so that we were ultimately getting both the man and woman’s perspective from the eventual romantic pairing.

Eyvind and Nessa grow up in very different worlds with very different futures. Eyvind trains to be one of the legendary Wolfskin warriors who go out into the world and fight great battles. His reserved friend Somerland also has plans for his future, but they begin to look less and less familiar to Eyvind as they grow. For her part, Nessa leads a quiet life learning the ways of a wise woman, hoping to continue forward on the bright path set before her small community. But the seasons turn suddenly, and both Eyvind and Nessa soon learn that both of the futures they had set before themselves perhaps were not the ones they were meant to find. Soon, each must learn for themselves the great truths to be found in love, loyalty, and friendship.

First off, I really like the cover for this book. It’s sequel, “Foxmask,” has an equally beautiful cover. Both perfectly fit the overall tone and mythic quality of the stories held within. Marillier is also known as a huge dog lover, so it’s only fitting that few canines also great the cover.

Like I said before, this was the first of Marillier’s books that I encountered that featured dual narrators. And, for the most part, I enjoyed it here. Perhaps due to my expectations going in, that it would again be a single, female POV, I did find myself connecting a bit more to Nessa’s character. However, I will also add that in the long, long list of Marillier’s heroines, Nessa is not one of my favorites. Instead, she falls in similar company with Sibeal and Paula, heroines who were fine for the most part, but not particularly unique or likely to stand out in my memory.

I did like the magic that accompanied Nessa’s storyline. While we’ve seen seers plenty before, Nessa’s magic had some unique aspects to it. I enjoyed the connection to the selkie and the legends that surround magical water creatures. The tools she goes on to use as the story begins to wind down were interesting in their history and implementation.

Eyvind was of a bit more interest, perhaps simply because of the novelty of a male POV. But his story also involved a lot more change and a more established arc that covered the entirety of the book. Yes, some parts of it were highly predictable. And yes, those predictable twists and turns did make the early Eyvind a bit hard to tolerate in his naivety and trusting nature. But in some ways this same trusting nature helped draw a stark contrast between him and his friend Somerled. In some ways, I enjoyed the exploration and downfall of this friendship than I did the romantic relationship between Nessa and Eyvind.

Overall, while this isn’t on my list of favorite Marillier works, it does stand well enough on its own. I enjoy the setting, featuring Vikings and northern European myths and legends. Readers who enjoy multiple POV stories might even appreciate this one more than others. I’ve simply always preferred one narrator, so I’m a tough sell on this type of story. That said, it’s still a worthy entry and a solid recommendation for readers who enjoy mythic fantasy stories.

Rating 7: Not a favorite of mine, but a nice change of pace from the Irish setting and magic system.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wolfskin” is on these Goodreads lists: The Best of Mythic Fiction and Vikings.

Find “Wolfskin” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Into the Dying Light”

Book: “Into the Dying Light” by Katy Rose Pool

Publishing Info: Henry Holt and Co., September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Following the destruction of the City of Mercy, an ancient god has been resurrected and sealed inside Beru’s body. Both are at the mercy of the Prophet Pallas, who wields the god’s powers to subjugate the Six Prophetic Cities. But every day, the god grows stronger, threatening to break free and sow untold destruction.

Meanwhile, far away from Pallas Athos, Anton learns to harness his full powers as a Prophet. Armed with the truth about how the original Prophets killed the god, Anton leads Jude, Hassan, and Ephyra on a desperate quest to the edge of the world. With time running out, the group’s tenuous alliance is beset by mounting danger, tumultuous romance, and most of all by a secret that Anton is hiding: a way to destroy the god at the price of an unbearable sacrifice. But the cost of keeping that secret might be their lives—and the lives of everyone in the Six Prophetic Cities.

Previously Reviewed: “There Will Come a Darkness” and “As the Shadow Rise”

Review: This has been a hugely popular series over the last year or so. While I didn’t actively dislike either of the books, I also could never quite figure out what the big deal was. Mostly, my inability to strongly connect to the characters is what held me back, an extremely subjective experience if there ever was one. But I did enjoy the second book more than the first, so I was happy enough to go into this, the final book in the trilogy.

Things are coming to a head. With a powerful god contained within her, Beru’s future is tenuous and fraught with danger, as she and the god can be wielded to terrible effect. For their part, the others are on a quest of their own, eager to find a way to hold their fraying world together. Anton, alone, knows what this same hard-fought success might cost them. But trials await in every form, both the physical challenges set before them and the emotional bonds that build, fray, and tighten between them all.

So, very like the second book, I did end up enjoying this book more than the first. I think most of it comes down to the characters I found myself most drawn to in the first book. For me, Hassan’s story was always fairly dull, and I didn’t connect very strongly to his storyline or character. So the first book, which featured him heavily, worked less well for me. But in these last two, he largely drifted into the background. Perhaps even more so in this book than in the second.

For the second part, there were characters who were barely introduced in the first book that I found in reading the second, and now the third, were a few of my favorites. Beru, for one, had very few chapters in that first book, but she’s always been a favorite of mine, so I enjoyed these last two books more for seeing more from her. Here, her story very much comes to the front. Containing a powerful god will do that for a character arc! I found her entire storyline over the three books to be very satisfying, and the resolution to her story was appropriately profound.

I also liked the romances that developed. Jude and Anton have been fairly precious since they were first hinted at as a pair in the end of the first book. But I admit, I’ve been more invested in the enemies-to-lover romance that develops between Ephyra and Illya. As Illya is only really introduced in book two and quickly joined Ephyra as one of my favorite characters, it only goes to show that these last two books had more of what I was looking for. I liked how both of these characters truly operate in shades of grey (sometimes outright black!). Many authors talk a decent game about writing morally grey characters or anti-heroes, but then when it comes down to it, any/all bad stuff is either off page or completely justified (like self defense, etc.) I appreciated that true darkness that was explored in both of these characters.

Overall, the trilogy definitely ended on a higher note than it started, and I’m glad I stuck it through until the end. Fans of the trilogy will surely be pleased, and if anyone’s been lukewarm on it so far, I still think this is a satisfying conclusion.

Rating 8: A trilogy that got better as it went along, I was happy to finish this one off on a high note.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Into the Dying Light” is on this Goodreads list: 2021 YA Books with LGBT Themes.

Find “Into the Dying Light” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Unholy Murder”

Book: “Unholy Murder” by Lynda La Plante

Publishing Info: Zaffre, August 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst!

Book Description: ‘Help me turn the coffin lid over.’ Jane Tennison said, grabbing one end.

‘What you looking for?’ Doctor Pullen asked.

‘I want to see the condition of the interior lining.’

‘The right hand on the body has a broken fingernails, some are worn down to the fingertips.’ Doctor Pullen informed them as they gently turned the lid over. The mouldy white satin lining was torn and hanging loose at the head end. Jane gently brushed it to one side revealing deep fingernail scratch marks on the interior metal.

‘Oh my God,’ Tennison exclaimed. ‘She was buried alive.

In Unholy Murder, Tennison must lift the lid on the most chilling murder case of her career to date . . .

Review: I won this book in a giveaway not really knowing that it was number seven in a series, but, here we are! I was mostly intrigued by the fact that it was a series featuring the character Tennison best known from the TV show. I also like a good crime novel every once in a while (Kate and I both read the “Temperance Brennan” series on and off though we haven’t reviewed them here). So I was excited to find another book in that vein, all the better since I can likely find audiobook versions read by people with lovely British accents, given the location! Let’s dive in.

Jane Tennison is back on the case. This time she arrives to find a recently-discovered coffin at the site of an old convent. Inside, the remains of a nun. But what should be unsurprising is suddenly awful when it becomes clear the nun was buried alive. Now Tennison must work to uncover the truth, attempting to wheedle out the truth from the reluctant Catholic Church, made all the more difficult from her partner’s past connection to the Church. But nothing can put Tennison off the case, and slowly but surely, the past will be unburied.

Like I mentioned earlier, I hadn’t read any other books in this series before picking up this book .Worse, I’ve only seen one or two of the episodes of the original show and none of the new show (didn’t even discover there was a new show until I went down a research rabbit hole). All of that to say, I still did fine without any real previous knowledge of the story. Like many police procedural books, there were perhaps some character connections and histories that I missed out on, but the story itself is started, centered, and concluded around this particular crime.

The crime itself was interesting. Being buried alive, I think, is pretty much anyone’s nightmare, so the horror was already built in right there. It was also a bit timely to be reading this book right now given the ongoing revelations about crimes within the church. I thought the book did a decent job of unpacking the “circling the wagons” nature of the Catholic Church while also not demonizing the entire belief system.

I also really liked both of the characters we had here. DCS Barnes, a completely new character to me, was particularly interesting with his past history with the Church. I liked that La Plante didn’t shy away from showing the biases that are inherent even to investigators who are meant to look at crimes through as objective a lens as possible. It’s simply not possible for a person not to bring their own baggage to some of these scenes, so it was nice to see the author give her characters these natural flaws.

I also enjoyed the time period that this book was set in. For some reason, I had assumed it would be a modern story, but I guess that doesn’t make much sense given the fact that it’s based on a TV show from the 90s I believe. The story itself is set in the early 80s, and I liked how it showed crime investigations going down without the modern tools we’re used to seeing in police procedurals today.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It’s been a while since I’ve read a crime procedural, and it was a good addition of a series to return to now and then. The story was definitely slow, and the writing was a bit awkward here and there (perhaps a testament to the author’s original writing experience coming from screenplay work rather than novel-writing). Fans of the series, I’m sure, will enjoy this. And those who enjoy police procedural stories are likely to appreciate it, too.

Rating 7: A bit slow and fumbling at times, but ultimately an enjoyable change of pace for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Unholy Murder” is a newer title so it isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Best Female Crime/Mystery/Thriller Writers.

Find “Unholy Murder” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Where Dreams Descend”

Book: “Where Dreams Descend” by Janella Angeles

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, August 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: In a city covered in ice and ruin, a group of magicians face off in a daring game of magical feats to find the next headliner of the Conquering Circus, only to find themselves under the threat of an unseen danger striking behind the scenes.

As each act becomes more and more risky and the number of missing magicians piles up, three are forced to reckon with their secrets before the darkness comes for them next.

The Star: Kallia, a powerful showgirl out to prove she’s the best no matter the cost

The Master: Jack, the enigmatic keeper of the club, and more than one lie told

The Magician: Demarco, the brooding judge with a dark past he can no longer hide

Review: The book description immediately drew me in on this one, sounding very similar to “The Night Circus,” one of my favorite stand-alone books. But then it continued and started sounding too much like yet another “Six of Crows” knock-off. I swear, the minute any summary starts listing characters as “The ‘thief/assassin/master/etc.'” I now immediately become suspicious. It could have went either way, so in I dove!

Kallia has always been ambitious, dreaming of more than just her small act in a local club. So when a competition is announced to find the next headliner for the Conquering Circus, she jumps at the opportunity. Fleeing alone through the woods, she briefly escapes Jack, the owner of the club. But safety is not to be found in this new city as her fellow competitors begin to fall prey to disappearances and mysterious accidents. But Kallia knows of no way but forward, and with the judge of the competition brooding in the shadows, Kallia begins to find she has more than one reason for sticking it out.

To get it out of the way, this wasn’t all I had hoped it would be. However, the problems I had with it weren’t due to any comparisons to “Six of Crows.” Instead, it was one of those odd reads where just enough things didn’t come together in a smooth way and left me with a disjointed and disconnected reading exerpience.

The first problem I had was with the writing itself. There was a lot of telling in this book and a lack of showing. Kallia’s abilities are highlighted on and off, but we’re essentially told she’s that much better than everyone else….just because she is. For a story that is comprised of many dark fantasy elements, scenes that just burst, sparkle, and pop from the page (she’s trying out for something called the “Conquering Circus” for Pete’s sake!), the actual prose often fell flat, and I found myself having to work hard to keep myself grounded in the story.

The pacing was also incredibly slow feeling. Again, this was a strange experience as, on paper, things were definitely happening. We have Kallia’s initial flight through the woods to get to this new city. Then her experiences in the competition itself. As well as the strange happenings when she’s home alone. Even typing it out, it sounds like it should read like an action-packed thrill ride. But instead, it felt slow and plodding. Again, I think there was just something lacking in the writing to really give the plot the “oomf” it needed to get started.

The characters were probably the best part of the book, but they didn’t stand out as especially unique. I found myself getting annoyed by Kallia’s innate “specialness” and the generous helping of arrogance that came along with this. I was marginally more interested in the two male character, the mysterious judge who is the primary romantic interest as well as Aaros, a young man who quickly becomes her best friend in this new city.

Sadly, this book wasn’t for me. There was the bones of a good story here, but I just couldn’t get into it. This is definitely one of those where one should take my rating with a grain of salt as there’s a decent chance that many of these things didn’t work for me just because I wasn’t in the right mood for this type of book. If you like fantasy and dark circuses, this still might be worth checking out. But if you were on the fence already, maybe give it a pass.

Rating 6: Just not for me with writing that couldn’t manage to draw me into the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Where Dreams Descend” is on these Goodreads lists: 2020 YA/MG Books With POC Leads and Glittering Glamorous Fantasies.

Find “Where Dreams Descend” at your library using WorldCat!