Serena’s Review: “Into the Heartless Wood”

Book: “Into the Heartless Wood” by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Publishing Info: Page Street Kids, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The forest is a dangerous place, where siren song lures men and women to their deaths. For centuries, a witch has harvested souls to feed the heartless tree, using its power to grow her domain.

When Owen Merrick is lured into the witch’s wood, one of her tree-siren daughters, Seren, saves his life instead of ending it. Every night, he climbs over the garden wall to see her, and every night her longing to become human deepens. But a shift in the stars foretells a dangerous curse, and Seren’s quest to become human will lead them into an ancient war raging between the witch and the king who is trying to stop her.

Review: I’m not sure why it took me so long to get to this book. On the surface, it has tons of things working in its favor for me specifically. The cover is lovely and the story sounds like the exact sort of fairytale fantasy that I absolutely love. But every time I picked it up, I just couldn’t quite get into it. So, this last December I decided to really give it a go. And, while it still isn’t my favorite read ever, at least this time I did manage to get through the entire thing!

Everyone knows the true sirens live not in the sea but in the woods. Deep in the dark forest, a witch weaves a powerful spell to lure men and women beneath the canopy of trees where she can use her magic to feed their souls to the trees themselves. But it turns out that tree-sirens may want more, at least Seren does. When she meets a human, Owen, she begins to understand what it is to be human and longs for a soul of her own. But darker forces are shifting and the clash between the witch and a powerful king is soon to come.

This book is a tough one for me because of two dueling aspects of the story. One that I love. And one that I hate. Let’s start with what I loved. Obviously, I’m here for all of the fairytale fantasies, and this was just the type that I enjoy. The language was lyrical and of that “old-timey” style that I particularly enjoy. There was also numerous nods to English/Welsh folklore that very much reminded me of Juliet Marillier’s work. And really, anything that can be compared to one of my favorite authors has to be good. And yet, here I am giving a middling review to this book. Well, that comes down to what my problem was with the story. Notably, our two main characters and their romance.

Sadly, this was a hardcore instalove story. I mean, these two characters pretty much fall immediately in full-on love by page 60 (unsurprisingly enough, this is about where I fell-off in my reading in previous attempts). For me, instalove like this immediately sucks all of the interest out of the romance of the story. There’s no where for this relationship to go if it starts out at 100% milk. This makes the romance itself read very bland and boring, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that both main character also felt rather flat and uninteresting. I did like that their roles were somewhat reversed, with the heroine coming from a villainous role and the hero having a softer, more open personality.

So, there you have it, a book made of two equally powerful sides of my preference-coin. Love the fairytale story and lyrical quality of writing. Really hated the instalove romance and flat main characters. For those who are less annoyed by instalove, this could be a real win of a story. But sadly, it was enough to bump this one down a few points in my own rating.

Rating 7: Really loved parts of it, really disliked others, so take from that what you will!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Into the Heartless Wood” is on these Goodreads lists: Books To Read In Winter and Magical Forest.

Find “Into the Heartless Wood” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Echoes and Empires”

Book: “Echoes and Empires” by Morgan Rhodes

Publishing Info: Razorbill, January 2022

Where Did I Get this BOok: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Josslyn Drake knows only three things about magic: it’s rare, illegal, and always deadly. So when she’s caught up in a robbery gone wrong at the Queen’s Gala and infected by a dangerous piece of magic—one that allows her to step into the memories of an infamously evil warlock—she finds herself living her worst nightmare. Joss needs the magic removed before it corrupts her soul and kills her. But in Ironport, the cost of doing magic is death, and seeking help might mean scheduling her own execution. There’s nobody she can trust.

Nobody, that is, except wanted criminal Jericho Nox, who offers her a deal: his help extracting the magic in exchange for the magic itself. And though she’s not thrilled to be working with a thief, especially one as infuriating (and infuriatingly handsome) as Jericho, Joss is desperate enough to accept.

But Jericho is nothing like Joss expects. The closer she grows with Jericho and the more she sees of the world outside her pampered life in the city, the more Joss begins to question the beliefs she’s always taken for granted—beliefs about right and wrong, about power and magic, and even about herself.

In an empire built on lies, the truth may be her greatest weapon.

Review: So, I was sucked into this one by the cover. I’ll even admit that I only barely glanced at the general description before requesting it. That said, had I looked at said description a bit more closely, I might have been a bit more wary. But I also know that a book description isn’t the be all end all of books, and I’ve seen more than one example in the last year where the description completely undersold or misrepresented an excellent story. Unfortunately, this one is pretty much exactly what you’d expect based on its description.

Joss has always lived her life in the spotlight, and until the last year when tragedy struck her family, she’s reveled in it. Still, the show must go on, so Joss dutifully makes an appearance at a grand event. Unfortunately, while there, she gets caught up in a robbery that leaves her in possession of a magical infestation. And in a land where magic is outlawed, she must now creep into the shadowy world of the thieves and outlaws in hopes of curing herself before she is executed. While there, she begins to uncover new truths about her glittering world that throws her entire existence into question.

Sadly, I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about this book. I guess I can say that the writing seems strong enough, and the author was blessedly free of any repetitive word choices or an overly-simplistic style. There was also a fairly high level of action throughout, especially if you’re the type of reader who sees action in some of the smaller, social moments between characters.

Unfortunately, some of that “action” was unnecessary drama. Joss, herself, is introduced as a fairly unlikable main character who is made up of many of the more annoying stereotypes applied to teenage girls. She’s very self-focused, on her looks and her own actions, has made friends with a bunch of “popular girls” who, of course, participate in this the type of sniping and backstabbing that we’ve all seen in one too many teenage movies, and her focus on things like fancy dresses and shopping (while not bad on their own, of course) comes across as frivolous when paired with the rest of her character. The story does go on to reveal much that is wrong with Joss’s view of herself and her world, but for me, it was both too little too late and a bit hard to truly buy any of her changes.

I also had quibbles about how Joss was introduced. The way she talks, interacts with others, and generally carries herself through the world is very much in step with how a 20-something young woman would, decidedly NOT a teenage girl. It read as both unbelievable and, at times, borderline inappropriate. Also, fairly neglectful of her caretakers?

I also had massive, massive eye rolls at romance and the romantic interest. Not only was it all so predictable, but the banter was also very tired and expected. Also, the name “Jericho Nox.” Can’t not mention the ridiculousness of that name. From there, you move on to all of the other non-twists that come through this book. If you haven’t guessed most of them from the book description itself, I’d be shocked.

I was also very confused about the setting of this book. The cover, for one, makes it seem as if it is set in your typical bland, slightly Medieval European setting. But no. There are cars, phones, and a sort of social media apparatus. But also magic that still feels like it would come from one of those second world fantasies. Obviously, urban fantasy exists and that is probably the best subgenre for this. But that, too, didn’t quite fit. I don’t dislike the concept of the world, overall, but as it was, it felt jarring and hard to really place myself within it as a reader.

This book wasn’t really for me at all. Perhaps readers who aren’t as tired of some of these tropes will enjoy it, but I can’t really say anyone should run out and get their hands on it immediately.

Rating 5: Not for me. Too full of tropes and an unlikable main character really hurt it for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Echoes and Empires” is on this Goodreads lists: YA Novels of 2022.

Find “Echoes and Empires” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Sin & Chocolate”

Book: “Sin & Chocolate” by K.F. Breene

Publishing Info: Hazy Dawn Press, Inc, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Some people are ordained for greatness…

Those people usually have a lot of drama in their life. Drama I happily do without. I live in a forgotten corner of nowhere for a reason: there is safety in anonymity. I have enough problems just trying to get by.

But when Kieran, a sinfully sexy demigod at the pinnacle of power, crashes into my life, suddenly my whole world is turned upside down.

He’s harboring a deadly secret, one that could destroy all he holds dear. He thinks I’m the key to his salvation, and he wants me to help him claim vengeance.

He also wants me with a passion that burns my body from the inside out.

To ignore him is impossible, but to give in to my desires, even for a night, would thrust me into danger I might not survive.

Can I resist the temptation?

Review: So, I started reading this book under a bit of a false pretense. Mostly, that I thought it fell fairly purely under the subgenre “urban fantasy.” I typically only have a few urban fantasy series that I follow, and now that a few of them have ended and few other have become disappointments, I was hankering for a new series. And this title appeared on a few lists, so I thought, let’s give it a shot! And it’s not bad, by any means. But I’d definitely have went in with different expectations if I had seen this cover when I picked it up (or, frankly, read the description above):

Yeaaaah, definitely looks more like a romance novel cover than an urban fantasy cover!

Existing between worlds, that is between the magical and the “normal” world, is both the most dangerous place to be but also one of the few places where one can fully disappear. This is where Lexie exists, trying to keep her head down and provide for her two wards, each with their own unique needs. But her quiet existence is rudely interrupted by Kieran, a powerful magical being who very much does not exist in the shadows. And in Lexie he sees someone much more powerful than she claims or suspects.

I think my confusion about this book is also kind of fair. A lot of romance “series” are books linked by a shared world/group of people but focus on different main characters and couples in each. Urban fantasy, on the other hand, usually follows one or two main characters over the course of a series, similar to other fantasy genres. So, while this one does have the romance novel cover and a lot of the romance novel plot/language, it also fits into the urban fantasy genre.

For one thing, this book is clearly the first book in a series and as such spends much of its time developing the world in which Lexie and Kieran exist. There were a lot of interesting elements involved in this world where magic and magical beings have been living out in the open for quite a while. We see the political nature of it, with various groups coming down as either supportive or discriminatory towards magical beings. There’s also the pull and push of the power players on both sides of the magical and nonmagical line. And with this struggle comes the cracks that the vulnerable fall into. Through Lexie’s eyes, we see how both the magical and nonmagical communities have let down those who they don’t see as important. It’s a narrative that is very easy to take out of the fantasy genre and apply to the world around us.

That said, this focus on world-building, while interesting enough on its own, also very much slows down the pace of the story. That was probably my biggest problem with the book: the pace. I struggled to maintain interest, even within a book that was introducing what should be exciting new fantasy elements every which way. But for some reason, the plot itself felt plodding. There were witty conversations, but much of it felt like it wasn’t really leading to anything or illuminating anything new about the characters themselves.

I felt like I knew who these characters were the moment I met them, and that was also a bit disappointing. Lexie was ok, but I also feel like I’ve read variations of her a million times before and I, personally, can’t relate to some of her fixations with shopping and other things. Not that those are not worthy hobbies or interests, they’re just not really my thing so I couldn’t really invest in some of her fixations there. And Kieran was your typical arrogant, powerful hero who also has a heart of gold towards the woman he briefly meets and immediately becomes intrigued with.

In the end, this was just ok. It didn’t blow me away, but it was also solid enough for what it was trying to do. I do think that if I had had it in mind as more heavily focused on the romance side of things before I started I would have at least been in the right mindset. However, I’m still left looking for another urban fantasy series to get started on!

Rating 7: This book walks a strange line between romance novel and urban fantasy but doesn’t quite fit in either category.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sin & Chocolate” is on these Goodreads lists: Under the Radar Page-Turners and NEW ADULT fantasy & paranormal romance.

Find “Sin & Chocolate” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Amber Crown”

Book: “The Amber Crown” by Jacey Bedford

Publishing Info: Daw Books, January 2022

Where Did I get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The king is dead, his queen is missing. On the amber coast, the usurper king is driving Zavonia to the brink of war. A dangerous magical power is rising up in Biela Miasto, and the only people who can set things right are a failed bodyguard, a Landstrider witch, and the assassin who set off the whole sorry chain of events.

Valdas, Captain of the High Guard, has not only failed in his duty to protect the king, but he’s been accused of the murder, and he’s on the run. He’s sworn to seek justice, but his king sets him another task from beyond the grave. Valdas doesn’t believe in magic, which is unfortunate as it turns out.

Mirza is the healer-witch of a Landstrider band, valued and feared in equal measure for her witchmark, her scolding tongue, and her ability to walk the spirit world. When she’s given a task by Valdas’ dead king, she believes that the journey she must take is one she can never return from.

Lind is the clever assassin. Yes, someone paid him to kill the king, but who is to blame, the weapon or the power behind it? Lind must face his traumatic past if he’s to have a future.

Can these three discover the real villain, find the queen, and set the rightful king on the throne before the country is overcome?

Review:: Yet another fantasy book with the title “The ‘something’ Crown.” I have another book with a type of crown in the title coming up in a week or so! I don’t know what it is about crowns that seems to be seen as the go-to in fantasy, but I do miss the days of more creative titles. Please, no more “crowns,” “queens,” or “the BLANK of BLANK and BLANK” for a solid five years please. Anyways, that mini rant aside, let’s dive in!

Valdas is in disgrace. As Captain of the guard, his one duty is to protect the monarch, and when the king is killed under his watch, there cannot be a failure more profound. But his duty does not end there, and when he’s tasked with finding the missing queen and heir, he finds himself in mixed company: a healer with powerful magical abilities (something that Valdas didn’t even believe in until it was forced upon him recently) as well as the assassin who seems responsible for the king’s death itself. But who was the power behind the order? And can they save the queen and heir before they, too, are harmed?

One of the reasons I found myself initially intrigued by the premise of this book was how much it sounded like a fairly traditional fantasy story. The world-building and magical system didn’t seem overly complex, and the plot itself followed a fairly standard “group goes on a quest” storyline. Most of these things have a long history behind their “trope-y-ness” because they can be implemented easily to tell fantastic stories (“Lord of the Rings,” anyone?). Sadly, here, there too many other things working against the story for me to really revel in these sorts of classic fantasy features.

To start with what I liked, however. All three main characters were fairly interesting. Each had a decent amount of time given to establish their unique personalities and, more importantly, their motivations going through this journey. All three of them were nuanced characters, none falling neatly inside a black or white box. However, even here, I do wish we had seen just a bit more. It’s hard to really describe what I mean, but, in their own way, each character felt like it fell just short of really coalescing into a complex, compelling character.

On to some of my struggles, first my general problems. For some reason, the writing fell flat for me. The plot itself never truly sucked me in, and I was very aware of the experience of reading the book as I turned the pages (clicked on the Kindle). I just couldn’t fall into the story, and the pacing was a let down at times. Moments that should have landed with more “oomf” rather landed with a “thud,” and the ending was surprising anticlimactic considering the work that had been put into building up the entire situation.

From there, the specifics. While I just got done saying that I generally struggled to connect to the writing, there were also a few specific writing choices that didn’t land right. The author makes an effort to include a diverse cast of characters, and yet it seems to be done in a very clunky way. Instead of simply initially identifying her diverse characters, she routinely described people as “the black fighter” or something like that. The sheer amount of repetition here is maybe partly what did it. There was just something off. I was also turned off by the number of times women’s breasts were described and in ways that are of the more egregious sort. Like, a woman would enter the room and would be described as having her breasts almost popping our of her shirt….Why? How is this detail adding to the scene, characterization, or story? There were also far too many rapes/near rapes/threats of rape in this story. Everyone knows my thoughts on this sort of thing so I’m just not going to go into it again. Suffice to say, rape can be included in a thoughtful, meaningful way. In this case, it was not and just adds up alongside the overuse of sexualized descriptions of women and strange fixation on skin color.

I was very disappointed by this book. I had hopes of diving back into my roots and finding a new “classic” fantasy story. And in some ways I did: sadly it was “classic” in the sense that it felt like it was committing very dated mistakes that, happily, are seen less and less often. Fans of fairly straight forward classic fantasy may like this, but I think there are better options out there in general.

Rating 6: Interesting characters are let down by a strange set of tired “classic” fantasy missteps.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Amber Crown” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on: “Books with Crowns.”

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

Monthly Marillier: “The Caller”

“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 Caller” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, March 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

Book Description: Neryn has made a long journey to perfect her skills as a Caller. She has learned the wisdom of water and of earth; she has journeyed to the remote isles of the west and the forbidding mountains of the north. Now, Neryn must travel in Alban’s freezing winter to seek the mysterious White Lady, Guardian of Air. For only when Neryn has been trained by all four Guardians will she be ready to play her role in toppling the tyrannical King Keldec.

But the White Lady is not what she seems. Trapped with Whisper, her fey protector, Neryn is unable to send word to her beloved Flint, who is in danger of being exposed as a double agent. When a new threat looms and the rebellion is in jeopardy, Neryn must enter Keldec’s court, where one false move could see her culled. She must stand up against forces more powerful than any she has confronted before, and face losses that could break her heart.

Previously Reviewed: “Shadowfell” and “Raven Flight”

Review: This series was a bit of a roller coaster ride when I read it the first time, and the same holds true now. The first book was a bit slow and plodding. The second book was much improved and more to my taste. And the last book…was kind of back to being a miss, leaving the trilogy as a whole as probably my least favorite series from Marillier. So with that exciting preview to go on, let’s dive in!

Neryn’s task, to meet and gain the blessing of the four Guardains of the fae, has not been completed, and the powerful and dangerous forces in the land of Alban grow. She must hurry, not only does the entire land depend on her ability to communicate with the Fae, bringing them into the battle to secure their country from its cruel dictator, but her love, Flint, may soon be exposed as a spy. But magic can’t be rushed, and there are secrets to be discovered in the chilly halls of the North.

This book was not my favorite. Part of this has to do with the strange pacing of the story which makes it feel like poorly fit pieces of a puzzle that just won’t lie together. In many ways, the beginning feels like a natural extension of the second book, so much so that it reads a bit strange to find it at the beginning of a completely separate book that rather quickly leaves this type of “magical trial” storyline in the dust. But still, as I greatly enjoyed the second book for this very same storyline, the first part of this book is by far my favorite. I enjoyed the magical mysteries to be found with the northern Guardian, and this small adventure perfectly fit Neryn’s optimism and persistent pluck even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

However, from there the book goes downhill in my estimation. We move on to a undercover spy game that, on its own, isn’t bad but pairs poorly with the magical adventures that came before it. Again, my lack of investment in Flint and his relationship with Neryn didn’t help, leaving me feeling a bit bored as we made our way through what should have been touching reunions and tense games of cat-and-mouse.

And, sadly, the ending was the worst of it. Not only did I find the manner in which these conflicts were resolved unbelievable, but the entire thing undercut much of the grief and terror we’d seen up to this point. Neryn’s journey, her power, all were useful, of course. There was a brief battle. But in the end, it felt like the rebellion, Neryn, and us, the reader, had been primed for something that simply didn’t happen. And if it was ultimately as easy as this (I don’t think it would be and frankly my eyebrows were exploding off the top of my head, they were raised so high), the entire situation could have been handled sooner and the threat was never that powerful to start.

There was also left only a small, short chapter to really wrap up the remaining storylines. We were given only the briefest glimpses into the possible future for these characters, and it all simply felt like too little tacked on at the very last minute. Given how little of this series showed Neryn and Flint together, this truncated ending for them felt like even more of a let down.

So, yeah. I didn’t love this trilogy when I read it the first time and was curious to see if, perhaps, I just wasn’t in the right mood that go around (though, to be fair, I read these as they came out, so I would have had to be “not in the right mood” for like three years for that to be the case). But, no. This series just wasn’t for me. Neryn was a bit too Mary Sue. The romance lacked the spark I’ve come to expect from Marillier. And the story often felt half-baked. If you’re a fan of her work, maybe check this out. But other fantasy readers are sure to find better entries from this author in her other series.

Rating 6: A disappointing end to a lackluster series. Honestly, with “Wildwood Dancing” as the exception, Marillier is a far better adult fantasy author than YA.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Caller” is on these Goodreads lists: Most Interesting Magic System and Australian Speculative Fiction.

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

Serena’s Review: “Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves”

Book: “Cold the Wolves, Fast the Wolves” by Meg Long

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, January 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: After angering a local gangster, seventeen-year-old Sena Korhosen must flee with her prize fighting wolf, Iska, in tow. A team of scientists offer to pay her way off her frozen planet on one condition: she gets them to the finish line of the planet’s infamous sled race. Though Sena always swore she’d never race after it claimed both her mothers’ lives, it’s now her only option.

But the tundra is a treacherous place, and as the race unfolds and their lives are threatened at every turn, Sena starts to question her own abilities. She must discover whether she’s strong enough to survive the wild – whether she and Iska together are strong enough to get them all out alive.

Review: I’m sure I partly requested this one simply based on the beautiful cover. But I also vaguely read the description and saw “wolf companion” and just auto-requested it. All of this to say, I really had very little idea what this book was actually about when I picked it up, but what an enjoyable surprise it was!

On Sena’s planet, the economy and culture is shaped by one thing and one thing only: the annual race. Dangerous and with low probability of success, the prize at the end, the right to drill for a rare and valuable mineral, still draws racers from around the galaxy. Sena, however, wants nothing to do with it after it claimed the life of her mothers. But when she finds herself in trouble with a gang leader and followed by a half-tame fighting wolf, Sena sees only one path off this desolate planet: she must finish the race and buy her way to freedom.

This book is a bit of a funny thing. A few months ago, Kate and I were guest speakers for an MLIS class and we talked about genre trends in YA. One of the things I touched on that while the fact that fantasy has become incredibly popular in YA fiction, a less discussed aspect is how science fiction in YA has not seen the same bump. This book is a classic example of how publishers not only recognize this fact but continue to work through these trends by misleading their readers. This cover screams fantasy. And then you read the description. Other than one small reference to this taking place on a different planet, you have no indication that it’s not just a straight-forward fantasy novel. But when you read it, it’s clearly a science fiction story!

There is an emphasis on futuristic technology, discussion of interplanetary politics, and themes that are common to science fiction such as the impact of corporations on intergalactic economics and culture. The fantastic creatures that are included are often attributed more to the genetic manipulation of people or to human-influenced changes in the planet’s ecosystem. The language is modern and the setting is clearly set some time in the future, with advanced medicine, transportation, and weapons. It was all excellent and a great example of what science fiction has to offer to fans of YA fiction. Even the author mentions in her afterward how she hopes this book will encourage more readers of YA science fiction. And yet the publishers clearly had so little confidence in this premise that they still felt the need to hide it behind a fantasy cover and a description that doesn’t hint at any of the science fiction elements to be found on the book’s pages.

I really enjoyed Sena as a main character. She was tough, both mentally and physically. But also impulsive, slow to trust, and struggling to process her grief over the loss of her mothers. The race itself, full of action and danger, was a perfect parallel for Sena’s own inner journey to self-acceptance. I also liked that this was a perfect example of a YA young woman noting early in a book that she doesn’t have time for romance and actually following through on that. It’s not just a throwaway line before the heroine proceeds to go all in on a romance the very next second. No, Sena rightly evaluates her life and the dangers and priorities before her and knows that romance is not really an option. It was refreshing and allowed the book to really embrace its focus on her relationship with the wolf Iska and another female friend she picks up along the way.

I did struggle with a few aspects of the story, however. If I had to count the number of times that Sena reflects on “corporations” and “greed,” it would be in the double digits. And yet other than both being bad, the book never goes into anything deeper on either of these two topics. It was fairly shallow, and without any further depth, the repetition of both as talking points quickly became dull and confusing. I felt like the author had more to say about this, but either because she didn’t think it fit in this particular book or because she didn’t think it fit for a YA audience, she never actually delved into anything of substance.

I also struggled with some of the practicalities of the race itself. I could never quite figure out how the set up worked: the weather only permitted the race once a year because of the cold and storms. The same electrical storms also messed with technology that would allow the mining site to be accessed by traditional ships and such. And yet the race is only one way, with racers using drop ships to leave the site? We even have one character show up at the end of the race who travelled directly there from a ship. I think there was some discussion of the race itself being set up by corporations for purposes of profiting indirectly from the equipment needed for purchase from the racers. I might have just missed some of this, but as the book continued, I found myself regularly getting side-tracked by how this all worked.

Overall, however, I really liked this YA science fiction novel. I wish that the publishing industry would give this subgenre more of a chance, but I’m pleased enough to even find a YA science fiction book out there, even if it’s disguised as fantasy! Definitely check this one out if you like science fiction or adventure stories featuring animal companions!

Rating 8: Perhaps missing an opportunity to dig deeper on some of its themes, this book is still an excellent example of what YA science fiction has to offer!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves” is on these Goodreads lists: YA sci-fi releases 2020-2023 and All Fictional Wolf Books (NOT WEREWOLVES).

Find “Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Favorite Reads of 2021: Picks 5-1

Another a year, another almost impossible task trying to each choose our Top 10 Reads of the year! For me, the word “favorite” is an important part of this list. As I go through the last year’s worth of reading, I often found that some books would strike particular chords within me more deeply than others, even if, quality-wise, another book might be stronger. Of course, this just makes it all that much harder to put them in any order. But here it goes! Today I’m going to countdown my favorites reads, ten to six. And since it’s the end of the reading year, don’t forget to enter our 12 Days of Christmas Giveaway!

5. “Forestborn” by Elayne Audrey Becker

I get the feeling that this book has flown largely under the radar of the mainstream reading community, and that’s so, so sad! I really loved this first installment in a new fantasy duology. There are many familiar elements (persecuted magical beings, royal figures who are more than they seem, an enemies-to-lovers romance), but Becker strings all of these elements together in such a way that the story still felt fresh and new. Her writing was also perfectly suited for my preferences, being both lyrical and character-focused. I pretty much binge read this book and am anxiously awaiting the second book’s release in 2022. Those who like fairytale-like fantasy stories and a solid romance, definitely check this one out!

“Forestborn” Review

4. “A Desolation Called Peace” by Arkady Martine

“A Desolation Called Peace” Review

This is the second time that Martine has been featured on one of these lists for me. And it just goes to show the strength of her writing and of this duology that her second book, “A Desolation Called Peace,” has actually climbed up the ranking! I enjoyed this one even more than “A Memory Called Empire.” Having already gotten much of the character introductions done and the basic world-building laid out, it was clear that Martine felt free to truly explore the moral, cultural quandaries at the heart of this universe she had imagined. I always enjoy science fiction that pushes the boundaries on first contact scenarios with new alien species, and Martine does that here with spades. If you liked “A Memory Called Empire” and haven’t gotten around to this one yet for some reason, what are you waiting for?

3. “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse

“Black Sun” Review

I find this one particularly amusing. If you read the review, you’ll see it’s that unicorn of a book where Kate and I really come down on opposite sides (well, we probably would do that rather often if we both regularly read out of our preferred genres, but that’s really neither here nor there). As far as our category system goes, this book can be found under the tag “Rating 6” AND “Rating 10.” Which is just strange! As you may have guessed, I was the one who rated it 10. I enjoyed all three of the POV characters, even when some of them were on opposing sides of the brewing conflict. The world-building was fantastic and unique, and I always enjoy a good political fantasy. This is definitely one to check-out if you’re looking for an action-packed story and three excellent main characters.

2. “The Last Graduate” by Naomi Novik

“The Last Graduate” Review

No one will be shocked to see this one on this list, or even to see it high up on the list. I don’t think there’s been a year that Novik has released a new book and it hasn’t made my “Top 10.” Man, it was such a long wait for this book to release! Not only did I get an advance copy of the first book which set the waiting time as even longer, but this book’s publication date was set back from its original. But it finally arrived and was everything I could have asked for! El was back in all of her snarky glory. Orion was back in all of his clueless glory. And now in their final year, the stakes were even higher. Alas, the book did end on a pretty massive cliffhanger, so the horrid wait for the final installment has already begun. September can’t come soon enough!

1. “Vespertine” by Margaret Rogerson

“Vespertine” Review

Perhaps even crueler than the cliffhangers that Naomi Novik tends to write is the long wait time I had to endure before Margaret Rogerson released her next book! It’s been years, I tell you! But it did not disappoint and, what’s more, seems to be the start of a series? Maybe? It also works as a stand-alone book, which is one of the things I’ve loved about Rogerson’s work in the past. This story has all of the trade-mark aspects that I’ve loved from this author: a fantastic leading lading, hilarious banter, and an imaginative new fantasy world. Fans of her work should definitely check out and, heck, any fantasy fan should check out ALL of her work!

So there’s my complete list! What were your top five reads of 2021?

Serena’s Favorite Reads of 2021: Picks 10-6

Another a year, another almost impossible task trying to each choose our Top 10 Reads of the year! For me, the word “favorite” is an important part of this list. As I go through the last year’s worth of reading, I often found that some books would strike particular chords within me more deeply than others, even if, quality-wise, another book might be stronger. Of course, this just makes it all that much harder to put them in any order. But here it goes! Today I’m going to countdown my favorites reads, ten to six. And since it’s the end of the reading year, don’t forget to enter our 12 Days of Christmas Giveaway!

10. “The Bone Maker” by Sarah Beth Durst

“The Bone Maker” Review

I really enjoyed this book by Sarah Beth Durst. This author has been fairly hit and miss for me, but when she’s on, she’s on! One of the things I liked most about it was the fact that it featured a main character and side characters all who were solidly middle-aged. It was a very most “post Chosen Ones” storyline, exploring what happens to the heroes after they have conquered the all-powerful source of evil in their world. Of course, for there to be a story, there is some question about that last part. But the book also explored a lot of bigger topics like grief, loss, vocation, and found families. It’s a great stand-alone fantasy novel.

9. “Dustborn” by Erin Bowman

“Dustborn” Review

It’s always the best when I get to include a new author who I just discovered in the last year! This list often includes many long-time favorites (they’re favorites for a reason!), but it really illustrates the unique joy of reading to know there are always new favorites out there to be discovered! “Dustborn” is really everything its cover would have you believe: a post-apocalypic “Mad Max” style YA novel. That said, it’s also nothing like what you would believe, having some of the best surprise twists that I’ve seen in quite a while! The story follows a young woman who sets out to find salvation for a world that is tearing itself apart. This was another stand-alone story, and I enjoyed the heck out of it!

8. “Silence in the Library” by Katharine Schellman

“Silence in the Library” Review

Those who read my review for this book will know how near a miss this was to getting on this list, purely because I lost track of when this book was released! But luckily I was able to rectify this oversight quite quickly, and here we are. This was an excellent new mystery for Lily Adler and co. We saw many familiar faces, but also met a new cast of characters including Lily’s villainous father. And, of course, an entire host of suspects for the most recent murder Lily stumbles upon. This series also continues to do excellent work in casting a diverse cast of characters into a historical setting.

7. “All of Us Villains” by Amanda Food & Christine Lynn Herman

“All of Us Villains” Review

I almost didn’t pick up this book due to my unenthusiastic initial impression of the cover art. Good thing I dismissed this and let myself be talked into it by a few trusted sources, because I really enjoyed this! It’s very much “The Hunger Games” fantasy edition, but it does many things right that other wanna-be similar stories failed to do. Not least of all, it’s been long enough since “The Hunger Games” released that the similarities were fun instead of annoying. On top of that, the authors did great work in creating a fully fleshed-out world in which this type of magical battle royal makes sense (as much as kids fighting to the death ever can!). They also peopled their world with a cast of character who were all distinct and interesting. It’s a rare thing that a book can have four POV characters and I can enjoy them all! I definitely recommend this one to YA fantasy fans looking for something new!

6. “Murder on Black Swan Lane” by Andrea Penrose

“Murder on Black Swan Lane” Review

This was a book/series that has been hanging out on my TBR list for years now. There are several books out, that’s how long it’s taken me. I have all the regrets!!! I loved this book when I finally got around to checking out the audiobook from the library. The narrator was excellent, something I always find really elevates these British mysteries. And I also really liked our two main characters. We get to know them slowly as the book unfolds, but the author also wisely doesn’t show all of her hand in this first book and it still feels like there is more to learn about both of these leads in future books. The mystery was also interesting, and the story was surprisingly action packed! I’m planning on diving into the second book soon and I fully recommend this to fans of historical mystery novels.

So that’s ten through six. Next time I will give a countdown of my top five. What have been some of your favorite reads of 2021?

Serena’s Review: “Age of Empyre”

Book: “Age of Empyre” by Michael J. Sullivan

Publishing Info: Grim Oak Press, May 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

Book Description: A door opens. An army of dragons advance. And the fate of the living rests with the dead.

After obtaining the secret to creating dragons, the leader of the Fhrey has turned the tide of war once more—but gaining the advantage has come at a terrible price. While Imaly plots to overthrow the fane for transgressions against his people, a mystic and a keeper are the only hope for the Rhunes. Time is short, and the future of both races hangs in the balance. In this exciting conclusion to the Legends of the First Empire series, the Great War finally comes to a climactic end, and with it dawns a new era in the Age of Empyre.

Previously Reviewed: “Age of Myth” , “Age of Swords”, “Age of War” , “Age of Legend”, and “Age of Death”

Review: I’m not sure why it’s taken me this long to finishing up this series, but…well, it did. I was really enjoying the audiobook versions, and I had half a mind to wait for the library to have a copy. But over a year later, it looked like that wasn’t going to happen, so on to my purchased copy! The last book ended on a pretty big cliffhanger that I still remembered vividly over a year later, so I was pretty excited to see not only how that was resolved but how the entire series was going to be wrapped up.

The war is coming to a head. With the secret to creating dragons now known to the Fhrey, the Rhunes one real advantage has been crippled. But all is not lost and those who set out on a quest into the heartland of the Fhrey people still have hope to cross the realms of the dead. But all who started out will not return, and the future of both races hang in the balance.

This was a bit of a tricky read for me, the first of its kind in this series which, overall, I’ve greatly enjoyed. I did start having a few questions around the midpoint of the series. The author surprised me with some sudden swaps in main characters and removal of other, previously central, figures. For the most part these played well and I remember praising the Sullivan for breaking some tried and true fantasy stereotypes and not getting precious with his characters. But around this point the story also started to feel meandering and lacking in the tight pacing and focus that I saw in the first three books. This was most noticeable in the last book, which had previously been one book that was then cut in two. And it showed. It really felt like the author simply gave himself a page count and then just ended the book when he reached it. Because of that, this book has similar problems in that it feels like the second half of the first book, rather than a story with its own unique arc.

I also struggled with a couple of the character actions (some carried over from the previous book, choices made there that made little sense that then had massive repercussions in this book). It felt like Sullivan had to quickly tie up the many loose ends left, but this resulted in several characters with arcs that, over the entirety of their story told over multiple books, felt ultimately rather pointless. Why were some of these characters even introduced if it feels like their story really didn’t go anywhere in the end? It was very disappointing.

I especially struggled with Persephone’s story. She was one of the strongest characters in the first several books, but in the last few, it feels as if she’s barely on the page. And if she is seen, she feels aimless and without agency. I get that Sullivan is trying to tell the story of many characters, some of whom played bigger roles in certain parts of this grand tale and less in others, so perhaps it was simply the manner in which some of them (particularly Persephone) rose and fell out of prominence felt clumsy. This book also tied up a few characters’ stories in ways that I felt undermined much of their previous journey, making it feel like much of it was for nothing. I can’t name names without spoiling big reveals, but you’ll know them when you see them.

It’s tough, because I still enjoyed the general experience of reading this book. Sullivan has an engaging, approachable style of writing that makes the process of reading his stories fun and easy. It was only when I sat down after the fact and reflected on this series as a whole that I truly began to feel disappointed. I would still ultimately recommend this series and this author to epic fantasy fans. Even though I had some quibbles with this ending, it wasn’t a dumpster fire by any means and was largely satisfying (even if I had personally wanted different endings for a few characters/aspects). I’m excited to check out the other series by this author, however. Technically, they were written before this series but, chronologically, happen afterwards. Should be a fun reading experience!

Rating 7: Solid enough as its own book, but lacking a bit as the conclusion to the series as a whole.

Reader’s Advisory:

Find “Age of Empyre” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “A Psalm of Storms and Silence”

Book: “A Psalm of Storms and Silence” by Roseanna A. Brown

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, November 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Karina lost everything after a violent coup left her without her kingdom or her throne. Now the most wanted person in Sonande, her only hope of reclaiming what is rightfully hers lies in a divine power hidden in the long-lost city of her ancestors.

Meanwhile, the resurrection of Karina’s sister has spiraled the world into chaos, with disaster after disaster threatening the hard-won peace Malik has found as Farid’s apprentice. When they discover that Karina herself is the key to restoring balance, Malik must use his magic to lure her back to their side. But how do you regain the trust of someone you once tried to kill?

As the fabric holding Sonande together begins to tear, Malik and Karina once again find themselves torn between their duties and their desires. And when the fate of everything hangs on a single, horrifying choice, they each must decide what they value most—a power that could transform the world, or a love that could transform their lives.

Previously Reviewed: “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin”

Review: So, if you’ve read my review of “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin,” you will remember that I checked both of these out from the library at once. Very rarely do I get a chance to read books back-to-back like this. Either because I read the first one when it comes out and there is naturally a long wait. Or because I can’t get my hands on them both at the same time. But it’s always a fun experience to simply stay in one world over the course of two books. The first one followed a fairly straight-forward plot, but its interesting uses of West African culture and folklore kept me on board. Let’s see what the second one had to offer!

All of Karina’s worst fears have come to pass, the mutiny she had feared struck and she now wanders alone and hunted, desperate to reclaim her throne. But it soon becomes clear that Karina’s desire to return to her throne is not only important to her but to the entire country, for with the return of her sister as come chaos and disaster. Malik quickly learns that returning Karina to her throne is all that will resettle this disturbance. But, of course, their is the teensy problem of trying to get a woman you tried to kill to trust you once again and work alongside you.

Before we get into the real review, I just want to take this moment to love on the covers of both of these books. Rarely do I like covers that feature models, I think they’re usually too cheesy and draw to mind cheap covers of romance paperbacks of old. But I really like the cover for both this book and the first one. I think I probably like this one even more than the first. It’s great to see Malik, and Karina looks more like the powerful character I imagined.

Sadly, this book was a bit of a let-down. I had some concerns going in, considering one of my bigger complaints about the first book was the fairly bland and straight-forward writing style and plot design. This is always a bit difficult for me to review in these types of books, as I’m not the target audience, not being a young adult myself. However, while I think that perhaps a younger audience would be less turned off by this more plain style of writing and plotting, I do think that authors and publishers regularly underestimate their readers. Just because YA readers will read this book and maybe not be actively turned off by the simple writing (unlike me), I would theorize that they would greatly appreciate it more if the author challenged their abilities and expectations a bit more.

Mostly, I was disappointed with the direction the romance and characterization took for our two characters. I never enjoy a romance that has tension created and kept alive only by actively obtuse levels of determined noncommunication. Maybe just talk to each other?! I also have limited patience for wishy-washy trust issues of the sort we see here. It simply doesn’t feel natural to try to pair the level of interest/love these two are meant to feel for each other with the level of distrust we get from their mental dialogues and their unwillingness to communicate basic facts. It just doesn’t read as natural to have characters behave like this.

I was pleased enough with the ending, a bit expected, but it also felt like a natural fit for the story. So, while I personally didn’t really enjoy this duology on the whole, I do recognize that it may appeal much more to actual YA readers. The West African cultural elements and folklore were still very interesting, so I don’t regret checking it out.

Rating 6: A bit of a let down with a romance plot line that I generally don’t enjoy. But I’m also not the target audience, so take from my opinion what you will.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Psalm of Storms and Silence” is on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Fantasy and Science Fiction Books by Black Authors and X of Y and Z.

Find “A Psalm of Storms and Silence” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!