Serena’s Review: “Spells for Forgetting”

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Book: “Spells for Forgetting” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: A deeply atmospheric story about ancestral magic, an unsolved murder, and a second chance at true love.

Emery Blackwood’s life changed forever the night her best friend was found dead and the love of her life, August Salt, was accused of murdering her. Years later, she is doing what her teenage self swore she never would: living a quiet existence on the misty, remote shores of Saoirse Island and running the family’s business, Blackwood’s Tea Shoppe Herbal Tonics & Tea Leaf Readings.

But when the island, rooted in folklore and magic, begins to show signs of strange happenings, Emery knows that something is coming. The morning she wakes to find that every single tree on Saoirse has turned color in a single night, August returns for the first time in fourteen years and unearths the past that the town has tried desperately to forget.

August knows he is not welcome on Saiorse, not after the night everything changed. As a fire raged on at the Salt family orchard, Lily Morgan was found dead in the dark woods, shaking the bedrock of their tight-knit community and branding August a murderer. When he returns to bury his mother’s ashes, he must confront the people who turned their backs on him and face the one wound from his past that has never healed—Emery.

Review: I’ve been a big fan of Adrienne Young from the start. I think I’ve read all of her YA fantasy to date? But I believe this is her first foray into adult fantasy, so I was really excited to see what changes in storytelling we’d see from her in this new target demographic. Some authors can managed the switch back and forth, while others struggle. Given her general high quality of writing, though, I was never really in doubt that we’d get anything other than a success from this book. And low and behold, how right I was!

Two tragedies in one shocking night. A fire in the apple orchard that provides the primary source of tourism to the remote island of Saiorse. And worse, the murder of a teenage girl right on the verge of starting her life. But while these tragedies might be in the past for some, for Emery and August, their lives have never been the same. After being accused of the murder, August is only now returning to his island home after a decade of exile. And while Emery remained on the island, her close connection to her accused boyfriend August has left her dealing with mistrust and sideways glances her entire adult life. But August’s return has forcibly dragged the past into the present, and old forces on the island are beginning to awake again.

A lot of the promotional blurbs for this book mentioned the word “atmospheric” and likened the feel of the story to “Practical Magic.” And I am here to attest to the fact that both of those descriptions are spot on! This is the type of fantasy story where the magic to be found is very mystical, more to be seen in the fluctuations of nature, the small changes of animal behavior. To be enacted by a very few and in very specific, restricted ways. In that way, the magic of this story was mostly to be found in the misty, mysterious island of Saiorse. From the get go, the sense of place was strong in this book. And as the island itself serves as such a backbone to the story that is being built up, this immediate feeling of familiarity and wonder instantly drew me into the book.

But more than just the beaches and forests that make up the island itself, Saiorse is a place with history. And that history was slowly, oh so slowly, unspooled for the reader as the story continued. Outside of our primary two narrators in August and Emery, we would get sporadic chapters from the perspectives of the other side characters who play such an important role not only in the events we are trying to piece together from the past, but in the mystery of the current day. These interwoven lives and each character’s different understanding of their own place in this community added such a level of depth to the story; it was fantastic.

I will say I was able to predict a few of the major twists of the story, which, at times, left me feeling anxious to speed through the book so our main characters could begin to piece things together, too. But I think this instinct to rush undermined the true beauty of the book which was to be found in the slow, ratchetting up of tension and dread. Even guessing a few pieces of the puzzle, there was no escaping the feeling of immanent doom careening towards our main characters. In a similar vein, the romance is a slow burn as well, with Emery and August drifting around each other in ever tightening circles for much of the book before finally coming back together at last. And as tense as that was, waiting for them to get their acts together, their romance was one of the strongest parts of this book for me. I liked what we were given in the present portion of this book, but I also loved the insights into their doomed teenage romance. It’s the kind of teenage relationship that every romantic young girl wishes for and one that even older, married women can still sigh over.

I really enjoyed this book. It only gets marked down from a ten due to some of the pacing issues regarding the reveals of certain mysteries and a couple of questions I had regarding the way the murder wrapped up. I’ve watched a few too many crime dramas to not be suspicious of some of the conclusions that were being reached about what could and couldn’t be actually prosecuted. But crime drama this is not, and once I firmly turned off that portion of my brain, I was able to fully sink into the lovely reading experience that was this book.

Rating 9: Beautiful and heart wrenching, the story revolves around a romance and mystery that draw the reader in and won’t let go until the final moment.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Spells for Forgetting” can be found on this Goodreads list: Spooky Season Reads.

Serena’s Review: “All of Our Demise”

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Book: “All of Our Demise” by Amanda Foody & Christine Lynn Herman

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: For the first time in this ancient, bloodstained story, the tournament is breaking. The boundaries between the city of Ilvernath and the arena have fallen. Reporters swarm the historic battlegrounds. A dead boy now lives again. And a new champion has entered the fray, one who seeks to break the curse for good… no matter how many lives are sacrificed in the process.

As the curse teeters closer and closer to collapse, the surviving champions each face a choice: dismantle the tournament piece by piece, or fight to the death as this story was always intended.

Long-held alliances will be severed. Hearts will break. Lives will end. Because a tale as wicked as this one was never destined for happily ever after.

Previously Reviewed: “All of Us Villains”

Review: “All of Us Villains” was one of those rare beasts for me last year where it was a very hyped book that I felt actually lived up to the hype. More surprising still, it was a multi-POV fantasy story that actually managed to create a cast of characters all of whom felt unique and whose stories I was interested in reading individually and collectively. All of this to say, I was very excited about this second half of this duology to release this year (especially given that my main gripe about the first book was the cliffhanger it all wrapped up on).

The stakes could not be more high. What once was a brutal, secretive battle royale has had all of its mysteries torn away with the fall of the veil that used to separate the city of Ilvernath and the harsh landscape where the contestants fought. But, while much may be different, many things are still the same, like the deathly importance of alliances and the fear that one never knows friend from foe. For some, however, the goal is no longer to win this most brutal of tournaments, but to destroy it once and for all.

Well, while there was a lot to like about this book, I feel a controversial review coming on! But first let’s get into the parts of my review that will probably line up nicely with everyone else’s reaction. For one thing, there’s no denying the general quality of this duology. The writing remains one of its strongest aspects, across both dialogue and descriptive portions. There were several pieces that I re-read and several moments where I knew that the high quality of the writing was helping assuage some of my annoyances at what I felt were missed opportunities, story-wise.

I also still like the overall concept of the story. Though, I do have to say that this was one of the places where this book began to fall short of the first. There was such a feeling of a breath of fresh air in that first book. Not only did I find all of the characters’ stories interesting, but in a world where I’ve read a million and one “magical competition” fantasy novels, this one managed to stand out from the crowd. But that being the case, this book had a higher task at hand since that initial good will based purely on a new world and concept had already been spent. And while I still enjoyed returning to this world, I did start to feel as if some of the alliances and character drama was beginning to overtake the enjoyment that could have been found in continued world-building.

And really, this is where I was really held up: the characters. While I enjoyed almost all of them in the first book, here I began to feel that several of their storylines began to fall apart, especially when you looked back over the two books together. There were character decisions and betrayals that began to feel more like they were driven by the authors wanting to create shock value than in any organic change in the characters themselves. More and more, I found myself feeling frustrated by some of the characters and the lack of consistency in their reactions to other characters and other plot points.

My biggest annoyance comes with a plot point that I can’t really talk about without some major spoilers. I wasn’t against this particular point in a vacuum, but specifically in the story we see here, it began to represent my overall frustration with the character arcs overall. I felt like the authors not only set the reader up in the first book in a way that was misleading (this second-book-switch could have worked if a bit more effort had been laid down to hint at this change of path, but I don’t feel that was the case), but I also felt like one of the biggest emotional cliffhangers from the first book was kind of wasted. In other words, I feel like I was really revved up to be invested in certain things and then…those things weren’t anything, ultimately. This will be the most unpopular opinion in this review, I’m sure, as I know that the outcome seen here is going to appeal to a lot of fans. And I feel like I could have been on this train too, but I was left frustrated by the feeling that the authors intentionally wound me up into an emotionally invested situation that they were using purely as misdirection. And, as a reader, this kind of thing at best, doesn’t work for me. And at worst, annoys me. And here it really annoyed me because I thought that the abandoned storyline had been set up in a really interesting way.

I also have to say I was a bit let down by the lack of brutality in this book. Maybe I’m just sadistic, but I didn’t feel like any of the big moments in this book really landed and that most of the decisions that would have felt like true gut punches were avoided. But, like I said, the writing was still excellent, and I know this will be seen as an excellent end to the story for many readers. Just not as much for me, sadly.

Rating 7: Unpopular opinion from me in that I felt like a lot of the build up of the first book was wasted here in the second.

Reader’s Advisory:

“All of Our Demise” is on this Goodreads list: YA Releases August 2022

Serena’s Review: “Notorious Sorcerer”

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Book: “Notorious Sorcerer” by Davinia Evans

Publishing Info: Orbit, September 2022

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

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

Book Description: Welcome to Bezim, where sword-slinging bravi race through the night and rich and idle alchemists make magic out of mixing and measuring the four planes of reality.

Siyon Velo, Dockside brat turned petty alchemist, scrapes a living hopping between the planes to harvest ingredients for the city’s alchemists. But when Siyon accidentally commits an act of impossible magic, he’s catapulted into the limelight—which is a bad place to be when the planes start lurching out of alignment, threatening to send Bezim into the sea.

It will take a miracle to save the city. Good thing Siyon has pulled off the impossible before. Now he just has to master it.

Review: This is one of those books where the title was doing a lot of the work in my reasoning for picking it up to review. Plus, I thought the cover was pretty cool. Other than that, I really only understood it to be a fantasy novel that involved alchemy somehow and may or may not be a portal fantasy. But I’m always game for an unknown debut book, so I was excited when I received an ARC from the author.

Bezim is a land strictly divided by the haves and have nots. Those in the upper class have easy access to education and, through that education, magic, while those in the lower classes must struggle by. Of course, alchemy is a magic that has its dangers as well as its powers, so a firm understanding of its uses is necessary to prevent some of the horrific disasters that have been suffered in the past. But for Siyon, he’s happy enough to live somewhere in the middle, patching together his own small time alchemy with very little adherence to the rules that are meant to govern it. That is until he performs a shocking act of magic that both impresses and concerns all who witness it. For now, the future of Bezim is in question again and it seems only an unlearned amateur may be capable of saving it.

This was definitely one of those middle-of-the-road books for me. There was nothing glaringly wrong with any of it. And, in fact, much that was right. Yet, I still struggled to feel fully immersed in the story. The pacing is fast right from the start, with the story galloping along from one action-packed scene to the next. On one hand, this made the story a fun, quick read. But on the other hand, I felt like I was struggling to fully connect to the characters I was meeting on the page, as they were so quickly vaulting from one action set piece to another, with very little time given to any sort of introspection.

I did really like the magic system we were given, and the interesting ways that staples from classic portal fantasy and other alchemy stories were woven together. There was enough that was familiar to make the story approachable (and to help with the fact that, again, the fast pacing left less room for lengthy explanations than other, slower fantasy novels), but there were a lot a lot of original ideas on display as well.

I had also heard a lot of references in early blurbs of the book to the funny and light-hearted tone of the story, and those definitely check out. But, again, I wasn’t necessarily blown away by any of comedic elements. For one thing, I began to struggle with Siyon as a main character when it came to this balance of comedy and primary protagonist. His character is introduced as an “act first, think second” type of person, and we see that again and again. Some of this plays to great comedic affect. But there also came a point when he had been warned again and again about the dangers of alchemy and continued to hand-wave these warnings away. After a bit, I began to feel more frustrated by his poor decision-making than amused.

Overall, this was a perfectly fine debut fantasy novel. There was a lot of potential every where you looked: intriguing world-building, humorous writing, interesting characters. But it also felt like every one of these aspects could have been fleshed out just a bit more to make something truly noteworthy. That said, fans of fast-moving, action-packed fantasy novels should definitely check this one out.

Rating 7: A quick, fun read, but perhaps lacking some of the depth I look for to make a book really feel like it’s going to stick with me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Notorious Sorcerer” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Alchemy Books.

Serena’s Review: “To Kiss a Wallflower”

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Book: “To Kiss a Wallflower” by Jen Geigle Johnson, Heather B. Moore, & Anneka R. Walker

Publishing Info: Mirror Press, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publicist!

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

Book Description: THE WALLFLOWER’S DANCE by Jen Geigle Johnson

Lottie Hughes likes people, as long as they aren’t too close. Does it bother her that no one asks her to dance? Yes, but she’s not sure how to drum up dance partners when she has almost no dowry, no title, and freezes up when anyone tries to talk to her. When she suddenly inherits a huge amount and is the new center of attention all over London, her secret dreams might come true but also her worst nightmares. Suddenly everyone wants to talk to her. Men ask her to dance. And she is inundated with interested suitors. She fights to stay close to the few friends she knows are true. One man saw her before her life changed forever. But does she want to accept his help when he, too, might be insincere?

LETTERS TO A WALLFLOWER by Heather B. Moore

Ellen might be beautiful and considered a diamond of the first water by Society, but she is so very tired of the pressure to marry a titled gentleman so that her beauty won’t go to waste. When her cousin Dinah dares Ellen to attend a ball with no frills and to stand with the wallflowers, Ellen takes on the dare. What’s in the wager for her? The prize cuttings of her aunt’s extraordinary roses. But what Ellen isn’t expecting is Lord Ravenshire to engage her in the most interesting conversation. When she confesses to him of her opposition in marrying for a title, he confesses his distaste of the London scene. They strike a bargain together, one which will either push them apart or lead to a future sweeter than either of them could have imagined.

TO MARRY A WALLFLOWER by Anneka R. Walker

Charlotte Winters is destined to spinsterhood until she turns down an unwanted proposal and everything changes. With gossip rampant, her father attempts to salvage her reputation by betrothing her to another. Soon she is sent off to her aunt’s to meet Lord Templeton, her intended. Anxiety-ridden, Charlotte begs her aunt to let her observe Lord Templeton from afar before their introduction. She never planned to pretend to be her fictional cousin to learn more about him, or to fall in love with Lord Templeton’s friend in the process. Lord Templeton dreads returning to the empty halls of Newcliff Manor. When his father’s old friend, Mr. Winters reaches out for assistance, Lord Templeton finds himself returning home engaged to a woman he has never met. Desperate to learn more about Miss Winters, he befriends her cousin. He wouldn’t have spoken to her, or lied about his identity, if he’d known the quiet woman would sneak into his heart.

Review: A few months ago, I participated in a blog tour for this book and posted an excerpt here on the blog. Well, today I’m back with my full review of the collection. Since there are three entirely separate stories contained within this book, I thought I’d split my review into three mini reviews, one for each story.

“The Wallflower’s Dance”

This is your classic friends-to-lovers romance, and it covered every base you want to see in this type of story. The friendship between the hero and the heroine was believable, as was the fact that it seemed understandable that each was so caught up in this type of interaction that it would take a certain sort of jolt to shock their systems into seeing each other in different ways.

I did struggle a bit towards the end of this story, however. It seemed that that solid foundation of friendship was easily undercut with doubts about the other’s intentions. This would have felt believable with other characters, but with two people who have known each other for so long, it was a bit hard to buy their sudden decision to believe complete strangers over a longtime friend. There was also one last shot of complete insanity on the heroine’s part after the truth was made known to her. It was only one paragraph, which honestly made it all the more frustrating. Just take that one bit out and nothing would change in the story, except a better opinion of your heroine!

That said, I still had a fun time reading this story.

“Letters to a Wallflower”

This was another classic romance trope: the fake dating/courtship romance. As is implied by the title, there’s a brief (luckily very brief!) period of time when our hero and heroine set-up a correspondence to get them each out of the eyes of pestering mothers and society and back to their beloved country abodes.

To be fair, this one plays fast and loose with the whole “wallflower” theme. Ellen is in fact a very beautiful, sought after young lady who tires of getting asked to dance too many times. So she makes a deal with her friend to try to hide as a wallflower and see if she is asked to dance at all. Unfortunately for her, Lord Ravenshire sets out with the purpose of dancing with all of the wallflowers. But through this mishap they hit on the idea to fake a relationship.

There were a few anachronisms early in this book (the word “hairdo” and an ordering of earl as one of the highest ranks, which is incorrect), but overall I think the writing in this book was the best. After I got past the first few errors, I really enjoyed this one, and it was probably my favorite of the three.

To Marry a Wallflower”

We wrap up our regency romances with the “secret identity” trope. For all that this is the trope I picked in our recent romance tropes bookclub theme, it’s probably one of my least favorite. All too often I have a hard time believing the essential lie at the heart of these kind of confusions wouldn’t do more lasting damage than they seem to. So, I was the most nervous going into this one of the three.

Honestly, I did struggle a bit with this story. There was a lot of terrible advice given out, and I thought the excuse to pose as different people was a bit weak for both Charlotte and Luke. Their interactions were sweet and I did become invested in their relationship as the story continued. But I could never fully get past the secret identity thing that tinged every moment. The reveal itself was a nice payoff, but I think I would have enjoyed this one more if it hadn’t been this trope to begin with. But that’s a purely subjective opinion, and fans of “secret identity” romances may love this one!

As a whole, I think this is a really solid compilation of clean, sweet Regency romances. This is part of a very long series of Regency romances made up of short stories, so fans of those are sure to enjoy this. Readers who are also looking for a low commitment, sweet romance read should also check this out. They’re the perfect reads for someone looking to whip through a romance story in one night’s time!

Rating 7: I was left wanting just a bit more from all three of these stories, but they were also fun and satisfying reads on their own which are sure to appeal to fans of clean historical romance stories!

Reader’s Advisory:

“To Kiss a Wallflower” is part of the Timeless Regency Collection Series.

Serena’s Review: “Foul Lady Fortune”

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Book: “Foul Lady Fortune” by Chloe Gong

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, September 2022

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

Book Description: It’s 1931 in Shanghai, and the stage is set for a new decade of intrigue.

Four years ago, Rosalind Lang was brought back from the brink of death, but the strange experiment that saved her also stopped her from sleeping and aging—and allows her to heal from any wound. In short, Rosalind cannot die. Now, desperate for redemption from her traitorous past, she uses her abilities as an assassin for her country.

Code name: Fortune.

But when the Japanese Imperial Army begins its invasion march, Rosalind’s mission pivots. A series of murders is causing unrest in Shanghai, and the Japanese are under suspicion. Rosalind’s new orders are to infiltrate foreign society and identify the culprits behind the terror plot before more of her people are killed.

To reduce suspicion, however, she must pose as the wife of another Nationalist spy, Orion Hong, and though Rosalind finds Orion’s cavalier attitude and playboy demeanor infuriating, she is willing to work with him for the greater good. But Orion has an agenda of his own, and Rosalind has secrets that she wants to keep buried. As they both attempt to unravel the conspiracy, the two spies soon find that there are deeper and more horrifying layers to this mystery than they ever imagined.

Review:

As I mentioned in my give away post for this book, not only did I not know that it was a follow-up to a previously completed duology, but I also didn’t know it had any connections to “Romeo and Juliet.” My better-informed blogging partner quickly caught me up, adding that I would likely be fine jumping into this new duology without going back to the first (though she also did generally recommend it.) So, starting out, all I knew was that our previous main characters shockingly died a tragic death at the end of the first series, and that this duology would start up a few years later following the character who showed up in that series in the role of Rosaline. Not much, I know, but enough to pique my interest for sure!

Four years ago, Shanghai was turned on its head by the powerful decision of two young people upending a system that had felt intractable. For Rosalind, there was an even more personal change at work. After an experiment to save her life, Rosalind awoke with the inability to sleep or age and the ability to heal from all wounds. With these curses and blessings in hand, Rosalind has set her life to work for her country, attempting to make up for past wrongs. To do this, she has become the infamous assassin code named “Fortune.” But when the political climate begins to shift into ever more dangerous territory, Rosalind finds herself reassigned to work as a spy alongside another, Orion Hong, whose playboy lifestyle she appreciates less and less. Especially when she discovers they will be undercover as husband and wife.

So, I’ll confirm that this book is definitely approachable for readers who are not familiar with the original duology. That said, there are definitely aspects of the story that would have been enhanced having had that history. While the author didn’t overly rely on previously established interest in characters to sell them to readers this go around, I could definitely point out the characters who would have popped up in the first series and were clearly meant to pique extra interest here. Beyond that, I found some of the political parties and various gang affiliations to be a bit confusing, and I’m sure had I read the first books this would have been more clear. But, that said, I was able to piece together enough to get the general idea and feel invested in the book and characters.

I want to applaud the author for writing an assassin who, you know, actually kills people? Seems kind of shocking that this is some testament to particular skill, but it has been long established on this blog how irritated I’ve been by books that are heavily promoted as being about morally grey assassins and then turn out to be about purely moral, only-justified/self-defense-killing, Mary Sues. Here, we have Rosalind taking out a character in the very first few chapters. And while she does have personal reasons, it’s also clearly a job that she has been sent on and she doesn’t weep or wail about the dirty aspects of it.

However, I was much more invested in the spying portion of this book. Which is good, since that is by far the more central theme of the story. There were a lot of moving pieces to the mystery at the heart of the spy operation. Lots of double-crossing and you’re never quite sure who works for who and where anyone’s true loyalties lie. The author did a good job of creating a tense and suspicious atmosphere, ratcheting up the suspense as the book went on.

I will say, I wasn’t overly invested in the romance or the male lead in general. Even if it was to hide more of his character than he wanted to share, I’ve read a few too many swaggering playboys to be overly enamored with him. I also felt like the book was a bit too long, and could have used some tightening up, overall. But, for the most part, I very much enjoyed this book. Fans of the first duology I’m sure will love it. And don’t forget, we’re hosting a giveaway for an ARC copy of this book. The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends on September 21. Enter now!

Rating 8: An excellent YA spy novel with a lot of twists along the way, including a major one at the end!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Foul Lady Fortune” isn’t on any Goodreads lists currently, but it should be on Poison!

Giveaway: “Foul Lady Fortune”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Foul Lady Fortune” by Chloe Gong

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, September 2022

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

Book Description: It’s 1931 in Shanghai, and the stage is set for a new decade of intrigue.

Four years ago, Rosalind Lang was brought back from the brink of death, but the strange experiment that saved her also stopped her from sleeping and aging—and allows her to heal from any wound. In short, Rosalind cannot die. Now, desperate for redemption from her traitorous past, she uses her abilities as an assassin for her country.

Code name: Fortune.

But when the Japanese Imperial Army begins its invasion march, Rosalind’s mission pivots. A series of murders is causing unrest in Shanghai, and the Japanese are under suspicion. Rosalind’s new orders are to infiltrate foreign society and identify the culprits behind the terror plot before more of her people are killed.

To reduce suspicion, however, she must pose as the wife of another Nationalist spy, Orion Hong, and though Rosalind finds Orion’s cavalier attitude and playboy demeanor infuriating, she is willing to work with him for the greater good. But Orion has an agenda of his own, and Rosalind has secrets that she wants to keep buried. As they both attempt to unravel the conspiracy, the two spies soon find that there are deeper and more horrifying layers to this mystery than they ever imagined.

Giveaway Details:

I added this book to my TBR pile some time this spring. To prove just how little I knew about it, not only did I not know that it was a follow-up story to a previously completed duology, but I also didn’t know it had any times to a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet.” The only way I discovered any of this was that while plotting out which booths to check out in the initial rush for books at the ALA convention in June, I mentioned being on the look out for this book and she knew way more about the author and series than me. In fact, she’s read the previous duology. But she assured me that I should be able to pick up the story with this one fine on its own, so I kept it on my list of books to look out for. And, lucky me, Kate came through for the win and found an ARC for me!

So, all of this to say, I know very little about this book other than that it follows the “Rosaline” character from the previous duology where, alas but not shockingly, our romantic duo perished in some tragic manner. And there’s something about her being an assassin? Truly, I know very little. Per the usual, I’ll be posting my review this coming Friday. But for those who are in the know (or just curious newbies like me!), here’s your chance to get your hands on an ARC copy of this book! The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends on September 21.

Enter to win!

Serena’s Review: “The Last of the Talons”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “The Last of the Talons” by Sophie Kim

Publishing Info: Entangled: Teen, September 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from ALA convention!

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

Book Description: After the destruction of her entire Talon gang, eighteen-year-old Shin Lina—the Reaper of Sunpo—is forced to become a living, breathing weapon for the kingdom’s most-feared crime lord. All that keeps her from turning on her ruthless master is the life of her beloved little sister hanging in the balance. But the order to steal a priceless tapestry from a Dokkaebi temple incites not only the wrath of a legendary immortal, but the beginning of an unwinnable game…

Suddenly Lina finds herself in the dreamlike realm of the Dokkaebi, her fate in the hands of its cruel and captivating emperor. But she can win her life—if she kills him first.

Now a terrible game of life and death has begun, and even Lina’s swift, precise blade is no match for the magnetic Haneul Rui. Lina will have to use every weapon in her arsenal if she wants to outplay this cunning king and save her sister…all before the final grain of sand leaks out of the hourglass.

Because one way or another, she’ll take Rui’s heart.

Even if it means giving up her own.

Review: So, I mostly grabbed this book at ALA with very little thought other than “oooh, is that a dragon on the cover??” Cuz you all know I’m always down for another dragon book! If I had read the book description more fully I might have been a bit more wary. Let’s just say, me and YA assassins have a bit of a checkered history. Beyond numerous other problems I regular find with this plotline, I’m beginning to question whether the two concepts, “assassin” and “young adult fiction,” aren’t just oxymorons that can never work well together by the very natures of their differences. “Assassin” would lead you to believe that your leading character is pretty morally compromised and things will get bloody. “Young adult fiction,” on the other hand, has at least a passing commitment to keep stories approachable for younger audiences. So….what’s to be done? Let’s see what this book has to say.

Shin Lina had once lived a blessed life, or what she considered one at least. Perhaps most people wouldn’t think making up ones family of gang members and gaining a reputation as the city’s most deadly assassin would count as “blessed,” but to Lina, it was enough. But now that has all been ripped away, and she has been forced to work for the very enemy who massacred this family, all to protect the life of her younger sister. When a job goes bad, however, Lina finds herself at odds with a powerful magical being. But more could be at stake than just her life. Perhaps even her heart.

Well, this book is not the one to disprove the theory I had in my intro paragraph. In fact, it exemplified many of the other factors that I think add to the uncomfortable pairing of assassin characters leading up YA stories. But before we get to that, let’s talk about the positive. If I zoom way, way out, there are the bones of an interesting story here. Unfortunately, any closer look renders these larger strokes pretty unsatisfactory. But the world-building itself had potential, with a fairly intricate political and magical system. And there were some genuinely funny moments with the dialogue, though, admittedly, these were few and far between for me.

However, again, when you dive even shallowly (let alone a deep dive) into how any of this works it begins to get murky. For one thing, because this is YA, Lina is, of course, a teenager herself. And yet, through a series of flashbacks, we see that she only joined the gang and learned her skills to be an assassin when she was an older kid. And then this story starts out several years after the death of everyone in said gang. Soooo, in a period of like 4 years she somehow became the most skilled assassin ever, even more so than the adults who trained her. It’s these time-related things that just really irk me about YA characters who derive their “specialness” through some skillset that is esteemable purely because of the sheer quantity of time and effort needed to excel at it. Not only does it stretch past my ability to suspend disbelief, but it also waters down what makes the skill impressive to begin with, if a regular farm girl can become the absolute best in two years.

Beyond that, we have yet another assassin who doesn’t really kill anyone? I mean, honestly, what’s the point of having a character like that if all we get is a lot of “telling” that they’re some amazing assassin, but no actual evidence of it (both in the actual skills of killing someone or the mental/emotional state of a character who makes a living dealing out death regularly)?

This book adds to the challenge of this particular qualm by the very nature of the main conflict of the story. For absolutely no apparent reason, Rui sets Lina the task of…killing him? In order to spare her life? I’m not going to even get into the weirdness of that situation to begin with and what it says about Rui that this is what he wanted. But it also creates a plotline that sets up our big bad assassin Lina to fail. Obviously, she can’t succeed at killing Rui or it would defeat the entire point of the story. That then leaves us with a character who has been toted as the best assassin ever having to fail again and again to kill someone through the entire book.

I’ll stop venting about this now. But I think the lackluster writing style and very bland leading characters left me with really nothing else to focus on than my annoyances in these areas. I do think there are YA readers who will like this, especially given the popularity of other YA assassin books. But this wasn’t for me. And if you’re looking for anything new in this particular subgenre, I don’t think this is it.

Rating 6: More of the same, with an assassin whose much more talk than action.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last of the Talons” can be found on these Goodreads lists: SF/F Assassins! and 2022 Book Releases by Asian Authors.

Serena’s Review: “Belladonna”

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Book: “Belladonna” by Adalyn Grace

Publishing Info: Little Brown for Young Readers, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from ALA convention!

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

Book Description: Orphaned as a baby, nineteen-year-old Signa has been raised by a string of guardians, each more interested in her wealth than her well-being—and each has met an untimely end. Her remaining relatives are the elusive Hawthornes, an eccentric family living at Thorn Grove, an estate both glittering and gloomy. Its patriarch mourns his late wife through wild parties, while his son grapples for control of the family’s waning reputation and his daughter suffers from a mysterious illness. But when their mother’s restless spirit appears claiming she was poisoned, Signa realizes that the family she depends on could be in grave danger and enlists the help of a surly stable boy to hunt down the killer.
 
However, Signa’s best chance of uncovering the murderer is an alliance with Death himself, a fascinating, dangerous shadow who has never been far from her side. Though he’s made her life a living hell, Death shows Signa that their growing connection may be more powerful—and more irresistible—than she ever dared imagine.

Review: Here’s another case of me almost missing out on another great title because I didn’t like the cover. In this instance, there’s something striking of the worst 90s romance novels and the worst YA knock-offs in this cover. On top of being put off by the cover art, I also haven’t gotten around to the author’s first duology; sadly the first book has been languishing on my TBR list for a few years now. But, I will say, after reading this book, that book has made a rapid climb to near the top! Let’s dive in.

Death has followed Signa for most of her life, with one guardian after another keeling over from various causes. But while near, Death cannot touch her. Instead, deadly poisons are swiftly recovered from, wounds heal quickly, and Signa moves on with her somewhat miserable life. But when her most recent guardian dies, some new, wealthy relatives come out of the woodwork. Now living a life she could only have dreamed of before, Signa lives in constant fear that Death will come for this family as well. And when one of the daughters falls ill, Signa is determined to do everything in her power to save her. Even if that means teaming up with Death himself.

This was another one of those books where I knew within the first few pages that I was really going to enjoy it. The writing immediately clicked with me, combining a fairytale-like fantasy story with a humorous and relatable leading lady. As the story continued, I was having such a blast reading it that I began to almost want to slow down my reading experience just to draw it out. That’s how you really know it’s good! In a lot of way, the general style of storytelling very much reminded me of Margaret Rogerson’s work. They both writes stories that have a fairytale feel but that aren’t derived directly from a fairytale itself. Both authors also have excellent leading ladies who are as funny as they are adventurous. And, of course, there are lovely romances at the heart of these stories that check all of my personal preference boxes.

Speaking of the romance, here is another example of a love triangle that really worked for me. I can’t go into any of the details of said love triangle, as that would spoil parts of the book. But I can say that both relationships felt believable and relatable. Signa’s feelings developed in a way that was natural and, as things came to a head, there was no prolonged drama on the “who will she choose” front, one of my biggest annoyances with this type of romance plotline. I also liked all three characters involved in the romance, too. As I’ve mentioned above, Signa is an all around great leading lady. But I really enjoyed Death and Sylas as well. Death, in particular, was an interesting character as he was speaking to a new experience in a millennia of sameness. Through his eyes, we also delved into the different ways that people think of and experience death and the afterlife.

I also really liked the mystery and fantasy elements in the story. What could have started out as a very simple “power,” the ability to live through deadly events, instead branched out into new and interesting avenues. These plot lines not only opened up new doors into what Signa’s abilities signify about herself, but also forcer her to grapple with truly understanding herself and adjusting the life she has imagined of herself. For its part, the mystery also took up a significant portion of the story. While I found a few of these elements to be a bit predictable, there were others that legitimately took me by surprise. For one thing, the story definitely didn’t shy away from some of the creepy imagery that would come with an ability like Signa’s to see and interact with ghosts. There are some very “Sixth Sense” vibes, but in all of the best ways.

This book was such a great surprise! Even more than picking up books by tried and true favorite authors, it’s simply the best to open a book with zero expectations and find yourself on an amazing ride. This book is definitely of the kind of “beach read” fantasy that is light-hearted, fun, and sure to appeal to fantasy readers who are simply looking to kick back their heels and be swept along.

Rating 9: Sweetly romantic, adventurous, and even creepy at times, this book has it all!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Belladonna” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Fairytale Fantasy Books.

Serena’s Review: “Eversion”

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Book: “Eversion” by Alastair Reynolds

Publishing Info: Orbit, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

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

Book Description: From the master of the space opera, Alastair Reynolds, comes a dark, mind-bending SF adventure spread across time and space, Doctor Silas Coade has been tasked with keeping his crew safe as they adventure across the galaxy in search of a mysterious artifact, but as things keep going wrong, Silas soon realizes that something more sinister is at work, and this may not even be the first time it’s happened.

In the 1800s, a sailing ship crashes off the coast of Norway. In the 1900s, a Zepellin explores an icy canyon in Antarctica. In the far future, a spaceship sets out for an alien artifact. Each excursion goes horribly wrong. And on every journey, Dr. Silas Coade is the physician, but only Silas seems to realize that these events keep repeating themselves. And it’s up to him to figure out why and how. And how to stop it all from happening again.

Review: I received an ARC of this book in the mail this month, and it really couldn’t have been more timely! While I love science fiction, of the genres I read, I probably know the fewest authors in this genres who are currently writing. It’s also a sweeping genre full of a lot of different types of stories, some of which appeal to me more than others. But I had heard good things about Reynolds in the past, and this story also seemed like an interesting combination of genres, including historical fiction and mystery/thrillers alongside the obvious science fiction. And man, what a pleasant surprise it was!

Doctor Silas Coates set out on what, for him, should have been a fairly straight forward job: to serve as the on-board doctor on an exploratory mission. The ship and crew have been hired to discover and research a mysterious foreign object located in the deepest, darker corners of the known world. But as the mission progresses, Silas begins to suspect that not only does he know very little about the nature of this mission, but that something greater is at work. Increasingly, what could at first be hand-waved as deja vu begins to feel like something more. As if…perhaps…he’s done this all before.

If my description of this book sounds vague (as does the official one), that’s because this is one of those great, but frustrating to review, books where much of the appeal and tension of the book is built around the mysteries at the heart of the story. That being the case, there’s not a whole lot that I can talk about that wouldn’t spoil some of the best aspects of the entire reading experience. I can say that while a primary mystery is at the heart of the story, there were definitely more than one to be found. In fact, the minute you think you’ve begun to piece together exactly what’s going on, the book would skip away, revealing yet another secret beneath the last. This made the reading experience incredibly fun and addictive; I definitely stayed up way to late finishing the book as it was almost physically impossible to put it down past a certain point.

There was also a great blend of historical fiction and science fiction. At various points in the book you could get lost on the page and feel as if you were fully immersed in a period piece following an old time sailing ship. At another, the ins and outs of space exploration and advanced technology take center stage. And the solid writing transitions smoothly from one scene and setting to another, never missing a step.

Silas was also an excellent main character. We feel his bewilderment and increasing fear as the story builds. But it’s his steadfast commitment to his job and his dedication to the friendships he has begun to build on this mission that really hold the story together. As he remains the only consistent aspect of the story, as a character, a lot is riding on his shoulders, and I thought he carried it well. I, for one, had a hard time not skipping ahead to the end of the book just to make sure everything worked out for him in the end. Something I can neither confirm nor deny!

The book was also a lot spookier than I had expected going in. Not only was the building tension of the entire situation incredibly stressful, but there were some significant fear factors involved in the story. The unknown, of course. But also claustrophobia, body horror, and the general fear of the strange and bizarre. That said, it’s definitely not a horror novel, and I found the scary aspects to be balanced well by the more sentimental moments.

Overall, I really liked this book! It was a fun, fast read that held more than one surprise at the heart of the story. You’ll be left guessing and frantically turning pages all through the night!

Rating 9: All the things: historical! thriller! science fiction! horror! And all at a clipping pace that will leave you breathless with anticipation.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Eversion” can be found on this Goodreads list: Science fiction & fantasy roundup, 2022

Serena’s Review: “Death at the Manor”

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Book: “Death at the Manor” by Katharine Schellman

Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Regency widow Lily Adler is looking forward to spending the autumn away from the social whirl of London society. When she arrives in Hampshire with her friends, Lord and Lady Carroway, she doesn’t expect much more than a quiet country visit and the chance to spend time with her charming new acquaintance, Matthew Spencer.

But something odd is afoot in the small country village. A ghost has taken up residence in the Belleford manor, a lady in grey who wanders the halls at night, weeping and wailing. Half the servants have left in terror, but the family is delighted with the notoriety that their ghost provides. Piqued by this spectral guest, Lily and her party immediately make plans to visit Belleford.

They arrive at the manor the next morning ready to be entertained—but tragedy has struck. The matriarch of the family has just been found smothered to death in her bed.

There was no one else in her room, and the door was locked from the inside. The dead woman’s family is convinced that the ghost is responsible. The servants are keeping secrets. The local magistrate is flummoxed. Lily is determined to learn the truth before another victim turns up—but could she be next in line for the Great Beyond?

Previously Reviewed: “The Body in the Garden” and “Silence in the Library”

Review: I’ve really been enjoying this historical mystery series. There are a few others I’ve been reading recently, but they’ve all featured a heroine/hero combination that, while enjoyable, begins to feel familiar very quickly. This book stands out not only with Lily serving as the primary detective herself, but in the fact that her cast of supporting characters not only includes, yes, the hero character, but also some of her fellow lady friends. This has allowed the series to remain feeling fresh and unique as compared to contemporaries. So, of course, when I saw the new one coming out this summer, I was on top of things!

Lily Adler’s friend, Captain Jack, is heading back to sea. And while he is glad to be returning to his beloved ship, he worries that Lily has had quite the penchant for stumbling upon dead bodies recently. She, however, assures him that she will be heading to the country to spend time with her dear aunt. What body could possibly be found in these circumstances? Alas, Jack’s worries are all too astute. For Lily, accompanied by her friend Lady Carroway, not only stumbles upon another murder victim, but the primary suspect is none other than a manor house ghost. But when Lily stumbles upon some revelations she had never suspected, she begins to question her own abilities. Will she be able to solve yet another mystery?

So, unfortunately, this book didn’t quite live up to my expectations for it. Admittedly, they were quite high, so the book was by no means objectively bad. Just not as good as the two that came before. But first, there are a few things that definitely stood out in the positive category. For one, I liked Lily’s struggles with her own limitations. Up to this point, while Lily has struggled to garner the respect from her peers for her observational skills, she’s never suffered from any great crisis of faith in herself. Here, after a secret that has been sitting right under her nose for years finally comes to light, Lily must grapple with her own limitations and biases. It’s a great internal arch for the character, and one that you rarely see in detective mysteries such as this that rely on their main character’s almost supernatural ability to know all.

I also liked the addition of Lady Carroway. While we’ve seen the character quite a bit in other books, here, she is allowed a few of her own chapters and perspectives. These were excellent on their own, but also worked well as a balance point to Lily’s ongoing internal struggles. Lady Carroway has a very different view of society, both because of the challenges she faced as a biracial noblewoman, but also because of her differing temperament. Their friendship is not without its own ups and downs, and I liked this more honest depiction of female friendships, one where the waters are not always smooth.

I also liked the nods to the gothic novels that were popular during this period of time. This was a fun theme to explore in the story, and served as a nice change of pace from the more straight-forward murder mysteries at the heart of the previous two books.

That said, there are two major points where the book struggled, in my opinion. One of them is more subjective than the other, so let’s start with that one. One of the nice things about these books so far has been the very, very slow burn of any romance that may (or may not) be developing between Lily and Jack. On one hand, I very much like this. But on the other, when it became clear that Jack was going to cede his position in this book to Matthew Spencer, a gentleman who was introduced as a potential romantic interest in the previous book, I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I just couldn’t become invested in this character or this romance. It does seem like this might be setting the stage for Lily’s slow growth through her grief over her husband. And, objectively, the decision for her to not necessarily jump from one “great love” to another but instead have other interests between makes sense. But as a reader, I just spent most of the time missing Jack and rolling my eyes at Lily’s obtuseness (at least I had Lady Carroway right there with me on #TeamJack).

My second problem, sadly, came with the mystery itself. Because I don’t want to spoil it, there’s not a whole lot I can go into as far as details. It’s a closed-door mystery, so that lays out the stakes well enough right there. However, I found the way in which the murder took place incredibly obvious from the very first inspection of the murder scene. What’s worse, later in the book, Lily happens upon a particular happenstance in this same locked room that even more clearly illustrates the solution. And it still didn’t click! It was so blatantly obvious that it had the unfortunate effect of making Lily’s obliviousness increasingly at odds with her reputation for solving complicated mysteries. I also was able to identify the killer and a decent portion of their motivations fairly early, too. All in all, while I still enjoyed the process of reading about this mystery, it was incredibly anticlimactic given some of the obvious clues and red herrings.

However, I still very much enjoyed Lily as a character. And I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of viewpoints from Lady Harroway herself. So, in conclusion, this book was a bit hit and miss. I still think the writing is strong, and Lily’s long term arch holds a lot of potential. Fans of the previous books will likely enjoy this one, but be warned that the mystery was not as compelling as previous entries.

Rating 7: Has a bit of a “middle book” feel to it with a lackluster mystery at its heart, but Lily herself is still an interesting enough character on her own to carry the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Death at the Manor” can be found on this Goodreads list: Historical Mystery 2022

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