Serena’s Rev-Up Review: “Bitterblue”

Book: “Bitterblue” by Kristin Cashore

Publishing Info: Dial, May 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Eight years have passed since the young Princess Bitterblue, and her country, were saved from the vicious King Leck. Now Bitterblue is the queen of Monsea, and her land is at peace.

But the influence of her father, a violent psychopath with mind-altering abilities, lives on. Her advisers, who have run the country on her behalf since Leck’s death, believe in a forward-thinking plan: to pardon all of those who committed terrible acts during Leck’s reign; and to forget every dark event that ever happened. Monsea’s past has become shrouded in mystery, and it’s only when Bitterblue begins sneaking out of her castle – curious, disguised and alone – to walk the streets of her own city, that she begins to realise the truth. Her kingdom has been under the thirty-five-year long spell of a madman, and now their only chance to move forward is to revisit the past.

Whatever that past holds.

Two thieves, who have sworn only to steal what has already been stolen, change her life forever. They hold a key to the truth of Leck’s reign. And one of them, who possesses an unidentified Grace, may also hold a key to her heart . . .

Previously Reviewed: “Graceling” and “Fire”

Review: So this re-read has been one of discoveries so far. I discovered first that “Graceling” held up really well in the ten plus years since it was first published, even given the boom of similar YA fantasies novels that have come out since. I discovered that while I still prefer “Graceling” overall, I actually liked the romance in “Fire” better. And with “Bitterblue” I discovered…I actually hadn’t read this one before?? I own a copy, and I think I must have skimmed through it at some point, but a full, cover-to-cover read? Nope! Given my takeaway at the end of this read, I suspect I may have skimmed some Goodreads reviews when this came out and put it on the back-burner, being a bit wary. Because, yes, for me, this was quite the step down from the highs of “Graceling” and “Fire.”

Bitterblue has been queen of Monsea since she was ten and her sociopathic father was killed at the hands of Bitterblue’s strongest protector, Katsa. In the years since, Bitterblue has struggled to put her broken country back together. But with endless paperwork and little contact with her actual people, Bitterblue begins to suspect that her efforts aren’t accomplishing much. She takes matters into her own hands and sneaks out to wander the streets of her city and see the state of things for herself. What she discovers opens the floodgates and she is suddenly overwhelmed with all of the mysteries and secrets that have lurked from the time of her cruel father’s reign.

So, overall, I really didn’t love this book. It was so surprising and disappointing to have a reaction like this after just loving both books that came before! But, unfortunately, I think there were several things that worked against it. Not least of which is the fact that I think that even its strengths ultimately work against it when compared to the books that came before. Namely that Cashore’s strengths for creating interesting new worlds and great fantastical elements weren’t allowed any room to grow here. We’ve already been introduced to Monsea, and while the story does show us around the city itself and has some new things to add here, the world itself is largely familiar. The magic, too, is familiar. We may meet a few new Gracelings, but their abilities and their place in the world are already understood. So, too, we already know about the Seven Realms and, largely, how they differ from one another and interact with each other. All of this works to undercut much of what made the first two books so great: Cashore’s deeply imaginative new worlds and magic systems.

And while both of the first two books were slower reads overall, this one really seemed to drag on. It’s much longer than the first two, and nothing in the story really justifies this length. Bitterblue is constantly beset with new mysteries and new roadblocks on any progress she’s making on the ones that came before. More than once she simply gives up and returns to her paperwork in her tower. This is just as boring and anti-climatic for the reader as it’s said to be for her. What’s more, many of the mysteries are built around the seemingly crazy actions of many of the characters around her. But they are so random and so off-the-wall that with the lack of understanding around them comes also the lack of caring. Unlike the books before where it felt like clues were being laid down that reader’s could begin to piece together for themselves (part of what kept the pacing better in those books), here, it all feels too disconnected to any logic or overall plan to really engage the reader.

I also really, really disliked the romance in this book. This was truly shocking as the other books in this series had two of my favorite romances ever. But here, nothing really works about it. Saf is a terrible romantic hero. When he’s not annoyingly immature (it’s never a good sign when you’re heroine herself calls the hero this and she’s completely right!), he’s outright rude and mean to Bitterblue. And all of this is when he’s even on the page at all, for there are large chunks of the story where he’s nowhere to be seen. From a personal reading perspective, his absence isn’t missed as when he was around I was mostly frustrated by him. But from the perspective of trying to build a compelling romance, it’s hard to do when you’re romantic hero is nowhere to be found for the last half of the book. And the end was only satisfying because it was ultimately unsatisfying, essentially!

I did like Bitterblue as a character, but I think the romance and the plodding storyline both did her a massive disserve. It was also confusing trying to understand why Bitterblue was suddenly noticing all of these things around her. Presumably she’s been acting as queen for the last 8 years, and while she was too young initially to take notice, it’s hard to understand what was distracting her from it all for the last few years. There’s no obvious impetus for any of it, really. “Winterkeep” will also feature Bitterblue, so I’m excited to see how the character fares when put in a different (hopefully better!) story. We’ll find out next week when we finally get to “Winterkeep” itself!

Rating 6: Very disappointing. It has some serious weaknesses on its own, but it’s definitely not helped by the fact that the two before it were such hits for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bitterblue” is on these Goodreads lists: YA Second World Fantasy and Best Kick-Ass Female Characters From YA and Children’s Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Find “Bitterblue” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Rev-Up Review: “Fire”

Book: “Fire” by Kristin Cashore

Publish: Dial Books, 2009

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: It is not a peaceful time in the Dells. The young King Nash clings to his throne while rebel lords in the north and south build armies to unseat him. The mountains and forests are filled with spies and thieves and lawless men.

This is where Fire lives. With a wild, irresistible appearance and hair the color of flame, Fire is the last remaining human monster. Equally hated and adored, she had the unique ability to control minds, but she guards her power, unwilling to steal the secrets of innocent people. Especially when she has so many of her own.

Then Prince Brigan comes to bring her to King City. The royal family needs her help to uncover the plot against the king. Far away from home, Fire begins to realize there’s more to her power than she ever dreamed. Her power could save the kingdom.

If only she weren’t afraid of becoming the monster her father was.

Previously Reviewed: “Graceling”

Review: Unlike “Graceling,” I never got around to re-reading “Fire” closer to when I read it the first time. Not that I didn’t really enjoy it then, just that, like I said, the TBR list was just starting to get out of control around this time. So going into this re-read, I remembered even less about this book than that. That made it lots of fun to read now as it almost felt like an entirely new book, but one that I already knew I’d enjoy! Win win!

The Dells is a colorful land, marked by the bright, over-powering beauty of its monsters: blue horses, purple raptors, pink mice. But Fire is the only human monster after the death of her cruel father several years prior. Her extreme beauty inspires both wonder and hatred from those around her, so Fire’s life world has been small to stay safe. She also greatly fears the mind control abilities that come alongside her beauty. But when a prince arrives on her doorstep requesting her aide to save the king, Fire is obligated to venture out and put her abilities to the test.

While this is technically a prequel to “Graceling,” it most ways it stands a lone. We have one character (albeit an important one!) who crosses over, but their page time is limited so even there we’re left with mostly new material. I really loved the world-building that went into the Dells and the creativity around the native monsters and how their powers worked. The animals themselves are quite terrifying, especially the monster raptors that seem to constantly lurk in the sky. Though this was also the one point where I was confused. Are these regular raptors, like hawks and falcons that aren’t that big? Or are these some type of unique bird of prey that is bigger? They seemed to be discussed and treated as pretty severe threats to people which was confusing if we’re talking about smaller birds of prey. Not really a big deal, but it was something I kept getting caught up on throughout the story.

Fire herself is an incredible creation. It makes complete sense that extreme beauty would inspire both love and hatred, and seeing how this plays out in Fire’s every day existence was really intriguing. She has some strong abilities, but we also see how very vulnerable her monster looks are to her. She attracts monster animals who want to eat her, and humans aren’t much better, either becoming obsessed with her (often in the grabby, forceful kissing manner) or essentially go mad and want to kill her. Her life seems very challenging, full of fear and tension. This makes it all the more touching to see her begin to form real relationships with the other characters in this book, because we’ve been prepped to understand just how many challenges there are in this for Fire.

I really liked the romance in this book, perhaps even more than I did the one in “Graceling.” Everyone loves a good “enemies to lovers” romantic plot line, and as much as I liked Po, Brigan checked off more on my romantic hero wish list, like steady and a bit solemn. While Katsa and Po were all about the fiery drama, Fire and Brigan have a slow build that is beautiful to watch unfold.

This book was a bit slower than “Graceling,” and the villain(s) were also a bit underwhelming. We see the return of one evil character, and they’re good for the small amount of page time we get from them. But what accounts for the main antagonist and challenge was a bit to removed from the story to feel too invested in it. By the nature of her being, Fire’s work is mostly done from the safety of the castle and is largely passive with most of the action taking place off-page.

I really enjoyed re-reading this book. I really remembered very little of it, and I was pleased to find the romance, in particular, even better than I had remembered. Next up is “Bitterblue!”

Rating 9: A quieter, more introspective book than “Graceling,” but also a bit more heart-breaking (in a good way!) overall.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Fire” is on these Goodreads lists: Original Stories . . . a Breath of Fresh Air and Princes, Other Worlds and Future Lands.

Find “Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

My Year with Jane Austen: “Sanditon” [2019]

I could probably continue on an entire extra year reviewing various adaptations and interpretations of Jane Austen’s works. There are plays, spin-off books, modern adaptations, the list goes on and on. Every year it seems there is a new version coming out in some form or another and this last year was no exception. Not only did we get a new feature film of “Emma” but the BBC also released an 8-part mini series of Austen’s unfinished work “Sanditon.” So I wanted to briefly touch on my thoughts of both those and to add in one other adaptation that has been a favorite of mine for quite a while, “Death Comes to Pemberley,” both the book and the 3-part mini series.

Mini-Series: “Sanditon”

I promise I’ll leave a positive review for one of these “extra” Jane Austen reviews that I’m doing in January. Alas, like “Emma” [2020], this is not one of them. Unlike “Emma,” however, I am more in-line with the general reception of this mini series. All and all, I think most Jane Austen fans were supremely disappointed by it, not least because of how it ends. Let’s dive into my complaints, shall we?

(NOTE: There will be spoilers in this review.)

The whole thing starts from a false premise: that there’s even a story here to adapt. Austen had only written eleven chapters of this story before her death. For reference, Emma has fifty-five chapters, so by comparison, eleven chapters is only scratching the surface of whatever story Austen had in mind. All we really get from these opening chapters is the introduction of our heroine, Charlotte, her relocation to an up-and-coming beach town called “Sanditon,” and the arrival of a potential love interest in the form of the fashionable Sidney Parker. Story-wise, it’s not much. There are the typical cast of side characters as well, but not much as far as clues to Austen’s overarching plot or themes. In most ways, she’s just finished setting the scene and not much else. It was always going to be a fool’s errand to try to expand that out into a mini series and to call it a “Jane Austen adaptation” is really pushing the limits of that term.

Perhaps in the right hands a compelling story could have been made. But sadly, this mini series ain’t that. It falls into too many traps that many modern adaptations risk and, at its heart, seems to miss the overall tone and heart that makes up all Jane Austen stories. To most fans’ chagrin, the story succumbs to the inane need of modern series to be “gritty” and “push the limits.” There are overtly sexual scenes in the very first episode (some of them even bizarrely going a very “Game of Thrones” route, none the less…). And many, if not most, of the characters introduced are supremely unlikable. For some reason, it seems that many directors and screenwriters often confuse writing a character with layers and depth with just writing supreme jerks, and we see plenty examples of it here. The romantic interest is immediately an a-hole to Charlotte, and not in the endearing, prideful “Darcy-esque” way that is the only acceptable form of this behavior in an Austen story.

Gone is the joy. Gone is the wit. And, worst of all, gone is the happy ending. It seems as if the director intentionally ended the series this way in a fit of over-confidence that the series would be picked up for a second season. Indeed, this is the only acceptable reason for ending an Austen story this way. There are plenty of historical fiction stories to be told where the happy, romantic conclusion is not a given. But those are not the stories that Austen wrote. She even said it herself, “let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.”

Every Austen fan who went into this series happily hoping to get one last shot at a new Austen story would have had this one, simple expectation: that the hero and heroine would end up together and happy at the end. Whatever happened from the start to the finish was open for exploration and interpretation. But this ending was a must. Instead, the series not only denies our hero and heroine this happiness, but it essentially resets the story by sending Charlotte back home where her future is once again limited and likely dull. I’ll be blunt: this ending is inexcusable for a Jane Austen adaption and, apart from any other stumbling blocks (of which there were many) would be enough to write this entire thing off on its own.

Unlike “Emma,” which I think I disliked for fairly subjective reasons but is sure to please many fans, this mini series really has nothing to recommend it, as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps for general historical fiction fans it would be an ok watch. But any fan of Jane Austen should simply steer clear, as “Jane Austen” this is not.

Serena’s Rev-Up Review: “Graceling”

Book: “Graceling” by Kristin Cashore

Publishing Info: Harcourt, October 2008

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight—she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.

She never expects to fall in love with beautiful Prince Po.

She never expects to learn the truth behind her Grace—or the terrible secret that lies hidden far away . . . a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.

Review: I read this book right around when it came out and instantly loved it. I went on to re-read it a few times in the next couple of years. But as my list of re-read favorites grew and grew, after those first few years, I never got back around to this one. So now it’s probably been about ten years since I last read it. Then when I saw that Cashore was returning to her “Graceling” world after so many years with the release of “Winterkeep” later this month, I knew that now was the time and this was the perfect excuse! So in anticipation of this new book, I will be re-reading all three of the “Graceling” books that came before, starting out with this, the first and my favorite.

In a world dotted with individuals with extraodinary powers, marked by their duel colored eyes, Katsa’s unparalleled ability to fight and kill just about anything is frightening to the extreme. Not the least of all to her. Under the thumb of her cruel uncle the king, for years, Katsa has served as his unwilling enforcer. To protect her own sanity and the safety of those she can, Katsa’s also built up an underground life of small rebellions and resistence. During one of these missions she meets Prince Po, another Graceling and one who finally opens her eyes to the opportunities before her. When the two begin to uncover a lurking darkness in the far reaches of the kingdom, they set out to unravel an increasingly malicious tangle. And while they do, they begin to discover there is more to Katsa’s Grace than just killing after all.

There’s a lot to love about this book. I but I think most people can agree that one of its biggest selling points is its main character herself. I can think of a number of books that have attempted an all-powerful, badass female character like this before and bungled it up so badly that the book becomes practically unreadable. So it’s a testament to Cashore’s ability that her main character not only avoids pulling the book down with her but actually turns out to be one of its biggest selling points.

Katsa’s biggest strengths, her seemingly endless ability to excel at practically anything, is just what makes her such a challenging character to write. She arrives on page one seemingly capable of easily handling anything that the story throws out her. So where’s the plot to go? What type of development can you give a character like this? Well, instead of physical limitations, Cashore dives deep into the psychological damage and challenges that a character with these abilities would face. Katsa’s fear of her own strength hinders her ability to trust and form friendships, probably the low hanging fruit as far as personal struggles for this type of character goes.

But Cashore goes even deeper. Because Katsa operates alone so much of the time and has a deep-seated fear, verging on hatred, for herself, her interactions with those around her can be quite toxic at times. She’s rash and prone to striking out. She also struggles to recognize the limitations of others and will push people (and horses!) past their breakingpoint. From this starting point, Cashore weaves together a beautiful character arc that focuses on themes like trust, self-acceptance, and self-control. And throughout this all, Katsa’s very brashness and inability to pick up on the most basic of social cues makes her an incredibly endearing lead character.

Beyond Katsa, the story excels in several areas. While it takes a bit to get started, once it does, there are bunch of fantastic action set-pieces and challenges that are posed to our seemingly unstoppable heroine. And the story quickly moves past the more straightforward aspect of her Grace that would just be one fight scene after another. I also really like the romance in this story. Unlike a lot of other YA books, here the romance establishes itself about halfway through the book. Of course, as any romance novel author will tell you, getting your characters together is only half of the story, and I really appreciate that Cashore left room to dive into the later stages of a romantic storyline. Things like facing losses together, going through fights, figuring out how to be a couple while also maintaining your sense of individuality, making decisions about your future.

I also really like the villain we have here. The build up to the reveal successfully creates a lot of tension that is only compounded upon once the reader discovers what is really going on. The villain is also a great foil for Katsa, being appropriately powered but not in a way that feels like their abilities were created specifically with her in mind (a failing of many archvillains, in my opinion.) My only complaint is that there isn’t more page time with this individual. But, then again, given the nature of the villain, there’s not really a very good way to include more scenes with them that doesn’t hurt the story overall.

So, given my ravings above, it’s pretty obvious that I found this book just as enjoyable ten years later as I did the first time I read it. I’m excited to read the next two books as well since, unlike this one, I never re-read either of those and remember very little about them.

Rating 10: Definitely deserves its place in the YA fantasy ranks as one of the bests.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Graceling” is on these Goodreads lists: Best “Strong Female” Fantasy Novels and Magic, Adventure, Romance.

Find “Graceling” at your library using Worldcat!

My Year with Jane Austen: “Emma” [2020]

I could probably continue on an entire extra year reviewing various adaptations and interpretations of Jane Austen’s works. There are plays, spin-off books, modern adaptations, the list goes on and on. Every year it seems there is a new version coming out in some form or another and this last year was no exception. Not only did we get a new feature film of “Emma” but the BBC also released an 8-part mini series of Austen’s unfinished work “Sanditon.” So I wanted to briefly touch on my thoughts of both those and to add in one other adaptation that has been a favorite of mine for quite a while, “Death Comes to Pemberley,” both the book and the 3-part mini series.

Movie: “Emma” [2020]

While I didn’t get to have the “in theater” experience that I wanted to honor the release of a new version of one of my favorite Austen books, I made quite sure to watch it as soon as possible at home. I had made sure to avoid reading any reviews or commentaries about the movie, though I did have the impression that it was generally very well received by Austen fans and the general public. So I went in optimistic.

Unfortunately, this one didn’t hit home for me. It wasn’t a complete flop by any means, and there were new interpretations and takes on the story that I genuinely appreciated. I thought it was really interesting how focused the movie was on the oddness of life for the super rich in this time period. We have Emma pointing out flowers to be cut by a maid following meekly behind her. And we even have Mr. Knightley, arguably the most self-sufficient character we’re given in the entire story, sitting around being intimately dressed by servants. It’s both incredibly awkward but also humorous in just how absurd it feels.

But I also really struggled with several aspects of this film. For one, I didn’t fall in love with the cast. Anya Taylor-Joy is clearly a talented actress, but for me, she came across as too cold for Emma. Because of Emma’s repeated mistakes and blunders, her immediate charm and appeal are crucial to forming a strong attachment between the audience and the character. For me, Taylor-Joy’s version was simply too aloof and distant-feeling to really capture that immediate sense of sympathy that is necessary to make Emma a character you want to root for. I also struggled with Johnny Flynn’s Knightley, though this was mostly because he simply looked to young and to close to Emma’s age more than anything having to do with his actual acting.

From there, I mainly struggled with some strange story choices that movie made. I didn’t like the weird scene after the ball where Knightley runs after Emma, seemingly on the verge of confessing feelings (feelings that she, too, seems to be expecting to hear about when waiting at home). It doesn’t go anywhere, but the scene itself really messes with the progression of this relationship as it implies that Emma is aware of Knightley’s feelings (and returns them to some extent) much earlier in the story. Plus, Mr. Knightley may be an active sort of gentleman, but he doesn’t literally run around town chasing after a woman.

I also really didn’t like the final romantic scene with the nose bleed. This movie was largely praised for how comedic it was, but this scene highlighted just how wrong I think this approach was. Yes, “Emma” is a comedy and any good adaption will hone in on the humorous aspects of the story. But what I absolutely DON’T want is to have that humor intrude on and break up the big romantic climax of the story. The tone during this scene is all over the place and seems to be deliberately cutting the legs out from under the romance that is supposed to be the culmination of a slow build developed throughout the entire movie up to this point. It was incredibly frustrating and resulted in me ending the entire movie with a fairly sour taste in my mouth.

My husband actually really likes “Emma,” (the 2009 version, at least) so there’s a good chance I’ll end up re-watching this version with him at some point. I’m curious to see if my experience of the film will be different with my expectations set a bit lower. I don’t see it ever replacing my beloved 2009 version, but I’d like to see if I can discover what appealed to so many others with a re-watch. If you enjoyed it, please share your thoughts in the comments (or if you didn’t like it, too, of course!)

In two weeks, I’ll review “Sanditon.”

Serena’s Review: “Siege of Rage and Ruin”

Book: “Siege of Rage and Ruin” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Isoka has done the impossible–she’s captured the ghost ship Soliton.

With her crew of mages, including the love of her life Princess Meroe, Isoka returns to the empire that sent her on her deadly mission. She’s ready to hand over the ghost ship as ransom for her sister Tori’s life, but arrives to find her home city under siege. And Tori at the helm of a rebellion.

Neither Isoka’s mastery of combat magic, nor Tori’s proficiency with mind control, could have prepared them for the feelings their reunion surfaces. But they’re soon drawn back into the rebels’ fight to free the city that almost killed them.

Previously Reviewed: “Ship of Smoke and Steel” and “City of Stone and Silence”

Review: After blowing through the first two books in this trilogy last January, I had to hunker down for the long wait until January 2021 to finally get the to the release of the final book. As much as I like being current with many of the books coming out in real-time, I have to say, there’s something to be said for just waiting for a series/trilogy to be finished so you can enjoy it in one, big, binge read. Ah well. And, while this wasn’t my favorite book in the trilogy, I was overall quite pleased with this book and for the way the series wrapped up as a whole.

On her way back to her home city, Isoka imagines that nothing ahead can pose a bigger challenge than what she’s accomplished already. She simply needs to rescue Tori and head back to the mysterious land from which Soliton came. But Tori is no longer the innocent girl Isoka remembers. Instead, she’s a rebel leader caught up in a revolution that seems to be on the brink of failure. What’s more, she has a powerful magical ability to influence the minds and actions of others, a power she had kept hidden from Isoka for all of these years. Together, the sisters must work to re-learn the sibling they thought they knew while also saving a city that seems doomed to fall.

While I did enjoy this book and still love the heck out of Isoka as a main character, I did struggle with this one more than the first two. I think there are a few reasons for this. First, like the second book in this trilogy, Isoka now shares the narrative with Tori which essentially splits her portion in half.

Tori isn’t a bad character in her own right, but she simply can’t compete with the explosive force that is Isoka. Tori’s own story is much less sympathetic and her overall arch feels less complete. The last book saw her do some pretty terrible things and that’s never really addressed going forward. On one hand, I like the fact that the book doesn’t shy away from the terrible things that are done in revolutions, even by those fighting for the “good” side. But Tori also never seems to resolve her feelings of being “monstrous” in any real way. Isoka kind of just brushes the whole thing aside when she learns about it, and Tori just seems to get over it suddenly at the end for no apparent reason.

Isoka’s own story feels like it takes a back seat to Tori’s as this book is largely about the revolution Tori started and thus naturally falls more in her wheelhouse. I still loved Isoka’s chapters, if mostly because her voice and character feel so alive and compelling. But, like Tori, it didn’t feel like she had much of a character arc in this story. She’d already come into her own as a leader and recognized the fact that she didn’t enjoy brutal killing. So there’s nowhere really for her to go in this story.

The second challenge, beyond the lack of character arcs for our two leads, was my own personal preference for the unique, fantastical elements presented in the first two books. There was so much creativity to the fantasy aspect of the story in the first and second book, between the ship Soliton and the Harbor with its spooky leader, Prime. Here, the story of a fairly straightforward rebellion and a pretty predictable resolution just wasn’t cutting it. I really missed the fantasy aspects of the series and was disappointed that not much new was introduced. I never was very invested in Tori’s rebellion and to have this entire last book focused on that was a pretty big let-down. But this was definitely more a matter of personal preference than anything else.

The writing itself was still incredibly strong and Wexler shines with his action scenes. Isoka’s fights were as thrilling as ever and her companions were fun supporting characters. I think it’s telling of Wexler’s skill that Jack, who could easily have become gimmicky and annoying, served well in her role as comedic relief throughout. I was also pleased to see Tori’s romance plotline take a decided backseat role, as that was another aspect of the second book that I was not at all invested in.

Overall, this was definitely the weakest of the three books, but it did tie up the story well and ended in a satisfactory manner. Readers’ enjoyment of it will likely be directly tied to their interest in Tori and the storyline that was introduced with her in the second book. But I’d say that fans of the first two, regardless of preference, should definitely check this last book out.

Rating 7: Lacking the fantasy elements that I’ve come to love, but still a satisfying end to the trilogy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Siege of Rage and Ruin” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but it is on Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021.

Find “Siege of Rage and Ruin” at your library using WorldCat!

Monthly Marillier: “Daughter of the Forest”

“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.

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Book: “Daughter of the Forest” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor Books, April 2020 (originally published in 1999)

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Lovely Sorcha is the seventh child and only daughter of Lord Colum of Sevenwaters. Bereft of a mother, she is comforted by her six brothers who love and protect her. Sorcha is the light in their lives, they are determined that she know only contentment.

But Sorcha’s joy is shattered when her father is bewitched by his new wife, an evil enchantress who binds her brothers with a terrible spell, a spell which only Sorcha can lift–by staying silent. If she speaks before she completes the quest set to her by the Fair Folk and their queen, the Lady of the Forest, she will lose her brothers forever.

When Sorcha is kidnapped by the enemies of Sevenwaters and taken to a foreign land, she is torn between the desire to save her beloved brothers, and a love that comes only once. Sorcha despairs at ever being able to complete her task, but the magic of the Fair Folk knows no boundaries, and love is the strongest magic of them all… 

Note: I originally posted this review about nine months ago. But I wanted to start this re-read with Marillier’s first book so that the series would be complete, so I’m re-posting it here today.

Review: I was thrilled to see this book pop up on NetGalley. It’s been one of my favorite reads (and the book that introduced me to one of my favorite authors) for many, many years. I couldn’t think of a series that is more due for a re-release than the original Sevenwaters trilogy. Plus, this was the perfect excuse to re-read this book and finally feature a full review for the story on this blog!

Sorcha’s life is full of family and love. With six older brothers who adore her and seek to protect her from everything, her life seems to be on a straight, bright path. Until her family falls under the shadow of her father’s new wife, a powerful sorceress who puts her brothers under a terrible spell, dooming them to the short life of swans. Now Sorcha must become the protector, undertaking a near-impossible task, forced to weave shirts out a painful plant and not allowed to make any noise until task is finished and spell lifted. Life is not made easier when she finds herself caught up by the enemy English and now living in a foreign land among those who distrust and fear her. But Sorcha persists in the face of it all, even has her task seems more and more doomed.

I love fairytale retellings, and this book really introduced me to them and set the bar for what they can be. The “Seven Swans” fairytale is a lesser known tale, and while there have been several other ones that I’ve found since reading this, none have even come close to fully realizing the full potential of the story. Marillier doesn’t simply stick to the basic outline; she creates an entire world, magic system, and fully-fleshed cast of characters, many of whom don’t feature in anything other than name in the original tale and some not at all. But beneath this all, the heart of the story is consistent (though some details differ). All the major plot points are hit, but the book is over 500 pages long, so you know it is rich in detail and not in a rush to get through its story.

Too often fairytale retellings fail to really establish themselves as anything unique from the original stories. Main characters are often lacking in any real personality (fairytales themselves often give them basically none, so there’s not much to go off for the author adapting it). And often the story doesn’t expand much further out than the original tale. Not so, here. Sorcha is the cornerstone around which this entire story hinges. And, given the she spends two thirds of the book not able to speak out loud, it’s important that her character feel real and compelling. We spend the entire book in her head and experience some fairly traumatic things alongside her. But, importantly, you’ll notice that I said “two thirds.” That’s because, smartly, Marillier adds a bunch of extra story to the beginning of this book. This not only gives Sorcha ample opportunity to be set up as a compelling character, but it adds stakes to her quest. We’ve met her brothers. We know their individual strengths and weaknesses, and, importantly, their close attachment to their sister. This makes their loss feel real and helps the reader feel fully committed to the terrible task set out before our leading lady.

The book also deals with some pretty serious and tough topics. There’s a very graphic, traumatic scene that occurs fairly early in the story. The author doesn’t hold back on the details of this attack, but what justifies this, I think, is the great work she does to explore how this affects Sorcha going forward. It’s not swept away or easily solved. Instead, we see how this experience shapes all of Sorcha’s choices and reactions going forward. And, ultimately, we see how she slowly goes through the experience of healing from it. This book is probably the best example I can point to for how a tough topic like this can and should be handled. Not only does our heroine go through the entire process, the book lays down some needed examples of how those around her help and wait as she deals with this.

Marillier’s writing is also exceptional. Atmospheric, lyrical, and emotional, she makes you feel the same strong connection to the forests and lakes of Sorcha’s wild home. Small moments land with unexpected emotion, and the action is tense and high stakes while not straying far from the intimate perspective we have through Sorcha’s eyes with everything that is going on around her. Throughout all of Marillier’s books, her writing is always consistent, but it’s a joy to go back to this first book that I read of hers and see why it stood out so much in the first place.

Marillier started a new trilogy this last fall, and I’m eagerly awaiting getting my hands on the second boo, due out this September. If you’re waiting as well, take this chance to explore her backlog with this beautiful renewed edition. I love the cover art for this and the other two books in the trilogy. If you haven’t read any of Marillier’s work before, boy, are you in for a treat! Get started with this one, and away you go!

Rating 10: Everything that a fairytale retelling should be and then some!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Daughter of the Forest” is on these Goodreads lists: “The Best Fairytales and Retellings” and “Best Romance in Traditional Fantasy.”

Find “Daughter of the Forest” at your library!

Next up is “Son of Shadows” on the first Friday of next month!

Serena’s Review: “Bridgerton Collection”

Book: “Bridgerton Collection: Volume One” by Julia Quinn

Publishing Info: Kindle Edition, May 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: own the e-book

Book Description: The first three Bridgerton books all in one e-book volume! Includes The Duke and I, The Viscount Who Loved Me, and An Offer From a Gentleman.

Set between 1813 and 1827, the Bridgerton Series is a collection of eight novels, each featuring one of the eight children of the late Viscount Bridgerton.

I’m going to do a quick mini-review for all three books in this series. I’ve reviewed a couple random books by Julia Quinn on this blog over the years, but I’ve jumped all over the place from random books in this main series to ones from the prequel series, etc. But with the Netflix show just coming out, I thought it was high time to at least familiarize myself with the first three in the correct order so that when I watched the show I wouldn’t be completely lost. Because obviously I was going to watch the show! Historical romance?? Yes, please!

The Duke and I

So I had actually read this, the first book in the series, once before years ago. I didn’t remember much about it except that, unfortunately, I had rated it fairly low on Goodreads at the time. I went in with some skepticism. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a great start to my read through of these first books in the series, and my original rating wasn’t far off for how I would rate this book now.

The strengths of Quinn’s writing is clear, and it’s easy to understand how she has become one of the most popular romance authors of the time. This book completes its most important edict: it sets the stage for a million and a half sequels, creates an interesting window in this version of British society, and has quick, snappy writing that move the story along.

Unfortunately, the actual story in this book and especially its heroine and hero’s relationship was a huge let down. Each were very toxic in their own ways, and I’m not one for throwing that word around lightly. There are some extreme inconsistencies in how knowledgeable Daphne is about certain aspects of life that stretch the point of believability to its breaking point. And the great “conflict” between the Simon and Daphne leads to each treating the other in very despicable ways, with Daphne committing a pretty unforgivable crime against Simon. I’m sure this wasn’t the intent of the author with this scene, but it’s definitely how it reads and how it would (and should!) be understood. As our first two paired up grouping, I’m sure we’ll see more of Simon and Daphne on the sidelines in other books, but I’ll try to just put this one behind me. I’m also really curious how they’ll play this particular relationship in the Netflix adaptation.

Rating 6: A good start to the series, but the horrid actions of both the hero and the heroine really drops it down.

“The Viscount Who Loved Me”

First things first: this second book was a great improvement on the first. While I still had some problems with the hero, Anthony (the Bridgerton in this little story), the heroine, Kate, was vastly better than Daphne. Not only was she not bizarrely ignorant of some pretty basic facts of life, she also didn’t assault her husband. So there’s that. But beyond all of that, Kate is just a fun character. She’s spunky, smart, and a fun character to follow through this story.

Anthony takes a bit more time to warm up. For one thing, he’s presented as the go-to historical romance leading man character type: a rake. I could probably write an entire thesis on why this type of character seems to dominate these books and why most of them get it wrong, but I’ll resist. To sum up, Mr. Darcy is considered the epitome of romance heroes, and I think many authors confuse the appeal that comes from his being a catch due to his lack of interest with the idea that rakes are a decent sit-in as they, too, have no interest in love and marriage. Big difference being that Mr. Darcy didn’t have a reputation for toying with women’s hearts. But enough on that. Anthony’s rake-ness is part of his problem, as is the fact that he has some pretty unappealing ideas about the relationship between husbands and wives initially. Thankfully, he seems to work through that and does end up being a likeable enough character.

What stood out the most about this book was the dialogue. Maybe it was just the nature of the story, Kate’s trying to spare her sister from the devious rake, but there was a lot of snappy, fun interchanges between our leading lady and leading man. There were several moments where I chuckled out loud, which was a nice reminder of why I’ve liked other books by this author in the past. Overall, I’m much more excited to see this relationship play out on the show than the first one.

Rating 8: Much better than the first, but still marked down for the hero being kind of an ass for a good chunk of the first half.

“An Offer from a Gentleman”

This book was a bit different than the two that came before it. As the cover implies, it’s a very loose re-telling of Cinderella. Sophie is an illegitimate daughter who meets our her, Benedict Bridgerton, at a ball where she’s undercover as a true lady. Sparks fly. Two years later, the two meet again, but Benedict doesn’t recognize his lady love in the servant girl before him. An intriguing enough premise and a fun twist on the more traditional retellings out there.

I, again, liked the heroine, Sophie, better than the hero (I guess Daphne goes down as the worst of the three). She was earnest and stood up for herself well enough given the situation (I’ll touch on that when I get to Benedict). But she also kept unnecessary secrets that created a bunch of angst and drama for no good reason. I always struggle with these types of narrative mechanisms that are clearly put in there to move the story one way or another but defy any understanding. There’s no good reason for Sophie to keep these secrets other than the fact that it creates the drama and fallout the author was looking for.

And Benedict. Oh, Benedict. He’s probably my least favorite hero of the three we’ve seen. When he meets Sophie again, he pressures her to be his mistress or a servant in his house. And when I say pressure, I mean he puts the screws to her over it. It’s pretty obnoxious. And from there, he goes on to warn her that somehow it is her responsibility to head him off early because if he gets too, um, excited, he wouldn’t be able to stop. Nope! Don’t like that! Throughout it all, he’s pretty self-absorbed and unable to understand Sophie or her motives. Even when the truth is revealed, somehow Benedict is the injured party in all of this. I hope the show makes some big improvements on this particular story. Well, this one and the first one.

Rating 7: Not as bad as the first one, but the hero had some big problems and the heroine created unnecessary drama.

Serena’s Favorite Reads of 2020: Picks 5 through 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, five to one. And since it’s the end of the reading year, don’t forget to enter our “12 Days of Christmas Giveaway!”

#5 “Ship of Smoke and Steel” & “City of Stone and Silence” by Django Wexler

“Ship of Smoke and Steel” Review & “City of Stone and Silence” Review”

I read the first book in a military fantasy series by Django Wexler a few years back. I really enjoyed it, but was following so many other series at the time, that I still haven’t managed to get back to it. But I was gifted the first in Wexler’s YA fantasy series over Christmas and absolutely adored it. Luckily for me, the second one was slated to come out shortly afterwards, so I was able to read both of them in a short amount of time. And what a blast they were! The action is nonstop, the magic system is fun, the monsters are creepy, and the stakes are high with real teeth behind the threats to our main character(s). I liked the first one a bit more than the second, but still really enjoyed them both. I have the third all queued up on my Kindle and will have a review of it coming up here shortly in January. I’m so nervous. I’m so excited.

#4 “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V.E. Schwab

“The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” Review

I’ve liked most everything I’ve read by V.E. Schwab to a certain extent. My favorite probably still is her “Shades of Magic” trilogy. But I was very intrigued when I saw that she was releasing a stand-alone, adult fantasy novel with a really unique concept: a young woman blessed (cursed) with the ability to live forever but to never be remembered by those around her. I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into, but I was so happy with the story Schwab presented. It delved much more deeply into the importance of memory and identity, and explored concepts of art and individuality in a really interesting way as well. The magic was incorporated in a very natural way that felt authentic but didn’t overwhelm what was ultimately a more literary, reflective novel. There was a sweet romance at the heart, but the story also didn’t follow the trajectory I had initially thought it might, instead throwing in a few twists and turns towards the end that took my completely by surprise. Fans of Schwab’s work or literary fantasy are sure to like this one!

#3 “Chosen Ones” by Veronica Roth

“Chosen Ones” Review

Talk about a book taking you by surprise! I didn’t really care for Roth’s “Insurgence” trilogy. As a matter of fact, I’m fairly certain that I didn’t even finish it! I know she also came out with a duology since then which I also hadn’t read. But the description of this book, the story of what happens to the “chosen one(s)” after they kill the big villain, was intriguing enough that I thought I’d give it a shot. And here we have it! Number three on my Top 10 list for the year! It was everything I had wanted from this type of story and more. There was a great exploration of the type of PTSD and trauma that would be long-lasting for the heroes who survived this type of childhood and teenage period of years spent fighting some great evil on behalf of humanity. But on top of the reflective portion of the story, there was an excellent adventure and conflict that kept the pace moving at a swift clip. I really, really liked this book and am definitely more on board with checking out future books by Roth in the future.

#2 “Empire of Gold” by S.A. Chakraborty

“Empire of Gold” Review

Unlike some of the other books on this list, this one comes as no surprise. I’m pretty sure the first and second book in this trilogy also made this list each year they were released. But it’s always the scariest going into the third and final book. Will the author stick the landing? Or will it end in such a disappointing way that it taints one’s ability to appreciate the books that came before? Luckily, this one did just what it should and even more than I had hoped for. With the fall of Daevabad, Nahri and Ali have been forced to return to Cairo. But once there, it becomes clear that they can’t simply leave their other lives behind. How can they fight against the almost all-powerful Dara, though? And does Nahri even want to? Their adventures take them to new and unexpected destinations, and the story unravels an even more complicated history of mixed loyalties and broken promises that we’d had before. And yet, somehow Chakraborty manages to wind it all up in a way that is both believable and satisfying. Fans of the series so far are sure to love it!

#1 “A Deadly Education” by Naomi Novik

“A Deadly Education” Review

Novik is definitely an absolute favorite author of mine, so it’s no wonder that her new book this year is at the top of my list. Really, I think she’s moved into the “instant buy” category for me, as far as authors go. There are only a handful of them, so it’s quite the distinction! This book was marketed as a more adult “Harry Potter.” I can see where this reference comes from with the story taking place in a darker, more dangerous magical school, and it plays around with the idea of “chosen ones” and the limitations of this title. But at the same time, I think this undersells the sheer novelty and imagination to be found in this book. This is definitely not Hogwarts, and not only is our heroine, not the “chosen one,” but the “chosen one” himself is a bit of a weirdo enigma. Also, kids die left and right in this thing to the point that the reader becomes almost equally blasé about it as our main character and the other students. And yet, the book is hilarious and fun, never becoming too dark or depressing. It’s a miracle of master storytelling and balance. The story also ends in a satisfying manner, but introduces a new twist at the very end that leaves you on tenterhooks waiting for the next one. Pretty much any fantasy fan should enjoy this one!

So there’s my complete list! What were your top five reads of 2020?

Serena’s Favorite Reads of 2020: Picks 10 through 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 Body in the Garden” by Katharine Schellman

“The Body in the Garden” Review

This was a book that definitely took me by surprise this last year. I had fairly randomly requested it on NetGalley just based on the fact that it was a historical mystery. The cover looked kind of derpy and I hadn’t heard of the author. But then it absolutely blew me away! Not only do I just love this type historical mystery featuring a crime-solving lady, but this one broke a lot of the molds and tropes that I had begun to tire of from other similar series I’ve been reading recently. Our main character is a widow, for one thing, and one who has only fairly recently lost her husband and is still clearly mourning him. There is, of course, a gentleman friend introduced in the story, but given the circumstances, the development of any romance will look very different and there was none in this book. I also liked the inclusion of a more racially diverse cast with one of the main character’s friends being a POC young woman. The book also featured a solid mystery and found ways for a lady such as Lily Adler to solve the crime without falling into too many traps of anachronisms in behavior for a woman of the time.

#9 “Driftwood” by Marie Brennan

“Driftwood” Review

I also read the first in Brennan’s popular “The Memories of Lady Trent” series this year, but it was this, her recently released stand-alone novel that really captured me. It’s a strange little book about essentially the afterlife where worlds go to finally die after whatever apocalyptic event took them out in the first place. There, these worlds shrink slowly and whatever people remain, must make due in a patchwork place made up of all sorts of different peoples and worlds. It’s a place where change is everything, except for one man, Last, an individual who no one seems to really know but who has been around forever. The story jumps through various people’s tales of their interactions with Last, and through these tales, we explore a taste of the wide variety of worlds and peoples that make up Driftwood. It was such a unique story, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it. It’s definitely a must-read for fans of science fiction/fantasy.

#8 “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

“Mexican Gothic” Review

This was a joint review for both Kate and I, and we both enjoyed it immensely. I think I’ve included a book by Moreno-Garcia on my last two “Top 10” lists, as well, so that should demonstrate my general love for this author. All of her books have been completely different, a Regency romance/fantasy, a Mexican folklore/fable, and here we have a Gothic horror story also set in Mexico. I never know what I’m going to get, but I do know that it’s always good. This book was definitely the creepiest thing I’ve read by her. It plays with all of the Gothic horror tropes in really creative ways and even has tinges of other horror stories like “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The setting is so cool, a rural town in Mexico during the 1950s, and Noemi is an excellent heroine. Fans of the author will definitely enjoy this, and as Kate can attest, horror-lovers will likely enjoy it, too.

#7 “The Poppy War” by R. F. Kuang

“The Poppy War” Review

I’m currently reading the second book in this series, “The Dragon Republic,” and it’s bringing back all the memories of why I enjoyed the first book so much. Don’t get me wrong, both the fist and the second are tough reads, but that’s also because Kuang doesn’t shy away from the absolute horror that is warfare, especially the terrible impact it has on innocents caught in the crossfire. The series also explores the burdens that warfare places on its soldiers. Rin’s story is dark, heavy, but also completely compelling. She’s just the sort of character you can’t help but fall in love with while also wanting to constantly shake her and say “No, don’t do that!! Can’t you see??” I also really enjoy the interesting magic system and pantheon of gods that are introduced. Magic comes with a heavy, heavy price, and we see Rin’s struggle with it lead her into incredibly challenging moral areas. The third book came out this fall, so I’m a bit late to this series, overall. But fantasy lovers, especially military fantasy lovers, are sure to enjoy this.

#6 “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine

“A Memory Called Empire” Review

I think this was the most straight-up science fiction story I read this year, and it’s only fitting that it made it’s way onto this list. It’s also another one that came out a bit ago and for whatever reason, I didn’t get to until this fall. I blame long library audiobook wait lists for delaying the pure joy that was my experience reading this book. I really loved everything about it: the interesting technology that is introduced, the various cultures that we see, the exploration of topics such as colonialism, empire, and reform. And, of course, our main character Mahit Dzmare is lovely. Taking on the role as a new ambassador to the sprawling Empire, Mahit’s story is one of untangling a complex web of politics and opposing motivations. Through her eyes, we, too, get to explore the tensions that come between both loving and fearing such an immense force as an Empire that is slowly sprawling out across the galaxy and subsuming all it finds in its path. The second book in the series is coming out this spring, and I have an e-ARC all queued up, so this time I’ll be more on top of things!

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 2020?