Kate’s Review: “Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery”

Book: “Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” by Brom

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley, and a preview from Tor Nightfire via a giveaway.

Book Description: A spirited young Englishwoman, Abitha, arrives at a Puritan colony betrothed to a stranger – only to become quickly widowed when her husband dies under mysterious circumstances. All alone in this pious and patriarchal society, Abitha fights for what little freedom she can grasp onto, while trying to stay true to herself and her past.

Enter Slewfoot, a powerful spirit of antiquity newly woken… and trying to find his own role in the world. Healer or destroyer? Protector or predator? But as the shadows walk and villagers start dying, a new rumor is whispered: Witch.

Both Abitha and Slewfoot must swiftly decide who they are, and what they must do to survive in a world intent on hanging any who meddle in the dark arts.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel, as well as Tor Nightfire for sending me a preview with illustrations.

I’ve crowed on here about how much I love the historical horror film “The Witch” probably dozens of times. If you are sick of it, sorry! But I really love the story of a Puritan family being tormented by a coven that lives in the woods by their farm…. Or is it their own hubris and mistreatment of their teenage daughter Thomasin that is the true horror of that movie? Who can say? Best movie ending EVER. When I was reading up on “Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” by Brom, I was getting serious “The Witch” vibes, which made me super eager to get my grubby little paws on it, and I sat down one night thinking I’d start it, and enjoy the first few chapters. But then the ol’ Soup Brain happened, because I basically read this book in one sitting.

Jumping for joy at this book, truly. (source)

I never knew that I needed a “Beauty and the Beast” meets “The Witch” story, and yet here we are and “Slewfoot” gave me LIFE. Brom has created two compelling main characters who are isolated, angry, scared, and in need of companionship, and makes you care about both of them so, so much. Our first is Abitha, an Englishwoman who was sent to The Colonies to become a bride for a farmer (at a price, of course, as her father had no need for her but need for drinking cash). Abitha’s husband Edward is caring and a little awkward, and while they aren’t really romantic there is an intimacy there that is lovely, as well as short lived. When Edward dies tragically, Abitha takes over the farm, lest his nasty brother Wallace take it over and take her in as an indentured servant. And then we have a nameless forest spirit who awakens after a slumber, hungry and egged on by other spirits to kill and feed, in hopes that a mysterious Pawpaw tree will rebloom and recapture the magic of the forest. When Abitha and this being meet, thus begins a slow burn friendship, quasi-romance that both their worlds don’t approve of.

For me Abitha’s story was the more compelling one, as she is a headstrong woman in a Puritan community, and tales of this kind of strife are always my jam (especially if there is hope for the woman taking her freedom… and maybe a little revenge). Abitha is very easy to root for, and watching her slowly start to trust ‘Slewfoot’ (as her community calls The Devil, and she isn’t so sure this being she befriends ISN’T a devil of some kind) and come into her own ‘cunning’ powers through his assistance and friendship is so, so gratifying. You want her to remain powerful, you want her to get the best of Wallace as he plots against her and turns the town against her, and you want her and Slewfoot to just be together, be it romantic or platonic or a third kind of love that transcends both.

I also liked seeing Slewfoot slowly learn that he can be more than just a slayer and avenger for nature, which is what the wildfolk Forest, Creek, and Air have told him he is. Slewfoot has no memory of what he was before he went into this stasis, and while he starts out hungry and violent and frankly a bit terrifying, he starts to yearn to be more than this, and to connect with Abitha as they tentatively begin to interact with each other. I did find some of the folklore stuff to be interesting, though it KIND OF also felt a bit appropriative as Brom does take stories from Indigenous cultures of the region and applies them to this tale in some ways. It sounds like he did a lot of research and also spoke to members of the Pequot community to be as accurate and respectful as possible, which is definitely good, but there were some elements of the story that felt glossed over in regards to themes involving Indigenous people and their role in the narrative.

And the horror elements of this story are pretty on point, though they are few and far between until they are REALLY front and center. I would almost consider this more of a dark fairy tale or fantasy than a horror story, but that said I’m going to keep it as horror because there are definitely moments of body horror and just the horror of terrible humans that set me on edge. Slewfoot has his moments (especially when he’s still in the cave at the beginning of the book), but it’s really more the horrors of a fanatical community that will commit terrible acts in the name of God that really made me uncomfortable. As this kind of story always does. Abitha is so beaten down and abused by most of the town (with a few exceptions), that by the time she has to make a choice about mercy or revenge, you almost assuredly will be rooting for revenge. But that is also interesting, because as the story goes on and Slewfoot’s true identity is slowly parsed out, it becomes clear that sometimes the things we see as evil are actually neutral in the big scheme of things, and the things we consider righteous and good are deeply insidious. It’s a direction that I am all for, and I was wholly satisfied with how everything in this book gets wrapped up.

And finally, I have to mention the illustrations. The eARC that I received from NetGalley didn’t have any illustrations, but I was lucky enough to win a giveaway of a preview of the book from Tor Nightfire, which had a written sample of the story and a sampling of some of the artwork that Brom has included in the book. It’s haunting and feels very traditional in its design, and I know that when I do eventually get the book in print (as I need this to be a part of my home library) I will be excited to see what other images there are beyond the handful in the preview.

“Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had this year to be sure. If you like “The Witch”, this book will probably be a good fit for you. It’s just so damn good.

Rating 10: Magical, dark, angry, and wondrous, “Slewfoot” is a fantastic tale of witchcraft and finding out where you belong.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 Horror Releases”, and would fit in on “Witch Hunts”.

Find “Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Book Club Review: “Black Sun”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse

Publishing Info: Saga Press, October 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Alex Award

Book Description: A god will return
When the earth and sky converge
Under the black sun

In the holy city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare celestial event proscribed by the Sun Priest as an unbalancing of the world.

Meanwhile, a ship launches from a distant city bound for Tova and set to arrive on the solstice. The captain of the ship, Xiala, is a disgraced Teek whose song can calm the waters around her as easily as it can warp a man’s mind. Her ship carries one passenger. Described as harmless, the passenger, Serapio, is a young man, blind, scarred, and cloaked in destiny. As Xiala well knows, when a man is described as harmless, he usually ends up being a villain.

Kate’s Thoughts

I’d heard of “Black Sun” through various book circles, online hype, and awards talk. I knew that it was really well liked by fantasy fans, and when it was picked as a book club book I had two very clear feelings about it. The first was ‘oh good, it’s great seeing BIPOC authors writing fantasy novels and this one has a lot of good hype around it!’ The second was ‘oh no, epic fantasy’. But I went in with an open mind because I have been surprised by fantasy now and then, in terms of how well I connect to it!

I can definitely recognize that “Black Sun” has some great epic fantasy elements to it, and hell, there were things that I liked about it as well! For one, I really liked Serapio and Xiala. For Serapio it’s because of his brooding and haunting backstory and the fact he seems to be walking the line between potential hero and villain. For Xiala, I liked her tenacity, I liked her motivation of being a disgraced sea captain, and I liked that she was tough but also very layered. I also really liked the two of them together, and how their potential romance built and formed against a backdrop of seafaring and potential disaster with the impending eclipse and Serapio’s potential destiny. And the themes and elements taken from Pre-Columbian folklore and mythology all seemed well researched and well implemented, which made me curious to look into some of the folklore beyond my own limited knowledge.

But as well all know, at the end of the day, I am not really an epic fantasy reading kind of gal. While there are some exceptions to that general rule, as a genre it doesn’t connect with me as much. So even though I could absolutely see the talent that Roanhorse has in writing this book and can appreciate the final product for how ambitious and well crafted it is, “Black Sun” wasn’t really my thing. And that is purely based on the genre preferences I have and not on the work itself. You should absolutely take my thoughts with a grain of salt, as Serena is the one who is going to have the most helpful and relevant things to say.

“Black Sun” may not work for you if you’re like me and you don’t care for epic fantasy. But it’s easy to see why it’s so lauded by those who do like the genre.

Serena’s Thoughts

I said this at bookclub itself, and I’ll repeat it here: this is why Kate and I are great blog partners! We both love books, but (with some definite exceptions and cross-overs) we tend to enjoy very different genres and types of reads. This gives us a lot of breadth of coverage on the blog and, hopefully, provides options and insights to readers of a lot of different sorts. This book is a perfect example. Epic fantasy is hardly ever Kate’s thing, and this was a bit of a miss for her. But for me? Loved the heck out of it! Hit every checkbox for things I like! Excellent all around! So, you see? Two very different sides of the same “loves books” coin.

For me, there was much to love about this book. I read the audiobook, so I missed out on the awesome maps that were provided in the print copy, but the world-building was so detailed and imaginative that I had no trouble picturing this sprawling world. From cities perched on pillars linked with bridges, to perilous seas and distant lands, it felt like a fully realized world full of different cultures, histories and religions. This information came out slowly and organically, something of a staple of epic fantasy, so readers must trust that these bits of the world and history will come together as the story continues. Which it does, brilliantly!

I also really enjoyed the way the story was laid out. It’s definitely the kind of read that takes its time setting up all of the various characters and their arcs and motivations. But the author wisely helps jumpstart this process by giving us a few glimpses of where some characters will end up by the book’s end before jumping back to about a month before these events. This type of teaser keeps readers on their feet, wondering how a character will get from point A to point B. I think it worked really well and did help with the slower pacing at the front end of the story.

I also really liked our three (kind of four?) main characters. I definitely had favorites, but I enjoyed all of their stories individually as well. It’s that delicious sort of torture where you have multiple characters you love and you see them beginning to be set up on opposing sides of a coming conflict. Like Kate, Serapio and Xiala were my favorites, with the spunky and sea-bitten Xiala taking the crown as my most enjoyed character. However, I also liked the political intrigue (another staple of much epic fantasy) that came with Naranpa’s story.

I loved the heck out of this book. The audiobook was also an excellent read, and I highly recommend that to fans of audiobooks. There are different narrators for all four main characters, and each one does an excellent job. I will definitely be checking out the second book the minute it comes out!

Kate’s Rating 6: This is very clearly well written and thought out epic fantasy. But as we all know, epic fantasy and I don’t really mix well.

Serena’s Rating 10: I loved this! Strong world-building, excellent mythology, and relatable characters make for the perfect fantasy read.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you like the maps and the character list that were provided for the reader? Did these things make it easier to keep everything straight while you read?
  2. Do you think that the world building that Roanhorse did in regards to the Pre-Columbian inspirations was well done?
  3. What did you think of the gender representation in this novel?
  4. What did you think of the major city and town settings of Tova vs Cuecolla?
  5. Whose perspectives were your favorites? If there was a side story you could explore, whose would you choose?
  6. What are your thoughts on the magical elements and systems in this book?

Reader’s Advisory

“Black Sun” is included on the Goodreads lists “Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance”, and “2020 Locus Recommended Reading List”.

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

Next Book Club Book: “Furia” by Yamile Saied Méndez

Serena’s Review: “The Last Graduate”

Book: “The Last Graduate” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Previously Reviewed: “A Deadly Education”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

Kate’s Review: “My Heart Is a Chainsaw”

Book: “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” by Stephen Graham Jones

Publishing Info: Gallery/Saga Press, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: “Some girls just don’t know how to die…”

Shirley Jackson meets Friday the 13th in My Heart Is a Chainsaw, written by the author of The Only Good Indians Stephen Graham Jones, called “a literary master” by National Book Award winner Tananarive Due and “one of our most talented living writers” by Tommy Orange.

Jade Daniels is an angry, half-Indian outcast with an abusive father, an absent mother, and an entire town that wants nothing to do with her. She lives in her own world, a world in which protection comes from an unusual source: horror movies…especially the ones where a masked killer seeks revenge on a world that wronged them. And Jade narrates the quirky history of Proofrock as if it is one of those movies. But when blood actually starts to spill into the waters of Indian Lake, she pulls us into her dizzying, encyclopedic mind of blood and masked murderers, and predicts exactly how the plot will unfold.

Yet, even as Jade drags us into her dark fever dream, a surprising and intimate portrait emerges…a portrait of the scared and traumatized little girl beneath the Jason Voorhees mask: angry, yes, but also a girl who easily cries, fiercely loves, and desperately wants a home. A girl whose feelings are too big for her body. My Heart Is a Chainsaw is her story, her homage to horror and revenge and triumph.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I’m going to be repeating myself a bit here, given that back in July I reviewed “The Final Girl Support Group” by Grady Hendrix, and I waxed poetic about my deep deep love for slasher movies. I don’t know why it was that a super anxious teenager like me was so enthralled by horror, especially horror that involved slicing and dicing teenagers, but I’m sure it’s the ability to explore such anxieties in a safe way. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I found out that Stephen Graham Jones, one of my favorite horror writers writing today, was writing a book that was an ode to the slasher genre. “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” is that ode, and I was excited to see what a well known slasher lover like he would do with it, especially since he’s also SO good at weaving in social issues and metaphors into his horror stories that make them all the more brilliant. And holy moly, did “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” NOT disappoint. I assure you, this book is FANTASTIC.

Would I steer you wrong? (source)

There are so many things I want to talk about in regards to this book, but let’s start with the obvious: the slasher stuff. Jones is, as I mentioned, a well known fan of the slasher genre (as seen on his social media but also in her previous ‘Final Girl’ novel “The Last Final Girl”, which I reviewed on this blog as well). In “My Heart Is a Chainsaw”, our main character, Jade, is a slasher movie fanatic of epic proportions. And since she is the one that we are mostly seeing the story through, we, too, get to bathe in all the slasher movie knowledge and lore as she is convinced that her small town of Proofrock, Idaho is falling victim to the start of a slasher massacre. Jade is working out theories based on all kinds of movies and franchises, and we are hard hit with references to so many movies that it was tricky (but super fun) to keep up. From the well known lore of the likes of “Friday the 13th” and “Halloween”, to lesser known treasures like “Trick or Treat” (not “Trick R Treat’, “Trick or Treat” a movie about a heavy metal musician whose ghost comes back to wreak havoc through a record, IT IS THE BEST) and the like, this book hits so many movies with love and affection. We even get history lessons and thematic breakdowns via essays that Jade has written to her favorite teacher, Mr. Holmes, which then tie into the plot line as it is progressing in real time. It’s meticulous and incredibly well done, and Jones balances all of it without it ever feeling overdone or hokey.

But the thing that really, really made this stand out for me and brings it to a whole other level is the layered and heartbreaking portrayal of Jade, and her circumstances. One of the big issues is that of the town itself, as Proofrock is seeing an influx of outsider cash and influence as a gentrified community called Terra Nova is starting to move in (and it is this group of people that seems to be dropping like flies). It’s not the first time a community has had this kind of development, while the new people move in and their influence of money and value start to make things harder for the less fortunate. There are also references to the Indigenous community there, of which Jade is a part, as her father is Native, and the way that they are perceived and in a number of ways left behind or forgotten about. This also plays into the overall horror arc, as, without giving too much away, the violence of Colonialism against the Indigenous groups who lived there is still being felt in this community, and there are repercussions that are starting to bubble up.

And this leads into the brightest part of this story, and that is the character of Jade herself. When we first meet her, Jade is very easy to fit in the box of weirdo teenage girl who loves horror movies, who humorously could find herself living a horror movie and her know how will surely make her plucky and easy to root for. And yes, that is true, but Jones slowly unfolds layer after layer of Jade, and what we get is an incredibly complex girl who has experienced numerous traumas and heartbreaks over the years. She has an abusive father, an absent mother, no friends, and cannot see any escape out of her life except through slasher films, which she clings to because they are a better alternative to the horrors that she has seen and experienced. So when she thinks that an actual horror movie is unfolding in her town, now is her time to shine. BUT THAT SAID, there is also this heartbreaking aspect that comes forth, as while Jade has all of the components of a slasher in her mind that are unfolding, and while she is definitely piecing things together, she has such a struggle with how she views herself that she cannot see the value or part that she could be playing when all is said and done. And that is why not only is “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” a super fun slasher homage, it’s also an incredibly emotional story about a girl who is dealing with a lot of terrible shit.

I loved “My Heart Is a Chainsaw”. If you have been sleeping on the genius that is Stephen Graham Jones, I implore you, STOP IT. Go get this book! ESPECIALLY if you love slasher movies! But even if you don’t! There is so much to love about this story! JUST READ IT!

Rating 10: Intense, heartfelt, and filled with slasher goodies, “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” is my favorite Stephen Graham Jones book yet.

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Heart Is a Chainsaw” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Horror Releases”, and “Horror To Look Forward to in 2021”.

Find “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Firekeeper’s Daughter”

Book: “Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley

Publishing Info: Henry, Holt, & Co., March 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: As a biracial, unenrolled tribal member and the product of a scandal, eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. Daunis dreams of studying medicine, but when her family is struck by tragedy, she puts her future on hold to care for her fragile mother.

The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team. Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, certain details don’t add up and she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into the heart of a criminal investigation.

Reluctantly, Daunis agrees to go undercover, but secretly pursues her own investigation, tracking down the criminals with her knowledge of chemistry and traditional medicine. But the deceptions—and deaths—keep piling up and soon the threat strikes too close to home. Now, Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she’ll go to protect her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known.

Review: Sometimes, when you are reading a book, there is a moment where you just know that it is going to knock your socks off. I couldn’t pinpoint where it was in “Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley, but I know it was early. I know there was a moment where there was a switch that flipped, and I said to myself ‘this is going to be fantastic’. I bought it after hearing a bit of buzz, but it admittedly sat on my pile for awhile. I happened to pick it up the same day that I had the pleasure of seeing Boulley talk during a virtual conference, and what began as ‘oh, that’s cool serendipity’ shortly thereafter morphed into something more.

It was very this. (source)

I loved this book. I LOVED it. Angeline Boulley is a fantastic writer who has a gift for imagery, characterization, and plotting, and the result is a hell of a debut novel. The mystery at hand as so many layers, and not just in terms of evidence and components, but also in terms of the consequences and difficult realities that it has because of the community it is affecting. Our main character, Daunis, is such an effective and complicated but easy to root for protagonist, and she is completely believable in every step she takes based on her experience, background, and personality. We slowly learn her backstory while we are meeting her in the middle of a huge traumatic change, as her maternal grandmother has just had a stroke and months previously her maternal uncle was found dead of a meth overdose. Daunis is feeling adrift, even when she has already felt a bit adrift, being the biracial daughter of a white mother and an Anishinaabe man, so her very existence was a huge scandal (parentage aside, her mother was a teenager when she became pregnant, and shortly thereafter he left her for another girl he’d also gotten pregnant). Daunis has had to straddle the privileged white identity as well as her Indigenous one, and has never felt truly and fully accepted by either side of the family, no matter how much love she feels from both sides. Her need to find herself, and her need to avenge the death of her best friend Lily (whose murder she witnessed), as well as her uncle, drives her even more. Daunis is such a compelling main character, I just loved her and loved everything about her. When I saw Boulley speak during the Virtual U.S. Book Show, she described Daunis as a ‘Native Nancy Drew’, and while meth is a bit more high stakes than secrets in old clocks, her pluckiness and likability is totally an homage to young women detectives in literature. And yes, her chemistry with Jamie is…. it’s just wonderful, and heartbreaking, and beautiful, and that’s all I am going to say about her and Jamie. Because you gotta read the book.

But Daunis’s Indigenous cultural identity plays a huge part in this story, and Boulley weaves it all in spectacularly. I think that in a lot of YA thrillers in which a young adult protagonist would be asked to be a CI for the government, it may be a hard and dangerous decision, but on that they would ultimately do for ‘the greater good’ without many personal qualms outside of danger. But that isn’t so in Daunis’s case, nor can it be. Her decision to work with the FBI and the BIA is certainly not one to take lightly, given the terrible history both organizations have with Indigenous people in this country (really, the United States Government in general has just been awful in this regard). But once she’s in it, we get a gritty and suspenseful, as well as critical, look at what it means to be a CI, as well as the way that the FBI and BIA approach communities with such systemic and cyclical oppression. Daunis approaches this as ‘the greater good’, but never truly trusts Ron, the FBI agent, as his motivation is to stop the criminals, as opposed to helping the community that is being affected by the meth supply heal and get better.

There is also the complicated relationship that Daunis has with her maternal side, in particular her Grandmary, who absolutely loves her granddaughter, but is racist towards the Indigenous population in the community as seen through flashbacks and second hand accounts. While it could be written that Daunis either completely excuses her grandmother, or completely shuns her grandmother, instead we find a very realistic and complicated middle ground for her. Along with both those really complicated examinations, every time we get information about Daunis’s culture, be it through conversation, demonstration, or flat out explanation, it is done in a way that is so natural that it always fits the moment. It feels strange to say that it’s ‘unique’, as the uniqueness of it probably comes from the fact that Indigenous voices in literature have been underrepresented for far too long, but it was certainly a fair amount of new information to me, someone who grew up on Dakota Land and has spent a lot of time north on Ojibwe/Anishinaabe Land.

AND, as if I haven’t gushed on long enough, BUT I’M GOING TO CONTINUE, the mystery is also great. I may have guessed some parts of it, but that didn’t even matter to me because it was well crafted, complex, and it was really able to hit home the tragedies of meth running in this community and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that are at the center of the mystery. There is so much power in this story. As well as a lot of darkness (content warnings here an there, from domestic abuse to murder to a sexual assault that happens off page, but is definitely upsetting). But the darkness always has a bit of hope and resilience to go along with it, and that made all the difference.

“Firekeeper’s Daughter” is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Do yourself a favor and read this book. It is almost assuredly going to be on my Top Ten list this year.

Rating 10: It’s just fantastic. A healthy and powerful mix of a well done mystery and a meditation on being Indigenous in the 21st century, “Firekeeper’s Daughter” blew me completely away.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Firekeeper’s Daughter” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books by Indigenous Women”, and “Hello Sunshine YA Book Club Book List”.

Find “Firekeeper’s Daughter” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “A Desolation Called Peace”

Book: “A Desolation Called Peace” by Arkady Martine

Publishing Info: Tor Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher and Edelweiss+!

Book Description: An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

Previously Reviewed: “A Memory Called Empire”

Review: I made the mistake of waiting over a year after “A Memory Called Empire” was published before reading it. Not this time! The second I saw the sequel pop up on Edelweiss I requested it. And then I had to diligently wait to read it so that I could cover more recent books in a timely fashion. That took some self-control, let me tell you. But the time finally came, and the payoff was definitely worth it! I think I may have enjoyed this book even more than the first.

The war that Mahit started to save her station has begun. Back home at Lsel Station, however, she thinks her part in this story is over, even with the reminder of what she’s done flying past in the form of Teixcalaan war ships. But soon enough, she’s called back into action. Three Seagrass arrives with a request: join her in making first contact with these strange aliens. With no coherent language and the mysterious ability to appear suddenly, these creatures are nothing like the Teixcalaan Empire has faced before. Maybe a barbarian is the only one who will understand them?

In the way of good second novels, “A Desolation Called Peace” is bigger than “A Memory Called Empire” in pretty much every way. Not only does the story expand outwards from the single city/planet that it was localize within in the first book, but the narrative itself expands to encompass not only Mahit’s storyline, but also Three Seagrass’s and several other new (and familiar) characters. These efforts to broaden the scope of the story result in an expansion that feels leaps and bounds ahead of the first book. And this is particularly impressive given how detailed and precise the world-building was there, already.

The culture, language, history, etc., of Teixcalaan felt fully realized in all of the little ways one doesn’t think about but that stand-out when you really step back to appreciate an author’s work. From its emphasis on poetry and literature in its speech and protocol, to the cloudhook technology that seems a natural extension from where our own smartphones are headed. And here, Martine takes that strong foundation, and blows it up to add not only a more detailed look at Mahit’s home, Lsel Station, but adds in an entire new species/culture of the aliens our main characters are interacting with. All while still exploring the ins and outs of the Empire itself, with a closer look at the different religions within it and at the inner workings (both technological and political) of Teixcalaan’s powerful military. Frankly, it’s incredible.

The expansion of character POVs was also really impactful. I loved Mahit in the first book, but in this one, she was probably the least interesting character. Now, don’t read that wrong! I still loved her and her arc, it’s more to say that the additional characters were just that interesting that the more familiar Mahit faded a bit into the background in comparison. I particularly enjoyed getting to see into Three Seagrass’s mind. She was a huge character in the first book, so getting to see finally through her eyes was amazing. Beyond her own interesting story, I was particularly impressed by the duel views that Mahit and Three Seagrass brought to similar issues. Three Seagrass is clearly not a malicious character, but being in her head was a great opportunity to witness a character recognizing and confronting their own privilege and biases.

Beyond Three Seagrass, we also had chapters from the leader of the military front, a powerful, female general, and from Three Antidote, the young partial clone of the previous emperor who we met in the first book. I won’t go into much regarding either of their stories as there are some spoilers there, but, needless to say at this point, I really loved them both. Perhaps, particularly, Three Antidote’s chapters were impressive for how well they capture the thinking of a young boy approaching maturity but still a child at heart. With all the complicated, fleshed out adults, it can be hard to write a compelling child character alongside them, but Martine perfectly captured the thinking and actions of a kid in Three Antidote’s unique position. Again, incredible.

I also really loved the twisty way the story unfurled, with pieces that you didn’t even realize were pieces falling together in the end to resolve many mysteries all at once and illuminate themes you thought were only brought up as passing anecdotes. This review is already long, but if I let myself, I could probably go on and on. Fans of the first book are sure to love this one, too, and any sci-fi reader who hasn’t jumped on board this train, really needs to!

Rating 10: A masterpiece of a space opera! All the more impressive for expanding so effortlessly from the highs of the first novel.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Desolation Called Peace” is on these Goodreads lists: Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021 and 2020/21 Space Opera.

Find “A Desolation Called Peace” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.7): Brief Lives”

Book: “The Sandman (Vol.7): Brief Lives” by Neil Gaiman, Jill Thompson (Ill.), & Vince Locke (Ill.).

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1993

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Dream’s youngest sister, the loopy Delirium, convinces him to go on a quest for their missing brother, Destruction. But Dream may learn that the cost of finding his prodigal sibling is more than he can bear.

Review: This was the storyline in “Sandman” that I was most looking forward to revisiting. My love for Morpheus’s younger sister Delirium knows no bounds, and I remembered that the story that has so much to do with her was the one that touched me the most on my first read through of this series. Her childlike innocence and whimsy, which is also steeped in the darkness of her past, has always been so utterly charming and lovely, and “Brief Lives” puts her at the forefront as she gets in her mind the idea of finding the long lost Endless Sibling, Destruction. When both Desire and Despair say no, she turns to Dream, who is mourning the end of a romantic relationship and decides to go. What comes next is a story that sets the wheels in motion for where this series eventually ends. As well as a road trip tale between the unlikeliest of companions, Delirium and Dream. And I LOVE a good road trip.

Someday we will road trip again! (source)

I, of course, loved “Brief Lives” thanks mostly to Delirium, whose character and design is just a joy as well as a little sad. She is very clearly not in her right mind, gravitating towards those who are in the same boat, so seeing her and the stoic and matter of fact Dream is both quite amusing and bittersweet. It is interesting, however, that she is the Endless that is so determined to find Destruction, who left the family and disappeared three hundred years previously. We see flashbacks of Destruction interacting with some of his siblings, as well as the moment that he decided to go, foreseeing that the Age of Enlightenment and a move towards reason across humanity would bring forth things that would almost make him a bit pointless. Delirium is the perfect sibling to want to find him, as one must only seek Destruction if they were in a similar place as she is. I hesitate to say ‘crazy’. It’s far more complex than that. We get some great moments of humor with her and Dream on this trip, as her driving a car or interacting with nonplussed humans is really great fun.

We also get to see that she didn’t start as Delirium, but as Delight, and that the change she went through was in part thanks to Destruction. This change or multi faceted characterization is a HUGE theme in this tale, especially for the dysfunctional siblings; Destruction talks about how the Endless are two sided coins and aren’t just one thing, but also the inversion of that thing. Delirium is insane, but also one of the most clear headed of her siblings. Death brings, well, Death, but is also the kindest. Desire is both filled with want, but also incredibly vicious. And so forth. I loved seeing these concepts explored as Dream and Delirium go on their journey, inadvertently causing destruction on their quest to find Destruction. This is probably the arc in which we get to see the intricate relationships between The Endless, who are both otherworldly beings with scope and metaphysical attributes that tie into humanity, but also a dysfunctional family group with shifting alliances, petty grievances, and old hurts that siblings know far too well.

And finally, we do get a final visit to the relationship between Morpheus and his son Orpheus, who, cursed with immortality, is just a head being cared for by a family on an island off of Greece. As we saw in “Fables and Reflections”, Orpheus begged his father to kill him, as he is really the only one that can grant him that wish, and Dream turned his back on his son. Now Morpheus has to confront that decision, and to face the child that he abandoned for reasons that Orpheus does not understand. I don’t really want to spoil how this all plays out, but it’s significant and sets the course for what is going to happen next in the series. Also, it made me weep.

And finally, once again, the artwork is lovely. I haven’t gushed enough about Delirium’s design, which is excellent and cheerful and creepy at once. But there was one particular panel that really stuck out to me near the end that just sums up the vast, ever-changing realities of The Endless and their worlds.

Source: Vertigo

“Brief Lives” is a significant story arc and is still my favorite thus far. It really captures the philosophy, the humor, the pathos, and the wonder of the entire series.

Rating 10: A lovely story arc about family, grief, and change, “The Sandman: Brief Lives” is my favorite tale in the series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.7): Brief Lives” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mythic Fiction Comics”, and “Death Gods and Reaper Protagonists”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.7): Brief Lives” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Monsters of Men”

Book: “Monsters of Men” by Patrick Ness

Publishing Info: Candlewick, May 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: As a world-ending war surges to life around them, Todd and Viola face monstrous decisions. The indigenous Spackle, thinking and acting as one, have mobilized to avenge their murdered people. Ruthless human leaders prepare to defend their factions at all costs, even as a convoy of new settlers approaches. And as the ceaseless Noise lays all thoughts bare, the projected will of the few threatens to overwhelm the desperate desire of the many. The consequences of each action, each word, are unspeakably vast: To follow a tyrant or a terrorist? To save the life of the one you love most or thousands of strangers? To believe in redemption or assume it is lost? Becoming adults amid the turmoil, Todd and Viola question all they have known, racing through horror and outrage toward a shocking finale.

Previously Reviewed: “The Knife of Never Letting Go” and “The Ask and the Answer”

Review: So remember how I was all whiny about the cliffhanger ending in the first book? Yeaaaah, Ness definitely leaned into that inclination with the end of “The Ask and the Answer” with both the arrival of another ship from Viola’s fleet and an army of Spackle marching in on New Prentisstown full of righteous vengeance. Betwen all of that, you’ll understand why my reviews for these books came on after another. I simply never put down the series and blew through all there in a matter of days!

Todd and Viola have finally managed to reunite only to be immediately set off on separate missions. For Todd, his victory over the Mayor is fleeting as the Spackle army marches down upon the town and the Mayor’s army still recognizes only one leader. For Viola, two more of her people have finally arrived only to find themselves in the midst of an ongoing war with terrible choices all around. To engage in a war against a wronged native people? To side with a terrorist group? To side with the maniacal Mayor whose cruelty sparked much of the violence? With no good choices, once again, both Todd and Viola must face just how far they will go to save one another. And at what cost to the greater good?

Following the path set in the first two books, Ness expands even further on the questions he presents his characters (and the readers) regarding violence, justice, and priorities. The first book was a very insular look at one boy’s, Todd’s, struggles to cope with one-on-one violence in his efforts to protect himself and those around him. In second book, we see Viola confronted with a terrorist organization that is working against a truly evil man but which is operating within its own questionable morality. And in the third book, we see the righteous fury of the native Spackle as they finally bring the Mayor’s great war to fruition. And we experience the horror of Viola, Todd, and, importantly, the two new comers as they are forced to pick sides in a volatile situation that seems to have no good outcomes.

The book jumps right into things with the first battle playing out between the Spackle, equipped with new powerful weaponry, and the Mayor’s army. There is no glory or exciting action here. Ness, through Todd’s eyes, is committed to presenting the horrors of war. Even from the Spackle whose mistreatment at the hands of the humans would justify much. It is all death, pain, and misery, as brought to home most poignantly in Todd’s eyes as he witness the death of a random man in the army whose Noise is projecting fear and longing for his wife and small son right up until the end. There’s no escaping the sheer nightmare of war as described in this battle scene. It’s powerful and painful and an excellent precursor to much of the rest of the book.

In the second book, we were given an extra POV through Viola’s eyes. Here, we get a third and begin to learn more about the Spackle themselves. I can’t talk to much about this without some fairly big spoilers. But I can’t emphasize how pleased I was with this addition. The first two books show a people who have been forcibly silenced by colonizers. All that is known of them is what the humans around them have projected upon them, with the original war and memories of what the Spackle were like before their enslavement all but gone in people’s memories. There were so many intriguing aspects of this portion of the story. I particularly liked the way Ness handled Noise and how, for the Spackle who are natives of this world, it is seen in a completely different light than it is by the humans who have torn themselves apart because of it.

Todd and Viola, for their part, are still excellent characters. We see each of them struggle with the choices before them, making missteps that are driven by what seems like the right choice at the time but that has lasting implications for everyone around them. Each has grown so much from the first book, but we almost get that much character growth all again in this single, last book. As a whole, their journeys are each spectacular and even more wonderful as a pair.

This entire trilogy is so very, very good. It challenges readers at every turn to evaluate the price of every action or reaction, regardless of how righteous the cause. Ness is smart enough to leave many of the conclusions left unsaid but obvious enough. It’s always nice to see an author trust his readers like that. The ending was rough, but so was the entire series. Sad, but hopeful. I think that’s how I’d sum up the the trilogy anyways. If you’ve enjoyed the first two books, I think it’s a given that you’re already planning on reading this given (yet again!) the massive cliffhanger at the end of that book. But I will reassure you all that Ness stick the landing perfectly.

Rating 10: Heartbreaking in the best way possible.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Monsters of Men” is on these Goodreads lists: Most Interesting World and Best War Novels.

Find “Monsters of Men” at your library using WorldCat!

Monthly Marillier: “Son of the Shadows”

“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.

Book: “Son of the Shadows” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor, June 2002

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

Book Description: After years of comparative peace, darkness has fallen upon Ulster. Trouble is brewing and even those in the heart of the forest are not safe. Niamh, elder daughter of Sorcha, is required to make a strategic marriage, while her sister Liadan, who has the gift of Sight and her mother’s talent for healing, finds herself drawn into the shadowy world of the Painted Man and his warrior band. There Liadan begins a journey that is to transform her life.

Review: The second book in Marillier’s trilogy is really where the author gets to stretch her wings. The first story, while definitely fleshed out and expanded upon, is still essentially a fairy-tale retelling of the “Sevan Swans” so much of the bones were already in place. Without that framework, “Son of the Shadows” is really the book that lays the foundation for the rest of the series. It’s also probably one of my favorite books of Marillier’s.

The next generation is coming into their own. Niamh, the beautiful and wild-hearted eldest. Sean, the chieftain-in-training son. And Liadan, the unexpected second daughter, a young woman very similar to her mother, Sorcha, but who operates outside the Fair Folks’ plans. When their quiet life at Sevenwaters is interrupted by a series of misfortunes, Liadan begins to see hints of a darker force working around them. But while all fingers are pointed at a dangerous mercenary, the Painted Man, and his band of skilled fighters, Liadan suspects otherwise after spending time in their company and forming an unexpected bon with their leader.

In some ways, in this second book Marilliar simply switches the roles of her hero and heroine. Where Sorcha was the damaged character and Red the patient, steady force who drew her in, Liadan and Bran play opposite roles. By the nature of her curse, Sorcha was by necessity a quiet character. Here, Liadan is much more of a force. She has a similar quiet strength, but she’s also snappy, stubborn, and powerful in ways that make her a fascinating character to follow. Bran, of course, has his own strengths, but the mystery of his past, a wrong that makes him slow to trust and suspicious of women, affects him deeply. Much of their relationship is defined by Liadan’s sheer force of will to love Bran despite his best efforts. It’s a very different romance than the sweet, steady love story that played out in the first book. Here there are a lot more sparks, both of the good and bad variety.

I also really liked the secondary characters we get here. Red and Sorcha, of course, play a role, but Marillier does a good job keeping their page time limited so that they don’t overpower the new story she is trying to tell. We also see some familiar faces in Connor and Liam, but there, too, their roles are smaller. Sean, Liadan’s twin brother, plays an important role as the future leader of Sevenwaters, and we begin to see how he will differ from the generation that came before him. We also meet Eamonn, the son of the leader who betrayed Sevenwaters in the previous book. He plays an unexpected role here, adding a sense of building tension throughout the story.

I will give the book one ding here, with these secondary characters. Marillier falls prey to the writing trap where her characters could clear up much by simply communicating. There’s a lot of unnecessary secrecy and no good explanation is ever given. And the secrecy isn’t just a tiny side plot, it has big, important impacts on the story itself, which ultimately undermines those plot points.

The writing and world-building is a beautiful and complex as ever. Again, given the nature of Sorcha’s curse, much of the first book is dependent on the author’s ability to flesh out the world and characters without a talkative leading lady. Here, since Liadan not only can speak but is an opinionated character, we see a new strength of Marillier’s writing in the compelling dialogue. But it’s in the book’s quieter, sadder moments that her writing really shines, and there are several instances (some of them pretty unexpected!) that always make me cry.

One last, small criticim of the story has to be some of the smaller tales woven throughout. Storytelling is often featured in Marillier’s work and there is often a particular tale within the story itself that holds particular importance to a character’s arc. We have that here, too. But there were also several other stories, and while they also connected to characters and actions, they sometimes felt too long and that they were throwing off the balance of the actual story being told. I think a few of them could have been cut or reduced to help with the overall pacing of the book.

But, while I did rate this book one point down from the first, it’s still one of my favorites and maybe even preferred to that one. I really like Liadan as a leading character, and her romance with Bran is very swoon-worthy. It’s a solid sequel to the first and does a lot of the heavy-lifting for paving the way for future books.

Rating 9: Freed of the trappings of a fairytale retelling, we begin to see what Marillier is really capable of.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Son of the Shadows” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Heroine in a Fantasy Book and Fantasy Romance.

Find “Son of the Shadows” at your library using WorldCat!

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!