Serena’s Review: “Half Sick of Shadows”

Book: “Half Sick of Shadows” by Laura Sebastian

Publishing Info: Ace, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Everyone knows the legend. Of Arthur, destined to be a king. Of the beautiful Guinevere, who will betray him with his most loyal knight, Lancelot. Of the bitter sorceress, Morgana, who will turn against them all. But Elaine alone carries the burden of knowing what is to come–for Elaine of Shalott is cursed to see the future.

On the mystical isle of Avalon, Elaine runs free and learns of the ancient prophecies surrounding her and her friends–countless possibilities, almost all of them tragic.

When their future comes to claim them, Elaine, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Morgana accompany Arthur to take his throne in stifling Camelot, where magic is outlawed, the rules of society chain them, and enemies are everywhere. Yet the most dangerous threats may come from within their own circle.

As visions are fulfilled and an inevitable fate closes in, Elaine must decide how far she will go to change fate–and what she is willing to sacrifice along the way.

Review: I’ve had a fairly sketchy experience of “King Arthur” re-tellings. But my most recent example, Kiersten White’s “Camelot Rising” series, has been excellent all around, so I was primed to jump in for another go at the topic! “Half Sick of Shadows” was also billed as a feminist reimaging of the tale while also incorporating the story from “The Lady of Shallot.” Color me intrigued.

Growing up surrounded by magic and her friends, Elaine’s life should be full of joy and wonder. However, she knows what is to come, and it’s almost all tragic. Gifted (or cursed) with the ability to see the future, Elaine’s view of the present is always tinged to be seen through the lens of what is to come. Slowly, slowly the pieces begin to fall in place as their roles begin to solidify, and the friends find themselves thrust into the world of Camelot, a place where their magic is outlawed and their fates await them. But is the future set? Or can Elaine’s choices make all the difference?

So, let’s just get it out of the way. I didn’t really like this book. I’m going to start this review off with a backhanded compliment. If anything, this book was too creative. Frankly, the less familiar readers are with the original Arthurian tale and, to a certain extent, the original ballad of “The Lady of Shallot,” the more enjoyable this book would probably be. There’s a fine line when re-imagining a classic tale such as this between reinterpreting well-known aspects of the original and bounding away completely into left field and leaving readers who are familiar with the original bewildered and frustrated. This one was definitely the latter.

Most of the characters were so completely re-worked that other than their name they would be unrecognizable from their origins. Arthur, for example, was such a nothing character, so naïve and silly, that it was almost impossible to imagine him becoming the legendary king. The relationships between the characters were also completely re-worked. Mordred, for example, is not Arthur’s son, which has a pretty big impact on the greater story, as fans of the original know. The classic love triangle is also re-worked. To some extent, that can be refreshing (again, the “Camelot Rising” went a completely different direction with this, too, to great effect), but my bigger problem came with the fact that as these large, familiar parts of the story fell, there was less and less tying any of it to the original Arthurian epic. Even small things, like the fact that Merlin seemed to either not really care about the events going on around or him or actively root against Arthur as king, just felt off to the point of distraction.

I also didn’t care for Elaine herself. She was continuously self-guessing and doubting her choices. Much of her eternal dialogue I found to be annoying. Until the very end, she seemed to struggle to take any initiative herself, often running to others for help. I also struggled with the way she presented her story, jumping back and forth in time through her visions. Her romance was also so tinted by the doubts and concerns over the future that it was barely enjoyable.

I also struggled with the original set-up of the story. Why are all of these characters at Avalon, growing up with all of this magic? There were explanations for a few of them, but it almost felt like some wacky school story with a bunch of teenagers running around having adventures in magic-land. There were also some re-imaginings of characters having magical connections that were a bit strange. Some of them I could get behind, but others, less so.

Lastly, I’m not sure why this book is being heralded so strongly as a feminist story. That word can mean a lot of different things to people, but at its most basic sense, book-wise, I would think it means strong female characters in a story that, in the past, largely side-lined its women characters. So, sure, Elaine being the focus changes that. But she’s not a particularly great example of a strong, female character. And don’t get me started on the changes to Guinevere. Way too much magical wand-waving over her character, as if giving her fantasy aspects somehow makes her “strong.” If the only way you can think to make your female characters strong is to give them magical abilities, I’m going to side-eye you really hard.

So, yeah, this book wasn’t my cup of tea. There were too many changes from the original tale to not be constantly distracting and distressing. I also didn’t enjoy the main character or many of the side characters either. Perhaps those less familiar with the original story might enjoy it, but I think there are better examples of re-tellings out there.

Rating 6: The story strays too far away from its origins and drowns beneath a plethora of added fantasy elements.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Half Sick of Shadows” is, questionably, on this Goodreads list: Feminist Interest 2021.

Find “Half Sick of Shadows” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Bubble”

Book: “Bubble” by Jordan Morris, Sarah Morgan, & Tony Cliff (Ill.)

Publishing Info: First Second, July 2021

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

Book Description: Based on the smash-hit audio serial, Bubble is a hilarious high-energy graphic novel with a satirical take on the “gig economy.”

Built and maintained by corporate benevolence, the city of Fairhaven is a literal bubble of safety and order (and amazing coffee) in the midst of the Brush, a harsh alien wilderness ruled by monstrous Imps and rogue bands of humans. Humans like Morgan, who’s Brush-born and Bubble-raised and fully capable of fending off an Imp attack during her morning jog. She’s got a great routine going—she has a chill day job, she recreationally kills the occasional Imp, then she takes that Imp home for her roommate and BFF, Annie, to transform into drugs as a side hustle. But cracks appear in her tidy life when one of those Imps nearly murders a delivery guy in her apartment, accidentally transforming him into a Brush-powered mutant in the process. And when Morgan’s company launches Huntr, a gig economy app for Imp extermination, she finds herself press-ganged into kicking her stabby side job up to the next level as she battles a parade of monsters and monstrously Brush-turned citizens, from a living hipster beard to a book club hive mind. 

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

In terms of podcasts, while I’ve dabbled outside the non-fiction realm, I really haven’t listened to many fiction series. I did “Welcome to Nightvale” for awhile, I listened to “The Black Tapes” (probably my favorite of the fiction ones I’ve listened to), and I tried out “Limetown”. But overall, it’s gotta be true crime, movies, or books for the topics I wanna listen to. So I had never heard of the podcast “Bubble” when I saw that it had been adapted into a graphic novel by Jordan Morris and Sarah Morgan, the creator and a writer for the show itself. While I wasn’t certain about what to expect, the premise was promising and intriguing: a dystopian world, a stunted society that seems perfect, and a dangerous wilderness of creatures that could kill you? That all sounds great. Throw in some humor and it sounds even better. So I gave it a go, because I hoped it would stand on its own two feet, outside of a podcast shadow. And I don’t think that it quite did.

That isn’t to say that this is “Welcome to Nightvale” levels of inability to stand on its own. Here is what I liked about “Bubble”: the premise really is a good one. I liked the idea of Fairhaven, a typical city that runs on capitalism and the gig economy, and the people who live there and work within that economy. Satire about the drawbacks and pitfalls of a late stage capitalist society is kind of ripe for the picking, but “Bubble” does it well. Our main character, Morgan, is a woman living in Fairhaven now, but was raised in the surrounding wild area called The Brush, which is inhabited by creatures called Imps that are dangerous and prone to attack humans. Morgan knows how to deal with them, and when an Imp gets into Fairhaven she will kill it and bring it to her roommate Annie who will make it into drugs. Morgan’s company, however, starts up a social media gig app (think Task Rabbit) that will give people the ability to go kill Imps for profit. Throw in a hapless Postmates delivery guy named Mitch who is attacked by an Imp and given powers, and you have some fun main characters who are just trying to get by in a gig economy whose stakes are pretty damn high. I liked Morgan and Annie, and Mitch feels very Chris Pratt in “Parks and Rec”, so he’s pretty charming. And really, the entire idea is fun, especially when they all have to go into the Brush on a mission, involving a mysterious stone and the Brush living father Morgan left behind. SO much potential, right?

The problem I had was that “Bubble” never quite explored the potential enough for me. This is a story that really should have some pretty wide and complex world building to it, both inside Fairhaven and outside in The Brush. And we see bits and pieces of both when our main characters are interacting within. But we don’t really have the time to explore backgrounds, histories, or dynamics, as the plot is constantly moving forward. It’s entertaining, it’s quite funny at times, and the characters have lots of fun things to say to each other. But I never really felt like I got a true feel for the setting they are in. And the only character that I feel really got a lot of depth was Morgan, while everyone else, outside of a few hints and tidbits here and there, really kept in static place as the tale went on. There just wasn’t much room to breathe, and I don’t know if that is because that’s how the podcast goes, or if it’s more a limitation when translating the podcast story to a graphic novel. I suppose that I could go listen to the podcast to find out, but the story we have at hand isn’t really compelling enough for me to go and do so.

That said, I really liked the art! Tony Cliff has some vibrant color schemes that feel sleek and futuristic, and I enjoyed the character designs as well. The Imps in particular are pretty cool.

(source: First Second)

“Bubble” has its moments and some great ideas. I just think that it could have gone further.

Rating 6: A lot of entertaining moments, witty banter, and cool imagery. But it feels very rushed and not well expanded upon, world building wise, and some of the characters fall flat.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bubble” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Podcast Books”, and “Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Graphic Novels”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Red Wolf”

Book: “Red Wolf” by Rachel Vincent

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: For as long as sixteen-year-old Adele can remember the village of Oakvale has been surrounding by the dark woods—a forest filled with terrible monsters that light cannot penetrate. Like every person who grows up in Oakvale she has been told to steer clear of the woods unless absolutely necessary.

But unlike her neighbors in Oakvale, Adele has a very good reason for going into the woods. Adele is one of a long line of guardians, women who are able to change into wolves and who are tasked with the job of protecting their village while never letting any of the villagers know of their existence.

But when following her calling means abandoning the person she loves, the future she imagined for herself, and her values she must decide how far she is willing to go to keep her neighbors safe.

Review: And here we are, the third “Red Riding Hood” book that came out this summer! It’s actually really impressive how all three of authors pulled from the same inspiration (at least somewhat) but ultimately created such different stories and worlds. Unfortunately for “Red Wolf,” it was third to come out and third for me to read, so it had some big shoes to fill after the first two were such hits. However, I don’t think I would have enjoyed this lackluster outing much more had it come first.

Red has grown up in her small village, a little community of safety surrounded by a dark wood full of monsters. For most, this forest represents a natural boundary to their world, one they won’t ever need to venture within. For Red and her family, it is something very different. Within those dark depths, she, like women before her, protect that small village, prowling the woods in the form of a wolf. Soon enough, however, Red’s life is thrown upside down when the path she had seen before her begins to twist and turn into choices she had never imagined making. Will she be strong enough to protect those she loves?

First off, props to another gorgeous cover that definitely played its part in getting me to request an ARC for this book. All three of the “Red Riding Hood” books this summer had neat covers and each was distinct from the others, so that’s pretty neat. Unfortunately, most of my compliments end there.

This book wasn’t terrible, or anything, but it did seem to have an endless list of mild frustrations and then a wackadoodle ending that made the entire experience feel a bit like death by a thousand cuts. It starts out well enough, with an atmospheric village and woods and a young girl who must venture out to her granny’s every month. And then, of course, she discovers she’s so much more than she thought and the book should be off to the races.

Unfortunately, it felt a lot like an engine that kept rolling over and couldn’t quite get going. Adele’s character is set up as a fairly typical teenager, a bit stubborn, but empathetic enough to be challenged by the choices presented her throughout the story regarding the nameless many vs the the known few. But there also wasn’t anything about her that was particularly gripping or made me feel truly invested in her. I also felt like the story go a good head of steam going with some of these moral quandaries and then, somehow, never fully resolved them. The ending, especially, felt strange and disjointed from the greater conversation being presented in the book. It felt rushed and left me with a lot of mixed feelings about Adele herself.

It was also not a great sign to see Adele happily paired up at the beginning of the book. You know it’s never going to last in a YA fantasy when the main character is already happily in love when the story starts. And, alas, my predictions came true and the dreaded love triangle emerged. It could have been more annoying, I guess, but that’s hardly a compliment for the choice to have one in the first place. The other side of the triangle also felt very rushed, with Adele herself mentioning that she couldn’t believe how quickly she’d fallen for so-and-so. If the main character can barely believe it, I definitely can’t.

The writing was also a bit challenging. I can’t point to any particular quirks or style choices, only that it didn’t capture me, and I was very aware that I was actively reading as I turned the pages. I couldn’t sink into the story, for whatever reason. There were some legitimately creepy and interesting fantasy aspects in this world, but the story itself felt like the framework was too flimsy to fully hold the ideas themselves.

Overall, I was pretty disappointed in this book. It did a lot of things just OK, and then didn’t have any big wow moments to pull it up from just middling. And, of course, love triangles are almost always a detractor in my enjoyment of story. Readers looking for a more middle-grade, young YA might enjoy this, but I’d recommend “For the Wolf” and “The Wolf and the Woodsman” as your “Red Riding Hood” books of the summer before this one.

Rating 6: A big ole “OK.” Love triangles and a lackluster heroine didn’t help this story get off the ground.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Red Wolf” is on these Goodreads lists: YA Fantasy Standalone Books and Red Riding Hood Across Genres.

Find “Red Wolf” at the library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Sheets”

Book: “Sheets” by Brenna Thummler

Publishing Info: Oni Press, August 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The Library!

Book Description: Marjorie Glatt feels like a ghost. A practical thirteen year old in charge of the family laundry business, her daily routine features unforgiving customers, unbearable P.E. classes, and the fastidious Mr. Saubertuck who is committed to destroying everything she’s worked for.

Wendell is a ghost. A boy who lost his life much too young, his daily routine features ineffective death therapy, a sheet-dependent identity, and a dangerous need to seek purpose in the forbidden human world.

When their worlds collide, Marjorie is confronted by unexplainable disasters as Wendell transforms Glatt’s Laundry into his midnight playground, appearing as a mere sheet during the day. While Wendell attempts to create a new afterlife for himself, he unknowingly sabotages the life that Marjorie is struggling to maintain.

Review: Who says that ghost stories need to be scary? I know that when I cover them on this blog, they usually are. But there are also kind and friendly spirits, not just ones that want to make peoples lives miserable. “Sheets” by Brenna Thummler is one such tale, a ghost story for kids, but instead of focusing on scares and bumps in the night, it takes on friendship, loss, and moving on from tragedy. All themes that can fit within a ghost story pretty well. I had high hopes for this story, as ghosts are definitely my jam. “Sheets”, however, didn’t really give me what I wanted from it.

But let’s talk about what I did like first. The themes I mentioned above are all very well done in the narrative. We have two main characters, both of whom are dealing with these themes in different ways. For Marjorie, a thirteen year old girl running the family laundromat, she is still mourning the loss of her mother and adjusting to her new life. Her father has been so depressed that he doesn’t leave his room, and Marjorie is left to care for her brother, the family business, and to take care of herself. On the other side of the coin is Wendell, a ghost who lives in a world of other ghosts (who all wear sheets) who died when he was very young. He doesn’t really feel like he fits in in his new afterlife, and decides to hitch a ghost bus (loved this idea!) back to the living world. Where he finds himself in Marjorie’s laundromat, and their worlds collide. Both characters are dealing with loss and sadness, and I thought that Brennan did a really good job of exploring grief in ways that kids could understand without being condescending or grim. I especially liked her take on what the Ghost world is like, with lots of different designs for a bunch of stereotypical sheet wearing ghosts and some really humorous moments.

My biggest qualms with this story, however, really dock the points that I would have given it. Namely, the complete lack of any empathetic, responsible, and caring adults in Marjorie’s life, bordering on complete criminal negligence. I understand that this is a book written with a kid protagonist, and as such needs to give the protagonist more agency and independence than a regular kid would have in the real world. But I really struggled with it in “Sheets”. Marjorie is a thirteen year old girl who is running the family business herself, as after her mother died her father has been completely overtaken by depression and barely leaves his room. And if that had been the extent of it, I might have been able to swallow it down. Depression can absolutely be completely hobbling, and it’s not unrealistic for him to fail his children and to have Marjorie feel like she needs to pick up the pieces. My BIGGEST problem is that the customers she does have aren’t asking ANY questions as to why this child is running this place! Hell, they even get mad at her when Wendell messes things up, more inconvenienced about their laundry than they are concerned about a child, a CHILD, having to run the business in which they are patronizing! We get a couple adults who do question her life and how she’s doing here and there, but it’s never pursued. Perhaps it is strange for me to be questioning this in a story about literal ghosts, but I couldn’t get past it. It seems really farfetched, and spoiler alert, it isn’t really resolved! We get a deus ex machina at the end and Marjorie is STILL running the darn laundromat instead of, you know, living her life as a child. I’m just not sure about what this tells kids about Marjorie’s circumstances. Because oh man, her Dad really needs to get his act together.

And this could possibly be because of the fact the story itself feels a bit half baked. Marjorie interacts with Wendell here and there, they never really have super in depth moments, but we just kind of have to believe that the way it all wraps up is because of their friendship, which I never felt like was really explored. There is a connection that Marjorie and Wendell share even before he became a ghost, but it feels convenient and twee, and not used enough that it really felt important. Had their connection been stronger, both before and after his death, it would have been a more enjoyable relationship. As it was, it was hard to invest in the two of them as friends.

I did like the artwork though! It’s quite unique, and the designs of the ghosts are pretty darn cute. And as someone who appreciates a nice color scheme, I really liked the palette in this one.

“Sheets” didn’t give me the feel good ghost story I was anticipating, but I absolutely can see myself recommending it to kids who are looking for something ghostly, though maybe not too scary.

Rating 6: A really good examination of different kinds of grief, but ultimately felt half baked and unrealistic (even taking into account we’re dealing with ghosts!).

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sheets” is included on the Goodreads lists “Spooky Graphic Novels for Kids”, and “Friendly Ghosts”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.3)”

Book: “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.3)” by Sina Grace & Siobhan Keenan (Ill.)

Publishing Info: BOOM!Box, December 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The critically-acclaimed series concludes as Daphne Walters must confront her former roommate Michelle, discover the mystery of just who’s behind that basement door and decide her entire future – this should be totally easy, right?

CRAZY, SUPERNATURAL, LOVE.

Daphne Walters’ life is complicated enough, living at Rycroft Manor with her ghostly friends and trying to figure out why everyone in LA is always 30 minutes late for everything important. So it’s TOTALLY the perfect time for Daphne to lose one of her friends, for the mystery of the ghost behind the basement door to be revealed and for Daphne to decide her entire future, RIGHT? And did we forget to mention that Daphne’s former roommate Michelle just unveiled a scheme to exorcise the friendly ghosts from Rycroft? Yeah, there’s that too.

GLAAD Award-nominated Sina Grace (Iceman) and illustrator Siobhan Keenan (Jem and the Holograms) conclude the acclaimed series that proves true love and friendship never dies!

Review: We find ourselves once again coming to the end of a series, and this time we are saying goodbye to the living and the dead at Rycroft Manor. “Ghosted in L.A.” is a very different beast from “The Sandman”, the other big conclusion in graphics I’ve had as of late, but one of the charms was its simplicity and heart that is content to just be a fun, funny urban fantasy. But that said, even something light and airy still needs to have due diligence done if it wants to end well. And, unfortunately, “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.3)”, the last volume of the series, stumbles.

We’ll start with the good. As someone who found herself invested in Daphne, Ronnie, and the ghosts of Rycroft Manor, I was mostly happy with how things turned out for all of them. I thought that Daphne’s arc, from aimless young adult to competent ghost friend and in general friend, was well done and realistic within what we know about the character. I liked seeing how she changed and adapted her relationships with her ex boyfriend Ronnie, and how she grows after living with the spirits at Rycroft Manor and learning from them. In terms of how her arc ends, and how the arc of the ghosts and Ronnie and everything else ends, I enjoyed the trajectory and found it to be funny, sweet, and just a nice ending to a nice series. I also appreciated that we did get SOME glimpse into Daphne’s roommate Michelle’s background, as she has mostly been a surly and grumpy foil who is very religious up until this point. This volume tries to show a little bit more to her, and I like that there was some context for her behaviour.

But here is the problem with everything getting wrapped up right now, albeit in a mostly satisfying kind of way. There is SO MUCH GROUND to cover, from plot points to character growth to relationship strife to general conclusions and climaxes, that cramming it all together in this one volume feels stuffed, rushed, and haphazard. Like, what all happened in the last volume that needed to be resolved? Let’s see: Daphne and Kristi had a huge fight; Zola is creating tension in the house; a strange door has started causing issues in the house; Ronnie is feeling caught between his human friends and his ghostly ones; Michelle is starting to get suspicious. That’s just to name a few. I don’t know if this series was cancelled early (as we’ve seen in other graphics reviews on this blog), or if it was always planned to end like this, but “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol. 3)” needs to pull together a lot in just one volume, and it suffers for it. What could have been drawn out mysteries and plot points (specifically the mystery of what is going on behind the mysterious door) end up being explained and solved nearly in succession, which completely undercuts the tension and impact of the story. We also find ourselves a bit cheated out of really getting to know some of the ghosts at Rycroft, as characters like Ricky and Pam are waylaid in favor of Zola since she is now a love interest for Daphne (also thrown together I might add). New conflict is tied up way too fast, and character exploration isn’t given its due. It was supremely disappointing, as I felt like this series has a lot of potential to dig into interesting things, especially given the ghost roster. I don’t want to take off too many points for this kind of thing, as perhaps this was all a bit of a surprise and things just had to be concluded on a shorter timeline. But it definitely made this the weakest of the three volumes.

But the artwork by Siobhan Keenan is still utterly charming. Along with the same designs that we’ve seen in the series, we dabble a bit more into some horror moments in this volume, which are reflected well in the drawings themselves.

I still think that “Ghosted in L.A.” as a whole is worth checking out if you like some lighter ghostly fare. It has humor, an inclusive cast, and a lot of heart. The end may be a bit of a stumble, but the sum of it’s parts is enjoyable.

Rating 6: A mostly satisfying end to the series, though it feels rushed and thrown together.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.3)” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but it would fit in on  “Paranormal Romance/Urban Fantasy Set in California”.

Find “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.3)” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “The Apocalypse Seven”

Book: “The Apocalypse Seven” by Gene Doucette

Publishing Info: John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whatever.

The whateverpocalypse. That’s what Touré, a twenty-something Cambridge coder, calls it after waking up one morning to find himself seemingly the only person left in the city. Once he finds Robbie and Carol, two equally disoriented Harvard freshmen, he realizes he isn’t alone, but the name sticks: Whateverpocalypse. But it doesn’t explain where everyone went. It doesn’t explain how the city became overgrown with vegetation in the space of a night. Or how wild animals with no fear of humans came to roam the streets.

Add freakish weather to the mix, swings of temperature that spawn tornadoes one minute and snowstorms the next, and it seems things can’t get much weirder. Yet even as a handful of new survivors appear—Paul, a preacher as quick with a gun as a Bible verse; Win, a young professional with a horse; Bethany, a thirteen-year-old juvenile delinquent; and Ananda, an MIT astrophysics adjunct—life in Cambridge, Massachusetts gets stranger and stranger.

The self-styled Apocalypse Seven are tired of questions with no answers. Tired of being hunted by things seen and unseen. Now, armed with curiosity, desperation, a shotgun, and a bow, they become the hunters. And that’s when things truly get weird.  

Review: There was definitely a phase for post-apocalyptic books a few years back. It seemed you couldn’t help but run into about five different ones the moment you stepped foot in a bookstore or library. No, however, the trends have seemed to move on. But that doesn’t mean readers who enjoy the genre have! So I was pleased to see this book pop up and read it straight away. Sadly, it didn’t quite hit the mark for me, though I think the concept was interesting enough.

Overnight, it happens. The world ends, nature runs wild, and people disappear. All but seven random individuals who wake up to find themselves seemingly alone on an almost unrecognizable planet. Vegetation has reclaimed the cities, and animals have climbed back to the top of the food chains. To say nothing about the bizarre weather. Slowly, these seven begin to run into each other, piecing together their own experiences and trying to make sense of their new reality. Where did everyone go? Why were they left behind? And what do they do next?

While this book didn’t really work for me, I did like the essential premise. The fact that the apocalypse happens suddenly, with no warning, and with no obvious explanations. I’ll also note that this is a handy little trick for an author who wants to just get down to the business of writing the immediate aftermath without needing to put much explanation out there. On one hand, this could be seen as lazy. On the other hand, it could leave open the door for an author to really dig into a more action-oriented story with mysteries that can build toward a resolution as the story progresses. Unfortunately, whichever was the original purpose of the choice, I don’t think the author really used it to its best advantage.

Instead of getting a head start on the story, it felt like sixty percent or so of the book itself was preamble. It takes forever for the seven characters to actually meet up and somehow, in a story full of wild animals and strange weather, everything seemed to kind of plod along. Definitely not what you want for a story with the type of stakes that are set up here, something that should lend itself towards quick action and swift pacing.

The story also didn’t seem to want to (or be able to) fully explore the philosophies and themes touched on in the story. Where does humanity go in the face of the loss of most of humankind itself? What role does religion play in one’s individual journey in these circumstances? Do people rise to the occasion or sink under existential hopelessness? There’s a lot of rich material to be explored with this type of book and, indeed, the story touches on many of these themes. However, it does nothing more than just touch on them. In many ways, it read like post-apocalyptic-lite, unable to settle on a lane between light and comedic or deep and thoughtful. Instead, the book seemed to try to both and thus failed at each.

In the end, I felt like this book was more of a good idea than it was an actual read. I’m not sure if the author just wasn’t sure of exactly what he was attempting to accomplish or just wasn’t up to the task, in the end. Those who are really hankering for a post-apocalyptic story might enjoy this. But, especially for those who don’t mind YA, I’d definitely point readers towards “Dustborn” instead.

Rating 6: Ultimately, the book was unable to fully amount to much, resting too hard on the concept itself and not providing enough fleshed-out story to support itself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Apocalypse Seven” is a newer title, so it isn’t on any Goodreads lists. But it should be on “Best Post-Apocalyptic Fiction.”

Find “The Apocalypse Seven” at your library using WorldCat.

Serena’s Review: “Questland”

Book: “Questland” by Carrie Vaughn

Publishing Info: John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books, June 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Dr. Addie Cox is a literature professor living a happy, if sheltered, life in her ivory tower when Harris Lang, the famously eccentric billionaire tech genius, hires her to guide a mercenary strike team to his island retreat off the northwest coast of the United States. Cox is puzzled by their need for her, until she understands what Lang has built. It’s said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and Lang wanted to prove it. On this distant outpost, he has created an enclave full of fantasy and gaming tropes made real, with magic rings that work via neurotransmitters, invisible cloaks made of nanotech smart fabric, and mythological creatures built from genetic engineering and bionics.

Unfortunately for Lang, the designers and engineers hired to construct his Questland have mutinied. Using an energy field, they’ve cut off any communications and are preventing any approach to the island. Lang must retake control before the U.S. military intervenes. The problem? The mutiny is being led by the project’s chief designer, Dominic Brand, who also happens to be Addie Cox’s ex-boyfriend. It’s up to her to quell the brewing tensions between the tech genius, the armed mercenaries, and her former lover before the island goes up in flames.

Review: This was an impulse read for me based purely on the fact that the description sounded sort of like “Jurassic Park but with magic.” Plus, how often do you get to see a literature professor be the hero of the story? As a literature major myself, not often, I’ll say! The concept altogether seemed just weird enough to work. Unfortunately, for me, it landed a bit flat. Which is the exact opposite of what you want from a story that should be a high octane romp!

Addie’s life, while not particularly thrilling, is stable and predictable. For example, one evening while in her office at work, it is completely predictable to be faced with a student who has not fully thought through their paper idea that sounds suspiciously like an excuse to just play a lot of video games. What is a surprise, however, is to be suddenly whisked away by mysterious players and informed that her unique skillsets have qualified her for a mission. Namely, she’s familiar with stories and an island that has been technically enhanced to play out these stories in real life has gone rogue. Now Addie and a team must venture into the wilds and make contact with Addie’s ex-boyfriend, the brilliant man at the heart of the dysfunctional island.

There were definitely some fun ideas in this book. For fantasy fans, spotting all of the references and similarities to classic fantasy works and tropes made for much of the enjoyment. “Lord of the Rings” got a heavy dose, so that in particular stood out. And the general character beats hit well. Addie is the survivor of a school shooting that left her boyfriend and best friend dead. Her struggles with PTSD have driven her life to a large extent and make her particularly uncomfortable working with the military task force who breach the island alongside her. I really enjoyed watching the mutual respect between these two forces come together, particularly the clear (to the reader, maybe not to Addie) understanding that the military characters had for Addie and how she was tackling a struggle that is so real for many in that field.

Ultimately, however, I struggled to really buy into the scenario at the heart of the book. In many ways, the concept (and goals) are similar to “Ready Player One.” Essentially, the author creates some sort of system that allows for their character and readers to revel in all the best-hits of whatever genre their focusing on. For “Ready Player One,” that was 80s pop culture. For this book, it’s classic fantasy and RPG tropes. However, the concept of the island was hard for me to really buy into. We’re meant to believe it has gone rogue for five months, that a team of military personnel have already died trying to reach it, and that, somehow, this is all still operating in secret and without the knowledge of the government.

From there, the decisions of Addie’s ex-boyfriend and the crew that worked with him were equally hard to understand. Their end goal seemed silly, that somehow cutting off contact to the island would result in them being given control of it from the tech billionaire who owned it and employed them. From a team of people who must be incredibly smart to build the island’s systems in the first place, they seemed remarkably dumb about real-world concepts and consequences. It made it really hard to take them, or their position, seriously.

To be fair, I don’t read a lot of the very small subgenre that is LitRPG. With this book, it seems that the author is attempting to merge that type of storytelling with more classic, and generally approachable, fantasy fare. I’m not sure it’s a success, however. I feel that many LitRPG readers would prefer books that simply went that route more fully, and that classic fantasy readers will struggle to accept the premise as its laid out. If you’re a fan of LitRPG, this might be worth checking out. But it’s a fairly lackluster fantasy novel at its bare bones.

Rating 6: I struggled to believe the basic concept at the heart of the story, and from there, even the best character work wasn’t enough to save it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Questland” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on a list like this Books About Video Games and Virtual Reality.

Find “Questland” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Midnight Bargain”


Book: “The Midnight Bargain” by C.L. Polk

Publishing Info: Erewhon, October 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken? 

Review: I requested this one last fall, mostly because I always like historical fantasy novels and because of the simple, but beautiful, cover art. Romance is always a plus too! But here we are in the spring of 2021 before I finally got around to it. Part of that is due to my own poor management of my TBR pile, of course. But my recent enjoyment of “Sorcerer to the Crown,” a title to which this one sounds similar, was really the kick in the pants I needed top finally pick this one up. Unfortunately, that same comparison that spurred my renewed interest is also the thing that ultimately hurt this book for me in the end.

For Beatrice, the life path laid out before her is as set-in-stone as it is unwanted. With a destitute family depending on her, she unhappily looks ahead to a life where she will be forced to give up her magic in order to marry well and restore her family’s prospects. In her efforts to avoid this life, Beatrice pursues a powerful, magical book that will unlock her abilities and make her a Magnus. But as she gets closer and closer to this opportunity, the choices before her become harder and harder. When she meets an intriguing young man, she begins to realize that she will have to lose one of her loves: a beloved husband or her magic.

While I didn’t love this book, there were a few things that stood out to me on the positive side. I thought the integration of the magical system and the Regency world-building was interesting and unique. It was fairly simplistic, but in some ways I think that worked well for this book that was trying to span at least three different genres: fantasy, historical fiction, and romance. And what included was interesting in its own right, with the grimoires and the summoning of spirits at the heart of the fantasy. I also thought the complication of the dangers magic posed to childbearing was an interesting, if a bit heavy-handed, wrinkle to throw in the fold.

However, there were a few too many things that got in the way of my enjoying those aspects of the story too much. Immediately, I struggled with the writing. There is a lot of telling and a distinct lack of showing in the style of the story. And this is especially tedious in the beginning of the story where many bits of information are rather inexpertly dumped on to readers with very little done to obscure this goal. This is a personal preference, of course, but I also found myself becoming increasingly distracted and annoyed by the use of exclamation points in the writing. Not simply in dialogue, but in the actual description of events. It made many of these passages read as juvenile and a bit ridiculous.

I also found the main character fairly unlikable, coming across more annoying than fierce. The love story was also very superficial. It’s pretty much your typical insta-love story, and from there all the “drama” feels artificial and contrived. None of which helps the main character’s likability in the least. The conflict between her (instant) love with the hero, who seemed like obviously a genuinely good guy right from the start, and retaining her magic began to lose its weight fairly early.

The story itself had strange pacing, seeming to drag for long periods in the middle only to pick up again, briefly, towards the end. This wasn’t helped by the fact that, all told, it’s a fairly straight-forward and predictable affair. I struggled quite a bit to maintain interest, which is always a fairly bad sign when I reflect back on my feelings on a book. Overall, I think there are likely better examples of books like this, “Sorcerer to the Crown” (obviously) and also “The Dark Days Club” and its sequels come to mind.

Rating 6: A unique idea falters under poor pacing and a plot that veers to closely to predictable tropes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Midnight Bargain” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantasy of Manners and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Find “The Midnight Bargain” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Black Water Sister”

Book: “Black Water Sister” by Zen Cho

Publishing Info: Ace Books, May 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Jessamyn Teoh is closeted, broke and moving back to Malaysia, a country she left when she was a toddler. So when Jess starts hearing voices, she chalks it up to stress. But there’s only one voice in her head, and it claims to be the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma. In life Ah Ma was a spirit medium, the avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a gang boss who has offended the god–and she’s decided Jess is going to help her do it.

Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny. If she fails, the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.

Review: I was obviously on a bit of a Zen Cho kick recently. In reality, I had requested this one from Edelweiss+ thinking it was part of her “Sorcerer Royal” series. And with that in mind, thought to myself “Oh, shoot! I need to read the second one before this one comes out!” So, off I went to read/review that book. Only to get to this one and discover that this is not, in fact, part of the series and is instead a modern, stand-alone fantasy. Little peak behind the oh, so exciting review process, and my own inability to properly research the books I request!

Sometimes the voices in your head are real. Sure, Jess figured it was just the stress of moving back to a homeland she doesn’t remember, not having two cents to rub together, and feeling locked away from her true self. But when mediums run in your family, there just might be another cause to strange voices. When Jess’s deceased grandmother begins speaking to her about feuds and powerful deities, Jess finds that uncovering her true identity may be much more complicated than she had thought.

First off, props to the cover artist. It’s a beautiful work of art, and it fits the overall feel of the book perfectly. Silly me should really have been able to pick up on the fact that of course this wasn’t in the “Sorcerer Royal” series just based on that, but…yeah, I have no excuses here.

It’s hard to evaluate this book because I was honestly a bit disappointed that it wasn’t part of her historical fantasy series. But that’s on me and not the book. I also don’t typically read a lot of contemporary fantasy. However, the story of a young woman getting tangled up in a feud between gang leaders and a centuries-old deity? Heck yeah! Like Cho’s work in her other series, the magical elements in this book were excellent. I particularly liked the god-like being at the heart, the titular Black Water Sister. I also liked the ghosts and how they were described/used in the story.

However, the characters and writing, two aspects of Cho’s “Sorcerer” series that I found particularly compelling, were less strong here. The tone and style used in that series, the type of “historical” writing that you see in Jane Austen novels and other books of that time, is incredibly challenging. It relies on long, drawn-out sentences and an extensive vocabulary. It’s hard to master, but Cho excelled. So, here, with the much more straight-forward style of writing found in any old contemporary book…it all kind of just fell flat. There were a few lines of dialogue that were witty and clever, but the descriptions, actions, general prose didn’t really stand out or capture me in any way.

I also had a really hard time liking Jess herself. There’s a reason I don’t typically read contemporary books. I’m not very interested in family dramas or the coming-of-age stories you often find in these types of stories. Jess is definitely going through one of these “needs to find herself” moments, and I really struggled to care. As a character, she didn’t feel very distinct or unique, and any actions she took were often forced upon her. Her relationship with her secret girlfriend flounders because of this very thing: Jess’s inability to take action in her own life and come out to her parents. That on its own is understandable, as it’s a very tough thing for those in the LGBT community. But when it is just one example of an ongoing, central trait for the main character in this book? It made for some dull reading.

In the end, this book wasn’t really my thing. Fans of contemporary fantasy will likely enjoy it more. The real strength to be found here was in Cho’s descriptions of Malaysia, and Jess’s experiences returning to a homeland she didn’t recognize. But the characters and writing felt a bit flat. Those looking for a book that is similar to Cho’s “Sorcerer” series should be warned that that is definitely not what’s in store here. Take it or leave it as to whether that’s a good thing for you or not!

Rating 6: An interesting look into Malaysia with a unique fantasy overlay, but the main character was too frustrating for me to fully enjoy this read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Black Water Sister” can be found on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Books by Women of Color and 2021 Queer SFF.

Find “Black Water Sister” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Shadow in the Glass”

Book: “The Shadow in the Glass” by J.J.A. Harwood

Publishing Info: HarperVoyager, May 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Once upon a time Ella had wished for more than her life as a lowly maid.

Now forced to work hard under the unforgiving, lecherous gaze of the man she once called stepfather, Ella’s only refuge is in the books she reads by candlelight, secreted away in the library she isn’t permitted to enter.

One night, among her beloved books of far-off lands, Ella’s wishes are answered. At the stroke of midnight, a fairy godmother makes her an offer that will change her life: seven wishes, hers to make as she pleases. But each wish comes at a price and Ella must to decide whether it’s one she’s willing to pay it.

Review: I’m always up for a good fairy-tale retelling. The story of “Cinderella” is probably right up there with “Beauty and the Beast” as a favorite in the genre as well. There are a bunch of them out there, with some I like better than others. “Ella Enchanted” will probably always be my favorite, and I was alone in the crowd as being underwhelmed by “Cinder.” But it’d been a while since I’d read one, and the summary for this version seemed to indicate a darker take on the classic tale. The darkness delivered. The rest of the book….well.

Ella had once had a future. One filled with coming out balls, high society, and if she was fortunate, a wealthy marriage. But when her wealthy sponsor and the lady of the house dies, Ella finds herself in very different circumstances. Now, a lowly maid with no prospects, Ella spends her nights sneaking into the library and dreaming of what once was. When she triggers a magical event and a powerful fairy appears offering her a way out, Ella is quick to bargain. But as she wishes for more and more, will the price be more than she is willing to pay?

So, like always, I’ll try to start this review with the things that I liked. The biggest pro I have for this book unfortunately ties into a negative aspect as well, but we’ll go for the good side first. The story is definitely a darker re-imaging of the classic tale. There were moments that were legitimately creepy, and I enjoyed the way these darker portions of the story built one upon another, ramping up the tension and sense of inevitable doom as the story progressed. This is definitely not the floofy, Disney version of Cinderella, and it was refreshing to read a very different take on a well-covered story.

On the other hand, this darkness began to overwhelm the story. The deep dive into the psychological aspects of what having wishes that will grant you almost anything can do to one’s own moral compass began to feel a bit exhausting. Ella continues to make the same mistakes over and over again, seemingly learning very little from her previous errors. It also ends up making Ella a very unlikeable character much of the time. She quickly becomes incredibly greedy and self-centered. And while I thought this exploration of what wishes can do to a person was interesting enough, the actual reading experience of it was not very enjoyable.

As part of this dark feel to the book, the story delves into a few tougher issues. They weren’t botched by any means, but I also am not sure the author really covered them as well as I would have liked. The atmosphere of the story is very grim and it did begin to feel stifling at times, made all the harder by my dislike for the main character.

I appreciate that this story wasn’t like many other cookie-cutter versions of the “Cinderella” fairytale, and at times the Gothic feeling of the story was quite successful. The version of the fairy godmother, in particular, was striking. But between the almost oppressive tone of the story and unlikable main character, it wasn’t for me. Those you enjoy darker fairytales might enjoy this, but if you’re a reader who goes into books hanging most of your hopes of enjoyment on your main lead, this probably isn’t for you.

Rating 6: Not to my taste, but an interesting take on a darker version of “Cinderella.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Shadow in the Glass” is a new book, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, yet. But it is on 2021 Gothic.