Serena’s Review: “The Girl the Sea Gave Back”

42867937Book: “The Girl the Sea Gave Back” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: For as long as she can remember, Tova has lived among the Svell, the people who found her washed ashore as a child and use her for her gift as a Truthtongue. Her own home and clan are long-faded memories, but the sacred symbols and staves inked over every inch of her skin mark her as one who can cast the rune stones and see into the future. She has found a fragile place among those who fear her, but when two clans to the east bury their age-old blood feud and join together as one, her world is dangerously close to collapse.

For the first time in generations, the leaders of the Svell are divided. Should they maintain peace or go to war with the allied clans to protect their newfound power? And when their chieftain looks to Tova to cast the stones, she sets into motion a series of events that will not only change the landscape of the mainland forever but will give her something she believed she could never have again—a home.

Review: Here’s another example of a cover that has a model but is still super cool to look at. Notably, she’s wearing clothes appropriate to her character and it depicts a scene that seems to connect with the title and description pretty well. Always love to see that! But, cover aside, I really decided to check this book out based on my enjoyment of the author’s previous book, “Sky in the Deep.” As I mentioned in the Highlights post, it’s always exciting to find standalone fantasy novels. And when you have an author who chooses to write multiple standalones, but in the same world, it’s like getting your cake and eating it, too.

Tova’s remembered life began alone, cold on the sea. It’s only through fate, it seems, that her small craft washes up on shore and she is taken in by a people who are both mystified and wary of her mysterious origins and the power she possesses. As a young woman, she is drawn into a brewing conflict, both internal and external, as the Svell people debate the merits of war. With two of the major tribes having joined together, the Svell see this as their time to rise. But Tova sees darkness ahead. Will they listen to their own mystic, or is she, and the young warrior Halvard from the opposing tribe, doomed to be caught up in another round of warfare?

Sadly, this book wasn’t as much of a hit for me as the first one. I think there are a few factors, but first I want to talk about the things I did like. I was again pleased to return to this world that Young has created. The Viking-like mythology is still intriguing, as is the way of life and cultures that are described for the various clans. The writing itself is still solid and I think she did a good job balancing out introducing new characters and themes, while also giving readers a few peaks at what is going on with beloved characters and arcs from the first book.

All of that said, however, I just wasn’t able to connect with this story the way I was able to with the first. Part of this might come down to the dueling narrators. Having two narrators means that the author needs to balance two characters’ worth of story, emotional motivation, and overall arc with only half the page time that one alone would have. There are obviously benefits in getting to see various characters’ differing perspectives, but it’s still quite challenging. Here, I think both main characters suffered for the lack of full devotion to either.

Halvard, to some extent, was better served in the fact that I at least was familiar with him from the first book and had a bit more emotional investment right off the bat. Tova, however, the titular “girl the sea gave back” always felt a bit bland. Her backstory is intriguing, and her life growing up as a powerful mystic but one who is still seen as an outsider in the clan that has adopted her is compelling. But for some reason, I struggled to fully invest in her story. In the end, both main characters lack the spark that gave life to the main character from the first book.

The plot was also incredibly predictable. To some extent, the same could be said of “Sky in the Deep,” but I think there was enough of a personal arc of her discovery of her brother in the midst of her enemy’s camp and the slow-burn enemies-to-lovers romance to keep the plot failings afloat. But, as discussed, with flat characters, the plot failings become much more apparent. Must of the story revolves around a discussion of fate and destiny. These themes can be compelling if taken apart and contrasted against free will and choice. But here they are simply wielded as clumsy explanations for why unlikely events occurred, hand-waving away coincidences one way and another.

“Destiny” also killed the romance of this story. For one, there was simply a lot less of one than there was in the first, which I personally found disappointing. But for two, what romance we were given was one meet-cute away from instalove, right down to the almost deadly brawl that somehow ends with a “connection.” With all of that destiny and intertwinedness to go around, the reader is never given a reason to root for these two, as we’ve been told from the start that it is simply meant to be. The characters don’t need to build up feelings for each other, they just know they’re there, even across time and space almost.

Overall, this was a very flat story for me. I struggled to find anything to connect to and by the end reading it felt more like a chore to get through. How disappointing, based on the strength of the first story and the fact that the author clearly has skills. In many ways, it almost feels like this would be the author’s first book, and that one the one she pulls out later in all of its more-polished glory. I’m not writing the author off completely, as I know she has good stories in her. This one just wasn’t one of them.

Rating 6: Fans of the first book should beware that this is in many ways “Sky in the Deep” lite.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl the Sea Gave Back” is, weirdly, on this Goodreads list: “Summery vibes.”

Find “The Girl the Sea Gave Back” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Five Midnights”

41555950Book: “Five Midnights” by Ann Dávila Cardinal

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, June 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución.

If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping though Puerto Rico. But the clues lead them out of the real world and into the realm of myths and legends. And if they want to catch the killer, they’ll have to step into the shadows to see what’s lurking there—murderer, or monster?

Five Midnights is a “wickedly thrilling” (William Alexander) novel based on the el Cuco myth set against the backdrop of modern day Puerto Rico.

Review: The first time I encountered the el Cuco folktale was in Stephen King’s book “The Outsider”. While I really liked what he did with it and REALLY liked “The Outsider”, I did see how it could be a little problematic that a white guy was taking a Latinix/Portuguese mythology and twisting it to his own needs. Because of this, when I heard about “Five Midnights” by Ann Dávila Cardinal, I definitely wanted to give it a whirl, given that she is of Puerto Rican descent and sets her story about el Cuco in modern day Puerto Rico. Luckily my local library system had some copies checked in despite its new status, and it didn’t take long to arrive.

“Five Midnights” has a lot of strong points and a lot of potential for YA horror fans. The story is both unique but also timely. You have an old school ‘boogeyman’ story that blends with social themes that are affecting Puerto Rico of the 21st century, such as poverty, the drug trade, and wealthy (read: white) developers coming in and creating further divides between the haves and have nots. You have two perspectives you are seeing within this story: there is Lupe, a Vermont based teenager whose father is Puerto Rican who is visiting her policeman uncle, and Javier, a local who has fought against poverty and drug addiction and is now in recovery. It is mostly Javier and those in his group that reflect the struggles that his community is facing, as he and his friends have fallen into dangerous behaviors due to desperation and circumstance. It is also Javier’s friend group that has started to end up dead, one by one, the targets of a potential murderer, or perhaps supernatural being based in the folklore they grew up with (el Cuco!). Along with Javier is a girl named Marisol, the sister of one of Javier’s dead friends, whose rage and resentment towards their circumstances is channeled towards Lupe, an outsider from America who is also white passing. I really liked that Cardinal took these social issues and not only put them into the narrative, but was able to show how the story of el Cuco could be tied to them, given that it is said el Cuco targets misbehaving children. And honestly, I really like the el Cuco myth, and since it’s still kind of new to me I liked seeing a new interpretation that is based more on what the original folklore is as opposed to Stephen King’s version of it. It makes me want to go out and learn more about the mythology as a whole.

That said, there were definitely some weaker aspects of this book as well. The mystery itself wasn’t REALLY a mystery, as it’s clear from the get go that this isn’t a serial killer or human antagonist, but el Cuco committing the murders. The reasons are sound, and I liked the reveal of the origins, but I never really got completely invested in whether or not Javier and his friends were going to make it out alive or not. I think this is in part because the characterizations weren’t as strong as I would have liked. Javier was fine, but he wasn’t very fleshed out. And Lupe, while the other protagonist, was a bit harder to like, if only because she never really tried to understand nor was totally called out on her privileges, be it that she is an American citizen or that she is white passing. For me the most interesting character was Marisol, but even she never really got past being a two dimensional quasi-antagonist, especially since her antagonism is based in a very understandable anger about her disenfranchised circumstances. On top of that, she and Lupe could have very easily had an interesting relationship where they could have learned a lot from each other. Instead, it was merely two strong willed girls butting heads, which was disappointing. 

The negatives aside, I definitely appreciated “Five Midnights” and the story that it told from perspectives we don’t see as much in YA literature. It has some well done scary moments, and some relevant themes interwoven with the scares.

Rating 6: A compelling and original horror story with some well done social commentary. While the characters weren’t as fascinating as I had hoped, the el Cuco myth was a true strength of this novel.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Five Midnights” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists as of now, but I think that it would fit in on “Books Set in Puerto Rico”.

Find “Five Midnights” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “I’ll Never Tell”

40201006Book: “I’ll Never Tell” by Catherine McKenzie

Publishing Info: Lake Union, June 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I own an eAudiobook.

Book Description: What happened to Amanda Holmes?

Twenty years ago, she washed up on shore in a rowboat with a gash to the head after an overnight at Camp Macaw. No one was ever charged with a crime.

Now, the MacAllister children are all grown up. After their parents die suddenly, they return to Camp to read the will and decide what to do with the prime real estate it’s sitting on. Ryan, the oldest, wants to sell. Margo, the family’s center, hasn’t made up her mind. Mary has her own horse farm to run, and believes in leaving well-enough alone. Kate and Liddie—the twins—have opposing views. And Sean Booth, the family groundskeeper, just hopes he still has a home when all is said and done. 

But then the will is read and they learn that it’s much more complicated than a simple vote. Until they unravel the mystery of what happened to Amanda, they can’t move forward. Any one of them could have done it, and all of them are hiding key pieces of the puzzle. Will they work together to solve the mystery, or will their suspicions and secrets finally tear the family apart?

Review: We are at the end of August already! Summer flew by so fast, and what perfect way to end this season than with a book that was the perfect summer read in tone, plot, and setting. “I’ll Never Tell” by Catherine McKenzie is the tantalizing (to me) combination of a mystery, a dysfunctional family, and a summer camp backdrop, and I it ended up purchasing it on Audible because I just couldn’t wait for the holds lists at both library systems I frequent. Once again, a perfect stew of a book for me and my tastes, on paper anyway.

“I’ll Never Tell” is told from multiple perspectives in two different times. The modern day is split up between the distant and damaged MacAllister siblings. whose parents were the owners of Camp Macaw, and Sean, the groundskeeper who has always been in the periphery of the siblings. The past is told through the eyes of Amanda Holmes, the girl whose lifeless body washed up in a canoe two decades prior, and whose attack remains unsolved. Hers is the only first person perspective, those those of the MacAllisters and Sean are definitely third person yet possibly unreliable. I liked the structure of this overall, though sometimes I felt that McKenzie couldn’t quite keep all the balls up in the air. Some characters felt more well fleshed out than others, as while I definitely felt like I got a sense for people like Margot, the pragmatic middle child, and Ryan, the temperamental oldest and black sheep, others like Mary, the closed off horse fiend, felt closed off. They all served their purposes in how they added clues and perspectives to the overall picture, and their stories laid out against Amanda’s night before she was attacked did come together to create a well done tapestry of a narrative structure and reveal.

I also did enjoy the mystery at the heart of this story, as to who was the one who attacked Amanda. While it’s true that I did mostly guess the solution to the mystery fairly early on, certainly earlier than I should have, getting there was still a fun journey because I liked learning about the characters as a whole. All of this said, this read more like a family drama than a thriller mystery, which might not have been the tone that McKenzie was going for. There were other smaller mysteries at hand as well, and all of those were plotted out well enough that there were still some surprises in store for me, even if the biggest one didn’t pan out that way. For what it’s worth, I definitely tended to listen to this story beyond my time in the car, which doesn’t happen all that often with audiobooks. I did need to know what was going to happen next.

I did take issue with some of the characters, however, specifically Ryan. I understand that there is more to him than his ‘black sheep spoiled oldest son’ persona, and I appreciated that McKenzie didn’t make him completely two dimensional and obvious in the part that he played. However, I felt that too much time was spent trying to redeem him when I didn’t think that he was at ALL redeemable. Complex I will happily give you. But I have little patience for the ‘woe is me, the privileged straight white male’ character arc. Do I concede that things weren’t totally black and white in his characterization? Absolutely. But given how he treats a few of his siblings, and given how he has ‘anger issues’ that end up coming off as totally justified in some ways, and GIVEN that he had a pretty cushy life free of consequences when compared to other characters, his whole ‘I have it hard too pity me’ act felt forced and trite. I did feel bad for him, but I think that there was a little too much effort put into redemption when other characters weren’t given the same treatment, and probably deserved it as much as he did.

“I’ll Never Tell” was a pretty good mystery, and a nice tone for a summer read. While I had expected a little bit more from it, I enjoyed it for what it was, even though I found some character choices dubious. If you are looking for one last summer read, this could be a good contender to make the transition into the fall!

Rating 6: The mystery was compelling and many of the characters were pretty well established, but “I’ll Never Tell” had a couple of unexamined issues that I couldn’t totally overlook.

Reader’s Advisory

“I’ll Never Tell” is included on the Goodreads list “Psychological Suspense for 2019 (January-June)”.

Find “I’ll Never Tell” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Beasts of the Frozen Sun”

42118210Book: “Beasts of the Frozen Sun” by Jill Criswell

Publishing Info: Blackstone, August 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Burn brightly. Love fiercely. For all else is dust.

Every child of Glasnith learns the last words of Aillira, the god-gifted mortal whose doomed love affair sparked a war of gods and men, and Lira of clan Stone knows the story better than most. As a descendant of Aillira and god-gifted in her own right, she has the power to read people’s souls, to see someone’s true essence with only a touch of her hand.

When a golden-haired warrior washes up on the shores of her homeland–one of the fearful marauders from the land of the Frozen Sun–Lira helps the wounded man instead of turning him in. After reading his soul, she realizes Reyker is different than his brethren who attack the coasts of Glasnith. He confides in her that he’s been cursed with what his people call battle-madness, forced to fight for the warlord known as the Dragon, a powerful tyrant determined to reignite the ancient war that Aillira started.

As Lira and Reyker form a bond forbidden by both their clans, the wrath of the Dragon falls upon them and all of Glasnith, and Lira finds herself facing the same tragic fate as her ancestor. The battle for Lira’s life, for Reyker’s soul, and for their peoples’ freedom has only just begun.

Review: Our fairly recent re-read of “Sky in the Deep” for bookclub reminded me just how much I enjoyed Vikings stories. Pair that with “The Wolf in the Whale,” another story that I read this year that partially featured Vikings and had a good romance at its heart, and I was ready and raring to go for more of the same. This made it an easy decision to request a copy of “Beasts of the Frozen Sun” for review. But while it did have elements of what I was looking for, it also seemed to be a bit too off the mark at times for me to fully enjoy.

Lira and Reyker had met years before, though one remembers it as a half-believed nightmare, and the other as a strange encounter with a wild young girl who inspired him to break his own codes of warfare. When they meet again, it is under very different, and yet oddly similar circumstances. Now an adult, Lira holds an incredible power to see the truth of person’s being through a mere touch. It is an ability that has garnered her respect, but also makes her a valuable tool for her tribe, offering her limited option for her future. Reyker has continued on the path set before him so long ago, as a member of  Viking marauding crew that has taken down countless villages. Now, Lira’s tribe is the next and the two are thrown together once again, natural enemies, but with a connection that neither can deny.

As I said in my introduction, this book didn’t quite connect for me. But there were a few pros that I want to start out by highlighting. For one, the writing itself was strong. There was one blurb I read before starting it that mentioned a comparison to Juliet Marillier’s work. Given that this story description sounds just like something that author would write herself and the fact that she’s one of my favorite authors, I had high hopes on that front. And there, at least, it didn’t disappoint. The writing it lyrical, smooth, and feels as if it is a fairytale in the making. At the same time, the action, dialogue, and character moments all read as natural and alluring. There were several turns of phrase that popped off the page for me. While I’m not sure I would quite put it at the level of Marillier’s work, I can definitely see where the comparison came from.

The other stand-out was Lira herself. I really liked her voice and the way her character moved throughout the storyline presented her. She rose to the challenges presented to her, but never lost sight of herself or her unique gifts. Early in the book there is a big emphasis placed on Lira’s limited life choices, due to her unique powers, and I enjoyed the way that Lira approached the responsibility of her gift as well as the confines it put on the paths before her. While I do wish that a bit more was done with her gift itself, Lira, as a character, was another point of favor for this story.

Where the book let me down, however, was with the plot itself and the romance. The plot felt meandering and full of too many ideas all at once. A few chapters would focus on one thing. Then a new event would pop up and suddenly take over. It felt almost like a bunch of mini stories all crammed together, losing sight of any connecting tissue that would pull them all together. There was also a lot of repetitive planning, action, escapes, but then failures. The story literally couldn’t escape its own restrictions and it felt like it, like our characters, was simply floundering around in captivity.

I also didn’t love the romance. And this is where the comparison to Marillier hurt the book for me. If there’s anything that Marillier excels at, other than beautiful prose, it’s amazing romances. So I went into this perhaps with my expectations too high. But, on top of that, Reyker and Lira are both strong characters on their own. And the build up to their romance is intriguing, especially given that they don’t share a common language. But then they kiss, and it’s all downhill from there as they immediately fall into all-consuming love for each other. I wish this could have been drawn out a bit more or progressed in a more natural way. Perhaps I would have been less disappointed with it had Lira and Reyker on their own been less compelling. But as it was, they were both strong characters who deserved an equally strong romance.

I think this book had a lot of promise, and the writing and strong characters get it a long way down the road to success. But the plot seemed to circle back on its self a bit too much and the romance was underwhelming. This is the first in a series, however, so these things could be improved in the sequel. Fans of historical fantasy would probably enjoy this; just keep your expectations in check better than I did.

Rating 6: A solid attempt, but it read as a bit too bland for what I was wanting and missed some opportunities a long the way to take advantage of the strengths it had going for it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Beasts of the Frozen Sun” is included on the Goodreads lists “Viking Era” and “Tristan & Isolde Retellings.”

Find “Beasts of the Frozen Sun” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Tidelands”

43260625Book: “Tidelands” by Philippa Gregory

Publication Info: Simon & Schuster, August 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: e-ARC from the publisher

Book Description: England 1648. A dangerous time for a woman to be different . . .

Midsummer’s Eve, 1648, and England is in the grip of civil war between renegade King and rebellious Parliament. The struggle reaches every corner of the kingdom, even to the remote Tidelands – the marshy landscape of the south coast. 

Alinor, a descendant of wise women, crushed by poverty and superstition, waits in the graveyard under the full moon for a ghost who will declare her free from her abusive husband. Instead she meets James, a young man on the run, and shows him the secret ways across the treacherous marsh, not knowing that she is leading disaster into the heart of her life.

Suspected of possessing dark secrets in superstitious times, Alinor’s ambition and determination mark her out from her neighbours. This is the time of witch-mania, and Alinor, a woman without a husband, skilled with herbs, suddenly enriched, arouses envy in her rivals and fear among the villagers, who are ready to take lethal action into their own hands.

Review: Philippa Gregory was probably one of the authors I associate most strongly with my first experiences reading historical fiction as a teenager. With a few exceptions, up to that point I read fantasy/sci-fi and really that was it. But I whizzed through “The Other Boleyn Girl” and was hooked on a new genre from there on out. I read a good number of Gregory’s works over the years, and enjoyed many them. However, after a bit, I was ready to move on from her tried and true political, royal scheming stories that were starting to feel a bit stale to me. So I was excited when I heard about “Tidelands” and saw that we would be getting something outside of that wheelhouse with a story about a poor widow who comes under suspicion as a witch.

Alinor is a woman between worlds. Her husband is missing, so she is not a widow. So she’s still a wife but one without a provider, left to live independently with all of the challenges that come with it, but none of the securities that come with being a widow (mostly having to do with a woman’s honor and all of that fun stuff). But her and her children’s lives change when she runs across a priest attempting to find safety out on the ever-changing and dangerous tidelands. New opportunities are now opening before her, but with these changes come new dangers, and the watchful and suspicious eyes of neighbors are always watching.

It was nice to return to a historical fiction novel that wasn’t also a mystery. Looking back over what I’ve read the last year or so, almost all of my historical reading has been a combination of the two genres. Gregory has always impressed with her detailed descriptions of life in the time period in which her stories take place and the historical accuracy of the political and cultural experiences of those living then. This book in particular delved into the brewing tensions between the new church and the old, the new king and the old. I didn’t know a whole lot about the parties and beliefs at play here, but I enjoyed learning more about it throughout this novel. I especially enjoyed the way that Gregory approached it through Alinor’s eyes, as a common woman who has lived an isolated life away from much of the drama that is gripping the nation.

But with these details also comes a fairly slowly moving plot. The story takes a long time to get going and, thinking back on it, I’m not sure it ever even did, other than a very brief section near the end. Much of it revolves around Alinor’s romantic plot line, and even that moved at a fairly glacial speed. Once I accepted that that was what the story would be, I was better able to settle in, being now less focused on desperately trying to locate a plot. But even then, the story felt out of balance. It’s one thing to not have a strong plot in favor of focusing on characters and their relationships, but I was also never strongly attached to any of those either.

I also had hoped for a bit more from the fantastical elements teased in the description. I wasn’t expecting a fantasy, of course, but I had hoped for more on the witch front. Again, it took a long time to get there, and then it felt pretty rushed. The ending itself seemed to come out of nowhere and just kind of…end. It wrapped up in only a few pages, leaving several subplots unexplained and with an abrupt shift in characters’ lives, with little build up or exploration provided. This is the first in a series, so there’s room to expand on these things from here. But even with a series, each book should feel self-contained and have a natural beginning, middle, and end. Here, the end felt slapped on because the book needed to end, nothing more.

Overall, this was a bit of a lackluster read for me. While I liked many of Gregory’s early books, this one reminded me why I had stopped keeping up with her works. There is nothing technically wrong with it, but the story never grabbed me, the characters were not especially likable, and I felt like the historical details, while accurate and reflective of Gregory’s strong research, overwhelmed what little story there was left. Fans of her later work may very well enjoy this book, but it wasn’t really for me, sadly.

Rating 6: A bit too slow, a bit too detailed, and a bit off the mark at the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Tidelands” is a new book so it isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Witch Hunts in Historical Fiction.”

Find “Tidelands” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Fray”

40696990Book: “Fray” by Rowenna Miller

Publishing Info: Orbit, June 2019

Where Did I  Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: Open revolt has been thwarted — for now — but unrest still simmers in the kingdom of Galitha. Sophie, despite having built a thriving business on her skill at both dressmaking and magic, has not escaped unscathed from her misadventures in the workers’ rebellion. Her dangerous foray into curse casting has rendered her powers unpredictable, and her increasingly visible romantic entanglement with the Crown Prince makes her a convenient target for threatened nobles and malcontented commoners alike.

With domestic political reform and international alliances — and her own life — at stake, Sophie must discern friend from foe… before her magic grows too dark for her to wield.

Previously Reviewed: “Torn”

Review: I enjoyed the political, magical-sewing, romance story that was “Torn,” so it was a no brainer to request a copy of its sequel. The first book had moved rather slowly, for all that it was introducing new characters and a new world, so I was hopeful that now that that groundwork had been laid, the pace would pick up a bit more here. Unfortunately no.

Sophie’s orderly life of quiet competence as a small business owner is quickly falling apart. Not only does she have a rebel leader for a brother, one whom she was tied closely to in the failed revolt that took place not too long ago, but her growing attachment to the Crown Prince is thrusting her into a completely new part of society, and one that doesn’t look too kindly on the doings of revolutionaries. On top of all this, after she used her magic in new ways in the last book, she has begun to lose control of it. These dueling priorities are often at odds with each other and it’s beginning to look like Sophie is going to have to choose a side eventually.

Many of my opinions from the first book carried over to this one, however, ultimately, I didn’t enjoy it as much. For one thing, the pace of the book is still incredibly slow. I enjoy a political fantasy novel as much as the next person, but much of the slowness here is spent on minute day-to-day details, rather than backroom scheming. Much of what helped the first book manage its slow pace was the fact that it was a first book and was throwing tons of new stuff at the reader simply due to that fact. With a second book, and an established world and main character, the story itself needs to provide the points of interest. Unfortunately, it didn’t really do that and I still feel like the book could have been edited down significantly.

I also still enjoyed the magic system, however. Especially now that it is getting out of Sophie’s control. In the first book, it was made clear that Sophie herself didn’t fully understand her magic, and when she pushed herself into new aspects of charming, she was exploring without much of a guide. Seeing the calm, controlled Sophie that we knew from the first book deal with the unexpectedness that is now her magic was fun to read. It was also interesting having her explore the morality of how she uses her magic and how that ties into the way the magic behaves itself.

The romance was also still fairly bland for my taste. But I did like how the book was tackling the sexist laws of the land that will prevent Sophie from owning her own business once she gets married.

However, the one big strike against this  book for me was Sophie herself and the way the brewing revolution seems to be being handled. One of the most compelling aspects of the first book was the honest look at what revolutions look like, the tough places where idealism and practicality meet and explode. The fact that there are good and bad people on both sides. And, even more importantly, there are people in the middle who can understand both sides but just want to get on with life. That was Sophie. Unfortunately, here, in the second novel, much of that nuance and layered exploration is thrown out. Sophie seems almost out of character with how much she sides now with the revolutionaries. And, conveniently, the story itself has molded the two sides to make this choice easier. The common people are fully in the right. The aristocrats are completely evil. It’s a really unfortunate loss, simplifying matters back into the easy good vs. evil conflicts we’ve seen a million times. And with the unoriginal “common folk vs. the evil nobility” theme nonetheless.

In the end, I don’t feel that this book moved the series in the right direction. Some of the flaws from the first one (slow pace, bland romance) carried over to this one. And the interesting additional layers to Sophie’s magic weren’t enough to make up for the fact that the complicated political philosophizing was thrown out the window for a more standard, less interesting, revolution of the good folk against the bad ones. If you enjoyed the romance and the pace of the first book more than me, perhaps this one won’t be as much of a let down. But unfortunately, it was a bit of a dud for me.

Rating 6: Loses its nuance, and with it, its point of interest.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Fray” is a newer book so isn’t on any Goodreads list but it, like “Torn,” should be on “Crafty Magic.”

Find “Torn” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Kingdom of Exiles”

42366222Book: “Kingdom of Exiles” by Maxym M. Martineau

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Casablanca, June 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: copy from the publisher!

Book Description: Fantastic Beasts meets Assassin’s Creed in this epic, gripping fantasy romance from debut author Maxym M. Martineau.

Exiled beast charmer Leena Edenfrell is in deep trouble. Empty pockets forced her to sell her beloved magical beasts on the black market—an offense punishable by death—and now there’s a price on her head. With the realm’s most talented murderer-for-hire nipping at her heels, Leena makes him an offer he can’t refuse: powerful mythical creatures in exchange for her life.

If only it were that simple. Unbeknownst to Leena, the undying ones are bound by magic to complete their contracts, and Noc cannot risk his brotherhood of assassins…not even to save the woman he can no longer live without.

Review: This has been a sad run for me lately in the urban fantasy arena. First, the Patricia Briggs’ “Alpha and Omega” series introduced a new aspect into a beloved character that has some pretty unfortunate consequences not only for that series but for the “Mercy Thompson” one as well (though I’m working my way through the latest, so check back soon to see how that fares!). And then my beloved “Kate Daniels” series finished up. So, naturally, I’m on the look out for a replacement urban fantasy series and when I saw “Kingdom of Exiles” pop up on NetGalley, I requested it right away.

Leena values her magical beasts above anything. But when things get dire, she finds herself exactly where she didn’t want to be: deep in the underbelly of society, trading away her beats. And things only get worse when an assassin shows up on her doorstep with an order marking her for death. Luckily for her, Noc is too intrigued to simply off her right then and there, and they both find themselves caught up between several rocks and hard places, with their growing affection and love putting the other at greater and greater risk.

For me, the largest appeal of this story was the unique “charming” ability that Leena possesses and the super cool magical beasts who surround her because of it. Like the book description implies, there are a lot of similarities with these animals and the ways in which Leena interacts with them and keeps them that feels very similar to the “Fantastic Beasts” series. So if you’re a fan of that particular aspect of that story, the same will be found here. But I was glad to see there were some added twists to this version of the concept, namely the idea that these beasts can be animal familiars, essentially. And it is this fact that makes them so valuable and Leena’s ability to gather and control them so important.

The comparison to “Assassin’s Creed” is a bit less on the money, and this is where things began to fall apart for me a bit. The action of the story was quite a bit less than I’m used to finding in my urban fantasy/paranormal stories. Compared to the two series I mentioned earlier, this one has very little going on in that area. There were a couple of action-oriented scenes, but they felt very fleeting. This also added to the uneven read of the book, with the balance between plot and character moments felt odd at times.

I also didn’t love Leena or Noc, particularly. I could see how on their own they might be better, but for a book that is a paranormal romance story, it’s pretty important that they work well together. Leena, who comes across as pretty competent in the beginning of the story, immediately falls into the trope hole of becoming useless and making stupid decisions once the love interest shows up. Noc, for his part, talks on and on about how important it is to keep one’s distance from one’s target and then promptly makes zero effort to follow his own advice, quickly falling for Leena.

The romance itself was also not to my taste. It was a bizarre mix of the type of romance you would typically find in YA stories, full of angst and unnecessary drama. But then all of the steamy scenes one can expect from adult romance novels. The two did not mix well together, in my opinion. But I’m generally not a fan of angsty or dramatic romantic relationships, so this was going to be a hard sell for me regardless of anything else.

Overall, this book wasn’t for me. I think the world-building and fantasy elements were very interesting. And I could even wave away some of the pacing issues as simply the learning curve of a debut book. But my dislike for the main characters and the way their romance played out was enough to land this book solidly in the “meh”-to-dislike category. However, if you are more interested in this type of romance, this could potentially be a good paranormal romance series to get in on early! And to help you with that, make sure to enter our giveaway for a copy of the book!

Rating 6: More romance (and not my favorite kind either) than urban fantasy, this book was a miss for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Kingdom of Exiles” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy Romance” and “From Contest to Contract.”

Find “Kingdom of Exiles” at your library using Worldcat!