Serena’s Review: “Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan”

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Book: “Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan” by Liz Michalski

Publishing Info: Dutton Books, May 2022

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

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

Book Description: Life is looking up for Holly Darling, granddaughter of Wendy–yes, that Wendy. She’s running a successful skincare company; her son, Jack, is happy and healthy; and the tragedy of her past is well behind her . . . until she gets a call that her daughter, Eden, who has been in a coma for nearly a decade, has gone missing from the estate where she’s been long tucked away. And, worst of all, Holly knows who must be responsible: Peter Pan, who is not only very real, but more dangerous than anyone could imagine.

Eden’s disappearance is a disaster for more reasons than one. She has a rare condition that causes her to age rapidly–ironic, considering her father is the boy who will never grow up–which also makes her blood incredibly valuable. It’s a secret that Holly is desperate to protect, especially from Eden’s half-brother, Jack, who knows nothing about his sister or the crucial role she plays in his life. Holly has no one to turn to–her mother is the only other person in the world who knows that Peter is more than a story, but she refuses to accept that he is not the hero she’s always imagined. Desperate, Holly enlists the help of Christopher Cooke, a notorious ex-soldier, in the hopes of rescuing Eden before it’s too late . . . or she may lose both her children.

Review: There are a few fairytales (for lack of a better word, I guess) that are particularly hard to re-tell. In my opinion, “Peter Pan” is notorious for this. Not only is the original very much of its time with a plethora of modern pitfalls for a contemporary adaptation, but the entire situation is bizarre. How much of a child is Peter really, given his long life? Is it kidnapping, what happens to the Darling children? How does one balance the whimsy of the entire situation with a story grounded in real emotion and energy? In my experience, it seems that the more successful an adaptation is the more it has deviated from the original story. All of this to say, while I’m always excited to check out a new version of the story, it’s definitely one of those tales that I go into with the quite a bit of wariness.

Secrets linger in Holly’s past, though she has become an expert at hiding this fact. And these are more than the ordinary familial secrets. For what many think is just a story, Holly knows as a pernicious but very real part of her own family history: that is, Peter Pan. And when her daughter, Eden, who has long existed in a comatose state suddenly disappears, this shadow-ridden past comes roaring back into Holly’s life. Desperate for help, Holly turns to an ex-soldier. But will it be enough to confront the magical forces aligned against them?

While this book wasn’t quite the smash hit that I was hoping it would be, there were still quite a number of things going for it. For one, I really liked the generational aspect of the story. I’ve read a number of books about Wendy herself or her daughter, Jane. But instead of focusing on these characters, the author chose to remove the story down another step, focusing on Holly, the granddaughter of Wendy. We then even go a step further down the family line with the inclusion of Eden and Jack, Holly’s children and Wendy’s great-grandchildren. Through this focus, we truly see the effect of a character like Peter who never ages but is a persistent presence in one family’s life. Each woman has had a different experience of him. Indeed, part of the focus of the story is reconciling these various experiences with the truth of who he is.

This isn’t the first dark!Peter story I’ve com across. Indeed, the once-popular TV show “Once Upon a Time” is partly best-know for its creepy take on Peter (or perhaps its very attractive take on Hook, who knows?!). So this wasn’t unique ground solely found in this book. But I will say it was much, much darker than I was expecting. Perhaps even too dark for me. I wasn’t quite prepared to deal with some of the themes at the heart of the story, but I do think the author handled them well. Mostly, if you love Peter Pan, be prepared to kill your lovelies, because there’s nothing redeemable about this character. For as bad as he is, I do wish we actually got to see a bit more of him. In some ways, his villainy was a bit too easily hand-waved away as “he’s just always been bad.” Instead, it might have been a more interesting take to see how a character that might have been morally ambivalent originally could be corrupted by the nature of Neverland and this existence.

I did struggle a bit with the pacing of the story. It starts out well enough, but I felt like things began to drag a bit by the middle of the tale. Part of this was my own lack of real connection to Holly. I’m not sure what exactly the problem was, but I never felt fully invested in her arch. When the action and the mystery were at the forefront, I sped along. But when the story slowed for some of the character moments (usually my bread and butter), I found myself having a harder time focusing. I also wasn’t super invested in the romance, though, again, there was nothing obviously wrong here.

This was definitely an interesting retelling of “Peter Pan.” It’s definitely on the darker side in some ways, but I think the decision to focus on Peter’s impact on several generations of women in one family was very interesting. Fans of the original (and those not too attached to Peter himself!) will likely enjoy this one.

Rating 7: A bit lacking on the character front, but an interesting reimaging of the effects that Peter Pan would have on a generation of women whose lives become entangled with the magic of Neverland.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan” is on this Goodreads lists: Peter Pan Retellings.

Kate’s Review: “Burn Down, Rise Up”

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Book: “Burn Down, Rise Up” by Vincent Tirado

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, May 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Stranger Things meets Get Out in this Sapphic Horror debut from nonbinary, Afro-Latine author Vincent Tirado.

Mysterious disappearances.
An urban legend rumored to be responsible.
And one group of teens determined to save their city at any cost.

For over a year, the Bronx has been plagued by sudden disappearances that no one can explain. Sixteen-year-old Raquel does her best to ignore it. After all, the police only look for the white kids. But when her crush Charlize’s cousin goes missing, Raquel starts to pay attention—especially when her own mom comes down with a mysterious illness that seems linked to the disappearances.

Raquel and Charlize team up to investigate, but they soon discover that everything is tied to a terrifying urban legend called the Echo Game. The game is rumored to trap people in a sinister world underneath the city, and the rules are based on a particularly dark chapter in New York’s past. And if the friends want to save their home and everyone they love, they will have to play the game and destroy the evil at its heart—or die trying.

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

If I had a dollar for every moment I saw firsthand someone kvetch about the horror genre ‘becoming woke’ or other such nonsense, I don’t think I’d have a LOT of money, but it would be enough to buy me a nice dinner downtown. I do know that people have been complaining about how more and more horror stories seem to be bringing social issues into plots, but that’s just a dumb frustration because horror has always had its political and sociological angles, for better or for worse. I haven’t heard any such beef with Vicent Tirado’s new teen horror novel “Burn Down, Rise Up”, though I wouldn’t be shocked if it was out there. But the political and sociological possibilities in the horror genre are things that I am always on the look out for, so when read the description for this book I was VERY intrigued. This country has a lot to reckon with when it comes to racist policies and ideals, and putting some of those issues within The Bronx at the forefront WHILE mixing in a deadly Internet game horror story was too interesting to miss. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with a solid history lesson for readers of any age. “Burn Down, Rise Up” has that to be sure.

Given that I am a huge fan of Internet Creepypastas that have these urban legend game factors (such as The Elevator Game or Hide and Seek Alone), there was a lot to like about “Burn Down, Rise Up”. I thought that Tirado did their due diligence when it came to inventing an Internet urban legend game, with nods to real life inspirations while still feeling fairly unique and fresh. I liked the rules, I liked the eerie creepiness of the game itself, and I liked how Tirado worked history of racist policy, violence, and destruction of the Bronx into the game. It’s the history of the Bronx and the violence directed towards Black and Latine people that has the most horrors here, as the beings in this Echo are victims of the fires that plagued the Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s and were the result of redlining, inadequate infrastructure, slumlords, and other systemic oppression that made for a dangerous situation in which many buildings burned and many Black and brown people were displaced. Some of the creatures and ghouls that Raquel and her friends meet in The Echo are very clear representations of this, with many burned entities wandering around to a Slumlord antagonist to black mold-esque infections ravaging people beyond the Echo into our world. In terms of actual action and mythos of the Echo, I thought that those points were a bit underdeveloped, with the metaphors being really strong and interesting but the actual supernatural parts being undercooked. I also would have loved a bit more exploration into Raquel’s father’s connections and devotions to Santeria, and more exploration of her own psychic abilities.

As for the characters, I liked Raquel a lot, as she is trying to navigate a sick mother, a despondent friend/crush, and the conflict between her and her best friend Aaron as they both have a crush on Charlize (though he doesn’t know of her feelings). A lot of the obstacles and conflicts she faces of being a teenager, especially an Afro-Latine teenager at that, felt pretty well thought out. Whether it’s anxiety about her feelings for Charlize and whether they are reciprocated or the understandable skittishness of dealing with the NYPD as they investigate Charlize’s cousin Cisco’s disappearance, I knew Raquel as a character and understood her motivations and feelings in the moments of the plot. I was also very interested in one of the entities in the Echo that has been connecting with Raquel referred to as a Man in Corduroy, as while he is creepy and mysterious there is an intriguing essence to him through his dialogue and actions, a morally grey feel that I really liked. Everyone else was serviceable, though perhaps not as well rounded.

All in all, “Burn Down, Rise Up” had some good mythos and some well thought out connections to some dark and racist social history in the Bronx. I liked how Tirado examined this while showing how vibrant and close knit her characters, and the Bronx itself, are. A fun horror that I will definitely be recommending to teens.

Rating 7: A fun horror tale that takes Internet urban legends into politically conscious territory, though some of the supernatural elements are a bit underdeveloped.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Burn Down, Rise Up” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Black Lives Matter”, and “Horror/Thriller Books by Black Authors”.

Serena’s Review: “The City of Dusk”

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Book: “The City of Dusk” by Tara Sim

Publishing Info: Orbit, March 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

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

Book Description: The Four Realms—Life, Death, Light, and Darkness—all converge on the city of dusk. For each realm there is a god, and for each god there is an heir.

But the gods have withdrawn their favor from the once vibrant and thriving city. And without it, all the realms are dying.

Unwilling to stand by and watch the destruction, the four heirs—Risha, a necromancer struggling to keep the peace; Angelica, an elementalist with her eyes set on the throne; Taesia, a shadow-wielding rogue with rebellion in her heart; and Nik, a soldier who struggles to see the light— will sacrifice everything to save the city.

But their defiance will cost them dearly.

Review: While I’m always a bit skeptical of these books focused on a large cast of characters, they are also a bit unavoidable in fantasy fiction right now. And there are examples of ones done better than others. The fact that this is marketed as an adult fantasy novel does help, I think. Fair or not, I’ve seen more YA fiction struggle to create an interesting cast of characters than adult fantasy fiction. Though, there are exceptions, of course. “All of Us Villains” comes to mind. Let’s dive in!

Four families with four gods. Each god with a unique power that is bestowed on their family. And each family with an heir to the throne. But as the King approaches the end of his reign, each knows that they will be a contender to take up the crown after him. However, political machinations and worries of the material world quickly fall beneath an ongoing conflict brewing within the gods’ halls themselves. Now, the four heirs of the four families must decide what to do when the gods themselves seem to have abandoned them. With a city crumbling around them and the future perilous to consider, will they find themselves as allies? Or enemies?

So, first of all, this book is marketed as an adult fantasy novel. This really made it stand out of the pack for me, since most of the multi-POV fantasy stories over the last several years have all fallen solidly in the YA category. But I have to say, I feel like I was sold on a false product. If no one had told me this was being marketed as adult, I would have been almost 100% confident that it was yet another YA novel. The characters, their stories, and the general approach to their relationships with each other all felt decidedly YA. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I found it particularly frustrating since I went in expecting an adult fantasy novel and was excited about that. Honestly, don’t try this kind of trickery and just call a book what it is. And this was YA.

That aside, I did like a lot of what this book had to offer. The world was intricate and detailed. And the magic system, while somewhat familiar with its various “schools” of magic, felt unique enough to have me engaged with how exactly this all worked. The necromancers and their role in society was particularly interesting. Often, these types of characters are just straight up villains. So it was interesting to read a story where they were a functioning and established part of society that had their own important roles to play.

All of the characters were also solid enough. I definitely had preferences for a few of the women characters, but I didn’t actively dislike any of them (something I often struggle with in multi-POV books.) Here too were a few surprises as there were characters who showed up with POVs who aren’t mentioned in the book description and don’t come along until well into the book, making their appearance rather surprising.

There wasn’t a lot of romance in this book, but I was happy enough with what we got. I do wish there had been a more solid love story line here, as I think that a good romantic subplot can help carry a story that has a slower pace. And that right there is one of my biggest criticisms of this book. I honestly feel like it was marketed as an adult book simply because of how long and slow-paced it is. It honestly took a decent strength of will to get through it. And that’s not because it was boring, but there was just so much of it. As a debut, the author is playing a rather risky hand putting out a book like this. You really have to hope that reader’s can jump onboard early to stick it out through the slower pacing and long page count. I managed it, but I worry that some more casual fantasy fans might not want to stick this one out.

In the end, I think this was a solid fantasy story. I think the marketing of it as an adult book is going to bite it a bit since adult readers will immediately recognize the very YA feel of the book. And the dedicated YA readers might be missing out on something that they would enjoy but that has been shelved in the adult section. I also think the length will be a challenge for some. But fantasy readers who like epic tales and enjoy multi-POV stories, this one is probably worth checking out!

Also, don’t forget to enter to win a copy of this book in the giveaway we’re currently running!

Rating 7: A bit slow and too long, but a solid concept at its heart. Fans of epic political fantasy are likely to enjoy this!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The City of Dusk” is on these Goodreads lists: Best LGBTQIA High Fantasy and 2022 Anticipated Fiction Fantasy Reads.

Kate’s Review: “All the White Spaces”

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Book: “All the White Spaces” by Ally Wilkes

Publishing Info: Atria/Emily Bestler Books, March 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a finished hardcover from the publisher.

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

Book Description: Something deadly and mysterious stalks the members of an isolated polar expedition in this haunting and spellbinding historical horror novel, perfect for fans of Dan Simmons’ The Terror and Alma Katsu’s The Hunger.

In the wake of the First World War, Jonathan Morgan stows away on an Antarctic expedition, determined to find his rightful place in the world of men. Aboard the expeditionary ship of his hero, the world-famous explorer James “Australis” Randall, Jonathan may live as his true self—and true gender—and have the adventures he has always been denied. But not all is smooth sailing: the war casts its long shadow over them all, and grief, guilt, and mistrust skulk among the explorers.

When disaster strikes in Antarctica’s frozen Weddell Sea, the men must take to the land and overwinter somewhere which immediately seems both eerie and wrong; a place not marked on any of their part-drawn mapsof the vast white continent. Now completely isolated, Randall’s expedition has no ability to contact the outside world. And no one is coming to rescue them. In the freezing darkness of the Polar night, where the aurora creeps across the sky, something terrible has been waiting to lure them out into its deadly landscape…

As the harsh Antarctic winter descends, this supernatural force will prey on their deepest desires and deepest fears to pick them off one by one. It is up to Jonathan to overcome his own ghosts before he and the expedition are utterly destroyed.

Review: Thank you to Atria Books for sending me a hardcover copy of this book!

This past Halloween season I invited my Terror Tuesday horror movie friends over for a backyard movie night and bonfire. In the group text we were debating on possible movies to watch, and one title we decided on was “The Thing”. You know, the 1980s Sci-Fi horror movie by John Carpenter in which an Antarctic research team is trapped in their research station with an alien that can shapeshift and picks them off one by one. It’s a really fun movie, and it’s one that I kept thinking about as I read “All the White Spaces” by Ally Wilkes. I’m sure that’s by design (given that a couple characters share names with characters in that movie), and the similarities are there, and to make it all the more method I was reading it in Duluth on a night where the windchill was in the negative twenties. Talk about perfect.

But as I was reading it, “Thing” vibes or not, I realized that Wilkes was doing something unique with a story theme we’ve seen before, because our main character, Jonathan Morgan, is a trans man during the World War I era. And I’m going to start with characters and time period because of that uniqueness. I liked the character set up of Jonathan as a trans man, and how he has found himself on an Arctic exploration ship after the death of his older brothers Rufus and Francis in the War. It gives him the perfect motivation, as he felt left behind when they went to war and he had to stay behind because his family and society did not understand his gender. I thought that Wilkes did a really good job of portraying a realistic and in the time trans man who has immense guilt over his older brothers death. His grief makes him want to connect to them in ways that he never did when they were alive, and decides stowing away on an expedition team that they had always been interested in is the way to do it. I also thought that Jonathan’s class privilege still being a blinding factor as well as his general naïveté due to youth and said privilege made him well rounded and complex (and at times very frustrating, which I imagine was the point). His interactions with the other men on the ship as a trans man in hiding was at times tense because of the secret we know Jonathan is keeping, as is the general idea of Antarctic travel during a time when said exploration is dangerous and enthralling. We get to see a little bit into the motivations of the other men, though it adds a bit to the mystery as well. I especially liked the character of Tarlington, an ostracized member of the team due to his scientific role as well as his conscientious objector status in the wake of the First World War. The tidbits of the time period, both in societal themes and characterization, felt well researched.

And Wilkes really does find the horror in both the supernatural as well as the very real dangers of Antarctic exploration during this time period. I can’t even imagine going on this kind of voyage back at the beginning of the 20th Century (I can barely imagine doing this kind of thing right now!), and Wilkes takes the ‘everything that can go wrong WILL go wrong’ approach. Speaking to the realistic stuff first, as that was the stuff that was the scariest for me, there is a glut to pick from. We have the paranoia of being in an isolated place. We have eternal darkness for months on end. We have the VERY real dangers of the cold and what it can do to the body (this was the worst for me; there was one scene in particular that was so gruesome and disturbing I actually put the book down for a bit so I could just decompress). And we have the very understandable fear of a trans person who is hiding his identity from a number of strangers who are becoming more and more unpredictable in dangerous circumstances. It makes for VERY tense reading.

And yes, there is supernatural stuff going on as well, and Wilkes makes it VERY unsettling and creepy, as well as somewhat metaphorical. Which is always good. As Jonathan et al are seeing shadows and beings and other things out of the corners of their eyes or on the horizon, we get to play with potential unreliable narrators (albeit in the third person) who may just be going insane due to their circumstances. But the descriptions of the figures as they slowly make themselves known, oof! I love the weird ambiguity these kinds of reveals can tread on for a good chunk of the narrative at hand, and just thinking of this kind of thing in THIS setting? AUGH!

Antarctic exploration just seems dangerous! (source)

“All the White Spaces” is some solid and scary arctic horror with a really well done trans perspective that I haven’t seen much of in the horror genre. It feels like that’s changing, which is great. I cannot wait to see what Ally Wilkes brings us next, because this was SO creepy. And it made me so glad that Spring is almost here.

Rating 8: Dark, disturbing, and unique with its perspective, “All the White Spaces” is a must for those who are interested in expeditions of the past, body horror, and “The Thing”.

Reader’s Advisory:

“All the White Spaces” is included on the Goodreads lists “Transgender Horror”, and “2022 Horror Novels Written by Women and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Kate’s Review: “My Dearest Darkest”

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Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “My Dearest Darkest” by Kayla Cottingham

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, March 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: WILDER GIRLS meets THE CRAFT in this Sapphic horror debut that asks: What price would you be willing to pay to achieve your deepest desires?

Finch Chamberlin is the newest transfer student to the ultra-competitive Ulalume Academy… but she’s also not what she seems. Months before school started, Finch and her parents got into an accident that should have left her dead at the bottom of a river. But something monstrous, and ancient, and terrifying, wouldn’t let her drown. Finch doesn’t know why she woke up after her heart stopped, but since dying she’s felt a constant pull from the school and the surrounding town of Rainwater, like something on the island is calling to her.

Selena St. Clair sees right through Finch, and she knows something is seriously wrong with her. But despite Selena’s suspicion, she feels drawn to Finch and has a sinking feeling that from now on the two will be inexplicably linked to one another.

One night Finch, Selena, and her friends accidentally summon a carnivorous creature of immense power in the depths of the school. It promises to grant every desire the girls have kept locked away in their insecure hearts―beauty, power, adoration―in exchange for a price: human body parts. But as the cost of their wanting becomes more deadly, Finch and Selena must learn to work together to stop the horror they unleashed, before it consumes the entire island

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

As someone who loves horror as well as soapy academic settings, it’s probably not a big surprise that “My Dearest Darkest” by Kayla Cottingham grabbed by attention based on that summary alone. She also had me at the promise of a Sapphic romance with hints of “The Craft”, a film that I hold near and dear to my heart (and which will be referenced again soon on this blog…). I hopped into this horror novel with certain expectations, and while there were a couple stumbles here and there, there was a lot of potential and lot that was well executed.

I’m actually going against my usual process and will opt to start with the negative first, mostly because I feel like the positives are greater in the long run and I want to tackle them second. In terms of characterization, “My Dearest Darkest” is a little more on the weaker side than I was hoping for. I really liked misunderstood ‘bad’ girl Selena St. Clair, as her inner conflicts regarding toxic friendships, fear of rejection due to her bisexuality, and hardened spirit due to a traumatic event at the hands of someone she trusted makes for a complex character. She’s rough around the edges, but you also see just how big her heart is. Selena is the exception to the following critique. Everyone else is just kinda dull, from Selena’s mean girl friends to Finch, the new girl who has a strange connection to Nerosi, a strange being that has awakened on the school grounds who can grant favors to those who ask, if only for something in return. Finch has tragic background and a connection to a supernatural threat, but compared to Selena she fades a bit, falling back on meek characteristics we’ve seen many times before. I liked Selena and Finch as a burgeoning pair, but that, again, may have more to do with Selena. And don’t even get me started on various side characters, who are just there to provide exposition when convenient and little else.

But the horror elements. My GOSH the horror elements! Cottingham is not messing around here, bringing in multiple subgenres like body horror, Gothic horror, and Cosmic horror with some ghosties for good measure, and it all works really well. I wasn’t really sure of what to expect in this regard, as sometimes YA authors err on the side of caution and make horror moments a little less intense, hedging their bets in case there are readers who may need some restraint. Not this book. There were multiple moments where I was like ‘oh shit!’, from people pulling their teeth out, to descriptions of cosmic limbs in all their tentacled disgustingness, to a VERY creepy moment with a ghostly being that moved in jerky, uneven spurts. Which is totally one of the things in horror movies that really freaks me out.

It certainly didn’t help that I had just rewatched “Kairo”, the movie with this scene which nearly gave me a panic attack the first time I saw it. (source)

I also liked the Nerosi mythology and mystery, from an eight eyed stag familiar that brings nothing but trouble to an urban legend about a band that may be based in truth who disappeared years prior. At the end of the day, I pick up a horror novel because I want to be scared in some way, shape or form, and there isn’t any question that “My Dearest Darkest” was super creepy, with knowing nods to Lovecraftian ideas as well as the likes of “The Craft” and “Jennifer’s Body”. And what a glorious amalgamation it makes.

So while I thought that a lot of the characters were pretty cardboard in their execution, I really did like the horror elements, which elevated the book over all. I am very interested to see what Kayla Cottingham comes out with next, because their horror prowess is pretty solid!

Rating 7: While some of the characters felt a bit two dimensional and stiff, there was plenty of gnarly body and cosmic horror to make up for it!

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Dearest Darkest” is included on the Goodreads lists “Spooky Books with Bi Characters”, and “Queer Horror”.

Serena’s Review: “Scorpica”

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

Book: “Scorpica” by G. R. Macallister

Publishing Info: Saga Press, February 2022

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

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

Book Description: A centuries-long peace is shattered in a matriarchal society when a decade passes without a single girl being born in this sweeping epic fantasy that’s perfect for fans of Robin Hobb and Circe.

Five hundred years of peace between queendoms shatters when girls inexplicably stop being born. As the Drought of Girls stretches across a generation, it sets off a cascade of political and personal consequences across all five queendoms of the known world, throwing long-standing alliances into disarray as each queendom begins to turn on each other—and new threats to each nation rise from within.

Uniting the stories of women from across the queendoms, this propulsive, gripping epic fantasy follows a warrior queen who must rise from childbirth bed to fight for her life and her throne, a healer in hiding desperate to protect the secret of her daughter’s explosive power, a queen whose desperation to retain control leads her to risk using the darkest magic, a near-immortal sorcerer demigod powerful enough to remake the world for her own ends—and the generation of lastborn girls, the ones born just before the Drought, who must bear the hopes and traditions of their nations if the queendoms are to survive.

Review: It seems like I just finished up reviewing a book with a very similar concept to this one. “The First Girl Child” was also a fantasy with a plotline centered around the sudden loss of girl babies being born in the land. This book’s set up, however, promises to tell a very different story, centering the tale around a matriarchal society where the dearth of women means a loss of leadership, military prowess, and much more. So I was very excited when the publisher reached out to me with an eARC to review this book. Let’s dive on it!

The world is made up of five nations, all queendoms ruled by powerful leading women. This world order, so stable for so long, is suddenly thrown into question when girl babies suddenly stop being born. As the land shifts beneath their feet, each Queen must confront the peril that comes with this delicate balance being thrown into chaos. Alliances are broken. Trust is shattered. And fear seems to rising in every sector of the land.

While this book wasn’t quite what I hoped it would be, there were still several things that were quite well done. The world-building, at first, did come off as a bit simplistic with its five little kingdoms neatly divided into specific traits, such as an emphasis on military prowess, bureaucratic guile, or magical abilities. It’s kind of a YA tactic that I’ve seen all too often: a get-out-of-jail free card to replace complicated culture building when peopling one’s world. But, luckily, here, as the story continued to unfold, I did find more work put in to this world than just these easily defined kingdoms. Through the various queens we see, the nature of each people became more complex, making for a more interesting interplay between these kingdoms.

The story is also committed to it’s slower style of story-telling. This is a very dialogue-light tale, with a lot of work done in the narration itself. Sometimes this worked, and other times, less so. It took quite a while for me to become invested in the story, partly due to this slower pacing and partly due to the split POVs (a pet peeve of mine and by no means an objective ding to this book.) With less dialogue on the page, it did take a bit longer to feel like I really understood the difference between the characters. But again, as the story built, I did find myself becoming more invested in certain characters (less so in others, always my problem with multiple POV books it seems).

In some ways, the book was almost too believable. In the face of such a sudden, completely unexpected devastation as the loss of girls in a matriarchal society, most people have no idea what to do, including many of the queens we see here. On one hand, looking at how real-world countries struggle to take meaningful action in the face of disasters that happen on such a grand scope (pandemics, climate change, etc.), it’s easily believable to see the struggles of these leaders to react in any true way. Largely, many of them came off as very passive in the face of this disaster. I was pleased to see one of these queens actively moving forward, and it’s no surprise that her story was my favorite.

Overall, I liked this book fairly well. It’s definitely a slow-moving beast and is dedicated to the minutia at heart of the situation created. Those fantasy readers who enjoy geopolitical stories will likely find lots to like here. If you’re more into action and quick dialogue, however, this probably isn’t for you.

Rating 7: An interesting concept and world that is ultimately hindered by being maybe a bit too realistic.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Scorpica” is on this Goodreads list: Upcoming 2022 SFF Books With Female Leads or Co-Leads.

Kate’s Review: “Nine Lives”

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Book: “Nine Lives” by Peter Swanson

Publishing Info: William Morrow & Company, March 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: The story of nine strangers who receive a cryptic list with their names on it – and then begin to die in highly unusual circumstances.

Nine strangers receive a list with their names on it in the mail. Nothing else, just a list of names on a single sheet of paper. None of the nine people know or have ever met the others on the list. They dismiss it as junk mail, a fluke – until very, very bad things begin happening to people on the list. First, a well-liked old man is drowned on a beach in the small town of Kennewick, Maine. Then, a father is shot in the back while running through his quiet neighborhood in suburban Massachusetts. A frightening pattern is emerging, but what do these nine people have in common? Their professions range from oncology nurse to aspiring actor.

FBI agent Jessica Winslow, who is on the list herself, is determined to find out. Could there be some dark secret that binds them all together? Or is this the work of a murderous madman? As the mysterious sender stalks these nine strangers, they find themselves constantly looking over their shoulders, wondering who will be crossed off next….

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

I’ve been reading Peter Swanson novels since 2016, in which “The Killing Kind” totally blew me away and kept me on my toes. I have come to expect him to find ways to bring in new twists and turns that are totally earned by also shocking and unexpected, sometimes even deconstructing what we have come to expect of the thriller genre as a whole. Because I have this knowledge and because I’m so familiar with his tricky little carpet yanks, one would think that when I went into his newest book “Nine Lives” that I would have figured all of this out. One would think that I would be expecting a twist and that when it came I would say ‘ah yes, I knew that was coming’. And hey, to be fair, there were a couple early on moments that I thought ‘well either that was the twist or perhaps there IS no big reveal this time just to keep me on my toes even more’.

And then this guy STILL manages to completely take me by surprise with a twist I didn’t expect AT ALL.

And it’s just one of a good few in this story! (source)

The thing that I like the most about Peter Swanson, beyond the ability he has to totally floor me, is that he always crafts mysteries that have just enough twists to be interesting without going into wholly farfetched territory. As each stranger on the list of names is slowly picked off one by one, the deaths are done in ways that are almost always matter of fact, totally believable, and in a finite and quick manner that makes the beat punch hard, but then go onto the next. We don’t linger on melodrama nor do we feel a need to explain until it’s fully time for explanations. The clues are placed here and there, and they all fit together once they start to near each other. And while it’s true that I caught a couple of them in advance, the lion’s share were truly surprising. It has definite allusions to the Agatha Christie story “And Then There Were None” without feeling like a direct lifting, and while acknowledging that there are some tweaks here and there. The mystery is strong, even if a lot of the characters kind of fall by the wayside. But I think that that is kind of to be expected in some ways, just because there are nine people on the list, and a limited amount of time that they are going to be alive given that they are all targets of a killer. But for a few of them I felt like we did get some pretty okay insight into who they were as people outside of this, even while others fell flat or into two dimensional tropes.

I have seen criticism of the motive behind what all is going on, and I can definitely get why the criticism is there. Ultimately the construction of the mystery is sound and it has very solid working parts, but the actual foundation of the motive was pretty generic and glossed over. It doesn’t really help that there had to be a huge ‘telling instead of showing’ component at the end, with a big letter that explains just about everything. That’s usually a huge splash of cold water on a book for me, and I remember thinking ‘ah jeeze’ when I realized what was happening.

But hey, I was still having a fun time as we barreled towards the end of “Nine Lives”. The motive may be eh, but the journey through a list of nine marked people is still really fun. Keep on catching me off guard, Peter Swanson! I always like being surprised!

Rating 7: A fun twist on “And Then There Were None” with a few good surprises, “Nine Lives” is another entertaining read from Peter Swanson, even if some of the details are glossed over or undercooked.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Nine Lives” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2022”, and would fit in on “‘And Then There Were None’ Trope Novels”.

Serena’s Review: “Murder at Kensington Palace”

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Book: “Murder at Kensington Palace” by Andrea Penrose

Publishing Info: Kensington Books/Kensington Publishing Corp, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

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

Book Description: Though Charlotte Sloane’s secret identity as the controversial satirical cartoonist A.J. Quill is safe with the Earl of Wrexford, she’s ill prepared for the rippling effects sharing the truth about her background has cast over their relationship. She thought a bit of space might improve the situation. But when her cousin is murdered and his twin brother is accused of the gruesome crime, Charlotte immediately turns to Wrexford for help in proving the young man’s innocence. Though she finds the brooding scientist just as enigmatic and intense as ever, their partnership is now marked by an unfamiliar tension that seems to complicate every encounter.

Despite this newfound complexity, Wrexford and Charlotte are determined to track down the real killer. Their investigation leads them on a dangerous chase through Mayfair’s glittering ballrooms and opulent drawing rooms, where gossip and rumors swirl to confuse the facts. Was her cousin murdered over a romantic rivalry . . . or staggering gambling debts? Or could the motive be far darker and involve the clandestine scientific society that claimed both brothers as members? The more Charlotte and Wrexford try to unknot the truth, the more tangled it becomes. But they must solve the case soon, before the killer’s madness seizes another victim…

Previously Reviewed: “Murder on Black Swan Lane” and “Murder at Half Moon Gate”

Review: Once I discover a good audiobook series, I get pretty addicted. It also usually goes that this happens with the historical mystery series I read. Mostly this is because I’ve found I greatly prefer British audiobook narrators (something about the accent seems to elevate even pretty boring books to a more interesting level, let alone the boost they give to already entertaining stories) and these are the narrators often chosen for the historical mysteries I typically enjoy. And while I’m still really enjoying the narrator’s presentation of this book, I did begin to struggle with this story more than the first two in the series.

This time murder falls at Charlotte’s door after she and Wrexford learn of the brutal murder of Charlotte’s cousin, a wealthy and powerful young man. When his twin brother is accused of committing the crime, Charlotte knows he must be innocent and persuades Wrexford to join her quest to find the real murderer. Though the two are still unsure of where they stand with each other, their partnership and devotion to uncovering the truth lead them to pursue all avenues of investigation. And for Charlotte, this may mean uprooting the quiet, anonymous life that she has built for herself and her two young wards.

So, let’s start out with the good stuff. I’m continually impressed by the quality of the mysteries at the heart of these stories. The author sets up several compelling motives and possible culprits as the story goes on. All of the classic stuff: for love, for money, for power. Wrexford and Charlotte each uncover various aspects of each of these possible motives, and it was fun seeing how these stories began to interweave, with characters Wrexford interrogated and received certain clues then wandering across Charlotte’s path, and, because of her different perspective, yielding different and new information.

There were also some rather major changes to Charlotte’s life that were explored in this book. We only got to see the barest hints of these changes in action, but it was fun to see that character’s trajectory travelling along a compelling arch of change. For his part, Wrexford felt a bit more stagnant, with the author more unsure where to take this character beyond the basic premise of who and what he is. I’m hopeful that more can be done to create a story for Wrexford on his own, but we’ll have to see.

However, I did start to have problems with the general layout and progression of the story. In so many ways, it felt like a simple retread of the exact same plot we’ve seen in the first two books. Like I said, the mysteries have all been good on their own and very different (I also want to add that I’ve liked the different areas of science that have been explored and the interesting culture of science in Victorian England at this time), but the actual layout of the plot has been almost exactly the same each time. To an almost comical level! The last half of each book, in particular, follows a very predictable train of events that was fairly tiring to retread once again here.

Also, in a direct contradiction to my concerns over the second book where I worried that the romance had been too rushed, here, the author fell into the exact opposite problem. We have here an example of the classic “characters fail to talk about basic things” trope to develop tension and draw out a romantic progression. It was an equally unsuccessful trope here as it has been almost every other time I’ve encountered it. I was also disappointed to see the romance, too, follow the exact same arch we’ve seen in the previous book, with Wrexford and Sloane suddenly confessing feelings and thoughts while under duress at the conclusion of the mystery.

This was my least favorite book in the series so far. It was far too obvious how much the author seemed to be following a “paint by number” plot format, and the romance swung wildly from one misfire in the previous book to a very different, but equally frustrating, misfire here. I will be continuing with the series, however, as there were enough changes to the basic set-up of the situation (notably, Charlotte’s change in society) that I’m curious to see where the series will go from here. But if the same plot line shows up again, I may have to call it quits.

Rating 7: An all too familiar chain of events really crippled a story that once again had a good mystery at its heart.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Murder at Kensington Palace” is on these Goodreads lists: Strong Female lead historical and History through Novels: 1000-1899 Western Europe.

Serena’s Review: “A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire”

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

Book: “A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire” by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Publishing Info: Blue Box Press, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

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

Book Description: A Betrayal…

Everything Poppy has ever believed in is a lie, including the man she was falling in love with. Thrust among those who see her as a symbol of a monstrous kingdom, she barely knows who she is without the veil of the Maiden. But what she does know is that nothing is as dangerous to her as him. The Dark One. The Prince of Atlantia. He wants her to fight him, and that’s one order she’s more than happy to obey. He may have taken her, but he will never have her.

A Choice…

Casteel Da’Neer is known by many names and many faces. His lies are as seductive as his touch. His truths as sensual as his bite. Poppy knows better than to trust him. He needs her alive, healthy, and whole to achieve his goals. But he’s the only way for her to get what she wants—to find her brother Ian and see for herself if he has become a soulless Ascended. Working with Casteel instead of against him presents its own risks. He still tempts her with every breath, offering up all she’s ever wanted. Casteel has plans for her. Ones that could expose her to unimaginable pleasure and unfathomable pain. Plans that will force her to look beyond everything she thought she knew about herself—about him. Plans that could bind their lives together in unexpected ways that neither kingdom is prepared for. And she’s far too reckless, too hungry, to resist the temptation.

A Secret…

But unrest has grown in Atlantia as they await the return of their Prince. Whispers of war have become stronger, and Poppy is at the very heart of it all. The King wants to use her to send a message. The Descenters want her dead. The wolven are growing more unpredictable. And as her abilities to feel pain and emotion begin to grow and strengthen, the Atlantians start to fear her. Dark secrets are at play, ones steeped in the blood-drenched sins of two kingdoms that would do anything to keep the truth hidden. But when the earth begins to shake, and the skies start to bleed, it may already be too late.

Previously Reviewed: “From Blood and Ash”

Review: What should one do after finishing a 600+ page fantasy novel? Jump immediately into another 600+ fantasy novel, of course. Seriously, if I have one major complaint about this series so far, it’s the page length. I’ll go into more of this in the review itself, but man, very, very few books need to be over 600 pages long. Serious epic fantasy series ala Brandon Sanderson, maybe, just because those are such huge worlds with many leading characters. But not much else! Anyways, that’s really neither here nor there. And seeing as I’m back reading the second one despite it’s length, I guess that says something about the author’s ability (or something about me?).

After discovering that almost nothing she believed to be true about herself or her world was in fact true, Poppy’s way forward is murky at best. True, Casteel, a man she once knew only from the legends of a near-demonic being called “the Dark One,” does have plans for her and they involve marriage to himself. But coming from a life where practically no choices were allowed her, Poppy is naturally resistant to again letting another direct her life. However, with her brother caught in the clutches of the evil vampry, Poppy begins to see little way forward in achieving her goal of freeing him without teaming up with the beguiling Casteel.

Like I couldn’t avoid saying in my opening paragraph, this book is again very long. And while I usually start out with the positives of a book, this one thing is such a driving factor of some of my opinions about the book that I can’t resist getting to it first. There is a very good reason that editors exist. Not only can they trim up sections of your story that might be better told in fewer words, but they also perform the important duty of helping authors “kill their darlings” so to speak. In this book’s case, that might have been a few of the many, many very similar bantering scenes between Poppy and Casteel. Yes, this fun dynamic is a major draw for the series, but at a certain point in this book, I began to feel like I was reading the exact same conversation again and again. Even the best banter can’t withstand that type of overexposure.

Cutting out some of these repetitive scenes would also have helped the pace of the story which, again, drags rather heavily towards the middle point of the book. There are some legitimately good action scenes in this book, and to some extent this book is better at interspersing these throughout the story instead of heavily packing it all in the back half like the first book does. But because of some of these repetitive banter scenes, even the increased number of action scenes felt few and far between.

I also struggled a bit with some of the dynamics of the romance at this point in the story. Poppy and Casteel have a fairly prolonged “we’re just pretending” approach to their feelings for each other that gets a bit old and ridiculous quickly. Luckily, the author seems to have a sixth sense for just how far she can push some of these romance tropes, and she does manage to nip this one in the bud before it becomes completely intolerable. Seriously, it was like within 30 pages of me mentally beginning to check out on the romance because of this that she suddenly turned it around. So, well done for that!

I still very much liked Poppy and Casteel. Like I said, the author does seem to have an innate sense for pushing some of tropes right to the edge and for overturning some of the more expected patterns we see in fantasy romance. Casteel is a nice response to some of the overly “alpha” heroes we typically see. He’s still dangerous and capable, but Armentrout perfectly highlights how this sort of character can retain all of his appeal without roughly trodding all over his love interest’s agency. It’s very refreshing. This aspect alone is probably one of my main reasons for continuing this series.

And continue I will! We’ll see how long I go, though, as these books don’t seem to be getting any shorter and the series itself seems to be getting longer and longer (the author recently announced even more books coming in this series). Fans who enjoyed the first book will likely enjoy this one, though I will warn that the pacing is not very much improved and there is a tendency towards repetition with some of the bantering aspects. But I’m still invested enough in this general world and this romantic pairing on their own to keep on for now.

Rating 7: Some repetition in quips and a continuing challenge with pace leave this book falling a bit behind the first book in my enjoyment.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire” is on these Goodreads lists: NEW ADULT fantasy & paranormal romance and Enemies to Lover trope in Fantasy and Paranormal.

Kate’s Review: “This Might Hurt”

Book: “This Might Hurt” by Stephanie Wrobel

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, February 2022

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

Book Description: Welcome to Wisewood. We’ll keep your secrets if you keep ours.

Natalie Collins hasn’t heard from her sister in more than half a year.

The last time they spoke, Kit was slogging from mundane workdays to obligatory happy hours to crying in the shower about their dead mother. She told Natalie she was sure there was something more out there. And then she found Wisewood.

On a private island off the coast of Maine, Wisewood’s guests commit to six-month stays. During this time, they’re prohibited from contact with the rest of the world–no Internet, no phones, no exceptions. But the rules are for a good reason: to keep guests focused on achieving true fearlessness so they can become their Maximized Selves. Natalie thinks it’s a bad idea, but Kit has had enough of her sister’s cynicism and voluntarily disappears off the grid.

Six months later Natalie receives a menacing e-mail from a Wisewood account threatening to reveal the secret she’s been keeping from Kit. Panicked, Natalie hurries north to come clean to her sister and bring her home. But she’s about to learn that Wisewood won’t let either of them go without a fight.

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

Given that Stephanie Wrobel’s first book “Darling Rose Gold” took inspiration from a notorious true crime case, it’s probably not too shocking that her second book “This Might Hurt” took inspiration from another one. I, for one, am a-okay with such things, as I really enjoyed “Darling Rose Gold” because of the twisty dramatization that Wrobel created from the real life event. When I read the description of “This Might Hurt” I immediately thought ‘oh this is NXIVM’. I mean, an isolated self help community in the Northeast, and family members wondering what is going on with their loved ones? NXIVM was all over the pop culture consciousness these past couple of years, so I wasn’t surprised and was definitely interested.

I liked the narrative structure of this book. It has some of what you would expect, and then an aspect that I wasn’t expecting but ended up liking the best of the three perspectives. But in terms of the more obvious choices, we have both Natalie and Kit providing us with first person perspective chapters, separated into sections. Natalie is rooted firmly in the present, so we get to see Wisewood in the moment and how unnerving and creepy it is as a self help island disguising a cult. For Kit we get some past perspectives, seeing what made her decide to seek out Wisewood in the first place, and how she has adjusted to living there (as well as how she has ascended up the ranks to become a pet of the leader, ‘Teacher’). They eventually come together to play out the story, and it meshes well, even if the way that it all parses out isn’t super surprising or unique.

It does, however, build at a pace that slowly raises the tension and suspense, as Natalie looks for Kit on this isolated island where people are seemingly trying to keep her at arm’s length. Throw in the fact that Natalie has her own secrets and you have double the mystery going on, though that, too, isn’t terribly shocking once we get to it. I think that part of the problem is that neither Natalie nor Kit are interesting enough as characters to me, so I wasn’t super invested in their outcomes. Sure, in the moment the malevolence of Wisewood is definitely unsettling, and the tension in that regard is well done. But since I didn’t really care about Natalie OR Kit, it never felt super high stakes to me.

But it was the third unexpected component that I liked the most and lifted this story up beyond a run of the mill thriller. These were perspective chapters from a mysterious third person, whose childhood with an abusive father and passive mother and older sister sets her onto a path dealing with magic tricks, self control, and eventual thirst for power and dominance. It becomes pretty clear that we are, indeed, seeing the story of Rebecca, the leader of Wisewood, and it was her moments that I was most looking forward to, as she felt like the most complicated character in the book. Certainly more complicated than Natalie and Kit, whose archetypes we have seen in this kind of book many a time. With Rebecca, while we do see characters like her from time to time, the way that Wrobel lets us see the slow and full transformation is the most chilling aspect of this book, and the one that worked the best for me as I read it.

“This Might Hurt” is a solid thriller. Some beats are familiar, while others are surprising, and it is certainly very, very addictive, and fairly disturbing when all is said and done. Wrobel knows how to make a setting feel dangerous, and seeing how a spider catches flies in her web was the biggest success of this book.

Rating 7: “This Might Hurt” is an entertaining book about cults and the relationship between sisters, though it’s the examination of a cult leader’s transformation that is the most interesting part.

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Might Hurt” is included on the Goodreads list “The Most Anticipated Mysteries and Thrillers of 2022”.

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

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