Book Club Review: “Sorcerer to the Crown”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent or of that continent’s descent.

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

Book: “Sorcerer to the Crown” by Zen Cho

Publishing Info: Ace, September 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: Serena owns it, Kate got it at the library!

Continent: Europe

Book Description: At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, eminently proficient magician, and Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers—one of the most respected organizations throughout all of Britain—ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up.

But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…

Serena’s Thoughts

I’m currently in the last few months of the “My Year with Jane Austen” review series, so when I drew Europe for the continent choice, my mind was naturally in a Regency-era place. (Not to mention, Europe is the kind of choice that’s almost too wide-open with possibilities!) I had been gifted this book several years ago, but for whatever reason, hadn’t gotten around to reading it. I think I just never really spent the time figuring out what it was about. But I was pleased to find that it perfectly matched what I was looking for in a bookclub choice this go around: historical fiction, plus fantasy, plus a diverse cast, plus a plot that tackles social commentary in a time period that is often very white and very gender-role specific.

There was a lot to like about this book for me. For one thing, I’ve always enjoyed this type of mannered, historical writing style that seems to relish the use of long sentences and overly proper grammar. It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely my cup of tea. It’s also a tricky style of writing to master and can often read as unnatural with strange breaks or anachronisms thrown in that break the entire thing up. Sherry Thomas comes to mind as a current author who has really nailed this style of writing. So I was super excited to see that Zen Cho could hold her own in this respect. The writing was confident, clever, and perfectly fit the type of story she was trying to tell.

I also really liked our main two characters, Zacharias and Prunella. Each are struggling against the prejudices and restrictions that are being placed on them for being who they are. Zacharias is a freed slave who has been raised up in magic as a prodigy of the previous Sorcerer to the Crown. His entire life has been made up of being an example for an entire continent’s worth of people. Along with that comes the awkward balance of his love for his teacher and father figure and the struggle that the previous Sorcerer to the Crown, for all his reforming ways, was still never fully able to comprehend Zacharias’s position and life experience. It perfectly illustrated the kind of passive racism that we all must work against.

As for Prunella, she’s not only a half-Indian young woman, but she’s been orphaned and raised in a girls’ school. In the version of Regency England, magic in women is so feared and distrusted that entire schools are devoted to teaching young women how to repress their abilities, sometimes at great risk to their own health. A strong magic user herself, Prunella has always struggled against the limitations of the life being set out before her. I really loved this character. She was bold, self-assured, and not willing to be held back by the preconceptions of those around her. And it wasn’t just the obvious ones, like women shouldn’t do magic. She also sees the practical side of being a woman of the times and argues with Zacharias about the economy of the marriage business for women, even magical women.

So, yep, I really liked this book. It was definitely the kind of thing that fit in my general reading preferences, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much it engaged with several topics. There’s a sequel out it seems, so I’ll be adding that to my TBR list.

Kate’s Thoughts

While my reaction towards fantasy novels of the YA persuasion is usually skepticism, followed by ‘eh’, the big ol’ dragon on the cover of “Sorcerer to the Crown” was enough to get me on board. And while dragons didn’t play a large role in the story, I was still tickled and happy by a few aspects of this book, even if the genre had me a little nervous.

As Serena mentioned, I thought that Cho was really wise in taking a genre and a setting that can sometimes fall into being very white and giving voice to two non-white characters who function in a society that is constantly Other-ing them. Zacharias especially had a lot of moments of inner conflict regarding his place as Socerer Royal, and while I was worried that his relationship with Sir Stephen would be a strange paternalistic one that negates the clear power dynamic, Cho isn’t afraid to point out that while Zacharias was taken from slavery, Sir Stephen left his parents behind and took their son away from them. While it isn’t a focal point to the tale, this moment was hit home as the travesty and violence that it was. And we also had moments of people commenting on Prunella’s parentage, with reflections of English colonialism towards India and the people who lived there before imperialism took hold.

Also, Prunella. I really loved Prunella. For one, if you give me a book about witches, I will immediately have an affection for it, and while this witch aspect wasn’t the usual kind that I find myself reading, Prunella was a hoot. She, too, has societal roadblocks due to her being biracial AND a woman, and seeing her fight against that and stay true to herself was quite satisfying. I also loved the chemistry between her and Zacharias, and it did feel a lot like reading an Austen romance at times, especially when they would bicker. Serena also brought up the writing style, which was such a breath of fresh air! I was thinking back to “The Parasol Protectorate” series in terms of the tongue in cheek wit and stylization, which I also enjoy quite a bit.

At the end of the day, it did feel a little long for me and weighed down by the fantasy aspects (witches or not), and I probably won’t go on in the series. But, all of that said, I did find “Sorcerer to the Crown” to be engaging and outside the box of my experiences with the genre, and had a fun time reading it!

Serena’s Rating 8: A great balance of strong writing, enjoyable characters, and a plot that explores social justice topics in a fantasy setting.

Kate’s Rating 7: An entertaining and charming fantasy tale with likable characters and some good comments on race, class, and gender.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book is written in the style of a Regency era novel (like a Jane Austen book, for example). How do you think the style or writing impacted the story? What did it add to the story? Or take away?
  2. Both Zacharias and Prunella face challenges based on their race and gender. How well do you think the story engaged with these topics?
  3. How did you feel about the way that this book dealt with the topic of slavery, particularly through Zacharias’s experiences with his mentor and father figure?
  4. This is a fantasy novel as well as a historical fiction story. What did you think about the magical elements and the way they were fitted into the traditional Regency story?
  5. Prunella and Zacharias must both make some tough choices near the end of the story. How did you like the ending?

Reader’s Advisory

“Sorcerer to the Crown” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantasy of Manners and Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance.

Find “Sorcerer to the Crown” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives”

Kate’s Review: “White Ivy”

Book: “White Ivy” by Susie Yang

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, November 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I won an ARC in a Goodreads giveaway.

Book Description: A dazzling debut novel about a young woman’s dark obsession with her privileged classmate and the lengths she’ll go to win his love.

Ivy Lin is a thief and a liar—but you’d never know it by looking at her. Raised outside of Boston, she is taught how to pilfer items from yard sales and second-hand shops by her immigrant grandmother. Thieving allows Ivy to accumulate the trappings of a suburban teen—and, most importantly, to attract the attention of Gideon Speyer, the golden boy of a wealthy political family. But when Ivy’s mother discovers her trespasses, punishment is swift and Ivy is sent to China, where her dream instantly evaporates.

Years later, Ivy has grown into a poised yet restless young woman, haunted by her conflicting feelings about her upbringing and her family. Back in Boston, when she bumps into Sylvia Speyer, Gideon’s sister, a reconnection with Gideon seems not only inevitable—it feels like fate.

Slowly, Ivy sinks her claws into Gideon and the entire Speyer clan by attending fancy dinners and weekend getaways to the Cape. But just as Ivy is about to have everything she’s ever wanted, a ghost from her past resurfaces, threatening the nearly perfect life she’s worked so hard to build.

Filled with surprising twists and offering sharp insights into the immigrant experience, White Ivy is both a love triangle and a coming-of-age story, as well as a glimpse into the dark side of a woman who yearns for success at any cost.

Review: Thank you to Goodreads for sending me an ARC of this novel as part of a giveaway!

Me and my kiddo were sitting in the front yard one day, when a UPS guy pulled up and had what was clearly a book shaped parcel in his hands. I thanked him from afar and after he left I wondered if I had ordered a book that I’d forgotten about. But when I opened it up and saw that it was “White Ivy” by Susie Yang, it occurred to me that I had won a Goodreads giveaway! Which rarely happens! I had seen a bit of buzz online about this book, being described as a thriller much like “The Luckiest Girl in the World”, which is about a social climbing schemer with a dark past. That book was entertaining enough, so I figured “White Ivy” would be similar. Which it is…. and it isn’t.

“White Ivy” is certainly about a social climbing schemer. Ivy Lin is our protagonist, and after being raised in a lower class and strict Chinese immigrant household, she has dreams of rising above. It’s true that she from the get go sets her sights on a rich former classmate, and it’s true that she has every intention of doing anything to be with him. But the issue is that “White Ivy” reads less like a thriller, and more like a character study of a damaged person who, being put in certain boxes because of her gender, culture, and race, wants to succeed in the world she has deemed ‘perfect’. Sort of a twist on the ‘immigrant experience’ story that is seen in literature. In some ways Ivy is conniving, but I felt that Yang wrote her with empathy and not really with that much judgement, at least not as much as the summary implies. Does Ivy do questionable/admittedly bad things to get ahead? Absolutely. But I felt that she came off more as an anti-heroine than anything else. And I liked that Yang wrote her that way. We get to see white male antiheroes in books all the time. Seeing a Chinese-American woman fit into this part is something that I don’t encounter nearly as much. Yang touches on the culture clash between Ivy and her parents and grandmother, as while Ivy was born in China, she has grown up in the U.S. (outside of being sent back for awhile after she was caught misbehaving). I thought that while Ivy’s parents definitely contributed to her problems, Yang also afforded them some grace as well, not painting them as just another antagonizing factor, but as complicated people.

Character study aside, outside of Ivy’s deeply fascinating characterization “White Ivy” follows a somewhat predictable route. Ivy finds herself caught between Gideon, a man who represents the ideal life and future she wants, and Roux, a bad boy from her past who stirs up passion, albeit a toxic kind. Following this escalating love triangle to dangerous places isn’t exactly new territory, and this is the only element where the ‘thriller’ aspect of the story comes into play. It has a slow build and escalation to be sure, but there weren’t any surprises that came out of it. I think that had Ivy not been such a good character with all the complexities and depths that she had, I would have been a little less forgiving of this. Her two lovers don’t really move outside of their tropes, Gideon being boring but dependable, and Roux being exciting but dangerous and violent. It also doesn’t read as much like a thriller as buzz and descriptions have promoted. There was one area of suspense for me, but I feel like you need more than one to be an actual ‘thriller’ novel.

Overall, I enjoyed “White Ivy” mostly because of Ivy herself. I think that if you go into it looking at it as a character study as opposed to a full on thriller, you’ll like it. I am intrigued by what Yang will do next.

Rating 7: A dark and fascinating character study and a twist on the ‘immigrant experience’ trope, “White Ivy” is a page turner with an anti-heroine you will probably root for despite your moral misgivings.

Reader’s Advisory:

“White Ivy” is included on the Goodreads lists “Anticipated Literary Reads for Readers of Color 2020”, and “Romance Books with Asian Love Interests” (this may be a stretch but I think it applies).

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

Kate’s Review: “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene”

Book: “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” by Rachel Hawkins, Ash Parsons, and Vicky Alvear Shecter.

Publishing Info: Serial Box, October 2020/January 2021 (this is expanded upon in the review)

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

Book Description: Beatrix Greene has made a name for herself in Victorian England as a reputable spiritual medium, but she’s a fraud: even she knows ghosts aren’t real. But when she’s offered a lucrative job by James Walker—a scientist notorious for discrediting pretenders like her—Beatrix takes the risk of a lifetime. If her séance at the infamously haunted Ashbury Manor fools him, she will finally have true financial freedom. If she fails, her secret will become her public shame.

But James has his own dark secrets, and he believes only a true medium can put them to rest. When Beatrix’s séance awakens her real gift—and with it, a vengeful spirit—James finds that the answers he seeks are more dangerous than he could have imagined. Together, with a group of supernatural sleuths, Beatrix and James race to settle the ghost’s unrest before it strikes— or else they might not make it out of the haunted manor alive.

New York Times bestselling author Rachel Hawkins, along with Ash Parsons and Vicky Alvear Shecter, weaves darkness, death, and a hint of desire into this suspenseful mystery for fans of Sherlock Holmes and Crimson Peak.

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

We are wrapping up our Horrorpalooza reads, and Halloween is this weekend. First and foremost, Happy Halloween everyone! What better way to end the spooky reading season than with a good old fashioned haunted house story? “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” is that, but with some modern lens tweaks and a unique storytelling style that I’m still kind of trying to wrap my head around. But if a fraudulent medium and an old manor on the English moors are involved, I’m going to be on board regardless of stylistic choices.

Would I do that? Can’t be sure. Would I READ about it? Every time. (source)

Since I’ve been noting the format, that’s the aspect of the story I’ll address first. “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” is published by Serial Box, an organization that releases books and audiobooks in weekly episodes, each episode written by different authors. Our authors for this book are Rachel Hawkins, Ash Parsons, and Vicky Alvear Shecter. It feels like it’s a Round Robin writing exercise, which is definitely unique and not something that I’ve really encountered outside of fan fiction. I think that when you are experiencing it in this way, that is in weekly episodes like a TV show or podcast, that is a pretty cool thing. But in this format where it’s just a book that collects them all together but still calls them episodes as opposed to chapters, it feels a little strange. That is a bit exacerbated by the fact that the actual complete book isn’t going to be coming out until January, but the episodes have started dropping on Serial Box now, something that I wasn’t totally aware of when I requested this book. I think that this is confusing, frankly, and the ‘one chapter a week’ format may not appeal to all. If you want to do the whole book in one go, January will be when your time comes, according to Amazon.

But, there was a lot that I liked about this story in terms of the bare bones of the haunted house theme. The biggest stand out for me is Beatrix herself, a woman who is making a life as a medium during the time in England when Spiritualism was having its first big boom. Beatrix doesn’t actually believe in ghosts, and uses the kinds of tricks and strategies that many of those charlatan spiritualists used, like cold reading and ringers. But we also get to see that Beatrix isn’t doing this because she’s conniving or sociopathic. Rather, she’s trying to survive as a single woman during a time where options are limited. When she is invited by skeptical scientist (and charlatan exposer) James Walker to conduct a seance at an old manor called Ashbury Hall, she feels a need to prove herself to a seemingly arrogant scientist, and to protect her reputation so she can keep making a living. I loved Beatrix, and felt that she was nuanced and complicated. James, too, had some complexities and nuance to his character, and didn’t just serve as an antagonist foil who is ultimately going to be a love interest to Beatrix. He has his own personal stake in wanting to have her come to Ashbury Manor.

And yes, there is a romance between them, and yes, it feels a little unrealistic given that this story takes place in such a short time AND they find themselves in a very haunted and dangerous house. But the chemistry and banter between Beatrix and James sizzles, so I was very easy to forgive it. Along with the romance, of course, is a ghost story, and I thought that that part of it was also pretty well done. We have some fun nods to the genre, with believers and unbelievers getting in way too deep, and a house with a tragic history that goes back far beyond the time that the first brick was laid. The horror aspects have some moments of genuine scares and a little bit of gore, but I would also say that this is a friendlier read for horror lite people who may not want to be SUPER scared. A lot is crammed into this short tale (clocking in at less than two hundred pages), but I feel like Hawkins, Parsons, and Shecter are able to pull it all together and never make it feel rushed or haphazard. And going back to the format for just a moment, even though the chapters alternate between different authors, their styles meld together well enough that it always felt like a unified narrative, which isn’t always easy to do.

“The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” is fun and just a little bit spooky, and a nice addition to the many other ghostly Gothic tales that came before it.

And that wraps up Horrorpalooza 2020! I hope that you all have a safe and happy Halloween!

Rating 7: A spooky and entertaining Gothic tale of (semi)terror, “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” has some good scares and some good characters, but the format seems unnecessary and the way it’s released may be confusing to some people.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” is new and not included on any Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “Haunted Houses”, and “Historical Ghost Fiction”.

Find “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” at Serial Box. In January, find it at your local library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Dollhouse Family”

51233715Book: “The Dollhouse Family” by Mike Carey, Peter Gross (Ill.), and Vince Locke (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Black Label, September 2020

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

Book Description: Alice loves to talk to her dolls, and her dolls and dollhouse love to talk back.

When Alice is six, she is given a beautiful antique dollhouse. When things in her life get scary, Alice turns to her dolls and dollhouse for comfort. One day, they invite her to come play inside with them. As Alice’s life is turned upside down in the “big” world, she is always welcomed home to the little world inside the dollhouse; the house will even grant her a wish if she agrees to live with them!

Follow Alice through the door of the dollhouse and into the demon’s den.

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

Let it be said that Hill House Comics has gotten some pretty legitimate authors on board of their imprint! It’s not that surprising, as Joe Hill seems like a cool guy who knows talent when he sees it. “Basketful of Heads” was an awesome first experience for me in regards to this imprint, and when I saw that M.R. Carey was getting in on the action with “The Dollhouse Family” (though writing under his usual comic name Mike Carey) I was pleased. When Carey does straight up horror, like “Someone Like Me”, I am fully on board with his works. So I’m definitely all in to see what he can do with a creepy dollhouse!

“The Dollhouse Family” is a generation spanning family saga that wraps itself in a dark fantasy horror story, and for the most part I felt like it worked pretty well. We have a couple of paths that we’re following, and while the way they connect isn’t completely apparent at first, Carey does a really good job of building upon then until we do reach that connecting point. The first is of Alice, a young girl who inherits an old dollhouse from an estranged relative. Alice’s father is abusive and her mother is passive, and Alice finds solace in the dollhouse… especially when the dolls start talking to her, and she finds out that she can shrink down to join them inside. The other path is in the past, as a man named Joseph, while doing survey work, finds himself in a cave, and comes face to face with a mysterious woman, and a sleeping giant.

As mentioned, it isn’t totally clear how these two stories relate, but they are both interesting enough in their own rights that you will want to see how they do. After Alice makes a decision that completely shifts her life’s path, due to a suggestion by a mysterious being in the dollhouse called The Black Room, she ultimately ends up with a daughter of her own, and a fear of the dollhouse that just keeps showing up. I really liked Alice, and while the unfolding of the other timeline wasn’t as interesting to me, the world building and mythology building that Carey did with it definitely laid a foundation that made sense for where Alice and daughter Una end up. I liked the build up and the horror elements of demons, as well as cosmic/Lovecraftian body horror that gave me a serious case of the squicks.

But where this book ultimately fumbles is that for all the world building and build up, the ending is incredibly abrupt. I was reading this on my computer, and when I saw that I only had tenish pages left I was convinced that the file I had was cut off prematurely, as there was no WAY that it could all be wrapped up in ten pages. And yet, it was, and because of that it all felt SUPER rushed and unsatisfying. For all that background and foundation, the climax was way too quick, and the let down after the climax was even quicker.

The art style, though, was a good match for the tone. It felt a bit old school in its design, but the details were intricate, as intricate as that on the strange dollhouse within the story itself.

dollhouse-family-comic-characters
(source)

Overall, I think that “The Dollhouse Family” is probably worth it for horror comics fans just because of the things that do work. But I do wish that Carey had taken a little more time to wrap things up.

Rating 7: A creepy and well planned out horror fantasy, “The Dollhouse Family” is an entertaining comic, but resolves itself a little too quickly.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dollhouse Family” is included on the Goodreads list “Haunted Dolls”.

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

Serena’s Review: “How to Break an Evil Curse”

Book: “How to Break and Evil Curse” by Laura Morrison

Publishing Info: Black Spot Books, October 202

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: The King of the Land of Fritillary has incurred the wrath of his ex-bestie, the evil wizard Farland Phelps. Farland curses the King’s firstborn to die if touched by sunlight, and just like that, Julianna must spend her life in the depths of a castle dungeon (emptied of prisoners and redecorated in the latest fashion, of course). A young woman of infinite resourcefulness, all she needs is a serving spoon, a loose rock in the wall, and eight years of digging, and Julianna is free to explore the city—just not while the sun is out!

Warren Kensington is a member of a seafaring traveling theater troupe and the unwitting magical cure to the curse. When the pirate ship he’s sailing on is damaged in stormy seas, he goes ashore and bumps into Julianna on the streets of the capitol. The pair accidentally set in motion a chain of events that uncovers Farland’s plans to take over the throne. Julianna, Warren, and some friends they meet along the way are the only ones who can save the monarchy.

But the farther they go along their increasingly ludicrous journey, and the more citizens they meet, the more Julianna wonders whether her dad’s throne is worth saving. From an evil and greedy wizard? Well, sure. But from the people of Fritillary who are trying to spark a revolution? The people suffering in poverty, malnutrition, and other forms of medieval-esque peasant hardship? It doesn’t take Julianna long to find that the real world is far more complicated than a black-and-white fairytale.

Review: I’m always on the look out for a good fantasy/comedy series. While most of what I consider good fantasy obviously contains comedy elements, it’s typically nothing more than some witty dialogue. Nothing that would justify an added genre to the book itself. But, of course, they exist! “The Princess Bride” is a perennial favorite. And as I just discovered in a recent review of “The Princess Will Save You” , the comedy is central to the success of that story. So I was excited to see fantasy story that was actively marketed as a comedy, finally!

Julianna has grown up in a dungeon. Well, a dungeon that her mother practiced her interior design skills on to make as comfortable as possible, but there’s no getting rid of the decidedly dungeon-ness of it all, old prisoner ghosts and all. But with a curse that dooms her to death if touched by sunlight, Julianna’s royal parents didn’t see another choice. But that hasn’t stopped Julianna from taking things into her own hands and tunneling outside the castle walls. There she meets the young man who could be her salvation, a strange mix of boy who loves music and grew up on a pirate ship. Things only get more strange from there as they set out on an adventure that may finally free Julianna from her curse.

This book was an interesting read. There were times where I was all in on it and its concept, laughing out loud and just enjoying the romp that was being laid out before me. But at other times, I found the humor and comedy elements to be almost relentless and a bit overbearing. Unlike “The Princess Will Save You” that was almost aggressively earnest and lacking witty dialogue even, this book throws itself as the comedy element, never letting a single joke slide by. It’s a tough thing to review or critique because much of it was successful. The story uses footnotes to pretty great effect and doesn’t ever take it or its own ridiculous concept too seriously. But at other times, I felt I need some sense of weight or a different emotional tone to help balance out this nonstop comedy.

The characters themselves sere all very engaging, maybe especially the villains and the backstory we get for them at the very beginning of the story. I also liked Julianna and Warren, though it was with these two main characters that I most wished for a bit more emotional depth from the book. The funny moments for them hit home, but it was hard to feel truly invested in either of their stories when everything was played for laughs.

The pacing was also a bit strange in the book. As I mentioned, the first part of the story focuses on the villains and their history with Julianna’s parents and the curse that is ultimately laid upon them. So there are a number of time jumps involved in telling this part of the story. Id din’t find it confusing or anything, but it does take a while for the story to finally settle in on our main characters. It seems to take quite a while for them to even meet.

Lastly, I do want to touch on the marketing failure with this book. From what I saw, this was being marketed as a high fantasy novel. This isn’t doing anyone any favors. Not the book, not the author, and not the readers. High fantasy is a fairly specific brand of fantasy (we’re talking “Lord of the Rings” and “ASOIAF” type fantasy). It is usually more serious, has a grand scope, and includes a lot of complicated world-building. But it is by no means the only type of fantasy, and it’s also not “better” fantasy than any other type. I think too often that seems to be the perception which then leads to publishers trying to attach that genre description to all of their new releases in the hopes of attracting more readers. But it’s not “better!” Sure, some people prefer that type of fantasy, but others actually prefer more light-hearted fantasy or want a good fantasy comedy now and then. By not properly identifying the book, you have a bunch of readers picking it up expecting the wrong thing and becoming disappointed. And then the readers who were actually looking for this type of book could be put off by the often intimidating aspects of what we expect from typical high fantasy. It’s too bad, because I feel like they almost set this book up to fail by doing this.

So, while it’s definitely not high fantasy, if you are looking for a comedy fantasy story, this might be a good one to check out. Just know that when I say comedy, I really mean it. In some ways the comedy aspect felt more prevalent than the fantasy itself.

Rating 7: A fun enough story, though missing the necessary emotional weight to balance out all of the fluff and laughs.

Reader’s Advisory:

“How to Break an Evil Curse” is a newer title, so it isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet. But it should be on “Fantasy-Comedy Novels Outside of ‘Discworld.'”

Find “How to Break an Evil Curse” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Dracula’s Child”

49991647._sx318_sy475_Book: “Dracula’s Child” by J.S. Barnes

Publishing Info: Titan Books, September 2020

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

Book Description: Dracula returns…

It has been some years since Jonathan and Mina Harker survived their ordeal in Transylvania and, vanquishing Count Dracula, returned to England to try and live ordinary lives. But shadows linger long in this world of blood feud and superstition – and, the older their son Quincy gets, the deeper the shadows that lengthen at the heart of the Harkers’ marriage. Jonathan has turned back to drink; Mina finds herself isolated inside the confines of her own family; Quincy himself struggles to live up to a family of such high renown. And when a gathering of old friends leads to unexpected tragedy, the very particular wounds in the heart of the Harkers’ marriage are about to be exposed…

There is darkness both within the marriage and without – for, while Jonathan and Mina wrestle with the right way to raise a child while still recovering from the trauma of their past lives, new evil is arising on the Continent. A naturalist is bringing a new species of bat back to London; two English gentlemen, on their separate tours of the continent, find a strange quixotic love for each other, and stumble into a calamity far worse than either has imagined; and the vestiges of something thought long-ago forgotten is, finally, beginning to stir…

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

I have a very special place in my heart for Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel “Dracula”. One, I do love a good vampire story in which a vampire is the predatory menace that it ought to be. But the bigger and more personal reason is because I first read it in college in my favorite class of all time, “Monsters, Robots, and Cyborgs in Literature”. The content was great, but it was my professor, Andy, who really made the class. We read many stories, “Dracula” being one, and I wrote a paper about the feminist icon that is Mina Harker. Andy and I kept in touch after my time in that class, and sadly he passed away a few years ago. I will always associate this book with him. So taking on this new ‘unofficial’ sequel, “Dracula’s Child” by J.S. Barnes was a risk. One I was willing to take because of the solid premise, but a risk nonetheless.

The structure of “Dracula’s Child” is similar to “Dracula” in that it is epistolary in nature. The plot unfolds through letters, diary entries, telegrams, and newspaper articles, and the tone and writing style is very well matched to the tone of the original. Barnes clearly worked very hard to reproduce that device, and it really does sound like the original in a lot of ways. I felt like he pretty much captured the voices of the original characters, and that he also expanded upon some of them to give them a little more complexity. We also had a fair number of threads to attend to, from the original characters to new ones whose connections to Dracula are seemingly tenuous at first, that all start to converge in a well paced and well thought out way. This made for a slow burn of a tale that is expansive, and really does hype up that if Dracula is coming back for his revenge, he’s going to be thinking BIG PICTURE. The reveals are also slowly paced, such as Mina and Jonathan’s son Quincey’s connection to The Count. And no, there was no addition of a romance between Dracula and Mina to be found in these pages. Which is probably for the best, but man, for something that went WAY off course of the original content I LOVED the chemistry between Winona Ryder and Gary Oldman in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”.

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Part of me was hoping for this, and I’m not (too) ashamed. (source)

So really, Barnes achieves what he was setting out to do in regards to making you feel like this could, in fact, be a direct sequel to the original story. And for that, I really have to give him props. That couldn’t have been easy to do, and he did it. And yes, there are some really well done scares in here, from suspense to body horror to the dread of a vampire on the hunt.

But the thing that basically derailed this story from being the awesome thing that I thought it was going to be was that for the last third of the book, Mina Harker, whose presence had been strong and fierce and at the forefront, was sidelined and then made incredibly passive. Certainly by today’s standards, Mina may not seem like much of a ‘strong female character’, and I’m definitely not saying that Stoker was some progressive when it came to gender politics in the original. But for Mina as a character to have perspective chapters, to be using her wits and her shorthand to try and figure out how best to fight off Dracula, for her to be with Jonathan, Seward, Arthur, Quincey, and Van Helsing during their journey? That was huge! So in a book coming out in 2020 I had hoped that she would be doing more so as to reflect her critical role in the original as a warrior against Dracula… And while for part of this book she seemed to be, for her to be sidelined in this way was very disappointing.  It was already frustrating that most other woman characters were sacrificed for man pain or to be tragic plot devices. But to do something similar, though admittedly not as final, to Mina? UNACCEPTABLE.

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Mina frustration aside, “Dracula’s Child” does a pretty good job of feeling like a true follow up to “Dracula”. I’m not sure if the purists would agree, but for this person who has such a personal and protective connection to the original work, it mostly succeeds in what its trying to do.

Rating 7: With a well reproduced tone and a slow burn of a creepy story, “Dracula’s Child” is a fun sequel to a classic, but doesn’t give certain characters the credit or stories they deserve.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dracula’s Child” is new and not on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Epistolary Fiction”, and “Vampires That DON’T Sparkle” (snide title, but really it’s just a list without vampire romance).

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

Kate’s Review: “Wonderland”

52210985Book: “Wonderland” by Zoje Stage

Publishing Info: Mulholland Books, July 2020

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

Book Description: If Shirley Jackson wrote The Shining, it might look like this deliciously unsettling horror novel from the acclaimed author of Baby Teeth.

A mother must protect her family from the unnatural forces threatening their new and improved life in a rural farmhouse.

The Bennett family – artist parents and two precocious children – are leaving their familiar urban surroundings for a new home in far upstate New York. They’re an hour from the nearest city, a mile from the nearest house, and everyone has their own room for the very first time. Shaw, the father, even gets his own painting studio, now that he and his wife Orla, a retired dancer, have agreed that it’s his turn to pursue his passion.

But none of the Bennetts expect what lies waiting in the lovely woods, where secrets run dark and deep. Orla must finally find a way to communicate with – not just resist – this unknown entity that is coming to her family, calling to them from the land, in the earth, beneath the trees… and in their minds.

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

While usually I am perfectly fine with the winter months (even in Minnesota!), this year I am dreading it. I can handle the cold and the nutty weather, but the thought of having to be cut off from family due to COVID-19 and the inability to comfortably or safely gather outside is going to be very hard. Winter in Minnesota is already isolating in a lot of ways, and this winter it’s going to be incredibly demoralizing. But I tell myself that it could be worse. I could be totally trapped and cut off from the rest of society, and stalked by a mysterious being that wants me and my family for untoward purposes. So I guess that “Wonderland” by Zoje Stage puts some things into perspective! Seems fitting to kick off this year’s Horrorpalooza with a horror story that makes me count my blessings.

Well, horror story may be a little generous for this Gothic dark fantasy, though I do see the elements of it in there glimmering through at least a little bit. For Orla and Shaw Bennett, this new home in a remote cabin in the woods is supposed to be Shaw’s writing haven. Living in Manhattan for years before to support Orla’s dancing career has shifted now to a living situation that Shaw prefers, and his entitlement to his moment in the sun is just the first shade of something being wrong. There are definite shades of “The Shining” with Shaw and his need to stay in this place to get his career going again, even when strange things, like foot upon foot of unseasonable snow showers down and strands them with little supplies and no way out. And as their situation deteriorates, Orla is determined to save her family from whatever it is…. even as her daughter Eleanor Queen is getting closer and closer to the entity that wants them to stay. There are definite pulse pounding dramatics to be had and genuine moments of high stakes and suspense, but honestly “Wonderland” never quite got to the levels of horror or terror that I tend to associate with horror novels (outside of one moment with a bear…. and that’s all I’m going to say). I would classify “Wonderland” as more of a dark fantasy tale than horror, which means that my expectations being dashed soured me a bit to the story.

But genre aside, what really did work about “Wonderland” was both Orla and Eleanor Queen, and the mother-daughter relationship that is highlighted within its pages. Orla has put her family first from the get go, leaving her career behind to support Shaw’s aspirations and to help her children transition to a new, very different, life. Orla has strength within herself, and Eleanor Queen, too, is approaching their situation with her own inner strength. The two of them work together to try and save the family from the dark being that is holding them hostage, and even as they feel like they are losing everything, they always have each other to lean on. Eleanor Queen has a unique insight into what is going on, and she and Orla have a really powerful and touching relationship is just one aspect of this positive representation of the power of ‘female’ driven approaches. Another that really struck me was that once we do find out what exactly is going on, the origin of the conflict is unique in that Orla and Eleanor Queen have grace and empathy that we don’t usually see in stories like this. A lot of the time when supernatural entities are at play, there is some kind of vengeance motivation. “Wonderland” has a different angle. And once again, that is all I’m going to say. Regardless, it works and made the story feel more outside the box. Again, not horror. But dark fantasy to be certain.

“Wonderland” is claustrophobic and engaging, even if it isn’t too scary. But then, isolation is scaring me right now. So maybe I’m not giving it enough horror credit. Regardless, Horrorpalooza has begun, folks. Let’s make it a good one!

Rating 7: A Gothic tale that feels less horror and more mother-daughter examination, “Wonderland” has some interesting moments of dark fantasy…. but not too many scares.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wonderland” is included on the Goodreads lists “Horror Novels Written by Women”, and “2020 Horror to Scream For”.

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

Serena’s Review: “A Dance with Fate”

36253130._sy475_Book: “A Dance with Fate” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Ace Books, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The young warrior and bard Liobhan has lost her brother to the Otherworld. Even more determined to gain a place as an elite fighter, she returns to Swan Island to continue her training. But Liobhan is devastated when her comrade Dau is injured and loses his sight in their final display bout. Blamed by Dau’s family for the accident, she agrees to go to Dau’s home as a bond servant for the span of one year.

There, she soon learns that Oakhill is a place of dark secrets. The vicious Crow Folk still threaten both worlds. And Dau, battling the demon of despair, is not an easy man to help.

When Liobhan and Dau start to expose the rot at the center of Oakhill, they place themselves in deadly danger. For their enemy wields great power and will stop at nothing to get his way. It will take all the skills of a Swan Island warrior and a touch of the uncanny to give them a hope of survival. . . .

Previously Reviewed: “The Harp of Kings”

Review: As always, I’m excited whenever I see a new Juliet Marillier book coming out. The first book in this trilogy (?), “The Harp of Kings” definitely set the stage for this second book, leaving a few threads dangling and a mysterious enemy in the form of the Crow People. While it wasn’t my favorite of Marillier’s work, I thought it was a good start to a new series and introduced a compelling set of new characters. This second one was…odd. I still enjoyed it, but not as much as I had hoped, even though, on the surface, it seemed to have most of what I look for in these types of books.

Liobhan and Dau are on the cusp of achieving that which they both have worked so hard and so long to accomplish: to become full members of the Swan Island crew. But, in an unfortunate accident while the two spar, Dau suffers a debilitating injury that costs him his sight, perhaps forever. With his family now demanding justice, Liobhan finds herself alongside Dau back where neither wish to be and a place that caused only harm and suffering to Dau during his childhood. There, they must both confront the evils at the heart of Dau’s family, and maybe some mysteries, too.

My description of the book, following the example of the published one, fails to mention that Brocc, too, is a part of this story. After his decision to marry a half-Fae queen and join her in her realm at the end of the last book, I wasn’t sure what we would see from him here on out. But low and behold, he ends up with a decent number of chapters and his own arc in this story. It’s also made clear by the end of this book that there will be more to hear from him in the third. Not sure why the publisher failed to include the fact that he is still a main character, but I suspect it’s because they realize that most readers are probably here for Liobhan and Dau. I know I was.

Brocc’s not a bad character, but it’s hard to be as compelling as two leads that each have quite a number of chapters devoted to their POVs making them both more compelling together and apart. Brocc’s own story here was…strange. It’s clear that he is still struggling to find his own role in the Fae world. And, due to the fact that he grew up in the human world, it’s also clear that he has very different views and ideas about the threat the Crow People pose to the Fae. He ends up with his own mini quest, which I found compelling enough. But I really struggled with the romance between Brocc and his wife. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to like her or not? By the end, I really didn’t like her at all, but was still unsure whether the author had been meaning for a few late reveals to materially change the negative impression that had been built up. For me, the reveal was definitely not enough to change my mind and, by its nature, kind of made me more mad to think that we might have been supposed to forgive her decisions and treatment of Brocc due to it. I don’t want to spoil it, but if you read this book, you’ll see what I mean. Maybe other readers will have a different impression. But all of this together left me really struggling to enjoy Brocc’s section of the story.

As for Dau and Liobhan, I enjoyed their story more. I think partly they are simply more compelling characters on their own, but they also had more to do in this book in particular. That said, they still didn’t seem to have enough to do. The mystery at the heart of their story is pretty obvious from the get-to, so it’s more a journey of reaching the obvious endpoint than in unraveling any real clues. Dau’s recovery and his attempts to come to grips with his new situation are interesting enough, but, again, there wasn’t any real tension here as it seemed like the conclusion of his arc was also well-telegraphed. And, again, the romance left something wanting.

This is a particularly frustrating thing to find in a Marillier book, as I’ve always thought that one of her best strengths is her ability to write compelling, swoon-worthy romances. But here, it just felt off. There really was no obvious progression of Dau and Liobhan’s feelings. Instead, we were simply told that they each began to have feelings for the other. It was incredibly disappointing  and said, especially knowing what the author is capable of. There could have been a really great romance here, but for some reason, it just felt deflated and underdeveloped from the start. There’s another book coming and some challenges still ahead of these two, so I’ll hold out hope that this ship can be righted.

I still love Marillier’s writing style and the overall tone of her take on fantasy stories. There are some good pieces in these books, but for some reason they just don’t seem to be coming together the same way several of her other stories have in the past. Obviously, I’ll still be here for the next one, but I’m a bit more nervous about it than I remember ever being in the past for one of this author’s books.

Rating 7: A surprisingly lackluster romance on two counts left this book feeling a bit limp at times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Dance with Fate” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on “Strong Fighter Heroines.”

Find “A Dance with Fate” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Princess Will Save You”

43603825._sy475_Book: “The Princess Will Save You” by Sarah Henning

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, July 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: When her warrior father, King Sendoa, mysteriously dies, Princess Amarande of Ardenia is given what would hardly be considered a choice: Marry a stranger at sixteen or lose control of her family’s crown.

But Amarande was raised to be a warrior—not a sacrifice.

In an attempt to force her choice, a neighboring kingdom kidnaps her true love, stable boy Luca. With her kingdom on the brink of civil war and no one to trust, she’ll need all her skill to save him, her future, and her kingdom.

Review: I’ll be honest, I first requested this book based purely on how much I love this cover. Even now, looking at it above, I’m swayed to feel more positive about this book just by the lovely depiction of its main characters on the cover. But, when I dug deeper, I realized that it is also being promoted as a gender-swapped retelling of “The Princess Bride,” so, of course, I was even more excited to check it out! While I did enjoy it overall, it sadly didn’t quite live up to the promise of the gorgeous cover or the intrigue of the unique concept.

After the sudden and unexpected death of her father, the king, Princess Amarande quickly discovers how few options she has. Seemingly, no one else is concerned about potential assassination, and instead, her entire council is moving full steam ahead to marry her off to the most politically advantageous match they can find, regardless of Amarande’s own wishes. When her best friend, Luca, is kidnapped by one such potential match in an attempt to force her hand, Amarande takes matters into her own hands. Her quest is simple: save her true love, save her kingdom.

This is a tough one for me to rate and review. On one hand, it was enjoyable enough, and I was able to blaze through it in only a few days. The writing was solid. The characters were interesting. And the world-building did enough to paint a picture that I felt grouned. And yet…it was lacking something.

For one thing, I don’t think it did this book any favors to have it marketed as a gender-swapped “Princess Bride.” Sure, I can see how it follows similar plot points and winks and nods at some of the key phrases used in that book. But, on one hand, if I had not had that put in my head and thus wasn’t looking for these elements specifically, I’m not sure I would have made these connections. And, conversely, when I was looking and did spot them, they often detracted more from the story than they added. For one thing, the first half of the story doesn’t feel like a re-telling at all, whereas the last half really goes all in. It’s an uncomfortable balance.

Beyond that, I think I was also set up to expect more of a humorous fantasy story. Obviously, “The Prinicess Bride” is comedy through and through. Here, not so much. Not only is it clearly not going for the same parody tone that its inspiration had, it also just seemed to lack much humor at all? I think this, truly, is where my main contention point came for the story. It checks all the marks for a good fantasy adventure, but there is something decidedly dry in the tone and its telling. It didn’t have to be back-to-back laughs, but as I was reading through, I realized more and more that there simply were no laughs whatsoever. So, while the characters, romance, and adventure were compelling enough, they also felt strangely two dimensional and flat. It was too bad.

It looks like a sequel is planned, so I’ll most likely check it out. There were some interesting developments towards the end of the story. And perhaps the second will be served better by being more thoroughly detached from the “Princess Bride” read-alike label. Just add some humor to the story, and it could be great!

Rating 7: Sadly a bit flat in its telling, but a fast enough fantasy adventure.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Princess Will Save You” is on these Goodreads lists: “Damsels in Shining Armor & Dudes in Distress” and “Royalty.”

Find “The Princess Will Save You” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.3): Dream Country”

25100Book: “The Sandman (Vol.3): Dream Country” by Neil Gaiman, Kelley Jones (Ill.), Charles Vell (Ill.), Colleen Doran (Ill.), and Malcolm Jones (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1991

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The third volume of the Sandman collection is a series of four short comic book stories. In each of these otherwise unrelated stories, Morpheus serves only as a minor character. Here we meet the mother of Morpheus’s son, find out what cats dream about, and discover the true origin behind Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream. The latter won a World Fantasy Award for best short story, the first time a comic book was given that honor. collecting The Sandman #17–20.

Review: One of the things that I need to get used to when going back and re-reading “Sandman” is that Gaiman sometimes like to meander and experiment with stories in their tone and mythologies. So while “Sandman” does have an overarching plot line, on occasion you will find tales that don’t fit in. Sometimes I really love this, as in both of our previous collections I’ve highlighted these standalone stories. So theoretically I should have been totally game with “The Sandman (Vol.3): Dream Country”, as it has four stand alone tales that don’t really focus on Dream and his journey. I’m all for experimentation, just like on my first read through, “Dream Country” didn’t live up to the books before.

Our first standalone story, “Calliope”, is one of the ones that most fascinates me, but also has some really problematic elements to it. In concerns the Muse Calliope, Morpheus’s former lover and mother of their late son Orpheus, who has been imprisoned by an author so that her influence will make him write amazing works. While in captivity Calliope is isolated and raped repeatedly, and she calls upon Morpheus for help in escaping. I greatly enjoy the concept of a person using the means of a Muse for ill will, and I liked the harkening back to the Greek Mythology that Morpheus has some part in, but I really had a hard time with the way that Calliope is abused by one man, and is basically damsel in distressed until another man saves her. The concept was my favorite of the four, but the execution was very upsetting and felt a bit tone deaf by today’s standards.

The second is “A Dream of a Thousand Cats”, a fun and kind of sad story about house cats and how they went from ruling the wild to being subjugated by human kind. Given my love for cats, the idea of cats wanting to rise up and free themselves from their human ‘captors’ is very fun, if only because it has been said that if house cats were much larger they would absolutely try to kill their owners. Morpheus is here (in the form of a cat, no less!), but it really could have been anyone waylaying this information to our feline protagonists. This probably could have worked as a short story out of the “Sandman” universe, and I wonder if Gaiman had the idea for this kind of story outside of this narrative, as it felt a bit forced into the box of the Sandman world.

The third story is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, a World Fantasy Award winning tale (the first comic to win this award even!) in which Morpheus brings people of the faerie realm to come watch Shakespeare’s traveling troupe put on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Basically Morpheus and Shakespeare cut a deal and this is the first of two plays that Shakespeare has written for him. We get a lighthearted version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and get to see their ‘real world’ counter parts react to the way that they are portrayed within the play. Cute to be sure. I think that were I a bigger fan of the play itself I’d have enjoyed this more, but “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” isn’t a fave of mine, Shakespeare wise.

It’s the fourth story that I really, really liked, and kind of saved this whole collection for me. “Facade” is the saddest tale within this collection, and it doesn’t even have Morpheus in it! Instead we get to see my girl Death shine, though she, too, plays a smaller role in lieu of a new original character. Raine is a woman who, when on an archaeological dig in Egypt, was cursed with immortality. Though she is going to live possibly forever, her body is slowly deteriorating, rendering her isolated and scared and desperate to die. She puts on fake faces to go into public, but it’s by no means a long term solution, and after a particularly bad day Death hears her begging, and decides to talk to her. Looking at the consequences of what immortality would actually be is always sobering, and Raine is such a sad character that you ache for as the story goes on. And while it was kind of surprising to see that Morpheus wasn’t in this one, I think that Death was really the character to use given her empathetic nature (unlike Dream, who is prickly at best), and it was really nice seeing her getting a little more spotlight. She is such an intriguing character on her own, after all. I also really liked the artwork for this one. It’s a lovely design for Death.

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“The Sandman (Vol.3): Dream Country” is a fine detour from the main storyline, but I’m eager to get back to see what Morpheus is up to. I definitely encourage you to read these if you are taking on the series, but if you have to go to Volume 4 before this one, that’s probably going to be fine.

Rating 7: These standalone stories are enjoyable for the most part, but they don’t really progress the plot, and feel a bit dated in some of their themes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.3): Dream Country” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books About Faery”, and “Mythic Fiction Comics”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.3): Dream Country” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: