Kate’s Review: “The Black Queen”

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Book: “The Black Queen” by Jumata Emill

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2023

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

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

Book Description: Nova Albright, the first Black homecoming queen at Lovett High, is dead. Murdered the night of her coronation, her body found the next morning in the old slave cemetery she spent her weekends rehabilitating.

Tinsley McArthur was supposed to be queen. Not only is she beautiful, wealthy, and white, it’s her legacy–her grandmother, her mother, and even her sister wore the crown before her. Everyone in Lovett knows Tinsley would do anything to carry on the McArthur tradition.

No one is more certain of that than Duchess Simmons, Nova’s best friend. Duchess’s father is the first Black police captain in Lovett. For Duchess, Nova’s crown was more than just a win for Nova. It was a win for all the Black kids. Now her best friend is dead, and her father won’t face the fact that the main suspect is right in front of him. Duchess is convinced that Tinsley killed Nova–and that Tinsley is privileged enough to think she can get away with it. But Duchess’s father seems to be doing what he always does: fall behind the blue line. Which means that the white girl is going to walk.

Duchess is determined to prove Tinsley’s guilt. And to do that, she’ll have to get close to her. But Tinsley has an agenda, too.

Everyone loved Nova. And sometimes, love is exactly what gets you killed.

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

I love being taken surprise by a book. Whether it’s because I hadn’t heard of it before, or because a new author is on the scene and I’m totally unfamiliar, it’s a joy and a treat when one ends up in my hands, I have no expectations, and it ends up working for me and then some. That was my experience with “The Black Queen” by Jumata Emill. I hadn’t heard of the book until it was offered to me (thanks again, Delacorte Press!), and the premise was interesting and I was feeling up to trying something new. And then I ended up really, really enjoying it!

This story is told from two first person perspectives. The first is that of Duchess, a Black teenage girl in a Southern Community that is dealing with unofficial segregation and disparities for the Black community. Her best friend Nova is another Black girl, and is named the first Black Homecoming Queen the school has ever had. When Nova is murdered, Duchess is determined to prove that the privileged and wealthy Tinsley, a white classmate who wanted to be Homecoming Queen, is the culprit, as Tinsley was not only cruel to Nova during the race, but was also seen on TikTok making threats after the crowning. But the other perspective is actually of Tinsley, who is desperate to clear her name in the murder, and who is conducting her own investigation. Eventually, both girls team up despite the bad blood and past baggage, and it makes for a hell of a story. Not in the sense of ‘look at these two learning from each other’ kind of way, but because Emill doesn’t shy away from very uncomfortable moments regarding Tinsley’s character, and also explores lots of complexities with Duchess’s father, who is a police captain in town, and how his role has an effect on Duchess and her peers. Watching Tinsley be really difficult to like and slowly start to realize how terrible she has been, and how her race and privilege has made her entitled and venomous, is a very interesting choice to make with the character, and it was really neat to see that while we do get growth and remorse, she isn’t let off the hook for her really shitty actions. Watching her do the work first because she wants to clear her name, but then slowly start to realize that she has a lot to atone for was a fascinating character arc. I also like Duchess’s storyline and character growth, as she goes from making assumptions about things to then starting to find hard to reconcile nuances that make her question what she thinks she knows. It’s just really cool to see Emill delve into these deep issues about race in America and doesn’t water it down or package it in a way that some may think would be more palatable for a teen audience. She makes it easy to understand while still trusting the reader to be able to parse out a lot of complex, not so easy to answer questions.

The mystery at hand was very entertaining and pretty well put together. We know from the jump that Tinsley was guilty of being a shit head but not guilty of murder, so having her Duchess start to piece the mystery together separately and then together led to some good reveals and some good clue drops. There were a lot of facets to the story, and to Nova’s character, and many puzzle pieces that come together to give many options for why someone would have wanted her dead. Emill is fairly successful in pulling everything off and throwing readers off the trail here and there, and while I did kind of call one of the big solutions pretty early on in my read, there were a few well done red herrings that made me think ‘well maybe…?’, before they were revealed to be misdirections. But they were all plausible. The pace is kept fairly brisk and the plot moves in a way that keeps you interested, and I devoured this book in a couple of sittings because it was just that addictive.

So all in all “The Black Queen” was a well done YA thriller that successfully injects bigger, relevant issues into the plot. I really enjoyed it and I will be looking for more fiction from Jumata Emill in the future!

Rating 8: Some really good reveals, complex main characters, and a lot of relevant and important themes about race in America come together to make a well done YA thriller.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Black Queen” isn’t included on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Black Lives Matter and Anti-Racist Books”and “Young Adult Thrillers”.

Serena’s Review: “Queen Among the Dead”

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Book: “Queen Among the Dead” by Lesley Livingston

Publishing Info: Zando Young Readers, January 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: In the kingdom of Eire, banshees chill the air, and water-wights lurk in the rivers. But magic is outlawed by the king, and jealously hoarded by his Druid priests.

Neve is the youngest daughter of the king, and Ronan is a Druid’s apprentice-turned-thief, making a living by selling stolen spells. They should be enemies, but their shared hatred of the Druids-and a dark magic that has marked them both-makes them unlikely, if uneasy, allies.

When Eire is threatened by a power struggle, Neve must seize the chance to take her rightful place on her family’s throne, with the help of Ronan and the realm’s most dangerous outcasts. Their journey takes them to the outskirts of Eire where magic still runs free . . . and where an outlaw and a warrior princess might carve out a future with spells and swords.

Review: Anyone who is familiar with this blog knows that I am a huge Juliet Marillier fan. I mean, I devoted an entire years-long running series to re-reading all of her books and reviewing them here. So it will come as no surprise that all it would take for me to request a book might be the barest hint of a book sounds similar to Marillier’s work. And such was the case here!

Long ago, Neve, the younger daughter of the king of Eire, met a strange boy and they fought a powerful and dangerous demon, only barely escaping with their lives. Through this experience, both have now grown to distrust the powerful Druid order that both outlawed magic but also hoarded it to themselves. When they meet again as adults, seeming enemies in the grand scheme of their society, they find that this similar distrust and their own hopes for their country tie them more closely together than they ever could have imagined. And when a powerful darkness begins to seep across the land, they find that, together, they possess a rare and powerful magic that is just what is needed to re-shape the future.

There was a lot to like about this book right from the very start. For one thing, it was apparent that the writing was excellent from the first page. It perfectly fit the tone of a historical fantasy story, being both lyrical but also clear enough to depict a world and culture that has one foot in the world we’re familiar with, but another foot clearly placed in a realm of magic and mystery. It’s a difficult balance, to capture both the historical tone and the whimsical. I also really liked the dialogue. Especially when we first see Neve and Ronan interacting as adults. It was funny and yet still felt natural to the characters, again balancing modern sensibilities of humor alongside a sort of pseudo-historical vocabulary.

Ronan and Neve were also very interesting characters in their own right. I enjoyed the duel mysteries regarding their different natures. It’s one thing to pull off one character with a “strange past,” but quite another to do it with both of your protagonists without one of them dropping in quality. I think I particularly liked Neve, however, if I had to choose between the two. Her character had to work through some very interesting family dynamics (even a few that came in the form of a nice twist towards the end), while also grappling with the restrictions on women and the unique history of Eire that lead to some of these restrictions. Ronan’s story is much more straight-forward in this regard, but still very enjoyable.

I will say, however, that the story stumbled when it came to their relationship. I saw this book billed as an “enemies to lovers” romance, and I just don’t think it really fits into that. I was never able to really identify the “enemies” portion of it, rather than a few brief instances where they each decide not to trust the other. Frankly, the primary emotion this relationship inspired was frustration. The characters made fairly random decisions to suddenly not trust one another, but then the very first second this decision would be tested, they’d be right back to working together and having all the feelings. Not only did the wishy-washy-ness feel unrealistic, but it didn’t serve any purpose to the story other than forced conflict (and like I said, even there, there wasn’t any real conflict, just talk of potential conflict that was immediately dismissed in reality).

Overall, while I think the story did have a weak romance and a bit of a pacing problem (there was a decent amount of the middle of the book that felt like it was dragging), I still came away feeling like this was a pretty solid historical fantasy. The mythology, in particular, was very interesting, and I do think it will appeal to readers who like books like those produced by Marilliar or other historical fantasy authors.

Rating 8: A bit rocky in the pacing and romance departments, but saved by its solid writing and interesting mythological history.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Queen Among the Dead” can be found on this Goodreads list: Ancient History Historical Fiction Published in 2023

Serena’s Review: “Things Not Seen”

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Book: “Things Not Seen” by Monica Boothe

Publishing Info: Peniel Press, January 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: from the author!

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

Book Description: 17-year-old Kristin has selective blindness. She can’t see, hear, feel, or smell, her brother. This doesn’t stop them from becoming best friends, turning his unique invisibility into a game, but when the two of them are stranded alone during a blizzard, it doesn’t feel like a game anymore. Kristin will do everything she can to keep her little brother alive, but she’s the least qualified person in the world to do so.

Review: I always enjoy supporting lesser known authors when I get the chance. And after Boothe send me an excerpt to this book, I knew I wanted to check out the entire thing. The concept alone sounds very unique, and it was clear from even the first few chapters that the author had a solid foundation for her main character and the relationship she has to her invisible brother that forms the basis for this story. Add in a snow storm, and you have a primed set! Let’s dive in.

Kristin knows she has a younger brother. She just can’t see, hear, or feel him. But everyone else can, so she has had to find unique ways to connect and exist with this invisible sibling. Through these extra hurdles, however, the two have formed a particularly close relationship largely managed through texts and the small context clues that Kristin uses to locate her brother out and about in the world. But when a snow storm strikes while Kristin and Josh are home alone, an entire new set of circumstances highlights the challenges of their unique relationship.

I really enjoyed this YA novel. As I’ve mentioned before, I really like books that focus on sibling relationships, as I think there are a lot of interesting dynamics to be mined there. Here, we see two very close siblings, but their relationship is largely defined by the challenges of Kristin not being able to see, here or feel Josh. As the story is told from her perspective, we see how this loss has shaped her every thought and action. Everyone else around her can see Josh, and it is decided that she as what is called “selective blindness” where he is concerned. The book wisely doesn’t get too far into the weeds on this condition, but instead uses it mostly as a platform for the plot and the character work.

For Kristin’s part, we see how this condition has lead her to increased levels of anxiety about the dangers she could pose to her brother. But equally, we see how defined her life has become by this relationship, especially considering the extra work that has been necessary to create and maintain their connection. As she faces decisions about college, these anxieties and changes to how she must order and center her new life would be very relatable to many teen readers, regardless of the fantastical circumstances of the invisible brother.

I also really liked that we got to understand a bit more about how this relationship has affected Josh. For him, it is largely like having a deaf and blind sister. But as the story is told from Kristin’s POV, these realizations, that her condition affects Josh just as much as it does her, are slow to come and hard won.

As I’ve just spent two paragraphs talking about the characters and their relationships, I think it will come as no surprise when I say that the strength of this story really comes down to how well-drawn these characters are. Kristin’s voice is very approachable and relatable. And I fully drawn in to the complexities and turmoil of this sibling dynamic. It all felt very real and natural (or as much as it can with an invisible character at play!).

When it came down to some of the more factual bits of the story, I struggled a bit more. I grew up in northern Idaho and currently live in Minnesota. So I’m very familiar with blizzards and large quantities of snow. A central portion of this story is defined by Kristin and Josh trying to deal with a blizzard and a power outage. And…I just really struggled with some of the details here. Blowing snow, yes, can make visuals difficult and reduce sight lines. But unless you’re in a completely new location, this isn’t going to have much of an affect on travelling short distances. In this book, Kristin is walking (not even driving at any kind of speed where visibility needs to be far reaching) outside her family home. I just couldn’t buy the fact that she would get this disoriented or lost. We are also told at one point the specific amount on the ground (I believe it was around 8 inches or so) and this is just not much at all, in the grand scheme of things. But, again, this probably only stood out to me so much due to my own very specific experiences with snow (let me tell you later about having to snowmobile 3 miles to our house all winter) and also my, admittedly annoying, over-fixation on accuracy in survival situations (re: all the my past reviews of survival stories where I go crazy over the stupidest little details or inaccuracies).

Overall, I think this was a very strong book about the joys and challenges of sibling relationships. I was really impressed by the way the author had thought out the ins and outs of her central premise, that one sibling can’t see/feel/hear the other. Kristin was also a very relatable teenage character, and I think she will speak to a lot of teenage readers. Yes, I struggled with the snow storm stuff. But I still came away from it having really enjoyed my read.

And don’t forget to enter to a win a copy of this book!

Rating 8: An intimate and relatable portrayal of sibling relationships with a a compelling and sympathetic teenage protagonist.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Things Not Seen” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be onYA Contemporary Books with Great Portrayals of Relationships.

Giveaway: “Things Not Seen”

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Book: “Things Not Seen” by Monica Boothe

Publishing Info: Peniel Press, January 2023

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

Book Description: 17-year-old Kristin has selective blindness. She can’t see, hear, feel, or smell, her brother. This doesn’t stop them from becoming best friends, turning his unique invisibility into a game, but when the two of them are stranded alone during a blizzard, it doesn’t feel like a game anymore. Kristin will do everything she can to keep her little brother alive, but she’s the least qualified person in the world to do so.

Giveaway Details: Monica Boothe reached out to me about reviewing her upcoming book “Things Not Seen” a few months ago. After reading the excerpt, I was very excited to check out the entire novel! The voice of the teenage protagonist, Kristin, was immediately catchy and relatable. Add that to a very interesting concept, that of a sibling relationship where the sister has never been able to see/hear/feel her brother, and you have yourself a very compelling novel! Per the usual, my full review (spoiler: I really liked it!) will go live this Friday. Until then, don’t forget to enter to win a copy of “Things Not Seen!” The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and runs through January 24, 2023.

Enter to win!

Blog Tour: “The Rose and the Thistle”

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Book: “The Rose and the Thistle” by Laura Frantz

Publishing Info: Revell, January 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publicist!

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

Book Description: In 1715, Lady Blythe Hedley’s father is declared an enemy of the British crown because of his Jacobite sympathies, forcing her to flee her home in northern England. Secreted to the tower of Wedderburn Castle in Scotland, Lady Blythe awaits who will ultimately be crowned king. But in a house with seven sons and numerous servants, her presence soon becomes known.

No sooner has Everard Hume lost his father, Lord Wedderburn, than Lady Hedley arrives with the clothes on her back and her mistress in tow. He has his own problems–a volatile brother with dangerous political leanings, an estate to manage, and a very young brother in need of comfort and direction in the wake of losing his father. It would be best for everyone if he could send this misfit heiress on her way as soon as possible.

Drawn into a whirlwind of intrigue, shifting alliances, and ambitions, Lady Blythe must be careful whom she trusts. Her fortune, her future, and her very life are at stake. Those who appear to be adversaries may turn out to be allies–and those who pretend friendship may be enemies.

Review: Once again, thank you to Laurel for reaching out to me about my participation in another blog tour! Per the usual, I love getting to collaborate on projects like this and promote books that may not be getting the attention they deserve. I was also excited when I read the book description for this one. I think “Outlander” has really sucked up a lot of the public’s awareness of the Jacobite period of history, so it’s always exciting to see a different and new version of this time period brought to the page.

When Lady Blythe finally returns to her father’s home after an extended stay in France, she’s excited to pick up the reigns of her quiet country existence, leaving behind the excesses of the French court. But when her father comes under suspicion for being a Jacobite sympathizer, she is once again forced from her home. And this time she lands in the home of Everard Hume, a man who is already consumed with problems of his own and has no time for another in the form of a lonely young woman. With tensions running high within the country and no one knowing whom they can trust, will Everard and Lady Blythe find comfort or danger in one another?

I don’t read more straight-forward historical fiction very often, but that’s been something these blog tours have really helped with. Yes, they often have a romantic component, but they aren’t bodice rippers ala “Bridgerton” which is its own sort of subgenre of historical romance. Instead, this book, like the others, is equally focused on the details of this piece of history as it is in the main characters themselves.

And here, we have a different insight into the Jacobite rebellion seen through the eyes of two different perspectives. As I alluded to, “Outlander” really zeroed in on this point of history, but that story only gets at a few aspects of this tumultuous time. For one thing, it doesn’t get into the religious dynamics at play, which was a major factor for many of the regular people who supported one king or line of kings over another. Here, the massive swings of religious persecution and power are highlighted, and the author really dives into the struggles that existed for those whose leader and religion were not currently holding the reigns. Given the prominence of general Christianity as a major worldwide religion, it’s easy to forget that it has had its own bloody history of internal fractions and strife. And that England was ground zero for much of it.

Beyond this, I enjoyed the detailed descriptions that really paint a picture of life in this time period, particularly the depiction of Edinbourgh. I was really impressed by the authors obvious dedication to research, and it was apparent in every meticulous scene. There’s an interesting author’s note at the end of the book that explains the author’s own family connection to this story, so that does shed some light on the personal importance of this research. But it’s always a pleasure either way to read a historical novel that proves an author did his or her work.

I also liked Lady Blythe and Everard well enough, though I will say that they weren’t my favorite parts of the book. While they are both competently drawn characters, I never felt myself truly invested in their stories or their characters as a whole. From the very beginning, each felt just the tiniest bit flat. In some ways, this could be due to the very realistic manner in which they are portrayed, which, again speaks to the author’s commitment to creating a believable and true-feeling story. This is definitely a very subjective take, however, and I’m sure these characters will jump off the page for many other historical fiction fans.

Rating 8: A fresh look at a fairly familiar portion of British history, this book will likely appeal to many historical fiction fans, particularly those who enjoy a sweet love story at its heart.

Reader’s Advisory:

“” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Jane Austen Books, Sequels, Bios and more.

Serena’s Review: “Mysteries of Thorn Manor”

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Book: “Mysteries of Thorn Manor” by Margaret Rogerson

Publishing Info:Margaret K. McElderry Books, January 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Elisabeth Scrivener is finally settling into her new life with sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn. Now that their demon companion Silas has returned, so has scrutiny from nosy reporters hungry for gossip about the city’s most powerful sorcerer and the librarian who stole his heart. But something strange is afoot at Thorn Manor: the estate’s wards, which are meant to keep their home safe, are acting up and forcibly trapping the Manor’s occupants inside. Surely it must be a coincidence that this happened just as Nathaniel and Elisabeth started getting closer to one another…

With no access to the outside world, Elisabeth, Nathaniel, and Silas – along with their new maid Mercy – will have to work together to discover the source of the magic behind the malfunctioning wards before they’re due to host the city’s Midwinter Ball. Not an easy task when the house is filled with unexpected secrets, and all Elisabeth can think about is kissing Nathaniel in peace. But when it becomes clear that the house, influenced by the magic of Nathaniel’s ancestors, requires a price for its obedience, Elisabeth and Nathaniel will have to lean on their connection like never before to set things right.

Previously Reviewed: “Sorcery of Thorns”

Review: I don’t think I can express exactly how excited I was when I saw this title pop up on Edelweiss+. A sequel to “Sorcery of Thorns” that would give all the juicy details about Elisabeth and Nathaniel’s developing relationship? Yes, please! The only dampener being that it was a novella instead of a full-length sequel. But hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Its been a few months since the fantastical events that changed her life, and Elisabeth is still slowly becoming comfortable with her new circumstances. So much that is unknown surrounds her, be that the full history of her love, Nathaniel, the mysteries of the demon Silas whose motives are his own, or even the secrets that are hidden within the walls of the manor itself. And when the house itself turns against them, all three will have to work together to put things to right before the face their greatest test yet: a Midwinter Ball.

Margaret Rogerson essentially described this book as “an author writing fanfiction for their own work.” And I have only one thing to say to that: why don’t more authors do this?? There’s a reasons fans turn to fanfiction in the first place. Often, it is a place to find quieter, more character-centric works that dive into the smaller moments that wouldn’t make it onto the page in a full novel. (Obviously, this is not always the case, but I think the generalization stands for much of it). I know for my own part, I often turn to fanfiction when I want, essentially, a cozy read with familiar, beloved characters who I want to spend more time with. So it’s almost a “smack the forehead” level of obvious that authors themselves could write books like this and then have them gobbled up by their fans. I guess the question would be whether or not publishers would print these types of books. Well, I hope this book is a massive success and proves that this is viable route for novellas like this in the future.

I loved everything about this book. It did feel like fanfiction in the best of all ways. Just one lovely character moment after another. Not only do we get a lot more development for Nathaniel and Elisabeth (two characters whose romance only barely began by the end of the first novel itself), but we also get many more moments between Silas and these two characters as well. In some ways, Silas’s moments were even more compelling than the romance. Yes, the relationship between Nathaniel and Elisabeth and funny, sweet, and adorable, but the complicated connections that Silas has to them both held a lot more nuance. It was the sort of thing where the relationships that had a hint of pain and torment were just a bit more compelling than the straight-forwardly sweet one. This is in no way a slight against the central romance, just that I think Silas’s history and nature added a level of complexity to his relationship with Nathaniel and Elisabeth that I found extremely riveting.

I also really liked the fantasy elements we had here. Again, because this is a novella with a decidedly cozy tone, there was nothing overtly threatening or dark. Instead, the action came through moments of magical absurdity, such as a house fighting against its occupants using a grandmother’s clothes as weapons. Throughout the book, it was exciting to follow Elisabeth as she uncovered more and more about the house and the previous occupants who left their mark upon it. I also really enjoyed the final third of the book, neatly wrapping up all the loose ends and throwing in one last excellent twist.

I loved this book. It was the kind of story that I’ll likely read again and again next to a fire on a cold, winter’s night. I know I’ve used the word “cozy” a few times, but that really sums it up well. I do think it’s necessary to read “Sorcery of Thorns” before this one, however, as there is a lot of backstory there that is needed to understand the dynamics we get on the page here. But for fans of that book, this is definitely a must!

Rating 8: A perfect slice of life from characters I was dying to hear more from! Sweet, funny, and surprisingly heart-felt, this is a must read for fans of “Sorcery of Thorns.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mysteries of Thorn Manor” can be found on this Goodreads list: Novels of “Thorns”.

Kate’s Review: “Bad Cree”

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Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Bad Cree” by Jessica Johns

Publishing Info: Doubleday Books, January 2022

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

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

Book Description: In this gripping debut tinged with supernatural horror, a young Cree woman’s dreams lead her on a perilous journey of self-discovery that ultimately forces her to confront the toll of a legacy of violence on her family, her community and the land they call home.

When Mackenzie wakes up with a severed crow’s head in her hands, she panics. Only moments earlier she had been fending off masses of birds in a snow-covered forest. In bed, when she blinks, the head disappears.

Night after night, Mackenzie’s dreams return her to a memory from before her sister Sabrina’s untimely death: a weekend at the family’s lakefront campsite, long obscured by a fog of guilt. But when the waking world starts closing in, too–a murder of crows stalks her every move around the city, she wakes up from a dream of drowning throwing up water, and gets threatening text messages from someone claiming to be Sabrina–Mackenzie knows this is more than she can handle alone.

Traveling north to her rural hometown in Alberta, she finds her family still steeped in the same grief that she ran away to Vancouver to escape. They welcome her back, but their shaky reunion only seems to intensify her dreams–and make them more dangerous.

What really happened that night at the lake, and what did it have to do with Sabrina’s death? Only a bad Cree would put their family at risk, but what if whatever has been calling Mackenzie home was already inside?

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

I’ve said to so many times, but we are living in a great time for horror literature. We have so many great authors out there right now, with so many awesome ideas and so many different experiences and truths, and I am hoping that we just keep getting more. The book that has reminded me of how hashtag blessed we are this time around is “Bad Cree” by Jessica Johns, the story of a Cree woman named Mackenzie who, after leaving home in the wake of older sister Sabrina’s tragic death, is drawn to return after she starts having strange dreams that she can pull things out from. I mean, come on, if that description alone hasn’t sold you, I don’t know what to tell you! And while I had a feeling that this was going to have some hard emotional beats, I wasn’t totally ready for what was to come. In a good way!

The actual horror elements in this one, supernatural wise, have some well done horror imagery and moments. They are rooted in Indigenous folklore, whether it be the powers of dreaming and melding the dream world with the corporeal world, or the spectre of the monstrous wheetigo, and the stakes are high as these Cree women need to come together to try and save themselves from the same fate as Sabrina. Johns creates some truly haunting and visceral moments in this book, and by rooting the horror within Mackenzie’s culture it makes her connections to her family members all the more important and all the more dread building as they hurtle towards danger in hopes of finding answers and safety. I loved some of the moments that Johns puts on the page, whether cold dream scapes or flashes to the past or conflicts with monsters that wish to do harm.

And it’s probably no surprise that this story is also dripping with metaphors, and Johns makes it seamless. We have a family torn apart by trauma and grief, a trauma and grief that has been direct but also handed down just by way of being an Indigenous family in a racist society. With Mackenzie fleeing her pain guilt and therein disconnecting from her roots, we have a woman who is adrift and adding to a splintering of a family line, and who is literally haunted by this. We also have the themes of the wheetigo, a cannibalistic monster that feeds upon its victims, but also serves as the way that people can be all consumed by their trauma and grief and how that can pass down through generational trauma. There are also the greater implications of monsters that take and take and take and how that can apply to Imperialism and Colonialism, which adds to the cycles of trauma (and which is why it feels especially ghoulish when this folklore is appropriated by non-Indigenous artists). It all comes together to form a very emotional horror story about the many things that haunt us.

“Bad Cree” is a well done debut from an author I am very eager to follow. Definitely seek this one out.

Rating 8: Haunting and visceral, “Bad Cree” explores a woman haunted, not only by bad dreams, but by generational trauma and grief.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bad Cree” is included on the Goodreads lists “All Indigenous Peoples List 3”, and “Horror To Look Forward To in 2023”.

Book Club Review: “Travelers Along the Way: A Robin Hood Remix”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club 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 retellings and reimagings.  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: “Travelers Along the Way: A Robin Hood Remix” by Aminah Mae Safi

Publishing Info: Feiwel Friends, March 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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

Retelling/Reimagining: Robin Hood

Book Description: Jerusalem, 1192. The Third Crusade rages on. Rahma al-Hud loyally followed her elder sister Zeena into the war over the Holy Land, but now that the Faranji invaders have gotten reinforcements from Richard the Lionheart, all she wants to do is get herself and her sister home alive.

But Zeena, a soldier of honor at heart, refuses to give up the fight while Jerusalem remains in danger of falling back into the hands of the false Queen Isabella. And so, Rahma has no choice but to take on one final mission with her sister.

On their journey to Jerusalem, Rahma and Zeena come across a motley collection of fellow travelers—including a kind-hearted Mongolian warrior, an eccentric Andalusian scientist, a frustratingly handsome spy with a connection to Rahma’s childhood, and an unfortunate English chaplain abandoned behind enemy lines. The teens all find solace, purpose and camaraderie—as well as a healthy bit of mischief—in each other’s company.

But their travels soon bring them into the orbit of Queen Isabella herself, whose plans to re-seize power in Jerusalem would only guarantee further war and strife in the Holy Land for years to come. And so it falls to the merry band of misfits to use every scrap of cunning and wit (and not a small amount of thievery) to foil the usurper queen and perhaps finally restore peace to the land.

Kate’s Thoughts

I was very happy that book club decided to do a Re-imaginings and Remixes theme for this new session, as I like seeing the way that authors will recreate classic characters and settings with new twists and turns. But, because of course this had to happen, we started with a story whose source material I am patently unfamiliar with. Yeah, I never got much into Robin Hood, outside of the Disney version, Mel Brooks’s film “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”, and one viewing of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” with two college friends who were as obsessed with Alan Rickman as I was. So I went into “Travelers Along the Way” knowing full well I was going to be potentially adrift without knowledge of source material. Which meant that author Aminah Mae Safi had a heftier job to do due to my unfamiliarity.

I’m happy to report that even without a foundational knowledge beyond a sexy fox, a spoof, and Bryan Adams, I was very into “Travelers Along the Way”. I really enjoyed all of the characters as we gathered them up and got to know them, and I enjoyed trying to figure out who was supposed to be whom (though I did have to ask more knowing people in book club, i.e. Serena, who a few of the counterparts were). I think that my favorite aspect of this was how both Rahma and Zeena have such different personalities and opinions on how they should be proceeding, and how they butt heads but still care deeply for each other, even if there is undercurrents of tension between them. I especially liked how by gender bending the characters AND giving it the POV of the OTHER side of the Crusades that Robin Hood wasn’t really dealing with in a tangible way that we got a glimpse into just how fucked everything was for the common people in the Holy Land, especially women. And finally, I enjoyed how Safi gave us not only insights into the main group of characters who were the Robin Hoo equivalents, but also into the minds and motivations of the warring figureheads, be it King Richard, Queen Isabella, or Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub. I didn’t feel like we waded into any problematic areas by getting into their minds a little bit, but it did show the deep, deep complexities that came with this truly awful and violent conflict.

Overall, I enjoyed this one! I don’t have much to compare it to, source content wise, but it was a fun listen and it was a well done re-imagining!

Serena’s Thoughts

I’ve read and watched a lot of versions of “Robin Hood.” My sister and I, predictably, loved “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” when we were younger, mostly because we had a crush on Carey Elwes, of course. My devotion to the tale even extended to watching the horrendous Russell Crowe adaptation that came out in 2010. Thank goodness this version is way, way better than that one!

There was a lot to like about this version of the classic tale. For one thing, I think it was really interesting to change the setting from England to the Middle East. I have to say, I’m not overly familiar with this period of time or the actual strategy and political mechanizations at work in the Middle East during the Crusades. This is a fairly short book with a lot to pack in, but I was impressed by what we got as far as the dynamics all swirling around at once during this period of time. Particularly, I thought it was interesting how the author delved into the three major religions that all hold Jerusalem as a sacred city and how this causes constant tension for all involved.

I also really liked the gender-swapping of all the characters. And boy, there were a lot of characters. But, again, especially for a rather short story, I was impressed by how well I felt like I knew every one of the “merry men/women” that made of the band of thieves. They were slowly introduced over the course of the story, but even with some of the later characters that came onto the scene, I felt like I cared about them all. Of course, I had favorites, like our main character and her fiery sister Zeena. I really liked the exploration of their sibling dynamic, and much of the love and frustration all felt very real and sympathetic.

I do wish we had seen a bit more of Rahma’s famed abilities with a bow and arrow. We hear a lot about it, but we don’t really see it much on the page until pretty close to the end of the novel. That said, I liked how the author worked in the green hood and other classic aspects of the Robin Hood tale. Overall, I definitely recommend this book to all Robin Hood fans!

Kate’s Rating 8: An intriguing re-imagining of “Robin Hood” that looks to a very different situation regarding the conflict at the heart of the original tale.

Serena’s Rating 8: A really clever reimaging of the classic tale with enough to make it familiar but a lot of new takes on characters and setting.

Book Club Questions

  1. How familiar were you with other versions of the Robin Hood story before reading this one? How does this stack up to any others you’ve read/seen?
  2. As a reimaging of the original story, many of the characters appear very different here then they do in their traditional form. Were you able to identify most of the characters with their counterparts? Were there any that you felt were particularly successful/unsuccessful reimagings?
  3. The version of Robin Hood is still set during the Crusades, however it changes the location from England to the Middle East, particularly the cities around Jerusalem. How much did you know about this period of time before reading this? Was there anything that stood out to you about how it was portrayed here?
  4. There are a few interludes in this story told from other characters’ perspectives. What did you think of these chapters? What did they add to the story or did they distract you from the primary plot?
  5. Our bookclub had a lot of fun going over the chapter titles. Did you notice these? Did you have any favorites?

Reader’s Advisory

“Travelers Along the Way: A Robin Hood Remix” is included on the Goodreads lists Gender Flip and Books That Are Perfect for Assassin’s Creed Fans.

Next Book Club Pick: “The Poison Heart” by Kalynn Bayron

Serena’s Review: “The Orchid Throne”

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Book: “The Orchid Throne” by Jeffe Kennedy

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

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

Book Description: As Queen of the island kingdom of Calanthe, Euthalia will do anything to keep her people free—and her secrets safe—from the mad tyrant who rules the mainland. Guided by a magic ring of her father’s, Lia plays the political game with the cronies the emperor sends to her island. In her heart, she knows that it’s up to her to save herself from her fate as the emperor’s bride. But in her dreams, she sees a man, one with the power to build a better world—a man whose spirit is as strong, and whose passion is as fierce as her own…

Conrí, former Crown Prince of Oriel, has built an army to overthrow the emperor. But he needs the fabled Abiding Ring to succeed. The ring that Euthalia holds so dear to her heart. When the two banished rulers meet face to face, neither can deny the flames of rebellion that flicker in their eyes—nor the fires of desire that draw them together. But in this broken world of shattered kingdoms, can they ever really trust each other? Can their fiery alliance defeat the shadows of evil that threaten to engulf their hearts and souls?

Review: I’ve read a few books by Jeffe Kennedy in the past, though I don’t think I’ve reviewed any of them for the blog? She typically writes fairly light-hearted romantic fantasy, and I’ve enjoyed her books in the past. I’ve seen her recent trilogy pop up on Edelweiss over the last few years and finally decided that now was the time to give her another go!

Decades before, a tyrant discovered a powerful, explosive force that allowed him to conquer all of the small kingdoms and force them into unwilling submission as part of his empire. Ruin and destruction is still remembered by the populous, and one young prince has had to reimagine himself as a warrior rebel while trapped in a slave mine. Slowly, he is now working his way towards his revenge on the emperor who destroyed his land and home. But one kingdom survived: the beautiful island of Calanthe. For its ruler welcomed the conquering empire when he came to their shores and promised his own daughter to be a future bride. Now grown, Euthalia works to maintain the tremulous independence that her father bought her land at the price of her hand. But time is running out and the emperor is coming to collect. Soon enough, a rebel prince and a ruling queen will cross paths, and what comes could change the course of the world.

As I said, it’s been a few years since I’ve read anything from this author. And while I remember liking her books, they were also of the sort that I enjoyed reading in the moment, but then quickly forgot. But either my opinion has shifted in the ensuing years or this trilogy is starting off on a stronger foot than Kennedy’s previous books. I really liked what this book had to offer! Most of all, I liked that while it definitely has a strong romance at its heart, the author wisely spends a significant amount of time firmly establishing her two leads as individuals in their own rights. They each have distinct histories and experience, particularly with how their countries and parents dealt with the cruel emperor who now rules them all. Due to these histories, they each have very different priorities when they meet each other, only grudgingly seeing eye to eye, if at all.

Conri’s story is the more straight-forward and familiar of the two with his arc of tragedy, followed by oppression, followed by revolution and then a single-minded focus on punishing the man who tore down his world as a child. But Euthalia’s story is more complex. Her father’s decision to not fight the conquering emperor lead to much derision and scorn by the other nations that fought him. But now, in the aftermath, Euthalia’s home is the only one that remains even partially independent. As such, Euthalia herself walks a fine line as the only remaining ruler, at once trying to protect her people while also delaying her wedding to the emperor. When Contri arrives on her doorstep, all she sees is bloodshed and ruin. And all Conri sees is a frivolous court ruled by a frivolous queen.

I also really liked the general tone of this story. While this world is one big history of tragedy, the story itself reads as largely light-hearted with a good amount of laugh-out-loud dialogue. I also particularly enjoyed the fact that Kennedy leaves reveals for both late in the book and, in some cases, for the next book entirely. There are mysteries to be still found about Euthalia’s homeland and why her father chose what he did. I have the second book loaded up on my Kindle already, and I’m excited to find out what’s to come. I definitely recommend this book to fans of fantasy romance and those looking for a lighter fantasy novel.

Rating 8: Like the lush magical kingdom at its heart, this book overflows with wonder and hidden power. Sure to please fantasy romance lovers everywhere!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Orchid Throne” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Hidden Gems Across the Genres and Adult Fantasy Romance.

Serena’s Review: “The Poison Season”

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Book: “The Poison Season” by Mara Rutherford

Publishing Info: Inkyard Press, December 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Leelo has spent her entire life on Endla, coexisting with the bloodthirsty Forest and respecting the poisonous lake that protects her island from outsiders who seek to destroy it. But as much as Leelo cares for her community, she struggles to accept that her younger brother will be exiled by his next birthday, unless he gains the magic of enchanted song so vital to Endla.

When Leelo sees a young outsider on the verge of drowning in the lake, she knows exactly what she’s supposed to do. But in a moment that will change everything, Leelo betrays her family, her best friend, and Endla by making an unthinkable choice.

Discovery could lead to devastating consequences for both Leelo and the outsider, Jaren, but as they grow closer, Leelo realizes that not all danger comes from beyond the lake—and they can only survive if Leelo is willing to question the very fabric of her society, her people, and herself.

Review: This is one of the few new YA fantasy books coming out this month, so of course I have to read it. But I’d like to think that I would have picked it up either way. For one thing, the cover is eye-catching. For another, I do love stories about creepy woods. Add a creepy lake and you’re really humming!

Leelo has grown up knowing one thing: that it is only by the protection of a bloodthirsty forest and a deadly lake that her people have found a refuge in a world that fears their song magic. With this protection comes steep cost, however. Those born on the island who do not have the power of song must be banished, for their own, and their community’s, protection. With this cruel fate coming for her own young brother, Leelo is forced to confront the harsh realities of her world. And when she meets a foreigner who accidentally finds his way onto her island, her questions condense into one, life-changing choice.

While much of this book will feel familiar to readers of YA fantasy, there was a lot a lot to enjoy, as well. The setting itself is very thoroughly described, something that is crucial given the role that both the poisonous lake and the magical forest play in the story and Leelo’s people’s culture and history. Early on, we have a few scenes that depict the harsh nature of this world, and its people. It’s difficult to imagine the circumstances that would lead to this type of society forming, but the book does a decent job of creating a plausible backstory for it all. Once the brutality of nature has been established, the book switches to what turns out to be its primary focus: the nature of family, loyalty, and the sometimes unhealthy versions of love that can be found therein.

I was particularly interested in these themes as they specifically dealt with the relationships between sisters (or cousins who practically grew up as sisters). Leelo grows up in a family group comprised of her mother and her brother, as well as her aunt (her mother’s sister) and her female cousin. It’s immediately clear that not all is well with this family. Indeed, much of the story is about all of the family trauma that makes up this small group, both traumas from the past that are still impacting these characters today, and the current events, such as Leelo’s brother’s imminent banishment. As the story progresses, we learn more and more about the past events that shaped these women’s stories. It’s an excellent exploration of the dark sides of love and family devotion. Love doesn’t conquer all, and indeed, can sometimes make people do terrible things.

For me, this was the heart of the story. As such, I was much less invested in the romance. It was fine, all things considered. In fact, given the structure of the book, I’m impressed at how well the love story avoided the instalove snake pit. But because I was so much more invested in Leelo and her family’s story, I did find myself less interested in Jaren’s chapters. They weren’t bad, by any means. Just not where my focus tended to linger.

As far as the plot and story, this book is fairly predictable. Most people can likely guess most of the late-game reveals. This was especially true of the secrets regarding the Endlan’s history and the nature of the forest and lake. There were a few more twists and turns as far as the family secrets and outcomes, which is probably for the best as these aspects were also the strongest of the book overall. But even here, nothing was incredibly shocking. But that’s also ok! I don’t need to be surprised and shocked with every book I read. Instead, this book accomplishes what it sets out to do: provide an enjoyable YA fantasy story that focuses on the darkness that can be found at the heart of people, even those who may love us most.

Rating 8: Atmospheric and lush, this story weaves its themes of family trauma and darkness through the lens of a bloodthirsty forest and poisonous lake. Dark in all of the best ways!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Poison Season” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Poison in the Title and YA Flower Covers.

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