Serena’s Review: “Blade of Secrets”

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Book: “Blade of Secrets” by Tricia Levenseller

Publishing Info: Square Fish, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Bookish First!

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

Book Description: Eighteen-year-old Ziva prefers metal to people. She spends her days tucked away in her forge, safe from society and the anxiety it causes her, using her magical gift to craft unique weapons imbued with power.

Then Ziva receives a commission from a powerful warlord, and the result is a sword capable of stealing its victims secrets. A sword that can cut far deeper than the length of its blade. A sword with the strength to topple kingdoms. When Ziva learns of the warlord’s intentions to use the weapon to enslave all the world under her rule, she takes her sister and flees.

Joined by a distractingly handsome mercenary and a young scholar with extensive knowledge of the world’s known magics, Ziva and her sister set out on a quest to keep the sword safe until they can find a worthy wielder or a way to destroy it entirely.

Review: I don’t have great luck with the BookishFirst giveaways; I swear, I enter so many of them and rarely win! But I was happy when I was selected to receive this book, as the description sounds right up my alley. I never got around to reading the author’s other popular duology, starting with “Daughter of the Pirate Queen,” so I thought this would be a great opportunity to check out her work and see if it was a good fit.

With people, Ziva finds she can barely manage to get a few words out. But with metal, ah, there Ziva is in her element, creating masterpieces of workmanship, each weapon imbibed with a magical trait. With her sister running the front of her stop, Ziva sees a simple life ahead of her, saving up her money until she and her sister can retire in peace, far from the bustle of the city. But when Ziva creates a weapon that forces the truth from those it makes bleed, she finds herself privy to dangerous knowledge that forces her on the run, hoping to find safe hands for such a powerful weapon.

So, while I liked the general concept of the book, it ultimately didn’t quite work for me. First off, I found the writing incredibly simplistic. This style of writing can work for some stories (and for some YA audiences, alas I no longer fit in that category), but I think it’s a particularly hard style of writing to pair with fantasy. In fantasy books, there’s often some heavy lifting needed in the world-building and the fantastical elements, all things that require skillful, descriptive writing. Here, I couldn’t describe practically anything about the setting, magic, or much at all. Without being able to form a picture in my head of what world I was meant to be inhabiting, it was very challenging to feel connected to the book at all. It was also just boring to read, with a very repetitive “noun verb pronoun” pattern to every sentence.

I also found myself feeling let down on the character front. Ziva had a lot going for her, and heaven knows I always like a sister story, too! But right off the bat I began to struggle with this representation of a character living with social anxiety. Some of her panic attacks felt as if they were described point by point from a medical definition. Beyond that, instead of Ziva feeling like a fully realized character who happens to deal with social anxiety, it instead began to feel like her social anxiety was the entire point of her character. As if her social anxiety was all that made up her entire personality and being. I applaud what the author was trying to do, but I just don’t think it worked. It doesn’t help that I have also recently read another book, “Wind Daughter,” that features a character who struggles with anxiety, and I liked that depiction much better (review to come in July!)

I also didn’t find myself caring much about any of the relationships Ziva had formed. I usually love sisters stories, but this one felt overly familiar and didn’t seem to have much new to offer. The romance was also incredibly predictable. And, again, Ziva often mentioned in her inner dialogue that she struggles to say the right thing at the right moment, and yet, at all the important (or arguably, not even that important), she’s quick to sling out the perfect verbal quip.

So yeah, this was a very disappointing read for me. Really, nothing about it worked for me. Some of this, however, is definitely because I’m not in the right audience for this, as the shorter, more simple writing style is likely to appeal to a lot of actual YA readers. But I also don’t think it was a great example of a character living with social anxiety either. Fans of this author will probably like this, but other readers can probably find better reads with similar themes.

Rating 6: A bit of a disappointment, with lackluster worldbuilding and a rather flat main character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Blade of Secrets” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be Blacksmith/Mason/Builder Heroes.

Serena’s Review: “Juniper & Thorn”

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Book: “Juniper & Thorn” by Ava Reid

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: A gruesome curse. A city in upheaval. A monster with unquenchable appetites.

Marlinchen and her two sisters live with their wizard father in a city shifting from magic to industry. As Oblya’s last true witches, she and her sisters are little more than a tourist trap as they treat their clients with archaic remedies and beguile them with nostalgic charm. Marlinchen spends her days divining secrets in exchange for rubles and trying to placate her tyrannical, xenophobic father, who keeps his daughters sequestered from the outside world. But at night, Marlinchen and her sisters sneak out to enjoy the city’s amenities and revel in its thrills, particularly the recently established ballet theater, where Marlinchen meets a dancer who quickly captures her heart.

As Marlinchen’s late-night trysts grow more fervent and frequent, so does the threat of her father’s rage and magic. And while Oblya flourishes with culture and bustles with enterprise, a monster lurks in its midst, borne of intolerance and resentment and suffused with old-world power. Caught between history and progress and blood and desire, Marlinchen must draw upon her own magic to keep her city safe and find her place within it.

Review: Unlike “For the Throne,” this book isn’t a direct sequel to the “Red Riding Hood’ re-telling that came before it. That said, it does feel kind of funny reading two follow-up books to two versions of the same fairytale that I read exactly a year ago. However, this is only a companion novel, set in the same world as “The Wolf and the Woodsman,” and instead focuses on retelling a different, dark fairytale, “The Juniper Tree.” I didn’t know really anything about this original tale before starting this book, so I was curious to see how things would play out!

Marlinchen’s father is cursed to never be full, no matter how much he eats, and to never feel rested, no matter how much he sleeps. And for their part, she and her two sisters are also cursed along with him and he refuses to let them out of his house. Instead, he uses their various magical gifts to support himself and their home. But Marlinchen dreams of more, of going out beyond the gates of her cursed home. And finally, she does it. There she discovers thrills and mysteries, but most especially, she discovers the ballet and its star dancer, a beautiful, charming young man. But something dark also haunts the streets, and as Marlinchen tries to keep secret her growing connection to the ballet dancer, she begins to suspect that this darkness may be coming from her own home.

So, I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, to start with the positives, there is no denying that Reid is a strong, poetic author. She has a knack for turning a phrase in a way that catches the eye and imagination; I re-read several passages throughout the story. She also knows how to unspool a fairytale in a way that feel fresh and new, but still has that undefinable quality that makes it a fairytale at its heart. There’s a balance, always, to be struck between the beauty and pain found in fairytales. But, while she seemed to hit that mark with “The Wolf and the Woodsman,” I’m less sure that the balance is quite right here.

To be fair, on Goodreads this book is tagged as “fantasy” and “horror.” Sometimes these genres can overlap quite a lot, and I generally dismiss the “horror” tag as simply a heads-up that this will be a darker story. And yet, I wasn’t prepared for just how dark this book was. Indeed, it would fully fall under the category of “horror” all on its own. While I’m not typically an avid horror fan, I can read and enjoy it. So it wasn’t the surprising darkness of this book that had me questioning.

Instead, it seemed to be the pointlessness of some of it that bothered me, the sheer shock value for the sake of shock value at the heart of some of the more disturbing scenes. There were more than a few instances when something horrific would happen or be described, but that scene or action never lead to any personal growth, reflection, or even important movement of the plot itself. This is the kind of horror and darkness I can’t get behind. It gives the reader no pay-off for sitting through uncomfortable, dark scenes and instead makes some of it feel performative and ugly in a different way.

To end on another good note, however. I did like the main character and most of her story. Again, there were disturbing aspects of her story that I don’t feel were fully explored or justified to the reader. But, as she does have a distinct arc throughout the story, these I was better able to understand than some of the other horror aspects. The romance, such as it was, felt a bit too insta-love, with the connection forming fast and hard between these two. If anything, it was insta-lust more than love. Again, there was this weird obsession with adding a dirty-feeling shimmer to even the love story.

There’s no denying the high quality of the author’s writing, at this point. But this book did make me question some of her storytelling prowess. I will admit, however, that fans of horror in general might enjoy this more than I did. Fans of the first book may want to check this out, but they should go in with eyes wide open not to take that “horror” tag lightly.

Rating 7: Solid building blocks were undermined by a strange penchant for reveling in the darker aspects of the world, seemingly without much concern for the relevance of such things to the story itself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Juniper & Thorn” can be found on these Goodreads lists: 2022 Gothic and 2022 Horror Novels written by women.

Serena’s Review: “For the Throne”

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Book: “For the Throne” by Hannah Whitten

Publishing Info: Orbit, June 2022

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

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

Book Description: The First Daughter is for the Throne. The Second Daughter is for the Wolf…

Red and the Wolf have finally contained the threat of the Old Kings but at a steep cost. Red’s beloved sister Neve, the First Daughter is lost in the Shadowlands, an inverted kingdom where the vicious gods of legend have been trapped for centuries and the Old Kings have slowly been gaining control. But Neve has an ally–though it’s one she’d rather never have to speak to again–the rogue king Solmir.

Solmir wants to bring an end to the Shadowlands and he believes helping Neve may be the key to its destruction. But to do that, they will both have to journey across a dangerous landscape in order to find a mysterious Heart Tree, and finally to claim the gods’ dark, twisted powers for themselves.

Previously Reviewed: “For the Wolf”

Review: As some dedicated blog readers may remember, last summer was the season of the “Little Red Riding Hood” re-tellings for me. I think I read three? Even more amazing, I really liked two of them, and didn’t even hate the third. But best for me is the fact that the one I liked the most has a sequel! And here we are.

After Red and her Wolf finally managed to solve the mystery of the Wilderwood, their part of the story seemed complete. But the loss of Red’s sister Neve to the underworld has been a blow Red can’t accept, even if Neve unintentionally contributed to the darkness of the Wilderwood curse. As she works to free her sister, Neve wanders the shadow land below trying to regain her life above. On her journey she is accompanied by the mysterious Solmir, a man who was once a king and who now works to overthrow the dark kings that remain. As their journeys parallel each other, one above and one below, Neve and Red must come together to save the fate of their world.

While the first book was very much Red’s story, we still had a good number of chapters from Neve’s perspective. Enough so that while Red sees Neve’s actions as not only counterproductive to the magic of the Wilderwood, but actually bringing about a dark future, we are in Neve’s own mind enough to understand her motivations and the fears that drove many of her actions. And while Red’s story is neatly wrapped up, Neve’s is left on a definite cliff-hanger with her trapped in the shadow land with the king Solmir, whom she had only recently discovered had been posing as one of her good friends for much of the story.

This book picks up immediately where that one leaves off. And like the first book, the story is split between several characters. Nominally, this is primarily Neve’s story, but we also had a good number of chapters from Red’s perspective, as well as a dash of chapters from Raffe’s perspective, Neve’s betrothed who is left to rule in her stead. While I think the multiple POVs worked for the most part, I also think they were not as well balanced as the POVs were in the first book. There, it was obvious that it was Red’s story and we spent the vast majority of our time on her story. This allowed readers to fully connect with her and invest themselves in her romance.

Here, however, simply by the fact that we know Red so well, more often than not her story seemed to fight for the spotlight over Neve’s story in Neve’s own book. It was an awkward balance, because obviously I loved getting to spend more time with Red and Eammon. But I was sorry to see that the time given to this couple seemed to detract from Neve’s story and romance. What’s more frustrating with this was that I really enjoyed Neve’s arc, the unique magic/creatures of the shadow lands, and the slow-burn, enemies-to-lovers romance she develops with Solmir. Honestly, as much as I like Raffe’s story, I wish that had been left out. I think right there, that small increase in page time would have better balanced Red and Neve’s story and let me more fully feel as if this was truly the latter’s book.

I really liked the exploration of souls and what it means to be a monster. After the events of the first book, Neve has a lot of inner work to do to understand why she took the actions she did. Beyond that, however, her journey is one of self-acceptance, being able to embrace her weaknesses as well as her strengths. And, more importantly, knowing which is which. In this way, her inner journey is paralleled by Solmir’s own story. Their romance was very well paired, but I do wish that we were able to spend a bit more time devoted to their relationship. These two were always so caught up in magical fights (albeit great ones!), that it seemed like their romance kind of sprang up quickly at the end.

I also really enjoyed the shadow lands, the Old Gods, and the dark kings. There was a lot of tricky magical work going on here, and I was always excited to turn the page and see what was coming next. Again, this is where the sheer number of pages devoted to Red and Raffe’s much more straight-forward, less exciting journeys began to feel frustrating. However, I really liked the way that Red’s and Neve’s magic twisted together in the end. There were a few good twists here. I do question some of the elements of how things finally worked out (it was also a bit confusing to read through); I think that some parts of the solution to the overall mystery counteracted some of the previously established stakes.

Overall, I think that fans of the first book will really enjoy this. I’ve whined a decent amount about the page time given to Red, but I also really liked seeing more of her, so it’s kind of a double-edged sword there. And I think many fans will likely feel the same, or just be all onboard for the Red/Eammon action. Reading the first book is definitely necessary, however. Even going in only a year later left me feeling a bit confused in the beginning, having to remind myself of exactly what the history of this world was.

Rating 8: A great follow-up story, though the balance between the primary and secondary protagonists did feel a bit off.

Reader’s Advisory:

“For the Throne” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2022 and Upcoming 2022 SFF Books With Female Leads or Co-Leads.

Serena’s Review: “Half a Soul”

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Book: “Half a Soul” by Olivia Atwater

Publishing Info: Orbit, June 2022

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

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

Book Description: Ever since she was cursed by a faerie, Theodora Ettings has had no sense of fear or embarrassment – a condition which makes her prone to accidental scandal. Dora hopes to be a quiet, sensible wallflower during the London Season – but when the strange, handsome and utterly uncouth Lord Sorcier discovers her condition, she is instead drawn into dangerous and peculiar faerie affairs.

If Dora’s reputation can survive both her curse and her sudden connection with the least-liked man in all of high society, then she may yet reclaim her normal place in the world. . . but the longer Dora spends with Elias Wilder, the more she begins to suspect that one may indeed fall in love, even with only half a soul.

Review: I was so excited when I received an ARC of this book from Orbit (thank you!). The book description alone checks so many personal favorites of mine that it’s kind of ridiculous. It’s also been a while since I’ve read a good faerie story, so I was particularly excited to revisit this fantasy fan favorite topic.

As a young girl, Theodora Ettings, or Dora, fell prey to a malicious faerie curse. In the blink of an eye, she lost half of her soul and along with it all the sharper edges of emotion. As a young lady, while unconcerned herself with others’ dismay, Dora recognizes that her strange ways and habit of blurting out whatever she is thinking will likely prohibit her from every finding her own marriage match. She’s content, however, to simply help her beloved cousin and make a home with her as a slowly aging spinster. But life takes an unexpected turn when she stumbles into a strange mystery leaving children cursed in a comatose state. Also on the case is the prickly and antisocial Lord Sorcier. As they work closely together, each begins to question their pre-established views of their own futures.

In my opinion, the biggest question with any historical work, be it fantasy, mystery, what have you, is whether the author has a decent handle on the language of the time. Poor word choice, stuttered style, and anachronisms are the surest way to immediately lose me as a reader with this type of book. Immediately, I was relieved to find that not only did this author have a solid handled on this aspect of the story, but she was adept at inserting witty turns of phrase and leaning on some of the inherent ridiculousness of pairing faeries and magic with proper Regency language. This clever writing style was present across prose and dialogue, and there were several laugh-out-loud moments for me during this read.

I also really enjoyed Dora and the effect her curse has on her life and her interactions with the people around her. If you try and think to hard about how the curse truly works with limiting her emotions, you can likely run into a brick wall of confusion, as we do see Dora forming strong attachments to characters throughout the book. But given the explanation that Dora herself gives at one point, I thought it made enough sense for me. Plus, I was having too much fun with the way her curse was playing out on the page, as well as the slow-burn romance that was developing between her and Elias, the Lord Sorcier, to ever feel the need to question or complain.

The mystery around the children was interesting as well. Through this portion of the story, the author shines a clear light on the terrible working/living conditions of the poor living in London at this time. Not only did she highlight the challenges facing this population, but she neatly described the vast distance (partly physically, but mostly through intentional looking away) between the classes and the unwillingness of those living a comfortable life to turn their eyes to the despair surrounding them. There was also a pretty great twist towards the end of this mystery which really added to the story as a whole.

This was a light-hearted, fast-reading romantic fantasy. Fans of Regency romance are sure to enjoy it, as well as those who want a more playful look at faeries and faerie courts. I loved the heck out of this book, and now am even more excited to check out the next one coming out from this author later this summer!

Rating 9: A purely joyful reading experience all around!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Half a Soul” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Regency Fantasy Books.

Book Club Review: “Payback’s A Witch”

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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 “Romance”, in which we each picked a book that is a romance, or has elements that fit romance tropes to a T. 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: “Payback’s A Witch” by Lana Harper

Publishing Info: Berkley, October 2021

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

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

Romance Trope: Hometown Return

Book Description: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina meets The L Word in this fresh, sizzling rom-com by Lana Harper.

Emmy Harlow is a witch but not a very powerful one—in part because she hasn’t been home to the magical town of Thistle Grove in years. Her self-imposed exile has a lot to do with a complicated family history and a desire to forge her own way in the world, and only the very tiniest bit to do with Gareth Blackmoore, heir to the most powerful magical family in town and casual breaker of hearts and destroyer of dreams.

But when a spellcasting tournament that her family serves as arbiters for approaches, it turns out the pull of tradition (or the truly impressive parental guilt trip that comes with it) is strong enough to bring Emmy back. She’s determined to do her familial duty; spend some quality time with her best friend, Linden Thorn; and get back to her real life in Chicago.

On her first night home, Emmy runs into Talia Avramov—an all-around badass adept in the darker magical arts—who is fresh off a bad breakup . . . with Gareth Blackmoore. Talia had let herself be charmed, only to discover that Gareth was also seeing Linden—unbeknownst to either of them. And now she and Linden want revenge. Only one question stands: Is Emmy in? But most concerning of all: Why can’t she stop thinking about the terrifyingly competent, devastatingly gorgeous, wickedly charming Talia Avramov?

Kate’s Thoughts

I was the book club member to finish off our Romance cycle, and I knew exactly what I wanted us to read when we decided on the theme this time around. I had my eye on “Payback’s a Witch” by Lana Harper around the time it came out, so this was the perfect opportunity. I picked it because I kind of like the whole ‘return to your hometown and discover/rediscover love’ trope, and this one has that, but also Sapphic Witches! How could I NOT pick it?

And for the most part I enjoyed it! I thought that Harper built and created a pretty well done mythology and background for the town of Thistle Grove and the magical people who live there, with a clear history and some clear systems in place. I liked how that combined with the small town politics of low key feuding families as well, and how that enters into our main plot as Emmy returns home to find that her ex has been cheating on Linden, her childhood best friend, with Talia Avramov, her childhood semi-crush, and they decide to prevent him from winning the big tournament that determines the family power in town. It’s rudimentary but that’s fine, because it flows well and is enjoyable as it all plays out.

In terms of characters, I thought that Emmy was fine, but I REALLY loved Talia, her love interest. She checks all my boxes: she’s cool, she’s snarky, she has a heart of gold under a biting exterior, and her family is the family that is basically the necromancing communicators with the dead. I MEAN COME ON! Emmy and Talia have pretty okay chemistry (admittedly there isn’t that much sexytimes in this book, as one member was quite irked by), and while some of their stumbling blocks are a bit silly a little conflict makes a romance more high stakes. And besides, two witches falling in love is always going to get high marks from me.

I enjoyed “Payback’s a Witch” and I absolutely intend to continue in the series! BRING ON MORE AVRAMOVS, PLEASE!

Serena’s Thoughts

I can basically repeat all of Kate’s thoughts and opinions, only tone down the excitement one slot for me. It was still a fun read, but I knew going in that it probably wasn’t going to be totally for me. I think partly because I’m the exact opposite of Kate in my romance trope preferences, with the “home town returnee rediscovers their ex/crush” theme being one of my less favorites. I just have a hard time with all the glossed up nostalgia over home-towns. I haven’t lived in mine for over twenty years now, but I do go back every year. And while I love visiting and have happy memories of the place, I also have no qualms in saying that if I met any of my exes or crushes from when I lived there, I’m sure they would be totally different people, just like I am now.

That said, Talia was an awesome love interest, so regardless of the the trope itself, she worked well as a partner for Emmy. Like Kate, I very much enjoyed her more than Emmy. I had a hard time taking Emmy too seriously, honestly, as I felt her reactions to leaving and then coming home to be overblown. I mean, your highschool ex cheated, like ten years ago, move on! Gain some self-respect and perspective as an adult!

I did like what we got for the magical elements as well. This was a more fun take of the magical families battling than the battle royale that I fairly recently read in “All of Us Villains.” The various families and there different styles of magic was very “four houses of Hogwarts,” but so many things in fantasy are derivative of the bigger titles that that can hardly be a complaint.

Overall, this was a fun quick read. For me, the main character held that book back the most, but she was made up for by her love interest. I probably won’t continue with the series, but fans of fantasy romance, especially those looking for a saphic romance should definitely check this one out.

Kate’s Rating 8: Super fun, super witchy, super creative. I really enjoyed this book and man oh MAN is Talia just the best.

Serena’s Rating 7: Purely subjective rating as this wasn’t really my type of book to begin with, but Talia and the magical houses were definite bonuses.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the town of Thistle Grove? Did you think it was well conceived?
  2. What were your thoughts on the magical systems and mythology in this book?
  3. Emmy left Thistle Grove with little intention to return, but when she did she made connections with people and places. If you don’t live in your home town anymore, how do you think it would be to return?
  4. Did you like the relationship between Emmy and Talia? What did or didn’t work for you?
  5. The four magical families who run Thistle Grove all have distinct magical abilities and connections. Which family would you want to be a part of?
  6. Were there any characters you’d want to follow in future books in the series?

Reader’s Advisory

“Payback’s a Witch” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sapphic Witchy, Ghostly Books”, and “Popsugar 2022 #16: A Book About Witches”.

Serena’s Review: “Ordinary Monsters”

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Book: “Ordinary Monsters: by J.M. Miro

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, June 2022

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

Book Description: England, 1882. In Victorian London, two children with mysterious powers are hunted by a figure of darkness —a man made of smoke.

Sixteen-year-old Charlie Ovid, despite a lifetime of brutality, doesn’t have a scar on him. His body heals itself, whether he wants it to or not. Marlowe, a foundling from a railway freight car, shines with a strange bluish light. He can melt or mend flesh. When two grizzled detectives are recruited to escort them north to safety, they are forced to confront the nature of difference, and belonging, and the shadowy edges of the monstrous.

What follows is a journey from the gaslit streets of London, to an eerie estate outside Edinburgh, where other children with gifts—the Talents—have been gathered. Here, the world of the dead and the world of the living threaten to collide. And as secrets within the Institute unfurl, Marlowe, Charlie and the rest of the Talents will discover the truth about their abilities, and the nature of the force that is stalking them: that the worst monsters sometimes come bearing the sweetest gifts.

With lush prose, mesmerizing world-building, and a gripping plot, “Ordinary Monsters” presents a catastrophic vision of the Victorian world—and of the gifted, broken children who must save it.

Review: First off, thank you so much to Flatiron Books for sending me an ARC copy of this book! However, I `will say, given its page count, I may have defaulted to reading the ebook more often than not, if only to spare my poor wrists. I was very excited to dive into this one given its description. I always love it when I can find books that cross my favorite genres, and historical fiction plus fantasy is right up my alley. Pair that with a concept that sounds awfully close to Victorian “X-Men,” and I’m all in.

Two children with strange and wonderous powers are on the run, each unsure of who or what they are. Only that these mysterious gifts they possess have drawn the attention of dark figures who chase them and surely mean no good. Soon enough however, with the help of two detectives, they make their way to a safe haven where they find out that they are not the only children with powers. Indeed, there are more and they have a name: the Talents. While centered primarily in 1882 England, the story jumps around the world highlighting the experiences of other Talents scattered across the continents.

I have to say, it’s either an incredibly gutsy or an incredibly confident author who puts out their debut novel at 672 pages. Yes, fantasy is the genre where you’ll find the most tolerant crowd for behemoth tomes. But even well-established authors like Brandon Sanderson started out with normal-length books before releasing their full powers (his most recent “Stormlight Archive” book comes in at a whopping 1230 pages!). It’s also a confident editor who doesn’t instruct that same debut author to trim things up a bit. And while I would say that this book might have been better served being trimmed down some (there’s just no avoiding the fact that this is a lot to ask of readers who no nothing about an author and whether the time the reader is committing to them will be paid back in kind), it also held up well given the sheer length.

Part of this is helped by the style of the story. While the book definitely has some main-ish characters, the story also jumps around a lot, exposing readers to a plethora of new characters, cultures, and locations. It also helped that there were some really stand-out action sequences, most particularly a pretty cool battle on a train. These intermittent fight scenes helped give the story a jolt of adrenaline right when the reader could start to feel a bit bogged down by the sheer length of the book.

The characters were all just ok, for me. I enjoyed them all well enough, but none of them really spoke to me in a way that it would be any one of their stories that draws me back to this world. Instead, they felt closer to avatars that reader is using to explore this newly understood world where magical elements line up beside historical figures and facts that we may already be familiar with.

The story also swerved into the darker parts of fiction, drawing neat parallels between itself and the penny dreadfuls that were so popular at this time. But these darker elements were supported by a strong focus on found families and inner strength, using a diverse set of characters to highlight the human experience that connects us. The writing was also powerful and sure-handed.

Overall, I enjoyed this book quite a lot. It is an undertaking, to be sure, but I think it is well worth it. I fully expect this book to get a second look by many fantasy fans and that the inevitable second and third parts of the proposed trilogy will be anxiously awaited. If you’re an avid fantasy fan and don’t mind a massive tome, definitely give this one a try. Also, don’t forget to enter to win an ARC of this book!

Rating 8: A long, but well-worth it historical fantasy read!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ordinary Monsters” is on this Goodreads list: Can’t Wait Books of 2022

Giveaway: “Ordinary Monsters”

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Book: “Ordinary Monsters: by J.M. Miro

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, June 2022

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

Book Description: England, 1882. In Victorian London, two children with mysterious powers are hunted by a figure of darkness —a man made of smoke.

Sixteen-year-old Charlie Ovid, despite a lifetime of brutality, doesn’t have a scar on him. His body heals itself, whether he wants it to or not. Marlowe, a foundling from a railway freight car, shines with a strange bluish light. He can melt or mend flesh. When two grizzled detectives are recruited to escort them north to safety, they are forced to confront the nature of difference, and belonging, and the shadowy edges of the monstrous.

What follows is a journey from the gaslit streets of London, to an eerie estate outside Edinburgh, where other children with gifts—the Talents—have been gathered. Here, the world of the dead and the world of the living threaten to collide. And as secrets within the Institute unfurl, Marlowe, Charlie and the rest of the Talents will discover the truth about their abilities, and the nature of the force that is stalking them: that the worst monsters sometimes come bearing the sweetest gifts.

With lush prose, mesmerizing world-building, and a gripping plot, “Ordinary Monsters” presents a catastrophic vision of the Victorian world—and of the gifted, broken children who must save it.

Giveaway Details:

I always love it when I can find books that cross over two (or more!) genres that I enjoy. It’s the reason why most of the mystery novels I read/review for this blog are also historical pieces and not modern murder mysteries. Much of the fantasy I read, however, is second-world fantasy, meaning the entire setting, time period, and culture is unique to the story. But there’s a pretty solid subgenre of historical fantasy, stories that simply recreate a time and place and add a dash of magic to the entire affair.

Reading through this description, “Ordinary Monsters” essentially sounds like Victorian “X-Men” if you ask me. And who’s not interested in that?! Of course, my usual wariness of large casts of characters is at play, but there are some solid examples of ensemble stories, so hopefully this is one of those!

Per the usual, my review for this book will be up Friday. But don’t wait until then to get in on the chance to win a copy of this book! This giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and will end on June 14.

Enter to win!

Monthly Marillier: “Beautiful”

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“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books. I’ll be posting a new entry in this series on the first Friday of every month.

Book: “Beautiful” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Audible Studies, May 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | WorldCat

Book Description: Beautiful is in three parts. Part one follows the pattern of the fairy tale, though the central character is not the white bear prince or the intrepid young woman who travels east of the sun and west of the moon to save him from a curse. Our narrator, whom I named Hulde, only had a bit-part in that original story. The novel-length version takes Hulde way out of her comfort zone as she heads off into the unknown world beyond the glass mountain, to find out what it means to make your own story.

Review: Well, we’ve finally come to the end of my “Monthly Marillier” series! It’s been about a year and a half since I started it, which just speaks to how many books this author has written. Of course, I’ll add to this series whenever she releases new books (right now we seem to be in a bit of a dry spell, as she’s mentioned on her blog that she’s still pitching book ideas to her publisher for her next title). I’ve saved this one for last because it’s probably the most inaccessible of her books, being only available as an audiobook through Audible. Hence, it’s one of the few I hadn’t read before this re-read. Let’s dive in!

We’ve all heard the story before: that of the girl, the polar bear, a dreadful curse and the troll Queen behind it all. This is not that story. Instead, this is Hulde’s tale, that of the troll princess who thought the prince was meant for her. Only to discover his true love was on a mission to rescue him from a curse…and Hulde was that curse in action. With her world tipped on its end, her mother dead, and her future before her, Hulde goes on a quest to discover not only who she is but what role she is meant to play in the most important story of them all: her own.

So, it’s kind of a bummer that I’m ending the series on this note. There are so many of Marillier’s books that are absolute favorites of mine, books I’ve re-read countless times. Sadly, this will not be one of them. But before I get into that, I do want to mention some of the stronger aspects of the story. First off, there’s no denying the cleverness of this idea. I’ve reviewed a number of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” stories on this blog. But to take that idea and flip it on its head, centering the story around the troll princess who thought the prince was her prince…why, that is clever indeed! Beyond that, there is never any fault to be found in Marillier’s prose. She paints beautiful scenes onto the page, and her stories are always well-paced and complete.

However, I struggled to connect to Hulde herself. It’s always tough with stories like this, stories that are meant to focus on the growth of a character from a starting point that isn’t all that sympathetic. Obviously, you have to leave room for your character to grow and have something to point them towards over the course of the story. The delicate balance, however, is that a reader has to also connect with that character from the start. Here, that balance was just a bit off. Hulde veered a bit too far into the realm of immaturity, displayed too many annoying traits, and generally was not particularly compelling. Of course, as the story is one of self-discovery, she grows into a more likable character. But for me, it was never quite enough to regain my lost interest in the character.

The romance was also not my particular jam. And this is definitely a subjective point. Because I think it was really smart and unique on Marillier’s part to write the romance as she did here. She’s known for her fairly straightforward love matches. So to see a polyamorous connection from her was definitely new territory. And from what I could tell, it seemed to be well done. But, again, subjectively, I do like my romances between only two people. As we’ve discovered in our book club theme this season, preferences for romance are probably one of the most subjective things there are in reading experiences. So, if this is your jam, you’ll probably really like it!

Lastly, I didn’t enjoy the narrator for the audiobook. This is the most disappointing aspect of the entire thing, really. A good or bad narrator can make or break a book. And readers who know they are particular about the narrator for audiobooks can avoid this pitfall by simply reading the physical book. But with this one, we don’t have that option. So if you don’t enjoy the narrator, you’re left with nowhere to go. It was really a shame, because it’s so hard to evaluate how much of my reading experience was dictated by my distraction and dislike for the format in which the story was being presented.

Sadly, this wasn’t my favorite Marillier title. I do think that if you check out a preview of the book and aren’t bothered by the narrator, you may enjoy it more than me simply for that reason. Readers who enjoy polyamorous relationships might also want to check this one out.

Rating 6: A rather unlikable main character and a disconnect between me and the audiobook narrator really set this book off on the wrong foot, and it never recovered from there.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Beautiful” is on this Goodreads list: Polar Fantasy

Serena’s Review: “Clockwork Boys”

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

Book: “Clockwork Boys” by T. Kingfisher

Publishing Info: Argyll Productions, November 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

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

Book Description: A paladin, an assassin, a forger, and a scholar ride out of town. It’s not the start of a joke, but rather an espionage mission with deadly serious stakes. T. Kingfisher’s new novel begins the tale of a murderous band of criminals (and a scholar), thrown together in an attempt to unravel the secret of the Clockwork Boys, mechanical soldiers from a neighboring kingdom that promise ruin to the Dowager’s city.

If they succeed, rewards and pardons await, but that requires a long journey through enemy territory, directly into the capital. It also requires them to refrain from killing each other along the way! At turns darkly comic and touching, Clockwork Boys puts together a broken group of people trying to make the most of the rest of their lives as they drive forward on their suicide mission.

Review: Back again with another T. Kingfisher book! What can I say? When I find an author I enjoy, their back catalog is sure to show up for a decent amount of time going forward! I was particularly excited to start this book as not only is it the first in a duology but there appear to be several other books set in the same world. Up to this point, everything I’ve read by Kingfisher has been a stand-alone, so I was excited to see how she handled an ongoing story across two books.

In a classic fantasy version of “Suicide Squad,” a bunch of former criminals are set off on a suicide mission as a last ditch effort by a kingdom on the brink of destruction by mysterious magical forces. Nothing to be lost there, right? Nothing unless you happen to be one of the criminals sent out on said mission. And so we follow the story of a forger, an assassin, a disgraced (kind of possessed?) paladin, and a very sexist scholar. But as this group of oddballs march down certain death, they begin to discover they may have something worth living for after all.

There comes a point when I’ve read enough by an author that I know going in that, sparing some extreme aberration, I’m going to enjoy the book in hand. Mostly this comes down to a style of writing. A strong author is rarely going to put out a bad book when they have such a solid handle on the basics. Excellent characters? Check. Fun and snappy writing? Check. Unique world and magical systems? Check. Kingfisher has it all. All of that to spoil the end of the review and say I really enjoyed this book.

This was the first book from her I’ve read, however, that featured a multi-POV style of writing and a band of characters at the center. Of course, Kingfisher’s characters are one of the strongest things she has going for her as a writer, so I was confident she would handle it well. And indeed she does. It helps that we really only spend time in the head of Slate, the master forger, and Sir Caliban, the somewhat-demon-possessed paladin. They each have distinct arcs that they begin to travel along in this book (presumably to be concluded in the second book). And theirs is the focus of a brewing romance.

I really enjoyed them both, but their banter and interactions together is what really made them jump from the page. Slate’s eyerolling at Caliban’s seemingly uncontrollable chivalry; Caliban’s attempts to reconcile that same chivalry with the reality that a strong woman such as Slate might be more offended than pleased by some of his efforts. It’s also nice that they’re both full adult characters, well into their thirties and with the history and hang-ups that go with that. This isn’t love’s first blush for either of them, and it makes their slow-burn romance all the more appealing.

I also really liked the other characters, though we didn’t spend any time in their heads really. The sexist scholar, the one most would rightly be skeptical of enjoying, was quick to grow on me given the amused scoffing that Slate sends his way at his more ridiculous moments. The Learned Edmund also quickly grows to realize that his opinions don’t hold up outside his cloistered halls of learning. I also really liked the assassin. Can you have a more threatening ex staring down a newly forming relationship than an assassin?

The story itself was also fast-moving and interesting. The clockwork boys only showed up briefly, but it was easy to understand the threat they posed. There is also a mysterious plague that is….plaguing….the country. As well as several other mini adventures that our gang must work through on their journey.

As far as pacing goes, while it was a fast read, it did seem to end abruptly. It’s a shorter book, and ultimately it read almost like the first half of one book that was mysteriously broken into two volumes. I guess I’ll see how the second half works, but I do wonder why this decision was made? Fantasy novels are known to be long, so I can’t imagine the total page length of the two books would have been that bad. And I suspect that the story as a whole would have been better served presented in this way. As it is, while I enjoyed the heck out of this book, it did read like part of a story rather than a complete work on its own. Even books that are part of a series should read as individual pieces on their own, with beginnings, middles, and ends and with themes and completed arcs.

So, that being the case, I already have the second book in hand and will likely jump into that soon. Fans of Kingfisher’s work will likely enjoy this one, but make sure to have easy access to the second book as this one definitely ends in a way that doesn’t feel completely finished.

Rating 8: Fun and feisty, though perhaps a bit incomplete with out the second book attached with it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Clockwork Boys” can be found on this Goodreads list: Books With ‘Boy’ in the Title

Serena’s Review: “The Stardust Thief”

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

Book: “The Stardust Thief” by

Publishing Info: Orbit, May 2022

Where Did I Get this Book:

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

Book Description: Neither here nor there, but long ago…

Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.

With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan’s oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.

Review: I’ve had really good luck with Middle Eastern fairytales, especially ones that focus on the ever-popular jinns. Honestly, I can’t think of the last time I read a jinn story that I didn’t really enjoy. Indeed, the last few have made my favorites lists for the year. This is both a blessing and a curse: I get super excited whenever I see another jinn story coming down the pike, but I get more and more nervous that this next one will be the one to break the streak. Well…NOT TODAY, book gods, not today.

Loulie’s entire existence, her success, even, depends on her anonymity. Selling ill-begotten magical goods is not the type of business that does well with light shone upon it. So when she saves the life a prince and unwittingly draws the eye of his father the sultan, Loulie is dismayed to find herself in the last place she wanted: out in the open and on a mission to find the impossible. With her jinn bodyguard, said cowardly prince (though she may not know it), and a cold-eyed thief with loyalties of her won, the group heads out into a desert known for its secrets…and the fact that no one returns from its endless dunes.

This was one of those interesting books where when I started it I wasn’t quite sure that it was going to be a hit. On one hand, Loulie’s character immediately jumped off the page. But than I realized it was a multiple POV story (both the prince and thief have their own chapters), and I was less immediately enthralled with either of them. It also has a bit of a slower start and is paced is an interesting manner. There are a lot of side quests/stories in this book, which initially kept jerking me out of the main thrust of the story. But as the book continued, I began to see how the author was tying in a great number of the stories from “One Thousand and One Nights” and how each of these smaller excursions all slowly wove together towards our final conflict. By the time I had read the first third, I was totally engrossed and it was nothing but a positive reading experience from there!

Once I understood what the author was doing with the book, I greatly enjoyed it. I also came to appreciate both of the other POVs. Mazen is a bookish, fairly cowardly prince who is clearly entirely out of his depth on this mission with two powerful women, but his story of self-discovery is satisfying in every way. For her part, Aisha, the older prince’s thief and eyes and ears on this mission, begins to learn that she must rely on her own decision making and her own belief of right and wrong to move through the world. What once was a simple mission of revenge quickly begins to look like something else. Loulie, or Layla, also goes through an arch of self-discovery. After having her entire identity centered around her role as a merchant and her reliance on her jinn bodyguard, Layla must confront who she is without these powerful forces. Is her power all a façade?

I also really liked the exploration of stories and myths themselves. How they have incredible power, but also how they can be twisted and used over time for nefarious purposes. The power of the storyteller is central, but the listener can also make their own power from how they interpret what is being told to them. I especially like the history and powers of the jinn, and the role they play in each of our characters’ stories, for both good and bad. While I could predict a few of the twists, there were also a fair number of surprises in store throughout. The book also ends with a bang, leaving the reader ready and eager for the next installation. I for one will definitely be picking it up!

Rating 9: Centered around the power of stories, this book explores themes like self-discovery and self-determination in a magic and adventure filled romp.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Stardust Thief” can be found on this Goodreads list: 2022 Book Releases by Asian Authors

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