Serena’s Review: “The House in the Cerulean Sea”

45047384._sy475_Book: “The House in the Cerulean Sea” by TJ Klune

Publishing Info: Tor Books, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

Review: Cover art alert! Cover art alert! Yes, again, I selected a book almost completely based on the cover art itself. I’ve never read any of TJ Klune’s work before, though I believe he was largely a self-published author before the break-out into big publishers with this title. I did see a few references to “The Umbrella Academy” thrown around, so that was the last bit of justification I needed for placing a request for a book just because I thought the cover was pretty! But it is! Look at all of those colors! For some reason, the cover art put me in mind of the covers for “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Not a bad thing at all, as I enjoyed that series for the most part. In the end, I did enjoy this book quite a bit.

While not ecstatic about life, Linus Baker is quite content with the solitary existence he’s created for himself. A stable job, a small, cozy house, and, of course his beloved cat and records. But this quiet life is suddenly interrupted when Linus finds himself given a peculiar assignment: to travel to a remote orphanage and evaluate the state of things. Once there, Linus discovers six wondrous, but dangerous, children and their charming caretaker Arthur. As Linus learns more about these wards and Arthur himself, he finds himself more and more drawn to this small family, danger and all.

I’m not typically a fan of contemporary fantasy (though I will concede that that’s a pretty catch-all subgenre so my preferences therein aren’t particularly well-defined), but this book was a great opportunity for me push my comfort levels a bit. And it was a bit of a stretch, as the fantasy elements were fairly low, other than our magical children. But they were delightful enough that the parts of me that was missing world-building and magic systems was satisfied enough.

The comparisons to “The Umbrella Academy” (only watched the Netflix show) is very apt, and, similar to story, this one lives and dies on its characters. The collection of bizarre orphans are where Klune’s work really shines. They were all perfect blends of heart-wrenching and heart-warming, misfits and fitting perfectly together, witty but hiding deep emotions behind their words. The dialogue for these character in particular was quite good, and I found myself really speeding through the book once Linus met up with them.

Linus himself was a solid main character and his slowly built relationship with Arthur and the kids was lovely to explore. There was a lot of exploration around themes of found families, trust, and how we judge those around us. The romance was definitely more on the sweet side, and I would say that the book overall would appeal to a varied range of ages from middle grade to adults (a very good thing, as the cover definitely speaks to a younger audience, I think).

There were a few moments where the story did strike me as trying a bit too hard, just a bit too bizarre for its own good. But readers will have different experiences with this, depending on their preferences for fantasy writing and modes of humor. The book was also a tad longer than I would have liked. Most of it read very quickly, but I felt that there were times when Klune was simply having fun with his characters and the book got away from him a bit. I mean, the characters are a blast, so I can easily understand getting carried away with all of these moments, but it did end up with the book having a bit of a bloated feel. Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and fans of contemporary fantasy, found family stories, and ensemble casts of characters are sure to have a blast!

Rating 7: A bit long, a bit silly at times, but its characters were so heart-warming that they carry it through.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The House on the Cerulean Sea” is a newer book so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Books released in 2020 I’m curious about.”

Find “The House on the Cerulean Sea” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Storm from the East”

45043929Book: “Storm from the East” by Joanna Hathaway

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, February 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Battles, revolution, and romance collide in Joanna Hathaway’s stunning, World Wars-inspired sequel to Dark of the West

Part war drama, part romance, Storm from the East is the second novel in Joanna Hathaway’s immersive, upmarket YA fantasy series that will appeal to readers of Sabaa Tahir, Marie Rutkoski, and Evelyn Skye.

War has begun, and the days of Athan’s and Aurelia’s secret, summer romance feel a world away. Led by Athan’s father, the revolutionary Safire have launched a secret assault upon the last royal kingdom in the South, hoping to depose the king and seize a powerful foothold on the continent. Athan proves a star pilot among their ranks, struggling to justify the violence his family has unleashed as he fights his way to the capital—where, unbeknownst to him, Aurelia has lived since the war’s onset. Determined to save the kingdom Athan has been ordered to destroy, she partners with a local journalist to inflame anti-Safire sentiment, all while learning this conflict might be far darker and more complex than she ever imagined.

When the two reunite at last, Athan longing to shake the nightmare of combat and Aurelia reeling from the discovery of a long-buried family truth come to light, they’ll find the shadow of war stretches well beyond the battlefield. Each of them longs to rekindle the love they once shared . . . but each has a secret they’re desperate to hide.

Previously Reviewed: “Dark of the West”

Review: I really enjoyed “Dark of the West” when I read it last spring. It wasn’t a book that had been on my radar much, but I was instantly drawn in by the complicated world-building and the even more complicated deep dive into themes regarding revolution, warfare, and a world shifting between monarchy, democracy, and everything that lies in between. The sweet romance between our two teenage main characters who represent vastly different positions was also a big draw. So, when I saw the sequel was coming out, I placed a request immediately. I did struggle with this one a bit more than the first, but it still comes out solidly in the “win” category.

Athan and Aurelia are separated by much more than distance, as Athan, unknown to Aurelia, is the son of the war-mongering leader of the Safire nation. They now find themselves involved on opposite ends of a war to determine the future of the last kingdom of the South with a monarchy at its heart. Aurelia finds herself in this capital in an attempt to use her family connections through her mother (born a Southerner herself) to stave off a growing war. But while there, Safire makes its move, and with it Athan, leading the aerial forces, they draw ever neared to the city where Aurelia is staying. But as they each move unknowingly closer together, they discover new truths about their parents, about themselves, and about the people and causes they’re fighting for.

This is a complicated book, and that’s both a good and bad thing. One way in which this complication is a good thing is the very honest approach it takes to themes that are very complicated and all to often are written about in black and white terms, with good guys and bad guys seeming to pop straight from the earth fully formed in their one-sided moralities. But this book lives in shades of grey. At one point or another, the reader finds themselves sympathizing with every angle involved in this quickly changing world. And I say angle, and not side, because that’s another good thing the book does: there aren’t just two sides to the conflicts here. Sure, it’s a war with one country invading another. But we also see the complicated relationships that allies have with both the invaders and those being invaded. There are other forces involved as well. Some would call them terrorists, others would call them freedom fighters. These names are completely dependent on who is doing the telling and who is listening, and even that can change with just the slightest readjustment of context, history, and priorities. But this same nuanced look at the fact that there are no “good guys” in war also leaves the reader in a precarious state, emotionally.

At the beginning of the story, it is all too easy to dismiss Aurelia’s viewpoints and plans as foolishly optimistic. And they are. Of the two main characters, she has the more limited view of  the world. Growing up in a privileged and traditionally monarch-ruled country has left her with a very simplistic idea of how the world work. Like many young people, she thinks that only she sees the full picture and if others would simply listen to an argument from her, they’d all see that their feuds are pointless and agree to a peaceful resolution. It was both heart-breaking and a relief to see her have to confront the folly of these views.

But it was also just a very depressing story arc, overall. By the end, between Athan’s struggles in the midst of some truly terrible acts of warfare and Aurelia’s slow sink into the grim realities of the world, it was hard not to feel a bit hopeless. We see all the shades of grey. We see all the wrongs committed by every group, each playing victim and aggressor in different points of history and with regards to various groups. It’s very realistic and believable, but also a tough story to feel happy reading.

I also wish there was a prequel series to this story. We learn much more about both Athan and Aurelia’s parents in this book, and it’s all pretty fascinating. One part really stood out, a moment when Aurelia discovers a secret about her mother and realizes, in a very honest and true-to-life moment, that her mother was a person with a life before Aurelia was born. It was the kind of moment that is hardly ever felt in YA books. Aurelia comments that she has fallen into the trap of feeling like these conflicts and histories all started in her own life. But this moment reminds her that people had lives, had fights, had secrets, had allegiances and enemies, all long before her. That she was plopped down in the middle of it all. Just like her parents were plopped down in the middle of it all. And back. I loved this thought. Like I said, most YA books do nothing to discourage this way of thinking in its protagonists, that the world starts and ends with them. And yes, they are the main character of their story and thus their’s is the one we care about, but it’s a nice reminder that there is more to it than all of that. I mean, most YA books either kill off the parents or conveniently forget to mention them for much of the story. They definitely rarely presented as fully fledged people with histories of their own (outside of some direct connection to the main character). But this series is really excelling at creating a story that is clearly about Athan and Aurelia but still puts them down in the middle of an already complicated world, not making them the whole world in and of themselves.

But yes, it’s all very complicated. Having a year-long break between these two books was frankly very challenging. It took me a long time to re-orient myself to the world and the players in it. I’ve been reading e-ARC versions which don’t have maps, and I’m not sure if the finished books do either? If not, they could really benefit from one. It took me quite a while in the first book to picture this world, and almost just as long here in the second to re-create it in my mind. And all the weavings in and out of secret relationships and allegiances were hard to keep up with. I’d have to constantly remind myself who knew what, who had betrayed whom, and which of our main characters knew which pieces of the greater puzzle. It was a lot.

The pacing was also pretty slow in the beginning, so between these two factors, it took a bit to really get into this story. Having liked the first book, I was wiling to do the work, but for anyone feeling more middling about the series, this could be a challenge. But one definitely worth facing if you’re looking for a complicated political series! And ultimately, fans of the first book should be happy with this second outing, and, like me, anxious to see where it all ends up in the third book. We still have that prologue from the first book looming over us. How, oh how, do our main characters get to that awful place? And, more importantly, how do they get out of it??

Rating 8: A beautiful, horrible world of greys where I just want my two precious main characters to be happy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Storm from the East” is a newer title so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on “Original Stories . . . a Breath of Fresh Air.”

Find “Storm from the East” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Broken Queen”

45046564Book: “A Broken Queen” by Sarah Kozloff

Publishing Info: Tor Books, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: Barely surviving her ordeal in Oromondo and scarred by its Fire Spirit, Cerulia is taken to a recovery house in Wyeland to heal from the trauma. In a ward with others who are all bound to serve each other, she discovers that not all scars are visible, and dying can be done with grace and acceptance.

While she would like to stay in this place of healing, will she ever be able to leave the peace she has found to re-take the throne?

Previously Reviewed: “A Queen in Hiding” and “The Queen of Raiders”

Review: And we’re back with the third book already! Man, I’m really loving being able to read an entire series like this. In the “My Year with Jane Austen” series I’m writing, I’m getting near to reviewing the 1995 mini series version of “Pride and Prejudice.” It’s excellent for many reasons, but I’ll be honest, a large part of my love for it is simply that it’s nearly six hours long, meaning I can sink into one world with one set of characters for an extended period of time all once. It’s been a similar experience with this series.

Cerulia is badly injured, both physically by the scars left on her body by the flames, but also internally, unsure of her own role as a leader and queen going forward. In the quiet and peace of the healing ward where she is recovering, she is badly tempted to give up her quest of regaining her throne. The path has been harder than she ever thought, but she comes to see her responsibility to her people is greater than her own insecurities and fears. But without an army and with her sister poised to marry the son of her great enemy, Cerulia must work hard to remain free and in a position to challenge Matwyck for her throne.

I actually ended up liking this third book a bit more even than the first two, especially portions in the first half of the book while Cerulia is struggling to find her way again. For an individual who has been in exile for so long, jumping from one place to another, one entire identity to another, it’s no wonder that questions would arise about whether it is worth it and who she really is beneath all of the disguises. Through these reflections, she’s forced to confront her own insecurities and fears. She also come across the tried and true “with great responsibility” way of thinking, recognizing that her own struggles are ultimately not about what she has lost as a princess/queen forced from her home, but in the service of a greater duty to the country that’s been left behind. All of the people who don’t have the option to flee and re-create lives for themselves with the help of magical abilities and a grand heritage.

After this period of reflection, the action picks up again with Cerulia returning home, reuniting with her foster family, and facing the stark reality of the challenges ahead of her on her journey to the throne. There are also some interesting discussions regarding the necessity of a queen at all. It was fun seeing Cerulia go full circle and finally return to her home and her foster family, and it’s a great set-up for the final conflict to come in the last book.

But, with the increased interest I had in Cerulia’s story, I found myself feeling more disconnected from the other characters’ portions of the story. While there have been some moments where these other characters’ perspectives have added strength and context to the story, at this point, as we near the end of the series, their portions felt like more of a distraction than anything. I was always eager to return to Cerulia’s story and found myself more and more impatient with any breaks in the momentum of her plot line.

Lastly, I want to throw out a brief kudos to the cover art for this series! I always like covers that don’t include models, so that was a great start. But mostly I think the understated changes to the crown and how it reflects the action of each story was very clever. The first cover had a crown that was literally hidden behind vines. In the second, we see a crown being consumed by flames, a direct nod to Cerulia’s own perilous experience with fire. And here we have the broken remains of that ordeal, cracked but not destroyed. The final cover, of course, finally brings the crown to it’s completed state: regal and whole, free of damage or concealment. It’s a very simple little theme, but I think it works perfectly for this story.

Only one more month to go until we wrap this all up! In the meantime, make sure to enter the giveaway for a finished copy of “A Broken Queen.”

Rating 8: Poignant reflections on the responsibility of privilege and the definitions of self set a solid foundation for the final book to come.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Broken Queen” is a newer title so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Upcoming 2020 SFF with female leads or co-leads.”

Find “A Broken Queen” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Queen’s Assassin”

39334176._sy475_Book: “The Queen’s Assassin” by Melissa de la Cruz

Publishing Info: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, February 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Caledon Holt is the Kingdom of Renovia’s deadliest weapon. No one alive can best him in brawn or brains, which is why he’s the Guild’s most dangerous member and the Queen’s one and only assassin. He’s also bound to the Queen by an impossible vow–to find the missing Deian Scrolls, the fount of all magical history and knowledge, stolen years ago by a nefarious sect called the Aphrasians.

Shadow has been training all her life to follow in the footsteps of her mother and aunts–to become skilled enough to join the ranks of the Guild. Though magic has been forbidden since the Aphrasian uprising, Shadow has been learning to control her powers in secret, hoping that one day she’ll become an assassin as feared and revered as Caledon Holt.

When a surprise attack brings Shadow and Cal together, they’re forced to team up as assassin and apprentice to hunt down a new sinister threat to Renovia. But as Cal and Shadow grow closer, they’ll uncover a shocking web of lies and secrets that may destroy everything they hold dear. With war on the horizon and true love at risk, they’ll stop at nothing to protect each other and their kingdom in this stunning first novel in the Queen’s Secret series.

Review: Something, something, quippy and non-spoilery intro. *Sigh* But frankly, this book didn’t make any effort to be good or original, so why should I! Yes, holding myself to the standard of books that I hated is the writing goal I want to set for myself and this blog! This was a whim book request for me, even though the synopsis didn’t seem particularly inspiring. I’ve had some great results from reading random books I haven’t heard a bunch about before (see “The Bones Houses”), but it does seem that it really goes one of two ways: I’m either blown away, the surprise only adding to the fun, or I absolutely hate the book and wonder why I ever risk it. Obviously, this was the latter.

I’m not going to even bother re-summarzing this book. The book blurb does a decent enough job and as the story is so predictable, there’s nothing new I could add to my summary of the story that isn’t an out-right spoiler. So let’s jump right into it! Usually I would start with the things I liked, but I have to be honest, there was really nothing I liked about this book. Often, if I don’t like the story itself, the writing is still good. If the writing is bad, there’s a character I can enjoy. Not so, here. The best I can say was that perhaps this book missed a publishing window where it wouldn’t have been quite so bad. I still wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but perhaps some of its most trope-y plot points wouldn’t have felt quite so egregious had this been released five years ago. It sure does read like a book that has completely missed the fact that everything it is doing has been beaten into the ground already over the last several years of YA fantasy publishing. So, good points: maybe passable if existed in an alternate reality where it came out in 2015.

The plot is incredibly predictable. Read the summary again. Make a few predictions. Spoiler alert! They’re all right. The book takes itself way too seriously with these supposed surprises as well. When I wasn’t simply exhausted by the pretense of it all, I was flabbergasted that anyone, anywhere, would ever think that these “reveals” could be read in a serious light. Shadow’s (there you go, another thing to hate! That name…) entire history is obvious to any one who has even a passing familiarity with these stories. The one aspect of her tale that could even be a surprise didn’t work in the book’s favor as it then retroactively undermined much of Shadow’s own narration throughout the book. Her story is told in first person. There are certain rules to first person narration, and this “surprise” threw all those rules in a dumpster fire in pursuit of “surprises.”

Speaking of first person narration, the writing was fairly bad in this book. Mostly this was due to the choice to alternate POVs between Shadow and Caledon and, inexplicably, to switch between first and third person narration for these two characters. This type of switch is always jarring and rarely justifiable. The only books I can think of that pulled off something similar were N. K. Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” trilogy titles, and those books were award winners, so you know they’re already a rarity. The choice here is not only bizarre but exists for no clear reason. If the author can’t differentiate between these two characters’ voices without switching writing tenses, that speaks to a whole new problem. If it was meant to represent some greater distinction between these two, I couldn’t spot it. And in the end, all it did was interrupt any flow or rhythm that the story was trying to establish.

Even without this, the pace of this story was all over the place. In the first few chapters, a million things seemed to happen one after another, leaving the reader confused and unable to connect to anything of these events. Worst of all, Shadow’s motivations behind these actions were never clear or explained. She just did things, so that things would happen, so that she could react to those things. And then the story took a jarring halt for a good chunk, and then again with the manic pacing. This, finally, was unpredictable but in the worst way.

The romance was also cringe-worthy and full of unnecessary angst and drama. At one point, the two go undercover…as siblings. Why? Because now there can be all of this increased awkwardness when others discover them being romantic! Angst! Drama! The author’s fingerprints were all over this, and each smudgy, forced moment just made me, again, cringe. To offset this, for a book with the name “assassin” in the title, there are next to no actual assassinations. It’s just yet another example of playing to the supposed YA fantasy crowd. People like books with the word “queen” in the title. And they like assassins…so.

Like I said before, the best I can say for this book is that some of the surprises, had they come in a book published five to ten years ago, could  have maybe worked. But the poor writing with the swaps in tenses and fast/slow pacing would remain. The poor characterization would remain. The romance, such as it is, would remain. And you’d still have to take a character named “Shadow” (get it? cuz she wants to be an assassin?) seriously for an entire book. I really can’t recommend this book to anyone. The author has several other books, so perhaps her die-hard fans will enjoy this. But for everyone else, there are better things out there. My usual recommendation for those looking for a good assassination book is “Skullsworn” so check that out instead.

Rating 2: I didn’t like anything about this book. The characters and plot were tired re-hashes of things we’ve seen a million times before in YA fantasy fiction. And the writing was poor, to really put the last nail in the coffin (a coffin that was not necessary to the plot as, again, no assassinations.)

Reader’s Advisory:

This book isn’t good. You shouldn’t look for ones like it. But here’s a generic Goodreads list that it’s on: “Queen in Title.”

Find“The Queen’s Assassin” at your library using Worldcat! If you must…

Serena’s Review: “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro”

46207682Book: “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro” by K.S. Villoso

Publishing Info: Orbit, February 2020

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

Book Description: “I murdered a man and made my husband leave the night before they crowned me.”

Born under the crumbling towers of Oren-yaro, Queen Talyien was the shining jewel and legacy of the bloody War of the Wolves that nearly tore her nation apart. Her upcoming marriage to the son of her father’s rival heralds peaceful days to come.

But his sudden departure before their reign begins fractures the kingdom beyond repair.

Years later, Talyien receives a message, urging her to attend a meeting across the sea. It’s meant to be an effort at reconciliation, but an assassination attempt leaves the queen stranded and desperate to survive in a dangerous land. With no idea who she can trust, she’s on her own as she struggles to fight her way home.

Review: I was sent an ARC of this book from the publisher. Having never heard of it, I kind of glanced at it and put it on the pile. But, after a few disappointing reads (ones that gave signs of being disappointments almost from the very first page), when I picked this one up, started reading, and looked up not long later having already somehow read ten chapters, I knew that I had finally found a read to break the spell. The rest of the book didn’t let me down!

Talyien has grown up knowing what it is to be immediately distrusted and disliked. Her father lead an unpopular revolt, and even though it ended with a marriage proposal between his daughter and the leading rival family’s son, Talyien’s people have walked a tight line ever since. When her husband of three years mysteriously walks out on the eve of the both his and her coronation, Talyien finds herself ruling alone, now disliked and distrusted more than ever. Now, years later, Queen Talyien hears from him once again, and all too soon she sees herself betrayed, cut off from all that is familiar, and left on her own to prove that she is the strong queen her father raised her to be.

The other day my husband and I happened to have a conversation about the differences between books written in third and first person. I was making the argument that first person often reads s younger, hence it often being found in YA novels. Since the narration is limited to only one point of view, the narrative has to work hard to draw in details with regards to scene and setting. The narrator is also unreliable to a certain extent as they are only able to speak to other characters’ thoughts and motivations through their own lens and perceptions. This leaves a lot of room in the narrative voice to focus on the internal emotions and thoughts of the main character, a strength in particular for YA protagonists and stories where these types of internal musings typically shine. For adult novels, these challenges and limitations are often enough to prompt many authors to stick to the more common third person perspective. All of that to say, this book was an excellent example of an adult fantasy novel turning all of the challenges of first person narration to its advantage.

Talyien has a very distinct voice right off the bat. It’s also made clear early in the book that we don’t know her entire history and that her views of those around her are formed from her own experience of the world. Her father’s history, her own experience as a disliked queen abandoned by her husband, all color her distrusting and stark outlook on humanity. At the same time, she’s incredibly brave, stubborn, and determined to do what she thinks is best for her son and her country. I’m hesitant nowadays to make “Game of Thrones” references, but in a lot of ways she reads the way I always imagined Daenerys to be. Talyien can be ruthless and goal-oriented, but, through the very personal nature of first person narration, we also see the vulnerability and self-doubt that continues to plague her. Plague her, but never stop her.

I really enjoyed the world-building in this story. It is a refreshing new world that is pulling from inspirations that are clearly no European. I’d be hesitant to place it anywhere specifically, as it is clearly a fantasy world, but details about the culture, food, and naming conventions all read as coming from Asian inspiration. I believe the author was born in the Philipines, so I imagine that was part of the backbone building up this world. Again, it is challenging to build a compelling and realistically detailed world through only the eyes of one main character who, in theory, would know much of these facts and have no reason to share them with a reader. But the narration is seamless, and as the story expanded, so did the world surrounding this story. The use of flashback also continued to add layers to our understanding of not only Talyien, but the complicated political history of her nation and its many clans.

The story doesn’t end on a cliff-hanger, per se, but all is definitely not well at the end of this book. We finally learn some of the secrets that Talyien has held so close to her chest throughout much of the book and these reveals explain much about not only her choices but her general views towards those around her and how she chooses to interact with them. There were definitely some unexpected twists to the story, and I was left not knowing how I felt about certain other characters. This speaks to the very fleshed out nature of even secondary characters. They all felt real, and real people aren’t simply good or bad.

I can’t wait to get to the next book in this series. Talyien is at a pretty low point and the stakes are incredibly high, not only for her nation, but on a very personal nature for her. Hopefully I can get my hands on the next book soon! I know the author self-published this one before Orbit picked it up, so I’m hoping they will be able to release the second one quickly! Fans looking for a refreshing new fantasy epic featuring a strong queen who doesn’t give a sheep what you think of her, this is the book for you!

Rating 8: Talyien is everything I want in my fantasy heroines and I can’t wait to see what she does next!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Wolf of Oren-Yaro” is on these Goodreads lists: “Upcoming 2020 SFF Books with Female Leads or Co-Leads” and “Asian-Authored Books in 2020.”

Find“The Wolf of Oren-Yaro” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Shrike & the Shadows”

51012361._sx318_sy475_Book: “The Shrike & the Shadows” by Chantal Gadoury and A.M. Wright

Publishing Info: The Parliament House Press, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Men have gone missing before.

The village of Krume is plagued by a haunted wood and a hungry witch. It’s been that way for as long as Hans and Greta can remember, though they have never seen the witch themselves; no one has.

When men start to disappear once again in the cover of night – their bloody hearts turning up on doorsteps – the village falls into frenzied madness.

Hans and Greta, two outcast orphans, find themselves facing accusations of witchcraft and are met with an ultimatum: burn at the stake, or leave the village forever.

With nowhere else to go, they abandon their only home.

As they venture into the strange forest, their path is fraught with horrific creatures, wild and vivid hallucinations, and a mysterious man tied to the witch’s past.

The Shrike is watching, just beyond the deep darkness of the woods.

Review: A lot of fairytales have been retold a million different times in a million different ways. And I, being the sucker I am for fairytale retellings, am more than happy to read the millionth and one version of many of these popular tales. That said, it’s always particularly exciting when I see a new book coming out that it tackling one of the less popular story. I’m sure I’ve read a “Hansel and Gretel” story in the past, but I couldn’t think of one off the top of my head, so I immediately placed a request for this book. Unfortunately, this was not only a disappointment as far as new fairytale retellings go, but also, in my opinion, just not a very good book overall.

The village where Hans and Greta have grown up has long been haunted by an evil that claims the lives of its men, leaving their hearts on the doorsteps of the grieving families. It is under this constant threat that Greta and Hans have tried to make a life for themselves, praying each night that Hans won’t be next. But when they are driven out of the only home they’ve ever know, the two siblings find themselves alone in the very same forest in which lurks this evil force. Will they make it through this woods? And what waits on the other end?

I was really bummed to find that this book was such a miss for me. I seem to have had a recent run of either books I’ve really enjoyed or ones that have really, really not worked for me. I’m hesitant to make this comparison, but what first came to mind was that this book read like a bad fanfiction story. I say this having read and enjoyed a good amount of fanfiction, some of which with writing as good or better than many published novels I’ve read. So this is in no way a ding against fanfiction as a whole. That said, this book exemplifies several of the pitfalls that poor works of fanfiction have been known to fall into: lackluster world-building, washed out characters, and, unfortunately, over use of sex scenes and trauma, seemingly to make up for a lack of real story at its heart.

The world-building is lacking and transitions from scene to scene are awkward at best and nonexistent at worst. I’d have a hard time describing much of anything about the world in which this book takes place. In the beginning of the story we have a scene with Greta frantically searching for her brother. She runs around quite a bit, but I was completely unable to track her movements. She’s at one point in her cabin, then outside, then, I think, in a field. Shortly after that, she and Hans are in the village itself. This action takes place in the first few pages, but it is a perfect example of the lack of attention that went into setting the scenes for this story. There is no foundation upon which any of this happens, and the writing makes no effort to draw a picture in the reader’s mind.

The writing didn’t serve the story any better as far as the plot goes either. Early in the book there’s a scene depicting an attempted assault (this comes out of nowhere, by the way, and was jarring in and of itself). It’s a serious topic, but the way it is depicted is cartoonish in its villainy. The assaulter’s lines of dialogue were cringe-worthy, and the villain himself was made up of only the broadest strokes of stereotypes without any effort to delve into the seriousness of the real-life history behind the power imbalance that was being described. Again, this was only an early example, but this writing problem continued throughout.

Hans and Greta were also difficult to care about. While the writing seemed a bit better equipped to handle these two main characters, they still often felt flat at times. Hans, in particular, was very hard to sympathize with. Greta had the stronger moments of the two, but as the story was split between them, this wasn’t enough on its own to balance out Hans.

And then there’s the sex scenes. As I mentioned, there’s an attempted assault that comes out of nowhere within a few pages of the start of the book. There’s very little build up to this, and, overall, it doesn’t feel handled particularly well. I’m not in the camp that says every book that has scenes like this should have an overt trigger warning on the cover. Mostly this is because strong writing will build to an event of this nature in a way that allows readers time to decide whether to read the event or not. But with weaker writing, these scenes are a bit trickier. And from there, once our characters are in the woods, there are still numerous sex scenes. I enjoy romances here and there and am not a prude about scenes like this in my books. But the sheer volume of them was off-putting, not to mention the jarring juxtaposition of these scenes against the story’s effort to build up the horror and threat of their travels through the woods. Like I said, kind of like bad fanfiction.

I didn’t enjoy this book. I’m not familiar with either of these authors, so I’m not sure if this is indicative of either of their other works. But on its own, this wasn’t a strong story. I had a hard time connecting to the characters, and the world-building was so superficial that I couldn’t describe much of the book if you asked.

Rating 4: Very disappointing, “Hansel and Gretel” deserve better.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Shrike and the Shadows” is on this Goodreads list: “Parliament House Novels.”

 

Serena’s Review: “Night Spinner”

45046766Book: “Night Spinner” by Addie Thorley

Publication Info: Page Street Kids, February 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Before the massacre at Nariin, Enebish was one of the greatest warriors in the Sky King’s Imperial Army: a rare and dangerous Night Spinner, blessed with the ability to control the threads of darkness. Now, she is known as Enebish the Destroyer―a monster and murderer, banished to a monastery for losing control of her power and annihilating a merchant caravan.

Guilt stricken and scarred, Enebish tries to be grateful for her sanctuary, until her adoptive sister, Imperial Army commander Ghoa, returns from the war front with a tantalizing offer. If Enebish can capture the notorious criminal, Temujin, whose band of rebels has been seizing army supply wagons, not only will her crimes be pardoned, she will be reinstated as a warrior.

Enebish eagerly accepts. But as she hunts Temujin across the tundra, she discovers the tides of war have shifted, and the supplies he’s stealing are the only thing keeping thousands of shepherds from starving. Torn between duty and conscience, Enebish must decide whether to put her trust in the charismatic rebel or her beloved sister. No matter who she chooses, an even greater enemy is advancing, ready to bring the empire to its knees.

Review: Another beautiful cover! It seems like I’m a broken record recently in my praise of the cover art of my books, but it’s also just true that many of them have been extraordinary! It’s nice to see original cover art that properly reflects the book itself rather than trying to brazenly mimic other successful titles in an attempt to trick readers into picking books up. I mean, I get it, publishing is a business and all of that. But a beautiful cover will do the job just as well, as many readers, myself included, will pick up titles like this because the cover is lovely and unique. The book was also marketed at a retelling of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” And because I can’t even really picture what that looks like, this was an immediate request for me!

Enebish’s life is now one of seclusion and repression, a far fall from a few years ago when she had been on the cusp of becoming a great warrior and great leader for her people. But when a horrific accident occurs, killing many and crippling Enebish, her life takes a drastic turn, leaving her hated and feared by those who used to respect her. But, after years of hiding from her own powers and ignoring the temptations of the night, she is finally given a path forward to redeem herself. As she chases down a notorious criminal, however, she learns that there are many secrets in the night, not least of all her own.

While this book wasn’t the home run I’d been hoping for, there was still a lot I ended up liking about it. For one thing (and in my book, most importantly), Enebish was an excellent character. While some of her secrets and the reveals she discovers throughout the book were easy to guess, her own process of exploring these new insights was always sympathetic and relatable. As the story progresses, we see more and more clearly that her physical injuries are not nearly as crippling as her fear. Fear of her past, fear of the judgement of others, and, of course, fear of herself.

I was also a fan of the writing style and world-building. It was the kind of book that I was able to immediately sink into. Writing is always one of the hardest aspects of a book to review because what makes one author’s style work and another’s struggle can be both very subjective to the reader as well as almost impossible to pinpoint with specifics. I can usually tell within the first few chapters of a book whether the writing is going to click for me, and right off the bat, this one did. The world-building was also interesting, and I was able to easily picture the various locations that Enebish travels to.

The romance is definitely on the slow-burn side and there were hints of a love triangle at points. Luckily, the story didn’t commit fully to said triangle and the romance itself was very sweet, what little we had of it.

My struggles had to do with the length/pacing of the story, as well as the comparison to ” The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” To the latter point, I found this expectation more distracting than anything. I can see the base elements for why this was referenced in the blurb, but frankly, in the first half of the book I spent way too much time comparing characters and events to that story and not enough appreciating the book before me. I think, as a whole, the comparison is too weak to add anything to the story and is likely to prove more distracting to readers. I recommend trying to put that thought out of your head immediately to better enjoy the book. The middle of the story also lagged a bit, and, overall, I think the book was a bit longer than what was necessary. As the writing and characters were strong, these were minor concerns, but still worth noting.

Overall, I thought this was a really interesting read. I’m not biting at the bit to get to the second one, but it laid down a decent foundation for the plot going forward, and I’m fairly invested in Enebish herself. If you’re looking for an original fantasy novel this spring, this might be one worth checking out!

Rating 7: A bit longer than was necessary, but a compelling lead character and interesting magic system pulled this one into the “win” column.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Night Spinner” is a new book, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists. But it is on “Profiles in Silhouette.”

Find “Night Spinner” at your library using WorldCat!