Kate’s Review & Giveaway: “The Good Demon”

38945097Book: “The Good Demon” by Jimmy Cajoleas

Publishing Info: Amulet Books, September 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I was sent an eARC from NetGalley and a printed ARC from Amulet Books.

Book Description: True Detective meets The Exorcist in this gripping YA mystery debut about one girl’s exorcism—and her desperate quest to reunite with her demon

Clare has been miserable since her exorcism. The preacher that rid her of evil didn’t understand that her demon—simply known as Her—was like a sister to Clare. Now, Clare will do almost anything to get Her back. After a chance encounter with the son of the preacher who exorcised her, Clare goes on an adventure through the dark underbelly of her small Southern town, discovering its deep-seated occult roots. As she searches for Her, she must question the fine lines between good and evil, love and hate, and religion and free will. Vivid and sharp, The Good Demon tells the unusual story of friendship amid dark Gothic horror.

Review: I want to extend a special thank you to both NetGalley and Amulet books for sending me an eARC and a print ARC of this book.

I know that Halloween Season isn’t QUITE here yet (though honestly, once Labor Day hits I’m thinking about ghosts and ghouls and all things horror), but I just couldn’t wait for Horrorpalooza to pick up “The Good Demon” by Jimmy Cajoleas. I was fortunate enough to get approved for a copy on NetGalley, but then imagine my extra delight when I was at Serena’s and she said that we’d received a print ARC of it as well.

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Me flailing in glee when I got this book. (source)

I’d been hearing about this novel since this past summer, when it was all over my twitter feed during BookExpo. While I’m not usually someone who is super into demonic possession/exorcism stories (with a FEW exceptions, as you guys probably remember), the idea of a girl wanting her exorcised demon BACK was one that piqued my interest. The demonic possession stories I like usually buck some of the familiar tropes that are associated with the genre, but ultimately they usually still maintain the demon=bad concept. “The Good Demon” sounded like it was going to take that down as well, so picking it up I went in with some lofty expectations.

What struck me most about “The Good Demon” was Clara, our main character who is desperate to find her demon, Her, again. In many demonic possession and exorcism stories, the person being possessed is usually passive, and a secondary character that the main character is trying to help. Clara defies these trends, as not only is she the main character, she is incredibly active and entrenched in ‘doing’ within the narrative. Her reasons for wanting Her back are understandable because of how Cajoleas has written her: her father’s death was a traumatic moment in her life, her mother is an addict who has effectively picked her new husband over her own daughter, and Clara has no other friends or support systems in her life now that Her has been exorcised. While there were ample opportunities for Clara to fall into stereotypical traps of a ‘bad girl’, Cajoleas always kept her from teetering, and kept her grounded in a realistic personality. She always felt like a realistic teenage girl who has seen some shit, and her voice was authentic and natural. As she uncovers the mysteries of the small, closed minded town that she is living in, you see her go up against obstacles that aren’t always because of supernatural or occult driven issues; many of the problems she faces are because of misogyny and prejudice that is entrenched within an Evangelical culture. I liked seeing her interact with basically all of the characters, be it within flashbacks to her friendship with Her, to the fraught and sad relationship with her mother, to the complicated and bittersweet relationship she takes up with Roy, the son of the preacher who performed the exorcism. Roy is a particularly interesting foil to her, as her sullenness is matched with his fundamentalist driven optimism, and her bitterness towards his father is in stark contrast to Roy’s submission to him. It was a relationship that felt very teenager-y, with both of them making decisions that feel right in the moment, but may have fallouts that they cannot see.

I had more mixed feelings about the actual possession story. I loved the flashbacks to Her, and I liked seeing Clara and Her interact, and have a complex relationship. It sets a groundwork that makes it very believable that Clara would go as far as she would go to get Her back. That was a very fresh take on possession, that perhaps this ‘demon’ wasn’t necessarily a ‘bad’ thing. But by the end, it becomes pretty clear that the full deconstruction of the ‘possession’ story isn’t going to happen. It gets part way there, I will give it that, but ultimately it didn’t take a bold stance on redefining ‘demons’, and why people like Roy’s Dad might conflate something that empowers or emotionally supports girls and women as ‘demonic’.  I appreciate that ultimately Cajoleas is promoting the idea that you should feel secure within yourself and to be able to stand on your own, but I think that this message ultimately undercuts the positive female friendship message that I was hoping we would get from it.

While it didn’t QUITE live up to my expectations, “The Good Demon” was a fast and fun read, and it’s absolutely one that dark fantasy and horror fans should pick up during the upcoming spooky season. And I have good news, because it’s your chance to own this new dark fantasy novel! We’re giving away the print ARC of “The Good Demon”! This giveaway is open to U.S. Residents only, other terms and conditions are within the giveaway information in the link below.

Enter the Giveaway Here!

Rating 7: An interesting take on the possession/exorcism story with an interesting protagonist, “The Good Demon” deconstructs common tropes to a point, but falls a little short in it’s deconstruction by the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Good Demon” is coming out on Tuesday, September 18th, and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists yet. That said, I think it would fit in on “Demons, Mystics, and Black Magic”, and “Small Towns and Secrets”.

Find “The Good Demon” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Age of Myth”

26863057Book: “Age of Myth” by Michael J. Sullivan

Publishing Info: Del Rey, June 2016

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

Book Description: Since time immemorial, humans have worshipped the gods they call Fhrey, truly a race apart: invincible in battle, masters of magic, and seemingly immortal. But when a god falls to a human blade, the balance of power between humans and those they thought were gods changes forever.

Now only a few stand between humankind and annihilation: Raithe, reluctant to embrace his destiny as the God Killer; Suri, a young seer burdened by signs of impending doom; and Persephone, who must overcome personal tragedy to lead her people. The Age of Myth is over. The time of rebellion has begun.

Review: I’m not sure how I’ve missed Michael J. Sullivan for so long. My only excuse is that sometimes I get too mired in YA fantasy specifically (because, c’mon, keeping up with that stuff is a full time job and I’m failing at even that!!). But on a whim I saw that this was available through my audiobook service at the library and decided to check it out. And boy, am I glad I did! It’s like discovering an entirely new shelf (yes, SHELF!!) of good books.

It all began in an instant, when, in a moment of panic and anger, Raithe killed the unkillable, a Fhrey whom he and his people had worshiped as gods for as long as history could be remembered. The domino effects of this decision now lead the human world into a bold new era, one that Raithe himself is reluctant to enter. But others have no choice, like a chieftain’s wife, Persephone, who finds this fight brought to her own door. And a young seer named Suri who only wants to live in the woods with her wise wolf, Mina. Others, too, both in the land of the humans and the land of the Fhrey, begin to feel the ripples of this shocking change to the world order, and suddenly so many find their lives heading in frighteningly new directions.

Wow, I was just blown away by this book. I don’t even know where to begin my gushing! The characters? The story? The world? The amazing audio book narrator? THE FACT THAT THE ENTIRE SERIES IS ALREADY WRITTEN AND SCHEDULED TO RELEASE REGULARLY?

The characters. There are a lot of them. As I’ve mentioned (again and again and, annoyingly, again), I typically prefer stories where we follow one, maybe two, main characters through a story. I often find my level of investment greatly fluctuating between characters when the cast of POVs is much larger, leading me to feel varying levels of interest and tending to skim sections as books go along. Not so, here. While we are originally introduced to Raithe and then Persephone, and while they do likely have the majority of the chapters, the book also introduces several other key characters such as Suri and even a few members of the Fhrey. These last couple of characters, the Fhrey, were the ones I was most concerned about. Were they all going to be enemies? How would their stories actually tie in with the events going on out in the human world? But I shouldn’t have been concerned. While one of these perspectives is essentially that of the villain, both provide important context clues into the cultural dynamics of both peoples and play major roles in the story, especially towards the end.

I particularly enjoyed Persephone’s story, however. Not only was she an interesting character in her own right, she was a rare exception to the type of female perspective we’re used to seeing in fantasy fiction. She’s not a young twenty something who is set up as the perfect romantic interest for the hero or who has unique magical powers. Instead, she’s in her upper 30s, about ten years older than Raithe himself, a wife and a mother. But while these roles are important to her, they do not define her or limit her storyline. Instead, in many ways, Persephone is the driving force of this rodeo and proves to be one of the more competent players in the game. I also super dig the fact that there looks to be the beginnings of some type of romance being set up between her and Raithe and the fact that this is a gender swap as far as the age gap goes.

The story itself is action packed. It’s the very beginning of a 6-7 book series, so we know that this book will mostly be setting the stage for a larger conflict. It also has a lot of world-building and character-introducing to do. So with all of that, it’s truly impressive how many cool action scenes are set throughout the book. We have politics, we have betrayals, we have sword fights, we have magical battles. It’s all there and it’s all great. What’s even better, these action sequences aren’t limited to some grand stand off at the end of the book (though there is that as well, actually multiple even there!). The story is peppered with these little skirmishes, and the book never feels like it is being mired down too much under its own weight of world creation.

The world itself is also very interesting. When I started this book, as I said, I had never read anything by this author. I was also unaware that this is essentially an ancient history prequel to the author’s other large series. (This is now its own problem since I feel like I can’t read those until I finish this one as there might be some spoilers there as to how this all plays out…but this series isn’t even all released yet so that’s even more delay in getting to those!!) But as the groundwork is being laid out in this book, I never felt like this lack of prior knowledge was a hindrance. Some of this is due to the fact that many aspects of this story are familiar to fantasy readers. We essentially have the classic trio of beings: humans, elves, and dwarfs. The magic system itself, while so far only briefly discussed, is also fairly simple and approachable. This familiarity makes it easy to quickly feel connected with the world presented and allows the story devote more time to its characters and plot. While some readers may find these similarities as almost too familiar, not providing enough unique elements to make the series stand out on its own, I, for one, wasn’t bothered by it. If the story is strong, you have solid characters, and it’s clear the author is enjoying the world they built, I say there’s nothing wrong with sticking with the tried and true classic aspects of fantasy fiction.

As I referenced above, one of the unique aspects of Sullivan’s style of writing is that he completes an entire series before beginning to release them. This is so, so refreshing in epic fantasy fiction. I don’t even need to name names or point fingers, we all know the examples. All too often, beginning a new fantasy series feels a bit like rolling the dice. Will this series have massive breaks between books? How many total years am I looking at until I get some resolution? Will the author even FINISH this series? Here, those questions are answered, and I’m so thankful for it. There are a few other authors out there, like Brandon Sanderson, who you can count on to release their books quickly and efficiently, even if they write them one by one. But it’s a whole new level of reassurance to know that a series is already finished when you start. Not only will books come out on a regular schedule, but there’s some satisfaction in knowing the author has already thought through all the various plot points, and that he will not write himself into any corners.

Lastly, this book was read by Tim Gerard Reynolds, who, as always, was absolutely brilliant. He primarily reads for fantasy fiction, and I believe he’s narrated all of Sullivan’s prior books. I look forward to continuing on with this series through the audiobooks.

Whew! A long review for this one, but well worth it given how much I had to praise! If you, like me, have somehow been living under a rock as far as Sullivan’s writing goes, I definitely encourage you to check it out. While I’m loving this series, you may want to avoid the trap I now find myself in and start with his other series that have already been published. Who knows, I may break down and skip to one of those early anyways!

Rating 9: Near perfect! Why bother saying more here when I’ve already raved on forever above?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Age of Myth” is on these Goodreads lists: “High Fantasy Books That AREN’T The Lord of The Rings Or George R. Martin” and “Epic/Heroic fantasy with kick-butt heroes AND heroines.”

Find “Age of Myth” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Strange Grace”

32824058Book: “Strange Grace” by Tessa Gratton

Publishing Info: Margaret McElderry Books, September 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss

Book Description: Long ago, a village made a bargain with the devil: to ensure their prosperity, when the Slaughter Moon rises, the village must sacrifice a young man into the depths of the Devil’s Forest.

Only this year, the Slaughter Moon has risen early.

Bound by duty, secrets, and the love they share for one another, Mairwen, a spirited witch; Rhun, the expected saint; and Arthur, a restless outcast, will each have a role to play as the devil demands a body to fill the bargain. But the devil these friends find is not the one they expect, and the lies they uncover will turn their town—and their hearts—inside out.

Review: I requested this book a whim based on the book description and, frankly, the beautiful cover art. I mean, c’mon, that’s one attractive book cover! But the description also appealed to me, seeming to follow some standard fairytale modes of storytelling as well as focusing on the love and friendship between three characters. While I did feel there were a few stumbling blocks and surprises along the way, I think “Strange Grace” will be a sure fire hit for many audiences.

A small village has existed in a state of semi-paradise for many, many years. No one is ever injured or killed. But this idealic life is bough with a steep price. Every seven years, the town folk must sacrifice a boy to the dark woods to buy themselves another period of safety. But this year is different, falling only a few years after the last sacrifice, a new boy is already being demanded. Three friends find themselves searching for an answer to what seems like an impossible choice, and they and their town will never be the same again.

The strongest aspect of this book for me was the writing and the tone. While I don’t typically read straight up horror novels, I like dark fantasies. A few that come to mind as similar to this are “The Beast is an Animal” and the “Raven Cycle” series. Each delve into magical elements, but instead of fairies and unicorns, there’s a lot more dark shadows and tree branches shaped like fingers scraping at our heroes’ backs. So, too, here. ‘”Strange Magic” fully embraces its own dark themes and doesn’t pull back from exploring some fairly graphic body horror. While I enjoyed most of the creepiness here, there were bits that were a stretch for me, so go in with that warning.

So, too, this story also aligns similarly to those previously mentioned fantasy novels in writing style. The writing is lyrical, whimsical, and edged with unexpected sharp points at times. For those looking for straight forward writing this might be a bit off-putting, but if you are a fan of the writing found in books like the “Raven Cycle,” this is very well might appeal to you. I for one found it lovely and was immediately caught up in the weave of the story.

What did hold me up, however, was the pacing. While the writing was beautiful, it didn’t do quite enough to distract me from the fact that the first 40-50% of the story was very slow-moving. What’s worse, that slowly built arc was never fully resolved. The story moved as if a climax of sorts was coming, but instead the author chose to use some odd time jumps that leap-frogged right over some of the parts of the story that I had been most looking forward to experiencing. It was an odd choice that made the story feel choppy and unresolved.

The other stumbling block was the characterization of our main trio. There is a lot of diversity to be found in this group of individuals, and if you’re looking for a fantasy story that features non-binary leads, than this is a great book to find that. But other than representation alone, I never felt fully invested in any of the three characters. I understood their individual motivations and histories, but as the story unfolded, I could never quite latch on to how they were processing their own experiences. There was a lot of “telling” and not much “showing” as far the relationships between them all went. One relationship is already established when the book begins, and not much is done to expand that much further, even though events occur that would at the very least warrant a re-evaluation of how each members is experience said relationship. Instead, we are simply told that characters feel a certain way and don’t see much internal dialogue about how they are processing these changes. Another relationship between another two is established with only a few brief conversations, but based on that, we are meant to understand that they, too, have deep feelings. In the end, as far as characters go, I was simply left wanting more.

Overall, I like much of the writing and fantasy/horror aspects of the book, but I struggled more with the pacing/structure and the characters themselves. However, if you like dark fantasies and are looking for a diverse cast of characters, “Strange Magic” is definitely worth a look!

Rating 7: Beautiful writing and truly creepy dark fantasy was a bit hindered by a clunky plot and characters who never felt like they quite connected with reader or with what was happening around them.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Strange Grace” is a new title so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “2018 YA Books with LGBT Themes.”

Find “Strange Grace” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Seafire”

378225341Book: “Seafire” by Natalie C. Parker

Publication Info: Razorbill, August 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss

Book Description: After her family is killed by corrupt warlord Aric Athair and his bloodthirsty army of Bullets, Caledonia Styx is left to chart her own course on the dangerous and deadly seas. She captains her ship, the Mors Navis, with a crew of girls and women just like her, whose lives have been turned upside down by Aric and his men. The crew has one misson: stay alive, and take down Aric’s armed and armored fleet.

But when Caledonia’s best friend and second-in-command just barely survives an attack thanks to help from a Bullet looking to defect, Caledonia finds herself questioning whether or not to let him join their crew. Is this boy the key to taking down Aric Athair once and for all…or will he threaten everything the women of the Mors Navis have worked for?

Review: There’s no doubt about it, this summer has been the summer of the pirates as far as my reading list as gone. It’s as if all of the authors and publisher all got together and decided that now, now was the time, just long enough for memories of the more recent “Pirates of the Caribbean” to fade away and soon enough that there is still nostalgia lingering from the very beginning. My feelings on the last several pirate-themed books have been very hit and miss, and the last was quite the miss indeed. But where “These Rebel Waves” failed, “Seafire” was there to redeem this budding genre!

Caledonia and her best friend trusted a Bullet once. And from that trust game death and destruction upon both of their families. Since then, the two women have gone on to gather together a crew of other women and a ship of their own. Together, they fight back against the Bullet’s reign of terror, and Caledonia is still looking for revenge on the boy who betrayed her. But when a Bullet ends up on their ship after saving Caledonia’s first mate, Cal is given a chance to trust again. Should she take it for the chance at new and potentially live-changing information?

So first off, thank god! A pirate story that actually has pirates and takes place on the sea! “Seafire” is just what it claims to be, as far as its action and world-building go. There are ships, a sea battles, and pirates, and all of the best type of action that one looks for in action adventure stories like these. It’s all fairly standard, but in this case, that’s a compliment.

What makes this book stand out from the rest is the cast of characters made up of the found family crew of women. The story delves into great themes such as loyalty, friendship, and of course, the love a family, be it your born family or chosen. It also explicitly deals with the challenges that family present to each other and the ways that they can let each other down, and that this applies to both born and chosen families. Each come with their own struggles, and navigating these relationships can be perilous.

Beyond these broader topics, I genuinely cared about a pretty large group of characters introduced in this book. I typically find myself only invested in the 1-2 main characters in most books, but here I found myself rooting and worrying for a much larger group. There is also good representation in this group with a solid f/f relationship between two secondary characters. But all of this investment also came with a price, since the book doesn’t shy away from the tragedies that can befall characters who regularly engage in sea battles.

As for the main characters, I mostly liked our main character, Cal. The fact that I only “mostly” liked her is also probably a point in the book’s favor, highlighting the attention given to creating a flawed, real teenage girl. Cal is by no means perfect. She is brave and determined, but all too often she makes choices based on her own personal need for revenge. She is slow to give up prejudices, but is also completely devoted to the group of women she has taken under her wing. Towards the end, I did begin to struggle more and more with her character and some of her decision-making, but I was on board enough with the rest of the story to not let myself get too bogged down in that.

There is a minor subplot of romance in the story, but I was fine with this part not taking up more time. The true relationships in this book are those built on sisterhood and friendship. As for the pacing, the book does have a slower start, but picked up quite a lot towards the end, so some patience is required when getting going. But, other than that, “Seafire” was a solid book full of badass women doing badass pirate-y things!

Rating 7: Delivers on its concept with an exciting pirate story full of strong women. The main character was at times not the most likable and it started slow, but was worth it in the end!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Seafire” is on these Goodreads lists: “YA Female Ensemble Casts” and “Lady Pirates.”

Find “Seafire” at your library using WorldCat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kate’s Review: “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft”

36426163Book: “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” by Tess Sharpe (Ed.), and Jessica Spotswood (Ed.)

Publishing Info: Harlequin Teen, August 2018

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

Book Description: A young adult fiction anthology of 15 stories featuring contemporary, historical, and futuristic stories featuring witchy heroines who are diverse in race, class, sexuality, religion, geography, and era.

Are you a good witch or a bad witch?

Glinda the Good Witch. Elphaba the Wicked Witch. Willow. Sabrina. Gemma Doyle. The Mayfair Witches. Ursula the Sea Witch. Morgan le Fey. The three weird sisters from Macbeth.

History tells us women accused of witchcraft were often outsiders: educated, independent, unmarried, unwilling to fall in line with traditional societal expectations.

Bold. Powerful. Rebellious.

A bruja’s traditional love spell has unexpected results. A witch’s healing hands begin to take life instead of giving it when she ignores her attraction to a fellow witch. In a terrifying future, women are captured by a cabal of men crying witchcraft and the one true witch among them must fight to free them all. In a desolate past, three orphaned sisters prophesize for a murderous king. Somewhere in the present, a teen girl just wants to kiss a boy without causing a hurricane.

From good witches to bad witches, to witches who are a bit of both, this is an anthology of diverse witchy tales from a collection of diverse, feminist authors. The collective strength of women working together—magically or mundanely–has long frightened society, to the point that women’s rights are challenged, legislated against, and denied all over the world. Toil & Trouble delves deep into the truly diverse mythology of witchcraft from many cultures and feminist points of view, to create modern and unique tales of witchery that have yet to be explored.

Review: I want to thank NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

As I’ve made abundantly clear on this blog numerous times, I am a huge fan of witches and witchcraft in my stories. Basically, if there is a witch, I want to read it. So imagine how genuinely thrilled I was when I heard about “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft”, a short stories collection edited by Tess Sharpe. Not only is it a collection of witch stories, it has a feminist centered theme of witchcraft. On top of THAT, there are also DIVERSE stories involving these witches, from authors like Zoraida Córdova, Robin Talley, Brandy Colbert, and more! My goodness did the description of this book get me in a witchy mood, and make me want to break out “The Craft”/relive my 8th grade Wicca phase.

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Hail to the guardians of the watchtowers of YA feminist witch fiction…. (source)

There are some really great stories in here, and I want to give them credit where credit is due. I will talk about my favorites and what it is about them that made them stand out.

(NOTE: Yes, this book originally had 16 stories in it, but after Tristina Wright was accused of sexual harassment her story was removed from the final product. My ARC had her story, but knowing that it wasn’t going to be in the final work I skipped it completely.)

“Starsong” by Tehlor Kay Mejia

A young witch named Luna has garnered a social media following because of her posts about star charts, fate, and magic. One evening she starts a conversation with a science minded girl who is very much a skeptic. As they start to chat over messages, Luna realizes that she’s starting to fall for her spirited intellectual nemesis. In terms of just sweet and calm stories, “Starsong” fit the bill. The first reason is that it feels very relatable with the social media bent that it had as it’s base. I liked the idea of a teen witch giving guidance to her followers and coming into herself in a medium she is comfortable with. And while I’m not so much into the romance genre in general, this one was super charming and didn’t feel overwrought or melodramatic as these two girls get to know each other and start to feel the first pangs of attraction. It’s just super cute, and since it’s the first story in the collection you get to ease into it with an upbeat first course.

“The Legend of Stone Mary” by Robin Talley

This one felt the most like the kind of witch story that I wanted from this collection, and it’s probably my favorite of the lot. A town has been long haunted by the urban legend of Stone Mary, a witch who was murdered a couple centuries prior and has supposedly put a curse on the town. Now there are legends and myths surrounding the gravesite of Stone Mary, a popular spot for teens to goof off at. Wendy is a descendent of Mary, and her family has long had an unspoken stigma about them because of the family line she is a part of. When she starts to start a romance with a new girl in town, she just wants to be seen as normal, but her lineage may have more of an effect on her relationship than she could have imagined. From the ghostly legend of Stone Mary to the actual real life consequences of small town small mindedness, Talley delivers a strong, somewhat bittersweet, story about what it’s like to be an outsider. The Mary legend is tragic and upsetting, and Wendy’s present day obstacles feel real and very much placed in Othering, be it because of her lineage, or because of her sexuality. There is also something of a twist that took me by surprise, and I think that it gave the story a little more depth. As someone who has memories of urban legends regarding graveyards (specifically the Black Angel in my aunt’s home of Iowa City), “The Legend of Stone Mary” was a treat in all regards.

“The One Who Stayed” by Nova Ren Suma

This is one of the darkest and saddest stories in the book (though just wait, we’ll be getting to the other one), but I didn’t expect any less from Nova Ren Suma. A coven of witches, brought together by trauma and pain, are preparing to bring in another member to their group as the same trauma is about to befall her. Suma is one of those authors who knows how to make the darkness in humanity twisted and blistering, but still present it in a bittersweet way. This story definitely has some strong implications in regards to sexual assault, so I have to give it a trigger warning, but the eeriness and the sadness is written in a flowing and haunting prose that I greatly enjoyed. While a large number of these books had very feminist roots, this one felt like a riot act towards those who do women wrong, and how victims can find their own voices and power by finding each other and coming together to support one another. This is also one of the shorter stories in the collection, though it packs a huge emotional punch that had me enthralled the entire time reading it.

“Why They Watch Us Burn” by Elizabeth May

This is the last story in the collection, and boy oh boy is it a strong note to end it on. Women accused of witchcraft are taken to a forest work camp and are made to ‘repent’ for their actions, though they are not witches, but victims of society. Shamed and silenced, abused and mistreated, a group of women come together to support, endure, and find their voices again. This story absolutely weaves together the idea of witch hunts and trials and applies it to modern social mores such as rape culture and misogyny, and it brings forth a powerful read that struck hard and hit home. Especially given the current social climate, where sexual abusers in the highest offices of Government get off without consequence and someone can be sentenced to THREE MONTHS for rape (AND STILL FEEL LIKE THE CONVICTION WAS TOO HARSH), “Why They Watch Us Burn” strikes a chord. It’s angry, it’s raw, but it’s also hopeful.

Another positive is this book is chock full of Own Voices authors and a lot of great diversity in it’s characters. Not only are a number of the witches in these stories LGBTQIA+, there is also a wide range of racial representation, with varying cultures having a huge influence on the types of witches that these characters are. The witches in our stories need not be wholly influenced by Anglo-Saxon mythology alone, and “Toil and Trouble” takes cues from all around the world.

And yet, if you take the collection’s stories as a whole, a large number of them didn’t really stand out to me. None of them were BAD, per se, but they were either a bit muddled, or a little too bland for my tastes. Some of the stories felt stilted and dragging, and with others I found my eyes glazing over (and I’ll admit it’s probably because of the high emphases on romance in those ones). So because of that, “Toil and Trouble” wasn’t the consistently satisfying collection that I expected it to be. The stories that were good were VERY good, but I wanted more of them to be as appealing to me as the four that I mentioned.

But in terms of important, diverse, and feminist anthologies, “Toil and Trouble” is absolutely noteworthy. The stories I mentioned are worth a look by themselves, and you may find more value in the ones I struggled with. And hey, Halloween isn’t too far away. This is the perfect read for the upcoming Season of the Witch.

Rating 6: While the strong stories in this collection are very strong and the representation is top notch, “Toil and Trouble” didn’t have the consistent strength across all of its tales of witches and witchery.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Anthologies”, and “2018 Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy”.

Find “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Prisoner of the Crown”

38089433Book: “Prisoner of the Crown” by Jeffe Kennedy

Publishing Info: Rebel Base Books, June 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Princess Jenna has been raised in supreme luxury—and ignorance. Within the sweet-scented, golden confines of the palace seraglio, she’s never seen the sun, or a man, or even learned her numbers. But she’s been schooled enough in the paths to a woman’s power. When her betrothal is announced, she’s ready to begin the machinations that her mother promises will take Jenna from ornament to queen.

But the man named as Jenna’s husband is no innocent to be cozened or prince to charm. He’s a monster in human form, and the horrors of life under his thumb are clear within moments of her wedding vows. If Jenna is to live, she must somehow break free—and for one born to a soft prison, the way to cold, hard freedom will be a dangerous path indeed…

Review: I picked up this book purely based on the description, not having read anything by the author before or realizing that this was an offshoot of another series. While neither of these things proved to be too great of an obstacle when jumping into this book, I would warn future readers to pay a bit more attention to that book description than I did: monster husband and horrors of life, indeed. It was a bit more and also less than what I was expecting.

Jenna’s childhood was idyllic, but the future before her is anything but. She’s always known what her life’s purpose was, to be the first wife of a powerful husband whom she is meant to serve and provide children. But when she learns that her to-be-husband is a man with a reputation for having his young wives die off on him, she suddenly begins to see this role in a new light. Trained to please, Jenna is unprepared in every way to deal with her new reality, but knows that she must now find an inner strength she didn’t know she possessed to save herself and potentially much more than that.

For the positives, I liked Jenna, overall, as a character. Much of the book is devoted to her slow realization of what her life will be like going forward and what it means to have power in this world. Given the nature of her childhood, its limitations and the forced ignorance that was thrust upon her, Jenna is often naive and frightened, sometimes making very poor decisions. But as the story is told from the perspective of some future Jenna who is recounting her tale, these bouts of ridiculous moments are clearly set up to provide a point of change: she must start out truly struggling to learn to gather what power she can in this world. That doesn’t mean that actually reading through some of these aspects of her character change weren’t a bit cringe-worthy, but I appreciated the reality added to the story that Jenna wouldn’t simply suddenly become POWERFUL WOMAN after what her childhood had been.

That said, while much attention was given to this slow-burn characterization on Jenna’s part, I had troubles with the story as far as world-building and pacing goes. It was one of those strange mixes of a book where the story was too short to truly feel as if the world-building had been flushed out but also read incredibly slowly. Perhaps this world-building wouldn’t have been an issue had I read the other series, but a general criticism for books like this is that they should still be capable of supporting their world on their own, unreliant on a reader’s knowledge of a different series. As for the pacing, it wasn’t until almost 75% of the way through the book before I felt like the action was really beginning to pick up.

And while I liked the slow development of Jenna’s character over that first 75% of the book, I also very much struggled with the subject matter. This book doesn’t shy away from the monstrosity that is Jenna’s husband and the humiliation and objectification that Jenna undergoes at his hands. This is where my biggest issue with the book lay. I wasn’t quite clear on what the author was trying to do with this story. Obviously some level of criticism about the violent patriarchy that makes up this world was present, but it also felt almost a bit too close to torture porn at other time for any seriousness of its message to really get through. The tone was a bit strange, with a fantasy romp somehow being tied into a Margret Atwood-type dystopia ala “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Personally, for me, the violence and misogynism was a bit too much and started to feel as if it was being sensationalized.

I’m still curious about where Jenna’s story will go after this book, and have hopes that a sequel might not include as many cringe-worthy scenes. But I’m also not dying to get my hands on it. We’ll see how it goes, I guess. If you’ve read other books by this author, particularly the “Twelve Kingdoms” series, you might want to check this out, but I also give a strong warning to the casual reader about the darkness that this includes and the fact that it was a bit of a slower read.

Rating 5: Didn’t absolutely hate it, but made me incredibly uncomfortable at times and didn’t do enough to justify the use of that discomfort in a meaningful way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Prisoner of the Crown” is a new book so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it should be on something like “The Grimdarks.”

Find “Prisoner of the Crown” at your library using WorldCat.

Serena’s Review: “The Phantom Tree”

32618152Book: “The Phantom Tree” by Nicola Cornick

Publishing Info: Graydon House, August 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait – supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better… The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.

The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past – it holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.

But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows…

Review: This is probably one of the first historical fiction novels that is NOT a mystery that I’ve read in quite a while! As such, I was quite excited to return to the genre, especially when comparisons to Phillipa Gregory’s books were being routinely listed (though I’ve had a fairly hit and miss experience with Gregory, I will always love “The Other Boleyn Girl.”) The book had a bit of a slow start and didn’t grab me as much as some of Gregory’s better books, but over all, I still enjoyed “The Phantom Tree,” especially its take on a lesser known and minor character in Tudor history.

Allison is a woman out of her own time, and while she’s managed to scramble a life together for herself, calling upon her vast stores of sheer determination and stubbornness, she still longs to return to her original time back in the 16th century where she was forced to leave behind her infant son. Her only clues are connections to Mary Seymour, a fellow orphan left to be raised at Wolf Hall, and a young woman with a mysterious ability of her own. But Mary has been lost to time, with many scholars believing she died in infancy. When Allison discovers a painting of an adult Mary, she finally is able to begin picking up the clues that may finally lead her home.

This story is pieced together through the perspectives of both Allison and Mary. Allison’s portions consist of her life in the present and her search to return to the past. And through Mary’s eyes, we see the events that lead to Allison’s journey to the future and the events that have unfolded after she’s gone missing, and which Allison herself is now piecing back together centuries later.

Both Allison and Mary were compelling characters, however the nature of the story and the way their stories unfolded did lead to the book feeling as if it had a slow start. Further, both of them were initially a bit unlikeable, with Allison coming off as a bit of a ignorant brat (mostly her past self) and Mary as too wilting and unwilling to take action in her own life. However, from these weaker beginnings, both characters ultimately grew into women I found myself greatly rooting for.

I didn’t know much about Mary Seymour before going into this book, so I did end up doing a bit of background reading to try and figure out how much if this story is based on history. Mary disappeared from history when she was around 2 years old and is presumed to have died in young childhood. That leaves the majority of this story as operating in a fictional setting. However, what made it stand out was the creative way the author managed to tell Mary’s story in a way that made it believable that she may have lived longer but still been absent from history. The fantastical elements come in early, especially with regards to Mary, so there’s never any real question about the authenticity of the tale, but it still added a nice layer that the book never strayed too far into the unbelievable as far as her actual life.

Allison is, of course, a completely fictional character. What I most appreciated about her story was the build-up for her character back in the 16th century that helped establish her as a person capable of adapting to a completely different life in modern times. Think about it: that’s a huge ask of a character and the book explores a few other characters who also time traveled and were less successful with it. The same brashness and stubborn refusal to bend that made her rather dislikable as a teenager in the past were also the traits that let her survive on her own in a completely new world.

The time travel and fantastical elements did end up playing a larger role in the story than I initially anticipated, and there were a few twists and turns towards the end that were especially surprising. At the same time, I never felt like these aspects of the book overran the historical setting of the past sequences or the modern version of the story that focused on Allison’s search for family, her discovery of self and what she wants from her life, and the burgeoning romance with a historical researcher.

By the end of the story, I was actively rooting for both of these main characters, made all the more tense by the knowledge that something dark had to be looming to explain Mary’s sudden disappearance in history. This particular element of the book did wrap up rather suddenly, and while it helped build the believablity of the mystery, it was also a bit traumatic to experience with one of your main characters.

I very much enjoyed “The Phantom Tree.” It was a strange mix of fantasy/time travel, historical fiction, and even modern romance. Both Mary and Allison were compelling heroines, though I never quite escaped a certain sense of distance from the story which prevented me from becoming fully enthralled. For fans of time travel stories, however, and especially those interested in the Tudors, I would definitely recommend this book!

Rating 7: A solid new entry into the subgenre of historical/time travel fiction, though I didn’t connect with it as fully as I may have wished.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Phantom Tree” is a new book so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Historical Fiction/Time Travel.”

Find “The Phantom Tree” at your library using WorldCat.