Serena’s Review: “The River of Silver”

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Book: “The River of Silver” by S. A. Chakraborty

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, October 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ALA convention!

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

Book Description: Bestselling author S. A. Chakraborty’s acclaimed Daevabad Trilogy gets expanded with this new compilation of stories from before, during, and after the events of The City of Brass, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Empire of Gold, all from the perspective of characters both beloved and hated, and even those without a voice in the novels. The River of Silver gathers material both seen and new–including a special coda fans will need to read–making this the perfect complement to those incredible novels.

Now together in one place, these stories of Daevabad enrich a world already teeming with magic and wonder. Explore this magical kingdom, hidden from human eyes. A place where djinn live and thrive, fight and love. A world where princes question their power, and powerful demons can help you…or destroy you.

A prospective new queen joins a court whose lethal history may overwhelm her own political savvy…

An imprisoned royal from a fallen dynasty and a young woman wrenched from her home cross paths in an enchanted garden…

A pair of scouts stumble upon a secret in a cursed winter wood that will turn over their world…

From Manizheh’s first steps towards rebellion to adventures that take place after The Empire of Gold, this is a must-have collection for those who can’t get enough of Nahri, Ali, and Dara and all that unfolded around them.

Previously Reviewed: “City of Brass” and “Kingdom of Copper” and “The Empire of Gold”

Review: This collection was released as an audiobook around a year or so ago, I believe. But I knew if I just stuck it out, it would be released in hardcover as well. What good publisher would turn away the opportunity to cash in on another installation in a beloved fantasy trilogy? I also held off because this was one of those cases where I wondered if it might be difficult to transition between having read the entire first trilogy in print and then to listen to this one as an audiobook. For one thing, I’m sure I was mispronouncing tons of names and words. And with that being the case, I worried that returning to this world a few years after the last book released and listening to a version where some of the words were pronounced differently than the way I (erroneously) had been used to…well, let’s just say the world and the history of this fantasy series has never been the most easy to get straight so I wasn’t about to add another layer! So, lucky me that I was able to nab an early ARC of this at ALA and get on with things!

I’m going to skip my typical paragraph detailing a summary of this book. For one thing, I think the one provided by the publisher is more than enough. And for another, it’s hard to really summarize a collection of stories that are each separate mini stories in and of themselves. This is all the harder when these stories are woven before, between, and after the events of a previously written trilogy that, itself, takes place over a good number of years. There’s a lot of history and time covered in this book and, frankly, it would be impossible for me to summarize it further!

So, first off, this is definitely the kind of collection that must, must, must be read after completely the initial trilogy. There isn’t a single story in this collection that doesn’t touch on characters and histories that were further detailed in that series, and thus would all be completely meaningless to somehow coming at it as a stand-alone.

Second off, I’ll say that this book would probably be appreciated most being read directly after completing the initial trilogy. As I said, those books make up a complicated and rich world and history, and much of that is touched on here. Even just the few years that I’ve had between completing the last book and picking up this one left me feeling like I was having to really work to recall how everything fit together.

But taking this into account, this was a supremely well-done collection of stories. I went in not really know whose stories we were going to hear, when they were going to take place, or anything really. And one after another I found myself surprised and intrigued by the insights into the world and characters we were given. Chakraborty in no way wrote this book as fan service; while there are surely characters everyone wanted to hear more from, there are also a number of characters who were either villains, side characters, or even characters we had only heard about in passing (or not at all).

I really liked the way the book was organized, moving in chronological order from stories taking place before “The City of Brass” until its last few entries that take place after “The Empire of Gold.” In this way, it was easy to slot in these added layers of depth to what I remembered happening in the original trilogy. Even more impressive, some of the early stories helped to lay the groundwork for insights that were going to come from stories later in this very collection. In that way, the book felt like a word in and of itself, rather than just an assortment of long footnotes for the initial trilogy.

If you enjoyed the original Daevabad trilogy, this is an absolute must read. It adds so much depth to the story as a whole, especially some of the characters we only met briefly before who are more fleshed out here. It was also simply a sheer joy to return world and be reminded just how much of a powerhouse Chakraborty is as a writer. She has a new book coming out this spring, and this just made the itch all the stronger to get my hands on it as soon as possible.

Rating 9: A must-read for fans of the original series, this book accomplishes the impossible of not only making those books all the better for the added context but of being a fantastic reading experience in and of itself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The River of Silver” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Best Fantasy Short Story Collections.

Kate’s Review: “Malice House”

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Book: “Malice House” by Megan Shepherd

Publishing Info: Hyperion Avenue, October 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a print ARC from the publisher at ALAAC22.

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

Book Description: Of all the things aspiring artist Haven Marbury expected to find while clearing out her late father’s remote seaside house, Bedtime Stories for Monsters was not on the list. This secret handwritten manuscript is disturbingly different from his Pulitzer-winning works: its interweaving short stories crawl with horrific monsters and enigmatic humans that exist somewhere between this world and the next. The stories unsettle but also entice Haven, practically compelling her to illustrate them while she stays in the house that her father warned her was haunted. Clearly just dementia whispering in his ear . . . right?

Reeling from a failed marriage, Haven hopes an illustrated Bedtime Stories can be the lucrative posthumous father-daughter collaboration she desperately needs to jump-start her art career. However, everyone in the nearby vacation town wants a piece of the manuscript: her father’s obsessive literary salon members, the Ink Drinkers; her mysterious yet charming neighbor, who has a tendency toward three a.m. bonfires; a young barista with a literary forgery business; and of course, whoever keeps trying to break into her house. But when a monstrous creature appears under Haven’s bed right as grisly deaths are reported in the nearby woods, she must race to uncover dark, otherworldly family secrets—completely rewriting everything she ever knew about herself in the process.

From New York Times bestselling author Megan Shepherd comes a complex tale of dark magic, family secrets, and monsters that don’t stay on the page.

Review: Thank you to Hyperion Avenue for giving me an ARC at ALAAC22!

It’s October, everyone, and that means that we are officially at the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year in my book: HALLOWEEN SEASON!!! And that also means that it is once again time for Horrorpalooza, in which my focus is on all horror or horror-esque titles for my blog posts through the end of the month! I’m feeling especially good about Halloween this year, as the whole family is vaxxed up, I have a slew of horror content I’m going to devour this month, and my kid is, through no undue influence of mine, FULLY INTO HALLOWEEN! Oh yeah, I’m READY.

As Betelgeuse says, ‘it’s showtime!’ (source)

And we are kicking off Horrorpalooza 2022 with a title that I have been eagerly awaiting for a long time. I first heard of “Malice House” by Megan Shepherd when Chuck Wendig was tweeting about it in a very positive way. Looking into it, it ticked off a lot of boxes that I love in a book: it’s horror based, it has Gothic elements, and it has a book theme within the narrative. I was super lucky that not only did they have ARCs of it at ALAAC22, but that Megan Shepherd was there signing said ARCs. I let it sit a bit, wanting to get closer to the spooky season before I picked it up, and then once I did, it snared me in almost immediately. It was worth the wait.

“Malice House” is just as much dark fantasy as it is a horror novel, and given that the two genres overlap a fair bit perhaps it’s not so much of a surprise that the combination works well. But Shepherd does a marvelous job of not leaning two much on either genre, while also bringing out the best of them both to create a very suspenseful, scary, and also dreamlike tale of loss, creativity, and the secrets kept within families and from those we love. Haven is our main character, who has returned to her father’s isolated old house after his death, her memories of a strained relationship haunting her as she lives in his famed novelist shadow. Haven is a good mix of deeply complex and somewhat unlikable, but Shepherd gives her the space to be these things without making her feel overdone or cartoonish. We get the sense that she is a bit unreliable, as she hid things from her father before his death, and as she starts to try and make movements regarding the lost manuscript she finds in his home, we start to realize that she’s not the only one with secrets and perhaps darker motivations. From locals who knew her father when he was alive to a mysterious neighbor to a barista who loves her father’s work, Haven has a lot of people who seem to be in her corner, but she soon finds out that, like her, everyone has their secrets. Secrets, isolation, a narrator who may not be reliable, oh how Gothic! And Shepherd really nails that tone.

The horror elements of this book are pretty strong, the dread slowly building up as Haven hears things in the walls, or fixates on tales of the demons that her dementia addled father was seeing as his condition deteriorated. And by the time people around town start dying in gruesome ways that may or may not connect to her father’s books, Haven has already fallen into a nightmare scape where things she thought were hallucinations are perhaps living, breathing threats. The various villains range from pretty run of the mill creature feature fare (a hellhound, a weird lobsterlike creature called ‘Pinchie‘), to far more sinister characters that really got under my skin (no spoilers here, but on in particular known as “Uncle Arnold” is not going to leave me any time soon). And that is what I loved the most about “Malice House”; it is not only a creepy and dreamlike supernatural tale, it is also a story about the power of art, and creativity, and how artistic creations can take on lives of their own that can stun even the creator. And sure, this is probably happening in the worst way imaginable in this book, but I thought it was a really, really nifty facet of this horror story that made me love it all the more.

“Malice House” absolutely lived up to my expectations. The ARC I have mentions that this is the first in a series, though I haven’t seen much additional information about that possibility. If it is, though, I am absolutely aching to see where Megan Shepherd takes Haven and the creatures of Malice House next.

Rating 9: Dark, unnerving, and a love letter to the power that art and stories can have, “Malice House” is a fun and chilling dark fantasy horror tale.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Malice House” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Modern Gothic”.

Serena’s Review: “Spells for Forgetting”

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Book: “Spells for Forgetting” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: A deeply atmospheric story about ancestral magic, an unsolved murder, and a second chance at true love.

Emery Blackwood’s life changed forever the night her best friend was found dead and the love of her life, August Salt, was accused of murdering her. Years later, she is doing what her teenage self swore she never would: living a quiet existence on the misty, remote shores of Saoirse Island and running the family’s business, Blackwood’s Tea Shoppe Herbal Tonics & Tea Leaf Readings.

But when the island, rooted in folklore and magic, begins to show signs of strange happenings, Emery knows that something is coming. The morning she wakes to find that every single tree on Saoirse has turned color in a single night, August returns for the first time in fourteen years and unearths the past that the town has tried desperately to forget.

August knows he is not welcome on Saiorse, not after the night everything changed. As a fire raged on at the Salt family orchard, Lily Morgan was found dead in the dark woods, shaking the bedrock of their tight-knit community and branding August a murderer. When he returns to bury his mother’s ashes, he must confront the people who turned their backs on him and face the one wound from his past that has never healed—Emery.

Review: I’ve been a big fan of Adrienne Young from the start. I think I’ve read all of her YA fantasy to date? But I believe this is her first foray into adult fantasy, so I was really excited to see what changes in storytelling we’d see from her in this new target demographic. Some authors can managed the switch back and forth, while others struggle. Given her general high quality of writing, though, I was never really in doubt that we’d get anything other than a success from this book. And low and behold, how right I was!

Two tragedies in one shocking night. A fire in the apple orchard that provides the primary source of tourism to the remote island of Saiorse. And worse, the murder of a teenage girl right on the verge of starting her life. But while these tragedies might be in the past for some, for Emery and August, their lives have never been the same. After being accused of the murder, August is only now returning to his island home after a decade of exile. And while Emery remained on the island, her close connection to her accused boyfriend August has left her dealing with mistrust and sideways glances her entire adult life. But August’s return has forcibly dragged the past into the present, and old forces on the island are beginning to awake again.

A lot of the promotional blurbs for this book mentioned the word “atmospheric” and likened the feel of the story to “Practical Magic.” And I am here to attest to the fact that both of those descriptions are spot on! This is the type of fantasy story where the magic to be found is very mystical, more to be seen in the fluctuations of nature, the small changes of animal behavior. To be enacted by a very few and in very specific, restricted ways. In that way, the magic of this story was mostly to be found in the misty, mysterious island of Saiorse. From the get go, the sense of place was strong in this book. And as the island itself serves as such a backbone to the story that is being built up, this immediate feeling of familiarity and wonder instantly drew me into the book.

But more than just the beaches and forests that make up the island itself, Saiorse is a place with history. And that history was slowly, oh so slowly, unspooled for the reader as the story continued. Outside of our primary two narrators in August and Emery, we would get sporadic chapters from the perspectives of the other side characters who play such an important role not only in the events we are trying to piece together from the past, but in the mystery of the current day. These interwoven lives and each character’s different understanding of their own place in this community added such a level of depth to the story; it was fantastic.

I will say I was able to predict a few of the major twists of the story, which, at times, left me feeling anxious to speed through the book so our main characters could begin to piece things together, too. But I think this instinct to rush undermined the true beauty of the book which was to be found in the slow, ratchetting up of tension and dread. Even guessing a few pieces of the puzzle, there was no escaping the feeling of immanent doom careening towards our main characters. In a similar vein, the romance is a slow burn as well, with Emery and August drifting around each other in ever tightening circles for much of the book before finally coming back together at last. And as tense as that was, waiting for them to get their acts together, their romance was one of the strongest parts of this book for me. I liked what we were given in the present portion of this book, but I also loved the insights into their doomed teenage romance. It’s the kind of teenage relationship that every romantic young girl wishes for and one that even older, married women can still sigh over.

I really enjoyed this book. It only gets marked down from a ten due to some of the pacing issues regarding the reveals of certain mysteries and a couple of questions I had regarding the way the murder wrapped up. I’ve watched a few too many crime dramas to not be suspicious of some of the conclusions that were being reached about what could and couldn’t be actually prosecuted. But crime drama this is not, and once I firmly turned off that portion of my brain, I was able to fully sink into the lovely reading experience that was this book.

Rating 9: Beautiful and heart wrenching, the story revolves around a romance and mystery that draw the reader in and won’t let go until the final moment.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Spells for Forgetting” can be found on this Goodreads list: Spooky Season Reads.

Serena’s Review: “All of Our Demise”

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Book: “All of Our Demise” by Amanda Foody & Christine Lynn Herman

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: For the first time in this ancient, bloodstained story, the tournament is breaking. The boundaries between the city of Ilvernath and the arena have fallen. Reporters swarm the historic battlegrounds. A dead boy now lives again. And a new champion has entered the fray, one who seeks to break the curse for good… no matter how many lives are sacrificed in the process.

As the curse teeters closer and closer to collapse, the surviving champions each face a choice: dismantle the tournament piece by piece, or fight to the death as this story was always intended.

Long-held alliances will be severed. Hearts will break. Lives will end. Because a tale as wicked as this one was never destined for happily ever after.

Previously Reviewed: “All of Us Villains”

Review: “All of Us Villains” was one of those rare beasts for me last year where it was a very hyped book that I felt actually lived up to the hype. More surprising still, it was a multi-POV fantasy story that actually managed to create a cast of characters all of whom felt unique and whose stories I was interested in reading individually and collectively. All of this to say, I was very excited about this second half of this duology to release this year (especially given that my main gripe about the first book was the cliffhanger it all wrapped up on).

The stakes could not be more high. What once was a brutal, secretive battle royale has had all of its mysteries torn away with the fall of the veil that used to separate the city of Ilvernath and the harsh landscape where the contestants fought. But, while much may be different, many things are still the same, like the deathly importance of alliances and the fear that one never knows friend from foe. For some, however, the goal is no longer to win this most brutal of tournaments, but to destroy it once and for all.

Well, while there was a lot to like about this book, I feel a controversial review coming on! But first let’s get into the parts of my review that will probably line up nicely with everyone else’s reaction. For one thing, there’s no denying the general quality of this duology. The writing remains one of its strongest aspects, across both dialogue and descriptive portions. There were several pieces that I re-read and several moments where I knew that the high quality of the writing was helping assuage some of my annoyances at what I felt were missed opportunities, story-wise.

I also still like the overall concept of the story. Though, I do have to say that this was one of the places where this book began to fall short of the first. There was such a feeling of a breath of fresh air in that first book. Not only did I find all of the characters’ stories interesting, but in a world where I’ve read a million and one “magical competition” fantasy novels, this one managed to stand out from the crowd. But that being the case, this book had a higher task at hand since that initial good will based purely on a new world and concept had already been spent. And while I still enjoyed returning to this world, I did start to feel as if some of the alliances and character drama was beginning to overtake the enjoyment that could have been found in continued world-building.

And really, this is where I was really held up: the characters. While I enjoyed almost all of them in the first book, here I began to feel that several of their storylines began to fall apart, especially when you looked back over the two books together. There were character decisions and betrayals that began to feel more like they were driven by the authors wanting to create shock value than in any organic change in the characters themselves. More and more, I found myself feeling frustrated by some of the characters and the lack of consistency in their reactions to other characters and other plot points.

My biggest annoyance comes with a plot point that I can’t really talk about without some major spoilers. I wasn’t against this particular point in a vacuum, but specifically in the story we see here, it began to represent my overall frustration with the character arcs overall. I felt like the authors not only set the reader up in the first book in a way that was misleading (this second-book-switch could have worked if a bit more effort had been laid down to hint at this change of path, but I don’t feel that was the case), but I also felt like one of the biggest emotional cliffhangers from the first book was kind of wasted. In other words, I feel like I was really revved up to be invested in certain things and then…those things weren’t anything, ultimately. This will be the most unpopular opinion in this review, I’m sure, as I know that the outcome seen here is going to appeal to a lot of fans. And I feel like I could have been on this train too, but I was left frustrated by the feeling that the authors intentionally wound me up into an emotionally invested situation that they were using purely as misdirection. And, as a reader, this kind of thing at best, doesn’t work for me. And at worst, annoys me. And here it really annoyed me because I thought that the abandoned storyline had been set up in a really interesting way.

I also have to say I was a bit let down by the lack of brutality in this book. Maybe I’m just sadistic, but I didn’t feel like any of the big moments in this book really landed and that most of the decisions that would have felt like true gut punches were avoided. But, like I said, the writing was still excellent, and I know this will be seen as an excellent end to the story for many readers. Just not as much for me, sadly.

Rating 7: Unpopular opinion from me in that I felt like a lot of the build up of the first book was wasted here in the second.

Reader’s Advisory:

“All of Our Demise” is on this Goodreads list: YA Releases August 2022

Serena’s Review: “Notorious Sorcerer”

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Book: “Notorious Sorcerer” by Davinia Evans

Publishing Info: Orbit, September 2022

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

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

Book Description: Welcome to Bezim, where sword-slinging bravi race through the night and rich and idle alchemists make magic out of mixing and measuring the four planes of reality.

Siyon Velo, Dockside brat turned petty alchemist, scrapes a living hopping between the planes to harvest ingredients for the city’s alchemists. But when Siyon accidentally commits an act of impossible magic, he’s catapulted into the limelight—which is a bad place to be when the planes start lurching out of alignment, threatening to send Bezim into the sea.

It will take a miracle to save the city. Good thing Siyon has pulled off the impossible before. Now he just has to master it.

Review: This is one of those books where the title was doing a lot of the work in my reasoning for picking it up to review. Plus, I thought the cover was pretty cool. Other than that, I really only understood it to be a fantasy novel that involved alchemy somehow and may or may not be a portal fantasy. But I’m always game for an unknown debut book, so I was excited when I received an ARC from the author.

Bezim is a land strictly divided by the haves and have nots. Those in the upper class have easy access to education and, through that education, magic, while those in the lower classes must struggle by. Of course, alchemy is a magic that has its dangers as well as its powers, so a firm understanding of its uses is necessary to prevent some of the horrific disasters that have been suffered in the past. But for Siyon, he’s happy enough to live somewhere in the middle, patching together his own small time alchemy with very little adherence to the rules that are meant to govern it. That is until he performs a shocking act of magic that both impresses and concerns all who witness it. For now, the future of Bezim is in question again and it seems only an unlearned amateur may be capable of saving it.

This was definitely one of those middle-of-the-road books for me. There was nothing glaringly wrong with any of it. And, in fact, much that was right. Yet, I still struggled to feel fully immersed in the story. The pacing is fast right from the start, with the story galloping along from one action-packed scene to the next. On one hand, this made the story a fun, quick read. But on the other hand, I felt like I was struggling to fully connect to the characters I was meeting on the page, as they were so quickly vaulting from one action set piece to another, with very little time given to any sort of introspection.

I did really like the magic system we were given, and the interesting ways that staples from classic portal fantasy and other alchemy stories were woven together. There was enough that was familiar to make the story approachable (and to help with the fact that, again, the fast pacing left less room for lengthy explanations than other, slower fantasy novels), but there were a lot a lot of original ideas on display as well.

I had also heard a lot of references in early blurbs of the book to the funny and light-hearted tone of the story, and those definitely check out. But, again, I wasn’t necessarily blown away by any of comedic elements. For one thing, I began to struggle with Siyon as a main character when it came to this balance of comedy and primary protagonist. His character is introduced as an “act first, think second” type of person, and we see that again and again. Some of this plays to great comedic affect. But there also came a point when he had been warned again and again about the dangers of alchemy and continued to hand-wave these warnings away. After a bit, I began to feel more frustrated by his poor decision-making than amused.

Overall, this was a perfectly fine debut fantasy novel. There was a lot of potential every where you looked: intriguing world-building, humorous writing, interesting characters. But it also felt like every one of these aspects could have been fleshed out just a bit more to make something truly noteworthy. That said, fans of fast-moving, action-packed fantasy novels should definitely check this one out.

Rating 7: A quick, fun read, but perhaps lacking some of the depth I look for to make a book really feel like it’s going to stick with me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Notorious Sorcerer” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Alchemy Books.

Joint Review: “The Witch and the Tsar”

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Book: “The Witch and the Tsar” by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

Publishing Info: Ace, September 2022

Where Did We Get This Book: We received eARCs from NetGalley and Edelweiss+.

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

Book Description: As a half-goddess possessing magic, Yaga is used to living on her own, her prior entanglements with mortals having led to heartbreak. She mostly keeps to her hut in the woods, where those in need of healing seek her out, even as they spread rumors about her supposed cruelty and wicked spells. But when her old friend Anastasia—now the wife of the tsar, and suffering from a mysterious illness—arrives in her forest desperate for her protection, Yaga realizes the fate of all of Russia is tied to Anastasia’s. Yaga must step out of the shadows to protect the land she loves.

As she travels to Moscow, Yaga witnesses a sixteenth century Russia on the brink of chaos. Tsar Ivan—soon to become Ivan the Terrible—grows more volatile and tyrannical by the day, and Yaga believes the tsaritsa is being poisoned by an unknown enemy. But what Yaga cannot know is that Ivan is being manipulated by powers far older and more fearsome than anyone can imagine.

Olesya Salnikova Gilmore weaves a rich tapestry of mythology and Russian history, reclaiming and reinventing the infamous Baba Yaga, and bringing to life a vibrant and tumultuous Russia, where old gods and new tyrants vie for power. This fierce and compelling novel draws from the timeless lore to create a heroine for the modern day, fighting to save her country and those she loves from oppression while also finding her true purpose as a goddess, a witch, and a woman

Kate’s Thoughts

This was a little bit of a gamble for me, as I knew that it was fantasy, and I knew that it was going to be pretty heavy on Russian mythology for inspiration. And given that I’m not a huge fantasy person, and my book of Russian myths and fairytales has sat on my shelf unopened for years, I was rolling the dice. BUT, it also follows Yaga, a witch, and I DO LOVE WITCHES. So I took a chance on this one, and the bag was… pretty mixed.

The positives are definitely ample! For one, I liked Yaga as our protagonist. She’s a healer who is half immortal and has done her best to keep people around her safe, including her old friend Anastasia who is the Tsar’s wife, and who is being poisoned. Yaga, unfortunately, has to learn that not everyone has the same noble heart, and most of this book is her trying to survive not only against a spiraling Ivan the Terrible (who is doing unthinkable things in Russia; what a time to be reading this, given the guy in charge of Russia right now), but also other immortals and gods and demi gods. I liked how Gilmore subverted some of the mythologies to reflect lies and propaganda that the Orthodox Russian Church was spewing to undercut the non-Christian theologies of the time. I know that the fact Yaga has been de-aged from crone to young woman has frustrated some readers, which I definitely get, but I kind of like the idea of her reputation of being a cruel crone is actually a lie to make people distrust a woman who is actually a midwife, healer, and powerful woman in a community.

But overall, I think that I didn’t have enough working knowledge of the mythology (and even the history! I don’t know much about Russian history, honestly), and that meant that I couldn’t fully appreciate what Gilmore was trying to do. I also thought that it was a little ambling at times as the story went on. It wasn’t really a slog, but I did sometimes find myself skimming a bit to get through specific scenes.

So overall, “The Witch and the Tsar” was an okay read, but I’m not sure I got everything I could have gotten from it. Maybe I need to go grab that unopened book of Russian folklore off my shelf.

Serena’s Thoughts

Me, I’m the reader frustrated by the aged-down Yaga! But before I get to that, let’s start with my general impression. Unlike Kate, everything about this book is directly up my alley, so it was a bit of a no-brainer that I was going to read it either way. But I was happy she suggested we joint review it, since I think that has left us in an interesting position now. Since…the very fact that this was up my alley might be why I wasn’t this book’s biggest fan? More precisely, I feel like I’ve read this book before and better versions of it.

For example, while I generally appreciate the commentary on wise women and healers and how these women were undercut by the incoming Christian church in its various forms, I’ve also read many, many fantasy novels that have covered this very thing. And in very similar, unfortunately better, ways. So for me, many aspects of this book just struck chords that were too familiar to other, better stories, leaving me in a constant state of comparison. A big one was “The Bear and the Nightingale” and that trilogy, a series that is also Russian history/folklore inspired and tackles these same conversion points between Christianity, old world religion, and the demonization of women who were healers or stood out in any other way.

Beyond that, I had a hard time connecting to Yaga. Yes, part of me was simply disappointed that she was a young woman because I’ve read a million and one novels about young women in fantasy and it’s always refreshing to read about different age groups (people over 30 exist! especially older women! things happen to them and there is a unique power and experience to be mined there!). But beyond that, Yaga, while still young-looking, is in fact meant to be quite old. And yet she routinely seemed to be quite naive in a way that I found hard to reconcile with the amount of lived experience she should have under her belt at this point.

I also wish we had gotten a bit more from the Russian folklore, as Kate mentioned. I’m pretty familiar with a lot of it, simply due to the fact that it’s had a bit of a run recently as a go-to in fantasy fiction. But there were certain elements that I felt were just plunked down into the story without much thought or creativity. Like the house with chicken legs just kind of appears? I’ve read some pretty interesting takes on this entire concept (Orson Scott Card’s “Enchantment” probably has the most creative one I’ve seen at this point), but this book just seemed to skip over some of these opportunities.

All in all, my conclusion is the same as Kate’s. This wasn’t a slog of a read by any means, but by the time I finished it, I realized I spent most of the book thinking about other, similar stories and wishing this was more like those.

Kate’s Rating 6: I liked Yaga as a protagonist and I liked the way Gilmore subverted Russian myth and folklore, but it felt ambling at times, and I think I would have gotten more if I were more familiar with the mythology.

Serena’s Rating 6: If you haven’t read much Russian fantasy folklore, this might appeal to you. But there are better examples out there that left this one feeling uncomfortably derivative at times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Witch and the Tsar” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mythological Re-Imaginings” and “Wise Women, Witches, Midwives, Healers, and Strong Girls”.

Serena’s Review: “Foul Lady Fortune”

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Book: “Foul Lady Fortune” by Chloe Gong

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, September 2022

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

Book Description: It’s 1931 in Shanghai, and the stage is set for a new decade of intrigue.

Four years ago, Rosalind Lang was brought back from the brink of death, but the strange experiment that saved her also stopped her from sleeping and aging—and allows her to heal from any wound. In short, Rosalind cannot die. Now, desperate for redemption from her traitorous past, she uses her abilities as an assassin for her country.

Code name: Fortune.

But when the Japanese Imperial Army begins its invasion march, Rosalind’s mission pivots. A series of murders is causing unrest in Shanghai, and the Japanese are under suspicion. Rosalind’s new orders are to infiltrate foreign society and identify the culprits behind the terror plot before more of her people are killed.

To reduce suspicion, however, she must pose as the wife of another Nationalist spy, Orion Hong, and though Rosalind finds Orion’s cavalier attitude and playboy demeanor infuriating, she is willing to work with him for the greater good. But Orion has an agenda of his own, and Rosalind has secrets that she wants to keep buried. As they both attempt to unravel the conspiracy, the two spies soon find that there are deeper and more horrifying layers to this mystery than they ever imagined.

Review:

As I mentioned in my give away post for this book, not only did I not know that it was a follow-up to a previously completed duology, but I also didn’t know it had any connections to “Romeo and Juliet.” My better-informed blogging partner quickly caught me up, adding that I would likely be fine jumping into this new duology without going back to the first (though she also did generally recommend it.) So, starting out, all I knew was that our previous main characters shockingly died a tragic death at the end of the first series, and that this duology would start up a few years later following the character who showed up in that series in the role of Rosaline. Not much, I know, but enough to pique my interest for sure!

Four years ago, Shanghai was turned on its head by the powerful decision of two young people upending a system that had felt intractable. For Rosalind, there was an even more personal change at work. After an experiment to save her life, Rosalind awoke with the inability to sleep or age and the ability to heal from all wounds. With these curses and blessings in hand, Rosalind has set her life to work for her country, attempting to make up for past wrongs. To do this, she has become the infamous assassin code named “Fortune.” But when the political climate begins to shift into ever more dangerous territory, Rosalind finds herself reassigned to work as a spy alongside another, Orion Hong, whose playboy lifestyle she appreciates less and less. Especially when she discovers they will be undercover as husband and wife.

So, I’ll confirm that this book is definitely approachable for readers who are not familiar with the original duology. That said, there are definitely aspects of the story that would have been enhanced having had that history. While the author didn’t overly rely on previously established interest in characters to sell them to readers this go around, I could definitely point out the characters who would have popped up in the first series and were clearly meant to pique extra interest here. Beyond that, I found some of the political parties and various gang affiliations to be a bit confusing, and I’m sure had I read the first books this would have been more clear. But, that said, I was able to piece together enough to get the general idea and feel invested in the book and characters.

I want to applaud the author for writing an assassin who, you know, actually kills people? Seems kind of shocking that this is some testament to particular skill, but it has been long established on this blog how irritated I’ve been by books that are heavily promoted as being about morally grey assassins and then turn out to be about purely moral, only-justified/self-defense-killing, Mary Sues. Here, we have Rosalind taking out a character in the very first few chapters. And while she does have personal reasons, it’s also clearly a job that she has been sent on and she doesn’t weep or wail about the dirty aspects of it.

However, I was much more invested in the spying portion of this book. Which is good, since that is by far the more central theme of the story. There were a lot of moving pieces to the mystery at the heart of the spy operation. Lots of double-crossing and you’re never quite sure who works for who and where anyone’s true loyalties lie. The author did a good job of creating a tense and suspicious atmosphere, ratcheting up the suspense as the book went on.

I will say, I wasn’t overly invested in the romance or the male lead in general. Even if it was to hide more of his character than he wanted to share, I’ve read a few too many swaggering playboys to be overly enamored with him. I also felt like the book was a bit too long, and could have used some tightening up, overall. But, for the most part, I very much enjoyed this book. Fans of the first duology I’m sure will love it. And don’t forget, we’re hosting a giveaway for an ARC copy of this book. The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends on September 21. Enter now!

Rating 8: An excellent YA spy novel with a lot of twists along the way, including a major one at the end!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Foul Lady Fortune” isn’t on any Goodreads lists currently, but it should be on Poison!

Giveaway: “Foul Lady Fortune”

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

Book: “Foul Lady Fortune” by Chloe Gong

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, September 2022

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

Book Description: It’s 1931 in Shanghai, and the stage is set for a new decade of intrigue.

Four years ago, Rosalind Lang was brought back from the brink of death, but the strange experiment that saved her also stopped her from sleeping and aging—and allows her to heal from any wound. In short, Rosalind cannot die. Now, desperate for redemption from her traitorous past, she uses her abilities as an assassin for her country.

Code name: Fortune.

But when the Japanese Imperial Army begins its invasion march, Rosalind’s mission pivots. A series of murders is causing unrest in Shanghai, and the Japanese are under suspicion. Rosalind’s new orders are to infiltrate foreign society and identify the culprits behind the terror plot before more of her people are killed.

To reduce suspicion, however, she must pose as the wife of another Nationalist spy, Orion Hong, and though Rosalind finds Orion’s cavalier attitude and playboy demeanor infuriating, she is willing to work with him for the greater good. But Orion has an agenda of his own, and Rosalind has secrets that she wants to keep buried. As they both attempt to unravel the conspiracy, the two spies soon find that there are deeper and more horrifying layers to this mystery than they ever imagined.

Giveaway Details:

I added this book to my TBR pile some time this spring. To prove just how little I knew about it, not only did I not know that it was a follow-up story to a previously completed duology, but I also didn’t know it had any times to a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet.” The only way I discovered any of this was that while plotting out which booths to check out in the initial rush for books at the ALA convention in June, I mentioned being on the look out for this book and she knew way more about the author and series than me. In fact, she’s read the previous duology. But she assured me that I should be able to pick up the story with this one fine on its own, so I kept it on my list of books to look out for. And, lucky me, Kate came through for the win and found an ARC for me!

So, all of this to say, I know very little about this book other than that it follows the “Rosaline” character from the previous duology where, alas but not shockingly, our romantic duo perished in some tragic manner. And there’s something about her being an assassin? Truly, I know very little. Per the usual, I’ll be posting my review this coming Friday. But for those who are in the know (or just curious newbies like me!), here’s your chance to get your hands on an ARC copy of this book! The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends on September 21.

Enter to win!

Book Club Review: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January”


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Read the full disclosure here.

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 “Book Bingo” where we drew reading challenges commonly found on book bingo cards from a hat and chose a book based on that.  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: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January” by Alix E. Harrow

Publishing Info: Redhook, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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

Book Bingo Prompt: A book with a misleading title

Book Description: In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

Kate’s Thoughts

We’re back to a familiar statement from me during a Book Club post and discussion: I am not really a fantasy reader outside of a few specific exceptions, be it titles (“The Lord of the Rings”; “The Neverending Story”) or sub-genres (dark fantasy). So going into my review of “The Ten Thousand Doors of January”, you need to take all of this with a grain of salt. Maybe a teaspoon or two. I am almost never going to be able to vet a fantasy title super well because as a genre it’s not my bag, baby (a phrase that was tossed around in book club during the discussion).

What I will say about this book that I did like was the way that Harrow incorporated social issues of the time period into the book. We see the struggles of life in Edwardian-era England for not only women, but also women of color within a certain social stature. While January is somewhat shielded from some of this because of her placement with Locke, she is still kept in a gilded cage, and eventually put in an asylum under guise of hysteria when in actuality she is more inconvenient for Locke and his contemporaries when she becomes a perceived threat. And then once she is more outside of Locke’s ‘protection’ (you can’t REALLY call it that), her race is suddenly something she also has to contend with in a more direct and overt fashion. I also liked the way that Harrow addresses aspects of Imperialism and Colonialism through the character of Jane, a woman born in Africa who was being subjected to a missionary school, and eventually finds a door that helps her find freedom. And really, her door, where she encounters a world with a matriarchal cheetah society, was SUPER interesting! But we didn’t really get to see much of that. We didn’t get to see as many doors as I anticipated.

So yeah, I liked the social aspects of this book, as it’s great to see fantasy address these themes. But it’s still fantasy, which just isn’t my genre. So this is very much a ‘your mileage may vary’ situation.

Serena’s Thoughts

Don’t worry fantasy lovers! As the resident fantasy reader, I am happy to step up to vet titles in this genre. And, all told, I found a lot to like in this book. This is definitely one of those fantasy novels that leans heavily on subgenres like historical and literary fiction. While there is definite magic involved in the story and it is surely a portal fantasy, the pacing and overall feel of the book falls more in line with literary fantasy and historical fiction than anything else. As Kate mentioned, the book focuses a lot on the realities of life in this time period for both women and people of color. Even though there are fantastical doorways into different worlds, there is no magic wand to wave away the very real challenges facing many during this time.

The pacing of this book is also on the slower side, spending much more time developing the overall feel of the story and the realities that January is facing. But to balance this slower pace, the story is broken up into two primary stories: one that of January herself, and the second following another young woman born a few decades before January who also found doorways and used them to redirect the pathway laid before her. I really enjoyed the way these two stories came together. I was also surprised by a few twists and turns that were given a long the way. For all the dire circumstances and reality that makes up so much of January’s life, the story includes a hefty dose of hope right when things could begin to feel a bit too bleak.

Overall, I really liked this book. It’s definitely on the slower side and errs towards the lyrical over the action-packed. Like some book club members pointed out, for a book about a thousand doorways between worlds, the story spends most of its time in our old familiar world. But I think that worked for the balance that was being struck between fantasy story and a larger reflection on this period of history and its people.

Kate’s Review 6: It’s fantasy. I liked some of the social themes presented and the small tastes of some of the worlds. But it’s just not my genre.

Serena’s Review 8: A lyrical fantasy novel that makes up for its slower pacing with its lovely character work.

Book Club Questions

  1. What were your thoughts on January as a protagonist of this book? Did you connect with her as a main character?
  2. Did you find it to be a nice change of pace when the book would transition to the Adelaide story arc?
  3. Which side characters did you find the most compelling in this story? Were there any side worlds through the doors you liked reading about?
  4. What were your thoughts on how this book tackled and addressed various social aspects like imperialism, racism, and sexism?
  5. Were there any moments that stood out in particular in this novel?
  6. Who would you recommend this book to?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Ten Thousand Doors of January” is on these Goodreads lists: Portal Fantasy Books and Best Books with a Month in the Title.

Next Book Club Book: “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi

Serena’s Review: “The Last of the Talons”

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Book: “The Last of the Talons” by Sophie Kim

Publishing Info: Entangled: Teen, September 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from ALA convention!

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

Book Description: After the destruction of her entire Talon gang, eighteen-year-old Shin Lina—the Reaper of Sunpo—is forced to become a living, breathing weapon for the kingdom’s most-feared crime lord. All that keeps her from turning on her ruthless master is the life of her beloved little sister hanging in the balance. But the order to steal a priceless tapestry from a Dokkaebi temple incites not only the wrath of a legendary immortal, but the beginning of an unwinnable game…

Suddenly Lina finds herself in the dreamlike realm of the Dokkaebi, her fate in the hands of its cruel and captivating emperor. But she can win her life—if she kills him first.

Now a terrible game of life and death has begun, and even Lina’s swift, precise blade is no match for the magnetic Haneul Rui. Lina will have to use every weapon in her arsenal if she wants to outplay this cunning king and save her sister…all before the final grain of sand leaks out of the hourglass.

Because one way or another, she’ll take Rui’s heart.

Even if it means giving up her own.

Review: So, I mostly grabbed this book at ALA with very little thought other than “oooh, is that a dragon on the cover??” Cuz you all know I’m always down for another dragon book! If I had read the book description more fully I might have been a bit more wary. Let’s just say, me and YA assassins have a bit of a checkered history. Beyond numerous other problems I regular find with this plotline, I’m beginning to question whether the two concepts, “assassin” and “young adult fiction,” aren’t just oxymorons that can never work well together by the very natures of their differences. “Assassin” would lead you to believe that your leading character is pretty morally compromised and things will get bloody. “Young adult fiction,” on the other hand, has at least a passing commitment to keep stories approachable for younger audiences. So….what’s to be done? Let’s see what this book has to say.

Shin Lina had once lived a blessed life, or what she considered one at least. Perhaps most people wouldn’t think making up ones family of gang members and gaining a reputation as the city’s most deadly assassin would count as “blessed,” but to Lina, it was enough. But now that has all been ripped away, and she has been forced to work for the very enemy who massacred this family, all to protect the life of her younger sister. When a job goes bad, however, Lina finds herself at odds with a powerful magical being. But more could be at stake than just her life. Perhaps even her heart.

Well, this book is not the one to disprove the theory I had in my intro paragraph. In fact, it exemplified many of the other factors that I think add to the uncomfortable pairing of assassin characters leading up YA stories. But before we get to that, let’s talk about the positive. If I zoom way, way out, there are the bones of an interesting story here. Unfortunately, any closer look renders these larger strokes pretty unsatisfactory. But the world-building itself had potential, with a fairly intricate political and magical system. And there were some genuinely funny moments with the dialogue, though, admittedly, these were few and far between for me.

However, again, when you dive even shallowly (let alone a deep dive) into how any of this works it begins to get murky. For one thing, because this is YA, Lina is, of course, a teenager herself. And yet, through a series of flashbacks, we see that she only joined the gang and learned her skills to be an assassin when she was an older kid. And then this story starts out several years after the death of everyone in said gang. Soooo, in a period of like 4 years she somehow became the most skilled assassin ever, even more so than the adults who trained her. It’s these time-related things that just really irk me about YA characters who derive their “specialness” through some skillset that is esteemable purely because of the sheer quantity of time and effort needed to excel at it. Not only does it stretch past my ability to suspend disbelief, but it also waters down what makes the skill impressive to begin with, if a regular farm girl can become the absolute best in two years.

Beyond that, we have yet another assassin who doesn’t really kill anyone? I mean, honestly, what’s the point of having a character like that if all we get is a lot of “telling” that they’re some amazing assassin, but no actual evidence of it (both in the actual skills of killing someone or the mental/emotional state of a character who makes a living dealing out death regularly)?

This book adds to the challenge of this particular qualm by the very nature of the main conflict of the story. For absolutely no apparent reason, Rui sets Lina the task of…killing him? In order to spare her life? I’m not going to even get into the weirdness of that situation to begin with and what it says about Rui that this is what he wanted. But it also creates a plotline that sets up our big bad assassin Lina to fail. Obviously, she can’t succeed at killing Rui or it would defeat the entire point of the story. That then leaves us with a character who has been toted as the best assassin ever having to fail again and again to kill someone through the entire book.

I’ll stop venting about this now. But I think the lackluster writing style and very bland leading characters left me with really nothing else to focus on than my annoyances in these areas. I do think there are YA readers who will like this, especially given the popularity of other YA assassin books. But this wasn’t for me. And if you’re looking for anything new in this particular subgenre, I don’t think this is it.

Rating 6: More of the same, with an assassin whose much more talk than action.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last of the Talons” can be found on these Goodreads lists: SF/F Assassins! and 2022 Book Releases by Asian Authors.

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