Serena’s Review: “The Wolf and the Woodsman”

Book: “The Wolf and the Woodsman” by Ava Reid

Publishing Info: Del Rey, June 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. The villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was a Yehuli man, one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. When soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of Woodsmen to claim a pagan girl for the king’s blood sacrifice, Évike is betrayed by her fellow villagers and surrendered.

But when monsters attack the Woodsmen and their captive en route, slaughtering everyone but Évike and the cold, one-eyed captain, they have no choice but to rely on each other. Except he’s no ordinary Woodsman—he’s the disgraced prince, Gáspár Bárány, whose father needs pagan magic to consolidate his power. Gáspár fears that his cruelly zealous brother plans to seize the throne and instigate a violent reign that would damn the pagans and the Yehuli alike. As the son of a reviled foreign queen, Gáspár understands what it’s like to be an outcast, and he and Évike make a tenuous pact to stop his brother.

As their mission takes them from the bitter northern tundra to the smog-choked capital, their mutual loathing slowly turns to affection, bound by a shared history of alienation and oppression. However, trust can easily turn to betrayal, and as Évike reconnects with her estranged father and discovers her own hidden magic, she and Gáspár need to decide whose side they’re on, and what they’re willing to give up for a nation that never cared for them at all.

Review: Apparently summer 2021 was the time for all of the publishers to release books with titles/themes derived from “Red Riding Hood.” This is the first of three, yes THREE, books that have something to do with this story and come out within weeks of each other. It’s pretty crazy! This was the first one I picked up, and it definitely started out this run strong.

Growing up in a remote village made up of women who are persecuted for their powers, Evike has grown up as a point of persecution herself for her own lack of power. The daughter of a mother who died when she was young and a father from a different religion and land, Evike has had no place to call her own. But when she’s sacrificed by her own village to be sent to the capitol city as tribute, she finds an unlikely ally in the crown prince, a young man who understands what it means to grow up with your feet in different worlds. Together, they travel to distant corners of the cold, bitter land, attempting to find a magic powerful enough to protect a country that doesn’t want them from the prince’s fanatical brother.

There were a lot of things to like about this book. Strangely, I think one of the things I most appreciated about it was that while the book description could sound very “YA fantasy” (and don’t get me wrong, I still love YA fantasy), the book itself is definitely an adult fantasy novel. Not only are our main characters in their mid-twenties with the life experiences that come along with that, but the story itself was quite dark and brutal at times. The stakes felt appropriately high, and when things went poorly, they went very poorly.

I also enjoyed the seamless merger of pagan beliefs, fairytales (references to Baba Yaga, the fabled firebird, and, of course, the “Red Riding Hood” bit), and the various religions that make up this world. Evike’s village’s background represent pagan beliefs, a belief that is often more centered around feminine power, thus in this story the magical abilities are limited to the women of the village. Evike’s father is Yehuli, a faith and people that clearly represent Judaism, with parallel examples of the type of systemic persecution Jewish people have experienced throughout history, essentially having no land or home of their own and constantly under suspicion where ever they are. The primary religion doesn’t necessarily line up with any one religion, but it does have the general traits of the pitfalls that can fall upon a country when its people begin to only recognize one faith as valid.

I also really enjoyed how the fairytale elements were woven into the story. The monsters were truly scary, and their connections to the more traditional monsters that we think of in fairytales were done in unique, subtle ways that felt clever and interesting. I will say, however, that a few of the portions of the story that dealt with these disparate creatures or events started to feel a bit disjointed from the overall plot. Like, they were almost small, short stories in their own right. I thoroughly enjoyed them, but you could definitely lift a number of them straight out of the book and not even notice. So your appreciation of them really comes down to how much you’re enjoying the main characters and overall style of writing.

Other than some of these extra pieces of story that didn’t necessarily fit in, my only other criticism comes to some of the mid- to late-game decision making of our two main characters. Each seemed at times bizarrely naïve and willing/unwilling to act at strange moments. Evike makes some sense in that she grew up in such a remote location that her ability to evaluate the stakes and situations of the “outside world” could be questionable. But the prince, also, seemed to make strange decisions at times that didn’t really make much sense.

Overall, however, I still enjoyed these two characters, and I particularly appreciated the slow-burn romance that developed between them. There were no short-cuts that got them over the fact that their experiences of life, while similar in some ways, were still miles apart. The end was also very satisfying in that it neatly wrapped up storylines and left our characters in a situation that was pleasing but not perfect. Again, no easy answers to the realities of this world.

Rating 8: Other than a few quibbles regarding pacing and characterization, I really enjoyed this story!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Wolf and the Woodsman” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Upcoming Fantasy Debuts (2021) and Jewish Inspired SFF.

Find “The Wolf and the Woodsman” at the library using WorldCat!

Monthly Marillier: “Flame of Sevenwaters”

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

Book: “Flame of Sevenwaters” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Roc Hardcover, November 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Maeve, daughter of Lord Sean of Sevenwaters, was badly burned as a child and carries the legacy of that fire in her crippled hands. After ten years she’s returning home, a courageous, forthright woman. But while her body’s scars have healed, her spirit remains fragile, fearing the shadows of her past.
 
Sevenwaters is in turmoil. The fey prince Mac Dara is desperate to see his only son, married to Maeve’s sister, return to the Otherworld. To force Lord Sean’s hand, Mac Dara has caused a party of innocent travelers on the Sevenwaters border to vanish—only to allow their murdered bodies to be found one by one.
 
When Maeve finds a body in a remote part of the woods, she and her brother, Finbar, embark on a journey that could bring about the end of Mac Dara’s reign—or lead to a hideous death. If she is successful, Maeve may open the door to a future she has not dared to believe possible…

Review: After the disappointment that was “Seer of Sevenwaters,” I remember wondering if Marillier should just leave well enough alone and not return again to this series. It was just a dud for me that it even took me a bit to want to pick this one up for the first time when it came out. But thank goodness I did! Not only did Marillier come back strong with this third book in the trilogy, but I think it ended up being my favorite of the three! So I was excited to get to read it again for this re-read, and, not surprisingly, I enjoyed it just as much this second time around.

Though a daughter of Sevenwaters, Maeve has grown up across the sea in the household of her Aunt Liadan and her husband, Bran. There, she learned how to adjust to her new life after suffering terrible burns as a child. With limited mobility, Maeve has found a special connection to the animals around her, especially a magnificent stallion. Eventually, she is called back to Sevenwaters, but she find the house in a state of unrest. The Fae world has crept ever closer, playing dangerous games with travelers through the forest. Soon enough, Maeve, who would like nothing more than to tend to her horse and the two stray dogs she finds in the woods, finds herself getting pulled into a feud that will test her as she’s never been tested before.

There are a few things that made this book stand-out in the last trio in Marillier’s “Sevenwaters” series. First of all, the main character felt refreshingly unique and held her own as an individual among the other leading ladies in this series (some of whom can begin to feel repetitive, with an emphasis on women who enjoy homily tasks but are strong of spirit to the shock of those around them). Maeve’s journey in this book is only the last bit of a path she’s been travelling since before the book starts, and that fact is very felt by the reader. Maeve’s narration focuses a lot on the limitations of the injuries she suffered in a house fire when she was a child. These, of course, include the loss of dexterity in her hands, but also a fear of being pitied by those around her and a lack of trust in her own ability to care for the creatures she loves (her beloved dog was lost in the same fire that burnt her). So much of this book is covering not only the strides that Maeve has already taken to accept and move forward through her struggles, but we also see her confronting her own walls that she has put up to her ongoing recovery. It’s a compelling and new storyline for a heroine in this series.

I also really enjoyed the focus on the animals in Maeve’s life. First, her relationship with the beautiful, but high strung, horse that she travels home to accompany. And secondly with the two dogs that she adopts while living there. The dogs, in particular, are a special relationship and particularly challenging to depict given the layers of feelings that were being worked out on Maeve’s side through these animals. Throughout much of the book, these various animals are the biggest relationships in Maeve’s life and stand in for any other human side characters. So it speaks to Marillier’s strength as a writer that each of the three (horse and two dogs) felt like a fully fleshed out character in its own right.

I also really liked how this book wrapped up the over-arching conflict of this second trilogy. It even did so in a manner that wrapped a few loose ends from the original trilogy, as well. The magical elements were also a bit more creepy in this book, lending a stronger sense of fear and danger to the Otherworld that Maeve eventually has to travel through. Some of the mysteries were, perhaps, a bit easy to spot, but that didn’t make the reveals any less satisfying in the end.

Overall, this was probably either my favorite in the last trilogy or, perhaps, tied with the first one. But it was such a massive improvement on the previous book that I think it often feels like the best in a straight read-through of the trilogy. It’s perhaps the lightest on the romance of the three, but the romantic story that it does have is sweet and works well within the framework of what this story is trying to accomplish. That is, it’s greater focus on Maeve’s own personal journey through reclaiming her life. Fans of the “Sevenwaters” series will surely enjoy this conclusion.

Rating 8: A lovely story of finding your own personal strength with a focus on the beautiful bound to be found between people and their animals.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flame of Sevenwaters” is on these Goodreads lists: Powerful Female Protagonists and Ancient Ireland: Celtic Mythology and Historical Fiction

Find “Flame of Sevenwaters” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.10): The Wake”

Book: “The Sandman (Vol.10): The Wake” by Neil Gaiman, Michael Zulli (Ill.), Jon J. Muth (Ill.), & Charles Vess (Ill).

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1996

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: When a Dream ends, there is only one thing left to do…

THE WAKE

In which the repercussions of the Death of Lord Morpheus are felt, and, in an epilogue, William Shakespeare learns the price of getting what you want.

This is the tenth and final volume of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, described by author Mikal Gilmore in his introduction as “nothing less than a popular culture masterpiece, and a work that is braver, smarter and more meaningful than just about anything “high culture” has produced during the same period.”

Review: When I’m coming to the end of a series that I’ve spent a lot of time with, I almost always feel melancholy. It’s like saying goodbye for a comfortable friend. The interesting thing about “The Sandman (Vol.10): The Wake” is that we have already reached the crux of the ending of the story, and said goodbye to that friend. After all, at the end of “The Kindly Ones” Morpheus, aka Dream, died. For many stories, that would be the end. But Neil Gaiman knows that true closure means that there is a need for a wake. And that is what this final volume gives us: a moment of goodbye, some ruminations on the memories and the people that Dream has left behind, and the promise of moving on. It’s a volume that serves as an epilogue. And it’s beautiful.

Pretty much my entire being during this final re-read. (source)

As mentioned above, the real climax of the story was in the last volume, and now we get to see the fallout in the form of an actual wake for Dream, attended by not only his siblings, his friends, and other dieties, but also by mortals he encountered throughout the series (though they attend through their dreams, of course). I loved the quiet and gentle tone that this story took as we see those who loved Morpheus mourn and come to terms with his death, the most effective being that of Matthew, his messenger Raven, who is now lost without his master and friend. I haven’t really talked about Matthew in this re-read. He’s always around, ready to provide some insight or a sarcastic remark, but I found his journey to process Dream’s death to be the most bittersweet moment in this volume (well, it may be a tie, but more on that later). But his ambivalence ties into the other aspect of this whole plot point, and that is that, since Dream is Endless, and Endless are ideas and concepts, Dream isn’t really gone. Morpheus is. But now Daniel, Lyta’s son, has transformed into a new version of Dream, as the Endless are, well, Endless. As the other siblings say goodbye to Morpheus, they have to contend with meeting their new sibling, and Daniel!Dream (this is how I’m going to refer to him going forward) has to contend with starting over as someone new, even though he has elements of Morpheus still. It all connects back to the conversation that Morpheus and Delirium had with Destruction in “Brief Lives”, and it all ties up so wonderfully because of it. Daniel!Dream continues on, and nothing ever really ends.

There are two more stories in this volume which both serve as epilogues. The one that the book truly ends on has to do with Shakespeare, as earlier in the series we see the creative relationship and connection he has to Morpheus. But the other one, and the one that I think really works better, involves Hob, Morpheus’s immortal friend whom he meets up with at a pub ever century. Hob’s final bow is him with his current girlfriend, going to a Renaissance Festival, looking at how the life that he literally led at one time has now become re-enacted in modern times. It’s so poignant, knowing what he’s been through, what he’s seen, and seeing him meet up with Death and getting confirmation about Morpheus just feels like the right way for this series to end. I loved this story, as it has all the best things about Hob; his grumpiness, his sarcasm, and his deep love and respect for his friend.

I am so happy that we have “The Wake” to process the end of a truly magnificent series. “The Sandman” is so influential, so engaging and ambitious, and it changed comics as we know them. It doesn’t feel a need to go out in a huge and dramatic fashion, and instead opts for something more bittersweet, and it just fits perfectly. I’ll miss Morpheus. and Delirium, and Death. But luckily, I can always go back and start over again.

Rating 9: A lovely, sad, and hopeful ending to a truly remarkable and transformative series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.10): The Wake” is included on the Goodreads lists “Graphic Novels that Rocked My World”, and “Mythic Fiction Comics”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.10): The Wake” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Questland”

Book: “Questland” by Carrie Vaughn

Publishing Info: John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books, June 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Dr. Addie Cox is a literature professor living a happy, if sheltered, life in her ivory tower when Harris Lang, the famously eccentric billionaire tech genius, hires her to guide a mercenary strike team to his island retreat off the northwest coast of the United States. Cox is puzzled by their need for her, until she understands what Lang has built. It’s said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and Lang wanted to prove it. On this distant outpost, he has created an enclave full of fantasy and gaming tropes made real, with magic rings that work via neurotransmitters, invisible cloaks made of nanotech smart fabric, and mythological creatures built from genetic engineering and bionics.

Unfortunately for Lang, the designers and engineers hired to construct his Questland have mutinied. Using an energy field, they’ve cut off any communications and are preventing any approach to the island. Lang must retake control before the U.S. military intervenes. The problem? The mutiny is being led by the project’s chief designer, Dominic Brand, who also happens to be Addie Cox’s ex-boyfriend. It’s up to her to quell the brewing tensions between the tech genius, the armed mercenaries, and her former lover before the island goes up in flames.

Review: This was an impulse read for me based purely on the fact that the description sounded sort of like “Jurassic Park but with magic.” Plus, how often do you get to see a literature professor be the hero of the story? As a literature major myself, not often, I’ll say! The concept altogether seemed just weird enough to work. Unfortunately, for me, it landed a bit flat. Which is the exact opposite of what you want from a story that should be a high octane romp!

Addie’s life, while not particularly thrilling, is stable and predictable. For example, one evening while in her office at work, it is completely predictable to be faced with a student who has not fully thought through their paper idea that sounds suspiciously like an excuse to just play a lot of video games. What is a surprise, however, is to be suddenly whisked away by mysterious players and informed that her unique skillsets have qualified her for a mission. Namely, she’s familiar with stories and an island that has been technically enhanced to play out these stories in real life has gone rogue. Now Addie and a team must venture into the wilds and make contact with Addie’s ex-boyfriend, the brilliant man at the heart of the dysfunctional island.

There were definitely some fun ideas in this book. For fantasy fans, spotting all of the references and similarities to classic fantasy works and tropes made for much of the enjoyment. “Lord of the Rings” got a heavy dose, so that in particular stood out. And the general character beats hit well. Addie is the survivor of a school shooting that left her boyfriend and best friend dead. Her struggles with PTSD have driven her life to a large extent and make her particularly uncomfortable working with the military task force who breach the island alongside her. I really enjoyed watching the mutual respect between these two forces come together, particularly the clear (to the reader, maybe not to Addie) understanding that the military characters had for Addie and how she was tackling a struggle that is so real for many in that field.

Ultimately, however, I struggled to really buy into the scenario at the heart of the book. In many ways, the concept (and goals) are similar to “Ready Player One.” Essentially, the author creates some sort of system that allows for their character and readers to revel in all the best-hits of whatever genre their focusing on. For “Ready Player One,” that was 80s pop culture. For this book, it’s classic fantasy and RPG tropes. However, the concept of the island was hard for me to really buy into. We’re meant to believe it has gone rogue for five months, that a team of military personnel have already died trying to reach it, and that, somehow, this is all still operating in secret and without the knowledge of the government.

From there, the decisions of Addie’s ex-boyfriend and the crew that worked with him were equally hard to understand. Their end goal seemed silly, that somehow cutting off contact to the island would result in them being given control of it from the tech billionaire who owned it and employed them. From a team of people who must be incredibly smart to build the island’s systems in the first place, they seemed remarkably dumb about real-world concepts and consequences. It made it really hard to take them, or their position, seriously.

To be fair, I don’t read a lot of the very small subgenre that is LitRPG. With this book, it seems that the author is attempting to merge that type of storytelling with more classic, and generally approachable, fantasy fare. I’m not sure it’s a success, however. I feel that many LitRPG readers would prefer books that simply went that route more fully, and that classic fantasy readers will struggle to accept the premise as its laid out. If you’re a fan of LitRPG, this might be worth checking out. But it’s a fairly lackluster fantasy novel at its bare bones.

Rating 6: I struggled to believe the basic concept at the heart of the story, and from there, even the best character work wasn’t enough to save it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Questland” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on a list like this Books About Video Games and Virtual Reality.

Find “Questland” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng”

Book: “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng” by K. S. Villoso

Publishing Info: Orbit, May 2021

Book Description: Queen Talyien is finally home, but dangers she never imagined await her in the shadowed halls of her father’s castle.

War is on the horizon. Her son has been stolen from her, her warlords despise her, and across the sea, a cursed prince threatens her nation with invasion in order to win her hand.

Worse yet, her father’s ancient secrets are dangerous enough to bring Jin Sayeng to ruin. Dark magic tears rifts in the sky, preparing to rain down madness, chaos, and the possibility of setting her nation aflame.

Bearing the brunt of the past and uncertain about her future, Talyien will need to decide between fleeing her shadows or embracing them before the whole world becomes an inferno.

Previously Reviewed: “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro” and “The Ikessar Falcon”

Review: This series started out from a fairly noncommittal position for me. I had never heard of the author before, and was, frankly, a bit put off by the series title “Chronicles of the Bitch Queen.” But, on the other hand, I have a very hard time resisting an adult high fantasy story that features a grown woman protagonist. Add to that that she’s a warrior queen. And thankfully, I let my general genre preferences rule the day, because I’ve absolutely adored this entire series. I’ll just spoil the lead here: this was the perfect conclusion to what had been an excellent series up to this point already.

The queen has finally made it home. But what had seemed like such an insurmountable challenge for the last two books was only the beginning. Her nation and its people hang together by only the merest threads. Distrusted and, often, disliked, Talyien must navigate the fraught waters full of suspicious and ruthless lords, ambitious foreign nationals, and her own perilous position as she attempts to save the son who has been stolen away from her. With the few people who remain that she trusts and depend on, Talyien must work to carve out a future for herself and her country.

Bizarrely, sometimes it’s the most hard to write reviews for a series of books where every entry is fantastic. When you’ve already raved about plotting, characters, and world-building in two earlier reviews, what do you say in a third about a book that was equally strong on all of those points?? But I’ll give it a go!

The world-building has always been fantastic in this series. But in many ways, the fantasy elements involved have been sparse and only sprinkled in here and there. We’ve heard a few mentions of dragons and the threat they had posed in times long ago, but no one thinks much about them now other than recognizing fortifications built to resist them, now crumbling with time. So I was very excited to see the dragons themselves begin to play more of a role in this book. I didn’t necessarily need this added level of straight fantasy, but I’m never going to say no to dragons!

I also liked the continued exploration of parenthood and the expectations and burdens set upon each generation from the one that came before it. We’ve seen this play out in Tali’s memories of her father, and here we get an even deeper insight into why the brutal warlord made many of the choices he did. We also see Tali and Rayyel begin to understand that they are now this generation, that their choices will shape the country and will be the bright path or heavy burden set upon not only their son but the generation of children growing up right now. It’s a very human realization and shift, and one that is strange to experience. It’s the high fantasy, grand scale version of a grown child realizing that they’re now responsible for hosting holidays! Much more complex than that, of course, but sometimes these simplest, most relatable feelings are the ones that take hold the strongest. Even when you have dragons!

I was also happy to see more of Thanh, Tali’s beloved son. For most of the series up to this point, mother and son have been separated by an ocean. And while we hear Tali’s frantic thoughts and worries over him, her deep love for him driving all of her choices, we never get to actually see their relationship in person. Not only were the two of them lovely together, but I also enjoyed Thanh as a character in his own right. There was also a shift in Rayyel, Thanh’s estranged father. Up to this point, he had been a fairly villainous character. So I was happy to see more given to his character to soften some of these aspects and make him more sympathetic.

Beyond that, everything I’ve raved about in the first two books remains true here! Tali is an excellent leading lady, flawed but constantly taking action and moving forward with the cards life has dealt her. I enjoyed the way the romantic plot line continued to unfold. And I was very impressed by the way all of the loose ends were tied together in a satisfying way here at the end of the trilogy. Fans of this series will love this thrilling conclusion! And don’t forget to enter our giveaway to win a copy of this book!

Enter the giveaway!

Rating 8: A fantastic end to this trilogy with higher stakes than ever while focusing on themes of parenthood and the burden of responsibility.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng” is a newer title, so it isn’t on that many Goodreads lists. But it is on Fantasy Books Releasing in 2021.

Find “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.2)”

Book: “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.2)” by Sina Grace & Siobhan Keenan (Ill.)

Publishing Info: BOOM! Box, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: NO ONE EVER SAID THAT THE AFTERLIFE WOULD BE THIS WAY! Daphne Walters is loving her new life at Rycroft Manner with her ghostly roommates – but trouble is right around the corner! Rycroft’s got new resident – the musician Zola – and she’s getting close to Daphne…and causing friction amongst the residents! Meanwhile, Daphne and Kristi, best friends since high school, might just be the ones who can’t find their way back to each other. And since trouble comes in threes, Daphne’s former college roommate Michelle threatens to cause trouble for Rycroft….because no one said moving to L.A. would ever be easy! From GLAAD Award-nominated Sina Grace (Iceman) and illustrator Siobhan Keenan (Jem and the Holograms) comes the next chapter in the hit series about friendship, love and living your (after)life to the fullest.

Review: So even though I enjoyed the first volume of the ghostly series “Ghosted in L.A.” by Sina Grace, I managed to completely miss that not only did the next two volumes come out, but they also wrapped up the series. Talk about being totally oblivious. But now is as good a time as any to catch up/complete this quirky series, so I bought the entire run and jumped right into “Volume 2”. You know the old saying.

Something like that. (source)

When we left off in Volume 1, the Rycroft Manor had just been thrown into a few drastic changes. The first was that after Maurice attacked Daphne, Aggi pretty much exorcised him from the premises. The second was that almost immediately a new ghostly resident arrived, a musician named Zola who was famous before her untimely demise. And that’s about right where we pick up. Zola is still coming to terms with her new afterlife, and as she keeps the other ghosts at bay, she and Daphne start to become close. In this arc we see Daphne relating to Zola while also fangirling over her a little bit, and while her friendship with Kristi is starting to really come apart at the seams, she’s starting to fall into another potentially unhealthy relationship with Zola. As a character Zola has a real chip on her shoulder, and as of yet hasn’t really wowed me (and with only one more volume to go I’m not convinced she’s going to get much more interesting, though I’m eager to be proven wrong). On the other ghost topics, Bernard is getting closer to Daphne’s ex Ronnie, and Shirley is starting to want to move on from Rycroft Manor. This was definitely a cool storyline thread, as we got to see a little mythology as to how ghosts function in this world, as well as a hint to a mysterious door in the manor that may be causing issues. Again, we only have one more volume to wrap it up, but I’m more confident in this thread than the Zola one.

What kind of caught me by surprise is that it wasn’t really the ghost stuff that connected with me the most in this volume, but the growing pains aspects of Daphne’s friendship with Kristi, her high school best friend. We knew in Volume 1 that they had a huge fight that stemmed from Daphne choosing to go to school in L.A. instead of staying closer to Kristi. In Volume 2, we see them try to repair their friendship when Kristi comes to visit, but it manages to only make things worse. I felt that Grace perfectly captures the angst and pain that comes with old friendships having to either evolve or die, and seeing it from both Daphne’s and Kristi’s perspectives gives the conflict a bit more grounding. It would have been easy to just make one or the other completely at fault, but given that that isn’t how things work in the real world, I appreciated the nuance that was brought to this side plot. Growing up and apart from those important to you in your youth is hard, and Grace depicted that really well.

And I still really like the artwork. It’s dynamic and vibrant, and it can also shift that vibrancy when it needs to convey something a little sadder, or more distant in the timeline. And I still love the design of the ghosts.

“Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.2)” has set up some questions going into the final volume. I’m sad that we have such a short run with all these characters, but I’m enjoying the ride and am glad that I jumped back into it!

Rating 8: A fun and intriguing continuation of a story about self discovery and ghosts, “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol. 2) is enjoyable and clever.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.2)” isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Comics + Graphic Novels To Read for Halloween”.

Find “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.2)” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Giveaway: “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng”

Book: “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng” by K. S. Villoso

Publishing Info: Orbit, May 2021

Book Description: Queen Talyien is finally home, but dangers she never imagined await her in the shadowed halls of her father’s castle.

War is on the horizon. Her son has been stolen from her, her warlords despise her, and across the sea, a cursed prince threatens her nation with invasion in order to win her hand.

Worse yet, her father’s ancient secrets are dangerous enough to bring Jin Sayeng to ruin. Dark magic tears rifts in the sky, preparing to rain down madness, chaos, and the possibility of setting her nation aflame.

Bearing the brunt of the past and uncertain about her future, Talyien will need to decide between fleeing her shadows or embracing them before the whole world becomes an inferno.

Previously Reviewed: “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro” and “The Ikessar Falcon”

Giveaway Details: I’ve been pleased to be able to host giveaways for the first two books in this series, so I was incredibly excited to receive an extra copy to host another one for this last book in the trilogy. Given the building tension and ever-growing stakes in the story, fans of the series will likely be as eager to get their hands on this last installment as I was.

In many ways, this trilogy reads like the story that I wish “Game of Thrones” had allowed Daenerys to have. Women, especially queens who must make the same incredibly tough calls that kings have had to make for ages, balancing the weight of evils and the sacrifices necessary for the greater good, are just as capable of being as ruthless and driven as men without it indicating some sort of madness. I could rant forever about that particular choice, especially as it plays out in the show. But, thankfully, in Talyien we find a queen truly worth rooting for. She is a warrior and a woman and, simply, a person who is flawed, has insecurities, has made poor choices, but also has an inner strength and drive that sees her rising to the challenges before her.

All three books have, in their own way, seen Talyien’s situation become more and more dire. Queen though she may be, she is still vulnerable to the maneuverings of the men that surround her. Worse, in this book, we see the lingering damage that even a dead man, her own father, can wreak on her life. I’m so excited to see how everything plays out. It feels like there are a bunch of moving pieces and many issues coming in to roost.

I’ll post my full review this coming Friday. But in the meantime, make sure to enter to win a paperback copy of “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng!”

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Serena’s Review: “The Midnight Bargain”


Book: “The Midnight Bargain” by C.L. Polk

Publishing Info: Erewhon, October 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken? 

Review: I requested this one last fall, mostly because I always like historical fantasy novels and because of the simple, but beautiful, cover art. Romance is always a plus too! But here we are in the spring of 2021 before I finally got around to it. Part of that is due to my own poor management of my TBR pile, of course. But my recent enjoyment of “Sorcerer to the Crown,” a title to which this one sounds similar, was really the kick in the pants I needed top finally pick this one up. Unfortunately, that same comparison that spurred my renewed interest is also the thing that ultimately hurt this book for me in the end.

For Beatrice, the life path laid out before her is as set-in-stone as it is unwanted. With a destitute family depending on her, she unhappily looks ahead to a life where she will be forced to give up her magic in order to marry well and restore her family’s prospects. In her efforts to avoid this life, Beatrice pursues a powerful, magical book that will unlock her abilities and make her a Magnus. But as she gets closer and closer to this opportunity, the choices before her become harder and harder. When she meets an intriguing young man, she begins to realize that she will have to lose one of her loves: a beloved husband or her magic.

While I didn’t love this book, there were a few things that stood out to me on the positive side. I thought the integration of the magical system and the Regency world-building was interesting and unique. It was fairly simplistic, but in some ways I think that worked well for this book that was trying to span at least three different genres: fantasy, historical fiction, and romance. And what included was interesting in its own right, with the grimoires and the summoning of spirits at the heart of the fantasy. I also thought the complication of the dangers magic posed to childbearing was an interesting, if a bit heavy-handed, wrinkle to throw in the fold.

However, there were a few too many things that got in the way of my enjoying those aspects of the story too much. Immediately, I struggled with the writing. There is a lot of telling and a distinct lack of showing in the style of the story. And this is especially tedious in the beginning of the story where many bits of information are rather inexpertly dumped on to readers with very little done to obscure this goal. This is a personal preference, of course, but I also found myself becoming increasingly distracted and annoyed by the use of exclamation points in the writing. Not simply in dialogue, but in the actual description of events. It made many of these passages read as juvenile and a bit ridiculous.

I also found the main character fairly unlikable, coming across more annoying than fierce. The love story was also very superficial. It’s pretty much your typical insta-love story, and from there all the “drama” feels artificial and contrived. None of which helps the main character’s likability in the least. The conflict between her (instant) love with the hero, who seemed like obviously a genuinely good guy right from the start, and retaining her magic began to lose its weight fairly early.

The story itself had strange pacing, seeming to drag for long periods in the middle only to pick up again, briefly, towards the end. This wasn’t helped by the fact that, all told, it’s a fairly straight-forward and predictable affair. I struggled quite a bit to maintain interest, which is always a fairly bad sign when I reflect back on my feelings on a book. Overall, I think there are likely better examples of books like this, “Sorcerer to the Crown” (obviously) and also “The Dark Days Club” and its sequels come to mind.

Rating 6: A unique idea falters under poor pacing and a plot that veers to closely to predictable tropes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Midnight Bargain” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantasy of Manners and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Find “The Midnight Bargain” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Black Water Sister”

Book: “Black Water Sister” by Zen Cho

Publishing Info: Ace Books, May 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Jessamyn Teoh is closeted, broke and moving back to Malaysia, a country she left when she was a toddler. So when Jess starts hearing voices, she chalks it up to stress. But there’s only one voice in her head, and it claims to be the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma. In life Ah Ma was a spirit medium, the avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a gang boss who has offended the god–and she’s decided Jess is going to help her do it.

Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny. If she fails, the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.

Review: I was obviously on a bit of a Zen Cho kick recently. In reality, I had requested this one from Edelweiss+ thinking it was part of her “Sorcerer Royal” series. And with that in mind, thought to myself “Oh, shoot! I need to read the second one before this one comes out!” So, off I went to read/review that book. Only to get to this one and discover that this is not, in fact, part of the series and is instead a modern, stand-alone fantasy. Little peak behind the oh, so exciting review process, and my own inability to properly research the books I request!

Sometimes the voices in your head are real. Sure, Jess figured it was just the stress of moving back to a homeland she doesn’t remember, not having two cents to rub together, and feeling locked away from her true self. But when mediums run in your family, there just might be another cause to strange voices. When Jess’s deceased grandmother begins speaking to her about feuds and powerful deities, Jess finds that uncovering her true identity may be much more complicated than she had thought.

First off, props to the cover artist. It’s a beautiful work of art, and it fits the overall feel of the book perfectly. Silly me should really have been able to pick up on the fact that of course this wasn’t in the “Sorcerer Royal” series just based on that, but…yeah, I have no excuses here.

It’s hard to evaluate this book because I was honestly a bit disappointed that it wasn’t part of her historical fantasy series. But that’s on me and not the book. I also don’t typically read a lot of contemporary fantasy. However, the story of a young woman getting tangled up in a feud between gang leaders and a centuries-old deity? Heck yeah! Like Cho’s work in her other series, the magical elements in this book were excellent. I particularly liked the god-like being at the heart, the titular Black Water Sister. I also liked the ghosts and how they were described/used in the story.

However, the characters and writing, two aspects of Cho’s “Sorcerer” series that I found particularly compelling, were less strong here. The tone and style used in that series, the type of “historical” writing that you see in Jane Austen novels and other books of that time, is incredibly challenging. It relies on long, drawn-out sentences and an extensive vocabulary. It’s hard to master, but Cho excelled. So, here, with the much more straight-forward style of writing found in any old contemporary book…it all kind of just fell flat. There were a few lines of dialogue that were witty and clever, but the descriptions, actions, general prose didn’t really stand out or capture me in any way.

I also had a really hard time liking Jess herself. There’s a reason I don’t typically read contemporary books. I’m not very interested in family dramas or the coming-of-age stories you often find in these types of stories. Jess is definitely going through one of these “needs to find herself” moments, and I really struggled to care. As a character, she didn’t feel very distinct or unique, and any actions she took were often forced upon her. Her relationship with her secret girlfriend flounders because of this very thing: Jess’s inability to take action in her own life and come out to her parents. That on its own is understandable, as it’s a very tough thing for those in the LGBT community. But when it is just one example of an ongoing, central trait for the main character in this book? It made for some dull reading.

In the end, this book wasn’t really my thing. Fans of contemporary fantasy will likely enjoy it more. The real strength to be found here was in Cho’s descriptions of Malaysia, and Jess’s experiences returning to a homeland she didn’t recognize. But the characters and writing felt a bit flat. Those looking for a book that is similar to Cho’s “Sorcerer” series should be warned that that is definitely not what’s in store here. Take it or leave it as to whether that’s a good thing for you or not!

Rating 6: An interesting look into Malaysia with a unique fantasy overlay, but the main character was too frustrating for me to fully enjoy this read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Black Water Sister” can be found on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Books by Women of Color and 2021 Queer SFF.

Find “Black Water Sister” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s review: “The True Queen”

Book: “The True Queen” by Zen Cho

Publishing Info: Ace, March 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: When sisters Muna and Sakti wake up on the peaceful beach of the island of Janda Baik, they can’t remember anything, except that they are bound as only sisters can be. They have been cursed by an unknown enchanter, and slowly Sakti starts to fade away. The only hope of saving her is to go to distant Britain, where the Sorceress Royal has established an academy to train women in magic.

If Muna is to save her sister, she must learn to navigate high society, and trick the English magicians into believing she is a magical prodigy. As she’s drawn into their intrigues, she must uncover the secrets of her past, and journey into a world with more magic than she had ever dreamed. 

Previously Reviewed: “Sorcerer to the Crown”

Review: Kate and I both read “Sorcerer to the Crown” for bookclub a few months ago. It had been my pick, a book that had been sitting on my shelf inexplicably unread for years. Boy could I have kicked myself for that after getting through with it! I loved the fantasy of manners feel of the book, and the main characters were incredibly compelling. I also liked how the book tackled complicated issues surrounding race, identity, and sexism all within a book that, overall, still felt light0hearted and fun. With all that to recommend it, I was fully committed to continuing on with the series as soon as possible. And, while I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much of as the first, I still had a blast reading this second entry.

Muna and her sister Sakti wake up on a beach with no memory of who they are or where they came from. They know they are sisters, but nothing else. Muna is satisfied to lead a quiet life, but when Sakti begins to succumb to a curse that sees her slowly disappearing, Muna must venture forth to save her sister. But with no magic to her name, Muna’s task is a perilous one. In a foreign country, and with the aide of the powerful Sorcerer to the Crown, Prunella, Muna must convince everyone that she is in fact a powerful magical force in her own right. Soon, she is more steeped in magic and magical beings than she ever would have wished. But to save her sister, Muna will brave most anything.

One of the main things that still stands out to me when now reading this second book by Cho is the perfect marriage of old-fashioned-style writing and unique, fantasy elements. If there weren’t dragons and talk of the land of Fae in every other sentence, it would be easy to imagine one is simply reading a good Jane Austen novel or any other historical fiction story written in that time. Now, the mileage of that style of writing really varies from reader to reader as, indeed, it’s a style that lends itself towards long, drawn out sentences. But I love this type of verbose writing, so this kind of book is right up my alley.

10 Most Unforgettable JUSTIFIED Quotes | Movie TV Tech Geeks News
Regency authors and Boyd Crowder apparently have a lot in common.

I was also pleased to see that while Muna has the majority of the POV chapters, we also returned to Prunella as well. In fact, the contrast between the two almost made each stronger. Prunella was still her confident, action-oriented self. However, Muna was a much more reserved character. From the start, she is only pushed into this adventure in a desire to save her sister. For herself, she would have been happy with a quiet life, only faintly disturbed by her missing memories. She was an excellent foil to Prunella, and, while the two faced similar barriers to their roles in society (as women, and, worse, women with magical abilities), we see how Muna is affected by these forces and reacts differently than Prunella.

I also enjoyed the additional layers that were added to the fantasy elements in this story. Most especially, I enjoyed the deeper look into the world of Fae itself, with its strange habits and fearsome (and sometimes very funny!) cast of characters. It was also interesting seeing how various nations understood this magical world, and the different ways they approached their relationship with this powerful place and its people.

Once again, the book also delved into some social aspects and themes that aren’t often found in a historical work like this. I’m not quite sure if this was as successful as the first book was, however. The romance between the two women, for one things, feels very out of the blue and tacked on at the very end. It is definitely possible to read this as a building romance between the two the entire time, but when one character is in a straight relationship for almost the entire book only to suddenly switch at the end…it’s just not very deftly handled.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It contained much of what I enjoyed from the first book, and Muna was a fantastic new main character. I’m still very intrigued by this world and would love to re-visit it whenever Cho chooses! Fans of the first book should definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: A smart, Regency fantasy that continues to build on the excellent foundation of social commentary that the first book established.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The True Queen” is on these Goodreads lists: LGBT Scifi and Fantasy 2015-2020 and Asian Adult Fiction 2018.

Find “The True Queen” at your library using WorldCat!