Serena’s Review: “The Thorns Remain”

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Book: “The Thorns Remain” by J.J.A. Harwood

Publishing Info: Magpie, May 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

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

Book Description: A dance with the fae will change everything

1919. In a highland village forgotten by the world, harvest season is over and the young who remain after war and flu have ravaged the village will soon head south to make something of themselves.

Moira Jean and her friends head to the forest for a last night of laughter before parting ways. Moira Jean is being left behind. She had plans to leave once – but her lover died in France and with him, her future. The friends light a fire, sing and dance. But with every twirl about the flames, strange new dancers thread between them, music streaming from the trees.

The fae are here.

Suddenly Moira Jean finds herself all alone, her friends spirited away. The iron medal of her lost love, pinned to her dress, protected her from magic.

For the Fae feel forgotten too. Lead by the darkly handsome Lord of the Fae, they are out to make themselves known once more. Moira Jean must enter into a bargain with the Lord to save her friends – and fast, for the longer one spends with the Fae, the less like themselves they are upon return. If Moira Jean cannot save her friends before Beltine, they will be lost forever…

Completely bewitching, threaded with Highland charm and sparkling with dark romance, this is a fairytale that will carry you away.

Review: Here’s another example of cover lust! But I was also drawn in by the fact that I’ve been on a bit of a good run with Fae/Faerie books in the last few months. I gave high ratings to both “The Fairy Bargains of Prospect Hill”  and “Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries”. I was also particularly intrigued by the description of this one and its inclusion of dancing with the Fae. It’s a pretty well-established piece of fairy lore (I’ve always loved the “Seven Dancing Sisters” fairytale especially!) and it can swing either romantic or highly dangerous. With hints at powerfully dark Fae and bargains, I have to guess this one might swing towards the latter. Either way, count me in!

Moira Jean and her friends have always know there was future was to depart their small village and make lives for themselves out in the greater world. As young women, this departure and future would largely be tied to their marriages. But when Moira Jean’s beloved dies in the war, her world is rocked and her future torn to shreds. When her friends go out into the forest to dance and celebrate one last time before they leave home, Moira Jean joins them. There, they are joined in their dancing by the wild and dangerous Fae and one by one, Moira Jean’s friends are stolen away. Now it up to her to rescue them, entering into dangerous bargains with Lord of the Fae who is as mysterious as he is beguiling.

So this book both was and wasn’t what I was expecting. It’s always interesting to see the balance that different authors take with their Fae, some leaning towards the more human and romantic versions, while others delve deeper into the cruelty and danger the Fae represent. This book neatly presents both options, and I think this was probably the biggest strength of the book. There is a romantic plotline, but we are never allowed to forget that the Lord of the Fae is distinctly not human. Furthermore, many aspects of the relationship that Moira Jean develops with him is comprised of supremely unhealthy dynamics, and much of the story is Moira Jean confronting these realities. This is also tied into Moira Jean’s overall arch, one that sees her struggling to define herself and her life outside of the rather co-dependent relationships she has traditionally relied upon.

That said, I struggled with the end of this book. On one hand, I liked the resolution to the romance and how that was handled. But there were many questions left unanswered about just how these actions worked within the larger Fae world and rules that we had been presented with. Further, the manner in which Moira Jean escapes her situation undercut her agency. I wish she had been more actively involved in solving her problems, and I think this would have been the button that was missing on her character arc. The pacing was also a bit all over the place. The ending, especially, felt rushed and thus a bit anti-climatic.

As a character, Moira Jean was enjoyable when she was spunky and active. But there were also times that she read as very annoying and those were the times that it became hard to understand what a powerful Fae lord would see in her. Kind of like the pacing and the world-building, there was such a mix of good and bad elements that I was often left feeling off-kilter and struggling to connect to the story. I think there were a lot of good ideas here, it just didn’t feel like everything came together the way one would want. If you’re a big fan of Fae stories that focus on the darker element of these magical beings, than this book is probably worth checking out. But I do think there are more complete versions of a similar story to be found.

Rating 7: A bit of a frustrating read as I really enjoyed it at times and then, conversely, struggled at others.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Thorns Remain” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Books like Hozier songs and Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2023

Year of Sanderson: “The Hero of Ages”

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“Year of Sanderson” is an on-going, monthly series that will post on the last Friday of each month in which I will cover various Brandon Sanderson-related things. This will largely be comprised of book reviews (some from his back catalog and some from the books being released this year), as well as assorted other topics like reviews of the items in the swag boxes that will be coming out as part of Sanderson’s Kickstarted campaign. Frankly, we’ll just have to see what we get from this series, very much like the Kickstarter itself!

Book: “The Hero of Ages” by Brandon Sanderson

Publishing Info: Tor Fantasy, October 2009

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

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

Book Description: Who is the Hero of Ages?

To end the Final Empire and restore freedom, Vin killed the Lord Ruler. But as a result, the Deepness—the lethal form of the ubiquitous mists—is back, along with increasingly heavy ashfalls and ever more powerful earthquakes. Humanity appears to be doomed.

Having escaped death at the climax of The Well of Ascension only by becoming a Mistborn himself, Emperor Elend Venture hopes to find clues left behind by the Lord Ruler that will allow him to save the world. Vin is consumed with guilt at having been tricked into releasing the mystic force known as Ruin from the Well. Ruin wants to end the world, and its near omniscience and ability to warp reality make stopping it seem impossible. Vin can’t even discuss it with Elend lest Ruin learn their plans!

Previously Reviewed: “Mistborn” and “The Well of Ascension”

Review: Here we are, the last book in Sanderson’s first Mistborn trilogy! And this is very much where the proof was in the pudding as far as his future as a rock star fantasy author goes! It’s one thing to write a great started to a series. Another to not get caught up in the sophomore slump of the second novel. But it’s an entirely different beast to tackle an ending. And boy oh boy, what an ending it is!

Things are not looking up for Vin and Elend. Yes, Elend evaded death by becoming a Mistborn himself, but balancing his duties as leader with learning to master the powerful abilities now at his hands is more than most can accomplish. For her part, Vin is grappling with the world-changing results of her actions after she accidentally released Ruin, an almost all-powerful destructive force, back into the world. Now, with the very world around them turning against them, Vin and Elend must fight once again not just for the freedom of their people, but for their very survival.

What can I saw about this book that hasn’t been said a million times before and isn’t just me reduced to incoherent gushing?? I mean, simply put, it’s an excellent book and a fantastic finisher for the trilogy as a whole. It is the conclusion of large character arcs for both Vin and Elend which has seen each character grow from fairly simple beginnings to the very complex beings we see here. As the challenges they face have grown more complicated, so, too, do we see Elend and Vin grapple with decisions that seemingly have no “good” answer. Vin, in particular, a being who is almost all-powerful in her own way, must learn navigate the complicated fall-out of the decisions she made in the previous book. And, for his part, Elend, now granted the abilities that Vin wields so masterfully, must face where his strengths and Vin’s differ.

In many ways, this book has a much darker, more grim overall tone. The world is literally falling apart around our cast and crew, and, like I mentioned above, the decisions they are facing have no easy answers. That said, these dire circumstances are prime ground for more world-building and the exploration of this planet’s complicated history. There is one particular reveal that comes over the course of this trilogy that is truly impressive. In fact, there are so many reveals about how certain beings and magic systems work that come to light in this last book that it is proving fairly hard to review it! Suffice to say, one of the true joys of reading this book is seeing how it weaves together loose threads (and even things that the reader didn’t know was a threat at all!) from the previous two books.

I also think that Sanderson nails the end of this book. Almost all of the characters ended up in situations that were completely different than what I had expected going in. The stakes are high and the end result is appropriately bittersweet. This story is also fairly action packed from start to finish, as can only be expected in a plot focused on preventing the literal destruction of an entire people and world! In a similar vein as the “threads you didn’t know where threads” aspect of the first two books, this book lays out very subtle hints about Sanderson’s larger Cosmere universe as a whole that pay off nicely for fan who go on to read his other works.

Rating 9: An excellent conclusion to the trilogy and proof that Brandon Sanderson has all the goods, from start to finish!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hero of Ages” is on these Goodreads lists: Most Interesting Magic System and Best Heroine in a Fantasy Book.

Serena’s Review: “Witch King”

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Book: “Witch King” by Martha Wells

Publishing Info: Tor, May 2023

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

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

Book Description: “I didn’t know you were a… demon.”
“You idiot. I’m the demon.”
Kai’s having a long day in Martha Wells’ Witch King….

After being murdered, his consciousness dormant and unaware of the passing of time while confined in an elaborate water trap, Kai wakes to find a lesser mage attempting to harness Kai’s magic to his own advantage. That was never going to go well.

But why was Kai imprisoned in the first place? What has changed in the world since his assassination? And why does the Rising World Coalition appear to be growing in influence?

Kai will need to pull his allies close and draw on all his pain magic if he is to answer even the least of these questions.

Review: While I’m not up-to-date with Martha Well’s current, very popular “Murderbot” series, I am a big fan of her in general. I read all of her “Books of Raksura” series a decade or so ago, for example. As with many SFF authors, it can become quite intimating to start up on a long-running series, regardless of how much one likes the author in general. So when I saw that she was releasing a stand-alone fantasy novel, I jumped on the opportunity to get back to reading her work. Let’s dive in!

After awakening from his own murder, Kai is fairly disturbed. As a demon, changing bodies is not pleasant, but it is manageable. What’s more worrying is the loss of time and the changing political movements of the world at large. With generations of lives making up his own long life-span, Kai is dependent on the few allies he has who have also experienced both his past and his present. But now they, too, are missing, and Kai is desperate not only to find them but to uphold a promise made long ago.

Brandon Sanderson is indisputably the current master of fantasy world-building. But I think what is not acknowledged is Martha Wells’ dynasty as a master of original character work. Not only are all of her characters enfolded in complex, layered arcs in each of their books, but she also has a real skill at writing non-human protagonists that, none the less, reflect very human challenges, joys, and sorrows but through very unique angles. The “Murderbot” series is an obvious example, but the series I read about a decade ago also featured an entire world “peopled” by alien creatures without a humanoid in sight (that I remember at least). And here, in this book, Wells is back at it, presenting us not only with Kai, a demon, but with an entire society built up around various peoples, many humanoid but not quite human either.

But, of course, Kai is our main character. And while some of the typical lore around demons is touched on, it is clear early on that Kai is not the sort of demon we are familiar with. Instead, his kind have formed a symbiotic pact with a group of human people where both societies benefit from the intermingling of their kind. But, through a series of flashbacks seen throughout the book, a powerful and ruthless new group of magic users began a marching conquest of the known world that resulted in the decimation not only of demon kind but also of the many peoples who make up this world.

The use of these flashbacks was incredibly effective, though I will say they highlight another crucial aspect of Wells’ writing style. She’s definitely of those high fantasy authors who creates incredibly complex and nuanced worlds and just plops her readers down right in the middle of the action. You basically have to be comfortably not understanding everything you’re currently reading on the page. Instead, the joy is found in trusting that understanding will come, and it will come in a very specifically constructed and directed manner laid out by the author. In this book, as the story is about a being who has lived for generations, these flashbacks do a lot of work to really set up the stakes of the current situation. Not only the history behind the current political upheaval, but also the relationships Kai has formed with his small band of allies, all of whom we slowly meet throughout the story.

The writing and plotting is also incredibly tight. There were moments when I was laughing out loud at the dialogue and Kai’s distinctly unhuman manner of looking at the world. But then there would be heart-wrenching scenes that perfectly highlighted that while not all of these characters are human, they still experience the same sense of love and betrayal, hope and despair. The pace was steady and even throughout the story, and I enjoyed the themes of found family, trust, and the struggle of individual cultures and peoples when facing a powerful enemy. Overall, I can’t recommend this book enough to SFF readers. It’s definitely not an “entry level” story, but if you’re a fantasy fan who enjoys slowly building an understanding of a world and story, than this is the perfect book for you!

Rating 10: A sprawling world and history to explore alongside the best grumpy, snark demon I can imagine!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Witch King” can be found on this Goodreads list: Can’t Wait Books of 2023

Serena’s Review: “Atalanta”

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Book: “Atalanta” by Jennifer Saint

Publishing Info: May 2023, Flatiron Books

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

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

Book Description: Princess, Warrior, Lover, Hero

When Princess Atalanta is born, a daughter rather than the son her parents hoped for, she is left on a mountainside to die. But even then, she is a survivor. Raised by a mother bear under the protective eye of the goddess Artemis, Atalanta grows up wild and free, with just one condition: if she marries, Artemis warns, it will be her undoing.

Although she loves her beautiful forest home, Atalanta yearns for adventure. When Artemis offers her the chance to fight in her name alongside the Argonauts, the fiercest band of warriors the world has ever seen, Atalanta seizes it. The Argonauts’ quest for the Golden Fleece is filled with impossible challenges, but Atalanta proves herself equal to the men she fights alongside. As she is swept into a passionate affair, in defiance of Artemis’s warning, she begins to question the goddess’s true intentions. Can Atalanta carve out her own legendary place in a world of men, while staying true to her heart?

Full of joy, passion, and adventure, Atalanta is the story of a woman who refuses to be contained. Jennifer Saint places Atalanta in the pantheon of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology, where she belongs.

Review: While nothing has quite reached the high that was “Circe” when we read that for bookclub last year, I’m still feeling fairly positive about Greek retellings as a whole. There are just so many great female characters in that pantheon and collection of stories that are only mentioned briefly but who hint at fascinating, untold histories. Such is the case with Atalanta, a character who is only briefly mentioned as a member of the Argonauts and then has some brief adventures as a runner until, predictably, she’s tricked by a man into marriage and they both suffer tragedy at the hands of the gods. So…there’s a lot of small mentions, but not much of an overall arch. All of this to say, I was incredibly excited to see that Jennifer Saint was giving this powerful woman a story all of her own!

Left for dead on the side of a mountain as an infant, Atalanta’s life seemed destined to be short and cruel. But instead, the goddess Artemis takes her under her wing, raising her to become a powerful huntress. As a grown woman, Atalanta begins to long to test her skills in a human world that she has only ever seen from a distance. So when Artemis tasks her to join the heroic quest of Jason and his Argonauts, Atalanta is eager to join the adventure and bring glory to her goddess. As she journeys, she begins to understand that what makes a hero may be very different than what she had previously suspected. And that, as women, she and the other women she meets bring their own form of power in a world that often sees them shunted to the side.

So, I won’t skate around the main point: I loved this book! As I said, it’s been fairly hit and miss for me with these retellings from the perspectives of lesser known female characters from various pantheons. And when we read “The Witch’s Heart” for bookclub, it began to highlight one of the things I was starting to struggle with. While “Circe” was a powerful look at womanhood and motherhood, after reading a few other similar titles, I began to feel like they were all telling similar versions of these women’s experiences. And, yes, these are important insights into the challenges, joys, and sorrows of the life of these women. But, as with any good thing, too much of one version of any character can begin to feel reductive. So, into this landscape, Atalanta arrived like a breath of fresh air.

In Atalanta, we find a powerful woman who never questions her own value, even when faced with the doubters of the world. She remains confident in her abilities and is determined to gain glory for her goddess, not to just prove men wrong, but because it is simple what she desires to do. Atalanta joins a crew of men and sets out to live a life just as unrestrained as those around her, unwilling to be limited by false chains that others would place upon her based on her sex. I loved the fact that the author forego the tendency to force her powerful female character to suffer an onslaught of self-doubt in the face of ugliness from the world.

Not only was she an excellent character in all of these ways, but as the story progresses and the adventures take us through the lives of other Greek female characters, Atalanta provides a running commentary on the way these women’s lives are shaped by the men around them. And while poignant, the book never feels preachy about any of these points.

I also really appreciated the way this book dealt with the romance and motherhood aspects of Atalanta’s story. Here, the book really makes a name for itself as different than the other books in this genre that I have read. There are two romances in this story, and I very much appreciated the different ways that Atalanta experienced these relationships. They both do important work to further highlight Atalanta’s story as a human’s story, not just a woman’s. She, too, like the men around her, can enjoy a romance without wishing to tie her life to another. But then her experiences of pregnancy do focus in on the way that the biological reality of women is very different. However, again, I enjoyed this different experience of motherhood. Here we have a woman who never wished to have a child, who is not swept away by a magical sense of attachment when her baby arrives. Instead, she feels responsibility and duty to do best by this child, but recognizes that the best life for both her son and herself may be one apart from one another. I really liked this different approach, and it felt true to the character we had been reading about up to this point.

The last part of the book is devoted to the famous race that Atalanta takes part in. Here, too, I liked the subtle changes the author made to not reduce Atalanta’s agency in her own story. I also really liked the way the end of the story was dealt with, providing a unique, and, again, true-feeling conclusion to this heroic woman’s tale. I will say, however, that the last quarter of the story did feel a bit rushed. Overall, if I had one qualm about the book, it would be the pacing. In some ways, the story feels very much like it is ticking away at the bullet point references to Atalanta that we have from the original stories. But, again, I enjoyed this character and the highlighted experiences of the various women included too much to have many complaints about pacing and a rushed ending. This is a must-read for any fans of fantasy stories like “Circe” that feature strong, female characters.

Rating 9: Powerful and sure-handed, Jennifer Saint brings to life a new hero, a woman who knows her value and will not let any man shunt her to the side.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Atalanta” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Feminist Retellings Of Greek Myths and Historical Fiction – Greece.

Serena’s Review: “A Crown of Ivy and Glass”

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Book: “A Crown of Ivy and Glass” by Claire Legrand

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Casablanca, May 2023

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

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

Book Description: Lady Gemma Ashbourne seemingly has it all. She’s young, gorgeous, and rich. Her family was Anointed by the gods, blessed with incredible abilities. But underneath her glittering façade, Gemma is deeply sad. Years ago, her sister Mara was taken to the Middlemist to guard against treacherous magic. Her mother abandoned the family. Her father and eldest sister, Farrin—embroiled in a deadly blood feud with the mysterious Bask family—often forget Gemma exists.

Worst of all, Gemma is the only Ashbourne to possess no magic. Instead, her body fights it like poison. Constantly ill, aching with loneliness, Gemma craves love and yearns to belong.

Then she meets the devastatingly handsome Talan d’Astier. His family destroyed themselves, seduced by a demon, and Talan, the only survivor, is determined to redeem their honor. Intrigued and enchanted, Gemma proposes a bargain: She’ll help Talan navigate high society if he helps her destroy the Basks. According to popular legend, a demon called The Man With the Three-Eyed Crown is behind the families’ blood feud—slay the demon, end the feud.

But attacks on the Middlemist are increasing. The plot against the Basks quickly spirals out of control. And something immense and terrifying is awakening in Gemma, drawing her inexorably toward Talan and an all-consuming passion that could destroy her—or show her the true strength of her power at last.

Review: First off, thanks so much to Sourcebooks Casablanca for sending me an ARC of this book! I was so excited when I received it in the mail, as it’s been sitting pretty high on my wishlist of books to read in 2023. I wasn’t Legrand’s most ardent fan with her YA trilogy (I found that it began to fall into a few too many YA fantasy tropes for my preference), but there was never any question regarding her overall skill as an author. Her writing always came across as supremely confident and competent. That made me all the more excited to check out her first foray into adult fantasy, especially adult fantasy romance! Let’s dive in!

Gemma has grown up with a very priveleged existence: rich, beautiful, and a member of one of the most powerful families in the land. But, at the same time, Gemma has always felt herself to be on the outside looking in. Not only does she not possess any of the magical talent that her family is known for, and that both of her older sisters excel at in their own ways, but magic actively hurts Gemma, causing her to move through life in a very magical world experiencing constant levels of pain. When Gemma meets Talan, a young man who also feels that he exists outside the strictures of society, she finally begins to see a way forward, teaming up with him to hunt a powerful demon who may be the answer to her struggles with magic. But along the way, she begins to suspect that there is much more going on with Talan and the larger world as a whole.

So, I’ll be honest, I’ve had this post started for a few weeks now and every time I pull it up to actually write my review, I become super intimidated and find excuses to do other things. Mostly this is because I’m still not quite sure how I feel about this book! I have some extremely opposing feelings about almost every part of it. But one thing I think I can confidently start with is one of the things I referred to in my introduction: this author knows how to write. I immediately felt drawn into this world and these characters. As the story progressed, the magic and world itself felt as if it was unrolling before me, presenting more and more insights into the world-building that was on a much more grandiose scale than I had originally thought. Regardless of anything else in this review, the appeal of Legrand’s prose is enough to keep me reading this trilogy going forward.

But where my opinions become more divided is with the characters and the pacing of this story. Let’s start with the pacing and plotting. This book was blurbed as “Bridgerton meets ACOTAR.” Maybe I should have know right from there that I would be conflicted about this book! I mean, I really enjoy Bridgerton and I absolutely loathe ACOTAR. And I can confirm that both of those references feel very on point and accurate to what you’ll get if you pick up this book. I’ll even go as far as to say that the ACOTAR aspects were by no means as frustrating to me as ACOTAR itself. Indeed, I very much liked these parts of the story! No, the problem came in a very unique way. The book almost literally feels as if it has been split down the middle by these two comparisons. The first half is Bridgerton, with fantastical balls, social hierarchies, fancy gowns, and romance. And then, boom! The second half hits and we’re full on ACOTAR with magical barriers and fantasy creatures and magical systems. And, again, I enjoyed this half too! The problem is that, overall, it left the book feeling very disjointed and created a jarring reading experience. I was all down for the regency fantasy, and then it was like a bait and switch to suddenly be dropped down into a much more “traditional” fantasy setting. And due to the fact that much of the plot really takes place in the second half, I was left feeling as if the book could have been edited down quite a bit from the Bridgerton stuff of the beginning, as much as I liked it on its own.

Now, to the characters. First, I think that Legrand did an excellent job of portraying the experiences and life of someone who lives with chronic pain. Gemma is very straight-forward with her struggles while also never becoming self-pitying. She is frustrated with her limitations, while also not belittling herself. I also really like the way this aspect of her character plays out over the entire arc of the book. Unfortunately, that was about all I liked about Gemma. I get that the author was very intentionally writing this character as rather frivolous and selfish; indeed, Gemma herself comments on these aspects of her personality. And I think the book used these traits to also do a great job of diving into self-loathing and self-harm. But over the course of the book, while Gemma does experience growth, I still struggled to really like her or feel invested in her story.

But, here comes the other side of the character issue: I REALLY liked both of her sisters. Honestly, fairly quickly into the book I realized that I was mostly reading on for the glimpses we get of these two and trying to piece together the stories we’ll get from them. I was even more invested into the glimpses of what I can only guess will be the central romance for one of the sisters than I was in Gemma’s own romance. There, too, I struggled with Gemma’s story. Talan felt very one-note when he was first introduced. And then as he went on, he had a few scenes that made him incredibly unlikable. The story does go on to make this a fairly central part of the plot, but it’s hard to recover from on the romance front when the author sets the reader on a path of questioning and disliking the romantic hero from the very start.

So, overall, this was a very mixed bag for me. I think, in the end, I didn’t end up loving this book. But, BUT!, on the other hand, I’m supremely invested in the next book in this series and can’t wait to get my hands on it! Given the nature of my complaints with this book, they all feel of the very specific sort that won’t be a problem in the books going forward. Both sisters seem like much more interesting characters than Gemma. The romantic interest/plot for one of them is already laid out and is incredibly appealing. And I think the world-building is now established enough that we won’t have the same plotting/pacing issue going forward where the tone is unclear between Bridgerton or ACOTAR. So, all of this to say, while I did struggle with this book, I do recommend it for fantasy romance readers based on my faith that the trilogy will turn out to be well worth it as a whole.

Rating 7: A very mixed bag for this book specifically, but I was definitely sold on the concept and anxiously await the next entry in the trilogy!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Crown of Ivy and Glass” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Novels with “Crown” in the Title and Epic High Fantasy/Romance/Mythology in 2023.

Serena’s Review: “Beauty Reborn”

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

Book: “Beauty Reborn” by Elizabeth Lowham

Publishing Info: Shadow Mountain Publishing, May 2023

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

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

Book Description: Beauty’s life is the stuff of fairy tales. The youngest in her family, Beauty isn’t trying to catch Stephan’s eye. He is the lord baron’s heir, well above her family’s modest station, but when he kisses her hand at a party, Beauty is swept away by his charm, his wit, and his passionate declarations of love.

Hearts can be untamable creatures, especially when touched by the fires of first love, and Beauty doesn’t see the truth of Stephan’s intentions until it is too late. Until he stops asking for Beauty’s love—and simply takes it from her one night despite her refusal.

Beauty locks away the secret of what happened to her, and when her father emerges from the enchanted forest with a stolen rose in his hand and the tale of a vicious beast on his breath, Beauty seizes the chance to run as far from Stephan as possible.

She has some experience with beasts, after all. Certainly the one in the forest couldn’t be any worse than the one she’s already encountered.

Breaking the Beast’s curse might be the key to discovering her own path to healing—and finding the courage to allow herself to feel reborn.

Review: First of all, thank you so much to Shadow Mountain Publishing for sending me an ARC of this book! This was definitely one those cover lust situations when it came to my initial interest. I’m on the record as not necessarily loving covers with models or people, but I think this one is dramatic and lovely in all the best ways. It instantly conveys the general tone of the book and immediately draws the eye of the type of reader who I think will likely be interested in this one. When I read on to discover this was a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, requesting it became a no-brainer!

Beauty’s first experiences with “love” left her traumatized and untrusting. So when her family’s destitution forces them to move from the city to a smaller house in the country, Beauty is relieved to escape the man of her nightmares. And when her father returns from the forest one night raving about a monster, Beauty sees an opportunity to make some use from the tatters that is her current life. But when she arrives at the magical castle and encounters this beastly being, Beauty begins to understand that we are more than the marks that life has left upon us. And that perhaps love can still be in her future.

While this book wasn’t a hit for me, I always want to start with the strengths. One thing that stood out right away was the general readability of the style of writing. The story was very approachable and I think the style of storytelling will appeal to a lot of readers. The use of flashbacks also keeps the pacing zipping along, allowing to Beauty to arrive at the castle and meet the Beast quite quickly. It’s a short book, as well, so this is definitely the kind of fast-moving read that will appeal to fairytale fantasy lovers who want something they can finish over a weekend.

I also liked the general premise of the book, that in many ways Beauty chose to go to the castle as a way of dealing with her own trauma. In theory, she was given a fairly solid arch of her own that she could develop while also falling in love with the Beast and undoing his curse. Unfortunately, this book really struggled to portray either the Beast or Beauty as nuanced, fully realized characters. Beauty’s narration and story felt oddly flat, never giving me anything unique or interesting to really latch on to. Many other authors have played on the starkness of the name “Beauty” to highlight how their version of the heroine is so much more than just a pretty face. Alas, here, this Beauty read just as one-note has her name would suggest.

Beast was even worse, sadly, in that we’re really given next to nothing to go on. He doesn’t have any POV, but there are plenty of other stories that have created interesting and fully realized love interests without getting into the head of the hero. But while he was sweet and kind enough, he was also supremely dull. Again, the term “one note” comes to mind. With both of these characters reading so lackluster on their own, it was almost inevitable that the romance between them would also be a bit of a let down.

Finally, there is really no world building to be found in this book. Randomly it’s mentioned that there are fairies in this world, and that, while rare, they are perfectly understood to just be around. But that’s it. I had a hard time really picturing many of the locations we visit, and ultimately just felt rather unmoored and struggling to fully commit to the story. Ultimately, I think fantasy fans who are very devoted to fairytale retellings miiiiiight want to check this one out, but I do think there are many better versions of “Beauty and the Beast” out there. It’s really too bad though, because there is always room for another excellent version! This just wasn’t it.

Rating 6: Unfortunately, the one-note characters and lackluster world-building left me underwhelmed with this retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“Beauty Reborn” is on this Goodreads list: YA Releases May 2023

Serena’s Review: “The Bone Shard Daughter”

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Book: “The Bone Shard Daughter”

Publishing Info: Orbit, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

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

Book Description: The emperor’s reign has lasted for decades, his mastery of bone shard magic powering the animal-like constructs that maintain law and order. But now his rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire’s many islands.

Lin is the emperor’s daughter and spends her days trapped in a palace of locked doors and dark secrets. When her father refuses to recognise her as heir to the throne, she vows to prove her worth by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.

Yet such power carries a great cost, and when the revolution reaches the gates of the palace, Lin must decide how far she is willing to go to claim her birthright – and save her people.

Review: Per the usual for me it seems, sometimes what it takes to get me to finally pick up a trilogy…is for that trilogy to end! Such is the case with this fantasy series. I had seen this one floating around on readings lists for a year or two now, but when Orbit sent out there titles for this spring and I saw the final book the trilogy was due to drop, I figured now was the time! So, let’s see what all the fuss has been about!

Lin continues to work day and night to earn the approval of her father and her place as the heir to his kingdom. But she is hindered by the large blank that is her memory past the point of a few years ago. She may not remember what happened in her past, but she knows that her future hinges on her ability to learn the magic behind her father’s ability to use bone shards to build the powerful magical constructs to allow their vast empire to run. And in other parts of the world, a smuggler who has been on a years-long search for his missing wife, runs across the darker price this bone shard magic extracts from the populace.

There was a lot to like about this book! The first thing that struck me was the interesting world-building and magic system at the heart of the story. And much of this information is unfurled slowly to the reader as one goes along, so there’s a sense of exploration and wonder as new layers of this world are pealed back. Things like the fact that the large islands that make up this empire move through the ocean in a way that must be carefully navigated by all those who travel between them. Hints that there may be more to the constructs than straight-forward magical tools that they seem to be. The discovery of magical creatures that are unknown to even the characters of this world. It made the reading experience, in a simple term, fun.

I also really liked the characters of the story. The POVs switch between four different characters, but Lin and Jovis, the smuggler, are by far the more main characters of the group. I really liked both of them; they each had solid character arcs and voices that lent excitement and interest to their chapters. Lin’s story is very much the heart of this book (as evidenced by the title of the book), but I almost found myself enjoying Jovis’s story the most. For one thing, he’s the one that ends up with the adorable, magical animal companion. And I’m always going to gravitate towards and adorable, magical animal companion. But his story was also full of adventure and danger, leading his chapters to feel fast-moving and action-packed. For her part, Lin’s story is much more one of self-discovery and the slow pealing back of the truths at the heart of her father’s dynasty. Due to her own lack of memories, it’s only naturally that her story plays out a bit slower.

But I also have to say I really didn’t understand the inclusion of the other two characters. They have something like 4-5 chapters between them in the entire book! And the chapters they did have I found frustrating to read. Each, in their own way, seemed to operate in a world of black and whites, neither able to understand the nuances of the other’s position (this was the classic romantic tension of one member being from an upper class and the other a lower). Neither character felt like they were bringing anything unique to the table, either to this conversation about societal structures (which I’ve seen done better) or to this book overall. As this is a trilogy, there’s a possibility that these two will gain importance in future books. But I wish the author had just introduced them then, instead of shoe-horning them in here in a way that left them feeling out of place. I’m not sure why authors are so nervous about doing this, adding characters in as they go, but it’s definitely possible and can definitely enhance a reading experience if done right!

The writing was also solid and neatly laid out themes of power, family, and the lengths we will go to for those we love. The story also ended in such a way that definitely left me eager to check out the next book. I can definitely see why this trilogy got off to such a great start and I recommend it to any fantasy reader who enjoys multi-POV fantasy stories with a strong focus on world-building.

Rating 8: Full of exploration and adventure, this fantasy novel arrives on the scene with a bang and leaves the reader aching for more by the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bone Shard Daughter” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Most unique, original, and interesting magical systems and Adult-targeted secondary-world fantasy with noteworthy heroines or female protagonists

Year of Sanderson: “The Well of Ascension”

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“Year of Sanderson” is an on-going, monthly series that will post on the last Friday of each month in which I will cover various Brandon Sanderson-related things. This will largely be comprised of book reviews (some from his back catalog and some from the books being released this year), as well as assorted other topics like reviews of the items in the swag boxes that will be coming out as part of Sanderson’s Kickstarted campaign. Frankly, we’ll just have to see what we get from this series, very much like the Kickstarter itself!

Book: “The Well of Ascension” by Brandon Sanderson

Publishing Info: Tor Fantasy, August 2007

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

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

Book Description: The impossible has been accomplished. The Lord Ruler—the man who claimed to be god incarnate and brutally ruled the world for a thousand years—has been vanquished. But Kelsier, the hero who masterminded that triumph, is dead too, and now the awesome task of building a new world has been left to his young protégé, Vin, the former street urchin who is now the most powerful Mistborn in the land, and to the idealistic young nobleman she loves.

As Kelsier’s protégé and slayer of the Lord Ruler she is now venerated by a budding new religion, a distinction that makes her intensely uncomfortable. Even more worrying, the mists have begun behaving strangely since the Lord Ruler died, and seem to harbor a strange vaporous entity that haunts her.

Stopping assassins may keep Vin’s Mistborn skills sharp, but it’s the least of her problems. Luthadel, the largest city of the former empire, doesn’t run itself, and Vin and the other members of Kelsier’s crew, who lead the revolution, must learn a whole new set of practical and political skills to help. It certainly won’t get easier with three armies – one of them composed of ferocious giants – now vying to conquer the city, and no sign of the Lord Ruler’s hidden cache of atium, the rarest and most powerful allomantic metal.

As the siege of Luthadel tightens, an ancient legend seems to offer a glimmer of hope. But even if it really exists, no one knows where to find the Well of Ascension or what manner of power it bestows.

Previously Reviewed: “Mistborn”

Review: I have a very vivid memory of picking up this second book in the Mistborn trilogy. It was the second book I read by Brandon Sanderson, so I went into it with concerns that it would fall into the usual “second book syndrome” trap that so many books in series like these do. Of course, now, years (decades…oof) later, Sanderson has proven himself to be one of those few authors who really doesn’t often suffer from this sort of pacing problem over a long-running series. But at the time I didn’t know that.

While they have accomplished what many said was impossible, beating the Lord Ruler, Vin and her crew of rebels are discovering that running a city is an entirely different beast than organizing a revolution. So, too, while Elend has read about the ins ands outs of politics and religion, he suddenly feels out of his depth when asked to put these policies into play. What’s more, many others are seeing this time of instability as rife for their own accumulation of power. But Vin’s eyes are on something even more worrisome: the Mists are behaving strangely and powerful secrets are pointing towards a dark fate that she barely understands.

One thing I remember clearly about reading this trilogy the first time was just how out of my depth I felt with every additional book. In particular, I remember finishing up the second and then the third book and each time looking at the one that came before and thinking “Oh how quaint and simple that story was!” Indeed, each book built on the other in ways that are hard to describe. The first book really is a fairly straight forward adventure fantasy story. You have the big bad. You have the rebellion leader. You have the magical protégé. And yes, while there are several surprises in store (the death of said rebel leader), things play out in a fairly straightforward manner.

But then comes this book and with it a much more complicated tale. Not only do you have the realities of the aftereffects of a successful rebellion, but the world, history, and even biology itself are suddenly being given depths you’d never has expected from the first book. I really liked the former in particular, the exploration of the challenges that face those trying to rebuild government and society after the removal of a leader who had ruled for such a long time that the world itself seemed to turn around them. Sanderson grapples with the fact that often the very traits that would lead certain people to success with heading up this sort of revolution would not necessarily translate to the very different type of person needed to rebuild a world. Vin’s struggles with her changing role are very relatable, and the way that she uses the Mist and her abilities to both run away from these challenges but also explore mysteries that others don’t see were all intriguing. I also liked Elend’s story and how, even though he has his own struggles, without him Vin and her crew would have been really up a creek when dealing with this restructuring.

But beyond this, Sanderson goes into all of the increased world-building around the state of the world, the Mist, and the role the Lord Ruler played in it all. Like I said, the first book was very straightforward with how it presented all of this. But this book begins to peal back those layers and really dig into how society had come to be what it was. Not only the history of the the world itself, but how certain creatures, religions, and aspects of society were all built around these shifting norms. The last one hundred pages or so are really impressive with the sheer number of reveals and twists and turns.

I will say that the pacing is the one area where this book can feel a bit as if it’s brushing up against the dreaded “second book syndrome” thing. The first half, especially, really takes its time establishing where all are characters currently are, mentally, emotionally, and even physically, and then needs to spend a decent amount of page time getting them to where they need to be by the final climax of the story.

Rating 8: This book takes the promises given in the first book and then turns them on their head and inside out. And then ends with such a bang that it’s hard to imagine how I managed to survive the wait between book two and three way back when I read them originally!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Well of Ascension” is on these Goodreads lists: New Speculative Fiction Stars and SF/F Assassins!

Serena’s Review: “Divine Rivals”

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Book: “Divine Rivals” by Rebecca Ross

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, April 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: After centuries of sleep, the gods are warring again. But eighteen-year-old Iris Winnow just wants to hold her family together. Her mother is suffering from addiction and her brother is missing from the front lines. Her best bet is to win the columnist promotion at the Oath Gazette.

To combat her worries, Iris writes letters to her brother and slips them beneath her wardrobe door, where they vanish―into the hands of Roman Kitt, her cold and handsome rival at the paper. When he anonymously writes Iris back, the two of them forge a connection that will follow Iris all the way to the front lines of battle: for her brother, the fate of mankind, and love.

Review: I really enjoyed Ross’s “Elements of Cadence” duology. It was lyrical, full of adventure, and centered a lovely romance at its heart. So it was a no brainer to place a request for her next novel when I saw it was due to arrive this spring. And while I don’t think this first book necessarily reaches the highs of that previous series, I did enjoy it a lot and I have high hopes for the next book in the series!

Several months ago, Iris’s life fell apart. Her brother felt compelled to join in a god’s war hundreds of miles away. Her mother fell into depression and alcoholism. And Iris was forced to drop out of school to support her family. Now, she works towards one goal: becoming a reporter for one of the most prestigious newspapers in the city. But she’s not the only one pursuing the position. Unknowing to her, her rival, a young man who is unfortunately as skilled a writer as he is frustrating, also happens to be the mysterious pen pal she found only by chance. But as the war becomes more and more real for Iris, she begins to realize that the world is much greater than she ever imagined, and her pan pal may be the only one who really understands her.

There was a lot to like about this book, but I think the book summary really buries the lead on the true strengths of this book. Yes, it starts out as a fairly standard work rivalry story alongside a sweet pen pal subplot. But about a quarter of the way in, things quickly shift and Iris travels to the front lines of the war. Here, the story really comes alive as it explores the experience of trench warfare and the experiences of those whose lives have been upended while living through a war that is taking place right outside their own front door. I really loved all that Ross had to offer in this part of the book.

This was all obviously a parallel to WWI, with similar tactics used, like trenches and the terrible use of vicous gases. But, of course, this is a fantasy novel, so the constant terror and threat of air raids were replaced by fantastical creatures that could target any town at any moment. I can honestly say that I can’t remember reading a fantasy novel that read anything like this one, and that was incredibly refreshing.

I also really liked Iris as a character. She was brave, but not foolish. Compassionate but also struggling with her conflicting emotions about a war that stole her brother away from her family. I also liked Roman Kitt, and, for the most part, the romance between the two. I think the title of this book does mislead a bit as far as the romance goes, however. The “rivalry” between these two barely warrants the term. Not only do we see very little of it, but it is quickly shunted to the side in favor of a completely cordial friendship building quickly towards romance. Indeed, an entire romantic arch from start to finish takes place within a fairly short period of the middle and end of the book. While I liked the love story, I kind of wish that it had been drawn out between this first book and the one to come. As it was, the romance just barely sidestepped becoming an instalove situation. It’s spared from this category only by the fact that, while quickly established, it does spend a good deal of time building up this relationship.

I also liked the idea of the feuding gods in this story, and the fact that the humans caught up in the war don’t have a full understanding of the history between these characters. But that also gets to my main issue with this book: in many ways it feels like an extended prequel. A very interesting and romantic prequel, but still. It was only towards the last quarter of the book that it really felt like the story got started. I still enjoyed my read overall, but I think the pacing was questionable, and perhaps, depending on how the next book goes, there might have been some better decisions to make with how this story was broken up. The one thing I can say for sure, the fact that the story really picks up towards the end of the book really leaves the reader primed for the second book. Despite a few quibbles here and there, I’ll definitely be right there in line to read the second one as soon as it’s available!

Rating 8: Lyrical and atmospheric, this book uses the fantastical to illustrate the horrors of war and the bravery of those who risk it all to save those they love.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Divine Rivals” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Working Women in Fantasy and Female fantasy authors – Children’s, YA and adult.

Serena’s Review: “Wings Once Cursed and Bound”

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Book: “Wings Once Cursed and Bound” by Piper J. Drake

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Casablanca, April 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

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

Book Description:

My wings unbound, I am the Thai bird princess
The kinnaree
And no matter the cost,
I will be free.

Bennet Andrews represents a secret organization of supernatural beings dedicated to locating and acquiring mythical objects, tucking them safely away where they cannot harm the human race. When he meets Peeraphan Rahttana, it’s too late—she has already stepped into The Red Shoes, trapped by their curse to dance to her death.

But Bennet isn’t the only supernatural looking for deadly artifacts. And when the shoes don’t seem to harm Peeraphan, he realizes that he’ll have to save her from the likes of creatures she never knew existed. Bennett sweeps Peeraphan into a world of myth and power far beyond anything she ever imagined. There, she finds that magic exists in places she never dreamed—including deep within herself.

Review: First of all, thank you so much to the publisher, Sourcebooks Casablanca, for sending me an ARC of this book! I can say that the cover is just as fantastic in person as it seems from the small image above. Very unique and vibrant, just the sort of cover that would make me pause when browsing the aisles of the bookstore. Unfortunately, however, I didn’t enjoy the actual book itself nearly as much.

When a fellow dancer hands Peeraphan a box with beautiful red dancing shoes, she can’t resist their magnetic appeal. Now, however, she finds that these are not in fact ordinary shoes, but slippers that have been cursed to compel their wearer to dance themselves to death. Luckily for Peeraphan, her own magical heritage has given her some level of protection from the shoes themselves. But there are those who are hunting artifacts like these, and they don’t seem to care that the shoes are currently attached to a living woman. Another artifact hunter, a vampire named Bennet, has also been tracking the shoes, but after meeting Peeraphan, he realizes that much more is at stake than a simple recovering mission.

I initially requested this book because of the very intriguing premise of the Thai legend of the kinnaree. Urban fantasy has long been entrapped by the classic monsters like vampires, werewolves, ghosts, etc. So I was incredibly excited to see a story focused on a lesser known legend. I also know next to nothing about Thai folklore or the legend of the kinnaree. Unfortunately, I still don’t. I’m not exactly sure what happened here really. I feel like I was sold on this very specific premise, but then I started reading the book and it turned out to be…not that. Our main character, who also goes by Punch (dislike), knows next to nothing about her own abilities. And then as the book goes on, very little is added on to that. Instead, we were once again bogged down with vampires and the typical “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” ilk.

I also never felt like Punch was given much characterization. The shoes show up with in the first few pages, far too quickly for any good character work to have been established prior. And from there, the action quickly sweeps her along, but I’m never given any reason why I should care or be particularly invested in her story. Instead, I was mostly just frustrated from the start! She senses something strange about the shoes right off the bat, and then, of course, just puts them on anyways. It wasn’t a strong start for the character, and the story never seemed to recover from there.

I also didn’t really care for Bennet or the romance as a whole. Again, his character and story felt incredibly familiar, with very little new to say about vampires or any of the other beings we encounter. The love story also felt rushed towards the end, and I couldn’t tell exactly who the audience was for this book. It didn’t feel as if it could commit fully one way or another, reading at certain points as very YA and then at others trying to take on a more gritty, adult tone.

Overall, the entire thing really didn’t work for me. Part of the problem was that I had fairly high expectations going in. I was really excited by the idea of a new urban fantasy story that was pulling from lesser known legends, and then when the book failed to deliver on that, it was hard to latch on to anything else. I think there will be readers who enjoy it, however, especially those who really enjoy urban fantasies as a whole. It just wasn’t for me, sadly.

Rating 6: While it’s an acceptable urban fantasy on the whole, I feel like the primary premise, that of the legendary Thai kinnaree, was a complete let-down.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wings Once Cursed and Bound” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Fairytale Retellings in Contemporary Romance.

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