Serena’s Review: “How to Break an Evil Curse”

Book: “How to Break and Evil Curse” by Laura Morrison

Publishing Info: Black Spot Books, October 202

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: The King of the Land of Fritillary has incurred the wrath of his ex-bestie, the evil wizard Farland Phelps. Farland curses the King’s firstborn to die if touched by sunlight, and just like that, Julianna must spend her life in the depths of a castle dungeon (emptied of prisoners and redecorated in the latest fashion, of course). A young woman of infinite resourcefulness, all she needs is a serving spoon, a loose rock in the wall, and eight years of digging, and Julianna is free to explore the city—just not while the sun is out!

Warren Kensington is a member of a seafaring traveling theater troupe and the unwitting magical cure to the curse. When the pirate ship he’s sailing on is damaged in stormy seas, he goes ashore and bumps into Julianna on the streets of the capitol. The pair accidentally set in motion a chain of events that uncovers Farland’s plans to take over the throne. Julianna, Warren, and some friends they meet along the way are the only ones who can save the monarchy.

But the farther they go along their increasingly ludicrous journey, and the more citizens they meet, the more Julianna wonders whether her dad’s throne is worth saving. From an evil and greedy wizard? Well, sure. But from the people of Fritillary who are trying to spark a revolution? The people suffering in poverty, malnutrition, and other forms of medieval-esque peasant hardship? It doesn’t take Julianna long to find that the real world is far more complicated than a black-and-white fairytale.

Review: I’m always on the look out for a good fantasy/comedy series. While most of what I consider good fantasy obviously contains comedy elements, it’s typically nothing more than some witty dialogue. Nothing that would justify an added genre to the book itself. But, of course, they exist! “The Princess Bride” is a perennial favorite. And as I just discovered in a recent review of “The Princess Will Save You” , the comedy is central to the success of that story. So I was excited to see fantasy story that was actively marketed as a comedy, finally!

Julianna has grown up in a dungeon. Well, a dungeon that her mother practiced her interior design skills on to make as comfortable as possible, but there’s no getting rid of the decidedly dungeon-ness of it all, old prisoner ghosts and all. But with a curse that dooms her to death if touched by sunlight, Julianna’s royal parents didn’t see another choice. But that hasn’t stopped Julianna from taking things into her own hands and tunneling outside the castle walls. There she meets the young man who could be her salvation, a strange mix of boy who loves music and grew up on a pirate ship. Things only get more strange from there as they set out on an adventure that may finally free Julianna from her curse.

This book was an interesting read. There were times where I was all in on it and its concept, laughing out loud and just enjoying the romp that was being laid out before me. But at other times, I found the humor and comedy elements to be almost relentless and a bit overbearing. Unlike “The Princess Will Save You” that was almost aggressively earnest and lacking witty dialogue even, this book throws itself as the comedy element, never letting a single joke slide by. It’s a tough thing to review or critique because much of it was successful. The story uses footnotes to pretty great effect and doesn’t ever take it or its own ridiculous concept too seriously. But at other times, I felt I need some sense of weight or a different emotional tone to help balance out this nonstop comedy.

The characters themselves sere all very engaging, maybe especially the villains and the backstory we get for them at the very beginning of the story. I also liked Julianna and Warren, though it was with these two main characters that I most wished for a bit more emotional depth from the book. The funny moments for them hit home, but it was hard to feel truly invested in either of their stories when everything was played for laughs.

The pacing was also a bit strange in the book. As I mentioned, the first part of the story focuses on the villains and their history with Julianna’s parents and the curse that is ultimately laid upon them. So there are a number of time jumps involved in telling this part of the story. Id din’t find it confusing or anything, but it does take a while for the story to finally settle in on our main characters. It seems to take quite a while for them to even meet.

Lastly, I do want to touch on the marketing failure with this book. From what I saw, this was being marketed as a high fantasy novel. This isn’t doing anyone any favors. Not the book, not the author, and not the readers. High fantasy is a fairly specific brand of fantasy (we’re talking “Lord of the Rings” and “ASOIAF” type fantasy). It is usually more serious, has a grand scope, and includes a lot of complicated world-building. But it is by no means the only type of fantasy, and it’s also not “better” fantasy than any other type. I think too often that seems to be the perception which then leads to publishers trying to attach that genre description to all of their new releases in the hopes of attracting more readers. But it’s not “better!” Sure, some people prefer that type of fantasy, but others actually prefer more light-hearted fantasy or want a good fantasy comedy now and then. By not properly identifying the book, you have a bunch of readers picking it up expecting the wrong thing and becoming disappointed. And then the readers who were actually looking for this type of book could be put off by the often intimidating aspects of what we expect from typical high fantasy. It’s too bad, because I feel like they almost set this book up to fail by doing this.

So, while it’s definitely not high fantasy, if you are looking for a comedy fantasy story, this might be a good one to check out. Just know that when I say comedy, I really mean it. In some ways the comedy aspect felt more prevalent than the fantasy itself.

Rating 7: A fun enough story, though missing the necessary emotional weight to balance out all of the fluff and laughs.

Reader’s Advisory:

“How to Break an Evil Curse” is a newer title, so it isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet. But it should be on “Fantasy-Comedy Novels Outside of ‘Discworld.'”

Find “How to Break an Evil Curse” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Blood & Honey”

40550366Book: “Blood & Honey” by Shelby Mahurin

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: After narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Dames Blanches, Lou, Reid, Coco, and Ansel are on the run from coven, kingdom, and church—fugitives with nowhere to hide.

To elude the scores of witches and throngs of chasseurs at their heels, Lou and Reid need allies. Strong ones. But protection comes at a price, and the group is forced to embark on separate quests to build their forces. As Lou and Reid try to close the widening rift between them, the dastardly Morgane baits them in a lethal game of cat and mouse that threatens to destroy something worth more than any coven.

Previously Reviewed: “Serpent & Dove”

Review: Well, after enjoying the first book well enough this summer, it was kind of a given that I’d include it in my fall reading schedule. After all, I’d had a lot of success this summer with reading books that had been very popular last year and then were followed up by equally good, if not better, sequels (“The Merciful Crow” and its sequel, for example!). And, while the first book in this duology (ugh trilogy) wasn’t as strong as that one, it still caught my interest, and I had hopes the trend would continue. Alas, no. Not only did the trend decidedly not  continue, but I actively disliked this book and am probably out on this (again, ugh ) dulogy-turned- trilogy.

After the dramatic events at the end of “Serpent & Dove,” Reid, Lou and their friends find themselves on the run and in need of allies. Their search is a long and arduous one, pushing them all to the limits. On top of this all, Reid and Lou are still managing the new waters of their marriage after secrets on both of their sides have now been revealed. Will they all be able to stand strong together and will they be able to outwit the powerful force amassing against them?

So, that’s a pretty junky book summary that I just wrote. And that’s because…this is a pretty junky book? Seems harsh, but I really am having  a hard time coming up with any positive to say about this book. The problems start right away when I can’t write a good summary of this book because nothing happens in it. And it’s over 500 pages long! Instead of any plot to speak of, it’s made up of angst, drama, out of character actions/thoughts, and the worst case of “middle book syndrome” that I’ve ever seen. Part of the blame for this is, of course, because either the publisher or author (I’m guessing this was pushed by the publisher after the success of the first book) decided to stretch what originally envisioned as a duology into an unnecessary trilogy. And it shows. In a bad, bad way.

There is practically no action in this book until the last 40 pages. It’s just Lou, Reid and the others looking for allies, and with not much success. It’s not so much a story plot as a story plot point…a small one, at that. Definitely not one that justifies this book’s extreme length either. I mean, on one hand, it was always going to be a hard sell changing what was meant to be a duology into a trilogy kind of late in the game. But then to make the now-added middle book into a massively long middle book? The plot can’t support it. The character arcs (if there are any to speak of) can’t support it. It’s just not good storytelling.

The other major problem for me was in in the character arena and the romance. As I pointed out, this book was clearly stretched too thin on plot, and it feels the same with the characters. Their arcs no longer felt natural, but instead each character felt, at best, wildly out of character at times, and at worst, like they had been made into totally unlikable, totally different characters altogether. I struggled with Reid’s likablity in the first book. He was downright unpleasant in this one. His overly protective attitude towards Lou was in no way endearing and was often aggressively sexist in its portrayal. When he wasn’t caught up in that, it was internal angst and indecision all the live long day. Lou was a bit better, but still less likable than she was in the first. For her, much of her “arc,” such as it was, was more confusing than anything. She seemed to lose much of the personality she had in the first book and was at times almost unrecognizable.

To top a bad situation off, the book ends on a massive cliffhanger. And at this point, given how bad the rest of the book had been, this did not have the desired affect of cajoling last minute interest out of me, but instead just pissed me off more. It’s almost as if the publisher/author knew the book on its own wasn’t enough to keep most fans around, so they added this final twist as a last ditch effort. Really, the entire book seems to serve an example of publishing greed gone to far. If it had remained as a duology, with this the second and final portion, I’m sure we would have had a lot more actual plot and a lot less unnecessary character drama. The tone of the entire series could have remained consistent, and fans would have been satisfied. Instead, out of a need to squeeze the last drops out of the golden goose that was the first book, the series was stretched to a breaking point that is now losing fans. At least, they’ve lost me.

Rating 4: Supremely disappointing and barely recognizable as having come from the same author as the first book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Blood & Honey” is on these Goodreads lists: “2020 YA Sequels” and “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2020.”

Find “Blood & Honey” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Wonderland”

52210985Book: “Wonderland” by Zoje Stage

Publishing Info: Mulholland Books, July 2020

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

Book Description: If Shirley Jackson wrote The Shining, it might look like this deliciously unsettling horror novel from the acclaimed author of Baby Teeth.

A mother must protect her family from the unnatural forces threatening their new and improved life in a rural farmhouse.

The Bennett family – artist parents and two precocious children – are leaving their familiar urban surroundings for a new home in far upstate New York. They’re an hour from the nearest city, a mile from the nearest house, and everyone has their own room for the very first time. Shaw, the father, even gets his own painting studio, now that he and his wife Orla, a retired dancer, have agreed that it’s his turn to pursue his passion.

But none of the Bennetts expect what lies waiting in the lovely woods, where secrets run dark and deep. Orla must finally find a way to communicate with – not just resist – this unknown entity that is coming to her family, calling to them from the land, in the earth, beneath the trees… and in their minds.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

While usually I am perfectly fine with the winter months (even in Minnesota!), this year I am dreading it. I can handle the cold and the nutty weather, but the thought of having to be cut off from family due to COVID-19 and the inability to comfortably or safely gather outside is going to be very hard. Winter in Minnesota is already isolating in a lot of ways, and this winter it’s going to be incredibly demoralizing. But I tell myself that it could be worse. I could be totally trapped and cut off from the rest of society, and stalked by a mysterious being that wants me and my family for untoward purposes. So I guess that “Wonderland” by Zoje Stage puts some things into perspective! Seems fitting to kick off this year’s Horrorpalooza with a horror story that makes me count my blessings.

Well, horror story may be a little generous for this Gothic dark fantasy, though I do see the elements of it in there glimmering through at least a little bit. For Orla and Shaw Bennett, this new home in a remote cabin in the woods is supposed to be Shaw’s writing haven. Living in Manhattan for years before to support Orla’s dancing career has shifted now to a living situation that Shaw prefers, and his entitlement to his moment in the sun is just the first shade of something being wrong. There are definite shades of “The Shining” with Shaw and his need to stay in this place to get his career going again, even when strange things, like foot upon foot of unseasonable snow showers down and strands them with little supplies and no way out. And as their situation deteriorates, Orla is determined to save her family from whatever it is…. even as her daughter Eleanor Queen is getting closer and closer to the entity that wants them to stay. There are definite pulse pounding dramatics to be had and genuine moments of high stakes and suspense, but honestly “Wonderland” never quite got to the levels of horror or terror that I tend to associate with horror novels (outside of one moment with a bear…. and that’s all I’m going to say). I would classify “Wonderland” as more of a dark fantasy tale than horror, which means that my expectations being dashed soured me a bit to the story.

But genre aside, what really did work about “Wonderland” was both Orla and Eleanor Queen, and the mother-daughter relationship that is highlighted within its pages. Orla has put her family first from the get go, leaving her career behind to support Shaw’s aspirations and to help her children transition to a new, very different, life. Orla has strength within herself, and Eleanor Queen, too, is approaching their situation with her own inner strength. The two of them work together to try and save the family from the dark being that is holding them hostage, and even as they feel like they are losing everything, they always have each other to lean on. Eleanor Queen has a unique insight into what is going on, and she and Orla have a really powerful and touching relationship is just one aspect of this positive representation of the power of ‘female’ driven approaches. Another that really struck me was that once we do find out what exactly is going on, the origin of the conflict is unique in that Orla and Eleanor Queen have grace and empathy that we don’t usually see in stories like this. A lot of the time when supernatural entities are at play, there is some kind of vengeance motivation. “Wonderland” has a different angle. And once again, that is all I’m going to say. Regardless, it works and made the story feel more outside the box. Again, not horror. But dark fantasy to be certain.

“Wonderland” is claustrophobic and engaging, even if it isn’t too scary. But then, isolation is scaring me right now. So maybe I’m not giving it enough horror credit. Regardless, Horrorpalooza has begun, folks. Let’s make it a good one!

Rating 7: A Gothic tale that feels less horror and more mother-daughter examination, “Wonderland” has some interesting moments of dark fantasy…. but not too many scares.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wonderland” is included on the Goodreads lists “Horror Novels Written by Women”, and “2020 Horror to Scream For”.

Find “Wonderland” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Silvered Serpents”

45044785Book: “The Silvered Serpents”  by Roshani Chokshi

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Séverin and his team members might have successfully thwarted the Fallen House, but victory came at a terrible cost — one that still haunts all of them. Desperate to make amends, Séverin pursues a dangerous lead to find a long lost artifact rumored to grant its possessor the power of God.

Their hunt lures them far from Paris, and into the icy heart of Russia where crystalline ice animals stalk forgotten mansions, broken goddesses carry deadly secrets, and a string of unsolved murders makes the crew question whether an ancient myth is a myth after all.

As hidden secrets come to the light and the ghosts of the past catch up to them, the crew will discover new dimensions of themselves. But what they find out may lead them down paths they never imagined.

A tale of love and betrayal as the crew risks their lives for one last job.

Previously Reviewed: “The Gilded Wolves”

Review: I wasn’t blown away by “The Gilded Wolves,” the first in this YA fantasy trilogy. But as I liked it more than Chokshi’s other books I’ve read and the cast of characters was compelling, I decided to keep going with the series. Well, I have, and…I don’t think I liked this one any better? Maybe worse? And yet I still will probably read the third? I’m not sure what this says about me as a reader or about the trilogy itself. Me, probably a completionist. The trilogy, something about it must be intriguing enough to keep me invested.

Things have kind of fallen apart for our crew after the dramatic events at the end of “The Gilded Wolves.” Each on their own, each has been trying to make their own way in the world, feeling cut-off from the rest. But when a lead on “The Divine Lyrics,” the magical book at the heart of Severin’s (and Laila’s) quest, finally comes to light, Severin brings them back together for one last adventure. Into the heart of the north and through mysteries new and astounding, the crew must once again bring each of their unique skill sets to hand in order to pull of this last job. But, of course, nothing goes as planned and a darker price is waiting than any of them could have imagined.

So, a lot of the problems I had with the first book (and with this author in general) were still present here, unfortunately. There’s something about her style of writing that I struggle with. On one hand, there’s the turns of phrase that seem to be written more because they sound beautiful and poetic rather than the fact they convey any actual image. The titles, for example, of both of these books doesn’t seem to really connect directly to much in the story. But they sure sound pretty! Most of the time it didn’t bother me too much, but there were definitely other times when I would re-read a sentence and be like “Sure…sounds nice…but…what?” And that confusion carries over to my second struggle with the writing.

While the author does a good job with characterization for the most part and clearly has a bunch of unique fantasy ideas. She’s not lacking in imagination on either front. But when it comes to the actual description of locations, objects, and how they interact with each other…it’s just not good. There were entire locations (where the book spent a significant amount of time) that I couldn’t describe to you. There was an entire action scene that was a blur of movement, and by the end, again, I couldn’t tell you what exactly had happened. The writing looks pretty on the front of things, but it too often failed at its most basic requirement: conveying ideas clearly.

I also struggled with the plot itself. The mystery was both at times not clear at all (Severin and his cohort would jump through leaps of logic that were either impossible to follow or just totally unbelievable that anyone would connect those dots). And at other times so bizarrely obvious that I couldn’t be less impressed when AHA! the reveal finally came and Severin and his crew were just oh, so clever for putting it together.

And, sadly, on top of all of this, my favorite part of the first book, the characters, was a let-down here as well. They’re all still interesting enough, but man, this was a glum book. Severin was practically unrecognizable, and his decisions were, again, hard to buy at times. As for the rest, they all seemed to become more and more caught up with unnecessary secret keeping that served no other purpose than to stir up more drama. It was just all kind of sad and tiring.

And yet…I’m probably going to finish out the story. For one thing, this book mostly felt like a place hold and necessary vehicle for the author to get from point A to point B. So while this middle portion of the trip was a let down, I can still be hopeful that it was all to the purpose of getting us somewhere more interesting. I’m not really holding out much hope for the writing to clear up and suddenly become my cup of tea, but I do have hopes that the characters themselves will go interesting places and resolve their own story lines in compelling ways. Fans of the first book are sure to like this one. But if you were on the fence there, you’ll probably have similar feelings here. I leave it to you whether it’s worth going through it based on only the hope of a well-executed landing.

Rating 6: Fairly glum and mired in its own “middle-ness” in the trilogy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Silvered Serpents” is on these Goodreads lists: “Asian MG/YA 2020” and “2020 YA Sequels.”

Find “The Silvered Serpents” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Tea Dragon Tapestry”

51323376Book: “The Tea Dragon Tapestry” by Katie O’Neill

Publishing Info: Oni Press, September 2020

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

Book Description: Join Greta and Minette once more for the heartwarming conclusion of the award-winning Tea Dragon series!

Over a year since being entrusted with Ginseng’s care, Greta still can’t chase away the cloud of mourning that hangs over the timid Tea Dragon. As she struggles to create something spectacular enough to impress a master blacksmith in search of an apprentice, she questions the true meaning of crafting, and the true meaning of caring for someone in grief. Meanwhile, Minette receives a surprise package from the monastery where she was once training to be a prophetess. Thrown into confusion about her path in life, the shy and reserved Minette finds that the more she opens her heart to others, the more clearly she can see what was always inside.

Told with the same care and charm as the previous installments of the Tea Dragon series, The Tea Dragon Tapestry welcomes old friends and new into a heartfelt story of purpose, love, and growth.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this graphic novel!

I don’t know if not being at work has made my advanced knowledge of titles a little rusty or what, but when I was perusing NetGalley for a new batch of books I saw that Katie O’Neill had written a new “Tea Dragon” book that I hadn’t heard of. So I of course immediately accessed it, counting my luck stars that once again we were going to join Greta, Minette, Hesekiel, and Erik, and all of their adorable Tea Dragons.

And then I found out that it was the last story in the series.

giphy-7
How can this possibly be the end? HOW? (source)

“The Tea Dragon Tapestry” takes us back to the characters in “The Tea Dragon Society”, as we are reunited with blacksmith Greta, tea shop apprentice Minette, tea shop owners Hesekiel and Erik, and the always adorable Tea Dragons. Everyone is a bit older, and now Greta and Minette are starting to wonder about their places in the world and what they are going to do next with their lives. All the while, the Ginseng Tea Dragon that has ended up in Greta’s care after its owner passed away hasn’t been flourishing, and Greta is worried that she will never be able to bond with it. So right off the bat, identity and grief are presented as the themes of this book. O’Neill has a real gift for taking on heavy topics and making them feel digestable and gentle for the reader, and no matter how much anxiety or conflict a character may be feeling, you never get the sense that things are going to turn out badly for anyone. While this may come off as a lack of conflict and therefore a lack of investable plot, I actually really liked the calm atmosphere of this book. I also liked that there were moments dedicated to addressing the grief of the Ginseng Tea Dragon, and that grief is natural and doesn’t have to abide by timelines, nor does it mean that a person (or Tea Dragon) is broken. It was a great way to teach the young reader demographic potentially reading this (as this is generally a Middle Grade series) that when someone you care about is dealing with it, just being there is better than trying to find a fix so YOU feel better. Important lessons that even lots of adults don’t quite get, so I loved seeing it here.

Along with some great themes, revisiting characters from both “The Tea Dragon Society” and “The Tea Dragon Festival” was such a joy. O’Neill ties the two stories together and finally brings all of the characters to one place, with Rinn and Aedhan visiting Erik and interacting with Greta and Minette, and helping them with their self reflection. It was delightful seeing Rinn all grown up, and seeing her relationship with Aedhan and how it has changed and progressed. And even with the treat of familiar faces, O’Neill still manages to bring in some new characters, and lets us get to know them and learn to love them just as much as the old. I was particularly taken with Ginseng Tea Dragon, as it had a different, and just as valid, personality to some of it’s compatriots. New favorite Tea Dragon? Very possibly.

But it’s hard to choose, of course, because the Tea Dragons REMAIN EVER SO CUTE!! The design of this story is the same unique imagery that O’Neill has had for her previous books, and I still love it and how sweet and dreamy it is. The simplicity and bright and vibrant colors really bring out such joy and bring the story to life.

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Source: Oni Press

While I am not ready to say goodbye to the charming and wonderful characters of this series, “The Tea Garden Tapestry” gives it the best kind of send off I could have hoped for. I am very interested in seeing what Katie O’Neill does next now that she’s leaving her Tea Dragons and those who care for them.

Rating 8: A heartwarming and sweet conclusion to a series that I have come to associate with kindness and tranquility, “The Tea Dragon Tapestry” gives us one more adventure with Greta, Minette, and all the Tea Dragons.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Tea Dragon Tapestry” is included on the Goodreads lists “Fantasy Fiber Fiction”, and “2020 YA Books with LGBT Themes”.

Find “The Tea Dragon Tapestry” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.4): Season of Mists”

25101Book: “The Sandman (Vol.4): Season of Mists” by Neil Gaiman, Matt Wagner (Ill.), George Pratt (Ill.), Dick Giordano (Ill.), Kelley Jones (Ill.), P. Craig Russell (Ill.), Mike Dringenberg (Ill.), & Malcolm Jones III (Ill.).

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1991

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Ten thousand years ago, Morpheus condemned a woman who loved him to Hell. Now the other members of his immortal family, The Endless, have convinced the Dream King that this was an injustice. To make it right, Morpheus must return to Hell to rescue his banished love — and Hell’s ruler, the fallen angel Lucifer, has already sworn to destroy him.

Review: Up until this point, “The Sandman” has been a combination of vignettes, massive world building, and showing how Morpheus/Dream is adjusting to trying to rebuild The Dreaming after his captivity. I think that it’s safe to say, however, that we don’t really know THAT MUCH about Morpheus as a character in terms of his wants, desires, and personality. He’s a deity of sorts. He’s a bit grumpy. He can be vengeful, or merciful. But in “The Sandman (Vol.4): Season of Mists”, we finally get to see him grapple with some very tough decisions, as well as having to look inwards and grapple with his own demons and mistakes. After a meeting with the other Endless, aka his siblings, Morpheus is taken to task by Death for banishing his former lover Nada to Hell after she refused to marry him and rule The Dreaming by his side. Realizing that he did something reprehensible, he decides to go to Hell, confront Lucifer Morningstar, and see if he can set her free. You think that the story you’re about to read is going to be a great battle between two powerful beings, and that it’s going to be a focus on the big fight between the two to save Nada.

But instead, when Dream arrives to confront Lucifer…. Lucifer quits his mantle as the ruler of Hell, and tells Dream that he is now responsible for what happens next to his former kingdom.

giphy-1
Lucifer as he peaces out. (source)

So in a great twist and subversion, now Dream has to hold court to those who would want to take Hell over, and The Dreaming becomes host to Gods, Goddesses, Deities, Demons, and others who all think that they should get this prime real estate. Frankly, I loved that this was the main conflict. Seeing Morpheus have to bring all of these beings into his home and to let them say their piece, and then have to do some critical thinking about the pros and cons of giving one of them Hell (through sucking up, threats, or bribes no less), was such a fascinating turn of events. We get to see Gods from various mythologies come in, from Odin to Anubis to Bast to Susanoo-no-mikoto, Gaiman gives all of them a reason to want Hell for themselves. It also gives Dream time to think about what kind of terrible fate he left Nada to. That was actually the greatest weakness of this arc, in that things with Dream and Nada is almost resolved too quickly and easily. I liked seeing Death read Dream the Riot Act about how AWFUL he was to her. It doesn’t sit as well these days for MANY reasons (given that she was also of African royalty, so seeing Morpheus subjugate a Black woman just feels all the more tone deaf and problematic). But over all, I really liked this entire arc, and feel that this is where “The Sandman” has finally become it’s own thing, even more so than “The Doll’s House”.

But more significant for me within the whole of “The Sandman” mythos and universe is that this is the collection in which we finally get to meet Delirium, the youngest Endless and my number one favorite character in this series. Sure I’ve sang the praises of Death, and while she is my number two gal, Delirium holds the key to my heart. I love her so much that in 2015 I was her for Halloween.

delerium2
Not many people at my party got it, but those who did were LIVING. 

Along with the intros of Delirium and Destiny, we get to see the Endless interacting with each other, and seeing the power dynamics, as well as hints towards a missing Endless, but more on that in later collections. They are definitely dysfunctional, but you at least get the feeling that they, mostly, care for each other, as well as otherworldly godlike beings can (though Dream seems to have no love for Desire, which is fair as Desire is the wooooorst in many ways). This extended scene felt natural and was incredibly charming.

As I’m sure you noticed above, there are SO MANY illustrators with this arc, and they all added something unique to each story. But once again my favorite is the one that deals with the Endless, with illustrations by Dringenberg and Jones. The dreamy details of the Endless as they confer and debate really made me feel like I was in a strange place between worlds.

sandman2021-08
(source)

Rating 9: A fascinating and twisted (yet also somewhat lighthearted) storyline that brings together many myths and legends, “Season of Mists” gives Morpheus a lot to think about in terms of fairness, and his own culpability in monstrous acts. We also meet my favorite character in the series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.4): Season of Mists” is included on the Goodreads lists “Great Non-Super Hero Graphic Novels”, and “Mythic Fiction Comics”,

Find “The Sandman (Vol.4): Season of Mists” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: 

Serena’s Review: “A Deadly Education”

50548197._sy475_Book: “A Deadly Education” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Learning has never been this deadly

“A Deadly Education” is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets. There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere. El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students.

Review: Naomi Novik has quickly become a must-read author for me. After this book, she’s pretty much a must-buy author (I only have maybe 5 of those, so that says something, I think!). But, still, when requesting this book, what I’d read from her had been both of her fairytale retellings and the first several of her Napoleonic wars/dragon historical fantasy series. This didn’t sound remotely like either of those, instead being billed as a modern, more grim, “Harry Potter” style boarding school story. But man, Novik can do anything, and my trust is now fully earned, no matter how strange the book description is!

Scholomance is technically a school. There are no teachers and students are on their own to make classes and finish homework, sure. But that’s only half, and arguably the less important half, of what this school provides. Instead, it offers magical kids the best chance they have of surviving their juvenile years. Sure, their odds are still pretty darn bad in the school, but better than the next to nothing they have outside. El’s chances have been even worse from the start. Yeah, she has the raw power, but she seems to repel people for some reason. And in a place where forming alliances is a necessary survival tactic, that’s not good. But here, in her second to last year at the school, staring down the barrel of a final year full of even more likely death, El begins to uncover secrets about not only the school, but herself, and the boy who has been roaming around annoyingly playing savior to all this entire time.

I adored everything about this book, so it’s kind of hard to think of where to start when reviewing it. It’s also so totally unique, interesting, and complicated that it’s hard to find the middle ground between reviewing important aspects of the story and not spoiling the fun for new readers. There’s just so much good stuff to unpack!

I guess I’ll start with the world-building itself. The book description has a tough job trying to describe what Scholomance really is, and, as you can see, I probably struggled too in my own summary. That’s because it’s so complicated and well-constructed that it’s almost impossible to really give a broad overview. Novik seems to have thought out every intricate detail for this magical place, from how the cafeteria works, to the menacing library, to the simplest of things, like how the school assigns and monitors homework and what happens if students fall behind. And it’s all just so creative! I can’t think of a single other fantasy story that has anything like the place Novik has thought up here. And that’s saying something, I think, in a genre that is becoming more crowded by the day (especially YA that has a tendency to become trope-ridden and bogged down in certain themes every few years).

One of the most impressive aspects of all of this that, being as complicated and detailed as it all is, our narrator is given a heavy load of information to be handing off to readers. There’s a significant portion of the first half of the book that is largely devoted to detailing all of these little aspects. It would have been so easy for it to have felt like info-dumping or to have dragged down the pacing and plot of the story. But, for one thing, the information being provided is just too interesting on its own to feel bored by. And secondly, our narrator had a fantastic voice from the start that is strong enough to carry this type of detail-ridden load.

El is everything I like in a narrator: snarky, consistently characterized, yet vulnerable in ways that we (and she) discover throughout the story. From the book description, I was kind of expecting some type of tired anti-hero story or quasi-villain plot line for her, but it’s really nothing like that. Sure, her powers are destructive and there’s this pesky doomsday-esque prophesy lingering around her, but she’s just as skeptical of all that nonsense as the reader wants to be. El’s story, here, is not only finding acceptance with some key friends around her, but in accepting what she has to offer. On one hand, she can be overly confident, but on the other, we see her realize her own values and where her personal lines are between survival and standing up for some moral greater good.

And to balance her out, of course, we have a “Chosen One.” This friendship was everything! Both El and Orion’s characters play perfectly off each other. She, stand-offish, uninterested, and, again, snarky. He, bumbling, clueless of his affect on people, and obnoxiously heroic. I loved everything about this friendship and the slow build to sort of romance that it comes to towards the end.

It’s also clear, here, where the comparisons to “Harry Potter” are coming from. Orion Lake is definitely a response to Harry Potter and all of the other “chosen” heroes we see in fantasy fiction. Novik has said that “Spinning Silver” was essentially her “yelling” at the “Rumpelstiltskin” fairytale, and that this would be her yelling at “Harry Potter.” Comparisons to “Harry Potter always make me nervous. For one thing, I love Harry Potter so, for me, a book being compared to it is either going to be a massive let-down of trying to copy something that shouldn’t be copied. Or it’s going to be some type of “response” piece that spends more time criticizing another book series than in being its own thing. Luckily, this falls right in the middle and does it perfectly.

You can definitely see where Novik is making a point about the type of “chosen one” story that Harry Potter tells, but, while she does touch on some of the obvious themes, she also deep dives into a lot of aspects of this type of storyline that one doesn’t often think about. There’s a strong focus on inequality and injustice, but it’s approached through angles and perspectives that are unique to this world. The themes, of course, carry over, but it stays true to the fantasy world it is and the types of justice and injustice that would be inherent to it. It’s left to the reader to transcribe these thoughts onto our own world and our own experiences of injustice within society.

This review has already gotten pretty long, and I could go on and on. But, in this case, I almost feel like the less said the better! There’s so much great stuff to discover here that I don’t want to spoil any more of it! Needless to be said, my copy is already pre-ordered, and I highly recommend any and all fantasy fans to get their hands on this book ASAP!

Rating 10:Breaking fantasy walls that I didn’t know even exited! Simply fantastic!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Deadly Education” is a new title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on “Non JKR Magic School Novels.”

Find “A Deadly Education” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Ikessar Falcon”

35661274._sy475_Book: “The Ikessar Falkcon” by by K. S. Villoso

Publishing Info: Orbit, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: Abandoned by her people, Queen Talyien’s quest takes a turn for the worse as she stumbles upon a plot deeper and more sinister than she could have ever imagined, one that will displace her king and see her son dead. The road home beckons, strewn with a tangled web of deceit and unimaginable horrors – creatures from the dark, mad dragons and men with hearts hungry for power.

To save her land, Talyien must confront the myth others have built around her: Warlord Yeshin’s daughter, symbol of peace, warrior and queen and everything she could never be.

The price for failure is steep. Her friends are few. And a nation carved by a murderer can only be destined for war.

Previously Reviewed: “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro”

Review: I requested an ARC of the first book in this series kind of on a whim. To be frank, I was actually kind of put off by the series being titled “Chronicles of the Bitch Queen.” I mean, I get it…she-wolves, bitch, yep. And I’m sure it’s also `tied in with the fact that Talyien is not a beloved queen. But still, it’s kind of an abrasive series title, and I wasn’t sure what exactly I was getting into. Turned out, what I was getting into was an intriguing new fantasy world headed-up by a no-nonsense but still deeply flawed heroine. So after finishing that first book, it was really exciting to see that the second was coming out only 6 months later. And here we are!

Talyien’s situation hadn’t started out well when she set off from her homeland in the hopes of reconciling with the husband that had abandoned her and her son years earlier. It had only gotten worse since with repeated assassination attempts, betrayal, said husband heading back to her home, potentially to kill their son, leaving Talyien stranded in a foreign country with very few friends. But she is nothing if not persistent, especially when the life of her son is at stake. As she makes her way back to him, however, Talyien covers an even deeper web of lies, one that exists not only in the present but extends back to the past.

I think I liked this book even more than the first! For one thing, I’m still really enjoying the first person narration but told from the POV of an adult woman. All too often, the only place I really see first person narration is in YA novels with teenage protagonists. And this, in turn, leads to a certain immaturity in their focus (don’t get me wrong, I still love me a good YA fantasy, but the narrators can sometimes be a bit silly). But here, we have an adult who has a full history behind her, one that she is capable of looking back on and recognizing her own and others’ mistakes. It also makes all of her interactions with those around her particularly interesting. In some ways, she’s an unreliable narrator as her perceptions of others and their motivations are always colored by what she knows (or guesses) about them. But we also have an inside look into how their actions and words influence her.

This book also seemed to expand on almost all aspects. We see more of the world-building as Talyien and her crew travel around trying to make their way back to her son. I really enjoyed out fully fleshed out this world feels. We hear about the different foods, languages, and cultural behaviors from place to place. And it’s all presented in a very natural-feeling way, no info dumping. There was also more of magic to found in this second book and more action in general.

I also really liked how much more we learned about Talyien’s father and his actions. There’s also a pretty deep-dive into the lasting influence that her father has had on Talyien. From the very start of the book, it’s clear that his perceptions of her, his lessons, his strengths and failures as a parent are a continual influence on Talyien’s own perception of herself and of the choices she can make. She, of course, is also unreliable in her memories of him, as we, the reader, can see some of his flaws in a more clear way than she can.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It felt like it took what the first book laid down as a foundation and started really building up from there. Everything just felt more fully fleshed out, and the story was even more exciting. Of course, it’s no surprise that Talyien’s story doesn’t end here with rainbows and butterflies, so I’m excited to see what happens in the third book. Don’t forget to enter to win an ARC copy of this book as well!

Rating 8: Even bigger and better than the first!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ikessar Falcon” is a new title, so it isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on: “Asian-Authored Books in 2020.”

Find “The Ikessar Falcon” at your library using WorldCat!

Giveaway: “The Ikessar Falcon”

35661274._sy475_Book: “The Ikessar Falkcon” by by K. S. Villoso

Publishing Info: Orbit, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: Abandoned by her people, Queen Talyien’s quest takes a turn for the worse as she stumbles upon a plot deeper and more sinister than she could have ever imagined, one that will displace her king and see her son dead. The road home beckons, strewn with a tangled web of deceit and unimaginable horrors – creatures from the dark, mad dragons and men with hearts hungry for power.

To save her land, Talyien must confront the myth others have built around her: Warlord Yeshin’s daughter, symbol of peace, warrior and queen and everything she could never be.

The price for failure is steep. Her friends are few. And a nation carved by a murderer can only be destined for war.

Giveaway Details: I really enjoyed the first book in this series, “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro” when I read it earlier this spring. So I was super excited to see that the second one would be coming out this fall, so soon after.

The first story introduces us to Queen Talyien, a young queen who is anything but beloved by her people. Abandoned by her husband and left with a young son and a country that is barely holding itself together, Talyien strives to hold the fraying bits of her life together. When she attempts to reconcile with her husband several years after the fact, everything seems to go wrong and Talyien begins to discover that her problems may be even bigger than she had thought.

There were a bunch of things I really liked about the first book. The writing was strong and confident. The world-building was unique but not to caught up in itself. But most of all, I really liked Talyien. Talyien was that type of heroine that defies all of the stereotypes one typically finds when looking up examples of “strong female protagonists.” Yes, she’s smart, a good fighter, and independent. But she’s also flawed, self-aware, and has made choices that aren’t also good, and realizes it! Beyond this, it’s always nice to have an adult woman as the heroine. Too often fantasy stories focus on very young female characters. Not that I have a problem with those characters and the often very lovely romances they bring with them, but it’s also nice to have a change. Talyien is a grown woman who’s seen the ups and downs or romances and marriage and has a small child of her own. Her problems and outlooks on life are very different than the young woman just setting out in the world.

The end of the first book left Talyien in a situation all the more dire than the one she started in, so I’m excited to see what she gets up to in this one! I’m not really expecting rainbows and butterflies, but man, can’t something go right for this woman? My full review will be up this Friday. In the meantime, we’re giving away a copy of this book. The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends on September 23.

Enter to win!

Serena’s Review: “A Dance with Fate”

36253130._sy475_Book: “A Dance with Fate” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Ace Books, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The young warrior and bard Liobhan has lost her brother to the Otherworld. Even more determined to gain a place as an elite fighter, she returns to Swan Island to continue her training. But Liobhan is devastated when her comrade Dau is injured and loses his sight in their final display bout. Blamed by Dau’s family for the accident, she agrees to go to Dau’s home as a bond servant for the span of one year.

There, she soon learns that Oakhill is a place of dark secrets. The vicious Crow Folk still threaten both worlds. And Dau, battling the demon of despair, is not an easy man to help.

When Liobhan and Dau start to expose the rot at the center of Oakhill, they place themselves in deadly danger. For their enemy wields great power and will stop at nothing to get his way. It will take all the skills of a Swan Island warrior and a touch of the uncanny to give them a hope of survival. . . .

Previously Reviewed: “The Harp of Kings”

Review: As always, I’m excited whenever I see a new Juliet Marillier book coming out. The first book in this trilogy (?), “The Harp of Kings” definitely set the stage for this second book, leaving a few threads dangling and a mysterious enemy in the form of the Crow People. While it wasn’t my favorite of Marillier’s work, I thought it was a good start to a new series and introduced a compelling set of new characters. This second one was…odd. I still enjoyed it, but not as much as I had hoped, even though, on the surface, it seemed to have most of what I look for in these types of books.

Liobhan and Dau are on the cusp of achieving that which they both have worked so hard and so long to accomplish: to become full members of the Swan Island crew. But, in an unfortunate accident while the two spar, Dau suffers a debilitating injury that costs him his sight, perhaps forever. With his family now demanding justice, Liobhan finds herself alongside Dau back where neither wish to be and a place that caused only harm and suffering to Dau during his childhood. There, they must both confront the evils at the heart of Dau’s family, and maybe some mysteries, too.

My description of the book, following the example of the published one, fails to mention that Brocc, too, is a part of this story. After his decision to marry a half-Fae queen and join her in her realm at the end of the last book, I wasn’t sure what we would see from him here on out. But low and behold, he ends up with a decent number of chapters and his own arc in this story. It’s also made clear by the end of this book that there will be more to hear from him in the third. Not sure why the publisher failed to include the fact that he is still a main character, but I suspect it’s because they realize that most readers are probably here for Liobhan and Dau. I know I was.

Brocc’s not a bad character, but it’s hard to be as compelling as two leads that each have quite a number of chapters devoted to their POVs making them both more compelling together and apart. Brocc’s own story here was…strange. It’s clear that he is still struggling to find his own role in the Fae world. And, due to the fact that he grew up in the human world, it’s also clear that he has very different views and ideas about the threat the Crow People pose to the Fae. He ends up with his own mini quest, which I found compelling enough. But I really struggled with the romance between Brocc and his wife. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to like her or not? By the end, I really didn’t like her at all, but was still unsure whether the author had been meaning for a few late reveals to materially change the negative impression that had been built up. For me, the reveal was definitely not enough to change my mind and, by its nature, kind of made me more mad to think that we might have been supposed to forgive her decisions and treatment of Brocc due to it. I don’t want to spoil it, but if you read this book, you’ll see what I mean. Maybe other readers will have a different impression. But all of this together left me really struggling to enjoy Brocc’s section of the story.

As for Dau and Liobhan, I enjoyed their story more. I think partly they are simply more compelling characters on their own, but they also had more to do in this book in particular. That said, they still didn’t seem to have enough to do. The mystery at the heart of their story is pretty obvious from the get-to, so it’s more a journey of reaching the obvious endpoint than in unraveling any real clues. Dau’s recovery and his attempts to come to grips with his new situation are interesting enough, but, again, there wasn’t any real tension here as it seemed like the conclusion of his arc was also well-telegraphed. And, again, the romance left something wanting.

This is a particularly frustrating thing to find in a Marillier book, as I’ve always thought that one of her best strengths is her ability to write compelling, swoon-worthy romances. But here, it just felt off. There really was no obvious progression of Dau and Liobhan’s feelings. Instead, we were simply told that they each began to have feelings for the other. It was incredibly disappointing  and said, especially knowing what the author is capable of. There could have been a really great romance here, but for some reason, it just felt deflated and underdeveloped from the start. There’s another book coming and some challenges still ahead of these two, so I’ll hold out hope that this ship can be righted.

I still love Marillier’s writing style and the overall tone of her take on fantasy stories. There are some good pieces in these books, but for some reason they just don’t seem to be coming together the same way several of her other stories have in the past. Obviously, I’ll still be here for the next one, but I’m a bit more nervous about it than I remember ever being in the past for one of this author’s books.

Rating 7: A surprisingly lackluster romance on two counts left this book feeling a bit limp at times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Dance with Fate” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on “Strong Fighter Heroines.”

Find “A Dance with Fate” at your library using WorldCat!