Serena’s Review: “Into the Heartless Wood”

Book: “Into the Heartless Wood” by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Publishing Info: Page Street Kids, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The forest is a dangerous place, where siren song lures men and women to their deaths. For centuries, a witch has harvested souls to feed the heartless tree, using its power to grow her domain.

When Owen Merrick is lured into the witch’s wood, one of her tree-siren daughters, Seren, saves his life instead of ending it. Every night, he climbs over the garden wall to see her, and every night her longing to become human deepens. But a shift in the stars foretells a dangerous curse, and Seren’s quest to become human will lead them into an ancient war raging between the witch and the king who is trying to stop her.

Review: I’m not sure why it took me so long to get to this book. On the surface, it has tons of things working in its favor for me specifically. The cover is lovely and the story sounds like the exact sort of fairytale fantasy that I absolutely love. But every time I picked it up, I just couldn’t quite get into it. So, this last December I decided to really give it a go. And, while it still isn’t my favorite read ever, at least this time I did manage to get through the entire thing!

Everyone knows the true sirens live not in the sea but in the woods. Deep in the dark forest, a witch weaves a powerful spell to lure men and women beneath the canopy of trees where she can use her magic to feed their souls to the trees themselves. But it turns out that tree-sirens may want more, at least Seren does. When she meets a human, Owen, she begins to understand what it is to be human and longs for a soul of her own. But darker forces are shifting and the clash between the witch and a powerful king is soon to come.

This book is a tough one for me because of two dueling aspects of the story. One that I love. And one that I hate. Let’s start with what I loved. Obviously, I’m here for all of the fairytale fantasies, and this was just the type that I enjoy. The language was lyrical and of that “old-timey” style that I particularly enjoy. There was also numerous nods to English/Welsh folklore that very much reminded me of Juliet Marillier’s work. And really, anything that can be compared to one of my favorite authors has to be good. And yet, here I am giving a middling review to this book. Well, that comes down to what my problem was with the story. Notably, our two main characters and their romance.

Sadly, this was a hardcore instalove story. I mean, these two characters pretty much fall immediately in full-on love by page 60 (unsurprisingly enough, this is about where I fell-off in my reading in previous attempts). For me, instalove like this immediately sucks all of the interest out of the romance of the story. There’s no where for this relationship to go if it starts out at 100% milk. This makes the romance itself read very bland and boring, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that both main character also felt rather flat and uninteresting. I did like that their roles were somewhat reversed, with the heroine coming from a villainous role and the hero having a softer, more open personality.

So, there you have it, a book made of two equally powerful sides of my preference-coin. Love the fairytale story and lyrical quality of writing. Really hated the instalove romance and flat main characters. For those who are less annoyed by instalove, this could be a real win of a story. But sadly, it was enough to bump this one down a few points in my own rating.

Rating 7: Really loved parts of it, really disliked others, so take from that what you will!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Into the Heartless Wood” is on these Goodreads lists: Books To Read In Winter and Magical Forest.

Find “Into the Heartless Wood” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Echoes and Empires”

Book: “Echoes and Empires” by Morgan Rhodes

Publishing Info: Razorbill, January 2022

Where Did I Get this BOok: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Josslyn Drake knows only three things about magic: it’s rare, illegal, and always deadly. So when she’s caught up in a robbery gone wrong at the Queen’s Gala and infected by a dangerous piece of magic—one that allows her to step into the memories of an infamously evil warlock—she finds herself living her worst nightmare. Joss needs the magic removed before it corrupts her soul and kills her. But in Ironport, the cost of doing magic is death, and seeking help might mean scheduling her own execution. There’s nobody she can trust.

Nobody, that is, except wanted criminal Jericho Nox, who offers her a deal: his help extracting the magic in exchange for the magic itself. And though she’s not thrilled to be working with a thief, especially one as infuriating (and infuriatingly handsome) as Jericho, Joss is desperate enough to accept.

But Jericho is nothing like Joss expects. The closer she grows with Jericho and the more she sees of the world outside her pampered life in the city, the more Joss begins to question the beliefs she’s always taken for granted—beliefs about right and wrong, about power and magic, and even about herself.

In an empire built on lies, the truth may be her greatest weapon.

Review: So, I was sucked into this one by the cover. I’ll even admit that I only barely glanced at the general description before requesting it. That said, had I looked at said description a bit more closely, I might have been a bit more wary. But I also know that a book description isn’t the be all end all of books, and I’ve seen more than one example in the last year where the description completely undersold or misrepresented an excellent story. Unfortunately, this one is pretty much exactly what you’d expect based on its description.

Joss has always lived her life in the spotlight, and until the last year when tragedy struck her family, she’s reveled in it. Still, the show must go on, so Joss dutifully makes an appearance at a grand event. Unfortunately, while there, she gets caught up in a robbery that leaves her in possession of a magical infestation. And in a land where magic is outlawed, she must now creep into the shadowy world of the thieves and outlaws in hopes of curing herself before she is executed. While there, she begins to uncover new truths about her glittering world that throws her entire existence into question.

Sadly, I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about this book. I guess I can say that the writing seems strong enough, and the author was blessedly free of any repetitive word choices or an overly-simplistic style. There was also a fairly high level of action throughout, especially if you’re the type of reader who sees action in some of the smaller, social moments between characters.

Unfortunately, some of that “action” was unnecessary drama. Joss, herself, is introduced as a fairly unlikable main character who is made up of many of the more annoying stereotypes applied to teenage girls. She’s very self-focused, on her looks and her own actions, has made friends with a bunch of “popular girls” who, of course, participate in this the type of sniping and backstabbing that we’ve all seen in one too many teenage movies, and her focus on things like fancy dresses and shopping (while not bad on their own, of course) comes across as frivolous when paired with the rest of her character. The story does go on to reveal much that is wrong with Joss’s view of herself and her world, but for me, it was both too little too late and a bit hard to truly buy any of her changes.

I also had quibbles about how Joss was introduced. The way she talks, interacts with others, and generally carries herself through the world is very much in step with how a 20-something young woman would, decidedly NOT a teenage girl. It read as both unbelievable and, at times, borderline inappropriate. Also, fairly neglectful of her caretakers?

I also had massive, massive eye rolls at romance and the romantic interest. Not only was it all so predictable, but the banter was also very tired and expected. Also, the name “Jericho Nox.” Can’t not mention the ridiculousness of that name. From there, you move on to all of the other non-twists that come through this book. If you haven’t guessed most of them from the book description itself, I’d be shocked.

I was also very confused about the setting of this book. The cover, for one, makes it seem as if it is set in your typical bland, slightly Medieval European setting. But no. There are cars, phones, and a sort of social media apparatus. But also magic that still feels like it would come from one of those second world fantasies. Obviously, urban fantasy exists and that is probably the best subgenre for this. But that, too, didn’t quite fit. I don’t dislike the concept of the world, overall, but as it was, it felt jarring and hard to really place myself within it as a reader.

This book wasn’t really for me at all. Perhaps readers who aren’t as tired of some of these tropes will enjoy it, but I can’t really say anyone should run out and get their hands on it immediately.

Rating 5: Not for me. Too full of tropes and an unlikable main character really hurt it for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Echoes and Empires” is on this Goodreads lists: YA Novels of 2022.

Find “Echoes and Empires” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Amber Crown”

Book: “The Amber Crown” by Jacey Bedford

Publishing Info: Daw Books, January 2022

Where Did I get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The king is dead, his queen is missing. On the amber coast, the usurper king is driving Zavonia to the brink of war. A dangerous magical power is rising up in Biela Miasto, and the only people who can set things right are a failed bodyguard, a Landstrider witch, and the assassin who set off the whole sorry chain of events.

Valdas, Captain of the High Guard, has not only failed in his duty to protect the king, but he’s been accused of the murder, and he’s on the run. He’s sworn to seek justice, but his king sets him another task from beyond the grave. Valdas doesn’t believe in magic, which is unfortunate as it turns out.

Mirza is the healer-witch of a Landstrider band, valued and feared in equal measure for her witchmark, her scolding tongue, and her ability to walk the spirit world. When she’s given a task by Valdas’ dead king, she believes that the journey she must take is one she can never return from.

Lind is the clever assassin. Yes, someone paid him to kill the king, but who is to blame, the weapon or the power behind it? Lind must face his traumatic past if he’s to have a future.

Can these three discover the real villain, find the queen, and set the rightful king on the throne before the country is overcome?

Review:: Yet another fantasy book with the title “The ‘something’ Crown.” I have another book with a type of crown in the title coming up in a week or so! I don’t know what it is about crowns that seems to be seen as the go-to in fantasy, but I do miss the days of more creative titles. Please, no more “crowns,” “queens,” or “the BLANK of BLANK and BLANK” for a solid five years please. Anyways, that mini rant aside, let’s dive in!

Valdas is in disgrace. As Captain of the guard, his one duty is to protect the monarch, and when the king is killed under his watch, there cannot be a failure more profound. But his duty does not end there, and when he’s tasked with finding the missing queen and heir, he finds himself in mixed company: a healer with powerful magical abilities (something that Valdas didn’t even believe in until it was forced upon him recently) as well as the assassin who seems responsible for the king’s death itself. But who was the power behind the order? And can they save the queen and heir before they, too, are harmed?

One of the reasons I found myself initially intrigued by the premise of this book was how much it sounded like a fairly traditional fantasy story. The world-building and magical system didn’t seem overly complex, and the plot itself followed a fairly standard “group goes on a quest” storyline. Most of these things have a long history behind their “trope-y-ness” because they can be implemented easily to tell fantastic stories (“Lord of the Rings,” anyone?). Sadly, here, there too many other things working against the story for me to really revel in these sorts of classic fantasy features.

To start with what I liked, however. All three main characters were fairly interesting. Each had a decent amount of time given to establish their unique personalities and, more importantly, their motivations going through this journey. All three of them were nuanced characters, none falling neatly inside a black or white box. However, even here, I do wish we had seen just a bit more. It’s hard to really describe what I mean, but, in their own way, each character felt like it fell just short of really coalescing into a complex, compelling character.

On to some of my struggles, first my general problems. For some reason, the writing fell flat for me. The plot itself never truly sucked me in, and I was very aware of the experience of reading the book as I turned the pages (clicked on the Kindle). I just couldn’t fall into the story, and the pacing was a let down at times. Moments that should have landed with more “oomf” rather landed with a “thud,” and the ending was surprising anticlimactic considering the work that had been put into building up the entire situation.

From there, the specifics. While I just got done saying that I generally struggled to connect to the writing, there were also a few specific writing choices that didn’t land right. The author makes an effort to include a diverse cast of characters, and yet it seems to be done in a very clunky way. Instead of simply initially identifying her diverse characters, she routinely described people as “the black fighter” or something like that. The sheer amount of repetition here is maybe partly what did it. There was just something off. I was also turned off by the number of times women’s breasts were described and in ways that are of the more egregious sort. Like, a woman would enter the room and would be described as having her breasts almost popping our of her shirt….Why? How is this detail adding to the scene, characterization, or story? There were also far too many rapes/near rapes/threats of rape in this story. Everyone knows my thoughts on this sort of thing so I’m just not going to go into it again. Suffice to say, rape can be included in a thoughtful, meaningful way. In this case, it was not and just adds up alongside the overuse of sexualized descriptions of women and strange fixation on skin color.

I was very disappointed by this book. I had hopes of diving back into my roots and finding a new “classic” fantasy story. And in some ways I did: sadly it was “classic” in the sense that it felt like it was committing very dated mistakes that, happily, are seen less and less often. Fans of fairly straight forward classic fantasy may like this, but I think there are better options out there in general.

Rating 6: Interesting characters are let down by a strange set of tired “classic” fantasy missteps.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Amber Crown” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on: “Books with Crowns.”

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

Monthly Marillier: “The Caller”

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

Book: “The Caller” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, March 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

Book Description: Neryn has made a long journey to perfect her skills as a Caller. She has learned the wisdom of water and of earth; she has journeyed to the remote isles of the west and the forbidding mountains of the north. Now, Neryn must travel in Alban’s freezing winter to seek the mysterious White Lady, Guardian of Air. For only when Neryn has been trained by all four Guardians will she be ready to play her role in toppling the tyrannical King Keldec.

But the White Lady is not what she seems. Trapped with Whisper, her fey protector, Neryn is unable to send word to her beloved Flint, who is in danger of being exposed as a double agent. When a new threat looms and the rebellion is in jeopardy, Neryn must enter Keldec’s court, where one false move could see her culled. She must stand up against forces more powerful than any she has confronted before, and face losses that could break her heart.

Previously Reviewed: “Shadowfell” and “Raven Flight”

Review: This series was a bit of a roller coaster ride when I read it the first time, and the same holds true now. The first book was a bit slow and plodding. The second book was much improved and more to my taste. And the last book…was kind of back to being a miss, leaving the trilogy as a whole as probably my least favorite series from Marillier. So with that exciting preview to go on, let’s dive in!

Neryn’s task, to meet and gain the blessing of the four Guardains of the fae, has not been completed, and the powerful and dangerous forces in the land of Alban grow. She must hurry, not only does the entire land depend on her ability to communicate with the Fae, bringing them into the battle to secure their country from its cruel dictator, but her love, Flint, may soon be exposed as a spy. But magic can’t be rushed, and there are secrets to be discovered in the chilly halls of the North.

This book was not my favorite. Part of this has to do with the strange pacing of the story which makes it feel like poorly fit pieces of a puzzle that just won’t lie together. In many ways, the beginning feels like a natural extension of the second book, so much so that it reads a bit strange to find it at the beginning of a completely separate book that rather quickly leaves this type of “magical trial” storyline in the dust. But still, as I greatly enjoyed the second book for this very same storyline, the first part of this book is by far my favorite. I enjoyed the magical mysteries to be found with the northern Guardian, and this small adventure perfectly fit Neryn’s optimism and persistent pluck even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

However, from there the book goes downhill in my estimation. We move on to a undercover spy game that, on its own, isn’t bad but pairs poorly with the magical adventures that came before it. Again, my lack of investment in Flint and his relationship with Neryn didn’t help, leaving me feeling a bit bored as we made our way through what should have been touching reunions and tense games of cat-and-mouse.

And, sadly, the ending was the worst of it. Not only did I find the manner in which these conflicts were resolved unbelievable, but the entire thing undercut much of the grief and terror we’d seen up to this point. Neryn’s journey, her power, all were useful, of course. There was a brief battle. But in the end, it felt like the rebellion, Neryn, and us, the reader, had been primed for something that simply didn’t happen. And if it was ultimately as easy as this (I don’t think it would be and frankly my eyebrows were exploding off the top of my head, they were raised so high), the entire situation could have been handled sooner and the threat was never that powerful to start.

There was also left only a small, short chapter to really wrap up the remaining storylines. We were given only the briefest glimpses into the possible future for these characters, and it all simply felt like too little tacked on at the very last minute. Given how little of this series showed Neryn and Flint together, this truncated ending for them felt like even more of a let down.

So, yeah. I didn’t love this trilogy when I read it the first time and was curious to see if, perhaps, I just wasn’t in the right mood that go around (though, to be fair, I read these as they came out, so I would have had to be “not in the right mood” for like three years for that to be the case). But, no. This series just wasn’t for me. Neryn was a bit too Mary Sue. The romance lacked the spark I’ve come to expect from Marillier. And the story often felt half-baked. If you’re a fan of her work, maybe check this out. But other fantasy readers are sure to find better entries from this author in her other series.

Rating 6: A disappointing end to a lackluster series. Honestly, with “Wildwood Dancing” as the exception, Marillier is a far better adult fantasy author than YA.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Caller” is on these Goodreads lists: Most Interesting Magic System and Australian Speculative Fiction.

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

Kate’s Review: “Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom”

Book: “Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom” by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, July 2011

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Locke & Key unwinds into its fourth volume in Keys to the Kingdom. With more keys making themselves known, and the depths of the Locke family’s mystery ever-expanding, Dodge’s desperation to end his shadowy quest drives the inhabitants of Keyhouse ever closer to a revealing conclusion.

Review: After I set “Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom” down, I realized that I only had two collections left until the end. This re-read has gone by pretty quickly, and it had been long enough that I feel like I’m finding brand new things with each moment I turn the pages. I had been talking a bit about how patient and deliberate Joe Hill has been up until this point, but in “Keys to the Kingdom” things have started to speed up, which means that the intensity has started to build as well. And that has mostly been a positive thing.

Plot progression has picked up again in this volume, and boy does it ever! Hill covers a lot of territory in this collection, but he manages to do it in such a way that it doesn’t feel like it’s bloated, nor does it feel like things are being rushed. He opts to focus on certain things, but does show snippets of the Locke kids battling it out with Dodge over keys, as well as conflicts they are having with each other in the story arc “February”. I liked how it puts in the effort to have development for our characters, but doesn’t get bogged down in EVERY conflict they have with Dodge. We also get to see more backstory to Rendell and his high school friends, as Kinsey, Tyler, and Dodge run into Erin Voss, Rendell’s childhood friend who is now committed to a mental asylum. Kinsey is desperate to know what the connection is to Rendell, Voss, and the secrets they were keeping, while Dodge wants to keep Erin’s mouth shut since in her addled state she still recognizes him as her childhood friend. This also led to a kind of awkward within present context optics plot point, in which Kinsey and Bode use one of the keys to change their race so they can visit Erin, as her rantings make it seem like she is super agitated by the presence white people (let me just say that this isn’t the case, though I won’t reveal what I mean). I definitely understand the way that Hill used it to make a greater point about how Black people are perceived by white people in American society, and there is a moment that I thought was genuinely poignant at the end of the issue, but pretty much putting Kinsey and Bode into magical black face so they can learn a lesson about the humanity of Black people didn’t really land for me. It just felt a bit patronizing. But by the end everything had made a comeback for me, as a significant plot development that signals the last third of this series knocked my socks off. I knew it was coming, but it was still VERY well done, and ups the stakes to the highest levels they’ve been thus far.

And in terms of character development this volume was top notch. For Tyler, he is starting to feel the weight of all the difficult things in his life, and it’s making him overwhelmed and under severe pressure. His only solace is his girlfriend Jordan, whom he is head over heels in love with, and while Jordan obviously cares deeply for Tyler, she is pretty damaged. Which, of course, leads to problems down the line, and Tyler starts to think that being strong is something he can achieve through magic, much like Kinsey tried to extract her fear through the same means. It’s a pretty heavy moment when Tyler feels enough despair over everything that he turns to something that may not work out the way he wants it to. And speaking of Kinsey’s issue, we see all of that coming to a head now too, as having a lack of fear and grief has not only affected her relationship with Nina, it has also started to affect her friendships. Funnily enough, having no fear and no grief has made Kinsey a pretty shitty and selfish friend, and the most interesting part of this entire arc for me is that she recognizes this, but literally cannot bring herself to care because of her actions with the Head Key.

And finally, the art continues to be visceral and gory, but with a bit of a nostalgic twist in one of the stories. The first story, “Sparrow”, involves Bode trying to make friendships but preferring isolation, and he eventually puts himself into the body of a sparrow for a bit of time. And this is all drawn and written in a way that is in tribute to “Calvin and Hobbes”, a comic that has been near and dear to my heart since I was a small child. While it’s true that some of the juxtapositions of the nostalgic and bright Watterson style mixed with the gore and violence of “Locke & Key” is unnerving, I honestly thought that it was super charming and fun to give Bode this kind of adventure with a loving tribute to a cartoonist and storyteller that clearly inspired the Hill and Rodríguez.

“Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom” has left us two thirds of the way into the story of the Locke family, and we are now heading for the final showdown between them and Dodge over the keys in Keyhouse. I know where we are going, and I’m still a little nervous to tread into the places that I know are coming up. But Hill and Rodríguez have something truly wondrous in store, and I’m ready.

Rating 8: Some things come to a head in this volume plot wise, with some social commentary and “Calvin and Hobbes” love thrown into the mix, which is a pretty good combination for the start of the final issues of this series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Coming of Age Horror Novels”, and “Required Reading Graphic Novels”.

Find “Locke & Key (Vol. 4): Keys to the Kingdom” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Age of Empyre”

Book: “Age of Empyre” by Michael J. Sullivan

Publishing Info: Grim Oak Press, May 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

Book Description: A door opens. An army of dragons advance. And the fate of the living rests with the dead.

After obtaining the secret to creating dragons, the leader of the Fhrey has turned the tide of war once more—but gaining the advantage has come at a terrible price. While Imaly plots to overthrow the fane for transgressions against his people, a mystic and a keeper are the only hope for the Rhunes. Time is short, and the future of both races hangs in the balance. In this exciting conclusion to the Legends of the First Empire series, the Great War finally comes to a climactic end, and with it dawns a new era in the Age of Empyre.

Previously Reviewed: “Age of Myth” , “Age of Swords”, “Age of War” , “Age of Legend”, and “Age of Death”

Review: I’m not sure why it’s taken me this long to finishing up this series, but…well, it did. I was really enjoying the audiobook versions, and I had half a mind to wait for the library to have a copy. But over a year later, it looked like that wasn’t going to happen, so on to my purchased copy! The last book ended on a pretty big cliffhanger that I still remembered vividly over a year later, so I was pretty excited to see not only how that was resolved but how the entire series was going to be wrapped up.

The war is coming to a head. With the secret to creating dragons now known to the Fhrey, the Rhunes one real advantage has been crippled. But all is not lost and those who set out on a quest into the heartland of the Fhrey people still have hope to cross the realms of the dead. But all who started out will not return, and the future of both races hang in the balance.

This was a bit of a tricky read for me, the first of its kind in this series which, overall, I’ve greatly enjoyed. I did start having a few questions around the midpoint of the series. The author surprised me with some sudden swaps in main characters and removal of other, previously central, figures. For the most part these played well and I remember praising the Sullivan for breaking some tried and true fantasy stereotypes and not getting precious with his characters. But around this point the story also started to feel meandering and lacking in the tight pacing and focus that I saw in the first three books. This was most noticeable in the last book, which had previously been one book that was then cut in two. And it showed. It really felt like the author simply gave himself a page count and then just ended the book when he reached it. Because of that, this book has similar problems in that it feels like the second half of the first book, rather than a story with its own unique arc.

I also struggled with a couple of the character actions (some carried over from the previous book, choices made there that made little sense that then had massive repercussions in this book). It felt like Sullivan had to quickly tie up the many loose ends left, but this resulted in several characters with arcs that, over the entirety of their story told over multiple books, felt ultimately rather pointless. Why were some of these characters even introduced if it feels like their story really didn’t go anywhere in the end? It was very disappointing.

I especially struggled with Persephone’s story. She was one of the strongest characters in the first several books, but in the last few, it feels as if she’s barely on the page. And if she is seen, she feels aimless and without agency. I get that Sullivan is trying to tell the story of many characters, some of whom played bigger roles in certain parts of this grand tale and less in others, so perhaps it was simply the manner in which some of them (particularly Persephone) rose and fell out of prominence felt clumsy. This book also tied up a few characters’ stories in ways that I felt undermined much of their previous journey, making it feel like much of it was for nothing. I can’t name names without spoiling big reveals, but you’ll know them when you see them.

It’s tough, because I still enjoyed the general experience of reading this book. Sullivan has an engaging, approachable style of writing that makes the process of reading his stories fun and easy. It was only when I sat down after the fact and reflected on this series as a whole that I truly began to feel disappointed. I would still ultimately recommend this series and this author to epic fantasy fans. Even though I had some quibbles with this ending, it wasn’t a dumpster fire by any means and was largely satisfying (even if I had personally wanted different endings for a few characters/aspects). I’m excited to check out the other series by this author, however. Technically, they were written before this series but, chronologically, happen afterwards. Should be a fun reading experience!

Rating 7: Solid enough as its own book, but lacking a bit as the conclusion to the series as a whole.

Reader’s Advisory:

Find “Age of Empyre” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “A Psalm of Storms and Silence”

Book: “A Psalm of Storms and Silence” by Roseanna A. Brown

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, November 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Karina lost everything after a violent coup left her without her kingdom or her throne. Now the most wanted person in Sonande, her only hope of reclaiming what is rightfully hers lies in a divine power hidden in the long-lost city of her ancestors.

Meanwhile, the resurrection of Karina’s sister has spiraled the world into chaos, with disaster after disaster threatening the hard-won peace Malik has found as Farid’s apprentice. When they discover that Karina herself is the key to restoring balance, Malik must use his magic to lure her back to their side. But how do you regain the trust of someone you once tried to kill?

As the fabric holding Sonande together begins to tear, Malik and Karina once again find themselves torn between their duties and their desires. And when the fate of everything hangs on a single, horrifying choice, they each must decide what they value most—a power that could transform the world, or a love that could transform their lives.

Previously Reviewed: “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin”

Review: So, if you’ve read my review of “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin,” you will remember that I checked both of these out from the library at once. Very rarely do I get a chance to read books back-to-back like this. Either because I read the first one when it comes out and there is naturally a long wait. Or because I can’t get my hands on them both at the same time. But it’s always a fun experience to simply stay in one world over the course of two books. The first one followed a fairly straight-forward plot, but its interesting uses of West African culture and folklore kept me on board. Let’s see what the second one had to offer!

All of Karina’s worst fears have come to pass, the mutiny she had feared struck and she now wanders alone and hunted, desperate to reclaim her throne. But it soon becomes clear that Karina’s desire to return to her throne is not only important to her but to the entire country, for with the return of her sister as come chaos and disaster. Malik quickly learns that returning Karina to her throne is all that will resettle this disturbance. But, of course, their is the teensy problem of trying to get a woman you tried to kill to trust you once again and work alongside you.

Before we get into the real review, I just want to take this moment to love on the covers of both of these books. Rarely do I like covers that feature models, I think they’re usually too cheesy and draw to mind cheap covers of romance paperbacks of old. But I really like the cover for both this book and the first one. I think I probably like this one even more than the first. It’s great to see Malik, and Karina looks more like the powerful character I imagined.

Sadly, this book was a bit of a let-down. I had some concerns going in, considering one of my bigger complaints about the first book was the fairly bland and straight-forward writing style and plot design. This is always a bit difficult for me to review in these types of books, as I’m not the target audience, not being a young adult myself. However, while I think that perhaps a younger audience would be less turned off by this more plain style of writing and plotting, I do think that authors and publishers regularly underestimate their readers. Just because YA readers will read this book and maybe not be actively turned off by the simple writing (unlike me), I would theorize that they would greatly appreciate it more if the author challenged their abilities and expectations a bit more.

Mostly, I was disappointed with the direction the romance and characterization took for our two characters. I never enjoy a romance that has tension created and kept alive only by actively obtuse levels of determined noncommunication. Maybe just talk to each other?! I also have limited patience for wishy-washy trust issues of the sort we see here. It simply doesn’t feel natural to try to pair the level of interest/love these two are meant to feel for each other with the level of distrust we get from their mental dialogues and their unwillingness to communicate basic facts. It just doesn’t read as natural to have characters behave like this.

I was pleased enough with the ending, a bit expected, but it also felt like a natural fit for the story. So, while I personally didn’t really enjoy this duology on the whole, I do recognize that it may appeal much more to actual YA readers. The West African cultural elements and folklore were still very interesting, so I don’t regret checking it out.

Rating 6: A bit of a let down with a romance plot line that I generally don’t enjoy. But I’m also not the target audience, so take from my opinion what you will.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Psalm of Storms and Silence” is on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Fantasy and Science Fiction Books by Black Authors and X of Y and Z.

Find “A Psalm of Storms and Silence” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin”

Book: “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin” by Roseanne A. Brown

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, June 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: For Malik, the Solstasia festival is a chance to escape his war-stricken home and start a new life with his sisters in the prosperous desert city of Ziran. But when a vengeful spirit abducts Malik’s younger sister, Nadia, as payment into the city, Malik strikes a fatal deal—kill Karina, Crown Princess of Ziran, for Nadia’s freedom.

But Karina has deadly aspirations of her own. Her mother, the Sultana, has been assassinated; her court threatens mutiny; and Solstasia looms like a knife over her neck. Grief-stricken, Karina decides to resurrect her mother through ancient magic . . . requiring the beating heart of a king. And she knows just how to obtain one: by offering her hand in marriage to the victor of the Solstasia competition.

When Malik rigs his way into the contest, they are set on a course to destroy each other. But as attraction flares between them and ancient evils stir, will they be able to see their tasks to the death?

Review: I’ve had this book on my TBR list since way back when it first released. And then when I took a second look, BAM! The second book was already out. So that shamed me into making it more of a priority, so here we are. I was able to check out both books from the library at the same time, so we’re going to have a bit of a double feature this week. Let’s dive in!

Torn by grief, Karina, the Crown Princess, is desperate to bring her mother back to life. Not only was the Sultana life cut unnaturally short by assassination, but Karina’s life as the new ruler is a hell of defiant courtiers and a constant fear of mutiny. The only way to return her mother is through a dark spell that requires the heart of a king. And how does a queen find a king? By marrying as quickly as she can. Malik, a young man looking for a brighter future, finds his path forward usurped when his younger sister is captured and the price of her life is the death of the young queen. To do so, he enters a grand contest, the winner of which has been promised said queen’s hand in marriage, the perfect way to get close enough to pull off such a heinous deed. But as the two begin to circle one another, each with the other’s death in their sight, they begin to find their hearts standing in the way of their plans.

This book was a strange mixed bag for me. I had read descriptions of it as a sort of West African “Aladdin” retelling, and I can sort of see that with the caged princess and the young man who comes from nothing but reaches towards a throne. But this expectation didn’t really serve me well, as I don’t think there’s much here that’s too similar to that story. On the other hand, I really enjoyed the West African setting. The descriptions of the clothes, buildings, and, most especially, the food was all excellent and really created a sense of place in which to tell its story. I also liked the West African folklore that we had in the book, and, again, I wish that had been enough without needing “Aladdin” comparisons to somehow familiarize the story to readers who might not have know what to expect. Half the fun of reading is discovering new worlds and new stories, no need to compare them all to something so well-trodden as “Aladdin.”

However, while all of that was good, I struggled to feel truly invested in the story. There was nothing overtly bad about any of it, but it did feel very “paint by numbers” YA fantasy. The writing was very straight-forward and no challenging. There were limited truly imaginative expressions or reflections. And the plot and romance followed the same beaten path that we have seen a million times before in YA romance stories. While I appreciate that publishers are adding more diversity to their catalog, I do wish they’d challenge their authors to push past these tired, very flat stories and writing styles.

I did like the two main characters, however. Malik was allowed to be softer and more emotionally available than the typical heroic male character. And the author explored mental health struggles in Karina’s storyline. Overall, I think this book was just ok. I wish the author had pushed herself to go a bit further, perhaps straying a bit further from the tried and true path. But I did think it was a fun enough read that I’m happy to pick up the second book I already have from the library.

Rating 7: The West African setting and folklore were by far the best parts of a book that otherwise played it rather too safe.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Song of Wraiths and Ruin” is on these Goodreads lists: Black Heroines 2020 and The Blank of Blank and Blank.

Find “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin” at your library using Worldcat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Midnight Girls”

Book: “The Midnight Girls” by Alicia Jasinska

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, December 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: It’s Karnawał season in the snow-cloaked Kingdom of Lechija, and from now until midnight when the church bells ring an end to Devil’s Tuesday time will be marked with wintry balls and glittery disguises, cavalcades of nightly torch-lit “kuligi” sleigh-parties.

Unbeknownst to the oblivious merrymakers, two monsters join the fun, descending upon the royal city of Warszów in the guise of two innocent girls. Newfound friends and polar opposites, Zosia and Marynka seem destined to have a friendship that’s stronger even than magic. But that’s put to the test when they realize they both have their sights set on Lechija’s pure-hearted prince. A pure heart contains immeasurable power and Marynka plans to bring the prince’s back to her grandmother in order to prove herself. While Zosia is determined to take his heart and its power for her own.

When neither will sacrifice their ambitions for the other, the festivities spiral into a wild contest with both girls vying to keep the hapless prince out of the other’s wicked grasp. But this isn’t some remote forest village, where a hint of stray magic might go unnoticed, Warszów is the icy capital of a kingdom that enjoys watching monsters burn, and if Zosia and Marynka’s innocent disguises continue to slip, their escalating rivalry might cost them not just the love they might have for each other, but both their lives.

Review: I love this cover artist (looked up, her name is Charlie Bowater)! Whenever I see a cover by her, the book seems to immediately climb up my TBR pile. It doesn’t hurt that this seemed like the perfect wintery/Christmas fantasy story that gives off hints of “The Night Circus” with its story of dueling sorcerers. And luckily the whole “fighting for the heart of a prince” thing seems like it is just a clever ruse for the true romance at the heart of the story.

Two powerful women find their new friendship quickly put to the test when they discover they each are after the same prize: the pure heart of the young, hapless prince. But nothing is what it seems, and this heart isn’t sought for such soft things like love. No, instead Zosia and Marynka each want the rare power that comes from a heart so pure. As their magical competition grows, so too does the risk they each take in being discovered, for magic is feared and persecuted. But Zosia and Marnka are both discovering that as equal as their determination is to win the prince’s heart, so too may be their growing attraction.

This was a bit of a tough read for me. Mostly because I definitely didn’t dislike it, but I also struggled to really get through it for some reason. There was a lot to like here, but it just didn’t seem to land right. One of the things I liked the most was the story’s roots in Polish culture and fairytales. The descriptions of the town, the fables and legends seen in the festivals, and the food were all lovely and refreshing. I also particularly liked the fact that it was set in winter during a winter festival, a time of year and setting that one doesn’t often see in fantasy stories. There’s definitely something uniquely cozy about reading books featuring others dealing with the winter weather while you are snuggled up in a blanket with hot tea.

I also didn’t mind the two POV characters. But again, I just didn’t mind them. This was another duel POV story, and while I didn’t have a strong preference for one POV over another (usually my problem with this format of storytelling), they also simply read as very similar voices. They each had unique goals and approaches to their task of winning the prince’s heart, but if you plopped med own into a random chapter, it would take some mention of these fact for me to know whose head I was in. The writing was fine for both of them, just not particularly strong overall.

I also struggled with the pacing of the story. I felt like it not only started out rather slowly, it all wrapped up quite quickly in the end. Things fell together much too easily and, overall, the plot seemed to rely far to heavily on the romance to carry the reader through. It wasn’t a huge problem, and I’m sure most readers will be there for the romance mainly anyways, but it did feel a bit rushed and a bit of a let down. Overall, however, I think this book will appeal to readers looking for a wlw fantasy story to c0zy up with this winter!

Rating 7: A fairly middling story in itself, but a sweet fantasy love story that will still likely appeal to many who are looking for a romantic read for the winter season.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Midnight Girls” is on these Goodreads lists: Sci-fi & Fantasy with a main sapphic/wlw romance and Covers by Charlie Bowater (cuz I seem to love all of her covers!)

Find “The Midnight Girls” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Ex Hex”

Book: “The Ex Hex” by Erin Sterling

Publishing Info: Avon, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: New York Times bestselling author Rachel Hawkins, writing as Erin Sterling, casts a spell with a spine-tingling romance full of wishes, witches, and hexes gone wrong.

Nine years ago, Vivienne Jones nursed her broken heart like any young witch would: vodka, weepy music, bubble baths…and a curse on the horrible boyfriend. Sure, Vivi knows she shouldn’t use her magic this way, but with only an “orchard hayride” scented candle on hand, she isn’t worried it will cause him anything more than a bad hair day or two.

That is until Rhys Penhallow, descendent of the town’s ancestors, breaker of hearts, and annoyingly just as gorgeous as he always was, returns to Graves Glen, Georgia. What should be a quick trip to recharge the town’s ley lines and make an appearance at the annual fall festival turns disastrously wrong. With one calamity after another striking Rhys, Vivi realizes her silly little Ex Hex may not have been so harmless after all.

Suddenly, Graves Glen is under attack from murderous wind-up toys, a pissed off ghost, and a talking cat with some interesting things to say. Vivi and Rhys have to ignore their off the charts chemistry to work together to save the town and find a way to break the break-up curse before it’s too late.

Review: Though on this blog I’m known as the resident horror, thriller, and graphic novel reviewer (with non fiction on occasion), Serena is fully the romance reader in terms of blog content. But this past year I’ve been reading more romance, if only because of the pure escapist good feeling vibes it has. I mean, during these past couple of years we could all use as many good vibes as we can get, right? So I told myself that I should review at least ONE romance book for the blog, especially if it could fall into the parameters of my other genres. Enter “The Ex Hex” by Erin Sterling, a romance about witches, hexes, lost love, and talking cats. I got it from Book of the Month Club, feeling like it would be a good fit for the month of October, and finally sat down to read it recently. I had made up my mind that it would be a good way to combine my recent genre adventures with the old reliables, so that I would review it on the blog. After all, witches, right? Well…. the results were mixed.

Solidly meh. (source)

But I will start with the good. Because I like to start on positive notes most of the time. “The Ex Hex” is absolutely cute, and has a fun premise that I just ate up. The idea of a broken hearted witch half seriously casting a hex on a man who broke her heart, and therein cursing him and causing havoc that they have to solve together is a solid premise. I also liked Vivi, said broken hearted witch, as she is plucky, and relatable, and comes from the typical supportive and kooky but ultimately powerful witch family that consists of sarcastic cousin Gwyn and wise aunt Elaine. I also liked Gwyn as a banter-y side character, as her cousinly relationship with Vivi is fun to read about, mostly because Gwyn is clearly the bad girl of the two. I would probably be super into a spin off book with Gwyn, as I see a lot of potential with her. And once the magic in the town of Graves Glen starts to go awry, there are some genuinely entertaining fall out consequences, like a cat that can now talk bust mostly just screams ‘TREATS!’. Because of course that’s exactly what a cat would do if it could talk.

But I think that the rest of the book didn’t really click with me as well. For one, the other half of our romance, Rhys, wasn’t nearly as endearing as Vivi. Like, he was fine as a character, but he was pretty darn boring in my opinion. We have the usual ‘he broke her heart but had no choice and didn’t really want to’ trope, and that’s fine, but it means that the reunification of the two characters really needs to pay off. And this one didn’t. One reason it didn’t bounce back is because I didn’t feel like Rhys did enough apologizing for the way he treated Vivi back in the day, in which they had a very intense romance and he neglected to tell her that he was betrothed to someone else (hence the broken heart and hex). The other reason is that I didn’t really feel the chemistry between the two of them. We are told that they were deeply, deeply into each other, and yes, there are sexy moments and scenes to convince us of this, but I wasn’t ever really into the two of them as a couple, as there weren’t enough little moments of romantic build up for me, or moments of actual resolution of their past issues that felt real and productive. On top of that, I think that the magic aspects of the book probably could have used some more fleshing out, but I mean at the same time we all know that my grasp on fantasy elements can be tenuous as best. But it all just seemed cobbled together to be magical without much thought into how it would actually need to work.

Honestly I feel a little bad, because while “The Ex Hex” didn’t really move beyond the ‘meh’ for me in the romance department, I’ve read some really good romances this year! And also, don’t let my general ambivalence towards this book deter you! It has cute moments and a fun premise. I mean, who doesn’t like witches going on misadventures with sexy results? This could be a good holiday read if that sounds fun, even if the holiday it best matches was over two months ago.

Rating 5: Cute for the most part, but not the highest tier romance I’ve read this year, “The Ex Hex” brings witches into a rom com setting with some mixed results.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ex Hex” is included on the Goodreads lists “All Hallows Reads”, and “Feel Good Rom Coms”.

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