Serena’s Review: “Cast in Firelight”

Book: “Cast in Firelight” by Dana Swift

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Adraa is the royal heir of Belwar, a talented witch on the cusp of taking her royal ceremony test, and a girl who just wants to prove her worth to her people

Jatin is the royal heir to Naupure, a competitive wizard who’s mastered all nine colors of magic, and a boy anxious to return home for the first time since he was a child.

Together, their arranged marriage will unite two of Wickery’s most powerful kingdoms. But after years of rivalry from afar, Adraa and Jatin only agree on one thing: their reunion will be anything but sweet.

Only, destiny has other plans and with the criminal underbelly of Belwar suddenly making a move for control, their paths cross…and neither realizes who the other is, adopting separate secret identities instead.

Between dodging deathly spells and keeping their true selves hidden, the pair must learn to put their trust in the other if either is to uncover the real threat. Now Wickery’s fate is in the hands of rivals..? Fiancées..? Partners..? Whatever they are, it’s complicated and bound for greatness or destruction.

Review: Before we get into the actual review, we interrupt my regular, meandering, usually skip-able intro paragraph to dive into another segment of “Nonsense in YA Covers!”, a semi-regular bit where I shake my head at the cover art of YA books. Today’s example isn’t so much anything overtly wrong with this book’s cover, but with the inexplicable resemblance it has to another. See if you can spot the similarities!

They are both by the obviously very gifted Charlie Bowater. I’m not coming after her, but I can’t decided whether it’s laziness or brilliance that these titles look so similar! Did she hoodwink the publishers into essentially buying the same image slightly re-tooled six months later? The male characters, especially, look almost identical. And then you have the character position, the colors, the entire thing really. One of my librarian friends, Alicia, found it so amusing that she routinely placed them side-by-side on the “New Arrivals” shelf at her library just to troll patrons. But enough of that, on to the review!

Though they were betrothed as children after a particularly…eventful…first meeting, Adraa and Jatin’s entire relationship since has been made up of a few letters and a secret competition of magical abilities. However, now that they are each about to come into their own roles as the upcoming leaders of their countries, they suddenly find themselves thrust into each other’s company. But neither know it, having each taken on alternate identities for different reasons when they first re-unite. Thrown into adventure and intrigue, the two begin to each learn that this strange new person isn’t so bad. If only they weren’t already engaged to someone else…

This book is another one of those tough books that seems to fall into the category of aggressively fine. It was a quick, snappy read, and I was entertained enough while reading it, easily caught up in the fast-moving plot. But when I think back on the book, characters, and world as a hole, there simply isn’t a lot there. The magic system is barely described and while the resulting abilities serve the action-packed plot well, there’s no intricacies to be found or, indeed, many details of any kind. If you asked me to tell you anything about it, all I’d have is something about tattoos and that the number of magical abilities you master has a direct connection to your status in society. Which…I’ve seen before.

As for the world-building, I appreciated that there was a map included in the story, but I almost felt like the map did more of the heavy lifting than anything in the book. This very much read like one of those overly simplistic YA novels that treat their worlds like big green screens that their character simply run across. Like the cover, almost, the mental images that came to mind were almost cartoonish in their simplicity.

The writing was probably the strongest part. Like I said, the pacing was excellent, keeping the plot and character moving at a steady clip. Some portions of it were also incredibly funny. However, here, too, I had some troubles. Mostly with the dialogue which was bizarrely modern. This is clearly a second-world fantasy story, so there are no rules about how characters should speak. But at times the dialogue was so very much of this world and time that it simply didn’t seem to fit here. I often found myself pulled back out of the story once the characters started speaking overly much. There was also an over-reliance on “quippiness” as a stand-in for real character development and connection.

As a debut, it was a fun ride, but it also showed the areas in which the author still has room for improvement. If you’re looking for a fast, light read and don’t mind kind of random-feeling modern dialogue, this could be a fun book for you! But those looking for a more serious or layered story will be disappointed.

Rating 7: Fast-paced and fun, but too light in any real depth, both in its world and characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cast in Firelight” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on 2021 YA with Male POV.

Find “Cast in Firelight” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Queen Will Betray You”

Book: “The Queen Will Betray You” by Sarah Henning

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: To stay together forever, Princess Amarande and her stableboy love, Luca, must part: Amarande to reclaim her kingdom from usurpers, and Luca to raise a rebellion and find his destiny. Arrayed against them are all the players in the game of thrones for control over the continent of The Sand and Sky. Facing unspeakable betrayals, enemies hidden in the shadows, and insurmountable odds, their only hope is the power of true love…

Previously Reviewed: “The Princess Will Save You”

Review: I read the first book in this duology last summer purely because it was hyped as being a gender-swapped retelling of “The Princess Bride.” While that premise may technically have applied, I found it to be more distracting than helpful in my read of the story. Too often, I found myself trying to match up characters from the book to characters from the original or to line up plot points in a similar way, rarely to much success. But the story was charming enough, and I enjoyed the straight forward romance at its heart. I was excited to check out this second entry in the story, however, as I’ve been hopeful that now that the author has moved past the original “Princess Bride” retelling, the story might come more fully into its own.

Each with a powerful destiny before them, Amarande and Luca must part after spending so long trying desperately to be reunited. But the kingdoms are restless and political power plays for them to separate to reclaim their birth rights. Unaware of what awaits them, they must untangle the various different factions, each with their own long-game and plans for Amarande and Luca. With so many unknowns, all they truly know anymore is their deep love for one another and their will to be together again.

As I said, I was excited to see where this book went after it firmly left behind its “retelling” status in the first book. Luca’s storyline, for example, now doesn’t remotely resemble any portion of Buttercup’s arc in the original story. With a kingdom and history of his own, I was particularly interested in where his storyline would go. While he still played a distinctly second fiddle to Amarande, I was overall pleased with what we had from Luca here. It was nice to see him in a more proactive light and freed from being simply “the love interest.” His increased characterization also helped make the love story more compelling, giving us both sides to root for.

However, the love story itself takes a marked step back into the shadows in this book. It was a fairly prevalent part of the first, but here the story veers much more into political machinations. I was a bit disappointed by that, as the love story was probably what I liked most about the first book. And while I expected a portion of the story to focus on Amarande’s and Luca’s individual stories, I also wished their storylines had converged earlier in the story. As it is, we don’t get to see over much interaction between these two characters at all.

The story was also a bit slower than the first. I’m not sure if this was perhaps just the mood I was in while reading or what, but it felt like it was harder to become invested in the plot and towards the middle the story seemed to drag a bit. I still really liked Amarande, though, which helped carry the book when things seemed to slow down. I also liked that we got more world-building and exploration in to the various choices that Amanrade and Luca’s parents made before they were born (some of the bigger reveals in the first book came on this front, so I was glad to see that given attention here).

Overall, it was a perfectly adequate story. I didn’t love the duology as a whole, but I also enjoyed my experience while reading them. I’m not sure the “Princess Bride” comparisons ever helped the story, frankly, and I do think the duology might have been better served with no connection to that beloved work. But if you’re looking for a sweet, fun YA fantasy, this duology delivers. Especially for readers look for a mostly drama-free romance, something that is definitely hard to find!

Rating 7: A solid second entry, though not ground-breaking in any way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Queen Will Betray You” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on Epic High Fantasy/Romance/Mythology in 2021.

Find “The Queen Will Betray You” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “She Who Became the Sun”

Book: “She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan

Publishing Info: Tor Books, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: “I refuse to be nothing…”

In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…

In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.

When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.

After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.

Review: This book has been extremely hyped since news of it began circulating a few months ago. Comparisons to “Mulan” and “Song of Achilles” only helped a plot that sounded dark, tragic, and full of explorations into the themes such as personhood and the tragedies of war. I don’t have a ton of knowledge of about the real historical period of time and place being referenced (1300s China), but that was just another appeal of the book. And for once, the hype seems pretty well-founded!

Zhu’s fate is one of nothing. Neither tragic nor heroic, her life is predicted to fade from thought almost as soon as it arrives. Perhaps, for an impoverished family, this fate is not so extraordinary. However, her brother’s destiny of greatness very much is. After tragedy strikes, Zhu’s own prediction comes true as she sheds her identity, leaving it behind like so much nothing, and takes up the mantle of her deceased brother. Is this truly what fate had in mind? Can she rise to the greatness that had been assigned to another identity? Or has she simply become who she was always meant to be.

I really enjoyed this book. I’m always in for books that are compared to “Mulan” and, while I haven’t read “Song of Achilles” I know that it’s well-regarded. However, now having read this book, I’d say that a better marketing campaign would have directed readers to “The Poppy War” as the best comparison. Many of the themes are similar, and the dark, grim tone of a war-focused novel is very much the same in each of these books. Like “The Poppy War,” “She Who Became the Sun” doesn’t shy away from the bleak and challenging aspects of war. Many “Mulan” stories are so focused on the heroism of the main character, that war itself fades into the background, almost only a stagnant tool used to elevate the hero into her role. Not so here. Instead, greatness is shown to be perhaps its own burden, not any easier to carry than the nothingness that Zhu left behind.

The writing was incredibly strong, and I particularly enjoyed the well-blended mix of historical China with the fantastical elements. The story also managed to not get lost under its action-packed plot, instead giving ample time to exploring its themes of identity. Zhu’ own journey of self-exploration and acceptance is very powerful. The story doesn’t simply whip out the well-trodden lines, but instead dives into a very nuanced discussion, subtly exploring the many angles involved.

It wasn’t a perfect read, however. The book starts out with only Zhu’s POV and is very much a coming-of-age story. I really enjoyed this portion of the book, which perhaps is why I found it hard to readjust halfway through when the story suddenly expands outwards and adds in other POV characters. It was definitely a gutsy call on the author’s part, as it must has been suspected that readers would be fairly invested in Zhu by that point in the story and might struggle becoming attached to others later in the game. Luckily, the writing is strong enough to largely pull it off. But I did find myself thrown out of the book for a bit and needed some extra time to re-establish myself. This, then, threw off the pacing of the story as well, overall.

I really liked this book. The writing was confident and lyrical, truly impressive from a debut author. The themes were also well-explored and Zhu was a fantastic main character. I was a bit put-off by the sudden switch from one POV to two, but I think it ultimately did help create a more nuanced look at the overall conflict.

Rating 8: While “Mulan” is an adequate comparison, I think this is a better read-alike for fans of “The Poppy War” who are looking for a darker war-focused story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“She Who Became the Sun” is on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Queer SFF and Asian Authored Books in 2021.

Find “She Who Became the Sun” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Half Sick of Shadows”

Book: “Half Sick of Shadows” by Laura Sebastian

Publishing Info: Ace, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Everyone knows the legend. Of Arthur, destined to be a king. Of the beautiful Guinevere, who will betray him with his most loyal knight, Lancelot. Of the bitter sorceress, Morgana, who will turn against them all. But Elaine alone carries the burden of knowing what is to come–for Elaine of Shalott is cursed to see the future.

On the mystical isle of Avalon, Elaine runs free and learns of the ancient prophecies surrounding her and her friends–countless possibilities, almost all of them tragic.

When their future comes to claim them, Elaine, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Morgana accompany Arthur to take his throne in stifling Camelot, where magic is outlawed, the rules of society chain them, and enemies are everywhere. Yet the most dangerous threats may come from within their own circle.

As visions are fulfilled and an inevitable fate closes in, Elaine must decide how far she will go to change fate–and what she is willing to sacrifice along the way.

Review: I’ve had a fairly sketchy experience of “King Arthur” re-tellings. But my most recent example, Kiersten White’s “Camelot Rising” series, has been excellent all around, so I was primed to jump in for another go at the topic! “Half Sick of Shadows” was also billed as a feminist reimaging of the tale while also incorporating the story from “The Lady of Shallot.” Color me intrigued.

Growing up surrounded by magic and her friends, Elaine’s life should be full of joy and wonder. However, she knows what is to come, and it’s almost all tragic. Gifted (or cursed) with the ability to see the future, Elaine’s view of the present is always tinged to be seen through the lens of what is to come. Slowly, slowly the pieces begin to fall in place as their roles begin to solidify, and the friends find themselves thrust into the world of Camelot, a place where their magic is outlawed and their fates await them. But is the future set? Or can Elaine’s choices make all the difference?

So, let’s just get it out of the way. I didn’t really like this book. I’m going to start this review off with a backhanded compliment. If anything, this book was too creative. Frankly, the less familiar readers are with the original Arthurian tale and, to a certain extent, the original ballad of “The Lady of Shallot,” the more enjoyable this book would probably be. There’s a fine line when re-imagining a classic tale such as this between reinterpreting well-known aspects of the original and bounding away completely into left field and leaving readers who are familiar with the original bewildered and frustrated. This one was definitely the latter.

Most of the characters were so completely re-worked that other than their name they would be unrecognizable from their origins. Arthur, for example, was such a nothing character, so naïve and silly, that it was almost impossible to imagine him becoming the legendary king. The relationships between the characters were also completely re-worked. Mordred, for example, is not Arthur’s son, which has a pretty big impact on the greater story, as fans of the original know. The classic love triangle is also re-worked. To some extent, that can be refreshing (again, the “Camelot Rising” went a completely different direction with this, too, to great effect), but my bigger problem came with the fact that as these large, familiar parts of the story fell, there was less and less tying any of it to the original Arthurian epic. Even small things, like the fact that Merlin seemed to either not really care about the events going on around or him or actively root against Arthur as king, just felt off to the point of distraction.

I also didn’t care for Elaine herself. She was continuously self-guessing and doubting her choices. Much of her eternal dialogue I found to be annoying. Until the very end, she seemed to struggle to take any initiative herself, often running to others for help. I also struggled with the way she presented her story, jumping back and forth in time through her visions. Her romance was also so tinted by the doubts and concerns over the future that it was barely enjoyable.

I also struggled with the original set-up of the story. Why are all of these characters at Avalon, growing up with all of this magic? There were explanations for a few of them, but it almost felt like some wacky school story with a bunch of teenagers running around having adventures in magic-land. There were also some re-imaginings of characters having magical connections that were a bit strange. Some of them I could get behind, but others, less so.

Lastly, I’m not sure why this book is being heralded so strongly as a feminist story. That word can mean a lot of different things to people, but at its most basic sense, book-wise, I would think it means strong female characters in a story that, in the past, largely side-lined its women characters. So, sure, Elaine being the focus changes that. But she’s not a particularly great example of a strong, female character. And don’t get me started on the changes to Guinevere. Way too much magical wand-waving over her character, as if giving her fantasy aspects somehow makes her “strong.” If the only way you can think to make your female characters strong is to give them magical abilities, I’m going to side-eye you really hard.

So, yeah, this book wasn’t my cup of tea. There were too many changes from the original tale to not be constantly distracting and distressing. I also didn’t enjoy the main character or many of the side characters either. Perhaps those less familiar with the original story might enjoy it, but I think there are better examples of re-tellings out there.

Rating 6: The story strays too far away from its origins and drowns beneath a plethora of added fantasy elements.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Half Sick of Shadows” is, questionably, on this Goodreads list: Feminist Interest 2021.

Find “Half Sick of Shadows” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Empire’s Ruin”

Book: “The Empire’s Ruin” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor Books, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The Annurian Empire is disintegrating. The advantages it used for millennia have fallen to ruin. The ranks of the Kettral have been decimated from within, and the kenta gates, granting instantaneous travel across the vast lands of the empire, can no longer be used.

In order to save the empire, one of the surviving Kettral must voyage beyond the edge of the known world through a land that warps and poisons all living things to find the nesting ground of the giant war hawks. Meanwhile, a monk turned con-artist may hold the secret to the kenta gates.

But time is running out. Deep within the southern reaches of the empire and ancient god-like race has begun to stir.

What they discover will change them and the Annurian Empire forever. If they can survive. 

Review: I was so excited when I saw an ARC of this pop up on Edelweiss several months ago. I really enjoyed both the original “Unhewn Throne” trilogy by Brian Staveley as well as his companion/prequel stand-alone, “Skullsworn.” I knew he had another book in the works, but I hadn’t been paying overly much attention to when it was slated for release. Call me jaded, but epic fantasy isn’t the most reliable of genres for timely releases! But it arrived at last, and I wasted no time before diving right in.

Five years after the events of the first trilogy, the Annurian empire is scrambling to hold itself together. Adare, unable to use the kenta gates, the magical doorways that allow the sitting empire to quickly travel throughout the land, is desperate to hold her world together. To do so, she recruits a thief-turned-monk who promises he can teach her how to use the magical passages. But the empire is weak in more than one way. With the Kettral depleted, Gwenna is sent on a perilous mission to travel south into a land riddled with madness and monsters in search of Kettral eggs to bring back in the hope of rebuilding the powerful fighting force. And on the edge of the Empire, revolution has struck and two priests discover that their may be more Gods in the world than they had thought. And a new one has arrived with plans of conquest.

The story is split between three characters (sadly, Adare is not one of them). While the book is approachable to new readers, long-time fans of the series will be most rewarded. Gwenna, the Kettral warrior, had POV chapters in the last two books in the original trilogy. And Ruc, a priest of the Goddess of love who resides in the swamp-surrounded city of Dombang, was a character readers met in “Skullsworn.” The third character is a priest who grew up alongside Kaden whom readers briefly met in the first book. Gwenna is the most familiar of the three, but this prior knowledge of their stories does add depth to their arcs here, and fans of the previous books will be rewarded with little tidbits and references throughout the story.

This book is definitely the first in a series (duology? trilogy?). In that way, much of the story is set-up for the larger conflicts to come. We see that in the carefully laid groundwork that plays out in our three main story lines. Each drops several small pieces here and there to the larger plot, but none of the characters have a full view of the greater picture. Indeed, their plot lines barely even brush each others, all three living out very different experiences in far-spread parts of the world. Due to this, the story definitely progresses in a slow, careful manner. There are some tense action scenes, probably the best coming in Gwenna’s chapters, but the overall plot is mostly concerned with setting the stage.

However, the writing is as strong and compelling as ever. So while the book wasn’t a fast read or full to the brim with a moving plot, I was still completely engrossed. As we see some pieces fall into place at the end, it’s also gratifying to know that these disparate plot lines will come together in a satisfying way eventually. Given Staveley’s last trilogy, I felt satisfied with this book as a solid introduction to where he is heading eventually.

The characters themselves also largely go through “beginning of the book” syndrome. In that, each of them spends the majority of the book having their understanding of themselves and how they exist in their world broken down piece by piece. This is, of course, necessary for many character arcs as it allows the story to then focus on the rebirth of a character into a new form. But unlike the traditional arcs we see play out in single works, like the plot, this book treats its character arcs as ones that span the entire serie. So a first book sees only the first steps in this process.

At times, it can feel like a bit much. It’s definitely not a fun read to see favorite characters go through existential crisis after existential crisis, regardless of how necessary it is for their ultimate growth. Gwenna, in particular, has a roller coaster of a ride, with some true highs alongside some very dark, lonely lows. However, again, towards the end of the book, we begin to see the direction these characters are headed in, and I have faith that their continued stories will retroactively justify some of the lows we experience with our characters here.

I really enjoyed this book. It was so exciting to be back in this world. The familiar characters and scenes were a joy to return to, and the expanded world and mythology felt like it perfectly slotted in with what we already new of this universe. The book is long and, at times, slow moving, but fans of the series will likely be so thrilled by a new entry that this slower pace just seems like an excuse to revel in the story. Fans of epic fantasy are sure to enjoy this, though, while it’s not necessary, I recommend reading Staveley’s other books first, particularly the first trilogy.

Rating 8: An excellent return to the world of the “Unhewn Throne,” though the book is definitely focused more on setting up the bigger story than in creating a self-contained plot.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Empire’s Ruin” is a new book, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021.

Find “The Empire’s Ruin” at the library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Red Wolf”

Book: “Red Wolf” by Rachel Vincent

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: For as long as sixteen-year-old Adele can remember the village of Oakvale has been surrounding by the dark woods—a forest filled with terrible monsters that light cannot penetrate. Like every person who grows up in Oakvale she has been told to steer clear of the woods unless absolutely necessary.

But unlike her neighbors in Oakvale, Adele has a very good reason for going into the woods. Adele is one of a long line of guardians, women who are able to change into wolves and who are tasked with the job of protecting their village while never letting any of the villagers know of their existence.

But when following her calling means abandoning the person she loves, the future she imagined for herself, and her values she must decide how far she is willing to go to keep her neighbors safe.

Review: And here we are, the third “Red Riding Hood” book that came out this summer! It’s actually really impressive how all three of authors pulled from the same inspiration (at least somewhat) but ultimately created such different stories and worlds. Unfortunately for “Red Wolf,” it was third to come out and third for me to read, so it had some big shoes to fill after the first two were such hits. However, I don’t think I would have enjoyed this lackluster outing much more had it come first.

Red has grown up in her small village, a little community of safety surrounded by a dark wood full of monsters. For most, this forest represents a natural boundary to their world, one they won’t ever need to venture within. For Red and her family, it is something very different. Within those dark depths, she, like women before her, protect that small village, prowling the woods in the form of a wolf. Soon enough, however, Red’s life is thrown upside down when the path she had seen before her begins to twist and turn into choices she had never imagined making. Will she be strong enough to protect those she loves?

First off, props to another gorgeous cover that definitely played its part in getting me to request an ARC for this book. All three of the “Red Riding Hood” books this summer had neat covers and each was distinct from the others, so that’s pretty neat. Unfortunately, most of my compliments end there.

This book wasn’t terrible, or anything, but it did seem to have an endless list of mild frustrations and then a wackadoodle ending that made the entire experience feel a bit like death by a thousand cuts. It starts out well enough, with an atmospheric village and woods and a young girl who must venture out to her granny’s every month. And then, of course, she discovers she’s so much more than she thought and the book should be off to the races.

Unfortunately, it felt a lot like an engine that kept rolling over and couldn’t quite get going. Adele’s character is set up as a fairly typical teenager, a bit stubborn, but empathetic enough to be challenged by the choices presented her throughout the story regarding the nameless many vs the the known few. But there also wasn’t anything about her that was particularly gripping or made me feel truly invested in her. I also felt like the story go a good head of steam going with some of these moral quandaries and then, somehow, never fully resolved them. The ending, especially, felt strange and disjointed from the greater conversation being presented in the book. It felt rushed and left me with a lot of mixed feelings about Adele herself.

It was also not a great sign to see Adele happily paired up at the beginning of the book. You know it’s never going to last in a YA fantasy when the main character is already happily in love when the story starts. And, alas, my predictions came true and the dreaded love triangle emerged. It could have been more annoying, I guess, but that’s hardly a compliment for the choice to have one in the first place. The other side of the triangle also felt very rushed, with Adele herself mentioning that she couldn’t believe how quickly she’d fallen for so-and-so. If the main character can barely believe it, I definitely can’t.

The writing was also a bit challenging. I can’t point to any particular quirks or style choices, only that it didn’t capture me, and I was very aware that I was actively reading as I turned the pages. I couldn’t sink into the story, for whatever reason. There were some legitimately creepy and interesting fantasy aspects in this world, but the story itself felt like the framework was too flimsy to fully hold the ideas themselves.

Overall, I was pretty disappointed in this book. It did a lot of things just OK, and then didn’t have any big wow moments to pull it up from just middling. And, of course, love triangles are almost always a detractor in my enjoyment of story. Readers looking for a more middle-grade, young YA might enjoy this, but I’d recommend “For the Wolf” and “The Wolf and the Woodsman” as your “Red Riding Hood” books of the summer before this one.

Rating 6: A big ole “OK.” Love triangles and a lackluster heroine didn’t help this story get off the ground.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Red Wolf” is on these Goodreads lists: YA Fantasy Standalone Books and Red Riding Hood Across Genres.

Find “Red Wolf” at the library using WorldCat!

Monthly Marillier: “Wildwood Dancing”

“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: “Wildwood Dancing” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Alfred A. Knopf, January 2007

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: High in the Transylvanian woods, at the castle Piscul Draculi, live five daughters and their doting father. It’s an idyllic life for Jena, the second eldest, who spends her time exploring the mysterious forest with her constant companion, a most unusual frog. But best by far is the castle’s hidden portal, known only to the sisters. Every Full Moon, they alone can pass through it into the enchanted world of the Other Kingdom. There they dance through the night with the fey creatures of this magical realm.

But their peace is shattered when Father falls ill and must go to the southern parts to recover, for that is when cousin Cezar arrives. Though he’s there to help the girls survive the brutal winter, Jena suspects he has darker motives in store. Meanwhile, Jena’s sister has fallen in love with a dangerous creature of the Other Kingdom–an impossible union it’s up to Jena to stop.

When Cezar’s grip of power begins to tighten, at stake is everything Jena loves: her home, her family, and the Other Kingdom she has come to cherish. To save her world, Jena will be tested in ways she can’t imagine–tests of trust, strength, and true love.

Review: Obviously, I love fairytale re-tellings. But as the genre goes, there are definitely more popular fairytales than others to receive this treatment. For example, there are a million and one stories reimagining “Beauty and the Beast” or “Cinderella.” And just this summer, we’re seeing three separate books coming out retelling variations of “Little Red Riding Hood.” But two of my favorite fairytales, “The Seven Swans” and “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” definitely fall in the “less likely” category for stories to be rewritten. Luckily for me, one of my favorite authors has written my favorite versions of both of these stories. I’ve already covered “Daughter of the Forest,” so now it’s time for Marillier’s take on “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”

To others, Jena’s home may seem strange and even possibly dangerous. But she’s always loved the ramshackle castle and the mysterious woods that surround it. Wandering the wilds with her beloved frog, Gogu, Jena know that magic exists in this place. Every full moon, she and her four sisters travel in secret to the land of the fairies where they spend a night dancing and enjoying the revels of that strange world. But when Jena’s father becomes sick and leaves the management of the household to Jena herself, the magic that once made up her life seems to begin to turn dark. With threats looming in both the world of the fairies and in her own, very human world, Jena desperately tries to find the strength within to hold on tight to those she loves.

There are many things to like about this book. For one thing, it’s one of the first YA fantasy stories I read by Marillier. As such, the tone of the story and the trials her characters face are different than her adult books. While the story still has darker moments, overall, the tone of the story is light and bright. The wonders of the full moon balls were probably some of the best scenes of the book, perfectly capturing the magic of these visits with small details about the music, ballgowns, and strange attendees who made up these affairs. It is easy for readers to immediately come down on Jena’s view of this magical world, both the joys it can present but also the dangers that lurk beneath the surface.

I also really liked the side characters in this book. All of Jena’s sister felt distinct and had their own moments and mini arcs/stakes at play throughout the story. I would at turns find myself rooting for each of them and then, conversely, massively rolling my eyes at some of their nonsense. Tati, for example, the eldest sister who falls in love with a young man from the fairy world, is always a struggle for me. “Dying for love” is just not something I can really get behind, especially not in the circumstances given here where Tati’s lack of will to live, essentially, is not only dooming herself but leaving her sisters alone to cope with the very real, very present challenges before them.

I also really enjoyed the various relationships highlighted in this story. Obviously, there’s quite a lot of attention given to sisterhood, espeically as Jena sees her role in regards to her sisters, learning lessons about the difference between loving someone enough to let them make their own way and holding on too tightly. But there’s also a lot of attention given to friendship, that between Jena and her frog, Gogu, as well as the increasingly tense relationship between Jena and her cousin, Cezar. There we see how the choices we make not only change ourselves, but they change the relationships we have with people as well. The romance was also very sweet and original in this story, taking a winding path and drastically veering away from the traditional fairytale’s version.

Jena is also an excellent main character. And part of what makes her excellent is how very frustrating I often found her to be. If there’s on criticism that I’ve leveled the most against Marillier’s books up to this point, it’s that her main characters are a bit too perfect. That is definitely not the case here. Jena is presented as a highly capable young woman, but this same high level of ability is also her greatest weakness throughout the book. Again and again, we see Jena fail to trust those around her to help her deal with the challenges before her. Instead, she attempts to manage things (and people!) that aren’t her responsibility or things she has no right to direct. There are a couple of choices and moments that are very tough to read, as Jena so clearly ignores the common sense and warnings that the reader is picking up on. However, all of this is also very intentionally written in and included in Jena’s overall arch of self-discovery and growth.

This is one of my favorite Marillier books to go back and re-read. I’ve included it in lists in the past as a comfort read type of book, and that it remains. The story is fast-moving, the magic is beautiful and unique, and I love the friendships and romance at the heart of the story.

Rating 8: The best version of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” that I have yet to find.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wildwood Dancing” is on these Goodreads lists: Books about Faery and 12 Dancing Princesses Retellings.

Find “Wildwood Dancing” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Sheets”

Book: “Sheets” by Brenna Thummler

Publishing Info: Oni Press, August 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The Library!

Book Description: Marjorie Glatt feels like a ghost. A practical thirteen year old in charge of the family laundry business, her daily routine features unforgiving customers, unbearable P.E. classes, and the fastidious Mr. Saubertuck who is committed to destroying everything she’s worked for.

Wendell is a ghost. A boy who lost his life much too young, his daily routine features ineffective death therapy, a sheet-dependent identity, and a dangerous need to seek purpose in the forbidden human world.

When their worlds collide, Marjorie is confronted by unexplainable disasters as Wendell transforms Glatt’s Laundry into his midnight playground, appearing as a mere sheet during the day. While Wendell attempts to create a new afterlife for himself, he unknowingly sabotages the life that Marjorie is struggling to maintain.

Review: Who says that ghost stories need to be scary? I know that when I cover them on this blog, they usually are. But there are also kind and friendly spirits, not just ones that want to make peoples lives miserable. “Sheets” by Brenna Thummler is one such tale, a ghost story for kids, but instead of focusing on scares and bumps in the night, it takes on friendship, loss, and moving on from tragedy. All themes that can fit within a ghost story pretty well. I had high hopes for this story, as ghosts are definitely my jam. “Sheets”, however, didn’t really give me what I wanted from it.

But let’s talk about what I did like first. The themes I mentioned above are all very well done in the narrative. We have two main characters, both of whom are dealing with these themes in different ways. For Marjorie, a thirteen year old girl running the family laundromat, she is still mourning the loss of her mother and adjusting to her new life. Her father has been so depressed that he doesn’t leave his room, and Marjorie is left to care for her brother, the family business, and to take care of herself. On the other side of the coin is Wendell, a ghost who lives in a world of other ghosts (who all wear sheets) who died when he was very young. He doesn’t really feel like he fits in in his new afterlife, and decides to hitch a ghost bus (loved this idea!) back to the living world. Where he finds himself in Marjorie’s laundromat, and their worlds collide. Both characters are dealing with loss and sadness, and I thought that Brennan did a really good job of exploring grief in ways that kids could understand without being condescending or grim. I especially liked her take on what the Ghost world is like, with lots of different designs for a bunch of stereotypical sheet wearing ghosts and some really humorous moments.

My biggest qualms with this story, however, really dock the points that I would have given it. Namely, the complete lack of any empathetic, responsible, and caring adults in Marjorie’s life, bordering on complete criminal negligence. I understand that this is a book written with a kid protagonist, and as such needs to give the protagonist more agency and independence than a regular kid would have in the real world. But I really struggled with it in “Sheets”. Marjorie is a thirteen year old girl who is running the family business herself, as after her mother died her father has been completely overtaken by depression and barely leaves his room. And if that had been the extent of it, I might have been able to swallow it down. Depression can absolutely be completely hobbling, and it’s not unrealistic for him to fail his children and to have Marjorie feel like she needs to pick up the pieces. My BIGGEST problem is that the customers she does have aren’t asking ANY questions as to why this child is running this place! Hell, they even get mad at her when Wendell messes things up, more inconvenienced about their laundry than they are concerned about a child, a CHILD, having to run the business in which they are patronizing! We get a couple adults who do question her life and how she’s doing here and there, but it’s never pursued. Perhaps it is strange for me to be questioning this in a story about literal ghosts, but I couldn’t get past it. It seems really farfetched, and spoiler alert, it isn’t really resolved! We get a deus ex machina at the end and Marjorie is STILL running the darn laundromat instead of, you know, living her life as a child. I’m just not sure about what this tells kids about Marjorie’s circumstances. Because oh man, her Dad really needs to get his act together.

And this could possibly be because of the fact the story itself feels a bit half baked. Marjorie interacts with Wendell here and there, they never really have super in depth moments, but we just kind of have to believe that the way it all wraps up is because of their friendship, which I never felt like was really explored. There is a connection that Marjorie and Wendell share even before he became a ghost, but it feels convenient and twee, and not used enough that it really felt important. Had their connection been stronger, both before and after his death, it would have been a more enjoyable relationship. As it was, it was hard to invest in the two of them as friends.

I did like the artwork though! It’s quite unique, and the designs of the ghosts are pretty darn cute. And as someone who appreciates a nice color scheme, I really liked the palette in this one.

“Sheets” didn’t give me the feel good ghost story I was anticipating, but I absolutely can see myself recommending it to kids who are looking for something ghostly, though maybe not too scary.

Rating 6: A really good examination of different kinds of grief, but ultimately felt half baked and unrealistic (even taking into account we’re dealing with ghosts!).

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sheets” is included on the Goodreads lists “Spooky Graphic Novels for Kids”, and “Friendly Ghosts”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Whispers of Shadow and Flame”

Book: “Whispers of Shadow and Flame” by L. Penelope

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Griffin, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: The Mantle that separates the kingdoms of Elsira and Lagrimar is about to fall. And life will drastically change for both kingdoms.

Born with a deadly magic she cannot control, Kyara is forced to become an assassin. Known as the Poison Flame in the kingdom of Lagrimar, she is notorious and lethal, but secretly seeks freedom from both her untamed power and the blood spell that commands her. She is tasked with capturing the legendary rebel called the Shadowfox, but everything changes when she learns her target’s true identity.

Darvyn ol-Tahlyro may be the most powerful Earthsinger in generations, but guilt over those he couldn’t save tortures him daily. He isn’t sure he can trust the mysterious young woman who claims to need his help, but when he discovers Kyara can unlock the secrets of his past, he can’t stay away.

Kyara and Darvyn grapple with betrayal, old promises, and older prophecies—all while trying to stop a war. And when a new threat emerges, they must beat the odds to save both kingdoms.

Previously Reviewed: “Song of Blood and Stone”

Review: It’s been quite a while since I reviewed the first book in this series. I remember really enjoying it, but I’ll be honest, I had to go back and read my review to really catch up on the world and characters before requesting this one. However, given how positively I’d reviewed that book, I felt fairly confident in this second one, even if, sadly, it was following a separate set of characters than the ones I had grown to love. And while I did find this a quick read, it didn’t really hit home in the same way as that first entry.

Due to the powerful magic within her, Kyara’s life has not been her own. Instead of choosing her own path, she’s been forced to become an assassin, a notorious one at that, known as the Poison Flame. But when her most recent target turns out to be more than he seems, Kyara sees an opportunity to begin reclaiming her own power. For his part, Darvyn is also uniquely powerful, but has begun to sink under the weight of guilt and regret over those he wasn’t able to save. Together, Kyara and Darvyn will uncover truths and mysteries that have long been kept in the shadow. But to make their way forward, they will have to learn to trust each other.

While this book didn’t hit the same sweet spot as the first one, there were still several things to like about it. For one, I still really enjoy the world-building. The last book really delved into the way this world’s history and the magical barrier that has divided it in two has affected the various groups of people living on either side. We explored how history is told by the winner and how the responsibility for the welfare of people expands beyond borders and one’s own patriotism to one’s own homeland. But by the end of that book, that barrier was coming down. That left a lot of interesting new pathways open for this book to explore, and the worldbuilding and continued fleshing out of the various cultures and peoples of this world didn’t disappoint.

I also still really enjoy Penelope’s writing style. It’s quick, clear, and engaging. There are a number of magical elements and, of course, an entirely fictional world. It takes a strong writer to really ground those sorts of unknowns into an understandable and approachable block of text. Even while some parts of this story didn’t work for me, I still blazed through it in a few short days.

Surprising no one, perhaps, where this book stumbled for me was with the characters. Of course, I knew going in that we’d have a new batch of characters, but I was disappointed to not even see our original two in passing. Beyond that, the way the book is summarized leads readers to believe that the book will unfold in a similar way to the first, alternating between two lead characters’ POV. Sadly, no. There were way more characters than that! Somewhere between four and six, I’d say. Not only do I generally not prefer books with large ensemble casts of POV characters (it takes a really master-level hand at writing to make that many characters feel distinct and worthy of a reader’s interest and investment), but it also reduced the page time for the two characters who were still mean to be read as “main” characters. In the first book, there was plenty of time to become attached and invested in our leads. Here, I found myself really struggling to care overly much about either Kyara or Darvyn.

And while the author’s writing is up to the task of creating vast, complicated worlds and systems, it faltered with characterization. The overall tone of writing didn’t change from character to character, leaving Kyara and Darvyn, very different characters not only because of gender but also life experiences, reading almost identically to one another. There was also another character’s POV chapter that was writing in a completely different tense than the reset of the book, a HUGE pet peeve of mine. It always feels overly tricky and rarely is there any payoff for this choice (a notable exception and an excellent example of intentional use of this writing method would be N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy).

So, while I’m still intrigued by the world and the larger-scope conflict that has been brewing, I struggled to enjoy this book as much as I did the first. I’ll likely continue to the third, however, as I’m curious to see how the bigger mysteries will resolve.

Rating 7: Weak characterization let down a book with strong world-building and magical intrigue.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Whispers of Shadow and Flame” is on these these Goodreads lists: Black Women Heroines in Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, and Science Fiction and Best Diverse Speculative Fiction.

Find “Whispers of Shadow and Flame” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Stolen Kingdom”

Book: “The Stolen Kingdom” by Jillian Boehme

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: For a hundred years, the once-prosperous kingdom of Perin Faye has suffered under the rule of the greedy and power-hungry Thungrave kings. Maralyth Graylaern, a vintner’s daughter, has no idea her hidden magical power is proof of a secret bloodline and claim to the throne. Alac Thungrave, the king’s second son, has always been uncomfortable with his position as the spare heir—and the dark, stolen magic that comes with ruling.

When Maralyth becomes embroiled in a plot to murder the royal family and seize the throne, a cat-and-mouse chase ensues in an adventure of dark magic, court intrigue, and forbidden love.

Review: I’m always down for some good ole court intrigue, which is why I initially requested this book. Of course, that’s also one of those phrases that book blurbs often use that more often than not simply translates to “unrealistic drama” of the sort that reduces me to eye rolls. Sadly, that was the case here.

Maralyth has grown up helping to run her father’s renown vineyard. Though she is skilled at tending the vines (more so than her family even knows, with a magical ability to help plant flourish), she finds herself minding the kitchen and serving the workers meals after her mother dies, leaving this role vacant. But Maralyth knows there is a bigger future before her. Bigger even that she could have expected, when she is snatched away from this lowly life and finds herself caught up in plots to overthrow the throne. As for Alac, the second son of the king, he, too, is uncomfortable with his lot and life. And when a mysterious young woman shows up in court, he finds he, too, has an unexpected future before him.

Sigh. So, this wasn’t what I had hoped it could be, and I always struggle with these types of reviews. I don’t like to just spend an entire post ragging on a book, but sometimes it really is hard to come up with things I liked about some of these. Perhaps, if you’re appetite for fairly generic YA fantasy (super light on the fantasy and more heavy on the romance), this book could appeal to you. The writing is competent enough, and while the plot is very “write-by-numbers,” is also comfortingly predictable, if that’s what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, it was decidedly not what I was looking for.

The biggest problem for me was the characters. I’m definitely a reader whose experience of a book is largely defined by how I feel about the characters. Of course, I like the magic and mystery, but if the characters feel flat, it’s really hard for me to get past that. And here, there was nothing really going for either of the two leads (another ding against this was the fact that there even were two leads to begin with, as, more and more, I’m growing to dislike these fantasy romance stories that feature both love interest’s perspective). Sadly, each character falls into the worst tropes of the YA genre. The leading lady (dumb name Maralyth) is essentially a special snowflake who is plucked out of her ordinary life to discover that she has a magical and wonderous heritage. The leading man (dumber name/spelling Alac) regularly demeans the looks of the women around him (at one point going so far as to mentally fat shame a young woman) and only falls for Maralyth because she’s “not like other girls.” If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know that the “not like other girls” motivation for love is probably one of my absolute biggest pet peeves. It’s pretty much a guaranteed “out” for me. That’s not even getting into some of his violent thoughts when he gets angry with Maralyth, a fact that is glossed over and somehow even romanticized.

The world-building and plot were perhaps better in that they weren’t actively enraging, but that’s not saying much. Like I said above, the story follows a fairly predictable path, with many of the character’s choices being easily predicted early in the story. And, while I appreciated that the author wrote a stand-alone story, it also ended up crippling much of the world-building. There is a religion that is included but given very little depth or explanation. Wars and other countries/regions are mentioned, but the story never takes the time to fully flesh any of this out. It left the entire reading experience feeling fairly flat, relying too heavily on its main characters who weren’t up to the task of carrying the story on their own.

This book was a pretty big disappointment. The main characters were incredibly unlikable, proving that some tropes are too persistent to die in the fiery pit from whence they should be thrown. It’s really too bad, especially because stand-alone YA fantasy stories are so hard to find.

Rating 5: The main characters were too rage-inducing for me to focus on much else.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Stolen Kingdom” is on this Goodreads list: Female fantasy authors – Children’s, YA and adult.

Find “The Stolen Kingdom” at your library using WorldCat!