Serena’s Review: “The Bright and the Pale”

Book: “The Bright and the Pale” by Jessica Rubinkowski

Publishing Info: Quill Tree Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Valeria is one of the only survivors of the freeze, a dark magical hold Knnot Mountain unleashed over her village. Everyone, including her family, is trapped in an unbreakable sheet of ice. Ever since, she’s been on the run from the Czar, who is determined to imprison any who managed to escape. Valeria finds refuge with the Thieves Guild, doing odd jobs with her best friend Alik, the only piece of home she has left.

That is, until he is brutally murdered.

A year later, she discovers Alik is alive and being held against his will. To buy his freedom, she must lead a group of cutthroats and thieves on a perilous expedition to the very mountain that claimed her family. Only something sinister slumbers in the heart of Knnot.

And it has waited years for release.

Review: Of course this new YA fantasy was marketed as similar to Leigh Bardugo’s work. If it’s not the Grisha series, it’s “Six of Crows. This nonsense has gotten completely out of hand. At this point, that comparison has been used so often (and so poorly) that it’s essentially meaningless. But, alongside the Leigh Bardugo comparison, this book was blurbed as being for fans of Katherine Arden’s “Winternight” trilogy, an all-time favorite series of mine recently. So that did the trick in getting me to pick this one up. Unfortunately, the book really doesn’t deserve either comparison…unless we’re back to the meaninglessness of the Leigh Bardugo spin where all it really signifies is that the book you’re about to pick up is a YA fantasy, which, then, yes.

To this point, Valeria’s life has been nothing but loss. First she lost her home and everyone she loved to a deep freeze. And later, after finding refuge in the Thieves Guild, she loses her best friend Alik to a brutal death. But she is also a survivor, eking out an existence beneath the very nose of the Czar who is out to silence anyone who has survived the freeze. Her life takes a turn, however, when she discovers that Alik is alive. Alive, but changed. To save him, she must venture back to the very place she fears most, the mountain that claimed her town to its cold power.

To get it out of the way from the start, this wasn’t a favorite read of mine. But the one thing I did enjoy, overall, was the world-building involved. Most especially, perhaps, the gods called the Bright and the Pale were very interesting. I liked the idea that neither is inherently good or bad, therefore choosing to follow one over the other doesn’t necessarily speak to any overall world-view or intent on an individual’s part. I also enjoyed the general world-building. It was easy to picture the frozen landscape and the ominous presence of the mountains and the magic that lurked there. The atmosphere itself worked very well for what the story was trying to accomplish.

However, I struggled to enjoy this book. The pacing was difficult, with a slow start that took quite a while to become engaging. This beginning was also hindered by a style of writing that too often veered into telling rather than showing, with information feeling squeezed into dialogue and in the narration in ways that felt unnatural and ponderous. The writing itself was rather clunky, and it took me several chapters to realize that part of the reason I was struggling with the book was the fact that I needed to re-read several sentences to try to piece together what the author was actually getting at. Hopefully, as I was reading an e-ARC, some of this will be cleaned up in edits (there were words missing from sentences even, though the sheer number of times this seemed to happen makes me think it might have just been a very poor writing style choice??).

Valeria was also not a character to write home about. There was nothing obviously wrong with her, and the attempts at giving her a dark back story with the loss of her home suited well enough. However, she still simply felt like every other YA heroine with “a past.” There wasn’t enough distinction to her voice or character to make her stand out from the increasingly crowded set of leading ladies in YA fantasy.

I also didn’t care for the romance or some of the twists in the story. I felt like most of the reveals were telegraphed way too early and too obviously to provide any sort of weight when they finally landed. And the romance struggled against some of the unlikable aspects of Alik’s character. There was too much time spent on him saying horrible things and then later apologizing for those same horrible things. From there, it just followed the typical YA romance arc without adding much or creating any real sizzle between these two.

Fans of Russian-inspired fairytales may enjoy this read, but I do think it has enough marks against it to not earn a strong recommendation. It definitely wasn’t for me, and I think there are likely better examples of similar works to read if one is looking for books like this. Katherine Arden’s “Winternight” series, for sure, and Naomi Novik’s “Spinning Silver,” come to mind.

Rating 6: A disappointing read that had promise but seemed to lack some of the writing proficiency needed to really pully it off.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bright and the Pale” are on these Goodreads lists: Monsters and Magic Society and 2021 Young Adult Debuts.

Find “The Bright and the Pale” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Brass Queen”

Book: “The Brass Queen” by Elizabeth Chatsworth

Publishing Info: CamCat Books, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: In 1897, a fiery British aristocrat and an inept US spy search for a stolen invisibility serum that could spark a global war.

Miss Constance Haltwhistle is the last in a line of blue-blooded rogue inventors. Selling exotic firearms under her alias, the ‘Brass Queen,’ has kept her baronial estate’s coffers full. But when US spy, Trusdale, saves her from assassins, she’s pulled into a search for a scientist with an invisibility serum. As royal foes create an invisible army to start a global war, Constance and Trusdale must learn to trust each other. If they don’t, the world they know will literally disappear before their eyes.

Review: I haven’t reviewed a lot of them, but that’s because I don’t really see them around that much, but I do really enjoy a good steampunk fantasy when I can find it. It’s a neat, little quirky subgenre in fantasy fiction that is kind of bizarre in the specific elements that are seemingly expected from the genre: must involve steam-powered machine, often set in the Victorian period or some historical-feeling setting, has a decent overlap with Manners period pieces, etc. Those are all things I typically enjoy, so combine them well, and you’ve probably got a winner for me! Ah, but combining them well….

Constance must marry. Her family home is in danger, and with an absent father and no other recourse before her, the marriage market is her only way forward. Of course, she must find a husband who can either ignore or not see the other identity that Constance keeps under tight wraps: her position as the “Brass Queen,” a well-respected, underground weapons dealer. All is going exactly not to plan when her debut ball is interrupted by thieves. She quickly finds herself caught up in an elaborate plot that extends past Britain’s own borders. Not only that, she’s paired up a ridiculous U.S. spy whom she’s not sure she can even trust. What could go wrong next?

Like I said, I generally enjoy steampunk fantasy stories, and this one in particular had some interesting things going for it, like our heroine’s secret life as the Brass Queen. I also liked the way the author explored the idea of this imagined version of England with its machines and mechanized creations. The very first scene sees Constance opening a ball in a room overseen by towering animatronic suits that can be piloted by riders within. Constance’s own alternate identity gives the reader a direct line into the ins and outs of how this type of weaponization has and could be used. There was a lot of creativity here and elements to pique one’s interest.

But other than these aspects of the world-building, I struggled with this story. Constance, for one thing, was a walking, talking contradiction whom I could never quite understand or believe in as a living, breathing person. On one hand, she’s this weapons dealer who works with great power players all of the time. And yet in the very first scene, we’re supposed to believe that she’s been bumbling around the ball room this entire time and is about to fall to pieces over a simple speech? Someone who runs an underground weapons dealership would surely have a firm hand on proper decorum and behavior and much experience talking to strangers, likely to even more important people and with greater stakes at play. This contradiction continued throughout the book. I just had a hard time buying a lot of Constance’s actions when set against the idea that she was supposed to be this powerful, underground operator (as many characters remind us).

I also felt like the romance was a bit off the entire time. I’m not sure if this was because I was constantly distracted by Constance, or what exactly the problem was. I think part of it was Trusdale had a very “American cowboy in Britain” thing going on that I also had a hard time taking seriously. The book was clearly trying to incorporate a good amount of humor, and some the bantering between these two was actually quite good. But the balance was just slightly off and some of the humorous moments early on made it hard for me to take either of these characters too seriously or care overly much about their romance as a whole.

I also struggled with the writing in general. I had a hard time picturing some of the elements of the story, never a good thing for a fantasy book. And the story sometimes had jarring jumps between one scene and another. The formatting on my Kindle e-galley didn’t help with this. Hopefully the finalized version will have better page breaks to distinguish these scenes a bit better.

Overall, I had a fairly middling response to this book. There was nothing that I really disliked, but I also didn’t care about the story that much. The writing wasn’t quite strong enough to support some of the more fantastical elements, and the characters weren’t complicated enough to add any weight to the action. If you really enjoy steampunk fantasy stories, this might be worth checking out, but it wasn’t quite all I had hoped it would be.

Rating 7: Fun enough at times, but not all I had hoped it could be.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Brass Queen” is on these Goodreads lists: Gaslamp Fantasy and 2021 Swoony Awards.

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

Monthly Marillier: “Heir to Sevenwaters”

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

Book: “Heir to Sevenwaters” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Roc, November 2008

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The chieftains of Sevenwaters have long been custodians of a vast and mysterious forest. Human and Otherworld dwellers have existed there side by side, sharing a wary trust. Until the spring when Lady Aisling of Sevenwaters finds herself expecting another child? A new heir to Sevenwaters. Then the family’s joy turns to despair when the baby is taken from his room and something…unnatural is left in his place. To reclaim her newborn brother, Clodagh must enter the shadowy Otherworld and confront the powerful prince who rules there.

Review: Marillier wrote several other books between her first three “Sevenwaters” entries and this, the first of a second set of three. I’ll get to many of those books later, but I thought it might be nice to review all of the “Sevenwaters” books straight out in order. Reading this the first time, I remember being concerned that Marillier was returning to a world and story that had largely felt contained and completed in the first trilogy. But this was a strong outing for the second set and started this next trilogy out on the right foot.

Set during the same generation as Fainne from “Child of the Prophesy,” this second trilogy shifts its focus to the Lord of Sevenwaters, Sean’s, children. The well-ordered life of Sevenwaters is disrupted in the best way with the birth of the first boy in the family, Finbar. But this joyous arrival is soon cut short when Finbar is stolen away. Only Clodagh recognizes that something magical is afoot, seeing the sticks-and-stones baby that was left behind as a living, breathing magical infant and not simply the cruel, inanimate doll the others all see. She sets out on a dangerous mission to exchange this magical creature for the return of her baby brother. With her travels Cathal, a young man with his own mysteries and a distinctly rude take on Clodagh and her life, but who has his own connections to the Fae world and could help her rescue baby Finbar before his loss tears Clodagh’s family and world apart.

There’s a lot to love about this return to the Sevenwaters world. But there were also elements of this story that began to frustrate me in their similarity to hiccups I had with the previous books. But we’ll start with the pros, as always!

Marillier’s writing and creativity with the magical elements of the story are as strong as ever. She has a beautiful way of painting scenes on the page that feel just as real as they do magical and whimsical. In this story, Clodagh and the reader travel into the wonderous world of the Fae themselves, and here Marillier’s masterful portrayal of magic with an underlying sense of danger was on point. As beautiful and mystical as this world and its beings are, it is also clear that it is a distinctly inhuman place and the rules and dangers are not of the sort that are immediately clear or rational to a human mind.

I particularly loved description of the Fae infant that is left behind in Finbar’s place. The bond that grows between this baby and Clodagh was beautiful and heart-breaking. Frankly, I was almost more invested in this relationship than I was in the building romance between Clodagh and Cathal. But man, reading this book as a mother now made some elements of it very difficult to get through. There was more ugly crying than I care to admit.

I also enjoyed Clodagh as a main character. However, she was also very similar to some of the leading ladies we’ve seen in the past, particularly Liadan. They are both described as very domestic and happiest at home. But when faced with challenges and the obstinance of their families, each chooses to make their own choices and way in the world. So while I like Clodagh, just as I liked Liadan before her, I wish there had been a bit more variety to her characterization that would make her stand out as distinct in her own right.

I also struggled to connect to Cathal. While there are several interesting reveals to his character later in the story, and the eventual romance is very sweet, he comes across as a bit too rude and harsh in the beginning. I enjoy a good enemies-to-lovers romance as much as the next person, but it’s a delicate balance to strike, and I think Cathal veered a bit too far in the rude direction initially (and for too long) to fully recover in my opinion as the story went on.

The book also takes quite a while to really get going. This is also a standard feature of Marillier’s works and something that only bothers me now and then. I think if the main character and tertiary characters are strong enough, I don’t notice the slow starts. But this one had weaker characters in Clodagh and Cathal, so I felt myself beginning to become impatient that we get this show on the road. This wasn’t helped by my incredible frustration with the entire Sevenwaters clan other than Clodagh herself.

In “Son of Shadows,” we see the Sevenwaters family’s awful treatment of Niamh. The explanations that come later don’t do much to rectify this treatment of a beloved daughter. And then here, again, we see Clodagh, a young woman who, to this point, had been completely trusted and relied upon, suddenly dismissed as crazy and irrational when she draws attention to the Fae characteristics at play in Finbar’s disappearance. She’s spoken to quite badly at points. It’s pretty shocking treatment towards a young woman who’s given no prior indications to being prone to flights of fancy. And shocking to have it come from a family who has more experience with magical beings and enchantments than most could say. Something is definitely wrong with this family and its treatment of supposedly “beloved” daughters.

Overall, however, I enjoyed this return to Sevenwaters. The magical elements, in particular, felt unique and interesting. The main character is endearing, if familiar, and her bond with the Fae baby is quite lovely. Fans of Marillier’s work and the previous Sevenwaters trilogy are sure to like this book.

Rating 8: A return to a familiar world brings some new magical elements, but also a few familiar tropes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Heir to Sevenwaters” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Australian Fantasy Reads and The Best Books about Elves or Faeries.

Find “Heir to Sevenwaters” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.8): Worlds’ End”

Book: “The Sandman (Vol. 8): Worlds’ End” by Neil Gaiman, Mike Allred (Ill.), Gary Amaro (Ill.), Mark Buckingham (Ill.), David Giordano (Ill.), Tony Harris (Ill.), Steve Leialoha (Ill.), Vince Locke (Ill.), Shea Anton Pensa (Ill.), Alec Stevens (Ill.), Bryan Talbot (Ill.), John Watkiss (Ill.), & Michael Zulli (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1993

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Caught in the vortex of a reality storm, wayfarers from throughout time, myth and the imagination converge on a mysterious inn at WORLD’S END. In the tradition of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, as the travelers all wait out the tempest that rages around them, they share stories of the places they’ve been, the things they’ve seen… and those that they’ve dreamed.

Review: We’ve entered the last fourth of my “The Sandman” re-read, and after the strong note that we ended on at the end of “Brief Lives” I was, admittedly, disappointed to see the number of illustrators coming into “The Sandman (Vol.8): Worlds’ End”. That many illustrators can only mean one thing: we’re getting a number of stand alone short stories. This has been something we’ve seen Gaiman tinker with as the series has gone on, but given that I haven’t remembered many of them as I’ve gone through this re-read, it kind of goes to show that for me these moments of pushing boundaries of storytelling aren’t as effective as the main plot of Morpheus and his siblings. I figured that the same would be said for “Worlds’ End”, and for the most part I was right. Except for one significant moment near the end. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Worlds’ End” is an homage to “The Canterbury Tales”, as a number of travelers have found themselves at a mysterious tavern that seems to meet at the nexus of dimensions. There are humans, creatures, entities, and spirits, and all have wound up at the Worlds’ End Tavern due to a strange ‘reality storm’ that has thrown all of them out of their home planes. We arrive with Brant Tucker and his travel companion Charlene, after he crashes her car in the middle of a snowstorm that happens to be occurring in June. Clearly something is up, and as he and Charlene take shelter, the other travelers engage each other with stories to pass the time. As someone who hasn’t read “The Canterbury Tales”, I wasn’t lost, per se, but I was wondering if I was missing something because of my ignorance. The stories range from fantasy to surrealist to creepy. Two really stood out for me in the stand alone stories list. The first is “Hob’s Leviathan”. For one, it brings back fan favorite and Morpheus friend Hob Gadling, but it doesn’t center him at the heart. Instead it focuses on “Jim”, a girl who has disguised herself as a boy to travel on sailing ships. As Jim and Hob travel, their ship encounters a humungous sea serpent. Jim wants to tell the world; Hob knows that the world won’t listen. I liked this one for two main reasons. The first is the reintroduction of Hob. I love Hob! He’s a fun character and it was fun seeing him through the eyes of someone else. The other is Jim, as any tale that has a woman trying to extend past societies expectations is a-okay in my book.

The other story I really liked was “The Golden Boy”. At one point during DC Comics’s Bronze Age there was a character named Prez Rickard, who was a teenage president of the United States. In “The Golden Boy”, Gaiman expands and adds complexity to this concept, following Prez as he maneuvers as President through multiple crises of 20th Century America, which is very clearly a country that has burned brightly but on the verge of starting to burn out. While Prez is never swayed by corrupting influences (specifically an otherworldly entity called Boss Smiley, who looks like the Smiley Face Icon from the 1970s), the ills of the world beat him down and he fades slowly out. It’s a strange and bittersweet but also hopeful story, and one that was VERY weird to read in the America that we’re living in right now.

The other original stories in this collection didn’t really connect with me. But there is one final story that is by far my favorite in its power, its emotion, and what it shows is on the way. The last tale is that of the travelers at Worlds’ End who are still waiting out the storm, and wondering what has caused this strange event, as it certainly must be something significant and ghastly to do such damage to reality. And then, across the sky, they see a funeral procession. They don’t know what they are seeing. We as readers don’t really know what we are seeing. But we do see various Endless in the procession, with Delirium and Death trailing behind at the end. Brant describes the entire thing in a sorrowful and yet dreamy way, and once we get to the end and see Death and the look on her face…. Guys, I wept. I think that in part it’s because I know what’s coming. But it’s also such a beautiful moment filled with poignancy and loss. This story was my favorite, and if shifted my perception.

The artwork in this collection is, as you may imagine, incredibly varied (LOOK AT ALL THE NAMES AT THE TOP OF THIS POST). Gaiman says in an afterword in my edition that he wanted to showcase all these different artists talents, and he does. But my favorite was definitely Gary Amaro, who created the funeral procession with such celestial grace and dejection that it just cuts me to the bone.

“The Sandman (Vol.8): Worlds’ End” is the last of the standalone story collections in the series. I’m glad to move on to the rest of the main storyline and characters, but I will say that the end of this one is probably the most powerful moment in the series for me. I’m glad to have been reminded of it.

Rating 7: Another collection of unrelated stories shows off Gaiman’s creativity and the illustrators’s talents. But after a strong previous story arc I was a little underwhelmed, outside of a powerful moment of foreshadowing…

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.8): Worlds’ End” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best of Vertigo Comics”, and “Books for the INFJ”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.8) Worlds’ End” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “The Broken Kingdoms”

Book: “The Broken Kingdoms” by N.K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, November 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: In the city of Shadow, beneath the World Tree, alleyways shimmer with magic and godlings live hidden among mortal kind. Oree Shoth, a blind artist, takes in a homeless man who glows like a living sun to her strange sight. This act of kindness engulfs Oree in a nightmarish conspiracy. Someone, somehow, is murdering godlings, leaving their desecrated bodies all over the city.

Oree’s peculiar guest is at the heart of it, his presence putting her in mortal danger — but is it him the killers want, or Oree? And is the earthly power of the Arameri king their ultimate goal, or have they set their sights on the Lord of Night himself?

Previously Reviewed: “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”

Review: Having re-familiarized myself with Jemisin’s first novel and after discovering the joy that is the audiobook version, it was a quick hop and skip over to the library website to check out the next book in the series. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, as I didn’t read a book description beforehand and it had seemed as if the first book wrapped up fairly neatly. But I’m pleased to report that while telling a wholly unique story focused on a new cast of characters, this sequel is just as wonderful as the first book.

Set several years after the events of the first book, Oree’s world looks very different than the one that existed before. Godlings walk among humans, a gigantic tree grows at the heart of what once was the most powerful city in the land, and dark new forces grow with the rumors that a new god, a new lady, has joined the pantheon. But for Oree, life is made up of small moments as she tries to lead a peaceful life selling her artwork. For, even without eyesight, able only to see magic and its users, Oree creates wonderous works that draw the eyes of many. But this simple life is interrupted when she finds herself drawn into a dark mystery: godlings are being murdered and Oree and her strange house guest, a man who shines bright as the sun, but only at dawn, are suspected as being behind it all.

“The Broken Kingdoms” is both a quieter novel and a more complex one. In many ways, it feels like Jemisin came more into her own in this second outing. While the first one was lovely and I might have preferred it as an overall reading experience, I think this was the stronger book. All of the little glimpses into this fantastical world that were laid down in the first story seemed to blossom and weave themselves into an interlocking tapestry here in the second. The history of the gods and godlings, the politics and cultures that have warred and formed alliances throughout history, and the smaller lives of those just trying to get by while cosmic battles wage around them. Oree’s story is very much that, the story of a young woman who quickly finds herself caught up in something stronger than she is…or so she believes.

As a character, Oree has the quiet strength and inner will of iron that I find so appealing in a leading lady. She has no grand desires and spends much of the book fighting against her own involvement in the mystery surrounding the godlings and her strange houseguest whom she has dubbed “Shiny.” Readers of the first book will be quick to identify this character, and I was pleased to see that Jemisin didn’t draw out the suspense too long for Oree, as well. As fun as it is to be in the know against the main character in a book, it’s a short-lived joy and one that can also end up working against itself very quickly if drawn out too long. The main character can often be left looking unnecessarily foolish or slow to pick up on clues that seem obvious to the better-informed reader. But here, Oree learns the truth in a timely manner, and, what’s more, her reaction to this discovery adds a new layer of interest to the story and the friendship building between these two.

I was also pleased with how Jemisin used this character. From the first book, it was easy to have strong opinions of him from the start. And Jemisin doesn’t undermine those, but she also develops layers beneath this surface version that draw a picture of a complicated, flawed individual who is none the less a worthy companion for our Oree.

I also really enjoyed the expanded world building and exploration of magic and the godlings. The world has certainly changed since the events of the first book, and it is interesting to see the many small and large effects that those events have inspired. The villains, in particular, were very interesting and appropriately threatening. What makes them all the more scary is how understandable some of their motivations are. The world has changed drastically and quickly, and everyone’s reactions to that sort of upheaval would be very different.

My only ding against the book was perhaps the ending. But this is a largely personal evaluation, and I think, narratively, it works quite well. I had my own hopes for how things would go, and the ending took me by surprise, both in a good way and, a bit, in a disappointing one as well. I’m curious to see if any of these events are revisited in the third and final book!

Rating 9: While I had more fun with the first book, this might be the stronger work of the two.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Broken Kingdoms” is on these Goodreads lists: Speculative Fiction by Authors of Color and Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance.

Find “The Broken Kingdoms” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Namesake”

Book: “Namesake” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Trader. Fighter. Survivor.

With the Marigold ship free of her father, Fable and its crew were set to start over. That freedom is short-lived when she becomes a pawn in a notorious thug’s scheme. In order to get to her intended destination she must help him to secure a partnership with Holland, a powerful gem trader who is more than she seems.

As Fable descends deeper into a world of betrayal and deception she learns that her mother was keeping secrets, and those secrets are now putting the people Fable cares about in danger. If Fable is going to save them then she must risk everything, including the boy she loves and the home she has finally found.

Previously Reviewed: “Fable”

Review: I’ve really liked some books from Adrienne Young in the past, but I think “Fable” might have been my favorite in a while. For one thing, I always enjoy a good pirate/sea-faring story, and they’re fairly hard to come by, making the stand-out ones all the better when you find them. While the first book wasn’t perfect, it was definitely a solid start to the duology and the cruel cliff-hanger did its work: I picked up this one as soon as possible when it became available!

Shortly after thinking she’d finally found a place and family of her own in the Marigold and its crew, Fable is abducted and finds herself caught up in the scheming of several powerful players. Unbeknownst to her, Fable might be the clue to unlocking one of the rarest finds in the sea. And soon, Fable must risk it all to make a future for herself and her crew. But to do so, she must delve into the secrets of her family, especially her mother, a woman Fable had thought she knew up until now.

I wasn’t quite sure where this book was going to be headed when I got to the cliffhanger at the end of the first book. In many ways, most of Fable’s arcs had already been completed. She’d confronted the father who abandoned her. Found a crew. Made her fortune in a risky treasure hunt. And found love with the captain of the Marigold. And then she was abducted, with very little fanfare or clues as to why. This could have gone two ways, of course. It could have felt like a last-minute addition by an author/publisher who insisted they’d wring a sequel out of this thing come hell or highwater. Or it could be a thoughtful addition to Fable’s story that felt organic and natural in its own right. I’m glad to report that it is the second.

While much of the first book dealt with Fable’s complicated relationship with a father who refused to acknowledge her as his daughter publicly, this book dives into Fable’s relationship and understanding of her mother and her mother’s family. From the first book, Isolde is made out to be the prototypical perfect mother figure. She was everything Fable wanted to be and looked up to, while also a comforting, loving mother to Fable as a child. But this book tackles the idea that we never really know our parents, as much as we may love them and want to emulate them. Isolde, like the sea she loved, had depths and currents to her that very few understood, and it was exciting watching Fable navigate the twists and turns uncovered in her own family history through Isolde’s lingering relatives.

There were several points in this story, particularly with regards to the Isolde storyline, that could have felt very predictable. I had a number of suspicions regarding the direction the story seemed to be headed. Luckily, only one of those really played out (though that one in particular still frustrates me to no end, as I felt like at least part of it should have been more obvious to Fable and her crew). Instead, we see new layers to many characters. Villains come and go. Motivations wax and wane. It’s always a bit unclear as to who is doing what and why.

And at the heart of it, Fable is a steady, sympathetic character. The revelations about her family that rock her own understanding of herself and history, while shocking, don’t dislodge her core purpose and understanding of her place in the world. Her values, her love for her family, both found and blood, remain true even when tested by power, suspicion, and deception.

I also liked that we got to see a bit more backstory for a few of the other crew members. In the first book, many of them felt like token characters with only one or two traits to really distinguish them from each other. Here, we get a bit more history for a few of them that grounds their stories in ways that make you care about more than just Fable herself.

I still found the romance to be a bit dull. But in this different circumstance, the second book versus the first, I was almost glad for that dullness. More than anything, I hate it when authors add drama to their established romances as if that’s the only way to maintain the reader’s interest in it. If your romance can’t hold up to its characters being together, it wasn’t great to start with. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying probably forever.

Overall, I was very pleased with this sequel. It explored new areas of the duology’s central theme, that of family, while also staying true to the main character and foundations of the story that were laid down in the first book. Fans of “Fable” are sure to enjoy this second high-seas adventure!

Rating 8: Exciting but poignant, “Namesake” continues to build on the excellent foundation laid down in the first book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Namesake” is on these Goodreads lists: OE Fiction, Fantasies & Epics Book Club and Ginger woman: Redheaded Heroine in Romance.

Find “Namesake” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Mask of Mirrors”

Book: “The Mask of Mirrors” by M. A. Carrick

Publishing Info: Orbit, January 2021

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

Book Description: Renata Viraudax is a con artist who has come to the sparkling city of Nadezra — the city of dreams — with one goal: to trick her way into a noble house and secure her fortune and her sister’s future.

But as she’s drawn into the elite world of House Traementis, she realizes her masquerade is just one of many surrounding her. And as corrupt magic begins to weave its way through Nadezra, the poisonous feuds of its aristocrats and the shadowy dangers of its impoverished underbelly become tangled — with Ren at their heart.

Review: M. A. Carrick is the pen name for two authors, Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms. I’m not familiar with any of Helms’ work, but I’ve enjoyed the books by Brennan that I’ve read. Both are anthropologists as well, which I think often adds an extra layer of detail and attention to the world-building in original fantasy novels. Like so many before it, this book has been hyped with comparisons to “Six of Crows,” and based on the description alone, I can see where that would come from: any fantasy novel that features cons and has multiple POVs MUST be compared to “Six of Crows!” We all know what my record has been with those so far…

Renata is not who she claims to be, the lost cousin of a down-and-out noble family who nonetheless hold power at their finger tips. No, Renata is truly Ren, a former street urchin who has always had an eye for a con. But the plan that she and her sister conjured up, for Ren to ingratiate herself with a noble family as a long lost cousin and hence secure a future for them both, quickly goes sideways and Ren soon finds herself caught up in events that are greater than she had prepared for. What’s worse, she’s beginning to feel a bit too much like Renata, caring about and for things and people she shouldn’t.

Not only do the comparisons to “Six of Crows” feel accurate in this case, this book escapes the curse of being a massive let-down that has struck so many “wanna-be ‘Six of Crows'” imitations in the past. In a lot of ways, it’s like the adult version of that. It definitely goes to some darker places than the YA novel is allowed to, and its character more fully exist in the shades of grey between good and bad. Good people doing bad things for good reasons. Bad people doing good things for horrible reasons. It’s all deliciously complicated and prickly, making you both love and despise characters at various times and question how you, yourself, would handle certain situations.

I also liked many of the characters introduced, especially Ren. It’s always important to like the main character, and it can be especially hard to write a realistic character such as this without having her become a caricature con artist, constantly quipping and not founded in any deeper human emotion beneath it all. Not here. Through Ren’s perspective, we see the challenges she faces, trying to become part of a group of society that she also despises. And slowly grows to appreciate. And then equally begins to struggle with her own feelings towards these people and the balance between her original goals and the individual connections she’s made.

There were also a lot of twists and turns throughout the story. For much of it, the identity of the mysterious Robin Hood-like character is unknown, and it was a constant challenge trying to figure out the identity of this enigmatic force to be reckoned with. The end of the book also really kicked things up and left the story in a very primed state for the sequel.

My one ding is in regards to the length and pacing of this book. It’s over 600 pages long, which is just a lot to ask of readers taking on a new fantasy world such as this. The story did fairly well supporting this page length, but the pacing did stutter at times, and I think the entire thing would have been more approachable if it had been edited down a bit. But, in the end, I think most fantasy fans will enjoy this book, and I’m definitely curious about the sequel!

Rating 8: A complex new fantasy world bites off a bit more than it can chew in length, but makes up for it with strong characters and compelling mysteries.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Mask of Mirrors” is on, funnily enough, this Goodreads lists: The Best Random Genre List Of Books…Ever.

Find “The Mask of Mirrors” at the library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “As the Shadow Rises”

Book: “As the Shadow Rises” by Katy Rose Pool

Publishing Info: Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The Last Prophet has been found, yet he sees destruction ahead.

In this sequel to the critically-acclaimed “There Will Come a Darkness,” kingdoms have begun to fall to a doomsday cult, the magical Graced are being persecuted, and an ancient power threatens to break free. But with the world hurtling toward its prophesized end, Anton’s haunting vision reveals the dangerous beginnings of a plan to stop the Age of Darkness.

As Jude, Keeper of the Order of the Last Light, returns home in disgrace, his quest to aid the Prophet is complicated by his growing feelings for Anton. Meanwhile, the assassin known as the Pale Hand will stop at nothing to find her undead sister before she dies for good, even if it means letting the world burn. And in Nazirah, Hassan, the kingdom-less Prince, forms a risky pact to try to regain his throne. When the forces of light and darkness collide in the City of Mercy, old wounds are reopened, new alliances are tested, and the end of the world begins.

Previously Reviewed: “There Will Come a Darkness”

Review: I wasn’t a huge fan of the first book in this series, as my review above with testify to. But it’s hard to resist returning to a series when the sequel is so highly praised (but then again, so was the first one, and we saw how that turned out). But this book currently has a 4.25 star rating on Goodreads, which is definitely not something to turn your nose up at. So I requested it and tried to be open to what others are seeing in this series that I didn’t. Sadly, I still don’t see it.

Our main characters are spread far and wide. And while the Last Prophet has been identified, the world still seems to be burning around them. Hassan has lost his country to his scheming Aunt. Jude returns in disgrace having let his feelings get ahead of his mission time and again. And our favorite assassin wanders the land looking for her self-destructive, undead sister. Not to mention the doomsday cult that only seems to have gotten started. As their paths weave in and out of each other’s stories, the way forward begins to look more and more complicated and challenging. If there even is a way forward.

Well, I will say that I liked this one better than the first. With so many POV characters, the first one had to devote a huge chunk of its page time introducing each of its characters and attempting to instill equal importance and interest in them all. For me, this last part wasn’t successful, but there was no avoiding the first part. One could make an argument for this being why multiple POV books should probably be much more rare than they seem to be at the moment. But for all of those reasons, the first book didn’t have much of a plot until the last quarter of the story where it did, finally, kick into gear. Here, the story was able to take off much more quickly for all that work already being done. Our threats have been better identified, the world-building better established, and it all results in a book that has much better pacing and action than the first.

I also liked the fact that the story is leaning into the darker, twisty aspects of the story. The first one I thought was pretty predictable and what were meant to land as big shocks were easily seen chapters ahead of time. Here, I was pleased that I was only able to predict a few of the twists and turns with more of them taking me genuinely by surprise. So if you enjoyed that aspect of the first book, this one is sure to satisfy.

Unfortunately, for me, most books live and die on their characters. And that was my biggest problem with the first, and that feeling only intensified with this one. There’s a combination of problems here, really. With so many POVs, there will always be favorites. This happens even with books/authors who can handle a large ensemble cast well. But here there are really only one or two characters whose stories I’m really invested in. For the others, there’s a combination of boredom by some and then dislike of others. Both of these feelings, I’m sure, are unintentional. Boring, for sure. And the dislike? I’m not quite so sure, but I think that we’re still meant to like most of these people. And it’s not even the morally ambiguous ones (assassins always are!) that are always the unlikeable ones here! I didn’t like Hassan much in the first, and he really doesn’t improve here. And while Jude has an interesting story, I’m still cringing over his complete failure to live up to what we’re meant to believe is rigorous training he went through his entire life. He has similar struggles here.

I did like the moments when the characters crossed paths with one another. That was a favorite part of the first book, too. It’s nice to see a story that doesn’t just get all of the characters together and then leave them that way. Here, like there, we see people come and go from each other’s stories, making the fact that they are all individuals with very different goals and objectives stay at the forefront of the mind. While they have different connections and interests in one another, they are not a team like we often see in other ensemble books.

Overall, I think this was an improvement on the first book. I liked that the story took me more by surprise. And the fact that so much of the introduction leg work had already been gotten out of the way really helped the pacing and action of the plot. Unfortunately, my problems with many of the characters only intensified and at times it felt like a real chore reading some of their chapters. However, if you were a fan of the first book, I’m sure you’ll like this one. And if your problems with the first one had to do more with its introductory nature more than anything else, this might be an improvement for you as well! Just expect more of the same, character-wise.

Rating 7: An improvement on the first, but I still found myself skimming through certain characters’ chapters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“As the Shadow Rises” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, weirdly, but it is on Books with Red Covers.

Find “As the Shadow Rises” at your library using WorldCat!

Diving into Sub-Genres: Literary Fantasy

We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

Literary fantasy is a hard sub-genre to even wrap your head around. Many of the other sub-genres of fantasy (portal fantasy, epic fantasy, steampunk, urban) have very distinct elements that are easily recognizable even from a short blurb about the book. Literary fantasy…not so much. It’s tempting to say that literary fantasy is simply contemporary fantasy where the story is simply light on fantasy altogether. But this writes off historical works which would also fit this category. So perhaps it is simply the light fantastical elements? But even that I don’t think is correct (you’ll see that a couple of books I’ve included here have fairly extensive magical elements).

Instead, I think it’s largely contained in a certain style of writing that is often found in these books. Literary fantasy is often just as focused on a beautiful turn of phrase as it is on describing a magical spell’s effects. There’s often an elegance to the writing, a compulsion to appreciate the words themselves rather than fully immerse oneself in the book to the point that the reader forgets they’re reading. Indeed, knowing that one is reading is half of the joy of these types of books, with more focus given to descriptions and omniscient narrator musings than action-packed set pieces. In many ways, I’m essentially describing “literary fiction” but with some fantastical element involved. However, I think that “literary fiction” typically includes other notable elements that don’t necessarily rely on a style of writing as strongly as literary fantasy does (often tragic, more experimentation with word-play and style of writing).

So with that in mind, here are a few examples of favorite books of mine that I would file under literary fantasy.

“The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue”

This was actually the book that inspired this entire review series, after one of our readers commented on my labeling it as “literary fantasy” and asked about other titles that would fit in that sub-genre. So here we are! This story, that of a young woman who strikes a deal to live forever but to never be remembered by anyone she meets, fits the criteria in a few ways. It definitely has fantasy elements, what with the main character living forever and all, but the themes of the book are much more focused on identity, one’s own history, and what it means to exist in a world made up of so many other people living out their own journeys. There’s also a big focus on art and how it expresses the lives of both the artist and the subject of art. Between these themes, much of the story taking place in a standard contemporary/historical setting with very little magic involved, and the beautiful style of writing, it definitely meets the criteria for literary fantasy.

“The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

If “The Invisible Lie of Addi LaRue” was the inspiration for this post, “The Starless Sea” was my immediate answer to the question posed by our blog reader for another example of literary fantasy. I could also include Morgenstern’s first novel, “The Night Circus,” under this category, but as this is the one I’ve read and loved most recently, I’ll include it here. It’s also an example of a book I would classify as literary fantasy but one that includes many, many fantasy elements. If anything, it walks right up to the line of what I would classify as fairytale fantasy or portal fantasy. The story is a winding affair of exploration and mystery throughout time and space, all held together by a mysterious library that exists right through a doorway, if one is only brave enough to open it. There’s much reflection on love and passion, but half of the magic is the sheer whimsy of the entire thing. Behind every door is a new wonder, and the writing seems to wrap you up in a warm blanket of delight and you’re left wondering if you perhaps travelled to this magical world after all, simply through the process of reading this book. It is this lovely style of writing and the effortless feel of the magical elements involved that classifies it as literary fantasy.

“Deathless” by Catherynne M. Valente

This book walks even closer to the line of fairytale fantasy than the last, in that it’s largely inspired by Russian myth and the Russian folklore character, Kuschei the Deathless. But again, it’s all in the style of writing. I debated including one of Valente’s “Fairyland” stories, which I think skirt this sub-genre fairly well themselves. But I think “Deathless” hits the mark a bit better with its supposition of fantastical creatures and myths over almost all of the important events of the 20th century in Russia. Of course, knowing even a little of Russia’s history during that time period, it’s a safe guess that the story, while beautiful, has its fair share of tragic moments, as well. Valente expertly wields her magical elements in such a way as to shine new light and new insights into some of the better (and lesser) known parts of the country’s history. Anyone who has read a book by her before can also testify to the unique and beautiful style of her writing. She’s definitely an author whose stylized sentences and combinations of thoughts often makes the reader stop and re-read certain sections just to revel in her use of words.

“The Golem and the Jinni” by Helene Wecker

This is another literary fantasy novel that is at least as much concerned with delving into its real-life, historical themes as it is in exploring the two magical creatures who are the story’s main characters. Yes, our two leads are the titular golem and jinni, but their story is much more than that. Instead, in many ways, the book is more concerned at looking at the experience of immigrants in the early 1900s and life in New York City during this time period, in general. Not only are both of our characters origins not of the United States, but each, of course, is even more “other” in that they aren’t human. But at the same time, each has such core human traits that define them, that their experiences and struggles feel almost amplified for it. This is a long book, and one that definitely takes its time carefully depicting the details of the place and time as much as it does the history of the golem and jinni. It’s the kind of book that could fairly easily be recommended to straight-up historical fiction fans as well as fantasy readers.

“Tigana” by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is another author who’s entire catalog of books would likely fit in this sub-genre. My favorite books by him, “The Fionavar Tapestry” quartet, definitely meet the criteria for style of writing, but they fall closer to portal fantasy, in my opinion. But I could have easily put “The Lions of Al-Rassan” or “Children of Earth and Sky” or many others on this list. I selected “Tigana,” however, because it’s probably, universally, one of his most beloved and well-regarded novels. Gavriel Kay’s books are also unique to this category in the fact that they are entirely set in alternative worlds. The settings and events are often inspired by real-life countries and events, but the worlds are still entirely fantasy-based, ultimately. This story touches on themes of war, love, and the tangle that politics makes of it all. It is expansive and marvelous, and, too many, set a higher bar for what readers can expect from fantasy fiction and specifically literary fantasy.

“The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden

Lastly, I wanted to include the first book in a trilogy of books that would all fit well in this category. Like some of the others, “The Bear and the Nightingale” has a definite fairytale vibe to the story. But the slow build of the story, the attention spent on developing atmosphere, and the beautiful, lyrical style of writing all fit perfectly for literary fantasy. The sharply beautiful description of the Russian winter landscape are particularly poignant, and the themes regarding religion, magic, and one young woman’s journey to carve out a place for herself in a world that doesn’t have a place for women who don’t fit a certain type of mold. What starts out on a fairly small scale expands across the three books until Vasilisa’s story starts to encompass the entirety of Russia itself. I loved this entire tirlogy and would recommend all three (though they can’t be read separately, other than the first one, perhaps) to fans of literary fantasy.

What fantasy books would you categorize as literary fantasy? What are some of your favorites? Share in the comments below!

Monthly Marillier: “Child of the Prophecy”

“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: “Child of the Prophecy” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor, June 2003

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Magic is fading… and the ways of Man are driving the Old Ones to the West, beyond the ken of humankind. The ancient groves are being destroyed, and if nothing is done, Ireland will lose its essential mystic core.

The prophecies of long ago have foretold a way to prevent this horror, and it is the Sevenwaters clan that the Spirits of Eire look to for salvation. They are a family bound into the lifeblood of the land, and their promise to preserve the magic has been the cause of great joy to them… as well as great sorrow.

It is up to Fainne, daughter of Niamh, the lost sister of Sevenwaters, to solve the riddles of power. She is the shy child of a reclusive sorcerer, and her way is hard, for her father is the son of the wicked sorceress Oonagh, who has emerged from the shadows and seeks to destroy all that Sevenwaters has striven for. Oonagh will use her granddaughter Fainne most cruelly to accomplish her ends, and stops at nothing to see her will done.

Will Fainne be strong enough to battle this evil and save those she has come to love?

Review: Several years after the events in “Son of the Shadows,” we meet Fainne, the daughter of Niamh, Liadan’s lost sister. Growing up in practical isolation, and with the loss of her mother early in life and a reclusive father, Faine’s life has been one of quiet and seclusion. In many ways, Faine feels that she and her father aren’t simply hiding from his cruel, sorceress mother, Oonagh, but they are hiding from their own dark potential. But when the currents shift and Faine is forced out into the world and finds herself in her mother’s ancestral home of Sevenwaters, Faine must begin to make choices about her own future. Will she follow in her grandmother’s footsteps? Or will she choose a new way like her aunt and maternal grandmother before her?

By the time I got to this book, I’d actually read a few of Marillier’s other works. This was probably for the best as this is one of my less favorite of her books. It’s kind of surprising, because overall, I think her Sevenwaters series has been one of her biggest draws to her fantasy readership. But for me, something felt off about this book almost from the start. However, let’s talk about the things I liked, first off.

Marillier’s writing is almost freakish in its consistency. If you read a lot of her books, you’ll soon be able to immediately recognize her unique style of lyrical prose and straightforward storytelling. There’s a sense of wonder and comfort in much of her work, even as she touches on some dark topics. Every word feels delicate and intentional. There’s no denying the craftmanship of her work, and that was all on display here, especially when working with a character like Faine who is very different than the leading ladies who came before her.

I also liked seeing some familiar faces again. I, of course, really enjoyed Liadan and Bran’s story, so it was great seeing them again. It was also interesting to see side characters who had grown into roles they had just begun in “Son of the Shadows.” Sean, for example, has now been leader of Sevenwaters for over a decade. We also see Aisling, his wife, in her role as the lady of Sevenwaters. And, most jarring but also best of all, we get to see a grown Johnny balancing his role as heir to Sevenwaters and presumed fulfiller of the much-debated prophesy that has sat at the heart of the story from the start.

The problem with all of this, however, is that these side characters, both the very familiar, like Liadan and Bran, and the less so, like Johnny, are more intriguing than Faine. Much of Marillier’s work lives and dies on the strength of her characters. Most of her books are slow on the action and heavy on the introspection. So that main character has a lot of heavy lifting to do. And unfortunately, Faine just isn’t up to it. To some extent, I appreciate the challenges that Faine represents. Liadan and Sorcha were almost perfect women, so it’s refreshing to see Marillier tackling a heroine who faces challenges both physical and emotional. Faine walks with a limp, and due to her reclusive lifestyle, she struggles to form connections and maintain relationships. These parts of her character I thought were very well-drawn, and it was interesting watching her learn to piece together human interactions with people who are family in name only to her.

Unfortunately, her naivety turns into almost willful stupidity at points. Her concern of the darkness within her drives her actions past the point of reason. It’s hard to be sympathetic at points when events around her and those who would seek to use her are less than subtle. She does some pretty bad stuff for some pretty weak reasons. And much of her motivation seems weak and more told to the reader than shown in any way that would make it truly threatening feeling.

I also really disliked the romance. It’s not that it was bad, and the hero had his charming, appealing moments. But in comparison to the deep, well-drawn relationships that came in the books before, this one just feels shallow and uninteresting in comparison. I never felt any real chemistry between these characters, and there was very little tension in the proceedings. Some dramatic events happen towards the end, but even then, what should have been heavy hits felt fairly removed for me. I just didn’t care that much.

Of the original trilogy, this book is the weakest by far. It had a really interesting premise, featuring a character who has grown up more on the fringes of Sevenwaters and its stretching legacy, but several aspects of the book just felt a bit off. Faine wasn’t nearly as compelling as Sorcha and Liadan. And the romance felt stilted and thin. It’s still worth reading, however, if you’re a fan of the series as some pretty significant events occur and many of the mysteries laid down in the first two books are resolved. Events that occur here will also be referred to loosely in the second trilogy in the series.

Rating 6: Underwhelming after the flashes of mastery that were the first two books in the trilogy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Child of the Prophecy” is on these Goodreads lists: Great Celtic Fiction and Myth and Folktale Retellings.

Find “Child of the Prophecy” at your library using WorldCat!