Serena’s Review: “A Natural History of Dragons”

12974372Book: “A Natural History of Dragons”by Marie Brennan

Publishing Info: Tor Books, February 2013

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

Book Description: Tor Books, February 2013

Book Description: All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

Review: When I read “Turning Darkness into Light” a year or so ago, I didn’t realize that it was connected to Marie Brennan’s “Lady Trent” series. It was still an enjoyable read, however, and it inspired me to go back and put the original series on my list. Of course, that now makes reading this series, set quite a bit before “Turning Darkness,” into a very different reading experience than it would have been had I been approaching without any prior knowledge. But, overall, I really enjoyed this read!

Before she was the well-known adventurous, Lady Trent, Lady Isabella was just a young woman with an unladylike interest: dragons. But ever determined, she set out to make a life for herself where she could pursue this unlikely passion as far a a lady of her time could hope for. Instead, she got more than she ever wished for. Finding a marriage of true affection with a liberal minded man who eventually even concedes to allowing her to travel on expeditions alongside her. Never did he suspect that she, herself, would be the one to begin making the most extraordinary discoveries of their time!

This book was both what I expected and very different than I expected. On one hand, it’s kind of your staple historical fantasy story featuring an intrepid lady going and doing what no lady has done before. Lady Trent’s voice was very familiar, if a bit less bland than the likes of Amelia Peabody and Veronica Speedwell. But her story was unique enough to stand alone. For one thing, I appreciate the way the story is grounded in the realities of the “time” for a lady such as herself.

Her marriage is not made from wild romance, but from the practical choice of two individuals with unique interests to team up with another who can appreciate their eccentricities. It was a nice change of pace to read about this type of relationship and how their feelings towards each other change and grow over the years as they are put to different, unexpected tests. Her husband doesn’t simply jump onboard with her wanting to travel the world, but very realistically expresses concern that he will be judged for not protecting his wife as a proper husband should. Of course, he quickly sees reason and realizes that her wants and needs are more important than this judgement, but I appreciated that the challenge of living so far outside the norm was addressed.

The story was a bit slower to get started than I may have liked, but once Lady Isabella actually begins her explorations, I really enjoyed it. Even then, the dragons were much more often an idea or passing fear than ever being very present. This, of course, was part of the mystery of them, but it did leave the pacing of the story itself a bit stilted. Here, mostly, is where it was strange that I had read the companion book before this actual series. Many secrets and truths had been taken as common knowledge in that book, but here Lady Trent had yet to make any of these discoveries. It did add a strange, new layer of intrigue for me, personally, as I spent a lot of time trying to guess how all of these smaller clues would lead to the bigger reveals I knew were coming at some point. Even knowing some of the outcomes, I still wasn’t able to put much together beforehand.

I really liked the narrator for this audiobook, and I highly recommend reading the book that way if you like audiobooks at all. The slower pace and, at points, removed feeling one has from the characters themselves did knock this back a few points in my rating. But I plan on continuing the series and hopefully those aspects will pick up in the next one.

Rating 7: A fun historical fantasy story, if a bit plodding at times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Natural History of Dragons” is on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy of Manners” and “Dragons/Serpents.”

Find “A Natural History of Dragons” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Poppy War”

35068705Book: “The Poppy War” by R. F. Kuang

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, May 2018

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

Book Description: When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

Review: Whew! That book description is about half the length of my entire post usually! But I guess given that this is a 600+ page book, it kind of makes sense. There’s a lot to pack in there! This summer continues to be the summer of catching up on books that were quite a hit a year or so ago, and that for whatever reason, took me forever to get to! I have clear memories of seeing this cover and title being thrown about everywhere and yet I never really knew anything about what it was about! Which, having read it now, I kind of get! There’s a lot in here, and it’s the kind of book that’s hard to pin down or to compare to some other, obvious read-alike. And, while I was not prepared for everything in this, I really loved it!

Rin has always been a fighter. Maybe not in the classical sense, though she gets even there eventually. No, she is one who fights against the life that others have chosen for her. A war orphan from a poor providence, through sheer stubbornness and force of will she studies hard enough to earn her ticket out of an arranged marriage. Then, in a northern school that looks down on her lowly beginnings, Rin, again through sheer stubborness, finds a way to become one of their best students. And then the war hits, and her real fight begins. Not only against an almost unstoppable invading force, but the fight within herself to define her future. Will she follow a beloved teacher, warning of dark paths ahead? Or an esteemed leader who asks her to embrace every bit of power she has always hid within herself.

This book took me by complete surprise. For one thing, it almost reads as two entirely different books, so right when you’re getting settled in and think you understand the type of story you’re read, bam! Nope! The first half is your classic coming-of-age, boarding/military school story ala Tamora Pierce’s “Alanna” series. You have Rin, the girl who has nothing going for her, proving to everyone again and again that sheer stubbornness is enough to get you through most everything. She’s an outcast among her peers with the one sweet friend and the one big enemy in the local school enemy. She befriends the quirky teacher. It’s all lovely. And as familiar as that all sounds, the author imbibes her story with such a complicated history, culture, and mythology that the reader never once feels like these aspects of the story are coming off as tropes.

And then, whoops! Not the innocent school story anymore! A foreign army invades and suddenly the story takes a steep turn into a grim and gritty war story. And even that came with surprises. It starts out well enough with a few things going Rin’s way as she learns more about her abilities, her history, and her potential. She joins up with a crew of other “freaks” and they have a few wins. And then…it gets dark. Pretty suddenly even. And when I say dark, I mean dark. I’m not a prude about violence by any means, but man, I wasn’t prepared for where this book headed. I definitely teared up a number of times and had to put the book down (metaphorically, as it was an audiobook) at least two or three times. Some parts of it were really hard to get through.

I will say that this is the one part of the story that knocked it back a point from being a full “10 rating” book: at times, it felt like the violence was almost a bit too much. There was one section in particular about three fourths of the way through where I felt like the book just seemed to linger and repeat examples of the atrocities. While a lot of this was necessary for Rin’s own arc and to justify her choices and how she ends up where she does, I think the point was made even without some of the circling round again through all of the horror. It’s a fine line to walk, and it’s the kind of thing that many readers will have different tolerances for. But, the warning stands: this book goes to some awful places. I wasn’t prepared, so I’ll let you know so you can be!

I really liked Rin’s character. Her arc is incredibly compelling, especially as we see her struggle through some awful choices. And by the end, we have a character who is very different than the one we started with. But at the same time, completely recognizable. And the changes are so subtle and the influences on her pile up so slowly, bit by bit, that by the grand conclusion, we’re not shocked by what should be shocking.

I also loved the incredibly world-building, history, and mythology. This story felt completely fresh, and even after 600+ pages, I still only felt like I was scratching the surface of this world. This is the first book in a trilogy, and while I have a few guesses as to where one or two things are going, I’m also prepared to be dead wrong. Since I was completely blown off my feet with this one, it’d be the height of arrogance for me to assume I know what’s coming next! That said, I will need to give myself a bit of breathing time before getting into the second one. My heart can only take so much!

Rating 9: A little late to the game and repeating what’s been said a bunch of times already, but this book is incredible.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Poppy War” is on these Goodreads lists: “Asian Speculative Fiction by Asian Authors — #ownvoices” and “Fantasy of color.”

Find “The Poppy War” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Year of the Witching”

49789629Book: “The Year of the Witching” by Alexis Henderson

Publishing Info: Ace, July 2020

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

Book Description: A young woman living in a rigid, puritanical society discovers dark powers within herself in this stunning, feminist fantasy debut.

In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.

But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.

Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.

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

So for the past few months some friends and I have been continuing our ‘Horror Movie Club’ that we had just started before social distancing became the name of the game. We log into Netflix and open up Netflix Party, then watch a scary movie every Tuesday. Back in May we watched “The VVitch”, one of my favorite witch movies because damn, that ending. I was the only one who had seen it, and when that ending twist came the chat exploded with glee and I basked in the (what I see as ) feminist message at the end. You intertwine witchcraft and feminism and I am totally there. So when I read the description for “The Year of the Witching” by Alexis Henderson, I immediately, IMMEDIATELY, requested it from NetGalley. I want MORE feminist witchcraft in my reading, after all.

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EMPOWERMENT! HEXES! PATRIARCHY SMASHING! I WANT IT ALL! (source)

First and foremost, it should be noted that “The Year of the Witching” is a dark fantasy, bordering on straight horror story. Horror in terms of scary imagery, but also horror in terms of the horrors of fundamentalism, misogyny, racism, and corruption. Bethel is a community that seems to take some of its inspiration from Puritanism and the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints, with nods to Puritan beliefs of witch craft and the FLDS notions of a Prophet and polygamy. Citizens are kept in line with religion, and girls and women are the ones who bear the brunt of the hardships and the punishments for stepping out of place. Immanuelle is accepted by her family and mostly by the community, but is always Othered because of her mother’s ‘sin’ and because of her race. It’s far too seldom that witch stories involve Black of brown witches (with a few recent exceptions), so for Immanuelle to have the potential for magical powers and to be biracial with dark skin is pretty awesome. It also opens up the potential to  not only explore misogyny in Bethel, but also misogynoir as well. The entire society is an exploration in how a society can use fear and religion to exert control and power over its members, and at the top of this is the Prophet, who leads the town and passes judgements that sometimes end in pyres where women and outsiders are burned for the sins of being women and outsiders. And while the people in Bethel are being subjectted to this, it’s very clear that they are still complicit in this system.

That isn’t to say that Henderson falls into the trap of ‘one side is completely evil and the other side is completely good’, as the witches of the Darkwood that Immanuelle is drawn to (as was her mother) are described as evangelists in their own right. Immanuelle is caught between two extremes, and has to suss out if out of reaction to one side she will swing all the way to the other side, which has its own malevolence. Henderson really figured out how to find the nuance, which we don’t always get to see in stories that have as much rage and revolution in them as “The Year of the Witching” does. Which is awesome. Instead of falling merely into rage, even if that rage is completely justified, Henderson lets Immanuelle explore other ways to proceed when it comes to the liberation of herself and the women in her life. And I loved that.

And yes, this is a very creepy tale with some really neat witch mythos inside of it. You have your usual ‘cast out women who were seeking power’ tale, but Henderson goes a little further with it, giving each witch in the coven a specific backstory, specific roles they played before and after the clash, and unique descriptors that harken to folk horror as well as body horror. I especially loved the descriptions of Lilith, aka The Mother, who is the leader and in direct opposition of The Father and what the people of Bethel believe. I don’t want to spoil her description because I really want it to to be a surprise to readers, but holy hell, it’s both something out of a nightmare and also powerful as hell.

“The Year of the Witching” is an excellent YA horror novel with a lot to say. Do yourself a favor and get your hands on it. Especially if you loved the end of “The VVitch”.

Rating 10: Spooky, angry, feminist and empowering, “The Year of the Witching” is a dark and scary tale of agency, independence, and discovering your inner power.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Year of the Witching” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dystopias with Gender or Religion-specific Phobics”, and “Black Heroines 2020”.

Find “The Year of the Witching” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Girl, Serpent, Thorn”

51182650._sx318_sy475_Book: “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” by Melissa Bashardoust

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, July 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.

As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.

Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming…human or demon. Princess or monster.

Review: Here was another book I requested based mostly on cover lust. But the description itself, particularly the original fairytale-ness of it all, was another sure a attraction. It’s also yet another book that seems to feature siblings, though this one is only from Soraya’s POV, which is a nice change of pace in my reading lately. The story took a few twists and turns that I wasn’t expecting, but most of them turned out for the good, and I enjoyed this read!

Soraya is a forgotten princess. With a power that kills at her touch, she’s spent her life sequestered in shadows, separated from her family, friends, and people. She’s spent her life watching her brother pass all of the milestones that she herself has missed out on. And now it is coming to a head with his marriage to a lost friend from Soraya’s childhood. In unexpected places she begins to find new allies and new pathways, opening doors that she never dreamed possible. Some of them lead into the light, and some further into the dark. Which will she choose?

I ended up really enjoying this book. It was an original fairytale, something I always love, and it took a few unexpected twists and turns as it was told. On top of all of that, it’s a standalone novel. One small criticims there, however, was the story did feel like it had to distinctive arcs that may have been better suited to their own books, making the story into a duology. But even typing that feels wrong as I love standalone books so much and they’re hard to find! It’s kind of a mixed bag thing, here, I guess. The two storylines work well enough, and I don’t feel like either was truly lacking much. Just that as a complete work, it did feel oddly balanced with the first half telling one tale and the second another.

I really liked Soraya herself. She had a great narrative voice, and she was easy to become immediately invested in. This was important as the book took a twist down an antihero path that I hadn’t seen coming from the book description. Looking back now, yeah, it’s kind of there. But it was another nice surprise for me when going through this book. It’s always tough to sell a true antihero story, as often your main character is doing some pretty questionable things and walking a very narrow line. This made the likablity of Soraya’s character incredibly important. It was easy to understand her struggles and even some of her more questionable decisions, especially in the context of the life she had lived prior to this story.

Another surprise for me was that Soraya was a bisexual and the main romance ends up being a f/f one. For the book itself and its story, I really enjoyed this romance. I’ve read a bunch of f/f/ stories recently, and really liked them! Just last week, I reviewed a book by Django Wexler who is known for almost always giving his heroine a female love interest. My problem with it being a surprise here isn’t the book’s fault. It’s the marketing.

Looking over the book description, it’s clear that it’s intentionally deflecting away from using gendered pronouns in places, and then goes out of its way to place interest on the male love interest. The male love interest is a thing, so that’s fine. But there should be mention, clearly, of the female option. I really dislike these type of marketing techniques. It seems clear that its done out of mistrust of one’s audience, and that’s never going to work. Either your reader is game for a f/f romance, in which case readers like me would like to know ahead of time what to expect without having to delve into Goodreads reviews to get basic information like this. Or your reader is not down and once it becomes clear that you tried to hoodwink them with your marketing, they’ll put the book down. It’s bad faith marketing, and we need to get past this.

Overall, I really liked this book. If you’re looking for an original fairytale story with a morally grey main character, this is definitely the book for you!

Rating 8: A great standalone fantasy novel featuring an interesting anti-heroine!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Girl, Serpent, Thorn” is on these Goodreads lists: “2020 YA LGBT+ Sci-Fi/Fantasy” and “Magical Realism.”

Find “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Ashes of the Sun”

52822248._sx318_sy475_Book: “Ashes of the Sun” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Orbit, July 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: Long ago, a magical war destroyed an empire, and a new one was built in its ashes. But still the old grudges simmer, and two siblings will fight on opposite sides to save their world, in the start of Django Wexler’s new epic fantasy trilogy

Gyre hasn’t seen his beloved sister since their parents sold her to the mysterious Twilight Order. Now, twelve years after her disappearance, Gyre’s sole focus is revenge, and he’s willing to risk anything and anyone to claim enough power to destroy the Order.

Chasing rumors of a fabled city protecting a powerful artifact, Gyre comes face-to-face with his lost sister. But she isn’t who she once was. Trained to be a warrior, Maya wields magic for the Twilight Order’s cause. Standing on opposite sides of a looming civil war, the two siblings will learn that not even the ties of blood will keep them from splitting the world in two.

Review: This will be the third Django Wexler book I’ve read this year, so I’m definitely on a roll! I had read a book by him before, but I think because it was the first in a long-ish series, I became intimidated and kind of let it slide. But I loved his new YA series and am looking forward to the final one in that coming out soon. Which made me all the more surprised when this, a beginning to a new adult series, suddenly popped up! I’m not sure how long of a series is planned, but based on this first book, I’m all in!

When his little sister, Maya, is taken away at age 5 by the powerful Twilight Order, Gyre’s idealic family life is broken. Years of simmering anger build until he comes of age to make is own way. And that way includes spending every resource he has delving into the underworld of the Republic in search of a power strong enough to destroy the organization that stole his sister and, in many ways, controls his world. Maya, raised by the Order and on the bring of becoming independent, is committed to the ideals of her organization. Raised to believe that the Order protects and serves, Maya sees the good that she and her people can do for the common folk who are plagued by dangerous monsters. But as she comes closer and closer to striking out on her own, she begins to see cracks among her people and a corruption that may go deeper than she thought.

The world-building in this story is excellent. It almost seems to be set in a post-apocaptic version of the “Star Wars” universe. Kind of an odd comparison, but once you read the book, you’ll totally see it. The author has a great afterward where he even states “Star Wars” as an influence, but it’s so subtly done, that at no point does this in any way feel like a “Star Wars” book. So it feels both familiar as well as incredibly unique all at once. I really liked the glimpses we have into the history of this world, and there were a lot of great reveals that game out over the course of the story. Of course, most of these just raised more questions than they answered, but what else can you expect from the first book in a series?

I also really liked both Maya and Gyre. This is one of those rare, great examples of a book where the duel narrators are equally strong and compelling. Especially since they are essentially representing opposing forces. It’s quite difficult to write two such characters and maneuver your reader into rooting for them both, a losing battle from the start. Gyre was perhaps a bit less sympathetic to start, but he definitely grew on me. And Maya is just the sort of bad-ass warrior women I gravitate towards. They also each had unique romance arcs that were at times quite unexpected.

The story is also action-packed from start to finish. It did take quite a while to get into the main conflict, with what felt like a bunch of side/mini quests taking up the majority of the first half. But as the main conflict begins to unfold, we see the importance of these early action scenes in setting the stage for the character choices are two leads make and how they end up where they are. Each also came with their own set of side characters, sidekicks, and enemies, so there was a lot of groundwork that needed to be laid out to really set the stage for the grand finale.

And while the grand finale itself was pretty intriguing, it was also clear that this was only the beginning. Sure, the current big bad was dealt with, but Maya and Gyre, while both questioning their own goals, are still clearly on opposing sides of a brewing conflict. I can’t wait to find out where their adventures lead them next and how or if they will ever be able to find a middle ground between them.

Also, don’t forget to enter to win an ARC copy of this book! I also had an e-book copy, so this is a completely fresh ARC ready and waiting for its first reader! Enter to win!

Rating 8: A rollicking adventure story with two fantastic leads at its heart.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ashes of the Sun” is a new title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2020.”

Find “Ashes of the Sun” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Giveaway: “Ashes of the Sun”

52822248._sx318_sy475_Book: “Ashes of the Sun” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Orbit, July 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: Long ago, a magical war destroyed an empire, and a new one was built in its ashes. But still the old grudges simmer, and two siblings will fight on opposite sides to save their world, in the start of Django Wexler’s new epic fantasy trilogy

Gyre hasn’t seen his beloved sister since their parents sold her to the mysterious Twilight Order. Now, twelve years after her disappearance, Gyre’s sole focus is revenge, and he’s willing to risk anything and anyone to claim enough power to destroy the Order.

Chasing rumors of a fabled city protecting a powerful artifact, Gyre comes face-to-face with his lost sister. But she isn’t who she once was. Trained to be a warrior, Maya wields magic for the Twilight Order’s cause. Standing on opposite sides of a looming civil war, the two siblings will learn that not even the ties of blood will keep them from splitting the world in two.

Giveaway Details: I’ve only recently rediscovered Django Wexler. Several years ago, I read a military fantasy by him which I really liked. But for some reason (too many books!) I never got back around to finishing the many other books in that series. Then this past winter, I was blew through two of his new YA fantasy books, and it really cemented him as an author worthy keeping my eyes on. So I was really excited when Orbit sent me an ARC for his upcoming fantasy title releasing this summer. It’s been a challenge holding off on reading it right away as I had many other books I wanted to get to and review first, but finally the time has come!

The story seems to be some combination of a post-apocalyptic tale and a traditional fantasy story with a bunch of new elements. It also seems like Orbit has went all in on this “siblings on the opposite side of a battle” theme, as this will be the second fantasy story from them I’ve read with that premise this spring/summer. But, while I wasn’t a huge fan of “The Ranger of Marzanna,” I have full faith that Wexler will be able to better pull off this type of set up. Mostly, I know that he can handle multiple POV characters in one book, the most important element in this type of storytelling. Both the military adult fantasy novel I read several years ago and the second in the YA fantasy series I read last winter had more than one POV character. I usually had preferences for one over another, but I always liked reading about them both. So I’m super excited to see what he’ll do with these two characters!

I’ve also skimmed through the book and noticed that there is a fairly extensive glossary of terms at the end of the book. That, and books that have maps, are often some of the first signs I look for in a fantasy book that has a lot to offer. An extensive glossary, in this case, hints that the world-building and magic system are extensive and complicated enough to warrant this type of added explanation.

So, overall, I’m really excited to jump into this one. I’ll have a full review of this book coming out this Friday. But, as the book itself doesn’t come out until later in July, make sure to take advantage of this opportunity to win an ARC copy of this book (I also had an eARC so this copy is completely untouched). The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends on July 15.

Enter to win!

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House”

25099Book: “The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House” by Neil Gaiman, Steve Parkhouse (Ill.), Chris Bachalo (Ill.), Michael Zulli (Ill.), Mike Dringenberg (Ill.), & Malcolm Jones III (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, June 1990

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A being who has existed since the beginning of the universe, Dream of the Endless rules over the realm of dreams. In The Doll’s House, after a decades-long imprisonment, the Sandman has returned to find that a few dreams and nightmares have escaped to reality. Looking to recapture his lost possessions, Morpheus ventures to the human plane only to learn that a woman named Rose Walker has inadvertently become a dream vortex and threatens to rip apart his world. Now as Morpheus takes on the last escaped nightmare at a serial killers convention, the Lord of Dreams must mercilessly murder Rose or risk the destruction of his entire kingdom.

Collecting issues #9-16, this new edition of The Doll’s House features the improved production values and coloring from the Absolute Edition.

Review: Our revisit of this classic comic series presses on, and now that Morpheus/Dream has reclaimed his power over The Dreaming, he has more work to do! As I continue my re-read I have been struck by how visceral and enchanting “The Sandman” universe is, and while it does still harken to other DC characters and mythos on occasion, we have started to stay firmly within a world of Gaiman’s making. And it is just as engrossing this time as it was the first time.

I don’t know why I waited so long to revisit Dream, The Endless, and the Dreaming, because going back to “The Sandman (Vol. 2): The Doll’s House” really hit home how much I love this series. There’s dark humor, there’s lovely fantastical world building as you get more familiar with The Dreaming (Dream’s domain he rules over) and begin to meet other Endless (specifically Desire in this arc), and there’s an undercurrent of horror to go along with the fantasy. Our main drive this time is that of Rose Walker, a woman who is, unknown to her, a Dream Vortex, and therefore something very dangerous for The Dreaming as her very existence could damage it beyond repair. On top of that, a few of Dream’s Nightmares have escaped, and are wreaking havoc in different ways. In this volume Dream is still trying to re-steer his ship after his captivity, and we see just how far the damage of his absence has  gone. Rose has her own mission, and it is to find her little brother, who has gone missing. With the help of a mysterious but kind man named Gilbert, Rose goes looking for her brother, just as Dream starts looking for her. We see a few callbacks to other parts of “Preludes and Nocturnes”, which were done in slow and subtle ways, which made them feel all the more satisfactory as they were peeled back and revealed. The dreamlike atmosphere of this series is still present, as is the darkness. This time that horror aspect is in the form of a ‘Cereal Convention” that Rose and Gilbert stumble upon, which is actually a gathering of serial killers that are hoping to share insight with each other. I had forgotten how twisted this entire thing was, and let me tell you Gaiman doesn’t hold back. To the point that I really feel a need to give a content warning for abuse and sexual assault (and also a note that there is descriptions of violence against trans people in particular. Which felt very problematic but also very of the time that this series was going).

But once again, it’s a standalone story that has a lot of philosophical oomph and a lot of heart that stood out to me in this volume. While the arc of Rose Walker and the ‘cereal’ convention is definitely stellar, it was the story “Men of Good Fortune”, in which Dream and Death decide to give a man named Hob Gadling eternal life after they hear him waxing philosophical about mortality in a pub in 1389. Every hundred years, Hob and Dream meet at this pub, and Hob tells Dream about what he is doing with his eternity. There are highs and lows as Hob experiences the evolution of London, and we get to see how he changes the direction of his life and how it leads to success and devastation. What struck me the most about this story, outside of seeing how one person might shift and evolve with the world they live in were they to have eternity to do so, is that Hob and Dream are an unlikely set of friends whose friendship feels natural and touching. I remembered that Hob pops up here and there throughout the series, but I had forgotten how lovely his introduction was.

The art is still excellent. We’ve started to see more experimentation in design, style, and placement, and while sometimes there is a very traditional art style (like in “Men of Good Fortune”), sometimes it is very abstract. It really just adds to the flavor of the atmosphere that they’re all trying to create, and for the most part it works.

“The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House” opens up the series to more possibilities, and more darkness. You can tell that this is something very special on these pages.

Rating 9: More chills and world building along with introductions to more of the Endless, “The Sandman (Vol. 2): The Doll’s House” keeps the horror elements up while also showing moments of true tenderness.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House” is included on the Goodreads lists “Great Non-Superhero Graphic Novels”, and “Psychological and Philosophical Comics”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.2): The Doll’s House” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: 

Serena’s Review: “There Will Come a Darkness”

41823536._sx318_Book: “There Will Come a Darkness” by Katy Rose Pool

Publishing Info: Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, September 2019

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

Book Description: For generations, the Seven Prophets guided humanity. Using their visions of the future, they ended wars and united nations―until the day, one hundred years ago, when the Prophets disappeared.

All they left behind was one final, secret prophecy, foretelling an Age of Darkness and the birth of a new Prophet who could be the world’s salvation . . . or the cause of its destruction. As chaos takes hold, five souls are set on a collision course:

A prince exiled from his kingdom.
A ruthless killer known as the Pale Hand.
A once-faithful leader torn between his duty and his heart.
A reckless gambler with the power to find anything or anyone.
And a dying girl on the verge of giving up.

One of them―or all of them―could break the world. Will they be savior or destroyer? 

Review: June has been the month of “better late than never” as far as my reading goes. This is at least the second book that I’ve read this month that was hugely popular last fall and yet…I didn’t get to it until just now. But there’s just so much good fantasy out there, and, I’ll admit, I’m always a bit hesitant about these books that seems to flare up as “the next big thing” in YA fantasy. My track record with these super popular new fantasy series hasn’t been good. But I liked “The Merciful Crow” more than I was expecting, so I thought I’d give another big title a chance. Sadly, this wasn’t as much of a hit for me, though I’ll likely still keep reading the series.

Five young people are living very different lives in very different spheres. Some from wealth, some from poverty, some who are running, and some who know that it is up to them to find what no one else can. But their world is on the brink of change, with powerful forces moving against those with magical abilities and a prophesy that has loomed over the heads of the people for generations. Each with their own role to plays, these disparate lives begin to cross and the pieces begin to fall in place. But who is the savior and who is the source of destruction?

I already gave away that this book wasn’t a hit for me, but I will start with a few positives before getting into my critiques. As the description gives away, this is an ensemble cast, but I was so pleased to find that it wasn’t another YA fantasy ensemble ala “Six of Crows.” For one thing, it’s centered around a prophesy and not heists, and more importantly, besides one exception, all of our main characters start out not knowing anything about the others. And this holds true though out most of of the story. Some characters weave in and out of other’s stories, but by the end, only a few of them have even ended up together with others still scattered to the wind.

But other than the unique approach to its ensemble cast, this book was barely even a book. Instead, it read much more like an extended prologue before the last few chapters sort of got into things. With such a large cast of characters and the fact that they all have unique histories and no nothing about each other (losing the opportunity to cross-tell their stories through various POVs that you often see in other books with large casts), the book has to devote almost two thirds of the story to introducing its main characters. The chapters were also short, so just when I felt like I was settling into one character’s life, struggles, and thoughts, I was suddenly bounced into a completely different character’s story. Between all of these switches, it was hard to become truly invested in any of them. And, like I said, it left very little room for the story to actually develop.

Frankly, very little actually happens in this book. We do get some action towards the end, but even that was a bit of a letdown. Some of the “reveals” I could see from a mile off and fell flat when they came. There was a big bad character who was talked about through much of the story, but when he finally appeared on page, he, too, felt like a let down and not nearly the threat he was meant to represent. The prophesy itself seemed interesting, but we barely scratched the surface of that here. Like I said, it read more like an extended prologue and introduction than a book itself.

Beyond that, I struggled to actually like any of the main characters. Several of them continued to make poor decisions that didn’t seem to fall in line with the roles they were in. Even as things fell apart around them and they began to see the negative consequences of their choices, they just continued to do so. It ended up being incredibly frustrating. One of the main characters, also, has an incredibly predictable story arc and was simply pretty dull all around. There were maybe two characters who I could kind of become invested in. But even I even struggled with them at times. A lot of the character choices and plot points just made several characters very unsympathetic. Even by the end of the book, it felt like many of them had learned nothing at all. This also played into the feeling that the book was an extended introduction. We don’t really see much true character growth on the page, and it ended with them all still feeling rather half-baked.

Overall, I was pretty disappointed by this book. But, like I said in the beginning, I’ll likely give the second one a go just because of the fact that this one read so much more like a prologue than a story itself. I want to see if the action will actually pick up in the next one! If you really like ensemble stories and want one that isn’t focused on heists, this may be worth checking out. But don’t go in with your expectations too high.

Rating 6: Not fully realized on its own, the plot was lacking and the characters shallow, leaving a lot of work for the sequel to improve upon.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“There Will Come a Darkness” is on these Goodreads lists: “Prophecies” and, amusingly enough, “The books that I bought during the pandemic to make me feel better….”

Find “There Will Come a Darkness” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Dragonslayer”

40045979Book: “Dragonslayer” by Duncan M. Hamilton

Publishing Info: Tor Books, July 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: Once a member of the King’s personal guard, Guillot dal Villevaurais spends most days drinking and mourning his wife and child. He’s astonished–and wary–when the Prince Bishop orders him to find and destroy a dragon. He and the Prince Bishop have never exactly been friends and Gill left the capitol in disgrace five years ago. So why him? And, more importantly, how is there a dragon to fight when the beasts were hunted to extinction centuries ago by the ancient Chevaliers of the Silver Circle?

On the way to the capitol city, Gill rescues Solène, a young barmaid, who is about to be burned as a witch. He believes her innocent…but she soon proves that she has plenty of raw, untrained power, a problem in this land, where magic is forbidden. Yet the Prince Bishop believes magic will be the key to both destroying the dragon and replacing the young, untried King he pretends to serve with a more pliable figurehead. Between Gill’s rusty swordsmanship and Solène’s unstable magic, what could go wrong?

Review: While, like Kate, I prefer my dragon stories to have the dragons on the good guys’ side, I’ll take what I can get as far as they go. And the title was obvious enough! I also really like this particular cover art illustrator who does a lot of work for books published by Tor, so whenever I see one of his works, I’m often even more interested. But, while this book did deliver on what it promised, it sadly didn’t do much else.

Gill has it fairly well settled that his heroic days are in the past. Content to spend his days drinking and mourning the loss of his family, he’s shocked when he’s call upon by the Prince Bishop to kill a dragon. For one, aren’t dragons gone? And for two, why on earth would the Prince Bishop choose him of all people? But every good hero needs a companion, and Gill finds his in an unexpected place: a witch burning. While Solene has very little control over her powers, it is possible that her abilities could be necessary to dispose of the dragon. And so this odd couple sets out on what could either be a grand adventure or a grand disaster.

This is one of those strange books to review. I know it, and the other two books in the series, were very positively reviewed, and I understand why. The writing is solid. The characterization is interesting and fleshed out. And the adventure is just what is says it is: two oddballs on a dragon-slaying quest. There’s nothing technically wrong with any of these things, and I think I can say with some confidence, judging on all the positive reviews, there is definitely an audience out there who wants this type of straight-forward, non-challenging fantasy adventure. I can even be one of them sometimes, as I know I’ve definitely come across books that haven’t pushed the limit much but still scratched a particular entertainment itch. For me, though, I just wanted…more.

In many ways, we’ve seen Gill and Solene many, many times before. Especially Gill. He’s the drunken, ex-hero who lost his family and lost his vaulted position in society until he gets an unexpected call-to-arms. I get that personal loss is a deep well of emotional motivation and exploration, but man, the drunk dude who loses his wife and kid, sinks into drinking, but then once the adventure starts never gives them a second though? Seen that guy a few too many times. If you’re going to kill off the family and make the loss still poignant enough that your main character is essentially drinking himself to death over it still, I want to see the story address his actual emotional arc for getting through that. Not just have an adventure happen and have it seem like all he really needed was a distraction to put those pesky deaths out of his mind.

Solene, too, was fine enough. But again, we’ve seen the magic user with no control of her powers in a land that hates magic a million times before. The fact that others may want to use her powers for their own ends is no shocker and a theme that has been run to death. Like Gill, she’s a likable character on her own, it’s just that there wasn’t much there to make her stick out from the massive crowd of characters just like her who came before.

I think one of the best and most unique things about this book were the chapters from the antagonist’s perspective, the dragon’s perspective. This was probably one of the few major twists and interesting takes the story had to offer, and I thought the author pulled it off very well. The dragon had a very interesting voice, and hearing that side of the equation is definitely not something I had seen before in this type of book.

Overall, there’s nothing really wrong with this book. I’ve just read this type of swords and staffs fantasy adventure a million times before. The main characters didn’t have enough to make them stand out, and while the adventure was fun enough, it never seemed to dive any deeper than the surface level on any given theme. In many ways, it’s a beach read fantasy story. And that’s not an insult! Sometimes we all just need a solid, expected, non-challenging story to get us through the day. I think I had just hoped for more from this one.

Rating 6: A bit of a let down and not adding much that is new to the genre.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Dragonslayer” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Fantastical, Bingeable Backlist.”

Find “Dragonslayer” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Merciful Crow”

36483378._sx318_Book: “The Merciful Crow” by Margaret Own

Publishing Info: Henry Holt, July 2019

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

Book Description: A future chieftain.

Fie abides by one rule: look after your own. Her Crow caste of undertakers and mercy-killers takes more abuse than coin, but when they’re called to collect royal dead, she’s hoping they’ll find the payout of a lifetime.

A fugitive prince.

When Crown Prince Jasimir turns out to have faked his death, Fie’s ready to cut her losses—and perhaps his throat. But he offers a wager that she can’t refuse: protect him from a ruthless queen, and he’ll protect the Crows when he reigns.

A too-cunning bodyguard.

Hawk warrior Tavin has always put Jas’s life before his, magically assuming the prince’s appearance and shadowing his every step. But what happens when Tavin begins to want something to call his own?

Review: As with many popular YA fantasy series (there are just too many!), I often don’t get around to them until I see the sequel start popping up on early release sites. And then in a temporary lapse of judgement I request the sequel only to quickly realize that means, oh wait, I have to get my hands on the first one, get it read, and review it before I can even start the book I just so eagerly requested. I do this again and again, and do I ever learn? Nope! It’s even more frustrating when I read the first book and don’t care for it, knowing I’ve already committed myself to the sequel. Luckily, that’s not the case with this one!

Fie belongs to the lowest of the low, a caste of people whose only job is to care for the dead and dying of a deadly plague that sporadically grips various villages and townships. While completely necessary to the function of society, Crows are at best ignored and at worst hunted in the night. So, when one of their typical jobs caring for two dying young men ends up with Fie and her fellow caught up in a plan of an escaping prince and his comrade, Fie takes the opportunity for all its worth, bargaining for a better future for her and her people. But first, she must find a way to deliver these two to safety, despite everything set against them.

Every once in a while when I read an audiobook, I’m aware of how my reading experience is probably affecting my overall take on the book in hand. This can go two ways, of course, with a poor narrator sinking a book almost immediately, and a skilled one catching my in more quickly than I might have been had I been reading in the traditional manner. I think this is one of the latter experiences. The narrator for this book was excellent, giving many characters, especially Fie herself, unique accents and ways of speaking. The book was certainly written to suggest that Fie had a Scottish accent of sorts, so it was great that the narrator was able to fully capture this aspect of the story. She was also able to add a lot of understated tension and emotion to Fie, something that I think probably wasn’t as obvious just on the page itself.

The book obviously had certain things in its favor regardless of media format. I really liked the bird-based caste system and world-building that the author set up. There were interesting connections and powers that neatly aligned with the type of bird that was used to represent a certain caste. Crows, obviously, deal with the dead. Hawks are skilled hunters and warriors. And so on.

While overall I understood the role the Crows played in this society, I did question the vehemence at which they were often hated by those around them. They seem to perform a pretty essential task, dealing with the plague-ridden, and as the only caste that doesn’t suffer from this plague, they’re really the only options for people. We also learn that pretty dire things happen if a plague ridden body isn’t dealt with properly. Given all of this, I can get how a Caste like this might inspire wariness from the general public, but how do we get to the state where they’re literally hunted down and killed at times? Seems pretty backward for really the only Caste that is actually necessary to the ongoing survival of a people. There were bits and pieces of the world-building like this that I never felt were fully explained or lined up properly. It was often distracting when these questions came up, as I was usually able to sink into just enjoying the main character and her journey and was only jarred out of it when these moments arose.

Fie herself was an excellent main character. She’s rough and tumble and perfectly exemplifies the type of no-nonsense person that would survive and grow into a leadership position in this type of society. She’s seen things and has no time for the nonsense of others. Her very different relationships with Tavin and Jasimir are also very interesting. The romantic relationship was perhaps a bit too easy and obvious. But I enjoyed the struggles that she went through in understanding the prince and of them both coming to a place of mutual respect. Each had to learn of the restrictions placed on the other and how their own worldviews influenced how they saw change happening going forward.

While I was interested in Fie’s own personal story, the book did drag a bit in the middle. There’s a lot of traveling.  A lot. And often if felt like not much was really happening in between some of the bigger scenes. It’s also the type of book that, while I enjoyed it in the moment, it hasn’t stuck with me as much as I had hoped. Even now, only a week or so after I finished it, I’m struggling a bit to remember exactly how things lay in the set-up for book two. That said, however, I definitely enjoyed it enough to be looking forward to the sequel and conclusion of this story. It will be interesting to see how it does not in audio format as well.

Rating 7:  A bit forgettable with some questionable world-building, but a strong main character and audiobook narrator really sold this one for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Merciful Crow” for some reason isn’t on many interesting Goodreads lists, but it is on “Crows and Ravens.”

Find “The Merciful Crow” at your library using WorldCat!