Serena’s Review: “The Grimrose Girls”

Book: “The Grimrose Girls” by Laura Pohl

Publishing Info: Sourebooks Fire, October 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Four troubled friends, One murdered girl… and a dark fate that may leave them all doomed.

After the mysterious death of their best friend, Ella, Yuki, and Rory are the talk of their elite school, Grimrose Académie. The police ruled it a suicide, but the trio are determined to find out what really happened.

When Nani Eszes arrives as their newest roommate, it sets into motion a series of events they couldn’t have imagined. As the girls retrace their friend’s last steps, they uncover dark secrets about themselves and their destinies, discovering they’re all cursed to repeat the brutal and gruesome endings to their stories until they can break the cycle.

This contemporary take on classic fairytales reimagines heroines as friends attending the same school. While investigating the murder of their best friend, they uncover connections to their ancient fairytale curses and attempt to forge their own fate before it’s too late.

Review: This book had a few things going for it that bumped it up my “to be requested” list fairly quickly. First, boarding school books. Blame “Harry Potter” if you will or some weird American obsession with the British (often) boarding schools in general. I also love, love, love this cover! It quickly conveys many aspects of the books without the reader even needing to read the summary. Fairytale like artwork, girl squad, diversity (at least from what we can see of different body shapes being featured.) Plus, it has a hint of creepiness that points to the murder mystery at the heart of the story. So, with all of that together, I dove right in with high hopes.

As close as friends and roommates can be, Ella, Yuki, and Rory are determined that the police have it wrong: their roommate didn’t kill herself and something more nefarious is at work. When they get a new roommate, things are kicked into another gear altogether. Now, they realize it’s not simply a matter of solving a potential murder, but they must unravel the world of fairtyales and magic that they are all caught up within. Turns out, each is destined to re-live a classic tale and fall prey to the dark curses that seem to always exist at the heart of such tales.

I’ll put it right out there, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I wanted to. But it’s also one of those books that I do think will appeal to a bunch of different readers, so I fully expect opinions to vary quite a bit on this one. I will immediately give it props for tons of representation. But I will also side-eye that a bit with the fact that it did seem like the author was trying to cover literally every single base. And yes, I’m all for increasing diversity in books in every way. But I don’t think every book should be trying to cover every single angle itself. It not only is impossible, but it does a disservice to each individual character represented, as jamming a book too packed ultimately reduces page time for any one character, thus reducing that character to a few (often well-known and, if not harmful in anyway, still fairly stereotypical) key traits. Nothing raised my eyebrows at all, but while I give props to the author for the attempt, the sheer number of characters as a whole did significantly reduce my enjoyment of this book.

And this is part of the reason I think it will be a book with divided tastes. I’ve come to realize that I generally struggle with books that have more than two POVs. There are a few exceptions, like “Six of Crows,” but really, not many. Here I had the same problems I’ve always had. The story is so busy jumping from character to character that I never have the time to form any type of emotional investment in any one character. As a reader who enjoys books mostly due to characterization, this is a big problem for me. This many POVs also significantly hinders the pacing of a book. You have to spend so much time in the onset setting up each individual character, that the reader must get through a good number of pages before anything resembling a plot begins to unfold. Here, for example, we only had one chapter from each character really describing or even experience their grief over their lost friend. Because there are so many characters to get through, I could never feel the strength of that connection as just as quickly the story needed to move on with each of them.

I did enjoy the various fairytales and the ways they were threaded into the story. There were enough clues here and there that were fun to spot (they weren’t well-hidden or anything, but I enjoyed it all the same). The main mystery, however, again suffered from this over-abundance of plot and characters. There were so many things to get through that there were times when I felt like the death of their friend was almost forgotten. I’ll also say that by the end I didn’t feel as if I was given enough answers to any of the questions presented. All of the character kind of just took all of the magical elements in stride without batting an eyelash. And the revelations that did come were few and far between.

I’m starting to question my own selection process here. I think I need to start taking a second thought before diving into these large cast POV books. I’ll also say that my history with boarding school books is rather spotted, so maybe that too shouldn’t be as much of an “auto request.” Lastly, I don’t know what it is, but the publisher Sourcebooks Fire must have a great book description writer because they are always putting out books that I get super hyped about but then don’t end up enjoying that much. Which is too bad.

Rating 6: Too many things packed into one book reduced my enjoyment of all of them individually and as a whole.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Grimrose Girls” is on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Queer SFF and Boarding School Mysteries.

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

Serena’s Review: “Blood of the Chosen”

Book: “Blood of the Chosen” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Orbit, October 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: Four hundred years ago, a cataclysmic war cracked the world open and exterminated the Elder races. Amid the ashes, their human inheritor, the Dawn Republic, stands guard over lands littered with eldritch relics and cursed by plaguespawn outbreaks. But a new conflict is looming and brother and sister Maya and Gyre have found themselves on opposite sides.

At the age of five, Maya was taken by the Twilight Order and trained to be a centarch, wielding forbidden arcana to enforce the Dawn Republic’s rule. On that day, her brother, Gyre, swore to destroy the Order that stole his sister… whatever the cost.

Twelve years later, brother and sister are two very different people: she is Burningblade, the Twilight Order’s brightest prodigy; he is Silvereye, thief, bandit, revolutionary.

Previously Reviewed: “Ashes of the Sun”

Review: I really enjoyed “Ashes of the Sun” when I read it last summer. Yes, the story of some disease released on the world that wiped out an entire population hit a bit too close to home. But…fantasy! Ha..ha…ha? On a more serious note, Wexler has always been good for an excellent story from what I’ve read of him so far and this series felt like more of the same. Much of it was setting up our two main characters and the world, and yet he still managed to stuff in a bunch of action and set up the board for greater conflicts to come.

Just a side note before I get into the general description of this book. I had to read that summary twice and double check it against Goodreads more than once (each time I’ve touched this post while writing it) to make sure that I had the right summary. It reads like it should be for the first book! It’s honestly shockingly bad, telling us absolutely nothing about what this book specifically is going to be about and laying out much of the groundwork that was not only covered in the previous book but was laid out…in the previous book’s own summary! Very poor.

Maya and Gyre have found themselves not only on opposing sides of a brewing historical war, but caught up in the mechanizations of of mysterious opposing forces. There are secrets to be found in the Order, a group whom Maya now has come to understand houses traitors and inner workings that don’t necessary uphold the ideals for which she thought the institution stood for. As she works to uncover the truth, she will learn that there is an entire separate force at work pulling the strings behind the curtains. For his part, Gyre has begun to gather the strength of the ghouls to his cause. But without fully understanding their culture and motives, or the role they played in the past wars, will he be on the right side of history this go around?

So, shocker, I really enjoyed another Django Wexler book! In a lot of ways, I liked this one even better than the first. With the necessary character introductions and initial arcs that moved them into the titular roles as “Silvereye” and “Burningblade” out of the way, the story was primed to move into more of the grand-scale story. That said, this book is still clearly setting up a bigger conflict. Much of the action that we see in this book comes down to smaller skirmshes. Towards the end, we get what feels like a major battle only to really discover that it’s just the beginning. In the moment, this action is compelling and exciting. And it’s almost made better when you realize that things are only going to get bigger going forward.

Of the two main characters, Maya saw the most growth in this story. After realizing that there are traitors in the Order in the first book, her eyes are opened to the fact that mysteries still exist in this world and even the “good guys” might have bad sides. In many ways, her worldviews are more challenged and she must choose to grow (or not) along with these revelations.

For his part, Gyre continues to be fairly singularly minded. It’s a tough thing, because on one hand, I think Gyre is going to be on the right side of this situation. But on the other hand, looking at the reasoning he preaches to justify his actions, he’s very much on the wrong side of the argument. Maya’s morals and beliefs are much more in the right than Gyre, but it feels like he may have lucked into being on the right side? It’s kind of an uncomfortable position to be in as a reader. That said, there were so many twists and turns to be found in this book that I hardly can say that I have a firm grasp on what the end game is at this point. For all I know, my read on the situation here is completely wrong! And I love that!

I also really liked the closer look we had into the ghouls, the Chosen, and the Order. The roles they all play in the current landscape (though two of the three are practically if not totally nonexistent) are fascinating, and here, I really feel like I’ve only scraped the surface on what happened when these forces were at war and the Order was created. It was also great to see more of this world, with both Maya and Gyre travelling long distances and witnessing the various ways that people have found to live in such a dangerous landscape.

Fans of this series will definitely be pleased with this entry. It’s definitely a second book in that it ends on a cliffhanger and sets up some new “big bads” to be dealt with going forward. But if you’re already invested in this story, that’s only to be expected and just adds fuel to the excitement fire!

Rating 8: Solid, as expected. The most exciting part continues to be the murky history of this world and the unknowns of who is on the “right” side, Maya or Gyre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Blood of the Chosen” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but it is on Fantasy Books Releasing in 2021.

Find “Blood of the Chosen” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Giveaway: “Blood of the Chosen”

Book: “Blood of the Chosen” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Orbit, October 2021

Book Description: Four hundred years ago, a cataclysmic war cracked the world open and exterminated the Elder races. Amid the ashes, their human inheritor, the Dawn Republic, stands guard over lands littered with eldritch relics and cursed by plaguespawn outbreaks. But a new conflict is looming and brother and sister Maya and Gyre have found themselves on opposite sides.

At the age of five, Maya was taken by the Twilight Order and trained to be a centarch, wielding forbidden arcana to enforce the Dawn Republic’s rule. On that day, her brother, Gyre, swore to destroy the Order that stole his sister… whatever the cost.

Twelve years later, brother and sister are two very different people: she is Burningblade, the Twilight Order’s brightest prodigy; he is Silvereye, thief, bandit, revolutionary.

Previously Reviewed: “Ashes of the Sun”

I’ve really enjoyed all of the books by Django Wexler that I’ve read. There are a couple of things I’ve come to expect from him at this point: solid actions scenes, interesting magical systems, and a lovely sapphic romance. “Ashes of the Sun” delivered on all of these fronts and more. I really enjoyed the twist of including a duel POV story that featured two estranged siblings who increasingly find themselves on opposing sides of a brewing civil conflict. I preferred Maya’s story, overall, but Gyre’s situation was left in a more tenuous state at the end of that first book.

Here in the second story, I’m most curious to see what is going to happen with him going forward. I expect Maya and Gyre to clash once more. But will they begin to see more eye-to-eye here? Or is the wedge going to be driven even more deeper in? There are also a lot of mysteries around the big events of the past that shaped the current world. What’s going on with the Chosen? And the ghouls? Are they good or bad? So many questions, so many answers needed!

So in anticipation of this second book in the series, I’m hosting a give away for an ARC copy of “Blood of the Chosen!” The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and will run through Oct. 17, 2021.

Enter to win!

Serena’s Review: “Tongues of Serpents”

Book: “Tongues of Serpents” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, July 2010

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

Book Description: Convicted of treason despite their heroic defense against Napoleon’s invasion of England, Temeraire and Laurence—stripped of rank and standing—have been transported to the prison colony at New South Wales in distant Australia, where, it is hoped, they cannot further corrupt the British Aerial Corps with their dangerous notions of liberty for dragons. Temeraire and Laurence carry with them three dragon eggs intended to help establish a covert in the colony and destined to be handed over to such second-rate, undesirable officers as have been willing to accept so remote an assignment—including one former acquaintance, Captain Rankin, whose cruelty once cost a dragon its life.

Nor is this the greatest difficulty that confronts the exiled dragon and rider: Instead of leaving behind all the political entanglements and corruptions of the war, Laurence and Temeraire have instead sailed into a hornet’s nest of fresh complications. For the colony at New South Wales has been thrown into turmoil after the overthrow of the military governor, one William Bligh—better known as Captain Bligh, late of HMS Bounty. Bligh wastes no time in attempting to enlist Temeraire and Laurence to restore him to office, while the upstart masters of the colony are equally determined that the new arrivals should not upset a balance of power precariously tipped in their favor.

Eager to escape this political quagmire, Laurence and Temeraire take on a mission to find a way through the forbidding Blue Mountains and into the interior of Australia. But when one of the dragon eggs is stolen from Temeraire, the surveying expedition becomes a desperate race to recover it in time—a race that leads to a shocking discovery and a dangerous new obstacle in the global war between Britain and Napoleon.

Previously Reviewed: “His Majesty’s Dragon” and “Throne of Jade” and “Black Powder War” and “Empire of Ivory” and “Victory of Eagles”

Review: Per the usual, I got back around to this series when my audiobook hold list at the library ran into a snag and I had a long wait for my next book to come in. Cue me returning to either this series or the Amelia Peabody series, to long-running series with excellent audiobook narrators. The “Temeraire” series is a bit harder to return to than the Amelia Peabody series, however, as there is a larger cast of characters (most side characters, but still a lot) and the books are more firmly connected to one another as an ongoing story. Still, never say I’m put off by a little thing like needing to take a bit to orient oneself at the beginning of a book. It’s a skill that any solid fantasy reader will develop, I think.

Convicted of treason, Temeraire and Laurence have been banished to Australia, a land that is barely understood, other than the small colonized areas that have been created as a holding pen for miscreants. Temeraire and Laurence, however, hold a unique position. Not only were their actions considered heroic by many of their friends and allies, but there is no effective way of “imprisoning” a powerful dragon like Temeraire. In reality, all that holds either of them is Laurence’s strong sense of patriotism and duty. Desperate to keep themselves out of any other political skirmishes, they embark on a dangerous mission into the interior of the continent. Only to find themselves caught up in a situation much larger than the one from which they had fled.

One of my favorite things about this series is how we travel the world alongside Temeraire and Laurence and get to witness first hand the way that dragons existing in this world has influenced known locations and historic events. Obviously, the Napoleonic wars is the big one. But we’ve also seen the effect of dragons on the slave trade and the difference in colonialism in that location when we travelled to Africa. As well, the threat that some Western cultures see in China with their very different (more advanced) way of interacting with and utilizing their dragons. Here, obviously, we go to Australia. Like Africa, this is a very wild, unknown location, so as the reader is discovering the wonders and threats of the country, so, too, are Temeraire and Laurence.

Most of what I liked about this book came down to this exploration of Australia. Novik had some very original ideas of how to work in the Aborigines, as well as a host of new flora and fauna. There were unexpected threats around every corner, and she did an excellent job painting a picture of this remote, completely foreign landscape. I almost wish the story had stuck strictly to this aspect of the plot. For some, it may read as the slower parts, but I enjoyed it for what it offered.

The political clashes were a bit on the predictable side. We know what side of things Temeraire and Laurence will usually come down on, so their moral struggles carry less weight as the series progresses. There were a few instances here, however, where we saw them at odds in unexpected ways, and I enjoyed that. The book also set up some larger conflicts between the various nations, to some extent, all struggling with how to manage Napoleon, even in his seeming current defeat.

The dragons, like always, stood out a bit more than their human counterparts. Laurence is, of course, excellent, but I’d struggle to actually name many of the other human characters. I know their roles, of course, but there’s not a whole lot more to them than these various stations. The dragons, on the other hand, all have distinct, colorful personalities and we had a few new ones added to the group this go around. More and more, we seem to be seeing how unique Temeraire is even within other dragonkind. Yes, their treatment by the British and other European countries, has been fairly poor. But we also see how it has taken this long for it to be challenged. Many of the dragons we have met so far, while strong in many ways, do fall prey to easily manipulated temptations. Their seemingly innate desire for riches and glory can be easily exploited by a crafty captain.

The conflict at the end of the book did seem to come a bit out of nowhere. And then was followed by a second, oddly tacked-on-feeling conflict. However, there were some newly introduces war tactics that were so interesting in the way they shifted the power of certain groups that I found it to be fine in the end. I’m definitely curious to see where Laurence and Temeraire will go from here. Fans of the series should definitely check this one out, though I admit that it’s probably one of the slower entries in the series so far.

Rating 8: Another solid entry, if it does feel a bit like a placeholder at times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Tongues of Serpents” is on these Goodreads lists: Napoleonic Novels and Best Books Set in Australia.

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

Monthly Marillier: “Foxmask”

“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: “Foxmask” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor Fantasy, November 2005

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The Norseman Eyvind, a fierce and loyal Wolfskin, came to a new land on top of the world to find his destiny. With his priestess bride Nessa he saved the land and weathered the treachery that was caused by Eyvind’s blood-sworn friend Somerled. After much pain and sorrow the two lovers have managed to create a society where the Norse warriors and the gentle folks of the Orkney Isles live and thrive in contentment at last. A decade and more has passed since the devastating events of the creation of the settlement and Eyvind and Nessa have watched their children grow and thrive in peace.

But not all on the islands are content or at peace. Thorvald, the young son of Margaret, widow of the slain king and Eyvind’s war leader, has always felt apart and at odds with all he knows. He learns upon his coming to manhood that he is not his father’s son but that of the love that Margaret bore for the hated Somerled and that Somerled was not killed for his treachery but sent on a boat, adrift with little more than a knife and skein of water, doomed to the god’s will. Thorvald is determined to find a boat and cast off to the West in a desperate bid to find a father he never knew…and to find out if he is made of the same stuff as the henious traitor.

The tragedy of this scheme would be horrific enough…if it were not for the fact that Creidhe, the winsome daughter of Eyvind and Nessa has loved Thorvald since birth and unbeknownst to him conspires to go along on this most perilous of quests.

What happens to them on their journey of discovery will ultimately change the lives of all they know and love…and will doom (or redeem) an entire people.

Review: It seems that I have distinct favorites and less-preferred books in all of Marillier’s duologies and trilogies. There’s no rhyme and reason to it either. Sometimes the first book is my favorite (“Wildwood Dancing”), sometimes the second (“Son of Shadows”), and sometimes even the third (“Flame of Sevenwaters.) So, too, I much prefer “Foxmask” to “Wolfskin.” I hadn’t even re-read “Wolfskin” until I read it again for this series. This book, on the other hand, is quite worn down from multiple re-reads.

A new generation has been born, and life is quiet, homely and comfortable for Creidhe, the daughter of Nessa and Eyvind. Thorvald, the secret son of the banished Somerland, is less content. When he sets out on a perilous journey to discover the truth of his heritage, Nessa secretly joins him, convinced that her dear friend and secret love will need her help. What they discover will change the course of not only their own futures, but that of so many more. In islands shrouded in clouds and mystery, will they discover the truth before it is too late?

I do love this book, and I will freely admit that’s mostly because of how much I love the romance at the heart of the story. Sadly, that doesn’t show up until about halfway through the book, but in the end, it’s well worth the wait. I’ll also admit to the fact that many of my re-reads involve me skipping right to this halfway point. That being the case, it was great to approach this re-read from the beginning of the book. I forgot just how much quality character work goes into the first half of the story and into slowly building up the mysteries and moral challenges that will later pay off in the end of the book.

Creidhe is your fairly typical Marillier heroine: quiet, loves the home and family, but filled with an iron will and inner strength. Luckily, she’s not a healer or a seer, two of the types of characters we’re most likely to see from this author. Instead, she’s a skilled weaver and creates a majestic embroidered tapestry that details her life. As a embroiderer myself, I’ve always love this trait about this character. It’s a really interesting look at this form of art as a storytelling mechanism.

This book is also unique for just how much I dislike Thorvald, the other POV character. Usually when Marillier uses multiple POVs I do end up having a favorite. But that’s just a preference between two character who are each fine on their own. Here? I pretty much spend most of the book wanting to punch Thorvald in his self-centered, whiny face. I even want to punch Creidhe at times for tolerating the amount of nonsense she does from him. There are a few moments in the book where Creidhe and their friend Sam both tear into Thorvald and, while I skip large chunks of his chapters in my casual re-reads, I always read these scenes for the pure joy of watching him get taken to task for being such a jerk. I will give credit to Marillier, though, for writing such a unique character. Very rarely does she write POV character who are anywhere near as flawed as Thorvald is. His journey is interesting enough, but you do have to tolerate a lot from him to get to the eventual pay-off.

I really, really liked the magical elements in this story. There were a good number of twists and turns that were both unexpected and heart breaking. Again and again are heroes must face impossible choices where it seems no one will win, but, in true Marillier fashion, everything is resolved by the end. I don’t want to spoil it by talking about certain characters, but the love interest is probably one of my favorites in all of Marillier’s work. And there are a few other characters that show up later who I also really, really enjoyed.

This is an excellent example of Marillier at her best. Both Creidhe and Thorvald read as very distinct characters from one another, their voices and perspectives so different throughout the story. Her lyrical style of writing perfectly fits the mysterious and magical locations that make up the landscape of the story. And, of course, the romance is beautiful, tragic, and heart-warming.

Rating 9: One of my favorites for sure, perfectly combining many of the elements I most love about Marillier’s work.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Foxmask” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Paranormal & Fantasy Romances and Best Romance in Traditional Fantasy.

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

Serena’s Review: “A Trial of Sorcerers”

Book: “A Trial of Sorcerers” by Elise Kova

Publishing Info: Silver Wing Press, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Eighteen-year-old Waterrunner Eira Landan lives her life in the shadows — the shadow of her older brother, of her magic’s whispers, and of the person she accidentally killed. She’s the most unwanted apprentice in the Tower of Sorcerers until the day she decides to step out and compete for a spot in the Tournament of Five Kingdoms.

Pitted against the best sorcerers in the Empire, Eira fights to be one of four champions. Excelling in the trials has its rewards. She’s invited to the royal court with the “Prince of the Tower,” discovers her rare talent for forbidden magic, and at midnight, Eira meets with a handsome elfin ambassador.

But, Eira soon learns, no reward is without risk. As she comes into the spotlight, so too do the skeletons of a past she hadn’t even realized was haunting her.

Eira went into the trials ready for a fight. Ready to win. She wasn’t ready for what it would cost her. No one expected the candidates might not make it out with their lives.

Review: The cover art thing and really strike both ways. I just got down being blown away by “Daughter of the Salt King,” a book I had delayed reading due to the lackluster cover art. And here, on the hand, is a book that I requested from the library purely because I spotted the cover on Goodreads and was drawn in. But, while the book wasn’t offensive or bad in any true way, the cover still ended up being the best part of it for me.

No one knows much about Eira, and she prefers it that way. With dark secrets in her closet and a powerful brother’s shadow to hide within, Eira’s main goal has been to remain out of sight and mind by her fellow apprentices. That is until she joins the Tournament and her true skills begin to be seen at last. Soon enough, Eira’s quiet life explodes outwards, exposing secrets she didn’t know she had and opening doors she isn’t sure she wants to walk through. With new players on the board and a competition turning deadly, Eira’s way forward requires she step out of her comfortable shadows.

Alas, this book was not for me. I read a lot of YA, especially YA fantasy, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize that there is a certain type of YA fantasy that is just too young for me. This makes it hard to review these books on the blog, as I usually can see the appeal of the book for the target age range. But as I’m still the one reviewing the book and it didn’t work for me…it gets a lower rating than it perhaps deserves on its own.

In this particular case, however, I also think that there are better examples of this type of book even for the target age. It’s very “paint by numbers” for every trope there is in the book. What’s worse, it felt like many of these tropes were past their prime. For example, Eira must inevitably attend a ball. She is also, predictably, unprepared for this event, so the help love interest provides a “perfect” dress for her. I mean, we’re talking “Throne of Glass” circa almost ten years ago level tropey-ness here. Not to mention that I’ve always found it fairly creepy that the love interest just “happens” to know the heroine’s exact measurements. I could get into all of the mildly icky ways, but….nah.

Eira is also your fairly standard “I’m not special, except for the fact that I’m super duper special” heroine. She has a “dark past” and, while previous to this story starting was completely unknown, comes blasting onto the stage to blow everyone away with her skills. I will say, as a fairly standard heroine, she wasn’t annoying or obnoxious. Yes, I rolled my eyes a few times. But no, they didn’t roll out of my head, which has been the case with other books like this in the past.

The world-building and plotting was ok enough. I hadn’t read any of the author’s previous books, which I believe are set in the same world. But that being the case, I still felt like I was able to easily step into this story without feeling like I was missing much. It was very approachable, probably it’s biggest stand-out feature for interested readers.

So, yes, this book wasn’t my cup of tea, but I realize that I am also probably not the audience the author was trying to reach. I think that the romance was fairly lacking, which maybe would be a detractor for teen readers, but, as I said, the story was quick and easy to fall-into. Teenage YA fantasy readers might enjoy this, but adult YA fantasy readers might want to steer clear.

Rating 6: Paint-by-numbers fantasy tropes all over the place and oddly out of date ones at that.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Trial of Sorcerers” is on these Goodreads lists: Beautiful Covers KU Paranormal, Dystopia, Sci-Fi and Epic High Fantasy/Romance/Mythology in 2021.

Find “A Trial of Sorcerers” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Under the Whispering Door”

Book: “Under the Whispering Door” by TJ Klune

Publishing Info: Tor Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead.

Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.

But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.

When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.

Review: First off, props to the publisher for another awesome cover for one of Klune’s books. Does it subtly imply that it’s a sequel to the massively successful “House on the Cerulean Sea” with its similarities? Yes. Is it in fact that? No. However, as it’s still a neat cover in its own right, I’ll give it a pass. The fact that there are so few good standalone adult fantasy novels also supports that pass. Let’s dive in!

Young and successful, Wallace never dreamed the end could be so close. But when a reaper shows up for him, he realizes it must be so. Angry and confused, he meets Hugo, a magical being who helps ferry souls to the beyond. Soon Wallace begins to discover that the life he had thought was fulfilling had been an empty thing, bereft of all that makes life well-lived in the end. With only a few precious days remaining to him, Hugo and Wallace set out to give Wallace that last chance at discovering a true life and his true self.

There was a lot to like about this book, but it also wasn’t the high I had been expecting after enjoying Klune’s previous book so much. To begin with what did work, however, Klune’s flair for comedic moments was on point. In particular, the beginning of the story and the flames thrown towards corporate drones were hilarious and apt. As the book progressed, there were several other laugh-out-loud moments. However, as the story continued, even these sometimes began to feel a bit repetitive.

The characters were also quirky and compelling. This is largely a story of Wallace’s transformation from said corporate drone into an emotionally-realized individual, so nailing his character was key to the book working. And for the most part, this works. His interplay with Hugo is well done, and the two characters and their relationship is heartwarming.

However, as I went along, I kept wanting more. The characters were ok, but really just ok. The romance was sweet, but lacked the true heart that I was looking for. And most disappointingly, the message of the book, that of living one’s best life, felt at times trite and repetitive. There were a few times even when the moralizing fell completely flat, with Klune trotting out platitudes that have been overused many times before. Given the general set-up of the book, I knew what I was getting into. But I had hope that Klune would shine a new light on the topic. Or at least offer up some unique ways of looking at a common topic. Alas, not so.

Overall, the book was by no means bad. It just wasn’t what I had hoped to find. It’s perfectly acceptable in what it sets out to do, but knowing Klune’s previous work, I can’t help thinking he could have done better. There were parts of this book that almost felt phoned in, and the story started to drag towards the middling, struggling to keep up its pacing and momentum. Fans of Klune’s work will be pleased to see his trademark humor and strong characters, but he’s also had stronger outings in the past.

Rating 7: A bit disappointing, relying too heavily on tried and true platitudes instead of carving its own space.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Under the Whispering Door” is on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Queer SFF and 2021 Contemporary/Romance Releases.

Find “Under the Whispering Door” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Daughter of the Salt King”

Book: “Daughter of the Salt King” by A.S. Thornton

Publishing Info: CamCat Books, February 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: As a daughter of the Salt King, Emel ought to be among the most powerful women in the desert. Instead, she and her sisters have less freedom than even her father’s slaves … for the Salt King uses his own daughters to seduce visiting noblemen into becoming powerful allies by marriage.

Escape from her father’s court seems impossible, and Emel dreams of a life where she can choose her fate. When members of a secret rebellion attack, Emel stumbles upon an alluring escape route: her father’s best-kept secret—a wish-granting jinni, Saalim.

But in the land of the Salt King, wishes are never what they seem. Saalim’s magic is volatile. Emel could lose everything with a wish for her freedom as the rebellion intensifies around her. She soon finds herself playing a dangerous game that pits dreams against responsibility and love against the promise of freedom. As she finds herself drawn to the jinni for more than his magic, captivated by both him and the world he shows her outside her desert village, she has to decide if freedom is worth the loss of her family, her home and Saalim, the only man she’s ever loved.

Review: I’ll be honest, I requested this book way back in February the month it was coming out. I remember being intrigued by the description (I’m always in for a good jinni story) and happy to find an adult fantasy novel featuring a leading lady (something that I had been struggling to find at the time). But…then it just sat on my Kindle. And the reason I never looked at it to remind myself? The cover! Yes, I was one of those people who definitely started judging it on the cover and what my judgement was saying was: wow, that looks dull. And that’s too bad, because this book is way more exciting than the rather lackluster cover suggests.

As one of the more beautiful daughters of the Salt King, Emel has never understood why she can’t fulfill the only purpose her father allows her and her sisters: to seduce potential suitors whose connections wouldn’t benefit the Salt King. With a harrowing deadline growing steadily closer, Emel dreams of escape. As cracks begin to crumble around her seemingly all-powerful father, Emel stumbles on the secret to his success: a captive jinni who must fulfill his every wish. Soon Emel and Saalim form a strong attachment, but even with Saalim’s power at their fingertips, it’s a volatile thing, more like to harm them than help them. However, other forces are moving and soon their hands will be forced.

This book was such a pleasant surprise! Sometimes it seems that I know from the very first few sentences that a book will be for me. It’s something in the writing: longer, detailed sentences with expert use of a large vocabulary to begin drawing in the reader right away. This was definitely one of those stories. I felt immediately drawn to Emel, even when first meeting her in very tough circumstances when her choices are very much of the practical, if difficult, sort and not those that we often see from the “strong, feisty” heroines at the heart of these stories. Instead, half of Emel’s story is her growing to dream of more for herself and to slowly take control of the limited choices she has before her to direct that future into existence. She still made some puzzling choices, but they felt natural to this type of growth from a character’s whose life has been completely directed by an outside force for the entirety of her existence.

I also loved the romance. While this is a fantasy story first, the romance is a strong, driving element in the overall plot, so readers have to be onboard with that from the get go to enjoy the novel as a whole. I love a romantic fantasy, and both Emel and Saalim were compelling individually and even better together. It wasn’t exactly a slow-burn romance, but it also wasn’t instalove, with enough suspicion and miscommunication to ensure it read as realistic. The foibles that are set up before them also felt earned and also significant. I had a few ideas for how to get out of one snag or another, but most of the time the author quickly stomped out these plots, slowly twisting the screws on our tragic couple.

The world and magic were also interesting. There wasn’t anything incredibly unique to it all, being at times a fairly standard desert fantasy featuring a jinni with the usual abilities. But there added histories and beliefs tangled up in the magical elements that slowly began layering on top of one another as I read, until, in the end, the tapestry felt appropriately detailed and nuanced. In particular, I liked the brief exploration of the goddess behind the jinni’s power and his own backstory.

I really, really liked this book. It was simply solid in every way. It’s only lacking that 10 rating for having a few inexplicable character beats and having pacing that was a bit disjointed early on in the story. But those are real nitpicks on my part. There was also a fairly decent cliffhanger at the end. So, in this way, I was rewarded for dragging my feet about getting to this one as now my wait should be shorter before the second book comes out. Fans of jinnis and romance-heavy fantasies should definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: A wonderful surprise with two main characters you can’t help but love.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Daughter of the Salt King” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021 and Desert Fantasy.

Find “Daughter of the Salk King” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Book Club Review: “Black Sun”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse

Publishing Info: Saga Press, October 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Alex Award

Book Description: A god will return
When the earth and sky converge
Under the black sun

In the holy city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare celestial event proscribed by the Sun Priest as an unbalancing of the world.

Meanwhile, a ship launches from a distant city bound for Tova and set to arrive on the solstice. The captain of the ship, Xiala, is a disgraced Teek whose song can calm the waters around her as easily as it can warp a man’s mind. Her ship carries one passenger. Described as harmless, the passenger, Serapio, is a young man, blind, scarred, and cloaked in destiny. As Xiala well knows, when a man is described as harmless, he usually ends up being a villain.

Kate’s Thoughts

I’d heard of “Black Sun” through various book circles, online hype, and awards talk. I knew that it was really well liked by fantasy fans, and when it was picked as a book club book I had two very clear feelings about it. The first was ‘oh good, it’s great seeing BIPOC authors writing fantasy novels and this one has a lot of good hype around it!’ The second was ‘oh no, epic fantasy’. But I went in with an open mind because I have been surprised by fantasy now and then, in terms of how well I connect to it!

I can definitely recognize that “Black Sun” has some great epic fantasy elements to it, and hell, there were things that I liked about it as well! For one, I really liked Serapio and Xiala. For Serapio it’s because of his brooding and haunting backstory and the fact he seems to be walking the line between potential hero and villain. For Xiala, I liked her tenacity, I liked her motivation of being a disgraced sea captain, and I liked that she was tough but also very layered. I also really liked the two of them together, and how their potential romance built and formed against a backdrop of seafaring and potential disaster with the impending eclipse and Serapio’s potential destiny. And the themes and elements taken from Pre-Columbian folklore and mythology all seemed well researched and well implemented, which made me curious to look into some of the folklore beyond my own limited knowledge.

But as well all know, at the end of the day, I am not really an epic fantasy reading kind of gal. While there are some exceptions to that general rule, as a genre it doesn’t connect with me as much. So even though I could absolutely see the talent that Roanhorse has in writing this book and can appreciate the final product for how ambitious and well crafted it is, “Black Sun” wasn’t really my thing. And that is purely based on the genre preferences I have and not on the work itself. You should absolutely take my thoughts with a grain of salt, as Serena is the one who is going to have the most helpful and relevant things to say.

“Black Sun” may not work for you if you’re like me and you don’t care for epic fantasy. But it’s easy to see why it’s so lauded by those who do like the genre.

Serena’s Thoughts

I said this at bookclub itself, and I’ll repeat it here: this is why Kate and I are great blog partners! We both love books, but (with some definite exceptions and cross-overs) we tend to enjoy very different genres and types of reads. This gives us a lot of breadth of coverage on the blog and, hopefully, provides options and insights to readers of a lot of different sorts. This book is a perfect example. Epic fantasy is hardly ever Kate’s thing, and this was a bit of a miss for her. But for me? Loved the heck out of it! Hit every checkbox for things I like! Excellent all around! So, you see? Two very different sides of the same “loves books” coin.

For me, there was much to love about this book. I read the audiobook, so I missed out on the awesome maps that were provided in the print copy, but the world-building was so detailed and imaginative that I had no trouble picturing this sprawling world. From cities perched on pillars linked with bridges, to perilous seas and distant lands, it felt like a fully realized world full of different cultures, histories and religions. This information came out slowly and organically, something of a staple of epic fantasy, so readers must trust that these bits of the world and history will come together as the story continues. Which it does, brilliantly!

I also really enjoyed the way the story was laid out. It’s definitely the kind of read that takes its time setting up all of the various characters and their arcs and motivations. But the author wisely helps jumpstart this process by giving us a few glimpses of where some characters will end up by the book’s end before jumping back to about a month before these events. This type of teaser keeps readers on their feet, wondering how a character will get from point A to point B. I think it worked really well and did help with the slower pacing at the front end of the story.

I also really liked our three (kind of four?) main characters. I definitely had favorites, but I enjoyed all of their stories individually as well. It’s that delicious sort of torture where you have multiple characters you love and you see them beginning to be set up on opposing sides of a coming conflict. Like Kate, Serapio and Xiala were my favorites, with the spunky and sea-bitten Xiala taking the crown as my most enjoyed character. However, I also liked the political intrigue (another staple of much epic fantasy) that came with Naranpa’s story.

I loved the heck out of this book. The audiobook was also an excellent read, and I highly recommend that to fans of audiobooks. There are different narrators for all four main characters, and each one does an excellent job. I will definitely be checking out the second book the minute it comes out!

Kate’s Rating 6: This is very clearly well written and thought out epic fantasy. But as we all know, epic fantasy and I don’t really mix well.

Serena’s Rating 10: I loved this! Strong world-building, excellent mythology, and relatable characters make for the perfect fantasy read.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you like the maps and the character list that were provided for the reader? Did these things make it easier to keep everything straight while you read?
  2. Do you think that the world building that Roanhorse did in regards to the Pre-Columbian inspirations was well done?
  3. What did you think of the gender representation in this novel?
  4. What did you think of the major city and town settings of Tova vs Cuecolla?
  5. Whose perspectives were your favorites? If there was a side story you could explore, whose would you choose?
  6. What are your thoughts on the magical elements and systems in this book?

Reader’s Advisory

“Black Sun” is included on the Goodreads lists “Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance”, and “2020 Locus Recommended Reading List”.

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

Next Book Club Book: “Furia” by Yamile Saied Méndez

Serena’s Review: “Wildwood Whispers”

Book: “Wildwood Whispers” by Willa Reece

Publishing Info: Redhook, August 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: At the age of eleven, Mel Smith’s life found its purpose when she met Sarah Ross. Ten years later, Sarah’s sudden death threatens to break her. To fulfill a final promise to her best friend, Mel travels to an idyllic small town nestled in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains. Yet Morgan’s Gap is more than a land of morning mists and deep forest shadows.

There are secrets that call to Mel, in the gaze of the gnarled and knowing woman everyone calls Granny, in a salvaged remedy book filled with the magic of simple mountain traditions, and in the connection, she feels to the Ross homestead and the wilderness around it.

With every taste of sweet honey and tart blackberries, the wildwood twines further into Mel’s broken heart. But a threat lingers in the woods—one that may have something to do with Sarah’s untimely death and that has now set its sight on Mel.

Review: I don’t often much magic realism fiction (or women’s fiction…not sure how I feel about that even being a subgenre category…), but the book description for this book was giving me major “Practical Magic” vibes, so I thought it was worth checking out. The cover art was also beautiful, and my mood fit well for a more quiet, reflective read. This one wasn’t a perfect fit for me, but I think it’s a solid entry for fans of these genres.

Growing up bouncing around in the system, Mel could never find her home. That is until she met Sarah, a young girl who had recently been orphaned. Together, the two made a home for one another in their enduring bond. Years later, Mel once again feels the sand shifting beneath her feet when Sarah dies. To fulfill a promise, she travels to Sarah’s childhood home. There, she discovers there was much more to Sarah than she had understood. And as the dark woods whispers and family secrets swirl through the town’s quiet streets, Mel begins to see a new place for herself.

I liked the idea of this book more than the book itself, in the end. Those familiar with the blog will know that I love a sisters book, which this is. I also really liked the imagery of a small, quiet town in the mountains, having grown up in one myself. There’s something compelling about the quirks and histories that come out in places like this, strange to all but those who have grown up with them. Mel’s exploration of the two, people, and woods was particularly poignant for me in this way.

I also liked Mel herself, especially the brief flash we see of her as a child when she first meets and bonds with Sarah. She was definitely started out on a strong note here, a defiant loner who discovers kinship with a younger girl. But the adult Mel was more difficult for me to handle. The flashes of defiance and strength seemed muted, and there were many early moments between characters that left me scratching my head. Mel comes to the town, a complete stranger, and then strikes up some really bizarre conversations with various locals. I couldn’t figure out what was going on here. Was it poor writing that made these portions of dialogue read as odd? Was it on purpose? Either way, it hurt Mel’s characterization as I couldn’t understand her lack of human reaction to these weird happenings.

I also struggled to identify with several other plot elements. The antagonist was easily spotted from the beginning of the story (even if the motives were left murky for a bit longer). And the romance felt tacked on and, again, unnatural. I didn’t feel any real chemistry between these characters other than the fact that the author simply designed them to be together, so they were. r

I liked the magical elements that were interspersed throughout the book, but was left wanting more. This is a point that is particular to my taste, however, as a lot of magical realism stories are light on the magic. The exploration of grief, family, and home had moments of depth, but, again, never struck any real chords for me. Ultimately, it was a bit too sentimental for me.

Readers who enjoy quiet, thoughtful books and magic realism will likely enjoy this story. If you’re looking for a fast plot, strong romance, or strong characterization, this might be more of a disappointment. I don’t regret reading it, but it’s enough to prove that a little goes a long way for me with this kind of stuff.

Rating 7: Decent for what it is, a sentimental story of a woman processing her grief and discovering a new sense of self and roots.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wildwood Whispers” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantastic Women’s Fiction with Magical Elements and August 2021 Book Releases.

Find “Wildwood Whispers” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!