Serena’s Review: “Swift the Storm, Fierce the Flame”

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Book: “Swift the Storm, Fierce the Flame” by Meg Long

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, January 2024

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: After a mission gone awry two years ago, Remy Castell has been desperately searching across worlds to find the friend she failed to save—the friend who changed her life by helping her overcome the brainwashing she was subjected to as a genetically engineered corporate agent.

Since then, she’s been chasing the only lead she has: fellow genopath Kiran Lore, the same secretive ex-squadmate who left her for dead when she compromised that mission. She nearly caught up to him on Tundar before joining the infamous sled race alongside outcast Sena and her wolf companion Iska. Now, all three of them have tracked Kiran back to Maraas, the jungle planet where Remy lost everything. But nothing on Maraas is how it was two years ago. Syndicates and scavvers alike are now trying to overthrow a megalomaniac corpo director, which Remy wants nothing to do with; fighting against corpos is as useless as trying to stay dry in the middle of the giant hellstorm that encircles the planet. But the storm—and the rebellion—are growing stronger by the minute.

When Remy finds Kiran, he doesn’t run away like she expects. Instead, he offers her a deal: help with the revolution and he’ll reunite her with her friend. But can she really trust the boy who betrayed her once before? With the entire planet on the edge of all-out war, Remy will have to decide just how far she’s willing to go to save one girl before the impending storm drowns them all.

Previously Reviewed: “Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves”

Review: I really liked “Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves” when I read it last January. Not only is January the perfect time to hole up inside next to a fire and read about someone else suffering the elements, but who can say no to a book that has a central relationship between a girl and her half-feral wolf? No one, that’s who. That book also introduced us to Remy, a side character who we learn is on the run from the corporation that made her. So I was thrilled when I saw that the author was releasing a companion novel that would focus on Remy’s story.

Remy has been on the run for two years after her ex-squadmate betrayed her and cost her everything she held dear. While running from the corporation that created her, she’s traced her away across the universe to hunt down the man who destroyed the fragile sense of self she had been building. Now, with her friend Sena and Sena’s wolf companion Iska alongside, Remy returns to the planet where it all began. But what she finds is a world transformed from the one she left behind. Still, in the midst of ongoing political and social strife, Remy is hopeful she can finally put her past to rest.

I won’t beat around the bush: I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as the first. Which was really too bad. But I can still see the bones of a good book and the strength of the writing that drew me to the first novel. The author is clearly skilled at creating interesting, alternative world environments, complete with their own weather systems, creatures, and societies. This one was just as interesting as the first. Whereas before we explored a brutal tundra world, here we dive into the sticky, hot, humidity of a jungle planet. Even more interesting, the planet is plagued by a massive storm system that circumnavigates the entire world every two weeks or so. This creates a very interesting culture and society where everything in the city is under a constant state of destruction and repair. We also see how this mindset influences who lives where (more protected areas vs less) and what materials they have access to for their construction, affecting how durable the buildings are in any certain community. This was all super interesting, and I really enjoyed everything we got with regards to the world building.

Further, I liked the politics and mystery at the heart of the story with regards to these dynamics. When we get to the motivations of the bad actors, it was all very believable and relatable, touching on some important themes and commentary about class and the environment in our own world. And, while I don’t think it is absolutely necessary to read “Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves” before you read this one, having read that one, I appreciated how the author further fleshed out the role of local syndicates and the interesting balance they strike between their own world’s population and the power of the corporations that essentially rule the universe.

But it all broke down for me with the main character and the love interest. I don’t really think it’s a spoiler to say that said ex-squadmate who “betrayed” her probably has more going on. But if you don’t want more details, suffice it to say that I found Remy’s understanding of this character to be so poor as to be almost laughable. For more details, continue reading!

Basically, this just comes down to a case of telling and not showing. From the beginning, Remy goes on repeated internal rants about her ex-squadmate who was controlling, always putting himself forward and making her look bad on their missions. The problem comes when we are shown flashbacks that make it painfully obvious what is going. Again and again, all we see is a man who clearly loves Remy and is protecting her in every way he can. In one case, he directly takes the blame for something Remy does and ends up in a torture session over it. And somehow…Remy not only doesn’t pick up on these super obvious clues, but spends large chunks of the book telling the reader how bad of a guy Kiran is. And that’s just not a recipe for success. I get having an unreliable narrator. But you have to have a reason for why they’re misleading the reader. And if that reason turns out to be “the protagonist is kind of a dunderhead and oblivious to the point of disbelief” that’s not good look for the protagonist or is incredibly frustrating for the reader.

Unfortunately, some of this obliviousness on Remy’s part showed up in many different ways. Not only is she repeatedly unable to understand how her actions impact others, but she also misreads many other characters’ motivations. It was tough to read, as I thought that Remy’s portrayal in the first book was so solid and interesting. But here, she immediately started to fall into some predictable YA female protagonist stereotypes. And this wasn’t helped by having Sena hanging around through a lot of it, reminding readers of just how likable a main character she was in her book.

Overall, this was kind of a mixed bag for me. My experience of this book really lived and died by my reaction to Remy as a main character. The world-building, writing, and themes were still incredibly strong. I just was too frustrated by Remy through much of it to truly enjoy my read. If you were a fan of the first book, however, I still might recommend a read through here. Your tastes may vary for a main character, and the author still had a lot of good story and commentary to offer with this book.

Rating 7: Excellent world-building and important themes regarding environmentalism and class were undermined by a rather frustrating main character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Swift the Storm, Fierce the Flame” can be found on this Goodreads list: Upcoming 2023 SFF Books With Female Leads or Co-Leads

A Brief History of Brandon Sanderson and the Introduction of My “Year of Sanderson” Series

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“Year of Sanderson” is an on-going, monthly series that will post on the last Friday of each month in which I will cover various Brandon Sanderson-related things. This will largely be comprised of book reviews (some from his back catalog and some from the books being released this year), as well as assorted other topics like reviews of the items in the swag boxes that will be coming out as part of Sanderson’s Kickstarted campaign. Frankly, we’ll just have to see what we get from this series, very much like the Kickstarter itself!

General History

Brandon Sanderson first popped up on the fantasy book scene back in 2003 when he published his first novel “Elantris” through Tor publishing. He went on to write the “Mistborn” trilogy, which is his earliest best known work. From there he continued to pump out books at a prodigious rate, especially as an author who lived up to the stereotype of fantasy writers producing massive, multiple hundreds of pages long tomes. While most of his work has been for adult readers, he’s also ventured into middle grade and YA fantasy as well with series like “Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians” (middle grade) and “Steelheart” (YA).

His name likely first became known to general readers outside of the fantasy genre in 2007 when he was selected to complete Robert Jordan’s massively popular “Wheel of Time” series. He wrote the final three novels in this series, which were well-received by fans and cemented his place as a powerhouse in the modern fantasy genre.

He has won numerous awards over the years, including the Hugo Award in 2013 for his novella “The Emperor’s Soul.” His books have also been on the New York Times Best-Seller list 15 times, speaking to the long-lasting popularity of his writing across several series. While “Wheel of Time” has been produced as a streaming show on Amazon Prime, it is still early in its run and nowhere near the seasons that would depict Sanderson’s entries to the series. However, DMG Entertainment has optioned his entire Cosmere universe for potential future projects. Speaking of the Cosmere…

Cosmere

Brandon Sanderon is also known for his unique approach to many of his fantasy books, both stand-alones and series. Like the Marcel Cinematic Universe, Sanderson has created a larger “universe” in which many of his books take place. Currently, none of his books from other series need to be read before jumping into a different, unconnected book or series, but there are many Easter Eggs left for the devoted fan who has read much of his work. Particularly, there are a few sort of “god level” characters who world-jump and will appear in multiple different books and series.

Sanderson is also well known for creating detailed and interesting magic systems. While all of the magic systems presented in his many fantasy novels are unique to themselves, books that take place within the Cosmere do feature systems that seem to operate on similar principles and are organized in similar fashions. Beyond this, Sanderson has mentioned that all worlds within the Cosmere feature the same creation myth.

The books that currently make up the Cosmere are “Elantris,” “Mistborn,” “Warbreaker,” “The Stormlight Archive,” “White Sand,” and anything from “Arcanum Unbounded.” While books like “Elantris” and “Warbreaker” are currently standalones (there is a “Warbreaker” sequel in the works), “Mistborn” and “The Stormlight Archive” are each long works that add hundreds upon thousands of pages to the ever-growing Cosmere. “The Stormlight Archives” is Sanderson’s current signature epic fantasy, comprised of four massive books (the most recent book, “Rhythm of War,” topped out at 1232 pages.)

Kickstarter Campaign

Back in the spring of 2022, Brandon Sanderson surprised fans by starting up a Kickstarter campaign. Per the usual for the fast-writing author, while other authors expressed struggles with writers block during the Covid pandemic, Sanderson managed to whip together four entirely new novels, and it was these four novels that comprised the heart of the campaign. However, the author didn’t stop there. While the four books would ship out on a quarterly basis starting in January of 2023, funders could also back the project further to receive monthly swag boxes over the entire 12 month period of 2023.

While this particular type of campaign (swag boxes, etc.) was a first for Sanderson, the author already had a foot firmly in the self-publishing field. Indeed, Sanderson already had his own publishing company, Dragonsteel Entertainment; previous to the Kickstarter, Dragonsteel was largely used to publish collector versions of Sanderson’s previously published works.

When the Kickstarter first went up, Sanderson’s goal was to hit $1 million, the amount estimated to produce and distribute the four books he wrote during the pandemic. He ended up breaking all of the records, ultimately topping out at $41 million dollars. According to an article by USA Today, “The campaign is the biggest project in Kickstarter history by pledge volume and is more than double the previous record holder. It also set a record for both the most money raised in the first 24 hours ($15.4 million) as well as the most funding and backers for the same time period.” Sanderson went on to pay it forward, donating to almost every other Kickstarter with a publishing focus that was currently running while his own was live.

My Fandom

I’ve been a fan of Brandon Sanderson almost from the beginning. While I didn’t catch “Elantris” when it was first published, I read the original “Mistborn” trilogy as it released. I’ve read almost everything else by the author to date (though I haven’ read all of his middle grade or YA fantasy). I own copies of most of his books, including said massive “Stormlight Archives” tomes, and even a few of the leather bound collector versions that were produced by Dragonsteel Entertainment. To this day, I point my husband in this direction if he’s looking for a last minute gift idea for me.

I got to meet Sanderson at an author event at the St. Paul children’s bookstore, “The Red Balloon.” It is a small space, but it was absolutely jam packed for this event, and for good reason. When listening to him speak, it’s impossible not to catch the infectious joy that he has not only for reading and writing, but for fantasy and fandom as well. After seeing that level of energy on display, it’s less difficult to understand his rate of publication.

When I saw that Sanderson had a Kickstarter up and running, I knew that I would have to join. I dithered for about a day over the kind of insane price of going the “swag box” route, but in the end, I decided “hey, what are credit card points for if not off-setting the ridiculous price of things you’d never ordinarily buy??” As I don’t know exactly what is coming in these swag boxes or much about the four books either (there are details out there for the books, but I’d rather just be surprised), I can’t say exactly what this post series will contain over the next year. Instead, it will be a fun surprise for us all! I hope you enjoy the ride with me!

Sources

Brandon Sanderon Website

Stormlight Archive

Kickstarter Campaign

Brandon Sanderson YouTube Channel

Tor.com

USA Today article about the Kickstarter campaign

Serena’s Review: “Queen Among the Dead”

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Book: “Queen Among the Dead” by Lesley Livingston

Publishing Info: Zando Young Readers, January 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: In the kingdom of Eire, banshees chill the air, and water-wights lurk in the rivers. But magic is outlawed by the king, and jealously hoarded by his Druid priests.

Neve is the youngest daughter of the king, and Ronan is a Druid’s apprentice-turned-thief, making a living by selling stolen spells. They should be enemies, but their shared hatred of the Druids-and a dark magic that has marked them both-makes them unlikely, if uneasy, allies.

When Eire is threatened by a power struggle, Neve must seize the chance to take her rightful place on her family’s throne, with the help of Ronan and the realm’s most dangerous outcasts. Their journey takes them to the outskirts of Eire where magic still runs free . . . and where an outlaw and a warrior princess might carve out a future with spells and swords.

Review: Anyone who is familiar with this blog knows that I am a huge Juliet Marillier fan. I mean, I devoted an entire years-long running series to re-reading all of her books and reviewing them here. So it will come as no surprise that all it would take for me to request a book might be the barest hint of a book sounds similar to Marillier’s work. And such was the case here!

Long ago, Neve, the younger daughter of the king of Eire, met a strange boy and they fought a powerful and dangerous demon, only barely escaping with their lives. Through this experience, both have now grown to distrust the powerful Druid order that both outlawed magic but also hoarded it to themselves. When they meet again as adults, seeming enemies in the grand scheme of their society, they find that this similar distrust and their own hopes for their country tie them more closely together than they ever could have imagined. And when a powerful darkness begins to seep across the land, they find that, together, they possess a rare and powerful magic that is just what is needed to re-shape the future.

There was a lot to like about this book right from the very start. For one thing, it was apparent that the writing was excellent from the first page. It perfectly fit the tone of a historical fantasy story, being both lyrical but also clear enough to depict a world and culture that has one foot in the world we’re familiar with, but another foot clearly placed in a realm of magic and mystery. It’s a difficult balance, to capture both the historical tone and the whimsical. I also really liked the dialogue. Especially when we first see Neve and Ronan interacting as adults. It was funny and yet still felt natural to the characters, again balancing modern sensibilities of humor alongside a sort of pseudo-historical vocabulary.

Ronan and Neve were also very interesting characters in their own right. I enjoyed the duel mysteries regarding their different natures. It’s one thing to pull off one character with a “strange past,” but quite another to do it with both of your protagonists without one of them dropping in quality. I think I particularly liked Neve, however, if I had to choose between the two. Her character had to work through some very interesting family dynamics (even a few that came in the form of a nice twist towards the end), while also grappling with the restrictions on women and the unique history of Eire that lead to some of these restrictions. Ronan’s story is much more straight-forward in this regard, but still very enjoyable.

I will say, however, that the story stumbled when it came to their relationship. I saw this book billed as an “enemies to lovers” romance, and I just don’t think it really fits into that. I was never able to really identify the “enemies” portion of it, rather than a few brief instances where they each decide not to trust the other. Frankly, the primary emotion this relationship inspired was frustration. The characters made fairly random decisions to suddenly not trust one another, but then the very first second this decision would be tested, they’d be right back to working together and having all the feelings. Not only did the wishy-washy-ness feel unrealistic, but it didn’t serve any purpose to the story other than forced conflict (and like I said, even there, there wasn’t any real conflict, just talk of potential conflict that was immediately dismissed in reality).

Overall, while I think the story did have a weak romance and a bit of a pacing problem (there was a decent amount of the middle of the book that felt like it was dragging), I still came away feeling like this was a pretty solid historical fantasy. The mythology, in particular, was very interesting, and I do think it will appeal to readers who like books like those produced by Marilliar or other historical fantasy authors.

Rating 8: A bit rocky in the pacing and romance departments, but saved by its solid writing and interesting mythological history.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Queen Among the Dead” can be found on this Goodreads list: Ancient History Historical Fiction Published in 2023

Serena’s Review: “Things Not Seen”

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Book: “Things Not Seen” by Monica Boothe

Publishing Info: Peniel Press, January 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: from the author!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: 17-year-old Kristin has selective blindness. She can’t see, hear, feel, or smell, her brother. This doesn’t stop them from becoming best friends, turning his unique invisibility into a game, but when the two of them are stranded alone during a blizzard, it doesn’t feel like a game anymore. Kristin will do everything she can to keep her little brother alive, but she’s the least qualified person in the world to do so.

Review: I always enjoy supporting lesser known authors when I get the chance. And after Boothe send me an excerpt to this book, I knew I wanted to check out the entire thing. The concept alone sounds very unique, and it was clear from even the first few chapters that the author had a solid foundation for her main character and the relationship she has to her invisible brother that forms the basis for this story. Add in a snow storm, and you have a primed set! Let’s dive in.

Kristin knows she has a younger brother. She just can’t see, hear, or feel him. But everyone else can, so she has had to find unique ways to connect and exist with this invisible sibling. Through these extra hurdles, however, the two have formed a particularly close relationship largely managed through texts and the small context clues that Kristin uses to locate her brother out and about in the world. But when a snow storm strikes while Kristin and Josh are home alone, an entire new set of circumstances highlights the challenges of their unique relationship.

I really enjoyed this YA novel. As I’ve mentioned before, I really like books that focus on sibling relationships, as I think there are a lot of interesting dynamics to be mined there. Here, we see two very close siblings, but their relationship is largely defined by the challenges of Kristin not being able to see, here or feel Josh. As the story is told from her perspective, we see how this loss has shaped her every thought and action. Everyone else around her can see Josh, and it is decided that she as what is called “selective blindness” where he is concerned. The book wisely doesn’t get too far into the weeds on this condition, but instead uses it mostly as a platform for the plot and the character work.

For Kristin’s part, we see how this condition has lead her to increased levels of anxiety about the dangers she could pose to her brother. But equally, we see how defined her life has become by this relationship, especially considering the extra work that has been necessary to create and maintain their connection. As she faces decisions about college, these anxieties and changes to how she must order and center her new life would be very relatable to many teen readers, regardless of the fantastical circumstances of the invisible brother.

I also really liked that we got to understand a bit more about how this relationship has affected Josh. For him, it is largely like having a deaf and blind sister. But as the story is told from Kristin’s POV, these realizations, that her condition affects Josh just as much as it does her, are slow to come and hard won.

As I’ve just spent two paragraphs talking about the characters and their relationships, I think it will come as no surprise when I say that the strength of this story really comes down to how well-drawn these characters are. Kristin’s voice is very approachable and relatable. And I fully drawn in to the complexities and turmoil of this sibling dynamic. It all felt very real and natural (or as much as it can with an invisible character at play!).

When it came down to some of the more factual bits of the story, I struggled a bit more. I grew up in northern Idaho and currently live in Minnesota. So I’m very familiar with blizzards and large quantities of snow. A central portion of this story is defined by Kristin and Josh trying to deal with a blizzard and a power outage. And…I just really struggled with some of the details here. Blowing snow, yes, can make visuals difficult and reduce sight lines. But unless you’re in a completely new location, this isn’t going to have much of an affect on travelling short distances. In this book, Kristin is walking (not even driving at any kind of speed where visibility needs to be far reaching) outside her family home. I just couldn’t buy the fact that she would get this disoriented or lost. We are also told at one point the specific amount on the ground (I believe it was around 8 inches or so) and this is just not much at all, in the grand scheme of things. But, again, this probably only stood out to me so much due to my own very specific experiences with snow (let me tell you later about having to snowmobile 3 miles to our house all winter) and also my, admittedly annoying, over-fixation on accuracy in survival situations (re: all the my past reviews of survival stories where I go crazy over the stupidest little details or inaccuracies).

Overall, I think this was a very strong book about the joys and challenges of sibling relationships. I was really impressed by the way the author had thought out the ins and outs of her central premise, that one sibling can’t see/feel/hear the other. Kristin was also a very relatable teenage character, and I think she will speak to a lot of teenage readers. Yes, I struggled with the snow storm stuff. But I still came away from it having really enjoyed my read.

And don’t forget to enter to a win a copy of this book!

Rating 8: An intimate and relatable portrayal of sibling relationships with a a compelling and sympathetic teenage protagonist.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Things Not Seen” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be onYA Contemporary Books with Great Portrayals of Relationships.

Giveaway: “Things Not Seen”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Things Not Seen” by Monica Boothe

Publishing Info: Peniel Press, January 2023

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: 17-year-old Kristin has selective blindness. She can’t see, hear, feel, or smell, her brother. This doesn’t stop them from becoming best friends, turning his unique invisibility into a game, but when the two of them are stranded alone during a blizzard, it doesn’t feel like a game anymore. Kristin will do everything she can to keep her little brother alive, but she’s the least qualified person in the world to do so.

Giveaway Details: Monica Boothe reached out to me about reviewing her upcoming book “Things Not Seen” a few months ago. After reading the excerpt, I was very excited to check out the entire novel! The voice of the teenage protagonist, Kristin, was immediately catchy and relatable. Add that to a very interesting concept, that of a sibling relationship where the sister has never been able to see/hear/feel her brother, and you have yourself a very compelling novel! Per the usual, my full review (spoiler: I really liked it!) will go live this Friday. Until then, don’t forget to enter to win a copy of “Things Not Seen!” The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and runs through January 24, 2023.

Enter to win!

Diving Into Sub-Genres: Portal Fantasy

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

Portal family is probably the largest and most popular sub-genre in fantasy fiction. I know that second part is a pretty hefty claim, but even among the most picky of fantasy readers, those who hardly ever read the genre as a whole, there’s a decent chance they hold a special place for some portal fantasy novel or another. It’s unavoidable when some of the biggest titles in fantasy fiction fall under this subgenre; even more so when many of those titles (“Harry Potter,” “The Wizard of Oz”) are also children’s and middle grade fiction, works that many readers will enjoy as kids even if they go on as adults to read very little in the fantasy genre as a whole.

Portal fantasy is also a wide, sprawling sub-genre on its own. It’s definition is simple: it’s a story that involves characters travelling through a “portal” (wardrobe/train platform/tornado/etc.) from our real world into some magical, fantasy realm. Already you can see the huge potential and likely list off a good number of titles that would fall under this category. What’s more, a broad interpretation of this subgenre would just be characters travelling from world to world, none of which need include our real world. For example, the “His Dark Materials” trilogy utilizes both of these options. We have characters travelling from our world to new worlds, like Will in the second book, “The Subtle Knife.” But there are also several characters, like Lord Asriel, who never travel to “our world” at all, but only between different, unique worlds.

The definition of “portal” can also vary. Some would say there needs to be an actual passage way from one distinct world to another unique world; others would count the Daevabad trilogy as a portal fantasy, simply due to the hidden nature of the city itself, unseen and inaccessible by humanity. Portal fantasy is also one of the oldest subgenres of fantasy. Some of Shakespeare’s plays would likely count (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and, of course, there is Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Between all of these definitions, and the fact that portal fantasy is a popular subgenre in fantasy fiction for all ages (probably the most popular by far in children’s fantasy), there are a million options to choose from, but here are a few that I particularly enjoy and I think represent the subgenre well.

“The Chronicles of Narnia” by C. S. Lewis

This is probably one of the first books/series that comes to most people’s minds when they think of “portal fantasy.” Not only is it a supremely popular children’s series, but the portal itself holds much of its appeal simply by how ubiquitous it is: what child hasn’t crawled into a closet or wardrobe and wished there was a door way to another world to be found at the end? The titular wardrobe in the first book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is the most well-known of the portals found in this story. But if you continue reading, you’ll also find children swept away through a painting and simply by the winds felt on a cliffside.

“Wayward Children” series by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire has created a series that not only features portal fantasies as the primary premise of all of her books, but each book does a deep dive into the types of people who walk through these magical doors. The types of people who look for them, and those who don’t. And she paints a world that holds so many doorways to so many unique worlds that she’s even made a sort of flowchart to diagram the sorts of worlds her characters may come from and travel to. Where does each world fall on a scale of chaos or order? Good or evil? These novellas are all incredibly unique and highlight a lot of the appeal that the portal fantasy subgenre holds for the many readers who enjoy it and wish they, too, could find their door to another world.

“The Fionavar Tapestry” series by Guy Gavriel Kay

This is one of the first adult portal fantasy series that I remember reading as a teenager. Up to that point, for me, portal fantasy was something found in children’s and young adult fiction, but not so much in the stuffy works that made up adult fantasy. The story follows five men and women who find themselves pulled into a fantasy world where they each have important roles to play. And this is definitely adult portal fantasy all around, as Kay dives into some pretty dark themes throughout the series. I remember really enjoying it, but also being rather shocked as a teenage reader by certain scenes. It’s one of those fantasy series that has stuck with me throughout the years, but also one that I need to return to soon as I haven’t ever re-read it.

“The Invisible Library” by Genevieve Cogman

This eight book long series wrapped up recently, back in 2021 and was massively popular during its run. It’s a fairly standard portal fantasy, with its main character, Irene, travelling from realm to realm in her work for a Library that collects fiction from these various worlds. Throughout the series she gathers a group of friends around her and encounters all sorts of wild worlds, including time travel. These are really lovely books, all the more appealing for featuring a heroic librarian as their heroine!

“In Other Lands” by Sarah Rees Brennan

This is another fairly straight-forward portal fantasy, but its quirky take on not only the the magical world and the beings that populate it but on its protagonist make it stand out as a great, modern story. The word “deconstruction” has been used when describing this book’s take on its central trope, but it does so in an interesting and hilarious way, rather than the usual, more pretentious sort of deconstruction. The hero is also a young teenage boy who is just as snotty and irreverent as you’d expect from a boy of that age. And yet you can’t help rooting for him anyway!

“Shades of Magic” trilogy by V.E. Schwab

Lastly, I’m including one of my favorite portal fantasies of all time. This is also a nice mixture of the two definitions of portal fantasy in that one of our main characters travels in the traditional direction (from our world and into a magical one), but our other main character is from the magical world and travels not only to our world, but also to other, unique worlds beyond. This trilogy not only has unique worlds (varying Londons each with different levels of magic), but I really enjoyed the way the magic system and travel between these works worked. Fans of portal fantasies should definitely check this trilogy out if you haven’t already!

What portal fantasy books are your favorites? Let us know in the comments!

Serena’s Review: “Mysteries of Thorn Manor”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Mysteries of Thorn Manor” by Margaret Rogerson

Publishing Info:Margaret K. McElderry Books, January 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Elisabeth Scrivener is finally settling into her new life with sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn. Now that their demon companion Silas has returned, so has scrutiny from nosy reporters hungry for gossip about the city’s most powerful sorcerer and the librarian who stole his heart. But something strange is afoot at Thorn Manor: the estate’s wards, which are meant to keep their home safe, are acting up and forcibly trapping the Manor’s occupants inside. Surely it must be a coincidence that this happened just as Nathaniel and Elisabeth started getting closer to one another…

With no access to the outside world, Elisabeth, Nathaniel, and Silas – along with their new maid Mercy – will have to work together to discover the source of the magic behind the malfunctioning wards before they’re due to host the city’s Midwinter Ball. Not an easy task when the house is filled with unexpected secrets, and all Elisabeth can think about is kissing Nathaniel in peace. But when it becomes clear that the house, influenced by the magic of Nathaniel’s ancestors, requires a price for its obedience, Elisabeth and Nathaniel will have to lean on their connection like never before to set things right.

Previously Reviewed: “Sorcery of Thorns”

Review: I don’t think I can express exactly how excited I was when I saw this title pop up on Edelweiss+. A sequel to “Sorcery of Thorns” that would give all the juicy details about Elisabeth and Nathaniel’s developing relationship? Yes, please! The only dampener being that it was a novella instead of a full-length sequel. But hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Its been a few months since the fantastical events that changed her life, and Elisabeth is still slowly becoming comfortable with her new circumstances. So much that is unknown surrounds her, be that the full history of her love, Nathaniel, the mysteries of the demon Silas whose motives are his own, or even the secrets that are hidden within the walls of the manor itself. And when the house itself turns against them, all three will have to work together to put things to right before the face their greatest test yet: a Midwinter Ball.

Margaret Rogerson essentially described this book as “an author writing fanfiction for their own work.” And I have only one thing to say to that: why don’t more authors do this?? There’s a reasons fans turn to fanfiction in the first place. Often, it is a place to find quieter, more character-centric works that dive into the smaller moments that wouldn’t make it onto the page in a full novel. (Obviously, this is not always the case, but I think the generalization stands for much of it). I know for my own part, I often turn to fanfiction when I want, essentially, a cozy read with familiar, beloved characters who I want to spend more time with. So it’s almost a “smack the forehead” level of obvious that authors themselves could write books like this and then have them gobbled up by their fans. I guess the question would be whether or not publishers would print these types of books. Well, I hope this book is a massive success and proves that this is viable route for novellas like this in the future.

I loved everything about this book. It did feel like fanfiction in the best of all ways. Just one lovely character moment after another. Not only do we get a lot more development for Nathaniel and Elisabeth (two characters whose romance only barely began by the end of the first novel itself), but we also get many more moments between Silas and these two characters as well. In some ways, Silas’s moments were even more compelling than the romance. Yes, the relationship between Nathaniel and Elisabeth and funny, sweet, and adorable, but the complicated connections that Silas has to them both held a lot more nuance. It was the sort of thing where the relationships that had a hint of pain and torment were just a bit more compelling than the straight-forwardly sweet one. This is in no way a slight against the central romance, just that I think Silas’s history and nature added a level of complexity to his relationship with Nathaniel and Elisabeth that I found extremely riveting.

I also really liked the fantasy elements we had here. Again, because this is a novella with a decidedly cozy tone, there was nothing overtly threatening or dark. Instead, the action came through moments of magical absurdity, such as a house fighting against its occupants using a grandmother’s clothes as weapons. Throughout the book, it was exciting to follow Elisabeth as she uncovered more and more about the house and the previous occupants who left their mark upon it. I also really enjoyed the final third of the book, neatly wrapping up all the loose ends and throwing in one last excellent twist.

I loved this book. It was the kind of story that I’ll likely read again and again next to a fire on a cold, winter’s night. I know I’ve used the word “cozy” a few times, but that really sums it up well. I do think it’s necessary to read “Sorcery of Thorns” before this one, however, as there is a lot of backstory there that is needed to understand the dynamics we get on the page here. But for fans of that book, this is definitely a must!

Rating 8: A perfect slice of life from characters I was dying to hear more from! Sweet, funny, and surprisingly heart-felt, this is a must read for fans of “Sorcery of Thorns.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mysteries of Thorn Manor” can be found on this Goodreads list: Novels of “Thorns”.

Serena’s Review: “A Ruinous Fate”

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Book: “A Ruinous Fate” by Kaylie Smith

Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, January 2023

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

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Calliope Rosewood is a witch with a long streak of bad luck. Like all witches in Illustros, her fate is directly tied to Witch’s Dice—powerful artifacts that have blessed her kind with limitless magic but also set them on a path toward destruction. Cursed with unspeakable powers that terrify even the most dangerous witches and fae, Calla deserted her coven four years ago and has been in hiding with her two best friends since. But Calla is also hiding a grave secret: She is only three Rolls away from becoming the last Blood Warrior and starting the Final War that will decimate her people and eradicate their magic.

After a betrayal from her ex leads her one step closer to fulfilling that age-old prophecy, Calla is desperate to do whatever it takes to reset her fate . . . even if that means journeying into the deadly Neverending Forest with said ex and his enticing, yet enigmatic older brother to find the one being who can help her forge her own path. As Calla ventures farther into the enchanted woods, she finds her heart torn between her past desires and the alluring new possibilities of her future and learns that choosing your own destiny may come with deadly consequences.

Review: First off, thanks to Disney Hyperion for reaching out to me with an ARC for review! I was excited to check it out for a few different reasons. For one thing, I’ve always enjoyed the cover art done by this cover artist. And for a second thing, I thought the description sounded very unique. The concept of witches who are dependent to some extent on a dice game of chance, with either the opportunity to gain massive powers or fall into peril. And, of course, our main character who seems to be fearful of becoming essentially what sounds like the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse. Let’s dive in!

Since I kind of just gave a description of the book above, I’m going to skip that paragraph in my post and just jump right into the review. First off, the uniqueness of the premise did hold up in the book itself. The idea of the magical dice and the way they tie into the fate of any given witch is interesting and adds new dynamics to what could have otherwise been a very familiar sound magic system. On top of the ordinary way the dice work (“ordinary”), our main character is dealing with a situation where she has rolled three very unique rolls already. So unique that they point to a dark and grim fate not only for her but for the entire world.

However, while the greater concept of the dice was solid, I did get caught up a bit in a few of the details. While clarity did come slowly but surely, the first quarter of this book just throws the reader in with very little explanation. As such, I did find myself struggling to connect to the main character and the story as a whole, since so much of my attention was getting caught up in the “whys” and “hows” of the whole thing.

I do think, however, that this magical system was the best part of the book, and something that will probably interest a lot of YA fantasy fans. However, the wheels came off the bus for me with the characters themselves. Honestly, I found almost every single character fairly annoying and obnoxious, not least Calla herself. Her decisions and reasoning for said decisions were so difficult to not only understand but sympathize with when they inevitably lead to dramatic outcomes. Worst of all, she’d often claim to be working for the good of others, but again and again, she ultimately came across as a fairly selfish and brash character.

And…there were love triangles. Love trainglesssssss! Plural! So, that wasn’t a win for me. I have a really hard time imaging any situation where multiple love triangles is necessary or enhances a story. Indeed, I’m on record as saying there are very few situations where ANY love triangle is necessary or enhances a story. This is definitely not an exception to that rule. Worse, said love interests were just as frustrating and infuriating as the other characters, both main and side.

All of this to say, I think this is the sort of YA book that will appeal to bigtime YA fantasy fans. Those who are devoted to this genre will likely appreciate the creative world building. And all of the rest, the main character’s personality and the love triangles, are familiar archetypes of this genre, so major fans will probably not bat an eye in the same way that I did. However, for general fantasy fans, I’m not sure this one is worth the time.

Rating 7: Familiar elements will likely draw in the regular YA fantasy crowd, but I’m not sure it has enough to appeal to a larger fantasy audience.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Ruinous Fate” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Best Books Featuring Witches and Upcoming 2023 SFF Books With Female Leads or Co-Leads.

Serena’s Review: “Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries”

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Book: “Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries” by Heather Fawcett

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, January 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Cambridge professor Emily Wilde is good at many things: She is the foremost expert on the study of faeries. She is a genius scholar and a meticulous researcher who is writing the world’s first encyclopaedia of faerie lore. But Emily Wilde is not good at people. She could never make small talk at a party–or even get invited to one. And she prefers the company of her books, her dog, Shadow, and the Fair Folk to other people.

So when she arrives in the hardscrabble village of Hrafnsvik, Emily has no intention of befriending the gruff townsfolk. Nor does she care to spend time with another new arrival: her dashing and insufferably handsome academic rival Wendell Bambleby, who manages to charm the townsfolk, get in the middle of Emily’s research, and utterly confound and frustrate her.

But as Emily gets closer and closer to uncovering the secrets of the Hidden Ones–the most elusive of all faeries–lurking in the shadowy forest outside the town, she also finds herself on the trail of another mystery: Who is Wendell Bambleby, and what does he really want? To find the answer, she’ll have to unlock the greatest mystery of all–her own heart.

Review: This book wasn’t on my radar at all, somehow. Horror of horrors, since, spoiling myself here, I loved this book! Instead, it ended up on my TBR list only because I saw that it was likely going to be the December Adult Fairyloot book, and I wanted to get an idea of what it was all about ahead of time. So I read this about a month ago, but saved my review for closer to the publishing date. And here we are, ready and willing to give a rave review for this book!

When Emily Wilde arrives at the remote, northern town of Hrafnsvik, she is there for one purpose and one purpose only: studying the local Fae for inclusion in her in-progress encyclopaedia. While she is an excellent scholar, she is less skilled at ingratiating herself with the locals and quickly finds herself on the outs with most everyone in the village. Even more infuriating is the arrival of her charming academic rival who quickly attaches himself to her work and seems to soon have the entire town besotted with him. As the two work together, Emily begins to uncover clues of larger, nefarious curse that is plaguing Hrafnsvik…as well as clues that her rival may be more than he seems.

We have again one of those situations where I stumbled upon a book completely by chance and am now terrified of how many other lovely titles I’m missing out on! Alas, such is the life of an avid reader, I guess. Whatever way it made it onto my TBR pile, I’m sure glad it did. This book was pretty much everything I like about fantasy. It has a quasi historical setting, a buttoned-up, bookish leading lady who seems to always get herself into trouble, an adorable animal companion, a charming love interest with a subdued romantic subplot, and an interesting, but not overly embellished (side-eying Sarah J. Maas here) Fae world.

On this last point, the story is definitely a slow-burn on its fantastical elements. The plot, of course, is centered on Emily’s research of Fae and the story starts out simply enough with her following these regular steps of study. But the plot takes a few sudden twists and turns towards the middle and final third of the book that truly bring these fantasy Fae elements to the front. I was both surprised and delighted by these twists. There were a couple of choices, particularly towards the end of the book, that definitely took the story in a direction I hadn’t anticipated (or, at least, I hadn’t anticipated just how much the author would commit to these decisions).

But because this book is a slow-burn story, plot-wise, much of its success rests on just how charming Emily Wilde is as a narrator. As I said, I particularly enjoy this type of scholarly, semi-stoic woman protagonist. The unintentional hilarity of this type of narrator’s way of speaking is half the fun, and such is the case here as well. It was all the better when Wendell arrives, and the the whole “fire and ice” dynamic gets going. Their chemistry is immediately charming, and the reader gets to enjoy being on the “in” about Wendell’s obvious feelings for Emily while she remains the obtuse dunderhead she is about human interactions.

Like Wendell, I think “charming” is probably the best word to describe this entire book. I definitely recommend this book for most all fantasy readers, especially those who like subdued but lovely romances and new versions of Fae and Fae courts.

Rating 9: A delight from start to finish, never stumbling in its tone while weaving together a subtle romance and a heartfelt journey of discovering the importance friends and community.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Upcoming 2023 SFF Books With Female Leads or Co-Leads and First AND Last Name Please

Serena’s Review: “A Broken Blade”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “A Broken Blade” by Melissa Blair

Publishing Info: Union Square Co., August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Keera is a killer. As the King’s Blade, she is the most talented spy in the kingdom. And the king’s favored assassin. When a mysterious figure moves against the Crown, Keera is called upon to hunt down the so-called Shadow. She tracks her target into the magical lands of the Fae, but Faeland is not what it seems . . . and neither is the Shadow. Keera is shocked by what she learns, and can’t help but wonder who her enemy truly is: the King that destroyed her people or the Shadow that threatens the peace?
 
As she searches for answers, Keera is haunted by a promise she made long ago, one that will test her in every way. To keep her word, Keera must not only save herself, but an entire kingdom.

Review: I have a confession: I’m kind of a BookTok snob. On one hand, this is simply laziness and I’ve never spent the time to really dive into this medium. But on the other hand, from what I’ve seen, it seems like the kind of platform where a very small number of books dominate the recommendations. Obviously, this is great for those books, but this focus on a small number of books means that while some get tons of exposure, less well known works slip through the cracks. And, of course, we all know my track record with these highly promoted books…for some reason I just can’t get on the same page as many fans!

Keera’s world is, if not a happy place, at least a well order one, one in which she clearly knows the role she plays, dark as it is. She is an assassin and spy, so skilled that she is the King’s favorite. Of course, this has lead her down dark paths that she struggles to live with. But, such is her world. However, when she is sent hunt down a strange person known as the Shadow, she must venture outside of her typical boundaries and into Faeland. There, she discovers truths that shake her to her very core, forcing her to reimagine the world she thought she was living within.

If you look at Goodreads, this book is rated pretty highly: firmly in the four star range. And, honestly, I can see why. This book reads as the sort of thing that was built to sell. Pick a favorite fantasy trope, and there’s a good chance it’s in this book. Want to play book bingo? This book’s the one for you. Paint by numbers plotting and characters? Check, check, check! It’s not that anything is outrageously bad, it’s just all so very, very familiar that I found myself almost immediately struggling to want to continue reading. Individually, I get why many of these elements are appealing (I mean, on their own I like most of these tropes too), but doesn’t there come a point where readers can feel the pandering a bit too clearly? This book felt like that to me. It was built to sell, and I could still see the marketing department’s fingerprints all over it.

But, like I said, there is nothing actively bad about it. The writing doesn’t qualify as bad, but it is definitely on the more wooden side, too often falling back on telling its readers how to think and feel than showing them or leading them to certain conclusions in more subtle ways. The characters, too, had elements that could have made them interesting, like Keera’s struggle with alcoholism. But this telling sort of writing let these character aspects fall flat. Beyond that, Keera fell a bit too close to the “not like other girls” line, and her character arc never really felt like it challenged her at all.

Even themes that could have had some weight seemed to deflate when actually explored. The story flirts with an interesting discussion of colonialism before quickly subsiding back into the straight-forward plotting that makes up the majority of the story. I don’t know how many synonyms for “flat” I can use at this point, because the worldbuilding was also lackluster. I often had more questions than answers, and the bits of descriptions we do come by all feel fairly generic.

As you can see, I don’t have much positive to say about this book. I can’t point to any one thing that was actively bad, but it was definitely one of those books that felt like a chore to read from start to very-predictable finish. Fans of these tropes may like it (and must, given the Goodreads rating!), but honestly, they all felt tired out to me, and there are better examples all over the place of any one of them.

Rating 6: Per the usual, the hype let me down and all I found here was more of the very, very familiar same.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Broken Blade” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Assassins.

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