Serena’s Review: “Stormcaster”

33816845Book: “Stormcaster” by Cinda Williams Chima

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, April 2018

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

Book Description: The empress in the east—the unspeakably cruel ruler whose power grew in Flamecaster and Shadowcaster—tightens her grip in this chilling third installment in the series.

Vagabond seafarer Evan Strangward can move the ocean and the wind, but his magical abilities seem paltry in comparison to Empress Celestine’s. As Celestine’s bloodsworn armies grow, Evan travels to the Fells to warn the queendom of her imminent invasion. If he can’t convince the Gray Wolf queen to take a stand, he knows that the Seven Realms will fall. Among the dead will be the one person Evan can’t stand to lose.

Meanwhile, the queen’s formidable daughter, Princess Alyssa ana’Raisa, is already a prisoner aboard the empress’s ship. Lyss may be the last remaining hope of bringing down the empress from within her own tightly controlled territory.

Previously Reviewed: “Flamecaster” and “Shadowcaster”

Review: This book came out last spring, and yet I’m reviewing it almost six months later. Part of this is due to the way my library holds list played out, and the other part of it almost seems reflective about my attitude towards this series. I just don’t know what to expect anymore, and so, I delay. I loved the original series that was prequel to this one, but that love hasn’t translated well, at least not consistently or evenly. I wasn’t a huge fan of “Flamecaster,” and while “Shadowcaster” was an improvement, it still didn’t reach the highs of the originals. What makes these feelings all the more clear in hindsight is the fact that when I started this book, it took me forrrreeevveerr to remember the details of the story or who some of these characters even were. Not a good sign. And, while I did like this one more than the fist book in the series, I’m also starting to accept the fact that, as a whole, this series might just not be my jam.

Per the usual with the books in this series now, the story opens in the past, then catches up to events that were occurring to other characters during the present of the period that made up the first book and much of the second, and then finally catches up to the last portion of the second book and moves forward. Confusing? A bit. The timeline jumping didn’t help with my general disconnectedness from the larger narrative. Our newest member to the ever-growing cast of characters is the titular stormcaster, Evan Strangward, a character we met briefly in the first book as a pirate who delivered the dragon, Cas, that Jenna has paired up with. (Another example of my confusion and lack of memory of this series: I absolutely did not remember this at all until it was literally pointed out on the page much later in the book. I thought this was a completely new character for most of it. So…yeah, that says a lot, I think). Evan has his own motives and connections to the villainous Empress across the sea, and teams up with other familiar characters. Meanwhile, we check in briefly with our other main characters, including Jenna/Cas, Lyss, Adrian, Lila, Hal, etc etc.

Look, I’ll just say it: there are too many characters for this series to handle well. At this point, Jenna, our main character from the first book and a girl with a literal dragon best friend, has only gotten about 3-4 chapters in the last two books. Adrian, the son of Raisa, was almost gone completely from the second book, but gets a bit more here. Hal and Lila have their own roles to play, and Lyss finally shows up about halfway through the book, but it’s all just too little too late. For one, there are simply too many characters to feel equally invested in them all. This will inevitably lead readers to forming preferences and then facing disappointment in one book or another when those characters have to be pushed to the side to fit in all of the other characters that have been introduced. For two, trying to juggle this large cast while sticking with a reasonable page length leads to corners being cut as far as character development goes. Most particularly, the romance suffers.

This series insists on pairings all of its characters up, and so far I’ve only really been able to buy into one of these relationships, the between Lyss/Hal. And objectively, this is likely due to my preference for Lyss as a character rather than any particular strength of this relationship on its own. Adrian and Jenna suffered from an extreme case of instalove, and we saw another version of that here in the relationship formed between Evan and Destin. One of the biggest strengths of the first series was the slow-burn/development of its main romantic pairing that took place over four entire books. Because this series has so many characters and adds more in each book, every single romantic pairing suffers, if not in the beginning (like the cases of instalove), then as the story progresses (like Lyss and Hal who in this book spend the entire time on opposite sides of the world.)

The story itself also suffers for this large cast. The action often feels reduced and stunted because the book must jump around so often to cover what is happening to everyone in their own little corners. And then in this book in particular, the “big confrontation” that comes towards the end felt a bit subdued and predictable. There were a few exciting moments in it, but ultimately, in an epic fantasy series, it felt more like a small action scene that should have happened in the middle of some book, rather than the grand finale of the third in the series.

There were a few things that still intrigued me here. I still very much enjoy Lyss as a character and was very pleased when she finally turned up. It was good to hear (and see!) more from the Empress and what her motivations/plans are. There are also a few neat scenes where various characters meet up with each other for the first time, and that was particularly enjoyable.

However, ultimately this series is starting to fall prey to what I call “Game of Thrones” syndrome where the concept has started to kill what might have been good originally. Namely, too many characters and POV switches don’t always help a series and can often prove to be detrimental, especially as they continue to build and eventually start overwhelming the story itself. An author is so busy catching up with a million different people and POVs that the story itself begins to feel lost. At this point, I will still finish off this series, but I feel pretty confident that unless there’s a major turn-around in the last book, this won’t be going down as as much of a favorite as its predecessor series.

Rating 6: Stumbles under the weight of its own increasing cast size.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Stormcaster” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists for some reason, but it is on “2018 – Sequels.”

Find “Stormcaster” at your library using WorldCat.

 

Serena’s Review: “Empire of Sand”

39714124Book: “Empire of Sand” by Tasha Suri

Publishing Info: Orbit, November 2018

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

Book Description: The Amrithi are outcasts; nomads descended of desert spirits, they are coveted and persecuted throughout the Empire for the power in their blood. Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an exiled Amrithi mother she can barely remember, but whose face and magic she has inherited.

When Mehr’s power comes to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, she must use every ounce of will, subtlety, and power she possesses to resist their cruel agenda.

Should she fail, the gods themselves may awaken seeking vengeance…

Review: A big thanks to Orbit for sending me an ARC of this book! I’ve been on a bit of a roll lately with fantasy stories set in desert climates, so reading the description for this one, I was quick to place a request. Unfortunately for me, while not a bad book, this one didn’t quite do it for me. My streak had to end sometime, I guess, and it was unfortunate that it had to be with this book.

Mehr has grown up straddling two worlds. In one, she is the noble daughter of an imperial governor, raised in luxury and comfort and largely protected from any tumult going on in Empire at large. In the other world, she is the bastard daughter of a mother whose people have become outcasts in their own land and who are becoming increasingly persecuted by the Emperor. Of course, these two worlds will inevitably clash, Mehr must find a way to fight for not only her own future but that of her people.

While I already noted that this book wasn’t a win for me, there were a few things that played in its favor that I want to highlight. Firstly, the setting. I still love a good desert-based fantasy novel, and this one perfectly captures the wild nature of its location and plays with usual cast of fantasy characters often found there, such as daevas. I also enjoyed the descriptions of Mehr’s Amrithi culture and the intricate dances they perform as part of their power.

And lastly, Mehr herself is a strong enough character. She’s not one that will likely stand out in my memory, but she also didn’t commit any of the cardinal sins that get my hackles up with main characters. She’s practical and level-headed (though she does make a few confusing decisions early in the book, but no one’s perfect, I guess). She also has a lovely relationship with her much younger sister. Sadly, this character and a few others that we meet early in the book pretty much disappear from the story, which is too bad.

Ultimately, I think my biggest problems with this book had to do with pacing and the odd balance that was trying to be struck between YA fantasy fiction and adult fantasy. There are elements of each in the book, and yet they never mesh together well, and what may appeal to one set feels like exactly the points of note that would ring false with others. The pacing is quite slow and the world-building, history, and politics are quite detailed. These are elements that one is more often able to find in adult fantasy. However, on the other hand, character moments and the overall story arc largely follow a pretty familiar beat-by-beat YA story. Put together, I was never able to fully engage with the book. The detail that was given to the world and history combined with the very familiar order of events left many of the “reveals” feeling predictable and lacking the excitement and thrill that one would want. Even with a few more surprises, I think the pacing itself would still have been lacking. It was just slow. There was a lot of discussion and preparation and very little action for a book that is following the now very established “weapon floating on cover” book design.

As I said, there’s nothing objectively “wrong” with this book, perhaps other than its slow nature. But even that may appeal to some readers. For me, the other elements in the story were all just…fine. And “fine” characters, “fine” romance, and “fine” magical elements just weren’t enough to boost this one up my interest scale. But fantasy readers looking for a slower-moving story that plays to its strengths with its desert setting may still want to check this one out!

Rating 6: Just kind of meh, for me, unfortunately.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Empire of Sand” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “Diverse Books by Diverse Authors.”

Find “Empire of Sand” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “Dragonshadow”

36300671Book: “Dragonshadow” by Elle Katherine White

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, November 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The Battle of North Fields is over—or so Aliza Bentaine, now a Daired, fervently wants to believe. But rumors are spreading of an unseen monster ravaging the isolated Castle Selwyn on the northern border of the kingdom. When she and Alastair are summoned from their honeymoon by the mysterious Lord Selwyn, they must travel with their dragon Akarra through the Tekari-infested Old Wilds of Arle to answer his call.

And they are not alone on this treacherous journey. Shadowing the dragonriders is an ancient evil, a harbinger of a dark danger of which the Worm was only a foretaste. And soon Aliza realizes the terrible truth: the real war is only beginning.

Previously Reviewed: “Heartstone”

Review: “Heartstone” was one of those unicorns of a book that was marketed as a retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” and actually managed to not only not disappoint but also hold its own as a solid piece of fantasy fiction, regardless of comparisons to beloved classics. What made it so special was the author’s ability to perfectly balance retaining the basic elements of the original story while not feeling bound to hit every beat or even exist in a world that looked very similar. I mean, the Mr. Darcy character rides a freaking dragon in this book! And “Elizabeth”  helps kill a gigantic, beastly worm. Your typical  Jane Austen re-telling this is not. This all left me in a strange state when I saw that there was a sequel. For one thing, the first book wrapped up so nicely that a sequel was by no means necessary. And for two, would the author be able to manage this again? Well, never fear, readers, “Dragonshadow” is proof that “Heartstone” wasn’t just a lucky hit, but evidence of a strong author with a clear story on her hands.

Aliza and Alastair have been on their honeymoon. But as enjoyable as it is, inevitably, it must come to an end. And with this change comes the stark reality of the life that Aliza has signed up for: not being a Rider herself, she is destined to remain behind, alone in a large house she is meant to run, knowing her beloved husband is battling danger at every turn. She quickly realizes that this is unacceptable. So now, together, she and Alastair and his dragon Akarra set out on a new adventure, one riddled with danger at every turn and a mysterious force pulling the strings from behind the curtains.

Well, I just loved this book. And what I most loved about it was the fact that it went in directions I never would have expected. I am going to do a bad thing now and compare this book to another Jane Austen retelling (of sorts), but it’s another one of the few examples of these types of books that I think succeeds. “Death Comes to Pemberley” by PD James is essentially a mystery novel that also serves as a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice.” It features a murder mystery at Pemberley, but also dives into Elizabeth’s experiences after the wedding, now mistress of a large estate. Like that book, “Dragonshadow” does an excellent job looking past the “happily ever after.” Both Elizabeth and Aliza are in worlds that are unfamiliar, that they were largely unprepared to enter, and that naturally bring out many insecurities into their own roles and the strength of their relationships with their husbands.

While Aliza played a major role in the action of the first book in this series, it was clear that her choices were largely driven by extraordinary circumstances. An unbeatable foe was on the move, Alastair was dying slowly of poison. Her actions were a last resort, not a natural next step for a character who grew up with no battle training herself. And here, we see how these realities play out, her now being married into a family of warriors. So much of her arc here is just excellent, from her pushback against expected roles put upon her, to the still very true realities of her inexperience and lack of preparation to participate actively in Alastair and Akarra’s world. Alastair’s reactions are equally compelling. He makes several “wrong” choices, but also is largely right in his fears. Aliza, and his love for her, is not only incapable of taking care of herself, but is also a risk for him as a distraction. That said, her insistence to be more than a lady waiting at home isn’t wrong either. It’s exactly the kind of complicated, both sides are right/wrong situation that provides a rich reading experience.

I also greatly enjoyed the action of this book. We’re exposed to a wide variety of the different magical  beings that make up this world, and much of the politics and interactions between their species and how they interact with humanity is explored in a bigger way than the first book’s “big, bad, monster.” Importantly, the wide swath of grey and neutral roles that exist between the building sides in this larger conflict are explored in great detail. There were some excellent surprises, especially towards the end, and I particularly enjoyed how Aliza’s strengths were used to suss these things out. While not a fighter, she was able to prove her worth in other ways.

I was also very surprised by another element added to the story about halfway through. At first, my kneejerk reaction was negative as it seemed to be following (or introducing) a fairly typical romance novel trope that I’ve never particularly enjoyed. But instead, the story veered wildly into a topic that is rarely explored in many novels, let alone fantasy fiction. And the delicacy and care that was shown to a particularly challenging subject was lovely to see. In the end, I have to greatly applaud the author not only for choosing to include this difficult topic, but for handling it so well.

“Dragonshadow” was exactly the sequel I didn’t know I needed. In many ways, it makes “Heartstone” read as a bit simplistic. There’s a compelling mystery, dangerous action, an incredible character arc for both of its main characters, and the exploration of deeper topics such as love, loss, and the choices that these greater forces inflict upon us. Fans of “Heartstone” should definitely check out this novel. And new readers should definitely get their hands on the first book, knowing that it is just the beginning!

Rating 9: An excellent, unexpected sequel that raises the stakes in every way: action, topic complexity, and characterization.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dragonshadow” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on “Best Pride and Prejudice Sequels/Variations/Adaptations.”

Find “Dragonshadow” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Dark Days Deceit”

26061583Book: “The Dark Days Deceit” by Alison Goodman

Publishing Info: Viking Books for Young Readers, November 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: Lady Helen has retreated to a country estate outside Bath to prepare for her wedding to the Duke of Selburn, yet she knows she has unfinished business to complete. She and the dangerously charismatic Lord Carlston have learned they are a dyad, bonded in blood, and only they are strong enough to defeat the Grand Deceiver, who threatens to throw mankind into chaos. But the heinous death-soaked Ligatus Helen has absorbed is tearing a rift in her mind. Its power, if unleashed, will annihilate both Helen and Carlston unless they can find a way to harness its ghastly force and defeat their enemy.

Previously Reviewed: “The Dark Days Club” and “The Dark Days Pact”

Review: Whelp, as I warned, the horrid covers continue. I mean, look, we all know how I feel about cover models: almost always worse than a cover without a model. But if you’re going to go the whole “girl in a dress” route for a historical novel, at least have the basic decency to choose a beautiful dress!!! I mean, what even is that thing? A dress? A weird, wizard robe? And the model’s sneering facial expression doesn’t help matters. Now not only do I have to stare at this ugly cover whenever I pick the book up, but I have to actively concentrating on NOT letting that model take over my imagined image of Lady Helen.

After the events of the previous book, Lady Helen is preparing to become the next Duchess of Selburn. However, her work with the Dark Days Club is in no way over. In fact, the world is becoming more and more dangerous as the threat of the Grand Deceiver looms ever nearer. What’s more, after absorbing the Litigus, Lady Helen is struggling to contain the damage is creating. Will her bond with Lord Carlston as the Grand Reclaimer be enough to stop this oncoming nightmare?

My feelings for this, the final book in the trilogy, are kind of what I expected after reading the second book. The trilogy started out on a massive high, masterfully balancing dark fantasy elements, high-stakes action, and a prim and proper Regency setting. The second book, while moving the larger story forward, did get stuck a bit with its character arc, leaving Lady Helen floundering in indecision a few too many times for my taste. So here, while we never return to the high that was the first book, I ultimately found myself satisfied with the trilogy overall.

Lady Helen’s character, for one, I felt was largely improved in this book. After some of the revelations and resolutions found in the second book, Lady Helen continues to gain a better grasp on the players at work and her own role in the looming battle ahead.

I still enjoy the historical elements of the story, and for fans of period pieces, there are a lot of nice little details that speak to the time. This element of the book will gain better traction with some readers than others. These books are long. They’ve always been long, and this one is no different. So while yes, you’re getting lots of magical battles with demonic creatures, you’re also getting extended shopping expeditions to Bath. Personally, as much as I love these historical details and segments, I do feel like all of the books, including this one, could have benefited from a bit more tightening around the waste. Ideally, this balance would be found in trimming back not only on some of these extended shopping scenes, but also in some of the slower moving fantasy action as well.

I was pleased to find that there were in fact a few twists and turns that came as unexpected surprises. As I mentioned in my reviews of the other books, there were a few secrets that were all too easy to call, even from early in the series. Unfortunately, this aspect of the story, its tendency to be a bit too predictable, didn’t help the aforementioned pacing issues, again causing the book to read as a bit long as slow. However, while some of those “big reveals” did indeed fall flat, there were also a few surprises that did enough to keep me turning pages with interest. I still loved all the gentlelady fighting scenes, and we got even more of them here, in a few unexpected places.

And, of course, readers were all waiting on pins and needles to see how the romance of the story would be resolved. This too was a balance of good and bad for me. I very much like slow-burn romances, and this was nothing if not that. But throughout the trilogy, there was also a tendency to create unnecessary angst through silly decisions and lack of communication that never felt grounded in true characterization. I was pleased with the way the romance was tied up here, though I will say that I wish there had been a bit more of it. Again, if the book is going to insist on being as long as it is, and readers had to go through an entire trilogy full of angst and will they/won’t they-ness, I felt like we deserved a bit more than we got here.

While for me the trilogy never quite lived up to the strength of its initial concept and book, it also stands on its own as a shining example of mixing historical, Regency romance with dark fantasy action. Lady Helen, other than a few moments here and there of indecision, was a fantastic leading lady and aptly carried the trilogy. The romance was solid, perhaps striking different chords for different readers simply depending on preferences. And the fantastical elements and action, while predictable at times, were also exciting and appropriately dark. Overall, the trilogy was an entertaining and reliable, never presenting any major stumbling blocks to its readers and sticking its final landing.

Rating 8: Fans of the first two books are sure to enjoy this one!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dark Days Deceit” is a newer book, so it isn’t on many interesting lists. It is on this one (though I’d debate the use of YA for this series): “YA Regency Fantasy.”

Find “The Dark Days Deceit” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “West”

31822495Book: ” West” by Edith Pattou

Publishing Info: HMH Books for Young Readers, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: When Rose first met Charles, he was trapped in the form of a white bear. To rescue him, Rose traveled to the land that lay east of the sun and west of the moon to defeat the evil Troll Queen. Now Rose has found her happily-ever-after with Charles—until a sudden storm destroys his ship and he is presumed dead. But Rose doesn’t believe the shipwreck was an act of nature, nor does she believe Charles is truly dead. Something much more sinister is at work. With mysterious and unstoppable forces threatening the lives of the people she loves, Rose must once again set off on a perilous journey. And this time, the fate of the entire world is at stake.

Review: I read “East” forever and a day ago. It was an obvious read for me, as I love fairytale re-tellings and love “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” in particular. While I have yet to find my “one true love” version of this story (yes, this is a thing for me. For example, Robin McKinley’s “Beauty” and Juliet Marillier’s “Daughter of the Forest” both hold this esteemed title for their respective fairytales), I remember enjoying Pattou’s version and mentally shelving it as a “win” for this fairytale. So, when I saw that now, years later, Pattou was releasing a sequel story, it was a no-brainer to pick it up.

A few years after the events of “East” readers find Rose and her beloved Charles mostly settled into life. With a young baby boy to call their own and established lives pursuing their passions (Charles’s music), they are happy and it feels like the fantastical events of their lives are behind them. That is until Charles’ ship is struck down in a strangely powerful storm on a return journey from one of his musical expeditions. Now Rose will once again brave all to track down the love of her life who she knows, deep down, has not died but must have once again fallen into the grasp of villainy.

Reading this story so many years after “East” was an interesting experience. To be honest, I only had the vaguest memories of that book and they mostly had to do with generally liking it. But, as I said above, not loving it to the extent that I have other fairytale stories. With this book, as I read, I began to remember more and more about the original, not only its own specific take on the tale, but what exactly I liked about it, as well as what held me back.

What I liked has largely to do with a rather nebulous idea regarding writing tone. For fairtyales in particular, there’s a hard-to-pin-down style of writing that often comes hand-in-hand with this type of fantasy. It seems to be a combination of lyrical word choice, simple sentence structure, and a general approach to fantasy that leaves many things unexplained. Magical elements just exist, and it’s expected that readers can just accept them without detailed histories or systems. So, in this way, “West” definitely excels. While the story doesn’t speed along, it also reads nicely, filling its pages with the types of mini adventures and new characters that one expects to run across in fairytales.

The other thing that I remember enjoying from “East,” and that remains strong here, was the characterization of Rose herself. She’s a no-nonsense, go-getter type of heroine of the type that I always particularly enjoy. She doesn’t waffle amidst indecision or others fears (her family all try to convince her that Charles truly died in the ship wreck, as that’s how it appears in every rational sense), but instead has faith in her own abilities and feelings and takes charge of her situation. I also particularly enjoyed her knowledge of trolls to suss out suspicious instances early in the story.

However, there were also elements of this story that reminded me why I didn’t absolutely love “East” either. For one, like that book, Rose is not our only POV character. In the first book, I didn’t love this take on the story either, but I remember enjoying a few of the other POV characters enough that I was able to get on board with it. Here, I feel like there are not only even more POV characters, but that, between them, they tended to bog down Rose’s own story, rather them add nice supplements to it. On top of Rose’s own adventures, we have her brother who is always one step behind her. And her family back in her home village confronting a deadly plague. Both stories were fine, as far as it goes. But there was just too much going on between them all to ever feel truly invested in any of them. Mostly, I just wanted to focus on Rose’s journey to find Charles; I wasn’t too interested in seeing her brother just miss her time and time again. And the plague story, while interesting, just seemed like another tacked on plot that distracted from the main plot line.

In the end, I think my feelings for this book were about on par with what I felt for “East.” Perhaps a bit less so, since the whimsy of trying to track the original story in the retelling was lost in this one. But, as the books are so similar in whats on offer at their core, I think there’s a good chance that however you felt about “East” will transfer to how you feel here. And, as I know a lot of readers really loved that book, I’m sure this will also find a large number of devoted fans. For me, it was still just “kinda good.”

Rating 7: A steady sequel that aptly captures the same tone and feel of the first book, for better or worse.

Reader’s Advisory:

“West” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on 2018 YA Fairy Tale Retellings

Find “West” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Dark Days Pact”

26061581Book: “The Dark Days Pact” by Alison Goodman

Publishing Info: Viking Books for Young Readers, January 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: June 1812. Just weeks after her catastrophic coming-out ball, Lady Helen Wrexhall—now disowned by her uncle—is a full member of the demon-hunting Dark Days Club. Her mentor, Lord Carlston, has arranged for Helen to spend the summer season in Brighton so that he can train her new Reclaimer powers. However, the long-term effects of Carlston’s Reclaimer work have taken hold, and his sanity is beginning to slip. At the same time, Carlston’s Dark Days Club colleague and nemesis will stop at nothing to bring Helen over to his side—and the Duke of Selburn is determined to marry her. The stakes are even higher for Helen as she struggles to become the warrior that everyone expects her to be.

Previously Reviewed: “The Dark Days Club”

Review: Ok, I haven’t ranted about a cover for a long time. But man. MAN! This one deserves a good rant. Not only is this cover truly awful on its own, but when you compare it to the first book’s cover, it just gets even worse.

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That cover is good. It’s not doing anything super brilliant or unique, but it’s getting the job done. We know this is a historical novel, and we get that there is some darkness involved in the story, likely fantasy-related. And then we have this new cover…The model looks ridiculous. The weird magical sword is bizarre (and hard to connect with anything in the book). And the whole thing looks like the type of book you’d scoff at in an airport. We’d all like to think that we don’t judge books by their covers, but we do. And this series was already criminally underappreciated, and I can’t imagine this change to cover art helped anything. Also, spoiler alert, it definitely DOESN’T improve with the third book. *sigh*

Lady Helen has forgone the life of marriage and respectability she had previously seen as her future. Instead, she is now a full-fledged member of the Dark Days Club, a secretive society that fights against demonic beings that lurk among the unwary. More to the point, she and her colleagues suspect that the Grand Deceiver is on the move, one of the most powerful and evil beings the Club has ever faced. But Lady Helen is also still in training, with much to learn not only about her own unique abilities, but how she is to balance her responsibilities to the society as well as her loyalties to her friends. Especially Lord Carlston, whose erratic behavior has set him smack dab in the cross hairs of the leadership in the Dark Days Club.

While this book was a bit more wishy-washy for me (not really a surprise for the dreaded “second book” in a trilogy), there were still several aspects of the series that I greatly enjoyed. For one, the pitch perfect mixture of historical regency “manners” story, flitting through ballrooms and strolls through parks with parasols, and magical adventure featuring some legitimately dark villains. Lady Helen must be given full credit as a well-drawn character who is capable of reading as believable in both these very different scenarios. What’s more, both versions of herself, socialite and powerful Reclaimer, are not two suits that fit well together. Those who know her as a well-bred lady first and foremost, question her ability to exist in an action-packed and dangerous world. Here, she rises to the occasion by learning to fight and donning an alter-ego as a young man. On the other side, her Reclaimer friends don’t see the importance or value that Helen does in maintaining a grip on her role as a woman in society. And here, she proves that a well-timed conversation with the right person can be just as valuable as pulling out a sword.

I still also very much like the world that has been imagined here. Reclaiming is a dangerous business, and we see that though Helen has great power, she still has much to learn to survive in this world. Not only that, the most successful Reclaimer must still deal with the negative side-affects of their work, which we see in Lord Carlston’s quick spiral into violence and madness. We also see that the Deceivers themselves can come with a wide variety of motives and ways of living in the world, some more destructive than others. There are also more than a few humans who prove that you don’t have to be a demonic being to be evil.

While I liked all of these general aspects, I did find myself struggling with much of the book. For having so much action and adventure, the pacing also felt very slow. This is a long book, and towards the middle I was becoming more and more tempted to skim along. This is partly due to Helen’s arc itself within the story. Yes, she is new to this world and still trying to figure out who to trust and how to align herself. But she was just so indecisive, trying to play a middle field that anyone a mile away could see as a fool’s quest from the start. She also falls victim to the unfortunate and all too common martyr complex, choosing to make incredibly stupid decisions rather than, I don’t know, communicate with her friends. And for heaven’s sake, it seems all too clear who and what the Duke of Selbourn really is. Even the most naive lady of the time would be side-eyeing a man like this so determinedly not being put off by the repeated refusals and strange revelations about his lady love.

So, while I still liked much of the story, it ultimately felt a bit too long, a bit too predictable, and a bit too clumsy with its main character. But, that said, I’m still all in for the third and final book. At the very least, I can’t wait to read about Lady Helen finally waking the hell up about some things that I’m sure most readers have already guessed.

Rating 7: Falls victim to “second novel syndrome” a bit, but still has enough going for it to pull readers in for the final story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dark Days Pact” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy of Manners” and “YA Historical Fantasy” (though I wouldn’t classify this as YA).

Find “The Dark Days Club” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “The Flight of Swans”

38397799Book: “The Flight of the Swans” by Sarah McGuire

Publishing Info: Carolrhoda Books, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss Plus

Book Description: Princess Andaryn’s six older brothers have always been her protectors–until her father takes a new Queen, a frightening, mysterious woman who enchants the men in the royal family. When Ryn’s attempt to break the enchantment fails, she makes a bitter bargain: the Queen will spare her brothers’ lives if Ryn remains silent for six years.

Ryn thinks she freed her brothers, but she never thought the Queen would turn her brothers into swans. She never thought she’d have to discover the secret to undoing the Queen’s spell while eluding the Otherworldly forces that hunt her. And she never thought she’d have to do it alone, without speaking a single word.

As months as years go by, Ryn learns there is more to courage than speech . . . and that she is stronger than the Queen could have ever imagined.

Review: Omg, I was so excited when I just randomly stumbled on this book on Edelweiss. I obviously love fairytale retellings. But I LOVE the “Six Swans” fairytale in particular. Juliet Marillier’s “Daughter of the Forest” is probably one of my favorite books ever and is the golden standard as far as I’m concerned for retelling this fairytale. And, frankly, in a world becoming chock-full of other fairytale retellings, there are still very few that tackle this particular tale. So, with those facts in mind, I went into this both very excited and very challenged to not simply do a comparison read with Marillier’s take.

The story follows the classic fairytale. Ryn is a young girl when the story starts out, the youngest of seven siblings with six beloved older brothers. When a sorceress bewitches the king, their father, these siblings rebel only to become caught in the crosshairs of a magical spell themselves. The brothers are all turned into swans, and Ryn is left with impossible task of remaining silent for six years while weaving six tunics out of painful nettles to free her brothers and restore their kingdom.

Long story short, I loved this  book. I loved our main character. I loved how true it remained to the original fairytale. I loved the ways that it expanded on the original fairytale. I loved the romance. I loved the magic. Review done now? Probably could be if I didn’t feel like I owed readers (and the book) at least a bit more detail.

Outside of my general love for the story, there were a few things that stood out in particular. For one, I loved the brothers in this book. Six brothers who spend most of a story as swans and off the page is always going to be a hard thing to tackle for an author. How do you make sure they each have personalities and can be differentiated from each other? While I won’t say that McGuire was completely successful here (there are still one or two brothers who I can only remember small details about), for the most part she does an excellent job of giving the brothers enough distinct traits to make each stand out. For one thing, the way the curse is laid out in this book, the brothers get to spend one night each month as humans. This gives them much more page time than other versions of the tale (Marillier’s swans only become human twice a year). With the addition of these scenes, we get to see much more of the brothers. I particularly loved Aiden, the oldest  brother, and his close relationship with Ryn. He’s probably the brother that is given the most throughout the book, and I just loved everything about him. Secondly, I very much liked Ryn’s twin brother who is the one who has the most of an arc in this book, going from a kind of bratty, young kid to a loyal brother who is the one who really understands the extent of Ryn’s sacrifice in the end.

I also loved the inclusion of particular elements of the fairytale that have been left out of other versions of the story. I always loved the part of the original tale that dealt with the swans carrying their sister across the sea to safety. This is the kind of fairytale scene that is pretty hard to adapt, being very whimsical and hard to actually picture in the real world. McGuire adapts the scene here, having the swans pull a raft carrying Ryn. It was thrilling to see this part of the tale included, and it was also one of the most shining moments for Aiden as a character, even in swan form.

I also loved the romance that builds up between Ryn and the foreign prince, Corbin. As this is a middle grade novel, I had to repeatedly remind myself to be happy with the romance I was getting. But as an example of middle grade romances, this one does very well. It’s another tough part of the story to adapt, what with the usual late entrance of the romantic interest in the fairytale itself. And the fact that our heroine can’t speak, so creating meaningful moments where readers can really buy this type of connection forming can be challenging. McGuire rises to the occasion with aplomb.

The only criticism of the book I have does have to do with my expectations and comparisons to Marillier’s version. Like I said, it was a huge challenge to not compare the two as there are so few examples of this fairytale and Marillier’s is superb. “Daughter of the Forest” is also an adult fantasy novel and has some very adult scenes in the book. It can be a tough read, but its darker moments are also what adds to the ultimate beauty and triumph of the story.

This book, as a middle grade novel, had to take a very different route. And while I can appreciate certain changes (the romance needing to be written in a different way, for one), there were also a few choices that I felt were unnecessary and needlessly removed some of the teeth from the story. For one, the aforementioned monthly transformation of the brothers. This lead to a lot of great development for these characters, but also made Ryn’s experience much easier as she regularly had the support of her brothers to tackle basic tasks, like shelter building. She was also limited to not speaking or writing, but was still able to tell others every bit of her tale as long as she mimed it or acted it out. This let her explain her situation to a lot more people, thus creating even more of a safety net for herself. Beyond this, the nettles themselves become less of a challenge. Ryn quickly finds a way of handling the viscous plants in a way that doesn’t injure her at all. Much of the power of the original story is the way the heroine perseveres through the awful trial that is this curse, and part of that trial is the combination of remaining silent while completely a very painful task. All of these choices, when put together, make Ryn’s story a bit too light, in my opinion. Yes, it is a middle grade novel, but I think the author took it a little too far here and could have kept a bit more of the original’s darkness.

But! I still absolutely loved this story. I was so pleased that is lived up to many of my expectations and even surpassed some of them. It’s also a nice alternative to point to for readers looking for a retelling of this fairytale. There are some younger readers to whom, before, I would have hesitated to hand “Daughter of the Forest” because of some of its adult themes. But now we have this! And put together, we have a version for younger readers AND a version for adults!

Rating 9: A beautiful take on a much-overlooked fairytale.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Flight of Swans” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on “The Wild Swans/The Six Swans Retellings.”

Find “The Flight of Swans” at your library using WorldCat!