Joint Review: “Comfort Me With Apples”

Book: “Comfort Me With Apples” by Catherynne M. Valente

Publishing Info: Tor.Com

Where Did We Get This Book: Received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Sophia was made for him. Her perfect husband. She can feel it in her bones. He is perfect. Their home together in Arcadia Gardens is perfect. Everything is perfect.

It’s just that he’s away so much. So often. He works so hard. She misses him. And he misses her. He says he does, so it must be true. He is the perfect husband and everything is perfect.

But sometimes Sophia wonders about things. Strange things. Dark things. The look on her husband’s face when he comes back from a long business trip. The questions he will not answer. The locked basement she is never allowed to enter. And whenever she asks the neighbors, they can’t quite meet her gaze

But everything is perfect. Isn’t it?

Kate’s Thoughts

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novella!

I will be the first to admit that, unlike Serena, I haven’t really found myself connecting with the works I’ve read by Catherynne M. Valente. I know that fantasy readers really love her stories, and I recognize the talent there, though the content itself hasn’t ever wowed me. But when Serena asked if I’d be interested in joint reviewing Valente’s new horror/dark fantasy novella “Comfort Me With Apples”, I was totally game. After all, the description was mysterious, with hints of Bluebeard and suburban horror, and I figured that all those things combined would make for an interesting tale. And then Valente went and shocked me with a whole other element that TOTALLY WORKED… and that I can’t really talk about because I don’t want to spoil anything.

Frustrating I know, but really, you should go in a bit blind. (source)

But here is what I will say about “Comfort Me With Apples”: Valente has created a very well plotted novella that slowly builds the unease from the jump, and it eventually escalates to dread, and hope, and frustration, and a bit more dread. We get two different ways of telling this story: the first is the story of Sophia, a young wife living in the perfect community of Arcadia Gardens, with a perfect husband that she feels completely devoted to and defined by, who shouldn’t have any care in the world as everything is so laid out and, well, perfect. As she lives her day to day life of perfection, she starts to have niggling doubts due to how secretive her husband can be, and small, creepy discoveries she’s making in her home that imply that someone was there before her. We also have the rules of this community interspersed in the narrative, as they go from general (if not incredibly stiff) HOA guidelines, to things that sound far more punitive and threatening. I loved how Valente used both these ways to clue you in to what Sophia was slowly discovering about herself, and the secrets her husband, and neighbors, are keeping. And boy did it build up and seep into my veins. I don’t know what I expected from this short story, but it definitely blew past them, and hit every single thing that I wanted it to hit when the big picture was finally clear for all to see.

I enjoyed this novella quite a bit. If you want a quick, creepy, and in some ways frustrating (in a good way?) read, definitely look into “Comfort Me With Apples”.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’ve really liked Valente’s books before, most especially her “Fairyland” series. Knowing her writing style, very lyrical and and fanciful style, I was really curious to see how that would adapt to a more chilling tone and story. I had high hopes, which is why I brought in our resident horror expert! But even with that in mind, I was still struck with just how well her unique use of words and phrasing would work to draw an increasingly disturbing picture. The build is slow, but the tension and dread wrap around you from quite early on, even if you can’t put your finger on just what is wrong.

Like Kate mentioned, this book is incredibly hard to review without spoiling the many secrets that are slowly unveiled as the story progresses. I think it is particularly interesting, though, having both Kate and I read it, because in some ways, we both came at this book from very different perspectives. Kate is more familiar with general horror and thrillers, giving her a unique perspective on the story. And I….

More like, I have a particular background knowledge set that I can’t mention because it will spoil the story. That said, those who have the same history will be quick to pick up on some elements of the story and can see where things are going a bit early on. Not to brag, but I was even able to put names to characters who never make the page. Yeah, be impressed. But that’s really neither here nor there in the end, as I don’t think being able to predict some of these twists or not really affects the reading experience too much. It was still super creepy and a very unique twist on some familiar elements.

Kate’s Rating 8: Unexpected and creepy, and hits all the right buttons for the kind of story it ends up being!

Serena’s Rating 8: A quick but creepy read that wraps up some familiar (and less familiar) elements into a brand-new tension-filled tale.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Comfort Me With Apples” is included on the Goodreads lists “Suburban Gothic”, and “2021 Horror Novels Written by Women (Cis and Trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Find “Comfort Me With Apples” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Keeper of Night”

Book: “The Keeper of Night” by Kylie Lee Baker

Publishing Info: Inkyard Press, October 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I won an ARC in a contest run by the author.

Book Description: Death is her destiny.

Half British Reaper, half Japanese Shinigami, Ren Scarborough has been collecting souls in the London streets for centuries. Expected to obey the harsh hierarchy of the Reapers who despise her, Ren conceals her emotions and avoids her tormentors as best she can.

When her failure to control her Shinigami abilities drives Ren out of London, she flees to Japan to seek the acceptance she’s never gotten from her fellow Reapers. Accompanied by her younger brother, the only being on earth to care for her, Ren enters the Japanese underworld to serve the Goddess of Death… only to learn that here, too, she must prove herself worthy. Determined to earn respect, Ren accepts an impossible task—find and eliminate three dangerous Yokai demons—and learns how far she’ll go to claim her place at Death’s side.

Review: Thank you to Kylie Lee Baker for the ARC she sent me through a contest!

As well all know by now, for the most part fantasy as a genre isn’t my jam. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule: “The Lord of the Rings” is my favorite book series of all time, and if there are dark elements or things that have to do with creepy things in the story, I am definitely all in. And this brings me to “The Keeper of Night” by Kylie Lee Baker, a dark fantasy novel about demons, death collectors, and the trauma of being rejected due to one’s identity. When I read the description I knew that this would be one of my exceptions. And given that I had recently read another book that talks about Yokai and Japanese folk lore (and wanted more), “The Keeper of Night” was a great follow up to “Nothing But Blackened Teeth”.

First and foremost, I loved our main character Ren. Right from the start she’s a bit rougher around the edges than I was expecting. Since she grew up being targeted by other Reapers due to her Shinigami heritage, and since her father has merely tolerated her but favored her half brother Neven, Ren has dealt with constant Othering and emotional abuse. It makes sense that she is desperate to find a place where she fits in, so going to Japan in hopes of allying herself with the Shinigami is a logical choice. Of course, Ren soon realizes that in Japan she is also out of place due to her Reaper heritage. It makes for a protagonist who has to internalize a lot of self loathing, and as her journey to find acceptance goes on she makes harder and harder decisions, which push her more and more morally grey. I liked seeing this progression, and I felt that Baker was careful to show the reasons why someone who has dealt with so much oppression, pain, and harm could turn to violence and cruelty, without necessarily condoning some of the darker choices Ren made. And without spoiling anything, the place that she ended up not only set up for the sequel in a really well done manner, it also took me by surprise in where it went, I will DEFINITELY be picking up the next in the series to see where Ren is going to go next.

The one constant better angel with her is Neven, whose genuine goodness has two effects on Ren: the first is that she wants to be better, because she loves her brother and he’s the only person who has shown her true warmth and kindness. The other is that she resents him, because his naïveté is not only hard to deal with, but it also reflects the comparatively privileged existence he has had compared to her. Things become more complicated when they meet Hiro, a disgraced Shinigami who offers to help Ren prove her worth to the Goddess of Death to serve her. Ren feels connected to Hiro due to their heritage, and this causes tension between her and Neven, as he can’t understand some of the things Hiro, as a former Shinigami, does. And this of course, makes Ren feel judged by the one person who never judged her BECAUSE it’s based in cultural differences. It’s no surprise that a lot of this can serve as allegories to sexism, racism, and privilege, and while I think Neven probably could have used a bit more of a dressing down from Ren on occasion, overall the dynamic was enjoyable. And treaded towards heart wrenching in some moments.

As for the fantasy elements, Baker uses a lot of Japanese folk lore, exploring Death mythology as well as a litany of Yokai, from fox spirits to fish spirits to very disturbing and threatening creatures. We got to see these things act out within the story, as well as got some actual folk lore stories to give the various characters Ren meets along the way context. And a lot of it is very dark and creepy, which made it all the more enjoyable for me, as someone who does love dark fantasy within the fantasy realm.

I definitely enjoyed “The Keeper of Night”, and will be waiting on pins and needles for the next book. And if you like dark fantasy, you should definitely seek this one out.

Rating 8: A unique and dark fantasy that threw me for a loop by the end, and makes me excited for the next in the series!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Keeper of Night” is included on the Goodreads lists “Monsters and Magic Society”, and “Awesome Swordswomen”.

Find “The Keeper of Night” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Monthly Marillier: “Shadowfell”

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

Book: “Shadowfell” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, September 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Sixteen-year-old Neryn is alone in the land of Alban, where the oppressive king has ordered anyone with magical strengths captured and brought before him. Eager to hide her own canny skill–a uniquely powerful ability to communicate with the fairy-like Good Folk–Neryn sets out for the legendary Shadowfell, a home and training ground for a secret rebel group determined to overthrow the evil King Keldec.

During her dangerous journey, she receives aid from the Good Folk, who tell her she must pass a series of tests in order to recognize her full potential. She also finds help from a handsome young man, Flint, who rescues her from certain death–but whose motives in doing so remain unclear. Neryn struggles to trust her only allies. They both hint that she alone may be the key to Alban’s release from Keldec’s rule. Homeless, unsure of who to trust, and trapped in an empire determined to crush her, Neryn must make it to Shadowfell not only to save herself, but to save Alban.

Review: I remember being really excited when this book was slated to come out. I had mostly read Marillier’s “Sevenwaters” books at this point, so I was excited to see a new world molded under her hands. And I was curious to see how she would translate her work to a YA audience (many of the “Sevenwaters” books tackle some pretty serious subjects). And while it surprised me in many ways, it also fell a bit on middling ground as far as my overall rankings of Marillier’s work.

The land has become a dangerous place for those with anything resembling the uncanny. But there are rumors of those who still fight, hidden away in a place called Shadowfell. It’s there that Neryn sets off in search of, all the while trying to hide her own magical abilities. But as she travels, she gains aid from small, magical folk who are even more at risk than she and hint at a future much greater than one Neryn had ever imagined for herself. With this perilous task ahead of her, Neryn’s world is rocked. She finds herself even more unbalanced when she runs across a young man named Flint whose mysterious origins and loyalties keep her guessing at every turn. Will Neryn make it to Shadowfell? And will this place hold the answers to all of her questions?

“Shadowfell” demonstrates some of the standard strengths and weaknesses of her writing. Her world-building, evocative writing, and well-researched to folktales are just as effective and appealing here as they have been in her previous books. Alba felt unique from the Irish setting that we’ve seen so much of in the “Sevenwaters” series. The tales and songs, from what I could tell, were all based in historically accurate traditions of the area. As well, the magical creatures were distinct from the Fae we’ve seen in her other work. The small, creature-like animals and the land-based beings were all fascinating and immediately compelling. And, like always, her writing is lush and immersive, drawing the reader in to the point where you feel the mists and chills that Neryn so often travels through.

On the other hand, if there’s one complaint I’ve routinely had about Marillier’s work it has been the overwhelming “goodness” of her heroines. The extent to which I enjoy them often depends on whether this goodness is balanced out by other actions that they take on the world (often the more pro-active heroines get a bigger pass from me.) But Neryn ends up being one of the more passive heroines we’ve seen for a while. Not only does she fall into the trope of being essentially a “chosen one,” but she is routinely is incredibly naïve about the world she exists within. Her thoughts turn in what quickly becomes a tiresome circle of worries and renewed determination. On top of that, she spends a significant amount of time ill and needing help from others, effectively making her the most passive of passive characters.

I also struggled with the “romance,” such as it is. Flint’s attachment to Neryn seems to come out of nowhere and is based on next to nothing. For her part, Neryn’s naivete is incredibly frustrating with regards to Flint. He’s obviously an untrustworthy party when she first meets him, and yet she quickly seems to fall in love with him. From there we enter yet another circular train of actions between her distrusting and trusting Flint. It gets old fairly quickly.

This book was a struggle for me when I first read it and a struggle the second time around as well. I can see the strong story at the heart of it, but Neryn’s passive presence and the frustrating treadmill that is her thought process about her mission and/or her feelings towards Flint became very frustrating. But, that said, it’s still a nice YA fantasy and Marillier’s strong writing save it from itself for the most part.

Rating 7: Not the best, but not the worst, “Shadowfell” introduces an interesting new fantasy story but hobbles itself with a passive heroine.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Shadowfell” is on these Goodreads lists: YA Second World Fantasy and Everything Fae.

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

Kate’s Review: “Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games”

Book: “Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodríguez (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, 2009

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Following a shocking death that dredges up memories of their father’s murder, Kinsey and Tyler Locke are thrown into choppy emotional waters, and turn to their new friend, Zack Wells, for support, little suspecting Zack’s dark secret.

Meanwhile, six-year-old Bode Locke tries to puzzle out the secret of the head key, and Uncle Duncan is jarred into the past by a disturbingly familiar face.

Open your mind – the head games are just getting started.

Review: I am definitely enjoying going back and reading “Locke and Key” if only because of how it still manages to surprise me on my second read through. I’m curious to try and give the Netflix series a chance again, as I watched the first few episodes and then kinda lost interest. But reading “Head Games” has reminded me that Joe Hill was laying groundwork for so many things early on, and while it’s a slow process, you can see that it’s all going to fall into place as time goes on. “Head Games” takes its time. But it is definitely laying a lot of foundation, while still hitting emotional beats.

There is still a fair amount of groundwork to be laid out in this series, and “Head Games” continues to slowly peel back the origins of the demon Dodge, who has taken on the form of a teenage boy named Zack, and gone to the high school gym teacher, Ellie Whedon to be used as cover. Because this form is the exact replica of Rendell Locke’s high school friend Luke Caravaggio, who was Ellie’s boyfriend at the time. We don’t know as of now what happened to Luke, nor do we know when we start what hold Dodge has on Ellie, and Hill carefully and methodically starts to reveal various elements of Ellie, Rendell, and their connections to Dodge and the keys. Ellie’s story is particularly sad, as she is wracked with guilt over the unknown thing that happened in high school, and is trying to care for her special needs son Rufus. Dodge/Zack knows just how to manipulate and terrify her, and it reinforces the insidiousness of Dodge, as well as some dark secrets that Rendell and his friends may have been hiding.

We also get to see Dodge/Zack start to realize that staying incognito may not be so easy. After all, Duncan Locke, Rendell’s brother and the uncle to Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, was a little kid during the time that Rendell et all were headed on an unknown dark path to Dodge and the keys, and seeing this new teenager hanging out his nephew and niece could be tricky for the demon should he put two and two together. This also opens up the door to see a little bit more about Duncan’s life now, having to step in as a parent to his nephews and niece given that his sister in law is incredibly traumatized and unable to care for them too well at the moment. We also see his romantic life at the front of a subplot, as he and his boyfriend Brian find themselves targets of homophobic violence. It’s not super great that this is the big storyline for Duncan, but I will say that it does flow into a bigger picture storyline with Dodge and the keys, so that’s something anyway.

But in terms of straight up fantasy world building, “Head Games” starts to dig into the depths of another one of the keys that the Locke siblings have discovered. The focus this time is on the Head Key, in which a person can insert the key into their head, and open up their consciousness and imagination to add things, or remove them. Bode stuns his siblings with this trick, and while Tyler is interested in what you can add (after all, inserting a book makes it so you know all the contents within that book), Kinsey, still deeply feeling the trauma of her Dad’s murder and the family attack, is more concerned about what you can remove. And decides to remove her ability to fear, and her ability to cry. Going through the first time I didn’t think too much of it, as there was still so much going on that I was trying to wrap my head around, but now that I’m going through again with a lot more knowledge, I could appreciate just how utterly heartbreaking Kinsey’s arc is. While Bode was probably too young to understand everything that happened as of now, and while Tyler has been pushing it down, Kinsey’s deep pain has made it so she just doesn’t want to deal with any of it anymore, and decides to remove crucial parts of herself to do so. It’s such a fascinating place to take this Head Key storyline, and I think it’s so well done.

And the illustrations are still excellent. Gabriel Rodríguez really gets to let loose in this volume, since the Head Key is so abstract and outside the box.

A look into Bode’s mind. (source)

Rating 8: Still a lot of groundwork being laid into the mythos, but “Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” is starting to slowly unravel all the secrets of Key House.

“Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” continues to bring a strong dark fantasy/horror feel to a cerebral and funky series. I am very stoked to go back and revisit the next volume, as I’m sure I will continue to be surprised at what I do and don’t remember.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” is included on the Goodreads lists “Graphic Novels That Are Quality”, and “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels”.

Find “Locke & Key (Vol. 2): Head Games” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Vespertine”

Book: “Vespertine” by Margaret Rogerson

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, October 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The dead of Loraille do not rest.

Artemisia is training to be a Gray Sister, a nun who cleanses the bodies of the deceased so that their souls can pass on; otherwise, they will rise as spirits with a ravenous hunger for the living. She would rather deal with the dead than the living, who trade whispers about her scarred hands and troubled past.

When her convent is attacked by possessed soldiers, Artemisia defends it by awakening an ancient spirit bound to a saint’s relic. It is a revenant, a malevolent being that threatens to possess her the moment she drops her guard. Wielding its extraordinary power almost consumes her—but death has come to Loraille, and only a vespertine, a priestess trained to wield a high relic, has any chance of stopping it. With all knowledge of vespertines lost to time, Artemisia turns to the last remaining expert for help: the revenant itself.

As she unravels a sinister mystery of saints, secrets, and dark magic, her bond with the revenant grows. And when a hidden evil begins to surface, she discovers that facing this enemy might require her to betray everything she has been taught to believe—if the revenant doesn’t betray her first.

Review: I have been Goodreads stalking Margaret Rogerson for years now. Awhile ago she mentioned she was working on a new project, but it hadn’t yet been picked by a publisher. So imagine my glee when I finally saw an ARC pop up on Edelweiss+? This has probably been one of my most anticipated reads this year, so you know I dove in immediately (regardless of the timing of this review…)

Tending to the dead, freeing their spirits to depart in peace, lingering in the shadows. This is all that Artemisia wants for her life. And with hundreds of years passing in relative peace, her path seems clear before her. But now the dead are on the move once more, gathering in groups and attacking in a coordinated effort. Some greater force must be at work. And when her home is attacked, Artemisia is forced to take up a greater spirit herself, wielding its power to save her home. But with this new power comes a new test: who can she trust? The revenant inside her, whispering of dark things in the past? Or he Clerisy itself, with priests who are tasked to protect this world seeming to now work against it?

So the question was never would I like this book or not. Instead, it was just how much would I love it! I was a bit concerned about reports that there was no romance included in the story. Not only do I like my fantasy paired with a nice romance, but Rogerson’s two previous books each featured an excellent romance, part of what made me like them so much to begin with! But I’m happy to report that Rogerson cleverly out-maneuvered me here. Yes, there isn’t a romance at its heart. But there still is a deep relationship at its heart, the one that slowly forms between the revenant and Artemisia. It’s not a romance, but it’s also hard to frame within the general confines of typical relationships.

For one thing, the revenant is so clearly not human. The witty banter and sharp criticism of “silly humans” not only kept this fact clear in the reader’s mind the entire time, but was also highly effective at creating a character who’s only real presence is that of a disembodied voice. There were also a number of mysteries surrounding this world’s past, the great war that saw the destruction of this and other revenants, and of this particular revenant itself. These details slowly came out bit by bit, and I was anxiously speed-reading the entire time trying to get to the next revelation.

Artemisia was also an excellent character. While human herself, her entire life was made up of “otherness” in some form or another. In this way, her growing closeness with a being considered by the rest of the world to be supremely evil is fairly natural. We see her struggles to participate in interactions with other people in ways that they understand, not knowing what to say and not reacting in the ways they expect. Given her troubled past, she also struggles with crowds and is quickly overwhelmed by people around her. These anxieties felt very real and I think were very relatable.

I also really liked the magic system and world that Rogerson created. All three of the books I’ve read from her now were very original in this way. But throughout them all, there was a level of detail and creativity that made it appear that she was equally comfortable in all three, never hindered by any specifics found in fantasy subgenres. Instead, its her strong character work and witty dialogue that is the true through-line of her work. As a character reader myself, that left this book with no where to go but straight into the “10 rating” column for me.

Rating: I absolutely adored it. Action-packed, fantasy-forward, and with a delightful odd-couple at its heart.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Vespertine” is on these Goodreads lists: Awesome Fantasy Heroines and YA Second World Fantasy.

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

Serena’s Review: “The Grimrose Girls”

Book: “The Grimrose Girls” by Laura Pohl

Publishing Info: Sourebooks Fire, October 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

Serena’s Review: “Blood of the Chosen”

Book: “Blood of the Chosen” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Orbit, October 2021

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

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

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

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

Previously Reviewed: “Ashes of the Sun”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

Giveaway: “Blood of the Chosen”

Book: “Blood of the Chosen” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Orbit, October 2021

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

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

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

Previously Reviewed: “Ashes of the Sun”

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

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

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

Enter to win!

Serena’s Review: “Tongues of Serpents”

Book: “Tongues of Serpents” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, July 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

Monthly Marillier: “Foxmask”

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

Book: “Foxmask” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor Fantasy, November 2005

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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