Serena’s Review: “The Midnight Bargain”


Book: “The Midnight Bargain” by C.L. Polk

Publishing Info: Erewhon, October 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken? 

Review: I requested this one last fall, mostly because I always like historical fantasy novels and because of the simple, but beautiful, cover art. Romance is always a plus too! But here we are in the spring of 2021 before I finally got around to it. Part of that is due to my own poor management of my TBR pile, of course. But my recent enjoyment of “Sorcerer to the Crown,” a title to which this one sounds similar, was really the kick in the pants I needed top finally pick this one up. Unfortunately, that same comparison that spurred my renewed interest is also the thing that ultimately hurt this book for me in the end.

For Beatrice, the life path laid out before her is as set-in-stone as it is unwanted. With a destitute family depending on her, she unhappily looks ahead to a life where she will be forced to give up her magic in order to marry well and restore her family’s prospects. In her efforts to avoid this life, Beatrice pursues a powerful, magical book that will unlock her abilities and make her a Magnus. But as she gets closer and closer to this opportunity, the choices before her become harder and harder. When she meets an intriguing young man, she begins to realize that she will have to lose one of her loves: a beloved husband or her magic.

While I didn’t love this book, there were a few things that stood out to me on the positive side. I thought the integration of the magical system and the Regency world-building was interesting and unique. It was fairly simplistic, but in some ways I think that worked well for this book that was trying to span at least three different genres: fantasy, historical fiction, and romance. And what included was interesting in its own right, with the grimoires and the summoning of spirits at the heart of the fantasy. I also thought the complication of the dangers magic posed to childbearing was an interesting, if a bit heavy-handed, wrinkle to throw in the fold.

However, there were a few too many things that got in the way of my enjoying those aspects of the story too much. Immediately, I struggled with the writing. There is a lot of telling and a distinct lack of showing in the style of the story. And this is especially tedious in the beginning of the story where many bits of information are rather inexpertly dumped on to readers with very little done to obscure this goal. This is a personal preference, of course, but I also found myself becoming increasingly distracted and annoyed by the use of exclamation points in the writing. Not simply in dialogue, but in the actual description of events. It made many of these passages read as juvenile and a bit ridiculous.

I also found the main character fairly unlikable, coming across more annoying than fierce. The love story was also very superficial. It’s pretty much your typical insta-love story, and from there all the “drama” feels artificial and contrived. None of which helps the main character’s likability in the least. The conflict between her (instant) love with the hero, who seemed like obviously a genuinely good guy right from the start, and retaining her magic began to lose its weight fairly early.

The story itself had strange pacing, seeming to drag for long periods in the middle only to pick up again, briefly, towards the end. This wasn’t helped by the fact that, all told, it’s a fairly straight-forward and predictable affair. I struggled quite a bit to maintain interest, which is always a fairly bad sign when I reflect back on my feelings on a book. Overall, I think there are likely better examples of books like this, “Sorcerer to the Crown” (obviously) and also “The Dark Days Club” and its sequels come to mind.

Rating 6: A unique idea falters under poor pacing and a plot that veers to closely to predictable tropes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Midnight Bargain” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantasy of Manners and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Find “The Midnight Bargain” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s review: “The True Queen”

Book: “The True Queen” by Zen Cho

Publishing Info: Ace, March 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: When sisters Muna and Sakti wake up on the peaceful beach of the island of Janda Baik, they can’t remember anything, except that they are bound as only sisters can be. They have been cursed by an unknown enchanter, and slowly Sakti starts to fade away. The only hope of saving her is to go to distant Britain, where the Sorceress Royal has established an academy to train women in magic.

If Muna is to save her sister, she must learn to navigate high society, and trick the English magicians into believing she is a magical prodigy. As she’s drawn into their intrigues, she must uncover the secrets of her past, and journey into a world with more magic than she had ever dreamed. 

Previously Reviewed: “Sorcerer to the Crown”

Review: Kate and I both read “Sorcerer to the Crown” for bookclub a few months ago. It had been my pick, a book that had been sitting on my shelf inexplicably unread for years. Boy could I have kicked myself for that after getting through with it! I loved the fantasy of manners feel of the book, and the main characters were incredibly compelling. I also liked how the book tackled complicated issues surrounding race, identity, and sexism all within a book that, overall, still felt light0hearted and fun. With all that to recommend it, I was fully committed to continuing on with the series as soon as possible. And, while I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much of as the first, I still had a blast reading this second entry.

Muna and her sister Sakti wake up on a beach with no memory of who they are or where they came from. They know they are sisters, but nothing else. Muna is satisfied to lead a quiet life, but when Sakti begins to succumb to a curse that sees her slowly disappearing, Muna must venture forth to save her sister. But with no magic to her name, Muna’s task is a perilous one. In a foreign country, and with the aide of the powerful Sorcerer to the Crown, Prunella, Muna must convince everyone that she is in fact a powerful magical force in her own right. Soon, she is more steeped in magic and magical beings than she ever would have wished. But to save her sister, Muna will brave most anything.

One of the main things that still stands out to me when now reading this second book by Cho is the perfect marriage of old-fashioned-style writing and unique, fantasy elements. If there weren’t dragons and talk of the land of Fae in every other sentence, it would be easy to imagine one is simply reading a good Jane Austen novel or any other historical fiction story written in that time. Now, the mileage of that style of writing really varies from reader to reader as, indeed, it’s a style that lends itself towards long, drawn out sentences. But I love this type of verbose writing, so this kind of book is right up my alley.

10 Most Unforgettable JUSTIFIED Quotes | Movie TV Tech Geeks News
Regency authors and Boyd Crowder apparently have a lot in common.

I was also pleased to see that while Muna has the majority of the POV chapters, we also returned to Prunella as well. In fact, the contrast between the two almost made each stronger. Prunella was still her confident, action-oriented self. However, Muna was a much more reserved character. From the start, she is only pushed into this adventure in a desire to save her sister. For herself, she would have been happy with a quiet life, only faintly disturbed by her missing memories. She was an excellent foil to Prunella, and, while the two faced similar barriers to their roles in society (as women, and, worse, women with magical abilities), we see how Muna is affected by these forces and reacts differently than Prunella.

I also enjoyed the additional layers that were added to the fantasy elements in this story. Most especially, I enjoyed the deeper look into the world of Fae itself, with its strange habits and fearsome (and sometimes very funny!) cast of characters. It was also interesting seeing how various nations understood this magical world, and the different ways they approached their relationship with this powerful place and its people.

Once again, the book also delved into some social aspects and themes that aren’t often found in a historical work like this. I’m not quite sure if this was as successful as the first book was, however. The romance between the two women, for one things, feels very out of the blue and tacked on at the very end. It is definitely possible to read this as a building romance between the two the entire time, but when one character is in a straight relationship for almost the entire book only to suddenly switch at the end…it’s just not very deftly handled.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It contained much of what I enjoyed from the first book, and Muna was a fantastic new main character. I’m still very intrigued by this world and would love to re-visit it whenever Cho chooses! Fans of the first book should definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: A smart, Regency fantasy that continues to build on the excellent foundation of social commentary that the first book established.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The True Queen” is on these Goodreads lists: LGBT Scifi and Fantasy 2015-2020 and Asian Adult Fiction 2018.

Find “The True Queen” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Shadow in the Glass”

Book: “The Shadow in the Glass” by J.J.A. Harwood

Publishing Info: HarperVoyager, May 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Once upon a time Ella had wished for more than her life as a lowly maid.

Now forced to work hard under the unforgiving, lecherous gaze of the man she once called stepfather, Ella’s only refuge is in the books she reads by candlelight, secreted away in the library she isn’t permitted to enter.

One night, among her beloved books of far-off lands, Ella’s wishes are answered. At the stroke of midnight, a fairy godmother makes her an offer that will change her life: seven wishes, hers to make as she pleases. But each wish comes at a price and Ella must to decide whether it’s one she’s willing to pay it.

Review: I’m always up for a good fairy-tale retelling. The story of “Cinderella” is probably right up there with “Beauty and the Beast” as a favorite in the genre as well. There are a bunch of them out there, with some I like better than others. “Ella Enchanted” will probably always be my favorite, and I was alone in the crowd as being underwhelmed by “Cinder.” But it’d been a while since I’d read one, and the summary for this version seemed to indicate a darker take on the classic tale. The darkness delivered. The rest of the book….well.

Ella had once had a future. One filled with coming out balls, high society, and if she was fortunate, a wealthy marriage. But when her wealthy sponsor and the lady of the house dies, Ella finds herself in very different circumstances. Now, a lowly maid with no prospects, Ella spends her nights sneaking into the library and dreaming of what once was. When she triggers a magical event and a powerful fairy appears offering her a way out, Ella is quick to bargain. But as she wishes for more and more, will the price be more than she is willing to pay?

So, like always, I’ll try to start this review with the things that I liked. The biggest pro I have for this book unfortunately ties into a negative aspect as well, but we’ll go for the good side first. The story is definitely a darker re-imaging of the classic tale. There were moments that were legitimately creepy, and I enjoyed the way these darker portions of the story built one upon another, ramping up the tension and sense of inevitable doom as the story progressed. This is definitely not the floofy, Disney version of Cinderella, and it was refreshing to read a very different take on a well-covered story.

On the other hand, this darkness began to overwhelm the story. The deep dive into the psychological aspects of what having wishes that will grant you almost anything can do to one’s own moral compass began to feel a bit exhausting. Ella continues to make the same mistakes over and over again, seemingly learning very little from her previous errors. It also ends up making Ella a very unlikeable character much of the time. She quickly becomes incredibly greedy and self-centered. And while I thought this exploration of what wishes can do to a person was interesting enough, the actual reading experience of it was not very enjoyable.

As part of this dark feel to the book, the story delves into a few tougher issues. They weren’t botched by any means, but I also am not sure the author really covered them as well as I would have liked. The atmosphere of the story is very grim and it did begin to feel stifling at times, made all the harder by my dislike for the main character.

I appreciate that this story wasn’t like many other cookie-cutter versions of the “Cinderella” fairytale, and at times the Gothic feeling of the story was quite successful. The version of the fairy godmother, in particular, was striking. But between the almost oppressive tone of the story and unlikable main character, it wasn’t for me. Those you enjoy darker fairytales might enjoy this, but if you’re a reader who goes into books hanging most of your hopes of enjoyment on your main lead, this probably isn’t for you.

Rating 6: Not to my taste, but an interesting take on a darker version of “Cinderella.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Shadow in the Glass” is a new book, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, yet. But it is on 2021 Gothic.

Kate’s Review: “Hour of the Witch”

Book: “Hour of the Witch” by Chris Bohjalian

Publishing Info: Doubleday Books, May 2021

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

Book Description: A young Puritan woman–faithful, resourceful, but afraid of the demons that dog her soul–plots her escape from a violent marriage in this riveting and propulsive historical thriller from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Flight Attendant.

Boston, 1662. Mary Deerfield is twenty-four-years-old. Her skin is porcelain, her eyes delft blue, and in England she might have had many suitors. But here in the New World, amid this community of saints, Mary is the second wife of Thomas Deerfield, a man as cruel as he is powerful. When Thomas, prone to drunken rage, drives a three-tined fork into the back of Mary’s hand, she resolves that she must divorce him to save her life. But in a world where every neighbor is watching for signs of the devil, a woman like Mary–a woman who harbors secret desires and finds it difficult to tolerate the brazen hypocrisy of so many men in the colony–soon finds herself the object of suspicion and rumor. When tainted objects are discovered buried in Mary’s garden, when a boy she has treated with herbs and simples dies, and when their servant girl runs screaming in fright from her home, Mary must fight to not only escape her marriage, but also the gallows. A twisting, tightly plotted thriller from one of our greatest storytellers, Hour of the Witch is a timely and terrifying novel of socially sanctioned brutality and the original American witch hunt.

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

Back in middle school I decided to read “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller, after my drama class chose it as one of the scenes that we’d perform and I was voted to be Mary Warren in said scene. After reading the whole play my thirteen year old self was super indignant, and I basically have had a seething anger deep in my soul for any kind of witchcraft or Satanic Panic fueled hysteria ever since. Because of this, I was eager to snatch up the new historical fiction thriller “Hour of the Witch” by Chris Bohjalian. I’ve enjoyed Bohjalian’s stories in the past, I love me a good historical fiction thriller, and demolishing the Patriarchy in Puritan times? We ALL know how I feel about that!

Yes please. (source)

Now I don’t want anyone thinking that “Hour of the Witch” is a pro-Witchcraft-As-Way-To-Smash-Misogyny kind of tale. Instead, Bohjalian takes the idea of a community turning on a strong minded woman and tries to tell it in a way that would be realistic towards the time and culture. Mary isn’t a woman who ends up turning to Satan because it’s the only clear path to agency in her life. Instead, we get a tale of a woman who dares stand up for herself and wants to advocate for her health and happiness against an abusive husband while still being God fearing and devout, and while also questioning power structures that are hypocritical. I admittedly don’t have as much breadth of knowledge in this part of American history and Puritan times, but from the historical notes in the back it seems like Bohjalian did his very best to make it realistic, and therein I found Mary to be believable. Her story of trying to divorce her abusive husband Thomas, and being the target of scorn and then witchcraft accusations for daring to push against the misogynistic norms, is suspenseful, frustrating, and incredibly readable. I loved Mary as a character, and seeing her fight in the face of powerful and abusive men was both cathartic, but also tense, as we all know how the power structures during the Puritan times could easily cry ‘witch’ and have a person killed (that said, while this story really does a good job of addressing the oppression that women faced, little is noted of the Indigenous groups in the area. I’m not sure how Bohjalian could have tackled such a huge aspect from Mary’s perspective without feeding into paternalistic or oppressive views, but when the groups were mentioned it felt like a nod without doing much work beyond that. Take that as you will).

In terms of plot, “Hour of the Witch” is definitely steeped in suspense, as well as a little bit of mystery. Working against Mary in her endeavors are her husband’s standing in the community, the fact that no one has seen him hurt her as he’s always careful to do it when they are alone, and the fact that some three tined forks were found buried in her yard, which at the time were thought to be ‘the devils tines’ due to the three prongs resembling a pitchfork (side note: when I worked at a historic fort that had a context set during the Georgian period, a dining demonstration did mention the lack of three tined forks in America in spite of the fact they were prevalent in Europe. We didn’t talk about ‘the devils tines’ aspect, however). The questions are 1) is Mary going to be able to escape her husband without being convicted of witchcraft, and 2) who IS the one who is setting her up to look like a witch? Such moments will make you shake with rage, but it also just goes to show that some things never change. Mary is accused of lying for attention, lying to offset the fact she hasn’t been able to have children as of yet, lying because she’s lustful, and lying because she’s a witch. These days, maybe we don’t see as much ‘witch’ stuff, but the rest of those accusations against an abused woman in hopes of painting her as a liar are all too familiar. And as for what is really going on with the buried forks in her yard, I really enjoyed trying to figure out what was going on there, as Bohjalian has a whole SLEW of suspects and possibilities, some one which are not as they seem. I was left on pins and needles worrying about what was going to happen to Mary, as well as wanting to spit nails out of rage when looking at how the men in the community (with a couple exceptions) and some of the women were treating her because of the misogyny that was rife. BE PREPARED TO BE MAD.

Overall, I thought that “Hour of the Witch” was a pretty good read, with a unique setting that felt timeless all the same. It may not be the Satanic feminism that I tend to love, but I still enjoyed it!

Rating 8: Suspenseful and unique in voice and setting, “Hour of the Witch” tells a tale as old as time about misogyny, women, and a society that uses one to keep the other in its place no matter what the outcome.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Hour of the Witch” is included on the Goodreads lists “Witch Hunts in Historical Fiction”, and “2021 Gothic”.

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

Serena’s Review: “A River in the Sky”

Book: “A River in the Sky” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: Harper Collins, April 2010

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

Book Description: August 1910. Banned from the Valley of the Kings, Amelia Peabody and husband Emerson are persuaded to follow would-be archaeologist Major George Morley on an expedition to Palestine. Somewhere in this province of the corrupt, crumbling Ottoman Empire—the Holy Land of three religions—Morley is determined to unearth the legendary Ark of the Covenant.

At the request of British Intelligence, Emerson will be keeping an eye on the seemingly inept Morley, believed to be an agent of the Kaiser sent to stir up trouble in this politically volatile land. Amelia hopes to prevent a catastrophically unprofessional excavation from destroying priceless historical finds and sparking an armed protest by infuriated Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Meanwhile, Amelia’s headstrong son, Ramses, working on a dig at Samaria, encounters an unusual party of travelers and makes a startling discovery—information that he must pass along to his parents in Jerusalem…if he can get there alive.

Previously Reviewed: “The Crocodile on the Sandbank” and “The Curse of the Pharaohs” and “The Mummy Case” and “Lion in the Valley” and “Deeds of the Disturber” and “The Last Camel Died at Noon” and “The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog.” and “The Hippopotamus Pool” and “The Ape Who Guards the Balance” and “Guardian of the Horizon”

Review: It’s been quite a while since I’ve returned to my beloved Amelia Peabody series. Not from any lack of continued interest, just the continuous growth of my TBR which shames me into reading more current books more often than not. But I felt like it was high time to return to a comforting favorite, so here we are! What adventures will Amelia and her family get up to this time?

The season ahead looks bleak for Amelia and Emerson. They are forbidden from working in their beloved location in the Valley of the Kings and have no fruitful prospects before them. But, sure enough, adventure arrives on their doorway in the form of spy craft and intrigue. This time they are sent by the British government to follow the activities of a would-be archeologist whom the intelligence community suspects of being an agent of disruption sent by the Kaiser to sew chaos in Palestine. But Amelia and Emerson are archeologists at their hearts and can’t help getting caught up in the man’s mad quest to uncover the Ark of the Covenant (and prevent the man from blundering up the entire affair to boot!)

Following what seems to be a bit of a trend, this book largely sees our party split up, with Amelia and Emerson working their own case, and Ramses off on his own (with some other friends) doing his own thing. The story intertwine in a creative way, but I think, overall, I’m always a bit disheartened by the books that playout like this. So much of what makes these stories so good is the interaction between its very charismatic cast of characters. Other than perhaps Amelia herself, I’ve never felt like any of the other cast can really stand well on their own. I think this book is making a case for Ramses being more of his own character, and perhaps that will just be the way later books go and he will begin to flesh out more as we move forward. But for now, I still miss the amusing parental/grown-child interactions that we see from this family unit when they’re all together.

For whatever reason, I also struggled a bit more with the mystery in this book. Some of this could just be due to the chopped-up nature of my reading experience, only listening to chunks here and there when I could catch a minute. But I had a hard time keeping track of the cast of characters, especially between the discoveries we learn from Ramses’ plotline and those we were discovering with Amelia and Emerson. I did like, however, that the general flow of both of these sections felt very different. Amelia and Emerson’s plotline largely felt familiar, with the pair travelling to an excavation site and finding their trip and work constantly interrupted by baffling experiences. Ramses, however, followed a much more action-packed story that was less a mystery than it was a thriller. The combination of both tones made for an interesting reading experience. It was just a bit tough reacclimating when we switched from one to the other.

I also really liked the new setting. The last book saw the crew return to the Lost Oasis, and that was a breath of fresh air from the usual Egyptian setting. But here we had an entirely new location, one we had never visited previously. This is where I wish our family group had been together more of the time, and the story could have devoted more of its page time to exploring the ins and outs of this region. As it was, we only had Amelia and Emerson’s chapters to really dive into Jerusalem and its political/cultural/religious quagmire.

I really enjoyed returning to this series. I do think that my piece-meal approach to reading these later books is hurting my experience a bit, though. I can see that the author is really trying to grow Ramses into a fully fledged lead character in his own right, but because I have such long gaps in my reading experience, he always is the least interesting to me, something that may become more of a problem going forward. Hopefully I can get to the next one more quickly and start to become more invested in him in his own right. But fans of the series are sure to be pleased with this one, especially if you’re already more onboard the Ramses train.

Rating 8: A fun new adventure that mixes the traditional mystery with a more action-packed thriller style of storyline.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A River in the Sky” is on these Goodreads lists: Novels That Let You Travel in Retro Style and Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.

Find “A River in the Sky” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Forest of Stolen Girls”

Book: “The Forest of Stolen Girls” by June Hur

Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, April 2021

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

Book Description: After her father vanishes while investigating the disappearance of 13 young women, a teen returns to her secretive hometown to pick up the trail in this second YA historical mystery from the author of The Silence of Bones.

Hwani’s family has never been the same since she and her younger sister went missing and were later found unconscious in the forest, near a gruesome crime scene. The only thing they remember: Their captor wore a painted-white mask. To escape the haunting memories of this incident, the family flees their hometown. Years later, Detective Min—Hwani’s father—learns that thirteen girls have recently disappeared under similar circumstances, and so he returns to their hometown to investigate… only to vanish as well.

Determined to find her father and solve the case that tore their family apart, Hwani returns home to pick up the trail. As she digs into the secrets of the small village—and reconnects with her now estranged sister—Hwani comes to realize that the answer lies within her own buried memories of what happened in the forest all those years ago.

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

Last year I read June Hur’s novel “The Silence of Bones”, and quite enjoyed it. It’s always great to see new Own Voices authors getting new stories out into the world, especially within genres that tend to be associated with whiteness. While I know that there are a myriad of historical mysteries out there from many backgrounds, in my experience and the experiences of people around me the general thoughts on the genre tend to skew towards European or American settings. I want to stretch and challenge this thought in my own reading. So given that “The Silence of Bones” took place in 19th Century Korea, it was a fresh feeling setting when I read it, and I liked that a lot. When I saw that Hur had a new historical myster/thriller coming out called “The Forest of Stolen Girls”, I was massively excited to read it, hoping that it would live up to “The Silence of Bones” in terms of plotting and mystery. And I have great news: it exceeded it.

Let’s start with the time, setting, and characters. Given that Hur really connected with me on all three of these points with “The Silence of Bones”, I had high hopes that same would be said for “The Forest of Stolen Girls”. And this time she went even above and beyond my expectations. Once again we are in historical Korea, though we’ve gone even further back in time to the 15th Century on Jeju Island. The setting is isolated and remote, and for Hwani, who has spent a few years on the mainland it is a jarring return because of culture shifts and also because of the trauma that she suffered there. I loved the descriptions of the island and the nature and wilderness that surrounds the village, and I also loved that Hur did throw in tidbits of historical facts (like the Haenyeo divers, and how on Jeju girls weren’t much less valued than boys because it was the girls who did the diving), about the area. It just felt like a unique setting, one that lends itself very well to the plot, and it was one that I greatly enjoyed. I also really liked our main characters, Hwani and Maewol, two sisters separated by distance and also their shared trauma and the fallout. The strong bond that they share as sisters has been tested and strained because of Hwani being sent to the mainland to live with her aunt, while Maewol was left behind, a decision made by their father. Hwani has the utmost respect for him, while Maewol resents him. Hwani felt constrained by her time on the mainland, while Maewol felt abandoned. Their frustrations and resentments, of course, come out and target each other, but this felt realistic and true to how sometimes sibling relationships can be fraught because of circumstances they can’t always control. I loved seeing both of them have to learn to trust each other again, and have to team up and use each other’s various skills to try and solve what had happened to their father, and what had happened to the local girls.

In terms of the mystery itself, I found it to be very engaging, suspenseful, and well crafted. There are a number of people in their town who could be very believable suspects when it comes to who is taking teenage girls, and Hur makes sure to give believability as well as deniability to almost all of them. The way that the mystery connects to Hwani and Maewol is well done, as is the compounded mystery of what happened to their father when he tried to go solve it once and for all. And on top of all that, for added context Hur adds a historical note at the end of the book that talks about human trafficking, specifically that of girls and women, during this time period in Korea, which really put into perspective that while the years and centuries can keep on going and progress and changes can be made, but some things just keep on happening and one of those things is violent misogyny.

“The Forest of Stolen Girls” is another great historical mystery/thriller from June Hur. If you are looking to shake up your historical fiction content and reading lists, definitely give this one a look! I cannot wait to see what Hur comes out with next.

Rating 8: A dark, suspenseful novel with timeless themes and a unique setting, “The Forest of Stolen Girls” is a solid historical mystery!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Forest of Stolen Girls” is included on the Goodreads lists “Asian Historical Fiction”, and “2021 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

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

Serena’s Review: “The Brass Queen”

Book: “The Brass Queen” by Elizabeth Chatsworth

Publishing Info: CamCat Books, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: In 1897, a fiery British aristocrat and an inept US spy search for a stolen invisibility serum that could spark a global war.

Miss Constance Haltwhistle is the last in a line of blue-blooded rogue inventors. Selling exotic firearms under her alias, the ‘Brass Queen,’ has kept her baronial estate’s coffers full. But when US spy, Trusdale, saves her from assassins, she’s pulled into a search for a scientist with an invisibility serum. As royal foes create an invisible army to start a global war, Constance and Trusdale must learn to trust each other. If they don’t, the world they know will literally disappear before their eyes.

Review: I haven’t reviewed a lot of them, but that’s because I don’t really see them around that much, but I do really enjoy a good steampunk fantasy when I can find it. It’s a neat, little quirky subgenre in fantasy fiction that is kind of bizarre in the specific elements that are seemingly expected from the genre: must involve steam-powered machine, often set in the Victorian period or some historical-feeling setting, has a decent overlap with Manners period pieces, etc. Those are all things I typically enjoy, so combine them well, and you’ve probably got a winner for me! Ah, but combining them well….

Constance must marry. Her family home is in danger, and with an absent father and no other recourse before her, the marriage market is her only way forward. Of course, she must find a husband who can either ignore or not see the other identity that Constance keeps under tight wraps: her position as the “Brass Queen,” a well-respected, underground weapons dealer. All is going exactly not to plan when her debut ball is interrupted by thieves. She quickly finds herself caught up in an elaborate plot that extends past Britain’s own borders. Not only that, she’s paired up a ridiculous U.S. spy whom she’s not sure she can even trust. What could go wrong next?

Like I said, I generally enjoy steampunk fantasy stories, and this one in particular had some interesting things going for it, like our heroine’s secret life as the Brass Queen. I also liked the way the author explored the idea of this imagined version of England with its machines and mechanized creations. The very first scene sees Constance opening a ball in a room overseen by towering animatronic suits that can be piloted by riders within. Constance’s own alternate identity gives the reader a direct line into the ins and outs of how this type of weaponization has and could be used. There was a lot of creativity here and elements to pique one’s interest.

But other than these aspects of the world-building, I struggled with this story. Constance, for one thing, was a walking, talking contradiction whom I could never quite understand or believe in as a living, breathing person. On one hand, she’s this weapons dealer who works with great power players all of the time. And yet in the very first scene, we’re supposed to believe that she’s been bumbling around the ball room this entire time and is about to fall to pieces over a simple speech? Someone who runs an underground weapons dealership would surely have a firm hand on proper decorum and behavior and much experience talking to strangers, likely to even more important people and with greater stakes at play. This contradiction continued throughout the book. I just had a hard time buying a lot of Constance’s actions when set against the idea that she was supposed to be this powerful, underground operator (as many characters remind us).

I also felt like the romance was a bit off the entire time. I’m not sure if this was because I was constantly distracted by Constance, or what exactly the problem was. I think part of it was Trusdale had a very “American cowboy in Britain” thing going on that I also had a hard time taking seriously. The book was clearly trying to incorporate a good amount of humor, and some the bantering between these two was actually quite good. But the balance was just slightly off and some of the humorous moments early on made it hard for me to take either of these characters too seriously or care overly much about their romance as a whole.

I also struggled with the writing in general. I had a hard time picturing some of the elements of the story, never a good thing for a fantasy book. And the story sometimes had jarring jumps between one scene and another. The formatting on my Kindle e-galley didn’t help with this. Hopefully the finalized version will have better page breaks to distinguish these scenes a bit better.

Overall, I had a fairly middling response to this book. There was nothing that I really disliked, but I also didn’t care about the story that much. The writing wasn’t quite strong enough to support some of the more fantastical elements, and the characters weren’t complicated enough to add any weight to the action. If you really enjoy steampunk fantasy stories, this might be worth checking out, but it wasn’t quite all I had hoped it would be.

Rating 7: Fun enough at times, but not all I had hoped it could be.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Brass Queen” is on these Goodreads lists: Gaslamp Fantasy and 2021 Swoony Awards.

Find “The Brass Queen” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “An Unexpected Peril”

Book: “An Unexpected Peril” by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: January 1889. As the newest member of the Curiosity Club—an elite society of brilliant, intrepid women—Veronica Speedwell is excited to put her many skills to good use. As she assembles a memorial exhibition for pioneering mountain climber Alice Baker-Greene, Veronica discovers evidence that the recent death was not a tragic climbing accident but murder. Veronica and her natural historian beau, Stoker, tell the patron of the exhibit, Princess Gisela of Alpenwald, of their findings. With Europe on the verge of war, Gisela’s chancellor, Count von Rechstein, does not want to make waves—and before Veronica and Stoker can figure out their next move, the princess disappears.

Having noted Veronica’s resemblance to the princess, von Rechstein begs her to pose as Gisela for the sake of the peace treaty that brought the princess to England. Veronica reluctantly agrees to the scheme. She and Stoker must work together to keep the treaty intact while navigating unwelcome advances, assassination attempts, and Veronica’s own family—the royalty who has never claimed her.

Previously Reviewed: “A Curious Beginning,” “A Perilous Undertaking,” , “A Treacherous Curse” , “A Dangerous Collaboration” , and “A Murderous Relation”

Review: I think I’ve started my reviews for the last several books in this series the same way: my enjoyment of these stories has been very hit and miss. The first several were all very enjoyable, but as the series progressed, it felt like the author was stalling on the romance and losing some creativity with the mysteries themselves. The book directly previous to this one, for example, very much felt like a recycled version of plot elements from several of the books before it. However, optimistic as ever, I’ve continued on. And, while this wasn’t my favorite book in the series, it did again bounce back from the previous low point.

Surprising no one but perhaps Stoker (his optimism for an end to his and Veronica’s dangerous mysteries is perhaps more endearing than it is realistic), murder and mystery has once again found Veronica Speedwell. The death of a fellow female explore, Alice Baker-Greene, a famous mountaineer, raises suspicion from Veronica, especially in light of the cagey response by the Princess of the country in which Alice died. When the Princess herself next disappears, Veronica finds herself thrust into royal company posing as a doppleganger and hoping to suss out more clues as to Alice’s fate. But are Veronica and Stoker once again straying too close to danger?

I was pleased to see that this new entry into Veronica and Stoker’s story was taking us into uncharted territory for the most part. I really enjoyed the backstory we are given for Alice, a woman of Veronica’s own ilk but whose talents were directed towards mountain climbing rather than butterflies. I was able to guess a few of the mysteries tied up in her story, but I was also flummoxed by a few others. The added twist of the Princess’s disappearance adds an interesting extra layer to the proceedings.

Veronica and Stoker are still interesting characters, but I do feel that each is beginning to run a bit dry on character development. Once again, Stoker is so far in the background of this story that I often felt like he was barely present. Over the last two books, there has been practically no growth or arch for this character and it’s definitely starting to show. And for her part, Veronica is growing only marginally. We see her here struggle with the prospect of her future and the changes that her burgeoning relationship with Stoker may have upon that. This was an interesting concept, but I don’t feel like the author really gave it enough room to grow and resolve.

Instead, we find Veronica again getting caught up into the tired story line regarding her connections to the Royal family. Seriously, knock it off with this. It was a great reveal for the first book and coming up here and there is fine. But every single book now seems to include this aspect of Veronica’s life, but without having anything new to say or any new conclusion to reach. It’s dull and starting to feel really lazy. I complained about this same thing in my last review, and I’m disappointed to be repeating myself again here.

Overall, however, I was pleased with the mystery itself. When the story started out, I had hopes that Veronica and Stoker would travel to Alpenwald to conduct their investigation. I’m starting to think that a change of location would help the series a lot. One of my favorite entries, “A Dangerous Collaboration,” took place elsewhere, and I think it helped the story get out of a few of the ruts it gets stuck in when remaining in London. If there’s a next entry in the series, hopefully a relocation like this will help breathe some new life into this series. I’ll probably still continue on, but at this point I would probably only recommend it to those who are fairly devoted. The last few entries have just been too shallow and dull to amount to a stronger recommendation to a new reader.

Rating 7: An improvement on the last book, but still stuck in some tired tropes of its own making.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Unexpected Peril” is on these Goodreads lists: Historical Mystery 2021 and Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.

Find “An Unexpected Peril” at your library using WorldCat!

My Year with Jane Austen: “Death Comes to Pemberley”

I could probably continue on an entire extra year reviewing various adaptations and interpretations of Jane Austen’s works. There are plays, spin-off books, modern adaptations, the list goes on and on. Every year it seems there is a new version coming out in some form or another and this last year was no exception. Not only did we get a new feature film of “Emma” but the BBC also released an 8-part mini series of Austen’s unfinished work “Sanditon.” So I wanted to briefly touch on my thoughts of both those and to add in one other adaptation that has been a favorite of mine for quite a while, “Death Comes to Pemberley,” both the book and the 3-part mini series.

Mini Series: “Death Comes to Pemberley”

I’ve read the book this was based on as well (same title and written by P.D. James), but I wanted to focus on the mini series adaptation here as, ultimately, I enjoyed it the most of the two. The book was a solid “Pride and Prejudice” sequel; frankly, it’s probably the best, and only, sequel I’d recommend to people. So the fact that I liked the mini series more is in no way a ding against the book itself. I only read it the one time, so I also wouldn’t bet against my not remembering it well enough to give it the credit it deserves. But on to the mini series itself!

As I mentioned above, this story is a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice.” It takes place mostly at Pemberley and occurs 5 or so years after the book (Darcy and Elizabeth have a 4-ish son, so I’m just guessing, if they mentioned it in the movie/book, I don’t remember). The story is a murder mystery at its heart, revolving around Wickham (who else!) who has been accused of killing his dear friend Denny while in Pemberley woods. The show is a three part mini series that slowly follows Elizabeth and Darcy as they try to put together the clues as to what really happened and whether or not Wickham is innocent or guilty. Along the way, we meet a cast a familiar faces and are given extra information about their histories that wasn’t provided in the original story. We also meet a few new characters, but it’s mostly a returning cast, though the focus is more on characters who played only small roles in the original book, like Georgiana and Colonel Fitzwilliam.

This mini series succeeds at both of its main goals: It is a worthy (and believable!) sequel to a beloved story that ended in such a way that a sequel would typically feel completely unnecessary; and it holds up as a compelling murder mystery in its own right. Had this story been almost exactly the same but with original characters, it would likely be almost just as good (though more fleshing out for characters would obviously be necessary since you couldn’t count on general familiarity and previous knowledge). That is a truly extraordinary feat.

Obviously, much of this comes down to James’ heavy lifting with her book. But I’d wager that of all of the Jane Austen adaptations, “Pride and Prejudice” is the only one with a film/mini series that is almost as beloved and the book itself. Just like James’ had an uphill battle in writing a sequel to the book, this mini series was attempting to re-cast and continue the stories of characters whom many thought couldn’t be improved upon from Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle’s version. Both Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin perfectly balance carrying forward characters who have already been seen on screen several times while keeping them familiar as well as bringing their own twists and mannerisms.

I really liked the mystery itself, too. There are plenty of red herrings and possible scenarios that can lead viewers down false trails. Even better, every aspect reveals new layers to Pemberley, its family, and the people that have lived on the estate for generations. I particularly liked the exploration of Darcy and Georgiana’s feelings towards stewardship and Pemberley. It’s an interesting topic, especially when contrasted with Elizabeth’s experience of life, that while they generally see eye to eye on many things, this is simply something that she can’t really understand. This feeling of responsibility to a place, its people, and one’s own history.

I also really liked the brief moments that showed us some of the challenges that Elizabeth faced (faces) as the new lady of Pemberley. It’s obvious that she’s not the lady of the house that anyone would have expected and with that would come its own set of trials. We also get a look into the insecurities and doubts that both Darcy and Elizabeth still struggle with. Yes, the ending of “Pride and Prejudice” was happily ever after, but marriage has its own set of challenges and one’s personal demons don’t simply disappear when one’s true love shows up.

The only ding I have against this adaptation is its depiction of Colonel Fitzwilliam (again, this was following the book’s lead so it’s not unique to the mini series itself). Personally, I really like what they do with the character here. So my quibble is more about continuality and what feels like a pretty thorough character re-write from what we’re given in the original novel. True, the novel really doesn’t show us much, but we have Darcy’s own esteem for the Colonel and his duel role in bringing up Georgiana to speak to his general good character. But unless you’re a die-hard Fitzwilliam fan, the changes shouldn’t be that distracting.

I really enjoy this mini series, and it’s my regular rotation of Jane Austen re-watches. Like I said, it’s the only worthy sequel to “Pride and Prejudice” I’ve come across, and it also checks all the boxes as a good historical mystery, another favorite of mine. If you haven’t read the book or watched this adaptation, I definitely recommend it for all Jane Austen fans!

My Year with Jane Austen: “Sanditon” [2019]

I could probably continue on an entire extra year reviewing various adaptations and interpretations of Jane Austen’s works. There are plays, spin-off books, modern adaptations, the list goes on and on. Every year it seems there is a new version coming out in some form or another and this last year was no exception. Not only did we get a new feature film of “Emma” but the BBC also released an 8-part mini series of Austen’s unfinished work “Sanditon.” So I wanted to briefly touch on my thoughts of both those and to add in one other adaptation that has been a favorite of mine for quite a while, “Death Comes to Pemberley,” both the book and the 3-part mini series.

Mini-Series: “Sanditon”

I promise I’ll leave a positive review for one of these “extra” Jane Austen reviews that I’m doing in January. Alas, like “Emma” [2020], this is not one of them. Unlike “Emma,” however, I am more in-line with the general reception of this mini series. All and all, I think most Jane Austen fans were supremely disappointed by it, not least because of how it ends. Let’s dive into my complaints, shall we?

(NOTE: There will be spoilers in this review.)

The whole thing starts from a false premise: that there’s even a story here to adapt. Austen had only written eleven chapters of this story before her death. For reference, Emma has fifty-five chapters, so by comparison, eleven chapters is only scratching the surface of whatever story Austen had in mind. All we really get from these opening chapters is the introduction of our heroine, Charlotte, her relocation to an up-and-coming beach town called “Sanditon,” and the arrival of a potential love interest in the form of the fashionable Sidney Parker. Story-wise, it’s not much. There are the typical cast of side characters as well, but not much as far as clues to Austen’s overarching plot or themes. In most ways, she’s just finished setting the scene and not much else. It was always going to be a fool’s errand to try to expand that out into a mini series and to call it a “Jane Austen adaptation” is really pushing the limits of that term.

Perhaps in the right hands a compelling story could have been made. But sadly, this mini series ain’t that. It falls into too many traps that many modern adaptations risk and, at its heart, seems to miss the overall tone and heart that makes up all Jane Austen stories. To most fans’ chagrin, the story succumbs to the inane need of modern series to be “gritty” and “push the limits.” There are overtly sexual scenes in the very first episode (some of them even bizarrely going a very “Game of Thrones” route, none the less…). And many, if not most, of the characters introduced are supremely unlikable. For some reason, it seems that many directors and screenwriters often confuse writing a character with layers and depth with just writing supreme jerks, and we see plenty examples of it here. The romantic interest is immediately an a-hole to Charlotte, and not in the endearing, prideful “Darcy-esque” way that is the only acceptable form of this behavior in an Austen story.

Gone is the joy. Gone is the wit. And, worst of all, gone is the happy ending. It seems as if the director intentionally ended the series this way in a fit of over-confidence that the series would be picked up for a second season. Indeed, this is the only acceptable reason for ending an Austen story this way. There are plenty of historical fiction stories to be told where the happy, romantic conclusion is not a given. But those are not the stories that Austen wrote. She even said it herself, “let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.”

Every Austen fan who went into this series happily hoping to get one last shot at a new Austen story would have had this one, simple expectation: that the hero and heroine would end up together and happy at the end. Whatever happened from the start to the finish was open for exploration and interpretation. But this ending was a must. Instead, the series not only denies our hero and heroine this happiness, but it essentially resets the story by sending Charlotte back home where her future is once again limited and likely dull. I’ll be blunt: this ending is inexcusable for a Jane Austen adaption and, apart from any other stumbling blocks (of which there were many) would be enough to write this entire thing off on its own.

Unlike “Emma,” which I think I disliked for fairly subjective reasons but is sure to please many fans, this mini series really has nothing to recommend it, as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps for general historical fiction fans it would be an ok watch. But any fan of Jane Austen should simply steer clear, as “Jane Austen” this is not.