Blog Tour: “The Late Mrs. Willoughby”

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Book: “The Late Mrs. Willoughby” b y Claudia Gray

Publishing Info: Vintage, May 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: from the marketer!

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

Book Description: Catherine and Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey are not entirely pleased to be sending their eligible young daughter Juliet out into the world again: the last house party she attended, at the home of the Knightleys, involved a murder—which Juliet helped solve. Particularly concerning is that she intends to visit her new friend Marianne Brandon, who’s returned home to Devonshire shrouded in fresh scandal—made more potent by the news that her former suitor, the rakish Mr. Willoughby, intends to take up residence at his local estate with his new bride.

Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley are thrilled that their eldest son, Jonathan—who, like his father, has not always been the most socially adept—has been invited to stay with his former schoolmate, John Willoughby. Jonathan himself is decidedly less taken with the notion of having to spend extended time under the roof of his old bully, but that all changes when he finds himself reunited with his fellow amateur sleuth, the radiant Miss Tilney. And when shortly thereafter, Willoughby’s new wife—whom he married for her fortune—dies horribly at the party meant to welcome her to town.

With rumors flying and Marianne—known to be both unstable and previously jilted by the dead woman’s newly made widower—under increased suspicion, Jonathan and Juliet must team up once more to uncover the murderer. But as they collect clues and close in on suspects, eerie incidents suggest that the killer may strike again, and that the pair are in far graver danger than they or their families could imagine.

Previously Reviewed: “The Murder of Mr. Wickham”

Review: I really loved “The Murder of Mr. Wickham” when I read it last year. So much so that it became my preferred present for the many readers in my family. Not only was it an excellent mystery, but the author managed to do the near-impossible and accurately depict not one, not two, but a huge cast of Jane Austen’s most popular characters. And on top of that, she created two new characters who were able to hold their own in this very competitive cast. All of this to say, I was incredibly pleased to see that there was a sequel coming out this year!

When Juliet Tilney sets out on another social visit, she’s confident in assuring her parents that there is no possibility of murder this go around. Oh, how wrong she will be. For, when visiting the still-struggling Marianna Brandon, Juliet Tilney is introduced to the Willoughbys, and during one note-worthy dinner party, what should happen but that Mrs. Willoughby drops dead of poison. Now, with the help of her friend Jonathan Darcy, Juliet once again sets out to get to the bottom of the mystery.

I was really excited to see what this book had in store. While I was very impressed with the first book, it was also very much a product of the specific circumstances that made up the plot. Jonathan and Juliet were excellent new characters, but the work of carrying the plot and the interest of the reader, was largely hefted by the sprawling cast of popular Jane Austen heroes and heroines. This book is a much more tightly focused story with a much more limited cast of characters. In this way, Jonathan and Juliet had more work to do to carry the book largely on their own. And I think they were more than capable of the job!

I really liked the continued exploration of Jonathan’s low level autism and how his life has been shaped by the reactions of others and their ability or inability to accept or understand him. Here, we get an insight into Jonathan’s past as a victim of bullying at the hands of none other than Mr. Willoughby himself. We also see Jonathan struggle to understand his changing feelings for Juliet and realizing that he, and not only others, has been placing limitations on himself. It was an interesting and subtle exploration that I thought worked very well. For her part, Juliet’s story is much more straight-forward. But I particularly enjoyed the small commentary that ran through the book that acknowledges the limited choices that young women like Juliet faced. A social visit such as this, where Juliet travels to live with her friends the Brandons for several weeks, would not just be a trip of leisure. No, a large chunk of the expectations and motivation would be that a young woman would gain access to new society and new opportunities for marriage. Juliet reflects several times on the challenges between balancing the very practical concerns of a woman such as herself, one with only limited financial support from her family, with her own romantic preferences.

I also really enjoyed the mystery in this one. I was able to predict a few of the secondary aspects of the mystery, but the author did a great job of laying out believable red herrings and misdirecting the reader effectively from the larger truth behind what had happened and why. The motivation, in particular, was interesting and played into a plotline that I had been thinking of as a completely separate thing up until the end.

I will say, however, that this one did suffer a bit by the loss of the other Jane Austen characters. While I enjoyed Juliet and Jonathan immensely, my own preferences for Austen’s characters would not have me picking a focus on “Sense and Sensibility” and all of the secondary characters that make up this book’s cast. As these characters connect to the first book, I understand why this choice was made, and I also think that, as a whole, they were all done very well. I really liked getting to see Eleanor and Edward, in particular. But Brandon and Marianne just aren’t top choices for me, personally, so I couldn’t help being a bit less interested in their dynamics.

This was a very solid follow-up to the first book! In many ways, Claudia Gray made more a statement with this book than with the first: that wasn’t just a happy chance! No, she’s just that legitimately talented. Fans of the first book will definitely enjoy this, and I recommend both of these books to any fans of historical mysteries or Jane Austen.

Rating 8: With the first book, Gray made a splash as one of the best authors tackling Jane Austen re-imaginings today. With this one, she cements her place in the genre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Late Mrs. Willoughby” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Jane Austen Re-tellings.

Book Club Review: “Spear”

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

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is retellings and re-imaginings.  For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Spear” by Nicola Griffin

Publishing Info: Tordotcom, April 2022

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Retelling/Re-imagining: “Legends of King Arthur”

Book Description: The girl knows she has a destiny before she even knows her name. She grows up in the wild, in a cave with her mother, but visions of a faraway lake come to her on the spring breeze, and when she hears a traveler speak of Artos, king of Caer Leon, she knows that her future lies at his court.

And so, brimming with magic and eager to test her strength, she breaks her covenant with her mother and, with a broken hunting spear and mended armour, rides on a bony gelding to Caer Leon. On her adventures she will meet great knights and steal the hearts of beautiful women. She will fight warriors and sorcerers. And she will find her love, and the lake, and her fate.

Kate’s Thoughts

I’ve mentioned a number of times on here that I am not super versed in some of the more classic European literature tales, and that extends to Arthurian legends. I think that the adaptations I have seen all the way through are Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone”, which is more about Arthur getting the sword and not much else, and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, which is, of course, near perfection. But it’s not like an absurdist comedy with holy hand grenades and killer rabbits is going to reflect Arthur in all his significance. So going into “Spear” I didn’t really know what to expect, as I have a vague working knowledge of some aspects of the source material, but not much. And I’m sorry to say that while I went in trying to be open minded, “Spear” wasn’t my jam. I just kept thinking about coconuts and John Cleese slaughtering people in ridiculous ways and wishing I was watching that again.


So there were some things I liked about “Spear” and that was mostly in the ways that Nicola Griffin tinkered with the characters and the canon. Whether it was having main character Peretur be a gender bent version of Parzival during his quest with the other knights for the Holy Grail. I liked Peretur’s queer relationship with Nimuë, I liked that Arturus (Arthur), Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) and Llanza (Lancelot) were in a loving thrupple as opposed to being in a dramatic love triangle, and I liked some of the ways that Griffin explores themes of the Grail and the magical bits of it. But there was so much I struggled with. The biggest issue I had was the writing. It is VERY lyrical, and very detailed, and I had initially picked this book up in print form but threw in the towel VERY quickly and opted for audio. My thought process was that I would be on a couple road trips to Duluth before book club and could use that time to listen, as I’ve had success in the past with that if I find the writing tricky. But it didn’t really help this time. And I think that had I had more investment in the Arthurian source material I would have been more vested in engaging, but since I don’t know it very well I found this book to be a tricky read, bordering on a chore. I am inclined to believe that this is probably a ‘your mileage may vary’ situation, but it just didn’t click with me.

Fans of King Arthur and very purple prose writing styles would probably connect with this, but it wasn’t for me.

Serena’s Thoughts

This was an interesting read for me. On paper, it has a lot of things I really enjoy. I’m fairly familiar with King Arthur legends, but mostly through a strange smattering of exposure to various retellings and adaptations and my own internet rabbit holes of research. I’ve only looked at a few of the “original” legends, themselves. All of this to say, when I picked up “Spear,” I was able to tell right away that this was going to appeal to the big fans of these stories. And that comes to the second thing I typically enjoy: lyrical writing. From the very first page, this is what stands out the most about this book for me. The writing is dense and poetic. There were many times that I found myself having to re-read long sentences to piece together exactly what was being said. As a fan of lyrical writing, I’m used to this experience to some extent, but even for me, I found this one a bit more challenging that I would have liked. That said, I can’t emphasize enough how impressed I am with Griffin’s ability to match the tone of the “original” King Arthur legends. For the big fans, this book will feel as if it can be neatly slotted right in alongside those, as the style of writing and storytelling found here match so well to those.

It’s also clear that Griffin has done her research. For such a short novel, it’s truly impressive just how many details and references she manages to pack in there. As a fan of Juliet Marillier’s, an author who largely relies on Irish folklore and legends, I enjoyed seeing some of these tales and beings woven in throughout this story.

I also really liked our main character and her story. I had a few concerns early on when she showed hints of being a bit too unbelievably good at certain skills with no explanation, but luckily there did turn out to be good reasons for this. I also enjoyed the gender-swapping of her character from male to female and the various changes and additions that Griffith brought to the story. Overall, I did find myself struggling to read this one more than I had hoped (the writing is hard), but I do think that it will greatly appeal to hardcore King Arthur fans.

Kate’s Rating 5: This was a bit of a slog for me, as I couldn’t connect to the writing style and I know very little about King Arthur lore and legend.

Serena’s Rating 8: For me, personally, this was probably a 7. But I rounded up to an 8 for the true Arthur aficionados who will appreciate the meticulous and detailed work that went into creating this story.

Book Club Questions

  1. How familiar are you with the legends of King Arthur? Specifically, how much did you know about the various iterations of Percival?
  2. Did you like the gender-swapped approach to this story? How do you think this changed or impacted the tale as a whole?
  3. The writing in this book is very in line with the style found in many of the more traditional Arthur stories. How did this impact your reading?
  4. How familiar were you with the various Irish legends and folklore that wove in and out of this story?
  5. This is a novella, so it has a reduced page count from a typical novel. Did this seem to fit the story we have here? Would you have liked it to be longer or shorter? And if so, why? Were there parts you wanted to know more about or could have done without?

Reader’s Advisory

“Spear” is on these Goodreads lists: Amazons, Valkyries, and Warrior Women and Sapphic Retellings.

Next Book Club Pick: “The Raven and the Reindeer” by T. Kingfisher

Book Club Review: “Great or Nothing”

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

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is retellings and re-imaginings.  For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Great or Nothing” by Joy McCullough, Caroline Tung Richmond, Tess Sharpe, & Jessica Spotswood

Publishing Info: Delacorte, March 2022

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Retelling/Re-imagining: “Little Women”

Book Description: A reimagining of Little Women set in the spring of 1942, when the United States is suddenly embroiled in the second World War, this story, told from each March sister’s point of view, is one of grief, love, and self-discovery.

In the spring of 1942, the United States is reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor. While the US starts sending troops to the front, the March family of Concord, Massachusetts grieves their own enormous loss: the death of their daughter, Beth.

Under the strain of their grief, Beth’s remaining sisters fracture, each going their own way with Jo nursing her wounds and building planes in Boston, Meg holding down the home front with Marmee, and Amy living a secret life as a Red Cross volunteer in London–the same city where one Mr. Theodore Laurence is stationed as an army pilot.

Each March sister’s point of view is written by a separate author, three in prose and Beth’s in verse, still holding the family together from beyond the grave. Woven together, these threads tell a story of finding one’s way in a world undergoing catastrophic change.

Kate’s Thoughts

I’m someone who has what is probably an average relationship with the book “Little Women”. I read it once a long time ago, I really like the 1994 film with Winona Ryder, and when I was working at a historic Victorian house I was one of the people who would lead a “Little Women” themed Christmas tour. I’m not super wedded to the book like I am “Anne of Green Gables”, but I like it enough. When I saw that Book Club was going to take on a “Little Women” re-imagining that takes place during World War II, it struck me as a perfect time period to revisit this story of sisters growing up during war time and learning hard life lessons while also finding their places in the world. And I was happy to see that I was right.

“Great or Nothing” is written in four different perspectives from four different authors, one for each March sister. The story plunks us midway through the original tale, with Beth already dead and Jo, Meg, and Amy separated and feeling the distance (especially since they all left on a sour note between the three of them). The surviving sisters take on roles that women could have during WWII that perfectly fit each of them. We have Meg at the home front doing fundraising, planting victory gardens, and teaching children. We have Jo working in a plane factory, doing a whole Rosie the Riveter thing. And we have Amy in London volunteering for the Red Cross, and meeting up with Laurie who is fighting in Europe. Beth also has a perspective, with poetry being used because she’s dead, I guess? Regardless, I really felt like all of these settings were perfect for the various sisters, and I mostly liked how all of the sisters felt like their core characters set in a new time. I think that my favorite was Meg’s, as the home front has always fascinated me with war bonds, fund raising, and advocacy, but I did like Jo’s story of working in a factory and finding romance with a lady war reporter named Charlie (as a true Professor Bhaer fan, I loved how they brought this relationship into this story with a queer twist). That said, I did find it a little bit of a bummer that we were at a point in the story where Meg, Jo, and Amy weren’t really interacting with each other, as that is part of the charm of the original story for me. It seemed like an odd choice, but at the same time since it was four different authors writing each sister, I suppose that makes some sense so as not to step on each other’s toes.

“Great or Nothing” is a really well thought out re-imagining of a classic tale, with a nice blending of voices from different authors to give Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March interesting stories in the 20th century.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’m probably similar to Kate in my devotion levels to the original “Little Women.” Enjoyed the book, liked the 90s version of the movie well enough, really liked the recent one that was released a few years ago. But, like Kate, I don’t have any strong emotions attached to it, which in many ways makes it the perfect book for a retelling! If you’re not a devoted fan, you won’t get as mad at changes!

Anyways, the first thing that stood out to me was how much I liked the change in time period. There are a million and one WWII books out there, but this story really took a unique angle at exploring all of the very different ways that women contributed to the war front, both at home and abroad. Not only did this give the reader a wide range of angles on this particular time of history, but all of these choices also worked perfectly with the characters themselves. I was also very impressed with how well the different writing styles of all of the authors worked together. Perhaps….too impressed? If I hadn’t know that this was authored by four different people, I’m not sure I would have guessed, and I’m not sure that’s really for the best. Obviously, cohesion on this sort of project is key, but I also think you lose something from the original goal if every author’s voice is paired down to the point that they’re indistinguishable from each other.

As for the story, I thought it did a good job of hitting the major plot points that fans will look for. That said, I didn’t necessarily enjoy many of these chapters. While I liked the look at the types of work that Meg and Jo were doing, their personal arcs I found more frustrating. Honestly, if I had to hear one more time about the big fight they all got into, I think I would have screamed. In this way, I felt like this book really missed the mark on the overall theme of “Little Women.” Yes, the sisters have their quarrels, but the primary heart of the story is built around the deep bonds they all share. So for this book to spend the vast majority of its time with each sister endlessly reflecting on their broken ties…it just felt like a bummer and a let down of the original premise. This being the case, Amy’s story rose to the top for me as the only one that felt as it had any real action or stakes involved. I enjoyed getting to see her and Teddy’s romance play out more in real-time as well, rather than the off-page romance we get in the original.

Overall, I felt like this book was ok. I didn’t love anything it was doing, but I also didn’t hate any of it. I think Meg and Jo both could have been done better by, but I really enjoyed Beth’s poetry sections and Amy’s plot line. Fans of the original looking for a unique take will likely enjoy this, however.

Kate’s Rating 8: A great new setting for a classic tale of sisters growing up and finding themselves, “Great or Nothing” is a successful “Little Women” retelling.

Serena’s Rating 7: An interesting reimaging with an excellent use of shifting the historical setting, but it still somehow feels as if it misses the mark on the heart of the original story.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the time period in this retelling? Do you think that World War II fit in with the “Little Women” story?
  2. Each of the March sisters was written by a different author. Did you like any sister more than the others?
  3. Did the Beth sections with the poetry work for you as you were reading? Would you have preferred to see another character’s perspective over Beth’s, like Laurie, or Marmee?
  4. Which of the sister’s plots would you like to be in? The homefront? A factory? Acting as a Red Cross volunteer overseas? Something else?
  5. What is your experience with the original “Little Women” story?

Reader’s Advisory

“Great or Nothing” is included on the Goodreads lists “Book Riot 2022 #21: Read a Queer Retelling of a Classic of the Canon, Fairytale, Folklore, or Myth”, and “YA & Middle Grade Retellings of “Little Women””.

Next Book Club Pick: “The Raven and the Reindeer” by T. Kingfisher

Kate’s Review: “Lone Women”

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

Book: “Lone Women” by Victor LaValle

Publishing Info: One World, March 2023

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Blue skies, empty land—and enough room to hide away a horrifying secret. Or is there? Discover a haunting new vision of the American West from the award-winning author of The Changeling.

Adelaide Henry carries an enormous steamer trunk with her wherever she goes. It’s locked at all times. Because when the trunk is opened, people around her start to disappear

The year is 1914, and Adelaide is in trouble. Her secret sin killed her parents, and forced her to flee her hometown of Redondo, California, in a hellfire rush, ready to make her way to Montana as a homesteader. Dragging the trunk with her at every stop, she will be one of the “lone women” taking advantage of the government’s offer of free land for those who can cultivate it—except that Adelaide isn’t alone. And the secret she’s tried so desperately to lock away might be the only thing keeping her alive.

Told in Victor LaValle’s signature style, blending historical fiction, shimmering prose, and inventive horror, Lone Women is the gripping story of a woman desperate to bury her past—and a portrait of early twentieth-century America like you’ve never seen.

Review: Thank you to One World for sending me a link to an eARC of this novel on NetGalley!

Rejoice, horror fans, for we are once again blessed with a stunning new horror story by Victor LaValle. It has been awhile since I’ve dived into a LaValle book, and I was very, very stoked when “Lone Women” ended up in my inbox. And I was even MORE thrilled when Book of the Month had it as a choice for March, because I DO LOVE A PRINT COPY OF A GREAT HORROR NOVEL! I had high expectations for this novel, following a Black woman named Adelaide who decides to try and homestead in Montana in the early 20th Century, and who has a mysterious steamer trunk she just needs to keep an eye on and keep closed. Because that premise alone is VERY enticing, and when you throw in LaValle, you know it’s going to be even moreso. This man knows how to craft a well done horror tale with lots of subversions, after all.

I can’t really talk too much about the horror aspects of this novel, as I really don’t want to spoil too much because I do think that part of the appeal is the slow reveal and the surprises that come with it. What I will say is that LaValle has once again taken something that we’ve seen before, but turned it on its head and made it feel fresh, unique, and tragic on top of the scary. Adelaide is running from a violent moment that has changed the course of her life, and she is bringing with her the literal baggage that comes with that violent moment, and we have no clue as to what it is. But what we do know is that she is desperate to keep that baggage contained, whether it is the actual bag that she has brought with her, or the trauma that has been inflicted upon her and her family due to the circumstances that fell upon them all. I loved the slow tension of the trunk with the lock, and I also loved the slow burn horror elements that were more steeped in realism. I was just as nervous of Adelaide when she was surrounded by suspicious people whose motives we had no clue about as I was worried about just what it was that she was lugging around in the trunk. And I REALLY loved what exactly it was what was in said trunk, as it reminded me of a specific story that I had enjoyed at one point, but have turned my back on as of late due to questions of ethical consumption of it. And that’s all I will say.

And I won’t tell so as not to ruin it. (source)

But it is also the very gritty and realistically bleak historical fiction aspects of this book that jump off the page. LaValle weaves together a tapestry of not only the American imperialist ideals of Manifest Destiny, but also the way that the American Government would use this to its own advantage, and how it could appeal to a group of Othered women. Whether it is Adelaide due to her race as well as her horrific burden, or neighbor Grace and her son Sam who are functioning as a single mother and child trying to make it together, or Miss Bertie and Fiona Wong who are not only women of color but also two lesbians who have to hide who they are, the idea of being ‘lone women’ and trying to make a life in isolation, as well as while carrying various secrets that may keep them emotionally isolated, was profound as hell. The grim realities of trying to make it in an unfamiliar place with harsh winters, the danger of being a woman alone with strangers passing through, the way that the haves will try and take advantage of the have nots, all of it feels very real and unromantic takes on the idea of the West. This book absolutely feels like a Western, but it doesn’t make it seem like a charming simpler time you may find in a John Wayne movie. It highlights the misogyny, colonialism, and racism of that ideal. And I loved that.

“Lone Women” is another fantastic novel by Victor LaValle that takes on horror themes and tweaks them to feel more resonant and poignant than one may expect. I always love LaValle’s horror works, and this one is, I think, my favorite of the lot.

Rating 9: Breathtaking horror and gritty historical fiction rolled into one, “Lone Women” shows the tenacity of outsider women with secrets, some of which are otherworldly.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Lone Women” is included on the Goodreads lists “The Best Historical Horror Novels”, and “Horror to Look Forward To in 2023”.

Kate’s Review: “The London Séance Society”

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

Book: “The London Séance Society” by Sarah Penner

Publishing Info: Park Row, March 2023

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: 1873. At an abandoned château on the outskirts of Paris, a dark séance is about to take place, led by acclaimed spiritualist Vaudeline D’Allaire. Known worldwide for her talent in conjuring the spirits of murder victims to ascertain the identities of the people who killed them, she is highly sought after by widows and investigators alike.

Lenna Wickes has come to Paris to find answers about her sister’s death, but to do so, she must embrace the unknown and overcome her own logic-driven bias against the occult. When Vaudeline is beckoned to England to solve a high-profile murder, Lenna accompanies her as an understudy. But as the women team up with the powerful men of London’s exclusive Séance Society to solve the mystery, they begin to suspect that they are not merely out to solve a crime, but perhaps entangled in one themselves

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

I was very enamored with Sarah Penner’s previous novel “The Lost Apothecary”, as it told the story of women who had to take their lives and sense of justice into their own hands during a time when there were so few options granted to them should they be abused by powerful men. Talk about cathartic! So I knew that when she came out with a new historical thriller/mystery I would definitely want to check it out. You can probably guess that when I saw that her new book was called “The London Séance Society”, I was VERY excited. Not only was Penner doing another woman centric historical thriller with a feminist bent, but she was also maybe bringing in GHOSTS! Or at the very least the ideas of ghosts, mediums, and séances from the Victorian Spiritualism movement!

The thriller and dark fantasy elements of this book worked really well together, branching out from her previous genre that’s steeped in non-supernatural themes and doing so with success. I really loved the mystery as renowned medium Vaudeline and her apprentice Lenna are pulled into the mysterious death of Vaudeline’s friend Mr. Volckman, who was the head of the men’s only spiritualist group The London Séance Society, and how both women have their reasons for wanting to find the truth about him and his group. For Vaudeline, she is trying to keep the reputation of spiritualism untainted, and the LSS is rumored to be a bit suspect. For Lenna, it’s that her sister Evie (a former student of Vaudeline and aspiring medium) was murdered, and Lenna is trying to figure out what happened to her, while realizing that she, too, may have gifts that she doesn’t really believe in.

We had a couple perspectives, the first being a third person perspective of Lenna as she tries to solve her sister’s murder. Lenna is skeptical and grief stricken, but is also finding herself growing more attracted to Vaudeline as they prepare to conduct a séance with the LSS. The other perspective is that of Mr. Morley, one of the high ranking members of the LSS, and his is in the first person and generally in the past. With both these perspectives we get the pieces of the two puzzles, and we start to wonder who can be trusted and what is real and what is not. I did find myself questioning the motives and perspectives of a few of the characters, and I was surprised by a few of the reveals. It’s a well done mystery with some moments of true suspense, as well as some solid supernatural bits and elements that worked well. I liked Lenna enough, I REALLY liked Vaudeline, and most of the characters had interesting moments and felt pretty grounded in reality given the time, the place, and their motives. I also liked that from the jump we know that while Lenna is skeptical, Vaudeline has a very real gift and talent, and that the ghost aspects of this book were leaned into and made for an interesting fantasy angle.

I really do have to gush about the setting of this story, as the Victorian Era has something of a special place in my heart due to the fact I used to work as an interpreter in a Victorian mansion in St. Paul. Penner hits the nail on the head with the historical tidbits when it comes to spiritualism, séances, gender and class divisions, and superstitions of the time period, and uses it all to create a well conceived mystery with it’s fair share of timeless themes. I loved that our protagonists Vaudeline and Lenna are two women mediums who are trying to solve the murders of Volckman and Evie, but are coming up against a men’s only group that has taken the skills of women mediums, twisted them for monetary gains, and has banned women from the group altogether while creating fraudulent practices that endanger the reputations of real spiritualists like Vaudeline. I mean, how freaking typical (and also true! The LSS is based on the actual Ghost Club from that time period, and no, women were NOT allowed even thought it was women who were the pioneers of the spiritualism movement, fraudulent as it was). There is also a very handy historical note at the back of the book that puts a lot of this into context AND has recipes for a couple refreshments of the time period AND has a candle making guide! This is my total jam and it was a fun surprise at the end of the book.

I enjoyed “The London Séance Society”, and Sarah Penner has started a streak of engaging historical thrillers. I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next!

Rating 8: A compelling mystery that puts women mediums at the forefront and explores spiritualism, misogyny, and an obsession with the dead during the Victorian Era.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The London Séance Society” is included on the Goodreads lists “Bone Book Club” and “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2023”.

Serena’s Review: “A Tempest at Sea”

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Book: “A Tempest at Sea” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: After feigning her own death in Cornwall to escape from Moriarty’s perilous attention, Charlotte Holmes goes into hiding. But then she receives a tempting offer: Find a dossier the crown is desperately seeking to recover, and she might be able to go back to a normal life.

Her search leads her aboard the RMS Provence, sailing from Southampton for the eastern hemisphere. But on the night Charlotte makes her move to retrieve the dossier, in the midst of a terrifying storm in the Bay of Biscay, a brutal murder also takes place on the ship.

Instead of solving the crime, as she is accustomed to doing, Charlotte must take care not to be embroiled in this investigation, lest it become known to those who harbor ill intentions that Sherlock Holmes is abroad and still very much alive.

Previously Reviewed: “A Study in Scarlet Women” and “A Conspiracy in Belgravia” and “The Hollow of Fear” and “The Art of Theft” and “Murder on Cold Street” and “Miss Moriarty, I Presume?”

Review: I’m always so excited when I see another book coming out in Sherry Thomas’s “Charlotte Holmes” series. While I’ve had favorites throughout the series so far, I’ve never disliked any books in this series. They’ve all been smart, and Charlotte Holmes always comes through with the insightful goods. But I was especially looking forward to this book given the way the previous one ended with Charlotte faking her own death to escape Moriarty. Where would this next book go if Charlotte has to be in hiding?

Life in hiding is not the life for her, Charlotte Holmes as quickly decided. So when she’s offered protection from Moriarty if she helps locate a missing piece of information, she jumps at the opportunity. Soon enough, her mission finds her book passage on a ship alongside several friends and foes alike. What seems like a simple enough mission to search a few cabins and locate the dossier quickly becomes overshadowed when a murder takes place on the ship. Now the investigation into the murder could expose Charlotte to the minions of Moriarty unless she can solve the case first.

I always really enjoy closed circle mysteries, that is, those where a murder takes place and all of the suspects are contained within a location that they cannot leave. Not only does it quickly reduce the number of suspects to a small-ish number, but these types of mysteries often involve a lot of complicated relationships between all of these characters as well as the victim. So this book, with its setting of a small, luxury ship is a perfect example of this sort of mystery and Thomas takes full advantage.

I also really liked that this book contains a mystery within a mystery. It starts with what should be a straight-forward search for a missing dossier. But that quickly gets subsumed by the murder mystery that threatens to ruin all of Charlotte and co.’s good work and expose Charlotte to the eyes of the Moriarty minion they are sure is tracing their footsteps. Both mysteries were incredibly clever on their own, but the way that they wove in and out of one another was truly impressive. Because so many people are working different angles with their own very distinct agendas, it’s a constant puzzle trying to piece together who knows what and whose team (or any team!) they are on.

This book also adds an interesting layer by jumping back and forth in time from the ongoing investigation to events that transpired during the night of the murder itself. This tactic worked so well! There were only three or so of these jumps back to the past, but each one, in only a small number of pages, manages to take the entire mystery so far and then turn it at a new angle, making everything suddenly look different with new suspects all around. It was very effective and always added an extra little zing of interest to the story.

I also really liked the small bits that we got from Charlotte and Lord Ingram. Their relationship has always been solidly a second tier plotline to the main mystery, which I think is probably for the best given the complexity of the murder mysteries and the types of characters that Charlotte and Lord Ingram are. However, while we still don’t get a lot of time with them here, there were some very sweet moments between the two. Slowly, slowly, we see this relationship continue to develop as both Charlotte and Lord Ingram grow into this new romance and must grapple with their own emotions.

I really enjoyed this latest installment in this series. I thought all of the side characters were excellent, with a good mixture of “villains” that were fun to hate on and new sympathetic characters you wanted to root for. On top of that, there was a good balance of important moments for our regular cast of characters. This is a solid entry all around, and I think fans of the series will likely be pleased.

Rating: Thomas takes the closed-circle mystery concept and brings in Charlotte Holmes to crack the case wide open!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Tempest at Sea” isn’t currently on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Sherlock Holmes Reimaginings and Retellings.

Kate’s Review: “The Girl from Rawblood”

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Book: “The Girl from Rawblood” by Catriona Ward

Publishing Info: Poisoned Pen Press, March 2023

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a print copy from the publisher.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: At the turn of England’s century, as the wind whistles in the lonely halls of Rawblood, young Iris Villarca is the last of her family’s line. They are haunted, through the generations, by “her,” a curse passed down through ancient blood that marks each Villarca for certain heartbreak, and death.

Iris forsakes her promise to her father, to remain alone, safe from the world. She dares to fall in love, and the consequences of her choice are immediate and terrifying. As the world falls apart around her, she must take a final journey back to Rawblood where it all began and where it must all end

From the sun dappled hills of Italy to the biting chill of Victorian dissection halls, The Girl from Rawblood is a lyrical and haunting historical novel of darkness, love, and the ghosts of the past.

Review: Thank you to Poisoned Pen Press for sending me a print copy of this novel!

Even though I hadn’t heard of Catriona Ward until I read “The Last House on Needless Street”, that was hardly her first literary and horror story rodeo. Her actual debut novel is “The Girl from Rawblood”, an award winning Gothic ghost story that is now being re-released. I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of the new edition just in time for an out of country trip that ended up with me sitting on an unplanned layover in Phoenix, as I needed reading material to get through the injustice of it all. I do love going back and seeing previously overlooked debuts of authors I like, as usually it’s fun to see the growth. Well in this case, there wasn’t much growth to be had, and I mean that in the good way. In many ways this doesn’t read like a debut, it reads like a seasoned Gothic author.

The brightest bit was the slow build up and world building of ‘her’, the curse that has been tormenting and killing the Villarca Family of Rawblood for generations. I love a rage filled ghost, and this one was giving me serious “The Haunting of Bly Manor” Lady in the Lake vibes. Ward really does have a talent for really freaky and tragic imagery in her stories, and I really liked just how creepy this curse was, mostly because we do get some is it real or is it not unreliability due to flashbacks of the frantic and frenzied Alonso, Iris’s father who has sheltered her in hopes of saving her, when his isolation of her seems just as terrible in her mind. In true Gothic fashion we are left to wonder if perhaps it’s Alonso’s madness due to generational trauma, romantic loss (more on that soon!) and grief that is the real culprit. But ah, this is Catriona Ward, so ultimately this is, indeed, a haunted house story. But there can be many hauntings, both of the past and ghostly kinds.

There is a lot of time jumping and historical fiction genre exploration in this as well, and that is ultimately what bogged the story down for me just a bit. Firstly, though, the good: I do love a historical Gothic novel with lots of melodrama and angst, and lord knows this book is frothing with it. This is Ward’s debut novel, and in a lot of ways it is a VERY impressive debut, as she has a lot going on and generally knows how to juggle all of it. But it is also a bit bloated, at least for me, in how much we are finding ourselves exploring. We have Iris’s story as she tries to push back against her father’s pleas to never fall in love, but we also go back to see Alonso and his medical school friend/forbidden love interest Charles try to approach this curse as though it is hereditary and more illness based, and see how their relationship grows and deteriorates and ends in, you guessed it, horrible tragedy. And THEN we also jump back to previous Villarcas and family members who have lived in Rawblood and the terrible fates that befell them, and I think that the out of order and abrupt jumps and shifts were a bit too jarring for me.

But having said that, it’s great that “The Girl from Rawblood” is being rereleased, because Ward was showing literary prowess with this as her debut, and prowess as a horror author at that. It all started here.

Rating 7: An eerie premise and an unsettling ghost story, “The Girl from Rawblood” is a chilling historical Gothic tale, though at times the jumps in time dragged a bit.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl from Rawblood” is included on the Goodreads lists “Gothic Historical Fiction”, and “Dual Time Mysteries”.

Kate’s Review: “My Dear Henry: A Jekyll & Hyde Remix”

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Book: “My Dear Henry: A Jekyll & Hyde Remix” by Kalynn Bayron

Publishing Info: Feiwel Friends, March 2023

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: London, 1885. Gabriel Utterson, a 17-year-old law clerk, has returned to London for the first time since his life— and that of his dearest friend, Henry Jekyll—was derailed by a scandal that led to his and Henry’s expulsion from the London Medical School. Whispers about the true nature of Gabriel and Henry’s relationship have followed the boys for two years, and now Gabriel has a chance to start again.

But Gabriel doesn’t want to move on, not without Henry. His friend has become distant and cold since the disastrous events of the prior spring, and now his letters have stopped altogether. Desperate to discover what’s become of him, Gabriel takes to watching the Jekyll house.

In doing so, Gabriel meets Hyde, a a strangely familiar young man with white hair and a magnetic charisma. He claims to be friends with Henry, and Gabriel can’t help but begin to grow jealous at their apparent closeness, especially as Henry continues to act like Gabriel means nothing to him.

But the secret behind Henry’s apathy is only the first part of a deeper mystery that has begun to coalesce. Monsters of all kinds prowl within the London fog—and not all of them are out for blood

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

I first read “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in college in my favorite class of all time: “Monsters, Robots, and Cyborgs”. Thank goodness for an unofficial Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature minor! We looked at horror, fantasy, and science fiction stories of the past and present and what they said about cultural and societal anxieties, so of course “Jekyll and Hyde” is ripe for the picking. Think about it: a somewhat obsessive scientist creates a potion that can change him from mild mannered academic to a brutish, cruel, uninhibited psychopath, talk about a great way to talk about the complexities of humankind while creating a suspenseful mystery to explore that. So when I saw that one of the “Remixed Classics” books was going to take on this story, I was VERY excited to see how it was going to be reimagined with newer themes and a more diverse perspective for modern young adult audiences. Suffice to say, “My Dear Henry” by Kalynn Bayron was an anticipated read. And in a lot of ways it lived up to my anticipation.

Bayron reimagines the classic tale of a personified split identity and the calamities that follow, by making our protagonists Henry Jekyll and narrator Gabriel Utterson young adults, Black, and queer, and setting them in a Victorian London that will hold those identities against them. This was immediately resonant and very incisive, and it works so well for the themes of the source material while expanding upon them to make them even more complex. It’s especially clever because there are, indeed, questions as to Robert Louis Stevenson’s sexuality and whether these themes were also hidden in his original “Jekyll and Hyde” idea. To expand upon that and to make Hyde less of a symbol for the uninhibited ‘evil’ of man and instead to make it a symbol of uninhibited ability to be oneself is poignant as hell. As Gabriel and Henry are drawn to each other and fall for each other, the cultural mores at the time makes it so that they have to hide their feelings from others, and when they ARE found out it leads to the path of Jekyll to Hyde, and leads to lots of poignancy and pathos. It makes the “Jekyll and Hyde” story all the more tragic, as this Hyde isn’t a violent madman, he’s a manifestation of love that was criminalized and feared. And to make it even more complex, our main characters are Black, and having Black characters set in Victorian England is a great choice for a few reasons. The first is that it makes the marginalization of Gabriel and Henry even deeper, as the racism in English society has already made them vulnerable, just as it has made their fathers, especially Jekyll Sr. (as he is the one we see more of), all the more intent on stifling their sons because of their already targeted identities. The other is that it is so common to see Black narratives in this time and place ignored or questioned, as if Black people didn’t exist in England during this time period, so to counteract this erasure within this story was really, really enjoyable.

And since it is a remix of an old tale, I do want to talk about how effective of a retelling it was. And I thought that in a lot of ways it succeeded, and in a couple ways it didn’t quite capture it. In terms of successes, it does have the characters and the plot points of the original story, either tweaked, reimagined, or adapted to suit the newer narrative and thematic ideas, and it does this really well. You are definitely reading the Jekyll and Hyde story at the heart of the book, when I’ve seen adaptations that just slap on the idea of a reimagining without actually doing the work to make the new ideas coexist with the old. But I do think that one thing that did let me down about this book was that while it is definitely Jekyll and Hyde, it does give it a whole new flavor that kind of takes the suspense and thrills of the original out of it. It’s very possible that because this story is SO old hat that maybe there aren’t really ways to be held in suspense by it anymore, but I wonder if there could have been a way to make it feel like a thriller and to mine a new kind of suspense? I’m unsure.

Overall, I did enjoy “My Dear Henry” and I liked the directions that Bayron took this classic horror story of identity and repression. It’s an effective reimagining and brings out new ideas from a timeless tale.

Rating 8: A clever remix of “The Curious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” that takes on the dualities of identity in a society that doesn’t accept certain people for who they are, though it doesn’t capture the suspense that the original had.

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Dear Henry: A Jekyll & Hyde Remix” is included on the Goodreads lists “Black Queer 2023 Releases”, and “Jekyll and Hyde Retellings”.

Serena’s Review: “The Magician’s Daughter”

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Book: “The Magician’s Daughter” by H. G. Parry

Publishing Info: Redhook, February 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

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

Book Description: It is 1912, and for the last seventy years magic has all but disappeared from the world. Yet magic is all Biddy has ever known.

Orphaned in a shipwreck as a baby, Biddy grew up on Hy-Brasil, a legendary island off the coast of Ireland hidden by magic and glimpsed by rare travelers who return with stories of wild black rabbits and a lone magician in a castle. To Biddy, the island is her home, a place of ancient trees and sea-salt air and mysteries, and the magician, Rowan, is her guardian. She loves both, but as her seventeenth birthday approaches, she is stifled by her solitude and frustrated by Rowan’s refusal to let her leave. He himself leaves almost every night, transforming into a raven and flying to the mainland, and never tells her where or why he goes.

One night, Rowan fails to come home from his mysterious travels. When Biddy ventures into his nightmares to rescue him, she learns not only where he goes every night, but the terrible things that happened in the last days of magic that caused Rowan to flee to Hy-Brasil. Rowan has powerful enemies who threaten the safety of the island. Biddy’s determination to protect her home and her guardian takes her away from the safety of Hy-Brasil, to the poorhouses of Whitechapel, a secret castle beneath London streets, the ruins of an ancient civilization, and finally to a desperate chance to restore lost magic. But the closer she comes to answers, the more she comes to question everything she has ever believed about Rowan, her origins, and the cost of bringing magic back into the world.

Review: First things first, I absolutely love this book’s cover! It’s so unique and eye-catching. I’m on the record as disliking books using cover-models, and I’m even starting to burn out a little on the cartoonish characters (though there are still versions of this theme I can get behind.) But I think this cover does exactly what a good cover is meant to do: it communicates exactly what kind of book you’re going to get. And here, that would be a book taking place in a historical setting and featuring a fairytale-like tone of fantasy. So, well done cover artist! Let’s get to the book itself, though.

While Biddy understands that a world exists beyond the boundaries of the smile island that she shares with her magician guardian, Rowan, and his rabbit familiar, but all that she knows of it comes from books. Not only has she never seen a city, but while she knows that magic disappeared from the larger world decades ago, for her, growing up, she has been surrounded by it. But soon she sees that there are darker shadows growing in Rowans eyes every time he returns from the mysterious ventures to the outer world he goes on each night. As she finally begins to demand answers to her growing questions, she learns that there is much more going on in the world outside her home than she had ever suspected. And soon she may be needed to play a much larger role in shaping the future than she ever could have imagined.

I absolutely adored this book, as I knew I would almost from the first page of the novel. Of course, things could have always taken a turn for the dire, but the tone and style of the writing was exactly the sort that always appeals to me. The author was direct, and yet whimsical, deftly exploring the world and characters she had created while never falling into the trap of exposition or strange, narrated infodumps. On top of this, the dialogue was witty and had me laughing right from the start, particularly the interactions between Rowan and his familiar, Hutchingson.

But a book cannot live on funny dialogue alone. Indeed, for me, it really comes down to the characters themselves, and as Biddy is the protagonist with whom we travel this story alongside, the book lived and died based on her characterization. She, too, was exactly the sort of leading teenage character I enjoy. It’s a coming of age story where the character is doing exactly that…coming of age. She doesn’t start out as some “best assassin/thief/princess/etc.” and, indeed, the stories she paints about herself are challenged throughout the book. As she comes to understand the world and her own place in it, she must grow into understand the complexities of all the moving pieces and people in it. Rarely is anyone a true hero or true villain. Biddy must come to understand the adults in her life and the stories they, too, have built up around themselves and how they behave in the world and the choices they make. There were strong themes of family, choice, and the duties we have to those around us, both those with whom we are familiar and care for and those stranger who we will never meet but who we understand as humans too who deserve care and kindness as much as the next person.

I also really liked the way that the magic system was used to explore these themes. For what starts as a simple fantasy premise, that magic is leaving/has left the world, the author leverages this topic into deeper conversations about how society responds to emergencies. From what can be well-intentioned decisions going wrong to how those who seek power can take advantage to consolidate wealth into their own pockets at the expense of the many. It was really well done, and the story definitely took some twists and turns towards the last half that really surprised me and left me on the edge of my seat.

Indeed, I really have nothing to criticize about this book! I think it perfectly accomplished everything it set out to do, and it will surely appeal to all fantasy fans who are looking for a great fairytale-esque stand-alone fantasy. I can’t wait to see what the author does next! I’ll definitely be first in line to find out.

Rating 10: Heart-wrenching in all the right ways, this fairytale fantasy deftly explores important themes of individual choice and the responsibilities we have towards the least of those in society.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Magician’s Daughter” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Magicians in Historical Fiction.

Serena’s Review: “Queen Among the Dead”

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Book: “Queen Among the Dead” by Lesley Livingston

Publishing Info: Zando Young Readers, January 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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