Serena’s Review: “The Orchid Throne”

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Book: “The Orchid Throne” by Jeffe Kennedy

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

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

Book Description: As Queen of the island kingdom of Calanthe, Euthalia will do anything to keep her people free—and her secrets safe—from the mad tyrant who rules the mainland. Guided by a magic ring of her father’s, Lia plays the political game with the cronies the emperor sends to her island. In her heart, she knows that it’s up to her to save herself from her fate as the emperor’s bride. But in her dreams, she sees a man, one with the power to build a better world—a man whose spirit is as strong, and whose passion is as fierce as her own…

Conrí, former Crown Prince of Oriel, has built an army to overthrow the emperor. But he needs the fabled Abiding Ring to succeed. The ring that Euthalia holds so dear to her heart. When the two banished rulers meet face to face, neither can deny the flames of rebellion that flicker in their eyes—nor the fires of desire that draw them together. But in this broken world of shattered kingdoms, can they ever really trust each other? Can their fiery alliance defeat the shadows of evil that threaten to engulf their hearts and souls?

Review: I’ve read a few books by Jeffe Kennedy in the past, though I don’t think I’ve reviewed any of them for the blog? She typically writes fairly light-hearted romantic fantasy, and I’ve enjoyed her books in the past. I’ve seen her recent trilogy pop up on Edelweiss over the last few years and finally decided that now was the time to give her another go!

Decades before, a tyrant discovered a powerful, explosive force that allowed him to conquer all of the small kingdoms and force them into unwilling submission as part of his empire. Ruin and destruction is still remembered by the populous, and one young prince has had to reimagine himself as a warrior rebel while trapped in a slave mine. Slowly, he is now working his way towards his revenge on the emperor who destroyed his land and home. But one kingdom survived: the beautiful island of Calanthe. For its ruler welcomed the conquering empire when he came to their shores and promised his own daughter to be a future bride. Now grown, Euthalia works to maintain the tremulous independence that her father bought her land at the price of her hand. But time is running out and the emperor is coming to collect. Soon enough, a rebel prince and a ruling queen will cross paths, and what comes could change the course of the world.

As I said, it’s been a few years since I’ve read anything from this author. And while I remember liking her books, they were also of the sort that I enjoyed reading in the moment, but then quickly forgot. But either my opinion has shifted in the ensuing years or this trilogy is starting off on a stronger foot than Kennedy’s previous books. I really liked what this book had to offer! Most of all, I liked that while it definitely has a strong romance at its heart, the author wisely spends a significant amount of time firmly establishing her two leads as individuals in their own rights. They each have distinct histories and experience, particularly with how their countries and parents dealt with the cruel emperor who now rules them all. Due to these histories, they each have very different priorities when they meet each other, only grudgingly seeing eye to eye, if at all.

Conri’s story is the more straight-forward and familiar of the two with his arc of tragedy, followed by oppression, followed by revolution and then a single-minded focus on punishing the man who tore down his world as a child. But Euthalia’s story is more complex. Her father’s decision to not fight the conquering emperor lead to much derision and scorn by the other nations that fought him. But now, in the aftermath, Euthalia’s home is the only one that remains even partially independent. As such, Euthalia herself walks a fine line as the only remaining ruler, at once trying to protect her people while also delaying her wedding to the emperor. When Contri arrives on her doorstep, all she sees is bloodshed and ruin. And all Conri sees is a frivolous court ruled by a frivolous queen.

I also really liked the general tone of this story. While this world is one big history of tragedy, the story itself reads as largely light-hearted with a good amount of laugh-out-loud dialogue. I also particularly enjoyed the fact that Kennedy leaves reveals for both late in the book and, in some cases, for the next book entirely. There are mysteries to be still found about Euthalia’s homeland and why her father chose what he did. I have the second book loaded up on my Kindle already, and I’m excited to find out what’s to come. I definitely recommend this book to fans of fantasy romance and those looking for a lighter fantasy novel.

Rating 8: Like the lush magical kingdom at its heart, this book overflows with wonder and hidden power. Sure to please fantasy romance lovers everywhere!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Orchid Throne” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Hidden Gems Across the Genres and Adult Fantasy Romance.

Serena’s Review: “Raven Unveiled”

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Book: “Raven Unveiled” by Grace Draven

Publishing Info: Ace Books, November 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+!

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

Book Description: Siora has been on the run for longer than she cares to remember, from her past and her gift. Born with the ability to see and speak to ghosts, she has heard their desperate pleas as an otherworldly predator stalks the dead amid the fertile killing fields of the collapsing Krael Empire. The creature’s power and reach are growing with every soul it consumes, but Siora is preoccupied with her own troubles: namely an assassin who has sworn an oath of vengeance against her.

Gharek of Cabast was once the right-hand man of the reviled empress but is now a wanted fugitive. Although his reasons for hunting Siora are viscerally personal, what Gharek can’t anticipate is that when he finally does find her, she will hold the key to saving his world, or what’s left of it. To make good on old debts and protect the vulnerable dead from a malevolent force, Gharek and Siora will both need to make an ally out of an enemy—and trust that will be enough to save each other.

Previously Reviewed: “Phoenix Unbound” and “Dragon Unleashed”

Review: I’ve really enjoyed the, at this point, many books I’ve read by Grace Draven. She has a fairly significant back catalog that I have been slowly working my way through. But it’s also been fun to read her “Fallen Empire” trilogy as it’s been published in real time. So far, I’ve really liked both of the books in this trilogy. We’re introduced to the main characters for this book back in “Dragon Unleashed,” so I was already primed with excitement to get to their story here. Plus, who doesn’t love a good old “enemies to lovers” romance??

Siora had finally felt as if she had a place and the beginnings of a home. But then, in an effort to save lives, including that of her young war, Siora was forced to betray the man who had taken her in. For his part, Gharek is not one to forget and forgive. While he is a wanted man by many for his role as the late queen’s assassin, he is still driven with one goal and one goal only: find the woman who betrayed his, and his daughter’s, trust. But as they race in a game of cat and mouse, Siora and Gharek begin to realize that larger forces are moving in the world and they have to trust one another if they have any hope of overcoming it.

So, shocking take here given everything I already said about this author and this series so far but…yeah, I really enjoyed this one! Ok? Ok, review done? But in all seriousness, it’s always so great to find an author who consistently churns out enjoyable books. I’ve definitely had preferences and favorites, but I’ve never actively disliked a book by Graven. And this trilogy in particular has been very consistent throughout: great individual stories, great characters, great love stories, and an interesting world and history that connects them all.

By the third book in the trilogy, readers should be very familiar with all of these elements, and in a lot of ways it was like returning to a cozy, favorite place. Don’t get me wrong, this world is brutal and cruel. But as a reader, it’s also full of lovely characters and stories, and by the time you get to the third book, you’re on constant look out for returning faces. The fear, then, is that the new characters could be washed out by older characters. But Gharek and Siora definitely hold strong on their own.

I found Siora’s character and her story particularly compelling. Hers is a tale of long experience living on the outside of society. But through these experiences, and the influence of her late father, she has developed a keen sense of right and wrong. So devoted to this path, she follows these instincts even when they work against her own best interest. Indeed, this is what has lead to the situation she finds herself in now: on the run from her late employer, Gharek. For his part, Gharek’s journey is much more introspective. His role and position in the world has been pulled out from beneath him. He’s still a father, but he is barely able to understand how to be that (or any other loving role) without falling back on the destructive tendencies that had made him successful. He loves his daughter more than anything, but then to express this he leaves her behind in pursuit of revenge that she didn’t ask for. This, of course, also is seen in his growing relationship and feelings towards Siora.

The pacing and action of this book does stumble a bit. For one thing, though we get a decent amount of time with Siora and Gharek together, I found myself always wishing for more. Maybe it was the many stages that this relationship needed to go through, but I found that each of these stages could have used a bit more fleshing out. I also stumbled a bit with the “big bad” of this story. In the past two books, the Empress was a very present evil. We saw her repeatedly and her influence on everyone and her kingdom was obvious. But this book opens with her having been dealt with already. And then the evil that we do end up with is of a much more nebulous sort. The danger was unique, the way that Siora’s death powers played into this was cool, but I just found myself lacking real investment in this storyline.

Overall, however, I really liked this book. Siora and Gharek have a lovely romance, and in a lot of ways, it checks off many of my favorite tropes. The actual plotting of this book was probably not my favorite of the three, but it was also by no means bad. I flew through this book in only a few days and highly recommend it to fantasy romance fans (as part of the entire trilogy, of course!)

Rating 8: An excellent conclusion to the trilogy, but I found the love story more compelling than the actual plot of hte book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Raven Unveiled” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on “Characters Who Hide Their Powers.”

Kate’s Review: “Blackwater”

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Book: “Blackwater” by Jeannette Arroyo & Ren Graham

Publishing Info: Henry Holt & Co. (BYR), July 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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

Book Description: Tony Price is a popular high school track star and occasional delinquent aching for his dad’s attention and approval. Eli Hirsch is a quiet boy with a chronic autoimmune disorder that has ravaged his health and social life. What happens when these two become unlikely friends (and a whole lot more . . .) in the spooky town of Blackwater, Maine? Werewolf curses, unsavory interactions with the quarterback of the football team, a ghostly fisherman haunting the harbor, and tons of high school drama.

Co-illustrated by Jeannette Arroyo and Ren Graham, who alternate drawing chapters in their own unique and dynamic styles, Blackwater combines the spookiness of Anya’s Ghost with the irreverent humor of Nimona.

Review: I’m admittedly a bit of a slacker lately when it comes to graphic novels, and I am making a promise to myself that in 2023 I am going to try and do a better job of reading more graphics. But when I saw “Blackwater” by Jeannette Arroyo and Ren Graham on my Goodreads feed, it caught my eye, and I made sure to get my hands on it for 2022. It has a lot of great things going for it: a horror graphic novel! With POC and queer and trans characters! With a spooky cover right off the bat!

So first, the werewolf stuff. Werewolves aren’t a subgenre I dislike by any means, I just don’t find myself reading or consuming much around this kind of monster (that said, read “Such Sharp Teeth!” by Rachel Harrison!). But I do know when a werewolf story has hamfisted metaphors as opposed to well done ones, and “Blackwater” has a mix of both. For one, this isn’t REALLY werewolves in a traditional sense as it’s more about emotional state than moon phases. Once Tony, one of our protagonists, gets bit, he’s turning into a wolf whenever his feelings get the better of him, usually rage. Which is, frankly, a bit obvious and a little bit of a cheat to say it’s werewolves when it’s not REALLY at the heart of the matter werewolves, mythos wise. But on the flip side, there is a good exploration of grief and loss in this book that does also tie into wolf transformation, but also as it applies to other characters and the hardships they are facing. One protagonist Tony is grieving a broken relationship with his father or a changing friendship with a childhood friend, just as other protagonist Eli is grieving a strained relationship with his mother because of how she responds to his chronic illness. Both of them feel lonely in their own ways, and that fits into the overall metaphor well too. There is also a side story involving Eli’s ability to see ghosts and a ghostly fisherman who has some unfinished business on Earth that I found to be the most effective storyline, but I don’t want to go into why I found it as such as it will be pretty spoiler heavy if I did. But let’s just say that I did find myself crying a bit with this whole plot line.

But here is the aspect that didn’t work for me and I wish it had: the romance between Tony and Eli. I get what the authors were trying to do, having them slowly start to fall for each other after each having preconceived notions about the other, and having them both grow as people in a coming of age tale where their romance is just the icing on the cake. But the issue I had with this was 1) I didn’t feel like I got to know either of them well enough to get super invested, and 2) there is a moment that REALLY derailed it for me, and I need to talk about it a bit so I’m going to do a

So early on in the book, Tony is still pretty chummy with (though admittedly outgrowing) his childhood best friend Biff. Biff is a complete jerk, and he bullies Eli for being weird and solitary and different, and Tony, though he doesn’t approve, feels like he can’t push back against his friend. He doesn’t participate, but he doesn’t stop it either. He also offhandedly mentions to Eli that he has asthma and has to use an inhaler before his track meets. Eli, angry that Tony didn’t stand up for him, takes his inhaler out of his bag and throws it into the woods. Then Tony has an asthma attack during the track meet, to the point an ambulance has to be called. He ends up just fine, but still, that’s pretty serious. And when it does come out that Eli did this, there is anger on Tony’s part, but he is pretty much told that ‘hey, Eli made a mistake, but you should forgive him’ and that is that, and I just…. That didn’t sit well with me. I don’t have asthma so I’m not going to speak for those who do, but I do have memories of my younger sister having to be up at 3am with a nebulizer multiple times a week because of her asthma making it hard for her to breathe, so for this kind of thing to be dismissed as a slip up versus something that is potentially VERY dangerous was hard to swallow. I don’t need Eli to be a villain over it, because yes, people do make mistakes when they are in pain and it can be nuanced! But it made it hard for me to be rooting for them as a couple when Eli did this and then kept it a secret for so long. Add in a vague lack of fleshed out chemistry and it just didn’t justify the romantic reconciliation. If there was more time to give me a relationship chemistry based reason for them to overcome this I could have been more forgiving, probably. I’ve done it before! But I just didn’t see the chemistry or character development for that.

And I do want to mention the artwork, mostly because the two authors, Arroyo and Graham, alternate taking on the illustrations as the story is told. I liked the round robin-esque aspect of this and the way that two creators come together to tell a story through their own aesthetics. It doesn’t really add anything to the story at hand, but it’s a fun idea and I think they executed it well. I also liked their styles overall. They hit the right tone, with scary elements when needed but sweet designs as well.

(source: blackwatercomic.tumblr.com)

So when it comes to werewolf themes and romance I thought that “Blackwater” was a bit lackluster, but the deeper themes of grief and loss were well conceived and constructed. Ultimately I’d say it was ‘okay’.

Rating 6: It’s an okay werewolf tale with some decent themes about grief that work, but the romance was so so when I had hoped I’d be more invested. Plus there’s a moment that I thought was pretty unforgivable that’s glossed over.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Blackwater” is included on the Goodreads lists “Trans YA Fiction”, and “BIPOC Boy MC in YA Fantasy/SciFi/Mystery”.

Joint Review: “Rules of Engagement”

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Book: “Rules of Engagement” by Selena Montgomery

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, September 2022

Where Did We Get this Book: ALA!

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

Book Description: Dr. Raleigh Foster, an operative for a top-secret intelligence organization, knows that her undercover work has its risks. So she doesn’t hesitate when asked to infiltrate Scimitar, the terrorist group that has stolen lethal environmental technology. But when she’s assigned a partner–brooding, sexy Adam Grayson–to pose as her lover, Raleigh discovers that the most dangerous risk of all…is falling in love.

Adam blames himself for the botched mission that got his best friend killed by Scimitar, and he believes that Raleigh may have contributed to the man’s death. But the closer he works with his alluring partner, the more his suspicions turn to trust–and intense desire. Now, as he and Raleigh untangle a twisted web of secrets and lies, the tension mounts between them…until their masquerade as a couple proves too tempting to resist.

Serena’s Thoughts:

Kate and I nabbed ARCs of this book during a preview panel at ALA. While I don’t typically read this sort of romance novel (I tend to stick within my genres, even with romance and am much more likely to pick up a fantasy or historical romance before a contemporary story), the plot synopsis of this one did stand out to me. Who can not be interested in undercover agents falling in love?

And there were things to enjoy as far as this premise goes. I liked the action scenes and the build up of tension during some of the undercover moments. The story was also written in an approachable, fast-paced manner and I was able to blow through it pretty quickly. I think readers of this sort of romance will likely very much enjoy it.

However, it is also very much of its time (originally published in 2001), and there were far too many times when I became frustrated with the interplay between the main characters, as well as their portrayals as individual characters. The hero, Adam, was probably the biggest issue I had with this book. He was very hot and cold, but not in a sexy way. More like a strangely aggressive obtuse inability to understand that Raleigh was also an under cover agent who would make the decision to keep her own secrets. I was also not a fan of some of the terms that were repeatedly thrown around to describe Raleigh, terms like “childlike,” “vulnerable,” and “fragile.” Ummm…she’s clearly a supremely competent under cover agent, given her success rate and her age. I don’t think “fragile” is the term I’d use to describe this type of person. But, again, much of this just feels more of a different time anything else.

Overall, this book is a bit dated, but I think it will likely still appeal to contemporary romance fans. Especially for romance readers who enjoy political intrigue and under cover operations.

Kate’s Thoughts:

As some one who has been very impressed by and a huge fan of Stacey Abrams, not only for her political maneuvering but also her unabashed geekiness (her perspective on the Buffy/Angel/Spike love triangle is PERFECTION), I was pretty eager to try out her first romance novel when it was presented to us at ALA. And by first I mean this was, as Serena said, a reissue of her debut from 20+ years ago. Even though romance is pretty hit or miss with me, I was more than willing to give this one a go.

And I have to echo a lot of what Serena said. Even though I’m not someone who really enjoys spy stories in general, I liked the espionage shenanigans in “Rules of Engagement”. It felt part Black Ops, part “James Bond”, and I enjoyed seeing Raleigh slip into characters while also balancing her real life, be it dealing with her attraction to Adam, or with her fun best friend Alex. I also mostly liked Raleigh, as her complexity felt real and believable while also fitting into the role of a super spy (who still manages to be SUPER young, but hey, that’s fine!).

But, also like Serena, the biggest downside for this book was the dynamic between Raleigh and Adam. I just didn’t like how he treated her, infantilizing her one moment, raging against her and nearly despising her another moment, then going full on protective star crossed lover ANOTHER moment. Whiplash! Whiplash I say! I agree that it probably worked better twenty years ago, but as a reader today I didn’t find it terribly sexy. And I say this as a person who generally likes enemies to lovers tropes!

It’s fun seeing Stacey Abrams alter ego’s first story in action! I may see if I can find some of her later romances to see how they compare, as “Rules of Engagement” had some pluses, but minuses as well.

Kate’s Rating 6: I liked the espionage stuff and I liked Raleigh for the most part, but the dynamic between her and Adam was not my cup of tea.

Serena’s Rating 6: Not for me, as I disliked the hero and had a negative reaction to some of the descriptions of the heroine as well. But this is also a very subjective opinion and fans of the genre will likely enjoy it!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Rules of Engagement” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Spy Romances.

Serena’s Review: “Swordheart

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Book: “Swordheart” by T. Kingfisher

Publishing Info: Argyll Productions, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

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

Book Description: Halla is a housekeeper who has suddenly inherited her great-uncle’s estate… and, unfortunately, his relatives. Sarkis is an immortal swordsman trapped in a prison of enchanted steel. When Halla draws the sword that imprisons him, Sarkis finds himself attempting to defend his new wielder against everything from bandits and roving inquisitors to her own in-laws… and the sword itself may prove to be the greatest threat of all.

Review: Once I discover a favorite author, it can only be expected that you’ll probably see a lot of reviews for them going forward. So as not to just run through them one after another, I’ve been trying to hold off on picking up a new Kingfisher novel until I feel like I’ve been in a bit of a slump. And, for whatever reason, many of my October books were a bit underwhelming. While this was a bummer, it gave me the only excuse I needed, so I immediately jumped back into the world of the Clockwork Boys with this standalone book.

You would think being left a grand estate and all the wealth and prestige that comes with that would be a blessing. But for Halla, the housekeeper turned unexpected heiress, it has lead to nothing but trouble. Hounded by the relatives of the deceased, Halla has all but given up hope of collecting on her inheritance. That is until, when trapped in a cluttered room in a mansion that should by rights belong to her, Halla draws a dusty old sword and finds…a swordsman as well? One who is enchanted to the sword and sworn to protect its wielder for the remainder of their life. But while Halla seems like an easy enough individual to protect, Sarkis, the swordsman, is in for a surprise.

I think it would be a bigger shock than anything if I read a book by this author that I didn’t enjoy. There are enough strengths in her general storytelling ability, her solid characters, and her witty dialogue that it’s hard to imagine a book that felt like a flop. There have been stories I’ve enjoyed more than others, however. So where does this one fit on that scale?

While much of the appeal of this book lay in the strength of the qualities I listed above, there were a few aspects of this story that I found particularly charming. For one thing, Halla is an “older” heroine, coming in with an age somewhere in her 30s. Kingfisher has used several older heroines like this to helm her books, and it’s something I always appreciate. Life and adventure doesn’t only come for twenty-somethings! And, indeed, we get more variety and life experience with an older lead who brings more baggage (both good and bad) to the story. Halla is an unlikely leading lady in that she starts the book out as a bewildered heiress who seems as if she may have been happier remaining a housekeeper for the rest of her life. What’s more, as the story progresses, her romance with Sarkis comes from the perspective of a woman who has already been married once and knows what’s what.

I also appreciated that this was one of the longer books I’ve read by this author. She tends to write books that come in between the 200-250 page count, just enough to be considered full novels instead of novellas, but noticeably shorter than the average fantasy novel out there. On one hands, this is a quality I love as there are so many massive fantasy tomes out there that not only don’t need to be the length they are (and are often worse for it) but the sheer amount of time it takes to read one lengthy novel necessarily limits how many one can get through. That said, I loved being able to settle in to this story a bit more than I have with past, shorter books by this author. I became highly invested in Halla’s journey towards self-worth and Sarkis’s work to restore the humanity he gave up when he became attached to the sword. We learn a lot about their personal histories, so it’s truly gratifying to see them come up against similar challenges here and make different choices.

That said, there came a point around the three quarters mark where I began to feel like the book was quite literally tracing the same road back and forth. This is played for good humorous affect, but the final go around did begin to feel a bit tedious as I began to wish that our characters could finally have something go right for them.

Overall, however, I really enjoyed this book. It was enjoyable and solid in all of the ways I’ve come to expect by this author, and I appreciated the increased page length to really soak in this particular world and these characters and their romance. Fans of this author or for those looking for a cozy fantasy novel, this is definitely a book for you!

Rating 8: Everything you could want from cozy fantasy fiction!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Swordheart” can be found on these Goodreads lists: CozySFF and Above 30 Romance Heroines.

Serena’s Review: “To Kiss a Wallflower”

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Book: “To Kiss a Wallflower” by Jen Geigle Johnson, Heather B. Moore, & Anneka R. Walker

Publishing Info: Mirror Press, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publicist!

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

Book Description: THE WALLFLOWER’S DANCE by Jen Geigle Johnson

Lottie Hughes likes people, as long as they aren’t too close. Does it bother her that no one asks her to dance? Yes, but she’s not sure how to drum up dance partners when she has almost no dowry, no title, and freezes up when anyone tries to talk to her. When she suddenly inherits a huge amount and is the new center of attention all over London, her secret dreams might come true but also her worst nightmares. Suddenly everyone wants to talk to her. Men ask her to dance. And she is inundated with interested suitors. She fights to stay close to the few friends she knows are true. One man saw her before her life changed forever. But does she want to accept his help when he, too, might be insincere?

LETTERS TO A WALLFLOWER by Heather B. Moore

Ellen might be beautiful and considered a diamond of the first water by Society, but she is so very tired of the pressure to marry a titled gentleman so that her beauty won’t go to waste. When her cousin Dinah dares Ellen to attend a ball with no frills and to stand with the wallflowers, Ellen takes on the dare. What’s in the wager for her? The prize cuttings of her aunt’s extraordinary roses. But what Ellen isn’t expecting is Lord Ravenshire to engage her in the most interesting conversation. When she confesses to him of her opposition in marrying for a title, he confesses his distaste of the London scene. They strike a bargain together, one which will either push them apart or lead to a future sweeter than either of them could have imagined.

TO MARRY A WALLFLOWER by Anneka R. Walker

Charlotte Winters is destined to spinsterhood until she turns down an unwanted proposal and everything changes. With gossip rampant, her father attempts to salvage her reputation by betrothing her to another. Soon she is sent off to her aunt’s to meet Lord Templeton, her intended. Anxiety-ridden, Charlotte begs her aunt to let her observe Lord Templeton from afar before their introduction. She never planned to pretend to be her fictional cousin to learn more about him, or to fall in love with Lord Templeton’s friend in the process. Lord Templeton dreads returning to the empty halls of Newcliff Manor. When his father’s old friend, Mr. Winters reaches out for assistance, Lord Templeton finds himself returning home engaged to a woman he has never met. Desperate to learn more about Miss Winters, he befriends her cousin. He wouldn’t have spoken to her, or lied about his identity, if he’d known the quiet woman would sneak into his heart.

Review: A few months ago, I participated in a blog tour for this book and posted an excerpt here on the blog. Well, today I’m back with my full review of the collection. Since there are three entirely separate stories contained within this book, I thought I’d split my review into three mini reviews, one for each story.

“The Wallflower’s Dance”

This is your classic friends-to-lovers romance, and it covered every base you want to see in this type of story. The friendship between the hero and the heroine was believable, as was the fact that it seemed understandable that each was so caught up in this type of interaction that it would take a certain sort of jolt to shock their systems into seeing each other in different ways.

I did struggle a bit towards the end of this story, however. It seemed that that solid foundation of friendship was easily undercut with doubts about the other’s intentions. This would have felt believable with other characters, but with two people who have known each other for so long, it was a bit hard to buy their sudden decision to believe complete strangers over a longtime friend. There was also one last shot of complete insanity on the heroine’s part after the truth was made known to her. It was only one paragraph, which honestly made it all the more frustrating. Just take that one bit out and nothing would change in the story, except a better opinion of your heroine!

That said, I still had a fun time reading this story.

“Letters to a Wallflower”

This was another classic romance trope: the fake dating/courtship romance. As is implied by the title, there’s a brief (luckily very brief!) period of time when our hero and heroine set-up a correspondence to get them each out of the eyes of pestering mothers and society and back to their beloved country abodes.

To be fair, this one plays fast and loose with the whole “wallflower” theme. Ellen is in fact a very beautiful, sought after young lady who tires of getting asked to dance too many times. So she makes a deal with her friend to try to hide as a wallflower and see if she is asked to dance at all. Unfortunately for her, Lord Ravenshire sets out with the purpose of dancing with all of the wallflowers. But through this mishap they hit on the idea to fake a relationship.

There were a few anachronisms early in this book (the word “hairdo” and an ordering of earl as one of the highest ranks, which is incorrect), but overall I think the writing in this book was the best. After I got past the first few errors, I really enjoyed this one, and it was probably my favorite of the three.

To Marry a Wallflower”

We wrap up our regency romances with the “secret identity” trope. For all that this is the trope I picked in our recent romance tropes bookclub theme, it’s probably one of my least favorite. All too often I have a hard time believing the essential lie at the heart of these kind of confusions wouldn’t do more lasting damage than they seem to. So, I was the most nervous going into this one of the three.

Honestly, I did struggle a bit with this story. There was a lot of terrible advice given out, and I thought the excuse to pose as different people was a bit weak for both Charlotte and Luke. Their interactions were sweet and I did become invested in their relationship as the story continued. But I could never fully get past the secret identity thing that tinged every moment. The reveal itself was a nice payoff, but I think I would have enjoyed this one more if it hadn’t been this trope to begin with. But that’s a purely subjective opinion, and fans of “secret identity” romances may love this one!

As a whole, I think this is a really solid compilation of clean, sweet Regency romances. This is part of a very long series of Regency romances made up of short stories, so fans of those are sure to enjoy this. Readers who are also looking for a low commitment, sweet romance read should also check this out. They’re the perfect reads for someone looking to whip through a romance story in one night’s time!

Rating 7: I was left wanting just a bit more from all three of these stories, but they were also fun and satisfying reads on their own which are sure to appeal to fans of clean historical romance stories!

Reader’s Advisory:

“To Kiss a Wallflower” is part of the Timeless Regency Collection Series.

Serena’s Review: “Ten Thousand Stitches”

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Book: “Ten Thousand Stitches” by Olivia Atwater

Publishing Info: Orbit, July 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

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

Book Description: Effie has most inconveniently fallen in love with the dashing Mr Benedict Ashbrooke. There’s only one problem; Effie is a housemaid, and a housemaid cannot marry a gentleman. It seems that Effie is out of luck until she stumbles into the faerie realm of Lord Blackthorn, who is only too eager to help Effie win Mr Ashbrooke’s heart. All he asks in return is that Effie sew ten thousand stitches onto his favourite jacket.

Effie has heard rumours about what happens to those who accept help from faeries, but life as a maid at Hartfield is so awful that she is willing to risk even her immortal soul for a chance at something better. Now, she has one hundred days – and ten thousand stitches – to make Mr Ashbrooke fall in love and propose. . . if Lord Blackthorn doesn’t wreck things by accident, that is. For Effie’s greatest obstacle might well prove to be Lord Blackthorn’s overwhelmingly good intentions.

Previously Reviewed: “Half a Soul”

Review: I really enjoyed “Half a Soul.” I think I read it in maybe two sittings? That made it all the sweeter being able to look ahead to the summer and see two more books of the same style by Atwater coming down the pike. Frankly, it was very difficult to even wait until now to read the second book! Of course, given the highs of the first book, there was a lingering question whether this book could live up to that first outing!

As a housemaid, Effie has resigned herself to a life of invisibility, only noticeable to the very few for her fine embroidery work. But one day, a young man of nobility smiles at her, and she’s lost. As luck would have it, she shortly thereafter runs into a faerie with mission: Lord Blackthorn wants to go forth and do good in the world. However, being a faerie, he’s still restricted to bargain -making and so he offers to help Effie marry her lord if she completes a stitching project for him, one stitch for every minute spent on her lord-marrying plot. Things are going along well (or as well as they can with a bumbling faerie who really doesn’t understand the first thing about humans), but soon enough Effie begins to question whether she’s really after the right man.

So far, we’re two for two! While I think I liked the first book a shade better than this one, it’s such a small distinction that it’s barely worth noting. I’ll get to that reason in a bit. But first, there are many things to praise about this book! For one thing, the author’s blend of fantasy, comedy, and class commentary is still excellent. I loved getting to explore more about the faeries of her world and the land of Faerie itself. We also got to see some familiar faces here, which was excellent. I don’t want to spoil it, but there was a character in the second book who only popped up in the final quarter but stole the show the moment they did. And they were back here in all of their glory!

And, again, the author has done an excellent job of using her magical elements to highlight and explore the injustices present in British society during this time period. The first book explored it from the view of nobility being forced to confront the underbelly of their glittering world. But this book focuses on Effie, a servant, and the constant anger and powerlessness she feels in the face of poor working standards and a lack of bargaining power. Through her experiences, we see how much of a servant’s life is dependent on the chance goodwill of the masters of the house. And in the face of a bad home owner, she sees practically no recourse for improvement. Even leaving the situation is impossible if you can’t get a good letter of recommendation. I also liked how the magical elements weren’t a simple wand-wave to make the conditions better. I won’t spoil how it all worked, but, again, it was a perfect marriage of fantasy alongside very real world dilemmas and solutions.

As someone who embroiders quite a lot myself, I always enjoy fantasy stories that focus on the magic of stitching and sewing. Again, no spoilers, but I was really surprised with the way that Effie’s sewing came into the story. From the description, I thought we were heading down much more of a “Rumpelstiltskin” path with an impossible task, but that really wasn’t the case.

I also really liked Effie and Lord Blackthorn. Effie’s anger and determination were both excellent, however foolish she may have been with falling in “love” with the first nobleman to smile at her. She endures through much, and slowly begins to learn more about herself and the role she wants to play in the world going forward. Lord Blackthorn was everything that is endearing, being a very good-hearted faerie but very ignorant of basic human facts. Their relationship was charismatic and adorable, especially the moments where we begin to see the tingling feelings of suspicion that they may each be barking up the wrong tree in their original arrangement.

However, my one qualm did come down to the romance. While overall I really loved it, it’s a hard balance to have your romantic hero also play the main comedy role. It was just a tough part to fit, with some of his bumbling playing for great laughs and “ah shucks” moments, but then those same aspects of his personality directly conflicted with the more typical romantic hero vibes you may be expecting. However, that’s not to say that all romantic interests must be the same. It was more that some of the more childish aspects of his faerie self played at conflict with the adult romance he was also supposed to be within. But, like I said, I still very much enjoyed this part of the book too, so it definitely wasn’t a deal breaker, just the reason I prefer the first book to this one.

All in all, this was a great second outing! Atwater has a strong writing voice and it meshes perfectly with her light-hearted, but important-issues-focused stories. I’m very excited to check out her third book this August!

Rating 8: While comic relief and romantic hero may be a hard combo, this story was just as sweet and fun as the first book!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ten Thousand Stitches” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Stitchwitchery

Serena’s Review: “Dragon Unleashed”

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Book: “Dragon Unleashed” by Grace Draven

Publishing Info: Ace Books, June 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

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

Book Description: Magic is outlawed in the Krael Empire and punishable by death. Born with the gift of earth magic, the free trader Halani keeps her dangerous secret closely guarded. When her uncle buys a mysterious artifact, a piece of bone belonging to a long-dead draga, Halani knows it’s far more than what it seems.

Dragas haven’t been seen for more than a century, and most believe them extinct. They’re wrong. Dragas still walk among the denizens of the Empire, disguised as humans. Malachus is a draga living on borrowed time. The magic that has protected him will soon turn on him–unless he finds a key part of his heritage. He has tracked it to a group of free traders, among them a grave-robbing earth witch who fascinates him as much as she frustrates him with her many secrets.

Unbeknownst to both, the Empire’s twisted empress searches for a draga of her own, to capture and kill as a trophy. As Malachus the hunter becomes the hunted, Halani must risk herself and all she loves to save him from the Empire’s machinations and his own lethal birthright.

Previously Reviewed: “Phoenix Unbound”

Review:I really, really enjoyed the first book out in this trilogy. Not only was it a great fantasy story (who doesn’t like fire mages??), but it was a great enemies-to-lovers romance. Reading that one, it was also clear who the leading lady was going to be in this one, the mysterious healer Halani whose travelling trade family participates in a side-deal of grave robbing. I was also excited to see what the author did with dragons, another fantasy staple that is a fan favorite. Let’s dive in!

It has been widely know that the last Draga died many years ago. But Malachus knows differently, being the last of his kind. He’s travelled the earth for decades in search of a needed artifact to complete his transformation into an adult Draga, and the longer he is denied the more volatile his magic becomes. After a violent attack, Malachus is taken under the wing of the free trader and healer Halani. As she nurses him back to health, Malachus begins to see that perhaps not all humans are craven, bloodthirsty souls. And for her part, Halani is more and more intrigued by the powerful but kind man with the mysterious past. But as their secrets begin to clash, Malachus and Halani realize they must fight for their own future, either together or apart.

There was a lot to like about this book! While I haven’t been a fan of everything Grace Draven has written (sometimes her protagonists fall short, other times they knock it out of the park!), these first two books have been right up my alley! To start with, I really liked her version of dragons. The Draga are long-lived and, essentially, shape shifters who can turn into powerful dragons at will, though they also have a human form they live in. However, the process to become an adult Draga is a centuries long ordeal and requires a very specific ritual to complete. If it isn’t done, the Draga magic begins to self-destruct. This leaves our hero, Malachus, living life as a very real ticking time bomb.

I also liked the history of the Draga and how that has formed Malachus’s experiences with humans. This is very much a world where history has been told by the winner. When we finally get the truth of things, it’s as heart-wrenching as you might expect. Between this dark history and the fact that a the necessary artifact to complete his transformation has been stolen by craven humans, he looks at the world of humanity with a very cynical eye, seeing the entire race as almost a hopeless case. His story is very much about coming to realize the beauty and kindness that can be found in short-lived humans, as well.

Halani’s story is a bit more straight-forward. She largely plays as a role model of the best of humanity for Malachus. However, we also see her make choices that go against her own moral compass, and the balancing act she is always making with using her powers for good…or just for the good of her greedy leader. There is a particular moment when Halani and Malachus’s worldviews clash where I think she has one of the best lines/small speeches about the care that must be taken when thinking we have the right of things and judging others.

The romance between these two was also a very sweet, slow-burn story. They each begin from a point of basically idolizing the other, and their true love for one another is only born once they are forced to confront the flaws in the other and themselves. That they have lived lives, made choices, and are only complete people for all things taken into consideration, not just the best parts. There was also an intense action scene towards the end of the book that really served as a neat bow to the love story itself.

I really enjoyed this book. I think any fans of Draven’s are sure to enjoy it, and those who liked the first book will definitely want to check this one out. We even see a few familiar faces! I was also able to spot the main characters of the third book, and man, I can’t wait to read their story as well!

Rating 8: A unique version of dragons paired with a sweet love story and you have yourself a great read!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dragon Unleashed” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Dragons and The Best Adult PNR.

Blog Tour: Excerpt of “To Kiss a Wallflower”

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Book: “To Kiss a Wallflower” by Jen Geigle Johnson, Heather B. Moore, & Anneka R. Walker

Publishing Info: Mirror Press, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publicist!

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

Book Description: THE WALLFLOWER’S DANCE by Jen Geigle Johnson

Lottie Hughes likes people, as long as they aren’t too close. Does it bother her that no one asks her to dance? Yes, but she’s not sure how to drum up dance partners when she has almost no dowry, no title, and freezes up when anyone tries to talk to her. When she suddenly inherits a huge amount and is the new center of attention all over London, her secret dreams might come true but also her worst nightmares. Suddenly everyone wants to talk to her. Men ask her to dance. And she is inundated with interested suitors. She fights to stay close to the few friends she knows are true. One man saw her before her life changed forever. But does she want to accept his help when he, too, might be insincere?

LETTERS TO A WALLFLOWER by Heather B. Moore

Ellen might be beautiful and considered a diamond of the first water by Society, but she is so very tired of the pressure to marry a titled gentleman so that her beauty won’t go to waste. When her cousin Dinah dares Ellen to attend a ball with no frills and to stand with the wallflowers, Ellen takes on the dare. What’s in the wager for her? The prize cuttings of her aunt’s extraordinary roses. But what Ellen isn’t expecting is Lord Ravenshire to engage her in the most interesting conversation. When she confesses to him of her opposition in marrying for a title, he confesses his distaste of the London scene. They strike a bargain together, one which will either push them apart or lead to a future sweeter than either of them could have imagined.

TO MARRY A WALLFLOWER by Anneka R. Walker

Charlotte Winters is destined to spinsterhood until she turns down an unwanted proposal and everything changes. With gossip rampant, her father attempts to salvage her reputation by betrothing her to another. Soon she is sent off to her aunt’s to meet Lord Templeton, her intended. Anxiety-ridden, Charlotte begs her aunt to let her observe Lord Templeton from afar before their introduction. She never planned to pretend to be her fictional cousin to learn more about him, or to fall in love with Lord Templeton’s friend in the process. Lord Templeton dreads returning to the empty halls of Newcliff Manor. When his father’s old friend, Mr. Winters reaches out for assistance, Lord Templeton finds himself returning home engaged to a woman he has never met. Desperate to learn more about Miss Winters, he befriends her cousin. He wouldn’t have spoken to her, or lied about his identity, if he’d known the quiet woman would sneak into his heart.

Note: Thank you so much to Laurel Ann for reaching out to me with the opportunity to participate in this blog tour! I love working with other bloggers to help promote books that may not get as much attention on their own. It’s also a great way of meeting other bloggers out there who are doing some excellent work! Today, I’m going to feature an excerpt from this book. I’ll likely post a full review at a later date. Enjoy!

Excerpt:

The Wallflower’s Dance

by Jen Geigle Johnson

Chapter One

Despite Lottie’s mother, who wished to know and be known by all and sundry, Lottie was still of the opinion that few people were required for happiness. Three things were needed: her closest friends, a good book, and lovely walks in the park. 

And perhaps a husband. 

Someday. 

If he too preferred little company, books, and walks in the park. 

She brought her brush, thick with paint, over the wood of a new table. She’d found a particular shade of lavender and knew it would go well in her sitting room. The lovely rich color covered the white beneath it completely. 

Lottie smiled. Once this coat dried, she could add embellishments, flowers, a trailing vine of green, whatever she liked.

Her mother peeked her head in the door to her art room. “Lottie.” The higher-pitched energy that exuded from her mother any time of day only felt companionable when Lottie too was full of energy. Which was usually reserved for the late hours of a ball. Something about the middle of the night filled Lottie with adventure. By then, her mother was typically nodding off in a corner somewhere.

“I’m painting, Mother. Come see this shade of purple. It’s like nothing I’ve ever used before.”

To her credit, she stepped into the room and glanced at the painting. “Very nice. Now. If you could take a break, we need to be stunning, absolutely beautiful for a walk in the park.”

Lottie perked up at walk, but when the gleam in her mother’s eyes sharpened and Lottie paid attention to stunning and beautiful as requirements, she knew this was going to be less about walking and more about being seen. “Perhaps you and your friends could go without me this morning? I’m hoping to finish up this coat.” She knew her excuse sounded weak and her mother did too, judging by the dismissive wave of her fingers.

“Oh come, word has it that Prinny will make an appearance, which suddenly turns a casual walk in the park into a major event of the Season. This is your chance for more introductions, more doors opened to you. Who knows, you may even meet a duke!” The wide, hopeful eyes at the doorway were evidence that Lottie was not going to be able to avoid the park. She left her brush in water and stood, wiping fingers on her apron.

“Should I wear the violet?” 

Mother was about to give Lottie’s maid very detailed instructions as to her appearance anyway, so she might as well ask her before choosing a dress herself.

“No, too dark and bold for a walk in the park. Wear a pastel. But a colorful bonnet. Don’t worry, I’ve instructed Dorothea in all the particulars.”

Dorothea, Lottie’s maid, very obviously worked for her mother. She could never be convinced to alter the prearranged instructions on Lottie’s presentation. But no matter. Lottie moved obediently to her bedroom and the preparations began, starting with an intricate hairstyle that would be hidden underneath her bonnet. But Lottie knew better than to discuss her opinion on the particulars. She watched Dorothea in the mirror. Perhaps they would be able to have some entertainment to enliven them both. Entertainment in the form of another maid, reading aloud their latest favorite novel. Lottie’s eyes met Dorothea’s. “Will Penny be able to slip away?”

“I believe so, miss.” Dorothea smiled. She enjoyed the books as much as Lottie, and if Lottie was to be sitting in this chair for hours, they may as well be entertained.

Lottie had discovered the rare occurrence of a servant who knew how to read. Even though she sometimes stumbled, she did less so now that she’d been tasked with the very important assignment of reading to Lottie while she prepared for the day. Penny slipped in through the servants’ entrance. “I’ve just come from the kitchen.” Her mischievous smile made Lottie laugh.

“Are they missing you?”

She waved a hand. “Not at all. Cook has an army of people in there, helping. I’ve finished all my other chores.”

“Excellent and, of course, I called for you. That should help.”

Both servants shared a look, which she took to mean that she had little clout in the servants’ eyes. Well, no matter. “Please start at the beginning.”

Penny nodded, her eyes gleaming with the same hopeful expectation Lottie herself felt. And then she began to read. 

“The Family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex.”

Serena’s Review: “Half a Soul”

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

Book: “Half a Soul” by Olivia Atwater

Publishing Info: Orbit, June 2022

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

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

Book Description: Ever since she was cursed by a faerie, Theodora Ettings has had no sense of fear or embarrassment – a condition which makes her prone to accidental scandal. Dora hopes to be a quiet, sensible wallflower during the London Season – but when the strange, handsome and utterly uncouth Lord Sorcier discovers her condition, she is instead drawn into dangerous and peculiar faerie affairs.

If Dora’s reputation can survive both her curse and her sudden connection with the least-liked man in all of high society, then she may yet reclaim her normal place in the world. . . but the longer Dora spends with Elias Wilder, the more she begins to suspect that one may indeed fall in love, even with only half a soul.

Review: I was so excited when I received an ARC of this book from Orbit (thank you!). The book description alone checks so many personal favorites of mine that it’s kind of ridiculous. It’s also been a while since I’ve read a good faerie story, so I was particularly excited to revisit this fantasy fan favorite topic.

As a young girl, Theodora Ettings, or Dora, fell prey to a malicious faerie curse. In the blink of an eye, she lost half of her soul and along with it all the sharper edges of emotion. As a young lady, while unconcerned herself with others’ dismay, Dora recognizes that her strange ways and habit of blurting out whatever she is thinking will likely prohibit her from every finding her own marriage match. She’s content, however, to simply help her beloved cousin and make a home with her as a slowly aging spinster. But life takes an unexpected turn when she stumbles into a strange mystery leaving children cursed in a comatose state. Also on the case is the prickly and antisocial Lord Sorcier. As they work closely together, each begins to question their pre-established views of their own futures.

In my opinion, the biggest question with any historical work, be it fantasy, mystery, what have you, is whether the author has a decent handle on the language of the time. Poor word choice, stuttered style, and anachronisms are the surest way to immediately lose me as a reader with this type of book. Immediately, I was relieved to find that not only did this author have a solid handled on this aspect of the story, but she was adept at inserting witty turns of phrase and leaning on some of the inherent ridiculousness of pairing faeries and magic with proper Regency language. This clever writing style was present across prose and dialogue, and there were several laugh-out-loud moments for me during this read.

I also really enjoyed Dora and the effect her curse has on her life and her interactions with the people around her. If you try and think to hard about how the curse truly works with limiting her emotions, you can likely run into a brick wall of confusion, as we do see Dora forming strong attachments to characters throughout the book. But given the explanation that Dora herself gives at one point, I thought it made enough sense for me. Plus, I was having too much fun with the way her curse was playing out on the page, as well as the slow-burn romance that was developing between her and Elias, the Lord Sorcier, to ever feel the need to question or complain.

The mystery around the children was interesting as well. Through this portion of the story, the author shines a clear light on the terrible working/living conditions of the poor living in London at this time. Not only did she highlight the challenges facing this population, but she neatly described the vast distance (partly physically, but mostly through intentional looking away) between the classes and the unwillingness of those living a comfortable life to turn their eyes to the despair surrounding them. There was also a pretty great twist towards the end of this mystery which really added to the story as a whole.

This was a light-hearted, fast-reading romantic fantasy. Fans of Regency romance are sure to enjoy it, as well as those who want a more playful look at faeries and faerie courts. I loved the heck out of this book, and now am even more excited to check out the next one coming out from this author later this summer!

Rating 9: A purely joyful reading experience all around!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Half a Soul” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Regency Fantasy Books.

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