Serena’s Review: “Swift the Storm, Fierce the Flame”

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Book: “Swift the Storm, Fierce the Flame” by Meg Long

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, January 2024

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: After a mission gone awry two years ago, Remy Castell has been desperately searching across worlds to find the friend she failed to save—the friend who changed her life by helping her overcome the brainwashing she was subjected to as a genetically engineered corporate agent.

Since then, she’s been chasing the only lead she has: fellow genopath Kiran Lore, the same secretive ex-squadmate who left her for dead when she compromised that mission. She nearly caught up to him on Tundar before joining the infamous sled race alongside outcast Sena and her wolf companion Iska. Now, all three of them have tracked Kiran back to Maraas, the jungle planet where Remy lost everything. But nothing on Maraas is how it was two years ago. Syndicates and scavvers alike are now trying to overthrow a megalomaniac corpo director, which Remy wants nothing to do with; fighting against corpos is as useless as trying to stay dry in the middle of the giant hellstorm that encircles the planet. But the storm—and the rebellion—are growing stronger by the minute.

When Remy finds Kiran, he doesn’t run away like she expects. Instead, he offers her a deal: help with the revolution and he’ll reunite her with her friend. But can she really trust the boy who betrayed her once before? With the entire planet on the edge of all-out war, Remy will have to decide just how far she’s willing to go to save one girl before the impending storm drowns them all.

Previously Reviewed: “Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves”

Review: I really liked “Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves” when I read it last January. Not only is January the perfect time to hole up inside next to a fire and read about someone else suffering the elements, but who can say no to a book that has a central relationship between a girl and her half-feral wolf? No one, that’s who. That book also introduced us to Remy, a side character who we learn is on the run from the corporation that made her. So I was thrilled when I saw that the author was releasing a companion novel that would focus on Remy’s story.

Remy has been on the run for two years after her ex-squadmate betrayed her and cost her everything she held dear. While running from the corporation that created her, she’s traced her away across the universe to hunt down the man who destroyed the fragile sense of self she had been building. Now, with her friend Sena and Sena’s wolf companion Iska alongside, Remy returns to the planet where it all began. But what she finds is a world transformed from the one she left behind. Still, in the midst of ongoing political and social strife, Remy is hopeful she can finally put her past to rest.

I won’t beat around the bush: I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as the first. Which was really too bad. But I can still see the bones of a good book and the strength of the writing that drew me to the first novel. The author is clearly skilled at creating interesting, alternative world environments, complete with their own weather systems, creatures, and societies. This one was just as interesting as the first. Whereas before we explored a brutal tundra world, here we dive into the sticky, hot, humidity of a jungle planet. Even more interesting, the planet is plagued by a massive storm system that circumnavigates the entire world every two weeks or so. This creates a very interesting culture and society where everything in the city is under a constant state of destruction and repair. We also see how this mindset influences who lives where (more protected areas vs less) and what materials they have access to for their construction, affecting how durable the buildings are in any certain community. This was all super interesting, and I really enjoyed everything we got with regards to the world building.

Further, I liked the politics and mystery at the heart of the story with regards to these dynamics. When we get to the motivations of the bad actors, it was all very believable and relatable, touching on some important themes and commentary about class and the environment in our own world. And, while I don’t think it is absolutely necessary to read “Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves” before you read this one, having read that one, I appreciated how the author further fleshed out the role of local syndicates and the interesting balance they strike between their own world’s population and the power of the corporations that essentially rule the universe.

But it all broke down for me with the main character and the love interest. I don’t really think it’s a spoiler to say that said ex-squadmate who “betrayed” her probably has more going on. But if you don’t want more details, suffice it to say that I found Remy’s understanding of this character to be so poor as to be almost laughable. For more details, continue reading!

Basically, this just comes down to a case of telling and not showing. From the beginning, Remy goes on repeated internal rants about her ex-squadmate who was controlling, always putting himself forward and making her look bad on their missions. The problem comes when we are shown flashbacks that make it painfully obvious what is going. Again and again, all we see is a man who clearly loves Remy and is protecting her in every way he can. In one case, he directly takes the blame for something Remy does and ends up in a torture session over it. And somehow…Remy not only doesn’t pick up on these super obvious clues, but spends large chunks of the book telling the reader how bad of a guy Kiran is. And that’s just not a recipe for success. I get having an unreliable narrator. But you have to have a reason for why they’re misleading the reader. And if that reason turns out to be “the protagonist is kind of a dunderhead and oblivious to the point of disbelief” that’s not good look for the protagonist or is incredibly frustrating for the reader.

Unfortunately, some of this obliviousness on Remy’s part showed up in many different ways. Not only is she repeatedly unable to understand how her actions impact others, but she also misreads many other characters’ motivations. It was tough to read, as I thought that Remy’s portrayal in the first book was so solid and interesting. But here, she immediately started to fall into some predictable YA female protagonist stereotypes. And this wasn’t helped by having Sena hanging around through a lot of it, reminding readers of just how likable a main character she was in her book.

Overall, this was kind of a mixed bag for me. My experience of this book really lived and died by my reaction to Remy as a main character. The world-building, writing, and themes were still incredibly strong. I just was too frustrated by Remy through much of it to truly enjoy my read. If you were a fan of the first book, however, I still might recommend a read through here. Your tastes may vary for a main character, and the author still had a lot of good story and commentary to offer with this book.

Rating 7: Excellent world-building and important themes regarding environmentalism and class were undermined by a rather frustrating main character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Swift the Storm, Fierce the Flame” can be found on this Goodreads list: Upcoming 2023 SFF Books With Female Leads or Co-Leads

Kate’s Review: “The Black Queen”

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Book: “The Black Queen” by Jumata Emill

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2023

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

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

Book Description: Nova Albright, the first Black homecoming queen at Lovett High, is dead. Murdered the night of her coronation, her body found the next morning in the old slave cemetery she spent her weekends rehabilitating.

Tinsley McArthur was supposed to be queen. Not only is she beautiful, wealthy, and white, it’s her legacy–her grandmother, her mother, and even her sister wore the crown before her. Everyone in Lovett knows Tinsley would do anything to carry on the McArthur tradition.

No one is more certain of that than Duchess Simmons, Nova’s best friend. Duchess’s father is the first Black police captain in Lovett. For Duchess, Nova’s crown was more than just a win for Nova. It was a win for all the Black kids. Now her best friend is dead, and her father won’t face the fact that the main suspect is right in front of him. Duchess is convinced that Tinsley killed Nova–and that Tinsley is privileged enough to think she can get away with it. But Duchess’s father seems to be doing what he always does: fall behind the blue line. Which means that the white girl is going to walk.

Duchess is determined to prove Tinsley’s guilt. And to do that, she’ll have to get close to her. But Tinsley has an agenda, too.

Everyone loved Nova. And sometimes, love is exactly what gets you killed.

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

I love being taken surprise by a book. Whether it’s because I hadn’t heard of it before, or because a new author is on the scene and I’m totally unfamiliar, it’s a joy and a treat when one ends up in my hands, I have no expectations, and it ends up working for me and then some. That was my experience with “The Black Queen” by Jumata Emill. I hadn’t heard of the book until it was offered to me (thanks again, Delacorte Press!), and the premise was interesting and I was feeling up to trying something new. And then I ended up really, really enjoying it!

This story is told from two first person perspectives. The first is that of Duchess, a Black teenage girl in a Southern Community that is dealing with unofficial segregation and disparities for the Black community. Her best friend Nova is another Black girl, and is named the first Black Homecoming Queen the school has ever had. When Nova is murdered, Duchess is determined to prove that the privileged and wealthy Tinsley, a white classmate who wanted to be Homecoming Queen, is the culprit, as Tinsley was not only cruel to Nova during the race, but was also seen on TikTok making threats after the crowning. But the other perspective is actually of Tinsley, who is desperate to clear her name in the murder, and who is conducting her own investigation. Eventually, both girls team up despite the bad blood and past baggage, and it makes for a hell of a story. Not in the sense of ‘look at these two learning from each other’ kind of way, but because Emill doesn’t shy away from very uncomfortable moments regarding Tinsley’s character, and also explores lots of complexities with Duchess’s father, who is a police captain in town, and how his role has an effect on Duchess and her peers. Watching Tinsley be really difficult to like and slowly start to realize how terrible she has been, and how her race and privilege has made her entitled and venomous, is a very interesting choice to make with the character, and it was really neat to see that while we do get growth and remorse, she isn’t let off the hook for her really shitty actions. Watching her do the work first because she wants to clear her name, but then slowly start to realize that she has a lot to atone for was a fascinating character arc. I also like Duchess’s storyline and character growth, as she goes from making assumptions about things to then starting to find hard to reconcile nuances that make her question what she thinks she knows. It’s just really cool to see Emill delve into these deep issues about race in America and doesn’t water it down or package it in a way that some may think would be more palatable for a teen audience. She makes it easy to understand while still trusting the reader to be able to parse out a lot of complex, not so easy to answer questions.

The mystery at hand was very entertaining and pretty well put together. We know from the jump that Tinsley was guilty of being a shit head but not guilty of murder, so having her Duchess start to piece the mystery together separately and then together led to some good reveals and some good clue drops. There were a lot of facets to the story, and to Nova’s character, and many puzzle pieces that come together to give many options for why someone would have wanted her dead. Emill is fairly successful in pulling everything off and throwing readers off the trail here and there, and while I did kind of call one of the big solutions pretty early on in my read, there were a few well done red herrings that made me think ‘well maybe…?’, before they were revealed to be misdirections. But they were all plausible. The pace is kept fairly brisk and the plot moves in a way that keeps you interested, and I devoured this book in a couple of sittings because it was just that addictive.

So all in all “The Black Queen” was a well done YA thriller that successfully injects bigger, relevant issues into the plot. I really enjoyed it and I will be looking for more fiction from Jumata Emill in the future!

Rating 8: Some really good reveals, complex main characters, and a lot of relevant and important themes about race in America come together to make a well done YA thriller.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Black Queen” isn’t included on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Black Lives Matter and Anti-Racist Books”and “Young Adult Thrillers”.

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

Author Q & A: Kendare Blake

We have a really, really exciting post today, dear readers. We are so grateful and honored that Kendare Blake, author of “In Every Generation”, the upcoming “One Girl In All the World”, “All These Bodies”, “Anna Dressed In Blood” and so many more amazing horror and dark fantasy novels, has agreed to participate in a Q and A. Kate has been loving her new “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” books, and in anticipation of the newest “One Girl In All the World” we have some fun questions and answers about horror fiction, historical influences, and, of course so many things “Buffy”. A special thanks to Kendare Blake for being willing to do this, and to Hanna Lindsley for arranging it all!

Q: What first got you interested in the dark fantasy and horror genres?

A: I don’t know, actually! My favorite fantasy movies as a kid were “The Neverending Story” and “The Last Unicorn”, which both have some dark themes/moments, so that probably had something to do with it. Also the fact that I loved Freddy Krueger on sight and picked up my first Stephen King book at age 10.

Q: In other YA horror books you have written, you have used influences from historical events to shape some aspects of the story (The Countess Bathory in “In Every Generation”; Starkweather and The Clutter Murders in “All These Bodies”). What is it like melding historical fact with horror fiction during your writing process?

A: I have a thing about re-examining women in history who I think may have gotten a bad rap. Caril Ann Fugate, who was Charlie Starkweather’s hostage or accomplice, who served as inspiration in my novel “All These Bodies”.  Cassandra of Troy, who I used in my “Antigoddess” series. And Countess Bathory in “In Every Generation”. Of course sometimes in my re-examining I end up making things worse, like making the Countess a Big Bad in Sunnydale. But I hope I made her a fabulous big bad, and I did want to make sure that someone mentioned the possibility that she was historically completely innocent, and the claims against her were invented to get her out of the way for those who wanted her lands and titles.

Q: Besides “Buffy”, what other vampire lore and stories have influenced you in your work?

A: Besides “Buffy”, the vampires of my youth were Anne Rice’s, and that 80s hair band of vamps from “The Lost Boys”.

Q: What was it like writing new characters for “Buffy” and having them interact with some well-loved characters from the source material? Did you find it challenging to bring them together for the story you are trying to tell?

A: Haha, sometimes scenes would get crowded. Like, I felt the weight of the TV writers, who need to have everyone in the scene for story purposes but then also have to give the actors something to do? Like, I felt pressure to give everyone a good, quippy line or something. 

At first, I was worried how the new Scoobies (Noobies?) would fit in with the OGs, but as it turned out, Hailey and Sigmund felt like they were Scoobs from way back. And of course Frankie and Jake felt like Scoobies by virtue of their last names alone. 

Q: Who has been your favorite “Buffy” character to write in your books so far? Has that lined up with a favorite character from the series?

A: When I first watched the series, Willow was my favorite. But she’s surprisingly hard to write! Alyson Hannigan does A LOT with her facial expressions, and the tempo and cadence of her voice. And even beyond that, Willow is a complex character with a lot of layers and a weighty past. She and I had some growing pains together as we tried to figure out her new role as a slayer’s mom, and a John-Wick-witch-coming-out-of-retirement. 

But one character who has been a complete delight has been Spike. Thanks to the range of James Marsters, Spike can do anything. He can go from the heights of clever insightfulness to the basement of whiny baby-man in the space of a page and it’s all in character. I wish there’d been more page time to give him more of an arc–I had wishes for arcs for all of the OGs–but these books were for Frankie and the New Scoobies, and unfortunately some of that just had to be cut.

Q: What is your favorite “Buffy” episode?

A: An impossible question! Band Candy. No. The musical. No. Life Serial. No. Becoming, parts 1 and 2! No. Band Candy! No. Something Blue. No–

Q: Are there any other classic fantasy or sci-fi series you would love to write new stories for?

A: Not really? There are very few properties that I feel like I have the street cred to write for. “Buffy” was one. “Gargoyles”, might be another. And they might be the only two. 

A deep and heartfelt thanks again to Kendare Blake for taking the time to answer these questions! Look for Kate’s Review of “One Girl in All the World” next week, and take a look at her previous reviews of “In Every Generation” and “All These Bodies”!

Serena’s Review: “Things Not Seen”

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Book: “Things Not Seen” by Monica Boothe

Publishing Info: Peniel Press, January 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: from the author!

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

Book Description: 17-year-old Kristin has selective blindness. She can’t see, hear, feel, or smell, her brother. This doesn’t stop them from becoming best friends, turning his unique invisibility into a game, but when the two of them are stranded alone during a blizzard, it doesn’t feel like a game anymore. Kristin will do everything she can to keep her little brother alive, but she’s the least qualified person in the world to do so.

Review: I always enjoy supporting lesser known authors when I get the chance. And after Boothe send me an excerpt to this book, I knew I wanted to check out the entire thing. The concept alone sounds very unique, and it was clear from even the first few chapters that the author had a solid foundation for her main character and the relationship she has to her invisible brother that forms the basis for this story. Add in a snow storm, and you have a primed set! Let’s dive in.

Kristin knows she has a younger brother. She just can’t see, hear, or feel him. But everyone else can, so she has had to find unique ways to connect and exist with this invisible sibling. Through these extra hurdles, however, the two have formed a particularly close relationship largely managed through texts and the small context clues that Kristin uses to locate her brother out and about in the world. But when a snow storm strikes while Kristin and Josh are home alone, an entire new set of circumstances highlights the challenges of their unique relationship.

I really enjoyed this YA novel. As I’ve mentioned before, I really like books that focus on sibling relationships, as I think there are a lot of interesting dynamics to be mined there. Here, we see two very close siblings, but their relationship is largely defined by the challenges of Kristin not being able to see, here or feel Josh. As the story is told from her perspective, we see how this loss has shaped her every thought and action. Everyone else around her can see Josh, and it is decided that she as what is called “selective blindness” where he is concerned. The book wisely doesn’t get too far into the weeds on this condition, but instead uses it mostly as a platform for the plot and the character work.

For Kristin’s part, we see how this condition has lead her to increased levels of anxiety about the dangers she could pose to her brother. But equally, we see how defined her life has become by this relationship, especially considering the extra work that has been necessary to create and maintain their connection. As she faces decisions about college, these anxieties and changes to how she must order and center her new life would be very relatable to many teen readers, regardless of the fantastical circumstances of the invisible brother.

I also really liked that we got to understand a bit more about how this relationship has affected Josh. For him, it is largely like having a deaf and blind sister. But as the story is told from Kristin’s POV, these realizations, that her condition affects Josh just as much as it does her, are slow to come and hard won.

As I’ve just spent two paragraphs talking about the characters and their relationships, I think it will come as no surprise when I say that the strength of this story really comes down to how well-drawn these characters are. Kristin’s voice is very approachable and relatable. And I fully drawn in to the complexities and turmoil of this sibling dynamic. It all felt very real and natural (or as much as it can with an invisible character at play!).

When it came down to some of the more factual bits of the story, I struggled a bit more. I grew up in northern Idaho and currently live in Minnesota. So I’m very familiar with blizzards and large quantities of snow. A central portion of this story is defined by Kristin and Josh trying to deal with a blizzard and a power outage. And…I just really struggled with some of the details here. Blowing snow, yes, can make visuals difficult and reduce sight lines. But unless you’re in a completely new location, this isn’t going to have much of an affect on travelling short distances. In this book, Kristin is walking (not even driving at any kind of speed where visibility needs to be far reaching) outside her family home. I just couldn’t buy the fact that she would get this disoriented or lost. We are also told at one point the specific amount on the ground (I believe it was around 8 inches or so) and this is just not much at all, in the grand scheme of things. But, again, this probably only stood out to me so much due to my own very specific experiences with snow (let me tell you later about having to snowmobile 3 miles to our house all winter) and also my, admittedly annoying, over-fixation on accuracy in survival situations (re: all the my past reviews of survival stories where I go crazy over the stupidest little details or inaccuracies).

Overall, I think this was a very strong book about the joys and challenges of sibling relationships. I was really impressed by the way the author had thought out the ins and outs of her central premise, that one sibling can’t see/feel/hear the other. Kristin was also a very relatable teenage character, and I think she will speak to a lot of teenage readers. Yes, I struggled with the snow storm stuff. But I still came away from it having really enjoyed my read.

And don’t forget to enter to a win a copy of this book!

Rating 8: An intimate and relatable portrayal of sibling relationships with a a compelling and sympathetic teenage protagonist.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Things Not Seen” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be onYA Contemporary Books with Great Portrayals of Relationships.

Giveaway: “Things Not Seen”

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

Book: “Things Not Seen” by Monica Boothe

Publishing Info: Peniel Press, January 2023

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

Book Description: 17-year-old Kristin has selective blindness. She can’t see, hear, feel, or smell, her brother. This doesn’t stop them from becoming best friends, turning his unique invisibility into a game, but when the two of them are stranded alone during a blizzard, it doesn’t feel like a game anymore. Kristin will do everything she can to keep her little brother alive, but she’s the least qualified person in the world to do so.

Giveaway Details: Monica Boothe reached out to me about reviewing her upcoming book “Things Not Seen” a few months ago. After reading the excerpt, I was very excited to check out the entire novel! The voice of the teenage protagonist, Kristin, was immediately catchy and relatable. Add that to a very interesting concept, that of a sibling relationship where the sister has never been able to see/hear/feel her brother, and you have yourself a very compelling novel! Per the usual, my full review (spoiler: I really liked it!) will go live this Friday. Until then, don’t forget to enter to win a copy of “Things Not Seen!” The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and runs through January 24, 2023.

Enter to win!

Serena’s Review: “Mysteries of Thorn Manor”

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Book: “Mysteries of Thorn Manor” by Margaret Rogerson

Publishing Info:Margaret K. McElderry Books, January 2023

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Elisabeth Scrivener is finally settling into her new life with sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn. Now that their demon companion Silas has returned, so has scrutiny from nosy reporters hungry for gossip about the city’s most powerful sorcerer and the librarian who stole his heart. But something strange is afoot at Thorn Manor: the estate’s wards, which are meant to keep their home safe, are acting up and forcibly trapping the Manor’s occupants inside. Surely it must be a coincidence that this happened just as Nathaniel and Elisabeth started getting closer to one another…

With no access to the outside world, Elisabeth, Nathaniel, and Silas – along with their new maid Mercy – will have to work together to discover the source of the magic behind the malfunctioning wards before they’re due to host the city’s Midwinter Ball. Not an easy task when the house is filled with unexpected secrets, and all Elisabeth can think about is kissing Nathaniel in peace. But when it becomes clear that the house, influenced by the magic of Nathaniel’s ancestors, requires a price for its obedience, Elisabeth and Nathaniel will have to lean on their connection like never before to set things right.

Previously Reviewed: “Sorcery of Thorns”

Review: I don’t think I can express exactly how excited I was when I saw this title pop up on Edelweiss+. A sequel to “Sorcery of Thorns” that would give all the juicy details about Elisabeth and Nathaniel’s developing relationship? Yes, please! The only dampener being that it was a novella instead of a full-length sequel. But hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Its been a few months since the fantastical events that changed her life, and Elisabeth is still slowly becoming comfortable with her new circumstances. So much that is unknown surrounds her, be that the full history of her love, Nathaniel, the mysteries of the demon Silas whose motives are his own, or even the secrets that are hidden within the walls of the manor itself. And when the house itself turns against them, all three will have to work together to put things to right before the face their greatest test yet: a Midwinter Ball.

Margaret Rogerson essentially described this book as “an author writing fanfiction for their own work.” And I have only one thing to say to that: why don’t more authors do this?? There’s a reasons fans turn to fanfiction in the first place. Often, it is a place to find quieter, more character-centric works that dive into the smaller moments that wouldn’t make it onto the page in a full novel. (Obviously, this is not always the case, but I think the generalization stands for much of it). I know for my own part, I often turn to fanfiction when I want, essentially, a cozy read with familiar, beloved characters who I want to spend more time with. So it’s almost a “smack the forehead” level of obvious that authors themselves could write books like this and then have them gobbled up by their fans. I guess the question would be whether or not publishers would print these types of books. Well, I hope this book is a massive success and proves that this is viable route for novellas like this in the future.

I loved everything about this book. It did feel like fanfiction in the best of all ways. Just one lovely character moment after another. Not only do we get a lot more development for Nathaniel and Elisabeth (two characters whose romance only barely began by the end of the first novel itself), but we also get many more moments between Silas and these two characters as well. In some ways, Silas’s moments were even more compelling than the romance. Yes, the relationship between Nathaniel and Elisabeth and funny, sweet, and adorable, but the complicated connections that Silas has to them both held a lot more nuance. It was the sort of thing where the relationships that had a hint of pain and torment were just a bit more compelling than the straight-forwardly sweet one. This is in no way a slight against the central romance, just that I think Silas’s history and nature added a level of complexity to his relationship with Nathaniel and Elisabeth that I found extremely riveting.

I also really liked the fantasy elements we had here. Again, because this is a novella with a decidedly cozy tone, there was nothing overtly threatening or dark. Instead, the action came through moments of magical absurdity, such as a house fighting against its occupants using a grandmother’s clothes as weapons. Throughout the book, it was exciting to follow Elisabeth as she uncovered more and more about the house and the previous occupants who left their mark upon it. I also really enjoyed the final third of the book, neatly wrapping up all the loose ends and throwing in one last excellent twist.

I loved this book. It was the kind of story that I’ll likely read again and again next to a fire on a cold, winter’s night. I know I’ve used the word “cozy” a few times, but that really sums it up well. I do think it’s necessary to read “Sorcery of Thorns” before this one, however, as there is a lot of backstory there that is needed to understand the dynamics we get on the page here. But for fans of that book, this is definitely a must!

Rating 8: A perfect slice of life from characters I was dying to hear more from! Sweet, funny, and surprisingly heart-felt, this is a must read for fans of “Sorcery of Thorns.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mysteries of Thorn Manor” can be found on this Goodreads list: Novels of “Thorns”.

Serena’s Review: “A Ruinous Fate”

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Book: “A Ruinous Fate” by Kaylie Smith

Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, January 2023

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

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

Book Description: Calliope Rosewood is a witch with a long streak of bad luck. Like all witches in Illustros, her fate is directly tied to Witch’s Dice—powerful artifacts that have blessed her kind with limitless magic but also set them on a path toward destruction. Cursed with unspeakable powers that terrify even the most dangerous witches and fae, Calla deserted her coven four years ago and has been in hiding with her two best friends since. But Calla is also hiding a grave secret: She is only three Rolls away from becoming the last Blood Warrior and starting the Final War that will decimate her people and eradicate their magic.

After a betrayal from her ex leads her one step closer to fulfilling that age-old prophecy, Calla is desperate to do whatever it takes to reset her fate . . . even if that means journeying into the deadly Neverending Forest with said ex and his enticing, yet enigmatic older brother to find the one being who can help her forge her own path. As Calla ventures farther into the enchanted woods, she finds her heart torn between her past desires and the alluring new possibilities of her future and learns that choosing your own destiny may come with deadly consequences.

Review: First off, thanks to Disney Hyperion for reaching out to me with an ARC for review! I was excited to check it out for a few different reasons. For one thing, I’ve always enjoyed the cover art done by this cover artist. And for a second thing, I thought the description sounded very unique. The concept of witches who are dependent to some extent on a dice game of chance, with either the opportunity to gain massive powers or fall into peril. And, of course, our main character who seems to be fearful of becoming essentially what sounds like the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse. Let’s dive in!

Since I kind of just gave a description of the book above, I’m going to skip that paragraph in my post and just jump right into the review. First off, the uniqueness of the premise did hold up in the book itself. The idea of the magical dice and the way they tie into the fate of any given witch is interesting and adds new dynamics to what could have otherwise been a very familiar sound magic system. On top of the ordinary way the dice work (“ordinary”), our main character is dealing with a situation where she has rolled three very unique rolls already. So unique that they point to a dark and grim fate not only for her but for the entire world.

However, while the greater concept of the dice was solid, I did get caught up a bit in a few of the details. While clarity did come slowly but surely, the first quarter of this book just throws the reader in with very little explanation. As such, I did find myself struggling to connect to the main character and the story as a whole, since so much of my attention was getting caught up in the “whys” and “hows” of the whole thing.

I do think, however, that this magical system was the best part of the book, and something that will probably interest a lot of YA fantasy fans. However, the wheels came off the bus for me with the characters themselves. Honestly, I found almost every single character fairly annoying and obnoxious, not least Calla herself. Her decisions and reasoning for said decisions were so difficult to not only understand but sympathize with when they inevitably lead to dramatic outcomes. Worst of all, she’d often claim to be working for the good of others, but again and again, she ultimately came across as a fairly selfish and brash character.

And…there were love triangles. Love trainglesssssss! Plural! So, that wasn’t a win for me. I have a really hard time imaging any situation where multiple love triangles is necessary or enhances a story. Indeed, I’m on record as saying there are very few situations where ANY love triangle is necessary or enhances a story. This is definitely not an exception to that rule. Worse, said love interests were just as frustrating and infuriating as the other characters, both main and side.

All of this to say, I think this is the sort of YA book that will appeal to bigtime YA fantasy fans. Those who are devoted to this genre will likely appreciate the creative world building. And all of the rest, the main character’s personality and the love triangles, are familiar archetypes of this genre, so major fans will probably not bat an eye in the same way that I did. However, for general fantasy fans, I’m not sure this one is worth the time.

Rating 7: Familiar elements will likely draw in the regular YA fantasy crowd, but I’m not sure it has enough to appeal to a larger fantasy audience.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Ruinous Fate” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Best Books Featuring Witches and Upcoming 2023 SFF Books With Female Leads or Co-Leads.

Serena’s Review: “A Broken Blade”

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Book: “A Broken Blade” by Melissa Blair

Publishing Info: Union Square Co., August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

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

Book Description: Keera is a killer. As the King’s Blade, she is the most talented spy in the kingdom. And the king’s favored assassin. When a mysterious figure moves against the Crown, Keera is called upon to hunt down the so-called Shadow. She tracks her target into the magical lands of the Fae, but Faeland is not what it seems . . . and neither is the Shadow. Keera is shocked by what she learns, and can’t help but wonder who her enemy truly is: the King that destroyed her people or the Shadow that threatens the peace?
 
As she searches for answers, Keera is haunted by a promise she made long ago, one that will test her in every way. To keep her word, Keera must not only save herself, but an entire kingdom.

Review: I have a confession: I’m kind of a BookTok snob. On one hand, this is simply laziness and I’ve never spent the time to really dive into this medium. But on the other hand, from what I’ve seen, it seems like the kind of platform where a very small number of books dominate the recommendations. Obviously, this is great for those books, but this focus on a small number of books means that while some get tons of exposure, less well known works slip through the cracks. And, of course, we all know my track record with these highly promoted books…for some reason I just can’t get on the same page as many fans!

Keera’s world is, if not a happy place, at least a well order one, one in which she clearly knows the role she plays, dark as it is. She is an assassin and spy, so skilled that she is the King’s favorite. Of course, this has lead her down dark paths that she struggles to live with. But, such is her world. However, when she is sent hunt down a strange person known as the Shadow, she must venture outside of her typical boundaries and into Faeland. There, she discovers truths that shake her to her very core, forcing her to reimagine the world she thought she was living within.

If you look at Goodreads, this book is rated pretty highly: firmly in the four star range. And, honestly, I can see why. This book reads as the sort of thing that was built to sell. Pick a favorite fantasy trope, and there’s a good chance it’s in this book. Want to play book bingo? This book’s the one for you. Paint by numbers plotting and characters? Check, check, check! It’s not that anything is outrageously bad, it’s just all so very, very familiar that I found myself almost immediately struggling to want to continue reading. Individually, I get why many of these elements are appealing (I mean, on their own I like most of these tropes too), but doesn’t there come a point where readers can feel the pandering a bit too clearly? This book felt like that to me. It was built to sell, and I could still see the marketing department’s fingerprints all over it.

But, like I said, there is nothing actively bad about it. The writing doesn’t qualify as bad, but it is definitely on the more wooden side, too often falling back on telling its readers how to think and feel than showing them or leading them to certain conclusions in more subtle ways. The characters, too, had elements that could have made them interesting, like Keera’s struggle with alcoholism. But this telling sort of writing let these character aspects fall flat. Beyond that, Keera fell a bit too close to the “not like other girls” line, and her character arc never really felt like it challenged her at all.

Even themes that could have had some weight seemed to deflate when actually explored. The story flirts with an interesting discussion of colonialism before quickly subsiding back into the straight-forward plotting that makes up the majority of the story. I don’t know how many synonyms for “flat” I can use at this point, because the worldbuilding was also lackluster. I often had more questions than answers, and the bits of descriptions we do come by all feel fairly generic.

As you can see, I don’t have much positive to say about this book. I can’t point to any one thing that was actively bad, but it was definitely one of those books that felt like a chore to read from start to very-predictable finish. Fans of these tropes may like it (and must, given the Goodreads rating!), but honestly, they all felt tired out to me, and there are better examples all over the place of any one of them.

Rating 6: Per the usual, the hype let me down and all I found here was more of the very, very familiar same.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Broken Blade” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Assassins.

Kate’s Review: “In Every Generation”

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

Book: “In Every Generation” by Kendare Blake

Publishing Info: Disney-Hyperion, January 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eBook from the publisher.

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

Book Description: Frankie Rosenberg is passionate about the environment, a sophomore at New Sunnydale High School, and the daughter of the most powerful witch in Sunnydale history. Her mom, Willow, is slowly teaching her magic on the condition that she use it to better the world. But Frankie’s happily quiet life is upended when new girl Hailey shows up with news that the annual Slayer convention has been the target of an attack, and all the Slayers—including Buffy, Faith, and Hailey’s older sister Vi—might be dead. That means it’s time for this generation’s Slayer to be born.

But being the first ever Slayer-Witch means learning how to wield a stake while trying to control her budding powers. With the help of Hailey, a werewolf named Jake, and a hot but nerdy sage demon, Frankie must become the Slayer, prevent the Hellmouth from opening again, and find out what happened to her Aunt Buffy, before she’s next.

Get ready for a whole new story within the world of Buffy!

Review: Thank you to Disney-Hyperion for sending me an eBook copy of this novel!

It’s so funny, when the shows “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” ended I never really went back to revisit them. I wrote a hell of a lot of fan fiction about my favorite characters, but I don’t think I’ve ever done a full rewatch. This is odd because “Buffy” is a show that had a huge impact on me as a teen for a litany of reasons, but between dissatisfaction with some of the way the stories ended and the fact that Joss Whedon is a massive prick, actually getting back into my “Buffy” love has been pretty much sidelined until the past year or so. Whether it was watching “Cobra Kai” and seeing striking parallels between bad girl Tori and my favorite dark slayer Faith, or getting books at ALAAC that were part of the “Buffy” universe, 2022 kind of brought back some of that love. So when I was approached to read Kendare Blake’s new Buffy books, starting with “In Eery Generation”, I went in with an open mind, because I like Blake as an author and I’ve been feeling extra nostalgic. That said, I was not prepared for how much I was going to enjoy “In Every Generation”, the first book in her Frankie Rosenberg series. Guys. I REALLY LIKED THIS BOOK! I was transported back to when the whole family would watch “Buffy” and then my high school best friend Blake would call to dissect the episode!

Queen. (source)

There is always a bit of a risk when a franchise is rebooted for a new generation, and given that “Buffy” ended almost twenty years ago (oh GOD I’m getting old) it may have seemed odd that suddenly we are getting a lot of new content that stems from our favorite vampire slayer. It doesn’t really help that Buffy Summers’s creator Joss Whedon has been exposed as a total shithead in recent years. But Blake takes a job that could have been VERY difficult and makes it seem so easy, in that not only does she effectively capture the pure snarky, heartfelt, and very 2000s essence of “Buffy”, but she also creates new characters that feel real, believable within the world, and makes them just as likable and able to hold their own against old favorites. I really, really loved Frankie Rosenberg, the daughter of Willow who has been awakened as the first Slayer-Witch after an attack on a gathering of slayers that may have left Buffy, Faith, et al dead. We have familiar call backs to Buffy’s own original journey through Frankie and her new group of Scoobies (such as her best friend Jake Osbourne, teen werewolf and cousin to Willow’s ex-boyfriend Oz, and Hailey, a human girl with a missing slayer sister), but Frankie is wholly different from Buffy and really feels like a well thought out person and character. I wholly believed her as an awkward teenage girl who grew up around some of Sunnydale’s best and brightest combatants against evil, and also liked that there was a certain Gen Z flair brought to her character I also liked how Blake taps into vampire lore beyond the “Buffy” stuff, as Frankie may or may not be gearing up to fight against Countess Elizabeth Báthory, notorious Hungarian murderess who, in this, may or may not be a vampire. Blake has used historical events for inspiration before in her horror fiction, vampire fiction no less, and I really liked how it worked here too. It makes the stakes (hurr hurr) higher and it feels more interesting than just having it be Dracula or something (yes, that is a read, if you know, you know). Frankie is just so likable, her friends are adorable too, and I am wholly eager to follow then through this trilogy.

But here is the thing that really sold it for my elder millennial self: BLAKE HAS BASICALLY SHOWCASED A FEW OF MY FAVORITE CHARACTERS FROM THE SHOW AND MADE THEM EVERYTHING I EVER WANTED THEM TO BE! We all know what a big Spike fan I am thanks to my review for William Ritter’s “Bloody Fool for Love”, and I have very high standards and expectations and hopes for any interpretation of my favorite snarky ensouled vampire. Blake has made him SO, SO EXCELLENT!! She has his voice down, she gives him a lot of really fun things to do, and she really knows how to tap into his more vulnerable sides by making him Frankie’s Watcher (with full school librarian aspects and everything, much to his chagrin) and making him care for her like a daughter. I also really loved Willow in this, as she is very much Willow but with a motherly bent, but also a woman who has been thrust back into a magical role that she had been limiting because of her past with dark magic getting out of control. And the one that surprised me the most but also made me SO happy was seeing that Oz is here!! This surprised me a bit because he left in Season 4 and was barely ever mentioned again, but I always had a soft spot for him because Seth Green was the reason I started watching “Buffy” in the first place. Blake expertly taps into the Willow and Oz connection without erasing the fact that Willow is a lesbian, but still keeps their care for each other feeling very real even if platonic. Honestly, everything Blake did with these characters, be it their interpretations or the backstory she built to get from the “Angel” finale to here (I’m fine with erasing the comics canon), made it feel so, so perfectly “Buffy”. Hell, she even limited Xander’s role, and as someone who has never liked Xander (don’t even get me started, I could do a TED talk) but understands why he kind of needs to be here, I was very okay with the part he did play. If Faith shows up as the series continues, I will be on cloud nine. I WANT TO SEE WHAT SHE DOES WITH FAITH. And I, of course, want to see Buffy. But I appreciate that Blake is holding off a bit. Frankie needs to grow into her own thing without THAT weight on her shoulders, so I will bide my time for Buffy to show up. Because she has to.

Overall I super, super enjoyed “In Every Generation”. I am SO amped to see where we go from here, and I am so happy that Kendare Blake has taken on a universe near and dear to my heart and continued it so well. “Buffy” fans old and new need to seek it out.

Rating 9: Boy did this hit every single “Buffy” note that I ever hoped for. So good to see an old favorite in good hands.

Reader’s Advisory:

“In Every Generation” is included on the Goodreads lists “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, and “Countess Elizabeth Báthory – Fiction and Non-Fiction”.

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