Serena’s Review: “Into the Heartless Wood”

Book: “Into the Heartless Wood” by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Publishing Info: Page Street Kids, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The forest is a dangerous place, where siren song lures men and women to their deaths. For centuries, a witch has harvested souls to feed the heartless tree, using its power to grow her domain.

When Owen Merrick is lured into the witch’s wood, one of her tree-siren daughters, Seren, saves his life instead of ending it. Every night, he climbs over the garden wall to see her, and every night her longing to become human deepens. But a shift in the stars foretells a dangerous curse, and Seren’s quest to become human will lead them into an ancient war raging between the witch and the king who is trying to stop her.

Review: I’m not sure why it took me so long to get to this book. On the surface, it has tons of things working in its favor for me specifically. The cover is lovely and the story sounds like the exact sort of fairytale fantasy that I absolutely love. But every time I picked it up, I just couldn’t quite get into it. So, this last December I decided to really give it a go. And, while it still isn’t my favorite read ever, at least this time I did manage to get through the entire thing!

Everyone knows the true sirens live not in the sea but in the woods. Deep in the dark forest, a witch weaves a powerful spell to lure men and women beneath the canopy of trees where she can use her magic to feed their souls to the trees themselves. But it turns out that tree-sirens may want more, at least Seren does. When she meets a human, Owen, she begins to understand what it is to be human and longs for a soul of her own. But darker forces are shifting and the clash between the witch and a powerful king is soon to come.

This book is a tough one for me because of two dueling aspects of the story. One that I love. And one that I hate. Let’s start with what I loved. Obviously, I’m here for all of the fairytale fantasies, and this was just the type that I enjoy. The language was lyrical and of that “old-timey” style that I particularly enjoy. There was also numerous nods to English/Welsh folklore that very much reminded me of Juliet Marillier’s work. And really, anything that can be compared to one of my favorite authors has to be good. And yet, here I am giving a middling review to this book. Well, that comes down to what my problem was with the story. Notably, our two main characters and their romance.

Sadly, this was a hardcore instalove story. I mean, these two characters pretty much fall immediately in full-on love by page 60 (unsurprisingly enough, this is about where I fell-off in my reading in previous attempts). For me, instalove like this immediately sucks all of the interest out of the romance of the story. There’s no where for this relationship to go if it starts out at 100% milk. This makes the romance itself read very bland and boring, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that both main character also felt rather flat and uninteresting. I did like that their roles were somewhat reversed, with the heroine coming from a villainous role and the hero having a softer, more open personality.

So, there you have it, a book made of two equally powerful sides of my preference-coin. Love the fairytale story and lyrical quality of writing. Really hated the instalove romance and flat main characters. For those who are less annoyed by instalove, this could be a real win of a story. But sadly, it was enough to bump this one down a few points in my own rating.

Rating 7: Really loved parts of it, really disliked others, so take from that what you will!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Into the Heartless Wood” is on these Goodreads lists: Books To Read In Winter and Magical Forest.

Find “Into the Heartless Wood” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Echoes and Empires”

Book: “Echoes and Empires” by Morgan Rhodes

Publishing Info: Razorbill, January 2022

Where Did I Get this BOok: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Josslyn Drake knows only three things about magic: it’s rare, illegal, and always deadly. So when she’s caught up in a robbery gone wrong at the Queen’s Gala and infected by a dangerous piece of magic—one that allows her to step into the memories of an infamously evil warlock—she finds herself living her worst nightmare. Joss needs the magic removed before it corrupts her soul and kills her. But in Ironport, the cost of doing magic is death, and seeking help might mean scheduling her own execution. There’s nobody she can trust.

Nobody, that is, except wanted criminal Jericho Nox, who offers her a deal: his help extracting the magic in exchange for the magic itself. And though she’s not thrilled to be working with a thief, especially one as infuriating (and infuriatingly handsome) as Jericho, Joss is desperate enough to accept.

But Jericho is nothing like Joss expects. The closer she grows with Jericho and the more she sees of the world outside her pampered life in the city, the more Joss begins to question the beliefs she’s always taken for granted—beliefs about right and wrong, about power and magic, and even about herself.

In an empire built on lies, the truth may be her greatest weapon.

Review: So, I was sucked into this one by the cover. I’ll even admit that I only barely glanced at the general description before requesting it. That said, had I looked at said description a bit more closely, I might have been a bit more wary. But I also know that a book description isn’t the be all end all of books, and I’ve seen more than one example in the last year where the description completely undersold or misrepresented an excellent story. Unfortunately, this one is pretty much exactly what you’d expect based on its description.

Joss has always lived her life in the spotlight, and until the last year when tragedy struck her family, she’s reveled in it. Still, the show must go on, so Joss dutifully makes an appearance at a grand event. Unfortunately, while there, she gets caught up in a robbery that leaves her in possession of a magical infestation. And in a land where magic is outlawed, she must now creep into the shadowy world of the thieves and outlaws in hopes of curing herself before she is executed. While there, she begins to uncover new truths about her glittering world that throws her entire existence into question.

Sadly, I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about this book. I guess I can say that the writing seems strong enough, and the author was blessedly free of any repetitive word choices or an overly-simplistic style. There was also a fairly high level of action throughout, especially if you’re the type of reader who sees action in some of the smaller, social moments between characters.

Unfortunately, some of that “action” was unnecessary drama. Joss, herself, is introduced as a fairly unlikable main character who is made up of many of the more annoying stereotypes applied to teenage girls. She’s very self-focused, on her looks and her own actions, has made friends with a bunch of “popular girls” who, of course, participate in this the type of sniping and backstabbing that we’ve all seen in one too many teenage movies, and her focus on things like fancy dresses and shopping (while not bad on their own, of course) comes across as frivolous when paired with the rest of her character. The story does go on to reveal much that is wrong with Joss’s view of herself and her world, but for me, it was both too little too late and a bit hard to truly buy any of her changes.

I also had quibbles about how Joss was introduced. The way she talks, interacts with others, and generally carries herself through the world is very much in step with how a 20-something young woman would, decidedly NOT a teenage girl. It read as both unbelievable and, at times, borderline inappropriate. Also, fairly neglectful of her caretakers?

I also had massive, massive eye rolls at romance and the romantic interest. Not only was it all so predictable, but the banter was also very tired and expected. Also, the name “Jericho Nox.” Can’t not mention the ridiculousness of that name. From there, you move on to all of the other non-twists that come through this book. If you haven’t guessed most of them from the book description itself, I’d be shocked.

I was also very confused about the setting of this book. The cover, for one, makes it seem as if it is set in your typical bland, slightly Medieval European setting. But no. There are cars, phones, and a sort of social media apparatus. But also magic that still feels like it would come from one of those second world fantasies. Obviously, urban fantasy exists and that is probably the best subgenre for this. But that, too, didn’t quite fit. I don’t dislike the concept of the world, overall, but as it was, it felt jarring and hard to really place myself within it as a reader.

This book wasn’t really for me at all. Perhaps readers who aren’t as tired of some of these tropes will enjoy it, but I can’t really say anyone should run out and get their hands on it immediately.

Rating 5: Not for me. Too full of tropes and an unlikable main character really hurt it for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Echoes and Empires” is on this Goodreads lists: YA Novels of 2022.

Find “Echoes and Empires” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Monthly Marillier: “The Caller”

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

Book: “The Caller” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, March 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

Book Description: Neryn has made a long journey to perfect her skills as a Caller. She has learned the wisdom of water and of earth; she has journeyed to the remote isles of the west and the forbidding mountains of the north. Now, Neryn must travel in Alban’s freezing winter to seek the mysterious White Lady, Guardian of Air. For only when Neryn has been trained by all four Guardians will she be ready to play her role in toppling the tyrannical King Keldec.

But the White Lady is not what she seems. Trapped with Whisper, her fey protector, Neryn is unable to send word to her beloved Flint, who is in danger of being exposed as a double agent. When a new threat looms and the rebellion is in jeopardy, Neryn must enter Keldec’s court, where one false move could see her culled. She must stand up against forces more powerful than any she has confronted before, and face losses that could break her heart.

Previously Reviewed: “Shadowfell” and “Raven Flight”

Review: This series was a bit of a roller coaster ride when I read it the first time, and the same holds true now. The first book was a bit slow and plodding. The second book was much improved and more to my taste. And the last book…was kind of back to being a miss, leaving the trilogy as a whole as probably my least favorite series from Marillier. So with that exciting preview to go on, let’s dive in!

Neryn’s task, to meet and gain the blessing of the four Guardains of the fae, has not been completed, and the powerful and dangerous forces in the land of Alban grow. She must hurry, not only does the entire land depend on her ability to communicate with the Fae, bringing them into the battle to secure their country from its cruel dictator, but her love, Flint, may soon be exposed as a spy. But magic can’t be rushed, and there are secrets to be discovered in the chilly halls of the North.

This book was not my favorite. Part of this has to do with the strange pacing of the story which makes it feel like poorly fit pieces of a puzzle that just won’t lie together. In many ways, the beginning feels like a natural extension of the second book, so much so that it reads a bit strange to find it at the beginning of a completely separate book that rather quickly leaves this type of “magical trial” storyline in the dust. But still, as I greatly enjoyed the second book for this very same storyline, the first part of this book is by far my favorite. I enjoyed the magical mysteries to be found with the northern Guardian, and this small adventure perfectly fit Neryn’s optimism and persistent pluck even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

However, from there the book goes downhill in my estimation. We move on to a undercover spy game that, on its own, isn’t bad but pairs poorly with the magical adventures that came before it. Again, my lack of investment in Flint and his relationship with Neryn didn’t help, leaving me feeling a bit bored as we made our way through what should have been touching reunions and tense games of cat-and-mouse.

And, sadly, the ending was the worst of it. Not only did I find the manner in which these conflicts were resolved unbelievable, but the entire thing undercut much of the grief and terror we’d seen up to this point. Neryn’s journey, her power, all were useful, of course. There was a brief battle. But in the end, it felt like the rebellion, Neryn, and us, the reader, had been primed for something that simply didn’t happen. And if it was ultimately as easy as this (I don’t think it would be and frankly my eyebrows were exploding off the top of my head, they were raised so high), the entire situation could have been handled sooner and the threat was never that powerful to start.

There was also left only a small, short chapter to really wrap up the remaining storylines. We were given only the briefest glimpses into the possible future for these characters, and it all simply felt like too little tacked on at the very last minute. Given how little of this series showed Neryn and Flint together, this truncated ending for them felt like even more of a let down.

So, yeah. I didn’t love this trilogy when I read it the first time and was curious to see if, perhaps, I just wasn’t in the right mood that go around (though, to be fair, I read these as they came out, so I would have had to be “not in the right mood” for like three years for that to be the case). But, no. This series just wasn’t for me. Neryn was a bit too Mary Sue. The romance lacked the spark I’ve come to expect from Marillier. And the story often felt half-baked. If you’re a fan of her work, maybe check this out. But other fantasy readers are sure to find better entries from this author in her other series.

Rating 6: A disappointing end to a lackluster series. Honestly, with “Wildwood Dancing” as the exception, Marillier is a far better adult fantasy author than YA.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Caller” is on these Goodreads lists: Most Interesting Magic System and Australian Speculative Fiction.

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

Serena’s Review: “Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves”

Book: “Cold the Wolves, Fast the Wolves” by Meg Long

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, January 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: After angering a local gangster, seventeen-year-old Sena Korhosen must flee with her prize fighting wolf, Iska, in tow. A team of scientists offer to pay her way off her frozen planet on one condition: she gets them to the finish line of the planet’s infamous sled race. Though Sena always swore she’d never race after it claimed both her mothers’ lives, it’s now her only option.

But the tundra is a treacherous place, and as the race unfolds and their lives are threatened at every turn, Sena starts to question her own abilities. She must discover whether she’s strong enough to survive the wild – whether she and Iska together are strong enough to get them all out alive.

Review: I’m sure I partly requested this one simply based on the beautiful cover. But I also vaguely read the description and saw “wolf companion” and just auto-requested it. All of this to say, I really had very little idea what this book was actually about when I picked it up, but what an enjoyable surprise it was!

On Sena’s planet, the economy and culture is shaped by one thing and one thing only: the annual race. Dangerous and with low probability of success, the prize at the end, the right to drill for a rare and valuable mineral, still draws racers from around the galaxy. Sena, however, wants nothing to do with it after it claimed the life of her mothers. But when she finds herself in trouble with a gang leader and followed by a half-tame fighting wolf, Sena sees only one path off this desolate planet: she must finish the race and buy her way to freedom.

This book is a bit of a funny thing. A few months ago, Kate and I were guest speakers for an MLIS class and we talked about genre trends in YA. One of the things I touched on that while the fact that fantasy has become incredibly popular in YA fiction, a less discussed aspect is how science fiction in YA has not seen the same bump. This book is a classic example of how publishers not only recognize this fact but continue to work through these trends by misleading their readers. This cover screams fantasy. And then you read the description. Other than one small reference to this taking place on a different planet, you have no indication that it’s not just a straight-forward fantasy novel. But when you read it, it’s clearly a science fiction story!

There is an emphasis on futuristic technology, discussion of interplanetary politics, and themes that are common to science fiction such as the impact of corporations on intergalactic economics and culture. The fantastic creatures that are included are often attributed more to the genetic manipulation of people or to human-influenced changes in the planet’s ecosystem. The language is modern and the setting is clearly set some time in the future, with advanced medicine, transportation, and weapons. It was all excellent and a great example of what science fiction has to offer to fans of YA fiction. Even the author mentions in her afterward how she hopes this book will encourage more readers of YA science fiction. And yet the publishers clearly had so little confidence in this premise that they still felt the need to hide it behind a fantasy cover and a description that doesn’t hint at any of the science fiction elements to be found on the book’s pages.

I really enjoyed Sena as a main character. She was tough, both mentally and physically. But also impulsive, slow to trust, and struggling to process her grief over the loss of her mothers. The race itself, full of action and danger, was a perfect parallel for Sena’s own inner journey to self-acceptance. I also liked that this was a perfect example of a YA young woman noting early in a book that she doesn’t have time for romance and actually following through on that. It’s not just a throwaway line before the heroine proceeds to go all in on a romance the very next second. No, Sena rightly evaluates her life and the dangers and priorities before her and knows that romance is not really an option. It was refreshing and allowed the book to really embrace its focus on her relationship with the wolf Iska and another female friend she picks up along the way.

I did struggle with a few aspects of the story, however. If I had to count the number of times that Sena reflects on “corporations” and “greed,” it would be in the double digits. And yet other than both being bad, the book never goes into anything deeper on either of these two topics. It was fairly shallow, and without any further depth, the repetition of both as talking points quickly became dull and confusing. I felt like the author had more to say about this, but either because she didn’t think it fit in this particular book or because she didn’t think it fit for a YA audience, she never actually delved into anything of substance.

I also struggled with some of the practicalities of the race itself. I could never quite figure out how the set up worked: the weather only permitted the race once a year because of the cold and storms. The same electrical storms also messed with technology that would allow the mining site to be accessed by traditional ships and such. And yet the race is only one way, with racers using drop ships to leave the site? We even have one character show up at the end of the race who travelled directly there from a ship. I think there was some discussion of the race itself being set up by corporations for purposes of profiting indirectly from the equipment needed for purchase from the racers. I might have just missed some of this, but as the book continued, I found myself regularly getting side-tracked by how this all worked.

Overall, however, I really liked this YA science fiction novel. I wish that the publishing industry would give this subgenre more of a chance, but I’m pleased enough to even find a YA science fiction book out there, even if it’s disguised as fantasy! Definitely check this one out if you like science fiction or adventure stories featuring animal companions!

Rating 8: Perhaps missing an opportunity to dig deeper on some of its themes, this book is still an excellent example of what YA science fiction has to offer!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves” is on these Goodreads lists: YA sci-fi releases 2020-2023 and All Fictional Wolf Books (NOT WEREWOLVES).

Find “Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “It Will End Like This”

Book: “It Will End Like This” by Kyra Leigh

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2022

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

Book Description: For fans of The Cheerleaders and Sadie comes a psychological thriller that reminds us that in real life, endings are rarely as neat as happily ever after. A contemporary take on the Lizzie Borden story that explores how grief can cut deep.

Charlotte lost her mother six months ago, and still no one will tell her exactly what happened the day she mysteriously died. They say her heart stopped, but Charlotte knows deep down that there’s more to the story.

The only person who gets it is Charlotte’s sister, Maddi. Maddi agrees—people’s hearts don’t just stop. There are too many questions left unanswered for the girls to move on. But their father is moving on. With their mother’s personal assistant. And both girls are sure that she’s determined to take everything that’s theirs away for herself.

Now the only way to get their lives back is for Charlotte and Maddi to decide how this story ends, themselves.

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

Boy did I think that the timing on this was golden! Around the time that I sat down to start “It Will End Like This” by Kyra Leigh, my favorite podcast was starting their two part series on Lizzie Borden and the Borden Axe Murders. “It Will End Like This” is a YA thriller that takes that story and updates it with modern times and sensibilities, so to me this was going to be the perfect pairing, to my mind.

But I think that it actually worked against the book’s favor, at the end of the day. Which is a real bummer, as I was amped for a YA thriller a la “Sadie” or “The Cheerleaders” that tackled a notorious murder mystery. Because “It Will End Like This” fell pretty flat.

I will start with the positive, and that is the very concept of updating the Lizzie Borden tale with YA protagonists and in a modern setting. There are so many aspects of the original tale (at least how it has evolved over time) that have so much storytelling potential: murder! Potential family strife! A freakin’ axe! I was really hoping for a creative and engaging update that would put all of these Victorian Themes (and all the mess that comes with that kind of baggage) into a modern lens. Like, that is just teeming with potential!

But there were some glaring missteps with this story that reminded me that a story can’t float on potential alone. The first is just a narrative style and set of choices that I didn’t like. For one, while we got a lot of Charlotte perspectives, the Maddi chapters were quite limited. I would have liked to have a bit more of an even distribution for their narrations, unreliability between them notwithstanding. Along with that, it’s all very disjointed, which is a fair choice to make given that Charlotte (and to some extent Maddi) is slowly losing her faculties due to grief, resentment, and rage. But the execution feels a bit heavy handed as well as too messy, and it makes Charlotte and Maddi rather two dimensional in their depictions.

But for me, the biggest issue is that while this book is inspired by the Borden Axe Murders, it’s more inspired by the myths surrounding Lizzie Borden versus the actual case at hand. And this is why my podcast timing probably ruined it for me. This book gives Charlotte and Maddi all the reasons in the world to want their father and stepmother dead, the biggest being that they were clearly having an affair and potentially had something to do with their mother’s very recent death. But the real Lizzie Borden had no obvious motive, as her mother had been LONG dead, and there is no reason to think that her father had anything to do with her death. That’s the big mystery surrounding these murders at the end of the day: Lizzie Borden as a suspect is hard to believe given lack of substantiated motive (note: I say substantiated because of speculation about a lesbian love affair being found out as a motive. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case, but I don’t know if there is actual evidence to suggest this? And it wasn’t even used in this book as a plot point, so…) and some timing issues on the day of the murders (seriously, the timing would have to be insane for her to pull it all off). Buuuuut there is also a difficult argument to be made for some random person to have done it without being noticed by someone! Instead of taking inspiration from a truly puzzling murder mystery, “It Will End Like This” takes the “Lizzie Borden Took An Axe” nursery rhyme and speculation run amok and ran with that narrative. I think that if the final product had been stronger and less confusing, and had I not JUST listened to a breakdown of the actual facts of the case, I could have overlooked this all, but with all of these issues at hand, it was a bit too much to get over.

“The Cheerleaders” and “Sadie” this is not. I was sad that “It Will End Like This” was the disappointment that it was. I will say that it makes me want to go read other adaptations of the story to see what they do with it. I’m just not sure I’m convinced that Lizzie Borden did take that axe, and this book didn’t rise up high enough for me to look past that.

Rating 5: A good concept is muddled down by confusing narrative choices and straying a bit from the inspirational event it touts in the description.

Reader’s Advisory:

“It Will End Like This” is included on the Goodreads list “2022 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Find “It Will End Like This” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “A Psalm of Storms and Silence”

Book: “A Psalm of Storms and Silence” by Roseanna A. Brown

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, November 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Karina lost everything after a violent coup left her without her kingdom or her throne. Now the most wanted person in Sonande, her only hope of reclaiming what is rightfully hers lies in a divine power hidden in the long-lost city of her ancestors.

Meanwhile, the resurrection of Karina’s sister has spiraled the world into chaos, with disaster after disaster threatening the hard-won peace Malik has found as Farid’s apprentice. When they discover that Karina herself is the key to restoring balance, Malik must use his magic to lure her back to their side. But how do you regain the trust of someone you once tried to kill?

As the fabric holding Sonande together begins to tear, Malik and Karina once again find themselves torn between their duties and their desires. And when the fate of everything hangs on a single, horrifying choice, they each must decide what they value most—a power that could transform the world, or a love that could transform their lives.

Previously Reviewed: “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin”

Review: So, if you’ve read my review of “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin,” you will remember that I checked both of these out from the library at once. Very rarely do I get a chance to read books back-to-back like this. Either because I read the first one when it comes out and there is naturally a long wait. Or because I can’t get my hands on them both at the same time. But it’s always a fun experience to simply stay in one world over the course of two books. The first one followed a fairly straight-forward plot, but its interesting uses of West African culture and folklore kept me on board. Let’s see what the second one had to offer!

All of Karina’s worst fears have come to pass, the mutiny she had feared struck and she now wanders alone and hunted, desperate to reclaim her throne. But it soon becomes clear that Karina’s desire to return to her throne is not only important to her but to the entire country, for with the return of her sister as come chaos and disaster. Malik quickly learns that returning Karina to her throne is all that will resettle this disturbance. But, of course, their is the teensy problem of trying to get a woman you tried to kill to trust you once again and work alongside you.

Before we get into the real review, I just want to take this moment to love on the covers of both of these books. Rarely do I like covers that feature models, I think they’re usually too cheesy and draw to mind cheap covers of romance paperbacks of old. But I really like the cover for both this book and the first one. I think I probably like this one even more than the first. It’s great to see Malik, and Karina looks more like the powerful character I imagined.

Sadly, this book was a bit of a let-down. I had some concerns going in, considering one of my bigger complaints about the first book was the fairly bland and straight-forward writing style and plot design. This is always a bit difficult for me to review in these types of books, as I’m not the target audience, not being a young adult myself. However, while I think that perhaps a younger audience would be less turned off by this more plain style of writing and plotting, I do think that authors and publishers regularly underestimate their readers. Just because YA readers will read this book and maybe not be actively turned off by the simple writing (unlike me), I would theorize that they would greatly appreciate it more if the author challenged their abilities and expectations a bit more.

Mostly, I was disappointed with the direction the romance and characterization took for our two characters. I never enjoy a romance that has tension created and kept alive only by actively obtuse levels of determined noncommunication. Maybe just talk to each other?! I also have limited patience for wishy-washy trust issues of the sort we see here. It simply doesn’t feel natural to try to pair the level of interest/love these two are meant to feel for each other with the level of distrust we get from their mental dialogues and their unwillingness to communicate basic facts. It just doesn’t read as natural to have characters behave like this.

I was pleased enough with the ending, a bit expected, but it also felt like a natural fit for the story. So, while I personally didn’t really enjoy this duology on the whole, I do recognize that it may appeal much more to actual YA readers. The West African cultural elements and folklore were still very interesting, so I don’t regret checking it out.

Rating 6: A bit of a let down with a romance plot line that I generally don’t enjoy. But I’m also not the target audience, so take from my opinion what you will.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Psalm of Storms and Silence” is on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Fantasy and Science Fiction Books by Black Authors and X of Y and Z.

Find “A Psalm of Storms and Silence” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin”

Book: “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin” by Roseanne A. Brown

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, June 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: For Malik, the Solstasia festival is a chance to escape his war-stricken home and start a new life with his sisters in the prosperous desert city of Ziran. But when a vengeful spirit abducts Malik’s younger sister, Nadia, as payment into the city, Malik strikes a fatal deal—kill Karina, Crown Princess of Ziran, for Nadia’s freedom.

But Karina has deadly aspirations of her own. Her mother, the Sultana, has been assassinated; her court threatens mutiny; and Solstasia looms like a knife over her neck. Grief-stricken, Karina decides to resurrect her mother through ancient magic . . . requiring the beating heart of a king. And she knows just how to obtain one: by offering her hand in marriage to the victor of the Solstasia competition.

When Malik rigs his way into the contest, they are set on a course to destroy each other. But as attraction flares between them and ancient evils stir, will they be able to see their tasks to the death?

Review: I’ve had this book on my TBR list since way back when it first released. And then when I took a second look, BAM! The second book was already out. So that shamed me into making it more of a priority, so here we are. I was able to check out both books from the library at the same time, so we’re going to have a bit of a double feature this week. Let’s dive in!

Torn by grief, Karina, the Crown Princess, is desperate to bring her mother back to life. Not only was the Sultana life cut unnaturally short by assassination, but Karina’s life as the new ruler is a hell of defiant courtiers and a constant fear of mutiny. The only way to return her mother is through a dark spell that requires the heart of a king. And how does a queen find a king? By marrying as quickly as she can. Malik, a young man looking for a brighter future, finds his path forward usurped when his younger sister is captured and the price of her life is the death of the young queen. To do so, he enters a grand contest, the winner of which has been promised said queen’s hand in marriage, the perfect way to get close enough to pull off such a heinous deed. But as the two begin to circle one another, each with the other’s death in their sight, they begin to find their hearts standing in the way of their plans.

This book was a strange mixed bag for me. I had read descriptions of it as a sort of West African “Aladdin” retelling, and I can sort of see that with the caged princess and the young man who comes from nothing but reaches towards a throne. But this expectation didn’t really serve me well, as I don’t think there’s much here that’s too similar to that story. On the other hand, I really enjoyed the West African setting. The descriptions of the clothes, buildings, and, most especially, the food was all excellent and really created a sense of place in which to tell its story. I also liked the West African folklore that we had in the book, and, again, I wish that had been enough without needing “Aladdin” comparisons to somehow familiarize the story to readers who might not have know what to expect. Half the fun of reading is discovering new worlds and new stories, no need to compare them all to something so well-trodden as “Aladdin.”

However, while all of that was good, I struggled to feel truly invested in the story. There was nothing overtly bad about any of it, but it did feel very “paint by numbers” YA fantasy. The writing was very straight-forward and no challenging. There were limited truly imaginative expressions or reflections. And the plot and romance followed the same beaten path that we have seen a million times before in YA romance stories. While I appreciate that publishers are adding more diversity to their catalog, I do wish they’d challenge their authors to push past these tired, very flat stories and writing styles.

I did like the two main characters, however. Malik was allowed to be softer and more emotionally available than the typical heroic male character. And the author explored mental health struggles in Karina’s storyline. Overall, I think this book was just ok. I wish the author had pushed herself to go a bit further, perhaps straying a bit further from the tried and true path. But I did think it was a fun enough read that I’m happy to pick up the second book I already have from the library.

Rating 7: The West African setting and folklore were by far the best parts of a book that otherwise played it rather too safe.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Song of Wraiths and Ruin” is on these Goodreads lists: Black Heroines 2020 and The Blank of Blank and Blank.

Find “A Song of Wraiths and Ruin” at your library using Worldcat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Midnight Girls”

Book: “The Midnight Girls” by Alicia Jasinska

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, December 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: It’s Karnawał season in the snow-cloaked Kingdom of Lechija, and from now until midnight when the church bells ring an end to Devil’s Tuesday time will be marked with wintry balls and glittery disguises, cavalcades of nightly torch-lit “kuligi” sleigh-parties.

Unbeknownst to the oblivious merrymakers, two monsters join the fun, descending upon the royal city of Warszów in the guise of two innocent girls. Newfound friends and polar opposites, Zosia and Marynka seem destined to have a friendship that’s stronger even than magic. But that’s put to the test when they realize they both have their sights set on Lechija’s pure-hearted prince. A pure heart contains immeasurable power and Marynka plans to bring the prince’s back to her grandmother in order to prove herself. While Zosia is determined to take his heart and its power for her own.

When neither will sacrifice their ambitions for the other, the festivities spiral into a wild contest with both girls vying to keep the hapless prince out of the other’s wicked grasp. But this isn’t some remote forest village, where a hint of stray magic might go unnoticed, Warszów is the icy capital of a kingdom that enjoys watching monsters burn, and if Zosia and Marynka’s innocent disguises continue to slip, their escalating rivalry might cost them not just the love they might have for each other, but both their lives.

Review: I love this cover artist (looked up, her name is Charlie Bowater)! Whenever I see a cover by her, the book seems to immediately climb up my TBR pile. It doesn’t hurt that this seemed like the perfect wintery/Christmas fantasy story that gives off hints of “The Night Circus” with its story of dueling sorcerers. And luckily the whole “fighting for the heart of a prince” thing seems like it is just a clever ruse for the true romance at the heart of the story.

Two powerful women find their new friendship quickly put to the test when they discover they each are after the same prize: the pure heart of the young, hapless prince. But nothing is what it seems, and this heart isn’t sought for such soft things like love. No, instead Zosia and Marynka each want the rare power that comes from a heart so pure. As their magical competition grows, so too does the risk they each take in being discovered, for magic is feared and persecuted. But Zosia and Marnka are both discovering that as equal as their determination is to win the prince’s heart, so too may be their growing attraction.

This was a bit of a tough read for me. Mostly because I definitely didn’t dislike it, but I also struggled to really get through it for some reason. There was a lot to like here, but it just didn’t seem to land right. One of the things I liked the most was the story’s roots in Polish culture and fairytales. The descriptions of the town, the fables and legends seen in the festivals, and the food were all lovely and refreshing. I also particularly liked the fact that it was set in winter during a winter festival, a time of year and setting that one doesn’t often see in fantasy stories. There’s definitely something uniquely cozy about reading books featuring others dealing with the winter weather while you are snuggled up in a blanket with hot tea.

I also didn’t mind the two POV characters. But again, I just didn’t mind them. This was another duel POV story, and while I didn’t have a strong preference for one POV over another (usually my problem with this format of storytelling), they also simply read as very similar voices. They each had unique goals and approaches to their task of winning the prince’s heart, but if you plopped med own into a random chapter, it would take some mention of these fact for me to know whose head I was in. The writing was fine for both of them, just not particularly strong overall.

I also struggled with the pacing of the story. I felt like it not only started out rather slowly, it all wrapped up quite quickly in the end. Things fell together much too easily and, overall, the plot seemed to rely far to heavily on the romance to carry the reader through. It wasn’t a huge problem, and I’m sure most readers will be there for the romance mainly anyways, but it did feel a bit rushed and a bit of a let down. Overall, however, I think this book will appeal to readers looking for a wlw fantasy story to c0zy up with this winter!

Rating 7: A fairly middling story in itself, but a sweet fantasy love story that will still likely appeal to many who are looking for a romantic read for the winter season.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Midnight Girls” is on these Goodreads lists: Sci-fi & Fantasy with a main sapphic/wlw romance and Covers by Charlie Bowater (cuz I seem to love all of her covers!)

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

Kate’s Review: “The Girl from the Sea”

Book: “The Girl from the Sea” by Molly Knox Ostertag

Publishing Info: Graphix, June 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: From the author of The Witch Boy trilogy comes a graphic novel about family, romance, and first love.

Fifteen-year-old Morgan has a secret: She can’t wait to escape the perfect little island where she lives. She’s desperate to finish high school and escape her sad divorced mom, her volatile little brother, and worst of all, her great group of friends…who don’t understand Morgan at all. Because really, Morgan’s biggest secret is that she has a lot of secrets, including the one about wanting to kiss another girl.

Then one night, Morgan is saved from drowning by a mysterious girl named Keltie. The two become friends and suddenly life on the island doesn’t seem so stifling anymore. But Keltie has some secrets of her own. And as the girls start to fall in love, everything they’re each trying to hide will find its way to the surface…whether Morgan is ready or not.

Review: It has been a long time, like a LONG time, since I’ve watched “Splash”, a romantic comedy about an uptight land dweller (Tom Hanks) and a whimsical mermaid (Daryl Hannah), but it was the first thing that came to mind when I read the description for “The Girl from the Sea” by Molly Knox Ostertag. An isolated or lonely person on land finds love with a gentle and kind sea creature? I mean, that’s a trope that is timeless in and of itself. But to make things a little more unique, Ostertag went a bit more in the direction of “The Secret of Roan Inish”, as instead of the tired mermaid being used, we instead are given a story with a selkie, a mystical creature that can take on seal form as well as human form.

“The Girl from the Sea” is a gentle fantasy story, one that charmed me almost immediately and kept a smile on my face as I read. I felt that Ostertag did a really good job of portraying the turmoil within Morgan, and how her relationship with Keltie, a human disguised selkie, helped her open up and accept herself. Keltie is as simplistic and genuine as you would expect her to be, but I thought that Morgan has a lot of nuance and complexity in which she does have her reasons to not come out to her loved ones, but some of it may very well be a bit of projection on her part. Having her encounter with Keltie and be drawn to her, and perhaps start to fall in love with her, is a nice dynamic, as Keltie is incredibly free in herself, while Morgan is not. I also thought that Ostertag was good about showing how complicated coming out can be for a person, even when her friends and family are, for the most part, loving and supportive. Morgan is not only dealing with her own identity and how to express it, but she is also dealing with a recently split up family dynamic, and how that pain is affecting her and her mother and brother. The undercurrent of that trauma is always present, either through Morgan’s insecurities, or through implied anger and aggression issues her brother has been displaying. Morgan has a lot on her plate, and she compartmentalizes in a fairly realistic way.

And on the flip side, there is Keltie. She is a selkie, and while she is free in some ways, there are constraints that could very easily be applied to her life that Morgan could never understand. I thought it was neat that Ostertag took the mythology of the selkie and incorporated it into this story in the way she did. It brings in themes of identity and transformation, but it also makes other themes like environmentalism and conservation relevant to the story at hand. Keltie isn’t as interesting and Morgan, but then, that kind of makes sense, since she is a fantasy creature and therefore has a lot of fantastical elements. She also balances out Morgan, and makes their romance feel all the more sweet.

I really like the artwork. I’ve read other stories by Ostertag, and while I wasn’t as into those tales as I was this one, I have always appreciated her style and aesthetic, and that translates to this story pretty handily.

“The Girl from the Sea” is a lovely romance about finding the person who accepts you for who you are, realizing they may not be the only ones, and finding out how to accept yourself. It’s gentle and sweet and I highly recommend it for anyone who likes a love story with fantasy flair.

Rating 8: A sweet and emotional love story with themes of transformation and being true to yourself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl from the Sea” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Pride Graphic Novels”, and “Gay Pirates and Sea Creatures”.

Find “The Girl from the Sea” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Monthly Marillier: “Raven Flight”

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

Book: “Raven Flight” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, July 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

Book Description: Neryn has finally found the rebel group at Shadowfell, and now her task is to seek out the elusive Guardians, vital to her training as a Caller. These four powerful beings have been increasingly at odds with human kind, and Neryn must prove her worth to them. She desperately needs their help to use her gift without compromising herself or the cause of overthrowing the evil King Keldec.

Neryn must journey with the tough and steadfast Tali, who looks on Neryn’s love for the double agent Flint as a needless vulnerability. And perhaps it is. What Flint learns from the king will change the battlefield entirely—but in whose favor, no one knows. 

Previously Review: “Shadowfell”

Review: Back when I read this for the first time, I remember being a bit hesitant going into the second book in Marillier’s YA “Shadowfell” trilogy. I had enjoyed the first one for the most part, but there were a few flags (particularly with the romance and some of the heroine’s decision making) that made me nervous to see how this story would continue to unfold over the entire two books left to complete Neryn’s story. Luckily, this book was the breath of fresh air the trilogy needed and went to prove that sometimes the second book is not only NOT the worst in a trilogy but can even help lift the series up beyond its own lackluster start.

Shortly after arriving at Shadowfell, Neryn realizes that it is her destiny to travel beyond its confines in an effort to prove herself capable of wielding the land’s powerful magical forces. To do so, she must convince four magical guardians who have always looked down with much judgement on the foolishness of humans. Travelling alongside her is her companion and warrior friend, Tali. Together, the two must travel to the furthest realms of north, south, east and west in hopes to gain these powerful beings’ blessing and lessons. But will Neryn be strong enough to convince them? And will they, like Tali, see Neryn’s beloved, Flint, as a weakness in her quest to overthrow Keldec?

There were a few things that stood out in my re-read that pointed to why I enjoyed this book so much more than the first. First off, I think the replacement of Flint with Tali as Neryn’s travelling companion works better on many levels. The romance in this trilogy as a whole is probably one of my least favorites of all of Marillier’s many excellent romantic pairings, so frankly, less Flint/Neryn interactions were a win for me. These two need to get their act together, and while they are both better here than in the first book, I still found myself often annoyed with their dramatics.

Tali, on the other hand, instead of highlighting some of Neryn’s more nonsensical moments, spoke the harsh truths that had been missing and had left me eye-rolling my way through the first book. Neryn is still often rather weak-willed and self-focused, all too willing to hesitate and dither over using her powers, more concerned with potentially moral grey areas than with saving the real people before her (or the larger rebel cause as a whole.) Gruff, tough, Tali has no patience for this type of dithering and often lectures Neryn on how Neryn’s Caller abilities are all that give the rebellion a hope of winning and that Neryn will need to harden herself to the fact that people die in wars. Tali was probably my favorite addition to the story. Not only did she say what I was thinking so much of the time, but I always like this type of rough-and-ready character who takes a while to warm up to both the reader and the other characters that surround her.

I also enjoyed the format of this story more than the first. While I like a good journey book as much as the next LOTR fan, “Shadowfell” too often stumbled in its pacing in this area to be successful. “Raven Flight” calls on another favorite fantasy trope: magical tasks. Always love these, and Marillier does an excellent job here. The Guardians we meet are all unique and intriguing, and the challenges they set for Neryn are appropriately grueling. There is one, in particular, that seems to almost break Neryn, and Marillier’s talent as a writer quite deftly portrays the dire straights that Neryn finds herself in.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this second book. It’s quite good on its own, and, honestly, the improvement over the first works to lift it even further in my estimation. I think many fans of Maillier’s work breathed a sigh of relief when this book came out, again reassured that she had not lost her touch.

Rating 8: The de-emphasis on the romance and the addition of the warrior woman Tali greatly increased my enjoyment of this second outing in the “Shadowfell” trilogy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Raven Flight” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Fantasy Books Under the Radar and Fairy Tale Fantasy with a Touch of Romance.

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