Fantasy

RUST IN THE ROOT by Justina Ireland

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As a Floramancer and young woman of Afrikan ancestry, Laura has always known the Prohibition targeted her people specifically. When the Great Rust set in in the 1930s, the small-time Negro mages bore the brunt of the blame, even though white Mechomancers were the ones who’d taken the purity of the power imbued in in nature (the Possibilities) and exploited it for financial gain in their Industrial Revolution. But the Blights are getting worse, and the U.S. government has put the dangerous burden of fixing it on the Bureau of the Archane’s Colored Auxiliary.

With few options for gaining a license to practice Floramancy–or even earn enough money to live–Laura takes a new name (the Peregrine) and an apprenticeship with the Floramancer known as the Skylark who is tasked with finding the source of a particularly rotten Blight in Ohio. But when the Colored Auxiliary arrives, the Peregrine and her mentor realize something is wrong. The Blight bears an alarming resemblance to the Klan’s Necromancy–a horrific evil that touched the Skylark’s life once before. And as they travel toward the heart of the dark magic, the Peregrine realizes that there were secrets within her power she was keeping even from herself.

Justina Ireland once again proves herself the queen of historical fantasy, crafting a richly grounded world with a detailed, inventive magic system that both accentuates past evils and demands that readers recognize and analyze alarming trends in the modern world. She perfectly balances her voice with historical colloquialisms and modern sensibility and weaves a cast of nuanced secondary characters to support her heroine. This novel is a must-read for YA and NA fantasy fans! I cannot recommend it highly enough.

ALL OF OUR DEMISE by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman (Audiobook)

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Sequel to ALL OF US VILLAINS.

Seven teens were chosen by their families to battle to the death in the generational Ilvernath blood tournament for high magic. But none of this year’s champions is content to die. Some want to win. Some want to break the tournament for good. With secrets, twists, and dangers both within the tournament and without, one way or another, the blood veil will fall. The question: will any of the champions survive?

The thrilling, brutal conclusion to the All of Us Villains duology does not disappoint, with astronomical stakes, jaw-dropping twists, and a dose of doomed romance. Emotionally, the story focuses on the teens struggle to define themselves as independent from their families and grapple with the ways they’ve been abused–by parents and by society. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Billie Fulford-Brown and Raphael Corkhill, and I was riveted. Character voices felt distinct without being affected. There was one scene I personally found very difficult to listen to read aloud due to the graphic violence (torture, in this case) so be aware that if you usually skim through particularly graphic scenes, this might be one to read yourself rather than listen to. But if you have the stomach for some violence, this is a great audiobook for older teens and adults.

VIOLET MADE OF THORNS by Gina Chen

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Since saving Prince Cyrus’ life as a child, Violet has lived a charmed yet precarious life as the king’s official Seer, tasked with relaying prophecies to the entire kingdom, whether they are real prophecies from her dreams or the harmless ones she invents at the king’s behest. A previous Seer predicted the kingdom’s destruction unless it is averted by Prince Cyrus’ as yet hypothetical bride, but Violet is determined that nothing will threaten her hard-won security and comfortable lifestyle. Unfortunately, Cyrus is the one person who never listens to Violet.

Tortured by dark dreams of the Fates and frustrated with “Princey’s” obstinacy, Violet fakes a prophecy about Cyrus’ “true love,” hoping his bride–any bride–will be able to break the curse. But the woman the king selected is wrapped in her own curse, spun by a witch of nightmares. As beasts swarm the land and fairy glamours flicker, Violet and Cyrus search for the truth behind the veil of deceit, and their mutual hatred sparks into something passionate, thrilling, and infinitely more dangerous. With her life hanging in the balance, Violet will have to decide on which side of the fairytale she belongs–the dream or the nightmare–and whether she can claim either of them without being someone else’s pawn.

Deep, dark, and immersive, VIOLET MADE OF THORNS had me devouring its pages as ravenously as the characters fed on one another. Although tastes of well-known fairytales call attention to the storytelling theme, Chen creates a wholly new fairytale, not directly a twist of any individual story. Her characters are addictive, her steamy romance writing as compelling as any master of that genre, and her world-building a perfect blend of well-worn high fantasy tropes and a new, exciting magic system. I cannot praise this book highly enough. If you read high fantasy (whether you are a young adult or not) don’t miss this exceptional debut!

GALLANT by Victoria Schwab

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Olivia Prior has no real memories of her parents–nothing but her mother’s journal. She doesn’t even know their names, just that her father is dead and her mother went mad before leaving her on the doorstep of the dismal boarding school where she has grown up. So when the letter arrives–a summons from the uncle she didn’t know she had, back to the family estate she didn’t know existed–the temptation to finally have a real home and family is too great to resist.

Even though her mother’s journal warns her of unnamed dangers within the halls of Gallant.

But the welcome at the manor is not what she expected. Her uncle is dead–and died too long ago to have sent her the mysterious letter–and the only remaining relative, her cousin Matthew, is determined that she should be sent away. Matthew is tortured by violent dreams, and the halls are haunted by ghouls that only Olivia can see. Yet none of that compares to the darkness on the other side of the stone wall in the garden, where a shadowy master of crumbling reflection of Gallant has been waiting for Olivia to arrive…

Atmospheric and horrifying, Schwab’s latest YA sits solidly in the horror genre and is impossible to put down. As you can expect from Schwab’s prose, every word hits like a gunshot, creating an atmosphere and story so immersive that you are as ensnared as her protagonist. This story is a must-read for teen and adult fans of paranormal horror!

UNDER THE WHISPERING DOOR by TJ Klune

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Wallace Price is not a good person. He doesn’t try to be. Being a good person wouldn’t have helped him build his law firm from the ground up, and it certainly wouldn’t help him keep the firm profitable. Maybe he’d have more friends, and maybe his wife wouldn’t have divorced him, but relationships have never been as important to him as work, and that’s the way he likes it.

Until he dies.

Wallace is alarmed to find himself at his own funeral, shocked by the abysmal attendance and scathing eulogy, and terrified out of his intangible, ghostly skin when a Reaper whisks him away to a tea shop in the forest. There, a living man named Hugo identifies himself as the ferryman, the person responsible for helping Wallace transition from life to death–or more specifically, from death to whatever life awaits him after death–through the mysterious door in the ceiling of the tea shop attic. Wallace isn’t particularly eager to cross over into the unknown, but neither is he excited to continue existing in a haunted tea shop with Hugo’s annoying (dead) grandfather and exuberant (dead) service dog. Yet as Hugo helps Wallace process his grief over his own death, his attachment to the world–especially to Hugo–becomes stronger, and the thought of venturing through the door becomes less and less appealing. Because now that he’s dead, Wallace has finally begun to live…

Readers that are willing to trust Klune with their hearts will have them broken, healed, and filled to bursting through this tender exploration of the meaning of life (and death). Like Klune’s recent bestseller, THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA, UNDER THE WHISPERING DOOR is full of emotional swells, humor, quirky characters, love, deep thoughts, and a touch of whimsy. Wallace’s personal growth drives the plot while a quiet, mature romance blossoms along the way. It is another stunning novel that will draw in both fantasy readers and readers who tend to prefer literary fiction (add it to your adult book club list!). This novel won’t capture all of the CERULEAN SEA fans, specifically those who are craving another charming and escapist magical island. Rather than immersing the protagonist in the child-centered emotions of wonder, joy, and tolerance to catalyze his change, UNDER THE WHISPERING DOOR is about the transformative experience of grief. It is hopeful, hilarious, and uplifting, but also you will cry (at least, I did). Still, Klune earned every one of my tears through the sheer immersive beauty of his story, and even days after finishing it, I am still smiling. I highly recommend this one!

MALICE by Heather Walter

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Alyce knows her place. She is the Dark Grace, not quite human enough, not quite Grace enough, tasked with mixing her potions and curses at the request of patrons from the town and then–for some reason–reviled for it. But when she discovers a castle on the cliffs and talks with the shadowy stranger imprisoned there, Alyce learns that there is a deeper magic inside her, capable of more than mixing elixirs and poisons. After a chance meeting with the princess Aurora, heiress to an ancient curse that dooms her to death by her next birthday, Alyce is shocked to learn that the princess is not searching for her true love to kiss her and break the spell. In fact, Aurora means to break it on her own–or with the help of a Vila. Alyce is skeptical; as the Dark Grace, she is capable only of destruction. But as her command of her powers grows, Alyce is noticed by another, more dangerous royal. And as her attraction to princess Aurora blossoms, Alyce will have to decide how much she is willing to sacrifice for love.

With so many fairytale twists on the market, it is a beautiful thing to find one so fresh, imaginative, and engrossing! The romance between Alyce and Aurora is believable with a strong foundation, and both teens and adults will resonate with the struggles of both young women to fit in and be true to themselves when who they are seems at odds with society’s values. (The characters are twenty years old, but the vibe is YA.) I highly recommend this one to all fans of magic-laden YA fantasy or heartfelt queer genre fiction.

Amazon.com: Malice: A Novel: 9781984818652: Walter, Heather: Books

THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA by TJ Klune

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Linus takes his job as a case worker investigating orphanages for magical youth very seriously. He does his work thoroughly, accurately, and impersonally. And it’s precisely his thorough, accurate, and impersonal track record that prompts Extremely Upper Management to offer him a temporary, top secret assignment: to spend a month evaluating an exclusive seaside orphanage for extraordinary magical youth (including, among others, the Antichrist). Although initially overwhelmed by the unusual assignment, Linus finds that the magical youth–and their exceptional caretaker, Arthur–are working their way into his heart and threatening his objectivity as a caseworker. And as his impersonal lens cracks, he must question the truths he’s been taught, the morality of his own work, and how far he is personally willing to go for love.

A well-deserved award-winner, THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA is a quirky, funny, sweet, thought-provoking social-commentary with equal parts humor and heart. Highly recommend for adults and older teens–anyone who likes stories that are a little weird and a little magical with a healthy dose of undermined social norms and queer romance.

Cover art

DAMSEL by Elana K Arnold

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It is Emory’s destiny to kill a dragon and rescue a damsel. Without achieving this task, he cannot become king. Though Emory does not feel ready when his father dies, he has no choice but to travel to the gray land and hunt a dragon and its damsel. He succeeds on his quest, and rides home triumphant, his damsel before him in the saddle. But the damsel has no memory of the event. She has no memories at all before waking on Emory’s horse. He assures her that he “saved her,” informs her that she is to be his bride, and gives her the name “Ama.” But Ama is not sure how she feels about this hunter, her savior. And as she struggles to fit into the roles prescribe to her, she begins to wonder about her past and whether or not she has any control over her future.

I would not necessarily call this novel YA. Not that teen readers couldn’t enjoy it, certainly, and I’m sure many do, but it read more like adult allegorical fantasy to me. Regardless of your age, be warned of graphic violence and abuse (sexual, emotional, physical).

Because of the allegorical nature of the story, the “twist” is very obvious from early on, and so what drives the plot forward is not a question of where Ama came from/what “mysterious” past she has forgotten, and more the suspense of not knowing exactly how it will end. (I mean, we can hope that Ama will find a happy or at least less-miserable ending, but we don’t know what that will be.) Though there’s an old quip that the purpose of a novel is to create a compelling main character and then find the best ways to torture him/her/them, this novel is particularly torturous. Ama is forced to suffer until she must break one way or the other–either become a rabbit or a cat, as one character puts it.

I think the key to enjoying this novel would be first to savor the gorgeous prose. And second to remember that it is allegory. All characters are (I believe intentionally) underdeveloped. The point of the novel is to turn fairytale traditions on their heads (especially the trope of the prince earning a maiden’s “hand” in marriage by “saving her,” often by some form of sexual/romantic act like a kiss or–as in the original Sleeping Beauty fairytale–rape), and with this purpose in mind it’s the symmetry of actions that becomes important. Predator/prey relationships feature throughout with human characters (Ama in particular) switching between the two groups. There are some reviewers who have felt the ending is arbitrary. I disagree. I won’t spoil it (insofar as it isn’t obvious) but the groundwork is laid for the specific moment even before Emory fights the dragon at the beginning. Again, it’s all about the parallels in this story. Hunter and hunted. Predator and prey.

As much as I do believe the book is well-written, I cannot think of a teenager to whom I would recommend it. I’m not saying that teen isn’t out there, but I’d have to know for certain that she/he/they were not a survivor of sexual violence or abuse of any kind. Full disclosure, I had to stop about 1/2 of the way through and just skimmed to the ending because the graphic violence and (particularly the emotional) abuse was too much for me. And while I know that some books are more disturbing to adults than to children because we bring a different set of experiences to them (e.g. The Giver as traumatizing for parents but not for kids who don’t have babies of their own), that is not the case with this novel. Arnold intends all readers to be deeply disturbed; if you’re not disturbed, you missed the point. It’s a well-crafted book, but proceed with caution–especially when recommending it to others.

GOOD OMENS: THE NICE AND ACCURATE PROPHECIES OF AGNES NUTTER, WITCH by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman –and– “GOOD OMENS” (2019)

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When the Anti-Christ arrives in the unassuming Oxfordshire village of Tadfield, and the countdown to the apocalypse begins. Although most of the Earth’s inhabitants are unaware of the Anti-Christ’s presence, the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley are more than a little unhappy that the Earth will be ending so soon. After 6,000 years or so, they’ve gotten attached to certain Earthly comforts and the humans they live with. And although they’d never admit it to their respective Head Offices, they’ve gotten more than a little attached to each other as well. So they decide to do what they can to influence the Anti-Christ’s upbringing and avert the apocalypse altogether. But due to a mix-up, partly due to chance, and partly the incompetence of certain Satanic nuns in the Chattering Order of St. Beryl, the Anti-Christ does not end up in the family of an American diplomat as Satan intended, but rather grows up in a typical English family in Tadfield. Of course all of this was predicted by Agnes Nutter, witch, centuries ago, before she exploded at the stake, and her own ancestor, Anathema Device, is searching for the Anti-Christ as well. With the end of days only days away, Aziraphale, Crowley, Anathema, and a couple of barely-competent witch-finders scramble to find the boy who may be bringing about the end of the world.

If you’re a Pratchett or Gaiman fan, you’ve probably already read this one, and you know it is a hilarious, witty, occasionally poignant work of pure genius. I am reviewing it now due to the recent Amazon mini-series adaptation. Could it possibly be as good as the book, you ask? Yes. Incredibly, yes. I did not like the adaptation of Stardust nearly as much as the book, but somehow with this quirky, insane, erratic novel, Neil Gaiman has produced an equally brilliant screen adaptation. Through use of a narrator, it mimics the style of the book beautifully. The characters are perfectly cast, the dialogue in most cases taken directly from the text to preserve each character’s personality. The somewhat scattered writing style in the book actually works perfectly for cross-cut scenes in the series.  Obviously some changes are made to bring the book into the 21st century. Added characters (such as Jon Hamm’s Gabriel) and added scenes tracking Aziraphale and Crowley through the centuries are incorporated so authentically that they merely enhance the satire of the celestial war and the characterization of Aziraphale and Crowley.

In short, the screen adaptation is as perfect as the book. Loved it!

NORSE MYTHOLOGY by Neil Gaiman

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The world began in fire, ice, and mist.  This is also how it will end.  The gods who formed the earth by slaying a giant will in turn be slain by giants, and thus will end the reign of the Aesir and the Vanir, the gods of Asgard.  But before the end of the world, the gods went (or perhaps are still going) on adventures that still capture the imagination.

Neil Gaiman breathes life into the ancient stories of the Norse gods, embracing their crass and ignominious qualities along with their cleverness and nobility.  The characters and stories he explores are complex and humorous, told with his characteristic narrative style and masterful world-building.  In contrast with many mythologies, the Norse tales focus on the gods and their enemies, the giants, almost exclusively.  The gods fight their own battles rather than enlisting mortal heroes.  Although all of the tales are distinct and–as Gaiman notes in his introduction–occasionally contradictory, still a story arc sweeps from the world’s creation to its destruction and rebirth.  The short tales, however, make this book an ideal audiobook to listen to during start and stop activities, such as a commute, and the author’s reading of the audiobook is, as always, superb.

Highly recommended to mythology fans and fantasy fans!