A Clue-style haunted(?) mystery setting mashed with scintillating razor-sharp humor mashed with intricate puzzle-box plotting mashed with post-apocalyptic necromancy mashed with intergalactic space vibes mashed with death/not-death mashed with lesbian drama mashed with--
I could go on, but we’d be here all day. This is an excellent chaotic casserole of brilliant nonsense.
I now completely understand why Gideon the Ninth is marketed the way it is. Let me explain.
This book came out in 2019. It was pitched as "lesbian necromancers in space." I, not particularly liking space and not receiving much else from that limited pitch, took a pass on reading it. "Lesbian necromancers" was interesting... but vague. I didn't have enough to go on to outweigh my dislike of Star Wars-esque space-y stuff involving politics and planets.
Then the reviews started coming out and all of them said a confusing blend of nonsensical ?!?!?!, fandom love for the queer epic-ness, mentions of how messed up and dark and brutal it was, and a general sense of awe and an utter unwillingness to describe what was going on.
I was more intrigued, but not quite enough to pick it up. I had a lot to read, and this was still in my no-no zone of adult hard science fiction (I believed it to be, anyway.)
I waited until 2022 to read it.
Hot diggity dang. What a book. One of those Amy-you-dumbass, shoulda coulda woulda read it earlier type of moments.
Gideon the Ninth is an epic done on the intimate and bonkers foundations of the post-modern cultural moment of the now as opposed to the traditional scale of genre and expectations. Its readership both fits the pitch "lesbian necromancers in space" and yet needs to include other groups of people—myself included—who should ignore that pitch and try this glorious black hole of a book anyway.
I, too, will remain weirdly vague and wax rhapsodic on its attributes over its actual plot because going into this book blind, like a horror-thriller, is really the way to go.
It's a murder mystery. It's a haunted house novel. It's a video game-esque questing story with challenges to defeat. It's puzzles to solve. It's hidden clues on the tale ends of sentences and descriptions leading the reader unknowingly to the inevitable. It's a plot-twist thriller. It's an intimate enemies-to-[something?] with a passionate rivalry/hatred to rouse the interests of the most hardened of the slow burn smut readers—an unbelievable feat considering there is no pay-off in this particular installment. It's a gut punch, a brutal overthrow of your expectations. It's also pop-culture level funny with quips that seriously date it and yet add to the humor and surprise.
I'm honestly shocked at how not-science fiction this novel feels while remaining such a strong science fiction novel.
This is a gothic ballad to the queer emo mixed with the sardonic humor of the Black Death aficionados. I have spent this review making sentences with lofty nonsense pairings for the vibes and to depict the emotional aura of this novel because frankly, I think Tamsyn would approve. (If my review annoys you, pass on this book.)
This is... an amazing debut. I will be shouting from the rooftops about The Blood Trials for quite some time. Ikenna has my HEART and her science fiction world mixed with old magic has set my expectations for the genre that much higher.
Character development: ★★★★
We meet Ikenna Amari in a bar. She's getting rip-roaring drunk with her two friends the night before their graduation from the academy—and it's not working. She's trying to forget, she's trying to stop time... and she's spoiling for a fight.
Ikenna's life is over, you see. Her grandfather is dead.
The Amari family consisted of just two people: Ikenna and her grandfather, Verne Amari. Verne was one of the highest ranking Commanders from the Gamma Unit in the Republic of Mareen, the savior of Mareen's people from the evil Blood Emperor, and the shining star of Ikenna's entire existence. It was the Amaris vs. the world in more ways than one—as two of the only dark-skinned people in Mareen, and the only two in sea of pale-skinned war houses leading the military-based government, Verne was a symbol of equality as much as he was Ikenna's personal inspiration. He was the first in the Amari line, and Ikenna was all set to become a Praetorian soldier to continue their budding Amari war house dynasty.
But now the dream is dead, and Ikenna's debating not pledging into the dangerous Praetorian trials to rise up into the academy. What's the point, without her family?
However, everything changes when Ikenna—bruised from the bar fight that she got after all—returns home the night before graduation to find her grandfather's best friend and advisor, Brock, there with some shocking revelations. Her grandfather was potentially murdered—by one of his own men in the Praetorian.
The stakes have changed. Filled with rage and retribution, Ikenna decides to join the Proletariat trials after all. Two thirds of every class doesn't make it out alive, and the Praetorian is filled with snakes.
Watch out, little soldiers. Ikenna's ready for war on a deadly scale.
And the cards she has in her hand are older and steeped in the blood of the gods. It's not a fair fight, Ikenna won't even pretend—her arsenal is loaded for bigger beasts.
Let the games begin...
Ohhhhhhhh let's talk about this absolute banger of a debut. If the above pitch didn't sell you—I don't know how you're NOT yet intrigued, but alright—let me say that this is the grown up, kickass older sibling to what Divergent tried to be. (I love Divergent, but this needs to be said to show you what kind of scale The Blood Trials is operating at.)
This is a takedown. A high-stakes competition. A series of challenges leading to a spot in a deadly faction. A physical and mental showdown across multiple spectacles. A personal Everest of reconciling grief with action. An intimate and global discussion of racism and corrupt systems. A series of shocking betrayals and twists with some truly jaw-dropping reactions. A setup for more, and a promise for epicness.
The Blood Trials has it all--action, a deadly competition with REAL stakes, an accurately paced romantic arc, a relatable and incredibly flawed main character, discussions of racism and systemic oppression, and the perfect blend of worldbuilding vs. plot for my reading tastes.
Do yourself a favor and pick it up. Especially if you're interested in genre blending in the science fiction/fantasy space and are a reader of both young adult and adult work. This is a gem.
Modern, witty, and way more enjoyable than you're imagining. A Spindle Splintered was worth the hype. (And WOW, those illustrations!)
I'm guessing you've heard of Sleeping Beauty. Right? If not the Disney version, then you've heard of her, read an adaptation, or gotten a cultural reference.
Sleeping Beauty is one of those princess stories that pervades modern culture and somehow hides its ugliness behind all of the glitter and doll toys. (If you look up the old versions, they are filled with assault and darkness. Ye be warned.)
A Spindle Splintered both showcases that ugliness and shines brighter for it, somehow both a cutting commentary and an uplifting tale of womanhood. The duality shouldn't work, but it does.
And that's really my takeaway from this novella—a lot of things shouldn't have worked for me as a reader, but they did. This was such a pleasant surprise of a fable.
It's witty, it's kind, and it's a bright ray of hope in some truly dark subject areas. The artwork is eerie and perfect. It's just... a great novella.
Looking forward to more of this series. Read it!
Sultry, slow, and dripping with tension-filled nods to a classic novel--The Daughter of Doctor Moreau was a unique reading experience. (Aren't they all, when it comes to this author?) Silvia Moreno-Garcia strikes again! It's a shame that this particular one didn't hit the favorite zone for my reading tastes.
Character connection: ★★★
Sense of atmosphere: ★★★
This is going to be an interesting review. I didn't love it, but let me gush about it anyway and try to get you to pick it up...
Carlota is growing up on her father's remote estate in the wilderness of the Yucatan peninsula. It's the late 1800s. Her father is a disgraced French scientist—with the name of Moreau. Carlota's childhood is strange. It's filled with medications, an odd cast of friends and servants with physical peculiarities, and the constant reminder from her overbearing white father to keep calm and hide behind the verses of the Bible.
Laughton Montgomery is a middle-aged Englishman accidentally entrenched in the Mexican scene. He's an alcoholic with a sad backstory, and he's in serious debt to Eduardo Lizaldes, a wealthy light-skinned Spanish-Mexican man holding all of the cards in this story: including both Montgomery's debts and the estate funding holding up Moreau's life in the wilderness.
Moreau needs a man on site to help with his work. Montgomery needs to do what Lizaldes tells him to. Carlota finds herself involved and intrigued by the things simmering around her.
As the years pass by, Montgomery and Carlota find themselves at the heart of a slowing unfolding drama involving experimentations, Mexican/Maya politics, and the meaning of humanity.
Will they find (or lose) themselves along the way?
Mm, mm, mmm. Silvia Moreno-Garcia continues to rock pretty much anything she sets her mind to. So far, I've personally seen her kill it in body horror, 1970s crime noir, futuristic urban vampire dramas, 20th century Mayan death god adventures, and high fantasy quests. There is seemingly nothing she can't conquer—and in this case, her sights are set on a culturally rich interpretation of an H.G. Wells classic, The Island of Doctor Moreau.
I think this novel is going to be like all of her other ones: it's going to REALLY work for some people, and it's going to REALLY not work for others. The added complexity to this particular story is the restraints placed upon it. By tying it to the H.G. Wells concepts, this adaptation was already roughly structured to follow certain ideas, tropes, and trains of thought. Whether subverted or followed, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau was going to have certain elements addressed.
And that's, I think, where I struggled a bit and others will love this.
I love Moreno-Garcia for her ingenuity, her turns of concepts, her bizarre way of writing sentences that make me slow down. Linger. Absorb.. These are stories with interesting characters that do things you don't expect or approve of, and they're often not very likeable or relatable. I've always liked that—the distanced yet intimate journeys with people I don't understand and therefore can't predict.
However, this particular story deviated from those expectations. I found Carlota and Montgomery—our two points of view—to be both predictable and weirdly bland, and yet the most likeable of all of her characters. I personally neither liked nor disliked them. Frankly, I think the characters were a lower priority in this story compared to the setting and interweaving of the Moreau/H.G. Wells template and the late 1800s Mexican conflicts that Moreno-Garcia wanted to address. Which, again, is both a negative for readers like myself and yet a huge positive for fans of historical fiction and atmosphere.
Was it lush? Yes. Was it filled with dripping gothic tension? Yes. Was it a jungle dream of animal hybrids meeting Mexican interpretations? Yes. But was it a personal, Amy favorite? Nah.
I was looking for surprise, for character-driven ingenuity. For an atmosphere I didn't want to leave and felt was sucking me into its pages. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau didn't do that for me. But I think that's more due to the fact that I have an unsustainably high standard for each Moreno-Garcia work that comes in my path and an expectation for characters rather than flaws within this particular story.
This book would be a shining star in other circles, and I think it is shining for those who have loved it and are potentially new to this author's work and/or interested in historical fiction. For us returning folks (and those of us who don't care about the H.G. Wells original), I'm not sure.
Go into it with a historical and atmospheric expectation, and see what happens. I'm curious about what you'll find...
Oh YES. I had such a horrifically good time. This is the mirror-twin counter melody to Mexican Gothic, the Fall of the House of Usher done grotesque.
Well, it's happened again: I have fallen in love with yet another bizarre and lingering horror story with a special focus on mushrooms. ("Again," yes, because this niche apparently has multiple books in it.)
Join me and the spores...
Alex Easton has heard word that their childhood friends, the Ushers, are struggling. Madeline is gravely ill, Roderick is not faring much better, and something is amiss.
Alex arrives, and they quickly realize that Roderick's understated things. There is something very, very wrong with this scene.
Madeline looks like she's already dead, Roderick doesn't look much better. The Usher estate is damp, moldy, and near-death itself. There's a visiting American doctor who has no idea what is going on, and a wandering older British woman on the grounds with a passion for mushroom study and a daughter named Beatrix Potter.
As Alex stays in the home, a creeping sense of foreboding and inevitability starts to sink in. The longer they stay at Usher, the worse it seems to get...
And that's IT. I won't say any more.
What Moves the Dead looks like—and sounds like—a repeat of concepts to those of us who have already read and loved Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Mexican Gothic. In fact, T Kingfisher themselves writes in the Author's Note that they'd been chewing on this idea already, and then Mexican Gothic came out and What Moves the Dead disappeared into a drawer, almost for forever, as Kingfisher went "gah, I can't do it better than THAT!"
Well I, personally, am thrilled that someone got T Kingfisher to revisit and finish this tale. This is something akin to a cousin, a neighbor, someone with the same facial features as Mexican Gothic but with an entirely different set of personality traits. These two novels are NOT the same, and—as a Moreno-Garcia superfan I can't believe I'm saying this--What Moves the Dead did it... better.
This was grotesque, truly horrifying, and went somewhere that even I didn't full expect. I thought I knew the steps, and I was having a good time, but then... yeah. This seasoned reader was still surprised in an interesting way. A very, very good horror novella that I recommend to anyone with the stomach to handle it.
Thank you to TOR/Nightfire for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Told in a hypnotic, prismatic point-of-view using multiple characters all turned toward the same direction—our "main" character, distanced yet vital--Calling for a Blanket Dance is one of the most unique fiction novels I have ever read. And its resonances thrum deep.
Narrative voice: ★★★★★
Plot/Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
Sense of time and place: ★★★★★
Ever Geimausaddle is a Native man living in Oklahoma. This is his story, but it's not told in his voice. (But, is it?)
Carried through the voices, emotions, and chords of his multigenerational family and community, this story follows Ever as he is raised and formed by his community, his family's struggles, and the seemingly endless loop of forced endurance and perspective placed upon him in harsh and gentle knots.
Who are you, individually, among all of the roots and tangles of your family, culture, and place in time and space?
Can you be an individual when the circumstances around you pilot more of your choices and opportunities around you than you do?
These weighty questions and deeper concepts of Native experience, generational expectations and situations, and reactionary living are all explored in Calling for a Blanket Dance. I thought it was beautiful, poignant, surprisingly lyrical yet accessible, and overall an interesting view of the contemporary Native experience. There is a lot of trauma here. There is a lot of joy. There is muchness, there is never-done.
As a white woman living in Michigan, I'm sure I missed some of the deeper ties to Native culture and the possible resonances within the community and others familiar with the unique situations of marginalized groups. I'm interested to see how those with more perspective find this novel. From this non-Native reader, I thought it was stunning.
Looking forward to more from this author.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Can two anxious people overcome their obstacles and find love over a bingo card? Strap in for an emotional and lingering journey.
Representation vs. Romance: ★★
A small disclaimer for this review: my rating has nothing to do with this book's actual contents. It has more to do with my perception what this story was going to be based on its description and pitch.
Aja spends each of her days walking hand in hand with her anxiety disorder. It's her constant companion, it affects how she goes about her day, and it occasionally severely impacts how she deals with people and experiences.
So when she has a panic attack in the grocery store one night, the last thing she wants is to meet a cute guy. Said cute guy supports her during her attack, and afterwards Aja flees into the night. She'll never see him again, right?
Well, then the cute guy shows up at Aja's weekly bingo night with the town's senior citizens. Turns out his name is Walker, he's super cute in person, and he's going to be bopping around Aja's life for the next several weeks.
Walker's dealing with some anxiety and other issues on his own, so he not only gets Aja—he's interested in her. Cue the sparks...
Aja and Walker end up in a bizarre bingo pact together that promises to deliver some steam... and they're both very much on board with placing bets on who will come out on top. (In more ways than one.)
I thought Bet On It was a very cute concept for a romance novel. Bingo isn't a sexy activity, really, but the idea of the two young people in a sea of senior citizens having a connection was kind of adorable, and the addition of Aja and Walker's anxieties gave it a very realistic edge.
However... this book kind of lost me when it came to the romance and pacing. I heard "sexy bingo bets" and thought this would be smutty, funny, and quickly paced. Not sure why I thought "quickly paced," exactly, but the other two points seemed like a given.
Instead of a lot of banter and smut, Bet On It delivered on some serious plot points, emotional deep dives, and personalized healing journeys. On a large scale. Not a bad way to go for a general fiction novel about healing from trauma and coping with mental illness, but again, given the hook of "sexy bingo bets" I was...confused. (And bored. I kept getting a bit bored.)
Overall, I thought this novel was extremely sweet and a story of personal triumph over struggle. I will be recommending it to those looking for anxiety representation in stories, and for those who enjoy emotional journey-dominant tropes in their general adult fiction.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Cute and heartwarming, if a bit of a slog in the first half. A sentient octopus, an octogenarian who needs some closure... An odd yet endearing setup.
Plot: ★★ 1/2
So I definitely, 100% picked up this novel because someone shared that it involved the antics of a sentient octopus who wrote diary entries. That's the kind of magical realism I will always show up to read.
Remarkably Bright Creatures follows the story of Tova, an elderly woman living out her days as a the nightly cleaning lady at the local aquarium. Her husband recently passed away, and her son died tragically at 18, so Tova's got to keep busy somehow as a single woman alone, and cleaning aquarium glass is something to do.
Tova's Swedish roots mandate that she do something as that's the thing "to do."
Enter Marcellous, the sentient Giant Pacific Octopus who's nearing the end of his lifespan in his aquarium tank. He knows everything there is to know in the aquarium, including where to get the best food and how to escape his enclosure. He also, to his surprise, finds out that he knows Tova too.
Tova and Marcellous form an unlikely and seemingly one-sided nightly conversation ritual. Tova talks, Marcellous listens, and when Tova's not there Marcellous plots out his next moves when it comes to Tova's unfinished business.
What will happen to Tova and Marcellous?
I'm going to stop the setup there, because literally anything else would be a spoiler, and as it is, I found this novel so extremely predictable.
That, honestly, was this novel's problem for me. It was heartwarming and charming, yes. But the dry and dull first half, combined with the utter predictability of where we were going, led to me wishing the novel would wrap itself up so I could be done with it. (Not a good way for a novel to make a reader feel.)
I wish the author had leaned into the magical realism a bit more, and leaned less on the predictable nature of the plot itself. From the very entrance of some characters, it was clear to see what their purpose was for Tova and the plot and therefore I found it very hard to care about the journey. If we had been left in the dark for longer (less POVs?) maybe I'd be writing a different review. But sadly, I just found myself wishing for more in this quaint family drama tale.
Definitely pick this up though if it's of interest—there are some gems here regardless of the plot's pacing.
Witchy fall vibes, sapphic love, and a cute cozy town atmosphere collide in this fun rom-com. And it's the start of a series!
A short reader disclaimer: So first off, I have to SINCERELY apologize to the publisher, as I messed up and did not review this book in a timely manner despite having an early digital copy. In general, I've struggled a lot more with ARC reviews this past year due to a lot of upheaval in my personal life, but that's not this book's fault or the publishers so please keep that in mind.
On to the review!
So, did you ever watch Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Halloweentown, or those other adorable witchy vibe tv shows and wish they had a lot more lesbian action and just a gooey romantic plot arc?? Payback's a Witch is the novel for you.
The magical town of Thistle Grove has been the home of several powerful witch families for generations—including the Harlow family. Emmy Harlow thinks that her family's line isn't exactly prestigious or on the same level as the others, but it's still their claim to fame and Emmy's the reluctant heir of the situation.
The catch is, Emmy fled Thistle Grove years ago due to some unfortunate angst and hasn't been back to her home town in quite some time.
When she does come back for the all-important tournament that requires all of the Thistle Grove witch family heirs to be present, Emmy is met with something new: the enigmatic and wickedly devious Talia Avramov, one of the other family heirs and a reluctant partner-in-arms.
Will Emmy and Talia intertwine as they work together to bring down their mutual ex, Gareth, or will tensions collide?
Ok y'all, this was super cute. I do regret missing out on the opportunity to read this in the fall, when the vibes would have been immaculate, but this did give me a wonderful dose of the season anyway. Payback's a Witch was clever, funnier than I expected it to be, and filled with a lot of small town shenanigans.
I had some small quibbles with the pacing and lack of real stakes—it was a bit too quaint for me, a little less dramatic angst than I tend to like in my romances—but overall I do think it was a wonderful and fun rom-com to spend an afternoon reading.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
The 1960s, Greek islands, a young girl on the cusp of artistic pursuits and adulthood, and a saturated look at men and women colliding together.
Sense of place: ★★★★★
Erica's a fresh-faced young woman from London who's just arrived on Hydra, one of the picturesque Greek islands haunted by the rich, artistic, and beautiful. Its 1960, bohemia is all the rage, sexuality and the artistic are colliding together in various ways. It's heady days, and a heady setting.
A Theater for Dreamers follows Erica's journey into this rich tapestry of desires, art, lush settings, and mired interpersonal relationships. For us readers, it's an interesting blend of fact and fiction too—Leonard Cohen's real life persona meets a fictional group of folks in this window into the past. It's fantastically described, enviously set in a beautiful location, and classically portrayed through the eyes of our young and naïve protagonist.
I am, admittedly, a weird audience for this book. Every once in a while I like to step out of my reading comfort zone, if you will, and try things setting in different genres and settings. Historical fiction and destination locations/summer reads are not usually my cup of tea, so I think my rating reflects the fact that this isn't my usual read.
I found Erica to be an enjoyable main character to follow, if a bit annoyingly naïve. (I find this is often the case though with this kind of setup, so let's call it part of the territory.) Her fresh eyes experiencing this kind of sweltering landscape of sensual politics and artists in collision was extremely well done. Even though we've seen this story before, I thought it was done well.
I will say the novel lost me a bit with its sheer number of descriptions and meandering prose. I'm a "get to the point" type of reader unless it's a special case (usually in the fantasy realm) so I found myself getting frustrated with the paragraph to paragraph pacing. But do take that with the reviewer's grain of salt—I think this prose will work beautifully for those who love historical fiction/beach reads.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.