THE LAST GRADUATE - Naomi Novik
There's no other way to put this review, so I'm starting off right with the one-two punch: The Last Graduate was 50% a slow-burn sophomore setup, and 50% an active, amazing plot with the cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers.
Character relationships: ★★★★★
World building #2: ★★★★
Where to start?? I guess I'm going to attempt to be completely spoiler free this time around... a concept. Because of that, here's a vague synopsis of the first book, A Deadly Education.
El, a powerful "evil" wizard who is prophesized to bring the doom of the wizarding world, attends the deadliest school you could ever conceptualize: The Scholomance. It's a never-ending haunted house—with deadly stakes—and El's lack of connections and rage-filled chip on her shoulder left her in a pickle. That and the fact that the Scholomance, which is sentient and supposed to provide each student with schoolwork tailored to their unique abilities, keeps trying to give El supervolcano spells of mass destruction whenever she asks for help cleaning her dirty dorm room.
We should probably mention that El was raised by the kindest hippie witch trope in the world, so El's trying her best to NOT be the next Evil One to End All Things.
But anyway... Some things happen. As El is the Evil One, she also interacts with her class's version of the Chosen One with...interesting results that I (totally and utterly) went completely fangirl over. She makes some alliances, some things happen... the vague synopsis peters out here.
In this book, The Last Graduate, El and her classmates are now seniors. With the graduation ceremony historically being a bloodbath of epic proportions—they have to fight their way out of a monster pit at the base of the school, full-on gladiator/Hunger Games style—they've got a lot of training and preparation to do.
But things this year are different. And their plans are about to be radically changed... and not from the source that they're expecting.
That's all. I'm not going to ruin it!
So, in short, I will fully admit to being very bored for the first half of this novel. In fact, this book had me questioning my love of the first one! Because it was so much slower, not overly much happened right away, and Noviks' already extremely meandering and overly descriptive writing took center stage and tried to bore me from my beloved characters.
But I loved El, and I loved her situation and her friends, so I kept going. And that paid off BIG TIME. The last half of the novel recovered from its slump and ended in a truly dramatic and over-the-top way that made me just lose my mind. I'm upset we've got to wait until September 2022 for our next one!
(But will gladly wait, with popcorn, for the finale. It's going to be epic.)
A tea shop that's really a way station for the recently dead, a ferryman like the Greek myths who's actually a cinnamon roll, and one absolutely horrible man who comes to find his humanity in this sweet and emotional novel.
Handling of heavy topics: Every reader will have their own reactions, handle with care
I couldn't get through The House on the Cerulean Sea (I know, I know, don't come for me. I am also upset that it was a DNF.) so I'm pleased to see that this second "quaint fantasy" novel by T.J. Klune really worked for me.
Under the Whispering Door looks cute, and on one level it IS cute. It's a quaint novel about a tea shop and soft gay characters and acceptance and love and goodness prevailing.
DISCLAIMER: But this novel is also extremely heavy and deals with all manners of death—including suicides and murdered victims. Because of this second element, the author himself writes a "handle with care" note in front of the book. I think that note could be more strongly worded, myself, as someone struggling with mental health my have a harder time seeing the weeds for the trees. Please note this if you usually avoid these topics.
Wallace Price is a horrible man. We meet him in the very first scene as he fires a very good employee for a very inconsequential reason, and he feels no remorse. He abruptly dies from a heart attack.
When Wallace "comes to" again, he's shocked to find himself at his own funeral. Only 5 people attend, and no one is sad. This feels very much like Scrooge's experience in A Christmas Carol. One of the attendees is Mei, and Wallace discovers that, to his horror, Mei is his Reaper. He is Dead with capital D, and it's time to meet his Ferryman and accept his death.
Mei takes Wallace to Hugo. Hugo, who runs the quaint tea shop in the woods named Charon's Crossing, is not at all who Wallace expects. But they're tied to each other—literally—and things are about to get interesting.
Throw in a ghost dog and a ghost grandpa, some truly hilarious shenanigans, and a thread of grief and its various stages and you've got this novel. A complicated cup of tea.
Like I said at the beginning, I couldn't get through Klune's previous quaint fantasy. So what was different about this one? For one thing, I think the pacing was much more palatable for me. The plot might be limited to basically one setting, but it moves!
Wallace Price was an interesting main character to follow. His journey was cliched, for sure, but still there was a lot there and I appreciated how the author brought nuance to a pretty standard "unlikeable to likeable" character arc. I also absolutely LOVED Mei and Nelson (hugo's ghostly grandpa).
Now that all the glowing praise is out of the way... on to the less-than-great stuff. I do think that the author chose a very tall order to cover in this book. And because of that, I think this novel struggled to find its balance between "quaint cozy" and a dark focus on healing, grief, and dying. The two concepts aren't impossible to work together, but I did find it a combination of heavy-handed and derivative at the same time, because the grief elements seemed rushed and slightly overshadowed by the quaint love story, and the love story seemed almost interrupted by some side plots that focused purely on the situation of the way station tea shop. We needed more space, maybe? I'm not sure. This was like holding two polar magnets together by its opposite ends—they are both magnets, so they SHOULD work together, but they were flipped around and you could feel the constant struggle the book was undergoing to keep these two levels of plotline held together.
Thank you to TOR for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A very different historical romance... One with lots of caves and a Romeo and Juliet-style feud.
A Reckless Match comes out on September 28!
Maddie Montgomery's family has been in a feud with the neighboring Davies family for generations. By order of the Royal family, each year a representative of the Montgomery family and a representative of the Davies family must meet on the borderlands of their estates and shake hands to seal their yearly agreement—if either party fails to show up, the strip of borderland is taken from the no-show family.
Maddie thinks her family might just win this year... until Gryff Davies shows up on his horse, freshly returned from the war and looking Fine with a capital F.
Gryff's childhood crush on Maddie Montgomery was something of his past, Gryff thought. But when he sees Maddie on the border, he realizes he was just lying to himself. She's the only person who makes him feel something, and he's not sure he can bear to see her getting married off...
Will these two lifelong "enemies" meet their match?
I thought this series debut was entertaining enough, but to be honest I think this was a case of "it's not the book, it's just me and my reading tastes again" because I had a really hard time getting through A Reckless Match. And objectively, this was a wonderfully fresh historical romance. For one thing, there's a lot of adventure and cave exploring. How many historical romances set in England can say that?
This novel does include the "virgin female" trope, which is a personal dislike of mine. It also moved quite slowly and seemed to conveniently wrap up every plot point. Again, neither of those qualms are necessarily bad, but given my personal romance preferences they served to keep me from fully engaging in the story.
If you like historical English romances, feuding families, or caves, I do recommend this one!
Thank you to St Martin's Press for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
THE ARCHER - Shruti Swamy
Lyrical and lulling, this novel was an entrancing story of one woman's love of dance in 1960-1970s Bombay.
Narrative style: ★★ (did not work for me)
Main character: ★★★★
I absolutely adored Shruti Swamy's A House is a Body short story collection. It was out-of-this-world mesmerizing and filled with stories that seared your soul. Because of that collection, I was thrilled to pick up a copy of her newest novel.
Vidya is a girl growing up in 1960s Bombay. Raised within the traditional values of her culture and the world's views on womanhood, Vidya does not know how to fit in as a girl. She's hyperaware of her physical self and soul in her surroundings. But then everything changes when she begins to dance.
As she falls further into the dancing world of Kathak, a style of dance known for its precision, Vidya begins to make order of her life. Dance becomes her means of ordering herself and her place within time and space. The years flow. The dance remains.
This book calls itself "deeply sensual," and I strongly agree. Everything emotional and sensory is deeply feel through the pages, and there is a startling intimacy in the reader's connection to Vidya as she grows into womanhood and reckons with her life and the limitations of her gender.
The Archer is memorable and lyrical, but I do have to admit that I loved it slightly less than Swamy's short story collection. I had a heck of a time getting into the narrative style of this one. The character's narration of her own thoughts and life's journey was intentionally distanced and meant to highlight her internal journey toward herself, yes, but it did make for a very difficult reading experience.
Recommended for fans of the author's previous collection and for those who enjoy non-traditional narration.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A vampire novel that plays with your expectations and brings new light into the niche? Nice.
In an alternate version of Mexico City, vampires exist. Well, they're outlawed from Mexico City itself, but they're a known species in Mexico and throughout the world. With several different subspecies of vampire originating from all across the globe, things come to a head in Certain Dark Things when the Mexican native group of vampires, the original Aztec blood drinkers, encounter a turf war with the European immigrant variant of vampire and the fallout impacts different people in Mexico City.
Atl, the lone surviving member of her vampire clan, is on the run from the European vampire clan that massacred her family. She picked Mexico City as a dangerous hideout spot in order to avoid the vampires in a city that outlaws their existence. While it makes it hard for the bad guys to track her down, it also makes it hard for her to get around—and she's not exactly hiding well with her huge genetically enhanced Doberman at her heels. Atl desperately needs to escape Mexico if she wants to survive.
Domingo is a trash collector in Mexico City. He's eeking a meager life for himself on the fringes of society, and he's still young enough to believe in adventure. So when a mysterious and beautiful woman with a hulking Doberman dog asks for his help, he agrees with a shocking lack of hesitation.
Atl thinks he's just a convenient meal for now. Domingo thinks he's having his shot at a grand vampire adventure. They're both in for a huge surprise.
I loved this neo-noir take on vampires in Mexico City. Like all of Silvia Moreno-Garcia's works, I thought this one was fantastic. I love her writing and her way of engaging storytelling. Her characters feel real and yet distant, easy to predict and yet surprising. Certain Dark Things was no exception, even though it did have a few more bumps in the plot and pacing than a usual Moreno-Garcia work (Gods of Jade and Shadow and Mexican Gothic were written later than this one, and you can tell. However, it's a testament to her writing ability that the difference in quality is not that large.)
Highlights for me: The characters, the worldbuilding, and unpredictable nature of the story.
Lowpoints for me: I did think the pacing suffered in the middle, but that's because I love drama.
Overall, I really enjoyed this one and am thrilled to see it republished in this form with this stunning cover edition. Its brief original release and subsequent abandonment due to publisher issues was not the fault of the work, and now we can all enjoy this tale in its updated form!
Thank you to Macmillan/TOR for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.