What do you have when you add Salem Witch Trials, plagues, cursed witches, polygamy, oppression of women, fantasy settings, racial commentaries, and religious allegories together? This book.
Enjoyment: ★★★ 1/2
In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. A biracial girl in a town of only white people, her very existence brings shame to her family as it reminds the settlement of her dead mother's sins—and witchcraft.
The Prophet is a man (I bet you guessed) and the town of Bethel exists as a small, settlement-type town in the middle of Nowhere, Nowhere. Their town is surrounded by the Darkwood, and the Prophet's religious teachings warn of the wood's dangers and temptations. Lilith and her coven of witches live in the Darkwood and they live in sin, and if you let them tempt you you'll be lost forever.
Or at least, that's what the man says.
Like so many tales of oppressive male-dominated religious regimes, The Year of the Witching is highlighting issues of gender, power, and control—and how many of those bindings go hand in hand with some extreme conservative religions. The Prophet may be in charge and he may call himself holy, but his many many underage sister wives tell a different story by the bruises on their skin.
Combining issues of female agency and power, race and poverty, and a heavy dose of critical notes on religion, this tale was extremely representative and often sacrificed world building and plot for the sake of allegory. I'm not saying that it wasn't done well, but I definitely want to highlight that fact for other readers.
At the end of the day, I thought this was a solid debut. As someone who likes fantasy/horror speculative novels that go there and push the reader, I thought this fell short. The messaging was fantastic, but the plot itself stopped its own progress by keeping it from going to that extra level. Things felt predictable—with the heart of the novel focused on the lofty concepts it was harder for the characters to authentically reach their goals.
Without spoiling this particular novel, a good example of this would be like a book to movie adaptation. It's hard to be surprised when you go the theater to view an adapted movie from a book that you've read. You know the main plot points, you've read the book, so it's really a matter of relying on the adaptation to still surprise you with something new within the framework of something that you already know.
The Year of the Witching didn't have that extra oomph for me, but I think it did for other readers.
Thank you to Ace - Berkley via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Stellar. I went in with no expectations and was blown away with its brief perfection.
Now HERE'S what I'm talking about - this is why I read Tor.com novellas.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is, simply put, the perfect speculative/fantasy novella. This review will be extremely short and sweet, as to be honest I'd rather you read the novella than read my poor retelling of it here. Go read it!
This story is really two layered stories in one. On the surface layer is a traveling cleric named Chih, whose job it is to remember their nation's histories and to observe their present surroundings for the purpose of recording it for the histories. Clerics in this world are essentially history keepers, and they are aided in their quest by magical bird companions with observation and memory skills.
Chih and their magical bird companion, Almost Brilliant, come across an elderly woman in a dwelling on their way to a different location. The elder's name is Rabbit, and she has a story to tell.
The story within the story is Rabbit's tale, which includes the story of an empress and her secrets.
As history keepers, Chih and Almost Brilliant are immediately drawn to this woman and her tale. But all is not what it seems, and some histories are buried for a reason...
Keeping it brief: perfection.
A note on the best way to read: This novella is best read, not listened to, as the narrative transitions are made more explicit with the breaking of paragraphs on the page and are not noted within the text itself at all.
This is one of those examples where not reading the blurb is the right way to go - knocked my socks off!
World building: ★★★★★
This review is going to be SUPER short because to be honest, this novella is so brief that if I write a few paragraphs there will be nothing left for the story!
Binti is the first of her race to leave their planet. She's a mathematical genius from a family of Harmonizers, and she's received shocking news: her test results are in, and she has been accepted to a prestigious intergalactic university. She's the first of her people to be accepted.
Against her family's wishes, Binti goes.
Her family didn't want her to go because their people don't leave Earth. It's just not done—the world isn't as accepting of their culture, and it's a dangerous universe out there.
Best not to tell them then about the hostile takeover on Binti's ship en route to university.
Who said leaving home would be easy, again?
This novella is the first in a trilogy, and THANK GOD for that—after the first one, I need to know more of Binti's story. It was too brief! I need more! Can we get a full novel, please?
A circus, an intersex main character, an alternate world with bits of Victorian and steampunk, and extremely catchy writing.
Main character: ★★★★
Pacing: ★★★ (there is a split timeline, and I didn't love that)
Pantomime was a book that I randomly added to a Book Outlet haul a few weeks ago because it had a gorgeous cover and was blurbed by Leigh Bardugo. Enough said, right? Also, it was about a circus so I was ON IT.
It's about an intersex main character named Micah Grey who escapes their home one night when their family tries to "fix" them without their consent. Micah doesn't need to be fixed, they are happy with who they are. So they run away to the circus.
This is a tale with found family elements, magical elements, steampunk elements, and the gritty thread of the circus running throughout. Micah's adventure to find themselves as a teenager, a person, and an aerialist for the circus was a classic coming of age tale with some obvious twists. But, the world itself kept Pantomime from falling into the cracks of other circus stories. The world of Pantomime is weirdly Victorian, but also post-apocalyptic as there used to be a society of Alders who ruled the land. The Alders are long gone, and the only remnants of their society remain as "Vestiges," which are mechanical devices that are much more technologically advanced than the current society.
While this book in the trilogy focused on the world though the lens of the circus, it's clear that books two and three will be exploring more magic and more of the world--Micah's discovering that they might not be who they thought they were...and it's time to find out why.
I didn't expect this level of over-detail and I didn't expect this level of world-building complexity. This was one dense, richly-developed world...in one (arguably) too long book. In honor of how freaking long this book was, my review is literally massive.
Pacing: ★★ 1/2
Climax: ★★★★★ million freaking stars
Character development: ★★★★
Enjoyment: literally both ★★ and ★★★★★
(Read the blurb if you want to know the basics, this is a reaction review!)
So I've read and obsessed over Maas' other two series. I was primed to love this. I was ready for the angst and the drama. House of Earth and Blood was so not what I was expecting—in a really refreshing way, even if I didn't like parts of it.
It's really clear that this book was trying to distinguish itself from the author's previous works. The focus on drugs, sex as an outlet, trauma, death, and depression is on the immediate surface, and the insistence on character strengths felt like direct comparisons (or, honestly, "anti" comparisons) to other Maas characters.
This is a story that takes its time, and it doesn't give one crap about how you feel about it.
Was it too long? ...WOW, yes. This tome could have easily been a shorter novel. Scenes dragged, story arcs stagnated in the middle with filler content, and some things that were clearly meant to be character development felt like wasted space because it was just. too. much. A girl can only take so many hundred pages of investigation and undercover angst. (I'm sorry, Maas, I love you, but that needs to be said.)
The level of detail was oddly necessary. This world is SO complex, SO detailed, and obviously part of a larger concept. The new terms and sense of hierarchy alone were extremely confusing at the beginning, so I was happy to receive the paragraphs of detail. To be honest, if there had been more PLOT in the first half I would have said, hey, why didn't we hack this into two separate books? Easier doses, easier tomes to hold in your hand. (My wrists hurt now, this was so heavy!)
Ok, on to the world. I loved this universe. It feels like the perfect blend of paranormal, urban, high-fantasy, and noir. We've got levels of power, a crooked ruling class, angels, demons, oracles, Fae, lesser fae, sphyinx, mermaids, werewolves, shifters, vampires, undead, witches, humans, sharpshooters, wraiths, murders, side plots, fallen heroes, undercover drug operations, modern technology, burgers and fries, encrypted flash drives...
Overwhelmed? Yeah, same. (But it was awesome.)
So the two main characters. Bryce, the demi-Fae/human woman with no powers of her own but a LOT of rage. Hunt, the fallen angel with lightning abilities sold into slavery to the ruling Archangels.
I loved Bryce. I understood her, was interested in her motivations, and really enjoyed watching her character grow and morph through what felt like years of my life (god, such a long book. I can't say that enough.)
But Hunt... not so much. This was definitely a "me" problem, but I didn't really care about him. As he's half of the POV and meant to be the dreamy love interest, this sucked. I wanted to be swept away by a new version of a Maas male character—with hopefully less problematic pieces, but still—and instead I got an angel that I didn't know what to do with and didn't feel any draw towards. I just...didn't find him interesting. And so Bryce's fascination with him was boring. Etc. There is one VERY memorable turnaround for Hunt near the end, but I'm not sure I can forgive 75% of the story for extremely bland crap just because the last 25% made Hunt worth caring about. Is that just me?
But, despite all of the above that makes it sound like I didn't love this...I loved this. The last 100 pages made me gasp, ugly-cry, rage, gape, scream, weep softly, and ultimately toss the book to the side and go "damn" softly to myself. It was AMAZING. It was EPIC. It set us up perfectly for the NEXT ONE. It was absolutely worth the wait and made me forget the book's earlier frustrations. This kind of ending is just too fun to read to rate less than 5 stars. (At least for me.)
Just...maybe not so long next time? Please.
This was not at all what I expected. A lot more swearing, a lot more body humor, and a LOT more swamp-lifestyle dialect and bizarre POVs than I was prepared to read. It was good? But not for me?
Concept: super original
Writing: really polarizing
Overall impression: not for me, but probably a great book for its audience
Highfire comes out on January 28, 2020!
Highfire is the first adult fantasy novel from the acclaimed author of the Artemis Fowl series. I read Artemis Fowl ages ago, and I vaguely remember liking it.
Don't get it twisted—this book feels like a completely different species.
Vern is the last dragon on Earth. Except he's not really the visual of a dragon that we're used to. He's a 7-foot-tall, tusk-y, scaly interpretation of a dragon that honestly feels like a gargoyle. But that's not the main point—the main point is that Vern is sentient, old as hell, and is wasting away his twilight years as the vodka-drinking king of the alligator swamps of rural Louisiana.
Everett "Squib" Moreau is a kid born out of the swamp, with a rough-and-tumble upbringing filled with swearing, hard times, and a bit too much dynamite for the average kid—he's now down to 9 fingers. He's struggling to avoid the attention of the local cop, and he's definitely not prepared to meet Vern.
Regence Hooke is the crooked law of Squib's small town, and he's not exactly a well-adjusted man. Alright, let's admit he's a full on clinical psychopath. He's got a plan to make the swamp his illegal kingdom, and he's got it in for Squib, not the least of which because Squib's mom is on Hooke's "to-do" list. (Yeah, there isn't a more pleasant way to say that. Hooke is nasty, and being in his head makes you want to shower afterwards.)
I can be honest and say that I've never, ever read a book like this. Highfire is so breathtakingly original that I think all fantasy fans should give the first chapter a try, just to see what the author has done with the writing style and concept.
I like my fantasy with more, well, fantasy? I'm also not a fan of body humor (pee jokes, bodily fluid jokes, etc.), and I'm definitely not a fan of Hooke's POV and rape-y overtones, so 1/3 of the story was an automatic fail. Without Hooke's POV, this story might have been 4 stars.
I'd say if you're a fan of extremely dialect-driven narration, body humor, and/or unique fantasies, try this out!
Trigger warnings: Suicide attempt depicted, and graphic rescue scene. Dialogue about suicide. Internal rape dialogue. Extreme violence.
Thank you to HarperCollins for this giveaway ARC!
This is the kind of story that I love. It’s lingering, it’s mythic, and it leaves you on the edge of a conclusion. The story of traveling to the afterlife with a guide, but with such an interesting edge.
Concept: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Execution: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Pacing: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
The Border Keeper opens with a landscape. A tiny house lies on the horizon of a desolate, completely empty desert. There is a low fence stretching across the world behind the house—it extends beyond all eyesight in either direction, and it leaves no shadow. The border.
A man walks up to this spot on the horizon. He’s traveled beyond his means to reach this house, and he needs to speak to the being inside: the border keeper.
The border keeper has been the border keeper for all time. She’s lived many lives, traveled many realms, and holds a bone-deep power. She is what stands between the realm and the other, the afterlife. And she’s not interested in attracting company.
But the man needs to go across the border, and he’s here to petition his case.
So begins The Border Keeper. With this impressive and visually gripping opener, the author had me hooked on the plot. I love underworld/afterlife stories and renditions, and this one was so incredibly singular, and perfect for its novella size. I wanted more, but I feel like I didn’t need more—it would have cheapened the questioning nature of the world and the mysteries of the border keeper herself.
However, the pacing bothered me. When you have limited pages, each page should have a specific purpose and carefully execute each plot point with the right amount of give and take. I found certain scenes to be rushed, leaving me confused, and other scenes to be completely, utterly unnecessary.
Honestly, give this one a go. It might surprise you! And if the plot doesn’t hook you, read it for the surprising humor and stunning visuals.
This is a masterpiece. This is flawless. This is the kind of book that comes along once in a decade. This cracks the foundations.
Erin Morgenstern is not for everyone. Her writing is for those who love the story for the sake of the story. The lyrical, meandering, and existential prose is not the standard format, and it takes no prisoners. If it's not for you, it's not for you.
Normally, I try to make some sort of sense in my review. Talk about the characters, the plot, the atmosphere. The Starless Sea is too close to my heart to describe accurately. (What more can I say about it than what it says about itself?)
It's about a subterranean library living labyrinthine space where the stories are often books, but not always.
Time and Fate are characters with an eternal love affair, but Fate was cursed to unravel over and over. Sometimes, Fate can put itself back together again. Time is always waiting.
Zachary Ezra Rawlins is the son of a fortune teller, and he discovers that his story has been fated since the moment he saw his door to the Starless Sea years ago. He didn't open the door then, but your story has a way of finding you even when you're not aware of its presence.
The Starless Sea is about metaphorical pirates, the Moon and her lover, Fate and Time, the power of the story, the cycle of beginnings and endings, owls, and bees. It has stories within stories, and perspectives that shift within the construct of time.
I loved it. I can't wait to read it again. As Morgenstern said in a recent interview, if The Night Circus embodied the concept of fall, The Starless Sea embodies the concept of winter. She says she's going to conceptualize spring for her next one...and I'm dying to read it.
Morgenstern, tell me a tale.
The Poppy War was good, this one is better
The Poppy War was brutal, this one is ruthless
The Poppy War enticed, this one demanded
The Poppy War sparked the war, this one incinerated the battlefield
There was nothing I did not love about The Dragon Republic.
Character growth: ★★★★★
War/Gore Factor: ★★★★★ (yeah it's still rough.)
The Dragon Republic is the explosive follow-up to R.F. Kuang's insanely talented debut novel, The Poppy War, and it does not disappoint—in fact, it packs double the punch. Haven't read the first book? Stop! Go find it! Read it! Love it! Then come back here! See if you agree with what I thought! Warning: it's going to spoil aspects of The Poppy War in order to cover its goodness.
Fang Runin (Rin) is not doing so well. At the end of The Poppy War, she's just watched her Cike commander/shaman/troubled love interest Altan sacrifice himself to the flames of the vengeful Phoenix god, and in her grief-torn rage she sets fire to an entire island. (An. Entire. Island.) She singlehandedly ended the Third Poppy War against the Mugunese...by killing an entire population in one swoop.
As we entire The Dragon Republic, Rin's struggling with the emotional backlash of that decision and sliding the slippery slope down to PTSD-inflicted opium addiction. She's shaky, hard to control, and hard to predict. The Phoenix is winning. Her characteristic ego is flailing. The last thing she wants is to be in control of the Cike, a small band of powerful shamans who are also held on the precipice of madness in order to commune with their gods and reap the supernatural powers. She's making poor decisions, and it shows. What can a soldier do when her commander abandons her?
She finds a new commander, a new war, and a new path toward vengeance. But is lending her war-ending powers to another puppeteer the answer to this game?
I can't say I was expecting this novel to unfold in this way it did—mainly due to the fact that the plot was impossible to predict. It had a lot more boats than I was expecting, and appealed to the inner pirate/adventurer in me. It introduced aspects of Western civilization-inflicted colonialism parallels that were disturbing to read and disturbing to reflect upon. In traditional Kuang style, it reflected aspects of China's history that will make your heart ache, and your conscience guilty. It reflected on female roles in the military, gender imbalances, and sexual violence as a result of war. I really appreciated these inclusions. It's not a pretty story, but it is a necessary one—and in the context of this fantasy world it has the potential for a glorious re-do. I can't wait for Rin to burn it down.
Also, the sheer amount of game-changing moments in this novel left me in a state of perpetual tension. Who will betray whom, and when, and how? Who will die next? How will Rin's characteristic impulsiveness react to this latest reveal? And where will Rin and Nezha's wonderful hate-to-maybe-more dynamic go as they dance around their lies and truths?
Like the first novel in the series, The Dragon Republic has a lot to say. It was brutal, it was vicious, it was nauseating. It took no prisoners and no one's life was sacred. But, it was also poignant, original, and absolutely thrilling. I can't wait to see where Kuang takes Rin next—it's going to be an explosive journey.
Thank you so much to Harper Collins - Harper Voyager via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Unlike anything I’ve ever read. This Mayan death god myth-making tale was perfect.
First off, I am probably in the minority, but I did not see this story as overly similar to a Cinderella tale—the similarities end after the first few chapters. The marketing for Gods of Jade and Shadow bills it as a Jazz-Age Cinderella, but the story felt much more like Hades and Persephone with a dash of the Art Deco.
I could not get enough of this story.
Gods of Jade and Shadow follows the story of Casiopea, a girl growing up in rural Mexico in the early 1900s who discovers a chest of ancient black bones in her grandfather's bedroom. Accidentally cutting herself and bleeding on the bones, Casiopea resurrects the Mayan god of death, Hun-Kame. Hun-Kame was cursed and imprisoned in his bones (well, most of his bones) by his twin brother, and suffice to say Hun-Kame is not pleased with the turn of events. Finding herself tied to Hun-Kame through her blood, Casiopea embarks on a quest with the death god to collect his missing bones and defeat his twin brother to reclaim the Mayan underworld.
Obviously, the tone of Gods of Jade and Shadow is dark and mythic in scope—and it reads that way.
One of my favorite aspects of the novel was the gritty realism brought to the plot by Casiopea herself. She stands apart from almost every other female protagonist I've read. She's no-nonsense in the pragmatic sense, she's extremely dry with her humor, and she does NOT fall into any of the main tropes. Tie these personality traits in with Hun-Kame, an ancient god with no empathy and no sense of sarcasm, and you have a winning match.
Things I loved: Casiopea, Hun-Kame's inability to understand inflection, Hun-Kame and Casiopea's no-nonsense responses to the absurd, the LACK OF AN INSTANT ROMANCE, the adventure-style journey to different parts of 1920s Mexico, the unfolding of the plot, Casiopea's honestly iconic reactions to her cousin, the final climactic sequence, and again for the people in the back THE LACK OF AN UNDERDEVELOPED AND OVERHYPED ROMANCE. There’s a romance, but it’s supremely well done and slow.
Things I didn't love: Alright, I'll be honest. I struggled with the pacing and lack of intimacy with Casiopea at the beginning. It's a slow entrance and a different way to write fantasy—very much keeping in line with old school myth tales. However, by the end I was HOOKED on the writing style and loved the pacing.
Many thanks to Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.