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 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.
This pretty, gorgeous, absolutely irresistible package of a book is so much fun to hold and to have on your shelves. I bought it for the hype and I am 100% satisfied with my purchase. As a book collector, this will live on my shelf forever and look beautiful.
But did I love it??
...No. Sadly. I tried so, so hard to love this novel—but at the end of the day, when you strip the marketing, the blacked out pages, and the mysteriousness of the blurb from consideration... the story itself didn't do much for me.
I've been sitting on this all day, what to say for this review. Because after reading so many other reviews on Goodreads, Instagram, TikTok, you name it.. it seems like it's just me in this corner of hey, it was cool, but it wasn't amazing? I was bored, frankly. And I thought the plot struggled to make itself known between the choppy descriptions of really cool things and the goobledygook name pronunciations.
Not much... happens. I mean, in a very literal sense, the characters move from space to space quite frequently and talk, a LOT, to a lot of people in various settings. But my overall feeling for 80% of this 500 page "prologue" was one of looking at the metaphorical clock, going hey... I'd love for the story to start soon, thanks, and then... at the very, very last page, it felt like we were finally getting somewhere. (I hold a large candle of hope that due to the ending's takeoff, this "prologue" was meant to feel this way and the next volume will not have this issue.)
Reig and Trad are two twins who live in a different realm/reality within an organization known as the Octunnumi. Like a fantastical version of the Men in Black concept ( I am really, REALLY reducing the complexity of this book's premise with this comparison, and I know that, but this is a good likeness if you strip away the excess), the Octunnumi exists but the world of Earth doesn't know they exist. They pop in and out of these portal doors and affect/change/manipulate things in our world and we never, ever know they're there. They interface with magical beings and influence humans' opinions on art, culture, design, and technology.. all from behind the unseen curtain.
In the realm of the Octunnumi, Reig and Trad travel from fantastical section of the realm to fantastical section of the realm like an interdimensional train station/antique store/urban market hybrid that would make an AMAZING visual cornucopia of a movie. The descriptions are lush and the areas of the realm sound awesome. A playground for the imagination in every sense of the word.
But what are Reig and Trad doing, exactly, and what happens in this prologue?
Well, while still avoiding spoilers, let me just say... not much.
There's a plot thread of children, presumed dead from a failed rescue operation ages past, who have been identified as alive. This is the "core" plot of sorts, as Reig and Trad were on the rescue team and never got over this loss - so to find out these children are alive, yet still missing, has spurred the two boys into action to relocate them. The core plot, as much as it can be called such, is the twins moving around the realm talking to people and gathering people/ideas/things together loosely to work toward finding these missing children.
There's also a plot thread of Reig and Trad's old friend, Nicolas, who was forcefully ejected from the Octunnumi around the time of the failed rescue operation and condemned to a life on Earth due to his forbidden love with a girl outside his race. This comes back to bite the Octunnumi organization in the butt when Nicolas arrives on their doorstep many regenerations later (oh, did I mention all of these operatives endlessly regenerate/reincarnate instead of die? Yes, they do. It is unnecessarily confusing) with a mystery of his own and ulterior motives.
And, of course, there are Reig and Trad themselves. They were the most interesting to me at the start, as there was a fair amount of foreshadowing involved regarding a meta Narrator who interacts with the boys directly (the author of this book, self-inserted as their Narrator), some allusions to the some Things that will Happen Soon and other such nuggets. I was intrigued at their history and their future. However, like many other things about this novel, my fascination soon turned to boredom and eventually shifted into flat out exasperation as hundreds of pages flew by and Reig and Trad remained exactly the same. No character development or growth, no insights into their motivations and/or feelings of attachment, and ultimately no sense of what they cared about and/or wanted to happen. Unlike most novels, the main characters you get on page one are the exact same as the ones on the last page.
As you can see from my extremely scattered thoughts and reactions, this was an ultimately polarizing read. I liked elements, I disliked other elements, and ultimately I didn't love it. But am I intrigued enough to see if my dislikes are solved in volume two? Heck yes.
We'll see what happens next.
A different book from the rest of the series, and one that is sure to upset some with its pacing and plot. This is a slow burn, a fast burn, and a character-driven exploration all at the same time. And yet. For those of us who have been waiting...this was a healing.
(I have a LOT to say, so strap in!)
Pacing: ★★ 1/2
Character decisions: ★★★★
Disclaimer: This is the 11th book in the Black Jewels world and the direct sequel to The Queen's Bargain. While I do not spoil anything for this particular book, there ARE spoilers for the other books in the world and for The Queen's Bargain. Please do not read if you do not want to be spoiled for previous books.
This is not an entry point novel for the series.
I really don't know where to start. For those of us who have been with Anne Bishop since Daughter of the Blood, we've been through some things. In particular, Twilight's Dawn imparted some shocking new developments for the plot and its characters and then left us to hang with that for several years—i.e., discovering that Daemon and Surreal decide to get married and have a daughter named Jaenelle Saetien. (There's other stuff too, obviously, but that was the mic drop.)
Then the The Queen's Bargain entered the scene in 2020 when we followed Lucivar Yaslana and Daemon Sadi as they embarked on the new frontier: parenthood. In particular, we got to watch Jaenelle Saetien grow up and Daemon's internal chalice crumble once again as his true nature as the Sadist fell apart with Surreal's fear and distrust. It was a painful journey, there's no mistaking that. But it ended on a hopeful tendril: Witch intervened.
Following the events of The Queen's Bargain, Lucivar and Daemon are now older, wiser, and soothed by the fact that their one true Queen, Witch, is not as lost to them as they had previously assumed. She's not back—not really—but her core remains sentient and she can speak with them in the Keep of Ebon Askavi. And for the two sides of the triangle, that is enough. For the Sadist, who needed the oversight and the acceptance, that is enough.
And for Daemonar, who is now old enough to be considered a young man, that is enough. His Auntie J is raising Daemonar to be the new third side to the triangle with his Uncle Daemon and his father. And a new storm is brewing in Kaleer. Before long, Daemonar will be needed. The queen will have need of her weapons.
For the long-lived races, several hundred years is not enough to forget the memory of Witch and the sacrifices made for the Blood of the realms. But for the shorter-lived races, that lesson has become a distant memory. When history becomes a distant memory, some decide to conveniently forget its teachings...
A new taint is darkening the pages. And Daemon, Lucivar, and Daemonar need to be ready.
This was... a journey. First off, I have to admit that the pacing of this book was difficult. The first 100 pages were a lot of recap and character interactions that I enjoyed as a Black Jewels mega-fan but did become tedious, even for me. So the plot itself took its sweet time to arrive.
But when it did, it really kicked off. To avoid spoilers, let's just say that while Kaleer might have forgotten that Saetan's sons have claws... the sons themselves have not. If peace isn't an option, they're happy to pick the other road. Whew boy, the boys are BACK.
The Queen's Weapons follows quite a few points of view. Daemonar is one of the main ones, along with Daemon and Lucivar. But we're also along for the ride with Surreal—who finally finds her backbone that was mysteriously absent for all of The Queen's Bargain—and with Jaenelle Saetien. (And a few others, but those are the main ones.)
Let's talk about Jaenelle Saetien. I mean, I really can't due to spoilers, but I want to. Desperately. This was an intense novel that Jaenelle Saetien made much more difficult to get through for us readers. But the pain and agony of dealing with her—there's no other way to put it, it felt like a chore to experience her behavior—was made worth it by the climax of the novel.
Anne Bishop doesn't need to keep outdoing herself with masterful writing and emotionally complex characters, but man does it feel like she outdoes herself with each new book. This was another masterclass from the queen of dark fantasy. I know I'm the last person to provide an unbiased review, and y'all can call me out on that I don't even care, but I loved this. It's always a joy to walk the roads in the Realms with our favorite people.
And Witch, I'm glad you're with us again.
If you were upset with Twilight's Dawn, then let me promise you that this book is a healing. It's a painful, joyous ride—but the ending made me cry from happiness. We made it. The light at the end of the tunnel is glorious, and now I am unreservedly excited for whatever happens next.
Thank you to ACE/Berkley for my ARC in exchange for an honest review.
A brutal slice of life into the world of Rafael's rodere—I really enjoyed this entry into the series. Given the usual length of Anita Blake books, this was basically a novella! But a very important one with the seeds of bigger plots to come...
Plot/Pacing: ★★★★ 1/2
Character development: ★★★★
New ideas: ★★★★
Let's get a housekeeping note out of the way. Yes, I love this series. Yes, I know that they are not everyone's cup of tea. I'm also aware that they tend to be a bit long-winded, overly invested in the relationship drama, and sometimes get tediously caught up in dialogue. That's just part of what this series is about - and I, for one, have loved them for years. So please note my deep affection for this series and take that into account for my reviews.
Rafael is latest entry into the world of Anita Blake, a version of the U.S. where vampires, were-animals, and the undead all exist in our modern society with interesting—and often bloody—results. This is not an entry point novel for the series.
In this latest installment, we finally(!) get a window in the world of the rat king, Rafael. The wererats have been a powerful were-animal faction in St. Louis for some time in the Anita Blake novels and are known for their fighting ability, their pack's strength, and the fact that their national king, Rafael, has been an ally to Anita Blake for years.
It's time to peel back the curtain on what goes on in the kingdom...
Rafael is in trouble. His ties to Anita—and therefore his perceived ties to Jean Claude and the other weres in Anita's sphere--have made him appear weak to the rest of the wererats across the country. They think it's time for a new king. And the way the rats determine their ruler is by blood. Specifically, a fight to the death. So Rafael's been fighting in the pits now, defending his crown and title, for some time.
The only way to become the new rat king is to kill the old one...
Anita Blake wasn't aware of just how bad Rafael's standing has gotten. When he asks her to attend this latest pit fight against the best challenger yet, Anita knows something must be different about this fight. For the first time, Rafael doesn't know if he's going to win. When Anita shows up, to her horror she realizes that a) there's someone familiar pulling the challenger's strings and b) her relationship to Rafael is about to get tested, and brutally. Can she fight her way to the top of the rat pile and assert her place while protecting Rafael from this latest deadly threat?
We know she can, she's Anita Blake, but what exactly will she learn along the way? There's a different kind of magic amongst the rodere that they've kept hidden for some time...
I thought this was one of the strongest entries into the Anita Blake series that we've seen in quite some time. Part of that was due to its subject—Rafael's world has never been fully described, so the newness was appealing to me—and the other part was its sheer short length. We didn't have time to get overly drawn into the relationship dramas (even though the characters did their best to do so anyway!) and therefore a lot of the usual "not this again!" feelings weren't present.
I am also extremely intrigued at what the author alluded to with the addition of the wererats' magic systems... it bodes well for Anita Blake's character arc and opens the door for more books to come featuring this new thing.
Don't skip this one in the series, folks! It's a good one and not the usual spin-off fare.
Thank you to Berkley for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
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.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.