Lush and lyrical, beautifully romantic, and a wonderful duology finale... (but longgg.)
Writing: ★★★★ 1/2
Enjoyment: ★★★★ 1/2
We Free the Stars is the final book in the Arawiya series. For thoughts on the first book, check out my review here.
Below there are SPOILERS for the first book, We Hunt the Flame. I repeat, SPOILERS for the first book!
Ok, they gone? Good! Let's talk about this one.
Following the events of We Hunt the Flame, our group of rebels/adventurers are reeling. The Lion of the Night is at large with a dangerous agenda, they've lost Altair, and the remaining members of the group are struggling to cope with a recent loss and the implications of the fight yet to come.
Zafira, Nasir, and the team are bound for Sultan’s Keep, determined to restore the hearts of the Sisters of Old to the minarets of each caliphate—thus returning magic to all of Arawiya.
Zafira is the fabled Hunter of the realm, who spent most of her years masquerading as a man who was known for his ability to find anything. Now armed with a mind-to-mind connection to a powerful magical text and outed as a Huntress, not a Hunter, she's struggling to adjust to her new situation amidst the panic of their quest. Oh, and there's the exciting (or distracting?) feelings she's experiencing for the crown prince, Nasir.
Nasir, the crown prince of Arawiya and the famed assassin known as the Prince of Death, is also dealing with some shattering revelations. Having just found out that he has a brother—and discovering that the brother is his commander at arms and lifelong reluctant frenemy, Altair—is enough to make him stop in his tracks. But then to discover that his father, the evil Sultan, is also under the Lion's mind control and therefore not the monster Nasir believed him to be for years? Yikes. Nasir is, to put it mildly, a bit of an emotional mess and attempting to hide it. And there's also the fated pull he feels for Zafira too, in case he didn't have enough going on.
With court politics, assassinations, intrigue, and deadly games of cat and mouse to come, We Free the Stars takes off with a lot on its plate. Will Arawiya be saved?
So I need to address the elephant in the room right off the bat: the pacing of this novel really suffered with the extreme length of this book. Even though it was only roughly 100 pages longer than the first book, this installment felt every inch of its extra page count.
I think this was a difficult series to wrap up, honestly, and it speaks to the author's talented sentences and character development that I still loved it... even when it dragged on. And it did drag. Part of what made me fixate on the length was the somewhat aimless portion around the 250-350 page mark where I felt like the characters were all aimlessly pacing from space to space, waiting for the shoe to drop and filling the time with movement to feel productive. That sounds super dramatic—but I feel like it's accurate. I enjoyed those portions for the conversations and the romantic angst, but even my "character drama"-preferring self was ready for some action after a while.
However, despite those qualms above, I really did love this book.
Hafsah Faizal is a beautiful writer and I fell in love with her characters and this world. Nasir and Zafira's romance stands alone in my head for its refreshing blend of good "old fashioned" YA angst and drama mixed with a sensual edge that didn't rely on raw sexual insta-lust to make it work. I was also a huge fan of the side characters and their unique emotional arcs.
What does a small mom-and-pop haunted hotel do when a big chain business comes into town? Up their game, of course. Ghost-y style. This was so fun to read!
Characters: ★★★ 1/2
Do you like ghosts? Do you like light-hearted fun? Do you like middle grade? If you answered yes to any of those questions, I'd love to recommend this book directly to you.
I picked this up on a whim from my local bookstore because I was immediately drawn in by the title, The Second-Best Haunted Hotel on Mercer Street. It's a mouthful (true) but it's also the kind of title that screams to be read (ahhh!).
In this book, you can expect: a 6th grade girl doing her best in a family reeling from a recent tragedy, an eclectic family of ghosts that leap off of the page, a dramatic showdown between characters that reminded me heavily of the sense of drama in A Series of Unfortunate Events, and a whole lotta cool dialogue surrounding ghosts and their integrations into our "living" society.
Read it! I promise you'll have a good time.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
A family-run haunted hotel’s livelihood is threatened when a bigger haunted hotel opens nearby in this hilarious, spooky story...
Twelve-year-old Willow Ivan’s family has run the Hotel Ivan for four hundred years. Through thick and thin, they’ve held on tight to their title as the Best Haunted Hotel on Mercer Street. That is, until the Hauntery—a corporate chain of haunted hotels—moves in down the street. As the Ivan’s business fades, so do their ghostly staff. And Willow begins to worry that The Ivan’s days are numbered.
Then Willow meets Evie, a Hauntery ghost who’s forced to play the part of a Spooky Little Girl even though she longs to be a Terrifying Phantasm. So when Willow offers her a job at The Ivan, Evie accepts—but she doesn’t tell Willow that she’s still working for The Ivan’s competition, for fear of losing her new job and friend.
Together, the girls come up with a plan to save The Ivan. But with The Ivan ghosts already fading and Evie’s secret threatening to come out, will it be too late?
Not everyone's cup of tea, but for fans of Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children series, gritty urban fantasy, lyrical portal fantasy, and murder mysteries.... this was tailor-made for us.
WARNING! There are SPOILERS for the first book in this duology, The Hazel Wood, in this review. In order to talk about the setup for this book I have to SPOIL how the first book ends. Consider this your spoiler alert!
A recap of The Hazel Wood:
In The Hazel Wood, Alice discovered that she was a Story, a girl made from the twisted magical imaginings of the Spinner in the fairy tale landscape of the Hazel Wood. The Hazel Wood was the kind of setting that would make even the Grimms brothers hesitate. It was brutal, bloody, and cyclical in its relentless drive to make its Stories (other Made characters, like Alice) act out their dark fables with no escape.
When Alice and her friend, Ellery Finch, discover a way into the fairy tale they soon fall into the clutches of the Spinner—Alice gets sucked into her Story and can't get out, and Ellery has to battle the realm itself to free her. The end of The Hazel Wood shows Ellery shattering Alice's Story in the Hazel Wood and freeing Alice...at the cost of the fabric of the realm itself.
Alice escapes to New York City, and Ellery stays in the Hazel Wood to explore the doors of realms he's only dreamed about.
Now's it's time for The Night Country.
Alice is trying to be a human. She's desperately trying to forget the events of The Hazel Wood. Her years spent trapped in the role of Alice-Three-Times have marked her soul.
But Alice can't escape her Story roots—the other Stories won't let her. When Ellery shattered the realm, he caused its decay. The center would not hold. With holes in the Hinterland, other Stories have found their way into the city, and to Alice. They are like refugees in a strange land, Other and off.
But then, Stories start turning up dead. And certain body parts are missing from each dead Story.
~Meanwhile, Ellery Finch is in a bind. He's trapped in the remnants of the Hazel Wood, desperate to get out and yet unwilling to return to our world. When a beautiful young woman with the ability to create Doors offers him a bargain, he jumps at the chance to travel with her. But where is she going to lead him?~
It turns out that Alice's life of Alice-Three-Times isn't something she can shake off. And maybe the lie wasn't that Alice was a Story at heart—maybe it was that Alice never had a shot at playing human.
With ice in her veins, dead bodies lining up, and a mysterious red-headed stranger stirring up the Stories to vengeance, it's time for Alice to get to the bottom of what's happening to the other Stories and the Hazel Wood—before it's too late.
Alice and Ellery aren't done with their adventures just yet. And the other realms aren't done with them either.
I cannot describe how much I LOVED this installment. The Night Country was everything I'd hoped it would be, and more. It's darker, bloodier, and richer in detail and scope. While The Hazel Wood was almost trapped in its confines as a fairy tale landscape, The Night Country had the floor wide open for plot and character arcs. I loved where we took Alice and Ellery in their journeys. The murder mystery element was a surprise—but it was fantastically done. More fantasies should have murder mysteries, maybe?
Overall, a fantastic book that I devoured in one sitting. Cannot wait for more from Melissa Albert.
Filled with heart, acapella, drama, and the complexities of young people in love, this was a sweet and engaging read. It gives you the feels, you know?
Plot: ★★★ 1/2
Izzy Crawford is just trying to belong. Having spent the past six years moving from town to town to town with her mother after her father died in Iraq, Izzy's tired of feeling like she can't put down roots.
Things change when Izzy starts going to school in Virginia. She's keeping her scholarship status on the down low and she's attempting to play it cool, but high school has other plans. When you've got roots, you've got ties. And some ties get complicated.
Izzy finds herself juggling her school life—she's in an acapella group and getting closer to one of the hottest athletes in school, Sam, which is made more complicated by the fact that Izzy's friend Roz likes him too. If that's not enough, she's also experiencing one of the most exciting things that her family has ever experienced—they've been selected by Habit for Humanity to receive a brand new home.
However, Izzy can't keep all the elements in her life from spinning into each other forever. It's all going to overlap soon. Is she ready to lay down roots and roll with the seasons?
I thought this was a powerful and moving YA novel. Sometimes a YA contemporary reads for its audience and doesn't transcend its age bracket for adults... How to Build a Heart is not one of those reads. There are lessons, fun, and love to be had in these pages and the author shares them beautifully for all ages. Izzy's story of fitting in and growing into her own personhood was a lot of fun. Plus, Maria Padian's writing is amazing. So read it for the writing voice alone.
Recommended for all! Haha. But in all honesty, I really enjoyed this one. Will definitely keep an eye on Maria Padian's future works.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for Young Readers for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
"What big teeth you have, Grandma..." All the better to eat you with, my dear. This debut is filled with teeth, ominous undertones, and horror-set vibes. A very interesting debut, even if it didn't jive for me personally.
Writing style/how plot points were unveiled via the writing: ★★
Use of speculative elements: ★★★ 1/2
Overall Enjoyment: ★★★ 1/2
Eleanor Zarrin has been away at boarding school for many, many years. But it's time to come home—she has no choice. What greets her at home is her family...shapeshifters, eldritch horrors mixed with human features, the family friend who eats nothing and gleams in the moonlight, and her fortune-telling grandmother holding it all together.
But when Eleanor's grandmother dies violently over the tarot card deck while reading Eleanor's fortune, things start to turn sour in the Zarrin household.
With no where to turn to and feeling trapped by her family's suspicions and distanced aloofness, Eleanor finds a letter from her other grandmother locked in a chest. She decides to invite her to come to the Zarrin house. It would be nice to meet her other grandmother...
But no one in the Zarrin household—whether they have teeth, sea-skin, or blackened maws—is ready for the Other Grandmother. Least of all Eleanor.
"You take after your other grandmother, Eleanor," they said. They never meant it as a compliment.
So for those who know my reading tastes, this seems like the perfect read. Right? That makes it extra painful to share that I really... didn't mesh with this story at all. It might the case of it's me, not the book. Definitely take all of the below with a grain of salt.
In particular, I found it extremely hard to get into the groove with the way the story was told. Basic plot facts were purposefully dangled and never explained, and yet we spent a lot of time on physical descriptions and internal thought processes, so the lack of plot depth became frustrating as opposed to interesting. It left me with a very uneven sense of what was even happening—and NOT in a good way like a typical mysterious horror set-up. If we'd been vague in all things, it would have made sense as a style choice, but with way too much time spent with Eleanor's thoughts on mundane teenage romance feelings and descriptions of the settings the lack of plot knowledge felt like a lack of building.
I also thought that the pacing seemed off, but that could be tied to my frustrations with the way the story unfolded. The first half felt like we were in a holding pattern, and while the vague, horror "What's happening??" atmosphere worked for the first 100 pages... I got bored waiting for the shoe to drop and the plot to begin. And when it did begin, then I was frustrated that we veered away from that and decided to focus on a romantic subplot that didn't seem to make sense in the story. Without spoilers I can't say much, but if you'd just snipped out the romance it would have been a lot stronger. It was a distraction, for me, and an added frustration when combined with the rest of this (vagueness, lack of plot action, etc).
But I did find the ending worked out well. It was worth the wait, and even though it became easy to predict the further you read, that lack of surprise did not take away from the satisfaction of the moment.
Overall, definitely check this one out if the cover appeals to you and you're a fan of horror and speculative fiction.
Thank you to the publisher via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Deadly games, a city based on your sins, historical fantasy vibes, gangs and codes of honor, slow burn romances, revolutions and conspiracies, and so much more... what a (surprisingly bloody) good time.
Characters ★★★ 1/2
Larger story arc: ★★★★★
Take your time in the City of Sin, if you lose your bearings it'll reel you in...
Enne Salta arrives in New Reynes, known in the realm as the "City of Sin," with a bag full of belongings and a note from her adopted mother telling her to who to call if she needs help. Enne can't find her mother and time has run out, so she's desperate for some help. She's looking for a man named Levi Glaiser.
Levi Glaiser is the Iron Lord, the leader of one of the most prominent street gangs in the city. He's balancing on the edge of fealty to his gang, a forced bargain with a mob boss, and the mountain of lies keeping him—and his future—from falling apart. The last thing he wants on his doorstep is a girl calling in a favor from one of the most notorious rebel sympathizers in the realm.
Enne doesn't like the look of Levi, and Levi likes the look of Enne a little too much. Enne has money, Levi needs money. Levi has connections to the pulse of the city, and Enne needs to find out what happened to her mother. Time to strike a bargain...
But things quickly become much bigger than a bargain between the Iron Lord and the visiting new girl when things in New Reynes get complicated, and fast. Trouble is brewing in the city, lords are being murdered, and the noose around Levi's neck is getting tighter and tighter with one of the two mob bosses in the city after him and the other pulling his strings.
Enne and Levi are going to get much more than they bargained for, and neither one of them is truly ready for the hidden secrets of Enne's past to rise to the surface.
The game of monarchies, conspiracies, murder plots, and blood ties is about to begin...
WOW, y'all. I loved this. Ace of Shades is one of those YA books that came out in the surplus of red/black aesthetic fantasy reads released in the aftermath of Six of Crows and V.E. Schwab's rise to popular immortality and to be honest, I thought the book was going to be derivative of the themes it was invoking on the cover.
Totally missed the mark on this one. While you can sorta-kinda-squint and see Schwab and you can definitely make surface-level comparisons to Six of Crows, Ace of Shades quickly diverges from the paths of the expected with a truly explosive and engaging story arc.
I found the first half to be slow and followed a lot of traditional YA tropes. Discovery of world, learning the key players, getting a quick-and-dirty run down of the magic system, introducing the bad guys, etc.
But the second half—d-d-d-damn! Talk about a ramp-up and a showdown all in one. I couldn't put it down. When the ending actually happened, I was on Amazon that very second pressing "Buy Now" on the second book. Very excited to see where the plot takes us, and now that the exposition and beginning stuff is over with the really intrigue and development can take off.
A powerful, moving novel about the everyday grit of young homelessness tinged with empathy, endurance, and subtlety. Definitely not easy to forget.
Living in the homeless community in San Francisco, Maddy has banded together with a small group of others in the Golden Gate Park. Struggling to survive, the last thing Maddy expects to experience is a murder.
Having been an unwilling yet captive witness of a young man's murder, Maddy quickly finds herself drawn in to the investigation with the local police and with the murdered man's parents. Maddy didn't sign up for this—and she certainly doesn't want to give up the secrets of her history in order to help the police and the family find closure.
But will she decide to open up given the circumstances? If she does, what then?
I know the above description is pretty vague, but I really didn't want to give too much away about the novel. It's one of those that you really need to experience first-hand and not read in a blurb. I was surprised at how much this novel moved me—which sounds callous, as obviously a novel about young homelessness is one that you'd automatically assume would be moving. And I did assume it would be. But at the same, I guess I underestimated how much it would move me as a reader. There's a lingering thread of sadness mixed with hope mixed with a sense of trapped circumstance in this, and it's an intense cocktail to experience.
This is a powerful debut that is grappling with some heavy, contemporary topics. I'm glad I got to follow Maddy's journey, however hard. I occasionally wished for more depth, but overall a very satisfying story.
Thank you to Algonquin for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Why aren’t there more people reading this book?? Thieves, Indiana Jones-style adventure quests, queer slow burn Fae/thief romance, courtly betrayals, and a truly masterful and fresh approach to long-form traditional YA fantasy tropes.
Slow Burn Romance: ★★★★
Master of One took me by surprise. Literally. I picked it up on a whim, started reading, and found myself emerging from my reading hidey-hole HOURS later with a crick in my neck and a new obsession.
It's what I wished Megan Whalen Turner's The Queen's Thief series had been for me. It's what could have happened if Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows band of misfits had been dunked into a mid-2000s-era YA medieval fantasy setting and given an epic quest instead of a heist, less #angst, and more queer humor. And it's also what Snow White's evil queen could have been up to in a parallel reality. And so on.
Basically, this was a book that I didn't realize fulfilled an empty niche on my bookshelves until I started reading it and went "Oh, there you are. I've been looking for you all along."
From the top, we're introduced to a thief named Rags. He's in prison and awaiting some form of torture on behalf of the Queensguard for his attempt to steal some royal treasure. Instead, Rags is coerced into a quest to find an ancient Fae relic for the Queen's magician. And to ensure Rags' compliance, the magician sticks a mirrorshard in his heart as insurance—if Rags tries to run, hide, or break his bargain, the magician will just twist the mirrorshard and kill him.
Brutally effective, and yet oddly beautiful in its theory. Like most of this book.
So Rags and the magician set out to find the relic. This feels like a quest novel for the chosen one, but that's not really what it is. Because instead of a finding a relic, Rags discovers an ancient Fae warrior from the Ancient race long thought dead in the realm. The Fae warrior says Rags has awakened him to help locate the six Masters of the Paragon, and ancient Fae weapon/tool that can only be wielded by the six Masters predestined for it. (In a not-at-all shocking turn of events, it's discovered that this weapon is what the magician wanted to find all along.)
From there, Master of One turns into an adventure quest to discover the other relics, the other Masters, and to somehow thwart the magician before he decides to kill Rags and the team in order to take the weapon for himself. Insert some AMAZING dry humor and slow burn M/M romance between the Fae warrior and Rags—plus a truly eclectic cast of other side characters including an ex-Queensguard, a banished former court lady, a transgender actress, and a disabled prince—and you've got a winner.
This was just so good. I will say it's quite slow to start, and takes its time for the rest of the plot too, but I found that the pacing was necessary for the plot. In a way, it felt like a traditional/old school adult fantasy epic given its slower introduction to the world and its characters. It's also the slowest of slow burns and takes its sweet time introducing all of the POVs and potential relationships at play. Again, I didn't mind, but definitely know that going in.
Overall, a fantastic series opener. I can't wait for more—that ending did NOT resolve the plot, so here's to hoping a sequel is announced soon.
Drama, drama, DRAMA! This insider's look into the world of teen influencers was a wild ride from start to finish—and I couldn't stop reading it.
Plot: ★★★ 1/2
Binge-level enjoyment: ★★★★
Delilah Rollins is catapulting to stardom in a major way on Instagram. From her Minnesota roots to her recent move to LA, she's scrambling to find her bearings in a world where hundreds of thousands of people know her name, her face, and her life. Is Delilah really ready for her autonomy to be controlled by the opinion of the masses?
Jasmine Walters-Diaz is used to the fame of being an influencer. From her roots as a wholesome child TV star to her teenage years as a brand's dream endorsement, Jasmine should be used to her life being filtered through the lens of perfection and frozen time... but as her need to be herself and love who she loves grows and chafes against her public image, Jasmine finds herself bending and breaking to get out.
Fiona Jacobs is the perfect casual and funny influencer. She's effortless... right? As she listens to her inner monologue critique her every move, every breath, every calorie, and every step, Fiona tries to desperately maintain the facade of put-together perfection while her OCD and fear of past secrets threaten to tear her apart from the inside. Will she survive her own attacks on herself?
Delilah, Jasmine, and Fiona all have one thing in common: they're living their teenage years through the crystalized lens of public opinion, filters, and judgement.
And then there's Scarlett Leigh. Another teenage influencer but with more sex appeal, more ruthlessness, and more drive to win, Scarlett seems to be the three girls' worst nightmare and competition all rolled into one. But you can never trust what's on the surface...and the girls should really know better.
They'll find out just what exactly the truth means when one of them ends up dead. It's time to show off your best angle, ladies, as the part you're going to play now is one of suspect...
My immediate response to this book was WOW, what a crazy premise and an even crazier plot. This reaction was further cemented when I realized that the co-author to this book, Lilia Buckingham, is an actual bona fide teen influencer herself. That definitely lent a more realistic quality to some of the details used in the novel (besides the murder, of course!).
My interest in this book came from the other author, Sara Shepard, who is best known for her drama-laden series Pretty Little Liars. Fans of Pretty Little Liars should be all over this—the amount of drama, gasps, and trainwreck sitcom moments are at the same level here in Influence. Like a reality tv show, I couldn't look away.
Definitely one to pick up if you like drama, glitz, and murder...
Thank you to Delacorte Press via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
What a pleasant surprise? I really enjoyed this. A large part of that enjoyment came from treating it like a contemporary novel, though, and not a mystery.
Concept: ★★★★ 1/2
Mystery/Surprises: ★★ 1/2
So, real quick, let me just say this: if you're coming to this book for intense action, devious mysteries, or any kind of edge-of-your-seat thriller vibes, this is NOT the read for you.
The Cousins is Karen M. McManus' fourth YA novel, and it has a really nice set up. Three cousins from estranged siblings receive a mysterious letter from their reclusive wealthy grandmother, Mildred Story. Their parents were kicked off of the Story family's island in their teens and completely cut out of the will and the family legacy, so to hear from the matriarch at all is strange, to say the least. Mildred asks the three cousins—Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah—to come to Gulf Cove island to work on the family's resort for the summer. "To get to know you," the letter says.
What makes things even stranger is that Mildred didn't know they were coming.
And things aren't exactly what they seem on Gulf Cove island. What exactly happened all those years ago, and why did their grandmother cut all ties from the family?
It's time for Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah to find out.
Like I said at the beginning of this review, this is not the read for hardcore mystery/thriller fans. In a way, I wish this had been billed as more of a family drama contemporary than a mystery. Don't get me wrong, there are quite a few mysteries in the plot. And they're pretty satisfying and not overly easy to guess—I found the final reveal to actually be a surprise.
But I have to say, I treated the plot like a dramatic contemporary novel. And by doing so, I liked it a lot. If you don't try to focus on the mystery it's a great story. If you do focus on the mystery, I'd imagine elements of this story could be quite frustrating. For example, this 300-ish page novel takes place over multiple weeks of the summer and the mystery itself isn't the main (or even side) focus of each chapter. There's a lot of personal relationship drama, coming-of-age realizations, and family-themed bonding content. It's all really, really well done... but not focused on the mystery?
Because of that, when we do focus on the mystery it's in a WHAM BAM rush of events. Not exactly out of place, but definitely not balanced.
Overall, a great and enjoyable YA read filled with atmosphere, drama, and more... but not exactly as advertised.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.