Deals with Fate, a whimsically dark, wintery setting that reminded me of the Night Circus's atmosphere, and a twisty-turny love plot to fit all of the classics. I loved it.
Entry point for new readers? oof, equal yes and no
NOTE: Once Upon a Broken Heart is set in the same universe as this author's previous trilogy, Caraval. I was not smart enough to realize that before reading this (whoops), so I want throw that out here at the start of this review. This has crossover with Caraval. It is, however, marketed as the start of a brand new series.
Evangeline Fox grew up on fairytales. Her life is one, after all, even if some people don't realize it. A recent orphan, Evangeline works in her late father's curiosities shop and is in love with a boy. Her mother raised her on stories of the magical North, where curses and magic are real and everyone knows it. Evangeline's very existence—her hair is the color of rosy gold, her upbringing shrouded in magical mystery—everything points to the start of a good fairytale.
But then the boy becomes engaged to Evangeline's stepsister, and everything in Evangeline's life shifts sideways.
She decides to believe in yet one more fairytale—the existence of Jacks, the Prince of Broken Hearts. For those who need him in Valenda, Jacks has a temple where the broken hearted can go and ask for a bargain.
It's dangerous to bargain with a Fate, but Evangeline is desperate and "dangerous" sounds like it could get the job done.
She strikes a deal with Jacks. Things don't exactly go as planned. He's a Fate, of course, and Evangeline is a girl straight out a fairytale—the story isn't going to let them go that easily.
It's time to let the story unfold...
I don't want to get into the plot too much, as half of the fun is going into the story with as little knowledge as possible, but WOW! In short, I really enjoyed this one.
Highlights: I loved the dynamic between Evangeline and Jacks. Even though Evangeline was much more naive than I prefer for a protagonist, the dynamic really worked for me and fit the story's vibe. I was also a huge fan of the world. It takes a rare type of author to write with the same je ne sais quoi quality as early Erin Morgenstern, but Stephanie Garber reached it. It's the YA, winter version of the Night Circus in terms of atmosphere and I was into it.
Negatives: Was it easy to jump into this world WITHOUT having already read Caraval? ...No. I wish I'd known how many references, nods, and hidden nuances in this novel were going to directly relate to that previous storyline. I would have taken a second look at Caraval first. It wasn't as bad as jumping into a direct sequel, but I did feel like I'd entered a TV show at the start of the second season. New character arc but same setup, and it was a bit confusing.
Read this if you like well-told tales, fairytales and their retellings, the power of hope, a dang good time, and nothing too dark.
LAKESEDGE - Lyndall Clipstone
Cool concept, really loved the death lord angle. Annoyed as heck by the main character to the point where I wanted to skim…so, a mixed bag of thoughts here.
Main character: ★ 1/2
Violeta Graceling and her brother, Arien, live in a wooded world filled with a mysterious blight. They live off of the long-suffering "goodness" of their adoptive mother, who works for the local villager as a painter for the village's important religious icons. It's a light versus the darkness, goodness versus shadow demons type of religion... and to Violeta and Arien's horror, every night Arien wakes to shadows coating his body.
Violeta knows that if Arien could just wish the shadows away, they could be safe. Harsh control is the only answer to Arien's issue...right? (Oh dear)
One day in the village, Arien is caught with his shadows by the visiting lord from the nearby Lakesedge estate: Rowan Sylvanan.
Rowan Sylvanan might be close to Violeta's age, but he's already a nightmare story that parents warn their children about at night. He killed his whole family, they say. He's filled with evil, they say.
Rowan takes one look at Arien and his shadows and makes the decision to take Arien home with him. And because Violeta is fiercely protective of her brother, Rowan begrudgingly takes her too.
But neither the estate nor Rowan are what they seem, and Violeta's going to have to face certain truths whether she's ready for them or not...
Sometimes, it's not really the book's fault or the reader's fault when the reading experience is "meh." Sometimes it's just....the main character. And for Lakesedge, my issues all circle around one thing: Violeta herself.
I thought this world was cool. I loved the gothic atmosphere, the mystique of the estate, the dark shadow magic at the core of the story. I thought the ending in particular was spectacular.
But.... I can't give this more than 3 stars, because for the first half of the book (and frankly, ok, the rest of the book too) I couldn't stand Violeta. When you have a first-person narration with only one POV, a lot of the story rests on that one main character and whether the reader can get behind them and their actions. And I just could not do it.
Violeta was stubborn to the point of dumbness, prejudiced to the point of fear mongering, and at the end of the day she was also... weirdly reactionary to her own story?
(Except for the very, very end where my complaint turns into a spoiler: (view spoiler))
I'm not sure if all of that stands up outside of my own personal opinions, but that was how I felt. Oh well. Another case of "it's not you, book, it's me!"
Excellent atmosphere, loved the fresh take on a very different—and minimally inspired—Jane Eyre retelling. Loved the magic component, the haunted house, the Ethiopian-meets-gothic vibes… ahhh so good.
First disclaimer: I have not read Jane Eyre.
Second disclaimer: I did not go into this book wanting, or requiring, a faithful interpretation of Jane Eyre.
Andromeda, or "Andi," is a debtera—an exorcist hired to cleanse households of the Evil Eye. With a rough upbringing behind her, current poverty around her, and a very uncertain future ahead, Andi is out of options and in need of steady employment.
So when an offer for a house cleansing comes her way riddled with warnings, she's too desperate to refuse.
Andi arrives at Thorne Manor in the middle of the African desert with desperation and everything to gain. She needs to eradicate this manifestation at whatever the cost—she has nothing left to lose.
But Thorn Manor, with its English colonialist design and history forced into the African landscape, is nothing like Andi's expectations. It's dark and freezing cold in the middle of the desert. It's filled with weird, misplaced furniture and false illusions. There's a sense of foreboding that Andi has never experienced despite all of her prior cleansings. And, to top it all off, the host of the manor is not at all like her expectations.
Andi has a job to do. And as the servants keep disappearing (or worse) and the house creeps closer toward Andi with every breath, the stakes are too high to leave.
Now add in a romance, a ghost story, and a claustrophobic atmosphere on par with Mexican Gothic, and you have a STORY.
Don't let your guard down...
Again, with my disclaimers at the beginning of this review aside, I thought this was a fantastic story. I read it over the course of one evening—and basically one sitting, if you don't count tea breaks!
Within These Wicked Walls had truly fantastic writing. Most times for young adult fiction/fantasy, I am attached to the characters, plot, or world building more than I'm attached to the actual words and their structure themselves. But for this one, the writing itself stood out to me. I loved the sense of place conveyed through the sentence descriptions, Andi's presence on the page, and the great sense of dialogue and scene transitions. This sounds like I'm reviewing an academic paper or something (boring, I know) but I really wanted to call it out here. GREAT writing.
I also thought that entire plot (romance, relationships, pacing, and all) was just.... chef's kiss. Really nice. I have no complaints besides a few spots that felt slowly paced.
Why is it so hard to talk intelligently in reviews when you love something??? Sigh. Please take my badly-constructed word on this: this story is fantastic, it's atmospheric, and it's a fresh take on a very old concept with some much needed non-Western influences.
I could see myself rereading this one every autumn. Pick this one up, gothic/ghost fans!
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
CARAVAL - Stephanie Garber
So I DNF'd this book years ago, but I guess I'm a different reader now, or maybe I just missed the magic the first time—because now it's a new favorite. Sometimes, second chances are worth it...
Main character: ★★
Scarlett and her sister, Donatella, live on an isle under the controlling rule of their abusive father. Scarlett believes in happy endings. Donatella...doesn't so much.
So when their grandmother tells them tale after tale of the mysterious Legend, the man behind the magic of the realm's mystical Caraval game, Scarlett's the one who writes to Legend year after year. If Legend would only invite them to participate in Caraval, then Scarlett and Donatella could win the game and be granted the grand prize... one wish. No restrictions.
For two girls with a very bleak future, winning Legend's elusive wish is one of their last shots at happiness.
So when Scarlett's letter finally arrives with invitations, Scarlett and Donatella can't believe it.
It's all about to begin, now. And remember, it's only a game.... (Right?)
Filled with lush descriptions, fantastical and transportive scenes, and enough twists and turns to actually surprise this jaded YA reader more than once, Caraval was more than worth the read!
Alright, so like I said from the beginning, this was a second-chance read for me. In 2018ish, I tried to pick this up and actually DNF'd it a few times within the first few chapters. I just couldn't get into it, the main character bothered me (I have a personal taste issue with really naively-written older teen characters), and I just. didn't. vibe.
But then, this author came out with a spin-off series in this universe in 2021 called Once Upon a Broken Heart. And I totally loved it. It made me curious enough to give Caraval another shot—again—and see if anything good lay beyond the opening part of the book.
Spoiler: a LOT of good things exist beyond the weak opener. So if you're like me, maybe give this one another shot.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.