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.
Goblins, the underworld, and a lot of mythology references... I wish I'd loved this more.
World: ★★★ 1/2
Goblin King is the second book in the Permafrost duology. If you haven't read the first book, White Stag, please avoid this review as there are SPOILERS for the first book in the series. (You can read my review of White Stag here.)
The newbies gone? Good. Let's talk about this one.
So, first off, let me preface this by saying that it's been quite a while since I've read White Stag. Because of that—and how I felt while reading this sequel—I'm sadly coming to the conclusion that this series and my reading tastes have probably split up. Permanently. I'm not sure if it was the plot itself, the writing style, or the pacing but something about Goblin King really didn't work for me.
For those reasons alone, please take this review with several grains of salt. I'd encourage other readers to still pick up this book if it sounds of interest!
In this sequel, we're following Janneke and Soren as they try to come to terms with the new world order in the Permafrost following the explosive ending of White Stag.
Janneke merged her life force with the mythical heart of the land, the stag, in order to save the Permafrost realm and become one with her goblin beau, Soren. He became the Erlking—goblin king—and she his magical stag counterpart.
But all is not perfect in the goblin realm. Janneke is seeing and hearing the specter of her dead past abuser, Lydian, and he's taunting her with some bad news—he says that Janneke is going to bring about the end of the world.
Turns out, he's not wrong.
Now faced with a world ending prophecy of EPIC proportions, Janneke and Soren must lean on each other, venture to the underworld, and figure out how to fix what's already set in motion....before it's too late.
Now I don't know if I was an ignorant newb when I read White Stag, but this sequel was essentially a retelling of Ragnarok—and I DON'T remember this series relying so heavily on Norse mythology. Yes, you heard me correctly: the Norse myth. We had Hel, Frigga, the world-ending serpent, and a lot of references to the nine realms and Yggdrasil.
Because of that, the plot felt quite tired to me from the get-go. It's hard to get excited about a plot when you know the main players and the steps of the game... and when it seems like a total hit out of left field in the first place. Again, I wasn't expecting that element to be so tied to existing myths so that's either on me (for forgetting the first book so much) or on the book (for executing a complete 180 flip in priorities).
In addition to a plot that felt well-traveled, I also had quite a few personal issues with the way the pacing unfolded. We had a lot talking, rehashing, and limited action sequences as Janneke explained, then explained again, and then explained AGAIN to various characters and herself what had occurred in the novel so far. This was tiring. I wanted more developed plot, less debriefing after each new action, and less internal rehashing of old concepts.
Overall, not for me... but maybe a treat for a newer YA fantasy reader or someone very interested in Norse myths.
Thank you to the publisher via NetGalley for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
This was SO GOOD. Witches, retellings, space thieves, the weighing of hearts, Schwab returns to the world of A Darker Shade of Magic, and Libba Bray returns to the world of Gemma Doyle... What. A. Showstopper.
A Universe of Wishes comes out on January 5, 2021!
As this is an anthology, I've reviewed each story individually and given a one sentence sales pitch of sorts below. Quick take, my favorites were: The Weight by Dhonielle Clayton, A Royal Affair by V.E. Schwab, Unmoor by Mark Oshiro, Liberia by Kwame Mbalia, and The Scarlet Woman by Libba Bray.
Tara Sim - A Universe of Wishes (3.5 stars)
Thorn harvests wishes from the dead and gets caught red-handed by the morgue boy—what now?
Natalie C. Parker - The Silk Blade (4 stars)
Lushly described, beautifully colored—a bisexual female warrior competes to win the heart of the Bloom prince and may or may not fall for her beautiful rival instead.
Libba Bray - The Scarlet Woman(5 stars)
Gemma Doyle has been in New York for a while now, but the world's magical community isn't done with her yet and someone's determined to reel her back in with grisly gifts.
Anna-Marie Mclemore - Cristal y Cerisa (3.5 stars)
A transgender prince, a Mexican girl attends a ball with a pair of fated glass slippers and a desperate plea for her people.
Kwame Mbalia - Liberia (4.5 stars)
Kweke is the primary research officer on the spacecraft Liberia growing plants with ancestral ties to the crew's abandoned homeland, deep roots.
V.E. Schwab - A Royal Affair (5 stars)
Sure to be a fan-favorite for series readers, this behind-the-scenes take on Alucard's origin romance with Prince Rhy was such a treat.
Rebecca Roanhorse - The Takeback Tango (4 stars)
An intergalactic thief is on a mission to steal back her people's treasures from the republic... and she might not be the only one with a conquered people to avenge.
Nic Stone - Dream and Dare (2.5 stars)
Dream escapes her family's expectations to help a monster in the woods. (This story did not resonate with me, so apologies for the bland description.)
Jenni Balch - Wish (3 stars)
A "granter" in a LAMP device is summoned to a set of very bizarre circumstances: a spaceship, a girl, and a dream for space travel.
Dhonielle Clayton - The Weight (5 stars)
A deep cut, damn. Marcus and Grace know they love each other, and they're going to get their hearts weighed to prove it... that's good, right?
Mark Oshiro - Unmoor (5 stars)
Urban fantasy, Felix wants to "unmoor" his painful memories of his lost love, Arturo—no matter the cost.
Samira Ahmed - The Coldest Spot in the Universe (unrated)
No sentence pitch for this one... I'll be honest, I could NOT get into this one and therefore did not complete it. Told in diary entries, some sort of apocalyptic natural disaster mixed with the dead? Confused.
Tessa Gratton - The Beginning of Monsters (3 stars)
High fantasy in miniature—Crystal-taloned Elir designs a new body for King Insarra, who is tired of their female one. Add in one snarky heir and some political intrigue and you get...
Zoraida Cordova - Longer Than the Threads of Time (4 stars)
A truly sensational Rapunzel retelling. There's a Tower in Central Park and every magic user knows those inside are deserving of their prison sentence—too bad one young brujo is curious enough to get close enough to find out the truth.
Onyebuchi - Habibi (3.5 stars)
Told in diary entries, an American Black prisoner and a Middle Eastern protestor behind bars strike up a magical and unworldly pen pal situation with heart-wrenching and emotional results.
Thank you to Random House Children's for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.