This was DENSE. And a bit overdone on the dialogue, if I’m honest. But was it something that kept me propelled, interested and aware of its unique potential? Yes. I am very intrigued to see where this series could go in future books.
Balance of action vs. dialogue: ★★
World building: ★★★★★
A fallen Fury, an alchemist, some Fae, a reaper, a few gods, and some other beings walk into a bar...
Like the setup for a Dungeons & Dragons plot joke, A Dark and Hollow Star is one dense boy that feels almost comedic in its self-aware density. They thicc, in other words. If you, like me, appreciate a good mashup of concepts that weave together established fantastical elements into something new—keep reading.
(This is a reaction review.)
I'm not quite sure what I initially expected when I bought A Dark and Hollow Star in the bookstore. It's been a few years and the memory is hazy. I remember the word "Fae" piqued my interest—an eternal buzzword for me—and then the element of a murder mystery in the blurb kept my focus.
It's not often you get the words "Fae" and "murder mystery" in the same setup for a YA book.
So I bought it, and then it sat on my shelf being intimidatingly large for a YA debut (this thing is 500 pages-ish).
And I wondered why I didn't see people talking about this book.
Well, having traveled to the other side, I now REALLY understand why this book has existed on the edges of the YA scene. It's... a lot. And frankly, I kind of wish this had aged up its characters and been produced as an adult paranormal series—because I believe that adult audience would have understood more of this novel's quirks, whereas the action-based YA market might not have been the best.
With its accessible paranormal fantasy-style snarky dialogue, modern-day setting, and immediately likeable characters, this book started out strong for me. I was intrigued and captivated by the clever mashup of paranormal fae + Greek mythology Furies + other semi-spoilery elements. The opening third of this novel was a slam-dunk, one-sit read.
But then, I felt this novel buckle under the weight of its own structure and collapse a bit in the middle. Snarky dialogue and random, mundane character moments can only get you so far when the stakes are as high as they are in this book. And combining so many fantasy elements + character POVs... you've got to eventually let this story's action propel us into something bigger. And I felt like that was A Dark and Hollow Star's weakness.
"Weakness" might be a bit harsh, however, because unlike many, MANY other fantasies in the saturated YA market these days, this novel brought some titans to the table in terms of its character development, unique world building set-up, and promise of future plot development. Even when I disliked the pacing and lack of momentum, I couldn't put this book down. (I've DNF'd dozens of books for much less, so my staying power to complete this book is, in itself, some of my highest praise.)
I look forward to seeing where this story leads in future books. And I'm crossing my fingers that the jumping-off point at the end of book one leads to some adjusted pacing and development in the later books!
SMALL SPACES - Katherine Arden
Sometimes the creepiest tales are the ones meant for children… this is one of those, but with a soft enough edge to keep things light and cozy. Save this one for the fall season!
Spooky vibes: ★★★★
Ollie's life is something she is deciding Not Thinking About. Things have happened. Ollie's of the opinion that if she doesn't look too closely at the details, things will be manageable. Or at least, more manageable.
Then a weird woman by Ollie' favorite spot by the lake tries to throw away a book—one of Ollie's most favorite and precious types of items—and Ollie can't let her do it. She steals the book from the crying, upset woman and runs away with it. The fact that the woman's rambling about darkness and evil... Eh. Ollie's not looking too closely at the details.
But maybe Ollie should have looked at the details.
As she finds herself diving into the book's story about Beth, two brothers, and an unnatural series of events, Ollie's starting to see some odd parallels between the book's setting and her hometown.
And the next day, Ollie's class takes a field trip to a local farm. Where things get terrifying. Fast.
Now it's up to Ollie and a few friends to save the day and escape before it's too late...
Small Spaces is a book that I have had on my radar for a longgggg time. Definitely since its debut in 2018. It's spooky? Check. It's about the fall time and involves scary scarecrows? Check. It's written by Katherine Arden? CHECK.
Don't ask me why I waited so long to pick this one up. I have no answers, and now it's one of those books that I wish I'd read earlier. But hey, we're here now! And it was just as a good as I'd hoped it would be.
This falls into that wonderful category of middle grade reads that feels like its meant for all ages. Both suitable for its age group (8-12 years old, I believe) and the rest of us older people, Small Spaces has that quality of atmosphere and timelessness that will likely make it a perennial classic in the realm of Halloween reading. I know I will be recommending it broadly!
Make sure to leave room on your autumnal TBR pile for this one... and watch out for the smiling man :)
THE LUMINARIES - Susan Dennard
Small towns filled with hunters, tasked with killing nightmarish monsters each night to keep the rest of the modern world safely unaware. A girl with a burning desire to belong. A boy with secrets. Welcome to the American branch of the Luminaries.
Hemlock Falls isn't like other towns. You won't find it on a map, your phone won't work here, and the forest outside town might just kill you.
Winnie Wednesday is a teenager with a very abnormal life. For one thing, she lives in Hemlock Falls—a town filled with clans of hunters, all driven to fight the magical nightmares that plague their forests each night. Each day of the week has a clan, and each clan hunts the nightmares on their day of the week.
Except for Winnie Wednesday and her family. Because while they might be "Wednesdays" in name, the truth of the matter is... they're outcasts. So Winnie spends her days ignored, slighted, and mocked. It's not a good living. Her exiled father's one mistake costed her family's entire happiness, and now it's up to Winnie to redeem their name in the only way she knows how: by succeeding in the Hunter trials during the month of her sixteenth birthday.
But there's something stranger than usual afoot in the forests of Hemlock Falls... and Winnie's about to find herself right in the middle of it.
(Oh, and so will her ex-friend, Jay. The mysteriously handsome and aloof boy whom Winnie can't forgive—and yet can't forget.)
Alright.... So I think I'm going to take this book as a sign. A sign that I, for some reason, do not vibe with Susan Dennard's stories. (I love her as a person and will continue to enjoy her on Twitter/etc.) This entire review needs to be taken with a grain of salt because I really should have stopped reading Dennard after I tried and failed to read the Witchlands series after multiple attempts. But that's neither here nor there, so let's talk about this book specifically.
Have you ever read a story that feels like you SHOULD totally love it, and yet it's like just outside of your reach in a frustrating manner? That was The Luminaries for me.
I loved the concept. That hooked me in from the start and continued to compel me throughout the reading experience. Each weekday clan with a motto, a cause, and some shady secrets? Sign me up! How interesting! The atmosphere and general sense of setting was darkly whimsical in the best way.
But... the story itself fell flat for me. The characters felt basic, like templates of the standard YA character tropes. The plot feel both too bogged down with weird details and yet so utterly vague on large concepts.
I also have one major issue, but it is a spoiler so I will keep it vague here for the purposes of this review: the town's reactions to Winnie's family? Made no sense? Literal adults, acting like that? Even family members? I just could NOT get into the logic of that.
Anyways, not one for me. Which is a bummer. HOWEVER, it seems like this author's logic flow and mine maybe are at odds, so it might just be me. Give this one a try if the description interests you!
"Dreaming means waking up as your worst fear," you say?
Let's also add in some "eh, might die, but I can't afford to be anywhere else" vibes and I'm sold. This was such a fascinating concept and a really fun read.
Man, I really wish I'd gotten around to my advanced reading copy sooner so that I could have been an AGGRESSIVE promoter of it during its release week. I have fallen down on my duties!!
This book was such a good ride, y'all, and I am definitely paying attention now.
Ness Near lives in the City of Nightmares. No wait, Gotham. No wait, it's not either of those places—it's Newham. Either way, the vibes are the same: this is not the kind of city you'd like to live in.
Rampant crime and violent death. In-your-face political corruption. Unbelievable living conditions. And none of those things are the worst selling point--it's the Nightmares that you have to worry about.
What if every time you dreamed, you rolled the dice on the chance that you woke up as your worst Nightmare?
Ness is very aware of the tragedy and horror of that gamble. When she was younger, one night her older sister, Ruby, went to sleep and woke up as a giant, man-eating spider. Ruby was gone, and the spider in her place killed their father and others in town.
Let's just say that Ness never quite got over that.
Now a young adult living at the Friends of the Restless Soul compound—a charity (cough cough, cult) organization that provides "pay as you can afford" therapies to Nightmare trauma survivors—Ness is eeking away a frightened and barely there existence in the country's most dangerous city and surrounded on a daily basis by her worst fear: Nightmares.
And then, to make matters worse, Ness ends up embroiled in an embroiled assassination attempt beyond her wildest imaginings and finds the little ground she's scraped and bled to assemble ripped out from under her.
Oh, and then there's the Nightmare that ends up in (and on) the same boat she's in, who just might turn out to be her only friend.
Yep. Things are about to get...interesting.
(And that's saying something for the city of Newham, where the current Mayor keeps a Nightmared-pterodactyl on a leash to eat her political enemies.)
Okay, so if you've made it this far into the review and are somehow NOT already interested, let me just say that City of Nightmares was such a fun and self-aware ride.
As a reader who burned herself out on traditional young adult books, it's getting rarer and rarer these days for me to find a hook that invites me into a story. I'd like something new—that I haven't read before—and I'd like it to be done well and with the right amount of believable character traits. I'm ruthless with my reading tastes when I want to be, and for the past year the genre under the chopping block has been young adult fantasy.
But not this one. This one, I devoured.
Ness is the right kind of character for this story. In a world where fear itself is the commodity of choice, Ness is true scaredy cat. She's a self-professed coward, one who can barely handle the benign Nightmares that walk the streets harmlessly, not to mention the actually dangerous ones. Ness jumps from safe zone to safe zone under the constant internalized threat of Death by Nightmare. She's a right mess, alright?
And that really worked for me. While we all like to pretend we're relatable to the hero of a fantasy story, we're really...not. How many of us would sign up for that dangerous quest, or that big bad boss showdown, or that heist against the odds? I'm self-aware enough to admit that given the actual facts, I'd be like Ness. "How can I survive this experience and avoid personal damage to the best of my abilities, please?" Sign me up for that self-preservation track. Yup.
So I thought that thread of character realism in this caricaturized, fictional version of our real world's dark side was awesome. It lent a dose of grounding to the sensational world building. And it made for a very good reading experience.
Did the pacing lag a bit? Yeah. Did we also kind of rush things there at the end of this first book? Maybe. But honestly, I had such a good time that I don't really care about that.
Book two, I'm waiting for you!
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A girl, a boy, and realms beyond death. Doors to other places and whispering demons in the corner of your eye. This was a very interesting read.
Delaney is a girl with one foot in the world of the living and one foot in the world of the dead. Having gone Deaf when she was a young child experiencing a deadly illness and a near/actual-death experience, Lane's life has gone through some unexpected paths.
Her latest unexpected path involves her mysterious enrollment in Godbole University. Lane's been inducted into a secretive program with unknown foundations and a distinctly macabre flair. What do the students learn? What exactly qualifies them for this invite-only degree?
And what the heck is up with her hot and mysterious teaching assistant, Colton Price?
(Yes, this is essentially a young adult romance told with a distinctly dark academia/speculative flair. You've been warned!)
With a creeping sense that something is afoot, Lane finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into a web of lies, alternate realms, and a worrying number of missing and dead students. Has Lane unexpectedly dropped herself in the middle of a dangerous game?
I don't want to do this novel any disservice by talking about the magical elements within this book. Part of the enjoyment comes from allowing the book to reveal its steps in due course to Lane (and the reader) as they unfold.
The Whispering Dark had a very cool premise. Lane's Deafness leading to a unique magical relationship with—you might have guessed—a whispering entity in the darkness was very unique and I enjoyed seeing that development unfold. This novel's unique blend of horror, portal fantasy, Romeo + Juliet vibes, and deathly gothic saturation was a heady combination to read.
And yet... Agh, I am conflicted.
Sometimes, there's a book that is overly mysterious and the ratio between the unknown and the revealed skews itself between "the reader has no clue what the F is going on" and "the reader knows too much about what is going on" in a satisfying way. And then other times... that ratio veers to far in one direction and loses its edge. I fear The Whispering Dark veered too far for me.
This is a novel with a lot of mystery: What is going on with this academic program? Why are students disappearing and turning up dead? What is Colton Price's backstory, and why is is mysterious childhood experience with death linked so intrinsically with Lane? How does this magic system of disappearing into portals/realms work?
And so on. There are a TON of questions, and The Whispering Dark prefers to leave you in the dark (pun intended) for a frustratingly long time instead of answering them.
I wanted to have more of a concrete sense of understanding around this magic system and its mechanics: I didn't get it. I wanted to know more about the lore and the background for these other realms and/or why this entity cared about our realm and our characters so much: I didn't get that, either.
And it's not just the magical elements of this novel that frustrated me... It was the characters and their antics too. We had some side characters who seemed under-utilized and under-described, and yet annoying present despite their two-dimensional aspects. We also had a very, VERY heady relationship between Lane and Colton that felt almost Twilight-esque in its gothic attraction/insta-love elements, and yet for 90% of the book I spent my time frustratedly waiting for the "reveal" to happen for Lane as we, the reader, know why their pairing is so significant and yet Lane is keep in the metaphorical dark to the point of ruining the emotional payoff of the reveal. (I know I sound heated about this last one, and I am. This was so frustrating to slog through and I don't think this book would have lost its edge if we'd allowed for their pairing to be more honest from the start.)
However, despite my issues with this novel's lack of explanations, frustrating lack of coherency, and over-the-top gothic romance vibes, I did still enjoy this read. I think I might be in the minority for the elements I mention above, so if you're interested in The Whispering Dark's premise I do recommend it.
BELLADONNA - Adalyn Grace
A girl who can't die and falls slowly in love with Death? I love it. Add in some gothic manor nonsense and an interesting murder ghost story and this had the makings of something very cool...
Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
Signa's early life has been a rotating door of tragedies and dead guardians. Like the Baudelaire children in A Series of Unfortunate Events, it seems like every single person charged with caring for Signa ends up...dead. Unlike the Baudelaire children, however, Signa's deaths aren't the result of a bad guy. They're a result of... Signa herself. By accident, and by Fate.
And by Death, too. Death seems to have taken a very keen interest in Signa due to the fact that she can't seem to die.
Broken neck, poisonous berry feasts, unfortunate accidents—nothing phases Signa for long, and nothing keeps her down. Death finds himself interested in her development, and Signa finds herself prickly toward Death, this being who keeps ruining her life.
Signa's life takes another turn as we come to meet her. She's 17, her terrible caretaker has died (again) and now it seems she's going to be taken to her late mother's brother, who owns a crumbling estate. The Hawthorn Estate—the perfect gothic mansion setup, complete with uneasy atmosphere, a dying cousin, and a ghost that seems to be causing trouble.
What better person to have on the scene of an in-progress murder than the girl who can't be killed?
It's up to Signa to solve the case of her cousin's murder before it kills her, and to unwrap the secrets behind her late Aunt's untimely demise. It's a dark puzzle with a lot of twists, and Signa's determined to get to the bottom of it. She refuses to let another guardian die on her watch—Death be damned.
Death just might BE damned, actually, because as he finds himself enraptured by Signa and drawn closer into her allure, things start to heat up for his cold, cold heart...
Belladonna is the kind of young adult fantasy read with the perfect dose of lush romanticism and gothic atmosphere. It's a decadent treat for the readers who like manor houses, somewhat creepy ghosts, and drama with a capital D. It's also for those of us who love when Death is a character. Especially when Death is a character and emotional invested in the main character. (Too niche? It's me to a T, so I'm guessing there are others out there who agree with me.)
I don’t know why I didn’t love this as much as I expected to, but I just… could not get invested. It might have been a case of young adult vs. adult reader and me (the adult) expecting more, unfairly, as young adult books are for young adults. It could also have been the case of "I've read too many stories with X,Y, and Z" and therefore it couldn't hold too much of my attention. Whatever the case was for this particular blend of reader vs. read, I think it's safe to say it was a "me" problem as others seem to adore this story.
I will agree with the popular opinions when it came to the deliciously angsty and interesting arc between Signa and Death. That was the strongest part of the novel for me and clearly the emotional heart of the story. I wish we'd spent more time with that storyline and less with the murder mystery/manor characters. It was clear that they were the situational arc that was supposed to be the backdrop for Signa and Death's actual storyline. However, again, small potatoes for those who like those kinds of setups and enjoying long-form descriptions and immersed gothic atmospheres.
Gripes aside, I found that the very last chapter peaked my interest... More complex magic is afoot in future installments. I would be curious to see what the author does with the second book.
VIOLET MADE OF THORNS - Gina Chen
A girl made of lies who can see the threads of fate. A prince with an interesting fate for the girl to weave around her. A plot, a curse, and some blood magic. This had all the makings of an interesting spin on the YA fantasy court tropes...
Character arcs: ★★
Violet is the official Seer of the kingdom. From a child of the streets to the pampered Seer in the tall tower, Violet's rise to riches involved one simple moment: she saw the future and saved the Prince's life.
Ever since that fateful day, Violet has done all that she could to keep her position as the powerful court Seer and personal advisor on all things fate to the King. She likes her cushy job, ok? And she's willing to fight tooth and claw to keep it.
That fighting instinct is sorely tested with Prince Cyrus.
Ever since Violet saved Cyrus' life, Cyrus has been the worst. They're basically nemesis now, with Cyrus hating Violet—her incessant lies to "save" the kingdom per his father's orders are apparently a personal betrayal—and Violet detesting Cyrus for making her daily life as difficult as possible.
There's a fine line between love and hate...
However, the hatred between these two reluctant coworkers has nothing on the drama waiting from them in this tale. Violet and Cyrus have bigger problems now: there's a curse coming for them both, and whole lot of deadly magic with inescapable consequences.
With the fate of the kingdom, Cyrus, and her own life placed in Violet's hands, things are about the get interestingly deadly.
Alright, y'all. Let's talk about it. Given my low rating, you can tell that this story really, really didn't gel for me. That was due to multiple different aspects.
I thought the fixation on Violet and Cyrus' hatred toward each other was a bit over the top and nonsensical after a certain point. From "I HATE YOU" screaming to passion, this arc was somehow both basic and overcomplicated for me. For me, it reduced both Violet and Cyrus' character development down to this one trope.
I also had a hard time with the balance between worldbuilding, plot, and character development. This might have been a “me” problem, but it felt like this story constantly pivoted away from whatever I wanted to have next… When it was time for an action point, we went into a snarky internal Violet moment. When it was time for some character growth between people, it seemed like we jumped into world building descriptions. I don’t know, it was off to me for the entire read.
All in all, not a new favorite read for me. But this might find its audience in younger readers less well versed in the genre. I'd recommend this to young tweens and newer fantasy readers without hesitation.
YEAR OF THE REAPER - Makiia Lucier
For those of us who can straddle the lines between dark death, wry humor, and quick fantasy—this one's for us. And for anyone who's ever been interested in the Black Death plague.
Concept: ★★★ 1/2
Cas is on his way home. He's got a lot of PTSD and some new scars. He's the sole plague survivor of a POW labor camp for the enemy. He's also got an interesting and upsettingly new ability to see ghosts of the recently dead. And he's got a horse. (That last one is the most important, as he's also scant broke and is trying to get home.)
Cas is dealing with a lot, obviously.
The last thing he needs is a random girl stealing his one horse out from under him.
Luckily, the girl gets stuck and needs some help—so now Cas has a horse AND and a girl...and still a bunch of emotional baggage. Cas would rather not have two of those three things, but hey, no one's ever asked for his opinion on the matter.
Cas is on his way home to his family's city estate and desperately hoping his brother made it out of the plague times alive. But when he gets home and is returned into the royal fold as the official Lord Cassia once more, Cas discovers more things have changed than just his own backstory—the royal court is now in residence at his own family's estate. And they've brought the enemy with them.
Now embroiled in an assassination plot, armed with baggage, and working through a bizarre interest in his horse thief girl—who is revealed to be the court's historian AND half-sister to the king, to boot—Cas has a lot on his plate.
He'd really just like the quiet life. But needs must, and Cas is nothing if not a wry utilitarian. There's things to be done.
Wow. I'd like to start by saying that Year of the Reaper is a book that I should have picked up a LONG time ago. I loved it. The fact that I picked it up at all was by chance—Fairyloot included it in their book box and it arrived on my doorstep. I feel compelled, obviously, to read those books. I would have never picked up the U.S. version based on its artwork... and what a shame that would have been, because this book was my vibe to perfection.
Macabre reading fans, rejoice!
This novel could have been depressing. It also could have used the Black Death inspiration as a shameless plot device and not done the topic justice. Year of the Reaper did neither of these things. In a true slice of grace, the author managed to write a novel that paid homage to the horrors, grief, and lingering fears of a generation dealing with extensive and unaccountable trauma while somehow maintaining a thread of hope and dose of wry humor. This was so, so deftly handled, I'm a bit in awe considering this novel's standalone status and shorter page count.
Pick this one up if you can! It's a gem in the genre.
An interesting YA spin on the historic true story of the New Orleans Axe Man murders, with some 1918 flu pandemic elements thrown in.
New Orleans, 1918. Giana is a teenage Italian American living in the city, plagued by nightmares of her parents' brutal axe murder several years earlier. Her recurring nightmare of that fateful night never changes... until it does. "I'm coming," the dream spells out in blood.
As Giana tries her best to ignore her terrifying dream, people are starting to die from influenza. And to make matters worse, the New Orleans newspapers are talking of a deranged killer on the loose. With an axe.
Giana's nightmare might be more than a childhood fear after all...
With her friend, Enzo, Giana decides enough is enough—it's time for her to confront her past demons by catching this new killer on the loose. Retribution and revenge, all in one. But what exactly is waiting for Giana at the end of this deadly puzzle?
Whew, what a doozy of a plot setup, y'all. Don't Go to Sleep was a novel that I was quite excited to read. I'd enjoyed this author's previous book on the horrors of H.H. Holmes and his murder hotel in Chicago, The Perfect Place to Die, so when I heard that they were tackling the Axe Man I signed right the frick up to review this one. I loved the modern take in the American Horror Story TV show (season three is my favorite, where it's New Orleans and Axe Man and witches) and thought this would deliver on more of those vibes.
This was a lot of fun.
I will admit, I think a portion of this story did not work for me due to its age range and writing style—despite Giana being 17 years old in this story, the writing and emotional palate made it seem like it was made for a younger YA audience. So I struggled to relate to a lot of the dialogue and emotions. As a late 20-something reader, this was a me issue and not the fault of the book meant for actual teens, but it did affect my ability to connect with the characters and larger emotional storyline.
I think there's a market for readers who enjoy the macabre history of our American true crime past and are craving more adventure stories like Stalking Jack the Ripper, etc. Don't Go to Sleep is the perfect read for Maniscalco fans—especially the younger ones.
Definitely pick this up for yourself or the young historic crime reader in your life!
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
BELLE MORTE - Bella Higgin
This has a house vibe, a trapped cat-and-mouse vibe, AND a vampire romance. Say no more. I definitely read the heck out of this and had a fun time.
Plot/Pacing: ★★ 1/2
It's current-day. Vampires have replaced the world of human celebrities and rich people with their emergence unto the world stage in their unworldly beauty. With a global fanbase, reality TV shows, and world news turned toward them, the five official vampire houses exist at the very top of society.
Naturally, humans are a part of this capitalist/celebrity food chain—literally.
To accommodate the vampires' need for blood and to satisfy the masses of humans obsessed with their allure, the five vampire houses have a system in place for blood donors. You can submit to become a blood donor, get paid for your time, and spend a set amount of time inside the vampire house. The catch? You sign a contract, you can't leave until they let you, and sometimes people don't come back out...
Renie Mayfield has just been accepted as a blood donor for the house of Belle Morte. But she's not the typical groupie looking for a blood fix and some dangerous sex. She's looking for her missing sister, June. June disappeared in Belle Morte's house several months ago. And Renie is going to find her.
The only problem is, one of the vampires has a special interest in Renie. And Renie can't help but notice him back...
Cue the angst, the forbidden romance, and the drama of a locked-house atmosphere...
Belle Morte is something you need to have on your radar if you're a fan of the late 2000s and early 2010s vampire teen romance fiction. This book is clearly a love letter to that type of story, and it definitely attracted the right audience—I was a sucker for those then, and I had a nostalgically good time with this one too.
Was this amazingly written? Not really. Was this an original plot? Almost no. But did this give vampire fans something fun to read in the current era where vampire romances are harder to come by? Oh heck yes.
Come for the fun, not the literary value. Belle Morte is waiting.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.