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.
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.
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.
A mirror looking back at us with a kinder, hopeful light. This feels like the most relevant of fairy tales and the kind of story I'd love to hear told around the coffee table on a lazy afternoon.
Sense of storytelling: ★★★★★
What does it mean to be a neighbor?
This story is about an Ogress. (But maybe she's not who you think she is.)
This story is about a Dragon. (And maybe he's exactly who you think he is.)
This story is also about a town fallen on hard times, where trust and kindness are steadily withering away with each hotter season, and the town's livelihood is dying a slow death as a result.
This story is also about a group of orphans, who are able to look at the world with the clear-eyed gaze that only the most honest of children can use.
The Ogress and the Orphans is a parable for our times—as lofty as that sounds. Timely, yet timeless. About us and yet not about us. For us adults reading this, this story is going to be a lancing of the boil (whether you're ready for it or feel that way is up to you, but it definitely was such for me).
We've experienced so much ugly in these past few years, and our souls are tired. We wonder if there is any hope for the younger generations in this reality where facts are apparently subjective and the concept of kindness toward those around you seems like an alien concept. What hope can we have when those in power try harder and harder to focus a polarity in the culture in order to inflate their egos and bank vaults? How can we record these thoughts and spit them back as something useful and fostering of growth?
Kelly Barnhill's Ogress and the Orphans is one such answer. Barnhill wrote this novel during the last few years and that shows—if you're an American, you can see the players behind their fairy tales masks. Her thesis question of "What is a neighbor?" is clearly playing with concepts that have been bullied and broken and abused in the political and social arena for years now. But even for the rest of us, and especially for the children, this fable exists to grow love and foster kindness.
I normally read harsher things, darker things, so maybe my review will be an odd duck for those who follow me for those other books. However, despite this novel's length—it was a bit long, and for an adult it will feel like something shorter that was drawn out for younger minds--I think it's worth a try.
Especially if you're in need of something light amidst all of this darkness.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Ticking clocks, German folklore, and classic storytelling with a self-aware edge...this was a delight.
Y'all, I have been enjoying the heck out of Algonquin's middle grade line of novels these past few years. There is something about the niche of fantasy middle grade coming out of this publishing hosue that I just really, really enjoy. They tend to have that extra something, that extra oomph of world building mixed with lyrical folktale-esque writing structure, and they tend to have writer's humor mixed in with the narrative. I love it every time. The Counterclockwise Heart was no exception.
In this tale we have Alphonsus, a prince with a ticking clock where is heart is supposed to be. Raised by his adoptive mother, the empress of the land, he's told to hide his clock heart from the world and to ignore the prophecy that was attached to his newborn body when the empress found him one night in a gear-filled bassinet. The counterclockwise heart...
Of course, one day Alphonsus's heart stops ticking clockwise like normal. It starts winding backwards, counting down. But to what, and why?
In another thread of the story we have Esme, a young girl from the magical community of Hierophants. She enters Alphonsus's kingdom in search of Nachtfrau, a powerful sorceress. Esme has her own reasons for searching for Nachtfrau, and she has some fate-tied words of her own.
As Alphonsus and Esme twine closer and closer, their fates begin to unravel as well. The clock is ticking... literally.
This was such a fun ride! With the classic spins of a good middle grade adventure folktale, The Counterclockwise Heart surprised me with its self-aware narration, clever twists, and ultimate sense of grounded Germanic-based folktale. It was just a good blend.
I do think that this novel will appeal to certain types of fantasy readers over others--in particular, there were some darker themes and meandering elements to the storytelling that I think are dependent on personal taste. It worked for me, but I'm an adult fantasy reader who likes those things!
Recommended for fans of The Oddmire, Laini Taylor's writing style if she wrote a classic fairytale, and Seanan McGuire's obscure short stories.
Thank you to Algonquin for Young Readers for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A much-needed breath of fresh air within the YA fantasy "there's a magic world among us!" trope, with a lot to say and a lot of heart to give.
"Moms raised a diamond..."
Rue comes from the East Row, where the families look out for each other and happiness, love, and loyalty bloom amid the concrete. She and her half-sister, Tasha, live with their mom and are doing pretty well.
Until, that is, their mom is shot on their doorstep and life as Rue knows it ends.
Suddenly, Rue's absent dad arrives on the scene with a puff of magic (literally) and whisks Rue away to the magical island of Ghazan. Where apparently a land of magical, gray-tinged white people reside, and Rue and her father are the only brown-skinned people in the whole joint.
Yes, it's just as weird as you're thinking...And Rue's having none of it.
Rue's pissed. Dragged away from her sister, reeling from her mom's murder, NOT on board with her no-good father's weird return, and now struggling with a magic she didn't want and a people she doesn't understand.... it's a lot.
And oh, there's also some serious sh** going on and more people are turning up in trouble.
...And diamonds never crack.
Told through a past/present split timeline and through Rue's intensely personal point of view, Wings of Ebony was a unique voice in the realm of today's young adult fantasy and really highlighted a lot of the internal/external issues surrounding Black teens today. And it was a damn fun time too, that also needs to be in there.
There's a lot of "real world" involved right in with the fantastical, so do go into this novel with the expectation that it's not a high fantasy/magical school concept—Rue is back and forth within the magical and non-magical scene throughout the entirety of this book and so are the rest of the characters.
In truth, I thought that Wings of Ebony stood apart from many other fantasies in its tropes BECAUSE of the intermeshed realities of Rue's ties between the magical community and her home of the East Row. There was no clean break, no escapism, no forgetting your roots to embrace the new like we've seen done before in so many other (let's be honest, traditionally white) books.
I know my voice in the discussion as a white adult woman might not add much to the discussions of this book (and frankly, that's fine - this was not a book meant for me or traditionally white audiences, I do recommend checking out the other wonderful reviews coming from more relevant voices) but I do think it was truly awesome to read a book that was clearly for young Black women and teens that didn't cater to white audiences in terms of its dialogue, plot points, or references. There was a lot outside of my personal experience in Wings of Ebony, and to be honest I loved that, Rue taught me things through the page just by her experiences and how she framed her thoughts to the other non-Black characters in this book—but that teaching wasn't her job, or the novel's job, to do that so I'm taking those points as a good personal side benefit, not anything that I came to this novel with as an expectation.
The only caveats to Wings of Ebony in terms of its technical structure, for me, was its pacing. At times, I really did struggle with the flow of the past-to-present timelines and in general found it easy to pick up and put down this book because the flow from action point to action point felt uneven in places. But those are quibbles, this was still an incredibly solid and extremely unique debut.
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.
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!"
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.