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.
Fantastic setup for a series!! Wish the first half had been less boring. Poisons, mythology, secrets, creaky old mansions, and more—OH MY.
Last third of the book: ★★★★★
Briseis has a strange skill. A gift, maybe. Some might call it a curse. Growing up adopted in Brooklyn, Briseis and her two moms discover that she can grow any plant. She can rebirth a plant from its withered ashes. The plants also want to... be close to Briseis. In fact, whenever a plant is near her it literally moves to be closer.
As you can imagine, this is a problem in the nonmagical world of our current times, and especially in the concrete jungle of New York City where every plant is noticeable.
One day, Briseis and her moms receive a strange visitor claiming to be a solicitor from the small rural New York community of Rhinebeck. Briseis' birth mother, Selene, and Selene's sister, Circe, lived in an old mansion in the community and both have died recently. Briseis is the sole inheritor.
So her family moves to Rhinebeck.
Now surrounded by the ghosts of her birth family, a gothic mansion filled with secrets, and a mysterious garden on the property with a locked gate, Briseis is about to discover the true meaning of her abilities and just what, exactly, they're meant for.
Cue the dramatic, suspenseful music!
I thought This Poison Heart was awesome. Well, for for the first half, not so much. I was bored silly. In order to give this large plot its proper setup—and to get Briseis from Brooklyn to Rhinebeck and more—we had to take a lot of time to build up the suspense and get to know all the players involved. While this totally makes sense, it made for an extremely boring opening read and made me slip into the assumption that this novel was going to be just like other YA traditional novels.
It is NOT like your run-of-the-mill adventure. You just have to get past that part to realize it.
Once the plot kicks off, this was awesome. I couldn't stop reading it, and I loved what the author brought into play for the next book. This series (duology? more?) is going to play with a lot of myths, magics, and more—and I can't WAIT!
Starts off simple and slow, but once you fall into this story it is one word—mesmerizing.
Plot/Pacing: ★★★ and ★★★★, depending on how far you are in the book
Enjoyment: ★★★★ 1/2
So first off, for those who miss clear clues like me, this is the first book in a duology! It is not a standalone novel. Six Crimson Cranes is a beautiful, mesmerizing, and classic YA retelling tale that involves all the best elements of the genre and a few unique twists. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Shiori, the only princess of Kiata, has a secret. Forbidden magic runs through her veins. When her stepmother, also possessing magic, discovers Shiori's secret, she curses Shiori and her six brothers. Shiori's brothers turn into cranes, and Shiori herself is cursed with silence and her identity is hidden by a covering on her head. They are then magically flung from the palace and separated.
Once a princess, now a mute and unidentifiable girl in the rural countryside, Shiori is stuck and in need of a plan. She has to defeat her evil stepmother, break the curses on herself and her brothers, and save her kingdom from the outside forces who want to overthrow the land.
It's a tall to-do list, that's for sure.
But Shiori's endurance and sense of self are strong, and she knows she can do this. Armed with her sentient paper crane, Kiki, and a will to live, Shiori sets off on the adventure of a lifetime.
(Shhh, I won't talk about it anymore. Go read it!)
What? Amy loved a retelling? No way. Yes, way. I did. I thought this was a beautiful novel with quite a lot going for it.
Six Crimson Cranes starts off extremely simple. In fact, for the first section of the plot I thought to myself, "oh boy, I don't think this will be a favorite. It's too classic." But I was wrong. Once you get into the plot itself, Lim's talent for detail, emotion, and simplistic—yet elegant—plot shines through. I was entranced by Shiori's struggle and coming of age moments. This reminded me of the best kinds of retellings, the old-school classic movies, the works.
I also loved several things that are serious spoilers. Not going to touch on those in this review, but I'll say that this isn't as basic as you might assume, and just because the template is reminiscent of other fairytales does NOT mean that Lim takes us through the motions. There are some very cool and unique flips here.
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Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
I demand to know where books like these were when I was a kid! This was so much fun—humor, dark lords and unicorns, a young protagonist with Goals and Things to Do, and a whole lot of quirky adventures.
As the sole heir of the infamous Dark Lord Elithor, 12-year-old Clementine Morcerous has been groomed since birth to be the best (worst?) Evil Overlord she can be. This includes Dastardly Deeds, general rules about Evildoing from the Council of Dark Lords, and more.
Who knew the life of a Dark Lord could be so...whimsical?
Clementine, our young protagonist, is upset to discover that one day her father seems to be...chipping away. As if his body parts are being whittled down by some exterior force. At first, she's not concerned. Her father is often cursed by the other Dark Lords, that's par for the course in the Council. But usually those events are...flashier. More direct. And not a months on end process that her father actually seems to be losing.
What's a girl to do, besides get to the bottom of it?
With Clementine, her grimoire-turned-rogue-chicken "Gricken," a knight-in-training village boy, and a unicorn hunter in hiding, things are about to get INTERESTING.
I loved this story. For a middle grade novel, this was packed with humor, sophisticated language, and a lot of relevant moral messaging for kids and adults alike.
Clementine was a fantastic main character. I enjoyed the side characters, even as they were more trope-y and filled their humor niches. You always need some predictable comedic relief!
Honestly, I'm running out of things to say besides... I loved it all. If you like humor, fantasies that don't take themselves too seriously, and books that are more character-driven as opposed to plot-driven, check this one out!
Thank you to Algonquin for Young Readers for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Wow! I love reading something so new it's unlike anything I've read before.
Three siblings vie for their godhoods in the lingering aftermath of their mother's murder in a mythological tale like the classics... Bring it on!!
Plot/Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
First off, a moment of silence for future YA fantasies that I'll have to read following this book. They have big shoes to fill, as my expectations have been raised. Dream Country brings something new to the realm of YA literature—and I am here for it.
The siblings of Dream, Nightmares, and Sleep have existed in separate realms for 6 years, ever since the murder of their mother, Night. The triplets were never charged with Night's murder, but the blood on their bodies and the lack of truth following the incident tarnished the legacies of all three children and they've been battling it ever since.
Now it's six years later, and the triplets are about to experience another upset: their realms are in trouble.
For years, the three realms of Dreams, Nightmares, and Sleep have been separated by an ornate Gate/Wall composed of Ivory and Horn. Dream can touch Ivory but not Horn, Nightmares can touch Horn but not Ivory, and Sleep can touch neither. So they remain separate, with their Minor gods living in the three realms alongside them.
Then the Gates come down. And things will never be the same for these long-estranged siblings.
Like I mentioned right off the bat, this debut sparkles with newness. From its focus on godhood and realms to its mythology-inspired storytelling and writing, Dream Country is unlike the rest of the genre. On some level, it made it harder to get into as it was so different, so "off" from the rest that I struggled to engage with its method of storytelling for the first third.
However, once you get into the story and get on board with the writing style, the tale sings. I loved spending times with these archetypal siblings. Its a story that doesn't bring too many surprises or twists, but it does deliver on worthwhile emotions and beautiful, lyrical imagery.
Looking forward to more from this author. She has a talent for a new perspective.
Thank you to Onwe Press for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Lush and lyrical, beautifully romantic, and a wonderful duology finale... (but longgg.)
Writing: ★★★★ 1/2
Enjoyment: ★★★★ 1/2
We Free the Stars is the final book in the Arawiya series. For thoughts on the first book, check out my review here.
Below there are SPOILERS for the first book, We Hunt the Flame. I repeat, SPOILERS for the first book!
Ok, they gone? Good! Let's talk about this one.
Following the events of We Hunt the Flame, our group of rebels/adventurers are reeling. The Lion of the Night is at large with a dangerous agenda, they've lost Altair, and the remaining members of the group are struggling to cope with a recent loss and the implications of the fight yet to come.
Zafira, Nasir, and the team are bound for Sultan’s Keep, determined to restore the hearts of the Sisters of Old to the minarets of each caliphate—thus returning magic to all of Arawiya.
Zafira is the fabled Hunter of the realm, who spent most of her years masquerading as a man who was known for his ability to find anything. Now armed with a mind-to-mind connection to a powerful magical text and outed as a Huntress, not a Hunter, she's struggling to adjust to her new situation amidst the panic of their quest. Oh, and there's the exciting (or distracting?) feelings she's experiencing for the crown prince, Nasir.
Nasir, the crown prince of Arawiya and the famed assassin known as the Prince of Death, is also dealing with some shattering revelations. Having just found out that he has a brother—and discovering that the brother is his commander at arms and lifelong reluctant frenemy, Altair—is enough to make him stop in his tracks. But then to discover that his father, the evil Sultan, is also under the Lion's mind control and therefore not the monster Nasir believed him to be for years? Yikes. Nasir is, to put it mildly, a bit of an emotional mess and attempting to hide it. And there's also the fated pull he feels for Zafira too, in case he didn't have enough going on.
With court politics, assassinations, intrigue, and deadly games of cat and mouse to come, We Free the Stars takes off with a lot on its plate. Will Arawiya be saved?
So I need to address the elephant in the room right off the bat: the pacing of this novel really suffered with the extreme length of this book. Even though it was only roughly 100 pages longer than the first book, this installment felt every inch of its extra page count.
I think this was a difficult series to wrap up, honestly, and it speaks to the author's talented sentences and character development that I still loved it... even when it dragged on. And it did drag. Part of what made me fixate on the length was the somewhat aimless portion around the 250-350 page mark where I felt like the characters were all aimlessly pacing from space to space, waiting for the shoe to drop and filling the time with movement to feel productive. That sounds super dramatic—but I feel like it's accurate. I enjoyed those portions for the conversations and the romantic angst, but even my "character drama"-preferring self was ready for some action after a while.
However, despite those qualms above, I really did love this book.
Hafsah Faizal is a beautiful writer and I fell in love with her characters and this world. Nasir and Zafira's romance stands alone in my head for its refreshing blend of good "old fashioned" YA angst and drama mixed with a sensual edge that didn't rely on raw sexual insta-lust to make it work. I was also a huge fan of the side characters and their unique emotional arcs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.