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.
"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.
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.
This is kind of an odd review... apologies in advance. (Another case of it's not you, it's me.)
Mayhem had all the ingredients to be a book that I'd enjoy: speculative magic, ocean vibes, female protagonist, witchy vibes, 1980s aesthetic. But it didn't mesh with me, and I'm still not exactly sure why.
Described as a YA feminist mash-up of The Lost Boys and The Craft, this book follows its main character, literally named Mayhem, and her mother, Roxy, as they deal with secrets, hidden magic, and the ties that bind in families.
It's witchy, it's 1987, and it's Santa Monica.
Mayhem and her mother are on the run from her abusive stepfather, Lyle, and its gotten so bad that Roxy decides to bite the bullet and take them home to the Braeburn house. Roxy used to be a Braeburn, but she's spent all of Mayhem's life trying to forget her roots.
Mayhem doesn't understand her mom's reluctance to go home, because her aunt and cousins are awesome. Being a Braeburn means belonging, accepting, and a home of her own. It's a dream come true.
Being a Braeburn also means that Mayhem has a legacy, and one that her mother literally tried to squash out of her—the Braeburn women are magical.
When Mayhem, her cousins, and the Braeburn legacy all intertwine for the first time....things are about to get intense in a major way. And there's also the disappearing girls. That too.
As I said at the beginning, I think this novel wasn't for me. It was written well, the characters leapt off the page, and the plot seemed to mesh well with a lot of other readers, so I'm clearly not the core audience for this one—take my thoughts with that grain of salt.
It was just a case of the novel not fitting with my tastes of YA. I think I'll leave it with that to keep things spoiler-free.
If the description appeals to you, check this out!
Thank you the Wednesday Books for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
If the title makes you shiver, this is the book for you. Fires, secrets, mothers and daughters and daughters and mothers, the ties that bind and the ties that break, and sinister overtones come out to play in Rory Power's tour de force sophomore novel.
Burn Our Bodies Down comes out on July 7, 2020!
Margot and her mother could be sisters, they look so much alike. Margot doesn't see this as a compliment. Her relationship with her mother, Jo, is anything but sister-like—it is one of flight, hiding, fights, and fear. Margot's mother has been running from something all of Margot's life.
Margot is done with it. Now 17, she's decided it's time to find the family that her mother abandoned, with the hope that anyone—anyone—will accept and love her better than her own manipulative mother. When Margot finds the phone number in her mother's things, she doesn't hesitate. She gives it a ring.
Phalene is the type of Nebraskan small town in the middle of its decline. Once a booming farming community, there's almost nothing left. Margot's family, the Nielsens, used to be the source of the town's success. Now it's just Gram, and her weird golden corn that looks dead yet grows, and the secrets that the Nielsen farm keeps to itself.
Margot doesn't mind. Her mother has made her used to so many weird things. In her desperation for acceptance, Margot accepts everything about her Gram and slots herself into the Nielsen farm.
But Gram's not exactly normal, and Margot found a dead body of a girl who looks just like her on her first day in town. The town thinks Gram's hiding something, and Margot agrees.
Did she jump from the frying pan into the fire? There might be a reason her mother was so afraid after all...
This is a novel that will attract a certain type of reader, but keep only a few as it's not exactly what it appears to be. I think Rory Power might just be that type of author—which works for me, because I'm now 2/2 with her books. I've loved them both.
The story delivers on its advertising: this novel is SPOOKY, and the atmosphere was so taut throughout that I got a kink in my neck from holding myself so tense. If you like creeping suspense and lingering horror, this is the novel for you. There are no jump scares, no dramatic whodunits, but the lingering horror...is intense.
However, the main core of this story is not its plot, its genre, or even its character composition. It's in the character relationships. I make that nuance here because Margot, Jo, and Gram are not the most fleshed out characters. But their relationships with each other ARE, and that's where this novel sings. Mothers and daughters. Manipulation, secrets, and the ties that bind and break. This multi-generational character study of one family's method of parenting is singular in its focus and honestly fascinating in its rot. I would never want these relationships in my life—talk about unhealthy—but in their black and white reality it was easy to see the bones of fights I've had with my own mother, and vice versa. The growing pains of teenage girls versus their mothers is something most women can relate to, and in a way this is a horror novel about that experience amplified by a ton of speculative elements. Extremely cool, and extremely well done.
Thank you to Delacorte Press via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
5 unlimited stars
Riveting, heartbreaking, soul-mending, and ultimately a beacon of hope.
Black Girl Unlimited should be required reading. I wish I'd read it in school. I would have been a different person earlier, sooner. This was one of the most poignant reads I have ever read, and Echo Brown deserves every standing ovation, every "oh my gosh you have to read this book" friendly push, and every accolade. This was, simply, a showstopper debut.
Part coming-of-age novel, part fabulism, part reflection on the state of being black in America, and part story of female resilience in the heart of abuse and oppression—it's impossible to distill this novel down to a review that means something. I feel almost like a fool for trying, but I want you to read this so bear with me.
Echo lives on the East Side of Cleveland in the 1990s. It's world away from the West Side, at the rich white people school that she's allowed to attend. Her situation is a parable for many other young black women in the city, but at the same time a stunningly personal journey through her own life in and separate from those around her.
You see, Echo is a wizard.
She's not the kind of wizard with the wand and the hat. Her magic doesn't appear as a spell or incantation. This kind of wizardry is special—and allegorical. Echo, her mother, her female friends, and a memorable female mentor are all wizards. Black women are wizards. For being able to survive the pain, the circumstance, and the reality and still maintain the inner light that is their voice? That's wizardry.
Black Girl Unlimited is a story about a girl, named Echo, who's learning the steps to be a wizard. The steps are steep, she'll often fall back on herself. But she'll get there, and you'll cheer her on at every step and cry at every hurdle.
"Hard-hitting contemporary" fits in this context, but don't let that stop you. This is the story of a wizard who learns how to channel her own light in a world of darkness. It's beautiful.
Trigger Warnings: Parental drug use, overdose, violence, car accident, sexual abuse, triggering language around sexual abuse, rape, discussions of suicide.
As much as I tried to love this...I didn't. This is a fantastic series, but Lair of Dreams is my least favorite so far.
Pacing: ★ 1/2
Character development: ★★★★★
Plot: ★★★ 1/2
This is the second book in The Diviners series, so a caution: I'm talking about this book, there might be spoilers for book one!
Following the events of The Diviners, our crew of supernaturally talented diviners are left in a world that is running with the concept of their existence, and the good guys and bad guys are paying attention. What now?
Henry DuBois the IV, the aspiring piano composer with dreams of the big stage, finds himself dreaming the same dream week after week. He's looking for his lost love, Louis, who he left in New Orleans. A dream walker, Henry thinks he can locate Louis in his dreams. But something else finds Henry instead.
Ling Chan is also a dream walker, but her dreams are more of a pay-to-play service. She helps locals in Chinatown transfer messages to dead loved ones through dreams, and she's happy with that. But one night she meets Henry, and their lives converge in unexpected ways.
And the dream world is paying attention.
Soon, Henry and Ling find themselves wrapped in a web of dreams covering up a deadly secret. Can they find out the truth before the dream consumes them?
Our original cast of characters from the first book--Evie, Sam, Mabel, Theta, Memphis, and Jericho—are all still present in this installment, but the main plot follows Ling and Henry. Considering the sheer number of POVs present, the author did a fantastic job of keeping all of their stories separate and yet connected. I loved seeing them intertwine and get closer and closer to being one cohesive unit.
So I initially gave this a 4 star rating, but after a few days have gone by, I realized that I was essentially giving it an entire star for the last 90 pages. Out of almost 600. Taking into account my feelings for almost all of this book, this was more of a 3.5 star read.
I still love these characters and this gorgeously rendered version of 1920s New York City, don't get me wrong. But I can't ignore that Lair of Dreams is the slowest paced book I've read in ages. The plot, which was a neat initial metaphor of the American Dream gone spooky bad, took forever to take off the ground. After the build-up of the first book, I was expecting this book to take off with our motley crew of characters fighting the good fight and learning more about the spooky force that is heavily foreshadowed. Nope.
Lair of Dreams is a quieter story, and it takes its sweet time. Too much time. All the time. I know it feels like I'm harping on how slow this thing was, but I sat through hours and hundreds of pages of filler. Hundreds. Of. Pages.
But, to get away from my clear dislike of the pacing, I will say that the things that make this series a standout for readers were still present: the stellar world building, leap-off-the-page characters, and incredible spooky element remained gripping. In particular, I like the threads of Sam's past that are coming to light. Can't wait to see where that goes...
This was lightning in a bottle, a gunshot in progress. Loved it with my entire soul.
Writing: wrap me in these sentences, I'll sleep in a bed of these words
The Vibe: ★★★★★
Tigers, Not Daughters comes out on March 24, 2020!
Tigers, Not Daughters hit me from the side with a punch that I wasn't expecting. Magical realism, grief, ghosts, the unshakable reality of sisters, and use of multiple narrators all collided to bring one unforgettable (and new favorite) read.
The Torres sisters were always a set of four. Ana, Jessica, Iridian, and Rosa. Their mother isn't there, and their father shouldn't be there, but life is life and that's how it goes.
Except it's not. Because Ana's dead.
Ana's death cracks the lines of this fragile family into 3 distinct shards. We have Jessica, who misses Ana so much that she consumes her, becomes her, shoving the angry versions of herself under layers of steely indifference. We have Iridian, who feels more comfortable with words than with people, as it's only ever people who hurt her over and over. We have Rosa, whose magical ways of understanding reality leave her with a different lens, but no less pain.
All three sisters have survived the impact of Ana leaving them in waves, but when a ghostly presence interrupts their fragile grief, the storm arrives again.
This was so, so good. I loved it. Mabry's realism was definitely magical, but it was also earthy and gritty in a way that was so exciting to read. These sisters were raw, they were real, and they had all kinds of aspects—the good, the bad, the ugly, and the bizarre in a way that only girls can be. The vibe of sisters was perfect.
I also loved the writing. This is a tale in the telling, and the snapshots of perspectives and the lyricism in the sentences flowed in such a way that this story was all-consuming. You lived the Torres sisters and you were them at the same time. This kind of writing is a gem to read in any situation, and I loved its deft handling of grief, darker themes, and resilience.
Thank you to Algonquin Young Readers for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
This was so much better than I expected? Loved this, what a great starter to a series. 1920s, Manhattan speakeasies, ghosts, oh my!
Density: ★★ (needed less detail)
The Diviners has been on my radar since its release in 2013, but for multiple reasons I never picked it up.
I don't like historical fiction, I said.
I'm not a fan of the 1920s, I said.
Wow that's a big book, I said.
Now it's 2020, the 20s are upon us again, and I freaking loved this massive book.
The Diviners follows the perspectives of a cast of characters in Manhattan, New York City, in the 1920s. But unlike the 20s that you and I know, this era has more magic, more spook, and more pizazz. Essentially, something paranormal and evil is afoot, and our cast of characters is slowly twined together into a group of paranormally-tinged individuals labeled "diviners."
Meet Evie, exiled to her Uncle Will's odd museum of the occult because she read the history off of one too many objects in Ohio—Evie' brash lack of consequence has landed her in a mess, and New York isn't exactly the reform she was expecting to get. She's an incredibly unlikable character—you just want to strangle her—but her role as our eyes and ears grew on me after a while.
Meet Memphis, who once could heal the sick with the touch of his hands. Now, his healing gift has disappeared, but he still finds himself on the edges of the paranormal with his job as the runner for one of Harlem's lynchpin underground tycoons. He's running from his past, running from his future, but something about the dream he keeps having keeps him up at night.
Meet Theta and Harry, who live as platonic friends in a fancy apartment building, both of them grasping at the limelight of the stage. They've got secrets they don't want to share, and some weird abilities that they refuse to acknowledge. When Evie and Memphis bump into their bubble, things will never be the same.
Meet Mabel, the one who's never quite out of her parents' shadow. Socialist parents make great avenues for change, but not exactly the best, well, parents. Mabel's friend Evie is a hurricane that is going to blow Mabel's life to bits whether she likes it or not.
Meet Jericho, the boy hiding behind a bland face and boring smile. His story might be the most otherworldly of them all...
I really, really enjoyed this. But, come on—did it need to be this long? This book is a whopping 578 pages and it feels like it. I loved the plot, I loved the concept, and I loved the characters (except for Evie, tbh), but they're chained down to way too much description, scene set-up, and waiting around for things to happen. Here's to hoping the pacing—and editing—improves in the later books.
Buffy the Vampire Slayers + The Babysitters Club + 2019 humor. This was cute and funny, but I wasn't the right audience.
Plot: ★★ 1/2
Age range: the young end of YA
The Babysitters Coven is a FUN read. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and makes the comparison to its own roots as the 2019 lovechild of Buffy and The Babysitters Club.
Esme Pearl is a high school student with a passion for quirky fashion and a love of babysitting. She started a babysitting hotline with her best friend, Janis, and while they mainly use it as an excuse to hang out every day, they do get frequent babysitting requests.
However, things are changing in Esme's world. When she gets mad, things move. As things continue to happen around her, Esme realizes that maybe she's not going crazy like her mom did.
Enter Cassandra Heaven, the new girl in school. She seems weirdly focused on Esme, and she's definitely noticed the telekinesis. Oh, and she's obsessed with joining the babysitting club.
What's going on with the babysitters, and why does Esme feel like things are following a pre-destined path? A few spells, demons, and trainings later, and things start to make sense...
The Babysitters Coven made no bones about being filled with tropes, but it was still a rollicking good time. It's nice to see a YA novel cater to the 13-15 year olds, but due to its younger humor and use of tropes it was not a personal favorite. Unlike many of the YA novels coming out, this one is actually for its young audiences and not the many adults (like me!) who read the genre anyway.
Thank you to Delcorte Press for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.