"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.
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.
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 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.
A notoriously haunted L.A. hotel. A group of teenage ghost hunters. A dead girl and her secrets. And something lurking in the dark...
Sense of pacing: ★★★★
Personal enjoyment: ★★
Chrissy, Chase, Kiki, and Emma are quickly becoming famous for their YouTube channel, Ghost Gang. In a setup that feels pretty similar to Buzzfeed Unsolved and other real-life online channels, this group of teens goes to haunted locations and films their explorations and reactions to creepy locations. And Chrissy is their ace in the hole: she actually CAN see spirits.
The Ghost Gang needs their next big hit. Chase, the group's organizer, decides to set their sights on the big one: the most haunted hotel in Los Angeles, California.
In this hotel from hell, a young girl died brutally within its walls and her erratic behavior before her untimely death was caught online for the world to watch. Something happened to this girl, and someone—or something—killed her. No one has found out the truth.
Chrissy and the rest of the group aren't exactly wild about visiting this location, but they let their better senses get the best of them and agree to go. (What's a horror setup without a few dumb decisions?)
They have no idea what they're in for...
So first off, a small disclaimer: I think this book is quite good for the right audience, and in that audience I could see Horror Hotel being a new favorite YA thriller/horror. It has all of the right hooks, shocks, and drama.
Unfortunately, I was not the right audience for this story because I'm a frequent horror movie and true crime documentary buff and knew the source material inside and out before starting this story.
If you've watched the Netflix documentary Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel and heard the very true story of the tragic death of Elisa Lam at that real L.A. hotel, then this fictionalized account with different names and slightly different tweaks might not work for you. The authors of Horror Hotel pay tribute to Elisa Lam in their dedication, which makes sense as this story was inspired by hers, but to me this novel was almost an exact replica of that particular Netflix documentary.
Now I'm not getting into whether replicating stories is good or bad, retellings are a very popular thing and I've enjoyed a few of them, but regardless of my opinion on that element I found Horror Hotel to be pretty low stakes and low interest for me, personally, because I knew where it was going all of the time. Without the feeling of "where is this story going," I quickly found my interest waning.
Again, this issue only happened because I was so familiar with that Netflix documentary. For those who haven't seen it and are just casually aware of the Elisa Lam story and the Hotel Cecil, this might be a very different reading experience.
Recommended for new fans to the genre and for those who have not watched the referenced Netflix movie.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Generational secrets, the darkness within, and small town murders collide in this atmospheric and unputdownable debut.
Sense of unease: ★★★★★
Watch out for the dark.
Wow, this was such an engaging young adult mystery. As an adult reader who can't seem to stay away from the young adult genre, sometimes there are stories that don't translate out of their age-appropriate market and I feel like I'm the one old person at the young people's party. The Dead and the Dark was not one of those books—I think this one will have more of an all-ages appeal.
In Snakebite, a small town with generations of secrets and shame, things don't change. Visitors never stay, residents don't leave, and those that are different are not welcomed.
Years ago, Logan's two dads left Snakebite under upsetting circumstances, several of which revolving around their status as the only gay couple in town. They've been a traveling duo ever since, with their paranormal TV series dragging them across the country along with their adopted daughter, Logan.
But when one of Logan's dads returns to Snakebite and his supposedly short trip turns into months and months, they family decides to return to Snakebite and see what's going on.
Someone's keeping secrets. And a boy is already missing.
I think The Dead and the Dark works best if you don't know too much about it going into the story, so I'm not going to share any more of the plot. In short: I thought this story took a while to get off of the ground (roughly 75 pages) but then once things started to unravel for Logan and the other characters I could not stop reading this one.
It's a bit ghost-y. A bit queer identity struggle. A bit of small town bigotry. A bit of a romance on the side. A bit of a cold-blooded killer.
This one sits at some interesting cross-sections, so I can see why some readers feel unsatisfied after finishing it. If you're here for just one thing, then the other bits feel like unwanted excess. But I, personally, was here for the entire experience and, outside of some occasionally clunky writing, I thought this story was extremely well done.
Looking forward to seeing Courtney Gould's growth in her next book.
Thank you to Wednesday Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.