So this is apparently an odd opinion... but this really, really worked for me. (I think half of that reasoning is because of the teeth.)
Twist on YA tropes: ★★★★★
Surprise factor: ★★★★
A mini rant: It's times like these where I really, really wish Six of Crows wasn't such a YA titan that is universally—and sometimes violently—loved. I don't mean ANY disrespect for fans of the duology as I am a fan myself, but I think that The Merciful Crow was prematurely dismissed by some in the YA community for its title, and the mere fact that it had to do with a caste of people called "Crows." Which is nuts, as this book was not even the same thing, at all.
Fie is a Crow, a chief-in-training, and she travels with other Crows from town to town. They are the lepers, the bottom caste, the forced nomads, the ones that everyone else can use and abuse. But the Crows have one thing that the other bird castes of the land do not—they are the only ones who are immune from the Plague. When someone gets the plague, the smoke is lit, and the Crows come calling.
They take care of the sick and dying and they honor the dead. The land may mock them, hurt them, and execute them, but when the people become ill it is the Crows to whom they beg. And the Crows always come, and they always show mercy.
The world of The Merciful Crow is divided into several bird castes. This is not a shape shifting novel—there are no actual birds involved. But each caste of bird is a different social class, and each caste has their own Birthright magic, which displays in some of their castes' witches. It's an intriguing finesse of some standard fantasy decisions, and if that was the only twist on this story's magic, I would have been disappointed. But it wasn't—there are also the teeth.
Fie and the other Crow chiefs have a special way with teeth and bones. But specifically, teeth. When Fie touches a tooth, she knows the life of its owner and can call on the innate Birthright magic of the tooth for her own use. So, in essence, if Fie is holding the right tooth.... she can use any of the realm's powers at her disposal. The Crows are ignored by everyone else, so this power goes relatively unnoticed by the other castes...at their own peril. [Example: The Sparrow caste witches are able to direct or deflect attention, so if Fie is hiding from someone all she needs is to wake up the magic of a Sparrow tooth to hide herself from view.]
Fie's life changes forever when one day, her chief decides to save the royal Phoenix son of the crown. The prince and his bodyguard are on the run from the prince's stepmother, the Queen, who's out to kill him and take the throne for her own. The Crows are trapped—if they don't help the prince, then the Queen will punish and kill the Crows for their involvement. If they help the prince, then its up to the Crows to avoid the punishment of the Queen while also trying to get the prince to his allies... and once they've finished their usefulness, they are forced back to their life of abuse and uncertainty. It's a lose-lose situation for the Crows, and they know it.
But Fie refuses to accept the terms, and she draws an oath from the prince: if the Crows do this, they deserve a seat at the table. They want to protected and respected. No more murders, no more abuse. To her surprise, the prince and his bodyguard agree.
Now they just need to get him to safety.
Things I loved:
The focus on the plague. I'm a morbid historian at heart, and this focus was great—it has its roots in the Black Death's plague doctors (complete with their masks, etc.) but there are also other elements in there too. I also loved (wrong word choice given the negative connotations...) the parallels between what happens to the Crows on the road with the dark American history of the KKK raids in the South—the parallels are intentional, and well done. Also, THE TEETH. Great magical element, thoroughly enjoyed its integration and how it was used consistently throughout the novel. Really nice, really unique, made it memorable.
Things I didn't love:
How short this was. I would have gladly read a novel twice this length.
Considering the fact that I hated the beginning of this, no one is more shocked than me that this is a damn good book.
First 100 pages: ★
Character development: ★★★★★
This is the second book in a series, so if you don't want to be spoiled for Wicked Saints, please check out that book first! (My review of it here.)
Wicked Saints was a surprisingly polarizing read in 2019, and I think Ruthless Gods will be similar—if not for the same reasons. Ruthless Gods, in my opinion, is LEAGUES better than the first novel, but only if you can pass through the first 100 pages of extremely vague writing, frustrating lack of explanation, and several wham-bam 180 degree flips that completely switch many things up.
THIS REVIEW WILL, OUT OF NECESSITY, SPOIL WICKED SAINTS.
I'M SERIOUS, PLEASE STOP IF YOU DON'T WANT TO BE SPOILED.
Nadya, Malachiasz, and Serefin are all having a bad time at the beginning of this book as the end of Wicked Saints left us with a LOT to unpack. Nadya's gods have left her and she's broken many of her homeland's laws to save the enemy. Malachiasz's last-minute betrayals left him with the powers of a god, but no way to keep his sanity and control them. Serefin was literally murdered and brought back to life, and now a god is whispering bad things in his ear.
Oh, and the gods we thought were scary in the first novel aren't even the ones we need to worry about.
Now, like I said above, the first 100 pages of this novel were ROUGH. We're talking, I was so frustrated I thought someone else had wrote this, rough. Considering it takes places very close to the ending of Wicked Saints, I was surprised to find the first bit of this book lagged. It seemed like an odd form of a holding pattern, as not much happened and yet lots was happening, and we were still primarily doing odd character-building scenes that also altered previous facts. I think all of the alterations were positive and made the plot stronger...but wish that they had been either included in the first book or brought to us later, because I was making audible frustrated gripes when the witch, Poletga (spelling is butchered, sorry) gave us these vague nothings over and over with each of our characters.
But, as you can see from my 5 star rating, this was a damn good book. I loved that it kept me on my toes, and the additions to the plot were exciting and made the story more original than I gave it credit for in Wicked Saints. In particular, I hope we see more of the Akolan politics in the third book, as it did give this fantasy world a fresh burst of diversity. AND I hope we continue to keep up the pace with this incredibly dark, mythic approach to old gods that really cemented itself in this installment.
It's unflinchingly bloody, twisted, darkly sensual, unrepentant, and surprising. I loved it.
Thank you to Wednesday Books via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
This review is going to be such a bummer, because I was so freaking pumped for this and love this author's previous books.
This is a reaction review. Given my conflicting and confused thoughts on this novel, I highly recommend checking out the official listings for a more concise summary. Normally I do those myself for these reviews, but I don't think I could do it justice here given my confusion.
Teeth in the Mist was a book that I was very excited to read. We've got 3 different timelines of women all tied to this ancient mill house in the remote UK (England? Scotland? Unclear.) There's a demonic angle, and in amazing Kurtagich style there were a bunch of documents and stylistic text choices throughout.
For example, the modern girl's narrative takes place almost exclusively through journal entries and camera transcripts. The 1800s timeline takes place in traditional 3rd person narration, and the oldest timeline takes place as very small diary entries.
But this was a mess for me.
For the first third, I was completely, utterly, 100% confused. And that was okay! I kept going, because I trusted that the story would become more clear as we went on.
It did, and it didn't.
Aside from complete confusion for the entire reading experience—and not the good kind, the frustrating "why are you giving me nothing" kind—I was also continually frustrated with the way that these three timelines were portrayed, and the lack of world building and character development used in each of them. This was a HUGE case of telling, not showing, and what we were told varied by the minute and was almost useless in most cases.
I just can't emphasize enough how much this book relied on telling, not showing. In particular, there is one element of the story that is obvious from the start (which wasn't a problem!) and then in the context of plot progression that trope completely goes off the rails. Please see my Goodreads review to view that spoiler.
On top of the spoiler above, it was just... why? The entire time I was reading the second half of this book—when it became clear where we were going with the three plot lines—I kept thinking, there must be more. Otherwise, why? Where is the payoff? Where is the satisfying "Ah, this is why I slogged through this" ending? It just... didn't satisfy. And it wasn't necessary to have three timelines, so I was frustrated by that element as well.
As you can tell, I'm pretty heated on the topic. Please take my opinions as their own, and not a reflection on anyone else's reading experience. This was a 400 page book of ?!?!?!, and it ended that way. But I still love this author, and I stand by Dead House, her previous book. Looking forward to the next one.
All, I'm at a loss to describe this book.
I've actually not written a formal review for this one on my Goodreads either, but I wanted to include it on this blog to record the fact that I've read it, and that I sobbed my soul out with reading it.
Little Universes is a story of sisters, of pain, of unimaginable grief, and of healing. Two sisters, one driven by logic and one driven by words, trying to survive in the aftermath of both of their parents dying suddenly. On top of that, their lives weren't that simple to begin with. I couldn't believe how much pain was intricately weaved throughout this story. But it also has a persistent glimmer of hope. (Thank goodness, because I needed the hope to make it through.)
If you are a fan of hard-hitting contemporary novels—and I mean HARD hitting—then I recommend picking this up.
This was a fantastic ride, and a serious, heartfelt novel hiding behind the persona of a party narrative. New favorite!
Characters: ★★★★ 1/2
Overall enjoyment ★★★★★
Loveboat, Taipei was honestly a surprise for me. I'd heard mixed reviews and wasn't sure if it was for me, but I decided to go with my gut. I'm so glad I did. This was such shock—like a Taipei-based Gossip Girl, with better themes and refreshingly original cast. Loved it.
Ever Wong is 18 years old, and she's ready to spend the last summer before college dancing her heart out in secret under the nose of her disapproving parents. But then her parents give her a nasty surprise: there will be no Ohio summer, and definitely no dancing. Ever's going to China to learn Mandarin, surrounded by the Chinese-American elite students that her parents always wished Ever would be. No pressure.
Ever imagines that this summer will be filled with studying, unfair academic expectations, and more internal shaming than she ever received at home.
Ever's in for the shock of her life.
Chien Tan, the summer school, is known as "Loveboat" by the students who attend. It's more of a party-all-night, hook-up scene than a school. Thrust into a different version of Asian-American culture than she's ever experienced, Ever wonders if for the first time in her life, she can truly be herself.
Oh, and naturally there are some boys. (Wink, wink.)
I don't know, folks. Maybe I read this at the perfect time, but Loveboat, Taipei knocked me out of the water. I read it in one day. I couldn't stop. Ever's sense of self, her struggle for identity in her immigrant family vs her American ideology was expertly rendered—I felt for her and cheered her on at ever step.
This was so much FUN. I loved the positive representation of sex, the friend dynamics (with their ups and DOWNs, wow), the love triangle that was an actual triangle with equal effort placed in both love interests, growing pains, finding yourself, the sense of familial duty vs individualism in the Asian American experience, and the unique setting of the summer school program itself.
I loved the window into Taipei's culture and its elite summer program. In the author's note, the author discusses the fact that this program does exist (although this novel's version of it is exaggerated for obvious reasons). I can't speak to how Asian Americans would felt regarding this novel's representation, but appreciated the author's context.
Loveboat, Taipei also addressed a lot more serious themes than I was expecting. This was actually a sore spot for many of the negative reviews that I've seen, so I really want to share my thoughts: I thought these aspects were handled well given how they were introduced to the plot. Please see the spoiler below for more thoughts on the biggest aspect of that point. Another dark theme discussed in this novel related to a betrayal between two main characters—Wow, what a gut punch. BUT, again, I liked the author's handling of the subject. Instead of making it a trope'd, two-dimensional girl vs. girl hate issue, there was character growth. It's not a bad thing to have a trope, as long as it's handled well and brings something new to the game. For me, Loveboat, Taipei did that.
A spoiler, relevant to the topic above: There is a distant character—the long-distance girlfriend to one of the love interests—who is struggling with severe mental health issues. It is made very clear that the love interest is in a relationship with this character to keep her from harming herself. This is obviously a very toxic and unhealthy relationship for both parties. Given the fact that the girlfriend is barely in the book, I thought the author handled those sensitive topics well within the context of the story. It did not feel dismissive or seem to promote negative assumptions—but it did not take over the plot, because it wasn't the plot. To make this side character's mental health journey more prominent would have taken the story in a completely different direction, so I did not mind the way it was handled. It read as respectful to me, especially as the male love interest's intentions and actions were always on the right side of the line, and when this situation became known to the rest of the characters, everyone handled it within the realms of respect and understanding.
I am READY for the next book. Can't wait!
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...
Two siblings. Two brilliant talents. But only one Mozart.
Magical elements: ★★★
Pacing: ★★ 1/2
Emotional resonance: ★★★★
Everyone knows of Mozart. The brother, that is. How many of us know the history of Mozart's talented older sister, Nannerl?
The Kingdom of Back is a soft, fantastical portrait of the historical lives of Nannerl and Amadeus during their childhood in Austria. Following Nannerl, it imagines the childhood of a girl—one given amazing musical talents, and yet born during a time when women were not given agency over their creativity, their name, or their destiny.
Nannerl's childhood tours with her younger brother, "the" Mozart, are the main backbone of this story. But as this is a fantasy take, we're taken on a journey that deviates from the original: Welcome to the Kingdom of Back, where everything is backwards, blue, and desperately empty save for a mystical princeling.
This mystical princeling seems to know Nannerl's deepest wish: to be remembered. He promises her that he can make it happen. She just needs to accomplish some tasks first.
But as the game gets darker and her younger brother seems to flounder, Nannerl begins to wonder what the princeling deems a proper cost.
What would you do to be remembered?
What I liked:
I loved the concept. Focusing on music? Fantastic. Focusing on the female Mozart? Brilliant. I loved highlighting Nannerl, especially as we were giving voice to a woman who has been largely forgotten by history. The strength in this novel lies in its poignant and heartbreaking focus on what it meant to be a girl in that time period, and the terrible boundaries and lost hope that lay at the end of every story.
What I didn't like:
Without getting into spoiler territory, I felt the magical elements were weak. I was really excited to read about the faerie-goblin, music-vibe, fantastical other world, and found myself really disappointed at the lack of time we spent there. I also found the events that occurred in the Kingdom of Back were unsatisfying for me. I think in part because of these issues, I had a hard time with the novel's pacing. It took too long for us to reach interesting plot points, and not enough occurred chapter to chapter to keep me engaged. I kept fighting the urge to put this down.
However, despite what sounds like a lukewarm response, I do think this is a memorable historical fiction novel—with a dose of the fantastic—and is worth reading for anyone interested in the blurb. I hope others enjoy it more than I did!
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.
5 theatrical stars
I would read this over and over. A gritty traveling circus, the angel v. the devil, romantic tension to CUT a KNIFE, tattoos, diverse orientations, and again for the people in the back romantic tension on POINT.
Romance elements: literally the best in YA, it is FRESH
Imagery: ★★★★★ *chef's kiss*
So I don't care what's on your TBR for this month. Make room for Ink in the Blood.
If you loved the Night Circus for its iconic imagery and archetypal romance figures that were players on a stage as well as flesh and blood love interests, you'll love this.
If you liked the gritty, broken shards of Kaz Brekker from Six of Crows, just wait until you meet the plague doctor, a man who never takes off his sharp-edged mask because he's already died once and he's too much for your eyes. He's the ringmaster of the troupe, the reminder that death is always waiting, and he'll tempt you to the devil if you'll let him.
But he's not the devil—its Celia, our protagonist, who dons the horns and lies and smoke to hide from herself and her Divine. She believes she can coat herself in enough lies to save herself from her fate. But can she run from the ink in her blood?
Ink in the Blood is all of the above, plus a one-of-a-kind religious system based on tattoos, the Divine, Diavala (the devil), and a matriarchal plot line that feels like the perfect amount of grit, soul, and lying diamonds.
I know the blurb mentions a lot of things, and some of them are what I've said and some of them just allude to things to come. Please don't be disillusioned by the first few chapters. I was, and I thought this was going to be a very different book. But, I promise, it's not. Get to the circus. It is perfection from there.
Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Book Group via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
The hype around this novel might be a bit much, yes, but Truly Devious is a really great example of how a YA mystery/thriller can be done well.
Villain(s)/Reveal(s): ★★★ 1/2
One thing that I completely, utterly agree on about this book is that it is unputdownable. What a great main character, and what a good plot. It's not the most ingenious plot in the world, but its boarding school setting, its split timeline with the 1930s, and its main character's drive to be a detective really propelled this story along. I loved the process of reading it, even as certain things kept it from perfection.
Ellingham Academy is a famous private school known for its genius students. It was founded by Albert Ellingham, a fan of devious mysteries, games, and learning for the sake of learning. He make a boarding school with hidden rooms, twists, and turns. He never expected his school to be used for a murder. "Truly Devious," a pen name, kidnaps Ellingham's wife and daughter and leaves cryptic riddles in their wake. Forever unsolved, the case goes down in American history.
Stevie Bell, a private detective in training, decides to apply to the school to solve the cold case. Shocked to be chosen as one of the elite, she finds herself in the midst of school politics, rich kids with problems, and a lot of things to observe.
When someone is found dead on Ellingham's campus, Stevie realizes "Truly Devious" might not be done with their crimes...
I really appreciated this novel's readability. As someone who loves Agatha Christie, I enjoyed reading this modern version of Poirot with her nods to the master himself. It is a great gateway series for teens who would (hopefully) be encouraged to pick up more in the genre after reading this book.
Stevie as a character really sold it for me. She has anxiety—and it actually manifests. It's really nice to see panic attacks and the like represented in teen fiction, as I was once a teen that had panic attacks and, as I never saw them represented in TV or books, had zero idea what was "wrong" with me. It's nice to see that normalized and portrayed.
Overall, a nice solid start to the series. Not a particularly inspired ending, BUT as it's a series I hold out hope for a more epic reveal to come—Truly Devious isn't yet solved.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.