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.
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!
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 Guinevere Deception is a story about women's agency and their role in myth—and cleverly ties together known aspects of the Arthurian legends with some much needed LGBT+ and modern sensibilities.
Pacing: ★★ 1/2
I'm so mad at this book because it does not put its best foot forward. The Guinevere Deception starts out so simplistic, so run-of-the-mill, that it's boring. Boring boring. Skim-worthy, even.
But then, we cross the hump. The second half of this book is gorgeous. It's lyrical, it's feminist, it's evocative of the Kiersten White that I remember from my long-ago read of And I Darken—where women had their own agency and commentary--that I put down my kindle and went what? Is this the same story?
The Guinevere Deception follows "Guinevere," the wife of the newly made King Arthur. Arthur has won Camelot, and now he rules in a realm where magic is pushed to the edges of his borders and everything is free from chaos and everything is wholesome and good. (Ha. Obviously, this is a disaster waiting to happen.) Enter Guinevere, except we, as the reader, know the Guinevere is not really the princess at all, but the daughter of Merlin, sent to be the last line of defense for King Arthur—she is supposed to keep the king safe from magic...by using the forbidden magic herself.
Such a good plan. No holes at all. (Right.)
Guinevere enters into the world of Camelot and starts exploring the city and its people in the most mundane ways possible. The dialogue is meh, the chapters go slowly, and I caught myself jumping ahead several times because we were so clearly treading water, waiting for something to happen.
Then, some things happen.
I won't spoil anything in the plot because I think most of the enjoyment comes from being surprised, but The Guinevere Deception has some significant tricks. Guinevere isn't as milk toast as she seems, Arthur isn't that stupid, Lancelot appears in THE MOST EPIC TWIST as a different take on the character, women support women, some LGBT+ rep enters as breath of fresh air in this traditional hetero tale, and I just really enjoyed the turn of events.
The entire time I was reading The Guinevere Deception, I kept saying to myself: man, I miss Kiersten White when she gets dark. Maybe this is too light for me, and I'll stick with her darker content. But I can see the hints of darkness in the set up for book two, and call me intrigued—I think White has more things up her sleeve.
Definitely pick this one up if you're a fan of legends, myths, retelling, feminism, LGBT+, and good old fashioned plot twist surprises. I think this one is worth enjoying if you can get over its own problematically dull beginnings.
Thank you to Delacorte Press for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Gods, demons, fluid time constructs, ruthless families, and more collide in this epic fantasy opener that deserves a seat at the table with the titans of YA fantasy.
World building: ★★★★★
Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
Arrah is the daughter of two powerful magic users. Her father's ties to the rural tribes keep her with one foot in the old world, while her mother's political fist in the urban Kingdom keeps her with one foot in the new. This clash of cultures, magic, and sense of morality was amazing—and split along the dichotomy of father versus mother, which was also interesting.
Arrah isn't the "chosen one" in this fantasy—in fact, she's one of the few characters without a natural source for magic—and she finds herself in an epic conflict between gods and demons.
The orishas (gods) have ruled the land for all of living memory. The Demon King and his followers were vanquished long ago, and the orishas remain in power. But then... Arrah discovers that her world isn't all that she thought it was. Her mother has her own vendetta to accomplish, and Arrah finds herself on the front line of a godly conflict that she is definitely not prepared for.
But she's willing to do anything to win.
Things I loved:
Arrah's sense of self—her rock-solid personal identity was refreshing. The land of Kefu, where time is fluid?? So cool, so unique, it added to the myth-like feel to the story. THE WRITING—GORGEOUS. The love interest was supportive and not too involved with the plot. The sidebar chapters written from the orishas to...someone(s). Those sidebars make me want to reread this book immediately, to catch references that I missed on the first pass. The world. I loved it all, honestly. One quick spoiler favorite: (view spoiler)
Things I wished were better:
The pacing—given the sheer amount of plot and time progression that occurs, Kingdom of Souls feels like more than one book that was smashed together. I would have happily read one book on the events pre-Kefu, and then another book on the events that happened after. There was DEFINITELY enough plot for more than one installment. But really, is too much plot a negative??
Surprisingly elegant and atmospheric, but definitely rough around the edges. Zombies meets ancient Wales meets myth meets....traditional YA trappings.
Visual descriptions: ★★★★
Density: ★★ 1/2
The Bone Houses has one of the coolest concepts in YA--in a small town at the edge of the mystical mountainous woods, skeletons come alive at night and wander. They're called bone houses. That kind of an opener screams to be read.
Ryn is a gravedigger, and the tough-as-nails, chip-on-her-shoulder YA heroine that we've seen before. Her father was lost to the mountains, her uncle was lost to the wilderness, and her siblings are all she has left. The family scrapes it by on the edges of poverty in a very medieval-feeling way.
Enter Ellis, the mapmaker. Kind of strange that there seems to be an entire profession devoting to traveling mapmakers, but The Bone Houses runs with it. Ellis is an orphan boy trying to find his parents, and finds himself drawn to the woods where he was found.
Ryn and Ellis also find themselves drawn to each other and end up in the woods on a quest to a) learn more about the mountains for a map, b) learn more about Ellis' past, c) try to find out what happened to Ryn's dad, and finally d) to discover the heart of the woods and find a way to stop the bone houses from rising. (It's a complicated quest.)
There was potential for me to love The Bone Houses, but I never found myself crossing the divide between liking and loving. It was cool...but I wanted more of the magic, more of the bone houses, and wayyyyy less of the YA-standards: the romance, the tying everything up together in the end, the internal dialogues on identity that took up space that could have been used on plot, etc. Give me the weird and the unexplained magic and leave everything else behind—it just bogged the story down.
Dark, fast, witty, and unique.
Did it stand out?: ★★★★★
Taking place in what feels like historic Paris during the time of Church vs. Witchcraft, Serpent & Dove follows two POVs: Louise le Blanc, the daughter of the most powerful witch leader, and Reid Diggory, the head of the Church's military faction.
Louise (Lou) ran away from her mother's coven two years ago and she's never looked back. Being a witch isn't all its cracked up to be, and especially not in the city of Cesarine. Faced with the threat of being found by her mother, Lou takes to the streets and lives the life of a cross-dressing thief. All is going well in her cutthroat world until one day she meets her natural nemesis: Reid Diggory.
Reid Diggory was orphaned on the streets of Cesarine. Like other orphaned boys, he's sent to the Church, where the Archbishop decides to take Reid under his wing and groom him for the Church's military unit, the Chasseurs. Rising among the ranks to become the head of the Chasseurs, Reid's purpose in life is simple: kill all of the witches.
Lou and Reid's lives collide in a major way when during a chase, Reid and Lou find themselves in a compromising situation. To save Reid's reputation, the Archbishop declares they marry—effective immediately. (The logic is questionable, but is answered.)
Cue one of the best YA hate-to-love romances of the year. Reid's a stubborn stick in the mud with limited ideas. Lou's a free-wheeling sarcastic former thief with a secret to hide—one that could lead to her own death at the hand of her husband. Do the two of them have a chance at a real romance? (Ugh, I loved this so much. Enjoy the trope in this one, it's great.)
Serpent & Dove's strength lies in its ability to keep you engaged even when the plot lags. A large portion of this novel is static and takes place at the Chasseurs headquarters—with limited action—and yet the characters and subplots kept me riveted. I loved the final series of reveals, and can't wait to read the read in the second book.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.