Category Archives: book review

Book Review: In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

Book review: In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire (4.25 stars)

If you’re not already reading Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, it’s one I’d highly recommend. It’s a series of novellas that explores the adventures as well as the consequences of portal fantasy, where children are spirited away from our world to other, stranger worlds better suited to their individual natures, and then are often forced to return to reality afterwards and deal with the loss of the world they have been made to abandon. In An Absent Dream is the fourth installment of this series, which has followed different main characters in every iteration, and focuses on a girl named Lundy and her escape into the rule-bound yet treacherous world of the Goblin Market. There, deals and bargains are struck according to the invisible hand of the concept of fair value, and incurring too much debt means losing pieces of your humanity.

It’s hard to say for sure, since I’m a big fan of the Wayward Children series as a whole, but I think that In An Absent Dream is my new favorite of the four books. It’s probably because I identified more with Lundy, our protagonist, more than I have with previous characters. Like many of us bookworms, I grew up reading constantly, like Lundy; like Lundy, I also tended to follow the rules and do well in school, although I also always searched for loopholes and ways to be creative while still staying out of trouble. When I was younger, I also believed strongly in karma, our world’s version of the concept of fair value–that the actions you put out into the world would eventually come back around to you, if not always directly, then in some form or another. And so I loved reading about the intricacies of the rules governing the Goblin Market and about Lundy falling into deeper understanding of them as she grows older.

Books that fall into the category of fairytale retellings or re-imaginings of classic concepts like portal fantasy can sometimes struggle with whether to imagine a retelling that is darker or sweeter than the tales they pay homage to. In the case of In An Absent Dream, I thought that Seanan McGuire perfectly balanced the wonder and beauty of a traditional portal fantasy with the darker edges of growing up in a world where even the concept of fairness itself may not even be truly fair. The result is a story that becomes more and more urgent as Lundy gradually approaches the age of eighteen, where she will be forced to permanently choose between the real world and the Goblin Market, which seems to have become her true home. It’s a story that feels true in the way that great fantasy literature sometimes can, because it makes a strange kind of sense; my only wish is that it could have been longer, and some of Lundy’s adventures in the Market explored further. I’d highly recommend this book and series to fans of portal fantasy and books like In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan, Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, and the Magicians series by Lev Grossman, that lovingly critique and explore classic tropes of the genre while making them into something entirely new.

 

Thank you so much to the YA Cafe Podcast and to Tor.com publishing for the opportunity to win an ARC of In An Absent Dream.

Book Review: The Nine by Tracy Townsend

Book Review: The Nine by Tracy Townsend

4.25 stars

            I’d like to start off by saying that this relatively lesser-known low fantasy adventure was a completely surprise to me, and in the best way possible.

The Nine is set in the city of Corma, at the heart of an empire that centuries ago decided to merge science and religion together and now adheres to scientific principles with religious fervor. In this city, humans coexist—sometimes peacefully, oftentimes not—with treelike creatures called the lanyani and also with ogrelike beings with their eyes on the heels of their feet called the aigamuxa. The story follows a large cast of viewpoint characters: Rowena Downshire, a young girl working as a somewhat illegal courier in order to pay off the debt that holds her mother in prison; her employer Ivor, the sadistic head of the courier operation; Bess, a courier attempting to escape her trade and work her way upward; Rare, a skilled and admired thief and her sometimes-lover, Anselm Meteron, a retired mercenary turned criminal entrepreneur; Haadiyaa Gammon, the somewhat moral and somewhat corrupt chief of police; the Alchemist, a mysterious former mercenary and current purveyor of knowledge and possibly magic; and Philip Chalmers, a reverend doctor (a sort of religious scientist) researching arcane and potentially earth-shattering aspects of the world they exist in. These characters all connect with the emergence of a mysterious Book that promises to hold answers to questions that humankind has been asking for centuries, and for that reason, the Book is something that many people would kill for.

I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, but I was completely caught up in the story of The Nine from the very beginning. The book’s frenetic pace and constant perspective-switching makes it an addicting story to read; new reveals come as quickly as constant plot twists. If you’re more of a fan of character-driven fantasy than plot-driven fantasy, like me, I also think you’ll love this book because its cast of characters is so broad and filled with a lot of depth. I think that fans of Game of Thrones in particular might be drawn to this book not because they’re similar in plot (they’re definitely not, plus I liked this book a lot more than Game of Thrones) but because all of Tracy Townsend’s characters, like George R.R. Martin’s, are morally grey. It takes a lot of courage to create a cast of characters who aren’t exactly “good guys” by any stretch of imagination—they’re criminals, opportunists, and even cowards—but as a reader, you root for them anyways. Well, you root for some of them—although this story may not have good guys, it definitely has bad ones.

Townsend’s skillful writing and creative worldbuilding also help carry you through a world that might be initially confusing—it did take me a little while to understand the motivations of the different species in play, and to understand the organization of science as religion, but once I was on board, I was really impressed with how Townsend kept all the moving pieces of the book’s plot cohesive and yet surprising at the same time. It’s a world that I didn’t want to leave when the book ended, and I’m so glad to have received an ARC of the second book in the Thieves of Fate series, The Fall, which I’ll be picking up soon so that I can dive back in. I’d highly recommend The Nine to fans of original fantasy worlds with a lot of action and unique characters.

I received a free copy of The Nine from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
3 stars

Empire of Sand is the story of Mehr, the illegitimate daughter of a governor who serves the powerful Empire and a woman from a persecuted group of desert-dwelling people called the Amrithi. Growing up in her father’s household after her mother leaves, Mehr struggles to preserve the traditions of the Amrithi even as they are hunted down throughout the Empire. Her life changes rapidly when her actions during a magical storm bring her to the attention of the Empire’s spiritual leader and his mystics, and she is forced to confront harsh truths about the Empire she inhabits and the power she possesses.

I love fantasy novels centered around strong female characters, and I was so intrigued about this book when I first heard about it at BookCon. I think that Empire of Sand’s worldbuilding and its magic system are some of its strongest aspects; over the course of the novel, we are introduced to magical, mysterious desert beings called daiva who once walked the earth like humans but who now take on other forms; the magic stemming from dreaming gods; and Amrithi magic created through dance and sigils. Mehr is a protagonist you want to root for in her struggles against a corrupt, discriminating Empire, and I was fascinated by one of the side characters, Mehr’s friend and surrogate mother figure Lalita, an Amrithi woman who survived for years in disguise and supported herself as a courtesan. I also thought that Tasha Suri’s writing was quite good; I was able to easily visualize everything she was talking about, and her writing flowed nicely throughout the book.

There were also several aspects of Empire of Sand that I felt weren’t as strong. It’s not very long for a fantasy novel, but its pacing is very slow, and the plot is sparse. A great deal of the book involves repetition; the same concepts and actions are reiterated over and over again, which in my opinion wasn’t necessary to convey meaning and didn’t add anything to the story. I generally don’t mind books that are slower-paced and more focused on ordinary life than action, but in this case the structure really didn’t work for me. I also wasn’t a fan of the romance, which felt forced, and I wish that both protagonists had more charisma.

If you’re looking for a new, well-written fantasy series with a unique concept and setting, you may really enjoy Empire of Sand. Personally, it’s not a series I’m planning to continue with, but I’ll definitely be interested to see what Tasha Suri writes in the future.

*I received an ARC of Empire of Sand from the publisher at BookCon.

Book Review: Of Light and Darkness by Shayne Leighton

27886071

Book Review: Of Light and Darkness by Shayne Leighton

3 stars

Warning: this review contains minor spoilers!

Of Light and Darkness by Shayne Leighton is a fantasy novel about a young woman named Charlotte who was abandoned as an infant and taken in by an unconventional guardian—a vampire. The vampire, Valek, a skilled healer, raises Charlotte in an occult city in the Czech Republic. There, they live surrounded by supernatural creatures of all varieties, including witches, shapeshifters, Elves, and fairies, but Charlotte is the only human present due to a strict code of laws that segregate magical society from interacting with the outside world. As Charlotte grows up, her feelings for Valek become more complicated than those between a guardian and his ward, and she must face these feelings as well as a society whose laws are rapidly becoming more strict and restrictive when it comes to vampires.

My favorite part about this story was easily the fact that the author was so inclusive of different types of supernatural creatures and so creative when it came to developing and populating her world. Not only do we have the standard sorts of monsters like vampires and fairies but we also get to meet a living scarecrow (who is sweet, gentle, and works in a store) and a half-man, half-spider (who sounds like he would be terrifying but actually isn’t scary at all). The idea of occult cities that exist alongside modern human ones but are hidden and sequestered was fascinating; the city that Charlotte and Valek live in is more like a small supernatural village, and the way the author described its preparations for fall celebrations made me picture it a little like the movie Halloweentown, which was sort of a delightful image. I also thought it was interesting that the main conflict of the story came from the fact that some of the supernatural creatures were trying to gain more power by scapegoating the vampires; the political maneuvering and propaganda that went into this was well thought-out and created very hateful antagonists.

Although I loved the setting and concept of this book, and I am in general a huge fan of vampires, I do have to say that I wasn’t a fan of the central romance between Charlotte and Valek. Valek has raised Charlotte since she was a baby and has always been a father figure to her, so it was hard for me to get behind them as a couple because they were essentially family. I also had a hard time pinning down Valek’s character in general; he’s portrayed often as an intellectual, kind-hearted, soft-spoken man whose main goal is protecting Charlotte, but he kills all of the humans he feeds on, and judging by his age, this means that he’s killed quite a lot of innocent people. He also never expresses remorse for doing so, or discusses the idea of feeding on humans without killing them, which is often an alternative for vampire characters. There is some discussion of feeding on animals instead, but this is not something he seems willing to do long-term. Charlotte, as well, is shown to be generally a brave and good-hearted person, but she’s also responsible for abducting humans for Valek to kill. I think that this attitude toward feeding on and killing humans would have fit better in a darker, grittier novel, but it seemed out of place in this story and with these characters.

In general, I’d describe Of Light and Darkness as a vampire novel with a fairytale vibe and the development of a found family at its core. It’s a story about love and magic and fighting against prejudice.

I received a free ebook copy of Of Light and Darkness from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Between the Sea and Stars by Chantal Gadoury

39311858

Book review: Between the Sea and Stars by Chantal Gadoury

3 stars

Between the Sea and Stars is the story of a young merrow girl named Lena who lives with her father and brother beneath the sea, but dreams of exploring the surface. Unfortunately, it’s forbidden for merrows to explore the land or even emerge from the sea after the merrow queen was betrayed and killed by her human lover, who sought her magical shell that allowed her to transform from a merrow to a human. Through an unforeseen course of events, Lena does find herself on shore and immersed in the human world, although not in the way she had expected, and is forced to quickly adapt to a world of intriguing new friendships and enemies alike.

I’ve always loved mermaids and fairytale retellings, so I was of course drawn to this book due to its undersea setting and Little Mermaid inspiration. I really enjoyed learning about the world and culture of the merrow, and I thought that the Danish influences in the book’s language made it very unique. I thought that the story of the merrow queen, which may not have happened exactly the way Lena’s always heard it told, made an intriguing backdrop to Lena’s story, and it kept me curious about the assumptions that the humans and merrows make about each other’s worlds.

What didn’t work quite as well for me in this book was Lena’s character. It’s stated that she’s nineteen, but to me she seemed younger. She comes across as somewhat sheltered and naïve, which in some ways is very understandable considering her circumstances; after all, she has to adapt to living on land in a very short period of time, and she’s also dealing with the land and the sea both being very patriarchal in structure. However, I did find it frustrating that Lena rarely acts to assert or defend herself. To be fair, Lena has to deal with the aftermath of trauma over the course of this book, which absolutely affects her actions to a certain degree, but as a reader I couldn’t help but want her to stand up for herself. I also would have loved to have seen more female characters in general.

I did have some difficulty with the pacing of this book; it’s very short and moves quickly, but I felt like after the initial inciting events, there’s not much forward motion of the plot over the course of the book. I would have preferred that the book was longer so that we could see how the different tensions building in the novel would play out. There is so much interesting worldbuilding in this book that I would have loved to see more of both the human and merrow worlds, but I’ll have to wait for the next book. Overall, this was a fast, enjoyable YA novel rooted in fairy tales and mythology, and fans of mermaid stories will likely want to check this one out.

*I received an eARC of Between the Sea and Stars from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Furyborn by Claire Legrand

Book Review: Furyborn by Claire Legrand

4.25 stars

Furyborn follows two young women, Rielle and Eliana, who are living in the same world but 1,000 years apart. Rielle is the daughter of the king’s general, and she has been forced to hide her staggering magical powers for her entire life, until they are unintentionally revealed. Once her talents come to light, Rielle is forced to undergo trials to prove that she will use her magic as a force for good as the prophesied Sun Queen, protector of the realm, rather than the also prophesied Blood Queen, who will bring ruin in her wake. And 1,000 years later, Eliana is serving a tyrannical empire as a bounty hunter in order to support her family, but she is torn out of the world she is familiar with when her mother disappears and she has to make a deal with an underground rebellion in order to find her. Their stories are told in alternating chapters as each of these very different young women are forced to battle their way through tremendous obstacles and find out who they can really trust.

I’d like to start by saying that I loved this book. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—I’m very picky when it comes to YA, and maybe especially YA fantasy, and there are a lot of books that I’ll DNF fairly quickly if they’re not what I’m interested in. Furyborn kept and held my interest the entire book; the alternating chapters made me constantly anxious to know what would happen next with each character, and I felt like I was getting little tastes of their stories that kept me motivated to find out more. It’s difficult for me to choose which story I preferred since they were both so captivating, but if I was forced to choose, I’d probably go with Eliana’s. I liked that she was an unabashedly morally grey character who had to make tough choices in her line of work in order to protect her family.

I honestly thought that it might bother me to read the story of someone set so long after the other main character’s, since I thought that might mean that you would already know how Rielle’s story ended and Eliana’s might then seem too distant to care about, but it didn’t work out that way at all. Instead, I loved that we got hints of each girl’s story through the worldbuilding, and I especially loved how things like magic, which are commonplace in Rielle’s world, are treated as myth in Eliana’s. It’s a risky, creative premise, but for me it definitely worked.

Furyborn as a whole is a well-written, well-plotted, absorbing, feminist YA fantasy. There’s a great amount of action and worldbuilding, and also some romance, which I’m always a fan of in my YA. Since it’s the first book in a planned trilogy, I’m extremely excited to see where things are headed, and I’ll absolutely be planning on picking up the next book.

*I won an ARC of Furyborn in a giveaway.