Review: CROWN OF FEATHERS

Review:  CROWN OF FEATHERSCrown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto
three-half-stars
Series: Crown of Feathers #1
Published by Simon Pulse on February 12, 2019
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 496
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

CROWN OF FEATHERS Review

 

Nicki Pau Preto’s Crown of Feathers is an epic fantasy that centers on a world that has been torn apart by a war between two warrior queens who also happen to be sisters.  The legendary Phoenix Riders were the heroes of that world until the war between the sisters destroyed everything.  Years later, many are still struggling to make ends meet and keep food on the table, including main character Veronyka, who is an orphan because of the war.  Veronyka is also an animage, which means she can communicate with animals. Animages are considered dangerous by the new empire, so Veronyka lives in hiding.  As an animage, however, Veronyka’s biggest dream is to find and join the Phoenix Riders.  She knows they’re still out there somewhere and is willing to do whatever it takes to become one of them, especially if it will get her away from her psychologically abusive sister, Val.

When Val betrays Veronyka in a most heinous and cruel way, Veronyka abandons her and sets out on her own, determined that she will either find the Phoenix Riders or die trying.  She finally locates a compound where apprentices are being trained to become Phoenix Riders. It’s everything she hoped it would be, except there’s a catch.  They aren’t taking new apprentices because they don’t have anymore available phoenixes and even if they were, they only train boys.  To join their ranks, Veronyka disguises herself as a boy, Nyk, and signs on as a stable hand.  She makes friends with Tristan, the son of the Phoenix Riders’ commander, who promises to sponsor Nyk as an apprentice Phoenix Rider the next time they’re taking on new apprentices.

Can Veronyka keep her true identity hidden?  Where’s Val during all of this?  Are the Phoenix Riders safe from the new empire?  What will happen if they’re discovered?

My favorite character, by far, in Crown of Feathers was Veronyka.  The author had me in her corner from the first moment we meet her and see how poorly her sister Val treats her.  And as much as I hated it when Val betrays Veronyka, I loved the growth we get to see in Veronyka when she sets out on her own.  She’s determined, she’s fierce, and just a real force to be reckoned with, especially the closer she gets to making her dream come true.  She had my sympathy right away but eventually she earned my respect and admiration as well.

I also really liked the other two main characters, Tristan and Sev, and thought they also had interesting journeys in this book.  As I mentioned earlier, Tristan is the son of the Phoenix Riders’ commander.  He is under tremendous pressure to live up to his father’s high expectations so that he might lead the Riders someday. In addition to watching his relationship with Nyk/Veronyka grow, much of Tristan’s journey focuses on him desperately trying to overcome his fears and make his father proud.  Sev, like Veronyka, is an animage in hiding.  Unlike Veronyka, however, Sev is hiding in plain sight, working as a soldier in the empire’s army.  His life takes an interesting and even more dangerous turn when he is approached by someone who knows what he is and is tasked with spying on the enemy from within.

Having the story unfold from these three unique perspectives added so many complex layers and interesting relationship dynamics. I really enjoyed watching all three of these characters grow and mature.

Aside from the characters, I also loved the whole concept of the Phoenix Riders.  The visual of these fierce warriors riding on fiery phoenixes gave me chills, and I also loved the way the author describes the unbreakable bond that forms between a phoenix and his or her rider of choice.  Everything about this was just so well thought out and well written. The author made it very easy to see why becoming a Phoenix Rider was Veronyka’s dream.

The ending was actually my absolute favorite part of Crown of Feathers.  If you’re into epic battle scenes, this book is for you.  I don’t want to spoil anything but think along the lines of the battle in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or even the battles to protect the wall in Game of Thrones.  It was so intense and had me flying through the pages to see who would come out on top.  Regardless of my overall rating, I’d give the last 100 or so pages 5 stars.

My biggest issue with A Crown of Feathers centered on the worldbuilding.  As I mentioned, I thought the world itself was fantastic, especially the Phoenixes and the whole idea of the Phoenix Riders.  I just had a hard time with the way all of the background information was inserted in large clumps throughout the story.  It’s probably just me but getting the information that way really slowed the pacing of the story for me at times and just felt in the way of the action.

I also wanted more interaction between Val and Veronyka.  I have a thing for complicated sibling dynamics and was so excited by the way this story started off with Val betraying Veronyka in such a big way.  Then she just disappeared for hundreds of pages.  I spent much of the book wondering when she was going to make an appearance and either redeem herself or make things even worse between herself and Veronyka.

Even though I struggled with the pacing in the first half of the book, I still think Crown of Feathers is a very solid series opener and a stellar debut effort.  The way this first book ended has me very excited to find out where the story is going next. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys epic fantasy, fierce female protagonists, and of course, those beautiful fiery phoenixes.

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

I had a sister, once…

In a world ruled by fierce warrior queens, a grand empire was built upon the backs of Phoenix Riders—legendary heroes who soared through the sky on wings of fire—until a war between two sisters ripped it all apart.

I promised her the throne would not come between us.

Sixteen years later, Veronyka is a war orphan who dreams of becoming a Phoenix Rider from the stories of old. After a shocking betrayal from her controlling sister, Veronyka strikes out alone to find the Riders—even if that means disguising herself as a boy to join their ranks.

But it is a fact of life that one must kill or be killed. Rule or be ruled.

Just as Veronyka finally feels like she belongs, her sister turns up and reveals a tangled web of lies between them that will change everything. And meanwhile, the new empire has learned of the Riders’ return and intends to destroy them once and for all.

Sometimes the title of queen is given. Sometimes it must be taken.

three-half-stars

About Nicki Pau Preto

Nicki is a YA fantasy author living just outside Toronto, Canada. After getting a degree in visual arts, a masters in art history, and a diploma in graphic design, Nicki discovered two things: she loves to escape the real world, and she isn’t interested in a regular 9-5 life. Luckily, her chosen career covers both.

Her YA fantasy debut CROWN OF FEATHERS is coming February 12, 2019 from Simon Pulse.

Review: SISTERS OF THE FIRE by Kim Wilkins

Review:  SISTERS OF THE FIRE by Kim WilkinsSisters of the Fire by Kim Wilkins
Also by this author: Daughters of the Storm
four-stars
Series: Blood and Gold #2
Published by Del Rey on February 5, 2019
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 448
Also in this series: Daughters of the Storm
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

SISTERS OF THE FIRE Review

Sisters of the Fire is the second installment in Kim Wilkins’ captivating epic fantasy series, Blood and Gold.  It picks up four years after the events of the first book, continuing the adventures of the five royal daughters of the King of Thyrsland.  Events from the first book have left the King’s daughters scattered far and wide throughout the kingdom.  Only Bluebell, the eldest daughter, has remained at home with her father, as she will be heir to the throne one day.  Bluebell has attained nearly legendary status as a warrior and is deemed by most to be unkillable, so when she learns one of her enemies has had a magical sword created that has the power to kill her and that it is in the possession of one of her sisters, Bluebell goes on a quest to find each of her sisters and figure out who has the sword so that she can destroy it before it can do her harm.

As with the first book in the series, we follow the perspectives of each of the five sisters, so we see what trials and tribulations the other four sisters are facing while we’re also following Bluebell on her quest.  Sister Ash, a seer, is still in self-imposed exile learning to control her magic and hunting dragons, while sister Rose, is in hiding, having been cast aside by her husband because she was unfaithful. What made this second book an even better read for me than the first one was that the two younger sisters had much bigger roles this time whereas they felt more like secondary characters in the first book.  Ivy is living with her much older husband and is in a position to attain great power should something happen to him, and Willow, our religious zealot from the first book, has become even more fanatical about her faith when we meet her in this book.

Sisters of the Fire is filled with secrets, lies, betrayal, plenty of action, familial love, and yes, even a few hints of romance. It also does a wonderful job of advancing the story arcs of each of the sisters, as well as introducing my new favorite character, Rose’s daughter, Rowan, who was an infant in the first book. Rowan has grown into a feisty rebellious character, who aspires to be a fierce warrior like her aunt Bluebell, while everyone around her wants her to be proper and ladylike.  She’s a delightful addition to what was already a stellar cast of badass females, and I can’t wait to see how she factors in as this exciting series continues.

With this second installment, the Blood and Gold series continues to impress me and I look forward to seeing what is in store for all of the sisters, and of course, Rowan, in the next book. I highly recommend the series to fantasy fans, but I also wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about complicated family dynamics, especially sibling relationships.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

In the next chapter of a fantasy series featuring five unforgettable sisters—the warrior, the magician, the lover, the zealot, and the gossip—an insidious threat jeopardizes a fragile peace.

Four years have passed since the five royal sisters—daughters of the king—worked together to restore their father to health and to the throne while fracturing the bonds among themselves almost irreparably. Only Bluebell remains at home, dutifully serving as heir to her father’s kingdom. Rose has been cast aside by her former husband and hides in exile with her aunt, separated forever from her beloved daughter, Rowan. Ash wanders the distant wastes with her teacher, learning magic and hunting dragons, determined that the dread fate she has foreseen for herself and her loved ones never comes to pass. Ivy rules over a prosperous seaport, married to an aged husband she hates yet finding delight in her two young sons and a handsome captain of the guard. And as for Willow, she hides the most dangerous secret of all—one that could destroy all that the sisters once sought to save.

four-stars

About Kim Wilkins

Kim Wilkins was born in London, and grew up at the seaside north of Brisbane, Australia. She has degrees in literature and creative writing, and teaches at the University of Queensland and in the community. Her first novel, The Infernal, a supernatural thriller was published in 1997. Since then, she has published across many genres and for many different age groups. Her latest books, contemporary epic women’s fiction, are published under the pseudonym Kimberley Freeman. Kim has won many awards and is published all over the world. She lives in Brisbane with a bunch of lovable people and pets.

Early Reviews: DARK OF THE WEST & COURTING DARKNESS

Early Reviews:  DARK OF THE WEST & COURTING DARKNESSDark of the West by Joanna Hathaway
three-half-stars
Series: Glass Alliance #1
Published by Tor Teen on February 5, 2019
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 480
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

He was raised in revolution. She was raised in a palace. Can their love stop a war? Code Name Verity meets The Winner's Curse in Joanna Hathaway's Dark of the West, a breathtaking YA fantasy debut.

Aurelia Isendare is a princess of a small kingdom in the North, raised in privilege but shielded from politics as her brother prepares to step up to the throne. Halfway around the world, Athan Dakar, the youngest son of a ruthless general, is a fighter pilot longing for a life away from the front lines. When Athan’s mother is shot and killed, his father is convinced it’s the work of his old rival, the Queen of Etania—Aurelia’s mother. Determined to avenge his wife’s murder, he devises a plot to overthrow the Queen, a plot which sends Athan undercover to Etania to gain intel from her children.

Athan’s mission becomes complicated when he finds himself falling for the girl he’s been tasked with spying upon. Aurelia feels the same attraction, all the while desperately seeking to stop the war threatening to break between the Southern territory and the old Northern kingdoms that control it—a war in which Athan’s father is determined to play a role. As diplomatic ties manage to just barely hold, the two teens struggle to remain loyal to their families and each other as they learn that war is not as black and white as they’ve been raised to believe.

Review:

Joanna Hathaway’s Dark of the West is the exciting first book in her ambitious debut YA Fantasy series, Glass Alliance. Inspired by the political landscape of WWII, the worldbuilding in this novel is lush and intricate, and manages to feel familiar and yet unique all at the same time.  I think this is a series that is going to have a little bit of something for everyone:  political intrigue, war mongering, spies, assassinations, epic battle scenes, just to name a few.  As exciting as all of that sounds, however, what really makes the story come alive are the star crossed lovers at its heart, Athan and Aurelia,

I loved the portrayal of these two young people.  Athan is a gifted pilot and the youngest son of a famous and ruthless general.  The general’s primary rival, is the Queen of Etania, who also happens to be Aurelia’s mother.  When Athan’s mother is unexpectedly gunned down by a sniper, Athan’s father is convinced that the Queen is behind it and sends Athan on a mission to avenge his mother’s death and to help his father overthrow the Queen.  It is while on this mission that Athan meets and falls in love with Aurelia, the one person he shouldn’t be with.

What I loved about this story is that it is presented to us from the viewpoints of both Athan and Aurelia.  We get to see firsthand from each side what is happening with regard to the war preparations since war appears to be imminent.  But then we also get to see firsthand just how conflicted both Athan and Aurelia are when it comes to their wanting to remain loyal to their families, but also the undeniable attraction they feel for one another.  Athan’s chapters were my favorites because in addition to witnessing all of the internal conflicts he is struggling with, we also get exciting chapters where he is in the sky, either flying training routes or actually engaged in battles in the air.  I kept thinking of Star Wars and Top Gun while reading those scenes and they were just such an adrenaline rush.

I did have a few issues with the book, however, which is why I’ve rated it what I have.  Aside from those flying scenes, I found the pacing of the first half of the novel to be somewhat slow.  I also wasn’t a big fan of the prologue, which drops some pretty big spoilers about where the story is ultimately going as it pertains to Athan and Aurelia.  While that information made for an exciting beginning, it ended up leaving me frustrated as Athan and Aurelia don’t even cross paths until almost the halfway point of the first book.  I honestly think I would have preferred no prologue. Even with those couple of issues, however, I still found Dark of the West to be a very solid first book in this series and I look forward to seeing how we end up at the scene we are presented with in the prologue.  3.5 STARS

 

 

Early Reviews:  DARK OF THE WEST & COURTING DARKNESSCourting Darkness by Robin LaFevers
three-half-stars
Series: Courting Darkness Duology #1
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers on February 5, 2019
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 512
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Death wasn’t the end, it was only the beginning…

Sybella has always been the darkest of Death’s daughters, trained at the convent of Saint Mortain to serve as his justice. But she has a new mission now. In a desperate bid to keep her two youngest sisters safe from the family that nearly destroyed them all, she agrees to accompany the duchess to France, where they quickly find themselves surrounded by enemies. Their one ray of hope is Sybella’s fellow novitiates, disguised and hidden deep in the French court years ago by the convent—provided Sybella can find them.

Genevieve has been undercover for so many years, she struggles to remember who she is or what she’s supposed to be fighting for. Her only solace is a hidden prisoner who appears all but forgotten by his guards. When tragedy strikes, she has no choice but to take matters into her own hands—even if it means ignoring the long awaited orders from the convent.

As Sybella and Gen’s paths draw ever closer, the fate of everything they hold sacred rests on a knife’s edge. Will they find each other in time, or will their worlds collide, destroying everything they care about?

Review:

Robin LaFevers latest offering, Courting Darkness, is the first book in a new duology that follows some of the beloved characters from the popular His Fair Assassin series on a new adventure.  I didn’t realize this was connected to the other series when I requested it, but aside from a few moments of confusion here and there, I was able to settle into the story and read it without too much difficulty.

Set in 15th century France, this story is full of secrets, lies, and danger as it revolves around conflicts between France and Brittany.  It is presented in alternating points of view from two assassin nuns, Sybella and Genevieve, who were trained at the convent of Saint Mortain.  I was a little confused about what exactly they were supposed to be doing, but the gist is that Genevieve is deep undercover in the French courts and has been so for years, awaiting word of her next mission, while Sybella is stationed with the Duchess of Brittany and ends up accompanying her to France when it is agreed that the Duchess should marry the King of France.  While there, Sybella and the Duchess find themselves in hostile territory with Sybella’s siblings in the line of fire.  Determined to protect her sisters at all costs, Sybella starts scoping out all of the ladies in the French court, hoping to figure out which one is her fellow assassin so that the next phase of their mission can move forward.

While the politics, the deceits and the whole idea of assassin nuns are all quite interesting, even if a little confusing at times, my favorite part of the story was actually Sybella and Beast, one of the royal guards.  Their relationship was so sweet and it was ultimately what kept me turning the pages.  From what I’m hearing, they are a favorite pairing from His Fair Assassin so I definitely plan to go back and read more about those two, especially since I really did enjoy LaFevers’ fluid writing style.  I didn’t care for Genevieve quite as much as Sybella but I have a feeling that will change based on the excellent cliffhanger we’re left with at the end of Courting Darkness.

I think Courting Darkness would have been an even better read for me if I had gone into it after reading the His Fair Assassins trilogy, but I still found it to be an exciting read, especially for anyone who is into political intrigue.  3.5 STARS

three-half-stars

About Joanna Hathaway

JOANNA HATHAWAY was born in Montréal and is an avid storyteller who was inspired to write after reading her great-grandfather’s memoirs of the First World War. A lifelong history buff, she now has shelves filled with biographies and historical accounts, and perhaps one too many books about pilots. She can often be found reading, traveling, or riding horses.

Her debut novel, DARK OF THE WEST (Tor Teen, February 5th, 2019), is the first in a WWII-infused fantasy series of forbidden love and deadly revenge.

She is represented by Steven Salpeter of Curtis Brown Ltd.

About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers was raised on a steady diet of fairy tales, Bulfinch’s mythology, and 19th century poetry. It is not surprising she grew up to be a hopeless romantic.

Though she has never trained as an assassin or joined a convent, she did attend Catholic school for three years, which instilled in her a deep fascination with sacred rituals and the concept of the Divine. She has been on a search for answers to life’s mysteries ever since.

While many of those answers still elude her, she was lucky enough to find her one true love, and is living happily ever after with him in the foothills of southern California.

In addition to writing about teen assassin nuns in medieval Brittany, she writes books for middle grade readers, including the Theodosia books and the Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist series. You can learn more about those books at www.rllafevers.com.

Mini Reviews for THRONE OF GLASS & THE LADY’S GUIDE TO PETTICOATS AND PIRACY

Mini Reviews for THRONE OF GLASS & THE LADY’S GUIDE TO PETTICOATS AND PIRACYThrone of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
Also by this author: A Court of Thorns and Roses (A Court of Thorns and Roses, #1)
four-stars
Series: Throne of Glass #1
Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on May 7, 2013
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 406
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

In a land without magic, where the king rules with an iron hand, an assassin is summoned to the castle. She comes not to kill the king, but to win her freedom. If she defeats twenty-three killers, thieves, and warriors in a competition, she is released from prison to serve as the king's champion. Her name is Celaena Sardothien.

The Crown Prince will provoke her. The Captain of the Guard will protect her. But something evil dwells in the castle of glass--and it's there to kill. When her competitors start dying one by one, Celaena's fight for freedom becomes a fight for survival, and a desperate quest to root out the evil before it destroys her world.

Review:

After three years of saying I wanted to read Sarah J. Maas’ popular fantasy series Throne of Glass, I have finally started it. It was totally worth the wait too!  I was hooked from the moment we meet the main character, Celaena Sardothien, who is only 18 years old but is already a famous assassin.  When the story opens, Celaena is a prisoner working in the Endovier salt mines. The harsh conditions the prisoners work in make it a death sentence for most, but somehow Celaena has managed to survive thus far.  I’m always looking for a underdog to root for, so Celaena had my support and sympathy from the first pages of the book and especially after she is approached by Crown Prince Dorian of Endovier, who wants her to compete as his champion in a tournament which will determine who will be the next royal assassin.  If Celaena wins and serves as the King’s assassin for four years, she will then be granted her freedom.  It’s a deal too good to pass up, as a few more months in the salt mines will mean certain death for Celaena.

The cast of characters and the tournament itself are what really made this book a hit for me.  I had mixed feelings about Celaena because she sometimes came across as way too cocky and arrogant, but even with that tendency, she really grew on me as the story progressed (especially when it was revealed that she’s a book nerd and she uses her charms to get the Prince to allow her access to his library, lol).  I also really liked Prince Dorian, who was quite charming and funny.  My favorite character though was actually Chaol, the Captain of the Guard. I’m a sucker for a seemingly gruff guy who turns out to be a softie and that is Chaol all the way.  I loved all of his scenes with Celaena because you could tell that even though he was hard on her while they were training and pushed her to the limit, he was growing to care about her very much.  I have a feeling this is going to turn into a love triangle, which kind of bums me out because I didn’t think the chemistry felt very realistic between Celaena and Dorian, but I’ll reserve judgment for now.

Aside from this cast of characters, I was especially drawn in by the assassin’s tournament.  The challenges themselves were all very exciting, and Mass paced them well so that I never found myself bored even though there were so many of them to get through.  The menacing atmosphere throughout really kept me on the edge of my seat, especially once competitors started turning up dead in the middle of the night with no signs of who or what could have possibly killed them.  The story becomes an exciting race against time to find the killer as I found myself rooting for Celaena to not just win the tournament, but to also find and take down the killer.

Throne of Glass was a riveting first book in what I think is sure to become one of my favorite fantasy series.  I can’t wait to read the second book and see what happens next! 4 STARS

 

Mini Reviews for THRONE OF GLASS & THE LADY’S GUIDE TO PETTICOATS AND PIRACYThe Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee
Also by this author: The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue
four-stars
Series: Montague Siblings #2
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on October 2, 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 450
Also in this series: The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

In this highly anticipated sequel to the New York Times bestselling The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Felicity Montague must use all her womanly wits and wiles to achieve her dreams of becoming a doctor—even if she has to scheme her way across Europe to do it. A must-have for fans of Mackenzi Lee’s extraordinary and Stonewall Honor-winning novel.

A year after an accidentally whirlwind grand tour with her brother Monty, Felicity Montague has returned to England with two goals in mind—avoid the marriage proposal of a lovestruck suitor from Edinburgh and enroll in medical school. However, her intellect and passion will never be enough in the eyes of the administrators, who see men as the sole guardians of science.

But then a window of opportunity opens—a doctor she idolizes is marrying an old friend of hers in Germany. Felicity believes if she could meet this man he could change her future, but she has no money of her own to make the trip. Luckily, a mysterious young woman is willing to pay Felicity’s way, so long as she’s allowed to travel with Felicity disguised as her maid.

In spite of her suspicions, Felicity agrees, but once the girl’s true motives are revealed, Felicity becomes part of a perilous quest that leads them from the German countryside to the promenades of Zurich to secrets lurking beneath the Atlantic.

Review:

Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was one of my favorite reads last year.  The story was just so much fun and I loved everything about Monty and Percy and all of their antics. My favorite character in that book was actually Monty’s younger sister, Felicity, so I was over the moon when I heard that the sequel, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, would put Felicity front and center.

Felicity is a sassy young woman whose dream is to become a doctor.  I admired her fierce determination to make her dream come true, especially considering this series is set in the 18th century so the odds are, unfortunately, not in her favor.  This book is all about Felicity’s adventures as she, fed up with the way she is  constantly dismissed by academics in her own country, travels across Europe in hopes of securing an opportunity to study medicine. Her adventure is funded by a mysterious Muslim woman named Sim, and the dynamic between Felicity and Sim is fantastic.  I wouldn’t say they were quite as entertaining a duo as Monty and Percy in the first book, but they’re right behind them.

Speaking of Monty and Percy, my favorite duo also makes several appearances in this book, and I was so happy to see them again and know that they are still madly in love with one another.  They also brought some of the hilarity from the first book with them, which in many ways, was my favorite part of this book.  Without them, the overall story wasn’t nearly as funny as the first one was, and I missed that humor.  The Gentleman’s Guide was laugh out loud funny from start to finish and this book was a little more serious in tone.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but since I was expecting a repeat of that, I was a little bummed that the same level of humor wasn’t there.  Still a fantastic read though. 4 STARS

four-stars

About Mackenzi Lee

Mackenzi Lee holds a BA in history and an MFA from Simmons College in writing for children and young adults, and her short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Atlas Obscura, Crixeo, The Friend, and The Newport Review, among others. Her debut novel, This Monstrous Thing, won the PEN-New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award. Her second book, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, a queer spin on the classic adventure novel, was a New York Times bestseller (what is life?), and ABA bestseller, earned five starred reviews, a #1 Indie Next Pick, and won the New England Book Award.

She loves Diet Coke, sweater weather, and Star Wars. On a perfect day, she can be found enjoying all three. She currently calls Boston home, where she works as an independent bookstore manager.

About Sarah J. Maas

Sarah J. Maas is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Throne of Glass series and A Court of Thorns and Roses series, as well as a USA Today and international bestselling author. Sarah wrote the first incarnation of the Throne of Glass series when she was just sixteen, and it has now sold in thirty-five languages. A New York native, Sarah currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and dog. Empire of Storms, the fifth Throne of Glass novel, released on September 6th, 2016.
She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Hamilton College in 2008 with a degree in Creative Writing and a minor in Religious Studies.

Blog Tour Book Review: WHITE STAG by Kara Barbieri

Blog Tour Book Review:  WHITE STAG by Kara BarbieriWhite Stag (Permafrost, #1) by Kara Barbieri
three-half-stars
Series: Permafrost #1
Published by Wednesday Books on January 8, 2019
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 368
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

 

 

 

White Stag is the first installment in an exciting new fantasy series by author Kara Barbieri.  I’ll admit right from the start that I first became interested in this book because I was drawn to its stunning cover and especially because the white stag on it brought to mind Harry Potter and his patronus.  Cover love aside, once I read the synopsis and saw that the book was actually about goblins, I knew I had to read it!

Barbieri gets her story off to a strong start by tossing her readers right into an action-packed fight scene in the Goblin Palace.  In one fell swoop, we meet the main character Janneke, learn that she is a slave who has a complicated relationship with her captor, Soren, and that she is also a pretty badass fighter.  We also meet the heinous and sadistic villain, Soren’s uncle Lydian, and learn that he has a history of violence with Janneke that still haunts her to this day.  In addition to all of this, we also see the Goblin King slain before our very eyes and learn that there will be a stag hunt to determine who the next King is.  Talk about starting off with a bang!  I was thoroughly engaged from that first scene and wanted to know more about Janneke, how she ended up where she is, and why Soren and his uncle seem so completely different from one another even though they’re both Goblins, and then of course I wanted to know more about the death of the King and the stag hunt to crown the new King.

The only survivor when the Goblins burned her village to the ground, 17-year-old Janneke is a character I was drawn to immediately.  The Goblins took her into their world, and for the past 100+ years, she has been their slave, first to the repugnant Lydian and then to Soren, once Lydian grew tired of her. Consider yourself forewarned that Janneke’s history with Lydian is dark and violent (Trigger warnings for rape, sexual abuse).  I had a somewhat difficult time reading about her time with Lydian and how it still torments her, but it is portrayed realistically and it does shape the person that we meet in the book so I think it’s well done. Janneke is definitely a survivor in every sense of the word and it’s easy to feel sympathetic toward her as she realizes and becomes conflicted by the fact that the more time she spends with the Goblins in their land, the less human she has become.  She fears turning into a monster, and it’s easy to understand why she feels that way knowing her history with Lydian.

Soren is also a very likeable character.  Even though Janneke is technically his slave, it’s clear from the opening pages that their relationship is anything but Master and Slave.  I found Soren to be very intriguing, and I liked how protective he was of Janneke. It often felt like he’s trying to make up for his uncle’s cruelty. Soren stands as a reminder that Goblins aren’t necessarily monsters, and throughout the course of the novel, I think he and Janneke learn a lot from each other about the nature of humanity and monsters.

Another aspect of White Stag that I really enjoyed was that there were two equally compelling plotlinesJanneke’s journey is an emotional one as, caught between the human world and the world of the Permafrost, she battles her inner demons and tries to figure out who she is and where she belongs.  Janneke’s plight is one that is easy to get caught up in and she’s such a likeable character that I just found myself really wanting her to find a resolution that would make her happy.

In addition to Janneke’s emotional story, however, there is also the very exciting stag hunt, which will determine the next Goblin King.  In many ways, this was actually my favorite part of the story because it was just so action-packed and fraught with danger, not to mention all of the backstabbing and conniving behavior!  The stag hunt is basically a free-for-all, and even if you form alliances with other goblins, it’s fully with the understanding that all alliances are temporary the closer everyone gets to the stag.  Barbieri does a very nice job of crafting these two separate plotlines and then seamlessly entwining them by way of Janneke, who has a tremendous stake in who becomes the next Goblin King since the main two contenders are Soren and Lydian.

Another strong point of the novel is the worldbuilding.  I just loved the wild and wintry setting of the Goblin’s Permafrost.  It’s filled with danger and excitement, myths, ancient rituals, and magical creatures and was just everything I hoped it would be.

Although I enjoyed the novel very much overall, I did run into a couple of issues while reading White Stag. One was that I was not completely sold on any kind of a romantic relationship between Soren and Janneke.  I’m not even sure why honestly. I enjoyed their banter, especially when Janneke was trying to teach Soren how to appreciate sarcasm and use it properly, but I guess for me, their chemistry felt more friend-like than it did romantic. For that reason, it threw me for a bit of a loop when things started to heat up between them.

 A second issue was that there were a couple of times when I just felt like I wanted more information, such as the idea that Janneke is still technically 17 years old even though she has been with the Goblins for over 100 years.  I would have liked a little more explanation as to how that was possible.

Overall, I found White Stag to be a very impressive debut from Kara Barbieri and I look forward to seeing where she takes the story in her next book.

 

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

The first book in a brutally stunning series where a young girl finds herself becoming more monster than human and must uncover dangerous truths about who she is and the place that has become her home.

As the last child in a family of daughters, seventeen-year-old Janneke was raised to be the male heir. While her sisters were becoming wives and mothers, she was taught to hunt, track, and fight. On the day her village was burned to the ground, Janneke—as the only survivor—was taken captive by the malicious Lydian and eventually sent to work for his nephew Soren.

Janneke’s survival in the court of merciless monsters has come at the cost of her connection to the human world. And when the Goblin King’s death ignites an ancient hunt for the next king, Soren senses an opportunity for her to finally fully accept the ways of the brutal Permafrost. But every action he takes to bring her deeper into his world only shows him that a little humanity isn’t bad—especially when it comes to those you care about.

Through every battle they survive, Janneke’s loyalty to Soren deepens. After dangerous truths are revealed, Janneke must choose between holding on or letting go of her last connections to a world she no longer belongs to. She must make the right choice to save the only thing keeping both worlds from crumbling.

three-half-stars

About Kara Barbieri

Kara Barbieri is a writer living in the tiny town of Hayward, Wisconsin. An avid fantasy fan, she began writing White Stag at eighteen and posting it to Wattpad soon after under the name of ‘Pandean’. When she’s not writing, you can find her marathoning Buffy the Vampire Slayer, reviving gothic fashion, and jamming to synthpop.

Early Review: THE GIRL KING

Early Review:  THE GIRL KINGThe Girl King by Mimi Yu
three-half-stars
Series: The Girl King #1
Published by Bloomsbury YA on January 8, 2019
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 432
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

 
 
 
 
 
 

MY REVIEW:

Mimi Yu’s debut novel The Girl King is an Asian-inspired fantasy that is filled to the brim with political intrigue, sibling rivalry, betrayal, rebellion, and of course, magic. It follows Lu and Min, two sisters who are as different as night and day, and who are princesses of the Empire.  Lu, the more outspoken and rebellious of the two, believes that their father (against their mother’s wishes) is about to name her as his successor, which would make her the Empire’s first female ruler. Min, the more docile and reserved sister, also believes that Lu is destined to be Empress and that her own role is simply to continue being the meek and dutiful daughter that makes their mother happy.

It’s also not only the sisters who expect Lu to be named the next ruler.  Most of the citizens of the Empire expect it as well. So, when the unthinkable happens and their father names their cousin Set as the new Emperor instead and proclaims that Lu’s destiny will be to marry Set, chaos ensues on all sides. Lu feels betrayed and Min is utterly bewildered.  Determined to reclaim her birthright at all costs, Lu sets out to find allies who will help her take back the throne.  In doing so, however, she leaves her sister Min behind.  Min’s future has also been up-ended, both by their father’s proclamation and by Lu’s desertion.  What role will Min play now that everything has been turned upside down?

The three main characters of The Girl King were the story’s biggest draw for me.

  • Lu.  I really liked Lu’s fierceness and determination, and that she’s a bit of a rebel.  Most of all though, I liked her self-confidence.  She truly feels that she is more than capable of taking her father’s place as ruler of the Empire.  The fact that she would be the first female ruler doesn’t faze her in the least.  Some may find her arrogant, but I just found it refreshing that she knows what she wants and feels ready for the responsibility.  My heart broke for her when her father announced that Set, a cousin that Lu despises, would be named the next ruler instead of Lu.
  • Min.  Min was a little harder to get to know, mainly because she’s so quiet and retreating compared to Lu.  She functions as little more than a secondary character while Lu is around.  Even relegated to the background, however, Min still got to me.  I still found myself really caring about her and feeling protective of her.  It seemed like no good could come from her being left behind at the palace without Lu there as a buffer between her and anyone else who might try to take advantage of her meek nature.  I don’t want to give away anything too spoilery but I will say that the transformation Min undergoes throughout the course of The Girl King wins her the Most Shocking Character award.  It’s amazing what can happen when someone is just pushed way too far!
  • Nokhai (or Nok). Nok was actually probably my favorite character.  As much as I enjoyed the sibling dynamic between Lu and Min, I just found Nokhai’s story equally, if not more, compelling than theirs.  Nok is a wolf shapeshifter, and thanks to Min and Lu’s father wiping out his people, Nok is the last surviving one of his kind. Unable to master this shapeshifting power that he has, Nok has been in hiding and would prefer to stay that way, However, when he and Lu meet up out in the forest, he finds himself drawn into an awkward alliance with her and vows to help her reclaim the throne.  I love how the author infuses this character with so much complexity and inner turmoil.  On the one hand, he hates the Empire and everything it stands for, but on the other, there’s something about Lu that makes him believe he can trust her to be a just ruler.  Add to that Nok’s immense frustration that he cannot master his power and that there is no one left to teach him how to do so and we have ourselves an emotional mess of a character.  Nok just needed a hug so badly.

Aside from the characters, I also thought the worldbuilding was wonderful too.  Everything is just so detailed and vivid. There’s a complex and very cool magic system of course, but there’s also spirits, shapeshifters, prophecies, and even a hidden city and temples.  I do wish I was more familiar with Asian folklore and history so that I could have appreciated it even more, but I was still quite captivated by the world the author has constructed.

The author also strikes a nice balance between action and emotion.  While much of the story feels quite character driven as Lu, Min, and Nok are each battling their own inner demons, there is also a very strong plot that is filled with political intrigue, betrayal, and epic fight scenes.

Overall, I found The Girl King to be a very entertaining read.  My only real complaint was that I wish the story had felt a little more original.  I guess I’ve just read too many stories where the rightful ruler goes into exile and has to come back and fight for their throne.  It was a nice twist to have that rightful ruler be a female this time though.

There were also a couple of plot twists regarding Nok that I found somewhat predictable.  Predicting how things would turn out didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the story, although I always prefer to be kept guessing for as long as possible to build suspense.

If you like fierce heroines, sibling rivalries, vivid worldbuilding, and political intrigue, I think you would find The Girl King to your liking.  I found it to be a very solid debut for Mimi Yu and look forward to seeing where the second book in the series takes me.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Two sisters become unwitting rivals in a war to claim the title of Emperor in this sweeping tale of ambition, sacrifice and betrayal for readers of Sabaa Tahir and Alwyn Hamilton.

All hail the Girl King.

Sisters Lu and Min have always understood their places as princesses of the Empire. Lu knows she is destined to become the dynasty’s first female ruler, while Min is resigned to a life in her shadow. Then their father declares their male cousin Set the heir instead—a betrayal that sends the sisters down two very different paths.

Determined to reclaim her birthright, Lu goes on the run. She needs an ally—and an army—if she is to succeed. Her quest leads her to Nokhai, the last surviving wolf shapeshifter. Nok wants to keep his identity secret, but finds himself forced into an uneasy alliance with the girl whose family killed everyone he ever loved…

Alone in the volatile court, Min’s hidden power awakens—a forbidden, deadly magic that could secure Set’s reign…or allow Min to claim the throne herself. But there can only be one Emperor, and the sisters’ greatest enemy could turn out to be each other.

three-half-stars

About Mimi Yu

Mimi Yu was born and raised in rural upstate New York. Her hometown is the site of both the Women’s Rights Convention (1848) and the largest active landfill in New York State (ongoing).

She currently resides in the SF Bay Area of California, and soon she will live near Chicago. She has never been a midwesterner before, but she does enjoy a good casserole.

Besides books, Mimi likes quilting, gardening, drawing, picking up heavy weights, and pop music. She has four planets in Aquarius. She knows a little bit about a lot of animals, and far too much about cats.

Backlist Briefs: Reviews for MUSE OF NIGHTMARES & VENGEANCE

Backlist Briefs:  Reviews for MUSE OF NIGHTMARES & VENGEANCEMuse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor
Also by this author: Strange the Dreamer
five-stars
Series: Strange the Dreamer #2
on October 2, 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 514
Also in this series: Strange the Dreamer
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Sarai has lived and breathed nightmares since she was six years old.

She believed she knew every horror and was beyond surprise.

She was wrong.

In the wake of tragedy, neither Lazlo nor Sarai are who they were before. One a god, the other a ghost, they struggle to grasp the new boundaries of their selves as dark-minded Minya holds them hostage, intent on vengeance against Weep.

Lazlo faces an unthinkable choice—save the woman he loves, or everyone else?—while Sarai feels more helpless than ever. But is she? Sometimes, only the direst need can teach us our own depths, and Sarai, the Muse of Nightmares, has not yet discovered what she's capable of.

As humans and godspawn reel in the aftermath of the citadel's near fall, a new foe shatters their fragile hopes, and the mysteries of the Mesarthim are resurrected: Where did the gods come from, and why? What was done with thousands of children born in the citadel nursery? And most important of all, as forgotten doors are opened and new worlds revealed: Must heroes always slay monsters, or is it possible to save them instead?

Love and hate, revenge and redemption, destruction and salvation all clash in this astonishing and heart-stopping sequel to the New York Times bestseller, Strange the Dreamer.

Review:

I’m just going to start off by saying that Laini Taylor’s writing in this series is about as close to perfection for me as it gets.  There’s just something so special about the world she has created with Weep and with her Godspawn characters that enchanted me from the first pages of Strange the Dreamer and that continued to captivate me all the way through her latest installment, Muse of Nightmares.  This has truly been one of my favorite fantasy reads and I’m probably just going to babble incoherently in this review and not do justice to the story at all.

Muse of Nightmares has an epic, sweeping storyline that is hard to talk about without giving away spoilers, so I’m just going to say that it not only revisits all of our favorite characters from Strange the Dreamer and takes each of their stories to the next level, but it also answers any and all questions that we were left hanging with at the end of that first book.  Then, Taylor ramps up the worldbuilding even more by taking us inside of the world that ultimately creates the Godspawn and gives us that origin story.  This aspect of the novel and the new characters that are introduced end up becoming crucial to the original storyline and I just found it so impressive how smoothly Taylor ties together all of the intricate threads that she creates between the two books.

The characters were of course still my favorite part of the series.  My love for Lazlo and Sarai and their relationship only grew as they continued to defy all odds to be together in Muse of Nightmares.  Ruby, Feral, and Sparrow are still as delightful as ever, and I even developed a soft spot for characters that I really didn’t care for in the first book, like Eril-Fane, Thyron Nero, and especially Minya.  My newfound love for Minya was what surprised me the most about this second book.  As much as I despised her in the first book, I actually cried for her in Muse of Nightmares.  Totally did not see that coming, lol.

I’m sure I haven’t begun to do justice to what a beautiful fantasy story this series really is, but trust me, it’s one of the most beautifully crafted stores I’ve read in a long time.  It’s not a fast-paced story by any means, but I thought the pacing was just perfect as Laini Taylor wove her exquisite tale and captured both my heart and imagination.  5 STARS

 

Backlist Briefs:  Reviews for MUSE OF NIGHTMARES & VENGEANCEVengeful by V.E. Schwab
Also by this author: A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, #1)
four-stars
Series: Villains #2
Published by Tor Books on September 25, 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction
Pages: 478
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Eli Ever and Victor Vale were only medical students when their mutual discovery that near-death experiences can, under the right conditions, manifest extraordinary abilities.

They were best friends, and rivals, and then enemies. They were dead, then alive, and then---Eli killed Victor, once and for all.

Or so he thought---but Sydney Clarke felt otherwise, and used her own superpower to tip the scales. Now, a trio hides in the shadows, while another takes advantages of post-death life to take over the city of Merit.

If there can be life after death—will there be calm after vengeance, or will chaos rule?

Review:

Vengeful is the much anticipated sequel to V.E. Schwab’s immensely popular Vicious, and man, what a sequel it is!  It’s everything I hoped it would be and more.  Schwab revisits the world of the EOs (Extra Ordinaries) and all of my favorite morally gray characters and even adds a couple of new ones with cool EO powers to the mix.  If you’re into villains at all, you’re going to love Marcella because The Villains series really lives up to its name with the addition of her character.  I don’t want to give away too much about Marcella and what she’s after so I’ll just say that I spent much of the book waiting with bated breath to see what was going to happen once she finally crossed paths with either Eli or Victor.  I just knew from the moment we were introduced to her that it was going to be an explosive encounter!

The story picks up five years after the events of Vicious and we learn that when Sydney used her power to resurrect Victor the last time, something went wrong with his powers and now he keeps dying, each time staying dead longer and longer.  He’s in a fight for his life at this point.  As if Victor’s desperate need to find a way to save himself doesn’t make for an intense enough story, there’s Eli at the other end of the spectrum.  Eli has actually been captured and imprisoned by an anti-EO group and used as little more than a science experiment for years. The predicaments they find themselves in are clearly not what they had in mind when they first started trying to secure EO powers for themselves years ago.

Eli is perhaps the most surprising element of Vengeful for me.  He is, of course, still driven by his belief that he is good and every other EO, especially Victor, is evil and needs to be destroyed, but at the same time, we are given insight into Eli’s past (growing up with an abusive father, etc.) that brings such a level of humanity to him that I honestly felt tremendous sympathy for Eli. Aside from my unexpected sympathy for Eli, what I loved most about Vengeful, as with Vicious, are the scenes with Victor and his found family.  Those domestic scenes between Victor, Mitch, Sydney, and Sydney’s dog, Dol, just gave me such warm fuzzies and perfectly offset all of the danger and violence that infuses every other scene in the series.

I did struggle a bit with Schwab’s use of multiple timelines in Vengeful, mainly because there were so many of them to keep track of.  Thankfully though, I got used to them fairly quickly and settled in for the ride.

My love for V.E. Schwab’s writing continues to grow with each book that I read and Vengeful is no exception to that.  I love the intricate worlds that she builds, the flawed morally ambiguous characters that she makes me fall for, and the deliciously dark and dangerous storylines that she crafts.  4 STARS

five-stars

About Laini Taylor

Laini Taylor is the author of the National Book Award Finalist Lips Touch: Three Times, as well as the novels Blackbringer and Silksinger. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, illustrator Jim Di Bartolo, and their daughter.

About V.E. Schwab

ve schwab

Victoria “V.E.” Schwab is the #1 NYT, USA, and Indie bestselling author of more than a dozen books, including Vicious, the Shades of Magic series, and This Savage Song. Her work has received critical acclaim, been featured by EW and The New York Times, been translated into more than a dozen languages, and been optioned for TV and Film. The Independent calls her the “natural successor to Diana Wynne Jones” and touts her “enviable, almost Gaimanesque ability to switch between styles, genres, and tones.”

She is represented by Holly Root at Root Literary and Jon Cassir at CAA.

All appearance and publicity inquiries should be directed to her PR rep, Kristin Dwyer, at: kdwyer@leoprny.com

Early Review: THE WINTER OF THE WITCH by Katherine Arden

Early Review:  THE WINTER OF THE WITCH by Katherine ArdenThe Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden
Also by this author: The Bear and the Nightingale
five-stars
Series: Winternight Trilogy #3
Published by Del Rey Books on January 8, 2019
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

 

MY REVIEW:

 

The Winter of the Witch is the final book in Katherine Arden’s captivating Winternight Trilogy. I always find it difficult to review books that come late in a series because it’s so hard to talk about them without giving away spoilers, but I’m going to give it my best shot here and hope that my words do it justice because  filled with unforgettable characters, intricate worldbuilding, and creatures from Russian folklore, the Winternight Trilogy truly is one of the most beautifully crafted series I’ve ever read.

To give a bit of general context for those who have begun the series, The Winter of the Witch picks up right where the second book left off.  Moscow is in ruins and its terrified citizens are looking for answers, and more specifically, for someone to blame.  That someone, unfortunately, becomes our heroine Vasya, and the final book begins with her fleeing for her life from an angry mob who accuse her of being a witch and want to see her dead.

War is also brewing as the Grand Prince of Moscow looks to go after those who threaten his kingdom.  While the Grand Prince prepares for war, the priest Konstantin has troubles of his own.  Although he may be a powerful religious figure, Konstantin is a weak man, easily manipulated by those stronger than he is.  In Konstantin’s case, he finds himself the puppet of a vengeful demon named the Bear.  The Bear feeds off of chaos, fear, and war so he uses Konstantin to fan the flames of hatred and distrust to create chaos everywhere.

This chaos and turmoil affects not just the humans, but also the magical creatures.  Vasya finds herself with the weight of both worlds on her shoulders as she desperately tries to save both her Russian homeland and her beloved magical realm.

Can Vasya stop the Bear and Konstantin?  Can she stop a war?  And most importantly, is there any way that her magical pagan world can peacefully coexist with the human world?  It’s a tall order, and Vasya isn’t sure she’s up to the task.

Vasya.  As with the two prior books, Vasya is my favorite part about this story.  We’ve watched her grow from a young girl to a young woman and there has just been such tremendous character growth throughout each book. That growth continues well into this final book and I can honestly say that Vasya is one of my all-time favorite book heroines.  I love her big heart, her refusal to conform to what is expected of her, and most especially, I love her resilience.  The final book presents Vasya with several heartbreaking, gut-wrenching moments – moments that probably would have crushed a lesser person – but no matter how low she is pushed down, she always picks herself back up and refuses to give up.

Worldbuilding.  I honestly didn’t think Arden could improve upon the worldbuilding from the first two books, but she proved me wrong with the Winter of the Witch.  Again, I don’t want to say much because of spoilers, but into her world of Russian inspired folklore, she introduces what she calls the Road to Midnight and for me, it’s one of the most memorable and unique parts of the story.  Vasya finds herself journeying on this road as she desperately seeks help from the Frost Demon and the journey she takes is truly magical, so much so that it almost defies explanation.  It’s kind of like time traveling but so much more.  You really have to experience it for yourself to get a feel for how wild a ride it really is.

Wonderful Secondary Characters.  Some like Solovey, Vasya’s horse, and Morozko, the Frost Demon, I adored.  Others like the Bear and Konstantin, not so much. But whether I loved or hated them, this series has a fantastic and unforgettable cast of well-drawn characters.  We also meet several more mythological creatures in this final book and their bond of mutual respect with Vasya adds so much richness to the story and really emphasizes how she is a bridge between the two worlds.

Creative Use of History.  I didn’t realize this until I read the author’s note, but some of the characters and events in the series are based on real historical events, including a war.  Arden has, of course, put her own personal and creative twist on them, but the historical fiction fan in me thought it was very cool to learn the story was based on not just Russian folklore but on actual Russian history as well.

It made me cry.  This does not happen to me often when I read fantasy series, but The Winter of the Witch made me cry. Not just once or twice, but three times!  I won’t say specifically why I cried, but I will say that two times, my tears were tears of sadness and one time, they were tears of joy.  That’s how attached to these characters I got!

I dislike that the series is over because I’m going to miss these characters and this gorgeous world so much, but that’s really all I’ve got.  For me, this series is about as close to perfection as it gets.

The Winternight Trilogy is, by far, one of the most unforgettable series I’ve ever read.  I love that while it’s a wholly unique story inspired by Russian history and folklore, it’s also reminiscent of some of my favorite childhood fantasies like The Chronicles of Narnia because the strong element of whimsical magic and wonder that permeates it.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Following their adventures in The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, Vasya and Morozko return in this stunning conclusion to the bestselling Winternight Trilogy, battling enemies mortal and magical to save both Russias, the seen and the unseen.

Reviewers called Katherine Arden’s novels The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower “lyrical,” “emotionally stirring,” and “utterly bewitching.” The Winternight Trilogy introduced an unforgettable heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna, a girl determined to forge her own path in a world that would rather lock her away. Her gifts and her courage have drawn the attention of Morozko, the winter-king, but it is too soon to know if this connection will prove a blessing or a curse.

Now Moscow has been struck by disaster. Its people are searching for answers—and for someone to blame. Vasya finds herself alone, beset on all sides. The Grand Prince is in a rage, choosing allies that will lead him on a path to war and ruin. A wicked demon returns, stronger than ever and determined to spread chaos. Caught at the center of the conflict is Vasya, who finds the fate of two worlds resting on her shoulders. Her destiny uncertain, Vasya will uncover surprising truths about herself and her history as she desperately tries to save Russia, Morozko, and the magical world she treasures. But she may not be able to save them all.

 

five-stars

About Katherine Arden

Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent a year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College in Vermont, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd job imaginable, from grant writing and making crêpes to guiding horse trips. Currently she lives in Vermont, but really, you never know.

Early Review: ONCE UPON A RIVER

Early Review:  ONCE UPON A RIVEROnce Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
four-half-stars
Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on December 4, 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Fiction
Pages: 480
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

MY REVIEW:

Years ago I read and fell in love with Diane Setterfield’s bestselling novel, The Thirteenth Tale.  Setterfield’s storytelling abilities and her atmospheric settings thoroughly captivated me and so when I read that she had a new novel coming out, Once Upon a River, I couldn’t get over to Netgalley fast enough so that I could request it.

I was a little nervous going in that my expectations were way too high just because I loved The Thirteenth Tale so much, but those fears were alleviated almost immediately as I was pulled into Once Upon a River’s magical tale right away.  The story itself follows several families who live in a town located near the Thames River and how their lives changed forever one winter night when an injured man staggered into the Swan Inn with a dead little girl in his arms.

The local nurse is summoned to examine both the man and the girl, and even though all signs indicate that the little girl is, in fact, dead, a few moments later, the girl inexplicably starts breathing again and opens her eyes.  No one can explain what has happened and the girl, who no one recognizes, including the man who found her and brought her to the inn, cannot speak so in addition to her miraculous and unexplainable return from the dead, her identity is also a mystery.

There is speculation that she is the long lost daughter of the Vaughn family, whose child was kidnapped two years before and hasn’t been seen since, but there is also the possibility that she could be the grandchild of Mr. Armstrong, whose mother was rumored to have killed herself and tried to drown her child in the river.

The townspeople are left with endless questions and so the search is on to figure out who the little girl is, what happened to her, while in the backs of everyone’s mind is the real question:  Was she really dead and if so, why isn’t she still dead?

I loved that Setterfield chooses to set Once Upon a River around the Thames River and that her version of the Thames has an almost mythological, supernatural quality to it.  My favorite bit of folklore attributed to the river in this tale is Mr. Quietly, the boatman who appears to those who find themselves in distress in the river.  It is said that Quietly will either escort you safely to land if it’s not your time to go, but that if it is your time, he will escort you to the “other side of the river.”  At its heart, Once Upon a River is about stories and folklore and how they can shape and influence people’s lives and so the river and all of the lore surrounding it really helps to lend an atmospheric quality to the story as a whole.

The story is actually so atmospheric and embedded with lore that for the characters in the story, the lines between the real and the imagined at times become blurred and this adds to the appeal of the story because Once Upon a River also contains this mystery about the little girl that must be solved.  It’s hard to talk about the mystery without giving away too much, but I will say that Setterfield crafts the mystery in such a way that it unfolds almost like a fairytale.  In fact, the whole book almost reads as if it’s a fairytale.  It has that quality of magical realism that we often see in books like those of Alice Hoffman or even Neil Gaiman.

I also found the cast of characters Setterfield creates to be an endearing bunch.  The appearance of the mysterious little girl opens up a lot of old wounds for those in the town who have lost a child.  It actually hurts to watch so many people get their hopes up about this little girl, knowing that she can only belong to one family, which means many others will end up disappointed and crushed by the loss all over again.

In contrast to those families who are haunted by this girl, there are also the other townsfolk who, although they aren’t really the focus of Once Upon a River, they still add a richness to the story because they all fancy themselves storytellers and they all latch on to the events of that fateful night and spin tale after tale, adding whatever creative details suit the purposes of their individual stories.  The storytellers ultimately end up infusing the girl’s story into the existing lore of the river, further blurring those lines between the real and the magical/supernatural.

I’d also like to speak a bit on the pacing of the novel.  If you’re expecting a fast-paced thrill ride as the mystery in Once Upon a River unfolds, you will probably be disappointed.  This is a mystery that unfolds at its own pace, where the reader is meant to savor each detail and each clue as they are revealed.  You’re meant to observe all of these seemingly unrelated characters and how they each share a possible connection to the little girl.  Yes, there are plenty of twists and turns and unexpected surprises, but the reveal builds slowly over time.  I will say that I typically prefer my mysteries to be fast-paced, but Setterfield makes the slower pace really work here.  I don’t think the story would have had such a magical feel to it if the pace had been faster.

One last element of the story that really appealed to me was that it also included the use of scientific experimentation to try to explain away the unexplainable.  I loved that although Nurse Rita feels the same draw to this little girl that everyone else feels, her scientific mind won’t let her just accept what has happened and move on.  She won’t be satisfied until she has tested every possible hypothesis for why the girl was dead but then wasn’t.  I really liked the balance between Rita’s scientific curiosity and the supernatural elements throughout Once Upon a River.

NONE!

If you’re looking for an atmospheric mystery that reads like a fairytale, look no further than Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River.  It’s truly an exquisite piece of storytelling.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.

Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle?

Is it magic?

Or can it be explained by science?

Replete with folklore, suspense and romance, as well as with the urgent scientific curiosity of the Darwinian age, Once Upon a River is as richly atmospheric as Setterfield’s bestseller The Thirteenth Tale.

four-half-stars

About Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield is a British author. Her debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale (2006) was published in 38 countries worldwide and has sold more than three million copies. It was number one in the New York Times hardback fiction list for three weeks and is enjoyed as much for being ‘a love letter to reading’ as for its mystery and style. Her second novel is Bellman & Black (2013), an unusual genre-defying meditation on workaholism, Victorian mourning ritual and rooks, and her third, Once Upon a River, will be published in early 2019.

Born in rural Berkshire, Diane spent most of her childhood in the village of Theale. After schooldays at Theale Green, Diane studied French Literature at the University of Bristol. Her PhD was on autobiographical structures in André Gide’s early fiction. She taught English at the Institut Universitaire de Technologie and the Ecole nationale supérieure de Chimie, both in Mulhouse, France, and later lectured in French in the UK. She left academia in the late 1990s to pursue writing.

The Thirteenth Tale was acquired by Heyday Films and adapted for television by the award-winning playwright and scriptwriter, Christopher Hampton. Starring Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Colman, it was filmed in North Yorkshire and broadcast by BBC2 in 2013.

Diane now lives in Oxford by the Thames. When not writing she reads widely, and when not actually reading she is usually talking or thinking about reading. She is, she says, ‘a reader first, a writer second.’

MIni Reviews: SEA WITCH & GOOD LUCK WITH THAT

MIni Reviews:  SEA WITCH & GOOD LUCK WITH THATSea Witch by Sarah Henning
three-half-stars
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on July 31, 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction, Retelling
Pages: 368
Source: Library
Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Everyone knows what happens in the end. A mermaid, a prince, a true love’s kiss. But before that young siren’s tale, there were three friends. One feared, one royal, and one already dead.

Ever since her best friend, Anna, drowned, Evie has been an outcast in her small fishing town. A freak. A curse. A witch.

A girl with an uncanny resemblance to Anna appears offshore and, though the girl denies it, Evie is convinced that her best friend actually survived. That her own magic wasn’t so powerless after all. And, as the two girls catch the eyes—and hearts—of two charming princes, Evie believes that she might finally have a chance at her own happily ever after.

But her new friend has secrets of her own. She can’t stay in Havnestad, or on two legs, unless Evie finds a way to help her. Now Evie will do anything to save her friend’s humanity, along with her prince’s heart—harnessing the power of her magic, her ocean, and her love until she discovers, too late, the truth of her bargain.

Review:

What always impresses me about fairytale retellings is how authors are able to take a beloved story that we all know so well and somehow manage to put their own completely unique spin on it to turn it into something fresh and new.  Sarah Henning’s Sea Witch is the third Little Mermaid retelling I’ve read recently and I found myself wondering if Henning could really bring anything to the table that I hadn’t already read.  Well, spoiler alert, she can and does!  With Sea Witch, Henning offers up a compelling origin story for resident villain, Ursula the Sea Witch.  It’s filled with memorable characters, a vivid and atmosphere setting, and a storyline peppered with mystery, secrets, and lies.

I was sympathetic to Evie, the main character, because of a tragedy that takes the life of her best friend, Anna.  Evie and Anna were out swimming and while they were racing each other, Anna drowns.  Evie survives but is shunned as an outcast by everyone in the small fishing town she lives in.  They see her as a witch or curse.  The exception to that is Prince Nik, who although he is royalty, has never cared what anyone thinks of him or Evie.  She is one of his best friends and like a sister to him.  Nik is a fantastic character for a lot of reasons.  He’s handsome and kind, hilarious and somewhat of a dork at times, and really just downright loveable.  Honestly, he was my favorite character.

I was also drawn in by both the worldbuilding and the storyline itself, which is a fairytale wrapped in a mystery.  The story is set in Havnestad, a small fishing town, and the author paints such a vivid picture that I could practically hear the waves crashing and the wind whipping through the ships’ sails, and taste and smell the salt in the air.  I also liked that the story had a dark, almost moody feel to it at times. It was so atmospheric that it was very easy to slip into the mystery and follow it until it leads to the “birth” of the Sea Witch.

Sea Witch is pretty well-paced overall, although I’ll admit it did lag a little for me during a festival early on in the story.  However, once the mysterious Annemette, who bears an almost eerie resemblance to the drowned Anna, appears on the scene and unloads her secrets on Evie, the mystery intensifies and the pace quickens.  The mystery of who Annemette really is, why she has come to Havnestad, and what she wants from Evie kept me eagerly turning the pages.  Even with my slight issue with the pacing and my liking a secondary character a little more than the main character, I still quite enjoyed Sea Witch and think fans of The Little Mermaid will love it.  3.5 STARS

 

MIni Reviews:  SEA WITCH & GOOD LUCK WITH THATGood Luck with That by Kristan Higgins
four-stars
Published by Berkley Books on August 7, 2018
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Women's Fiction
Pages: 480
Source: Library
Amazon
Goodreads

Emerson, Georgia, and Marley have been best friends ever since they met at a weight-loss camp as teens. When Emerson tragically passes away, she leaves one final wish for her best friends: to conquer the fears they still carry as adults.

For each of them, that means something different. For Marley, it's coming to terms with the survivor's guilt she's carried around since her twin sister's death, which has left her blind to the real chance for romance in her life. For Georgia, it's about learning to stop trying to live up to her mother's and brother's ridiculous standards, and learning to accept the love her ex-husband has tried to give her.

But as Marley and Georgia grow stronger, the real meaning of Emerson's dying wish becomes truly clear: more than anything, she wanted her friends to love themselves.

Review:

Wow, talk about a book that packs an emotional punch!  Good Luck with That was my first time reading anything by Kristan Higgins and I was not at all prepared for how hard hitting this story was going to be.  This is a story that tackles a tough but all too relevant issue for many of us – that of body image and how so many people have a tendency to define their sense of self-worth based on how they look and, especially in this story, how much they weigh.

The story follows three friends, Emerson, Georgia, and Marley, who have been friends since they were teens and met at a weight loss camp.  When Emerson tragically passes away, her dying wish is for her two best friends to complete the tasks on a list they made as teenagers, a list of things they would do when they finally became skinny.  While some of the items on the list now seem silly to Georgia and Marley, they make it their mission to fulfill Emerson’s last wish.  This becomes an emotional and sometimes painful journey for both women as they not only strive to face their lifelong fears and complete the tasks on this list but are also forced to reflect on choices that they’ve made throughout their lives.  Their perspectives are rounded out as we are also given Emerson’s thoughts as her life and health become increasingly fragile, as seen through the pages of the journal she kept.  It was hard to read at times but I thought Higgins did an incredible job of making it all sound so real and so honest.

While Good Luck with That can be an emotionally draining read at times, ultimately I think it just has such an important message and it’s one that I hope will stick with me long after having finished this book. Emerson wants Georgia and Marley to come away from that list knowing that life is too short and it’s so important to just love yourself as you are.  You can’t sit around and not live your life to the fullest just because you aren’t whatever your eyes or society’s eyes thinks is the ideal body shape and size.

This may not be a read for everyone as it does deal with such a tough topic, but I think Higgins handles it with great sensitivity and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is in search of a powerful read about body image and self-worth.  4 STARS.

three-half-stars

About Kristan Higgins

Kristan Higgins is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of more than a dozen novels. Her books have been honored with dozens of awards and accolades, including starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, the New York Journal of Books and Romantic Times. She is a two-time winner of the RITA award from Romance Writers of America and a five-time nominee for the Kirkus Prize for best work of fiction. She is happily married to a heroic firefighter and the mother of two fine children.

About Sarah Henning

Sarah Henning is a recovering journalist who has worked for the Palm Beach Post, Kansas City Star and Associated Press, among others. While in South Florida, Sarah lived and worked through five hurricanes, which gave her an extreme respect for the ocean. When not writing, she runs ultramarathons, hits the playground with her two kids and hangs out with her husband Justin, who doubles as her long-suffering IT department. Sarah lives in Lawrence, Kansas, which, despite being extremely far from the beach, happens to be pretty cool.