Malice (2021)

by Heather Walter
ASN/ISBN: 9781984818652
Publication: April 13, 2021

**I received a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

Malice is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. Princess Aurora is still Princess Aurora but she is more than just a girl destined to be pricked by a needle. Aurora wants to be become Queen and has ambitious plans for her future reign. Until then, she is forced to keep searching for true love’s kiss to break the curse. The resident villain, on the other hand, isn’t so much a villain. Alyce is forced to work as a Grace. In Briar, Grace are blessed by fae with abilities such as wisdom or making people beautiful but she is different. Known as the Dark Grace, people fear Alyce yet they use her services for elixirs and hexes to put worts onto a face or ensure a competitor fails. All Alcye has ever wanted is to be accepted, but no one seems able to do that.

The book centers on Alyce’s development and her growth. Prominent in the story is her inability to trust, which is a double-edged sword. She wants to trust people, but she also second guesses the motives of everyone around her, even those she could trust. Of course, her suspicions are warranted because she’s always been forced to exist on the outskirts of society, which also contributes to low self-esteem and self-loathing.

While the story excels with characterization, the plot is on the slow side. Nothing much happens for pages except Alyce trying to figure out who she is and the fighting among the Grace. Every so often, I wondered when something might actually happen to push the story forward. Despite this, I was undeterred from finishing the book because I enjoyed Walter’s writing.

Walter takes the fairy tale and gives depth to the world and the characters inhabiting it. The story is rich in detail, especially in its world building. The bulk of information from the history of Briar to the magical system is largely concentrated at the beginning of the novel, feeling very much at times like an information dump, but it’s so fascinating that I didn’t mind. I’m looking forward to learning more about the lands and the inhabitants, both past and present, in the next book.

Overall, the book is maleficent magnificent. I found myself sympathizing with Alyce, although I was also often frustrated with her decisions. Fans of fairy tale retellings, especially those that enjoy origin stories, will enjoy reading Malice, but it may not be for those who like a faster paced novel. If readers can overcome the pacing, the ending will certainly be rewarding–it was so good.

We Are the Fire (2021)

by Sam Taylor
ASN/ISBN: 9781250241429
Publication: February 16, 2021


**I was provided a copy of the book by the publisher through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

Children are regularly kidnapped and forced to become soldiers in an emperor’s effort to maintain his borders against a neighboring country and to ensure obedience from his subjects. Furthermore, the child soldiers are forced to wield fire through a brutal, potentially crippling, process, that not all recruits survive. Pran barely survived, but only through Oksana’s help. While most soldiers have learned to only look out for themselves, Pran and Oksana are able to rely on each other, but differing desires place a strain on their relationship. Pran wants to rebel against their commanders while Oksana dreams of returning home. 

It was difficult to find a sense of balance when I first started reading the book. It felt as though I was thrust into the middle of something I didn’t fully grasp, so I had difficulty settling into the story. Presented with many names, including those of people and places, and titles (e.g. Tuliikobrets, Nightmare, Hellions, etc.) in a short amount of time made it difficult to keep track of everything that was going on. It was also difficult to get a sense of place. It wasn’t until later that I pieced things together, but I was a bit frustrated when I finally arrived at this point. Adding the somewhat slow pace to my list of frustrations further inhibited me from being fully immersed in the book. Eventually, the book picked up right before the halfway point, both in pace and story. In particular, the multiple moral dilemmas presented added to the complexity of Pran’s and Oksana’s decisions and helped me to appreciate the book more. The action in the last half also helped a lot as well.

I didn’t particularly like Pran very much. He had an inferiority complex and also kept insisting on protecting Oksana when she was just as capable as he was. Although I gravitated toward Oksana, I didn’t fully like her either. I did like that Pran and Oksana were in an established relationship, so they weren’t in the honeymoon period. I got to see their relationship play out under stressful conditions and this created an interesting dynamic. I liked Sepp/Kati, but she doesn’t appear until a fifth of the way through the book. While a secondary character, she was the only one who seemed to have any kind of sense and was not overly swayed by her emotions. 

Ultimately, We Are the Fire was a bit of a toss-up for me. I struggled to finish the book. I was frustrated in the beginning, and it was difficult to connect with the characters. On the other hand, the last part of the book was more action-packed, and I liked the themes presented.

Mercurial (2021)

by Naomi Hughes
ASN/ISBN: 9781736394304
Publication: March 16, 2021

**I was received a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

Tal, his sister Nyx, and Elodie/The Destroyer are the main characters, and chapters are told in the third person from each of their perspectives. Tal questions his faith when his visions reveal that he will save The Destroyer and the kingdom but his oath to protect her has only led to more blood on his hands. Determined to free her brother from his oath, Nyx is intent on killing The Destroyer. The Destroyer has killed many innocent people to protect her sister’s reign. When she loses her memories and powers, she transforms into someone different from The Destroyer everyone knows but is she still worth saving?

  • Mercurial is reminiscent of classic medieval fantasy novels, but also felt surprisingly fresh. It has a unique magic system, which particularly stood out to me. Blood that is infused with metal determines an individual’s powers. For instance, those with silver in their blood have the ability to foresee the future whereas those with copper have healing powers. Being born with metal-infused blood also makes one prone to a rust disease.
  • Hughes mentions in her acknowledgments that she wrote Mercurial during a time in which she was trying to “renavigate [her] own faith.” The exploration of religion is integral to the plot with Tal’s struggle with his decisions and their consequences as the platform for this analysis. Rather than view it as inherently good or bad, it is a more analytical approach, questioning such things as what it means to adhere to one’s faith or the interpretation of religious texts.
  • My favorite books are those with strong female protagonists, so while Tal is interesting, I liked how the book had both Nyx and Elodie. I was mostly invested in Elodie, who ultimately became my favorite character. When The Destroyer lost her powers and became Elodie, I felt helpless and vulnerable alongside her. Hughes did a wonderful job with Elodie’s arc, asking whether redemption is possible for someone who has committed so many atrocities.
  • Other than the twist already detailed in the description, I was never quite sure about what to expect next. At times I thought I knew where the book was going, but it would veer in a different direction. It kept me riveted, trying to guess what would happen next. I had a difficult time suppressing the urge to flip to the end.

Mercurial‘s exploration of faith, redemption, and the power of love felt relatively new when compared to all the books I’d been reading. The plot was well-developed, and Tal, Nyx, and Elodie were rounded characters. I hadn’t heard much about the novel before finding it on NetGalley and am thankful I was provided the opportunity to read it. I look forward to reading more from Hughes.

The Wide Starlight (2021)

by Nicole Lesperance
ASN/ISBN: 9780593116227
Publication: February 16, 2021

Ten years ago, Eli lost her mother. One day, the Northern Lights appeared and took her mother with them when they vanished. A 6-year-old Eli was found alone on the ice and later determined to be in perfect health. People say her mother abandoned her, but Eli knows the truth even if no one believes her. In present day Cape Cod, where she and her father moved to restart their lives, she receives a mysterious letter urging her to call for her mother before it’s too late. She’s understandably confused until she learns the Northern Lights will soon be visible in Cape Cod.

Even though time has passed, Eli has never forgotten her mother. Her endless yearning for her mother and the warmth of her mother’s love is heartrending as Eli races against time to find her. The chapters alternate between the present day and past memories that read more like fairy tales. Lesperance’s writing is enchanting, capturing the beauty of the landscape and the mystery surrounding Eli’s mother. The story is magical, at times wondrous and other times sinister.

Lesperance weaves a tale of grief and heartache that will have you calling your mom to tell her how much she means to you. I bawled as I headed towards the ending, clinging to the hope that everything would be okay, because Eli deserved a happy ending. A long time ago my mom told me that no matter what age you are, you will always long for your mom. No where does this ring more true than in The Wide Starlight. I won’t be forgetting the book any time soon; it’s already continued to linger long after the last page.

We Free the Stars (2021)

by Hafsah Faizal
ASIN/ISBN: 9780374311575
Publication: January 19, 2021
Series: Sands of Arawiya #2

**Contains spoilers for We Hunt the Flame.**

I ended my review of We Hunt the Flame “crossing my fingers and hoping” We Free the Stars would “be similar to the last half of We Hunt the Flame.” Did it come to pass? Was it similar? Or…was it better??

It took me two months to finally open and read the second book of the Sands of Arawiya because I couldn’t contain how excited I was to find out the fate of the zumra and all of Arawiya. I kept wanting to jump to the end and that would have ruined the whole experience of the book–all nearly 600 pages of it. Once I got started on it, I practiced safe book binging by reading the first half in one sitting and taking a 4am nap before reading the rest in a second sitting. Heh…

The weight of all that has been lost and left behind haunts the beginning of the novel, but now back in the “real world,” the bonds forged through the shared experiences in Sharr continue to anchor each member of the zumra. This is especially the case for Zafira who carries an additional burden no one else understands. While the bonds appear nearly unbreakable, it’s more complicated than it appears. No longer isolated from the rest of the world, multiple forces at home threaten their success and their connections with each other.

For the two who are on the cusp of sharing something more than camaraderie, endangering their lives for the future of their country was easier than risking their hearts. I was frustrated throughout the first half of the book because of them. It’s a slow burn, but not necessarily the good kind of burn–okay, it was good and then it went on little too long so I couldn’t contain my frustration anymore. I was also conflicted. As much as I enjoy romance, there was a lot of time spent on the will they or won’t they when I was ready to spring into a little more action and prepare for battle. I was ready to go to war for Altair.

I missed Altair…a lot. I missed him and his inappropriateness, his playfulness…just about everything. Altair seemed more like comic relief throughout We Hunt the Flame, but at the end of the first book and throughout the second, it’s clear how integral he is. He is the heart of the zumra, connecting everyone to each other. His capacity for love, whether it be for the people or for his prince, moved me. His absence was terribly present. He needs to give me a hug now.

While I had mixed feelings about different aspects of the book, I enjoyed it a lot. There isn’t much recapping so I had to quickly flip through the end of We Hunt the Flame to recall some of the specifics of the ending. Similar to it’s predecessor, it does drag a bit in the beginning but builds to an exciting climax–the book will have your emotions spiraling up and down. While the romance plays a larger role than expected, there is more than enough to satisfy the reader looking for action and adventure. I won’t lie though, I don’t think it compares to the ending we were given in We Hunt the Flame, which was magnificent. However, when it ended, I clutched it to my chest, sighing with relief and contentment. The anxiety of waiting to read it was over, and it was good, nearly as good as I hoped. I wanted to cradle it and roll around from all the happy feelings it brought me. (I’m smiling just thinking about it right now…squee)

Overall, We Free the Stars is an excellent follow-up to We Hunt the Flame. It is a tome of a book so be ready to stay up all night reading it–or possibly taking a nap in between–because it’ll be difficult to stop turning the pages. Sands of Arawiya is easily one of the best duologies I’ve read.

Into the Crooked Place (2019)/City of Spells (2021)

by Alexandra Christo
Series Review

**Includes spoilers for Into the Crooked Place.**

**I was provided copies of both books through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed them. All opinions are my own.**

intothecrookedplace_cover

Into the Crooked Place
ASN/ISBN:  9781250318374
Publication: October 8, 2019


Into the Crooked Place (2019) invites readers into a gritty underworld through the eyes of four individuals: Wes the underboss of Creije with eyes and ears everywhere; Tavia the busker with a moral code; freedom fighter Saxony who is hiding among crooks; and warrior Karam who serves as Wes’s bodyguard. Christo has crafted a bleak world where the only thing you can trust is that the people around you are more than willing to betray you. The authorities, with few exceptions, are just as untrustworthy as the crooks they are meant to police. When Wes enlists Tavia, Saxony, and Karam, to help protect the city he loves, it’s unclear whether they can truly trust one another.

The book switches between the four main characters, interspersed with chapters told from the point of view of a few minor characters. Through their chapters, we learn about their motivations, their regrets, and their plans. We also get to see the lies they tell each other. With the book switching between the four, I didn’t feel connected to any of them, although I did gravitate toward Tavia as my favorite character. While I enjoyed the first book in the duology, it’s very much an introduction from the characters to the world, so it’s not as exciting as it could be. It’s easy to see the book is building to something possibly bigger that can’t be contained in a single volume. The ending makes up for a somewhat slow start.

cityofspells_cover-1

City of Spells
ASN/ISBN: 9781250318404
Publication: March 9, 2021

City of Spells (2021) is the exciting conclusion to the duology. The loss of Wes is more detrimental than expected. Tavia was said to have been the glue, but Wes was the mastermind. While Wes is left to fend for himself, Tavia, Karam, and Saxony are forced to look for allies to help bring down the Kingpin.

Because the first book already introduced the world and our characters, City of Spells doesn’t require as much time setting up what will happen here. They have to find allies and take down the Kingpin. Although Tavia and Karam maintain their status as main characters, I couldn’t help but feel they were, in many ways, relegated to the background in favor of Wes and Saxony. Karam doesn’t get to do as much except try to maintain peace between Saxony and Tavia. I wish there had been more chapters for Tavia but she doesn’t have as much to do here either so those things feed into each other. Of course, that could just be me being partial to her and wanting more pages allotted to her.

Despite a fairly straight-forward plot, there are enough twists and revelations in the book to ensure readers forge ahead; I couldn’t put it down once I got through the beginning. I can’t help but praise Christo for the ending of City of Spells: it was so good, maybe even better than the one for Into the Crooked Place.

Overall, the duology is a good read with edge of your seat action as each book heads toward their individual conclusions. There is enough world building to make Creije come alive. With a focus on the underbelly of the city, it’s difficult to fully realize the entire Creije society, its governing system, and the rest of the realms. There were times when a sense of place was missing for me. Even though both books have points where the story slows down or drags just a bit, Christo makes up for it with explosive endings–she excels at them. I was impressed with the endings for both books. Also, I don’t really talk about it for fear it might be spoilery but there is also romance and yes, I liked it. It’s only a small part of both books and doesn’t distract from main story.

The Kinder Poison (2020)

by Natalie Mae
ISBN: 9781984835215
Publication: June 16, 2020
Series: The Kinder Poison #1

Rather than decide on an heir, the king chooses to invoke the Crossing, a race between his children that will take them across the desert and ultimately end with a human sacrifice. The first one to finish and kill the sacrifice will be named heir. Zahru’s desire to join in the festivities, unfortunately, ends up placing her in the middle of a sibling rivalry where she ends up becoming the chosen sacrifice. Now, she needs to figure out how to get out of it.

There’s just enough world-building to get a sense of the environment, including the politics and the social system but not extremely detailed. Magical ability is tied to one’s value, with those lacking ability seen as worthless and given limited resources. Interestingly, magic comes with a price such as a shorter life span for some and, after a time, some magical abilities will also completely disappear. Because magic has consequences, it’s (only somewhat) surprising that people would not also defend those born without magic to ensure they are treated as citizens of the kingdom as well. As you can see, I wasn’t a fan of how those without magical abilities are treated.

While the beginning was interesting, the race itself wasn’t all that exciting. I was invested in the book mostly because I wanted to know if Zahru would be able to escape her fate; however, along the way, I started to get increasingly frustrated with her. I liked her optimism–some may see this as her being naive but I would disagree–and her ability to try to see the best in people. She’s prone to speaking her mind but is also a genuinely nice individual. She is a capable individual but society only values individuals with strong magical abilities. As a whisperer, someone who can speak to animals, society deems her to be nearly useless, just above those without magical abilities. In viewing her worth through society’s lens, she doesn’t see herself as someone with much to offer. This lack of self-confidence carries through the majority of the book and irritated me greatly. She kept waiting to be saved while I kept waiting for her to save herself. Can you imagine being able to speak with animals? There is so much they can tell you especially if you need to escape!

While I liked The Kinder Poison, it wasn’t as thrilling as I hoped it would be. The ending makes up for a lot of the book and it does end on a cliffhanger. Good thing The Cruelest Mercy (The Kinder Poison #2) will be out June 2021. I will definitely be picking that up because I need to know what happens next.

The Mask of Mirrors (2021)

by M.A. Carrick
ISBN: 9780356515175
Publication: January 19, 2021
Series: Rook & Rose #1



**I was provided a copy of the book by publisher through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

Along with her sister Tess, Ren returns to the city she was born in to work a long con. Pretending to be a long lost cousin, Ren shows up at House Traementis, hoping to be added onto the family registrar so she and Tess can live off the fortunes of the family and never want for anything again. However, living among the elite is nearly as dangerous as being a river rat. Ren isn’t the only one living underneath a mask, nor is she likely the most dangerous.

The world is complex, making for a rich experience with well rounded characters. Political intrigue is core to the story, with players wearing multiple faces. The noble families play nice with each other but many are trying to undermine the other to ensure the success of their individual houses. With the noble families controlling the wealth, social unrest is also rampant due both to racism and classism. There are LGBTQIA+ characters. The head of houses can be male or female so heirs can be sons or daughters. The first half establishes a solid foundation and hints at the events of the second half of the book but it’s also a painfully slow burn. The initial focus is on Ren’s insertion into noble society, establishing and cultivating the relationships necessary for her to be included in House Traementis’s family registrar. It takes a long time for much to happen beyond this. I grew frustrated and impatient because of the promise of “nightmare magic weaving through the city” and “Ren at its heart” yet there was not much related to these, or the connections were at first unclear until I got to the second half of the book. The second half is more eventful but it takes patience to get there.

Religion and the magic system are crucial to the story but were confusing to me. While magic is mentioned in the book description, I kept wondering if it would show up at all or if it was outlawed since it took a while to appear. When it does, Carrick tries to be as detailed as possible but it’s still difficult to understand, especially numinatria. Numinatria required a more extensive explanation than what the book provided. Visuals would have been especially helpful here. The best I could do was picture it being similar to a pentagram but more complicated–more lines, more symbols, more connections, more meanings. In addition, I wasn’t really sure about the actual importance of the actual masks even though duality and masks were running themes. The purpose of the masks were not clear to me and how they fit into the Vraszenian religion.

Ren is a likeable heroine and can even seem too perfect, but I didn’t mind. She is smart and calculating, both qualities needed to successfully pull off this con. Her decisions are always strategic, motivated by securing her family’s future and possibly more. While Ren is the character we get to know best, there are multiple viewpoints from a slew of characters including Ren’s sister Tess, the head of House Traementis Donaia Traementis, heir Leato Traementis, hawk captain Grey Serrado, crime lord Derossi Vargo, and additional side characters. It can be a bit difficult to keep track of them all.

The Mask of Mirrors is a good book if you have patience and have the glossary bookmarked–you’ll need to flip back and forth until you’ve familiarized yourself with the world Carrick has built. After I finished reading it, I needed time to think about whether I really liked it. Because the first half didn’t meet expectations with its uneventful and slow pace, I was still on the fence but working through the details helped. I realized I liked it a lot more than I thought I did. Swiping back through the pages and reviewing the pieces helped me to make more sense of certain things. To fully appreciate the intricacies, I think the book warrants another reading–yes, all 600+ pages of it. I’ll probably do it again soon.

We Hunt the Flame (2019)

by Hafsah Faizal
ASIN/ISBN: 9780374311544
Publication: May 14, 2019
Series: Sands of Arawiya #1

To feed her village, Zafira dons the cloak of the Hunter to bring back meat from the Arz, a forest that ensnares all those who enter it…but Zafira returns time and again. Nasir is the Sultan’s assassin, loyally killing by request to gain his father’s approval and to protect those he pretends not to care about. Their paths cross when Zafira is tasked with retrieving a magical object to return magic to Arawiya and Nasir is sent to retrieve it from her.

It took a few false starts before I was finally able to get past the first chapter. The first part of the book is an introduction to our characters and Arawiya. Faizal creates a complex world, providing tales of its creation as well as background on events that led to the current state of the land. It was a bit slow for me but quickly picked up when Zafira sets out to retrieve the magical object. In the second half, as the search begins, the book becomes a lot more interesting; this is where all the fun starts. I couldn’t put it down after that.

Amidst the battle between good and evil is the struggle over one’s identity, and this was the more interesting fight (although not as exciting). Zafira and Nasir both have deeply held fears of not being accepted for who they are. Zafira pretends to be a hunter because she cares for her people but her good deeds wouldn’t be enough to save her if it is discovered that she is a woman. Nasir has not known love since his mother’s death. He’s been corrupted by his father who instilled in him that compassion and love are weaknesses that can only hurt him, so he hides them instead. Nassir isn’t necessarily looking for redemption as much as he is seeking acceptance for who he has become. In donning these disguises for the world, Zafira and Nasir also begin to lose parts of themselves. The journey to find the magical object presents both of them with the opportunity to choose who they want to be. Is it the disguise they wear or is it who lies underneath? Or, can they be both?

I enjoyed the novel. With the loss that many of the characters already faced, Faizal was able to beautifully capture the emotions associated with those losses into words, at times making it feel like she put my own feelings of loss onto the page as well. I found Zafira to be an admirable individual, and I really wanted to give Nasir a hug–someone, the man needs a hug! I look forward to We Free the Stars, which will be released on January 19, 2021. I’m crossing my fingers and hoping it will be similar to the last half of We Hunt the Flame.

Marilia, the Warlord (2020)

by Morgan Cole
ISBN: 9781676935117
Publication: February 29, 2020
Series: Chrysathamere Trilogy #1


**I was provided a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

Marilia, the Warlord is an amazing novel with a complex heroine who isn’t prone to being the nicest person or the most humble.  Readers of fantasy who are used to the chosen one trope with a likeable character who is nearly infallible might be turned off by Marilia.  She may often act rashly; she is flawed and more human than touched by the gods. She has a brilliant mind, one with a penchant for strategy and warfare but societal and gender norms prevent her from pursuing anything more than a domestic life. Sibling rivalry pits her against her brother Annuweth, who is being trained in all the things she would rather be doing. Jealousy and the belief she could be much better than him if only given the same opportunities creates a strain between the siblings who once believed it was the both of them against the world. 

Morgan Cole created a world that is richly detailed with complex characters. Cole excels in world building and the introduction to it was engaging. We get a glimpse of what Marilia’s life was supposed to have been before destiny takes a hand and pushes her elsewhere. The strategy and battle scenes are also very well-written. The middle is not nearly as exciting as the beginning and the end. It’s not Cole’s writing so much as this is the Marilia growing up part, where she has to deal with societal norms and grapple with feelings that she is unsure about whereas the beginning and the end are just more…exciting.

The book was tortuous! I’m used to the nice chosen one trope and so had a love-hate relationship with Marilia as soon as the sibling rivalry began. I hated that it only became more pronounced. She was brilliant and hardly humble about her skills.  It frustrated me, and I desperately wanted her to make up with Annuweth. I wanted her to look beyond herself and also recognize that her brother could provide her with the insight she didn’t have but I also recognized that had all that happened, it wouldn’t have been the same book.

Passing over Marilia, the Warlord may be a rash decision on the reader’s part because this will mean missing out on a well-written novel about the rise of a woman who changed the fate society kept pushing onto her.  Marilia, the Warlord is an amazing read, and I couldn’t stop turning the pages, no matter the pain it inflicted on me. I’m a bit scared to start the next book, especially with the last book coming out soon (I think), because I don’t know how much I’ll still like Marilia after the trilogy ends.