Fall Bucket List Book Tag

I’ve been trying to catch up with tags. I’m so sorry if I haven’t completed some of them. Sometimes WP doesn’t show me if I have any pingbacks so I’ve been trying to search through what I can. I was tagged by Francesca Lucy from Rarely in Reality. The Fall Bucket List book tag was created by Read With Tiffany. It’s perfect for the season!

Light a Scented Candle – A Book That’s Lighthearted

Wow. This one was a hard one! I think Blade of Secrets fits this pretty well because Levenseller infuses the story with a lot of humor. At one point three of the characters loudly discuss the other and what his intentions might be while he pretty much just tells them, “I can year you all.” I’m definitely looking forward to the second book. There’s magic. There’s adventure. There’s romance. (My Review)

Drink Pumpkin Spiced Lattes – A Book That Has a Lot of Hype

Don’t kill me, ya’ll! I must confess that I’m not the biggest fan of anything pumpkin-flavored. I’ve never actually had a pumpkin spiced latte, although I hear it’s all the rage. Iron Widow was a book I was excited about. While there were things I didn’t like about it, Zetian is such a kickass protagonist. (My Review)

Go Apple Picking – A Book That Has Fun Friendships

The Bone Shard Daughter has one of my favorite friendships. Jovis is a smuggler and he ends up saving a creature from the ocean, Mephi. What is it exactly? I’m not sure, but Mephi steals the show, and their friendship is one of the highlights of the book. At first Jovis doesn’t want to keep Mephi but they slowly become inseparable. Mephi is all sorts of adorable. (My Review)

Wear a Cozy Sweater – A Book That Warms Your Heart

When I think of autumn reads, especially one that is warm like a sweater, the first book I think of is A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow. I read it in November and now I associate it with the season, not only because of the warm tones of the cover but the sweaters Lila wears. It also gives Taylor Swift’s “Cardigan” vibes. Read this with a cup of tea. (My Review)

Bake Cinnamon Rolls – A Character Who’s a Talented Chef

This one is a short story that I recently read. I’m working my way through the entire Love All Year 2021 multicultural anthology but “Yes, Chef” is about a lawyer who enlists the help of a sous chef to teach him to cook when he tells his mom he will cook Lunar New Year dinner. It’s short and sweet. If only all short stories could be like this one. (My Review)

Jump Into a Pile of Leaves – A Book That Made You Jump For Joy

I jumped for joy when I was approved for The Bone Shard Emperor. I couldn’t keep my excitement down. I pushed pause on everything and read the book in one sitting. If you enjoyed The Bone Shard Daughter, you will love it’s sequel. It’s possibly even better than the first book. Yes, there’s a lot of Mephi! I’m still working on a review for this. (Review from Under the Radar SFF Books)

Thanks for tagging me, Francesca Lucy! I TAG:

The Last Graduate (2021)

by Naomi Novik
ASIN/ISBN: 9780593128862
Publication: September 28, 2021
Series: The Scholomance #2

**Please proceed with caution. There may be spoilers for A Deadly Education.**

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

El has survived her first three years in the Scholomance and has just one final year to go. With graduation looming, survival training is also around the corner because graduation isn’t walking across the stage to pomp and circumstance but a fight for your life against mals that are ready to pounce and devour you. With an alliance in place and friends standing by her side, El might have a real chance at freedom.

The Last Graduate continues El’s journey to subvert the prophecy that has dictated her life and the expectations of those around her. While there are changes to El’s life and her character, her growth since A Deadly Education and during The Last Graduate doesn’t turn her into a completely different person. Thank goodness because I love her just as she is. In this book, the layers are peeled back further to reveal El’s true nature, the one she’s tried so hard to hide underneath her prickly attitude and sarcasm. Her actions in the book and her vulnerability felt true to her character.

El learning to navigate her new relationships is a highlight of the novel.  Her friendships with Liu and Aadhya, which always felt tentative to her before, are strengthened and reaffirmed. Of course, her fight or flight response continues to rear its head when conflicts arise that may affect her new relationships, but she’s learning to understand what it means to have friends. They don’t up and leave at the first sign of trouble; they stick with you, especially when times get hard. They stick with you even when you give them an out. Finding friends and realizing she is no longer alone has also led to weight being lifted off her shoulders. She can smile and laugh, imagine life beyond graduation, and even want to change the world. These changes underscore how lonely she was in the first book even though she refused to admit it. El is such a complex character, and I completely adore her.

Orion’s appearances are sparser here, but he remains a thorn in El’s side, albeit one that doesn’t hurt as much anymore. She continues to be his advocate, and I love her for seeing him and treating him like the person he is rather than the oddity his family, his enclave, and mostly everyone else thinks he is. See? She’s all prickly and sarcastic, but it’s just to hide her big, bleeding heart.

The writing remains the same as in A Deadly Education with El explaining origins and context before she gets to what is going on. Because there was a learning curve to understanding the Scholomance, I didn’t mind it in the first book, but there were a few moments in The Last Graduate where I wanted to skip forward. The amount of information provided can be overwhelming–there is so much. I just wanted to know what was going to happen rather than what led to the moment she was in. However, skipping also meant potentially missing the connection between whatever she was talking about and her current predicament, so wanting to skip never turned into actually skipping. 

The Last Graduate is not as fast-paced as the first book, but it is nearly as engaging. Attacks by mals are expected, and people trying to kill you are just a normal part of the day. These aren’t as surprising anymore. I finished it quickly, but I needed to take a break to process the damn ending. To be honest, I’m still processing it. I haven’t been able to reach out for a new book because my brain is still asking myself why I didn’t see this being the particular ending when it was one of the alternate endings I had come up with. (Any else like to think up the many possible endings to a book?) I’m giving fair warning that it is a cliffhanger. I sort of wish I waited for the last book to binge the entire trilogy, but I didn’t have any self-control. Now, I have to wait a year to know what happened. If you enjoyed A Deadly Education, you’ll enjoy The Last Graduate. A year will feel like an eternity as I wait for the final book.

**Some remaining thoughts I wanted to put out there.**

One of the reasons why I like The Scholomance Trilogy is how it illustrates the prisoner’s dilemma. The prisoner’s dilemma happens when rational individuals pursue their self-interest, refusing to cooperate, and so end up with an outcome that is not as ideal as the one they would have received if they worked together. In the book, individuals must fight for their survival and learn to increase their chances of making it out alive by becoming part of a collective. With El’s focus on reciprocation–ensuring those who might ally with her know she always pays back favors to those she receives them from–she works toward securing an alliance that can help increase her odds of living through graduation. The Last Graduate gives a glimpse of how the prisoner’s dilemma can be solved, how building trust between individuals can be the difference between life and death. Yeah, I’m nerdy like that.

The Children of Camelot (2021)

by Amy Bartelloni
ASIN/ISBN: B0923Q8J82
Publication: June 15, 2021
Series: The Children of Camelot #1

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

At night on the island of Avalon, Arynn and Malik look toward the mainland, trying to guess the meaning of the colored fires. Unable to leave because of the ongoing war on the mainland, it’s all they can do. When Malik finds a way off the island, he asks Arynn to leave with him. Despite her concerns, Arynn agrees to go, and together they discover that they haven’t been told the entire truth about the war.

I was initially hesitant to read The Children of Camelot because while I love the magic and intrigue of the Arthurian legend, I dislike the love triangle. Bartelloni puts a twist I liked on the story and focuses on the children of Camelot. The story is told from Arynn’s point of view. She is somewhat shy and cautious, always trying to adhere to rules as best as she can. With magic forbidden and talk of other creatures not allowed, she hides her connection to dragons from everyone except her best friend Malik. Malik is Arynn’s opposite with his ability to easily charm people. He is constantly looking for adventure, willing to bend or even break the rules. Because of their close friendship, he knows Arynn will follow him if asked. Their friendship is an aspect of the story I liked, but it changed into something else too quickly and without much warning.  I wished their friendship had been better explored, building up to any hint of romance. When the romantic feeling bits do pop up, they sometimes feel out of place.

The book retains many familiar elements, including the round table and King Arthur, but it also introduces new characters along with an enchanting world. I enjoyed the world-building the most with its details and abundance of magical creatures.  It’s been so long since I’ve read a full-length book with dragons that as soon as I met Nissa and her kin, I knew I was going to enjoy it. Along with dragons, there are additional magical creatures such as fairies, dwarves, and elves. The vivid descriptions contribute to a new imagining of a familiar world.

While I liked the story, I sometimes felt like I was missing pieces of information that led up to statements being made or events occurring. The characters would jump three steps ahead, and I would be left wondering what just happened. I was also frustrated with the secrets surrounding the missing king because the secret could have been disclosed sooner. I was also curious about the magical system, which seemed unclear to me.

I generally enjoyed the retelling. As the first book in the trilogy, there is no big battle or confrontation, but it sets up what appears to be an impending fight for Camelot. I am curious to see how it all ends, so I already have the next two books lined up and ready to go. Fans of medieval fantasy and those interested in a new spin on the Arthurian legend will likely enjoy The Children of Camelot.

Pahua and the Soul Stealer (2021)

by Lori M. Lee
ASIN/ISBN: 9781368068246
Publication: September 7, 2021

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

I’ve been waiting for the book since I first read the announcement. Although I was unsure about what to expect, I enjoyed what I found. Miv the spirit cat is very much a show stealer with his wit and sarcasm. Pahua is the girl who could be more than she seems if she only believed in herself. Zhong, the shaman warrior, is always ready for a fight and desperately wants to prove herself. They embark on an adventure to the spirit world to rescue Pahua’s brother Matt. It’s one that is exciting, made fun especially with Miv’s sarcasm, and filled with some very close calls.

The book is rich in imagination. It’s an entertaining infusion of Hmong mythology and folk tales with Lee’s skillful world-building; she not only incorporates the mythology but she expands the world to make it her own. There are shamans, shaman warriors, spirits, and gods. The spirit realm is especially complex with its many entities–tree spirits, wind spirits, gate guardians, and more–to the various modes of transportation. One of my favorites is when the spirit horse appears. When Zhong seeks out her horse spirit, she has to go to a rental to call for it…heh. There’s a lot to learn about this world, and at times, it can be a bit overwhelming, especially with new pieces of information popping up every few pages. 

The emphasis on who or what a hero looks like was an especially compelling part of the book. A hero doesn’t always look or sound like what a hero is imagined to be. Pahua, as the central protagonist, lacks confidence and know-how but is willing to do what is necessary to return her brother’s soul to his body–her love for her family exceeds her fears. Pahua demonstrates that anyone can be a hero. You just need to look within yourself. Additionally, winning doesn’t always mean swords and fists. Sometimes there are better ways to get what you want.

I loved the inclusion of Hmong words and names. Many were spelled in Hmong while others were Anglicized, possibly to make it easier to read or pronounce. For instance, Nhia Ngao Zhua Pa is used as opposed to the Hmong spelling Niam Nkauj Zuag Paj. Phonetically, the former is easier to pronounce. Then there is the former God of Thunder’s name where xob is the correct spelling of thunder as opposed to xov meaning thread–different tones as denoted by the last letter will change the meanings. I was tripped up a bit by the usage xob and xov because some characters had names that identified who or what they were while others did not.  

Aside from the Hmong words, there are references to sayings here and there that made me smile. In particular, there’s a reference to eating only eggs and ramen. When you’re a kid and you cook eggs and ramen (referring to the instant kind here), it’s commendable. When you’re an adult and someone says all you eat or can cook are eggs and ramen, it’s an insult meaning you’re lazy. Hehehe. 

I needed this book as a kid when I was searching for demons to fight and dragons to ride. Like Pahua, I grew up not knowing much, and, to be honest, I still don’t know very much. It creates the possibility of building and enhancing cultural connections for Hmong children who might find themselves wondering about their heritage and their identity. Representation would have gone a long way for me, including not being ashamed about what I brought to lunch or having white and red strings around my wrists–all things Lee mention in the book. The book eill also introduce non-Hmong individuals to new and exciting adventures that incorporate folktales and myths they may not have previously been exposed to. It’s a fun middle-grade read that is very much plot-driven. Those looking for action and adventure will certainly enjoy Pahua and the Soul Stealer.

Just a note: As a middle grade read, this is definitely 4 stars with its emphasis on action and adventure. For me, this is only 3.5 stars mostly because I like a more time to ruminate in specific moments and the book doesn’t do this much as Pahua, Miv, and Zhong are constantly moving on to the next thing to do or place to go.

Winterlight (2021)

by Kristen Britain
ASIN/ISBN: 9780756408817
Publication: September 14, 2021
Series: Green Rider #7

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

Winterlight reminds me why I have followed the Green Rider series for over 20 years, even though it’s scarcely been that long in the Green Rider universe. Britain makes it easy to slip back into the series and return to Sacoridia as if hardly any time has passed since Firebrand was published in 2017. With so many events spanning six books, multiple moments are scattered throughout the over 800 pages as memories. I found the abundance of references helpful, and they contributed to a sense that the series was coming to an end. Winterlight is, after all, supposed to be the penultimate book in the series.

Events set in motion from prior books, specifically those dealing with Second Empire, make up a significant portion of the novel. Characters from past books make a few appearances. I was disappointed that Fastion, who I grew to adore, hardly had any scenes. Estral and Alton show up as well but are limited in their appearances. There are also several new riders. Ripaeria the eagle–the very first Green Flyer–steals all her scenes. She is my favorite new character, and I need her to show up more often in the next book. Many things are happening at once in different parts of the world, including the castle, the wall, Eletia, and a newer location, Eagle Crossing. Like prior books, chapters jump from one character to the next to provide a more holistic view of everything happening, but I ultimately wanted more Karigan. There are so many moving parts, but they all appear connected in some way, like they’re leading up to something bigger, potentially finally facing off against Mornhaven. However, I’m not really sure. Mornhaven was always set up to be the main antagonist, but he’s often been absent, except for glimpses here and there, that a final faceoff doesn’t seem definitive. This patchwork of events begins to close some loose ends, leaves some open, and even creates opportunities for others, but all contribute to the feeling that the end is close at hand.

In Winterlight, Karigan is not off on a long journey by herself nor tasked with a job that ends up being more than she bargained. For the most part, she is surrounded by her peers, but in some ways, she’s more alone than she has been in the past because of the struggles she faces here. Having parted ways with Envers in the last book, she’s slowly returning home alone when things go awry, as they usually do for her. It leads to a series of events that eventually lead her back to the castle. Winterlight might be one of the first times I can remember that Karigan performs the role of a traditional messenger and delivers messages back and forth, considering she’s never been a “normal” messenger. 

More than the impending conflict with Second Empire, the book centers around Karigan’s physical and mental struggles. She is still recovering from the effects of being tortured at the hands of Nyssa, better known to us as Grandmother. While the physical pain is slowly mending, it’s the mental trauma along with the presence of Nyssa that continues to impede her healing. Nyssa haunts her, sowing new fears and nurturing old ones. Karigan is vulnerable, battling what’s inside her head, and doesn’t seek help when it’s clear she can use it. This was a missed opportunity to showcase that individuals struggling with mental health do not have to face it alone, that even heroes like Karigan can use a helping hand.

I continue to be disappointed with the romance, mostly because Karigan deserves better, more than the lack of a relationship she is currently in. Even as potential suitors are presented, it continues to be emphasized that she loves just this one person. I would much prefer her with someone else. I’m a hopeless romantic who prefers a somewhat uncomplicated HEA and, unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the series will deliver that to me. 

Winterlight is a welcomed addition to the series. The worldbuilding remains tightly woven as with all previous books–I’m even including the less than well-received Mirrorsight because there were things I liked from it as well.. Just when you think you know whatever there is about the world, there seems to be more. The Green Rider universe appears limitless, leaving room for more adventures even if Karigan’s arc should end. New characters appear and old ones are remembered. At times, the book feels like a return to the first three books–my favorites of the series. There are several subplots and more than a few are left open, likely to be pursued in the next book.

{audiobook} Subversive (2020)

by Colleen Cowley
ASIN/ISBN: B08GYLTKNZ
Publication: September 27, 2020
Series: Clandestine Magic Trilogy #1

Book review

Narrated by: Leanne Woodward
Release date: June 23, 2021
Length: 11 hrs and 57 mins

**I was provided access to the audiobook through the author. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

Peter Blackwell returns to his former hometown Ellicott Mills to serve as the town’s resident wizard, an omnimancer to help with illnesses or other problems that may arise in the town. Requiring an assistant, he manages to steal Beatrix Harper from her current place of employment (against her wishes). Although initially adverse to the idea, Beatrix agrees to help him, not realizing that helping Peter will require her to break the law because he didn’t exactly return home to just be an omnimancer.

I’ve gushed about the Clandestine Magic Trilogy as being one of my favorite trilogies in 2020. It was about time for a reread it when I found out about the audiobook. I don’t typically listen to audiobooks because I’m picky about narrators, and audiobooks take longer than if I read the book myself. I don’t mind audiobooks as rereads though. I immensely enjoyed the audiobook Subversive.

Subversive is the perfect blend of everything I love: historical fiction, fantasy, and romance. As a student of political science, I thought Cowley captured perfectly the distribution of power as it relates to women’s rights and those without magic, or typics. Those with magic hold an inordinate amount of authority as compared to those without magic and women have fewer rights compared to men. Wizards and men try to maintain their power by ensuring women remain without it. This serves as the backdrop to Peter’s return to his hometown and his employment of Beatrix. The reread reminded me why Beatrix and Peter make the perfect duo and remain one of my favorite couples.

While I initially listened to the audiobook at its normal speed, I eventually increased it to 1.1x its normal speed. Because I usually talk fast, this was a perfect speed and sounded more natural to me in both pace and tone. Once I got comfortable with the speed, it was easy enough to enjoy the narration. Through Leanne Woodward’s narration, Cowley’s magnetic storytelling comes to life. Woodward is the perfect narrator, and I don’t think I would have been able to finish the audiobook had I not liked her narration. Her enunciation is perfect, and her voice is clear. Characters are distinguished through different voices, which I liked a lot. Even with multiple female characters, each voice is distinct from the other so it’s easy to tell the individuals apart. For instance, Beatrix’s voice sounds closer to the narrator whereas Beatrix’s sister Lydia has a softer voice and is higher in pitch. Aside from the voices, I especially enjoyed the variation in intonation to exhibit an array of emotions. One of my favorite displays of this is when Beatrix first realizes what Peter has planned for her.  Woodward’s anguish as Beatrix called to me and broke my heart just like when I first read it.

I hope Leanne Woodward remains the narrator for the rest of the books. I already have Radical, book two in the trilogy, lined up as my next listen.

Red Tigress (2021)

by Amélie Wen Zhao
ASIN/ISBN: 9780525707851
Publication: March 2, 2021
Series: Blood Heir Trilogy #2


Warning: There may be spoilers for Blood Heir. There are some elements from Blood Heir I couldn’t help but to comment on as well. Sorry. Please proceed with caution.

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

Red Tigress picks up right after the events of Blood Heir. With a new ruler on the Cyrilian throne, Affinites are seemingly safe, except the new ruler expects loyalty from everyone. Those who refuse to submit face execution. With her people and her country in peril, Ana must seek allies to take back her throne. With Ransom Quicktongue and new friends in tow, Ana heads across the ocean for help.

Like its predecessor, Red Tigress moves along at a fast pace. Before I realized it, I was already halfway through the book. Along with the pace, I also particularly enjoyed the descriptive detail and the ending battle. Zhao’s writing is evocative, and I savored a lot of the imagery. I especially loved the descriptions of Linn taking flight and Ramson’s dip in the pool. The final conflict is detailed, a real nail-biter as the main characters fight for their lives. The ending of the book is a different story. I am not a fan of how the book concluded, and it’s made me eager to read the final book with the hope that the ending will be better.

Ana remains ruled by her emotions, impulsive and only recalling the consequences after. This leads her into a few skirmishes early on that she manages to just barely escape. Despite all she’s been through, it bothered me that she endangered her plans by not thinking ahead. This is why Ramson is crucial. He is her opposite, thinking and planning before making a move. He gives her structure and stability. Other than being the true heir to the throne and having a desire to help her people, there isn’t much to demonstrate Ana’s ability to rule. From a practical point of view, it isn’t enough that she loves her empire and the people within it, although it’s a start. While I was able to overlook it in the first book, it was difficult to do that here with so much riding on her leadership abilities. She needs to undergo a fair amount of growth before she can prove herself fit to rule. I hope the next book provides character development in this area.  

The status of Ramson and Ana’s relationship was also something I was never fully on board with mostly due to how quickly it developed. I’m a hopeless romantic (albeit often cynical and yes, I know, a conundrum) and hoped for a dash of romance, but Ramson and Ana’s feelings felt more contrived than organic to the story. The switch from enemies to allies can be explained by their circumstances, but their attraction to each other felt sudden. In Red Tigress, their attraction to each other strengthens, and there’s a fair amount of tension between the them with the will they or won’t they moments. A few moments, especially one in particular, felt out of place. As much as the particular moment made me tingly, it halted the story at an inopportune moment.

May is meant to signify hope and provide Ana a purpose, but I never thought her character in Blood Heir necessary in the first place. Some of their moments and some of the things May said made me cringe. In Red Tigress, Ana often thinks about May and the promises they made, which keep Ana moving forward. I believe Ana’s plight and experiences were more than enough to spur her into action without using May as a plot device. Unless I missed something crucial, I wasn’t sure whether Empress was aware that Ana was alive. It seems like she should know because of the fliers, but that would also mean that one of Ana’s allies should be dead and the ally is not. Maybe this will be better addressed in the last book.

Red Tigress was a slightly better than average read but I couldn’t help question many of the things the characters did or did not do. The final conflict is a highlight of the novel. I look forward to the final book.

The Last Fallen Star (2021)

by Graci Kim
ASIN/ISBN: 9781368059633
Publication: May 4, 2021
Series: Gifted Clans #1

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

Witches and other magical beings coexist with humans (saram), although the latter are none the wiser about it. Riley/Rye, however, is an exception. She is a human girl adopted by a witch family.  While her family loves her, it’s difficult being the odd one out, so Rye and her sister Hattie devise a plan to allow Rye temporary access to Hattie’s powers. Unfortunately, their plan backfires and puts the family in harm’s way. Now, Rye must race against time to save them.

With the abundance of books containing the magical school trope and overlapping realms, I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about reading The Last Fallen Star. It was the promise of POC representation and the infusion of Korean myths that drew me in. I enjoyed it so much! It’s magical, full of surprises, and filled with heart warming messages. It’s a middle grade adventure that highlights the strength of familial bonds and the sacrifices we make to save those we love.  Rye and Hattie demonstrate this through their efforts to support each other in the face of adversity including the witch clans’ unwillingness to allow Rye to prove herself as well as when Hattie endangers her life to protect the family. In trying to save Hattie, Rye learns that it’s not about the blood coursing through your veins but the values you hold that determine who you are.

Rye’s journey illustrates how isolation and belonging can be powerful motivators. Despite her family’s insistence that they love her, it’s difficult for Rye to overcome these feelings when she is the odd one out. She is often taunted for being different, so the extreme actions she and Hattie take are understandable. At one point or other, many of us have done something to try to fit in. It was easy to sympathize with both Hattie and Rye even as I wanted to yell at them not to do it. Kim successfully weaves multiple life lessons into Rye’s growth without feeling preachy. For younger readers, and adults alike, these lessons will resonate well, serving as reminders to value our families and friendships as well as to have faith in ourselves.

Mark of the Wicked (2021)

by Georgia Bowers
ASIN/ISBN: 9781250773890
Publication: August 10, 2021

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

I’m usually prepared for Christmas in July but not so much for Halloween in August. Mark of the Wicked certainly helped set the mood for the ghostly holiday. It’s an atmospheric read with a mix of growing up pains and unexplained paranormal occurrences. While I mostly enjoyed it, the storyline does drag a bit with some repetitiveness in the first half and continues longer than I wanted after it reaches the climax. The ending, however, makes up for it.

Matilda, the lead character, is introduced while attempting a spell sixteen days before Halloween. Despite the price of bringing harm to others, she is more than willing to do it because she can. What’s the use of having power if she can’t do what she wants with it? Her willingness to cause harm so recklessly is also the result of the ability to hide the personal consequences of her actions. She’s a morally grey character. Matilda is not an easy character to connect with. She has a lot of pent-up anger and resents her mom. These feelings fuel her decision making, pushing her to use magic on anyone who has made her life miserable. Despite her tough exterior, the insecurities and vulnerability that come with high school rise to the surface when she meets Oliver, a boy who finally likes her for who she is. In reconciling these different accounts of her character, it’s obvious she’s a little lost and lashing out. Her mother’s presence would have been helpful, but it’s her Nanna May’s presence that provides her comfort. While I was not fond of Matilda’s actions and just generally not too fond of Matilda (at least until the second half), I grew to understand her. Her world collapsed, and she closed herself off. Of course, it doesn’t excuse her behavior. She is not a good witch by any means but even as wicked as she is, she also claims she has boundaries she is unwilling to cross.

My least favorite character in the book is her mom, Lottie. I was disappointed in her a lot, but this is likely a product of the story being told from Matilda’s point of view–I just sympathized more with Matilda. Lottie acts more like she’s in a dispute with a younger sibling. From Matilda’s perspective, Lottie appears to be gallivanting to the beat of her own drum. I get it. Matilda isn’t the easiest person to get along with, but Lottie also isn’t present to help Matilda work through her frustrations. I also felt ambushed by Lottie’s reveals as she tries to soothe over their relationship. Like Matilda, I even started to resent Lottie. It’s highly problematic when your daughter suspects you are the culprit behind the dead animals and her blackouts.  

I enjoyed the plot and thought the price to pay for harming others was clever. It poses an interesting question: what choices are we willing to make if we could hide the consequences of our actions? The plot becomes repetitive (something happens, Matilda blacks out, something happens, Matilda blacks out again), which led being frustrated at trying to piece things together. Strange things are happening to animals and Matilda keeps blacking out. There is a connection somewhere, but it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly. I nearly stopped reading because the mystery kept building without any real payoff. When the pieces finally come together, it was a bit of a letdown, confirming my suspicions. On the other hand, the ending was great. It came together well, even if it was a bit too easy.  

Those ready for Halloween will enjoy the mystery presented by Mark of the Wicked. Additionally, fans of the cult classic The Craft are likely to enjoy it as well.  


The Stolen Kingdom (2021)

by Jillian Boehme
ASIN/ISBN: 9781250298836
Publication: March 2, 2021

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

Mara goes from being the daughter of a well-known vintner to the heir of the Perrin Faye throne after her lineage is uncovered. Her appearance sets in motion a secret plot to free the kingdom from the Thrungraves, which includes killing the king and his two heirs.

The Stolen Kingdom is good but has the potential to be better. The plot is interesting with some twists I saw coming and others I did not. While I enjoyed the novel, especially as the magic system was slowly unveiled, I never reached that climactic moment where I thought it was too good to put down. I was, instead, continually thinking how great it would be as a duology or even a trilogy because there is a lot packed here that could easily be expanded had there been more details. For instance, with minimal descriptions, there lacked a sense of place with the world appearing generic even if the political intrigue and the magic system kept me interested in continuing to the end.

In addition to a lack of detail, there was little build-up to pivotal moments in the plot. I didn’t have to wait long to find out what would happen or how a problem was resolved. I only just inched toward the edge of my seats, and then it was over. While this wasn’t as much an issue in the beginning while the story was being set up, it was more apparent in the latter half when events happened one after the other. This also contributed to a pace I wanted to be slowed down so things wouldn’t just keep flashing by. Aside from these factors, I generally liked Boehme’s writing style, especially as it relates to characterization.

Mara and Alac, with their backstories and aspirations, are compelling characters even if I didn’t particularly connect with them like I have other characters in similar situations. They are similar in their desire to do something different from the paths open to them.  Mara is smart and has compassion for the people affected by Thungraves’ rule although her family has suffered less than most. She’s also quite frank. All these things have her fall into the “not like other girls” trope, but that isn’t a trope I particularly mind, and it’s also what draws Alac to her. Alac is “the spare,” and wants to get away from his princely duties secretly to have his own winery. Unlike his father and brother, he doesn’t appear to be particularly power-hungry and is considerate of others. His status hasn’t gone to his head either–his best friend is head of his guard. Mara and Alac seem like they’d be perfect for each other as soon as they’re introduced in the book. While their time together is sweet–the attraction is instant between them–I questioned how their feelings so easily overcame their common sense. 

I enjoyed the book. The book is written with all the pieces fitting together, which is good but almost too easy. I liked Mara and Alac even if the connection I had with them wasn’t entirely present. I look forward to more from Boehme, with hopes that future books will provide greater detail and keep me on the edge of my seat.