Within These Wicked Walls (2021)

by Lauren Blackwood
ASIN/ISBN: 9781250787101
Publication: October 19, 2021

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

Some books take a few pages for me to settle into and then some books immediately pull me in from the first line. Within These Wicked Walls is very much the latter. Hooked by the descriptive writing, I had to keep reading even though I only intended to take a quick peek at what I was getting myself into. Blackwood’s writing is evocative but the too quickly formed relationships hindered my overall enjoyment of the novel.

Andromeda, or Andi for short, arrives at the Rochester household to rid the house of its curse. Upon her arrival, she can already feel the strength of the manifestations. The house is vastly colder than it should be, and her amulet hums at the immense amount of paranormal activity. Although she learned from one of the most famous debterras and has the necessary experience, Andi has her work cut out for her but is determined to finish it. She also doesn’t have the luxury to give up the job even if she wanted to.

First and foremost, I tend to run away screaming from anything scary, so please understand that my threshold for what is creepy is very low. Blackwood successfully creates an atmospheric read with its gothic tones and just the right amount of creepiness to make my skin crawl, even forcing a few glances behind me from time to time. Thankfully, it was not enough of a deterrent for my curiosity at what might happen next. It also helped immensely that I was reading it during the day. (I know, I know. Total wuss because the book isn’t actually very scary at all. Hahaha…)

While the writing is effective in setting the mood and tone of the novel, the romance was off-putting. It felt more like a product of the book being a retelling rather than organic to the particular story told here. It also happened too quickly for my liking, lacking the development I usually look forward to in books with romances. Andi arrives at the house and suddenly Andi starts feeling things she doesn’t normally feel. Of course, this might also be a product of me being more invested in what Andi is supposed to do at the house, which is far more interesting. On its own, if I could assess the romance separately from the rest of the book, there is a lot to like about it, especially the playful banter. I like Andi’s honesty and how she is more than willing to call Magnus out for his behavior. It’s also part of what draws him to her. However, taking into consideration the whole picture and how the romance suddenly manifests itself, it isn’t exactly welcomed even though I’m a hopeless romantic. It’s difficult to ignore how it interrupts the flow of the book at times. I understand the romance is meant to be a driving force for Andi’s decisions, but I can’t help feeling that something more subtle could have been as or maybe more effective.  Another possibility would be to have no romance at all, which may have been preferable. Much more interesting is Andi’s relationship with her mentor. I would have preferred more interaction between them and an exploration of their tumultuous relationship, although I liked what I did get of it, even if somewhat predictable.

Within These Wicked Walls is a good read, well-paced with a protagonist I liked and both mood and tone set well, but is somewhat hindered by a romance that feels all too sudden and even unnecessary (even though I liked it on its own). Pick up the book if you like unique retellings of classics and if gothic tales are a favorite. If you’ve never read Jane Eyre just like I haven’t, although I’ve skimmed a few of the movie adaptations, it won’t detract from enjoying the novel. 

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.

Wrath of the Tooth Fairy (2020)

by Sarina Dorie
Publication: July 21, 2020

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

Mira was a fairy godmother until she was found in a compromising position after falling in love with a godson, a Prince Charming. After losing her job as a fairy godmother and deemed a predator, she is relegated to a tooth fairy. After nearly a hundred years, she’s still trying to work her way back to being a fairy godmother. When she starts being visited by a bogeyman, she sets out to find a way to keep him away. The bogeyman, however, may be more than he seems when a prank he plays makes Mira suspect there may be shady practices going on within the company she works at.

Wrath of the Tooth Fairy can be classified as a romantic fantasy, but the romance is not as developed as I would like in my romance novels. Fortunately, the romance isn’t the draw of the book. Mira’s journey is what kept me reading. Mira loved her job as a fairy godmother and was on the way to holding a prominent position before falling in love with Prince Charming. She is determined to regain her fairy godmother status. She has a soft heart and bends the rules to help her clients beyond her teeth collecting duties even if being found out could lead to losing her job–becoming a toilet fairy does not sound fun. While she tries to keep her head down and stay away from trouble, the small ways in which she rebels against the system made her someone I rooted for. (You can do it!) But are these small gestures enough? What happens if you need to put more skin in the game?

The world immediately drew me in. Although there are different dimensions, the world we spend the most time in is the one that overlaps with humans and operates much like it as well. Individuals fulfill occupational roles ranging from bogeyman to Santas and Easter Bunnies. Not all fairies have wings. Unfortunately, cupids do have uniforms that look exactly like a giant diaper. Of all things replicated, it’s the oft-dreaded bureaucracies and their red tape that made me cringe. (Ugh! Not here too!) Joining Mira on her journey felt like it could be just another day at work: a lousy boss, incessant complaints, and commiserating with coworkers. Different world, the same problems. Heh…

Just like being on the clock, that darn minute hand doesn’t budge very easily. As much as I liked the setup of the novel and Mira’s journey, the pacing of the book had me checking how much more I had to go before the middle mark and then how much more until the end. It’s repetitive with Mira working, the bogeyman showing up many times over, and Mira trying to figure out what to do about him. It felt like so much happened, but also nothing happened at all. It’s not until the second half that the plot moves forward. When it did, I breathed a sigh of relief and was rewarded for overcoming the first half. It was an uphill battle for a while there. Then toward the end, it kept going when I was ready for it to stop.

Like Mira, I had to figure out whether I should risk putting my skin in the game–so many books, so little time, right? And, time is something you never get back. (That’s a lot of skin!) Overall, I made a sound decision. The pacing wore me down some, but Mira puts up a good fight, well, at least in the second half, which is how the half star appeared. For the most part, I enjoyed it and can positively say time was not wasted. While I do recommend Wrath of the Tooth Fairy, you’ll have to consider if the risk is worth it as well.

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.

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.

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.

Written in the Stars (2020)

by Alexandria Bellefleur
ISBN: 9780063000803
Publication date: November 10, 2020

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

Elle believes in astrology and finding her perfect one while Darcy is logical and used to believe in love but not anymore.  Although their initial date goes awry, they end up pretending to date.  Darcy needs Elle to get her brother to stop setting her up while Elle agrees so she can stop being the black sheep in the family.  Despite a rocky start and being opposites, sparks fly between them. Could fake dating actually lead to OTP status?  It’s hard to tell because it’s not like Elle notices how certain colors bring out the honey-colored flecks in Darcy’s eyes.  And, it’s not as though Darcy can’t help thinking about the way Elle’s eyes light up when she smiles.

Written in the Stars is a charming novel that wears its heart on its sleeve.  It has all the elements of a romantic comedy with fake dating and opposites attracting.  It doesn’t pull unnecessary punches to yank the reader around.  If there is any angst, it’s short-lived.  The novel drips with such sweetness that I couldn’t read this without a goofy smile plastered on my face.  Despite being a romantic, I sometimes even had to cringe because it was so disgustingly sweet.  While it didn’t make my heart zing, there were so many parts of this that made me swoon.  I couldn’t help it because the writing is as whimsical as Elle is, creating a tone that is light and fluffy.  It’s the perfect book to read to momentarily escape the real world.  One of my favorite images is of Elle’s “stomach erupting in a kaleidoscope of butterflies” after a kiss.  Another is the blooming of love, “like stubborn wildflowers poking up through cracks in the pavement, growing where they didn’t belong.”  I really liked the emotions and images that Bellefleur evoked through her writing. I highlighted so many passages throughout the book I wish I could share them all. 

I loved Elle for being such a pure-hearted free spirit who wore her heart on her sleeve.  I cheered her on when she finally stood up for herself.  If anything, I wanted her to see that she was deserving of so much.  She is a catch, even if she doesn’t seem to think so.  I think this is why I really admired her best friend Margot who continually tried to remind her of that fact.  I also couldn’t help but like Darcy.  She seems cold but there’s something that just makes her so charming.  She puts up this “I’m perfect and have everything together” front but she’s actually pretty squishy on the inside.  She just hides it so well.  Some of my favorite parts are when she would unexpectedly say something funny and it seemed like it went against her character. 

Overall, I enjoyed the book.  While it didn’t give me the constant zings, it gave me moments of laughter, heart eyes, and swooniness.  For a moment, I was as much in love as Elle was.