The Bone Orchard: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

I won’t be ashamed of remaking myself. And I won’t turn my back on myself.

The Bone Orchard by Sara A. MuellerCharm is a survivor. After the fall of Inshil, Charm is brought to Borenguard. She is confined to a life running Orchard House, a brothel and gambling den, and tending the adjacent bone trees–the last trace of her necromantic skills. Again and again she has used the trees to regrow her bone ghosts, her children really, Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride, and Pain.

Each ghost has her own role to play, her own part, to keep Orchard House together. Charm oversees it all, madam and mistress both, as everyone from Borenguard’s elite to the Fire Drinkers–the empire’s psychically gifted police force–frequents Orchard House and buys time with the ghosts.

Except on Tuesdays. When the house is closed for all but the Emperor who comes for Charm herself.

Until one Tuesday when everything changes. Instead of coming to the house, Charm is summoned to the palace where the Emperor lay dying with one last charge for his mistress.  The Emperor knows one of his cruel sons is responsible for his murder. If Charm can determine which one, and thereby also choose which son is best fit to rule, Charm will finally be free.

But serving the emperor with this one last task will put everything–and each of the ghosts–Charm has built at risk. With her own fate and the fate of her bone ghosts uncertain, Charm will have to decide if she can serve the Emperor’s last wishes while also finally serving her own interests in The Bone Orchard (2022) by Sara A. Mueller

Find it on Bookshop.

Please be aware of the content warnings for this book which includes instances of domestic abuse, rape, incest, torture, pedophilia, and other acts of violence.

Mueller’s standalone fantasy is a nuanced and richly plotted story set in a world populated by people with varied skin tones and sexual orientations including one central character who is cued as nonbinary/genderqueer. The bone ghosts are described as “colorless” and lacking in pigmentation. Shifting viewpoints move between Charm and several of the bone ghosts as the story slowly spins out and gains momentum.

The setting of Orchard House acts as a key character itself giving space to unpack the unequal power dynamics at play between many of the characters because of gender and glass–and between Charm and each of the bone ghosts who carry their own burdens and traumas. The house also highlights the ways in which history is written (or rewritten) by the victors as more of its provenance is revealed.

Be warned, this story is often gruesome and unsavory as Mueller throws open the closed doors of the brothel and also explores exactly why each of the Emperor’s sons are so deeply damaged and awful. Nonetheless, The Bone Orchard is a satisfying mystery and meditative political fantasy that begs to be savored. As the many layers of both Charm and Borenguard’s pasts are peeled back the novel builds to a complex denouement where Charm–and others–transcend the restrictions placed upon them as they learn to embrace and respect what they have done in order to survive.

Through shifting lenses and an intricate plot including mystery, political machinations, and more The Bone Orchard explores what it means to inhabit the world alternately as a captive, a potential victim, and as a survivor; grim but ultimately empowering.

Possible Pairings: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, An Illusion of Thieves by Cate Glass, Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, All the Murmuring Bones by Angela Slatter, Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Reckless Girls: A Review

Reckless Girls by Rachel HawkinsLux and her boyfriend, Nico, have a plan: they’re going to fix up Nico’s boat the Susannah and travel around the world. Every day will be an adventure. But boats, especially boats that need fixing, are expensive. And so far the only adventure Lux has had is seeing if she can survive another boring shift as a housekeeper at a Hawaiian hotel.

When college friends Brittany and Amma charter Nico’s boat to sail to a remote South Pacific island, it feels like the adventure Lux has been hoping for is finally starting. The boat is fixed, things are finally moving. Even Brittany and Amma feel like the perfect passengers–feel like they might become friends.

Meroe Island is secluded, picturesque, and a bit like paradise.

It’s a dream come true. At first.

But the island also has a dark past with a history filled with shipwrecks, rumors of cannibalism, and even suspected murder. It’s easy to imagine trouble lurking in the shadows, especially when they realize The Susannah isn’t alone.

First it’s Jake and Eliza–a wealthy couple as sleek as their expensive catamaran. Then it’s another stranger.

As the atmosphere of the island shifts, so too do the new relationships between the small group.

There’s nowhere to go on an island as small as Meroe. And when the trouble starts, there’s no one to stop it in Reckless Girls (2022) by Rachel Hawkins.

Find it on Bookshop.

Reckless Girls is a standalone thriller. All characters are assumed white. Check out the audiobook narrated by Barrie Kreinik for an immersive read.

Detailed descriptions of both the island and the boats quickly immerse readers in the story and distract from a slow build as Lux and the rest of her foursome acclimate to Meroe Island. This quiet start is broken up with flashback chapters that slowly reveal the backstories (and secrets) the main characters are keeping close. The initial lack of action works in stark contrast to the twist-filled final act where the pacing realy picks up.

Fans of thrillers will appreciate the suspense and claustrophobic isolation of the setting, but mystery fans might find the payoff and reveals fall short of jaw-dropping.

Reckless Girls is an atmospheric thriller; a perfect addition to your beach reading list.

Possible Pairings: How to Kill Your Best Friend by Lexie Elliott, Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney, The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell, The Club by Ellery Lloyd, The Wild Girls by Phoebe Morgan, The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse, Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman, The Woman in Cabin Ten by Ruth Ware

*An advance listening copy of this title was provided by the publisher through Libro.fm*

Our Crooked Hearts: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“So. Magic. It is the loneliest thing in the world.”

Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa AlbertIn the suburbs, right now Ivy is ready for summer–even one that starts with a breakup (hers) and a broken nose (not hers). Ivy feels like strange things always happen around her, like she’s always waiting. But she’s never sure what for. She’s even less sure when strange things start happening around her house. First there’s the dead rabbit on the driveway. There’s the open door she knows she locked. Then there are the cookies, each with one perfect bite taken out while she’s home alone.

In another life, Ivy might talk to her mom Dana about what’s happening. But it’s been a long time since Ivy and her mom have been able to discuss anything. It’s been a long time since her mom has even looked at her, since she’s been anything close to present for the family.

Back then, in the city Dana is waiting for things to start. She’s always been perceptive, some might call it uncanny. She had to be to survive her childhood. Back then, the summer she turns sixteen, Dana realizes she might be able to be more than uncanny. With help from her best friend Fee and a striving newcomer, they could all be magic.

In another life, Dana might have seen the risks and understood the costs before it was too late. She doesn’t.

Instead Dana’s choices here in the city will have lasting consequences leaving a mark on her and on Fee and, most of all, on Ivy who will be left alone to unravel her mother’s secrets and the havoc left in their wake in Our Crooked Hearts (2022) by Melissa Albert.

Find it on Bookshop.

Our Crooked Hearts is a stark urban fantasy where magic doesn’t come without a cost. Ivy and Dana are white, Dana’s best friend Fee is Latinx. The story alternates between Ivy’s narration (in the suburbs, right now) and Dana’s narration (in the city, back then) in Chicago and its suburbs.

Although the plot highlights their fractious relationship, Ivy and Dana follow similar character arcs in spite of their different trajectories. Both girls are brittle and filled with an abrasive vulnerability as they struggle to understand their place in a world that never feels like it fits–a theme that gains potency as more of their backstories are revealed. This dual storyline is used to great effect with each plot moving toward its inevitable and potentially painful conclusion.

It’s impossible to read any book now without considering the mental landscape where it germinated, particularly in the context of the global pandemic. Both Ivy and Dana struggle with isolation as they flirt with power in a literal (magical) sense and in relation to their own agency as teenage girls. These struggles can easily be writ large and applied to so many of the changes we have all had to make because of the pandemic. One quote in particular, “I could still observe the shock of it, the impossibility, but I’d run out of the energy to feel them.” encapsulates living and working through the pandemic so clearly–especially the burnout and stress and increasingly bleak current events.

Both narratives are imbued with a noir sensibility and a keen eye for detail that lead to observations like “It was one of those raw, unjust spring afternoons when the air is so bright and clean it focuses the whole world like a lens, but it’s cold still and you’re shivering.” Albert blends fantasy and horror elements into a tense story that feels like it could happen anywhere, to anyone, while also possessing a strong sense of immediacy that makes it impossible to turn away.

Our Crooked Hearts is a magic-filled, intergenerational story with all of the edges sharpened into razors; a dangerous fantasy with an eerie stepped-out-of-time otherness.

Possible Pairings: Book of Night by Holly Black, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Mayhem by Estelle Laure, Extasia by Claire Legrand, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Never-Contented Things by Sarah Porter, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma, House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Melissa.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

A Mirror Mended: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Mirror Mended by Alix E. HarrowFive years ago Zinnia Gray dodged her unhappy ending when she stepped out of her own version of Sleeping Beauty and found a way to save a different dying girl. Now Aurora and Zinnia’s former best friend Charm are living their happily ever after. Not that Zinnia has seen much of it.

When one strategic spindle prick is all it takes to run away from her problems, Zinnia sees no reason to stick around. Not when her GRM (Generalized Roseville Malady) is still waiting to break her down if she stops hopping across fairy tales long enough to see any of her doctors.

Forty-nine happily ever afters later, Zinnia has the process down pat, complete with stepping out before the annoying happily ever after parties get too saccharine. When Zinnia tries to leave her latest princess to enjoy her latest HEA, Zinnia’s formulaic story-hopping goes very off script.

Instead of jumping into another version of Sleeping Beauty, Zinnia is pulled into a very different tale. And this time it isn’t a princess who needs saving.

An evil queen is asking for help, specifically Snow White’s Evil Queen. Zinnia is quick to agree that the queen is very, very trapped (and very, very hot) but Zinnia isn’t sure that means she should help her when, you know, she’s evil and all.

Every queen was once a princess. But as Zinnia and this queen land in a Grimm-dark horror version of Snow White, does that mean every queen–even an evil one–also deserves a happy ending? in A Mirror Mended (2022) by Alix E. Harrow.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Mirror Mended is Zinnia’s second jaunt through the fairytale multiverse introduced in A Spindle Splintered where she traveled through myriad versions of Sleeping Beauty. While Zinnia and the principle cast are white, this installment does feature characters of color in key roles. This expansion of the cast also gives the narrative space to explore the dangers of white savior narratives common to fairytales (especially when Zinnia is decidedly not needed) alongside commentary on the reciprocity of heroism and whether survival has to be a solitary pursuit. This series also features characters across the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

Zinnia is used to helping all kinds of princesses but even she is unsure how to handle the rescue of a canonical villain–especially one prepared to threaten captivity and bodily harm if Zinnia refuses. As Zinnia learns more about the Evil Queen and her own complicated relationship with her story, Harrow explores themes of agency and empowerment while also highlighting how the framing of a story can entirely change who becomes the protagonist (and the hero).

A Mirror Mended is a fast-paced fairytale adventure filled with Zinnia’s whip-smart observations, snarky banter, and lots of chemistry between Zinnia and the Evil Queen. A must read for fans of the series and a great entry point for anyone with a fondness for fractured (and mended) fairytales.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell, Ash by Malinda Lo, Gilded by Marissa Meyer, The Shadow Queen by C. J. Redwine, Nameless by Lili St. Crow, Into the Spider-Verse

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Alix.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

A Forgery of Roses: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:

A Forgery of Roses by Jessica S. OlsonPainters are disappearing throughout Lalverton with many devout citizens say this is just treatment for those who choose to paint–a creative outlet seen as holy and solely as the domain of the Great Artist. Conservatives including the governor fear the growing popularity in portraiture; the presence of Prodigy magic in Lalverton makes the taboo artform seem like even more of a threat.

With her mother–another Prodigy and talented artist–among the missing, Myra Whitlock knows she has to hide her own magical gift if she wants to keep herself and her younger sister, Lucy, safe. Scriptures are very clear that Prodigies are “a defilement of the power of our god, the Great Artist.” With magic that “gives a painter the ability to alter human and animal bodies with their paintings,” Prodigies have long been seen as “even more of an abomination than normal portrait work.” Their powerful ability also means that Prodigies “have been persecuted by the pious and captured by the greedy since the dawn of time.”

Lacking in proper training and control, Myra’s magic is even more dangerous. She can manipulate a person’s sevren threads to alter their appearance and heal injuries, but she can’t dictate when or how her magic will work instead having to paint through it while her magic buzzes “like a swarm of bees inside [her] head.” With finances dwindling in the wake of her parents’ disappearances, Myra desperately needs work to earn enough for rent, food, and for the nurse Lucy needs to help manage the symptoms of her chronic illness.

When Myra’s magic is discovered by the worst person possible, she forges an uneasy bargain with the governor’s wife. If Myra can use her Prodigy gift to resurrect the governor’s dead son, she could earn enough for a proper home, tuition to attend the conservatory, and even a real doctor to treat Lucy. If Myra fails, the governor’s wife will expose Myra as a Prodigy and her life could well be forfeit.

Spirited to Rose Manor in the dead of night, Myra has four days to complete her work before the body decays beyond help. Among the “ancient wealth and finery,” Myra sets to her grim work. But it soon becomes clear the governor’s son did not suffer an accidental fall as Myra has been told. Something more sinister is at work–something that could be even more dangerous to Myra than her exposure as a Prodigy. With reluctant help from August–the governor’s older, less favored son–Myra begins investigating the suspect death and trying to understand why her magic isn’t working. With time running out, Myra will uncover unsavory truths about the stately mansion and its residents in A Forgery of Roses (2022) by Jessica S. Olson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Olson blends mystery and suspense with a gothic sensibility in this standalone fantasy where all characters are assumed white. Myra narrates with an artist’s eye focused on color as seen when she describes making ladyrose gel–a medium from the author’s imagination that allows oil paints to dry fast enough for artists to complete full paintings in a matter of hours–from burnt flower petals: “As soon as it hits the water, the rose blood fans out, a spiderweb of shimmering scarlet veins crawling through the pot until the whole thing clouds like it’s full of sparkling garnet dust.” Myra’s keen eye for detail also works well within the narrative to increase tension and broadcast danger with one character described as having eyes that “glimmer like pond-slick moons” and “pearl earrings glow milky white like bones on either side of her face, twitching with every word she utters.”

To resurrect the governor’s son, Myra also has to understand the circumstances of his death and his emotional state at the time of death. As Myra explains, sevren are the “connective fibers that bind the soul to the physical form, they’re born from each person or animal’s emotional perception of their bodies. The more emotionally significant a physical feature is to that person or animal, the tighter and denser the bonds become.” Because of this, Myra takes a clinical eye to the body she is trying to restore with grisly precision as she notes “the crushed and mangled ear, the blood congealing on the hair, the fragments of skull and brain tissue” and the “scraped skin and the way the blood has pooled on the bottom of the body” while trying to paint the body as it is before layering in her changes.

Feeling a sense of urgency as time begins to run out and her paintings continue to fail, Myra works (and flirts) with August to investigate his brother’s death. While searching for clues together, August opens up about his daily struggle with severe anxiety which is well-represented in the text. As August explains, “This anxiety will always be a part of me. It’s not going anywhere, and I’m going to have to live with it for the rest of my life. But I am not broken because of it.”

Myra’s desperation to complete her work before she is exposed as a Prodigy only increases when Lucy’s illness takes a turn for the worse. Although unnamed in the text, symptoms include food sensitivity and intestinal distress which Lucy manages with scientific precision in notebooks where “food logs, graphs, and lists of symptoms are mapped out carefully on each page.” Readers will also recognize Spoon theory, described in the text as juice in a glass where “Every action of daily life—getting out of bed, bathing, dressing, doing research—siphoned juice away. Once the glass was empty, no matter how much she had left she needed to do or how much she’d hoped to get done, her body needed to rest. To refill the glass.”

A Forgery of Roses combines art, fantasy, and a truly surprising mystery with authentic and respectful representation for both anxiety and chronic illness which are seen as points of strength rather than flaws in this story where as Myra notes about Lucy “As far as I’m concerned, I may be the one with magic, but she’s the truly powerful one. Because she’s fought where I have never had to.” Myra and August’s romance and a final act filled with the surprise twists that are a hallmark of gothic literature at its best further enhance this story where a picture is worth much more than a thousand words.

Emma Carbone is a librarian and reviewer. She has been blogging about books since 2007.

Possible Pairings: The Beautiful by Renee Ahdieh, The Invention of Sophie Carter by Samantha Hastings, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, Gallant by V. E. Schwab, The Splendor by Breeana Shields, Hotel Magnifique by Emily J. Taylor, All that Glitters by Gita Trelease

Vinyl Moon: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. BrowneFive weeks ago Angel was dating Darius. Five weeks ago she still believed he loved her. Five weeks ago, after one terrible night, all of that changed.

Now Angel is across the country in Brooklyn. She’s getting used to living with her uncle Spence and exploring the Flatbush neighborhood that’s now home. She’s trying to figure out who she is when she doesn’t have Darius telling her everything she’s doing right–or wrong–and who she is when she doesn’t have her younger brother Amir or the triplets to take care of.

After that horrible night and the argument that changed everything, Angel know she needs to heal. She just isn’t sure if she deserves to yet.

As she makes new friends and discovers books and music that feel like they were made for her, Angel starts to realize her world could be bigger than her family, bigger than Darius. For the first time in years, Angel has space to be anything she wants to be–once she figures out who that is in Vinyl Moon (2022) by Mahogany L. Browne.

Find it on Bookshop.

Set over the course of a school year, Vinyl Moon is a deceptively short novel with quick vignette-like chapters narrated by Angel as she gets situated and begins to feel at home in Brooklyn. Free verse poems are interspersed with the prose highlighting different elements of the story and adding a lyrical quality to this unique reading experience. The audiobook is narrated by Bahni Turpin (quickly becoming one of my favorite voice actors) who does a fantastic job bringing Angel’s world–and her voice–to life.

Angel and most characters are Black. Angel’s classmates include characters across the LGBTQ+ spectrum with a variety of lived experiences including a single mother finishing high school, secret poets and DJs, and alternatives to college with potential love interest Sterling who is in the ROTC. The story is also deeply and authentically grounded in its New York City setting and specifically Brooklyn as Angel explores many neighborhood instituations that local readers will readily recognize.

The novel features flashbacks that slowly unpack exactly what happened to get Angel to Brooklyn and her complicated past with her family. As she gains distance from everything that happened with Darius, Angel begins to understand what happened and her agency in making sure it does not happen again. New friendships, her uncle, and support from teachers at her new school also help Angel view her fraught relationship with her mother in a new light and realize some relationships are worth saving.

My favorite part of Vinyl Moon is Angel’s journey to understand her own past while discovering a love for books, poetry, and music–Browne presents this plot thread with joy and passion as Angel’s world starts to expand. As Angel observes, “It’s not that I don’t like reading. I’ve just never had room to do anything for myself.”–a sentiment that applies to so many people making their way back to (or discovering) things they love.

Vinyl Moon is empowering, hopeful, and not to be missed. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhatena, Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh, An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds, Push by Sapphire, Genesis Begins Again by Alicia Williams, In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner

Book of Night: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“That’s what good con artists did. They didn’t need to convince you of anything, because you were too busy convincing yourself.”

Book of Night by Holly BlackCharlie Hall remembers the way things were before magic was real. Her life would have taken a different course without shadow magic and the underground market it created for stolen shadows, arcane spells, and–most importantly for Charlie–hidden knowledge. She might have become a different woman if she didn’t move so quickly from small cons to the much bigger cons of stealing long hidden, very dangerous spells.

But some bullets can’t be dodged. You have to take the hit.

Which is why Charlie is more determined than ever to start fresh. No cons. No heists. And definitely no magic. She can’t stop her younger sister Posey from searching online for traces of magic at all hours, can’t stop Posey from splitting her own tongue so she’ll be ready when her shadow wakes up. What Charlie can do is take a boring stable job tending bar, spend time with her boring stable boyfriend Vince, and make sure Posey’s tuition is paid on time. Simple.

Except you don’t get into the spell market without building a reputation, without meeting unsavory characters, without sometimes being the unsavory character. That makes it hard to start fresh.

When the worst parts of her past come back to haunt her, Charlie’s boring stable life is thrown into chaos. Delving deeper into the world she thought she’d left behind, Charlie quickly learns that danger doesn’t just lurk in the shadows–sometimes it’s the shadows themselves in Book of Night (2022) by Holly Black.

Find it on Bookshop.

Book of Night is Black’s adult market debut.

Charlie is a pragmatic main character, having survived her share of hard knocks and dealt a few herself along the way. Even in world with magic, Charlie is aware that to be normal means fitting into a very narrow box–one that’s hard to find when you’re poor and have a past like hers. While this tense narrative centers on a job Charlie can’t refuse, at its core Book of Night is a story about growing into yourself and learning to embrace every part of yourself–even the ones you’ve tried so hard to bury.

When magic can be bought and sold or stolen and hoarded, Charlie walks the shadow-thin line between going too far and not going far enough to protect everyone she loves. Book of Night delivers noir elements with world-weary heroine Charlie alongside the fantasy and wonder inherent to a world where magic is real but still new enough to not be fully understood. Book of Night is filled with satisfying twists and gasp-worthy reveals perfect for long-time Holly Black fans and new readers alike.

Possible Pairings: Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa Albert, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey, An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Gallant by V. E. Schwab

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Bravely: A Review

Bravely by Maggie StiefvaterMerida of DunBroch is the kind of girl that magic seeks. While others try to understand magic’s arcane ways, Merida has known from a young age to be wary of it–especially after a curse almost turned her mother and her younger brothers into bears forever.

Now, Merida knows better than to chase magic. Instead she has traveled. She has explored. She has learned. But it still always feels like something is missing. Like she’s waiting for something to change.

Then she hears the knock on Christmas Eve. When goddesses and gods make themselves known to you, you listen whether you want to understand their magic or not.

When Feradach the god of ruin himself says he is going to bring catastrophic change to your home and your family, you try to stop him.

When that doesn’t work, you strike a bargain with help from the Cailleach, the most ancient of goddesses and one who might have a soft spot for Merida and her family.

Once the bargain is struck, Merida has a year to change all of the things that have grown stagnant in DunBroch and show Feradach how much they can change without his ruination.

One princess, two gods, three voyages, four seasons for Merida to save everything she holds dear in Bravely (2022) by Maggie Stiefvater.

Find it on Bookshop.

Bravely is an official continuation of Princess Merida’s story (as originally seen in the 2012 Disney film Brave) written by Stiefvater. Set a few years after the events of the film, Bravely references Merida’s past but functions on its own. All characters in this Scottish-set story are presumed white.

A close third person narrator and eerie opening lend Bravely a fairytale feel as the stage is set for Merida’s bargain with Feradach. Stiefvater populates Merida’s world with a combination of historical figures, familiar faces from the film, and gods and goddesses (some historically accurate, some imagined) alongside entirely new characters to create a large cast that takes some time to get to know and care about. Set over the course of the year, this story builds slowly before finding its footing in the second half as the plot shifts into new territory.

A slow start builds to a satisfying conclusion as Bravely blends new and old to create a story centered on themes of change and renewal. Bravely is an appropriately nuanced story perfect for Disney fans and readers of historical fantasy alike.

Possible Pairings: Ferryman by Claire McFall, Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Little Thieves by Margaret Owen, Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

The Words We Keep: A Review

The Words We Keep by Erin StewartThree months after the Night on the Bathroom Floor, high school junior Lily Larkin feels like her life is falling apart. Because it is.

On the Night on the Bathroom Floor Lily found her older sister Alice hurting herself. Alice hasn’t been home since. And Lily has been struggling to fill all of the Alice-shaped gaps she left behind.

If Lily can do enough at home, get good enough grades at school, make it to State in track, get into UC Berkeley, and keep doing everything right it will all be okay. Her family needs a win and all Lily has to do is keep winning.

Except Lily feels like she’s starting to lose it. She’s uninspired, overwhelmed, and struggling to hide all of it from her family and her friends.

When she’s partnered with a new student who knows all about the Night on the Bathroom Floor, Lily is worried Micah Mendez will reveal all of her family’s secrets. Instead, he might be the one person who can help Lily find her way back to herself in The Words We Keep (2022) by Erin Stewart.

Find it on Bookshop.

Lily and her family (and most secondary characters) are presumed white. Micah is Mexican American.

The Words We Keep is Stewart’s second novel and I wish I could recommend but I can’t. Read on for a discussion of some of the issues I had with this book including spoilers:

Continue reading The Words We Keep: A Review

The Ivory Key: A Review

The Ivory Key by Akshaya RamanAshoka has always been known for its magic–a prized resource mined from the quarry beneath the kingdom’s palace.

But the magic is running out.

Newly named maharani after her mother’s sudden death, Vira won’t let losing the kingdom’s magic be her legacy. Not when following a trail of ancient riddles and clues to find the mythical Ivory Key could unlock more magic quarries.

Ronak, Vira’s twin brother, has always been more interested in studying the past like their Papa than in preparing for his future. With royal expectations closing in around him, Ronak will do anything to get away. Even promising to secure the Ivory Key for a dangerous mercenary.

Kaleb has never felt like a half-brother to any of the royal siblings. But his Lyrian birth mother is enough evidence to imprison him for the previous maharani’s assassination. Helping Vira find the Ivory Key could clear Kaleb’s name. But that still might not be enough to reclaim his old life.

Riya has been happy in the two years since she left the palace behind. Now, drawn into the hunt for the key with her siblings, Riya will have to choose between her obligations to her family and her loyalties to the Ravens–the group of rebels that took her in when she had nothing and no one.

Four siblings, one magical artifact, centuries of secrets in The Ivory Key (2022) by Akshaya Raman.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Ivory Key is Raman’s first novel and the start of an India-inspired duology. The main characters are all brown skinned and Ashokan (a name commonly associated with ancient India) while the neighboring Lyrians are described as fairer skinned. The story alternates between close third person perspectives following the four siblings.

Raman takes her time building out the world of The Ivory Key dropping hints about each character’s backstory alongside details of the political landscape that threatens Ashoka’s future. A well-developed and unique magic system underscore the urgency of Vira’s search for the Ivory Key although that part of the plot is slow to start.

Balancing four points of view is challenging and something that makes the first half of The Ivory Key drag as characters are introduced and tensions build. Once the four royal siblings reluctantly begin working together to find the key, the story starts to pick up and feels more like the adventure promised in the synopsis.

Hints of romance add dimension to the story and drama to one of the book’s biggest reveals although most of the story is squarely focused on the fractious relationships between Vira, Ronak, Kaleb, and Riya. A rushed final act introduces new twists and obstacles for all of the siblings as their paths once again diverge leaving each primed for an exciting conclusion to this duology in the next installment.

The Ivory Key is a sweeping, politically charged adventure where action and the search for magic are balanced by court intrigue and maneuvering; a dramatic story that isn’t afraid to take its time to draw readers in.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faisal, Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim, Sisters of the Snake by Sarena Nanua and Sasha Nanua, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*