The Traitor’s Kiss: A Review

Sage Fowler is all too aware that she isn’t a lady. She wants it that way. Orphaned at a young age, Sage has spent years dreaming of the day when she’ll be able to leave her uncle’s stifling household.

Her hopes are thwarted when her uncle sends Sage to a matchmaker to evaluate her marriage prospects (and hopefully make a match)–a practice that is become popular throughout the kingdom. Sage has no intention of having an arranged marriage or possibly any marriage. Both prospects are easily avoided thanks to Sage’s sharp tongue and nasty disposition.

Instead Sage finds herself in the unlikely position of matchmaker’s apprentice. When she and her mentor fall in with a group of soldiers, Sage also finds herself in the surprising role of spy. The course of true love, and espionage, never does run smooth as Sage is about to find out in The Traitor’s Kiss (2017) by Erin Beaty.

The Traitor’s Kiss is Beaty’s debut novel and the start of a new series.

This book begins with an interesting premise that is soon mired in all-too familiar world building. Although Sage lives in an imaginary world it’s impossible to ignore the nods to English and (white) European cultures. This tired backdrop is compounded with dark skinned enemies and a “dusky” love interest who comes close to being described as exotic.

Unfortunately Sage herself does little to distract from this problematic world. Readers will either love or hate Sage, something that will likely determine how you feel about the rest of the novel. Sage is meant to be an independent and resourceful young woman. Which she could be if she weren’t busy being brash, thoughtless, and purposefully unkind.

After her parents died, Sage was taken in by her uncle. Early pages frame this arrangement as a nightmare for Sage where she is demeaned, belittled, and abused. Except we learn almost immediately that is not the case. Her uncle has done nothing but care for and tend to her best interests. So what is the meaning behind Sage’s simmering hatred for him and the rest of her family? No one knows. Sage continuously reminds herself and readers of her lack of agency but she also persists in making thoughtless decisions that speak to her inherent privilege in being able to do whatever she wants other peoples’ wishes be damned.

Almost every character falls victim to shorthand characterizations distilling them into a vague stereotype and not much else. Sage’s prickly personality and sharp observations serve her well in a plot that is murky at best as it moves vaguely through time leading Sage from apprentice matchmaker to would-be spy.

The Traitor’s Kiss is a disappointing fantasy that promises romance and adventure but fails to deliver on both marks.

Possible Pairings: All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry, The Glittering Court by Richelle Mead, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes, Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas

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

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Strange the Dreamer: A Review

“He’d sooner die trying to hold the world on his shoulders than running away. Better, always, to run toward.”

No one knows what happened in Weep two hundred years ago to isolate the wondrous city from the rest of the world.

Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with Weep since he felt the city’s true name stripped from his mind when he was five years old. Now he spends every free moment tracking down what clues he can about the city as it once was and hints to what might have transpired there.

Unlikely as it may be for a war orphan turned into a lowly junior librarian, Lazlo’s greatest dream is to visit Weep and see its wonders with his own eyes. He knows such opportunities, such legends, are more suitable to men like Thyon Nero–a scholar renowned through the land for his alchemical wonders–but that does little to tamp down his hope. Lazlo is a dreamer who survives on a steady diet of magic and fairy tales. To deny the possibility of either in his own small life is unthinkable.

When an unexpected caravan led by Eril-Fane, the Godslayer, arrives Lazlo has to embrace his dream and strive for the impossible: not just the chance to see the Unseen City for himself but possibly the chance to save it.

The city is more than even Lazlo could have expected filled with wonders and horrors in equal measure. The city is still haunted by the centuries long legacy of war and terror under the Mesarthium–blue-skinned gods who came down from the sky when the city was still whole.

There are problems to solve in Weep and answers to find. But as Lazlo explores his dream city, he realizes there are also more questions as his own dreamscape becomes something he doesn’t recognize with moments that are strikingly, vividly real, and a blue-skinned goddess who seems nothing like the terror he’s heard about from the Godslayer.

In a world where the old gods are dead and dreams have weight, Lazlo will have to decide what he wants to protect and what he’s willing to lose in Strange the Dreamer (2017) by Laini Taylor. Welcome to Weep.

Strange the Dreamer is the first book in Taylor’s latest duology which will continue in The Muse of Nightmares. While this story is very obviously unfinished (the last line of the novel is “Because this story was not over yet.”) Strange the Dreamer does provide a partially contained arc in terms of Lazlo’s journey and growth as he comes into his own upon arriving in Weep.

Through Weep and its history Strange the Dreamer artfully explores themes of forgiveness and recovery as both Lazlo and the rest of Weep struggle to determine next steps for the wounded but healing city. The imagined city of Weep is evocative and vibrant with distinct customs, landscapes, and even language. The use of language is demonstrated especially well with the words in Weep’s native language used to start each section of the novel.

Taylor builds drama that remains taut from the opening prologue until the very last page. Written with an omniscient third person point of view this story is very self-aware and encompasses numerous points of view. This narrative structure and the tone of the novel are deliberately reminiscent of the fairy tales that Lazlo so richly loves and serve to underscore the fairy tale nature of Strange the Dreamer where magic continuously appears in seemingly mundane and unexpected places.

Strange the Dreamer is a captivating fantasy sure to appeal to readers looking for an intricate and unique story. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Reader by Traci Chee, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Lirael by Garth Nix, A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

The Wardrobe Mistress: A Novel of Marie Antoinette: A Review

Giselle Aubry hopes that her position as undertirewomen to Marie Antoinette will help her achieve her dream of designing opulent dresses. The tedium of the day-to-day work of dressing the queen and maintaining her wardrobe is mitigated by living in Versailles while she works and being so close to the grandness and beauty of the palace.

Within the palace the nobles are aware of the growing unrest among France’s poor. But unlike the queen, most of them lack even the most basic sympathy or even understanding of the political unrest.

Ambitions aside, Giselle is eager for more adventure so she jumps at her uncle’s suggestion that she begin reporting on the queen’s movements. Working for her uncle, a retired spy from Louis XV’s secret du roi, Giselle thinks she has found a grand game. But she soon realizes that the stakes are higher than she could have imagined.

Torn between her growing affection and loyalty for the queen and her undeniable attraction to a young revolutionary, Giselle will have to make difficult choices to protect her heart . . . and maybe even her head in The Wardrobe Mistress: A Novel of Marie Antoinette (2017) by Meghan Masterson.

The Wardrobe Mistress is Masteron’s debut novel.

Through Giselle’s first person narration Masterson creates an evocative vision of revolutionary era France. Despite demonstrably thorough research to set the scene, The Wardrobe Mistress fails to fully immerse readers into the setting thanks to dialogue that, while stilted, fails to feel authentic.

With her position above the working class but beneath the nobility Giselle has the chance to have a uniquely nuanced view of the revolution as it unfolds. Unfortunately Giselle’s guileless narration still manages to frame many aspects of the story as a strict binary between good and bad. The story’s focus on Giselle also limits the scope of the plot and relegates many key moments (notably the Flight to Varennes) are related to readers in lengthy recounts between characters.

The Wardrobe Mistress is an entertaining introduction to this turbulent moment in history. Recommended for readers eager to try historical fiction for the first time or those interested in the time period who enjoy their history with a healthy dose of romance on the side.

Possible Pairings: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, A Place of Great Safety by Hilary Mantel, Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution by Michelle Moran, The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

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

The Keeper of the Mist: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“There was something appalling about the steady progression of time, or at least about dividing time into sharp little seconds and counting them off, like a knife flicking through the day, tick tick tick, and nothing anyone could do to turn back the hands of time.”

Keri’s main focus since her mother’s death has been running the family bakery on her own. She doesn’t have much time to think about her father, the Lord of Nimmira, who has never wasted a thought on Keri. Nor is she inclined to entertain predictions about which of her half-brothers will take up the title of Lord upon their father’s death.

When Nimmira’s ancient and inscrutable magic chooses Keri as the unlikely heir her focus shifts abruptly from baking to all manner of details implicit to overseeing her small country as its new Lady. Caught between larger countries eager to conquer each other and absorb its resources, Nimmira has relied on its border mists and a strict policy of isolation for generations. Keri should be able to control and maintain the mists as the new Lady. Except they continue to fail after her ascension and no one knows why.

Keri’s Timekeeper is counting the seconds, minutes, and hours to something important. But he can’t–or perhaps won’t–explain what exactly that is or how Keri can prepare for it. Keri’s best friend Tassel acclimates quickly to her role as Bookkeeper but even her magic can’t help unravel some of Nimmira’s deepest secrets. Then there’s Cort, Keri’s unlikely Doorkeeper. Cort is steadfast in his commitment to protecting and maintaining Nimmira’s borders. But will he and Keri finally be able to see eye to eye as they try to restore the mist?

Change is coming to Nimmira. Only time will tell if Keri and her friends will be ready to face it in The Keeper of the Mist (2016) by Rachel Neumeier.

The Keeper of the Mist is a charming standalone fantasy novel with a beautiful cover. It is also, as a hardcover edition, very poorly edited with typos and repeated phrases. While that doesn’t detract from the story, it did often make for a frustrating reading experience.

Keri’s story is a novel of manners with the feel of a regency romance (though don’t tell that to Keri or Cort) with a healthy dose of fantasy. Keri is scattered and sometimes lacking in confidence but she is also a woman of action who, once she commits, is prepared to do the right thing and follow through.Tassel and Court serve as excellent counterpoints to Keri and the relationships between these three characters are an excellent underpinning for the rest of the novel.

Everything about The Keeper of the Mist comes back to time. Keri’s ascension to Lady has to happen on a very specific schedule. The expiration date for the mist is clearly in sight if the magic border isn’t fixed. Foreign intrusion is imminent as Nimmira becomes more visible to its neighbors. All of this urgency lends itself to a fast-paced story. Unfortunately that same urgency underscores the fact that this story is very slow and much more focused on characters than plot.

The Keeper of the Mist is a contemplative coming-of-age fantasy about friendship, embracing change, and facing challenges head on. Recommended for readers who enjoy well-realized regency fantasies in the tradition of Patricia McKillip or Diana Wynne Jones.

Possible Pairings: Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

The Storyspinner: A Review

The Storyspinner by Becky WallaceThe Keepers have been searching for the long-missing princess for years. They have used their magic and more traditional skills but the princess, long rumored dead, has proven elusive leaving room for rival dukes to compete and connive as they struggle to claim her throne for themselves.

Johanna–a Performer left without a troupe after her father’s grisly demise–thinks such matters are far above her station in life. Until murdered girls begin turning up across the kingdom bearing a striking resemblance to Johanna.

Desperate to support her family and a victim of circumstance Johanna is soon forced to work with Lord Rafael DeSilva. Unfortunately for her, Rafi is boorish and insufferable. Not to mention he shares an equally low opinion of Johanna.

When her path aligns with the hunt for the princess, Johanna finds herself at the center of a dangerous web of secrets that could cost Johanna her life in The Storyspinner (2015) by Becky Wallace.

The Storyspinner is Wallace’s debut novel and part of a duology that concludes in The Skylighter.

This novel is written in close third person and alternates between seven points of view including Johanna and Rafi. This multitude of main characters allows Wallace to balance two narrative threads that eventually converge and maintain some surprise although transitions between chapters and characters are often abrupt. Making so many characters into “main” characters leaves little room to develop any of them. Instead of a multi-faceted ensemble cast, The Storyspinner feels like it is populated by one note characters including from the sage wielder of magic, the resentful sister trying to prove herself, and more.

Wallace situates her fantasy in a fictional world that borrows heavily from Portuguese culture with language, food, and more. While this adds flair to the story, it seems out of place with an explanation for where these elements come from.

The Storyspinner starts strong with an intriguing premise that fails to get very far before it is mired in an overly large cast of characters. Recommended for readers looking for a plot driven story that is light on the world building and heavy on the action.

Possible Pairings: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch, The Shadow Queen by C. J. Redwine, The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

The Reluctant Queen: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*The Reluctant Queen is the second book in Durst’s Queens of Renthia trilogy. It contains major spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series, start at the beginning with The Queen of Blood*

“Everything has a spirit. … And those spirits want to kill you.”

Daleina spent years preparing to protect the people of Aratay as a Candidate and Heir. She was never the strongest, but she was one of the smartest and most determined. After the Coronation Massacre she was also the only Heir left alive to to take the throne. In the wake of the massacre that killed so many of her friends, Daleina is doing her best to be a good queen.

But there’s a problem.

Daleina is dying and as her health deteriorates so does her control over the spirits. All of Aratay is in danger until suitable Heirs can be chosen but after the massacre most of the candidates are perilously young and unprepared.

Naelin is neither of those things. She is powerful enough to be an Heir and the next Queen. She has also spent the past years at pains to make sure no one knows the full extent of her power–especially the spirits who would kill her for it. She has no desire to remove herself from her quiet life as a woodswoman with her husband and two young children.

Champion Ven found Daleina and believed in her abilities when no one else did, knowing that she would one day be a great Queen. He knows that the same is true for Naelin if only he can get her to see herself the way he does. As time runs out, both Daleina and Naelin will have to accept that saving everyone they love will require both women to risk everything in The Reluctant Queen (2017) by Sarah Beth Durst.

The Reluctant Queen is the second book in Durst’s Queens of Renthia trilogy which began with The Queen of Blood (a 2017 Alex Award winner). This story starts several months into Daleina’s reign as Queen of Aratay when the kingdom should be calm. Instead, Daleina learns that she is fatally ill and has become her own kingdom’s greatest threat.

Durst expands the world of Renthnia in this story as Naelin and Daleina explore new parts of Aratay and look beyond its borders to Semo. The viewpoints in the story are also expanded with more from familiar characters like Ven as well as new characters like Naelin and her children.

This series is thick with action and tension. The stakes have never been higher for Daleina and Naelin (or for Aratay) as time runs out to find a cure for Daleina and prepare Naelin for everything being Queen requires. In this installment Durst thoughtfully explores the push and pull between duty to family versus larger responsibilities as Naelin tries to resign herself to her future as an Heir. Her dynamic with Daleina–Naelin’s opposite in many ways–adds an interesting dimension to the story as both women realize there is no right or easy way to wield power.

Durst has outdone herself with The Reluctant Queen. Its dramatic final act will leave readers anxious to see what the Queens of Renthia will face next. The Reluctant Queen effectively confirms that this series is a must for any and all high fantasy readers. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Roar by Cora Carmack, Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman, A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, The Shadow Queen by C. J. Redwine

Be sure to check out my interview with Sarah about this book!

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

The Crown’s Game: A Review

The Crown's Game by Evelyn SkyeUsually, only one enchanter is born to continue the line of magicians with a long history of serving the tsar and protecting Russia from its enemies. When two are born, the tsar initiates the Crown’s Game where the rival enchanters can showcase their talents and prove they deserve to be the only true enchanter in Russia.

Vika Andreyeva has been honing her elemental magic with her father since she was a child. She has always assumed becoming the Imperial Enchanter was her birthright, never imagining there were others like her.

Nikolai Karimov’s mechanical magic is unmatched–a useful quality to help him lead the life of a gentleman without the funds to match. His magic brought him to the attention of his mentor and his training gives Nikolai the life he never could have imagined as an orphan on the Russian steppe. He is determined to win the game and claim the life he has been promised.

When they are summoned to compete against each other Vika and Nikolai meet as enemies. At first. But they are also drawn to each other in ways neither can fully grasp. Only one of them can win the game and only one of them can survive. But even winning may not be enough to protect their hearts in The Crown’s Game (2016) by Evelyn Skye.

The Crown’s Game is Skye’s debut novel and the start of a series.

The Crown’s Game is a historical fantasy set in an alternate Russia where magic flourishes and is a key part of Russia’s heritage, not to mention its defenses. Skye grounds this story in well-researched and thoroughly described details of Russian culture and history. The novel is written in close third person with chapters alternating between the points of view of several characters including Vika, Nikolai, the tsar’s son and heir Pasha, Pasha’s sister Yulia, and others. While the variety of characters rounds out the story it also, unfortunately, decreases the chances for character development.

Despite the title and the marketing for this book, The Crown’s Game is not the high stakes battle readers might expect. Instead of a fierce battle, the game proves to be more of a magical showcase where, during its early stages, the stakes and ultimate outcome of the game often seem to lack real consequences.

Skye does an excellent job of bringing her version of Russia to life. By contrast the fantasy elements of this story are weaker. The magic system lacks internal logic to match the urgency suggested by the story. In particular, it feels arbitrary that there can be only one enchanter. While this may be something that will develop in later installments, it serves as little more than a plot hole here.

The Crown’s Game is an ambitious novel is rife with ambience and intrigue as both Vika and Nikolai discover uncomfortable truths about their pasts as they move through the game. Twists, shocks, and surprising relationships further increase the tension. Recommended for readers with a fondness for Russian settings and light fantasy that is heavy on the romance and angst.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Game of Love and Death by Martha A. Brockenbrough, Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White