A Curse So Dark and Lonely: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid KemmererPrince Rhen, heir to Emberfall, is cursed to repeat the autumn of his eighteenth birthday until he can find a woman to fall in love with him even as he transforms each season into a monstrous beast. The season resets after every failure–all three hundred and twenty-seven of them.

When Harper intervenes in what looks like an abduction on the streets of Washington, DC, she’s finds herself transported into another world. Instead of worrying about her dying mother or the risks her brother is taking to pay off their absent father’s debts to a loan shark, Harper is trapped in Emberfall at the center of the curse.

Harper is used to being underestimated because of her cerebral palsy, something that she hopes might help her get home to her family. Instead she is shocked to learn that she is Rhen’s last chance to break the curse. But Harper isn’t sure if the fate of a kingdom can be enough to make her fall in love in A Curse So Dark and Lonely (2019) by Brigid Kemmerer.

Kemmerer’s Beauty and the Beast retelling introduces a unique world filled with fantasy and menace.

Rhen is an accomplished if pessimistic strategist while Harper is impulsive to the point of recklessness. Despite their obvious tension and occasional chemistry, Rhen’s evolving friendship with his guard commander Grey is often more compelling than Harper’s interactions with either man.

While Harper and Rhen accomplish much over the course of the novel, A Curse So Dark and Lonely has little in the way of closure. Rich world building, hints of a love triangle, unresolved questions about the curse, and Emberfall’s uncertain future will leave readers anxious to see what happens next.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Rose and the Beast by Francesca Lia Block, Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, Stain by A. G. Howard, Stealing Snow by Danielle Paige, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Break Me Like a Promise by Tiffany Schmidt, Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah West, Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

*A more condensed version of this review was published in the November 2018 issue of School Library Journal*

The Brilliant Death: A Review

cover art for The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose CapettaEveryone in Vinalia knows that magic and the streghe who use it only exist in stories. Or they did before Vinalia’s unification under the Capo and rumors that magic has returned to Vinalia.

No one knows that Teodora di Sangro is a strega who can change people into objects. For Teo and her siblings family has always been fate, forcing them into roles they may not want. Teo is proud to belong to one of the Five Families. But she also knows that as a girl she will never truly have a place at the table the way her brothers do.

Desperate for her father’s approval, Teo takes it upon herself to address any threats to the family. Instead of killing their enemies, Teo uses her secret strega magic to transform them into objects like music boxes or mirrors that decorate her room.

When the Capo’s latest bid for power leaves Teo’s father poisoned and the heads of the other families dead, Teo knows she is the only one who can answer the Capo’s summons to the capital and find an antidote. But first she will have to transform herself to look the part of a di Sangro heir by becoming a boy.

Unable to learn this new magic alone, Teo enters into a bargain with Cielo, a mysterious strega who can switch between male and female forms as easily as opening a book. Teo’s transformation and her journey bring her into the center of Vinalia’s sinister politics as she tries to save her family in The Brilliant Death (2018) by Amy Rose Capetta.

The Brilliant Death is the first book in Capetta’s latest fantasy duology.

Vibrant imagery and vivid language imbue The Brilliant Death with wonder and intrigue in a world inspired by Italian folklore. In addition to unraveling plots and facing dangerous enemies, Teo explores her gender identity and what it means to be a girl (or not) in her world alongside her sexy genderfluid magic tutor Cielo whose dry wit and charm only increases the chemistry between them.

A highly original magic system and a protagonist who is as ruthless as she is fiery make for a fast-paced adventure. Fans will be eager for the conclusion of this duology.

Possible Pairings: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, Rule by Ellen Goodlett, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah West

*A more condensed version of this review was published in an of School Library Journal as a starred review*

The Gilded Wolves: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“When you are who they expect you to be, they never look too closely.”

cover art for The Gilded Wolves by Roshani ChokshiParis, 1889: Séverin Montagnet-Alarie is well-known throughout Paris society as a wealthy hotelier–a persona that helps him acquire secrets and artifacts from the French faction of the Order—powerful houses who manage all Forged artifacts and guard the secrets of the Babel Fragments that make Forging both materials and minds possible.

Over the years Séverin has created a loyal team to help with his acquisitions: Tristan, his brother in everything but blood; Enrique, his Filipino historian eager to champion his own cause; Zofia, a Polish engineer with obligations of her own; and Lailah, an Indian dancer with a secret that could be deadly.

The Order has taken everything from Séverin but if he and his crew find an ancient artifact for a rival, he could get it all back. If they succeed, Séverin will be able to change all of their fates. If the artifact doesn’t reshape the world first in The Gilded Wolves (2019) by Roshani Chokshi.

Chokshi’s new series starter is a sumptuous, fascinating historical fantasy that perfectly evokes the luxury and unrest of Belle Époque Paris alongside a carefully detailed world where Babel fragments allow Forgers to create wonders including portable recording devices, animated topiaries, and even control minds.

Séverin and members of his crew alternate chapters in close third person introducing readers to their faceted backstories while the story itself unfolds in multiple directions. Chokshi has created an inclusive and authentic cast of characters (notably including a character on the autism spectrum as well as a character whose bisexuality is sensitively explored throughout the narrative). The entire team has obvious affection for each other along with the witty banter and twists fans of the author’s previous books will appreciate. Then there’s the chemistry between Séverin and Lailah which is so strong that the pages practically sizzle.

The Gilded Wolves is part mystery, part fantasy, and all adventure as Séverin and his team work to pull off a world-changing heist and make their own way in the world. In addition to solving ciphers and riddles while on the hunt for the artifact, Séverin’s crew also interrogates the troubling history of European colonialism and cultural appropriation showing that not everything in Belle Epoque Paris is solid gold.

Chokshi’s expert pacing, intricate alternate history, and a complex and fully realized magic system are perfectly executed in this ambitious novel. The Gilded Wolves is a delectably intriguing adventure and guaranteed to be your next obsession.

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Rosh about this book!

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Reader by Traci Chee, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, Enchantée by Gita Trelease

*A more condensed version of this review was published in the December 2018 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

Realm of Ruins: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Please let me be powerful.”

cover art for Realm of Ruins by Hannah WestTrouble follows Valory Braiosa wherever she goes.

Raised in Calgoran during the Age of the Accords, Valory is surrounded by elicrin magic and elicromancers. As a descendant of the legendary Queen Bristal and King Anthony, everyone assumes Valory will become a powerful elicromancer herself. But now she is almost at the end of her time at the Academy with no signs of power manifesting. With her chances of receiving an elicrin stone from the Water dwindling, Valory is forced to consider her greatest fear: a life without magic or power.

Touching the Water is no guarantee of receiving an elicrin stone. Even with careful vetting from the Academy candidates may still be deemed unworthy and drowned in the Water, their bodies lost forever. Valory’s attempt to save her cousin from such a fate proves disastrous. In the aftermath her cousin is dead, the Water is gone, and Valory now has dangerous power no one understands and which Valory can’t control.

Branded a murderer and a rogue, Valory is forced to travel far from home to try and clear her name. Across Nissera it’s apparent that a dark presence is rising and Valory might be the only one powerful enough to stop it. As danger mounts and loyalties are tested, Valory will have to embrace her power to face this danger. But all power comes at a price and this time the cost may be steeper than Valory can pay in Realm of Ruins (2018) by Hannah West.

Real of Ruins is the second book in West’s Nissera Chronicles which begins with the companion novel Kingdom of Ash and Briars.

Realm of Ruins is set one hundred years after the events of West’s debut novel Kingdom of Ash and Briars and follows a new generation of characters. An elaborate family tree at the start of the book and sly asides throughout offer nods to events of the first book although this novel can easily be read as a standalone. (A companion short story, Fields of Fire, can also be read for free online.)

Valory is as pragmatic as she is reckless. Although the implications of her new power are obvious she is still quick to jump to conclusions and easily falls prey to the manipulations of others while she tries to understand her dramatically changed circumstances.

Her efforts to clear her name are soon sidelined as she learns about the emergence of a dangerous new threat known as the Moth King or the Lord of the Elicromancers. Drawn into a hunt to stop this new enemy Valory plays a part in side plots that draw heavily from elements of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. West manages a convoluted and sometimes bloated plot admirably bringing diverging threads together to explore larger themes of power, collective memory, and the dangers of both if left unchecked.

While Valory is initially a slave to circumstance, forced repeatedly into reactive positions as her situation shifts from bad to worse, Realm of Ruins is largely about agency and choice. It is only when Valory chooses to embrace her power–and the difficult decisions she must make about how to wield it–that she is able to regain control of her fate and try to claim what she sees as her rightful power in the realm.

Realm of Ruins is an intricate and original fantasy. West blends her unique magic system with a vivid world and fairy tale elements to create a story that is entirely fascinating. Recommended for fans of fairy tales, high fantasy, and bloody revolution.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Frostblood by Elly Blake, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Stain by A. G. Howard, Furyborn by Claire Legrand

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

Kingdom of Ash and Briars: A Review

cover art Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah WestBristal’s life changes forever when she is kidnapped. Her humble life as a kitchen maid ends the moment she survives touching the Water and receives an elicrin stone.

Now Bristal is an elicromancer—one of only three people over the centuries to have survived the Water intact.

Immortal and able to wield powerful magic, Bristal is meant to take her place as a peacekeeper and kingmaker. With so much potential power at her command Bristal will have to accept her magic and embrace her destiny despite the dangers in Kingdom of Ash and Briars (2016) by Hannah West.

Kingdom of Ash and Briars is West’s debut novel and the first book in the Nissera Chronicles which continues in Realm of Ruins. (A companion short story, Fields of Fire, can also be read for free online.)

Kingdom of Ash and Briars introduces a richly layered world with a unique magic system. West’s novel is informed by numerous fairy tales (most notably Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty) positioning a reluctant Bristal in the role of fairy godmother.

Bristal’s ability to shape shift and disguise herself informs much of the story as she begins to change her appearance to manipulate individuals and, indeed, entire courts pushing Nissera toward peace and prosperity. These secondary stories play out on a larger stage as Bristal comes to terms with her newfound immortality and learns to control her magic while facing an elicromancer who would rather rule over humans than serve and protect them.

While not as all-seeing as her mentor, Brack (a character I wish we had seen more of in this novel), Bristal is patient and introspective willing to put in the time and sacrifice to do what is needed for Nissera. Her thoughtful planning and analytical nature are nice counterpoints to an otherwise frenetic plot and an often predictable villain. Romance enters the story late in the game with a lasting impact for generations to come.

Kingdom of Ash and Briars is a rich and original fantasy with a memorable world readers will want to revisit. Recommended for readers who enjoy complicated plots, wheels within wheels, and unlikely heroes.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, Stain by A. G. Howard, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch

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

Ash Princess: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Ash Princess by Laura SebastianTen years ago invaders killed Theodosia’s mother, the Fire Queen of Astrea, enslaved her people, and stole her name.

Over many long years, Theo has learned how to play the game. Don’t anger the Kaiser and stay alive. She plays along with his manipulations, silently accepts his punishments, and hides behind the persona of Thora–the meek girl the Kaiser thinks she has become.

But when Theo is forced to do the unthinkable she reaches a breaking point.

Survival is no longer enough. After years of hiding, it’s time for Theo to fight and reclaim everything that has been stolen in Ash Princess (2018) by Laura Sebastian.

Ash Princess is Sebastian’s debut novel and the start of a trilogy.

Sebastian’s richly described world, complex elemental magic, and fraught politics add new twists to this familiar story. Unfortunately one element that remains the same is that the enslaved Astreans are “tawny skinned” and dark haired while the invading Kalovoxians are pale and blonde–a common trope that is played out and could do with more unpacking in this and other similar titles.

Theo is a survivor who has learned how to hide in plain sight. Because of her small world and her captivity her first person narration often feels claustrophobic as she struggles to plot her way out of the Kaiser’s clutches.

Ash Princess’s promising in contrived plot is marred by an erratic timeline that brings Theo’s interactions with the Kaiser’s son Prinz Søren from calculated seduction as part of an assassination attempt to actual love in the blink of an eye. Theo’s shift from trying to keep herself alive while waiting for a rescue that never comes shifts equally fast to Theo placing herself in the center of a rebellion plot as a spy.

Theo’s perilous situation and the high stakes of the story are not enough to distract from a second half that drags while characters dither over who to trust, who to love, and (perhaps most relevantly) who to kill. While Theo is an interesting and strong heroine, she is not always sympathetic with unclear motivations for her numerous poor decisions throughout the book.

Ash Princess is an entertaining, plot-driven fantasy. Recommended for readers who like their fantasy angsty and their characters morally ambiguous at best.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, Everless by Sara Holland, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Amber & Dusk by Lyra Selene

Rule: A Review

cover art for Rule by Ellen GoodlettWith the king dying, his heir murdered, and rebellion brewing in the east it might be only a matter of time before the kingdom of Kolonya and the outer Reaches descends into chaos.

Desperate for an heir, the king finds three unlikely options:

Zofi has lived her entire life with a band of Travelers in the Reaches. Her loyalty to her family is boundless. But only Zofi knows how far she has already gone to protect those she holds dear.

In the Eastern Reach Akeylah is desperate to get away from her abusive father. She’s even willing to perform dangerous and forbidden magic–completing a spell that will have far-reaching consequences for the entire kingdom.

Ren has grown up in Kolonya in the heart of the kingdom. Working as a lady’s maid she is biding her time until she can climb the social ladder out of the servants’ quarters forever. Her latest plot might do the trick, but only if she isn’t arrested for treason first.

Summoned by the king, all three girls are certain they will soon be facing arrest if not execution. Instead are faced with the shocking truth: as the king’s illegitimate daughters all fighting for the chance to become his next heir. The only problem is that someone in Kolonya knows their secrets and is prepared to reveal them all to keep the girls from taking their rightful place in Rule (2018) by Ellen Goodlett.

Rule is Goodlett’s debut novel and the start of a new series. The book follows all three sisters in alternating close third person chapters.

If this book sounds a lot like Three Dark Crowns, that’s because it is. The book starts with a very similar premise but instead of focusing on the sisters’ in-fighting to get the crown these heirs have the additional problem of a blackmailer.

My main problem with this story is that it made no sense to me that the king has not one but three illegitimate heirs that he has chosen to keep away from the palace while still keeping tabs on them. Every problem the sisters have, every misdeed they knowingly or unknowingly committed, stems from being unaware of their parentage which feels extremely convenient as a plot point upon which an entire series hinges.

Zofi, Akeylah, and Ren are interesting heroines in a world that remains surprisingly under-developed considering its fraught politics. They have different reasons to want (and dread) rising to the throne and unique perspectives about their changed circumstances. Subterfuge, scheming, and unsuitable love interests abound as each sister tries to keep her secrets while gaining the upper hand in their journey to the crown.

Rule is a scandalous page-turner ideal for readers who enjoy fantasy and suspense in equal measure.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*