Book Reviews

Realm Breaker: A Review

Realm Breaker by Victoria AveyardCorayne an-Amarat is a pirate’s daughter eager to embark on her own adventures at sea in Allward. But she is also the last of the ancient Cor bloodline and the only one who can use the ancient spindleblade to protect her realm and make sure the Spindles that can open destabilizing passages between realms are closed.

Reluctant to embrace this lineage, Corayne joins weary immortal Dom as he attempts to mount a second quest to succeed where the first failed in closing the Spindles. Aided by a mercenary assassin and Andry, a squire and the only mortal to survive the first quest, the group will face numerous obstacles as they struggle to work together to save the world in Realm Breaker (2021) by Victoria Aveyard.

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Aveyard follows up her blockbuster Red Queen series with this homage to high fantasy that works to make more space for women and offer a more inclusive cast. The realm of Allward features people with a range of skin tones and backgrounds–Andry is described as “honey brown” while Corayne has “golden skin.”

Shifting viewpoints, flashbacks, and changing locations cut through much of the novel’s potential urgency as the narrative pauses continuously to ruminate on the failed quest seen in the prologue and offer character backstories.

Aveyard creates a compelling world with ample space for female characters in a traditionally male genre. Despite its start and stop pacing, Realm Breaker is action packed with plentiful fights, chases, and other derring-do.

Possible Pairings: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace, Furyborn by Clarie Legrand, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser, Fable by Adrienne Young

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

Book Reviews

Kind of a Big Deal: A Review

Kind of a Big Deal by Shannon HaleJosie Pie was a big deal in high school. She was always the lead in school productions, her teachers always said she was destined for greatness. Which is why it made so much sense when Josie dropped out of high school to be a star.

Now, almost a year later, Josie is starting to wonder if she made the right choice. Turns out hitting it big on Broadway isn’t as easy as hitting it big in high school. After a series of failed auditions Josie is starting to wonder if she was ever star material. It certainly doesn’t feel that way while she words as a nanny.

Josie keeps in touch with her best friend, her boyfriend, and her mom. But there’s only so much you can talk about without admitting massive failure (and mounting credit card debt).

When Josie and her charge find a cozy bookstore, Josie receives a pair of special glasses that transport her into her current read. Literally. In the books she can save the day in a post-apocalyptic world, fall in love in a rom-com, and more.

Living out these fantasies is the best thing that’s happened to Josie in a while. But the longer she stays inside the stories, the harder it is to remember why she should come back to her own life in Kind of a Big Deal (2020) by Shannon Hale.

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Hale’s latest YA novel is a genre mashup. Framed by Josie’s contemporary coming of age story, Hale also plays with conventions in dystopian sci-fi, romantic comedies, and historical fiction (genres Hale has by and large tackled previously in her extensive backlist).

Kind of a Big Deal takes on a lot using these genre adventures to help Josie get a handle on her own life. Unfortunately, the stories within this story are often more compelling than Josie’s real life leaving Josie and her friends feeling one dimensional throughout. Stilted dialog and a premise that pushes the limits of plausibility (particularly with eighteen-year-old Josie being solely in charge of a seven-year-old girl while her mother works out of the country) further undermine this otherwise novel premise.

Kind of a Big Deal is a unique take on losing yourself in a good book. The story reads young and might have worked better for a middle grade audience or radically rewritten with older characters for an adult novel. Recommended for readers looking for plot driven genre studies.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

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

Book Reviews

Race the Sands: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Life isn’t just about who you were—it’s about who you choose to be.”

Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst“Call it what it is: monster racing. Forget that and you die.”

Tamra tells every one of her students that. She cautions them, every time, to stay focused on the race, the moment, and never forget that they are riding on the back of a monster. Not every rider remembers those lessons in the heat of the races.

The Becaran races are a chance for wealth and glory for the riders. The racers, the kehoks, get something else: a chance to be reborn as something less monstrous–a chance to try to redeem their damaged souls.

Tamra used to be a winner, a champion. Now she is a damaged trainer unsure how to overcome a bad reputation and mentor another champion. She only knows winning this season is her last chance to keep her daughter.

Raia is an untested rider. She has never raced, never even seen a kehok up close. Now she has to convince a trainer to take her on if she wants a chance to use the races to win her freedom and escape her domineering parents and fiance.

Together with a strange new kehok, Tamra and Raia have the potential to change the races and all of Becar forever. But only if they stay focused and remember: Only the race. Only the moment. Only the finish line in Race the Sands (2020) by Sarah Beth Durst.

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Durst’s latest standalone fantasy introduces readers to the beautiful and often brutal world of Becar–a desert country where every action can stain or elevate your soul with immediate consequences for your next incarnation. This raises, for all of the characters, thoughtful questions of how to live a moral life while also doing what needs to be done throughout the novel.

In a kingdom in flux waiting for the new emperor to be crowned, Tamra and Raia face their own mounting stakes as both women are forced to take chances on themselves and each other to try and win.

The story unfolds with a close third person narration following Tamra, Raia, and other key players in the story to create a strong ensemble cast notably including Tamra’s daughter, Yorbel–an augur with his own interest in kehoks, and Tamra’s patron Lady Evara who is the obvious successor to my favorite inscrutable fashion plate Effie Trinket.

Race the Sands is a fantasy that explores many things but at its core this is a story of mindfulness and focus as both Tamra and Raia answer what they truly want to accomplish and how far they are willing to go for those goals. The story also considers what makes a family–found or otherwise–as well as what happens when the people trusted to maintain order in society betray that trust.

Race the Sands is a fast-paced story filled with intrigue, action, and, of course, competition. A twisty, perfectly paced adventure ideal for readers who want their high fantasy with a healthy dose of mystery.

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Sarah!

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Hunted By the Sky by Tanaz Bhathena, The Hunter Games by Suzanne Collins, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Book Reviews

The Lady Rogue: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Lady Rogue by Jenn BennettTheodora wants nothing more than to join her father on his hunts around the world for priceless relics. Unfortunately, her father still sees Theo as a little girl instead of the capable researcher she has become at seventeen years of age.

While Theo sits at their hotel doing crosswords to pass the time, her father is out gallivanting his nineteen-year-old protégé Huck Gallagher–the boy Theo once thought she might love.

After a painful parting and a long separation, no one is more surprised than Theo when Huck shows up in Turkey with nothing but her father’s travel journal and instructions to get Theo to safety.

Theo has other ideas and soon the unlikely duo is combing through the travel journal as Theo tries to follow her father’s trail on his hunt for the legendary and supposedly magical bone ring of Vlad the Impaler. They hope that finding the ring will also lead them to Theo’s missing father. But Theo and Huck aren’t the only ones hunting the ring and Theo’s father may not be the only one in danger in The Lady Rogue (2019) by Jenn Bennett.

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The Lady Rogue is a standalone historical adventure set in 1937. With high speed chases, fast-pacing, and even some magic this story is an enjoyable homage to all of the things that make action movies like The Mummy (starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz) great.

Theo and Huck are a reluctant team at the start of this story which inspires much banter as well as regrets on both sides as the pair tries to make their way back to each other. Ciphers, puzzles, and excerpts from Richard Fox’s travel journal add to the story as Theo tries to follow Richard’s trail to the bone ring.

The Lady Rogue is a whip-smart adventure with hints of romance and the supernatural. As the book’s dedication suggests, The Lady Rogue is an ideal choice for meddlesome girls and anyone who’s ever been unable to walk away from a good puzzle.

Possible Pairings: The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee, The Last Magician by Lisa Maxwell, Bloody Jack by L. A. Meyer, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, The Mummy (1997)

Book Reviews

All the Stars and Teeth: A Review

All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn GraceAmora Montara, princess of the island kingdom Visidia, has spent years preparing to become the next High Animancer–her kingdom’s ruler and master of souls. The High Animancer is the only person in the kingdom able to wield multiple forms of magic.

When Amora’s attempt to demonstrate her mastery of dangerous soul magic goes wrong she is forced into hiding until she can prove herself capable of ruling.

A mysterious pirate named Bastian may be able to help, but only if Amora can help him reclaim the magic he has lost.

Sailing away from everything she has known Amora will have to face dangers and legendary creatures to find what she needs in All the Stars and Teeth (2020) by Adalyn Grace.

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All the Stars and Teeth is Grace’s debut novel and the start of a duology.

Grace delivers a world filled with magic and danger at every turn in this high action, largely  nautical adventure.

Amora is an interesting heroine, unafraid to acknowledge her power or her ambition as she works to claim her title as High Animancer. A varied ensemble cast and the lasting consequences of secrets surrounding Visidia’s legacy add nuance to Amora’s journey.

All the Stars and Teeth is a high action story filled with monsters, pirates, and plenty of adventure. Recommended for readers looking for a new plot-driven fantasy to dive into (pun fully intended).

Possible Pairings: Realm Breaker by Victoria Aveyard, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser, Fable by Adrienne Young

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

Book Reviews

Angel Mage: A Review

“They had been drawn into the affairs of the great and could not easily escape.”

Angel Mage by Garth NixLiliath has spent more than a century hiding, asleep, hoping to regroup after the Fall of Ystara before she tries to reunite with her lover, Ystara’s archangel Palleniel. Rallying Ystara’s descendants around her, Liliath prepares to use her formidable angelic magic to be with Palleniel at long last.

But she will need more than Ystarans who have long been shunned by the angels–unable to benefit from even the most basic angelic magic without fear of being killed by the Ash Blood plague or transformed into beastlings–to complete her plan.

In nearby Sarance, four young people are the last pieces she needs: Simeon’s dreams of becoming a doctor are sidetracked when a scientific procedure goes horribly wrong; Henri, an opportunist to his core, thinks his luck may have changed when he receives a new position; Agnez has earned her way into the musketeers as a cadet; and Dorotea’s hopes to be left alone to study icon-making and angelic magic are dashed when her singular skill draws unwanted attention.

The four are immediately drawn to each other even as happenstance and greater forces conspire to bring them together. Although they start as Liliath’s pawns, these four unlikely friends may also be the only ones who can stop her in Angel Mage (2019) by Garth Nix.

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Nix’s newest standalone fantasy showcases a true ensemble cast with shifting close third person perspective in each chapter following the four friends and, notably, the story’s antagonist Liliath.

Despite the magical additions, Angel Mage is uncannily timely as the characters explore themes of tolerance and discrimination in a world with a refugee crisis of its own. Inventive magic and an inclusive society give this story a setting with refreshingly modern sensibilities. This story is also notably free of all but the barest hints of romance. Instead, the growing friendship and trust between Simeon, Henri, Agnez, and Dorotea takes center stage as the four friends work together to understand the conspiracy into which they have been drawn and how best to use their distinct skills to try to stop it.

Angel Mage is an homage to friendship, magic, and The Three Musketeers–elements which blend surprisingly well in this fast-paced adventure. While Simeon, Henri, Agnez, and Dorotea’s journey reaches a logical and earned conclusion, fans can only hope Nix will return to this world again one day.

Possible Pairings: Rosemarked by Livia Blackburne, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Flamecaster by Cinda Williams Chima, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, Dance of Thieves by Mary E. Pearson, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

Book Reviews

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow: A Review

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow by Jessica TownsendMorrigan Crow survived her trials and earned admission to the Wundrous Society. Finally, she can have a place in Nevermoor and, more importantly, the family and friends she’s always wanted.

Unfortunately, completing her trials was the easy part. Despite gaining admittance to the Society, the elders are all suspicious of Morrigan’s ability to manipulate Wunder–the magical energy that powers everything in Nevermoor. While Morrigan’s talent is rare, it is also forever and irrevocably linked to the notorious Ezra Squall, a villain known as The Wundersmith and remembered for his numerous crimes against and continued exile from Nevermoor.

Instead of being trained in the arcane arts, the Society only wants to show Morrigan that all Wundersmiths of the past were evil, dangerous, and often incompetent. Worse, Morrigan’s unit is being blackmailed, forced to meet exceedingly risky demands or risk the unit’s secret being revealed to the entire Society.

When prominent citizens across Nevermoor start disappearing, Morrigan’s beloved new home takes on a dangerous edge. Now that Morrigan has found a place in Nevermoor, she’ll need all of her wits and her friends to keep it in Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow (2018) by Jessica Townsend.

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Wundersmith is the second book in Townsend’s Nevermoor series. The book picks up shortly after the conclusion of Nevermoor as Morrigan prepares to start her first term at the Wundrous Society. Check out the print edition for inset illustrations at the start of each chapter and listen to the audio version (read by Gemma Whelan) for a fully immersive read.

Townsend wildly expands the world of Nevermoor as Morrigan and readers learn more about her new home and delve into the mysterious history of Wundersmiths through the ages. Morrigan’s world is described in vibrant detail with a perfect blend of humor and adventure.

Wundersmith explores themes of friendship and belonging to excellent effect as Morrigan continues to carve out a place for herself in Nevermoor in spite of those too eager to see her fail. Readers will appreciate the balance Townsend strikes between a self-contained story and tantalizing hints of what’s in store for Morrigan’s next adventure.

With higher stakes, more action, and greater dangers, Wundersmith builds off book one to deliver an even stronger and even more exciting installment. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee, The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon, Foxheart by Claire Legrand, Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross, The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski

Comic/Graphic Novel Reviews

The Tea Dragon Festival: A Graphic Novel Review

The Tea Dragon Festival by Katie O'NeillRinn knows all about Tea Dragons–the sometimes nuisances that are all over the village–but it turns out real dragons are a very different thing. When Aedhan wakes up from an eighty year sleep, Rinn quickly befriends him.

Aedhan appreciates Rinn’s welcome and their help in reintroducing Aedhan to the village he was once charged with protecting. But no matter how at home the dragon feels, he can’t forget all of the time he lost.

When Rinn’s uncle Erik and his new partner Hesekiel come to visit, they hope that the two adventurers will be able to help unravel the mystery of Aedhan’s magical slumber. But it will take more than investigating to help the dragon accept his changed circumstances in The Tea Dragon Festival (2019) by Katie O’Neill.

The Tea Dragon Festival is a prequel to O’Neill’s previous graphic novel, The Tea Dragon Society. Both stories are self-contained and can be read on their own. Although set in different times and different locations, the stories both feature Erik and Hesekiel.

O’Neill once again delivers an adorable and thoughtful graphic novel, this time centered on gender fluid Rinn as they try to figure out their place in a village where it feels like everyone else has already found their special role. Rinn’s friend Lesa is deaf–something that is portrayed well in the comic panels with special speech bubbles to represent that sign language is being spoken. The contrast between dragon Aedhan and the tiny Tea Dragons adds another element of humor.

A mostly pastel color palette and the book’s larger trim size make this story as beautiful as it is entertaining. The Tea Dragon Festival builds well on the foundation of O’Neill’s previous world building while giving readers a slightly more complex plot.

The Tea Dragon Festival is a delightful and cheerful graphic novel about finding your place and your people. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Giants, Beware! by Jorge Aguirre,Rafael Rosado, John Novak, Matthew Schenk; Cucumber Quest by Gigi D. G.; The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag; Hildafolk by Luke Pearson; The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

Book Reviews

Newt’s Emerald: A Review

Lady Truthful (Newt to her friends) is enjoying a rather typical eighteenth birthday until the Newington Emerald–a family heirloom and her entire inheritance from her dearly departed mother–disappears.

While the men in her life are keen to solve the problem for her, Truthful has a better idea. Disguised as a man complete with a mustache, Newt sets out to follow the emerald’s trail and recover the stolen artifact.

Aided by the shrewd but unobservant Major Harnett who believes her to be a man, Newt chases clues and dark magic across England in search of the emerald. As she comes closer to her quarry Newt will also have to confront the uncomfortable realization that in aligning herself with Major Harnett she may also have fallen in love with him in Newt’s Emerald (2013) by Garth Nix.

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Newt’s Emerald is Nix’s standalone tribute to regency romances everywhere–but with magic, of course.

Close third person narration and distinct world building help to add nuance to this comedy of errors as Newt embarks on a madcap journey to retrieve a stolen emerald and, perhaps, understand the machinations of her own heart.

Sparkling dialog, clever magic, and a plucky heroine make Newt’s Emerald an enjoyable diversion. Recommended for fans of both regency romance and historical fantasy.

Possible Pairings: The Hummingbird Dagger by Cindy Antsey, Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger, Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance by Jennieke Cohen, Silver in the Blood by Jessica Day George, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

Book Reviews

Sightwitch: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“History might easily be rewritten, but someone somewhere always remembers what truly happened.”

cover art for Sightwitch by Susan DennardRyber Fortiza is a Sightwitch Sister living in a convent hidden within a mountain. Ryber waits for the day she’ll be summoned into the mountain’s depths to receive the Sight from her goddess like all the other Sisters before her.

But Ryber is never called.

Years pass. Soon, more and more Sisters are called into the mountain leaving Ryber behind until she is the only Sister left.

Uncertain of what she will find, Ryber ventures deeper into the mountain to find her Sisters before it’s too late. With no one to turn to except for an odd bird called The Rook and a stranger with no memory of his past or how he arrived inside the convent, Ryber will have to learn to trust herself and her own gifts if she wants to save the other Sisters in Sightwitch (2018) by Susan Dennard.

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Sightwitch is a companion novella in Dennard’s popular fantasy series which begins with Truthwitch and Windwitch. The novella is meant to be read between Windwitch and Bloodwitch and provides crucial set up for Bloodwitch so plan your reading accordingly.

Unlike the other books in this series Sightwitch is an epistolary novel written as Ryber’s journal about her time as a Sightwitch including illustrations and other marginalia. Readers familiar with the series will recognize Ryber and her amnesiac stranger Kullen from their crucial roles in Truthwitch and appreciate this prequel that offers more of their respective histories.

Sightwitch does a lot of the heavy lifting for this series by setting up the world and explaining the backstory both for Ryber and the overarching plot of the series. Basic tenets of how magic works in the Witchlands can also be found here from Ryber’s observations when she first becomes a Sightwitch Sister.

The depth and intricacy of this story goes a long way to make up for the messiness of relying on a companion novella to explain key details that should have been present much earlier in the series. It also helps ease the blow of not having Ryber as a point of view character in any of the other novels (so far).

Ryber is an entertaining heroine in a suspenseful story with a palpable sense of urgency. It’s easy to appreciate her tenacity and determination as she tries to save her Sisters despite lacking the Sight to navigate the mountain’s deepest chambers. Although this is a contained story it contains several surprising twists that will leave readers eager for the next installment. A must-read for Witchlanders everywhere.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Realm Breaker by Victoria Aveyard, A Season of Sinister Dreams by Tracy Banghart, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, Roar by Cora Carmack, The Reader by Traci Chee, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, Witchlanders by Lena Coakley, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey, The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove, Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton, The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser