Strange Grace: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Strange Grace by Tessa GrattonA long time ago a witch fell in love with a devil.

The witch gave the devil her heart and a pact was made in the town of Three Graces. Now, nothing is bad and nothing changes. The crops never fail and no one dies before their time. Everything is good.

Every seven year the town’s best boy is anointed as a saint to run through the forest. On the Slaughter Moon he is sent into the forest from sundown to sunrise with nothing but his wits to protect him. His sacrifice renews the bargain every seven years.

That’s the story Three Graces has always known and always told. But can the story be trusted at all? When the bargain needs to be renewed early, Arthur, Mairwen, and Rhun aren’t so sure.

An angry boy, a witch, and a saint run into the forest together. They’ll need each other if they hope to change the shape of the bargain and Three Graces before the next Slaughter Moon in Strange Grace (2018) by Tessa Gratton.

Gratton’s latest standalone novel is a thoughtful commentary on fear, sacrifice, and toxic masculinity wrapped in a page-turning story set in an eerie world where magic has the power to change everything and the forest has teeth.

As the daughter of the current witch Mairwen’s implicit trust in the bargain, in the devil, and in the forest itself is sorely tested as she realizes all is not as it seems in Three Graces.

Rhun has always known he would be the next saint. There is no denying he is the town’s best boy and he is willing to make the sacrifice. But as he prepares to lose everything, Rhun wonders if anyone in town truly knows him.

Arthur has grown up in the shadow of the Slaughter Moon and his mother’s fear of it. Raised as a girl for his first seven years, Arthur is desperate now to prove himself as strong, as good, and as masculine as the other candidates. But even Arthur knows that he is more angry than anything else.

As they prepare for the premature Slaughter Moon, Mairwen, Arthur, and Rhun are haunted by the decisions that have left their lives hopelessly intertwined. Drawn together as much as they are driven apart, none of them know how they can find an ending together when it it is unlikely they’ll all survive the night of the saint’s run.

Strange Grace is a tense blend of fantasy and suspense. Recommended for readers who enjoy their fantasy tinged with horror and old secrets and anyone seeking a polyamorous romance when the chemistry between the characters is undeniable.

Possible Pairings: Damsel by Elana K. Arnold, The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton, The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson, Last Things by Jacqueline West

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*

Enchantée: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“She hated magic, but it was all she had.”

cover art for Enchantee by Gita TreleaseIn 1789, Paris is on the verge of change and revolution–changes that will come too late to save the Durbonnes from ruin. Camille’s older brother Alain is happier drinking and gambling than trying to help their family survive and Sophie, the youngest, is still frail from the smallpox outbreak that killed their parents six months earlier.

With no one else to depend on, Camille has to turn to la magie ordinaire–the hated magic her mother taught Camille before she died–to turn iron scraps into coins in the hopes of making ends meet. Every transformation requires more than scraps of metal, la magie also feeds on sorrow–personal anguish that Camille is forced to relive again and again to fuel her own power.

She isn’t sure how much more she has to give before there’s nothing left.

Soon, Camille is desperate enough to turn to more powerful magic and more dangerous targets. With help of la glamoire, Camille sets off for the royal court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at Versailles where there are always parties and, more importantly, gambling dens Camille can manipulate with la magie.

Disguised as the Baroness de la Fontaine, Camille plans to save up enough to build a new life for herself and Sophie while daring to imagine romance and even a future with a boy named Lazare–a dashing aeronaut who shares Camille’s dreams of equality and change. But magic always has a cost and with unrest growing throughout France and duplicity festering throughout Versaille, secrets like Camille’s can be deadly in Enchantée (2019) by Gita Trelease.

Enchantée is Trelease’s debut novel. Trelease combines a historically accurate French setting with distinct world building where France’s aristocracy were the first to wield magic fueled by blood and sorrow and, with the start of the French Revolution, both magic and the aristocracy are poised to disappear.

Camille’s double life at Versailles is set against the looming threat of revolution (something Camille and, strangely, her noble friends greet with optimism instead of fear for their own well-being) and the villain she encounters in Versailles who threatens to unravel everything Camille has struggled to build.

Camille is a driven heroine who starts this story with no ambitions beyond survival and keeping herself and Sophie from prostitution (a constant fear for Camille throughout the novel). At the royal court, Camille soon realizes that nothing about the nobility or her magic is quite what she expected.

The dangers are greater and so too is the allure as Camille makes new friends and experiences firsthand some of the vast luxuries that Versailles has to offer. As she begins to save and learn more about magic, Camille’s world fills with new opportunities and a few moments of sweetness as she grows closer to Lazare–the half-Indian aeronaut with secrets of his own. Soon it’s easy to imagine a life beyond mere survival even as she struggles to imagine leaving Versailles and la magie behind.

Enchantée is an evocative diversion with a unique magic system and truly charming characters. Recommended for fans of lush historical fantasies, sweet romances, high stakes gambling, and daring adventure.

Possible Pairings: Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, Ink, Iron and Glass by Gwendolyn Clare, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Amber and Dusk by Lyra Selene, Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

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

Damsel: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“For so it had been throughout his people’s memory, that a dragon and a damsel made a king.”

cover art for Damsel by Elana K. ArnoldWhen Ama awakens she has no clothes, no memories. She is wrapped in a blanket, being carried by a man she doesn’t recognize. Even her name will come later—a gift from the man who saved her.

Emory is quick to tell Ama about his bravery and cunning when he conquered the dragon. He is eager to describe her beauty and the way their destinies are now tied together. He cannot, or will not, help Ama understand her life before the dragon and her rescue.

Coming to the kingdom of Harding is supposed to be the end of the story. But as Ama begins to explore this new kingdom and poke at the old legends of the damsels and the dragons, she begins to realize that her rescue is only the beginning of this tale in Damsel (2018) by Elana K. Arnold.

Arnold’s latest standalone novel is part fantasy and part feminist manifesto. Most of the story plays out in the kingdom of Harding–a grim little world filled with casual violence and brutality including graphic hunting scenes as well as a rape scene that leaves nothing to the imagination. The sense of danger is only further amplified by Arnold’s carefully restrained prose.

Damsel‘s plot is not always subtle as Ama tries to understand her past as well as her future. Her agency is systematically stripped away throughout the novel until it feels to readers, and to Ama herself, as if there is nothing left to lose.

Ama’s limited point of view and flat world building reminiscent of a fairy tale create a stark backdrop for this exploration of female agency and toxic masculinity. Damsel is a sparse, character-driven story with a very firm focus on its heroine. Arnold’s prose is deliberate as the novel works toward a logical if abrupt conclusion.

Damsel is not for the faint of heart. Recommended for readers who sympathize more with the dragon than the knight.

Possible Pairings: The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson

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*

Two Can Keep a Secret: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Welcome to life in a small town. You’re only as good as the best thing your family’s done. Or the worst.”

cover art for Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManusWelcome to Echo Ridge, population 4,935. Echo Ridge looks like small town America at its finest. But looks can be deceiving.

Ellery knows about all about the secrets hidden in Echo Ridge because her family is at the heart of them. Her aunt went missing from the town when she was Ellery’s age–sixteen. Five years ago their family was in the news again when a homecoming queen was murdered, her body found at the local Murderland amusement park.

Malcolm wishes he could forget Echo Ridge’s darker side and the role his brother played in the murder five years ago as prime suspect. Declan was never arrested but a small town’s memory is long and he was never cleared either. Even when Malcolm’s mother remarries it isn’t enough to change what the town thinks of his family. Not really.

When Ellery and her twin brother Ezra are sent to live with their grandmother while their mother is in rehab it hardly feels like a fresh start. Instead, Echo Ridge seems to be choked by past tragedies it can’t forget. When another girl–another homecoming queen–goes missing both Ellery and Malcolm will have to explore Echo Ridge’s darkest secrets to uncover the truth and the killer in Two Can Keep a Secret (2019) by Karen M. McManus.

McManus’s latest standalone mystery is a tense exploration of a town with a dark past. The novel alternates between Ellery and Malcolm’s first person narration. This novel capitalizes on the strengths of McManus’s debut novel One of Us is Lying (multiple narrators, tense pacing, conversational and readable prose) without the problematic resolution.

Two Can Keep a Secret is a refreshingly realistic mystery where, although Ellery identifies as a true crime buff and would-be amateur sleuth, she still gets things wrong and still needs help from actual investigators to crack the case.

The contrast between Ellery with her connection to one of the town’s victims and Malcolm with his connection to one of the town’s suspects is striking. Their chemistry and nearly immediate rapport is countered by these preconceived identities that should place them on opposite sides. Instead their friendship is made of stronger stuff with rock solid loyalty and hints of romance that add much-needed levity to an otherwise dark story.

The story’s secondary cast including Ellery’s twin bother Ezra and Declan’s best friend Mia are also welcome additions who flesh out the cast in this short but evocative story.

Two Can Keep a Secret is a taut mystery filled with unexpected turns and surprises that will keep readers guessing right until the last line. Recommended for amateur detectives, mystery lovers, and true crime enthusiasts alike.

Possible Pairings: Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, This is Our Story by Ashley Elston, The Body in the Woods by April Henry, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, People Like Us by Dana Mele, The Amateurs by Sarah Shepard

The Wicked King: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*The Wicked King is the second book in Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy. This review contains spoilers for the first book in the series, The Cruel Prince.*

“We get power by taking it.”

cover art for The Wicked King by Holly BlackIt has been five months since Jude’s coup to secure the throne for her brother, Oak. Five months since Oak went into hiding in the mortal world and Jude tricked Cardan into accepting the throne in his place.

After years of constantly striving for safety and power in a world determined to keep her at a disadvantage, Jude finally has everything she wants. Cardan is bound to her for a year and a day, making Jude the power behind the throne–a position she hardly could have imagined when she became a spy for the court.

But days pass quickly for the fey and even a year of them is hardly enough time for Jude to accomplish everything she wants.

Jude struggles to make sense of her dangerous attraction to Cardan while scrambling to keep him in check without revealing their alliance. But Jude and Cardan aren’t the only ones fighting to control the throne. With a traitor in their midst and enemies circling, Jude’s bargain with Cardan may expire long before she can ensure Oak’s safety in Faerie–or her own in The Wicked King (2019) by Holly Black.

The Wicked King is the second book in Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy. To avoid spoilers, start at the beginning with The Cruel Prince.

The Wicked King picks up five months after the conclusion of The Cruel Prince. Jude should be content, finally in a position of power after living for so long as an outsider. But after years learning strategy at Madoc’s knee, Jude knows better than most that power is much easier to lose than it is to keep. Jude starts this trilogy scrambling for protection. In this installment, she is instead grasping at power as she tries to figure out how to hold onto it.

This installment expands the world as Jude is forced to consider politics between the fey courts–often with disastrous consequences. Additionally, Jude and Cardan continue to hate each other even as they are drawn inexorably together with tension that practically crackles on the page.

Jude continues to wield her greatest asset in Faerie–her ability to lie–with deadly precision. But just as readers think they can guess where this plot will lead, everything changes as it turns out the truth can be as lethal as a well-crafted lie.

The Wicked King is everything I love about The Cruel Prince but amplified. The stakes are higher, the risks are greater, and the twists are all the more shocking because of it. If you’re only going to read one sequel this year, make it this one. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Legendary by Stephanie Garber, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel