The Angel of the Crows: A Review

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine AddisonAfter suffering an egregious injury on the front in Afghanistan, Dr. J. H. Doyle is forced to return to England in 1888 and none too happy about it. With a bad leg, a foul temper, and a war pension that doesn’t quite go far enough in London, Doyle is unsure what to do upon returning until a friend makes a surprising suggestion.

Everyone knows about the angels–after all Nameless can be found in front of every place of worship or bakery, any habitation large enough hopes to have an angel claim it as their dominion, and–like Doyle–everyone knows the damage that can be wrought by angels who have Fallen.

Then there is Crow the self-described Angel of London. Claiming the entire city as his dominion, Crow works as a consultant with the police and for select clients. His focus is singular, his crow-like wings are massive and prone to toppling furniture when Crow is excited, and he is in need of a flatmate.

Moving into 221B Baker Street, both Crow and Doyle have secrets they would prefer to keep. But they also have work to do as Doyle is drawn into Crow’s investigations of murder scenes with strange words on walls, locked room mysteries, and even the case of the Whitechapel Murderer who has been butchering prostitutes with increasing frequency in The Angel of the Crows (2020) by Katherine Addison.

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The Angel of the Crows started life as Sherlock wingfic (fan fiction which imagines one character with wings) and, in many ways, that is still the story readers have in the finished book.

While Crow and Doyle live in a distinct and well-realized fantasy world filled with elements of steampunk and magic, between their original adventures (notably their hunt for Jack the Ripper) Addison also retells some of the most familiar cases from Sherlock Holmes’ long canon. Readers familiar with “A Study in Scarlet,” “The Sign of the Four,” “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” and “The Adventure of Speckled Band” will immediately recognize the stories being retold here.

Addison stays very close to her source material while imbuing each story with the magical elements intrinsic to her version of London. A story element with a double edge as it makes the book both immediately familiar and, in certain cases, nearly too predictable.

The Angel of the Crows is strongest when Crow and Doyle are in their element and exploring new territory–albeit often with fun references to the class mysteries that inspired this novel. Addison also raises interesting questions about gender identity and agency throughout the story from both Doyle and Crow’s experiences. While some of this gave me pause in that it felt very much like a plot device, the execution over the course of the novel as a whole was handled well and raises more questions and avenues of discussion than concerns.

The Angels of the Crows is an incredibly thorough and original retelling. Whether or not they are a fan of Holmes and Watson, readers can only hope to see more of Crow and Doyle.

Possible Pairings: Soulless by Gail Carriger, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal, Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, The Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley, The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lillith St. Crow

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

The Bone Houses: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-JonesRyn has spent most of her life surrounded by the dead in the village of Colbren. She watched her father at his work as a gravedigger and now, after his disappearance, it is Ryn who puts the village’s dead to rest. It is Ryn who makes sure the dead stay at rest–especially those buried too close to the woods.

The restless dead are always called “bone houses” in the stories. Legend talks often of the curse that makes some dead walk. So often, in fact, that most people believe it really is only a fable. Ryn has always known better but especially now when more and more bone houses are making their way to Colbren.

Ellis has spent most of his life hiding first on the outskirts of court and more recently behind the maps he makes. Coming to Colbren could make Ellis’ name and earn him a fortune provided he can find a guide to lead him through the woods to make the first map of the area–especially the mountain ranges beyond the forest.

When the bone houses surface with new prevalence and more violent attacks, Ryn has her own reasons for agreeing to act as Ellis’ guide. Secrets lie in the mountains and, deeper still, answers both Ryn and Ellis never thought they’d find provided they can survive that long in The Bone Houses (2019) by Emily Lloyd-Jones.

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Lloyd-Jone’s standalone novel is an eerie blend of fantasy and light horror set against an historic Welsh setting. Chapters alternate between Ryn and Ellis’ close third person perspectives.

While Ryn is comfortable with her physicality and fears losing her work as gravedigger more than most bone houses, Ellis is more cerebral and struggles to mange chronic pain from childhood injuries that never properly healed.

Lyrical prose and lush descriptions immediately bring Colbren and the surrounding woods to life. Suspense is carefully managed as Ryn and Ellis are drawn further into the mystery surrounding the bone houses’ origins in their search for a way to stop them. A gently presented romance adds much needed sweetness to what could otherwise be a grim and tense story.

The Bone Houses is a thoughtful exploration of the intersection of fable and reality and a comforting interpretation of both death and grief. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Devils Unto Dust by Emma Berquist, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, Hunted by Meagan Spooner, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke

Mooncakes: A Graphic Novel Review

Working at her grandmothers’ bookshop, Nova Huang is used to helping them investigate strange occurrences in their small New England town–it comes with the territory when you’re a witch-in-training.

Following reports of a strange white wolf in the woods leads Nova to an entirely unexpected reunion when she finds Tam Lang–her childhood friend and longtime crush. As a werewolf Tam has been wandering from town to town trying to find a place to land and, more importantly, trying to hunt down a strange horse demon with connections to their own troubled past.

Together Nova and Tam are determined to get to the bottom of the dark forces plaguing town as they try to find their way back to each other in Mooncakes (2019) by Suzanne Walker, illustrated by Wendy Xu.

Mooncakes is a full color, standalone graphic novel.

Xu’s artwork is brightly colored and filled with evocative depictions of Nova’s cozy bookshop, ethereal magic, and minute details reminiscent of the care and attention found in Miyazaki films.

Like Xu, Walker imbues this story with obvious affection for these characters and their world as well as deliberate attention to create a world that is as inclusive as it is authentic from Nova’s use of hearing aids to Tam’s request that Nova’s grandmothers refer to them with they/them pronouns.

With a sprawling plot that spans Nova and Tam’s backstory and hints at what their futures might hold Mooncakes is a delectable fantasy graphic novel that is equal parts spooky and sweet. Sure to be a satisfying read at any time of the year but especially when you’re ready to curl up under a blanket and enjoy the leaves turning.

Possible Pairings: Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger; Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova; Moonstruck by Grace Ellis, Shae Beagle, Kate Leth, Kim Reaper by Sarah Graley; Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks; The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag; Space Battle Lunchtime by Natalie Riess; Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks; The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang; Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula by Andi Watson

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

We Rule the Night: A Review

“No right choice, no way to win.”

cover art for We Rule the Night by Claire Eliza BartlettRevna is a factory worker helping to create war machines out of living metal for the Union of the North. She is always careful to keep a low profile, careful to do what is expected–it’s the only way to make sure her family doesn’t fall even lower than they have in the wake of her father’s arrest as a traitor. When she is caught using illegal magic Revna is certain she’ll join her father in prison, leaving her mother and younger sister to fend for themselves and possibly destitute.

Linné is loyal member of the Union. In fact, her desire to fight for her country is so great that she defies her general father and disguises herself as a boy to fight on the front lines. No one can dispute her war record, her skill with spark magic, or her heroism. But none of that matters when her greatest secret is discovered.

Instead of the punishment they expect, both girls are given the chance to join a new military unit. The One Hundred Forty-Sixth Night Raiders regiment is comprised entirely of women–unlikely soldiers with the unique ability to manipulate the same magic their enemy has been using to attack them from the air.

The Night Raiders will take on dangerous flights under the cover of darkness, when the enemy least expects it. Success could give Linné the notoriety and recognition she craves while it will guarantee safety and security for Revna and her family. But if the girls want to fly together they’ll first have to survive their training. And each other in We Rule the Night (2019) by Claire Eliza Bartlett.

We Rule the Night is Bartlett’s debut novel. This fantasy adventure was partly inspired by the Night Witches–the actual airwomen who flew night flights for the Soviet Union during World War II. The novel alternates between close third person chapters following Revna and Linné.

We Rule the Night is at its best when it focuses on the girls as they try to make it through their training while constantly pushing against the limits placed on them as women in a patriarchal society run by a dangerous regime. Linné comes from a relative position of privilege as the daughter of an esteemed general, while Revna is part of the Union’s lowest social strata. Because of her precarious position she is also forced to tolerate numerous slights as people assume she is less capable because of her prosthetic legs–something she is keen to prove false even if it means taking on dangerous missions with her new regiment.

With so much riding on the regiment’s success, the sense of urgency and tension is palpable as both girls struggle through their training and early missions. The depth of Bartlett’s characters and stark prose nearly make up for a comparable lack of world building that relies heavily on the book’s inspiration to situate the Union both in the world and the war that started with a rival nation trying to protect sacred godplaces on Union land.

We Rule the Night is a fierce tale of reluctant friendship, war, and what it means to be a hero–especially when you live in a world that refuses to acknowledge the least of what you can achieve. Recommended for anyone who loved Code Name Verity but wanted more battles and fantasy readers who need more feminism and less world building.

Possible Pairings: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Witch Born by Nicolas Bowling, The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, Dark of the West by Joanna Hathaway, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, A Thousand Sisters: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II by Elizabeth Wein, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

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, Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco, Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, Havenfall by Sara Holland, 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, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White, 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*

Nimona: A Graphic Novel Review

Nimona ny Noelle StevensonBallister Blackheart is a villain. He doesn’t necessarily like it, but there are only so many options available to professionally trained heroes after they lose an arm.

Abrosius Goldenloin has always desperately wanted to be a hero. So much so that he sacrificed his friendship with Blackheart in pursuit of his goal.

Nimona . . . well . . . no one is really sure what Nimona is or what she wants. Sometimes she’s a shark. Sometimes she wants to wreak havoc and mayhem and leave a trail of bodies in her wake. Sometimes she’s lonely and wants a friend.

Blackheart wasn’t looking for a sidekick when Nimona showed up at his hideout. Goldenloin never doubted the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics until his sworn enemy started asking the right questions. Together these unlikely allies and enemies might be able to bring down the Institution once and for all. But only if Nimona can control her powers and doesn’t kill everyone first in Nimona (2015) by Noelle Stevenson.

Nimona is Stevenson’s first graphic novel, originally seen as a webcomic online. Nimona was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

This graphic novel is entertaining and readable although not ultimately groundbreaking in terms of plot. Stevenson includes a fair bit of diversity. Blackheart has a mechanical arm. Nimona is refreshingly curvy. And the background characters come in all shapes and colors. Unlike many graphic novels, Nimona also features a self-contained arc which makes parts of the ending feel a bit rushed.

Although obviously appealing to teens, it’s also interesting to see Nimona published for the YA market when none of the characters are actually teens. (Nimona chooses to present herself as a teenaged girl but, like most of the things Nimona shares about herself, it seems very possible that is just a facade.)

Nimona is a lot of fun. Stevenson’s artwork has a decided cartoon aesthetic that is complimented with snappy dialog and sight gags throughout the story. The one failing here is that the lettering for the dialog is extremely small.

Stevenson blends a medieval setting with modern scientific technology to create a unique setting where she can create her own rules for the fantasy elements of the story. Nimona easily subverts the traditional archetypes for both heroes and villains throughout this story where nothing is ever quite as it seems.

Possible Pairings: I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Princeless Book 1: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and illustrated by M. Goodwin

Soundless: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Soundless by Richelle MeadFei’s entire village lost its hearing generations ago. Some claim that mythical pixius eliminated sound on the mountaintop so that they could slumber but no one really knows. For Fei and her people it is the way life has always been in their village isolated by mountains on all sides.

Life in the village can be bleak as miners work to extract precious metals from the mountain’s mine in exchange for food rations sent up via zipline from the kingdom of Beiguo far below.

With villagers going blind and food–already a precious commodity–coming in smaller and smaller quantities, the fate of the village is uncertain. Fei can see the growing threats to her people every day as she observes the village to paint her part of the day’s record that are displayed in the village center each morning.

Awoken one night be unsettling dreams and a noise unlike anything she could imagine, Fei realizes that her hearing has been restored. With this strange new sense to help her and steadfast Li Wei by her side, Fei has the power to change her own life and that of her entire village forever in Soundless (2015) by Richelle Mead.

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Soundless is a standalone fantasy inspired by Mead’s fascination with and love for Chinese folklore.

Fei is a fantastic heroine fueled by fierce love for her sister. She is strong, capable and confident in her own strengths. Fei brings an artistic eye to her world as she begins to push against the status quo in her village. Surprising twists and shocks make for an surprising final act as Soundless builds to an exciting conclusion.

Although this novel does employ a magical cure for Fei’s deafness, the subject is still handled thoughtfully with cleverly integrated dialog (written in italics as characters sign to each other) and carefully blocked scenes (Mead is always mindful that the characters are looking at each other before they begin signing for instance). Fei’s struggle to make sense of sound after a lifetime without is fascinating and extremely well done. Moments in the narrative also highlight times when not hearing is an advantage as well.

Fei does come to see her restored hearing as an asset and something of value that she hopes her friends and loved ones will also experience one day. However it is important to note that lack of hearing is never portrayed as a limitation for any of the characters.

Soundless is further strengthened with a sweet romance between Fei and Li Wei who are thrown together to save their village. Their evolving relationship throughout the novel is, in a word, adorable.

Diverse characters, unique mythology, and a thoughtful examination of deafness add another dimension to this rich narrative. Soundless is a provocative and original fantasy novel in a rarely seen setting. A must-read and highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Red Rising by Pierce Brown, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Mistwood by Leah Cypress, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Eon by Allison Goodman, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier, Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, Updraft by Fran Wilde

*A copy this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2015*

Bone Gap: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Bone Gap by Laura RubyNo one in Bone Gap is surprised when Roza disappears. People have been leaving the O’Sullivan brothers for years and it only makes sense that the girl who appeared out of nowhere should leave just as suddenly.

Finn O’Sullivan knows that Roza didn’t just leave. And he knows that he didn’t do anything to save her.

Months later most everyone in Bone Gap has given up pretending to believe Finn’s story about the man who took Roza. Even Finn’s brother, Sean, is tired of hearing about the man with the unique stillness and the face Finn can never quite describe.

Finn refuses to stop looking. His search will take him deep into the secrets of Bone Gap to places he couldn’t imagine. In trying to find Roza, Finn will learn that sometimes you have to stop looking before you can truly see in Bone Gap (2015) by Laura Ruby.

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Bone Gap is a rich and atmospheric novel. The town of Bone Gap is a strange place filled with secrets and magic that most people have forgotten. In a town populated with strange and vivid characters even Bone Gap itself becomes an indelible part of this novel that is firmly grounded with a strong sense of place.

Some would call Bone Gap magic realism but references to fairy tales and magic bring a purer form of fantasy to mind in this story where beauty can be a curse and being blind is sometimes the best way to see.

Bone Gap masterfully blends myth and magic in a contemporary setting to create a thoughtful story filled with unlikely heroes, surprising twists and a plot that expertly subverts traditional fairytale tropes. Bone Gap is a lovely, unexpected novel that is incredibly smart. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby, The Rose and the Beast by Francesca Lia Block, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Dreamology by Lucy Keating, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry, The Weight of Feathers by Anne-Marie McLemore, The Boneshaker by Kate Milford, The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff, American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Blind: A Review

Bline by Rachel DeWoskinWhat starts as an ordinary fourth of July watching the fireworks becomes something much worse in an instant when Emma Sasha Silver is blinded by a stray firework at the age of fourteen.

A year after the accident, Emma is still learning how to negotiate her large family, school, and everyday tasks without her vision when one of her classmates in the suburban town of Sauberg is found dead. As she struggles to make sense of this sudden death and her own drastically changed life, Emma wonders if losing her sight means she has also lost her chance at a bright future in Blind (2014) by Rachel DeWoskin.

DeWoskin offers a well-researched and much needed story. Emma is a capable heroine who negotiates her disability with the expected dejection as well as sudden moments of grace. The narrative is well-informed with Emma learning how to organize her life as well as travel with a cane as she begins to accomodate for her lost vision.

While this is a valuable story, DeWoskin’s efforts to describe Emma’s world in the form of sounds and textures can feel excessive. Similarly, side plots involving tested friendships, a large family, several crushes and musings about the death in town make this contemporary story convoluted and detract from Emma’s growth in the final quarter of an otherwise lengthy novel.

Although Emma is fourteen going on fifteen, she often feels and sounds younger giving Blind crossover potential (aside from some kissing and bad language) as a middle grade as well.

Emma remains strong and resilient during the story and gives a face to an often under-represented group in YA stories. Blind is also a positive portrayal of blindess without any negative tropes (such as being “cured” or somehow being “punished” in relation to a disability.)

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the June 2014 issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen in various sites online including an SLJ Spotlight*