A Deadly Education: A Review

“It’s always mattered a lot to me to keep a wall up round my dignity, even though dignity matters fuck-all when the monsters under you bed are real. Dignity was what I had instead of friends.”

A Deadly Education by Naomi NovikScholomance is a school for magically gifted students and a solid way to avoid the deadly monsters intent on eating tasty young magicians until you can form a strong alliance, learn the proper spells, and build out your arsenal of magical supplies. All of this is complicated for Galadriel “El” Higgins, whose powerful dark magic means that the school would much rather teacher her deadly incineration spells than simple spells for cleaning her room.

El has a good plan for surviving her junior year at Scholomance and coming out of it with a solid alliance to survive her senior year and the literal gauntlet that is graduation. A plan that goes out the window when Orion Lake saves her life for the second time.

Now instead of biding her time waiting for a chance to demonstrate her own immense powers, El has to waste her time convincing everyone she isn’t another of Orion’s lost causes. She also has to do this while adhering to strict mana–fueling magic with her own effort–lest she accidentally become a maleficer unleashing the full scope of her deadly magical potential.

No one has ever liked El and that’s made it easy to observe the inner workings of the school. It’s also left El prepared for the school’s cutthroat atmosphere and isolation. What El is not prepared for her is Orion’s continued efforts to save her, befriend her, and maybe date her.

Sticking with Orion could be the answer to all of El’s fears about surviving senior year. But with more monsters prowling the school than ever, El has to figure out to keep Orion from sacrificing himself for the greater good and how to avoid accidentally killing any other students while surviving her junior year in A Deadly Education (2020) by Naomi Novik.

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A Deadly Education is the first book in Novik’s Scholomance trilogy. The series started life as a Harry/Draco fan fic before being rewritten to be its own book. While I enjoyed this book a lot, it does have some problems including one correction to the text and some possibly racist portrayals/imagery (opinions vary widely so if you’re concerned, I’d read reviews before you pick up the book).

In the first print run a scene in the middle of the book (page 186) singled out the locs hairstyle as being targeted by some of the monsters in the school. This evokes racist stereotypes about Black hair and was a late addition to the book that was not present during sensitivity reads. It was a hurtful addition and Novik has issued an apology including actions being taken moving forward with the series. Reading the book as a white woman, this was the most obvious concern and I am glad it’s being addressed (removed from future printings and digital editions) and glad Novik issued an apology including next steps.

Asma’s review on Goodreads was one of the first to raise these concerns while sharing others about racist portrayals in the book. I’m not equipped (or entitled) to comment on any of these concerns but will say a lot of the textual issues pointed out do make sense with the worldbuilding. The Mary Sue calls the book’s problems a lack of “authentic representation” which feels like a more accurate statement.

El’s mother is Welsh and her father is Indian. El is only raised by her mother after her father dies making sure El’s pregnant mother survives graduation. Readers learn early on that El is also the subject of an incredibly dark prophecy which makes her paternal relatives want to kill her as a small child. So El, understandably, has no interactions with them. While there are many issues surrounding white authors (like Novik) writing non-white or biracial characters (like El), it’s always a balancing act. BookRiot has a post discussing this and also discussing why it’s okay for a character like El to be disconnected from the Indian half of her identity. This is a thread Nickie Davis also explores.

Lastly I want to direct you to the very thoughtful review from Thea at The Book Smugglers who helped me figure out how to approach my own review (and direct to the links above as well) and also this review from A Naga of the Nusantara which offers another response to some of the concerns about this book.

So that’s a lot. I absolutely understand and respect those who will choose to avoid this book after hearing about the initial error and fallout. That’s a fair and valid choice. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had heard about it all before I had bought and started reading my copy. That said, after disliking Uprooted and being impressed but not dazzled by Spinning Silver, I loved a lot of this book. I felt like A Deadly Education was exactly my speed.

El is an exhausting narrator. Her prose is snappy with a clipped cadence that makes the novel very fast-paced and makes the world building daunting as readers are introduced to El and her world. This choice feels fitting as the Scholomance itself is incredibly daunting and intimidating to students who can be (and are) eaten or killed at every turn by monsters attracted to their untapped magic.

A Deadly Education introduces readers to a sprawling, high stakes world set at a magical school where mistakes are deadly. A strong series starter that, I hope, will improve with later installments (and learning experiences). A Deadly Education is a dark, smart fantasy filled with a snarky, anti-hero protagonist, reluctant friendships, and surprisingly funny dark humor. Recommended with reservations (do your homework before you pick this one up).

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert; The Cruel Prince by Holly Black; Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey; An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard; Killing November by Adriana Mather; The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix; Deadly Class by Rick Remender, Wes Craig, Lee Loughridge; Carry On by Rainbow Rowell; And I Darken by Kiersten White; Fable by Adrienne Young

A God in Ruins: A Review

A God in Ruins by Kate AtkinsonTeddy could have been a poet or a banker. Instead war intervened and he became an RAF bomber pilot. Those years spent bombing German civilians, never knowing if he’d live through his next mission, were the best years of his life–the best moments–even with the violence, the death, and his time as a POW.

But everyone has to return to the ground eventually and when the war ends, Teddy becomes a husband and a father, a journalist, and more. But his hardest role even all those years later will be living in a future he never thought he’d see in A God in Ruins (2015) by Kate Atkinson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Readers of Atkinson’s previous powerhouse novel Life After Life will recognize protagonist Teddy as Ursula Todd’s favorite brother–a figure she worked across multiple lives to save when he is declared missing in action and presumed dead after a failed bomb run. While both books function separately, it is unlikely readers will catch all of the nuance and subtleties of this novel without reading Life After Life first.

Teddy only has one life so this novel does not explore the same themes of reincarnation although Atkinson uses the same nonlinear structure with multiple points of view to excellent effect.

From here on this review will have some spoilers for the rest of the book, proceed with caution:

Continue reading

Life After Life: A Review

“This is love, Ursula thought. And the practice of it makes perfect.”

Life After Life by Kate AtkinsonOn February 11, 1910 Ursula Todd is born. She is not breathing. Dr. Fellowes is not there.

Darkness falls.

On February 11, 1910 Ursula Todd draws her first breath and begins a wholly unexpected life.

Darkness falls.

Hugh, her dear and prosaic father, enlists in the Great War. Long years later he comes home to his stoic and often inscrutable wife. Ursula dies during the ensuing influenza pandemic.

Darkness falls.

Again and again Ursula lives and dies and live once more. She keeps trying, keeps learning until there will be no mistakes in a life spanning both world wars and beyond. As Ursula tries to save the world she begins to understand that the first step, the bigger step, may be saving everyone she loves. For a person who gets more than one life, practice makes perfect in Life After Life (2013) by Kate Atkinson

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Life After Life is a stunning achievement. The plot of this novel spans decades and crosses multiple timelines, all in a nonlinear format following multiple characters in close third person. This structure and Atkinson’s prose create a distinct structure and a reading reading experience that rewards close attention.

This character driven story raises questions of ethics, familial loyalty, and identity. As Ursula lives multiple lives she and readers see how different choices play out and their long lasting ramifications for Ursula and the rest of the Todd family which notably includes Teddy, the protagonist of Atkinson’s companion novel A God in Ruins.

That is not to say Life After Life is an entirely comfortable novel. Many of the characters are products of their times with the related casual sexism and more overt anti-Semitism. While this makes sense for the time period and (some of) the characters, it is never interrogated in the story despite the often omniscient narrator watching the story unfold at a remove. Because of the multiple timelines, some events are explored from multiple lenses while others including many of Sylvie’s motivations are barely examined.

Life After Life is truly exceptional on a craft level with fantastic writing and a singular family. Readers interested in characterization, WWII, and world building will find a lot to enjoy here.

Fans of this volume should tread lightly before picking up the companion novel A God in Ruins which offers a very different, and far less satisfying, reading experience.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth NixThings are changing in London in 1983. Some of the changes are ones you might recognize while others in this slightly alternate London are, appropriately, slightly different.

Things are changing for eighteen-year-old Susan Arkshaw too as she travels to London to try to find her father–a man she has never met–only to cross paths with the left-handed Merlin St. Jacques and, by extension, the rest of his eccentric family.

The St. Jacques clan has always kept London’s monsters, goblins, and other eldritch creatures in check and grounded in the Old World through a combination of magic, research for the right-handed of the family, brute force for the left-handed, and it seems in Merlin’s case through raw charisma as well. But the St. Jacques clan also has to make a living. So they sell books in the New World of modern London as well, as one does.

Susan isn’t sure how to deal with Merlin’s outrageous good looks or his even more outrageous flirting. Worse, she seems to be caught up in an Old World struggle that has been building for years–one that Merlin has been investigating in relation to his mother’s murder.

With help from his right-handed sister, Vivien, Merlin and Susan will have to follow Susan’s scant clues to find her father and determine Susan’s role in this Old World conflict before it bleeds into New World London and tears its unique booksellers apart in The Left-Handed Booksellers of London (2020) by Garth Nix.

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Witty banter and high stakes battles contrast well with bigger questions of what constitutes the greater good in a time when both magic and the modern world are rapidly evolving even as the booksellers themselves may be stagnating after years of complacency. If another urban fantasy novel has ever had such a painfully realistic depiction of shoddy institutional management, I haven’t read it.

Susan is a pragmatic, no-nonsense heroine from her worldview down to her buzz cut and Doc Martins who is quick to adapt as her entire world begins to shift beneath her feet. Merlin is, by contrast, flamboyant and whimsical with a larger than life personality to match his massive wardrobe fit for every occasion with snappy suits, nice dresses, and everything in between including multiple weapons. As the final point of this trio Vivien adds some much-needed practicality and steals every scene she’s in.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London artfully subverts traditional gender roles both in society and within the fantasy genre with a story that defies as many expectations as its characters. Very fun. Very British. Very 1980s. Very much recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton

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 Invention of Sophie Carter: A Review

“None of us are the same, and we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. Our comparisons are invariably false when we compare their strengths to our weaknesses.”

The Invention of Sophie Carter by Samantha HastingsEngland, 1851: Orphaned and grudgingly cared for by their reluctant guardian, identical twins Sophie and Mariah Carter don’t think they need anyone else when they have each other.

What the sisters need, desperately, is a chance at lives filled with more than the drudgery they’ve known for the last ten years. Sophie dreams of using her clockmaking skills to become a renowned inventor while, with the right instruction, Mariah’s artistic talents could make her a leading painter.

Sophie’s plan to get them both to London for the summer to see the Queen’s Great Exhibition (for Sophie) and London’s finest art (for Mariah) almost works. The problem? Their aunt will only accommodate one sister. To avoid separation the girls travel to London together agreeing to take turns being “Sophie.”

At first, the plan is simple enough since no one can tell the twins apart. But as Sophie forges an unlikely friendship with businessman Ethan and Mariah warms to their aunt’s prickly ward Charles both girls will have to contend with their own feelings and ambitions as well as the two young men who each think they’re falling in love with the real Sophie in The Invention of Sophie Carter (2020) by Samantha Hastings.

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The Invention of Sophie Carter is Hastings’ second novel. Chapters alternate between close third person following each sister during their adventures around London and in their aunt’s house.

Breezy narration, a pitch perfect historical setting, and just the right amount of romance make this story a delight. Themes of sisterhood and individuality elevate this romance adding dimension to both sisters as their horizons expand with the opportunities they are able to seize in London. Ethan and Charles are also excellent foils to both sisters.

The Invention of Sophie Carter is a delightful read and just what I needed right now. Readers are sure to be as smitten with the Carter sisters as their suitors are by the end of this utterly charming novel. Highly recommended.

You can also check out my interview with Samantha about the book here on the blog!

Possible Pairings: Love, Lies and Spies by Cindy Antsey, Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, Dangerous Alliance by Jennieke Cohen, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer, A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

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

A Treason of Thorns: A Chick Lit Wednesday

A Treason of Thorns by Laura E. WeymouthAfter seven years in exile during her father’s house arrest, Violet finally has a chance to return home to Burleigh House–one England’s six great houses responsible for the welfare of the country and its people. Violet has always loved Burleigh better than anyone–a fondness that remains even knowing that Burleigh’s mighty house magic is what ultimately killed her father.

Returning to Burleigh is not the fond reunion Violet has dreamt of. The house is decrepit and wary after years without a proper caretaker. Her childhood friend, Wyn, spent the last seven years trapped inside with Violet’s father and he too is changed as a result.

Trying to heal a grieving house and her own heart will lead Violet down the same path her father walked before her: committing high treason trying to find Burleigh’s deed and unbind the house from the king.

As Violet and her friends get closer to finding the deed she will have to decide if she is  prepared to follow in her father’s footsteps as caretaker of the great house even if it means losing Wyn forever or if she might find a way to keep both her home and her heart intact in A Treason of Thorns (2019) by Laura E. Weymouth.

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Weymouth’s latest standalone fantasy offers a compelling alternate history in circa 1800s England although with a strong focus on Violet and Burleigh itself, many of the novel’s excellent secondary characters lack space to fully shine.

A Treason of Thorns has a few surprises and a satisfying romance, but much of the novel’s potential feels unfilled with a plot that meanders and resolutions that fail to fully capitalize on the underpinnings of the world’s magic system.

A Treason of Thorns is a fast-paced and truly original fantasy with a premise perfect for fans of the world of Downton Abbey (and living houses). Recommended for readers seeking a fast-paced historical fantasy with a world they won’t soon forget.

Possible Pairings: Eventide by Sarah Goodman, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, llusions of Fate by Kiersten White

The Light Between Worlds: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. WeymouthSix years ago Evelyn and Phillipa Hapwell and their brother Jamie went outside to the family bomb shelter. Years of drills trained them well to get to the shelter and not wait for anyone, not even their parents.

Instead of walking into a shelter, the siblings find themselves transported to the Woodlands, a forest kingdom preparing for a war of its own. Philippa and Jamie always knew any stay in the Woodlands would be temporary–how could it be anything else?

But even now, all these years later, Ev is still sneaking into the woods and trying to find her way back. Cervus, their guide in the Woodlands, always told Ev that Woodlander’s heart always finds its way home. But can that still be true after so long?

Philippa is happy to be home, happy to leave everything that happened in the Woodlands behind, and try to move on. When Ev disappears, Philippa has to confront everything that happened in the Woodlands–including her own betrayals along the way–if she wants to find out what happened to her sister in The Light Between Worlds (2018) by Laura E. Weymouth.

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The Light Between Worlds is a standalone portal fantasy and Weymouth’s debut novel. The first half of the story, set in 1949, is told in Ev’s first person narration. The second half, in 1950, is narrated by Philippa. (The audiobook uses different voice actresses for each narrator and is an excellent production.)

As you might have guessed, this was a heavy read filled with melancholy for what all of the siblings have lost and, especially for Ev, genuine despair. In other words, it was not a good choice to read when the Covid-19 related quarantine started in March. Be warned, the novel does depict Evie’s self-harm as a coping mechanism after she returns to London.

Readers familiar with portal fantasies will find the story they expect here while readers new to the sub-genre might feel more tension around the question of what happened to Ev. Both Evie and Philippa’s parts include flashbacks both to their time in the Woodlands and the weeks immediately after their return. While the Woodlands chapters are evocative and provide a story within the story, they never do much to explain the appeal of the Woodlands even to Evie who feels more at home there than in London.

The Light Between Worlds is filled with beautiful, visceral, evocative writing and offers a thoughtful exploration of both post traumatic stress and trauma. An acquired tasted but one that marks Weymouth as an author to watch.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Dangerous Alliance by Jennieker CohenLady Victoria Aston lives comfortably with her father, helping to manage the family estate and enjoying the relative freedom and security afforded to a young woman whose sister has made a good marriage.

Unfortunately all is not as it appears. When her sister has to flee her abusive husband, Vicky must rise to the challenge of finding a suitable husband by the end of the season before her family is left destitute.

Vicky is certain her favorite Jane Austen novels can provide the guidance she needs in this endeavor despite being surprisingly silent on the subjects of recently returned but still painfully distant best friends and, perhaps more urgently, mysterious accidents that may prevent Vicky from surviving her season long enough to find a suitor in Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance (2019) by Jennieke Cohen.

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This debut novel is a well-researched homage to all things Austen complete with chapter epigraphs from Austen’s classic novels. Cohen (a member of The Jane Austen Society of North America) also provides a detailed author’s note demonstrating the care and research that has gone into bringing Vicky’s story and her world to life.

The close third person narration primarily focuses on Vicky with chapters from other characters, notably including Vicky’s estranged best friend Tom Sherborne, helping to further expand the story. Vicky is a plucky heroine who faces numerous challenges with aplomb and a fair bit of good humor when following in the footsteps of her favorite literary heroines proves less successful than she might have hoped.

Dangerous Alliance is part madcap adventure and part romance wrapped up in a mystery surrounding the accidents that plague Vicky from the very first page. While this genre mashup can be disorienting, the story sticks close to the wit and gentle tone readers familiar with Austen would expect–complete with a satisfying resolution. Recommended for fans of romantic comedies, cozy mysteries and, of course, Jane Austen.

Possible Pairings: Love, Lies and Spies by Cindy Antsey; Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger; The Invention of Sophie Carter by Samantha Hastings; Murder, Magic, and What We Wore by Kelly Jones; A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee; Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix; These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas

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

The Guinevere Deception: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Stories are not nails to be driven home. They are tapestries to be woven.”

“Sometimes we have to hide from what others see in order to be what we know we are.”

Guinevere comes to Camelot as a stranger–a princess who will marry the young king who has banished magic and his mentor, the wizard Merlin, from his kingdom as he tries to bring order to the chaos threatening to destroy everything he has worked so hard to build.

Except Guinevere died before she ever came to Camelot. No one knows the real identity of the girl who was sent to replace Guinevere–her name is a secret, her past a mystery. All that matters is that Merlin sent her to Camelot to protect Arthur.

Threats abound in Camelot as Guinevere investigates scheming nobles, mysterious new arrivals drawn by the kingdom’s promise, and magic fighting to get past her own rudimentary protections.

Magic is chaos–a natural force always waiting to reclaim what Arthur and Camelot stole away–a fact Guinevere knows better than most. With danger circling and secrets everywhere, Guinevere will have to rely on her own cunning as she decides who to trust and what to fight for in The Guinevere Deception (2019) by Kiersten White.

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The Guinevere Deception is the first book in White’s Camelot Rising trilogy.

White brings inventive world building and a feminist lens to her Arthurian retelling that centers a decidedly unique Guinevere. This historical fantasy breathes new life into the familiar source material with layers of intrigue and suspense as Guinevere tries to uncover both the hidden threats to Camelot and the secrets of her own past with Merlin.

The push and pull between the order of newly built Camelot and the chaos of primordial magic that previously ruled drive the plot forward as Guinevere comes closer to understanding Arthur’s greatest threat. This tension is mirrored by Guinevere’s struggle to be the protector she needs to be while also molding herself into the queen Arthur needs to rule beside him.

The Guinevere Deception is a fast-paced adventure filled with intrigue, magic, and the barest hints of romance and enduring friendship as Guinevere begins to make a place for herself in a kingdom she never could have imagined when Merlin plucked her out of the forest. A must reads for fans of Arthurian legend and readers looking for a fantasy with feminism and heroism in equal measure–with just a touch of existential dread to keep things interesting. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Sweet Black Waves by Kristina Perez, Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West