How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories: A Review

How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories by Holly Black, illustrated by Rovina CaiOnce upon a time there was a boy with a wicked tongue. Dressed in rags, raised on cat’s milk, he soon discovered that the best way to be seen was to be unkind. Later you might get to know him as a cruel prince and a wicked king. But before that he was a boy trying to make his way in a world that could have destroyed him if he hadn’t come to rule it in How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories (2020) by Holly Black, illustrated by Rovina Cai.

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How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories is a companion novella to Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy which includes The Cruel PrinceThe Wicked King, and The Queen of Nothing. The novella is largely focused on Cardan’s childhood but a framing story is set after the events of the trilogy so be sure to read all of them first to avoid spoilers.

This novella is really for the fans of the series. What a delight to return to the world of faerie and get another glimpse of my favorite monstrous girl (Jude) and my favorite wicked boy (Cardan). Black balances showcasing what comes after the original series in the framing story with flashbacks to Cardan’s upbringing as a neglected-if-spoiled youth in the royal court.

Questions of inevitability and change play out both for young Cardan and throughout the novella as Cardan encounters the same fairytale multiple times–each with subtle changes. This conceit brings the entire novella together with a dynamic finale while also nodding to the power of story–an element which imbues every book in this series.

How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories is illustrated throughout with lavish full color artwork that brings Cardan and his world to live. Cai does a beautiful job giving life to these characters who already have so much personality in prose. A lovely return to a world that hints at even more stories to discover.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, 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, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, 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

Roses and Rot: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Roses and Rot by Kat HowardImogen has spent her life reading fairy tales and wishing she could live in one herself. Surely even an evil stepmother would be better than her actual mother. Surely a chance at adventure–even a dangerous one–would be better than waiting, constantly and always, to see what new ways her mother would find to hurt her, to try and turn her and her younger sister Marin against each other.

By the time she’s sixteen, Imogen has found a way out. She has to leave Marin behind. But their mother never hurts Marin the same way she hurts Imogen. And sometimes there is no happily ever after. Sometimes there’s just survival.

Now Imogen and Marin are adults, trying to mend their years-long estrangement and about to live together for the first time since their adolescence at an elite artists’ colony–Imogen for her creative writing and Marin as a dancer. Everything about the program, from its list of accomplished mentors to the patina of success that seems to cling to every alumni, seems too good to be true.

It’s also impossible to pass up.

Once they arrive the program seems to be everything the brochures promised and more. But the pressure is real too. Marin knows taking a year off from performing as a dancer is risky and she isn’t sure it will pay off–even with the attentions of her famous mentor. Imogen, meanwhile, knows the colony is the perfect place to begin piecing together her novel.

But not everything is as it seems. As Imogen and Marin learn more about the program and its background, the sisters realize that success can mean very different things–and have a much higher cost–than either of them ever imagined in Roses and Rot (2016) by Kat Howard.

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Roses and Rot is Howard’s debut novel. Most major characters, with the exception of Ariel who is described as dark skinned, are white. The novel is narrated by Imogen with excerpts from the fairy tales she is working on during her fellowship.

Howard’s writing is beautiful as she brings the secluded artist’s colony to life with atmospheric descriptions of the changing seasons and the woods looming nearby. References to Imogen’s abusive mother in narrative asides and small flashbacks lend menace to the story as readers learn more about the events leading up to Imogen and Marin’s estrangement.

While all of the pieces are there, the ultimate reveal in Roses and Rot feels abrupt with a payoff that is disproportionate to the buildup as fantasy elements are added to the narrative. Imogen makes sense as the center of the story however her arc is ultimately one of the least interesting as she works to save her sister from her own success. Added elements of competition between the sisters also crop up with almost no explanation beyond the existence of their previous estrangment.

Roses and Rot is a strongly evocative debut that explores the power of both success and creativity as well as the deeper motivations that drive artists to strive for their best. Themes of sacrifice and belonging are explored to better effect in Howard’s stronger sophomore novel An Unkindness of Magicians, an urban fantasy and obvious progression from this debut.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Bunny by Mona Awad, War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson

The Queen of Nothing: A Review

*The Queen of Nothing is the second book in Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy. To avoid spoilers, start at the beginning with The Cruel Prince.*

“We have lived in our armor for so long, you and I. And now I am not sure if either of us knows how to remove it.”

The Queen of Nothing by Holly BlackJude has spent years learning strategy and how to survive as a mortal in the High Court of Faerie. She has spied, killed, and fought for every scrap of power. But taking power is easier than keeping it.

After trusting Cardan for one last gambit, Jude is the mortal Queen of Faerie–a title no one acknowledges and one that does her little good while exiled in the mortal world.

Betrayed and furious, Jude is keen to return to Faerie and reclaim what is hers by right, not to mention her sorely damaged dignity. The opportunity comes sooner than expected when Jude’s sister Taryn needs her identical twin’s help to survive the aftermath of her own betrayals and lies.

When Jude returns, war is brewing in Elfhame. After years teaching herself to be a warrior and a spy, Jude will now have to learn how to be a queen and embrace her humanity to save the only place that has ever felt like home in The Queen of Nothing (2020) by Holly Black.

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The Queen of Nothing is the final book in Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy. To avoid spoilers, start at the beginning with The Cruel Prince.

It’s always hard to talk about the end of a series without revealing too much. Black pulls no punches in this fast-paced conclusion filled with surprising twists, unexpected reunions, and even some redemption arcs.

Jude continues to be a dynamo narrator filling the story with grim observations and shrewd strategy as she tries to keep Elhame from falling into enemy hands. After watching Jude embrace her strength and ruthlessness, it’s a powerful shift as she is forced to instead embrace her mortality and compassion to succeed this time.

The Queen of Nothing is the perfect conclusion to a favorite series. Every character gets exactly what they deserve in the best possible way. A must read for fans, of course, and a trilogy not to be missed for anyone who enjoys their fantasy with healthy doses of strategy and fairies. Highly recommend.

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, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, 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

Estranged: A Graphic Novel Review

cover art for Estranged by Ethan M. AldridgeWhen he was born, two fairies left their baby to be raised by humans while taking a human child down below–not to raise as their own but to show off at court.

Now, Edmund struggles to hide his changeling status in the World Above especially from his parents and his older sister Alexis. But that’s not easy with fae magic that he hasn’t learned to control. The Childe lives in the World Below where he will never quite belong; his only friend is a wax golem called Whick.

When a sorceress named Hawthorne stages a coup to claim the throne down below, Childe knows that there is only one person who can help: the rightful heir who has been living in the human world.

Childe longs to turn his back on the fae world but he can’t. Edmund wishes he could be a normal human but that’s impossible. These unlikely allies will have to work together to try and reclaim the throne before Hawthorne’s bid for power threatens both of their worlds in Estranged (2018) by Ethan M. Aldridge.

Estranged is Aldridge’s debut graphic novel.

This full-color graphic novel is visually stunning with finely detailed illustrations and a singular vision of the fairy world. While some of the art is static with little movement in the panels, the story itself is dynamic enough to balance that out as the action shifts between the fairy and human worlds. (The gutters between panels are cleverly changed to black when the scenes are down below while traditional white gutters are used in the human world.)

While Childe and Edmund’s story will continue in The Changeling King, this installment has a lot of closure as both boys find their place in the world and learn how to make peace with it.

Estranged is filled with action and adventure as Childe and Edmund reluctantly team up to stop Hawthorne. A powerful story about family–both found and otherwise–and the complicated ties that bind people to each other. Recommended for readers looking for a story with swashbuckling and heart in equal measure.

Possible Pairings: The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony DiTerrlizzi,  Cucumber Quest by Gigi D. G., Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke, Pandora’s Legacy by Kara Leopard, illustrated by Kelly Matthews and Nichole Matthews, The City on the Other Side by Mairghread Scott and Robin Robinson

Never-Contented Things: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Never-Contented Things by Sarah PorterKsenia is cold where foster brother Josh is warm; sharp where he is soft. She is almost eighteen and their foster parents are simultaneously planning for Ksenia’s transition to a group home while preparing to adopt sixteen-year-old Josh. Ksenia is a bit of an oddity in their painfully conventional town with her androgynous looks and thrift store style without any of Josh’s charisma to smooth things over.

While Ksenia is resigned to their separation, Josh is desperate to hang on to Ksenia at any cost–even if it means making an impossible bargain with otherworldy creatures they encounter at a party. Entrapped in another world with Josh, Ksenia is determined to protect him despite his betrayal. Josh sees it as a refuge where no one can question his romantic love and infatuation for his foster sister while Ksenia knows it is a prison with no possible escape.

Josh and especially Ksenia are people no one would look for except for their best friend, Lexi, a girl whose life couldn’t be more different and who, if she can find them, might have the key to breaking the spell in Never-Contented Things (2019) by Sarah Porter.

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Porter blends horror and urban fantasy in her latest standalone novel of faerie.

Evocative, phantasmagorical prose carries across multiple viewpoints as Ksenia works to save herself and the people she loves in this book filled with messy characters doing the best they can.

Never-Contented Things features gorgeous sentence level writing and vibrant horror which elevate this character driven story about resilience, identity, and learning to save yourself. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

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

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.

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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, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, 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

An Enchantment of Ravens: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Why do we desire, above all other things, that which has the greatest power to destroy us?”

cover art for An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret RogersonIn the town of Whimsy Craft is currency. The fair folk value human artistry and creativity above all else–they crave it and collect it in lieu of creating on their own. For the right talent they might even offer humans their most coveted prize: immortality.

Isobel has made a comfortable life for herself and her aunt and sisters in Whimsy thanks to her skills as a portrait painter. But even Isobel’s talent can’t protect her from the whims of the fair folk. Any fairy client is dangerous–even Isobel’s oldest and most likely harmless patron, Gadfly–but royal ones especially so.

Isobel hopes to dazzle Rook, the autumn prince, with her Craft and then never see him again. Instead, her inclusion of human sorrow in Rook’s expression may doom them both in An Enchantment of Ravens (2017) by Margaret Rogerson.

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An Enchantment of Ravens is Rogerson’s debut novel.

Isobel’s first person narration is candid and self-aware with prose that is delicately woven on a sentence level and serves well to compliment the story’s masterful world building.. She is keenly aware of the dangers of the fair folk, particularly their promise of immortality from the Green Well. The beauty and charm of the fair folk stands in stark contrast to their terrifying lack of humanity offering a nuanced interpretation of the fae that will appeal to fans of Holly Black’s faerie novels.

Instead of being drawn in by all of this glamour, Isobel is at pains to maintain her agency and control. Throughout An Enchantment of Ravens she remains utterly pragmatic and logical even as she is forced to do wild and unexpected things–with caring about and trusting Rook being the most illogical of all.

Isobel is a singular heroine and Rook an admirable foil and ally. This character-driven novel is further enhanced with a strong group of secondary characters notably including newly immortal Aster and my personal favorite, Gadfly. This standalone novel builds to a surprising and truly satisfying conclusion as pieces fall into place as neatly as the brushstrokes in one of Isobel’s portraits. An Enchantment of Ravens is an inventive and unique fantasy filled with fairies, danger, and romance. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Legendary by Stephanie Garber, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

The Cruel Prince: A Review

“True power isn’t granted. True power can’t be taken away.”

cover art for The Cruel Prince by Holly BlackTen years ago Jude’s parents were murdered and she and her sisters were stolen away to the High Court of Faerie. Life at Court is a constant nightmare full of treachery and danger–especially for mortal children like Jude and her twin sister, Taryn.

Raised among the fey, Jude is painfully aware that she is not one of them the way her older sister, Vivi, is with her furred ears and cat eyes. She knows better than to fall for the seductive beauties of the fey or to ever believe they can see her as an equal. But that doesn’t stop her from striving for that recognition and approval, always grasping for that means of protection.

Drawn into a web of intrigue and deceptions, Jude finds her chance to make a place at Court while moving herself into the center of violence that threatens to break the Faerie Courts apart. Raised on strategy and brutality, Jude can see a way out of the conflict but only if she aligns with the person she hates most–Cardan, the youngest son of the High King and the one member of Court determined to make sure she never forgets her mortality. Jude and Cardan have spent years circling each other, hating each other, but it’s only as they begin to work together toward a common goal that they begin to understand each other in The Cruel Prince (2018) by Holly Black.

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The Cruel Prince is the start of Black’s new trilogy, The Folk of the Air. Set in the same world as her other faerie novels it also references back in small ways to her Modern Faerie Tales series and The Darkest Part of the Forest.

Jude’s first person narration is pragmatic to the point of being fatalistic even while adopting the lilting cadence of the faerie creatures who surround her. Jude has no illusions about her place in the hierarchy of the High Court or her expendability. While Vivi tolerates living among the fey and Taryn sees the beauties amongst the dangers, all Jude sees is the savagery. She knows that her only chance to survive and find her place among the fey is through power–a strategy she has learned all too well from her adopted father, Madoc. Madoc, a violent redcap, also murdered Jude’s real parents leaving Jude uncertain of her footing even in her own family.

Every victory Jude has earned down below with the faeries is hard won; every lesson painfully learned. Thanks to her repeated encounters with Cardan, Jude is especially well-versed in hate. She hates Cardan beyond all reason and he hates her nearly as much. But as fans of the classic film Gilda know all too well, hate can be a very exciting emotion and Jude and Cardan’s interactions practically sizzle as a result–even while they are doing everything they can to destroy each other.

Everything in The Cruel Prince is very artfully done. Jude’s story is about politics, intrigue, and fear—particularly being afraid but charging ahead anyway. Because there is no other option. Intricate plotting and a restrained narration make for a very clever conclusion as quite a few of Jude’s cards are laid on the table only to raise more questions for what will happen next in the series.

For Jude there are no good choices. Similarly, it’s hard to say if there are any good people among the High Court. Thanks to the strength of Black’s writing, that hardly matters. It takes real skill to take the villain of the story and make him not just sympathetic but precious. It takes as much work to have a first person narrator who is ruthlessly cold and calculating while also being devastatingly human and compassionate. The Cruel Prince is a must read for faerie enthusiasts, high fantasy connoisseurs, and especially for anyone looking for a book filled with twists that will leave them breathless. 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, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, 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

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2017*

Bearly a Lady: A Novella Review

Zelda had made peace (mostly) with transforming into a werebear once a month. Luckily she has her amazing vampire roommate and her dream job at a fashion magazine to balance that out. Then, of course, there’s her excellent wardrobe–if only more of it was werebear sized!

Things get complicated when Zelda has to juggle a date with with her high school crush Jake (alpha werewolf of Kensington) and the charms of Benedict the fae nobleman (and nephew of her boss) that she’s been assigned to bodyguard for two whole weeks. Then there’s Janine, Zelda’s longtime crush at work and maybe the one who could take Zelda’s almost perfect life to completely excellent in Bearly a Lady (2017) by Cassandra Khaw.

Khaw offers a frothy homage to chick lit and fantasy in this charmingly cute novella (part of the Book Smugglers Novella Initiative). Zelda’s first person narration is breezy, fun, and just the slightest bit madcap as her life goes from fairly mundane (for a werebear) to bearly (pun intended!) under control. Set over the course of a tumultuous week for Zelda Bearly a Lady offers a contained story with some fascinating world building.

I won’t give away too much about the OTP here but Zelda’s chemistry with her love interests throughout this novella is off the charts. After you finish the story, be sure to read Khaw’s short essay on her inspiration and influences. It’s a great take on how this author, previously known more for her horror efforts, turned her attention to chick lit and something a bit lighter.

Bearly a Lady is a lighthearted novella filled with an inclusive cast of characters, comedy and romance–highly recommended for anyone seeking a much-needed dose of escapism in these trying times.

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

Princess of the Midnight Ball: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day GeorgeGalen is a soldier returning from war. At only nineteen he has been on the battleground most of his life. He is world-weary and eager to return to Westfalin and try his hand at civilian life now that the war is over.

Rose is one of the twelve princesses of Westfalin cursed to dance each night for the King Under Stone where they wear out their dancing slippers every evening. Unable to speak out about their nightly activities or defy the King Under Stone, Rose and her sisters suffer in silence.

Many princes try to discover where the princesses go each night. All of them fail.

As the stakes grow higher, Rose and Galen will have to work together to break the curse and save Westfalin from threats found both underground and above in Princess of the Midnight Ball (2009) by Jessica Day George.

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Princess of the Midnight Ball is the first book in George’s trilogy of companion novels following the princesses of Westfalin. It is also a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” fairytale.

Princess of the Midnight Ball is written in the third person and alternates between Galen and Rose’s points of view to create two protagonists who are very authentic instead of relying on character archetypes. George also flips several standard fairytale tropes upside down with her refreshing and well-rounded characters. Galen is levelheaded and cautious while still having enough charm to rival any prince. He also knits his own socks. Rose is clever, sharp and decidedly proactive as she works independently of Galen to try and save her sisters.

Together Galen and Rose are unstoppable as they face faeries, curses and other ills besides in their efforts to break the curse and save Westfalin. Despite having numerous secondary characters–just with all of Rose’s sisters!–George manages to present concise snapshot descriptions for each character without bogging down the narrative. This story can also appeal to a broad age range as it’s thin on gore or violence with a lighter tone overall.

Princess of the Midnight Ball is a delightful retelling that stays true to the source material while also adding original touches and memorable characters. A thrilling plot, sweet romance and genuinely scary villains make for a winning combination in this reinvented fairytale.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Selection by Kiera Cass, Entwined by Heather Dixon, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, Beauty by Robin McKinley, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Toads & Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde