Little Thieves: A Review

The little thief steals gold, but the great one steals kingdoms; and only one goes to the gallows.
-Almanic proverb

Little Thieves by Margaret OwenFor Vanja Schmidt, nothing has ever been free–not even the love of her godmothers Death and Fortune. After years struggling to avoid trapping herself in service to either of the godmothers who refuse to claim her as their own, Vanja has almost earned enough to buy her freedom. By earn, she means stolen.

Vanja has left an impressive trail of damage in her wake ranging from stolen jewels to, most recently, a stolen life. Being Princess Gisele’s trusted maid should have kept Vanja safe. It didn’t. So Vanja finds her own way to safety by stealing Gisele’s enchanted pearls and using them to impersonate the princess. Gisele is left penniless and alone. But that is a small price to pay for Vanja to be safe and free–one she’d pay again twice over.

When Vanja is so close to freedom she can taste it, all of her lies threaten to bury her.

Vanja angers the wrong god and incurs a very dangerous curse on what should have been her last heist. Now Vanja will become exactly what she always wanted unless she can break the curse. It starts with a ruby on her cheek that could pay her entire way if only she could pry it loose. She can’t, of course. And neither can anyone else who covets it. That isn’t Vanja’s biggest problem.

If Vanja is unable to make amends for her past misdeeds in two weeks, the jewels will spread and kill her. Even if she survives that, Gisele’s fiance has pushed up their wedding. Meaning Vanja might find herself married to a brute of a prince who seems intent on making sure his bride never makes it past the honeymoon.

Worse, someone has finally caught onto Vanja’s schemes. And he might be the one person too smart for Vanja to outwit.

After years of cons and heists, Vanja is intimately familiar with the trinity of want. She knows how dangerous it is to be loved, or wanted, or used by the wrong people. She is less certain of how to find the right people to help her–let alone convince them to trust her–to steal back her life in Little Thieves (2021) by Margaret Owen.

Find it on Bookshop.

Little Thieves is an inventive retelling of the German fairytale “The Goose Girl.” It is also the first book in a duology. The story is narrated by Vanja with section headings grouped under different fairy tales Vanja shares with readers–each tale includes an illustration done by the author. Vanja is among several characters cued as white although the world Owen conjures strays from the stereotypical Germanic setting of many fairy tales to make space for characters who are BIPOC and from span the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

Owen breathes new life into this familiar tale by reframing the story to follow the supposed villain. Flashbacks in the form of fairytales illuminate the deeds and misdeeds that led Vanja to steal Gisele’s pearls. They also offer hints of how Vanja can make her way back from it and break the curse.  Young sleuth Emeric Conrad is an apt foil to Vanja’s schemes and ably keeps pace with her throughout this clever tale.

After years of getting by on her wits and what she could steal with her own two hands, Vanja is slowly forced to admit that she might not be able to do everything alone. As she finds new allies–reluctant and otherwise–she slowly builds out a support system and confronts the role her own tendency for self-destruction played in her checkered past. Owen skillfully demonstrates Vanja’s growth throughout the novel as she moves from a girl willing to pry a ruby off her own face (if only she could) to one who might have to sacrifice everything to save the people she’s hesitantly begun to care about.

Little Thieves is a sleek page-turner that seamlessly blends classic fairytale elements with a high stakes con, sardonic humor, and flawed characters you can’t help but adore. Come for the imaginative world building and a truly distinct retelling, stay for the gasp-worthy twists, found family, and slow burn romance. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows

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

A Spindle Splintered: A Review

“Sleeping Beauty is pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it. It’s aimless and amoral and chauvinist as shit. It’s the fairy tale that feminist scholars cite when they want to talk about women’s passivity in historical narratives. Even among the other nerds who majored in folklore, Sleeping Beauty is nobody’s favorite. Romantic girls like Beauty and the Beast; vanilla girls like Cinderella; goth girls like Snow White. Only dying girls like Sleeping Beauty.”

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. HarrowZinnia Gray has always known Sleeping Beauty has its problems, even before she read about the medieval version Zelladine (don’t Google that one, you don’t want to know). She also knows that Sleeping Beauty is the one story where a girl like her manages to turn things around and get a happy ending. Of course Zinnia loves Sleeping Beauty.

After years of moving fast and trying to pretend her clock isn’t running out thanks to the rare Generalized Roseville Malady that causes protein to build up in all the places it shouldn’t be in her organs, Zinnia knows she’s almost out of time. She rushed through high school, a degree in folklore at the local college, and she tried to rush away from her parents’ stifling efforts to save her.

Now Zinnia is here at her twenty-first birthday. She knows no one else with GRM has lived to see twenty-two. She knows true love’s kiss isn’t going to save her because she never gave herself permission to fall in love. That doesn’t stop her best friend Charmaine “Charm” Baldwin from loving Zinnia fiercely and giving her the exact kind of Sleeping Beauty themed birthday party she’d want for her last one.

The party is about what you’d expect: Whimsical and ironic until it turns maudlin and sad. Until things go sideways when Zinnia pricks herself on a spindle (she has to try it, okay?) and finds herself in another version of Sleeping Beauty with another dying girl trying to dodge her supposed happy ending–one that Zinnia might actually be able to save–in A Spindle Splintered (2021) by Alix E. Harrow.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Spindle Splintered is a novella inspired by Harrow’s desire to “spiderverse” a fairytale and the start of a new series. The story includes silhouette illustrations by Arthur Rackham that, as the copyright page notes, “were unavoidably harmed, fractures, and splintered during the design process.” These illustrations add an eerie note to the physical book while hinting at the darker origins behind many fairy tales that have become sanitized over time.

Zinnia’s narration is sharp-witted and often bitter–fitting for a character who knows she’s almost out of time–while her unshakeable friendship with Charm provides a grounding force throughout the fast-paced story. On the other side of the portal (or whatever it is that transports her, Zinnia was never big on science) she meets another dying girl. Primrose is the epitome of a fairy tale princess. Except that after she’s saved from her own hundred year sleep, she has no desire to marry her rescuer, Prince Harold, or any other man for that matter.

Part portal fantasy, part retelling, A Spindle Splintered offers a new interpretation of Sleeping Beauty both for Zinnia and the girl she meets after that fateful spindle prick. Recommended for readers looking for a no-nonsense protagonists and a decidedly modern take on a classic fairy tale.

Possible Pairings: Sleepless by Cyn Balog, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Stain by A. G. Howard, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Ash by Malinda Lo, Gilded by Marissa Meyer, A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan, Into the Spider-Verse

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

Tales From the Hinterland: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Tales From the Hinterland by Melissa AlbertTales From the Hinterland (2021) by Melissa Albert presents Althea Proserpine’s  notorious collection of dark and twisted short stories that form the backbone of the world building in both The Hazel Wood and its sequel The Night Country. For the first time the stories that protagonists Alice and Ellery encounter in Albert’s previous novels are presented in their entirety.

Readers familiar with Albert’s oeuvre will recognize many of the tales and characters here notably including Alice, Ilsa, and Hansa. Albert aptly channels classic fairy tale sensibilities into eerie and brutal tales that would have the Brothers Grimm reaching for an extra candle at night. Centering female characters in each story Albert explores the facets of girl-and-womanhood in a world dominated and usually shaped by men.

Standouts in the collection include “The House Under the Stairwell,” where sisterhood wins the day as Isobel seeks help from the Wicked Wife before she is trapped in a deadly betrothal; “The Clockwork Bride,” a richly told story where a girl hungry for enchantment carelessly promises her first daughter to a sinister toymaker who, when he tries to claim his prize, instead finds a girl who wishes only to belong to herself; and “Death and the Woodwife,” where a princess uses her wits and her mother’s unusual gifts to outwit Death and his heir.

With stories fueled by feminist rage, the frustration of being underestimated, and the insatiable longing to experience more Tales From the Hinterland is a collection that is both timely and universal.

You can also check out my interview with Melissa to hear more about this book and the companion novels.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

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

Of Curses and Kisses: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Of Curses and Kisses by Sandhya MenonJaya Rao has one mission when she arrives at St. Rosetta’s Academy with her younger sister, Isha, to rehab Isha’s reputation after a media scandal. As Indian royalty there are, of course, appearances to uphold. But Jaya is used to that and it won’t stop her from finding Grey Emerson and breaking his heart.

Grey Emerson is well aware of the animosity between his family and the Raos. It’s the sort of thing that makes sense after years of feuding, a stolen ruby, and a devastating curse. After years of keeping to himself and waiting for the inevitable, Grey knows he’s almost out of time. He never expected the curse to let him live past his eighteenth birthday. He just doesn’t understand why Jaya Rao decided to come and gloat about it.

Drawn together against their better judgement, both Jaya and Grey realize they other is not what they expect. Worse, neither of them may have the full story from their families. When it feels like everything is conspiring to keep them apart, Jaya and Grey will have to work even harder to stay together and find their own happy ending in Of Curses and Kisses (2020) by Sandhya Menon.

Find it on Bookshop.

Of Curses and Kisses is the first book in Menon’s St. Rosetta’s Academy trilogy–a series of modern fairy tale retellings set at an elite international boarding school. If you like listening to books, treat yourself to the audiobook to hear all the accents.

Jaya and Grey’s story takes a new spin on the classic story of Beauty and the Beast. I won’t spoil the ending here, but readers familiar with the source material can certainly imagine. Despite treading familiar ground, Menon brings her own spin to this classic story as Jaya and Grey make their own way in the world.

Despite the overall light tone, some of this book can be quite heavy–particularly when it comes to Grey’s relationship with his father. Grey has suffered through years of verbal and psychological abuse from his father blaming Grey for his mother’s death in childbirth and repeatedly reminding Grey that the Emerson curse will kill him. Reading this, even through Grey’s built up cynicism and detachment is painful although I’m happy to report a big part of the plot is the start of Grey’s healing process.

Jaya and Grey are excellent protagonists acting as perfect counterpoints to each other. They’re joined in this story with a stellar supporting cast including characters readers can expect to see more of in later series installments. While romance remains center stage, the friendships between characters and the sisterhood that binds Jaya and Isha together are equally important and written beautifully.

Of Curses and Kisses is a cozy, romantic story that adds originality and flair to a familiar fairy tale. A must read for contemporary romance fans.

Possible Pairings: Romancing the Throne by Nadine Jolie Courtney, When the Stars Go Blue by Caridad Ferrer, Her Royal Highness by Rachel Hawkins, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Bookish Boyfriends by Tiffany Schmidt, Jackpot by Nic Stone

Poisoned: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Poisoned by Jennifer DonnellyYou think you know this tale, but you only know what you’ve been told. You may have heard about the girl named Sophie with lips the color of ripe cherries, skin as soft as new-fallen snow, and hair as dark as midnight. You may have heard about her step-mother and the huntsman.

That doesn’t mean you know the real villain of this tale or anything that happened after the huntsman cut out Sophie’s heart.

In a world where power means safety and, for a young girl destined to rule, there is no greater danger than mercy, Sophie will soon learn that surviving–much like hiding–isn’t enough if she wants to reclaim her kingdom in Poisoned (2020) by Jennifer Donnelly.

Find it on Bookshop.

Poisoned is a feminist retelling of the fairy tale of Snow White that is every bit as bloody and gory as the original version transcribed by the Brothers Grimm. Although the story is stepped in violence from the very first chapter, the narrative itself often reads younger hewing closer to middle grade in tone.

Eerie, fast-paced chapters and an unconventional choice in both narrator and antagonist make this story unexpected even as Donnelly stays true to her source material. Sophie is an admirable heroine struggling to reconcile her ruthless upbringing with the kindness she has managed to nurture in her heart.

Poisoned is an ideal choice for anyone who prefers the classic fairy tales to modern, more sanitized versions–a fast-paced story that is both engaging and fierce.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, Stain by A. G. Howard, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Stealing Snow by Danielle Paige, Everland by Wendy Spinale, Hunted by Meagan Spooner, Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah West

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

Girl, Serpent, Thorn: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa BashardoustSoraya knows all about stories. She knows about princesses and monsters. Most of all, she knows which role she plays in her own story.

She is a princess, yes. But the princesses in stories don’t have to be hidden away as a secret. The princesses in stories are not cursed with a poisonous touch.

Soraya has always known she is dangerous both in truth because of the poison running in her veins but also as an idea. How can anyone trust her twin brother to rule as the shah of Atashar if they find out about Soraya and what she can do?

When her search for answers and a way to break the curse lead Soraya to a guard who claims he can see her for more than her poison and a prisoner in the dungeons who may have the answers Soraya needs, she will have to decide if she will be a princess or a monster in Girl, Serpent, Thorn (2020) by Melissa Bashardoust.

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Bashardoust’s sophomore novel is steeped in Persian culture and folklore drawing inspiration from “The Shahnameh” as well as traditional European fairy tales and Zoroastrianism.

At the start of Girl, Serpent, Thorn Soraya’s world is claustrophobic. She has spent years in isolation and is starved for affection and human contact–things that she fears are impossible for her to ever receive because of her curse.

Soraya’s desperation to break her curse lead her to difficult choices that threaten both herself and her family’s legacy. Although these twists are heavily broadcast the emotional resonance is strong as Soraya deals with the consequences of her actions and strives to do better both for herself and those she cares about.

The book’s love triangle often feels suspect as all characters involved lie and manipulate to get what they want. This dynamic does little to diminish the chemistry between Soraya and Parvaneh and further underscores the hard won respect and trust that becomes a foundation of their relationship.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is an evocative, tantalizing tale. Recommended for anyone who has ever wondered what really separates a hero (or a princess) from a monster.

Possible Pairings: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Ever Cursed by Corey Ann Haydu, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

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

Spinning Silver: A Review

“There’s always trouble where there’s money owed, sooner or later.”

Spinning Silver by Naomi NovikMiryem comes from a long line of moneylenders. It’s easy to become a moneylender but it’s hard to be a good one because to be a good moneylender means being cruel. Her father isn’t a good one; he finds it far easier to loan out money than collect payments thus leaving his own family destitute.

Eager to change their circumstances, Miryem takes over inuring herself to pleas for clemency in lieu of actual payments. As the family business finally begins to thrive, Miryem builds a reputation for herself borrowing silver from her grandfather and bringing back gold in return.

When an idle boast attracts the attention of the Staryk–wintry folk known for their cold hearts and brutal magic–Miryem finds herself in the center of a world where striking the right bargain could mean unimaginable wealth and the wrong one could leave her lost forever.

With high stakes and high magic everywhere, Miryem will have to rely on her wits and her nerve when payment for her bargains come due and she has to prove to the Staryk that she is as formidable as the growing rumors about her would claim in Spinning Silver (2018) by Naomi Novik.

Find it on Bookshop.

This standalone fantasy is a loose retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale set in a well-realized world steeped in Jewish culture and tradition. Miryem is a shrewd and capable heroine. She is well aware of the dangers the world for a young woman of means–especially a Jewish one who lends money.

What Miryem fails to realize is that those dangers extend beyond her far town and deep into the strange, cold lands of the Staryk. As Miryem learns more about the Staryk she begins to realize that greater forces are at play in both her own world and the Staryk’s–forces that may need more than her considerable smarts to conquer.

Intertwining stories and multiple points of view extend the world and explore multiple facets of both feminism and womanhood in a world that is quick to dismiss both. Nuanced and complex characterization slowly explore the varied motivations and goals of all of the characters as they work to exert influence over their spheres and fully capitalize on their own agency.

Spinning Silver is a familiar tale masterfully reimagined; a singular retelling that is as crisp and exhilirating as the first chill of winter. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, The Forest Queen by Betsy Cornwell, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Prospero Lost by L. Jagi Lamplighter, Gilded by Marissa Meyer, Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Hunted by Meagan Spooner

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*

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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, Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Ever Cursed by Corey Ann Haydu, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson

Stain: A Review

In the wake of a war that literally separated night from day, Lyra is born once upon a nightmare in the kingdom of Eldoria where it is perpetually day filled with beauty, warmth, and light. Night still reigns in Nerezeth, an underground kingdom filled with darkness, cold, and creatures drawn to both.

Painfully pale and too sensitive to light to ever step outside, Lyra is able to soothe or entrance with her voice although she is unable to form words. When her aunt, who is as ruthless as she is ambitious, moves to steal the throne a witch saves Lyra and secretly raises her disguised as a boy called Stain.

To save her kingdom and the prince of night, Lyra will have to reclaim her identity and make herself known without her voice in Stain (2019) by A. G. Howard.

Find it on Bookshop.

In this standalone version of “The Princess and the Pea” instead of being too delicate to sleep on a pea under a tower of mattresses, Lyra must prove herself equal to the violence and brutality that the prince of night routinely faces.

Within the framework of “The Princess and the Pea” Howard adds myriad fairy tale elements including the aforementioned wicked aunt, evil cousins (Lustacia, Wrathalyne, and Avaricette), a stolen voice and impersonation plot reminiscent of “The Little Mermaid,” and more making for a unique if crowded cast of characters and a sometimes convoluted plot. Vivid writing and vibrant descriptions bring Lyra’s world, particularly Nerezeth, to life in all of its monstrous glory.

Stain is a sensuous retelling set in a distinctly gothic world perfect for fans of the author and readers seeking darker retellings.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Poisoned by Jennifer Donnelly, A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, Gilded by Marissa Meyer, Stealing Snow by Danielle Paige, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, Beyond the Black Door by A. M. Strickland, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West

*A more condensed version of this review was published in the Winter 2018 issue of School Library Journal*