The Ballad of Never After: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Ballad of Never After by Stephanie GarberSince coming to the Magnificent North, Evangeline Fox has married a prince and become part of a prophecy to open the infamous Valory Arch and the dangers–or wonders–it holds. All thanks to Jacks, the Prince of Hearts, and his machinations to manipulate said prophecy in his favor ensuring that Jacks and Jacks alone will receive the supposed boon the arch holds.

Evangeline has learned her lesson, repeatedly, about what happens when she trusts Jacks. But with no resources and few allies, Evangeline realizes that working with Jacks might be the fastest way to get her own story back on track. As the two search for the magic stones to open the arch, Evangeline can feel herself becoming part of the stories that are told throughout the North–history still being formed. But everyone knows stories in the North are cursed, the true endings–happy or tragic–impossible to know.

Finding the stones brings Evangeline closer to her hopefully happy ending while hinting at Jacks’ mysterious history in the North before he became a magical and ruthless Fate. But nothing with Jacks is ever as it seems and Evangeline knows she’ll have to keep her wits about her to stay one step ahead of Jacks. Even if her heart has other plans.

Happy endings can be caught, but they’re not easy to hold; they need to be constantly chased or they will get away. The closer Evangeline gets to opening the Valory Arch, the farther away her own happy ending seems in The Ballad of Never After (2022) by Stephanie Garber.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Ballad of Never After is the second book in Garber’s series which begins with Once Upon a Broken Heart. Set in the same world as Garber’s Caraval trilogy, this series can be read on its own but does include minor spoilers for the Caraval trilogy. Evangeline and Jacks are white, there is diversity among other characters.

While Evangeline’s unfailing optimism remains intact in this second installment, she is much more aware of her limitations–and vulnerabilities–while navigating tricky bargains with those keen to use her for their own ends. Whether that optimism will be her greatest strength or her greatest weakness remains to be seen for much of the story.

After coming to the Magnificent North filled with wonder and a desire to connect to her own past, Evangeline spends more time exploring her new surroundings and trying to understand her place in them. Garber seamlessly expands the world as readers and Evangeline are introduced to more of the Magnificent North and its history including tantalizing hints about the truth behind Evangeline’s favorite northern fairytale The Ballad of the Archer and the Fox as well as the strange history of the North’s lost royal family, the Valors. In a story that plays with the concept of lost history (thanks to the Magnificent North’s story curse) and a new history being formed, the urgency is obvious even with a more character-driven plot.

Frothy descriptions, chaotic adventure, and surprisingly poignant moments of introspection come together to make The Ballad of Never After a delightful story about both literal magic and the magic of belief–in oneself and otherwise.

The Ballad of Never After is a dramatic story where nothing is as it seems and sometimes even an ending can be a new beginning. An excellent addition to a highly recommended series.

Possible Pairings: Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles, The Selection by Kiera Cass, A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, Ace of Shades by Amanda Foody, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Havenfall by Sara Holland, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

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

Dreams Lie Beneath: A Review

Dreams Lie Beneath by Rebecca RossAt every new moon, the realm of Azenor is overrun by tangible nightmares that stalk the streets wreaking havoc in their wake.

In this world where your worst dreams can, and do, come to life magicians are uniquely positioned to protect innocent dreamers from these monsters of their own making.

Clementine Madigan has grown up watching her father work as a warden and, more recently, assisting him to catalog and destroy the dream creatures that hunt each new moon. Clem’s hopes of inheriting her father’s title are dashed when two upstart magicians–brothers Lennox and Phelan Vesper–challenge him for his title. And win.

Enraged by the loss of everything she’s ever known, Clem is determined to get her revenge–even if it comes at a great personal cost.

But the harder Clem works to expose the Vespers’ misdeeds, the closer she grows to Phelan and the dangerous secrets that bind their families to each other and to the curse that has plagued Azenor for centuries in Dreams Lie Beneath (2021) by Rebecca Ross.

Find it on Bookshop.

Dreams Lie Beneath is a standalone fantasy narrated by Clem. Main characters are white with some diversity among the supporting cast.

Dreams Lie Beneath starts strong with a promising magic system and a heroine who if not entirely sympathetic is singular in pursuit of her goals. Unfortunately these pieces fail to gel into a cohesive story before a plot twist midway shifts the entire story into new territory. This plot change essentially renders everything that came before moot as both the stakes and the rewards for Clem and other main characters abruptly change. Clem’s behavior changes almost as abruptly as the plot with jumps to conclusions and shifting loyalties that have little support within the framework of the novel.

Paper thin motivations and fantasy elements that don’t move far beyond aesthetic value start as promising pieces but, again, never result in a fully realized and well-developed story.

Dreams Lie Beneath is a fun and fast-paced story with a lot of style. Readers looking for more complexity to characters and world building would be better served elsewhere.

Possible Pairings: Blood and Moonlight by Erin Beaty, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Caraval by Stephanie Garber Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Belladonna: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Do not change the parts of yourself that you like to make others comfortable. Do not try to mold yourself to fit the standards someone else has set for us.”

Belladonna by Adalyn GraceSigna Farrow has spent her entire life moving from house to house as each of her numerous guardians meets an untimely end. With caretakers increasingly more interested in her wealth than her happiness, Signa’s loneliness is palpable. She craves the day she will come into her inheritance and can set up her own household filled with laughter and company–never solitude and especially not Death. The one constant in Signa’s life aside from her precarious living arrangements has been the ability to see and, regrettably, interact with Death himself–a shadowy figure of a man who is as mystified by their connection as Signa.

At the age of nineteen, there is only one year left until Signa enters society. One she needs to use well if she hopes to banish the dismal reputation her numerous deceased guardians have built for her. After years of begging–and even demanding–that Death leave her alone, Signa is more suspicious than grateful when he promises to improve her current situation. Nonetheless, she is cautiously excited to find she has some living relatives in the Hawthorne family.

Thorn Grove is a stately manor with far more luxury than Signa is used to, but it is also a house in crisis with patriarch Elijah Hawthorne lost in grief and intent on running the family business–and reputation–into the ground while eldest son Percy watches helplessly. With mourning not yet over for Elijah’s beloved wife, it seems his daughter Blythe is suffering from the same mysterious illness. With no obvious cure and her condition worsening, Death warns that it won’t be much longer before he has to claim the ailing girl as one of his own.

Experiencing stability and family for the first time is a heady mixture for Signa, reminding her of how much Thorn Grove still has to lose. Signa knows that society would frown upon a young woman experimenting with folk remedies and digging into the Hawthorne’s secrets. But she also knows that she will do anything to keep Blythe and Thorn Grove safe–even if it means risking her reputation by working with Death to search for answers in Belladonna (2022) by Adalyn Grace.

Find it on Bookshop.

Belladonna is the first book in a projected duology that will continue with Foxglove. Signa and most main characters are cued as white with more varied skin tones among the supporting cast including one of Signa’s childhood friends, Charlotte, who is described as having brown skin.

Belladonna is a gothic mystery with just the right amount of magic in the form of death personified and Signa’s own strange powers that allow her not just to speak with Death but take on some of his abilities including a resistance to poison. Sumptuous descriptions of Signa’s new surroundings set the mood as Signa familiarizes herself with Thorn Grove and its occupants while highlighting the privation of her previous homes.

Armed with nothing but an old etiquette book and her wits, Signa thinks she is prepared for what society will expect of her as a young woman. But the longer she spends at Thorn Grove and the more she embraces her own powers, the clearer it is that the societal standards Signa has clung to are skewed against her and may not be worth striving for after all. Signa’s inheritance adds another layer to this conversation as she begins to understand her privilege and realizes other women are not so fortunate when it comes to future marriages and life choices.

Haunted by spirits all her life, Signa’s innate need to investigate the happenings at Thorn Grove only increases as she is haunted by–and begins to communicate with–the ghosts of the stately manor. This novel is filled with a well-rounded cast of both the living and dead who add dimension to this rich story as the complexities of relationships among the Hawthorne family and its staff begin to unfold. At the center of this is Signa’s complicated dynamic with Death who starts the story as her greatest frustration only to become a foil, a confidante, and perhaps much more. The tension between these two characters moves the story along as much as the mystery with its own twists and surprises.

Belladonna is a thoughtful story where Signa spends as much time investigating her own wants and needs as a young woman entering society as she does trying to uncover Thorn Grove’s secrets. Belladonna capitalizes on a well-developed magic system and atmospheric prose to deliver both a satisfying mystery and romance.

Possible Pairings: Blood and Moonlight by Erin Beaty, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Once Upon a Broken Heart by Stephanie Garber, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Ferryman by Claire McFall, A Forgery of Roses by Jessica S. Olson, Gallant by V. E. Schwab

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

Vespertine: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Sometimes, if you want to save other people, you need to remember to save yourself first.”

Vespertine by Margaret RogersonThe dead of Loraille do not rest. Luckily, the dead do not bother Artemesia. Very little does in the convent where she trains to become a Gray Sister. Positions of more prestige wait in the city for those with a knack for manipulating the demonic spirits bound to Loraille’s holy relics but Artemesia has never craved status. She has the scarred hands to prove that she has had more than enough of demons after the dark years of her childhood. Instead Artemesia is content to tending to the dead so that their spirits will not return to torment the living.

Artemesia’s quiet life is changed forever when an army of the dead invade, forcing her to bind herself to a demonic spirit to protect the convent from attack.

Now Artemesia’s very self is tied to a revenant–a malevolent spirit bound to a high relic no one left alive knows how to control. If Artemesia can harness the revenant’s power like the vespertine saints of old it could help her turn the tides of an incursion threatening all of Loraille. If she fails, the revenant will possess Artemesia and add to the chaos pushing into the country from all sides.

Isolated and trapped within its relic for centuries on end, the revenant is willing to work with Artemesia if it means a chance to move freely. But bonding with the revenant means challenging everything Artemesia has ever learned about the demons, their relics, and the legendary saints who first bound them. With dangerous dark magic creeping ever closer, one surly nun and a petulant demon will be the only things standing between Loraille and utter ruin in Vespertine (2021) by Margaret Rogerson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Vespertine is the first book in a projected duology. Artemesia is white; other characters she meets throughout Loraille are described with a variety of skin tones. Fans of audiobooks will appreciate the excellent audio production narrated by Caitlin Davies.

High action and drama contrast well with the mystery surrounding both Artemesia and the revenant’s pasts particularly as Artemesia unpacks her trauma from a childhood demonic possession and the long-lasting impact it has had on her life since.

Rogerson explores feminism through a long history of female warriors and authority figures in Loraille as well as themes of community as Artemisia learns to trust her own power–and newfound celebrity–when Loraille embraces her as a saintly warrior. Artemisia’s role in her convent and her complex relationship with the revenant also work to present and expand themes of equality while Artemisia interrogates her country’s history of harnessing demons bound to holy relics. Humor and friendship add levity to this story as Artemisia learns the necessity of self-care with reluctant help from both the revenant and fellow novitiate Marguerite.

Vespertine is a richly developed fantasy infused with action and mystery as Artemesia slowly begins to find a place for herself with the revenant, in her newfound support system, and in Loraille itself.

Possible Pairings: Lore by Alexandra Bracken, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, The Young Elites by Marie Lu, Kingdom of the Wicked by Kerri Maniscalo, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Little Thieves by Margaret Owen, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, Ink in the Blood by Kim Smejkal, Sherwood by Meagan Spooner, The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Small Favors: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Small Favors by Erin A. CraigAmity Falls is isolated. Bordered on one side by the Blackspire Mountain range and dense forest on the other, visitors are rare but dangers from the encroaching forest are not. The earliest townsfolk fought to claim the land from literal monsters–the kind that are still, to this day, whispered about after dark. Everyone knows that safety comes from simple things like following the rules of the community and avoiding the forest except for annual supply runs.

Until the last supply run fails.

With no survivors and no provisions, everyone in Amity Falls is facing a long winter.

Even with this coming scarcity, Ellerie Downing’s life remains safe and predictable. Perhaps too predictable as she chafes under the restrictions placed on her as a girl while her feckless brother is expected to take on responsibilities he seems incapable of managing for both the family and the bees that are their livelihood.

As the seasons change, strange things come to the town. Animals born with horrific defects. Inexplicable occurrences in the fields. Visitors claiming to be trappers including a handsome stranger Ellerie can tell is keeping at least one secret.

When the winter proves harder than usual, monstrous creatures come out of the shadows offering to grant wishes–to provide help–so long as they receive small favors in return. The requests seem harmless at first. Until it becomes clear that denying them will have dire consequences in Small Favors (2021) by Erin A. Craig.

Find it on Bookshop.

Small Favors combines supernatural and horror elements in this page turner narrated by Ellerie. Most principle characters are assumed white. The growing tensions among the insulated community of Amity Falls contrast well with the bees kept by Ellerie’s family with beekeeping playing a major role in the story.

Within the confines of Amity Falls, Ellerie is frustrated by the expectations she faces as a young woman to be passive and docile while her twin brother is largely able to do as he likes–often with unfavorable results for Ellerie and the rest of her family and minimal repercussions for himself.  As the story progresses and Ellerie sees more and more cracks in the tenets of the community, she begins to push back against the strict confines of her role in Amity Falls while also discovering her own agency leading to a well-managed treatment of feminist themes and provocative commentary on the importance  to balance individual needs with the greater good.

Craig expertly builds suspense and a growing sense of urgency as Faustian bargains slowly erode everything Ellerie has taken for granted about her home and her family. Small Favors combines the eerie seclusion of The Village, the escalating ferocity of Needful Things, and a unique magic system to create a distinctly unsettling atmosphere where nothing is as it seems. Small Favors is a quiet blend of horror and fantasy sure to keep you up all night reading.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Five Midnights by Ana Davila Cardinal, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, Ferryman by Claire McFall, Red Wolf by Rachel Vincent, Needful Things, The Village

Siren Queen: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Siren Queen by Nghi VoShe falls in love with the movies first. Wanting to be a star comes later.

Even though it’s hard to see herself–a Chinese American girl from Hungarian Hill–in any of the pre-code films that immediately captivate her, it’s easy to picture herself on the big screen one day. The impossible part is imagining any other life for herself.

So she makes her way through productions as an extra alongside the changelings with more experience and less to lose. She courts attention from the studios gambling that she’ll one day have a place of her own in the skies above Hollywood. She learns how to bargain for her own chance at success without anyone trying to ride her coattails. She starts to speak for herself before any man decides to put words in her mouth.

She steals her own sister’s name and remakes herself into Luli Wei.

But getting in with the studio–choosing a new name–is only part of the journey. There’s also the training. Navigating the fires. Hiding the realest parts of yourself so the studio can make you whoever it needs you to be.

For a Chinese American girl like Luli, there’s also avoiding all the easy shortcuts the studio wants her to take. To be a maid. To talk funny. To play a fainting flower. To do any of the obvious things Luli refuses to attach to her new name.

The studios all run on ancient magic–blood bargains that would just as soon chew Luli up as bring her to the top. She has always known the risks. Every hopeful starlet does. They all think they’ll be the one to beat the odds.

Luli does too. She also knows something the other starlets don’t. She knows that bargaining with monsters sometimes makes you into one. That’s a chance she’s willing to take if it means getting everything she’s ever wanted in Siren Queen (2022) by Nghi Vo.

Find it on Bookshop.

Siren Queen gives Hollywood’s golden age the fantasy treatment, reinventing the studio system that dominated Hollywood film production into the 1950s as a dangerous playing field populated by fairies, spirits, and dangerous bargains.

This deceptively straightforward story about chasing fame also offers a thoughtful commentary on navigating identity in the public and private spheres as Luli falls in love (and lust) for the first time and begins to learn that being a queer woman in the 1940s will have consequences for her career and her ambitions. This theme is followed to different conclusions with the main plot, with Luli’s first love interest (another actress who spends most of her career passing), and through the character arc of one of Luli’s first friends and mentors–an actor who has unmistakable allusions to Cary Grant. The siren films–which become defining aspects of Luli’s career–also offer nods to the now cult classic films from producers like Val Lewton and special effects forerunners like Ray Harryhausen.

Vo plays well with structure giving Luli’s story the three acts common to most movies and also playing with the narrative voice (second person for most of the story) leading to tantalizing questions of what will come next for Luli.

Siren Queen is a love letter to old Hollywood and an allegory on the rewards and possible perils of choosing your own path. Luli Wei’s quest for fame and immortality is one readers won’t soon forget.

Possible Pairings: A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott, I Kissed a Girl by Jennet Alexander, City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Show Girl by Nicola Harrison, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Only the Dead Know Burbank by Bradford Tatum, Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner, The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

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

The Bone Orchard: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

I won’t be ashamed of remaking myself. And I won’t turn my back on myself.

The Bone Orchard by Sara A. MuellerCharm is a survivor. After the fall of Inshil, Charm is brought to Borenguard. She is confined to a life running Orchard House, a brothel and gambling den, and tending the adjacent bone trees–the last trace of her necromantic skills. Again and again she has used the trees to regrow her bone ghosts, her children really, Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride, and Pain.

Each ghost has her own role to play, her own part, to keep Orchard House together. Charm oversees it all, madam and mistress both, as everyone from Borenguard’s elite to the Fire Drinkers–the empire’s psychically gifted police force–frequents Orchard House and buys time with the ghosts.

Except on Tuesdays. When the house is closed for all but the Emperor who comes for Charm herself.

Until one Tuesday when everything changes. Instead of coming to the house, Charm is summoned to the palace where the Emperor lay dying with one last charge for his mistress.  The Emperor knows one of his cruel sons is responsible for his murder. If Charm can determine which one, and thereby also choose which son is best fit to rule, Charm will finally be free.

But serving the emperor with this one last task will put everything–and each of the ghosts–Charm has built at risk. With her own fate and the fate of her bone ghosts uncertain, Charm will have to decide if she can serve the Emperor’s last wishes while also finally serving her own interests in The Bone Orchard (2022) by Sara A. Mueller

Find it on Bookshop.

Please be aware of the content warnings for this book which includes instances of domestic abuse, rape, incest, torture, pedophilia, and other acts of violence.

Mueller’s standalone fantasy is a nuanced and richly plotted story set in a world populated by people with varied skin tones and sexual orientations including one central character who is cued as nonbinary/genderqueer. The bone ghosts are described as “colorless” and lacking in pigmentation. Shifting viewpoints move between Charm and several of the bone ghosts as the story slowly spins out and gains momentum.

The setting of Orchard House acts as a key character itself giving space to unpack the unequal power dynamics at play between many of the characters because of gender and glass–and between Charm and each of the bone ghosts who carry their own burdens and traumas. The house also highlights the ways in which history is written (or rewritten) by the victors as more of its provenance is revealed.

Be warned, this story is often gruesome and unsavory as Mueller throws open the closed doors of the brothel and also explores exactly why each of the Emperor’s sons are so deeply damaged and awful. Nonetheless, The Bone Orchard is a satisfying mystery and meditative political fantasy that begs to be savored. As the many layers of both Charm and Borenguard’s pasts are peeled back the novel builds to a complex denouement where Charm–and others–transcend the restrictions placed upon them as they learn to embrace and respect what they have done in order to survive.

Through shifting lenses and an intricate plot including mystery, political machinations, and more The Bone Orchard explores what it means to inhabit the world alternately as a captive, a potential victim, and as a survivor; grim but ultimately empowering.

Possible Pairings: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, An Illusion of Thieves by Cate Glass, Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, All the Murmuring Bones by Angela Slatter, Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

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

Our Crooked Hearts: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“So. Magic. It is the loneliest thing in the world.”

Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa AlbertIn the suburbs, right now Ivy is ready for summer–even one that starts with a breakup (hers) and a broken nose (not hers). Ivy feels like strange things always happen around her, like she’s always waiting. But she’s never sure what for. She’s even less sure when strange things start happening around her house. First there’s the dead rabbit on the driveway. There’s the open door she knows she locked. Then there are the cookies, each with one perfect bite taken out while she’s home alone.

In another life, Ivy might talk to her mom Dana about what’s happening. But it’s been a long time since Ivy and her mom have been able to discuss anything. It’s been a long time since her mom has even looked at her, since she’s been anything close to present for the family.

Back then, in the city Dana is waiting for things to start. She’s always been perceptive, some might call it uncanny. She had to be to survive her childhood. Back then, the summer she turns sixteen, Dana realizes she might be able to be more than uncanny. With help from her best friend Fee and a striving newcomer, they could all be magic.

In another life, Dana might have seen the risks and understood the costs before it was too late. She doesn’t.

Instead Dana’s choices here in the city will have lasting consequences leaving a mark on her and on Fee and, most of all, on Ivy who will be left alone to unravel her mother’s secrets and the havoc left in their wake in Our Crooked Hearts (2022) by Melissa Albert.

Find it on Bookshop.

Our Crooked Hearts is a stark urban fantasy where magic doesn’t come without a cost. Ivy and Dana are white, Dana’s best friend Fee is Latinx. The story alternates between Ivy’s narration (in the suburbs, right now) and Dana’s narration (in the city, back then) in Chicago and its suburbs.

Although the plot highlights their fractious relationship, Ivy and Dana follow similar character arcs in spite of their different trajectories. Both girls are brittle and filled with an abrasive vulnerability as they struggle to understand their place in a world that never feels like it fits–a theme that gains potency as more of their backstories are revealed. This dual storyline is used to great effect with each plot moving toward its inevitable and potentially painful conclusion.

It’s impossible to read any book now without considering the mental landscape where it germinated, particularly in the context of the global pandemic. Both Ivy and Dana struggle with isolation as they flirt with power in a literal (magical) sense and in relation to their own agency as teenage girls. These struggles can easily be writ large and applied to so many of the changes we have all had to make because of the pandemic. One quote in particular, “I could still observe the shock of it, the impossibility, but I’d run out of the energy to feel them.” encapsulates living and working through the pandemic so clearly–especially the burnout and stress and increasingly bleak current events.

Both narratives are imbued with a noir sensibility and a keen eye for detail that lead to observations like “It was one of those raw, unjust spring afternoons when the air is so bright and clean it focuses the whole world like a lens, but it’s cold still and you’re shivering.” Albert blends fantasy and horror elements into a tense story that feels like it could happen anywhere, to anyone, while also possessing a strong sense of immediacy that makes it impossible to turn away.

Our Crooked Hearts is a magic-filled, intergenerational story with all of the edges sharpened into razors; a dangerous fantasy with an eerie stepped-out-of-time otherness.

Possible Pairings: Book of Night by Holly Black, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Mayhem by Estelle Laure, Extasia by Claire Legrand, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Never-Contented Things by Sarah Porter, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma, House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Melissa.

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

Last Things: A Review

Last Things by Jacqueline WestEveryone in town has heard of Anders Thorson and his band, Last Things. The metal group has made a place for themselves on the local scene and as their–especially Anders’–reputation grows there’s no reason to doubt that the band is going to be big way beyond the town and even beyond Minnesota. With comparisons to Opeth and talent scouts circling, it’s clear that Anders is prodigiously talented.

But Anders isn’t sure if he wants to pay the price for all that fame. Especially when everyone is increasingly interested in Anders and only Anders. The band started as a project between friends. Leaving them behind isn’t an option. Is it?

Thea Malcom has been keeping an eye on Anders for a while now. They haven’t spoken, he may not even know her, but Thea is there at the back of every show. She’s always watching. She says she’s trying to protect Anders. But is she really? Or could she be the reason both his cat and his sort-of girlfriend have disappeared?

Things are changing. Anders will have to decide if he wants to let them and if he can trust Thea and her promises to keep him safe in Last Things (2019) by Jacqueline West.

Find it on Bookshop.

Last Things is a suspenseful and atmospheric story with all characters assumed white. Vivid descriptions of the woods surround town and Anders’ musical endeavors pull readers into this page-turner. Chapters alternate between Anders and Thea which works well to increase the tension in the plot as it becomes clear that Thea (and readers) know more about the strange occurrences at work around Anders than the guitar prodigy himself.

Thea’s mysterious past and Anders’ own reluctance to remember exactly what he promised away to get to this point raise further questions that move the narrative along to its dramatic finish. With Faustian bargains and palpable menace Last Things is an ideal choice for both fantasy and horror/suspense.

Possible Pairings: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

A Mirror Mended: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Mirror Mended by Alix E. HarrowFive years ago Zinnia Gray dodged her unhappy ending when she stepped out of her own version of Sleeping Beauty and found a way to save a different dying girl. Now Aurora and Zinnia’s former best friend Charm are living their happily ever after. Not that Zinnia has seen much of it.

When one strategic spindle prick is all it takes to run away from her problems, Zinnia sees no reason to stick around. Not when her GRM (Generalized Roseville Malady) is still waiting to break her down if she stops hopping across fairy tales long enough to see any of her doctors.

Forty-nine happily ever afters later, Zinnia has the process down pat, complete with stepping out before the annoying happily ever after parties get too saccharine. When Zinnia tries to leave her latest princess to enjoy her latest HEA, Zinnia’s formulaic story-hopping goes very off script.

Instead of jumping into another version of Sleeping Beauty, Zinnia is pulled into a very different tale. And this time it isn’t a princess who needs saving.

An evil queen is asking for help, specifically Snow White’s Evil Queen. Zinnia is quick to agree that the queen is very, very trapped (and very, very hot) but Zinnia isn’t sure that means she should help her when, you know, she’s evil and all.

Every queen was once a princess. But as Zinnia and this queen land in a Grimm-dark horror version of Snow White, does that mean every queen–even an evil one–also deserves a happy ending? in A Mirror Mended (2022) by Alix E. Harrow.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Mirror Mended is Zinnia’s second jaunt through the fairytale multiverse introduced in A Spindle Splintered where she traveled through myriad versions of Sleeping Beauty. While Zinnia and the principle cast are white, this installment does feature characters of color in key roles. This expansion of the cast also gives the narrative space to explore the dangers of white savior narratives common to fairytales (especially when Zinnia is decidedly not needed) alongside commentary on the reciprocity of heroism and whether survival has to be a solitary pursuit. This series also features characters across the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

Zinnia is used to helping all kinds of princesses but even she is unsure how to handle the rescue of a canonical villain–especially one prepared to threaten captivity and bodily harm if Zinnia refuses. As Zinnia learns more about the Evil Queen and her own complicated relationship with her story, Harrow explores themes of agency and empowerment while also highlighting how the framing of a story can entirely change who becomes the protagonist (and the hero).

A Mirror Mended is a fast-paced fairytale adventure filled with Zinnia’s whip-smart observations, snarky banter, and lots of chemistry between Zinnia and the Evil Queen. A must read for fans of the series and a great entry point for anyone with a fondness for fractured (and mended) fairytales.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell, Ash by Malinda Lo, Gilded by Marissa Meyer, The Shadow Queen by C. J. Redwine, Nameless by Lili St. Crow, Into the Spider-Verse

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Alix.

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