Realm of Ruins: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Please let me be powerful.”

cover art for Realm of Ruins by Hannah WestTrouble follows Valory Braiosa wherever she goes.

Raised in Calgoran during the Age of the Accords, Valory is surrounded by elicrin magic and elicromancers. As a descendant of the legendary Queen Bristal and King Anthony, everyone assumes Valory will become a powerful elicromancer herself. But now she is almost at the end of her time at the Academy with no signs of power manifesting. With her chances of receiving an elicrin stone from the Water dwindling, Valory is forced to consider her greatest fear: a life without magic or power.

Touching the Water is no guarantee of receiving an elicrin stone. Even with careful vetting from the Academy candidates may still be deemed unworthy and drowned in the Water, their bodies lost forever. Valory’s attempt to save her cousin from such a fate proves disastrous. In the aftermath her cousin is dead, the Water is gone, and Valory now has dangerous power no one understands and which Valory can’t control.

Branded a murderer and a rogue, Valory is forced to travel far from home to try and clear her name. Across Nissera it’s apparent that a dark presence is rising and Valory might be the only one powerful enough to stop it. As danger mounts and loyalties are tested, Valory will have to embrace her power to face this danger. But all power comes at a price and this time the cost may be steeper than Valory can pay in Realm of Ruins (2018) by Hannah West.

Real of Ruins is the second book in West’s Nissera Chronicles which begins with the companion novel Kingdom of Ash and Briars.

Realm of Ruins is set one hundred years after the events of West’s debut novel Kingdom of Ash and Briars and follows a new generation of characters. An elaborate family tree at the start of the book and sly asides throughout offer nods to events of the first book although this novel can easily be read as a standalone. (A companion short story, Fields of Fire, can also be read for free online.)

Valory is as pragmatic as she is reckless. Although the implications of her new power are obvious she is still quick to jump to conclusions and easily falls prey to the manipulations of others while she tries to understand her dramatically changed circumstances.

Her efforts to clear her name are soon sidelined as she learns about the emergence of a dangerous new threat known as the Moth King or the Lord of the Elicromancers. Drawn into a hunt to stop this new enemy Valory plays a part in side plots that draw heavily from elements of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. West manages a convoluted and sometimes bloated plot admirably bringing diverging threads together to explore larger themes of power, collective memory, and the dangers of both if left unchecked.

While Valory is initially a slave to circumstance, forced repeatedly into reactive positions as her situation shifts from bad to worse, Realm of Ruins is largely about agency and choice. It is only when Valory chooses to embrace her power–and the difficult decisions she must make about how to wield it–that she is able to regain control of her fate and try to claim what she sees as her rightful power in the realm.

Realm of Ruins is an intricate and original fantasy. West blends her unique magic system with a vivid world and fairy tale elements to create a story that is entirely fascinating. Recommended for fans of fairy tales, high fantasy, and bloody revolution.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Frostblood by Elly Blake, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Furyborn by Claire Legrand

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

Ash Princess: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Ash Princess by Laura SebastianTen years ago invaders killed Theodosia’s mother, the Fire Queen of Astrea, enslaved her people, and stole her name.

Over many long years, Theo has learned how to play the game. Don’t anger the Kaiser and stay alive. She plays along with his manipulations, silently accepts his punishments, and hides behind the persona of Thora–the meek girl the Kaiser thinks she has become.

But when Theo is forced to do the unthinkable she reaches a breaking point.

Survival is no longer enough. After years of hiding, it’s time for Theo to fight and reclaim everything that has been stolen in Ash Princess (2018) by Laura Sebastian.

Ash Princess is Sebastian’s debut novel and the start of a trilogy.

Sebastian’s richly described world, complex elemental magic, and fraught politics add new twists to this familiar story. Unfortunately one element that remains the same is that the enslaved Astreans are “tawny skinned” and dark haired while the invading Kalovoxians are pale and blonde–a common trope that is played out and could do with more unpacking in this and other similar titles.

Theo is a survivor who has learned how to hide in plain sight. Because of her small world and her captivity her first person narration often feels claustrophobic as she struggles to plot her way out of the Kaiser’s clutches.

Ash Princess’s promising in contrived plot is marred by an erratic timeline that brings Theo’s interactions with the Kaiser’s son Prinz Søren from calculated seduction as part of an assassination attempt to actual love in the blink of an eye. Theo’s shift from trying to keep herself alive while waiting for a rescue that never comes shifts equally fast to Theo placing herself in the center of a rebellion plot as a spy.

Theo’s perilous situation and the high stakes of the story are not enough to distract from a second half that drags while characters dither over who to trust, who to love, and (perhaps most relevantly) who to kill. While Theo is an interesting and strong heroine, she is not always sympathetic with unclear motivations for her numerous poor decisions throughout the book.

Ash Princess is an entertaining, plot-driven fantasy. Recommended for readers who like their fantasy angsty and their characters morally ambiguous at best.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, Everless by Sara Holland, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Amber & Dusk by Lyra Selene

Amber & Dusk: A Review

cover art for Amber & Dusk by Lyra SeleneSylvie has always known that she was destined for greater things. She is certain that her life as an orphan with the Sisters of Scion is only a small blip on her path to greatness. When she comes into her legacy–a magical talent that is believe to only belong to the upper class–Sylvie knows it’s a sign.

Sneaking onto a caravan Sylvie makes her way from the very edges of the Dusklands when the darkness of the Dominion constantly looms into the Amber City’s palais Coeur d’Or at the heart of the Amber Empire. In this city where the sun never sets, Sylvie assumes that her magic to create illusions will be enough to earn her a place in the Empress’ court.

Instead Sylvie finds herself the center of a wager, the butt of a cruel joke, among the palais courtiers. Sponsored by an enigmatic noble called Sunder Sylvie must learn to control her legacy as she navigates the dangerous games within the palais. Under her new name, Mirage, she will have to fight to earn her place at the palais while deciding how much she is willing to lose in Amber & Dusk (2018) by Lyra Selene.

Amber & Dusk is Selene’s debut novel.

Luxuriant descriptions underscore the complex world Selene has created where the sun never leaves the sky and the moon never rises. Complex magic and class systems add layers to this story, particularly once Sylvie arrives at a court reminiscent of Versailles.

Sylvie is unapologetic about her ambitions and shrewdly pursues her imagined destiny despite numerous obstacles and warnings from other characters that the palais is not the paradise she might imagine. Reckless and sometimes ruthless, Sylvie throws herself into her new life as Mirage without fully considering the risks or consequences of her choices.

While Sylvie/Mirage is a compelling if sometimes frustrating heroine, the rest of the cast is often one-dimensional by comparison. Mirage’s sponsor Sunder–so named for his legacy’s ability to cause pain–is as mysterious as he is problematic.

Amber & Dusk is a seductive fantasy filled with magic and machinations in equal measure complete with an ending that will leave fans clamoring for a sequel.

Possible Pairings: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, Stain by A. G. Howard, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian, And I Darken by Kiersten White

The Forbidden Wish: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“If you’re not free to love, you’re not free at all.”

cover art for The Forbidden Wish by Jessica KhouryZahra is one of the last shaitan, the most powerful of the jinn able to command all of the elements. Her power as a conjurer is unparalleled. But even that isn’t enough to save the queen who dared to befriend her. Instead her city is destroyed leaving Zahra trapped inside her lamp among the ruins she helped create.

Five hundred years pass until Aladdin finds her lamp and brings Zahra into a world where magic is forbidden and jinn are feared above all else.

When the King of the Jinn offers Zahra a chance to win freedom from her lamp, she draws Aladdin into a dangerous web of court politics and brewing rebellion to try and accomplish her task.

As Zahra comes closer to winning her freedom, she realizes that she has also grown closer to Aladdin. A human and a jinni can have no future together—not when their love is forbidden—but still Zahra cannot change her heart. In a world where every wish has a price, Zahra will have to decide if her freedom is worth the steep cost of her heart in The Forbidden Wish (2018) by Jessica Khoury.

The Forbidden Wish is a thoughtful and inventive retelling of a story you may think you already know inside and out.

Zahra’s narration is powerful and enthralling as she struggles to reconcile her position as a jinn with her own wants and desires. She holds no illusions about Aladdin. She has seen a thousand and one masters in her time and she expects Aladdin to be no better. But instead of a master and his jinni, Zahra is surprised to realize that Aladdin treats her as an equal–a shocking dynamic that plays out against a backdrop of political unrest and brewing rebellion as both Zahra and Aladdin are drawn into a princess’s fight to claim her throne.

When their dangerous friendship becomes something even stronger, Zahra has to confront the painful reality that her freedom might come at the cost of losing Aladdin forever. Zahra’s narrative is imbued with powerful feminist themes as she begins to understand that she has everything she needs to save herself without any bargains or rescue.

The Forbidden Wish is a lush and vibrant story that is as romantic as it is empowering. A must-read for fans of fairy tale retellings and nuance fantasy. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Bound by Blood and Sand by Becky Allen, Becoming Jinn by Lori Goldstein, Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton, Ella, Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Rule: A Review

cover art for Rule by Ellen GoodlettWith the king dying, his heir murdered, and rebellion brewing in the east it might be only a matter of time before the kingdom of Kolonya and the outer Reaches descends into chaos.

Desperate for an heir, the king finds three unlikely options:

Zofi has lived her entire life with a band of Travelers in the Reaches. Her loyalty to her family is boundless. But only Zofi knows how far she has already gone to protect those she holds dear.

In the Eastern Reach Akeylah is desperate to get away from her abusive father. She’s even willing to perform dangerous and forbidden magic–completing a spell that will have far-reaching consequences for the entire kingdom.

Ren has grown up in Kolonya in the heart of the kingdom. Working as a lady’s maid she is biding her time until she can climb the social ladder out of the servants’ quarters forever. Her latest plot might do the trick, but only if she isn’t arrested for treason first.

Summoned by the king, all three girls are certain they will soon be facing arrest if not execution. Instead are faced with the shocking truth: as the king’s illegitimate daughters all fighting for the chance to become his next heir. The only problem is that someone in Kolonya knows their secrets and is prepared to reveal them all to keep the girls from taking their rightful place in Rule (2018) by Ellen Goodlett.

Rule is Goodlett’s debut novel and the start of a new series. The book follows all three sisters in alternating close third person chapters.

If this book sounds a lot like Three Dark Crowns, that’s because it is. The book starts with a very similar premise but instead of focusing on the sisters’ in-fighting to get the crown these heirs have the additional problem of a blackmailer.

My main problem with this story is that it made no sense to me that the king has not one but three illegitimate heirs that he has chosen to keep away from the palace while still keeping tabs on them. Every problem the sisters have, every misdeed they knowingly or unknowingly committed, stems from being unaware of their parentage which feels extremely convenient as a plot point upon which an entire series hinges.

Zofi, Akeylah, and Ren are interesting heroines in a world that remains surprisingly under-developed considering its fraught politics. They have different reasons to want (and dread) rising to the throne and unique perspectives about their changed circumstances. Subterfuge, scheming, and unsuitable love interests abound as each sister tries to keep her secrets while gaining the upper hand in their journey to the crown.

Rule is a scandalous page-turner ideal for readers who enjoy fantasy and suspense in equal measure.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

Aquicorn Cove: A Graphic Novel Review

cover art for Aquicorn Cove by Katie O'NeillLana isn’t sure what to expect when she and her father return to their seaside hometown. It can’t be the same–not when Lana’s mother is gone–but maybe helping her aunt and  the other locals clean up after the latest big storm can make it close to the way it was.

The last thing Lana expects to find while picking up debris on the beach is a magical seahorse. It turns out that the aquicorns have always lived near the village in the coral reef. But as the local fishermen take in larger and larger catches, the aquicorns aren’t sure how much longer they can stay.

The village is only a small one and Lana is only one small girl in it. But as she learns more about her family and the aquicorns she starts to realize that sometimes even small actions can turn into big changes in Aquicorn Cove (2018) by Katie O’Neill.

This standalone graphic novel blends fantasy elements with a strong message about environmental conservation and one girls efforts to move on after an unthinkable loss.

Aquicorn Cove is filled with cute characters and adorable creatures in equal measure. This story also has a very clearly defined arc giving the narrative a strong focus and a satisfying level of closure. Finished copies of Aquicorn Cove will also include back matter about ocean conservation.

O’Neill’s artwork is vibrant and whimsical. Bright colors and bold lines bring Lana’s village and the underwater home of the aquicorns to life. Rounded edges and a consistent palette also help to imbue the artwork with a soft and calm quality as well.

Aquicorn Cove is a sweet and gorgeously illustrated story. A unique premise, thoughtful fantasy elements, and a winning case of characters makes this one a winner. Recommended!

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

The Traitor’s Game: A Review

cover art for The Traitor's Game by Jennifer A. NielsenNo one knows where Kestra Dallisor has spent the last three years. It’s better that way. The longer she can hide, the longer she can avoid becoming a pawn in her father’s political machinations to strengthen his ties to the cruel Lord Endrick. But the time for hiding has ended and Kestra has been called home.

When Kestra is kidnapped en route she faces an impossible bargain: find the Olden Blade to spare the lives of her captive servants and herself.

Simon, one of her kidnappers, doesn’t know what to make of Kestra. She is not at all like the girl he expects, certainly nothing not the girl he remembers from his childhood. But she’s also the only hope he and his people have of finding the Olden Blade and reclaiming their freedom.

There are no winners in the traitor’s game. But that won’t stop Kestra or Simon playing for all they’re worth in The Traitor’s Game (2018) by Jennifer A. Nielsen.

The Traitor’s Game is the first book in Nielsen’s new YA series. The book alternates between Kestra and Simon’s first person narrations.

Nielsen delivers high action, political machinations and the intrigue readers of her middle grade novels have come to expect. Despite some unique flourishes in the world building, this is a fairly familiar story as a lost heir tries to reclaim that which was taken by the conquerors.

Kestra and Simon are interesting foils but lack the chemistry needed for their tension and changing dynamic to sustain an entire book. Their voices in alternating chapters are often indistinguishable. The prose often feels sanitized as violence and danger is pushed off the page for readers to imagine instead of being vividly described–this choice means that the novel can work well for younger readers but also creates a stark contrast between the descriptions of the world and the actual reading experience.

The Traitor’s Game is a familiar addition to the fantasy genres. Sparse world building and under developed characters feel like missed opportunities in what could have been a far richer story. Recommended for fans of the author and readers seeking a strictly plot driven fantasy.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Everless by Sarah Holland, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian