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*

Lore: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“It’s not always the truth that survives, but the stories we wish to believe. The legends lie. They smooth over imperfections to tell a good tale, or to instruct us how we should behave, or to assign glory to victors and shame those who falter.”

Lore by Alexandra BrackenEvery seven years Zeus punishes nine Greek gods by forcing them into the Agon. Warrior families have hunted the gods in every Agon for generations hoping to absorb their powers and receive blessings in the intervening years.

Lore always knew she was destined for greatness and glory in the Agon, meant to restore her family house’s honor. That was before Lore’s own disastrous mistake brought about the death of her entire family.

Now, seven years later, Lore thinks she’s finally made it out and started a new life. But the return of her childhood friend Castor and the goddess Athena appearing at Lore’s door prove she never escaped the brutality of the Agon. Not really.

After years of hiding and trying to forget, Lore will have to come out of the shadows and embrace her complicated past if she wants to live long enough to have a future in Lore (2020) by Alexandra Bracken.

Find it on Bookshop.

Lore is a standalone fantasy novel. Although the world building is heavily intertwined with Greeky mythology, the story itself includes enough information to make it approachable to those unfamiliar with the inspiration material. The book also includes a character list broken down by the family houses and lines. Lore and Castor are white although several members of the Agon families (including dark skinned Van and Iro) are from other racial backgrounds.

Lore is a fierce and often reluctant narrator. Most of her past is colored by trauma and regret over events that slowly unfold in flashbacks for readers as the novel builds to its explosive final act. Despite her desire to isolate herself and avoid further losses, Lore is surrounded by a strong group of friends and allies who add drama and levity to this potentially grim story. Lore’s best friend Miles Yoon–an outsider to the world of the Agon–is an especially fun addition to the cast and a steadfast friend to Lore.

Set over the course the week-long Agon this fast-paced story plays out against the backdrop of New York City as Lore and her allies search for a way to end the Agon forever. Lore’s efforts to find a place for herself as a young woman, both away from the Agon and within it, in a world all too quick to dismiss her is both timely and empowering.

Lore seamlessly blends elements from Greek mythology with a modern fantasy setting for a perfectly paced story of survival and fighting for what we deserve.

Possible Pairings: Antigoddess by Kendare Blake, Starling by Lesley Livingston, The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan, Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young

Into the Heartless Wood: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth MeyerEveryone knows the forest is a dangerous place. How can it be anything else when it is filled with tree sirens whose only purpose is to draw people into the forest and to their deaths?

The witch in the forest has fed souls to her trees until they are no longer trees but not human either. Instead, the witch calls these sirens her daughters but Seren knows that isn’t really true–not when the tree-sirens have to do her bidding no matter what.

Owen Merrick has grown up next to the woods and he knows how dangerous they are. He knows how lucky he is when Seren saves his life when she could have killed him. Drawn to each other, Owen and Seren begin meeting in secret. But their growing feelings for each other are threatened when the stars warn of a dangerous curse drawing Seren and Owen into a years long struggle between the witch and the king determined to stop her in Into the Heartless Wood (2021) by Joanna Ruth Meyer.

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While some elements of the world take a back seat to the romance here, Into the Heartless Wood is an evocative story where the setting feels like a character. The novel alternates between prose chapters from Owen’s point of view and more verse-like passages from Seren. Meyer brings together this unlikely pair in a well-realized world filled with magic and menace that is sure to draw readers in.

Into the Heartless Wood is a deliciously atmospheric, dangerous fantasy. Perfect for readers who like their fantasy with a bit of star-crossed love and mystery.

Possible Pairings: To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf

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

Elysium Girls: A Review

Elysium Girls by Kate PentecostSal Wilkinson has had visions of rain coming to the walled city of Elysium for years. Sal knows her vision is true, knows it’s just taking a little longer. But no one else in town believes that and most people don’t have much use for her.

No one is more surprised than Sal when she is named Successor to Mother Morevna, the powerful witch who banded Elysium together the day the city was wrench out of our world in 1935 and become the game board for the latest game between the sister gods Life and Death.

After nearly ten long years building up the city, the day of judgement if months away. If the city succeeds, Life will restore them to the world. If the city is deemed a failure, Death will claim every person within its walls as a sacrifice.

Sal thinks becoming Successor is her chance to prove her worth to the city once and for all. Instead, her first attempt to lead the city ends in disaster. Exiled alongside a mysterious outsider, Sal will have to join forces with Olivia Rosales, another Elysium exile and a young witch herself, if any of them hope to save Elysium by beating Life and Death at their own game in Elysium Girls (2020) by Kate Pentecost.

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Elysium Girls is Pentecost’s debut novel. The novel alternates between Sal’s first person narration and third person narrations following other characters including Asa and Olivia.

Pentecost’s story is grounded with a strong sense of place. Descriptive prose bring the Dust Bowl ravaged city and its steampunk-inspired blend of steel and magic to life. Despite the promising start, a large cast and sprawling premise still make this story unwieldy.

Despite a countdown to Judgement Day at the start of every chapter, this book is largely lacking in a sense of urgency where any stakes for at least the first thirty percent of the novel are entirely absent.

Readers drawn to Elysium Girls based on the synopsis should prepare themselves for a long haul as Pentecost takes her time building up the story. A potential win for readers seeking an immersive fantasy with steampunk elements and only minimal romance between secondary characters.

Possible Pairings: Devils Unto Dust by Emma Berquist, Lovely War by Julie Berry, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, The Reader by Traci Chee, The Young Elites by Marie Lu, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool

Lightbringer: A Review

Lightbringer by Claire LegrandAfter years spent trying to deny her powers and her dark urges to push them to their limits, Queen Rielle is done pretending. Rejected by the man she loves, feared by the country she swore to protect, Rielle instead turns to Corien–the dark fallen angel who has always promised her glory and destruction in the same breath.

A thousand years in the future Eliana is still trying to understand how her plan to stop Rielle before she breaks the world went so very wrong. Separated from her brother, betrayed by the man she thought she could love, Eliana arrives at the Empire’s capital broken. But that doesn’t stop Corien from trying to break her more and unearth the secrets of how he can use Eliana to reunite with Rielle in the past.

The world has always been quick to tell Rielle and Eliana what kind of woman they should be. With the fate of the world balancing on a knife’s edge, both Rielle and Eliana will have to take their fates–and the fate of all of Avitas–into their own hands in Lightbringer (2020) by Claire Legrand.

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Lightbringer is the final book in Legrand’s Empirium trilogy which begins with Furyborn and Kingsbane. Legrand has said before that this is the series of her heart, the reason she began writing, and a massive undertaking. Seeing the end of it, particularly this ending, is bittersweet to say the least.

Lightbringer picks up shortly after the conclusion of Kingsbane although most of the plot relies on world building and plot previously established in the first book in the trilogy.

Epigraphs, shifting points of view, and the story’s two timelines play out on an epic scale as this novel builds to conclusion that feels both explosive and inevitable.

Like the other books in this series, Lightbringer is a long one (nearly 600 pages as a hardcover). Unfortunately in this volume many of the editorial choices shift focus away from characterization and plot in favor of repeated scenes of torture. Corien employs mental and physical violence against Eliana to understand how she could travel to the past. Meanwhile Rielle’s storyline is steeped in blood and gore as Rielle learns more about Corien’s experiments to build monsters to fight his war and vessels for incorporeal angels.

While this book has all of the pieces for a powerful conclusion, they never quite gel as well as they need to relative to the build up. Corien’s motivations are never entirely clear, Ludivine’s purpose in the story remains murky. Worse than all that, a lot of character viewpoints are relegated to epigraphs in favor of cutting down the book length. This choice highlights how badly Ilmaire needed to be a main character in this trilogy while I am still wondering why I had to read though countless chapters from Navi, Tal, or Jessamyn–all of whom feel largely tangential to the entire series.

Both the torture and violence throughout Lightbringer became repetitive enough that as a reader I began to feel inured to it. Instead of furthering the story, the torture took page time away from allowing the overarching narrative to unfold leaving much of that to happen in the final 150 pages of the book.

Lightbringer is a natural if not always satisfying conclusion to a truly distinct series. This installment redeemed a lot of the flaws in Kingsbane or at least made them understandable, particularly in regards to Rielle’s motivations. While the conclusion here feels inevitable, it remains bittersweet and leaves many of the characters and the entire world of Avitas forever changed. It’s clear that there are more stories to be told in Avitas and I hope Legrand will eventually be able to share them with readers.

Lightbringer ends strong remaining inclusive, sexy, and very smart making it a good read-a-like and antidote for Game of Thrones or other problematic fantasies written by white men for white men.

Possible Pairings: Frostblood by Elly Blake, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Girl King by Mimi Yu

Life After Life: A Review

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

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

Darkness falls.

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

Darkness falls.

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

Darkness falls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practical Magic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Practical Magic by Alice HoffmanThe Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town for more than two hundred years. After all, who wouldn’t blame every wrong thing on the town witches?

It’s no surprise that sisters Gillian and Sally grow up here as outsiders–taunted and whispered about without ever being understood or even truly seen. It seems to be the only option when their aunts Jet and Fran seem to do everything they can to encourage every rumor with their strange house and the concoctions they offer at night from their kitchen door.

Gillian escapes by running away; Sally by getting married. But no matter how far they go from their family, from each other, some things–some bonds–can’t be broken in Practical Magic (1995) by Alice Hoffman.

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Like a lot of people of a certain age, my first encounter with Practical Magic was the 1998 movie adaptation starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. I love that movie. It’s iconic, one of a handful of films I know by heart and watch every chance I get. I was nervous that the novel would never stand up to the adaptation. I’m happy to report I was wrong.

The story covered in the film version is roughly the final quarter of the book with a few changes to better translate the story to a new medium. Instead of the small vignette viewers get in the movie, Practical Magic offers a wider slice of life as Gillian and Sally grow up and do everything they can to deny their family, their history, and their magical roots. Sally’s daughters, Antonia and Kylie also play bigger roles in the book.

Practical Magic is everything I loved from the movie but more. This book has more history, more magic, more evocative scenes, plus Hoffman’s beautiful prose to tie it all together.

Possible Pairings: Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop by Roselle Lim, Among Others by Jo Walton

Star Daughter: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Star Daughter by Shveta ThakrarSheetal Mistry has grown up keeping secrets. Only her father, her aunt, and her closest friend Minal know the truth: that Sheetal’s mother is a star who returned to her celestial court when Sheetal was five years old.

Since then, Sheetal has learned to keep her own celestial song buried deep where it cannot affect humans or give her away. She dyes her starlight silver hair black, she ignores the call from her family in the stars. It has never been easy to deny half of herself but her father’s love, Minal’s support, and her new boyfriend Dev have all helped.

But as her seventeenth birthday approaches, Sheetal finds it harder to ignore the way the night sky calls to her. When her father is injured by starfire, Sheetal will have to answer her star family’s summons to try and save him. But first she will have to help her celestial family secure their place as the next ruling house of the heavens.

After years of hiding and denying her true self Sheetal will have to embrace all of herself, her family, and her own complicated place with them to save her father in Star Daughter (2020) by Shveta Thakrar.

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Star Daughter is Thakrar’s debut novel.

This standalone fantasy is filled with richly detailed world building bringing both Sheetal’s magical family and her earthbound Gujarati community of friends, cousins, and other family to life. Evocative, carefully drawn magic adds dimension and nuance to this story that, unfortunately, has a several lacking love interest in Dev who remains one dimensional and flat for most of the story.

Sheetal’s friendship with Minal remains much more convincing than any love match here adding a strong element of friendship and girl power to this story with a friendship that literally spans worlds.

Star Daughter is a thoughtful fantasy about friendship, growing up, and family. Recommended for readers who have always wondered what treasures can be found at the Night Market.

Possible Pairings: The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, Stardust by Neil Gaiman, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee

Courting Darkness: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Courting Darkness by Robin LaFeversAfter working with her sisters of Mortain to help the duchess of Brittany secure both her duchy and her betrothal to the king of France, Sybella thought her work was done. After everything she had risked and sacrificed, after everything she had learned about herself and her god, Sybella had thought at last she would be safe and able to rest.

She is wrong.

Things in Brittany are changing and, as the young duchess prepares to travel to France for her marriage, Sybella realizes she and her sisters are still far from safe. Traveling to foreign territory as a lady in waiting, Sybella is fiercely determined to protect her duchess and her sisters with her beloved Beast at her side. But forces are conspiring to limit the duchess’s new power and ensure that Sybella’s task will be far from easy even with undercover allies waiting to be of aid with in the French court.

Genevieve has been undercover for so many years, that she is no longer sure what she is supposed to be working toward. After years of waiting to be called into service, Gen begins to fear the day that she will be useful may never come.

Feeling the walls of court life closing in, Gen sees no other option but to take matters into her own hands. Manipulating a long-forgotten prisoner into an uneasy bargain will secure both Gen’s escape and his own. But figuring out what to do without guidance from her convent and her god is much harder.

Isolated and alone, Gen will have to do what she thinks is right to save the only home she’s ever known–even if it is a distant memory. But court life is as treacherous as it is decadent and soon both Gen and Sybella will realize they are not the only players with moves to make in Courting Darkness (2019) by Robin LaFevers.

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Courting Darkness is the first book in a duology. The story is set in the same world as LaFevers His Fair Assassin trilogy including Grave Mercy, Dark Triumph, and Mortal Heart. This book can be read independently of the original trilogy although the world and characters overlap.

This book alternates between Sybella and Gen’s first person narrations in this story set months after the conclusion of LaFevers’ previous trilogy in the year 1489.

Although set in the same world as previous books, much of the mystique of Brittany and the Nine gods who preside there in the guise of neo-Christian saints is lost in this companion novel. While Sybella and Gen contend with consequences of changes to Mortain and the gifts he has bestowed on his daughters, Courting Darkness is much more grounded in political intrigue and the duplicitous French court.

LaFevers once again draws heavily from real historical events to deliver and atmospheric and well-researched story helmed by two singular heroines. Unfortunately, as Sybella realizes how much of a threat her family still poses, much of the confidence and self-assurance she gained in the previous trilogy is erased. Gen, meanwhile, is insufferably arrogant about her own ability to determine the best course of action and reckless in pursuit of her own goals.

That said, a few surprise twists and the promise of our narrators finally meeting in the sequel Igniting Darkness may be enough to salvage this promising but so far underwhelming duology.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhatena, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder, The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke

Return of the Thief: A Review

Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen TurnerAfter being born with the infirmity that runs through his family and earning the nickname “monstrous” as a baby, Pheris Mostrus Erondites has grown up aware of his own limitations. His vulnerabilities from his bad leg and arm as well as his inability to speak verbally have never been far from his mind. Pheris is, therefore, as surprised as anyone when he is named his grandfather Baron Erondites’ heir and sent to the Attolian court to serve as an attendant to the king of Attolia, Eugenides.

Years of fear and caution have taught Pheris how to play the fool and hide in plain sight but even he can’t escape Eugenides’ notice as the Little Peninsula prepares for war. As the newly appointed high king of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis, Eugenides has united the three countries but that does not mean their people are ready–or willing–to fight the invading Mede empire.

Pheris observes and recounts everything for readers as political maneuvers, personal dramas, and his grandfather’s schemes unfold while creating an unlikely place for himself both in the palace and in the hearts of some of its residents.

With war looming Eugenides has to work harder than ever to protect everyone he loves and make sure he does not offend the gods who have taken an interest in both the Little Peninsula and him since his early years as the Queen’s Thief in Return of the Thief (2020) by Megan Whalen Turner.

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A direct sequel to Thick as Thieves, this novel will be most rewarding to readers of the entire Queen’s Thief series with the resolution of many character arcs and nods to multiple events across the overlapping timelines of the previous books in this series that has been decades in the making.

Pheris is an unlikely but meticulous narrator drawing readers deeper into the inner workings of the palace while shedding light on the looming war and the enigmatic high king. With shrewd, biting prose, Pheris fits in seamlessly with this group of characters fans have come to know and love. Tension, political drama, and intrigue are well contrasted with moments of levity and affection as both new and old characters have their moment to shine.

Return of the Thief is as intricately plotted as it is utterly satisfying; everything readers could hope for from a conclusion twenty years in the making.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers,Soundless by Richelle Mead, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

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