The Bear and the Nightingale: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Things are, or they are not. Magic is forgetting that something ever was other than as you willed it.”

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine ArdenAt the edge of the wilderness in northern Rus’, winter might as well last forever. Huddled near the stove, stealing warmth from the embers of the fire, Vasya and her siblings listen to their nurse Dunya’s tales. The old woman weaves stories of dutiful domovoi, vengeful nymphs, and thrilling tales of Morozko–the blue-eyed demon who brings snow in his wake and claims souls who cross his path. Those who are wise do well to honor and care for the house spirits who guard their territory from Morozko and other, darker, creatures.

But things are changing throughout Rus’. Only one god is worshipped in Moscow, not a god who has room or time for house spirits and the old ways.

When Vasya’s widowed father remarries, her devout step-mother tries to bring the new ways to their home in the wild forest. Others are quick to bend to the beautiful, sophisticated mistress of the household. But Vasya sees things that others do not. She watches the spirits wasting away to mist without their regular offerings. She sees something dangerous lurking in the shadows as old rituals are neglected.

Trapped between threats of a forced marriage or confinement in a convent, Vasya is more certain than ever that her place is in the forest protecting her home and her loved ones. But as misfortune circles her family and her home, Vasya will have to challenge everything she has ever known and forge a new path for herself if she wants to face a threat straight from her childhood nightmares in The Bear and the Nightingale (2017) by Katherine Arden.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Bear and the Nightingale is Arden’s debut novel and the start of her Winternight trilogy which continues with The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch. This historical fantasy is set in the 14th century in the territory that was eventually united as Russia. All characters are presumed white. Arden includes a historical note at the end of the book detailing her inspiration, real historical events, and her own divergences from history within the novel.

The Bear and the Nightingale brings together historical events with fairytale creatures to create a richly layered story. Covering a wide span of time and adhering to traditional Russian name conventions, the beginning can feel dense as there are many characters and names to track. But, like any good story, Arden soon draws readers in as new viewpoints are explored and new elements of the plot are teased out as the story also touches on moments of horror and Vasya’s character arc as she comes of age and dares to forge her own path.

In a world where the safe paths for a woman are marriage or life in a convent, Vasya chafes as she grows older and her freedom dwindles. Vasya’s story is intensely feminist as she struggles throughout the novel to fit in the strict confines placed upon her as a woman in society–something which becomes a central theme of the trilogy–while also clinging to her agency even when it means she is literally targeted as a witch.

A slow build and deliberate pacing add tension to the story as the plot builds toward a final confrontation between Vasya and those who oppose the old ways. The Bear and the Nightingale is a story of opposites that explores the liminal spaces between blind faith and genuine belief, between feigned duty and true loyalty; a tale about familial ties and devotion to both the people and places that feel like home.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Lawless Spaces: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

It is
too much and
I get a zap
of when we were in quarantine
and I missed both the life I had been living
and the future one that felt impossible
and the ones I’d never lived but should have. I had so
much time
for
missing

Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann HayduThe Dovewick women have always had complicated relationships with their pasts. Maybe that’s why the tradition of the notebooks started. No one knows anymore. It’s expected, though.

As Mimi struggles to find a way to connect with her mother–always withdrawn, always a little cold–she wonders if being a Dovewick daughter is another name for being a disappointment. No wonder she prefers to be @MimiDove. She can curate who she is online. She can show people the best pieces. The ones that don’t make anyone ask her why she’s so short, why she wore that top; online Mimi can share the pieces that won’t ever show how she turned sixteen alone, how her mother’s boyfriend barely tolerates her presence.

Mimi has always known about the notebooks kept by every woman in her family. She’s seen them all lined up on the mantle. All the girls in all the pictures that bleed together as background noise.

Writing in her own notebook is daunting. But it’s also a place where, finally, Mimi can present an unvarnished version of herself. One that is allowed to be scared and hurt, one that is allowed to miss all of the things she never really had.

Mimi doesn’t like to think about the past. She doesn’t like to think about what happened before or what her mother said after. She tries to ignore the sexual assault case that’s all over the news, tries to make it more background noise. Until her mother comes forward as an accuser.

Suddenly, Mimi feels like she doesn’t recognize her mother or her own life. As she digs through the old notebooks she finds her mother’s story, her grandmother’s, her great-grandmother’s. So many Dovewick women. All navigating the same confusing space between girl and woman, absorbing the same hurts as daughters, hoping they’ll learn how to be better mothers.

Looking to the past gives Mimi strength to understand a lot of truths about her own life and her relationship with her mother. But before she can look ahead, she’ll have to decide who she wants to be and how she wants to navigate this confusing world in Lawless Spaces (2022) by Corey Ann Haydu.

Find it on Bookshop.

Lawless Spaces is a standalone novel in verse. The primary story follows Mimi in 2022. Readers also encounter Mimi’s ancestors as Mimi unearths stories from Betty (1954) and Tiffany (1999), among others. Mimi and her family are white. Despite tackling so many voices and time periods, each girl’s voice remains as distinct as her story–even as common themes like loneliness begin to come through.

Through Mimi and her family, Haydu’s sophisticated verse addresses the damaging legacy of the male gaze while looking through a smaller lens focused on the fractured relationship between a daughter and her mother. It’s a story about what happens when you realize you have to save yourself because the grownups who were supposed to keep you safe can’t even protect themselves.

Lawless Spaces is a timely, forward-facing story that tackles the isolation and loss of the pandemic while also telling an entirely different story about what it means to carry generational trauma. Powerful, ultimately healing, and very highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne, One Great Lie by Deb Caletti, Unbecoming by Jenny Downham, You Too?: 25 Voices Share Their #MeToo Stories by Janet Gurtler, An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins, 13 Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma

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

You can also check out my interview with Corey about this book.

Gods of Jade and Shadow: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Words are seeds, Casiopea. With words you embroider narratives, and the narratives breed myths, and there’s power in the myth. Yes, the things you name have power.”

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno GarciaCasiopea Tun’s quiet life in a small Mexican town is very far from the Jazz Age’s action and splendor. Her father taught her to love the stars. Sometimes, even without him, the stars are enough of a distraction from the drudgery of life in her grandfather’s house where she is more likely to be found cleaning than listening to jazz. Like her mother, she is used to suffering the petty digs of her family in silence. Their complaints that she is too dark, that she is a girl, can’t touch her. Not when she dreams of more.

Even her cousin Martín’s abuses are bearable because Casiopea refuses to believe this house will be her life forever. It can’t be in a world where there are stars and movies and automobiles.

Everything changes, as it sometimes does, in the blink of an eye when Casiopea opens a strange wooden box in her grandfather’s room. Instead of treasures or secrets, she finds bones and accidentally releases the spirit of Hun-Kamé, Lord of Xibalba, the Mayan god of death.

His kingdom has been stolen by his traitorous brother who left Hun-Kamé trapped in the box for years. Missing his one ear, one eye, one index finger, and the jade necklace that represents his power, Hun-Kamé cannot face his brother alone. With Casiopea’s help he can make himself whole and recover what was stolen from him. Tying herself to Hun-Kamé could be fatal for Casiopea if they fail. But success could bring her everything she has ever dreamed of.

Helping a god will bring Casiopea from the jungles of Yucatán to glittering Mexico City and beyond. Traveling with Hun-Kamé will also bring Casiopea closer to her truest self and to feelings she dare not name because the things you name always grow in power in Gods of Jade and Shadow (2019) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Find it on Bookshop.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is a quiet, character driven story with a close focus on Casiopea through the lens of an omniscient third person narrator. This degree of separation lends a timeless, inevitable quality to the book as it moves toward the final confrontation between Hun-Kamé and his brother.

Fantastical world building and subtle characterization breathe new life into the Mayan mythology that scaffolds this story of a girl striving for more and, finally, having a chance to grasp it. Subtle conversations and nonverbal interactions between Casiopea and Hun-Kamé underscore the changing relationship (and chemistry) between these singular characters.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is, in my humble opinion, a perfect book. Come for the adventure and engrossing plot, stay for the well-realized characters and bittersweet ending that will linger long after the story is finished.

Possible Pairings: Lovely War by Julie Berry, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, Bravely by Maggie Stiefvater, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde

Across the Green Grass Fields: A Review

Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuireRegan was seven years old when she learned that the most dangerous thing a girl can be is different. It’s the reason her former best friend, Heather, is a social pariah on the playground. It’s the reason Regan knows to stay on her other best friend Laurel’s good side even if it means keeping herself in a very specific box.

As Regan gets older it becomes more and more obvious that she won’t fit inside that box for much longer. Her love of horses is only barely acceptable to other girls as their interests start to shift to boys. While all of the other girls seem to be maturing, Regan wants everything to stay the same. When her parents tell Regan that she is intersex a lot of things start to make sense. Her friendship with Laurel is not one of those things as she rejects Regan in the cruelest way possible.

Distraught and desperate to get away, Regan runs to the woods and keeps running until she passes through a magical door into the Hooflands. In a world populated by centaurs and other horse-like creatures, every human is unique and no one thinks Regan is too different. Instead, for the first time, Regan feels at home.

But a human in the Hooflands only means one thing. The land needs a hero. Whether Regan is ready to be one or not in Across the Green Grass Fields (2021) by Seanan McGuire.

Find it on Bookshop.

Across the Green Grass Fields is the sixth installment in McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas which begins with Every Heart a Doorway.

While Regan’s story is similar in tone and style to the other novellas in this series, her story is largely divorced from the rest of the series and functions entirely as a standalone. Regan and the Hooflands are odes to Horse Girls everywhere. Although Regan’s first encounters in the Hooflands are with the centaurs who accept her as part of their herd and the unicorns they tend, the Hooflands have many more horse-adjacent creatures including kelpies, perytons, and kirins like the current Hooflands queen Kagami.

Despite her awe and immediate love for the Hooflands, Regan knows she isn’t truly safe or home. Her centaur friends are quick to warn her that humans only come to the Hooflands when there is a great need bringing about changes that, while mythic in nature, are poorly documented beyond the fact that most humans are never seen again after embaring on their life-changing quest.

Regan’s story walks a fine line between menace and enchantment as readers come to love the Hooflands and her friends as much as Regan does. Even while waiting for the foreshadowed dangers to arrive.  Across the Green Grass Fields is a razor sharp commentary on the dangers of embracing the status quo and a perfect entry point for this long running series which promises more adventures to come.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Scwhab, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

They Wish They Were Us: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Why did the boys have the power? Why did they make the rules while we dealt with the consequences?”

Everything on Gold Coast, Long Island has a shine; a glimmer from expensive, well-made things and the people who can acquire those things so effortlessly.

Watching her parent’s struggle to keep up with their affluent neighbors and to pay her brother’s hefty tuition at Gold Coast Prep, Jill Newman has always known she doesn’t belong among the Gold Coast elite. The pressure she feels to maintain her scholarship and make good on all of her parents’ hard work is constant.

Being a Player is supposed to make it all easier. After a hellish year of hazing from the older members of the Gold Coast Prep secret society, Jill is in. With the Players’ impressive alumni network and not-so-secret app Jill has access to the answers to every test she might encounter at school and contacts to open any doors she wants for college and beyond. Once you get a seat with the Players, you’ll do anything to keep it.

Jill’s best friend Shaila Arnold never made it that far. Three years ago she was killed by her boyfriend, Graham, during the final night of initiation–the night Jill can barely think about. Graham confessed. The case has been closed for years. It’s over and Jill and her other friends have moved on.

Until Graham’s sister tells Jill that his confession was coerced. But if Graham didn’t kill Shaila, who did? As Jill delves deeper into the events leading up to Shaila’s death she’ll unearth old secrets about the Players on her way to the truth. But when you set yourself against a group that can get everything they want, they also have everything to lose in They Wish They Were Us (2020) by Jessica Goodman.

Find it on Bookshop.

They Wish They Were Us is Goodman’s debut novel. A TV adaptation called ‘The Players Table” is in development at HBO Max.

Jill is Jewish and most characters are presumed white aside from Jill’s other best friend Nikki whose family are Hong Kong emigres. Jill’s first person narration is tense as she reluctantly digs into Shaila’s murder while also reluctantly unpacking unpleasant memories from her own initiation into the players.

This plot-drive story tackles a lot while Jill deals with the pressures of her elite school and her complicated feelings about the Players and their hazing. Privilege, wealth, and self-presentation are also big topics as Jill begins to realize she isn’t the only one struggling to keep up appearances at Gold Coast Prep. Toxic masculinity and feminism also play big roles in the story although Goodman’s treatment of both can feel heavy-handed in its service to moving the story along.

Obvious red herrings, salacious twists, and the backdrop of luxe Gold Coast locales make They Wish They Were Us a frothy page turner.

Possible Pairings: Ace of Spades by Faridah Abike-Iyimide, Admission by Julie Buxbaum, Killing Time by Brenna Ehrlich, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, These Vengeful Hearts by Katherine Laurin, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

One Great Lie: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“She will imagine a ghost library of all the other books that aren’t there, and will never be there. All the voices and stories of women behind one kind of wall or another. Voices and stories stolen by thieves.”

One Great Lie by Deb CalettiWinning a scholarship to a writing workshop should be a dream come true for Charlotte Hodges. The workshop is led by Luca Bruni, Charlotte’s favorite author of all time at his private villa in Venice.

Being in Venice also gives Charlotte the chance she’s longed for to look into her ancestor Isabella Di Angelo. For generations, Charlotte’s family has held onto the knowledge that Isabella wrote a very famous poem that’s taught in just about every school now. A poem that’s always been attributed to a man. Without concrete proof, the true authorship is more family lore than fact. Charlotte hopes this summer she can change that.

Arriving in Venice, Charlotte finds the city more picturesque than she could imagine. But the villa is also more secluded–isolated, really. Bruni is even more charismatic in person. More brilliant. But he’s also much more erratic and, as Charlotte and the other young women on the retreat begin to realize, much more unsettling.

With help from an Italian grad student named Dante, Charlotte begins to uncover the truth about Isabella and the stolen poem. But as some secrets are revealed, Charlotte will have to decide if she wants to speak out about others about Bruni in One Great Lie (2021) by Deb Caletti.

Find it on Bookshop.

One Great Lie is written in close third person following Charlotte’s perspective. Charlotte is white as are most characters although there is some diversity among the other students at the retreat. Each chapter in the book is prefaced with a brief epigraph detailing a different female writer from the Renaissance and the reasons why her works are not as well known as they should be or, in many cases, as they could be.

From the beginning the prose is so charged–the foreshadowing so deliberately ominous–that are immediately drawn in waiting for the ground to fall out from under Charlotte; knowing that it’s only a matter of time before a writing retreat that seems too good to be true is proven to be just that.

Charlotte’s work dismantling her admiration for Luca Bruni after witnessing his predatory behavior firsthand connects well to Charlotte’s efforts to prove Isabella’s authorship of a poem previously attributed (and stolen by) a prominent male Renaissance poet. Themes of feminism play out in both plot threads as Charlotte sees firsthand the damage Bruni has wraught while researching the ways her ancestor Isabella’s poem was stolen.

A sweet romance with Dante and Charlotte’s growing love for Venice tempers the otherwise tense narrative.

One Great Lie is a tautly paced novel filled with evocative settings and suspense as Charlotte unearths the truth and tries to right an historical wrong.

Possible Pairings: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Da Vinci’s Tiger by L. M. Elliott, You Too?: 25 Voices Share Their #MeToo Stories by Janet Gurtler, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, Love and Olives by Jenna Evans Welch

Don’t Hate the Player: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Don't Hate the Player by Alexis NeddEmilia Romero is the star of her high school field hockey team, a straight A student, and a world class secret keeper. It’s the only way she’s found to keep her double life as a player on a competitive esports team in Guardians League Online (GLO) on the down low. Emilia isn’t ashamed of her gaming–she knows she’s great at it. But she also knows that the gaming community is very white and very male and not a great place for a Puerto Rican teen girl to be honest about who she is.

When her team qualifies for a local eSports tournament, Emilia knows she can’t miss this opportunity. Keeping her gaming life separate from her real life, gets a lot more complicated when Emilia recognizes one of the competitors.

Jake has had a crush on Emilia since they met as kids at an arcade birthday party. His underdog team qualifying for the tournament is exciting enough. Seeing Emilia and being thrown back into her orbit? That’s a whole other level.

Competing in the tournament should be as simple as letting the best player win. But when the stakes rise Emilia and Jake both realize they have a lot to gain–and potentially lose–depending on the tournament’s outcome. Growing closer as gamers is great but it will take more than the perfect hidden combo to make sure they can stay close in real life too in Don’t Hate the Player (2021) by Alexis Nedd.

Find it on Bookshop.

Don’t Hate the Player is Nedd’s debut novel. Most of the story is narrated by Emilia with some chapters in third person following Jake.

Nedd knows her stuff and delivers a story entrenched in online gaming that remains approachable to non-gamer readers. The high stakes of the tournament contrast well with the tension as, with Jake’s help, Emilia tries to keep her identity a secret to avoid harassment from the gaming community. Jake has been a gamer all of his life and is aware of the harassment faced by non-male/non-white players from the experiences of his own GLO teammates who include BIPOC players who are queer and trans.

Emilia’s efforts to balance her parents’ expectations with her own desires adds a lot of dimension to the story. Both Jake and Emilia’s friends offer a strong support system as the competition at the tournament amps up and add a lot of humor to the story.

Don’t Hate the Player is a funny, romantic story that shines a light on the joys (and hazards) of the gaming community while proving that sometimes a little competition can bring people together. Recommended for gamers, romantics, and readers looking for books with a healthy dose of humor.

Possible Pairings: Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi, Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner, In Real Life by Jessica Love, Analee in Real Life by Janelle Milanes, It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi, Don’t Read the Comments by Eric Smith, Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi

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

Realm Breaker: A Review

Realm Breaker by Victoria AveyardCorayne an-Amarat is a pirate’s daughter eager to embark on her own adventures at sea in Allward. But she is also the last of the ancient Cor bloodline and the only one who can use the ancient spindleblade to protect her realm and make sure the Spindles that can open destabilizing passages between realms are closed.

Reluctant to embrace this lineage, Corayne joins weary immortal Dom as he attempts to mount a second quest to succeed where the first failed in closing the Spindles. Aided by a mercenary assassin and Andry, a squire and the only mortal to survive the first quest, the group will face numerous obstacles as they struggle to work together to save the world in Realm Breaker (2021) by Victoria Aveyard.

Find it on Bookshop.

Aveyard follows up her blockbuster Red Queen series with this homage to high fantasy that works to make more space for women and offer a more inclusive cast. The realm of Allward features people with a range of skin tones and backgrounds–Andry is described as “honey brown” while Corayne has “golden skin.”

Shifting viewpoints, flashbacks, and changing locations cut through much of the novel’s potential urgency as the narrative pauses continuously to ruminate on the failed quest seen in the prologue and offer character backstories.

Aveyard creates a compelling world with ample space for female characters in a traditionally male genre. Despite its start and stop pacing, Realm Breaker is action packed with plentiful fights, chases, and other derring-do.

Possible Pairings: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace, Furyborn by Clarie Legrand, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser, Fable by Adrienne Young

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

Ever Cursed: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Ever Cursed by Corey Ann HayduEveryone loves a lost girl, no one more so than the kingdom of Ever. The kingdom still mourns the Princess Who Was Lost decades ago, still demands justice for her.

Ever is slower to save the princess who still have a chance of being rescued.

Five years ago, a young witch named Reagan cursed all of Ever’s princesses with the Spell of Without. Jane has not been able to eat anything since that day. Her sister’s curses all began on their thirteenth birthdays. Nora can’t love, Alice cannot sleep, Grace can’t remember and soon, on her birthday, Eden will be without hope.

Ever is as it always was with the royals on their side of the mote and their subjects at a safe distance, their queen trapped in a glass box, and their princesses suffering. When Reagan forces the girls out of the castle for their one chance to break the Spell of Without, Jane begins to wonder if the way things are is really the way things have to be–for either the princesses or their subjects.

A princess without a curse on her is an ordinary girl. And no one cares about an ordinary girl. A witch without her spells is just a girl alone in the woods. And no one wants to be a girl alone in the woods. But as Jane and Reagan come closer to unraveling the spell before it becomes True, both girls will realize there is much more to Ever, its secrets, and themselves than either of them realized in Ever Cursed (2020) by Corey Ann Haydu.

Find it on Bookshop.

Ever Cursed is a standalone fantasy. Despite the relatively short length, there’s a lot to unpack with this one particularly in the context of the political climate (post 2016 US election) that may have helped to inspire it. Alternating chapters focus on Jane and Reagan’s first person narrations. It’s not a spoiler to say that something is rotten in Ever and Haydu, throughout the story, confronts the deep-seated misogyny and rape culture in the kingdom including discussions of sexual assault and a scene of attempted assault.

Jane’s narration is, appropriately, very focused on her mortality. The Spell of Without has carved her down to nothing and, should the spell become True, will have fatal consequences for herself and for Alice who is physically incapable of sleep. Readers with a history of disordered eating should pick this one up with caution and read the content warning Haydu includes at the beginning of the book before proceeding.

Ever Cursed is an interesting examination of what it means to be an ally and to be complicit. Both Jane and Reagan have to unpack the privilege they’ve had in being able to look away from the day-to-day problems in Ever while focusing on their own (more personally pressing) problems of being royals and witches. Jane in particular unpacks what it means to benefit from years of her family being in power and abusing that power even when she herself is not complicit.

These conversations about privilege are important ones to have while dismantling white supremacy and male privilege however combining them with a fantasy setting where the consequences are very real instead of allegorical doesn’t always lead to ideal handling of the material. Because of how the Spell of Without works, the idea of complicit privilege distills to children being punished in a very literal way for their father’s transgressions. That another young girl (Reagan) is the one meting out this punishment in order to see the king suffer in retaliation for her own mother’s pain adds even more complexity to this conversation and exposes the deeply internalized misogyny at Ever’s center.

As a feminist allegory disguised as a fairy tale, Ever Cursed is very successful. As a feminist fairy tale it is less so. The world building is thinly sketched and sometimes haphazard with fantastic imagery (witches wearing cumbersome skirts for ever spell they cast so that they always carry the consequences) that doesn’t hold up to any internal logic.

Ever Cursed has the bones of a truly sensational story that ultimately would have benefited from a bit more length to give proper space to both the world building and its characters; a fascinating if sometimes underdeveloped picture. Recommended for readers with an equal interest in feminism (or feminist theory) and fairy tales.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Damsel by Elana K. Arnold, Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski

The Kingdom of Back: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Speak for the ones who will come after you, looking to you for guidance. Stay true, daughter. One day you will see it all go up in flames.”

The Kingdom of Back by Marie LuThis is a story you already know. But listen carefully, because within it is one you have never heard before:

Nannerl Mozart has one wish that she guards close, no matter how hopeless it might be; she wants to be remembered forever.

A talented musician and performer, Nannerl entrances audiences with her playing which is masterful for one so young. But the older Nannerl becomes, the less brilliant her prowess. Especially compared to her younger brother Wolfgang who has already begun to overshadow Nannerl’s achievements with his own musicality and compositions.

Watching her younger brother, it is increasingly clear that it will be Wolfgang who receives the bulk of their strict father’s praise. It will be Wolfgang living the life Nannerl desperately wants. No amount of talent is enough to allow a young girl in eighteenth-century Austria to compose her own music. Not publicly.

Working in secret by day Nannerl begins creating her own compositions beside her brother. At night she waits for a mysterious visitor from a kingdom that should be little more than a bedtime story she shares with Wolfgang. The stranger has untold powers, and he knows Nannerl’s secret wish. But wishes have a price and the cost of securing her legacy might be greater than Nannerl can bear in The Kingdom of Back (2020) by Marie Lu.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Kingdom of a Back is a standalone novel that blends evocative historical fiction with fantasy elements. As Lu explains in her author’s note, this book was inspired by the real Mozart siblings as well as the eponymous imaginary world they created together as children.

In a departure from her earlier novels, Lu stays close to historical events centering the story in Austria and the Mozart family’s tour through Europe while fantasy elements set in the Kingdom of Back take a secondary role.

Nannerl’s first person narration is introspective and thoughtful as she tries to balance her fierce affection for her brother with her growing frustrations that, merely because of her gender, she will never be able to claim the same praise and recognition that is lavished on Wolfgang. Although jealousy is certainly a factor in Nannerl’s choices throughout the novel, The Kingdom of Back is grounded firmly in the love and friendship between the siblings.

The Kingdom of Back is a meditative story about ambition and achievement, as well as the chasm that can develop between the two. While real life events lend a melancholy tone to this story, it also makes the novel all the more powerful as a rallying cry and a hopeful reminder that there is always room to strive for more. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Heartless by Marissa Meyer, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente, And I Darken by Kiersten White