How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories: A Review

How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories by Holly Black, illustrated by Rovina CaiOnce upon a time there was a boy with a wicked tongue. Dressed in rags, raised on cat’s milk, he soon discovered that the best way to be seen was to be unkind. Later you might get to know him as a cruel prince and a wicked king. But before that he was a boy trying to make his way in a world that could have destroyed him if he hadn’t come to rule it in How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories (2020) by Holly Black, illustrated by Rovina Cai.

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How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories is a companion novella to Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy which includes The Cruel PrinceThe Wicked King, and The Queen of Nothing. The novella is largely focused on Cardan’s childhood but a framing story is set after the events of the trilogy so be sure to read all of them first to avoid spoilers.

This novella is really for the fans of the series. What a delight to return to the world of faerie and get another glimpse of my favorite monstrous girl (Jude) and my favorite wicked boy (Cardan). Black balances showcasing what comes after the original series in the framing story with flashbacks to Cardan’s upbringing as a neglected-if-spoiled youth in the royal court.

Questions of inevitability and change play out both for young Cardan and throughout the novella as Cardan encounters the same fairytale multiple times–each with subtle changes. This conceit brings the entire novella together with a dynamic finale while also nodding to the power of story–an element which imbues every book in this series.

How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories is illustrated throughout with lavish full color artwork that brings Cardan and his world to live. Cai does a beautiful job giving life to these characters who already have so much personality in prose. A lovely return to a world that hints at even more stories to discover.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Legendary by Stephanie Garber, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Broken Web: A Review

Broken Web by Lori M. LeeThe Soulless is awake and recovering in the Dead Wood. The long peace between the nations of Thiy might be crumbling. And Sirscha and her best friend Saengo still have no idea how to fix any of it.

The world believes that Sirscha is a rare soulguide but she and Saengo know that Sirscha is actually a soulrender–just like The Soulless. Despite the dangers, Sirscha is determined to stop The Soulless and, if she can, save Saengo from the rot he infected her with that is slowly killing her.

With powerful allies and even more powerful enemies circling, Sirscha will have to risk everything to find–and fight–the most immediate danger in Broken Web (2021) by Lori M. Lee.

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Broken Web is the second book in Lee’s Shamanborn trilogy which begins with Forest of Souls.

Set two weeks after the explosive conclusion of book one, Sirscha and Saengo are still trying to understand Sirscha’s new powers and Saengo’s role in nurturing them as a familiar. Treachery is a constant threat hanging over the girls and their allies as they try to learn more about the Soulless and how to stop him once and for all.

Lee has created a nuanced and compelling world in this series although this book focuses more on action to move the series toward what promises to be a shocking conclusion.

Broken Web is a fast-paced, exciting installment in a singular fantasy series. A must read for fans of book one; a recommended series for readers seeking a new friendship focused fantasy adventure.

Possible Pairings: Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhatena, The Reader by Traci Chee, Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer, Fireborne by Rosaria Munda, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

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

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*

The Midnight Lie: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“We had been taught not to want more than we had. I realized that wanting is a kind of power even if you don’t get what you want. Wanting illuminates everything you need, and how the world has failed you.”

“Wanting something doesn’t always mean it is owed to you.”

The Midnight Lie by Marie RutkoskiNirrim’s life in Herath is a prolonged exercise in survival. She is used to having little. She is used to keeping secrets. She has Raven who is almost like a mother. She has friends. She has the knowledge that she helps people even if it is dangerous.

It is the way it has always been. It has always been enough. Until the day Nirrim makes a terrible mistake. Arrested and jailed, Nirrim could be charged any tithe the authorities choose–her hair, her blood, something much harder to part with.

In prison Nirrim encounters Sid, a mysterious thief with a brash manner and numerous secrets. Speaking with Sid across the dark prison, Nirrim begins to wonder if things really do have to stay the way they are or if, perhaps, they can be changed.

As Nirrim and Sid search for answers about the secrets of the High Kith and Herath itself, Nirrim will have to decide if doing more than surviving is worth the risk–and the cost in The Midnight Lie (2020) by Marie Rutkoski.

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The Midnight Lie is the first book in a duology. It is set in the same world as Rutkoski’s Winner’s Curse trilogy.

As the title suggests, this book is full of lies both that Nirrim tells to other characters (and even readers) as well as the lies she tells herself to reconcile the privation and struggles she has endured to survive. After years of wanting nothing, because wanting is dangerous, Sid blows Nirrim’s small world apart and forces Nirrim to confront her wants and desires for the first time.

Lyrical, dreamlike prose lends a fairytale sensibility to this otherwise grim tale as both Nirrim and Sid face increasingly risky stakes in their search for answers. As an outsider with wealth and an air of mystery, Sid operates with a certain level of freedom and safety–things Nirrim has never even dreamed of–which lead to thoughtful discussions of privilege and power dynamics between the two characters. Sid’s gender identity and presentation therein also add another layer to the story.

The chemistry between Nirrim and Sid is palpable–especially in flirty dialog that adds needed levity to this story. The final act will leave readers with more questions than answers as secrets are revealed and decisions are made for better or worse.

The Midnight Lie is a meditative exploration of the power of memory and desire as well as presentation. Fans of this tense, sexy story will be eager to see what comes next in the conclusion to this series.

Possible Pairings: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst, The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, Ever Cursed by Corey Ann Haydu, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

The Nemesis: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*The Nemesis is the final book in Kincaid’s Diabolic trilogy. This review contains spoilers for books one and two. Start at the beginning with The Diabolic*

The Nemesis by S. J. KincaidNemesis has lived as a Diabolic bound to the young elite Sidonia. She has forged alliances and friendships as often as she has watched them crumble. She has been an empress and traveled across the space and time to earn her personhood.

But at her core Nemesis wonders if she is still merely a Diabolic–a creature whose love is possessive, ferocious, and all-consuming; a creature crafted for violence.

Three years ago Tyrus shocked the galaxy when he killed Nemesis and set himself on a path of destruction and debauchery poised to bring the entire empire to its knees.

Very few people know that Nemesis survived her would-be assassination and all of them want to use her. Blinded by rage at her own betrayal, Nemesis is determined to exact revenge against those who have wronged her.

In her hunt for vengeance, Nemesis may also find her humanity but only if she’s willing to truly look at everything that has transpired to bring her to this point in The Nemesis (2020) by S. J. Kincaid.

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The Nemesis is the final book in Kincaid’s Diabolic trilogy. This review contains spoilers for books one and two. Start at the beginning with The Diabolic and The Empress.

It’s always hard to review the end of a series without revealing too much. Kincaid does an excellent job of tying things together while continuing to expand the world both as Nemesis travels through the system and as she learns more about the history of the empire.

The Nemesis covers a surprisingly long span of time given the book’s fast pacing as Nemesis works with friends and unlikely allies to try and save the empire from itself as Tyrus continues to debase both himself and the ruling elite.

The Nemesis is everything I wanted for this series conclusion. Touching on politics, social norms, and public perception versus reality, this book is truly a book of our times. The Nemesis is the perfect conclusion to a favorite series. A must read for anyone looking for a splashy space opera that will leave them picking their jaw up off the floor.

Possible Pairings: Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Mirage by Somaiya Daud, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston, Proxy by Alex London, Legend by Marie Lu, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Birthmarked by Caragh M.O’Brien, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Impostors by Scott Westerfeld, And I Darken by Kiersten White, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf

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

The Queen of Nothing: A Review

*The Queen of Nothing is the second book in Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy. To avoid spoilers, start at the beginning with The Cruel Prince.*

“We have lived in our armor for so long, you and I. And now I am not sure if either of us knows how to remove it.”

The Queen of Nothing by Holly BlackJude has spent years learning strategy and how to survive as a mortal in the High Court of Faerie. She has spied, killed, and fought for every scrap of power. But taking power is easier than keeping it.

After trusting Cardan for one last gambit, Jude is the mortal Queen of Faerie–a title no one acknowledges and one that does her little good while exiled in the mortal world.

Betrayed and furious, Jude is keen to return to Faerie and reclaim what is hers by right, not to mention her sorely damaged dignity. The opportunity comes sooner than expected when Jude’s sister Taryn needs her identical twin’s help to survive the aftermath of her own betrayals and lies.

When Jude returns, war is brewing in Elfhame. After years teaching herself to be a warrior and a spy, Jude will now have to learn how to be a queen and embrace her humanity to save the only place that has ever felt like home in The Queen of Nothing (2020) by Holly Black.

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The Queen of Nothing is the final book in Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy. To avoid spoilers, start at the beginning with The Cruel Prince.

It’s always hard to talk about the end of a series without revealing too much. Black pulls no punches in this fast-paced conclusion filled with surprising twists, unexpected reunions, and even some redemption arcs.

Jude continues to be a dynamo narrator filling the story with grim observations and shrewd strategy as she tries to keep Elhame from falling into enemy hands. After watching Jude embrace her strength and ruthlessness, it’s a powerful shift as she is forced to instead embrace her mortality and compassion to succeed this time.

The Queen of Nothing is the perfect conclusion to a favorite series. Every character gets exactly what they deserve in the best possible way. A must read for fans, of course, and a trilogy not to be missed for anyone who enjoys their fantasy with healthy doses of strategy and fairies. Highly recommend.

Possible Pairings: Legendary by Stephanie Garber, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Race the Sands: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Life isn’t just about who you were—it’s about who you choose to be.”

Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst“Call it what it is: monster racing. Forget that and you die.”

Tamra tells every one of her students that. She cautions them, every time, to stay focused on the race, the moment, and never forget that they are riding on the back of a monster. Not every rider remembers those lessons in the heat of the races.

The Becaran races are a chance for wealth and glory for the riders. The racers, the kehoks, get something else: a chance to be reborn as something less monstrous–a chance to try to redeem their damaged souls.

Tamra used to be a winner, a champion. Now she is a damaged trainer unsure how to overcome a bad reputation and mentor another champion. She only knows winning this season is her last chance to keep her daughter.

Raia is an untested rider. She has never raced, never even seen a kehok up close. Now she has to convince a trainer to take her on if she wants a chance to use the races to win her freedom and escape her domineering parents and fiance.

Together with a strange new kehok, Tamra and Raia have the potential to change the races and all of Becar forever. But only if they stay focused and remember: Only the race. Only the moment. Only the finish line in Race the Sands (2020) by Sarah Beth Durst.

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Durst’s latest standalone fantasy introduces readers to the beautiful and often brutal world of Becar–a desert country where every action can stain or elevate your soul with immediate consequences for your next incarnation. This raises, for all of the characters, thoughtful questions of how to live a moral life while also doing what needs to be done throughout the novel.

In a kingdom in flux waiting for the new emperor to be crowned, Tamra and Raia face their own mounting stakes as both women are forced to take chances on themselves and each other to try and win.

The story unfolds with a close third person narration following Tamra, Raia, and other key players in the story to create a strong ensemble cast notably including Tamra’s daughter, Yorbel–an augur with his own interest in kehoks, and Tamra’s patron Lady Evara who is the obvious successor to my favorite inscrutable fashion plate Effie Trinket.

Race the Sands is a fantasy that explores many things but at its core this is a story of mindfulness and focus as both Tamra and Raia answer what they truly want to accomplish and how far they are willing to go for those goals. The story also considers what makes a family–found or otherwise–as well as what happens when the people trusted to maintain order in society betray that trust.

Race the Sands is a fast-paced story filled with intrigue, action, and, of course, competition. A twisty, perfectly paced adventure ideal for readers who want their high fantasy with a healthy dose of mystery.

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Sarah!

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Hunted By the Sky by Tanaz Bhathena, The Hunter Games by Suzanne Collins, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Raybearer: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Raybearer by Jordan IfuekoTarisai has grown up with every luxury imaginable–except for a loving family. Her mother, known as The Lady, has kept Tarisai isolated save for a group of revolving tutors and servants afraid to get too close as she prepares her daughter for a mysterious future.

At the age of eleven Tarisai finally learns The Lady’s plan when she is sent to compete for a spot on the Crown Prince’s Council of 11. Joining the Council will give Tarisai the family she has always craved. But it will also bring her one step closer to completing her mother’s magical request: killing the Crown Prince after Tarisai has earned his trust.

As Tarisai learns more about the empire, the Crown Prince, and herself she will have to decide where her loyalties lie and if she is strong enough to choose her own path in the face of her mother’s magical compulsion in Raybearer (2020) by Jordan Ifueko.

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Ifueko’s debut fantasy blends Nigerian folklore with a melange of other influences to create a multicultural world where colonization and imperialism inform the story as much as Tarisai’s own choices. Tarisai’s first person narration offers a limited perspective increasing suspense as she tries to guess The Lady’s motives.

Large scale but vague world building and a plot with far reaching elements beyond Tarisai’s immediate concerns make this story needlessly convoluted at times. Raybearer is a dense but promising standalone fantasy ideal for readers who prefer their magic with a strong dose of political intrigue.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Mirage by Somaiya Daud, Once Upon a Broken Heart by Stephanie Garber, Ever Cursed by Corey Ann Haydu, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

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

Girl, Serpent, Thorn: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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