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, 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*

Hunted by the Sky: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Every heart holds a warrior. Some are born, some are made, while some choose to never take up arms. What you are and who you will become will be entirely up to you.”

Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz BhatenaBorn with a star-shaped birthmark on her arm, Gul could be the subject of a prophecy that predicts the downfall of King Lohar of Ambar. That’s enough for Gul to be hunted along with every other girl with such a birthmark. Never mind that Gul can barely control the immense magic she supposedly to possesses.

After years of hiding, King Lohar’s soldiers finally find Gul and her parents. Gul escapes, her parents do not.

Grieving and desperate for a way to get revenge against the king and the soldier who pulled the trigger, Gul throws in with the Sisters of the Golden Lotus–women who offer her shelter, protection and, most importantly, training in warrior magic.

Cavas has never had magic. If he had, he could afford his ailing father’s medicine without selling secrets. More importantly, his father might not be sick in the first place. But those are wishes Cavas knows better than to entertain. Joining the military might be a way out–a way to survive. But that path isn’t without its own dangers.

Thrown together in the heart of Ambar, Gul and Cavas are immediately drawn to each other even as they find themselves in a world filled with dangerous secrets that could change everything for both the kingdom and themselves in Hunted by the Sky (2020) by Tanaz Bhathena.

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Hunted by the Sky is the nail-biting start to Bhathena’s Wrath of Ambar series and her first foray into fantasy in a world inspired by medieval India. The story alternates between first person chapters narrated by Gul and Cavas.

Bhathena presents a richly detailed world filled with magic, mystery, and dangerous inequalities with non-magical humans living in poverty while at the mercy of the magical upper class’s whims. Because of that, much of this world is steeped in violence or the threat of it in the form of casual brutality as well as sexual violence leveraged as a threat to both male and female characters.

Gul and Cavas are angry protagonists, frustrated by their circumstances and looking for an escape. Neither of them expect to find each other in the midst of these much larger concerns let alone to have their paths align in surprising moments of connection.

Hunted by the Sky is an intense, fast-paced story filled with surprising twists, a unique magic system, and truly memorable characters. Recommended for readers looking for their next non-western set fantasy obsession.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Mirage by Somaiya Daud, Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Tiger at Midnight by Swati Teerdhala

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Tanaz about Hunted by the Sky too!

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

Forest of Souls: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Forest of Souls by Lori M. LeeSirscha Ashwyn has nothing and to most of her fellow cadets in the Queen’s Company she is less than nothing. None of that matters to Sirscha. She knows that she can prove them all wrong once she secures her spot as apprentice to the Queen’s Shadow–the spymaster who bows only to the queen herself.

Years of training and waiting fall apart in a flash when Sirscha’s best friend Saengo is killed during a shaman attack and Sirscha’s own shamanic powers are revealed–when she brings Saengo back to life.

Being a shaman in Thiy is a dangerous thing–something that could leave Sirscha in prison for the rest of her life. But the Spider King has other plans, believing Sirscha could be the key to strengthening the tenuous peace between Thiy’s fractious countries.

With alliances shifting and war on the horizon, Sirscha will have to embrace her new identity if she wants to secure a future for herself, Saengo, and everything she loves in Forest of Souls (2020) by Lori M. Lee.

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Forest of Souls is the first book in Lee’s Shamanborn series. It is written in Sirscha’s often sardonic first person narration.

Lee presents readers with a richly detailed and thoroughly imagined world inspired by both medieval fantasy and Chinese culture. Given the depth of the world building (the book includes a several glossaries) the story can feel short in comparison but promises even more exploration of the world of Thiy and its magic in later installments.

Sirscha is a strong, fierce heroine who struggles with self-doubt after years of being told she’d never be enough. Her journey to come into her own and embrace her power–both as a shaman and as a young warrior–is empowering; it’s impossible to not root for for Sirscha and Saengo.

Forest of Souls is a high action story filled with magic, secrets, and unbreakable friendships. Recommended for readers who want their fantasy with more inclusion, more kickass girls, and more dragons.

Possible Pairings: Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhatena, The Reader by Traci Chee, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Fireborne by Rosaria Munda, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, 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*

Scythe: A Review

Scythe by Neal ShustermanIn a post-death world, everything should be perfect. And maybe it is. There is no hunger, no disease, no poverty. Even aging is optional.

Sure, some things are boring–maybe even stagnant–but when you can literally go splat to shake things up without any consequences, does that matter?

Even a perfect world is still only so big. The population still needs to be controlled.

That’s where the scythes come in.

As the only agency who operates outside of the control of the Thunderhead–the AI that helped make this utopia a reality–scythes are tasked with culling the population. Each scythe has full freedom to choose their own methods, their own victims, and their apprentices.

Neither Rowan nor Citra expect to attract a scythe’s attention before turning their first corner. They are even more surprised when, instead of being gleaned, they are told that Scythe Faraday has chosen both of them to be his apprentices.

The problem: Only one of them will become a scythe at the end of the year. In fact, only one of them may survive in Scythe (2016) by Neal Shusterman.

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Do you ever read a book and just not get it? That was me with this one.

I’ve read Scythe twice and, honestly, I still don’t understand a lot of the appeal. The story alternates between third person narration following key players–primarily Rowan and Citra–as the story unfolds. Excerpts from scythes’ journals add another layer exposing some of this world’s inner-workings as well as its steady decay.

Shusterman has created a compelling and fully realized distant future world with a sprawling story exploring corruption, stagnation, and what living in a utopia really means. Unfortunately most of the characters fail to live up to this setting often feeling one dimensional and flat. One could argue that is the natural result of living in a world free of conflict and challenge, but that caveat doesn’t make them any more interesting to read about.

The final act of Scythe picks up a lot with increased tension, better pacing, and numerous twists even if the characters, in a lot of ways, fail to make truly key changes. I’m still not sure if I’ll knuckle through the rest of the trilogy. Recommended for readers who prefer  dystopias in utopian clothing and plot driven novels with a heavy dose of philosophical posturing.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Amber & Dusk by Lyra Selene, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Kingsbane: A Review

*Kingsbane is the second book in Legrand’s Empirium trilogy and picks up shortly after the events of the first book. To avoid spoilers and confusion, start at the beginning with Furyborn (and check out my review here).*

“I am like no one but myself.”

Kingsbane by Claire LegrandRielle Dardenne thought being anointed Sun Queen would be the end of her problems and the start of a bright future. Instead, with the Gate meant to keep angels out of Avitas failing, Rielle has to use her new command of the Empirium to repair it. But even her powers are limited and time is short to allow her to collect the castings of the saints to help focus her efforts.

Hemmed in by her responsibilities and authority figures who fear her, Rielle finds she is not immune to the angel Corien’s alluring talk of freedom and unbound power. Rielle chose to tie herself to Audric and Celdaria but she is no longer sure love is enough to determine her path.

Centuries later, Eliana Ferracora has been named Sun Queen but lacks the power to back up her new title. Unsure how to channel or control the Empirium, pressure is mounting for Eliana to demonstrate her strength and fulfill the prophecy saving humanity from the oppressive angels.

Haunted by her mother’s legacy, desperate to save the people she cares about, Eliana will have to embrace her strengths and her weaknesses to become the queen Avitas needs.

Two prophesied saviors, two sides in a brutal battle for humanity, two women forced to choose how far they are willing to go for power and protection in Kingsbane (2019) by Claire Legrand.

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Kingsbane is the second book in Legrand’s Empirium trilogy and picks up shortly after the events of the first book. To avoid spoilers and confusion, start at the beginning with Furyborn (and check out my review here).

If the first book in this trilogy was all about identity, Kingsbane is about choice as both Rielle and Eliana have to determine their loyalties in their coming battles and fully commit to them.

Legrand takes all of the intrigue, drama, and action from the beginning of this trilogy and multiplies it tenfold with bigger risks, more dangerous consequences, and more adventure for all of the characters. Readers also see more of the world of Avitas in both ages as Rielle and Eliana travel beyond their respective realms to learn more of what it means (and what it requires) to be Sun Queen.

Multiple narrators expand the story and its numerous subplots although the focus remains squarely on Rielle and Eliana as both women continue to operate in moral grey areas while trying to understand what it means to be a savior and a hero in worlds that seem more comfortable fearing and subjugating them.

Kingsbane is a sexier, darker, and even more intricately plotted installment building toward inevitable betrayals and challenges for both Rielle and Eliana. A must read for fans of the trilogy.

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

The Girl King: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Girl King by Mimi YuLu has always known she will become her father’s successor, the first female ruler in the Empire of the First Flame’s long history. She has trained for this role for her entire life. But just as she is poised to take her rightful place, her father names Set, a male cousin, as heir instead disgracing Lu and trapping her in a betrothal she never wanted.

Furious and determined to claim her rightful place as heir, Lu’s search for allies leads her to Nokhai–the only survivor of a clan of shapeshifters who may need Lu’s help to understand his shifter abilities.

Min is timid and quiet. She always thought she’d live a quiet life in her sister Lu’s shadow. But when Lu leaves to find allies for her cause, Min discovers a dangerous power of her own–one that could make Set the proper heir or give Min her own chance to claim the throne in The Girl King (2019) by Mimi Yu.

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The Girl King is Yu’s debut novel and the start of a series.

Yu creates a nuanced but dense world. Unfortunately the court intrigue and unique magic system only serve to highlight weak characterization for both Lu and Min who often come across as one note and unlikable despite their ambitions. Problematic racial dynamics within the world adds an uncomfortable layer to this story already populated by calculating and unexciting characters.

The Girl King is an interesting but not always ideally executed fantasy. Recommended for readers seeking a fantasy story with complex sister dynamics.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Descendant of the Crane by Joan He, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Before She Ignites by Jodi Meadows, Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross

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

One Dark Throne: A Review

One Dark Throne by Kendare BlakeTriplets Katherine, Mirabella, and Arsinoe are in the thick of their Ascension Year, the time when all three have to fight until only one is left alive to claim the title of queen and rule Fennbirn Island.

After the disastrous events of the Quickening, Katherine is stronger than ever–far from the sickly, weak Poisoner everyone expected at the start of the year. But what really happened on top of the Breccia Domain? And will it be enough to help her get both the crown and revenge?

Arsinoe never expected to survive the Ascension Year, not as a Naturalist with no powers to speak of and no familiar. That was before Arsinoe steeped herself in low magic and understood the secret of her true power. But will one secret be enough to change her fate?

Mirabella is arguably still the strongest sister. The temple supports her, her Elemental powers give her control over all elements. She could beat her sisters and claim the crown. But she’s no longer sure that is the future she wants.

Once again it all comes down to three sisters and, most importantly, one crown in One Dark Throne (2017) by Kendare Blake.

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One Dark Throne is the second book in Blake’s Three Dark Crowns series which begins with Three Dark Crowns. The book follows sisters Katharine, Mirabella, and Arsinoe in close third person narration with additional chapters focusing on those closest to them.

Blake continues to expand the world of Fennbirn Island as the fight for the crown escalates. The expected in-fighting, betrayals, and suspense make One Dark Throne a page turner despite its length.

The fast pace is an interesting contrast to a closer focus on the sisters’ motivations as they all struggle to make it through the Ascension Year. While Arsinoe and Mirabella are drawn together, reluctant to fight their sisters, Katherine is set further apart after her return from the Breccia Domain. This incident also highlights the pointed difference between the triplets’ upbringing where Arsinoe and Mirabella had the advantage and support of actual friends and family growing up while Katharine had poison.

One Dark Throne is an intense, action-packed installment. Higher stakes, bigger consequences, and more twists make this book a must read for fans of the series.

Possible Pairings: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Rule by Ellen Goodlett, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, The Girl King by Mimi Yu

Gravemaidens: A Review

Gravemaidens by Kelly CoonKammani dreams of becoming an accomplished healer–the position her father held before he failed to heal the lugal’s son and his family was cast down from the privileged class as punishment.

While her father drowns the shame of his disgrace and grief over his wife’s recent death with drink, Kammani manages the day to day work of treating patients. Her hopes of securing a better life for herself and her sister Nanaea are shattered when Nanaea is chosen for the dubious honor of becoming one of three sacred maidens who will accompany the ailing lugal into death.

While her sister only sees the opportunity to live briefly in luxury, Kammani knows becoming a sacred maiden is a death sentence. Determined to save her sister at any cost, Kammani embarks on a dangerous mission to sneak into the palace and try to heal the lugal before it’s too late in Gravemaidens (2019) by Kelly Coon.

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Gravemaidens is Coon’s debut novel. It is the first book in a fantasy duology set in a non-western world with piecemeal nods to ancient Sumer, Rome, and possibly Egypt with human sacrifice and a powerful god known as the Boatman.

Clunky prose and world building that falls short in terms of explanations about the ritual of the sacred maidens or other cultural norms drag down this otherwise interesting premise. Anachronistic phrases and over-the-top similes further detract from the novel’s potential. Kammani’s first person narration is filled with strangely sexualized descriptions of other female characters, including her own younger sister, with numerous mentions of full and shiny hair, straight teeth, and “womanly curves.” Throughout the novel this sexualization is equated with the preternatural beauty that distinguishes each sacred maiden.

Secondary characters who stay true to stereotype for most of the novel gain more depth near the end suggesting fans may find more to appreciate in book two.

Gravemaidens is a problematic but intriguing story. Make of that what you will.

Popular Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis, The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

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

Spinning Silver: A Review

“There’s always trouble where there’s money owed, sooner or later.”

Spinning Silver by Naomi NovikMiryem comes from a long line of moneylenders. It’s easy to become a moneylender but it’s hard to be a good one because to be a good moneylender means being cruel. Her father isn’t a good one; he finds it far easier to loan out money than collect payments thus leaving his own family destitute.

Eager to change their circumstances, Miryem takes over inuring herself to pleas for clemency in lieu of actual payments. As the family business finally begins to thrive, Miryem builds a reputation for herself borrowing silver from her grandfather and bringing back gold in return.

When an idle boast attracts the attention of the Staryk–wintry folk known for their cold hearts and brutal magic–Miryem finds herself in the center of a world where striking the right bargain could mean unimaginable wealth and the wrong one could leave her lost forever.

With high stakes and high magic everywhere, Miryem will have to rely on her wits and her nerve when payment for her bargains come due and she has to prove to the Staryk that she is as formidable as the growing rumors about her would claim in Spinning Silver (2018) by Naomi Novik.

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This standalone fantasy is a loose retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale set in a well-realized world steeped in Jewish culture and tradition. Miryem is a shrewd and capable heroine. She is well aware of the dangers the world for a young woman of means–especially a Jewish one who lends money.

What Miryem fails to realize is that those dangers extend beyond her far town and deep into the strange, cold lands of the Staryk. As Miryem learns more about the Staryk she begins to realize that greater forces are at play in both her own world and the Staryk’s–forces that may need more than her considerable smarts to conquer.

Intertwining stories and multiple points of view extend the world and explore multiple facets of both feminism and womanhood in a world that is quick to dismiss both. Nuanced and complex characterization slowly explore the varied motivations and goals of all of the characters as they work to exert influence over their spheres and fully capitalize on their own agency.

Spinning Silver is a familiar tale masterfully reimagined; a singular retelling that is as crisp and exhilirating as the first chill of winter. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, The Forest Queen by Betsy Cornwell, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Prospero Lost by L. Jagi Lamplighter, Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Hunted by Meagan Spooner

The Guinevere Deception: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Stories are not nails to be driven home. They are tapestries to be woven.”

“Sometimes we have to hide from what others see in order to be what we know we are.”

Guinevere comes to Camelot as a stranger–a princess who will marry the young king who has banished magic and his mentor, the wizard Merlin, from his kingdom as he tries to bring order to the chaos threatening to destroy everything he has worked so hard to build.

Except Guinevere died before she ever came to Camelot. No one knows the real identity of the girl who was sent to replace Guinevere–her name is a secret, her past a mystery. All that matters is that Merlin sent her to Camelot to protect Arthur.

Threats abound in Camelot as Guinevere investigates scheming nobles, mysterious new arrivals drawn by the kingdom’s promise, and magic fighting to get past her own rudimentary protections.

Magic is chaos–a natural force always waiting to reclaim what Arthur and Camelot stole away–a fact Guinevere knows better than most. With danger circling and secrets everywhere, Guinevere will have to rely on her own cunning as she decides who to trust and what to fight for in The Guinevere Deception (2019) by Kiersten White.

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The Guinevere Deception is the first book in White’s Camelot Rising trilogy.

White brings inventive world building and a feminist lens to her Arthurian retelling that centers a decidedly unique Guinevere. This historical fantasy breathes new life into the familiar source material with layers of intrigue and suspense as Guinevere tries to uncover both the hidden threats to Camelot and the secrets of her own past with Merlin.

The push and pull between the order of newly built Camelot and the chaos of primordial magic that previously ruled drive the plot forward as Guinevere comes closer to understanding Arthur’s greatest threat. This tension is mirrored by Guinevere’s struggle to be the protector she needs to be while also molding herself into the queen Arthur needs to rule beside him.

The Guinevere Deception is a fast-paced adventure filled with intrigue, magic, and the barest hints of romance and enduring friendship as Guinevere begins to make a place for herself in a kingdom she never could have imagined when Merlin plucked her out of the forest. A must reads for fans of Arthurian legend and readers looking for a fantasy with feminism and heroism in equal measure–with just a touch of existential dread to keep things interesting. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Sweet Black Waves by Kristina Perez, Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West