My Calamity Jane: A Review

My Calamity Jane by Jodi Meadows, Cynthia Hand, Brodi AshtonThe story starts in Cincinnati in 1876 with “Wild Bill’s Wild West,” a traveling western show run by Bill Hickok. The show is always a big attraction featuring the legendary lawman, Frank Butler the Pistol Prince, and none other than Calamity Jane–heroine of the plains.

But the show has a secret: Bill along with his adoptive children Frank and Jane uses the show as a cover to hunt garou (you might know them as werewolves).

Jane is thrilled to have a family after so long on her own. Frank loves the show almost as much as his poodle, George. Neither of them is sure what will happen to the show (or them) when they find the subject of their hunt and Bill is able to retire.

Things go wrong very quickly after Annie Oakley (or rather, Annie Mosey–she isn’t the Little Sureshot yet!) tries to join the show. Annie earns her way into the show, soundly beating Frank in a shooting competition. But does shooting prowess mean Annie can be trusted with the hunt’s real purpose–especially when she seems to hate garou more than anything?

When a hunt leaves Jane with something that looks a lot like a garou bite, she has one desperate change to find a cure in Deadwood–a town that holds secrets and dangers for Jane and everyone she cares about in My Calamity Jane (2020) by Jodi Meadows, Cynthia Hand, and Brodi Ashton.

Find it on Bookshop.

In case you couldn’t tell, My Calamity Jane is a western mashup re-imagining the real lives of narrators Calamity Jane, Frank Butler, Annie Oakley, as well as Bill Hickok and many other legends of the American west. Although many events have changed, the story stays true to the spirit of these real life historical figures while offering more optimistic ends for many. This is particularly true for Jane whose lonely life is reimagined here with a sweet queer romance and whose penchant for chaos and self-destruction is reframed as an asset..

While Jane centers this story, Annie and Frank’s romance from their first shooting competition to their growing respect and eventual partnership on stage anchors much of the plot. It’s also almost entirely true (minus the werewolves).

The American West, as seen by white settlers and romanticized for white audiences in popular cultural, is inherently problematic. The authors acknowledge this in their omniscient narration and in conversations Annie has with Many Horses and Walks Looking, Lakota sisters whose help and practical advice are crucial to efforts to save Jane before it’s too late.

The story explores themes of allyship and tolerance through Annie’s interactions with garou (taking the place of the abusive family who kept Annie hostage as a child whom, even in her memoirs, Annie only ever referred to as “the wolves”) rather than using the only Native characters for a teachable moment. The acknowledgements include a list of further reading including several Native perspectives.

My Calamity Jane is a delightfully inventive reinterpretation of the old west; a tall tale filled with found family, fancy shooting, humor, and adventure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown; An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States For Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza; Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West by Candace Fleming; Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the June 2020 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

My Plain Jane: A Review

My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi MeadowsYou might think you know Jane Eyre’s story: her childhood privation, her governess position at Thornfield Hall, and her immediate attraction to the dark and brooding Mr. Rochester. You’d be wrong. Mostly because you haven’t heard about the ghosts. Don’t worry, though, My Plain Jane (2018) by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows has you covered.

This standalone alternate history novel inserts teenage aspiring author Charlotte Brontë into the world of her own making (with the addition of ghosts) as she chronicles the life of her best friend at Lowood, Jane Eyre, as inspiration for her first novel about the life of one “Jane Frere.”

Charlotte’s authorial ambitions and Jane’s plans to become a governess are thwarted when Jane’s ability to see ghosts comes to the attention of Alexander Blackwood, an agent for the once prestigious Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits. Determined to help his mentor restore the Society to its past glory, Alexander is keen to recruit Ms. Eyre as an agent–even if it means taking off his ever-present mask and accepting help from the overly eager Ms. Brontë and her screw up brother. This simple task spirals into a madcap story of ghosts, possession, revenge, and murder as Charlotte, Jane, and Alexander must set aside their differences to solve the mysteries of Thornfield Hall, help the Society (and the ghosts), and maybe even save the king of England in the process.

Narrated by Charlotte, Jane, and Alexander in alternating chapters My Plain Jane uses Jane Eyre as a loose framework for the plot which is populated with familiar characters from both the classic novel and history as well as numerous Easter eggs including a likely explanation for the origins of Charlotte’s chosen pen name and excerpts from Jane Eyre as seen in Charlotte’s trusty notebook.

My Plain Jane blends fact with fiction in a humorous story that offers a gentler and more hopeful outcome for Charlotte and her siblings along with a more plausible ending for anyone who ever wondered why Jane Eyre would marry a man twice her age after his first wife is discovered in the attic. A must-read for fans of My Lady Jane or Jane Eyre and a fun alternative for fans of paranormal romances.

Possible Pairings: Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer

*A more condensed version of this review was published the March 2018 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

The Mirror King: A Review

*The Mirror King is the final book in a duology. This review has spoilers for the first book The Orphan Queen.*

cover art for The Mirror King by Jodi MeadowsEverything changed the moment she revealed herself as princess Wilhemina Korte and vowed to reclaim her kingdom of Aecor and the Vermillion Throne. Now Wil is torn between old allies and new friends as she struggles to become the leader her people deserve.

Wil’s closest ally Tobiah has been gravely wounded and struggles with his own reluctance to take his place on the Indigo Throne when he would much prefer to continue his vigilante work as Black Knife.

Both Wil and Tobiah will have to put aside their differences and their decisions as the Wraith continues to grow in power and come closer to their homes. Wil controlled the Wraith once with disastrous consequences. She isn’t sure she can trust herself, or her magic, to try again.

For the last ten years Wil has relied on her anonymity to keep her safe. Now, as alliances crumble and dangers loom she will have to learn to place her trust in others and step into the light if she wants to save her kingdom and everyone she cares about in The Mirror King (2015) by Jodi Meadows.

The Mirror King is the final book in a duology which began with The Orphan Queen. Meadows once again writes this story in Wil’s pragmatic first person narration.

This series–and particularly this book–highlights everything that can be done when a duology is handled well. The Mirror King continues to explore themes of identity and leadership in this novel while also expanding the world and the story as Wil and her friends race to stop the Wraith. Even the cover art nicely ties back to book one with clever design choices.

Wil’s external conflicts with the Wraith and to reclaim Aecor are juxtaposed against her reluctance to become a queen when she feels ill-prepared for the responsibilities or the costs. There are no easy choices for Wil or Tobiah and Wil’s development throughout the series illustrates that as she begins to understand and accept her obligations.

The Mirror King is an excellent conclusion to a fast-paced, truly engaging fantasy series. Highly recommended for fans of high fantasy novels filled with intrigue, adventure, and just a little romance.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian, The Storyspinner by Becky Wallace, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf

The Orphan Queen: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Ten years ago the Indigo Kingdom invaded Aecor, assassinated the king and queen, and claimed Aecor as its own territory during the One-Night War. Princess Wilhemina and the other orphaned noble children were taken to the capital city of Skyvale but managed to escape a life of captivity within the walls of an orphanage.

Now seventeen Wil and the other orphans, the Ospreys, are experts at stealth and theft after years of training and preparation. They are all ready to do everything they can to help Wil reclaim her throne. Even if it means Will has to assume the identity of a dead girl to infiltrate the palace.

That isn’t Wil’s only secret or her only obstacle. Magic has been outlawed for a century in a failing effort to push back the Wraith–a toxic by-product of magic that threatens to overtake the Indigo Kingdom sooner than anyone could have imagined. Wil’s own magic might be able to help her reclaim her throne and stop the Wraith. But only if she is able to keep her secrets–something that becomes increasingly unlikely when she attracts the attention of the notorious vigilante Black Knife. Nothing is as it seems in Skyvale and time is running out. Wil is poised to become a queen, but first she’ll have to prove she has what it takes to lead in The Orphan Queen (2015) by Jodi Meadows.

The Orphan Queen is the first book in a duology. Wil’s story concludes in The Mirror King.

The Orphan Queen is a plot-driven fantasy novel filled with action and intrigue. Narrated by Wil the novel follows her efforts to infiltrate the Indigo Kingdom and do whatever it takes to reclaim her throne. Slinking through the kingdom at night searching out materials for her forgery efforts Wil also has to avoid Black Knife–a vigilante known throughout the Indigo Kingdom for his work hunting down illegal magic users and arresting them for the crown.

These efforts play out against the larger backdrop of a world that is slowly be ravaged by Wraith–a substance that twists and ruins everything it touches as it gains strength from magic use. The more I read about the Wraith in The Orphan Queen the more it struck me as the perfect analogy for climate change and our current struggles with global warming.

While a lot of information about the Wraith is withheld from readers (we are, after all, limited to what Wil knows and she’s been in hiding since she was seven) this bit of world building felt ingenious and added a fair level of complexity to a world that otherwise might have been very black and white. The ethics surrounding magic use both as a kingdom and as an individual are things Wil struggles with throughout the novel as she contemplates her role in dealing with the Wraith should she manage to reclaim her throne.

My main issue with The Orphan Queen is that all of the characters are too young. This is something that happens a lot in young adult novels because there’s an idea that you can’t be a “young” adult without being an actual teen. Because of that the Ospreys are somehow trained, mentored, and led by Wil’s closest ally Patrick who takes on these responsibilities at the tender age of eleven. In addition to pushing willing suspension of disbelief to its limit, this also raises questions about how much Wil can actually remember of her childhood home or the One-Night War itself. Unfortunately, these questions remain not just unanswered but largely unasked in a moment of wasted potential for an otherwise strong novel.

Wil’s first person narration is engaging and entertaining as she moves seamlessly between identities as a princess, a rebel, a forger, and a fighter. Wil is calculating and clever but she is also compassionate and desperate to reclaim her kingdom and stop the Wraith with as little bloodshed as possible–something that becomes increasingly difficult as Wil’s various identities begin to overlap and she becomes torn between new alliances and old loyalties.

The Orphan Queen is a strong start to a fast-paced and delightfully exciting duology. Recommended for readers looking for a fantasy novel with high stakes action, intrigue, and just a touch of romance. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian, The Storyspinner by Becky Wallace, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf

My Lady Jane: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi MeadowsEdward (King of England, teenage boy, lover of blackberries, and dogs) is dying. Before he has a chance to kiss a girl or do much of anything with his tragically short life. Edward would like to wallow about his pending demise thanks to “the Affliction” but instead he’s facing a lot of pressure to secure his line of succession. Unsure if he can trust his sister Bess with the crown, and positive he can’t trust his blood-thirsty sister Mary, Edward’s only option seems to be his cousin. Jane.

Lady Jane Grey has little interest in marriage or the crown. But faced with a royal decree arranging her marriage, she has little choice but to comply. When she ends up married to Lord Gifford Dudley–an aspiring poet by night and a horse by day thanks to his uncontrolled Eðian (eth-y-un) magic–she is resigned to a quiet life with a husband who may or may not be horrible.

Then Jane’s dear cousin Edward dies (or does he?) setting off a hectic nine days with Jane in the throne and, eventually, on the run with her new husband in My Lady Jane (2016) by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows.

My Lady Jane is a delightful historical fantasy co-written by three authors (who will be writing at least two more “Jane” books about other famous Janes in history). The novel alternates first-person narration between Edward, Jane, and G.

The authors start the book with a preface explaining that this book offers an alternate (and true, according to them) history of England and Lady Jane Grey. The authors don’t expand upon what they changed but interested readers can easily research the key players online. The addition of shape-shifter magic works surprisingly well within the context of English politics at the time.

My Lady Jane is a page-turner filled with adventure, action, sweet romance, and even some magic. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, The Romantics by Leah Konen, These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer