Witchlanders: A Review

cover art for Witchlanders by Lena CoakleyMagic is a powerful thing in the Witchlands. The magic and the lands themselves are protected by witches who are mysterious and dangerous, creatures with little time for villages like Ryder’s.

That is if the witches are even real, which Ryder still doubts. After all, he has seen no evidence of them save the relics from her mother’s time as a witch and her addiction to the flowers that she insists will call the witches to her.

When the witches do finally show up to answer his mother’s call Ryder is forced to reconsider everything he thought he believed about the witches, the Witchlands, and his own role in the prophecies his mother has been seeing in Witchlanders (2011) by Lena Coakley.

Witchlanders is classic high fantasy with a unique magic system and detailed world building. It’s also an excellent standalone in a genre that is often over-saturated with trilogies or longer series.

The story follows two boys on opposite sides of a years-long war as they try to understand their growing magic and the bond that seems to be drawing them inexorably together. Chapters alternate between their points of view as they are drawn across the Witchlands to confronting shocking revelations about their pasts, their futures, and their own connections.

While Coakley’s world is fascinating, her characters often suffer in comparison with a lack of dimension. Witchlanders is decidedly free of romance but remains a solid testament to the power of friendship as its own kind of magic.

Possible Pairings: Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow, The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima, The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Black Wings Beating by Alex London, The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier

Realm of Ruins: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Please let me be powerful.”

cover art for Realm of Ruins by Hannah WestTrouble follows Valory Braiosa wherever she goes.

Raised in Calgoran during the Age of the Accords, Valory is surrounded by elicrin magic and elicromancers. As a descendant of the legendary Queen Bristal and King Anthony, everyone assumes Valory will become a powerful elicromancer herself. But now she is almost at the end of her time at the Academy with no signs of power manifesting. With her chances of receiving an elicrin stone from the Water dwindling, Valory is forced to consider her greatest fear: a life without magic or power.

Touching the Water is no guarantee of receiving an elicrin stone. Even with careful vetting from the Academy candidates may still be deemed unworthy and drowned in the Water, their bodies lost forever. Valory’s attempt to save her cousin from such a fate proves disastrous. In the aftermath her cousin is dead, the Water is gone, and Valory now has dangerous power no one understands and which Valory can’t control.

Branded a murderer and a rogue, Valory is forced to travel far from home to try and clear her name. Across Nissera it’s apparent that a dark presence is rising and Valory might be the only one powerful enough to stop it. As danger mounts and loyalties are tested, Valory will have to embrace her power to face this danger. But all power comes at a price and this time the cost may be steeper than Valory can pay in Realm of Ruins (2018) by Hannah West.

Real of Ruins is the second book in West’s Nissera Chronicles which begins with the companion novel Kingdom of Ash and Briars.

Realm of Ruins is set one hundred years after the events of West’s debut novel Kingdom of Ash and Briars and follows a new generation of characters. An elaborate family tree at the start of the book and sly asides throughout offer nods to events of the first book although this novel can easily be read as a standalone. (A companion short story, Fields of Fire, can also be read for free online.)

Valory is as pragmatic as she is reckless. Although the implications of her new power are obvious she is still quick to jump to conclusions and easily falls prey to the manipulations of others while she tries to understand her dramatically changed circumstances.

Her efforts to clear her name are soon sidelined as she learns about the emergence of a dangerous new threat known as the Moth King or the Lord of the Elicromancers. Drawn into a hunt to stop this new enemy Valory plays a part in side plots that draw heavily from elements of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. West manages a convoluted and sometimes bloated plot admirably bringing diverging threads together to explore larger themes of power, collective memory, and the dangers of both if left unchecked.

While Valory is initially a slave to circumstance, forced repeatedly into reactive positions as her situation shifts from bad to worse, Realm of Ruins is largely about agency and choice. It is only when Valory chooses to embrace her power–and the difficult decisions she must make about how to wield it–that she is able to regain control of her fate and try to claim what she sees as her rightful power in the realm.

Realm of Ruins is an intricate and original fantasy. West blends her unique magic system with a vivid world and fairy tale elements to create a story that is entirely fascinating. Recommended for fans of fairy tales, high fantasy, and bloody revolution.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Frostblood by Elly Blake, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Stain by A. G. Howard, Furyborn by Claire Legrand

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

Kingdom of Ash and Briars: A Review

cover art Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah WestBristal’s life changes forever when she is kidnapped. Her humble life as a kitchen maid ends the moment she survives touching the Water and receives an elicrin stone.

Now Bristal is an elicromancer—one of only three people over the centuries to have survived the Water intact.

Immortal and able to wield powerful magic, Bristal is meant to take her place as a peacekeeper and kingmaker. With so much potential power at her command Bristal will have to accept her magic and embrace her destiny despite the dangers in Kingdom of Ash and Briars (2016) by Hannah West.

Kingdom of Ash and Briars is West’s debut novel and the first book in the Nissera Chronicles which continues in Realm of Ruins. (A companion short story, Fields of Fire, can also be read for free online.)

Kingdom of Ash and Briars introduces a richly layered world with a unique magic system. West’s novel is informed by numerous fairy tales (most notably Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty) positioning a reluctant Bristal in the role of fairy godmother.

Bristal’s ability to shape shift and disguise herself informs much of the story as she begins to change her appearance to manipulate individuals and, indeed, entire courts pushing Nissera toward peace and prosperity. These secondary stories play out on a larger stage as Bristal comes to terms with her newfound immortality and learns to control her magic while facing an elicromancer who would rather rule over humans than serve and protect them.

While not as all-seeing as her mentor, Brack (a character I wish we had seen more of in this novel), Bristal is patient and introspective willing to put in the time and sacrifice to do what is needed for Nissera. Her thoughtful planning and analytical nature are nice counterpoints to an otherwise frenetic plot and an often predictable villain. Romance enters the story late in the game with a lasting impact for generations to come.

Kingdom of Ash and Briars is a rich and original fantasy with a memorable world readers will want to revisit. Recommended for readers who enjoy complicated plots, wheels within wheels, and unlikely heroes.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, Stain by A. G. Howard, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch

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

The Traitor’s Game: A Review

cover art for The Traitor's Game by Jennifer A. NielsenNo one knows where Kestra Dallisor has spent the last three years. It’s better that way. The longer she can hide, the longer she can avoid becoming a pawn in her father’s political machinations to strengthen his ties to the cruel Lord Endrick. But the time for hiding has ended and Kestra has been called home.

When Kestra is kidnapped en route she faces an impossible bargain: find the Olden Blade to spare the lives of her captive servants and herself.

Simon, one of her kidnappers, doesn’t know what to make of Kestra. She is not at all like the girl he expects, certainly nothing not the girl he remembers from his childhood. But she’s also the only hope he and his people have of finding the Olden Blade and reclaiming their freedom.

There are no winners in the traitor’s game. But that won’t stop Kestra or Simon playing for all they’re worth in The Traitor’s Game (2018) by Jennifer A. Nielsen.

The Traitor’s Game is the first book in Nielsen’s new YA series. The book alternates between Kestra and Simon’s first person narrations.

Nielsen delivers high action, political machinations and the intrigue readers of her middle grade novels have come to expect. Despite some unique flourishes in the world building, this is a fairly familiar story as a lost heir tries to reclaim that which was taken by the conquerors.

Kestra and Simon are interesting foils but lack the chemistry needed for their tension and changing dynamic to sustain an entire book. Their voices in alternating chapters are often indistinguishable. The prose often feels sanitized as violence and danger is pushed off the page for readers to imagine instead of being vividly described–this choice means that the novel can work well for younger readers but also creates a stark contrast between the descriptions of the world and the actual reading experience.

The Traitor’s Game is a familiar addition to the fantasy genres. Sparse world building and under developed characters feel like missed opportunities in what could have been a far richer story. Recommended for fans of the author and readers seeking a strictly plot driven fantasy.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Everless by Sarah Holland, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian

Children of Blood and Bone: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Eleven years ago magic disappeared. Maji throughout Orïsha were brutally killed, their magic torn away before it could save them. Zélie Adebola remembers the night of the Raid when her mother was murdered and her father broken.

Now the children of the maji, Divîners, and the magicless Kosidán now live at the mercy of King Saran who has Orïsha unrecognizable as the wondrous land it once was.

It’s been a long time since Zélie‘s people had any reason to hope. But after a chance encounter in the marketplace, Zélie crosses paths with Amari–a princess and now a fugitive. Amari has stolen a that could bring magic back. But only if Zélie and her brother Tzain can help Amari outwit their pursuers led by Amari’s brother the crown prince and retrieve the other items needed for a ritual to correct the damage of the Raid eleven years ago in Children of Blood and Bone (2018) by Tomi Adeyemi.

Children of Blood and Bone is Adeyemi’s debut novel. This fantasy is inspired by Nigerian culture and is the blockbuster start to a high fantasy trilogy.

Readers need more books inspired by African cultures, readers need more books with  characters of color in leading roles. Children of Blood and Bone is a huge leap in both areas and helping to the lay the groundwork for more to come. I loved a lot of the characters, I loved the rich settings, and I loved the fast-pacing for the first half of the story.

I was less impressed with some of the plotting and world building–both of which often came across as slapdash.

Children of Blood and Bone fits nicely into what I typically refer to as “fantasy lite”–a subgenre where stories take place in a fantasy setting with high action, some romance, and lots of adventure. These stories sometimes lack a cohesive internal logic particularly when it comes to world building and magic systems. Every time Zélie runs into a problem that her magic can’t solve, the rules change so that she suddenly can. Similarly when circumstances conspire to stop Zélie and Amari in their tracks a deux ex machina appears to help them along.

The dialogue in this novel is snappy and fun but often anachronistic. Interestingly, the novel includes first person narration chapters from Zélie, Amari, and Inan–the crown prince determined to destroy magic even as he fights his growing attraction to Zélie.

Character motivations, particularly in the final act, become muddled as Zélie and readers have to decide once and for all who can be called an ally and who is truly an enemy. Adeyemi populates this story with a vibrant cast of characters in everything from skin tone and body type to personality.

Children of Blood and Bone is an engrossing if overly long fantasy. Excellent characters and action balance out a sloppy ending and underdeveloped world building. Recommended for fantasy readers looking for their next splashy adventure.

Possible Pairings: Roar by Cora Carmack, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

Beneath the Sugar Sky: A Review

“Elsewhere was a legend and a lie, until I came looking for you.”

cover art for Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuireSumi died years before she could return home to her beloved Candy Corn farmer and start a family. Long before her prophesied daughter Rini would have been born.

But Confection is a nonsense world so Rini is born anyway. The only problem is that with Sumi’s premature death the world of Confection was never saved, the Queen of Candy never beaten.

Now the world itself is fighting to erase Rini and the Queen has returned. With time running out Rini hopes that her mother’s friends can help bring Sumi home in Beneath the Sugar Sky (2018) by Seanan McGuire.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is the third book in McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas which begins with Every Heart a Doorway. This novella is a direct sequel to the first.

Beneath the Sugar Sky returns to Eleanor West’s familiar home for wayward children who can no longer find their way back to the other worlds that claimed them. This installment returns to familiar characters including Nancy, Kade, and Christopher.

The bulk of the story is in the close third person perspective of Cora, the newest student at the school. Cora arrived after the events of Every Heart a Doorway and spends a lot of this story trying to reconcile her new circumstances with the story she is clearly joining mid-way and, more confusing for her, the fact that she seems welcome to find her own place in it.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is a thoughtful fantasy and a quest story. This novella is once again imbued with feminist themes. Through Cora, who is overweight but stronger than most people giver her credit for thanks to years of swimming (both in our world and elsewhere), this novella also confronts the damaging stereotypes surrounding body image and beauty.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is an empowering and original story about choosing your own path as Cora and her friends help Rini literally remake the world to save Sumi and herself.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, 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, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Girl Power Graphic Novels Blog Tour: Featuring Cucumber Quest!

Girl Power Graphic Novels Blog Tour HeaderI always love finding new graphic novels and comics so I was thrilled when I got the chance to join First:Second’s Girl Power Graphic Novels Blog Tour.

While all of the comics were delightful, a new favorite quickly emerged the moment I opened Cucumber Question: The Doughnut Kingdom (2017) and its sequel Cucumber Quest: The Ripple Kingdom (2018) by Gigi D. G.

In Dreamside in a house in the Doughnut Kingdom a young rabbit named Cucumber is preparing to head to magic school. His plans are dashed when his parents reveal that Cucumber is the latest in a line of Legendary Heroes and it is his destiny to save The Doughnut Kingdom and Dreamside from the Nightmare Knight.

While Cucumber appreciates the predicament, he’d much rather go to magic school and leave saving the world to literally anyone else. Luckily (or perhaps not) Cucumber’s younger sister Almond is all about adventure, swords, and fighting so she is more than ready to drag Cucumber along on this epic quest.

Saving the kingdom won’t be easy when allies include a hapless Dream Oracle and a knight armed with little more than charm and a flimsy spear. The quest will take both young rabbits far from home as they travel across Dreamside to gather the tools they need to save the day.

Cucumber Quest: The Doughnut Kingdom is a great introduction to D. G.’s vivid and bizarre world (which started life as a webcomic before the volumes were collected by First:Second) as Cucumber and Almond embark on their journey to try and stop the Nightmare Knight. The adventure continues in Cucumber Quest: The Ripple Kingdom when (spoiler) the Nightmare Knight does in fact return and he and his minions need to be stopped–one kingdom at a time.

The first book includes a great map of The Doughnut Kingdom (shown above) and trading card style intros for all of the characters. Volume Two’s bonus material has more character trading cards and a tourist guide to Cucumber and Almond’s next stop: The Ripple Kingdom. D. G. uses a surprisingly color palette that is bright without being jarring. The comic panels are dynamic and filled with amazingly expressive characters.

These comics are zany and incredibly clever. The cast is filled with strong characters including the mysterious thief, Saturday, and the charmingly forgetful Princess Nautilus. Then of course there’s Almond, the girl who would happily save the world if only any of the adults in Dreamside would let her. Cucumber astutely engages with a lot of the obvious flaws in quest stories (How is Cucumber really the best choice for this? Why is it so easy to resurrect the Nightmare Knight anyway? What’s up with his dad in that cell?) while also embodying everything that makes quest stories so fun (reluctant hero! adventure! mayhem!).

I can’t wait to see what happens when Cucumber, Almond, and the rest of their team head to The Ripple Kingdom.

Be sure to check out all of the titles featured on the blog tour too:

  • Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter by Marcus Sedgwick and Thomas Taylor: A Victorian tale of derring-do and also girls fighting monsters.
  • Cucumber Quest by Gigi D.G: A bunny-filled fantasy adventure of a kingdom in distress and some reluctant (and non-reluctant) heroes.
  • The City on the Other Side by Mairghread Scott and Robin Robinson: A historical San Francisco adventure of a girl who accidentally ends up in fairyland.
  • Star Scouts by Mike Lawrence: A girl scout adventure–but in outer space!
  • Monsters Beware! by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado: A fantasy adventure of defying expectations and friendship (and monsters).

You can also check out these blog tour stops: