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*

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.

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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*

Sorcery of Thorns: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Knowledge always has the potential to be dangerous. It is a more powerful weapon than any sword or spell.”

Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret RogersonBooks are always dangerous things, but especially so in Austermeer’s Great Libraries where magical grimoires whisper beneath iron chains that prevent them from ensorcelling any who stray too near. Releasing a grimoire could lead to disaster if it has time to run unchecked and transform into a monstrous creature of ink and leather.

Elisabeth grew up among these creatures and more as a foundling in one of the Great Libraries. Her dreams of remaining there and earning her status as a librarian are dashed when a grimoire is unleashed and she is blamed.

Desperate to clear her name and discover the true culprit, Elisabeth forms a risky alliance with the sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn. Together they uncover a far-reaching conspiracy to destroy the Great Libraries and possibly the rest of the world.

Elisabeth has always known that sorcerers are evil. Who else would be able to use magical grimoires to summon demons and perform magic? But as Elisabeth realizes Nathaniel might be the only person she can trust, she will have to question everything she thought she knew about sorcerers, demons, and herself if she hopes to save all that she holds dear in Sorcery of Thorns (2019) by Margaret Rogerson.

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Rogerson’s sophomore novel is a delightful standalone fantasy filled with all of my favorite things. While the story is often plot driven as Eilsabeth tries to discover the culprit behind attacks on the Great Libraries and clear her name, this story really shines when focusing on the characters.

Elisabeth’s world is very small at the start of this novel. The Great Library is all she has ever known and, for the most part, all she thinks she needs. It is only as she begins to work with Nathaniel that she realizes some of her deepest held beliefs might be fundamentally flawed. This kind of character development could feel heavy-handed or leave readers with a small-minded protagonist in the hands of a lesser author but Rogerson pulls it off expertly.

Nathaniel is the sarcastic, brooding, bisexual male lead of your dreams complete with his undying loyalty to servant Silas who is one of the best friends found in fantasy literature (and also canonically asexual).

Throughout the course of the novel, all three main characters struggle to transcend what is expected of them and their chosen identities to become something better and, in doing so, try to save each other and their world. Sorcery of Thorns is a charming adventure with a carefully managed plot filled with twists and turns as well as thoroughly enjoyable world building and powerful friendships. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Lirael by Garth Nix, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, A Treason of Thorns by Laura E. Weymouth, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

Don’t Go Without Me: A Graphic Novel Review

Don't Go Without Me by Rosemary Valero-O'ConnellDon’t Go Without Me (2020) by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell is a triptych collection of three comic stories.

In “Don’t Go Without Me” there is a rumor that when you stand in a certain place at a certain time, you can be transported to a different realm–one that exists next to ours in secret. When two lovers cross over, they find themselves separated and forced to barter stories in exchange for clues that might bring them back to each other. But when every trade costs something, how much do either of them have to lose?

“What Is Left” starts when a ship crashes. The ship runs on memories, but when the engine malfunctions the lone surviving engineer finds herself awash in memories of someone else’s life.

For years in “Con Temor, Con Ternura” (With Fear, With Tenderness), a small ocean-side town has watched the sleeping giant at the edge of their town. While they wait for the predicted date when the giant is supposed to wake, the town decides to greet their future head on with a party. But they soon learn that preparing for an expected outcome is not the same as meeting it.

Don’t Go Without Me is an excellent collection of speculative fiction graphic novels exploring human relationships stretched outside of typical norms. Unique restricted color palettes differentiate between each story here and allow Valero-O’Connell’s distinct style to shine in each panel.

Intricate backgrounds and lush artwork offset characters dealing, in each story, with themes of isolation and connection as best they can. Although Don’t Go Without Me can be grim, it is also beautiful and meditative. Valero-O’Connell continues to demonstrate that she is an artist and author to watch.

Havenfall: A Review

Havenfall by Sara HollandHavenfall is a world unto itself–an inn situated at the gateways between worlds offering neutral ground for the Last Remaining Adjacent Realms. It’s also the one place where people believe Maddie Marrow when she tells them what really happened to her brother all those years ago.

Maddie knows that this summer is her last chance to prove herself to her uncle Marcus and earn her spot as his successor running the inn. She’s up to the challenge. But when Maddie gets to Havenfall she realizes that things have started changing. Her best friend Brekken is a Fiordenkill soldier, Marcus is keeping secrets, and then there’s the new girl–Taya–who is supposed to be temporary help for the summer but draws Maddie’s attention more than she cares to admit.

When a body is found on the grounds and Marcus is attacked, Maddie is left to pick up the pieces and figure out the truth before Havenfall and the tenuous peace it represents is ruines in Havenfall (2020) by Sara Holland.

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As the start of a new series, Havenfall lays a lot of groundwork introducing readers to Maddie’s world at the inn and the adjacent realms Fiordenkill and Byrn as well as Solaria, a rogue realm whose portal was sealed off years ago. While the premise is interesting and offers a unique spin on traditional portal fantasies, the world building is one of the bigger problems with this book.

One of the tenets of the story is that that the porous nature of the portals between realms is part of why we have myths with magic even though Earth does not have magic of its own. Solarians–the main villain for a significant part of Havenfall–come from a world that is associated with mythology including djinn, vampires, demons, and soulstealers. This choice is problematic because djinn are also the only non-white/non-western mythology named in the entire story. It’s also the only mythos associated with a specific religion/culture which, again, here is being coded as villainous.

I won’t get into spoilers explaining Maddie’s history with Solaria but suffice to say that her hatred of the entire Solarian race informs a lot of her character. Does Maddie eventually see the error or her ways? Yes. Are reparations being made? Kind of. Did we need to spend an entire book vilifying an entire race (which although presented as white in the novel is the only group in the book associated with a nonwhite culture)? Absolutely not. What’s worst, the only notable person of color in the entire cast of characters is Marcus’s husband who is from one of the other “good” worlds.

Holland’s ambitious world building never gels enough to transcend this messy foundation. Similarly, the plot never quite comes together despite ample time spent setting up the story with an incredibly slow beginning. Maddie is bisexual–a fact that is refreshingly a nonissue for her family and friends but which also hints at a love triangle that frustratingly never leads anywhere interesting.

Havenfall is a mystery wrapped in a portal fantasy setting that centers an ambitious if often naive heroine. Recommended for readers who prefer slow building suspense to quick action and are willing to overlook messy world building entirely.

Possible Pairings: Caraval by Stephanie Garber, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, Mister Monday by Garth Nix, Stealing Snow by Danielle Paige, The Archived by Victoria Schwab

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

Wicked As You Wish: A Review

Wicked As You Wish by Rin ChupecoThere are a hundred names for magic in the Tagalog language but no matter what you call it, Makilings can negate it. This long line of Filipina warriors can render spells and modern spelltech useless. At least, that’s the idea. Tala Warnock is still getting the hang of it.

Even as a novice, Tala’s unique ability will come in handy when her best friend Alex has to  journey to Avalon–one of the Royal States of America’s neighboring kingdoms–to reclaim his throne. The only problem? For the past twelve years Avalon has been encased in ice and largely impenetrable with its residents trapped in an enchanted slumber.

Guided by the firebird–a creature thought to have shifted from reality to myth–Tala and a ragtag group of misfits from the Order of the Bandersnatch will have to work together to get Alex safely into Avalon and back on his throne in Wicked As You Wish (2020) by Rin Chupeco.

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Wicked As You Wish is the start of Chupeco’s A Hundred Names For Magic duology. Close third person narration keeps the focus primarily on Tala. The breakneck pacing of the opening chapters does not let up as Tala is thrown headfirst into her world’s political conflicts and her own parents’ murky roles in the recent war.

Chupeco’s world building draws on varied fairy tales and myths (both western and non-western) to create a dynamic alternate reality filled with magic and mayhem along with a somewhat on-the-nose nod to the current USA president in the form of King Muddles. A large ensemble cast, snappy dialog, and the general madcap pacing keep the story moving while also keeping Tala in the dark about a lot of the larger plots at play.

Wicked As You Wish is a frenetic, zany series starter with an inclusive and distinct cast of characters. Recommended for readers who like their fantasies fast, funny, and full of adventure.

Possible Pairings: The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige, The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde

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

The Night of Your Life: A Review

The Night of Your Life by Lydia SharpJJ and Lucy made pact to go to prom together if they both wound up dateless. While JJ’s being single is pretty much a foregone conclusion at this point, he’s surprised to find Lucy still dateless and going with him on the day of the prom.

Prom is the perfect chance for JJ to have a last hurrah with all of his friends and he can’t imagine anyone he’d want to spend it with more than Lucy.

Except everything goes wrong.

JJ wants nothing more than to forget that prom ever happened. But when he wakes up, it’s prom day again.

With endless chances to try and fix things, JJ has to figure out if he can chase his perfect prom while holding onto his best friend in The Night of Your Life (2020) by Lydia Sharp.

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This standalone contemporary takes on a speculative twist as JJ relives his prom over and over again trying to improve events and break the loop. Despite the high concept premise, The Night of Your Life‘s main strength is the LGBTQ+ representation which adds a nice layer to an otherwise flat story.

JJ is an extremely vanilla narrator with few defining traits beyond being excited about prom and an unfortunate predilection for making up words (like “twibble). He is a terrible friend who chooses not just to ditch Lucy when a cute girl’s car breaks down but also never tells her what is actually happening. Why he deserves numerous chances to fix his prom night, let alone why he deserves a friend like Lucy, remains unclear.

Stilted writing in both JJ’s first person narration and the dialog make most of the relationships in the novel feel forced and do nothing to hint at even a little chemistry between JJ and Lucy as the next phase of their friendship (and if they should pursue anything more) becomes the main question of the story.

The Night of Your Life is an uninspired take on a familiar premise. Unless you’re all about that prom setting, skip this one and read A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody for a better executed version of the same conceit.

Possible Pairings: The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando, A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, Two Summers by Aimee Friedman, Shuffle, Repeat by Jen Klein, Parallel by Lauren Miller, Famous in a Small Town by Emma Mills

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

Foul is Fair: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Foul is Fair by Hannah CapinElle’s glittering life is torn to shreds when she and her friends crash a St. Andrew’s Prep party and the golden boys there choose Elle as their latest target.

Her best friends Mads, Jenny, and Summer get Elle out of there. They help her bandage the cuts, throw out the ruined dress, and most importantly change her appearance.

Because after that night, after what they did to her, Elle is gone.

She’s Jade now and she is going to make every single boy who hurt her pay.

Her parents are going to turn a blind eye. Her coven of best friends are going to help. And a boy named Mack is going to take the blame for all of it in Foul is Fair (2020) by Hannah Capin.

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Capin’s modern retelling of Macbeth is a gory revenge fantasy set against a world of luxury and decadence and LA’s upper echelon. (Readers can find a content warning at the front of the book as well as on the author’s website.)

Jade’s first person narration is sleek, sharp, and almost lyrical enough to call iambic pentameter to mind. While the story does little to develop any character beyond their designated role in this revenge fantasy, Jade’s coven of friends is diverse including bisexual Summer, Jenny who is Korean, and Mads–a trans girl and Jade’s oldest and best friend.

The accelerated timeline and copious murder both require a willing suspension of disbelief as Jade sets her revenge quest in motion–all over the course of one week.

Foul is Fair is as bloody as it is campy. Recommended for readers who prefer their revenge fantasies with justifiably angry girls and a healthy dose of gore.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Burn for Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian, Anna K.: A Love Story by Jenny Lee, The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Kingdom by Jessica Rothenberg, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

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

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

Angel Mage: A Review

“They had been drawn into the affairs of the great and could not easily escape.”

Angel Mage by Garth NixLiliath has spent more than a century hiding, asleep, hoping to regroup after the Fall of Ystara before she tries to reunite with her lover, Ystara’s archangel Palleniel. Rallying Ystara’s descendants around her, Liliath prepares to use her formidable angelic magic to be with Palleniel at long last.

But she will need more than Ystarans who have long been shunned by the angels–unable to benefit from even the most basic angelic magic without fear of being killed by the Ash Blood plague or transformed into beastlings–to complete her plan.

In nearby Sarance, four young people are the last pieces she needs: Simeon’s dreams of becoming a doctor are sidetracked when a scientific procedure goes horribly wrong; Henri, an opportunist to his core, thinks his luck may have changed when he receives a new position; Agnez has earned her way into the musketeers as a cadet; and Dorotea’s hopes to be left alone to study icon-making and angelic magic are dashed when her singular skill draws unwanted attention.

The four are immediately drawn to each other even as happenstance and greater forces conspire to bring them together. Although they start as Liliath’s pawns, these four unlikely friends may also be the only ones who can stop her in Angel Mage (2019) by Garth Nix.

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Nix’s newest standalone fantasy showcases a true ensemble cast with shifting close third person perspective in each chapter following the four friends and, notably, the story’s antagonist Liliath.

Despite the magical additions, Angel Mage is uncannily timely as the characters explore themes of tolerance and discrimination in a world with a refugee crisis of its own. Inventive magic and an inclusive society give this story a setting with refreshingly modern sensibilities. This story is also notably free of all but the barest hints of romance. Instead, the growing friendship and trust between Simeon, Henri, Agnez, and Dorotea takes center stage as the four friends work together to understand the conspiracy into which they have been drawn and how best to use their distinct skills to try to stop it.

Angel Mage is an homage to friendship, magic, and The Three Musketeers–elements which blend surprisingly well in this fast-paced adventure. While Simeon, Henri, Agnez, and Dorotea’s journey reaches a logical and earned conclusion, fans can only hope Nix will return to this world again one day.

Possible Pairings: Rosemarked by Livia Blackburne, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Flamecaster by Cinda Williams Chima, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, Dance of Thieves by Mary E. Pearson, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*