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

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Down Among the Sticks and Bones: A Review

“Every choice feeds every choice that comes after, whether we want those choices or no.”

cover art for Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuireIdentical twins Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way back home and were immediately sent off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children before they could bring disorder to their parents’ tidy life.

This is the story of what happened before they came back.

Jacqueline and Jillian were a matched set–identical. Perfect for their parents to split up and mold after themselves. Jacqueline wore pretty dresses and was polite and quite–her mother’s perfect daughter. Jillian was smart and loud, a tomboy through and through–not quite the son her father wanted but close.

They were five when they learned that grown ups can’t be trusted and sisters can’t always be close. They were twelve when they walked down an impossible staircase and found a world filled with death and horror where, for the first time, they can choose who they might want to be in Down Among the Sticks and Bones (2017) by Seanan McGuire.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second book in McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas which begins with Every Heart a Doorway. This novella is a prequel to the series starter.

It is an interesting exercise in patience to read the followup to an exciting novella only to realize it is a prequel and will offer no hints of what comes after for the characters you’ve already met and started to care about. Despite desperately wanting to see what happens next at the school, Down Among the Sticks and Bones is an excellent addition to the series.

McGuire continues to develop this series with strong world building and thoughtful character development. Because of the prequel nature this story can be read out of order although that will dilute some of the impact of the character development across the series.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones plays with preconceived notions about heroes and villains in a world where, in the absence of a true hero, the lesser villain may unwittingly take on the position. The story is also a scathing commentary on absent and controlling parents. The usually powerful bond between sisters seen in fantasy novels is subverted here as Jack and Jill realize they are only able to come into their own when they are apart.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is another excellent addition to this strange little series of novellas. Perfect for readers of both fantasy and horror. Fans of the series can only hope future installments will offer as much insight into other characters’ stories.

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

Every Heart a Doorway: A Review

“She was a story, not an epilogue.”

cover art for Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuireEleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is the last stop for the girls—because they are overwhelmingly girls—who managed to slip away unnoticed and pass through a magic door into another world.

They never find the same things in their worlds. Some are Nonsense while others thrive on the rules of Logic. Some are Wicked and others are high Virtue. But even with their differences the worlds all have something in common: for the children who find them they feel like home.

And for the Wayward Children the doors have closed to them—maybe forever. So now they have to learn to move on. If they can.

After her time in the Halls of the Dead, Nancy doesn’t think it’s so simple. Now that she’s surrounded by other exiles like herself the only certainty is that they are trapped together until their doors appear again. If they do.

When students at the school become victims of grisly murders Nancy seems the obvious suspect. She knows she isn’t the killer but she doesn’t know how convince anyone else of that—or to find the real culprit—anymore than she knows how to get back home in Every Heart a Doorway (2016) by Seanan McGuire.

Every Heart a Doorway is the start of McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas.

The Wayward Children are an inclusive group including the protagonist of this volume Nancy who is wary of the school partly because it is not her beloved Halls of the Dead and partly because she isn’t sure how the other students will react when she tells them she is asexual.

McGuire’s novella is well-realized and introduces readers to not just one fully-realized world but many, This story is an interesting exercise in form (as a completely contained novella) as well as genre. Within the portal fantasy framework McGuire leads her characters through a mystery, a horror story, and even a traditional coming-of-age story. And that’s just in this first installment.

Every Heart a Doorway is a wild ride and a thoughtful exploration of magic and its cost as well as a wry commentary on the mechanics of fairy tales. Highly recommended.

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

Furyborn: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You’re just my kind of dangerous.”

cover art for Furyborn by Claire LegrandOnly two people are meant to have power over all seven kinds of elemental magic–a prophesied pair of queens. The Sun Queen will bring light and salvation. Her counterpart, the Blood Queen, will summon an age of ruin and destruction.

Rielle Dardenne should not be able to wield all of the elements. Her uncontrolled magic has already cost Rielle dearly. She isn’t eager to lose more. Terrified she may be marked as the Blood Queen, she hides her power from everyone.

When her best friend Audric, the crown prince, is attacked by assassins Rielle has no choice but to intervene. The kingdom believes Rielle to be one of the queens in the prophecy. But which one? To prove her loyalty and that she is the Sun Queen, Rielle agrees to demonstrate her control and her power by completing seven trials where failure will mean death.

One thousand years later, Queen Rielle is remembered as little more than a legend–a story from when magic and angels were thought to be real. Eliana Ferracora doesn’t have time for stories. Not when it takes all of her energy to keep herself and her family alive.

Eliana isn’t proud to be a collaborator with the invading forces of the Undying Empire. But she doesn’t have time for pride or regret or pity. Not when her work as a bounty hunter is the only thing keeping her mother and her brother Remy safe. Until her mother disappears.

To save her Eliana will have to form a tenuous alliance with a mysterious man called the Wolf and embark on a dangerous mission traveling across her country to distant shores and the center of a conspiracy closer to Eliana than she can imagine.

Two queens with the power to save their world or destroy it. Two young women pushed to desperate lengths for what they love. One war that has spanned millennia and demands that both Rielle and Eliana choose a side in Furyborn (2018) by Claire Legrand.

Furyborn is the dynamic start to Legrand’s Empirium trilogy. This high fantasy novel alternates chapters between Rielle and Eliana bringing both characters closer to dangerous realizations about their world and their own roles in it. Legrand expertly manages both story lines maintaining tension throughout even in the midst of a surfeit of fight scenes.

High action and lush writing create an evocative and sensuous setting with intricate world building. The dual narrative structure makes for a fascinating setup as readers are positioned with more knowledge than almost all of the characters except, perhaps, for Eliana’s perceptive younger brother Remy and my precious Simon.

Legrand’s characters are fully realized, complex, and often flawed. Rielle’s calculated self-preservation and Eliana’s ruthless protection of her family prove that there are no easy choices for these characters who exist in a world where good and evil often walk hand in hand.

Furyborn is a taut, dramatic story filled with action, adventure, and some hints of romance. This masterful series starter is utterly engrossing and sure to leave readers eager for the installment. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Frostblood by Elly Blake, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Be sure to check back tomorrow to read my exclusive interview with Claire about Furyborn too!

Noteworthy: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Noteworthy by Riley RedgateJordan Sun is a scholarship student at the prestigious Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts. Jordan is a junior now and she has never been cast in a school play. Something her mother is quick to remember whenever she wonders if Jordan would be more valuable to the family closer to home where she can work while going to school.

The problem isn’t Jordan’s skill or talent. The problem is that Jordan’s height and deeper voice don’t fit the narrow mold of most female roles.

Jordan can’t change either of those things. But in a moment of desperation she realizes that she can use them by auditioning for The Sharpshooters–one of the school’s a cappella groups. The only problem is she’ll have to audition as a boy because the Sharpshooters are an all-male group.

Being found out could be devastating leaving Jordan shunned for the rest of her time at Kensington-Blaine and known forever as the girl who infiltrated an a cappella group. Basically the least impressive spy of all time. But the rewards are worth the risk with all of the school’s a cappella groups competing for a chance to accompany Aural Fixation on the European leg of their tour as show openers.

All Jordan wants is to prove to her school and her parents (and maybe herself) that she can thrive in a leading role. She’ll stay with the Sharps long enough to win the competition, nail the tour, and move on. Keeping the guys at arm’s length for that long should be simple. But as her friendships with the Sharps (and competition with a rival group) grow, the lies start to mount and Jordan realizes that sometimes you have to get close to people. Even if it means you might get hurt in Noteworthy (2017) by Riley Redgate.

Jordan is a first generation American and a low income student at her historically white and affluent at Kensington-Blaine. She struggles with the dissonance between her life at boarding school and her family’s struggles to make ends meet through part-time and retail jobs. Adding to that pressure are mounting hospital bills from her father’s recent hospital stay when his pre-existing health issues (he is a paraplegic) make a light cough so much worse. Still stinging from her breakup, Jordan also starts to acknowledge her bisexuality for the first time.

Despite being in a predominantly white school, Jordan’s circle of friends and acquaintances is thoughtfully diverse with characters coming to terms with parental expectations, school pressures, and their sexuality among other things. In the Sharps, Jordan quickly bonds with dry witted Nihal who is Sikh and one of my absolute favorite characters.

I so appreciate the way that Jordan acknowledges both her limitations as a poor scholarship student and also her privilege in being able to cross dress essentially on a lark–a decision she struggles with long before her secret is revealed (because of course it is revealed). While the middle is bogged down in numerous issues of varying important to the story, Noteworthy still ends suddenly and leaves readers wanting to see more of the Sharps (and maybe some payback for their rivals the Minuets).

Noteworthy is a thoughtful commentary on gender, agency, and ambition. By inhabiting the role of Julian, Jordan starts to realize how many limitations have been placed on her life–both through outside expectations from family, friends, and teachers as well as by herself. It’s only by hiding in plain sight as a boy that Jordan really gets the chance to shine and embrace her own dreams. Recommended for readers looking for a light contemporary with some meat on its bones and, of course, a cappella fans everywhere.

Possible Pairings: Not Now, Not Ever by Lily Anderson, Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg, Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner, All Summer Long by Hope Larson, The Victoria in My Head by Janelle Milanes, Famous in Love by Rebecca Serle

Warcross: A Review

“Everything’s science fiction until someone makes it science fact.”

by Marie Lucover art for Warcross by Marie LuEmika Chen’s life is a constant struggle. Since her father’s death she’s been drowning in deby as she tries to pay off the medical expenses and gambling debts he left behind. Emika is a stellar hacker but thanks to the arrest on her record she can’t get any jobs near a computer. Instead she works as a bounty hunter tracking down petty criminals who do stupid things like gamble on Warcross and hustling to stay ahead of the competition.

Warcross is the one place where Emika can relax. The virtual reality game is a diversion, a competition, and place where Emika can remember what she loves: coding. With an eviction notice hanging over her head it’s also a place where she can take a big risk and hack into the opening game of the Warcross Championship to try and steal an item and erase her debt.

When the hack goes spectacularly wrong Emika thinks she’s heading for a swift arrest and jail. But instead she is whisked to Tokyo where she meets Warcross’s creator–eccentric young millionaire Hideo Tanaka–and is hired to work as a spy and bounty hunter tracking down a hacker who is threatening the Warcross world.

To cover for her real mission Emika is placed in the Wardraft and becomes part of the Championship. Winning the Championship and finding the hacker could change Emika’s life forever. Getting too close to the truth could change the world of Warcross and beyond forever in Warcross (2017) by Marie Lu.

Warcross is the first book in Lu’s Warcross duology.

Lu has once again created a well-realized and fascinating world where virtual reality and augmented reality are plausibly integrated into everyday life. This plot-driven story is fast-paced and full of action as Emika’s investigation brings her into Tokyo as well as the virtual worlds of Warcross and the Dark World typically inhabited by criminals and hackers.

The coding and gameplay aspects of Warcross can feel convenient while more than one twist will leave readers wondering if a few frank conversations between characters could have avoided many of the novel’s main conflicts. The tension of the championship and the urgency of Emika’s investigation to track down the Warcross hacker, known only as Zero, raise the stakes enough to detract from these holes in the plot.

Warcross is filled with distinct characters from a variety of backgrounds ranging from poor Hammie, a champion Thief in Warcross who uses her winnings to support her family to DJ Ren–a champion Warcross player/French DJ sensation–and Phoenix Rider team captain Asher who is American and flies through Warcross games in virtual reality while navigating the real world in a high tech wheelchair. While Emika is immediately drawn into the camaraderie and competition surrounding Warcross (not to mention drawn to enticing and mysterious Hideo) she knows she can’t let her guard down if she wants to identify Zero and beat the other bounty hunters to the prize.

The high stakes of the Warcross championship blend well with the larger mystery of finding Zero.The excitement and twists, particularly in the second half of the novel, work well to draw readers in and help them ignore the fact that a few frank conversations could solve most if not all of Emika and Hideo’s problems.

This duology starter is filled with inventive world building, top notch characters, and provocative questions about who (if anyone) deserves a redemption arc. Warcross draws readers in with action and gaming, but where it really shines is with the thoughtful meditation on what separates heroes from villains in a world that is anything but black and white. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, For the Win by Cory Doctorow, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde, Partials by Dan Wells

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2017*

Foolish Hearts: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Foolish Hearts by Emma MillsThe entire construct of a pink party works on the expectation that the guests wear pink. Iris Huang wearing lavender to Amber Brunati’s pink party suggests exactly what she thinks of Amber and the party. But that’s just the way Iris operates–a surliness that is usually balanced out by her sweeter girlfriend, Paige Bruckner. The two have been together for most of high school and always present a united front. Always.

At least they did before Claudia overhears Paige breaking up with Iris. And gets caught eavesdropping.

Being on Iris’s bad side is punishment enough but it gets worst when Claudia and Iris have to write a paper together. Which they fail. Claudia is certain that working with Iris on the school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for extra credit promises even more torture.

But somewhere between bombing her audition and shopping for materials to help with costume production, something funny happens. Suddenly instead of sticking to what she knows and keeping her head down, Claudia’s world is starting to get bigger.

Soon Claudia realizes that appearances can be deceiving as she discovers a boy band obsession, the ineffable Gideon Pruitt, and perhaps most surprisingly of all an unexpected friendship with the last person she expects in Foolish Hearts (2017) by Emma Mills.

In her latest standalone contemporary Mills explores friendship, romance, and fandom. Claudia’s world is pretty small. She has her family and her best friend Zoe, her scholarship to a fancy prep school, and all of the culture shock that implies. Claudia also has Battle Quest the massively multiplayer online role playing game she plays with her older brother and sister, her brother-in-law, and Zoe. Together they explore the game and pursue quests to find and vanquish the elusive Lord of Wizard. Claudia knows it’s not the most interesting of lives, but she’s always liked it.

At the start of senior year everything is changing as Claudia considers a near future where she and Zoe will be separated. That paired with Iris’s threat to ruin Claudia if she blabs about overhearing the breakup is more than enough excitement and uncertainty. Usually it would also force Claudia into a tactical retreat to maintain her low profile. Working on the school play changes that as Claudia is thrust into the world of costume creation and becomes a de facto drama coach helping the cast make sense of their dense dialogue.

I almost never say this but everything about Foolish Hearts makes me so happy. This book is all of the things that I loved in This Adventure Ends (including a male lead every bit as compelling and quirky as Frank Sanger) with none of the frustrating parts. Mills’ cast is thoughtfully and effortlessly inclusive (just like real life) and features a cast of memorable, quirky characters readers will love.

Even months after finishing Foolish Hearts I am still completely overwhelmed by how much I love it and how happy this story and these characters made me. A must read for fans of contemporary (romance) novels and anyone who’s ever fallen headfirst into a fandom without looking back. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, Royals by Rachel Hawkins, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Kissing in America by Margo Rabb, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare