Ash Princess: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Ash Princess by Laura SebastianTen years ago invaders killed Theodosia’s mother, the Fire Queen of Astrea, enslaved her people, and stole her name.

Over many long years, Theo has learned how to play the game. Don’t anger the Kaiser and stay alive. She plays along with his manipulations, silently accepts his punishments, and hides behind the persona of Thora–the meek girl the Kaiser thinks she has become.

But when Theo is forced to do the unthinkable she reaches a breaking point.

Survival is no longer enough. After years of hiding, it’s time for Theo to fight and reclaim everything that has been stolen in Ash Princess (2018) by Laura Sebastian.

Ash Princess is Sebastian’s debut novel and the start of a trilogy.

Sebastian’s richly described world, complex elemental magic, and fraught politics add new twists to this familiar story. Unfortunately one element that remains the same is that the enslaved Astreans are “tawny skinned” and dark haired while the invading Kalovoxians are pale and blonde–a common trope that is played out and could do with more unpacking in this and other similar titles.

Theo is a survivor who has learned how to hide in plain sight. Because of her small world and her captivity her first person narration often feels claustrophobic as she struggles to plot her way out of the Kaiser’s clutches.

Ash Princess’s promising in contrived plot is marred by an erratic timeline that brings Theo’s interactions with the Kaiser’s son Prinz Søren from calculated seduction as part of an assassination attempt to actual love in the blink of an eye. Theo’s shift from trying to keep herself alive while waiting for a rescue that never comes shifts equally fast to Theo placing herself in the center of a rebellion plot as a spy.

Theo’s perilous situation and the high stakes of the story are not enough to distract from a second half that drags while characters dither over who to trust, who to love, and (perhaps most relevantly) who to kill. While Theo is an interesting and strong heroine, she is not always sympathetic with unclear motivations for her numerous poor decisions throughout the book.

Ash Princess is an entertaining, plot-driven fantasy. Recommended for readers who like their fantasy angsty and their characters morally ambiguous at best.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, Everless by Sara Holland, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Amber & Dusk by Lyra Selene

Amber & Dusk: A Review

cover art for Amber & Dusk by Lyra SeleneSylvie has always known that she was destined for greater things. She is certain that her life as an orphan with the Sisters of Scion is only a small blip on her path to greatness. When she comes into her legacy–a magical talent that is believe to only belong to the upper class–Sylvie knows it’s a sign.

Sneaking onto a caravan Sylvie makes her way from the very edges of the Dusklands when the darkness of the Dominion constantly looms into the Amber City’s palais Coeur d’Or at the heart of the Amber Empire. In this city where the sun never sets, Sylvie assumes that her magic to create illusions will be enough to earn her a place in the Empress’ court.

Instead Sylvie finds herself the center of a wager, the butt of a cruel joke, among the palais courtiers. Sponsored by an enigmatic noble called Sunder Sylvie must learn to control her legacy as she navigates the dangerous games within the palais. Under her new name, Mirage, she will have to fight to earn her place at the palais while deciding how much she is willing to lose in Amber & Dusk (2018) by Lyra Selene.

Amber & Dusk is Selene’s debut novel.

Luxuriant descriptions underscore the complex world Selene has created where the sun never leaves the sky and the moon never rises. Complex magic and class systems add layers to this story, particularly once Sylvie arrives at a court reminiscent of Versailles.

Sylvie is unapologetic about her ambitions and shrewdly pursues her imagined destiny despite numerous obstacles and warnings from other characters that the palais is not the paradise she might imagine. Reckless and sometimes ruthless, Sylvie throws herself into her new life as Mirage without fully considering the risks or consequences of her choices.

While Sylvie/Mirage is a compelling if sometimes frustrating heroine, the rest of the cast is often one-dimensional by comparison. Mirage’s sponsor Sunder–so named for his legacy’s ability to cause pain–is as mysterious as he is problematic.

Amber & Dusk is a seductive fantasy filled with magic and machinations in equal measure complete with an ending that will leave fans clamoring for a sequel.

Possible Pairings: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, Stain by A. G. Howard, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian, And I Darken by Kiersten White

Three Sides of a Heart: Stories about Love Triangles: A Review

cover art for Three Sides of a Heart: Stories about Love TrianglesEvery reader has an opinion on love triangles. Some avoid them at all costs. Others, including myself, are happy to read them provided they are done well. (You can also check out the defense of love triangles and instalove that I put together on Veronica’s blog for Contemporary Conversations: “Bad” Romance: In Defense of Love Triangles and Insta-Love.)

As a fan of love triangles in a variety of genres, I was excited to check out Three Sides of a Heart: Stories about Love Triangles (2017) a short story collection edited by Natalie C. Parker. This collection features a variety of authors and offers a fairly inclusive group of voices among the authors and characters. The stories cover a variety of love triangle configurations with male, female, and gender fluid characters of varied sexual orientations. The stories also exhibit a diversity of incomes and lifestyles and cover themes of mental illness as well. (It’s worth noting that physical disabilities are not featured in this collection.) Most importantly, these stories cover a variety of genres spanning the spectrum from straight contemporary to hard sci-fi and high fantasy.

Read more for my short reviews of the individual stories:


Riddles in Mathematics by Katie Cotugno
: Rowena is newly out to her family and friends and still figuring out if she fits into her family the way she did before. She’s also still dealing with a painful and all-encompassing on her brother Steve’s best friend Taylor–the girl everyone is pretty sure Steve is going to marry one day. This story is cute but I never connect with Cotugno’s writing and this story was no exception. Ro’s relationships with Steve and Taylor were sweetly handled and the story resolves neatly if abruptly.

Dread South by Justina Ireland
: This story is set in the same world as Ireland’s forthcoming novel Dread Nation. The story follows white, southern teen Louisa as all hell breaks loose and she is saved repeatedly from zombie hoards by Juliet–a Negro girl trained in combat to protect useless girls like Louisa. The triangle here is interesting and, of course, being from Justina Ireland it offers a smart and incisive look at race relations as well as Louisa’s white privilege. How you feel about this one may depend a lot on how you feel about zombie stories.

Omega Ship by Rae Carson
: A lot of reviewers are citing this story as a standout in the collection and I’m still not sure why. Carson is a very hit or miss author for me. I love her Gold Seer trilogy but The Girl of Fire and Thorns left me cold. I liked this story even less. Eva, Dirk, and Jesse are the last three survivors from Earth. Meant to travel to a new planet on the Omega Ship these three teens were part of a mission to colonize and save humanity. Then the ship crashes and everyone else dies leaving Eva as the only woman capable of saving humanity–provided she wants to spend the rest of her life in an endless cycle of childbirth. It turns out Eva doesn’t want that but you’ll have to read the story to see what she does about it. My biggest issue with the story: the ship’s mission timeline has to be sped up and everything is too heavy. Rather than lose arts and culture the colonists decide to give up clothes.

La Revancha del Tango by Renee Ahdieh
: This story was a bit of a surprise since I know Ahdieh more for her fantasy novels and expected more of the same here. Instead we get a contemporary story about a girl traveling on her own to Buenos Aires the summer before college. Nothing is quite as she expects including the snobby English boy with the terrible beard that she meets at her youth hostel.

Cass, An, and Dra by Natalie C. Parker
: Cass can see into the future whenever she makes a decision. And for as long as she can remember her present and her future have always included An. When Cass looks ahead and sees a future with Dra it shakes everything Cass thought she knew about who she is and who she wants to be with. In addition to have a f/f relationship in the triangle Dra is genderfluid too making this a really nice addition to an already inclusive collection.

Lessons for Beginners by Julie Murphy: Ruby isn’t just a great kisser, she’s a great kissing teacher–something that has led to plenty of business for her and her friend/manager Paul. When Ruby gives lessons to her childhood friend Annie and her boyfriend it sparks new chemistry between the girls. The premise, for me, was totally bizarre here but Murphy’s writing is super cute. I liked the way everything was handled here, so much so that I might be picking up Ramona Blue soon.

Triangle Solo by Garth Nix
: I will read anything that Garth Nix writes and am happy to report that I loved this one just as much as I expected too. Connor and Anwar are both percussionists in the school orchestra. Anwar hates playing the triangle beyond all reason but Connor refuses to play the triangle for Anwar because he wants attractive and charming Anwar to have some things that don’t go his way. When Connor’s childhood friend Kylie shows up back on Mars, Connor is pretty sure she’ll end up dating Anwar. Why wouldn’t she? Which makes Connor even more determined that Anwar will play this next triangle solo–that is until he realizes who is behind this new composition. This was really cute sci-fi that felt like contemporary. I’d expect nothing less from Nix.

Vim and Vigor by Veronica Roth: I can’t confirm but I have a sneaking suspicion that this story is set in the same world that Roth created for her short story in the Summer Days and Summer Nights anthology. Edie is horrified when two boys ask her to prom. After an unexpected reunion with her estranged friend, Kate, Edie uses Kate’s father’s decision making machine to see who she should choose. The answer isn’t entirely what Edie expects. This was a pretty charming story that reminds readers that sometimes the right choice can be no one.

Work in Progress by E.K. Johnston
: I loved this story and honestly, I feel like I could write an entire blog post just about this one story. It’s really nine stories in one about storyteller Alex, quick thinking Tab, and street smart CJ. This is written in second person so the characters are all genderless. In version 1.0 readers get a sci-fi story following three friends trying to survive as mutineers overtake the crew of their space ship. Will they stay together? Will they survive? Choose. 2.0 is contemporary. Three friends at a lake house every summer. Again the same questions. Will they stay together? Should they? Choose. 3.0 is high fantasy. Alex is a knight embarking on a quest with Mage Tab who is chronicling the venture and thief CJ who is there to keep them alive. The three are stronger together. But only if they continue to choose each other. The format and structure here are so clever and inventive. I also appreciated the idea of a love triangle that might be more of a friend triangle. i’d love to hear more about Johnston’s thought process and inspiration and intent for this story. This is the first story in the collection where I said to myself “Wow this should really be a full novel.”

Hurdles by Brandy Colbert
: My main takeaway from this story is that I really need to read some Brandy Colbert novels because this (like every short story I’ve read by her) was excellent. What happens when the thing that makes you YOU stops being the thing you love? A young track star isn’t sure and struggles to balance pressures from her coach father with her own needs and maintaining her relationship with her boyfriend. That all goes out the window when the love of her life comes back from rehab and asks her to run away with him.

The Historian, the Garrison, and the Cantankerous Cat Woman by Lamar Giles: If you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer you are going to love this story. Nothing is quite as it seems here and, honestly, I can’t tell you more without ruining the story’s payoff. This wasn’t a favorite of mine but I definitely enjoyed it enough that I’ll be keeping my out for some of Giles’ novels at the library.

Waiting by Sabaa Tahir
: Another surprise contemporary story from a fantasy author. Ani is waiting to start at Stanford. Waiting to leave her small town. And waiting for her best friend Sam to get out of prison and tell her what that kiss between them meant. While Ani waits she starts an unexpected friendship with Félix–a boy she never thought she could befriend forget possibly care about. Is Félix being there when Ani needs him enough to justify a relationship? Is Sam really worth the wait? You’ll have to read this one to find out. This is the kind of story where I am having as much fun imagining possible outcomes for these characters down the line as I did reading it. Such a pleasant surprise. I don’t think the writing will be in the same style but I’m definitely considering picking up Tahir’s fantasy series now.

Vega by Brenna Yovanoff
: I love everything Yovanoff writes and this was no exception. A love triangle between a girl, a boy, and the city the girl loves—the same one that is slowly killing the boy. This story is evocative and eerie and sizzles as much as Vegas’ summer heat. It was also quite the nailbiter as I worried that Elle might let Vegas’ glitter distract her from Alex. (Don’t worry, all ends as it should. Phew!) This story is easily my favorite of the collection.

A Hundred Thousand Threads by Alaya by Dawn Johnson
: At first I thought this story was a gender-swapped futuristic Zorro. In retrospect I think it’s actually more The Scarlet Pimpernel although maybe they are ultimately the same thing. Either way this story is set in the future in Mexico City with a complicated love triangle between a somewhat clueless boy, a savvy girl, . . . and the girl’s secret identity as a vigilante/spy/hero. Johnson has been hit or miss for me in the past so I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this story. It’s a lot of fun and really pushes the limits of what short stories can do. I’ll definitely be giving Johnson’s novels a second chance.

Before She Was Bloody by Tessa Gratton: Gratton’s writing is intense and sexy as Safiya struggles with her desires for both her body double and a strange soldier as well as her duties as the Moon God’s mistress. Being a story from Tessa Gratton this story also has incredibly intricate world building to the point that I was convinced there must be some historical basis to the characters and belief system (there isn’t, the writing is just that good). I once heard author Sarah Rees Brennan talk about how love triangles rarely resolve in favor of Team Naughty Threesome. THIS IS THAT STORY.

Unus, Duo, Tres by Bethany Hagen
: Enoch is sure that he and Casimir can be happy together forever–or as happy as vampires can be. Then a new student discovers the boys together and it changes everything. I like a very specific type of vampire story. This wasn’t that kind of story although it was another interesting spin on the love triangle.

Any anthology runs the risk of being uneven–not every story or author can be for every reader, after all–but I have to say that for the most part Three Sides of a Heart is one of the most solid short story collections I’ve read. A must read for fans of love triangles and an excellent introduction to some the hottest names in YA right now. Recommended.

Beasts Made of Night: A Review

“Sin-beasts are shadows, beasts made of night. And an aki is like a ray of sunlight that comes down from the sky and shatters the sin, kills the shadows.”

Taj is the most talented sin-eater in the walled city of Kos where aki–sin-eaters–can vanquish a person’s sins for a price. Reviled by society and at the mercy of mages who control them, aki have a precarious existence within Kos society.

Taj is cocky and desperate to support his family. He knows it’s only a matter of time before he runs out of skin to cover in sin beasts he has killed–physical tattoos that manifest on his skin and transfer the guilt of the sin to the sin-eater–but Taj has no other options to support himself or survive.

When Taj is hired to eat a royal sin he is drawn into a web of intrigue and danger where the future of the entire city–and every sin-eater in Kos–is at stake in Beasts Made of Night (2017) by Tochi Onyebuchi.

Beasts Made of Night is Onyebuchi’s debut novel and inspired by Nigerian culture and folklore.

This book is wonderfully written and set in a fantastically evocative and well-realized world where sins can be summoned as physical beasts and danger is everywhere. Taj is a fast-talking character with a lot of charm, wit, and not enough caution.

Erratic pacing and a meandering plot make this a richly detailed but sometimes unsatisfying novel. While the city of Kos is detailed enough to be a character itself some of the internal logic for the magic in the novel–especially as it pertains to sin eating–is vague and poorly explained. Taj’s honest narration and winning personality, however, will quickly eclipse any gaps in the story’s world building.

Beasts Made of Night is a great story filled with action, memorable characters, and a fascinating world. While most of Taj’s story is resolved in this volume, fans will hope that this book is the start of a series.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, Frostblood by Elly Blake, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch,  The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

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

That Inevitable Victorian Thing: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Years from now Victoria-Margaret will be the next Queen and continue the work her ancestor Victoria I started two centuries earlier to strengthen the British Empire for all of its people and promote genetic diversity and inter-Empire politics with an advantageous marriage. First  the crown princess will have a summer of freedom for her debut season in Toronto. Although her brown skin, epicanthal fold, and freckles make her easily recognizable as the current Queen’s daughter, Margaret is able to disguise herself with the help of her natural hair and a non-royal alias.

Helena Marcus is looking forward to a quiet debut in New London and making her unspoken understanding with August Callaghan official. August wants nothing more but hopes to delay their official engagement until he can see himself clear of the American pirates plaguing his Canadian and Hong Kong Chinese family’s lumber and shipping business.

When her mother’s position as a placement geneticist brings Helena to the far more prestigious Toronto debut scene she and Margaret strike up an immediate and easy friendship with a hint of flirtation.

Spending the summer up north at the Marcus cottage near Lake Muskoka allows Margaret to see more of the Empire and to find her own place among the raucous Callaghan family. As Margaret, Helena, and August grow closer and learn more of each others’ secrets they realize they may be poised to help each other get everything they’ve long wanted in That Inevitable Victorian Thing (2017) by E. K. Johnston.

Johnston’s standalone novel blends light science fiction elements in a near-future setting with the tone and style of a Victorian novel. Chapter headers including maps, society gossip pages, and correspondence serve to expand the detailed world building and highlight how deliberately and thoughtfully inclusive the Empire is (despite realistically damaging colonialism in the Empire’s distant past).

That Inevitable Victorian Thing alternates close third person point of view between Margaret, Helena, and August as all of the characters face what it means to be an adult in charge of one’s own responsibilities and, regardless of consequences, also one’s own mistakes. The voice throughout is pitch perfect for an homage to Victorian novels and works exceedingly well with the near-future world these characters inhabit.

While Margaret faces the prospect of an arranged marriage in her future, and August struggles with how best to deal with American pirates demanding protection money, Helena faces her own surprise. At eighteen every member of the Empire is able to log into the -gnet to see their full genetic profile and seek out prospective matches. When she logs in for the first time Helena is shocked by her genetic profile and uncertain what it means for her future.

Fortunately, Helena has nothing but support from her friends and loved ones. Even as this story builds toward conflict and shocks, Johnston’s tight control of the narrative serves to suggest that regardless of the outcome, these three characters will not just make it through but thrive.

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a self-aware novel set in a fascinating world that is filled with wit and humor. Helena’s chemistry with both Margaret and Henry crackles despite being couched in Victorian manners and conventions. A perfect introduction to speculative fiction, a sweet romance, and a delight for fans of alternate history That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a must-read for all. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, These Broken Stars by Aimee Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the August 2017 issue of School Library Journal*

Flannery: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Flannery Malone knows the exact moment she fell in love with Tyrone O’Rourke. She also knows that their paths diverged, possibly forever, as they grew up. Now Flannery is sixteen and Tyrone is suddenly back–gorgeous and tall and never in school long enough to leave anything more than an impression. He is also, unbelievably, Flannery’s partner for their entrepreneurship class.

Making love potions for her entrepreneurship project should be easy–even with Tyrone being more of a figurative partner than an actual help. Unfortunately that’s only the beginning of Flannery’s problems. Her free spirit mother, Miranda, is struggling to reconcile her vision as an artist with the family’s very real bills. Her little brother is quickly moving from adorably contrary to complete menace.

Then there’s Amber, Flannery’s best friend. Amber used to care about two things above all others: swimming and her friendship with Flannery. That changes when Amber falls for a new guy who seems determined to make sure Amber cares about him–and nothing else–with dangerous consequences.

When word spreads that Flannery’s love potions might actually work her simple project gets a lot more complicated as the potions, Tyrone, and Amber make Flannery rethink what she thought she knew (and what she thought was true) about love in Flannery (2016) by Lisa Moore.

Moore’s standalone contemporary is a thoughtful commentary on love in its many forms. This deceptively slim novel is a meaty slice-of-life story centered on Flannery and her unconventional family. The love potion project–which spans a significant portion of Flannery’s school year–frames this story and gives a unique lens to the events Flannery observes at home and at her school.

This novel is written in first person with a stream of consciousness feel. Flannery’s narration is sharp of tongue and wit as she neatly parses friends, family and acquaintances in the present and through flashbacks. It’s easy to imagine Flannery telling readers this story over a cup of cocoa in the mall food court.

Flannery has some beautiful moments about love, heartbreak, and family. A clever vignette of a book about the enduring power of love and choosing to be happy.

Possible Pairings: Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Piper Perish by Kayla Cagan, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, The Fashion Committee by Susan Juby, The Romantics by Leah Konen, Fly on the Wall by E. Lockheart, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintera, The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood

If I Fix You: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Jill Whitaker knows the exact moment she fell out of love with Sean Addison. It was the same moment she caught him in a compromising position with her mother. It was just before her mother walked out leaving behind nothing but a post-it note by way of explanation.

In the aftermath of that horrible day, Jill is trying to relearn the intricacies of her life. She still works with her father at his garage. (She isn’t about to give up fixing cars when she could turn a wrench before she could tie her shoes.) She runs cross country with her best friend Claire to train for the high school track team. Sean is there too, but Jill isn’t sure how to be around him yet. She isn’t sure if she’ll ever be able to fix everything that has broken between them.

When a new guy moves in next door, Jill finds herself trying to fix him too. But as Jill gets closer to Daniel she realizes that his problems (and his scars) may be bigger than she imagined. There’s also the small matter that despite their obvious chemistry Daniel is twenty-one. Jill used to be able to fix anything but before she can move on, she’s going to have to learn how to fix herself in If I Fix You (2016) by Abigail Johnson.

If I Fix You is Johnson’s excellent debut novel.

Jill is a thoughtful and entertaining heroine. Her first person narration is conversational and breezy filled with evocative descriptions of a hot Arizona summer. Jill’s love for cars and skills as a mechanic are unexpected and add another dimension to this story.

I enjoyed Claire as a best friend and counterpoint for Jill but I do want to say that it was frustrating to see Claire described as overweight before her Type 2 Diabetes diagnosis and her subsequent efforts to get healthy which included becoming more athletic which, it turns out, she really enjoys. The conflation of being overweight with Type 2 Diabetes is a really tired and damaging stereotype. It’s also not at all accurate (going with the little information given by the author Claire should even have her diabetes under control if not reversed with her fitness and food regimen) and was one dark spot in an otherwise excellent story.

Johnson negotiates a complicated love triangle well. Jill’s interactions with both Sean and Daniel are fascinating with chemistry that is tangible. While the romance is a huge part of the story, If I Fix You is really about Jill and her own choices as she tries to decide how to move forward after the painful heartbreak of her mother’s departure.

If I Fix You is a solid and often unexpected contemporary romance. Recommended for readers who enjoy stories about characters pulling themselves back from the brink, books with chipper best friends, and romances that keep you guessing.

Possible Pairings: The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, When We Collided by Emery Lord, Falling Through Darkness by Carolyn MacCullough, The Edge of Falling by Rebecca Serle