Steelstriker: A Review

*Steelstriker is the conclusion to Lu’s Skyhunter duology. Start at the beginning with Skyhunter to avoid spoilers.*

Steelstriker by Marie LuSix months after the fall of Mara, the Karensa Federation works mercilessly to absorb the formerly free nation into its sprawling empire. Mara’s artifacts are carted to Federation museums and sculpture gardens, their heritage erased. Prisoners await execution or transformation into Ghosts–the hideous monsters the Federation uses so effectively against both its enemies and its subjects.

Talin Kanami watches helplessly. Once an elite Striker, Talin and her friends tried to stop the Federation’s invasion but they were too late. Now Talin stands at the Premier’s side as a Skyhunter–a human turned war machine with lethal strength and steel wings. Talin is the Premier’s unspoken threat against all who would defy him. She is also his hostage; her good behavior ensuring her captive mother’s continued survival until Talin’s transformation is complete and the Premier controls her completely.

Red escaped the Federation once, his desperate flight bringing him to Mara and to Talin. Her hope made him believe things could change. But now watching another invasion, his wings damaged in battle, the first Skyhunter knows he will need more than rage and regret to help his new friends–especially Talin in Steelstriker (2021) by Marie Lu.

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Steelstriker is the conclusion to Lu’s Skyhunter duology. Start at the beginning with Skyhunter to avoid spoilers.

Chapters alternate between Talin and Red’s first person narrations as the protagonists try to find their way back to each other and continue fighting the Federation. The strong link they shared in book one is weaker now as Talin struggles to contain her emotions before the Premier can use them against her. Isolated and worried about each other, this leads to repetition in the story as both Talin and Red wonder what has become of the other.

Seeds of rebellion and resistance spark action in this story which expands the sophisticated and nuanced world building from book one. Questions of who is fit to run a nation and how power is bestowed add further depth to the book’s political landscape while references to Talin’s tortuous transformation (which occurred between books) remind readers how very dangerous and cruel the Federation can be. As the Premier tries to harness (presumably nuclear) technology from the Early Ones, it becomes clear that sometimes mistakes are doomed to repeat.

Lu once again delves into the brutality of war and invasion as Talin–whose vocal chords were damaged in the invasion of her birthplace, Basea–and Red–who was recruited by the Federation as a child soldier–both reflect on what has brought them to this point. Steelstriker fast-paced and brutal but ultimately a satisfying conclusion to a strong dystopian duology.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

Charming As a Verb: A Review

All kids are charming as an adjective. Henri “Halti” Haltiwanger has always been charming as a verb.

It’s a skill that has served him well as he smiles and Smiles his way through his various hustles on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Henri is a straight A student on scholarship at the elite FATE academy where he manages to keep up with his affluent friends and stay on top of academics. He is also, secretly, the owner (and sole dog walker) at Uptown Updogs.

As the child of Haitian immigrants, Henri is used to facing a lot of pressure. His father works as the superintendant of their building, his mother is close to becoming a firefighter after leaving her career as a paralegal. Henri himself is, hopefully, on his way to Columbia University–the dream he and his father have been chasing for as long as Henri can remember.

Everything seems to be falling into place until two obstacles land in Henri’s path. First, his alumni interview at Columbia does not go well making him question his eventual acceptance which had previously seemed inevitable after all of his hard work. Then Corinne Troy, his classmate and neighbor, threatens to blow Henri’s dog walking hustle apart. In exchange for keeping his secret, Corinne demands that Henri help her loosen up before own Ivy League dreams are ruined by a recommendation pointing out her “intensity.”

Henri reluctantly agrees only to realize that Corinne might actually be kind of fun. And cute. As he and Corinne grow closer, Henri grows more frantic to ensure his acceptance at Columbia. After working so hard, for so long, Henri is pretty sure he’ll do anything it takes to get in. What he didn’t count on is the people he might hurt along the way in Charming As a Verb (2020) by Ben Philippe.

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Charming As a Verb is, for lack of a better word, a charming story. Henri is just the right blend of calculating, sympathetic, and totally oblivious as he navigates the challenges of senior year and the college application process–not to mention his confusing feelings for Corinne, the one girl he can’t seem to charm with an easy Smile. Henri makes a lot of bad choices along the way (reader, I screamed at him while reading) but those decisions make his growth by the end of the story all the more satisfying.

While Henri is the linchpin holding this novel together, the supporting cast and evocative New York settings really make the story shine. Henri’s best friend Ming, a Chinese student adopted by Jewish parents, offers a contrast to Henri’s scrimping and saving while also providing rock solid support for Henri throughout his questionable decisions. It’s rare to find male friendship depicted so purely and it’s great to see. The fellow members of the debate team (and the debate competitions themselves) also add a lot of humor to the story while showcasing more of life at FATE Academy.

Henri’s complicated relationship with his family–especially his father whose Columbia dreams have shaped so much of Henri’s life thus far–is handled beautifully in this story as all of the Haltiwangers find their ways back to each other by the end of the story in a final act filled with hard conversations and a lot of love.

Charming As a Verb delivers on all fronts, cementing Ben Philippe as a go-to author for characters who are as sardonic as they are endearing. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Admission by Julie Buxbaum, I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forrest, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar, Again Again by E. Lockhart, The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson

In the Study With the Wrench: A Review

*In the Study With the Wrench is the second book in Peterfreund’s trilogy based on the board game Clue. Start at the beginning with In the Hall With the Knife to avoid spoilers.*

In the Study With the Wrench by Diana PeterfreundOne blizzard and one murder later, Blackbrook Academy is a disaster. The campus is still in disarray with unrepaired storm damage. Students are withdrawing faster than you can say, “Did you hear about Headmaster Boddy’s murder?”

And, in the midst of the media firestorm, six students have earned an unwelcome reputation as the Murder Crew after discovering the body and helping to solve the murder.

Orchid relishes being back on campus even with the school’s tanking reputation because being there, being Orchid, means she’s safe from her past. Vaughn Green is thrilled that he and Orchid have a chance to spend more time together–but he also knows that means she’ll have more time to figure out what he’s hiding. In the wake of discovering some of Finn Plum’s secrets, Scarlett is reeling as one half of a former platonic power couple while Finn struggles to figure out how to win back her trust. Beth “Peacock” Picach is back on top of her tennis game thanks to a new life coach. Then there’s Sam “Mustard” Maestor who is still trying to make sense of his new (surprisingly dangerous) school … and his infatuation with the often deeply annoying Finn.

In a school that’s still filled with unaswered questions, maybe it’s no surprise when another dead body turns up and brings the Murder Crew to the center of another investigation in In the Study With the Wrench (2020) by Diana Peterfreund.

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In the Study With the Wrench is the second book in Peterfreund’s trilogy based on the board game Clue (find it on Amazon). Start at the beginning with In the Hall With the Knife to avoid spoilers.

Like its predecessor, this novel is broken up into alternating chapters between the six main characters. Scarlet is Indian American, Mustard is Latinx, the rest of the cast is presumed white.

In the Study With the Wrench picks up shortly after the conclusion of book one as students return for a new term to find the school and its campus much changed. Peterfreund expands on plot twists revealed in the previous novel’s final chapter while delving deeper into Blackbrook Academy’s secrets in this second installment. Readers also learn more about Vaughn’s tense home life and his complicated connection to the school as well as seeing more of more of Orchid’s past.

While this information sets up a lot of interesting plot threads to be tied up in the conclusion of this fast-paced trilogy, Vaughn and Orchid are often the least interesting characters as readers quickly learn more about their respective situations than either character–or anyone else in the book–giving some later plot twists less impact. The classic game characters, reinterpreted by Peterfreund, continue to be the greatest strength of this series.

With an almost literal cliffhanger ending, more murder, and plenty of suspects, In the Study With the Wrench is another exciting installment in a mystery that is equal parts humor and suspense.

Possible Pairings: S.T.A.G.S. by M. A. Bennett, Heist Society by Ally Carter, I Killed Zoe Spanos by Kit Frick, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Killing November by Adriana Mather, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

The Cousins: A Review

The Cousins by Karen M. McManusThe Story family always lived by one simple rule: family first, always.

That was before the family matriarch mysteriously disinherited and banished all of her children from the family estate on Gull Cove Island with nothing but a letter saying, “You know what you did.” Now cousins Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah barely know each other. They’ve never met their infamous grandmother.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t familiar with the Story family reputation: glamorous, mysterious, and just a little bit tragic. It doesn’t mean they aren’t just a little bit curious when their grandmother reaches out inviting the cousins to work at a local resort for the summer and reconnect. They soon realize the letters they received are a far cry from the real grandmother they find when they arrive on the island.

Everyone in the Story family has secrets but there’s something seductive about family secrets and the way they can become a part of you until exposing them feels just like losing part of yourself. After a lifetime of secrets surrounding their family history, Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah will have to uncover the truth to help their entire family move on in The Cousins (2020) by Karen M. McManus.

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The Cousins is a standalone mystery. Chapters alternate between Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah’s first person narrations. Third person chapters interspersed throughout the story from Milly’s mother, Allison, in 1996 show the events leading up to the disinheritance. With the exception of Milly who is half-Japanese, the Story family is white. A few secondary characters are BIPOC and play small but key roles in the story.

McManus packs a lot into this slim, fast-paced novel as the cousins begin to collaborate to start putting together the pieces of their family’s troubled past. Aubrey, a guileless narrator eager to connect with her estranged family, is a fun contrast to calculating Jonah and shrewd Milly who have more complicated reasons for coming to the island.

The Cousins balances its multiple timelines and plot threads shifting viewpoints so the right character is able to present the right information to readers for maximum impact. Tightly controlled narratives and excellent plot management leave just enough breadcrumbs for readers to try to make sense of the Story family’s secrets along with the protagonists.

The Cousins is an utterly engrossing mystery filled with suspense, complex family dynamics, and three narrators that are as multifaceted as the mystery they’re trying to solve.

Possible Pairings: The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Jane Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn Ormsbee, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao, Knives Out

A Season of Sinister Dreams: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Season of Sinister Dreams by Tracy BanghartStill grieving the death of his son and heir during the Sickness years earlier, the elderly king of Tyne forces all magic workers to the capital where they can prolong his life and protect the castle while the rest of the kingdom suffers.

Annalise has spent years in the castle secretly using her unwieldy magic to weave a web of influence around the king, his grandson (and her cousin) Prince Kendrik, and the king’s advisors. Annalise hopes to exact revenge against the king for her mother’s death–a plan that is close to fruition when Annalise accidentally uses her magic on Kendrik leaving him hidden and monstrously transformed while Annalise becomes the new heir.

Meanwhile, Evra’s quiet country life is ruined when her magic manifests years later than expected making her the first girl ever to become a Clearsee. As magical prophets Clearsees (usually men) use their magic to interpret visions meant to guide and protect the kingdom. While Annalise prepares for her coronation, Evra reluctantly arrives at the capital where she sees cryptic visions hinting at danger. But is the danger a threat to Tyne’s rulers or is it the rulers themselves? in A Season of Sinister Dreams (2021) by Tracy Banghart.

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This plot-driven standalone fantasy alternates chapters between Annalise and Evra’s first person narrations. All characters are presumed white.

With Annalise used to hiding the scope of her powers and Evra newly invested with magic, both narrations are claustrophobic leaving readers and characters floundering. Themes of agency as both heroines try to defy expectations are undermined by extremely limited world building and backstories that never fully explain character motivations or actions–particularly Annalise’s.

Fans of Banghart’s Grace and Fury will appreciate this book’s strong female leads, fast-paced action, and the focus on Evra and Tam’s friendship despite other shortcomings.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

Broken Web: A Review

Broken Web by Lori M. LeeThe Soulless is awake and recovering in the Dead Wood. The long peace between the nations of Thiy might be crumbling. And Sirscha and her best friend Saengo still have no idea how to fix any of it.

The world believes that Sirscha is a rare soulguide but she and Saengo know that Sirscha is actually a soulrender–just like The Soulless. Despite the dangers, Sirscha is determined to stop The Soulless and, if she can, save Saengo from the rot he infected her with that is slowly killing her.

With powerful allies and even more powerful enemies circling, Sirscha will have to risk everything to find–and fight–the most immediate danger in Broken Web (2021) by Lori M. Lee.

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Broken Web is the second book in Lee’s Shamanborn trilogy which begins with Forest of Souls.

Set two weeks after the explosive conclusion of book one, Sirscha and Saengo are still trying to understand Sirscha’s new powers and Saengo’s role in nurturing them as a familiar. Treachery is a constant threat hanging over the girls and their allies as they try to learn more about the Soulless and how to stop him once and for all.

Lee has created a nuanced and compelling world in this series although this book focuses more on action to move the series toward what promises to be a shocking conclusion.

Broken Web is a fast-paced, exciting installment in a singular fantasy series. A must read for fans of book one; a recommended series for readers seeking a new friendship focused fantasy adventure.

Possible Pairings: Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhatena, The Reader by Traci Chee, Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer, Fireborne by Rosaria Munda, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

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

In the Hall With the Knife: A Review

In the Hall With the Knife by Diana PeterfreundBlackbrook Academy, an elite boarding school hidden away in the woods of Maine, is no stranger to dangerous storms. With the latest one coming just before break, most students manage to make it home well before the the storm sets in. Which is why, when the headmaster turns up dead in the conservatory of one of the dorms, suspicion quickly shifts to the small group left behind:

Beth “Peacock” Picach isn’t interested in anything at Blackbrook unless it’s about tennis. Which is why Peacock is incensed when Headmaster Boddy wants to discuss her standing on the Blackbrook team just before the storm hits.

Orchid McKee came to Blackbrook to hide. Until information from the headmaster suggests that a dangerous piece of Orchid’s past life might have followed her to Blackbrook after all.

Vaughn Green is a townie and a scholarship student at Blackbrook. Vaughn balances a nearly impossible courseload and his less-than-ideal home life with working part-time as a janitor at the school giving him a front seat to Blackbrook’s iniquities. And its secrets.

Sam “Mustard” Maestor thought starting at a new school would give him a clean slate. What he didn’t count on was how different Blackbrook would be from his former school, an austere military academy. Starting in the middle of a historically bad storm and a murder investigation also doesn’t help.

Phineas “Finn” Plum is sitting on something big. Life-changing big. But one draconian school policy doesn’t mean he’s about to share it with anyone–especially not the headmaster.

Scarlet Mistry is used to being on top of the school’s gossip and the top liberal arts student thanks to her platonic power couple alliance with Finn. But even with all of her tricks, Scarlet doesn’t know what to make of a murder happening under her nose. Or the fact that her best friend is keeping secrets.

With one murder, zero trust, and a million motives, anyone could be the culprit in In the Hall With the Knife (2019) by Diana Peterfreund.

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In the Hall With the Knife is the first book in Peterfreund’s trilogy based on the board game Clue (find it on Amazon). The novel is broken up into alternating chapters between the six students. Scarlet is Indian American, Mustard is Latinx.

In her author’s note, Peterfreund mentions her love for the board game and the now classic movie it inspired. (Read more about the history of the 1985 film in Adam B. Vary’s Buzzfeed Article “The Crazy Story Of How “Clue” Went From Forgotten Flop To Cult Triumph.”) Peterfreund’s love for her source material is clear in this fitting reinterpretation of the classic game from the intrigue-filled backstory to the punny character names including janitor Rusty Nayler.

While quick to get to the inciting incident (Boddy’s murder, of course), the narrative can feel unwieldy while getting to know all of the characters–even with Peacock’s workout journal entries being obvious standouts. With plentiful motives and even more secrets, solving Boddy’s murder is just one of many mysteries surrounding Blackbrook promising more suspense–and murder–to come from this trilogy.

Unreliable narrators, red herrings, and clever dialogue from a really fun core cast make In the Hall With the Knife a winning mystery whether you’re a fan of the genre or the board game that inspired it.

Possible Pairings: S.T.A.G.S. by M. A. Bennett, Heist Society by Ally Carter, I Killed Zoe Spanos by Kit Frick, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Killing November by Adriana Mather, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

All the Broken People: A Review

Lucy King is ready to start over in Woodstock, New York. She has her dog, she has cash, she has her suitcase with her mother’s vintage silk scarf and her father’s hammer. She has plans for a quiet life where her past will never come back to haunt her.

All the Broken People by Leah KonenEnter Vera and John, Lucy’s painfully stylish neighbors who quickly take Lucy under their wing. After being isolated for so long Lucy craves their attention and friendship enough that she knows she’d do almost anything to keep it.

When the couple asks for Lucy’s help to get a fresh start of their own, Lucy knows she has to help. But what starts as a bit of fraud with minimal consequences and an accidental death becomes something else when someone turns up dead.

Receiving more attention than she wanted, Lucy finds herself at the center of the investigation not just as a witness but a likely suspect. After coming so far to start again, Lucy will have to figure out who she can trust–and who’s really to blame–if she wants to keep the new beginning she fought so hard to create in All the Broken People (2020) by Leah Konen.

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All the Broken People is Konen’s adult debut. You might recognize her name from her previous YA titles.

All the Broken People is an eerie story where every tension is amplified by Lucy’s isolated, first person narration. After escaping a relationship marked by gaslighting and abuse, Lucy no longer trusts anyone. Not even herself. As her carefully constructed life in Woodstock begins to collapse, she’s forced to confront the events that led her here and what she has to do to get out again.

All the Broken People is the kind of book where the less you know when you start, the better. Konen expertly demonstrates her range as an author with this thriller debut filled with menace and ground-pulled-out-from-under-you twists.

Possible Pairings: Only Truth by Julie Cameron, The Girl Before by J. P. Delaney, The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

Firekeeper’s Daughter: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Firekeepers Daughter by Angeline BoulleyDaunis Fontaine has always felt like an outsider. Sometimes she’s “too Indian” for her mother’s white relatives. As an unenrolled tribal member thanks to the scandal surrounding her parents’ relationship and her own birth, Daunis never feels like she’s fully part of life on the Ojibwe reservation no matter how much time she spends with that side of her family.

With her pre-med college plans on hold after her grandmother’s debilitating stroke, Daunis feels more adrift than ever. Enter Jamie the newest member of her half-brother Levi’s hockey team. Jamie and Daunis click but that doesn’t change all of the little things about his background that don’t quite make sense.

In the wake of a tragedy that hits too close to home, Daunis learns the truth about Jamie and finds herself at the center of a far-flung criminal investigation as a confidential informant. Delving deeper into the investigation, Daunis will have to confront uncomfortable truths about her own family’s past and the reservation community to discover the truth. After years of admiring her elders, Daunis will have have to embrace being a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) herself to see things through in Firekeeper’s Daughter (2021) by Angeline Boulley.

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Firekeeper’s Daughter is Boulley’s debut novel.

Boulley describes this story as the indigenous Nancy Drew she always wanted to read and that really is the best description. With plot threads exploring opioid addiction (and dealing), grief, and sexual assault, Firekeeper’s Daughter is a heavy read.

Subplots involving hockey, Daunis’s complicated feelings about her family, and more can make the story seem sprawling at times although Boulley admirably ties every single thread together by the end.

Daunis’s high stakes investigation and her intense relationship with Jamie plays out against the fully realized backdrop of life in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and on the Ojibwe reservation. Daunis’s focus on her own culture and heritage are crucial to the plot bringing Daunis closer to the real culprit complete with a focus on traditional (herbal) medicine and the importance of community elders.

Firekeeper’s Daughter is a taut, perfectly plotted mystery with a protagonist readers won’t soon forget. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Every Stolen Breath by Kimberly Gabriel, Fake ID by Lamar Giles, The Bodies We Wear by Jeyn Roberts, Sadie by Courtney Summers, Veronica Mars

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

Piranesi: A Review

Piranesi by Susanna ClarkeThe rooms in the House are infinite. Connected by endless corridors and Vestibules with walls lined with thousands of Statues–each unique in both appearance and in name. Water moves through these Halls, waves flooding and draining according to the changing of the Tides.

Piranesi understands the House and its ways intimately. He can navigate the Halls and track the Tides. He visits his favorite Statues and, most importantly, he tends to the House as he explores its vast spaces.

There is one other living person in The House: The Other, a man searching for A Great and Secret Knowledge that Piranesi suspects he may never find.

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite. It provides everything that Piranesi needs. But even with his intimate knowledge of the House and its workings, Piranesi doesn’t know what it means when evidence of another Person emerges.

Will they be friend as Piranesi hopes? Foe as The Other warns? As Piranesi comes closer to answering these questions he will also unravel an awful truth as vast and immeasurable as the House itself in Piranesi (2020) by Susanna Clarke.

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Piranesi is Clarke’s deceptively slim followup to her blockbuster novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. There is simultaneously a lot to talk about here and very little that can be said without revealing spoilers (which I have avoided here).

Clarke is an excellent writer. Despite the quirks of Piranesi’s first-person narration and the idiosyncrasies of the book’s structure, readers are immediately drawn into this strange and layered story.

The intricate unfolding of the plot contrasts sharply with mounting urgency as The Other tries to find the mysterious new person and kill them while Piranesi tries to save them. Even the meandering, stream of consciousness style of much of the book can’t diminish the tension as the novel builds inexorably to its climax.

Unfortunately, the actual ending is not as compelling as the buildup; no one is settled or even okay by the end, nothing is resolved. For a story that starts so big, with so many vast possibilities, the final outcome feels like the least compelling direction Piranesi could have taken.

Piranesi is a fascinating exercise in craft as Clarke expertly manages both the narrative and plot with well-timed reveals and twists. These notable elements underscore how little actually happens throughout the novel, especially in terms of characterization or growth.

Possible Pairings: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, Slade House by David Mitchell, The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami, The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, Or What You Will by Jo Walton