The Wicked Deep: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Wicked Deep by Shea EarnshawTwo hundred years ago in the town of Sparrow three sisters were drowned as witches. Every year since then the Swan sisters have returned to Sparrow, claiming the bodies of unwitting local girls and using them to wreak their vengeance on the town by drowning boys foolish enough to fall under their sway.

Every Swan Season is the same, ending only when each sister has claimed a new victim.

Penny can see what others can’t including long buried secrets about the sisters and the Swan Season. But she knows that secret can only go so far against a curse. She is used to watching the Swan Season unfold with wary detachment, certain that this one will be  like all the others ending with death, suspicion, and grief.

Except this year there is a new outsider in town—a boy named Bo who refuses to believe the Swan sisters can pose any real danger to anyone, especially him. A boy that Penny is determined to protect. As the Swan Season unfolds Penny and Bo will work together to unravel the truth of the curse and the sisters. But as the Swan Season nears its end Penny realizes that the only way to save Bo might be by sacrificing herself in The Wicked Deep (2018) by Shea Earnshaw.

The Wicked Deep is Earnshaw’s debut novel.

The Wicked Deep is a tense bit of fantasy woven through with suspense as the novel builds toward the disastrous conclusion of the Swan Season. Penny’s first person narration is frank and often cynical with lyrical prose as she slowly searches for a way to break the curse and save Bo.

This story is filled with twists and surprises about both Penny and Bo. Unfortunately the story also flags in the second act as Penny and Bo repeatedly discuss what ending the curse might entail and how far they are willing to go if it means freeing the island from the sisters’ menace forever.

The Wicked Deep is an atmospheric story filled with witches, secrets, and a scorching romance with far-reaching consequences. Recommended for readers looking for a spooky book to read curled up by a fire and fans of Practical Magic especially.

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton

Aquicorn Cove: A Graphic Novel Review

cover art for Aquicorn Cove by Katie O'NeillLana isn’t sure what to expect when she and her father return to their seaside hometown. It can’t be the same–not when Lana’s mother is gone–but maybe helping her aunt and  the other locals clean up after the latest big storm can make it close to the way it was.

The last thing Lana expects to find while picking up debris on the beach is a magical seahorse. It turns out that the aquicorns have always lived near the village in the coral reef. But as the local fishermen take in larger and larger catches, the aquicorns aren’t sure how much longer they can stay.

The village is only a small one and Lana is only one small girl in it. But as she learns more about her family and the aquicorns she starts to realize that sometimes even small actions can turn into big changes in Aquicorn Cove (2018) by Katie O’Neill.

This standalone graphic novel blends fantasy elements with a strong message about environmental conservation and one girls efforts to move on after an unthinkable loss.

Aquicorn Cove is filled with cute characters and adorable creatures in equal measure. This story also has a very clearly defined arc giving the narrative a strong focus and a satisfying level of closure. Finished copies of Aquicorn Cove will also include back matter about ocean conservation.

O’Neill’s artwork is vibrant and whimsical. Bright colors and bold lines bring Lana’s village and the underwater home of the aquicorns to life. Rounded edges and a consistent palette also help to imbue the artwork with a soft and calm quality as well.

Aquicorn Cove is a sweet and gorgeously illustrated story. A unique premise, thoughtful fantasy elements, and a winning case of characters makes this one a winner. Recommended!

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

The Traitor’s Game: A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children of Blood and Bone: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Witch Born: A Review

cover art for Witch Born by Nicolas BowlingEngland, 1577: Alyce can’t trust anyone after her mother is burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft. With only the barest instructions and a mommet doll to guide her, Alyce heads to London. She hopes it will be easy to follow her mother’s instructions to find the hangman.

Along the way Alyce has to dodge dangerous witch hunters and learn how to trust new friends and allies. But Alyce isn’t the only one in London with a mission. Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots are both searching intently for Alyce. Both queens want to use her, but only one of them for good in Witch Born (2018) by Nicholas Bowling.

Witch Born is a thoroughly researched historical fantasy. Bowling brings the squalor and wonder of the sixteenth century to life along with the near-constant terror of witchcraft. Genuinely frightening witch hunters and evocative settings make this slim novel a page turner.

Because of Alyce’s young age, this novel is also ideal for readers of all ages. Alyce is a winsome heroine sure to endear herself to readers in this gripping debut. Recommended for readers of both fantasy and historical fiction.

Possible Pairings: Tumble and Blue by Cassie Beasley, Savvy by Ingrid Law, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood

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

For a Muse of Fire: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Didn’t I tell you earlier? You don’t have to trust someone to make a deal with them. You only have to have something you know they want.”

cover art for For a Muse of Fire by Heidi HeiligWith luck and determination, Jetta hopes that she and her parents can parlay their fame as shadow players in Chakrana into passage to Aquitan where shadow plays are in high demand.

There are rumors that the Mad King values nothing so much as shadow plays and Jetta hopes that garnering the king’s favor could also give her access to the spring that has cured the king’s madness–something Jetta desperately wants for her own malheur.

But notoriety of any kind is dangerous with so many secrets behind the scrim.

Jetta’s puppets move without string or stick. Instead she uses her blood to bind recently deceased souls into her puppets–one of the old ways that is now forbidden in the wake of La Victoire and the imprisonment of Le Trépas at the hands of the colonial army from Aquitan.

With danger lurking everywhere Jetta will have to confront uncomfortable truths and terrible choices as she considers how much she and her family have already sacrificed to get to Aquitan and how much more they still have to lose in For a Muse of Fire (2018) by Heidi Heilig.

For a Muse of Fire is the start of Heilig’s new trilogy. An author’s note explains that Jetta’s malheur is bipolar disorder–a mental illness she shares with Heilig.

This series starter is fast-paced and high-action while also offering readers a thoughtful commentary on the long lasting ramifications of war and colonization. Chakrana and Aquitan are inspired by Asian cultures as well as French colonialism which comes through in cultural touchstones including food, dress, and language.

Jetta’s first person narration is broken up with various ephemera including telegraph transcripts, flyers, songs, and play scenes featuring other characters. This technique works well to flesh out the novel by offering a wider view of the story and allowing other characters to take over the narrative action whenever Jetta’s focus becomes more internal as she tries to negotiate both a dangerous world and her own malheur.

For a Muse of Fire is as engrossing as it is violent. Heilig’s world building is richly imagined and carefully layered with nothing quite as it seems. Jetta’s malheur colors not only her perceptions throughout the story but many of her actions with reckless decisions during episodes of mania and listless lows with clarity and introspection often coming too late.

For a Muse of Fire is a dramatic story with an inclusive cast, high stakes, and an intense cliffhanger that will leave readers clamoring for the next installment. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, Clariel by Garth Nix, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

*A more condensed version of this review was published the July 2018 issue of School Library Journal as a Starred Review*

Star-Touched Stories: A Review

cover art for Star-Touched Stories by Roshani ChokshiStar-Touched Stories (2018) by Roshani Chokshi brings readers back to the world of the author’s first two novels  The Star-Touched Queen and A Crown of Wishes. This collection of three 100+ page novellas (one a previous preorder incentive for A Crown of Wishes and the other two previously unpublished) all contain spoilers for the novels in the series. Be sure you have read both if you want to avoid any ruined twists or surprises.

“Death and Night” follows the Dharma Raja throughout his unlikely courtship of Night incarnate. The story alternates between Death and Night’s first person narration as they uneasily begin courting and contemplate how much they are willing to risk for a partnership and whether or not that includes their hearts. This novel stops short of the events of The Star-Touched Queen but many of the key players from that novel are present here along with an abundance of witty banter.

“Poison and Gold” is set shortly after the end of A Crown of Wishes. Aasha, a vishakanya whose very touch is deadly, earned her own wish in the Tournament of Wishes–the chance to choose to live as a human. But making a place for herself in the human world is harder than Aasha expected. As Gauri and Vikram prepare to unite their kingdoms, Aasha will have to embrace both her humanity and her vishakanya side while training under the fierce but fascinating Spy Mistress in an attempt to make a place for herself beside her friends in this new world.

Set after both novels in the series “Rose and Sword” recalls a well-known story in the Empire of Bharat-Jain where, long ago, a bride was poised to become a widow before her wedding henna had even dried. She will have to travel through Death and back to reclaim her husband’s last breath. But can she make it in time and, more importantly, will she want to? This was my favorite novella of the collection and a bittersweet farewell to a favorite series.

Chokshi is in top form with the lush world building and vivid language fans of this series have come to love. Each novella focuses on an ambitious heroine as she confronts not just her fears but also her desires. A must read for fans of the series and a charming introduction to both the author and her works.

*A more condensed version of this review was published the June 2018 issue of School Library Journal*