A Curse So Dark and Lonely: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid KemmererPrince Rhen, heir to Emberfall, is cursed to repeat the autumn of his eighteenth birthday until he can find a woman to fall in love with him even as he transforms each season into a monstrous beast. The season resets after every failure–all three hundred and twenty-seven of them.

When Harper intervenes in what looks like an abduction on the streets of Washington, DC, she’s finds herself transported into another world. Instead of worrying about her dying mother or the risks her brother is taking to pay off their absent father’s debts to a loan shark, Harper is trapped in Emberfall at the center of the curse.

Harper is used to being underestimated because of her cerebral palsy, something that she hopes might help her get home to her family. Instead she is shocked to learn that she is Rhen’s last chance to break the curse. But Harper isn’t sure if the fate of a kingdom can be enough to make her fall in love in A Curse So Dark and Lonely (2019) by Brigid Kemmerer.

Kemmerer’s Beauty and the Beast retelling introduces a unique world filled with fantasy and menace.

Rhen is an accomplished if pessimistic strategist while Harper is impulsive to the point of recklessness. Despite their obvious tension and occasional chemistry, Rhen’s evolving friendship with his guard commander Grey is often more compelling than Harper’s interactions with either man.

While Harper and Rhen accomplish much over the course of the novel, A Curse So Dark and Lonely has little in the way of closure. Rich world building, hints of a love triangle, unresolved questions about the curse, and Emberfall’s uncertain future will leave readers anxious to see what happens next.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Rose and the Beast by Francesca Lia Block, Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, Stain by A. G. Howard, Stealing Snow by Danielle Paige, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Break Me Like a Promise by Tiffany Schmidt, Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah West, Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

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

Enchantée: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“She hated magic, but it was all she had.”

cover art for Enchantee by Gita TreleaseIn 1789, Paris is on the verge of change and revolution–changes that will come too late to save the Durbonnes from ruin. Camille’s older brother Alain is happier drinking and gambling than trying to help their family survive and Sophie, the youngest, is still frail from the smallpox outbreak that killed their parents six months earlier.

With no one else to depend on, Camille has to turn to la magie ordinaire–the hated magic her mother taught Camille before she died–to turn iron scraps into coins in the hopes of making ends meet. Every transformation requires more than scraps of metal, la magie also feeds on sorrow–personal anguish that Camille is forced to relive again and again to fuel her own power.

She isn’t sure how much more she has to give before there’s nothing left.

Soon, Camille is desperate enough to turn to more powerful magic and more dangerous targets. With help of la glamoire, Camille sets off for the royal court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at Versailles where there are always parties and, more importantly, gambling dens Camille can manipulate with la magie.

Disguised as the Baroness de la Fontaine, Camille plans to save up enough to build a new life for herself and Sophie while daring to imagine romance and even a future with a boy named Lazare–a dashing aeronaut who shares Camille’s dreams of equality and change. But magic always has a cost and with unrest growing throughout France and duplicity festering throughout Versaille, secrets like Camille’s can be deadly in Enchantée (2019) by Gita Trelease.

Enchantée is Trelease’s debut novel. Trelease combines a historically accurate French setting with distinct world building where France’s aristocracy were the first to wield magic fueled by blood and sorrow and, with the start of the French Revolution, both magic and the aristocracy are poised to disappear.

Camille’s double life at Versailles is set against the looming threat of revolution (something Camille and, strangely, her noble friends greet with optimism instead of fear for their own well-being) and the villain she encounters in Versailles who threatens to unravel everything Camille has struggled to build.

Camille is a driven heroine who starts this story with no ambitions beyond survival and keeping herself and Sophie from prostitution (a constant fear for Camille throughout the novel). At the royal court, Camille soon realizes that nothing about the nobility or her magic is quite what she expected.

The dangers are greater and so too is the allure as Camille makes new friends and experiences firsthand some of the vast luxuries that Versailles has to offer. As she begins to save and learn more about magic, Camille’s world fills with new opportunities and a few moments of sweetness as she grows closer to Lazare–the half-Indian aeronaut with secrets of his own. Soon it’s easy to imagine a life beyond mere survival even as she struggles to imagine leaving Versailles and la magie behind.

Enchantée is an evocative diversion with a unique magic system and truly charming characters. Recommended for fans of lush historical fantasies, sweet romances, high stakes gambling, and daring adventure.

Possible Pairings: Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, Ink, Iron and Glass by Gwendolyn Clare, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Amber and Dusk by Lyra Selene, Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

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

The Brilliant Death: A Review

cover art for The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose CapettaEveryone in Vinalia knows that magic and the streghe who use it only exist in stories. Or they did before Vinalia’s unification under the Capo and rumors that magic has returned to Vinalia.

No one knows that Teodora di Sangro is a strega who can change people into objects. For Teo and her siblings family has always been fate, forcing them into roles they may not want. Teo is proud to belong to one of the Five Families. But she also knows that as a girl she will never truly have a place at the table the way her brothers do.

Desperate for her father’s approval, Teo takes it upon herself to address any threats to the family. Instead of killing their enemies, Teo uses her secret strega magic to transform them into objects like music boxes or mirrors that decorate her room.

When the Capo’s latest bid for power leaves Teo’s father poisoned and the heads of the other families dead, Teo knows she is the only one who can answer the Capo’s summons to the capital and find an antidote. But first she will have to transform herself to look the part of a di Sangro heir by becoming a boy.

Unable to learn this new magic alone, Teo enters into a bargain with Cielo, a mysterious strega who can switch between male and female forms as easily as opening a book. Teo’s transformation and her journey bring her into the center of Vinalia’s sinister politics as she tries to save her family in The Brilliant Death (2018) by Amy Rose Capetta.

The Brilliant Death is the first book in Capetta’s latest fantasy duology.

Vibrant imagery and vivid language imbue The Brilliant Death with wonder and intrigue in a world inspired by Italian folklore. In addition to unraveling plots and facing dangerous enemies, Teo explores her gender identity and what it means to be a girl (or not) in her world alongside her sexy genderfluid magic tutor Cielo whose dry wit and charm only increases the chemistry between them.

A highly original magic system and a protagonist who is as ruthless as she is fiery make for a fast-paced adventure. Fans will be eager for the conclusion of this duology.

Possible Pairings: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, Rule by Ellen Goodlett, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah West

*A more condensed version of this review was published in an of School Library Journal as a starred review*

Realm of Ruins: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Please let me be powerful.”

cover art for Realm of Ruins by Hannah WestTrouble follows Valory Braiosa wherever she goes.

Raised in Calgoran during the Age of the Accords, Valory is surrounded by elicrin magic and elicromancers. As a descendant of the legendary Queen Bristal and King Anthony, everyone assumes Valory will become a powerful elicromancer herself. But now she is almost at the end of her time at the Academy with no signs of power manifesting. With her chances of receiving an elicrin stone from the Water dwindling, Valory is forced to consider her greatest fear: a life without magic or power.

Touching the Water is no guarantee of receiving an elicrin stone. Even with careful vetting from the Academy candidates may still be deemed unworthy and drowned in the Water, their bodies lost forever. Valory’s attempt to save her cousin from such a fate proves disastrous. In the aftermath her cousin is dead, the Water is gone, and Valory now has dangerous power no one understands and which Valory can’t control.

Branded a murderer and a rogue, Valory is forced to travel far from home to try and clear her name. Across Nissera it’s apparent that a dark presence is rising and Valory might be the only one powerful enough to stop it. As danger mounts and loyalties are tested, Valory will have to embrace her power to face this danger. But all power comes at a price and this time the cost may be steeper than Valory can pay in Realm of Ruins (2018) by Hannah West.

Real of Ruins is the second book in West’s Nissera Chronicles which begins with the companion novel Kingdom of Ash and Briars.

Realm of Ruins is set one hundred years after the events of West’s debut novel Kingdom of Ash and Briars and follows a new generation of characters. An elaborate family tree at the start of the book and sly asides throughout offer nods to events of the first book although this novel can easily be read as a standalone. (A companion short story, Fields of Fire, can also be read for free online.)

Valory is as pragmatic as she is reckless. Although the implications of her new power are obvious she is still quick to jump to conclusions and easily falls prey to the manipulations of others while she tries to understand her dramatically changed circumstances.

Her efforts to clear her name are soon sidelined as she learns about the emergence of a dangerous new threat known as the Moth King or the Lord of the Elicromancers. Drawn into a hunt to stop this new enemy Valory plays a part in side plots that draw heavily from elements of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. West manages a convoluted and sometimes bloated plot admirably bringing diverging threads together to explore larger themes of power, collective memory, and the dangers of both if left unchecked.

While Valory is initially a slave to circumstance, forced repeatedly into reactive positions as her situation shifts from bad to worse, Realm of Ruins is largely about agency and choice. It is only when Valory chooses to embrace her power–and the difficult decisions she must make about how to wield it–that she is able to regain control of her fate and try to claim what she sees as her rightful power in the realm.

Realm of Ruins is an intricate and original fantasy. West blends her unique magic system with a vivid world and fairy tale elements to create a story that is entirely fascinating. Recommended for fans of fairy tales, high fantasy, and bloody revolution.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Frostblood by Elly Blake, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Stain by A. G. Howard, Furyborn by Claire Legrand

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

Kingdom of Ash and Briars: A Review

cover art Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah WestBristal’s life changes forever when she is kidnapped. Her humble life as a kitchen maid ends the moment she survives touching the Water and receives an elicrin stone.

Now Bristal is an elicromancer—one of only three people over the centuries to have survived the Water intact.

Immortal and able to wield powerful magic, Bristal is meant to take her place as a peacekeeper and kingmaker. With so much potential power at her command Bristal will have to accept her magic and embrace her destiny despite the dangers in Kingdom of Ash and Briars (2016) by Hannah West.

Kingdom of Ash and Briars is West’s debut novel and the first book in the Nissera Chronicles which continues in Realm of Ruins. (A companion short story, Fields of Fire, can also be read for free online.)

Kingdom of Ash and Briars introduces a richly layered world with a unique magic system. West’s novel is informed by numerous fairy tales (most notably Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty) positioning a reluctant Bristal in the role of fairy godmother.

Bristal’s ability to shape shift and disguise herself informs much of the story as she begins to change her appearance to manipulate individuals and, indeed, entire courts pushing Nissera toward peace and prosperity. These secondary stories play out on a larger stage as Bristal comes to terms with her newfound immortality and learns to control her magic while facing an elicromancer who would rather rule over humans than serve and protect them.

While not as all-seeing as her mentor, Brack (a character I wish we had seen more of in this novel), Bristal is patient and introspective willing to put in the time and sacrifice to do what is needed for Nissera. Her thoughtful planning and analytical nature are nice counterpoints to an otherwise frenetic plot and an often predictable villain. Romance enters the story late in the game with a lasting impact for generations to come.

Kingdom of Ash and Briars is a rich and original fantasy with a memorable world readers will want to revisit. Recommended for readers who enjoy complicated plots, wheels within wheels, and unlikely heroes.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, Stain by A. G. Howard, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch

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

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, Enchantée by Gita Trelease, And I Darken by Kiersten White