The Night Country: A Review

*The Night Country is a sequel to Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood–be sure to start there to get the full story and avoid spoilers*

“We were predators set loose in a world not made to withstand us. Until the summer we became prey.”

The Night Country by Melissa AlbertIt’s been two years since Alice Proserpine fought her way out of the Hinterland and the fairytale she inhabited there with help from Ellery Finch–the boy who chose to explore other worlds instead of returning with Alice to New York City.

Being an ex-story isn’t easy even in a city like New York where strangeness already lurks on every corner. At first it seems like Alice might really be able to reinvent herself with a new, human life. But something is happening to the Hinterland survivors who made it out–something that’s leaving them dead.

While Alice tries to track down the culprit, Ellery has to try to find his own way out of the Hinterland before there’s nothing left.

Everyone knows how a fairy tale is supposed to end but as Alice and Ellery search for answers and a way home, they soon realize that their tales are far from over and may not end happily in The Night Country (2020) by Melissa Albert.

The Night Country is a sequel to Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood–be sure to start there to get the full story and avoid spoilers. Alice’s pragmatic first person narration contrasts well with third person chapters following Ellery as he tries to find his way home and, possibly, back to Alice.

While Alice spent most of The Hazel Wood trying to understand who she was, The Night Country focuses on Alice’s struggle to decide who she wants to be now that she is free to shape her own story.

The Night Country is a suspenseful story of loss, hope, and searching. This fairytale noir adventure blends romance and mystery with plenty of action as Alice struggles to stop a conspiracy with ramifications she can barely imagine. A must read for fans of portal fantasies, mysteries, and readers who prefer their magic with bloody sharp edges.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the November 2019 issue of School Library Journal*

Spinning Silver: A Review

“There’s always trouble where there’s money owed, sooner or later.”

Spinning Silver by Naomi NovikMiryem comes from a long line of moneylenders. It’s easy to become a moneylender but it’s hard to be a good one because to be a good moneylender means being cruel. Her father isn’t a good one; he finds it far easier to loan out money than collect payments thus leaving his own family destitute.

Eager to change their circumstances, Miryem takes over inuring herself to pleas for clemency in lieu of actual payments. As the family business finally begins to thrive, Miryem builds a reputation for herself borrowing silver from her grandfather and bringing back gold in return.

When an idle boast attracts the attention of the Staryk–wintry folk known for their cold hearts and brutal magic–Miryem finds herself in the center of a world where striking the right bargain could mean unimaginable wealth and the wrong one could leave her lost forever.

With high stakes and high magic everywhere, Miryem will have to rely on her wits and her nerve when payment for her bargains come due and she has to prove to the Staryk that she is as formidable as the growing rumors about her would claim in Spinning Silver (2018) by Naomi Novik.

This standalone fantasy is a loose retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale set in a well-realized world steeped in Jewish culture and tradition. Miryem is a shrewd and capable heroine. She is well aware of the dangers the world for a young woman of means–especially a Jewish one who lends money.

What Miryem fails to realize is that those dangers extend beyond her far town and deep into the strange, cold lands of the Staryk. As Miryem learns more about the Staryk she begins to realize that greater forces are at play in both her own world and the Staryk’s–forces that may need more than her considerable smarts to conquer.

Intertwining stories and multiple points of view extend the world and explore multiple facets of both feminism and womanhood in a world that is quick to dismiss both. Nuanced and complex characterization slowly explore the varied motivations and goals of all of the characters as they work to exert influence over their spheres and fully capitalize on their own agency.

Spinning Silver is a familiar tale masterfully reimagined; a singular retelling that is as crisp and exhilirating as the first chill of winter. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, The Forest Queen by Betsy Cornwell, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Prospero Lost by L. Jagi Lamplighter, Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Hunted by Meagan Spooner

The Guinevere Deception: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Stories are not nails to be driven home. They are tapestries to be woven.”

“Sometimes we have to hide from what others see in order to be what we know we are.”

Guinevere comes to Camelot as a stranger–a princess who will marry the young king who has banished magic and his mentor, the wizard Merlin, from his kingdom as he tries to bring order to the chaos threatening to destroy everything he has worked so hard to build.

Except Guinevere died before she ever came to Camelot. No one knows the real identity of the girl who was sent to replace Guinevere–her name is a secret, her past a mystery. All that matters is that Merlin sent her to Camelot to protect Arthur.

Threats abound in Camelot as Guinevere investigates scheming nobles, mysterious new arrivals drawn by the kingdom’s promise, and magic fighting to get past her own rudimentary protections.

Magic is chaos–a natural force always waiting to reclaim what Arthur and Camelot stole away–a fact Guinevere knows better than most. With danger circling and secrets everywhere, Guinevere will have to rely on her own cunning as she decides who to trust and what to fight for in The Guinevere Deception (2019) by Kiersten White.

The Guinevere Deception is the first book in White’s Camelot Rising trilogy.

White brings inventive world building and a feminist lens to her Arthurian retelling that centers a decidedly unique Guinevere. This historical fantasy breathes new life into the familiar source material with layers of intrigue and suspense as Guinevere tries to uncover both the hidden threats to Camelot and the secrets of her own past with Merlin.

The push and pull between the order of newly built Camelot and the chaos of primordial magic that previously ruled drive the plot forward as Guinevere comes closer to understanding Arthur’s greatest threat. This tension is mirrored by Guinevere’s struggle to be the protector she needs to be while also molding herself into the queen Arthur needs to rule beside him.

The Guinevere Deception is a fast-paced adventure filled with intrigue, magic, and the barest hints of romance and enduring friendship as Guinevere begins to make a place for herself in a kingdom she never could have imagined when Merlin plucked her out of the forest. A must reads for fans of Arthurian legend and readers looking for a fantasy with feminism and heroism in equal measure–with just a touch of existential dread to keep things interesting. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Sweet Black Waves by Kristina Perez, Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West

Newt’s Emerald: A Review

Lady Truthful (Newt to her friends) is enjoying a rather typical eighteenth birthday until the Newington Emerald–a family heirloom and her entire inheritance from her dearly departed mother–disappears.

While the men in her life are keen to solve the problem for her, Truthful has a better idea. Disguised as a man complete with a mustache, Newt sets out to follow the emerald’s trail and recover the stolen artifact.

Aided by the shrewd but unobservant Major Harnett who believes her to be a man, Newt chases clues and dark magic across England in search of the emerald. As she comes closer to her quarry Newt will also have to confront the uncomfortable realization that in aligning herself with Major Harnett she may also have fallen in love with him in Newt’s Emerald (2013) by Garth Nix.

Newt’s Emerald is Nix’s standalone tribute to regency romances everywhere–but with magic, of course.

Close third person narration and distinct world building help to add nuance to this comedy of errors as Newt embarks on a madcap journey to retrieve a stolen emerald and, perhaps, understand the machinations of her own heart.

Sparkling dialog, clever magic, and a plucky heroine make Newt’s Emerald an enjoyable diversion. Recommended for fans of both regency romance and historical fantasy.

Possible Pairings: The Hummingbird Dagger by Cindy Antsey, Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger, Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance by Jennieke Cohen, Silver in the Blood by Jessica Day George, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

The Midwinter Witch: A Chick Lit Wednesday (Graphic Novel) Review

Aster looks forward to the Midwinter Festival every year. The festival is a yearly gathering of the entire Vanissen family and filled with competitions in the annual Jolrun tournament for both shapeshifting and witchery.

After earning his hard-won right to study witchery with the Vanissen girls, Aster is eager to compete and prove his skill as a witch.

But challenging generations of tradition isn’t easy. Especially when Aster’s new friend and fellow witch Ariel is still trying to prove to herself and the Vanissen family that she belongs. As competition between them grows and outside forces threaten the festival, Aster and Ariel will have to put aside their differences and remember the things that brought them together to stop dark magic from tearing them apart in The Midwinter Witch (2019) by Molly Knox Ostertag.

The Midwinter Witch is the conclusion of Ostertag’s Witch Boy trilogy which begins with The Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch.

The Midwinter Witch is the most character driven installment in this series as readers see more of Aster and Ariel working to come into their powers while Sedge joins Charlie at her human school.

High action competitions contrast well with in-depth conversations as both Aster and Ariel try to figure out how best to make space for themselves as witches in a family that often feels foreign to them. Ostertag’s full color illustrations are vibrant and bring this magical world to life.

The Midwinter Witch is a satisfying conclusion to a thoughtful and exciting graphic novel series. A must read for fans of previous installments.

Possible Pairings: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, The Tea Dragon Festival by Katie O’Neill, The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend, Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu, The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

Into the Crooked Place: A Review

When it comes to magic, all that really matters is timing. If you have that right, you can perform wondrous feats or the slickest con and it won’t matter because people will still line up to buy whatever it is you’re selling.

Tavia has made a name for herself as a busker in Creije selling low level dark magic and performing high level cons. After years of staying very close to the line and watching her friend Wesley cross right over it, Tavia wants to leave Creije before she is forced to do something she can’t take back.

Wesley will do whatever it takes to bring order to the chaotic streets of Creije even if he has to fashion himself into a gangster no one wants to look at closely enough to recognize his past as a boy desperate to move beyond a lean life on the streets.

Tavia is content marking time before she can wash her hands of Creije for good until one of her cons goes terribly wrong. Instead of duping a rich mark with fake magic, Tavia’s friend takes some very dark and very lethal magic.

With new magic circulating through Creije for the first time in decades everyone is on edge. As enemies circle and alliances are tested, Tavia and Wesley might be the only ones who can stop the conflict they’ve set in motion. That is, if they can bear to trust each other in Into the Crooked Place (2019) by Alexandra Christo.

Into the Crooked Place is Christo’s sophomore novel and the start of her new gangster fantasy duology.

The story plays out against an atmospheric, noir inspired world filled with political corruption and dark horse protagonists including Wesley and Tavia as well as the novel’s other principal characters Saxony and Karam. Potentially rich world building is diminished by breakneck pacing and action that leaves little room for explanation.

Elements of suspense and adventure come together as Tavia and Wesley approach the mystery of the new magic from opposite sides to try and make sense of this  development that could potentially destroy Creije. Alternating viewpoints and shifting story lines clutter more than they clarify with extraneous details.

Into the Crooked Place is an engrossing if sometimes superficial fantasy. Recommended for readers who can prioritize sleek one liners over a sleek plot.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, White Cat by Holly Black, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Ace of Shades by Amanda Foody, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte

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

There Will Come a Darkness: A Review

“An impossible beginning and an inevitable end.”

The Seven Prophets guided humanity for generations building the fated cities and ending wars. Their visions–gifts from the Grace of Mind each possessed–predicted the ruin of dynasties and united countries. Until one hundred years ago when they disappeared leaving behind one final prophecy, a secret vision predicting an Age of Darkness and the arrival of the Last Prophet–the only person who might be able to stop it.

Hassan, Prince of Herat, was forced to flee his country when a strange zealot known as the Hierophant staged a coup in his bid to eliminate all of the Graced and pave the way for a new age. Hassan left everything and everyone he loved behind. Now he’s willing to do almost anything to get it all back.

Ephyra should be able to heal with her Grace of Blood but she has no training and no matter how hard she tries, it’s not enough. She has become a vigilante known as the Pale Hand to try and keep her sister alive, but the lines between right and wrong are getting thinner every day.

Anton has never met a game he couldn’t win. But even his luck isn’t enough to outrun the nightmares that plague him whenever he tries to use his Grace. With his past chasing at his heels, Anton will have to confront the truth of his nightmares if he wants to escape.

Jude is a leader in charge of an elite guard meant to find and protect the Last Prophet at all costs. But how can he stay true to his duty when his heart keeps pulling him away from his chosen path?

Beru knows she is dying even if her sister can’t admit it. After fighting the inevitable for so long, she’s starting to wonder if giving up is really the worst thing that can happen to her.

One prophecy, one common enemy, and five souls who all have the potential to save the world–or destroy it in There Will Come a Darkness (2019) by Katy Rose Pool.

There Will Come a Darkness is Pool’s debut novel and the start of her Age of Darkness trilogy. The novel alternates close third person point of view between the five main characters.

Pool creates a lush world where magic is seen as a gods-given gift and, instead of haves and have nots, the social order is divided between the Graced and those without magic. The action of the story plays out against this sprawling world framed by a complex magic system and polytheistic society where Prophecy has shaped civilization for generations. Lush and vividly described settings help bring this story to life.

Every character in There Will Come a Darkness is driven by fear or desperation–all five are running away, or in some cases running towards, something. The choices they make while pursuing these goals underscore the question of predestination versus free will that permeates the story as it builds quickly, and sometimes unevenly, to a conclusion filled with sudden twists and betrayals.

There Will Come a Darkness is a fantasy filled with suspense and action as each character is forced to ask themselves how far they will go to protect everything they love. Recommended for readers looking for a fast-paced fantasy with a large ensemble cast and anyone who has ever asked themselves what they’d do at the end of the world.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Black Wings Beating by Alex London, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*