The Other Merlin: A Review

In the great kingdom of Camelot, Arthur is reluctant to take up his roles as prince and future king ever after pulling the sword from the stone. He was drunk, it was a joke! How can an old sword mean he’s destined to be a great hero when he would much rather be a botanist who spends all his time in the library?

Lancelot is happy to flirt with almost anyone who crosses his path. Except the last time he picked very badly and everything went very wrong leaving him demoted to a castle guard instead of following his dreams of becoming a knight who will faithfully serve Arthur.

Emry Merlin’s future has never been as certain as her twin brother’s. It’s always been clear that Emmett would be the child to follow in their father’s footsteps serving as Camelot’s court wizard. Never mind that Emry works harder and better when it comes to all things magic. Instead, Emry has to settle for using her magic to create alarmingly realistic stage effects.

At least, she used to.

With the sword out of the stone, things are changing in Camelot and Emmett is summoned to court to take up his role as court wizard. Except he can’t go. Which the current king, Uther, is not going to appreciate. At. All.

It seems simpler–and safer–for everyone if Emry go instead. It’s not hard to disguise herself as Emmett. It will only be a week. Except the longer Emry spends at court the more she’s caught up in the court’s intrigues and scandals, more drawn into Arthur’s inner circle, and even his longtime enemies like Lord Gawain. The more time Emry spends at court the more she learns about her magic. The more she finds herself drawn to Arthur.

When secrets are revealed and alliances threatened, Emry will have to choose between her own ambition and the prince she’s come to love in The Other Merlin (2021) by Robyn Schneider.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Other Merlin is the first book in Schneider’s Arthurian duology which continues in The Future King. Most characters are cued as white with characters falling across the LGBT spectrum notably including our narrator Emry who is bisexual.

With irreverent banter, anachronisms, and a healthy dose of teen spirit The Other Merlin is a fresh a take on familiar source material. Emry breathes new life into Camelot as she contemplates how privilege (especially in the form of wealth) and gender identity offer different characters wildly different opportunities. Emry knows she is as deserving, possibly more deserving, than her brother to act as court wizard. Whether the rest of Camelot will be able to see that beyond her gender remains to be seen in this first installment.

Multi-faceted characters, numerous side plots, and lots of action and humor make The Other Merlin a page-turning adventure. Readers faithful to the Arthurian canon may be flummoxed by Schneider’s numerous changes but those looking for an original retelling will appreciate her interpretations and updates.

Possible Pairings: Once & Future by AR Capetta and Cory McCarthy, Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst, Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

Witches of Brooklyn: A Graphic Novel Review

Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie EscabasseAfter her mom dies eleven-year-old Effie is shipped off to live in Brooklyn with Aunt Selimene and her partner Carlota–two weird old ladies she’s never met.

Effie misses her mom, her home, and her old life. Surly Selimene isn’t much happier about the change to her comfortable routine.

Things take an unexpected turn when Effie finds out her new family puts the strange in strangers. Turns out her aunts aren’t just eccentric. They’re witches! And Effie is too.

As she learns more about her family and her powers, Effie finds new friends and plenty of surprises in Brooklyn–especially when cursed pop star Tilly Shoo shows up at the family brownstone looking for help in Witches of Brooklyn (2020) by Sophie Escabasse.

Find it on Bookshop.

Witches of Brooklyn is the magical start to Escabasse’s Witches of Brooklyn series. The cast includes characters with a variety of skintones, body types, and styles all depicted with care in detailed illustrations. Bright colors, sharp lines and interesting choices like making Selimene’s pet Lion (a dog with some of his own magic) magenta give this graphic novel a unique palette and a distinct feel while reading. Sly pop culture references including unmistakable similarities between Tilly Shoo and a certain pop star add extra fun and whimsy to this story.

Effie’s initial grief and adjustment both to her new surroundings and her new magical identity are handled well. Escabasse makes great use of page design to showcase the beautifully detailed surroundings in Effie’s new home and neighborhood in larger panels while close ups help bring motion and body language into the narrative.

Witches of Brooklyn is the perfect blend of humor and heart with found family, action, and magic (of course!). While this volume has a self-contained story arc, fans will be eager to check out the next installment and return to Effie’s world.

Possible Pairings: ParaNorthern: And the Chaos Bunny A-hop-calpse by Stephanie Cooke and Mari Costa, The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill, The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag, The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner, Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu, Kiki’s Delivery Service

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea: A Review

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie OhDeadly storms have plagued Mina’s village for generations. It wasn’t always like this way. Many year ago the countryside was protected by the great Sea God–both a protector and confidant of the emperor. Everything changed when the emperor died. Now instead of blessing the area with protection, many believe the Sea God curses them with death and destruction.

Every year a beautiful maiden is thrown into the sea to become the Sea God’s bride in an attempt to appease him and break the curse. Eventually villagers hope one girl might be the Sea God’s true bride–able to love him and remind him of his duty to protect the people and stop the storms.

No one is surprised when Shim Cheong is chosen as this year’s bride. She is, by far, the most beautiful girl in their village. But she is also the only girl Mina’s older brother loves. Rather than watch them both suffer, Mina sacrifices herself in Cheong’s place.

Beneath the sea Mina finds another kingdom in chaos filled with lesser gods and magical creatures all waiting for the Sea God to wake from an enchanted sleep. Trapped in the land of spirits with a god unable to break his own curse, Mina will have to take fate into her own hands to break the curse and save both her people and the Sea God himself in The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea (2022) by Axie Oh.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a standalone, feminist take on the Korean folk story “The Tale of Shim Cheong.” Mina’s narration is practical but also open to wonder as she explores the literal magic (and dangers) of the spirit world. Oh introduces many of the elements found in the traditional story, even including one version in the text of the novel, so that readers do not need to have familiarity with the source material before reading.

Throughout the novel female friendship and matriarchal bonds take center stage as Mina again and again makes her own fate. Alone in the spirit world, Mina draws strength from memories of her beloved grandmother and support from the other former sea brides that she finds in beneath the sea. In saving Cheong, Mina claims agency over her fate in a figurative sense but also, later, in a literal sense as her red String of Fate repeatedly tries to steer Mina in directions she refuses to follow in the spirit realm.

Mina is a proactive, clever heroine who is very aware of her strengths as well as her vulnerabilities as a mortal trapped in the spirit world. With support from surprising allies including a trio of ghosts and other mythical creatures, Mina slowly begins to make a place for herself beneath the sea while also making inroads with understanding and ending the Sea God’s curse. But it isn’t until Mina embraces her role as a bride and accepts help from other brides, including Cheong, that Mina is fully able to understand how to break the curse and save everyone she loves.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a retelling that is as evocative as it is inventive; a gripping story where a girl has to learn how to save herself in order to save her world. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones, A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar, Spirited Away

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

The Last Graduate: A Review

“They were saving me, and I was going to save them. It felt more like magic than magic. As though it could make everything all right. As if the whole world had become a different place.”

The Last Graduate by Naomi NovikAt the Scholomance, surviving the schoolyear is only part of the story. The real test, the final hurdle, is surviving the literal gauntlet of graduation. Every student knows the real challenges start senior year with alliances formed, weapons being tested, and the final run from the dorms through a hall filled with all of the worst magic-eating monsters waiting for the annual all-they-can-eat buffet.

This is the way it’s always been at the school. But with two once-in-a-generation talents in this year’s senior class it’s clear that things are about to change.

After spending his entire tenure at the Scholomance saving every student he can, Orion Lake is used to fighting mals and protecting everyone–often to his own detriment. With a tight rein on her own monstrous dark magic Galadriel “El” Higgins has spent the last year trying to protect Orion from himself and everything else the school has to throw at them.

Now, with senior year upon them, El has to build her alliance, prepare for graduation, and figure out if her mom’s advice to stay the hell away from Orion is prescient or just common sense. She’s going to ignore it either way, but it’s good to know when it comes to her mom’s edicts.

With no teachers or staff of any kind, the school’s motivations are always opaque but as graduation nears, it becomes clear the magical building is trying to say something to El specifically. If El listens in time it could change everything at the Scholomance–not just for this graduating class but for every wizard who will come after in The Last Graduate (2021) by Naomi Novik.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Last Graduate is the second book in Novik’s Scholomance series and picks up mere moments after the conclusion of book one A Deadly Education–start there to avoid spoilers and get the most out of this story.

There was a lot happening around the release of book one including a passage that had to be removed from the text and criticism of racist world building. My review of A Deadly Education provides links to articles detailing all of that–I decided I wanted to see how Novik built and improved on book one.

I won’t say that The Last Graduate is perfect–as a white reader I’m not the reader who needs to make that call–but I think Novik does take a lot of the potential with the world building that was baked into book one and works to do better here. Other readers may not want to give this series a second chance which is also fair.

After laying out what students–and readers–can expect from the Scholomance, Novik expertly upends all of that multiple times as not only the game but every rule is changed while El and her allies-turned-friends (or is it friends-turned-allies) prepare for graduation. Although still narrated by El, readers get to see and learn more about many characters within El’s widened social circle (most notably Aadhya and Liu).

El’s status as potentially the worst villain the magical world has ever seen is as fundamental to her character as her choice every day to fight against that destiny. This internal battle to choose to be better and do better rather than taking the easy or self-serving option is writ large as El is forced into an unexpected direction by the school itself which becomes a character in its own right in this installment.

The Last Graduate takes the raw potential of this series and makes it even better with thoughtful explorations of love, friendship, and classism within the confines of a magical adventure.

The Last Graduate is a dramatic, laugh-out-loud story where magic has sharp edges and villains can be heroes.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert; The Cruel Prince by Holly Black; All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman; Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey; An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard; Killing November by Adriana Mather; The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix; Deadly Class by Rick Remender, Wes Craig, Lee Loughridge; Carry On by Rainbow Rowell; And I Darken by Kiersten White; Fable by Adrienne Young

The Ballad of Never After: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Ballad of Never After by Stephanie GarberSince coming to the Magnificent North, Evangeline Fox has married a prince and become part of a prophecy to open the infamous Valory Arch and the dangers–or wonders–it holds. All thanks to Jacks, the Prince of Hearts, and his machinations to manipulate said prophecy in his favor ensuring that Jacks and Jacks alone will receive the supposed boon the arch holds.

Evangeline has learned her lesson, repeatedly, about what happens when she trusts Jacks. But with no resources and few allies, Evangeline realizes that working with Jacks might be the fastest way to get her own story back on track. As the two search for the magic stones to open the arch, Evangeline can feel herself becoming part of the stories that are told throughout the North–history still being formed. But everyone knows stories in the North are cursed, the true endings–happy or tragic–impossible to know.

Finding the stones brings Evangeline closer to her hopefully happy ending while hinting at Jacks’ mysterious history in the North before he became a magical and ruthless Fate. But nothing with Jacks is ever as it seems and Evangeline knows she’ll have to keep her wits about her to stay one step ahead of Jacks. Even if her heart has other plans.

Happy endings can be caught, but they’re not easy to hold; they need to be constantly chased or they will get away. The closer Evangeline gets to opening the Valory Arch, the farther away her own happy ending seems in The Ballad of Never After (2022) by Stephanie Garber.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Ballad of Never After is the second book in Garber’s series which begins with Once Upon a Broken Heart. Set in the same world as Garber’s Caraval trilogy, this series can be read on its own but does include minor spoilers for the Caraval trilogy. Evangeline and Jacks are white, there is diversity among other characters.

While Evangeline’s unfailing optimism remains intact in this second installment, she is much more aware of her limitations–and vulnerabilities–while navigating tricky bargains with those keen to use her for their own ends. Whether that optimism will be her greatest strength or her greatest weakness remains to be seen for much of the story.

After coming to the Magnificent North filled with wonder and a desire to connect to her own past, Evangeline spends more time exploring her new surroundings and trying to understand her place in them. Garber seamlessly expands the world as readers and Evangeline are introduced to more of the Magnificent North and its history including tantalizing hints about the truth behind Evangeline’s favorite northern fairytale The Ballad of the Archer and the Fox as well as the strange history of the North’s lost royal family, the Valors. In a story that plays with the concept of lost history (thanks to the Magnificent North’s story curse) and a new history being formed, the urgency is obvious even with a more character-driven plot.

Frothy descriptions, chaotic adventure, and surprisingly poignant moments of introspection come together to make The Ballad of Never After a delightful story about both literal magic and the magic of belief–in oneself and otherwise.

The Ballad of Never After is a dramatic story where nothing is as it seems and sometimes even an ending can be a new beginning. An excellent addition to a highly recommended series.

Possible Pairings: Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles, The Selection by Kiera Cass, A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, Ace of Shades by Amanda Foody, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Havenfall by Sara Holland, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

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

Back to Magic School (Harry Potter Alternatives) Book List

 

I’ve talked before about why we need to stop supporting JK Rowling and let Harry Potter go. If you are looking for some magical schools that are more inclusive than Hogwarts, these books are great places to start.

You can shop the full list at Bookshop.

Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch by Julie Abe
If she wants to keep being a witch, Eva will have to use her small magic to do good around a seaside town to complete her training by her thirteenth birthday.

Amari and the Night Brothers by BB Alston
When thirteen-year-old Amari is invited to join the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs she knows it’s her best chance to find her missing older brother–and learn more about the magic she never knew she had!
Read my review

Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron
Twelve-year-old Maya has to tap into powers she never realized she had to find her missing father and continue his work of protecting the veil between our world and the Dark.

Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood
Chantel would much rather practices magic than manners at her finishing school. Which is just as well when she and her friends need to step up to protect the kingdom after its magical shield disappears.

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan
Elliott is an unlikely candidate to be transported to a magical world but he has to make do–and attend school–when the unlikely lands him in a fantastical land.

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
Best friends Sophie and Agatha always knew they’d go to the School for Good and Evil. But no one is more surprised than them when Agatha is sent to train to be a princess while Sophie ends up on the villain track.

Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi
Twelve-year-old Aru’s latest attempt to fit in at her private school goes terrible wrong when she frees an ancient demon from a lamp.

The Marvellers by Dhonielle Clayton
As the first Conjuror to attend the Arcanum Training Institute, eleven-year-old Ella Durand has to work with other misfit students to clear her family name and find her favorite teacher when the Ace of Anarchy escapes prison and starts causing trouble.

A Tale of Magic … by Chris Colfer
A secret section of the library leads Bristal Evergreen into a world of magic and fairies.

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
Sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews hopes that a residential program at UNC Chapel Hill for gifted high schoolers will help distract her from grieving her mother’s sudden death but she gets more than she bargained for when she witnesses a magical attack on campus.

Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse
When Effie moves to Brooklyn she discovers that her mysterious aunt is a witch. And Effie might be too!

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko
At the age of eleven Tarisai is sent to compete for a spot on the Crown Prince’s Council of 11 which will give Tarisai the family she has always craved. But it will also bring her one step closer to completing her mother’s magical request: killing the Crown Prince after Tarisai has earned his trust.
Read my review

The Mystwick School of Musicraft by Jessica Khoury
Following in her mother’s footsteps, twelve-year-old Amelia arrives at the Mystwick School hoping to become a Maestro who uses music to create magic.

Pennyroyal Academy by MA Larson
Princesses and knights travel from far and wide to attend Pennyroyal Academy and train to battle witches and dragons.

Mischief Season by John Bemelmans Marciano and Sophie Blackall
Five cousins in Beneveto–an ancient town famous for witches–will have to work together to stop nightly mischief caused by witches called the Janara.

Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by Tola Okogwu
When twelve-year-old Onyeka finds out that is a Solari–a secret group of Nigerian mutants–she is sent to the Academy of the Sun to learn how to use her psychokinetic powers.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
When American-born albino Sunny Nwazue moves back to Nigeria with her family she learns she has magical powers that are only starting to manifest–and she isn’t the only one.

The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag
When Aster meets Charlie–a new girl in town who refuses to let anyone else define her–Aster knows he has to keep following his dreams to become a witch even though witches in his family are always girls.
Read my review

Cameron Battle and the Hidden Kingdoms by Jamar J. Perry
When his favorite childhood book transports Cameron and his friends to the magical kingdom of Chidani, he will have to figure out if he’s ready to be a hero.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
Demigod Percy Jackson has to figure out what it means to be the son of his human mother and the god of the sea, Poseidon, while navigating new powers and summer camp.

The Other Merlin by Robyn Schneider
In order to learn magic in Prince Arthur’s court Emry, daughter of the famous Merlin, will have to disguise herself as her twin brother.

The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner
Moth Hush has never felt like she fits in among the other kids in Founder’s Bluff. On her thirteenth birthday she finds out that might not be entirely her fault since she comes from a long line of witches.
Read my review

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend
Cursed child Morrigan Crow is destined to die on her eleventh birthday until Jupiter North whists her away to a secret realm called Nevermoor and gives her the chance to compete for a place in the prestigious Wundrous Society.
Read my review

Dreams Lie Beneath: A Review

Dreams Lie Beneath by Rebecca RossAt every new moon, the realm of Azenor is overrun by tangible nightmares that stalk the streets wreaking havoc in their wake.

In this world where your worst dreams can, and do, come to life magicians are uniquely positioned to protect innocent dreamers from these monsters of their own making.

Clementine Madigan has grown up watching her father work as a warden and, more recently, assisting him to catalog and destroy the dream creatures that hunt each new moon. Clem’s hopes of inheriting her father’s title are dashed when two upstart magicians–brothers Lennox and Phelan Vesper–challenge him for his title. And win.

Enraged by the loss of everything she’s ever known, Clem is determined to get her revenge–even if it comes at a great personal cost.

But the harder Clem works to expose the Vespers’ misdeeds, the closer she grows to Phelan and the dangerous secrets that bind their families to each other and to the curse that has plagued Azenor for centuries in Dreams Lie Beneath (2021) by Rebecca Ross.

Find it on Bookshop.

Dreams Lie Beneath is a standalone fantasy narrated by Clem. Main characters are white with some diversity among the supporting cast.

Dreams Lie Beneath starts strong with a promising magic system and a heroine who if not entirely sympathetic is singular in pursuit of her goals. Unfortunately these pieces fail to gel into a cohesive story before a plot twist midway shifts the entire story into new territory. This plot change essentially renders everything that came before moot as both the stakes and the rewards for Clem and other main characters abruptly change. Clem’s behavior changes almost as abruptly as the plot with jumps to conclusions and shifting loyalties that have little support within the framework of the novel.

Paper thin motivations and fantasy elements that don’t move far beyond aesthetic value start as promising pieces but, again, never result in a fully realized and well-developed story.

Dreams Lie Beneath is a fun and fast-paced story with a lot of style. Readers looking for more complexity to characters and world building would be better served elsewhere.

Possible Pairings: Blood and Moonlight by Erin Beaty, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Caraval by Stephanie Garber Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

The Drowned Woods: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-JonesEighteen-year-old Mererid “Mer” is the last living water diviner in Wales. Taken from her parents when she is was eight-years-old by Prince Garanhir, she is one of the most powerful tools in the royal arsenal. Until the prince goes too far.

Unwilling to become a weapon used against innocents ever again, Mer has been on the run for the last four years. Trained by the king’s own spymaster, Renfrew, Mer is well-equipped to hide but even she doesn’t have the resources to disappear–especially not from her own mentor.

After years of acting on the prince’s behalf, Renfrew’s loyalties have shifted. And, as every spy knows, a person with a knife and a cause can topple kingdoms. Which is exactly what Renfrew has in mind. If Mer uses her powers one last time to help destroy the magical well that protects Garanhir’s lands–and his power–the prince’s reign will be over and Mer will finally be free.

It won’t be an easy mission. But anything is achievable with the proper resources.

Fane, a fighter with prodigious strength to kill anyone who strikes him, has his own reasons for joining Renfrew’s cause. After his years as an iron fetch, Fane is left with few illusions about his own place in the world or the grief-stricken bargain he trapped himself in years ago. Accompanied by Trefor, a Corgi who may or may not be a spy for the fae, Fane is used to keeping his own counsel and wary when it becomes clear that both his loyalties and his pacifism will be tested on this journey.

With help from the rest of Renfrew’s crew including Ifanna, the Princess of Thieves and a figure from Mer’s past, they should have everything they need. More importantly, Mer should be positioned to get everything she wants as long as she remembers the most important rule a spy ever learns: always plan two escape routes–especially when magic is involved in The Drowned Woods (2022) by Emily Lloyd-Jones.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Drowned Woods is set in the same world as Lloyd-Jones’ previous novel The Bone Houses. Although the stories tie together, both can be read on their own. Characters are assumed white; Mer is bisexual. The narrative shifts viewpoints–primarily focusing on Mer and Fane while flashbacks highlight key aspects of Mer and Fane’s character and reveal key details about other characters, especially the mysterious Ifanna.

With a daring heist, spies, and thieves, it’s no surprise that The Drowned Woods is filled with numerous twists and turns as the story shifts and shifts again in satisfyingly unexpected ways. As more of Mer’s backstory is revealed the complicated relationships between the crew add dimension to the plot and depth to the characters.

Lyrical prose emphasizes the fairy tale elements of Lloyd-Jones’ world building while deliberate plot management ensures quick pacing, lots of action, and plenty of humor from Trefor. Mer–a seasoned spy born with magic and trained to be ruthless–and Fane–a seasoned fighter who bargained for magic and learned his own limits the hard way–are interesting foils and allies throughout the story. Their obvious chemistry comes across in subtle interactions and well-drawn dialog as their loyalties are tested throughout the novel.

The Drowned Woods combines the best pieces of fantasy and adventure to create a gripping story filled with magic and an ensemble cast you won’t soon forget.

Possible Pairings: Devils Unto Dust by Emma Berquist, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh, Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Want to know more? Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Emily!

*An advance listening copy of this title was provided by the publisher through Libro.fm for review consideration*

Vespertine: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Sometimes, if you want to save other people, you need to remember to save yourself first.”

Vespertine by Margaret RogersonThe dead of Loraille do not rest. Luckily, the dead do not bother Artemesia. Very little does in the convent where she trains to become a Gray Sister. Positions of more prestige wait in the city for those with a knack for manipulating the demonic spirits bound to Loraille’s holy relics but Artemesia has never craved status. She has the scarred hands to prove that she has had more than enough of demons after the dark years of her childhood. Instead Artemesia is content to tending to the dead so that their spirits will not return to torment the living.

Artemesia’s quiet life is changed forever when an army of the dead invade, forcing her to bind herself to a demonic spirit to protect the convent from attack.

Now Artemesia’s very self is tied to a revenant–a malevolent spirit bound to a high relic no one left alive knows how to control. If Artemesia can harness the revenant’s power like the vespertine saints of old it could help her turn the tides of an incursion threatening all of Loraille. If she fails, the revenant will possess Artemesia and add to the chaos pushing into the country from all sides.

Isolated and trapped within its relic for centuries on end, the revenant is willing to work with Artemesia if it means a chance to move freely. But bonding with the revenant means challenging everything Artemesia has ever learned about the demons, their relics, and the legendary saints who first bound them. With dangerous dark magic creeping ever closer, one surly nun and a petulant demon will be the only things standing between Loraille and utter ruin in Vespertine (2021) by Margaret Rogerson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Vespertine is the first book in a projected duology. Artemesia is white; other characters she meets throughout Loraille are described with a variety of skin tones. Fans of audiobooks will appreciate the excellent audio production narrated by Caitlin Davies.

High action and drama contrast well with the mystery surrounding both Artemesia and the revenant’s pasts particularly as Artemesia unpacks her trauma from a childhood demonic possession and the long-lasting impact it has had on her life since.

Rogerson explores feminism through a long history of female warriors and authority figures in Loraille as well as themes of community as Artemisia learns to trust her own power–and newfound celebrity–when Loraille embraces her as a saintly warrior. Artemisia’s role in her convent and her complex relationship with the revenant also work to present and expand themes of equality while Artemisia interrogates her country’s history of harnessing demons bound to holy relics. Humor and friendship add levity to this story as Artemisia learns the necessity of self-care with reluctant help from both the revenant and fellow novitiate Marguerite.

Vespertine is a richly developed fantasy infused with action and mystery as Artemesia slowly begins to find a place for herself with the revenant, in her newfound support system, and in Loraille itself.

Possible Pairings: Lore by Alexandra Bracken, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, The Young Elites by Marie Lu, Kingdom of the Wicked by Kerri Maniscalo, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Little Thieves by Margaret Owen, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, Ink in the Blood by Kim Smejkal, Sherwood by Meagan Spooner, The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Small Favors: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Small Favors by Erin A. CraigAmity Falls is isolated. Bordered on one side by the Blackspire Mountain range and dense forest on the other, visitors are rare but dangers from the encroaching forest are not. The earliest townsfolk fought to claim the land from literal monsters–the kind that are still, to this day, whispered about after dark. Everyone knows that safety comes from simple things like following the rules of the community and avoiding the forest except for annual supply runs.

Until the last supply run fails.

With no survivors and no provisions, everyone in Amity Falls is facing a long winter.

Even with this coming scarcity, Ellerie Downing’s life remains safe and predictable. Perhaps too predictable as she chafes under the restrictions placed on her as a girl while her feckless brother is expected to take on responsibilities he seems incapable of managing for both the family and the bees that are their livelihood.

As the seasons change, strange things come to the town. Animals born with horrific defects. Inexplicable occurrences in the fields. Visitors claiming to be trappers including a handsome stranger Ellerie can tell is keeping at least one secret.

When the winter proves harder than usual, monstrous creatures come out of the shadows offering to grant wishes–to provide help–so long as they receive small favors in return. The requests seem harmless at first. Until it becomes clear that denying them will have dire consequences in Small Favors (2021) by Erin A. Craig.

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Small Favors combines supernatural and horror elements in this page turner narrated by Ellerie. Most principle characters are assumed white. The growing tensions among the insulated community of Amity Falls contrast well with the bees kept by Ellerie’s family with beekeeping playing a major role in the story.

Within the confines of Amity Falls, Ellerie is frustrated by the expectations she faces as a young woman to be passive and docile while her twin brother is largely able to do as he likes–often with unfavorable results for Ellerie and the rest of her family and minimal repercussions for himself.  As the story progresses and Ellerie sees more and more cracks in the tenets of the community, she begins to push back against the strict confines of her role in Amity Falls while also discovering her own agency leading to a well-managed treatment of feminist themes and provocative commentary on the importance  to balance individual needs with the greater good.

Craig expertly builds suspense and a growing sense of urgency as Faustian bargains slowly erode everything Ellerie has taken for granted about her home and her family. Small Favors combines the eerie seclusion of The Village, the escalating ferocity of Needful Things, and a unique magic system to create a distinctly unsettling atmosphere where nothing is as it seems. Small Favors is a quiet blend of horror and fantasy sure to keep you up all night reading.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Five Midnights by Ana Davila Cardinal, The Luminaries by Susan Dennard, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, Ferryman by Claire McFall, The Poison Season by Mara Rutherford, Red Wolf by Rachel Vincent, Needful Things, The Village