An Unkindness of Magicians: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat HowardFortune’s Wheel has begun its Turning. When it ceases rotation, all will be made new.

So begins every Turning in the Unseen World. Letters, emails, and other missives are sent to every House throughout New York City–a warning to prepare.

Some like Laurent Beauchamps–an outsider as a Black man and a new initiate to magic–hope to establish their own Houses. Others like Laurent’s best friend Grey Prospero–a legacy to magic despite being disinherited–see this Turning as a chance to prove themselves and reclaim what should rightfully be theirs no matter the cost.

The Turning is also a chance for established Houses like the Merlins to maintain their position at the top ruling over the Unseen World. While leaders of larger Houses like Miranda Prospero hope to grasp at this chance to shake things up.

Houses can represent themselves in the Turning or hire out help. Miranda doesn’t know what to make of Ian Merlin choosing to represent her House instead of his own father’s but she knows she can’t afford to turn down Ian’s offer if she wants to finally wrest power away from Miles Merlin.

What no one at the Turning counted on was Sydney: the mysterious champion Laurent hires. An outsider herself, Sydney knows how magic works and she knows it is breaking. If she has her way, the entire magic system underpinning the Unseen World will be destroyed before she’s finished.

Fortune’s Wheel is turning. Some will rise, some will fall. But at the end of this one, everything will change and it will be time for the world to be remade in An Unkindness of Magicians (2017) by Kat Howard.

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An Unkindness of Magicians is a standalone urban fantasy with a shifting close third person narration. The story unfolds in different directions as the narratives shifts between Sydney, Miranda, Ian and other key players in both the Unseen World and the Turning itself.

Against the backdrop of the Turning and its magical competitions Howard builds out the Unseen World, its archaic hierarchies, and the iniquities at the center of how magic is used and distributed in a sharp examination of privilege and legacy. Unsolved murders throughout the Unseen World add another dimension to this already rich story.

An Unkindness of Magicians is a nuanced and intricate novel with a slow build as plots and characters begin to intersect in advance of a sensational conclusion. Howard populates this story with a group of fiercely determined and clever characters–especially women–looking for justice and victory in a world that would willingly to cast them aside. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, Magic For Liars by Sarah Gailey, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman, A Criminal Magic by Lee Kelly, Middlegame by Seanan McGuire, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, A Treason of Thorns by Laura E. Weymouth

City of Villains: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

City of Villains by Estelle LaureMary Elizabeth Heart remembers when magic left Monarch City with the sudden and complete disappearance of the Scar’s newest skyscraper two years ago. It couldn’t compare to the murder of her parents and sister, but this loss is much bigger for Monarch City.

Now Mary is a high school intern with the police. Tensions are always high between the Scar’s Legacy residents with magic and the wealthy Narrows encroaching on the land for cheap real estate and not caring about the area’s magical legacy. But now a killer is taunting the police sending gift boxes of body parts.

When Mally Saint, the daughter of one of the city’s richest residents, goes missing Mary Elizabeth is as surprised as anyone to be put on the case with rookie officer Bella Loyola. As the unlikely duo delves deeper into the case, Mary Elizabeth will have to decide what to do when she discovers uncomfortable truths about the culprit, her home, and her friends in City of Villains (2021) by Estelle Laure.

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City of Villains is the first book in a trilogy that re-imagines the origins of some of Disney’s most iconic villains in a fantasy noir setting. Think Veronica Mars meets CW’s Nancy Drew but make it Disney.

Laure brings a lot of dimension to familiar territory as she ages down familiar characters like The Queen of Hearts (Mary Elizabeth), Captain Hook (Mary Elizabeth’s boyfriend), Ursula (Mary Elizabeth’s best friend) and more from all areas of the Disney morality spectrum. Disney fans will enjoy hunting down all of the Easter egg references to iconic characters. Those less familiar with the Disney-verse might wonder at the one-dimensionality of some characters who feel more like caricatures when distilled down to their key traits for brief appearances in the novel.

Monarch City as a setting owes a lot to Batman’s Gotham City with its sinister shadows and political unrest. Unfortunately, Gotham City does not translate well to prose. Part of why it works in Batman is because that series is presented as comics or films—mediums with very different world building requirements than novels.

While the premise of a teen investigating a high profile case pushes the limit for plausibility, Mary Elizabeth’s persistence and grit more than make up for this shortcoming. City of Villains is a lot of potential that isn’t always allowed to fully blossom because of the marks it has to hit as a Disney property. A must-read for Disney fans and worth a look for readers who enjoy fantasy noir.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Brokenhearted by Amelia Kahaney, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

The Night Circus: A Review

The Night Circus by Erin MorgensternThe circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

Long before its inception, the circus was destined to be something special. Visitors are charmed by the magical performances and the wondrous exhibits found in each black and white tent. Behind the scenes the circus is the site of a fierce competition between two magicians.

Celia and Marco have been trained for this competition from a young age as their instructors pit them against each other determined to see which magician (and which trainer) is superior. Both are warned to avoid the other, to keep their identity secret, but soon enough Celia and Marco crash into each other and into a dangerous love that threatens the contest.

All things must end and if this competition doesn’t have a clear victor it could have devastating consequences for Celia, Marco, and everyone who has come to call the circus home in The Night Circus (2011) by Erin Morgenstern.

Find it on Bookshop.

Morgenstern’s debut novel hardly needs any introduction. I came late to this one after attempting (and, quite honestly, failing) to enjoy the author’s second novel The Starless Sea.

The Night Circus is a nonlinear story told across decades as our protagonists first begin their training through to the explosive conclusion of their competition. The sprawling story jumps back and forth in time while following multiple characters in close third person and spanning the globe as Le Cirque des Rêves travels to different locations.

Compared to such an elaborate setting and complex world, some of the characters fail to become fully realized. The story very clearly centers Celia and Marco while introducing others who become integral either to the circus or the contest–or both in some cases–although some feel closer to a deus ex machina than true characters in the story. The book also falls short of giving every character their due when it comes to a true ending.

It’s also worth mentioning that the only characters who are not white fall dangerously close to stereotypes with Tsukiko the inscrutable and enigmatic Japanese contortionist and Chandresh the eccentric and boisterous circus founder who is half Indian.

Morgenstern’s background as a visual artist is obvious in her prose which is extremely evocative and immediately draws readers into the circus as well as each and every one of Celia and Marco’s elaborate illusions. Intervals throughout the novel also pull readers into the story with sections told in second person that position the reader as a vital participant in the circus.

Much like the timeless Le Cirque des Rêves itself, The Night Circus is visually stunning, immediately clever, and often bittersweet. Recommended for readers looking for a fantasy with a setting in which they can luxuriate.

Possible Pairings: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman, A Criminal Magic by Lee Kelly, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Tales From the Hinterland: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Tales From the Hinterland by Melissa AlbertTales From the Hinterland (2021) by Melissa Albert presents Althea Proserpine’s  notorious collection of dark and twisted short stories that form the backbone of the world building in both The Hazel Wood and its sequel The Night Country. For the first time the stories that protagonists Alice and Ellery encounter in Albert’s previous novels are presented in their entirety.

Readers familiar with Albert’s oeuvre will recognize many of the tales and characters here notably including Alice, Ilsa, and Hansa. Albert aptly channels classic fairy tale sensibilities into eerie and brutal tales that would have the Brothers Grimm reaching for an extra candle at night. Centering female characters in each story Albert explores the facets of girl-and-womanhood in a world dominated and usually shaped by men.

Standouts in the collection include “The House Under the Stairwell,” where sisterhood wins the day as Isobel seeks help from the Wicked Wife before she is trapped in a deadly betrothal; “The Clockwork Bride,” a richly told story where a girl hungry for enchantment carelessly promises her first daughter to a sinister toymaker who, when he tries to claim his prize, instead finds a girl who wishes only to belong to herself; and “Death and the Woodwife,” where a princess uses her wits and her mother’s unusual gifts to outwit Death and his heir.

With stories fueled by feminist rage, the frustration of being underestimated, and the insatiable longing to experience more Tales From the Hinterland is a collection that is both timely and universal.

You can also check out my interview with Melissa to hear more about this book and the companion novels.

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 Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

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

Into the Heartless Wood: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth MeyerEveryone knows the forest is a dangerous place. How can it be anything else when it is filled with tree sirens whose only purpose is to draw people into the forest and to their deaths?

The witch in the forest has fed souls to her trees until they are no longer trees but not human either. Instead, the witch calls these sirens her daughters but Seren knows that isn’t really true–not when the tree-sirens have to do her bidding no matter what.

Owen Merrick has grown up next to the woods and he knows how dangerous they are. He knows how lucky he is when Seren saves his life when she could have killed him. Drawn to each other, Owen and Seren begin meeting in secret. But their growing feelings for each other are threatened when the stars warn of a dangerous curse drawing Seren and Owen into a years long struggle between the witch and the king determined to stop her in Into the Heartless Wood (2021) by Joanna Ruth Meyer.

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While some elements of the world take a back seat to the romance here, Into the Heartless Wood is an evocative story where the setting feels like a character. The novel alternates between prose chapters from Owen’s point of view and more verse-like passages from Seren. Meyer brings together this unlikely pair in a well-realized world filled with magic and menace that is sure to draw readers in.

Into the Heartless Wood is a deliciously atmospheric, dangerous fantasy. Perfect for readers who like their fantasy with a bit of star-crossed love and mystery.

Possible Pairings: To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf

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

Elysium Girls: A Review

Elysium Girls by Kate PentecostSal Wilkinson has had visions of rain coming to the walled city of Elysium for years. Sal knows her vision is true, knows it’s just taking a little longer. But no one else in town believes that and most people don’t have much use for her.

No one is more surprised than Sal when she is named Successor to Mother Morevna, the powerful witch who banded Elysium together the day the city was wrench out of our world in 1935 and become the game board for the latest game between the sister gods Life and Death.

After nearly ten long years building up the city, the day of judgement if months away. If the city succeeds, Life will restore them to the world. If the city is deemed a failure, Death will claim every person within its walls as a sacrifice.

Sal thinks becoming Successor is her chance to prove her worth to the city once and for all. Instead, her first attempt to lead the city ends in disaster. Exiled alongside a mysterious outsider, Sal will have to join forces with Olivia Rosales, another Elysium exile and a young witch herself, if any of them hope to save Elysium by beating Life and Death at their own game in Elysium Girls (2020) by Kate Pentecost.

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Elysium Girls is Pentecost’s debut novel. The novel alternates between Sal’s first person narration and third person narrations following other characters including Asa and Olivia.

Pentecost’s story is grounded with a strong sense of place. Descriptive prose bring the Dust Bowl ravaged city and its steampunk-inspired blend of steel and magic to life. Despite the promising start, a large cast and sprawling premise still make this story unwieldy.

Despite a countdown to Judgement Day at the start of every chapter, this book is largely lacking in a sense of urgency where any stakes for at least the first thirty percent of the novel are entirely absent.

Readers drawn to Elysium Girls based on the synopsis should prepare themselves for a long haul as Pentecost takes her time building up the story. A potential win for readers seeking an immersive fantasy with steampunk elements and only minimal romance between secondary characters.

Possible Pairings: Devils Unto Dust by Emma Berquist, Lovely War by Julie Berry, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, The Reader by Traci Chee, The Young Elites by Marie Lu, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool

Lightbringer: A Review

Lightbringer by Claire LegrandAfter years spent trying to deny her powers and her dark urges to push them to their limits, Queen Rielle is done pretending. Rejected by the man she loves, feared by the country she swore to protect, Rielle instead turns to Corien–the dark fallen angel who has always promised her glory and destruction in the same breath.

A thousand years in the future Eliana is still trying to understand how her plan to stop Rielle before she breaks the world went so very wrong. Separated from her brother, betrayed by the man she thought she could love, Eliana arrives at the Empire’s capital broken. But that doesn’t stop Corien from trying to break her more and unearth the secrets of how he can use Eliana to reunite with Rielle in the past.

The world has always been quick to tell Rielle and Eliana what kind of woman they should be. With the fate of the world balancing on a knife’s edge, both Rielle and Eliana will have to take their fates–and the fate of all of Avitas–into their own hands in Lightbringer (2020) by Claire Legrand.

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Lightbringer is the final book in Legrand’s Empirium trilogy which begins with Furyborn and Kingsbane. Legrand has said before that this is the series of her heart, the reason she began writing, and a massive undertaking. Seeing the end of it, particularly this ending, is bittersweet to say the least.

Lightbringer picks up shortly after the conclusion of Kingsbane although most of the plot relies on world building and plot previously established in the first book in the trilogy.

Epigraphs, shifting points of view, and the story’s two timelines play out on an epic scale as this novel builds to conclusion that feels both explosive and inevitable.

Like the other books in this series, Lightbringer is a long one (nearly 600 pages as a hardcover). Unfortunately in this volume many of the editorial choices shift focus away from characterization and plot in favor of repeated scenes of torture. Corien employs mental and physical violence against Eliana to understand how she could travel to the past. Meanwhile Rielle’s storyline is steeped in blood and gore as Rielle learns more about Corien’s experiments to build monsters to fight his war and vessels for incorporeal angels.

While this book has all of the pieces for a powerful conclusion, they never quite gel as well as they need to relative to the build up. Corien’s motivations are never entirely clear, Ludivine’s purpose in the story remains murky. Worse than all that, a lot of character viewpoints are relegated to epigraphs in favor of cutting down the book length. This choice highlights how badly Ilmaire needed to be a main character in this trilogy while I am still wondering why I had to read though countless chapters from Navi, Tal, or Jessamyn–all of whom feel largely tangential to the entire series.

Both the torture and violence throughout Lightbringer became repetitive enough that as a reader I began to feel inured to it. Instead of furthering the story, the torture took page time away from allowing the overarching narrative to unfold leaving much of that to happen in the final 150 pages of the book.

Lightbringer is a natural if not always satisfying conclusion to a truly distinct series. This installment redeemed a lot of the flaws in Kingsbane or at least made them understandable, particularly in regards to Rielle’s motivations. While the conclusion here feels inevitable, it remains bittersweet and leaves many of the characters and the entire world of Avitas forever changed. It’s clear that there are more stories to be told in Avitas and I hope Legrand will eventually be able to share them with readers.

Lightbringer ends strong remaining inclusive, sexy, and very smart making it a good read-a-like and antidote for Game of Thrones or other problematic fantasies written by white men for white men.

Possible Pairings: Frostblood by Elly Blake, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Girl King by Mimi Yu

Practical Magic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Practical Magic by Alice HoffmanThe Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town for more than two hundred years. After all, who wouldn’t blame every wrong thing on the town witches?

It’s no surprise that sisters Gillian and Sally grow up here as outsiders–taunted and whispered about without ever being understood or even truly seen. It seems to be the only option when their aunts Jet and Fran seem to do everything they can to encourage every rumor with their strange house and the concoctions they offer at night from their kitchen door.

Gillian escapes by running away; Sally by getting married. But no matter how far they go from their family, from each other, some things–some bonds–can’t be broken in Practical Magic (1995) by Alice Hoffman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Like a lot of people of a certain age, my first encounter with Practical Magic was the 1998 movie adaptation starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. I love that movie. It’s iconic, one of a handful of films I know by heart and watch every chance I get. I was nervous that the novel would never stand up to the adaptation. I’m happy to report I was wrong.

The story covered in the film version is roughly the final quarter of the book with a few changes to better translate the story to a new medium. Instead of the small vignette viewers get in the movie, Practical Magic offers a wider slice of life as Gillian and Sally grow up and do everything they can to deny their family, their history, and their magical roots. Sally’s daughters, Antonia and Kylie also play bigger roles in the book.

Practical Magic is everything I loved from the movie but more. This book has more history, more magic, more evocative scenes, plus Hoffman’s beautiful prose to tie it all together.

Possible Pairings: Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop by Roselle Lim, Among Others by Jo Walton

Star Daughter: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Star Daughter by Shveta ThakrarSheetal Mistry has grown up keeping secrets. Only her father, her aunt, and her closest friend Minal know the truth: that Sheetal’s mother is a star who returned to her celestial court when Sheetal was five years old.

Since then, Sheetal has learned to keep her own celestial song buried deep where it cannot affect humans or give her away. She dyes her starlight silver hair black, she ignores the call from her family in the stars. It has never been easy to deny half of herself but her father’s love, Minal’s support, and her new boyfriend Dev have all helped.

But as her seventeenth birthday approaches, Sheetal finds it harder to ignore the way the night sky calls to her. When her father is injured by starfire, Sheetal will have to answer her star family’s summons to try and save him. But first she will have to help her celestial family secure their place as the next ruling house of the heavens.

After years of hiding and denying her true self Sheetal will have to embrace all of herself, her family, and her own complicated place with them to save her father in Star Daughter (2020) by Shveta Thakrar.

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Star Daughter is Thakrar’s debut novel.

This standalone fantasy is filled with richly detailed world building bringing both Sheetal’s magical family and her earthbound Gujarati community of friends, cousins, and other family to life. Evocative, carefully drawn magic adds dimension and nuance to this story that, unfortunately, has a several lacking love interest in Dev who remains one dimensional and flat for most of the story.

Sheetal’s friendship with Minal remains much more convincing than any love match here adding a strong element of friendship and girl power to this story with a friendship that literally spans worlds.

Star Daughter is a thoughtful fantasy about friendship, growing up, and family. Recommended for readers who have always wondered what treasures can be found at the Night Market.

Possible Pairings: The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, Stardust by Neil Gaiman, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth NixThings are changing in London in 1983. Some of the changes are ones you might recognize while others in this slightly alternate London are, appropriately, slightly different.

Things are changing for eighteen-year-old Susan Arkshaw too as she travels to London to try to find her father–a man she has never met–only to cross paths with the left-handed Merlin St. Jacques and, by extension, the rest of his eccentric family.

The St. Jacques clan has always kept London’s monsters, goblins, and other eldritch creatures in check and grounded in the Old World through a combination of magic, research for the right-handed of the family, brute force for the left-handed, and it seems in Merlin’s case through raw charisma as well. But the St. Jacques clan also has to make a living. So they sell books in the New World of modern London as well, as one does.

Susan isn’t sure how to deal with Merlin’s outrageous good looks or his even more outrageous flirting. Worse, she seems to be caught up in an Old World struggle that has been building for years–one that Merlin has been investigating in relation to his mother’s murder.

With help from his right-handed sister, Vivien, Merlin and Susan will have to follow Susan’s scant clues to find her father and determine Susan’s role in this Old World conflict before it bleeds into New World London and tears its unique booksellers apart in The Left-Handed Booksellers of London (2020) by Garth Nix.

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Witty banter and high stakes battles contrast well with bigger questions of what constitutes the greater good in a time when both magic and the modern world are rapidly evolving even as the booksellers themselves may be stagnating after years of complacency. If another urban fantasy novel has ever had such a painfully realistic depiction of shoddy institutional management, I haven’t read it.

Susan is a pragmatic, no-nonsense heroine from her worldview down to her buzz cut and Doc Martins who is quick to adapt as her entire world begins to shift beneath her feet. Merlin is, by contrast, flamboyant and whimsical with a larger than life personality to match his massive wardrobe fit for every occasion with snappy suits, nice dresses, and everything in between including multiple weapons. As the final point of this trio Vivien adds some much-needed practicality and steals every scene she’s in.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London artfully subverts traditional gender roles both in society and within the fantasy genre with a story that defies as many expectations as its characters. Very fun. Very British. Very 1980s. Very much recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton