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, 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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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 Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, Ferryman by Claire McFall, Red Wolf by Rachel Vincent, Needful Things, The Village

The Charmed List: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Charmed List by Julie AbeEllie Kobata has been looking forward to her road trip with best friend Lia Park for months. Driving from Palo Alto to the California Magical Retailers’ Convention where magical merchants like Ellie’s parents can showcase their wares will be the perfect summer adventure even if traveling with non-magic-aware Lia poses some challenges. Luckily, Ellie is used to keeping magical secrets. Plus she will have Lia’s help knocking items off her Anti-Wallflower List which Ellie hopes will be able to change her quiet girl persona at school into someone more interesting to her classmates and herself.

Ellie’s high hopes for the trip are dashed when item four–getting revenge on her ex-best-friend Jack Yasuda–goes horribly wrong leaving Ellie grounded for the foreseeable future, in a fight with Lia, and worst of all driving to the convention with Jack.

With so many disasters, Ellie’s list is starting to feel like it might be cursed but as Ellie and Jack are forced to spend time together they might also have the chance to rehab their friendship and maybe even check off some other items from Ellie’s list like dancing under the stars and falling in love in The Charmed List (2022) by Julie Abe.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Charmed List is Abe’s YA debut but you might recognize her name from her middle grade series Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch.

Ellie is Japanese American, Jack is half-Italian American, half-Japanese American.

The Charmed List is a delightful standalone filled with romance and magic. Artist Ellie’s initially prickly narration will win readers over as she explains details of her magic-aware world including charms for things like joy or ambition and reveals more of her fraught history with Jack.

With road trip stops including quirky shops, welcoming inns, and magical cottages The Charmed List is as cozy as it is engrossing. Fans of the romance genre will recognize tropes including hate to love, there’s only one bed, and more in this story about second chances and new beginnings.

Possible Pairings: The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han, Seoulmates by Susan Lee, Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, Jade Fire Gold by June CL Tan

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

The Bone Orchard: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

I won’t be ashamed of remaking myself. And I won’t turn my back on myself.

The Bone Orchard by Sara A. MuellerCharm is a survivor. After the fall of Inshil, Charm is brought to Borenguard. She is confined to a life running Orchard House, a brothel and gambling den, and tending the adjacent bone trees–the last trace of her necromantic skills. Again and again she has used the trees to regrow her bone ghosts, her children really, Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride, and Pain.

Each ghost has her own role to play, her own part, to keep Orchard House together. Charm oversees it all, madam and mistress both, as everyone from Borenguard’s elite to the Fire Drinkers–the empire’s psychically gifted police force–frequents Orchard House and buys time with the ghosts.

Except on Tuesdays. When the house is closed for all but the Emperor who comes for Charm herself.

Until one Tuesday when everything changes. Instead of coming to the house, Charm is summoned to the palace where the Emperor lay dying with one last charge for his mistress.  The Emperor knows one of his cruel sons is responsible for his murder. If Charm can determine which one, and thereby also choose which son is best fit to rule, Charm will finally be free.

But serving the emperor with this one last task will put everything–and each of the ghosts–Charm has built at risk. With her own fate and the fate of her bone ghosts uncertain, Charm will have to decide if she can serve the Emperor’s last wishes while also finally serving her own interests in The Bone Orchard (2022) by Sara A. Mueller

Find it on Bookshop.

Please be aware of the content warnings for this book which includes instances of domestic abuse, rape, incest, torture, pedophilia, and other acts of violence.

Mueller’s standalone fantasy is a nuanced and richly plotted story set in a world populated by people with varied skin tones and sexual orientations including one central character who is cued as nonbinary/genderqueer. The bone ghosts are described as “colorless” and lacking in pigmentation. Shifting viewpoints move between Charm and several of the bone ghosts as the story slowly spins out and gains momentum.

The setting of Orchard House acts as a key character itself giving space to unpack the unequal power dynamics at play between many of the characters because of gender and glass–and between Charm and each of the bone ghosts who carry their own burdens and traumas. The house also highlights the ways in which history is written (or rewritten) by the victors as more of its provenance is revealed.

Be warned, this story is often gruesome and unsavory as Mueller throws open the closed doors of the brothel and also explores exactly why each of the Emperor’s sons are so deeply damaged and awful. Nonetheless, The Bone Orchard is a satisfying mystery and meditative political fantasy that begs to be savored. As the many layers of both Charm and Borenguard’s pasts are peeled back the novel builds to a complex denouement where Charm–and others–transcend the restrictions placed upon them as they learn to embrace and respect what they have done in order to survive.

Through shifting lenses and an intricate plot including mystery, political machinations, and more The Bone Orchard explores what it means to inhabit the world alternately as a captive, a potential victim, and as a survivor; grim but ultimately empowering.

Possible Pairings: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, An Illusion of Thieves by Cate Glass, Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, All the Murmuring Bones by Angela Slatter, Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

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

Our Crooked Hearts: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“So. Magic. It is the loneliest thing in the world.”

Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa AlbertIn the suburbs, right now Ivy is ready for summer–even one that starts with a breakup (hers) and a broken nose (not hers). Ivy feels like strange things always happen around her, like she’s always waiting. But she’s never sure what for. She’s even less sure when strange things start happening around her house. First there’s the dead rabbit on the driveway. There’s the open door she knows she locked. Then there are the cookies, each with one perfect bite taken out while she’s home alone.

In another life, Ivy might talk to her mom Dana about what’s happening. But it’s been a long time since Ivy and her mom have been able to discuss anything. It’s been a long time since her mom has even looked at her, since she’s been anything close to present for the family.

Back then, in the city Dana is waiting for things to start. She’s always been perceptive, some might call it uncanny. She had to be to survive her childhood. Back then, the summer she turns sixteen, Dana realizes she might be able to be more than uncanny. With help from her best friend Fee and a striving newcomer, they could all be magic.

In another life, Dana might have seen the risks and understood the costs before it was too late. She doesn’t.

Instead Dana’s choices here in the city will have lasting consequences leaving a mark on her and on Fee and, most of all, on Ivy who will be left alone to unravel her mother’s secrets and the havoc left in their wake in Our Crooked Hearts (2022) by Melissa Albert.

Find it on Bookshop.

Our Crooked Hearts is a stark urban fantasy where magic doesn’t come without a cost. Ivy and Dana are white, Dana’s best friend Fee is Latinx. The story alternates between Ivy’s narration (in the suburbs, right now) and Dana’s narration (in the city, back then) in Chicago and its suburbs.

Although the plot highlights their fractious relationship, Ivy and Dana follow similar character arcs in spite of their different trajectories. Both girls are brittle and filled with an abrasive vulnerability as they struggle to understand their place in a world that never feels like it fits–a theme that gains potency as more of their backstories are revealed. This dual storyline is used to great effect with each plot moving toward its inevitable and potentially painful conclusion.

It’s impossible to read any book now without considering the mental landscape where it germinated, particularly in the context of the global pandemic. Both Ivy and Dana struggle with isolation as they flirt with power in a literal (magical) sense and in relation to their own agency as teenage girls. These struggles can easily be writ large and applied to so many of the changes we have all had to make because of the pandemic. One quote in particular, “I could still observe the shock of it, the impossibility, but I’d run out of the energy to feel them.” encapsulates living and working through the pandemic so clearly–especially the burnout and stress and increasingly bleak current events.

Both narratives are imbued with a noir sensibility and a keen eye for detail that lead to observations like “It was one of those raw, unjust spring afternoons when the air is so bright and clean it focuses the whole world like a lens, but it’s cold still and you’re shivering.” Albert blends fantasy and horror elements into a tense story that feels like it could happen anywhere, to anyone, while also possessing a strong sense of immediacy that makes it impossible to turn away.

Our Crooked Hearts is a magic-filled, intergenerational story with all of the edges sharpened into razors; a dangerous fantasy with an eerie stepped-out-of-time otherness.

Possible Pairings: Book of Night by Holly Black, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Mayhem by Estelle Laure, Extasia by Claire Legrand, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Never-Contented Things by Sarah Porter, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma, House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Melissa.

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

Amari and the Night Brothers: A Review

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. AlstonAmari Peters knows she can never measure up to her older brother Quinton. But with Quinton missing and the police no longer even pretending to look for him, Amari is all their single mother has left. So Amari tries her best even if Quinton left big shoes to fill with an outstanding academic career and a mysterious job that left no way to trace him after the disappearance.

When the latest round of bullying by the rich, white girls at her fancy private school ends with Amari’s suspension, Amari knows she’s in big trouble. She also knows being home alone is a great opportunity to continue her search for Quinton. Instead of finding a clue to where Quinton is, Amari finds an invitation that’s been waiting for her.

Turns out Quinton’s job was a bigger deal than anyone realized and, now that she’s thirteen, Amari has a chance to follow in her brother’s footsteps by joining the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs. Amari is certain that learning the truth about Quinton’s life will help her find him, but being in the Bureau also feels right. Even when Amari’s ceremony to receive her trainee shield goes very wrong. Turns out Amari is a promising trainee–even more promising than her brother, for once. Unfortunately, Amari’s supernatural level talent is also illegal because she’s a magician.

Amari has one chance to make it as a trainee and one chance to try and find her brother–she’ll have to make the most of both as she survives her rigorous trainee schedule, more mean girls, and tries to make new friends all while trying to understand her magic–and find out what really happened to her brother in Amari and the Night Brothers (2021) by B.B. Alston.

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Amari and the Night Brothers is Alston’s debut novel and the start of a series. Amari and her family are Black. Secondary characters are varied including Amari’s new roommate Elsie who is a dragon (and my favorite). The audiobook is a fun and fast listen as narrated by Imani Parks but you will catch more of Alston’s punny name choices in print.

Amari is a fantastic protagonist. She is street smart and savvy after growing up poor and living in the projects but she is also still open to wonder as she explores more of the supernatural world. Most importantly, she is still hopeful and has unflagging faith that she will find Quinton again and reunite her family. Alston’s writing is top notch as he weaves the supernatural world into a modern urban setting with a similar sensibility to the Men in Black films.

Strong world building, authentic characters, and a really fun magic system make Amari and the Night Brothers a great adventure for readers of all ages; a more enjoyable and more inclusive alternative to Harry Potter.

Possible Pairings: The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani, The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, Shadow Weaver by MarcyKate Connolly, Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend