Four Dead Queens: A Review

cover art for Four Dead Queens by Astrid ScholteFour queens rule Quadara. Together, yet apart just like the country’s four quadrants: Archia, Eonia, Ludia, and Toria.

Keralie is one of the best thieves in all of Toria stealing missives, technology, and  contraband from other quadrants that her employer Mackiel can sell in his black market auctions. It isn’t the life Keralie’s parents’ ever imagined for her, but it is the one she’s been groomed for since she was ten.

Even Keralie’s skills prove insufficient when her latest target–a messenger from Eonia–discovers her theft. If he can’t make his delivery, Varin’s life could be forfeit leaving him with little choice but to follow Keralie to retrieve his stolen goods.

What starts as a simple exchange soon escalates when Keralie and Varin discover a plot to assassinate all of Quadara’s queens. With no one else to trust, Keralie and Varin have to set aside their mutual distrust to form a reluctant alliance if they want to escape Mackiel and capture the assassin in Four Dead Queens (2019) by Astrid Scholte.

Four Dead Queen‘s is a standalone adventure that’s part mystery, part thriller, and part speculative fiction.

Quadara and the individual quadrants have the potential to be fascinating backdrops for this story. Unfortunately Quadara is never situated in a larger world making the tension between the quadrants and outside threats feel forced if not entirely contrived. The politics of succession and Queenly Law (the rules that dictate how the quadrants are divided and ruled) also make very little sense and further underscore the poor development of this world.

Keralie’s first-person narration gives depth to both herself and Varin who is simultaneously her foil and her love interest. Sadly both protagonists stumble through the story without anything resembling agency as they are repeatedly driven from one reactive position to the next. The rest of the characters are exceedingly flat–a problem that is especially obvious with Mackiel the supposedly charming criminal mastermind who never once manages to come across as anything but slimy and manipulative.

Four Dead Queens is suspenseful and well-paced with high action and a deep sense of urgency as Keralie and Varin hunt the assassin. In contrast, the mystery’s resolution is a bitter disappointment as much of the actual intrigue comes more from the author’s deliberate manipulation of the story’s timeline and perspective rather than true plot twists.

It’s no surprise that this story has a body count but it’s both disappointing and problematic that two of the only queer characters characters and two of the only dark-skinned characters (including one raised in secret in two small rooms) are among the first victims. Varin’s position as an Eonian with a premature death date is also troubling and surprising as he comes from a quadrant known for its medical advancements and life-prolonging technologies.

Four Dead Queens is an interesting if sometimes frustrating mystery but the fantasy world framework of Quadara is shoddily built at best. A high-concept story that fails to capitalize on a unique world and instead remains painfully predictable and opaque.

Possible Pairings: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Rule by Ellen Goodlett, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, Divergent by Veronica Roth

Strange Grace: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Strange Grace by Tessa GrattonA long time ago a witch fell in love with a devil.

The witch gave the devil her heart and a pact was made in the town of Three Graces. Now, nothing is bad and nothing changes. The crops never fail and no one dies before their time. Everything is good.

Every seven year the town’s best boy is anointed as a saint to run through the forest. On the Slaughter Moon he is sent into the forest from sundown to sunrise with nothing but his wits to protect him. His sacrifice renews the bargain every seven years.

That’s the story Three Graces has always known and always told. But can the story be trusted at all? When the bargain needs to be renewed early, Arthur, Mairwen, and Rhun aren’t so sure.

An angry boy, a witch, and a saint run into the forest together. They’ll need each other if they hope to change the shape of the bargain and Three Graces before the next Slaughter Moon in Strange Grace (2018) by Tessa Gratton.

Gratton’s latest standalone novel is a thoughtful commentary on fear, sacrifice, and toxic masculinity wrapped in a page-turning story set in an eerie world where magic has the power to change everything and the forest has teeth.

As the daughter of the current witch Mairwen’s implicit trust in the bargain, in the devil, and in the forest itself is sorely tested as she realizes all is not as it seems in Three Graces.

Rhun has always known he would be the next saint. There is no denying he is the town’s best boy and he is willing to make the sacrifice. But as he prepares to lose everything, Rhun wonders if anyone in town truly knows him.

Arthur has grown up in the shadow of the Slaughter Moon and his mother’s fear of it. Raised as a girl for his first seven years, Arthur is desperate now to prove himself as strong, as good, and as masculine as the other candidates. But even Arthur knows that he is more angry than anything else.

As they prepare for the premature Slaughter Moon, Mairwen, Arthur, and Rhun are haunted by the decisions that have left their lives hopelessly intertwined. Drawn together as much as they are driven apart, none of them know how they can find an ending together when it it is unlikely they’ll all survive the night of the saint’s run.

Strange Grace is a tense blend of fantasy and suspense. Recommended for readers who enjoy their fantasy tinged with horror and old secrets and anyone seeking a polyamorous romance when the chemistry between the characters is undeniable.

Possible Pairings: Damsel by Elana K. Arnold, The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton, The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson, Last Things by Jacqueline West

Two Can Keep a Secret: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Welcome to life in a small town. You’re only as good as the best thing your family’s done. Or the worst.”

cover art for Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManusWelcome to Echo Ridge, population 4,935. Echo Ridge looks like small town America at its finest. But looks can be deceiving.

Ellery knows about all about the secrets hidden in Echo Ridge because her family is at the heart of them. Her aunt went missing from the town when she was Ellery’s age–sixteen. Five years ago their family was in the news again when a homecoming queen was murdered, her body found at the local Murderland amusement park.

Malcolm wishes he could forget Echo Ridge’s darker side and the role his brother played in the murder five years ago as prime suspect. Declan was never arrested but a small town’s memory is long and he was never cleared either. Even when Malcolm’s mother remarries it isn’t enough to change what the town thinks of his family. Not really.

When Ellery and her twin brother Ezra are sent to live with their grandmother while their mother is in rehab it hardly feels like a fresh start. Instead, Echo Ridge seems to be choked by past tragedies it can’t forget. When another girl–another homecoming queen–goes missing both Ellery and Malcolm will have to explore Echo Ridge’s darkest secrets to uncover the truth and the killer in Two Can Keep a Secret (2019) by Karen M. McManus.

McManus’s latest standalone mystery is a tense exploration of a town with a dark past. The novel alternates between Ellery and Malcolm’s first person narration. This novel capitalizes on the strengths of McManus’s debut novel One of Us is Lying (multiple narrators, tense pacing, conversational and readable prose) without the problematic resolution.

Two Can Keep a Secret is a refreshingly realistic mystery where, although Ellery identifies as a true crime buff and would-be amateur sleuth, she still gets things wrong and still needs help from actual investigators to crack the case.

The contrast between Ellery with her connection to one of the town’s victims and Malcolm with his connection to one of the town’s suspects is striking. Their chemistry and nearly immediate rapport is countered by these preconceived identities that should place them on opposite sides. Instead their friendship is made of stronger stuff with rock solid loyalty and hints of romance that add much-needed levity to an otherwise dark story.

The story’s secondary cast including Ellery’s twin bother Ezra and Declan’s best friend Mia are also welcome additions who flesh out the cast in this short but evocative story.

Two Can Keep a Secret is a taut mystery filled with unexpected turns and surprises that will keep readers guessing right until the last line. Recommended for amateur detectives, mystery lovers, and true crime enthusiasts alike.

Possible Pairings: Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, This is Our Story by Ashley Elston, The Body in the Woods by April Henry, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, People Like Us by Dana Mele, The Amateurs by Sarah Shepard

The Leaf Reader: A Review

“I did feel like I was pretending, at least at the start. I admit that. But whenever you start on something, it always feels a little like pretending, right? If you let that stop you, you might never try anything new.”

cover art for The Leaf Reader by Emily ArsenaultMarnie is halfway through high school and she’s accepted that she’ll never be popular. And if that’s true, better to give the people what they want and be really eccentric, right?

In the past year Marnie has gotten a reputation for reading tea leaves to tell the fortunes of classmates. Marnie knows it’s just for fun. She assumes her classmates do too.

But then Matt Cottrell comes to Marnie for a reading that seems to reveal more about the disappearance of Matt’s best friend Andrea last year. Marnie has never thought she could really read the future in tea leaves. But as she and Matt start looking into Andrea’s disappearance together, Marnie starts to wonder if she was wrong. It seems like the tea leaves are trying to tell her the Matt is dangerous. And if that’s true, Marnie’s growing attraction could be deadly in The Leaf Reader (2017) by Emily Arsenault.

The Leaf Reader is Arsenault’s first novel written for a young adult audience.

I went into this one with almost no expectations after receiving it very randomly from a neighbor. Marnie’s introspective narration and her fascination with reader tea leaves immediately drew me in. The story includes some basic information on interpreting leaves and their symbols which adds a fun dimension to the story.

Arsenault’s plotting and story are executed well and come to life with vivid descriptions of Marnie’s surroundings. The descriptions of characters are sometimes less vibrant and less charitable in a way that seems to suggest Marnie, or perhaps the author herself, held little fondness for some of the characters.

Marnie is a frank narrator who is immediately honest about her own status as an outsider in her small town. She is less willing to accept that she might not be the only one with secrets–something that becomes increasingly obvious to readers as the tense plot finally reaches a breaking point in the final act.

The Leaf Reader is a unique spin on some familiar mystery tropes. A great choice for fans of suspense.

Possible Pairings: The Opposite of Here by Tara Altebrando, The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams

Like Never and Always: A Review

cover art for Like Never and Always by Ann AguirreLiv, Morgan, Clay, and Nathan are all driving home from a party in Clay’s convertible. Best friends dating brothers? It’s fun. And this ride is the perfect end to another perfect summer night.

Until a crash changes their lives forever.

Liv wakes up in the hospital, hazy from the drugs and her injuries. She doesn’t think too hard about it when people keep calling her Morgan–it has to be some kind of mix up. A mistake. Everyone keeps telling her Liv died in the car crash and she dreads having to correct them–especially Morgan’s father.

But when the bandages are finally removed, Liv doesn’t see herself in the mirror. Instead Morgan’s face stares back at her.

Trapped in a body that isn’t hers, Liv tries to make sense of Morgan’s life. It always seemed perfect from the outside but now Liv starts to realize that she didn’t know her best friend as well as she thought.

As Liv starts to make sense of Morgan’s life, she unearths dangerous secrets about a decade-old murder and a dangerous love affair–all while pursuing a love that feels like a betrayal in Like Never and Always (2018) by Ann Aguirre.

Like Never and Always is a standalone thriller with a supernatural twist.

Liv’s unique position as an outsider in her own (that is, Morgan’s) life, ratchets up the suspense as both readers and Liv herself are left in the dark about all of Morgan’s secrets. The pacing is tight with Liv constantly questioning her current situation and trying to make sense of it.

While most of the story focuses on Liv’s investigation into Morgan’s past, she also struggles with being caught between two boys. Nathan isn’t the boy she thought he was when they were dating–especially now that he’s consumed by grief. Clay, meanwhile, is so much more. Liv finally starts to understand what drew Morgan to Clay to begin with. But how can Liv move forward with either of them the way she is now?

Like Never and Always is a serviceable thriller with genuine moments of suspense despite some predictable reveals. The unique body swapping spin adds another dimension to the story but fails to be fully explored as Liv increasingly embraces her new circumstances without question. Recommended for readers looking for a new take on stolen identities.

Possible Pairings: The Possible by Tara Altebrando, Don’t You Trust Me by Patrice Kindl, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Soulprint by Megan Miranda, Dare You to Lie by Amber Lynn Natusch, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, In Her Skin by Kim Savage, As I Wake by Elizabeth Scott, Bad Girls With Perfect Faces by Lynn Weingarten

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

Beneath the Sugar Sky: A Review

“Elsewhere was a legend and a lie, until I came looking for you.”

cover art for Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuireSumi died years before she could return home to her beloved Candy Corn farmer and start a family. Long before her prophesied daughter Rini would have been born.

But Confection is a nonsense world so Rini is born anyway. The only problem is that with Sumi’s premature death the world of Confection was never saved, the Queen of Candy never beaten.

Now the world itself is fighting to erase Rini and the Queen has returned. With time running out Rini hopes that her mother’s friends can help bring Sumi home in Beneath the Sugar Sky (2018) by Seanan McGuire.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is the third book in McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas which begins with Every Heart a Doorway. This novella is a direct sequel to the first.

Beneath the Sugar Sky returns to Eleanor West’s familiar home for wayward children who can no longer find their way back to the other worlds that claimed them. This installment returns to familiar characters including Nancy, Kade, and Christopher.

The bulk of the story is in the close third person perspective of Cora, the newest student at the school. Cora arrived after the events of Every Heart a Doorway and spends a lot of this story trying to reconcile her new circumstances with the story she is clearly joining mid-way and, more confusing for her, the fact that she seems welcome to find her own place in it.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is a thoughtful fantasy and a quest story. This novella is once again imbued with feminist themes. Through Cora, who is overweight but stronger than most people giver her credit for thanks to years of swimming (both in our world and elsewhere), this novella also confronts the damaging stereotypes surrounding body image and beauty.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is an empowering and original story about choosing your own path as Cora and her friends help Rini literally remake the world to save Sumi and herself.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Every Heart a Doorway: A Review

“She was a story, not an epilogue.”

cover art for Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuireEleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is the last stop for the girls—because they are overwhelmingly girls—who managed to slip away unnoticed and pass through a magic door into another world.

They never find the same things in their worlds. Some are Nonsense while others thrive on the rules of Logic. Some are Wicked and others are high Virtue. But even with their differences the worlds all have something in common: for the children who find them they feel like home.

And for the Wayward Children the doors have closed to them—maybe forever. So now they have to learn to move on. If they can.

After her time in the Halls of the Dead, Nancy doesn’t think it’s so simple. Now that she’s surrounded by other exiles like herself the only certainty is that they are trapped together until their doors appear again. If they do.

When students at the school become victims of grisly murders Nancy seems the obvious suspect. She knows she isn’t the killer but she doesn’t know how convince anyone else of that—or to find the real culprit—anymore than she knows how to get back home in Every Heart a Doorway (2016) by Seanan McGuire.

Every Heart a Doorway is the start of McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas.

The Wayward Children are an inclusive group including the protagonist of this volume Nancy who is wary of the school partly because it is not her beloved Halls of the Dead and partly because she isn’t sure how the other students will react when she tells them she is asexual.

McGuire’s novella is well-realized and introduces readers to not just one fully-realized world but many, This story is an interesting exercise in form (as a completely contained novella) as well as genre. Within the portal fantasy framework McGuire leads her characters through a mystery, a horror story, and even a traditional coming-of-age story. And that’s just in this first installment.

Every Heart a Doorway is a wild ride and a thoughtful exploration of magic and its cost as well as a wry commentary on the mechanics of fairy tales. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley