Skyhunter: A Review

Skyhunter by Marie LuThe country of Mara is fighting a losing war against the Karensa Federation and its superior technology harnessed from the Early Ones–a fallen civilization readers will readily recognize in our present one.

Mara was supposed to be a safe haven for Talin and her mother. Instead refugees are kept outside the city walls and Talin’s status as an elite Striker can’t make some see her as anything more than a “Basean rat” who Marans look down on for little more than her skin color and the shape of her eyes.

As a Striker on the warfront Talin fights Ghosts–humans who have been horrifically re-engineered by the Federation to become monsters intent only on killing. When Talin saves a mysterious prisoner of war she may have also found the key to beating the Federation–but first she has to decide if the prisoner is a potential weapon or an ally in Skyhunter (2020) by Marie Lu.

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This post-apocalyptic, sci-fi adventure is a visceral exploration of the emotional and physical costs of war. Poison gas scarred Talin’s vocal chords leaving her unable to speak as much from the trauma as the injury; she instead communicates with the sign language used by Strikers.

Talin’s narration is caustic as questions of allegiance and loyalty move the plot forward with Talin and her friends struggling to save a country that offered Talin refuge while withholding common decency–a dichotomy she again has to struggle with while deciding if the enemy prisoner she has rescued is someone to be saved or something to be exploited.

At the cliffhanger end of Skyhunter Mara’s fate is far from secure leaving readers to wait for answers in the conclusion to this duology. Suspense and high-action fights make this plot-driven story both fast-paced and brutal.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

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

The Silvered Serpents: A Review

“What is magic but a science we cannot fathom?”

The Silvered Serpents by Roshani ChokshiMonths ago Séverin and his crew beat the remnants of the exiled Fallen House back into hiding. But the victory came at a steep cost. A loss that has left Séverin and his friends reeling and weakened the once unbreakable bonds between them.

Determined to never lose anything–or anyone–ever again, Séverin follows clues to the Fallen House’s Sleeping Palace in Russia. Once there he believes he can uncover their greatest treasure: The Divine Lyrics, a book that is said to bestow godlike powers to whoever uses it and may also unite the Babel Fragments spread across the globe that make Forging magic possible.

While Séverin chases invulnerability to protect those he cares about, Laila hopes the book might save her before time runs out. Historian Enrique thinks the high profile recovery will earn him the respect that eludes him. And scientist Zofia wants to prove that she can take care of herself even if she sometimes needs help understanding other people.

After so many years working together, so much time trying to prove themselves, Séverin and the others will all have to choose what matters most and how far they are willing to go in pursuit of it in The Silvered Serpents (2020) by Roshani Chokshi.

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The Silvered Serpents is the second book in Chokshi’s Gilded Wolves trilogy.

Chokshi expertly builds tension and suspense in this sequel as the team delves deeper into the mysteries surrounding the Fallen House, the secret of the Divine Lyrics, and the Lost Muses who may be able to tap into the artifact’s power. The theme of who is able and allowed to shape history continues to be a major underpinning of this series as all of the characters question how best to make their own voices heard in a world that often refuses to truly see them.

Chapters alternating between Séverin and the rest of the team explore their varied motivations and subplots offering many insights into each character while moving inexorably toward the novel’s shocking conclusion that will leave readers eagerly anticipating the final installment.

The Silvered Serpents is the sleeker, smarter, sharper, and bloodier sequel fans of this series deserve. Highly recommended.

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Roshani Chokshi discussing this book!

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Lady Rogue by Jenn Bennett, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, The Reader by Traci Chee, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, Enchantée by Gita Trelease

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the February 2020 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

Raybearer: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Raybearer by Jordan IfuekoTarisai has grown up with every luxury imaginable–except for a loving family. Her mother, known as The Lady, has kept Tarisai isolated save for a group of revolving tutors and servants afraid to get too close as she prepares her daughter for a mysterious future.

At the age of eleven Tarisai finally learns The Lady’s plan when she is sent to compete for a spot on the Crown Prince’s Council of 11. Joining the Council 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.

As Tarisai learns more about the empire, the Crown Prince, and herself she will have to decide where her loyalties lie and if she is strong enough to choose her own path in the face of her mother’s magical compulsion in Raybearer (2020) by Jordan Ifueko.

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Ifueko’s debut fantasy blends Nigerian folklore with a melange of other influences to create a multicultural world where colonization and imperialism inform the story as much as Tarisai’s own choices. Tarisai’s first person narration offers a limited perspective increasing suspense as she tries to guess The Lady’s motives.

Large scale but vague world building and a plot with far reaching elements beyond Tarisai’s immediate concerns make this story needlessly convoluted at times. Raybearer is a dense but promising standalone fantasy ideal for readers who prefer their magic with a strong dose of political intrigue.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Mirage by Somaiya Daud, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

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

My Calamity Jane: A Review

My Calamity Jane by Jodi Meadows, Cynthia Hand, Brodi AshtonThe story starts in Cincinnati in 1876 with “Wild Bill’s Wild West,” a traveling western show run by Bill Hickok. The show is always a big attraction featuring the legendary lawman, Frank Butler the Pistol Prince, and none other than Calamity Jane–heroine of the plains.

But the show has a secret: Bill along with his adoptive children Frank and Jane uses the show as a cover to hunt garou (you might know them as werewolves).

Jane is thrilled to have a family after so long on her own. Frank loves the show almost as much as his poodle, George. Neither of them is sure what will happen to the show (or them) when they find the subject of their hunt and Bill is able to retire.

Things go wrong very quickly after Annie Oakley (or rather, Annie Mosey–she isn’t the Little Sureshot yet!) tries to join the show. Annie earns her way into the show, soundly beating Frank in a shooting competition. But does shooting prowess mean Annie can be trusted with the hunt’s real purpose–especially when she seems to hate garou more than anything?

When a hunt leaves Jane with something that looks a lot like a garou bite, she has one desperate change to find a cure in Deadwood–a town that holds secrets and dangers for Jane and everyone she cares about in My Calamity Jane (2020) by Jodi Meadows, Cynthia Hand, and Brodi Ashton.

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In case you couldn’t tell, My Calamity Jane is a western mashup re-imagining the real lives of narrators Calamity Jane, Frank Butler, Annie Oakley, as well as Bill Hickok and many other legends of the American west. Although many events have changed, the story stays true to the spirit of these real life historical figures while offering more optimistic ends for many. This is particularly true for Jane whose lonely life is reimagined here with a sweet queer romance and whose penchant for chaos and self-destruction is reframed as an asset..

While Jane centers this story, Annie and Frank’s romance from their first shooting competition to their growing respect and eventual partnership on stage anchors much of the plot. It’s also almost entirely true (minus the werewolves).

The American West, as seen by white settlers and romanticized for white audiences in popular cultural, is inherently problematic. The authors acknowledge this in their omniscient narration and in conversations Annie has with Many Horses and Walks Looking, Lakota sisters whose help and practical advice are crucial to efforts to save Jane before it’s too late.

The story explores themes of allyship and tolerance through Annie’s interactions with garou (taking the place of the abusive family who kept Annie hostage as a child whom, even in her memoirs, Annie only ever referred to as “the wolves”) rather than using the only Native characters for a teachable moment. The acknowledgements include a list of further reading including several Native perspectives.

My Calamity Jane is a delightfully inventive reinterpretation of the old west; a tall tale filled with found family, fancy shooting, humor, and adventure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown; An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States For Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza; Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West by Candace Fleming; Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the June 2020 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

When We Vanished: A Review

When We Vanished by Alanna PetersonAndi Lin and her mother are doing everything they can to keep anyone from finding out that her father’s new job is actually participating in a clinical trial at the food corporation Nutrexo.

After Andi hears executives whispering about a dangerous research study at a company party, she worries it might be the same study her dad is involved with–especially since she hasn’t heard from him in over a week. When Andi asks her neighbor Cyrus Mirzapour to help, they wind up in over their heads when a nonviolent protest ends with a bombing and both of them being held captive alongside Cyrus’s older brother, Naveed and younger sister, Roya.

Trapped and desperate to discover the truth and save themselves, Andi and Cyrus find themselves at the center of a conspiracy with consequences that are hard to imagine–and closer to home than either of them realize in When We Vanished (2020) by Alanna Peterson.

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When We Vanished is Peterson’s debut novel and the start of her Call of the Crow quartet. The book is published by Peterson’s newly created publishing company Rootcity Press which, as their website states, “operates on a not-for-profit model, and donates a portion of all proceeds to grassroots-based organizations focused on racial justice and food equity”

As such, this eco-thriller works to raise awareness about the dangers of fast/processed foods and genetically modified foods some of which can be seen on the book’s companion site Nutrexo Truth.

Unfortunately in sharing these timely messages Peterson’s novel highlights graphic scenes of animal cruelty with “EcoCows” kept in unsanitary and inhumane conditions at Nutrexo and scenes of torture when Naveed is sprayed with a noxious pesticide as part of the villain’s continued experiments leaving him with lasting nerve damage.

While these scenes viscerally showcase the dangers of modifying foods, particularly the increased spread of antibiotic resistant infections, the violence that will stay with readers far longer than the message.

When We Vanished is an unflinching eco-thriller best suited to readers comfortable with gore and grit.

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

The Night Country: A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The 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 starred review in the November 2019 issue of School Library Journal*

Gravemaidens: A Review

Gravemaidens by Kelly CoonKammani dreams of becoming an accomplished healer–the position her father held before he failed to heal the lugal’s son and his family was cast down from the privileged class as punishment.

While her father drowns the shame of his disgrace and grief over his wife’s recent death with drink, Kammani manages the day to day work of treating patients. Her hopes of securing a better life for herself and her sister Nanaea are shattered when Nanaea is chosen for the dubious honor of becoming one of three sacred maidens who will accompany the ailing lugal into death.

While her sister only sees the opportunity to live briefly in luxury, Kammani knows becoming a sacred maiden is a death sentence. Determined to save her sister at any cost, Kammani embarks on a dangerous mission to sneak into the palace and try to heal the lugal before it’s too late in Gravemaidens (2019) by Kelly Coon.

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Gravemaidens is Coon’s debut novel. It is the first book in a fantasy duology set in a non-western world with piecemeal nods to ancient Sumer, Rome, and possibly Egypt with human sacrifice and a powerful god known as the Boatman.

Clunky prose and world building that falls short in terms of explanations about the ritual of the sacred maidens or other cultural norms drag down this otherwise interesting premise. Anachronistic phrases and over-the-top similes further detract from the novel’s potential. Kammani’s first person narration is filled with strangely sexualized descriptions of other female characters, including her own younger sister, with numerous mentions of full and shiny hair, straight teeth, and “womanly curves.” Throughout the novel this sexualization is equated with the preternatural beauty that distinguishes each sacred maiden.

Secondary characters who stay true to stereotype for most of the novel gain more depth near the end suggesting fans may find more to appreciate in book two.

Gravemaidens is a problematic but intriguing story. Make of that what you will.

Popular Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis, The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

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

War Girls: A Review

cover art for War Girls by Tochi OnyebuchiSisters Onyii and Ify find themselves on opposing sides in a brutal civil war in this Afrofuturist adventure set in 2172 Nigeria that draws on the history of the Biafran War (also known as the Nigerian Civil War) of the 1960s which began when the Eastern Region of Nigeria declared itself the Republic of Biafra.

Onyebuchi sets this story against the backdrop of a futuristic world filled with sleek technology and brutal war machinery including bionic modifications for child soldiers and mechanized battle suits as both Onyii and Ify are pushed far beyond their limits as their loyalties are tested and they are forced to determine the value of their personal integrity in War Girls (2019) by Tochi Onyebuchi.

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The shifting narration follows Onyii and Ify as well as other characters they both meet as they try to find their way back to each other, and themselves, during the war and in the tenuous peace that follows. The sense of happenstance or destiny that continues to bring Onyii and Ify together underscores the arbitrary nature of war and the costs that are paid by everyone in the line of fire.

Intense action scenes contrast sharply against an incisive criticism of the costs of senseless battle and the story’s commentary on the powerful bonds that tie family together for better or worse. Onyebuchi’s stark, close third person narrative further emphasizes this story’s brutal setting.

War Girls is bleak but compulsively readable story with high action and high drama in equal measure. Onyebuchi’s world building and characterization are top notch in this completely immersive but deeply unsettling story. I’ve been describing War Girls as exemplary Afrofuturism for readers who also want to ugly cry and be sad forever—with high speed chases. Make of that what you will.

Possible Pairings: The Weight of Stars by K. Ancrum, Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, Invictus by Ryan Graudin, Skyhunter by Marie Lu, Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan, Metaltown by Kristen Simmons, Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie, Pacific Rim

*A more condensed version of this review was published in an issue of School Library Journal*

Bloodwitch: A Review

cover art for Bloodwitch by Susan DennardAs a Bloodwitch and a Carawen monk, Aeduan is uniquely suited to earning coin for his father the Raider King’s cause to end tyranny across the Witchlands. Two weeks ago that was enough for him. Now Aeduan and the enigmatic Threadwitch Iseult are desperate to reunite Owl, a young and powerful Earthwitch, with her family even as it draws Aeduan away from his father’s cause.

Across the Witchlands, Safi begins to understand the consequences of her Truthwitchery and her bargain to help Vaness, the Marstoki empress, clear her royal court of corruption. Meanwhile in Nubrevna, Vivia struggles to be the queen her country needs rather than the ineffectual ruler her ailing father and royal council expect.

After balancing for so long on the edge of Lady Fate’s knife, Aeduan must choose: continue as a tool for his father or commit to a different sort of life with different loyalties in Bloodwitch (2019) by Susan Dennard.

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Unrest brews across the Witchlands in this third installment in Dennard’s popular fantasy series which begins with Truthwitch before continuing in Windwitch and the novella Sightwitch.

Cinematic prose and high action propel this story and its characters inexorably forward pushing them to their limits, and sometimes beyond, as the Witchlands move closer to a war where every character will have their own role to play.

Readers learn more about Aeduan and his complicated past as this installment  makes good on hints from previous volumes and confirms theories about the Cahr Awen, the ancient twelve Paladins, and especially Aeduan’s own role in the conflict to come.

Dramatic battles and suspense are countered with evolving character relationships as old friends are reunited and enemies make uneasy bargains while Iseult and Aeduan get the relationship arc they have always deserved.

Bloodwitch is a solid continuation in a series that gets better with each installment. Recommended for readers looking for solid friendships, the slowest of slow burn romance, and lots of adventure.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, Roar by Cora Carmack, The Reader by Traci Chee, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, Witchlanders by Lena Coakley, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey, The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove, Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton, The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

*A more condensed version of this review was published in an issue of School Library Journal*

Never-Contented Things: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Never-Contented Things by Sarah PorterKsenia is cold where foster brother Josh is warm; sharp where he is soft. She is almost eighteen and their foster parents are simultaneously planning for Ksenia’s transition to a group home while preparing to adopt sixteen-year-old Josh. Ksenia is a bit of an oddity in their painfully conventional town with her androgynous looks and thrift store style without any of Josh’s charisma to smooth things over.

While Ksenia is resigned to their separation, Josh is desperate to hang on to Ksenia at any cost–even if it means making an impossible bargain with otherworldy creatures they encounter at a party. Entrapped in another world with Josh, Ksenia is determined to protect him despite his betrayal. Josh sees it as a refuge where no one can question his romantic love and infatuation for his foster sister while Ksenia knows it is a prison with no possible escape.

Josh and especially Ksenia are people no one would look for except for their best friend, Lexi, a girl whose life couldn’t be more different and who, if she can find them, might have the key to breaking the spell in Never-Contented Things (2019) by Sarah Porter.

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Porter blends horror and urban fantasy in her latest standalone novel of faerie.

Evocative, phantasmagorical prose carries across multiple viewpoints as Ksenia works to save herself and the people she loves in this book filled with messy characters doing the best they can.

Never-Contented Things features gorgeous sentence level writing and vibrant horror which elevate this character driven story about resilience, identity, and learning to save yourself. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

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