The Traitor’s Kiss: A Review

Sage Fowler is all too aware that she isn’t a lady. She wants it that way. Orphaned at a young age, Sage has spent years dreaming of the day when she’ll be able to leave her uncle’s stifling household.

Her hopes are thwarted when her uncle sends Sage to a matchmaker to evaluate her marriage prospects (and hopefully make a match)–a practice that is become popular throughout the kingdom. Sage has no intention of having an arranged marriage or possibly any marriage. Both prospects are easily avoided thanks to Sage’s sharp tongue and nasty disposition.

Instead Sage finds herself in the unlikely position of matchmaker’s apprentice. When she and her mentor fall in with a group of soldiers, Sage also finds herself in the surprising role of spy. The course of true love, and espionage, never does run smooth as Sage is about to find out in The Traitor’s Kiss (2017) by Erin Beaty.

The Traitor’s Kiss is Beaty’s debut novel and the start of a new series.

This book begins with an interesting premise that is soon mired in all-too familiar world building. Although Sage lives in an imaginary world it’s impossible to ignore the nods to English and (white) European cultures. This tired backdrop is compounded with dark skinned enemies and a “dusky” love interest who comes close to being described as exotic.

Unfortunately Sage herself does little to distract from this problematic world. Readers will either love or hate Sage, something that will likely determine how you feel about the rest of the novel. Sage is meant to be an independent and resourceful young woman. Which she could be if she weren’t busy being brash, thoughtless, and purposefully unkind.

After her parents died, Sage was taken in by her uncle. Early pages frame this arrangement as a nightmare for Sage where she is demeaned, belittled, and abused. Except we learn almost immediately that is not the case. Her uncle has done nothing but care for and tend to her best interests. So what is the meaning behind Sage’s simmering hatred for him and the rest of her family? No one knows. Sage continuously reminds herself and readers of her lack of agency but she also persists in making thoughtless decisions that speak to her inherent privilege in being able to do whatever she wants other peoples’ wishes be damned.

Almost every character falls victim to shorthand characterizations distilling them into a vague stereotype and not much else. Sage’s prickly personality and sharp observations serve her well in a plot that is murky at best as it moves vaguely through time leading Sage from apprentice matchmaker to would-be spy.

The Traitor’s Kiss is a disappointing fantasy that promises romance and adventure but fails to deliver on both marks.

Possible Pairings: All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry, The Glittering Court by Richelle Mead, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes, Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas

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

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The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic: A Review

Leigh Bardugo follows up her popular Grisha trilogy and its companion Six of Crows duology with The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic, a collection of atmospheric short stories which serve as an excellent introduction to the Grishaverse for new readers while expanding the world for seasoned fans.

The six short stories (including three previously published by Tor.com) are inspired by the cultures found in the Grishaverse as well as traditional fairy tales, folk tales, and myths. In her author’s note Bardugo explains her thought process as she examined familiar fairy tales and pulled at the troubling threads found within.

Every story is accompanied by Sarah Kipin‘s border illustrations which grow around the pages as the tales unfolds culminating in a double page illustration at the end of each story. Two color printing enhances the collection and makes this a stunning addition to any bookshelf.

In “Ayama and the Thorn Wood,” a Zemeni tale with nods to Cinderella, The Thousand Nights and Beauty and the Beast, Ayama ventures into the Thorn Wood where she must speak truth while placating a fearsome beast with fanciful stories.

The Ravkan story “The Too-Clever Fox,” follows Koja–an ugly fox–as he learns that sometimes help from a friend outweighs mere cunning when he tries to stop a ruthless hunter.

Bardugo’s answer to Hansel and Gretel, “The Witch of Duva” follows Nadya into the woods where she finds a wondrous witch who can help her discover the truth about her new step-mother–but only for a steep cost.

Beautiful Yeva questions her father’s decision to follow the common fairy tale tradition of setting nearly impossible tasks to choose her future husband in “Little Knife” as Semyon uses his abilities as a Tidemaker to get help from a river to complete them.

The Kerch tale of “The Soldier Prince” explores themes of identity and desire when a demon named Droessen creates a nutcracker soldier who comes to life–but is being alive the same as being real?

The collection finishes with the Fjerdan story “When Water Sang Fire” about a sildroher mermaid named Ulla who dreams of being able to use her singing magic as she chooses, until her attempt to create a fire that will burn underwater ends in betrayal and heartbreak, suggesting a possible origin story for the Little Mermaid’s notorious sea witch.

Themes of feminism and empowerment color each story with heroes and heroines given the chance to choose their own fates and stir the pot, for better or worse. Strong writing, compelling stories, and gorgeous illustrations make this collection a must have for fans of the author and readers eager for new fairy tale retellings to devour.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Entwined by Heather Dixon, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the October 2017 issue of School Library Journal*

Freya: A Review

In her heyday, Sara Vanadi was Freya, the Norse goddess of love, beauty, war, and death. But it turns out gods get their power from belief and in the twenty-first century there aren’t a lot of true believers left.

Sara Vanadi has spent the last twenty-seven fairly comfortable years living in a mental hospital. Sure the clothing options are limited, and maybe it’s not the most happening place. But it turns out it’s a great option for a former goddess who needs to keep a low profile.

Sara’s twilight years are ruined when a representative from the shady Finemdi corporation tracks her down to make an offer: join the corporation and receive new believers or die. Sara chooses option three and goes on the run with her unwitting accomplice (and first worshiper in decades) Nathan in Freya (2017) by Matthew Laurence.

Freya is Laurence’s debut novel and the first book in a series.

This book is narrated by Sara/Freya who thanks to her unique position as a god offers an interesting perspective on the modern world. She is also unapolgetically curvy and comfortable negotiating traditional feminine roles (she loves fashion and food) while also taking on the role of hero as she fights bad guys. These flipped gender roles are expanded further with Nathan who is comfortable taking on domestic roles and acting as sidekick while he and Freya try to take on the megalithic Finemdi corporation.

Laurence begins this novel with a clever premise that is expanded thoughtfully as the book progresses. Freya explains her own origins and the internal logic of gods from her pantheon and beyond surviving into modern times (this includes fellow Norse gods, Hawaiian goddesses, some figures from Egyptian and Hindu mythology, and Jesus among others).

Despite the presence of larger-than-life gods and the high action beginning, Freya starts slow with Sara and Nathan going on the run and then literally standing still as Sara explains her position as Freya (something she chooses to withhold from both readers and Nathan for the first chapters of the novel despite the title eliminating any chances of a big reveal) and gathering the pieces they will need to go into hiding with new identities. Freya uses her some of her remaining powers as a god to gather the resources she and Nathan will need but even for a goddess things come together a bit too easily.

Freya is a novel that is fun and filled with action. Although the execution is interesting, the story is poorly paced with little time spent on characterization for anyone except the titular narrator. This novel will have the most appeal for readers (especially reluctant ones) who enjoy mythology and action. An obvious stepping stone for fans of Rick Riordan’s novels looking for something new.

Possible Pairings: Antigoddess by Kendare Blake, Temping Fate by Esther Friesner, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, Wildefire by Karsten Knight, Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

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