Angel Mage: A Review

“They had been drawn into the affairs of the great and could not easily escape.”

Angel Mage by Garth NixLiliath has spent more than a century hiding, asleep, hoping to regroup after the Fall of Ystara before she tries to reunite with her lover, Ystara’s archangel Palleniel. Rallying Ystara’s descendants around her, Liliath prepares to use her formidable angelic magic to be with Palleniel at long last.

But she will need more than Ystarans who have long been shunned by the angels–unable to benefit from even the most basic angelic magic without fear of being killed by the Ash Blood plague or transformed into beastlings–to complete her plan.

In nearby Sarance, four young people are the last pieces she needs: Simeon’s dreams of becoming a doctor are sidetracked when a scientific procedure goes horribly wrong; Henri, an opportunist to his core, thinks his luck may have changed when he receives a new position; Agnez has earned her way into the musketeers as a cadet; and Dorotea’s hopes to be left alone to study icon-making and angelic magic are dashed when her singular skill draws unwanted attention.

The four are immediately drawn to each other even as happenstance and greater forces conspire to bring them together. Although they start as Liliath’s pawns, these four unlikely friends may also be the only ones who can stop her in Angel Mage (2019) by Garth Nix.

Nix’s newest standalone fantasy showcases a true ensemble cast with shifting close third person perspective in each chapter following the four friends and, notably, the story’s antagonist Liliath.

Despite the magical additions, Angel Mage is uncannily timely as the characters explore themes of tolerance and discrimination in a world with a refugee crisis of its own. Inventive magic and an inclusive society give this story a setting with refreshingly modern sensibilities. This story is also notably free of all but the barest hints of romance. Instead, the growing friendship and trust between Simeon, Henri, Agnez, and Dorotea takes center stage as the four friends work together to understand the conspiracy into which they have been drawn and how best to use their distinct skills to try to stop it.

Angel Mage is an homage to friendship, magic, and The Three Musketeers–elements which blend surprisingly well in this fast-paced adventure. While Simeon, Henri, Agnez, and Dorotea’s journey reaches a logical and earned conclusion, fans can only hope Nix will return to this world again one day.

Possible Pairings: Rosemarked by Livia Blackburne, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Flamecaster by Cinda Williams Chima, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, Dance of Thieves by Mary E. Pearson, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

Newt’s Emerald: A Review

Lady Truthful (Newt to her friends) is enjoying a rather typical eighteenth birthday until the Newington Emerald–a family heirloom and her entire inheritance from her dearly departed mother–disappears.

While the men in her life are keen to solve the problem for her, Truthful has a better idea. Disguised as a man complete with a mustache, Newt sets out to follow the emerald’s trail and recover the stolen artifact.

Aided by the shrewd but unobservant Major Harnett who believes her to be a man, Newt chases clues and dark magic across England in search of the emerald. As she comes closer to her quarry Newt will also have to confront the uncomfortable realization that in aligning herself with Major Harnett she may also have fallen in love with him in Newt’s Emerald (2013) by Garth Nix.

Newt’s Emerald is Nix’s standalone tribute to regency romances everywhere–but with magic, of course.

Close third person narration and distinct world building help to add nuance to this comedy of errors as Newt embarks on a madcap journey to retrieve a stolen emerald and, perhaps, understand the machinations of her own heart.

Sparkling dialog, clever magic, and a plucky heroine make Newt’s Emerald an enjoyable diversion. Recommended for fans of both regency romance and historical fantasy.

Possible Pairings: The Hummingbird Dagger by Cindy Antsey, Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger, Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance by Jennieke Cohen, Silver in the Blood by Jessica Day George, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

The Vanishing Stair: A (WIRoB) Review

Here’s a teaser from the start of my review of The Vanishing Stair (2019) by Maureen Johnson (originally reviewed for Washington Independent Review of Books):

cover art for The Vanishing Stair by Maureen JohnsonEllingham Academy is a prestigious Vermont boarding school founded by eccentric billionaire Albert Ellingham. Its students are encouraged to think of learning as a game while pursuing their passions. Some of them come to the academy to write, others to create. That’s the one thing that binds the students together: “Everyone at Ellingham Academy had a thing.”

Stevie Bell’s thing is crime; specifically, solving the Ellingham case.

In 1936, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter, Iris and Alice, were kidnapped. Despite doing as the kidnappers asked and paying a ransom, Ellingham never reunited with his family. Iris’ body was soon found; Alice was never recovered.

The biggest clue in the case was the “Truly Devious” letter — an eerie poem reminiscent of Dorothy Parker that promised violence and maybe even death.

Stevie isn’t the first person to try to solve the case. But she has something no one else does: new evidence. It’s all contained in an old tea tin filled with “a bit of white feather, a bit of beaded cloth, a tarnished, gold-colored lipstick tube with the mummified remains of a red lipstick, a tiny enameled pillbox in the shape of a shoe, some pieces of notebook paper and black-and-white photographs, and the unfinished draft of a poem.”

Together, these “humble objects” are proof that the infamous Truly Devious letter may not have been tied to the case at all, but a student prank.

The problem is that Stevie’s parents pull her out of Ellingham mere weeks into her first term, after the death of another student, Hayes Major (whose murder Stevie tried to solve). Knowing what happened to Hayes, and knowing that another student was likely involved, Stevie senses missing pieces.

You can read my full review of The Vanishing Stair (2019) by Maureen Johnson here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/the-vanishing-stair

Possible Pairings: City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend by Karen Blumenthal, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Overturned by Lamar Giles, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

Truly Devious: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Stevie Bell had a simple desire: she wanted to be standing over a dead body.”

cover art for Truly Devious by Maureen JohnsonStevie Bell has two great passions: the study of crime in general and the Ellingham case specifically. She has read all the books, all the articles, and all of the case transcripts about the kidnapping of Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter. She knows the contents of the Truly Devious letter–the biggest clue in the case–by heart. She knows every facet of the case and she knows that she is going to be the person to solve.

That passion, that certainty, is what earns Stevie admission to the elusive and prestigious Ellingham Academy–a Vermont boarding school where learning is a game. In the school students can create, learn, and study their own passions whatever they may be. There are geniuses, novelists, artists, and more.

Stevie still thinks there’s a possibility that her admission might have been a mistake.

But she isn’t going to let that, or her anxiety, stop her from solving the Ellingham case–no matter how cold it may be. She just needs to get a handle on her new classes and her housemates. Except someone has other plans. When death returns to Ellingham Stevie finds herself at the center of a case that’s anything but cold in Truly Devious (2018) by Maureen Johnson.

Truly Devious is the first book (and first act) in Johnson’s tightly plotted Truly Devious trilogy which continues in The Vanishing Stair. The story follows Stevie in close third person along with chapters interspersed throughout following key players in the Ellingham case as the kidnapping and failed ransom drop unfold.

Stevie’s knowledge of mystery conventions and true crime contrast well with her open bewilderment and naiveté when it comes to dealing with her classmates–especially David the mysterious prankster who is almost as annoying as he is attractive to Stevie.

When a student dies on campus, Stevie is drawn even deeper into Ellingham’s myriad secrets and discovers that there might be more to both cases than she initially thought. Evocative settings and an intricate plot are only somewhat impeded by poorly executed characterization with some behaviors that never quite hit the mark.

Truly Devious is an ode to classic boarding school mysteries. Recommended for true-crime enthusiasts, amateur detectives, and of course anyone who’s ever dreamed of finding a body in the library.

Possible Pairings: City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend by Karen Blumenthal, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Overturned by Lamar Giles, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

Love and Other Train Wrecks: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Love and Other Train Wrecks by Leah KonenAmmy doesn’t believe in true love. But she’s still riding a train from Virginia to upstate New York to attend her dad’s second wedding. She isn’t sure if her mom will ever forgive her. But she also knows it’s too late to turn back.

Noah is a total romantic. So much so that he’s taking a train back home to try and win back his first love—the girl he broke up with before he left for college.

Ammy and Noah are both desperate to get to their destination–even if it means they’re stuck traveling together after their train breaks down in a snow storm.

When a quick detour turns into an all-day trip it seems like Ammy and Noah might be falling for each other. But at the end of the journey an unexpected surprise changes everything and leaves both Ammy and Noah wondering if love and their train wreck relationship can be salvaged in Love and Other Train Wrecks (2018) by Leah Konen.

Love and Other Train Wrecks is a standalone novel. This contemporary romance plays out over the course of twenty-four hours during their madcap journey to upstate New York.

I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of books where a main character is forced to choose between their parents because of divorce. Ammy, unfortunately, has no good choices and spends a lot of the novel wondering if going to her father’s wedding is worth the effort when she isn’t sure if her father even wants her there or it her mom will ever forgive her. But Konen’s characterization and plotting more than makes up for starting the novel with this premise. Ammy and Noah are fun and sympathetic whether you’re a romantic or not.

Love and Other Train Wrecks is a fast-paced contemporary novel filled with humor and romance. Readers will immediately be swept up in Ammy and Noah’s journey–bumps and all.

Possible Pairings: The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando, Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, Once and For All by Sarah Desseh, Save the Date by Morgan Matson, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

The Mirror King: A Review

*The Mirror King is the final book in a duology. This review has spoilers for the first book The Orphan Queen.*

cover art for The Mirror King by Jodi MeadowsEverything changed the moment she revealed herself as princess Wilhemina Korte and vowed to reclaim her kingdom of Aecor and the Vermillion Throne. Now Wil is torn between old allies and new friends as she struggles to become the leader her people deserve.

Wil’s closest ally Tobiah has been gravely wounded and struggles with his own reluctance to take his place on the Indigo Throne when he would much prefer to continue his vigilante work as Black Knife.

Both Wil and Tobiah will have to put aside their differences and their decisions as the Wraith continues to grow in power and come closer to their homes. Wil controlled the Wraith once with disastrous consequences. She isn’t sure she can trust herself, or her magic, to try again.

For the last ten years Wil has relied on her anonymity to keep her safe. Now, as alliances crumble and dangers loom she will have to learn to place her trust in others and step into the light if she wants to save her kingdom and everyone she cares about in The Mirror King (2015) by Jodi Meadows.

The Mirror King is the final book in a duology which began with The Orphan Queen. Meadows once again writes this story in Wil’s pragmatic first person narration.

This series–and particularly this book–highlights everything that can be done when a duology is handled well. The Mirror King continues to explore themes of identity and leadership in this novel while also expanding the world and the story as Wil and her friends race to stop the Wraith. Even the cover art nicely ties back to book one with clever design choices.

Wil’s external conflicts with the Wraith and to reclaim Aecor are juxtaposed against her reluctance to become a queen when she feels ill-prepared for the responsibilities or the costs. There are no easy choices for Wil or Tobiah and Wil’s development throughout the series illustrates that as she begins to understand and accept her obligations.

The Mirror King is an excellent conclusion to a fast-paced, truly engaging fantasy series. Highly recommended for fans of high fantasy novels filled with intrigue, adventure, and just a little romance.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian, The Storyspinner by Becky Wallace, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf

The Orphan Queen: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Ten years ago the Indigo Kingdom invaded Aecor, assassinated the king and queen, and claimed Aecor as its own territory during the One-Night War. Princess Wilhemina and the other orphaned noble children were taken to the capital city of Skyvale but managed to escape a life of captivity within the walls of an orphanage.

Now seventeen Wil and the other orphans, the Ospreys, are experts at stealth and theft after years of training and preparation. They are all ready to do everything they can to help Wil reclaim her throne. Even if it means Will has to assume the identity of a dead girl to infiltrate the palace.

That isn’t Wil’s only secret or her only obstacle. Magic has been outlawed for a century in a failing effort to push back the Wraith–a toxic by-product of magic that threatens to overtake the Indigo Kingdom sooner than anyone could have imagined. Wil’s own magic might be able to help her reclaim her throne and stop the Wraith. But only if she is able to keep her secrets–something that becomes increasingly unlikely when she attracts the attention of the notorious vigilante Black Knife. Nothing is as it seems in Skyvale and time is running out. Wil is poised to become a queen, but first she’ll have to prove she has what it takes to lead in The Orphan Queen (2015) by Jodi Meadows.

The Orphan Queen is the first book in a duology. Wil’s story concludes in The Mirror King.

The Orphan Queen is a plot-driven fantasy novel filled with action and intrigue. Narrated by Wil the novel follows her efforts to infiltrate the Indigo Kingdom and do whatever it takes to reclaim her throne. Slinking through the kingdom at night searching out materials for her forgery efforts Wil also has to avoid Black Knife–a vigilante known throughout the Indigo Kingdom for his work hunting down illegal magic users and arresting them for the crown.

These efforts play out against the larger backdrop of a world that is slowly be ravaged by Wraith–a substance that twists and ruins everything it touches as it gains strength from magic use. The more I read about the Wraith in The Orphan Queen the more it struck me as the perfect analogy for climate change and our current struggles with global warming.

While a lot of information about the Wraith is withheld from readers (we are, after all, limited to what Wil knows and she’s been in hiding since she was seven) this bit of world building felt ingenious and added a fair level of complexity to a world that otherwise might have been very black and white. The ethics surrounding magic use both as a kingdom and as an individual are things Wil struggles with throughout the novel as she contemplates her role in dealing with the Wraith should she manage to reclaim her throne.

My main issue with The Orphan Queen is that all of the characters are too young. This is something that happens a lot in young adult novels because there’s an idea that you can’t be a “young” adult without being an actual teen. Because of that the Ospreys are somehow trained, mentored, and led by Wil’s closest ally Patrick who takes on these responsibilities at the tender age of eleven. In addition to pushing willing suspension of disbelief to its limit, this also raises questions about how much Wil can actually remember of her childhood home or the One-Night War itself. Unfortunately, these questions remain not just unanswered but largely unasked in a moment of wasted potential for an otherwise strong novel.

Wil’s first person narration is engaging and entertaining as she moves seamlessly between identities as a princess, a rebel, a forger, and a fighter. Wil is calculating and clever but she is also compassionate and desperate to reclaim her kingdom and stop the Wraith with as little bloodshed as possible–something that becomes increasingly difficult as Wil’s various identities begin to overlap and she becomes torn between new alliances and old loyalties.

The Orphan Queen is a strong start to a fast-paced and delightfully exciting duology. Recommended for readers looking for a fantasy novel with high stakes action, intrigue, and just a touch of romance. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian, The Storyspinner by Becky Wallace, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf