Rule: A Review

cover art for Rule by Ellen GoodlettWith the king dying, his heir murdered, and rebellion brewing in the east it might be only a matter of time before the kingdom of Kolonya and the outer Reaches descends into chaos.

Desperate for an heir, the king finds three unlikely options:

Zofi has lived her entire life with a band of Travelers in the Reaches. Her loyalty to her family is boundless. But only Zofi knows how far she has already gone to protect those she holds dear.

In the Eastern Reach Akeylah is desperate to get away from her abusive father. She’s even willing to perform dangerous and forbidden magic–completing a spell that will have far-reaching consequences for the entire kingdom.

Ren has grown up in Kolonya in the heart of the kingdom. Working as a lady’s maid she is biding her time until she can climb the social ladder out of the servants’ quarters forever. Her latest plot might do the trick, but only if she isn’t arrested for treason first.

Summoned by the king, all three girls are certain they will soon be facing arrest if not execution. Instead are faced with the shocking truth: as the king’s illegitimate daughters all fighting for the chance to become his next heir. The only problem is that someone in Kolonya knows their secrets and is prepared to reveal them all to keep the girls from taking their rightful place in Rule (2018) by Ellen Goodlett.

Rule is Goodlett’s debut novel and the start of a new series. The book follows all three sisters in alternating close third person chapters.

If this book sounds a lot like Three Dark Crowns, that’s because it is. The book starts with a very similar premise but instead of focusing on the sisters’ in-fighting to get the crown these heirs have the additional problem of a blackmailer.

My main problem with this story is that it made no sense to me that the king has not one but three illegitimate heirs that he has chosen to keep away from the palace while still keeping tabs on them. Every problem the sisters have, every misdeed they knowingly or unknowingly committed, stems from being unaware of their parentage which feels extremely convenient as a plot point upon which an entire series hinges.

Zofi, Akeylah, and Ren are interesting heroines in a world that remains surprisingly under-developed considering its fraught politics. They have different reasons to want (and dread) rising to the throne and unique perspectives about their changed circumstances. Subterfuge, scheming, and unsuitable love interests abound as each sister tries to keep her secrets while gaining the upper hand in their journey to the crown.

Rule is a scandalous page-turner ideal for readers who enjoy fantasy and suspense in equal measure.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

The Astonishing Color of After: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. PanLeigh knows that her mother turned into a bird after she killed herself. The bird came to her before the funeral. She came again with a box for Leigh to take with her when she goes.

She isn’t sure what the bird wants or how to help her mother. All she knows is that she and her father are now in Taiwan and Leigh is meeting her maternal grandparents for the first time.

Nothing about the trip or her family is what Leigh expected. Her world feels colorless and confusing–coated with grief and filled with ghosts. But as Leigh learns more about her family, her heritage, and her mother’s past it starts to feel like Leigh might be able to find a way through in The Astonishing Color of After (2018) by Emily X.R. Pan.

The Astonishing Color of After is Pan’s debut novel.

It’s taken me a while to review this book because I’ve been struggling with separating how hard this book is to read with how very good it is.

The novel opens shortly after Leigh’s mother has killed herself. Leigh comes home just in time to see her body being taken away, to see the blood, and she is haunted by the thought that she might have been able to do something if only she’d been home instead of celebrating 2.5s Day with her best friend and longtime crush Axel.

Leigh finds a way to channel her grief when a bird comes to her. Leigh knows it’s her mother. She knows the bird is real. She also knows that her mother the bird has things she shouldn’t have–photographs that were burned, heirlooms that were sent to Taiwan.

In traveling to Taiwan Leigh thinks she can somehow rescue her mother the bird and bring her home. Instead Leigh embarks on a journey of discovery and understanding as she learns more about her heritage and her family’s past. She still hurts, she still mourns, but she also begins to learn how to move on and how to forgive.

In traveling to Taiwan Leigh also begins to learn more about her family’s heritage and culture–things that were hard to hold onto as a biracial girl–especially with her mother eager to embrace her new life in America and leave the past behind.

The Astonishing Color of After is not an easy read–Pan’s writing is too visceral, too evocative for that. Instead readers are immediately drawn into Leigh’s journey. Flashbacks shed light on Leigh’s relationship with Axel–a thread that ties the novel together from its painful opening to its hopeful conclusion–while memories from Leigh’s relatives shed light on her mother’s past while also underscoring the flaws in Leigh’s memories and the things she has tried to forget.

The Astonishing Color of After is a powerful and nuanced story about loss, forgiveness, art, and all of the things that make a family–whether it’s blood or a deeper bond. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Boman, Tell Me No Lies by Adele Griffin, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Muse of Nightmares: A Review

“It turned out that sometimes it’s enough to start doing thing differently now.”

Everything was taken from the city of Weep when the Mesarthim invaded. The blue-skinned gods stole the city’s children, its memories, and even its true names. No one knows where the gods came from. No one knows what happened to the thousands of children born in the citadel never to be seen again. No one speaks of what happened to the children left in the nursery the day that the Godslayer killed the gods and reclaimed the city.

Sarai was one of those children. She and the four other godspawn don’t speak of what happened either although they are haunted by the bloodshed of the massacre. No one knows that five children survived and still hide within the citadel. Waiting. Minya, the eldest, prepares for war while Sarai and the others dare to hope for acceptance.

Sarai never expected that she would die waiting–especially not after she met Lazlo Strange and saw that peace might be possible. Now Sarai is a ghost bound by Minya’s by iron will while Lazlo is a god–as much a child of the Mesarthim as Sarai and the others.

With Sarai unable to defy Minya or exist without her, Lazlo faces a horrible choice: Keep his love alive by helping Minya seek vengeance or protect the city while losing Sarai. Without her free will, without her moths traveling down to Weep to explore dreams, Sarai feels powerless. Is it possible for her to still be the muse of nightmares or did her powers die when her body did?

Old secrets and unanswered questions threaten the tentative bonds and even more fragile hope as Weep tries to heal. In a city where heroes had to do monstrous things and monsters might yet become heroes, Sarai will have to choose if she wants to slay her enemies or try to save them in Muse of Nightmares (2018) by Laini Taylor.

Muse of Nightmares is the conclusion of Taylor’s latest duology which begins with Strange the Dreamer.

I only started to truly love Strange the Dreamer months after reading it. I needed that long to process and appreciate everything Taylor had done. In contrast Muse of Nightmares was one of my most anticipated Fall 2018 releases and is holding strong as one of my favorite books of the year.

Muse of Nightmares picks up almost immediately where Strange the Dreamer left off as both Sarai and Lazlo try to grasp their dramatically changed circumstances.There isn’t time for grief or wonder, however, as Sarai and Lazlo have to figure out if there is a way to save both Weep and the godspawn.

The pacing of this story and its numerous surprises are flawless complete with a secondary story that artfully ties into the main arc of this duology. Of course, I can’t tell you too much about that because I want you to be just as shocked as I was when I started to understand how these pieces would come together.

Muse of Nightmares is a story about redemption and hope–things that all of the characters strive for and things that even the unlikeliest among them might find. Weep is a city filled with potential and, ultimately, with love as Taylor’s memorable characters learn how to forgive each other and themselves. Highly recommended. I can’t wait to see what Taylor does next.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, The Reader by Traci Chee, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Lirael by Garth Nix, A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

Little and Lion: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Little & Lion by Brandy ColbertSuzette and her brother Lionel have been “Little” and “Lion” for years. Technically they’re step-siblings and their family gets a lot of strange looks sometimes since they’re all Jewish but Suzette and her mom are black while Lionel and his father are white. They’ve never let that change how close they are.

That was before Lionel was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and Suzette was sent across the country to an East coast boarding school while he got treatment.

Now it’s summer and Suzette is home in Los Angeles where she expects everything to be familiar and easy. Instead, Suzette soon realizes that it’s going to be harder to go back to being Little and Lion than she thought.

Being home is almost enough to help Suzette forget about the mess she left back at school and how much she hurt her roommate, Iris. Her longtime friend and neighbor Emil is a welcome distraction–and maybe even a new crush. Then there’s Rafaela–a new girl who is like no one Suzette has ever met. Suzette’s attraction is immediate, intense, and utterly impossible once it becomes obvious that Lion might be falling for her.

When Lionel’s disorder starts a downward spiral Suzette will have to confront mistakes she made over the past year and decide if earning Lionel’s trust again is worth risking his mental health in Little & Lion (2017) by Brandy Colbert.

Little & Lion is an incredibly smart standalone contemporary. Suzette is an honest narrator who is still trying to define herself in a world that is already quick to put labels on her. She is conscious that her identity as a black Jewish woman is conspicuous and often uncomfortable–especially at her homogeneous boarding school where it felt like she had to hide pieces of herself before her classmates would accept her.

After her months long romantic and sexual relationship ends at the end of term when she and her roommate are outed to the entire school, Suzette doesn’t know how to deal with the attention. She shuts down and shuts Iris out–a constant reminder that she wasn’t brave enough to stand up for what she wanted. When seeing Emil–her half-Korean, half-black neighbor and childhood friend–ignites an attraction that she had never noticed before, Suzette is left to wonder if she might be bisexual–an identity that at first feels too overwhelming to fully consider while still adjusting to being back home and deciding if she wants to go back to boarding school in the fall.

The story of Suzette’s summer alternates with flashback chapters from her childhood when Suzette’s mom and Lionel’s father first started dating and living together. These flashbacks also detail Lionel’s initial diagnosis and treatment before Suzette was sent away.

While Little & Lion is often a heavy story with Suzette and Lionel disappointed in each other and unsure how to reclaim their easy bond as family, Colbert’s prose is also incredibly gentle and thoughtful. There are no easy answers about defining one’s sexuality or one’s mental health–things that Suzette and Lionel learn the hard way throughout the novel.

The larger story of Lionel’s coping with his new medication and Suzette trying to fit into a family that moved on without her plays out against a hazy backdrop of romantic entanglements with Suzette caught between her very real relationship with Emil and her distracting attraction to Rafaela–a pull that is even more complicated when Lionel starts to date Rafaela who seems to bring out the worst in him.

Little & Lion is as enlightening as it is engaging. A thoughtful plot and vibrant primary characters more than make up for an overly large cast of secondary characters. Evocative settings, sexy romance, and a wonderful family ground this story and make it a must read. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett, How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake, The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle, When We Collided by Emery Lord, Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy, Odd One Out by Nic Stone

Grace and Fury: A Review

cover art for Grace and Fury by Tracy BanghartIn Viridia, all women wear masks.

Hiding the fear and frustration is the only way to stay safe in a world where women have no rights.

Serina has focused all of her energy into training to become a Grace. If she is chosen by the Superior or his Heir, Malachi, Serina will live in luxury as an embodiment of the ideal woman. Being a Grace will ensure that her family will never want for anything. Her younger sister, Nomi, can even stay at her side as a Handmaiden.

Nomi doesn’t want to leave behind everything she’s ever known, especially not her twin brother Renzo. She knows that rebellion is dangerous. But she still can’t bring herself to be more complacent–not even now. Not even for her sister. Instead, she is furious. Nomi knows that Serina has willingly made this choice. She just isn’t sure that she’s prepared to follow her.

One brash conversation and one reckless act ruins all of Serina and Nomi’s careful plans. While Nomi is trapped in a life she never wanted, Serina is falsely imprisoned on an island where she will have fight to the death to survive. Separated and ill-prepared for the challenges they’ll have to face alone, both Serina and Nomi will have to push themselves further than they ever imagined to try and find each other in Grace and Fury (2018) by Tracy Banghart.

Serina and Nomi are interesting counterpoints. Their characters arcs mirror each other but how each heroine handles her new challenges is telling. While Serina begins the novel willfully ignorant of the inequalities within Viridia she soon (surprisingly quickly to be clear) finds herself at the center of a potential revolution.

Nomi, meanwhile, has always been painfully aware of the freedoms she and other women in Viridia lacks. Yet she routinely puts the small freedoms she has earned at risk and willfully ignores numerous (heavily broadcasted) red flags as her own plans for revolution and escape begin to crumple around her.

The main problem with Grace and Fury is that none of the relationships feel authentic. Changing dynamics and growing chemistry don’t erase the woefully unequal power dynamics both Serina and Nomi have with several of the male characters. Similarly, it’s hard to pretend the Heir better than he initially seems when his selfish and thoughtless actions set the entire plot in motion.

Grace and Fury will be a familiar story to fantasy readers. Predictable plot points and derivative characters dilute some of the story’s impact however Banghart artfully flips several tropes as the cast expands and readers learn more about Viridia.

The narrative is tightly controlled and uses the dual narration to full advantage. Grace and Fury alternates between chapters following Serina and Nomi in close third person with a tightly controlled narrative arc. Banghart uses this dual narrative structure to full advantage highlighting the ways in which the sisters’ stories both mirror each other and diverge. The restrained, unadorned prose works well to increase the tension and highlight the stark world both girls find themselves in as the story progresses.

A cliffhanger ending with questions about who will live to see book two will leave fans eager for the next installment.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, The Selection by Kiera Cass, The Jewel by Amy Ewing, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, For A Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Everless by Sara Holland, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Ash Princess by Laura K. Sebastian

Defy the Worlds: A Review

*Defy the Worlds is the second book in Gray’s latest trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Defy the Stars.*

cover art for Defy the Worlds by Claudia GrayNoemi Vidal is a soldier of Genesis. Her trip across the galaxy with Abel–the most advanced cybernetic man in existence–showed Noemi how much bigger her world could be. It also showed her how she could save her planet and end their centuries long war with Earth. But Noemi couldn’t go through with the plan if it meant sacrificing Abel and his soul.

Now Abel is a fugitive traveling between the worlds of the Loop and trying to move on with his own life. When a dangerous plague is unleashed on Genesis Abel is desperate to help. Especially when he finds out that Noemi’s own efforts to save her planet have brought her directly into a trap.

Both Abel and Noemi have done the impossible before. Now, the fate of Genesis is once again at stake as the two struggle find a cure to the plague and save each other before time runs out in Defy the Worlds (2018) by Claudia Gray.

Defy the Worlds is the second book in Gray’s latest trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Defy the Stars.

Defy the Worlds once again alternates between Noemi and Abel’s first person narrations as their paths move inexorably toward each other once again. This novel raises the stakes from book one with an appropriate increase in tension and action as the plot moves forward.

Intense action and horrific chase scenes are startling counterpoints to both Abel and Noemi’s internal struggles. Abel knows that he loves Noemi but he still isn’t sure what that means when he is a cybernetic machine and Noemi is not just a human but one from Genesis where the disavowal of technology is intrinsic to their way of life. Noemi is equally conflicted as her faith and loyalties are once again thrown into question.

Interestingly when I first read Defy the Worlds I was convinced it was a duology and could not find any information on a third book which makes the cliffhanger ending more than a bit frustrating. However that I know a third book is in the works I’m eagerly waiting to see what adventures and challenges Abel and Noemi will face next.

Defy the Worlds is another great installment in a thrilling sci-fi series that expands the world, raises new questions, and will definitely leave readers clamoring to know what happens next. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Bound by Blood and Sand by Becky Allen, Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza, Beta by Rachel Cohn, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Stitching Snow by R. C. Lewis, Warcross by Marie Lu, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Partials by Dan Wells

Defy the Stars: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Defy the Stars by Claudia GrayFor years Genesis has fought to protect their planet and their freedom from dangerous colonization and exploitation by the enemy, Earth. Genesis vows to avoid that same mistakes Earth has made and eschews all advanced technology. But in doing so they may have signed their own death sentence. How can they hope to win a war when the enemy keeps inventing more powerful weapons?

Noemi Vidal is a soldier of Genesis–part of a generation that is slowly being annihilated in a war they cannot win. Noemi is prepared to die for her planet, her people. But even as she makes peace with her death and that of her entire unit, she knows it won’t be enough to stop the fighting or win the war.

Abel is a machine–the most advanced cybernetic ever created. He is an abomination to the people of Genesis. He was abandoned in space years ago. Isolated and alone, his programming has started to evolve and adapt while he waits for a chance to escape and complete his primary directive: find his creator Burton Mansfield and protect him.

Noemi and Abel are on opposite sides in an interstellar war. Never meant to meet. Thrown together in a desperate journey across the stars they may be the only ones who can end the war without more bloodshed. But first they have figure out how to stay alive in Defy the Stars (2017) by Claudia Gray.

Defy the Stars is the first book in Gray’s Constellation duology. The story concludes in Defy the Worlds.

Defy the Stars alternates chapters between Noemi and Abel’s close third person viewpoints. Gray nicely subverts some expected tropes about humans and robots with her main characters. Noemi is calculating and ruthless, hardened from her years growing up (and fighting) on the losing side of a large-scale war. By contrast Abel is empathetic and thoughtful in a way that shocks Noemi and makes her wonder how much she really knows about the Mansfield Cybernetics line.

High speed chases and intense action are balanced by thoughtful moments of introspection for both characters. Noemi contemplates the inevitability of her life (and death) as a soldier while Abel wonders if an artificial intelligence like himself can be meant for a great purpose and, if so, what that purpose might be. Both characters are pushed beyond their limits and their comfort zones as they are forced to work together and to grudgingly trust each other during their journey from Genesis to Earth and into the heart of the war.

Questions of what it really means to be a machine or a human with a soul drive this story as much as the action. This plot driven story perfectly balances Noemi and Abel’s evolving relationship without bogging the story down in romantic overtures. World building is carefully integrated into the story and works to enhance the plot without detracting from its finely tuned pacing. Defy the Stars is an astute, thrilling, and fascinating novel–in other words everything science fiction readers could want. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Bound by Blood and Sand by Becky Allen, Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza, Beta by Rachel Cohn, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Stitching Snow by R. C. Lewis, Warcross by Marie Lu, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Partials by Dan Wells