Stain: A Review

In the wake of a war that literally separated night from day, Lyra is born once upon a nightmare in the kingdom of Eldoria where it is perpetually day filled with beauty, warmth, and light. Night still reigns in Nerezeth, an underground kingdom filled with darkness, cold, and creatures drawn to both.

Painfully pale and too sensitive to light to ever step outside, Lyra is able to soothe or entrance with her voice although she is unable to form words. When her aunt, who is as ruthless as she is ambitious, moves to steal the throne a witch saves Lyra and secretly raises her disguised as a boy called Stain.

To save her kingdom and the prince of night, Lyra will have to reclaim her identity and make herself known without her voice in Stain (2019) by A. G. Howard.

In this standalone version of “The Princess and the Pea” instead of being too delicate to sleep on a pea under a tower of mattresses, Lyra must prove herself equal to the violence and brutality that the prince of night routinely faces.

Within the framework of “The Princess and the Pea” Howard adds myriad fairy tale elements including the aforementioned wicked aunt, evil cousins (Lustacia, Wrathalyne, and Avaricette), a stolen voice and impersonation plot reminiscent of “The Little Mermaid,” and more making for a unique if crowded cast of characters and a sometimes convoluted plot. Vivid writing and vibrant descriptions bring Lyra’s world, particularly Nerezeth, to life in all of its monstrous glory.

Stain is a sensuous retelling set in a distinctly gothic world perfect for fans of the author and readers seeking darker retellings.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, Stealing Snow by Danielle Paige, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West

*A more condensed version of this review was published in the Winter 2018 issue of School Library Journal*

The Gilded Wolves: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“When you are who they expect you to be, they never look too closely.”

cover art for The Gilded Wolves by Roshani ChokshiParis, 1889: Séverin Montagnet-Alarie is well-known throughout Paris society as a wealthy hotelier–a persona that helps him acquire secrets and artifacts from the French faction of the Order—powerful houses who manage all Forged artifacts and guard the secrets of the Babel Fragments that make Forging both materials and minds possible.

Over the years Séverin has created a loyal team to help with his acquisitions: Tristan, his brother in everything but blood; Enrique, his Filipino historian eager to champion his own cause; Zofia, a Polish engineer with obligations of her own; and Lailah, an Indian dancer with a secret that could be deadly.

The Order has taken everything from Séverin but if he and his crew find an ancient artifact for a rival, he could get it all back. If they succeed, Séverin will be able to change all of their fates. If the artifact doesn’t reshape the world first in The Gilded Wolves (2019) by Roshani Chokshi.

Chokshi’s new series starter is a sumptuous, fascinating historical fantasy that perfectly evokes the luxury and unrest of Belle Époque Paris alongside a carefully detailed world where Babel fragments allow Forgers to create wonders including portable recording devices, animated topiaries, and even control minds.

Séverin and members of his crew alternate chapters in close third person introducing readers to their faceted backstories while the story itself unfolds in multiple directions. Chokshi has created an inclusive and authentic cast of characters (notably including a character on the autism spectrum as well as a character whose bisexuality is sensitively explored throughout the narrative). The entire team has obvious affection for each other along with the witty banter and twists fans of the author’s previous books will appreciate. Then there’s the chemistry between Séverin and Lailah which is so strong that the pages practically sizzle.

The Gilded Wolves is part mystery, part fantasy, and all adventure as Séverin and his team work to pull off a world-changing heist and make their own way in the world. In addition to solving ciphers and riddles while on the hunt for the artifact, Séverin’s crew also interrogates the troubling history of European colonialism and cultural appropriation showing that not everything in Belle Epoque Paris is solid gold.

Chokshi’s expert pacing, intricate alternate history, and a complex and fully realized magic system are perfectly executed in this ambitious novel. The Gilded Wolves is a delectably intriguing adventure and guaranteed to be your next obsession.

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Rosh about this book!

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Reader by Traci Chee, 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, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, Enchantée by Gita Trelease

*A more condensed version of this review was published in the December 2018 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

The Wicked King: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*The Wicked King is the second book in Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy. This review contains spoilers for the first book in the series, The Cruel Prince.*

“We get power by taking it.”

cover art for The Wicked King by Holly BlackIt has been five months since Jude’s coup to secure the throne for her brother, Oak. Five months since Oak went into hiding in the mortal world and Jude tricked Cardan into accepting the throne in his place.

After years of constantly striving for safety and power in a world determined to keep her at a disadvantage, Jude finally has everything she wants. Cardan is bound to her for a year and a day, making Jude the power behind the throne–a position she hardly could have imagined when she became a spy for the court.

But days pass quickly for the fey and even a year of them is hardly enough time for Jude to accomplish everything she wants.

Jude struggles to make sense of her dangerous attraction to Cardan while scrambling to keep him in check without revealing their alliance. But Jude and Cardan aren’t the only ones fighting to control the throne. With a traitor in their midst and enemies circling, Jude’s bargain with Cardan may expire long before she can ensure Oak’s safety in Faerie–or her own in The Wicked King (2019) by Holly Black.

The Wicked King is the second book in Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy. To avoid spoilers, start at the beginning with The Cruel Prince.

The Wicked King picks up five months after the conclusion of The Cruel Prince. Jude should be content, finally in a position of power after living for so long as an outsider. But after years learning strategy at Madoc’s knee, Jude knows better than most that power is much easier to lose than it is to keep. Jude starts this trilogy scrambling for protection. In this installment, she is instead grasping at power as she tries to figure out how to hold onto it.

This installment expands the world as Jude is forced to consider politics between the fey courts–often with disastrous consequences. Additionally, Jude and Cardan continue to hate each other even as they are drawn inexorably together with tension that practically crackles on the page.

Jude continues to wield her greatest asset in Faerie–her ability to lie–with deadly precision. But just as readers think they can guess where this plot will lead, everything changes as it turns out the truth can be as lethal as a well-crafted lie.

The Wicked King is everything I love about The Cruel Prince but amplified. The stakes are higher, the risks are greater, and the twists are all the more shocking because of it. If you’re only going to read one sequel this year, make it this one. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Legendary by Stephanie Garber, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

29 Dates: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for 29 Dates by Melissa de la CruzJi-Su is an average student in her prestigious school in Seoul filled with overachievers. Hoping to help her stand out in college applications both in South Korea and abroad, Ji-Su’s parents decide to send her overseas to San Francisco.

There isn’t even enough time to say goodbye to her two best friends before Ji-Su is on a plane to California. Being so far from home doesn’t that mean Ji-Su is completely free to focus on her photography and having fun though. Instead Ji-Su is expected to focus on her schoolwork (which she would do anyway) and continue going on the seons (blind dates) that her parents have set up for her through a matchmaker.

Usually adults go on seons when they’re ready to settle down. But as far as Ji-Su’s mother is concerned it’s never to early to find your perfect match. Ji-Su doesn’t put much stock in the seons but it seems like an easy way to keep her parents happy and maybe even make some friends.

Just when Ji-Su starts to think she is getting the hang of being at a new school in a new city (and maybe even seons) she realizes that all of that is easy compared to falling in love for the first time in 29 Dates (2018) by Melissa de la Cruz.

De la Cruz’s latest contemporary has a unique perspective in Ji-Su’s first person narration. Each of Ji-Su’s twenty-nine seons are detailed between chapters. These are fun exchanges though their structure as dialogue only is jarring compared to the traditional prose in the rest of the novel.

The blend of romance and humor is tempered well with Ji-Su’s focus on school as she works on college applications and has to decide what to do as she ends up waitlisted at some of her schools.

29 Dates is a super cute romantic comedy perfect for fans of the genre. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Lucky in Love by Kasie West, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Realm of Ruins: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Please let me be powerful.”

cover art for Realm of Ruins by Hannah WestTrouble follows Valory Braiosa wherever she goes.

Raised in Calgoran during the Age of the Accords, Valory is surrounded by elicrin magic and elicromancers. As a descendant of the legendary Queen Bristal and King Anthony, everyone assumes Valory will become a powerful elicromancer herself. But now she is almost at the end of her time at the Academy with no signs of power manifesting. With her chances of receiving an elicrin stone from the Water dwindling, Valory is forced to consider her greatest fear: a life without magic or power.

Touching the Water is no guarantee of receiving an elicrin stone. Even with careful vetting from the Academy candidates may still be deemed unworthy and drowned in the Water, their bodies lost forever. Valory’s attempt to save her cousin from such a fate proves disastrous. In the aftermath her cousin is dead, the Water is gone, and Valory now has dangerous power no one understands and which Valory can’t control.

Branded a murderer and a rogue, Valory is forced to travel far from home to try and clear her name. Across Nissera it’s apparent that a dark presence is rising and Valory might be the only one powerful enough to stop it. As danger mounts and loyalties are tested, Valory will have to embrace her power to face this danger. But all power comes at a price and this time the cost may be steeper than Valory can pay in Realm of Ruins (2018) by Hannah West.

Real of Ruins is the second book in West’s Nissera Chronicles which begins with the companion novel Kingdom of Ash and Briars.

Realm of Ruins is set one hundred years after the events of West’s debut novel Kingdom of Ash and Briars and follows a new generation of characters. An elaborate family tree at the start of the book and sly asides throughout offer nods to events of the first book although this novel can easily be read as a standalone. (A companion short story, Fields of Fire, can also be read for free online.)

Valory is as pragmatic as she is reckless. Although the implications of her new power are obvious she is still quick to jump to conclusions and easily falls prey to the manipulations of others while she tries to understand her dramatically changed circumstances.

Her efforts to clear her name are soon sidelined as she learns about the emergence of a dangerous new threat known as the Moth King or the Lord of the Elicromancers. Drawn into a hunt to stop this new enemy Valory plays a part in side plots that draw heavily from elements of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. West manages a convoluted and sometimes bloated plot admirably bringing diverging threads together to explore larger themes of power, collective memory, and the dangers of both if left unchecked.

While Valory is initially a slave to circumstance, forced repeatedly into reactive positions as her situation shifts from bad to worse, Realm of Ruins is largely about agency and choice. It is only when Valory chooses to embrace her power–and the difficult decisions she must make about how to wield it–that she is able to regain control of her fate and try to claim what she sees as her rightful power in the realm.

Realm of Ruins is an intricate and original fantasy. West blends her unique magic system with a vivid world and fairy tale elements to create a story that is entirely fascinating. Recommended for fans of fairy tales, high fantasy, and bloody revolution.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Frostblood by Elly Blake, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Stain by A. G. Howard, Furyborn by Claire Legrand

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

Kingdom of Ash and Briars: A Review

cover art Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah WestBristal’s life changes forever when she is kidnapped. Her humble life as a kitchen maid ends the moment she survives touching the Water and receives an elicrin stone.

Now Bristal is an elicromancer—one of only three people over the centuries to have survived the Water intact.

Immortal and able to wield powerful magic, Bristal is meant to take her place as a peacekeeper and kingmaker. With so much potential power at her command Bristal will have to accept her magic and embrace her destiny despite the dangers in Kingdom of Ash and Briars (2016) by Hannah West.

Kingdom of Ash and Briars is West’s debut novel and the first book in the Nissera Chronicles which continues in Realm of Ruins. (A companion short story, Fields of Fire, can also be read for free online.)

Kingdom of Ash and Briars introduces a richly layered world with a unique magic system. West’s novel is informed by numerous fairy tales (most notably Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty) positioning a reluctant Bristal in the role of fairy godmother.

Bristal’s ability to shape shift and disguise herself informs much of the story as she begins to change her appearance to manipulate individuals and, indeed, entire courts pushing Nissera toward peace and prosperity. These secondary stories play out on a larger stage as Bristal comes to terms with her newfound immortality and learns to control her magic while facing an elicromancer who would rather rule over humans than serve and protect them.

While not as all-seeing as her mentor, Brack (a character I wish we had seen more of in this novel), Bristal is patient and introspective willing to put in the time and sacrifice to do what is needed for Nissera. Her thoughtful planning and analytical nature are nice counterpoints to an otherwise frenetic plot and an often predictable villain. Romance enters the story late in the game with a lasting impact for generations to come.

Kingdom of Ash and Briars is a rich and original fantasy with a memorable world readers will want to revisit. Recommended for readers who enjoy complicated plots, wheels within wheels, and unlikely heroes.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, Stain by A. G. Howard, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch

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

The Way You Make Me Feel: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene GooClara Shin is good at two things: getting into trouble and making people laugh. With her two friends, Patrick and Felix, Clara has coasted through her first two years of high school leaving a trail of chaos and epic pranks. Along the way she has also managed to infuriate her nemesis Rose Carter quite a few times. But that’s just a bonus. It’s not like Clara’s an actual bully or anything.

When her latest joke goes too far ending in a fight and a fire, even Clara’s usually laid-back father Adrian knows that things have gone too far. Clara’s plans for a laid-back summer and a vacation with her Instagram-famous influencer mom are cancelled. Instead Clara gets to look forward to working on her dad’s food truck, the KoBra, to pay back the school for fire damage. Worse, she’ll be working with Rose.

Clara isn’t sure how to deal with having actual responsibilities let alone working with uptight, perfectionist Rose whose ambitions and extracurriculars make the Obama daughters look like slackers. But there is Hamlet Wong–the boy who is as earnest and open as a Labrador, really cute, and totally not Clara’s type even if he does think she’s hilarious.

As Clara starts to learn more about the food truck, Rose, and her own family she starts to care about what happens with the KoBra and, more importantly, what other people think of her. After years of treating life as one big joke, Clara might be ready to let herself be more than a punchline in The Way You Make Me Feel (2018) by Maurene Goo.

The Way You Make Me Feel is a delightfully funny contemporary filled with food, family, and evocatively described Los Angeles locations.

Clara’s parents are Korean by way of Brazil–a cultural identity that comes through in their personalities as much as in the food that Adrian prepares on the KoBra–they’re also young and not married, things that don’t come through a lot in contemporary YA. While I’m never a fan of stories where the main character pines after an absentee parent the way Clara does with her mother. However Goo handles the inevitable dose of reality well and in a way that makes sense for her character.

Clara’s first person narration is acerbic, sarcastic, and often laugh out loud funny. She is used to not being well-liked and she doesn’t care as long as it doesn’t impact the persona she has created for herself. One of the only people to call Clara on her attitude and her bad behavior is Rose, an overachiever trying to balance dance classes, school, and her punishment on the food truck. Rose is also struggling with anxiety–the one chink in the otherwise perfect image she presents to the world.

While there’s some romance with Clara and the always adorable Hamlet, the main event in this novel is friendship as Clara and Rose start to understand and, much to their own dismay, appreciate each other the more they’re thrown together.

The Way You Make Me Feel is a funny, smart, and utterly entertaining story that reminds you it’s never too late to make a few changes. A novel that’s guaranteed to make you laugh and leave you smiling. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, It Started With Goodbye by Christina June, The Secret Ingredient by Stewart Lewis, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Bookish Boyfriends: A Date With Darcy by Tiffany Schmidt, Your Destination is On the Left by Lauren Spieller, Pride by Ibi Zoboi