The Drowned Woods: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-JonesEighteen-year-old Mererid “Mer” is the last living water diviner in Wales. Taken from her parents when she is was eight-years-old by Prince Garanhir, she is one of the most powerful tools in the royal arsenal. Until the prince goes too far.

Unwilling to become a weapon used against innocents ever again, Mer has been on the run for the last four years. Trained by the king’s own spymaster, Renfrew, Mer is well-equipped to hide but even she doesn’t have the resources to disappear–especially not from her own mentor.

After years of acting on the prince’s behalf, Renfrew’s loyalties have shifted. And, as every spy knows, a person with a knife and a cause can topple kingdoms. Which is exactly what Renfrew has in mind. If Mer uses her powers one last time to help destroy the magical well that protects Garanhir’s lands–and his power–the prince’s reign will be over and Mer will finally be free.

It won’t be an easy mission. But anything is achievable with the proper resources.

Fane, a fighter with prodigious strength to kill anyone who strikes him, has his own reasons for joining Renfrew’s cause. After his years as an iron fetch, Fane is left with few illusions about his own place in the world or the grief-stricken bargain he trapped himself in years ago. Accompanied by Trefor, a Corgi who may or may not be a spy for the fae, Fane is used to keeping his own counsel and wary when it becomes clear that both his loyalties and his pacifism will be tested on this journey.

With help from the rest of Renfrew’s crew including Ifanna, the Princess of Thieves and a figure from Mer’s past, they should have everything they need. More importantly, Mer should be positioned to get everything she wants as long as she remembers the most important rule a spy ever learns: always plan two escape routes–especially when magic is involved in The Drowned Woods (2022) by Emily Lloyd-Jones.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Drowned Woods is set in the same world as Lloyd-Jones’ previous novel The Bone Houses. Although the stories tie together, both can be read on their own. Characters are assumed white; Mer is bisexual. The narrative shifts viewpoints–primarily focusing on Mer and Fane while flashbacks highlight key aspects of Mer and Fane’s character and reveal key details about other characters, especially the mysterious Ifanna.

With a daring heist, spies, and thieves, it’s no surprise that The Drowned Woods is filled with numerous twists and turns as the story shifts and shifts again in satisfyingly unexpected ways. As more of Mer’s backstory is revealed the complicated relationships between the crew add dimension to the plot and depth to the characters.

Lyrical prose emphasizes the fairy tale elements of Lloyd-Jones’ world building while deliberate plot management ensures quick pacing, lots of action, and plenty of humor from Trefor. Mer–a seasoned spy born with magic and trained to be ruthless–and Fane–a seasoned fighter who bargained for magic and learned his own limits the hard way–are interesting foils and allies throughout the story. Their obvious chemistry comes across in subtle interactions and well-drawn dialog as their loyalties are tested throughout the novel.

The Drowned Woods combines the best pieces of fantasy and adventure to create a gripping story filled with magic and an ensemble cast you won’t soon forget.

Possible Pairings: Devils Unto Dust by Emma Berquist, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh, Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Want to know more? Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Emily!

*An advance listening copy of this title was provided by the publisher through Libro.fm for review consideration*

Spindle and Dagger: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson CoatsWales, 1109: When Elen’s home was raided by a warband three years ago her younger sister died in the ensuing fires. Her older sister was cut down just short of killing the warband’s leader, Owain ap Cadwgan. Despite the violence and her own sexual assault, Elen survived, healing Owain ap Cadwgan’s wounds and weaving a tale of protection.

She tells all who will listen that Owain ap Cadwgan cannot be killed–not by blade, blow, or poison–so long as Saint Elen protects him, so long as he keeps her namesake by his side.

None of what she tells them is true.

Balanced on a knife’s edge and haunted by echoes of the raid that killed her family, Elen knows one false step, one accident could leave Owain dead and render her own life forfeit.

When Owain abducts Nest, the wife of a Norman lord, and her children, war soon follows. As her lies begin to unravel, Elen dares to imagine a different life but first she will have to determine where her loyalties lie in Spindle and Dagger (2020) by J. Anderson Coats.

Find it on Bookshop.

Elen’s first person narration is frank and immediately engrossing, drawing readers into the precarious world she has created for herself. With violence and danger everywhere, Elen is forced to be as calculating and as ruthless as the warband that is both her greatest protection and her greatest danger.

High action and battles contrast sharply with the choices Elen is forced to make to ensure her own survival. Coats’ evocative prose and themes of agency and feminism add nuance and depth to this otherwise fast-paced story.

Spindle and Dagger is brutal, bloody, and carefully researched historical fiction. Recommended for readers looking for fierce heroines and history with all the gory details.

Possible Pairings: Damsel by Elana K. Arnold, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, Sweet Black Waves by Kristina Perez, Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah West, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

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

The Wicked and the Just: A Review

The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson CoatsCecily’s father ruins her life abruptly and irrevocably when he announces his plan to move them to Caernarvon in occupied Wales. The King needs good Englishmen to manage the newly-acquired Welsh lands and teach the primitive Welshman how to behave. Cecily wants none of it but at least she will finally be the lady of the house. Even if it is a house among barbarians.

Unfortunately for Cecily her initial misgivings about Wales are confirmed when she discovers the native Welsh speak something that barely sounds like a language as well as being impudent and rude. Though they are at least Christians–supposedly. In addition to being saddled with a surly Welsh servant girl she cannot dismiss, Cecily is also looked down upon by the local honesti who consider her little better than the Welsh peasants.

Gwenhwyfar is equally unhappy as servant to the brat. While she scrambles to find enough food for herself and her family, Gwenhwyfar watches Cecily leading the life that rightfully belongs to Gwenhwyfar and the other displaced Welshmen. The English took everything from Gwenhwyfar and her people. Now all she can do is watch and try not to starve.

As the English take and take, frustration grows among the Welsh. As tensions rise both Cecily and Gwenhwyfar will be caught up in the disastrous moment when the tension finally has to break and there will be justice for those who deserve it in The Wicked and the Just (2012) by J. Anderson Coats.

The Wicked and the Just is Coats’ first novel.

Set in the years of 1293 and 1294 Coats expertly* captures a volatile period in history for Wales.

While I enjoy a great many historical novels, I usually do not gravitate toward medieval period books. In addition to being a period I know little about, it is also not always an area of high interest. That said, there was something about The Wicked and the Just that made me want to read it.

Perhaps you already know why 1293 marks an important time for Wales in history. I did not. I have to say going in knowing nothing save that Welsh is unpronounceable when I try to read it made for a dramatic finish to The Wicked and the Just. An ending, I might add, that completely took me by surprise.

With segments told from both Cecily and Gwenhwyfar’s points of view, the book is well-rounded and examines the tensions within the Welsh town of Caernarvon from every angle. While that makes The Wicked and the Just an excellent look at the period, it does not make for many likable characters. Every character has redeeming qualities, but each one is also very nasty. There is justice for those who deserve it, but there is also name-calling, pettiness, and plain old cruelty along the way making for a mid-point where almost no character warrants much admiration.

Coats ends the book with a historical note explaining the politics of the period that Cecily and Gwenhwyfar either ignored or only alluded to during the actual story. While historical events are explained and relatively resolved, much is left up in the air for the characters. While the lack of closure makes sense given the content of the story, I must admit it does leave quite a few questions about what happens to Cecily and Gwenhwyfar as well as some other secondary characters.

Coats’ writing is clear and hauntingly evocative of the period in this story of many, many displaced people. As much as any book can, The Wicked and the Just brings medieval Wales to life.

*I’m not kidding when I say expertly. In addition to being a fellow Master of Library Science, Coats has a master’s degree in history.

Possible Pairings: Black Potatoes by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys