Review: The Shadow Queen

Shadow QueenC.J. Redwine, The Shadow Queen

In this YA retelling of Snow White, Lorelai Diederich is the princess of Ravenspire, which has been taken over by her wicked stepmother, a powerful sorcerer named Irina. Irina’s dark magic, which steals the lifeblood of Ravenspire itself, has bewitched everyone in the kingdom to obey her without question. Lorelai, her brother Leo, and their faithful servant Gabril are on the run and trying to start a revolution, but without much success. Meanwhile, the neighboring kingdom of Eldr is being overrun by ogres, so Prince Kol is forced to ask for Irina’s help. In exchange, Irina magically compels him to hunt down the fugitive royals and kill them. When Kol and Lorelai eventually do meet, however, they decide to join forces and oust Irina from the throne. But will they be able to overcome her powerful magic?

I’m a fan of fairytale retellings, and there’s a lot to enjoy in this novel — a strong heroine, a fast-moving plot, an intriguing fantastical world, and even some dragon shapeshifters! But while I liked the book, nothing about it particularly wowed me. Lorelai and Kol are both entertaining characters, but I feel like I’ve seen them before; feisty heroines with hidden potential and the conflicted heroes who love them are a dime a dozen in YA fantasy. I appreciated the attempt to give Irina some nuance, but all the other characters are fairly one-dimensional, particularly Gabril, who exists only to be a Loyal Servant. The world-building did pique my interest, but I wanted to know more about the magical system (the “rules” aren’t ever quite clear) and how the different countries interact. To be fair, the world is probably fleshed out more in the sequels, and I may end up getting them from the library at some point, but I’m not in a rush.

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Review: Beastly Bones

Beastly BonesWilliam Ritter, Beastly Bones

In this second installment of the Jackaby series, Abigail Rook has finally begun to adjust to life as the assistant of R.F. Jackaby, paranormal detective. However, she still remains interested in her first passion, paleontology, so she is delighted to learn that a relatively nearby scientific dig has unearthed what appears to be a brand-new species of dinosaur. Abigail is eager to travel to the site and participate in the excavation, but Jackaby isn’t interested — until the wife of the site’s landowner dies somewhat mysteriously. Together they travel to the dig and meet up with police officer Charlie Cane, an ally to Jackaby and possibly something more to Abigail. But they immediately run into several challenges, including two rival scientists who each want to claim the discovery, a brash female journalist who keeps getting underfoot, and the apparent theft of some of the bones. And then more people start dying. . . .

It’s been a few years since I read Jackaby, but I was so charmed by it that I always intended to continue with the series. By and large, I enjoyed this installment very much as well. Abigail is a wonderful heroine and narrator, smart and plucky without being The Best at Everything. And Jackaby, between his penetrating intelligence, abrupt demeanor, and genuine fondness for his friends, is a delight — think Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, but more likable. I do think the plot has a bit too much going on — the dueling scientists are fun but don’t really add much to the story. Also, the tone is a little too light considering the high body count, but I suppose that’s to be expected with many books geared toward younger readers. But I liked this book a lot overall and look forward to reading the third installment soon!

Review: Frogkisser!

Frogkisser!Garth Nix, Frogkisser!

Princess Anya of Trallonia just wants to live peacefully at home, mingling with the Royal Dogs and studying a bit of sorcery in the palace library. But her wicked step-stepfather, the powerful sorcerer Duke Rikard, wants the throne of Trallonia for himself, and he’ll stop at nothing to get it. He’s already eliminated several threats to his power by transforming them into frogs—including Prince Denholm from a neighborhing kingdom, who is smitten with Anya’s sister Morven. Anya promises the distraught Morven that she’ll transform Prince Denholm back into a human, but she’ll need to leave the palace to acquire the proper magical ingredients to reverse the spell. She sets forth on her quest with Ardent, one of the most loyal and intelligent Royal Dogs, only to discover that Duke Rikard has sent spies and assassins after her. As Anya and Ardent race against time to complete their quest, Anya meets many new friends and foes, including a thief in the body of a newt, an angry giant, a good wizard, and even Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. She also finds that the people of her kingdom are depending on her to defeat Duke Rikard and reestablish the ancient Bill of Rights and Wrongs. But are Anya and her allies strong enough to survive against Duke Rikard and his band of evil sorcerers?

I enjoyed this charming middle-grade fantasy adventure. I found Anya to be a very appealing heroine, especially because she grows as a character throughout the novel. At the outset she is practical and kind, but she’s also a little bit selfish and ignorant about what’s going on in her kingdom. Initially she thinks her quest is limited to transforming Prince Denholm back into a man; she doesn’t want to fight Duke Rikard, and she’s not particularly interested in the Bill of Rights and Wrongs. But the more she learns about the people around her, the more she realizes that she has a responsibility to step up and be the leader they need. I also enjoyed the little flashes of humor throughout the story; at times I was reminded of Terry Pratchett. I absolutely loved the good wizard and the subversive take on Snow White! My only quibble with the book is that the tone is a bit inconsistent. At its core it’s a story for children, complete with talking dogs and the heroine learning a valuable lesson, but there are occasional sly jokes that seem intended for an adult audience. The narrative isn’t played entirely straight, but it’s not exactly a spoof or parody either. Still, there’s a lot to like in this book, and I’d recommend it for people who enjoy a light fantasy frolic.

Review: Discount Armageddon

Discount ArmageddonSeanan McGuire, Discount Armageddon

Verity Price is a cocktail waitress and aspiring professional ballroom dancer living in New York City. But she’s also a cryptozoologist who studies the paranormal inhabitants of Manhattan — everything from ghouls to bogeymen, shapeshifters to the Tooth Fairy. To Verity, cryptids are part of the natural order and should be left alone unless they start harming humans. But not everyone sees it that way, particularly the Covenant of St. George, an ancient order sworn to exterminate all cryptids. Now a member of the Covenant, Dominic de Luca, has arrived in New York; and between his rigid views and his attractive physique, he’s trouble for Verity in more ways than one. Not to mention that there are rumors of a dragon — a species long assumed to be extinct — sleeping underneath the city, and someone seems to be trying to wake it up.

I’m a longtime fan of Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, but I haven’t been as enthusiastic about the last few books. So I guess it’s not surprising that I wasn’t a huge fan of this novel either. If you love Toby, you’ll also love Verity; she’s the same type of tough woman who will toss off quip after quip while she’s kicking the bad guy’s ass. But for me, the two characters feel almost too similar, and I’m over the schtick. I do think the world-building is very creative, and it was fun to read about the different types of cryptids and their various abilities. I also enjoyed the romance between Verity and Dominic, although every beat of it is predictable. I wish there had been more ballroom dancing, honestly; it would have been a fun distraction from the main plot, which involves a snake cult (!) and several trips into Manhattan’s sewer system. Maybe I’m being unfair to this book because I’m getting a bit burned out on the author, but I’m not particularly interested in continuing with the series.

Review: The Girl in the Tower

Girl in the TowerKatherine Arden, The Girl in the Tower

In this sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya can no longer remain in her childhood home; not only is she now an orphan, but her neighbors fear and distrust her, believing she is a witch. Her only socially acceptable options are to marry or join a convent, but she cannot stomach either fate. Instead, dressed as a boy, she decides to seek adventure in distant lands, with the help of a certain frost demon. Meanwhile, Vasya’s brother Sasha is a monk living in Moscow, where he is a trusted advisor at his cousin Dmitrii’s court. But Dmitrii’s power is far from secure: a group of bandits is ravaging the Russian countryside, and Russia’s Turkish overlords are demanding an exorbitantly high tribute payment. When Vasya and Sasha’s storylines converge, Vasya must help to defeat another magical foe, while navigating a path between society’s expectations and her own desires.

I was a huge fan of The Bear and the Nightingale when I read it last year, and I said at the time that I was eager to read more by Katherine Arden. However, when I realized that this book was a sequel, I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic — I had thought the first book would be a standalone. But fortunately, I ended up loving The Girl in the Tower just as much as the first book! I adore the setting and the writing style, and the plot of this novel had me glued to the pages. I love a good political intrigue, and I enjoyed seeing medieval Moscow through Vasya’s eyes. I do find Vasya slightly annoying sometimes — she’s one of those characters who seems to be amazing at everything — but I love how her choices always have consequences, both for herself and for the people she loves. Overall, I loved this a lot and can’t wait for book 3 to be published this summer!

Review: A Gathering of Shadows

Gathering of ShadowsV.E. Schwab, A Gathering of Shadows

***Warning: SPOILERS for A Darker Shade of Magic***

Four months after the events of A Darker Shade of Magic, Delilah Bard is living her dream of being a pirate — well, privateer, technically — on the ship Night Spire under Captain Alucard Emery. She is also exploring her magical abilities under Alucard’s tutelage, while keeping her thieving skills as sharp as her knives. Meanwhile, Kell and Rhy are struggling with the aftermath of Kell’s decision to bind their lives together. The upcoming Essen Tasch — a competition between the best magicians of Arnes and its neighboring lands — provides an outlet for Kell’s frustration and also draws hordes of people to Red London, including a certain pirate-thief and her swashbuckling captain. But unforeseen dangers threaten Kell, Rhy, and Lila, and strange things are afoot in White London. . . .

I really enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, but for some reason it took me a really long time to pick up the second book in the series. I don’t know what I was waiting for, because this book definitely lives up to its predecessor! I love the world of this series, and  the plot — especially once everyone starts to converge on Red London for the Essen Tasch — kept me riveted. I also enjoyed watching the three main characters grow and change; it was particularly nice to get inside Rhy’s head for a bit and see that he’s more than just a pleasure-loving wastrel. I also liked seeing Lila get what she’s always wanted, only to discover that maybe she wants something different now. Fair warning, this book does end on a cliffhanger, so I’m glad I already have A Conjuring of Light on my shelves! I can’t wait to see what happens next and how everything turns out. I’d definitely recommend this series to fantasy lovers!

 

Mini-reviews: Journey, Burning, Bella

Journey to the River SeaBurning BrightBella Poldark

Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the River Sea — Maia is an orphan living at a boarding school in England, when one day she is adopted by distant relatives living in Brazil. She is eager to meet her new family until she discovers that they are selfish and cruel and only took her in for financial reasons. However, she finds consolation in the natural beauties around her, the strange vegetation and wildlife, and the friends she makes in her new homeland. I’ve read and loved all of Ibbotson’s adult/YA books, but I’m still discovering her works for younger readers. This is delightful, and I think it would appeal to kids (and adults!) who enjoy exploration and adventure.

Melissa McShane, Burning Bright — This is a Regency-era fantasy novel, so obviously it’s right up my alley, and I very much enjoyed it! Protagonist Elinor is a Scorcher, which means she can start fires with magic; and she’s also an Extraordinary, which means she can control and put out the fires as well. This talent makes her an extremely valuable prize on the marriage market, and her controlling father wants to snare a rich and powerful husband for her. To escape this fate, Elinor offers her services to the Royal Navy instead. There’s shipboard combat and pirates and romance — basically everything I’m looking for from this type of book. Highly recommended if the premise appeals to you!

Winston Graham, Bella Poldark — Phew, I can’t believe this is the last book in the Poldark series! Clowance decides whether to marry again and must choose between two suitors; Bella embarks on a career; Valentine stirs the pot, as usual; and a serial murderer is on the loose in Cornwall. Not every loose end in the series is tied up, but overall the book is a strong conclusion for the characters I’ve come to know and love over the past 12 books. It’s hard to believe there won’t be any more stories about them!

Mini-reviews: Three, Congress, Twisted, Piccadilly

Case for Three DetectivesCongress of Secrets

Leo Bruce, Case for Three Detectives — This parody of Golden Age detective fiction is an absolute must-read for fans of the real thing! It has all the traditional elements: an ill-fated house party, an impossible murder, a brilliant amateur detective (or three), and a bumbling local policeman. In this case, the three detectives — who bear striking resemblances to Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown, respectively — use their unique methods to arrive at three different solutions to the crime, while Sergeant Beef reiterates in the background, “But I know who done it!” The humor in this book is quite specific: if you’re unfamiliar with any of the three detectives being parodied, you’re missing out on some of the fun, but Leo Bruce really does get the voices of these three fictional detectives exactly right! Also, I was impressed by the fact that he had to come up with four different plausible solutions to the mystery. I’ll definitely read more by this author, and I wholeheartedly recommend this book to fans of Lord Peter, Poirot, and Father Brown!

Stephanie Burgis, Congress of Secrets — This book checks off so many of my personal boxes, it’s ridiculous: The book is set in the 19th century, specifically at the Congress of Vienna that concluded the Napoleonic wars. Magic exists in the world but is being used by powerful men for very dark purposes. And one of the main characters is a con man! And there’s a romance! So, obviously I was predisposed to like this book, and it did not disappoint. I’ve already acquired more books by Burgis, and I’m excited to have discovered a new-to-me author!

Twisted Sword, ThePiccadilly Jim

Winston Graham, The Twisted Sword — Oof, lots of changes for the Poldarks and Warleggans in this book, and most of them are tragic. I won’t go into specifics for fear of spoilers, but in my opinion this is probably the saddest book in the series. It’s still a very absorbing and enjoyable read, though — after 11 books, I’ve really grown invested in the Poldarks, the Warleggans, and all their friends and neighbors in Cornwall and beyond. What I love is that Graham paints such a complete picture of life at the time, weaving the wider political, social, and economic landscape into his tale of these country families.

P.G. Wodehouse, Piccadilly Jim — I loved this book, which is pure farce of the silliest, most delightful kind! Wodehouse actually spent some time in America writing screenplays and musicals (!), and I could definitely see this book as an old-fashioned screwball comedy! It contains so many tropes of that era — mistaken identities, love aboard a transatlantic vessel, a boxer with a heart of gold — not to mention classic Wodehousian touches like a pair of disapproving aunts and a ludicrous kidnapping scheme. Highly recommended!

Mini-reviews: Poison, Best, Z, Crooked

Poison Dark and Drowning, ABest Man, The

Jessica Cluess, A Poison Dark and Drowning — ***Warning: slight spoilers for A Shadow Bright and Burning.***

Henrietta Howel is now a full-fledged sorcerer defending England against the Ancients, horrible monsters from another world. When she and her fellow sorcerers discover the existence of special weapons that might help defeat the Ancients, they immediately begin the search. But along the way, Henrietta learns some disturbing truths about the Ancients, her friends, and her own past. I have to say, I enjoyed the first book very much, but now I’m really nervous about where the series is going! Certain character developments were unwelcome, to say the least. But then again, the second installment of a trilogy often ends dark — think The Empire Strikes Back — and everything still turns out fine. I’m curious to see what will happen in the third (and presumably final) book now!

Grace Livingston Hill, The Best Man — An old-fashioned novel of romantic suspense featuring secret agent Cyril Gordon, who infiltrates a criminal gang and steals a secret message that has grave implications for national security. To evade the criminals’ pursuit, he runs into a church where a wedding is about to take place. The guests mistake him (he thinks) for the best man, so he stands in front of the altar…only to realize at the end of the ceremony that he is actually the groom! Now Cyril must not only deliver the message to the US government, but he must also deal with the stranger who is now his wife. Overall, this book was a fine read, but it is quite dated, and there’s really nothing remarkable about it other than the extremely farfetched premise.

Z Murders, TheAll the Crooked Saints

J. Jefferson Farjeon, The Z Murders — Everyman Richard Temperley takes an overnight train into London and must share a compartment with a surly elderly man. He goes from the train station to a hotel, where he sees his traveling companion sitting in an armchair in one of the public rooms — only to discover that the man has been murdered. Richard is, of course, a prime suspect, as is the woman seen leaving the hotel shortly before the victim was found dead. Of course, Richard falls in love with the woman and decides to clear her name (and his own) by finding the real murderer. The idea that the police would allow Richard such free rein to investigate is absurd, and the revelation of the true murderer is nothing short of bonkerballs insane, but I honestly enjoyed this book a lot! I’ll definitely seek out more by this Golden Age author.

Maggie Stiefvater, All the Crooked Saints — The tiny town of Bicho Raro, hidden away in the Colorado desert, is a place people visit for only one reason: to find a miracle. Daniel Soria is the current Saint of Bicho Raro, the one responsible for performing miracles; but the results are almost never what the seekers of such miracles expect. His cousin Beatriz could have been the Saint, but she prefers to focus on tangible, scientific pursuits. And the third Soria cousin, Joaquin, operates a pirate radio station under the name Diablo Diablo, hoping someday to become a famous DJ. All three cousins are changed irrevocably when two new visitors arrive in Bicho Raro, and these changes will alter the status quo for the Soria family forever. Much as I love Maggie Stiefvater, this novel didn’t quite click for me. The first half especially is very slow going, as Stiefvater sets up the world and explains the status quo; the second half is paced better, and I found myself getting more invested in the book. But I think the world-building gets too much emphasis, at the expense of character and plot. Then again, I’m not a huge fan of magical realism in general, so maybe this just wasn’t the right book for me.

 

Mini-reviews: Rebel, Murder, Carrie, Dance

Rebel MechanicsExpert in Murder, An

Shanna Swendson, Rebel Mechanics — This YA steampunk/alternate history tale is set in a world where the American Revolution never took place because the British upper classes have magical powers that give them access to technologies (such as electricity and automobiles) that the American colonists lack. However, the so-called rebel mechanics are hoping to start a revolution by harnessing steam power and thus leveling the technological playing field. Against this political backdrop, Verity Newton is a young woman with many friends among the rebels, yet she works as a governess for an upper-class magister. As the first stirrings of revolution begin, Verity must decide where her loyalties truly lie. This book is a fun steampunk romp, and I really enjoyed the central characters, especially Lord Henry. I’ll definitely be reading the sequels!

Nicola Upson, An Expert in Murder — A historical mystery novel featuring Josephine Tey as an amateur sleuth. The plot revolves around a staging of Tey’s play Richard of Bordeaux, and many of the suspects are involved with the play as actors, producers, and so forth. Even Tey herself is implicated in the crime, since the victim was a fan whose program Tey had signed shortly before the murder occurred. Overall I thought this book was pretty good; I enjoyed the blending of fact and fiction, and the mystery itself was interesting, albeit a little baroque. I may continue with the series, but it’s not at the top of my list.

Carrie PilbyMiller's Dance, The

Caren Lissner, Carrie Pilby — I’ve owned this book for years, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie on Netflix that I was motivated to pick it up! The titular character is a young woman with a genius-level IQ and zero tolerance for liars and hypocrites. As a result, she’s extremely isolated socially, until her therapist challenges her to mix more with the world by making friends, going on dates, and telling people she cares about them. Carrie reluctantly tries to follow this advice and learns more about the world in the process. I thought this book was just OK. Carrie’s voice is sharp and entertaining, but I’m not sure she actually learns very much throughout the course of the book. The various things she experiences and people she meets seem random and unconnected. I think this is a rare case where the movie is better than the book!

Winston Graham, The Miller’s Dance — ***Warning: spoilers for previous Poldark books!***

This book focuses most on Jeremy and Clowance, Ross and Demelza’s adult children, as they deal with career and relationship problems. Jeremy is still interested in steam power and has built a machine to help with the Poldarks’ mine. (I honestly can’t remember anything more than that about the steam-engine stuff!) He is also heartbroken that his beloved Cuby won’t marry him; she needs to marry a rich man to take care of her family’s debts. Meanwhile, Clowance and Stephen continue their relationship, but Clowance starts to have second thoughts. Another enjoyable installment of the series, and I’m curious to see what will happen next. Only three books left!