Review: Sorcery of Thorns

Sorcery of ThornsMargaret Rogerson, Sorcery of Thorns

Elisabeth is an orphan who was raised in a Great Library among the grimoires, books that have been enchanted by the demonic power of sorcery. She hopes one day to become a warden so that she can protect the pubic from the evils they contain. When one of the library’s most dangerous grimoires escapes, Elisabeth successfully stops it from harming anyone, but her presence on the scene is viewed as suspicious. She is taken to the capital city to be tried for sabotage, but there she soon realizes that this one incident is part of a much larger and more dangerous plot. Her only ally is Nathaniel Thorn, a powerful sorcerer whom she has every reason to distrust. But as they work together to discover the real saboteur’s identity and purpose, Elisabeth learns that there is more to sorcery — and to Nathaniel — than meets the eye.

I’ve become somewhat disenchanted with YA fantasy recently, but the premise of this novel intrigued me, so I decided to give it a try. And I’m so glad I did, because I really loved it! Elisabeth is in some ways a typical YA fantasy heroine; she’s great with a sword (despite never having been trained) and has hitherto-unsuspected special powers. But she also strikes me as a real person, someone who has to confront her fears and prejudices as she learns that the world is more complicated than she thought. And I adored both Nathaniel and his demonic servant, Silas; their relationship is almost more compelling than that between Nathaniel and Elisabeth. The plot is exciting and action-packed, and I love that the villain’s identity is revealed early on; the book doesn’t underestimate its readers’ intelligence. Most of all, I enjoyed the flashes of humor throughout the book, as the characters joke and tease even in the most serious, life-threatening situations. In short, I loved this book and will definitely seek out Rogerson’s previous novel, An Enchantment of Ravens!

Review: Arcanos Unraveled

Arcanos UnraveledJonna Gjevre, Arcanos Unraveled

Anya Winter is an adjunct professor at Arcanos Hall, a magical university hiding in plain sight in Madison, Wisconsin. As a mere hedge witch, she’s neither powerful nor prestigious, but she doers have a talent for knitting magical artifacts. She also seems to have a talent for getting into trouble: first the magical shield protecting Arcanos from the mundane world is sabotaged, then Anya’s student needs help hiding a dead body, and finally Anya is blamed for the shield’s malfunction and banished from Arcanos altogether. In order to reclaim her place at the university, she’ll need to figure out what’s really going on, even if it means teaming up with a mysterious, frustrating, and handsome engineer named Kyril. Together, they uncover a nefarious plot that will have consequences for the entire magical world.

I found this book an enjoyable read, but there was a little bit too much going on for my taste. Or rather, the book keeps offering glimpses of interesting things — how the knitting magic works, for instance, or what is the broader political situation in Anya’s world — but never really develops them. I don’t normally read for setting, but I would have appreciated some more world-building here. Also, a few plot threads are never satisfactorily resolved: for example, what became of the woman in the red leather dress? There’s a bit of a romance between Anya and Kyril, but it feels very superficial (he’s so annoying! Yet so handsome!). There’s also Anya’s ex-boyfriend, who is such an obvious slimeball that it made me doubt Anya’s intelligence. Overall, I liked the premise and the basic outline of this book, but I wanted more from it.

Review: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles

Enchanted Forest ChroniclesPatricia C. Wrede, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles

These four stories take place in a fractured-fairytale setting and center around Cimorene, a princess who refuses to be proper. In Dealing with Dragons, Cimorene wants to escape marriage to a handsome but dull prince, so she runs away and offers to become the princess of the dragon Kazul. She has many adventures in her new life, most importantly thwarting some meddlesome wizards who hope to steal the dragons’ magic. In Searching for Dragons, Mendanbar, the king of the Enchanted Forest, needs to find out who is stealing magic from the forest, so he teams up with Cimorene to discover that those pesky wizards are at it again. Calling on Dragons follows the witch Morwen, who discovers yet another wizard plot and must alert Cimorene and Mendanbar, with the help of her nine cats and a magician named Telemain. Finally, in Talking to Dragons, Cimorene’s son Daystar has his own adventure and learns about his past as a result.

What a delight these books are! They’re marketed for children, but they contain so much sly humor that they can definitely be enjoyed by adults as well. It’s fun to catch all the references to, and subversions of, fairytale tropes: for example, in the first book, Cimorene is perpetually annoyed by knights and princes who keep trying to “rescue” her.   I also really loved all the main characters in these books, especially the women. Cimorene is a delightful heroine, strong-minded and pragmatic, who can solve any problem that comes her way, including melting a troublesome wizard. And the witch Morwen reminds me a great deal of Professor McGonagall — stern, but with a heart of gold underneath. I unapologetically shipped her and Telemain! Some things didn’t quite work for me, such as the rabbit-turned-donkey in the third book; he’s meant to be comic relief, but I found him a little much. And Shiara, a main character in the fourth book, seems a little bit too much like Cimorene. But all in all, I really enjoyed these books and am frankly annoyed that I don’t know any eight- or nine-year-old children to share them with!

Review: The Golden City

Golden CityJ. Kathleen Cheney, The Golden City

In an alternate-history version of 1902 Portugal, the country has been divided in half because of differing attitudes to the nonhuman creatures living within its borders. In Northern Portugal, the nonhumans are banned from the Golden City and must remain in their own island territories. Oriana Paredes is a sereia (siren), and she is in the Golden City illegally to spy for her people. As a cover, she works as a companion to Lady Isabel Amaral. When she and Isabel are both kidnapped and trapped underwater to die, Oriana’s heritage allows her to survive. She vows to avenge Isabel’s death and teams up with Duilio Ferreira, an aristocrat with selkie blood and ties to the police. As they investigate the kidnapping, they uncover a much larger conspiracy involving government corruption and dark magic. They also begin to fall in love, but many obstacles stand in the way of their relationship.

I enjoy the historical fantasy genre, and the somewhat unusual setting of early-20th-century Portugal inspired me to pick up this book. I liked the book overall, but the world-building is not particularly strong. There are a few passages of exposition near the beginning, in which the author tries to explain the alternate history, the nonhuman races, and the social structure of the Golden City, but it’s all a little confusing and muddled. People who pick up this book because they want to read about selkies and sirens will likely be disappointed, because the novel doesn’t explore the nonhuman cultures in any real depth. On the other hand, people who like “fantasies of manners” will probably enjoy the book overall, as I did. I found the plot a bit overwhelming, but I liked the interactions between Oriana and Duilio, and I look forward to reading more about them in the sequels.

Review: Kat, Incorrigible

Kat, IncorrigibleStephanie Burgis, Kat, Incorrigible

“In nineteenth-century England, twelve-year-old Kat Stephenson knows she was born to be a magical Guardian and protector of Society—if she can find true acceptance in the secret order that expelled her mother. She’s ready to upend the rigid Order of the Guardians, whether the older members like it or not. And in a Society where magic is the greatest scandal of all, Kat is determined to use her powers to help her two older sisters find their own true loves, even if she has to turn highwayman, battle wild magic, and confront real ghosts along the way! History seamlessly merges with fantasy in this humorous and lively novel.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

As you know, I’m a sucker for anything that can be described as “Jane Austen plus magic,” and this book delivers on that premise with a fun middle-grade adventure. There are two plots, each in a different genre. Oddly, the Regency romance plot, in which Elissa and Angeline both encounter obstacles on their way to marital bliss, gets most of the emphasis. The fantasy plot, in which Kat discovers her magical abilities and has to figure out what they mean, is somewhat underdeveloped by comparison. But there are (at least) two more books in the series, so hopefully the magical system and Kat’s role in it will become clearer as the series progresses. I think my favorite aspect of the book is the relationship among the three sisters; although they often squabble, they always have each other’s backs when things get tough. All in all, I found this novel charming and look forward to reading the sequels.

Review: King of Scars

King of ScarsLeigh Bardugo, King of Scars

***Warning: SPOILERS for the Grisha trilogy and the Dregs duology!***

Nikolai Lantsov, King of Ravka, is trying to lead his country in the wake of its devastating civil war. But he faces threats of invasion by the powerful Shu and the Grisha-hating Fjerdans, the rise of a new cult that worships the Darkling as a saint, plus the possibility that Kerch might call in Ravka’s staggering debts. And then there’s the fact that Nikolai is sharing his body with a demon that hungers for human flesh. Hoping to rid himself of the monster inside him, Nikolai and his Grisha general, Zoya, travel to the heart of the Fold to perform an ancient—and possibly deadly—ritual. Meanwhile, Nina Zenik is a Ravkan agent helping to rescue Grisha from Fjerda. She’s also grieving the death of Matthias, but she finds a new purpose when she discovers a new atrocity the Fjerdans are committing against Grisha women. As Nikolai, Zoya, and Nina encounter various surprises, reversals, and betrayals, who will be left standing in the end?

Phew, there is a LOT going on in this book, and I think that’s the main reason I didn’t like it as much as I expected to. I adore the character of Nikolai—for me, he’s the best part of the original Grisha trilogy by far—so I was disappointed that he didn’t get more “screen time” in his own book! Instead, half the novel follows Nina’s story, and I have to say, I wasn’t terribly interested in it, especially since it ended up having no relevance to Nikolai’s story. I wish Bardugo had just written two separate books! I did enjoy learning more about Zoya and seeing the events of previous books from her point of view. She’s an intriguing character, and I liked seeing her spar with Nikolai…I just wish there had been more of it! This book also dives deep into the religion and mythology of the Grishaverse, which was interesting but also caused the plot to get lost in the weeds, I think. Overall, I’m a bit irritated with this novel…but I’m sure I’ll still read the sequel when it comes out.

Review: Hunted

HuntedMeagan Spooner, Hunted

Yeva has a comfortable life as the youngest daughter of a prosperous merchant: she is a lady-in-waiting to the local baronessa and has a chance at a good marriage. But Yeva has always been happiest hunting in the nearby forest, following in the footsteps of her father, who was a skilled hunter before becoming a merchant. So when her father loses his fortune and must return to hunting to support his family, Yeva is not heartbroken — until her father begins raving about a mysterious, cunning beast in heart of the forest. When he does not return from his latest hunting trip, Yeva goes after him, only to find that the mythical Beast is real . . . and that he has plans for Yeva.

So, that plot summary pretty much covers the setup of the book, but I feel like it leaves out all the interesting parts, which of course happen after Yeva encounters the Beast. I love a good Beauty and the Beast retelling, and this is now one of my favorites, along with Robin McKinley’s Beauty. The Beast is appropriately terrifying at first, and Yeva has a very good reason to hate and distrust him (she thinks he killed her father, though the reality is more complicated), yet he can also be thoughtful and kind. I loved how their relationship develops throughout the novel and how the Beast’s human side becomes more prominent the more time he spends with Yeva. I also really enjoyed the magical setting with its nods to Russian folklore. In short, if you’re a fan of fairy tale retellings or of this fairy tale in particular, I highly recommend this book!

Also, thanks to Angie for the wonderful review that inspired me to pick up this one!

Review: Murder, Magic, and What We Wore

murder, magic, and what we woreKelly Jones, Murder, Magic, and What We Wore

Miss Annis Whitworth is down on her luck. She and her Aunt Cassia have just learned that her (Annis’s) father has died, leaving them with nothing to live on and forcing them to seek employment. Cassia insists that Annis become a governess, but Annis is determined to escape from such a horrible fate. Instead, she decides to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a spy; but the War Office wants nothing to do with her, even after they learn that she has a magical talent for sewing glamours (illusions) into her garments. Undeterred, Annis decides to use her talent to open a dress shop in a country village, while still sending the War Office information about the various secrets her father had discovered before his death. Little does she know that this knowledge puts her and Cassia in danger, too.

This is a book I really wanted to like. I adore the “magical Regency” setting, and both Caroline Stevermer and Stephanie Burgis — two authors I really like — blurbed it. But my overall impression is that the book is very scattered and confusing. There’s the story about a young woman trying to make her own way in the world, there’s the espionage plot, there’s a fairly prominent subplot involving Annis’s maid, not to mention the magical element — there’s just too much going on. As a result, nothing is developed in much depth, especially the main character. She comes across as extremely flighty and thoughtless, jumping from one half-baked scheme to another. I have no sense of how magic fits into this world. There is some resolution to the spy plot, but Annis doesn’t actually get hired by the War Office until the end of the book! So clearly there’s supposed to be a sequel, but I’m too frustrated to read it when it comes out.

Review: Red Queen

red queenVictoria Aveyard, Red Queen

In the world of this fantasy novel, people are divided into two classes based on the color of their blood. The Reds are commoners, forced to serve the Silvers or, if they can’t find work, be conscripted into the army to die in a never-ending war. The Silvers, by contrast, are nobles whose special blood gives them various supernatural abilities. Mare Barrow is a Red who hates Silvers more than anything, but in a twist of fate she discovers that she has a supernatural ability despite her red blood. Immediately she is thrust into the world of the Silvers, where she must constantly hide the truth of who she is. She ultimately becomes involved in a plot to overthrow the government and develops relationships with both of the royal princes.

It’s funny that I read Lyra Selene’s Amber & Dusk so recently, because this book has almost exactly the same plot: poor girl discovers magical ability, enters court full of intrigue and treachery, finds romance, and plots a royal coup. But I much preferred this book’s execution of that premise. The plot moves along at a good clip, and I was genuinely surprised by some of the twists. I also found Mare an interesting character to follow, although like many YA fantasy heroines, she’s too quick to jump to conclusions and too black-and-white in her thinking. But I appreciated that she’s always trying to do the right thing, despite her dark and morally ambiguous environment. Annoyingly, the book doesn’t really work as a stand-alone (the main plot is sort of resolved, but there are a ton of loose ends), but I liked it enough to read the sequels at some point.

Review: Amber & Dusk

amber & duskLyra Selene, Amber & Dusk

Although she was abandoned by her parents and raised by strict nuns at the very edge of the Dusklands, Sylvie has always known she’s been destined for great things. She has a legacy — a magical power that marks her as someone of noble birth. Determined to claim the benefits of her legacy, she travels to the heart of the Amber Empire and demands a place at the empress’s court. But despite the court’s aura of magic and luxury, Sylvie soon learns that dark secrets lurk beneath its facade, and she’s not sure whom, if anyone, she can trust. But eventually she decides to take action, and the fate of the entire empire may rest in her hands.

I received this book as a Christmas gift; it’s not something I would necessarily have picked up on my own, but I do enjoy fantasy and political intrigue, so I was happy to give it a try. Unfortunately, I really disliked this book. The plot is fine, though not particularly original, and I liked the detail that every noble’s legacy manifests in a different way. But Sylvie drove me nuts as a protagonist! She’s rude and entitled, she never thinks before she acts, and she does some incredibly dumb things that have horrible consequences for others. I also hated the overly flowery writing style, which set my teeth on edge; you’ll know whether or not it’s for you within the first couple of pages. I should also note that, while there’s not technically a cliffhanger, the book leaves a lot of things open for a sequel . . . but I definitely won’t be reading it!