Melissa McShane, Servant of the Crown
Alison Quinn, Countess of Waxwold, has no use for the trappings of high society; she’s perfectly content to work as an editor at her father’s printing press. So she’s both shocked and resentful when she receives a summons from the palace, commanding her to become a lady-in-waiting to the queen’s mother for the next six months. Refusal is impossible, so Alison is forced to move to the palace and participate in court life. There she catches the eye of Anthony North, the queen’s brother and a notorious womanizer, but she wants nothing to do with him. As she and Anthony are thrown together more and more, however, Alison finds herself letting her guard down. But can she really trust the prince? Meanwhile, something mysterious is going on with the Royal Library, so even when a disastrous incident causes Alison to flee the palace, she must eventually return to set things right — and perhaps find love as well.
I really wanted to love this book, since I thoroughly enjoyed Burning Bright by the same author. But I was disappointed, primarily because I found Alison SO obnoxious at first. For the first half of the novel, she seems to be completely self-obsessed and judgmental. Any time a male character talks to her, she assumes he is only interested in sleeping with her, because she is Just So Gorgeous. I suppose that could be a legitimate problem for some people, but let’s just say I didn’t find it relatable! I also wish the fantasy element had been more fleshed out; this is clearly a fantasy world, but aside from a few mentions of magical Devices, there’s no world-building to speak of. And finally, the book suffers from an identity crisis: the first half is almost entirely a romance, while the second half suddenly becomes all about political intrigue. Happily, I did enjoy the second half a lot more! Alison experiences some much-needed character growth, and the plot is much more interesting. All in all, the book got off to an abysmal start but partially redeemed itself in the end. I already own the next two books in the series, so hopefully the upward trajectory will continue!
Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, My Plain Jane
***Warning: This review contains SPOILERS for Jane Eyre!***
In this fractured-fairytale take on Jane Eyre, Jane is a real person, and she and Charlotte Brontë are best friends. Also, she can see dead people: her other BFF, Helen Burns, is a ghost. Jane is currently a teacher at Lowood School, but her unique gifts bring her to the attention of Alexander Blackwood, the star agent of the Royal Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits. Alexander’s job is to find and capture ghosts who are causing trouble for humans, and Jane’s abilities will aid him in this task. But Jane inexplicably prefers to be a governess, and she sets off for Thornfield Hall, where she becomes entangled with a certain Edward Rochester. Charlotte, however, would love to become a member of the Society, despite her utter inability to see ghosts. So she teams up with Alexander to follow Jane, hoping to persuade her to join the Society. When they arrive at Thornfield, they soon realize that something is very wrong, but Jane might be too blinded by her feelings for Rochester to see it. . . .
I think this book was written for a very specific audience in mind, which is people who enjoy Jane Eyre but also realize that Mr. Rochester is a deeply flawed character. As one of those people, I found this book very enjoyable! Ghostly Helen Burns is a hilarious Greek chorus, pointing out Rochester’s inconsistent and manipulative behavior to Jane at every turn. For example, it’s pretty cruel of him to act like he’s going to marry Blanche Ingram just to make Jane jealous. He runs extremely hot and cold, sometimes focusing on Jane with special intensity and sometimes completely ignoring her. And then, of course, there’s the whole wife-in-the-attic thing, which this novel turns on its head, making Bertha Rochester a strong and sympathetic character. I also enjoyed Charlotte’s quest to become a member of the Society, as well as her budding romance with Alexander. It’s all a bit lightweight, and not something I necessarily feel a need to ever reread, but it’s great fun if you’re familiar with Jane Eyre.
Marissa Doyle, Between Silk and Sand
As the younger daughter of the king of Thekla, Saraid has always known that it is her duty to marry the ruler of a neighboring country, thus cementing an alliance that will benefit her people. With the help of The Book, a treatise written by a wise courtier to a previous Theklan monarch, Saraid knows she can become the perfect royal wife. When she is betrothed to the Lord Protector of Mauburni, she sets off with a small retinue through the harsh desert land called the Adaiha. En route she is kidnapped by a warlord named Cadel who is determined not to let her reach her destination. At first, Saraid is furious and desperate to escape. But the more time she spends in Cadel’s camp, the more she finds herself drawn to him — and the more conflicted she becomes about where she truly wishes to be.
I want to start off by saying that I didn’t dislike this book; it was a pleasant enough read, and I liked Saraid as a character. But several things about this book really frustrated me! First of all, the premise reminds me of Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword — which is not necessarily a bad thing, except that The Blue Sword is so much better! Second, the prologue reveals way too much of the plot of the book, which completely killed the dramatic tension for me. And third, I found the romance somewhat problematic because it seems like Saraid is always wrong and Cadel is always right. Not to mention the fact that she is his prisoner; and while Cadel does have legitimate reasons to prevent her from reaching Mauburni, he never shares those reasons with her. So overall, I found myself focusing a lot more on this book’s flaws than its good points. I’ve read and enjoyed other books by Marissa Doyle, but I’d advise people to pass on this one.
William Ritter, Ghostly Echoes
This third installment of the Jackaby series focuses on Jenny Cavanaugh, the resident ghost of 926 Augur Lane. She was brutally murdered 10 years ago, and now she is finally ready for her friends Jackaby and Abigail to investigate. As they begin to research the case, they realize that Jenny’s murder may be connected to recent disturbing events in New Fiddleham. Their investigation leads them to the eerie pale man who lurked at the edges of Beastly Bones, to a group of scientists with a sinister plan, and even to the Underworld itself. Meanwhile, Jenny continues to grow in confidence, even as she grapples with the question of what will happen to her when her murder is finally solved. Abigail’s mettle is tested as never before, and glimpses of Jackaby’s mysterious past are finally revealed.
I read this book a couple months ago, and I’m afraid I may not be remembering the plot very clearly; no doubt my summary has left some things out. But this is an exciting installment of the series, pulling together some of the plot threads from earlier books and setting the stage for a magical showdown in the fourth and final novel. I liked that we finally get a little insight into Jackaby’s past and some of the more unusual aspects of his personality, and it was also nice to learn more about Jenny, who is a fairly minor character in the first two books. The solution to the murder mystery is very clever, but I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that it ties into a much larger story arc that won’t be resolved until book four. The first two books in the series are much more episodic, but this one definitely can’t be read as a stand-alone novel. However, I’m certainly intrigued enough to pick up The Dire King and see how everything turns out!
C.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.
William 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!
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.
Seanan 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.
Katherine 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!
V.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!