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: Duplicate Death

Duplicate DeathGeorgette Heyer, Duplicate Death

Young barrister and future baronet Timothy Harte is in love with Beulah Birtley, but his family fears she’s an unsuitable match. She works as a secretary for Mrs. Haddington, a widow with shady origins who has somehow found a way into London society. When a man is murdered at Mrs. Haddington’s bridge party, suspicion falls on Beulah, and Timothy is determined to prove her innocence. But Beulah is clearly hiding something, and she had both motive and opportunity to commit the murder. Luckily, the policeman in charge of the case is Chief Inspector Hemingway, who remembers Timothy from an earlier encounter (detailed in They Found Him Dead). As Hemingway and his assistant investigate the case, they discover not only Beulah’s secret but a host of others. They develop what seems to be a convincing theory of the crime — until a second murder throws all their conclusions into doubt.

Once again, Heyer delivers a mystery in which the plot is a lot less interesting than the characters. But her sparkling dialogue and incisive social commentary make up for any weaknesses in the mystery itself. I enjoyed Timothy’s interactions with Beulah, which strongly reminded me of Heyer’s romances. I also liked the fact that, for the first time in a Heyer mystery, the policemen are actual characters! Hemingway gets a lot more time on page than he has done in previous mysteries, and his exchanges with the Scottish Inspector Grant are some of the funniest in the book. But as I mentioned earlier, the mystery plot isn’t particularly strong, particularly when it comes to the second murder. The book also describes a homosexual character in very derogatory terms by today’s standards. Overall, I did enjoy this book and would recommend it to people who like Heyer and/or vintage mysteries, but it’s not a keeper for me.

Review: The Austen Playbook

Austen PlaybookLucy Parker, The Austen Playbook

West End actress Freddy Carlton is at a crossroads in her career. Her family has been extremely influential in the theater world for generations: her grandmother wrote one of the most important plays of the 20th century, and her father was an extremely talented actor. But Freddy would much rather do light-hearted musical comedies than the serious dramatic roles her father is pushing her toward. So she’s thrilled to be cast in The Austen Playbook, an interactive TV special that combines various Austen characters and plots with a murder mystery. Too bad it will be filmed at the estate of James Ford-Griffin, London’s harshest theater critic, who has given Freddy a few negative — yet oddly perceptive — reviews in the past. But as Freddy and Griff get to know each other, they are surprised to discover a mutual attraction. They also discover a shocking secret that may have devastating consequences for Freddy’s career.

I was expecting to adore this book, and I did! I’m a huge Lucy Parker fan and have loved all her books so far, but this one had so many features that appealed to me: a grumpy hero, an English country house party (well, rehearsal), a juicy mystery, and a little Jane Austen flavor. I adored Griff — he may be my favorite Parker hero yet! — and Freddy’s bubbly personality is the perfect foil for his uptight, reserved one. I also enjoyed uncovering the literary/theatrical mystery along with Griff and Freddy, which was interesting in its own right and also provided most of the obstacles to the romance. I do think there was possibly too much going on; because of Freddy’s career/family angst, the mystery, and the romance, the production of The Austen Playbook wasn’t as much of a focus as I wanted it to be. I also found the romantic scenes to be a little more explicit than in Parker’s previous books, which I personally didn’t need. But those minor quibbles aside, I really enjoyed this installment of the London Celebrities series and can’t wait for the next one!

Review: Enter a Murderer

Enter a MurdererNgaio Marsh, Enter a Murderer

This second installment of the Inspector Alleyn series is set in the London theater world. Arthur Surbonadier, a supporting actor in a new play, has managed to alienate nearly everyone in the cast and crew. He has threatened his uncle, who owns the theater company, in order to be cast in a better role. He has made unwelcome advances to the leading lady, which upsets both her and her new lover, the leading man. So it’s not entirely surprising that Arthur ends up murdered — shot onstage with a prop gun that was supposed to be loaded with dummy cartridges. Luckily, Inspector Alleyn and his journalist friend, Nigel Bathgate, are in the audience. Their investigation uncovers many sordid details about the victim’s past, including blackmail, drug dealing, and the seduction of one of the stagehands. But they are nevertheless unprepared for another murder, which leads to the shocking discovery of the killer’s identity.

I’ve been reading up a little bit about Ngaio Marsh, and one of the most frequent complaints about her novels is that they have a good setup but get very boring once the murder takes place. I can see some validity in that complaint: the first few chapters of this book are very compelling, as they introduce the characters and ratchet up the pre-murder tension, but the rest of the novel follows the relatively mundane police activity of interviewing suspects. Nevertheless, I wasn’t bored by this book — it’s very short, and I didn’t mind the suspect interviews, especially when they allowed Alleyn and Bathgate to bounce off of each other. I still don’t really have a sense of Alleyn as a character, except that he can occasionally be playful and enjoys keeping his friends (i.e., Nigel) in the dark. But perhaps he’ll be fleshed out more in later books. I did enjoy the solution to the mystery, which I didn’t guess ahead of time, and I’m looking forward to reading more in this series.

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: A Rogue of Her Own

Rogue of Her OwnGrace Burrowes, A Rogue of Her Own

Charlotte Windham hates London “society” life and has suffered through too many seasons of being envied by other women (because of her titled connections) and dodging the proposals of fortune hunters. Meanwhile, Lucas Sherbourne is a commoner whose substantial wealth has gained him entrance into society, but he is still acutely aware of his lower status in the eyes of the aristocrats surrounding him. The two decide to embark upon a marriage of convenience: Charlotte will have a wealthy husband and a secluded Welsh estate to call home, while Lucas will benefit from marrying into a noble family. Of course, there’s no question of love; but as Lucas tries to jump-start a new coal mine and Charlotte gives her spending money to “fallen” women, they find themselves turning to each other for support and understanding.

I find myself very confused about this book, because the things I really liked about it are also the things I disliked about it! For example, I liked that the book has a lot of plot (trouble with the coal mine, Charlotte’s charitable giving, the backstory of why she’s so passionate about helping women in trouble), but I also felt that the romance suffered because of it. I also liked that both Lucas and Charlotte have friends and family who support them; I especially enjoyed the development of Lucas’s friendship with his aristocratic neighbors. But again, those relationships almost felt more central than the romance. I also thought some of the plot twists and turns were a little melodramatic. Overall, I liked this book for having characters with their own interests and lives outside of one another…but I think I wanted a little more of them together, too! That said, I’d definitely be willing to try another book by Grace Burrowes.

Review: Polaris Rising

Polaris RisingJessie Mihalik, Polaris Rising

Ada von Hasenberg is a princess on the run. The universe is ruled by a Consortium of noble Houses, of which the von Hasenberg family is one of the most powerful. As a result, Ada’s duty is to marry for her House’s political advantage, but rather than accept her fate, she’s determined to carve her own path. Unfortunately, she’s captured by a mercenary ship and forced to share a cell with Marcus Loch, the so-called Devil of Fornax Zero. Loch is said to have butchered his regiment in a past military action, so he has a price on his head almost as big as Ada’s. Now, Ada and Loch must work together to escape captivity — but when her fiancé, the son of a rival House, comes looking for her, Ada begins to suspect that more than a marriage is at stake. To figure out what’s going on, she’ll need Loch’s help, even though she’s finding it harder and harder to fight her attraction to him.

I found it hard to summarize this book because it’s chock full of plot. All you really need to know is that this is a very entertaining, page-turning sci-fi/romance adventure, and I really enjoyed it. Ada is a strong heroine, but not one of the obnoxious variety; she’s not incredibly amazing at everything, nor does she rush into decisions without thinking carefully about them first. One of my favorite details was how she always (smartly) checks for bugs and tracking devices when she enters an unfamiliar environment. I also found the overall plot compelling, albeit a little predictable. I wasn’t as enthralled with the romance — Loch is a pretty stereotypical alpha male (although not a jerk, which is nice!), and since the book is only told from Ada’s point of view, I felt I didn’t get a good insight into what makes him tick. Their relationship doesn’t seem to be based on anything more than physical attraction, so it fell a little flat for me. Nevertheless, this was a really fun read for me, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series when it comes out this fall!

Review: The Golden Tresses of the Dead

Golden Tresses of the DeadAlan Bradley, The Golden Tresses of the Dead

***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series***

Flavia de Luce is at it again in this 10th book of the series. Her older sister Feely is finally getting married, and Flavia is surprised to find that she has mixed emotions about Feely’s leaving Buckshaw. But her inner turmoil soon becomes the least of Flavia’s concerns when, at the reception, she discovers a human finger in the wedding cake. Of course, Arthur W. Dogger and Associates are on the case — and of course, a second mystery presents itself soon afterward, involving a famous homeopathic doctor and two female missionaries who have recently returned from West Africa. As Flavia investigates, with the help of faithful Dogger and annoying cousin Undine, she realizes that the two cases may be connected.

Is it just me, or did the mystery plot of this book make even less sense than usual? One character dies in the novel, but I don’t think we ever find out for sure who the murderer was or how the killing took place. Another dies off-page, and it’s not actually clear what the cause of death was — murder, natural causes, something else? Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention, but I felt like there were a lot of loose ends with this plot. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed the book for Flavia’s voice and her relationships with the other characters, particularly Dogger. I also like the fact that she’s slowly gaining more self-awareness as she grows up, and I hope to see that trend continue in subsequent books. So I actually did like this novel overall, but it’s not a book (or series, really) to read for the mystery.

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.