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: 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!

Review: Speak Easy, Speak Love

speak easy, speak loveMcKelle George, Speak Easy, Speak Love

This debut novel is a YA retelling of Much Ado about Nothing set in the 1920s. Hero Stahr and her father Leo run a speakeasy called Hey Nonny Nonny on Long Island, with the help of Pedro “Prince” Morello. Benedick Scott is an aspiring novelist who chafes under his privileged upbringing and finds a sympathetic home at Hey Nonny Nonny. So does Beatrice Clark, Hero’s cousin, who wants to be a doctor despite her gender and her poverty. Margaret Hughes, the speakeasy’s resident jazz singer, longs for success on a bigger stage — almost as much as she longs for Prince’s standoffish brother, John — but her black skin may stop her from achieving either dream. As these characters fight to keep Hey Nonny Nonny up and running, they must deal with parental pressures, misunderstandings, dangerous bootleggers, and falling in love.

I wasn’t prepared for how much I would love this book. The premise sounded fun, but I thought at best I’d get a lighthearted romp — or, more likely, it would all go horribly wrong. I didn’t expect to care so deeply about these characters, to be so moved by their stories, or to be so invested in their relationships. But I adored this book, and I’m very sure it will be on my “best of 2019” list a year from now! The writing style is sharp and inventive — Beatrice, for example, is described as “a clock-throwing ruin of a girl,” and how could you not love her after that description? I loved the central romance between Beatrice and Benedick, which unfolds with agonizing, delicious slowness. As in Shakespeare’s original, the joy comes from their teasing banter and mutual respect for each other’s intelligence. The book deviates from the play somewhat with the secondary characters, but I thought all the changes made sense and enhanced the story the author was telling. In short, I loved (LOVED) this book and would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes the premise!

Mini-reviews: Alterations, Hitman, Temptation

AlterationsStephanie Scott, Alterations

I adore the movie Sabrina (the original, starring Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart), so I was excited to come across this YA contemporary retelling. Unfortunately, I think the concept was better than the execution…or maybe I’ve just outgrown this particular type of novel, with its focus on teen drama and the prom as the pinnacle of human existence. I did like the main character’s personal journey as she gets a prestigious fashion internship and grows in confidence. But I was less interested in the love triangle, although there are a few cute scenes. Overall, I’m left with a strong desire for more Sabrina-inspired books!

Agnes and the HitmanJennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, Agnes and the Hitman

Part romantic comedy, part gangster movie, this novel is about a food writer named Agnes who accidentally finds herself a target of the local mafia. As a result, her “connected” friend Joey hires a hitman, Shane, to look after her. They are instantly attracted to one another, but their romance is complicated by real estate fraud, several attempts on Agnes’s life, and a flamingo-themed wedding from hell. I didn’t expect this farcical mash-up of genres to be so enjoyable, but I was utterly charmed by it! The plot sweeps along at a dizzying pace, as does the rapid-fire banter, and it’s all great fun. Highly recommended if the idea of a modern screwball comedy appeals to you!

Season for TemptationTheresa Romain, Season for Temptation

After seeing a lot of praise for Theresa Romain over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, I was excited to try her debut novel. But I wasn’t as impressed as I wanted to be. The plot is quite typical for a Regency romance: the hero needs to marry quickly, proposes to a proper and elegant lady, then falls in love with the lady’s unconventional younger sister instead. Both the hero and heroine are likable, and it’s a pleasant enough read. I also like that the original fiancée gets some character development and is not just a two-dimensional model of propriety. But the writing was occasionally clunky, and I just didn’t see anything exceptional about the book. Not one for the keeper shelf, but I’ll consider trying more by the author — if I can get them from the library!

Mini-reviews: Silver, Dark, Mammoth

Spinning SilverNaomi Novik, Spinning Silver

I won’t hide the ball here: this is my favorite book of 2018. I read it in September, but I should probably have waited until now because it is a perfect book to read in wintertime, with biting cold temperatures and the constant threat of snow. I loved all three of the novel’s heroines, especially Miryem, who is cold and uncompromising and unlikable and not ashamed of it. I loved the creative take on the Rumpelstiltskin story. I loved how all the main characters have hidden depths to them, and I loved the development of the two romances. I’ll admit that the pacing is slow, especially in the beginning, but that just gave me time to soak in the lush descriptions of the wintry village and to get to know the characters a little better. I highly recommend this book to fans of fantasy, especially if you loved Uprooted!

Dark Days ClubAlison Goodman, The Dark Days Club

In this Regency fantasy novel, Lady Helen Wrexhall learns of the existence of Deceivers, demons who survive by stealing energy from living humans. She also learns that she is a Reclaimer, a human capable of spotting and killing Deceivers (who take human form and are thus able to hide in plain sight). Initiating her into these mysteries is the Dark Days Club, a society of Reclaimers led by the broodingly handsome Lord Carlston. But Lady Helen isn’t sure she wants to accept her newfound destiny, and she soon finds herself torn between two worlds. I liked the premise of this book (Regency fantasy is my catnip!), and the writing style is quite good, but I just didn’t find myself very interested in the Deceivers or in Lady Helen’s struggle. I may read the sequel at some point, but I didn’t love this one as much as I was hoping to.

MammothJill Baguchinsky, Mammoth

Natalie is a plus-size fashion blogger and dinosaur enthusiast who is ecstatic when she wins a prestigious paleontology internship. But when she gets there, she has to deal with professional and personal insecurities, as well as disillusionment with her scientist hero. She also meets some new people who aren’t what they seem and finds herself in the midst of a love triangle (or polygon). As a fellow plus-size person, I both related and didn’t relate to Natalie. Some of her insecurities felt very real to me, but she also had this weird habit of guessing other people’s weight, which is not something I have ever done. It seems like something a thin person would assume a fat person would do, if that makes sense. So I have mixed feelings about that plotline, although I do think it’s great to see more plus-size main characters in fiction! As for the internship drama, I wasn’t very compelled by it. So, not a bad read, but not a great one either.

Mini-Reviews: The 13 Clocks; Chalice

13 ClocksJames Thurber, The 13 Clocks (illustrated by Marc Simont)

This odd little book is like nothing I’ve ever read. A sort of fable or fairytale for adults, it’s the story of a wicked duke who is keeping captive the beautiful Princess Saralinda, and of the noble prince who must complete an impossible task in order to rescue her. Good ultimately triumphs over evil, yet the overall mood is creepy and melancholy. Neil Gaiman was the perfect choice to write the short introduction, because his writing gives me a similar (though even darker) vibe. I would definitely recommend this to anyone, and I think it will be even more interesting on a reread.

***

ChaliceRobin McKinley, Chalice

Robin McKinley is an author onto whom I imprinted sometime in my late elementary or middle school years. Novels such as The Blue Sword, Beauty, and The Outlaws of Sherwood were my introduction to the fantasy genre, and they remain some of my all-time favorite books. Chalice was written several years later, and while I still bought and read it immediately, I remember not loving it as much as McKinley’s other books. Because of my memory of that disappointment, I’d never reread it until now, but I appreciated it more this time around. I loved the protagonist, Mirasol, and her stubborn attempts to do her duty in an unusual situation. It was a pleasure to sink into the lush descriptions and slow unfolding of the story. It is a very slow-moving book, which might put off some people; but if you like McKinley’s style of writing, you’ll like this one.

Review: Save the Date

Save the DateMorgan Matson, Save the Date

Charlotte “Charlie” Grant is the youngest of five siblings, and she loves her big, boisterous family more than anything. Now her older sister is getting married — a bittersweet occasion for Charlie, since the wedding will be the last big event in her family home, which is about to be sold. Still, Charlie is thrilled that her siblings will all be coming home for the wedding, and she’s looking forward to a perfect weekend of family togetherness. But, of course, nothing goes according to plan: The wedding planner quits at the last minute, forcing the Grants to scramble for a substitute. The weather refuses to cooperate. The house is overcrowded with unexpected guests. Charlie’s favorite brother brings home an awful girlfriend without telling anyone. And, of course, there are Charlie’s own problems, including a possibly requited crush on the neighbor boy and a tough decision about which college to attend in the fall. As Charlie attempts to cope with these issues, she also begins to realize that her seemingly idyllic family might not be quite so perfect after all.

Morgan Matson is one of my favorite YA contemporary authors, so it’s no surprise that I really enjoyed this book. I love anything wedding-related, so the setting was automatic catnip for me; and I also love books about big families, which seem to be somewhat underrepresented in fiction. I completely bought the family dynamic in this book, especially the loving but complicated bonds between Charlie and her siblings. An interesting aspect of Charlie’s character is that she tends to perceive her siblings in somewhat static categories: Danny, the oldest brother, is her hero; J.J. is the class clown; Mike is the “problem” child. And a lot of her growth comes from recognizing that they can’t be classified so neatly, that they are real human beings who grow and change just as she does. So I really liked that aspect of the book! I will say that the romance, while adorable, doesn’t get much development compared to all the family stuff, so readers who are looking for that might be disappointed. Also, Charlie can be almost irritatingly naive at times. But overall, I liked this one a lot and am eagerly awaiting Matson’s next book!

Review: Ghostly Echoes

ghostly echoesWilliam 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!