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: Duels & Deception

Duels & DeceptionCindy Anstey, Duels & Deception

After the death of her beloved father, Lydia Whitfield is determined to keep her family’s estate up and running, but her hot-tempered, alcoholic uncle thwarts her at every turn. Lydia’s only solution is to marry a suitable man who will allow her to run things as she chooses. She already has an unofficial understanding with her neighbor, Lord Aldershot, so all she has to do is draw up the marriage contract. Her plan hits a snag, however, when she meets her lawyer — or rather, her lawyer’s clerk, a handsome young man named Robert Newton. He seems to understand Lydia in a way that no one else does, and she finds herself getting distracted by his broad shoulders and kind brown eyes. Complications ensue when Lydia and Robert are abducted by persons unknown, and they must work together to discover who engineered the kidnapping and why.

I’d previously read another book by this author, Love, Lies and Spies, and while I wasn’t crazy about it, the adorable cover of this novel convinced me to try again. Unfortunately, I enjoyed the cover much more than the book! Even as someone who enjoys a light and fluffy Regency romance, I found this novel utterly insubstantial. The attempts at humor are grating, and the setting is nothing more than window-dressing. The mystery of who kidnapped Lydia and Robert isn’t compelling enough to carry the plot, and a separate storyline involving Robert’s best friend and a duel seems to be completely shoehorned in, with no relevance to the A-story. However, that side story does contain the only marginally interesting character in the book, Robert’s best friend Vincent Cassidy. Perhaps it’s just as well that the author hasn’t written a full novel featuring him, because I’m sure I’d be doomed to disappointment if I read it!

Review: Field Notes on Love

Field Notes on LoveJennifer E. Smith, Field Notes on Love

Hugo Wilkinson is feeling trapped. He loves his parents and his five siblings, but he’s never particularly enjoyed the notoriety that comes with being a sextuplet. Now all six of them are heading off to their hometown university in the fall, but Hugo is beginning to wonder if it’s truly the right path for him. On top of everything else, he was supposed to be going on a romantic train trip across America with his girlfriend this summer, but she’s just dumped him, and all the tickets and hotels are in her name. Now Hugo is stuck — unless he can find another girl named Margaret Campbell who’d be willing to go with him. Meanwhile, Mae (full name Margaret) Campbell is an aspiring filmmaker in need of a little adventure. She decides to take Hugo up on his offer, and as they travel across the country together, their immediate connection deepens into something that surprises them both.

As someone who finds the idea of traveling across America by train both appealing and romantic, of course I couldn’t resist this book! And as I expected, it was a fun and charming read, although not particularly substantial. I think the book spends a little too much time setting up the plot, trying to make the whole scenario plausible, when in reality we all know it’s implausible and are perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief — otherwise we wouldn’t have picked up the book in the first place! I also didn’t quite buy into Mae’s internal conflict, which is about learning to let her guard down and be vulnerable — but the book never explains why she’s so guarded to begin with. Hugo’s conflict, about balancing his family’s expectations with his own wants and needs, was much more believable for me. I did like the sweet romance and the uniqueness of the road trip, but ultimately this isn’t a book I will ever revisit.

Review: Last of Her Name

Last of Her NameJessica Khoury, Last of Her Name

Stacia Androvna has grown up happy on a fringe planet near the edge of the galaxy. She’s never paid much attention to politics, although she knows that things have been fairly bleak since the revolution that overthrew the Leonovan empire. Still, she never expected that the unrest in the galaxy would affect her — until the direktor Eminent himself, the leader of the revolutionary government, shows up on her planet claiming that she is a Leonovan princess. Stacia doesn’t believe it, but she knows she must escape or die. Now on the run with her childhood friend Pol, she is determined to save the rest of her loved ones, especially her best friend Clio. But the direktor Eminent will do whatever it takes to capture Stacia, and there are also Loyalist forces hoping to find and use her for their own ends. Is Stacia really the princess, and if so, will she be able to use what little power she has to save her friends?

I adore the Anastasia animated movie and was excited to read a book that sounded like a sci-fi take on that story. Unfortunately, the plot of the novel is quite different; while the setup is clearly based on the execution of the Romanovs during the Russian Revolution, the rest of the plot is essentially an action movie set in space. Which I have no problem with, but it’s not what I was expecting or hoping for. The book is a fast read that’s jam-packed with plot, which definitely kept me turning the pages. Some of the twists were very clever, although some went a bit too far for my taste — it kept feeling like the book should end, and then there would be yet another attack/betrayal/reversal of fortune. I didn’t really connect to the characters, but maybe that’s my issue and not the book’s; all these spunky YA SFF heroines are starting to feel the same to me, so I found Stacia rather two-dimensional. Overall, I liked this book fine, but I was a bit underwhelmed.

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!