Reviews · Summaries

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown (Book 1)

# of Pages: 466

Time it took me to read: 4 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 67

Rating: 5 out of 5

Malik and his two sisters have traveled far from their homeland in hopes of a better life. Leaving their mother and grandmother behind at a refugee camp, the siblings travel to the powerful, wealthy city-state of Ziran with forged papers, hoping to earn enough money during the week long festival of Solstasia to bring their mother and grandmother to join them.

But when their falsified papers are stolen before they can even get inside the city, things seem hopeless until a wish is granted by a mysterious storyteller. The wish has consequences, however, and a powerful spirit entity kidnaps Malik’s younger sister, Nadia. The only way Malik can get her back is by killing the princess of Ziran, Karina, before the end of Solstasia. Malik agrees, thinking that the princess who is rumored to be spoiled and cruel is worth the price of saving his sister.

Karina has long dreamed of fleeing her oppressive role as the only living heir to the throne of Ziran. But when her mother, the respected sultana of Ziran, is assassinated the night Solstasia begins, Karina finds herself in the position of having to run the festival herself. Thinking only of bringing her mother back, Karina comes upon an ancient resurrection ritual that is said to raise the dead during the week of Solstasia. But the main ingredient needed is the heart of a king, which Ziran has not had since her father died. So if Karina can’t find a king, she’ll have to make one. By marrying the champion of the Solstasia competition, she’ll have the heart she needs to bring her mother back and free her from the responsibility of ruling Ziran.

Without knowing it, Karina and Malik are set on a collision path, each determined to kill the other. But there are greater forces at work, and this will be one Solstasia the people of Ziran will never forget.

Review:

I want to start out by saying that I think this is the best new book that I’ve read this year. I’ve done a number of re-reads as well as new books by favorite authors, but even though it’s early in the year, I believe this is a strong contender for my book of the year 2021.

This is the second fantasy book that I’ve read in the past few years that is based in African cultures, and world-building is stunning. The land of Sonande has a variety of storied, unique cultures with detailed histories that had me practically wiping the gritty sand out of my eyes as I felt myself standing with Malik in the vast Odjubai desert. I could spend an eternity talking about the detailed and magical world Brown has created, but I have so many other things I want to say that I’ll leave it at that.

I really want to talk about how much I love Malik as a protagonist. I don’t often read books with male protagonists, but even when I do find them I’ve never come across one anything like Malik. He’s the “man” of the family, but he suffers from panic attacks and cries at multiple times throughout the story. He is very conscious and always doubting himself. He suffers through a mental affliction, while the female protagonist suffers through a physical one, and I feel as though often times those would be reversed in other books I’ve read. But even with all of these “weaknesses”, Malik is determined and never ever wavers from his goal of saving his sister, no matter what the cost. If only all male protagonists could be as unique but also realistic as Malik. He is a breath of fresh air.

Karina, as well, is a well-rounded protagonist. She has a history of being irresponsible, drinking too much, and having a temper. These are attributes that are often given to male characters, but it’s fitting that they are given to Karina, especially since Ziran is a matriarchy. From the very beginning, Karina suffers from devastating migraines that often try very hard (and sometimes succeed) in putting her out of commission. But she is fierce and independent and willing to stand up for what she believes in, never willing to back down from a challenge. I also love that it’s stated very clearly that she’s experienced with boys and is not a virgin in the slightest, while Malik is yet to have his first kiss. Also non-traditional, which I think is well-suited to each of their characters. Karina isn’t a warrior, but she has been trained in staff fighting. Malik, on the other hand, has no fighting training whatsoever, and I found myself being startled at the fact that this is one of the first fantasy novels I’ve read in a while where neither the protagonist or the love interest is a trained fighter.

The only thing I can really say that is even close to a criticism is that there is so much lingo in here (which I love), but I wish there was a glossary in the back. Or at least I wished there was initially, as this book does not ease you gently into the beautiful but intense language of the story. Now because this book is written by a woman from Ghana and I am a white woman, it is very possible that I only struggled due to my ignorance of African culture, so that is certainly on me rather than on the author. But even I was able to get a handle on it by the end, so I wouldn’t want anyone who struggles with books that have a lot of lingo to be frightened away by this.

I, like many people, have had to consciously work on diversifying my bookshelf. Publishing, particularly YA, is almost entirely dominated by white people, and while I do feel like the YA section has gotten a bit more diverse in the last year or two, there is still much work to be done. But I am so glad I found this book at my local bookstore last month, because not only is the setting beautiful and very unlike others popular in YA, but the characters are equally unique and have seated themselves firmly in my heart. Roseanne A. Brown is truly a brilliant force and I cannot recommend this book enough.

!!!SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

Cast:

Malik – young Eshran refugee that travels to the city-state of Ziran with his older sister Leila and his younger sister Nadia in order to make a better life for their family. He has always been able to see spirits in the world around him, though nobody else can, and he was beaten as a young child until he stopped admitting it. He has a major anxiety disorder and often succumbs to panic attacks. Love interest of Karina.

Karina – only living daughter of the sultana of Ziran, heir to the throne. Lost her older sister Hanane and her father to a terrible fire when she was a young child, and grew up not really knowing her mother, both of them dealing with their grief in flawed ways. Suffers from terrible migraines. Finds out at the end of the story that she has the ability to summon storms with her magic that has been repressed most of her life. Love interest of Malik.

Leila – older sister of Malik. Controlling, but kindhearted and fiercely protective. Used to being in charge, she has been the parental figure ever since her and her siblings left their mother and grandmother behind at the refugee camp. Left school to take care of the family farm after their father abandons the family.

Nadia – Younger sister of Malik and Leila, about six or seven years old. Makes the wish that gets the three siblings into Ziran, but is kidnapped by the evil spirit Idir as the price of her wish.

Farid – ward of the sultana of Ziran and the royal steward. Raised like a brother to Karina, he was in love with her older sister Hanane, though supposedly Hanane didn’t love him back that way. Orchestrated the death of the Kestral with the help of Idir and kills Tunde in order to resurrect Hanane on the final day of Solstasia. A powerful sorcerer, one of the few left, he betrays Karina and blames her for the death of Hanane and the king.

Aminata – Karina’s best friend and personal maid. Cautious where Karina is brash, they don’t speak for most of the book after a fight. But it is Aminata who helps save Karina from being killed by Farid and aids her escape from Ziran. Aminata stays behind to be eyes on the inside of the palace under the rule of Farid and Hanane.

The Kestrel – the sultana of Ziran, the Kestrel is called such by many in Ziran due to her fierce and respected nature. Karina believes the Kestrel to be cold and disappointed in her, but the Kestrel simply let her grief at the loss of her eldest daughter and husband turn her away from being close to her daughter. Assassinated close

Idir – found later in the story to also be the Faceless King who is the villain of the founding legend of Ziran, Idir is a powerful spirit who was trapped in another realm by Bahia Alahari, his wife and the first sultana of Ziran. He takes Malik’s sister Nadia prisoner and says he will only release her if Malik kills the princess by the end of Solstasia. When Malik attempts to do so, he finds that he cannot kill Karina, but his attempt releases Idir from his prison realm. Malik is able to trap Idir within Malik’s mind where he resides at the end of the story, and his background is more complicated. He claims Bahia only trapped him in the spirit realm because he objected when she killed their son in order to create the magic barrier that protects Ziran.

Tunde – former lover of Karina, he is the Water champion for Solstasia. He makes friends quickly and easily with Malik, but fights with his lingering feelings for Karina. In the end, Karina choses him as the Solstasia victor and the two are married, despite Karina wishing she could chose Malik. Tunde is killed by Farid for his heart, the heart of a king, to be used in a ritual to resurrect Hanane, Karina’s elder sister who died ten years before.

Afua – eleven year old daughter of the ambassador to Arkwasi, come to Ziran for Solstasia. Tells Karina about magic, being one of the few magic users left herself. Helps Karina escape Ziran at the end of the story to take her back to Arkwasi, the only nation with an army to stand up to that of Ziran, and home to some of the few magic users left in the land.

Nyeni (Hyena) – Appearing throughout the story as Nyeni the griot (storyteller), she reveals herself to Malik and Karina to be Hyena, the mythological figure from Sonande’s legends. She is a renowned trickster, but provides some aid to both Malik and Karina.

Summary:

Act 1

Malik and his older sister Leila and younger sister Nadia arrive at the gates of the city-state Ziran after traveling a long way through a dangerous desert. They have come to try and make enough money to send back to their mother and grandmother back home to bring them to Ziran to join them eventually. They have made the journey using expensive, forged identification papers. The siblings are from Oboure, which is a territory overseen by Ziran. They are not citizens, and are seen as a lower class of people who would not be let into the city without their forged papers. Malik and his sisters have arrived just in time for Solstasia, the week-long festival that only comes along every 50 years to celebrate the comet that can be seen crossing the sky for a whole seven days. The festival is very important because it comes with a competition. The people of Ziran worship seven patron deities, one for each day of the week, and the day you are born signifies what alignment you are. Each alignment temple chooses a champion to compete in Solstasia, with the winner gaining ultimate glory and a position in court, and their alignment will be the alignment that defines the next era until the next comet cycle.

As they are standing in line to enter the city, Malik helps a boy who is about to get crushed by the crowd, but the boy repays him by stealing the bag containing their identification papers and disappearing. It appears hope is lost, when a griot (storyteller) grants Nadia her wish to get into the city. A giant beast stampedes through the wall, allowing the crowd to pour in. During the scuffle, Malik and his sisters find themselves in a strange hut, where a powerful spirit manifests before them. Taking advantage of Nadia’s wish, the spirt who calls himself Idir captures Nadia. Malik says he’ll do anything in exchange for her release, so Idir says he must kill Karina, the crown princess of Ziran, before the end of Solstasia. He agrees, and Idir gives Malik the “mark”, which can move all over his body and manifests into a dagger when he needs it. Leila and Malik are left to figure out how they are going to get close enough to the princess to kill her and save Nadia.

Karina is the only living heir to the throne of Ziran. Her father and older sister Hanane were killed in a fire ten years before, and Karina has been grieving them ever since. Karina suffers from frequent and violent migraines. Her mother, known as the Kestrel, is the sultana of Ziran, and the only family she has left except for Farid, a ward of her parents and raised as her brother, he now works as the royal steward of the palace. On the eve of Solstasia, Karina has escaped the palace with her maid and finds herself in a competition with a man from the tavern for a bag of gold coins, which Karina dreams of using to escape her life in Ziran. Being a talented musician, Karina wins not only the money from her opponent, but also what appears to be an ancient book of magic. Thinking the book nothing more than a relic, she accepts it as payment.

Back at the palace, her mother brings her to a secret cavern under the palace and explains why she can never leave Ziran. Their ancestor, Bahia Alahari, the founding sultana of Ziran, created a Barrier around Ziran to protect it from enemies, but the current sultana and her heir powered the barrier and thus could never leave Ziran. In awe of the magic but frustrated by her lack of freedom, Karina and her mother argue.

Later that evening, just before the comet arrives, assassins sneak into the palace and attack Karina and her mother, and the fight ends with the Kestrel dead, making Karina the new sultana of Ziran. Her mother’s counsel want to bury the Kestrel at once and cancel Solstasia, but Karina won’t have it, insisting news of her mother’s death should be kept secret and Solstasia should continue as planned. Karina hatches a plan to use the book she was given to conduct a resurrection spell that will bring her mother back. She main ingredient she needs, however, is the heart of a king. The only way Karina can think to get that is to marry someone and then kill them. At the opening ceremony of Solstasia, she announces that whoever wins the festival will win her hand in marriage.

Meanwhile, Malik has come to the conclusion that the only way for him to get close to the princess is for him to be the champion of his alignment for Solstasia. Using magic that had long been dormant but was awakened by Idir, he creates an illusion of his patron deity naming him champion in front of everyone in the temple. The priestess choses him, believing him chosen by their patron. He calls himself Adil, because his name will identify him as Eshran. All of the other champions are named and Solstasia begins.

Act 2

The first challenge of Solstasia is a scavenger hunt where the instructions are a riddle. Malik has no idea where to even start looking, even after he figures out he is supposed to be looking for masks. He gets distracted when he sees a carriage that is carrying the princess cross an abandoned bridge, and he thinks to end her life right there, calling forth frightening spirits which cause the carriage to crash, and they are very close to pushing Karina off the edge of the gorge, but his illusion fails at just that moment and he is unable to complete his task that way. And just as he thinks he’s going to fail the first challenge and be eliminated from Solstasia, the griot Nyeni who was part of the reason they got into this mess with Nadia and Idir appears and offers him the final mask of the challenge, and he arrives just in time to complete it.

Karina wants to find out who had her mother killed. Signs point to someone from Arkwasi, but it seems too obvious to her. Karina believes the council is responsible, but has no proof. Regardless of who had her mother killed, none of it will matter if she can manage to bring her back, so she sets about trying to find someone who can help her learn more about magic. Shortly before her mother died, she met a young girl named Afua, who was the daughter of the Arkwasi ambassador, and she mentioned offhand a magical term on their meeting. Karina sneaks out to go and meet with her, but her friend Aminata catches her and advises her not to leave. They get in a fight which ends with Karina putting a firm line between them as mistress and maid. Karina regrets it once her friend leaves, but she is often hotheaded and very stubborn, so can’t call her back to fix it.

She flees the palace and goes down to the district where all the Arkwasi visitors are staying. She finds Afua with her family in a tent that is magically enlarged on the inside. Afua explains that she is one of the very rare magic users left in Sonande who are descendants of sorcerers who were common 1,000 years ago. After admitting that her mother is dead, Karina enlists Afua’s help with the eventual ritual that needs to happen. Afua reluctantly agrees.

Chaos erupts when the elite warriors called Sentinels raid the district where the Arkwasi’s are staying and Karina has to flee before she is found. She happens upon Malik, who fled from the pub where he was having drinks and discussing an alliance with two of the other champions, Tunde and Driss. Malik and Karina, neither knowing who the other is, end up hiding together in an abandoned building and having a bit of a connection. Malik stitches together Karina’s dress when it rips. After the raid when they’re heading back, they overhear some merchants talking badly about the Kestrel and Karina herself, and Karina tries to break up the fight by revealing her identity, but just when Malik is trying to get himself to strike her from behind with this opportunity, someone else throws a rock at her, and she is hurried away by guards before she is further hurt.

Just before the second task of Solstasia there is a wakama competition that anyone can compete in. The Fire Alignment champion, Dedele, is an expert wakama player and in front of everyone challenges Karina to a match. Being herself a pretty good wakama player, Karina accepts. They strike a wager that the loser has to do one thing, anything, the winner asks of them. Dedele agrees, and the two young girls fight. Dedele has Karina on the ropes, but Karina is unwilling to lose and with a burst of vicious power physically beats Dedele down and wins the match, gaining the admiration of her people.

Shortly after that, the second challenge begins. Karina discovers that Malik (as Adil) is the Life Alignment champion and feels as though he deceived her by not saying anything once he knew who she was. The second challenge is essentially a talent show that revolves around doing a performance based off of a random item drawn from a box. They have the afternoon to prepare then they must perform. In the interim, Malik has an encounter with Idir, and Malik attempts to gain the upper hand with his illusions, but Idir is too powerful. However, the illusions do give him an idea of what to do with his talent. Since no one believes magic really exists, Malik performs a story about Hyena, the popular mythical trickster, using his illusions as accents to his story. The crowd goes wild and he wins that task. The other two champions who will move onto the final challenge are Driss (Sun champion) and Tunde (Water champion). Dedele does not even perform, dropping out of the competition, as this was Karina’s win condition for wakama. Karina is enchanted by Malik’s story, but she is now sure that he may win Solstasia and she’ll have to kill him for his heart.

Act 3

At the midpoint of Solstasia there is a large carnival thrown by the royal council. The champions and their families attend. Malik and Leila arrive, and Malik immediately drinks too much and worries about when to take his opportunity to kill her, especially now that after getting to know her a bit he finds that he likes her as a person. When Malik is chatting with Tunde, Karina arrives and whisks him away to dance, where she not so subtly lets him know why he doesn’t want to win Solstasia. Malik thinks it’s because she wants Tunde to win so she’ll marry her former flame, but really it’s because Karina doesn’t want to kill this boy she also likes. At the end of a very sexually charged dance, Karina pushes him into the lake in front of everyone, where he has to be fished out.

Malik then is speaking with one of the council members who is verbally abusing one of the Eshran workers, not knowing of course that Malik is really Eshran. Malik stops the council member from striking the boy. Malik is trying to justify his response, and Karina is about to jump in when Afua arrives out of nowhere, attacking Karina and crying that her family has been taken prisoner because of the raids by the Sentinels. Karina tries to order the council to release all of the Arkwasi prisoners, but they defy her and carry her essentially kicking and screaming back to the palace.

Malik, thinking this may be his opportunity and realizing he can use his illusion powers to essentially make himself invisible, follows shortly after back to the palace.

Desperate to escape the prison of her bedroom and find the other ingredients needed for the resurrection ritual, Karina starts a small fire in her room, which causes panic since it was a big fire that killed Karina’s father and sister. Karina uses this distraction to her advantage, trying to get back to the cavern her mother took her to right before she died because Karina suspects there is a clue there about where she can find the other ingredient she needs. But right as she’s about to get into the chamber she is attacked by a Sentinel, and Malik becomes uninvisible in order to save her, but this rescue attempt sends them both tumbling into the cavern, plunging into the river that runs under the city.

Once they get out of the river, they find themselves in a necropolis built for the last pharaoh of the empire that ruled Sonande before Ziran. Depicted in this necropolis are images of the Faceless King, who is shown here with a face and Malik recognizes him as Idir, though none of this is revealed to Karina at this time. Karina finds the blood flower, the ingredient she needs for the ritual, though this is not revealed to Malik. They also find and have to fight a giant serpant-like creature that was thought to be only myth but has been residing under the city all this time. Malik and Karina really connect during this time and almost kiss. Malik really considers whether he’ll be able to bring himself to kill her.

To escape the cavern, they have to throw themselves at the mercy of the river and hope it brings them outside. It works, and Karina knows how she can blackmail the council into revealing who the traitor is that hired the assassin to kill her mother.

Karina calls the entire council to order, including Farid, who she has not revealed her plan to. She tells the council that she has poisoned their tea, and only she has the antidote. If they do not reveal which one of them hired the assassin, she will let all of them die (including herself as she has also drunk the tea). They reveal that they were all in on trying to pin the assassination on Arkwasi in order to start a war because all of them are in industries that would profit. But only one of them outs himself as the one who hired the assassin, though he swears it was only supposed to be an “attempt” to scare the Kestrel into starting war herself with Arkwasi. Karina gives them all the anti-venom and tells them to call off all of their warmongering efforts or she will reveal their darkest secrets, all of which she knows thanks to Farid. They come to an agreement and bind it with a blood oath. And thus Karina takes care of the power struggle she has with the council.

As the time for the third and final challenge draws near, Malik is in his room with Leila when Driss barges in, claiming he knows Malik is not who he says he is and that he’s going to report him as being Eshran. Leila tries to reason with him but Driss throws her into a wall. Malik sees red and shoves Driss, who falls so hard that he tumbles over the banister and dies just as Tunde and soldiers arrive. Leila claims that it was an accident, but that she did it, begging Tunde to back her up. Tunde does, hesitantly, and the soldiers take Leila away because Malik is the only one who can save Nadia.

The third challenge is a maze, and Tunde and Malik are the only ones left. They enter the maze, and Tunde is suspicious of Malik because he knows that it was he who killed Driss. Malik doesn’t know what to tell him, so the two go their separate ways. The maze challenges them with their greatest fears, and Malik has to deal with his childhood trauma and anxieties head on, but he comes out stronger. He and Tunde race to the finish, Tunde having decided that he does in fact want the opportunity to marry Karina.

Malik finishes the maze first and appears to have won. Karina knows now that she can’t kill Malik, not with the feelings that she has for him, so she declares Malik disqualified because of a technicality and declares Tunde the winner, even though she doesn’t want to kill him either. She had really wanted Driss to win because she really didn’t like him, but he was already dead before marrying her.

So Malik feels entirely betrayed, because he is starting to fall for Karina, but this just hardens his resolve to kill her and save his sister. Karina and Tunde are married quickly and secretly, and they consecrate their marriage (it’s revealed that Karina is not a virgin, she and Tunde had slept together many times during their previous relationship). Tunde genuinely still loves her, and Karina realizes she can’t kill him and that she’ll just have to accept that her mother is gone.

Later that day Malik lures Karina to the roof where they share a kiss, which Malik ends by stabbing her with his magic dagger, apologizing as he does it. But this does not kill Karina, it only frees Idir from his prison realm and breaks the barrier that protects Ziran, and darkness briefly falls over Ziran as Idir disapears, but not before revealing that he (nor anything crafted by him like the blade he gave Malik) can kill her because she’s his descendant. Karina attacks Malik for trying to kill her and has him arrested. Malik is defeated because he cannot complete the deal he made with Idir and it appears Nadia is going to die.

Karina tries to warn Farid about Idir, but he doesn’t seem to believe her. They argue, and Karina realizes that it was Farid all along, Farid was the one who had her mother assassinated and has been pulling the strings the entire time. Why? Because he is a powerful sorcerer who has been working with Idir himself and wants to perform the resurrection ritual on Hanane, his true love. So right in front of Karina he slits Tunde’s throat and carves out his heart.

In prison, Malik thinks it’s all over when Nyeni, the griot, comes to him. She reveals herself as Hyena and says that it is up to him to defeat Idir. Malik and Leila escape from prison and race to find Idir.

At the closing ceremony of Solstasia, Farid accuses Karina, who he has subdued, of killing the queen in front of the whole kingdom. Then Idir joins Farid and they conduct the ritual to bring Hanane back from the dead. But as part of his deal to Idir, Farid has to kill Karina on his behalf, which he doesn’t seem to have any remorse for because he blames the death of Hanane and the king on Karina. It comes to light that though Karina has repressed both the memories and her magic (causing her migraines), she has powerful storm magic and summoned the bolt of lightening that caused the fire that killed her father and sister. Just as Farid is about to strike down Karina, Malik appears and offers to let Idir possess his body so he can kill Karina himself. Idir can’t resist this offer, but once Malik has Idir inside his mind, he is able to trap Idir there and take back over. In order to keep Idir imprisoned forever, Malik puts the dagger through his own chest.

In that moment, the ritual works and it appears as though Hanane rises. But as soon as Karina sees her eyes, she knows that it could never have worked and that this being isn’t truly her sister, though it looks and sounds just like her. Farid is about to finish Karina off when a crowd of those loyal to Karina, including Afua, Aminata, and Commander Hamidou of the Sentinels.

Aminata revels that she has been spying on Farid and wants to maintain her position, so she hustles back to the palace while Afua and Hamidou hustle Karina out of Ziran. Commander Hamidou stays behind, sacrificing herself so that Afua and Karina can escape Ziran with the help of Dedele, who is also loyal to the princess. Her magic unleashed, Karina releases a storm that allows them to get away. They’ll travel to Arkwasi, where Karina will learn to control her powers and hopefully get the help of the Arkwasi army to help Karina take her place on the throne of Ziran and put Hanane back to rest.

Farid, however, has managed to save Malik from dying. It is revealed that they are the same kind of sorcerer, and Farid offers to teach him what he knows. Malik doesn’t really know of Farid’s role in all that happened with Karina, so he agrees. After consulting with Idir, who is still trapped in his mind, Malik finds that he is able to summon Nadia out of her prison, and the three siblings are reunited.

End of Book 1

!!!END OF SPOILERS!!!

Well, that was absolutely the longest review/summary I’ve ever done, but I have no regrets. I love, love, loved this book, it is a masterpiece and I cannot wait until the sequel A Psalm of Storms and Silence, which will be released on November 2nd of 2021.

If you liked A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, try:

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

The Reader by Traci Chee

Carival by Stephanie Garber

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

P.S. I’m out here trying to diversify my bookshelf, and I realized really the only other fantasy series I had on my shelves that was written by a black author is Children of Blood and Bone. So if you’ve got any other fantasy novels to recommend that are written by black/POC authors, please drop them in the comments, I read a lot of novels by white ladies, which is fine, but certainly not the only YA fantasy perspective out there and I really want to broaden my horizons. Thanks!

Reviews · Summaries

Thorn by Intisar Khanani (Book 1)

# of Pages: 495

Time it took me to read: 4 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 71

Rating: 4 out of 5

Princess Alyrra has never fit in at home. So when the opportunity to marry the crown prince of a neighboring country arises, she sees no reason to refuse, despite never having met the prince before and having no desire to be a queen. This move will allow her to escape the cruel hand of her brother and the cool disapproval of her mother, though she’ll have to leave behind everything she’s ever known for a land where she doesn’t speak the language or understand the people.

However, the royal family of Menaiya has problems on their own. On her way to Menaiya ahead of her wedding, she is attacked by a terrifying sorceress who swaps her body with that of her traveling companion when Alyrra refuses to betray her betrothed to the sorceress. Trapped in a skin that is not hers and unable to speak about it, she finds that though everything has been taken from her, this might just be the opportunity to escape the pressures of court that she never wanted. Assigned to the stables as a goose girl, Alyrra settles quickly and happily into her new life. But the sorceress will not stop until she has the prince in her grasp. Can Alyrra, who is known to all simply as a goose girl named Thorn, be able to stop the sorceress before she ends the royal line of Menaiya once and for all?

Review:

This book was given as a birthday gift to me this summer (thank you Dani!), and I’m finally getting around to reading it. I believed it to be a standalone novel when I started it, which is always going to affect the way that I think about the book as I’m reading it. I found it to have a slow and dense start, which concerned me a bit because even though the book is long at nearly 500 pages, standalone novels can hardly drag their feet with the setup. It’s such a bummer when the buildup in a standalone isn’t worth the payoff at the end (see my previous entry for an example).

However, about midway through I found out that this was the first of a trilogy that is still being rolled out, and that really lightened my expectations for this story. A book is allowed to have the fist half be setup if it’s the first in a series.

With that in mind, the second half of the story captured me a whole lot more now that I understood I wasn’t going to be getting a full payoff by the end of this story. I really enjoyed the story of Alyrra, who has a miserable time being princess in her own kingdom, and though isn’t pleased that her life is ripped away from her, she eagerly and genuinely throws herself into her new life as a nobody, a goose girl the locals call Thorn. She learns their language and makes her own family among the hostlers at the stables. I felt like her arc was unique and thoughtful. She is really the only one who can save the prince, Kestrin, from the sorceress, though it would mean sacrificing the lovely life she’s built for herself as a goose girl. There is a large and entertaining cast of characters, of all backgrounds, but Alyrra as Thorn seems to draw everyone to her with her kind and hardworking nature.

Despite all the buildup, this first book actually does wrap itself up nicely enough to almost be a standalone. However, there are enough side threads left dangling throughout that I’m excited that there will be more. The antagonist(s) in this story aren’t always what they seem either, and I really enjoyed the twists.

The last thing I’ll say is that this felt like a very Eastern style fantasy to me, which I don’t read as many of, so there was a bit of an adjustment period for me. I’m not really able to fully describe what “Eastern style” entails, any more than I would be able to describe a “Western style”, but the best way I can think to describe it is if you were to sit down to watch a movie only to find out that is is a Bollywood film rather than the usual Hollywood style movie you are used to watching. There is nothing bad about it, it is only different, and it takes a little longer than normal to sink into the story because the style is different than you were expecting and different from the type of film you normally watch. But eventually you get into it and really enjoy the movie. That’s how I felt with this book.

I revoked a star for the slow build up. In my opinion, if a book takes longer than 1/4 of the way to ramp up, there had better be an especially tasty twist or cliff hanger in the climax to pay off for the build. While I genuinely liked the ending of this story, there weren’t quite enough sparks for me at the end to justify the beginning. But that’s just me being nitpicky, I really, genuinely, enjoyed Thorn as a retelling of a classic fairytale and can’t wait for the next installment.

!!!SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

Cast:

Alyrra (Thoreena) (Thorn) – Princess of Adania. Upon arriving in Menaiya in the body of Valka, she chooses the name Thoreena for herself to go by. But that name is difficult to say in the native tongue of Menaiya, so most call her Thorn. After suffering years of physical abuse and torture at the hands of her brother while her mother turned a blind eye, Alyrra grateful to have a chance to escape, with the promise of protection, by accepting the betrothal to Kestrin, crown price of Menaiya. When Valka, in the body of the princess, sends Alyrra to be a goose girl upon arrival in Menaiya, Alyrra takes well to working, as she often worked in the kitchens back home. Alyrra is kindhearted and hardworking, though she must grow out of the timidity that her brother worked hard to beat into her.

Kestrin – Crown prince of Menaiya, Kestrin is also secretly a powerful sorcerer like his father. His whole family, going back generations, has been killed by the Lady, a powerful Fae sorceress. Kestrin is shrewd and suspicious by nature, though he has a soft spot for Alyrra. Though she does not know it until the end, he is her friend the “Wind”, who would visit her back home in Adania from the time she was young.

Valka – court lady of Adania, sent as an attendant with the princess on her journey to Menaiya. Found by Alyrra a few years back to be a thief, she tried to accuse a servant of doing the thieving, for which the servant would have been executed. Alyrra exposed her, and she became disgraced in court. Driven by revenge against Alyrra and a desire to be queen, she makes a deal with the Lady, who switches the skins of Alyrra and Valka and prevents Alyrra from speaking of it. Valka is petty and cruel and would go to any lengths to secure her position in the court of Menaiya.

Corbe – the goose boy who works with Alyrra. As an unacknowledged bastard son of a lord of Menaiya, he resents his lowly position and is instantly jealous of Alyrra. Attempts to attack her once, but is disuaded by the other stable workers once they hear about it. However, when the “princess” herself speaks to him about taking Alyrra out of the picture, Corbe jumps at the opportunity to hurt her again. He is only stopped when the Wind attacks him.

Sage, Joa, Violet, Oak, Rowan, and Ash – Alyrra’s found family in the stables. Violet, Oak, Rowan, and Ash are siblings, and Sage is their aunt. Joa is the head hostler. All of these folks love Alyrra as a part of their family and would do anything for her. They teacher the language and also how to survive in the city. Violet, who is like a sister to Alyrra, is raped and murdered on her way home one day. Alyrra helps find her killers and ensure their punishment, so her brothers Oak, Rowan, and Ash swear their allegiance to Alyrra.

Falada – a magical Horse, who is one of the few remaining of his kind, and can speak. Only Alyrra knows this, and he is her closest friend when she arrives in Menaiya. When Valka, in her disguise as the princess, discovers how close their relationship is she has Falada killed. Alyrra, per his request, has Falada’s head hung at the gates of the city, where occasionally he seems to be with her still. He always pushes Alyrra to do the right thing, even when it is not the easy thing.

The Red Hawk – Not knowing that he is one of the thief lords in the city, Alyrra saves him one night when he is wounded and running from soldiers. When she meets him again, she offers to pay for one of his boys, Tarkit, to be apprenticed. In return, he and his men help her find and punish the men who killed Violet.

Summary:

Act 1

Alyrra is a young princess who has never really felt as though she fits into the role. A few years before the story, one of Alyrra’s peers, a girl named Valka, stole a valuable piece of jewelry from one of the other members of Court. Alyrra reported it to her mother, the Queen, who said nothing could be done without proof. Valka tried to blame a servant, who would have been executed for stealing, but Alyrra had the soldier search Valka before arresting the servant, and the stolen item was found on her. Valka, who was going to court Alyrra’s brother the crown prince, was disgraced and lost all hope of finding successful marriage among the eligible men at Court. Both Alyrra’s mother and her brother believe that Alyrra never should have acted so against a peer, so her brother beats and tortures Alyrra regularly, while their mother turns a blind eye. Alyrra has only ever felt at home with the servants in the kitchens, who watch out for her, or alone in the forest with her friend the Wind spirit.

When the king from a neighboring kingdom comes and wishes to see her betrothed to his son, the crown prince of Menaiya, Alyrra is uncertain, thinking she might just be hoping from one cruel family to the next. But from the moment the Menaiyans arrive, soldiers seem to deduce what is going on and quietly protect her from her brother. So she agrees to the betrothal, without ever meeting the prince. Shortly before she is due to leave for Menaiya, Alyrra wakes one night to a sorcerer from Menaiya in her bedroom. He warns her of the dangers she’ll find in her new kingdom, and as they are speaking, a terrifying sorceress known only as the Lady appears as well. She wishes to secure Alyrra’s allegiance so she can use her against her newly betrothed the prince. Alyrra refuses, and the Lady threatens that she will return. When Alyrra wakes, both magic users are gone, and when she tells the king of this, he insists that he needs to go home immediately, but that Alyrra should follow with her own group a few days after.

When Alyrra sets out for Menaiya, she is armed with a charm that she is supposed to slip to the prince when she arrives to make him have affection for her so she’ll be protected (the only “nice” thing her mother ever did for her), and a lady attendant, who is none other than Valka. When Alyrra protested having to bring Valka along, her mother ordered it because Alyrra “ruined her life so the least you can do is see that she gets a good marriage in Menaiya”. She is also gifted a beautiful white stallion from her brother, rather than be allowed to take her own beloved horse. She soon finds out that the stallion won’t take a rider, so she tries to release it when nobody is looking.

On their journey, when getting water at the river with Valka, Alyrra is pulled into the river by the Lady. She manages to make it out without drowning, but the Lady has the charm Alyrra’s mother gave her, which she can use to control Alyrra. Valka had betrayed her to the Lady, so the Lady swaps the skins of Valka and Alyrra, so Valka now appears to be the princess. The Lady curses Alyrra so she is unable to talk about what’s been done, and Valka is perfectly willing to betray the prince to the Lady for the chance to be queen.

Stuck in Valka’s skin, Alyrra makes a new identity for herself as a lady who prefers to go by Thoreena. As much as she wishes she could help the prince, she feels free at last from the chains of being royalty. While most court ladies would mourn the loss of their comfortable lifestyles, Alyrra is happy enough when she gets sent by Valka to be the goose girl at the royal stables. Being unable to communicate at first with her new co-workers, they take to calling her Thorn in their language.

Act 2

Though she doesn’t mind the hard labor and anonymity of being the goose girl, Thorn (Alyrra) knows she needs to make sure that Valka-as-princess won’t move to have her executed. So Thorn makes a deal that she’ll write letters to her mother back home (in her own handwriting), so long as Valka leaves her and the prince alone. Valka unhappily agrees.

Shortly after, Thorn returns back to the stables to find that the trunk she inherited with Valka’s things has gone missing, and she’s been summoned to the palace. She meets the prince, Kestrin, who turns out to be the sorcerer from her bedroom. He found the letter she wrote for Valka, and knows that something is up. Since Thorn can’t speak of it, she creatively avoids the truth, drawing Kestrin’s ire. He doesn’t know the exact truth of it yet, but she knows that both she and the “princess” aren’t what they appear.

Most days, Thorn enjoys her life living in the stables. The goose boy, Corbe, is dismissive except for when he stares with his cold eyes. The stable hostlers she shares a home with become like a family to her. There’s Joa, the head hostler, and Sage, the matronly aunt of Violet, Rowan, Ash, and Oak. They all instantly take to Thorn, helping her learn the language quickly which makes her life much easier. Other than that she has Falada, the white stallion she was given by her brother. Falada is a Horse, which have the gift of language, same as men do. He is one of the few remaining, and the fact that he is intelligent and can speak is a secret only Thorn carries, likewise he is the only one besides Valka who knows her true story. One day in the field when Falada is not there, Corbe tries to attack Thorn. She manages to fight him off, but when she runs out into the plains she gets lost. Kestrin and another of his men find her and bring her back to the palace. Kestrin likely knows exactly who she is now, but Thorn cannot and will not admit anything. Upon her return she tells Sage about Corbe, and the young boys teach Corbe a lesson to stay away from Thorn.

Upon finding out that Kestrin saved Thorn, Valka takes revenge by having Falada killed. Thorn wants to stop it, but Falada says that it’s okay, that she should just have his head mounted by the city gates to that he may watch over her still. She pays to do as he asks, and mourns Falada’s death.

Act 3

During this time, Thorn goes out into the streets of the city, finding a little temple to pray in from time to time. On one such evening, she hides a wounded man who is running from some soldiers. Unsure of whether she did the right thing, she helps the wounded man home, learning nothing about him in the process. But he and his men are able to find her shortly after, and she finds out she rescued a man called Red Hawk, who is the leader of one of the city thieving rings. A leader for the people, she finds out through word of mouth, that protects those who belong to him and feeds the street urchins that roam the city. Taking notice of one such urchin, Thorn offers to pay for his apprenticeship, which he will never be able to afford himself. And that is how Thorn makes friends with the street children tell her about the “snatchers”, who are slavers who take young children and sometimes even young women. The king’s men don’t believe it is much of a problem, and the soldiers themselves won’t help unless you offer a bribe.

Thorn uses this knowledge as ammunition when she meets with Kestrin, who often calls for her as he attempts to figure out the puzzle that is Thorn and his betrothed. Kestrin tries to gain her trust and gain her some allies among court, though no one else knows who she really is besides Kestrin.

As the date of the wedding draws nearer, Thorn has to come to terms with the fact that if she does not act and find a way to take her place as princess, Valka will betray Kestrin to the Lady and he will be lost forever. Just as she’s trying to figure out what to do, Violet goes missing. Thorn pulls out all the stops, using all of her contacts to try and find her. But when they do, Violet is near death, having been raped and beaten. Thorn begs Kestrin for help, and he sends the sorceress healer, who does all she can, but Violet still dies a few days later without ever waking up. Thorn demands Kestrin help find whoever killed Violet if he really cares about his people. He swears he will try. To better her odds, Thorn also goes to the Red Hawk, who promises those who are responsible will be found. And so they are, within a few days, and Red Hawks men take their own justice, beating the two offenders before hanging them. Thorn muses upon what true justice means, though she is happy the two men who killed Violet cannot hurt anyone anymore.

On the day before Thorn decides she is going to go and find a way to take her role as princess back, Corbe attacks Thorn in the pasture with the geese. Corbe says that the princess had told him she deserved it, and Thorn would have succumbed to his attack if her good friend the Wind spirit didn’t come to her aid, hurting and distracting Corbe enough for her to get away. That’s when the Lady shows up and threatens to kill Thorn, and the Wind spirit is revealed to have been Kestrin all along. Kestrin sacrifices himself to the Lady to protect Thorn, and the Lady takes him away.

Thorn rushes home, intending to tell her stable family about Corbe and the king about Kestrin, but when she arrives she is arrested for using magic against Corbe. When she is given trial, the king’s men seem to know something isn’t right, but Thorn cannot prove she did not do the magic without exposing Kestrin for the secret sorcerer he is, which she will not. When the men leave the room, she is advised to practice telling her story to the fireplace so she has something to say for herself when she gets back. She finds herself speaking the full truth of who she is and how Kestrin was involved, and out from a secret room behind the fireplace comes the King himself, who finally knows her for her she is. She is cleared of all charges and invited to dine in the palace that night.

At dinner that evening, the King asks Valka what is the proper punishment for traitors. Thinking the King means to punish Thorn, Valka describes a horrible death of being dragged behind horses in a barrel full of nails. The King asks Valka if she is sure, and when she confirms it, the King has her arrested and says the death she described is the one she’ll be subjected to. He reveals Thorn to be the true Princess Alyrra to the rest of Court.

That night, her first night as Princess again, she calls out for the Lady, desperate to save Kestrin. The Lady arrives and tells Alyrra her story, how the prince’s great-great-great grandfather brutally murdered the Lady’s mother, who was fae. The Lady then swore to wipe out the royal line. Alyrra bargains for Kestrin’s life, and the Lady says she will administer three tests, and if the prince passes, she’ll let him go. Alyrra, posing as the Lady, comes to Kestrin two times in his prison and though he has the chance and seems like he wants to, he does not take the opportunity to murder Alyrra, who is disguised as the Lady. After two tests, the Lady admits that killing Kestrin would not be justice, it would be murder, making her no better than the king of old who murdered her mother. The Lady frees them both and Kestrin and Alyrra return to the palace.

Kestrin has known her for a long time, since he befriended her as the Wind spirit when they were both young. Alyrra still does not know if she can fully trust Kestrin, but she has strong feelings for him, and agrees once again to marry him. The day of Valka’s execution arrives, and Alyrra is able to convince Kestrin to convince the King to simply hang Valka like any other traitor instead of using the torture she described. Upon her death, Valka regains her original skin, and Alyrra hers.

End of Book 1

!!!END OF SPOILERS!!!

If you liked Thorn, try:

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana

The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen

The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta

Reviews

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

# of Pages: 326

Time it took me to read: 4 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 46

Rating: 2 out of 5

A scene most of us are familiar with – a small town, mysterious circumstances, a group of young people and a dog unmasking a villain. Thus describes young Peter, Kerri, Andy, Nate, and their dog Sean. Together they solved mysteries throughout the 1970s as the Blyton Summer Detective Club. Until one summer, despite catching the bad guy, the group never reformed and went their separate ways…until now.

Unable to shake the feeling that their last case went unsolved, Andy, now 25, drives around the country gathering up the other members of the Blyton Summer Detective Club to go back and finish things once and for all. First Kerri, working at a dead end job instead of chasing her dreams, and Tim, grandson of Sean, their loyal dog. Then Nate, who has admitted himself to an institution due to struggling with his mental health. That only leaves Peter, who died two years previous and is the only member unable to join their mission…or so they think.

Things in Blyton have changed so much, and yet not at all. Can the Blyton Summer Detective Club solve one last mystery? And if they can, will the personal ghosts that haunt them all finally be able to rest?

Review:

This review is going to have two parts. As you’ve probably surmised by the low star rating, this book wasn’t my favorite. However, I believe in giving at least a partially objective review. And I fully believe there are others out there who would enjoy this book despite my opinion.

Objective Perspective:

This book is very well conceptualized. For every twist at the end, and there were a few, I was able to recognize looking back that Cantero had set it up well in advance. I didn’t feel that there were any plot holes, and it reminded me very much of my favorite Scooby Doo movies growing up, such as Zombie Island and The Witch’s Ghost (I won’t say why here, to avoid spoilers, but if you know those two movies then perhaps you’ll understand). And this book was very clearly trying to be a re-imagining of Scooby Doo, which was ambitious and I’ll say I think Cantero certainly had most of the elements of a good Scooby Doo mystery.

I also appreciated the diversity in the cast. There was a woman of color, who was not a stereotype, and at least one cast member who was LGBTQA+, and they were a main protagonist. There was depth to each of the protagonists, none were simple plot devices.

I appreciated the healthy dose of both science and mysticism in this story. It was well researched, I could tell, from the science to the lore. At least the science sounded very real to a laymen like me, so it’s very possible I could have been duped by the phenomena in this story.

However, objectively, the pacing of this story was off to me. I feel like the build up was 2/3 of the story, and the payoff was only in the last less than one hundred pages. Perhaps that was done purposely to mirror Scooby Doo (where you only learn who the bad guy is at the very end). But at least in Scooby Doo, most of the story is action (chase scenes where the gang tries to capture the bad guy), whereas here I don’t believe the payoff was worth how much buildup there was.

Subjective Perspective:

I’ll start with the problem I had from the first few pages and throughout the whole book. The writing in this book is highly stylized. There are times where the author breaks the fourth wall, and I swear that most of this book is descriptions, descriptions, descriptions. Often times descriptions of the same thing over and over again in different ways. I fully understand that many readers out there would find this style charming and entertaining. I, however, was irritated by it from the get-go. I am seriously not trying to jump down the author’s throat or anything, everyone has their own style, but as a reader I simply did not jive with it.

Next, I didn’t particularly connect with any of the characters. I found myself not finding the will to root for any of them. Despite being fully grown adults in this story, with all of the characters being in their mid-twenties, I found that they read as teenagers, which felt disconcerting for someone who is the age currently that these characters were supposed to be.

I’m going to preface this next bit with saying that I am not a member of the LGBTQA+ community. Saying that, I understand that my perspective may be flawed if not entirely false, so if anyone reads this and disagrees or believes that I’m out of line, please let me know by commenting or messaging me. I would never want to be insensitive.

There is a member of the crew that is described as “always wanting to be one of the boys” growing up. Early on in the book, one of the characters tells this character that they “kinda thought the next time they saw [this character], that they’d be a boy”. This instance is the less egregious one because the character doesn’t seem to be particularly insulted, and the person to which they are speaking hurriedly says they wouldn’t have a problem with that. But the character in question seems to me to be certainly not particularly fem, but certainly never mentions anywhere that she did “wish/believe she was a boy”. Aka this character is not a trans man. But then later on a character talks about having had a sex change procedure back and forth multiple times (I won’t say anything else because I don’t want to spoil, but imagine that this is something that were plausible). This character then looks to the person in question and says “You may want to try it sometime”. Once again implying that this character “should try being a man”.

Once again, I’m not a member of the community, but I’ve known a number of trans folks in my life, and this sort of discourse seems cheap and unnecessary to me. It would be different if the character ever, once, questioned her gender identity, which I didn’t see (if someone who has gone through the experience and sees it differently, I would certainly defer to their experience). Long story short, as someone who is just trying to be the best ally she can be, the whole thing rubbed me the wrong way.

Also this book was set 1990, and while stylistically I appreciate the callback, there were some things, like calling Native Americans “Indians” and the descriptions of the mental facility that one of the characters lives in just seemed…unnecessary for the 90s “vibe” of the book. This book was released in 2017, and I just feel like unless the point of the book is that it is the 90s and we were still startlingly non-progressive (this wasn’t the point I saw the book trying to make), the author didn’t have to go that far. I feel like modern treatment and language of the characters would not have hurt the setting of the story.

Conclusion:

Unlike most of the books that I read that I rank poorly (which are few and far between, I rarely find myself starting and finishing something I don’t enjoy), I had trouble initially trying to lay out exactly the problems I had with this book. I’m still not sure I succeeded particularly well, but the long story short of it is that I didn’t like this book, I wouldn’t particularly recommend it, but I understand why others do like this book and I think for the most part it is fine.

Happy to participate in discourse, if anyone would like to disagree. I’m certainly not perfect and my opinions and perspectives are only my own. I’m not willing to die on my hill if someone wants to argue the pacing in this book is flawless.

If you liked Meddling Kids, try:

Carry on by Rainbow Rowell (for comedy/spoof style of a pop culture icon)

Paranormalcy by Kiersten White (for comedy paranormal storyline)

Impulse by Ellen Hopkins (for highly stylized writing done in a way I enjoy)

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater (for highly stylized writing done in a way I enjoy)

Reviews · Summaries

Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan (Book 2)

# of Pages: 397

Time it took me to read: 3 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 57

Rating: 5 out of 5

Despite having completed her mission to kill the Bull King of Ikhara and fled to safety with Wren at her side, Lei still cannot seem to catch her breath. Hiding in the mountains with their new allies, they are simply waiting for their instructions for the difficult time to come.

When Ketai Hanno, leader of the Hanno clan and Wren’s father, arrives, it is apparent that the work is far from done. Lei and Wren must travel to three different vital clans to secure their alliance in the war that is coming – because though Lei felled the Bull King herself, the kingdom will not be remade so easily.

Given these instructions, Lei and Wren set out with Bo, Nitta, and Merrin, allies who, though demons themselves, wish to see a new era for Ikhara and the end to the oppression of papers. They are joined by Caen, Wren’s childhood sensei, and Hiro, a young but powerful shaman who will assist Wren in using magic to protect them as they travel.

But their journey will be long and difficult, especially because it seems that everyone else has a different idea of what must be sacrificed to win this war. And despite having escaped his clutches, Lei cannot help but feel that the King still hunts her, wherever she may go.

Filled with excitement, love, and betrayal, Girls of Storm and Shadow is sure to delight fans of the first installment, Girls of Paper and Fire.

Review:

Having read the first book only a few months ago, I was thrilled to get my hands on the sequel so soon. First things first, there is not nearly enough LGBTQA+ characters in YA fantasy, and I was so thrilled to get a story with a queer protagonist.

While reading the first book, it took me quite a while to adjust to the whole Moon, Steel, Paper caste thing in this world. Briefly, Moon caste people are fully “demon”, meaning they are human shaped, but present as animals. Paper caste are fully human. Steel caste are originally the byproduct of Moon and Paper caste people having children, so typically are mostly human, but may have antlers, or hooves, or patches of scales. They all speak the same language and are all sexually compatible, and while Moon caste are the ruling class and certainly more obviously powerful, it doesn’t give off a beastiality or furry vibe, which would have been horrible. Instead imagine something like BoJack Horseman or Tuca and Bertie.

Anyway, while the first book was certainly dark and deals with dark themes (trigger warning for anyone who doesn’t want to read about sexual assault), this second installment was equally as dark, but in an unexpected way. Lei and Wren both deal (very differently) with their assaults at the hands of the Bull King, and Lei finds herself using substances to deal with her feelings for a while, which I thought was a realistic reaction in a fantasy world. But the dark themes of the cost of war and rebellion are dealt with here in ways that I find are rarely explored on the protagonist side of these sorts of fantasy war stories. I really thought that each individual in this rather large (7 person) traveling group had their own way of dealing with, not dealing with, or avoiding the consequences of the upcoming war.

To wrap up the review, I don’t think anyone who loved the first book could possibly disappointed in this second one, though I do think that this one hurts a little more and cuts a little deeper (thought in different ways) than the first installment.

!!!SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

Cast:

Lei – protagonist, stolen from her homeland and brought to the palace to be a Paper Girl (royal concubine) for the Bull King. With the help of Wren, her fellow paper girl and love interest, they conspire to kill the Bull King and flee the palace. Lei has unusual golden eyes, which some say give her a demon spirit, once word gets around that she killed the Bull King, people start calling her Moonchosen.

Wren – adopted daughter of the leader of the Hanno clan, last living member of the Xi warrior mage clan. Trained her whole life in secret to assassinate the Bull King, which Lei ended up doing instead. Was given as a paper girl to the Bull King in order to get close to him, and was also sexually assaulted by the King. Love interest of Lei. Powerful magic user, will do anything to end the Bull King’s reign and the oppression of paper clans.

Nitta – Moon clan, snow leopard type. She and her brother Bo are thieves that were exiled from their clan and hired by the Hannos to aid their cause. Often reigns in her brother’s antics, but is just as mischievous if not more.

Bo – Moon clan, snow leopard type. Brother of Nitta, was exiled from his clan due to being a thief. Often laughs too loud and at the wrong time. Hired by the Hannos to aid their cause. Love interest of Merrin.

Merrin – Moon clan, owl type. Rescues Wren and Lei from the palace after Lei slays the Bull King. Skeptical and practical, is often at odds with Bo, as bird and cat types are natural enemies, but their attraction soon overcomes their enmity. Love interest of Bo.

Hiro – young shaman who was taken in by the Hannos after his whole clan was slaughtered. Quiet, meditative, always eager to heal and protect along with Wren. Pays the price for his magic with his own blood, which is considered a bad practice.

Caen – warrior for the Hannos, Wren’s teacher her whole life. Stern, but stout in his defense of the group. Secret lover of Ketai Hanno, the clan leader. Unwaveringly loyal to the Hanno cause.

Ketai Hanno – paper clan leader of the Hannos, the most powerful paper clan in Ikhara. Adopted father of Wren, mastermind behind the whole plan of toppling the Bull King and ending the oppression of papers. Willing to do whatever it takes to win the war.

Lova – clan leader and general of the Amala cat clan. Moon clan, lion type. Former lover of Wren, wants her back. Powerful fighter and brilliant strategist. Likes Lei and is generally kind to her, but with that snide mentality of someone who is sure she can win back Wren.

Aoki – paper girl and best friend of Lei. Sweet and naive, convinced she loves the Bull King and he loves her back. Her whole family is killed during a raid of their lands, but Aoki likely doesn’t know. Despite her love of the Bull King, she is loyal to her friend Lei and hopes she’s safe.

Summary:

Act 1

Wren and Lei have escaped the castle and believe that the Bull King is dead. They are hiding in the mountains with their allies waiting for her father, clan leader Ketai Hanno, to arrive with updates from the capital. When he does arrive, he confirms the rumors that the Bull King was slain by Lei, who they are calling the Moonchosen. The Court is trying to project strength, and publicly they say the king still lives. But Ketai Hanno says they are vulnerable, and now is the time for Lei, Wren, and their allies to go around to three powerful Moon clan leaders to convince them to fight with the Hannos against the current crown.

Ketai brings with him Sensei Caen, Wren’s teacher from her childhood, the man who taught her to be a warrior, and when Ketai leaves, he sends Caen with the group as further protection. All in all, by the time Lei and Wren set off for the White Wing clan, they are joined by siblings Bo and Nitta, Moon clan snow leopards who were exiled from their clan for being thieves and are now loyal to the Hannos, Merrin, the Moon clan owl who saved Wren and Lei from the palace, and Hiro, the quiet young shaman who’s whole family was slaughtered by the crown in a raid.

Caen starts teaching Lei to fight in the mornings before they set off each day with a special dagger that was gifted to her by Ketai that is imbued with magic that is specific to her. Despite believing that he is dead, Lei is always having to look over her shoulder because she believes the King (or at least his ghost) is hunting her.

After a long and difficult journey, they reach the White Wing, the first clan. Though they had a plan, that all goes out the window when they are literally plucked off of the ground by the members of the White Wing and flown to the palace as prisoners. They are granted an audience with the Lady of the clan, Dunya, who does not seem particularly inclined to help them, but after a passionate speech from Lei, the White Wing agrees to ally with the Hannos against the crown. At dinner that night, Lei speaks with the eldest daughter of Lady Dunya, who wants to fight for the betterment of Ikhara, but thinks that allying with the Hannos is a mistake because she does not trust Ketai Hanno. Lei gets drunk and tells Wren later that evening about how the eldest White Wing daughter doesn’t agree with the rebellion. Wren tries to soothe her that the alliance is already set and it doesn’t matter.

The next morning they wake to find that the second eldest daughter of the clan Lady had been murdered, and it appears that the Bull King had done it. It is revealed that the Bull King does in fact still live. Lady Dunya, though she mourns her daughter, says that the alliance is still on, but hustles the group out of their palace and onto their next destination.

Act 2

The group is traveling down the mountain to the next clan, where they would have to travel to the far south, when they pass a settlement that appeared to have been raided by the crown. Lei insists that they stop and hunt for survivors, but there aren’t any, all the people there are dead. It’s at that point that Lei realizes where they are, and that the dead farmers are her friend Aoki’s family, and Lei gets very upset.

That night, they camp nearby, and when Lei gets up to use the bathroom, she’s nabbed by Naja, the King’s right hand soldier, but Lei uses her newfound training to fight her off pretty handily, but Naja had already set their carriages and the surrounding fields on fire. They are able to pin Naja down and leave her to her fate and flee.

Once they reach the coast, the group is worn down, but they have to steal a boat, since the town where the White Wing was supposed to have a boat for them has been raided and taken over by the crown. There are a bunch of Papers that are hanged, bloody and beaten, in the town square. Lei wants to cut them down and fight back, but they’ll be outnumbered if they’re caught.

Right as they’re about to get in the boat, Lei notices that one of the hanging men is still alive. Before anyone can stop her, she runs back and cuts the man down. They’re being chased, Nitta is dragging her back to the boat, Lei jumps, but Nitta doesn’t make it and can’t swim, so Merrin has to dive in and save her. This cements things in place for Bo, who admits his feelings for Merrin.

They set sail through the ocean, and the group has time to recover. Wren and Hiro have both been having a harder time drawing on their magic due to the Sickness that is in the land, that no one knows why the magic is harder to access.

Lei continues to practice her fighting and gets more and more proficient. They are almost at the palace of the Czos, the lizard Moon clan that they must convince next to join the Hannos. Then, suddenly they are under attack from an imperial warship that comes out of nowhere. Bo is shot with an arrow. They all fight with their lives, but all hope seems lost until Lei watches Wren use her own blood to draw her magic and summon a powerful storm that allows the ship to escape. They wash up on the isle where the Czos reside, but Bo is dead. Merrin blames Hiro and Wren for not saving him, and Nitta is deep in grief. They bury Bo and Merrin goes off on his own for a while to try and cool off.

Act 3

They have to move on, so Wren and Lei go together to the palace of the Czos, where they sneak into a party to meet with the clan leader. But when they find him, he is speaking with the king’s top general, and talking about helping the crown using the supplies they mine using paper slaves, which are illegal, but it clearly doesn’t matter to the clan leader or the general. Lei wants to bail on the mission, but Wren is convinced they have to try. They follow the clan lord to where his soldiers have captured Merrin, Caen, Nitta, and Hiro, and plan to interrigate them while they search for Wren and Lei. Wren fights off the soldiers while Lei helps to free the rest of the group.

They flee the palace, but there are too many of them and they are about to be overwhelmed again. Wren seems to be willing to sacrifice herself to save the group, but Hiro tells her to “use him” instead. He willingly cuts his own wrists, offering his own blood, Wren enters her ultra powerful mode and tries to wipe out the soldiers, but it still appears that there are too many. Suddenly a ship with the Amala clan, their third target for allies, arrives on ships to save the day.

Wren nearly wipes herself out with magic, but the general of the Amalas, Lova, takes everyone away on their ship except for Hiro who sacrificed himself so they could live.

While they sail toward the Amala’s camp, Lei finds out that Lova is Wren’s ex. During the time when they’re traveling, Merrin also accuses Wren and Caen of letting Hiro sacrifice himself unnecessarily and taking advantage. He thinks the Hannos, Ketai in particular, are willing to compromise any morals to find victory in this war. He flies off away from everyone else and is gone for some time. He is clearly grieving the lose of Bo in his own way. Lei has a bad realization about Wren, that she is the one who killed Lady Dunya’s daughter, not the King. It was on her father’s orders, and Wren argued that it was a strategic move. Wren also admits that her father ordered the raid of Aoki’s village in a way to scare the White Wing into allying with them, even though they didn’t need it, but the order was already given. They get into a big fight, Lei feels very betrayed.

Right before arriving at the Amala’s camp, Merrin returns and recommits himself to the Hanno’s cause. He also exposes Caen as Ketai Hanno’s lover. When they arrive in the camp, Nitta and Merrin stay at the ship while everyone else goes to feast. Lova announces before everyone that she wants Wren back, and Lei runs back to the ship, where Merrin is trying to convince everyone to gather. Wren, Lova, and Lova’s two lietenants arrive and they see that there is a huge imperial battalion approaching, that’ll outnumber the Amala’s numbers four to one, and all of the Amalas are drunk from the feast.

The group comes up with a plan to draw the first wave to the ship, and then when they’re all aboard to blow it up from afar.

That plan works in taking out a bunch of them, and gives reinforcements the time to arrive. Lei is fighting fiercely, Wren powers up in to her Xi warrior magic mode. Lei comes face to face with the giant alligator general who is close to the King. She knows she won’t win so she runs. She finds Nitta, who tries to protect her but gets hurt. Merrin picks both of them up and carries Lei and Nitta far away from the battle, leaving behind the Amalas, Caen, and Wren. Lei screams at him to take her back, but Merrin refuses.

When they land, Merrin reveals that it was he who brought the army here. When he left them on Lova’s ship, he met with the White Wing, who had just had a coup within their ranks, with the eldest daughter dethroning her mother and wiping out the alliance with the Hannos. The White Wing promised Merrin a place in their ranks if he helped them capture Lei and their group so they could be held until the war was over. But the White Wings betrayed Merrin, they were supposed to send a small group of their own soldiers to capture them, but they’d sent an imperial battalion.

Lei, sure that Wren is going to die in battle thinking that Lei hates her, runs away from Nitta and Merrin to try and cross the desert back to the battle, but she’s injured and moves slow. The book ends with Lei walking right into the hands of Naja, who has tracked her down again and will be bringing her back to the king.

End Book 2

!!!End of Spoilers!!!

Have you read Girls of Storm and Shadow? If so, let me know how you liked it by leaving me a comment. I’m so in love with these characters, and I’m dying for the next book, which is set to release November of 2021.

If you enjoyed Girls of Storm and Shadow, try:

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Sea of Shadows by Kelley Armstrong

Blood Heir by Amelie Wen Zhao

Reviews · Summaries

Forged in Fire and Stars by Andrea Robertson

# of Pages: 371

Time it took me to read: 3 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 53

Rating: 4 out of 5

Ara has always dreamed of the destiny she was promised her whole life of becoming the Loresmith, chosen defender of Saetlund, like her father was before her. But just as she’s beginning to think she’ll never leave her small village and the life she’s always known, her fate finds her.

To free Saetlund from the crushing hands of the Empire that took over her land, she’ll need all the help she can get. Along with the royal twins, heir to Saetlund’s lost throne, a thieving servant of the god of travelers, and a secretive Summoner who’s power comes from the abundance of nature, Ara must find the reclusive gods of Saetlund if she hopes to reclaim her birthright as the next Loresmith. Though helped by some surprising allies, Ara and her new friends must travel far to find parts of Saetlund many consider to be only myth. But before Ara can help Saetlund become free again, she must prove her worth not only in the eyes of the gods, but to herself.

Review:

As a preface to the summary, I’ll provide a brief review. Some friends and I have formed a book club, we’ll be reading one book a month together, and once everyone is finished we’ll gather virtually and discuss. I got the opportunity to choose the first book of book club. I chose Forged in Fire and Stars from the various options I had in my to-read stack because I was nervous to “recommend” a book for our book club that I hadn’t read before, but I’d read other books by Andrea Robertson (who used to write under her maiden name, Andrea Cremer), so I felt confident that this book wouldn’t totally tank.

Despite having taken away one star from a perfect score, I’m thoroughly hooked on this as the first book in a new series. The world-building is creative and engaging, and the pantheon of gods Robertson has created are diverse and unique. My biggest criticism is that I feel as though I’m not particularly invested in the characters themselves. I’m certainly invested in the plot and where the storyline is going to go, but the characters aren’t particularly engaging for me. I’m certainly rooting for them, but I don’t feel for them, at least not yet. I’m certainly excited for the next installment, where hopefully there will be a bit more character-building now that the plot is fully set up in this first book.

!!!!SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!

Cast:

Ara – fifteen years old, daughter of the last Loresmith who was slain when the Empire took over Saetlund. Raised by her grandmother, who taught her all she could about her destiny, she is bold when necessary, but often doubts herself. Interested romantically in Teth.

Eamon – eighteen years old, twin of Nimhea, royal child of the deceased King and Queen of Saetlund. Hidden away from Saetlund and raised in secret, he and his sister have returned to Saetlund to help Nimhea take her throne. A well-read scholar, he has been prone to bouts of illness his whole life and is not a capable fighter. Brilliant storyteller. Seems to have betrayed the group at the end of the book by leaving the rest and going to the Empire.

Nimhea – eighteen years old, twin of Eamon, royal child of the deceased King and Queen of Saetlund. The firstborn over her twin by a few minutes, she bears the distinctive fiery hair of the heir to the throne of Saetlund, and is determined to sit on that throne someday. She and her brother have returned to Saetlund to find and help the Loresmith gain power to help the rebellion take Saetlund back from the Empire. Well trained and very skilled with a sword. Romantically interested in Lahvja.

Teth – sixteen years old, a thief and and orphan. He was adopted by Lucket, the “Low King” of his province, and is a faithful servant of Eni, the god of travelers. Unwillingly agrees to help Ara and the twins reach their destination, but after finding out that Ara will be the next Loresmith, joins their quest, with the Low King’s blessing, to help Ara win the favor of the gods so that she can become the next Loresmith. Skilled with a bow and arrow. Romantically interested in Ara.

Lahvja – eighteen or nineteen years old, a member of Eni’s Children, a group of traveling artists who are known by the Empire as Imperial Players. A talented singer and by trade a Summoner, a magic practitioner who can communicate with the divine spirits of nature. She is very in-tune with the natural world, and often seems to know things the others do not. Unwilling to interfere with what she believes is the natural order of things. Romantically interested in Nimhea.

Lucket – Low King of Ara’s province. Adopted father of Teth. After meeting Ara, offers to help the rebellion by providing supplies and sending Teth with Ara and the twins on their quest to find the gods.

Eni – The genderless god of travelers in the Saetlund pantheon. Teth is their devoted servant, and they appear disguised throughout the story to help the questers along. Briefly disguises themself as Fox, the furry companion of Teth when Ara found him. Firmly on Ara’s side in wanting her to succeed to become the Loresmith.

Review:

Act 1

Ara has lived her entire life in her small mountain village, far from the eyes of the Empire. Her father died before she was born, fighting off imperial invaders. His death told the emperor that there were no more Loresmiths, as her father appeared to be unmarried with no children. Ara’s mother went to live with her parents. When Ara was young, a fever took her mother and her grandfather, so she was raised by her grandmother and a family friend, who taught her the art of being a blacksmith. Ara’s grandmother taught her how to use Iron Branch, the stave of the Loresmith, given to Ara’s grandmother for safekeeping before her father died.

Ara had begun to believe that her destiny of becoming the Loresmith would never come to pass, and that the gods perhaps weren’t as interested in restoring Saetlund as she’d thought when she was little. But one stormy day twins Nimhea and Eamon arrive and tell her that they’re here to help her fulfill her destiny in becoming the Loresmith, and that they needed her for their rebellion to succeed and to free Saetlund from the Empire.

Ara joins Nimhea and Eamon on their journey to meet up with the rest of the rebellion. On their way, Ara catches a thief stealing from the twins. She chases after him through the woods, only to find herself in the ruins of a shrine to Eni, the god of travelers. She confronts the thief, who calls himself Teth, and convinces him to give back the jewelry and coins he’d stolen off of the twins. Ara calls upon his duty as a servant of Eni to help her get back to her camp. Unwillingly, Teth does so, and is thus roped into joining them on their journey into town to meet the rebellion.

They end up fighting off some bandits in the woods, where Ara successfully defends herself with Iron Branch, as she is not allowed to ever attack anyone, or else she will never be a Loresmith. Nimhea and Teth successfully kill the bandits. That night, they meet a mysterious traveler in the woods, and Ara feels compelled to offer this old woman Iron Branch to use as a crutch on her way home. The old woman denies her offer, which is a relief, but Ara feels as though she passed some kind of test.

Upon arriving in town, Teth is about to split from the group, but he asks Ara to meet him later that night. She is intrigued by this roguish thief, so she agrees.

Ara and the twins meet with the rebellion, which consists of a leader from each of the provinces. They want to bundle Nimhea up and keep her safe until the rebellion is ready to make a strike against the Empire. Eamon says that he and his sister must help Ara to find the gods and gain their blessings so that she can become the Loresmith. The rebellion says they’ll have to talk more about it later, but don’t seem inclined to let their prized heir go off on her own.

That night, Ara goes to meet Teth. After a scuffle in the bar, Teth takes her to a secret location which turns out to be the court of the Low King Lucket. Ara learns that every province has a Low King that is ruler of the thieves, assassins, prostitutes, etc. Basically anyone who operates outside of the law. And the Low Kings have a habit of being able to pay the Empire to keep its nose out of their business. Lucket is intrigued by Ara, who won’t admit to him or to Teth that she is going to be the Loresmith.

Teth walks her back to the inn, and Ara realizes she’s interested romantically in Teth. Nothing happens, but she does tell him that she’s the Loresmith, and Teth reveals that Lucket is his adopted father, who saved him from starvation when he was a young orphan.

The next day, Ara and the twins work to convince the rebellion to let them go off on their own to search for Ofrit’s Workshop, which legend says will help Ara on her quest. The rebellion is about to shut that all down, when Teth shows up with a deal. Lucket the Low King and the other Low Kings want to help the rebellion, and in exchange they must let the Loresmith continue on her journey with the twins, and Teth would go along for protection. All the rebellion had to do was look into the children that had been going missing from the province lately. They were worried the Empire was taking them, as they had taken all children of a certain age away when the Empire first took over Saetlund. The rebellion agreed, and travelers were off on their journey.

Act 2

Near the end of the first leg of their journey, the group came upon a band of Eni’s Children, nomadic performers. The questers joined Eni’s children for food and performances. At their own camp later that evening, they are set upon by shadow hounds, sent by the emperors wizards to track them down. But before the hounds can reveal their location to the Empire, a mysterious figure is able to dissolve the shadow hounds and protect them. The stranger is revealed to be one of the performers from Eni’s Children, who’s name is Lahvja. She is a powerful Summoner, and says the gods have told her she is to join them and help the Loresmith on her quest. Though weary, they accept her help because they would have been toast without it.

(Throughout the story, the reader is given glimpses of the two sons of the emperor. The eldest is a military leader who is in charge of all the Empire’s armies, and with keeping an eye on the powerful but unpredictable younger brother, who is the ArchWizard. The ArchWizard is determined to find and capture both the Loresmith and Nimhea on behalf of his father, who “collects” such magical rarities from the kingdoms he controls. It is the ArchWizard who had his minions send the shadow hounds).

The travelers, now five, join a caravan controlled by Lucket’s people, to travel through dangerous bandit country. The group takes to Lahvja joining them pretty quickly, except for Eamon, who doesn’t seem to trust her. Nimhea and Ara both worry the long journey has been too tough on him, but he holes himself up alone every night, reading and rereading the legends that will help Ara find Ofrit’s workshop.

Their journey is pretty smooth, until their caravan is taken over by imperial recruiters, who are there to find any able-bodied men and women to join the army of the Empire. They are able to avoid detection, but the caravan is destroyed and they must continue on their own.

Soon after, they enter the Scourge, a dangerous desert known for being all but impassible. The questers forge on, and are nearly to their destination, the Bone Forest, when they are attacked by giant ants. Ara is able to save them and all of their horses using Iron Branch, but not without the seeming sacrifice of Fox, who sacrificed itself to stop the swarm of ants.

Teth is inconsolable, but the weary travelers reach the Bone Forest. Lahvja says that she and Teth will stay behind, that the rest of the journey is for Ara and the twins alone. They follow the path into the Bone Forest, where servants of Ofrit have traveled for centuries hoping to find Ofrit’s workshop, where they will learn his mystic ways and use them to become his holy servants in their communities. But first the trio must make their way through a number of tests.

Act 3

Their first test comes in the form of two doors, one of which is said to be the correct entrance to the Labyrinth they will need to solve to enter Ofrit’s Workshop. The other will lead them into a part of the Labyrinth that they will never be able to escape. Eventually, Ara solves the riddle, in that neither of the doors are correct, that they must travel up the “stairs” in the center of the doors, which allows them to continue on the path that they’d been on before. Upon solving the puzzle, they are in the Labyrinth at last, which is yet another set of riddles that are custom to Ara, who is the main quester. Eventually, they are able to find themselves on the correct path after figuring out the order of the pathway is set based on the Loresmith attributes from the stories. They have passed the test and are able to enter Ofrit’s Workshop.

In the workshop they meet Ofrit, who is grumpy and does not appear to want to help them. But then Eni appears, and the god of travelers reveals that they’ve been helping Ara and her group all through their travels. She convinces Ofrit to help them, and Ara, Nimhea, and Eamon are given two scrolls to help them find the rest of the gods to petition for their help. Eni also tells them that Ara will need to re-form the Loreknights, which in the past have been the protectors of Saetlund who wield special weapons forged by the Loresmith. Eni also tells Ara to let Teth know he need not mourn, that his companion Fox is safe at home waiting for him, that the Fox that sacrificed itself for them was in fact Eni wearing the disguise of Fox to help keep them safe on their journey.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the trio is gone from Ofrit’s workshop and back with Teth and Lahvja. The group celebrates the success of their first mission, and Ara and Teth share a long awaited kiss. But when they wake the next day to start on their next journey, the group finds that Eamon is gone, and he leaves a notes that suggests that he betrayed them to the Empire and has left to join them, though he says that he only did it to protect his sister.

Nimhea is beyond grief and Ara just can’t understand how their friend betrayed them like that. Clutching the note that spelled out Eamon’s betrayal, but also was clearly soaked in his tears as he wrote it, Ara finds that she has meditated herself into the forge of the Loresmith. There, Eni is waiting for her and tells her that now is the time to forge her first weapon as Loresmith. She has all the materials she needs, along with a special ingredient that she finds she is able to imbue the weapon with. When she is done, she has forged a bow and five arrows, which are tipped with the solid form of Eamon’s tears. This weapon is meant for the first LoreKnight, which Eni says will be Teth.

Ara returns to the real world and regroups her friends to continue their journey, as Eamon did leave one of the two of Ofrit’s scrolls behind.

In the epilogue, we are once again given a glimpse of the eldest son of the Empire, and it looks to be that he is the high-ranking double agent that the rebellion said was helping them from within the Empire, code name “The Dove”.

End of Book 1

A few last remarks. I picked up on the identity of “The Dove” pretty early on, but I was impressed by how surprised I was at Eamon’s betrayal. There were several little clues sprinkled throughout that I was able to see afterward, but I did not see it coming, and for that I tip my hat to Robertson.

!!!End of Spoilers!!!

Have you read Forged in Fire and Stars? If so, let me know how you liked it by leaving me a comment. I’m pretty happy with this first book club pick of mine, and I’m excited for the second installment of the Loresmith series, which is set to release June of 2021.

If you enjoyed Forged in Fire and Stars, try:

The Inventor’s Secret by Andrea Cremer

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

Defy by Sara B. Larson

Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian

Reviews

Wolf’s Bane and Wolf’s Curse by Kelley Armstrong

# of Pages: 260 and 283

Time it took me to read: 2 days each

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 37 and 40

Rating: 5 out of 5 for both

It’s been sixteen years since Clay and Elena became parents in the sixth installment of Kelly Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld. Now Kate and Logan are all grown up, teen supernaturals in a community that is working hard on diversity and inclusion. So when Elena sets her children up to attend a teen leadership camp for supernaturals of all races, the twins think that it might be a good way to show other kids their age that they aren’t the big bad wolves.

But from the moment they arrive, things are not what they expect. From angsty roommates to fake boyfriends, this is looking like a tough weekend for the twin werewolves. But it isn’t long before the camp takes an even more sinister turn, and suddenly Kate and Logan are fighting for more than just acceptance, they’re fighting for their survival.

Don’t you just love it when authors put out sequel series to books you love? I thought I’d read just about everything in Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld series, so imagine my joy and surprise when I found out she’d written a duology about Clay and Elena’s children, sure to be packed full of familiar, beloved characters and chock full of surprising references.

I was not dissapointed.

Kelley Armstrong isn’t the number one best writer in the world, but she is one of my favorites for a number of reasons, and all of these reasons were present here: she’s a wonderful storyteller, and these books are full of the big build-ups and surprise endings of all the previous Otherworld books. Though not as sexy as her adult books, I feel that these books have just enough romance, and an exploration of gender and sexuality that is wonderfully modern, particularly after reading Women of the Otherworld in the past six months (the first of those books was written before everyone had a cell phone, so they can occasionally come across a little dated). But there are gay characters, bi characters, a trans character, and even a character that was on the asexual spectrum that I really connected with personally. None of them are caricatures, and I feel like this is a cast that isn’t only diverse in their supernatural races, but it’s not overly whitewashed or heterosexual, and this diversity is where YA is going and I was glad to see that Kelley was keeping up.

Something that I did NOT expect, but was stoked to see, were characters that showed up from Armstrong’s Darkest Powers series, which is YA and Otherworld adjacent, and I had pretty much completely forgotten about, having only read once years ago. Having some of those characters show up just made me desperately ready for a re-read of those books, so I’m very excited about that.

My one criticism is that while the diversity of this cast was on point, you can tell it’s been a while since Kelley was a teenager, and some of the dialogue felt a little like something that a middle-aged woman thinks that teenagers sound like, but they don’t really. This is coming from someone who, granted, hasn’t been a teenager in a while either, but I think as people age, they forget that most teenagers don’t necessarily have a stylized way of speaking. But though a few lines made me cringe a bit, it was such a little thing that I couldn’t manage to knock off even a half-star. Because I’m pretty much a sucker for anything Armstrong writes, so they’re all going to be five stars from me.

If you’re a fan of the Otherworld series, I certainly recommend picking up these books. They’re terrifically short and delightfully readable, with an ending you won’t see coming. If you’ve never read Women of the Otherworld (which has 13 books and a few novellas), you can certainly start with these two for a more bite-sized taste and you won’t feel lost. I do recommend reading them chronologically, but I’m not here to tell you what to do.

If you liked Wolf’s Bane and Wolf’s Curse, try:

Bitten by Kelley Armstrong (Women of the Otherworld Book 1)

The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong (Darkest Powers Book 1)

Marked by P.C. and Kristin Cast (House of Night Book 1)

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Reviews

Lightbringer by Claire Legrand (The Empirium Trilogy Book 3)

# of Pages: 565

Time it took me to read: 4 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 81

Rating: 5 out of 5

This is the final book in the series, so I don’t feel the need to post a summary, but I just wanted to do a brief review. This review will, however, contain some spoilers. Most of it will be spoiler-free, but I’ve got some opinions and I would really like to share them. I’ll be sure and mark the section with spoilers in big print.

Review

If you’ve read the previous two books in this trilogy, you expect an epic conclusion, and Legrand does not disappoint. This is a very large cast story, especially since it transcends two different timelines, and in this final installment I believe you get more perspectives than ever before. This bob-and-weave between two different timelines and multiple perspectives (though it does stay in third person throughout) might be confusing and overwhelming in most situations, but Legrand masterfully blends this story together to make it cohesive and comprehensible throughout.

However, this is the second sequel in a row where the author, in my opinion, breaks the unspoken rule where the writer must give little hints of the major plot points from the previous book within the first 50-100 pages as a little refresher. Fifty pages in I nearly put the book down and thought about doing a re-read, but that’s close to 1200 combined pages in the previous two books, so I decided to forge on through. I’ll definitely do a re-read of all three books someday though, so I can get the full picture, because I’m sure there are some things I missed due to waiting at least a year between each book.

I would also like to say that this is probably the heaviest of all three of the books. In all but perhaps the last one hundred pages, all four of our “heroes”, Rielle, Audric, Simon, and Eliana, are utterly tormented and trapped within their own hells. So if you’re looking for something lighthearted, Lightbringer might be one to save for later.

However, Legrand offers a masterclass in worldbuilding, engaging though sometimes slow-moving plot lines, and the most morally ambiguous cast of characters you’ll find anywhere (except for Audric, who is a cinnamon bun).

!!!START OF SPOILERS!!!!

Here are the two main problems I had with this book, besides being mildly depressed through nearly all of it:

  1. I’m not really sure that Rielle deserved the redemption that she got. This book showed her getting real twisted and bad, and for the first time I saw her as nearly as much of a villian as Corien and didn’t have much pity for her at all throughout. I think while it was important that she got to the point where she would have killed Audric had Eliana not stopped her, I think she should have had to work a little harder to earn Audric’s trust back. I think he forgave her for everything a little too easily. It’s okay to love someone through their mistakes, but I feel she should have had to work harder to earn back the little bit of peace she got from their relationship in the end.
  2. I feel like all of those characters in the future timeline that were developed through all three of these books got the short stick. I know the whole point was to defeat Corien in the past to prevent the timeline they live in, but Navi, Remy, Patrik and Hob, and even Jessamyn, all just wiped from existence. I would have appreciated a little epilogue of “1000 years later” or something that went over that these characters were still born, but not under the same circumstances…because just wiping them all out seemed cruel and lame.

!!!END SPOILERS!!!

Overall I think that this book was a well-written, generally satisfying ending to a wonderful series that I would certainly recommend to everyone who loves fantasy. And considering the last book that I read with time travel (see last week’s summary of Greythorne), I think this series did a much better job of making things with time travel messy and imperfect, just the way it should be.

If you’re a fan of the Empirium Trilogy, try:

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (for epic worldbuilding)

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (for morally ambiguous protagonists)

The Reader by Traci Chee (for not-your-traditional happy ending)

Reviews · Throwback Thursdays

Bitten and Stolen by Kelley Armstrong (RE-READ)

# of Pages: 384 and 389

Time it took me to read: 2 days and 4 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 55 and 55

Rating: 5 out of 5 for both

 

Elena Michaels is a normal woman. She has a career she enjoys, a boyfriend that dotes on her, and gets plenty of exercise. Well, most of that exercise happens on four legs, rather than two, and that is exactly what makes Elena NOT normal: once every week or so, she has to sneak out of her apartment in the middle of the night to transform into a werewolf. It’s not a big deal, she’s put that part of her life behind her, it’s really only a minor inconvenience. Except for when her former Pack’s alpha calls her for help in a way she can’t refuse.

Soon Elena is once again wrapped up in the life she’s tried so hard to forget, the world of tracking down rogue werewolves and helping to ensure that the secret of her Pack stays that way. And as always she finds herself again entangled with Clayton, the man who’s heart she’s broken a hundred times but who can’t seem to let her go, despite the fact that they have a past which she can never forgive.

But Elena is never one to back down from a fight, and when the Pack is threatened, she’s left to defend it with everything she has.


*This sequel description contains SPOILERS*

Elena Michaels is a werewolf. She’s finally accepted it and found her place at Stonehaven, the home of the Pack, with her alpha and her partner, Clay. Just as she’s started to fall into her old routines of keeping the Pack safe from exposure, she stumbles upon a new secret she never suspected: werewolves aren’t the only thing out there that goes “bump” in the night.

Elena and her Pack are just one “race” of supernatural being out there: witches, sorcerers, half-demons, vampires, they all exist for better or worse. And lately, members of each race have been disappearing. Against her will, Elena is drawn into the mystery of where these supernaturals have been disappearing to – and who’s been stealing them.

I’m going to try and keep these reviews for books I’m re-reading pretty short. This series has 13 books in it (yup), so I’m not sure I’ll review them all, and many of them I’ll probably try to review in pairs (as these are the first two books in the series and share the same protagonist.

“Women of the Otherworld” is definitely one of my top three favorite series EVER in the adult fiction genre. Typically, I have struggled with adult fiction for a few reasons: too much unnecessary sex, not enough plot, poorly developed characters, and lack of quality writing.

I have absolutely nothing against the romance genre, there’s a reason it’s the most lucrative genre in publishing, but those types of books aren’t really for me. And though there definitely is a difference between romance and adult fantasy fiction, I’ve found that the “fantasy” aspect is really the only major difference in most of my experience. I’m not opposed to a few steamy sex scenes, but I need plot and character to be driving the book, not just jumping from sex scene to sex scene.

“Women of the Otherworld” books are filled with complex characters, fast-paced plots, and yes, a few steamy sex scenes to keep things interesting. Pretty much everything you could want in adult fiction, in my opinion. Those are just a few of the reasons I find myself coming back to read the series in its entirety every two to four years. And now it’s especially fun, since I’ve roped a few of my dearest friends into reading the series along with me, so we trade the books back and forth and get to talk about them, which is especially fun, as it’s the first time reading most of them for my friends.

Specifically regarding Bitten and Stolen, you really couldn’t ask for a better introduction into this incredibly engaging and diverse urban fantasy world that Armstrong has created. Elena engages you on her journey from the very first page, her struggle against who she is and her desperate attempts to create a life for herself like she always imagined resonate through the pages. Even though I’ve never been a werewolf, I understand how upsetting it can be when your life isn’t going the way you planned, and it seems to just keep spiraling further and further from your control. Plus she’s a strong, smart, independent woman, and who doesn’t love that in a protagonist.

As for re-reads in general, there is something so comforting about returning to old favorites, being able to read through them at the speed of light, but also having forgotten enough about what happens that the action is still exciting.

I’m throwing in some new books in-between “The Women of the Otherworld”, so I’ll be bringing some fresh reviews to the site that aren’t re-reads. If you’re interested in what else I’m reading, since not everything will make it onto this blog, check out my Goodreads, you can add me at “Sarah Kruhlak”. I’m making my way through my “Book a Week” challenge this year, and I’m actually a few books ahead (one of the few good things to come out of quarantine).

If you liked Bitten and Stolen, try:

Moon Called (Mercy Thompson Book #1) by Patricia Briggs

Glass Houses (Morganville Vampires Book #1) by Rachel Caine

Nightshade by Andrea Cremer

Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead

Reviews

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Ninth House

# of Pages: 450

Time it took me to read: 9 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 64 pgs

Rating: 5 out of 5

Alex Stern never thought she’d be part of Yale University’s newest freshman class. She doesn’t speak three languages and she’s not set up to be the next great American novelist. She doesn’t even come from money. But what she does have is a unique kind of power that makes her desirable to Yale’s Lethe House, one of the nine highly secret and darkly alluring  societies that have existed at Yale for hundreds of years. The job of Lethe House and its initiates? Keep the other eight houses, the Ancient Eight, in check, for each one specializes in a type of magic that has the ability to make or break careers or bring countries to their knees, but without Lethe members monitoring and protecting these rituals, things can get messy fast.

Despite her natural ability to see “greys”, the shadows of those who have crossed the Veil in death, Alex quickly finds herself in too deep when a girl is murdered on the university’s campus, a girl with connections to more than one of the Ancient Eight. And even though Alex hasn’t been at Yale long, she’s learned fast that there’s no such thing as coincidences when the societies are involved. 

I’ll start out by saying that this book was not what I expected at all. I’m a huge fan of Leigh Bardugo, I think she’s one of the best writers in YA currently, her Grishaverse books grab you from the very first page. So I was very intrigued when I learned she’d branched out a bit into the adult fiction sector with what, to me, was marketed as a mystery novel set at Yale University’s campus.

As someone who tries to dip her toes outside of her comfort zone every now and again, I thought this would be a great opportunity to do so. However, it was pretty immediately apparent that this was not so much a realistic fiction mystery, but a story about dak rituals, ghosts, and magical substances that can put a person completely under the influence of the wielder. So, really, not so far off from the kind of stuff I read regularly.

I’ll start off by saying that to me, the distinction between “adult” and “young adult” is getting blurrier and blurrier these days. Really, the only thing that makes this “adult” rather than YA is the age of the characters. One might argue that there are significantly disturbing scenes, including sexual assault and heavy drug usage, that make it fitter for an adult audience, but we all know that sexual assault and drugs certainly aren’t limited to adults. These days, one can find books in the YA sphere that deal with violence, death, assault, drugs, sex, and yes, even use an unlimited amount of foul language. Because none of that is over the head of the sixteen to eighteen year olds these books are “marketed” toward. Plus, I feel as though publishers would be remiss if they failed to notice that a huge percentage of YA readers, such as myself, are well into their twenties and thirties and enjoy mature, socially relevant themes. End tangent.

Anyway, I have to admit I was expecting to be quickly pulled in head first as I usually am with a Leigh Bardugo novel, but that was not the case here. I will say, despite the fact that I gave this book the five-star rating I believe it deserves, that the story starts out slow. I found myself very bogged down with trying to remember all the names and the nicknames of the characters, as well as all of the different societies and what they specialized in. I recognized right away that everything that Leigh lays out for the reader is incredibly well researched and beautifully written, however, the story takes quite some time to pick up. Close to 200 pages in fact. Which is enough to deter many less serious, and some even more serious readers like me. Quite honestly, I’m not sure I would have made it through this book were it not for my unwavering faith in Leigh Bardugo.

Maybe that should deter me from giving this book five stars. But I don’t care, it’s my rating system and I can do what I please.

The last two hundred pages of this book were thrilling and exhilarating enough to keep me flipping the pages as quickly as I could. By that time, the reader is well acquainted with the different houses of the “Ancient Eight”, and what they do, and they begin to have more and more faith in Alex, even though by this point you’ve learned about her “storied” past and why she might not, in fact, be the kind of person you should put your faith in. But that is why I only got to liking her more and more as this book progressed.

To talk about character a bit, Alex Stern starts out as a farce of a standard YA protagonist. She can see ghosts, she had a rough childhood because they wouldn’t leave her alone, yadda yadda, seems very much like many other characters I’ve read before. But there was something about her that kept me from getting too attached to her from the start. And I think it’s because she’s really not “likable” as a person. As someone who has always been a fan of protagonists that are “likable” and “relatable”, it can take me some time to come around to some of the more gritty protagonists out there. Alex starts out as having seemingly shallow and basic motivations: she’s at Yale because she has been given the opportunity to be “normal” for the first time in her life, her mentors at Lethe House provide her with safety and security that she’s never had before, she just wants to be able to graduate and have a normal life and doesn’t really care that much about the rest of it all. This couldn’t be more opposite to her mentor at Lethe, Yale senior Daniel “Darlington” Arlington, who lives and breathes everything about Lethe, the societies, and the magic of New Haven, the town where Yale resides. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Alex must make a choice about whether she is just going to float along doing her due diligence to Lethe while trying to make it through her difficult classes and maintain relationships with roommates who know nothing about Alex’s past or her connection to Lethe, or whether she is going to dig deep and be the Lethe representative that Darlington always wanted her to be.

As I mentioned before, the enormous amount of set up required for this story, and the fact that the story jumps around in the beginning both in perspective and in timeline, means that it moves at a pretty slow pace during the first half. For most books I read, I’d argue that this means the book isn’t worth finishing. I have a whole personal philosophy that I call the “quarter” rule, where if a book hasn’t grabbed me by a quarter of the way through, it probably never will. And even if the book gets good at the end, is it worth the reader having to “suffer” through the setup? Mostly, I abide by my own rule and say no, the reader is owed some sort of gratification, something to pull them along through the setup, and that set up should only take at most a quarter of the book.

However, there are exceptions to every rule, including my own. As an avid fan of Bardugo’s, I felt that I owed it to her to read it through till the end, even if it ended up not being my cup of tea.

Oh boy, am I glad I stuck it through.

The last half of the book, the stakes get higher, and as the reader you start to formulate your theories about who murdered the dead girl found on Yale’s campus, and how it’s connected to the societies, and who has it out for Alex when she starts looking too close. Personally, I had my suspicions, which were then dashed, but then, just as you think you might be right, Bardugo throws you for another loop. The ending of this book was so well set up and supported, yet I really did NOT see it coming, which I love. When you read as much as I do, sometimes books get predictable, which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them, I often enjoy books I can predict the endings to, but I do love to be surprised.

My apologies, as my first review in a while, my thoughts are a bit scattered, but I think I covered just about everything that I want to say about this book. To make a long review short, though this book takes quite some time to wind up, the ending is well worth it, and though Alex Stern isn’t the most “likable” hero, she shows true grit and is realistically developed, even though that development takes more time than most of the books I read. I’m quite excited for the next one, as sequels to books like this are often much better than the first, because the setup is out of the way and all that’s left is the meat of the story, which is certainly the best part of Ninth House.

All in all, Leigh Bardugo has done it again, proving her reputation as a first-class writer, but also showing her chops as a dedicated researcher, as she uses her world-building skill to truly make the reader believe that there is a dark, magical underbelly that has always existed within Yale University and New Haven.

If you liked Ninth House, try:

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

Crank by Ellen Hopkins

Reviews

Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce

Tempests and Slaughter

# of Pages: 455

Time it took me to read: 5 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 65 pgs

Rating: 5 out of 5

Long before Tortall ever knew him as the master mage Numair Salmalin, he was a boy named Arram Draper, one young mage among many at the University of Carthak. Arram always knew he was more advanced than his peers, having been the youngest in all his classes since he began school. But when an extraordinary event draws the eye of every master mage in the academy, his life is changed forever. He is placed on a unique course of study along with the first real friends he’s ever had: Varice, who is as beautiful and charismatic as she is powerful, and Ozorne, last in a long line of heirs to the throne of Carthak, but the first mage born in his line for generations. Arram finally feels at home at the University as his studies become more advanced with every term and he grows into his power. As they grow, Arram and his friends must come to terms with the fact that things are not always as they seem, and despite each of them holding extraordinary power, sometimes one is not always in control of their own destiny.

 

So, as a fan of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall universe for over a decade, when I heard she was releasing a prequel about one of my favorite characters in said universe, I knew I had to have it. Despite her books being categorized as “middle reader”, I truly don’t think that one will ever be able to “grow out” of Tamora Pierce’s stories. This review may or may not turn into a fangirl rant about Tamora Pierce, and if so I apologize in advance (sorry not sorry).

I’ll start out by saying that anyone who is a fan of Song of the Lioness quartet or The Immortals quartet will love this story. Even though this book takes place many years before these series, it somehow feels right that this story has been written after them, as it is rich and matured perfectly. I believe there is no other character in all of the Tortall universe who deserves a series detailing his backstory than Numair (Arram).

For those of you who haven’t read Tamora Pierce’s The Immortals quartet (which, by the way, you absolutely should go out and do), it’s a series about a girl named Daine who has a very unique kind of magic, called wild magic, that allows her to communicate with animals and even, as her power is harnessed, transform into them. The series follows her and her teacher, Numair Salmalin, likely the most powerful mage in the world, through their adventures. In this series, Numair is a fully developed master mage, while Daine is his untrained pupil. In Tempests and Slaughter, we go back to Numair’s childhood, before he was powerful enough to have chosen a mage name, and is merely Arram Draper, the son of a tailor.

The biggest compliments I think I can pay this author regarding this book are a) I think only Tamora Pierce could make a book all about going to school exciting, and b) all I wanted to do upon finishing this book was go back and read The Immortals again, even though I’ve definitely read them within the last two years. Pierce’s books are just ones that you can return to over and and over again, and it just feels like going home. The Immortals and Song of the Lioness are up there among the ranks of the few series that I’ve read in their entirety more than twice.

Arram, as he grows from a young boy to a young man, is a wonderful character who you cannot help but admire. He is intelligent and determined, but at the same time absentminded and nerdy at times in a way that is totally relatable. Seeing him with his best friends Varice and Ozorne is wonderful, as they are unique and compelling characters in their own rights, but bittersweet and heartbreaking if you’ve read The Immortals (I promise, that’s the only spoiler I’ll give).

And, like I said earlier, despite the fact that this is literally a book about a kid going to school, it is fast paced and engaging throughout. The same could be said for Harry Potter and Hogwarts, but the difference is this book is really about the classes and the teachers and the actual magic that is happening. Harry Potter is a series that takes place at a school: Tempests and Slaughter is a book about school.

And a note about the Tortall universe in general: the world that Pierce builds is just stunning. The different countries, Tortall, Carthak, Tyra, the Yamani Islands, all are rich with their own histories and cultures. This universe also has its own unique gods and magical creatures, all of whom are known and worshipped to varying degrees. Despite being books for “middle readers”, Tamora Pierce does not do any sort of “dumbing down” or avoiding of difficult subjects in her stories. She discusses all the most difficult parts of growing up, both for boys and for girls, such as getting your first period and, erm, unfortunately timed erections for pubescent boys. She also includes characters of all races, genders, and sexualities. In fact Alanna the Lioness, who’s story I was exposed to at age 12, has multiple sexual partners throughout her story, all out of wedlock, and she is never shamed or has any personal guilt about not being “pure” when she finally does decide to settle down. Tamora’s stories gave me something so very valuable as a young girl that is pretty difficult for me to put into words, but I’ll say simply as this: Tamora Pierce taught me that women, no matter what their backgrounds or personal opinions, are all powerful in their own way and deserving of nothing but respect. And I will always thank her for that.

Anyway, I know that devolved into a fangirl rant, and again I’m not sorry. Moral of the story, if you haven’t read Tamora Pierce before, get your butt out there and pick up Alanna: The First Adventure. And if you have read Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books before, but it’s been a while, never fear: Tempests and Slaughter is a great way to dive back in. Though I’m always going to recommend reading the Tortall books in the order that they were published, one is perfectly able to start reading these books for the first time chronologically with Tempests and Slaughter. It’ll certainly get you engaged and excited to read all the rest of them.

 

If you liked Tempests and Slaughter, try: Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce

Sea of Shadows by Kelley Armstrong

Defy by Sara B Larson

      Graceling by Kristin Cashore