Reviews · Summaries

Wings of Fury by Emily R. King (Book 1)

# of Pages: 285

Time it took me to read: 2 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 41

Rating: 3 out of 5

Althea and her two older sisters have lived with the priestesses of Gaia since their mother died. The three sisters, along with everyone else, live in fear of their ruler, the Almighty Cronus, who’s soldiers terrify the population and collect honor maidens to satiate the desires of the undying God of Gods. But Althea has extra reason to fear, because she has been marked as the future bride to the despicable General Decimus, who will come to collect her any day now.

Althea knows it is time for her and her sisters to flee Thessaly to the southern islands, where the hold of Cronos is weaker and Decimus can never find her. But after visiting an oracle that tells her that her fate is inextricably woven with the Boy God who will defeat Cronus and take his throne, Althea must go on a journey unlike any other if she is to save her sisters and discover who she was always meant to be.

Review

Okay, I’m just going to say that I have two different ratings for this book. 3 out of 5 is my official rating, which is very diplomatic and objectively, this book is not bad and has the building blocks of a solid historical fantasy, and as someone who is also a writer who is working on a historical fantasy, I have to give the author at least a 3.

However, personally this book upset me and if I were giving it a purely subjective rating I would give it a 2 out of 5. And here is where this review will likely devolve mostly into ranting, so buckle in.

Fun fact about me is that I minored in the completely useless but incredibly fun program of Greco-Roman Classical studies when I was in school. So I am very familiar with ancient Greek literature, and thusly the mythology surrounding the culture. And while I love, love, LOVE a good reimagining of Greek myth, or a unique story set in the time period, I would largely call myself a “purist” in many ways. If you’re going to tell a story that is mostly well known characters from myth, I believe that it should be mostly true to the source material. That being said, there are many different versions of lots of the most popular myths, so there is often some wiggle room here, which makes it easier to be creative. 

It also doesn’t help that I *thought* this book was going to be something completely other than what it was. It’s marketed as a mortal woman taking on Cronus in the time before the Olympians, where there is not a whole lot of myth or storytelling, so I was pretty excited because due to the lack of a lot of well-known source material from this time of the Titans, I thought the author was really going to have the opportunity to spread her wings (no pun intended) and do something unlike a lot of the myth retellings out there.

I’m not going to put any spoilers in this part, but I’ll just say that the twist came at the end of the book, and in my opinion this twist really threw away everything that the author had worked on building, because what seemed to be a unique story about unknown mortals actually ended up being a version of a well-known myth, and that’s what really killed it for me. Because all of the setup that the author did, all of the various possibilities that were open to her, completely shrunk down to two options for the end of the sequel: a) have the myth remain true to the original source material, which would require a bunch of character building that was done in the early part of the book to all have to be thrown away OR b) be completely disingenuous to the original source material. Both of which I think are very crummy options.

I’ve talked a lot about the end of this book, but before I even had begun I suspected that I wouldn’t like this book because of a very specific pet-peeve I have about these types of stories. And that pet-peeve is when the Greek gods are the “good guys” in any way. Because, like I said, I’m a purist, and the Greek gods suck. In every single story, they suck. They exemplify all of the worst human traits without any human compassion. So I automatically have a bias against books where mortals team up with gods to defeat other gods because the gods do not care about mortals, at all. And just by reading the blurb I knew the protagonist was gonna be teaming up with Zeus, arguably one of the worst gods, so I knew that this book was gonna have to work real hard to win me over. And it really didn’t.

But I did give this book a 3 because I feel like the author did a good job of making this story feel accessible, because when they’re set in the ancient past like this one is, if you’re not careful it can lose the ancient vibe and feel too modern, but if you lean too hard into the ancient thing, it feels inaccessible and hard to fall into. I think this book walks a very good line, and I felt like I was into the ancient world she built. And I didn’t dislike the characters either. Althea was easy to root for because she had a tragic past and a noble cause, and I do like protagonists who are easy to root for.

Alright, end rant, now onto the summary. Because though the ending of this book made me upset, you can be damn sure I’m going to read the sequel to see how she ends up wrapping up the messy threads she’s left everywhere.

!!!SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

Cast

Althea – protagonist, youngest sister of Cleora and Bronte. An oracle tells her that her fate is to help Zeus defeat Cronus and take his throne. Althea is dedicated and loyal to her sisters. Interested romantically in Theo, but “tagged” by General Decimus as his future bride when she was eleven. Strong, stubborn, does not trust easily.

Bronte – middle Lambros sister, very good with plants. She’s kind, and she always wants to do what is best for her sisters and anyone around her. A lovely singer and a student of philosophy.

Cleora – oldest Lambros sister, happy at the temple of Gaia with the priestesses and wants to live as a virgin. Captured early on by Decimus and taken to Cronus.

Theo – Theo Angelos is a commander in Cronus’s army. But when his mother is in danger he deserts the army to join Althea in her quest to find the Boy God who will topple Cronus from his throne. Bastard son of the Titan Prometheus and the love interest of Althea.

Decimus – General in Cronus’s army, “tags” Althea for marriage when she is a young girl. A proud and cruel minion of Cronus, he is determined to have Althea as his one way or another.

Zeus – fifteen year old son of Cronus and Rhea, but hidden from Cronus at birth to keep him safe. He was hidden away living with nymphs and an all-female tribe of worshippers of Aphrodite on the island of Crete, far from his father’s far-seeing eye. Arrogant, but also afraid of his father and nervous that he won’t be able to take his father’s place. Cares a lot about Althea.

Cronus – The Almighty, God of Gods, king of the Titans. Rules over the land, and is known for his cruelty. Takes any young women he pleases as “honor maidens”, who make up his haram. When those girls and women become pregnant, they pretty much always die giving birth to a half-Titan. Known for eating his fully-Titan children to prevent them from overpowering him.

Stavra Lambros – human mother of Cleora, Bronte, and Althea. When she angers Cronus, she tries to hide her daughters with the priestesses of Gaia, but the army finds her and she becomes an honor maiden to Cronus until she dies giving birth to his daughter, a half-Titan girl who is immediately taken away. Her and her husband smuggled oppressed women off of the mainland to Crete to live with the cult of Aphrodite.

Summary

Act 1

In the prologue, Althea and her sisters have fled to the temple of Gaia at the bidding of their mother. Soldiers arrive at the temple, but before they can find the girls, their mother Stavra steps out and gives herself up to protect her daughters. Eleven year old Althea runs from her hiding spot and tries to defend her mother, but just calls attention to herself. General Decimus decides that he wants her for his future bride, so she is given a “tag”, which is a brand on the back of her neck declaring that she is spoken for. The soldiers take Stavra away to be an “honor maiden” of Cronus, which usually means eventual death.

Nine months later soldiers return Stavra to the temple, where she is in labor with Cronus’s child. She does not survive the birth, but the baby girl does, and Stavra tasks Althea with watching over her sisters. So she grabs the baby, but the soldiers return for it, as it is a child of Cronus. Althea tries to defend her infant half-sister, but the soldiers take the baby away.

Seven years pass and the three sisters are grown up. Althea knows the time to leave the temple is approaching fast, as Decimus could return to collect her as his bride any day. Althea is sent into town where she meets a kindhearted soldier who gives her the olives she’s looking for. Later that night, she sneaks back to town and goes to see an oracle, who tells her that if she wants to save her sisters, she has to follow her destiny, which is to go to Crete and work with the secret son of Cronus, who is the only one who will be able to dethrone his father. She is told to take as her guide a stranger who has a good heart.

Althea runs back to the temple, where the soldiers have arrived and are looking for the sisters. Althea finds Bronte and Cleora hiding from the soldiers, but they don’t have the pouch with all of their money. Cleora volunteers to go and get it, but she is captured by Decimus. The General says that he’ll exchange Cleora for Althea, but they know he is likely lying, and Bronte convinces Althea that the best way to free their sister is to get to Crete and help the Boy God dethrone Cronus. So Althea and Bronte flee the temple to a hidden cave nearby.

The next day, they are discovered at the cave by Theo Angelos, who was the soldier that gave the olives to Althea in the market, and he is one of the soldiers who accompanies Decimus. He says he wants to desert and come with them, because the oracle also told him that he needed to find her and help her in order to save his mother. They initially refuse his help, but they are ambushed by Decimus’s soldiers at the cave, and Theo bravely helps them fight off the soldiers, but not before Decimus lays a curse on Althea that she’ll belong to him and nobody else.

Theo, Bronte, and Althea manage to escape to the port, where the fishing boat Althea purchased the previous day is waiting for them. Theo is a sailor, and they’ve decided to accept his help as their guide. They take the boat and make it to Crete with no trouble a few days later.

They meet the cult of Aphrodite, composed only of women, who want to send the sisters away and kill Theo, but it turns out that their mother Stavra was once one of them, so out of respect the cult allows them to stay one night. They are joined by the two nymphs that live with the tribe, Adrasteia and Ida. Althea tells them that her and her companions were sent by Rhea with a message for her son, the Boy God. The nymphs are convinced to let Althea and Bronte go and visit the boy, who’s name is Zeus, and at fifteen he really is a boy god. They try to convince him to work with them to overthrow Cronus, but Zeus refuses out of fear and sends them away.

Act 2

The next morning the three set out from Crete. They stop briefly on an island, where they find evidence that Stavra and Tassos were the main smugglers of women away from the mainland to safety on Crete. They are also set upon by the Erinyes, the Furies who punish oath breakers and murderers. They manage to get rid of them, but are sure they’ll be back.

The three companions sail back to Crete, sneak onto the island, and Althea goes to Zeus and changes his mind about training to overthrow Cronus. Theo agrees to train Zeus for it.

Theo, Bronte, and Althea settle into life on the island. Theo trains Zeus, and Althea falls harder for Theo. Althea is attacked once again by the Erinyes, but Zeus saves her life. Althea goes to talk to Ida, who tries to convince Althea that if she allows Ida to ritually purify her by cutting her up, but Althea refuses.

There are calls for the warriors to come down to the beach, there is a sea dragon down there attacking the cult members. Althea and Theo are working to fight it off, but it’s not until Zeus arrives and summons the lightening storm that the dragon is chased off.

However, the use of his godly powers brings General Decimus to the shores of Crete. He has teamed up with slavers as well as the goddess Ida, who was tired of “wasting away” on Crete. Adrasteia tries to convince Ida to come to her senses, but Ida kills her instead. Decimus captures Bronte, and says that he’ll exchange her for Althea, tries to use the curse he placed on Althea to get her to come to him. But Theo manages to get her and Zeus to the boat and escape Crete, leaving Bronte behind. Althea falls unconscious.

Act 3

When she awakes, she finds that they are at the home of Helios, god of the sun. Althea has dinner with Helios, Selene, and Eos, as well as Zeus’s betrothed Metis, who gives Althea a draught to weaken Cronus so that Zeus can strike him down. They lay out their plan, and it is revealed that Theo is the son of Prometheus, so half Titan.

The next morning, the Decimus and the soldiers have found them again, and it seems as though Theo has betrayed them all, because he seems to be working with them again, he helped them capture Zeus. But Althea manages to free Zeus, and he escapes with Metis on a boat, but Althea is captured by Decimus, who says that the Almighty wants to speak to her.

So Althea is brought to Cronus’s palace, where she is reunited with Bronte. The two sisters are brought before Cronus, who has Cleora with him, but she appears to be happy and fine. Cronus reveals that the three sisters are actually his children with Rhea, full Titans, but that he took away their powers to “protect them”. Their mother Stavra was only their surrogate. The goddess of memory altered Stavra’s thoughts so that she believed she’d birthed the three girls, but Stavra had the Titan Oceanus reveal her memories and she remembered that the girls were Titans, and tried to tell them, which is why Cronus took her out. He reveals that Cleora is Hestia, Bronte is Demeter, and Althea is Hera.

Althea doesn’t want to believe it, can’t believe it, but then she finds that Bronte’s memories have been altered as well, and she is happy to be here with Cronus. When Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, arrives to alter Althea’s thoughts, Althea uses half of the draught Metis made for her to drug Mnemosyne, and then pretends to be addled when she’s brought in front of Cronus. 

Althea realizes that her powers, as well as those of her sisters, are trapped within Cronus, and after drugging him she is able to use the adamant sycle to have their powers restored. There is a big battle where Zeus and Theo (who only pretended to betray them), help attack Cronus. 

Eventually, Cronus is temporarily defeated when Althea flings him into space (I think), but he’ll be back. This epic battle was all possible because the power reveal included that the sisters all actually had wings. Decimus is also defeated, as Althea demands that he remove his curse or she’ll kill him. He removes the curse, which ends up killing him anyway, which puts the Erinyes off of her tail.

The story ends with the sisters finding their little half sister, Delphine, where she was hidden with traveling nomads.

Cronus will return, and they will have to be prepared. Dun dun dun.

End Book 1

!!!END SPOILERS!!!

Well, as much as I overall disliked the book (especially the ending I thought was weak), I’m certainly interested enough in how everything is going to come together to pick up the sequel sometime soon.

If you liked Wings of Fury (or are looking for something better in the same genre), try:

Troy by Adele Geras

Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Circe by Madeline Miller

The Goddess Test by Aimee Carter

Mini Reviews · Reviews

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore (Book 3)

# of Pages: 539

Time it took me to read: 5 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 77

Rating: 4 out of 5

A quick personal note:

Hi everyone! I apologize for disappearing without a trace! I’ve been trying to do a post every 7 to 10 days, but have failed spectacularly the last three weeks or so, and for that I’m sorry. My friend and I are currently doing Camp Nano, so we have a goal of each writing 30,000 words this month, which takes up most of my free time! Bitterblue is genuinely the only book I’ve read since my last post, and I’m glad to finally get to bring you the last of the mini reviews for the Graceling series.

Thanks for your patience, those who have stuck with me!

Ever since the death of her father when she was only ten years old, Bitterblue has been queen of Monsea. Now eighteen, she is doing her best to help her people escape from her father’s horrific thirty-five year reign. But how can she help the Monseans who live in her city if it feels as though her advisors keep her trapped in her office all day under a mountain of paperwork?

Bitterblue thinks she has a pretty good idea of what it was like to live in terror under the rule of her father, but when she starts sneaking out at night in disguise and meeting her citizens, she finds that she really has no idea. She finds that her citizens are still suffering, and someone with power is working to make sure that Monseans stay in the dark about the crimes of their former king. Bitterblue’s new friends think that the queen is behind it all, but how can she defend herself when no one knows who she truly is?

With the help of some familiar faces and new allies, Bitterblue works to get to the bottom of what is going wrong in Monsea. Because someone is working against all that she has tried to build in the eight years of her reign, and if Monsea is ever to recover from the memory of Leck’s cruel kingship, the truth must be revealed so everyone who ever knew him can heal.

Review:

This is the only Graceling book that I haven’t read more than once, which was when the book was released in 2012, so almost ten years ago. At the time I was seventeen, and I thought the book was a bit of a letdown. Almost no action, little romance, especially compared to Graceling and Fire I found this book a disappointment.

Well, I can’t tell you how happy I am to have given this a re-read as an adult. Because though this book is YA, there are a lot of adult themes throughout this story, and I feel like when I first read it I was too young to appreciate them. 

Honestly, I think I would personally rank this book above Fire and below Graceling and here’s why: though this book is even more of a political intrigue than Fire is, Bitterblue has a much more engaging plot that kept me turning the pages faster than I did for Fire. Fire had a little bit more action, but it was mostly a character study wrapped in a spy story, which I still enjoyed, but Bitterblue had a big mystery threaded throughout, and the consequences and fallout are devastating, Cashore does not shy away from some unhappy endings here, which is I think a large part of the problem I had with it when I was young.

Another thing that Bitterblue has that Fire doesn’t is pretty much all your favorite characters from the previous books, which is great if you, like me, did not get nearly enough Po and Katsa in Graceling alone. 

As far as pacing goes, I mentioned it above, but I thought this book was quite well paced, despite being the longest of the three books in the series so far. There are so many puzzles that Bitterblue is trying to solve all at once, so there is certainly enough to keep one engaged page after page.

One of my favorite things about Bitterblue that I think wasn’t quite as strong or memorable in the previous two stories were the rich, well developed side characters. This story has a large cast, but I feel as though a lot of time and effort is given to developing backstories and personalities of the many people who revolve in and out of Bitterblue’s world. She isn’t the most unique or “special” protagonist out there, but those who surround her make her very interesting to read about, if only due to her interactions with others.

I’ll only spend a line or two talking about world building, because you know if you’ve read these books, or if you’ve even read my last two reviews, that Kristin Cashore is a brilliant worldbuilder, and the rich uniqueness and diversity of her world and her kingdoms is evident, despite the entire story taking place in Bitterblue’s capital city.

One of the beautiful things about this group of books is that in each Kristin Cashore seems to push herself to do something different, to challenge herself, and even though all three take place in the same world, each story brings something new to the table. I really can’t wait to see what the latest installment, Winterkeep, has to offer.

I’m going to briefly return to my longer-form summary format for my book club book this month, so keep an eye out for that. After that I’ll be back with my thoughts on the final Graceling book Winterkeep.

If you liked Bitterblue, try:

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta

Bloodleaf by Crystal Smith

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Mini Reviews

Fire by Kristin Cashore (Book 2)

# of Pages: 461

Time it took me to read: 5 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 66

Rating: 4 out of 5

As the only human “monster” in the Dells, Fire is different from anyone else she’s ever known. Well, besides her father, who was cruel and revelled in his power to use his looks and his mind to control people. Fire, on the other hand, simply wishes to be left alone. She can’t help that slipping into an unguarded mind comes easily as breathing, or that her flame-like hair sends animal monsters and many humans alike into a frenzy. 

But that wish seems less and less likely as her kingdom slips closer and closer to all-out civil war. Though she knows only by word of mouth that the king is a better ruler than his father was, Fire knows he must be the lesser of three evils, as the lords to the north and south are driven to war only by greed.

After saving the lives of a group of the king’s soldiers, King Nash and his younger brother, Brigan, must put aside their distrust of the daughter of the man who controlled their father his whole life and ask for her help. For if Fire’s power is good for one thing, her control over minds makes her a wonderful spy. But if she agrees to become an agent of the king, and of his brother, is she any better than the powerful and cruel father who’s legacy she’s been fleeing from? Is helping save the kingdom worth truly embracing what she has always been: a monster.

Review:

This second book in the Graceling world takes you away from the seven kingdoms and their Gracelings to a different kingdom, the Dells, which is completely cut off by mountains on all sides. This land has no Gracelings, only monsters, creatures of unbelievable beauty, who have the ability to slip inside an unprotected mind and take control. For animal monsters, like leopards and raptors and wolves, this means luring in humans and other creatures as prey. For Fire, the only human monster left in the Dells, her vibrant flame-like hair and stunning beauty means she must protect herself from those who wish to possess her, as well as those who would rather kill her because of their mistrust of monsters – a mistrust that is earned, for her father exploited his power over minds in every way he could.

As much as I like Fire, I can’t really put it on the same level as Graceling, which is why I only grant it a 4 out of 5. This novel is much more of a political intrigue, much less action than Graceling, and I think a good adventure book is much more up my alley.

But despite the fact that there is less action, Fire is a wonderful addition to the series. It definitely has that fantasy element, but it really is a character study for Fire, since she is constantly in a battle with herself, trying not to be the person everyone expects her to be – which is cruel, controlling, and dangerous. Those who can protect their minds are distrustful of her, and those who can’t protect their mind completely lose control at the sight of her – they either want to kill her, assault her, or take her prisoner for the power she possesses.

I feel as though she is a very realistic character, if you take away the whole “able to control minds” bit. She really just wants to be more than her father’s legacy, and in the beginning the way she does that is to completely hide herself away, avoid using her powers at pretty much any cost, except for self-defense.

But as she opens herself up to making more friends, and finding that if she gets to know people, they’ll get to know her and trust her in return. And as she opens herself up to forging new relationships with people, she finds that using her power to help people, to help her kingdom, doesn’t make her like her father, who only used his power for his own gain.

Due to the fact that this book has less action, I feel that it doesn’t quite have the snappy, engaging pace that Graceling does. However, for the type of book that it is, I think that it’s well balanced and evenly paced throughout. And it does have a really sweet love story, and even though it’s not explicitly stated Fire is the kind of character who expects to never have anyone that she can fully trust to love her for who she is, that’s sort of implied. So I think the fact that it took almost the whole book for the love story to come to fruition was well done and another point toward the character driven story that this is.

I don’t feel as though I had all that much to say about Fire, it’s great, if you like Graceling you’ll like Fire, there is a callback to one of the main characters in Graceling in Fire, though technically Fire is a prequel, you can read them in either order.

If you like Fire, try:

These Rebel Waves by Sara Raasch

And I Darken by Kiersten White

King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian

Mini Reviews

Graceling by Kristin Cashore (Book 1)

# of Pages: 471

Time it took me to read: 2 days

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

Rating: 5 out of 5

In the seven kingdoms, if you meet someone with one eye one color and the other eye a different color, you’ve met someone Graced. No two people have exactly the same Grace. You may meet someone Graced with swimming, or sewing, or counting. You may meet two people Graced with fighting, but they won’t ever be exactly the same.

Katsa has always known her Grace is killing. Ever since she killed a man at eight years old, even though it was an accident, she has felt that her hands can deal death without even thinking. It has taken her every day since then to hone her skills as a fighter so that she will never kill anyone she doesn’t mean to ever again. Though her uncle, King Randa, uses her indiscriminately as his blade, she fights him in whatever small ways she can.

It isn’t until she meets Prince Po of Lienid that she finds that she is more than just her Grace. So when Po asks her to leave her life behind to help him find the man who had his grandfather kidnapped, Katsa sees her chance to escape her life of doing King Randa’s bidding.

But what they do find is that the man behind it has a Grace more dangerous than even hers, and that Katsa is vulnerable for the first time in her life. But when she has only herself to rely on, she may find out that her Grace is more than she ever thought it could be. It could be enough to save herself, and those she comes to love the most.

Review:

This is the first in a series of mini reviews that I’m going to start doing this year, so I want to take a brief moment to explain. Mini reviews are going to cover books that I’ve read before, and they’re pretty much all going to be five stars. These are books I’m re-reading for whatever purpose, usually to prep myself for a new book coming out. Normally I try to read a new book for ever re-read I do, so I don’t always review books I’ve already read, but I’ve got quite a few re-reads coming up, and I want to hold myself accountable for posting, so here we go.

This is somewhere between the third and the fifth time I’ve read Graceling over the last ten years or so, and it truly never gets old. It’s one of those rare, timeless YA classics from the early 2000s. I imagine if I were to go back and re-read everything I read in 2009 (if I had kept track of my reading at that time), I wouldn’t get nearly as much satisfaction from most of those books, so Graceling is truly special.

Katsa is a strong, angry female protagonist, from a time where I don’t recall reading a lot of books where the female protagonists were particularly angry as a character trait. She holds true to her morals of never wanting to marry, even after finding a man she’s willing to open her heart to, which is something I don’t think I’ve seen even to this day, which is awesome. You can still be committed to someone you love without marrying, and without being with them every day for the rest of her life. Katsa has her own goals and from the first page asserts that she is her own woman, and that never changes even as she goes through a lovely cycle of character development, and a lot of it for a “standalone” novel.

This book is extremely well paced, engaging from the very beginning, and though the “magic” of this world, the Graces, is completely unique and fascinating, I never feel as though I’m getting info-dumped. Something that I feel is unique about this story as well is the amount of time Cashore spends on certain aspects of it. For example, there is a lot of travel in this story, across the seven kingdoms, and Cashore spends a lot of time documenting it. And there is nearly one hundred pages after the “climax” detailing the aftermath, which is typically relegated to an epilogue in most stories. And the climax itself is only one chapter, ten pages maximum. While in other stories I may feel that the buildup wasn’t worth the payoff, I wouldn’t say that was true at all. Because despite the face-paced, engaging plot, this story really is about character development, and I think that shows in the short climax and long aftermath.

I think the only complaint I can really register is that when Katsa has sex for the first time, though her partner is supportive, it is described as a sharp pain that “women always feel”. Which isn’t something that I think should be spread to young girls. Sex doesn’t have to be painful, in fact it shouldn’t be if you’re properly prepared for it. But this book was written in 2008, and the fact that there is a pretty obvious scene in which Katsa and her partner have sex is pretty unique to YA in that era.

I’m moving through the whole Graceling series as I make my way toward Kristin Cashore’s new book, Winterkeep. I think it goes without saying that I strongly recommend Graceling as a wonderfully well written novel that has held up exceptionally well since its release in 2008.

If you liked Graceling, try:

Furyborn by Claire Legrand

The Diabolic by SJ Kincaid

Renegades by Marissa Meyer

These Rebel Waves by Sara Raasch

Reviews

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

# of Pages: 342

Time it took me to read: 2 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 49

Rating: 5 out of 5

All Yadriel has ever wanted was to be a proper brujo, like his father and older brother, and like all the other men in his family. Brujo and bruja are able to wield the magic of the dead to see and hear spirits. It is the responsibility of brujo to send spirits that are tethered to earth to their peace, while bruja can use their magic to heal the living. But though Yadriel’s family seems to be trying to accept him for who he is and use his proper pronouns, still his family holds him back from the official ceremony that will mark him as a brujo, all because he is trans. But though his head tells him it won’t do to push his traditional Latinx family even further outside their comfort zone, in his heart he knows he’s ready and that his patron, Lady Death, will accept him for who he is. It helps that he has the unconditional support of his cousin Maritza, another of the family black sheep.

But right when Yadriel and Maritza have snuck off to perform the ritual, something goes wrong. Yadriel’s cousin Miguel has gone missing, and everyone felt his pain as though he died, though no one can find him. Yadriel becomes determined to summon Miguel’s spirit in order to prove himself, but instead summons the spirit of Julian, a boy from Yadriel’s school. Julian doesn’t know how he died either, but agrees to let Yadriel release him in front of his family…after helping him tie off some loose ends.

The threads that tie Julian to earth get even more tangled as Yadriel learns more about his life, and tries to find out what happened to him, as he can’t shake the feeling that if he can find out what happened to Julian, he’ll find out what happened to Miguel as well. But as Dia de Muertos looms, Yadriel finds himself running out of time, both for Miguel and Julian. And when the time does come, Yadriel realizes he might be hesitant to let Julian go after all.

Review:

I know what you’re thinking: how can this possibly be my third 5 star book in a row? What can I say, I’m on a hot streak. But there was no way I was giving this book any less than 5 stars.

I could go on forever and ever about why I loved this book, but I’ll try and keep from rambling on too much. I’ll start with the concept/world-building. This story was a wonderful blend of fantasy (with origins from cultures all over Latin America) and a contemporary YA romance. And before anyone says it, yes, I’m aware that’s called “urban fantasy”, but I’m hesitant to use that phrase here. Specifically because typically though urban fantasy takes place in a version of our world where magic/monsters exist, it still feels very other. You’re usually so deep into the fantasy aspect of it, that it no longer feels like a contemporary fiction novel. Cemetery Boys, however, gives you that ooey-gooey contemporary romance feel, but with a healthy dose of magic and adventure to keep things interesting. I just thought that the two styles were blended together so well, and I don’t see that many fantasies based in Latinx culture in YA these days, so it feels really fresh.

Next, the subplot/culture. I believe this is my first story with a trans protagonist, and honestly? There should be more of them (if you’ve got a suggestion for one, hit me up in the comments). The struggles that Yadriel faces are both probably somewhat universal to all trans youth (being nervous/unable to use the bathroom that matches your pronouns, being worried that you don’t “pass”, etc), while also bringing in the unique cultural aspects of being LGBTQA+ in a traditional Latinx family. From the beginning, it is very clear that Yadriel’s family loves him, but that they struggle to accept all of him, as he is. The whole brujo/bruja magic thing being gendered as well was a simply brilliant way of adding a very natural-feeling layer onto the complexity of being trans. One of my other favorite parts is that Yadriel isn’t the only trans character in this story, or the only gay one, and which I think brings up a great point: LGBTQA+ folks are everywhere, and throwing in one trans boy or one lesbian is tokenism, and it just won’t fly in 2021. Another thing to mention here is that the experiences seem very genuine, and after a quick google search I see that Aiden Thomas is also a trans Latinx person, which makes sense because every single word of this story oozes authenticity and lived experience. This leads me into my next segment:

Character. Every single character in this book was so wonderfully lovable, and even the antagonist is someone who’s perspective isn’t entirely alien (that’s all I’ll say, no spoilers). Yadriel is someone who I rooted for from page one, his personality is just so real, like I’m sure we’ve all known someone like Yadriel – someone who is proud of who they are, but they don’t necessarily fit in, though it’s clear that they very much want to, whether it’s with family or friends or their community at large. And so even though I’m sure there are some folks out there who might skip this book over because they like characters they can relate to, and they don’t think they can relate to a Latinx trans boy, I promise that you’re wrong, and any and all of us can find some way to relate to Yadriel. And this coming from a cis white woman in her mid-twenties. Julian, also, is just such a beautiful contrast on the surface to Yadriel, but at the same time they are both trying to find their voices in unique ways. Also the fact that neither are any sort of stereotype, which is always important.

Despite this being a story that deals with “heavy” topics like trans matters, gay matters, death, and culture/community, this book is fun, and the characters all have a natural humor that allows you to float through the story. Don’t get me wrong, it’ll make you think as well as have all the feels, but this is ultimately a joyful story about being true to yourself no matter what, and that those people who truly love you will be behind you all the way. A quick mention to easily one of my favorite side characters of the year so far, Maritza. She is a curvy, proud Latina and I am here for it. As a vegan, she is held back from accessing her full powers as a bruja as well, as most of her rituals require animal blood, which she refuses to use. But she’s not one of the “stereotypical” vegans who shames others for eating meat (or in this case, using animal blood for rituals). She stands by her beliefs and forges her own path, which I love for her. In a story about boys, I wasn’t expecting a female character to love so much, but I was so pleasantly surprised by Maritza.

And finally, briefly, style/pacing. I thought the pacing of this book was excellent. It didn’t feel rushed, but the pace felt fast enough that had I not kept myself busy all weekend, I could have read it in 24 hours (instead of 48). It didn’t have the problem that some standalone novels do of having taking too much time to build everything up and having the ending fall flat. And, of course, I thought the writing style was beautiful, as I mentioned a bit at the beginning. Thomas’s voice is natural and consistent, and the authenticity rings through from cover to cover. I thought Thomas did an incredible job of telling me so much about Latin American culture, so many different cultures as well, from Haiti to El Salvador to Cuba. The culture was expertly woven throughout, there were very few (if any) noticeable “info dumps” (which is something that I as a writer struggle with), so I’m always impressed when the background and cultural parts of the story (whether it’s real world culture or made-up fantasy culture) are so well threaded throughout a story, like here.

Long story short, if you like YA (regardless of whether you normally read high fantasy or contemporary romance), read Cemetery Boys. You won’t regret it.

If you liked Cemetery Boys, try:

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowel

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Reviews

Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

# of Pages: 453

Time it took me to read: 4 days

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

Rating: 5 out of 5

Elisabeth Scrivener has lived in the Great Library of Summershall all her life. Currently an apprentice librarian, she dreams of someday being a warden, the a protector of the library from all things evil – namely sorcerers and their demonic magic. But when the Director of the Library, and the closest thing Elisabeth has ever had to a parent, is murdered and the blame is placed squarely on her shoulders, she must team up with her most unlikely ally in order to clear her name and discover the true murderer. Nathanial Thorn is a sorcerer from one of oldest and most powerful houses of sorcery, and at first glance he is everything that Elisabeth has always known to be evil – arrogant, calculating, someone who has sold his soul to a powerful demon in order to use magic.

But once she’s left the Great Library behind, Elisabeth learns that things are not as black and white as she always thought. Her Great Library was not the only one attacked, and Elisabeth seems to be the only one able, and willing, to get to the bottom of this mystery – one that could unravel the very fabric of her kingdom as she knows it.

Review:

First off, it feels a little bit odd giving this book five stars after my last five star book (check out my feelings on A Song of Wraiths and Ruin), but I couldn’t take any stars away from this book because I really couldn’t find fault with this story, even though it didn’t make me have quite the same feelings as A Song of Wraiths and Ruin. This book is also a standalone novel, so this post will be a review only, and will not include a summary.

Sorcery of Thorns spoke right to my nerd-girl heart with this brilliantly unique concept. The kingdom of Austermeer is a magical land that is notable for it’s six Great Libraries, incredible institutions where magical, living books called grimoires are housed, both to protect them from those who would use them for harm, and to protect ordinary folks who might be harmed by the grimoires. The grimoires can speak and move and sing, and have their own unique forms of magic. But if you agitate one too much, it can transform into a powerful and dangerous Malefict, which depending on the class of the grimoire, can cause massive destruction, maiming and killing people. It’s just such a powerful and completely original concept, I was hooked from the very beginning. I like a good standalone novel every now and again, but the concept was so incredible, I find myself disappointed I don’t get to spend more time in this amazing world Rogerson has created. I do, however, think that she did an incredible job telling this story from beginning to end in less than five hundred pages. Could never be me.

If you’re drawn to books with unique or morally ambiguous characters, however, this may not be the story for you. Both Elisabeth and Nathanial are the epitome of classic YA tropes. Nathanial is originally dark and brooding, but he’s one of those “I had to build a wall around my heart to protect myself due to my tragic past” kind of love interests, but he of course has a gooey cinnamon bun soul. Elisabeth is your classic heroine who starts out pretty naive, but has an unwavering drive to do the right thing and survive no matter what. She’s also got that thing going for her that she wants to train to be a warden, but doesn’t have much experience wielding a weapon. But by the end of the book she is very talented at wielding a sword, despite the fact that she never seems to train with it. But any faults of her character are completely and utterly forgivable in my opinion because she is so charming and comforting as a character. Nathanial calls her a “feral librarian” once or twice, which is an accurate description because she has no idea how “society” works having grown up an orphan in a library her whole life, and her bumbling attempts at mingling with Austermeer’s nobility are pretty funny. Also Elisabeth is described as really tall, like taller than most men, and as a tall girl I feel very attached to her and very seen, as heroines are typically described as slight, or have their love interests towering over them. Elisabeth is my kind of tall girl, she embraces her height and uses it to her advantage. I do like very much that neither Nathanial or Elisabeth try to be anything other than what they are – classic YA tropes who are so easy to love and root for because tropes exist for a reason – because they work.

I’ll take a quick moment to go into the only other character of note in this story, Silas. Without giving too much away, he is someone who has served and cared for Nathanial his whole life, there is a short moment where I was concerned that this was going to be a love triangle that I never asked for, but luckily that is not the case and that is clarified pretty early on, to my relief. I would say that Silas is probably the character that is the least defined by trope of the main characters, but he is charming and comforting all the same. Since this is a spoiler-free review, I’ll stop before describing too much about him, but he is certainly a worthy character in this small-cast story.

The world building, as I mentioned a bit before, is beautifully original and well done. One might argue, in fact, that she goes a bit too hard with some of the concepts that she builds. For example, the moss folk, who are faerie-like creatures that were nearly wiped out by humanity and their destruction of the forests in Austermeer. Very interesting, and brought up a few times, but they never really come into play in any way. Even though the story and the characters wrapped up well in this standalone piece, I find myself craving more time in Austermeer, even with different characters, but alas, this is all I’m getting. So that is really the only complaint I have about my experience reading this book, so again I really felt as though I couldn’t justify taking a way even half a star here.

If you’re looking for something highly unique and well written with a world of magical books that will call to any book-nerd’s heart, without having to commit to a series, this book is certainly for you. But if you’re tired of books that play upon common character tropes, you may not get as much from this story as I did.

If you liked Sorcery of Thorns, try:

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Carry On by Rainbow Rowel

The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak

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