Reviews

Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore (Book 4)

# of Pages: 511

Time it took me to read: 5 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 73

Rating: 4 out of 5

The world is getting bigger. Ever since Queen Bitterblue found out about the two lands, Pikkia and The Dells, over the mountains that form the eastern boundary of her kingdom of Monsea, things have only changed more and more. Across the eastern ocean from The Dells lies yet another continent, full of countries with democratic governments and advanced technology. In the five years since their discovery, all of the lands of Bitterblue’s continent as well as the countries on the continent of Torla have exchanged languages and cultures and lived peacefully.

But when two of Bitterblue’s agents in the country of Winterkeep on Torla end up dead, she finds that it might not have been the accident that it seems to be. Along with her half sister Hava and trusted friend Giddon, Bitterblue knows she has to journey to the land of Winterkeep to get to the bottom of the deaths of her envoys, as well as the possible wars brewing along at least one of her borders.

Things have always been the same for Lovisa Cavenda. First born child in the wealthy and powerful Cavenda family, she has always known what her place would be: study government, choose a political party when she graduates, and follow her family’s expectations.

But things are heating up between the two political parties of Winterkeep, which are the Scholars and the Industrialists. Lovisa’s mother is the president of Winterkeep, and a Scholar, while her father is a shipping magnate, and part of the Industrialist party. When Lovisa learns they will be hosting the queen of Monsea at her home when she visits Winterkeep, she begins to sense that something isn’t right. Winterkeep is full of secrets, and Lovisa can’t trust anyone else to get to the bottom of it.

Review:

!!!SPOILERS AHEAD!!! I’m so sorry everyone, normally I try to post spoiler-free reviews, but many of my feelings about this book involve spoilers, so if you think you may be interested in reading Winterkeep but haven’t yet, please click away!


I’m going to try to not let this review completely derail into a rant, but it likely will at some point so thanks to anyone who is able to stick with me.

I’ll start by saying, as I’ve covered in other reviews of Graceling books, that Kristin Cashore might be one of the most creative authors in all of YA. She’s created not one, not two, but three completely unique lands with unique magic and unique problems. This book, which takes place primarily in Winterkeep, is no exception. Winterkeep doesn’t have gracelings like the Seven Kingdoms or monsters like The Dells, but the magic of the land comes in the form of two kinds of telepathic creatures who can communicate with people: the blue foxes and the silbercows. The blue foxes are very intelligent and will often choose a human to bond with, when human and fox share a special and closed connection. Silbercows live in the sea and are very friendly with humans, often saving them from drowning in the dangerous ocean. Winterkeep also has a unique government with two political parties rather than a monarchy like the countries on the other continent. Cashore has really gone all out in creating an immersive new world in this story, so A+ on that.

Next, plot and storyline. Cashore really seems to have found her calling in political dramas / mysteries. Ever since Graceling, each book after has had less and less of an action element and more of a spy intrigue feel, which is not normally my cup of tea, but Cashore is such a talented writer that her books are a joy to read no matter what. Winterkeep, like Bitterblue, started out very slow for me, but as the threads became more tangled, the excitement built. I felt that Winterkeep was a bit more on the predictable side than Bitterblue, which didn’t particularly disappoint me, but is something that I wanted to mention. In Bitterblue, there wasn’t really a singular antagonist, and it felt as though any of the characters, even the ones you were supposed to trust, could be working against Bitterblue. But in Winterkeep, it felt pretty clear from the beginning who the antagonists were, though the goals of those antagonists weren’t as predictable. I know it sounds like a pretty boring political intrigue / mystery if it’s predictable, but again, these books are so well written and generally enjoyable to read, I personally don’t feel let down by being able to predict the endings.

And now, onto certainly the most important part of these most recent Graceling books, the characters. Winterkeep was unique because unlike the previous three books, instead of having one main protagonist, there were arguably four: Bitterblue, Lovisa, Giddon, and Ad. Bitterblue’s voice was probably my favorite, because she’s familiar and I recently read her titular book, so I enjoyed getting to be back in her head again. Though Giddon has never had a protagonist role before, he’s been a part of three of the four books, so he felt somewhat familiar as well. At first I wasn’t really a fan of this book trying to endear him to me, because he’s never been a favorite of mine, ever since he was such a big baby when Katsa rejected him in the very first book. But over time I felt myself rooting for Giddon, even if it was a little bit begrudgingly. The character Ad, short for Adventure Fox, is one of the telepathic foxes of Winterkeep, bonded to Lovisa’s mother. Ad is an interesting perspective, pretty human-seeming, which I found kind of odd for an animal. I mean, I think Ad would have not been a particularly successful protagonist had he been so animal-like that he was unrelatable, but I think it was an interesting choice of protagonist.

And finally, Lovisa. She was probably my least favorite protagonist, but that’s just an opinion of mine, not due to anything I think was wrong with the way she was written. She’s sixteen years old, and I find her immensely unlikable for most of the story. I think it’s clear that she’s “the good guy”, so it’s not like she’s morally questionable, in fact she has to deal with all of the hardest hitting moral dilemmas of the story. She’s well written, and clearly on the “right side” so you have to root for her, but I just never felt as engaged when reading her chapters as I did with the other protagonists. She’s objectively interesting and well-written, and I think is probably an accurate reflection of her life experiences, many of which are traumatic, but I just didn’t like her. I think that were Kristin Cashore to write another book more specifically focusing on her, I’d certainly read it and perhaps she’d eventually endear herself to me, but in this story I felt that her arc didn’t particularly matter very much to me.

Alright, I’ve held off long enough, this is going to be my rant section and then I’ll wrap this review up. And this is REALLY where the spoilers hit, so if you ignored my warning above and kept reading, but you actually don’t want spoilers, LAST CHANCE.

The romantic subplot in this book belongs to Bitterblue…and Giddon. Which I could tell was going to be the case like fifteen pages in, and initially I was like NO. Because here’s the deal. There is no evidence that Giddon and Bitterblue really met in Graceling, when Bitterblue was ten and Giddon was eighteen, so I think we can avoid any gross “I’ve had my eye on you since you were ten” vibes. But they became close in Bitterblue, when she was eighteen and he was twenty-six. Now, in this book, Bitterblue is twenty-four and Giddon has just turned thirty-two, which in modern times is a pretty big gap for this age group, but in fantasy isn’t as big of a gap as I’ve seen and been okay with. And Bitterblue is VERY mature for twenty-four, as she’s been a queen for nearly a decade and a half already. But I think where my main problem is is that in Bitterblue, I sensed NO romantic inklings, their relationship gave me more sibling vibes, so I feel as though in Winterkeep this type of connection was just drawn up out of thin air. And while yes, by the end of the book I was rooting for it, it was a bit begrudgingly because I don’t fully feel as though Giddon had earned it because once again, I’m still bitter that he was a big baby in book one. Whew. End rant.

!!!END SPOILERS!!!

Overall, I enjoyed this book very much, it was a worthy addition to the Graceling world. I only ended up taking a star off for personal reasons: it took me a while to get into, I found one or two of the protagonists to be kinda meh, and there wasn’t quite enough action to get me to yell five out of five stars. I certainly hope that Kristin Cashore will write another Graceling book, and that she won’t wait ten years this time.

If you liked Winterkeep, try:

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta

Bloodleaf by Crystal Smith

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

P.S. I’ve had quite a busy few weeks in my personal life, but I’m hoping to get back to posting here regularly again, so thanks a bunch for your patience!

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

The Reader by Traci Chee

the reader

# of Pages: 437

Time it took me to read: 1 week

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 63

Rating: 4 out of 5

An ethereal fantasy, The Reader follows young Sefia, who lives her life on the run along with her aunt Nin, the only family she has left. After Nin is captured by their enemies, Sefia must learn to fight and survive on her own, guided only by a mysterious object left to her by her parents. With the help of Archer, a boy who was kidnapped as a child and trained to be lethal, Sefia learns the power of the written word and hunts for those who have taken her aunt and appear to have the answers that she has always been seeking.

Let me start off by saying that this book was not an instant hit for me. I didn’t start out feeling super attached to our young protagonist, Sefia, and the plot didn’t run away and take me with it right off the bat. But I was determined not to give up on this book, because it did have one thing going for it from page one: it was so pretty.

Now, as I am not one of the “prettiest” writers in the world, I instantly have envy for authors who weave their words together like music and make every sentence truly lyrical. If you like writers like that, too, check out Maggie Stiefvater, one of my YA favorites (her Raven Boys is truly to die for). But I have to say that Traci Chee must have a silver tipped pen, because she does not write like this is her YA debut. So she certainly got full points for style, and for that reason, there was no way I wasn’t going to give this book a full chance.

I think it took the introduction of Archer, the voiceless, destructively loyal boy that Sefia picks up during the desperate search for her aunt, to really spark my interest. Chee does an excellent job of describing the way that Archer and Sefia create a language for themselves, one that involves gestures and facial movement. Because that is what this book is about, after all. Language, in all the shapes and forms that it takes.

One of my favorite books growing up was Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart. I think almost everyone who is a vicarious reader cannot help but love Inkheart because it’s one of those meta books, you know? Like it’s about characters who are readers, it’s about telling stories, and bringing words to life in a way that we in the real world can only dream of. Any fans of Inkheart should certainly pick up The Reader, because it has that exact same meta feel to it. In Chee’s world of Kelanna, the written word has immense power, and only a select few are trusted with the secret knowledge of how to read and write.

By the end of this book, I was very disappointed to have to put it down. I fell in love with the unique, vibrant world of Kelanna, and Chee’s wacky cast of characters really grew on me. It took about half way through before the plot started to really move, for me at least, but in the end I think that Chee makes up for it with incredible attention to character growth and world detail. I certainly can’t wait for book two, and in the mean time I hope I can convince you to pick up The Reader, Book One of Sea of Ink and Gold.

If you like The Reader, try: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

              Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

              Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo