I’ve been on a bit of an escapist thriller binge recently, so when Ollie from Hodder emailed about this psychological thriller with gothic elements, I was all ears. It’s a compelling story where things are not as they first seem – a great book to take along on holiday this summer!
Many thanks to Ollie at Hodder for sending me a review copy. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 26/05/2022
STAR RATING: 3.5/5 ✶
SUMMARY: You can run from your past, but you can’t hide forever…
Rebecca Bray has moved on from a childhood she desperately wants to forget.
She has everything she’s ever wanted – the perfect fiancé, a loving stepdaughter, a career she’s proud of, and now the house of her dreams.
But when the family move to the Cornish village where Rebecca grew up, everything she wanted to bury from those years starts to claw at the surface.
Then, when her stepdaughter goes missing at a New Year’s Eve party, Rebecca must finally face the ghosts of her past – or Ava might never come home safely… (from Hodder)
OPINIONS: I’m not sure why, but when my brain is tired these days, crime and thriller novels work great as quick reads that help me relax and regain energy. I spent a long time not really reading much in the genre, and have only really gotten back into it in the last year or so, and I’m really happy that I’m getting the opportunity to read a bunch for review at the moment. Return to Blackwater House by Vicki Patis is an atmospheric psychological thriller that keeps the reader guessing for a very long time. It is dark, even messed up at times, and it is most definitely twisty. But most of all, it is a fun and compelling read.
And it has interesting characters. Every single character has depth and a backstory that comes through in layers, from Rebecca, the stepmother, to Ava, the missing daughter, to the dad, the detective, and everyone else involved. Nothing is as it seems in those first few chapters of exposition and the story slowly unravels to show past and present, weaving in strands of mental illness struggles blending hallucinations with reality to keep the reader on their toes.
Vicki Patis is an author to look out for, and I’m curious to see what she comes up with next. I’m hoping more delightfully psychological thrillers with gothic elements like this!
I finally managed to provide you with some Monday Mini fodder again. All slightly whimsical, legend/folk tale inspired fantasy, but with very different approaches and styles today. I hope you find something that intrigues you among this selection. Many thanks to the respective publishers for providing me with eARCs via NetGalley, all opinions are entirely my own.
A Mirror Mended is the second novella in Alix E. Harrow’s Fractured Fairytales series. It follows on from A Spindle Splintered, though is set a few years in the future from that first book. Unfortunately, the things that didn’t click for me with the first novella seemed to be coming out in even stronger force in this second installment. Zinnia is now spending most of her time helping fairy tale characters trapped in their stories to escape tropes, to the detriment of her relationships with the people close to her. This felt far too short for the content that Harrow tried to discuss within the confines of the novella, leaving topics addressed but not properly discussed to their conclusion, with unsatisfying resolutions, relationships that read very superficial even if that clearly wasn’t the intention. I kept longing for more space, for more depth. While I adore Harrow’s full-length work and her short fiction, these novellas are her weakest writing to date and left me wanting more.
The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones is a Welsh-inspired, mythology-based YA fantasy. It tells a heist story as a framing device to retell a part of Welsh mythology that gives an origin story to the landscape – which is absolute catnip to me, having studied similar narratives in my past life as an academic. I devoured this fantasy, and found much to love. Mer, the main character, is openly bisexual – there is a femme ex love interest and a masc current love interest on page – and it is simply accepted in this medieval-ish society. Such heart-eyes, such love from my side. It isn’t the type of highly researched fantasy like Spear, this is more on the lighthearted and entertaining side, but it is exactly what I needed this weekend. The characters were great – Mer, Ifanna, the thief who betrayed her in the past, Mer’s mentor who she was never quite sure how she felt towards him and Fane, the love interest with fae connections. A great YA.
Monsters Born and Made by Tanvi Berwah is another YA fantasy. This one inspired by the author’s South Asian background, featuring a large-scale race in which the elite compete for glory. Koral, the main character, is very much not part of this elite, but circumstances have her sneak her way into the competition and stand against those who have been training their entire lives for this. In some ways, this is reminiscent of a better, more timely version of The Hunger Games – in a good way. I found this an enjoyable read, though I thought that perhaps the ending was a bit too convenient in the last couple of pages. I don’t think this is a standout read of 2022 for me, but it is a solid YA fantasy debut I recommend picking up if you like the sound of it.
I’ve heard great things about Olivia Atwater’s Regency Faerie Tales for years, which means I was thrilled when I found out that her self-published work was so successful that the lovely folks over at Orbit decided to pick them up for re-release. I’ve never read them before – and reading them now, I’m finding them magical and lovely and am kicking myself for missing out for so long. And now my flatmate is stealing them as soon as I finish…
Huge thanks to Nazia at Orbit for sending me review copies of both these books. All opinions are my own.
Half a Soul
RELEASE DATE: 30/06/2022
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
Half a Soul tells the story of Theodora, a young woman in dire need of a husband to settle her family’s finances. But as it is wont to do, life has other ideas. And she gets pulled into a world of fae and magic. A lovely romance with wonderful characters that introduces the world of Olivia Atwater’s Regency Faerie Tales. Dora finds out that she was part of a bargain her late mother had made with the faerie Lord Hollowvale – and has to contend with a copy of herself, retaining her autonomy and ensuring her and her family’s future. And of course there’s also a good dash of romance. I devoured this book and immediately went on to read the second in the series of standalones – I highly recommend these wonderful stories as light, comforting reads, especially for vacations and times when you want to relax. Order a copy of the Orbit edition via Bookshop here. (affiliate link)
Ten Thousand Stitches
RELEASE DATE: 21/07/2022
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
Ten Thousand Stitches is the second book in this series of standalones in a shared world. This one is loosely based on the story of Cinderella, taking elements from the fairy tale but making it its own story. I adored this one even more than Half a Soul. I loved the chaos of maid Effie trying to muddle through life, to achieve dreams that were outside of the social boundaries, and I loved Lord Blackthorn’s attempt at being a fairy godfather. While the trope of the fairy godmother is an ubiquitous one, I’ve never seen a male twist on it before, and this one really worked well – in D&D terms, he’d have a chaotic good alignment, trying his best, but outside the codex of laws and regulations of society and therefore causing havoc. There is romance, there are shenanigans and there is a socialist revolt and proto-unionising. An absolute delight of a comfort read. Order a copy of the Orbit edition via Bookshop here. (affiliate link).
SUMMARY: Thora and Santi are strangers in a foreign city when a chance encounter intertwines their fates. At once, they recognize in each other a kindred spirit—someone who shares their insatiable curiosity, who is longing for more in life than the cards they’ve been dealt. Only days later, though, a tragic accident cuts their story short.
But this is only one of the many connections they share. Like satellites trapped in orbit around each other, Thora and Santi are destined to meet again: as a teacher and prodigy student; a caretaker and dying patient; a cynic and a believer. In numerous lives they become friends, colleagues, lovers, and enemies. But as blurred memories and strange patterns compound, Thora and Santi come to a shocking revelation—they must discover the truth of their mysterious attachment before their many lives come to one, final end
OPINION: The time traveller’s wife is one of my favourite books, and one I come to time and time again. So when I saw that “Meet Me in Another Life” was comped to it I was very excited. Additionally, questions of determinism and to what extent events in our lives shape our core selves are like catnip to me. However to assume its another version of TTW is to do both of them a disservice, I love that MMiAL isn’t a romance – that a variety of ways Thora and Santi interact and relate to each other occur and very rarely are the two of them as a romantic couple a possibility.
When I first started reading this for SCKA, I was bemused though. It had been nominated for the science fiction category but I felt like it was much more literary than SF, however as the story progresses it becomes much more clear and to say anymore would be a spoiler. However for those who like a very strong sci-fi element they may be slightly disappointed, it is relevant to the story, but many of the tropes of sci-fi are missing here.
We get to see both sides of Thora and Santi. While Thora is initially presented as the difficult prickly one, and Santi the more calm, patient one this evolves and changes throughout the book and different lives, with Thora learning different ways of behaving, and Santi having his faith and sense of surety shaken through some of the iterations. However the book makes it clear that that Santi’s acceptance doesn’t have its own issues and that it’s not smoothing out Thora’s sharp edges, or changing her too far away from her core self – one that remains not easy to cooperate with. I really enjoyed this element as we ask a lot of our women characters, and it’s nice to see one that wasn’t the perfect team player at the end of the book.
To conclude this is definitely a character driven book, one with speculative elements but not necessarily in the guise or format expected for a sci-fi book. It definitely leans on the more literary approach even if it doesn’t suffer from some of the frustrations lit fic can sometimes have for me.
If I were to pick one word to describe The Quarter Storm it would be atmospheric. This mystery steeped in Vodou magic immerses you in the communities, environment, and day-to-day life of a post-Katrina New Orleans so effectively it’s as if you’ve been transported there, feeling the humidity on your skin as you walk down the streets of the Quater and witnessing the events of the book yourself. In some respects, The Quarter Storm reads like a slice-of-life fantasy. As the mystery unfolds, the reader experiences the mundane: preparing gumbo, walking into a neighborhood bar and grill, or bringing a meal to less fortunate friends. Yet these events are interwoven with the plot elements so as to play an important role in unraveling the mystery. If you enjoy atmospheric, slice-of-life fantasy that is steeped in the culture and traditions of a specific urban center, then you’ll like The Quarter Storm. It is quite the nod to New Orleans and a satisfying read. I received an ARC of this book from 47North. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 01/03/2022
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
A practitioner of Vodou must test the boundaries of her powers to solve a ritual murder in New Orleans and protect everything she holds sacred.
Haitian-American Vodou priestess Mambo Reina Dumond runs a healing practice from her New Orleans home. Gifted with water magic since she was a child, Reina is devoted to the benevolent traditions of her ancestors.
After a ritual slaying in the French Quarter, police arrest a fellow vodouisant. Detective Roman Frost, Reina’s ex-boyfriend—a fierce nonbeliever—is eager to tie the crime, and half a dozen others, to the Vodou practitioners of New Orleans. Reina resolves to find the real killer and defend the Vodou practice and customs, but the motives behind the murder are deeper and darker than she imagines.
As Reina delves into the city’s shadows, she untangles more than just the truth behind a devious crime. It’s a conspiracy. As a killer wields dangerous magic to thwart Reina’s investigation, she must tap into the strength of her own power and faith to solve a mystery that threatens to destroy her entire way of life.
There are several aspects of The Quarter Storm that stood out to me, the first of which was the characterzation. I thought Henry did a phenomenal job here. The characters felt real with all their faults, and oh do they have faults. From the high-spirited, eager-to-fight Tyka, to the righteous and Vodou-wary Roman, to the haughty and self-serving Lucien, Henry’s characters have a depth that you can only achieve through vice and virtue. These characters do not always make the right decisions, and in fact sometimes take morally ambiguous action. But that’s what makes them so compelling. That’s real life.
Reina, the MC, is especially human, and I found myself invested in her life. She is three-dimensional, having powerful magical capabilities through her lwa, while at the same time struggling to pay her bills. She makes her livelihood through practicing her religion, but never at the cost of authenticity – no commercial exploitation of her beliefs just for a quick buck here! Despite multiple warnings, she devotes herself to uncovering the truth of the grisly murder pegged on one of their own, protecting her religion against the dangerous stereotypes and assumptions that would make it an easy scapegoat.
But the depth of character doesn’t stop there. Reina is a terrible cook, trying unsuccessfully to make meals for her friends using all the wrong ingredients. She grieves the loss of her mother, unable to let go years later – had her mother abandonded New Orleans, or had she been swept away by the waters of Katrina? Reina is in love with the wrong man, in and out of a relationship with Roman despite the fact that he rejects and despises her religion. Love is like that sometimes, coming unwanted and pulling you toward someone you have no business being with. These aspects of her character combine to make Reina so human and so relatable.
The use of Haitian Creole thoughout the story as well as the in-depth history and lore of Vodou lent further authenticity to the characters and the world. I found myself googling translations and reading Wikipedia to learn more. To me, that’s a sign that an author has done a great job at urban world-building – her sprinkling of language and lore throughout the story hooked me into wanting to learn even more about these people and their culture.
The most profound and surprising aspect of this book was its treatment of Katrina. Katrina’s presence is felt; it loomed in the background almost as if it was its own character, but it was never the centerpiece of the story, and I thought that was masterfully done. The setting is a post-Katrina New Orleans, and the author’s treatment of that fact cannot be overlooked despite the fact she doesn’t beat the reader over the head with it! The real message here is that life goes on. Yes, Katrina was a defining moment in history that changed things irrevocably in New Orleans, and yet life goes on, however changed. And although Katrina did shape many of the events in the story and the mystery, it was woven into the fabric of the atmosphere and plot so subtly and naturally that it didn’t overshadow the other aspets of the story. Henry’s treatment of Katrina deserves applause. Bravo!
I’ll admit that the elements of the mystery did feel somewhat thin. The various encounters Reina had to find clues left me wanting more insight. It often felt like she instigated investigative conversations and then walked away with no more information than when she entered the encounter. I overlooked that though, because she wasn’t a detective, and that really didn’t feel like the focus of the story to me. The focus was Reina’s life as a Vodouisant in New Orleans and the mystery was a means by which Henry explores that.
Henry’s prose was lovely, and her use of colloquial dialogue struck the right balance, especially considering the strong and varied dialects of that particular region. It wasn’t overdone and never pulled me out of the story.
I would recommend The Quarter Storm to anyone interested in a “witchy” vibe, in an urban fantasy where the setting is almost as imporant as the story itself. It would also be perfect for someone craving a trip to New Orleans, who wants to be transported to that city through the fantastical exploration of Vodou magic and murder mystery.
If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know I adore short fiction, especially in the form of YA anthologies. And one of the books that sparked that love was Saundra Mitchell’s anthology All Out. So of course I jumped at the opportunity to read the last anthology in this series of three, Out There: Into the Queer New Yonder, featuring future-set stories about queer teens from a wide range of identities and authors. However, I think while the concept is amazing, this one is the weakest link in the series.
Many thanks to Harper360YA for sending me an ARC for review. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 07/07/2022
STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Explore new and familiar worlds where the human consciousness can be uploaded into a body on Mars…an alien helps a girl decide if she should tell her best friend how she feels…two teens get stuck in a time loop at a space station…people are forced to travel to the past or the future to escape the dying planet…only a nonbinary person can translate the binary code of a machine that predicts the future…everyone in the world vanishes except for two teen girls who are in love.
This essential and beautifully written collection immerses and surprises with each turn of the page.
With original stories from:
Ugochi M. Agoawike
Emma K. Ohland
Mato J. Steger
(from Inkyard Press)
OPINIONS: I loved All Out, Saundra Mitchell’s first anthology about queer teens, featuring a range of the best YA authors writing about their takes on historical queerness. This winning streak continued with Out Now, featuring contemporary stories and now, Out There, which reaches for a queer future. Many of the stories in this anthology are science fiction, some are merely set in a contemporary future, but all of them continue the theme: featuring queer teens living their lives, showcased by some of the best YA talent publishing right now. I did find that this third anthology had less standout stories than the first two – for me personally, All Out was full of them, Out Now had a fair amount and the standouts in Out There were only a handful.
But the quality of the anthology throughout is solid – and just because not every story worked for me personally doesn’t mean it should not be told and doesn’t have an audience. Because to me, that’s the beauty of these anthologies: they feature such a wide range of identities and perspectives that there is something that will click with every reader, whether they are trying to find their identity or looking for representation, or even just exploring what the world has to offer.
Among the stories that really touched me was Kalynn Bayron’s “The Department of Homegoing Affairs” which was a heartwarming sapphic story with a dark side, dealing with death and loss as well as queerness. I love her writing and this was no exception. I found it magical and compelling. I also adored “Concerto” by Abdi Nazemian, though again this had a lot of bittersweet elements to it – it seems that I need a good dose of darkness with my comfort these days! There were other stories that I really enjoyed too, but these two were my favourites in the anthology and the ones that stuck with me for a while after reading.
While I do think that Out There is the weakest entry into this trilogy of anthologies, it is a strong weakest link and I think this concept is more valuable than potential flaws in its execution for the individual reader. I hope you pick one of these anthologies up for yourself or a young person in your life and it gives you joy.
Welcome back to another round of Monday Minis – I’m sorry these have become a bit more sporadic as life has been increasingly manic these last few weeks! But here’s a solid selection of books for the week – something for every sort of reader, really. Many thanks to the respective publicists for giving me access to eARCs via NetGalley, all opinions are my own as always.
A Prayer for the Crown-Shy is the follow-up to Becky Chambers’ Hugo- (and Subjective Chaos) nominated A Psalm for the Wild-Built. And this one may be even better than the first book. It keeps following Sibling Dex and Mosscap on their journey, and it gets more personal this time. A major plot element is Mosscap getting “injured” and having a part that needs replacing – along with all of the philosophical considerations that come with it. In A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, Dex and Mosscap interact more with others, and it really feels like the series is coming into its own. I loved how Mosscap’s personality as a curious observer dominated his interactions with the people they met on their travels, and Dex got to see their family again. It is a wonderful quick comfort read, and I desperately want more.
I can’t quite believe that The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner was first published in 1996. It has only now come over to this side of the Atlantic thanks to the good work of the lovely folk over at Hodderscape – and reads like a newly published book. A timeless YA classic, really. The Thief is a compelling, fast read centred around a thief, Eugenides, called Gen and a massive heist, politics and a misfit gang. In short, lots of things still on trend in YA and with good reason. I had the pleasure to listen to Megan chat about the book and her journey as a writer last week, and I have been assured that the second book in the series is even better than this first one by my lovely flatmate who has read them all growing up. Definitely a wonderful series to get your teeth into and read as they’re now published in the UK in quick succession with stunning covers!
Peter V. Brett’s The Desert Prince is an epic fantasy set in a somewhat Middle Eastern/North African feeling setting. It is the first book in a new series, though set in the same world as his earlier books – fifteen years on. This was my first Brett book, and I did notice a lack of context at times, though it largely stands on its own merit and knowledge of the earlier books is not necessary to follow the story. It just gives an added dimension to it, and I imagine makes it easier for readers to pick up on cultural references between characters that I likely missed. What makes The Desert Prince stand out from other epic fantasy is that Olive, the main character, is intersex. Always aware of the unique body they were born with, Olive was socialised as a girl and over the course of the story struggles with the confines of that identity. But it did feel like this was often simplified, and I would have loved to see Olive really find a non-binary identity and communicate that, rather than letting themselves be boxed into places that don’t entirely fit by others. All in all, The Desert Prince was an entertaining book – in many ways traditional epic fantasy battling demons, betrayal and politics with chosen ones at its centre, but a fun twist on it. I may well pick up the sequel.
J.R. Ward is a force in Paranormal Romance and Romance in general (as Jessica Bird), having won multiple RITAs and creating a fandom that is staggering in size and devotion. The Black Dagger Brotherhood came out in 2005, one of the foundational PNR series that “started it all” in the wake of 9/11, and like some of the other “blockbuster” series that emerged during that time, it’s still going. With twenty books, the most recent of which came out this April, and two spin-off series, the Black Dagger Brotherhood has established itself as a franchise with staying power. This review will survey BDB in general – at least the books I’ve read thus far – in an attempt to understand why it is so beloved and a cornerstone of the PNR genre.
This review was originally written as part of a personal project to complete an all Fantasy Romance card for r/fantasy’s 2022 Book Bingo. You can read an introduction to my project here. All opinions are my own.
STARS: 3/5 ✶
STARS: 3/5 ✶
STARS: 4/5 ✶
STARS: 5/5 ✶
There is a lot to unpack about the Black Dagger Brotherhood; it’s difficult to know where to start. The best place, perhaps, is through comparison. Imagine if you took The Black Company by Glen Cook, and you turned the concept of their hyper-masculine band of brothers-in-arms, moved it to the modern world, made them vampires, and added a heaping dose of romance. Presto! You have the Black Dagger Brotherhood. They are an elite force of military-grade vampires, bred for protecting their race, bonded into brotherhood by hundreds of years of devotion to their King and one another, but each having their own unique story, traits, and abilities.
One of the things I found fascinating about this series is its take on vampires. In terms of tropes, it has the standard vampire-slayer conflict, except that the world-building around that trope is wildly unexpected. In this world, vampires are a species distinct from humans that are born, not sired. Their progenitor is an immortal being known as the Scribe Virgin who is at war with another immortal known as the Omega and is determined to put an end to the vampire race. Furthermore, vampires don’t kill or feed on humans; only the blood of their own race can nourish them. So, this is not a battle of humans against vampires, but of the legions of “lessers” created by the Omega to exterminate the vampires set in the human world. Like I said, fascinating take.
In my opinion, this series falls squarely under the Dark Fantasy subgenre (from a Speculative Fiction perspective) for multiple reasons. Yes, it is incredibly violent, but in some respects that’s simply a “surface” darkness. What I find truly dark, because it is troubling on a deeper level (and, in fact, flat out creepy) are the “lessers.” These beings are created by the Omega by removing their soul both metaphorically and physically in exchange for immortality – their hearts are literally excised from their bodies and stored in jars – to gain their powers. These beings are straight up sociopaths, even before they are turned, and it is described in detail on page. One of the unique things about this series is that it is multi-POV. The reader gets to read the events from the lessers POV, and it is disturbing. They have no conscience. I’ll be honest, those sections are hardest reads for me. It is purposeful though in that the author is presenting a clear contrast between the necessary violence of the brotherhood and the pure acts of evil transgressed by the lessers.
To further establish the dark tone, the world itself is incredibly bleak. The series takes place in a fictional large city in upstate New York where drugs, alcohol, prostitution, sex, addiction, murder, and what is essentially gang warfare are all taking place, explicitly. Characters are tortured. Characters you like are shot and killed point blank. Heroes are borderline alcoholics, and one almost turned to heroin to quell his emotional turmoil. Couples do get their HEAs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean things turn out well for the other characters. This series comes with a LOT of content warnings. I’m not going to list them here. But as with any Grimdark or Dark Fantasy series, if readers have particular triggers, you should definitely search out the CWs and make sure you understand them going in (e.g. book 3 contains explicit descriptions of the MMC being raped). It is a brutal world that, combined with the multiple POVs and the plot, deliver a truly Dark Urban Fantasy experience.
The first book is perhaps the weakest of the bunch, but I think that’s more endemic of the fact that it’s a first book in a sweeping Urban Fantasy series than it is of this series in particular. A significant amount of time is spent explaining and exploring the world. So much so that Romance fans will probably find the romance in book one a touch thin. It definitely has a fated mates element to it as well, and unfortunately under-developed insta-love, which was one of the reasons I gave the first book only 3 stars. But that quickly turns around in book 2, where the romance and characters are developed in significantly more detail. By books 3 and 4, the character and relationship arcs are far more fleshed out and fully developed as you can see reflected in my ratings (4 and 5, respectively). I’ll be honest, had I not made a commitment to read 3-4 books per series for this Book Bingo project, I probably would not have read on in this series. But I am SO glad that I did, because book 1 is not representative of what you’ll find as you progress through this crazy world, and by the time I got to book 4, it was a 5-star read for me.
This series rides a line between Urban Fantasy Romance and Paranormal Romance given the multiple POVs and structure. Yes, there is a single HEA per book, but the foundations of other relationships, both romantic and otherwise, exist to a far greater extent in each book than I’ve seen in other series, in part due to the multi POVs. Also, the series-spanning plot arcs of the war between the brotherhood and the lessers definitely takes a front seat in equal measure to the romance. In my estimate, that tips the scales for me to categorize this as Urban Fantasy Romance (at least as far as I have read).
This series is not without its faults. So many fans have commented on the names, and I’d be remiss to not bring it up. Yes, the names of the brothers are ridiculous – Phury, Rhage, Tohrment, Rehvenge, Vishous – but honestly, as I continued to read on in the series, it didn’t stand out as much to me because it meshed with the world-building. The vampires speak an Old Language, and so it’s not only their names but also other proper nouns and rituals that have these odd spellings. In fact, there is a glossary of terms at the beginning of each book! I know, I know – ridiculous, right? And it really was at first. But by book 4, I didn’t even notice it. It just fit.
What actually garnered more eye-rolling for me was the early-2000’s references to pop-culture. They’re driving around in Escalades listening to rap music (and referring to actual rappers and songs) and wearing designer suits (which are also called out specifically). That *did* start to grate, but at the same time was somewhat entertaining as it was like taking a time machine back to my graduate school days, a little window back in time. All this to say, just know, going in, these things exist and may pull you out of the story.
Probably the most problematic part of these books is that they are *highly* gendered and the descriptions of LGBTQ+ characters are less than great. If the presence of these two things is a non-starter for you, I would not recommend this series.
The Fated Mates podcast did an episode on BDB, and although I wished they had gone into some of the issues I’ve described above in greater detail, one of the things they did comment on that I thought hit the mark is that they called this series “propulsive.” This description is spot on. Despite the drawbacks I enumerated above, the plotting and its pacing *propel* you to keep reading. Even though the books were graphic and a lot to take at once, I could not stop reading. I read books 2 through 4 in 6 days!
I will most likely read on in the series, specifically to reach the books that focus on the characters whose stories I’d like to see completed, but I am going to take a short break to recover a bit from this dark and brutal world. Who would I recommend this series to? Oof – that’s a tough call. Probably fans of Dark Fantasy or Grimdark that are looking for romance in their stories. This series is not for the faint of heart, and so I would make sure that anyone I recommend this to know what they’re getting into. Good luck – this series is a doozy!
Balanced on the Blade’s Edge is another book that’s been sitting on my TBR for some time, rec’ed to me (somewhere – I admit to not remembering at this point) in a request for adult Fantasy Romance. It’s the first book in Lindsay Buroker’s Dragon Blood series, which she admits on her website is far more of a foray into Romance for her than her other novels. That being said, this is not a Romance series – it is most definitely a Fantasy series in which there is a Romance in the first book, a Romance in the second book, and then – based on Goodreads blurbs, reviews, discussions with friends – falls squarely back into Fantasy, albeit with some romantic elements between the couples stretched out throughout the remainder of the series.
This review was originally written as part of a personal project to complete an all Fantasy Romance card for r/fantasy’s 2022 Book Bingo. You can read an introduction to my project here. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 24/03/2014
STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶
For me, I think the best word to describe my impression of this book is “thin” – I found the world-building thin, the character development thin, the relationship development thin, and the plot thin. To be fair, this is a short book, but honestly, I think I would have found it a more compelling read had it been twice as long and all these crucial elements fleshed out in greater detail. I wanted to like Sardelle, I really did, but she just fell so flat for me, because I didn’t have enough backstory or insight into her character to really care. Ridge was a little better, the consummate flyboy, but still, there wasn’t enough depth for me to feel connected to him or invested in his success. As always, I did love that the FMC and MMC were older – Ridge is over 40 and Sardelle in her mid-30s – yay for older protags!
Honestly, perhaps the most compelling character and dynamic in the book was Jaxi – Sardelle’s soulblade. She is the soul of a sorceress bound to a sword and bonded with her wielder Sardelle, giving Sardelle even more power. Their banter was entertaining, and it reminded me a little of the banter between the FMC and the computer in Johanna Lindsay’s Warrior’s Woman. Their ongoing joke of giving people rashes to foil them without them realizing it was done by magic was entertaining.
The bones of an interesting world were put in place, but they weren’t explored enough to have me really feel invested. We learn the reason for the series title – Dragon Blood – magic stems from the blood of dragons who are now extinct, but we don’t really understand why or how that works. There is an entire culture that was eliminated and buried under the mountain, but again, there’s a lot of missing information about why and who they were. I can only hope that as the series progresses, more of this world-building is fleshed out. Also, its definitely steampunk – airships and planes – but… that’s about it. I wish she would have leaned into the steampunk aesthetic more.
The plot was also a bit lacking for me. There is a quest to retrieve Jaxi from the mountain, but the plot points surrounding that needed something more. For example, how Ridge ultimately finds out that Sardelle is a sorceress, for me, was anti-climactic. The author had an opportunity here to really develop these two characters and connect them through the reveal of Sardelle as a sorceress, e.g. Sardelle could have confided in him or she could have saved the books from burning in a rash display of magic. Instead, the big secret was simply revealed. I won’t give away the details, because spoilers, but suffice to say it wasn’t satisfying. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only instance of this. The final battle between Sardelle and the opposing sorceror was lackluster. It was brief, lacked detail, and was far too one-sided. I expected more from the “big final battle,” and unfortunately just didn’t get it.
In terms of Romance, this is low heat. There is a single sex scene, and it is not explicit. The second time the couple comes together it’s fade-to-black. I do, however, LOVE a forced proximity scene, and that’s what leads to the first sex scene – definite bonus points for that trope! Ridge is not an Alpha at all, so this book will appeal to fans of a Cinnamon Roll (and also cocky flyboys!)
Despite my words about the various thin elements of the book, the writing is solid. The prose flows nicely and never once pulled me out of the story.
I won’t read on in this series, not because anything in particular put me off, but because nothing in particular hooked me such that I felt invested in the world and compelled to read the next book. It was a quick, easy read, and I’d recommend it to someone looking for a little light fantasy – a palate cleanser – that has a low-steam romance in a steampunk world.
A Curse of Queens is the first book in the continuation of Amanda Bouchet’s Kingmaker Chronicles series, taking place after the events of the original trilogy. The first trilogy is a complete, self-contained story, but the seeds and possibility for follow-on books were definitely planted both from the perspective of burgeoning relationships and the sweeping world-building that was necessary for a tale of such epic proportions. The structure of A Curse of Queens shifts from the first trilogy, which focuses on Cat’s epic quest and a single-relationship arc across three books to a more traditional dual-POV focus on a single couple; this novel tells the story of Flynn and Jocasta, one of the couples set up to have their own story during the first trilogy. And while I was happy to read Flynn and Jocasta’s story, and I thought that the book was another fun installment in the Kingmaker Chronicles world, I was left wanting more in a couple of areas. I received an eARC of this book from NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 04/10/2022
STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶
The queen has been cursed, and no one knows who’s behind the plot to threaten the realm’s fragile peace. Desperate to help, Jocasta hatches a plan to find Circe’s Garden, a fabled island where she hopes to discover an antidote. But she can’t do it alone. She needs the strong arm and unflinching bravery of the warrior she’s loved since childhood—her brother’s right-hand-man and captain of the guard, Flynn of Sinta.
Together they can do the impossible. Yet with treachery brewing on Mount Olympus, one thing is clear: Thalyria and its new royals are still pawns in an epic game of power—one that might end in a War of Gods.
There are a lot of things to love about this series, the most compelling of which is the world-building. Thalyria is a world steeped in ancient Greek culture and mythology, and in this particular book, we get an experience reminiscent of the journey and trials of Odysseus. As Flynn, Jocasta, and their friends travel to the island of Circe to retrieve a potion to reverse the effects of the elixir that has the new Queen Cat in stasis, they must go through several trials, many of which are taken right from the Odysessy – Scylla and Charybdis, the Lotus Eaters, Circe herself – but they also face the Gorgons and the Minotaur. It is jam-packed with fun adventures that are truly enjoyable, especially for those who are fans of Greek mythology!
With this book, you can tell that Bouchet is doing a lot of setup in order to continue the series in a more “traditional” Romance fashion – couples are starting to form (Carver and Bellanca, Kato and a mysterious blonde, Prometheus and Kaia) and the seeds are laid for another epic plot arc to provide the backbone for such a series. There is a “big bad” who has been orchestrating the events of the book to wage an Olympianomachy against Zeus and a portal room is discovered in which the other worlds – Attica, Atlantis, and the Underworld – can be reached. This book is very much a launching point to use the existing world-building for a continuing series.
In terms of Romance, A Curse of Queens has two main romance tropes: brothers-best-friend and second-chance-romance. Brothers-best-friend is always a win for me, but second-chance-romance is generally hit or miss. For me, that particular trope has to be done in a way that reestablishes significant conflict and tension such that there is something meaty to resolve. Unfortunately, that fell a little flat for me here. The couple shared a passionate kiss six years ago, and Flynn panicked due to unresolved trauma around the deaths of his family members, which caused both him and Jocasta to awkwardly pull away from one another. But they never truly stopped wanting each other, and from page one the reader knows they love one another. So, the only conflict here was for Flynn to overcome his fear of losing Jocasta and the two of them reestablishing their communication. For me, that was not enough conflict to make the romantic arc compelling.
The other part of the story that I struggled with was that although the relationship focus was on Jocasta and Flynn, the adventure itself focused on Cat. The characters all revered her and talked about her as if she was a goddess herself. And while I understand that she is meant to be the emobodiment of hope – Elpis – it did grate a little after a while. I would have liked to see the adventure focus more on transforming the main characters themselves and less on saving Cat – the quest felt too “outwardly” focused. Intertwining the beats and goals of the quest plot with the relationship plot in a Romance is always more satisfying, and I would have liked to see that here.
I don’t think you can read this book without having read the first trilogy. There is just too much world-building, character history, and plot points integral to this story that will simply leave the reader confused and frustrated. That being said, I do think the first trilogy is worthwhile, find the world-building compelling, and believe there is an audience for these fun, adventure-packed Romances! I’m not sure I will read on in this series. To be honest, I was always disappointed with the third and final book in the original trilogy, and this book left me feeling a lot of the same. I do enjoy Amanda Bouchet as an author though and will keep an eye out for any additional works.