What a compelling and well-written book. Truly. Bravo! I haven’t read a tragic, Gothic novel in quite some time, and I must say that this was quite the satisfying read, scratching an itch I didn’t realize I had. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 03/10/2020
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
In the blackened heart of a cursed forest, a banshee haunts her crumbling castle with lethal screams.
Lady Vago is trapped in this place. She cannot fulfill her purpose as a banshee: to warn her loved ones of their deaths and watch over them while they pass. To solve the mystery of her imprisonment, she must sift through the rubble and ruin that surrounds her. By communing with old paintings, broken furniture, and even the stones themselves, she rediscovers who she was in life.
Before she was Lady Vago, she was Rovena Stoddard, a sharp-witted horse merchant’s daughter that caught the eye of a charming baron. Lord Kalsten Vago’s life as a wandering knight was over, but it inspired visions of a better life for his most vulnerable subjects. Rovena was far less afraid of bold change than his staunch and loyal steward, who saw her presence as a threat to Lord Kalsten’s success. Love and shared dreams alone wouldn’t overcome the controversy of the couple’s hasty and unequal union, as well as the trials of governing a fledgling barony—Rovena knew that. What she failed to recognize was the deeper darkness taking root in Vago lands and hearts…
Every memory of what Rovena loved is a reminder of what she lost, but she cannot let grief halt her search. Devoted spectres of ash are begging their lady for an end to their torment, and she will not let their agony–or her own–go unanswered anymore.
The novel starts out with a frame narrative; the reader is introduced to a banshee, haunting the insides of a castle’s ruins, burned and destroyed centuries ago. The banshee searches the rooms, halls, and revenants for clues to her past, trying to understand her pain and why she is tied to the castle. Through her explorations, the reader is transported back in time to the events that lead to the banshee’s existence. She is Rovena, the Lady Vago, and the book tells the love story between her and Lord Kalsten and the eventual downfall of their lives and their barony at the hands of jealous and prejudiced attendants and a wicked villain. The use of the frame narrative here is quite clever, because the overall tone for the book is set from the beginning; there is a frame of tragic sadness if you will, such that when we learn the details of our heroes’ demise, the sadness is that much more profound.
There were so many things I thoroughly enjoyed about this book; a few of the highlights include subtle aspects of the world-building that made for a less traditional setting (e.g. a complete lack of gender norms, prejudices focused on class as opposed to gender or race, etc.), character building (especially Rovena), and the frame narrative. I was also struck by the prose. To me, the prose in this book is beautiful. It hits the sweet spot for me (a reader that prefers literary prose) of being “elevated” without coming off as pretentious. I truly enjoyed this writing.
Tragic character archetypes are superbly developed and employed. Kalsten is set up as the archetypical tragic victim; he is honest, open, fair, and madly and unconditionally in love with Rovena for who she was as a person and not simply her beauty, his only character flaw a complete (albeit naïve) trust in everyone around him. The construction of his character was so adeptly done to serve the story and tragedy as the true, undeserving victim of the entire affair.
Rovena is presented as the archetypical tragic hero whose fatal flaw contributes to the traditional (Shakespearean) piling of bodies on the stage at the end of the final act. She reacts too quickly. She is rash. She has a bit of a chip on her shoulder that amplifies her belief that she knows better than others and that she sees the entire picture, even when she doesn’t. That little bit of hubris combined with her rush to judgement and action, drove her to making these two decisions, which ultimately contributed to her demise. But that’s what’s so great about a tragedy, right? You love the hero, and the hero is most definitely wronged. But the hero is also fundamentally flawed, a contributor to their own downfall, and that factor makes that downfall all the more tragic. Chef’s Kiss
Finally, there is Dugan, Lord Vago’s steward. His jealously and prejudice were significant contributors to not only the deaths of Lord and Lady Vago, but also the fall of the barony. Although he was not the ultimate villain, he was the hapless antihero that paved the way for the true villain to seize his power through wretched means. For whatever reason, these characters always trigger my disdain more than the villains themselves!
It should be noted that the tone and foreshadowing of the frame narrative still do not prepare you for just how jarring the tragic events actually are. This book definitely needs content warnings (especially with respect to infant mortality), because of the graphic nature of some of the final scenes. There were a couple of times I thought – how could this get any worse for Rovena? And then it does. But, the scenes were purposeful and effective; I did not find them gratuitous.
I will read on in this series. In fact, I am champing at the bit for book two! I absolutely have to know what happens next and whether the noble, female knight will be able to wrest justice from the architects of Lord and Lady Vago’s demise. Well done! Looking forward to more!
Finally getting to write a bit again – though bear with me, I’ve been very migraney, so it’ll be rather short and sweet today I think. Good thing it’s Monday Minis anyway! I’ve got three very different books for you today – a YA anthology of romantic stories, a YA fantasy about fae and a YA creepy historical/horror. Thanks to all of the publishers for providing me with eARCs via NetGalley, as usual, all opinions are my own.
Fools in Love: Fresh Twists on Romantic Tales, edited by Rebecca Podos and Ashley Herring Blake, is full of short stories with twists on romantic YA tropes by some of the most popular authors working in YA right now. You’ve got everything from fake dating to missed connections to love triangles and enemies to lovers, usually with a brilliant twist. And pretty much all of these stories are queer or diverse in another way – no straight white cis stories centred here, no ma’am – and my, how happy that makes me. I read this book spread over a couple weeks, reading just one or two stories to cheer myself up as all of them are just really lovely and delightful and positive. This is the kind of feel-good book that will make you feel better about yourself and the world and just kind of has the same effect as a hug or a cup of hot tea. While none of the stories were especially brilliant in a standout-favourite sort of way for me personally, none of them stood out as weak either – a solid anthology without clear weak spots. Highly recommended if you’re looking for something to cheer you up!
These Hollow Vows by Lexi Ryan is a YA fae fantasy romance. At its centre is Brie, a girl with a hate for the fae. But when her sister is sold to the Unseelie Court, she will do anything to get her back. Including bargaining with the Unseelie King to steal relics from the Seelie Court, flinging herself head-first into both courts and their machinations. I was quite ambiguous about this book – it is entertaining and a very quick read, but there isn’t anything very special about it for me. There is the expected love triangle, hinted at already in the blurb, and really nothing that makes it stand out from the many fae YA books out there. Originally I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to read These Hollow Vows, then was sucked in by the hype, and it was perfect for a train read, but not more than that if it makes sense. If fae are more your thing, or if you’re a lover of books like The Cruel Prince, this is probably more your cup of tea than it is mine!
What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo was one I was very excited for. A creepy family mansion, clan secrets and a girl returning from boarding school to uncover it all? Sounds like the gothic book of my dreams. Add in some magic and wolf shifters and I’m bound to love it. However, I actually ended up dnf’ing this at about 40%. I tried reading it as an eARC, and when I struggled to get into it, I switched to audio (as I had it available on my Scribd). And while there are quite a few reasons that influenced my decision to abandon the book, the main one was that Eleanor, the main character, A TEEN, as well as her sister and cousin, both teens too, are weirdly obsessed with this middle aged man who seems to be grooming them – and I’m just not here for that. It might well be that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for that later on in the story that I just haven’t reached, but the behaviour as depicted in the story up to where I reached just made me feel so uncomfortable as a reader that I could not keep reading. Thus, this is a book I will not be recommending.
Happy Tuesday (and apologies for the lack of Monday Minis, the migraine demons got me…). Today, I’ve got a blog tour for you, for Earthlings: The Beginning by Ray Star. Thanks to Midas PR and Chronos Publishing for the review copy and for having me. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 12/08/2021
STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Peridot has lived a sheltered life. Raised on a remote island off the coast of England by an over protective mother, Peri has never left the comfort of her home, or met another child before. Until the night of her thirteenth birthday, when a strange boy appears at her window, filthy and malnourished, claiming to have escaped captivity from the mainland.
Her mother insists that the ways of the world are to remain concealed until her sixteenth birthday, but she unveils why they live in hiding, the mainland isn’t safe for their kind – they are born of magick. Not magic from stories and fables, but real magick from the days of old. The power to control earth, air, fire, water and spirit; an Elemental.
Peridot finds herself thrown into a world she wasn’t prepared for, caught amongst an ongoing battle between those trying to save humanity and the tyrants seeking to keep them enslaved. Struggling to command magickal abilities she doesn’t fully understand or know how to control. Her abilities may be the helping hand needed to save humanity from an awful way of life, but at what cost? (from Chronos Publishing)
OPINIONS: There are a lot of interesting things about this story. For example, the opening chapter made me chuckle so hard, and I love myself a grand scale struggle of epic proportions, with ancient magic, healing powers and a cause greater than the individual. Peridot is your average YA heroine – sheltered upbringing, surprisingly powerful and thrown in the middle of a conflict and left to her own devices. The concept of having animals stand up to humans in light of the bad treatment they endured over centuries is unique, but ultimately lacks conviction. There are multiple parts where characters are e.g. scared witless of a chicken (including the opening scene) and the writing failed to convince me of the threat being real.
And that is a general problem with this book. It reads as a draft, and would have needed some heavier editing – and a lot of what I struggled with really does come down to editorial choices. A main issue I had throughout is that the animals speak the same way humans do. And have the same sort of names that humans do. Which means, if you as a reader miss a small context marker at the beginning of a scene, you quite likely will not be able to tell whether there are humans or animals speaking, until you hit something particularly jarring. To me, that just does not make sense. If animals somehow did take over, there is no way they would be using the exact same syntax and naming conventions as the humans, and a clear distinction between animal and human characters would have improved my reading experience a lot.
So, as a whole, this was quite a mixed bag for me. I can see potential in it, but I don’t think the book is at its best in this form. I’m not sure I’d want to pick up the sequels and keep reading the series.
If you want to check out Earthlings for yourself, you can add it to your Goodreads here, and order a copy from Bookshop here (affiliate link). The author is planting a tree for every book sold which is super cool.
Please welcome Anna to Libri Draconis with her very first review!
I was ready to return into Deborah Hewitt’s alternative London, full of mystery and flocking with soul-birds. But the second instalment of The Nightjar duology left me wanting something more.
Many thanks to Jamie-Lee Nardone and Stephen Haskins of Black Crow PR for the review copy. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 05/08/2021
STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶
SUMMARY: After being plunged into the world of mysterious soul-birds and magical legacies in the first instalment of The Nightjar duology, Alice Wyndham returns to confront her powers and her past in The Rookery. Having discovered she is a daughter of Death, Alice goes back to the Rookery, an alternative magical London, to learn more about what ties her to the city. But the discovery of secrets is never a comfortable business, as Alice realises not only her life, but the very foundations of the Rookery are at risk. Adversaries turn into allies, and friends – into foes, while Alice struggles to reconcile her magical gifts and her heart.
I had a mixed experience with this one. Returning to the world of the Rookery was an excellent chance to explore the world in more detail. But, unusually, I found myself wishing that it were smaller. In The Rookery, Alice tries to build a life for her newly-discovered magical self while still struggling with her identity as the daughter of Death. She is aided by the allies introduced in the preceding novel, The Nightjar, and a whole host of new characters, which both lent the world a whirlwind richness and made it more difficult for me to form strong attachments to anyone beyond Alice and her romantic interest, Crowley.
The tension between Alice and Crowley, as she both yearns for him and struggles to forgive his deceit, is expertly executed. It also bolsters the overall theme of Alice’s free will versus the circumstances outside her control that pervades the narrative. Echoes of it are found in Alice choosing the Rookery over her life in ordinary London, and her deliberation over joining House Mielikki, whose legacy she possesses. Unfortunately, I found the theme of free choice and chosen family undermined by how much emphasis is placed on Alice’s biological heredity. I think this could have been done differently.
Hewitt’s choice to infuse her world with magic inspired by Finnish mythology lends it a striking uniqueness. However, barring some names and allusions, there isn’t much that actively situates the magic system as Finnish. Which is a great shame; I’d read the heck out of a book set in magical Helsinki. The elemental and spiritual magics also feel ill at ease in a city cobbled together out of forgotten bits of London. A deep dive into London’s abandoned byways could have made The Rookery a very different novel, but that is not what we have here. The cosiest place, and the one I imagined in most detail, is Goring University, Alice’s workplace, and I found myself hoping more of the city was treated in the same manner.
The Rookery reads like many excellent ideas contained in too restrictive a narrative. I’d have loved to read about all of them in separate books, but maybe not together. You can decide for yourself by adding it to Goodreads here or picking up a copy from Bookshop here (affiliate link).
Apparently I can’t review without the pressure of a blog tour this week… But hey, two blog tours make for content too. And there might be a special surprise in the works for tomorrow! But anyway. The Hand of the Sun King. Pretty straight-forward epic fantasy, fun, a hint of darkness. I’d say it’s pretty good. My colleague and friend James over at Grimdark Magazine reviewed this far earlier too and agreed – he’s even quoted on the back cover! Read his review here.
Massive thanks to Will O’Mullane at Gollancz for having me on the tour and sending me a copy of the book for review. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 05/08/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
SUMMARY: My name is Wen Alder. My name is Foolish Cur.
All my life, I have been torn between two legacies: that of my father, whose roots trace back to the right hand of the Emperor. That of my mother’s family, who reject the oppressive Empire and embrace the resistance.
I can choose between them – between protecting my family, or protecting my people – or I can search out a better path… a magical path, filled with secrets, unbound by empire or resistance, which could shake my world to its very foundation.
But my search for freedom will entangle me in a war between the gods themselves… (from Gollancz)
OPINIONS: I feel like The Hand of the Sun King is the kind of book that will be universally appealing to fantasy readers. This isn’t to say that it’s bland or anything, but if it were a food, I’d compare it to french fries – addictive, more-ish and enjoyed by pretty much everyone. It’s not something that I think will stand out for me in the long run, but it’s definitely something that I enjoyed and that I will recommend to friends, especially friends that are maybe newer to the genre or have a background of reading big name books rather than more diversely.
The story is set in an Asian-ish world – and I use the term in a loose setting. If I had to try and localise it more, I’d say it’s probably inspired by some amalgamation of East Asia and then fictionalised. But The setting is more window-dressing than anything else. Most of all, The Hand of the Sun King is a fun story about the ups and downs of politics, about the machinations behind a throne and what happens to those trying to keep an emperor in power.
Wen Alder, or Foolish Cur, is an interesting character, torn between the two sides of his legacy. The story is told from his perspective, as something of an autobiography. While his father’s side gives him a path to the emperor, to traditional power, his mother’s side of the family is connected to the resistance, leading to a deep-seated schiism within the man. And within all of this, is a desire for magic. A great adventure, wrapped up in manipulation. I look forward to following his story in the upcoming installments of the series.
I seem to be on a real military historical trip lately. I enjoyed A Winter War a lot, following Kai and his adventures in the Sarmatian army at war with the Roman Empire. Check out my fellow blogger’s posts on the tour as well!
Many thanks to Avneet Bains and Head of Zeus for having me on the blog tour and sending me a review copy of A Winter War – as usual, all opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 05/08/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
SUMMARY: AD173. The Danube has frozen. On its far banks gather the clans of Sarmatia. Winter-starved, life ebbing away on a barren plain of ice and snow, to survive they must cross the river’s frozen waters.
There’s just one thing in their way.
Petty feuds have been cast aside, six thousand heavy cavalry marshalled. Will it be enough? For across the ice lies the Roman Empire, and deployed in front of them, one of its legions. The Sarmatians are proud, cast as if from the ice itself. After decades of warfare they are the only tribe still fighting the Romans. They have broken legions in battle before. They will do so again.
Sarmatian warrior Kai awakes on a bloodied battlefield, his only company the dead. The disgrace of his defeat compounded by his survival, Kai must now navigate a course between honour and shame, his people and the Empire, for Rome hasn’t finished with Kai or the Sarmatians yet. (from Head of Zeus)
OPINIONS: A Winter War dives into a part of Ancient history that isn’t as well known. Set parallel to the later Roman Empire, the Sarmatians live on the other side of the river Danube, to the east. As a history nerd, I loved learning more about these people that are less discussed in both traditional history and historical fiction. But of course, this isn’t just a history text book. A Winter War is a compelling work of historical fiction set around military conflict between the Sarmatians and the Roman Empire and centred around the character of Kai, a Sarmatian warrior.
The story is well written, fun and enjoyable. The slightly gloomy and cold setting is a great change to read in these days of sunshine and melting summer temperatures, especially if you’re like me and don’t deal well with the heat. Don’t expect a deep work of literature, but rather a fun, escapist read that will transport you back in time and captivate you in Kai’s world and struggles. I kind of wish there were more female characters, but then, that’s not the kind of book this is, or is trying to be. I think A Winter War is excellent at what it sets out to be, and is exactly what it sets out to be. Recommended for fans of military oriented historical fiction, traditional epic fantasy and generally all those who like to curl up with a good escapist read.
I love me a good Middle Grade fantasy. And while it took me a while to get into Fireborn, once I got stuck in, I could not put it down! I adored Twelve and her quest to do the right thing and her desire to save her friends. This is a true Middle Grade gem, and I hope it finds its way into every (school) library and into the hands of as many children as possible.
Many thanks to Tina Mories and Harper Collins for the ARC, all opinions are my own as usual.
RELEASE DATE: 30/09/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Twelve has spoken the Pledge and now she is a Huntling. She has given up her name to train in the art of fighting monsters and keeping the peace, and she won’t get to choose a new one until she has earned it.
But when the Lodge’s walls are breached for the first time, and a little girl is taken, Twelve is the only one interested in going after a child…
Teaming up with Dog, the Stone Guardian of the Lodge, Twelve ends up on an epic adventure that will change her life, her name – and her entire world. (from Harper Collins)
OPINIONS: Fireborn is a wonderful, complex, Middle Grade fantasy adventure. It takes a while to get going, and I think it took me about half the book to truly fall in love with the story (though that may well be because of my mood), but once I got stuck in properly, I couldn’t tear myself away from it. The story itself is fairly straight forward, though it addresses many complicated issues in a nuanced way – there are queer characters, the young characters deal with rejection, they have to overcome prejudices and deal with grief and loss. This makes Fireborn a suitable story for the entire range of Middle Grade readers – it is fine for younger readers, who can easily follow what is happening, but there is enough meat on those bones that older readers who are on the brink of switching to YA will still get a lot out of the story.
Harper Collins are marketing this as one of their lead titles for Autumn 2021 and with good reason. I can see the appeal of this series for a wide audience – and personally, I am very excited to read on and see where Twelve’s story and that of the Hunting Lodge continues. I adored Twelve, and found her to be a great main character. She underwent a huge growth arc over the course of the story, which I found wonderful to see – I love a good character development!
So, compelling story, great character development, and discussing deeper issues in an age-appropriate way. What more do you want from a Middle Grade fantasy? I especially appreciate that there is an openly queer character, which is often hard to add into a book for this age group! Highly recommended for both yourself and the kids in your life.
You probably know by now that this is the kind of book that I’ll jump on without hesitation. Especially because the author has been teasing us with her own art of the main characters and Vanja basically looks exactly like me. Even more reason to hype the shit out of this book!
Many thanks to Kate Keehan and Hodder for sending me an ARC of this wonderful fantasy novel. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 05/10/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Vanja, the adopted goddaughter of Death and Fortune, was Princess Gisele’s dutiful servant up until a year ago. That was when Vanja’s otherworldly mothers demanded a terrible price for their care, and Vanja decided to steal her future back… by stealing Gisele’s life for herself.
The real Gisele is left a penniless nobody while Vanja uses an enchanted string of pearls to take her place. Now, Vanja leads a lonely but lucrative double life as princess and jewel thief, charming nobility while emptying their coffers to fund her great escape. Then, one heist away from freedom, Vanja crosses the wrong god and is cursed to an untimely end: turning into jewels, stone by stone, for her greed.
Vanja has just two weeks to figure out how to break her curse and make her getaway. And with a feral guardian half-god, Gisele’s sinister fiancé, and an overeager junior detective on Vanja’s tail, she’ll have to pull the biggest grift yet to save her own life. (from Hodder & Stoughton)
OPINIONS: This is delightful. Vanja made me crack up so much – she is such a fantastic character. One of my favourite scenes is early in the book where she has a conversation with another character over breakfast and uses her breakfast sausage to make him uncomfortable (the story is set in a pseudo-Germany, so the cuisine is very sausage based). Pleeease give me more magic thieves! The dynamics between her and Emric are wonderful, and it’s such a great enemies-to-something more relationship. I could read about them bickering forever. And while the main pairing is m/f, there is a sapphic side-relationship going on that I love.
Really, all of the characters are great. Gisele, the cheated princess isn’t just a boring pastiche but a fully formed character with her own dreams (and not even necessarily all that upset about no longer having to be princess), Death and Fortune, Vanja’s Godmothers, are deliciously wicked. And Ragne, the demon girl sent to keep an eye on her is the most adorable of them all in her chaotic glory. They’ve all got such fairy tale energy while being brilliant characters of their own.
The story is funny and compelling, and I really enjoyed my reading experience. The one thing that did grate on me a bit is the use of a not-quite-German – words that were spelled just that tiny bit different to how I expected them to be written. As a native German speaker, that kept throwing me off, even though I was aware that it was likely intentional (and I’ve since been told that this is actually something that was worked on between ARCs and finished copies). But to end this review on a positive note, Little Thieves has the most brilliant content warning note that I have ever seen. Margaret Owen manages to be considerate and compassionate in just a few words and I love it so much:
Greetings from surprisingly sunny Edinburgh. Yes indeed, I have made it out of London for the first time this year, and I’m very excited. I reread T.L. Huchu’s The Library of The Dead on my train up to get in the proper mood, and I’m going to finish my TikTok about it later (yes, I’ve become THAT person). If you missed it way back, here‘s my review of The Library of the Dead from December. But without further ado, today’s Monday Minis. Once again, thank you to all the publishers for sending me review copies of these novels, all opinions are my own.
I struggled with Meet Me In Another Life by Catriona Silvey. I listened to this as an audiobook and kept taking rather long breaks, listening to whole books in between. This is the story of Thora and Santi, two people destined to meet again and again in Cologne, at different points in their lives, but with a shared love for the stars. There are some elements that stay the same across all of their lives, but some elements, especially their relationship to each other keep changing. Still, this makes the story feel very repetitive – there are only so many times I find the same characters meeting over and over again interesting. While there ultimately was a reason behind the story being what it was, I ended up mostly bored after the third repetition or so, and only kept listening because I didn’t want to give up. I don’t think this is a book I’d recommend, personally. It does explore interesting questions of how circumstances can change a person and how nurture influences character, and I can see how it might appeal to a more literary oriented reader. Ultimately it seems to put form over substance, and that is not the kind of reader I am.
Seven Deaths of an Empire by G.R. Matthews is an interesting one. It’s a huge epic fantasy tome, with all the trappings. It starts off great, and I loved the first few hundred pages. I originally found that while it used a lot of the tropes of epic Grimdark, it also subverted them and made them into something new and interesting. It is a military fantasy, but it also has central female characters, and I really liked the flashbacks introducing every chapter. However, once I hit the halfway point, I started struggling with this book. I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with the story, it probably has more to do with my reading mood than anything else. But it took me forever to actually finish it, and to be entirely honest, not much about it actually stuck with me. If you’re into classic Grimdark such as Mark Lawrence or Joe Abercrombie, this is a new author to check out, but if you’re more into diverse fantasy this might not be for you.
I devoured Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker. When I picked this up the other day, I just wanted to read a few chapters to get a feel for it, and suddenly I was halfway through the story. It is unsettling and creepy and all too close to reality. And Caroline’s writing is stunning and immersive. This is the story of Norah and Art, a couple living in a dystopian world, which unravels over the course of the story to show just how broken it really is. And if I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting to be as enthralled by this story as I ended up being – it’s not the most plot-heavy, but it is emotionally captivating and that took me by surprise and is a large part of why I ended up loving it. Composite Creatures is the kind of soft genre-defying psychological horror that I love, that focuses on unsettling the reader rather than being a gore fest. This one I do unreservedly recommend.