Over the past year, I had the pleasure of returning to Osten Ard with two novellas that book-end the original Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series: The Heart of What Was Lost and Brothers of the Wind. Once again I am astounded by the greatness that is Tad Williams. I know, I know, I’m a total fangirl, but I can’t help but argue it’s with good reason! For fans of Tad Williams, getting the opportunity to return to the rich and sprawling world that is Osten Ard with a targetted, short-format purpose that nonetheless delivers his style of prose, world-building, and characterization (twice!) is beyond satisfying to say the least. For me, it’s like wrapping myself in a warm blanket and drinking a cup of tea – pure comfort through the written word. Although these novellas vary significantly in terms of their themes and objectives, they are both quintessentially Tad Williams and fit perfectly into and expand upon the experience of Osten Ard. All opinions are my own.
Publication Date: January 3, 2017
Rating: 5/5 ✶
Summary: The Heart of What Was Lost takes place in the half-year after the end of To Green Angel Tower, and tells of the attempt by Isgrimnur and a force largely made up of Rimmersgard soldiers to destroy the remaining Norns as they flee back to their homeland and their mountain. It also answers some questions about what actually happened in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Green Angel Tower.
Publication Date: November 2, 2021
Rating: 4/5 ✶
Summary: Set a thousand years before the events of Williams’s The Dragonbone Chair, Brothers of the Wind tells the tale of Ineluki’s tragic boast to destroy the deadly dragon Hidohebhi and what it brings from the POV of Pamon Kes, Hakatri’s faithful servant. Kes is not one of the Sithi but a member of the enslaved Changeling race, and his loyalty has never before been tested. Now he must face the terrible black dragon at his master’s side, then see his own life changed forever in a mere instant by Ineluki’s rash, selfish promise.
The plot of The Heart of What Was Lost focuses on Duke Isgrimmnur’s pursual of the retreating Norns and epic siege of their home Nikkiga (siege fans – this book is for you!) after the human and Sithi victory at Asu’a. The plot forms the basis for not only delivering page-turning action and world-building, but also two main themes: the tendency the de-humanize an enemy in war, in this case the Norns, and a reminder that the atrocities and brutalities of war exist on a personal level and represent its true cost.
Williams’s use of multiple POVs is strategic and perfectly executed to support the book’s themes. First, he presents part of the story through the contrasting viewpoints of Duke Isgrimmnur, who leads the charge on Nikiiga, and Viyeki, a noble-born Norn working to protect his race from being exterminated at the hand of the human invaders. After witnessing the atrocities of the Norns throughout Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, this fascinating juxtaposition in POVs requires an empathy from the reader that is unexpected and yet very real. The Norns are a noble people in their own right, simply fighting for their existence. Experiencing their way of life within their home “humanized” the Norns and further deepened the world-building of Osten Ard in a way that changes your view on the war.
Williams pulls on your hearstrings in an entirely different manner with a third POV, that of Porto, a mercenary conscribed to help finish the war in the North. The care-abouts of an average soldier and his young comrade-in-arms, e.g. wanting to return home to family, questioning why they are there, hunger and cold, provide a stark contrast to the “noble endeavor” of eliminating the last vestiges of their land’s mortal enemies. Here the reader is reminded of the brutal realities of war, and for me, the reminder was poignant.
Finally, and as always, Williams is adept at weaving the stories of these myriad characters in such a way that the ending is both powerfully unexpected and thoroughly satisfying; all loose ends are tied.
Brothers of the Wind tackles entirely different themes using the single POV of Pamon Kes, Prince Hakatri of the Sithi’s armiger servant of the enslaved Changeling race. The book is split into two main quests, the first of which is to slay the dragon Hidohebhi, and the second to find a cure for the pain and madness plaguing Hakatri who has been burned by Hidohebhi’s magical blood. Aside: It was a delight to visit all my favorite locations in Osten Ard during Hakatri’s quest for a cure – the Wran, Sesuad’ra, Aldheorte, to name a few. It was like a mini-recap of Simon’s journey through Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!
Again, in true Williams fashion, the plot serves the themes, which are twofold and strikingly disparate. First, he explores the slippery slope that is unchecked hubris and anger. Readers are finally presented with the backstory of Prince Ineluki’s seduction by the Norn queen. She manipulates Ineluki’s anger with himself and his love for his brother into hatred for the humans, thereby providing him an outlet for his tumultuous emotions and ultimately gaining his allegiance. At the same time, Williams tells this entire story through the POV of Hakatri’s devoted servant. The reader is not only given a deeper understanding of the Changeling race, but also the sacrifces Pamon has made with respect to his identity – both through his own choice and unintentionally through racism and social constructs – because of his blind devotion to his master Hakatri. The noble Sithi are not without fault, and once again the world-building of Osten Ard is deepened through the exploration of this unsettling relationship between the Sithi, Norn, and Changeling races.
There is a heart-warming end for Pamon Kes; he is released of his servitude to live his own life and learn the history of his people. But, surprisingly, the reader does not learn the ultimate fate of Hakatri. Does he ever find his relief across the sea? Who was the mysterious woman in his visions, and what was the choice she foretold he might make? How will this affect Osten Ard? Williams has left the door open for these questions to be answered in the final two installments of The Last King of Osten Ard, but the conclusion of the story did not suffer because of it.
It was a pleasure to return to the world of Osten Ard and several of its characters in these two novellas. The stage is set for the follow-on series, The Last King of Osten Ard. Although you don’t have to read Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn to enjoy either of these short books and get a feel for Williams’s manner of writing, the context is key to experiencing the full impact of their objectives. Highest of recommendations!
So often we see recommendations based on certain keywords or subgenre classifications, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of reducing recommendations to this basic approach. Using such an approach, two books might appear to be excellent recommendations for a single request; however, the art of the successful recommendation is far more nuanced.
We’ve all seen something like this before: “Recommended to those who like the Fae, Romance, and Regency- or Victorian-era language and settings.” In fact, this exact description could be used for two books I’ve recently read and are currently quite popular in Speculative Fiction circles, namely Half a Soul by Olivia Atwater and The Lord of Stariel by A.J. Lancaster. Based on that description alone someone might recommend both of these books to a single request, and they will have varying degrees of success, because these two books are in fact quite different. So, I present to you A Tale of Two Faerie Tales, short reviews of two books that – on paper – should appeal to the same reader and fulfill similar recommendation requests, but differ significantly in their tone, themes, and purpose.
Publication Date: March 29, 2020
Rating: 3/5 ✶
Kat’s Summary: As a child, half of Dora’s soul was stolen by an evil lord of Faerie. Now, a young woman who has debuted in Regency-era England, Dora finds herself searching for her place in society, never really fitting in, because she’s missing some part of herself. When her family travels to London to find a husband for her cousin, she meets the ill-mannered Lord Sorcier, who has vowed to help her try and mend her soul purely because it’s a challenging problem to solve. Their plans are derailed by a magical plague putting children into an unwakable sleep as well as the dealing with the travesties of London workhouses. Dora and Elias must work together to discover the source of the plague and save the sick children before it’s too late. And as they do, will they be able to deny the feelings that are unexpectedly developing between them?
Publication Date: November 1, 2018
Rating: 3/5 ✶
Kat’s Summary: Hetta is the unconventional daughter of Lord Stariel working as an illusionist in a theater. She must return to her estranged family’s estate after learning her father has passed away to take part in the Choosing ceremony in which the sentient land of Stariel will pick its next Lord. After being unexpectedly chosen, she must work within her small band of friends – her brother Marius, her cousin Jack, and her mysterious friend (and newly discovered love interest) Wyn – to understand the land’s magic, the arrival of unexpected Fae guests, and uncover the motivation behind a plot to seat her as the Lord regardless of the Choosing Stone’s intent. Can they uncover who is behind all the machinations in Stariel and restore order before any more dangerous Fae incursions put their land and family at risk?
I’ll start with how these books are similar, namely their prose and language. Half a Soul is set in Regency-era England; the existence of magic and Faerie is simply overlaid atop this historic setting. The Lord of Stariel, on the other hand, is set in a secondary world reminiscent of late-Victorian England. Despite these inconsequential setting differences, both books have beautiful, soothing prose, and more importantly the language used fits their quasi-historical settings. It evokes the atmosphere you’d expect from a fantasy-of-manners and helps amplify the desired, historic English atmosphere.
To me, the prose and language is the strongest similarity between the two books; in fact, the remaining similarities fall under the vein of : They both…, but…
First, there is a noticeable difference in tone. Half a Soul is a very much a classic fairytale, complete with the requisite character tropes – the evil stepmother (Auntie Frances), prince charming (Lord Sorcier), etc. – and carries a tone that matches what you’d expect from a fairytale. Words I’d use to describe the tone are sweet, whimsical, emotional. Atwater creates this quality through both the characters and the setting. Dora is young and innocent, and Lord Stariel hardened and melodramatic. They are established as emotional opposites, Dora having lost the capacity to truly feel, and Elias deeply affected by his conscience and feelings. The author leans into this contrast, and the emotional drama that ensues contributes to the fairytale atmosphere. The journey into Faerie amplifies this further by presenting an absurd and exaggerated version of Regency-era society and mores in a manner reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland.
In contrast, The Lord of Stariel presents the reader with a less frantically emotional approach that is far more akin to “slice-of-life” story-telling. Despite being a “faerie tale,” the tone is measured and subdued, resulting from both mature characters and the author’s presentation. Hetta is an established adult with her own job, home, and independence. She is experienced in both life and relationships. She is an unconventional woman in conventional society, and yet still adheres to the expectations of her family and propriety. Her manner, coupled with a plot that is largely interspersed with the mundane – meals, gatherings, outings, and meetings about the estate – delivers a feel that is more commensurate with a fantasy-of-manners than a traditional fairytale. And although the Fae are present, most notably in Wyn, the events seem more realistic as they are not described in an over-the-top manner, the revelations and interactions handled as if they were “normal” life events.
Second, both books contain romantic elements, but to unmistakably different degrees. Half a Soul is most definitely a Fantasy Romance and it is clear from the start that Dora and Elias are developing an unexpected and deep connection to one another. Their relationship evolves slowly over the course of the book, and the appropriate amount of time is spent developing both of the characters as well as their relationship such that the reader is invested in their success as a couple and the book can deliver a satisfying HEA. Dora and Elias have meaningful character arcs that are tied to their emotional states and their world views. Their attraction to one another is borne out of those arcs, based not in lust but shared experience and respect, creating a truly powerful romantic connection. (The scene where Elias attends the ball to dance with Dora under magically sparkling lights was perfectly romantic!)
The romance in The Lord of Stariel falls squarely into the category of romantic subplot at best. It’s likely (based on chats with those that have read the entire series) that this book provides the set up necessary for a more fleshed-out romantic subplot later on. But if someone is looking for a strong romantic subplot, I probably wouldn’t recommend this book. It’s a bit thin for my taste, even if I did find their eventual coming-together a highlight of the ending. One of the reasons the romantic subplot was so thin, was that unlike Half a Soul, Hetta and Wyn’s character arcs were not fully fleshed out in service of the romance, much of their attraction portrayed as lust. It was disappointing that Hetta did not explicitly choose to stay in Stariel. Giving this decision more emotional treatment and tying it to Wyn, even in the slightest, would have given Hetta more agency and made the romantic subplot far more compelling.
And finally, there is theming, or objective. Half a Soul, in true fairytale fashion, is not shy in delivering its message: virtue is not found in material wealth or in being a part of the aristocracy. By the end of the book, after tours through the horrific conditions of the workhouses and the journey to Faerie that mirrors Regency-era mores in an exaggerated manner, the reader can’t help but “get the message.” I would go so far as to say that the messaging could have been tempered a bit and still delivered its point! But that’s the purpose of many traditional fairytales, isn’t it? And so it worked within the context of the book’s tone and objective.
The Lord of Stariel is subtle in its purpose and messaging. Here, the reader is presented with themes that are less heavy than the single, overarching moral that drives its counterpart. In fact, the book is light on themes, the strongest of which centers around returning to your roots, strengthened by the use of the Stariel family’s connection to the sentient land as a metaphor, and devotion to family. The purpose of this book is not to deliver a message, but to present the reader with a world and cast of characters that they will ostensibly follow throughout the series as it delivers adventures of the reunited family with its new world understanding.
I would happily recommend both of these Faerie Tales. I found them equally delightful, but in markedly different ways. And while they appear to fit within the same proverbial box, for the reasons I’ve outlined above, you’ll likely not see me recommending both of these books to the same request. Half a Soul and The Lord of Stariel scratch decidedly different itches, and attention to what a reader is looking for will pay dividends against the success of recommending one or both of these books. Happy reading.
I’m seriously conflicted about this book. It felt like an emotional rollercoaster, where one moment I’m swooning from a heart-wrenching romantic scene, and the next moment I’m wincing from a graphic description of horrific abuse. What do I know for sure? That Little Fire is an adult, High Fantasy Romance novel with impressive world-building and a compelling romance. What am I not so sure about? How this book will land for others, or frankly, how it landed for me. I struggled with some of the triggering content and found the plot evolution, especially the end, disjoint and jarring. This review will simply outline my experience; it’s up to you to decide if this might be for you. Please note that this review contains references to content that may be triggering for some readers, most notably rape, child abuse, and human trafficking. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 23/10/2021
STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶
Declan can kill with a blink of his eye. Jaded and cold, he rules his kingdom the same way he does his heart—with merciless pragmatism. So why does he risk all to protect a little mortal during a slave-trade uprising? Now stuck in the Shadow Realm, the loss of his powers are the least of his troubles. The woman may have a frustratingly tender heart, but she has enough fire in her soul to thaw the ice in his veins.
He could take her by right, but he wants more than acceptance. He wants her willing surrender…
Evangeline is chained by a past she can’t remember. Her fractured memories keep her shy and single. When she is thrust into a demon realm in the arms of an indomitable archmage, he becomes her only chance of survival. But soon, she realizes her unnerving protector may not be as callous as he appears, and her heart may be as much at risk as her life.
His desire for her is no secret, but she wants more than scalding lust. She wants his icy heart…
Can they survive the Shadow Realm long enough to break down each other’s walls?
There were two stand-out elements of this book: the world-building and the romance. The world consists of five realms each ruled and shaped by a different god and filled with fantastical beings and magic specific to that realm, and travel between the realms can only be accomplished through portals opened by the Fae. The realm in which our story begins is the home of the humans and mages, human-like beings with elemental and psychic powers, the most powerful of which are the archmages that rule with an iron fist.
The concept of the realms is introduced right off the bat with a poem, which I thought was a clever way of laying the groundwork for the world-building. Details of the world and magic were slowly introduced over the course of the book without info-dumping, which I appreciated. With the detailed descriptions of monsters and the abilities of the mages, it walks the line between soft and hard magic – in fact, I think it wants to have a harder magic system than it actually does – and this is not necessarily a bad thing. I sometimes like a harder magic system. But the problem was that it felt secondary despite being so well fleshed out. There was so much emphasis on the trauma and slavery (more on that later) that the detailed world-building felt tacked on, almost as if it was a separate entity within the story. The culmination of the plot takes place when the FMC and MMC are thrust into the realm of the Unseelie for the final battle, and suddenly – jarringly, in fact – that world-building comes to the forefront of the plot. It felt disjoint, and I found myself wishing for greater continuity.
I really enjoyed the romance between Declan and Evangeline. It developed slowly and organically, stemming from a tenderness between the two characters (as opposed to lust) as they care for one another during their exile in the demon realm. He is respectful of her trauma, never pushing himself on her, and genuinely just wants to be in her presence. They don’t become intimate until she asks for them to be, and the respsect and consent is incredibly sexy, especially given the context of both of their past struggles. The archmage is incredibly powerful, yet tempers his authoritarian ways to properly “court” Evangeline (the flower scene turned me to mush!) realizing that what he really wants is her willing participation. The relationship reveal at the end was a bit contrived and, I’ll admit, predictable, but nevertheless satisfying and filled with genuine emotion.
Now for the difficult part. This book is heavy into rape trauma, child abuse, and human trafficking. A large portion of this book revolves around dealing with the aftermath of rape (both from the perspective of the survivor and a resulting child) and physical abuse of children. Central to the plot is the trafficking of humans to be sold as slaves by the Unseelie to other realms and the sexual and physical abuses done to those slaves by members of the cartel and their owners. If these themes are triggering, or if you don’t have a stomach for explicit content describing such atrocities, this book probably isn’t for you.
Declan and Evangeline spend significant page-time coming to terms with their own trauma, dismantling the human trafficking cartel, and tending to the abused victims that they save. Their emotional scars – as well as the physical and emotional scars of the victims they save – are present, deep, and not glossed over. All that to say, these difficult themes are not employed gratuitously, but tackled head-on and given careful treatment throughout the book.
The writing was solid, and in some places I found it quite pleasurable, but there were times I found the language and word choice a bit forced. An inconsequential quibble in the grand scheme of things.
Will I read on in this series? Honestly? The jury is still out…
Libri Draconis has grown quite a bit in 2021. We now have four bloggers, each of whom brings something special and a little different to our team, and the richness of our content and the people we reach has expanded as a result. We couldn’t be happier or more grateful for how everything evolved this year; thanks to all of our readers for joining us on this journey!
As 2021 comes to a close, we wanted to share our favorite reads from the past year. We all read – and reviewed – quite a few books, and it was somewhat torturous to limit ourselves to only two favorites a piece. But! We perservered and here are Libri Draconis’s favorite books read in 2021.
Spear by Nicola Griffith – I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t end up picking a book that isn’t actually released for another four months. Spear by Nicola Griffith is out from Tordotcom in April, and is basically the queer Arthurian book of my dreams. It is a short novella, but manages to achieve what many hefty tomes don’t: it tells a complete and satisfying story in under two hundred pages. My only gripe was that I wanted more, not because the book was lacking in any way, but because the writing and worldbuilding was so wonderful that I wanted to stay in this queer and diverse interpretation of the early middle ages Griffith so vividly evokes just a little longer. And I probably should mention that the book also has one of my favourite things in the world: illustrations in a story aimed at adults. Interspersed with the narrative are gorgeous illustrations by Rovina Cai, who is one of my favourite artists in the fantasy genre. So an all-around hit, and one you should most definitely pre-order.
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston – There were a lot of books that could have occupied this slot – really all of the honorable mentions. But I decided to go with what has been my comfort book in this year of craziness. I have listened to the audiobook of One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston three times already and it is just such a delightful and comforting romance with supernatural elements. Both August Landry and Jane Su are wonderful characters, and I may be a little bit more than slightly in love with Jane myself. While the general tone is uplifting and cosy, McQuiston manages to touch on a lot of the fundamental insecurities of today’s generation of young adults, coming into working life from university and that really made me connect with the book on an emotional level. I cannot recommend this one enough.
Honorable Mentions: Sistersong by Lucy Holland, The Second Bell and The Wind Child by Gabriela Houston, Travelers Along the Way by Aminah Mae Safi, The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec, A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark, Girls of Fate and Fury by Natasha Ngan, The Cabinet by Un-Su Kim, The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore, Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers, and oh SO MANY OTHERS. 2021 has been such an excellent year for books, and these choices have been extremely hard to make (I am probably going to hit my goal of 500 books read this year, so there is A LOT to choose from)!
The Devil’s Dictionary by Steven Kotler – What would you do if you could empathise with a dolphin? or a bat? What would other people do if they couldn’t? Against the backdrop of an eroding species barrier, em-tracker Lion Zorn, whose abilities allow him to read the emotional trends of crowds, tries to unravel the mystery around the disappearance of his colleagues.
It’s an exceptionally powerful read, with great dialogue; and, despite the tension, I still laughed out loud in multiple places. The premise of an emotion-based near-future sci-fi is also new and exciting. A clear favourite of the year for me.
Storyland by Amy Jeffs – These are retellings of medieval tales of legend, landscape and the yearning to belong, inhabited with characters now half-remembered: Brutus, Albina, Scota, Arthur and Bladud among them. Told with narrative flair, embellished in stunning artworks and glossed with a rich and erudite commentary… It Illuminates a collective memory that still informs the identity and political ambition of these places (Hachette).
Amy Jeffs’ Storyland is as visually striking as it is expertly researched. The illustrations and tritone decorations bring to mind the grimoires of old: this book of myths is an artefact in its own right. Another reason this is one of my favourite reads of 2021 is the sensitivity with which the tales, taken from historical sources, are updated and reimagined. You can read mine and Fabienne’s thoughts here.
Honorable Mentions: Spear by Nicola Griffith; The Second Bell by Gabriela Houston; Comfort Me with Apples by Catherynne M Valente; Sistersong by Lucy Holland, and Frank Herbert’s Dune (not because it’s new, but because I finally slogged through it and feel rather proud).
Phoenix Unbound by Grace Draven – Everyone knows I’m a massive Grace Draven fan (for full evidence, see my essay here). But this book immediately rose to the top, taking the first place seat across all her full-length works. Not only that, it was hands down my favorite book read in 2021. It has all the hallmarks of a Grace Draven novel – prose, world-building, steam – but what really stood out to me (and wrecked me for days after) was the Romance. The characters are survivors of deep trauma – these are two deeply broken souls. And yet they perservere. They keep surviving. They rise above their pasts with the help of each other and the help of community to find a new path for themselves and, as canon epic fantasy, a future for their world. They find love, in the most unlikely of circumstances, and they are both the better for it, individually and as a couple. Absolutely beautiful, poignant, and well-crafted Fantasy Romance.
The Heart of What Was Lost by Tad Williams – I know, I know – I’m so behind. This (comparatively) short novel of Osten Ard came out in 2017, but I didn’t read it until this year, and you’d expect Brothers of the Wind, which came out in 2021, to be on this list instead. Alas, it’s sitting on my Kindle and I just haven’t gotten to it yet. Better late than never, right? No surprise that my second favorite book of 2021 comes from another favorite author of mine – Tad Williams. The story of what happens after the epic battle at the end of To Green Angel Tower provides a thought-provoking look at both the history of the Norns and the atrocities of war. The writing, world-building, and masterful use of POVs all contribute to creating deep empathy for the various characters on both sides of the siege and their plights. It was a pleasure to return to the world of Osten Ard, and hopefully I will be able to do so once again sooner rather than later!
Honorable Mentions: Girl Meets Duke series by Tessa Dare; Piranesi by Susanna Clarke; The Hunter by Kerrigan Byrne; Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie; Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas; A Matter of Class by Mary Balogh; The Labyrinth Gate by Kate Elliott; Beautiful Player by Christina Lauren
This book is beautiful. I know, I know – what a generic word – such a trite description. But, honestly? When I finished this book, and when I reflect on its themes, its tone, and the impressions it left upon me as a reader, its the word I keep coming back to. Star Mother is truly and simply a beautiful book. It is a compelling piece of feminist fiction on par with Circe by Madeline Miller both in terms of style and message, deeply exploring themes of love, motherhood, and devotion amid world-building that develops and reveals itself through an enigmatic plot. Highly recommend. I received an ARC of this book from the publisher. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 01/11/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
When a star dies, a new one must be born.
The Sun God chooses the village of Endwever to provide a mortal womb. The birthing of a star is always fatal for the mother, and Ceris Wenden, who considers herself an outsider, sacrifices herself to secure her family’s honor and take control of her legacy. But after her star child is born, Ceris does what no other star mother has: she survives. When Ceris returns to Endwever, however, it’s not nine months later—it’s seven hundred years later. Inexplicably displaced in time, Ceris is determined to seek out her descendants.
Being a woman traveling alone brings its own challenges, until Ceris encounters a mysterious—and desperate—godling. Ristriel is incorporeal, a fugitive, a trickster, and the only being who can guide Ceris safely to her destination. Now, as Ceris traverses realms both mortal and beyond, her journey truly begins.
Together, pursued across the Earth and trespassing the heavens, Ceris and Ristriel are on a path to illuminate the mysteries that bind them and discover the secrets of the celestial world.
Star Mother is a book about devotion; Ceris Wenden’s is a journey of continual self-sacrifice due to her unflappable devotion to self, community, and search for true love. This book asks the question: what are you willing to endure for integrity? And the example of endurance provided by the main character is quite powerful.
Ceris is devoted to herself, unwilling to compromise her personality or her desires, and yearning to be appreciated for living her life authentically. She is devoted to her community, sacrificing her body and future to the Sun in order to preserve her town and the true love that exists between her betrothed and his lover. She is devoted to her family, desperate to fulfill her role as a mother and fighting for a connection with her star as well as her family’s descendents, even after losing 700 years. And once she unexpectedly discovers true love in Ristriel, she is willing to endure whatever it takes, including 350 years of separation, to finally experience a life filled with the unconditional love and acceptance she’s searched for her entire life.
These themes of devotion and self-sacrifice, and the exploration of true love in all its forms, are set against a backdrop of well-executed, Fantasy world-building and plot. Holmberg has crafted a creative and unique world in which celestial objects are in fact deities that wield immeasurable power, and yet are still bound to the laws of the universe, providing rich fodder for moral dilemmas. The mystery behind the war between the Sun and the Moon as well as the impact of the war on both Ceris and the people of Mother Earth drives a plot that, while deliberate in its build-up, is well-paced once the foundation has been laid.
There were times I found the writing a tad overwrought and repetitive, but overall I felt that the prose helped deliver a tone that meshed well with the themes and enhanced their poignancy. For Romance readers, there is a love triangle, which did strain the HEA, but I would still solidly classify this as Fantasy-Romance. The HEA was also bit rushed for my taste, especially since it was so hard won; I would have liked to see a more developed and fleshed out ending, but it was satisfying nonetheless. These are but minor quibbles in a book that was well executed and quite beautiful.
I was delighted to see that there will be a sequel to Star Mother, especially after reading the synopsis. I think this second book will be a perfect conclusion to this tale and provide additional satisfaction to the HEA. I am genuinely looking forward to reading it!
There’s something to be said about a book that truly surprises its readers with an unexpected message. Dark Wizard by Jeffe Kennedy certainly falls into that category. I went into this book assuming classic Fantasy-Romance content, and while the book certainly delivered on genre expectations, it genuinely surprised me with how it tied romance into its unique world-building and magic system and used it as a social commentary on slavery and self-worth. Thought-provoking and sometimes necessarily uncomfortable in its message, Dark Wizard is the first book in Kennedy’s Bonds of Magic series. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 25/02/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
Lord Gabriel Phel wants one thing: to restore his shattered House to its former station in the Convocation’s complex and arcane society. Fortunately, through a wild chance of birth, he was born with the magic of a powerful wizard, the first in his family in generations. If he can obtain a familiar to supplement his skills, ideally one who is a highborn daughter who can also be his lady wife, then he’ll be that much closer to restoring House Phel. And to exacting his ultimate revenge on the Convocation that destroyed his family.
Lady Veronica Elal doesn’t have many choices. To her bitter disappointment, she will never be the powerful wizard she and her father hoped she’d be. Instead Nic is doomed to be a familiar like her mother, a second-class citizen in the Convocation, and one destined to be bonded to a wizard, serving his purposes for the rest of her life. Her one hope lies in entering the Betrothal Trials—and choosing a wizard from the Convocation candidates that she can manipulate. Whichever one of her suitors impregnates her will claim her as familiar and wife, and she can use her wiles to rule her wizard master, and the House she marries into.
But Gabriel throws a wrench into Nic’s careful scheming, by seducing and fascinating her. When she finds she’s pregnant by the rogue wizard she can never hope to control, Nic does the unthinkable: she runs.
At its core, Dark Wizard delivers a powerful message about slavery, self-worth, and how our world view and possibilies for self are shaped through the lens of our upbringing and societal expectations. Kennedy’s world-building focuses on a magic system and a social structure that has developed around that system. In this world, magic is the purview of wizards – they alone can wield magic and they do so under the contracts of their particular house and the laws of the Convocation. But magic is also held by familiars, and this is where the conflict arises and the world-building gets interesting. Familiars can hold as much magic as a Wizard, but they can’t use it – their magic must be channeled for use by a wizard – creating an unbalanced power dynamic in which a familiar is magically bound in servitude to a wizard, their entire lives relegated to providing a fountain of magic for their wizard to pull from, having no agency to change their fate or shape a purpose of their own.
At first, I was taken aback and (honestly) a bit disgusted by the brutal concept of the Betrothal Trials. When a familiar is ready to be bonded to a wizard, they are paired each month with a new candidate to determine the couple’s “productivity” (so-to-speak) – they bed each other to find out if they can get pregnant, thereby ensuring a magical bloodline. If the pair gets pregnant that month, they are bonded, and the familiar enters a life of servitude to the wizard. If not, they are repaired, and the process continues until pregnancy occurs. Like I said, brutal. But once I got deeper into the book, I understood the Betrothal Trials to be part of the larger, complex world-building that really is an allegory for slavery and a construction necessary for delivering important messages about slavery and self-worth. I should point out that these pairings are not based on gender – the wizard-familiar bond can happen between any combination of genders, and I really love that Kennedy took gender out of this discussion all together.
The Romance plot of this book is interwoven with what I believe will be the ongoing series arc – dismantling the caste system enforced by the Convocation. Gabriel summarily rejects the ideals and strictures set up around the power dynamic betwen familiars and wizards, because his upbringing was not shaped by the Convocation. He doesn’t base his self-worth, or that of others, on magical potential. He wants to bond and marry Nic out of love and trust. Unfortunately, Nic’s upbringing was vastly different, and her entire life and world view has been shaped by the Convocation. She struggles with a relationship based in true love and trust, the very concepts to her impossible given the power dynamic and expectations of the wizard-fimilar bond. Can they ever be sure that they’ve truly won each other’s hearts, or are they merely compelled to each other by their stations? The contrast between Gabriel and Nic’s world views – the potential for new, versus the confines of the old – and the ideals that have been ingrained in them since birth form the basis of a fascinating relationship that has so much potential for both evolution and growth.
Another clever aspect of Gabriel and Nic’s relationship that stems from their upbringings revolves around Gabriel’s use of magic. Because he is new to the world of magic and wasn’t formally trained by the Convocation, he often forgets he’s an incredibly powerful Wizard, reaching for his sword instead of using magic. Nic was the top of her class at the academy, and even though she cannot use magic herself and is supposed to be “less than” a wizard, she has all the training and knowledge Gabriel needs to understand and use his skills, adding depth and nuance to this unbalanced power dynamic central to the book’s plot and themes.
For the Romance readers out there, this series does follow the same couple, and there are open questions at the end of the first book. There is significant room for an interesting evolution in both the relationship between Gabriel and Nic as well as their relationship to the Convocation, which makes the lack of a tidy HEA understadable and necessary. I’m looking forward to reading on in the series and seeing how this all unfolds!
There are so many things I liked about Absynthe by Brendan Bellecourt (a.k.a. Bradley Beaulieu writing under a pseudonym for his first foray into Science Fiction) that when I sat down to write this, I struggled to organize my thoughts into a coherent review. I had this overwhelming urge to gush and simply list all the disparate pieces of this book that resonated with me. But upon further reflection (and after tempering my initial impulse), I realized that these various elements all contribute to a singular purpose that can be summarized quite succinctly: to present the reader with a uniquely expansive and unexpectedly harsh world that makes the book’s simple message about love and the essence of humanity that much more profound. I received an eARC of this book from NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 07/12/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
Liam Mulcahey, a reclusive, shell-shocked veteran, remembers little of the Great War. Ten years later, when he is caught in a brutal attack on a Chicago speakeasy, Liam is saved by Grace, an alluring heiress who’s able to cast illusions. Though the attack appears to have been committed by the hated Uprising, Grace believes it was orchestrated by Leland De Pere–Liam’s former commander and the current President of the United States.
Meeting Grace unearths long-buried memories. Liam’s former squad, the Devil’s Henchmen, was given a serum to allow telepathic communication, transforming them into a unified killing machine. With Grace’s help, Liam begins to regain his abilities, but when De Pere learns of it, he orders his militia to eliminate Liam at any cost.
But Liam’s abilities are expanding quickly. When Liam turns the tables and digs deeper into De Pere’s plans, he discovers a terrible secret. The same experiment that granted Liam’s abilities was bent toward darker purposes. Liam must navigate both his enemies and supposed allies to stop the President’s nefarious plans before they’re unleashed on the world. And Grace is hiding secrets of her own, secrets that could prove every bit as dangerous as the President’s.
More often than not, when I find myself captivated by a speculative fiction novel, intriguing world-building plays an especially significant role. I can point to several novels that have caught my interest due to their unique and imaginative world-building, and to this day these books stand out in my memory for their ability to transport me to a world so unlike anything I might have expected. The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams and An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock immediately come to mind; Absynthe now falls high on this list.
Imagine if WWI had taken place on American soil, the final, definitive battle on the shores of Lake Michigan in a suburb of Milwaukee. And then imagine that WWI warfare was augmented with mechanikal exoskeletons called Hoppers and performance-enhancing biotech. Absynthe provides readers with a well-crafted and vivid “decopunk” aesthetic, inventing a world where tommy guns and flights of absynthe in jazz-filled speakeasies exist alongside automata with human intelligence, zeppelins, and bullet trains that connect Chicago with the new capital of Nova Solis. The world-building is rich and encompassing from pinstripe suits and flapper dresses to the Saint Lawrence Pact of nations allied against the US. It transports you to a world with roots in our reality, but wholly reimagined, providng ample setting for the themes of the mysterious and winding plot.
(Aside: As a Milwaukee native, this book resonated with me in a very special way. If I said this book’s setting didn’t have anything to do with my interest, it would be a bold-faced lie! I never realized how satisfying it would be to read a genre novel set in the city in which I grew up and still utterly adore. The local references to places like Lake Geneva, the Kinnickinnic River, Whitefish Bay, and Dinkel’s were like a warm hug of familiarity that I didn’t know I needed.)
But it is also a harsh world in which veterans are used and discarded, where soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress, their mortal wounds often healed with mechanikal appendages and devices, citizens are injected with mysterious serums, and factions within the US undermine the trust of the government and each other. Bellencourt presents the evils of war and humanizes them through the struggles of his characters; Liam’s constant flashbacks, Clay’s inability to accept a life bound to mechaniks, and the revelation of Alistair’s true nature all contribute to a moral commentary on the true cost of war in the humanity that is lost in its aftermath.
The plot is a fast-paced mystery in which the main character Liam struggles to piece together the truth surrounding the tensions between, and intentions of, the government he fought for and the Uprising that is helping restore the vestiges of his shattered memory. The serums, their application, their evolution, and their interplay create an evocative SciFi plot that will have you theorizing and reading well into the night! As the truth about the serums is slowly revealed, and the pieces of the puzzle start to come together, Liam begins to question his actions and those of his leaders, the nature of his most important relationships, and ultimately what is needed to defeat the rising evil that threatens them all. His relationships are powerful in their diversity – he takes comfort from caring for his Nana, he’s devoted to his best friend Morgan, and he develops romantic feelings for Colette. But at the core of each relationship is an unconditional love, something that defines them as completely human and ultimately provides their deliverance. I found Liam’s realization and the subsequent ending heartfelt, infused with a message I think we all need right now.
Creative and intricate world-building and strong themes delivered through a griping and fast-paced plot are sure to capture any reader of Beaulieu’s debut Science Fiction novel. If I’ve captured your interest as much as this book captured mine, you can find Absynthe on Goodreads here, and pre-order it via Amazon here.
It’s funny, sometimes, how you fall into a book. Recently, I was reading Appropriately Aggressive: Essays About Books, Corgis, and Feminism by Krista D. Ball (although not the subject of this review, I recommend this book as Krista’s brand of sarcastic wit provides a highly entertaining delivery mechanism for serious essays about women in literature and the craft of writing). In an essay about how to support women in literature, the following passage caught my attention: “Pick up an author’s debut novel. I can recommend Kate Elliott’s as a great standaone alt-Victorian portal fantasy.” What?! Alt-Victorian portal fantasy?? Uh, yes, please! I feverishly texted Krista. “What is the name of this book?” She quickly replied, “The Labyrinth Gate!” and I couldn’t be happier to have stumbled in to such a satisfying read. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 12/01/1988
STAR RATING: 5/5 ✶
With marriage comes change, and for Sanjay and Chryse, that change is literally world altering. After their wedding reception, they accidentally drop a gift—a pack of special tarot cards—onto an elevator floor. The cards scatter, the lights go out, and all at once, they find themselves transported to Anglia. It’s a strange parallel world not unlike Victorian England, but matriarchal in nature and shaped by powerful sorcery. While fleeing a riot in the streets, the pair is rescued by aristocrats Julian and Kate, the first of many new friends and adventures. To get home, they must find a treasure in the labyrinth city of Pariam—a quest that becomes ever more daunting as it attracts the attention of the evil Princess Blessa.
There are many enjoyable elements of The Labyrinth Gate, but the element that really shines for me is its fast-paced, plot-driven story. To understand why this book’s plot is so compelling, let’s first take a look at the world in which it’s set. As Krista points out, this book is an alt-Victorian portal fantasy, but what exactly does that mean? Our FMC and MMC, Chryse and Sanjay (I actually consider this an ensemble cast, but more on that later), are magically transported from modern-day US to an alternate Victorian-era England, where places and names are somewhat familiar, and yet different, but the patriarchy of the peerage and Christianity are both turned upside down, and a matriarchy governs all aspects of society. Layered on top of this alternate foundation is magic. The world is filled with Tarot-card driven sorcery, goblins, ogres, and elves, and a lost pagan history that speaks of a secret source of even greater magical power. Chyrse and Sanjay are thrust into a quest to find this treasure, motivated as it is said to be the key to finding their way back home, while powerful sorcerers vie for the find, their own agendas far more sinister.
Several aspects of our own Victorian-era England are preserved. Here, the significant class divide between the aristocracy and the commoners is ever present and shapes societal expectations and moraes. In fact, Chryse and Sanjay enter the world amid a riot in a lower-class, poverty-stricken part of town. There are violent uprisings, and the commoners are pushing for a new, more equal way of life. Herein lies one of the main themes of this book – the old ways versus new and the rocky transition that exists between the two. Elliott presents this theme to the reader again by weaving sacred holidays into the ritual that becomes central to uncovering the secrets of the gates. The pseudo-Christian holidays are celebrated as the year moves along, but these holidays are simply replacements for the old pagan celebrations – much like was done in our own world – and these holidays held far more power in the magic that surrounds their original intent. Old versus new and the cycle of time are concepts at the forefront of this book.
The search for the treasure of the labyrinth via a massive archaeological expedition forms the backbone of the plot. Chryse, Sanjay, and their new group of friends (and frienemies!) travel North to the site of the mythical Pariam in the hopes of uncovering the secret buried therein. Throughout the preparation for and during their quest, unexpected events, both magical and mundane, start happening to members of their party, those they left behind, and in the area surrounding the dig that leave the reader speculating about how these clues all fits together. The story is most definitely a mystery, and Elliott plants so many of these questions in preparation for the ending that you cannot help but frantically turn pages to find out how it all comes together. I honestly do not want to provide any more detail about the plot than that, because further discussion will invariably lead to spoilers, and I would be truly remiss as a reviewer if I ruined any of the surprises this book has in store for you!
Another element of this book that I unexpectedly appreciated was the vagaries surrounding the prophecy and ritual central to the plot. Generally, I’m the type of reader that wants everything explained. I am an engineer after all – there must be a succinct explanation for everything! But the softness and purposeful haze surrounding magic, the fact that the prophecy and ritual are veiled in mystery and ambiguity, actual serves the tone of this book perfectly and surprised me in how satisfying it was. In fact, it struck such a chord with me that I was reminded of Guy Gavriel Kay’s 2021 J.R.R Tolkien Lection on Fantasy Literature (if you haven’t seen it, please do yourself a favor and listen to his insightful talk) in which he makes a case for leaving some questions unanswered in your story, especially in regards to magic. In other words, leave some magic in magic. To me, what Elliott accomplishes in this book is a perfect example of what Kay was referring to in his lecture. The prophecy and the ritual felt inherently magical to me – other-worldly – and that made for a far more rewarding experience than I would have expected.
I said that this book is plot-driven, and I believe that to be a true statement, but that doesn’t mean this book lacks in characterization. The characters are developed and presented (just like the world-building) in what is just enough detail to support and enhance the plot such that the plot remains the focal point. The ensemble cast forms right from the beginning; as soon as Chryse and Sanjay are transported to Anglia, they are rescued from a riot by Julian and Kate. From that moment forward, the cast grows to include characters that range from Julian’s opinionated, but wise, old Aunt Laetitia to the mysteriously evil Earl of Elen who finances their trip North and for unknown reasons wishes to marry the archaeology professor’s daughter. This unlikely crew have such varied personalities, backgrounds, and motivations, and yet they are all pointed toward the same purpose: to uncover the treasure at Pariam.
One of the things that really stood out to me about this book was the casual and natural way interpersonal relationships are depicted and how simple, but meaningful interactions are sprinkled thorughout the story alongside the plot. There is a familiarity that develops among the characters, and the author interleaves talk of friendship, sex, love, and marriage nonchalantly which lends an authenticity to the various relationships that I found delightful, especially within a high-stakes fantasy setting. The relationship-building, which took unexpected and starkly different paths depending on the couple, was remarkable in and of itself, but even more impressive when considering how each couples’ path added a richness to the story that would not have otherwise been there. The ultimate outcomes of these pairings varied significantly, and I found that to be a unique and adeptly contrived aspect of this book.
I’m legitimately baffled as to why this book isn’t more widely known and read. It is a fantastic example of standalone, high fantasy that had me reading well into the night. If you are a fan of plot-heavy mystery, alternate historical world-building with a healthy serving of magic, and casual relationship-building between delightful and varied characters from an ensemble cast, The Labyrinth Gate might just be the book for you!
I don’t typically read novellas – not because of some active choice on my part, but merely by happenstance. But over the past couple months, a few novellas have managed to find their way into my reading queue, and so I thought I’d do a special Monday Minis looking at these three completely different little books. All opinions are my own.
My Dirty Duke: A Victorian Novella by Joanna Shupe completely knocked my socks off! I heard about this book, because I follow author Sarah McLean on Twitter and she recommended it, and thank goodness she did. This novella checks all the boxes in terms of pure, unadulterated enjoyment for me. The writing is superb. The characters come to life on the page, and their arcs are real and meaningful despite its short length. The romance is delectably steamy right from the beginning (including naked, amateur photography) and is amplified by the age-gap trope – he is her father’s best friend – truly magnificent! If you want a wickedly decadent historical that you can read in a couple hours before bed, this is the novella for you! (Aside: OK, after writing this, I’ve decided I need to go read this yet again…)
The Return of the Sorceress by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a fantasy novella about a sorceress who loses her position of power after being betrayed by her lover. I was looking to fill the r/fantasy Latinx Book Bingo square, and was drawn to this novella by the description in Goodreads advertising it as Sword and Sorcery. Although I would not classify the book as such – I believe this to be a personal story about coming to terms with one’s hubris – it was still a pleasurable read delivering a solid message about the evils of desiring power in a interesting, fantastical setting. For me, the highlight of this book was the meso-american folklore influence on the world-building, especially in the form of what I would consider the main character’s cheeky familiar, the Nahual. Overall, a short, satisfying story.
I saw a preorder announcement from the author for this book on my Twitter timeline (via the Romance Books hashtag), read the description, and immediately went to Amazon and bought it. Flesh and Stone: A Monster Romance Novella by Emily Hemenway is a steamy, contemporary romance novella that takes place between an almost 200 year old gargoyle and a contemporary, young New York woman. Yes, you read that correctly – the MMC is a gargoyle, and he and the FMC have gargoyle sex. You can thank me later. Thomas was part of a secret organization that investigated the supernatural when he was transformed into a gargoyle by an evil witch. He awakes in the present day when Hannah, an FBI analyst, recently moved to New York City, touches the statue on a tour of the old cathedral. You can imagine her surprise, but maybe not her reaction to this stony gentleman! This book was so cute and simply a fun read, perfect for October with all its witchy, monster vibes.
Time for some November hype! We have quite a variety of books for you to get excited about in November, ranging new installments in massive Epic Fantasy series to an adorable graphic novel. There’s a little something for everyone in this list!
Kat: My bookish friends know that I am a complete Tad Williams fan-girl, and so its no wonder that Brothers of the Wind is first on my hype list for November (out on the fourth). Williams revists his world of Osten Ard in a second prequel to the The Last King of Osten Ard series. This novella (mind you, a Tad-Williams-length novella) takes place a thousand years before the events of The Dragonbone Chair, the first book in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, and will finally give fans of Osten Ard some of the backstory of the Sithi, Ineluki, and the events the led to the epic battle between the Norns and humanity. I cannot wait to dive back in to Williams’ prose, explore new history and world-building surrounding Osten Ard, and meet new characters. Oh, and can we talk about that cover?! Gorgeous! Pre-order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).
Kat: Bec McMaster’s Dark Court Rising series comes to completion this November with the final book in the trilogy, Curse of Darkness, out on the 2nd. I read the first installment in this adult, Epic Fantasy Romance last year and was intrigued by both the world-building and the plot. The story is set in a dark, magical world inhabited by both dark and light Fae. The romance is enemies-to-lovers, but McMaster puts an twist on that trope that makes for an interesting read, and also sets up a cliff-hanger ending that makes you itch to grab book two. Knowing that book three was coming out this fall, I decided to wait before reading the second book, so that I could read all three straight through. So, I’ll be restarting the trilogy this month in prepartion for the final book, and I’m excited to see how the fantasy and the romance pans out! Get a copy via the various e-book retailer links on the author’s website here.
Fab: One of my favorite graphic novels of all time is Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker. So it’s no wonder I’m highly excited for Tidesong by Wendy Xu, her solo graphic novel out on the 16th of November. The story features a young witch and a water dragon and it sounds so damn cute that I think it’s INCREDIBLY mean that no one has ensured that I get a copy on or before release day yet. (I know, I could just pre-order it myself, which is probably what I’ll end up doing). With comps to stories like Howl’s Moving Castle and The Tea Dragon Society you know that this one will be a perfect feel-good book to curl up with on a day you have the sads, which is the kind of graphic novel that I love most of all. Pre-order a copy via Amazon here.
Fab: This month is full of comfort releases for me. I have listened to all of the books in the Outlander series so many times in audio because the narrator is so amazing that Claire, Jamie, Brianna and co feel like family by now. So to say that I’m excited for Go Tell the Bees That I am Gone by Diana Gabaldon is a bit of an understatement. Out on the 23rd, this continues the long-running saga of the time-travellers in the eighteenth century, and we’re due a big reunion. I’ll be listening to the audiobook the day it comes out, but I’m sure the print version will be just as good. These books really aren’t my usual genre, but they’re just such comfort books. Pre-order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link) or the audio via Audible here.