• Reviews

    Mort the Meek and the Monstrous Quest – Rachel Delahaye

    Mort the Meek is back! I loved the first Mort book when I read it last year – Mort the Meek and the Raven’s Revenge – see my review here, and so I jumped on the chance to request book two when it came out. This is more of the same macabre kids humour combined with wonderful illustrations and quirky narration, so just a gem all around.

    Many thanks to Little Tiger for sending me a review copy, all opinions are my own.

    RELEASE DATE: 06/01/2022

    STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶

    SUMMARY: Around the unfriendly, rocky island of Brutalia, the waves are awash with brave sea-farers, on a treasure hunt for their demanding queen. Among them is Mort, but rather than hunt for treasure, he’s more interested in looking for his family who are lost at sea. Unfortunately, his shipmate Punky has her eyes firmly on the prize.

    But when the pair find the tentacle of a mythical sea creature, their adventure takes a dramatic turn. Is this the prize-winning treasure Punky and the queen seek? Or could it be a monstrous twist in Mort’s rescue mission? (from Little Tiger)

    OPINIONS: I just love these books. They remind me a bit of A Series of Unfortunate Events aimed at a slightly younger audience – and less realistic. This is again narrated by animals explaining words and sarcastically talking about what is going on – sea creatures this time. The focus on lexicon and new vocabulary is one of my favourite aspects, and something I know I would have absolutely adored as a child as well. Set on the island of Brutalia, this second installment takes place quite a bit of time after the first, with enough time having past for Mort’s father and siblings to have gone lost at sea. Their terrible queen has decided that she is now going to be a god queen – and thus asks her citizens to go out and quest to be named half-gods.

    Mort joins this expedition – not because he wants to be a half-god, but because he wants to find his missing family. On the way, he is paired up with the infuriating Punky, who has a soft core beneath her hard exterior, loses his pacifist ways and accidentally becomes a fish god. In the end, he has to find back to his pacifist roots to find a solution to Brutalia’s problems after receiving help from unexpected allies. Again, the story focuses on how ultimately issues can be solved through thinking and talking rather than violence, which I think is a wonderful message, and one that is very important to drill into the audience’s heads at that age.

    I think these books are probably best aimed at young readers aged seven to nine, though my adult self still enjoyed it a lot. Join Mort on his adventures by adding Mort the Meek and the Monstrous Quest to your Goodreads here, and ordering a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

  • Reviews

    The Amber Crown – Jacey Bedford

    A standalone epic fantasy that hits familiar beats in interesting ways with a strong cast that earns their bonds and uses the familiar as a bedrock to add surprises along with a keen eye for detail. 

    Many thanks to Stephanie at DAW for sending me an eARC, all opinions are my own.

    RELEASE DATE: 11/01/2022

    STAR RATING: 3.5/5 ✶

    SUMMARY: The king is dead, his queen is missing. On the amber coast, the usurper king is driving Zavonia to the brink of war. A dangerous magical power is rising up in Biela Miasto, and the only people who can set things right are a failed bodyguard, a Landstrider witch, and the assassin who set off the whole sorry chain of events.

    Valdas, Captain of the High Guard, has not only failed in his duty to protect the king, but he’s been accused of the murder, and he’s on the run. He’s sworn to seek justice, but his king sets him another task from beyond the grave. Valdas doesn’t believe in magic, which is unfortunate as it turns out.

    Mirza is the healer-witch of a Landstrider band, valued and feared in equal measure for her witchmark, her scolding tongue, and her ability to walk the spirit world. When she’s given a task by Valdas’ dead king, she believes that the journey she must take is one she can never return from.

    Lind is the clever assassin. Yes, someone paid him to kill the king, but who is to blame, the weapon or the power behind it? Lind must face his traumatic past if he’s to have a future.

    Can these three discover the real villain, find the queen, and set the rightful king on the throne before the country is overcome?

    OPINIONS: The Amber Crown is a stand-alone with many of the trappings of epic fantasy squeezed into a single story. Set in a Central-European-inspired country, the story draws more from the late Renaissance with traders, merchants, a semi-prosperous middle class, and guns, rather than the typical medieval. The plot itself is very traditional with a group going on a quest, an uncertain power vacuum, and an unseen evil lurking underneath it all. While this sounds the same old, same old, the familiarity allows the differences to become more apparent and it’s the characters that make it, as well as a solid execution. It’s important to note that whilst the world is not grimdark, there are mentions of sexual assault, a scene of attempted rape, and a flashback to the rape of an adolescent. They’re addressed within the story and aren’t just used as set dressing or to set a tone but readers may want to approach with caution.

    Valdas is the most straightforward of the three POV characters. He’s loyal, honest, and willing to accept responsibility. However, he’s also a bit crude and loves women although he knows how to accept boundaries.  He’s also the one that I feel changes the least through the story. He already knows himself and mostly what kind of person he is so doesn’t go through the path of growth the other two do, although through his experiences he becomes more open-minded and tolerant of others.  

    While I liked Mirza with her pragmatism, sharpness but also a strong sense of fairness and compassion she does get the raw end of the deal a lot of the time. At the beginning of the story, she has to fight for the respect of her band, having recently been an apprentice who had outpaced her master but was forced to hide it.  As she continues to show her abilities to her band and later convinces Valdas of the existence of magic, her willingness to do what’s right overall despite the hardship it might cause her becomes a defining trait. 

    Lind is the most complex of the three and the most morally ambivalent. Through the story, we see his cleverness and his quickness but also Lind’s experiences as an assassin for hire are grounded more in detail than usual with descriptions of disguises and methodicalness of planning required rather than violence and a quick getaway.  All three have very distinct voices and the bonds between each of the characters are slowly developed and earned rather than forged in an instant through peril.   

    In terms of writing the short chapters maintain the pace of the book and help to keep momentum between the characters, particularly in the earlier parts. Each POV feels very different so it’s enjoyable to switch between them. There are also interesting bits of worldbuilding such as Lind’s mention of changing fashion adds a sense of vibrancy and of living culture rather than things being set in stone. The poor judgment of the new king is also mentioned through the references to new taxes in subtle asides. The Amber Crown would be a good fit for people who love epic fantasy but aren’t ready to commit to a long-running series.

  • Reviews

    A Tale of Two Faerie Tales

    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.

  • Reviews

    Elektra – Jennifer Saint

    One of the most successful titles in the recent boom of mythological retellings is Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne. Blessed with both a hardback and a paperback special edition, and nominated for the Waterstones Book of the Year, I really enjoyed it when I read it last year (see my review here). So to say I was excited for Elektra is an understatement. It looks at one of the most fascinating mother/daughter relationships in Greek myth, that of Clytemnestra, Helen’s sister, and her daughter Elektra – and is another enthralling tale.

    Many thanks to Wildfire and NetGalley for the eARC, all opinions are my own.

    RELEASE DATE: 28/04/2022

    STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶

    SUMMARY: The House of Atreus is cursed. A bloodline tainted by a generational cycle of violence and vengeance. This is the story of three women, their fates inextricably tied to this curse, and the fickle nature of men and gods.
    Clytemnestra
    The sister of Helen, wife of Agamemnon – her hopes of averting the curse are dashed when her sister is taken to Troy by the feckless Paris. Her husband raises a great army against them and determines to win, whatever the cost.
    Cassandra
    Princess of Troy, and cursed by Apollo to see the future but never to be believed when she speaks of it. She is powerless in her knowledge that the city will fall.
    Elektra
    The youngest daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, Elektra is horrified by the bloodletting of her kin. But can she escape the curse, or is her own destiny also bound by violence? (from Wildfire)

    OPINIONS: Elektra is once again an enthralling story of three women often overlooked in mythology. It is quite a bit darker than Ariadne was – how could it not be, centred around this many murders as these interwoven stories are. I enjoyed this as a solid read, although I felt that the book tried to combine what should have been two separate stories into one, not giving either enough scope to delve deep enough. I wish that the book had entirely focused on Clytemnestra and Elektra, as I felt that the inclusion of Cassandra’s storyline meant that the nuances of the mother/daughter relationship, and especially the way it deteriorates and madness potentially creeps in after the sacrifice of Iphigenia didn’t have enough space to be explored in a manner that felt completely satisfactory. It felt like having the third perspective took up too much of the story but didn’t add quite enough in value.

    But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy reading the book – I did very much. Saint’s writing is strong and evocative, and the story compelling. It conjures emotions throughout, as I don’t think there was any part of the book that left me cold (though, much of it was rage at our darling Agamemnon…), and that is truly a credit to the author. I am an absolute fiend for mythological retellings, and so the complaining I am doing here is really complaining on a very high level, please don’t get me wrong! I am very much looking forward to reading Saint’s next book, because more feminist retellings are always a win in my mind.

    It’s interesting how a well-written retelling can get you completely enthralled in its plot and have you on your toes, even though you technically already know how the story ends. I know not everyone will be as familiar with these stories as I am, but it is something that always fascinates me. I think it may be part of why I fall in love with these stories so much – because I know the broad strokes, they are comforting, but because they are new interpretations, they are still new and exiting stories as a whole. Or maybe I’m just a weirdo. Who knows.

    Add Elektra to your Goodreads here, and pre-order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

  • Reviews

    Swashbucklers – Dan Hanks

    Came for the chocolate eyeballs, stayed for the wacky story and the adorable talking fox. Dan Hanks’ Swashbucklers is unique, hilarious and very out there – some elements worked very well for me, some didn’t quite click with me personally, but it was definitely a fun read.

    Many thanks to Caroline at Angry Robot for sending me a review copy. All opinions are my own.

    RELEASE DATE: 09/11/2021

    STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶

    SUMMARY: When Cisco Collins returns to his home town thirty years after saving it from being swallowed by a hell mouth opened by an ancient pirate ghost, he realises that being a childhood hero isn’t like it was in the movies. Especially when nobody remembers the heroic bits – even the friends who once fought alongside him.

    Struggling with single parenting and treated as bit of a joke, Cisco isn’t really in the Christmas spirit like everyone else. A fact that’s made worse by the tendrils of the pirate’s powers creeping back into our world and people beginning to die in bizarre ways. With the help of a talking fox, an enchanted forest, a long-lost friend haunting his dreams, and some 80s video game consoles turned into weapons, Cisco must now convince his friends to once again help him save the day. Yet they quickly discover that being a ghostbusting hero is so much easier when you don’t have schools runs, parent evenings, and nativity plays to attend. And even in the middle of a supernatural battle, you always need to bring snacks and wipes…

    OPINIONS: Comedic fantasy is always a difficult beast. It’s hard to find that right balance between hitting your stride in terms of humour and overdoing in the eyes of the audience – and I’m not an easy customer in that respect. A cynic by nature, I’m quick to roll my eyes at books that try too hard to be funny. So Swashbucklers never had the best starting conditions with me – but there were a lot of things that I did really like about the story.

    My favourite element was probably Tabitha, the talking fox slash magic tour guide to the realms, who helps the motley crew of the book figure things out and find their way through their adventure. I also really enjoyed the concept of a group of friends who have gone through this huge thing together years ago, mostly lost touch in the intervening years and who are now getting back together in their middle age and are confronted with the impossible once again. Those dynamics worked really well and made the book stand out to me – because of their familiarity with each other, they are unafraid to call out each other’s behaviour, and it is refreshing to have characters who are not trying to impress but to function.

    I did strongly dislike the ending – it felt like it ended in the sort of time paradox that is doomed to failure if you actually think about it, and if the story had actually cut two scenes earlier, the ending would have been far more final and satisfying. I think that is what ultimately made me decide on the three star rating – I was torn on whether to round up or down, as it was very much a case of me just not fully clicking with the book rather than there being anything to criticise in a more objective sense, but then I felt that the way the “post-credits” ending left things undid a lot and left me very grumpy.

    Nevertheless, it is a fun book, and if you are more into comedic fantasy, eighties nostalgia or if you too love talking animal companions, you can find Swashbucklers on Goodreads here, and you can get your hands on your own copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

  • Reviews

    Castles in Their Bones – Laura Sebastian

    Hodder’s in for a great month of new releases in February. Not just this one, but also Only a Monster (reviewed HERE) and The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea, which is much beloved even if it didn’t quite work for me, are all coming out in the same month, and it’s very exciting! Castles in Their Bones shows Laura Sebastian’s talent for building rich worlds, strong female leads and an affinity to take risks other authors would have shied away from.

    Many thanks to Kate Keehan and Hodderscape for the eARC. All opinions are my own.

    RELEASE DATE: 01/02/2022

    STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶

    SUMMARY: The plot: overthrow a kingdom. The goal: world domination. The plan: marriage.

    Empress Margaraux has had plans for her daughters since the day they were born. Princesses Sophronia, Daphne, and Beatriz will be queens. And now, age sixteen, they each must leave their homeland and marry their princes.

    Beautiful, smart, and demure, the triplets appear to be the perfect brides – because Margaraux knows there is one common truth: everyone underestimates a girl. Which is a grave mistake. Sophronia, Daphne, and Beatriz are no innocents. They have been trained since birth in the arts of deception, seduction, and violence with a singular goal – to bring down monarchies – and their marriages are merely the first stage of their mother’s grand vision: to one day reign over the entire continent of Vestria.

    The princesses have spent their lives preparing, and now they are ready, each with her own secret skill, and each with a single wish, pulled from the stars. Only, the stars have their own plans – and their mother hasn’t told them all of hers.

    Life abroad is a test. Will their loyalties stay true? Or will they learn that they can’t trust anyone – not even each other? (from Hodder)

    OPINIONS: I hate to utter the word reading slump. But I have been struggling a bit to get excited about the books I’m reading, and I’m once again starting far too many and then just starting a new one next time I pick up a book. And while I do eventually finish them, I never really get immersed. Not so with Castles in Their Bones. Slightly aided by a lazy day due to Booster side effects, I raced through the 500-odd pages of this epic fantasy in a few hours, and I already want more. I especially loved the ending – I think Laura Sebastian made some great choices that not every author would have had the guts to go through with – one that sets up strong character arcs for the next book in the series.

    The three princesses, Sophronia, Daphne and Beatriz start out as sort of an entity, but as the story goes on, they really develop into their own characters and the differences between the sisters become clear. They are not damsels, but manipulators, though it soon becomes clear that they may not be in control as much as they believe themselves to be. I did feel like the side characters did not get quite as much attention as the triplets, and, for example, their respective spouses/fiancés were not as well-rounded as the girls themselves. It did sometimes feel like they were interchangeable almost. But ultimately, it didn’t diminish my reading experience.

    In terms of plot, the story was compelling, if not fully surprising. I think the best way to describe Castles in Their Bones is as a comfort read – taking on enough of the familiar beats of YA epic fantasy to create an atmosphere of recognition in some ways, while also taking them and twisting them into something of its own. It is reasonably fast paced, which adds to the compulsive readability. For me, this will be a book I’m going to reread, because it’s perfect to curl up with under a blanket and sip on a mug of tea or hot choc. Because I too have castles in my bones.

    Add Castles in Their Bones to your Goodreads here, and pre-order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

  • Reviews

    The Key in the Lock – Beth Underdown

    I have been absolutely addicted to mysteries and thrillers recently, so this ARC arrived at the perfect time. Set during the First World War, this has two different mysteries at its core, and predominately focuses on how they impact the affected families – in particular Ivy Boscawen, our main character. In the present, she mourns her son, and tries to figure out how exactly he died, all the while being haunted by the death of a small boy in her past. The Key in the Lock is creepy, captivating and haunting. A perfect winter read, really, even if it’s not a flawless book.

    Many thanks to Penguin/Viking for sending me an ARC for review. All opinions are my own as usual.

    RELEASE DATE: 13/01/2022

    STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶

    SYNOPSIS: I still dream, every night, of Polneath on fire. Smoke unravelling from an upper window, and the terrace bathed in a hectic orange light… Now I see that the decision I made at Polneath was the only decision of my life. Everything marred in that one dark minute.

    By day, Ivy Boscawen mourns the loss of her son Tim in the Great War. But by night she mourns another boy – one whose death decades ago haunts her still.

    For Ivy is sure that there is more to what happened all those years ago: the fire at the Great House, and the terrible events that came after. A truth she must uncover, if she is ever to be free.

    But once you open a door to the past, can you ever truly close it again? (from Viking)

    OPINIONS: This is in parts a historical novel, a mystery and a ghost story. Ivy is haunted by the ghosts of her son and her past, though it is long left unclear whether these are literal or metaphorical. It is one of those books that I find incredibly hard to review, as I think I feel fonder of it in hindsight than I did while reading, already considering a reread to get back into that spooky and uncanny wintery mood with a mug of hot chocolate. The Key in the Lock is certainly one of those novels where you end up wondering what is truly happening until you get to the very end, and I’d love to go back and see the seeds of those revelations in the text.

    Ivy Boscawen isn’t the most sympathetic of main characters. While she suffers, she is also an unreliable narrator in a lot of ways, and a very privileged woman. I was never quite sure if I felt with her for her losses and her challenges in life, or if I was annoyed at her for being so oblivious to everyone else’s issues and the way she treated those close to her. But ultimately, that means that she is a great character. She is well-written and complex, and causes emotional reactions in the reader. And to me, that is more important that many other things about a book.

    The Key in the Lock is certainly not a book that left me unaffected on an emotional level. It is compelling, unexpected and atmospheric. I would put this in the category of vibe-books, which I’m coming to appreciate as something that does work very well for me. If you too feel that way, I really recommend you pick this up when it comes out next week, as it’s leaving a lasting impression on me.

    Add The Key in the Lock to your Goodreads here, and pre-order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

  • Reviews

    Little Fire – Hollee Mands

    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 ✶

    SUMMARY:

    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?

    OPINIONS:

    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…

  • Reviews

    Star Mother – Charlie N. Holmberg

    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 ✶

    SUMMARY:

    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. 

    OPINIONS:

    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!

  • Reviews

    Frankie’s World – Aoife Dooley

    If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know that books by neurodivergent authors, and especially ones featuring neurodivergent characters are very dear to my heart. So I was thrilled when I was offered a copy of Frankie’s World by Aoife Dooley for review – this middle grade graphic novel features an autistic main character who is trying to figure out why she isn’t quite like the other kids in her class, all the while trying to track down her dad with her friends.

    Many thanks to Scholastic for sending me a review copy, all opinions are my own.

    RELEASE DATE: 06/01/2022

    STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶

    SUMMARY: Twelve-year-old Frankie knows she’s not like anyone else in her class: she’s different, but she can’t quite figure out why. Is it the new freckle on her nose, or the fact she’s small for her age? Or that she has to go to the hospital sometimes? Everyone else seems to think she’s weird too, and they make fun of her at school. Frankie’s dad left when she was a baby – maybe he was different too? It would explain why she always feels like an alien. So she and her best friend, Sam, embark on a mission to track him down. (from Scholastic)

    OPINIONS: Frankie’s World is a delightful middle grade graphic novel about the titular character’s journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance in two-tone shades of orange and blue. It is the sort of book I would recommend both to children struggling with fitting in, with finding their place in the world, but also to those who do tend to fit into the mold of social acceptance, who could perhaps do with a bit of understanding for those who don’t. Aoife Dooley tells Frankie’s story with compassion, influenced by her own experiences of growing up autistic and not knowing it until adulthood.

    But this is also a story of family and of friendship. A central theme is that Frankie has never met her dad – while she has a wonderful stepfather, she is of course morbidly curious about her ‘real’ dad (who she suspects may be an alien, as he must be odd to have fathered her). With her best friend, Sam, and her new friend Rebecca, Frankie goes on a hunt – and does eventually track him down, to get some unexpected answers. The friendships between Frankie, Sam and Rebecca are lovely to see, and while all three girls are disabled in different ways, the story doesn’t show them to be limited in what they can achieve or want, which I really appreciated. Frankie’s World is just a really uplifting story about the value of acceptance, family and friendship, and one that I think is valuable for so many young readers.

    I think having it in graphic novel format is particularly effective as it makes the story even more approachable for children who may be reluctant readers, who may struggle with focus (which is an issue for some neurodivergent children especially) or just appreciate the added visual element. All in all, this is a fabulous book that I highly recommend to anyone, and hope many families, libraries and schools pick up a copy as soon as it is out.

    Add Frankie’s World to your Goodreads here, and pre-order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).