Book Review: A Poison Dark and Drowning by Jessica Cluess

A Poison Dark and Drowning by Jessica Cluess

Spoiler Alert: This is the second book in the Kingdom of Fire Series (you can read my review of the first book, A Shadow Bright and Burning, here). There are definitely going to be spoilers for the first book in this review. 

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So after defeating Korozoth, The Shadow and Fog, Henrietta Howell finds herself more or less (increasingly less) accepted by the sorcerer community. The ward that protected London is gone, Rook is slowly turning into a monster, she’s still of magician stock, she’s not the chosen one, the remaining Ancient Ones continue to devastate the country, and oh yeah, R’hlem the Skinned Man is demanding she be turned over to him. And engraving that demand in the flesh and bones of her countrymen. So, things are not exactly going smoothly.

When Henrietta’s research uncovers a possible way to defeat the Ancient Ones, her fellow sorcerers are hesitant to jump, as it seems magician magic is needed to defeat the monsters. Henrietta must risk herself, her friends, and her country to uncover the secrets of the Ancient Ones and stop their reign of terror.

I really enjoyed the first book on this series. Cluess’ intelligent use of sexism and classism to construct her magical world was cannily done. Her use of lovecraftian imagery against a Jane Eyre background was excellent, and provided some truly creepy imagery.

Poison does neglect the sharp societal insight of the first book, and the shadow-haunted visuals of the previous story are toned down a bit here. The first was atmospheric and gothic, this book lends itself more to adventure. Less a Jane Eyre and more a Jane Austen.

That is not to say that I didn’t like the book. Cluess keeps the plot running at a frenetic pace (I finished the book in a single day). She also has provided her main characters room to grow and mature. Henrietta herself is a fantastic heroine, flawed and idealistic, traumatized and striving. It is easy for characters like this to become so involved in navel gazing that the reader loses interest, but Cluess manages to keep Henrietta in our hearts.

The requisite love triangle is still there (grumble, grumble, grumble), but the dynamics change throughout the book. In the interest of maintaining a spoiler-free review, I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say that no one comes out smelling like a rose.

So, if you enjoyed the first book, you’re likely going to enjoy this one as well. Anyone seeking an intelligent YA fantasy series should certainly add this one to their TBR list (but definitely start with the first one).

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. 

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Book Review: These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas


These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas

Evelyn is bored. Bored with dresses and balls, bored with her mother’s constant matchmaking schemes, bored with the petty gentlemen she is forced to be pleasant to.

And so begins just about every Victorian-era book, no matter the genre. This one does branch out a bit more: Evelyn’s sister Rose disappears, and her trail follows a mysterious (and huge) Frenchman into London. With her parents concerned more for their reputation than Rose’s safety, Evelyn runs off to find Rose herself. Enlisting the help of dashing Mr. Kent, Evelyn is also forced to work with the infuriating Mr. Braddock, who has a game changing revelation for her: she and her sister may have special powers.

I’m not one of those people who automatically dismiss YA books as beneath my notice. There’s some fantastic work out there and some great stories being told. However, this is one of those genres where it is all too easy to fall into a formulaic trap. Like many recent psychological thrillers have been diminished by trying too hard to be the next Gone Girl, a lot of YA (especially the fantasy genre, which tends to be one of my favorites) suffers by trying to be the next Twilight or Hunger Games. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A young, headstrong girl is dissatisfied with her life, but unsure what she wants to do to improve it. After a calamitous event, she is forced to engage a wider, crueler world at its own level, discovering herself in the process. Oh, and you naturally need two potential romantic interests for her, one is “safe,” and has been around forever, the other someone she will never ever like, someone just so infuriating. . .

It sometimes seems like the same song set to different music. That’s not to say that books that follow the formula are all bad, but you need great characters, strong writing, and something special to set your story apart. Unfortunately, These Vicious Masks falls a bit short. Evelyn is intelligent and willing to defy convention if she can help others, but never becomes a truly sympathetic character. The love triangle is of the dimensions expected from the genre, and doesn’t deviate from the pattern.

Still, YA fantasy enthusiasts may want to give the book a go. I’ve always said that I am picky about the genre.

An audio book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

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The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Fair warning: this is the second book in the Winternight trilogy. There’s definitely going to be spoilers ahead for the first book in the series, The Bear and the Nightingale. If you want, you can read my review of that book here.

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Vasya has been driven from her village after the deaths of her father and stepmother. The options are slim for a young woman in medieval Russia — convent or marriage. Vasya, ever seeking to be her own master, decides to create a third option: to wander the vast expanses of Rus’ disguised as a boy, and explore the wide world now open to her. But the road and the places upon it are dangerous. Unnatural and vicious bandits are plundering remote towns in northern Rus’, and political intrigue and betrayal surround the residents of Moscow. Pulled into the events of the larger world, Vasya finds herself walking on a knife’s edge to help her family and her country, and to safeguard her precious freedom.

I simply adore this series. The Bear and the Nightingale was one of those delightful little surprises you come across occasionally. Expecting a typical historical fantasy, I found myself enveloped in a fairy tale story richly woven through with historical detail and living, breathing characters. The Girl in the Tower stays true to form. Arden’s careful attention to detail, and phenomenal gift for bringing fully-fleshed characters to her tales are undiminished in the second book.

Vasya has become a bit older and harder than last we saw her, but still retains her close ties with the many spirits who inhabit her world. Her choices and their consequences are rarely easy, and we get to see her grow and change as the plot moves along. Her relationship with Morozko, the winter demon is well done. No sappy love story here, but a subtler, bittersweet rapport that feels much more real.

If you enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale, then you’ll most likely love the continuation to the story. Fans of fantasy, fairy tales, and magic should definitely check out this phenomenal and original series.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

Book Review: After the End of the World by Jonathan L. Howard

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After the End of the World by Jonathan L. Howard

This is the second book in the Carter & Lovecraft Series, and so there are going to be massive, earth-shattering spoilers for the first book in this review. Go ahead and read the first book, then . This review will still be here when you’re ready.

 

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I’m a huge fan of Jonathan L. Howard’s books. In his Johannes Cabal series, you found yourself cheering on a cold, calculating sociopathic necromancer (you can read my review of The Fall of the House of Cabal here). The Carter & Lovecraft series introduces us to Emily Lovecraft (descendant of H.P. Lovecraft) and Daniel Carter (descendant of Randolph Carter). After the events of the last book, Carter and Lovecraft have found themselves in the “unfolded” world, where H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t so much a writer of weird fiction as a historian. Rather than Providence, Rhode Island, they now live in Arkham, Massachusetts, and Innsmouth, Kingsport, and Dunwich are right down the road.

Weird deaths and disappearances, machinations of the elder gods, and fraught archaeology are the leas of their problems however. It seems in this world, the Third Reich developed nuclear weapons in 1941, wiped out Russia in a single blow, and ended the second world war before it had really begun. As a result, the United States finds itself an ally of the Nazis, Britain is an inconsequential former power, France is in ruins, and much of Europe and Asia are ruled by Axis powers. Oh, and there are Nazis. No matter how picturesque Arkham may be compared to Providence, Lovecraft and Carter are determined to “fold” reality back into proper place and ensure that the Nazis don’t rise to become a modern global power.

The first book in the series was a bit long an meandering, but it did have a wonderfully brilliant character in Emily Lovecraft. Most books that use H.P. Lovecraft’s writings as inspiration tend to overlook the author’s racism and his discomfort with women. I’m a fan of Lovecraft’s work, but he is certainly problematic as a person. Yes, yes, he was writing in the ’20s and ’30s when racism was the norm, but he did express admiration for parts of the Nazi agenda prior to his death. And there’s more than one of his stories that reveals his dread of thinking of the “pure” white race being diluted and corrupted with “lesser” races/species.

Howard takes a full on look at this aspect of H.P. Lovecraft’s writing. He doesn’t dismiss or excuse it, and through the character of Emily Lovecraft, he points out these issues, and brings them front and center into the plot.

This is on full display in After the End of the World, where Emily (who is black) finds herself in a world where calling someone a Nazi is unconscionably rude (they prefer to call it the N-word), but where calling her a very degrading world for a black person, which I will not write in this blog, is completely acceptable. More than once, she makes a comment about finding a way back to the real world, so she no longer has “to be nice to Nazis.” If you’ve been watching the news at all in the past year, I’m sure a great many of you share that sentiment.

This book is quite a bit more fun than the previous one. In addition, the parallels to the current political climate in the US and abroad (which I do believe to be intentional on Mr. Howard’s part) make for grim, but fascinating reading. What would it look like if the Nazi’s had remained a world power? If Hitler hadn’t killed himself in his bunker but had lived on to shape the future of the Third Reich? Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think it may look similar to America under the Trump administration.

Jonathan L. Howard fans, especially those who read Carter & Lovecraft, should absolutely read this book. Even if you weren’t the biggest fan of the first book, I find this one to be much more entertaining, and the series deserves anther try. If this book sounds intriguing to you and you haven’t read the previous one, I really do encourage you to read that first, to get to know the main characters a bit better.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso


The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso

Amalia Cornaro is heir to a great family name, wealth, and untold political influence within the Raverran Empire. However, she has been content to leave most of the political machinations to her brilliant and ruthless mother, and concentrate on her studies of arcane magic. However, when a powerful fire warlock threatens the city of Raverra, Amalia finds herself drafted into containing the warlock’s magic, and in so doing inadvertently becomes a “Falconer”, tethered to the fire warlock and responsible for controlling her powers. Thrown into the middle of a political firestorm (couldn’t help myself), Amalia must use everything her mother ever taught her to prevent a civil war within the empire she loves.

This was an enormously fun fantasy novel, and is the first in the new series. Surprisingly, this is also Melissa Caruso’s debut novel. The story, while ostensibly YA, manages to avoid the pitfalls so common in the genre, and delivers an entertaining and suspenseful read. Caruso has built up an interesting and complex world, and her characters are lovingly crafted and more complex than one usually sees in the Young Adult genre. The book reminded me very much of Dragon Age, the Bioware RPG game (which from me is a huge compliment). I especially enjoyed the way magic is dealt with in Caruso’s world, and the push and pull between Amalia, and her “Falcon”, Zaira.

Fans of YA or the fantasy genre looking for a bright new talent should definitely pick up this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne


A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne

The Six Kingdoms have existed in tentative harmony for generations, each country kept safe by a “kenning” or magical ability, each one specific to a certain kingdom. The peace is shattered when an invading fleet of pale, nine foot tall warriors, called Bone Giants, run rampant over the coastal cities, slaughtering everyone they come across. The kingdoms, reeling from the attack, must race against time to ensure their survival. But surely the world will never be the same again.

I really enjoyed his book, but I have to say that it probably would have been a dud if written by a different author. This book is, in essence, a 600 page flashback. A novel-length world building tome. Yet it works. It’s crazy, but it works.

When the story opens, the invasion is months in the past. The book follows Dervan, a scholar set the task of writing down the tale of Fintan, a bard. It is the bard’s duty to tell the story of the invasion and the subsequent retaliation by the Six Kingdoms. Every night, Fintan stands on the wall of the refugee city and tells another part of the tale. His bardic gifts let us hear the story from devious politicians, poor hunters, forest dwellers, scholars, and soldiers. Intermixed in all this are the gifted, the lucky (cursed?) few able to control one of the kennings.

The book is huge, the story is epic in scope, and the world beautiful and terrible in all its detail. Hearne has created something incredibly ambitious, and he does it well. As I said, the format of telling the story in a series of flashbacks is odd, and it took me a bit to get into it, but I was hooked soon enough (though I have to say I do hope we get some more direct action in the next book). The plot would tend towards Game of Thrones-level darkness at times if it weren’t for Hearne’s sardonic sense of humor shining through. The brief moments of levity are enough to offset the horror of invasion, betrayal, and mass slaughter.

Any one looking for a new epic fantasy series to dive into (I’m looking to you, Game of Thrones folks!) should invest some time into this book. Fans of Hearne’s Iron Druid series will also likely enjoy this book, though it is certainly a different creature from that fantastic urban fantasy series.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Children of the Shaman by Jessica Rydill

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Children of the Shaman by Jessica Rydill

Thirteen year old Annat is a shaman by birth. Within her own people, the Wanderers, shamans can heal, protect, and enter bodily into other realms. Outside her people, however, shamans are looked upon with suspicion and mistrust. Annat is largely untrained in her powers, but when her aunt falls sick, she and her brother are sent to live with the father they barely know.

Annat is finally able to train as a shaman under the tutelage of her father, Yuda, but the family soon turns down a dangerous path. Yuda has been assigned to investigate strange occurrences and brutal murders in a small northern town. Strange, old magic seems to be at play in the area, and soon after arriving, Annat’s brother Malchik disappears. Annat and Yuda’s search for Malchik will take them on a strange journey through a mystical land of winter, where they must find Malchik and stop the evil being responsible for the town’s troubles.

This was an interesting and well-crafted fantasy. The story exists in a slightly offset historical Russia/Eastern Europe, with a good dose of Judaism and Jewish mysticism. The Russian fairy-tale setting is in vogue at the moment, with books such as The Bear and the Nighingale by Katherine Arden, and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo creating well-deserved buzz. Rydill’s inclusion of Jewish history, religion, and folklore set her book apart and add a touch of realism and historical grounding in a fantasy tale.

In all, the book is well written. The character of Annat is well-realized, sometimes to the detriment of the other characters, who can feel a bit flat. The journey through the fairy-tale realm borrows from Eastern European and Russian folklore, and is for the most part exciting and fun reading. I did find that the book began to drag a bit towards the end, but overall I found Children of the Shaman a diverting fantasy.

Fans of the fantasy genre, especially those who enjoyed The Bear and the Nnightingale or Shadow and Bone will likely enjoy this book. Anyone looking for a fantasy featuring a strong female lead (Children of the Shaman reminds me a lot of The Green Rider by Kristen Britain) shoudl also consider this book for their TBR.

A copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Gunslinger by Stephen King


The Gunslinger by Stephen King

Can you believe I’ve never read any of the Dark Tower Series by Stephen King? I picked up The Gunslinger in high school (back in the stone ages), and got about halfway through before being distracted by something or another. The poor book has languished on my TBR ever since. Now, though, with The Dark Tower movie coming out, What better motivation to read through the series at long last?

The Gunslinger introduces us to Roland, last of the gunslingers. Roland is pursuing the mysterious and sinister Man in Black across a blighted land. The land is at once alien and hostile, but strangely familiar. Ragtime versions of “Hey Jude” ring out from western-style taverns, and remnants of an all-too-familiar society blight the landscape.

This is one of the first major things Stephen King ever wrote, and you can feel the rawness of it. Reading The Gunslinger, you can see glimmers of King’s talent for allowing the horror of his story to creep off the page and run down your spine. Still, as the first book in the series, there is always some awkwardness in balancing setting the scene and introducing the characters without sacrificing pacing and plot. King sets us down in the middle of the chase and provides background information in small morsels.

 In all, I have to say that this isn’t the best of King’s books. But, as it’s the first of the series and one of his first works, I feel like he gets plenty of leeway. I’m excited to read the next book in the series, and see not only how Roland and the others evolve, but also how King’s writing grows over the course of the story.

P.S. – Thank you to The Nocturnal Reader’s Box for the gorgeous Dark Tower series themed bandana (from the June “All Hail the King” box)!

Book Review: Paper and Fire by Rachel Caine

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Paper and Fire by Rachel Caine

This is the second book in The Great Library Series, and so there are inevitable spoilers for the first book below.

 

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Now that the requisite spoiler alert is out of the way, let’s get down to business.

Jess finds himself as a lowly grunt in the Library’s Garda. Forced to abandon his dream of becoming a Library scholar, and very aware of the dark underside of the Library’s rule, Jess uses his smuggling past to try to find more information of the imprisoned Morgan and murdered Thomas. When Jess uncovers a bombshell: Thomas is alive and held captive by the Library at a secret prison, Jess must reunite his old friends (and frenemies) in a desperate rescue attempt. Little does he know that this act of rebellion will spark a violent chain of events which could threaten the world as he knows it.

Paper and Fire is a good sequel to Ink and Bone. The characters seem to have grown up quite a bit since we first met them, and the danger from the Library and its minions seems more devious and omnipresent than ever. We are given more information about the inner workings of the Library, and learn more about its past. I always enjoy the second book in the series, we’ve gotten over the awkward introduction phase and the characters can really stretch their legs. Caine lets Jess and his friends grow, but avoids the simple and comfortable and keeps things on a more realistic and complicated plane.

If you enjoyed the first book in the series, you will almost certainly like this one. If you haven’t read Ink and Bone yet, then you really shouldn’t be reading this review, should you? But either way, fans of the Harry Potter or Hunger Games series will enjoy these books, which manage to be both about teenagers and very adult at the same time.

Book Review: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

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The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

The book is a slightly less-than-direct prequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Though you do not have to read that book before you read this one, I would highly recommend doing so.

Merrick Tremayne is a shadow of his former self. Formerly employed by the East India Company as a smuggler, an accident has left him with a crippled leg and no prospects for the future. But when an expedition is planned to seek out quinine in the mountainous jungles of Peru, Merrick’s knowledge and family history make him indispensable for the success of the mission.

However, once he arrives at New Bethlehem, the village founded by his grandfather, Merrick finds that the fairy tales and stories he grew up with may hew closer to the truth than he ever could have guessed. Merrick must discover the secrets of this strange village–and Raphael, the mysterious local priest–in order to continue his mission.

Natasha Pulley has a real talent for incorporating magical and fantastical elements into a thoroughly believable historical setting. Her melding of history and fantasy is organic and subtle, and a fine example of how magical the genre can be. I also enjoy how Pulley steps out of the usual tropes of this type of fiction–exploring the Japanese Civil War in Watchmaker, and taking us into the mountains of Peru (and the shelling of Canton) in The Bedlam Stacks. Pulley explores colonization, international intrigue, and imperialism in this new book, and amidst the magic of her location, she reminds us of the ever-increasing consequences of invasion and interference.

Some aspects of the plot are similar to those in Watchmaker. We are again confronted with a man we are unsure if we can trust, even as Merrick grows closer to him. The mystery of the danger lurking in the forest outside of New Bethlehem, and the questions surrounding Raphael are well written. The book moves slowly in parts, but the climax of the book is actually quite creepy. While the magic here is more fantastical than that on display in Watchmaker, I feel that Pulley did a wonderful job of integrating it into the story.

If you enjoyed Natasha Pulley’s first book, you should certainly check out The Bedlam Stacks. Any fan of historical fantasy should look into the series.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.