Review – Belle Revolte

Belle Revolte, YA LGBT+ Fantasy by Linsey Miller

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️½ (4.5 stars)

I was incredibly affected and impressed by Linsey Miller’s debut Mask of Shadows. Assassins who actually did real murder—you wouldn’t believe what an impossible request this can be—a gender fluid protagonist, and politics galore. So when the publisher contacted me to see if I was interested in an ARC of her newest book, I said yes and thank you! I didn’t turn out to be such a gibbering fan over Belle Revolte, but I think the majority of Miller’s audience will love it.

Belle Revolte is split evenly between two protagonists on the same side of a conflict but who offer different tools to overcome the corruption that is tearing their kingdom apart. Emilie des Marais is a comtesse who wants to study medicine and become a magical physician, but is railroaded by her mother into a more traditionally feminine education in illusion and divination. In the first chapter, Emilie constructs a kind of switch with Annette Boucher, a girl she sees in the market who happens to look like her—but the story is not content to be a tale of swapped identity in magic schools.

Terminology is fun. Magic is divided between the midnight and noonday arts, magic users are called artists. The names are all French, with a very slight French air to the hierarchy and other proceedings.

The major focus is actually on the political conflict. Magic takes a physical toll on those who use it, to the degree that hacks, people who act as a conduit or buffer for artists of higher social class, suffer and die young. Both Annette and Emilie dislike this practice, but Annette is understandably more aggrieved by it.

They both wind up working for the rebellion/resistance in their own ways, which is when the book really picks up. Subterfuge!

For the most part, the dual narrative works. At worst, the steady swapping each chapter—which I think is 1:1 throughout the whole book, but I might be misremembering—slows the pacing or necessitates some re-reading to get back up to speed. But for me, Annette didn’t really work as a character, so in spite of her part of the story being the one I liked best, I had some trouble getting through her chapters.

Annette is characterized almost solely through external reaction. She’s put off by the excess of the wealthy and resentful of the way non-aristos are treated. But she isn’t a great revolutionary until the plot begins to call for it. Her arc as a midnight artist is choppy—she keeps saying “I can’t divine” even when she’s doing it all the time. There’s a plot/character reason for it, but since I didn’t understand why she kept saying that, it didn’t feel like a reveal to me.

The communication is awesome. The inevitable moments when Emilie and Annette have to stop their respective charades and confess their lies are great. Miller is amazing at constructing characters outside of the protagonists who have lives, thoughts, and drives of their own. In particular, the mentor characters Estrel Charron and Laurence du Montimer, as well as Emilie’s mother. Emilie thinks certain things about her mother that don’t bear out exactly as she sees the situation because she isn’t fully aware of her mother as a whole person, and I love it.

There is some romance. On the surface, it seems like precisely what I want, i.e., super gay. Romantic ace, lesbians, transgender love interest. But in actual practice and what content is on the page, there isn’t a lot of it and it’s pretty bloodless. There’s just too much else going on, and even when there are details, the style in which they are rendered doesn’t stand out against any of the other relationships. Which, while something of a shame, is WORLDS BETTER than being unintentionally problematic or an empty promise. The romance in this book is neither of those things, rejoice.

Overall, Belle Revolte is an excellent drama with bloody battles, discussions about worth and love, and an interesting magical world with consequences. The story can be a little confusing, but the ending is entirely satisfying. In particular, I recommend this book to readers who want to see more diverse female characters and good queer representation. Nonbinary people appear both named and unnamed, as evenly as male and female characters. All of the queer rep is wonderfully done, leaning into visibility and acceptance rather than flashy, under-baked LOOK AT HOW PROGRESSIVE I AM-ing, which I’m frankly sick of.

Again, thank you to the publisher for the ARC, and this is my honest review. Hopefully I didn’t forget any of the nice things I thought while reading it.


Review – Shatter the Sky

Shatter the Sky, YA LGBT+ Fantasy by Rebecca Kim Wells

Series: Shatter the Sky

My rating:  ⭐️⭐️⭐️

(I received an ARC through NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

Like lots of people, I heard this was about someone saving her girlfriend with dragons and I leaped for it. It isn’t perfect, but I enjoyed it. Which is why I come down straight in the middle overall.

The world building is fantastic. There are different countries and cultures, whether that comes up in regards to fashion or customs. They aren’t all shallow archetypes based on European history, either. From the beginning, the details of the world are clearly well thought out and the delivery is natural and never too much at once.

Unfortunately, the plot and characters are rather weak. None of the characters are particularly memorable, including the protagonist. I forgot most of the names soon after finishing the book and had to look them up to write about them. Maren, the protagonist, has a decent arc though, going from timid and lacking confidence to being assured of her own worth and power and taking direct action. But this doesn’t alleviate the wobbly, happenstance nature of the plot.

While the pacing is slow and sometimes quite sleepy, I can’t bring myself to criticise it. I was never bored, and there were even times when the conflict would change Maren’s situation dramatically and I would be sorry not to see the status quo develop naturally rather than being interrupted. Which is (sadly) one of the reasons the plot feels so wobbly. Maren’s initial plan is a daydream-like impulse.

I am a dragon girl without a dragon. But what if I got one? What could I do then?

There’s not a clear way for her to achieve her goals. She even seems aware of this, more than once. The plot is a mix of incomplete plans and luck. To be bluntly honest, sometimes when the dragon stuff was driving the plot, I literally put the book down and reread parts of Joust. The plot promise of stealing a dragon and raising it in secret was far better in that book. Pit Dragon too.

However, the ending is fireworks and joy. It’s bombastic and even has some nice aha moments. I loved it. It’s honestly everything I signed on for. Dragons, girlfriend-saving. If you get to a part of the book you feel is sagging, stick in there for the ending. I promise it’s worth it.

I’m not entirely sure how to drop the sad news bomb about the bi rep, which I feel like I do often. From the beginning, I didn’t like Maren and Kaia’s relationship. It wasn’t that it was overly idyllic—that felt like part of setting up the tragedy of their separation—it was that they didn’t seem like two whole people in a relationship. It gets worse after they’re separated and we have only Maren’s perspective. Maren has some self esteem issues, and they appear to revolve around seeing herself as lesser than Kaia. To Maren, Kaia is this perfect being: prettier than her, braver than her, better than her. I hated every time Maren lamented a failure by telling herself that Kaia wouldn’t have failed. Certainly didn’t help that Maren follows attractions to two other people in the course of the story—not to the point of physical cheating, but certainly to emotional cheating.

The worst of it being that, in a story where the girlfriend is kidnapped and therefore not with the protagonist or even present for most of the story, there is basically a replacement love interest who is male. This is the guy Maren interacts with (more than Kaia in book real estate), and he has arguably more plot relevance.

I’ve thought about this a great deal. It just raises so many questions, and reminds me of exactly how deliberate a book is. Mren’s relationship with this guy takes up significant time and follows much of the tropes/expectations for a YA romantic subplot. Why couldn’t they just be friends? Why did Maren even have to be bi if the author didn’t know how to relate that orientation without showing her pursuing attraction to people other than her “heartmate?” Did someone think Maren had to “prove” her bi-ness or something? Why give her a label at all? Just tell us she’s in love with Kaia and that’s all that should matter.

But while I’m being bluntly honest all over the place, I did appreciate the attempt. I wouldn’t condemn it as a “nice try,” it’s better than that. Maren feels legitimate. Being unfaithful could be a character flaw—the problem is just that it’s a frequent, harmful stereotype for bi characters.

Do my complicated feelings show enough? heh. I want to reiterate that I had a good time reading, and my thinking this much about what bothered me is because it matters. I am grateful for the increasing number of LGBT+ representation in books, and this book is part of that. (I wrote all of this with one hand and trying not to aggravate a sprained wrist, so hopefully it’s all still clear.)


Review – Kingdom of Exiles

Kingdom of Exiles, Fantasy by Maxym M Martineau

Series: The Beast Charmer #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

My review:

I’ve seen a lot of positive reviews for this book, and I was excited for it too. But I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review, and I honestly did not like it. Structurally, it’s like a Jenga puzzle mid-game, the main characters’ personalities as told are the polar opposite of how they speak and act, and the internal logic sent me off on long rants.

Problems appear almost immediately. There are too many proper nouns and concepts introduced at a dizzying speed. Leena is a charmer, a sort of beast tamer. She sells beasts, and that’s against the law. Noc is the leader of a guild of undead assassins. Also she’s exiled. Also he’s cursed. Also they have to work together. Also he has to kill her. Also she needs his blood as part of her redemption plan. Also they’re attracted to each other practically on sight in spite of having less than zero reason to feel that way.

Everything happens too quickly. The romance is forced, which exposes the problem of telling vs showing that is prevalent throughout.

The characters are frustrating. Noc is too emotionally squeamish to be a believable assassin. Leena’s choices never make any sense. She could use the beasts’ abilities to make money and survive while not breaking the law, but nah. She exists in a constant state of open emotional vulnerability, which is irritating and baffling. But more frustrating than the characters’ actual actions are the way the narrative tries to strong-arm events or developments.

I was told “Fantastic Beasts meets Assassin’s Creed” but the assassins were nothing like AC and the beasts… The blurb promises Fantastic Beasts, but the book delivers something much more akin to Pokemon fanfiction. Leena keeps her beasts in an extradimensional space, and they’re described using video game terms like B-Class. She also thinks of them exclusively in terms of either their abilities or classifications.

How are beasts classified? By who? To what purpose? Real fauna have Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. Why do beasts get graded A-E? Even pokemon have types and stuff. Why does she keep the beasts in pokeballs—I mean, the beast realm? I guess Fantastic Beasts has the briefcase, but that isn’t remotely the same thing.

The entire enterprise is too off-key to even be dumb fun. It’s a shame, because there are a lot fun ideas in here. The beasts are cool, and the locations were creative as hell. The ideas simply aren’t organised well, and the characters need a “kill your darlings” pass. Better pacing in later books might draw me back in.


Review – The Rogue Knight

The Rogue Knight, Middle Grade Fantasy by Brandon Mull

Series: Five Kingdoms #2

My rating: ⭐⭐

I hate that I read this after sharing with a friend how much we both loved the Fablehaven series. The Rogue Knight was such a chore to get through that I started to hate reading anything and couldn’t even take refuge in a better book. It feels uncomfortable to dislike so passionately something as popular as Mull’s books. I know many people who love all of his work indiscriminately and I thought I was in that camp too. But it’s impossible to ignore the entitled perspective just to try to enjoy a book that is a tedious retread of the first book–which was itself dangerously close to outright boring.

After noticing a few problematic elements in the first book, I was apprehensive starting this one. They got much, much worse. Credit where it’s due, it looks like Mull did his best to mitigate and not be sizeist. The depiction of a dwarf knight still felt sizeist to me. And the sexism is twice as bad as in the first book. It is sinister and pervasive. Cole encounters two kids he knew in Mesa, a girl named Jill and his friend Dalton. They are in the same job in different parts of the kingdom. Cole finds them individually at different times and in different places. In both cases, he offers to rescue them. It feels like a comparison is very deliberately drawn between them to imply the conclusion that Jill, a girl, is too afraid to fight for her freedom and instead accepts literal slavery, while Dalton, a boy, exhibits the courage necessary to escape his situation easily and with no visible qualms. This is not unlike when a girl was the one to rat out Cole and get him captured in this first book. It hurts to see casual, thoughtless sexism from the person who gave us Kendra in Fablehaven.

Just as casually, we get a case of a pointlessly antagonistic female character pitted against another female character, in Skye’s mother. Despite the fact that Elloweer is a created world that doesn’t share the real world’s history, she is a sneering, judgmental mother who has money and social position reminiscent of English aristocracy.

“She inherited most of her fortune,” Skye said. “Father worked with a local bank. He passed away more than ten years ago. My great-grandfather was a well-regarded alderman. He accomplished a lot of good for Merriston and for Elloweer. Mother keeps a busy calendar, but doesn’t really do much. She knows everyone, though.”

(emphasis mine) I could break down all of the ways this one paragraph demonises her and shits on women, but I’m just too tired and sad.

Women and girls are largely absent otherwise. Positively portrayed female characters are rare on the ground and tend to be kidnapped or killed. Mira lacks agency and personality when this really ought to be her story. I don’t know why Cole is even there, let alone the hero. He does a better job of not completely forgetting about his enslaved friends this time, but the bar for that was pretty low. Even Jace makes more sense as the main character. Cole is just there to force a fish out of water story that doesn’t work. He doesn’t miss his home or family–he doesn’t even seem to have feelings. He only exists so that people can explain things to him all the time. He gets special powers and everything revolves around him, but it feels nonsensical.

Maybe Mull didn’t know how to present a magical world without having a stock audience proxy who isn’t from the world. He certainly seems to have had trouble crafting the magical world in this book. At a certain point near the end, the illusory magic of Elloweer seems to mimic the matter creation/manipulation of Sambria, when it’s expressly meant to be different.

This series just isn’t as good as Fablehaven. The books are overwritten, the style is clunky and overly dependent on telling, and the characters are boring. There could have been a sense of wonder or noble heroic impulse, but most of that is killed by the unnecessary enslaved friends subplot and the depressingly dull main character. My saddest realisation reading this was that Mull isn’t actually a skilled writer. He has fun ideas and in Fablehaven he proved to be a good storyteller. But in this series, he seems to have focused on just the fun ideas. The best parts of the book are set pieces divorced from character and plot. I don’t even know if he had fun writing this, as the climax of the second book is basically the same as the climax of the second book.

I have the rest of the books and I hate to leave a series unfinished. But I’m just going to shelve it for now.


Review – Eight Simple Rules for Dating a Dragon

Eight Simple Rules for Dating a Dragon, Romantic Fantasy by Kerrelyn Sparks

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

I thought this would be a fun, quirky story with light-hearted romance, and Fantasy is almost always a good fit for me. Unfortunately, this was very not for me. Not because it’s the third in a series. It can be read as a standalone, as is often the case in Romance series.

Gwennore is an intimate of the previous two heroines. While at a massive birthday party (seriously, the way the Embraced get their magic means that everyone has the same birthday), she and her friend’s three-year-old daughter are abducted by dragons. Gwennore fights for the child’s return and in doing so makes a bargain to help General “Gorgeous” Silas Dravenko investigate the madness and intrigue infesting his kingdom’s court.

The romance is refreshingly based on mutual admiration and time spent together as well as lust. To be fair, the time they spend together isn’t nominally very much because the pacing is such that the entire story takes place over a short time and they do need to be in love by the end. A great deal of the novel harkens back to Old School Romance. The heroine is virginal, has a youthful lack of self esteem despite a strong support system of other women, and there is a strong focus on purity, easily scandalised society, and marriage and children. The Fantasy elements are also rooted in older tropes.

That was the first of my two problems. This book does not work very hard to be Fantasy. There are basic cookie cutter ideas like elves with pointy ears, murderous trolls, dragons that breathe fire, and royal courts based on the most rudimentary understanding of a Western monarchy. None of these things meld together well, nor do they hold up under logic or examination.

Sad to say, my second problem was with the writing. The voice is oddly juvenile. With the sexual references removed, this could easily be for a younger audience. The vocabulary is limited, overly modern for a Fantasy setting with Western historical influences, and childish. For example, iterations of the phrase “fall for” appear twenty times, and the curse is referred to as “so-called curse” fourteen times. This phrase is also the only use of the word “so-called” in the text. A great deal of time is wasted in repetition and perpetuating misunderstandings or deceit that a child could see through. Ironically, the child character in the beginning doesn’t behave or speak like a real child.

I like this genre. I love Mark of the Tala and the other books in that series. I’ve read a lot more of it in YA, and I’ve liked most of that too. I suppose I just want better commitment to and execution of the Fantasy elements. The romance is fine. He convinces her that she was Beautiful All Along and their banter over the rules for dating dragons is quite cute. And the madness subplot was interesting. It simply wasn’t enough to engage me.

Less picky readers will enjoy the banter between the two romantic leads, the large cast is a lot of fun (I loved Dimitri), and Gwennore’s innocence can be charming.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)


Review – The Fire Opal

The Fire Opal, YA Historical Fantasy by Regina McBride

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

The Fire Opal is a fairy tale. Not sure if it’s a retelling or simply told in a sort of longform style of a fairy tale. It’s written in a dry, generally somber manner, yet is quite beautifully poetic. The story also strikes a compelling balance between stark pragmatism of historical fiction and the wistfulness of  a fantasy quest. However, I would recommend it more to people who like reading Andrew Lang’s fairy books or Grim and Perrault than to those who enjoy retellings. Reading it put me in mind of Koschei the Deathless.

Like a fairy tale, not everything is elaborated upon or given a firm foundation. The main character makes obvious mistakes because that’s what fairy tale protagonists do, and she also receives an absurd number of magical items. There’s a romance, but it’s completely bloodless as well as boneless. She meets Fransisco, a Spanish sailor, falls in love immediately, and yearns for him forever after.

The major downside for me is that it’s ultimately pretty forgettable. It’s a swift, smooth enough read, but I actually had to go back and reread bits before finishing because they’d failed to stick in my mind. Two stars means “it was okay,” and I certainly would tell anyone interested to check it out.


Review – The Phantom Tree

The Phantom Tree, Historical Fantasy by Nicola Cornick

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Alison and Mary are linked across time, both struggling with their own present troubles as well as tragically weighed down by the past. Alison moreso than Mary, but they are both orphans. Being touched by the supernatural only seems to complicate things, though Alison is a sharp survivor who turns it to her advantage, and Mary eventually comes to accept it in herself.

I am an extremely soft mark for this book. On more than one point. Time travel appeals to everyone. I don’t see how it can fail to do so. We all have things we wish undone, or we feel displaced and wish for a brighter better future, or even a simpler past. (Although much as I love history, I don’t believe the past was ever simpler or easier than the present day.)

I’ve always loved the phrase, “the past is a different country.” For all that the two women’s accounts take place in the same geographical country, they are in very different places. That juxtaposition serves to show how much they have in common as the story progresses. Particularly when the action cranks up in the latter third, when answers come in a satisfying avalanche.

Although Mary is resilient, wispy, and delightfully self-aware, Alison is my favourite. She’s strong and smart enough to know that being nice is a luxury that she can’t afford. Consumed by the loss of her son and living in an impossible emotional situation, the fact that she can keep going is inspiring.

There’s a continuous theme of yearning for things that have passed, or simply wishing for them to have gone differently or contributed to a better present. Six or so years after my RA diagnosis, I still find myself prey to these sorts of thoughts. This book portrays the emotions involved in a beautifully genuine way, while anchoring itself and everyone involved in the reality that one cannot undo anything. Acceptance is the true goal.

The Phantom Tree is a lovely piece of historical fiction generously coloured by the supernatural elements. It feels true, which is one of the things that makes this genre is so intriguing.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)