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Review – The Crimson Skew

The Crimson Skew, Historical Fantasy by SE Grove

Series: The Mapmaker’s Trilogy #3

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

After I first finished reading, I wrote several paragraphs about maybe two things: how much I enjoy SE Grove’s prose for its own sake, and that this particular book left only a faint impression on my memory if any.

The Mapmakers Trilogy is ambitious. Multiple plot lines, histories voiced by both viewpoint and nonperspective characters, literal world exploration… Even the titles require some thought to get. Everything from the language to some of the structure of the overarching plot relies on readers being patient and intelligent. What a compliment from author to reader! Particularly in Middle Grade, where so many books are content to make fart jokes and tired puns. Grove’s writing is absolutely lovely, and the story is complex. Introducing Sophie’s missing parents in the first book and tying it up in the third is not unexpected, but the political intrigue took me by surprise. It holds up throughout the series and explodes into one of the most major parts of the third book’s plot.

Broadgirdle is still a scary villain, particularly when compared to real life counterparts. But he could feel a bit toned down due to everything going on with Sophia, Goldenrod, Errol, and the pirate siblings, as they follow Sophia’s Ausentinian map. Divinity, prophecy, and the like ballooned into major themes. …it could also be that Shadrack took the fore to deal with Broadgirdle, which is appropriate, but Shadrack never quite got past being a damsel in distress adult to me.

I was never a fan of the three fates as a deity idea, even after Sophia had her crisis of faith. It went somewhere I rather liked in this book, but it still has so little basis. This whole world makes no sense to me, particularly when held up against the originally promised premise. That was my complaint in each book–though sufficiently ameliorated in the second–and although I thought it would get better, just starting the third book sort of disappointed me as I realised I was still not over it.

Which is a shame, because SE Grove is such an exceptional writer! The prose is smooth, fun to read and quotable. The characters are even nicely diverse, which is something a LOT of authors fall face-down on when writing historical fiction of any kind. I listened to the audiobook for some of my reading experience, and the narrator actually gave relevant accents to all of the characters. That’s rather a big deal. I mean, Kathryne Kennedy wrote Regency Romance with sorcery in it and I don’t think she took the opportunity to insert characters of colour. (maybe I’m wrong, my memory is so cursed at present, ugh…still.)

There’s a big courtroom scene for Broadgirdle to have his day in, and I remember the drama of the moment, but I feel like it didn’t go far enough. Again, I admit to forgetting most of the book right after reading, but I swear I went back and reread this scene. It seems an important bone to the skeletal structure of the ending, and I just wasn’t… what’s the word? Impressed? Satisfied? There’s definitely a cheery tone to the rest of the ending that is more optimistic than I expected, but that fits the main character and while I didn’t expect it, I can’t say it surprised me. Whenever war is part of the narrative for a younger audience, optimism reigns. In a weird way.

But aside from that moment with the bad guy, I think everything came together to make for a great wrap-up.

I’d go into more details, but whether it’s pregnancy brain, reading over too many days, or just sort of falling out of interest, no amount of trying and typing my thoughts is helping me recall much more than: Good Ending. Would recommend to anyone who enjoys artistry of language, adventure, exploration, and intrepid heroines.

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Review – The Twistrose Key

The Twistrose Key, Middle Grade Fantasy by Tone Almhjell

Series: The Twistrose Key #1

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️

Lin Rosenquist is in the doldrums. She’s stuck away from her home, friends, and their awesome games of being troll hunters thanks to her mother’s job. Lin is also still mourning her beloved pet vole Rufus. Then she finds a strange package with the word “Twistrose” scratched into it. Inside, she finds a key, which she uses to unlock a door in the rental house that leads to Sylveros. Sylveros is a snowy magical land where beloved passed-on pets live a rather chill second life as enlarged semi-anthropomorphic talking animals.

Twistrose is at first a troll hunter code name that Lin thinks she made up, but it turns out to be the title of a special child who is called to save Sylveros in its hour of need. They get to team up with their pet–called a Petling–and basically have a land-saving adventure. After which, they get a statue and go home through the Wandergate.

The world-building is mostly made up of details and some stories told by some of the wiser characters. The stories aren’t too intrusive or info-dumpy, and the world is a decent fantasy land of what I might call the pocket size variety. A lot of people will think of Narnia, but I thought it was more like Darkbeast. It’s just not complex enough to compare to Narnia. And no bad thing. I quite loved Darkbeast.

For at least the first half, the book meanders while accomplishing next to nothing. The world-building is the only entertaining thing going on. Rufus is a bland character for that first half, if not the entire book, so I wasn’t terribly invested in Lin’s reunion or relationship with him. The task that Lin is given isn’t all that interesting, and it’s not that easy to see why it’s so important.

She’s told that she has to save another Sylveros type of creature that is not a Petling, Isvan the last of the Wynterfyrsts, who is basically a human made of ice magic. Despite the fact that Isvan is mostly characterised by other secondhand accounts and speculation, I found him to be nicely sympathetic. When the plot actually kicks in and they’re doing more active searching for him and less investigation, the pacing picks up and there seems to be more confidence overall.

Then as it ramps into the second half or last third, it all sort of… gets tired and collapses like candy floss giving up in a strong wind. The action jerks to a halt, and then a lot of revelations are dumped out without sufficient foreshadowing beforehand. There’s a character death that infuriated me because it happened very quickly and for the dumbest reason that could have possibly explained anything. Everything basically works out in the end, and I came out with any respect for the narrative structure of the story, but it’s hard to get over a move of such pococurante stupidity.

Overall, I was left with an impression of a decent idea set in a fairly rich world but without a great deal of substance. Usually when I read a Middle Grade book that doesn’t wow me, I first consider if it’s the fact that I’ve long since left the age of the target audience. Sometimes it is, but I don’t think this is one of those times. If I were younger, I might have overlooked some things, like Rufus’s disappointing lack of depth or the unusual smallness of the magical world. But I wouldn’t have missed pointless asides or departures from the plot.

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Review – The Raven God

Middle Grade Fantasy by Alane Adams

Series: The Legends of Orkney #3

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

In this conclusion to Alane Adams’s Legends of Orkney trilogy, Sam is given the opportunity to make up for killing Odin. Unfortunately, the method of his redemption results in his freeing Fenrir and Jormungand. Loki is also free, and seeks his revenge by setting Surt on Valhalla.

There are a lot of factions and characters, and they all have a lot to do. Nothing really falls through the cracks, which is impressive. It’s rare to find good Middle Grade fantasy that has a plot this complex with a sense of urgency and lots of branches. This is definitely gateway High Fantasy for younger readers who wonder if they’ll be into stuff like Lord of the Rings.

In a similar vein, the language is also part of that gateway. There’s a rather good mix of easy, even casual language and more difficult vocabulary. The gods in particular lean more towards formality and less common turns of phrase. That makes this a good pick for more precocious readers who get tired of simple language in their books.

The pacing is lightning fast, which can be both good and bad. On the good side, there is always something happening. Exciting action is always on hand. But on the bad side, that means there isn’t much in the way of downtime. A better sense of rhythm would have been nice, with downs as well as ups, slow as well as swift.

The only problem, and for me as a reader it was an inescapable one, is that one of the billed selling points, the Norse mythology, was not well done. Perhaps the intention was to use only the most basic elements of Norse mythology to then spin off into something new. But without that kind of caveat given upfront, I just felt twitchy every time something didn’t scan with my own knowledge. Blame years of studying both Snorri and Saxo. It was weird to see Angrboda called Loki’s wife (what about Sigyn?), and for Loki to be portrayed as a very straightforwardly evil villain. Anyone familiar with Norse mythology who is also picky should probably stick to things like Runemarks.

Obviously, that won’t be a dealbreaker for everyone. Other readers have taken the changed mythology in this series as creative spins. Sam and his friends have their own story and their own difficult choices to make. This story is entirely theirs, and it’s fantastic.

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

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Review – Down Among the Sticks and Bones

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, YA Fantasy by Seanan McGuire

Series: Wayward Children #2

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

​It was a field. A big field, so big that it seemed like it went on forever–and the only reason it didn’t go on forever was because it ran up against the edge of what looked like an ocean, slate-gray and dashing itself against a rocky, unforgiving shore. Neither girl knew the word for “moor,” but if they had, they would have both agreed in an instant that this was a moor. This was the moor, the single platonic ideal from which all other moors had been derived.

This series is going in a different direction than I expected, but I think I like it. This is the story of Jack and Jill, twin sisters introduced in the first book. From before their birth to their exit from the moors. Basically taking a story that was quite relevant before but background, and telling it in total depth. At one point, I actually wondered whether or not I would recommend this as Read Before #1 to someone new to series. Ultimately, I decided that although it’s chronologically first, there is a foundation set in the first book that supercedes any of the usual arguments for reading books in chronological order rather than published.

Just like the first book, I loved everything about this book. Especially the progressive content. Without getting too deeply into it, there is an overt theme about the various ways one can be a girl. No need to decry traditionally feminine things as “girly” read as “worthless,” and a gentle insistence that the most important part of a girl deciding how to express herself as a girl is that she must be allowed to decide. Traits also don’t come in strict sets. There aren’t four right ways to be a girl and two wrong ones, and never shall they meet. They mix and match. Fluffy and athletic, intelligent and fashionable.

I don’t always like Seanan McGuire’s books–I fell hard out of the Incryptid series when the main character changed (I know it was temporary, he was still a shitty POV character) and I still intend to go back someday–but she has a way of just conquering the short form of storytelling that I can only applaud. The moors are so beautifully established that I found myself thinking of all the right literary references. Brontës, Dracula, the actual Vlad Tepes, and of course the classic Frankenstein film. The storytelling is tight while still allowing the language to be poetic and expansive. I particularly love this passage about the moon near the beginning:

​The moon is the friendliest of the celestial bodies, after all, glowing warm and white and welcoming, like a friend who wants only to know that all of us are safe in our narrow worlds, our narrow, well-considered lives. The moon worries. We may not know how we know that, but we know it all the same; that the moon watches, and the moon worries, and the moon will always love us, no matter what.

I love the setting. It’s every overcast day that I want to spend sitting outside waiting for the rain and watching the clouds.

Technically, there aren’t a lot of surprises here if you’ve read Every Heart a Doorway. Details we didn’t already have, yes. Surprises? Not really. It’s an expansion more than anything else. It worked for me, although I mightn’t have expected it to if someone had asked me beforehand. Of course, now I have no idea what will be next, and that does surprise me. The premise alone had me thinking this could be a very long-running series with each book taking a similar form to the first. But now, I really don’t know.

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A Whole New World – DNF

Liz Braswell’s A Whole New World is such a waste of potential. As with any book that has more than one attractive cover–I particularly like the style of the reprint covers for the series–the contents being less attractive is a major let-down. But it’s also a waste of a fun idea. The series is called “Twisted Tales” to reflect the concept that each book is basically a Disney animated feature film book adaptation with a what-if plot twist. The twist for the first book, based on Aladdin, is that he never got the lamp.

I’m assuming that Jafar did get the lamp and his reign of terror simply took place sooner. I didn’t get that far. For a long time, I had better things to read, or higher priority books like ARCs. I did suffer through the saccharine prologue about Aladdin’s unrealistically sainted mother a couple of times. It holds hints of the book’s many, many failings, but I didn’t want to dump it based on that alone. Fans of Renaissance Disney have this weird inclination to imagine the dead mothers of protagonists as idealised women who are perfect the way that a poorly written Yamato Nadeshiko is perfect: flawless, meek, and selfless to the point of lacking even healthy self-interest. The idealised Disney mother, if she’s ever alive, is written in such a way that she is quite obviously doomed to die, probably beautifully. It’s kind of gross. Dehumanising a character and thinking it poetic.

One thing the prologue has going for it is that it’s original. It has pathetic, incredibly forced callouts to recognisable things in the Aladdin franchise (comprised in my view of the three movies and the animated series) like Rasoul and Aladdin’s mother decides to get him a pet. Because when you don’t have enough money to eat, a pet is a thing you want. But it’s still more like fan fiction and less like a straight up novelisation. After the prologue, the book becomes a novelisation.

A breathtakingly dreadful novelisation.

Although I can see where quoting the movie verbatim would be irritating to some readers, I would have preferred it. Some lines of dialogue sound like they were in the movie, but since I grew up watching it, I could correct the changed lines in my head. They weren’t as good as the original lines, nostalgia notwithstanding.

Action was streamlined to the point of being outright removed, and I felt more like I was being told about the movie by someone who had both barely watched it and had hated what they did watch. In the movie, the guards who chase Aladdin during the song One Jump are ugly bumblers, but they’re still effing ARMED and he’s running. This communicates to the audience that they are a threat.

Braswell chose to remove all tension from the chase and instead reduce it to the same adverb-heavy navel-gazing as every other part of the narrative.

​He scooted around Rasoul and managed to duck past the rest of the guards as they grabbed at him ineptly. Ten of them weren’t worth one of Rasoul–thank goodness. He was the only one Aladdin needed to worry about–and he knew the streets almost as well as the boy did.

This is the only mention of the guards who are not Rasoul. All of Aladdin’s dialogue during the chase is broken up by heavy breathing and too much thinking. He gets injured, which did not happen in the movie and cannot be chalked up to the “twisted” what-if that the book is supposed to deliver.

At this point, I was fatigue-y and in a lot of pain, so I’d asked my husband to read to me so I could maybe fall asleep after a bit. But I couldn’t fall asleep when every few sentences I had to stop him to ask if the book actually said that or if he was bamming me. His disbelief was about as constant. Why is there an allusion to prostitution? Because there was a visual reference in the movie? That could come and go without comment because it was a visual reference. Written references are far more overt, and they have to be justified. The small moment of kindness when Aladdin gives his bread to the tinier orphans becomes this overwrought drama with waffling contradictions about how street rats treat each other. “Oh we look out for each other!” And then he thinks, “I know what it’s like to be picked on by the bigger kids who stole my food!” Which is it?? Honour among beggars/thieves or everyone for himself?

Then there is the research fail. It’s painful. If any research of Middle Eastern countries went into this book, it must have come from the back of a cereal box. Baklava! Turban! Effendi! Dates! If Abu hadn’t been in the movie, I’m sure the author would have felt it necessary to add a monkey on her own initiative. Braswell apparently has an anti-monarchy streak in this series, and it looks like woefully uneducated American revisionism, because this is so obviously not her culture. Aladdin made a random mental observation about the fat sultan playing with his toys instead of seeing to his people. …which… no.  This was what ultimately drove both Hubby and me to just stop trying and DNF. He literally handed me the book and said, “Reading this is making me uncomfortable.”

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Review – The Waking Land

The Waking Land, Fantasy by Callie Bates

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Series: I’ve heard of a trilogy, but don’t have any links as of yet.

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley, but it honestly took me days longer than I expected to finish reading. Partly due to getting flu (I don’t recommend this for other women who are also 35 weeks pregnant) and partly because it’s so epic. This is a perfect vacation read! The kind where you take three books but end up reading this one twice and forgetting you brought the other two.

There’s a lot going on, although the beginning balances things fairly well. Elanna has a good life, living at the Ereni court with the courtesy title of “lady” while getting to study botany. But she is unable to escape the harsher facts: she is a political hostage of fourteen years, her parents have made no effort to free her, she has earth magic which the emperor of Paladis has outlawed, and while the king of Eren loves her, his daughter is nothing but malicious.

When people from her home country of Caeris finally come for her, Elanna is understandably sceptical and not terribly inclined to be grateful. Their timing comes when she’s at her lowest–an accused traitor mourning the loss of everything–and she knows that she’s only wanted because of her magic. She is one of the three pillars meant to rule a united country: the steward of the land.

There are a lot of characters to juggle. In my opinion, there are too many named characters who aspire to significance. It seems like this happened due to two things: trying to give everyone a romantic interest/match, and stuffing too much into what is apparently the first book in a trilogy. As much as I liked Alistar, when he shows up, he looks a lot like another love interest, there was already a bit of a love triangle, and so then there has to be another character either introduced to be his love interest, or smoothed to fit the role as well as whatever she was already doing.

It’s not a major issue, though. The important things get covered, Elanna gets a character arc, and the story gets to touch on and give a satisfying end point to a few different themes. It made me super happy to see her meeting with her mother for the first time in fourteen years. I expected one thing when she met either/both of her parents and I was overjoyed to be wrong.

There is only kind of a love triangle, thanks to the fact that Elanna is comparatively self-aware when it comes to what she wants for herself romantically. She has a long-standing betrothal to a prince, but actual (mutual) attraction to someone else. It resolves in this book, and it’s done nicely.

I have to admit, I didn’t always like Elanna. She did some irrational things, particularly in the beginning–and although the narrative made it look like there would be consequences and she was also aware of that, one of the consequences was their timetable being forced dramatically forward and I didn’t feel like that actually happened. I thought her culture shock and loyalty to the “Bad Guys” were both sympathetic and realistically portrayed. However, she had a tendency to waffle, whether it was over big emotions, decisions, or something as simple as a sentence about her own ability to shoot.

I grip the pistol in the sleeve of my greatcoat, though it’s almost too bulky to fit alongside my arm. It occurs to me that I’m as likely to shoot off my hand as shoot an assailant, though I’m a decent markswoman under ordinary circumstances–which would be hunting pheasants at the king’s country estate.

Still! She learns to embrace what’s important and really gets into the role she initially feared. It’s awesome to see her standing tall as a major figure of government.

In all, this is a good start to a series, with an impressive world, a huge cast, interesting magic and truly gorgeous descriptions of both that magic and the land. I’d recommend it to any Fantasy reader for the steward of the land stuff alone.

Note to those who screen sexual content: there is a sex scene later in the book. There’s no explicit language, just sensuality and a lot of allusion. I’d call it a step closer to explicit from detailed make-out scenes.

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Review – The Golden Specific

The Golden Specific, Historical Fantasy by SE Grove

Series: The Mapmaker’s Trilogy #2

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It’s rare to find a second book in a trilogy–more so than in a longer series–that’s as good or better than the first book. Usually it’s no fault on the author’s part, either. Pulling together all of the elements that worked the first time round while keeping things fresh is a daunting task. One wants to see the characters back and recognisable, but not wholly unchanged, particularly if time is supposed to have passed, and adding new characters can be a gamble if the first book’s cast was noticeably large.

The Golden Specific is one of the standouts that is at least as good if not better than the first book. This is helped by the fact that problems I had with the first book were less pronounced and less irritating this time around. I loved that Sophia and Theo had their own plots to pursue, separate from each other, without it weakening their friendship. I did get the feeling that Grove didn’t really know what to do with Shadrack, and I’m not surprised. He spent most of the first book kidnapped, and in this one, he was either so busy with politics that even Sophia was sick of it, or a victim of the plot. (glib to avoid spoilers, it’s actually a good reason to be out of sight) There are only a handful of new characters, and it works out, as this is a new story in which Sophia goes to new places, and not everyone introduced before has to see mention again.

I’ve seen complaints that it’s all a bit too long, and while I’m inclined to agree, it’s not as apparent when you read it like I did–a 100 pages every couple of days. Spread out like that, I didn’t have to worry about feeling trapped. This just might not be a book that one should read all in one or two sessions. There are a number of speed-bumps–the worst of which happens agonisingly close to the end–in the form of interesting but ultimately unnecessary stories or asides. Multiple perspectives so that we can see a pointless love arc near the end while Sophia is sleeping, a fairy tale that really only serves to set up that love thing and set up some lines soon after it’s told, and a new and very minor character’s backstory that could have easily been saved for the third book. Personally, I don’t think the mini-chapters from Sophia’s mother’s POV were needed, and I started skipping the fake book/journal passages at the start of each regular chapter. Just dry world-building.

In spite of all that, the two parallel plots move along at a fair clip, particularly once Sophia’s gets over being all mysterious~~ and clandestine. She goes to the Papal States in search of a diary that she discovered thanks to some undercover research at a Nihilismian library. But nothing is as it seems, and she proves to be a naive traveller on her own. There’s a plague in the Papal States known as lapena, which is a death sentence upon diagnosis. Back in New Occident, Theo is faced with politics and murder, and he must try to find the killer without getting caught breaking a house arrest order. I loved both of the side characters they each picked up, particularly Goldenrod and Nettie.

In general, this is not just a great sequel, but a good book. The villain is poignantly upsetting, the two leads are equally compelling and able to lead their own destinies, it builds on the world, continues the search for Sophia’s parents, and gives all of the characters–as well as the mythology–room to grow. It even seems more like a world with a disrupted timelines that are treated like different countries.