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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.)

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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.

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Review – Once Ghosted, Twice Shy

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy; Contemporary Romance by Alyssa Cole (LGBT+)

Series: Reluctant Royals #2.5

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Although I am still obviously in a reading slump, this was a quick read and I love Alyssa Cole’s books in general and this series in particular. It’s indicative of a slump that I had a slightly difficult time with this one.

Likotsi is awesome as ever, beginning the book with a practical plan to forget Fab, the woman whom she met in the first book and enjoyed a behind the scenes romance with. But by chance, they meet on the subway—and it’s a cute af—and Fab is back in her life as lovely and enticing as before. As much as Likotsi wants to know why Fab cut her off so suddenly, Likotsi also can’t ignore the fact that her feelings have not changed.

There’s a bit of a giant canyon gap for Fab to overcome here. Likotsi is the known character for those who have read the first book, and being the one who did the leaving in a second chance romance tends to mean having more work to win over the reader. Such was the case with me. I couldn’t help thinking that Fab was selfish pretty much of the time.

Maybe it was my bad mood and slump working against it, but I didn’t like how mysterious she acted instead of just coming out and answering Likotsi when they’re meeting months later and this woman quite reasonably asks why you gotta do me like that. The reason was serious, relatable, and empathetic, but I don’t know if I’d say it was a good reason. Actually dumping Likotsi was impulsive and selfish. Not actually justified by what happened. Fab just let her emotions drive the bus and screw whoever fell under it, which…no thanks.

AND YET I LOVED FAB. I loved her spark and her flightiness and her being a jewellery-making accountant. I loved her with Likotsi. Even when I was annoyed and making faces, I enjoyed myself immensely. This is the sweetest romance, and it gives love at first sight the fairest shake.

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Review- Smitten by the Brit

Smitten by the Brit, a Contemporary Romance by Melonie Johnson

Series: Sometimes in Love #2

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

Bonnie Blythe has a lot to be anxious about. Her best friend is getting married after a brief courtship, which thing Bonnie cannot help comparing to her longtime engagement to her high school sweetheart. Her troublesome crush on a British man she met on a trip to Europe notwithstanding. Until she discovers her fiancé is cheating on her, just when her crush is in town.

Said British crush, Theo Wharton, has his own problems. He is another in a long tradition of titled people lacking funds. Not to mention his unfortunate crush on an unavailable American.

You see where this is going.

In all fairness, I should have figured that I would not care for a book with a twee title that uses the word “Brit” as though it isn’t borderline archaic. I should have known that “Britishness” would be fetishised and reduced to tourism while Theo talks as if he is either quite old or using a list obtained from a Google search for “British slang.” At one point, there’s an attempt to describe someone’s accent when he had only said “sorry,” and I spent ten minutes trying to recreate it using the description as instructions. I just ended up saying 서리 over and over. It got very cold. …Pardon the pun, I had to.

However. The publisher sent me an ARC through NetGalley (thank you) and it sounded like a movie. Also I was in the mood for cute.

It delivers on cute. Bonnie is almost unbearably cute at times. I liked her nerding out over things she liked, and she was generally sweet. But she was also aggressively pure. I don’t care what a heroine’s level of sexual experience is, but Bonnie’s attitude toward sex grated on me. The kind of nervous innocence that drives an adult woman to use the phrase “one of those” to refer to a prospective lover’s penis. Just… uh, no to that, actually. The sex scenes suffered for it. Neither party seemed terribly comfortable—although enthusiasm was not a problem?—and there were so many little things that felt off. I found myself over-analysing what was going on and why I didn’t care for it. At my worst, I was giving them tips.

One aspect of the book which I absolutely adored was all of the women. There are so many people in this book for what it’s trying to do, and most of them are women. They’re varied, nuanced characters who all have positive relationships with one another. My favourite scene was when Bonnie’s friends drop everything to deliver an impromptu object lesson on how to give a blowjob using ice pops and fruit snacks.

As women’s fiction, I would say this is decent. It has the sort of emotional payoff one might expect from a story primarily about a woman dealing with the fallout of one relationship and beginning another. Bonnie’s friends support her, she gets a job opportunity that takes her out of the country, and she rediscovers a love of writing.

But as a romance, it leaves something to be desired. Theo isn’t a bad character, but his story is less compelling. Bonnie and Theo already like each other before the story even begins and once she’s single, the only things keeping them apart are Bonnie’s hang-ups. And some of those are difficult to understand in a narrative sense.

It’s funny and pays off in some places and wobbly and awkward in others. Ultimately, I disliked more than I liked about it. Ah well. There’s an audience for it, I’m sure.

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Review – Red, White & Royal Blue

Red, White & Royal Blue, a gay Romance by Casey McQuiston

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

As FSOTUS, Alex Claremont-Diaz has a lot of social expectations to live up to, and in general, he navigates his position with ease. Except for one specific point of international diplomacy: he cannot stand His Royal Highness, Prince Henry. This dislike is long and storied. But when it results in a public altercation, the two have to make nice to restore their images.

In spending quality time together, they come to like each other a great deal better than expected.

My feelings on this book are so complicated, I had to unpack them.

I did not like the main character. Alex never has to answer for crappy things he does. However, I liked Henry quite a bit. Throughout the entire book, I wished for Henry’s perspective. He’s a wonderful example of a quiet, introverted character with emotional trauma which he has survived. I loved every time he unearthed an uncomfortable memory to share it with Alex. This is an incredible show of trust, and one of my favorite ways in which they connect. Henry described his psychological defense mechanism of visualizing painful memories as rooms in Buckingham Palace which he could lock. He felt like a complex, complete character, despite being represented by Alex’s POV in a primarily sexual way. Henry has a character arc. He begins the story lonely, unhappy, stand-offish, and afraid. At the end of the story, he’s opened up and confronted his fears to come out on the other side.

Alex…does none of that. He starts and ends the book confident, socially insular, impulsive, ambitious, unforgiving, judgmental, and selfish. While there are plenty of arguments to be made for protagonists with no arc, in Romance, it’s something of an expectation. Two people becoming better and conquering their problem together. Not one person who thinks he’s already perfect fixing his partner.

The writing style is generally fun and whimsical. I liked the secondary characters. There are some interesting personalities in the cast, and the parents are pretty funny. Alex’s mom is fabulous. And I certainly felt for Zahra.

The romance is a fun enemies to lovers story with a lot of positive family support for Alex. The dialogue is cute, often very funny, and while he didn’t face consequences or undergo more change than a bisexual awakening, he was ever called on his shit.

I do possess some bias in sharing the political views expressed and being, like Alex, a queer half-Mexican. The premise is my catnip as well. I think it’s a refreshing book that I’m glad I read. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I was lucky to receive an ARC through NetGalley, and I felt pretty sad whenever I came across something that I wasn’t thrilled about. I’m sure the majority of this book’s audience will love it to the point of gushing, though.

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Review – The Ultimate Pi Day Party

The Ultimate Pi Day Party, Contemporary Romance by Jackie Lau

Series: Baldwin Village #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

After a teenage indiscretion, Josh Yu has been fighting for his father’s approval, facing silence and estrangement, for nearly two decades. Then he gets the idea to throw a Pi Day party and invite his parents.

Sarah Winters has her own share of parental disapproval. Her mother was against her moving from their small town to start a pie-centred bakery in Toronto. But Sarah’s doing quite well, aside from having too little romance and not enough friends.

I have feelings about this book, which is cool. I love the use of food. It’s not insanely decadent, but it’s comfortable and kind of like a background character. Both of the mains’ issues with their parents hit me as real. Especially Sarah’s, even though it was never as dramatic as Josh’s with his dad.

The romance is super cute. They had running jokes, which felt natural and suits Lau’s writing style well. Some of the jokes were built upon, too. Marshmallow dicks is my favourite dumb inside joke. Especially since it was an in-joke for both the romantic leads and Sarah and her friends.

I do have to admit that the first person present tense was an impediment for me when I was first getting into it. It felt young and claustrophobic, even overly clear. (Is that a thing?) But once I got into the story and I was able to get myself invested in the characters, it ceased to be a problem.

For such a short and sweet book, I was surprised at the complexity in the execution of the parent/child relationships theme. Seventeen years is a long time to go without speaking to your child, and there really isn’t a good reason to do that. But people definitely do things like that, and as sad as it is, it worked, narratively.

I could probably check out more of this series, now I’m over the POV-tense issue.

(Thanks to the author for the ARC!)

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Review – True Cowboy Christmas

True Cowboy Christmas, Contemporary Romance by Caitlin Crews

Series: Cold River Ranch #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I was provided an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley—rather unexpectedly. Which is appropriate, as this one was a delightful surprise for me. But before getting into why, here’s the setup.

Gray Everett, widower father of teenage Becca and eldest brother of Ty and Brady, has just buried his notoriously angry, bitter drunk of a father, Amos. To Gray’s dismay, Amos left the ranch to all three of his sons, in spite of the fact that the younger two left home and Gray alone seems to contribute. After some bickering, Gray realizes he is in need of a wife. A proper, rancher’s wife, to help around the place and give his daughter a more stable bit of family.

His eyes fall on the nearest neighbor, Abby Douglas. Stable is her middle name. She’s down to earth, kind, and famously competent. The local cafe—yes, just one—has seen constant changes in name and management, but Abby has kept it going from her own position for years. Unknown to Gray, Abby has also nursed a profound crush on him for even longer than that. So when he up and proposes the day after his father’s funeral, she’s both intrigued and completely disbelieving.

I am not a diehard cowboy lover. A dabbler, at best. So when the hero prosed on about the virtues of the land, hard work, legacy, and the Colorado sky, I wasn’t flooded with fellow feeling. The other side of that is that he dumps on glamour, trends, and progress. The word “princess” is used as a pejorative twice, which annoyed the hell out of me. The first 10-20% of the book was hard for me to read. Gray dominates the narrative, and Abby’s crush on him—while it would make for great fanfiction—makes their initial romance feel rushed and underdeveloped.

HOWEVER.

Not only was basically everything I was wrinkling my nose over addressed directly in the book, but it was done in such a knockout way that I’m still reeling. Abby and Gray both have significant issues thanks to their respective parents’ A+ Parenting. Abby’s is the kind of self-repression and loathing that is depressingly common in real life. The portrayal of her anxieties and feelings is amazing. It definitely makes up for her seeming lack of agency in the beginning. And that ties into the conflict between her and Gray.

Childhood Crush romances don’t usually work for me because it always seems like there isn’t enough conflict or enough anything. Literally half of the work is done—unless the author covers the fact that a crush is not real love, especially when done from afar. Abby has to learn who Gray is, and I love it.

It doesn’t quite stop this really being Gray’s story though. His issues with his family, both living and dead, take up a lot of space. They absolutely should. In fact, the more I think about the things that bothered me in the beginning, the more it all feels necessary to serve the story.

Both Abby and Gray begin their marriage of convenience with an imaginary person. The manufactured dream of a longtime crush, and the idealistic solution to the Marriage Problem. Neither considered that the other would do anything unexpected or undesirable. Seeing Gray realize that all of his relationships had already been similarly affected may have been my favorite thing while reading. He has very concrete opinions that he drops like facts. When it comes to people, those static impressions carry less and less weight as he contemplates the part he has to play in his relationships with them.

As a holiday read, it probably doesn’t tick all of the boxes for people who like Christmas books. There is no religious relevance that I could see. It was a difference in ideology and a point of contention for them, and not a major part of the plot. I prefer it that way, since I don’t like Christmas much myself, but I feel it’s worth pointing out.

It’s always memorable when I start out a book less than excited by the premise, less than engaged by the first few chapters, and then gripped and totally in love by the end. I eagerly await the next book in the series, and I want to check out Crews’s backlist. Seriously, I am obscenely impatient for Ty’s book because that man is an enigma and I NEED TO KNOW.

Recommendation-wise, I would tell basically anyone to read this. The writing style is fun, the niche elements are never too heavy for people who are indifferent or actively dislike them, and the emotional content is so so good.