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Review – The Blackthorn Key

The Blackthorn Key, Middle Grade Historical Fiction by Kevin Sands

Series: The Blackthorn Key #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I saw Kevin Sands speak with a couple of other authors at a local event (got to speak with him for a bit too) and decided to check out his books because he seemed like such a great guy. He is a great guy who writes excellent books.

Christopher Rowe lives a rather happy life apprenticed to the apothecary Blackthorn. It’s hard work, but Christopher is quite good at it and enjoys it. His master never strikes him and they share a mutual respect for one another. But when rumors of a mysterious cult assassinating apothecaries prove to have some weight, Christopher must use all of the skills Blackthorn has taught him in both chemistry and cryptography.

This book is really hard to talk about without spoilers. That’s part of its charm. It’s an eminently recommendable book. There’s something for everybody. As historical fiction, it reminded me of the research and joyful passion of GM Fraser, although without Fraser’s humorous intentions. This largely comes from the way Sands depicted the life and work of an apothecary. He has an impressive commitment to detail without overloading the book with anything unnecessary or unwanted. The codes are intriguing and fun, and a sufficiently motivated reader could figure them out along with Christopher.

Admittedly, the beginning is a little wobbly. It’s a grabbing start that involves a cannon, but I felt like it teetered somewhat in establishing a few of the characters’ personalities. That ceased to be a problem rather quickly, though.

It’s exciting and unafraid of depicting violent threats realistically. So probably be careful gifting the book to precocious younger readers. I highly recommend it for older readers and mature members of the target audience.

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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.

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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.)

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Review – The Bollywood Bride

The Bollywood Bride, Contemporary Romance by Sonali Dev

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

I can’t remember the last time I’ve had such a hard time reading a book. Not because of density of language or being bored. The emotions in this one hit me incredibly hard, for personal reasons.

Ria is a Bollywood actress of significant fame and an abundance of painful secrets. She’s forced to go home to Chicago and face some of her past when her beloved cousin Nikhil begs her to come to his wedding. When she faces her first, failed loved Vikram, she’s caught up in a storm of constant emotional onslaught.

Hot damn does Ria have the feels. She has to be the single most passionate character I have ever seen. Unfortunately for her, it isn’t the kind of passion that people use to sell romance novels and art supplies. It’s the biblical rent your garments kind of passion. She feels so much and so intensely that I wonder if someone ought to have warned me. I’m in a vulnerable place right now.

I love it and hate it at the same time. Ria is terrified of hereditary insanity, to the degree that she’s helplessly self-destructive. Helplessness defines a goodly portion of her character. I don’t mean that she’s passive and badly written. I mean she is like a genuinely real person struggling with helplessness that ruins her life.

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Always Kinda Emo by paperbeatsscissors on DeviantArt

As a romance, it takes steamy to a new level–maybe a bit further than some people like–and it’s definitely heartfelt. However, her love for Vikram is one of the millstones she collects about her neck. Hell, it comes in a matching set of related issues. This is more the story of Ria learning to be okay than it is a romance, and yet it’s romantic and their relationship is absolutely key to most of what’s going on.

Of course, there is a large supportive family whom I adored, as well as lots of description of food and wedding traditions. Sonali Dev has a gift for supporting characters. They’re varied and full of life. Nikhil and Jen, the happy couple planning their wedding, are sketched with such loving detail that I want to read the book about how they met. There’s so much hope and many kinds of love in Dev’s books.

But if you’re going through a bad patch, maybe read this for a cathartic cry or wait until you’re feeling better. It’s powerful.

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Review – Those Endearing Young Charms

Those Endearing Young Charms, Regency Romance by MC Beaton writing as Marion Chesney

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

“It was in the evening, when what little light there was began to fade, that London became a magic place with carriages rolling over the cobbles and houses ablaze with lights. Then the shops came into their own, with many thousands of candles lighting up silverware, engravings, books, clocks, glass, pewter, paintings, women’s finery, gold and precious stones, and endless coffee houses and lottery offices. Each street looked as if it were lit up for a fair. The apothecaries harlequinned the streets with the light from their display glasses filled with spirits, purple, yellow, and verdigris-green. Most dazzling of all were the confectioners with their candelabra and their hanging festoons and Spanish grapes and pineapples, their pyramids of apples and oranges, their rich cakes and tarts, all served by exceptionally pretty girls with silk caps and white arms.”

While other prolific writers have their charms, there is something incredibly comfort-food-like about MC Beaton under any name that will draw me inexorably back forevermore. Her books are like cupcakes. They may not be nutritious, some may not even taste that great. But I consume them in bulk because CUPCAKES.

This particular cupcake has rather a nice fresh beginning. Mary and Emily are sisters who get along. Mary is awaiting the arrival of her husband to be, once poor Captain Tracey now Earl of Devenham. Her parents disapproved his first proposal ten years previous, and see nothing gauche or vulgar about accepting the same man now that he’s received an unexpected title. To be fair, they’re not the worst parents a Chesney heroine has had.

Unfortunately for Mary, ten years is long enough for the flames of young love to snuff out, and she finds herself returning the ardent regard of the local vicar. In a bid to save her sister from a dutiful marriage she doesn’t want, Emily drugs Mary’s chocolate and marries the earl herself. It’s intimated that Emily reads too many novels.

After the marriage, miscommunication delays consummation. This is much more Emily’s story than Devenham’s. She has the most characterisation, his grievances are downplayed while she is admired as a martyr to his bad behaviour by other characters. Also, she gets a kitten and he is a beast about it. Clearly, she is the superior protagonist.

This book went by in a haze of frosting and sweet prose. I recommend it the same way I have always recommended all MC Beaton books. Get this and five others, have a cup of tea and an evening in.

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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.

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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.)