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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 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.)

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Review – The Tiger’s Daughter

The Tiger’s Daughter, a Historical LGBTQ Romance by K Arsenault Rivera

Series: Their Bright Ascendancy #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Using a star rating system for this book is problematic. Due to the insensitivity of treating East Asian cultures as interchangeably exotic or fantastic as purely fabricated cultures–and the specifically cringe-inducing derision of the naginata as a “coward’s” weapon–I feel compelled to go with one star and feel sad and disappointed. Indeed, if I’d come across this book after publication rather than being lucky enough to receive an ARC, I probably would have marked it as DNF when the first bizarre honorific kerfuffle appeared.

I’m sure the general response will be, “Oh, it’s a fantasy world, it doesn’t have to be historically accurate!” Maybe not, but it should have to actually understand the borrowed elements from the real world. Some of the names are real, but then some will be made up. Some world-building details are based on fallacies that could have been cleared up by a quick Google search, never mind a good non-fiction source book.

As to the story and overall execution, both are quite good! Is it well-written? I believe so. There are some first-time quirks that I can see improving over time. The writing itself is great, well-suited to historical fantasy. It can linger a little longer after making a point sometimes, though. The book could be shorter and not suffer. But that’s not uncommon. To some Fantasy readers, it might even be a point in its favour. Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a very long and flowery book.

The major draw is the lesbian romance. My mind is split on whether it is particularly well done. I always love to see a romance survive family disapproval and terrible odds of every kind. Like many first-time romances I’ve seen, the initial attraction is pretty much a sort of destined love at first sight thing for both of them. They experience some turmoil, a sexual encounter of questionable timing, and then they are so in love that mountains tremble at the mention of their names. It didn’t really draw me in. I saw a lot of admiration and declarations of love, but actual feeling never really seemed to shine through. I loved how they fought to stay together in the most bitter conflict, when death was on the line. But by then, if it was earned, it was by attrition rather than having drawn an emotional investment from me.

Most of the book is supposed to be a letter from one of the lovers to the other, who is an empress. By “most of the book” I honestly mean 80-90% of it. I think it’s realistically a large bound volume, and it covers their entire lifelong relationship, very very loosely held inside a framing device of the empress’s unhappy life as it is in the Now. Personally, I would have been happier if it could have just been a memoir or something, as it’s always jarring to me when dialogue scenes are written as normal/traditional prose inside what is supposed to be a letter–this character isn’t even meant to have an exceptional memory. But that’s a pretty minor quibble. It’s an interesting format idea and it’s executed fairly, despite my preference. I would have liked more from the framing device, as that would have helped the ending to feel less rushed. But it all wraps up nicely, and I don’t think I’d ask for more than that.

Let’s say 3 stars for good writing, decent romance, and some lovely characters, tempered by problems with the setting.

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

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Review – Mask of Shadows

Mask of Shadows, YA Fantasy by Linsey Miller

Series: Mask of Shadows #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is the best book I’ve read this year!

If I were speaking aloud, I’d have to leave it at that. Because if I were speaking, anything further would just be gibbering happiness, the ultimate in Good Book Noises.

Luckily, I’m typing. I was sold on the premise alone, and it helps that the cover is gorgeous. A gender fluid thief competing to become an elite assassin in order to mete out revenge on behalf of their entire country? I may have literally shouted, “Sign me up!” When I was approved for a NetGalley ARC, there was a preview of the gibbering happiness. So here’s my honest review.

Sal is an amazing character. Not only a wonderful representation of a woefully underrepresented character type, but also one of the most complex vengeance-seeking characters of any I’ve seen. Growing up gender fluid myself, I wish I’d had a character like Sal to look to back then. (Mostly happy with “she” now, but I lost count of the times I whispered, “I know that feel,” to myself.) Sal is also awesomely intelligent and capable. It’s a joy to see them think through each conflict and triumph despite, at times, insane odds.

The supporting cast of characters is also quite good. I loved Maud, the servant assigned to Sal during the auditions, and Lady Elise is fun as both a teacher and a love interest. The rest of the elite assassins, the Left Hand, managed to be distinct without losing any of their mystique. Most impressively, the other auditioners didn’t just blend together. I’ve read the Hunger Games and some of Battle Royale, and neither of those books made the faceless competitors even seem like stand-ins for people. In Mask of Shadows, everyone is somebody, even if they don’t survive.

A lot of characters don’t survive. But every death has weight, and Sal isn’t indifferent to them.

The world-building in this book is tremendous and also effective. There’s internal logic and consistency. Magic was drained from the world to stop deadly shadows, and magic does not mysteriously/suspiciously return or work sporadically. It’s gone, so it’s gone. Although the world is expansive and complex, there are no eye-rolling info dumps. There is a timeline/history at the back of the book. Even that has some story weight.

This book seriously has a little bit of everything. There’s sorrow, ambition, death, clever manoeuvring, friendships, careful joy, love, political intrigue, personal agendas, fighting for one’s right to personal expression, sultry writing of poetry ink on skin, and hope.

I honestly can’t see anything else I read this year topping this book. I rarely reread anymore–not with 50 books on my To Be Read Before August list–but this book will be the exception.

(As I said in the review, I received an ARC through NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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Review – Heroine Worship

Heroine Worship, Superhero Fiction by Sarah Kuhn

Series: Heroine Complex #2

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is one of my favourite series, so when I saw it on NetGalley, I may have broken my mouse from clicking “request” so hard. I saw the title in the subject line of an email and tried to cushion myself for a declined notification, but no! I got an ARC! Thank you DAW and NetGalley~!

I loved Heroine Complex so much I recommended it (and she liked it too) more than once and even had it recced back to me when I was looking for good superhero fiction. Both books are commendable for both empowering female characters–there are so many!–and Asian-American representation. They’re also both decent mysteries in an excellent original superhero universe.

While probably more people will have bonded/empathised with Evie Tanaka as the main character of HC, I was more on board with Aveda Jupiter, originally Annie Chang, who has recently decided to give up her diva ways and be an awesome badass while also being a good friend. Annie is terribly divided, and wrecked by the opinions of those around her. It was heart-wringing to see her mother’s constant disapproval, and the way that everyone seemed to deify Evie, most gleefully when Aveda Jupiter suffered for it. Whether in status or her self.

It feels like a spoiler to say that Evie gets engaged, but it’s in the blurb and it’s in the theme. Other brides start popping up like weeds and losing their minds. I’m still not sure if it’s just a joke or a rather clever deconstruction, considering that things like “bridezilla” are nasty ways of dehumanising women. This is sort of addressed even. No spoilers.

Some of the characters were weaker this go-round, but I could easily see why. Nate is almost nonexistent–of course he isn’t the love interest, there’s someone else for that, and it was beautifully set up in the first book, even. But Evie suffers a little from silence and being coddled by other characters. I found myself disliking her, because it seemed as if the reconciliation that both she and Aveda were so relieved by and invested in, was just an excuse for Evie to have her way all the time and take her turn as a shitty friend who doesn’t have to ask how the other is. That all turned around in the end. There’s so much communication in the build-up at the end and really throughout most of the story that I literally cried a couple of times. It’s so refreshing to know that the characters I’m reading about are adults and I never forget it because they act like adults.

The writing is rather like kunafeh mixed with hi-chew. A great, sweet dessert that hits all my marks, while also being a little silly and incredibly standout. Personally, I felt like some of the slang dated it or made things weird, but that was mostly coming from Evie’s younger sister Bea, and that’s probably part of the joke. Some lines are just unbearably awesome, good-weird, or funny. I’m going to be saying, “you mind-melded with the puppy,” out of context for days.

In Heroine Complex, I loved the setup for Aveda and Scott, and I liked them individually, so I could have loved Heroine Worship on the romance count alone. They’re going through a lot of the same difficulties, and most importantly, Scott seems to be the only one who sees Aveda’s difficulties right away. What keeps them apart isn’t this giant epic thing, but it’s believable and terribly human.

There was nothing in this book I didn’t love, from the friendships to the romance, to the world-building, to the fight scenes. I could go on forever, and I may have to come back and amend this review to do that while I wait for the third book. 2018 is too far away!

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Review – The Waking Land

The Waking Land, Fantasy by Callie Bates

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

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 Glasswrights Series

Fantasy series ebook bundle by Mindy Klasky

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads.

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

This was a hard review to write. I thought about writing a paragraph about each book and then some overall notes. But the books are available separately, with quite a few reviews for each. What I concerned myself with was delineating why the series is great. This bundle is when you want/need all of it at once. It’d certainly be a good thing to pick up before a long relaxing holiday.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I requested an early review copy. I left it a little late, because these books are quite dense. Going by the titles, I thought this would be a cute YA series in the vein of things like the Midwife’s Apprentice or maybe something more complex and serious but still rather whimsical, like Fly by Night. Silly me.

The Glasswright books are not YA. The main character Rani begins at the age of thirteen, but time passes quickly from book to book, and the themes and events of the book are intense and incredibly dark. There are consequences throughout for deaths that occur in the first book. The second book has a child army, which I felt a bit dubious about at first, since it felt unsustainable and a bit ham-handed for drama, but it took a turn I didn’t actually expect. As a whole, this series is great at delivering surprises. I never knew what to expect, usually in a good way.

I would have liked more about glassmaking and the guild, which I think could be a common sentiment among readers. I wasn’t always into the romantic subplots, however, I got the feeling that they were an extension of other uncomfortable things in the books. They made me think. Just like a lot of Rani’s more despicable or harsh actions. She makes a lot of bad decisions. This could get frustrating, except when she got hit with the consequences for them.

There were many locations, and they all had their own cultures, with the unifying theme of different kinds of castes. I loved all of the faction and political intrigue, although I was confused whenever the good guys were characterised by their desire to keep the oppressive status quo, and the first book’s villainous organisation was characterised by the desire to break down the caste system and allow the people to live as equals. Perhaps it’s simply my culture showing, but that didn’t make any sense to me. The antagonists were threatening evil villains, but their goal was noble and not really diminished by any of their behaviour. Of course, things turned out to go deeper than that.

If I were to compare this series to anything, it would be classic fantasy of the 80s as well as more modern dark fantasy. The only weird thing is that there were previews for the next book after the last chapter/epilogue of each book. That worked out quite nicely for me though–I tended to finish a book in the wee hours of the morning, so I couldn’t get to the next one right away without losing more sleep than was technically healthy. How nice that I could force myself to stop at the end of the preview and pass out.

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