#WyrdandWonder Review: Heather Fawcett – Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries

Ah, those cozy fantasies, how I do love them. This one was a particular favorite and one of the few cases where I jumped with joy upon learning that it is only the first in a series. Give me more Emily Wilde, more Wendell, more found families, exploring cultures and their view on faeries. I hope we’ll get at least ten volumes.

EMILY WILDE’S ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF FAERIES
by Heather Fawcett

Published: Orbit, 2023
Hardback: 336 pages
Series: Emily Wilde #1
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: Shadow is not at all happy with me. 

A curmudgeonly professor journeys to a small town in the far north to study faerie folklore and discovers dark fae magic, friendship, and love in the start of a heartwarming and enchanting new fantasy series.

Cambridge professor Emily Wilde is good at many things: She is the foremost expert on the study of faeries. She is a genius scholar and a meticulous researcher who is writing the world’s first encyclopaedia of faerie lore. But Emily Wilde is not good at people. She could never make small talk at a party–or even get invited to one. And she prefers the company of her books, her dog, Shadow, and the Fair Folk to other people.

So when she arrives in the hardscrabble village of Hrafnsvik, Emily has no intention of befriending the gruff townsfolk. Nor does she care to spend time with another new arrival: her dashing and insufferably handsome academic rival Wendell Bambleby, who manages to charm the townsfolk, get in the middle of Emily’s research, and utterly confound and frustrate her.

But as Emily gets closer and closer to uncovering the secrets of the Hidden Ones–the most elusive of all faeries–lurking in the shadowy forest outside the town, she also finds herself on the trail of another mystery: Who is Wendell Bambleby, and what does he really want? To find the answer, she’ll have to unlock the greatest mystery of all–her own heart.

Written as a journal by the eponymous Emily Wilde, this story begins with her journey to Hrafnsvik, a very northern village that has some interesting tales and locations to offer when it comes to studying faeries. And that’s just what Emily is here to do. She is creating the first Encyclopaedia of Faeries, writing down in a scholarly fashion, all that there is to know about the various kinds of fae, how to interact with them, what tricks they may play on nearby villagers, what gifts the villagers leave for the folk, and so on. Emily is thus working on establishing herself as the brilliant scholar that she is in the minds of her colleagues – who don’t all love her personality. Along this trip that is to last several months she brings her loyal dog, Shadow, and all she needs to do her work.

I immediately adored the writing style of this story because not only is Emily a somewhat unusual woman for the time period, but she is also so clearly enamoured with her work that she forgets all social niceties. Or, indeed, how one interacts with humans at all, rather than fae and/or books. It felt a bit like an inversion of a trope, having the female character be a little gruff and not caring about her hair, while the male counterpart is all about proper attire and charming the people around him. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So… Emily arrives, manages to do some studying and stake out the area, looking for faerie activity, but she has trouble getting along with the locals. Something or other she has done or said must have made her into a pariah of sorts, but she cannot for the life of her figure out what is wrong or how to fix it.

Wendell Bambleby to the rescue! Her colleague and suspected fae (although she has never told him of this suspicion) is her exact opposite in many ways. Charming, quick with the banter, sensitive to others’ feelings, he complements Emily perfectly. When it comes to their scholarly efforts, he happens to be a little less meticulous, not to say lazy… Can you see why I love these two? It may be another trope (the messy roommate and the clean one) but, boy, does it work ever so well. Together, Emily and Wendell navigate life in a very frosty village (both when it comes to the climate and its inhabitants), try to learn about the local faeries, listen to legends, and, almost by accident, solve some ancient problems. To tell you the details of their adventures would be spoiling the fun, so you’ll just have to trust me that there are several kinds of faeries and other mythological folk, encounters with neighbors and mayors and shop keepers, and of course: science!

The plot offers many lovely twists and turns, but although I enjoyed them, it was a variety of other little things that lifted this book above similar cozy fantasies. First, I love the liberties Heather Fawcett has taken with the setting and time period. Women scholars may have it harder than their male colleagues, but they are not unheard of; queer folk are simply there and accepted, and I can not stress enough what a difference that makes. Imagine a Jane Austen novel, but the neighbors are a lesbian couple. It’s so refreshing and makes me want to spend a lot more time in this world.
Then there is the faerie lore, of which we get just enough to keep this book interesting and new, but also to whet my appetite for more. The legends and local stories are intriguing, especially the ones Emily follows up in more detail, and I can’t remember a single dull moment in this book. Plus, all the plot strings come together really nicely at the end.

And lastly, let’s not forget the relationship between Emily and Wendell. It feels kind of romancy early on, but again, the author takes it in unexpected directions. Most remarkable is probably that we learn about Emily’s suspicion about Wendell being a secret Fae in one of the first chapters. The author could have tried to milk this “revelation” and turn it into a cheap twist, but Emily is really rather good at what she does, and spotting Fae is one of those things. Wendell indeed being a Faerie, it wouldn’t have fit to have Emily ignorant of the fact when she spends so much time with him (because she has no other friends and most other people would rather spend time away from her).
No spoilers about any potential romance subplots, but I’ll just say I loved the character development, the pacing, and the conclusion reached – or not reached – at the end of this first book. More than anything it made me want to go back and follow these two scatterbrains on many more trips. What a wonderful, at times thrilling, tale of a woman who just wants to study in peace.
I hear the next book, Emily Wilde’s Map of the Underwolds, takes place in Austria (that’s where I live, yay!), and now I only have to wait for my pre-order to be delivered.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Really excellent

The Horror of Book Twitter: R. F. Kuang – Yellowface

It’s rare that I read a book immediately when it comes out. For super anticipated releases I’m either lucky enough to snag an ARC and thus read the book before publication, or when I don’t, I immediately buy the book but usually end up reading it some weeks or even months after it first came out. But with Yellowface, the first non-genre work by R. F. Kuang, I just couldn’t stay away. I thought I might not like it as much because it’s a contemporary novel with no SFF elements whatsoever, but I needn’t have worried. What a wild ride it was!

YELLOWFACE
by R. F. Kuang

Published: William Morrow, 2023
Hardback: 323 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: The night I watch Athena Liu die, we’re celebrating her TV deal with Netflix.

What’s the harm in a pseudonym? New York Times bestselling sensation Juniper Song is not who she says she is, she didn’t write the book she claims she wrote, and she is most certainly not Asian American–in this chilling and hilariously cutting novel from R. F. Kuang.

Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were supposed to be twin rising stars: same year at Yale, same debut year in publishing. But Athena’s a cross-genre literary darling, and June didn’t even get a paperback release. Nobody wants stories about basic white girls, June thinks.

So when June witnesses Athena’s death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse: she steals Athena’s just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers to the British and French war efforts during World War I.

So what if June edits Athena’s novel and sends it to her agent as her own work? So what if she lets her new publisher rebrand her as Juniper Song–complete with an ambiguously ethnic author photo? Doesn’t this piece of history deserve to be told, whoever the teller? That’s what June claims, and the New York Times bestseller list seems to agree.

But June can’t get away from Athena’s shadow, and emerging evidence threatens to bring June’s (stolen) success down around her. As June races to protect her secret, she discovers exactly how far she will go to keep what she thinks she deserves.

With its totally immersive first-person voice, Yellowface takes on questions of diversity, racism, and cultural appropriation not only in the publishing industry but the persistent erasure of Asian-American voices and history by Western white society. R. F. Kuang’s novel is timely, razor-sharp, and eminently readable.

With all the promotions, early reviews, sneak peeks, and what have you, I somehow still didn’t know what to expect from this first non-genre book by one of my favorite authors. I thought I’d read a little bit, just to get a taste, and when I looked up the next time, four chapters later, I knew that I had yet another favorite on my hands.

The story begins with a bang. After briefly introducing first-person narrator Juniper Song Hayward and her sort-of-but-not-really-friend Athena Liu, we immediately get to witness Athena’s gruesome death. Kuang doesn’t mess around. Although the book may not be about Athena dying, that scene was so well described that it followed me into my dreams far longer than it bothered June, who witnessed it firsthand. What also happens is that, while June is waiting for the EMTs to arrive, she steals Athena’s unpublished (and very secret) manuscript. Because you see, Athena has everything June wants. She is publishing’s darling, she gets great reviews, sells tons of books, and receives award nominations and recognition wherever she goes. Oh, and let’s not forget the Netflix deal! It’s not fair, is it? Especially because Athena has her flaws, too, and June is a good writer. It’s just that publishing doesn’t want to promote a boring young white cis woman from Philly. Or so June believes.

What follows is several layers of greatness. On the surface, you get the thrilling story of Juniper Hayward’s rise and fall in publishing, due to having stolen her friend’s work and selling it as her own. With that come the guilt (at least she knows what she’s doing isn’t right!), a fair amount of paranoia, and an ever-growing ruthlessness at the thought of getting caught. Honestly, the first person narration made this such an exciting read, because being right there in June’s mind lets us see not only how she tries to justify her misdeeds to herself, but also that she’s not the Pure Evil that Twitter makes her out to be. She’s petty and jealous, yes, but she’s also willing to work hard, and she’s not without talent. Did I condone what she did at any point? Hell, no. Was it fun to watch her succeed (for a while) – absolutely.
There’s also interesting and sometimes disturbing insight into the workings of publishing. Not that it’s a huge surprise, but having certain things spelled out clearly goes to show that publishing works just like the rest of the world. If it makes the people on top more money, then it’s good. If it loses them money, it’s bad. And that mindset trickles down all the way.

The probably most important and prominent layer of the book is the exploration of race and of who gets to tell which stories. It’s one thing that June’s publisher for her (stolen) book, The Last Front, decides to put a pseudonym on the cover that gives the impression of June being Asian when she’s clearly not. It leaves June plausible deniability because “Song” is her middle name and she wanted to have a fresh start with this book that is not only much better, but also very different in tone and subject matter, than her failed debut. But it’s another matter entirely when June gets invited to events meant to lift up and celebrate Asian voices, with mostly Asian people present. June has the decency to feel uncomfortable and misplaced, at least, and boy, was that cringey to read.
But Kuang doesn’t just present a simple answer to a very complex question. June, as wrong as it was to steal that manuscript, does put in the work. She researches the hell out of the novel’s themes, reads up on the period, goes through all of the sources that Athena has used, and clearly learns a lot through that. Now, ignoring that she edited an existing work, why should she not be allowed to write about Chinese people in WWI when she has studied hard and wants to tell about a forgotten chapter of history? Because she is not Chinese herself?
There is no quick and easy answer to this question in Yellowface, but through various characters, reviews, events, etc. we are presented a variety of opinions. Just like in real life, you’ll find people who are incredibly fixated that only #ownvoices stories should exist, and you have others who think that empathy and the willingness to learn should be enough to write about experiences different to your own. (In case you’re wondering, I belong in the second camp. Otherwise nobody would be allowed to write about anything other than themselves and that would not only be boring for us readers but also, I suspect, for the writers.)

Now to adress some of the concerns or points of critique I have come across in other reviews (yes, I did the “read only negative reviews” game with this book, too): it does feel a bit odd, reading about a character that sounds so much like Kuang herself. Athena Liu may be even more successful or have risen to great heights faster, but the parallels between the fictional Liu and the very real Kuang are… striking. Now, it’s up to us readers how to read and interpret that. Is Rebecca Kuang making fun of herself? Is she suggesting that she was simply one of the lucky “chosen ones” in publishing? That, though undoubtedly talented, her personal success story was due to similar reasons as Athena Liu’s, and she could have just as easily been stewing in obscurity? There’s no way to really know what the author intended, but I personally like the ambiguity and the fact that we, as the readers, have to make up our own minds about it.
If you decide to read Liu as a stand-in for Kuang, the descriptions of her physical perfection feel a bit weird (who would describe themselves as this gorgeous, after all, even if it’s true?), but in the end, no matter how I looked at it, Yellowface was still a highly entertaining, well-written book about topics that I find intriguing.

Another problem some readers seem to have had is the prominent feature of Twitter. I mean… it’s not like that’s particularly far-fetched, is it? Famous people of all professions have had their Twitter battles, been cancelled, doxxed, virtually beaten down by an angry mob, and so on. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time on Book Twitter will know exactly how vicious people can get. It’s the internet, after all. Again, your mileage may vary, but I followed the Twitter conversations in this book as eagerly as Juniper does (maybe not with quite as much obsession). If you’re going to complain that a part of a novel “takes place” on Twitter, then maybe don’t pick up contemporary novels? It would have been weirder had this story pretended Twitter didn’t exist, not only because June gets harrassed there but also because authors simply do (or at least used to) a lot of promotional work on social media. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Goodreads, TikTok – sure, some of those may be on their way out while others are still going strong, but the fact that they are inextricable parts of our, and authors’ lives, is undeniable. To sum up: I liked how social media was incorporated in the story and found it quite believable.

There came a point when I got worried about the ending. How could this be resolved? June had to be caught, right? I mean, things have to be made right in the end, and June has to carry the consequences. But does that really have to happen? What if she just gets away with it? Will her guilt eat her up inside? Will somebody figure out her lies years later? Has she forgotten an important clue somewhere that could lead to the end of her publishing career? It’s another point for Kuang that she kept me guessing until the end. And even more points for me not knowing quite what I was hoping for. There is no way June’s behaviour can be excused, but she’s not an unlikeable protagonist. I did find myself wanting her to succeed in publishing, to fulfil her dreams, but on her own merit, not on a dead woman’s coattails. I found the ending that R. F. Kuang went with to be satisfying and the one that felt the most realistic.

One thing that Yellowface proved to me unequivocally is that Rebecca Kuang is a brilliant writer and I won’t have to think twice about picking up whatever she publishes next. A historical rom com? Gimme. A spy thriller? Alright. More fantasy? Space ships and aliens? I’ll take it all.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection

#WyrdAndWonder: Bite-Size Fantasy (Some Recent Favorites)

Today’s Wyrd and Wonder prompt comes just at the right time, as I have amassed a list of as yet unreviewed books that come in small packages. Here are some novellas and one novelette that I read and loved lately.

Five Star Reads

Moses Ose Utomi – The Lies of the Ajungo

Having picked this up mostly on the basis of its gorgeous cover (and of course the description), I wasn’t expecting anything in particular from this very short book by Moses Ose Utomi. At barely 100 pages, it would at best give me a couple of hours of entertainment, right? Well… yes, but it also made me cry.

They say there is no water in the City of Lies. They say there are no heroes in the City of Lies. They say there are no friends beyond the City of Lies. But would you believe what they say in the City of Lies?

In the City of Lies, they cut out people’s tongues when they turn thirteen. Just before his thirteenth birthday, Tutu decides to save his city and his mother by going out into the desert and doing what nobody has managed before him: find water! What he finds instead is the answer to a lot of questions, he uncovers truths that have been hidden, and he makes friends along the way.
This book reads like a fairytale but it manages to pack so much emotion that it overwhelmed me with how much I cared. I loved everything about it, the characters, the plot, the twists and turns, event he heartbreak. And I cannot wait for the next one in the series and whatever else Utomi writes after that!

Alix E. Harrow – The Six Deaths of the Saint (novelette)

Harrow strikes again, this time with the tale of a young girl who becomes the king’s most valuable knight, at quite the cost. To say very much about this story is to take away from its gut-punch quality, so I’ll have to remain rather vague. But it’s Alix E. Harrow, so if you’ve read her before, you know you can trust her capable writerly hands.

I fully expected to love this story but I didn’t expect it to go the way it did. Set in a medieval-ish world, with kings and knights in armor and all that, the first twist came as a surprise and made me quite happy with how well it worked. But then Harrow keeps them coming, right until the end, and even manages to sneak in a tender, heartbreaking side plot. With a cast of just a handful of characters, she paints a picture so vivid that it aches when you close the book. I felt like I was there with the lady knight and the saint that keeps her going.


Four Star Reads

Kelly Barnhill – The Crane Husband

I finally read my first Kelly Barnhill book and it’s one loosely based on a fairy tale called The Crane Wife. In this sinister novella, Barnhill explores a world mostly like ours, but just far enough removed that a mother can bring home a crane one day, whom she treads as a husband, and nobody finding this particularly odd. We see this story unfold through the eyes of the older daughter, who not only takes care of her young brother, but also of her artist mother’s finances, her sales, and the household.
With the arrival of the titular crane husband, their already difficult life, is turned upside down. Barnhill explores dark themes in her novella, ranging from domestic abuse to depression, absentee parents, and much more.

I can’t say this was a particularly enjoyable story in terms of content, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t deeply engaging. The protagonist is such a strong person in her own right but she also sees the strenght in her seemily weak mother. And she’ll do anything to keep her little brother safe, so you can’t help but root for her. But happy, this story is not.

Seanan McGuire – (Where the Drowned Girls Go) and Lost in the Moment and Found

The latest Wayward Children was a good one again, but for completion’s sake, I’ll briefly talk about the one I didn’t like that much. Where the Drowned Girls Go was about Cora who lived in a mermaid world prior to coming back to our world, and she hasn’t been my favorite character to put it mildly. The good news is that I found her perfectly likeable in this novella, the bad news is that nothing about the story is particularly surprising, entertaining, or doing anything to push the series as such forward. Cora goes to the “other” school for Wayward Children, where the children are taught to suppress/deny their journey to whichever Otherland they went to. From there, everything evolves exactly the way you’d expect. End novella.

Much better – and even a contender for my favorite Wayward Child, alongside Across the Green Grass Fields – was Lost in the Moment and Found, in which a young girl loses her father, gains a stepfather and, with him, a lot of serious problems. The emotional manipulation and abuse Antsy has to endure hit me right in the heart and so her escape felt very much like a relief. The old curiosity shop where she ends up holds secrets of its own, though, and they make this instalment in the series especially heartbreaking.

P. Djèlí Clark – The Black God’s Drums

And I finally caught up on my P. Djèlí Clark stuff. I enjoyed this novella as an audiobook and I think that greatly enhanced the experience, what with the accents and all. Set in a steampunky version of New Orleans, we follow Creeper, a teenager living in the streets but dreaming of becoming an airship pirate. Oh and she also has a secret that could come in handy with that plan.

As always, I love Clark’s writing, the way he sets a scene and brings it to life so easily. Creeper is a great protagonist and discovering this world and the secrets it holds through her eyes was a pleasure. The plot did get a bit convoluted for a novella, or maybe I had trouble concentrating well enough with the audio version, but I felt like I lost track around the middle of who was looking for whom for what reason. At the end, everything came together really well and the book was well worth the listen. But compared to the masterwork that is Ring Shout, I had to take off one star.

Nghi Vo – When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain

Chih and Almost Brilliant are at it again. “It” being the discovery of interesting and beautiful stories that their land has to offer, that is. This time, there are tigers involved, and it’s every bit as magical as you expect.
I adored The Empress of Salt and Fortune and I am so happy that Nghi Vo continued this series of novellas (Her novel Siren Queen and I didn’t get along quite as well, I’m sad to say). But these stories are as gorgeous as their Alissa Wynans covers, filled with mythology and magic and women that can also be tigers. Entering these novellas is like jumping into a new world, one with wonders to discover on every page, and stories to unfold. Stories that are slightly different, it turns out, depending on who tells them.
I don’t have much more to say than this is another excellent story in the Singing Hills Cycle and I look forward to the next one.


Magic portal artwork by Tithi Luadthong

Women of Tooth and Claw: Kelly Barnhill – When Women Were Dragons (#WyrdandWonder)

This is the second time this year (and ever) that Kelly Barnhill managed to blow me away. I have only discovered her recently through her novella The Crane Husband, and while it seems like she’s working through some of the same things in this novel, I felt that it even surpassed the novella in skill. When you expect a certain thing from the synopsis and end up both getting what was promised but also so much more, that means the book is a winner. I won’t be able to get this out of my head for a long time and I wish I had read it in time for Hugo nominations. Because, boy, does this one deserve an award or three!

WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS
by Kelly Barnhill

Published: Hot Key Books, 2022
eBook: 430 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: I was four years old when I first met a dragon. 

Learn about the Mass Dragoning of 1955 in which 300,000 women spontaneously transform into dragons…and change the world.

Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours. But this version of 1950’s America is characterized by a significant event: The Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers sprouted wings, scales and talons, left a trail of fiery destruction in their path, and took to the skies. Seemingly for good. Was it their choice? What will become of those left behind? Why did Alex’s beloved Aunt Marla transform but her mother did not? Alex doesn’t know. It’s taboo to speak of, even more so than her crush on Sonja, her schoolmate.

Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of dragons: a mother more protective than ever; a father growing increasingly distant; the upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and a new “sister” obsessed with dragons far beyond propriety. Through loss, rage, and self-discovery, this story follows Alex’s journey as she deals with the events leading up to and beyond the Mass Dragoning, and her connection with the phenomenon itself.

I sometimes find it entertaining to read only negative reviews of books that I really, really like. Not only because it’s interesting to see how people can receive one and the same thing in such different ways, but also to see if I’m perhaps wearing pink-tinted glasses and missing something about the novel that isn’t quite as perfect. When the book holds up, despite me reading what other people criticize, that is a clear indicator that I’ve got a new favorite on my hands. If I end up agreeing with the critiques or if I notice that I’ve glossed over some things I should have caught, I’ll obviously still like the book but my feelings will be more temperate. This book, dear readers, goes in the first category and here is why.

The main story follows a girl named Alex Green from a very early age, told in first person looking back at her life as a (presumably) adult or even old woman. It begins when she is four and has neither words nor concepts to understand or express the things she witnesses and feels. In between the Alex chapters, we get snippets of scientific papers, about this thing called dragoning, and the Mass Dragoning of 1955, in particular. Alex tells us her life story, leading up to the fateful events of that day in the mid-fifties, when all of a sudden, thousands and thousands of wives and mothers stopped whatever they were doing, shed their skin and turned into literal dragons. Some ate their husbands, some incinerated the building they were in, others just flew away. But what they all have in common is that they leave a gaping hole where a woman used to be, one that the remaining family and friends are ill-equipped to handle. Add to that the government’s efforts to suppress any mention of the Mass Dragoning. It becomes an unmentionable thing, something that makes people blush, something everyone would rather pretend didn’t happen.
And that’s how Alex ends up with a sister that used to be her cousing, but now has always been her sister. And what do you mean, her aunt? She’s never had an aunt, certainly not one called Aunt Marla, who fixes cars like a pro, flew planes during the War, and was a solid rock in Alex’s life when her own mother got very sick and went away for a while… No, no, there are no aunts and Beatrice has always been Alex’s little sister.

I love so many things about this book, it’s hard to choose where to start. But I suppose as it’s her story, I’ll begin with Alex Green, that wonderful, self-aware, and yet so flawed but loveable protagonist. Not only do we see her grow up during eventful times, but she manages to live through some serious hardships, and mostly without the help of others. The way she cares about her cousin/sister Beatrice and the unfair way the world (though mostly her father) treats them, was so well written that I felt every word viscerally. I admit this book made me cry on several occasions, but most of all when I thought about all the ways Alex wasn’t allowed to be a regular child, wasn’t allowed to be herself – re: her friendship with Sonja that she definitely wants to be more than just friendship – and was constantly told where people like her (women) belonged. Who cares that she’s a genius in school, like her mother was before her? A university degree isn’t going to help her get a husband, and what good does a maths degree do her when it comes to folding laundry and cooking dinners? Ah right, the good old 1950ies…

Which leads me to the next thing that was brilliantly done. Mind you, this is what several other readers didn’t like, as they found it over the top. To me, the descriptions of casual everyday sexism, both systemic and on a smaller scale social level, felt all too believable and realistic. There are several characters in this book that I read as lesbian and in all such cases, they were treated as abnormal and “why can’t you just marry a nice guy like everyone else” seemed to be the “solution” to their “problem”. But you don’t have to be part of the LGBTQIA+ community to have a hard time in this story. Simply being a girl is enough too. Like when the teachers hide the fact that you scored highest in a school-wide test, in order not to dampen the boys’ spirits when they see they were beaten by a girl. That and myriad other ways of sexism, oppression, even phyiscal violance, made the setting and era of this book so compelling, but also so painful to read.
I also adored the scientific asides we get to read about dragonings, as they shed a light on what may have caused such a thing in all these women. I don’t want to give too much away, but there were a million little ways that made me love Kelly Barnhill’s writing here. Whether it’s the fact that not only AFAB people could dragon but also what is here called “women by choice”, very young girls, and post-menopausal women; or the fact that the longer we follow Alex, the more we learn about the biological and psychological backgrounds of dragoning; the way we learn that earlier knowledge was only partially correct or just plain wrong. It lends and air of realism to this frankly bizarre idea that makes it feel completely normal to imagine a prom where a girl just grows wings and scales and takes off into the freedome she would otherwise be denied.

What starts out as a bonkers idea, a thinly-veiled metaphor for female rage, turns into a quite beautiful story. The reviewers who complained that “they’re feminists but this is just too much” may have disliked how Kelly Barnhill (at first!) describes these women literally breaking free from the constraints of their lives. It’s not a coincidence that in the Mass Dragoning, many of the dead or left behind husbands had been cheating, physically violent, or both. But Barnhill also shows us that there’s much more to her metaphor than simple rage.

While it is true that there is a freedom in forgetting – and this country has made great use of that freedom – there is a tremendous power in remembrance. Indeed, it is memory that teaches us, and reminds us, again and again, who we truly are and who we have always been.

The suppression of knowledge is another big theme in this book, because without it, the country wouldn’t have been in half as much trouble as it ended up in. Much like sex or anything to do with the menstrual cycle, people in this book would rather pretend that these things don’t exist or at least aren’t talked about. Which obviously leads to people being shocked and surprised by what their own bodies can (and will) do.
Later in the book comes a point where it becomes impossible to pretend dragonings don’t happen, and what the world does instead of pretending they don’t exist, is treat dragons as outcasts, as dirty, dangerous, sick or something to be endured but certainly not accepted. I don’t know if that was Kelly Barnhill’s intention, but I kept thinking of the queer community when I read certain scenes and how small-minded people talked about dragons. Lesson: knowledge is good. Let’s not suppress it.
My notes on this book also say Librarians are the best and I’ll just leave that here without further explanation. 🙂

It all comes together beautifully in the end, and it does so while endearing these characters to us in a slow burn way that I didn’t see coming. I cried at the end because, although it’s not sugarcoated in any way, it is the perfect way for this story to go. And although in our universe, people can’t turn into dragons, I would wish for us to learn a little bit from this one.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

Bring On the Cozy Fantasies: Sangu Mandanna – The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches

It comes as no surprise to anyone having lived through these last few years of pandemic madness that Cozy SFF (TM) seems to reign supreme at the moment. Books like Legends & Lattes would not have been as successful when Grimdark was all the rage, T. Kingfisher wasn’t well known then at all and some of us (cough, I might have been one of those “some”) would probably have complained about the slow plot or the lack of stakes. But it appears that the collective mood is asking for more fantasy with low stakes, more cozy mysteries set in space, more found families, more guaranteed happy endings. Sangu Mandanna has added her voice to the cozy cult and – boring as that sounds – I have to say I loved it.

THE VERY SECRET SOCIETY OF IRREGULAR WITCHES
by Sangu Mandanna

Published: Hodder and Stoughton, 2022
eBook:
301 pages
Audiobook:
10 hours, 5 minutes
Standalone
My rating:
7/10

Opening Line: The Very Secret Society of Witches met on the third Thursday of every third month, but that was just about the only thing that never changed.

A warm and uplifting novel about an isolated witch whose opportunity to embrace a quirky new family—and a new love—changes the course of her life.

As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon knows she has to hide her magic, keep her head down, and stay away from other witches so their powers don’t mingle and draw attention. And as an orphan who lost her parents at a young age and was raised by strangers, she’s used to being alone and she follows the rules…with one exception: an online account, where she posts videos “pretending” to be a witch. She thinks no one will take it seriously.

But someone does. An unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches how to control their magic. It breaks all of the rules, but Mika goes anyway, and is immediately tangled up in the lives and secrets of not only her three charges, but also an absent archaeologist, a retired actor, two long-suffering caretakers, and…Jamie. The handsome and prickly librarian of Nowhere House would do anything to protect the children, and as far as he’s concerned, a stranger like Mika is a threat. An irritatingly appealing threat.

As Mika begins to find her place at Nowhere House, the thought of belonging somewhere begins to feel like a real possibility. But magic isn’t the only danger in the world, and when a threat comes knocking at their door, Mika will need to decide whether to risk everything to protect a found family she didn’t know she was looking for….

I believe whether or not this book works for a reader is very much a question of expectations. As with the recent hit Legends & Lattes, the stakes are pretty low, or to put it better, you kind of know things are going to work out at the end. But isn’t that the same way with romance movies? You know from the start the couple will end up happily together and still you take pleasure in watching how they get there. This book was very much like that, except not quite as predictable and with a very nice slow burn romance that surprised me at times.

Mika Moon is a witch and, as such, lives a rather lonely life. Witches, you see, are not allowed to gather too much lest their powers go bananas and do harm. But in our modern world, it’s easy enough for a real witch to be a pretend-witch on YouTube and express herself that way. When Mika is hired by someone who saw her videos and kind of gathered her pretense wasn’t pretense at all, she takes on a job that is both dangerous, forbidden, and completely new to Mika. She is supposed to take care and teach three young girls how to control their wild magic. Never mind that three witches shouldn’t live together, let alone three untrained witches whose magic could burst out of them in a fit of emotion and do all sorts of damage. It turns out these three witches are lovely girls and Mika can’t helpt but accept the job. And so starts a tale of found family, sisterly love (and fights), and even a tender romance with the gruff librarian Jamie.

Sorry for making yet another comparison, but what follows is in the same vein – although quite its own thing – as The House In the Cerulean Sea. We follow Mika get to know the inhabitants of the aptly named (because warded like crazy) Nowhere House, learns what it is like to live with other people, people who take care of each other and, by extension, also take care of her. We the readers, in turn, learn about Mika’s past, a bit about how magic works, and we get to follow how Jamie and Mika get ever closer to each other, quite against their will.

I loved everything about this book and cozy is exactly the right word to describe it. That’s not to say there weren’t moments of danger or situations where I wondered how they would get out of trouble. But I was never truly worried that something irrevocably bad would happen. The fact that the journey to the happy end was exciting and fun and heartwarming just showcases Sangu Mandanna’s skill as a writer.
Speaking of skill: I listened to the audiobook version of this and I have to mention the masterful job Samara MacLaren did. I loved her calm, beautiful narration, the accents she did (never overdone, just right) and the different voices she gave the characters.

My flirtation with cozy fantasy is far from over and while my TBR is brimming with books that fit the subgenre, I do hope Sangu Mandanna will treat us to another one just like this.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good!

Textbook Wasted Potential: Hannah Kaner – Godkiller

These new, shiny special editions of books can sometimes trick you into thinking a book is better than it actually is. Because with sprayed edges and lovely foil, some artwork, and gorgeous endpapers, I really wanted to like this book. And it’s not that I hated it. It just didn’t hold up to my scrutiny.

GODKILLER
by Hannah Kaner

Published: Harper Voyager, 2023
Hardback: 290 pages
Series: Godkiller #1
My rating: 5.5/10

Opening line: Her father fell in love with a god of the sea.

Kissen kills gods for a living, and she enjoys it. That is until she finds a god she cannot kill: Skediceth, god of white lies, who is connected to a little noble girl on the run.

Elogast fought in the god war, and helped purge the city of a thousand shrines before laying down his sword. A mysterious request from the King sends him racing back to the city he destroyed.

On the way he meets a godkiller, a little girl and a littler god, who cannot find out about his quest.

It’s such a shame when a book comes along that seems to have all the right ingredients only to falter and trickle through a lack of plot that leaves you utterly emotionless at the end. I was very much looking forward to Hannah Kaner’s debut novel, and not only because of its stunning cover.

In a world that used to have lots of gods in it but is now, for the most part, godless, we follow a Godkiller named Kissen. People such as her are needed for when gods creep up again every now and then. When people secretly worship them, pray to them, offer them gifts or sacrifices – that’s what gives gods their power. And some folk just won’t let go of the old ways, no matter how many times the King forbids worship or even mentions of gods.

Kissen’s dark past is dealt with in a fantastic prologue, the height of which later chapters sadly fail to reach. When Kissen’s entire family is killed, with her the sole survivor, the first step is taken for her to become a god-hating, ruthless loner/mercenary. But she also happens to have a soft spot for people like her, like the Kissen she used to be. A young girl, lost in the world with nobody to take care of her. So when young Inara comes along with a very big problem that has to be kept very secret, Kissen accepts that she is going to help the girl.

Inara’s problem comes in the shape of a bunny-with-wings-and-antlers companion who happens to be the God of White Lies, Skediceth. He’s not a very powerful god because people don’t pray to him or offer gifts, but he is strangely tied to Inara – so much so that it hurts them both when they are physically too far apart from each other. What they want is to be separated so Skedi can try this whole godhood thing (illegal, schmillegal), and Inara simply so she doesn’t have to hide this epic secret any more.

Fourthyl, as far as POV characters go, is Elogas, a former knight who fought in the god war and has now turned into a rather depressed baker with nothing but regrets. But he also knows of a secret, one to do with the King, and when he is asked to go to Blenraden – a city where gods may still exist, a city where pilgrims secretly go to, a city that no sane person would go to – he cannot refuse. This also happens to be where Inara and Kissen are headed, in order to find help separating girl from god.

So you see, it’s all there, the stuff of an Epic Fantasy TM . The problem is that what follows is mostly travelogue, a tiny bit of world building (although not nearly as much as I had hoped) and a lot of clumsy dialogue and exposition. The characters don’t really get to shine, they are merely what we have been told at the beginning, and don’t show much depth or anything surprising. The way they slowly become friends may be nice in theory, but was so boring to read. Their travels are not very interesting because whatever happens is either predictable or emotionally meaningless – like you know ahead of time that some random side character has only been introduced so they can die dramatically in order for Elo or Kissen to show off their skill. Except if a side character has a useful gift (say, healing), then they get ot live and serendipitously show up when needed later in the story. It’s just all done so obviously and with so little style that it makes me sad.

At the end, there is a fair bit of action and at least one surprise that I didn’t see coming. That didn’t keep it from leaving me unfazed as I still hadn’t grown very fond of these characters. But the problem with this book in its entirety is that it doesn’t even go anywhere. Sure, it’s book one in a series (because of course it is) but I would expect a little more from the introductory tome than showing four characters, introducing them, and then have them do nothing of consequence for 200 pages. Kissen may go through a tiny amount of character growth when it comes to her view on the gods in general and Elo learns some dramatic truths about the world, but other than that, they are exactly as they were at the beginning, and there hasn’t really been a story to tell. People travel a little bit, have some battles, talk, thing about the god war, reminisce about their pasts broodily, and then it’s over. Okay, fine, I’m leaving out the actiony part because spoilers, but essentially, that’s all it is. And that’s just what I said in the first sentence of this review: a damn shame!

I don’t know that I’ll read the sequel to this. Maybe if the reviews are over the top positive, but otherwise, I just don’t have the time for mediocre books anymore.

MY RATING: 5.5/10 – Meh

Magic portal artwork by Tithi Luadthong

Pretentious and Overrated: Olivie Blake – The Atlas Six

I try not to jump on the hype trains, as they mostly lead to disappointment. But sometimes – okay, especially when the publisher Tor is involved – I just can’t help but sate my curiosity. Olivie Blake is apparently a TikTok sensation and everbody’s darling and her book sounded so very appealing that I couldn’t keep my hands off it anymore. I even got myself the audio version because if there’s one thing I can resist even less than multiple POV dark academia with lots of sexual tension, it’s multiple POV dark academia with sexual tension read by six different voice actors. Sadly, even their considerable talent couldn’t hide that this book is, essentially, about nothing. But at least it fits today’s Wyrd and Wonder prompt, so there’s that.

THE ATLAS SIX
by Olivie Blake

Published: Tor, 2021
Hardback: 375 pages
Audiobook: 16 hours
Series: The Atlas #1
My rating: 5/10

Opening line: Perhaps it was a tired thing, all the references the world had already made to the Ptolemaic Royal Library of Alexandria.

The Alexandrian Society, caretakers of lost knowledge from the greatest civilizations of antiquity, are the foremost secret society of magical academicians in the world. Those who earn a place among the Alexandrians will secure a life of wealth, power, and prestige beyond their wildest dreams, and each decade, only the six most uniquely talented magicians are selected to be considered for initiation.

Enter the latest round of six: Libby Rhodes and Nico de Varona, unwilling halves of an unfathomable whole, who exert uncanny control over every element of physicality. Reina Mori, a naturalist, who can intuit the language of life itself. Parisa Kamali, a telepath who can traverse the depths of the subconscious, navigating worlds inside the human mind. Callum Nova, an empath easily mistaken for a manipulative illusionist, who can influence the intimate workings of a person’s inner self. Finally, there is Tristan Caine, who can see through illusions to a new structure of reality—an ability so rare that neither he nor his peers can fully grasp its implications.

When the candidates are recruited by the mysterious Atlas Blakely, they are told they will have one year to qualify for initiation, during which time they will be permitted preliminary access to the Society’s archives and judged based on their contributions to various subjects of impossibility: time and space, luck and thought, life and death. Five, they are told, will be initiated. One will be eliminated. The six potential initiates will fight to survive the next year of their lives, and if they can prove themselves to be the best among their rivals, most of them will.

Most of them.

Oh, how can a book start out so well and have such a great premise only to sputter to a slow and boring plot-death? Well, if you want one such book, this is it! Blake seduces you with six characters, each with a Dark BackstoryTM and their own goals, a school of magic, the promise of academic rivalry and sexual tension and, at the end of it all, a mysterious secret, a twist, a super cool solution to it all. While all of those elements are technically present in The Atlas Six (and the follow-up The Atlas Paradox, which I DNF’d in order to keep my sanity), there is sadly no story to tell.

Our six protagonists are introduced to us one after the other, or in the case of the ones that knew each other prior to being recruited by Atlas Blake, meaning Libby and Nico, first through one POV, and then again through the other. There was a lot of promise there, but I learned early on that either I’m reading this book wrong or Olivie Blake isn’t as good of a writer as BookTok is trying to make us believe. Because I liked Libby from the start! I don’t see why her having bangs or being a bit insecure makes her into a character we should all despise, yet that is how she is painted in all the other POV chapters. Like a stupid little girl (one at the top of her class, though) who can’t be taken seriously because her haircut doesn’t suit her? Yes, that sounds ridiculous, but okay fine, I was willing to let it go. I still liked Libby, bangs and all.
I was also quite taken with her rivalry in regular academia with Nico. The two of them had this nice banter going, it felt like they were frenemies who kept each other on their toes, spurned each other on to ever greater achievements, and that’s what I was there for. Give me the all-night study sessions (magical subject or otherwise) and the result of those sessions, give me the facing off in class, one being slighty ahead of the other, only to be caught up with in the next class. Alas, none of that. Nico and Libby are set up as bickering rivals, but not very much is done with that set up.

Because enter the other academic geniuses of the Atlas Six. I won’t go into detail about who they are, because that is literally the only appeal of this book when I look back. So for those of you willing to try, I don’t want to take that bit of fun away from you. It’s enough to say that they are all very different and each is expert in one very specific magical field, such as mind reading, manipulating plant life, doing weird shit with time (?), and some other secret abilities that only come to light during the course of the novel

Ostensibly, this book is about these six competing for five spots at the highly regarded Alexandrian Society. Yet we sadly don’t learn a lot about this Society (apart from vague, fancy-worded crap about it being super secret and super prestigious), and we also don’t get any academia. What we do get is chapter after chapter after chapter of exactly two of these characters – the pairings vary – talking about something as if they came from Dawson’s Creek, only to disappear from stage for the next random pairing to happen. Now, some of these pairings have more chemistry than others, some actually bang, others just bucker, yet others just talk mysteriously. Many of the characters are so full of themselves it hurts. And it shows.

If you are hoping for actual tasks to come up, you know to narrow down the six to a five, I must disappoint you. There is some silly side chapter that was badly set up (read: not at all) and feels like a last-minute addition, just so there would be some action in this book. There is one actually good scene that stuck in my mind and that has to do with Libby (no spoilers), but the “big reveal” at the end felt incredibly cheap and left us pretty much where we were at the beginning of the book. Plus, if there were to be one more “and this person is also more important than you previously thought” moment, I would have gagged.

All things considered, this book reads like it wants to be SERIOUS and MEANINGFUL so badly but, without a story to tell, didn’t know how to achieve that. So what you get are six character studies, some good, some bad banter, no world building, no plot, no tension beyond the sexual/romantic one between certain characters, and then the book is over. Which is why I picked up the second one but that got so far beyond anything I could take seriously that I put it away after, what, a third? I’m done with this non-story. I’ll gladly read some spoiler reviews (did, in fact, for the second book, judging I haven’t missed anything) and see if Olivie Blake has actual stories to tell in her upcoming novels. If it’s more of the same pretentious language saying absolutely nothing, at least I can tick this author off my list.

Because the characters were actually interesting and the audiobook readers made it as much of a treat as they could, I’m rating this a 5/10. But for seriously good Dark Academia, just pick up Babel by R.F. Kuang.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh

Magic portal artwork by Tithi Luadthong

Low Fantasy, High Yearning: Alexandra Rowland – A Taste of Gold and Iron (#WyrdAndWonder Review)

Recommendations are a difficult thing to trust because each of us readers finds different things interesting and while “slow burn romance” is generally understood to be a straightforward trope, there’s slow burn and there’s slow burn. I am a fan of the true slow burn, where characters not only wait until they kiss or get physical but fall in insta-love (or insta-lust), but actually get to know and like and love each other slowly. Alexandra Rowland has delivered exactly my kind of slow burn M/M romance with this book. It wasn’t the first of theirs I bought, but it is the first I finally read, and now I can’t wait to check out their back titles.

A TASTE OF GOLD AND IRON
by Alexandra Rowland

Published: Tordotcom, 2022
Hardback: 512 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: Halfway through his twenty-fifth year, and to his acute relief, Prince Kadou became an uncle.

The Goblin Emperor meets “Magnificent Century” in Alexandra Rowland’s A Taste of Gold and Iron, where a queer central romance unfolds in a fantasy world reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire.

Kadou, the shy prince of Arasht, finds himself at odds with one of the most powerful ambassadors at court—the body-father of the queen’s new child—in an altercation which results in his humiliation.

To prove his loyalty to the queen, his sister, Kadou takes responsibility for the investigation of a break-in at one of their guilds, with the help of his newly appointed bodyguard, the coldly handsome Evemer, who seems to tolerate him at best. In Arasht, where princes can touch-taste precious metals with their fingers and myth runs side by side with history, counterfeiting is heresy, and the conspiracy they discover could cripple the kingdom’s financial standing and bring about its ruin.

Prince Kadou is a shy, worried young man who couldn’t be happier that his place in line to the throne has gone down since the birth of his niece, Eyne. Not only doesn’t he want the responsibility of his princedom, but he most certainly doesn’t want the responsibility of becoming sultan one day. No, no, let his sister Zeliha have that dubious pleasure any day. Kadou has enough on his hands as is, what with a break-in at the shipbuilder’s guild that needs to be investigated, and his relationship to one of his kalyahar. And his niece’s body-father and current lover of his sister, Siranos, isn’t too fond of Kadou either…

Alexandra Rowland has created a very interesting world with just a hint of magic but a lot of intriguing social structures. If you’re looking for an intricate magic system, this is not the right book for you. Some people have the ability to sense the purity of metals, a skill that is mostly used to verify if coins are actually gold or mixed with other, lesser metals. And there are rare people with the ability to tell if someone is lying – highly useful, if you can find one of these satyota.

The book begins somewhat clumsily with a first chapter that feels much too filled with information to grasp it all, but Rowland finds their pace quickly and proceeds beautifully from there. The setup in chapter one does all the heavy lifting you need to understand the characters’ motivations better and leaves us all the more time to get to know them and watch them grow into themselves.
First and foremost, we meet Kadou, this prince who’d really much rather be just a regular guy. He weighs every decision heavily, constantly questions himself, worries that he is nothing but a burden on everyone else, and generally doesn’t enjoy being prince. Meet his newest kahya (close bodyguards/servants) Evemer, star pupil, just promoted into the core-guard of the palace. It is an honor to serve the prince, yet Evemer is not too pleased because it is just that prince who is responsible for the deaths of two kahyalar, and as far as Evemer has heard, it’s because the prince is careless and flighty. Their relationship does not start on the best of terms, to say the least, but this being a fantasy romance, we all know things are bound to change.

What follows may not be everyone’s cup of tea, depending on how you like your pacing. This isn’t just a slow burn romance, but it’s nto a book that is overly filled with action in general. I enjoyed every single chapter – the POV alternates between Kadou and Evemer – and simply discovering who these characters were and how this world worked. I have to say I didn’t expect to fall so hard for some side characters, but they really grow on you. Be it Zeliha, sultan and sister and lover, demonstrating strength and wisdom at every turn, yet remaining utterly human at the same time; or the commander of the kahyalar, Eozena, who is like a mother figure to Kadou and Zeliha, but at the same time serves them. And of course Tadek, Kadou’s former lover and core-guard, now demoted due to the happenings of that first chapter. I thought I had all of them figured out from the start, but each of them offers surprises along the way and shows more personality than expected.

The romance evolves beautifully and believably. It’s one thing to find someone attractive, and Evemer’s initial dislike for the prince keeps him even from admitting how gorgeous he finds him for a while. But it’s another to appreciate someone for who they are. Their relationship builds steadily, with each little adventure they survive together, some social situations that make clearer why they are the way they are, with shared moments and secrets – first they become friends, then they can’t deny that there’s more to it than that. So yes, it was the perfect slow burn romance for me and I could have watched these two dance around each other for another 100 pages, easily.

What makes this book special is that Rowland adresses something very real and important – the power dynamics between royalty and their servant! Kadou being incredibly aware of (and uncomfortable with) his power knows that the men and women sworn to him may feel obliged to do certain things to please him, against their own wishes. So starting a relationship with a subordinate will never feel real to him, because as much as they may tell him it’s their own will, he’ll never be certain. Rowland manages to deal with that problem beautifully.
Kadou also suffers from severe anxiety and panic attacks and I found the representation very well done, although that is of course something everyone will have to judge for themselves. I am no stranger to anxiety and the kind of intrusive thoughts Kadou has to deal with, and I loved how he changes and grows over the course of the novel, but his anxiety doesn’t vanish simply because it would have made for a neat ending. Well done, Alexandra Rowland!

See, when a book has great characters and a well-done romance, there is no need for a lot of plot. I had so much fun reading this (the dialogue is also excellent, by the way) and wouldn’t mind a companion novel set in this world. Until the gods or Alexandra Rowland hear my wishes, I will just pick up their debut, A Conspiracy of Truths.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

ETA: Edited to reflect the author’s chosen pronouns.

Magic portal artwork by Tithi Luadthong

Slow Start, Lovely Ending: Alix E. Harrow – A Mirror Mended

Alix Harrow is one of thos author’s whose shopping list I would pick up without a second thought. Her Fractured Fables series hit a sweet spot for me, although it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, what with its many pop culture references and easygoing (maybe a bit too simple) plot. She has clearly taken feedback for this second volume but although I liked it generally, it wasn’t as great as A Spindle Splintered.

A MIRROR MENDED
by Alix E. Harrow

Published: Tordotcom, 14th July 2022
eBook: 176 pages
Series: Fractured Fables #2
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: I like a good happily ever after as much as the next girl, but after sitting through forty-eight different iterations of the same one-forty-nine, if you count my (former) best friends’ wedding – I have to say the shine is wearing off a little.

A Mirror Mended is the next installment in USA Today bestselling author Alix E. Harrow’s Fractured Fables series.

Zinnia Gray, professional fairy-tale fixer and lapsed Sleeping Beauty is over rescuing snoring princesses. Once you’ve rescued a dozen damsels and burned fifty spindles, once you’ve gotten drunk with twenty good fairies and made out with one too many members of the royal family, you start to wish some of these girls would just get a grip and try solving their own narrative issues.

Just when Zinnia’s beginning to think she can’t handle one more princess, she glances into a mirror and sees another face looking back at her: the shockingly gorgeous face of evil, asking for her help. Because there’s more than one person trapped in a story they didn’t choose. Snow White’s Evil Queen has found out how her story ends and she’s desperate for a better ending. She wants Zinnia to help her before it’s too late for everyone.

Will Zinnia accept the Queen’s poisonous request, and save them both from the hot iron shoes that wait for them, or will she try another path?

Zinnia Gray has been verse-hopping for a while and seen pretty much every version of Sleeping Beauty you can think of. Futurisitci sci-fi – check. Steampunk – check. Gender-flipped – check. All possible variations of LGBTQIA+ pairings – check. One gets the feeling Zinnia is getting a little bit bored with living through the same storybeats over and over again, albeit in slight variations. Sure, helping other sleeping beauties break out of their story, forge their own path, and defy fairy tale norms is fun, but how long does that novelty last, really?
There’s also something that happened between Zinnia and her best friend Charm which has led to them not speaking for six months! It’s clearly weighing on Zinnia, but she’d rather jump around fairy tales than face her real-world problems, especially when she catches a glimpse of a different tale, one involving a mirror and an apple, and promptly gets sucked in to it.

So in this volume, Zinnia finds herself in Snow White, (accidentally) summoned by none other than the Evil Queen. Whom Zinnia has an immediate crush on. Unfortunately, that part bothered me a lot because, sure, you can feel lust for someone you’ve only seen once, but this book is about something a little more growing between these two women and I was sad that it felt a little like insta-love and yet, at the same time, like only a fling. Eva – as the Evil Queen will be named soon – is a super intriguing character, in that she is pretty evil, yeah, but as with so many villain origin stories or falling in love with the villain tales, we get to see a different version of the well-known fariy tale and it puts Eva’s action into perspective. Killing your stepdauhter is still not the greatest pastime, mind you, but Eva’s reasoning is at least somewhat understandable here. She also undergoes a lovely bit of character growth which made me like her more than Zinnia in this book.

The plot is pretty weak, I’m sad to say. It starts with the fact that there’s almost no stakes to begin with. The only hook that’s there from the start is the mysterious fight between Zinnia and Charm and we only learn more details about that much later in the novella. The first half of it was – and I’m sorry to have to use that word – boring. Zinnia and Evil Queen meet, have some rather predictable chat, threatening each other and so on, and only later do they actually stumble into their own adventure. The second half of the novella is where things get interesting. There’s some more world-hopping, jumping around Snow White this time, dangerous situations and difficult decisions to make. As lackluster as I found the beginning, the later bits made up for a lot of it.

That fight between Zinnia and Charm also gets adressed and while I’m not going to spoil anything here, it was about something that will have consequences for later books in this series – if it is meant to continue, that is. The ending was well-rounded but gave the novella a highly episodic feel and thus detracted a bit from the relationship between Eva and Zinnia. I don’t know if the series will go on, and if yes, how exactly that might look after the things we’ve learned in A Mirror Mended. I’d like more adventures through differente fairy tales but I was already missing the wit and clever references and especially the spark that made the first book so exciting.

But if Alix Harrow decides to write more, I will absolutely read more of her fractured fables. Even if they’re “only” good, they are still a great addition to any fairy tale lover’s library. If you’re looking for easy to digest diverse takes on fairy tales, you’ll be quite happy with these novellas.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Nothing New At The Scholomance: Naomi Novik – The Last Graduate

Publisher-generated hype can be very detrimental to a book’s success, especially when it builds up the wrong expectations. A generally very good book can end up disappointing its readers, simply because they were led to believe that it would tell a different kind of story. In the case of the Scholomance, this curse follows Novik even to her second book, which is fun to read but has very little to offer in terms of what was promised.

THE LAST GRADUATE
by Naomi Novik

Published: Del Rey, 2021
ebook:
389 pages
Audiobook:
13 hours 26 minutes
Series: The Scholomance #2
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: Keep far away from Orion Lake.

The specter of graduation looms large as Naomi Novik’s trilogy continues in the sequel to A Deadly Education.

In Wisdom, Shelter. That’s the official motto of the Scholomance. I suppose you could even argue that it’s true—only the wisdom is hard to come by, so the shelter’s rather scant.
Our beloved school does its best to devour all its students—but now that I’ve reached my senior year and have actually won myself a handful of allies, it’s suddenly developed a very particular craving for me. And even if I somehow make it through the endless waves of maleficaria that it keeps throwing at me in between grueling homework assignments, I haven’t any idea how my allies and I are going to make it through the graduation hall alive.
Unless, of course, I finally accept my foretold destiny of dark sorcery and destruction. That would certainly let me sail straight out of here. The course of wisdom, surely.
But I’m not giving in—not to the mals, not to fate, and especially not to the Scholomance. I’m going to get myself and my friends out of this hideous place for good—even if it’s the last thing I do.

I was skeptical from the beginning when I started reading Naomi Novik’s first Scholomance book but reviews had warned me of the info-dumping beginning, unlikable protagonist, and cultural insensitivities. I ended up really enjoying the first book but only once Novik started showing us the dangers of the school first-hand and put the characters in truly dangerous situations. I honestly didn’t feel like the information we got in the first book was “dumped” so much as delivered by El but the focus of the book was never pure action.

Now this second book had it a bit harder. With the Scholomance set up (although many, many parts of it make no sense at all and I still don’t understand how this world is supposed to work), the stakes needed to be repositioned. El and her friends are in their final year with graduation looming above everyone’s head like a big sword dripping blood. El’s former plan – make it out of the Scholomance alive and don’t become an evil Maleficer in the process – has changed a lot. Now she intends to be a Big Damn Hero and save everyone.

The bulk of the book is – yet again – not school life, lessons, not even really exciting fights against monsters, but rather lots of talk and politics and making alliances. Now I personally actually like that kind of stuff, but I must admit it wasn’t what I expected from this “adult magic school series”. The politicking and planning and making plans on how to graduate were fun to read and I mostly looked forward to getting back to the book whenever I took a break. But it felt like a broken promise, nonetheless.

I had also hoped that the world building and magic system would be described in more detail in this book, that we’d learn more things about how this secret magic society works. Rudimentary information would have sufficed, to be honest, because I still don’t understand how everyday life outside the Scholomance works for witches and wizards.
We got some insight into how the school works and also about what drives the mals but I wouldn’t say that I have a good idea of the world this series takes place in, nor its magical society. Originally, I thought thi would be a longer series (yes, I admit, that assumption was influenced by that most famous wizard boy and his seven book series) but the trilogy will be concluded with The Golden Enclaves, which comes out this September. So it’s not like there’s a lot of pages left to do some proper world building. And if this is all we get, I am far from impressed!

As fun as the plot of the book was to read, the characters were treated with even less love than in the first novel. I’m not going to comment on the diversity aspect much, other than that I enjoy reading about well-written diverse characters, but no matter their heritage, skin color, cultural background, or native language, the side characters all remained incredibly pale (no pun intended). Only at the end of the book do we get a little bit more from a couple of side characters than just them existing alongside El. Even Orion, the main love interest, feels like a parody of himself. He, too, only gets to be a proper person when the book is almost over and El finally talks to him like she’s taking him seriously, like he’s a full human being with his own hopes and dreams.

Novik has apparently also lost her ability to write good romantic scenes. Not one single kiss made me feel anything at all and the sex scene was just meh from beginning to end. As this is only a small part of the novel, normally I wouldn’t even mention it, but I have swooned over Novik’s romantic scenes in Uprooted and Spinning Silver and was thus expecting her to keep up that level of quality, if not raise it.
El’s interactions with Orion, although she clearly feels something for him, still read like she’s always annoyed with him. If she’s in love with him, she’s treating him terribly and I don’t appreciate how she is constantly making hurtful comments, acting like he’s beneath her, or like he’s an idiot. If she’s not in love with him, why the hell play with his feelings like that? Either way, it makes me dislike El on a whole new level, no matter how many lives she intends to save. If that’s how she treats her closest friends/potential boyfriend, then I’d rather not know her at all…

The ending wasn’t really surprising. Many reviews warned of the “shocking cliffhanger” but really, I found it quite obvious what was going to happen, at least after a certain point in the novel that offered such on-the-nose foreshadowing it was hard to miss. Had I been more invested in the characters and their relationships, it still might have shocked me but as Novik kept them all at arm’s lenght, I didn’t much care either way. Plus, I’m sure the next novel is going to fix everything and wrap things up extra tidily.

To sum up my feelings: I enjoyed the reading (or rather: listening) experience but it didn’t offer anything new in terms of worldbuilding or character development, so I don’t see how this instalment helps the series progress in any meaningful way. I am also still not convinced that this is a YA novel/series. If anything, this second book has less crossover appeal than the first. As for my Lodestar ballot, despite me having enjoyed the book, I will once again leave it off completely as, in my opinion, it shouldn’t win an award in a category it does not belong in.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good