Fun, Light, Romantic: Laini Taylor – Night of Cake and Puppets

It may have taken me two tries to see and appreciate the genius that is Laini Taylor but when I did read the Daughter of Smoke & Bone series, it was like falling in love with a book and a world and a set of characters. There’s something so special about that feeling and so I kept this little novella that comprises part 2.5 in the series for a reainy day. This rainy day has come.

by Laini Taylor

illustrated by Jim Di Bartolo

Published: Little, Brown, 2013
218 pages
Series: Daughter of Smoke & Bone #2.5
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: On top of the cabinet in the back of my father’s workshop – which was my gradnfather’s workshop and will one day be mine, if I want it – there is a puppet.

In this stand-alone companion to the New York Times bestselling Daughter of Smoke & Bone series comes the story of Mik and Zuzana’s fantastical first date–as a gorgeously illustrated gift edition with bonus content included.

Petite though she may be, Zuzana is not known for timidity. Her best friend, Karou, calls her “rabid fairy,” her “voodoo eyes” are said to freeze blood, and even her older brother fears her wrath. But when it comes to the simple matter of talking to Mik, or “Violin Boy,” her courage deserts her. Now, enough is enough. Zuzana is determined to make the first move, and she has a fistful of magic and a plan. It’s a wonderfully elaborate treasure hunt of a plan that will take Mik all over Prague on a cold winter’s night before leading him to the treasure: herself! Violin Boy is not going to know what hit him.

Oh Zuzana, you tiny wonderful menace in need of a kiss! It may be mentioned in the main series how Mik and Zuzana met and, eventually, became a couple, but because that story sounds crazy and wild, I am glad we get the slightly longer and more detailed version with this book.

Zuzana had had her eyes on violinist Mik for a while and, as is only natural, has thus devised a plan to send him on a hunt through Prague, equipped with a hand-drawn treasure map, riddles, and – of course – puppets! What she doesn’t know is that Mik has equally noticed the girl they call “rabid fairy”. He is fascinated by her but also terrified of having her killer eyes turn on him. Two shy teenagers admiring each other from afar… it could have ended as nothing, it could have just fizzled out. But thank Zuzana’s bravery (and Karou’s scuppies) it didn’t because then we wouldn’t get to read this funny, lighthearted, romantic story.

There’s really not that much to tell about the plot. The story alternates between Zuzana’s point of view and Mik’s and even when you forget whose POV chapter you’re in, it’s always very clear from the voice because Laini Taylor knows what she’s doing and Zuzana is… let’s say pretty distinct. 🙂
The roaring teenage hormones come across very realistic but both protagonists are aware, right from the start, that this may be something special. They may be desperate to be kissed (or more) but neither of them wants to mess this up because it turns out there might be real, deeper feelings involved.

What gives the book an extra special vibe are the numerous illustrations by Jim Di Bartolo, who is not only brilliant, but also happens to be Laini Taylor’s husband. So you know he probably got things right. Whether it’s diabolical puppets, Zuzana’s deadly eyes, or Mik’s violin case, there’s always something to see that makes this book more than just a “filler novella” as they exist in so many popular trilogies.

It may not have the extremely high stakes that Karou’s story has but it’s no less special. Because taking the first step to meet someone you have a crush on is momentous and brave and I just love Zuzana and Mik even more now.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Messing With the Veil Between Worlds: C.S.E. Cooney – Dark Breakers

Claire Cooney stole my heart with her collection Bone Swans and other Stories and I have bought everything of hers I could find since then. For those of you who have read the Tordoctom novella Desdemona and the Deep, this collection of very connected novellas and stories is your way back into that magical world of gentry and goblins and art.

by C.S.E. Cooney

Published: Mythic Delirium Boks, February 15th, 2022
292 pages
My rating:

Opening line: Elliot Howell considered the glittering company about to assemble in the dining room below, and sighed.

A young human painter and an ageless gentry queen fall in love over spilled wine—at the risk of his life and her immortality. Pulled into the Veil Between Worlds, two feuding neighbors (and a living statue) get swept up in a brutal war of succession. An investigative reporter infiltrates the Seafall City Laundries to write the exposé of a lifetime, and uncovers secrets she never believed possible. Returning to an oak grove to scatter her husband’s ashes, an elderly widow meets an otherworldly friend, who offers her a momentous choice. Two gentry queens of the Valwode plot to hijack a human rocketship and steal the moon out of the sky.

DARK BREAKERS gathers three new and two previously uncollected tales from World Fantasy Award-winning writer C. S. E. Cooney that expand on the thrice-enfolded worlds first introduced in her Locus and World Fantasy award-nominated novella DESDEMONA AND THE DEEP. In her introduction to DARK BREAKERS, Crawford Award-winning author Sharon Shinn advises those who pick up this book to “settle in for a fantastical read” full of “vivid world-building, with layer upon layer of detail; prose so dense and gorgeous you can scoop up the words like handfuls of jewels; a mischievous sense of humor; and a warm and hopeful heart.”

Oh, how I have missed reading Cooney’s words! This collection may be complied of separate novellas and stories but the tell one larger tale of a place and a group of friends and how the world changes to adjust to unexpected magic.

The book begins with Dark Breakers which follows Elliot Howell, a gifted painter, as he tries to navigate the world of his rich friends. Bright and bubbly Desdemona Mannering has decided that Elliot is the New Great Painter of the age and so he finds himself suddenly famous and completely unequipped to handle it. The story tells of a party at Breaker House where Elliot encountres a decidedly otherworldly creature – who happens to be the Queen of the Valwode, the Veil Between Worlds – and they promptly fall in love. But being queen of a rather important part of the three worlds, things aren’t as easy as one would hope…

My favorite tale by far was the second one that focuses on two of Elliot’s friends, Ana Fields (penniless but warm-hearted writer) and Gideon Alderwood (sculptor and super rich cousin to Desdemona Mannering). In The Two Paupers, we get to know these two a little bit better. They already made an impressive appearance in the first story but this one is really all about them and everything about it ticked the boxes I love when reading a story. Gideon and Ana aren’t on the best of terms, at the moment, because Gideon is a big jerk. But as they live as something like flatmates – sharing a garret with only one toilet, being separated by nothing but a thin wall – they can’t quite escape on e another, no matter how often Gideon elittles Ana and her work, no matter how many times she complains about him using up all the toilet paper and never replacing it.
What sounds like your basic romcom actually turns into something a lot more magical once you read it. Gideon creates beautiful statues only to destroy them the moment they are completed. He is responsible for Ana’s manuscript having found its way into the hands of a capable and utterly delighted agentand even though Gideon would never admit why he did it, we know that he actually really likes Ana. Theirs is a weird relationship that can only find a way to work once the secrets are out, once the magic that has been part of their lives gets revelaed. Oh, and once one of them saves the other from certain doom.

The other stories int his collection were quite nice as well, but they felt more like additional material to the first two novellas, rather than something that can stand on its own. Salissay’s Laundries was charming insofar as it is written by an investigative jorunalist who infiltrates a place that is said to “disappear” women and/or their unborn children. The Valwolde is supposed to be involved, but we all know that’s just fairy stories…
In Longergreen, we jump forward in time and learn how the world (and some characters we’ve met earlier) have changed. I really can’t say much about it without spoiling, but I found it a very touching, quiet tale that would have rounded up the collection beautifully.
But Cooney ends things on a lighter note with Susurra to the Moon. Here, we meet a character from the first story again as well as someone from Desdemona and the Deep. Things haven’t only changed in our world, but the Valwode has evolved as well. And so we meet two queens of that Kingdom Below as they enjoy each other and make silly plans about how they want to go to the moon. It’s a cute little story but it didn’t touch me nearly as much as the ones about Elliot, Gideon, and Ana.

I love how interconnected Cooney’s work is (a play called Bone Swans is mentioned in this collection, which happens to be a real book in our word) and how she writes about artists. Whether it’s Elliot and his paintings, Gideon and his statues, or Ana and her writing – Cooney manages to make them all feel like real artists, she makes their work come vibrantly alive thorugh her own art, and she made them all real, multi-faceted people. I adored both the friendship between these three as well as the strange love/hate relationship that Ana and Gideon have going on. The otherworldly characters were also amazingly done. A fairy queen who is thousands of years old shouldn’t behave like a regular homan and Cooney did a fantastic job making Nyx strange but still relatable enough for me to care about her.

If you like fairy stories, pretending to walk through walls between worlds, to meet magical beings at the chime of midnight, if you like art and beautiful words, then pick this up. It’s truly lovely and makes me all the more excited for Cooney’s second 2022 book (a big fat novel!) Saint Death’s Daughter.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good

Edwardian Magic, But Steamy and Gay: Freya Marske – A Marvellous Light

You guys, this book came at just the right time and I unabashedly loved it! Depending on what you’re looking for, this is a real treat. It’s heavier on the romance than the magic but all the elements come together so well that I’m already excited for the sequel. And this book is still brand new so we’ll all have to practice some patience.

by Freya Marske

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
384 pages
The Last Binding #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: Reginald Gatling’s doom found him beneath an oak tree, on the last Sunday of a fast-fading summer.

Robin Blyth has more than enough bother in his life. He’s struggling to be a good older brother, a responsible employer, and the harried baronet of a seat gutted by his late parents’ excesses. When an administrative mistake sees him named the civil service liaison to a hidden magical society, he discovers what’s been operating beneath the unextraordinary reality he’s always known.

Now Robin must contend with the beauty and danger of magic, an excruciating deadly curse, and the alarming visions of the future that come with it—not to mention Edwin Courcey, his cold and prickly counterpart in the magical bureaucracy, who clearly wishes Robin were anyone and anywhere else.

Robin’s predecessor has disappeared, and the mystery of what happened to him reveals unsettling truths about the very oldest stories they’ve been told about the land they live on and what binds it. Thrown together and facing unexpected dangers, Robin and Edwin discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles—and a secret that more than one person has already died to keep.

Robin Blyth has a new job and it’s not what he thinks. On his very first day at the new office, in his very first meeting, he gets Unbusheled – which is what magical folks call it when us non-magical people find out that, yes, magic exists alongside the world we knew, and there’s this whole secret world of magicians, including magical police and government and all that jazz. But what starts out with a well-used trope (one I’m personally not tired of yet, btw) soon shows its original ideas.

Magic in this version of Edwardian England is done by something called cradling and that means moving your hands and fingers in specific patterns, as if playing Cat’s Cradle. I loved this idea so so much because it may sound simple – magicians waving their hands about – but it has interesting implications. You need both hands to do magic so any situation where one hand is incapacitated could bee interesting; your movements need to be precise so using an actual physical string can help. But if, like second protagonist Edwin Courcey, you always need to use that string, other, stronger, magicians may look down on you for your lack of power and confidence…
You see, a small idea spun in interesting directions can go a long way toward making a fantasy book exciting.

So Robin’s first day is pretty crazy because after finding out about magic, he promptly gets cursed by a man with fog instead of a face. Edwin, who mostly just wants to make Robin forget about magic and find someone competent for the job, is now stuck. You can’t just send a man out into the world of humans with a curse attached to him, especially when said curse gives him debilitating pain every once in a while. And so the two team up and try to lift the curse on Robin, while also researching whatever happened to Robin’s predecessor. Murder, magic, and mayhem ensue.

We are man’s marvellous light

We hold the gifts of the dawn

From those now passed and gone

And carry them into the night

I loved this so much! The writing is superb, mixing vivid descriptions with wonderful humor, great dialogue, and characters one can root for. The heart of the novel are its mystery and its romance. Man, did I want those two to get their act together and just kiss! And because Freya Marske decided to burst onto the SFF scene with this bomb of a debut, I got my wish eventually. Plus some seriously steamy sex scenes! If that’s something you enjoy, then do yourself a favor and get youself a copy of this book. If sex scenes make you uncomfortable, you can still read the book but you’ll have to skip over some delicious pages.

This book really has everything I needed at the moment. An exciting plot, a great mystery at the heart of it, a killer romance, and characters that you think you know right away, but who reveal layers upon layers of personality the more you read. The one thing I might have criticized was the lack of female characters, especially ones with agency, but Marske adresses this in the coolest, most hilarious way! First of all, it’s a man’s world we’re reading about and even so, women are always present in some way (mostly not very flattering ways, but okay). There are some parts that show just how poweful women can be, though. And towards the end, some female characters get more involved in the story and kick some serious ass. They even make fun of the way the world looks at them as useless ornaments and use society’s prejudices to their own advantage. I’m pretty sure I cheered out loud at that part. 🙂

I was also delighted to find out that this is part one in a trilogy because, although this book ends on a satisfying note, there is a pretty big problem/mystery still to solve and I am here for it! Seriously, if the second book was out already I wouldn’t even have stopped to write this review before picking it up. This book was a delicous romp with a bit of everything I love. It managed to drag some giggles and ooh lalas out of me when I was feeling mostly depressed about the whole Covid situation, and for that it gets extra brownie points. Now, dear Freya Marske, please write many more books like this. I cannot wait to eat them up.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Not Jane Eyre, Not Magical, and Not Good: Lauren Blackwood – Within These Wicked Walls

Reading this right after a very, very good and a very, very bad book (The Poppy War and For the Wolf respectively) gave me a little perspective on how to review this attempt at a Jane Eyre retelling, supposedly Ethiopian-inspired. I even started out enjoying the book but when none of the promises made by the author and publisher were delivered, my rating dropped pretty drastically. Plus, I don’t have the patience for artificial romantic drama anymore.

by Lauren Blackwood

Published: Wednesday Books, 2021
352 pages
My rating:

Opening line: Sweltering heat hit me like the sudden leap of the bonfire when I traded the protection of the mule-drawn cart’s tarp for urning sand.

What the heart desires, the house destroys…

Kiersten White meets Tomi Adeyemi in this Ethiopian-inspired debut fantasy retelling of Jane Eyre.

Andromeda is a debtera—an exorcist hired to cleanse households of the Evil Eye. When a handsome young heir named Magnus Rochester reaches out to hire her, Andromeda quickly realizes this is a job like no other, with horrifying manifestations at every turn, and that Magnus is hiding far more than she has been trained for. Death is the most likely outcome if she stays, but leaving Magnus to live out his curse alone isn’t an option. Evil may roam the castle’s halls, but so does a burning desire. 

I wish I could tell you something about this book but, unfortunately, if I say “lazy YA romance” you’ll know all there is to know. But wait, this is sold as a remix of Jane Eyre – one of my favorite classics – set in an Ethiopian-inspired world with magic and demons and stuff. So let’s look at that and unravel each of this book’s problems and all those broken promises.

It begins with the fact that have no idea where this story is set. To be fair, the setting doesn’t matter to the plot one bit. Because it begins with Andromeda arriving in the desert, on her way to the castle where she is going to work as a debetera (read: exorcist). There may be a few lines talking about a desert and hot weather and such, but once she’s at the castle, which is described pretty much like a castle in England, the setting stops mattering. Add to that the inhabitants of said castle. There are a few servants, none of whom we get to know properly, a couple of guests, and of course the master of the house, who happens to be a teenager. At least I think so because it’s never made really clear except when the he mentions he’s not 21 yet. He is English and he is called Magnus and Andi calls him “sir” although she also calls him by his first name. Which leads me to me not knowing when this is set either.
Many things could have been explained away if this had been a secondary world fantasy setting but it’s definitely not. Real-world cities are mentioned by name (London, Paris, Pargue). This being sold as a “Jane Eyre retelling” made my mind jump to the 19th century as I was struggling to grasp the power structure, the social status, and the customs of this story. That was an exercise in futility as nothing makes much sense in this book.

Added to the complete lack of world building, the characters are also bland with very little backtory. And what there is actually contracdicts itself over and over. Let’s take Andi who we learn very little about and most of it much too late in the novel, but let’s look at what we know: She was sold by her parents when she was very small. A highly skilled debtera named Jember bought her and raised her to fight the Evil Eye as well. He was far from loving and kind but she lived with him all her life, she has childhood memories, somegood, som enot good at all. They live in a cellar beneath the church (don’t know what kind of church, the author never elaborates) and they are paid by the church because exorcism is good I guess.
Despite this, Andi mentions over and over how she used to live “on the street” and that she has such brilliant “survival skills” – which paints a completely different picture of her childhood than the one we were told about before. It makes no sense. Either you lived on the street, had to steal food and fight for your life (literally) or Jember raised you, without love but with a roof over your head and lots of demon fighting lessons.
But even if we disregard Andi’s tale of two childhoods, what we see and what we are told of who she is now also doensn’t go together. She calls herself strong and stubborn and tough as nails, yet I swear she spends the entire second half of this book sobbing at the slightest provocation. And I’m not saying its bad for a protagonist to show emotion or to cry – not at all – but don’t paint he as this hard person who can take anything without flinching when that’s obviously not who she is.

What could have redeemed this was the fact that it’s a Jane Eyre remix. Oh boy, let me tell you about how that went. So the story is about Andi taking on the job to cleanse Magnus’ big ass mansion from the Evil Eye, which comes to possess buildings (and people apparently) when they commit a cardinal sin. Magnus si richer than anybody has a right to be so his sin is greed, thus the Evil Eye. (More on the use of Catholicism later).
The Evil Eye shows up as manifestations but every room has its own one that can’t leave – nobody explains why or how. So one room may have hands coming out fo the wallpaper, being all creepy and grabby. Another might be drenched in blood, also creepy and a bitch to clean up. The slightly more dangerous kind manifests as human-looking creatures, such as the librarian who mostly just hurls books at Andi which I’m sure is unpleasant but nowhere near the life-threatening situation it’s presented as… Now Andi’s job is to cleanse these rooms by going into them and, while the manifestation is present, making an amulet. Those are small silver disks which she welds – I guess to make a pattern or something, it’s never explained, sorry – and then she also has to use string to wrap around the amulet with a needle? But sometimes she also paints them? I don’t think I’m a particularly stupid or inattentive reader but you can probably tell I have no idea what exactly she is doing and the author didn’t take the time to explain it properly. Because wh have to rush through certain plot beats of Jane Eyre as quickly as possible instead!

So Andi meets Magnus and they have a bit of banter going, which I actually quite enjoyed. It was early times in the book and I still had hopes that all my burning questions (such as basic world building) would be answered later. But what follows is a series of out of the blue changes in behaviour between the two for no apparent reason other than that’s how it goes in Jane Eyre. But where the slowly budding romance is earned in Jane Eyre, here it just is. Instantly, just because. After what we’re told is a couple of weeks but what feels more like hours, Andi is head over heels in love with Magnus.
The same goes for the jealousy bit. Where Jane Eyre honestly believes she has no shot at Rochester because he’s her employer, flirts relentlessly with the gorgeous neighbor, and is far above her station socially, in Within These Wicked Walls, there was never a sense of how Andi and Magnus relate to each other socially or culturally. Sure, he’s rich and she’s poor, but they always speak like equals and there was just no sense of a power imbalance because Magnus is super cursed which doesn’t exactly give him the high ground. He doesn’t really flirt with Kelela “the rival”, either, but because it’s part of Jane Eyre, Lauren Blackwood conjured up a ridiculous reason for Andi to withdraw emotionally. She has a complete freak-out when she finds out that Magnus and Kelela promised to get married to each other when they were children and even though Magnus tells her they’re not really engaged because a kids’ promise isn’t binding. But Andi doesn’t care. That’s the only conflict the author could conjure up and so we have to take it. Even after Magnus has confessed his love for Andi, she still refuses to be wit him because “she can’t be with a man who is promised to another”. My god, how stupid can a story get?

Speaking of god. There was a very annoying undercurrent of Christian preaching in this novel. Andi mentions how god loves her so much (never mind her two terrible childhoods or the fact that the Evil Eye exists), she gets disgusted by people cursing yet barely flinches at somebody dying in front of her, and it all had a distasteful (to me) dash of Catholicism to it.

Wow, I have ranted a lot already so let me sum up the rest really quickly. The second half of the novel is pure manufactured drama. A second storyline is introduced about Andi dealing with Jember, her parental figure. It’s all incredibly superficial and I’d imagine pretty offensive to people who have actually lived through emotional or physical abuse. The magic system is never explained, the setting is never explained, the curse is of course broken, even though none of it was very exciting (it’s literally just making amulets), and Magnus and Andi spend most of that part crying alternately or exclaiming their undying love for each other in super embarrassing language.

A few things that made me laugh:

  • Manifestations show up at 10 PM exactly. Why? I don’t know, I guess these demons are just super punctual. As is the clock in Magnus’ manor.
  • You can revive people to make them live as a zombie, but they come back as their younger self and also are made of clay for some reason?
  • Andi calls someone she’s known for a day “her dearest friend”
  • Everyone is fine with people dying because romance and heroice sacrifice I guess

The one redeeming thing I can say about this book is that it’s a super fast read. It’s dialogue-heavy (albeit mostly bad dialogue) and the beginning had a lot of potential. If only the author had actually had anything to say, or spent a few hours building a world, or takenthe time to do a proper Jane Eyre remix… Also, I have no idea what this has to do with Ethiopia other than that an exorcist is called debtera. Seriously, one quick Google search yields more information than this entire book.

MY RATING: 3/10 – Bad!

How To Say Nothing in 500 Pages: Hannah Whitten – For the Wolf

Look, I had high hopes for this book. Really high hopes. I mean, I put it on my 5-star-prediction list, just to let you know that I went into this convinced I would love it. Unfortunately – and I’m very much not alone in that assessment – it ended up being a hot mess that should never have made it into print in its current form. This review will be more like a cathartic rant than anything else.

by Hannah Whitten

Published: Orbit, 2021
eBook: 488 pages
Wilderwood #1
My rating:

Opening line: Two nights before she was sent to the Wolf, Red wore a dress the color of blood.


As the only Second Daughter born in centuries, Red has one purpose – to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood in order to save her kingdom. Red is almost relieved to go. Plagued by a dangerous power she can’t control, at least she knows that in the Wilderwood, she can’t hurt those she loves. Again.

But the legends lie. The Wolf is a man, not a monster. Her magic is a calling, not a curse. And if she doesn’t learn how to use it, the Wilderwood – and her world – will be lost forever.

Hannah Whitten’s New York Times bestselling debut is a sweeping tale of love, legends and the secrets that hide beyond the trees.

There are so many things wrong with this book, I hardly know where to start. The most glaring plotholes? The flat self-insert characters? The obvious villain? The shoddy world-building? The inconsistencies? The melodramatic writing and dialogue? The complete and utter lack of story? You see, we’re spoiled for choice here. Oh well, I’ll just dive in and spill it all out in whatever way – that’s how the author did it as well, after all.

So Red – short for Redarys – and Neve – short for Neverah – are two royal sisters who live in Valleyda, a country that borders the Wilderwood. Many centuries ago, some dude fled into the wood with his girlfriend who was betrothed to a man she didn’t want to mary. They kind of ended up stuck in the forest and the dude, forthwith called the Wolf for no discernible reason whatsoever, lives in that forest. He brings his dead girlfriend to the border and demands “the next one” and from that day on, when two daughters are born to the ruling family, the first is for the throne, the second is “for the wolf” (roll credits). The reasons for this are unclear and – this isn’t a spoiler but a warning – are NEVER PROPERLY EXPLAINED! Neither does anyone ever explain why this magical dude whose name I have forgotten already is called a Wolf, what precisely he does with those second daughters and what the point of anything is, really.

Oh well, that’s only half-true. You see, Valleyda has a religion based on the “Five Kings” which are five random Kings from the time the Wolf went into the forest. They were apparently taken by evil Wolf guy and now people send the second daughters to the Wolf to get those five kings back. Why? Nobody knows. Who decided that the second daughters were supposed to be a trade for the five kings? Nobody knows. Who even were those kings, why would we want them to return and wouldn’t they be zombies after hundreds of years anyway? Nobody knows. Because Hannah Whitten hasn’t actually done any worldbuilding that isn’t absolutely necessary to tell us the kind of story she apparently wanted to tell.

Which is no story at all but rather throwing two bland characters together and having them be melodramatic at each other. Seriously, nothing about this book makes sense. So let’s ignore that there’s no reason for this ridiculous religion to exist and follow Red as she enters the Wilderwood as a sacrifice. She brings the clothes on her back and a BAG OF BOOKS! I mean, I feel you girl, I love reading too but come on, you were certain you were going straight to your death, why the fuck would you bring a heavy bag full of books??? Do you think the Wolf – who you’re convinced is going to kill you on sight – is going to let you finish that series you started before he offs you?
Either way, she arrives at the Beast’s castle, and who’d have thought, the Wolf/Beast turns out to be hot young man who, despite being hundreds of years old, looks like he’s twenty so it’s Twilight all over and we’re all okay with it because apparently that’s just the sort of thing some people find sexy. What follows is hundreds of pages of nothing. There is no fucking conflict because Red has it pretty sweet at that place, Eammon (the “Wolf”) is a bit distant because he’s emo and just wants to keep her safe and sacrifice himself for the world because he’s just that pure of heart. Red shows no initative, doesn’t do anything, basically just exists in a state of stubborn uselessness and moons over Eammon’s sexy dark hair.

Then there’s the whole magic “system”. None of that makes any sense, it always behaves in such a way as to be convenient to the author’s wishes. If she wants Red to be heroically saved by Eammon – who is super emo martyr guy and nothing else, by the way – then the forest is bad. If she wants Red to do something useful for once, the forest magic works completely differently and helps. A tiny point of interest was the event that happend on Red’s 16th birthday where apparently she had an adventure at the edge of the Wilderwood that ended in “carnage” and made her resign herself to her fate as a sacrifice. That carnage is explained in a few sentences and is actually super boring, doesn’t add anything to the plot, and explains absolutely nothing about how the magic here works. But whatever, afterwards, Red has some piece of Wilderwood inside of her? Plants go crazy when she feels that power, sometimes they want to kill her, sometimes not? It’s an evil power but also totally good because the Wilderwood and the Wolf actually protect the world from a bigger evil… Don’t ask me for details, there aren’t any and what little is explained makes no sense. And for the ending to be properly cheesy and disgustingly sweet, every single rule that has been sort of set up over this long, long novel, is just thrown overboard. Because we can’t have anything be complicated in this supposedly adult fantasy novel.

Which leads me to another gripe. The author herself was very adamant about this being “not YA”! First of all, YA is not an insult. Some of the most amazing books in the world are YA books and YA authors are not to be looked down upon – seriously, keeping a teenager interested in a book is a feat! Secondly, if you wanted to write an adult novel so badly, why the hell didn’t you? Apart from its plotlessness, this book doesn’t just read like YA, it reads like really, really bad YA. The kind where you know the author just wants to write about two pretty people making out but doesn’t actually have anything to say or a story to tell. I can see her Pinterest mood board in my mind, with all the foresty dark bookish aesthetics and the scarred hero with the sexy hair and the curvy blonde heroine (who just happens to look a lot like the author herself) – but none of that is a story.

What you get is the girl going in the forest, meeting a handful of nice people there. They protect the world from some evil that makes no sense using magic that makes no sense and being so fucking good it makes my teeth ache. Eammon is pure self-sacrifice, he would die rather than let Red get hurt because, after all, he’s known her for a whole week so that’s only natural. In bad YA trope land. Red herself is also a total Mary Sue who only wants to protect her sister – a relationship which isn’t shown on the page at all, by the way, we’re just supposed to feel this super deep love between two cardboard characters whose defining characteristic is their difference in hair color.
The biggest problem of this book (and that’s saying something) is its utter lack of conflict. Even the short scenes where Eammon saves Red or Red saves Eammon never feel like they’re in any real danger. That entire good forest/bad forest, Shadowlands (what even are those?!), Five Kings, fake mythology crap is just in no way interesting. Red isn’t in danger, Eammon is in pretend-danger but we know nothing’s going to happen to him because the entire point of this story is the mind-numbing romance between them. And calling it “slow burn” is insulting to the readers’ intelligence. Because “nothing happening” and the characters just not talking or interacting in any way does not equal slow burn. It equals boring. Then suddenly, they’re hot for each other, make out a couple of times and of course would DIE FOR EACH OTHER BECAUSE REASONS. Waaaah, it’s so infuriatingly bad.

Ooooh, and speaking of the sister. Neve is still in Valleyda and she wants her sister back. We don’t know why as their relationship was never really established, but hey, let’s just go with it. Neve meets the most obvious and ridiculous villain you can imagine – again, this is for adult adults who are so much smarter than stupid teenagers, let’s not forget it because women authors don’t automatically write YA – and then just lets herself be manipulated into stupid crap. She also watches uselessly as the manipulative evil priestess clearly kills off all the people standing in her way. Neve is so dumb, even if the sisterly relationship had felt in any way real, I couldn’t have rooted for her.

The writing is at least consistent with the quality of the book’s plot. Endless repetitions, wannabe poetic descriptions, but really very basic non-immersive language is what you get. Characters constantly shape their fingers into claws, move their hand over their faces, Red’s veins always turn green because forest magic, and even the many, many mentions of blood feel completly lifeless. I suppose that’s the author’s reasoning for this book being so very adult – because although our protagonists have fucking magic, what they do the entire middle part of the book is bleed on trees. Yep, you read that right. And as someone who is clumsy and has cut herself fairly frequently with kitchen knives, let me tell you, it’s no fun. It hurts, it stings, it bleeds like a pig, and it keeps burning long after the blood has stopped coming. The bleeding and cutting in this book felt like it’s nothing. Eammon’s hands are basically nothing but scars because he keeps cutting them and bleeding around like it’s a vampire party. And sure, if mentions of blood are a trigger for you, then definitely stay away from this book. But if you generally don’t have a problem with reading about blood and worry that this will be too gruesome – don’t. The descriptions are so lifeless, so throwaway, that you never, for a second, feel like you’re there or like anyone really got hurt. Plus, there’s convenient healing/taking away wounds magic.

You might wonder why I even finished this book and you have a very valid point! The first time I thought about DNFing was at 25% which was about when Red and Eammon met and the basic plot (or lack thereof) had been set up. At that point already, there was nothing I wanted to know. You know that feeling when you read a book or watch a movie or TV show – the need to know what happens next – that was missing here. I kept pushing because 25% is not much and it was a 5-star-prediction after all. Plus, Beauty and the Beast retelling, magical dark wood, comparisons to Naomi Novik and Katherine Arden (which are a fucking insult to both those brilliant authors, if you ask me). It only got worse from there but once I was past 50% I thought I might as well finish it, see if any of those world building “mysteries” get resolved, if anything is explained, if there is a point to this rather big book at all. Now that I’ve made it through this messy author wish fulfillment, I can safely say, it wasn’t worth it. Feel free to skip!

MY RATING: 2.5/10 – Really bad!

P.S.: I just started a re-read of The Poppy War and it is the most soothing experience to read something so good after something this embarrassing and amateurish!

A Satisfying Ending: S. A. Chakraborty – The Empire of Gold

The Daevabad Trilogy is a finalist for the Best Series Hugo Award this year, so I finally picked up the second and third book to see if they could keep up with the first. After a slow start, this book delivered pretty much everything I had hoped for and managed to stick the ending. It’s going to be very hard choosing favorites this year! SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST TWO BOOKS BELOW!

by S. A. Chakraborty

Published: Harper Voyager, 2020
766 pages
28 hours 37 minutes
The Daevabad Trilogy #3
My rating:

Opening line: Behind the battlements of the palace that had always been hers, Banu Manizheh e-Nahid gazed at her family’s city.

The final chapter in the bestselling, critically acclaimed Daevabad Trilogy, in which a con-woman and an idealistic djinn prince join forces to save a magical kingdom from a devastating civil war.

Daevabad has fallen.

After a brutal conquest stripped the city of its magic, Nahid leader Banu Manizheh and her resurrected commander, Dara, must try to repair their fraying alliance and stabilize a fractious, warring people.

But the bloodletting and loss of his beloved Nahri have unleashed the worst demons of Dara’s dark past. To vanquish them, he must face some ugly truths about his history and put himself at the mercy of those he once considered enemies.

Having narrowly escaped their murderous families and Daevabad’s deadly politics, Nahri and Ali, now safe in Cairo, face difficult choices of their own. While Nahri finds peace in the old rhythms and familiar comforts of her human home, she is haunted by the knowledge that the loved ones she left behind and the people who considered her a savior are at the mercy of a new tyrant. Ali, too, cannot help but look back, and is determined to return to rescue his city and the family that remains. Seeking support in his mother’s homeland, he discovers that his connection to the marid goes far deeper than expected and threatens not only his relationship with Nahri, but his very faith.

As peace grows more elusive and old players return, Nahri, Ali, and Dara come to understand that in order to remake the world, they may need to fight those they once loved . . . and take a stand for those they once hurt.

After the shocking events and the evil cliffhanger of The Kingdom of Copper, S. A. Chakraborty takes her sweet time getting the story going again. We meet our characters exactly where we left them in the last book and, just like us readers, they have to pick up the pieces of their lives, understand what has just happened and figure out where to go from here first. On the one hand, it’s nice to be reminded of prior events, to ease one’s way back into this world of djinn and politics and strange magic, on the other hand, it makes for somewhat slow reading during the first ahlf of this book.

Nahri and Ali find themselves in Cairo where they spend quite a bit of time before they decide to get back into the whole saving the djinn business again. Afte rall, Nahri’s mother has taken Daevabad, Ali is trying to get over his brother’s death, and Nahri still can’t believe what Menizah and Dara have done… As understandable as this quieter period in their lives is, as eager was I for the story to pick up again. I needn’t have worried, however, because when things do get going, they go crazy.

Chakraborty uses her time wisely because while the bigger plot may not be moving forward, the characters are growing quite a bit. Nahri and Ali finally open up to each other, tell the whole truth, and – who’d have thought – it turns out they make a really good team. I really enjoyed their story line, both in terms of actiony bits, new revelations about both their pasts, and in terms of their evolving feelings. I still think the love triangle is used way too much in fiction and should be put to rest, but I was okay with how things went in Empire of Gold.

There comes a point in the middle of this book when the wait is over. I remember one particular scene that made me absolutely not want to go to bed before I knew everyone was okay and it kept me reading for hours and hours. You know that childish excitement you feel when you’re reading a really good book that you are super invested in? That’s how I felt and that’s why I forgive the 350 merely “okay” pages that came before. Because from that point onwards, everything happened at once.

S. A. Chakraborty has built up many plot strings, posed a lot of questions, and set up certain situations that all wanted to be resolved. The question was whether she could do it, and do it well. Let me tell you that – while everyone probably has a different opinion on how that love triangle should have been resolved or whether it needed to be there ein the first place – I was more than happy with the ending.
It had revelations that I had expected but it also had twists that I hadn’t seen coming at all. It manages incredibly difficult moral situations in a deft manner, without taking the easy way out. No spoilers here, so I can’t go into detail, but if you’ve read this book you know several characters have done tings they’re not proud of, some of them worse than others. Whether it’s reexamining your own prejudice, being open for other people’s point of view, trying to repay a debt, or doing what’s right simply because you know you should – the character arcs in this series all reach what I would call a satisfying ending.

I really enjoyed Empire of Gold, especially its more action-packed scenes that make you fear for the characters. Chakraborty is damn great at getting my heart racing, whether it’s because a protagonist is facing their own death or holding the hand of a person they secretly love… I’d say the romance, family relationships, and action scenes were the strongest parts of this book. Now that the trilogy is finished, I am curious to see what Chakraborty comes up with next. I’m totally up for more djinn!

MY RATING: 7.25/10 – Very good

Fantasy Chick Lit: Maria V. Snyder – Poison Study

Depending on what kind of a reader you are, you may enjoy being challenged by every new book or you may prefer comfort reads, books where you essentially know what you’re going to get. Or you’re a mix of both or something in between. I lean more towards new and challenging reads but, boy, do I love a nice comfort read when I’m stressed. This book was not good literature in any way, it wasn’t good fantasy either, but it told a fun story that was easy to follow, with exciting scenes, a nice romance, and a fast moving plot. And sometimes, that’s exactly the right kind of book.

poison study1POISON STUDY
by Maria V. Snyder

Published: Mira Books, 2005
eBook: 431 pages
Series: Poison Study #1
My rating: 4/10

Opening line: Locked in darkness that surrounded me like a coffin, I had nothing to distract me from my memories.

About to be executed for murder, Yelena is offered an extraordinary reprieve. She’ll eat the best meals, have rooms in the palace– and risk assassination by anyone trying to kill the Commander of Ixia.And so Yelena chooses to become a food taster. But the chief of security, leaving nothing to chance, deliberately feeds her Butterfly’s Dust and only by appearing for her daily antidote will she delay an agonizing death from the poison. As Yelena tries to escape her new dilemma, disasters keep mounting. Rebels plot to seize Ixia and Yelena develops magical powers she can’t control. Her life is threatened again and choices must be made. But this time the outcomes aren’t so clear…

Yelena is taken from the dungeon where she has spent the last year to finally be executed for the murder she’s committed. But destiny offers her another chance to live, at least for a while. The Commander’s former food taster has died recently and a replacement is needed. The Rules (this mysterious document/code of conduct comes up many times, don’t expect it to be explained or make sense or anything, just roll with it) state that the next in line for the gallows should be offered the job. And, as she is kind of attached to life, Yelena accepts. After a trial run where her new superior – and the commander’s confidant – Valek tests her ability to even discover whether food is poisoned, Yelena turns out to be perfect for the job. And thus starts her career as food taster and this story kicks off.

Let me say, before I get into anything else, that I had a lot of fun reading this and I would actually recommend it. But I’d recommend it with caveats, or for when you’re in the same mood I was in, or when you’re just into this kind of book. Because if you’re a reader of SFF for the same reasons I am – namely discovering the world through a science-fictional lens, reading about wild ideas, wondrous magic, epic battles, fantastical cultures, futuristic visions, … – then this is not the right book.
But if you want a quick, fun adventure where magic appears when convenient, where things are simple and straight forward, and where you know more or less what’s going to happen, then pick this up. The best analogy I can make is a rom com. They’re all essentially the same but still different enough to have a favorite and to keep you entertained. So, now that I’ve hopefully got across that I had fun reading this, my critical brain nonetheless needs to tell you why it just isn’t a good book.

Everything is super simplistic and shallow.
Seriously, pick your poison (haha), it has no depth. The characters are mostly blank with one or two personality traits and no agency at all. They exist merely to further Yelena’s story, they don’t have lives or hopes or dreams outside of being a sidekick to Yelena.
Yelena is, naturally, perfect. She is the kind of heroine I loathe! She’s good at everything, either right from the start or after very little training. Her friends teach her self-defense and fighting with a staff and she masters this art after only a few weeks because… well, the plot demands that she’s really good at fighting at that point. The fact that her tastebuds are also amazing and can immediately (!) detect the slightest differences in certain foods is far from believable, especially in someone who has spent the last months in a dungeon, being fed tasteless slop. But my motto while reading this was: just roll with it!

The world buliding is just as weak and sloppy. There used to be a king, but he was overthrown by the Commander and now the kingdom is divided into Military Districts, led by Generals. They abide by super strict rules (that Code thingy I mentioned above) that allow no lenience whatsoever. Killed someone in self-defense? You gotta die. Killed someone to save a baby’s life? Too bad, you’re still going to be hanged. None of this is ever explained, there’s not even an attempt at creating a consistent believable world here. Rules, cultural idiosynchrasies, celebrations, etc. come up when the plot demands it and disappear as easily. That’s why this is, objectively, not a good book. But who cares?
There’s also magic in this universe and – can you guess it – our heroine secretly has magical powers. This isn’t a spoiler as anyone will guess after the third chapter when she accidentally uses magic. Now I am perfectly happy with the lack of a magic system, because magic should be wild and uncontrollable, otherwise it would just be science that we don’t understand (yet). But Snyder does put some rules on her magic, although they, like everything else in this book, feel like she came up with them spontaneously and they don’t have any impact whatsoever on the plot or characters or anything. New rules appear as soon as it’s convenient, without ever having been mentioned before.
That’s what makes this book feel so much like an early draft. Ideas pop up whenever they probably popped up in the author’s head. Now to make a book better, you should try and foreshadow a little or at least leave tiny hints or mentions of things that will be important to the plot later. Don’t let your readers believe they are in a world with only rule X and then, in the last quarter of the book sudeenly pretend that rule Y has always existed.

As for the plot, I’m not really sure what the point is and why the book is called Poison Study, but it was exciting enough. Yelena’s new chance to live gets the whole thing rolling, but we soon learn that she has a Dark Past (TM) which is also the reason she’s killed a man and was in the dungeons in the first place. Nothing about her past was particularly surprising, except for the one time where she explicitly contradicts herself – saying in an early chapter that a certain thing never happened and then much later in the book explaining how that very thing not just happened but was the catalyst for the murder… That’s just super lazy writing/editing!
But whatever, her new job is to taste the Commander’s food, try and not find her superior/assassin/poison master Valek so damn attractive, make friends with a few people, and discover a whole conspiracy. There are training montages, bullies to fight, spies to discover, friendship, betrayal, a fire festival, acrobatics, surprisingly little poison tasting, sneaking around the castle, and some battles.

On the one hand, everything in this book is just too easy and it felt like the author didn’t know how to make certain things feel important. Yelena’s past, for example, follows her everywhere. She clearly has some trauma (as is only understandable) but only about her past. She strangely mourns a stranger’s death but never so much as mentions the death of a character who was a friend. Because the characters are all so shallow, I guess the author forgot to have her heroine be sad about one of them passing. There is also this whole enmity going on between Yelena and another character that is simply dropped somwhere around the middle of the book. Said character isn’t even mentioned after that although they came across as rather important at first. It’s all very haphazard and serves one purpose only: to tell the story of an author-insert protagonist who is beyond perfect and finally realizes just how amazing she really is. She finds an attractive man who (of course) is all aflame for her, she makes friends who would immediately die for her, and she saves the country just by being the only (!) person clever enough to figure out things that will be clear to the reader from chapter 3 onwards.

So to reiterate: Despite this book actually being a literary trainwreck, I had fun reading it! Who cares that the language changes from old-timey to strangely modern within the same sentence? Who cares how simple and ridiculous everything is. This is a feel-good book where you know everything will end well, things will turn out alright for the protagonists and the only characters who find a bad end you never really cared for in the first place because they were just cardboard cutouts. Sitting down for a few hours having mindless fun can be exactly right, especially during stressful times. Reading is supposed to be fun and sometimes, we need this pure escapism. Maria Snyder gave me that with this book, and although I have no desire whatsoever to find out how Yelena’s story continues, I will keep this series in the back of my mind for a time when I’m stressed out and don’t want to think but just want to go on a silly adventure with a perfect heroine.

MY RATING: 4 – Pretty bad!

Tropey Romantic Fun In Space: Everina Maxwell – Winter’s Orbit

Boy am I glad every time one of those overhyped books turns out to be actually good! Tor went all out on this one – I swear there wasn’t a single space on the internet that didn’t bombard me with how fun and tropey and perfect this book would be long before it even came out. While the book was far from perfect, it was definitely fun and I wholeheartedly recommend it to people looking for a bit more romance in their SFF.

by Everina Maxwell

Published: Tor, 2021
Hardcover: 423 pages
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: “Well, someone has to marry the man,” the Emperor said.

Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Everina Maxwell’s exciting debut.

While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control.

But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.

This is it, the book that was hyped up like crazy for being originally an AO3 story that happily embraces its tropes, such as “there’s only one bed” and “forced marriage”. While I don’t exactly understand that marketing approach, I can tell you that, yes, these tropes are there, but they are neither the strongest parts of this book, nor the most important ones. Everina Maxwell can do way more than just use tropes effectively. I do, however, appreciate that this book may help certain people see that starting (or even staying) in fanfiction is not a bad thing and that it says nothing about an author’s skill or originality.

So, what’s this all about then? Prince Kiem is called to the Emperor who tells him that he is to be married to the recently widowed Count Jainan of Thea because politics. In just a few weeks’ time, a new treaty will be signed between the Iskari Empire and all its vassal planets and for that to work out smoothly, all alliances must be in place and an auditor must be convinced that the alliances were made of free will. The political background is thought out well enough, but as you can guess, it’s not the focus of this story.
Kiem and Jainan are married pretty quickly, and then comes the difficult part: getting to konw each other, getting along, and finding some way to live together, as happily as possible. And this is where Maxwell got to shine.

I loved both Kiem and Jainan, although Kiem stole my heart a lot faster. He is a chaotic, big-hearted, stumbling, talkative guy who seems to never get things right, never be on time, but somehow remains loved by most people and especially by the press. His time is spent mostly at parties and with the press, trying to smooth out whatever went wrong at said parties. Where there’s a scandal, Prince Kiem is usually not far off but he is clearly an adorable guy who means well enough. His personal assistant Bel was also an immediate hit for me. She’s the kind of stoic yet competent person Kiem needs in his life but you can tell right from the start that her cool exterior hides true affection for her boss. She loves her job and she does it well and damn but I love reading this type of character! Also, the world needs to appreciate its assistants more.
Jainan, being quiet and drawn into himself, was a tougher nut to crack. I liked him as well, but his personality took longer to show itself. For a long time, he says almost nothing and even in his POV chapters, all we learn is that he just wants to stay out of Kiem’s way and have the least possible impact on his life. He also lacks confidence and comes across as a bit of a wallflower. Until he gets to talk to someone about engineering, that is. So yeah, Jainan is never unlikable, but he’s so passive that it took a while for me to warm to him. There are reasons for this, just as there are reasons for his behavior, and while it all makes perfect sense, this is the part where you could see that the characters had to bend a little in order to fit certain tropes into this story.

This was the one problem I had with the book. Certain things just dragged on beyond the point of suspension of disbelief. It’s fine that the protagonists misunderstand each other and thus both behave in ways that only make the misunderstandings worse – but only up to a point. Kiem knows that Jainan’s husband died only a month ago and so assumes that Jainan is grieving and that’s his reason for being so quiet and subdued.
Jainan on the other hand believes that a man as well-loved and socially gifted as Kiem couldn’t possibly find him – Jainan – to be an acceptable husband. He feels like he’s not good enough and therefore just stays quiet, hoping not to inconvenience Kiem too much.
It’s a totally okay setup for a slow burn romance but when “slow burn” really means “standstill” for half the book, I just lose interest. For a while, the fact that these two newly married men  barely speak to each other can be explained away. But after a third of the book I started getting annoyed at the ridiculous ways in which they continue to misunderstand each other. It’s like they’re doing it on purpose just to drag the inevitable out a little longer.
Seriously, after weeks of living with another person and seeing how they react to you expressing your opinion, wouldn’t it be natural for you to undertand that it’s okay to keep expressing your opinion?? Actions speak louder than words and humans communicate way more through body language than spoken words. And yet Jainan insists on behaving as if Kiem would freak out whenever they disagree on something, although Kiem has shown him over and over what kind of a person he is.
The author went out of her way to create situations that draw out the moment of truth for the sake of… I don’t know, keeping the readers at the edge of their seats? That part failed for me because as much as I like romantic tension, I still want my stories to be believable, even if they are set on a different planet with futuristic technology.

But around the middle of the book, things finally get going and not only in terms of the romance. The mystery and various other plot threads have been set up nicely in the first half of the book and they are all coming together to create a rather exciting third act. I especially liked how – although they finally did talk to each other and realize that, hey, the other guy also has feelings for me – neither Kiem nor Jainan are suddenly different people. They both still suffer from the same insecurities they had before, but now they each have some hope that there’s someone out there who cares about them and who thinks highly of them. Whether that’s Jainan realizing he is entitled to his own opinion or Kiem understanding that he is, in fact, not stupid or useless, just a bit disorganized, I thought it was really well done and shows character growth in a believable way.

I also quite enjoyed the world building and side characters. Again, the focus of this novel is the relationship between Kiem and Jainan, but these two don’t exist in a vaccuum. I loved learning a bit more about how this galactic empire is set up, what Kiem’s home planet is like and what cultural differences there are between the two protagonists.
I admit I’m not super sure what the Resolution and its auditors are all about or how exactly the larger universe works in this story, but that’s not necessary to understand and enjoy the book.
The revelation of all the secrets, the way the mysteries get resolved and the ending all worked really well, even though I prefer mysteries that give me all the necessary pieces in advance and only fit them together at the end. You know, the kind that makes you go “oh man, I should have seen this all along”. In the case of Winter’s Orbit, there is no way you can guess the solution with the information you are given so the payoff isn’t as satisfying as it could be.

But I am not judging this book on being a great mystery novel, I’m judging it on whether it entertained me and delivered the space romance it promised. And in that respect, I really can’t compalin. Apart from the drawn-out part of wilfully misunderstanding each other, the relationship between Jainan and Kiem was well done. I cared about both of them (and Bel, don’t forget Bel!) and I wanted them to realize that they are both good people who can have a wonderful life together.
For people who read more romance than me and whose expectations may be a bit higher, there is only one romantic scene in this book and it’s not particularly steamy. This romance is more on the sweet side, not the hot and sexy one. So depending on your mood, this may work for your or not. Do I think this is a groundbreaking or award-worthy book? Well, no, but neither was it silly or too light on the world building (which could happen when the focus lies too heavily on the romance). I had a lot of fun reading it and I’m interested to see what Everina Maxwell comes up with next.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good


A Tropey Sci-Fi Romance: Alechia Dow – The Sound of Stars

I picked this up because I’ve seen it on a few recommendations lists and I haven’t read that many 2020 YA books yet. Plus, the premise sounded too good to pass up. A girl risking her life for books and an alien who secretly loves human music? How could I resist?

by Alechia Dow

Published: Inkyard Press, 2020
eBook: 432 pages
audiobook: 12 hours 23 minutes
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: The invasion came when we were too distracted raging against our governments to notice. 

Can a girl who risks her life for books and an alien who loves forbidden pop music work together to save humanity?

Two years ago, a misunderstanding between the leaders of Earth and the invading Ilori resulted in the deaths of one-third of the world’s population.
Seventeen-year-old Janelle “Ellie” Baker survives in an Ilori-controlled center in New York City. Deemed dangerously volatile because of their initial reaction to the invasion, humanity’s emotional transgressions are now grounds for execution. All art, books and creative expression are illegal, but Ellie breaks the rules by keeping a secret library. When a book goes missing, Ellie is terrified that the Ilori will track it back to her and kill her.
Born in a lab, M0Rr1S (Morris) was raised to be emotionless. When he finds Ellie’s illegal library, he’s duty-bound to deliver her for execution. The trouble is, he finds himself drawn to human music and in desperate need of more. They’re both breaking the rules for love of art—and Ellie inspires the same feelings in him that music does.

Ellie’s—and humanity’s—fate rests in the hands of an alien she should fear. M0Rr1S has a lot of secrets, but also a potential solution—thousands of miles away. The two embark on a wild and dangerous road trip with a bag of books and their favorite albums, all the while making a story and a song of their own that just might save them both.

Oh well, might as well get my first bad book of the year out of the way right now. The Sound of Stars started out quite well. Janelle – Ellie – lives in an Ilori-controlled building where she and her family and friends are locked up and live under tough restrictions. They must not show emotions, all art is banned, and they are kept alive merely to be vaccinated with a strange vaccine as soon as it’s finished. Ellie’s father got an early test version of the vaccine which has left him like a shell of his former self. Her mother, in the meantime, deals with this situation by drinking (which is of course also illegal). 17-year-old Ellie keeps a secret library and loans out books to her patrons. If she is caught, she’ll probably be executed immediately…

M0Rr1s is an Ilori labmade commander who is working on perfecting the mysterious vaccine in order to be used on all humans. But he also has a secret: He loves human music and secretly listens to it. His fellow Ilori would decidedly not approve. When he finds out about Ellie’s library, he confronts her. Not to get her executed but to make her help him get his hands on more music! Naturally, a romance evolves…

In the reviews I’ve read, M0Rr1s is often described as a lovable softie and that’s not wrong. To me, he often felt more like a robot than an alien, to be honest. He’s a fish out of water, unknowing in the ways of humans or how to interact with them. His innocent and curious nature made him easy to like, yes, but I had a very hard time picturing him with a human body.
Which leads to my next issue. The aliens aren’t really all that alien. It’s a widespread problem in science fiction that alien species are just humanoids with maybe an extra limb or different facial features. In this case, the Ilori have a computer panel on their face that lets them communicate via their alien internet. To be more specific, there are two types of Ilori. The true ones (who are vaguely human-shaped blobs of some kind?) and the labmade ones like Morris who look almost completely human, with skin and blood all the usual body parts.
I get that it’s easier to write a romance between two human-shaped characters than it would be between two properly different species. But I was so hoping for the more complicated version of this Romeo and Juliet tale. Where are the books where people and aliens fall in love and the alien doesn’t happen too look like a cute, attractive human?

But my biggest problem with the Ilori was that are against emotions. That’s not a new idea in science fiction at all but I found it weird that a species that clearly feels emotions is so opposed to them. Why? And how would that even work? Feelings are a catalyst for so many things. Fear, anger, love, jealousy, greed – those keep a story going and the Ilori feel them as much as humans do. Pretending not to doesn’t change the fact that emotions inform their actions. So I just don’t see the point other than creating some bogus conflict that lets Ilori execute anyone who actually shows how angry they are instead of putting on a blank face while being angry…

This book is often praised for its inclusivity and I did like some but not all of it. Janelle is a young, fat Black girl who she suffers from anxiety attacks. None of those things felt in any way forced or used for a specific effect. They are just part of who Ellie is. When things get dangerous, and they do that a lot, her anxiety flares up and she uses her method of counting down from five for dealing with it. I don’t know how realistic that method is, but it certainly felt believable and made Ellie into more of a badass in my eyes. After all, who would run a forbidden library when being found out could mean execution? For someone with anxiety to take that risk takes even more courage.
She’s also demi-ace and explains to Morris what that means. In her words (paraphrased), it takes a long time for her to get to know and trust someone and then, maybe, she’ll develop romantic feelings for them. Gender doesn’t matter, but time does. This becomes important later and it’s also the part I didn’t like because… well, it stands in stark contrast to what actually happens in the book.

The bulk of the novel is about Ellie and Morris on a road trip to California (I had so hoped for a road trip in space, but we can’t always get what we want (song title reference totally intended)). They meet both people and aliens on the way, get into dangerous situations, and of course fall in love with each other in no time at all.
That would have been fine, honestly, if Ellie didn’t specifically make fun of this very trope and if it didn’t contradict who she says she is as a person! She snobbishly looks down on book heroines who fall in love after only one day while DOING THE VERY SAME THING HERSELF! What am I supposed to think about that? Look, I know it’s a stupid trope but I don’t mind it if I’m watching or reading a romance. If it makes for a good story, the trope can be forgiven. But using a trope and making fun of it at the same time just doesn’t make sense to me. Especially when it happens to a demi-ace girl who literally just explained how long it takes her to develop feelings!

As much as I liked Ellie at first, she does a complete 180 around the middle of the book and suddenly turns stupid. Morris and her get caught by some Ilori so Morris makes up a story on the spot about her being his prisoner – you know, to keep them both alive. While that is obviously a cover story, Ellie takes his suddenly changed demeanour at face value and starts instantly hating him. The girl who was so clever in the beginning and, by the way, reads books like others breathe air so who must have come across this trope before, can’t figure out that Morris isn’t really suddenly evil but just trying to save her ass from being executed or vaccinated? I just don’t understand that story decision. The plot would have worked just as well if Ellie had played along (and made her look much better), but I guess there had to be some “relationship conflict” that would lead to a fight, so the love birds could come back together dramatically.

Speaking of the relationship. This book is HEAVY on the romance and spends most of its middle part repeating the same pattern over and over. Morris and Ellie are on their road trip, they meet humans and/or Ilori, get in trouble, get out of trouble, sit in the car and talk, and the same thing happens again and again with slight variations. Not only does that get boring pretty quickly, but I also didn’t find their relationship development in the least interesting or believable. As I mentioned, Ellie falls in love way too quickly but there’s also never any real chemistry between the two. Their shared love for books and music only goes so far that she drops book titles and he talks about the artists he likes, and they agree on them being great.
Actually, the worst part of their shared love for the arts is how Ellie SUMS UP some of the best books out there for Morris. What self-respecting book lover would sum up Jane Eyre in their own world?! Don’t you want Morris to experience the pure beauty of that story for himself? And sure, you’re in a tight spot now but it’s all super hopeful and you’re saving the world so WHY SPOIL THE BOOK FOR HIM?

Oh and about those road trip stops. They always work by the same pattern but some of them are definitely more stupid then others. One time, Morris and Ellie are imprisoned (separately) and a human toddler comes along and sings “If you’re happy and you know it” with Morris. The mother, when she finds them, is naturally shocked. After all, her son is standing very close to one of the aliens who are suppressing her entire planet and are killing people left and right. However, because Morris and that kid had a nice little song together, the very same mother then decides to help Morris. I mean, just imagine for one second that Morris wasn’t a good guy but a different Ilori who actually means humans harm. What mother would be stupid enough to trust a complete stranger just because he sang a children’s song with her son?
But all the dangerous situations are like that. Ellie and Morris aren’t completely useless but they always end up being saved by a third party.

Oh and let’s not even start about that deus ex machina ending. It was sooooo ridiculous. The last third of the book is mostly “I love you more” “No, I love you more” “You are the highlight of my day” “I never want to be parted from you” but in between cheesy and way over the top declarations of undying love, the author must have remembered that novels also need a plot. In order to resolve hers, she throws in something that solves all the problems easily and at no cost to the protagonists. And for Ellie and Morris’ further adventures (please don’t write a sequel), Ellie’s parents stay conveniently out of the way and her best friend is suddenly not that important anymore. Because Morris is the center of her universe and that’s really all this book is about.

Audiobook specific thoughts:
It drove me absolutely up the walls that the male narrator (who is doing a brilliant job narrating as such) kept pronouncing M0Rr1s’ name as Em-zero-one-is. Like, I get that that’s his alien name but there’s a reason the author made it look like a name that humans can pronounce. The same goes for most other alien names and titles which mostly just switch out the letter “o” for a zero and the letter “i” for a one. That said, I did love Christian Barillas’ reading in general, and the way he did different voices and accents. He did a great job and I would absolutely listen to more audiobooks narrated by him.
Joy Sunday, who reads Janelle’s parts of the story, didn’t work so well for me. Her tone always sounded annoyed and kind of aloof. She made Janelle sound like she felt she was better than everyone else, although that doesn’t fit the way her character is described at all. I also wasn’t a fan of Sunday’s intonation or the way she pronounces the “g” at the end of every word ending in -ing. It sounded like she said “I was thinkink” or “what are you doink“. I don’t know if that’s something they teach you in narrator school but it annoyed me. A lot.

Look, it always pains me when I pick up a book by a Black debut author and then don’t like it. But this book, honest to god, reminds me of my own first (and very unreadable) book that I wrote when I was 12 years old. This read like a first draft and I cannot understand how it went through the entire editing process without anyone mentioning the flimsy world building, the lack of excitement, or the discrepancies between how the characters describe themselves and how they act.
Every author whose first book I dislike gets a second chance. But much like Kalynn Bayron last year, Alechia Dow will really have to blow me away with her next book. Otherwise I’ll just have to admit that her writing is not for me. I expect more from the books I read, especially in a time when YA has grown so much and can do way more than tell a cheesy plot-less romance.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Quite bad

P.S.: This was on my list of five star predictions which goes to show that synopses and blurbs can only go so far… I’m a little bummed out right now and hope my next prediction turns out more accurate.

Sci-Fi Jane Austen: Diana Peterfreund – For Darkness Shows the Stars

For the 2020 Retellings Challenge, I finally picked up this Diana Peterfreund book which was on my list last year but I simply didn’t get to it. For some reason (the cover, probably), I thought this would be set in space or on a space ship or something – that was a very false assumption. The science fictional setting, firmly planet-side, was the weakest part of this book but the romance! Boy, did the romance work!

by Diana Peterfreund

Published: Balzer + Bray, 2012
Ebook: 416 pages
My rating: 7,5/10

Opening line: Dear Kai, My name is Elliot, and I am six years old and live in the big house.

It’s been several generations since a genetic experiment gone wrong caused the Reduction, decimating humanity and giving rise to a Luddite nobility who outlawed most technology.
Elliot North has always known her place in this world. Four years ago Elliot refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, the servant Kai, choosing duty to her family’s estate over love. Since then the world has changed: a new class of Post-Reductionists is jumpstarting the wheel of progress, and Elliot’s estate is foundering, forcing her to rent land to the mysterious Cloud Fleet, a group of shipbuilders that includes renowned explorer Captain Malakai Wentforth–an almost unrecognizable Kai. And while Elliot wonders if this could be their second chance, Kai seems determined to show Elliot exactly what she gave up when she let him go.
But Elliot soon discovers her old friend carries a secret–one that could change their society . . . or bring it to its knees. And again, she’s faced with a choice: cling to what she’s been raised to believe, or cast her lot with the only boy she’s ever loved, even if she’s lost him forever.
Inspired by Jane Austen’s Persuasion, For Darkness Shows the Stars is a breathtaking romance about opening your mind to the future and your heart to the one person you know can break it.

This was such a charming book, told through Elliot North’s eyes and through letters she and her childhood love Kai wrote each other several years ago. Elliot lives on a Luddite estate with her father and sister. Her father spends money left and right without ever thinking about where more money is going to come from or whether other things should be prioritised – say food over a racing track, for example… Elliot’s sister is also lazy and while she has no problem taking credit for running the estate, she doesn’t actually do any of the work. Then again, Elliot may help out on the farm, but the brunt of the work load is done by the Reduced workers, who are essentially slaves. That was my first shock – I didn’t expect to read about a protagonist who belongs to a slave-owning family, no matter what it is called in this fictional future.

The entire world building was a bit rocky for me. Some time ago, humans had perfected the manipulation of genes and bodies so far that they “wanted to become greater than God”, giving themselves night vision, being able to run really fast, jump supernaturally high, etc. A group of people – the Luddites – refused to have any of these alterations done to themselves, believing it was against the will of God and unnatural. Then the Reduction happened which left the Luddites the way they were (humans without special abilities) but gave the enhanced people only children with limited abilities, creating the Reduced. The Reduced are presented as people with limited brain capabilities. They have trouble speaking, sometimes they cannot speak at all, but they are always shown as real people with feelings. I thought the concept of this was very interesting, but I still felt really iffy about them being held as slaves by the Luddites.

Elliot, as our steadfast heroine, is of course the only one who sees the Reduced as people, who makes friends among them, who cares about their wellbeing, but that still doesn’t really change the fact that she sees herself above them, that she owns them! However, recently the Reduced have had children who are not distinguishable from Luddites at all – they can talk, they can learn, but hey, they’re still slaves. Young Elliot befriends just such a Post-Reductionist boy named Kai. Through letters they wrote each other as children and young teenagers, we get to see their relationship evolve from friendship to budding love. Elliot has to learn how it feels to be forced into a life you didn’t choose by listening to her friend Kai. While she may want good things for her friend and the Reduced on her estate, she is still pretty stuck in her mindframe. The world has “always” been this way – the Reduced work for Luddites because it was God’s punishment for tempering with technology and gene manipulation or whatever – and that’s just the way it is.

As this is also a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, you may know what plot points to expect ahead of time. Kai goes away, asking Elliot to come with him. I did love Elliot’s reasons for refusing him – it’s not because he is a Post-Reductionist and it has nothing to do with the difference in their social status – it’s for a very, very good reason which I won’t spoil for you, even though it’s fairly obvious when you read the book. But four years later, Kai returns and calls himself Captain Malakai Wentforth (I love that choice of name!). He is now a successful young man working with other Post-Reductionist that have made exciting discoveries on their sea voyages.

And this is where the strongest aspect of this book starts to shine. The relationship between Elliot and Kai is set up only through their correspondence but when Kai returns and wants nothing to do with Elliot, I felt her pain! The way he ignores her, the way he spends all his time with the young daughter of the North’s neighbouring Luddite family, the way Elliot has to swallow her feelings every single day – it was excruciating to read. But you know, the good kind of excruciating. I don’t really know how Peterfreund did it, but she made me ship these two so hard and put me through all the emotions – and that’s in a book where I knew the ending because it is a retelling!

While I was initially put off by the world building, it does get better and more interesting over time. There is always a lot of tension and discussion about whether technology is bad in general, whether some technology could and should be used to make life easier for humans, or whether humanity should just embrace all the new inventions and discoveries despite of what happened in the past. As the Reduced are now having more and more post-reductionist babies, they argue that they are now immune to suffering from another Reduction. But the Luddites, stuck in the past and overly religious in a way, want nothing to do with that.

Although this is a Jane Austen retelling and I knew mostly what to expect, Diana Peterfreund has a few twists in store. This is where the world she has created really got to shine. She incorporates this devastated future vision into the Austen romance so well that it felt completely natural. I loved the twists and the impact they had on the story. I also particularly enjoyed the ending – not just because of the way the romance goes, but because of all the other elements which I can’t mention here for spoiler reasons. But again, the world that I had struggled to find my way into worked beautifully in combination with Kai and Elliot’s romance.

So with my false expectations for the setting of this book and with me turning from skeptical to fangirl within a matter of a few chapters, this ended up to be an altogether surprising read. The set up and world building – especially the story of how things ended up the way they are at the beginning of this book – could have used a bit more depth, but the characters were fantastic, the story moved at a perfect pace, and the romance is just swoon-worthy. I highly recommend this for fans of Jane Austen, especially those who couldn’t get enough of Captain Wentworth’s letter.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Damn good!