Murder, Intrigue, and Honesty: Katherine Addison – The Witness for the Dead

I still remember when I read The Goblin Emperor – also as an e-ARC – and thought I would never make it through this book of strange, polysyllabic names and courtly manners. After a couple of chapters, however, I was not only deep into that world and quite familiar with the crazy names, but I was absolutely in love with the story, the protagonist Maia, and the setting. So much so that I immediately pre-ordered a hardback copy for my shelf. It turned out to be among my favorite books of the year and, despite some unfortunate events, a real feelgood novel. So returning to this world felt like the perfect thing to do during a pandemic.
Thank you Tor for providing an e-ARC of this novel and letting me enjoy it a bit sooner. 🙂

witness for the deadTHE WITNESS FOR THE DEAD
by Katherine Addison

Published: Tor, June 22nd 2021
eBook: 240 pages
Series: The Goblin Emperor #2 (can be read as a standalone!)
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: In the jumbled darkness of the catacombs beneath the city of Amalo, there was a shrine to Ulis in his aspect as god of the moon.

Katherine Addison returns to the glittering world she created for her beloved novel, The Goblin Emperor, in this stand-alone sequel.

When the young half-goblin emperor Maia sought to learn who had set the bombs that killed his father and half-brothers, he turned to an obscure resident of his father’s Court, a Prelate of Ulis and a Witness for the Dead. Thara Celehar found the truth, though it did him no good to discover it. He lost his place as a retainer of his cousin the former Empress, and made far too many enemies among the many factions vying for power in the new Court. The favor of the Emperor is a dangerous coin.

Now Celehar lives in the city of Amalo, far from the Court though not exactly in exile. He has not escaped from politics, but his position gives him the ability to serve the common people of the city, which is his preference. He lives modestly, but his decency and fundamental honestly will not permit him to live quietly. As a Witness for the Dead, he can, sometimes, speak to the recently dead: see the last thing they saw, know the last thought they had, experience the last thing they felt. It is his duty use that ability to resolve disputes, to ascertain the intent of the dead, to find the killers of the murdered.

Now Celehar’s skills lead him out of the quiet and into a morass of treachery, murder, and injustice. No matter his own background with the imperial house, Celehar will stand with the commoners, and possibly find a light in the darkness.


When young goblin emperor Maia stole fantasy readers’ hearts by simply being a good guy in a corrupt world, everyone pretty much agreed that we wanted more from this world. Well, it took a while but Katherine Addison has obliged and delivered a sort of companion novel that can easily be read as a standalone. Given how little detail I remembered from The Goblin Emperor, it might as well have been one and my reading pleasure was in no way diminished.

Far from the Untheileineise court, we follow a character we’ve met before. Thara Celehar, Witness for the Dead, currently living in not-quite-exile in Amalo, doing his job and trying to live a peaceful life. But of course, as a Witness for the Dead, he is confronted with some very unpleasant cases. As unpleasant as they may be for him, however, as exciting they are for us readers. And with that comes the greatest distinction between The Goblin Emperor and its companion/sequel The Witness for the Dead. Because where the former was all about character and world building and didn’t have too much plot, this book is quite plot-driven, without sacrificing too much world building and character development.

Celehar is dealing with several cases of dead people, at least one of whom was murdered. An unidentified body was fished out of the river and Celehar’s job as a Witness for the Dead is not just to perform the necessary rites for a funeral, but in this case also to find out who the dead person is, who murdered her, and why. It’s essentially a proper murder mystery with Celehar as the kind-hearted, soft-spoken detective. Then there’s the case of a dead patriarch’s will – or rather, wills, as there are two and parts of the family claim that their version is the correct one. Add to that a recently-married woman who has died but whose grave isn’t known to her family. Let’s just say there’s enough for Celehar to do, even without the added political problems and his memories of the past.

There is an astounding number of things to love in this book, considering its low page count. But since Katherine Addison doesn’t waste any time setting up her world or explaining what any of the specific terms thrown around mean, there is more time for a number of mysterious murders, ghoul hunting, enjoying tea in tea houses, and opera. Celehar’s investigation leads him to the opera quite often as well as to other parts of Amalo. I can’t say that, after reading this book, I have a map of the city in my mind, but I have a feeling for the city and, to me, that is much better. There are trams and artists’ quarters, there are the richer areas and the poorer ones, there are gambling houses and tea houses, and it all just feels like a proper place.

I don’t know if it was a mistake to not re-read The Goblin Emperor before starting this book. Because Celehar isn’t introduced in all that much detail. All the necessary information is there – his calling as a Witness for the Dead, something dark in his past that haunts both him and his reputation – but his personality isn’t established right away. It does become clearer the more you read, and that’s what makes the book not only a chronolical sequel but also a spiritual follow-up to The Goblin Emperor. Because Celehar, much like Maia, is in essence a good person. He is honest to a fault, he thinks of others before himself, and he sacrifices his own well-being for a good cause in a heartbeat.

Without spoiling any of the mysteries or their solution, all I can tell you is that they are well done and all of them are resolved in a satisfying (if not always happy) way. Don’t worry when Celehar goes on his ghoul-hunting side quest that the main plot will be forgotten. I found the choice to break the plot in two like that a bit strange but as all plot strings are picked back up afterward, things worked out well in the end.

What makes this book such a pleasure to read is the goodness of its protagonist juxtaposed to the curruption of the wider world. Altough it took me a while to feel for Celehar the way I did for Maia – mainly wanting to hug him and shake him and somehow make everything work out well for him – I did fall in love with the character more and more.

What’s important to know ahead of time is that this isn’t The Goblin Emperor 2. The themes of morality, belonging, and justice are still at the center of the story but instead of a fish out of water type protagonist, we get someone who is highly competent in his job and knows how politics work in this world. Celehar’s character development is also not the center of the story, but rather happens almost sneakily. In fact, while reading, I didn’t feel like I knew Celehar all that well, but since I’ve finished the book, I keep thinking about it and about all the little details that show just how skilled a writer Katherine Addison is.

I believe you can pick this book up whether you’ve read The Goblin Emperor or not. If you like a faster pace, then it may even be a good idea to read Witness first. It still has those quiet moments where characters say more through a gesture than they could with 1000 words, there is still a protagonist who not only has a cool yet creepy skill but is also a Good Person, and there are intricate politics, naming conventions, crazy titles and near unpronouncable names. Most importantly, it is a brilliant fantasy novel that – despite all the murder – leaves you with a serene smile on your face. Whether Katherine Addison’s next book is also set in this world or not, I will be grabbing it as soon as it comes out.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good

A Book Like a Warm Hug: T.J. Klune – The House in the Cerulean Sea

Isn’t it lovely when you find a book that everybody seems to love, you open the book with trepidation because your expectations are super high, you start reading, and then the book ends up being exactly as great as everbody had said? This is such a book and I’m adding my voice to the many others recommending it, especially when you need a bit of escapism, something that will make you feel good, and give you hope for the future.

house in the cerulean seaTHE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA
by T. J. Klune

Published: Tor, 2020
eBook: 394 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line:  “Oh dear,” Linus Baker said, wiping the sweat from his brow. “This is most unusual.”

A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.

Never would I have thought that this book would get to me the way it did. After all, I had read some reviews, I had heard all the raving and squeeing about it, I knew what it was about and how it would try to push my emotional buttons. But the truth is, knowing what you’re going to get doesn’t keep you from feeling it. And, oh how I felt it!

Linus Baker is all about rules. He works for DICOMY, the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, and his job is visiting orphanages where magical kids live to see if everything is fine, if the RULES AND REGULATIONS are being adhered to or if, in some unfortunate cases, the orphanage should rather be shut down. Linus’ life is simple and straight forward. He has no dreams, no ambitions, he just has a cat named Callipe who doesn’t like him very much, a few sunfowers, and a super annoying nosy neighbor who wants to set him up with her grandson. But as Linus also has the ability to be extremely objective and doesn’t let his job get to him emotionally, Extremely Upper Management takes notice and sends him on a special, super secret investigation of an orphanage on Maryas Island.

As I write this, I am once again amazed that a book that is kind of predictable, can work so beautifully and make me so happy. Because we all know what’s coming. Linus will investigated that place, the kids (and the master of the orphanage) will steak Linus’ heart and we well all have learned a lesson about acceptance and the evils of prejudice. And yeah, it’s kind of that, butthere’s so much more to this book than that.

Starting with the writing style which I immediately fell into and just soaked up because it was everything I wanted, over the characters who not only show Linus that they are deserving of love, no matter how monstrous they may look, but who also totally carved out a spot in my heart, over the world building which reveals itself more and more over the course of the book, to the absolute delight of the found family and the real connections between them. I honestly can’t think of any comparison that would do this book justice. A warm blanket, a much-needed hug, someone holding your hand when you thought you were all alone – it’s kind of like all of those but none of them tell you all that the book is.

Every chapter brought new delights, showed a new aspect of this magical world that has its own problems, or a new side to a character, so even when there isn’t much action going on, it’s never boring. Watching Linus grow and come out of his shell a little, seeing alongside him that there can be more to life than RULES AND REGULATIONS (always in capital letters!) gave me so much joy. There were times when I wanted to crawl into this book and spend a week at the orphanage.

But this book is also really funny. I chuckled every time I read “Extremely Upper Management” or basically anytime Talia or Lucy opened theirmouths, but there are also some hilarious moments where Linus just feels out of place or accidentally shows an emotion that got me to smile.

Around his neck hanging on a chain was an orante silver cross. “He tried to shove that in my face.” Lucy laughed as he shook his head. “What does he think I am, a vampire? That’s silly. I like crosses. They’re just two sticks put together, but they mean so much to so many. I tried making a symbol out of Popsicle sticks that I could sell and get rich, but Arthur said it wasn’t right. […]”

The close I got to the end, the more I wanted to draw things out. But you know how it is with really engaging books. You can’t stop reading so the dreaded end keeps coming closer and closer. I thought I was prepared for things to come. I thought I had it all figured out. And, as far as the plot goes, I had a pretty good idea of how everything would turn out. There was a lovely twist there at the end, which I appreciated, but even without that, it would have been a great ending. I cried like a baby and then I cried some more. But it was the good kind of crying, the kind that reminds you why you love to read, why you immerse yourself in imaginary worlds, why fiction characters can feel so real.
The House In the Cerulean Sea may not have a super original premise or the most surprising plot but it does what it’s trying to do with perfection! I put all of T J Klune’s books on my wishlist immediately after reading this and I will save them up for a time when I need a reminder that there’s still good the world and that home is the people you choose to surround yourself with.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Damn excellent!

A Story For Every SFF Mood: Marjorie Liu – The Tangleroot Palace

If you know Marjorie Liu through her acclaimed graphic novel series Monstress and you happen to like said graphic novel series, then this collection is a treat you don’t want to miss. I went into it with no particular expectations – I admit the Sana Takeda cover is what made me request a review copy and I don’t regret a thing. This collection has something for everyone, there are science fiction stories, secondary world fantasies, military stories, a post apocalyptic tale, and a retold fairy tale. It is seriously good, you guys!
Thanks to Tachyon Publications for providing an e-ARC of this collection. It is much appreciated, especially since it turned out to be such a great book. 😉

tangleroot palaceTHE TANGLEROOT PALACE
by Marjorie Liu

Published: Tachyon Publications, 15th June 2021
eBook: 256 pages
Collection
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: The funeral was in a bad place, but Martha Bromes never did much care about such things, and so she put her husband into a hole at Cutter’s, and we as her family had to march up the long stone track into the hills to find the damn spot, because the only decent bits of earth in all that place were far deep in the forest, high into the darkness.

New York Times bestseller and Hugo, British Fantasy, Romantic Times, and Eisner award-winning author of the graphic novel, Monstress, Marjorie Liu leads you deep into the heart of the tangled woods. In her long-awaited debut story collection, dark, lush, and spellbinding short fiction you will find unexpected detours, dangerous magic, and even more dangerous women.

Briar, bodyguard for a body-stealing sorceress, discovers her love for Rose, whose true soul emerges only once a week. An apprentice witch seeks her freedom through betrayal, the bones of the innocent, and a meticulously-plotted spell. In a world powered by crystal skulls, a warrior returns to save China from invasion by her jealous ex. A princess runs away from an arranged marriage, finding family in a strange troupe of traveling actors at the border of the kingdom’s deep, dark woods.

Concluding with a gorgeous full-length novella, Marjorie Liu’s first short fiction collection is an unflinching sojourn into her thorny tales of love, revenge, and new beginnings.


It’s a given with any short fiction collection that some stories will appeal more to certain readers than others, and this was the case with The Tangleroot Palace as well. But I have to say right away that there was only one story that didn’t work for me whereas all the others were at least very good. Maybe it’s because I didn’t know what to expect that I was so very impressed with this collection but I think it’s just the fact that Marjorie Liu is incredibly talented and this book gives a taste of all the things she’s capable of.
She easily goes from horror to fairy tale to post-apocalyptic paranormal, and why not throw in some superhero-inspired story, a handful of zobies and a defiant princess in there. All of these stories have been published before elsewhere but I highly recommend this collection, even if you’ve read one or two of its tales before.

Sympathy for the Bones (4/5 stars)

The opening story took me completely by surprise and proceded to knock my socks off. Although it’s really not long, from the very beginning, there is this dark atmosphere, this feeling that there is more underneath the surface. It’s about a young girl who has lost her parents a while ago and now lives with and is sort of apprenticed to a witch woman. This woman sews dolls which she uses to hurt or kill people, depending on what the job demands. But there are rules to this magic which are fun to learn about. And there is also a lot more to our protagonist than first meets the eye. I loved this story so much!

Briar and Rose (3.5/5 stars)

This was the only story I had read previously in the anthology The Starlit Wood although I didn’t remember any details. It’s a spin on Sleeping Beauty, one that puts women center stage, and not only in the role of the villain. The two eponymous protagonists are great characters that defy stereotypes and although the ending wasn’t as surprising or epic as I would have liked, it’s a great story that incorporates some of the darker aspects of the original tale without drifting off into grimdark territory.

Call Her Savage (2/5 stars)

This is the story that didn’t work for me, mostly because I found it confusing and felt its plot just didn’t fit into this short format. There is a whole lot of world building here but, unfortunately, by the time I had figured everything out enough to understand what was going on, the story was over. Not knowing for a long time who the characters are, what war they are fighting in, who is allied to whom, didn’t help. It’s possible I missed some clues early on, but I just felt lost for the majority of the story. When I did start to enjoy it, I had reached the end.

The Last Dignity of Man (4.5/5 stars)

Gaaah, I loved this so much! It’s about a man named Alexander Lutheran who is the genius billionaire owner of a tech company and thus identifies with Lex Luthor of Superman fame a little too much. The company’s latest experiment is creating worms that eat waste, to be put into the sewers and literally deal with the shit the city can’t handle. I don’t want to tell you any more about this story because it is so very excellent, you should enjoy it for yourselves. But let’s just say there are layers to it. On the one hand, there is the plot with the worms which is super cool. But on the other hand, it’s about Alexander’s inner life, his personal struggles, about morality and power, about love and true friendship. I just adored this!

Where the Heart Lives (4/5 stars)

This was a lovely, atmospheric ghost story turned fairy tale. It’s about people who are outsiders because they are different from the others, it’s about a girl finding a new family away from a home that doesn’t want her. It’s got some of the greatest romantic tension I’ve read in a story this short. And it turns out, it’s a sort of prequel to Liu’s series of paranormal Dirk & Steele novels which I didn’t know about but am now very interested in. Despite those covers.

After the Blood (3.5/5 stars)

This one started out a bit confusing because it seems to take place in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by zombies/vampires. The Amish are now the most powerful people in America (or at least the ones that survived the easiest because they can do without techonlogy, they know how to farm, and so on) and this is the story of a young woman with a strange gift and a large amount of cats, trying to make a life for herself. Her and two male protagonists, one of which is decidedly not human anymore, are made to feel more than unwelcome in their home. To me, this felt like a great beginning to a novel. It has a creepy, mysterious atmosphere, you want to find out what is going on, how the protagonists came to be who and where they are, and what happens next. As a story on its own, it worked okay, but I honestly would have loved to read a full novel where this was just one chapter.

Tangelroot Palace (4.5/5 stars)

The final piece of this collection is a novella that is part feminist fairy tale, part love story, and part the perfect story for my younger self. Sally is a princess but she prefers planting flowers to needlepoint. She doesn’t care that she smells of manure, she has no interest in being lady-like, she’d rather be useful. However, when her father the king finds himself in the precarious situation of almost losing his kingdom, an alliance with the feared Warlord is in order. And what better way than marrying off your only daughter to the reputed brute?
Sally is having none of it and promptly runs away on a quest to the Tangleroot Forest, a dangerous, mysterious, and feared forest that none dare enter. It is said to return people changed or not at all. But Sally’s mother – before she died – went into that forest, so there must be answers to Sally’s problems in there.
I loved every part of this story. The plucky princess, the dangerous, creepy feeling of Tangleroot, the mystery behind its magic, and especially the friendship and love story that happens along the way.

Overall, this is an excellent collection that convinced me that I have to read more by Marjorie M. Liu. The way she writes romance especially vibed with me. Understated without any cheesy declarations, the feelings between her characters usually come across through glances or gestures, through people saving each other’s lives, or making sacrifices for the person they love. It also helps that many of these tales have this fairy tale feeling to them, whether they specifically retell a certain tale – as “Briar and Rose” does – or are simply set in a world with magic in it, like in Tangleroot Palace.

I was also impressed with the writing itself. Liu can do fairy tale-esque really well, but her more horror/gothic style stories also conveyed atmosphere so easily, it felt like I was in these creepy places, seeing the knarled trees, hearing those ravens caw. The only critique I have is that some stories don’t give enough information at the start to be fully enjoyed. It takes a few pages to understand the world we’re in and by that time, the story is almost over. In a novel, it’s okay to throw your readers straight into the action and let them figure out the background information later. A short story simply doesn’t offer enough time to fill in all the blanks in time to enjoy the rest of the story. But that’s really a minor point and it only happened in a couple of stories. All things considered, I would put this collection into any SFF fan’s hands.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

The Hilarious Proof that Bread is Magic: T. Kingfisher – A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

The fact that T. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon) is a treasure to the SFF community is no secret. Having been a fan of her fairy tale retellings for many years, I am so glad that she is finally getting the acclaim she deserves. This book is not only a Lodestar finalist but, at the time I’m writing this, already an Andre Norton winner! Congratulations T. Kingfisher on a well-deserved award win! May you write many more of these hilarious books, whether for adults or children, with or without magic. I’ll read them all.

defensive bakingA WIZARD’S GUIDE TO DEFENSIVE BAKING
by T. Kingfisher

Published: Argyll Productions, 2020
eBook: 318 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7.75/10

Opening line: There was a dead girl in my aunt’s bakery.

Fourteen-year-old Mona isn’t like the wizards charged with defending the city. She can’t control lightning or speak to water. Her familiar is a sourdough starter and her magic only works on bread. She has a comfortable life in her aunt’s bakery making gingerbread men dance.

But Mona’s life is turned upside down when she finds a dead body on the bakery floor. An assassin is stalking the streets of Mona’s city, preying on magic folk, and it appears that Mona is his next target. And in an embattled city suddenly bereft of wizards, the assassin may be the least of Mona’s worries…

Mona is a 14-year-old baker who also happens to be a magician. While in this world, there are magicians who can do awesome stuff like control the weather, have super strength, call down lightning from the sky, or wield fire as a weapon, Mona’s skills are… not quite as impressive . Her magical abilities are limited to dough. Since she’s been orphaned, she’s been working in her aunt and uncle’s bakery. She makes sure the bread dough rises evenly, occasionally makes the gingerbread cookies dance for the shoppers, and generally enjoys her job. Oh, she also accidentally made a sourdough starter come to life somehow. He’s called Bob and lives in the cellar. They feed him flour but that doesn’t mean he can’t snatch a rat or two when he feels like it. Bob is great!

Mona’s life is upset when she finds the dead body of a young girl in the bakery and is promptly suspected of killing her herself. She is whisked off to the palace to be tried and from there slithers into a way bigger barrel of shenanigans than she could have suspected. Adventure, magic, conspiracies, and lots of danger ensue. After all, Mona didn’t kill that girl but the person who did seems to be assassinating magical folks exclusively.

As with anything T. Kingfisher writes, you’ll immediately notice the charming style in which this story is told. I dare you to read two pages and not love Mona! She is a sensible 14-year-old girl who makes for a great protagonist, not only because she is relatable (as much as a wizard can be, I guess) but because her concerns are so very normal. Are you one of the people who wonder why in the Lord of the Rings nobody ever has to pee? Well, Mona has a whole lot to say about that because when your bladder is full, it’s pretty tough thinking about anything other than finding a place to relieve yourself, no matter how vehemently you are accused of murder…
Her relationship to her family and her doughy familiars – namely, sourdough starter Bob and one very protective gingerbread man – are as adorable as they are funny. Seriously, this entire book manages to combine hilarious humor with serious events and believable emotional connections between characters. Even if one of them rides a dead horse skeleton.

You won’t find world building on the scale of an epic fantasy here, but what you will get is a surprisingly touching and exciting plot in which the magic system plays a vital role. Mona’s bread magic may not seem like it’s good for much but the message here is that, no matter how insignificant you may feel, there is greatness in everyone. All it takes is a bit of creativity, working together, and a quick mind. And T. Kingfisher’s characters have that in spades. They also have the uncanny ability to sneak their way into your heart. For the most part while I read this book I thought I only really cared about Mona, but woe the day when somebody threatens Bob or Mona’s aunt Tabitha. I caught myself holding my breath during moments of danger, I found myself smiling at the Duchess, fearing for Spindle (Mona’s new friend from the more unsavory parts of town), and almost crying when Mona was faced with decisions and responsibilities no 14-year-old girl should have to face. I can’t tell you how Kingfisher does it, but she is really good at making you love her characters without even realizing it.

I had so much fun reading this book, especially because the plot started out as one thing (a murder mystery with magic) and then grew and grew and ended up being rather epic. And although it is definitely a very funny book, it also has a lot of heart. I’m quite happy the story is finished and offered a satisfying ending but I would definitely not be opposed to the further adventures of Mona or her friends. Hell, I’d read a whole book about Bob if it was written by T. Kingfisher. I am so happy she got the Andre Norton Award for this. I will be gifting it to many people, especially when they look like they need a smile.

MY RATING: 7.75/10 – Excellent

The State of SFF – June 2021

It’s already June and that feels more than a little crazy. But in the most excellent news, I got my Covid shots and I couldn’t be happier! I’m still drowning in work and trying to balance that with some exercise and cooking healthy meals which leaves very little time for reading or blogging. But I don’t want to complain. Overall, things are good.

Quickie News

  • It’s Pride Month and Book Riot has a quiz that helps you choose your next LGBTQIA+ read. I got The House in the Cerulean Sea which I should have read already but haven’t because I suck. Anyway, it seems like a really got fit for me and I enjoyed taking the quiz, so maybe it will help you find a good book for Pride Month as well.
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  • Hugo Award voting is open! If you’re a member of DisCon III, you can sign in to vote here. Votes can be changed as many times as you like until the voting period is over. No news about the voter packet as of May 28th but fingers are crossed that it will be available soon.
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  • Timothée Chalamet is going to play Willy Wonka in an origin story movie. And I have to ask: Why would anyone make this? Who wants to see a Willy Wonka origin story and why doesn’t Hollywood throw its money at something new for a change?! Or not even new, just not a remake/prequel/sequel/in-between-quel of an established movie or series but something not yet filmed. There’s literally a ton of books you could adapt, and I’m sure there are just as many original screenplays.
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  • Catherynne M. Valente has posted the first chapter of Space Oddity, the sequel to the hilarious Space Opera on her Patreon. Not that I want to make you jealous or anything but it’s pretty awesome!

TorCon is happening (June 10th – June 13th)

For my readers in a better suited time zone than mine, TorCon is an upcoming online event of interest. This virtual convention will run from June 10th through June 13th and there are a lot of cool and interesting things to see. Below is the panel schedule and you can find all the details and links to sign up here.

I am particularly interested in “All the Feels” and “Etherial & Eerie”, the first because it’s just totally up my alley and the second because I love to geek out over seasonal reads and I love it even more when my favorite author (Cat Valente) does it. As both of these panels are happening on Saturday and the times are acceptable (11pm for me), I will try to watch them live. Yay!


The third Skyward book is titled CYTONIC and has a cover

I am a big Sanderfan and although I definitely like some of his series more than others (not fond of Steelheart), I do enjoy his YA sci-fi series about aspiring young pilot Spensa, the sentient ship M-Bot, and a whole lot of secrets. The third volume, set to come out this November, finally has a title and cover. You can say what you want about Brandon Sanderson, but the guy is a writing machine!

This might be the first time I don’t love the UK cover (the proportions of that person seem off to me) but I’ll buy it anyway because it goes with the two UK covers I already have. 🙂

Exciting June Publications

June will be great, trust me. I don’t read many ARCs (because I suck at sticking to a TBR, in case you haven’t noticed) but I did get to read two June publications early and I can recommend them both. In addition to those, there are a lot of books coming out that sound cool.

NGHI VO – THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL (June 1st)

If you haven’t read Nghi Vo’s novella The Empress of Salt and Fortune, do yourself a favor and pick it up. And afterwards, you will be just as excited for this novel as I am. It’s fantasy Great Gatsby from a fresh new perspective and I cannot wait!

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Jordan Baker grows up in the most rarefied circles of 1920s American society―she has money, education, a killer golf handicap, and invitations to some of the most exclusive parties of the Jazz Age. She’s also queer, Asian, adopted, and treated as an exotic attraction by her peers, while the most important doors remain closed to her.

But the world is full of wonders: infernal pacts and dazzling illusions, lost ghosts and elemental mysteries. In all paper is fire, and Jordan can burn the cut paper heart out of a man. She just has to learn how.

Nghi Vo’s debut novel reinvents this classic of the American canon as a coming-of-age story full of magic, mystery, and glittering excess, and introduces a major new literary voice. .


HANNAH F. WHITTEN – FOR THE WOLF (June 1st)

This book has been on my wishlist SO LONG. In my mind, it’s quite similar to the book that comes next in this list. Both have a Red Riding Hood vibe, both seem to be a bit darker, both have very pretty covers, and both are written by debut authors that I’m excited to get to know.

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The first daughter is for the Throne.
The second daughter is for the Wolf.

For fans of Uprooted and The Bear and the Nightingale comes a dark fantasy novel about a young woman who must be sacrificed to the legendary Wolf of the Wood to save her kingdom. But not all legends are true, and the Wolf isn’t the only danger lurking in the Wilderwood.

As the only Second Daughter born in centuries, Red has one purpose-to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood in the hope he’ll return the world’s captured gods.

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 monsters the gods have become will swallow the Wilderwood-and her world-whole.

The author has provided a list of content warnings here.


AVA REID – THE WOLF AND THE WOODSMAN (June 8th)

Helloooooo, shiny book that wants to be mine. Here’s the second book with the same comparisons as For the Wolf. Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale are both big favorites here so I am super curious to see how these new books hold up. For some reason – and I really have nothing to go on here – I think I will like this book better than Hannah Whitten’s. It’s a total hunch but I look forward to finding out if I’m right.

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In the vein of Naomi Novik’s New York Times bestseller Spinning Silver and Katherine Arden’s national bestseller The Bear and the Nightingale, this unforgettable debut— inspired by Hungarian history and Jewish mythology—follows a young pagan woman with hidden powers and a one-eyed captain of the Woodsmen as they form an unlikely alliance to thwart a tyrant.

In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. The villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was a Yehuli man, one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. When soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of Woodsmen to claim a pagan girl for the king’s blood sacrifice, Évike is betrayed by her fellow villagers and surrendered.

But when monsters attack the Woodsmen and their captive en route, slaughtering everyone but Évike and the cold, one-eyed captain, they have no choice but to rely on each other. Except he’s no ordinary Woodsman—he’s the disgraced prince, Gáspár Bárány, whose father needs pagan magic to consolidate his power. Gáspár fears that his cruelly zealous brother plans to seize the throne and instigate a violent reign that would damn the pagans and the Yehuli alike. As the son of a reviled foreign queen, Gáspár understands what it’s like to be an outcast, and he and Évike make a tenuous pact to stop his brother.

As their mission takes them from the bitter northern tundra to the smog-choked capital, their mutual loathing slowly turns to affection, bound by a shared history of alienation and oppression. However, trust can easily turn to betrayal, and as Évike reconnects with her estranged father and discovers her own hidden magic, she and Gáspár need to decide whose side they’re on, and what they’re willing to give up for a nation that never cared for them at all.


HELENE WECKER – THE HIDDEN PALACE (June 8th)

OMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMG! It’s the follow-up to the brilliant, wonderful, gorgeous The Golem and the Jinni which I discovered much later than everyone else but didn’t love any less for that. As excited as I am for this new Wecker book, I will probably save it for the right moment, when I’m ready to sink into that world and see those lovely characters again.

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Chava is a golem, a woman made of clay, able to hear the thoughts and longings of the people around her and compelled by her nature to help them. Ahmad is a jinni, a perpetually restless and free-spirited creature of fire, imprisoned in the shape of a man. Fearing they’ll be exposed as monsters, these magical beings hide their true selves and pretend to be human—just two more immigrants in the bustling world of 1900s Manhattan. Having encountered each other under calamitous circumstances, Chava and Ahmad’s lives are now entwined—but they’re not yet certain of what they mean to each other. 

Each has unwittingly affected the humans around them. Park Avenue heiress Sophia Winston, whose brief encounter with Ahmad left her with a strange illness that makes her shiver with cold, travels to the Middle East to seek a cure. There she meets a tempestuous female jinni who’s been banished from her tribe. Back in New York, in a tenement on the Lower East Side, a little girl named Kreindel helps her rabbi father build a golem they name Yossele—not knowing that she’s about to be sent to an orphanage uptown, where the hulking Yossele will become her only friend and protector.

Spanning the tumultuous years from the turn of the twentieth century to the beginning of World War I, The Hidden Palace follows these lives and others as they collide and interleave. Can Chava and Ahmad find their places in the human world while remaining true to each other? Or will their opposing natures and desires eventually tear them apart—especially once they encounter, thrillingly, other beings like themselves?


TASHA SURI – THE JASMINE THRONE (June 10th)

I only recently read my first book by Tasha Suri and I definitely want more! This sounds like so much fun. Inspired by Indian epics and history, I’m expecting the same atmospheric writing and creative magic that I got to know and love in Empire of Sand.

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Author of Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, beginning a new trilogy set in a world inspired by the history and epics of India, in which a captive princess and a maidservant in possession of forbidden magic become unlikely allies on a dark journey to save their empire from the princess’s traitor brother.

Imprisoned by her dictator brother, Malini spends her days in isolation in the Hirana: an ancient temple that was once the source of the powerful, magical deathless waters — but is now little more than a decaying ruin.

Priya is a maidservant, one among several who make the treacherous journey to the top of the Hirana every night to clean Malini’s chambers. She is happy to be an anonymous drudge, so long as it keeps anyone from guessing the dangerous secret she hides.

But when Malini accidentally bears witness to Priya’s true nature, their destinies become irrevocably tangled. One is a vengeful princess seeking to depose her brother from his throne. The other is a priestess seeking to find her family. Together, they will change the fate of an empire.


MARJORIE M. LIU – THE TANGLEROOT PALACE (June11th)

I have already read this collection of shorter works from the author of the comic book series Monstress. If you like the comics, you will probably like this collection as well. If you don’t like (or don’t know) the comics, then there is something in this collection for you. The stories range from creepy, gothic horror stories to post-apocalyptic zombie tales, to fairy tales retold, to near future sci-fi pieces. I enjoyed this book immensely, my review will be up soon, and I now want to read many other books by Liu.

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New York Times bestseller and Hugo, British Fantasy, Romantic Times, and Eisner award-winning author of the graphic novel, Monstress, Marjorie Liu leads you deep into the heart of the tangled woods. In her long-awaited debut story collection, dark, lush, and spellbinding short fiction you will find unexpected detours, dangerous magic, and even more dangerous women.

Briar, bodyguard for a body-stealing sorceress, discovers her love for Rose, whose true soul emerges only once a week. An apprentice witch seeks her freedom through betrayal, the bones of the innocent, and a meticulously-plotted spell. In a world powered by crystal skulls, a warrior returns to save China from invasion by her jealous ex. A princess runs away from an arranged marriage, finding family in a strange troupe of traveling actors at the border of the kingdom’s deep, dark woods.

Concluding with a gorgeous full-length novella, Marjorie Liu’s first short fiction collection is an unflinching sojourn into her thorny tales of love, revenge, and new beginnings. 


A. C. WISE – WENDY, DARLING (June 15th)

Look at that, a Peter Pan retelling/reimagining by an author I’ve had my eyes on for a while. If done well, Peter Pan retellings are my favorites, but unfortunately I’ve come across very few truly clever and original ones. I have to say the synopsis is pretty much exactly the same as every other Peter Pan retelling. Neverland is dark, Peter isn’t actually nice (he isn’t in the original either) and grown-up Wendy looks back on her time as a kid. But I have high hopes for this book, nonetheless.

A lush, feminist re-imagining on what happened to Wendy after Neverland, for fans of Circe and The Mere Wife.

For those that lived there, Neverland was a children’s paradise. No rules, no adults, only endless adventure and enchanted forests – all led by the charismatic boy who would never grow old.

But Wendy Darling grew up. She left Neverland and became a woman, a mother, a patient, and a survivor. Because Neverland isn’t as perfect as she remembers. There’s darkness at the heart of the island, and now Peter Pan has returned to claim a new Wendy for his lost boys…


KERSTIN HALL – STAR EATER (June 22nd)

I am super unsure about this one. It sounds really great but it also makes my Spidey-sense tingle. Because I don’t know if I’m only intrigued by the super cool elevator pitch “cannibalistic nuns” and will end up disappointed when it turns out all the good stuff was “in the trailer” (you know what I mean), or whether there’s also a great story there. But I do love spy stories, books where women run things, and fantasy that plays with the theme of religion. So I think I’ll be cautiously optimistic about this one.

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All martyrdoms are difficult.

Elfreda Raughn will avoid pregnancy if it kills her, and one way or another, it will kill her. Though she’s able to stomach her gruesome day-to-day duties, the reality of preserving the Sisterhood of Aytrium’s magical bloodline horrifies her. She wants out, whatever the cost.

So when a shadowy cabal approaches Elfreda with an offer of escape, she leaps at the opportunity. As their spy, she gains access to the highest reaches of the Sisterhood, and enters a glittering world of opulent parties, subtle deceptions, and unexpected bloodshed.

A phantasmagorical indictment of hereditary power, Star Eater takes readers deep into a perilous and uncanny world where even the most powerful women are forced to choose what sacrifices they will make, so that they might have any choice at all.


KATHERINE ADDISON – THE WITNESS FOR THE DEAD (June 22nd)

Me and pretty much everyone else fell utterly in love with Addison’s The Goblin Emperor a few years ago. So a new story set in that world, even one that doesn’t involve our beloved emperor Maia, is something to look forward to. I’ve had the pleasure of reading an e-ARC of this rather short book. I enjoyed it a lot, but I do warn people that it’s quite different than The Goblin Emperor. It’s much more fast paced and less character-focused. It does have an excellent murder mystery plot, shows more of the world, and of course, there’s tons of crazy polysyllabic names. I quite loved it.

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Katherine Addison returns to the glittering world she created for her beloved novel, The Goblin Emperor, in this stand-alone sequel.

When the young half-goblin emperor Maia sought to learn who had set the bombs that killed his father and half-brothers, he turned to an obscure resident of his father’s Court, a Prelate of Ulis and a Witness for the Dead. Thara Celehar found the truth, though it did him no good to discover it. He lost his place as a retainer of his cousin the former Empress, and made far too many enemies among the many factions vying for power in the new Court. The favor of the Emperor is a dangerous coin.

Now Celehar lives in the city of Amalo, far from the Court though not exactly in exile. He has not escaped from politics, but his position gives him the ability to serve the common people of the city, which is his preference. He lives modestly, but his decency and fundamental honestly will not permit him to live quietly. As a Witness for the Dead, he can, sometimes, speak to the recently dead: see the last thing they saw, know the last thought they had, experience the last thing they felt. It is his duty use that ability to resolve disputes, to ascertain the intent of the dead, to find the killers of the murdered.

Now Celehar’s skills lead him out of the quiet and into a morass of treachery, murder, and injustice. No matter his own background with the imperial house, Celehar will stand with the commoners, and possibly find a light in the darkness.


G. WILLOW WILSON & CHRISTIAN WARD – INVISIBLE KINGDOM Vol. 3: IN OTHER WORLDS (June 1st)

I’ve copied the synopsis below blindly because I’ve only read the first volume and don’t want to get spoiled. 🙂 But I did adore the first book in this series, the second volume is currently nominated for a Hugo Award and I’ll read it as soon as the voters packet is available. For everyone who joins me in this endeavour, we can then continue straight onto the third book which is already out by the time this post goes up.

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The Eisner Award winning series concludes!

Just when the crew of the Sundog thought they’d made it through the most dangerous edge of space–they are taken by a faction of mysterious new Nones to an even further and more deadly place: The Point of No Return. As revolution looms, these Siblings of Rebirth have an unthinkable mission to carry out, and they can’t do it without Vess…or with Grix in the picture.

But who can be trusted? And will Vess choose destruction…or love?


SUSAN DENNARD – WITCHSHADOW (June 2nd)

I am one book behind on this series and I’m still not even sure I want to continue. I was very positively surprised by the first book. It set up great relationships, especially the central female friendship, but also the romances. YA romances don’t often work for me but they did here so I stuck with it. The second book turned out to be quite a drag but the prequel/sequel was good again. So you see, I’m a bit torn, but I kind of do want to know what happens next.

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Susan Dennard’s New York Times bestselling, young adult epic fantasy Witchlands series continues with Witchshadow, the story of the Threadwitch Iseult.

War has come to the Witchlands . . . and nothing will be the same again.

Iseult has found her heartsister Safi at last, but their reunion is brief. For Iseult to stay alive, she must flee Cartorra while Safi remains. And though Iseult has plans to save her friend, they will require her to summon magic more dangerous than anything she has ever faced before.

Meanwhile, the Bloodwitch Aeduan is beset by forces he cannot understand. And Vivia—rightful queen of Nubrevna—finds herself without a crown or home.

As villains from legend reawaken across the Witchlands, only the mythical Cahr Awen can stop the gathering war. Iseult could embrace this power and heal the land, but first she must choose on which side of the shadows her destiny will lie.


ZOE HANA MIKUTA – GEARBREAKERS (June 29th)

I’ll admit, that cover and the words “for fans of Pacific Rim” are what did it for me. I don’t even know how that would work in book-form but I’m willing to find out. This will probably be one of those books where I wait for early reviews and then decide whether to go for it or not.

Two girls on opposite sides of a war discover they’re fighting for a common purpose–and falling for each other–in Zoe Hana Mikuta’s high-octane debut Gearbreakers, perfect for fans of Pacific Rim, Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Saga, and Marie Lu’s Legend series.

We went past praying to deities and started to build them instead...

The shadow of Godolia’s tyrannical rule is spreading, aided by their giant mechanized weapons known as Windups. War and oppression are everyday constants for the people of the Badlands, who live under the thumb of their cruel Godolia overlords.

Eris Shindanai is a Gearbreaker, a brash young rebel who specializes in taking down Windups from the inside. When one of her missions goes awry and she finds herself in a Godolia prison, Eris meets Sona Steelcrest, a cybernetically enhanced Windup pilot. At first Eris sees Sona as her mortal enemy, but Sona has a secret: She has intentionally infiltrated the Windup program to destroy Godolia from within.

As the clock ticks down to their deadliest mission yet, a direct attack to end Godolia’s reign once and for all, Eris and Sona grow closer–as comrades, friends, and perhaps something more…


NEWS FROM THE BLOG

I didn’t really stick to any kind of schedule during May and I didn’t post nearly as much as I wanted to but I LOVED Wyrd and Wonder and reading everyone else’s reviews, lists, and creative posts.
My TBR for May might as well not have existed at all. I mostly ignored it and somehow ended up reading all my e-ARCs instead. As they were all good books, that wasn’t a bad decision but it also means I have more Hugo reading to catch up on now. And the reviews I wrote in May won’t be published until later. I’ve linked them below but they will each go live one day before the book’s publication.
My Stormlight Archive re-read is also not helping but if I want to properly enjoy Rhythm of War, it is necessary. I have forgotten so many details and the re-read is actually a lot of fun!

What I read:

  • Catherynne M. Valente – The Past is Red (comes out July 20th)
    OMG I LOVE IT SO MUCH – ahem… – hilarious – post-apocalyptic, post climate-change – heartbreak and humor – favorite book of the year so far – go pre-order it – that cover is to die for
  • Darcie Little Badger – Elatsoe
    fun and cute – characters felt much younger than the were supposed to be – emotionally distant – cool murder mystery
  • Marjorie Liu – The Tangleroot Palace (comes out June 15th)
    collection of stories – Superman-inspired sci-fi and fairy tale novella were my favorites – seriously great writing
  • Brandon Sanderson – Words of Radiance
    re-read – still so much fun – not quite as good as the first time – I have a much better sense of the world-building now
  • Katherine Addison – The Witness for the Dead (comes out June 22nd)
    murder mystery – interesting world building – not that character-focused – great book – just don’t expect The Goblin Emperor 2.0
  • Seanan McGuire – Come Tumbling Down
    exciting beginning – Jack-focused story – world building and characters suffer in the second half – okay ending – tried to cram too much onto too few pages

Currently reading:

  • Brandon Sanderson – Oathbringer
  • T. Kingfisher – A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking
  • Nino Cipri – Finna

I’m sure I’ll finish Defensive Baking either today or tomorrow. It’s so much fun, T. Kingfisher’s humor is hilarious, and this book has a sort-of-character who is a sourdough starter named Bob Do you need to know more?
Oathbringer will take me a bit longer, which is totally okay. I’m re-reading it without any pressure, I just want to be up to speed when I finally tackle Rhythm of War.
I haven’t started Finna as of writing this but it is prepared and I will start reading it today. Not only is it nominated for a Hugo Award, but it also fits into Pride Month as the author is trans/nonbinary. And right after that I’ll get started with Cerulean Sea.

Until next month: Stay safe, stay kind, and keep reading. 🙂

Good Start, Mediocre Rest: Seanan McGuire – Come Tumbling Down

I have this strange love/hate relationship with the Wayward Children series, although it tends to lean more towards hate than love. However, since these novellas keep getting nominated for Hugo Awards by Seanan McGuire’s loyal fans, I keep having to read them. Occasionally, a really good one comes up, but mostly, this series suffers from the big problem that it wants to do great things in too little time and thus ultimately falls flat (most of the time).

come-tumbling-downCOME TUMBLING DOWN
by Seanan McGuire

Published: Tordotcom, 2020
eBook: 206 pages
Series: Wayward Children #5
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: Eleanor West was fond of saying – inasmuch as she was fond of saying anything predictable, sensible, or more than once – that her school had no graduates, only students who found somwhere else to do their learning for a time.

When Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister – whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice – back to their home on the Moors.

But death in their adopted world isn’t always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.

Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken.
Again.


If you’ve come this far in the Wayward Children series, you will be familiar with Jack and Jill. The Wolcott twins were first introduced in the very first volume, then we got their backstory and a glimpse into their world – the Moors – in the second book. As difficult a relationship as I may have with these books, Jack and Jill’s story was easily the most interesting one, and not only because we follow them for much longer than most of the others. So naturally, I was excited to see Jack again and maybe get to know the Moors a little better.

Come Tumbling Down starts out really well. Our protagonist (but not really) this time is Christopher whose world is called Mariposa. It’s full of bones and skeletons and, for some reason, butterflies? As usual, one shouldn’t question the portal worlds these kids come from too much. The important thing is it’s their world where they feel at home and while, for some, that can mean candy and rainbows, for others it’s bones and blood.

When Jack surprisingly returns to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, she comes with a quest. Something terrible has happened, her homelands are in danger of being destroyed, and she needs help to defeat the Master and her sister Jill if she wants to return to her life in the Moors. The quest is a go – despite the “no quests” policy the school has (and which makes absolutely no sense when you think about it) – and Kade, Christopher, Cora, and Sumi follow Jack into her world to do some adventuring.

Let me first tell you the things I liked about this book. There are a few characters that I’ve come to care about, even though I’ve never been a huge fan of the series in general. Sumi’s chipper yet occasionally morbid personality is definitely a win. Her humor is very much Seanan McGuire’s humor and since I happen to find her very funny, Sumi just works for me. When someone asks you if you weren’t the one that got killed a while ago and you answer with “I got better” I just can’t help but laugh.
I also found fascinating how McGuire showed Jack’s OCD. Given the situation she’s in – Jill switched the twins’ bodies – it’s easy to see how Jack is just barely keeping it together and working hard every moment not to go mad. Especially at the beginning of the book, this was done really well.

I read the first half of this book in one sitting because it was exciting, the characters were interesting, and the plot promised a visit to a cool if creepy world and a potentially epic finale. Sadly, during the second half, it became clear that the scope of this series’ idea is too big for what can be done in a handful of novellas. Shoddy worldbuilding is okay when you only mention someone’s portal world briefly, but when you send a group of people into it, flaws become obvious. The Moors just didn’t feel like a real world. They felt exactly like what their purpose is in these stories. A few small ideas thrown together that sound good but when you put people into that world, it all feels flimsy and unbelievable. Again, I am aware that this is not the purpose of these stories. If I want epic world building and intricate politics, there are plenty of other books out there, and Seanan McGuire definitely knows how to do world building. But because the world building here is almost nonexistent and the portal worlds themselves are simply backdrop for the character drama that’s going on, the character drama needs to be really good to keep me interested.

This was another aspect that starte out very well and then just kind of ebbed away towards the end of the book. Jack and Jill’s story is the king of all sibling conflicts but I felt that the other characters (most of whom I like) got in the way of it. The story shoudl have focused more on Jack and Jill, the Master and Mr. Bleak, and the way the Moors work. Although I gladly read Sumi’s quippy and sometimes poignant remarks, any line given to other characters took precious page space away from Jack. And so, by the end of the book, I watched things go down semi-interestedly but I wasn’t invested anymore. Jack’s OCD was barely mentioned anymore (that’s not a critique, I understand why that choice was made) and we spent too much time drifting off to other characters. The kind-of-but-not-really protagonist Christopher also never gets to be a fully fleshed out character because 200 pages is simply not enough.

The problem I have with all of these books, even the ones I enjoyed, is that they are trying to do a certain thing – and it’s very transparent what that is – but they never quite accomplish it. And that’s not for lack of skill on the author’s part, it’s simply that the format of novella isn’t suited to the endeavour because there just isn’t enough time to build up the characters, make them feel real, rather than just stand-ins for various diversity points.

This series gets praised for representation a lot and while I am thrilled that there are fantasy books about all sorts of diverse people, I’d still like these people to be more than their “condition”. I think it’s doing them a disservice to reduce them all to their sexuality, their gender identity, their disorder, their weight, their skin color… It’s clear that the point of these books is to show that all people can be heroes, regardless of how they are viewed in our world. The Wayward Children are all outsiders in a way, marginalized because they “don’t fit in” for various reasons. Giving those characters stories of their own, stories where they get to be the protagonist, is wonderful and it’s probably the main reason I am still – reluctantly – reading this series. But simply saying the cast is X or Y, like checking off an imaginary diversity list, doesn’t accomplish the goal of giving them a proper story and voice. To truly establish a character with every aspect of who they are – be that Jack’s OCD or Kade’s being trans – takes time. Time that simply isn’t there when you’re trying to tell a whole story in 200 pages. So as much as I commend McGuire for writing about these characters (and I want her to continue doing so), I also think novellas are maybe not the way to go. Even Jack, one of the most memorable characters so far, came across as a bit flat by the end of this book.

I remember nitpicking in the last instalment that the readers weren’t allowed to take part in the actual adventuring but only witnessed the aftermath and the quieter moments in between the exciting parts. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have complained because it turns out, the “adventures” in this series just aren’t very good. And I get it, that’s not what the series is supposed to be about. But even in a character-focused piece, if you’re sending your characters on a quest, at least make that quest somewhat interesting, make the stakes believable and high enough for us to care, and don’t just tell us the plan, then execute the plan, then be done with it. That’s boring!

This book also reminded me of the worst instalment yet (the sugary one) and the most annoying, least likable character of them all. Cora, the former mermaid and incredibly self-absorbed wayward child, is mostly just annoying and bitchy, but when she actually does take action, it’s sure to make life even harder for everyone else. Cora believes everything is about her, even though this is clearly Jack’s story and taking place in Jack’s world. But no, every chance she gets, Cora is convinced things revolve around her somehow. Every piece of dialogue, even about the most random things, is surely an attack on her person, and everyone is definitely spending their entire time thinking and saying mean things about her. Wow, I really can’t stand that girl and I hope she soon finds a doorway back to her underwater world and we never have to read about her again. Just stay out of other people’s adventures if you’re going to make them all about yourself. She doesn’t deserve how nice people are to her because, frankly, she is useless and offended at things that have nothing to do with her. And she constantly accuses her friends (!) of making fat jokes when nobody even gives the tiniest shit about her weight and nobody at the school would ever make a hurtful joke about her because they are all outsiders and know what that’s like. At one point, she says something accusingly for which absolutely nobody but herself is responsible yet she presents herself as the victim of her evil, evil friends who dragged her into this (she wanted to come!) and for whom she almost died (she endangered herself of her own volition while Kade actually risked his own life to try and save her!!!).
I assume the 7th Wayward Children novella will be all about her and I’m curious if McGuire manages to make her at least a little sympathetic by then. Otherwise, I will just have to skip that book.

All things considered, I loved the first half of this novella. I didn’t like the second one all that much, and the ending – while I technically find it ends in a satisfying way – didn’t carry the weight it could and maybe should have. Because there are too many characters crammed into this little book, the emotional impact got lost over the course of the story. I didn’t dislike it but I didn’t love it, which will probably make it end up somewhere in the middle of my Hugo ballot this year.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

More Aliens, More Politics, More Fun: Tade Thompson – The Rosewater Insurrection

One of the joys of literary awards is that they can lead you to new and interesting books. Books you would otherwise have overlooked, books you weren’t aware of, books you thought were about something completely different. Thanks to the 2020 Best Series Hugo Award, I finally picked up Rosewater by Tade Thompson and was so mesmerized that I had to continue the trilogy in what, for me, is actually a pretty prompt manner.

rosewater insurrectionTHE ROSEWATER INSURRECTION
by Tade Thompson

Published: Orbit, 2019
eBook: 400 pages
audiobook: 13 hours 13 minutes
Series: The Wormwood Trilogy #2
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: I am not an assassin. I’d like that to be clear, yet I am cleaning my gun as I start this telling, having already stripped and cleaned my rifle, with the intention of killing a man. Orders.

 

All is quiet in the city of Rosewater as it expands on the back of the gargantuan alien Wormwood. Those who know the truth of the invasion keep the secret.

The government agent Aminat, the lover of the retired sensitive Kaaro, is at the forefront of the cold, silent conflict. She must capture a woman who is the key to the survival of the human race. But Aminat is stymied by the machinations of the Mayor of Rosewater and the emergence of an old enemy of Wormwood…


Where Rosewater was told solely from the point of view of Kaaro, a sensitive and an agent for the secret government branch S45, this second book only spares a few chapters for him. Instead, we get alternating chapters from the POV of Aminat whom we’ve met in the first book and who works for S45 under Femi Alaagomeji, the mayor of Rosewater, Jack Jacques, Antony, and some more new characters. So this is a clear departure from the storytelling style of the first book but if anything, it made this volume easier to breeze through, much easier to follow (no multiple time lines), and it helped show new aspects of Rosewater and its particular style of alien invasion.

As we learned in the first book, aliens have already successfully invaded Earth using fungi which live inside humans with very little effect on us. Except some, like Kaaro, have been turned into so-called sensitives and can enter the xenosphere. Every human is a certain percentace fungus at this point, and Femi, Aminat’s S45 boss, is trying to find a way to reverse this. Aminat’s job is to find people with a particularly low percentage of fungus, when she stumbles across a woman who appears to be more alien than human, something unheard of. This woman, Alyssa, is actually experiencing severe amnesia. She doesn’t know who she is, only that she’s not the wife and mother her husband and child seem to think she is…

Meanwhile, Jack Jacques, the mayor of Rosewater, declares the city’s independence which leads to a whole shit show of conflict, both within Rosewater and in Nigeria. The president gest involved, there’s unrest in the streets, and something is happening in the alien biodome. So you could say, things get a little out of hand.

I loved Rosewater for its fresh ideas and its complicated and not super likable protagonist, but I have to say, I appreciated the multiple POVs here a lot. Not only did it give me characters to like as well as dislike, but it also offered different perspectives for the same event. When things go down in Rosewater andthe mayor is secure, watching things from a safe distance, Aminat is right in the middle of the action. It was a lot of fun reading about the same events unfolding from different points of view.
It also helps establishing the female characters as more than how Kaaro sees them. If you felt that the first book was a bit misogynistic in tone, I can’t really disagree, but I interpreted is as Kaaro being Kaaro. And Kaaro is a little fixated on women’s looks, especially boobs. Since Kaaro only gets a few chapters in The Rosewater Insurrection, women aren’t described in quite so much male gaze-y detail here, although Thompson still makes a point of letting us know how gorgeous Femi is and how everyone either wants her or wants to look like her. However, these mentions weren’t nearly as frequent as in the first book and women are the ones carrying this story forward for the most part, so I was okay with it.

As for the world building and the science ficitonal ideas – they were still great, but for a while I thought the trilogy had run out of steam. The xenosphere had already been introduced in Rosewater, a cool twist about the alien Wormwood had been revealed, and it didn’t feel like Thompson could come up with something intriguing enough to keep the world building fresh in this middle volume. Well, it may not be a completely new idea but I did love where he took this story. The type of alien and its plans in particular are a refreshing change to what we usually see in TV or the movies. Without giving things away, I can’t really tell you more details, but there’s new conflict and the alien situation becomes way more difficult than it was already.

Another thing I appreciate is how Thompson not only throws cool ideas into his story for the sake of having them there, but he incorporates them so that they each are improtant for the story he wants to tell. The xenosphere, for example, isn’t just there. It plays a vital part in the plot of this trilogy, as do the fungus, the reanimates, S45, and of course Wormwood’s own agenda. It all comes together really nicely and, in the case of Insurrecion, also quite violently, which gives us an exciting ending, filled with action. The ending, like in some of the best books, is also filled with hope. After I finished this book, I was pretty sure that the protagonists I was rooting for were doing the right thing, but if I’m completely honest, I can’t really know. In the third books, it could turn out that humanity has made a huge mistake. I just don’t know yet. Endings I can’t predict are my very favorites, so I’m super excited to read The Rosewater Redemption and see how things end for Aminat, Kaaro, and humanity in general. Seriously, it could go either way.

King Arthur But Confusing: Catherynne M. Valente – Under in the Mere #WyrdAndWonder Review

The day has finally come when I pick up a Cat Valente book and end up… not really liking it. To be fair, I believe this book simply wasn’t meant to be just picked up and read. It’s meant for people who know a lot more about Arthurian legend than I do, and those who want to really dive into those knight’s inner turmoil. Alas, at this point in my life, that is not me, so the very short version of this review is: I didn’t really get it.

under in the mereUNDER IN THE MERE
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Rabit Transit Press, 2009
Paperback: 141 pages
Standalone
My rating: 5.5/10

Opening line: What damosel is this? What damosel is this?

Perhaps I am nothing but a white arm. Perhaps the body which is me diffuses at the water’s surface into nothing but light, light and wetness and blue. Maybe I am nothing but samite, pregnant with silver, and out of those sleeves come endless swords, dropping like lakelight from my hems. Will you come down to me and discover if my body continues below the rippling?

I thought not.
So begins the second release from the Electrum Novella Series, Under in the Mere, which takes Arthurian legend to the furthest limits of the imagination. Incantatory, labrynthine, and both playful and heartbreaking, Under in the Mere is a major new work from one of America’s premier writers of fantasy.

With full interior illustrations from renowned fantasy artist James Owen and Jeremy Owen.

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This little book was very, very hard to get! I have been on the lookout for copies for years and years before I finally found someone selling their used (but actually unread and super shiny) copy for more money than one should spend on a slim paperpack. But Valente is my favorite author and this was the last book of hers I didn’t have in my collection. Its subject matter – King Arthur’s knights – and the way it was made up – illustrated by James and Jeremy Owe also intrigued me. And did I mention it’s signed?
I knew that it was one of Valente’s older works and that those tend to be more labyrinthine, more word-focused, and oftentimes don’t have anything that qualifies as a plot. Well, that is pretty much exactly what this is. I do not recommend it for people who want to try out Valente’s writing to start here. Go with something more accessible like the Fairyland series, Deathless, The Orphan’s Tales, or the hilarious Space Opera.

So, what is this book about? I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll try. It is divided into chapters, each of which gets a beautiful Tarot card illustration and deals with one person from Arthurian legend. There are chapters for the more famous ones, like Lancelot or Mordred, but also Dagonet, Pellinore, and the Lady of the Lake get their say. While all of the chapters have in common the purplest of prose – seriously, they’re almost poetry – some are easier to read than others. I admit that in certain chapters I caught myself finishing entire paragraphs, not knowing what I had just read. There are plenty of descriptions, enumerations, similes and metaphors galore, and apparently all the knights are made up of nothing but angst on the inside. If I read it right, that is, and I cannot guarantee that.

A handful of chapters stuck postiviely in my mind, though. Unsurprisingly, they are the ones that I understood best, either because I felt more familiar with the particular character’s story or because they were written in a less flowery way. Sir Kay was the first to truly grip me and the reason I kept reading the book at all. Although his story, like most of the others, doesn’t follow any kind of plot, he muses about what it means to be him, to be brother to one so revered and so famous as King Arthur. Although I couldn’t tell you any details about his chapter, I remember that it made me feel for the character and that’s more than I can say for most of the others.

Balin and Balan’s chapter was also great because although I’m sure I missed lots of references and easter eggs, I got the gist of their story. There wasn’t much of a plot here, either, but instead, their chapter leads you thruogh an emotional plot, with a nice back and forth between the two. Sir Bedivere, teller of the book’s penultimate chapter, is the only one where I could detect something resembling a plot. There are things that happen in this chapter and these things have an impact on Bedivere’s feelings and actions. His and Morgana’s chapter finished up the novel and made me close the book on a satisfied note, at least.

I found it really weird, however, that the characters were talking like you’d expect from Arthur’s knights but then they’d mention California. As I found most of this book convoluted and hard to grasp, I can’t tell you if I just missed some crucial piece of information or if this was just an artistic choice. Valente “set” this book in California, mentions parts of the landscape and the Pacific ocean, but I didn’t really understand why. Maybe this is a super cool idea that perfectly fits with the King Arthur legends but I was definitely not smart or learned enough to get it.

So here’s the thing. I am certain that if I knew more about Arthuriana, if I had more than The MIits of Avalon and Disney’s The Sword in the Stone to guide me, I might have enjoyed this book a lot more. Because I did catch little references here or there, either to classic works, mythology, or literature. I just don’t have enough background information about most of these characters for the references to mean anything to me. This just isn’t a book that you randomly pick up and enjoy. It requires study and knowlege and then I’m sure it has a lot to offer.

As much as it pains me to give a Valente book anything but a glowing rating, I rate books by my own enjoyment and I can’t say I had much fun reading this. Her language is gorgeous and she paints pictures with every sentence but all those pictures fell flat for me because I’m not (at this point in time, at least) the right reader for this book. Maybe in a few years I’ll have turned into a King Arthur scholar and I’ll give this a re-read. I doubt it, though.

MY RATING: 5.5/10 – Meh

#Wyrd and Wonder Day 12: Desert Island Reads

I’ve always hated when people ask me about my one favorite book or which 10 reads I’d bring to a desert island. Why are you putting me thorugh the stress of even thinking about this?! I’m not making you choose your favorite child, am I?
Well, for Wyrd and Wonder, I’m embracing the anxiety and I know that, whatever I post here, I will immediately regret at least half of my choices and think of different, better ones. Let’s do it anyway. Because this is fun. Right?

You can find the rules here. The very basic summary is: Choose 8 books, 1 movie/TV show and 1 luxury item/whatever you want to bring to bring on a desert island with you. TV shows include all episodes, movies include all volumes if part of a fanchise. Book series count as individual books unless there’s a bindup version (Lord of the Rings would count as one book, for example).

IMAGE CREDIT: pegasus image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

MY DESERT ISLAND READS… I’m not taking any chances here. Nothing that I haven’t read, unless it’s by one of my favorite authors.

  • The Tiffany Aching Series by Terry Pratchett
    Yes, there actually is an omnibus edition of these five books and you can imagine how happy I was that I didn’t have to choose just one Discworld book for my desert island. Although I would have loved to take all the Witch books.
  • Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine
    I’ve been meaning to re-read this book forever. It’s rather short but Valentine creates a whole world within its pages. It’s got steampunk elements, complex character dynamics, secrets and mysteries, and it’s about a wandering circus in a strangely broken world.
  • Flora’s Dare by Ysabeau S. Wilce
    Choosing the middle book of a trilogy may seem weird but it’s my favorite. It has some really great twists, the characters have grown up a bit from the first book and I just adore Wilce’s world building and writing style. Her alternate California and clever protagonist Flora are just amazing.
  • The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales Angela Slatter
    I have read the first two story collections in this loosely connected series and they are both favorites of mine. This new one is probably just as amazing so I’m bringing it even though I haven’t read it yet.
  • Nation by Terry Pratchett
    Well, you can’t have too many Pratchett books and this one especially fits the island setting. It’s a non-Discworld book but it has made me laugh and cry and fall in love with its characters. Pratchett’s deep understanding of and compassion for humanity gets to truly shine here.
  • Bone Swans by C. S. E. Cooney
    For someone who doesn’t read many collections, I sure do love a lot of them. Cooney is a poet and it shows in her prose writing as well. Her tales are fantastical, bizarre, creepy, atmospheric, inspired by fairy tales but utterly original. I adore her!
  • The Fairyland Series 1-3 by Catherynne M. Valente
    Unfortunately, only the first three books exist in a collected format but I’ll take what I can get. I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of Cat Valente, her writing, her ideas, and especially what she did in this series. Infinitely re-readable.
  • In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente
    Yeah, it kills me that there’s no edition with both volumes of The Orphan’s Tales but, fine, I’ll take the first and that’s that. Unless I should take Deathless instead?! Have I mentioned that I hate this game?

TV, MOVIE OR PODCAST… This is just mean. I want to go with a TV show, simply because more episodes means more hours of entertainment. But leaving Willow off the island? Or The Neverending Story? I guess the smart choice would be Friends but that’s not fantasy and I’m not that smart anyway. Battlestar Galactica (2003) and Deep Space Nine also aren’t fantasy so I guess I’ll just have to choose my perennial favorite Labyrinth. I’ve loved this movie since I was a child and I’m still not tired of it.

I CAN’T DO WITHOUT… I wanted to bring my boyfriend but he is far from inanimate and the rules say to bring only things. Favorite foods will only last until they’re eaten, so I think I’ll pick something more useful. How about one of those Swiss Army knives that can do practically anything? I can open coconuts, cut some wood, gut all the fish I’m catching… Yeah, I’ll go with that. 🙂

Cute but Kind of Distant: Darcie Little Badger – Elatsoe #WyrdAndWonder Book Review

Ah, making my way through the Lodestar finalists has been a great pleasure so far. With only one book left to read (T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking), I can already say that this year offers a brilliant ballot and ranking these books will be a tough job. Elatsoe was different from the other finalists in that it reads more like a Middle Grade book than YA. I don’t know if that was intended or if it’s just my personal impression but it didn’t make the book any less charming. But maybe a tad forgettable?

ELATSOE
by Darcie Little Badger

Published: Levine Querido, 2020
eBook: 368 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: Ellie bought the life-sized plastic skull at a garage sale (the goth neighbors were moving to Salem, and they could not fit an entire Halloween warehouse into their black van). 

Imagine an America very similar to our own. It’s got homework, best friends, and pistachio ice cream.

There are some differences. This America been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those Indigenous and those not. Some of these forces are charmingly everyday, like the ability to make an orb of light appear or travel across the world through rings of fungi. But other forces are less charming and should never see the light of day.

Elatsoe lives in this slightly stranger America. She can raise the ghosts of dead animals, a skill passed down through generations of her Lipan Apache family. Her beloved cousin has just been murdered, in a town that wants no prying eyes. But she is going to do more than pry. The picture-perfect facade of Willowbee masks gruesome secrets, and she will rely on her wits, skills, and friends to tear off the mask and protect her family.

Ellie is seventeen years old and can call animal spirits back from the dead. Her ghost dog, Kirby, is her constant companion and not only a Very Good Boy but also quite useful when it comes to sensing bad stuff happening. After Kirby has a freak-out, Ellie and her family find out that her cousin, Trevor, has died in a car accident. But Trevor visits Ellie in a dream/vision and tells her that he has, in fact, been murdered by a man named Abe Allerton from Willowbee. He asks her to protect his wife and small child and to bring justice to Allerton for what he has done. So Ellie’s murder investigation/adventure begins…

First of all, let me say that I grew to like this book a lot but I found it hard to find my way into it at first. Sure, the synopsis says this particular version of America is only similar to ours, but has magic and stuff. But it took me a while to find my footing with the world building because it wasn’t quite clear how much or what kind of magic. New mythological creatures or fantasy elements kept coming up whenever appropriate or convenient for the plot and there didn’t appear to be any rules. There’s ghosts and vampires, suddenly there are also fairy rings (which are used for transportation across the country and that’s super cool, if you ask me), but then there are different kinds of magic as well that were never mentioned before.
I know this isn’t supposed to be an Epic Fantasy but I still like a little bit of foreshadowing or at least a mention or two of an element that will be important later. Darcie Little Badger just went with the flow and told her story and whatever magic was needed at a certain point would be introduced and explained at that point, and not before. It doesn’t make the book bad, by any means, but it is a matter of personal taste. And I wasn’t a fan.

I was, however, a fan of the story in general and the murder mystery in particular. The solution to the mystery is impossible to figure out – because the author doesn’t give out any information that could let us deduce anything – but I still found that things fell into place quite cleverly. Ellie and her friend Jay research Abe Allerton and try to find a way to convince the authorities that he’s a murderer, and during that research, they collect a whole lot of interesting information, newspaper clippings from the past, anecdotes, pictures, and so on. When Ellie figured out what’s going on, it gave me this “of coooourse” moment, like I should have seen it coming. As mentioned above, I couldn’t have seen it coming but the magical and real world aspects fit together so well that I found it utterly satisfying anyway.

As for the characters, they were… mostly cute. I wouldn’t say they are the book’s strongest suit. Ellie, although said to be 17 years old, reads like a much younger girl. I kept picturing her as a 12-14 year old. It’s not so much that she is particularly immature or anything but her interests and the way she talks and behaves just came across as super innocent and young. The same goes for her friend Jay. They are a team of adorable young sleuths but definitely didn’t feel like 17-year-olds. I think the dialogue is partly to blame for that. I found most of the dialogue – not just between the teenagers but also between Ellie and her parents – a bit unnatural. Ellie’s parents were weirdly okay with her dangerous plans and ideas, and at times it felt like she was the parent in that family, making the decisions, and her mom just got to follow along for the ride and occasionally express concern. The dialogue was usually comprised of short lines and probably more what people would actually talk like. Unfortunately, the way people talk in real life doesn’t make for good reading. For example, repeating something your conversation partner has just said may happen a lot in real life, but in a novel, it feels strange and wrong.
The good thing about the short lines is that it makes the book super easy to read and follow. It was also only throught the dialogue that any humor came across. The character’s don’t really get all that much personality so I found it refreshing whenever Ellie would make a joke. Ellie, Jay, and Jay’s soon-to-be brother in law (and also vampire) Al were the most fleshed-out characters. Ellie’s parents are just there but don’t really do much until the end and I got the feeling the author didn’t quite know how to get them out of the way for the kids to have their own adventure. That said, the good guy characters were all easy to like, the villain was so evil that he was easy to hate and sometimes it’s nice to read a book with such clearly divided camps, where good can triumph over evil.

But despite these weaknesses, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the book, because I really did! I am, of course, automatically comparing it to the other Lodestar finalists which is probably why my inner wannabe critic is acting up. It’s a great story that incorporates mythology in intriguing ways, but it also feels rather childish and simple, and resolved almost too easily. Which again makes me think it might be intended for a younger audience.
Ellie (which, by the way, is short for Elatsoe) and her family are Lipan Apache and although this is not a very big thing in the book, it is part of who she is and comes up several times, and for good reasons as well. But mostly, we get to hear stories about Six Great – Ellie’s six-times great grandmother and something of a legend – and her adventures and feats. These stories were lovely and so are the illustrations by Rovina Cai! Some of the stories are told by Ellie’s mother, some Ellie remembers for herself, some come up in her dreams, but they all show how important family is to Ellie and how knowledge and magic has been passed on over many generations. And while Ellie has a ghost dog named Kirby, Six Great had a whole pack plus a woolly mammoth. Again, I had hoped for more world building because I’d really like to know where that mammoth goes when it’s not called by Six Great – does it slip back to the Underworld? Does it have to physically (although invisibly) find a place here on Earth to go and wait? Ah, this is not the kind of book that spends any time answering those questions. It’s about a girl solving a murder with the help of her family and friends.

As cute as this story was, because the characters are kept quite vauge and the world building changes is a bit haphazard, I never really felt immersed in the story. I appreciated the ideas, especially when it comes to the way magic is used, and the rituals to make sure dead humans stay dead and don’t come back as vengeful ghosts. And I had fun racing through the pages, watching Ellie bring justice to the bad guy. But rather than be on this adventure with Ellie, I watched from the outside. We’ll see how the book holds up in my memory but I have the suspicion that, because of my lack of emotional connection, it will end up as a fun little adventure that I won’t remember very well in a few months.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good