Spells for Forgetting – by Adrienne Young (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Romance, Supernatural

Delacorte Press; September 27, 2022

352 pages (ebook)

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10 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Ballantine Books, Delacorte Press, and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

A mist-cloaked isle steeped in folklore and tradition, no one goes to Saiorse island to stay. Everyone who’s local already lives there, and the island doesn’t take well to outsiders. Despite this, hordes of tourists flock to the islet in fall to see the trees, to visit the Salt Orchard in all its autumn finery.

August Salt isn’t headed to Saiorse as a tourist, and he isn’t going there to stay. But it still feels like he’s headed home.

Decades before, August left Saiorse in the dead of night with his mother, never to return. The Orchard Fire—and the death of Lily Morgan—precipitated their departure, while another death results in August’s return. That of his mother, Eloise. No, August hasn’t come home to stay; he knows he isn’t welcome here, not after the night that provoked his departure. He’s come to bury his mother.

Emery Blackwood once dreamt of leaving the island, running away with August and exploring the world. But after the Orchard Fire, everything changed. Now Emery lives among the ashes of her former life. She runs a teahouse—as her mother did before her—and lives in her childhood home. It’s not the life she thought she wanted, but it is hers.

Now, fourteen years after that fateful day, Emery’s reality threatens to shatter once more. As August Salt once again walks Saiorse’s shores. She can’t look at him: his departure stole everything from her—her heart, her future, her best friend, almost her own father. But neither can she stay away: August is the only man she’s ever loved, and she’s dreamt of him ever since he left—his smell, his taste, his scent, his touch.

But August’s return affects more than just Emery, more than just the town—the island itself notices his arrival. And secrets that have remained buried for the last fourteen years will finally come to life.

There are spells for breaking and spells for mending. But there are no spells for forgetting.

I often mention how I’ll get so immersed in a book that literal hours pass without me noticing. I mean, it doesn’t happen too often, but when it does it’s both an amazing and surreal feeling—of belonging in a world that isn’t my own, but is one I can picture so vividly that I’m transported there.

I think you probably know where I’m going with this.

Spells for Forgetting is a story of true love—and, at the same time, a story of love unrequited. It is a book full of secrets and lies, of the possible and the impossible, of the supernatural and the unknown, of love and envy.

It is also an amazing read.

Saiorse Island is a fictional islet hidden in the shadow of Seattle, in Puget Sound. But it legitimately feels like an entire world on its own, instead of an enclave on the world’s edge. Sometimes a setting like this feels cramped, claustrophobic—but I never noticed that with this. Instead, Saiorse feels cozy, comfortable, and—although I’ve never lived within 500 miles of the ocean—it feels like home.

But for all its comfort, the mystery at the heart of Saiorse burns bright. The past, hidden in lies and steeped in the supernatural, has yet to come out, though one can feel that it desperately wants to. All it needs is a little push.

One thing that bothered me was the tale of true love—and in particular the side-plot of love unrequited. Because I’ve been in that spot before, and so it was so hard to read about it. Yet at the same time… Adrienne Young nailed it. That feeling: that some things are just predetermined, fated, and while they were meant to be for some others will just never have them. Something you cannot fight, though you will anyway.

The way that this bothered me… did not ruin the story. In fact, I think it made it better. It made the story feel more real, more tangible—in a way that it truly did not need. From the setting to the mystery to its characters to true love—it was a tale that hit close to home. Parts of it might have been difficult to read, but all of it was incredible.

TL;DR

I’m honestly having trouble expressing just how much I loved this novel. From the story, the setting, the characters—everything seems so much more than I can put into words. I even loved the romance, even though sometimes the thought of it hurt worse than heartbreak ever has the right to. I can’t recommend Spells for Forgetting enough, not just for creating a world you can get lost in, but for giving you a reason to return once you do.

The Oleander Sword – by Tasha Suri (Review)

The Burning Kingdoms #2

Fantasy, Romance

Orbit Books; August 16, 2022

480 pages (paperback)

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9 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit for the lovely physical ARC! All opinions are my own.

Once an exiled princess and maidservant met in the darkness, and love was born.

Now prophesied the nameless god’s heir to the throne, Malini comes to take her place as Empress of Parijatdvipa, a position her brother Chandra isn’t likely to relinquish without a fight. In fact, he’d much rather she his sister’s blood stain the grass than welcome her home. But while Malini continues to collect allies in her fight, her victory is far from assured. As long as Chandra still controls the imperial throne, the army will follow him. The priests of the mothers—dead set on Malini giving herself willingly to the flame—will never recognize her claim. And so, the closer she gets to the capital, the closer the Empire comes to all-out war.

A war Ahiranya wants no part of.

Scarcely a year after expelling Chandra’s forces from their borders, thrice-born Bhumika and Priya now rule the Hirana as Temple Elders. While Bhumika rules as the representative of the Yaksa, Priya remains on the periphery—attempting to combat and control the Rot. But between pressure from the former rebels and the creeping plague, they have their hands full. Even without a war on their doorstep.

Despite both their standings, Malini and Priya’s destinies are intertwined. So when her Empress eventually calls, Priya’s heart stutters at the very thought of a reunion. Yet a shadow lurks in the recesses of her heart. Has Malini called for her as her true love, or her greatest weapon—one to be used and cast aside when it is no longer needed?

But despite Priya’s best efforts, the Rot is spreading. And something moves in the deathless waters, something that she can sense, but cannot see. Something that will change the fate of the Ahiranya and Parijatdvipa forever.

He watched his sister walk around the ceremonial wedding fire, garbed in resplendent red, and thought, My country is dying.
He watched her bow for the garland, and thought, Our father is dying.
He watched her as she lowered her head for the wedding garland, and thought, My sister will die.
And there is nothing I can do.

I mean, the beginning wasn’t great, but it could’ve been worse. I think a recap would’ve helped ease us in to the absolutely rough high-school-worthy romance told through the passing of notes behind the teacher’s back.

Ooof, that ending though.

In terms of a start to a fantasy epic, it’s not the best. But far from the worst. Leans into the sapphic romance, so if that’s your thing you’ll probably not mind. If you’re not a romance buff, it’s a bit of a slow burn, which thankfully takes off as we reach the plot in earnest (shortly before hitting the hundred-page mark). Not that the romance ends here, just it takes a back seat to the war on Chandra—the villain throughout most of the text.

If you were hoping for a new villain to despise, don’t worry, as Chandra isn’t alone. Though he will command most of your attention of the nearly five hundred pages. But muttering gives way to rumor around the halfway point; you begin to get a glimpse of where the series might be heading in the future. And Chandra—while still the main focus, the center of attention—isn’t alone anymore. Don’t get me wrong, this is still his book; if you’re not a fan of his Vaas-style villainy, it may be a long grind to the end.

…which is where we’re going next. Because… well, I’m not totally on board with it. The end, that is. It’s not bad per say, just—a bit of a cliffhanger that makes you remember it’ll take Tasha Suri at least eight months to write the final installment. Plus publishing and all… well, we’ll just be stuck on this for another year. Also, I’m not 100% clear with the motivations here, but we won’t get into that. Spoilers and all.

Now that I’m done with my minor concerns regarding the beginning and end, let me rave about that middle bit. Now, I’m not the fastest reader, but I read it in a day (from about the 150 page mark on). And it kills.

I mean, I have no criticisms or notes. None. For around four hundred pages the story was wholly immersive, thoroughly entertaining, almost an obsession in itself. Maybe more than “almost”. I enjoyed the first book but this one blew me away.

It’s really hard on its characters, though. Tasha Suri really owes her characters a break. But if she did that, Book #3 would just be a polite discussion over tea, so… well, maybe there’ll be a happy ending and everyone will live happily ever after?

Yeah, or maybe not.

The Jasmine Throne – by Tasha Suri (Review)

Burning Kingdoms #1

Fantasy

Orbit Books; June 8, 2021

533 pages (ebook)
19hr 43m (audiobook)

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8.0 / 10 ✪

The Empire was born in sacrifice wreathed in flame. Lifetimes before, the Yaksa nearly swallowed the world in darkness. and their devoted followers the Ahiranyi In the end, it was the Mothers sacrifice which saved the world. If the Mothers had not given themselves willingly to the flames, the Age of Flowers would never have ended.

Malini is a princess of the Empire. Years before, she was to be given to the eternal flames in order to purify herself and all women, so that the Mothers continuing sacrifice would not be in vain. However, Malini refused to ascend to the fires and was exiled, imprisoned atop the Hirana by her brother, the Emperor. Now she spends her days in isolation in her foe’s ancient sanctuary, temple to the deathless waters that once served as their most powerful magics.

When Priya was young, the temple atop the Hirana burned. A gutter-rat turned maidservant, Priya is satisfied with a life of drudgery lived in the shadows, terrified that anyone learn her secrets. So terrified that she even hides them from herself. Once a maid to the regent’s wife, Priya reluctantly accepts a job tending to the temple rooms atop the Hirana, now occupied by the exiled princess. The job pays more in a day than she makes in a week, as maids must ascend and descend the deadly path to Hirana each day, careful not only to survive the journey but more so to never cross paths with the princess herself.

Well, somewhat careful.

When the inevitable does come to pass, however, Malini not only discovers Priya but also stumbles upon her true nature. Both are women cast from their true path; both would give up everything to find their way again. And together, they very well may.

It may have taken me a bit to get lost in the Jasmine Throne, but once I did I was well and truly gone. The world passed by while Priya and Malini and Akosh weaved their webs and sang their stories, and the tide of the Deathless Waters carried me away.

Full disclosure: I listened to (read) this while playing Cyberpunk, only stopping when I was exhausted or had to go to work. It was truly a surreal experience—for a good chunk of its 20+ hours—so much so that I completely lost myself to the story, and often ended up wandering aimlessly around Night City doing nothing but listening to the adventure unfold.

The Jasmine Throne is truly a story built for and driven by its characters. So much so that the setting took quite a while to permeate the story. It took me the longest time to discover just what the Hirana was, how it related to the plot, or just why it was so dangerous. It just seemed that the plot had taken a backseat to its characters. At least for a time. I really only noticed the setting when Rao’s POV rolled around. I don’t know whether that was because he’s a weaker character than Priya or Malini or Ashok (which he is), or because his chapters are just more oriented toward the setting than others.

Once the everything gets set up and the story (particularly that between Priya and Malini) gets interesting, there’s not much else to steal the focus away from them. This means that though it’s quite hard to put down, the characters that aren’t the big four—of Priya, Malini, Ashok, and Bhumika—seem to detract from the plot rather than add anything to it. It’s not that I don’t care about their input, it’s just… they distract from what’s going on. I realize that their contribution pays some dividends in the end, but I’d argue that it’s not enough to justify the albeit slight distraction they provide.

I guess it’s a good thing that these characters don’t get a ton of time in the spotlight. Priya has more chapters to her name than everyone else (excluding Malini) combined. And with the these two pretty much controlling the story… well, it turns out quite nicely.

TL;DR

The Jasmine Throne is very much a story driven by its characters. Though some of the bit characters (other, less involved POVs) are immediately forgettable, the main characters (Priya, Malini, Ashok, and Bhumika) make up for them easily enough. And since these control around three-quarters of the book… let’s just say they more than make up for it. In classic fantasy form, it takes its time setting the scene, introducing its world—not to mention the characters therein—before getting down to the plot, the romance, and the world at large. And to be fair, this works quite well. While it took me a little to get into the tale, once I did it was a lovely time. Even the romance, which is usually not my favorite. All in all, the Jasmine Throne proves an entertaining start to a new series! One I’ll be more than happy to continue.

The Burning Kingdoms continue with The Oleander Sword, out in August of 2022.

Sisters of Shadow – by Katherine Livesey (Review)

Sisters of Shadow #1

YA, Fantasy

HarperCollins; September 30, 2021

368 pages (ebook)

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3.5 / 10 ✪

Beware minor spoilers for the story. Mostly it’s for the romance though, and I kept them vague.

Sisters of Shadow is tagged as an “unforgettable teen fantasy perfect for fans of Shadow and Bone”. Now, while I’ve not read Shadow and Bone (yes, I know, I know), I’m skeptical of this. First about the “unforgettable” part. I found the whole thing very forgettable, thank you. But I really want to focus on the “teen” part. Because other than the whole ’sapphic love’ thing, I’d argue that nothing in here seems very “teen”.

And that’s just a personal preference thing, really. If you’re the type of person that thinks homosexuality is wrong—be it religious, or culture, or personal, or whatever—that’s your call, yeah? I don’t want to debate anyone over this. If you’re that kind of person, you’re probably not going to tell your child about it until you absolutely have to, and when you do, just say that it’s wrong and leave it there. Otherwise, I don’t know what the appropriate age to hear about this is. Puberty, I guess? But, see, the ‘sapphic romance’ within… there’s no sex, or anything. Nothing like that at all. Two of the characters do fall for one another, but they don’t do anything more than cuddle. And maybe kiss. It’s implied that they’re together together, and that’s about it. It’s not very heavy or adult, as these things go.

Anyway, the book. The read.

I found it quite boring. But also quite maddening. You’ll see why. At this point, I’ll say the two best things I can about Sisters of Shadow. One—I didn’t hate it. And two—it was a pretty quick read. Now, I realize none of those things are all that flattering. And from the above rating, you probably know there’s a bit of a rant incoming. So. Um I guess. Read on to find out more?

In the prologue, Alice is kidnapped.

Shortly after, we meet Lily Knight. The adventure starts when her uncle, Alf—who seems like a fantastically nice human the entire time we see him—just tells her that she alone has to go rescue her friend (yes, alone; no one can go with her), because Alice is her responsibility. Serious, wtf. I don’t even remotely understand this. Much less how Alice is somehow Lily’s responsibility. They’re friends, not lovers.They’re both humans. They’re not related. Alice isn’t a pet.

At first I suspected it was poorly worded. Then it was reiterated. “Alice is your responsibility”. Because.

And so the journey begins. And it’s… not great. And here we come to my main problem with Sisters of Shadow.

Nothing happens.

Okay, okay, stuff DOES happen. It just never feels important. It never feels epic. It never feels REAL.

Adventures and journeys aren’t always fun. That’s kind of their thing. There’s always a problem, somewhere. No matter how well you play it. And when you don’t plan it, one would think that there’d be problems all around. That’s the whole allure of reading about epic quests and adventures, especially spontaneous ones; stuff goes wrong all the time, and it’s up to the characters to deal with these, frequently in creative or inventive or roundabout ways.

Every problem has an immediate solution, one she never has to do anything about. When Lily finds out how far it is to the ocean she gets dejected about the walk—and a horse appears. It just wanders up, pre-saddled and ready to ride. No further explanation. People go out of their way to help her through her journey, for no reason. (Yes, I realize this is a thing that some real people do. But everyone that helps her does so immediately and for nothing. Everyone.) Later, when Lily reaches the ocean, there’s a boat handy. When she reaches the lighthouse, there’s a dark-eyed boy who takes her in and feeds and waits on her. He’s even her own age and—yes, this is the actual romance. At least it takes Lily some time, if not any actual effort. Alice’s romantic other is literally the first person she meets.

Now, I will say that the ending is decent. Things almost feel real, consequential—and maybe that’s reason enough to read the sequel. Not for me, though.

Billed as a coming of age fantasy, Sisters of Shadow features two young women around the age of adulthood (Alice is 17, I presume Lily’s about the same). They just never act like it. Lily never acts any older than 13 or so. In the beginning, honestly it’s a bit younger. Alice is a little better, though not much. None of the others they meet around their own age are any better either. So. If this had been written as a late Middle Grade fantasy—I think it would work out great. For teens or middle-grade. Other than the same-sex romance (which I’ve already gone over), there’s nothing explicit or adult about this.

There might be a good story in here, somewhere. Heck, you might well have found it already, and are reading this review—shocked, annoyed, incredulous—that I didn’t see it too. But I did do my homework on this one. I checked the ratings, I skimmed reviews. Some people loved Sisters of Shadow. Some hated it. But most people thought it was meh. Not terrible, not great. That’s about the size of it. This wasn’t a terrible book, though it also wasn’t good. I’d even say it was meh if it hadn’t been so boring. If something had ever happened to change my mind about it. If anything had ever made me want to continue it, or the series. It did read quick, though I never felt invested. I did finish it, but I skipped around a bunch. But this definitely wasn’t for me. You might like this, or not. It’s $3 for an ebook, if you’d like to take a chance on it. Maybe you’ll love it. Maybe you’ll hate it. Or maybe, like the majority of reviews I’ve seen, you’ll think it was all a bit bland, a bit forgettable.

The story will continue in Sisters of Moonlight, due April 14th, 2022.

The Last Legacy – by Adrienne Young (Review)

Fable #3

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Wednesday Books; September 7, 2021 (US)
Titan; January 18, 2022 (UK)

327 pages (ebook)
8hr 16m (audiobook)

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4.0 / 5 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my bias. Many thanks to Titan for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

When Bryn Roth relocates from her childhood home of Nimsmire to the port of Bastian, she does it to take her place in the Roth Household, on the expectation that not only will she be welcomed with open arms, but these people—her kin—will soon become the family she never knew. After all, it’s everything she was raised to believe. And, when Henrik summoned her via letter on her eighteenth birthday, it all but confirmed this. Bastian, the Roth household were her destiny, her birthright. One that Bryn is prepared to prove she is due.

But life—as it so often does—fails to live up to Bryn’s dreams.

While Henrik now holds a Merchant’s Ring, it doesn’t take Bryn long to learn that the family is still embroiled in the underworld, still cloaked in shadow. But with Bryn on board, the family is at last trying to legitimize. And Henrik needs Bryn to do so.

This is Bryn’s chance to achieve everything she’s ever dreamed, and she’ll do almost anything to see it through.

Almost. For what Henrik has in mind not only banks on skills she doesn’t possess, but also twists her sense of morality. And that’s just to begin with. For it turns out what Bryn thinks is the entire plan for her is just the start. Henrik has much more in store for her, and Bryn is forced to ask herself an important question: are her dreams worth so much that she’s willing to sacrifice everything, even her own life and freedom to achieve them?

But there’s also a footnote. One in the form of a mysterious and often brusque silversmith. Even after a few days in Bastian Bryn can’t stand looking at him. Though once she does… she can’t look away. But the silversmith isn’t family, and is the one thing that’s off limits to her. As if that was ever something to have stopped a Roth.

The Last Legacy is the third installment in the Fable series, but can easily be read as a standalone. While some of the characters are shared, the narrator changes from the first two entries (Fable to Bryn), and there are only very minor spoilers to the rest of the sequence. Bryn’s own story is set after Fable’s own, after the events at the end of Namesake. Some things will be clearer if you read those others first, but there’s nothing (much) earthshaking that you’ll miss should you decide to skip ahead. Nothing that will spoil Fable’s own story, at least.

With a plot that was better than that of the first two books, and a message that was much, more clearer, the Last Legacy was born to be a much better read. True, the romance isn’t as good, so if you read a story just for the romance you may be disappointed. Seeing as how I don’t, it wasn’t too big a deal, but whatever “romance” is in this seems to be just explained away with the old adage: “love is blind; it doesn’t have to make sense”. Which is good, because it very much doesn’t, especially at first.

I think my favorite character in the Last Legacy is Henrik. It’s not because I relate to or admire him—the man’s an ass. But he’s so complicated; it’s hard not to be fascinated by him. The man will do anything to protect and guide his family to success, but he will also allow none to cross him, including his blood. He has a hard but bleeding heart, and will go to the ends of the earth for his family—even for Bryn, whom he has not seen since she was a child. But then he’ll turn around and sacrifice anyone in order to achieve his goals, blood be damned. It’s this split personality, this seemingly contradicting nature that makes him so fascinating!

At first, I actually took it for bad writing. But he’s written so consistently—flipping between the two extremes often at the drop of a pin. Above everything, Henrik is ambitious. He’s willing to do anything, sacrifice anyone in order to achieve this ambition. But under it all, he has the desire to be loved by his kin, and often looks after them with the care and love of a doting parent—so long as it does not clash with his ambition. I’m not sure you’ll have met anyone like this before, but I have, and Henrik’s portrayal is spot on. So spot on that it’s both mesmerizing and incredibly unnerving.

I’m just going to skirt the edge of the romance here as I don’t want to complain about it constantly. Bryn shows up. She and Ezra butt heads. Then she can’t get enough of him and vice versa. And by unspoken consent they’re destined to fall head over heels—with little to no actual contact. Yes, I’ve heard of love at first sight. This isn’t it. It’s more… loathing at first sight, then love at fifth or sixth. The 180˚ isn’t gradual, but it’s not instantaneous either. It’s just abrupt—and annoying.

The Last Legacy is very much a book about dreams; what Bryn wants, what she’ll accept instead, how her dreams change and grow when confronted with reality, and at last of what achieving these dreams will cost her. For in life it’s so rare to have one concrete, consistent, never-changing dream. So often to be human is to waffle; to question what one wants, to wrestle with the consequences of achieving it. This is the real plot of the Last Legacy—and it changes with the development of Bryn’s own character. But what does she want, and what will she accept? Whether Bryn wants something she can’t have is a ridiculous question; we all want something that we can’t have, that will never come to pass. Just some of us accept this, while others don’t. Will Bryn accept what she can’t have and move on, or persist in achieving something that will never happen, even as her world crumbles around her?

Audio Note: As usual, Suzy Jackson does an excellent job in her portrayal of Bryn. It was so easy to imagine Bryn’s closeted, often sheltered upbringing and her subsequent transformation upon the streets of Bastian. Should you read this as an ebook or physical book, or an audiobook instead, I doubt it’ll make much difference. No matter your preference, the world comes to life quite well!

Namesake – by Adrienne Young (Review)

Fable #2

YA, Fantasy, Romance

Wednesday Books; March 16, 2021 (US)
Titan Books; June 22, 2021 (UK)

363 pages (ebook)

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3.5 / 5 ✪

Beware minor spoilers for Fable, Book #1! Or, check out my review of Fable first!

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Titan Books, St. Martin’s Press, and NetGalley, for providing me an ARC! All opinions are my own.

The exciting conclusion to the duology takes no time to get moving, picking up right where Fable left off. It has no trouble entertaining throughout until some frankly odd choices derail it approaching the end.

Ever since she was little, Fable has desired one thing over every other: her father’s love and affection. But that is one thing Saint never gives. And so after her escape from Jevali, everything she has done has been in order to cut ties with the man. Now Fable has her own crew, a man she loves, a place on a ship of her own—having recently bought her way free of Saint’s influence.

But when she is kidnapped by Zola, Fable’s freedom will once again be out of her hands. Confined to his ship, surrounded by enemies and strangers, Fable feels more alone than she ever has before. And it would almost be tolerable, except for one thing.

Clove.

Her father’s navigator and the man that had been more a father to her than Saint ever was. He now heads Zola’s ship, and surely had a hand in her kidnapping. Worse still, he’s one of only a handful that knows of her true parentage—something it seems he’s shared with his new master. Which is undoubtedly the reason she now finds herself confined aboard her enemy’s deck.

But Zola has more on his mind than her father. He needs something from Fable, something that she must help him with if she ever wants to see West and the Marigold again. But it seems that Fable isn’t the only one harboring secrets, and this secret will change her life forever.

Namesake marks the return to Adrienne Young’s sea-soaked Fable, and one young woman’s journey to find her place amongst the waves. Fable has been through a lot in her short life, rising from the shores of Jeval to the Marigold with a man she loves and a tight-knit crew that’s almost family. For the first time since her mother died, Fable has found happiness. But Namesake takes that happiness and shreds it.

Kidnapped and surrounded by enemies, the adventure begins and is automatically immersive. The world itself is unchanged, with the Narrows proving just as interesting as it did in the first book. A sea speckled with islands, ports, and reefs to be dredged. And that’s where Namesake excels, just like Fable before it. On the bottom of the sea. In a land of water and reefs, on the constant hunt for minerals. But there is more to it than that. The mystery of whatever Zola wants with her looms over her head, as does the price the Marigold will have to pay to get her back. We’ll find out much more about West and his crew in this book, but also Fable herself.

I didn’t get the romance at all in this. Yes, I realize that the heart wants what it wants and that love is blind and can’t be reasoned with. Still, Fable spends a majority of the text worrying over it anyway. How she can’t trust West; how there’s a darkness within him that scares her; how he reminds her of Saint in all the bad ways. And predictably, nothing comes of it. I mean, it’s not much of a spoiler who Fable romances—there isn’t a love-triangle in Namesake. It’s Fable trying to rationalize and justify West, something that she never really does. But she keeps at it, right up until the end, where it’s almost magically resolved as a darkness they share (even though there’s really no darkness to Fable, at least not in the same way).

Say what you want about the romance, but the story rolled right along right up to the end and took no effort to read. Which made the ending itself all the more confusing. Yes, I realize that there is another story set in the same world, and the plot choices at the end of Namesake are likely an attempt to set up this next story. But that’s the only reason some of them make sense. There’s one moment in particular. It’s hard to explain without any spoilers, but sufficient to say that if the moment DOESN’T come up in the future stories, then I can’t figure out a single reason why it was included. It makes literally zero sense, and contradicts the entirety of the story that led to it.

TL;DR

Namesake marks the end of the duology, and our introduction to the world of the Narrow Sea. While there is now another book—The Last Legacy—set in this world, Namesake marks the end of Fable’s journey, and her journey to discover what kind of woman she’ll become. As coming-of-age tales go, this was an interesting adventure, with mystery and thrill, emotion and passion, deception and betrayal. I never had any trouble with the story, and was immediately immersed back into the world from the outset. Yes, there’s a lot to love as Fable’s journey comes to a close, but the romance itself was not one of them. It was more of a mystifying tale of contradictions, worry, secrets, and strange, almost contradicting choices. I mean, one could argue that that’s what love is all about, but it’s not something I’m used to seeing in these YA books. Had it been a grimdark romance where everyone is secretly trying to murder and/or seduce each other—that would be another story. But on the whole, I’d recommend it—particularly if you enjoyed the first book before it.

The Last Legacy—out since September 7, 2021—expands on the Narrow Sea, albeit with a new lead.

Legendborn – by Tracy Deonn

Legendborn Cycle #1

Fantasy, YA

Simon & Schuster; September 15, 2020

503 pages (format)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

—A review by KK—

Hey, so this is Will, just a quick note here. This is the review of a friend of mine, essentially a trial for this site. If she likes doing it, if it’s not too much a strain on her time—then you might be seeing more of these! Albeit with her tag rather than my own. Pretty much I just asked her to rant about some book and I’d post it and we could take it from there. Hopefully it works out, because I absolutely loved this review!

Recap

Sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews choses a school, argues with her mom about that choice, and then finds out her mom died in an accident. With grief still fresh and heavy, she rushes off to the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, an institution for bright scholars and also the setting of the argument with her mom. It’s supposed to be a new and exciting place where she and her best friend, Alice Chen, can learn and grow (and most importantly not be surrounded with her mother’s death). However, her first night there leads to an encounter with magic and a secret society of “Legendborn” who protect the unsuspecting population from demons and their like. That fateful moment unlocks a memory from the day her mother died, and suddenly there are unknowns surrounding her loved one’s death that Bree must solve. And this secret society holds the key to the truth she seeks. The question is, does she join their fight? Or take them down from the inside?  

Rambling Review (unspecific spoilers ahead)

Before I ever read a book, I view the cover, and the cover for Legendborn is fantastic. I love the colors, the prominence of the main character, and the font. As I took it in, I remember asking myself, what is the significance of the red and blue covering her arms? The answer is “Both…and…” I was then pulled into the book through a famous story “that everyone knows”. What I especially enjoyed was the book does this remarkable job of weaving in a second extraordinary component that, I’d argue, is even more compelling than the familiar fairy tale. Tell me more about that in the second book.

Having recently lost a close family member, the struggles of wanting everything to be normal and not dealing with the grief felt extremely real to me. There’s a moment in the book where another character makes a poignant observation to Bree and while she tries to deny it, ultimately realizes what this other character is saying might be true. I realized that I might share this denial with Bree. Death of a loved one is hard, and the entire book felt like a voice for my own loved one’s passing. I was empathetic to the emotions Bree goes through as she navigates knowing that her mother is no longer in this world.

I get that YA novels tend to have this “Oh they’re cute” moment followed by almost instant attraction/getting together, and I’m more and more finding that these whirlwind romances take away something from the story for me. You’re telling me that a 16 year-old can find someone attractive, hang out with them, begin a relationship AND find feelings that strong for them?!? So, if I have an issue with this title, it’s Bree’s romance and the romantic moments she has. Perhaps that’s unfair and it’s the ol’ curmudgeon in me poking through. Boo young love! But also… might be shipping a different couple…

Representation in stories is so important. Bree is a young Black woman. Her best friend, Alice, is a lesbian Asian-American. The initial lure of the book may be the well-known fairy tale, but the strength is Bree and the secondary power she discovers about herself. I really enjoyed how Bree smashes through the gatekeepers of the fairy tale in both specific and unintentional ways.

Overall, I would recommend this book for readers of YA and urban fantasy and I’m definitely excited for the sequel. 

Reader Remarks

I read quite fast. To the point where I will miss important points hidden in long paragraphs because I don’t feel compelled to read the entire section. If it takes more than an inexplicable amount of time to get through a paragraph, or the flow of the sentences is wordy and unexciting, I’m likely skimming it. Also if I’m really looking forward to some character interactions, I read fast to get to that part. I think my reading style does affect my enjoyment of books and should be mentioned to other readers who peruse this summary.

5 Stars!

Phoenix Flame – by Sara Holland (Review)

Havenfall #2

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Bloomsbury YA; March 2, 2021

320 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Bloomsbury Young Adult and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

In many ways, Phoenix Flame manages to improve upon the mistakes made by its predecessor, shaping up both the interactions and the character development, while also maintaining the elements that I most enjoyed. Namely (somehow) the romance.

It was quite a summer for Maddie Morrow. After taking over temporary management of the Inn at Havenfall, she was able to disrupt the soul trade, humanize the Solarians, and prevent a coup. Now, with Marcus awake and back in charge, Maddie has been demoted back to #2—an move that she was equal parts crushed and relieved by. Yet with her uncle still recovering, her input is now more important than ever before. And she must do what’s best for Havenfall—no matter the cost.

And yet it’s a price she may not be willing to pay. After all, Maddie is in love with a Fiorden soldier. Mostly. There was a certain girl that made her heart skip a beat…—but she’s gone, locked away behind the Solarian gate. And Brekken is at Havenfall. Brekken, the boy that Maddie grew up and played with. Brekken, the boy that has become a man, one whom has expressed his interest in being with her. If the Inn falls between her and Brekken, what will Maddie do?

But more pressing concerns highlight the end of Maddie’s summer. The black-market trade of soul-bound silver has been disrupted, but is far from over. But now she has a lead on the illicit trade network, one that requires her to go undercover inside Fiordenkill, a winter wonderland that she’s always wanted to visit. But this visit will be rife with danger—despite the presence of a particularly distracting soldier—and Maddie must use all her cunning if she’s to end the trade, once and for all.

Too bad Maddie doesn’t have any cunning.

Seriously, it might’ve been a more interesting read if Maddie was a bit brighter, a bit more cunning, a bit darker, a bit more riské. But she’s not, and that’s that. But she’s still a teenager—young, immature, immortality-complex, dumb, all the realistic stuff. Phoenix Flame highlights a coming-of-age series, and part of growing up is learning to fail and overcome your mistakes. And Maddie makes a lot of mistakes. And that’s fine.

The story is a decent enough adventure; containing enough twists and turns to keep it interesting, yet it never blew me away or surprised me with its choices. As I’ve said before, Maddie’s maybe not the best narrator, but she’s what we’ve got, and tells the story well enough. I enjoyed the glimpses we got of Fiordenkill, but ultimately found them too few and lacking in any interesting detail. Literally all I can remember now is that the land was snowy and cold—the description and world-building really could’ve delivered more of a punch.

The magic system of Havenfall is… a letdown. To be honest, I forgot that magic was a thing for a great portion of the text, only for Maddie to use it once near the end and immediately drop the subject. I remember in the first book how she discovers her ability and uses it to overcome the Silver Prince. It was a surprise and a joy to her. Not so much in Phoenix Flame. No “she practiced to improve her skill” or “she still marveled in her use of magic”. Not even “oh, she had magic, too”. It’s just not mentioned. As for what and how it works… I dunno. That’s never explained, either. It’s just another missing piece in what could’ve turned out to be a great story.

The romance continues to be the main draw of the series, a phrase that continues to baffle me. Young love burns bright—and Maddie’s love life is achingly familiar, in an awkward teenage sort of way. It reminded me of my first love: the prickle of heat surrounding every stolen moment; the burning embarrassment of pretty much anything else; the indecision, the constant turmoil of emotions, the lack of anything approaching experience akin to being tossed in the ocean with a tiger strapped to your chest. Instead of the gawky, awkward, cringey, will-they won’t-they of normal YA romances, so far Sara Holland has managed to capture the nostalgia that comes with your first crush, your first love (at least, for me). There’s still plenty of awkwardness, but it’s all on a learning curve. And both Brekken and Taya create plenty of opportunities to learn, though each in different ways.

TL;DR

Phoenix Flame is the second book in the Havenfall series, and manages to build on the relative successes of Havenfall, while simultaneously correcting some of its mistakes. The story is solid but won’t blow you away with its inventiveness. The plot is interesting, with a few twists and turns and decent character development. The world-building and description continues to leave something to be desired, and the whole fantasy aspect of this fantasy book needs some serious work. As in Book #1, the main allure of Phoenix Flame lies in its romance. A bundle of emotions and no idea what to do with them made me nostalgic for my youth—but unlike the cringe-worthy, awkward, fumbling experience I’m used to seeing in YA lit, this provided something more thoughtful, more delicate, more unique. And I’m completely surprised that I continue to recommend this serious for its romance. While the story and description and characters still could use some improvement—young love continues to impress.

The Rush’s Edge – by Ginger Smith (Review)

Cover by Kieryn Taylor

Untitled #1 / Standalone

Scifi, Romance

Angry Robot; November 10, 2020

297 pages (Paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.2 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Halvor Cullen was not born but made—grown in a tank until the age of twelve, then trained to fight and kill and die for those that made him, the ACAS. After his seven years of mandatory military service, Hal washed out, as all VATs do. For there he was expected to continue fighting and kill up until he bit it, while trying to fill the void within, mostly with drugs. Instead Hal joined up with his old CO, taking off to salvage the edge of the galaxy for advanced tech.

During one of his layovers in central space, Hal meets Vivian Valjean, a tecker trying to escape her old life and her old mistakes—most recently a man named Noah. Through a series of circumstances, Vivi ends up accompanying the crew on a mission—and the rest is history. But between the discovery of an alien sphere, trouble with the ACAS, and a deadly assassin, possibly the most interesting development is between Hal and Vivi. For what happens when a natural born human and a VAT super-soldier fall in love? I guess we’ll find out—that is, if either of them live long enough.

The Rush’s Edge is the debut novel from author Ginger Smith, part science fiction, part romance with action, adventure, space opera, and cyberpunk elements all thrown in. If this sounds like a lot—that’s because it is. If it sounds too good to be true—again, yeah. The Rush’s Edge tries too hard to be too much, and ultimately topples beneath its own grand desire.

My main problem with the Rush’s Edge, was how it was sold to me. I was sold an epic space adventure with “a little bit of romance, a smudge of aliens, and a whole lot of butt-kicking”. And to be fair—we got all of that. What I expected though, was a complete story. And didn’t necessarily get this.

The Rush’s Edge IS a complete story in the way that The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a complete story. Just where the latter tells you up front that this is a tale of how people become a family with some space-exploration-y elements, the former kinda makes you find that out on your own. Now, if I’d been sold “it’s basically like the Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet”, that’d’ve been great! While Becky Chamber’s first book wasn’t a masterpiece, it was quite a good read. But between wondering if it was setting me up for a sequel or cliffhanger and then reaching the end with none of these questions actually answered… the Rush’s Edge didn’t captivate me in quite the same manner.

The conclusion also drew on quite a few overused clichés, which I really would’ve ditched. And I DO understand that when you’re writing something and decide to throw in a few classic plot twists you never want to think they’re cliché. But sometimes they are. Instead I would’ve liked to see the author try something different—maybe it’d work, maybe it wouldn’t—because, as they say, “nothing ventured, nothing gained” or “you’ll never succeed if you don’t try”.

The POV can change from paragraph to paragraph, so sometimes it’s difficult to tell who is talking/thinking, unless it’s explicitly mentioned. While this does allow the author to include several characters’ perspectives on any situation at almost any time (so long as they’re present), I’ve always found it incredibly frustrating to switch back and forward without knowing exactly when.

It’s really kinda science light fiction. There’re spaceships, yes, but there’s no explanation on how they travel between the stars. Do they use a hyperdrive? Faster than light travel? Wormholes? Instant transmission? We don’t know—it’s not explained, or mentioned. They just leave and… then they’re somewhere else. It must be some kinda faster than light travel, but we’re not told, which is a disappointment. While I realize not every science fiction tale is heavy on science, I would’ve liked to see more—but I’m like that.

Even if the action falls a bit flat, it’s the story that steals the show—specifically the romance between Hal and Vivi. One a natural born human, the other a vat grown super-solider; while it sounds kinda silly, it’s difficult to put into words just how much it’ll pull at your heartstrings. My main problem with the romance is that I don’t really read a book specifically FOR the romance, so when it’s the most entertaining element, there’s probably some things wrong. That being said (again), if this had been pitched as a becoming-a-family, Wayfarers-type story: I’m pretty sure I’d’ve been sold. Just leave off the (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) action-elements, the fights, the mysterious conflicts and battles that I can’t get into without spoilers. The alien presence can stay as it (minor spoilers) isn’t really the focus of the story. The romance isn’t really all that romance-y, even. It’s a bit as if the author didn’t want to sell out on romance, but then sold out on action instead. So now there’s not even enough of a romantic element to carry the story entirely on its own.

While overall I enjoyed the Rush’s Edge, there were definitely some issues with it. But it WAS a debut after all, so some of these an be forgiven. If I was to offer the author some advice: leave off on some of the overused tropes—they don’t add anything. Tell your own story—if it’s a thriller, then go action; if it’s a romance, then go romance. The Rush’s Edge is like a romance that tries to go all in on action—and just fails.

TL;DR

The Rush’s Edge is a debut that blends science fiction with romance, attempting to weave the tale of an unlikely romance between a natural born victimized woman and a vat grown super-soldier. It reads kind of like a Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet—where it’s more about the voyage than the destination, how the ending doesn’t matter as much as how we got there, and the ideals of family, love, and hope steal the show. As a heartwarming romance, it kinda works. As an action-adventure, it doesn’t. The action is overused and the adventure is incomplete. The science fiction is mostly fiction, with just the occasional science cameo. For a debut—it’s okay. Tries too hard to be too many things, play too many hands. Uses far too many cliché tropes. But these are to be expected. I just wish they weren’t.

Scifi Month ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

Havenfall – by Sara Holland (Review)

Havenfall #1

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Bloomsbury YA; March 3, 2020

320 pages (ebook) 12 hr 17 min (audio)

3.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Deep within the mountains of Colorado lies the Inn at Havenfall. Havenfall is a crossroads between worlds—and serves as a meeting place and sanctuary for the delegates from any number of worlds. Nowadays there are only two gates open: one to Fiordenkill, the other Byrn.

Maddie Morrow, the niece of the Innkeeper of Havenfall, has always spent her summers working at the Inn. She even has hopes of taking over for her Uncle, Marcus, someday. But soon after she arrives at the Inn for the summer of her 18th birthday, those dreams quickly become a reality.

Marcus has been attacked and survives in a coma. Maddie is in charge of the Inn. And the trouble doesn’t stop there.

For a being has slipped through one of the dormant gates—one to the world of Solaria. The Solarians are shapeshifting monsters that prey upon humans and have been banned from Earth for a generation. But now one is loose. And the Solarian door is stuck open.

Now Maddie, with little help and less clue of what to do, must take charge, run the Inn in place of her uncle, prevent any more Solarians from entering via the door while hunting down the one that has already come through. But it may already be too late.

So, at Colorado Mountain there is a door that opens to many worlds. This door is known as the Stargate, and through it… wait no. Um. Colorado, mountains, Havenfall. Right, right.

Havenfall is equal parts adventure, fantasy, romance, and mystery. While it’s a decent fantasy adventure, the romance within the story is actually what captured my interest. I mean, the fantasy is alright—an interesting enough premise and world-building, decent execution and plot, but with underwhelming extraplanar beings, magic system, and character development. The romance somehow drew my attention, which is usually not a good thing. But here it surprised me. Maddie is bi—having fallen in love with Fiorden soldier Brekken, whom she first met at the Inn, but also seasonal worker Taya, who is a mystery that Maddie just can’t seem to solve. Instead of the cringe-worthy, awkward teen romance I was expecting, Havenfall proves to be a soul-searching, confusing story of teenage attraction that—while still awkward—seemed more real than the faerie tale romance you’d expect. Now while Maddie isn’t the best gumshoe (we’ll get to that), she is young and naïve, but also skeptical, making her an excellent target for romance.

A detective, however, she is not. Maddie is young and (apparently) not very bright. She is continually pelted in the face by evidence that she somehow ignores. At first I chalked this up to her being young. Then not terribly smart. And at last… just because. Maddie doesn’t seem to learn from experience. Or make any deductive leaps. Or really even pay much attention to any kind of detail. Yeah, she’s 18, but throughout the story her character doesn’t develop and learn from experience. The mystery is rather basic, and it takes her over twelve hours of story-time to wrap her head around it.

Audio Note: Kate Handford was an excellent narrator that really brought Maddie Morrow to life. And while it didn’t do anything for her mystery-solving ability, I really enjoyed the angst and confusion and naïvety the narrator put into her performance that brought across Maddie as the awkward teenage outcast she truly was.

TL;DR

Havenfall represents (in my opinion) awkward teenage romance done right. While there are faerie tale elements, it’s not a storybook romance, and actually feels somewhat real, not ridiculous and cringe-worthy, if still awkward. In terms of plot, world-building, and adventure, the story is your run-of-the-mill YA fantasy—with an interesting premise and decent execution, but little more. The mystery is just pathetic, honestly. And Maddie isn’t the best narrator, despite being intensely romanceable. Havenfall is a decent enough series debut—though I expect better from its sequel.

The series will continue with Phoenix Flame, out March 4th, 2021.