Review: A Curse So Dark and Lonely

A Curse So Dark and Lonely
By Brigid Kemmerer
Published January 29, 2019 by Bloomsbury YA

A Curse So Dark and Lonely is a Beauty and the Beast retelling that does some interesting things with the story, veering just enough from the original to keep things interesting.

Harper’s life is rough. Her father ran off, leaving them in terrible debt, her mother is dying, and her brother has been forced into criminal behavior by the people his father owes money to. She’s constantly underestimated by her family because she has cerebral a cursepalsy. One night, she intervenes when she sees a woman being grabbed on the street, and she’s transported to a magical kingdom.

Prince Rhen is the heir of a dying kingdom named Emberfall. Thanks to a vengeful sorceress, both he and his country are cursed. Each season, he a chance to save himself and the kingdom by finding a young woman to fall in love with him. If he fails, he turns into a wild beast that slaughters his people indiscriminately. The only remaining royal guard, Grey, goes into Harper’s world to find women for the prince.

I love fairytale retellings, but they have to bring something new to the tale to really impress me. A Curse So Dark and Lonely is an inventive version of the story. I liked the combination of a modern heroine who comes from our world being sucked into a high fantasy world. It’s a clever way to modernize the tale while keeping the fairytale elements.

Harper is a tough version of Beauty. She’s had a a less than ideal life, and she doesn’t want to be defined by her disability. At first, she reacts angrily to her captivity and tried to escape, but as she sees Emberfall and the devastation that’s been wrought in the kingdom, she begins to make an uneasy alliance with the prince.

Rhen at first seems less scary than the traditional beast because he’s not in beast form (he’s a handsome prince, of course). But he lives with the guilt of all the people he’s killed, and he barely has the strength left to face another season of trying to save Emberfall. The arrival of Harper spurs him into action.

I loved the connection that develops between Harper and Rhen, and also the connection she develops with Grey. Harper really grows as a character, and she has a chance to shine as she works with Rhen to fight the curse and save the kingdom.

A Curse So Dark and Lonely is a lovely retelling, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys retellings or YA fantasy.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

 

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Review: The Dreamers

The Dreamers
By Karen Thompson Walker
Published January 15, 2019 by Random House

I picked up this book in the early evening, and next thing I knew, I was up way past my bedtime, because it’s a really engrossing read and I couldn’t put it down.

In a California college town, a student goes to sleep and doesn’t wake up. It seems to be a medical mystery, but then other students and residents of the town begin to fall asleep and it’s clear that an epidemic is happening. The patients appear to be comatose, but the dreamersshow highly active dream levels.

The Dreamers is a gripping book that reminded me a little of Station Eleven, in that it’s a look at how multiple characters deal with an epidemic. But this epidemic is on a smaller scale. It’s devastating to the town of Santa Lora, but the town is quickly sealed off from the rest of the country, to keep the illness from spreading. We see how the epidemic and the accompanying panic affect different people: a college freshman who was foundering at school but finds a purpose in the epidemic, a young couple with a newborn baby trying desperately to protect her, a psychiatrist brought in to consult on the epidemic who is trapped in the town away from her young child, a professor mourning the loss of his partner to Alzheimer’s, and two young sisters, the children of a paranoid survivalist who has succumbed to the sickness.

The omniscient narration moves among these characters (and a few others we meet only briefly), and we see how they deal with the epidemic. I found all of the characters interesting, but I was most interested in the couple with the baby. As the parent of a young child, I often wonder how I would handle a natural disaster/the end of the world/a terrorist attack, so I felt a connection to their struggles.

This is not a book for readers who like things tied up in neat packages. The epidemic is never described in specific, scientific terms. The nature of the dreams is explored, but you’re never quite sure what’s real or what the dreams mean. It’s a beautifully written look at how people cope with the unthinkable. I give it five stars.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

 

Review: The Gilded Wolves

The Gilded Wolves
By Roshani Chokshi
Published January 15, 2019 by Wednesday Books

The Gilded Wolves is an exciting historical fantasy. Set in Paris in 1889, it’s got an interesting blend of magic and science.

Severin Montagnet-Alarie runs a hotel and hunts for treasures. He should be the head of Gilded Wolvesa powerful magical family, but he’s been cheated out of his inheritance. He has a plan to get his house back, and he works with his foster brother Tristan, who is a plant specialist; Laila, a dancer/pastry chef; Zofia, a scientist; and Enrique, a historian, on a major heist plan. Things don’t go exactly as planned, and Severin and his colleagues end up having to work with the head of another house, Hypnos.

I tend to enjoy books about rag-tag bunches of people on a quest, so this one was right up my alley. I loved the interactions between all of the characters. It’s also a very diverse group. Severin, Hypnos, and Enrique are biracial, and Laila is Indian. There is also gay and bisexual representation, and one of the characters seems to be autistic. The Parisian setting was really well done, and the opulence of the time really comes out the writing.

Where the book didn’t work quite as well for me was the magical system. There’s a lot of information thrown at the reader, and I’m not sure I fully got the concept of the Order of Babel. There are a few info dumps and some math, at which point my eyes started to glaze over. It didn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the book, but there were times where I felt a bit confused and I probably needed to go back and reread some of the earlier chapters, but who has time for that.

Overall, The Gilded Wolves was very entertaining, and I think it will appeal to fans of Six of Crows.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: Muse of Nightmares

Muse of Nightmares
By Laini Taylor
Published October 2, 2018 by Little, Brown

Strange the Dreamer was one of my favorite books of 2017, and I was anxiously awaiting the sequel. I had extremely high hopes for Muse of Nightmares, and I’m happy to report that it’s every bit as good as the first book.

Muse picks up right where Strange left off: Lazlo now knows that he is a godspawn, Sarai Muse of Nightmaresis dead, and Minya holds Sarai’s soul in her hands, threatening to unmake her unless Lazlo helps her finally defeat the people of Weep. It’s a devastating position for Lazlo, as keeping Sarai’s soul intact may mean having to betray Eril-Fane and the Tizerkane, the people he’s come to regard as friends and really the only family he’s ever known.

Taylor is such a good writer. Her world-building is astounding. Every part of this complex system is so well thought out. At the beginning of the book, we meet two new characters, Nova and Kora, a pair of devoted sisters who seem to have some connection to the gods, although it’s not until well into the book that it begins to become clear. Every piece of the story fits together so well, and Weep feels like a real city, a place of both horror and wonder.

There are so many unforgettable characters in this series. Lazlo Strange, the underdog dreamer who turns out to be so much more than he could have ever imagined. Eril-Fane, the savior whose guilt is slowly tearing him apart. Azareen, whose love for Eril-Fane never wanes, even as pain threatens to consume her. Even the less noble characters are wonderfully multifaceted. Golden boy Thyon Nero actually begins to feel something other than entitlement. And then there’s Minya, the godspawn trapped in a child’s body, hell bent on revenge on the people of Weep. It’s tempting to see her as the villain of the story, but she’s so much more than that (and the true villain is Skathis, the long-dead god), and getting the chance to see inside her head makes her much more sympathetic (although still pretty terrifying).

There were a lot of unanswered questions at the end of the first book: Who are the gods? Where did they come from? Why did they take up residence over Weep? And the most disturbing question, what happened to all the other godspawn (the gods have been in Weep for 200 years, but there were only a small number of children left in the fortress when Weep was liberated)? Taylor skillfully handles all of these questions, and while this is a devastating book in many ways (a city that is still recovering from 200 years of sex slavery has a lot of baggage), it’s also beautiful and hopeful as well. There’s so much about family (both blood and found), revenge, redemption, and healing, and it’s a truly stunning book.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Middle Grade Review: The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone
By Jaclyn Moriarty
Published October 9, 2018 by Arthur A. Levine Books

I’m a big fan of Jaclyn Moriarty’s young adult books. She’s a clever and very funny writer, and I jumped at the chance to read her new middle-grade book. The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone is a wonderful, clever, and entertaining book that’s good for kids and adults alike.

I was ten years old when my parents were killed by pirates.

This did not bother me as much as you might think–I hardly knew my parents.

When she was still in a pram, Bronte Mettlestone’s parents left her with her Aunt Isabelle Bronteso they could go off and have adventures. Bronte hasn’t seen her parents since then, so the announcement of their death isn’t as devastating as you would expect. Much more troubling is her parents’ will, which leaves very detailed instructions for Bronte: she has to visit her father’s 10 sisters and bring them each a gift. She has to follow the instructions to the letter, because the will is trimmed in Faery cross-stitch, which means that if she doesn’t complete all the provisions as directed, something terrible will happen. And thus begins a long and adventurous journey.

Bronte visits a farm, saves a baby from drowning, gets caught in an avalanche, learns about dragons, attends a magical convention, and survives a pirate attack on a cruise ship. Her adventures are magical and funny. Moriarty is a master at plotting. Even the smallest detail means something, and I love seeing how all the pieces fit together in a fascinating puzzle.

There’s a lot going on in the book. Bronte’s journey is an adventure and a puzzle to be solved, but she’s also learning all about her father’s family and her mother’s mysterious past. Bronte is a practical child who handles all the adventures she encounters with aplomb:

I suppose I should tell you about the avalanche. I was thinking I could use that short chapter to skip straight over it and onto the next aunt. But no, that would only be annoying of me.

Reading middle grade books as adult can be dicey. What appeals to the younger reader may not work so well for an adult. I was quite pleased to find that the book was so entertaining and never felt as if it were written at too basic a level. Moriarty never underestimates her audience, and I think young readers will enjoy the rollicking adventures and dry wit of this book. It would be a great choice for parents to read along with their kids.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: Light Years

Light Years
By Kass Morgan
Published October 9, 2018 by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Light Years is a fun and fast-paced young adult sci-fi novel about students training at an elite military academy. The Quatra Fleet Academy trains the best young students to become officers in their military. This is the first year that the academy has opened their enrollment to students from the outer planets of the Quatra Federation, who are known as Settlers. Each planet has sent their best and brightest, but many from the main planet, Light yearsTri, are not happy about the new open policy and regard the Settlers as second-class citizens.

The story focuses on four students. Cormack is desperate to get off his deadly planet, so he takes his dead brother’s identity and place at the academy. Vesper is a wealthy girl from Tri, whose mother is a high-rank military veteran who runs the academy. She’s only there because her mother pulled strings, so she’s desperate to prove herself. Arran grew up on another outer planet and lived a life of privation, but his acceptance to the academy has lifted his mother out of poverty. Orelia claims to be from the outer planet of Chetire, but she’s actually a spy from the Federation’s greatest enemies, the Specters. The Specters want to destroy the academy and wipe out the next generation of their enemies’ military.

Cormack and Vesper antagonize each other when Cormack is made the leader of their practice squadron, a role Vesper has been practicing for her whole life. Arran falls for a handsome Tridian, but wonders if his beloved can actually care about a Settler. Orelia has her mission, but living, studying, and working with her enemies makes her wonder if what she’s doing is right.

I liked all four of the characters, although I felt least connected to Cormack’s narrative (he’s a bit of cocky jerk). Vesper’s desperation to prove herself to her mother makes her very relatable, and Arran is a cinnamon role who you just want to hug. He’s very insecure, and is never sure whether his handsome Tridian actually cares about him. I like that Arran and his love interest Dash being gay is not an issue in their society. The main conflict in their relationship is that Dash’s father is racist and doesn’t approve of the Settlers being allowed to attend the academy.

Orelia was the most interesting character to me. She’s been trained her whole life to fight for her people, but having to live and study with her supposed enemies makes her see them as actual people and not just abstractions. She also learns that the Tridian view of her people isn’t based in reality, and that what the people are told by their leaders may not be the truth (or maybe the Specter leaders are lying to their people?). I found the political aspects of the ongoing war to be potentially the most interesting part of the plot, but this part of the book was pretty underdeveloped and I wanted more. But this is the first book in a series, so I assume we’ll get into more of the politics of the war in the next book.

This was a fast-paced book, and I read it really quickly. I think fans of The Illuminae Files and The Starbound Trilogy will enjoy it.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

 

 

Review: Sawkill Girls

Sawkill Girls
By Claire Legrand
Published October 2, 2018 by Katherine Tegen Books

I read Furyborn by Claire Legrand earlier this year, and I loved it, so I wanted to check out her other books. When I heard she had another new book coming out this year and that it’s about girls who go missing on an island, I knew I had to have it.

The description made it sound like a mystery with some horror vibes, with maybe a Stephen King vibe. It turned out to be that, but also so much more. There’s feminism and Sawkillmisogyny and a little bit of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe.

On Sawkill Island, off the coast of New England, girls go missing every few years. It’s been happening for decades, but the people of Sawkill seem remarkably unconcerned. Zoey is concerned. Her former best friend Thora went missing a few months ago, not long after Thora was stolen away from Zoey by Val Mortimer, the local teen Queen Bee. Zoey is convinced that there’s something sinister going on and that Val is somehow involved. Because of her suspicions, Zoey has become persona non grata to everyone but her ex-boyfriend Grayson.

A new family comes to live on the island, sisters Marion and Charlotte and their mother. Grieving over their father’s recent death, the family has come to Sawkill to make a fresh start, but both girls come into Val’s orbit. Charlotte becomes Val’s latest BFF, and Zoey and Marion become friends, but Marion is fascinated by Val. Then Charlotte becomes the latest girl to go missing.

I won’t say much about the plot, because I didn’t know much going in, and it made the experience better for me. I will say that this book is creepy and wonderful and empowering. I expected a mystery, but what I got was a dark feminist tale with tangled, messy relationships, a take-down of the patriarchy, and an exploration of the way girls are pitted against each other. It’s spooky and extremely compelling. It’s also got some excellent diversity: two of the girls are queer and the third is asexual and African American.

The three main characters are all interesting in their own way. Zoey is determined to solve the mystery of the disappearances. As the daughter of the police chief and one of the only non-white, non-rich people on the island, she’s a bit of an outcast. She’s tough and tenacious, and she’s struggling to maintain a relationship with her ex-boyfriend Grayson. Val seems awful at first, just a typical mean girl. But there’s much more going on under the surface, and she’s a fascinating character. I just wanted to hug Marion. She’s lost her father, her sister has disappeared, and she starts experiencing strange physical symptoms. I like prickly, difficult girls, and this book gave me exactly that.

This book is just so good, and it’s really perfect for October, with its spooky vibes. Highly recommended.