Harp of Kings by Juliet Marillier


cover162862-mediumFrom the Publisher: A young woman is both a bard and a warrior in this thrilling historical fantasy from the author of the Sevenwaters novels.

Eighteen-year-old Liobhan is a powerful singer and an expert whistle player. Her brother has a voice to melt the hardest heart, and is a rare talent on the harp. But Liobhan’s burning ambition is to join the elite warrior band on Swan Island. She and her brother train there to compete for places, and find themselves joining a mission while still candidates. Their unusual blend of skills makes them ideal for this particular job, which requires going undercover as traveling minstrels, for Swan Island trains both warriors and spies.

Their mission: to find and retrieve a precious harp, an ancient symbol of kingship, which has gone missing. If the instrument is not played at the upcoming coronation, the candidate will not be accepted and the kingdom will be thrown into disarray. Faced with plotting courtiers and tight-lipped druids, an insightful storyteller, and a boorish Crown Prince, Liobhan soon realizes an Otherworld power may be meddling in the affairs of the kingdom. When ambition clashes with conscience, Liobhan must make a bold decision—and the consequences may break her heart.

I thought there would never be another author or series to equal Douglas Nicholas’ Something Red series, but I found it in this haunting and lovely tale by Juliet Marillier. There’s a little bit of everything here but mostly a quest featuring a feisty young female warrior, a prickly male counterpart, an otherworldly bard, an island of warriors, a pain-in-the-ass king-to-be, lots of faery folk, and druids.

Liobhan, Dau & Brocc are the focus of this quest story, where each is selected to be part of a top-secret mission to recover the stolen Harp of Kings. However, as you progress through the story, it becomes clear that the real quests are for each of our young heroes. Liobhan will learn that she can control her temper, Dau will learn to trust, and Brocc will learn to follow his own path.

The story is tightly woven and beautifully told. The characters fairly leap off the pages, and their stories will envelop you. Highly recommended for fantasy fans.

Publication Date: September 3, 2019
Published By: Berkley Publishing Group; Ace Sci Fi & Fantasy
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Cursed by Thomas Wheeler


cover159074-mediumWhosoever wields the Sword of Power shall be the one true King.

But what if the Sword has chosen a Queen?

Nimue grew up an outcast. Her connection to dark magic made her something to be feared in her Druid village, and that made her desperate to leave. That is, until her entire village is slaughtered by Red Paladins, and Nimue’s fate is forever altered. Charged by her dying mother to reunite an ancient sword with a legendary sorcerer, Nimue is now her people’s only hope. Her mission leaves little room for revenge, but the growing power within her can think of little else.

Nimue teams up with a charming mercenary named Arthur and refugee Fey Folk from across England. She wields a sword meant for the one true king, battling paladins and the armies of a corrupt king. She struggles to unite her people, avenge her family, and discover the truth about her destiny.

But perhaps the one thing that can change Destiny itself is found at the edge of a blade.

The Lady of the Lake is the true hero in this cinematic twist on the tale of King Arthur created by Thomas Wheeler and legendary artist, producer, and director Frank Miller (300, Batman: The Dark Night Returns, Sin City).

Look out for the original Netflix series starring Katherine Langford streaming everywhere Spring 2020!

I don’t think I’ve been as excited about an Arthurian book since Mists of Avalon!

Cursed gives a whole new take on the old legends of King Arthur and focuses on Nimue, the Lady of the Lake or, in some versions, Merlin’s lover. We first see Nimue as a child, living in a nurturing environment still following the old ways of the Druid. The first chapter is a violent introduction to the unconscionable acts of cleansing and conversion carried out by Christian priests and monks in the Dark Ages. The violence is startling, made especially so by the immediate change in tone in the second chapter as the storyline fills itself in, then pushes forward with Nimue as warrior and defender of the old ways.

All the expected characters appear, but in clever and fascinating new ways. The narrative itself moves fast and holds you tightly as you read page after page, oblivious to time because you just have to know what happens next. Complemented by magnificent illustrations, the story wraps around you until you can’t think of anything else. Arthur fans will devour this, but so will Game of Thrones fans missing that world. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: October 1, 2019
Published by: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern


cover165880-mediumFrom the Publisher: Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues–a bee, a key, and a sword–that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of the earth.

What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians–it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also of those who are intent on its destruction. Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose–in both the mysterious book and in his own life.

This is a tough one for me. I confess, I did not love this book. I *liked* it well enough, but found the structure disconcerting. I sometimes struggle with focusing on books that alternate stories with each chapter, which is why this did not fully resonate with me. I kept wanting to read the Zachary Ezra Rawlins narrative and got annoyed that it kept being interrupted by the alternating fairytale chapters. Yes, it all comes together in the end, but the format kept me disconnected and made the narrative drag. It didn’t help that I was reading this in e-format. If I’d hard a print copy, I would have totally skipped around the chapters to satisfy my curiosity.

At the same time, this is a book filled with gorgeous language and description, the fairyland of my childhood dreams where one can get lost for centuries among all the stories in the world. Could there be a better place? I think not. I did enjoy the DungeonMaster/RPG approach to telling Zachary’s story, which at times made me feel as those I was inside the story, and I really enjoyed the characters.

I am 100% certain that fans of The Night Circus will eat this up. Morgenstern’s writing gets ALL the adjectives – lovely, luminous, lyrical, etc. and I predict this will appear on all the “Best of 2019” lists.

Publication Date: November 5, 2019
Published By: Doubleday
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Little Grey Girl by Celine Kiernan


cover159644-mediumFrom the Publisher: In the second book of the Wild Magic trilogy, courageous young Mup and her family are trying to heal and restore the kingdom when they uncover an ancient and powerful anger. The old queen and her raggedy witches have fled Witches Borough, and Mup’s family has moved into the cold, newly empty castle. But the queen’s legacy lingers in the fear and mistrust of her former subjects and in the memories that live in the castle’s very walls. When an enchanted snow blankets the castle, Mup’s family is cut off from the rest of the kingdom, and the painful memories of the old queen’s victims begin to take form, thanks to a ghost whose power may be too much for even Mup and Mam to handle. Celine Kiernan weaves a timely and essential truth into the second book of her trilogy: that dismantling oppression means honoring the pains of the past, and perhaps the most potent magic of all is encouraging joy and hope wherever possible.

Kiernan introduced Mup, Mam, Dad, Crow, and Tipper in Begone the Raggedy Witches (Book One of the Wild Magic Trilogy) last year, and now follows that wonderful debut with a continuation of the same story. After having defeated the Raggedy Witches and dethroned the wicked Queen, Mam moves her family into the other world and takes up residence in the old Queen’s castle. Once there, Mam struggles with the need for a Queen expressed by the people, since she wants to do everything different from how her mother, the old Queen, ruled. There’s no question that Mam has the power, but does she have the will to rule?

At the same time, Mup is struggling to understand her place in this new world, and come to terms with her own power, which sparks from her fingertips. Mup can sense that something isn’t right, and Kiernan does an excellent job of communicating not only Mup’s feeling of being out of place but her powerful sense of something bigger being wrong.

The juxtaposition between Mup’s happy family and the residual sadness, anger, and fear left in the old Queen’s castle is made more powerful by the cursed moon and snow the old Queen sends to disrupt the land. Throw in an unhappy ghost, a confused Raggedy Witch, and a friend who feels betrayed and you have a story that will keep you reading well into the night.

Publication Date: September 3, 2019
Published By: Candlewick Press
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Revenge of Magic by James Riley


revengeRiley starts a new series here with a big whump – horrible, clawed creatures exploding out of the ground in Washington DC and a young hero-in-the-making witnessing it all and then doing something about it.

Similar in broad description to the Harry Potter & Percy Jackson vein of adventure stories for kids, this one comes with a harder edge and a wildly inventive storyline. In most stories of this kind, the adults are often clueless or deceptive jerks while the kids are brave, clever heroes. The interesting thing here is that both kids and adults are equally clever, brave, and manipulative which creates an interesting dynamic. Each side score points, but each side is culpable for what happens.

There is equal time given to male and female heroes which means an appeal to both boys and girls.

The four (or seven?) branches of magic described here, as well as how they were discovered, provides a new approach to the genre. Sure, there are nods to Camp HalfBlood and Hogwarts, but also veins reminiscent of Stephen King’s Firestarter and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders series, as well as Merlin and Arthur and even a little bit of James Rollins. What pulls the story together, though, are the kid characters – tough, salty, vulnerable, and oh-so-powerful, they save the day and, most likely, the future. This could be the hit of the summer, folks…

Publication Date: March 5, 2019
Published By: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing – Aladdin
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

House of Salt & Sorrow by Erin Craig


cover157025-mediumHouse of Salt & Sorrow by Erin Craig

Folktales have been told and retold for centuries, and I am always up for reading something new. Often, the retellings are interesting but not very original. Erin Craig, though, has produced an imaginative, lovely, wholly original retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses which takes the kernel of the old story and builds a whole new world peopled by fascinating characters and customs.

The “Thaumas Dozen” is as interesting a group as I can remember from my reading. Twelve sisters, all different in their own ways with very different wishes for their futures. Tragedy strikes the family again and again as first their mother then sisters begin to die tragically. The family, it is whispered, is cursed, with the girls being described by hoped-for suitors as “lovely as a bouquet of belladonna.”

Two sisters, Annaleigh and Verity, know something is very wrong and each works towards solving the riddle of their “curse.” Throw in the wicked (is she or isn’t she?) stepmother, an enchanted father, and all the glorious wickedness of Faeryland and you have a tale that will delight and capture your senses.

This will appeal to teens and adults alike, and Erin Craig is on track to take a place next to Marissa Meyer, Naomi Novik, and Sarah Maas.

Publication Date: August 6, 2019
Publisher: Random House/Delacorte
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

January Micro-Reviews

1

devouringThe Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman – This creepy, eerie, and imaginative story grabbed me by the back of the neck and held on from first to last page. The plot is a refreshing take on the “monster in the woods” trope and features some sassy, kick-ass characters. The premise of four founding families (shades of Hogwarts, anyone?) isn’t new, but the relationship of the families to the monster and to the town they protect is pretty darn original. The author does a good job of making teens sound like teens, although the adults are portrayed as bullies or dopes. The plot flowed easily and kept my attention. It looks like this will be the beginning of a series, which makes me happy. It would also make a helluva TV series in the vein of Riverdale and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Recommended.

Publication Date: April 2, 2019
Published By: Disney-Hyperion
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

prosperThe Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding by Alexandra Bracken – How did I miss this book when it first came out? It has everything I love about middle grade fantasy – hip and likable characters, clever humor, a multi-faceted villain, a surprise twist at the end, and a superb story. Here, the likable characters are Prosper and Nell and the villain (one of them!) is Alastor, a fiend who has waited hundreds of years for revenge on the family that bound him. The competing themes of revenge & betrayal and friendship & love can lead to some interesting discussions about relationships. The nods to some of my favorite classic stories (The Crucible and Doctor Faustus) only made this more enjoyable. Bracken successfully delivers what appears to be a prologue to some serious world-building, as she prepares to publish the sequel to this in February. The twist at the end was one of the best I can remember and set up the sequel beautifully.

lastThe Last by Hanna Jameson – This title has been sitting in my To Be Read queue for months and I finally opened it last night out of guilt. Holy smokes! I read it in one sitting, resulting in a foggy day spent at work today! I am not, as a rule, a fan of dystopian fiction which is probably why it took me so long to open this one. However, when dystopian fiction is blended with a tautly plotted, inventive mystery it becomes a book I cannot put down. The author has done everything right here – good dialog, evocative description, memorable characters, and an unusual plot. I’ll be recommending this a lot in the coming months.
Publication Date: April 9, 2019
Published By: Atria Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

arloArlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon by John August – I am late to the Arlo Finch party, having missed the first in the series. However, this second-in-the-series stands pretty sturdily on its own. August explains enough about the Long Woods and the Rangers so a reader new to the series can follow along, although the characters are cool enough that I will definitely go back and read the first in the series. Here, Arlo and his fellow Rangers Wu and Indra, along with other Rangers, find themselves facing some really weird experiences as they head into their two weeks of camp. There are the usual suspects – the trio of friends who overcome great evil, the obligatory bully, the hip adults, and the scary monsters – all stirred up into a stew of steady action and hair-raising adventures. Kids who enjoy imaginative adventures will thoroughly enjoy Arlo Finch, in all his books. Recommended for middle grade readers.

Publication Date: February 5, 2019
Published By: Macmillan/Roaring Brook Press
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden


winter of the witchAround the beginning of December, I finally managed to get my hands on an advanced reading copy of Arden’s Winter of the Witch and had hoped to spend the weekend reading this end to the gorgeous Winternight Trilogy. Alas, that didn’t happen….because I finished it in a day.

I’ve written before that Arden’s writing is lyrical, lush, and full of magic and mystery; it will keep you reading well into the night, not only because she skillfully blends fairytale and history, but because she has created complex and fascinating original characters. Truthfully, I haven’t loved a series as much since I first read Harry Potter.

I will honestly say that the Potter series, which I have adored for more than 20 years, has been replaced by Arden’s Winternight Trilogy as my favorite in the fantasy genre. The story takes the fairy tales of my childhood and makes them flesh in a way that left me breathless. With this final entry, Arden has brought the stories begun in The Bear and the Nightingale full circle and created a tale for the ages.

When we left Vasya, Sasha, Olga & Dmitri, Moscow was burning due to Vasya releasing the firebird, a mythical creature contained within a golden horse that had been bridled and controlled by Kaschei the Deathless. Vasya, burned and exhausted, finds brief refuge within the terem of sister Olga, Princess of Serpukhov but is almost immediately confronted with a mob demanding her blood. Led by Brother Konstantin, the mob drags Vasya to the river and attempts to burn her as a witch. She escapes and makes her way into the realm of Midnight, where she recovers and learns more about her family and herself.

In Midnight, Vasya is considered an alternative to The Bear and The Winter King, two gods who control the chaos in the world. The chyerti of Midnight are tired of the feuding between the two and hope Vasya will break the cycle of chaos and cold controlled by these two brothers. Vasya begins to recognize her own power and understands that she can affect the outcome of war in the real world and chaos in the other realm.

There are so many themes to unpack here – the position and power of women (Vasya is different and therefore dangerous); the strength of family; the weakness of men and women when faced with unimaginable temptation; and the power afforded beauty and charisma and the danger when it goes awry. While this trilogy grew out of Russian fairy & folk tales, it is at its heart a story about family and loyalty.

What makes this a stand-out is Arden’s writing. In less imaginative and skillful hands, the story could be just another niche fantasy series; here it becomes history and romance and war as well as magic. I’ve read Arden’s other work (give Small Spaces a try next Halloween!) and found it just as beautifully written. She is a young author to watch. I don’t buy a lot of print books these days, but I have purchased a set of these books and will keep and re-read them for years to come.

Someone please make this a Netflix series!

July Micro-Reviews


9DC3B5DD-077C-4400-8F8A-6105B5419731
Hocus Pocus: the Sequel by A.W. Jantha
Hocus Pocus (the movie) is a cult classic, and continues to be a family favorite in my house. This sequel does a smashing job of bringing the Sanderson Sisters, along with Max, Alison, and Dani, into the 21st century. The storyline is appealing, with Max and Alison now “Mr. and Mrs. Dennison” and their daughter Poppy taking center stage. The Sisters are as ghastly and hilarious as ever, and Salem just as colorful.

As a fan of the movie, I found the re-telling of the original story (the first half of the book) unnecessary and repetitive. I confess, I skipped much of the original story and went right to the present day. The new story is fun, quirky, and has just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek scariness. Total fun for Hocus Pocus fans.

Publication Date: July 10, 2018
Published by: Disney
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

E5E6DF37-8155-4137-8A03-458DA31ADCB1Storm Runner by J.C. Cervantes
Another in the “Rick Riordan Presents” series, this explores Mayan mythology. I really love that Riordan is helping authors explore world mythology, but I wish there was a little more originality in this story. There are so many similarities to both the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books that I stopped keeping track. There’s nothing really wrong with the story – it’s fun and fast and very engaging – but it’s been told before. That’s my “adult” review.

That said, this is aimed at kids, and many of them may not have read the older books. They will find this a wild ride, with a cool new character who is pretty relatable even as he discovers his powers. Other characters will definitely appeal to kids – Hondo, the pro-wrestler fanatical uncle; the pretty, mysterious girl who can turn ito a hawk; and the laid-back, surfer-dude troll are just a few of the fun characters here. The plot is well-developed, everything gets tied up at the end, and the good guys win. Recommended.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018
Published by: Penguin/Random House
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

2EBF5C32-434F-440D-899C-95FD15C72652Begone the Raggedy Witches by Celine Kiernan
The Raggedy Witches are my absolute new favorites! I love how they glitter, and I adore Mup and her love of color. Stories about witches and goblins and other fantastical creatures abound in juvenile (and adult) literature these days. Celine Kiernan, who has been described as “Ireland’s J.K. Rowling”) has succeeded in creating a new type of witch and a new world that is reminiscent of some magical lands (I was actually most reminded of The Hazelwood), but full of lovely, imaginative details all her own. I adored the dance and vocal magic concepts, and even the “curse” of speaking in rhyme. The absolute best thing about this book, though, is Mup. She is a character to remember, and one who I hope to see in future stories. Mam is also a character to watch. She seems to waver between the “good” of The Duchess and the “bad” of The Queen, so her development in future stories could be quite entertaining. Recommended for middle grade fantasy readers.

Publication Date: September 11, 2018
Published by: Penguin/Random House
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Willa of the Wood by Robert Beatty


WillaBeatty’s debut, Serafina & the Black Cloak, was at the top of my “Best Of” list for 2015 and I have devoured the two sequels, so picking up Willa of the Wood was a no-brainer for me. I have come to expect lush description, clever plotting, and memorable characters from Beatty, but I was unprepared for the flat-out gorgeousness of Willa of the Wood.

Willa is a wholly original character, a member of a Faeran clan living in the Great Smoky Mountains. She is a girl who thinks for herself despite living in a brutal patriarchy, clinging to and preserving the old ways of wood magic taught to her by her Mamaw. She is curious about the “day-folk” and begins to question the hardline social structure of her clan, led by the god-like padaran. This, of course, leads to a break with the clan and a new beginning for Willa but not without some death and destruction.

To be sure, there is far more violence in this book than in the Serafina series, although there is a lovely nod to Serafina in the form of a gorgeous panther. There is also supreme gentleness and caring for nature and fellow beings – Faeran, human, and animal. One of the most interesting things here is the way in which Willa relates to and communicates with trees. To her, trees are living beings and the day-folk who slaughter them with their axes live in “lairs” made from their carcasses. Willa is saved more than once by calling on the power of trees and plants.

Willa is a complex character who moves between the world of the Faeran and that of humans. She is a bridge between two distinct cultures who inherently mistrust each other. I look forward to more stories about Willa and her clan.

Highly recommended for upper grade readers.

Publication Date: July 10, 2018
Publisher: Disney/Hyperion
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy