Review: The Lost Apothecary

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Synopsis

A forgotten history. A secret network of women. A legacy of poison and revenge. Welcome to the Lost Apothecary…

Hidden in the depths of eighteenth-century London, a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. But the apothecary’s fate is jeopardized when her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old, makes a fatal mistake, sparking a string of consequences that echo through the centuries.

Meanwhile, in present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, running from her own demons. When she stumbles upon a clue to the unsolved apothecary murders that haunted London two hundred years ago, her life collides with the apothecary’s in a stunning twist of fate – and not everyone will survive.

With crackling suspense, unforgettable characters and searing insight, The Lost Apothecary is a subversive and intoxicating debut novel of secrets, vengeance and the remarkable ways women can save each other despite the barrier of time.

Review

Read: April 2021

Rating: 3.75 stars out of 5

That I read The Lost Apothecary at all testifies to the advertising prowess of social media. Historical fiction is not a favorite genre of mine, although I sometimes do find exceptions. I spent my Audible credit (yes, this was before I switched to Libro) for the month on this book because I kept seeing it in my Goodreads feeds – in followed accounts’ posts, in ads, et cetera. It popped up on the radio or in one of the newspapers I subscribe to, I’m pretty sure. Eventually I just gave in because I wanted to know what everyone was buzzing about – and whether it was worthy of that buzz.

Nella is a dealer of protection and revenge, both via poisons. Her clientele consists solely of women – either women who have been wronged by men or women seeking assistance on behalf of women who have been wronged by men. Enter Eliza, a twelve-year-old whose mistress dispatches her to procure a poison against her own husband because he is preying on girls, including Eliza. Fortunately or unfortunately, Eliza quickly develops an enthusiastic, unrelenting curiosity in Nella’s work. Two hundred twenty years from then, Caroline Parcewell is grappling with what a piece of shit her husband James actually is. She’s contemplating whether her marriage will survive when she heads to London. In a move that revives the dreams James crushed, she begins investigating Nella’s business and the murders connected to it.

The relatively small cast is nonetheless populated with complex, interesting characters. Nella didn’t just up and decide one day to abet murders across London just for the hell of it: let’s just say she began her line of work as a way to bite back in a world where women’s power is limited. Eliza is persistent, sometimes to a fault, and very bright – the kind of bright that, when tempered with a bit of patience and/or schooling, really takes people places. Although readers only witness Nella and Eliza’s mother-daughter relationship over the course of – a few days? Weeks? It’s been a while since I read this – their friendship is nonetheless precious. The brevity of the time span depicted in the book does not diminish their friendship. While all of the women experience strong, substantial character arcs, Caroline emerges as the star of the show: In her resurfacing from the confines of a claustrophobic marriage to an emotionally manipulative man, she rediscovers herself, all while solving an ultra-cold case murder and dealing with her husband’s shit. Caroline, in a synthesis of both Eliza’s and Nella’s best traits, is a determined detective with an eye for detail who brooks no shit from anyone – including Jackass James.

There are two sticking points I have with this book. First, I am not as impressed with the plot as I hoped I’d be. I expected it to be more… suspenseful. I mean, it is – it just isn’t sufficiently suspenseful. So what would you do to add suspense? you ask. I don’t know. Maybe the suspense level is fine, and I just wasn’t in the right mindset to enjoy the story to its fullest when I was reading. Maybe I anticipated an even darker story than I received. My biggest issue with the plot stems from how so much of it is predicated on bad sex ed. Yes, Nella and Eliza’s story occurs in the late eighteenth century and sex ed was even worse than it currently is in many US states, but that fact does little to mollify me. It’s frustrating to watch a newly menorrheic twelve-year-old believe that her vagina (if she even understands what her vagina is) is haunted by the ghost of the man that she killed using one of Nella’s poisons, even though she is in regular contact with a female apothecary who could actually explain periods to her. The other problem I have is with the magic. If you’re a regular reader of my reviews, you’ve probably noticed that I love me some magic rules and some worldbuilding when it comes to fantasy. In The Lost Apothecary, the magic isn’t even discussed until the latter half of the book, and then only briefly before being used as a Hail Mary at the end of the novel. For the gravity of the situations magic is utilized in, the scant focus on magic makes its use feel more like a cop-out than a viable, feasible solution to the problem.

Although historical fiction isn’t typically to my taste, The Lost Apothecary still was an interesting read, even when it fell short in the suspense department. In spite of the clumsy use of magic, readers will find an appealing plot and truly compelling character arcs render this novel a sturdy debut.

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Review: A Deadly Education

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Synopsis

I decided that Orion Lake needed to die after the second time he saved my life.

Everyone loves Orion Lake. Everyone else, that is. Far as I’m concerned, he can keep his flashy combat magic to himself. I’m not joining his pack of adoring fans.

I don’t need help surviving the Scholomance, even if they do. Forget the hordes of monsters and cursed artifacts, I’m probably the most dangerous thing in the place. Just give me a chance and I’ll level mountains and kill untold millions, make myself the dark queen of the world.

At least, that’s what the world expects. Most of the other students in here would be delighted if Orion killed me like one more evil thing that’s crawled out of the drains. Sometimes I think they want me to turn into the evil witch they assume I am. The school certainly does.

But the Scholomance isn’t getting what it wants from me. And neither is Orion Lake. I may not be anyone’s idea of the shining hero, but I’m going to make it out of this place alive, and I’m not going to slaughter thousands to do it, either.

Although I’m giving serious consideration to just one.

Review

Read: July 2021

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

What if the Hogwarts staff one day looked out at all the students in the Great Hall, said, “Fuck these little shits,” and collectively noped out of Hogwarts, leaving the kids to fend for themselves against whatever magical mishaps and whackadoodle, murderous beasties cropped up?

Your answer is the Scholomance. In the Scholomance, though, you’d be so lucky as to have only Hagrid’s blast-ended skrewts and the occasional basilisk out to kill you. The food is sometimes contaminated. Scholomance kids are attacked by deadly maleficaria on a regular basis (at least once per month) – and not all survive. You’re crazy if you go to the bathroom alone. The result is a Machiavellian, hardscrabble milieu that necessitates alliances, business deals, and politicking to boost your chances to survive. Sometimes kids even make friends.

Naomi Novik could’ve easily chosen the most advantaged kid to narrate the story. (That would be Orion Lake, the son of a New York enclave official, who is widely known for his lion’s heart, generosity, and his singular combat skills.) Instead, Novik opts for one of the school’s biggest loners: Galadriel “El” Higgins. El is charming in that she isn’t readily likeable – or at least not likeable in the traditional sense. She’s smart, determined, fiercely independent, and prickly, while also being deeply flawed. Novik lets El’s strengths be her weaknesses and her weaknesses be her strengths; her attributes are neither purely beneficial nor purely detrimental to her survival. El’s echinated exterior at first leaves her isolated and therefore disadvantaged in terms of survival, but later on it does earn her a few real friends and the respect of some efficacious potential allies. Furthermore, El could be extraordinarily powerful, but the moral and physical costs of that power deter her from taking full advantage of it. A refreshingly imperfect heroine, El’s delightfully acerbic stream of consciousness lends a conversational feel to the narration. It’s also wonderful to witness El develop as a person. She begins the book by not really having friends, just folks willing to do business with her, and gradually emerges from her shell. I love how her relationship with Orion blossoms into a friendship instead of just taking off into a romantic relationship right away. I’ll be interested to see further developments on that front (PLEASE!!!!), and I’m hoping for further progress in El’s burgeoning friendships with Aadhya and Liu.

Novik clearly has exerted a huge amount of effort into creating the Scholomance world, and that effort has borne fruit. The world Novik has crafted in the Scholomance universe is assiduously imagined and thoroughly explained. Novik’s worldbuilding, however, is sometimes awkward. She has a tendency to monologue her way through worldbuilding via El, and if the material weren’t so damn interesting I’d probably hate the infodumping. As much as I was enthralled by the subject matter, I often had a sense of… being unmoored. Sometimes I’d be wrapped up in the information and then think to myself, “Wait, where is this going?” However, El’s social status and introverted personality, alongside the isolation of the Scholomance’s occupants in general, allow the hefty information style to fit just a little bit better than it should have. Still, I can’t help but think that so much of the book’s content focuses on worldbuilding that the plot is edged out – or that Novik just wanted to fill more pages than a less heavy-handed approach would have.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the elephant in the room: the racist locs paragraph. Yes, Naomi Novik wrote a whole damn paragraph about “lock-leeches” that lay eggs in locs and whose larvae can kill the host. (I guess my library’s copy is the old version.) Now all racism is stupid, but this instance is especially stupid because Novik had to 1) conceive the idea, 2) write it out, 3) decide that it was fine to have written it, and 4) send in her manuscript to editors, and this somehow all passed the sensitivity read. To her credit, Novik offered a frank apology and made some serious efforts to correct her error, but the unfortunate fact remains that the incident happened and is hurtful.

A Deadly Education begins a potential-packed series in a dark, gritty setting full of characters likeable not because they are perfect, but because they are so very human. While Novik’s worldbuilding can be as much a ballast as it can be an attractant, A Deadly Education is an entertaining read worthy of picking up. Just look for later printings of it – and if you happen to get ahold of the oldest printing, be aware of why that paragraph on locs is problematic.

To learn more about race-based hair discrimination and what you can do, visit TheCROWNAct.org.

Review: House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City, #1)

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Synopsis

Bryce Quinlan had the perfect life – working hard all day and partying all night – until a demon murdered her closest friends, leaving her bereft, wounded, and alone. When the accused is behind bars but the crimes start up again, Bryce finds herself at the heart of the investigation. She’ll do whatever it takes to avenge their deaths.

Hunt Athalar is a notorious Fallen angel, now enslaved to the Archangels he once attempted to overthrow. His brutal skills and incredible strength have been set to one purpose – to assassinate his boss’s enemies, no questions asked. But with a demon wreaking havoc in the city, he’s offered an irresistible deal: help Bryce find the murderer, and his freedom will be within reach.

As Bryce and Hunt dig deeper into Crescent City’s underbelly, they discover a dark power that threatens everything and everyone they hold dear, and they find, in each other, a blazing passion – one that could set them both free, if only they’d let it.

Review

Read: July 2021

Rating: ?????

Spoiler warning! Major plot details will be discussed in this review. Turn back now if you don’t want to see them!

After reading the atrocious abomination that is A Court of Silver Flames, I dabbled in negative reviews of both that book and House of Earth and Blood. My plans to read HoEaB were scrapped, at least for the moment. But I decided that my stint of good books had continued long enough, and I wanted some trash. (Reading garbage amplifies your appreciation for the quality material, you know.)

Basically, I picked HoEaB up as a hate read, but I ended up not hating it. I liked it. This book chronicles a substantive mystery with deep personal connections to one of our detective heroes. Bryce Quinlan lost her best friend, her romantic interest, and a whole wolf pack of friends to a particularly gruesome murder and is struggling to cope with the grief and guilt even two years later. Counting on Bryce’s interest in avenging her friends’ murders and in not looking like a suspect herself, Governor Micah Domitus, an Archangel, pairs Bryce up with his slave (yes, you read that correctly), Hunt Athalar. Hunt’s primary motivation – a drastic reduction in his slave debt – is soon joined by his burgeoning feelings for Bryce (which you probably will see coming if you’ve ever been exposed to any kind of romance). If you hate slow-paced stuff, this book isn’t for you, but I found that the pacing fit well with the story HoEaB has to tell.

I didn’t expect to be as invested in the characters as I was. Ruhn is shaping up to be a promising character, and I hope that the next installment will focus more heavily on him. (Bonus: I think Maas is setting up an excellent slow-burn romance between either Hypaxia and Ruhn or Hypaxia and Tharion. Either would be fine.) Also, I love hacker-type characters, and I didn’t know I needed a Fae hacker until Declan Emmett came along. He had better have more point-of-view pages in the next book too, damn it. Even Bryce grew on me. Above all, though, Danika is unquestionably the real star of this book. Her love of animals and sense of justice are eternally endearing. Her friendship with Bryce is so wholesome. Her machinations foil the bad guy, an immortal of several hundred years, for two years after her own death. Micah isn’t exaggerating when he says, “Danika’s the smart one.”

So if you enjoyed so much of the story, why couldn’t you just pick a rating? you wonder. Well folks, between those reviews I read and my own experience reading literally every single one of Maas’s novels – and in particular, the abomination that is A Court of Silver Flames – I noticed stuff that once would have flown under my radar. Here’s my shit list:

Many people have been complaining about Maas’s dearth of diversity in her books, and I absolutely understand where they’re coming from. Juniper, a faun, is basically described as being Black, but she doesn’t really have the page time or character development for her presence to amount to much more than tokenism.

  • The slapdash tokenism diversity is frustrating. Lack of diversity alone is not usually enough to sink a book, but it certainly can degrade the quality, and it can give the impression that authors are neglecting to raise awareness about minorities and their treatment through their platforms. Many people have been complaining about Maas’s dearth of diversity in her books, and I absolutely understand where they’re coming from. Juniper is basically described as being Black, but she doesn’t really have the page time or character development for her presence to amount to much more than tokenism. What’s more, Juniper is in a lesbian relationship with Fury… and that’s all we hear about it. I mean, I guess it’s nice that being LGBTQ+ is such a non-issue in Crescent City; however, I think that Maas should remember the context in which the real-world audience lives when approaching these sorts of things. Maybe Maas is planning to focus more on Juniper and/or Fury in House of Sky and Breath, but if past behavior is any indicator, she likely will not.
  • Certain phrases are repeated ad nauseum. I get it. Bryce thinks Hunt is hot. That said, the phrase “her toes curled” does not need to appear as many times as it does. And of course, because this is an SJM book, we got a visit or two from someone’s “considerable length.”
  • Danika surrenders her eternal life in the Bone Quarter for Bryce’s Ascent. Can’t my girl get a break?
  • Does Bryce really need to end up with that much power? Stories tend to be more interesting when your characters aren’t living battering rams or nukes. I love seeing characters solve problems with their intelligence, their skills, and/or their grit. Unfortunately, by the end of the book, Bryce is a battering ram. A Court of Silver Flames, as another review points out, has the same damn problem. Bryce already has the Starborn ability and the Horn. Now she gets to be more powerful than the Autumn King? The crappiest part is that Bryce probably would have not needed Danika’s spirit to evaporate in order to survive the Ascent if she’d just stuck with her inborn power level.
  • Shut the hell up about how hot Bryce is. We get it. A character crushing on another character is bound to remark upon the physical appearance of their crush multiple times. Still, not all thoughts should be shared – or at least, not all thoughts should be shared more than once.
  • Maas needs help writing men better. “He’d admit it: males would do a lot of fucked-up things for someone who looked like that” seems pretty insulting to men, if you ask me. Maas seems to be under the impression that men have little self-control. Also, what the fuck with “Fucking Hel, his voice – silk and steel and ancient stone. He could probably make someone come by merely whispering filthy things in their ear”? Does Micah have to be a walking talking orgasmatron? That’s fucking ridiculous.
  • One of the biggest problems with this book is the potential plagiarism at the very end. Other readers have noticed that “like calls to like” is an axiom in the Grisha trilogy. (The Tumblr post in the link includes other examples that I think might be a stretch.) I’d heard about this in relation to the A Court of Thorns and Roses series, but I brushed it off. Those words are relatively common, and maybe it’s toeing the line of copying, but it’s not that huge. Demon-fighting light powers don’t belong exclusively to Leigh Bardugo either; it’s a theme as old as shit. But when those two things – a demon-fighting light power and the phrase “like calls to like” – it definitely crosses the line from “uncomfy but not horrible” to “yikes.” Alina’s power is light that can combat darkness and monsters. Bryce’s Starborn power is basically the same thing. Combined with “like calls to like,” it seems like pretty blatant plagiarism – or at least bad editing.

Overall, this first installment of Crescent City is both intriguing and also… uncomfortable and disappointing at times. I don’t regret reading it, but it’s not my new favorite thing like it might have been three or four years ago. Maas’s various issues can, have, and will diminish the fun that this book, in a less adulterated state, should be.

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Disclaimer: This review contains links to other blogs/social media posts associated with other reviewers. I am not collaborating with them, nor does the appearance of their links in this review imply endorsement of my blog or this post. I have simply included the links to connect my readers with the material to which I am responding.

Review: Truthwitch (The Witchlands, #1)

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Synopsis

On a continent ruled by three empires, some are born with a “witchery,” a magical skill that sets them apart from others.

In the Witchlands, there are almost as many types of magic as there are ways to get in trouble—as two desperate young women know all too well.

Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lie. It’s a powerful magic that many would kill to have on their side, especially amongst the nobility to which Safi was born. So Safi must keep her gift hidden, lest she be used as a pawn in the struggle between empires.

Iseult, a Threadwitch, can see the invisible ties that bind and entangle the lives around her—but she cannot see the bonds that touch her own heart. Her unlikely friendship with Safi has taken her from life as an outcast into one of reckless adventure, where she is a cool, wary balance to Safiya’s hotheaded impulsiveness.

Safiya and Iseult just want to be free to live their own lives, but war is coming to the Witchlands. With the help of the cunning Prince Merik (a Windwitch and privateer) and the hindrance of a Bloodwitch bent on revenge, the friends must fight emperors, princes, and mercenaries alike, who will stop at nothing to get their hands on a Truthwitch.

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Review

Re-read: June 2021

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

The Witchlands is one of those series that I stumbled upon by surfing through the Nook Store’s “$2.99 and Under” section – a favorite place of mine to snag books. In retrospect, I got even more bang for my buck than I originally thought, since Truthwitch would’ve been more than worth its cover price, let alone the measly $3 I shelled out for it.

Two-and-a-half years ago, when I first read Truthwitch, I very much enjoyed it but felt somewhat… adrift. Susan Dennard has built such an expansive world in the Witchlands that readers might feel overwhelmed. But that feeling is the good sort of overwhelm – the kind you experience when something is saturated with intricate detail, yet there are still so many questions that demand answers. Reading the rest of the series and then re-reading Truthwitch dissipates any remaining confusion. This first book of a truly spectacular series proves to be an excellent introduction to the riveting story Dennard has to tell.

The pace of this book could be best described as “barreling” or “breakneck.” Seriously, the action never ceases. It all kicks off with a bungled heist, and Safi and Iseult spend the rest of the book running. Dennard isn’t bad at writing fight scenes either – which is a good thing, because there are plenty of skirmishes throughout the novel. The characters are multidimensional, complex, and dynamic. Each viewpoint character has some hangup to battle with: Safi’s uncontrolled recklessness, Iseult’s failure to live up to the expectations of both her mother and her society as a Threadwitch, Merik’s temper, and Aeduan’s struggle to discern exactly which morals he holds. While Truthwitch decidedly focuses on Safi’s character development, the other characters experience distinct – if slower and subtler – progression of their character arcs.

There is only one reason I knocked off half a star: Dennard’s writing sometimes feels a bit unwieldy, the type of awkward that often accompanies an author still trying to figure out how to best guide readers through their story and illustrate their characters. For instance, I remembered there being sexual and romantic tension between Safi and Merik, but I forgot how ridiculously horny Merik is during the last hundred pages or so. Occasionally, the characters make what appear to be (and sometimes are) completely boneheaded mistakes, but those mistakes usually end up painting them as realistic people who are imperfect and who fuck up, all while keeping the book at a healthy distance from a disastrous “idiot plot” saga. Really, the plot is so amazingly good and the characters are so wonderful that it’s easy to forgive most of the bumps in the road.

Whether you’re reading Truthwitch for the first time or revisiting it, prepare to find yourself in a fascinated daze at the end. Considered in isolation from its successors, I highly recommend Truthwitch. Considered along with its successors, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Review: Libertie

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Synopsis

The critically acclaimed and Whiting Award–winning author of We Love You, Charlie Freemanreturns with Libertie, an unforgettable story about one young Black girl’s attempt to find a place where she can be fully, and only, herself.

Coming of age in a free Black community in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie Sampson is all too aware that her purposeful mother, a practicing physician, has a vision for their future together: Libertie is to go to medical school and practice alongside her. But Libertie, drawn more to music than science, feels stifled by her mother’s choices and is hungry for something else—is there really only one way to have an autonomous life? And she is constantly reminded that, unlike her light-skinned mother, Libertie will not be able to pass for white. When a young man from Haiti proposes to Libertie and promises she will be his equal on the island, she accepts, only to discover that she is still subordinate to him and all men. As she tries to parse what freedom actually means for a Black woman, Libertie struggles with where she might find it—for herself and for generations to come.

Inspired by the life of one of the first Black female doctors in the United States and rich with historical detail, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s new and immersive novel will resonate with readers eager to understand our present through a deep, moving, and lyrical dive into our past.

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Review

Read: June 2021

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Spoiler warning!

Over the last few months, I’ve been on a journey to diversify my shelves, so I sought out some recommendations from lists on the web. Libertie was suggested to me by Taiwo Balogun’s article in Marie Claire about new books from Black authors this year. The themes of colorism, racism, and feminism appealed to me – plus, that cover is beautiful.

It’s not that there are no good things about this book. Greenidge has a truly entrancing writing style. Her prose flows and illustrates in a way that hooks readers and transports them into Libertie’s world. Considering that Libertie is supposed to have a penchant for the arts, this writing style completely fits with Libertie’s character. Greenidge also offers some insightful commentary on colorism, colonialism, gender, and racism through the eyes of a Black woman. The discrimination Libertie endures differs starkly from that faced by her mother Catherine, because Catherine possesses a light skin tone. While her mother’s light skin allowed her to slip into a prestigious academic program and establish herself as a gifted pupil before the racist assholes who ran the school discovered she was Black, Libertie’s dark skin earns her nicknames (sometimes meant endearingly, sometimes not), expressions of disappointment (“It’s too bad she inherited her father’s color”), and admonishments (very often from other Black people). After her marriage, Libertie finds that her Christian, wealthy, Black American in-laws harbor deep prejudices against the Black, pagan, and considerably darker-skinned people of Haiti – beliefs that eventually strain Libertie’s marriage itself. Libertie’s experiences remind readers that even though White people certainly bear responsibility for systemic racism and historically were/are the worst perpetrators of colonialism, racial, cultural, and color-based discrimination against people of color is not limited solely to White people. After treating survivors of the New York City draft and race riot of 1863, Libertie finds that she cannot reconcile Catherine’s post-war service of White patients, and that she is – understandably – outraged with the horrible way White patients treat her because of her skin color; lighter-skinned Catherine, while still treated as unequal by her White patients, is more accepted. Following her marriage, Libertie finds that her Christian, wealthy, Black American in-laws harbor deep prejudices against the Black, pagan, and considerably darker-skinned people of Haiti – beliefs that eventually strain Libertie’s marriage itself. Libertie’s experiences remind readers that even though White people certainly bear responsibility for systemic racism and historically were/are the worst perpetrators of colonialism, racial, cultural, and color-based discrimination against people of color is not limited solely to White people.

For all of those terrible and fascinating insights, I felt like this book dragged on longer than necessary. Although I liked Libertie’s character in the beginning of the novel, she began to truly irritate me about halfway through. I understand how the prejudices she has suffered have shaped her life and have forced her into difficult or ridiculous decisions, but sometimes Libertie is just flat-out foolish. Her choice to marry Emmanuel and buzz off to Haiti rather than confess her academic failure to her mother is immature and extremely frustrating. Perhaps my annoyance stems from ignorance of the experiences of a Black woman in the Reconstruction era – something I will never truly be able to completely understand, no matter how many books I read or documentaries I watch. The solutions seemed so very obvious to me sometimes, but then again, I am a White woman living a hundred fifty years after the events of the book with many more options and privileges than Libertie ever would have had in her time period. It would be much more difficult for a woman to leave her husband in 1870 than it is now, and I don’t have to consider my skin color when seeking out transportation or work – all things Libertie has to worry about.

Still, I think Greenidge would have done better to have narrated through multiple viewpoint characters rather than just focusing the story on Libertie. Catherine briefly is a viewpoint narrator of sorts, but only through her letters. Louisa, Experience, Ella, and Ti Me never have viewpoint chapters. All of these women have different knowledges of the Black experience, and all that they added to the story as Greenidge wrote it could have been amplified and expanded by making at least some of them viewpoint characters. Narration from the viewpoint of Louisa or Experience would have painted a more vivid picture of what it meant to be a queer Black woman during that time period. Ella’s viewpoint would have highlighted the suffering her brother and father inflicted upon her by convincing her that she saw nothing of the sexual assault(s) her father committed. Ti Me, too, would have been better and more poignantly able to explain what it was like to be nurse to kids less than ten years her juniors. And of course, Catherine would have had much to share about her unique position as a Black woman physician. On its own, Libertie’s story tends to meander and lag, to take too long to reach its points.

I don’t know. Maybe my problem is that historical fiction isn’t usually my thing. If historical fiction is your thing, please don’t be discouraged from reading Libertie. This book has a lot to offer, even if it isn’t quite for me.

Review: A Climate for Death

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Synopsis

A thousand miles off course, a private plane grazes a historic lighthouse and crashes on a snow-covered precipice a hundred feet above Lake Superior. There’s a dead pilot on board, but three VIP passengers are missing. The FBI, NTSB and others head to the crash site in remote Lake County, Minnesota, where the locals are dealing with one of the coldest winters on record.

A deadly snowmobile accident, an upstart candidate for Congress, and alarming discoveries in Isle Royale National Park add to the challenges confronting local sheriff Sam MacDonald as the solitude of the North Shore is disrupted by events that could have national and international repercussions. The weather is just one of the circumstances that create a climate for death.

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Review

Read: June 2021

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

At this point, I’ve become familiar with reviewing a book that I badly wanted to like but ended up having to force myself through. The disappointment is especially strong when someone offers you their work to review because I feel disappointment on their behalf too, I think. But an honest review is warranted, and so honest I shall be.

If A Climate for Death were adapted as a movie or a series, I honestly would watch it. A murder mystery? And it’s set in the Great Lakes? Sounds good. I know that sounds contradictory to what I just said, but I’ll explain. The plot of this book is its strong point. The concept for A Climate for Death isn’t bad at all, and Lund generally has a firm grasp on how he wants the plot to play out. The motives for the murders are wild, but I’ve watched enough Dateline and listened to enough My Favorite Murder to know that people are fucking crazy and do insane things for insane reasons. Lund even goes so far as to openly address this via Hinton, albeit regarding an incorrectly named suspect:

“That’s because you’re trying to attribute rational thoughts and motives to an irrational, desperate man.”

My most prominent stumbling blocks were Lund’s writing style and characterization. Lund loves to infodump, and he loves to do it in the worst possible way. He doesn’t just spout relevant information in unwieldy lumps: He tells you all the shit you don’t need to know and probably won’t care about. No, Lund, I do not need to know the alma mater of every character who ever appears on your pages. I don’t need to be told that the wife of the lighthouse keeper is beautiful and intelligent when she only appears on like five pages. I certainly don’t need to know the fucking life story of the guy from whom Redman purchases his new car. It’s almost like when Lund introduces his characters or paints their backgrounds, he just copies his notes on their biographical profiles into paragraph form. This has the unfortunate effect of making the reader feel less like they’re reading a novel and more like they’re reading an entire wiki about the novel. Yes, details are important to illustrate characters, but for shit’s sake, please skip the biography of each Tim, Terrance, and Kathy who so much as farts on-page.

Lund also has this weird habit of throwing in a detail that is completely out of left field and just… never mentioning it again. For instance, in the beginning of the book, an exhausted Sheriff MacDonald is asleep at his desk, and his coworkers/employees wake him up and brief him on their findings. When his detective asks if he’s paying attention, we get this insight into MacDonald’s dream:

MacDonald had been watching his six-year-old daughter practice a dance routine at the Little Gym in Falls Church, Virginia. His first wife and their daughter had been decapitated when her car slid under a braking semi-trailer during a snowstorm in McLean in January of 2013.

I understand how this horrific incident could really shape a character’s life, but MacDonald doesn’t expand upon that. This is a particularly gruesome and traumatic event to just toss out to the readers like some kind of morbid steak and then never touch again beyond MacDonald having a couple of bad dreams or vague memories. I don’t even think the wife and daughter were ever named (but maybe my memory is fuzzy on that matter). Speaking of weird, an odd number of characters are involved in relationships with huge age gaps. I know (adult) people sometimes find love with someone significantly older than themselves, but it’s a tad strange when most of the couples have an age gap of eleven years or more.

The writing style is largely responsible for this book’s other major flaw: characterization. The Wikipedia article-type exposition Lund employed – Lund’s preference for telling instead of showing – failed to connect me with the characters. Near the end of the book, Hallie, MacDonald’s second wife (not the one who got decapitated), announces that she’s pregnant. And I just don’t care. If the characterization were better, I would have squeaked with joy for Hallie and Mac. The strongest emotional response I can muster up is the halfhearted, perfunctory “oh good for them” that I’d typically associate with learning that a cousin’s cousin’s cousin was expecting. I guess I kind of like Redman, but that’s mostly because he adopted a dog shortly before he’s introduced in the book. Liz, Jenny, Jeronimas are intriguing, but in a distant sort of way. Everyone in this book has the potential to be much more interesting than they are in the book.

While A Climate for Death definitely didn’t tickle me right, it has a strong plot. (Bonus: It’s also pretty cool to hear a sexagenarian bash a thinly-veiled stand-in for Donald Trump, support liberal policies, cheer on a gay trans couple, and use the phrase “sat his privileged fat ass.”) With a little work on his delivery and his characterization, Lund could blossom into a truly powerful novelist.

Disclaimer: I won this book in a giveaway in exchange for an honest review.

Spoiler-Light Review: Rule of Wolves (Nikolai Duology, #2; Grishaverse, #7)

Image from Barnes and Noble website.

Synopsis

The wolves are circling and a young king will face his greatest challenge in the explosive finale of the instant #1 New York Times–bestselling King of Scars Duology.

The Demon King. As Fjerda’s massive army prepares to invade, Nikolai Lantsov will summon every bit of his ingenuity and charm—and even the monster within—to win this fight. But a dark threat looms that cannot be defeated by a young king’s gift for the impossible.

The Stormwitch. Zoya Nazyalensky has lost too much to war. She saw her mentor die and her worst enemy resurrected, and she refuses to bury another friend. Now duty demands she embrace her powers to become the weapon her country needs. No matter the cost.

The Queen of Mourning. Deep undercover, Nina Zenik risks discovery and death as she wages war on Fjerda from inside its capital. But her desire for revenge may cost her country its chance at freedom and Nina the chance to heal her grieving heart.

King. General. Spy. Together they must find a way to forge a future in the darkness. Or watch a nation fall.

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Review (Spoiler-Light Version)

Read: May 2021

Rating: 5 stars out of 5!

Spoiler warning: This review will contain spoilers for all preceding Grishaverse books (Grisha Trilogy, Six of Crows Duology, King of Scars, and possibly even The Language of Thorns). I’ll try to be circumspect about the precise events of Rule of Wolves, but there will be mild spoilers for this book.

Spoiler version: Coming soon!

Two years of waiting have rewarded me with this enthralling, suspenseful, fulfilling masterpiece. Between finishing re-reading Six of Crows (via audiobook with my mother and sister) and reading Rule of Wolves, I’m reminded exactly why I love Leigh Bardugo’s stories so damn much.

This book is emotional. Be prepared for a hurricane of feelings. Be prepared to squeal with joy, and be prepared to sob. I don’t often cry over book character deaths, but the death in this book tore me apart. Yet, in love and friendship, there is still happiness to be found. This is especially true for fans of the canon ships. If you’re a diehard Kanej shipper like I am, even the brief allusions to their relationship will thrill you. And needless to say, the Zoyalai moments are smoldering, even without sex scenes. Bardugo has crafted an excellent romance in which she captures the intimacy between Zoya and Nikolai without much physical contact. Nina’s romance with Hanne, too, is natural, especially given how Bardugo balances Nina’s growing feelings for Hanne with her love for her deceased partner, Matthias.

Leigh Bardugo is skilled at handling multiple plot threads and bringing them together in a cohesive climax – which is fitting, because Rule of Wolves is, as I interpret it, meant to be a quasi-finale of the Grishaverse. (Bardugo has stated that this is a “farewell for now,” although she plans to return to the Grishaverse later.) While Nikolai and Zoya are in Ravka and Kerch preparing for war with Fjerda, Nina is also preparing for war from within Fjerda itself, and Mayu, Ehri, and Tamar head off to Shu Han to extirpate the kherguud. And all of it makes sense. The resolutions to our heroes many, many challenges are realistic and believable.

Rule of Wolves is one of those books in which you should pay very close attention to detail if you want a chance at correctly inferring any of the plot twists. I repeatedly would flip back through the book to refresh myself on details – partially because I’m a pedantic sucker for detail and partially because I wanted to formulate my best guess as to what would happen next. Everything is used – and there’s a lot of material to incorporate. Politicking! Magic! Spying! Mini-heists! War! Slow-burn romances! It’s all here, and Bardugo doesn’t waste a single scrap of it. If you haven’t read Rule of Wolves yet – or any of the rest of the Grishaverse, for that matter – you’re cheating yourself worse than Kaz cheats Pekka Rollins and Nikolai cheats death.

Mini Review: Sightwitch (Witchlands, #2.5)

Credit: Barnes & Noble

Synopsis

Sisters with the gift of Sight—Sightwitches, who can see into the future—are of a rare and ancient order. Raised in a secluded convent, they await the invitation of their goddess to enter the depths of the mountain and receive the sacred gift of foretelling.

But for young Ryber Fortiza, that call never comes. As the only sister without Sight, Ryber has devoted herself to the goddess. Surely, if she just works hard enough, she will finally be gifted like everyone else.

Until one day, all Sisters who possess the Sight are summoned into the mountain—and never return. Now Ryber, still Sight-less, is the only one left. Can she, who has spent her life feeling like th weakest, be the one to save her Sisters and the ancient power they protect?

On her journey underground, she encounters a young captain named Kullen Ikray, who has no memory of who he is or how he got there. Together they trek ever deeper, the mountain tunnels filled with mysteries and horrors. And what they find at the end will alter the fate of the Witchlands forever.

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Review

Read: May 2021

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This review contains spoilers for Truthwitch and Windwitch, and mild spoilers for Bloodwitch.

I’d heard that Sightwitch was extremely important to the rest of the Witchlands series. I mean, I never doubted that, but wow. Anybody reading the Witchlands series must read this novella. And when I say you need to read it, I mean you should read either a physical or digital text copy. While I haven’t listened to the audiobook, a friend of mine has, and I can imagine that he might have missed out on quite a bit. Dennard uses different fonts for the beginnings of diary entries and for notes, and without being able to see those fonts, listeners might feel a little lost. The fonts are an excellent choice for both aesthetic and storytelling purposes: They provide an extra means of understanding the characters, and they indicate who the narrator is.

When I read Truthwitch, I was heartbroken when Kullen cleaved and when Ryber mourned his loss and subsequently left Merik’s crew. In my opinion, readers encountered Ryber and Kullen often enough and in sufficient depth to be impacted by those events, but they didn’t know Ryber and Kullen as well as the two of them deserved to be known. Sightwitch is a marvelous explanation of Ryber’s origins and a poignant, bittersweet peek at Kullen prior to his cleaving.

On Ryber and Kullen’s end, this book is far from romance-heavy. Ryber is intent on finding her Threadsister, Tanzi, and the rest of the Sightwitches who have been her family for the majority of her life. Given that fact, along with the time span in which Ryber knows Kullen, it’s much more natural for a few brilliant sparks to fly between them than it is for a fully fleshed romance to form in this story. Eridysi, on the other hand, sees her romantic relationship develop into something solid. Despite Eridysi never writing out the general’s full name, their romance is compelling nonetheless.

Perhaps more than anything else, though, Sightwitch is a vessel of world-building – in the best way possible. Dennard has introduced readers to a variety of fascinating aspects of the Witchlands world, and here she explains the most important lore pieces to readers while telling two riveting stories. Vivia’s underground city, the Paladins, Eridysi, the doorways, Sightwitches, ice, the blade and the mirror, the Rook King – all of them are part of this intriguing tale. This is the kind of tie-in that prompts you to reread all the other books in the series just so you can pick up everything you missed before, and I intend to do just that. Even if you’ve already read Bloodwitch, this book is a major eye-opener that can’t be skipped.

Book Review: Firekeeper’s Daughter

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Synopsis

Eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. She dreams of a fresh start at college, but when family tragedy strikes, Daunis puts her future on hold to look after her fragile mother. The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team.

Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into an FBI investigation of a lethal new drug.

Reluctantly, Daunis agrees to go undercover, drawing on her knowledge of chemistry and Ojibwe traditional medicine to track down the source. But the search for truth is more complicated than Daunis imagined, exposing secrets and old scars. At the same time, she grows concerned with an investigation that seems more focused on punishing the offenders than protecting the victims.

Now, as the deceptions—and deaths—keep growing, Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she’ll go for her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known.

Barnes and Noble website

Review

Read: April 2021

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars!

Before I begin this review, I just want to point out that this book is not fantasy, despite its categorization on Goodreads. My best guess as to why is the role that the Little People and Anishinaabe medicines play in the story, but I see these as religious and cultural elements rather than ones of fantasy. If Christian fiction is not classified as fantasy, Firekeeper’s Daughter should not be either. (Please note that I am equating the two faiths, not disparaging Christianity.)

Spoiler-free!

I didn’t even know about this book’s existence until a week or two prior to its release date, but as soon as I did, I knew I absolutely had to read it. A Native American protagonist from Michigan? An author from Michigan? A Native author from Michigan? Yes, please.

Guys, this book has everything a Michigander like me could ask for: hockey (bonus: Detroit Red Wings references), the Great Lakes, smaller lakes, beautiful woods, Yoopers, and insights about a community I only really know in passing, if I can even say that.

Angeline Boulley does a phenomenal job crafting her characters. Daunis is a complex, spectacular protagonist. She is magnificently intelligent, she is loyal to her loved ones, she is fierce, and she struggles with her ties to both her white roots and her Anishinaabe roots. Her observance and acuity render her a spectacular first-person narrator for a mystery of any kind. Jamie is Daunis’s crush, but he too stands on his own. He is sweet and smart, and he’s mysterious in a way that comes of as guarded rather than edgy just for the sake of having an edgy character. Like Daunis, he also grapples with his identity as part-Native, but his heritage is much less clear. Boulley doesn’t neglect her supporting characters either. From Lily to Levi Jr., from Seeney to TJ, from Travis to Teddie, they’re all evocative and lifelike. You will hate certain characters; you will love others. And yes, you will hurt when certain characters die. (I’m not telling you who.) Also, shoutout to Herri the cat. I love you.

Really, Boulley is simply an amazingly talented author in general. The plot is riveting and complex without seeming contrived; the events of the story are realistic. Boulley doesn’t include certain matters for shock value: The darkest, scariest happenings of Firekeeper’s Daughter are there either for the purpose of the plot or to depict vividly what it is to be Daunis Fontaine – and what being a Native American woman can entail. Additionally, Boulley has avoided the all-too-common pitfall of infodumping. The details about Anishinaabe culture are woven skillfully into the material of the story, so that readers to whom Anishinaabe culture is unfamiliar can comprehend the context of the book without getting the sense that they’re reading a textbook. Readers can lose themselves in her book. I can attest to this from personal experience.

Firekeeper’s Daughter has earned a spot in my list of top reads this year. The characters are fascinating and the plot is enthralling, and Boulley has a beautiful writing style that is at once concise and detailed. Boulley spent ten years chipping away this masterpiece, and the final product is a testament to her efforts. I can only hope that the world doesn’t have to wait another decade for her next book. Hopefully, she’ll write about Jamie and Daunis a few years down the road, or perhaps even a prequel novel about Teddie or Levi Sr. Even if she writes a book with all-new characters, I’d still read it. With a debut novel this successful, I think we can expect wonderful works from her in the future.

Book content warnings: racism/colonialism, drug use, sexual assault, murder, gun violence, sexism.

Flash Review: Aurora Burning (The Aurora Cycle #2)

Image from Barnes and Noble website

Synopsis

Our heroes are back . . . kind of. From the bestselling co-authors of the Illuminae Files comes the second book in the epic Aurora Cycle series about a squad of misfits, losers, and discipline cases who just might be the galaxy’s best hope for survival.

First, the bad news: An ancient evil—your standard consume-all-life-in-the-galaxy deal—is about to be unleashed. The good news? Squad 312 is here to save the day. As soon as they’ve just got to take care of a few small distractions first. Like the clan of gremps who are holding a serious grudge against the squad. And a bunch of illegit GIUTA agents with creepy flowers where their eyes used to be. Then there’s Kal’s long-lost sister, who’s not exactly happy to see him.But with the reappearance of the colony ship that Auri was found on, new clues about Auri—and her powers as a Trigger—begin to come to light. And just in time. Because if Auri can’t learn to master her powers, the squad going to be soooo dead. Shocking revelations, bank heists, mysterious gifts,inappropriately tight bodysuits, and an epic firefight will determine the fate of the Aurora Legion’s most unforgettable heroes—and, you know, the rest of the galaxy.

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Review

Read: March 2021

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Spoiler warning!

Aurora Burning isn’t perfect, but like I said about its predecessor, it’s hella fun. Kristoff and Kaufmann seem to have ironed out the majority of their most annoying writing issues and replaced those with excellent character development. Leading the pack in this area is Zila. If you’ve read my review of Aurora Rising, you’ll know that I was peeved to have Zila included as a viewpoint character, only to find that her chapters were the length of my pinkie finger. Zila gets the spotlight in several chapters now, and damn, are those chapters engrossing. Readers finally get a horrifying glimpse into her tragic past and the reason for her emotional detachment; even better, they experience her blossoming out again as she bonds with her team. Finian too gets some truly heartwarming moments in his point-of-view chapters that show him blossoming as a friend and gaining confidence around people. Tyler also gets the opportunity to deal with his feelings for Cat and her loss. His interactions with Ra’haam Cat are dripping with angst. (I WILL GO DOWN WITH THIS SHIP.) Even without his crew, Tyler manages to hold his own, and I think that really reinforces his ability as a leader.

The plot is fast-paced (for the most part). The story opens with a confrontation with a gang of grempfs and barrels on to a skirmish with Kal’s sister Saedii, a bank heist, and another clash with the bad guys. (The bank heist, especially, is hilarious.) That said, I was underwhelmed by Auri and Kal’s time in the Echo with the Eshvaren. And as much as I enjoyed seeing Kal and Auri’s relationship develop in the Echo, those chapters felt… underwhelming, if not frustrating. Yes, Aurora gets her catharsis with her parents and sister, but the training is something of a slog – and training can be fun if it’s written right. Plus, I just dislike Esh as a character. I know that the Eshvaren is not meant to be liked, but they serve more as a annoying minor source of conflict and resolution rather than a fully fleshed out antagonist.

The huge reveal of Caersan being Kal’s father, unfortunately, is totally foreseeable. The handling (read: fumbling) of the crew’s reaction to Kal’s parentage is the main reason I’m knocking a star off this book. I guessed that Kal’s father was the Starslayer from his very first viewpoint chapter of the series, all the way back in Aurora Rising. That predictability renders all the ensuing drama in Squad 312 more contrived and even stupider than it already is. Yes, I understand that Caersan is a genocidal maniac, everyone hates him, how could Kal keep this from us, yada yada ya. But seriously, out of the four other people on board the ship, no one could see the big picture: Adams and de Stoy somehow were able to deliver exactly what was needed to the squad – and have that stash of supplies ready eight years prior to 312 ever needing it – and yet the squad thinks that Adams and de Stoy didn’t know about Kal’s parentage? Finian seems to be the only one even close to grasping this (at least prior to Aurora refusing to believe Kal is on her side until the Starslayer nearly kills her), but he still has not reached this conclusion. Aurora’s reaction is more than a little ridiculous too. When the Eshvaren enjoins her to break up with Kal so he won’t hold her back, her response essentially amounts to “Lmao, get fucked.” But when Caersan outs his son, she’s all jazzed up to ditch poor Kal – literally. On the other hand, the revelation about Tyler and Scarlett’s Waywalker mother is an interesting surprise, and one that Tyler takes in stride. I’m interested in learning more about the story of Jericho and his Syldrathi lover. In fact, I smell the potential for a gripping space opera romance novella.

Aurora Burning still has its kinks, but it’s a worthy read. I’m both eagerly anticipating and dreading the release of Aurora’s End.