Review: Alicia Jasinska – The Midnight Girls

The Midnight Girls
Alicia Jasinska

Marynka has never been good enough for her Jaga. She’s always been too short, too slow and altogether unimpressive. The thing that keeps her going is her rivalry with Zosia. They clash frequently, looking to steal the hearts of princes for power. Finally a prince appears that has a pure heart, and they ride together to go to the capital – both with only one thing on their mind. Instead the girls find themselves falling for each other and they can’t let the other win.

First, the book title. There is only one Midnight girl. There’s also a Morning girl and a Midday girl. Technically they are all ‘monsters’, but to me they were more minions of their Jagas (witches). There’s a whole lot of alliteration going on there. Then again look at that glorious saturated colour in the cover.

Ok, my major question about this novel is – where are all the Princes coming from? It seems like Wack-a-Mole, as soon as a new prince appears one of the girls is after his heart. If all the princes keep getting killed, where are the new princes coming from? I can imagine them getting married and having their parents abdicate the throne sooner so that they can become king and survive, but I don’t think that’s quite how this works.

The implication is that there were many servants before Zosia and Marynka – what happened to them? Did they all get eaten by the Jagas? I need a little more detail! What is going to happen next? The original Jagas are sisters, what happens when one dies? How long have they actually been living for? How did they get to be witches? I’d read a prequel of that!

Can I get a drool about the delicious Polish delicacies showcased here? Maybe you are thinking at this point that I hated the novel – I didn’t! I actually really enjoyed it and kept thinking about it when I had to put it down to life. I loved the way that both protagonists refused to admit they were in love, rather than the usual trope of the main characters falling in insta-love at first sight. There was the backstory that at least showed their previous relationship.

I’m so sorry. I would have given this 4 stars, except once again Jasinska disappoints with the ending. Lesbian protagonists in a whole where being queer isn’t even mentioned (because it’s so normal)? Sign me up. But I don’t think I’ll be reading more from this author – The Dark Tide has the same ending problem, so I can’t expect it to change.

Penguin Random House | 30th November 2021 | AU$19.99 | paperback

Review: Juliet Marillier – Blackthorn & Grim series (Dreamer’s Pool, Tower of Thorns, Den of Wolves) (N)

Blackthorn & Grim series (Dreamer’s Pool, Tower of Thorns, Den of Wolves)

Juliet Marillier

Dreamer’s Pool

If you were given a second chance at life from an executioner, even if it meant putting aside the one thing you were surviving for and abiding by rules that go against the grain of who you are for seven years, would you take it? This is the choice given to Blackthorn. She chooses life, bitter and regretful with the only thought of getting through those seven years to come right back to the same place to fight for justice. In return for her freedom from an unjust imprisonment by her enemy, Blackthorn has promised the Fae noble Conmael to use her healers gifts for good, answer all calls for help she hears, and seek no vengence. It honestly seems a little random that this comes at the beginning and its clear that Blackthorn will struggle to adhere to the restrictions set.

Once she gets to a place where she will be safe from re-imprisonment and sets up shop so to speak with her cell-mate Grim who was the first to ask her help without words no less. She is presented with a puzzle in the form of the Prince Oran’s betrothed, Flidais, who has recently arrived and appears to be so completely different from the maiden the Oran courted.

Overall the book was an excellent read to me. I liked how there was a deep platonic support between Blackthorn and Grim. That while it was clear she was frustrated she was bound to help him from her promise, his presence gave her someone who understood that hellscape of a prison they both escaped. Together they unravel the mystery of Flidais and the connection to the Dreamer’s Pool. Throughout the book there are enough hints that you can figure out the mystery right along with Blackthorn and Grim and the PoV switches between them both allowing a good insight into how their thoughts work.

Tower of Thorns

The second entry in the Blackthorn & Grim series. Both Blackthorn and Grim have settled into their life at Winterfells and have the support and goodwill of Prince Oran and his wife Flidais.

Now its an outside mystery that comes calling and ends up taking Blackthorn and Grim along for the ride. A noblewoman from the west comes looking for help and while Blackthorn is reluctant, the appearance of a friend from her past sways her decision to help. Again this book has hints of a standard fairytale. You can see how the threads are progressing as the story develops but as ever there is a slight twist away from the expected that just makes for a satisfying ending all around.

This book gives us more details into both Blackthorn and Grim’s past before they ended up in that prison together. Those details are a heart-rending as you would expect for two people who basically deemed themselves irredeemable. Together they seem to slowly get through their pain together. But there were some instances where I just which someone would give one or the other a shake to wake them up to what they were doing. It’s so clear throughout that Blackthorn and Grim rely and support each other in equal partnership. There isn’t romance in the traditional expected way but that level of support just shows how deeply important they have become to each other that they really would be a little lost without the other there.

Den of Wolves

The final book of the Blackthorn and Grim series. Again they are drawn into solving a mystery but unlike the previous mystery this time they are left having to solve the different part of the mystery separately. It makes for additional strain on their relationship but in the end the distance makes it so very clear that they what they share together is more precious then they ever would have thought.

This time we have a young woman caught up in a mystery of her birth and a man who has been returned from the fae realm. Again it’s up to Blackthorn and Grim to solve the mystery. But this time they are having to do it separately. The most frustrating part of this as the reader is because we get both viewpoints we know the information that would be so useful for them to share if they could just a get a moment to indeed share it. It made for a much more thrilling read than I would expect. And it demonstrated that both Blackthorn and Grim are very clever in that they can get most of the way through a mystery on their own. But there were key details that they each needed from each other for the whole story to become clear.

Overall it was an excellent read and I loved the development between Blackthorn and Grim in how they supported each other and so clearly wanted each other. This was seen in the little moments rather than the big events. In how they left unintended messages for each other when they kept just missing the time they needed together. Those moments and their reflections on those moments were poignant. Because it happened alongside this mystery rather than separate from it. Often this is missed in fiction is that the big events are the focus and the small detail that build a relationship and let it grow aren’t shown at all. Not so here, the small details a woven in wonderfully.

 

This series was my second exposure to Juliet Mariller and they were all so very satisfying. I loved Tamora Pierce as a teenager and Marillier hits the same notes that I loved then as an adult. It was a complete pleasure to read the Blackthorn and Grim series. The slow development of their friendship and partnership was just enjoyable between their adventures and problem solving. More than that the solid depiction that just being there together helped them made me happy. Solid 5-stars and I will no doubt come back to these books in the future when I’m craving a read that plunges me into another world so thoroughly.

Review: Lyndall Clipstone – Lakesedge

Lakesedge
Lyndall Clipstone

Violetta holds a lot of secrets, ones that might be important for her survival. Violetta doesn’t care much about herself though – she only cares for her brother and protecting him from his dark shadows. She is limited though – the Lord of Lake’s Edge gets what he wants – and he wants her brother. Violetta tags along to see if she too can fight the Corruption.

Oh no! He’s feeding the Lake Monster! Oh no, he is the Monster. Oh well, we all know that the main characters in books like these will fall in love. In fact, we can predict pretty much the whole storyline despite them pretending that everything is a huge secret.

Isn’t the cover gorgeous? Ultimately it’s not the forest that is even relevant, or the lake. The interior of the house and the garden get the most attention, but maybe Violetta’s mind is the main attraction? I had such high hopes when I requested it, but it was hopeless. I felt like I’d wasted my time reading in.

Look, I’ve categorized it as teen fiction, only because there are some racy scenes there. My hunch is that the Lord of Under is going to be nursing a baby in 9 months time! Unfortunately the storyline is too simple and there isn’t enough character growth to truly belong to the teenage category – I think it could even be an advanced middle grade fiction except for the sexual elements. There’s also a hint of LGTBIQA* relationships, but these aren’t convincing or deep.

I got to the end of this novel, and I discovered that it’s only the first in a series! Honestly, it felt like half a book. There was a whole lot of telling rather than showing going on, and the ending wasn’t complete. I tried retelling this as a oral story at bedtime, and my audience was very unimpressed with the ending. I personally felt that I hated the characters enough that I would have been perfectly happy (even overjoyed!) that one or more of them died. 3 begrudging stars from me.

Pan Macmillan | 31 August 2021| AU$24.99 | paperback

Review: Mercedes Lackey – Mage Storms Trilogy

Mage Storms Trilogy
Mercedes Lackey

“Karse and Valdemar have long been enemy kingdoms, until they are forced into an uneasy alliance to defend their lands from the armies of Eastern Empire, which is ruled by a monarch whose magical tactics may be beyond any sorcery known to the Western kingdoms. Forced to combat this dire foe, the Companions of Valdemar may, at last, have to reveal secrets which they have kept hidden for centuries… even from their beloved Heralds.

It had been a while since I read the later novels in Lackey’s (in)famous Valdemar world, so I picked this one up as an easy read. I actually didn’t even finish reading the Mage Winds series before doing so. I found it interesting that perhaps my distaste of non-Herald protagonists or my dislike of multiple perspectives in a novel set me up to view this one unfavorably.

While I enjoyed the novelty of having Karal’s perspective, I found it difficult to relate to him because he was truly a priestly type. I much preferred An’desha as being more relatable and showing some really decent character growth. Something I really didn’t ‘get’ was Florian’s role, and why Karal was convinced he was important (and why didn’t Florian just bond with him, huh?)

This is very slow as well, which doesn’t help. Every movement of Karal is detailed, from lighting candles through to taking notes. I needed a little more action! And the epilogue is a bit of a joke, given the HUGE leadup. Perhaps I found it a let-down compared to Brandon Sanderson’s novels, because there was very little chance that my favourite (or indeed any) characters would be killed off.

Obviously I’ve reread these, but probably with a span of at least 7 years between reads. Although that should qualify this series of novels as an automatic 5 stars, I think I’ll just give them 4. They just aren’t as good as my favourites such as the original trilogy (Talia, Arrows of the Queen) or Alberich/Skif (Exile’s Honor/Valor, Take a Thief). However, they are excellent compared to the most recent Foundation Chronicles!

Review: Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon – Owl Mage Trilogy

Owl Mage Trilogy
Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon

Darian’s parents were lost to the forest some years ago, forcing Darian into apprenticeship with the local mage. Darian can’t see the point of magic – why would he lift a apple with his mind when he can do it with his hands? However, after his village is invaded, he accidentally flees into Hawkbrother territory – this sets him on a path where magic might be important.

These books, particularly the first one, require a suspension of disbelief. It’s so unlikely that Justin would suddenly want to change the way he deals with Darian in the first book – just before we get a sudden jolt of energy into the plot. Many of the outcomes for Darian also don’t make sense given that he’s just a man and doesn’t seem to actually have that much useful to offer society (apart from being a politician).

Man, these books are sllooooowww. I remembered from the last time that I read them that I largely skim read the first novel because it was very, very slow. The climax comes very late in the book (which would be fine) but the main character is largely self-absorbed and honestly quite irritating and unlikely.

The first novel is ok, pretty good really, but then the second book isn’t memorable at all. I honestly can’t remember it at all. The best of the three is the the finale – but I still had problems with it. Looking at the different cultures with a critical eye, I found the treatment of the Northern Barbarians to be frankly insulting. It’s implied that the Hawkbrothers are just so much smarter and well prepared by the tribes – even though as far as I can tell they are all human. There’s always going to be a mix of ‘smart’ and ‘dumb’ people, but that’s not what it seems like at all.

I’ve obviously reread these, so that’s kinda an automatic 5 stars, but I wouldn’t recommend these for someone just starting out on discovering Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels. I wouldn’t even let you read them as a capping to the very successful Valdemar series. Maybe just toss them in for a light read if you want to be inside a fictional and unlikely teenager’s head.

Review: Guillermo del Toro, Cornelia Funke – Pan’s Labyrinth (K)

Pan’s Labyrinth
Guillermo del Toro & Cornelia Funke

 

A year after her fatherโ€™s death, Ofelia and her mother move in with her new Stepfather. The dense forest surrounding her new home provides a perfect hiding place, both for the resistance fighters her stepfather is trying to defeat, and fairies, Fauns, and a magnificent labyrinth.

This was a beautiful book. One of this bookโ€™s best features was its ability to inscribe wonder in my heart with the fantasy element, where it captured both the beauty and the danger of magic. I find thereโ€™s a big difference between fantasy which is simply โ€˜there are fairies and magicโ€™ and the atmosphere and aura that a well-written fantasy novel can provide, and this book provided that perfectly. Part of the reason I think this is done so well was that the main character in the story is a child. This is the first time reading a book where the main character is significantly younger than I am, but I found that, far from being frustrated by annoying childlike decisions, the childlike innocence added to the atmosphere of the book.

The juxtaposition between the cruelty of Ofeliaโ€™s stepfather and the wonder of her secret world was outstanding. Both aspects of the book entranced me, and I never found myself trying to get through one part faster to move on to a more interesting story.

The worldbuilding of this book was beautifully done. The characters were vibrant and 3-dimensional, and the book pulled me in and refused to let me go until the very last page. I would definitely recommend this book, with a note of warning that there are some pretty extreme descriptions of violence, so it would not be ideal for younger readers.

Review: Natasha Ngan – Girls of Paper and Fire

Girls of Paper and Fire
Natasha Ngan

Lei has been blissfully unaware of the wider society – apart from a raid that took her mother 7 years ago. When she is selected to become one of the king’s eight concubines she doesn’t feel it’s an honour and dreads serving a king brutal enough to order the complete destruction of villages. Lei doesn’t know how she will survive – but when she finds herself falling in love, she realises that there is more to life than serving and hating.

In a beautifully realized fantasy setting, it’s a love story, and yet at the same time other things are going on. To start with Lei isn’t that keen on being chosen – but decides to make the most of things to protect her family. I loved her fiery spirit, even if the early pages of the book were all a bit boring as they focused on the concubines getting to know one another.

I found the ending a little disappointing. Honestly, it would have been better if that particular character had died, because I could see where a power gap could still occur. For example, the mysterious shamans. What was their reasoning for keeping the balance of power stable? What did they get out of it?

Many reviewers have said this should come with a trigger warning for rape and abuse. I think it’s fair to say it did come with a bit of notice about that, as the beginning pages of the novel (at least in my copy) were links to rape and abuse hotlines for people who were in such terrible situations.

I picked this up at the library because I was pretty sure I’d seen other bloggers raving over it! I saw that there were the first two books on the shelf and promptly googled it to check how many books it was going to be. Unfortunately for me, it’s a trilogy and the third book isn’t published yet! I’ll give it four stars, and worry about reading the third when it comes out (probably again borrowed from the library).

Review: Kalynn Bayron โ€“ This Poison Heart

This Poison Heart
Kalynn Bayron

Briseis has a gift that is held in check by Brooklyn lack of green spaces. Her ability is to cause plants to thrive – even the deadly poisonous ones. After a rough year at school (trying not to cause the plants in her teacher’s windows to grow vigorously), Briseis is hoping to spend the summer helping her moms run their flower shop. Instead, she finds that she has inherited a rambling estate and garden from her birth mother.

I was a little hesitant to read this novel, because I had enjoyed Cinderella is Dead right until the disappointing ending! Once I picked it up though, I was hooked. Bri’s character was fleshed out and her feelings obvious. I didn’t mind the so-called ‘slow burn’, I liked getting to know Bri’s family, circumstances and normal behaviors before she was tossed into a new world of plants, poisons and family secrets. Add in some Greek mythology and there was a tale I wanted to keep reading.

Other reviewers have complained that the author doesn’t use words such as lesbian to refer to Bri’s moms. I actually appreciated that! It’s not like every straight couple in other novels are said to be straight! Equally, it’s not stated that Bri and her moms are people of colour – it’s up to the reader to pay attention to the little nuances in physical appearance and habits to realize this (although this is probably given away by the beautiful, luscious cover art).

Let’s talk about the ending in general terms at least. Did I like it? No, no I did not. I honestly felt as if the publishers had told the author “Hey, we think this will be a big hit, make sure you prepare to write a sequel.” So then Bayron was required to leave it open! In the end, I didn’t like the way the antagonists showed up as there were too many holes in the reasoning.

Ultimately my take on this novel is to go buy it! But without knowing when the sequel will come out (or whether this is a duology/trilogy etc.) try to go into it realising that you’ll have to be patient to see the next installment. I’m not patient! So it’s four stars from me (to be updated if the second book is as fantastic as the first).

Bloomsbury | 29th June 2021 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Mercedes Lackey – Apex (N)

Apex
Mercedes Lackey

After discovering the plot in the sewers, and protecting Apex from a mass invasion. Joy continues to protect the city with her Hounds. With new allies things seem brighter than ever. But there are forces among the Othersiders and within the city who are conspiring for their own agendas.

The third installment in the Hunter series give a good continuation to the second book. Not an easy task since the second book ended post a climatic battle and triumph. The tension stays high with Joy stepping carefully around the Psicorp leader who she encountered in the previous book.

We have Joy teaming up with new Hunters helping lend a hand to the Elite. This get more Hound descriptions! Which makes me happy, I loved the descriptions of the different hounds and their different abilities. Another aspect of this that I loved was that even though Joy and the other Elite are just that, they still ask for an get help from the other Hunters. It embodies the feel of its about teamwork first and foremost. And that there is nothing wrong with stating extra hands are needed.

We get more of an outside focus beyond the city of Apex in this book. Which is a nice expansion to the world. As well as a few more new characters from the Othersiders. It gives a small fraction of the other side of the fence so to speak. Like A small taste of the greater details. It’s a frustrating balance that Lackey didn’t quite manage this time around. I wanted to know more. Overall the book left me thinking that there must be another book coming because it felt like there were too many holes in the series overall.

I mentioned a few about Ace and about the plots Joy uncovered in the first and second books. we got a couple of those resolved but additional larger mysteries that we don’t manage to get answers to sadly. Another thing that bothered me was a couple of locations seemed to get rehashed. Joy visited a noodle shop in the second book. Then when she goes back here in this book its like she never had visited. More annoying is that we get a bigger issue with the Folk not being known to teleport and Joys surprise regarding this. Yet in the first book she notes the Folk mage she encounters early on teleports. It was frustrating to have such errors in what was otherwise an enjoyable read to me.

Overall, it really feels like there should be another book following up after this to really close out the series. But just because I want more detail about the behind the scenes plots doesn’t mean Joy will actually learn about the motives of other characters. Much like the real world. It was a relaxed low stress read for me, desire to know more aside.

Review: Mercedes Lackey – Elite (N)

Elite
Mercedes Lackey

Hunter Joy has largely settled in Apex. She’s managed to advance to Elite Hunter and now has a new mission from her Uncle, the city’s Prefect. However danger and conspiracy abound as she traverses the sewers beneath the city.

This makes for a nice follow up to Hunter. We get to see more details about life in Apex. Beyond the superstar treatment the previous book gave Joy for generally being a new hunter with impressive skills. There are additional characters we get to know as well as a clearing picture about some of the Othersiders only briefly mentioned before. We also get more information on some previous characters from the first book. They get additional time for us to get to know more than the picture they display the world which gives the world more depth and feeling.

One of the great things is the way different Hunters are portrayed with different skills. It gives a great element of team work between hunters, combining their skills and magic to overcome the odds.

We do see Ace again, after his previous downfall. Towards the end there is a feeling of more at play in the overall story but it doesn’t really eventuate in this book to anything concrete. It could just be a small detail that we will never know since the story is told from Joy’s point of view. Only time will tell.

As with the previous book definitely targeted towards the younger side of young adult. But a good leisure read for adults that don’t want something deep or heavy thought to read. Again sits somewhere between 3 and 4 stars.