Book Review: The Witch Who Came In From The Cold

witch who came in from the coldThe Witch Who Came In From The Cold (The Complete First Season)
by Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis, and Michael Swanwick
Magical Realism / Historical Fiction
616 pages
Published 2016

The Witch Who Came In From The Cold was originally published as a serial novel, so it’s divided up into distinct episodes, written by different authors. It’s still very coherent as an entire novel, though. This is Season One; there’s a Season Two that I absolutely have to get my hands on. Because this was great.

So it’s Prague, 1970, height of the Cold War. There’s lots of KGB vs CIA secret squirrel stuff going on, but our main CIA spy discovers there’s a second struggle happening behind the scenes, between Ice and Fire, two sects of magic-wielding sorcerers. This makes things incredibly complicated, because Ice and Fire are philosophical groups; Ice likes the world the way it is, Fire wants to change it, even if that change comes at the cost of destroying the world. Because these differences are philosophical, they cross national loyalty lines. So a CIA agent and a KGB agent might find themselves on the same side of a magical problem, and risk their careers and lives to work with each other to solve it.

It’s a fascinating skewing of a the spy genre, and I really enjoyed it. Most of the problems center around Hosts – mortals who have (usually unknowingly) bonded with an elemental spirit, and so have incredible, earth-shattering powers. Fire wants to use these Hosts to change the world, even if it means bring about the Apocalypse. Ice wants to prevent this, and so struggles to keep Hosts out of the hands of Fire. And when a Host is also a key player in the struggle between Russia and the US, things get VERY complicated.

I really want to learn more about the Hosts and their powers; I’m hoping Season Two gets into that more. The magic is mostly charms and ley lines, with chants and Elemental spirits mixed in. I’m also hoping Season Two gets more into the conflict between Ice and Fire, and maybe explains how it started? I’d love to learn that.

All in all, it was a great book, and I need to track down the second.

From the cover of The Witch Who Came In From The Cold:

PRAGUE, 1970

Great powers eye each other across the Iron Curtain. Secret warriors wage secret wars – some with guns, some with words, and some with magic.

CIA officer Gabe Pritchard has a mission: to transport a critical defector back to the US. But Gabe also has a secret. On a job in Egypt he stumbled into what he thought was a Soviet cell meeting – but Soviet cells don’t have altars or sacrificial knives. Now Gabe has splitting headaches, like there’s something burrowing inside his skull, and finding help means joining a different, and much colder, war.

Tanya Morozova works for the other shop in town – at least, when her KGB bosses are watching. But the young intelligence officer has a second secrete life as an agent of the Ice, an ancient order of sorcerers fighting for control of elemental Hosts who have the power to change the world – or destroy it. As Tanya’s enemies catch a critical Host in their web, she’s running out of options. Gabe Pritchard may be her only chance – or the  bait of one last deadly trap.

Book Review: The Storm Crow

the storm crowThe Storm Crow
Kalyn Josephson
Young Adult Fantasy
352 pages
Published July 2019

There is so much to love about this book. In some ways, it’s your typical young adult fantasy. The actual plot isn’t anything outstanding; but the characters – oh, the characters.

The book opens on the crippling of Rhodaire and the slaughter of its main strength, the magical, elemental crows that are woven into the fabric of Rhodairian life. The crows help plow, bring rain, bring sun, help heal, and even help man the forges and supply the materials worked therein. In one fell swoop by Rhodaire’s enemies, the crows are erased, and the kingdom struggles to stay afloat as a society. The queen is killed in the same cataclysm that kills the kingdom’s crows, leaving her two daughters to rule in her stead. Princess Caliza, the elder of the two, steps into her new role as queen while Princess Anthia, who was about to be a crow rider, falls into a deep depression. Her depression is named on the page, but I think she also has some PTSD going on.

Thia’s depression and PTSD are core parts of her character, and it’s wonderful to see that kind of representation in heroic fantasy like this. Thia eventually finds a reason to struggle forward, but her fear of fire continues to haunt her and give her flashbacks.

Thia’s best friend/sister of her heart (and bodyguard) is also into women, so that’s another bit of representation. She’s also just incredibly amusing.

I’m a little worried about the love triangle that’s forming; the person Thia falls in love with is just – it’s too easy. Too convenient. I don’t like it. I prefer the other option – the boy who loves Thia but is far too complicated. He is so conflicted, torn between actively opposing the rule of the evil Empress or more subtly staying in her good graces to try to take power peacefully. The book ends with the triangle still unresolved, though, so I’m definitely going to need the sequel to this.

I love how the crows were explained; that they’re more reptilian than bird-like, with anatomy that allows for riders. The author definitely thought through how this could work. I do think it’s a little unlikely that not a single adult crow survives the purge at the beginning of the book; I know the plot requires it, but it seems -really- unlikely. Just – come on. Not a SINGLE crow escapes? But it’s fantasy, so we need to suspend disbelief I suppose.

Ultimately, I loved this book. I definitely have a thing for riders – whether they’re riding phoenixes, dragons, horses, crows, or other magical creatures, I like riders. I will always pick up books with this trope. I can’t wait for the sequel, The Crow Rider!

From the cover of The Storm Crow:

A STORM IS RISING

In the tropical kingdom of Rhodaire, elemental crows are part of every aspect of life . . . until the Illucian empire invades, destroying all the crows and bringing Rhodaire to its knees.

That terrible night has thrown Princess Anthia into a deep depression. Her sister, Caliza is busy running the kingdom after their mother’s death, but all Thia can do is think of everything she has lost, including her dream of becoming a crow rider.

When Caliza is forced to agree to a marriage between Thia and the crown prince of Illucia, Thia is finally spurred into action. And after stumbling upon a hidden crow egg in the rubble of a rookery, she and her sister devise a dangerous plan to hatch the egg in secret while joining forces with the other conquered kingdoms to ignite a rebellion.

Book Review: Anna Dressed In Blood

anna dressed in bloodAnna Dressed In Blood
by Kendare Blake
Young Adult / Horror
316 pages
Published 2011

Another spooky story for October! On first glance, this one is very similar to Rin Chupeco’s The Girl From The Well, but the plot is actually quite different. It’s still human boy, murderous ghost girl, but here the girl is bound to her house and forced to murder whoever comes inside. Unraveling the WHY is a major part of the plot.

I’d say this one is actually less creepy than The Girl From The Well, though one of the evil things Cas encounters is VERY creepy. Both of these were just about the right amount of spooky for me. I’m actually REALLY disappointed that the sequel is proving very difficult to get my hands on! I had to request it through Marina, my statewide lending program, so I’m not sure when it will arrive. But I NEEEEEEED to know what happens to Cas and Anna after this book ends!

I think I liked the relationship between boy and ghost better in Girl From The Well; you could clearly see the draw for the ghost, and the connection between them. Not so much here; Cas is trying to kill Anna, but then they become fascinated with each other for…some reason? Anna isn’t compelled to kill Cas, and that’s never explained, and seems to be her main source of fascination with the boy.

Another major difference is that while Tark in Girl From The Well is rather isolationist and creeps out his peers, Cas seems to attract his peers, and quickly finds friends wherever he goes. He’s typically used them as contacts in the past, not really valuing them as friends, but that changes with the events of this book, as he actually comes to know a couple of the kids at his new school and value their friendship. He even puts up with their jokes about being Ghostbusters and who would be which character, which is kind of hilarious.

Both stories are great; I’d say this one is slightly more light-hearted than Girl From The Well, but only slightly. There’s still lots of creepy ghosts, life-or-death situations, gory deaths of side characters, and curses. It’s another great spooky October book for scaredy-cats like me!

From the cover of Anna Dressed In Blood:

Just your average boy-meets-girl, girl-kills-people story . . . .

Cas Lowood has inherited an unusual vocation: he kills the dead.

So did his father before him, until his gruesome murder by a ghost he sought to kill. Now, armed with his father’s mysterious and deadly athame, Cas travels the country with his kitchen-witch mother and their spirit-sniffing cat. Together they follow legends and local lore, trying to keep up with the murderous dead – keeping pesky things like the future and friends at bay.

When they arrive in a new town in search of a ghost the locals call Anna Dressed in Blood, Cas doesn’t expect anything outside of the ordinary: track, hunt, kill. What he finds instead is a girl entangled in curses and rage, a ghost like he’s never faced before. She still wears the dress she wore on the day of her brutal murder in 1958: once white, but now stained red and dripping blood. Since her death, Anna has killed any and every person who has dared to step into the deserted Victorian she used to call home. 

And she, for whatever reason, spares his life.

Book Review: Serpent & Dove

serpent & doveSerpent & Dove
by Shelby Mahurin
Young Adult / Fantasy / Romance
519 pages
Published September 2019

This was Barnes & Noble’s Young Adult book club book for October, so I read it because I was planning to go. I ended up feeling particularly introverted that entire week, so I stayed home, but I’d read the book anyway, so here we are!

So first off, there’s some debate over whether the book is young adult or new adult. Lou, the heroine, is 18, and Reid is a little older, but it still feels very young adult-ish. There is one sex scene which, while explicit, is still fairly tame as sex scenes go. So I’m calling it young adult, but it’s definitely right on the line where it could go either way.

The book begins with an example of why witches are so reviled in this land, but quickly segues into an entirely unlikely sequence of events that ends with Lou, our witch, married to Reid, our witch hunter, to save face for the witch hunting society known as the Chasseurs. Reid doesn’t know she’s a witch, and she has to keep that hidden while living with her mortal enemies. We soon learn that Lou has enemies of her own, and living with witch hunters might actually be the safest place for her, if she can keep her own secrets.

Lou is not the only one that knows her secrets, however, and the war between witches and the Church soon heats up with Lou and Reid caught in the crossfire.

There are twists and turns aplenty in this plot, and reveals that I did not see coming. It definitely keeps you on your toes. I’m not completely sold on the romance between Lou and Reid. It seemed a little contrived, to me, but the rest of the plot was interesting.

Magic in this world has a very literal cost that the witch must pay if she wants the spell to work. Sometimes it’s fairly small – a broken finger for a broken lock – sometimes it’s bigger – all your fond memories of a person, for example. Someone’s life. If you’re willing to pay the price, the magic lets you do extraordinary things. At least it shows you the cost first, instead of simply taking it after the fact. You’re given the choice.

Blood & Honey is the sequel, due out this summer, and I think I’ll probably pick it up and give Reid and Lou another shot at convincing me their love is real. I do want to know how the rest of the story plays out, their relationship aside!

From the cover of Serpent & Dove:

BOUND AS ONE TO LOVE, HONOR, OR BURN

Two years ago, LOUISE LE BLANC fled her coven and took shelter in the city of Cesarine, forsaking all magic and living off whatever she could steal. There, witches like Lou are hunted. They are feared. And they are burned.

Sworn to the church as a Chasseur, REID DIGGORY has lived his life by one principle: Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. His path was never meant to cross with Lou’s, but a wicked stunt forces them into an impossible union – holy matrimony.

The war between witches and Church is an ancient one, and Lou’s most dangerous enemies bring a fate worse than fire. Unable to ignore her growing feelings, yet powerless to change what she is, a choice must be made.

AND LOVE MAKES FOOLS OF US ALL.

A witch and a witch hunter bound in holy matrimony.

There was only one way such a story could end – 

A STAKE & A MATCH.

Book Review: Chaotic Good

Chaotic Good Comps14.inddChaotic Good
by Whitney Gardner
Young Adult / Contemporary Fiction
249 pages
Published 2018

Hoooooooo boy do I have some mixed feelings about this one!

First, the good:

The writing is great. The action flows, the dialogue is suitably nerdy, the affection between Cameron and her twin brother is evident. There are a few jumps from one scene to another, but I think they’re intended to be abrupt. The troll messages and online abuse Cameron gets simply for being a girl into cosplay are spot on. The descriptions of Eugene, Oregon – my hometown! – are also spot on. I am not sure which of the comics shops in Eugene inspired the one in the book, but I have definitely had Cameron’s experiences walking into more than one of the shops in town when I was younger. (I moved away over a decade ago.)

Really the only bad thing I have to say about this book is – Cameron dresses as a boy as an experiment, then finds she passes well enough to do it in a weekly D&D game – and when she’s eventually found out, it’s either “NO WAY” or “I knew it!” I would have liked one of the boys to shrug and say “I just thought he was trans” or something. SOME. MENTION. Of transgender or nonbinary as a possibility would have made this book so much better. I’m always slightly uncomfortable with a cross-dressing character and ABSOLUTELY NO MENTION of nonbinary gender identities.

Alright, no, there’s another bad point. The only other girl her age that Cameron has any contact with is Brina, dudebro-from-the-comic-shop’s crush, and Cameron honestly doesn’t treat her well. The first time they meet, Cameron is dressed as Boy Cameron, and doesn’t defend Brina when Brody pulls his dudebro shit. Which, okay, she was still getting used to being perceived as a dude, and instinct as a girl is to let that sort of thing slide off so as to not make it worse. I can give her a pass there. But near the end of the book, they run into each other again, as Girl Cameron this time, and when Brina extends a hand in friendship, Cameron brushes her off. Sure, she had a bad day, she’s stuck in her own head, but – GIRL. You’ve been dealing with toxic dudes on the internet the entire book, and dudebros you’re – trying to be friends with, for some reason, and you brush off a girl that loves your cosplay and wants to be friends? What the heck!

So – I don’t know. I honestly really enjoyed this book. The nerdy parts were glorious, even if their DM is a little railroad-y. The comic pages sprinkled into the text, showing the D&D adventure, was an inspired touch. But I just don’t like Cameron very much.

Her twin brother is gay, and there’s some drama with his ex, which is why I’ve tagged this GLBT. His storyline being treated just like a heterosexual storyline makes me wonder more why no mention is made of gender identities. IDK. It’s cute, but it’s problematic for what it omits.

From the cover of Chaotic Good:

Soon-to-be senior Cameron hopes to complete her costume portfolio away from the online abuse she has endured since winning a cosplay contest dressed as a character from a game she’s never played. Unfortunately, the only comic shop in her new town – her main destination for character reference – is staffed by a dudebro who challenges every girl who comes into the shop.

At her twin brother’s suggestion, Cameron borrows a set of his clothes and uses her costuming expertise to waltz into the shop as Boy Cameron, where she’s shocked at how easily she’s accepted into the nerd inner sanctum. Before she can say “Demogorgon,” Cameron finds herself drafted into a D&D campaign alongside the dudebro, a friendly (almost flirtatiously so) clerk, a handsome Dungeon Master, and her brother Cooper, dragged along for good measure.

But as her “secret identity” gets more and more entrenched, Cameron’s portfolio falls by the wayside – and her feelings for her DM threaten to make a complicated situation even more precarious. Cosplay, comic shops, and college applications collide in this geek-girl anthem from You’re Welcome, Universe author Whitney Gardner, complete with fully illustrated comic pages by Gardner herself.

Duology Review: The Girl From The Well / The Suffering

girl from the wellThe Girl From The Well
The Suffering
by Rin Chupeco
Young Adult / Horror
255 pages / 313 pages
Published 2014 / 2015

This duology claimed a spot in my Spooky October Reads because I ADORE this author’s later work, The Bone Witch trilogy. I’d heard great things about this set, and I’m so glad I finally read it. I don’t care for much horror, generally, and this was just the right amount of iffy morality and spooky ghost stuff.

The books are told from the viewpoint of Okiku, a 300-year-old ghost who drowned in a well but came back to take vengeance on her killer before continuing to hunt down killers of children. The other main characters are Tarquin, a half-Japanese boy with strange, unnerving tattoos, and his older cousin Callie. The mystery of who Tarquin’s mother really is, what happened when he was a toddler, and why she’s tried to kill him every time she’s seen him since, is at the heart of the first book. The pacing and reveals are expertly done, so I won’t say much more about the plot.

the sufferingOkiku is appropriately terrifying, and her backstory is equally tragic. We learn much more about what happened to her in the second half of the first book, and it’s fleshed out even further in the second book. The second book is largely Okiku and Tark having an adventure in Japan, and less about their individual histories. I think it was a great sequel, though, and definitely needed to finish Okiku and Tark’s story. It takes place almost entirely in Aokigahara, Japan’s “suicide forest.” The Suffering is also told from Tark’s point of view instead of Okiku’s, and definitely suffers for that.

Overall, the first book is better than the second, but the second is still good, and finishes the story. Terrifying ghosts, creepy dolls, ancient rituals, and secret societies abound in these two books, and they’re the perfect amount of spooky for a scaredy-cat like me. These definitely cement Rin Chupeco as a must-read author for me. She’s fantastic.

From the cover of The Girl From The Well:

The dead do not always rest . . . 

Okiku knows anger and pain. They are what she last felt before her life was brutally taken from her more than 300 years ago. Now a restless spirit, she wanders, seeking out those who viciously take the lives of children. Okiku always gets her vengeance. She has no remorse for the wicked.

Until she meets seventeen-year-old Tark . . . 

From the cover of The Suffering:

The darkness will find you.

Seventeen-year-old Tark knows what it is to be powerless. But Okiku changed that. A restless spirit who ended life as a victim and started death as an avenger, she’s groomed Tark to destroy the wicked. But when darkness pulls them deep into Aokigahara, known as Japan’s suicide forest, Okiku’s justice becomes blurred, and Tark is the one who will pay the price . . .