Book Review: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix

kingdom of the blazing phoenixKingdom of the Blazing Phoenix
by Julie C. Dao
Young Adult/Fantasy/Fairy Tale Retelling
356 pages
Published November 2018

This is the sequel to Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and were Forest was about the rise of the Empress – or the evil stepmother from Snow White – this book is solidly about Snow White. Or Jade, in this case. I enjoyed Forest, but Kingdom is spectacular! It’s hard to like Xifeng in Forest, where she continually makes the decisions that drag her deeper into the evil god’s clutches. Jade, however, is sweet and determined and loyal and good. She is easy to love, and worthy of it. We see a few characters from the first book coming back to help Jade in her quest, and I loved seeing how they had grown in the intervening years.

I do feel like the romantic storyline was kind of shoehorned in. Jade falls in love with no real reason for it. We don’t see what’s so fantastic about her love interest, he isn’t shown as doing anything outstanding, he’s just kind of there and the first male person she’s spent time with. I get why he fell in love with Jade, Jade is amazing. He’s just so bland. So that felt a little odd.

I did enjoy the magic cloak and the quest and the final battle. The scene between Ming and Xifeng at the end was absolutely heartbreaking and made me love Ming even more. He might be my favorite character from both books.

Bottom line, this is an excellent sequel to Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and I think it’s better than the first book. You could probably read it without reading Forest, but some of the reveals won’t mean nearly as much, and you’ll miss all the background that makes Xifeng so interesting.

From the cover of Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix:

Princess Jade has grown up in exile, hidden away in a monastery, while her stepmother, the ruthless Xifeng, rules as Empress of Feng Lu. But the empire is in distress, and its people are sinking into poverty and despair. Even though Jade doesn’t want the crown, she knows she is the only one who can dethrone the Empress and set the world right.

Ready to reclaim her place as rightful heir, Jade embarks on a quest to raise the Dragon Lords and defeat Xifeng and the Serpent God once and for all. But will the same darkness that took Xifeng take Jade, too? Or will she find the strength within to save herself, her friends, and her empire?

This follow-up to Forest of a Thousand Lanterns brings to a close Xifeng’s dazzling saga and gives readers a satisfying ending to the story that gripped their hearts from its very beginning.

Book Review: A Blade So Black

a blade so blackA Blade So Black
by L. L. McKinney
Young Adult/Fantasy/Fairy-Tale Retelling
370 pages
Published September 2018

I’ve seen the point brought up that so many fantasy protagonists have really neglectful parents. Who lets their kid be gone for an unknown amount of time doing something “important” that their kid refuses to tell them about because it’s a “secret”? This book makes a point of how NOT neglectful Alice’s mother is. The blurb calls her overprotective, but really it’s just normal protective. Alice’s mom just wants to know her daughter hasn’t been shot by the police when she’s gone for 24 hours and not answering her phone, that seems normal to me! I actually enjoyed how that was different than a lot of fantasy YA, even if it’s really a small sideplot.

In the main plot, Alice is a Dreamwalker, wielding Figment Blades and her own Muchness to kill the Nightmares that try to cross from Wonderland to our world. Her mentor is Addison Hatta, an exile from Wonderland who’s been charged to guard his Gateway and train new Dreamwalkers. Along the way we meet two more Dreamwalkers, more exiled Wonderlanders, and learn a bit about the war in Wonderland and why they’re exiled but still charged with such an important mission as guiding the Gateways between our world and theirs.

About the only thing I didn’t like about this book was how it left so many questions unanswered at the end. We got a cliffhanger to lead us into the sequel, A Dream So Dark, but it isn’t due out until September! I’m also wondering where the Cheshire Cat is – he’s too instrumental a character to leave out, I would think – but I have a few possible idea about where the author is going with that, so I’m anxious for the sequel, to see if I’m right.

A Blade So Black is a very unique take on Wonderland by a POC author, starring a POC heroine. There’s also an adorable lesbian couple as side characters. With minority racial representation, a fairy tale base, and a splash of LGBT+ rep, this book checked a lot of the boxes I look for in my fantasy. It wasn’t the best YA fantasy that I’ve read in the last year, but it was definitely fun!

From the cover of A Blade So Black:

This isn’t the Wonderland you remember.

The first time a Nightmare came, Alice nearly lost her life. Now, with magic weapons and hard-core fighting skills, she battles these monstrous creatures in the dream realm known as Wonderland. Yet even warriors have curfews.

Life in real-world Atlanta isn’t always so simple, as Alice juggles an overprotective mom, a high-maintenance best friend, and school. Keeping the Nightmares at bay is turning into a full-time job.

When Alice’s handsome and mysterious mentor is poisoned, she has to find the antidote by venturing deeper into Wonderland than she’s ever gone before. And she’ll need to use everything she’s learned in both worlds to keep from losing her head . . . literally.

Book Review: Blanca & Roja

blanca rojaBlanca & Roja
by Anna-Marie McLemore
Young Adult/Fantasy/Magical Realism
375 pages
Published October 2018

This is another enchanting tale from the author of The Weight of Feathers. She’s a little different from my normal fairy-tale retellings, as these are inspired by fairy tales, and have the atmosphere of fairy tales, but aren’t recognizably any particular tale, and definitely don’t follow the normal plot of an particular tale. We know the story of Snow White and Rose Red. This isn’t it. We know the story of the Swan Princess or Swan Prince. This isn’t it. It has elements of both stories. But it is something entirely new and absolutely enthralling.

The story also has minority representation; both girls are Latina, and we have a nonbinary love interest for one of the girls, who is a fascinating character in her own right. (She expresses preference for she/her pronouns in the book.) The other love interest is seeing-impaired. He’s not blind, but he has a lot of issues with depth perception, so he’s constantly running into things and misjudging where things are.

Blanca & Roja grow up in a family where there are always two daughters, and as soon as the youngest turns fifteen, a bevy of swans shows up and picks one of the sisters to become a swan and join them. When past sisters have resisted, the swans have taken both. Blanca & Roja love each other so much, though, that they can’t imagine living without the other. So they try to become as indistinguishable from each other as possible, in the hopes that the swans won’t be able to decide between them and leave them both alone. Blanca drinks bitter things and feeds Roja sweets, eats red rose petals and feeds Roja white ones, each doing the opposite of their personality to bring them closer together. That, of course, doesn’t work.

But when the swans finally do come, it’s after a local boy and his best friend have gone missing in the woods, and the two teens have gotten their lives entwined with Blanca & Roja’s. The magic surrounding them collides with the magic surrounding the sisters, and the story you expect is not the one you get.

At this point, I will read anything McLemore publishes, because she is outstanding. Her novels are magical, lyrical, and atmospheric, melding fairy tales into shiny new stories. I can’t rave about this author enough!

From the cover of Blanca & Roja:

THE BIGGEST LIE OF ALL IS THE STORY YOU THINK YOU ALREADY KNOW.

The del Cisne girls have never just been sisters – they’re also rivals and opposites, Blanca as obedient and graceful as Roja is vicious and manipulative. They know that, because of a generations-old spell, their family is bound to a bevy of swans deep in the woods. They know that, one day, the swans will pull them into a dangerous game that will leave one of them a girl and trap the other in the body of a swan.

But when two local boys become drawn into the game, the swans’ spell intertwines with the strange and unpredictable magic lacing the woods, and all four of their fates depend on facing truths that could either save or destroy them.

Blanca & Roja is the captivating story of sisters, friendship, love, hatred, and the price we pay to protect our hearts.

Friday 56 – Krampus, The Yule Lord

krampus yule lordThe Friday 56 is hosted by Freda’s Voice. The rules are simple – turn to page 56 in your current read (or 56% in your e-reader) and post a few non-spoilery sentences.

Today’s quote is from Krampus, the Yule Lord. Thought I’d do some holiday reading!

Santa remembered why he hated teenagers – they worked so hard not to believe in anything. Did their very best to spoil the magic for everyone else. “Go home.”

The teenager blinked. “Hey, this here’s a free country. You can’t go telling us what to do.”

“Is that a new bike?”

“Sure is,” the kid said with obvious pride. “Got it for Christmas. Fucking rad.”

“Would you please get off of it?”

“What . . . huh? What for?”

“So you will not be upon it when I toss it down the hillside.” Santa nodded to the steep incline on one side of the trail that bottomed into a ravine of broken rocks.

As you can see, this is not your normal jolly Santa Claus! This book is awesome and creepy, and the full review will be up soon!

Series Review: Wintersong/Shadowsong

wintersongWintersong/Shadowsong
by S. Jae-Jones
Fairy Tale Retellings
436 pages/379 pages
Published 2017/2018

So I knew this was inspired by Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. That’s partially why I picked it up, as I love that movie and David Bowie as the Goblin King. I didn’t expect to get, basically, Labyrinth fanfiction. That was my first impression. As the book carries on, though, and especially as you get into the second book, it’s more like a musician’s fever-dream of their favorite childhood movie. There are so many elements taken from the movie, but they are deconstructed and put back together in such unexpected ways.

You’ll recognize a line or two from the movie. The fairies still bite. The Goblin King is still beautiful and angular and strange. Liesl’s after a stolen sibling. But Liesl and her family live in rural, probably 18th century Bavaria. She is not a spoiled, baby-sitting half-sister. Her grandmother has taught her the old stories, and unbeknownst to her, she’s played music for The Goblin King her entire childhood.

The first book concerns Liesl’s first foray into the Underground to save her sister when The Goblin King steals her to be his bride. This is where the acid trip starts. If you’re familiar with Labyrinth, remember the ballroom scene? With people whirling about and appearing and disappearing and mirrors and the sense of disorientation as it all falls apart? Yeah, that’s basically the entire time in the Underground. Though there is a ball scene, and it is especially trippy.

While Liesl manages to save her sister (that’s a spoiler, but it isn’t much of one), she has a harder time saving herself. Whether she actually does or not could be debated.

shadowsongThe second book of the duology, Shadowsong, has an interesting author’s note in the front of it. The author first gives a content warning for self-harm, suicidal ideations, addiction, and reckless behaviors. She goes on to say Liesl has bipolar disorder, and further, that so does she. (The author.) She says Wintersong was her bright mirror, and Shadowsong her dark one. I can see that. Wintersong is a much happier book than Shadowsong, but the story would be incomplete without both books. Wintersong does end in a satisfactory conclusion, but Shadowsong just completes the tale in a way that I, at least, really enjoyed.

Shadowsong also contains more throwbacks to the movie – she falls and is caught by goblin hands; goblins form a giant face that talks to her about the old laws. These things don’t happen in the same scene, though.

I loved the elements of music woven throughout the story; Liesl is a composer, and music – her music – is almost a character in its own right. It’s definitely a huge plot element. It’s in her connection to her brother, and her connection to The Goblin King. It’s her way into the Underground, and her way out, and her way to reach back in.

It’s an enchanting duology; I don’t know if it would be as good for someone who didn’t love Labyrinth the way I do. If you dislike the movie, I would probably advise against reading these. But if you like it or have simply never seen it, these would be good, atmospheric books to read in the dead of winter.

From the cover of Wintersong:

The last night of the year. Now the days of winter begin and the Goblin King rides abroad, searching for his bride . . . .

All her life, Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, dangerous Goblin King. They’ve enraptured her mind and spirit and inspired her musical compositions. Now eighteen and helping to run her family’s inn, Liesl can’t help but feel that her musical dreams and childhood fantasies are slipping away.

But when her own sister is taken by the Goblin King, Liesl has no choice but to journey to the Underground to save her. Drawn to the strange, captivating world she finds – and the mysterious  man who rules it – she soon faces an impossible decision. With time and the old laws working against her, Liesl must discover who she truly is before her fate is sealed.

Dark, romantic, and powerful, Wintersong will sweep you away into a world you won’t soon forget.

Book Review: A Whole New World

a whole new worldA Whole New World
by Liz Braswell
(#1 in the Twisted Tales series)
Fairy-Tale Retellings
376 pages
Published 2015

I’ve been wanting to read the Twisted Tales series for quite some time, and finally requested the first book. To be honest, I’m not thrilled. Aladdin was never my favorite Disney movie, though, so it might just be unfortunate that it’s the first book in the series. I’ll probably still try the rest.

The book actually sticks pretty closely to the Disney movie in descriptions, characters, and setting. Everyone looks like their Disney movie counterparts. I had to check the inside cover to find that the book is indeed an official Disney product. There’s no way they’d get away with it, otherwise; it’d be blatant copyright infringement, and Disney is rather strict about that.

Basically, the book takes the script of Aladdin and asks one question – what if Aladdin really did give Jafar the lamp instead of keeping it when he got stuck in the cave? We know what Jafar does with the lamp eventually, but what if he had it first, before Aladdin? A lot of the plot is familiar – Jasmine and her tiger, the hourglass with people stuck inside of it, the Sultan playing with his toys. It’s really interesting to see the plot elements deconstructed and put back together in new ways.

I’m not sure whether I like this plot or the movie plot more; I never had strong feelings about Aladdin so I’m probably not the best judge.

It’s alright. If you’re a fan of Aladdin you might like it more than I did. I’m withholding judgment of the entire series until I read a few more, though.

From the cover of A Whole New World:

What if Aladdin had never found the lamp?

Aladdin is a street rat. There’s really no getting around that. Like most, he’s just trying to survive another day in impoverished Agrabah.

Jasmine is a princess, one who is about to enter into an arranged marriage. All she wants is to escape her fate, to see what lies beyond the palace walls.

But everything changes when the sultan’s trusted adviser, Jafar, suddenly rises to power. With the help of an ancient lamp, Jafar becomes determined to break the laws of magic and gain control over love and death. Soon Aladdin and the deposed princess Jasmine must unite the people of Agrabah in rebellion to stop the power-mad ruler. But their fight for freedom grows costly when it threatens to tear the kingdom apart.

This isn’t the story you already know. This is a story about power. About revolutionaries. About love. And about one moment changing everything.