Book Review: The Brilliant Death

the brilliant deathThe Brilliant Death
by Amy Rose Capetta
Young Adult/Fantasy
330 pages
Published October 2018

It’s not often that I like a relationship more than I like the separate parts of it, but that’s the case with The Brilliant Death. I love Teo and Cielo together. As a couple they are amazing. I like them individually, but together they are something unique and lovely. By the end of the book, they can both switch genders at will, and they love each other for who they are, not what bodies they happen to be wearing.

This book plays with the gender binary, giving us two characters who dance from boy to girl and back again when it’s convenient for them. Teo uses this ability to masquerade as her brother, going to the capital city when summoned by the ruler of her country after the assassination of her father.

If Teo’s name and the use of the word “strega” hadn’t given it away, the book is very Italian-inspired. The family ties, the landscape, the names, the atmosphere is unmistakably Italian. While that’s still a Western European culture, it’s not one we actually see in fantasy that often, which makes this book more enthralling.

While Teo juggles loyalties to family, country, and friends, Cielo is on a mission to find out what happened to their mother. Falling in love isn’t in the plan for either of them, but when is it, really?

I loved the magic, the characters, and the setting of this one, and I really hope there’s going to be a sequel. The plot was definitely left open enough to allow for one, though I could be happy with this as a standalone, too.

From the cover of The Brilliant Death:

Teodora Di Sangro is used to hiding her magical ability to transform enemies into music boxes and mirrors. Nobody knows she’s a strega – and she aims to keep it that way.

Then she meets Cielo – and everything changes.

A strega who can effortlessly swap back and forth between female and male, human and animal, Cielo shows Teodora what her life could be like if she masters her powers – and how much more she’s capable of. And not a moment too soon: the ruler of Vinalia has poisoned the patriarchs of the country’s five controlling families, including Teodora’s father, and demands that each family send a son to the palace. If she wants to save her family, Teodora must travel to the capital – not disguised as a boy, but transformed into one.

But the road to the capital, and to bridling her evolving powers, is full of enemies and complications, including the one she least expects: falling in love.

Book Review: Damsel

damselDamsel
by Elana K. Arnold
Fantasy/Young Adult?!
309 pages
Published October 2018

Before I even get into this review.

CONTENT WARNING. DOMESTIC ABUSE. SEXUAL ASSAULT. ANIMAL ABUSE. GASLIGHTING. 

For all that, though, I loved this book. The protagonist suffers through all of that and perseveres. But it’s important to expect those things going into this book, because the central plot of the book is our protagonist being severely gaslit, with the rest of the abuse being in support of that. I agree with other Goodreads reviewers that it’s surprising it’s being marketed as a Young Adult book because these themes are VERY adult.

So. With those caveats, this book was outstanding. The book opens on Prince Emory riding his horse towards the castle of the dragon, intending to slay it and rescue his future wife, as his tradition in his kingdom. Emory seems to be your typical prince, accomplished, at ease with his sword, his horse, and himself, yet there is the occasional part of his inner narration that comes off…oddly. He enters the dragon’s castle, defeats the dragon, and leaves with his prize, a damsel who can remember nothing about herself or her past. A blank slate. Perfect for a queen-to-be.

But as Ama, so named by Emory, learns more about her new kingdom and future husband, and what her place will be, she realizes this is not what she wants. The more Emory tries to convince her that it IS what she wants, the more we get into the abuse factor of the book.

It’s very well done. It’s a dark fairy tale, it’s a consistent metaphor for – well, humanity’s treatment of women, really. Sit down, shut up, look pretty, and birth the next generation. You are important because only you can do that, but don’t let it give you uppity ideas. All that kind of patronizing misogyny.

I really loved this book, but it’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and the triggers might be too much for some of the people who WOULD otherwise like it. So know that going in.

From the cover of Damsel:

THE RITE HAS EXISTED FOR AS LONG AS ANYONE CAN REMEMBER

When the king dies, his son the prince must venture out into the gray lands, slay a fierce dragon, and rescue a damsel to be his bride. This is the way things have always been.

When Ama wakes in the arms of Prince Emory, she knows none of this. She has no memory of what came before she was captured by the dragon or what horrors she faced in its lair. She knows only this handsome young man, the story he tells of her rescue, and her destiny of sitting on a throne beside him. It’s all like a dream, like something from a fairy tale.

As Ama follows Emory to the kingdom of Harding, however, she discovers that not all is as it seems. There is more to the legends of the dragons and the damsels than anyone knows, and the greatest threats may not be behind her but around her, now, and closing in.

Elana K. Arnold, author of the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of, has written a twisted and unforgettable fairy tale, one that is set at the incendiary point where power, oppression, and choice meet.

Book Review: Of Fire and Stars

of fire and starsOf Fire And Stars
by Audrey Coulthurst
Young Adult/Fantasy
389 pages
Published 2016

Having read the prequel to this book already, I can see why a lot of people complained about the lack of worldbuilding. Even though the prequel is based in a neighboring country, there’s a lot in this book that I understood based on events in Inkmistress. I definitely recommend reading that one first.

That said, I enjoyed this book a lot. I think Inkmistress is better, but that happens often with new authors. I think the sequel, Of Ice and Shadows, due out this summer, will probably be even better, and should bring the events of the previous two books together.

Like Inkmistress, bisexuality seems to be absolutely normal in Denna’s country, with Denna not expressing a preference, Mare having had male and female lovers, and one of Denna’s ladies having a female lover. (There is a brief mention of a gay couple as well.) I do wish nonbinary people would make an appearance, but it’s something, at least.

There are a lot of twists and turns to the plot in this book, so while Inkmistress was fairly straightforward, this one took me by surprise multiple times. It also makes it much harder to talk about the plot without giving anything away!

I wish we’d discovered more about the King’s council – several members of it seemed to have ulterior motives but we never got to see what those were. If we knew their motivations, some things might make a lot more sense and be a lot more satisfying.

Read Inkmistress. If you like the world, go ahead and read this book, because the events of this will be necessary to understand the third book, which takes us back to the country featured in Inkmistress. And I want to know more about that country!

From the cover of Of Fire And Stars:

Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile nations. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire – a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

Now Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses – and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine – called Mare – the sister of her betrothed.

When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms – and each other.

Book Review: Grace and Fury

grace and furyGrace and Fury
by Tracy Banhart
Young Adult
311 pages
Published July 2018

I didn’t actually have high hopes for this book – the description hits a lot of standard YA tropes. Sisterhood, switched roles, Royal/pauper juxtaposition…but WOW. No, this book blew me away.

In Serina and Nomi’s world, women are second-class citizens, forbidden to read, have romantic relationships with each other, or have careers of their own. Serina plans to be a Grace, effectively a concubine to the Prince, with her sister as her handmaiden. But it is Nomi who catches the Prince’s eye when she stumbles into him in a hallway, and Nomi that he picks. In a moment of weakness, Nomi’s secret is discovered and thought to be Serina’s, and rather than jeopardize Nomi’s new position, Serina capitulates and takes the fall. She’s sent to a volcanic island prison while Nomi struggles to tame her own rebellious nature long enough to gain enough influence to free her sister.

The book is about oppression and sisterhood, whether it be with those that share your blood or not. Along the way, we discover a different history of the nation than what is normally taught, and find a few men who sympathize with the women’s plight. (And eventually step up to take action alongside the women.)

It’s a quick read – the action starts on page one and never stops. Chapters alternate between Nomi in the palace and Serina on her island prison fighting for food, and both girls learn that what they saw as weakness in each other can be strengths in different circumstances.

The only downside to this book is that it ends with things unfinished. Not a cliffhanger, exactly, but the story is most definitely not done, and the sequel doesn’t come out until July of 2019! I will be snapping that up as soon as it releases because I NEED to know how these two sisters overcome their trials.

From the cover of Grace and Fury:

BOLD
BRUTAL
BEAUTIFUL

Serina Tessaro has been groomed her whole life to become a Grace – someone to stand by the Heir to the throne as a shining, subjugated example of the perfect woman. It’s her chance to secure a better life for her family, and to keep her headstrong and rebellious younger sister, Nomi, out of trouble. But when Nomi catches the Heir’s eye instead, Serina is the one who takes the fall for the dangerous secret her sister has been hiding.

Trapped in a life she never wanted, Nomi has only one option: surrender to her role as a Grace until she can use her position to save Serina. But this is easier said than done . . . . A traitor walks the halls of the palazzo, and deception lurks in every corner.

Meanwhile, Serina is running out of time. Imprisoned on an island where she must fight to the death to survive, surrounded by women stronger than she is, one wrong move could cost her everything. There is no room for weakness on Mount Ruin, especially weaknesses of the heart.

Thrilling and captivating, Grace and Fury is a story of fierce sisterhood, and of survival in a world that’s determined to break you.

Book Review: Heart of Thorns

heart of thornsHeart of Thorns
by Bree Barton
Fantasy
438 pages
Published July 2018

I almost bailed on this book. It’s not bad, exactly, it’s just – mediocre. Mia discovers that she is the thing she’s been taught to hate, discovers that maybe they’re not all bad, that what she’s been taught is probably wrong, but, y’know, maybe not entirely wrong – it’s just one trope after another. It was rather predictable.

And there’s this problem with the world. If every woman is suspected of being a witch, (sorry, Gwyrach) and they work their magic through touch – how is anyone having kids? Sure, women are required to wear gloves in public, but – the touch-magic doesn’t keep men from abusing women. Not like in The Power, where men start getting actually scared to touch women for fear of what could happen.

The only character in this book that I actually LIKED was Prince Quin. And maybe Dom, the flirtatious gay boy. Mia was rather thoroughly unlikable. First she blindly accepts that she should hate and kill Gwyrach, then is appalled to find out she (and her mother) are/were Gwyrach, and refuses to accept that because of course she can’t possibly be one of those reviled women. She refuses to take Quin into her confidence, despite him showing blind trust in her for most of the book. What does he have to do to prove himself to you, woman?

I’ve read much better feminist dystopias. This is oppressed-women-finding-their-hidden-powers-and-fighting-back clothed in a fantasy instead of a dystopia, and it’s not nearly as good as it could be. Despite ending on a cliffhanger, I don’t care enough about these characters to read the next book.

From the cover of Heart of Thorns:

Mia Rose wants only one thing: revenge against the Gwyrach who killed her mother.

In a world where only women can possess magic – and every woman is suspected of having it – the half-girl, half-god Gwyrach are feared, reviled, and hunted. After training under her father and his infamous Hunters, Mia is determined to scour the four kingdoms and enact the Hunters’ Creed: Heart for a heart, life for a life.

But then her father announces a quite different future: She will marry Prince Quin, heir to the throne. Just like that, smart, headstrong Mia is thrust into the last role she ever wanted: pretty, wifely bauble to the future king.

So on the eve of her wedding, Mia plots a daring escape, only to discover the unimaginable: She has magic. She may be a Huntress, but she’s also a Gwyrach.

As the truth comes to light, Mia must untangle the secrets of her own past. Friends darken into foes and logic begins to fray – as do the rules she has always played by. If Mia wants to survive, she must learn to trust her heart . . . even if it kills her.

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.