Book Review: The Guinevere Deception

guinevere deceptionThe Guinevere Deception
by Kiersten White
Young Adult / Fantasy
340 pages
Published November 2019

Kiersten White has solidified her spot on my Always-Read list. After Slayer and the And I Darken trilogy, I knew I liked her. With The Guinevere Deception she is three for three – or five for five, if you count the And I Darken trilogy separately – and that’s enough to land her squarely on my list of “READ ALL OF HER SHIT.” I need to get my hands on The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, since I’ve heard so many good things about it!

The Guinevere Deception is much less dark than the And I Darken trilogy, more on a par with Slayer. Not to say there aren’t dark themes here; there are plenty of those. While our “Guinevere” mentions often in her thoughts that she’s thankful for the real Guinevere for dying and making all this possible, I wouldn’t put it past this version of Merlin to have actually killed the real Guinevere and forced the possibility of this deception. I should back up and explain.

The story opens on Guinevere riding towards Camelot to be married to Arthur, however we learn from Guinevere (the story is told from her POV) that she’s not the real Guinevere. She is Merlin’s daughter, sent to protect Arthur after Merlin was banished from Camelot along with all magic. She, Merlin, and Arthur all know that Arthur needs magical protection, and though she’s not as strong as Merlin, the people of Camelot also don’t know she has magic. So she’s allowed to stay. We never learn Guinevere’s real name. (Maybe we will in future books?)

So Guinevere often reflects on the dead woman she’s impersonating. There’s also some consent issues with memory magic. Guinevere messes with a knight’s memory in order to let a dragon get away, and through the course of the book, we realize her own mind has been muddled when it comes to certain things. Merlin has a lot to answer for, domestic abuse and emotional abuse being the first of many sins.

I always love retellings of the Arthurian legends, because it’s fun to see the different takes on each facet of the tale. A changed romance here, a gender swap there, a slightly different parentage or sibling relationship over there. Someday I want to see an Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot polyamorous triad instead of a love triangle, but that has yet to appear.

For some reason, I picked up this book thinking it was a standalone. I’m not sure why I thought that; it’s actually the beginning of a trilogy. I’m looking forward to spending more time with these characters, though, and seeing where some of these relationships go. I really enjoyed this book, even as it made me quite angry at Merlin. I’m cheering for the Lady of the Lake, but I can’t tell you why without ruining some surprises! 

It’s interesting that the main plotline – the danger to Arthur – feels like a secondary plotline. I think the true main plotline is “Who IS Guinevere?” and that has not yet been answered by the end of the book. I have a strong suspicion, but I’ll have to wait for the next book to find out.

From the cover of The Guinevere Deception:

Princess Guinevere has come to Camelot to wed a stranger: the charismatic King Arthur. With magic clawing at the kingdom’s borders, the great wizard Merlin conjured a solution: send in Guinevere to be Arthur’s wife . . . and his protector from those who want to see the young king’s idyllic city fail.

The catch? Guinevere’s real name – and her true identity – is a secret. She is a changeling, a girl who has given up everything to protect Camelot.

To keep Arthur safe, Guinevere must navigate a court in which the old – including Arthur’s own family – demand that things continue as they have been, and the new – those drawn by the dream of Camelot – fight for a better way to live. And always, in the green hearts of forests and the black depths of lakes, magic lies in wait to reclaim the land. Arthur’s knights believe they are strong enough to face any threat, but Guinevere knows it will take more than swords to keep Camelot free.

Deadly jousts, duplicitous knights, and forbidden romances are nothing compared to the greatest threat of all: the girl with the long, knotted black hair, riding on horseback through the dark woods toward Arthur. Because when your whole existence is a lie, how can you trust even yourself?

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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: Of Ice And Shadows

of ice and shadowsOf Ice And Shadows
by Audrey Coulthurst
Young Adult / Fantasy
452 pages
Published August 2019

Of Ice And Shadows is actually the third book in this series; Of Fire And Stars is technically the first book but second chronologically, with Inkmistress being a prequel, so first chronologically. It’s a little confusing. I strongly recommend reading Inkmistress first; it builds the world in a way that makes Of Fire And Stars make a lot more sense.

Of Ice And Shadows takes the main characters from Of Fire And Stars and brings them to the country from Inkmistress. (Zumorda). It’s something like two hundred years after the events of Inkmistress, but the queen is still the same. Binding to a dragon seems to have increased her lifespan by a lot.

My only big complaint about this book is the Queen of Zumorda, actually. In my review of Inkmistress, I mentioned I found her to be kind of a bitch. She was portrayed as slightly evil, but in this book she’s a lot more gray. She’s ruthless, and can be cruel, but her motivations towards Denna are….hazy and not resolved by the end of the book. I feel like the Queen and Denna’s plotline is yet to be concluded, which makes me think (and hope) there will be another book. The author has stated on Goodreads that she knows what happens to Denna and Mare after this book, but sales will determine if there is another book in the series. Here’s hoping!

My second, and much more minor, complaint is the chapter headings. The book alternates between Denna and Mare’s viewpoints, but the chapters are headed by their full names – Dennaleia and Amaranthine. With Amaranthine always going by Mare, and Dennaleia alternating between Denna and Lia, I didn’t always connect their full names to the characters, so it pulled me out of the story for a few seconds when I saw their full names.

The book left a lot of mysteries still unexplained – Why is Sonnenborne, the third country in this setting, such a wasteland? What happened to the gods in Zumorda since the events of Inkmistress? One of Denna’s friends mentions his adoptive demigod mother – is that the same as the demigod from Inkmistress? It sounds right, location and ability wise. Does she still have a part to play in all of this? I really hope we get one last book tying up all the loose threads, because there are so many of them!

To sum up, I quite enjoyed this book, but you definitely need to read the other two books first, and be prepared to not get answers to all of your questions. I really, really need one last book in this series!

From the cover of Of Ice And Shadows:

Princesses Denna and Mare are in love and together at last – only to face a new set of dangers.

Mare just wants to settle down with the girl she loves, which would be easier if Denna weren’t gifted with forbidden and volatile fire magic. Denna must learn to control her powers, which means traveling in secret to the kingdom of Zumorda, where she can seek training without fear of persecution. Determined to help, Mare has agreed to serve as an ambassador as a cover for their journey.

But just as Mare and Denna arrive in Zumorda, an attack on a border town in Mynaria changes everything. Mare’s diplomatic mission is now urgent: She must quickly broker an alliance with the Zumordan queen to protect her homeland. However, the queen has no interest in allying with other kingdoms – it’s Denna’s untamed but powerful magic that catches her eye. The queen offers Denna a place among her elite trainees – an opportunity that would force her to choose between her magic and Mare.

As Denna’s powers grow stronger, Mare struggles to be the ambassador her kingdom needs. By making unconventional friends, she finds her knowledge of Zumorda and its people growing, along with her suspicions about who is truly behind the attacks on Zumorda and her homeland. As rising tensions and unexpected betrayals put Mare and Denna in jeopardy and dangerous enemies emerge on all sides, can they protect their love and save their kingdoms?

Series Review: The Hundredth Queen

The Fire QueenThe Fire Queen
The Rogue Queen
The Warrior Queen
by Emily R. King
Young Adult Fantasy / Myth Retelling
~300 pages each
Published 2017 / 2017 / 2018

I reviewed The Hundredth Queen a short time ago, and mentioned it was possibly a little culturally appropriative for a book written by a white woman, but I was invested enough in the characters to finish the series. While the culture resembles some time periods in India, the religion is inspired by ancient Sumeria, and much of the fourth book is reminiscent of the Inanna myth. I’ve only included the description of the second book, below, because the descriptions are full of spoilers for the series, as is often the problem for series reviews!

So I can’t really say how much the series is or is not appropriative; I’m not Indian. I don’t get to make that call. Regardless, it is something to be aware of before you read.

The Rogue QueenThat said, I enjoyed this series more than I expected to! Kalinda and Natesa are both awesome female fighters, and both of their love interests, while capable, are definitely cast in the “supporting character” role, to help show how badass the girls are.

One thing I did not like is how much they emphasize “sisterhood” and “sister warriors” yet turn around and fight each other – to the death! – to win a man or a position. Somehow Kalinda is the only woman to see how contradictory this is?

Kalinda’s nickname is also Kali, and, for a series with a disclaimer right up front basically saying “THIS IS NOT INDIA” maybe she should have picked a different name for the main character?

So I have a lot of questions about this series. There are contradictions, and plot holes, and improbable coincidences. I enjoyed the magic system. At its heart, it’s your basic elemental magic – earth, air, water, fire – but what the bhutas (magic wielders) can actually do with their elements is intriguing. In particular, the four directly-damaging uses – winnowing, leeching, grinding, and parching – are unique. Burners – fire-wielders – can parch people – literally burning their soul, basically. Tremblers – earth – can grind peoples’ bones together. Galers – air – can winnow, pulling oxygen out of the blood, tissues, and lungs of an enemy, and Aquifiers – water – can leech, pulling the liquid out of a person. All four magic wielders can control their element to do various tasks, but it’s the directly offensive uses that seem original.

The Warrior QueenOverall the plot is – fine – but it actually goes to the other end of the extreme that I complained about in Queen of Ruin. Obstacle after obstacle after obstacle. Ridiculous speedbumps, stupid mistakes, people acting out of character in order to throw another wrench in the works. I think the story could have been condensed down to three books and been far better for it.

A Spark of White Fire is a far better book with a similar feel to it, written by an Asian author. Read that instead.

From the cover of The Fire Queen:

WITH THE POWER OF FIRE, SHE WILL SPARK A REVOLUTION.

In the second book of the Hundredth Queen series, Emily R. King once again follows a young warrior queen’s rise to meet her destiny in a richly imagined world of sorcery and forbidden powers.

Though the tyrant rajah she was forced to marry is dead, Kalinda’s troubles are far from over. A warlord has invaded the imperial city, and now she’s in exile. But she isn’t alone. Kalinda has the allegiance of Captain Deven Naik, her guard and beloved, imprisoned for treason and stripped of command. With the empire at war, their best hope is to find Prince Ashwin, the rajah’s son, who has promised Deven’s freedom on one condition: that Kalinda will fight and defeat three formidable opponents.

But as Kalinda’s tournament strengths are once again challenged, so too is her relationship with Deven. While Deven fears her powers, Ashwin reveres them – as well as the courageous woman who wields them. Kalinda comes to regard Ashwin as the only man who can repair a warring world and finds herself torn between her allegiance to Deven and a newly found respect for the young prince.

With both the responsibility to protect her people and the fate of those she loves weighing heavily upon her, Kalinda is forced again to compete. She must test the limits of her fire powers and her hard-won wisdom. But will that be enough to unite the empire without sacrificing all she holds dear?

Book Review: Queen of Ruin

queen of ruinQueen of Ruin
by Tracy Banghart
Young Adult
325 pages
Published July 2019

This is the sequel to Grace and Fury, a book that surprised me with how much I actually really liked it. Picking up immediately where the first book left off, we’re thrust right back into the oppressive kingdom of Viridia and the women fighting for their freedom. I can’t say a whole lot about the plot in this second book without spoiling things, but the sisters find each other, split up, and find each other again, each collision shaking their beliefs and convictions, as well as those around them. The battles are bloody and visceral without being unnecessarily gory, the action kept the plot moving at a good pace, and the oppression was appropriately infuriating.

My only complaint would be that the overall plot was too easy – but these are short Young Adult books. You can’t give them too many obstacles to overcome or you’ll exceed your allotted pages, so I can give that a pass here.

Everything is wrapped up nicely by the end of the book; I appreciate that this was a duology and not a trilogy (though a trilogy would have allowed for more obstacles). I do enjoy the recent trend in YA towards duologies, though.

So – if you enjoyed Grace and Fury, this is a satisfactory conclusion. The first book was by far the stronger of the two, though.

From the cover of Queen of Ruin:

RESILIENCE
RESISTANCE
REVOLUTION

When the new, brutal Superior banishes Nomi from Bellaqua, she finds herself powerless and headed toward her all-but-certain death. Her only hope is to find her sister, Serina, on the prison island of Mount Ruin. But when Nomi arrives, it is not the island of conquered, broken women that she expected. It is an island in the grip of revolution, and Serina – polite, submissive Serina – is its leader.

Betrayal, grief, and violence have changed both sisters, and the women of Mount Ruin have their sights set on revenge beyond the confines of their island prison. They plan to sweep across the entire kingdom, issuing in a new ages of freedom for all. But first they’ll have to get rid of the new Superior, and only Nomi knows how.

Separated once again, this time by choice, Nomi and Serina must forge their own paths as they aim to tear down the world they know and build something better in its place. 

The stakes are higher and the battles bolder in Tracy Banghart’s unputdownable sequel to Grace and Fury.