Book Review: Black Wings Beating

black wings beatingBlack Wings Beating
by Alex London
Young Adult/Fantasy
426 pages
Published September 2018

This highly-anticipated young adult fantasy was – alright. I’m a little disappointed, actually. I love birds. I grew up with a number of parrots, and crows are still one of my favorite animals. So a book where falconry is a central part of the culture, and they have to go hunt down a mythical bird? Count me in! Unfortunately this book suffers from the “reluctant hero” trope, which is far too common in YA and gets tiring.

The two main characters in this book are twins. We have Brysen, who was never good enough for their alcoholic father, and was beaten regularly. He’s also stubborn, irresponsible, and reckless. His sister has an ancient power to control falcons, but she refuses to learn how to control it because she doesn’t want to overshadow her good-for-nothing brother. (She also might be asexual, but it’s not explicitly stated in the book. It’s heavily implied, though.)

The two dysfunctional siblings set out to capture the near-mythical bird that killed their father, in order to save the life of Brysen’s lover, falconry trainer, and manipulator, Dymian. They’re joined by Nyall, a boy in love with Kylee who doesn’t care that she doesn’t love him back. (In the truly-good-guy way, not in the creepy way. I like Nyall. He’s good people.)

They of course run into dangers in the mountains that the bird lives in, and the book is about that journey. Interspersed with their story is the occasional scene of the invaders sweeping across the land elsewhere. I wish we had a better sense of time – both how long before the invaders near the Six Villages where Brysen and Kylee are, and how long their journey in the mountains takes. That could have been much better communicated.

Kylee frustrates me – she could be so badass, and if she’d use her powers, it could get her what she wants. She’s trying to earn enough money catching and selling birds of prey to get out of the business entirely. (She has to pay off their father’s debts first.) So why not use her powers to call down a few of the most valuable birds and BE DONE WITH IT? How does this not occur to her? As far as I can tell, the only real reason she doesn’t want to be a falconer is she knows she’d be excellent at it and she doesn’t want to overshadow her brother, whose dream it’s been to be a great falconer. News flash. Your brother is worthless, girl. If he wants to be great maybe he should buckle down and focus instead of blaming those around him for his misfortunes.

So I’m not sure what my overall opinion of this book is. The world-building is shaping up to be interesting, but needs more fleshing out. The writing itself is pretty good, it flows nicely but needs a better sense of time. The characters’ motivations are clear but occasionally frustrating. I am a little invested in seeing what happens in the next book, but I’m not sure I’m invested enough to spend the time to read it. I’ll make that decision when it comes out, I suppose.

From the cover of Black Wings Beating:

THEY’LL RISE TOGETHER OR FALL ALONE

The people of Uztar have long looked to the sky with hope and wonder. Nothing in their world is more revered than birds of prey, and no one is more honored than the falconers who call them to their fists. 

Brysen strives to be a great falconer, while his twin sister, Kylee, possesses ancient gifts for it but wants to be free of falconry altogether. She’s nearly made it out, too, but a war is rolling toward the Six Villages, with a rebel army leaving nothing in its wake but blood and empty sky. No bird or falconer will be safe from this invasion.

Together the twins must embark on a journey into the treacherous mountains to trap the near-mythic ghost eagle, a solitary killer and the most feared of the Uztari birds of prey. They each go for their own reasons: Brysen for the boy he loves and the glory he’s long craved, and Kylee to atone for her past and protect her brother’s future. But they both are hunted by those who seek one thing: power.

With this book, Alex London launches a soaring saga about the memories that haunt us, the histories that hunt us, and the bonds of blood between us.

Book Review: Give The Dark My Love

give the dark my loveGive The Dark My Love
by Beth Revis
Young Adult/Fantasy
351 pages
Published September 2018

Yet another lady necromancer book! I do really love this topic. It’s also really interesting to see the different flavors various authors can give it. Sometimes it’s binding wandering spirits into physical objects, or bringing spirits back from the Shadowlands to live in our world as normal people, or being a warden against great undead beasts, or, in this case, trying to stop a cursed plague that might have necromantic origins.

There are a lot of commonalities, though, even with how different these ladies’ reasons are. There’s always some line, usually the line into “true” necromancy, that she shouldn’t cross, and which she normally does. There’s always a loved one who ultimately supports her even if they’re not sure she’s doing the right thing. There’s always a sense of desperation driving her to what she sees as the only solution.

What’s amazing is that given that framework, these books continue to surprise and delight me. Each one is still such a unique take on the “dark art” of necromancy. These ladies aren’t evil. Nedra, here, is trying to save her family and her people from a plague that evades any kind of scientific explanation. They have no idea how it spreads. It usually starts in the extremities, and if you cut off the infected limb, sometimes that stops it. But sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes it starts over the heart, or right in the brain. Some people simply seem to be immune. Nedra works with the sick for months and never gets it, but some people come down with it without having any contact with a sick person. Her teacher at school finally confesses that he thinks it might be necromantic in origin, and things begin to cascade from that point.

There is a romance in the book, though it’s definitely a side plot. Nedra’s studies and work on the plague is the main focus. We have a bisexual character in Nedra’s twin sister, but again, she’s really just a side note. The book ended on a bit of a cliff hanger, and the second book doesn’t have a title or a release date yet, unfortunately. “Sometime in 2019” is all we’ve got, which is quite disappointing because I need it NOW!

While Give The Dark My Love wasn’t the best of the lady necromancer books I’ve read recently, it was still pretty great. I am eager for news of the sequel!

From the cover of Give The Dark My Love:

Seventeen-year-old Nedra Brysstain leaves her home in the rural, northern territories of Lunar Island to attend the prestigious Yügen Academy with only one goal in mind: master the trade of medicinal alchemy. A scholarship student matriculating with the children of Lunar Island’s wealthiest and most powerful families, Nedra doesn’t quite fit in with the other kids at Yügen.

Until she meets Greggori “Grey” Astor. Grey is immediately taken by the brilliant and stubborn Nedra, who, he notices, is especially invested in her studies. And that’s for a good reason: a deadly plague has been sweeping through the north, and it’s making its way toward the cities. With her family’s lives – and the  lives of all of Lunar Island’s citizens – on the line, Nedra is determined to find a cure for the plague.

Grey and Nedra grow close, but as the sickness spreads and the body count rises, Nedra becomes desperate to find a cure. Soon, she finds herself diving into alchemy’s most dangerous practices. And when she turns to the most forbidden practice of all, necromancy, even Grey might not be able to pull her from the darkness.

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: For A Muse Of Fire

for a muse of fireFor A Muse Of Fire
by Heidi Heilig
Young Adult/Fantasy
494 pages
Published September 2018

I’m starting to realize I might have a thing for lady necromancers. They’re the right kind of dark, badass, I’m-going-to-do-the-right-thing-even-if-you-don’t-understand-it amazing women that I love. From Tea in The Bone Witch trilogy to Odessa in Reign of the Fallen to Jetta in this book, these women are amazing. I have one more lady necromancer book out from the library right now, Give The Dark My Love, and I hope it lives up to the rest of these women!

So in For A Muse of Fire, we have Jetta, with amazing powers but also with what she refers to as her malheur – she’s bipolar. She and her parents are traveling to another country to seek a cure for it, but in their journeys they wind up in the middle of a rebellion. Her powers let her see wandering spirits, bind them to physical objects, and command them. In this way, she’s made shadow puppets that don’t require strings or sticks, and her family has a small amount of fame as the best shadow puppeteers in the region.

We learn secrets about Jetta’s family, ancestry, and just how far her powers can go, while she fights off army deserters, generals, smugglers, and ghosts. She imbues unexpected objects with unexpected spirits (one such instance being the best scene in the book, in my opinion).

I can’t wait for the next book. Jetta is maturing into her powers and deciding what to do with them, and once she makes up her mind the world is going to shudder at her feet.

From the cover of For A Muse Of Fire:

Never show. Never tell.

Jetta’s secret has kept her family from starving. It has made them the most famed troupe of shadow players in Chakrana. With Jetta behind the scrim, their puppets move without stick or string.

Never show. Never tell.

With a drop of blood, Jetta can bind wandering spirits to the silk or wood or leather of the puppets and bring them to life. But the old ways are forbidden. If anyone discovered her ability, Jetta could be thrown in prison and left to rot – or worse.

Never show. Never tell.

As rebellion swells and desperation builds, Jetta’s power becomes harder and harder to hide. Especially from Leo, the young smuggler with sharp eyes and secrets of his own. When he and Jetta capture the notice of both the army and the rebels, she may be the spark that lights the rebellion . . . if she isn’t consumed by the flame first.

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: 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.