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.

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Book Review: Taste of Marrow

taste of marrowTaste of Marrow
by Sarah Gailey
Alternate History
187 pages
Published 2017

Another quick novella, Taste of Marrow is the sequel to the bizarre alternate history novella River of Teeth. It picks up a few months after the ending of the first – people have had a chance to heal their injuries from the explosive ending of the first book, and hippos have begun to spread to previously safe waterways. The cast of this book consists of the surviving characters from the first, plus only one more semi-important character.

It’s not quite as good as the first – no explosions and it’s less of a rollercoaster – but there is some character development, and a deeper exploration of a few characters than we saw in the first book. I wish my library had the omnibus edition, because it includes two short stories set in the same world, and I’m very curious which aspects of the world she explored in those.

But this is a fun pair of books, very quick, easy reads, and it’s just fun to say you’re reading a book about hippos and cowboys!

From the cover of Taste of Marrow:

A few months ago, Winslow Houndstooth put together the damnedest crew of outlaws, assassins, cons, and saboteurs on either side of the Harriet for a history-changing caper. Together they conspired to blow the dam that choked the Mississippi and funnel the hordes of feral hippos contained within downriver, to finally give America back its greatest waterway. 

Songs are sung of their exploits, many with a haunting refrain: “And not a soul escaped alive.”

In the aftermath of the Harriet catastrophe, that crew has scattered to the winds. Some hunt the missing lovers they refuse to believe have died. Others band together to protect a precious infant and a peaceful future. All of them struggle with who they’ve become after a long life of theft, murder, deception, and general disinterest in the strictures of the law.

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.

Book Review: River of Teeth

river of teethRiver of Teeth
by Sarah Gailey
Alternate History?
173 pages
Published 2017

I somehow missed that this was a novella, every time I looked at it online. It wasn’t until I checked it out from the library and was shocked at how small it was that I made that discovery. It was a welcome one, since I checked out seven other books that day, and finding something short was a relief!

And I AM SO GLAD I finally read this, because it’s AMAZING. It opens on Winslow seducing a federal agent, and quickly moves to him gathering up a crew to drive feral hippos out of a marsh in Louisiana. I was expected a fun hippo-cowboy romp, and I got that – what I wasn’t expected was strong, deadly women, a bisexual male hero, a nonbinary love interest, and hippo steeds. I don’t know why hippo steeds didn’t occur to me – it’s not like they could wrangle hippos from atop horses! There is so much goodness packed into this little volume.

Taste of Marrow, the sequel, is slightly longer, at 192 pages. Still not full book length. I’ve put a hold on it, because I need to know more about these characters!

River of Teeth: short and sweet, action-packed with amazing characters and a fascinating, bizarre, but historical premise.

From the cover of River of Teeth:

In the early twentieth century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true. Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.

This was a terrible plan.

Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.

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: 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.