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.

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Book Review: Chaotic Good

Chaotic Good Comps14.inddChaotic Good
by Whitney Gardner
Young Adult / Contemporary Fiction
249 pages
Published 2018

Hoooooooo boy do I have some mixed feelings about this one!

First, the good:

The writing is great. The action flows, the dialogue is suitably nerdy, the affection between Cameron and her twin brother is evident. There are a few jumps from one scene to another, but I think they’re intended to be abrupt. The troll messages and online abuse Cameron gets simply for being a girl into cosplay are spot on. The descriptions of Eugene, Oregon – my hometown! – are also spot on. I am not sure which of the comics shops in Eugene inspired the one in the book, but I have definitely had Cameron’s experiences walking into more than one of the shops in town when I was younger. (I moved away over a decade ago.)

Really the only bad thing I have to say about this book is – Cameron dresses as a boy as an experiment, then finds she passes well enough to do it in a weekly D&D game – and when she’s eventually found out, it’s either “NO WAY” or “I knew it!” I would have liked one of the boys to shrug and say “I just thought he was trans” or something. SOME. MENTION. Of transgender or nonbinary as a possibility would have made this book so much better. I’m always slightly uncomfortable with a cross-dressing character and ABSOLUTELY NO MENTION of nonbinary gender identities.

Alright, no, there’s another bad point. The only other girl her age that Cameron has any contact with is Brina, dudebro-from-the-comic-shop’s crush, and Cameron honestly doesn’t treat her well. The first time they meet, Cameron is dressed as Boy Cameron, and doesn’t defend Brina when Brody pulls his dudebro shit. Which, okay, she was still getting used to being perceived as a dude, and instinct as a girl is to let that sort of thing slide off so as to not make it worse. I can give her a pass there. But near the end of the book, they run into each other again, as Girl Cameron this time, and when Brina extends a hand in friendship, Cameron brushes her off. Sure, she had a bad day, she’s stuck in her own head, but – GIRL. You’ve been dealing with toxic dudes on the internet the entire book, and dudebros you’re – trying to be friends with, for some reason, and you brush off a girl that loves your cosplay and wants to be friends? What the heck!

So – I don’t know. I honestly really enjoyed this book. The nerdy parts were glorious, even if their DM is a little railroad-y. The comic pages sprinkled into the text, showing the D&D adventure, was an inspired touch. But I just don’t like Cameron very much.

Her twin brother is gay, and there’s some drama with his ex, which is why I’ve tagged this GLBT. His storyline being treated just like a heterosexual storyline makes me wonder more why no mention is made of gender identities. IDK. It’s cute, but it’s problematic for what it omits.

From the cover of Chaotic Good:

Soon-to-be senior Cameron hopes to complete her costume portfolio away from the online abuse she has endured since winning a cosplay contest dressed as a character from a game she’s never played. Unfortunately, the only comic shop in her new town – her main destination for character reference – is staffed by a dudebro who challenges every girl who comes into the shop.

At her twin brother’s suggestion, Cameron borrows a set of his clothes and uses her costuming expertise to waltz into the shop as Boy Cameron, where she’s shocked at how easily she’s accepted into the nerd inner sanctum. Before she can say “Demogorgon,” Cameron finds herself drafted into a D&D campaign alongside the dudebro, a friendly (almost flirtatiously so) clerk, a handsome Dungeon Master, and her brother Cooper, dragged along for good measure.

But as her “secret identity” gets more and more entrenched, Cameron’s portfolio falls by the wayside – and her feelings for her DM threaten to make a complicated situation even more precarious. Cosplay, comic shops, and college applications collide in this geek-girl anthem from You’re Welcome, Universe author Whitney Gardner, complete with fully illustrated comic pages by Gardner herself.

Book Review: The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics

lady's guide to celestial mechanicsThe Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics
by Olivia Waite
Historical Romance / LGBT
322 pages
Published June 2019

This was one of two sweet, lighthearted romances I read to prepare myself for Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments – and it definitely helped. HEAs always lift my mood.

I was a little afraid, with the title, that we were going to be talking about astrology, but nope. Astronomy. Just from a Victorian point of view. Well. Slightly earlier, actually, as the book opens in 1816. It’s a true Regency romance, set twenty years before Victoria becomes Queen.

Lucy Muchelney, one of our two main characters, is left somewhat at loose ends after her father dies and her lover marries a man. She had been serving as her father’s assistant in astronomy calculations, but her brother, now in control of their finances, tells her she should get married and leave silly thoughts of science behind her. Then she finds a letter from one of her father’s patrons, the Countess of Moth, and runs off to London, hoping to convince the Countess she’s as good as her father.

The Countess, recently widowed, is intrigued by Lucy, and takes her on. Together they face the sexism of the exclusively male Polite Science Society, and privately struggle with a romance that can never be publicly acknowledged.

I really enjoyed this romance. I think it was actually less explicit than most of the adult romances I read, but I know LGBT romances in particular have to walk a fine line because people are all-too-ready to call them bad names as it is. It absolutely had sex scenes, just…not as dirty and detailed and prevalent as many romances I’ve read.

I liked that it dealt with issues surrounding the need to keep the relationship a secret. In that era, being gay was a crime, though usually only prosecuted against men. But it meant it couldn’t be publicly acknowledged; they couldn’t marry. So there’s a worry that there’s nothing legally binding them together, and if, say, the Countess were to get tired of Lucy, Lucy could be out on the street. The imbalance of power with no safety net puts Lucy on shaky ground, and that’s something the two women have to work out.

The bulk of the plotline outside of the romance deals with the sexism of the scientific society at the time; my Friday 56 this week quoted a particularly damning scene. Lucy gets her revenge eventually, and it’s a delight.

Fun little regency romance. There are a few authors writing diverse historical romance, and I’d love to see more!

From the cover of The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics:

As Lucy Muchelney watches her ex-lover’s sham of a wedding, she wishes herself anywhere else. It isn’t until she finds a letter from the Countess of Moth, looking for someone to translate a groundbreaking French astronomy text, that she knows where to go. Showing up at the Countess’ London home, she hoped to find a challenge, not a woman who takes her breath away.

Catherine St. Day looks forward to a quiet widowhood once her late husband’s scientific legacy is fulfilled. She expected to hand off the translation and wash her hands of the project—instead, she is intrigued by the young woman who turns up at her door, begging to be allowed to do the work, and she agrees to let Lucy stay. But as Catherine finds herself longing for Lucy, everything she believes about herself and her life is tested.

While Lucy spends her days interpreting the complicated French text, she spends her nights falling in love with the alluring Catherine. But sabotage and old wounds threaten to sever the threads that bind them. Can Lucy and Catherine find the strength to stay together or are they doomed to be star-crossed lovers?

Book Review: There’s Something About Sweetie

there's something about sweetieThere’s Something About Sweetie
by Sandhya Menon
Young Adult Romance
378 pages
Published May 2019

There is so much to love about this book. I read When Dimple Met Rishi a while back, and fell in love with Rishi like I VERY rarely do with fictional characters. This book is about Rishi’s brother, Ashish. I don’t care for Ashish as much as I liked Rishi, but Sweetie – oh, girl.

See, Sweetie is fat. But despite how all the traditionalists around her would have her feel, she’s okay with that. She’s still the fastest runner on the track team, an amazing singer, and has a close group of loyal friends.

So when she’s approached by Ashish’s mother to arrange dating him, and it’s turned down flatly by her own mother because she’s “not at his level” – she makes the decision to show her mother she CAN be happy, and have the things her mother wants for her, WHILE BEING FAT. And so is born the “Sassy Sweetie Project,” which is adorable.

I love Sweetie, and being a fat person myself (who also snagged a hottie, not gonna lie) I identify SO MUCH with her struggles here. Snide remarks from family friends, the constant “if you’d just lose weight” from the people close to you, the expectation that you can’t be happy while fat – Sweetie faces all of that, tells it to sod off, and proves you can be fat and healthy and happy.

One thing I really like about the Menon’s arranged relationships – the Patels, at least, treat it as “we’ll arrange this, but it’s up to you to follow through. If you don’t like each other, we won’t force you to go through with this.” Which is a nice thing to see. It’s probably just an American stereotype that says arranged marriages are forced relationships; not knowing the culture first hand, I can’t say which one is closer to the truth. BUT it challenges American assumptions about arranged marriages, and that’s a great thing, and another reason to read diversely. (I’m willing to bet Menon’s version of it is closer to the modern norm for arranged marriages, at least.)

I love that even in a sweet, lighthearted romance such as this one, reading diversely challenges American assumptions about other cultures. I feel like this is especially important in Young Adult lit – presenting other cultures to teens before opinions about them are fully formed. Because I’ll admit, I have a instinctual “ACK!” reaction to the thought of an arranged marriage – in my mind that infringes on all the independence and free will I’ve clawed so hard for – but it’s worthwhile to be reminded that sometimes it looks like this, and not “Hey, my 14-year-old daughter, you’re going to marry a 40-year-old man tomorrow, deal with it” (though that does certainly happen, but it happens in the US, too! Don’t believe me? Read here).

Both of Sandhya Menon’s books that I’ve read present arranged relationships in a much more positive light than typical American media. It’s important representation, and the characters and relationships are a joy to read to boot.

(Tagged LGBT for an adorable gay couple who are friends of Ashish’s and show up throughout the book.)

From the cover of There’s Something About Sweetie:

ASHISH PATEL didn’t know love could be so . . . sucky. After he’s dumped by his ex-girlfriend, his mojo goes AWOL. Even worse, his parents are annoyingly, smugly confident they can find him a better match. So, in a moment of weakness, Ash challenges them to set him up.

The Patels insist that Ashish date an Indian-American girl – under contract. Per subclause 1(a), he’ll be taking his date on “fun” excursions like visiting the Hindu temple and his eccentric Gita Auntie. Kill him now. How is this ever going to work?

SWEETIE NAIR is many things: a formidable track athlete who can outrun most people in California, a loyal friend, a shower-singing champion. Oh, and she’s also fat. To Sweetie’s traditional parents, this last detail is the kiss of death. 

Sweetie loves her parents, but she’s so tired of being told she’s lacking because she’s fat. She decides it’s time to kick off the Sassy Sweetie Project, where she’ll show the world (and herself) what she’s really made of.

Ashish and Sweetie both have something to prove. But with each date they realize there’s an unexpected magic growing between them. Can they find their true selves without losing each other?

Book Review: Gideon the Ninth

gideon the ninthGideon the Ninth
by Tamsyn Muir
Fantasy / Sci-Fi
448 pages
Published September 2019

OH. MY. GOD. This book, I just – oh my god. It’s the first in a trilogy about “lesbian necromancers in space” (yes, you read that right) and I just CANNOT EVEN with the ending of this book. Which makes this really really hard to write because the thing I want to talk about is a MAJOR SPOILER so I can’t even mention it!!! But like, the author broke one of the MOST MAJOR RULES OF STORYTELLING AND YET IT WAS SO GOOD AND I JUST CAN’T BELIEVE HOW MUCH I LOVED THIS AND JUST

mind if i scream
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

*deep breaths*

Okay. So. If you’ve already read the book, you know exactly what I’m screaming about; when you read the book, there will be no mistaking what it is. MAJOR RULE BREAKING ASIDE, this book is enthralling, but not in that magical “you’re beautiful” way – it’s a little bit more like you’re afraid the author’s going to kill everyone you care about if you look away, kind of way. (Everyone in the book, I mean! I don’t think she’s going to come hunt down my family!)

My only tiny complaint is I wish there’d been a four or five page prologue on how the Empire came to be, well, the Empire. Everyone in the book knows their history, or knows a story of their history, but the reader is left to piece it together. They know who The Emperor is, and what “The Resurrection” was, but we have no idea. I’m sure that was a conscious choice, but I disagree with it. I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more had I understood those references. (Hopefully Books 2 and 3 will explain that in more detail.)

That aside, Gideon is our viewpoint character, and she is a snarky, bad-mouthed rebel who just wants her freedom away from the Ninth House. Though there is no real romance in this book, it is made obvious that Gideon is a lesbian. (Also, the author has said so.)

A quick overview of the setup to the plot: There are nine houses in the Empire; The Emperor is the First House. The other eight have all sent their heirs (+their heirs’ cavaliers, a cross between a bodyguard, bosom companion, and servant) to the First City at the behest of the Emperor. The Ninth House’s cavalier was not up to the task, so Gideon has been asked to step in for him, with her freedom promised as the prize for doing so. She HATES the heir to the Ninth House, but has little choice but to go.

And then things start getting dicey.

I’m not going more into the plot than that, but there is murder, deception, LOTS of necromancy, and immortality as the prize. Unlike my typical lady necromancer books, (check my Necromancy tag!) the lady necromancer is not the main character of this book, but she is a major character. (All the heirs are necromancers, not just Harrowhark, the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House.)

The ending of the book is a MAJOR shock, but at the same time, it’s not a huge cliffhanger either. Somehow it manages to both sum up the book’s plot satisfactorily, set up the next book, AND still have me screaming WHAT?! WHAT! at the pages. This is a PHENOMENAL book, from an amazingly talented writer, and I cannot wait to read the rest of the trilogy. Definitely going on my Best of 2019 list!

Do be aware there is murder and gore and necromancy. No sexual violence. No issues around being LGBT. But some dark themes nonetheless. It is definitely Adult SFF.

From the cover of Gideon the Ninth:

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die. 

Of course, some things are better left dead.

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?