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: 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?

Book Review: The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths & Magic

rules and regulationsThe Rules & Regulations for Mediating Myths & Magic
by F. T. Lukens
Urban Fantasy / Young Adult / Romance / LGBT
287 pages
Published 2017

I loved this book. The wit is dry, the action easy to follow, the confusion of the main character absolutely warranted (Mermaids? in Lake Michigan?!), and it’s just wonderful. And it stars a bisexual teenage BOY. Male bisexuality could use more visibility, so this made me really happy. I picked this book for the M/M for Pride; I was really excited to find the main character is bisexual! It was a great surprise.

Bridger (an unusual name, but it fits him) is a senior in high school with a crush on his next door neighbor. He plans to go to school far away – Florida – where he can just BE himself instead of having to come out. But for that he needs money; so he answers an ad for an assistant doing….well he’s not sure exactly what. When he finally demands answers, he learns the truth about the world of myth and magic, and things snowball from there.

He wrestles with keeping it secret from his friends – because really, who would believe he saw mermaids in Lake Michigan? At the same time, he’s trying to wrap his head around his attraction to Leo, star football player, who just might like him back, and how to tell his mom he’s bisexual.

I loved Bridger, and his best friend, Astrid, who will kick the butt of anyone who looks wrong at Bridger, and Leo was an absolute dreamboat. I also want to know more about Pavel and his companions! I really really hope the author writes more books in this world, because I want to read them!

From the cover of The Rules & Regulations for Mediating Myths & Magic:

Desperate to pay for college, Bridger Whitt is willing to overlook the peculiarities of his new job – entering via the roof, the weird stacks of old books and even older scrolls, the seemingly incorporeal voices he hears from time to time – but it’s pretty hard to ignore being pulled under Lake Michigan by . . . mermaids? Worse yet, this happens in front of his new crush, Leo, the dreamy football star who just moved to town.

Fantastic.

When he discovers his eccentric employer Pavel Chudinov is an intermediary between the human world and its myths, Bridger is plunged into a world of pixies, werewolves, and Sasquatch. The realm of myths and magic is growing increasingly unstable, and it is up to Bridger to ascertain the cause of the chaos, eliminate the problem, and help his boss keep the real world from finding the world of myths.

Book Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree

priory of the orange treeThe Priory of the Orange Tree
by Samantha Shannon
Epic Fantasy
830 pages
Published February 2019

Holy COW, you guys. I keep saying “I haven’t read much epic fantasy lately” and “I don’t have time to read such long books/series” but I made an exception for Priory, and I’m SO glad I did. Just WOW.

So the basic premise of this world is that The Nameless One (some gigantic evil dragon) was locked away a thousand years ago, and all his minions with him. The exact details of how and who did it have been mostly lost to history. It’s said that as long as the House of Berethnet rules Inys, he’ll never rise again, and Berethnet queens always have one child, a daughter. The current queen, however, is unwed, and minions of The Nameless One have begun rising, and in fact have conquered a few neighboring nations. We have three main factions of countries; The East, who have dragon riders, but make a distinction between their dragons, who are aquatic and identify with the stars, and the evil minions of The Nameless One, who are full of fire. Then we have Virtudom, which is headed by Inys, and is a coalition of countries who have made a religion of the Knightly Virtues. This is the West, and they make no distinction between the draconic servants of The Nameless One and the water dragons of the East. This has forced a split between the West and the East, because Virtudom won’t have anything to do with countries that have anything to do with dragons, because most of what they see is the third faction – the Draconic countries. These are countries conquered by minions of the Nameless One, and they are full of chaos, fire, evil, and plague.

This is the world the book opens on. Most of our main characters – Queen Sabran, her handmaiden Ead, the dragonrider Tané – are women, but we also have Doctor Niclays Roos, an alchemist, and Lord Arteloth Beck, a friend of the Queen. In this world, women are just as capable as men, and are treated as such. There are female knights, and same-sex relationships are just as ordinary as opposite-sex ones. There is a bit too much moral emphasis placed on monogamy/sex within the bounds of marriage, but I guess that’s “Knightly Virtue” for you. Skin color is only mentioned a couple of times, but I seem to remember Lord Arteloth being described as very dark-skinned, and Ead as golden-brown. Rather nice to see a fantasy NOT all caught up in racial and gender differences. Not to say there isn’t a fair amount of bigotry, but in this book it’s based pretty much solely on nationality and religion. And when the biggest sticking point is “do you like evil dragons or not” that kind of makes sense!

I think the only thing I didn’t like about this book was its size. It’s unwieldy to read, at over 800 pages! I’m not sure why they didn’t break it into a duology. Regardless, if you have the choice, I’d read it on Kindle. It would be far easier to handle. I’m not complaining about the amount of text, mind you. Just the sheer physical size. I can’t imagine the story being told in less time. There’s So. Much. Here.

This book goes from Queen Sabran’s court to the dragonrider academy in the East, to the draconic kingdom of Yscalin, to the Abyss where the Nameless One sleeps. We see glittering courts, hidden islands, sweltering tunnels through volcanic mountains, and deep valleys with secret magic trees. We battle wyrms and cockatrices, swim through endless seas with dragonriders, sail through storms with pirate crews, and navigate the trickiest of diplomatic matters with courtiers. The Priory of the Orange Tree paints an elaborate, incredibly complex world and I am absolutely here for it.

Okay, so one tiny quibble – while I liked the romance, I feel like it started kind of oddly. I didn’t see any reason for the initial spark. From there, it progressed perfectly, but I just didn’t get the beginning.

This book has multiple queer couples! There’s at least one same-sex couple mentioned as attending a party; Doctor Roos spends a lot of time mourning his dead lover, and there’s the lesbian romance between a couple of main characters. And one character has at least strong affection for a man before falling in love with a woman; I think she was in love with both. No trans or ace rep, but plenty of gay, lesbian, and bi!

This is hands-down the best book I’ve read so far this year. It took me three days – it’s a big book – but it is absolutely fantastic.

From the cover of The Priory of the Orange Tree:

A WORLD DIVIDED.
A QUEENDOM WITHOUT AN HEIR.
AN ANCIENT ENEMY AWAKENS.

The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction – but assassins are getting closer to her door.

Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic.

Across the dark sea, Tané has trained all her life to be a dragonrider but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel.

Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep.

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: The Weight of Feathers

the weight of feathersThe Weight of Feathers
by Anna-Marie McLemore
Young Adult/Romance/Shakespeare Retelling
308 pages
Published 2015

The Weight of Feathers is a Romeo and Juliet story, with two families feuding over real and imagined slights, and a young person from each family falling in love and fighting their conditioning and the control of their families to be together. McLemore has added a touch of magic to the story, but it’s deft enough that at first it can be mistaken for metaphor.

Lace Paloma is the Palomas’ youngest mermaid, only just allowed to show herself in the shows, but not yet allowed to interact with fans. A big part of their performance is not being seen out of the water, out of costume, so when the show is over, all the mermaids swim off to deserted edges of the lake they perform in to exit, change, and make their way home. On her way home after one such performance, Lace is caught in the woods when some kind of acid rain from the nearby adhesive plant coats the town. While somewhat caustic, the rain is really only dangerous if it hits cotton clothing, which Lace is wearing. One of the Corbeau boys finds her in the woods, rips off her cotton clothing, and gets her to the hospital. Because she was in her normal clothing and not her costume, he didn’t realize she was part of the rival family. This meeting and rescue is not actually the start of their contact with each other; they’d talked briefly in town, when each thought the other was a local, but it does turn it from a passing contact to something more, and when Lace is spurned by her family, she winds up under the Corbeau boy’s protection.

The book is about family secrets, corporate conspiracies, abusive families, and control of one’s own destiny, swirled together with a touch of magic, feathers, and mermaid scales. While it is definitely a Romeo and Juliet story, McLemore has taken the story and truly made it her own. Both the Paloma family and the Corbeau family have such a mythology woven about themselves that each family really has an identity that defines them. (Feathers and “flying” for the Corbeaus, scales and swimming for the Palomas.) When Lace and Cluck try to bridge the gap between the two, things get difficult.

I really loved this book, and it has made me even more eager to read Blanca & Roja, McLemore’s next book. Her writing is gorgeous and surreal and I love it.

From the cover of The Weight of Feathers:

The Palomas and the Corbeaus have long been rivals and enemies, locked in an escalating feud for more than a generation. Both families make their living as traveling performers in competing shows – the Palomas swimming in mermaid exhibitions, the Corbeaus, former tightrope walkers, performing in the tallest trees they can find.

Lace Paloma may be new to her family’s show, but she knows as well as anyone that the Corbeaus are pure magia negra, black magic from the devil himself. Simply touching one could mean death, and she’s been taught since birth to keep away. But when disaster strikes the small town where both families are performing, it’s a Corbeau boy, Cluck, who saves Lace’s life. And his touch immerses her in the world of the Corbeaus, where falling for him could turn his own family against him, and one misstep could be just as dangerous on the ground as it is in the trees. 

Beautifully written and richly imaginative, The Weight of Feathers is an utterly captivating young adult novel by a talented new voice.