Book Review: A Promise of Fire (Kingmaker Chronicles #1) by Amanda Bouchet

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Genre: Fantasy romance
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication Date: August 2nd, 2016
Pages: 441, mass market paperback
Source: Library


Catalia “Cat” Fisa lives disguised as a soothsayer in a traveling circus. She is perfectly content avoiding the danger and destiny the Gods-and her homicidal mother-have saddled her with. That is, until Griffin, an ambitious warlord from the magic-deprived south, fixes her with his steely gaze and upsets her illusion of safety forever.

Griffin knows Cat is the Kingmaker, the woman who divines the truth through lies. He wants her as a powerful weapon for his newly conquered realm-until he realizes he wants her for much more than her magic. Cat fights him at every turn, but Griffin’s fairness, loyalty, and smoldering advances make him increasingly hard to resist and leave her wondering if life really does have to be short, and lived alone.

For the first 100 pages or so of this book, I was on board. Sure, I thought it was a little strange that it was a fantasy world yet used Greek gods and mythology. (The world is very obviously based on Greece and Rome, but it’s not an alternate world. It’s a fantasy world based on very real countries.) And yes, the modern language that was used was a little mismatched with the setting. (Also, Hades wouldn’t have a mortal lover, much less give her Cerberus to protect her circus. Sorry, did we all forget Minthe? Is that not a thing in this world?)

I liked Cat. I liked Griffin, even. I’m all for Mary-Sues and Cat definitely ticks off most of the list — tragic past? Check. Myriad and amazing powers? Yup. Beautiful, even when scarred? You got it! She has her flaws and an interesting personality to outweigh some of that. 

But then we spent nearly 230 pages on traveling. And granted, most of it was full of character and world development, so for most of it I wasn’t bored. But was it needed? I’m not sure. It fell into the same pit as Walk on Earth a Stranger — so much time was spent traveling that it eventually felt tedious. 

And then there’s the romance. I cringed when I read Griffin described as an “ultra-alpha hero”. But when we first meet him, he actually has a personality beyond what those words brings to mind. Cat gives as good as she gets with him and they had a good dynamic (if not one I, personally, care for. Bantering/bickering couples tend to bore me because it’s a lazy way for the author to shoe in some supposed chemistry between characters. That wasn’t so much a problem here… well, not for most of it.) So hey, he’s a good guy, and Cat tends to best him most of the time. I was fine.

And then. Oh boy, and then. The bantering/bickering dynamic falls into the pit of Cat constantly refusing Griffin’s advances and expressing disgust at the thought of kissing him. But oh, she’s just kidding! Her internal monologue tells us how very much she does want him, and Griffin, of course, totally knows this. He tells her that he knows she wants him, ignoring her protests, and by the time I stopped reading, pushing her up against walls and kissing her and touching her even as she’s saying “no.” But he can read her body language, doncha know, so he knows she’s into it.

Gag. This all happens while Cat is still his prisoner, of course, as she repeatedly refuses his offers to join “Beta Team”. Even if he’s calling her a companion, Cat doesn’t think of herself as one. The power dynamic is completely out of whack. For all their verbal sparring (some of it crossing into abusive territory in my opinion) the power dynamic was fine… but once it crossed the line into physical attacks, the bad taste in my mouth got worse. Cat can’t give consent. Period. Griffin kidnapped her and held her against her will. Until Cat has the power to leave of her own free will, Griffin is assaulting her

Then, of course, there’s a romantic rival. And of course, she immediately attacks Cat, saying that Cat is sleeping with the entire “Beta Team” (Griffin and his companions). They physically fight twice in both of the rival’s appearances. The other women in the book don’t fare any better — Cat’s mother is a psychopath bordering on cartoon villainy, and Griffin’s sisters are forgettable. Cat shows such disdain for poor Egeria who, while a little naive, has done nothing to earn it. Jocasta may end up being Cat’s friend, but I didn’t bother reading long enough to find out.

Obviously I’m in the minority on this one. Lots of people loved it. But these problems were just insurmountable for me, after an already rocky interest. I was fully prepared to give it three stars until we got to the girl hate, slut-shaming, and sexual assault.

I won’t be continuing the series.

Book Review: The Last Rabbit by Shelley Moore Thomas

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Genre: Children’s Fantasy
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Publication Date: February 9th, 2021
Pages: 288, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

In the vein of The Girl Who Drank the Moon and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, an modern fairytale about sisterhood, forgiveness, and redemption.

On the magical island of Hybrasil there lives a Magician and four enchanted rabbit sisters. One by one, the rabbits have been leaving the island, accompanied by a Boy and his boat. He takes them wherever they choose. When the rabbits leave the island, they can turn back into girls.

The last rabbit, Albie, remains. She does not want to leave, but the island is sinking. Before deciding where she wants to go, Albie visits each of her sisters. Caragh has joined a circus. Isolde is the captain of a pirate ship. And Rory wants to go home to the family’s house in Cork.

Through many furry twists and hoppity turns, we learn how one mistake can lead to many consequences, and that forgiveness and family are always within reach.

On the magical island of Hybrasil there lives a Magician and four enchanted rabbit sisters. One by one, the rabbits have been leaving the island, accompanied by a Boy and his boat. He takes them wherever they choose. When the rabbits leave the island, they can turn back into girls.

The last rabbit, Albie, remains. She does not want to leave, but the island is sinking. Before deciding where she wants to go, Albie visits each of her sisters. Caragh has joined a circus. Isolde is the captain of a pirate ship. And Rory wants to go home to the family’s house in Cork.

Through many furry twists and hoppity turns, we learn how one mistake can lead to many consequences, and that forgiveness and family are always within reach.

Book Review: Across the Green Grass Fields (Wayward Children #6) by Seanan McGuire

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Tor
Publication Date: January 13th, 2021
Pages: 174, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

A young girl discovers a portal to a land filled with centaurs and unicorns in Seanan McGuire’s Across the Green Grass Fields, a standalone tale in the Hugo and Nebula Award-wining Wayward Children series.

“Welcome to the Hooflands. We’re happy to have you, even if you being here means something’s coming.”

Regan loves, and is loved, though her school-friend situation has become complicated, of late.

When she suddenly finds herself thrust through a doorway that asks her to “Be Sure” before swallowing her whole, Regan must learn to live in a world filled with centaurs, kelpies, and other magical equines―a world that expects its human visitors to step up and be heroes.

But after embracing her time with the herd, Regan discovers that not all forms of heroism are equal, and not all quests are as they seem… 

Across the Green Grass Fields is the sixth installment of McGuire’s Wayward Children series, touted as being a jumping off point for readers new to the series. I think perhaps this is why I felt so underwhelmed by it in the end — the novel follows the same basic set up as many of the others, where a child has a difficult time at home, then comes across a door and enters another world that seems perfect for them, only to wind up being sent back to their original world. As someone who has read the entire series, it just felt like taking a step back in how the stories have progressed from the first novel which introduced us to that set up. 

Usually I find McGuire’s imagination and creativity enviable, but here it fell flat for me. Maybe it’s because I never went through a horse phase as a kid — I think the closest I came was watching The Saddle Club on TV and maybe reading a few of the books — but McGuire’s worldbuilding was thin here. Regan spends most of her time hidden away by her centaur family, which is full of characters that are likable, but that causes the world to feel small. There’s a bit of worldbuilding at the end but it’s rushed, as is the third act of the novel. Regan doesn’t get to explore the Hooflands, so it doesn’t feel lived in. 

I do however like that there was representation of intersex people in this novel. This is still one of my favorite series and I’ll read whatever McGuire writes for it. Across the Green Grass Fields just isn’t my favorite of the series, unfortunately. 

Book Review: The Repeater Book of the Occult: Ten Tales from the Darkside edited by Tariq Goddard

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Horror Anthology
Publisher: Repeater
Publication Date: February 9th, 2021
Pages: 350, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

A selection of Repeater authors choose their favourite forgotten horror stories for this new anthology, with each also writing a critical introduction for the story of their choice.

Edited by novelist and Repeater publisher Tariq Goddard and “horror philosopher” Eugene Thacker, The Repeater Book of the Dead is a new anthology of horror stories, selected and introduced by Repeater authors.

Includes selections from Repeater authors like Graham Harman, Leila Taylor, Carl Neville, Adrian Nathan West and Rhian E Jones, with forgotten horror classics from authors such as W.W. Jacobs, Mark Twain and Sheridan Le Fanu.

Anthologies where authors select the stories are usually more varied than those where one editor chooses all the stories, and such is the case in The Repeater Book of the Occult, with stories chosen by the authors of the Repeater Books publishing house.

There are a number of well-known stories, such Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” and two LeFanu stories. Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf were a pleasant surprise, and I had not previously heard of Francis Stevens.

Dotard’s “Par Avion” was a miss for me. It didn’t feel like it belonged with the others, even as loose as the theme of the anthology was.

The authors provide introductions to each story, some of which were longer than a couple of the stories, and more likely essays. While there was a lot of good information in some of them, they detracted from the stories themselves.

I would encourage the authors to choose lesser-known works that haven’t had the readership of some of the selections in this book, but the choices were good, and this is recommended.

Book Review: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Ace Books
Publication Date: June 18th, 2019
Pages: 352, trade paperback
Source: Library

In this charming, witty, and weird fantasy novel, Alexis Hall pays homage to Sherlock Holmes with a new twist on those renowned characters.

Upon returning to the city of Khelathra-Ven after five years fighting a war in another universe, Captain John Wyndham finds himself looking for somewhere to live, and expediency forces him to take lodgings at 221b Martyrs Walk. His new housemate is Ms. Shaharazad Haas, a consulting sorceress of mercurial temperament and dark reputation.

When Ms. Haas is enlisted to solve a case of blackmail against one of her former lovers, Miss Eirene Viola, Captain Wyndham finds himself drawn into a mystery that leads him from the salons of the literary set to the drowned back-alleys of Ven and even to a prison cell in lost Carcosa. Along the way he is beset by criminals, menaced by pirates, molested by vampires, almost devoured by mad gods, and called upon to punch a shark. 

But the further the companions go in pursuit of the elusive blackmailer, the more impossible the case appears. Then again, in Khelathra-Ven reality is flexible, and the impossible is Ms. Haas’ stock-in-trade.

I thoroughly enjoyed this strange little mashup of Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes that shouldn’t work but absolutely does. The mystery is well layered, the culprit believable, and the conclusion satisfying. Putting queer and PoC into the world of Lovecraft is one of my favorite tropes, simply because I know it would horrify the racist were he alive now to see it. 

Shaharazad is an immensely fun character to read about, though I will say she’s more of a composite of the pop culture idea of Sherlock Holmes than a direct translation of the character. She veers closer to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, only more queer and terrifyingly powerful. Whereas the Watson of this story, John Wyndham, a gay trans man, hews closer to the original Watson. It works better than it has any right to, but if you’re looking for a faithful adaptation of the Holmes character, I would lower my expectations on that front. 

The important part is that Shaharazad’s friendship with Wyndham reads as genuine and touching, which should always be the biggest accomplishment of any Sherlock Holmes adaptation.

The only thing I truly found tiresome is that Wyndham has to leave his home country because of the trans hatred he faces there, from society and his own family. In a world where you can visit a Mad God and be back in time for tea, the fact that bigotry against trans people is a thing that still exists is unoriginal and annoying, especially in a book that teems with originality. 

Still, I’ll be back for the next book in the series, and I can’t wait to see how Moriarty is adapted to this universe (if he is).

Book Review: What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Young adult Gothic horror
Publisher: FSG
Publication Date: February 2nd, 2021
Pages: 400, hardcover
Source: Edelweiss

Rose Szabo’s thrilling debut is a dark and thrilling novel about a teen girl who returns home to her strange, wild family after years of estrangement, perfect for fans of Wilder Girls.

Eleanor Zarrin has been estranged from her wild family for years. When she flees boarding school after a horrifying incident, she goes to the only place she thinks is safe: the home she left behind. But when she gets there, she struggles to fit in with her monstrous relatives, who prowl the woods around the family estate and read fortunes in the guts of birds.

Eleanor finds herself desperately trying to hold the family together — in order to save them all, Eleanor must learn to embrace her family of monsters and tame the darkness inside her.

Exquisitely terrifying, beautiful, and strange, this fierce gothic fantasy will sink its teeth into you and never let go.

NOTE: There are spoilers for this book in the review!

I almost gave up on What Big Teeth about 30% of the way in. The beginning was confusing, as it made me think I had missed a detail or an explanation of something that needed an explanation, when I hadn’t. Half of Eleanor’s mother’s body is covered in polyps, and she spends all her time in water. This is actually never explained and it’s never said why her mother is obviously part-fish. Eleanor seems to have gotten some traits from the fish part of her mother, such as webbed skin between her thumbs and enjoying being in the water, but it’s never followed through. More to the point, Eleanor keeps wondering why she’s so different from the rest of her family and why she never became a wolf, and it’s like… girl, you obviously took after your mother. What is there not to get? 

I suppose Szabo wanted to give her readers some credit and assume they were smart enough to put the pieces together themselves, but this doesn’t really work. Honestly, the character of the mother could have been cut out entirely and the novel wouldn’t have lost anything; her characterization is thin and she has no effect on the plot.

That was a big theme in What Big Teeth, actually: Eleanor never puts the pieces together until well after the reader has. The book is slowly paced and I’ve read that it’s more suited to older readers who have the patience to wait for answers, but I think that Eleanor’s inability to put the obvious together would cause older readers to get frustrated quickly. It’s very obvious what’s going on, but Eleanor doesn’t catch on right away, and when she does, she intentionally ignores it so the plot can continue.

Another big theme was introducing things and then just not following through on them. Eleanor’s maternal grandmother can force people to do things through verbal commands, such as “Go to your room and stay there”. This works on everyone, even Eleanor, but not her older sister Luma. Just like their mother’s half-fish background, this is never explained. I suppose some readers will be fine with this, but I personally wasn’t.

There’s also a reveal at the end that Eleanor is a reincarnation of her paternal grandparent’s first child who died young, but that was in no way foreshadowed at all through the novel. There was more support for her being a reincarnation of her maternal grandmother’s children than there was for that. 

The ending was pretty strong, to the point where I wondered if it was written as a short story first and then Szabo just built a novel around it. I will say it was a relatively fast read because the writing wasn’t overly purple-y; it was actually a little sparse, for a Gothic horror. 

I might come back for another novel by Szabo, as maybe the weak points here were just because she’s a debut author. I’m sad to say What Big Teeth was a miss for me, though.

Book Review: Rebel Rose (The Queen’s Council #1) by Emma Theriault

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Historical Fantasy
Publisher: Disney+Hyperion
Publication Date: November 10th, 2020
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Happily ever after is only the beginning as Belle takes on the responsibility of becoming queen and learns to balance duty, love, and sacrifice, all while navigating dark political intrigue-and a touch of magic.

It’s 1789 and France is on the brink of revolution. Belle has finally broken the Enchantress’s curse, restoring the Beast to his human form as Prince Adam, and bringing life back to their castle in the province of Aveyon. But in Paris, the fires of change are burning, and it’s only a matter of time before the rebellion arrives on their doorstep.

Belle has always dreamed of leaving her provincial home for a life of adventure. But now she finds herself living in a palace, torn between her roots as a commoner, and her future as a royal. When she stumbles across a mysterious, ancient magic that brings with it a dire warning, she must question whether she is ready for the power being thrust on her, and if being Queen is more than just a title.

Rebel Rose is the first in the Queen’s Council series, an empowering fairy tale reimagining of the Disney Princesses–and the real history behind their stories–like you’ve never seen before.

Rebel Rose starts off strong, but the middle loses its footing and the book doesn’t seem sure of how to achieve a court intrigue plotline. At times the middle portion of the book felt like it was simply filler material until it could get to the third act.

The ending is tight, and I appreciated the inclusion of a Black queer woman, and the further canonization of LeFou as being a gay man. (I also appreciated that it’s made explicit that Gaston was abusive/a bully towards LeFou as well.) 

However, Belle and the Prince (here called Lio) are only in Paris for a brief few days before returning to their own castle to try to get ahead of the danger. Belle also spends a lot of time inside the castle, so the danger never felt very present or very much like a threat. This is mostly solved in the third act where the danger comes to the castle and Belle actually has to deal with it head on, but it was a little late after the meandering second act.

Still, it’s nice to see that Disney is willing to age up their canon, with Bastille Day being an on-the-page event, and even some of the characters cursing. Though I did find it funny that, while violence and cursing are okay, the book is mostly scrubbed of any intimacy past kissing and has only one real subtle nod to sex. (Not that I think we need to read about Disney characters having on-page sex scenes, but the contrast between a dude getting beheaded on page and the chaste kisses Belle and Lio share was a little off-kilter.)

A problem I find in a lot of these Disney books is that the characters simply don’t sound like the ones we saw in the movies. This is still a problem in Rebel Rose, as sometimes the characterization of Belle and the others slipped. I’m willing to cut a little slack in this case, as it can’t have been easy to strike a balance between the somewhat modern language used in the original movie, and the need to have the characters talk like they actually live in the late 18th century France. Still, Belle came across as surprisingly passive here, especially in the aforementioned troubled middle section.

Overall, I’m not sure I’d recommend Rebel Rose. It has its strengths, but I’m not sure they outweigh the faults.

Book Review: A Lady Compromised (Rosalind Thorne #4) by Darcie Wilde

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Kensington
Publication Date: November 24th, 2020
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: Library

Fans of Jane Austen have fallen in love with Darcie Wilde’s mystery series featuring Rosalind Thorne, a young woman adept at helping ladies of the ton navigate the darker corners of Regency England–while revealing Society’s most shocking secrets…

Rosalind is pleased when she’s invited to Cassel House to help her friend, Louisa, prepare for her upcoming wedding. But that’s not the only event on her agenda. The trip will also afford Rosalind the chance to see Devon Winterbourne, the newly minted Duke of Casselmaine. Devon and Rosalind were on the verge of betrothal before the infamous Thorne family scandal derailed their courtship. Now Rosalind wonders if there’s a chance their love might reignite.

Devon is as handsome as Rosalind remembers and it’s clear the attraction they once shared hasn’t waned. But their time together is interrupted by one crisis after another–not the least of which is an awkwardly timed request for help from Louisa’s friend, Helen Corbyn.

Not long ago, the untimely death of Helen’s brother, William, was ruled a suicide, but few people truly believe he took his own life. Helen needs to know what really happened–especially since she’s engaged to the man some suspect of secretly killing William.

While Rosalind desperately wants to help, she fears her efforts might cast a pall over Louisa’s nuptials, not to mention her reunion with Devon. But when another untimely death rocks the ton, Rosalind has no choice but to uncover the truth before more people die…even if her actions threaten her future with Devon.

NOTE: There are spoilers for the book in this review!

The second half of A Lady Compromised was better than the first half, where Wilde purposely sidelines Rosalind in order to show that she doesn’t quite fit in with the setting. Because of this sidelining, the POV switches multiple times in several chapters, causing Rosalind to feel like a secondary player in her own story. This gets resolved almost half way through and things go better from there, but the first half was a struggle to get through.

A lot of characters are involved in the mystery of A Lady Compromised, to the point where I had trouble keeping track of a few and their relation to each other. It felt a little too spread out, and while I realize you need multiple red herrings for your mystery novel, something about the number of characters here was just a bit too much. Wilde brings up a lot of different moving parts and doesn’t quite successfully juggle all of them. For instance, there’s one point where Devon’s mother implies that Devon killed his brother to Rosalind, and in Rosalind’s next chapter, when she sees Devon, she makes no internal mention of it at all. Why bring that up and then not even have Rosalind make a small mention of it immediately afterward? Maybe it was to show that she trusted Devon too much to buy into his mother’s suspicion, but it still seemed odd.

I also question the resolution of the mystery. It felt too neat. Devon had the coroner falsify the death record by saying the victim died by accident, when Devon believes he died by suicide, to save the family the grief. This isn’t brought up in the rushed final chapter which details the trial. Was it not brought up? Did the coroner stick to the accident story when that would have put his reputation on the line? There’s no mention of it at all in the end, so I suppose it was just ignored. 

Still, I enjoy the way Wilde is able to incorporate all the little details of manners that everyone has to follow in high society and never make it seem like an info-dump or have it slow down the pace of a scene. I always feel a little constrained when I read these books because Wilde is great at showing how constrained life was for everyone, but especially women, in Regency England. I still love the characters in this novel, and I still adore this series. A Lady Compromised simply wasn’t my favorite of the series.

Book Review: Ollie Feels Fine by Toni Yuly

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Juvenile fiction
Publisher: Little Bigfoot
Publication Date: February 2nd, 2021
Pages: 22, board book
Source: NetGalley

Ollie the octopus has a lot of feelings and he struggles to understand them. One especially busy, emotional day, Ollie becomes overwhelmed by all of his feelings. But with the help of his good friend, Stella the starfish, Ollie is reassured and able to feel that he is ok, and that it is fine to have so many feelings.

How do you feel? Ollie the octopus feels fine, with some help from his friend, Stella the starfish.

In Ollie Feels Fine, by Toni Yuly, Ollie the octopus is swamped by a big wave, bumped by a shark, and loses his hat, He experiences the gamut of emotions, from surprise and anger to happiness. Babies will love Ollie’s colorful hat, and how Ollie’s skin color changes to match each emotion he experiences. Stella shows Ollie, and the reader, that emotions are okay and feelings are normal.

The artwork is eye-catching and will appeal to infants and toddlers. Ollie’s story is simple and effective. It’s okay to not be okay all the time and to feel sad or mad.