The Queen’s Weapons, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 9, 2021

Summary: They are Warlord Princes, men born to serve and protect. They are the Queen’s Weapons, men born to destroy the Queen’s enemies–no matter what face that enemy wears.

Daemonar Yaslana knows how to be bossy yet supportive–traits he shares with his father, the Demon Prince, and his uncle, the High Lord of Hell. Within his generation of the family, he assumes the role of protector, supporting his sister Titian’s artistic efforts and curbing his cousin Jaenelle Saetien’s more adventurous ideas. But when a young Eyrien Queen, someone Titian thought was a friend, inflicts an emotional wound, Daemonar’s counterattack brings him under the tutelage of Witch, the Queen whose continued existence is known only to a select few.

As Daemonar is confronted by troubling changes within and around the family, he sees warnings that a taint in the Blood might be reappearing. Daemonar, along with his father and uncle, must uncover the source of a familiar evil–and Daemon Sadi, the High Lord of Hell, may be forced into making a terrible choice.

Thoughts: It’s not even close to a secret that I adore the Black Jewels novels. I love the characters, I love the world, and I often turn to these books when I’m in need of a comfort re-read. And while I definitely had some issues with the previous novel, The Queen’s Bargain (mostly in that one of the characters kept doing things she absolutely knew very well to not do), I still overall enjoyed it. And I fully expected to enjoy this latest offering in the series, The Queen’s Weapons, just as much.

The Queen’s Weapons is set a good few years after The Queen’s Bargain, with Jaenelle Saetien and Daemonar fast growing up and showing just who they’re going to be as adults. In Daemonar’s case, he’s definitely turning into the model of a Warlord Prince, very much like this father. In Jaenelle Saetien’s case… It’s a lot more complicated, as she quite frankly grows up to be quite the brat, convinced that the only way to come into her own is to rebel against very idea of her namesake, the Witch and Queen that everyone around her knew and loved. This is understandable pretty damn upsetting to Surreal and Daemon, but it only gets worse when signs emerge that the taint, once thought wiped out, has set down in Kaeleer and is starting to grow and corrupt once more.

I admit, when I first read the description of this book many months ago, I had to raise a skeptical eyebrow. In the original trilogy, it was a huge deal when Jaenelle sacrificed herself and her power to wipe out the taint that was threatening the Blood. It was a major event that wiped out most of the Blood across an entire Realm. And here it’s just, “Oh yeah, that thing. Yup, it’s back.” I was a little bit wary of how this would be handled. Not because I thought Bishop couldn’t do such a concept justice, but because I’ve seen authors, over time, wanting to write more in their beloved worlds but lacking a solid idea for a story, and so just bringing back a once-vanquished evil. Even if it made no sense.

But thankfully, it did make sense here. A reason was given for the taint’s reemergence, and that reason stands up to scrutiny. That was quite a relief!

While the Black Jewels series started off with so very much abuse and torture and things that deserve a buttload of trigger warnings, a lot of those things were absent in later books. Their echoes were still felt, of course, because one doesn’t recover from centuries of abuse, for instance, just because they’re now in a happy relationship. Scars are still there, they don’t fade so easily. But in terms of scenes of active abuse and assault? No, they faded from a lot of the text in future books, which likely made said books a bit more approachable for new readers. (Someone could read Cassidy’s duology, The Shadow Queen and Shalador’s Lady, for instance, without having read the core trilogy and without needing so many of those trigger warnings.) It’s sometimes easy to forget that the series started with a corrupt culture filled with violence and rape. And since The Queen’s Weapons deals with the taint coming back, I feel it’s worth pointing out that some of those issues do rear their ugly heads once again, and it’s worth warning people that yes, this book does contain rape, and abuse, and a very unsettling scene in which a kitten is left to die. You might well need to know that before picking it up.

And it’s with that context that we see a depiction of someone who knows very well that such things are wrong, but who has her own agenda and is willing to turn a blind eye to some things, to make excuses, if those things don’t like up with what she wants. Jaenelle Saetien clung to the wrong sort of people, convinced that they weren’t using her and weren’t malicious and weren’t behind any of the increasingly concerning instances of abuse, because she needed something that she was convinced only they could provide. She’s a character study in desperation and willful ignorance.

Much as I hate to say it, I could relate a bit to Jaenelle Saetien’s concerns about living in somebody’s shadow. It’s something I’ve had to confront in my life as well, and that I still struggle with at times, so even when I hated who she was becoming and how she was behaving, when things switched to her viewpoint and we got a look at her thoughts and emotions, I couldn’t help but remember how many times I had felt the same way. It made me reflect on how I could well have ended up the same way, someone who was willing to overlook terrible things in order to be accepted by people who had no expectations of me. There but for the grace of something-or-other, I suppose. I wouldn’t say that Jaenelle Saetien is a bad person, so much as she’s someone who could easily become so, if not handled the right way. She balanced on the edge of a very particular knife, and it took extraordinary events to determine which side of that knife she’d end up on.

I do want to take a moment to mention something in particular here. I don’t know if it was intended this way or not, but the twisted nostalgia for Hayllian items and pieces of Dorothea’s abusive rule struck me as analogous to the way some people have this weird idealized nostalgia for times past, especially when it comes to Nazi propaganda and far-right ideology. A conviction that “the right sort of people” should be in power, that it’s fine to push others down if it comparatively raises up you and yours, you see that mentality expressed a lot in people who won’t call themselves racist, no, but will express that it’s “those people” who are keeping everyone else down. There are people out there who seek out and collect Nazi memorabilia, with an eye to glorifying the Nazi regime and all of its atrocities. Atrocities, of course, against “the wrong people.” I can’t say for sure if this was Bishop’s specific intent here, but it sure read that way to me. And given that Daemon et al are the good guys of the story, the ones we’re supposed to empathize with and agree with, and they’re all vehemently against bringing back the sort of culture that brought torture and death to themselves and those they loved… Yeah, it’s not hard to see which side of the line we’re supposed to stand on.

The Queen’s Weapons addressed many of the smaller issues that I encountered in The Queen’s Bargain, which I was happy to see. Chiefly, the relationship between Surreal and Daemon. I won’t lie here — I have never been a fan of those two together. I can see why they stayed together once Jaenelle Saetien came into the picture, absolutely, but the situation that led to it… Eh, I have strong feelings about it, and I may get around to discussing them someday. Either way, a good deal of the friction in the previous novel stemmed from their relationship, and from both of them trying to be who they weren’t, especially to each other. Especially after Daemon learned of Witch’s continued presence. But the way things worked out in The Queen’s Weapons felt satisfying. It felt like they figured themselves and each other out, and were prepared to move forward with what that knowledge meant. It might not be a happy conclusion, per se, but it was a very satisfying one.

As always with these books, there’s so much that I want to say, much of which can’t be fit into a review because then it would devolve into semi-nonsensical, “Ooh, does this mean that?” and, “So siddown and lemme tell y’all my theories about this scene!” What I can say for certain is that it was wonderful to return, once again, to a world I love and characters I adore, to walk a while in the Shadow Realm and revel in Bishop’s delicious dark fantasy narrative. It was a treat to see the younger characters mature and hold their own in the story. It’s a book I absolutely will reread, and discuss at length with my partner (because we’re both huge geeks for this series). Even moreso than The Queen’s Bargain, The Queen’s Weapons is a worthy addition to the series that holds a beloved place in my life, and I can absolutely recommend it to other fans of the series.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Land-Water-Sky/Ndè-Tı-Yat’a, by Katłıà

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Author’s Twitter | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 24, 2020

Summary: A vexatious shapeshifter walks among humans. Shadowy beasts skulk at the edges of the woods. A ghostly apparition haunts a lonely stretch of highway. Spirits and legends rise and join together to protect the north.

Land-Water-Sky/Ndè-Tı-Yat’a is the debut novel from Dene author Katłıà. Set in Canada’s far north, this layered composite novel traverses space and time, from a community being stalked by a dark presence, a group of teenagers out for a dangerous joyride, to an archeological site on a mysterious island that holds a powerful secret.

Riveting, subtle, and unforgettable, Katłıà gives us a unique perspective into what the world might look like today if Indigenous legends walked amongst us, disguised as humans, and ensures that the spiritual significance and teachings behind the stories of Indigenous legends are respected and honored.

Thoughts: I want to say right now that despite my thorough enjoyment of this book, I am probably one of the least qualified people to comment on certain aspects of it. I am not Indigenous. I do not live in the part of Canada where this book takes place. I can’t speak to any experience regarding the culture, history, or language presented in Land-Water-Sky. That’s not to say the author didn’t portray things respectfully or accurately; it’s just to say that I am not one who can definitively say so.

But I can speak to how wonderful this book is, and how much I enjoyed everything that it offered.

I’m not sure whether to call Land-Water-Sky a collection of short stories that all tie into each other, or one long story that has huge gaps in it from time to time. I’ve seen a lot of reviewers call it a collection of short stories, and I can definitely see the logic to that, but my trouble with categorizing it as such is that each story holds parts of other stories within it; you can’t skip over any of them without encountering something later that just won’t make sense without context. But at the same time, there are so many leaps on the timeline that I can see why some wouldn’t consider it a single contiguous story. For my part, it feels a lot like history itself. You can isolate parts of it and tell the general story of that time, but you can’t just isolate events or people from the context of what came before, what shaped the world and the people who live within it. Even sections of the book that feel like disconnected interludes come back around in the end, proving themselves very relevant to understanding the story as a whole. You can’t really have one part without all the others.

The story starts far back in history, centuries in the past, when fierce and greedy beasts roamed the land, intent on destroying humanity and taking the world for themselves. It would be easy to say that with the aid of the gods, humanity wins and the beasts are destroyed, but that isn’t really the case. The beasts merely lie low, biding their time.  The story takes leaps into the future, or I should say leaps into the present, when we see Deèyeh, an university student studying archaeology, eager to connect with a heritage that was stolen from her. A heritage that carries a greater burden than she could have imagined.

And believe me, I am not doing this book justice with that weak description. But to include all of the interwoven stories would involve so many spoilers, and I don’t want to ruin such a fantastic book for people.

An aspect of this book that I really enjoyed was the use of Wıı̀lıı̀deh (a dialect of Tłı̨chǫ) in the early sections. The characters speak their own language, which isn’t translated for the convenience of the reader. Considering that characters later on absolutely do speak English, I thought this was a fantastic contrast, as well as a subtle way of saying to readers, “I’m not going to hold your hand. If you want to understand, you’ll have to try for yourself.” And while I have no idea as to the literal translations of everything said, there was plenty that could be understood through context. Do I think I was mentally pronouncing the words properly? Probably not. Was I able to still learn as I went, get the gist of things, and pick up a few new phrases along the way? Absolutely yes.

The author deftly tackles the issues of colonialism and inter-generational trauma, both of which give scars that can take lifetimes to heal from. If ever. I won’t say there there are analogies drawn between the greedy violent mythological beasts and white colonizers, because frankly, I didn’t see any overt connections. But I won’t pretend that there wasn’t a degree of similarity between the two when it came to the matter of respect for the Indigenous way of life as presented in Land-Water-Sky. Whether it was apathy about helping Indigenous people prove their history on the land, or whether it was about stealing the land from its caretakers, it’s hard to not come to the conclusion that different kinds of opposition can produce the same result. Some things can’t just be ignored or treated as unimportant, without risking even greater damage.

Katłıà writes with all the weight and wonder of a myth come to life. She shows how to ancient interacts with the modern, both in terms of history and culture, and in mythical creatures that walk alongside us, whether we see them or not. There is much to love, and to learn, in Land-Water-Sky. I highly recommend it for those who enjoy myths and legends and their applications in the modern world, and for those who want to do their part in uplifting the voices of Indigenous authors. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 5, 2014

Summary: Quentin Coldwater has been cast out of Fillory, the secret magical land of his childhood dreams. With nothing left to lose he returns to where his story began, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic. But he can’t hide from his past, and it’s not long before it comes looking for him.

Along with Plum, a brilliant young undergraduate with a dark secret of her own, Quentin sets out on a crooked path through a magical demimonde of gray magic and desperate characters. But all roads lead back to Fillory, and his new life takes him to old haunts, like Antarctica, and to buried secrets and old friends he thought were lost forever. He uncovers the key to a sorcery masterwork, a spell that could create magical utopia, a new Fillory—but casting it will set in motion a chain of events that will bring Earth and Fillory crashing together. To save them he will have to risk sacrificing everything.

The Magician’s Land is an intricate thriller, a fantastical epic, and an epic of love and redemption that brings the Magicians trilogy to a magnificent conclusion, confirming it as one of the great achievements in modern fantasy. It’s the story of a boy becoming a man, an apprentice becoming a master, and a broken land finally becoming whole.

Thoughts: Quentin joins a group of thieves with the aim of recovering a mysterious magical doodad. The gods still aim to take magic back for themselves, keep it away from humans. Plum, a newly-introduced character, is part of the Chatwin family, famous for their involvement in the Fillory novels. And Fillory?

Fillory is dying.

As with the previous Magicians novels, the greatest strength of storytelling can also be a bit of a weakness, depending on how you look at it. It’s very true-to-life in that people come and go, not everyone in the story ends up important or relevant or around for very long, and sometimes things happen that we don’t really get much follow-up to, because the events in question lead to other things that take priority. This is pretty much how real life works. We all have about a hundred dangling plot threads in our own history, things that would make the readers of our lives say, “Hang out, but what about this thing? What happens with that?” If you’re not prepared for that from the outset, you’re probably going to end up rather disappointed by the end.

With that said… Yeah, sometimes it ends up pretty disappointing, however true to life it may be. A significant chunk of The Magician’s Land is given to Quentin’s work with the group of thieves attempting to steal a magical artifact, only to have it stolen out from under their noses by a double-crosser. That entire section seems to serve mostly as a way of showing how Quentin and Plum work decently together and how they have their own agenda, but except for a couple of lines near the end, it just kind of goes nowhere. So much work given over to setting up a heist, only to be foiled at the last minute, and then the whole sequence get shelved until the book is almost over, when someone explains that oh yeah, that was all about this other thing from the previous book, which is in itself a dangling plot thread because it’s part of another character’s story and we don’t really get to see any more of that either.

So, depending on how you look at it, Grossman’s writing is either incredibly frustrating, or incredibly realistic. Your mileage may vary.

What I did very much like about The Magician’s Land is that we get to see a lot more about Fillory itself. Not so much that a lot of the book was set there, but we see more of how the Chatwin kids interacted with it, what it was about Martin that made him turn so twisted and destructive, and about the nature of the gods and creation, the cyclical nature of its existence. Which is a lot of philosophy to cram into a novel, however long it may be, but this too is also par for the course in this series, and the chance to do a bit of a deep dive into the lore was definitely welcome. Especially when it revealed just how flawed absolutely everybody was, gods and mortals alike.

It’s hard to say that this was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, per se, since I’m not sure the word “satisfying” really applies. It was, however, an appropriate ending. There are other connected stories to tell, I don’t doubt (there always are), but this story, this particular chapter in the book that is Fillory and its multiverse connection to Quentin, is over. There was sadness and loss and bittersweet reunions and I’m not sure anybody ended up where they thought they would when it all first started, but it’s as complete a story as I think can or should be told, and it was a bit of a wild ride following along with the various characters and their own personal aspects of the tale. There were bits that were impossible for me to have predicted, there were bits I was glad to finally see the conclusion to, and while this series wasn’t always easy to read (far too much emotion wrapped up in what was happening to make it a comfortable story at times), I’m glad I took the time to finally see it through from beginning to end.

If philosophical fantasy is something you enjoy, then definitely give this series a go. It’s got a lot to it, far more than I initially expected, and from what I understand of the show (I have yet to actually watch it, honestly), a lot of things about the story differ, so you can’t just read or watch one and assume you know the other. It’s not a series I can recommend to everyone, because there is so much grief and loss as various points and I know that it would be very hard reading for some, but if that’s something you’re prepared for and can handle, then I think it’s worth it to at least give this series a try. I enjoyed the first book most of all, with everything being so new and fantastical to the characters, but this final book, with everyone having grown up and learned more about the world (or rather, worlds) had an appeal too, giving adult readers characters who are a bit world-wearing and Done With This Shit but also still willing to keep pushing forward toward their goals, making mistakes and making up for those mistakes, with a very definite sense of credibility and reality to all of it. I’m not sure there’s another series out there quite like this, and I believe it will stand firmly on its own for a long time to come.

The Factory Witches of Lowell, by C S Malerich

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 10, 2020

Summary: Faced with abominable working conditions, unsympathetic owners, and hard-hearted managers, the mill girls of Lowell have had enough. They’re going on strike, and they have a secret weapon on their side: a little witchcraft to ensure that no one leaves the picket line.

For the young women of Lowell, Massachusetts, freedom means fair wages for fair work, decent room and board, and a chance to escape the cotton mills before lint stops up their lungs. When the Boston owners decide to raise the workers’ rent, the girls go on strike. Their ringleader is Judith Whittier, a newcomer to Lowell but not to class warfare. Judith has already seen one strike fold and she doesn’t intend to see it again. Fortunately Hannah, her best friend in the boardinghouse—and maybe first love?—has a gift for the dying art of witchcraft.

Thoughts: Tell me there’s a book out there that offers a fictionalized account of early unions, fighting to gain new rights that will allow their members to live happier healthier lives. Tell me there’s a book that heavily involves the history of the textile industry. Tell me there’s a book out there where people can solve their problems by use of practical believable magic. Now tell me there’s something that combines all three of those things, and why yes, I do want to read that!

Enter The Factory Witches of Lowell.

The women and girls working at a textile mill in Lowell decide, not unreasonably, that they deserve more than what the company is willing to give them. Better pay, greater workplace safety, the usual things people have to fight for under a system that declares that “the winner” is whoever can give the least while getting the most. But the ensure solidarity, to ensure that all of them are together in the fight, they turn to witchcraft to bind themselves to the goal. It’s a rough trade, given that many of them work to earn money to send back to their families, and striking means no money. But a price must be paid for change, and the women know their value to the company, and compromises must be made to ensure that everybody can move forward again.

This novella could have been 100% real, a true account of a strike at a textile mill in a factory town, were it not for the magic element. I think that’s what makes it so compelling. I love historical fantasy and magical realism, things that are so grounded in the mundane that it makes the extraordinary that much more believable. Malerich did a really job job blending the mundane and the fantastical here; credit where credit is due, that’s a hard balance to strike.

We often take textiles for granted these days, what with new clothes being easy to come by and even easier to throw out most of the time. But Malerich shines a light on the dangers of the early mass production in the textile industry in The Factory Witches of Lowell. Low pay and long hours are obvious problems, and that was (and still is) common in a lot of work. But then there’s the young age of some employees, the danger of losing body parts if one isn’t quick enough with the large mechanical looms, the constant inhalation of tiny fibres that eventually destroy the lungs. It’s that inhalation that partly allows for the clever piece of sympathetic magic to work in the story. Cotton is in all of the employees, literally breathed in every day they work there, and that connection gave them a degree of power over each other and over the work itself. Between that and weaving parts of themselves into a piece of cloth, it made for a powerful binding, and I loved seeing such subtle magic work in tangible and believable ways.

The Factory Witches of Lowell isn’t a long read; I finished reading it in and afternoon, and I enjoyed every moment I spent with it. Malerich’s writing is clear and approachable, the story was interesting and contained aspects that are still relevant today despite the historic setting, and yes, being a geek for textiles made this novella that much better for me. If you’re a fan of historical fantasy and magical realism, then this is one book to look into sooner rather than later.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Shalador’s Lady, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 2, 2010

Summary: For years the Shalador people suffered the cruelties of the corrupt Queens who ruled them, forbidding their traditions, punishing those who dared show defiance, and forcing many more into hiding. And even though the refugees have found sanctuary in Dena Nehele, they have never been able to call it home.

Now that Dena Nehele has been cleansed of tainted Blood, the Rose-Jeweled Queen, Lady Cassidy, makes it her duty to restore the land and prove her ability to rule. She knows that undertaking this task will require all her heat and courage as she summons the untested power within her, a power capable of consuming her if she cannot control it.

And eve if Lady Cassidy survives her trial by fire, other dangers await. For the Black Widows see within their tangled webs vision of something coming that will change the land – and Lady Cassidy – forever.

Thoughts: Sequel to The Shadow Queen, Shalador’s Lady sounds very much like it ought to be a romance novel, like “Shalador” is some noble knight trying to woo a beautiful woman. Rather, Shalador is a significant section of the Territory of Dena Nehele, the Territory that Cassidy is ruling over for a trial period of 1 year, trying to bring the land back from the brink of destruction after so much tragedy and bloodshed. The Shalador reserves have borne more than their fair share of the troubles, and Cassidy has it in her mind to set that to rights.

Which isn’t helped at all by Theran’s continued insistence on getting in Cassidy’s way and preventing her from doing the very thing he wanted a Queen to do in the first place.

Cassidy’s road is hard enough, but then comes Kermilla, a very pretty young Queen who essentially stole Cassidy’s previous court and caused a lot of trauma and self-doubt in Cassidy. Theran takes a shine to Kermilla, wanting her to be Queen of Dena Nehele once Cassidy’s contract expires, though he is pretty much the only person who likes this idea. Everyone else, including the other members of Cassidy’s court, are against it, seeing it as the final act that would shatter the possibility of everything they hope to build for their land and people.

Much like in The Shadow Queen, Shalador’s Lady deals heavily with the subject of trauma. Cassidy’s previous experience with Kermilla and members of her old court were seriously demoralizing, and that’s putting it mildly. Cassidy has panic attacks about Kermilla’s presence, and when Theran declares his support for her, Cassidy becomes quickly convinced that her new court will leave her the same way her old court did, proving once again to her that she’s substandard and weak and unworthy. She knows that Kermilla isn’t the sort of Queen who can do what Dena Nehele needs, but her opinion won’t count for much if she’s abandoned once again. Her contract may only be for a single year, but if she’s wanted, if people accept her, she can stay and continue to rule… if she can hold onto her court and prevent them from siding with Kermilla instead.

Kermilla is one of those characters you either love to hate, or just simply hate. She’s not cruel, not the sort of person to delight in hurting others, but she doesn’t think twice about the consequences of getting what she wants, and is very certain that she deserves whatever she wants, and that combination results in her hurting others regardless of how little joy she takes in it. She’s selfish, inconsiderate, and very sure that being unattractive makes a person unsuitable to rule. Given that Cassidy isn’t exactly a classic beauty, this attitude is what caused so many problems and is at the root of much of Cassidy’s traumas.

(Which makes it extra cringey that the cover art for these novels, however beautiful, portrays Cassidy as she isn’t. Her appearance is a huge sore spot for her, and her previous court’s desire for somebody beautiful rather than somebody competent caused pain and problems. Having her appear as the exact sort of person she’s convinced could keep a court together on looks alone does a disservice to her as a character, and downplays the degree of trauma she experienced because she’s not someone who can just step into a room and dazzle all assembled.)

One of the things I adore about this book in particular is the demonstration of just how much simple kindness can mean to someone who has seen so little of it in their lives. That sounds terribly obvious, but sometimes in life we take for granted that someone just is the way others want it to be, even when that isn’t the case. Cassidy declares the music of Shalador’s people can be openly played in public, and that sounds like a simple enough thing to give permission for, but for a people who have had their culture crushed and killed over the generations, what seems like an inconsequential kindness to Cassidy has huge ramifications for the people who no longer need to guard their secrets so closely anymore, no longer need to live in fear of telling the wrong stories or singing the wrong songs.

This duology is such a comfort read for me, and I often turn to it when I’m going through a difficult time. Not just because Bishop’s writing flows so smoothly, not just because the world is so fascinating to me, but because Cassidy’s story is one of rising above the past, of overcoming traumas with the aid of loyal friends, and of the amount of change that can be found at the hands of even the least powerful when they’re willing to work hard and work together. As I mentioned in my review of The Shadow Queen, it’s really interesting to take a break from the ridiculously powerful characters and focus in on someone who’s a bit more representative of the degree of power your average Blood would have, to have a story that isn’t written about the strongest most badass in all the land but instead someone who achieves much by using what they have effectively. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that sort of story both comforting and hopeful, because it reminds me that I can do something similar. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t rule a country, but I can use what I have to affect positive change, and being reminded of that can be good when times get hard.

Fans of very dark fantasy might not find the same enjoyment in this duology as they did in the core Black Jewels trilogy, as the Cassidy duology is far more hopeful and far less violent in many ways, but for those who have taken the series into their hearts, there’s much entertainment to be found in both of these novels. Those who pick these books up first might actually be quite shocked by what they find in the series’ previous novels. The world is very much the same, still the same Realms populated by the same Blood, but the tone is quite different. Not better or worse, but different enough that it’s worth mentioning. Still, I very much think these books are worth reading, and the bittersweet triumph at the end of Shalador’s Lady is worth every second you spend buried in the pages.

The Shadow Queen, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 3, 2009

Summary: Theran Grayhaven is the last of his line, desperate to restore the land of Dena Nehele. But first he needs to find a Queen who knows Protocol, remembers the Blood’s code of honor, and lives by the Old Ways.

Languishing in the Shadow Realm, Lady Cassidy is a Queen without a court, a castoff. But when she is chosen to rule Dena Nehele, she must convince bitter men to serve once again.

Theran’s cousin Gray is a Warlord Prince who was damaged in mind and body by the vicious Queens who once ruled Dena Nehele. Yet something about Cassidy makes him want to serve–and makes him believe he can be made whole once again.

And only Cassidy can prove to Gray–and to herself–that wounds can heal and even the whisper of a promise can be fulfilled…

Thoughts: The Black Jewels series continues to be my go-to when I need a comfort re-read, a fantasy world I can sink into like a hot bath, and yes, if you know much about me and my worldview, you’d think these would be the furthest things from comfortable. And yet, here we are. The Cassidy duology in particular, comprised of The Shadow Queen and Shalador’s Lady, are very high up on the list for me, very close to the core trilogy in terms of my enjoyment.

The duology takes place some years after the conclusion of Queen of the Darkness, the final book of the core trilogy, after Jaenelle has destroyed the taint that was destroying the Blood. The Territory of Dena Nehele has seen more than its fair share of horror, and now with no Queens suitable to rule it, Theran, last of the Grayhaven line, seeks aid from Daemon Sadi. Theran requests a Queen from Kaeleer come to rule them, a Queen who knows the Old Ways and will restore pride and stability to the Territory, somebody who will dazzle and draw strength to her and keep everything and everyone in line.

What he gets is Cassidy, a Queen without a Court, with light Jewels and thus not much magical power, a hardworking tall woman who isn’t remotely the dazzler Theran wishes for, but is the very Queen that will make or break Dena Nehele’s future. Whether it’s “make” or “break” depends on Cassidy’s spirit, and Theran’s willingness to accept what he asked for even if it isn’t what he hoped for.

The Shadow Queen has a lot in it about overcoming trauma, and similar traumas and recoveries are seen not just in newly introduced characters like Gray or Cassidy, but also in well-established ones like Daemon. Both Gray and Daemon have been deeply hurt, broken by what was inflicted upon them in their past, and sometimes those memories and emotions rise to the surface and change everything about the present. PTSD triggers, essentially, because I’m not sure there are any characters in this series who don’t have at least some degree of PTSD. Both of them also need (and have, though Gray is only just discovering this) what they need to help them start to overcome those traumas.

This book is not saying that love conquers all and will heal all wounds, but it is saying that acceptance and safety are foundational to any sort of recovery. So too is a reason to recover; we all need sufficient motivation to keep pushing onward, and since there is no universal experience with trauma, it can be easier or harder to find that motivation, depending on the person and their situation. I’ve heard a number of people talk about how unrealistic this approach is, that the book is essentially saying that you just need a romantic/sexual partner in your life in order to recover from years of torture, and for my part, I’ve never seen it that way. I’ve always seen it as expressing, well, exactly what I stated above. Especially given that part of Daemon’s foundation is his father’s love and acceptance, and his ongoing relationship with his half-brother; nothing romantic or sexual there! Gray’s recovery does hinge a lot on his desire to be a man worthy of Cassidy’s attention, but some of that also comes down to the bond between Queens and Warlord Princes, which is clearly established both in this book and other books across the Black Jewels series.

But the other strong theme in this book is central to Theran’s story, and it’s in being willing to accept what you ask for even if it’s not quite what you expect. Theran asked for a Queen who knew the Old Ways of the Blood, who was willing to work hard for the people and land of Dena Nehele, and he got exactly that. But he already had an image of what kind of Queen he wanted for his people that not only was he unwilling to accept Cassidy when she didn’t fit that image, not only was he willing to ignore that many others sided with Cassidy and were willing to work with her, but he actively prevented Cassidy from doing the very work he brought her there to do. He was convinced that everyone had the same reaction to her that he did, that the others were pretending to get along with her, that she was secretly doing harm or wouldn’t be accepted by the people, and essentially got in his own way the entire time. He was so concerned with the surface that he never took a moment to look beneath, unless he was doing so to reflect on how Cassidy didn’t measure up to the image he wanted for a Queen.

Honestly, I could go on at length about a number of things in this book, because there’s a lot to unpack. That’s what makes it so enjoyable for me, in many ways. Not only is it set in a world I adore, but it also has plenty to think about and reflect on, from trauma to the nature of dedication, to retribution and vengeance and justice, to the conflict between what needs to be done versus what people want to do. I love Cassidy as a character, and she’s exactly the sort of people I’d love to consider a friend, which is actually pretty uncommon in the books I tend to read. There are loads of characters I love to read about, plenty of characters whose stories I love to follow, but rarely do I actually encounter characters where I can say, “You know, if I met you, I think I’d like to be your friend.” The recurring characters of the series, Jaenelle and Daemon and Lucivar and Saetan? I could never be their friend. Not because they’re bad people or that they terrify me or anything like that, but because they are so far out of my league that associating with them would feel like they were pitying me just be deigning to acknowledge me. Cassidy? Nah, she feels like someone I’d get together with for tea and chats, like we could see each other on relatively equal levels.

Cassidy also provides an excellent contrast to what fans of the series will have grown used to. Most of the time, these stories are all about dark-Jeweled people with massive amounts of power and influence. Cassidy, though, has light Jewels and wouldn’t be the sort of person you’d think could have multiple novels starring her, not in this world! But the author uses this as a great opportunity to establish that innate powers and fearful influence aren’t the only ways a person can make a difference. You don’t have to be rarity to change things for the better, and you don’t have to have great strength to stand on your own. We’re all used to reading novels about the extraordinary that it’s easy to forget that some of these characters really are extraordinary, so it’s rather refreshing to see a story written about somebody who could come from anywhere, at any time, without a great fate or origin story or any of that to set them above others. Cassidy isn’t exactly the everyperson sort of character, she’s far too much of her own person for me to call her that, but she is far more representative of the Blood than characters like Daemon or Lucivar, and so there’s that inspirational aspirational aspect to her.

It’s hard for me to say that this duology could be read without having read the core trilogy first. It does recap some relevant events, and there’s the usual establishing of the rules that the Blood live by, so new readers wouldn’t find themselves completely lost, but I think the half of the story that really centres on Daemon will lose a lot of its impact and relevance without the core trilogy to provide context. I wouldn’t say it’s necessary, but I will say that you’d end up missing a lot of character motivations and connections and history, as well as reasons to really care about a lot of the recurring cast to begin with. If you enjoyed the core trilogy, though, then I have no doubt that you’ll like The Shadow Queen as well.

Ultimately, I still adore this novel every time I read it, and it always brings me comfort and happiness when I take the time to sit down with it again. It’s a familiar story to me at this point, but no less poignant every time I read it. I love the world, I love the characters, and I love the message that greatness can come from anywhere, that we are not always tethered to the traumas in our past, and that from ruin can rise a brighter future if we’re willing to put the work in. It’s not too surprising that these aspects bring me comfort in troubled times.

(Also, this book is a great example of the character on the cover not looking remotely like the character in the book. The Cassidy on the cover art is attractive, thin, classically beautiful. The Cassidy in the book is tall and big-boned and gawky and freckled. Her appearance is part of why Theran becomes something of an antagonist. It’s kind of a disservice to her very character to have her presented that way on the cover, if you ask me.)

The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 9, 2011

Summary: Quentin Coldwater should be happy. He escaped a miserable Brooklyn childhood, matriculated at a secret college for magic, and graduated to discover that Fillory—a fictional utopia—was actually real. But even as a Fillorian king, Quentin finds little peace. His old restlessness returns, and he longs for the thrills a heroic quest can bring.

Accompanied by his oldest friend, Julia, Quentin sets off—only to somehow wind up back in the real world and not in Fillory, as they’d hoped. As the pair struggle to find their way back to their lost kingdom, Quentin is forced to rely on Julia’s illicitly-learned sorcery as they face a sinister threat in a world very far from the beloved fantasy novels of their youth.

Thoughts: I reread The Magicians before finally launching into The Magician King, since from what I recalled of the first book, the story was far more complex than what I commented on during my initial review. After refreshing my memory, I jumped right into this sequel, eager to see how more of the story unfolded and whether or not any of my questions at the end of the previous book got answers.

The Magician King starts off not too long after The Magicians ended, in the grand scheme of things. Quentin, Eliot, Julia, and Janet are sitting on the four throne of Fillory. Most of them seem content with that life, but some part of Quentin’s heart still yearns for adventure. He takes a flimsy opportunity to leave comfort behind and go off on a quest, something trivial that definitely doesn’t warrant a king’s personal attention, but along the way he encounter signs that Fillory, and the very nature of magic itself, is in grave danger.

Quentin shares almost equal book time with Julia in The Magician King, and while Quentin’s story is set in the present, and concerned with his ennui and quest, Julia’s is set between her first encounter with Brakebills and her reunion with Quentin at the end of The Magicians. It’s good to get more information about her journey, because so much of it was vague and unexplained in the previous novel. It didn’t exactly need to be elaborated on then, since the story wasn’t really about her at the time, but given the role she plays in this story, it was essential for the reader to learn what set her on her path and how certain things came to be.

This “very limited perspective” storytelling was something that occurred in The Magicians, and I expect it to occur in The Magician’s Land too, and I can see why it might turn some people away. Quentin’s not exactly an unreliable narrator per se, but he’s only as reliable as any one person can be, especially someone who is rather self-centred. The moment in The Magicians where he thought he saw Julia at the Brakebills exam, but only for a moment? Nothing comes of that until much much later; it was just a thought he had and then forgot about because it wasn’t relevant to the rest of his life at the time. Things happen, and they aren’t always following up on because, much like in real life, things sometimes just happen. People fall in and out of a person’s life without any grand overarching meaning to it all. Penny shows up in The Magician King, but not until much later, and doing his own thing. Some characters come back, others don’t. Some are introduced for a short time and play an important role, others are there in the story for far longer but don’t really do much.

On one hand, when you’re used to tightly-edited stories in which everything non-essential is pared away and only the relevant remains, this can all seem quite jarring. Is this random line worth paying attention to, or is it something unimportant. Is this great gift that everyone received going to play a part later, and if so, are we even going to get to see it? It’s not your standard storytelling, and I can see why that would frustrate some readers. For my part, though, once I accepted that this is just the way Grossman is telling the story, it was relatively easy to adjust to, and it really did seem to reflect real life. Characters do things when off the page, friendships and relationships bloom and die, people tag along with you because it benefits them and not because it benefits you, and that’s just what life is, especially when you really only have one viewpoint through which to see the world. This can make for some emotionally difficult reading at times, and this series is nothing if not bittersweet, but it’s also quiet satisfying if you can stick with it.

The story within The Magician King is just as complex and occasionally unexpected as The Magicians was, and sadly, my biggest question from the last novel (“Why did everyone choose to go to Fillory, which coincidentally happens to be the fantasy world that the main character is obsessed with?”) didn’t really get answered. Well, I mean, it sort of did at the end of The Magicians, but not in any satisfying-to-me way. It seemed to come down to, “because fate, that’s why.” But at this point, I just have to accept that, similar to other elements in the deep and multilayered story, it just did. It happened, deal with it, move on. The why isn’t important to the story. And frankly, I wasn’t even looking for an answer to that question as I read. I was too caught up in trying to figure out how everything connected, seeing what would happen next, find out how Abigail the talking sloth took part in Quentin’s adventure…

Yes, there was a talking sloth. Her name was Abigail. She didn’t do much, and I really liked her character, however little of it there was. Sloths are awesome.

Overall, with the exception of some cringe-inducing word choices now and again (use of the r-word was one) and an unpleasant rape scene in the last quarter of the book, I’d say with certainty that if you enjoyed The Magicians, then you’ll also enjoy this continuation of the story. I’m looking forward to reading the third and final book of the trilogy soon, to see how this all comes together in the end, and to see just how much Grossman can keep tugging at my heartstrings not with broken romances and sad deaths, but with the bittersweet mundanity of real life. However much this series involved magic and fantasy, so much of it is so very real that I can’t stop it from prodding at the bruised places within myself, dredging up times when I felt as Quentin did, as Julia did. It’s relatable, which makes it compelling. It’s still the same sort that appeal to the misfit individuals out there who both longer for the fantastical and yet knew the boundaries of reality all too well. This series melds both into an emotional and mysterious adventure, pulling readers along for the ride.

Within the Sanctuary of Wings, by Marie Brennan

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 25, 2017

Summary: After nearly five decades (and, indeed, the same number of volumes), one might think they were well-acquainted with the Lady Isabella Trent–dragon naturalist, scandalous explorer, and perhaps as infamous for her company and feats of daring as she is famous for her discoveries and additions to the scientific field.

And yet–after her initial adventure in the mountains of Vystrana, and her exploits in the depths of war-torn Eriga, to the high seas aboard The Basilisk, and then to the inhospitable deserts of Akhia–the Lady Trent has captivated hearts along with fierce minds. This concluding volume will finally reveal the truths behind her most notorious adventure–scaling the tallest peak in the world, buried behind the territory of Scirland’s enemies–and what she discovered there, within the Sanctuary of Wings.

Thoughts: Having already read Turning Darkness Into Light before this, some aspects of Within the Sanctuary of Wings weren’t a surprise to me. But I don’t always read books in order to be surprised by their events. Sometimes I know what happens at the end of the story, but want to see the journey, the path by which the characters reached that end.

Plus I love Brennan’s writing, so that was a definite point in this book’s favour.

Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the fifth and final book of Lady Trent’s memoirs, one that starts with her feeling restless about the discoveries she hasn’t made. Odd though that sounds, I can understand where the sentiment comes from, especially for a woman living in a man’s world, so to speak. The accomplishments of men, especially younger men, will rise above hers, with them being younger and having resources she didn’t or doesn’t, and while she provided a good deal of the foundation for which future discoveries can be made, when you have the heart of a scientist and adventurer, it’s not enough to just sit at home and be all academic about it. You long to be out there, still making your mark, still uncovering the secrets that the world has to offer.

So when the opportunity to see some unusual dragon bones is presented to her, an expedition to a remote area and the world’s tallest mountain, she doesn’t refuse the chance. What she finds there changes not only the study of dragons, but what’s known of history and mythology too.

I’ve mentioned before that I have a bit of a passion for anthropology, and while I don’t think that’s exactly the right word to use when the culture being studied is one comprised of draconic people, this still presses all the right buttons for me. Though I know it isn’t true, sometimes it feels like there’s nothing left in the world to discover, and maybe this is one of the reasons I enjoy fantasy so much. The genre scratches that itch to encounter things I have yet to encounter, things that nobody has yet encountered. And I could always read historical accounts of discoveries, both scientific and cultural, but to be completely honest, I find those difficult sometimes, as they’re often filled with Western-centric judgments and racism, colonialism, and destruction. But what the Memoirs of Lady Trent series gives readers is that sense of historical discovery without most of the real-world baggage. We get the scientific and anthropological /archaeological adventure stories we long for, while temporarily setting aside the frustration of our own culture’s legacy.

Plus Isabella is such a great character. She knows where society’s limits for her are, and pushes past them anyway, but she does so while still living within that society. It’s a fine line to walk, and I like seeing characters who forge their own paths without turning into someone who’s just angry at everything and refuses to follow any rules, rebelling for the sake of rebelling. She might burn bridges, but when she does so, she does so with a reason, and often with an eye to build a new bridge that will serve more people later on.

I loved reading about her time with the Draconeans, the slow but steady process of them learning to communicate with each other, the differences and similarities between them. I was riveted when Isabella discovered the Draconean side of a story she had known since childhood, a tale of both myth and history, and learning that what she knew wasn’t the whole truth. Within the Sanctuary of Wings isn’t just a scientific adventure story, but a novel of breaking down what you know and rebuilding it with a more complete truth. It’s destruction of the past so that the future can be born, but also acknowledgement of the past and all of its flaws.

I’m a bit sad that the series has ended and that there are no more Lady Trent novels to look forward to. I don’t doubt that I’ll end up rereading the series later on down the road, though, because they are that good, and an uncommon offering for the fantasy genre, combining real-world historical inspiration with fantastical elements, and a style not often seen. This is definitely a case of, “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.” These books left their mark on me, from beginning to end, and I’ve very grateful they exist and that I had the chance to read them. I highly recommend them, from beginning to end.

Silver in the Wood, by Emily Tesh

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 18, 2019

Summary: There is a Wild Man who lives in the deep quiet of Greenhollow, and he listens to the wood. Tobias, tethered to the forest, does not dwell on his past life, but he lives a perfectly unremarkable existence with his cottage, his cat, and his dryads.

When Greenhollow Hall acquires a handsome, intensely curious new owner in Henry Silver, everything changes. Old secrets better left buried are dug up, and Tobias is forced to reckon with his troubled past—both the green magic of the woods, and the dark things that rest in its heart.

Thoughts: This short-and-sweet novella had only been out for around a month by the time I read it, but I had heard so many positive reviews of it during that time that I’m surprised I managed to stay spoiler-free. All I knew upon starting to read was that it was very well received, and that the cover art was striking. I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Tobias, a man living in the woods of Greenhollow, solitary but for his cat. And the dryads. And other forest-dwellers that humans tend to not see. And he is quite happy living alone, until Henry Silver, new owner of nearby Greenhollow Hall, stumbles across Tobias’s cabin in the middle of a rainy night, the chance meeting starting a friendship that quickly runs deep and turns to something more romantic. The relationship between Tobias and Henry is very sweet, and very enjoyable to watch develop over the course of the story, a sort of slow-burn attachment that shows great devotion and affection between the two of them, even if nothing particularly salacious happens.

Silver in the Wood deals heavily with folklore. Henry Silver presents himself as something of a folklorist, collecting and analyzing the history and stories from around Greenhollow, in precisely the way early folklorists did. The fear that the old ways and traditions were dying out, replaced by modern conventions with no room for the old ways, was a fear amongst many who studied folklore when the field was young, and those aspects needed to be collected and catalogued to prevent them from being lost to the ages. But Tobias himself is part of the folklore told in the region, the Wild Man of the wood, connected to stories hundreds of years in the making. Tesh appears to have drawn on some very common folklore elements and asked not only, “What if this was real?” but also, “How does the old fit with the new? How long can the old endure before change comes, and what happens when it does?”

Silver in the Wood may be short but it packs in quite a bit. There’s the aforementioned folklore aspects, of course. There’s the question of duty and devotion, and how much one can sacrifice before they lose too much of themselves. There’s the matter of betrayal, and the different ways it can manifest. There’s a strong undercurrent of change and evolution throughout the piece, from Tobias’s slow acceptance of company where he previously kept to himself, the way stories and places change over time, to Tobias’s eventual replacement by Henry, at least after a fashion. It’s the sort of story that, on the surface, looks like a rural fantasy with supernatural elements and a queer romance, and it is those things, but beneath the surface, it’s quite thought-provoking on a variety of subjects and thought experiments.

Written with a deft hand, Silver in the Wood is an evocative and compelling story reminiscent of a dark fairy tale, filled with hints at what lurks in the shadows beneath the trees. But also with light that shines down through the leaves, dappling the ground and inviting you to stay a while and relax. Like the forest, it is both. And like the forest, I will want to visit it again later, to re-immerse myself in the rich atmosphere that feels at once real and mundane, and also like I momentarily pulled back the veil and saw a glimpse of what lay beyond.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Heirs of Locksley, by Carrie Vaughn

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 4, 2020

Summary: The latest civil war in England has come and gone, King John is dead, and the nobility of England gathers to see the coronation of his son, thirteen year old King Henry III.

The new king is at the center of political rivalries and power struggles, but John of Locksley—son of the legendary Robin Hood and Lady Marian—only sees a lonely boy in need of friends. John and his sisters succeed in befriending Henry, while also inadvertently uncovering a political plot, saving a man’s life, and carrying out daring escapes.

All in a day’s work for the Locksley children…

Thoughts: After reading and enjoying The Ghosts of Sherwood, I knew I was up for another tale of Robin Hood’s children. This novella, just as short and easy to pick up as the previous one, is set around 4 years after The Ghosts of Sherwood. Mary is not yet married, having yet to even lay eyes on the man her parents are considering for her husband. Eleanor still does not speak, showing many signs of what we now would likely deem autism. John stands in his father’s shadow, unsure what to do with his life or what he will become.

And now King John is dead, and his young son Henry ascends to the throne.

Robin decides to send John to swear fealty on his behalf, hoping that the two, being closer in age than the new king is to his advisors, will strike up a friendship, placing John in the position of confidant and unofficial (and maybe someday official) advisor. It’s undoubtedly a political move, not one intended to curry favour and gain power so much as help keep his descendants out of disfavour with the man who will, with luck, sit on the English throne for quite some time. John is rather angry about the political side of this move, but he does do what’s suggested, and he does manage to get in good with King Henry, partly due to participating in a semi-impromptu archery contest (alongside his sister Mary, because Mary is a very good shot), and partly after sneaking his way to Henry that night in order to sneak the young king out to engage in some tree-climbing.

Which isn’t a euphemism. John seems appalled that Henry never had the chance to climb trees, and so seeks to rectify the situation. The fun is cut short, however, when the two stumble across an attempted murder in the night, and take it upon themselves to solve the mystery of who and why.

I enjoyed The Heirs of Locksley as much as I enjoyed The Ghosts of Sherwood. I expected a shift in character focus from Mary to John, though it’s not like Mary was completely out of the picture here. The dangling plot thread of “will she actually marry the man her parents wish for her” got tied up nicely, though I can see how it might annoy some readers. She met him, and while it wasn’t love at first sight, they did agree to marriage pretty quickly, still knowing very little about each other. But honestly, that didn’t bother me; it fit the time period and setting. Mary met him, liked how she felt around him and saw that he treated his horses well, figured she could do a lot worse, and so made the decision. The decision didn’t seem out of character for her, so I have no real problems with it.

I also want to take a moment to talk a little about the vibes between John and Henry, and I swear, if there hadn’t been such an age and experience gap between them, I was wondering if there’d be a sparking romance between them in addition to that new friendship. But no, that wasn’t the case, and I can’t say I’m entirely surprised. I was surprised, though, by the very strong implication at the end that John was struggling a little to deal with thoughts that men are far more appealing than women.

But this is where I have to confess a little bit of disappointment. I can’t find any information to suggest that this series will be ongoing, everywhere lists this as book 2 of 2, and that dips its toes into problematic territory. Mary gets a story focusing on her, John gets a story focusing on him, but Eleanor, the neurodiverse one, gets nothing with a focus on her? We get hints that John might be gay, but that’s where it all gets cut off and nothing about that gets dealt with after a “maybe he is,” moment? This concern might be rendered moot if more stories are written, but as it stands for now, with no indication that this series will continue, it’s a disappointing place to leave things. I want more fiction with neurodiverse characters. I want more fiction with queer characters. I get disappointed when I run into things that dangle a carrot but don’t actually follow through.

So I’ve got my fingers crossed that this series will continue, that more stories of the Locksley children will be written. The stories are well written, fun to read even for those who, like me, aren’t super familiar with the Robin Hood story, and it would be a big disappointment to end things here, and for multiple reasons.

As with The Ghosts of Sherwood, The Heirs of Locksley is a low-investment read that has a big reward. It’s short, both of them could easily be read in an afternoon, and they’re well-paced well-written adventures that take the reader back to a time of history and folklore, setting the stage in a way that brings the hypothetical to life. I definitely recommend them as quick reads for fans of speculative historical fiction, even if there’s that caveat of how disappointing it will all be if it ends here, after teasing such potential inclusivity.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)