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.)

The Ghosts of Sherwood, by Carrie Vaughn

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 9, 2020

Summary: Robin of Locksley and his one true love, Marian, are married. It has been close on two decades since they beat the Sheriff of Nottingham with the help of a diverse band of talented friends. King John is now on the throne, and Robin has sworn fealty in order to further protect not just his family, but those of the lords and barons who look up to him – and, by extension, the villagers they protect.

There is a truce. An uneasy one, to be sure, but a truce, nonetheless.

But when the Locksley children are stolen away by persons unknown, Robin and Marian are going to need the help of everyone they’ve ever known, perhaps even the ghosts that are said to reside deep within Sherwood.

And the Locksley children, despite appearances to the contrary, are not without tricks of their own…

Thoughts: Despite being thoroughly of British descent, I had to admit that most of what I know of the Robin Hood story comes from the animated Disney adaptation where everyone was an anthropomorphic animal. I have picked up enough along the way, though, to get the gist of the legend and to not feel lost upon picking up this novella.

In The Ghosts of Sherwood, Robin and Marian have settled into a life that looks less like rebellious outlaws and more like everyday domesticity, if everyday domesticity involved being nobility in 12th century England. The story centres around their eldest daughter, Mary, old enough to be considered of marriageable age even if her parents aren’t fully sure they want to hand her over to somebody else just yet. Mary is prone to taking trips into the wood for some alone time, at on one such trip, accompanied by her younger brother and sister, the trip are kidnapped by a band of men seeking vengeance against Robin Hood. Will Robin Hood and his men reach the children on time, or is it up to the kids to see to their own salvation?

It always interests me to see the stories of those who live in the shadows of legends, especially those who don’t let the pressure of that legend overtake who they themselves are. It can’t be easy, having an outlaw hero for a father. Mary, though, seems to find the thought of running a household more daunting than living in her father’s shadow. She isn’t the sort of character who’s all, “Being female is a horrible thing; I’d much rather be running wild and doing archery!” which was good to read because such characters are frankly uninteresting to me. Give me someone who will work with what they have in order to live their best life, even if it isn’t their ideal, rather than somebody who will rant and rail against the system and nothing else. Mary seemed to me to be far more of the former than the latter, as she knew her skills, knew some of what life held for her, and even if she didn’t quite know what she wanted, knew enough of what she didn’t know to hold off on making decisions either way. She was sensible, and I loved that.

I loved the way Mary tried to bluff her way away from the kidnappers. I love the way she was given an impossible task and succeeded at it, against all odds, even when she knew that the bargain would not be honoured. I love the way, again, she used what she had to best advantage, even when what she had was out of her hands and instead of the hands of her sister. I could read more stories about Mary, I really could.

The Ghosts of Sherwood was a quick short story that I may not have too much to say about in the end, except that I enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading the sequel, The Heirs of Locksley. The characters was memorable, the concept of “what happens next” was interesting, and the balance struck between providing an interesting glimpse into the lives of the heroes of children while also not trying to set them up to all be heroes themselves was well struck. This is the first work of Vaughn’s I’ve read, and I have to say it was a pretty good introduction. If you’re a fan of the Robin Hood story, or — as I am — a fan of the whole “what about the people who live in a hero’s shadow?” idea, then this low-investment story will yield high rewards.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Updraft, by Fran Wilde

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 1, 2015

Summary: Welcome to a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage.

Kirit Densira cannot wait to pass her wingtest and begin flying as a trader by her mother’s side, being in service to her beloved home tower and exploring the skies beyond. When Kirit inadvertently breaks Tower Law, the city’s secretive governing body, the Singers, demand that she become one of them instead. In an attempt to save her family from greater censure, Kirit must give up her dreams to throw herself into the dangerous training at the Spire, the tallest, most forbidding tower, deep at the heart of the City.

As she grows in knowledge and power, she starts to uncover the depths of Spire secrets. Kirit begins to doubt her world and its unassailable Laws, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to a haunting choice, and may well change the city forever-if it isn’t destroyed outright.

Thoughts: I initially read this book some years ago, but didn’t get around to reviewing it then. I can’t even remember way. It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it; far from it, I thought Updraft was as good then as I did upon rereading it this time. I thought it was high time I refreshed my memory of the book and finally wrote the review that has been so long in coming.

Kirit lives in a world high above the cloud, an expansive city made from towers of living bone. People fly between towers using wings of bone and silk, or send messenger birds, or build bridges made from the sinew of invisible monsters known as skymouths. Kirit is of an age to pass her wingtest, which would give her license to fly as far from her home tower as she needs to, at which point she expects that she will apprentice with her mother and learn the trade of, well, a trader. However, she inadvertently breaks Laws that hold her society together, revealing that she has some uncommon abilities at her disposal, and catching the attention of the Spire, where the city’s Singers live. Singers maintain laws, they maintain ritual, they maintain tradition, and they keep the city safe from skymouths, among other things. Kirit must decide whether to give in to the Spire’s demands for her, or to play along for a while and potentially uncover some of the biggest secrets her home city has been hiding for generations.

Updraft is told entirely from Kirit’s perspective, with no perspective shifts or third-person moments to provide the reader with more information than Kirit herself has. What she discovers, we discover, and it makes the story’s pacing and tension solid throughout. Her journey from “character who thinks she knows more than others give her credit for” to “character who learns she had no idea about half of what was going on behind the scenes” was an interesting one to follow. Honestly, I’m usually not that fond of the, “I know more than you think” characters, because I feel like they often exist mostly to demonstrate how little they actually know, but in this case, it was done well enough and with an interesting enough world that a lot of my complaints about the archetype are overshadowed by just how into Kirit’s journey I found myself.

It still intrigues me to think that the world Kirit grew up in is basically null and voice below the cloudline. The bone towers that her people live in rise high, and below the clouds lies danger and death, so who would go there? The bone towers feels so novel, especially since the bone is still living, still growing, that I can’t help but be curious about where they come from. What a massive creature the world itself must be, to have such bones. I know there’s a sequel to Updraft, though I haven’t yet read it, and I hope that a little more information is given there. Though if it isn’t, I won’t be too disappointed, since not every mystery is one for characters to solve. People live in bone towers. That’s what we need to know, so that’s what we’re going to be told. Where the bone comes from might not be essential to the story.

Doesn’t stop me from being curious, though.

I also really enjoyed the complicated friendship between Kirit and Nat. I more than half expected them to develop a romantic relationship before the end of the novel, at least the beginnings of one, but I was pleasantly surprised to see this wasn’t the case. I’m not against romance, but I am fairly worn out on the “this guy and this girl are of similar age and aren’t related by blood so they’ll probably get together,” routine. Even if that changes later on in their story, there wasn’t anything between them that made me think here that they would become romantically involved, and I’m glad it wasn’t forced. As complex and fraught as their friendship was, it was good to see it as a friendship, nothing else, and I really want to see more books that keep such characters as friends instead of making them go down the romance route.

Wilde’s creativity and skill really shine in Updraft. You’ve got an interesting setting, a character whose natural curiosity and stubbornness push her onward even when others tell her to fall back, and a city just brimming with secrets. It all comes together to make for such a compelling story that’s unlike any other I’ve read in recent years. Updraft is one of those novels that really stands on its own two feet, not as a standalone novel but as something that is very much itself, doesn’t feel like it’s piggybacking of the popularity of some other story or style before it. There are mysteries all over the place, from the mystery of what happened to Kirit and Nat’s fathers, to why the skymouths are acting strangely at times, to what the Spire’s interest in Kirit is, to why the Spire keeps so many secrets from the city’s ordinary citizens. It’s fascinating and complex, and it’s a world I really want to explore more of.

Updraft has been out for a good few years now, and if you haven’t read it yet, it’s one that I heartily recommend. With its focus on adventure and discovery, you’ll feel like you’re riding high on the winds alongside Kirit, twisting and tumbling when the winds blow sour, and soaring when they blow true. It’s a great read, one that will keep you turning the pages, and I’m even more excited to track down the sequel than I was before. Give this one a read if you’re a fan of unique fantasy settings and strong-willed female protagonists; I doubt you’ll find yourself disappointed in the end.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Silver Phoenix, by Cindy Pon

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 17, 2009

Summary: No one wanted Ai Ling. And deep down she is relieved—despite the dishonor she has brought upon her family—to be unbetrothed and free, not some stranger’s subservient bride banished to the inner quarters.

But now, something is after her. Something terrifying—a force she cannot comprehend. And as pieces of the puzzle start to fit together, Ai Ling begins to understand that her journey to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams isn’t only a quest to find her beloved father but a venture with stakes larger than she could have imagined.

Bravery, intelligence, the will to fight and fight hard . . . she will need all of these things. Just as she will need the new and mysterious power growing within her. She will also need help.

It is Chen Yong who finds her partly submerged and barely breathing at the edge of a deep lake. There is something of unspeakable evil trying to drag her under. On a quest of his own, Chen Yong offers that help . . . and perhaps more.

Thoughts: This is a book I meant to read years ago, and one that I believe first came to my attention when complaints started circulating about the change to the cover art for the paperback release, switching from a bright and vibrant image with an obviously Chinese woman front and centre, to a very uninspired image of a woman of unknown ethnicity, wearing clothes of undefinable style and origin, and with half her face hidden in the shadows. I know the adage is to not judge a book by its cover, but cover art is often one of the first things a person sees, it’s meant to attract attention and draw a potential reader in, and for my part, had I not seen the original cover art first, I would have utterly overlooked Silver Phoenix because nothing about the new cover said anything to me beyond, “probably a YA romance maybe?”

Cover art aside, though, how is the novel itself?

Silver Phoenix is written from the perspective of Ai Ling, a young woman from the kingdom of Xia, whose father leaves for a journey to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams and then doesn’t return when he is meant to. Already feeling herself a burden to her family, and worrying that being married off to an old lecherous man is in the future, Ai Ling sets off on a journey to bring her father back, leaving him to escape her prior fate and to carve herself a new one. The problem is that demons and monsters seem to be following her wherever she goes, putting her and her eventual travel companions at great risk, though she can’t fathom why she would be targeted so. Some greater force is at play, and Ai Ling needs to get to the bottom of it and find her father before something truly terrible happens.

Ai Ling is very much one of those characters who could be described as “not like other girls.” She can read in a time and place where most women can’t. She’s willful and proud, not accepting the place that society tells her she ought to want, especially in matters of marriage. Her parents were a love match, and she’d like the same for herself. And while I know the “not like other girls” stereotype is often a disliked one (I’m not that fond of it a lot of the time either), Ai Ling is much easier to read than many of the characters I’ve encountered in the past who fit the same trope. Quite possibly because a number of those characters seem to be very brash and in-your-face about how different they are, and Ai Ling doesn’t do that. She’s just very much herself, and that’s enough. She never states herself to not be like other girls as though it’s automatically a positive thing to be different than your peers (for one thing, that does quite a disservice to anyone who does like more traditionally feminine things and enjoys being female within society’s gender role; the “not like other girls” trope usually declares traditional femininity to be bad and something to break away from in order to be worthy of greatness, or just worthy in general. So while Ai Ling definitely hit a number of points on a checklist, it wasn’t in an obnoxious way, and I can appreciate that.

Reading Silver Phoenix felt very much like reading an expanded legend. Ai Ling’s journey to find and rescue her father started out with simple, if lofty, goals, and over time involved all sorts of otherworldly encounters, starting with sightings and attacks by demons and at one point, actually entering another realm entirely, passing through the homes of many non-human people, encountering deities and wondrous animals and food beyond human experience. It felt like an epic tale that hit all the right spots to be a modern legend in its own right, pulling from many aspects of mythology and folklore and tradition while also being its own unique thing. Ai Ling’s changes so much on her journey, with each new encounter bringing her information that calls into questions what she knew of the world, her family, and herself. At the end, she is a changed person, having walked through fire to save her loved ones and the veil being lifted from her eyes.

The book is generally very well paced, though there were a few things that seemed to start and then end without any real resolution. The main thing that springs to mind is after the death of Li Rong, when Ai Ling vows to revive him even though doing so is dark and dangerous. She starts gathering what she needs, she remembers her task every now and again, and things around her change in response to her goal, but never in a way that really causes consequence, and she abandons the plan before ever really getting further into it than she started. So what might have been an interesting subplot in which Ai Ling’s luck and aid could have abandoned her at a crucial moment or Li Rong could have come back terribly and forced a confrontation between Ai Ling and Chen Yong, it just… goes nowhere. Which left me wondering why those pieces were still part of the story.

Now, the book does have a sequel which I haven’t read yet, so it may well be that it was all setup for something that happens later on. But within the context of Silver Phoenix on its own, that subplot felt like something that was initially planned to go further and got cut, but the cutting wasn’t complete. It was odd.

Still, the story was a true delight to read, and I was entertained right from the get go. It scratched an itch for something new in my reading, at least new-to-me, that gave me something different than many of the other options on my shelves right now. It was what I needed right when I needed it, an epic journey of loyalty and discovery that I was glad to be able to read. If you’re a fan of YA fantasy, especially of fantasy with deep inspirations beyond “vaguely medieval European,” then Silver Phoenix is a novel you shouldn’t miss.

Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders, by Aliette de Bodard

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 7, 2020

Summary: Lunar New Year should be a time for familial reunions, ancestor worship, and consumption of an unhealthy amount of candied fruit.

But when dragon prince Thuan brings home his brooding and ruthless husband Asmodeus for the New Year, they find not interminable family gatherings, but a corpse outside their quarters. Asmodeus is thrilled by the murder investigation; Thuan, who gets dragged into the political plotting he’d sworn off when he left, is less enthusiastic.

It’ll take all of Asmodeus’s skill with knives, and all of Thuan’s diplomacy, to navigate this one—as well as the troubled waters of their own relationship….

Thoughts: While I have, admittedly, only read the first book of the Dominion of the Fallen series, of which this is a spin-off/side-story, I can say that familiarity with the series isn’t mandatory for reading and appreciating Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders. I can say this quite certainly because honestly, it’s been long enough since I read The House of Shattered Wings that I don’t actually remember much of the story, only pieces of the setting (in fairness, I read that book only a few months after I moved to an entirely new province and things were weird for me back then, and I really ought to reread it and then start on the rest of the series). So if you’re holding off on this novella because you haven’t read the trilogy yet, then there are a few spoilers in it, but overall you’re not going to feel lost and adrift with the characters and their predicaments.

Thuan, dragon prince and husband to Asmodeus, returns to his draconic home for the Lunar New Year, something that doesn’t exactly thrill him but, you know, family obligations. It’s more than awkward family stuff that will keep me busy during that visit, though, as very quickly a murder is uncovered, one that might well relate to a plot to destabilize the dynasty, and it’s up to him (as well as Asmodeus, to a degree) to navigate the uncertain waters to make sure the death is avenged and the plot uncovered and stopped, before something else horrible happens.

After reading this novella, I am absolutely fascinated by the world that de Bodard has crafted. Not only do we have Vietnamese dragons and fallen angels, but crabs who are also people, and the complicated cultures and politics that you might imagine would surround everyone. It’s a rich and deep world, and while Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders really only dips a toe into that world, it’s enough of a taste to leave me hungry for more. Which, frankly, is a fantastic thing, since not only does it give fans of the trilogy another story to enjoy, but it gives newcomers a good impression of what they might get if they choose to dive further in and pick up the other books (again, so long as they don’t mind a couple of story spoilers).

I couldn’t help but love the rather twisted darkness of Asmodeus. He’s the sort of character I have a weird weakness for in my reading, with the appreciate for and ability to give pain, while at the same time also being capable of affection. He and Thuan might not exactly have the perfect relationship, since their personalities and priorities at times clash, but the two of them are an interesting duo to read about, partly because I like Asmodeus so much, and partly because of the conflicts, because they try to work with and around each other rather than directly against, if the situation calls for it. I want to see more of them, I want to see their relationship from the beginning, I want to see how they grew and changed with each other.

When you combine this with how interesting I found the world-building and the cultural and political aspects of the story, it’s easy to see why the Dominion of the Fallen books might have just gotten a boost in priority on my To Read list.

I’d say that the murder myself itself, disconnected from the setting, was interesting enough on its own (the usual whodunnit, and why, sort of mystery), but it’s difficult to actually do that, to remove the murder from its surrounding narrative. Without the threat of a political coup, there’d be no motivation for the murder, and no imperative for Thuan to investigate and uncover the heart of the matter. De Bodard didn’t just write a murder mystery story set in an interesting world, but had everything connect together, just as things do in reality. Murder always has motives. By its very nature, it has to. And you can’t just remove those motives from the culture in which they arose. Everything is connected, in that sense, and this was no different. I’ve seen stories in which authors have tried to do just that, to write a fun little side-story set in their fantasy worlds, only to make the connections vague and tenuous, coming across as something akin to a play rather than a snapshot of reality. It’s something performed by actors in front of a painted backdrop, set against a world rather than set in it, and de Bodard happily did not fall into this trap.

In short, if you enjoyed the Dominion of the Fallen novels, you’ll be well pleased to step back into the rich and complex world of dragons and fallen angels once more with Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders. And if you haven’t yet read the novels, this is a good way of finding out if the setting and characters would hold any interest for you, a low-investment peak into something larger and more engrossing. It’s got wide appeal, especially to those who want to see more variety of culture and character in their SFF, and I, for one, recommend giving it a read.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)