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.)

Come Tumbling Down, by Seanan McGuire

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

Summary: When Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister—whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice—back to their home on the Moors.

But death in their adopted world isn’t always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.

Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken.

Again.

Thoughts: I love the Wayward Children series more than a little bit. From the way the first one, Every Heart a Doorway resonated with me, right up to this one (which I’m sad to say actually took me this long to remember I actually had), the series has had more high points for me than lows, and each new story continues to impress.

Jack and Jill’s origin story, if you can call it that, was told in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, providing the details for how they found their door into their ideal world. When we last saw them in Every Heart a Doorway, Jack was carrying her sister’s dead body through the door back into their world, back where they belonged, an act of compassion even if Jill had just proven herself to be homicidal and had been killed to stop her from killing others. Now Jack has returned to Eleanor West’s school, but trapped within her sister’s body, with Jill haven switched bodies and stolen Jack’s once her own had been revived.

See, in their world, Jill is in thrall to her vampire master, seeking to become a vampire herself. But once-dead bodies cannot become undead, and so her own body became useless. Jack’s body, though, has never died, and so could go through the transformation. Jack now has to get her own body back before Jill does something irreversible with it, and all the while struggle to maintain the balance of power that the Moors demand.

You’d think that a world as bleak as the Moors wouldn’t appeal to me, but honestly, I love reading about it when it appears in these novellas. It’s certainly not the world for me, but it does hold a certain appeal, that dark pseudo-sci-fi from classic horror movies and the like, where you can practically hear the crash of distant thunder and feel the approaching storm as you read on. So it was nice to read another novel with Jack and Jill — though mostly Jack — as the centre of the story.

You know me, I love seeing queer characters in my reading. Jack is most definitely queer, given that she’s involved with a woman (and as such, so is Alexis), and Kade is transgender, and it’s so very good to see casual representation like that. This isn’t remotely a new thing for this series, but it still makes me smile every time, because McGuire knows how to write queer characters without making every aspect of them be entirely about their queerness, if that makes any sense. They are queer, and no attempt is ever really made to hide that, but it’s more than a “just so happens to be gay/trans/etc” situation. Their queerness is an important part of their character, but their character is much more than merely their queerness. I’m probably not doing a very good job of explaining it, and it probably makes a lot more sense if you grew up, as I did, with queer characters in fiction always needing some sort of coming-out scene, or another character needing time to adjust to the idea that someone they know is queer, then just sort of casual representation is a true treat, and I love it when authors do it. Their being gay is as much a part of them as another character being straight, their being trans is as much a part of them as another character being cis.

Anyway, moving on.

The Wayward Children series has a habit of making my heart ache for the characters and the situations they find themselves in, an emotional kick right to the chest, and Come Tumbling Down was no exception. From the bittersweet pain of realizing that Eleanor West herself was gradually coming to the end of her time as head of her own school, to Kade’s realization that being a hero sometimes means making the hard choices and the deep sacrifices so that others don’t have to, there’s a lot of emotion packed into so few pages, and it’s not exactly something I recommend reading if you’re feeling particularly vulnerable. While every novella within this series is an adventure story, they’re also stories with a strong overlay of loneliness, of the sort of isolation that comes with knowing you are not where you belong, and getting back there requires the sacrifice of everything you’ve built in the meantime. You follow these characters along on their journeys and you ache and mourn and yearn with them, every time, and you have McGuire’s stunningly evocative writing to thank for that.

I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of this series. Whether it’s revisiting previously established characters or showing the origins of entirely new characters, I’m here for the journey, and every ounce of heartbreak along the way. Even if I relate to some characters far less than others, there’s a familiarity to all of them that makes me want to keep coming back, to keep discovering more and more about where their lives take them. Jill’s horrible downfall, Jack’s painful rise, and the commentary along the way, commentary that strikes at the heart of so many marginalized experiences and lays pain and beauty bare for other to experience. This is portal fantasy, yes, but it’s also something beautifully and tragically unique, and I want to be there for every second of it.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V E Schwab

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 6, 2020

Summary: A Life No One Will Remember. A Story You Will Never Forget.

France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever―and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.

Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.

But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore and he remembers her name.

Thoughts: When I first heard about this book, my initial reaction was thinking it sounded like a concept that Claire North would tackle. Indeed, The Sudden Appearance of Hope also has a protagonist who disappears from peoples’ memories once she’s out of sight. But while the concepts for the protagonists are very close, the similarities end there, with both stories being very distinct. Both incredibly fascinating, both superbly told, both their own unique stories with their own particular charms.

Addie’s story begins in 18th century France, a small village that holds little appeal to an independent young woman who wants to live her own life and not be tied by marriage to a man and place she has no interest in. Desperate to escape, she makes a deal with one of the old gods, a deal that means she gets to lives as long as she wants, but with the proviso that when she’s done, she gives up her soul.

Oh, and also that she’s forgotten by everyone she meets. That too.

It sounds like a sweet deal, doesn’t it? Going through the world as long as you want to, people leaving you alone to just do your own thing, only dealing with people when you want to. But Addie quickly realizes the problems with this life. When people forget her, they really forget her. She’s a ghost, a nonentity, something that exists without ties to anyone and anything. If she goes home, her parents don’t recognize her, and try to kick this stranger out of their house. Forget romantic entanglements; once a lover wakes up in the morning, they don’t remember this strange woman in their bed. If she tries to make marks on paper, the marks fade as soon as she writes them. Addie can leave no mark on the world, as the world is doomed to forget her very existence.

But then along comes a man who recognizes her, who remembers her. For the first time in hundreds of years, Addie feels seen, is seen. But this man has a secret of his own, one unbelievable enough to match Addie’s story. And the dark god who granted Addie’s immortality doesn’t take too kindly to someone else being important in Addie’s life…

Though, as I said, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue bears an initial superficial resemblance to The Sudden Appearance of Hope, the rest of the story is pure Schwab. I’ve read some of her work before this, even if I haven’t reviewed any of it, and there are certain elements I’ve come to expect in her work. One is that whatever I’m reading will likely emotionally gut me, in one way or another. Usually by forcing me to confront uncomfortable truths about existence. The ephemeral nature of memory, the way we rely on being remembered through life, even for only as long as it takes to complete a transaction in a store… Addie’s life kicks you in the chest with how lonely she is, and how little she can rely on so many of the things we tend to take for granted. Reading this book had me reflecting on so many circumstances in my life that just wouldn’t have happened, were it impossible for me to be remembered outside of the moment.

And this sort of emotional gut-punch starts early, when Addie realizes that as much as she didn’t want her life to be contained solely within a small village, she had ties there that she appreciated, had come to rely on herself. Her parents being unable to recognize her, unable to remember that they even had a child. The closest person she had to a best friend having the same reaction, turning her attention to something else for a moment, and then turning back to see Addie, once again a stranger, once again a suspicious person in the insular little village. In her desperate bid to hang onto what she really valued in herself, she lost so much, and lived a pretty miserable life of first encounters and awkward goodbyes from them on.

Can you imagine this being your life? I think I would have given up my soul long ago, defeated and broken and unable to bear the loneliness. It’s one thing for me to say I’d like to be forgotten for a little while so that people will leave me alone, but it’s another thing to realize that this wish being granted would mean I’d be a stranger to my cats, my partner, be homeless almost immediately because my forgettable unremarkable self would have no claim to this apartment. Addie’s existence could be compared to that of a ghost, except that a ghost could at least settle down somewhere and not immediately be evicted as soon as they were discovered.

To say nothing of Henry, and the deal with the darkness that he made to alleviate his own pain. The feeling of the click ticking down on his life sometimes made it feel like the walls were closing in around me as I read, shrinking my own life in mirror to his. Schwab has this uncanny ability to really make the feel things, evocative storytelling as its finest, and as much as it always seems to hurt my heart, I can’t seem to get enough of it, and I always go back for more.

There really is so much to love about The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. There’s the casual bisexuality/pansexuality, which I am 100% a fan of, since it normalizes the idea that, y’know, people can be bisexual, and there doesn’t need to be choice or debate about it, and that’s perfectly valid. Henry has had girlfriends and boyfriends. Addie has had, well, male and female partners, ones she definitely felt affection for, though whether she would consider them girlfriends and/or boyfriends when they couldn’t remember much about Addie beyond the moment, I really can’t say. But no big deal is made about this, it just is, they just are, and it’s so wonderful to see represented so casually as positively in fiction.

What really got to me, though, was the assertion that ideas are more powerful than memories, that the inspiration we give to someone can outlast that person’s memories of us. You don’t always need to remember the specifics of an encounter to remember the effect it had on you, especially if that effect is profound. Do you remember the specifics of the moment you learned you really enjoy reading, the scene of the book that sank into your mind and made you go, “Aha, there are so many brilliant stories out there and I want to see more of them?” I know I don’t. But somewhere along the way, the idea was planted, and here we are. It’s something I don’t think I’ve ever really seen done so well in fiction before, if ever, and it really struck a chord with me.

There’s so much to love about The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Even as it tore my heart out, it made me want to keep going, to turn pages and see where everything led in the end. It asked some deep questions, and didn’t always give concrete answers, but sometimes the answers aren’t concrete anyway, and are always mutable. It’s a both a fantastic piece of speculative historical/modern fiction and an emotional punch that will likely catch you off guard more than once. I’m not sure there’s anything else out there quite like it, and I can’t recommend it enough.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

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.

Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 23, 2019

SummaryThe Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.

Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.

In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.

Thoughts: I want to state right away that nothing I can say here will do this book justice. Reading this book make me bitterly regret that I couldn’t read it faster, because the story was so good and so compelling, while at the same time lamenting that I couldn’t go any slower, to make it last. This isn’t the first time I’ve had that thought process while reading one of Moreno-Garcia’s books, and I doubt it will be the last.

Gods of Jade and Shadow tells the story of Casiopea, a young woman working for extended family who, to be blunt, treat her pretty damn poorly. She wants more in her life than drudge work, dreaming of the day she can move to a bigger city and start a new life, a life that’s really hers. Her adventures in the wider world get unexpectedly kickstarted, however, when she accidentally frees the god Hun-Kame, whom Casiopea’s grandfather had trapped in a wooden box. Hun-Kame seeks Casiopea’s assistance to return him to his rightful place, ruling the Underworld, but this means finding his missing body parts to restore his power, as well as overthrowing his brother, Vucub-Kame, who now sits on the throne. The whole story is set against the backdrop of Mexico during the 1920s, setting it firmly as historical fantasy.

I’ll be honest here: the place and time period aren’t ones I know very much about, so I can’t comment on any artistic liberties or anything of the sort. As for the mythology… Well, I knew how to pronounce Xibalba before I opened this book, but that’s about as much as I can claim. My lack of familiarity with a lot of the cultural and historical elements, though, worked rather well for me, as now I feel compelled to end some of my ignorance by learning more. This is one of the things I love the most about reading novels set in this world but in places or times I’m less familiar with. If I enjoy the book, I’m usually inspired to learn more, to familiarize myself so that I’m less ignorant in the future, and so that I can better appreciate more media with similar elements.

I have a weakness for stories in which deities interact with mere mortals, and Gods of Jade and Shadow definitely delivered on that count. I expected a bit of amusement when it came to Hun-Kame trying to deal with the mundane world, but there was actually very little of that, sticking with a more serious tone throughout the story rather than taking a “fishgod-out-of-water” approach. There are some clashes between him and Casiopea, most of them due to Casiopea’s quick temper and her wants and needs, which were sometimes opposed to what Hun-Kame wanted or needed. While Hun-Kame’s status as a deity was in question through the story, it never really became a focal point for humour, which, honestly, was kind of impressive. I like that sort of take and expected some of it because it’s easy territory to play in, but that clearly wasn’t the story that Moreno-Garcia wanted to tell.

As I said earlier, there’s nothing I can say here that would do this book justice. It’s a fantastic novel, it’s a brilliant story set in a fascinating time and place, with a compelling story and flawed but interesting characters moving everything along. Even when you dislike characters, you want to know more about them, find out their motivations and goals. They all have a place within the plot, but none of them existed only to move the plot along. They all had their own lives, their own development, all of them felt fleshed out and real. There are themes of sacrifice and devotion, of duty and independence, of selfishness and taking risks and love of all kinds, and it’s just such a wonderful damn book that I can very highly recommend it to pretty much everyone who reads my blog. If your tastes are even a bit close to mine when it comes to SFF novels, you’ll find yourself very satisfied by what you find inside the pages of Gods of Jade and Shadow. Don’t miss out on it.

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 1, 2000

Summary: As a professional wizard, Harry Dresden knows firsthand that the “everyday” world is actually full of strange and magical things—and most of them don’t play well with humans. And those that do enjoy playing with humans far too much. He also knows he’s the best at what he does. Technically, he’s the only at what he does. But even though Harry is the only game in town, business—to put it mildly—stinks.

So when the Chicago P.D. bring him in to consult on a double homicide committed with black magic, Harry’s seeing dollar signs. But where there’s black magic, there’s a black mage behind it. And now that mage knows Harry’s name…

Thoughts: Over the years, I’d heard so many good things about this series. I mean, you don’t get to have over a dozen books in the same series published unless there’s something reasonably popular there, right? I figured it was about time I gave it a try, to satisfy my curiosity and to see what all the fuss was about.

I… did not come away with the most positive of impressions.

I’m aware that this particular novels is over 20 years old at this point, and that some things can be winced at but ultimately waved aside because yes, the very early 2000s were a different literary landscape when it came to SFF. I didn’t expect this book to be some sort of bastion of wokeness or anything.

But by the end of the second chapter, I was wondering whether or not it was worth it to push through the overwhelming misogyny and male-gaze, or to throw the book at a wall and move on.

Harry Dresden is a wizard, the sort that gets called when his contacts on the local police force encounter something they really can’t explain. This gets him an invite to consult on a very odd murder scene. By the end of chapter 2, he’s examined that murder scene, and the reader has learned several things about Harry that made me so very frustrated while reading.

1 – He takes pride in being “chivalrous,” doing things like opening doors for women and pulling their chair out at dinner, etc, even when they have expressly asked him not to do that because it bothers them.
2 – He states that women hate better than men and are generally just meaner.
3 – Since the book is written in the 1st person and from his perspective, he thinks lines to himself about how he “swallowed manfully” at the sight of mangled bodies, even though he was moments away from “crying like a little girl.”

That sort of stuff was cringe-worthy by modern standards, but okay, maybe I could grit my teeth and ignore the misogyny and just push on with the story. But then he gets to the crime scene and sees the bodies, both of which have their ribs pointing in the wrong directions after their hearts literally exploded in their chests.

And what does the text inform us of first? Not this very gory detail about bones now being on the outside, not the blood spray everywhere. No, we’re first informed about how the female victim’s body was straddling the male’s, the arch of her back, and the gentle curve of her naked breasts.

That was what made me want to chuck the book away. Argue all you like about how Harry Dresden is a red-blooded American man who likes him some pretty women, but so far as I’m concerned, when you describe a corpse’s breasts before you describe the very obvious thing that makes them a corpse (and which would likely ruin any “gentle curves”), I call bullshit. That’s not just the attitude of Joe Hetero. That’s the attitude of Joe Inappropriate-Male-Gaze.

I did push on, after asking some friends if the series gets better. Apparently it does, apparently Harry has some personal growth and stops being quite so much a douchenozzle after a while, which is heartening, but quite frankly, encountering all of that before I had finished chapter 2 really made an impression on me. And I’m not sure if I want to wade through what I’m told is a few more books like this in order to get to something better.

The story in Storm Front is, admittedly, pretty interesting. Not only does Harry have some backstory established from times prior to this novel, but the mystery the exploding hearts was something that did keep me reading, and I wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery and to learn more about the occult world that Harry deals with. Though even that interest came with a bit of a bitter realization, since I had to admit that the story was most interesting when Harry wasn’t thinking about or talking to women. Whenever women played a significant role in the story, they were usually trying to get with Harry (one under the accidental influence of a love potion, in a scene that I’m sure was trying to go for a hectic comedic edge to a life-threatening situation, but it kind of failed at that because magical roofies aren’t funny even when they’re accidental), or pawns in the greater mystery.

And I’m sure this review is going to piss off a load of Dresden Files fans, and possibly piss off even more people who think I’m just some virtue-signalling SJW bitch who wouldn’t know a good book if it bit them on the ass, but my opinion is my own here, and my experience was what it was. I’m still not sure if I’ll end up reading any more of the series, regardless of how good I’m told it is. There are books out there that deal with supernatural mysteries and investigations that don’t have a bunch of misogynistic content, I’m sure, and even if they might not be as popular, I may end up enjoying them more. I do enjoy a good supernatural mystery, if it’s done right, and I can overlook some problematic content in novels if the story draws me in enough, but there does come a point where the problematic content overwhelms my ability to deal with it, where it sours the experience and spoils what might have otherwise been a very enjoyable story had a few things just been toned down.

I can see why the series got a following, especially early on in its life, and I can see why people appreciate the storytelling and the mystery-building. But I think this isn’t the series for me. If the next few books have similar issues with women as the first one, there’ll be too much that I won’t enjoy to make it worth me reading them, well, for enjoyment. Reviewing is a hobby, I prefer to read books I like as opposed to ones I don’t, and from this awkward beginning, the Dresden Files series isn’t one that I feel particularly inspired to spend my time on. Shame, but them’s the breaks.

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.)

Jade City, by Fonda Lee

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 7, 2017

Summary: Jade is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. It has been mined, traded, stolen, and killed for — and for centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their magical abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.

Now, the war is over and a new generation of Kauls vies for control of Kekon’s bustling capital city. They care about nothing but protecting their own, cornering the jade market, and defending the districts under their protection. Ancient tradition has little place in this rapidly changing nation.

When a powerful new drug emerges that lets anyone — even foreigners — wield jade, the simmering tension between the Kauls and the rival Ayt family erupts into open violence. The outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones — from their grandest patriarch to the lowliest motorcycle runner on the streets — and of Kekon itself.

Thoughts: Jade City is one of those books that can be difficult to talk about, not because I have nothing to say, but because I enjoyed it so much and it’s so incredibly good that it’s hard to know where to begin? The characters? The action? The family drama, the political intrigue? The mind-blowing world-building?

You can see my problem.

Jade, in this book, isn’t exactly the source of magic so much as it’s a magical amplifier and conduit, used by ruling families of Green Bones to enhance their own rigorously trained magic. Peace is generally kept between families, at least of a sort, since families control their respective territories in Kekon, though clashes certainly do happen. But the rough peace is threatened by massive disruption when a new drug hits that allows untrained and untested foreigners to use jade’s power for themselves, and made worse by the discovery that jade mining has been tampered with and a significant amount of jade cannot be accounted for . Tensions both from within and without might destabilize everything held dear and true on Kekon.

And honestly, I am doing this book a massive disservice by trying to summarize it in a handful of sentences. The story is far more complex than that, with textual flavour that I can’t begin to properly convey.

Here we have a world with magic and motorcycles, mysticism and technology not at odds with each other but existing side by side, since the existence of magic doesn’t necessarily mean the stalling of technological advancements. And honestly, I find that an uncommon approach; many authors stick with one or the other and rarely blend the two. Or if both exist in the same world, it’s usually with a schism between them, where magic-users eschew technology because reasons (and never once addressing the hypocrisy behind wearing loom-woven clothes or living in houses made from brick or wood because those things are technology too and please let’s not forget it when declaring “technology bad”). Secondary worlds with magic and modern amenities are uncommon in genre fiction, so yes, it’s nice to see such a world that incorporates both elements so well.

Honestly, the issue of magic and international political intrigue aside, I think if this entire novel had been about the clan warfare and family dramas of the Kaul and Ayt families, I would have enjoyed it just as much. Everything was so intricate, so complex and emotional and real, and it alone could have been an entire book without losing any of the intrigue. The rest was the icing on the cake for me, but the real story was in the people and their lives. Lee’s writing is spectacular; I think after this introduction, I’m more than willing to read just about anything she writes!

I know I am not doing this book true justice. My from my first reading over a year ago, to my more recent reread so that I could tackle the sequel, the primary impression Jade City left on me was, “ASDFGHJK MOAR!” It’s a dirty beautiful world that Lee has written, filled with fascinating characters and a compelling story, and it’s such a wonderful experience that it sinks into you and doesn’t let go easily, and that sort of effect is very difficult to convey in a review.

In a nutshell, if you’re into richly detailed novels filled with political intrigue that also straddle the genre line between secondary-world fantasy and urban fantasy, then yes, absolutely read Jade City! It’s a novel like no other, and I’m very much looking forward to digging into the sequel.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)