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

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Publication date – September 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman

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

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

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

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

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

Fillory is dying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.)

The Immortals, by Jordanna Max Brodsky

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 16, 2016

Summary: Manhattan has many secrets. Some are older than the city itself.

The city sleeps. In the predawn calm, Selene DiSilva finds the body of a young woman washed ashore, gruesomely mutilated and wreathed in laurel. Her ancient rage returns, along with the memory of a promise she made long ago — when her name was Artemis.

Jordanna Max Brodsky’s acclaimed debut sets Greek Gods against a modern Manhattan backdrop, creating an unputdownable blend of myth and mystery.

Thoughts: I’ve had a long-running fascination with the idea of ancient deities in modern times. How do they get by? What’s left of their spheres of influence? Do some thrive while other dwindle, in accordance with changes in societal focus? Do small pockets of pagan worshipers them from dying out entirely, if their primary religions are no more? Do deities from different mythologies get along or do they clash?

Brodsky’s The Immortals addresses all of these questions except the last one, really. The novel follows Selene DiSilva, who is something of a private investigator and also punisher of men who harm their female partners. She is also Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt and of maidens. She who has existed as a deity for untold amounts of time now exists as a not-quite-mortal woman in Manhattan, her powers dwindling slowly over time as humanity loses its connection with deities it once worshiped and feared. But Selene’s powers suddenly have a resurgence as cult-like murders begin to be uncovered, murders which hearken back to the mystery cults of old. Cults with rites that have not been performed in centuries, rites that nobody alive should even know about.

That’s the crux of the mystery in The Immortals. Who, or what, could be reviving old practices? Who would even know what to do? Why are these murders, and by extension the ritual attached to them, restoring Selene’s powers and bringing her back to the Artemis she once was? The novel doesn’t hide what‘s happening so much as why it’s happening, which to me is interesting. I admit I don’t have a great deal of experience with mystery novels, but it seems like most that I’ve read have hinged on only revealing part of what’s happening, and then some final linchpin event at the end when the who and the why is finally revealed. Here, we see pretty clearly what’s happening. There’s no mystery to that aspect. The biggest questions are who, and why.

Selene is such a wonderful character to ride on the shoulder of through this novel. She has a long and interesting history, so many experiences to draw on that make up her personality. She knows who she is, she knows who she has been, and she understands the situation she finds herself in. But given the strangeness she encounters through The Immortals, some things do change, things she did not expect to change. She finds herself increasingly attracted to a disgraced university professor who understands a good deal about the time and place when she was Artemis. The return of her powers, however limited, throws her for a loop, and honestly, gives her something of an existential crisis when she’s forced to consider that for some reason she is returning to strength while she watches other deities around her continue to diminish. Hers isn’t the only viewpoint we get through the book, but for my part, I found hers the most interesting.

I’ve noticed a number of times in recently years in which I read a book, really enjoy it, and have a moment of, “Wait, this is the author’s debut novel?!” This was the case here. Brodsky’s writing drew me in quickly, transporting me to places and times I haven’t experienced, and in a way where it was so easy to picture the scene and really get into the events occurring. She style is smooth, easy to read, and it pulled me along nicely. It was easy to fall into the “just one more chapter” mentality.

While The Immortals is part of a series, it could stand on its own perfectly well. It doesn’t end on a massive cliffhanger to attempt to bait people into buying subsequent books in order to find out what happens, and weirdly, that makes me actually want to read the other books more. I don’t have a problem with books in a series, which should be pretty evident from the number of books I’ve read and reviewed here over the years, but I’m not a fan of cliffhangers as a hook. Tell me a story, tell me a full and complete story with a satisfying ending, and I will enjoy the book. Tell me that complete story is actually part of a larger narrative, and I will be eager to return to the story’s world for its own sake, and not just to satisfy the urge to close out the story properly. If all you ever read of the Olympus Bound series is this first book, you’ll still feel like a proper story was told.

To be blunt, I wish more authors would take this approach to storytelling. As I said, it’s not that I dislike series, but I don’t like cliffhangers. That so many books end with cliffhangers to attempt to hook readers is frustrating to me. That Brodsky didn’t do this, didn’t have to do this to create a compelling world I want to come back to, is something that should be noted and lauded.

I think fans of Greek mythology will enjoy the way myth, mystery, and history all intertwine in The Immortals. It’s a fascinating mystery, it’s got a whole load of fascinating information from history and religious interpretation, and it’s hard to not get drawn into the narrative due to the great pacing and compelling story. Even if Greek mythology isn’t my all-time favourite, I’m definitely interested in reading the other books in the series, and I suspect a lot of people I know will feel the same after reading this strong debut.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Rosemary and Rue, by Seanan McGuire

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 1, 2009

Summary: October “Toby” Daye, a changeling who is half human and half fae, has been an outsider from birth. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the Faerie world, retreating to a “normal” life. Unfortunately for her, the Faerie world has other ideas…

The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening’s dying curse, which binds her to investigate, Toby must resume her former position as knight errant and renew old alliances. As she steps back into fae society, dealing with a cast of characters not entirely good or evil, she realizes that more than her own life will be forfeited if she cannot find Evening’s killer.

Thoughts: I’d heard good things about Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series for years now, but I’m so rarely in the mood for urban fantasy that starting what I knew to be a long-running series seemed too daunting. When the mood struck me again and a copy of the first book in the series was available at the library, I thought to myself, “Why not?” At worst, I would read the book and dislike it and not have to worry about continuing the series. At best, I would find something new and fun to read that I could keep visiting over and over again with the many different novels that make up the whole story.

Unsurprisingly, I now must lament that the library only has this book, and none of the others, and so I must begin the process of tracking them all down one by one.

I’m used to thinking of urban fantasy series with female protagonists as being rather formulaic. Mid-20s attractive woman and martial arts skills must thwart growing supernatural menace and date hot supernatural guys. I know that stereotype is something of an injustice to the genre, especially these days, but that was the bulk of urban fantasy I saw growing up, and so it’s a surprise to me (and yet it shouldn’t be) when I encounter something that bucks those trends and gives me something I didn’t expect.

Much of Rosemary and Rue could have been written with a protagonist like that, I suspect, but that this wasn’t the case caught my attention immediately. October “Toby” Daye was born in 1952, though in fairness she’s part faerie and also spent 14 years living as a fish in a koi pond, so her appearance doesn’t make her true age immediately obvious. She has a husband and child, though thanks to the aforementioned fish pond captivity, they’re not part of her life to the degree they used to be. She knows how to fight, how to defend herself, because she was a trained private investigator. And unlike the first books of many urban fantasy series I’ve read, she doesn’t begin the multi-novel journey in ignorance of the supernatural forces around her. She knows what she is, she knows what lurks in the shadows and in the danger of the sunrise, and she has experience dealing with a variety of things both mundane and otherworldly. She’s competent, experienced, and resourceful, and it was refreshing to see.

The bulk of the novel is a supernatural murder mystery, after a fae Countess is brutally killed and her last words are to bind and compel Toby to solve the matter of who killed her and why. The binding places something of a time constraint on Toby, not in a strict “you have 48 hours to figure this out” way, but by actively hurting her if she’s taking too long to find clues and follow the trail. Which is honestly a bit difficult to wrap my head around, when it comes right down to it, because there’s the implication that the spell knows the answer to the puzzle, at least on some level, since it eases up on Toby when she’s getting closer to the truth, and squeezes tighter when she’s taking too long. The magic itself seems to have awareness of the truth. I can’t say it’s based on Toby’s motivations or actions, not entirely, as there are times when Toby is getting close to something but the situation isn’t much different from times when Toby thought she was getting close to something but it was more of a false lead. Could Toby have escaped the binding by just blaming somebody who seemed likely to kill Countess Winterrose, even if there was no definitive proof but plenty of circumstantial evidence? If somebody falsely confessed, would the binding know that the mystery wasn’t solved, even if Toby believed it was? Could the binding be unraveled to just lead right to the truth of the matter?

Am I reading too much into this?

Probably. But I enjoy asking questions like this. I enjoy looking at possibilities and trying to figure out how magic systems in books work, seeing where the holes are and trying to reconcile them with what’s presented to me. Sometimes there’s no satisfactory answer. Sometimes the answer is, “It just works. It’s a mystical thing and human minds can’t fully grasp it, but it works, and that’s all you need to know.”

It’s also very possible that anything I see now as an ambiguity will be addressed in later novels, as the October Daye series currently has 13 novels and a few side stories. There’s plenty of time to see how this all unfolds.

It’s the backdrop of faerie lore that makes Rosemary and Rue more than just a typical murder mystery. The binding curse on Toby definitely propels things forward, making sure that there isn’t much downtime in the story. But people also know that Toby is on the case, including the murderer she’s seeking, and so traps and obstacles come her way. Up to and including people sent to kill her, to stop her from finding out the truth. There’s more to it than just Winterrose’s death. There’s also an item of legend thrown into the mix, a box that reportedly contains great powers, that Toby must protect and that other people want to get their hands on. The balance between Toby needing to stay safe (which rarely happens) and to rush into danger so that her quest can be finished and the binding removed causes the story to always be moving forward, but at something of an unsteady pace. None of it slows down the story to the point where it feels stuck, however, which is a testament to the author’s ability to tell a good story.

I love the complicated world of the fae. Political lines drawn and shifting, and there are complex rules to follow that aren’t always apparent. The different kinds of supernatural beings all seem connected to the fae even if they’re not quite what I’d typically think of as faerie, such as trolls or kitsune, but I can still see how they could be considered under a similar umbrella, so to speak. The author certain did a decent amount of research when figuring out the way a lot of these groups would fit together and relate to each other, both politically and in terms of lifestyle, and it all comes together quite nicely and feels coherent, if complex.

Even if I disagree with some aspects of the pronunciation guide at the front of the book… (Kitsune is not pronounced kit-soon. Sorry.)

As I said previously, I quite enjoyed my experience reading Rosemary and Rue, and I’m inspired to continue following Toby Daye’s adventures and misadventures through the rest of the series. I don’t know how quickly I’ll be able to actually do that, since finding them might involve a lot of luck and interlibrary loans, but I certainly want to read them and to see where the story leads in the end. Seanan McGuire is a skilled writer who can balance enjoyable fluff with serious considerations, and while Rosemary and Rue leaned a little more heavily to the side of enjoyable fluff (at least, that’s my interpretation), it did dip its toes in darker waters at times, turning from witty and quick to grim and brutal in a matter of pages, and I liked the effect. Sure as if there’s now a binding on me, I’m compelled to read on!

Marked, by Sue Tingey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 6, 2015

Summary: In a world filled with charlatans, Lucinda “Lucky” de Salle’s psychic ability has always made her an outcast, even as it has also made her a sought-after (if reluctant) investigator of paranormal phenomena. With no remaining family and very few friends, she has only one “person” she can rely on–Kayla, the ghost girl who has been her constant companion since she was born.

When Lucky is called in to investigate a spectral disturbance at the all-girls school she attended as a child, she isn’t surprised. She herself had had a terrifying confrontation with the troubled spirits of two girls who died in the attic room. But when Lucky goes up to the attic, she discovers that the vicious little girls are the least of the problem–a demon has been released into this world, a creature of such malevolence that even the spirits of the two girls are afraid. When the demon demands that Kayla be handed over to him, Lucky realizes that this case will be like no other she has ever experienced.

For one thing, it seems that her chatty, snarky spirit companion is not what she has always seemed to be…

Review: Sue Tingey;s debut novel, Marked, centres around Lucky, a paranormal investigator with psychic powers, and quite frankly, she doesn’t want them. They haven’t done her much good in life, and her abilities have served to alienate her from friends, family, and any potential romantic relationships she may have developed over time. She isolates herself, sticking instead to the company of Kayla, a ghost who has been Lucky’s friend and companion for years. Ghosts, she’s used to.

Demons, not so much.

And demons now seem to want to get very familiar with her.

Sue Tingey’s Marked is one of those books where, just when you think you get a proper handle on where the story is going, it changes direction and you end up in a different place entirely. It’s not out of the question to think, from the early pages and the back-of-the-book description, that this is going to be a book mostly about investigating a haunting, or hauntings, and maybe things escalate when it turns out it’s not just ghosts involved but actual demons. Only then new information comes to light which shifts the tone and sends the plot spiraling in a new direction. This does well to keep the reader engaged, to keep us wondering what plot twist will be just around the next corner.

In my opinion, the book really takes off once Lucky’s heritage is revealed, and the Underlands come into play. I tend to enjoy books that involve “fish out of water” experiences, especially where culture is involved, so seeing Lucky try to navigate a new society and figure out what’s going on around her when social norms are different from what she’s used to was just plain entertaining, at least for me. That being said, though, it did create some awkward moments when Lucky companions, mostly male, kept telling her not to do things, or outright blocking her from doing things, “for her own good.” I understand that they knew the society and world better than she did, but scenes like that always make me cringe a bit, because they echo so many incidents in the real world, where men tell women how to do things “for their own good,” without any thought to what they might want or need. Especially when most of the advice for Lucky was, “Stay quiet and let us do the talking for you.”

In many ways, Marked feels like a typical YA novel written up for adults. Which is no bad thing, really. Plenty of adults enjoy YA. I enjoy YA sometimes. No shame in it. But what I mostly mean is that Marked follows a fairly standard SFF YA novel formula. “Main character is different, discovers something about them that makes them even more different and special, is involved in a love triangle, and is part of a book written in first-person POV.” Props to Tingey, though, since I was at least interested in the love triangle this time around; most of the time, I roll my eyes and wish that trope could die a death. Rarely does it actually add any tension or interest to the story, and it’s been done so many times that it’s pretty much an industry standard, and I’m rather tired of that. If an author has to rely on, “Which guy will the girl pick?” as a way of manufacturing tension, then the rest of the story isn’t actually that interesting. Give me tension cause by the plot, not just the romance.

Which Tingey does, to be fair. And the characters are far more than just pretty faces and their positions within said triangle, which helps. Jaime and Jinx each had their own motivations beyond an interest in Lucky, and vice versa, so I can let this trope pass because it wasn’t the all-consuming issue that a lot of authors make it.

So why isn’t this book rated higher than 3 stars? Honestly, I think I’d give it 3.5 if I have half-star ratings here, as I think it’s somewhere between good and very good. While it definitely has moments of good creativity and some interesting characters, and even threw a curveball or two, it was still pretty formulaic in a lot of ways. I like Lucky’s sass, but I’m not so fond of yet another story being told about a woman who’s super special, most special of all the special people. Stories don’t often get told about mundane people, sure, but this story could have been told in the same way without Lucky also inspiring the loyalty of multiple different factions of supernatural entity, as well as being given a dragon. A freaking dragon.

(Don’t get my wrong. I love that dragon. It’s awesome. But it’s another sign of Lucky’s super specialness, and when combined with everything else, it actually loses some of the special value because damn near everything about her is special and unique. Pyrites becomes part of Lucky’s uniqueness overload.)

Is Marked a bad book? Not at all. It was a fun read, and there’s plenty to enjoy about it. I enjoyed reading it. It was well-paced, written quite well, and full of interesting characters and situations to move the story along. But it did suffer in some areas, and when it did have flaws, they were pretty glaring flaws.

Other people might not have the same problems with it that I did, especially if they’re more fans of the formula than I am. I’m interested in read the sequel at some point, to be sure, because I do want to see where the story leads and how everything plays out. I can overlook a lot of what I didn’t like about the book because other parts have such appeal. I think that says a lot. I’d call it a light read, the kind of thing I’d turn to when I’m in the mood for a book that doesn’t tax me or make me think too deeply about things, something where I just want to get lost in the action and ignore heavier issues. It’s definitely good for that.

So if you’re a fan of YA paranormal novels but fancy something that’s written more for adults, then definitely take a look at Marked.

(Received for review from the publisher.)