Book Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

forest1kForest of a Thousand Lanterns
by Julie C. Dao
Fairy Tale Retelling
363 pages
Published 2017

You know I love my Fairy Tales! Especially re-imagining the villains. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is an Asian take on the evil queen from Snow White. The author is a Vietnamese American, and this is her debut novel. She has quite skillfully woven a new origin story for the wicked stepmother in a fantasy land heavily influenced by East Asian mythology and culture. I don’t know enough about the individual countries’ mythologies to tell you if the influences come specifically from Vietnam, or more generically from the area. I know that their beliefs can vary pretty wildly by locale.

That said, this is another superb debut novel. I’m eager to read the sequel – it’s billed as “A Rise of the Empress novel” so I’m sure there will be one or more. Xifeng is a pretty complex character – she is somewhat single-minded in what she wants, but conflicted in what to do to get it. (It being the position of Empress.) I was intrigued by who was chosen to fill the roles of the traditional tale; Xifeng, of course, would be the wicked stepmother. The Fool is Xifeng’s version of Snow White, and Xifeng thought for some time that she knew who The Fool was. The reader, of course, knows the Fool must be Snow White, and so not the people who Xifeng suspected. The one that surprised me was the identity of The Huntsman. I won’t spoil anything – but he was unexpected.

There’s also more going on than just the Snow White plot. There are gods and goddesses and spirits and an underlying war. I am quite eager to see how those play out.

There is a slow spot in the middle – I set the book down for a couple of days before picking it up again, and that’s always a sign I’m not as absorbed in the book as I could be. But I did pick it up again and read straight through to the end, so it’s not too bad!

If you like Fairy Tales and Asian mythology, this is definitely a neat blend of the two. I really liked it.

From the cover of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns:

Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. 

Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high? Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins – sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute.

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Book Review: Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom

six of crowsSix of Crows (479 pages)
Crooked Kingdom (561 pages)
by Leigh Bardugo
Fantasy
Published 2015/2016

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom are a duology set in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse. Grisha being the magic users in her world. I haven’t read the rest of the Grishaverse (Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising) – but I will definitely be doing so, because Crows and Crooked Kingdom are AMAZING. I’m also looking forward even more to Bardugo’s Wonder Woman novel, Warbringer.

I was pretty surprised – normally books rotating between several viewpoints are confusing, but Bardugo handles the transitions seamlessly and unmistakably. I was never unsure of what character I was reading – each one really had their own unique voice. I also loved that she worked in an LGBT romance without it being in any way odd. No one in the novel found non-heterosexuality weird at all. It was treated just as matter of factly as opposite-sex romances, and I loved that.

Six of Crows opens on a gang being blackmailed into a job they don’t want to do. I can totally see the gang has a D&D group – and the books definitely feel a bit like a D&D campaign, albeit one with a mostly experienced group and a very experienced DM. crookedkingdom

You’ve got Kaz, the ringleader, who’s an all-around great thief but a superb tactician.

Inej, the acrobat assassin.

Jesper, the marksman hiding his magic ability.

Wylan, the rich merchant’s son on the outs with his father and fallen in with a bad crowd, and talented with demolitions.

Nina, the sexpot who wields magic, and has a love/hate relationship with Mathias, the barbarian who’s spent his life hunting magic users but is irresistibly attracted to Nina. (I can see the DM telling these two to hash out a background that will let them co-exist, which they obviously did.)

Each character has a complex back story that influences most of their actions, and different relationships with other members of the gang that also affects how they react. Their back stories don’t just explain their actions in the books, people and events from their backgrounds also show up to complicate matters in the present. The wheels-within-wheels of the plotline is EXACTLY what I love about good political fantasies. The world-building is superb, and Bardugo has given just as much thought to the seedy underbelly of her world as she has the magic and politics.

I really, really loved this duology, and I see now why people rave about this universe. It is VERY well deserved.

From the cover of Six of Crows:

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction―if they don’t kill each other first.

Series Review: The Changeling Chronicles

Faerie1Faerie Blood
Faerie Magic
Faerie Realm
Faerie Wrath
Faerie Curse
Faerie Hunt
Faerie War
Emma L. Adams
Urban Fantasy
Around 400 pages each
Published 2016-17

Oh my. This is a seven-book series, only available on Kindle, as far as I can tell, and they’re very good. (The whole series is free via Kindle Unlimited.) There were a few grammatical hiccups in the first book, and one or two spelling errors in the series, but overall, very well done writing. (Although calling them piskies instead of pixies was annoying after a while.)

So this series centers on Ivy Lane, a girl who was taken to faerie at age 13 when the faeries invaded our world and wrecked it. Seriously wrecked it. Supernaturals were faerie2revealed, whole swaths of cities destroyed, large numbers of people killed. I do mean wrecked. She spends 3 years in faerie, as the slave of an evil Sidhe, before escaping and making it back to Earth, where she finds that ten years have passed.

Like most urban fantasy series, each book sees Ivy fighting a world-ending threat. One slight difference here is that the world-ending threat in each one isn’t exactly different. As the series goes on, we discover the plot behind the initial invasion, how it was fought off, and how it ties into the current threat.

I wish Ivy’s best friend, Isabel, had been fleshed out more – even some of Ivy’s enemies and other side characters got more personality and character development that Ivy’s supposed best friend did, and that bugged me a bit. But the world-building and magic is pretty fascinating, and the romance is sweet. I was also pleased to see a couple of nods to non-traditional relationships, though I wish they’d not been in the same book, been a bit more explicit, and been more spread out in the series. (A faerie talking about her girlfriend, and a two lady mages who were….a bit more concerned about each other’s safety that most people expected.)

For all the tropes I’ve mentioned, though, I REALLY REALLY liked this series. She’s written a few other books in the same world – Earth wrecked by faerie invasion – a trilogy about a dragon shifter, and one book (so far) about a half-Sidhe girl. I’ll probably faerie 3read those next, after I get through some of the library books on my stack. (…I may have been hiding from the nonfiction by burying my face in urban fantasy – oops.) If you’re looking for a fun, light-hearted romp through Faerie to distract you from the real world, this is a great way to do it.

From the cover of Faerie Blood:

I’m Ivy Lane, and if I never see another faerie again, it’ll be too soon.

Twenty years after the faeries came and destroyed the world as we knew it, I use my specialist skills to keep rogue faeries in line and ensure humans and their magically gifted neighbours can coexist (relatively) peacefully.

Nobody knows those skills came from the darkest corner of Faerie itself.

When a human child disappears, replaced with a faerie changeling, I have to choose between taking the safe road or exposing my own history with the faeries to the seductively dangerous head of the Mage Lords. He’s the exact kind of distraction I don’t need, but it’s work with him or lose my chance to save the victims. It’ll take all my skills to catch the kidnappers and stop Faerie’s dark denizens overrunning the city — but if the faerie lords find out about the magic I stole last time I went into their realm, running won’t save me this time…

Book Review: Alice

aliceAlice
by Christina Henry
Fairy Tale Retelling
291 pages
Published 2015

I was a little wary going into this one – Alice in Wonderland is a difficult tale to reshape. You need enough crazy that it IS Alice, but not enough that it veers into “what is going on here anymore I can’t follow this.” This book did it wonderfully. It’s a dark re-telling – it begins in an asylum, that Alice and Hatcher (The stand-in for the Mad Hatter) break out of. Hatcher’s a murderer, and Alice is no wilting flower herself. Together they fight their way through a neglected, abandoned city run by gangs, to recover the one weapon that can vanquish the Jabberwocky.

It’s a dark book – rape is rampant throughout a city without law, though it’s never graphically described, at least. The weak are chattel to be used, sold, and killed by the strong. But Alice has been weak, and refuses to be weak again. She’s a bit of an avenging angel, descending on the oppressors and freeing anyone she can.

Both Alice and Hatcher have incomplete memories – their trauma both from the city and the asylum fracturing and hiding their pasts. They recover some of those memories throughout the story, and Henry has handled it perfectly, revealing to both them and us key parts of plotline when it’s needed, in a very natural way.

The romance plotline is unconventional, but also very believable, given what the two experience together. Though it’s also a love that I’m not sure can survive outside of their circumstances. After the book, when they (I assume) settle down in peace and quiet – I don’t know that their romance will persevere. They’re traumatized and broken and cling together to hide some of the sharp edges – or cling together in such a way that those sharp edges face out to protect them from the gangs in the city. When they no longer need to kill to survive, what happens?

I’m glad to find there’s a sequel, as they do still have an uncompleted task when the book ends. I’m also intrigued to read Henry’s other series, Black Wings.

Final verdict: I loved it. But it’s dark, so be prepared for that.

From the cover of Alice:

In a warren of crumbling buildings and desperate people called the Old City stands a hospital with cinder-block walls that echo the screams of the poor souls inside.

In the hospital, there is a woman. Her hair, once blond, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she’s in such a terrible place – just a tea party long ago, and long ears and blood….

Then, one night, a fire at the hospital gives the woman a chance to escape. She tumbles out of the hole that imprisoned her, leaving her free to uncover the truth about what happened to her all those years ago.

Only something else has escaped with her. Something dark. Something powerful.

And to find the truth, she will have to track this beast to the very heart of the Old City, where the Rabbit waits for his Alice.

Book Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass

girlsGirls Made of Snow and Glass
Melissa Bashardoust
Fairy-tale Retelling
372 pages
Published 2017

WOW! I received an ARC of this book through Goodreads and got to read it before the release date (September 5th! Today! GO GET IT!) and I was SO excited to read it. It did not disappoint! This is her debut novel, and the story is absolutely fantastic. It’s billed as a “fantasy feminist fairy tale” and I think it lives up to that pretty well. There are no princes in this story. There are a couple of men – the King, the Queen’s father, and the Huntsman, but they are not who the story is about. The story really is about the Queen/stepmother and her stepdaughter, the Princess.

It’s hard to talk to much about the plot without giving things away, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a GLBT relationship, and one that was treated pretty matter-of-factly. It’s really lovely to see someone take a medieval-ish fantasy setting and make GLBT relationships a perfectly normal thing. Too often medieval fantasy comes with a big dose of bigotry because “that’s the way things were!” ignoring that this IS YOUR FANTASY WORLD WITH MAGIC IN IT so why on earth can’t things be different?!

There was definitely a bit of stilted dialogue, and early plot events were a little cliche, but it’s her debut novel and I’ll forgive that for how outstanding everything else about the book was. It flips back and forth between the Princess’s viewpoint and the Queen’s, and early in the book it also flips between current events (the Princess’s viewpoint) and many years ago (the Queen’s viewpoint, before she became Queen and stepmother to the Princess). It was a little jarring the first time, before I realized it had also jumped backward in time, but after that it was smooth.

All things considered, I love this book. I think it’s probably one of my favorite books of 2017. I am SO happy I own a physical copy of the book! I’ve been getting most of my books from the library recently, so it’s pretty awesome to own a copy of a book I enjoyed so much. I highly recommend this one.

From the cover of Girls Made of Snow and Glass:

At sixteen, Mina’s mother is dead, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone. Her heart has never beat at all, in fact, but she’d always thought that normal – she never guessed that her father had cut out her heart and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Winterspring Castle and sees its king for the first time, Mina forms a plan: Win the King’s heart, become queen, and finally know love.

Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: A magician created her out of snow in the dead queen’s image, at her father’s order. But despite being the dead queen made flesh, Lynet would rather be like her fierce stepmother, Mina. She gets her wish when her father makes Lynet queen of the southern territories, displacing Mina. Now Mina is starting to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do – and who to be – to win back the only mother she’s ever known. 

 

Book Review: The Wolves of Dynamo

wolvesThe Wolves of Dynamo
Gareth S. Young
Urban Fantasy
297 pages
Published 2016

This book arrived unexpectedly in the mail – I believe it was from a Goodreads Giveaway, but I was never notified I’d won one. It’s even signed by the author!

I am….a little puzzled on how I feel about this book. It has a bit of a confusing, dream-like quality to it, which fits the book, but left me a little less than satisfied. It always felt like I was forgetting details, or like the book assumed I knew things about the world that I didn’t. (Much like many dreams.) The plot was unique, the characters could have used more depth, the division between forest and city was indistinct, and the conclusion was unsatisfying. It could have been very good, but I think it needs a lot more polish.

The physical book itself felt like an ARC, even though it’s not. I think it’s the simplistic cover and the typesetting. It just doesn’t feel – finished. Like much of the book. I’d give this a pass, but I might be interested in future writings by the author, if his style matures and his editor improves.

From the cover of The Wolves of Dynamo:

Thirteen-year-old Eileen MacCormick has always called Dynamo City home. Its bustling streets, imposing Cathedral, and enveloping forest fascinate her, giving her solace after the death of her father. But after moving closer to the forest she finds so comforting, she discovers that it hides a dark, magical world.

Eileen’s life changes irrevocably when she crosses paths with a murderer who is terrorizing the city. Heartsick, she finds herself drawn back to the forest where an enclave of mysterious wolves reveal themselves to her. Eileen is shocked to learn she can communicate with the wolves and outraged when the ancient animals demand she lure the murderer to the forest.

How can these creatures ask this of her? How can a thirteen-year-old possibly catch a killer?

Bewildered by her role in this new magical world, and by the wolves’ extraordinary request, Eileen must battle her sorrow and find courage as she begins the most dangerous and incredible adventure of her life.