An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors

stars4AAoMaM

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is my most recent dive into steampunk SFF. Set in a world with floating islands, skyships, clockwork “priests,” musketeers and other French influences, shadow and mirror-related magics, and political maneuvering, this novel was a surprisingly good little adventure. Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs was born with a deformed hand and without her family’s bloodshadow magic. Luckily she has her trusted musketeer and father figure, Jean Claude, to help her survive and flourish despite her family’s cruelty. When Isabelle is offered a strange marriage proposal, she and Jean Claude fall into a complex battle for the throne of the Kingdom of Aragoth.

I recently acquired several first books in lesser-known fantasy series. An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors¬†was the first one I tried, and it put my experiment off to a good start. This is a slower, character and politically driven fantasy novel. The character development is quite strong, and both of the main characters are fleshed out and likable. I really enjoyed Isabelle in particular. She is interested in science, math, and philosophy, but these subjects are not permitted to be studied by women. She finds ways to work around this, and she uses her appearance to make others underestimate her. I haven’t seen many disabled main characters in epic fantasy, but since I am not disabled and the book was not “own voices,” I cannot say for sure if the representation was done well. As for Jean Claude, he an old soldier with a good heart. It is easy to see how much her cares for Isabelle, but he doesn’t coddle her. Isabelle doesn’t need Jean Claude and isn’t a damsel in distress, but they work together well and learn from each other over time.

The plot starts a bit slow as we get to know Isabella and Jean Claude, but once Isabelle receives a surprise marriage proposal from a prince of Aragoth things really heat up. The king of Aragoth is dying, and there is no clear successor because the oldest prince has yet to have an heir but refuses to remarry another woman. In this world the royal families possess different kinds of magic in their bloodlines. The Temple oversees the marriages and chain of succession in order to keep the bloodlines healthy. There is a prophecy that “the Savior” of their world will be born from the right royal pairing. Despite Isabelle’s lack of magic, her bloodline is still desirable, and the Temple has taken an interest in her potential to mix with Aragoth’s line. To be honest, the “breeding” part of the plot was a little strange, and I didn’t like Isabelle’s worth being based on the capabilities of her womb, but I think the point was to show that the “breeding” was a bad thing for everyone involved. Isabelle knows her worth is more than that of a broodmare, and she values peace above all else. With her quick wit and resourcefulness she seeks her own freedom from the political schemes of those around her and tries to bring peace to both her and her betrothed’s kingdoms with the help of the ever-loyal Jean Claude.

It took me some time to get into this novel. There is a lot going on, and it took a lot of time for me to absorb everything. A lot of time is spent getting to know the characters, the magic types, and the world building. All of these aspects are explained in detail and not all of it is important later. It felt like the author was trying to do a little too much at once, and some things just couldn’t be fully utilized in 400 pages, but I suspect that some aspects will be explored more in future books in the series. As I said, I am not sure how good the disabled representation is, and I can’t say if the author mishandled the French and Spanish influences. What I can speak on is that there were often lengthy sections of dialogue in which the characters argued or planned something. It felt like the dialogue was used to dump some information on the reader, but it wasn’t always done in the most engaging way. The ending was also abrupt. I would have at least liked an epilogue that explained a little more about what happened after all of the climatic action. I’m sure subsequent books will explain more, but I felt a little robbed by the short reunion at the end of the novel!

All in all, this was a unique and creative fantasy novel that had a complex and satisfyingly twisty plot. I may continue the series later, but at this point I am satisfied with this 4 star read. Feel free to comment about how you felt about the French, Spanish, or disabled representation in the book if you’d like to share your insight!

Fantasy by POC that I Added to my TBR

Hello, friends! Lately I have been compiling a list of fantasy books by people of color to buy after I complete my big move from the U.S. Midwest to the east cost. I wanted to share with all of you some of my top picks as a teaser for what reviews are to come. I know I do not read enough books by non-white authors, and there is no better time than the present to act on changing that! If any of these sound interesting, I encourage you to buy some of them yourself. If you do choose to buy some of these titles, please consider buying them from a black-owned book store that delivers orders by mail (which is also what I will be doing). Now, to the books!

A Phoenix First Must Burn edited by Patrice Caldwell
APFMBbyPC

Let’s begin with a YA short story collection. I plan to pick up this collection in order to expand my knowledge of various black YA SFF authors. I find short story collections to be a great resource for discovering a taste of a new-to-me author’s work, so that is exactly what I plan to do. A few of the featured authors include Elizabeth Acevedo, Amerie, Dhonielle Clayton, Jalissa Corrie, Somaiya Daud, Charlotte Davis, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Justina Ireland, Danny Lore, L.L. McKinney, Danielle Paige, Rebecca Roanhorse, Karen Strong, Ashley Woodfolk, and Ibi Zoboi.

Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

TtSbyADJ

This next book is actually by one of the authors featured in the short story collection above, but this novel is listed as adult fiction instead of YA. This historical fantasy novel takes place in New York City on the cusp of WWII. It follows a girl from Harlem who becomes an assassin in the Manhattan underworld. It sounds like there will be secrets and mysteries to discover, but the book had me at “historical fantasy and assassins in the Manhattan underworld.” Yes, please!

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

MGbySMG

I read and reviewed one of this author’s previous novels, Gods of Jade and Shadow, earlier this year. While that novel was about a regular girl having an adventure and falling in love with a god of death, Mexican Gothic is about a woman who answers her newly-married cousin’s desperate letter for help. The cousin’s husband may be the cause of her panic, but there may also be some paranormal or fantasy elements at play too? Either way, count me in! This is another historical fantasy novel, but this time set in the 1950’s Mexican countryside.

Conjure Women by Afia AtakoraCWbyAA

This is another adult historical fantasy. It takes place before the Civil War, but it is also said to span multiple eras and generations. It appears to focus on a few different characters and their struggles during this period of history, but in addition to the historical aspects there are curses and maybe some healing magic? I don’t see many books that feature healing magic, so I’m automatically interested whenever I see one. This book initially caught my eye because of the beautiful cover, but after reading the synopsis, it sounds so unique that I have to give it a try.

Jade City by Fonda Lee

JCbyFL

Jade City is the first book in an adult urban fantasy series that has crime syndicates, magical jade that grants superhuman abilities, and clan wars. I have been looking for some good urban fantasy, and this series sounds like just the thing. It has been out for a little while, but I haven’t heard much about the series elsewhere online despite its favorable reviews on Goodreads. I look forward to forming my own opinion after reading it.

The Deep by Rivers Solomon

TDbyRS

This book was inspired by a song called “The Deep” by Daveed Diggs’ rap group, Clipping. This sounds like a hard-hitting adult, historical fantasy, LGBT+ novella from what I have read about it. The descendants of the pregnant slave women who were thrown off of slavers’ ships have become something like sirens or mermaids. Since their past was so traumatic, only one of their kind is tasked with remembering it. The novella follows Yetu’s journey as she discovers her people’s past and leads them toward their future.

Big Little Lies

stars3BLLbyLM

I will be moving across the country soon, so I have begun to really look at my bookshelf, book buying habits, and the books that have been on my To Be Read list for ages. All this led to me reading Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty because it has been on my shelf for way too long. This book got a lot of buzz a handful of years ago when it came out, but since then the hype has died down. Is it still worth a read? In my opinion, sure it does, but I don’t think it is anything particularly special.

The book begins with the knowledge that someone has been murdered. We follow Madeline, Celeste, and Jane through the events leading up to the death. Madeline is an outspoken woman who lives in the same town as her ex-husband and his new, younger wife. Coincidentally, Madeline’s youngest daughter is attending the same kindergarten as her ex-husband’s daughter. Celeste is a beautiful woman who appears to have a perfect marriage to a very rich man. Celeste and her husband have twin boys who also attend the same kindergarten. Lastly, there is Jane. Jane is the new and mysterious single mom whose son is attending the same school. During the kindergarten orientation, Jane’s son is accused of assaulting another student, which turns nearly all of the other kindergarten moms, except for Celeste and Madeline, against her. The drama intensifies as Madeline, Celeste, and Jane deal with the residents of their small town and their personal issues within their families.

It was a nice change to read something other than fantasy or science fiction, and this was a very fast read for me, but it also didn’t capture my interest that much. The book opens with a murder at an after-school function, and the rest of the novel covers the events that led up to that fateful night. It deals with themes of motherhood, family, domestic abuse, identity, and feminism, but it is very focused on middle to upper class white moms and their often petty problems. I am of course not belittling the domestic violence in the book, but most disagreements except the domestic abuse felt shallow and trivial. I kept picturing all of these “Karens” squabbling over misunderstandings that could be solved with communication, and they often spent their time inventing their own crusades and drama to get caught up in. However, the descriptions and inner monologues of the characters impacted by domestic abuse resonated with me. I feel as if I have recovered from my own experiences with domestic abuse, but I still found myself becoming emotional at times. If you’ve recently been through trauma, it could be a little upsetting.

Despite how much I might have disliked some of the pettiness of the characters, the main three women were well developed, if not always likable. And even if I disagreed with them, the decisions made by the characters aligned with their personalities and motives. I can see real-life competitive moms act the same way as these characters. The kids were also written well. It was clear that the children were often unconcerned about their parents’ drama and cared about only what applied to them, but the kids were also not as blind to their parents’ actions and feelings as their parents might have believed, much like real children. One thing I really liked about the characterization and multiple perspectives was that, for example, Character 1 might wear something she thought was beautiful, but Character 2 in the next chapter would make a passing comment that what Character 1 was wearing was ridiculous or that they were secretly jealous of Character 1’s style. Throughout the novel there are also short interviews with other moms and townspeople who all have different perspectives of the same event. This gave the reader hints, provided more characterization, and it was often funny.

So, my verdict is 3 out of 5 stars. Big Little Lies was like reality TV. It wasn’t extremely deep, but it was entertaining and easy/fast to consume. It certainly isn’t a diverse read, which makes it feel a little dated by today’s standards, but it does offer some good discussion on female camaraderie and how domestic abuse can be hidden very well by those involved.

The City We Became

stars4.5TCWBbyNKJ

Every city has a soul. New York has five. When a destructive, interplanetary force arrives in New York, the city chooses five residents to be champions of the city’s five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. In this first book of the series we meet our champions, the intergalactic antagonist, get a glimpse of New York’s melting pot of cultures, and explore the power the city bestows on its champions.

This book feels so current. Well, pre-pandemic current anyway. The interplanetary force I talked about harnesses the hatred and fear many people are experiencing because of the political climate in America. This cordyceps-like entity seeks to destroy the city’s avatars from the inside by infiltrating the citizens and policies of New York City. Our heroes are a very diverse cast including New Yorkers who are mixed race, black, white, Indian, and indigenous. They are also diverse in sexuality and through their respective cultures and interests. The characters are artistic, musical, and even mathematically-minded. The diversity is so smoothly incorporated and certainly feels like a genuine representation of all these aspects as far as I can tell. I know the author tries to be respectful and inclusive of the populations she has chosen to write about. The villains of the story are easy to dislike, and whenever they face a defeat, it feels good. With such well developed protagonists and antagonists, this is a great start to an urban fantasy series.

Plot-wise, it starts a little slow. It takes some time to introduce the reader to the avatars of New York City and for all of them to unite and plan. To be honest, this first book felt like a lot of setup for the rest of the series, but it was good setup, if that makes sense. I wasn’t bored by it, and I was invested in the characters and the villain to keep reading at a steady pace. I wouldn’t call it a page-turner, and there wasn’t a lot of action, but it depends on what you are looking for. It is easy to see that the battle isn’t over after the first book. In fact, it feels like everything just got started by the end of the novel. I’m very eager for the next installment.

Jemisin’s fantasy is just so smart. I might have come for a unique fantasy story, but long after closing the book, I still think about this one a lot. Jemisin’s books explore topics of social justice, inequality, politics, love, hate, fear, and everything in between. She can incorporate all of these themes while still telling a very entertaining story. I gave The City We Became 4.5 out of 5 stars.


In light of the recent events in America, I have also included some links below that I have found informative or helpful this week. Please consider reading the books or donating to the organizations below. 

 

Woven in Moonlight

stars3WiMbyII

Okay, okay. It’s fantasy again, but this time it is Bolivian mythological and historical fantasy…

Ximena has been a decoy for the real Condessa, Catalina, for 10 years. When the Illustrians’ home was taken over by the conqueror Atoc and his magical relic, Ximena’s people fled the city to seek refuge in the hills. Knowing that the conqueror would not rest until the Condessa of the Illustrians was killed, Ximena was raised to be the real Condessa’s decoy. When Ximena is forcibly taken to be Atoc’s new wife, she must find a way to save herself and her people from inside the enemy’s walls. Can she trust anyone– including the masked vigilante whose motives for disrupting Atoc’s plans are still unclear?

I wanted to fall in love with this, but it just fell short in a few areas. My biggest complaint is that there just wasn’t enough to the story. My copy was a small-sized hardback with not quite 400 pages. I liked many aspects, but, in my opinion, they weren’t utilized to their fullest. Here are a few examples.

There is magic, even moon magic, but magic doesn’t play much of a role in the entire novel. We know that several characters have magic, but besides the main protagonist and the main antagonist, we rarely see or hear of anyone else doing magic. And even the main magic users’ powers aren’t fleshed out enough to know how they work or the extent of what they can do. Some characters get tired after using magic, but then others don’t seem to? I wanted the magic to play a bigger role or be explained a little more clearly. There is a lot that could have been done with all of the different magic the side characters possess too.

The main character is a decoy in enemy territory, and she has trained her whole life to be and act like the Condessa. Yet, she slips up often and lets her true self show or gives things away unintentionally. She also warms up to the enemy faction rather quickly, often having flirty/silly banter with them. There’s a romance that also heats up a little too quickly for me to be invested in. I liked the main character’s fierceness and heart, though. The other characters were interesting, but they (and their magic!) could have played a bigger role. A couple of characters were killed off so quickly, and even though we are told how important they were to the main character, I wasn’t attached enough to feel much loss.

I was a little bored around the midpoint of the novel. I expected more complex political maneuvering, but most of the novel is spent with Ximena in her small room as she worries about what to do. She sneaks out a few times rather easily, which I also didn’t think was realistic. She did some spying around, but I felt like a lot more could have been done with her being in enemy territory. She felt rather passive in general when I felt that she should have been doing more planning and plotting, especially since she was a trained decoy.

So, what’s there to like? I liked the writing. It is descriptive and pretty, especially the colors, flavors, and smells of the setting, but it doesn’t go overboard with lyrical prose. I liked that we were in Ximena’s head a lot because it was intriguing to see how she felt and why. She struggled with her own identity versus being a decoy, which made sense. I really liked the magic, but as I said before, I wish it had been used more throughout the novel or played a bigger role in the plot. The whole setting was interesting as was the political plot and revolution aspect, but the plot wasn’t particularly complex. It was fairly easy to see where things were going. However, I really appreciated reading something new in YA fantasy. I’ve certainly never read a fantasy inspired by Bolivian history and myth, so I was happy to expand my love of fantasy by reading this novel.

If you’re new to YA fantasy, or looking for something light in tone and depth but unique, I would recommend this novel. I gave it three solid stars out of five.

 

The Bear and the Nightingale

stars4TBatNbyKA

Escapism is the name of the game for me recently. So, more fantasy! At least it is historical fantasy this time?

Vasilisa’s mother died bringing her into the world and her last words said that Vasilisa was special. Vasilisa comes from a family of women with mysterious powers and connections to the natural world. As Vasilisa grows into a wild and fearless child, her father decides to remarry, bringing home a devout young wife to tame his wild daughter. Vasilisa bucks her step-mother’s rule until a new priest comes to the town with the sole purpose to convert Vasilisa’s people to the city’s religion. A battle between the old world beliefs and the new, evil and goodness, and a lot of mythology fills the pages of this slow paced, cozy novel.

I started reading this on a quiet, snowy day, and I would say that it was the best atmosphere for reading this novel. It takes place in a village in northern Russia with a lot of focus on Russian myths. The plot is very, very slow. We are introduced to Vasilisa’s family and their town before she is even born. Then, the book follows her childhood and budding adulthood as the village also changes over time. There is a lot of buildup and focus on the characters and their world over action or furthering the plot. The only pace picks up over halfway through when Vasilisa is nearing adulthood and confronting the evil presence taking over her village. Honestly, I think I enjoyed the quieter, day-to-day sections of the novel than the way the story tied itself up at the end with action. Still, the conclusion is rather satisfying. Or at least everything gets tied up nicely.

The novel is in third person omniscient perspective and has a distant, fairy tale quality to the writing. Despite that, we do get to see into many character’s mind’s and pasts. Vasilisa, her father, her youngest brother, step-mother, and the priest are some of the most prominent characters. There is a good amount of realistic complexity to most of them. Vasilisa is a great character. She is headstrong and rebels against rules she deems unfair. She is kind to her family as well as the mythological creatures she encounters. I loved her bravery and admired her tenacity. Her opposite, the priest, is also well developed. Though the reader may not be on his side, what motivates his actions makes sense. Vasilisa’s father and siblings were not all as developed, but I came to love the ones that the book spent time on.

This isn’t a book for every fantasy lover, but those who are looking for something quiet to escape into will find a lot to love here. The magic is based in myth and not explained in depth, the plot is slow and focused more on character progression, and the writing is quite descriptive. I gave The Bear and the Nightingale four out of five stars.

Crown of Feathers

stars5CoFbyNPP

I know I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy lately, but with the state of the U.S. (and honestly the whole world) right now I’ve been craving a lot of escapism. I do try to switch up my reading genres so that my reviews are more diverse, but right now bear with me! At least I’ve been finding some great hidden gems and getting back into lighter, Young Adult novels. Speaking of which, Crown of Feathers!

Veronyka and her sister Val are animages, people who can communicate and bond with animals. This, however, is frowned upon because the Phoenix Riders who once ruled the land were also animages, and now the kingdom is ruled by the anti-magic empire. Veronyka and her sister were raised on the tales of the legendary Phoenix Riders, and they spend their time hiding their animal magic and looking for hidden phoenix eggs in hopes of reigniting their empire’s past themselves. After Val betrays her sister, Veronyka hunts for hidden eggs and Riders on her own, eventually leading her to have to disguise herself as a boy. Veronyka becomes tangled in the uprising against the empire and is entwined in a long history of secrets.

I adored the Dragonriders of Pern series when I was a teen (but I recognize it has some problematic aspects), and Crown of Feathers definitely made me nostalgic for that series. To quickly compare them, Pern involved real-world science and certainly had a more adult writing style. Crown of Feathers is more fantasy than sci-fi but has a well developed world history of its own. It is lighter but also more inclusive and fun. Also, there are phoenixes instead of dragons, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t know of too many books with a major focus on phoenix mythology (Feel free to recommend some if you know of any though!).

Anyway, back to this book itself. The characters, plot, world building, and writing were all very good. Veronyka is our main character. She realistically grows a lot during this first book, and I look forward to her development in the subsequent novels. She has to make tough decisions, and even if I didn’t always agree with her choices, they felt valid based on her feelings and the situation at hand. Other major characters, like Tristan, Sev, and Val, were also well written. They had distinct voices (with chapters in their perspectives) and realistic character progression. Overall, the writing felt more mature than some of the recent YA I’ve read, but it was still quite light and not overly flowery in language or trope-filled.

My major critique would be how the world building was integrated into the plot. The author has developed a fairly complex world with magic, political intrigue, and mythology. I really enjoyed learning about the world and its history. However, at times the plot would be interrupted with large paragraphs that “info dump” the world building onto the reader. Especially early on I disliked how frequent these paragraphs were because I wanted to know what was happening in the novel presently and was not invested enough yet to care as much for the world’s history. Once I became more attached to the characters and the story, then I welcomed more of the world building-heavy sections. In between chapters there are sometimes letters or historical documents that give even more context to the world’s past, which I thought was a good way to include even more about the world while not interrupting the flow of the plot.

So, yeah, five stars to Crown of Feathers! I found this to be a refreshingly unique and well-crafted young adult novel. I’ll admit that my feelings may be partially based on nostalgia for the Dragonriders of Pern, but I do think that Crown of Feathers deserves more attention than it seems to be getting online.

Foundryside

stars3FbyRJB

Foundryside takes places in Tevanne, a trading city where the old, rich families live in luxury and nearly everyone else lives in slums. The magic in Tevanne relies on sigils and the people who know how they work. These sigils can be inscribed on items to make heavy things float, make weapons stronger, and even manipulate gravity. Sancia makes a life for herself on the poor side of the side. She is a very good thief with a few special tricks up her sleeve, but when she is tasked with stealing a mysterious magical artifact from one of the powerful merchant houses that rules the city… all hell breaks loose. Sancia and the strange relic she stole have the possibility to turn the city and its magic upside down.

I have such mixed feelings about this book, but I really wanted to love it. I love heists, the magic sounded cool, and the world building interested me. If you like heists, this book has a some anxiety-inducing chases and focuses on the planning of the heist with a good amount of detail. The magic system really was interesting. Some people describe it as “hacking,” and I can see why. For example, the sigils on an lock may command it to only open for a certain type of key, but if you have a key that is also magically altered, it can convince the lock that it is actually the correct key. That is a simplified example, but the magic can alter the properties of other objects and materials, which makes the possibilities for the magic system nearly endless. The book explains the magic system in depth a few times, so while you will get a lot of detail about it, I was a little bored by some of the overly long explanations since I felt like I already knew how it worked from the last few times it was explained.

The characterization was pretty good. I liked the main character, Sancia. She was strong and independent but it was shown and not just told to us. She had an interesting backstory too, and I enjoyed following her around as a main character. She was competent but not flawless at thieving, which was realistic and created suspense. I also liked a few of the side characters, like Orso and Berenice, who were two of the most talented magic-users, or scrivers, in the city. Orso is a bit of a mad scientist, and Berenice is talented assistant who puts up with his demands. There’s also Gregor, a son of one of the merchant families who has a strong drive for attaining justice. There is some romance in the novel and some lesbian or bi representation among our heroes. While the heroes are quite likable and interesting to read about, the villain(s) in this book were a little thin. One in particular was so over the top in how evil they acted that it came off a bit cheesy.

Although I liked a lot of what was happening in the book, the author crammed in a lot of topics all at once like class warfare, slavery, human experimentation, gods and mythology of the world, and a complex magic, economic, and political system. I liked how vast the world felt, but I could see some readers being confused by all the detail or simply wanting more focus on the plot.

Speaking of plot, some of the foreshadowing was heavy handed. At the end of one chapter it said something like, “Wow, I sure wish we had this strong friend of ours and that magic weapon we saw earlier.” Now, guess what happened in the next chapter?! And although this is shelved as an adult fantasy, the writing felt as if it had a slightly younger slant to it but I wouldn’t call it YA. In fact, maybe I feel this way because some of the banter between the characters felt juvenile or silly. Personally, I disliked how long some of the banter went on, and your mileage will vary, but I did not think most of it was funny.

One last thing I’ll mention that may turn off some readers is that there is a lot of internal dialogue between characters’ minds. The text to represent¬† this is in italic font and surrounded by symbols. It sets the internal speaking apart from the rest of the text, but I could see some readers being annoyed by the unique formatting. I didn’t think it was a problem, but it was worth mentioning.

So, that’s my inconclusive review! I wasn’t wowed by the book, but I may not be the best reader for it. I don’t think I will be continuing this series. It had potential, I liked many parts of it, but at the end of the day I have so many other series I’d like to finish first. So, please decide for yourself on this one, but I gave it three out of five stars.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

stars3.5TSDoEHbyST

Each night Evelyn Hardcastle is murdered, and each morning Aiden Bishop wakes up in a different body. Aiden is tasked with solving the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle in order to escape this time loop. He cycles through eight different party guests’ bodies at Blackheath Manor, but if he cannot solve the murder after spending 24 hours in each of the eight hosts, Aiden forgets everything and starts the cycle anew. There are also a few other “competitors” who are intent on solving the mystery so they can escape instead. Aiden does not know how long he has been stuck here or why he is here. All he wakes up remembering is a name on his lips: Anna.

Yes, this is a mystery with a fantasy-ish twist. That might sound awesome already, but if I could give everyone who picks up this book one warning, it would be this: as long as you are okay not knowing exactly what is happening for most of the novel and as long as you are okay not knowing all the hows and whys for this plot even happening, then you’re on the right track to like this book. I say this because just like Aiden the reader is dropped into the middle of the action without knowing anything. The book is from Adien’s first-person perspective. We only know what Aiden knows and sees around him, so this takes the already claustrophobic atmosphere up another notch. As I mentioned, Aiden isn’t alone in this “competition,” and his competitors are ruthless. So, there’s lots of intrigue, action, secrets, twists, and timey-wimey stuff to confuse and delight you if you can stand being in the dark for a while.

I had a hard time putting this one down. First, I wanted to know what the hell was going on, then I had to know who committed the crime. The twists kept me on my toes. I guessed very little of what happened, but I was able to piece together a couple things and that was very satisfying. The plot is very complicated, but I’m sure more attentive readers could do much better than me with predicting things. In my opinion, the ending wasn’t as satisfying as some of the other reveals, and the more I think about the ending, the more questions are actually raised. This book was heavily inspired by Agatha Cristie’s mysteries, but there’s much more to the mystery than just “who did it.” The author has stated that he spent 3 months just planning this novel out, and after finishing it, I don’t doubt that’s the true.

Reviewing the characterization is a bit hard for this book. There’s a large cast, but since many aren’t “real” and repeat their actions over and over, it was hard for me to feel for most of them. I wouldn’t even say that Aiden as a main character did anything for me, but that was probably because he was always in another person’s body. We are told, not shown, Aiden’s past, so this also made it hard to connect with him and his motivation to solve the mystery. I think Aiden’s thin personality made some sense though, because if he fails too many times at the mystery (the book tells us he has already failed a lot) he will lose his personality completely, and while he inhabits the guests’ bodies he also takes on aspects of their personalities. For example, one host has a quick mind but a slow body. (The way he is described is a bit gross and fat-phobic if that bothers you.) Another host is very sexual, while another is very timid. Hosts have talents and weaknesses. Some hosts have stronger personalities than others, which makes it hard for Aiden to always keep his mind to himself and stay on task. I loved how these aspects of the characters shaped how the mystery played out. There are also a few constant “competitors,” as I have called them, but I don’t want to say too much about them.

As with many complex and astonishingly unique novels, I am always afraid of how the author wraps things up. It’s one thing to love the journey, but I also want a satisfying end. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle‘s ending is pretty good, but I still want more answers. The mystery and murder stuff is tied up quite nicely, but the time-bending and the whole point of the time loop as well as the “supervisors” mentioned have me scratching my head. Are there other time loops out there like Evelyn’s murder? And most importantly, will we get these answers in more books?! Time will tell. I gave The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Nevernight

stars3.5NbyJK

Nevernight takes place in a world where three suns rarely set and full dark only happens every several years. When Mia was young her father was hanged for treason and her mother was imprisoned. While on the run from those who hurt her family, Mia discovered that she had strange powers over the shadows. She was taken under an assassin’s wing and eventually seeks initiation from the Red Church, a school for would-be assassins, in order to get vengeance for her family.

Admittedly, I picked this book up because it seemed like everyone who read it either loved it or did not finish it. With such a staggering difference of opinions I had to pick it up. (Plus, I found it used for cheap– yay!) I’ll start by saying that I’m in between those two widely varying opinions. I finished the book and liked it, but I did not fall head over heels for it either.

To begin with, the plot and world were by far my favorite parts. The plot has a lot of action and surprises. As I hinted at in the synopsis, a lot of the book takes place within a school for assassins. So, as you would expect, there’s a lot of killing and subterfuge. The students take classes for combat, poisons, thievery, and seduction (yes, there’s some sex), and the stakes are very high for those who fail. There are a few twists, and some even caught me by surprise.

The world building had an interesting foundation, but since most of this first book takes place at the Red Church, we don’t get to see too much else from the world yet. I should also mention that the book has many footnotes which serve to expand the world a bit more. Most of the footnotes could be skipped if they bother or distract you since most do not pertain to the main plot. They usually add to the world building by mentioning a person from the world’s history or by explaining the meaning behind a phrase a character said. The author has described the world as “a collision between ancient Rome and merchant prince Venice.” He goes on to say “The world really started as a thought experiment – what would’ve happened if Julius Caesar’s bid to overthrow the Roman republic failed and the Republic itself survived to the middle ages?” (Quotes taken from Jay Kristoff’s answer to a question on Goodreads.) You can certainly see this influence in book one of the series, but I’m sure that the subsequent books will open up the world a bit more for the reader.

If you’ve read any other reviews for this series, you’ve probably seen a few people talking about the writing style. I agree with several reviewers that it is a bit pretentious at times. The metaphors and similes are overwritten to the point that the meaning becomes clouded, or it begins to sound a little cringe-inducing… Here’s one of the strangest examples:

Tric gave another half-hearted stab, but the beast had forgotten its quarry entirely, great eyes rolling as it flipped over and over, dragging its bulk back below the sand, howling like a dog who’s just returned home from a hard turn’s work to find another hound in his kennel, smoking his cigarillos and in bed with his wife.”

Honestly, after the first half of the book I either started ignoring most of the flowery writing or it toned itself down a bit the farther I got into the novel. It wasn’t that bad, but your mileage may vary.

I also liked several of the characters, and many were well developed and interesting to read about. Mia was a little hard to get a feel for in the beginning, but I warmed up to her by the end. She’s a little cold but understandably so. And, as time goes on, it is clear that she isn’t even that cold-hearted compared to many other characters. I liked Mia’s friend Tric as well as a few other assassins in training. I also enjoyed the teachers and would have liked to see even more of them and their talents. I’ve seen the book advertised as being witty and filled with humor. I didn’t laugh out loud, but again, you may feel differently– it’s humor and it’s subjective after all.

All in all, I found the book to be an entertaining read. It didn’t blow me away, but I think it would be a great series for readers of young adult fantasy who want something a bit darker and more serious or “adult.” Especially if the flowery writing and footnotes don’t bother you, I’d say give the series a try. Personally, I am not sure if I will be continuing the series yet. I’m a bit notorious for leaving series unfinished (I saw that I had at least eight unfinished series just on my book shelves…), but that’s something I would like to work on this year! We will see what happens! I would give Nevernight three and a half out of five stars.