What I Read in July

Welcome back to the blog! I’m pleased to say your local blogger devoured quite the stack this month, owing to the abundance of free time that comes with summer break, and some wonderfully readable sci-fi and fantasy picks. Once I cleared a couple flops, I had a reading month of nearly uninterrupted delight, and I can’t wait to share it with you.


55. Magic Study by Maria V. Snyder

The story begun in Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study continues in this rather frustrating sequel. Taking a completely new direction mid-series is always a gamble, and in this case, it resulted in an across-the-board fumble: far from the political intrigue of the first book, we follow a half-baked mystery, meet characters who are either under-utilized (Leif, Irys, Cahil!!!) or under-developed (Goel, Roze) and forego the potential of Snyder’s original premise for something that never manages to overcome the feeling that it’s little more than a diversion. Still, there are pieces of truly original worldbuilding to be found and surprising developments in the series’ magic, both best appreciated with the allowance that neither are fully realized.


56. Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

Try as I might, I just can’t get hooked on the Queen of Mystery. This novel, the first in her Miss Marple series, has all the ingredients for a satisfying ensemble piece––a full and distinctive cast, an unlikely observer, and a small town whose currency is idle gossip––but a barely-there detective in Miss Marple and a trite, predictable choice of killer kneecap its attempts at suspense. There are also several indistinguishable government authorities on the case, none of whom make a lasting impression. It’s a shame, too: there are several dynamics in the story that humanize the characters involved, and a missed opportunity to take a closer look at the family of the deceased and introduce some complexity into the equation, but each character is merely an intriguing silhouette––and nothing more.


57. She-Ra: Legend of the Fire Princess by Gigi D. G.

If you’re a fan of the Netflix series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, this spin-off graphic novel is essentially a filler episode, though an enjoyable one that’s on par with the show’s best one-off adventures. There’s an effort to include the whole ensemble, a trade-off that accepts minimal time for each character to shine in exchange for the appearance of everyone’s favorites (a gambit that, admittedly, worked on me, given that I was downright giddy to see Entrapta). As far as lore goes, this volume isn’t essential, but it does breach some interesting questions about the runestones that pay off if you slide Legend of the Fire Princess into your watch or re-watch where it’s set, between seasons two and three.


58. Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang’s short works of science fiction are more-or-less dependable stunners: here and there a story is more heady than it is affecting, but even then, the hypothetical, and Chiang’s keen observation of humanity in the face of some new technology or paradigm, is more than enough to carry it through. At its best, this collection had me crying in the airport (courtesy of the title story), but even at its mildest, it had me churning obsessively over its themes, however unmoved by the characters I was (“The Lifecycles of Software Objects” and “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”). Word of advice: don’t skip the story notes! They’re as fascinating as the stories themselves, and beckon a well-worth-it reread.


59. Ten Thousand Skies Above You by Claudia Gray

Claudia Gray’s delectable sequel to her multiverse romance A Thousand Pieces of You boasts everything a good middle volume requires: the stakes are dialed up both plausibly and bombastically, the beliefs our protagonist, Marguerite, rested on to get through the first book are challenged in a way that wrecks everything we think we know, and the ending is devastating––wickedly so. Though the parallel universes explored here aren’t quite as lusciously developed as they are in book one, Gray sets a promising course for the series finale, with a resonant set of villains and skillfully placed dystopian undertones. I can’t wait to see what universes she has in store for us next.


60. Ice Like Fire by Sara Raasch

Following Sara Raasch’s Snow Like Ashes, this sequel’s efforts are more mixed: as a fantasy that straddles grounded politics and lofty magic, its increasing dependence on the latter messes with the effectiveness of the former. That said, Raasch’s settings and supporting players are in top form start to finish, and it’s only really at the end that magical developments truly overshadow her dependable strengths. As a follow-up, it adds mostly believable caveats to the victories we saw in Snow Like Ashes, and slides an extremely compelling complication into the romance that bloomed there as well. There’s reason to believe the third installment will be messy, but Ice Like Fire makes a good stand as a worthy answer to the first.


61. Archenemies by Marissa Meyer

Following Renegades, Marissa Meyer’s original superhero story, Archenemies broadens the trilogy’s scope with a distinctly ethical bent, yielding a volume that is as suspicious of the superhero tradition as it is willing to put its flashy sensibilities to good use. Dealing heavily in the politics of powers––and the slippery slope of their regulation––is the perfect pivot for this second volume, whose increased focus on minor antagonists keeps its big bad fresh and shrouded in ambiguity ahead of the series’ conclusion. Archenemies leaves its lead characters wanting, however: Nova’s status as a yet-uncompromised spy takes the bite out of the enemies-to-lovers romance, and “they killed my parents”-itis is a disease endemic to contemporary villaindom––it does no favors for an otherwise complex superhero story here.


63. Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Though it doesn’t eclipse Jane Eyre in my eyes (what can?), I’m still immensely grateful to have made my way through Charlotte Brontë’s final novel, Villette. The gothic sensibilities very much shine through in this book, with a healthy dose of possible phantoms, visions, and candlelight, but there’s also something to be said for Brontë’s prowess in the realm of the grounded and real, as she looks at the charmed lives of her shallow wealthy characters with a critical eye, and leads her enigmatic heroine, Lucy Snowe, away from the fanciful, at both its light and dark extremes, for a mean that is all the more rich for the comfort it refuses to provide.


64. The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente

Month of sequels this turned out to be, it’s only fitting that I ended it here, with the follow-up to Catherynne M. Valente’s whimsical, episodic The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland is a tale whose resonance sometimes falters, but never fails to sprinkle asterisks on the first book’s absolutes where needed. Valente’s digressions, made in the tradition of Oz-esque children’s literature, are always outwardly charming, but not always in service of the book’s thematic ends, though, to her credit, the truly important moments hit where they should. As an answer to a story that could very well function as a standalone, it’s good at making itself necessary without then rendering the now-series self-defeating. That, in itself, is a gift. May all sequels tread down its path.


Thank you for stopping by! Tell me about your July in books in the comments below.

Enthralling Politics and Shaky Magic in “Ice Like Fire”

This review contains major spoilers for the first volume in the trilogy, Snow Like Ashes! Read at your own risk.

On the heels of 2014’s Snow Like Ashes, Ice Like Fire, its sequel, follows a tattered country trying to rebuild itself, a Queen chafing against the restrictions of her new crown, and the unleashing of ancient magic that may have been better left hidden.

Meira, whom we met among the scrappy band of rebels in book one is––surprise!––the reigning monarch and magic-bearer for the kingdom of Winter, a land of constant snow. Until the events of Snow Like Ashes, Winter was in shambles, its fields barren, and its people confined to work camps courtesy of the kingdom of Spring and its ruling tyrant. In Ice Like Fire, Winter is once again the keeper of its lands and its rightful heir holds the throne, but now, owing to its need for defense and resources, it’s occupied territory, and once again at the mercy of an untrustworthy power.

Spanning across four “Season” kingdoms of author Sara Raasch’s creation (the two mentioned above, plus Summer and Autumn), as well as four “Rhythm” kingdoms with specialties in culture and industry, Ice Like Fire is a tale deeply invested in aftermath. Now that Meira is Queen, what of herself must she sacrifice to fit the role? Now that Winter has to fend for itself, where will it get what it needs to survive? And, should any of its more powerful neighbors try anything, how will it withstand attack?

When Ice Like Fire focuses on these more grounded concerns, even when something entwined with its far-flung magic system is at stake, it sticks the landing almost every time. Raasch is marvelous at using Winter’s occupation by the Rhythm kingdom Cordell to drive a reasonable wedge between her Winterian characters. Where William, the seasoned former leader of Winter’s rebels, is keen to accept Cordell’s aid even on pain of losing sovereignty, Mather, Meira’s childhood best friend, sees an invasion in disguise. The resulting conflict is fiery and personal, but not melodramatic, owing to Raasch’s skillful tailoring of ideology to the substance of character. William––jaded, cautious, grief-stricken––is the perfect opponent for Mather’s young, stubborn pride.

The same goes for Meira and the impulsive decisions she makes while struggling to restrain her own pride and suffering the indignity of ruling a country entirely dependent on another. She clashes with Mather in this volume, with qualms that feel organic and true, but for the most part, she’s trying to keep her footing in a romance with Theron, her former fiancé, and prince of the very kingdom she suspects is trying to make a meal of her own.

In Theron, Raasch makes the compelling choice of foolish optimism, an angle which then lets her tease out the nuances of Theron’s tension with his father, the king of Cordell, while also shining insight on his deepest moral flaw: his refusal to acknowledge his countrymen as Winter’s oppressors. Without the will-they won’t-they in place for him and Meira, Raasch might have stumbled in keeping tension alive for them in book two, but putting this into play, she gains both a source of intrigue and a burgeoning indictment of a character who could otherwise be written as all-good. Instead, it is his very goodness––his blind faith in the powerful––that makes him dangerous.

Coupled with the introduction of some enticing new characters (the ruling family of Summer, in particular) and the usual varied and textured lineup of settings, the Snow Like Ashes series remains sweeping and absorbing in its second volume, but there are deeper mechanisms at work, setting the stage for book three, and those, forebodingly, grind at the edges of the story Ice Like Fire is trying to tell.

Raasch’s prose is apt where it concerns description and dialogue, but introspection, especially through Meira’s parts in first person, is both clumsily executed and too-often leaned upon. The tool of a character taking a paragraph at chapter’s end to announce their plans already reads as a bit trite, but Meira is never not putting the foot down in her stream of consciousness, with increasing detail and density of page time.

The end of chapter five runs for nearly a page of plotting before landing on “I will not return from this trip without a way to keep my kingdom safe.” Chapter twenty-eight ends with five pages of almost unbroken deliberation––it gets worse as the book progresses, and more and more comes to rest on the workings of its nebulous and excessively powerful magic system. It almost comes across as Raasch trying to make sense of her own creation, with a half-declaration, half-explanatory monologue slapped in whenever something of a magical nature needs to shift.

And the magic, exposed by the plot’s greater reliance on it in the second volume, is fast coming into relief as the series’ greatest weakness. A vague magic system isn’t necessarily a death knell: it’s something that good political worldbuilding, like Ice Like Fire‘s, can work around. But in centering the magic, both with the discovery of an ancient source known as the Magic Chasm, and with the onslaught of a manifestation of evil known as the Decay, Ice Like Fire leans on weak scaffolding that probably would’ve held up fine were it not for the additional weight.

Now, everyone’s fighting over world-ending magic, as opposed to something more grounded, like land, or food, or autonomy, and we discover in the process that the magic itself isn’t all that interesting. It doesn’t have any limits capable of forcing conflict, nor is it a skill that we can watch our characters struggle to acquire, so…what is it?

I hesitate to say nothing, if only because I so desperately want Frost Like Night to be the answer of complexity this magic system needs, but the floor most definitely sways underneath it as we proceed on, and the climax is almost always where stories like this falter. What this portends about the landing Raasch may or may not stick, I’d rather not say.

Let’s Talk Bookish: On Reading Slumps

Let’s Talk Bookish is a weekly discussion series hosted by Rukki @ Eternity Books and Dani @ Literary Lion. This week’s topic was suggested by Rafaela @ The Portugese Bibliophile!


Ah, the dreaded reading slump––weeks, months, years, with finished books nil-to-none, an estrangement from a beloved hobby, the sap of a once fruitful love of reading run dry…

It’s a miserable place to be, if you have books to finish and nothing left in you that wants to finish them, but I’m lucky enough to call this mostly a phenomenon of my past, owing to a simple but valuable realization: I am a reader who needs order.

I should acknowledge here that it’s often circumstances out of our control that put us in slump territory––school, jobs, life stress, and the like––but it’s also possible that your reading life is running counter to your needs in ways that you can fix. I used to read on a more sporadic, spontaneous basis, with long dry spells where my will to read would just dry up, but as soon as I dropped more planning into the equation, I got the consistency I craved.

Here, I share my preventative measures, with some modifications for the just-recovering reader:

1. Mix it Up!

It is my opinion that variety is the key to a self-renewing reading habit. I tend to overdo it on the fantasy, seeking out read-alike after read-alike in order to sate the desire a recent favorite spawned. After I started planning my reading, this tendency faded in favor of line-ups with a more even spread across genre and category (while emphasizing favorites, of course). A middle-grade fantasy is a light at the end of 500-page classic literature tunnel, and the classics keep the adventures from blurring together. Likewise, it becomes easier to appreciate each book on its own merit, rather than also needing it to stand out against all the similar books that came before it.

In a reading slump: read outside your usual. The novelty might be the very thing to draw you back in.

2. Limit Your Mileage

Reading a book in one sitting is a wonderful feeling––one I still engage in from time to time––but in my experience, it’s not conducive to consistency. And when your passion for reading occasionally fades, consistency is how you recover the spark. When I dislike a book, I don’t have to read more than 100 pages a day. When I love a book, I don’t let myself read more than 100 pages a day. Over the past couple years, it’s gotten progressively easier to meet that number, simply because treating reading like a muscle makes finishing a goal an act of muscle memory. Whatever the book, the end is always in sight, and it takes little more than the force of habit to get there.

In a reading slump: set a manageable goal, and meet it every day. I’d start with ten pages, or a chapter, and work up from there.

3. Keep Track

I’ll be perfectly honest: variety and habit are both incredibly useful, but the real gamechanger came in the form of a spreadsheet. I’d been reaching for and missing my Goodreads goal of 100 books in a year for a while at this point, but, suddenly, the reward of logging the titles myself (and ctrl+F-ing various symbols as a way to keep numbers on genre, publishing year, and page count, which aren’t exactly at your fingertips on Goodreads) made up the difference. For some, tracking books adds to the pressure, but my school-warped mind simply needs all those checks in a row, and feeling like I get “credit” for finishing books is a more powerful incentive, even, than closing that back cover.

In a reading slump: if you haven’t already, try a list or spreadsheet. (Star stickers are optional but encouraged.)


How do you feel? Have you clawed your way out of similar slumps with dissimilar methods? Are you a fellow spreadsheet-keeper? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. 💕

A Messy Second Installment in “Magic Study”

Poison Study, Maria V. Snyder’s 2005 young adult fantasy, opens with an interesting proposition: Yelena, a young woman imprisoned for the murder of her captor, is offered a job in place of an execution. The law of Ixia, a former kingdom turned martial dictatorship, requires that the position of poison taster be offered to the next prisoner to be executed when a death leaves it vacant, and Yelena, for once in her life, is in luck: the last guy just bit it.

By the end of that first volume (spoilers ahead!), Yelena’s fallen in love with the clever, ambitious Valek, an assassin and spy, but with the unfortunate fact of her magic (illegal in Ixia) exposed, she’s forced to flee to the neighboring land of Sitia, where, as it just so happens, the family she was stolen from as a child resides, and her long-delayed magical training awaits.

Magic Study takes it from there, as Yelena travels with one of Sitia’s chief magicians to meet her family, and journey to the capitol for her formal training. Along the way, however, plot ensues, and we find ourselves embroiled in a conspiracy to overthrow Ixia’s current ruler, a race to find a serial killer, and an almost deadly case of sibling rivalry.

Maria V. Snyder, as evidenced by the eventful prospectus of this second volume, makes a concerted effort to have revelations unfold and conflicts transpire, but Magic Study only rarely manages to overcome the disadvantage of being at a remove from the happenings in Ixia. As fascinating as Snyder’s worldbuilding in Sitia is (more on that later), its court intrigue can’t hold a candle to Ixia’s, and that same intrigue is kept at arm’s length more often than it is at close quarters.

With everything that made Poison Study so exciting absent here, Snyder’s follow-up starts in dire straits when it comes to building a compelling narrative (and one that feels like it still belongs in the same world)…and in dire straits it remains.

Centrally, all of its most important confrontations land on the serial killer plot mentioned above, a plot which, owing to what might generously be called a detour, falls into place right when better timing might have instead built a twist into what was already there. Even late in the book, when this plot rises above the others to take the captain’s seat, it can’t shake off the trappings of a diversion, and the book at large, in consequence, can sometimes feel like a digression in the macro.

We’re nearly three-fourths of the page time in before the Ixian delegation arrives for a brief diplomatic stay, and they have very little to do with what, by now, has become Magic Study‘s primary narrative thrust, but I still felt my ears perking up like, Oh. They’re here! Now the story can start.

In reality, though, the closest we get to rekindling Poison Study‘s fire is in the introduction of Cahil, the last remaining member of Ixia’s royal family, who fled to Sitia when the current government took power. Snyder, however, mostly dances around this seditious subplot and its potential: it’s a quiet simmer to the other plot’s fire, and the unlikely temporary camaraderie Cahil finds with Yelena is neither deep nor revelatory enough to change things where Ixia is concerned, leaving one to ponder why Snyder bothered with it in the first place. It might even be the best dynamic in the novel, but the simple fact remains that it is one among Magic Study‘s many irrelevancies––potential, yes, but, ultimately, wasted potential.

With that neglected, the only element in this second installment that can really hope to compete with the first is found in worldbuilding. In Ixia, Poison Study offered us a military government more like what you’d find in sci-fi, coupled with the magical, medieval setting of the world at large. Sitia, the domain of Magic Study, is a magical union of clans, each with its own traditions, terrains, and magical practices. There are only two we really get to know––Zaltana, where Yelena is from, and Sandseed, where Yelena uncovers the true nature of her unique powers––but what we see of them is intriguing, particularly where the mystical desert Sandseed magicians and their talents are concerned.

Snyder is truly adept at mining the tropes of the traditional, medieval quest fantasy for ideas but looking elsewhere when it comes to crafting the geography and politics of her kingdoms. Even where Magic Study falls short on intrigue, it still invites the imagination with its powerful, disparate aesthetics: the rich, teeming jungle of Yelena’s past, the vast, exposed plains where a crucial fight plays out, the sands and shadowy rock formations she must pass through to seek the help of a Sandseed magician by firelight.

That, with some of the dynamics we get to see Yelena develop with her fellow magicians, and with one of the members of her estranged family, helps replenish some of the substance the book forfeits in pursuing what mostly amounts to a tangent. Page-by-page, it still manages to be an enjoyable experience, and most of the new characters, with the one-note exceptions of Roze, Sitia’s highest magician, and Goel, a loathsomely cheesy villain from Cahil’s entourage, make for worthy additions to the series’ already strong ensemble.

Considered exclusively on its own, it’s a passable (if slightly lackluster in the plot department) work of fantasy, but it’s deeply frustrating as an entry into the story Poison Study started. As tempting as its new horizon might be, the tenuous link of its story to that of book one might prove too weak for the trilogy, which ends with 2008’s Fire Study, to make a cohesive stand.

Plenty of fantasy series are content to let the unexplored areas of their map be just that: completely absent from the page. With this tendency in mind, I was initially thrilled to see that Magic Study wandered outside the borders of its predecessors, but with the result in my hands, I can’t help but fear we may have wandered too far.

I Wanted More From “Summer of Salt”

For the fact of a single rare bird, the island of By-the-Sea, off the coast of New England, has become something of a tourist trap. The bird, known as Annabelle’s Woodpecker, is the only one of its kind, though not for the reasons you might expect: generations ago, a girl from a magical family transformed into a bird––and she’s been taking to the sky ever since.

Such is the draw of Katrina Leno’s quietly witchy novel Summer of Salt, a YA set in a world that is entirely ordinary, save for the hushed talents of one eccentric brood. The Fernwehs have resided on By-the-Sea for as long as anyone can remember, each woman in the family born with a single gift: for Mary, a boisterous 17-year old eager to escape, flight. For Penny, her mother, potions. For Georgina, Mary’s sister, and our lead, nothing…as of yet.

With a plot that seems to recede in favor of atmosphere, magic that resists explanation, and a main character facing a simmering identity crisis, the book’s first act suggests a somber coming-of-age story. That impression, though, is clumsily thwarted by the late entrance of a plot catalyst, 100 pages into this 250-page book.

After that, the remainder of Summer of Salt struggles to get a grip on the reins of this character-drama-but-mystery-but-magic-but-thriller beast, to the point where each attempt at stakes feels like a knock to the funny bone: at one point, a massive torrent of rain floods the entire island, putting the first stories of most buildings underwater, but the damage is an afterthought, snappily resolved in mention only at the very end. By the bare facts of the situation in the face of the conflict introduced at the end of Act I, everything is at stake, but Leno’s writing never truly manages to make it feel that way.

It’s first and foremost an issue of timing: committing so late to a crime and subsequent mystery dooms any hope of buildup and makes the sudden story turn feel jarring. But more than that, I think, the tonal discord of the book, post-plot twist, is born of a refusal to commit.

Leno sets the stage for a quiet contemporary whose stakes are purely internal. The first act of this story proceeds on as prepared, but when the mystery comes into play, Leno tries to wrangle the heightened circumstances without the proper attention to atmosphere. As our characters hunt for answers, it feels both too casual and too grave, the reading experience interrupted by uncertainty about where we stand: is this life threatening? Is it not? Is the suspicion in the air serious? Is it not? Are we supposed to be afraid right now? Is this vital? Is this trivial? Are we supposed to think someone can die in the world of this book, or is that a distant impossibility? Answer these questions haphazardly, as Leno does, and you will have a book with an identity crisis––nevermind its possibly squib heroine.

Interestingly, I keep finding amorphous boundaries of this stripe to be a problem in the reading experiences of other magical, normal-world-but-not young adult novels of recent years. Lana Popović’s Wicked Like a Wildfire struggles to straddle the mundane and the mystical in much the same way, and Leslye Walton’s The Price Guide to the Occult shares Summer of Salt’s inability to prevent the flashier, deadlier variety of its otherwise small magic from feeling out of place against its sleepy small-town backdrop.

I’d argue that the Achilles’ heel in all these situations is an attempt to have it all: the intimacy of a contemporary with the whimsy of a work of fabulism with the suspense of a mystery with a high octane final confrontation worthy of both a thriller and an outright work of fantasy. Chase all these rabbits at once, however, and they’re bound to evade you.

Moreover, it certainly doesn’t help that Leno’s attempt to show the ostracism the Fernwehs face in the aftermath is rather halfhearted. It exists here in an almost compulsory way, and exclusively in nameless passers-by. We are told that of course the Fernwehs––women, and magic users to boot––are held in suspicion, but it never goes any deeper than that, and, of course, disappears when the book wants it to. The concept is covered, but gets little else, which is odd, considering how crucially it comes into play in a reveal that happens near the end. By-the-Sea’s purported quiet disdain for its resident witches is even hammered in to the text during Georgina’s big moment of apotheosis, but, again, like in The Price Guide to the Occult, where, exactly, is it?

Summer of Salt, despite these missteps, might have found stable footing in a cast of compelling characters, but these, too, are lost in the fumbling execution.

As far as character goes, there’s certainly a dearth of nuance in Georgina, but the absence is most dearly felt in the characters around her. Harrison, a bird enthusiast who comes to By-the-Sea for a glimpse at Annabelle’s Woodpecker, and his mostly bird-apathetic sister, Prudence, are rendered in flat, uncomplicated terms. Elvira, Georgina’s best friend, has little to her name besides a typical goth aesthetic and the corresponding snark. Mary, Georgina’s sister, has the most potential of the ensemble, with a disposition that seems poised to chafe against the mores of a small town like By-the-Sea, but with that element neglected, the possible tension the book could draw from her is directionless.

The tension we get is instead inorganic; externally imposed. Even the traditional assailant reveal feels like an arrangement made from the outside of the story, rather than a development from within. In Summer of Salt, things don’t happen between the important characters, but to them. The result is arbitrary, unspooled, and torn between possible executions of its premise––in a book that, entirely unsure of what it wants to do, is as changeable as the tides.

What I Read in June

Happy July, everyone! My summer is off to a pleasant, if not incredible, start where reading is concerned: I read 10 books this month, with a tad more sci-fi and nonfiction on offer than usual. This month’s books showed me distant planets, mathematical oddities, and re-imagined monsters, and I thoroughly enjoyed (most of) the experience.


45. Spinning Starlight by R. C. Lewis

Holding this book against the author’s wickedly fun space-opera “Snow White” retelling, Stitching Snow, there’s really no comparison: Spinning Starlight is less focused, less adventurous, and suffers from a truly dreadful case of supporting character soup. When it breaks the yoke of these flaws, however, there are some marvelous ideas in store, and R. C. Lewis’ use of alien technology, coupled with her intriguing variations on the original fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans,” make for a fascinating sci-fi, if not always a thrilling one. I was also rather fond of the predicament of our main character, Liddi, who’s a tech heiress with no preternatural engineering abilities to her name, though, like a few other of Lewis’ intriguing concepts, Spinning Starlight would’ve done well to explore it more. (Reviewed here.)


46. The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

Absolutely packed with examples and brimming with the author’s careful study of pop culture, this writing enchiridion proved to be one of the month’s unexpected treats. In breaking from craft-book tradition, The Anatomy of Story tackles symbolism and setting before it even touches plot, and the resulting approach––deeply concerned with meaning, and content to wait for structure to emerge organically from there––holds an allure that almost makes up for the fact that I had to read a 20-page scene-by-scene summary of a movie I have not, and will never, see. Almost.


47. The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

As an early foray into adult sci-fi (I’m trying to branch out), Becky Chambers’ warm, inviting, expansive first Wayfarers novel is a wonderful choice. In it, we meet a hodgepodge, banter-y crew and journey with them on a politically dangerous (but financially rewarding) mission to war-torn territory at the heart of the galaxy, with stops at sketchy black markets and deserted outposts along the way. The book is rip-roaring and eventful when it needs to be, but it’s also great at letting its characters slow down and bond with one another. Like with most of my favorite spacefaring science fiction, it’s in the combination that it shines.


48. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

This wildly popular work of literary fiction is so far from my cup of tea it’s almost Sisyphean to fully articulate my quarrels with it, but here goes: I could not finish this book fast enough. The supporting cast is nothing but a shallow cluster of canvases for the fears and neuroses of our romantic leads, said romantic leads seem to have nothing to live for or want besides each other, and the book employs time travel in only the most basic of ways, that last strike being so extreme as to render its trivial complications the fatal ones. Ultimately, I found it to be hardly a compelling sci-fi, and even less a stirring love story.


49. Hilda and the Stone Forest by Luke Pearson

Being so attached to the animated series, it’s near-impossible to separate it from its source material, particularly where it concerns an expansion on theme, and the addition of some marvelous supporting players. Against the series, the graphic novel feels wanting in scope and emotional intensity, but its fresh use of familiar fantasy concepts and enticing, eerie setting make for an absorbing reading experience nonetheless. Author and illustrator Luke Pearson’s keen sense of whimsy unites the cozy and the creepy in a magical world that’s always beckoning to be returned to, for both its familiar comfort and its exciting possibilities.


50. Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

Cathy Park Hong’s essay collection explores the Asian American experience with both a broad sweep and a concentrated punch, just as personal as it is political, and deeply concerned with the potent harm contained in white America’s thoughtlessness. Minor Feelings isn’t content to let any flippant remark rest, not where are you really from, not Asians are next in line to be white, and not the U.S.’s supposed “post-racial” state. Armed with the potent language of poetry and the careful eye of cultural criticism, the book is both engrossing and revelatory, right to its searing final page.


51. Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno

Katrina Leno’s magical seaside coming-of-age story holds all the trappings of a grounded, atmospheric work of contemporary fantasy––and none of the substance. The start is subtle and intriguing enough, but after an inciting incident near the halfway mark (!!!), a failure to fully articulate the stakes sends the book into a tailspin. Whatever charm Summer of Salt held at curtain is lost in a climax that feels forced and a halfhearted grasp at theme that skips the most promising aspects of the book’s concept in favor of the straight and narrow path.


52. Captive by Aimee Carter

The sequel to Aimee Carter’s 2013 YA dystopian, Pawn, this second installment in the Blackcoat Rebellion trilogy was always going to be steeped in the tradition of The Hunger Games‘ many imitators, but that’s precisely how I like it. The soapy dramas of future America’s treacherous ruling family, coupled with a syrupy-sweet love triangle and the revolution-lite vibes of its climax, make Captive compulsively readable fun for those who still linger at the literary graveyard of the frothy teen dystopian––and an inexplicable choice for everyone else. Still, its emphasis on blaming evil on the system rather than on the bad actors it created is refreshing, and save for its trite parent reveal and numerous death-cheats, it’s a great time.


53. Flatland by Edwin Abbott

This slim volume of mathematical fiction is hardly more than a day’s worth of reading, but Edwin Abbott’s explanation-over-plot style made it a trial to finish. We follow A. Square as he guides us through his home world of only two dimensions for several dozen pages of digression, clarification, and elaboration before finally getting to the “good stuff.” (At what cost?) Anyhow, the book clearly isn’t intended to be an adventure or a character study, but even held as a work of hypothetical curiosity, or satire, it’s wholly unfulfilling, and burdened by a straight-laced, rote approach to worldbuilding, besides.


54. Hilda and the Mountain King by Luke Pearson

It is pure serendipity that the only graphic novel out in the current Hilda series yet to be adapted is far and away the best. Though it follows a huge cliffhanger, Hilda and the Mountain King is, on its own, a complete and fulfilling tale, re-examining the role of stone trolls, one of the series’ magical staples, for a conclusion that’s as satisfying as it is challenging, and as dark as it is fanciful. Bolstered by a careful use of color and Pearson’s trademark visual charm, it’s hard to imagine the fun but simple first volume exploding out into something this complex, but that’s all the more reason to start there and savor the series as it grows. (Besides, of course, waiting on more from Netflix.)


Thank you for reading! If you’re so tempted, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. How was your reading month?

Let’s Talk Bookish: Prologues & Epilogues

Let’s Talk Bookish is a weekly discussion series hosted by Rukki @ Eternity Books and Dani @ Literary Lion. This week’s topic was suggested by Fives @ Down the Rabbit Hole! Also, special shoutout to Wren @ Wings and Fables, whose lovely LTB posts encouraged me to start participating 🙂


Prologues, where it concerns fantasy and sci-fi, are a tactful approach to an arresting problem: if you want to promise readers a sweeping adventure, but your hero is an everyman going through the motions in a quiet village away from the wolves, your quickest fix is to cut to the action elsewhere.

This is why “Star Wars: A New Hope” begins the way it does––not with Luke kicking the dust on Tatooine, but with a thrilling chase through a spaceship under siege. In a prologue by any other name, the editing gives us a taste of what’s in store, and that inviting first glimpse is, even knowing that prologues aren’t beloved among all, pretty much why I still can’t quit them.

On epilogues, though, I’m much more divided––I sometimes feel robbed if a book jumps years into the future for its final word, making explicit what was otherwise delicately implied. Instead of lingering on a powerful image that says it all, the very worst offenders will put the breaks on a book and actually say it all, charting out in paragraphs lives that were just recently complex enough to span whole chapters.

My biggest complaint boils down to one word: this approach is reductive. (Unless, of course, we’re working off a framing device, like our narrator recounting the story from years afterward; one that gives our story a good reason to fast-forward at the end.)

An epilogue, in my opinion, functions much better if it falls in step with a good prologue, and depicts a dynamic mini-drama unfolding in the span of its pages. This is rather difficult for an epilogue to do, though, as a post-script to a story that has already ended. What can you do then but offer what the reader already has?

There’s a great example of these two devices in each of the books in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse. The original trilogy, beginning with Shadow and Bone, has “before” and “after” chapters bookend-ing each installment, and later books, like Six of Crows, don’t mark what is effectively a prologue or epilogue as such, but hand the first and last numbered chapters off to characters whose perspectives aren’t shown elsewhere. (This allows me to see, however briefly, my beloved Joost.)

The “prologues” in the Shadow and Bone trilogy hold some of the most delicious writing in the series, allowing a stylistic departure into storybook-like prose against the more parsed, first-person style of the books proper.

What really works to Bardugo’s advantage, though, is the mechanical power the prologues hold. In all three books, that critical first chapter ends with a dilemma unsolved, or, put differently, a threat yet to be made. In Shadow and Bone, we linger on a young Mal’s face hardening into resolve away from the notice of the adults in the room; in Siege and Storm, a fugitive praying for shelter where she’s uncertain she’ll find it; in Ruin and Rising, a minor villain completely unaware of Alina inching nearer to the upper hand.

The “before” chapters do precisely what a good prologue does: in taking a new angle, they promise forward motion in a way our first chapter, stuck in our characters’ heads as they go through the motions of their daily lives, can’t.

Take them against the “after” chapters, and the latter comes up short. Rather than a detail, all three of these epilogues land with a statement. Even as Siege and Storm, the middle volume, ends with an explosive finale in the offing, and that last line is meant to gear us up for it, it’s still, in essence, the telling of what we already know.

All told, it makes sense, because it’s more fitting to begin a story with a question, and close it with an answer. But questions are unfailingly the more interesting of the two. A good prologue feels like being invited in. Even the best of epilogues, however, cannot help but feel like being escorted out.


What do you think? Am I too hard on epilogues? Have I convinced you to give prologues another chance? Tell me below!

“The Red Pyramid” A Promising But Iffy Series Opener

The first book in The Kane Chronicles, a middle grade fantasy trilogy from Rick Riordan, promises an interesting world, but fumbles the delivery.

Rick Riordan, the keeper of many a fond middle school memory, returns to the mythological fun and archaic-curio-prompted adventures that made his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series such an unflagging romp in The Red Pyramid, the first in a trilogy of middle grade fantasy novels inspired by Egyptian mythology. Though the elevator pitch is pretty much the same, this volume departs from Percy Jackson in some really promising ways, but on the other hand, an unwillingness to make narrative sacrifices that stick and consistently floppy action sequences tank this book’s sense of scale.

Instead of building to an apocalypse like he did in PJO‘s five installments, Riordan threatens the end of all life as we know it from the get-go, and fittingly, the adventuring party––estranged siblings Carter and Sadie Kane, along with a rotating door of various magical and/or godly chaperones––loses members to hordes of scorpions, crocodile gods, and haughty sorcerer leadership, to much tragic fanfare. However (and this is the sticking point), if I had a nickel for every time a character shockingly returned from almost certain death, I probably wouldn’t have more than 25¢, but it’s odd that such a Marvel-movie bait-and-switch becomes habit here for a storyteller who’s demonstrated a perfectly competent sense of stakes elsewhere. The thing about bringing characters back from the dead is that it’s a plot tool that can be worn down with repeated use. Do it once and it’s a triumphant return that sets a stirring reunion in motion; do it with The Red Pyramid‘s frequency and no threat of annihilation or death you make will carry any weight, ever again.

Also, concerning the rotating door of chaperones: this hero’s journey has a few mentors too many. Part of the fun of a long and arduous quest is the familiarity it inevitably breeds between our characters. Percy, Annabeth, and Grover leave Camp Half-Blood strangers, and come back an iconic trio. When you sacrifice that commitment to a set of characters for the whole duration of the journey, instead trotting out multiple distinctive figures who essentially fulfill the same narrative role (and––even more egregiously––disappear under dangerous circumstances only to return for round 2!!), you cheapen the scaffolding of your plot, you cheapen any hope of a connection your characters might have, and you cheapen the potential of your characters coming off memorably. You can have Amos, Thoth, Zia, or Bast. Maybe even more than one. But you cannot have all four.

Interestingly, as the strengths of Percy Jackson become weaknesses here, the shortcomings of the very same get a fresh treatment and become The Kane Chronicles‘ strongest assets, particularly as it concerns worldbuilding. In PJO, things feel rather haphazard, like the internal logic is a desperate slap of glue to hold the various mythic hijinks together (it more-or-less works because Riordan has so much fun both parodying quest stories and winking at the audience through his own), but the world of The Kane Chronicles has depths and conflicting factions that beg to be further explored. You get the most enticing sense of richness here: little corners of our journey hint at whole novel-worthy stories transpiring just out of our sight. It’s enough to make you wish this flighty tale had a bit more focus––I’d probably be falling over my feet with praise for whatever mentor character we might have gotten for the whole thing, if only Riordan had stuck to them.

I’m particularly intrigued by the potential further explorations of the House of Life, the ancient association of magicians, hold: I want to meet more new recruits and see what it’s like to train under this order. I want to see what animates the passionate debate afoot in the highest levels of the maybe-trustworthy, maybe-not magical establishment. I want to see more of the Chief Lector and his shifting loyalties.

And, damn it, I’m reading the next one.

This review was originally posted on Goodreads earlier this year. I have since reviewed the next one! (I liked it a bit more.)

“Spinning Starlight” an Imaginative, if Inconsistent, Sci-Fi

The author of Stitching Snow, (Snow White in space with cobbled-together droids as the dwarves, a deeply underrated favorite of mine) returns with an inventive science fiction fairy tale retelling in Spinning Starlight, an alien-rich, portal-traveling take on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans.”

Though the tale lacks the conviction and focus of Stitching Snow, R. C. Lewis still has a truly promising eye for the weirder staples of sci-fi and where they fit. For various reasons, teen sci-fi tends to play it pretty safe: for a long stint in the early 2010s, the niche was taken up by fairly grounded dystopians in step with The Hunger Games, and later in the decade, when space adventures saw a small boom, things were similarly tame––aliens were limited, concepts for worlds and technology didn’t stray too far from the expected, and weirdness was rather solidly contained.

This, like every ebb and flow in publishing, produced some wonderful books, but I found myself longing for the truly zany, something like what you’d find in the vast, chaotic, oddball universe of Star Wars, with a comfortably familiar hero’s journey framework set against the strangest of supporting characters and set pieces.

Spinning Starlight, for all its faults, is at least that: where we start isn’t all that strange, but the later setting boasts a galactic milieu, with quirks in worldbuilding that veer towards the abstract and a space-opera sensibility that shines through even when we’re standing still.

The fun Lewis has in crafting the world of Spinning Starlight is the book’s greatest asset––besides, of course, the clever integration of the fairy tale. (With just a few tragic missteps, alas!)

For a popular story like Cinderella or Snow White, the twists and subversions are there to enrich every reading experience, but here, the reflection doesn’t come into full relief until you get your hands on the source material. Where “The Wild Swans” features a princess who must free her brothers from a curse (and can’t speak in the meantime, at pains of putting them in danger), Spinning Starlight swaps the princess for a tech heiress in Liddi Jantzen, and in place of a curse, traps her brothers in limbo between dimensions with a malfunction in the conduits, a system of efficient interplanetary travel.

What’s really of note, though, is how the elements in the middle of the fairy tale, not integral to its setup nor strictly necessary for its resolution, find their place here in turn. In “The Wild Swans,” the princess finds herself in a soaring mythical kingdom, bound by a not-entirely-honest relationship to its king, and the shifting trust between them makes a fascinating appearance in the middle of Spinning Starlight, with an ethical and spiritual dilemma that heightens the tension between Liddi and an intriguing supporting player. Instead of a crown, Lewis gives him a position of power on different terms, forcing him to grapple with the accompanying responsibilities in a way that both comments on and enriches the third-act threat in the original fairy tale.

Sadly, though, some weaknesses are carried over in the retelling as well: Liddi’s brothers, though they all have names in this version and there are eight instead of twelve, blend together in their limited page time into a dull character soup. There are some attempts made, in interludes of flashback, to give us glimpses of the specific brothers and reinforce the bond Liddi’s supposed to feel with her family, but they’re clumsy, brief, and jarringly different in style from the rest of the prose. I didn’t skip any on my way through the book, but they felt utterly skippable.

Lewis’ take on the Evil Queen, a character who is only mentioned and never shown in “The Wild Swans,” is mercifully sparse, but her flatness and lack of life is so potent that it sucks almost all the vigor out of Act III. Not entirely surprising, as villains tend to be the Achilles’ heel of these sorts of things (Queen Levana of The Lunar Chronicles comes to mind), but Lewis’ noble effort to make the distant conflict in the fairy tale an immediate conflict in the retelling results in a deafening irony: had Spinning Starlight followed its inspiration and pushed the Evil Queen to the background instead of bringing her to the fore at the opening and end, it would’ve benefited by what is ostensibly a structural weakness.

In contrast, “The Wild Swans” does something unconventional yet deeply satisfying with its ending. Where most fairy tales in its stride come full circle and confront the bringer of the original curse, “The Wild Swans” is more interested in the heroine’s place in her new world than a triumph and return to order in the old one.

The princess’ story hinges not on her defeat of the queen who put her brothers under the curse, but on the trust of the new kingdom where she makes a life in the middle of the story. Her greatest danger lies in the fact that her subjects will turn on her if she doesn’t dispel the false charges brought upon her by a misunderstanding––the belonging she risks losing in this is Andersen’s chief concern as a storyteller.

Spinning Starlight bucks this opportunity, likely for the very good reason that readers would find it frustrating to watch a main character fight for the respect of her love interest’s home above that of her own, but Lewis’ vision of that world far outshines the one we start with, and things dry up as soon as we step back through the portal to face the Evil Queen.

Much of the tale, of course, is skillfully adapted, but that one omission comes at a steep price: Spinning Starlight, for all its imagination, fumbles the ending. And if you know fairy tales, you know that that’s fatal.

What I Read in May

As it’s fast becoming clear that I sadly can’t write a 900-word review of everything I read, I thought it would be nice to start doing wrap-ups, as a way to hammer out my thoughts on each of the books without much fuss. May was pretty good, I’d say. I got 9 books in, bringing my total to 44! Not bad for a sleepy college student 😌

No. 36 | Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

I’ll be the first to admit that Elizabeth Gilbert’s fanciful approach to creativity isn’t for everyone: if it seems heavy-handed to suggest that creativity is the art of bringing forth “the treasures hidden within you,” just wait until she gets to the bit about genius. But Big Magic has been a huge comfort to me over the years, simply because it told me precisely what I needed to hear––that art doesn’t have to mean suffering, that letting go and embracing playfulness is as vital as the work itself––at a time when I insisted on a more punitive model of creativity, with such conviction that it almost extinguished my desire to create altogether. I return to it periodically, as I did at the beginning of this month, and every time, it rings more true.

No. 37 | Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

Tahereh Mafi’s middle-grade follow up to her Shatter Me trilogy follows a girl born entirely without color in a world where all magic depends on it. In search of her long-lost father, she travels through Mafi’s bombastic worldbuilding in the land of Furthermore. By all accounts, this should be a sweeping, whimsical adventure, but its clumsy execution leaves much to be desired: the chatty prose betrays too much, and the logic of Furthermore (the place) falls apart if you so much as poke it. Mafi has some fascinating concepts for magical villages and exciting characters, but they’re all ultimately lost in the fluff.

No. 38 | A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

I love Roshani Chokshi’s gorgeous follow-up to The Star-Touched Queen beyond words. I gushed about it a perhaps-embarrassing amount in my review, but it bears repeating because the month is almost up and the poetry of this book hasn’t yet left me: this is the wondrous, enchanting, tenuous-allies-to-lovers story your heart needs. There are few hungers this tale cannot feed.

No. 39 | The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas

With the villain from The Three Musketeers, Cardinal Richelieu, at its helm, this little-known (and unfinished) spin-off boasts a vast array of interesting side characters and finely-woven intrigues, but Dumas’ pontificating, as well as his expository historical interludes, can get on one’s nerves, especially where it concerns battles, which in this book almost always entail a ten-page summary, sans dialogue, that feels like an eternity. A note: if you feel the need to outwardly apologize to your reader for the hassle of catching them up to speed, you’ve probably gone too far.

No. 40 | The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

This was one of my dad’s favorite books in middle school, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s funny, adventurous, and fronted by a truly lovable ensemble, the likes of which I can’t say I’ve really found since I finished the Percy Jackson series last year. The book isn’t anything new, but it’s familiar in all the right ways. There are plenty of young, unready heroes floating around in children’s fantasy classics, but I can’t say they stick with me quite like Taran does. (I have a review of it here.)

No. 41 | The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

Fans of Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy are legion––in fact, it was one in their ranks who compelled me to read this book––but I unfortunately will not be joining them. I enjoyed the worldbuilding, and some of the supporting characters (Vivienne most of all), but Cardan still feels too vague for me to latch onto––a fatal shortcoming for such an important player––and the clumsy integration of contemporary teen life into the fantasy setting fiddled with a stakes in a way that made the most critical dramatic turns ring a bit hollow. It’s nevertheless a promising start, but I hope the drawn-out final third is a fumble that won’t be repeated.

No. 42 | Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

This YA mystery novel follows Daunis Fontaine, a biracial, unenrolled tribal member, as a meth crisis grips her Ojibwe community and she’s tapped to go undercover in an investigation that could prove fatal at worst, and destructive at best. Angeline Boulley’s standout use of science and the deft hand of lived experience (Boulley is also Ojibwe) are the book’s greatest assets, particularly where it concerns the tangled ethics of aiding an institution with a violent past when it comes to Native communities, as Daunis wrestles with the investigation and its potential consequences. Though the pile-up of reversals at the end weakens the book’s conclusion, it’s still an effective thriller overall, best if your tastes are suited to an atmospheric slow-burn, and a healthy dose of hockey.

No. 43 | The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games was all the rage in my fourth-grade classroom. My mom had read it, judged it not too gory, and allowed it into my hands, though there was drama abounding among my classmates about who was and wasn’t allowed to read it, and it seemed like we were all eagerly awaiting the movie the following year. The book is still as fresh and engrossing as ever, owing to Suzanne Collins’ immaculate use of structure, but it’s the commentary, I think, that really stuck with me. Most dystopians afterwards went all in on one idea (which, to be clear, still managed to spawn many favorite books of mine), but it’s a rare joy to see The Hunger Games cover so much, and so well. It loses just a scrap on reread, through a weak climax and a disorienting abundance of flashback, but I can see at a glance how this book made my younger self a reader, and I think I like her choice.

No. 44 | The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James

This book follows Romy Silvers, the daughter of astronauts on an interstellar mission, who has been alone on the ship Infinity after their deaths, with decades to go until planetfall. Though Lauren James’ prose is compulsively readable, and the pages pass quickly, James mismanages a drastic switch in tone and crafts a trite, uninteresting villain, ending the book with a dull thud.