“Changeless” a Deliciously Fun, If Moderately Pointless, Sequel

Quite possibly the only work of steampunk I’ve ever read, Gail Carriger’s 2009 paranormal-of-manners, Soulless, is very near to my heart. Coupling its charming nineteenth century sensibilities with an engrossing secret society plot, it reaps the benefits of many categories––romance, alternate history, paranormal, mystery––and skirts their distinctions with aplomb.

To the best of my admittedly faulty recollection, Soulless is a nearly perfect book.

Though equally funny (Gail Carriger is now my personal Queen of Sensible Chuckles), there’s something missing from Changeless that makes it read, at times, like a side quest. The peril involved feels fleeting; the introductions of the new supporting characters can’t seem to hold onto more depth than would befit a cameo.

The accoutrements are all in top form: the romance remains delightfully snarky, Carriger’s inventions and anachronisms are wickedly playful, and her integration of the paranormal into the political is as thoughtful-yet-snide as ever. But the engine, the A-plot, the beating heart, is untethered.

The central mystery is neither personally relevant enough for emotional stakes nor urgent enough for immediate ones, leaving it in the middle distance with Alexia, our lead, and company as casual observers. And, though Changeless does end with a traditional climax, it’s never more powerful than a fizzle.

At curtain, Alexia Maccon, whose courtship in Soulless ended amiably, with a loving, socially advantageous, and rather sarcastic marriage, is navigating one of her werewolf husband’s many eccentricities. This time, though, Lord Maccon’s nonsense cannot be abided by: there’s an entire encampment of werewolves on the front lawn.

As funny as this opening sequence is, however, it has only passing relevance to the real gamechanger in Changeless: in a sizable portion of London, the powers of vampires, werewolves, and ghosts suddenly vanish, as if a preternatural (such as Alexia herself) were touching them all at once. The plague of humanization then ceases, for a time, but reports soon emerge of the same happening in Scotland, where, incidentally, Lord Maccon has unfinished business with his old werewolf pack.

Where it concerns intrigue, the story from there is woefully lacking. There are worries abounding that the plague of humanization could by harnessed by or against groups of supernaturals––powerful hives of vampires being a particular concern––but they’re irreparably distant from the action at hand, possibly because Carriger chooses to isolate it at a manor in the Scottish countryside, while she’s set all the related scheming in London. It should be noted, though, that while she has an answer for that in interludes following other characters as they try to wrangle the situation in London, she doesn’t lean on it nearly enough to make full use of it.

But, all told, the kicker for this ultimately underwhelming mystery is probably its resolution, which hits somewhat like a nevermind upon its reveal. By now, Carriger has added a couple assassination attempts on Alexia to spice things up, and even suggested that the culprit is with us as we speak! Were it not for her lack of commitment to this addition, it might have meant some extra gumption approaching the climax, but because Changeless isn’t willing to go all in and put forth the extra time to genuinely cast the other characters in suspicion, it’s just a fleeting thought.

I’m sure that, by now, I’ve made Changeless sound like a disaster, but incidentally, despite what I’d be quick to call its structural unsoundness, it isn’t, mostly owing to its style and Carriger’s talent for pacing.

Changeless is, at its foundation, a story in which the characters spend a sizable chunk of the page time traveling to the primary setting, threats are posited but precious few actual consequences faced, and the answer to the mystery is more-or-less a coincidence.

It is all of these things, yes, and, also, rather fun, besides.

I’m still kind of at a loss as to how the book pulled it off. My prevailing theory is that Carriger leans into the fact that most readers aren’t necessarily picking up Changeless to find out why supernaturals are suddenly and temporarily going human, but for either the delight of her cheeky take on the 1870s, or the romance, or the charming supporting cast.

However much this begets a neglect of the central mystery, it nudges the book to deliver on these elements, such that most of its fun is, strictly speaking, irrelevant? Like, the side dishes are far and away more tasty than the main course.

Far from taking away from the page-to-page reading experience, as it might in hands less tactful than Carriger’s, it makes all the pastries and candies slipped in-between bites, of, well, the meal, seem complete in themselves. The author is almost indulging you: feeding you a shiny steampunk toy here, a Lord-and-Lady-Maccon moment there, a farcical subplot in tastes throughout. You’ve been good, dear reader. Have a tart.

Does Lord Akeldama need to be in this book for reasons that can’t be hand-waved away? No. But I would be loathe to banish his presence from this book’s dinner table. (And why would you––he’s delightful.)

As much as Changeless is, really, a let-down from Soulless, it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like a great deal of what there is to love about the first book is also present in the second. Without the substance of a solid A-plot and an apt sense of suspense, yes, but this is hardly the first time I’ve skipped dinner in favor of desert, and I don’t doubt I’ll do so again.

“The Betrayed” A Messy Yet Lovable Conclusion

This review contains a major spoiler for the ending of the first book in this duology, The Betrothed. Like, in the first paragraph.


Following 2020’s The Betrothed (reviewed here), Kiera Cass’ latest could’ve gone almost anywhere. In a move generally unbefitting her fluffy love story brand (though not entirely––need I remind you all of The One?), Cass married her protagonist, Hollis, off to her lowly but charming underdog suitor, and then proceeded to off him.

Damn, Silas. Rest in peace.

When we catch up with Hollis in the pages of The Betrayed, she’s on the way to her husband’s home country of Isolte with what’s left of her adopted family in tow: a mother-in-law, a sister-in-law, and a surly cousin-in-law who seems to want nothing more than to wipe her off the face of the Earth. King Quinten of Isolte, the monarch at whose hands Hollis suspects her wedding was turned into a slaughter, remains in power, as-yet unchallenged. At the end of The Betrothed, Hollis vowed she would bring him to justice, but how Cass was going to manage it in the follow up was anyone’s guess.

To her credit, or possibly against it, The Betrayed answers this question with a fairy-tale ease reminiscent of the endings in Shannon Hale’s novels: arguably too convenient, but satisfying nonetheless. There must be some note made, however, for how this move jilts the expectations laid out in book one. With a final note like that, one would think we’re in for much more trouble in the sequel than we actually meet.

It certainly doesn’t help that all of these resolution-enabling revelations arrive in a rushed cascade during the last hundred pages. The first two hundred, ironically, do precisely what The Betrothed did best: a slow and grounded approach to court intrigue, fronted by mostly personal stakes, all conducted on an intimate scale. When Cass works this way, the book works, running on a 1-to-1 conversion of character choices to plot progression, where it doesn’t seem entirely out of place for Hollis to be just as concerned about a certain love interest’s feelings as she is about who will eventually end up with Isolte’s crown.

But when Cass doesn’t work this way, opting instead for the drama of actual power actually changing hands, her knack for orchestrating conflict all but collapses. Complications are shoved out of the way, obstacles disappear, and the characters’ plans, generally, pan out exactly as predicted.

Admittedly, all of this sounds extremely grim, but it might not have been that much of a problem were it not for the predicament of The Betrayed being second in a duology. The problems in the final third of the book’s construction are, yes, substantial, but the simple tincture of time could’ve gone a long way, seeing as it’s beginning to seem across the board like a crashed second and final volume is becoming the new “middle book syndrome.”

Anyhow, taking more than one chapter to depose a head of state would’ve made a world of difference for the pacing. And some breathing room would’ve gone a long way towards keeping the ending from feeling like a dizzying array of crises introduced and swiftly rectified.

One thing will always rescue Kiera Cass books in the end, though, and that is her conviction in writing a truly sincere set of character dynamics. There’s no sense here of the shifting alliances among the major characters that worked so well in The Betrothed, but there is a warm and earnest family component that stays interesting throughout, despite the characters involved never being at one another’s throats.

Well, with one exception. Etan, the aforementioned surly cousin-in-law, has a bone to pick with Hollis for the better part of the book, but even in that case, Cass makes it personal without ever making it ruthless. It may speak ill of the book at large that she gives Etan more time to overcome his grudge than she does the toppling of more than one (!!!) reign, but regardless, that choice was a good one, at least for the development of his character.

And (possible spoiler, though you probably figured this out from a cursory glance at the blurb), it certainly doesn’t hurt the romance between him and Hollis, one that offers a solid, slower-burning counterpart to the one that was cultivated and then, swiftly, crushed in The Betrothed.

When it comes to getting me to squee over her couples, Cass has hacked some critical reward pathway in my brain: the way she uses a shared sense of obligation to push these two together meshes extremely well with the elevated stakes, and The Betrayed is keenly aware of the importance of small tokens in building its case for the pair, from the starring role of a handkerchief to the heavy symbolism of the characters’ clothes.

This particular style of romance puts The Betrayed in a league with something like The Guinevere Deception, another story that knows the importance of idle talk between the ladies of the nobility, and lingers, too, on gestures like jewelry and jousting favors. In The Guinivere Deception‘s sequel, no shortage of ink is spilled in describing the planning of a festival, and the same is true for The Betrayed‘s particular style of politicking, which I find as compelling as it is under-discussed in the general cloak-and-dagger affect of fantasy at large.

The great thing about Cass’ characterization of Hollis in all this is that it marches to this very standard. When Hollis triumphs, it’s because she got someone on her side through friendly means; stayed her hand, listened, and moved forward with honest, well-meaning intentions.

Is it tame for todays’ YA landscape? Yes. Does it mean the more bombastic plot points make a jarring counterpart that’s difficult to reconcile with the rest of the book? Also yes. But Hollis is refreshing as a heroine who’s true-hearted and means it, and that makes me regard The Betrayed with fondness, even if mostly for her sake.

How “The Wicked King” Attacked Me, Personally

Despite my love of thorny, enemies-to-lovers couples and court intrigue, I was not one of The Cruel Prince‘s immediate devotees. I found Holly Black’s worldbuilding, with its notes taken from classical sources and thoughtful approach to the mortals-in-Faerie problem, rich and intriguing, but ultimately not to the scale that would let me believe in the danger at hand. Faerie felt altogether too intimate, what, with its tiny graduating class and power plays conducted in between lectures.

Blasphemously, I was also “meh” on Jurdan, the pairing of Jude, a prickly mortal who cannot breathe without having a bone to pick, and Cardan, her opposite and equal in a fae fuckboy. (Argue semantics, if you wish, in the comments.)

Every now and then, the time comes for me to eat my words. The Wicked King, an absolute knockout of a sequel, is one such occasion.

First and most urgently addressed is an expansion of the world of the series. In The Cruel Prince, even with the help of distant fae courts and a cleverly-drawn magical history, the population and influence of Elfhame never escaped, to me at least, the sense that it was too small to be worth fighting over.

Putting high school and its archetypal cliques into the mix, however, was the one choice that proved fatal. This forever cemented in my mind the lingering suspicion that, even having exchanged the lecture hall for the throne room over the course of the book, we never left the petty high school squabbles behind. Even the most iconic Jurdan scenes from the first book felt ever so much like one shoving the other into a locker, despite the very real stakes involved.

But in The Wicked King, two things change that allow Holly Black’s plot construction to escape the specter of triviality. One, she puts a truly powerful contender in the way of Elfhame’s rule by way of the Undersea, a vast conglomerate of what were once independent merfolk courts, thus amplifying the outside pressure and expanding the book’s scope.

Two is deceptively simple: her characters are now in positions of power.

This rather straightforward move ups the ante a priori, but Black does undertake some heavy lifting to make sure there are fitting challenges facing our newly empowered leads now that they’ve moved up in the world. This is where I take back everything I said about The Cruel Prince not being dangerous enough: frustrating though it may have been to read at the time, the book’s dialed back scale turns out to be a massive advantage going forward, almost as if to spite me.

Here’s the thing: it allows the oppositions that will develop in The Wicked King time to form solid foundations. Both Locke and Nicasia, for example, who joined Cardan as Jude’s bullies in book one, become players in the game for power in book two. Just on principle, I would’ve wanted the books to skip straight to where the stakes were actively mounting, but it is in fact the history between the two of them, Cardan, and Jude––the history that was being written while I was rolling my eyes at the triviality of it all––that yields precisely what I want out of conflict, both where it pertains to their roles, and elsewhere: complexity.

The high school drama I pinned as unnecessary before is, to my deepest dismay, very necessary, indeed. The petty jealousy feeds later interactions. The silly feuds make the serious ones more personal. The answer most series fans have for people who didn’t love book one is “just wait.” Unfortunately, in this case, I have to verify. Holly Black was playing the long game all this time. I just wasn’t quick enough to see it.

All of this is to say, I ship Jurdan now, the lot of you were ever-so-right, and I hope you’re very pleased with yourselves.

To wit: where I clocked Cardan as sort of vague upon reading The Cruel Prince, he’s instead enigmatic in The Wicked King. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t feel as though Black brought us into his head, but in this volume, that move comes into relief as a deliberate one. He’s just as unpredictable, if not more so, than before, but here, it’s a device for the controlled reveal of information that keeps ticking with expert precision until the very end. (And what an end! The internet spoiled me for it years ago and I still ooh’d like my classmate was being called to the principal’s office.)

At least––at least––I had the foresight to be fond of Jude from the very beginning. And how could I not? She’s like Skyward‘s Spensa with the piloting skills swapped in favor of an eye for politics: angry with her world and righteously so, a guttural character study in what it is to bear the sins of one’s father, and all the shame, resentment, and reactive violence that entails. But urged on as both leads are by softer desires (acceptance, actualization, and, in Jude’s case, love without any terms attached), the contrast of that against the spiny shell illuminates a fully realized, self-contradicting human being whom I would, without hesitation, die for. (Or kill for. Either way, what bliss…)

Considering the whole of this infuriating second book that manages to justify the choices of its predecessor in reverse, only one complaint truly carries over. The Court of Shadows remains underdeveloped, and, when a plot twist regarding the Ghost hit, for a moment, I was like “who?”

But, honestly. In the face of my girlish squee-ing all through Act III, I’m happy to savor what I’m given. I’ll save my “um-actually”s for another time.

“Spinning Silver” is a Fairy Tale of the Highest Caliber

Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is a wonder of a fairy tale: it has a stirring Beauty-and-the-Beast love story, a rich and varied use of the dark forest motif, and an almost domestic focus on the ordinary in the lives of her characters, showing us their families and their chores and their fireplaces. This framework must have been certified somewhere, to be unimpeachably good at mining stories of epic scale for maximum humanity, because it works like a charm in Spinning Silver, and three times over, at that.

Here, though, instead of the forest, Novik turns to snow and ice for a tale that is as much about frost and its effects on rye yields as it is about marriages, magical bargains, and portals between worlds. With this approach, Spinning Silver is more than utterly magical; it is utterly matronly, deeply concerned with the women that much of fantasy forgets––mothers, grandmothers, maidservants, and peasant girls who don’t get to marry princes.

In fact, the book is so magical precisely because it is so mundane, returning to us as readers the domestic labor that so often gets stripped away when fairy tales are adapted to high fantasy: Rumpelstiltskin is about spinning thread, after all.

Nowhere in the book is this better embodied that in the care Novik takes with her beautifully-rendered protagonist. Before we meet Miryem, a young Jewish woman whose talent for finance gets her swept into a magical crisis via a hilarious misunderstanding, we must first meet her circumstances: the first thing we hear is that her father, a moneylender, has been brought to the edge of bankruptcy by townspeople who openly refuse to pay him back.

As a child, Miryem watches her warmhearted father back down from disputes and more-or-less forfeit his money out of politeness for years. Spurred on by her mother’s worsening illness, Miryem sets out to improve her family’s lot by taking up moneylending in her father’s stead, and it is at a stranger’s doorstep, with a ledger book waiting for a fresh entry open on her desk at home, that her fairy tale begins.

(Incidentally, I will forever be indebted to every instance of another character referring to the math Miryem uses to keep her family’s accounts as “magic.” Wonder and practicality are not mutually exclusive in folklore, and little kernels like this show us just how well Novik knows it.)

I could write buckets from here about the heady delight of how Novik binds Miryem’s choice to step in for her father to the motifs at the heart of the story, from the “coldness” she has to take on in order to settle the accounts of people who don’t want to, or can’t, directly pay, to the novel’s slow and gratifying reclamation of the language used to describe pragmatic, determined women like Miryem––”icy,” “harsh,” and, again, “cold.” (This is also pivotal in the introduction of the Staryk, Spinning Silver‘s wintry fey, and how they’re re-imagined over the course of the novel.)

Suffice it to say, Novik’s reinvention of her symbols is one of the most elegant I’ve read in recent years. Sophisticated and thoughtful, yes, but also extremely generous with the characters: it affirms rather than sands away their frankly understandable “coldness,” affirming it as a choice of love for the sake of the people and communities they care about, as opposed to the solitary, selfish way we’re used to icy women being characterized.

Alone, Miryem’s plot would still be enchanting, but Spinning Silver also features two deuteragonists and their perspectives: Wanda, who comes to work for Miryem’s family to pay off her father’s debt (and also just to escape him, period), and Irina, a duke’s daughter, who’s staring down the barrel of an unwanted marriage.

There’s a certain beauty in Spinning Silver as a patchwork story. Novik is in no rush to bring the plot up to a fast clip, so scenes linger and ostensibly simple revelations will simmer for the reader before the characters, amidst the workings of their daily lives, come to them. There’s as much excitement in watching the storylines creep together at a slow trawl as there is in watching them actually meet. And with multiple tabs open, so to speak, Spinning Silver makes itself rich in what it seems like so much of storytelling is strapped for: time.

You feel the months pass in one of the threads while in the other, some vital secret is being revealed. The pace isn’t slow so much as it is deliberate, a welcome temper for fantasy’s customary high stakes and great deeds. (Also optimal for the cultivation of a pair of absolutely spellbinding romances, but I find those best discovered in surprise, so I’ll leave it at that.)

Alas, Spinning Silver, like all books, must end, but Novik, of course, nails that too, with an answer to the story’s crisis that respects the humanity of all the members of its ensemble, and puts the power of naming (as per the original Rumpelstiltskin tale––loosely retold here, though marvelously so) to use right where it’s needed, but not necessarily where it’s expected.

There should be a name for a plot twist whose thrill lies in the very process of discovery, to set it apart from a plot twist whose power lies in its ability to shock. Spinning Silver isn’t exactly a book that will have you gasping, but it did have me grinning ear-to-ear as all the answers, emotional and symbolic, came into words precisely as I’d hoped. Say it, say it! I found myself urging my heavy paperback copy.

And then it did.

A Universe of Adventure in “A Thousand Pieces of You”

Of four alternate universes––one with bananas new developments in tech, one where things are barely stepping out of the industrial revolution, one with a slight turn in physics research, and one where most of the Earth has been submerged by rising sea levels––what do they have in common?

Give or take a few family members, every one of these universes comes equipped with one Marguerite, or Margarita, Caine, one Paul or Pavel Markov, and one Theo Beck. This is no mistake: the rules of travel via Firebird, a discreet, consciousness-transporting device that masquerades as a necklace, lock the wearer out of universes in which they don’t exist. Ergo, the contents of the next dimension are anybody’s guess, but the cast is consistent, giving Evernight author Claudia Gray an alcove of tight-knit personal drama in the eye of an ever-changing storm of dimensions and research conspiracies. A conniving tech mogul or Firebird-toting spy is never more than a few steps away, but they’re never more pressing than the feelings at hand. Because the same things are at stake in so many realities, every secret is life-or-death. Claudia Gray has hardwired the implications of her book’s tense, sorehearted love triangle to be as wide-ranging and catastrophic as possible, a drastic but effective measure to marry plot and romance, and beautifully, a foolproof way to make 360 pages pass like a dream.

To helm this Firebird-powered chase through the dimensions, Gray chooses the impassioned, artistic Marguerite, daughter of physicists Henry Caine and Sophia Kovalenka, who understands just enough of the science to get around the multiverse, but frets over the ethical and historical possibilities with much deeper consideration. Her parents have been working on the Firebird for a number of years before A Thousand Pieces of You opens, but the story starts and ends with Marguerite, whose ties to her parents finally take the new technology out of careful, impartial hands. Through Marguerite’s deep, detailed relationship with visual art, Gray parses out the differences in parallel realities, giving each one a new flavor, and each Marguerite a different artistic backstory––in one dimension, she’s fascinated by color and paint, in another by lines and charcoal, but detail is the uniting thread.

Claudia Gray explains this coherence of chance through her characters, in the beginnings of a scientific treatise on destiny. The physics student Paul Markov, among many stray post-grads Marguerite’s parents have housed, poses a theory on recurring patterns and tendencies through dimensions––what happens in one often recurs in others, leaving some things down to an intangible force that sounds an awful lot like fate, and yet is so tentative, so cautiously approached and carefully considered, that it blends in with the scenery of grounded science fiction.

Gray makes swift use of parallel worlds’ literary tradition––her writing straddles new ideas for the genre and familiar tropes; it’s conscious that this idea has been done well before and fashions a broader, more varied jaunt out of existing language. The grief that tore Rose Tyler apart in Doctor Who’s 2005 episode “Father’s Day” reappears when the deceased in Marguerite’s world are still alive in others, and she has to keep the truth and despair to herself as she faces a figure who’s all but risen from the dead. Gray also takes a cue from Everett’s Many-Worlds theory, and fashions her multiverse on a system of possibilities, with every outcome of every action spawning a different universe, where Josephine Angelini’s Trial by Fire, of the same year, populates the multiverse with the outcomes of decisions instead.

A Thousand Pieces of You also does some nuanced work with morality, adding to the conversation, “Does every ‘version’ of you hold the same moral fiber?” The question never touches Marguerite, but it does brush Theo, another postgrad from her parents’ research cohort, and Paul , who both take turns as the suspected guilty party (in one universe or another) in a gripping revenge story that propels the book’s thrilling chase.

Claudia Gray’s work, in this case, isn’t the full-bodied deconstruction of vengeance that The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe is, relying, instead of on characters, on a withholding of information on the part of the circumstances that surround it. But Gray’s work makes due, keeping away from the whodunit just long enough to keep it interesting. Her eventual villain might creep into later books with just enough frequency that the works lose their adventurous tendencies and fix on a cat-and-mouse plot without much room left, but for now, the excitement of new worlds dominates the Firebird trilogy’s opener, filling it with opportunities to exhibit fascinating world-building and a brilliantly-displayed sense of scope––all of which are possible without the plot overwhelming the bounds of character, which Gray keeps at pace with her racing plot through her use of flashbacks.

Such flashbacks are often the book’s most powerful scenes, which Gray ensures by never just using them to emphasize how important these characters are to each other––that much is obvious by their choices in the present, no flashbacks required. Instead, Gray’s flashbacks weave the dimensions together, much like the ins and outs of Marguerite’s artworks, posing a newly remembered fresh wound as a challenge to the possibilities of an alternate universe. Through this, she and her ties to the central cast of characters remain at the heart of the storm.

The multiverse and all its wonders are well enough open to Claudia Gray in the next book––and Ten Thousand Skies Above You cooking up something interesting is the closest mathematical possibility.


Thank you for reading! This review was originally posted on Goodreads in 2019. I reviewed the sequel in a wrap-up earlier this month.

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.

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.

“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.

“Wings of Ebony” A Promising Idea That Can’t Take Flight

You’ve likely heard a story with the makings of Wings of Ebony before: girl has hidden godly and/or magical heritage, crisis sends her past careening into the present, magical world welcomes her with varying degrees of open arms, all is not what it seems. A setup like this is a perennial refrain in young adult fantasy lit for a reason, however, and J. Elle’s entry into the archetype manages to stand out amongst a flock of look-alikes, even considering its shortcomings.

For one thing, even though the archetype offers a powerful temptation to turn to wish fulfillment instead of truly interrogating the flaws of one’s fantasy world, Wings of Ebony keeps its eyes turned on inequity, both in Ghizon, the fantasy setting where our heroine, Rue, discovers her powers, and in her home neighborhood of East Row, in Houston, where unsettling connections exist between a recent uptick in violent crime and Ghizon’s seedy inner circle.

In fact, we return home in Wings of Ebony more than you might expect, and it’s a refreshing change of pace in a genre where the prerogative is often to escape the sorrows of our contemporary world instead of facing them. But J. Elle makes an admirable point of emphasizing the fact that the “real world” is not all sorrow and its magical counterpart not all wonder.

Rue, informed by her experiences as a Black girl in an under-served community, certainly knows hardship, but the book also pays credit to that community and its value. In fact, it offers as its central tenet the necessity of defending such a community, with the defining feature of its antagonist being a refusal to acknowledge it for its worth.

That much remains to the book’s merit, but some issues in execution bar it from making the most of its brilliant setup. First and foremost, it makes the mistake of focusing Rue’s character on unwavering conviction as opposed to substantial development. It’s not that Rue goes from the first page to the last with all her attitudes about Ghizon, her family, and her past completely unchanged, but it’s only those attitudes that change.

Rue starts the book, for instance, with a deep resentment of Ghizon, and by extension, her father, who left her as a child to return there, and comes to care about her heritage more when she learns its history and her place in it. No essential thing about her, though, responds to the circumstances in kind. She gets superficially stronger, as she gets a better grip on her powers, but because the groundwork isn’t there, her victory has thematic rather than personal significance. Armed with the same tools and information, she would’ve managed the same feat and acted in the same interest on page one.

This is one area where Wings of Ebony might have actually benefited from taking the ordinary fantasy path, specifically where it pertains to deepening the relationship between Rue and the magic she learns to wield. Elle makes a bold choice in setting the novel not right when Rue is whisked away to Ghizon, but in the months after, showing her first interactions with magic (and the accompanying training) only in flashback. In many ways, it’s a choice that serves the trajectory of the story and saves it valuable page time in skipping the magic-school formalities. But the book does lose something in neglecting to show Rue in the process of learning the ropes, especially where that ever-important character engine of failure is concerned. Having a character contend with the magic they’ve been alienated from all their life and hit a wall in the process is often the primary ingredient in turning a finale into a triumph––and its absence in Wings of Ebony removes suspense to its detriment.

Here, as foreshadowing for a second-act revelation, we get one brief scene of Rue trying the magic for the first time and discovering that she’s preternaturally good at it. The scene in question has multiple important thrusts––one even subtly interrogates Rue’s Ghizoni friend, Bri, and her immediately suspicious response to Rue’s talent as a product of racism––but it fails as a tool for enlivening Rue’s bond with her magic.

What’s more, that same second-act revelation makes way for everything Rue knows about Ghizon, including its magic, to be challenged, but even after the other shoe drops, the book still denies her the chance at growth through trial and error. Even when the magic is directly out of reach, only external forces prevent Rue from using it, facing her with an immediate limitation, and not a loss that has anything to say about Rue’s flaws or failing strategies. It’s an opportunity eschewed, in other words, and it’s a big part of the reason the third act falls flat.

The other major factor is the antagonist, who stays concealed until about halfway through the book, but once revealed loses all intrigue. Elle’s worldbuilding keys very skillfully into a hunger in contemporary fantasy for magical institutions established under false pretenses, and though that goal is obvious from the beginning, it’s still satisfying to watch the truth come to light, but in crafting the antagonist, she falls on the easiest, least challenging option––that goes both for the premise of the character, and for their simple, straightforward defeat.

In fact, the central conflict at large feels like a betrayal of the book’s complex aims. Instead of leaning into the systemic nature of Ghizon’s abuses, the book pins it all on a few authority figures our heroine has only to defeat to resolve. While it is made clear at the ending that there’s a substantial amount of work ahead for Ghizon, it’s still frustrating that the text chooses to rest injustice on a few bad actors in the end where it’s otherwise abundantly clear that widespread complicity is its primary enabler.

Wings of Ebony opts for the fast and easy ending, ultimately, where the slow and arduous is more suited to the occasion: in character, in magic, and in conflict. Because these areas are so crucial, the work as a whole misses the mark, despite its noble goals. There is much within it to be exited about, of course, but one can’t help but wish for more.