Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I Read in 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a series hosted on That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we’re looking back on a year of reading…and picking winners.


1. Villette by Charlotte Brontë

This 600-page gothic is the last novel published by the author of Jane Eyre before her death in 1855. It’s moody, atmospheric, and full of restrained longings, as you might expect, but Brontë also makes time for surrealism, tear-inducing tragedy, and a touch of caustic social critique. Following a young Englishwoman who takes a job at a boarding school across the channel, the novel plays its heroine beautifully off of her coworkers, superiors, and students, making use of everything from personal power dynamics to the maybe-paranormal for a deliciously complex, one-of-a-kind treat. (Bonus points for a well-earned yet utterly devastating ending.)


2. A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

Set against the fierce and magical Tournament of Wishes, Roshani Chokshi’s lyrical, mythology-infused fairy tale lacks nothing. A thorny tenuous-allies-to-lovers romance sweeps the pages like a storm. A vibrant cast of supporting characters––and creatures––brings her vivid worldbuilding to life. Her prose, though, is queen of them all: if extended metaphor and flourish-heavy turns of phrase are your thing, this book and its companion novel, The Star-Touched Queen, are an addiction you should’ve developed yesterday. Every page is a lyrical treasure, and it makes for a crushing loss when there are no more of them left to turn. (Reviewed here.)


3. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

I won’t shut up about Naomi Novik’s gorgeous, Eastern-European-inspired retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, and for good reason. It’s a work of fantasy with every trick up its sleeve, opening with a thoughtful look at antisemitism and its devastating personal consequences, and closing with a brilliant reinvention of the original fairy tale. As erudite as it is enchanting; as sweeping in scale as it is singularly concerned with every detail, Spinning Silver is a shining example of a fable re-sewn. Novik’s writing is meaty and absorbing, her worldbuilding is textured and considerate, and her love stories are impossible not to love. With all three combined, the result is pure magic. (Reviewed here.)


4. Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

Following Bree Matthews as she investigates the likely-magical death of her mother, Legendborn is Arthuriana fused with contemporary fantasy as I never knew I desperately needed to see it. In this brilliant take on the legends, the Round Table’s descendants are university students in a secret society, and they fight invading demons at a terrible human cost. But Deonn’s mythos goes deep, and there’s far more to this than meets the eye: a grizzled history entwined with systemic racism. A repressed form of magic whose power the knights’ heirs have failed to recognize. And the key to their future held in the last hands they’d expect. Alongside its heavy, and necessary, subject matter, though, Legendborn is thrilling, fast-paced, and addictive. Its 500 pages read like 250, and stick with you long after you’ve raced through them to the end.


5. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Of the three Dickens titles I’ve now read, Great Expectations is the comfortably-won favorite. It’s home to a zany and memorable supporting cast (Miss Havisham!), full of excellent setpieces, and occasionally even laugh-out-loud hilarious. The book’s endearing main character, Phillip Pirrip, or ‘Pip,’ is such a moving depiction of how status and its lack capture and obsess a young mind to the point of harm, and I found myself rooting for him even when it was clear he was setting himself up for pain. (And not just because of our shared nickname!) What’s most impressive, though, is how Dickens manages to honestly show a fundamentally flawed society while also making ample use of the nostalgic warm fuzzies: Great Expectations as a book is warm and welcoming, even if its setting is very authentically not.


6. The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

This stunning work of high fantasy and its superb sequel, The Shadowed Sun, are vast epics of genuinely jaw-dropping vision. Set in a secretive priesthood that uses the magic of dreams to heal (or destroy), N.K. Jemisin’s sophomore duology offers delicately-crafted political intrigue, arresting visuals, and a far-ranging exploration of war and occupation. As is becoming a theme on this list, the prose is dense, rich, and infinitely rewarding, but the setting it’s calibrated for does you one even better. It feels like Jemisin left this world out to mature for a few thousand years, then decided to put it to use in her story. The City of Gujareeh is filled with history and brimming with organic tension, and it feels anything but invented.


7. If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

If you’re familiar with The Secret History, If We Were Villains has a similar setup: an intimate and obsessed group of young scholars (Shakespeare, this time, instead of classics), a murder, and an extremely culpable institution of higher education. What Villains offers, though, and uniquely, in my opinion, is an understanding of the fact that vulnerable artists act to protect one another where directors and administrators fail. That’s the animating factor in the central tragedy: very much in Shakespearean fashion, this condemning, bloody deed is yet an act of love. Largely because of this, but also because it’s bolstered by a compelling ensemble and a superlative use of the Bard’s tragedies, If We Were Villains is a god-tier work of dark academia.


8. Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor

Laini Taylor’s 2017 Strange the Dreamer is an exquisite enough series opener on its own. Muse of Nightmares, its follow-up, is just showing off on Taylor’s part, honestly. Now that its lead, the subdued librarian Lazlo Strange, has found the lost city of Weep, his lifelong obsession, it would’ve been all too easy for the sequel to sputter out in the absence of its starting conflict. What steps up to replace it, however, is doubly good: Taylor’s use of the distant past in creating a dire present is skillful and satisfying, and her ability to craft a jaw-dropping setting continues to amaze.


9. Gilded by Marissa Meyer

This dark retelling of Rumpelstilskin (yes! another!) is a surprising new direction for the author of such romps as The Lunar Chronicles, and, most recently, Instant Karma, but, owing to its delectable wickedness, folkloric edge, and bracing sense of danger, it’s a promising one. Gilded is a tribute to fairy tales that has what our contemporary understanding of them often lacks: a starring role for fear. In Meyer’s dark forest, we feel every bit of the terror that bids her characters to shut their doors and bar their windows every full moon, and when her lead, Serilda, falls into the grasp of the terrifying Erlking, no punches are pulled in our introduction to her best villain yet.


10. The Excalibur Curse by Kiersten White

The first two books in Kiersten White’s Arthurian trilogy, The Guinevere Deception and The Camelot Betrayal, are engrossing for their big questions: if our heroine, who’s taken the “real” Guinevere’s place as Queen, has no memory of her past, what secrets is it hiding? In the war between magic and order, who is right? The Excalibur Curse answers them in a way that’s likely to be divisive, but as a trilogy finale, it’s all the more admirable for the risks it takes in this department. White’s take on Arthur and his quest is substantial and nuanced, and her take on Guinevere herself more than once moved me to actual tears. I keep returning to Arthuriana often, and this series, full and gratifying in its now-completeness, is an exemplar as to why.


Thank you so much for reading! I hope you had an excellent year for books, and I most definitely want to hear about all your favorites, in the comments below:

“The Raven Boys” Is Pretty Much As Good As Everyone Says It Is

True to its eclectic central ensemble, The Raven Boys, the first entry in the much-beloved Raven Cycle quartet by Maggie Stiefvater, is a study in odd yet illuminating pairings. Eerie paranormal atmosphere with a small-town, (mostly) working class point of departure. A messy present against a legendary past. Witches, ghosts, tombs and rituals…all explored in a car so shitty, Stiefvater makes it a running joke worthy of a teen comedy.

Even if none of these things entice you on their own, it’s worth picking up The Raven Boys just for a glimpse at how elegantly and effortlessly Stiefvater puts them to work together, uniting the book’s many contrasting influences under a thoughtful, self-aware take on a familiar theme: a cast of ordinary characters on a quest for glory and meaning.

Blue Sargent, the only non-psychic in a family full of them, is after an explanation when a spirit––of someone still living, but fated to die––appears to her for the first time. Gansey, unknowingly the spirit in question, is after the tomb of a legendary Welsh king. Accompanied by three of his prep school friends, Adam, Ronan, and Noah, the two end up embroiled in magic much older, and bigger, than them both, as buried secretes and strained home lives come to light.

Bear in mind, however, that the development of things in The Raven Boys is something of a slow burn. Important details aren’t always clear at first. Meetings that another writer would be eager to get out of the way wait until Stiefvater has us steeped in background and baggage, ready to appreciate their full significance.

This runs the risk of alienating some readers––and even did so for me, for about the first hundred pages––but with a contemporary fantasy that leans so heavily on the contemporary, an approach that takes such a risk is necessary. It gives us what we need to understand why someone like Gansey is after his legendary boon in the first place. I’ll use Emily Henry’s marvelous When The Sky Fell On Splendor as a point of comparison, because the answer in both works is essentially, and beautifully, the same: our characters are caught in the spell of thinking the extraordinary will bring order and significance to their cluttered, complicated, and often nonsensical ordinary lives. The books’ shared catharsis is the equal parts devastating and comforting assurance that it won’t.

Also held in common is an understanding that elevates the found family dynamics in The Raven Boys and When The Sky Fell On Splendor from “people who regularly ride in a car together” to relationships of real narrative importance. Both books get that the quest for glory can seem like it’s good for friendship, but is really just destructive. The Raven Boys, in particular, does a good job using its quest to poke at one dynamic in particular, with the added layer of class: that of Gansey and Adam.

Of the four titular Raven Boys, Adam is the only one to come from modest circumstances, and Stiefvater, in the steeping-time one might mistake for filler, is careful to note this. As a result, the conflict between them is rich, realistic, and ripe for the paranormal externalizing––fittingly, the culmination of all Gansey & co.’s questing is also a deeply satisfying answer to the inequality and dependence Gansey has cultivated among his friends over the years. And, overall, extending this consideration to Gansey’s disparity in means with Blue as well, the broader attention paid to class in this book is refreshing and much-appreciated.

Now, to discuss too much of the villain would be to drown in spoilers, so I say only this. In John Truby’s 2006 screenwriting masterpiece The Anatomy of Story, he writes that “the contrast between hero and opponent is powerful only when both characters have strong similarities” and “the best opponent is the necessary one: the character best able to attack the great weakness of your hero.” That last kernel of advice is often taken directly, but Stiefvater makes it work even better by comparison, crafting a dark mirror that takes Gansey’s flaws to chilling extremes. Her choice of opposition is perfect, and I will use it as an example whenever I make this point until the end of time. That is all.

But, however much praise I have for the choice itself, the execution of the twist associated with it is a little more mixed. I’m not entirely sure if the villain (and their buried connection to the main ensemble) was meant to surprise, but the pacing certainly gathers around the plot beat like they were, and whatever energy or forward thrust it might’ve added is noticeably missing in the lead-up to the climax. With a lack of investment in the character of [spoiler], what should really be a revelation lands as more of a dull thud, and even though the theme-related value of the development in question is abundant, the actual reading experience doesn’t make it feel that way.

Blue, also, can come across at times like an observer. Her drive as a character is plausible, and discernible even from the prologue’s four-page glance at her life as the one non-clairvoyant in a family of psychics. But though the book goes as far as to express that need directly in narration, and often (“some days it did seem a little unfair that all the wonder and power that surrounded her family was passed to Blue in the form of paperwork”), it’s never fully-realized, yielding a character with reasons to want a glimpse at the supernatural she’s been excluded from, but not, like with Gansey, a set of motivations you can feel.

That said, The Raven Boys is still a solid, satisfying first volume, and for the most part, it carries its task very well. I’m definitely continuing with the series! There’s a baby raven, a tragically-foreshadowed romantic subplot, and mysterious new magical powers yet to come in Stiefvater’s follow-up, The Dream Thieves. What’s not to love?


Thank you so much for reading? Have you read The Raven Boys? What did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 💕

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on My Winter 2021 To-Read List

Top Ten Tuesday is a series hosted on That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we’re looking ahead to yet another season of books I hope I’ll finish (feel free to poke me until I do)…


1. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Immensely popular among my bookish friends, Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle series has been imposed onto my radar for some time. Following Blue Sargent, a non-psychic from a family full of seers, and an ensemble of private school boys obsessed with the burial site of a legendary Welsh king, the series’ devoted fans are legion, and I look forward to finding out whether I’ll be among them. My history of fantasy with paranormal leanings is mixed, but having just begun the book, I’m intrigued. Stiefvater’s prose is witty and apt, and she paints her many characters vividly, albeit with a broad and hurried brush. If my first impressions are to be trusted, I’m in for a treat.


2. As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Still making my way through my Complete Works, I find myself eagerly awaiting this one: a lighthearted pastoral full of romantic misadventures and home to one of Shakespeare’s most iconic settings, the Forest of Arden. I saw it staged years ago, and little memory of the plot remains, but I can always find something to love in the Bard’s comedies, and I shall be bereft when I’ve made my way through them all and there are no new ones left to discover.


3. Gilded by Marissa Meyer

Marissa Meyer, the author of The Lunar Chronicles, Renegades, and, most recently, Instant Karma, pretty much owns me now, and I’ve made my peace with it. Her new book, Gilded, is a venture into the realm of fantasy and a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, promising deadly court intrigue and sinister magic. For my tastes, Meyer is fairly dependable for great character dynamics and vibrant worldbuilding, and I’m eager to see how these talents express themselves in her return to fantasy (which she visited briefly with 2016’s standalone, Heartless).


4. The Excalibur Curse by Kiersten White

First things first: I love the Camelot Rising trilogy and I wish it didn’t have to end. But, if it must, I have high hopes for its concluding volume. Kiersten White’s approach to beloved figures from Arthuriana is fresh, compelling, and often even surprising. The domestic-minded approach of her worldbuilding––special attention to young women and maidservants, an element of domestic labor entwined with the magic––gives a well-trod legend appropriate new focus. I would be remiss, however, if I neglected to mention my deep investment in the romance department: I’ve spent the past year on the edge of my seat over Guinevere’s endgame, and if it’s not Arthur, I’ll be devastated (but, because it’s Kiersten White, in a good way).


5. Red Tigress by Amélie Wen Zhao

The sequel to her 2019 debut fantasy Blood Heir, Amélie Wen Zhao’s Red Tigress follows the Crown Princess Anastacya as she tries to wrest back control of her troubled kingdom. Zhao’s is precisely the kind of fantasy I need to return to every now and then: bloody, detailed, and far more about the criminal underbelly of her Russian-inspired Cyrilian Empire than it is about the throne rooms and royal soirées. While the royal power struggle didn’t immediately grab me, the rebellion subplot––and the ethical complexity of the charismatic romantic lead––did, and I’m eager to see where the sequel takes us.


6. A Sorrow Fierce and Falling by Jessica Cluess

The final volume of Cluess’ Kingdom on Fire trilogy, A Sorrow Fierce and Falling, takes place in a Victorian England teeming with inter-dimensional monsters, where the magic needed to defeat them is caught in a reductive, repressive class system that’s sustained a litany of strategic losses in the face of crisis. In the first two books, Cluess makes quick work of stringing excellent tension amidst her courtly drama, while also astutely critiquing the system that created it. Even though the second book, A Poison Dark and Drowning, fumbles some of book one’s promise, I look forward to devouring book three. Enthralling worldbuilding, compelling dynamics, and a fraught web of romantic entanglements are sure to make this one a delight.


7. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Here’s something I doubt you know about me: I was obsessed with The Lord of the Rings as a fifth grader. In the meantime, I’ve let my obsession rest, but, having re-read The Hobbit last year, I think it’s finally time to rekindle my love of Middle Earth. Coming to it as an adult with more-developed tastes is bound to be an interesting experience, but, if anything, the years I’ve spent in fantasy better prepare me to appreciate where much of it came from. A few more fond memories, though, wouldn’t hurt, either.


8. Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans

I’m, admittedly, rather weak on nonfiction, but this thick, extensive history of ballet by a dance critic whose work I admire caught my eye a while back. Stretching hundreds of years and packing an impressive bibliography, Apollo’s Angels intimidates me, but I’m apt to the challenge. In the past year, I’ve been loving all things ballet: taped productions from Sleeping Beauty to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, documentaries like A Ballerina’s Tale and Ballet 422, and now, hopefully, books! I can’t promise I’ll become a prolific nonfiction tome reader from now on, but, fingers crossed––this looks like a promising start.


9. Star-Touched Stories by Roshani Chokshi

Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen is a spellbinding, lyrical fantasy with immaculate prose, and its companion novel, A Crown of Wishes, is even better. Star-Touched Stories, a collection of short stories from the world of both, is a tantalizing offer for a lover of the books, and I was thrilled to discover it after finishing A Crown of Wishes with the distinct suspicion that I’d never recover. Chokshi, as mentioned, writes beautifully, and I can’t wait to see her fairy-tale flair put to use in the medium of short story.


10. A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde

I loved Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest, so it’s only natural that I continue on in my anthology and make my way to another, no doubt, delightful comedy of manners. I’m looking forward to another jaunt with Wilde’s banger dialogue, and I’m always down for a 19th-century social satire, so this’ll make for a fitting play to round out the year. I’m also eager to see if it unseats Lady Windermere’s Fan as the reigning favorite––though it’s the least popular of Wilde’s “drawing room” plays, I have high hopes.


Thank you so much for reading! What are your winter reading plans? Have read/want to read anything on this list? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 💕

“The Gilded Ones” Is A Viciously Good Fantasy Debut

In a quiet village on the edge of an empire, a girl carries demon blood.

She doesn’t know it, of course––Deka, like every other girl in Otera, hopes she’ll be found to bleed red and “pure.” The Gilded Ones opens on the day all of this is to be revealed, and as such things tend to go in the first chapter of a fantasy novel, there is no red blood to be found in Deka. Instead, she bleeds gold: the mark of an alaki, a female demon with supernatural abilities, and, at least as far as the Oteran Empire is concerned, no prospects beyond death…or war.

From this, Namina Forna crafts an engrossing girl-meets-magical-combat story with a keen eye on the political and no shortage of gory details, courtesy of the book’s monsters, the sonically fatal deathshrieks. The joy of this book is in its many subtle triumphs: a charming supporting cast, excellent reveals, rich West-African-inspired worldbuilding––and, with precious few exceptions, every element is at the top of its game and basically never leaves it. Some of it, you’ve admittedly seen before, but I’d wager that it’s been quite some time since you’ve seen it done so well.

When Deka is brought to the capitol to train in an elite battalion of alaki, for example, her quest hits a familiar beat in YA fantasy, but what makes Forna’s approach to it stand out lies in what is both obvious and deceptively easy to omit: the actual training.

Forna doesn’t just use Deka’s training as an excuse to bring her closer to the action; it is a stage of the journey all its own. The Warthu Bera, the elite training complex where Deka learns to harness her talents, is incontestably the most crucial and vividly-rendered set piece between The Gilded Ones‘ covers, both in the literal, actual details, and in the elusive emotional ones. With a paradigm shift as drastic as the one Forna puts into play later on (no spoilers, but it’s impressively foreshadowed and deeply satisfying), it’s easy to let the implications taint the training of the first and second acts, but she strikes an excellent balance that allows the reader to look back and see the foreboding signs while also regarding that time with fondness. [And fondness, mind you, is a very powerful tool. Half the reason Leigh Bardugo has me by the throat like she does is because of how fervently I love the Little Palace, and, uh…the Warthu Bera might just be my new Little Palace.]

Beyond the Warthu Bera, however, things are just as exciting. Otera is a rare treat of a fantasy world whose secrets are delicately kept until necessary. Forna, also a screenwriter, controls and reveals information with the timing and precision her second craft requires, much of it entangled with memorable, cinema-ready imagery. The Gilded Ones, frankly, has too many iconic/notorious scenes to name: hidden temples, deathshriek raids, monstrous encounters, and vivid deaths, all of them positively begging for an adaptation. (Pretty please?)

Also––another thing I’m sensing as a screenwriter strength––Forna never wastes a side character. Deka’s journey from complacency to action is plausible, well-paced, and inextricable from our understanding of her world as readers, but it rests on a cast of distinctive, diverse, and well-thought-out supporting players, and that under-sung strength is as important as a great lead.

For Deka’s peers, Forna is careful to inject some complexity into their girl-to-warrior journeys. Even though Deka finds liberation in gathering warlike strength, not all the alaki feel the same way, and those who don’t are present, too, which keeps The Gilded Ones from falling prey to conflating weaponry with women’s rights in an all-too-common 1-to-1 conversion.

In some way, all the alaki are carefully thought-out responses to the world of Forna’s creation. They’re compelling in a literary sense, as much or even more than they are lovable human beings to root for, and strength in those areas combined is what truly rounds out a solid cast of peers.

Things really get interesting a little higher up in the ranks, however. With the Karmokos, elite teachers at the Warthu Bera who all share a background as assassins, Forna toes the line between dangerous and trustworthy, letting us waffle in uncertainty as Deka senses sedition in her immediate superiors, and is torn on what to do about it.

This applies most heavily to one character whose identity it is a spoiler to reveal, but there are glimpses of it in the other Karmokos; enough to make what would otherwise be an innocuous training scene in another fantasy novel feel deliciously heightened. (My favorite minor character, Karmoko Huon, only gets the spotlight for one scene, but boy, is it memorable.)

While the novel’s conclusion, sadly, is so heavy with exposition that it’s a slog to the rest of the book’s impeccably smooth sailing, The Gilded Ones is, by and large, exactly the thrill its premise promises. With a sequel on the horizon and a gorgeously expanded scope to accompany it, this budding trilogy is definitely one to watch. The Merciless Ones comes out in May of 2022, and there’s already an empty space on my shelf waiting for a copy.


Have you read The Gilded Ones? What did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 💕

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Fall 2021 To-Read List

Top Ten Tuesday is a series hosted on That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we’re looking ahead to a season of books I hope I’ll finish (feel free to poke me until I do)…


1. Within These Wicked Walls by Lauren Blackwood

If you’ve read my incoherent babbling about Jane Eyre, you know I have a taste for the gothic, and Lauren Blackwood’s debut, an Ethiopian-inspired fantasy set in an old castle beset by a curse, looks poised to check each and every one of those boxes. Atmospheric, eerie fantasy in step with House of Salt and Sorrows and Down Comes The Night (which I also have to get to!) has seen a surge lately, and I couldn’t be happier to see this trend culminate in a fresh, diverse take on a time-honored setup. Sketchy manor, possible ghosts, and romantic tension? I’m in.


2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

I’m still getting a taste for my opinion on Dickens’ canon. A while back, I read Our Mutual Friend, which I loved up until the last hundred pages, and A Tale of Two Cities, which I enjoyed all the way through, if rather mildly. Great Expectations, his penultimate complete novel, contains one of his most iconic characters in Miss Havisham and, in general, gets talked about a lot, so I’m anxious to see where I stand on it. It’s been too long since I’ve picked up a 19th-century doorstopper, frankly.


3. If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio

Dark academia is very popular at the moment, but I think there’s a lot of potential in a similar subgenre, one with the psychological toll of the performing arts in the spotlight instead. M. L. Rio’s literary thriller follows a clique of Shakespearean actors reeling from a murder, and deeply beloved as it is in my bookish circles, I think it’s high time I crack it open and give it a try. If nothing else, my ego will have a field day feeling clever for spotting all the references.


4. Cytonic by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward, the young-adult space epic from Brandon Sanderson, has totally devoured my life. The deep love I have for Spensa and her wonderful supporting cast knows no bounds, and I have been reeling from the cliffhanger at the end of Starsight since I turned that last page. (Reviewed in my August wrap-up here.) I’m anxious to see where Sanderson takes us after that jarring and ambitious turn, and even more anxious to jump into another rousing adventure through a galaxy that’s become one of my new favorites to play in.


5. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South, Gaskell’s clear-eyed romance set in the North of England in a time of industry and turmoil, is beloved for a reason: with a strong moral core and powerful character dynamics, it’s a punch in the gut in the best way possible. Mary Barton is her first novel, similarly concerned with love, labor and class, and I can’t wait to dive in. In my limited experience with books from the 1840s, they’ve reliably tended to slap.


6. A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger

Last year’s Elatsoe (reviewed here), a brilliant murder mystery with a fabulist twist, was a rare treat. Following Ellie, a Lipan Apache teenager who uncovers a magical conspiracy with the help of her dog’s ghost, it offers a surprising combination of elements that seem like they shouldn’t work together, but do, and like a dream, at that. Little Badger’s follow-up, a fantasy that takes its cues from Lipan Apache storytelling, sounds magnificent. If it’s anything like her first, I’ll be absolutely falling over myself with praise.


7. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

I’m about halfway through Jane Austen’s body of work––Mansfield Park I adored, Persuasion I was rather fond of, and Emma…we don’t discuss. Sense and Sensibility doesn’t get talked about as often as its all-but-ubiquitous sister, Pride and Prejudice, but it has its loyal fans all the same, and for my part, I hope to be one of them. I’ll say this right now, though: I doubt it’ll top Mansfield Park (very little can).


8. The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black

At great injury to my pride, this wildly popular series has won my heart in its entirety. (The saga is chronicled here.) Alas, all things must end, and it’s time for me to make my way to the divisive final book. I can’t say with any conviction what I think my opinion will be, but as it stands now, it’s been far too long since I’ve read about Jude Duarte, and I’m itching to return to Faerie, especially because that plot twist at the end of The Wicked King was just rude, on Holly Black’s part. Honestly.


9. Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare

For the past couple months, I’ve been making my way through my ancient Complete Works at about a play a week, and after adoring Measure for Measure, I’ve grown ever more intrigued by the two other comedies classified as “problem plays,” stories with a happy ending, technically, that still tow the line between comedy and tragedy. All three are later plays, generally thought to hold a healthy dose of complexity and contradiction, and with how gracefully Measure for Measure straddled these tonal opposites, I can only hope that Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet‘s more cynical cousin, serves up the same. I’m equally excited for All’s Well That End’s Well, though.


10. The Faithless Hawk by Margaret Owen

This sequel to Margaret Owen’s The Merciful Crow has a promising point of departure. I’m always down for overthrowing the reigning monarch in fantasy, and with Owen’s tightly-controlled scope and thoughtful take on magical caste at the helm, The Faithless Hawk‘s odds look really good. I’m hoping the prose holds up a little better in action scenes, but even if it doesn’t, there’s a lot to love about this story: dialect woven gracefully into the narration, a slow-burn, platonic hate-to-begrudging-respect subplot, and of course, the cat. I would die for Barf without hesitation. ❤


Thus ends the first TBR post of any kind I’ve written for the blog! How are your fall reading plans? I’d love to hear about the books you’re looking forward to, or your thoughts on any of mine, in the comments 💕

“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.

What I Read in August

Hello, and welcome back to the blog! Before I dive into my August reads, I wanted to mention that, with the start of school approaching, I’ll be cutting back my posting to once a week. Tuesdays will be my day moving forward, though I hope a stray Friday post will find its way here every now and then. Now: onto the books!


64. Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

In this sequel to Sanderson’s YA space romp, Skyward, we join our lead and newly-minted pilot Spensa as she undertakes a mission to the heart of enemy territory in disguise. After a few too many plot-enabling coincidences in the first act, Starsight‘s thrusters kick in and the book roars forward with impressive gumption. Sanderson writes a space-dogfight with energy rivaling that of Star Wars, and gifts us with a lovable new ensemble that well and enough makes up for the fact that we see so little of the old one. Diplomacy also steps up to play a surprising role in this otherwise war-minded take on a galaxy in distress, forcing Spensa to contend with the limits of her––and humanity’s––trigger-happy approach to conflict. Complex, expansive, and with a devastating cliffhanger ending, Starsight does its job very well: I’m chomping at the bit for book three.


65. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik’s loose retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin” is a book of many talents. Gorgeous world, generous characterizations, rich character dynamics, and incredible complexity abound in this absorbing wonder of a book. Novik’s careful attention to the everyday lives of her characters does as much or more to form the sinews of her fantasy as the magic itself, reveling in trade, candlelight, and craft. The romances, of course, like the one in Uprooted, are catnip to anyone who has a taste for love stories of the Death-and-the-Maiden variety, but some of the book’s most moving portraits are of family, its every page as welcoming as the warmest fireplace. (Reviewed here.)


66. The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

I don’t consider myself a denizen of the historical genre, but for Kate Forsyth, I’ll make an exception. In The Wild Girl, set during the Napoleonic Wars, Forsyth follows a young Dortchen Wild as she falls for one of the neighbor boys, a young scholar by the name of none other than Wilhelm Grimm. The real-life Dortchen Wild is actually documented as the source of many of the fairy tales compiled and edited by the Brothers Grimm, and, with precious few liberties, The Wild Girl fits them into a compelling dramatic framework, bolstered by a moving look at the effects of war on the middle class. Though the book sometimes drifts into sensationalism, it remains softly, stirringly human.


67. The Wicked King by Holly Black

After entertaining a middling opinion of The Cruel Prince, the very last thing I expected was for its sequel to sweep me off my feet. By expanding the scope of her world, amping up the personal stakes and wielding enigma like a dagger, Holly Black crafts a sequel that is dizzyingly fun and full of surprises, both personal and political. On the personal front, The Wicked King boasts the defining moments of one of young adult’s finest enemies-to-lovers couples, which, at long last, I finally have no choice but to root for. On the political, though, Black doesn’t neglect to keep pace: court intrigue, rival kingdoms, and a fair share of spying anchor the deliciously thorny romance for a singular fantasy treat. (Reviewed here.)


68. A Dress for the Wicked by Autumn Krause

This book’s pitch promises couture enlivened with intrigue: when a teenage seamstress gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance to compete in a design competition, she must fend off doubt, elitism…and sabotage. A Dress for the Wicked, however, is plagued by weaknesses endemic to the contest setup, from personal stakes floundering under competitive ones to contestant-character soup. Things pick up after a lumbering first half, but not enough to compensate for the peril feeling wholly arbitrary. With a supporting lineup of mostly flimsy archetypes, a stale and tensionless romance, and blunt, unrefined prose, the book evokes a gown in substantial need of tailoring.


69. Great Goddesses by Nikita Gill

Nikita Gill’s re-imagining of Greek myth holds poems of varying potency. My favorites are all the ones that inject tenderness where we’ve previously imagined cruelty: what Gill does with Hephaestus and Aphrodite, Ares and Calliope, and Hades and Persephone marks, I think, the height of this collection. Gossamer-delicate, liberal with humanity, and refreshingly sincere. Sometimes, though, where Gill is more overt with her themes, they lose the meat of their substance, leaving the reader with little more than bones to chew on. Great Goddesses is well-suited to portraiture and less so to manifesto, but strong with imagery across the board––even in poems I didn’t like, I have phrases tabbed for future reference.


70. Reality Boy by A. S. King

Every time I read another A.S. King, I find myself wishing it was Please Ignore Vera Dietz, her incredible debut. Reality Boy is no exception: stripped of the gritty fabulism that lines her other books, it has only realism to rest on, which, in this volume, makes for a clumsy stance that leaves it apt to lose its footing. King’s interrogation of reality TV and its human damages is powerful, but her plotting and scene structure isn’t; I often had to read chapters over again because the whole thing escaped me. Though suited to the character, the narration is both vulgar and abrupt, yielding a reading experience that left me struggling to keep up and feeling punished for doing so.


71. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid’s tale of war and migration turns a keen eye on policy failure where it concerns aiding refugees, but mostly owing to his choice of style, I struggled to appreciate it. The book contains one element of magic realism, but its use is sparse and purely utilitarian, which comes as a sore disappointment to any fool (me) who picked it up for that reason in particular. Hamid is much more interested in his characters, but his approach to style tends to keep them at arm’s length. Pages and pages will pass with no dialogue whatsoever, for instance, the scenes not so much transpiring as being recounted to the reader. All of this is intentional, of course, but it makes the characters feel like strangers even by the book’s end, their substance closed to us by the author’s pen.


72. When the Sea Is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen

This quiet fantasy from 2012 holds many little treasures: an interesting, Victorian-tinged maritime setting, a unique approach to the love triangle, and an elegant use of sea-based eldritch horror are chief among its charms. But where fictional caste is concerned, Hellisen falters, falling into the extremist member of the minority-as-villain trap in a way that shines unfavorably on the narrative’s ultimate deference to the status quo. Still, the book’s depiction of the crumbling splendor of once-great houses of wealth is ripe for exploration, as is the internalized elitism in Felicita, When The Sea Is Rising Red‘s fugitive heiress heroine. At just under three hundred pages, though, the novel’s lofty aims of a revolution begun and ended feel rushed, and Felicita’s development, likewise, unfinished.


73. The Betrayed by Kiera Cass

Kiera Cass’ latest duology isn’t for everyone, but there is more to love here than just a re-run of The Selection. Both volumes, The Betrayed in particular, are heavy on family dynamics, paying just as much page time to our protagonist’s adopted mother figures as to the romance and the (woefully) shaky plot. Some of my hopes from The Betrothed, which I, seemingly alone in this, loved, were dashed, but this book mostly makes up for it. In subtle ways, through small tokens and intimate scenes of character development, Cass knows, just as well as any of her books’ love interests, how to win a girl’s heart. (Reviewed here.)


74. The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen

Where When The Sea is Rising Red is coy about its fictional caste system, Margaret Owen’s debut is uniquely concerned with hers––and its troubled bottom rung. Known as the Crows, it is their lot to contain a plague ravaging the land of Sabor, and they face unprovoked violence and apathy from authority figures as they do so. While there’s plenty of on-the-page danger, however, there’s something about Owen’s prose that keeps the suspense from singing. There’s more than enough elsewhere to make up for it, though: a thoughtful look at a corrupt and unequal society, a textured approach to worldbuilding, and strong relationship dynamics (both platonic and romantic) anchor this sturdy, purposeful first installment.


So concludes August! How was your reading month? Feel free to tell me about your favorites, least favorites, and general bookish antics, in the comments. 💕

“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.