If You Liked This 📕, Try That 📖

Greetings, fellow book fanatics! I come bearing recommendations 😌

Now, a read-alike for a book you love is not an easy thing to come by (trust me, I’ve been trying to rekindle the Selection magic for years), but if you’ve read and enjoyed any of the titles on this list, I hope I can be of help to you in falling in love all over again.

(Especially if you’re a Lunar Chronicles fan who needs to read R.C. Lewis’ Stitching Snow, now. This is too important to leave until the rest of the list. Do it. Watch Jupiter Ascending (2013), and then do it.)

1. Small Favors by Erin. A Craig 👉 Extasia by Claire Legrand

If you’re anything like me, Erin A. Craig’s gorgeous sophomore work of horror fantasy, Small Favors, absolutely has you by the throat. With a romance that keeps you guessing, an atmospheric woodsy setting whose trials you can feel, and salient commentary to be made about how the binds between people crumble under hardship, it’s a mesmerizing work you won’t soon forget.

Extasia, though it’s a post-apocalyptic horror about witches, has a lot of the same themes, and lands them equally well. Just like Small Favors, it gets right to the heart of what makes rigid, isolated communities so dangerous, particularly for young women. Though a bit more bloody than Small Favors, Extasia is an invigoratingly vengeful response to a similar set of evils.

2. Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo 👉 The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Look: I make no secret of the fact that half my personality comes from Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse. I’ve taken the quiz, I’ve watched the show, I’ve, um…read the fanfiction 🙈? There’s just something about the unrestrained fun of a girl discovering secret powers, being taken to a palace to learn how to wield them, and finding herself in a web of intrigue, that hits every time.

But nowhere else does it hit quite the same way as it does in Namina Forna’s The Gilded Ones, where the author’s unique combination of ultra-cinematic storytelling, explicit feminist critique, and heavy focus on on-the-page training makes this setup feel addictively fresh. The book also cinches on a masterfully-executed paradigm shift that flips our understanding of the world and its monsters right on its head. The West-African-inspired worldbuilding is also drop-everything incredible, and practically every setting Forna writes is a total stunner. (Reviewed here.)

3. Cinder by Marissa Meyer 👉 Stitching Snow by R. C. Lewis

My seventh grade self and I have one very important thing in common: if you pair a romp of a space opera with a fairy tale, we’re exceptionally easy to please. Such was the case when I first read Cinder: I loved the Star Wars-y energy Meyer brought to the proceedings of her Cinderella retelling, and I loved how her world’s sense of adventure accommodated royalty and spaceships alike.

Reviewers criticized Stitching Snow for being too similar to Cinder when it first came out in 2014. I’m here to tell you that they’re right, but it’s entirely to the book’s benefit. It has that same wonder, that same sense of humor, that same cocktail of space-opera worldbuilding that makes the rules of fairy tales compatible with the language of action-packed sci-fi. Plus, if you’re also a fan of the 2013 camp masterpiece Jupiter Ascending, this is the only title I’ve read so far that comes anywhere close to it in feel. You need more space Cinderella in your life, right? I think you need more space Cinderella in your life.

4. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman 👉 Trial by Fire by Josephine Angelini

I was utterly captivated when I first read The Golden Compass earlier this year, and I still haven’t stopped thinking about it. It’s a sprawling work of science fantasy that begins in a world with a few striking differences from our own, and expands to cover a struggle that encompasses multiple parallel universes. It comes armed with a thoughtful examination of the responsibilities adults have to children, and worldbuilding prowess that I, as a writer, genuinely envy. None of Pullman’s concepts seem like they should work together in theory, but it’s almost maddening how well they do.

Trial by Fire, the first in a YA trilogy by Josephine Angelini, also offers a satisfying blend of magic and sci-fi. Using some of the same principles Pullman draws upon in constructing his parallel universes, Angelini crafts a North America ruled by the witches who happened to survive their Salem trials in this timeline, anchored by a magic system that takes its cues from chemistry, and a similarly compelling set of ethical struggles. As a heads-up, this book was published in 2014, and I can’t speak to how well it represents its Indigenous characters, but Angelini does make an effort to include Native peoples in her re-imagining of American history.

Thank you so much for reading! Have you read any of these books? Have any other read-alikes to share? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 💕

Let’s Talk Bookish: Prologues & Epilogues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rule of Wolves” a Tepid Finale With Too-Easy Answers

The Grishaverse, fantasy author Leigh Bardugo’s expansive, multi-series magical work, is fast becoming too unwieldy to pitch in one sentence. Rule of Wolves, its most recent installment, is six books in the making and the sequel to King of Scars, a spinoff that follows the young and unready King of Ravka, Nikolai Lantsov, as his country heals from a grueling civil war and faces threats in the meantime from its richer and more powerful neighbors.

He’s not the only perspective character, though: joining him is Nina Zenik, a Ravkan spy on a mission in Fjerda, one of Ravka’s major aggressors, and Zoya Nazyalensky, a general of Ravka’s magical second army.

As the second book in a duology, Rule of Wolves opens with a lot hanging in the balance: there’s a major complication that dropped on the final page of book one, two potential wars brewing at Ravka’s borders, a subplot involving a mysterious blight of magical origin, and a pair of budding un-confessed romances, all to be put to rest between these covers.

It is with a heavy heart that I say it should be no surprise that Rule of Wolves suffers under these tall orders. Two books, hefty as they may be for the Young Adult category, just aren’t up to the task of supporting three, sometimes five, completely separate plots of the scope Bardugo is attempting here.

Six of Crows, another recent entry in Bardugo’s fantasy universe, also happens to follow multiple characters at once, but in all else, it’s a striking example of restraint––and that same restraint paying off. All the characters in Six of Crows are working towards the same goal, and, crucially, its scale suits a duology. Never do our perspective paths fully diverge, nor do our characters set in motion the stuff of multi-book sagas with only a few hundred pages left to go. Six of Crows is such an achievement because it strikes a balance: ambitious but controlled, bombastic yet considerate.

The worst part about Six of Crows‘ achievement, though, it that it almost makes you think Bardugo can manage it here. When you see her put another plot twist into play, you think of the surgical precision of the ones in her striking pair of heists. When you watch her break her magic system’s rules, you think of how well it worked to raise the stakes before. When she makes impossible promises, ultimately, you trust her, because she has a history of seeing them through with a stunning finish.

I remember, with some foreboding, now, that King of Scars read like the first volume in a long line of doorstoppers––it teased problems that couldn’t be solved by putting a magical macguffin in the right place, hinting at long and complicated conflicts beyond our characters’ shores. It was a tantalizing first glimpse, but of a delivery in all-out war with its package. Simply put, King of Scars is a check Rule of Wolves can’t cash. In fact, it’s a check no book can cash, at least not with these constraints, as evidenced by the bitter sting of a compelling setup clipped with an ending before it’s ripe.

To help illustrate how this book suffers for want of time, it might be helpful to look to one particular incident near the third act, where Zoya, Nikolai, and a small crew take a detour to the city of Ketterdam for the supply of titanium they need to make a working missile––the iffy diplomatic implications of stealing what they need and the obvious barrier of security standing in their way. The whole thing plays out over a few chapters, rendering what might have been a significant challenge a trivial fetch quest.

In its defense, the sequence’s primary accomplishment is in a major thrust of character work, which some of the best scenes in Rule of Wolves are often aiming for first, but the simple fact is that a collection of touching vignettes does not a sturdy novel make, and I worry that this detour’s place in the story rests more on a few cameos than actual narrative necessity.

Rule of Wolves has the decency to avoid making such callbacks and cameos gratuitous and all-encompassing, but in the face of what this new series could’ve become with page time adequate for its expansive ambitions, or at least some of the restraint that so served Six of Crows, it’s worth asking if King of Scars and Rule of Wolves lost something in refusing to cut ties with the past and move on.

To be perfectly frank, there’s a tragedy in these pages that has nothing to do with the hasty resolutions of a hungry brood of subplots––it’s in the fact that this book refuses to allow its new story to stand alone, apart from old favorites and plot threads long concluded. At every turn, there’s a harder, riskier, more compelling choice to be made, but sheltering in the laurels of its predecessors is a scurrying shell of a book without the freedom or courage to make them.

As dismal as it sounds, it’s an issue that is, at its heart, rather simple. In trying to balance the successes of the first series, which begins with Shadow and Bone, with those of Six of Crows, its follow-up, the King of Scars duology loses purchase on its clarity, for a messy fusing of disparate parts. Shadow and Bone is straightforward and archetypal, Six of Crows more gritty and complex. Resolutions that would fly in one realm feel like cop-outs in the other. And instead of committing to either, Rule of Wolves so badly wants the benefits of both that it strains itself to bridge them, and in the process, forfeits an identity of its own.

The price, in the end, is that these most recent books will forever be subsumed by their forebears, and always in want of a distinctive voice that could’ve been theirs, with only a touch more magic.