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 know 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, with the help of her dog’s ghost, uncovers a conspiracy in a magical America mostly like our own, 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 💕

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.

What I Read in July

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


55. Magic Study by Maria V. Snyder

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


56. Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

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


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

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


58. Exhalation by Ted Chiang

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


59. Ten Thousand Skies Above You by Claudia Gray

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


60. Ice Like Fire by Sara Raasch

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


61. Archenemies by Marissa Meyer

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


63. Villette by Charlotte Brontë

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


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

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


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

Enthralling Politics and Shaky Magic in “Ice Like Fire”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Messy Second Installment in “Magic Study”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Wanted More From “Summer of Salt”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!