What I Read In December, Part II

Hello, and welcome to the blog! Last week, I shared the books I read earlier last month, and today, I’m wrapping up the wrap-up with seven more. The second half of the month had a fun mix of titles, a few delightful surprises, and the 120 books milestone! Without any further ado, I’m thrilled to be sharing it with you:


114. A Snake Falls To Earth by Darcie Little Badger

Set in both our world and in a perilous realm of shapeshifters and spirits, Darcie Little Badger’s follow up to 2020’s wildly inventive Elatsoe is somehow even more ambitious. A Snake Falls to Earth juggles a sizable ensemble, a climate allegory, two coming-of-age stories, a race to rescue an endangered species, and a viral video subplot: a valiant effort that’s impressive just in the undertaking, but comes at a sizable cost. Little Badger’s worldbuilding, and the way she weaves the paranormal into the mundane with charmingly practical considerations, remains a strength in her writing, as does the richness she brings to her Lipan Apache lead’s depiction, but in the end, A Snake Falls To Earth tries to carry so much that things feel like they get dropped. The aforementioned viral video subplot reads haphazardly, the ensemble is cramped in its limited page time, and the inclusion of a vague, never-seen villain faces the book’s suspense with obstacles it can’t overcome.


115. The Excalibur Curse by Kiersten White

This series finale for The Guinevere Deception is bound to frustrate some of its readers: Kiersten White opts for the vastly unexpected in answering her trilogy’s questions, from Guinevere’s true identity to the rightful course of her future, and not everyone who liked the first two books will be happy with how the cards fall in The Excalibur Curse. For my part, though, I had the time of my life. White’s Arthuriana is rich with love, duty, and sacrifice, and her moral dilemmas are well-poised to ask the most of her characters in thoughtful ways, including and especially when she puts them at odds. Her refusal to give Guinevere (and us!) every answer makes for a refreshing take on a mythos whose familiar patterns often feel set in stone, and the nuance The Excalibur Curse brings to its tenuous happy ending, is, strikingly, more gratifying than certainty could ever hope to be.


116. A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde

Going into this play expecting something as riotously funny as Wilde’s The Important of Being Earnest is a mistake, but, if you’re attentive, you’ll un-make it as soon as you realize what else A Woman of No Importance has to offer. High-brow quips and their jaded upper-class deliverers corner the stage at first, but as the story progresses, Wilde pulls off a perspective shift that interrogates the people we instinctively center, and asks us to reconsider the play’s forgotten women––calling particular attention to the way both rigid morality and cynical amorality fail them. Admittedly, the wealthy-nihilist characters tend to blend together, but the core cast and their ties are rendered very keenly, with special regard to Hester Worsley, a dour Mary Bennet type who could’ve easily been wasted as nothing more than comedic relief.


117. This Book Is Not Good For You by Pseudonymous Bosch

Pseudonymous Bosch’s Secret Series is one of the 2000s’ many militantly quirky middle grade sagas. You know the type: takes after A Series of Unfortunate Events, narrated by a snippy author character who likes to address the audience, puts its hyper-competent child leads adrift in a sea of comically evil or downright oblivious adults. How This Book Is Not Good For You lands in this sub-category, I can’t firmly say, but on its own, it’s enjoyable, albeit in a very selective way: if a mystery in which three precocious middle schoolers are pursuing a sinister chocolatier and his army of bean-sorting capuchins is precisely what you’re looking for, read it. If not, and I cannot stress this enough, don’t. These books are unabashedly weird and make use of their setpieces in a way that dubiously evokes Wes Anderson, two statements that can’t even begin to express how diligently Bosch hams it up––and how little he cares if you’re tired of the schtick.


118. The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

Another entry into Shakespeare’s notorious trilogy of yikes (accompanying The Merchant of Venice and Othello), this tale of a braggart marrying and “taming” a loud/violent/hysterical woman is precisely what it’s been criticized for over the years: sexist, reductive, and, when staged to the letter, cringe-inducing. That said, there’s something that makes me want to return to it anew. The idea of Katherine finding the love she’s been denied in someone who doesn’t make a show of being afraid of her is compelling, and if the staging makes an effort to show how wrong Petruchio is in trying to “tame” her, I could see it being a delightful watch. (With the allowance made, of course, that all of this must work against a misogynist original text.) For me, it’s fun for Shakespeare’s language, the breadth of potential interpretation, and the skill of his humor, but I don’t blame anyone else for not feeling this way, and, yeah, okay, maybe this shouldn’t be one of his most popular.


119. Cytonic by Brandon Sanderson

Held against the highs of the first two installments in Brandon Sanderson’s YA space opera, Cytonic, as solid a work as it is, can’t help but be a letdown. For one thing, Sanderson opts to start from the ground up and craft a lovable ragtag team in a wholly new setting for the third time instead of leaning on what he already has, and this go-round, it crosses the line from impressive and drifts into irritating. For another, we leave the galaxy explored in book two for the smaller, sparser world of the Nowhere, an unreality of time warps and pirates that just can’t shake the side-quest vibes. Sanderson does well with what he gives himself, though: the flight sequences we experience through our protagonist, Spensa, continue to be invigorating, and this volume is reflective in a way that adds favorably to the others.


120. Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 by David Petersen

Mouse Guard, a comic starring anthropomorphized fantasy mice, gets a satisfying expansion in this second arc of six issues, following guardmice from the stronghold of Lockhaven as they struggle to secure supplies and allies for the difficult winter ahead. Instead of lingering on the rebellion plot he introduced earlier, Peterson takes a lesser-trod but better-fitting path in turning his focus to the nuts and bolts of survival, both for the mouse cities struggling to persist in a world full of predators, and for the mice trapped on the roads between them in peril. In Winter 1152, the Mouse Guard world is enriched by extremes, made more vivid with memorable staging grounds, and re-invented in a way I hope the rest of the series makes good on.


Thank you so much for reading! How was your December in books? Do we have any titles in common? I’d love to hear about it, in the comments below 💕

What I Read In December

Hello and welcome back to the blog! I hope you capped off your reading year with a delightful final month. For my part, I read so much that I felt the need to split my wrap-up in half, a blessed occurrence that I can’t say I get to enjoy very often. Part 2 goes up soon, so, for now, allow me to regale you with Part 1!


107. The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

A troubled legacy kept me away from this play for a long time, and when I finally picked it up, I wasn’t visited with any pleasant surprises: Merchant begins with a fundamentally antisemitic premise and, though it has its moments, it never truly manages to overcome the harm done. While productions that work to depict Shylock sympathetically can be very moving (the 2004 film comes to mind), the problems of the ‘happy’ ending, the play’s handling of his daughter, and Shakespeare’s ultimate failure to challenge the status quo make me hesitate to hold it up as an example of any kind. The cast is compelling, the romantic subplots have meaningful cores, and some excellent uses of symbolism punctuate the play, but the flaws in The Merchant of Venice run deep, and I’m of the mind that it has to be staged very carefully. (It certainly doesn’t help that one of Portia’s early appearances contains a truly gobsmacking instance of unchecked racism, in Act II Scene VII.)


108. The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

This frothy thriller follows a working-class heroine who gets called up to the principal’s office one fateful morning to discover she’s heiress to a total stranger. Fast forward no more than a few chapters, and we learn that she gets practically the entire fortune if she lasts the whole year in said stranger’s lavish mansion. Things proceed from there at a compulsively readable fast clip: a central mystery with high stakes and, admittedly, a few stumbles, makes Jennifer Lynn Barnes’ short chapters go down like absolute candy, and a superlative love triangle rounds out the rest. Barnes is careful to keep her characters in danger, but, striking a skillful balance, she also gives The Inheritance Games all the trappings of a future comfort read, yielding a book that’s hundreds of pages of almost unbroken giddy delight. (Reviewed here.)


109. The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

Sunsets, air conditioning, and the Piggly Wiggly chain of grocery stores: each is a condition of a world where humans have an outsize influence on, well…the world. Each is also reviewed and rated on a five-star scale by John Green in this collection of essays. Green gives some much-needed voice to the contradictions of (privileged, English-speaking) contemporary life––I particularly appreciated how he made note of our being both destructively powerful and devastatingly powerless––but the essays themselves have a few unfocused misses in their midst. Memoir makes plenty of enriching appearances, but sometimes, Green uses it as an excuse to wander, and he’ll shuck the original topic for a broader conclusion the form doesn’t quite allow him to reach. Where he avoids this, though, his nonfiction writing has even better mileage than his fiction on making me cry. The best reviews have just the right ratio of research to reflection, and as such, are perfectly timed for a good sob. I give The Anthropocene Reviewed a tenuous four stars.


110. Ace by Angela Chen

Tackling a good mix of subjects through the asexual lens, reporter Angela Chen’s book is a solid entry into a sparse category of nonfiction for an even sparser area of public awareness. Being asexual myself, it was illuminating to see someone who shares my umbrella make such potent observations about the way we move through the world, and with such care given to other intersections of identity. Asexuals of color, asexuals who date and asexuals who don’t, male asexuals, and plenty in between all make an appearance in these pages, and Chen’s graceful incorporation of interview quotes and memoir make Ace read like several meaty magazine features in a row. The book sometimes wavers on organization, and it struggles to construct definitions that aren’t primarily by opposition, but it’s fascinating even for someone who’s familiar with the material, and I suspect it’d go a long way for someone who isn’t.


111. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

I say I don’t read paranormal, but paranormal keeps surprising me. The Raven Boys opens with ghosts, and for the most part, that’s what I expected going forward, but Stiefvater merely uses them as a way in to a modern tale of the legendary past that defies categorization. A psychic’s daughter sees the ghost of the boy she’s doomed to love…or kill. A prep school boy’s dogged mission to wake an ancient king is not all that it seems. With this setup, The Raven Boys makes potent observations on class, interrogates its complicated found family dynamic, and brings some much-needed self-awareness to a familiar fantasy quest for glory-meaning-absolution, three key successes that more than outweigh its fumbled twist, leisurely pacing, and occasional distance. (Reviewed here.)


112. Gilded by Marissa Meyer

As delightful as Marissa Meyer’s books are, one must admit: she has long struggled with villains. Her new duology opener, a Rumpelstiltskin retelling, marks a departure in lots of promising ways––darker tone, more rustic, storybook prose style, richer worldbuilding––but I found the greatest of its many little charms to be the discovery that, at long last, I was both afraid of and intrigued by Meyer’s Erlking. Marking the story by the full moons that light his brutal excursions into the mortal world, Meyer frolics with the sharper-toothed undertones of her fairy tale influences, and the result is enchantingly dangerous. Against the perilous backdrop, the softness of her hapless (not) gold-spinner heroine and the tenderness of the romantic subplot provide an enlivening contrast, leading Gilded to new depth for the author that I can’t wait to watch her explore.


113. As You Like It by William Shakespeare

As You Like It, is, I think, one of the weaker comedies. It makes use of plenty of the tropes and devices that Shakespeare delights with elsewhere, from the framing of nature as a counter to the rigidity of high society to a cross-dressing female lead, and at least one player or pairing is bound to win your heart (mine is Celia). Something, though, is missing. Maybe it’s the absence of real stakes once we leave Act I. Maybe it’s the tiresome, confrontation-poor anticlimax. Whatever it is, I can’t find enough to chew on in As You Like It, and, tragically, I think its spiritual siblings in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream far surpass it.


Thank you endlessly for reading! As always, I’d love to hear about your reading month (and if we share any titles!) in the comments below 💕

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 💕

What I Read In November

Happy December, everyone! I hope you’re all having a wonderful end to your reading year and rounding out looooong favorites lists. This month gave me some great reads, and I can’t wait to share them with you!


97. The Ivies by Alexa Donne

Alexa Donne’s first foray into the thriller realm is as salacious as it is scathing. Following a clique of teen saboteurs jockeying for spots at elite colleges, The Ivies pairs the fun of a rich, ruthless boarding school setting with the kind of critique everyone who’s been paying attention craves. Pay-to-play admissions, falsified applications, and general wealthy fuckery are front-and-center, and Donne is careful to keep the class tensions in mind as she crafts friendships, yielding a contemporary more status-aware than plenty in recent memory. The dialogue and execution occasionally veer into cheesy territory, and some of the murder suspects are a tad easy to eliminate, but taken as a whole, it’s timely, keen, and bitingly fun.


98. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

This classic play follows Nora Helmer, a young housewife and mother, as a dangerous secret from her past threatens to upend––and forces her to re-evaluate––her marriage. It’s subtle and rich in its investigation of the power imbalance between husband and wife, but it’s also, crucially, generous with Nora’s characterization, as potent an argument as any that one can be happy in moments; content as a mother, even, and still live in a household built on false pretenses. The play also boasts a couple standout side characters, a solid and intelligent use of foils, and a class-sensitive handling of the cast’s circumstances. I eagerly await my next opportunity to see it staged.


99. The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black

It would be folly to expect anything to outdo Holly Black’s utter banger The Wicked King (reviewed here), and, indeed, its follow-up and concluding volume, The Queen of Nothing is not *quite* so brilliant––but it’s still very good! While Black never managed to have me on the edge of my seat, she gave Jude one of the most satisfying character arc conclusions I’ve ever read, soothed my weepy heart with a lovely ending, and managed the stakes with excellent care. In a choice between the two, I’d opt for the controlled, fastidious third volume over the bombastic one, and The Queen of Nothing will forever be my reason why.


100. Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor

Laini Taylor’s exquisite novel Strange the Dreamer is a gorgeous example of fantasy at scale: she combines the history of a textured, lived-in world with strong visuals and spellbinding concepts for a book that invites awe above all else, and its sequel, Muse of Nightmares, is more than apt to bear the torch. This tale of a librarian and a lost city––of dreams and citadels, destruction and love––is one you can vanish into, and for five hundred wonderful pages, I did just that. Dense in prose and heavy with lore, this duology asks much of your attention, but it rewards you with an utterly magical reading experience that it almost pains me to imagine missing out on.


101. The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Following a young woman who finds herself in a battalion of magical warriors after being uncovered as a demon, this vivid West-African inspired fantasy has everything. Training sequences that are more than just a montage and handwaving? Check. A late-stage reveal that turns our entire understanding of the world upside-down? Check. Excellent fight scenes? Check. With the exception of its somewhat rushed conclusion, The Gilded Ones is never not firing on all cylinders. If you like the girl-discovers-powers, girl-becomes-soldier school of YA fantasy, Namina Forna’s contribution to it is among the best, and I endorse it heartily. (Reviewed here.)


102. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

I rather enjoyed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so I can’t imagine what must have changed in advance of my starting its follow-up. Regardless, I had an awful time: the jokes (including one trite and overlong gin-n-tonic gag that I will remember forever) tested my patience, the characters tested my ability to tell them apart, and all-in-all the book was longer than a 250-page mass-market paperback has any right to feel. Restaurant is one of the universe’s more miserable offerings, as far as I’m concerned––Total Perspective Vortex included.


103. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

This is an erstwhile favorite of mine, so I can hardly be prevailed upon to provide a crystalline first impression, but I can say this: I’ve seen the play in-person twice, watched the taped Julie Taymor version and the ballet, and even had a minor role in a production as a kid, and it still hasn’t gotten old. Shakespeare’s comedies are sparkling examples of great subplots and even greater ensembles, the dialogue is absolutely dripping with poetry, and every line is a delight. Wow I love this play.


104. Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders

This space opera follows the human clone of legendary Royal Fleet Captain Thao Argentian, as she struggles under the weight of her predecessor’s mantle and manages the awkward transition from contemporary teen life to active intergalactic combat. Tina herself makes for a snarky yet complex lead, but Victories Greater Than Death isn’t quite as lucky with the rest of the ensemble. After introducing them all at once, it fails to cut to the heart of all but two, leaving the found-family aspect feeling rushed and underdeveloped. In worldbuilding and ideas, though, the book has indomitable prowess: Anders crafts a resonant large-scale conflict, her aliens are inventive and fun, and her universe feels vast and storied, begging to be explored. Even if it weren’t for Elza, my favorite supporting character, and her upcoming perspective subplot, I’d be eyeing the sequel’s promises to take us to the Royal Space Academy and the Firmament with curiosity, and no shortage of temptation.


105. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

While not quite as elegant a story as North and South, Mary Barton, a social drama set against working-class life in Manchester, definitely has its moments. Gaskell uses her two love interests––one exorbitantly wealthy and one restricted by poverty––to moving effect, and the climax of the novel, which takes place during a murder trial (!!!) is engrossing and well-paced. But, as Gaskell’s first (published in 1848), it shows a heavy-handedness in writing about the poor that holds her back from fully considering her characters, and it ultimately shies away from full-bodied social critique, leaving the theme aspect lacking. Gaskell made some solid points, but she needed to make them much louder.


106. Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 by David Petersen

There will always be a place in my heart for anthropomorphized fantasy mice, and the first book in David Petersen’s Mouse Guard graphic novel series is no exception. As an artist, Petersen picks dynamic and vivid setpieces (you get to see a guard mouse use a leaf as a boat; it’s great!) and his illustrations have a memorable, rustic charm. Story, however, is more of a mixed bag. The good: Petersen understands the scale of his medium, and adjusts cast size and plot accordingly. The build is steady, the world is fleshed-out but not overwhelming, and he doesn’t try to plumb depths he can’t reach. The bad: the villains and their motives are ill-defined, limiting the potency of the conflict, and the climax feels a bit emotionally lacking. Tentatively, though, I think I’ll continue on.


Thank you so much for reading! How was your November for books? 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 💕

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.