“A Thousand Steps Into Night” Toes A Very Promising Line

In Traci Chee’s first work of fantasy since her wonderful The Reader trilogy, we meet the “unremarkable” personage of Miuko, an innkeeper’s daughter who tries her best to be everything she is not: meek, quiet, tidy, and acceptable. But when a sudden kiss from a shaoha sets Miuko on the path to becoming a demon herself, she must journey through Awara to restore her humanity before it’s too late. And with a monstrous possessed prince now on her tail, she’ll have to be much louder, more reckless, and more unacceptable than her comfort, and society’s, have ever allowed.

Recounted by a witty narrator who insists upon footnotes and flanked by a whimsical world filled with sprightly gods and vivid spirits, A Thousand Steps Into Night nails a balancing act I haven’t seen pulled off in YA in a long time. While it follows a teenage protagonist, I could easily see this book being adapted into a gorgeous animated film poised to become the future favorite of school-age kids, teenagers, and adults alike. It’s fun and lighthearted without being afraid of substance; ready and willing to challenge Miuko exactly where it hurts; and confident enough in its tone that extremes of all kinds––joyful, violent, ironic, wondrous––never feel out of place.

What Traci Chee nails most in this YA fantasy standalone, though, is a sense of scope. We may hop from place to stunning place a little quickly, but it’s with intention that a litany of striking magical palaces, temples, and forests parade through the pages of A Thousand Steps. Chee chooses scenes for her settings, and not the other way around; each setpiece with its sequence is as well-matched and memorable as any written for a film of fantastic proportions. I find myself recalling “the Kuludrava Palace scene,” or “the gambling parlor scene,” or “the library scene,” each filled with (hilarious!) antics that couldn’t have transpired anywhere else. As a quest fantasy, A Thousand Steps Into Night manages a broad and highlight-studded sweep of the world of Awara, and whatever it lacks in concentration, it more than makes up for in delightful variety.

A couple missteps emerge, though, in the form of characters. A lot of them, in particular, are introduced and then exit very quickly once their role is finished, which is worse for the less-cartoonish human characters than it is for the instantly lovable, over-the-top supernatural ones. Also, there’s a Villain With A Point™ lurking in this book that’s just a little too easy for Miuko to confidently refute: I would’ve loved for him to bring out more conflict in her!

All told, though, A Thousand Steps Into Night is an impressive show of range from the marvelous Traci Chee, and wherever her books go next, I’m following them there 💙

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:

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 💕

An Excellent Romance and a Middling Mystery in “The Inheritance Games”

It’s a pitch straight out of Knives Out. Or, barring that, a common American fantasy. Avery Grambs, a working-class teenager with a penchant for actuarial science, struggles to make ends meet, until, one day, an eccentric billionaire bites it, and leaves her his entire fortune.

Except, in The Inheritance Games, it comes with a caveat: in order to receive this windfall, Avery must survive a year in the aforementioned billionaire’s extravagant mansion…with his disinherited and displeased family. Along the way, she’ll uncover damning secrets, solve puzzles, and find herself entangled with two of the family’s grandsons in a love triangle that recalls the young adult days of yore: I’ve yet to encounter a reader who hasn’t chosen a side, and vehemently so. (For the record: Grayson. Obviously.)

Delivered in sparse, first-person prose and short chapters that seem to devour every spare moment you have, The Inheritance Games is one thing above all else: decadent. Literally decadent, with cartoonish wealth adorning every page, but decadent as a reading experience, too. Jennifer Lynn Barnes crafts a frothy thriller with an edge as a future comfort read, using the trappings of Avery’s flashy new circumstances in a way perfectly calibrated to induce giddy delight on her behalf. Like Monte Carlo (2011) with life-and-death stakes, or, again, Knives Out with, admittedly, far fewer knives.

And, yes––if you’ve seen the book around, had your doubts, maybe found yourself guessing at the root of its popularity, your suspicions are absolutely correct: it’s about the love triangle. As mentioned, it’s nigh-impossible not to pick a side, and, what’s more, it’s impossible to be assured of your odds once you do. Whatever the state of the main mystery’s reveals, the long game Barnes is playing in the romantic subplot department remains refreshingly oblique from start to finish. In fact, one could even make the case that this mystery is the most compelling among all The Inheritance Games has to offer.

Ultimately, this means that if the romance doesn’t hook you, it’s unlikely the rest of the book will, but there are definitely worse gambits to make, and the oft-dreaded love triangle, in my opinion, shows decided prowess. There are two very important things Barnes gets right in her crafting of the love stories between Avery and the two walking disasters known as Jameson and Grayson Hawthorne: value opposition, and baggage.

Avery, as a heroine, is an intriguing blend of pragmatism and recklessness. In innocuous, non-inheritance-related moments, we see her struggle between her daydreams of travel and her hard-edged game plan of majoring for salary. This distinction, as you might have guessed, is owed in large part to class, and once her class changes, the balance predictably shifts. But the question, in some form, remains. Will her new wealth allow her to let go and pursue her dream, or will she put her shrewdness to use as the governess of a fortune with broader implications?

Enter her possible romantic trysts and perfectly crafted character foils: Jameson, the reckless, obsessed middle child, and Grayson, the somber, dutiful older brother. They are her conflicting sides personified, rendering any argument about who she should end up with (Grayson) an argument about what course her characterization sets for her future (Grayson). This is what I mean when I say “value opposition:” a set of ideas ensconced in characters so purposefully that Spark Notes should make an infographic about it.

It’s difficult to do a deep dive into the second part of the equation––baggage––without venturing into spoiler territory, but I can say that The Inheritance Games also makes good use of the past. Tightly-controlled reveals are the key here: awful things are hinted at by supporting characters with motives to do so, and when the truth unravels, it feels tautly like it absolutely had to. When it implicates the Hawthorne brothers (there are four in total, but I mean the love triangle two in particular), blame is difficult to strictly assign, allowing Barnes to draw out the gray area between total trust and total caution. This all keeps an extra component of ambiguity fresh in the romantic subplot where, otherwise, by the natural course of the main plot, Avery’s suspicion of them both––at least in the killing-for-the-inheritance sense––has waned.

But, as all good things come with a caveat, so too does the brilliance of this subplot give way to a steady but lacking central suspense. Once assassination attempts enter the picture, the bait-and-switch is thoughtful (and, taken as a commentary, perhaps even incisive), but the actual culprit feels a little haphazard. The character in question has fairly limited page time, doesn’t challenge any of the reader’s assumptions when named as the guilty party, and their ending dampens the tension, rather than seeing it to a dynamic conclusion.

The same goes for the one major definitive answer we get about the real intentions of Avery’s mysterious benefactor. Emotionally, what we learn should probably be more devastating than it is, especially with Avery having come all this way for an explanation that can give her a sense of certainty, but Barnes undermines the moment with brevity, and that aspect of Avery’s wants as a character is left hanging in an otherwise well-rounded portrayal.

I must admit, though: despite all of this, I’m still hooked. If the chemistry happens to click for you, The Inheritance Games is just riotously fun even with its weak points, and sometimes, that’s the strongest hand you can play.


Thank you so much for reading! Have you read The Inheritance Games? Which side of the love triangle are you on? As always, 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 💕

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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