Chime by Franny Billingsley

Franny Billingsley

I read Billingsley’s The Folk Keeper back in the day (2007) before having a book blog (but I did write a very brief review which is on goodreads), and I liked it. It was different enough to stick in my mind and to take note of the author’s name. Fast forward to this year, and when I saw Chime being marketed, I was excited, and I asked for a review copy via Shelf Awareness. This is a review based on an ARC copy.

The Premise: Swampsea is a place that sits on the edge of a strange world – where creatures like witches, Dead Hands, Dark Muses, and the Boggy Mun await the unwary who stumble upon them. Briony Larkin is the daughter of the local clergyman, and she can see these Old Ones. Why she has this second sight is a dark secret that could have Briony hanged – her true nature is why her stepmother is dead and why her twin sister is different. To stop herself from harming more people, Briony promised her stepmother that she would avoid the swamp. Sadly, this is promise that is impossible to keep, and Briony fears that she has caused more destruction on those around her. While Briony frets and tries to right her wrongs, Eldric Clayborne, new arrival at Swampsea and the first boy Briony doesn’t find tiresome, gets dangerously close to unraveling her secrets.

Read a short excerpt of Chime here

My Thoughts: This story starts off in a puzzling, “I can almost make sense of this, but not quite”, way. It begins with Briony, and she’s telling someone that she deserves to be hanged. Obviously there is something wrong and as she tells us her story, more things just don’t seem to add up. Briony admits early on to not being a “regular girl” and not having any idea how to be. She tells us her family is not normal either, and from Briony’s first description, I believe her. She describes awkward silences at home, her sister’s childlike behavior, and her stepmother’s death. Then Briony begins to describe the swamp and the creatures in it. She uses terms like “the Boggy Mun”, “the snickleways”, and calls herself a “wolfgirl”. The past weaves in out of the present in her storytelling.

I began to suspect that Briony was actually quite crazy.

Briony isn’t crazy, but her world is. It’s like Wonderland – where all the residents know the rules, but any newcomer will find themselves completely at a loss and in disbelief at the local customs. Of course you need to bring a Bible Ball (a piece of scripture) into the swamp to ward off the Old Ones! Of course the Dead Hands will come to grab your hand and squeeze it off, unless something else finishes you off first! It’s not intuitive at first, but once you understand what the Old Ones are and what they do, it starts to make sense. So too does how Briony’s past affect her present.

No, Briony isn’t crazy but she is an unreliable narrator. Everything she tells the reader is colored by her belief of her own wickedness, and some of her “of course”s may not be the indisputable truths she thinks they are. In Briony’s industrial English world, a place like Swampsea is at odds with the new and exciting progresses in science and engineering. Briony feels keenly aware that Swampsea doesn’t have the same shine and bustle as the city, nor does she have the education she would have had if not for her stepmother’s illness.  But while Briony feels like she and Swampsea lack refinement, Eldric challenges her outlook. He sees Swampsea as an amazing place, a different planet, where he must do as the locals do (“when in the Dragon Constellation, it’s wise to do as the Dragon Constellationers do”), and he likes Briony as she is.

As a reader I was inclined to share Eldric’s sentiments: Briony is likable, despite what she thinks. She has a sharp humor that she wields like a weapon, but only on those who deserve it. Otherwise, she’s a fiercely protective champion of those weaker than herself. And although Briony is like the moon to Eldric’s sun, they’re really quite complementary. Eldric is a fun, boyish character, endlessly making his “fidgets”, speaking to Briony in their own silly language, and organizing events which make ordinary days special, but he’s not frivolous at all. Behind his laughing exterior is a gentle astuteness which Briony fears will be her undoing. The relationship between the two is something that unfurls slowly – from Briony determined not to like him, to an easy friendship, to an uneasy friendship, and more.

I really enjoyed the way this story kept my interest with it’s strange world building but at the same time, the development of the characters (all quite colorful and three dimensional) and the romance is deftly done. Even though sometimes Briony’s narrative goes off in odd tangents, once I settled into her storytelling style, it adds to the flavor of the story. Chime is not a book that I could read cover to cover though. I could only take it in small pieces, digest what was going on, then continue. Overall I think this book, the ARC only 358 pages, took me something like 10 days of slow reading, savoring each scene, for me to finish it. I think this odd duck quality is what makes me hesitate to recommend it to everyone I know. But me? I loved it. It was one of those books that made me sigh contentedly when closed its pages.

Overall: Chime is a historical fantasy that has a mix of whimsy, creativity, and emotional depth. It’s also a story with an odd flavor. It took me a little bit to adjust to Briony’s world and her way of thinking, and I had to read Chime a few pages at a time so I could process it at my own pace, but it was so worth it. In the end, I loved it. I loved Briony. I loved Eldric. I loved Swampsea. It’s weird, but in a wonderful way, and I just felt good after reading it. I know this is going to be on the top ten list for this year.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Steph Su Reads – positive
Chachic’s Book Nook – liked, but didn’t love
My Favourite Books – positive
The Book Smugglers – 9 (Ana), 7, leaning towards an 8 (Thea) – I’m with Ana on this one
Ellz Readz – positive
The Reading Date – positive

A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner

A Conspiracy of Kings
Megan Whalen Turner

I’ve been reading one of these a week since I finished The Thief. This one I finished in one day during our cruise. I’m going to try to review this one without spoilers, but if you haven’t read this series before, here are my reviews for the first three books:

Book 1 – The Thief
Book 2 – The Queen of Attolia
Book 3 – The King of Attolia

This is a review of an ARC copy another blogger passed along, but I need to get the finished copy since I hear that there’s new (and possibly awesome) scenes in the finished copy that aren’t in the ARC.

The Premise: This time the focus shifts away from Eugenides and towards his friend Sophos (who was introduced in The Thief). Sophos is the heir of Sounis, but he’s not very keen on becoming king. He’d be happy if he uncle marries and produces another heir. In the meantime, he would rather spend his time with his books and poetry than on learning how to govern. Then one day his uncle’s barons change the game by attacking his family’s villa. Betrayed by those he trusted, Sophos finds himself getting exactly what he wanted: to be absolutely nobody.

Browse Inside The Conspiracy of Kings

My Thoughts: Megan Whalen Turner goes back to the first person point of view again with A Conspiracy of Kings, and yeah, I kind of missed this. I like a good first person POV, and while Sophos’ voice isn’t as sarcastic as Gen’s, he has his moments. He’s a very affable person. Sophos is that guy that almost everyone likes because he’s such a sweet soul. He even befriends Gen all the way back in The Thief, and Gen notes then that Sophos “was much too nice to be a duke”. Unfortunately for Sophos, he is a duke, and not just a duke; he is the heir of Sounis. While he’d love to bury himself in poetry and books, his father and uncle want him to toughen up. They send Sophos to the island of Letnos, far from the influence of Sophos’ favorite mentor, the magus, but Sophos just isn’t interested in war and how to wage it. He chafes under the revolving door of tutors and wants to be allowed to follow his own interests. He wishes that his uncle would marry and quickly produce another heir.

His wish is not granted. Instead, Sophos and his family are attacked at the villa and Sophos is spirited off. Now he’s nameless, helpless, and no one can find him, all while his country is weakened and vulnerable to it’s enemies. Sophos realizes with bitterness the cost of not being Heir to Sounis, but he has the choice to reverse his fortune. Sophos can fade into obscurity and be free from the responsibilities he said he never wanted, or stride towards the destiny he once shied from.

This is essentially a story about Sophos growing up and making a conscious decision about who he wants to be. Before this book, I’d always sympathized with Sophos as an heir to a warmongering king (and there is at least one other character in this series who doesn’t love being royalty), but here for the first time I saw the argument that his detractors had been trying to make. To avoid his responsibilities and education as heir is the act of a boy who cannot see beyond his own personal problems, not that of a man who has to lead a nation. I think that Sophos’ likability in The Thief obscured this flaw a little, but I love how it becomes center-stage in A Conspiracy of Kings, and how the story handles Sophos’ character development.

Sophos is the main character in A Conspiracy of Kings, and much of his story is of his own journey but we do see reappearances from characters from earlier books, and yes, that does include Gen. From Sophos’ perspective the brief glimpses of Gen show yet again a different facet of his character. I have mixed feelings about that, but I couldn’t really fault his behavior, since his character seems to be constantly evolving. I think that while you probably could read this series out of order, there is an evolution that is better when it’s followed in the correct sequence. The character growth is a large part of that, but I also think that the understanding of the overarching plot arc and the world building is worlds better when you read this series in order.

I’m looking over this review and wondering if I’m leaving out one essential point, which is that I really liked A Conspiracy of Kings! I like good guys like Sophos, and rooting for him was easy. I was turning these pages like crazy person to see if he would be alright. Megan Whalen Turner throws in a couple of twists and turns along the way, including a whopper which will likely impact as-of-yet untitled Book 5, but I was left feeling quite pleased with how things turned out.

Overall: Another good one (at this point, was there a doubt?), with the same great storytelling, character development, and surprise twists as the earlier books. I enjoyed the return to a first person point of view, even if Gen wasn’t the main character. Sophos is a nice guy that I could root for and I still got my Gen fix. Each installment adds a little more to the whole series, and while A Conspiracy of Kings ended satisfactorily, it has me very curious about what we’ll see in Book 5.

(Yes, I know the next book may not be out for a couple/few years, but I’m willing to wait).

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers – 9 (Damn near perfection)
See Michelle Read – positive
Fantasy Literature – 5 stars (out of 5)
Chachic’s Book Nook – positive
The Book Bluff – positive
fully_immersed – 4 out of 5
Stella Matutina – 4 (out of 5)

book trailer:

Wolfsbane by Patricia Briggs

Patricia Briggs

I read and reviewed the first part of this duology by Patricia Briggs here:

The Premise:  Aralorn has been called home after ten years away as a spy for the mercenary city-state of Sianim – her father, the Lion of Lambshold has died. Aralorn returns to the family she left behind and to the reasons why she left. She also discovers that her father is actually alive but kept in a death-like state through some malicious black magic spell which neither she nor Wolf can easily break. The question becomes – how can they free Aralorn’s father before his life leaves him for real, and who is responsible for his “death”, and why?

My Thoughts: This book starts off not too long after the events of the last book – just enough time for people to settle down again after what happened at the ae’Magi’s castle. The principle characters of the first book have gone back to their regular roles, and Aralorn and Wolf have gone back to the spying game. Apparently the world has accepted happened at the ae’Magi’s castle with minimal repercussions, and if there are to be significant world changing events because of it, they aren’t happening right away.

Almost no one knows or suspects that Aralorn and Wolf were ever involved with what happened, but when Aralorn’s father is targeted, the first thought to come to mind is that their fight is not over.  It’s natural to wonder if such a evil villain, whose body is never found, is really still alive. When people begin to have strange dreams that feel like they are memories rather than dreams, it suggests a perpetrator with magical power, again pointing at the ae’Magi, but there are a few magic users in the vicinity of Lambshold, including Aralorn’s brother-in-law as well as her shapeshifter relatives. And then, there’s the new ae’Magi. Thus, Wolfsbane is a sort of a magical whodunit to find out who is behind the Lion of Lambshold’s “death”,with the side effect that we get to delve into Aralorn’s beginnings and explore her relationship with Wolf.

I love Patricia Briggs’ current urban fantasy series, but when I read Wolfsbane and compare it to her newer work, it lacks finesse. I can see the foundation in Wolfsbane for the writer Briggs is now. It has the ideas and a relationship between two unique characters which I love in Briggs’ recent work, but the execution here is a little clunky. Aralorn and Wolf have only two weeks to lift the spell on her father but there’s little sense of urgency or pressure from Aralorn’s family about how little time they have and how little they know. Compared with Masques, which had quite a bit of action, Wolfsbane less physical, more verbal. It mostly deals with Aralorn and Wolf asking the opinions of the nearby experts, deciding what to do next, and contemplating their relationship with each other.

In both the mystery and the relationship I found things a little too scripted. Aralorn would tell stories or make decisions that seem out of the blue, but they had a direct bearing on the story later on. Similarly she knows Wolf’s state of mind before he does, and while he’s being the self-hating hero, she’s cheerfully understanding. I enjoyed Aralorn and Wolf’s relationship in Masques, because I felt that Wolf’s prickliness was well balanced with Aralorn’s ability to see what he was really feeling. Unfortunately, in Wolfsbane, this same relationship didn’t work for me, probably because Wolf’s role as a tortured hero was revisited constantly. After a while I began to find his angst and Aralorn’s response tedious. That’s not to say that there were not one or two sweet moments between Aralorn and Wolf that I liked reading, but I felt that some of the space used to repeat what we know about their relationship could have been used to deepen the plot and flesh out the secondary characters. Instead, the relationship took precedence over the plot, and the cheerful demeanor Aralorn uses with Wolf jarred in the face of her father’s near-death state.

Overall: Many aspects of this story were fit together in a way that lacks the polish I expect of Briggs today. It feels like an early work, and one that doesn’t quite have the same charm that I found in Masques. For die-hard fans of Patricia Briggs, this is a must read, but as a fantasy novel, it’s mildly entertaining, but did not stand out. The story may work better for readers who are more interested in the wounded-man-and-his-savior relationship between the two main characters and are not as invested in the fantasy aspects.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
One Good Book Deserves Another – 4/5
Fantasy Literature – 3/5 (“lacks thrills, but romance is sweet”)

The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

The King of Attolia
Megan Whalen Turner
Well I’m just going through this whole series for some reason. *cough*.
Book 1: The Thief
Book 2: The Queen of Attolia
**** This review does spoil earlier books so if you haven’t read The Thief and The Queen of Attolia, here’s your chance to leave. I’m going to be circumspect in the premise and first paragraph, then I’m diving in. 🙂 ****
The Premise: Costis is a captain in the Attolian palace guard and he has very little respect for the new king of his country. Like most Attolians, he’s certain that his queen is not a willing wife to the new king, a weak and silly man, who is nothing like how a king should be. So when the king makes a disparaging remark about the Attolian guards, Costis sees red and hits his king in the face. This begins his own personal nightmare as he’s forced to redeem himself by becoming the king’s new whipping boy. It also gives Costis an up-close view of the new king of Attolia and the longer he serves him, the more he discovers.
My Thoughts: Heheh, things get good in this installment. Once again the story is in the third person, but the focus is now on a new-to-us character – Costis, a member of the Attolian palace guard and what his perspective is on his king and queen shortly after their wedding and the treaty between their two countries. Costis is a very straightforward kind of guy. He’s honest about how he feels and he prefers things to be simple and out in the open. Which makes him not only the complete opposite of his king, but an easy target.
I really hope that the people who haven’t read the first two books are gone now so that I can stop dancing around who is now king. If not, you did this to yourself.
Alright, so by the third book, I think readers have gotten to the point where they have certain expectations of Eugenides. Namely: you don’t underestimate Eugenides. He’s just good at thinking several steps ahead and at pretending to be more vulnerable and powerless than he actually is. While this is something that I love about his character, he can’t approach his current situation the way he is indefinitely. The problem here is that he is king, and as Costis tells him after hitting him, it is “because you didn’t look like a king”. I think that part of Eugenides reluctance to take up the reins of power and to really show his true strength is that he wants to be married to Attolia, but becoming king to be married to her wasn’t something he thought about. Now he’s far from his home and family in unfriendly territory.
This book is about Eugenides moving forward towards accepting his position. He already has it in him to be kingly, but these are the first days of his rule in a country that has its share of unrest. Its Barons test the Queen when they can, and no one likes the new King. It’s in Eugenides’ nature to poke fun at people even when they don’t know that they’re made fun of. He dances with the wrong girls, he falls asleep at important meetings, he looks bored and foolish.
The fun of this book was sitting back and seeing him through the eyes of a new character and in a new role and setting. It’s fun to watch the subtle progression in Costis’ feelings as the book goes along, because he becomes privy to things other Attolians do not see. For instance the relationship between the king and the queen, and Eugenides’ weak moments. There’s a certain amount of darkness there, much more than previous books.
I think this may be my favorite of the series, but I don’t think it was perfect. There were parts that felt over explained, and this is a series that explains though showing – so for instance the relationship between Eugenides and Attolia was sometimes theatrical. I also felt like part of this book had Eugenides exerting his powers to direct Attolia towards a different rule – one that has less fear and mistrust, and they way this was shown was problematic. I felt like some parts were heavy handed if you got what was going on, but on the other hand, if you didn’t understand the point of what Eugenides was doing, it may just look confusing.
Overall: I pretty much loved The King of Attolia. There were minor details that I felt could have been better, but otherwise I had a ton of fun reading it. I think it appealed to the thinker-aheader in me to see if Eugenides could surprise me.  I love books that do that.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Fantasy Cafe – 8/10
Emily and Her Little Pink Notes – 5/5
Angieville – positive
Stella Matutina – 4.5 stars
Book Harbinger – positive
fully-immersed – positive
All About Books – positive
jmc-bks – positive

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

The Queen of Attolia
Megan Whalen Turner
This book may be one of the oldest books on Mt. TBR in the Janicu Household (if not the oldest), but before you admonish me for this, I stopped reading it because it was a sequel. And I didn’t buy The Thiefuntil 5 years later. This is what happens when you are easily distracted.

I think you should read the The Thief before Queen of Attolia because this book’s world and characters don’t make as much sense without the first book. There’s also one thing that the second book would probably spoil for you in The Thief.  I’m going to try to avoid spoilers in my review, but for those who haven’t read The Thief, here is my review of it:

The Premise: The story begins with Eugenides in Attolia again, using his skills as a thief to spy on the Queen of Attolia.  Attolia seems to be getting friendly with the ambassador of the Medes Empire, a nation held in check from invading the three countries of Attolia, Eddis and Sounis by treaties with greater nations, but never-the-less, they are a threat. Unfortunately for Gen, he can’t help leaving messages for the Queen to let her know that he was there, which infuriates her and makes her very determined to catch him. This time  – she does. It is not long before Eugenides and his homeland are paying for this mistake.

Excerpt from Queen of Attolia

My Thoughts: I had mixed feelings about stepping back from Eugenides in this installment of the series. He’s no longer the narrator, and I miss getting a shot of his wit from his own mouth. On the other hand, with the point of view being in third person, I can see what other characters are up to, especially the Queen of Attolia, and it makes sense to change the point of view when the story is not so much about Eugenides, as it is about the political turmoil ignited by his capture by the Attolians. And don’t get me wrong – Eugenides still feels like the main character. It is just that this time the focus is not always on him.

Luckily, the switch to third person wasn’t a hardship. As long as I had a dose of Eugenides I am happy. And I think part of me was also pretty forewarned. It turns out that I read far more of The Queen of Attolia than I thought I did before I realized it was the second book in a series. I thought I didn’t get past the first chapter, but when I was reading Queen, everything was familiar for the first 175 pages. There were elements of this story that ended up not surprising me, but which I think would be surprising to others – particularly what happens at the start of this book.

It all begins with a shocker, and a good chunk of the first half of this story is characters adjusting to what happened. Things are hard for a little while for certain characters, but there are bigger things going on. Attolia, Eddis and Sounis are embroiled in war, with the Medes Empire looking on with decided interest in the outcome. With such mechanisms going on, there’s quite a bit of plot that deals with the skirmishes between armies. The strategums employed by Eddis and Attolia are particularly fascinating, and I was rooting for one country in particular, but I have to admit that war games aren’t my favorite thing in fiction. Thankfully, while the story does cover the fighting, there’s plenty of focus on individuals to stop me from becoming bored.

Of course the individual I found myself caring most about was Eugenides, and again, he does not disappoint. I loved his role in this story, and how he manages to steal Peace, a man, and a Queen. There also a nice dash of romance in this one, although one character involved in it kept things closer to the vest than I’d fully like, it is a very, very good beginning, and I can’t wait to read the next book.

Overall: A great second installment. The focus is widened beyond Eugenides so that the changes to Sounis, Eddis and Attolia are displayed, but he still stays a central character. He may not be the same carefree boy he was in The Thief, but once you’ve fallen under the spell of Eugenides’ mix of wit and vulnerability, you’re in his corner forever, eager to see what mess he’ll put himself into next, and how he will get out of it. This book is a bit more serious than the last one, but I love where the story went and the romance we glimpse. Here is where I say I can’t wait to read the next one, but I’m already reading it.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Angieville – positive
The Book Harbinger – positive
Fantasy Cafe – 9/10
Emily and Her Little Pink Notes – 5/5
Presenting Lenore – positive
Monkey Bear Reviews (spoilery) – B+
jmc_books – B+
stella matutina – 4 stars (out of 5)
It’s All About Books – positive
Dear Author – B+
calico_reaction (spoilery) – “Worth the read” with caution

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

The Thief
Megan Whalen Turner

This is one of those series that is beloved by many which I just haven’t read. Actually. Strike that. I heard about it and tried to read it something like 8 years ago, but I didn’t know it was a series or what order the books were in. I tried to read The Queen of Attolia, and felt like it wasn’t making much sense. I don’t recall getting past the first chapter. (This is why publishers should put series information on book covers). Anyway, I figured out much later that the first book is really The Thief, and got myself a copy through a giveaway from  Dreams and Speculation.  I’ve been nudged to read it from a veritable mob of book bloggers: Ana from The Book Smugglers, Chachic, Angie, and Kristen – and that’s just the people who piped in on twitter last month when I said I still had it on the TBR.
Being the self-preserving girl that I am and realizing that BEA is coming up, I decided I better read it.
Alright you guys. I liked it.
The Premise: I don’t think I can do better than the back blurb: “‘I can steal anything.’ After After Gen’s bragging lands him in the king’s prison, the chances of escape look slim. Then the king’s scholar, the magus, needs the thief’s skill for a seemingly impossible task-to steal a hidden treasure from another land. To the magus, Gen is just a tool. But Gen is a trickster and a survivor with a plan of his own.
Browse inside The Thief
My Thoughts: Despite the build up for this book, I wasn’t worried that the book wouldn’t live up to it’s promise. Based on the number of people recommending this whose tastes are similar to my own, it was a fair bet I’d like it too,  so it’s unsurprising by how easily I was drawn into the story of a young man languishing in a prison because of his big mouth. I think that the Gen-love in the blogosphere made me expect a clever and quick witted character, which I think led me to have certain expectations of him, but I really liked how subtly this was conveyed. Gen is the narrator of The Thief, and his voice is rather young for someone in prison (somewhere in his late teens I want to say), and he’s a bit of an underdog with his small size and lack of choices, but his attitude about it all made me smile. When he’s taken out of prison to meet with the magus (the king’s most learned advisor), Gen sits on the nicest chair in the room, despite being filthy and a little terrified. I loved both his chutzpah and the showing, not telling, of Gen’s character through these little interactions with Gen’s captors.
Gen learns that the magus wants him to steal something. What or where it is, the magus does not say, but it’s not like Gen can turn down the job. This begins a journey out of the kingdom of Sounis into its neighboring countries for a special treasure. The magus, and his two students, Ambiades and Sophos, a soldier, Pol, accompany Gen, their tool in this special mission of thievery. Along the way the political climate, history, religion and trade of the area are described, both in the story and through some storytelling within the story. I wasn’t sure at first what to make of the world – on one hand Gen and the others travel by horse, stay at inns and eat bread an cheese – the typical fantasy world that’s pseudo-medieval, but there are also guns and watches. This is combined with a religion that seems loosely based on a Greek pantheon, but not quite, as well as Greek names. It’s sort of a unique hodgepodge, but it’s very carefully constructed and feels real.
You know, I think this book covers my list of basic reader-wants in a story. I liked Gen’s character. I found the world building intriguing. I enjoyed its tight plot which slowly drew me in with it’s treasure stealing and the implications on the kingdoms of Sounis, Eddis and Attolia. There’s a simple storytelling style which ties it all together, and the cherry on the top is that if you attention to the story, you are rewarded. The combination of all these things are what I want in my stories, and I could tell from the very moment I started reading The Thief that it belonged in the same category as those books I fell in love with when I was a teen – books by Diana Wynne Jones, Robin McKinley, and Margaret Mahy.  This book has that same indefinable quality. Maybe it’s a sense that the writer assumes the reader will meet her expectations so she doesn’t need to lower them, and maybe that makes this book and those by the authors I mentioned just not just good young adult books, but just plain good.
Overall: Yep, I liked this one. It’s got a light, straightforward style with sly undercurrent that I liked. I felt quite satisfied when the book was over. If you still haven’t read this series and you are a fan of those character-driven fantasy books by Robin McKinley and writers of that ilk, I think you should try this. I’ve been promised that The Queen of Attolia will really light my fire for this series, and this makes me want to read it very soon.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews (whoo, there are a lot):
Angieville – positive
jmc-bks – positive
My favourite books – positive
Chachic’s Book Nook – (review for the series) – positive
Good Books and Good Wine – positive
Emily’s Little Pink Notes – 4.5 out of 5
Monkey Bear Reviews – A
Bogormen – 3.5 out of 5
Presenting Lenore – positive
Stella Matutina – 3 out of 5 (found the opening slow)
The Book Smugglers – (review for the series) – positive
Fantasy Book Cafe – 7.5 out of 10
calico_reaction – Worth the Cash (link has spoilers)

The Sevenfold Spell by Tia Nevitt

The Sevenfold Spell
Tia Nevitt

There was some buzz about this novella a few months ago, so I requested an eARC for review from Carina Press through Netgalley.


The Premise: This is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, told from the point of view of a young woman and spinner who is affected by the curse. Talia is a plain, not very attractive girl, with limited prospects, but she has a nice relationship with Willard, a farmer’s son, and she hopes to marry him one day. These simple dreams are shattered when the princess of the land is cursed by an evil fairy, and all spinning wheels are ordered destroyed, including Talia and her mother’s. This is the end of their livelihood and, with their reduced circumstances, Willard’s father uses the opportunity to renege on his promise to let his son marry Talia. Instead, Willard is destined for the monastery.
Read an excerpt of A Sevenfold Spell here
My Thoughts: I really liked the premise of this one – an ordinary girl who doesn’t seem much, with her simple desire to marry the not-so-attractive himself Willard has her life turned upside down because of how the Royal family’s life affects the everyday people. Talia’s anger and grief over what her life has been reduced to is a palpable thing, and when she has almost no income, and she’s lost Willard, she grasps at what she can get. So before Willard leaves for the monastery, she gives herself to him, in the hope that at least she will have a child.
It is around here where the story goes from a regular fantasy tale into more erotic/steamy territory. Several trysts are recounted in detail, with Talia uncaring of Willard’s brother’s overhearing them, or of the village knowing. The creative ways they’ve found to be together are described. I don’t know if this is my prudish side coming out or just not being a fan of this much explicit sex in my stories, but this is where I sort of got bored and stopped reading. I guess I wasn’t expecting this ebook to have this level of sex in it because it was labeled as being in the “Fae, Fantasy, Legends & Mythology” category. I understood that Talia was trying to hold on to Willard in some way, but after the first couple of encounters, I got the idea and recounting all the sex didn’t seem to add much to the story.
A few months later I figured I would pick up the novella again, and once Willard has left to join the order, the sex continues. Talia is looking for a connection similar to that she had with Willard, and she enjoys having sex, so she uses her body to pay for favors from their next door neighbor, and describes getting a reputation and gives us a general idea of her numerous trysts. What kept me going was that outside of all this, there are hints of the Sleeping Beauty tale. Characters familiar to that story appear, and I wondered where it was going and how Talia fit into the story. I’m glad I kept reading because just when the story seemed to be getting darker, suddenly something happens which manages to propel the story forward into a happy ending with a twist. It all ends on a sweet note.
Overall: Not a bad way to pass the time, and at 97 pages, this is a short read and it has a unique spin on a well-known fairy tale, but it’s heavy on the sexual content, which almost kept me from finishing this short piece. I’m glad I pushed on because of the last part of this story, which had a nice twist on the happy ever after.
Buy: Amazon (kindle) | Carina (PDF/ePub)
Other reviews:
Fantasy Cafe – 7/10
The Book Pushers – B-
The Book Smugglers (Joint review) – both gave it a 6 (Good)
Fantasy Literature – 4/5
One More Page – 2/5
Stella Matutina – 3.5 stars (out of 5)
A Buckeye Girl Reads – positive

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey
Mary Robinette Kowal

I’ve been eying this book since last year, particularly after this review at The Book Pushers when I basically realized that this was a regency romance with magic in it. When it was nominated for the Nebula Awards, I joined the Nebula Readathon at The Book Smugglers as an excuse to read this.
The Premise: (I’m going to go with the book blurb on this one) Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a version of Regency England where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.
Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right–and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.”
Read an excerpt of Shades of Milk and Honey here
My Thoughts: This book really feels like a big ol’ homage to regency romances of Jane Austen’s era. From the get-go I was struck by how regency-eque Shades of Milk and Honey was and how often it uses the same conventions as Jane Austen’s stories. We begin by being introduced to the Ellsworths, a respected family with two daughters, a hysterical mother, and a doting father who would like nothing more than to see his daughters happily settled. Jane is the sensible and somewhat plain older sister, and at twenty-eight she’s resigned herself to being on the shelf. Melody is the pretty one, and at eighteen she has a much higher chance of getting married, but as the younger sister, she’s also more impulsive and reckless than Jane. The Ellsworths spend most of their time visiting their friends nearby and going to parties, and proper manners are always assumed. Sounds familiar no? Yes, it’s like a mix of every Jane Austen novel out there. Jane Austen era spellings like ‘shew’, ‘chuse’, ‘teaze’ and ‘nuncheon’ to add to that feel.
What makes Shades of Milk and Honey not just a remix of Austen, is the idea of glamour, a type of small magic that is used for pretty illusions. With glamour, a lady may create a subtle scent in the air, embellish a painting, record and play music, and even enhance her own appearance. There is no end to its uses, although it is considered mainly an artistic skill, not a dangerous one. It is a skill of high merit in well-bred ladies of society, much like the ability to play music or paint.
Jane is particularly skilled at glamour. I was hoping that Jane’s skill in glamour would be more essential to the story than it was, but it seems to be merely there as an interesting skill that gains Jane admiration from those around her. In fact, it is the quality that she is most admired for, and her sister harbors some jealousy because of it, despite her own pretty face and easy grace, which Jane lacks. There’s a bit of sisterly competition when it comes to men because of the their differences. Both girls share an admiration for a neighbor, Mr. Dunkirk, and he is a point of contention, despite never giving either sister a reason to hope. At times, the little jabs at each other got a little nasty, at others they are remorseful for their previous behavior. It was a bit of a see-saw, which I suppose shows the complications of sisterhood, but I wish their relationship was delved into a little further, beyond their little squabbles.
On the other hand, none of the relationships in this book were delved into. The story is very readable and I was easily drawn into Jane’s world, but beyond the social obligations and underlying drama of who may be courting who, I felt a lack of connection between Jane and the other characters. Jane feels more like an observer than a participant in this story. She watches as her sister flirts with gentlemen such as Mr. Dunkirk, and the newly returned Captain Livingston. She sees her mother go into yet another fit of hysteria and commiserate with similarly afflicted Mrs. Marchand. She wonders what secrets her friends Beth and Mr. Dunkirk are hiding. She wonders at the surly Mr. Vincent who creates beautiful works of glamour but doesn’t seem to like her very much. Internally she has a lot of thoughts about her glamour and what people around her are doing, but she doesn’t voice them. She doesn’t act until she is forced to by others, and about 75% into the book, I realized that I wasn’t really sure where the story was going. I felt like Shades of Milk and Honey was circling the airport. I wondered aloud “When are you bringing this baby in?”.
It’s not until she is drawn in by an unexpected suitor and by the threat of family ruin that the story really gets anywhere, and this happens far into the story. I did like where it went, but some of the excitement and interaction at the end of the book would have been nice to see in the rest of the story. I also felt like the romance Jane had was trying to replicate a Darcy and Elizabeth romance, with what looks like initial dislike becomes something more, but I must have missed the subtle growth of their relationship, because when the declarations of love happened, I really wasn’t sure why. Jane spends so little time with her eventual paramour, that the romance, while very sweet, didn’t feel backed up by emotional growth.
Overall: Shades of Milk and Honey reminds me of the stories of Jane Austen in that it has characters that spend their time visiting one another and going to parties, and proper manners are expected. It also has a lot of plot points that hark back to the Jane Austen books: sisterly bonds, strawberry picking, men after dowries, and secret engagements. I think that my love for this stuff kept me reading at a happy clip. For this alone, I’d call the book “good”, but beyond the Jane Austen trappings, I wanted more out of the characters and plot (and more out of the concept of glamour), so it didn’t move past being merely entertaining for me.
P.S. Does anyone know the significance of the title of this book? Is it a reference to the biblical phrase ” “a land flowing with milk and honey“? OK, that would make sense…
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
Jawas Read, Too! – 8 (out of 10)
The Book Smugglers – 6 (good)
SFF Chat – “didn’t turn out to be exactly what I had been hoping for, it was a pleasurable way to pass a couple of hours”
The Book Pushers – 5 stars (out of 5)
Fantasy Book Critic – A- (“a very light novel that epitomizes “beach reading” for me”)
Christina_reads – Didn’t live up to expectations
Stella Matutina – 3.5 stars (really liked it)
I love this book trailer


Masques by Patricia Briggs

Patricia Briggs

Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series is one of my favorite urban fantasy series out today. When I started getting into them I naturally looked into her backlist, which is in the fantasy genre. I’ve read both Hob’s Bargain and the Hurog duology, and the Raven duology is in my TBR pile, but the one book I could not get my hands on was Masques, her first book. In a post I wrote in 2007, I noted that I wanted it, but “This book goes for at least $60 on eBay, $120 to over $600 elsewhere. Which I think is CRAZY.” I didn’t think it was worth paying so much for a book which the author herself admitted was her first effort and thus had a lot of weaknesses! Thankfully, Masques was re-released after a rewrite by Briggs. Even better: its sequel, Wolfsbane, is now available.
This review is for the rewritten Masques.
The Premise: Aralorn is a mercenary who “doesn’t take orders” and “will occasionally listen to suggestions” which makes her ideal as a spy for the city of Sianim. Her latest assignment is to check out rumors of an assassination attempt on the ae’Magi, the much beloved Archmage of the land. It isn’t until she is at his castle does she realize that the ae’Magi is not the good, kind man the world thinks he is. He’s pure evil, but his influence over people’s hearts makes any opposition near impossible. The only people who realize the true nature of the ae’Magi are persecuted by him.  These include Wolf, a grey beast with yellow eyes who can speak, the young King Myr of Reth, and a small but growing group of rebels hiding in the Northern Woods.
My Thoughts: This book begins with an introduction by the author which explains that Masques was a book she started in college when she knew nothing about writing. This means that in looking at it again as a more experienced writer, there was a lot of “squirming uncomfortably” and the first attempt at a rewrite was so extensive that it changed the story completely. So this edition of Masques is a compromise: it keeps the original story but makes things fit better, leaving the “cliches and oddities” intact.
I kept Briggs’ introduction in the back of my mind while reading the book, and I can see what she alludes to as the “cliches and oddities” in her story. Yes, there are a lot of things in Masques that feel very familiar. Aralorn’s background alone made me wonder if I’d read Masques before: the plain-looking lord’s daughter, more interested in swordplay than etiquette, runs away from home with her warhorse and joins a mercenary guild. Her shapeshifter bloodline and quick wits keep her alive, and along the way she gains a wolf companion.  Add to this the evil sorcerer in his castle, a scarred hero, an army of mindless minions, a spymaster, a dragon, and magic items, and you have a rather common set of tropes. Yet I never felt that these things were trite. Instead I felt like I was reading a story where the plot had a charming enthusiasm, while the writing itself was polished by experience.
I didn’t think the polish covered all flaws, but there were qualities in this story that reminded me of what lured me into the fantasy genre during the nineties, and that was worlds I wanted to visit. I really enjoyed the settings, particularly the fantastic rooms described in the story. I loved imagining the secret places these characters went and the grand palace that the ae’Magi lived in. I also liked the idea of the green versus human magics, and how shapeshifters and magical creatures fit into this. The explanation of how the magic works could have been better, but there was still a sense of wonder while reading about magical creatures and old stories that I enjoyed.
There’s a lot thrown into the 294 pages that was this book, but story is essentially a good versus evil tale. After Aralorn discovers the true nature of the ae’Magi, King Myr of Reth has to flee his palace, leaving his throne open for the ae’Magi to usurp. Aralorn and Wolf join him in the Northlands. Here, the power of human magics like the ae’Magi’s are not as affective, but green magic, the magic of Aralorn’s shapeshifter people, have no problems. A ragtag band of people impervious to the ae’Magi’s magical influence trickle into the hidden camp, called my some unknown power. Together they begin to work out how to overthrow the ae’Magi.
There are a few secondary characters within this rebel camp, but besides King Myr and the ae’Magi (who were very good and very evil respectively), no one really made much of an impact on me. The focus is primarily on the two heroes (Wolf and Aralorn) and they stood out while others faded into the background. I found myself uninterested in the camp’s day-to-day life and more drawn in by Aralorn and her relationship with the the enigmatic Wolf.
Although I feel like Aralorn is the main character, Wolf steals the show. Aralorn rescued him from a pit trap, and over the years he’s slowly revealed more about himself, including the fact that he’s not just a wolf. He’s your basic scarred hero, but he and Aralorn have developed a bond which has become something more for them both. I loved reading about his past and their conversations while they researched spells in Wolf’s private library (I wish this library was real). Aralorn is a good match for his prickliness because she can cheerfully ignore it, and she uses her humor to chip away at his shell. As you can imagine, this is the set up for a romance. I was expecting something slow moving from the way the book began, but the complications I thought I’d see were superficial ones. It was sweet but not intense. I am looking forward to reading the second book to see how their romance continues and I hope to see better developed secondary characters that play a larger role in the plot.
Overall: Masques is a little bit dated because it’s a book originally written in the nineties, but it has a lot of charm. It reminds me of books about female heroines having adventures written by Robin McKinley and Mercedes Lackey that I read in my teens and still hold a fondness for today. It has its flaws but it also has charisma, and it kept me pleasantly entertained for the few hours it took me to read it. I think would do well with YA readers interested fantasy, particularly girls.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
Dear Author – C
(This review was cross-posted to the paperbackswap blog)

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

The Heroes
Joe Abercrombie

My husband read Best Served Cold last year and his response was favorable: “this is [bleeep!]’ed up…  I like it”. Now The Mister has been working his way through Abercrombie’s backlog. As a result, I’ve been meaning to try this author, even though I had a vague idea it meant lots of violent action which isn’t usually what I gravitate towards. When Orbit offered a finished copy for review I took the chance to try something new.

The Premise: The southern Army (aka The Union), are fighting for the King against the Northmen horde, led by it’s leader. Minor skirmishes between Union divisions and the Northmen in other parts of the country have culminated in a battle over a small patch of land near the town of Osrung and a ring of standing stones called The Heroes. Over three days the outcome of the war will be decided.

Read an excerpt of The Heroes here

My Thoughts: You know the how often in an epic fantasy series, we follow one or many characters in their adventures and the culmination of the tale is often a big battle between the armies of good and evil? Well, chop off the parts before and after the battle, take out any sense of who are good guys or bad, magnify and expand that, and you have The Heroes. This has the feel of fantasy, but from a new perspective — it’s all about the battle and only the battle, and its third person narrative that hops from one character to the next highlights a dizzying mix of violence, terror, anger, boredom, and insanity brought on by war.

The story focuses on many characters. Some are followed only for a page or two before we jump to the next one, but others we come back to often. We get perspectives from both sides of the battle. There is no main character, but there are characters who we spend a little bit more time with than others. These are Curnden Craw, an old-timer and leader of a dozen, with decades worth of fighting under his belt (a Northman); Prince Calder, the son of a disposed King of the Northman, and known for his aversion to fighting (a Northman with little loyalty to the current leader); and Colonel Bremer dan Gorst, disgraced ex-King’s Guardsman who was appointed “Royal Observer of the Northern War” (a Union man). To a lesser extent the story also spends time with a couple of people with relatively smaller roles in the battle – Beck, a farmboy who joined the Northmen with delusions of grandeur that are soon shattered, and Finree dan Brock, daughter of the Union’s Lord Marshal, and ambitious wife of one of it’s Colonels. There are a lot more characters, but I’ll stop there. I didn’t have trouble with the multiple names, but there’s an “Order of Battle” at the front of the book is very helpful in keeping them straight (additionally, there are maps of the terrain as the battle progressed).

In this story, no one is particularly brave or heroic. Even if they manage to kill many of the enemy, their thoughts are not of great deeds, but of staying alive and maybe advancing their situations in the process. Many of the characters have petty or cowardly thoughts so they may not be particularly likable, but that’s life. Everyone has flaws and issues — some more than others. I found Colonel Bremer dan Gorst and his silent seething anger on the disturbing side even though his fighting skill was unmatched. Calder is a cowardly schemer, but he has a quick wit which balanced that out. I felt similarly about Finree. She has a sharp ambition which tramples over her thoughts for others, but she was smart under pressure. I didn’t really feel that connected to any of these characters though. There was something about each of them that made it difficult. The only character I liked was Craw, because he wanted to do the “right thing” even though this rule of conduct had it’s holes. Maybe it’s his straightforwardness amongst so many characters who are not, that I liked most (whatever that says about me).

Remember The Princess Bride, when the grandson asks his grandfather accusingly, “Is this a kissing book?”. Well, there was a little girl inside me, with her arms crossed and the opposite sentiment about The Heroes. To be fair, this feels like a matter of personal preference – this is just not the book for me. I want to feel a connection to characters when I read a book, and didn’t really find that in The Heroes. On top of that, war stores are pretty much the opposite of what I usually go for, and 541 pages of men killing each other pushes my boundaries. We all bring our histories with us when we read, and I grew up somewhere in the midst of civil war. That dampens my interest in reading about it. On the plus side, the writing was good.  Yes, there’s lots of flying body parts, but there’s always something happening and an underlying black humor about it all. I enjoyed some of the lighter moments in the story and in following the unexpected interactions between characters. Small things can have unexpected consequences, and there are brilliant intersects between characters (the last one hundred pages was particularly well choreographed). In the end I may not have been won over, but I’m glad I challenged myself to read this. I would read other books by this author, but perhaps not ones where the focus is on the battlefield.

Overall: This is a book about the kind of war that is face-to-face and hand-to-hand. As can be expected, the plot is grim and violent, but at the same time it has the same characteristics of anything in life, like tedium, humor, and bureaucracy. I’d recommend this book for readers looking for that conveys human flaws and the ambiguity and messiness of real life. I think I can appreciate the strengths of this book but I am a romantic when it comes to my reading, and this is clearly the antithesis of that.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Fantasy Faction – 8.5 out of 10 stars
Grasping for the Wind – highly recommended
LEC Book reviews – 4.5 out of 5
Genre Reader – DNF for now?

Other links:
Orbit Podcast w/ Joe Abercrombie