Category: Fantasy

Crush the King (Crown of Shards #3)

Cover image for Crush the King by Jennifer Estep by Jennifer Estep

ISBN 978-0-06-279769-8

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “I needed help. I needed another Blair, someone I could depend on, and especially someone I could leave my throne to if the worst happened and the Mortans finally managed to kill me.”

In the year since she ascended to the Bellonan throne after the murder of all her relatives in a Mortan plot, Everleigh Winter Blair has secured her crown, and survived multiple assassination attempts. However the threat of Morta still looms large, and with the international Regalia Games coming up, a unique opportunity for her enemies to try to kill her again. Unless, of course, she manages to kill them first. For the first time, Evie will come face to face with King Maximus of Morta, the tyrant behind the Seven Spire Massacre, and she plans to go on the offensive. In order to protect Bellona, she will need to secure alliances with Unger and Ryusama, champion her kingdom in the kronekling tournament, and crush the King of Morta, with a little help from her friends.

In the third installment of the Crown of Shards series, Jennifer Estep continues to use flashbacks to develop Evie’s history, exposing just how far back Mortan meddling in Bellonan affairs goes. After escaping the murder of her parents at Winterwind, young Evie finds herself alone in the forest, at the mercy of the elements and bounty hunters alike. We already know that she will eventually end up in the custody of her cousin, Queen Cordelia, but the flashbacks never quite get that far. In the present, Evie must survive three days of balls, political jockeying, and multiple attempts on her life. Although the Regalia games are set on the nominally neutral Fortuna Island, home of the prosperous DiLucri banking family, Evie strongly suspects that the DiLucris have struck a deal with Morta, placing the Regalia on hostile ground.

Both of the previous volumes in the series have featured significant romance elements. Kill the Queen introduced Everleigh’s slow burn romance with Lucas Sullivan, magier of the Black Swan gladiator troupe, and illegitimate son of the King of Andvari. Protect the Prince centered Lucas even more strongly, with a trip to his home country of Andvari to try to secure an alliance between Bellona and Lucas’ legitimate royal relatives. However, he is relegated to a minor role in Crush the King, and there is no significant development of his character or their relationship in this installment. However, I did appreciate that Estep didn’t try to insert an unnecessary interpersonal conflict between them in order to keep things exciting in the final volume. This book has more than enough on its plate already.

While I enjoyed the action of Crush the King, by the third book in the series, the lack of variety in description is abundantly clear, and I was at times annoyed by the writing. I lost track of how many times Evie executed “the perfect Bellonan curtsy” in the series, yet I still have no idea what that particular type of curtsy looks like as opposed to any other. Evie also has the ability to smell magic and emotions, but each emotion is described identically every single time she senses it, particularly “hot peppery anger” and “hot jalapeno rage,” which come up again and again. Consistency can be a virtue, but in this case it was becoming extremely tedious.

Jennifer Estep had many threads in play going into this final volume, and a challenge to tie them up neatly. Rather than cramming it all in, she has opted for a conclusion that is a bit more open-ended than many trilogies. Future conflict with Morta remains a distinct possibility, and Everleigh has yet to determine if any other Blairs are still alive, or designate a successor to her throne. Cho and Serilda have not come to terms, and the relationship between Xenia and Paloma is also not fully resolved. However, a little bit of open-endedness gives the world a feeling of continuance, beyond the last page.

You might also like The Deepest Blue by Sarah Beth Durst

Chosen (Slayer #2)

Cover image for Chosen by Kiersten Whiteby Kiersten White

ISBN 978-1-5344-0498-4

 “Leo loved me, betrayed us, saved us, and then died, and I can’t be sad without being mad or mad without feeling guilty or guilty without feeling exhausted.”

When Buffy destroyed the Seed of Wonder, magic went out of the world. The hell mouths were sealed, cutting Earth off from the infernal realms. But the demons who were on Earth when the portals closed are now trapped here forever. Nina is the last Slayer, her powers activated in the final moments before magic left the world forever. It was an inheritance she never wanted; as the daughter of Watchers, she never asked or expected to be chosen. But she has chosen to use her powers for good, setting up the Watchers’ crumbling Irish castle as a sanctuary for non-violent demons who were trapped on Earth when the doorways closed. Yet despite believing whole-heartedly in this mission, Nina finds herself fighting the violent impulses of a Slayer, tempted to react to everything with anger and force. And although the infernal realms are closed, those who remain on Earth may still pose a threat, and Nina must decide who to save, and who to save humanity from.

With the Watchers Council decimated, Nina, Rhys, and Imogen take up the mantle of reorganizing the ancient institution for the next generation. Leo is gone, and Artemis and Honora have struck out on their own, unable or unwilling to accept Nina’s vision for the future. Artemis can’t quite come to terms with the fact that her twin sister, the gentle girl who wanted to be a healer, was Chosen, while Artemis, who trained all her life, will never have the power of a Slayer. In fact, now that magic has gone out of the world, she may never have any power at all. This conflict comes to be at the heart of Chosen, the second volume in Kiersten White’s Buffy spin off series. Artemis’ lust for power is not abated by the passing of magic, while Nina’s fear of and distaste for her own power complicates every choice she is faced with. Nor can Artemis accept her sister in any role other than the one she—and all the other Watchers—cast her in. Family, sisterhood, and having a choice versus being chosen are at the heart of this story.

As with the previous installment, Chosen focuses on the younger generation of Watchers, but also features cameos from beloved characters from the original series. Buffy and Faith feature in Nina’s Slayer dreams, while a certain popular werewolf makes an unexpected appearance in London. As with the previous installment, White captures the dialogue and banter well, balancing the darker themes with the pithy one liners, as when an exasperated Nina exclaims, “We don’t have time for an apocalypse… Maybe pencil in an apocalypse for May. It seems like a nice spring activity.” That said, Chosen wraps things up in a way that suggests this might be a duology, but there is still room here for further stories if the publisher decides to continue.

You might also like Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow by E. K. Johnston

The Queen of Nothing (The Folk of the Air #3)

Cover image for The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black by Holly Black

ISBN 978-0-316-31042-0

 “I keep my head down, as I probably should have done in the first place. And if I curse Cardan, then I have to curse myself, too, for being the fool who walked right into the trap he set for me.”

As a mortal struggling to survive in the brutal realm of Faerie, Jude Duarte made a desperate bid to hold on to power by marrying the High King Cardan. But now Cardan has disavowed her, and Jude is banished to the mortal realm, while war brews back in Elfhame. Eldred’s former High General Madoc continues to rally troops to his cause, including the smith Grimsen, the fae who forged the Blood Crown in the first place, which is the key to the Greenbriar succession. Jude tries to convince herself that the war is no longer her problem, but when her twin sister Taryn knocks on her door for help, Jude will find herself drawn back into the deadly politics of the fae.

The prophecy that alienated Prince Cardan from his father, the former High King Eldred, lies at the heart of the final installment of Holly Black’s The Folk of the Air trilogy. On the day of the prince’s birth, the court astrologer Baphen spoke a dark warning. “Prince Cardan will be your last born child… He will be the destruction of the crown and the ruination of the throne… Only out of his spilled blood can a great ruler rise, but not before what I have told you comes to pass.” Now, through Jude’s ambition and trickery, Cardan sits on a throne that he never expected to occupy, unsure if he can command the loyalty of the courts that make up his kingdom. Certainly Madoc is still bent on war, and seizing power for himself, whatever the cost to the realm.

Meanwhile, the three sisters are all faced with the darker side of what it means to love the fae. Having gotten her wish and married into the Court with her wedding to Locke, Taryn now lives with the daily reality of marriage to the cruel trickster who played her against her twin sister. Vivi continues to pay the price for having used magic to deceive her mortal lover, Heather, to hide her true nature, and the fallout of the eventual revelation of the truth. And Jude, of course, is still grappling with her feelings for Cardan, somehow still in love with the man who denied her and banished her from her home. If they are ever to be reunited a balance of power must be struck, but trust does not come easily to two people who have hurt each other so relentlessly. The power dynamics of interpersonal relationships are just as key to the series as the power dynamics of the Faerie court at large.

It is hard to say much more about the conclusion of this series without heading deep into the realm of spoilers. Holly Black continues her nuanced exploration of power, and what we will do to keep it, and how that desire can poison our relationships if abused. Under Madoc’s tutelage, and informed by her mortal weaknesses, Jude has been accustomed to seizing power by whatever means necessary. But some power cannot be seized, but can only be granted by willing consent. When it comes to dark, twisting, intricately plotted faerie tales, Holly Black is the true Queen of Faerie.

You might also like  The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

Spinning Silver

Cover image for Spinning Silver by Naomi Novikby Naomi Novik

ISBN 978-0-399-18099-6

 “Thrice, mortal maiden… Thrice you shall turn silver to gold for me, or be changed to ice yourself. And then, if you manage it, I will make you my queen.”

Winter is long in the kingdom of Lithvas, and every year it seems to grow longer. With scant harvests and crops ruined by frost, no one wants to repay their debts. Miryem’s family has been driven into poverty by her father’s soft heart, and inability to collect what is owed him. But when her mother falls ill, Miryem hardens herself, and sets out to gather back that which has been loaned. Soon she garners a fierce reputation for being able to turn silver into gold, and her family prospers, even as resentment towards them grows. Worse, her reputation attracts not just the mutters of their resentful neighbours, but the attention of the Staryk, winter fey with a rapacious appetite for gold. One winter’s night, the king of the Staryk knocks at her door, demanding three impossible feats. If she fails, her life is forfeit. If she succeeds, he promises—or perhaps threatens—to make her his queen.

Spinning Silver includes three primary narrators; Miryem the Jewish moneylender, her gentile servant girl, Wanda, and Irina, ill-favoured daughter of the Duke of Vysnia. However, as the story goes on, Novik freely incorporates additional perspectives, including Wanda’s youngest brother, Stepon; Magreta, nurse and chaperone to Irina; and Mirnatius, Tsar of Lithvas. Each perspective is distinct, and as the new ones are added, we are offered the opportunity to see the preceding characters through their eyes. When Wanda comes to Miryem’s house, she perceives the prayer they say over their dinner as a spell, and the math that Miryem uses to keep her accounts as magic. But soon Miryem becomes familiar to Wanda, and later, when Stepon’s voice is added, we review the confounding events through the innocent aspect of a child.

Hunger runs through the book, motivating each character in their own way. Wanda’s hunger is what drives her to Miryem’s doorstep, her farmer father unable to repay the money he has borrowed, because he drinks away what little he manages to earn, hungering after oblivion. At Miryem’s table, Wanda finds food, work, and comfort, satisfying appetites and ambitions she could never acknowledge at home. But she is also positioned to see just how Miryem’s hunger to never live in poverty again puts them all in terrible danger, first from the resentful neighbours, and then from supernatural forces beyond their ken. Meanwhile, mortal men hunger for faerie silver, enabling Miryem to perform the impossible feats demanded of her, while sun-warmed human gold is hungered after by the Staryk, for unknown ends. Worst of all, a demon who has made a particularly advantageous bargain possesses an appetite that threatens to swallow both Lithvas, and the Staryk realms.

Naomi Novik takes the greed that underpins the faerie tale of Rumpelstiltskin, and affixes it to the anti-Semitism that is tied up in the history of money lending in Europe. Miryem’s literal ability to lend out silver, and then consolidate the interest into gold at her grandfather’s bank makes her both useful and hated within her village, and coveted by a faerie king who has no other use for a mortal girl. Whereas Uprooted was based in the Polish Catholic roots of her mother’s family Novik attributes some of this inspiration to the history of her father’s Lithuanian Jewish family, though Jewish reviewers have had mixed reactions to her execution.

As a counterpart to Novik’s preceding book, Uprooted, Spinning Silver is much in the same vein. It is only loosely inspired by any particular faerie tale, and both stories play with elements of a magical being who takes a mortal girl as his captive helper for his own ends. Neither man figures on the agency or ingenuity of the girl. Both are set in a fantastical version of Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, though they are not explicitly the same world, and do not overlap outright. If the fact of Uprooted’s being a standalone left you wanting more, Spinning Silver might just scratch that itch.

You might also like Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

The Everlasting Rose (The Belles #2)

Cover image for The Everlasting Rose by Dhonielle Clayton by Dhonielle Clayton

ISBN 978-1-4847-2848-2

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“What is the truth in Orléans?… You and your sisters spent your entire existence altering appearances, shifting reality, catering to the most shallow whims. The birth of this world came out of a rotten, poisonous seed—and now, the framework is laced with it. Everyone spends all their time trying to look like something else. The masses will believe what is presented to them, as long as it is compelling and beautiful. Thanks to you, they no longer have any idea what’s real—what’s true.”

Camille, Edel, and Rémy are on the run from the tyrannical Princess Sophia, soon to be crowned Queen of Orléans, unless they can find the rightful heir, the recently awakened Princess Charlotte. Sophia claims her sister is dead, and that she will present her body to the court before her coronation, but Camille has to believe that she is still alive, and she knows that the dead Queen Celeste would not want her cruel younger daughter to inherit the crown. But it seems impossible that they will find Charlotte before Sophia’s ascension, and the scheming Princess is already hard at work ensuring that new imperial decrees will make it almost impossible to unseat her once she is crowned. A resistance movement is afoot in Orléans, but can the Belles really make common cause with the Iron Ladies, a group of women who reject beauty treatments altogether in favour of living with the gris?

I was excited to return to Orléans, but reading The Everlasting Rose reminded me that while I mostly enjoyed the world of The Belles, I was still upset about Claudine’s fate, as she was by far my favourite character in the first volume. Claudine’s lover, Violetta, reappears here, and it did seem at first as if Clayton was going to cast her as the grieving avenger with a grudge against Camille. Fortunately she does not significantly pursue that tired angle. However, there were a couple more deaths that felt engineered for heavy-handed melodrama, in ways that seemed merely intended to traumatize Camille. I was more interested in the parts of the book that explored the origin of the Belles, the calcifying control over their traditions, and the possibilities for a different future. In short, the society, rather than the plot, grabbed my attention.

With the remaining Belles either captured or on the run, The Everlasting Rose relies heavily on interjected new snippets to convey what is going on elsewhere in Orléans, and keep both the reader and the rebels apprised of Sophia’s machinations. Of course, the news nets are not entirely to be trusted, as Sophia manipulates certain outlets to her own ends. Only the underground newspapers can fully defy her censorship. While the first book was set mostly at court, the second volume is free to range over Clayton’s world, to explore the other cities and teahouses, and the shadowy corners no regular Belle would ever have a chance to see. This tour also incorporates a few fun nods to Clayton’s colleagues, including a peacock named after her Tiny Pretty Things coauthor, and a millinery named for Justine Larbalestier.

I expected the Iron Ladies to play a more significant role in the story based on the plot description, but they do not feature in the early parts of the book. It is only later that they form an uneasy alliance to depose Sophia, and set Charlotte in her place. But ultimately, the Belles and the Iron Ladies have different goals, and different visions for the future of Orléans, and I expect we will get to see this dynamic play out further if this series gets another installment. Currently, no third book has been announced.

You might also like Tiny Pretty Things by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra

Slayer

Cover image for Slayer by Kiersten White by Kiersten White

ISBN 978-1-53440495-3

 “And that’s my struggle, the truth of my life among the Watchers, growing up and aiding a society that exists because of Slayers: I hate them. What they are, what they do. And I hate none of them as much as I hate Buffy.”

When Buffy destroyed the Seed of Wonder, magic went out of the world. The hell mouths were sealed, cutting Earth off from the infernal realms. But the demons who were on Earth when the portals closed are now trapped here forever. Some latent magic still remains; vampires have not stopped existing, though they can no longer properly sire new vampires, and all of the Potentials who became Slayers still have their powers. Nina is the last Slayer, her powers activated in the final moments before magic left the world forever. And as the daughter of Watchers, this is the last thing she ever could have wanted. Because Nina hates Slayers, and Buffy in particular. Her father died serving as Buffy’s first Watcher, after all. Buffy is the Slayer who rejected the Watcher tradition Nina was raised to respect and uphold. And Buffy is responsible for destroying magic, taking away what little power the remaining Watchers had to protect themselves in this brave new world.

The group of young Watchers that form the cast of Slayer are among the last survivors of the ancient organization that has watched over the Chosen One for generations. There are a handful of older Watchers, forming what is left of the Council, and a few very young children, but teens Nina, Artemis, and Rhys, along with the slightly older Honora, Leo, and Imogen make up the bulk of the survivors. Together, they form the Watcher version of the Scooby Gang, figuring out how to fight evil and stay safe in a world that is somehow no less dangerous for magic’s passing. The once-warded Irish castle they now call home has been stripped of its protections, vengeful demons might be lurking anywhere, eager for a bit of revenge, and the end the Watcher line forever.

I think some people will probably find Nina’s hatred of Buffy off-putting, because it is an intense and ill-founded dislike of the character at the heart of this universe. However, it felt like a genuine and honest motivation for someone who has never actually met the Slayer in person, but has suffered for her choices nevertheless. Buffy and other characters from the original canon do not appear directly, but do make various cameos by way of mention, as well as dream sequences. Wesley’s status as a fallen Watcher working for a vampire detective, for example, is the butt of many jokes. Nina also has her own characterization and backstory beyond hating the Slayer. She has carved out a place for herself as healer, since she has never been deemed strong enough for proper Watcher training, while her twin sister Artemis is more of the warrior. Her relationship with her mother is fraught, but she is tight with her sister, and her best friend Rhys

The tone of the book is very much in keeping with the middle seasons of the show, where Buffy was about the same age as Slayer’s protagonists. Kiersten White is on point with the quippy dialogue and off-beat humour in the face of danger that characterized the show’s writing style. The camp and melodrama counter-points the typical teen angst of the Buffyverse, making for a familiar return to a beloved world, even if the characters are different.

Sorcery of Thorns

Cover image for Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson by Margaret Rogerson

ISBN 9781481497619

“She would never dare give voice to such a thought aloud. The sentiment verged on betraying her oaths to the Great Library. But a part of her rebelled against the idea that in order to be a good apprentice, she should close her eyes and pretend she hadn’t seen. How could a warden defend against something they didn’t understand? Surely it was better to face evil than cower from its presence, learning nothing.”

As a child of the Great Libraries of Austermeer, orphaned Elisabeth Scrivener has been raised surrounded by the magical grimoires that house the arcane secrets of the kingdom. Since sorcery is only possible via demonic bargain, magic users are necessary to the security of the kingdom, but also suspect, and never to be trusted. Librarians and their apprentices, like Elisabeth, tightly control access to magical knowledge, and are responsible for containing and protecting the most dangerous books. Worse, if a grimoire is a damaged, it can transform into a violent Malefict, wreaking havoc until it is bound or destroyed. When a disaster at the Great Library of Summershall forces Elisabeth to ally with the taciturn young sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn, and his demonic servant, the precepts of the Great Libraries are called into question, with the fate of Austermeer hanging in the balance.

In Sorcery of Thorns, Margaret Rogerson has created a tantalizing world, both filled with magic, and where magical knowledge is forbidden, with the practice of sorcery tightly controlled by law. But while sorcerers are dangerous, they are also powerful, and the checks and balances of power in such a world make for intriguing politics. Who gets access to knowledge, and who gets to decide? What have the old magical families kept in reserve, even after the Reforms that stripped them of the right to practice their craft freely? Elisabeth does not come from one of the old sorcery families; in fact, she has no family at all save for the Warden who chose to raise her in the Great Library. As a young, non-magical woman, she has very little power, and even less credibility, making her quest to discover what really happened at Summershall all the more difficult.

Fortunately, of course, Nathaniel Thorn has the power and prestige that Elisabeth lacks, though he has tried his best to remain aloof from the politics of Austermeer’s magical elite. With all his relatives dead, he has largely cut himself off from society as much as he can get away with while still serving his duty as a sorcerer to the crown. Elisabeth’s problem is to convince him to let down his walls, and forge an alliance with her, even as she is uncertain whether or not she should be trusting any sorcerer. Her circumstances leave her with little choice, but it is a constant tension that defines the course of the narrative. Keeping company with Nathaniel changes not only her idea of the world they live in, but her conception of herself and what she imagines for her future.

The third point of the triad at the heart of Sorcery of Thorns is Silas, the hereditary demon of the Thorn clan. The names of high demons are passed down from father to son, and when the father inevitably pays the price for his bargain, it is the duty of the son to recall the demon, and continue the family’s legacy and duty to the kingdom, whatever the personal cost. Demons are to be trusted even less than sorcerers, but something about Silas seems different from the other high demons Elisabeth encounters after she travels to the capital. However, the more time she spends with Nathaniel and Silas, the more she learns about the terrible price the Thorns have paid to keep him bound into their service over the centuries.

Sorcery of Thorns has not been billed as a series, and it contains a strong standalone plot that is concluded within the volume. The magical setting results in a thoroughly immersive reading experience, and Elisabeth’s stubbornness and curiosity make for a heroine who is inevitably going to push boundaries and ask hard questions as she outgrows the world of her childhood. Mix in some romance, action, and intrigue, and you have the recipe for a fascinating read.

You might also like Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Flamebringer (Heartstone #3)

Cover image for Flamebringer by Elle Katharine White by Elle Katharine White

ISBN 978-0-06-274798-3

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “You humans with your saints and heroes. Learn the truth as I did, both you and your husband: they will always disappoint you. If Alastair returns to Pendragon a wiser man for my honesty, then I will have done some good. It is all I have left to offer House Daired.”

Weary and disenchanted by their adventures in the north of Arle, Aliza, Alastair, and Akarra return south bearing a dire warning. Their old enemy Wydrick lives, ghast-ridden and merely the harbinger of a greater evil yet to come. Old things are stirring in Arle and abroad, and war is coming. The Silent King of Els is coming to Edonarle, even as the Tekari range ever further southward, terrorizing the towns and villages in their path. But will either the dragons or the human rulers of Arle listen to their warnings, or it will it be up to the Daireds to mount a lonely defense against the old grudges that are finally being called to account?

While Heartstone began as a Pride and Prejudice adaptation, by the third volume that scaffolding has largely fallen away, as Flamebringer is well beyond the bounds of that plot, leaving only the characters to hint at the origins of the tale. The story becomes about grappling with history and tradition, both for Aliza and Alastair personally, and the Kingdom of Arle as a whole. The return of Tristan Wydrick forces both Aliza and Alistair to face up to their previous relationship to him, and the social disparities that led him down his current path. As the plot develops, it becomes evident that Wydrick’s fate ties back to old Daired secrets, which House Pendragon has wilfully forgotten, but other still remember, and do not forgive. House Daired is an old power in Arle, but on what foundation was that power built?

After setting Dragonshadow in the north of Arle, and separating Aliza and Alistair from their family and friends, Flamebringer returns south, catching up with the Bentaine sisters, as well as Julienna Daired and Cedric Brysney. Bearing dire news about the war to come, Aliza hesitates to share all of her misadventures in the north with her sister, even though she is delighted to be reunited with Anjey. Their reunion sparks doubt in Aliza, as she realizes that Anjey has embraced the identity of Rider as her own, training and fighting alongside her husband. Still more healer than warrior, and attuned to the fact that Rider culture will never fully accept her, Aliza has a harder time leaving her old life behind as she tries to settle into the new one. Together the two form an interesting contrast in adapting to a new culture, and new life circumstances. The complex relationships depicted between the sisters remain one of my favourite aspects of the series.