Category: Fantasy

The Fate of the Tearling (Queen of the Tearling #3)

Cover image for The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansenby Erika Johansen

978-0-06229042-7

“For three long centuries the Fetch had watched William Tear’s dream sink further and further into the mire. No one in the Tearling could even see Tear’s better world any longer, let alone muster the courage to dig for it.”

By handing over the Tear sapphires to the Red Queen, Kelsea has bought a reprieve in the war with Mortmesne, but at a terrible price. She is taken captive, and imprisoned in a dungeon beneath the Palais in Desmesne. With her hold on her kingdom slipping, the Red Queen is desperate to master the magic of the sapphires before the dark threat from the Fairwitch sweeps her off her throne. The Mace is left in charge of New London, torn between his duty to rescue Kelsea as head of the Queen’s Guard, and his responsibility to rule Tear as her Regent. He cannot leave Kelsea imprisoned, but sensing an opportunity, the Arvath is attempting to wrest power from the crown, and Lazarus must move on two fronts. The fate of the Tearling hangs in the balance.

In The Queen of the Tearling, the series began as a traditional fantasy tale of a young monarch coming to power after being raised in secrecy for her own protection. In her first days on the throne, Kelsea Raleigh Glynn made powerful enemies by stopping the shipment of Tear slaves to Mortmesne. But from that prosaic beginning, the trilogy has made some unusual choices, revealing a dystopian twist, and a science-fiction turn that create an interesting blend of genres. Johansen has built a unique world, but one that requires a high level of buy-in from the reader, and acceptance that not everything will be readily explained. With The Fate of the Tearling bringing the trilogy to a close, there are still many questions and loose threads left over from the second volume.

Raised in exile by a historian, Kelsea believes strongly in the importance of history, and that the past can help her unlock their present predicament. Imprisoned in a Mort dungeon, she gives herself over to her strange fugue states, which mysteriously continue despite the fact that she has been separated from Tear’s sapphires. Though Lily Mayhew is still alive at the time, Kelsea is now seeing William Tear’s Town through the eyes of Katie Rice, the daughter of Tear’s trusted lieutenant, Dorian. As Tear’s utopian dream begins to unravel in the years after the Crossing, Katie is recruited for secret training to guard Tear’s heir, Jonathan. These flashback sections are more loosely framed than in The Invasion of the Tearling, possibly because with Kelsea imprisoned, there is little other action to interrupt.

Since Kelsea is imprisoned in Mortmesne, Johansen draws on the perspectives of wide variety of secondary characters to flesh out the wider story. In New London, Andalie’s daughter Aisa observes events from her new position as a member of the Queen’s Guard. Several chapters are seen from the perspective of Arlen Thorne’s witch, Brenna, who was captured and imprisoned in the Keep dungeon. The traitorous Gate Guard Javel follows the Queen’s Guard on their mission to Desmesne, more to find his long-lost wife than for any interest in rescuing the Queen. As usual, Johansen perfectly times her changes in perspective for maximum dramatic tension.

In the first two installments of the series, Kelsea relied heavily on the magic of the mysterious Tear sapphires, handed down through generations of Raleigh monarchs. Their precise origins and the source of their power both remained unexplained, making them a rather unsatisfying device. In The Fate of the Tearling, we finally get some answers, but perhaps not as many as some readers might desire. Despite the explanations, the sapphires are still overly-convenient devices, but understanding their history does mitigate this somewhat. This reliance on the sapphires weakens Kelsea’s character, and the series as a whole, but Johansen’s strong pacing, and complex characters such as Mace, the Red Queen, and the Fetch carry the series to an intriguing if not entirely satisfying conclusion.

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Kushiel’s Dart

Cover image for Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey by Jacqueline Carey

ISBN 978-0-7653-4298-0

“Such a small thing on which to hinge a fate. Nothing more than a mote, a fleck, a mere speck of color. If it had been any other hue, perhaps it would have been a different story.”

Abandoned by her parents on the doorstep of the Night Court—home to the courtesans of Terre D’Ange—Phèdre is groomed for a life of service to Naamah in the City of Elua. But a red spot in her left eye marks her unfit to officially serve in the Night Court, so her marque is sold to the courtier Anafiel Delaunay, who raises her up to be a spy as well as a courtesan. Delaunay is also the only one to recognize what the red mote in her eye betokens; Phèdre is marked by Blessed Elua’s companion Kushiel, and she is an anguisette, doomed to take her pleasure in pain. Without knowing the depths in which is swimming, Phèdre stumbles upon the key to a plot that threatens the Crown, and indeed Terre D’Ange itself.

Jacqueline Carey has built and elaborate world and religious system in Kushiel’s Dart, one that defies quick explanation. Indeed, the first hundred or so pages of the book have very little plot, and mostly contain exposition and world-building, which may be a hard sell for some readers to get past. The tone can also be somewhat baroque, as Phèdre is formally relating her adventures sometime after the fact. Carey’s world has very clear parallels to our Europe, but the story of Elua and his companions makes for a unique culture in which to set the story. Of those cast down from heaven to follow Elua, Naamah served by selling her body, and so in Terre D’Ange, courtesans are something akin to priestesses, practicing a holy art that is governed by custom and contract. Despite the information dumping to set this all up, I admire the way there is such a logical structure behind D’Angeline culture being kinkier, more sex-positive, and more accepting of open relationships than our own world—it is literally built into their religious system, and their way of life is logical extension of that. The sex scenes also tend to tie into the plot, as Phèdre seeks out information for Delaunay.

This isn’t our world, so it is difficult to label the characters in our terms, but most D’Angelines are what we might term bisexual. Once she enters the service of Naamah, Phèdre accepts assignations with both men and women, as does her foster brother Alcuin. This is not merely a matter of the Night Court and courtesans, however; Delaunay is also known to have loved both men and women, though some characters clearly have a preference one way or another. And of course, the great houses must make marriages to perpetual their lineage. Though both of Phèdre’s main romantic interests are men, she is captivated by her patron Melisande Shahrizai, a descendant of Kushiel’s house who understands and appreciates what it means to be an anguisette in a way that neither of the men do. But Melisande is also a wily and untrustworthy political player, to whom Phèdre cannot really give her heart.

Once the world is established, the narrative itself is a potent mix of sex and politics. King Ganelon de la Courcel is old, and his heir is his granddaughter Ysandre, who is as yet unmarried, though many have bid for her hand and failed. The succession was destabilized by the death of Ysandre’s father, Rolande, who was a killed in a famous battle driving back the Skaldi from the D’Angeline border. As Ganelon ails, the nobility are quietly skirmishing to upend the succession for their own gain. Anafiel Delaunay is somehow mixed up in the intrigue, and Phèdre and Alcuin spy at his bidding, but he does not reveal his full hand to them. This will lead Phèdre into adventures she never could have imagined when she pledged herself to Naamah’s service. Even as the succession is imperiled, Terre D’Ange is on the brink of war with Skaldia once more.

In many respects, this will be a series that is not for all readers. It is a romantic fantasy, but the sex scenes are explicit, and many of them are also violent; god-touched as she is, Phèdre is not so much kinky as we would recognize it as she is an utter masochist who takes pleasure in being subjected to violence that would be beyond the pale in reality. And while being a courtesan is a respected role in Terre D’Ange, this is not the case in other countries, and once Phèdre starts to travel, the situation gets a little murkier. I would recommend caution for anyone who has experienced sexual abuse or rape. But those who are up for it are in for a twisty, sex-positive political fantasy with many intricate layers.

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Of Fire and Stars

of-fire-and-starsby Audrey Coulthurst

ISBN 978-0-06-243325-1

“Princesses don’t play with fire.”

Princess Dennaleia of Havemont has been promised to Prince Thandilimon of Mynaria since childhood. The marriage will seal an alliance that will help the two countries defend against their mysterious and powerful Eastern neighbour, Zumourda. Denna has an Affinity for fire, one of the elements tied to worship of the Six. But magic is strictly forbidden in Mynaria, so she must hide her ability when, at sixteen, she is sent south to finally make her marriage vows. In Mynaria, Denna meets Princess Amaranthine, better known as Mare, who is the elder sister of her betrothed. Mare is charged with teaching Denna to ride a horse before the wedding, but soon sparks are flying between the two girls. When the assassination of a member of the royal family threatens to destabilize Mynaria, Denna and Mare must work together to solve the mystery before Mynaria is plunged into war.

Of Fire and Stars will have definite appeal for readers who hate love at first sight. The relationship between Denna and Mare is a bit of a slow burn. Denna appears to be the perfect princess, while Mare has rebelled against all of her family’s expectations, spending most of her time training horses. Her hobby is tolerated because the royal family breeds some of the best horses in the world, and horses are an essential part of Mynarian culture. Mare has no desire to teach a green novice how to ride, and the two get off to a rough start. But after the assassination, Denna feels sidelined by the Directorate, and Mare seems to be the only person who shares her concerns and suspicions about what is going on.

Whether it is because she is nervous in an unfamiliar place, or unusually emotional due to her unexpected feelings for Mare, Denna struggles to control her magic in Mynaria to an extent that never occurred back home in Havemont. She has succeeded in hiding her power, but her arrival in Mynaria nevertheless becomes controversial when it becomes public that the alliance will mean that Havemont will restrict access to the High Adytym, a key place of magical worship for Mynarian pilgrims. Audrey Coulthurst weaves religion and magic together, creating separatist factions, borrowing the term Recusant from the Reformation period. The political and religious conflicts are less well developed than the romance, and Zumourda in particular is a blank slate onto which anything can be written.

While a strong taboo against magic exists in Mynaria, and a slightly less stringent disapproval is noticeable in Havemont, same sex relationships are relatively free of stigma in the world Coulthurst has created. The tension in Denna and Mare’s relationship comes from the threat of upending an important political alliance between their two countries. Denna also feels guilty about breaking the promise she made in her betrothal, despite the fact that she had little choice in the matter. Mare and her brother do not enjoy a close relationship, so Mare feels less guilty about coming between them, and more angry about the fact that her brother doesn’t seem to appreciate Denna’s intelligence or respect her as an equal. There is plenty of complication in their romance, without the need for the shame of homophobia. This dynamic is very similar to the one Malinda Lo created in Ash, and indeed Coulthurst thanks her in the acknowledgments. Interestingly, however, gender roles and expectations still pose a problem for both Denna and Mare, even in a world where a woman can be captain of the guard, a woman is Queen in her own right of a neighbouring kingdom.

Of Fire and Stars is a slow-burn forbidden romance laced with magic, highly recommended for fans of Malinda Lo’s Ash.

The Midnight Star (Young Elites #3)

Cover image for The Midnight Star by Marie Lu by Marie Lu

ISBN 978-0-399-16785-0

“I do it because I want to. Because I can. That’s what anyone truly means when they gain power and call it altruism, isn’t it? I’m just not afraid to admit it.”

With her Roses at her side, Adelina Amouterou has become the Queen of not only Estenzia, but all the Sealands. She has raised up the malfettos, and subjected the unmarked to the very brutalities they once visited on her kind. Now, she has set her sights on conquering Tamoura, and extending her rule once more. Whispers also say that her sister Violetta fled to Tamoura after their falling out. But Adelina’s plans to conquer the world are disturbed by one problem; sooner or later she must face the inexorable deterioration of the Elites, as their immortal powers slowly destroy their all-too-mortal bodies. The voices in her head grow louder, and her illusions become more and more difficult to control. Facing this threat will require dangerous and uneasy alliances with old enemies and former friends if the world is to survive.

Over the course of The Young Elites series, Adelina has transformed from victim of her father’s brutalities into a terrifying despot in her own right. As Queen, she turns the injustices she faced on others for revenge, and has an insatiable appetite for conquest. The more powerful she becomes, the more isolated and paranoid she must necessarily be. Marie Lu has carefully crafted this slow transformation, and here we see Adelina balancing on the precipice of becoming so paranoid that she does not trust even Sergio or Magiano. The potential for her descent into complete madness is evident, even as Lu lays out an interesting new narrative path for The Midnight Star.

Rafaele and Violetta continue to form the empathetic counterpoint to Adelina’s fear and violence, with Rafaele serving as another narrative point of view. The Daggers steadfastly oppose Adelina’s empire-building, allying with Tamoura against her. As powerful Elites continue to sicken, can the extended hand of partnership be met with anything but violence from a ruler who has confused revenge with justice? Adelina and Violetta’s relationship has undergone a complex transition as the series has progressed, and that bond remains at the heart of The Midnight Star. Lu has a delicate balance to strike between making Adelina truly terrifying, and giving her motivations that are understandable despite their dark consequences. Violetta is often the key to that balance.

At the start of the series, Adelina was a girl caught between the Inquisition and the Daggers, with both groups desiring to bend her to their own purposes. Now she is powerful in her own right, but faced with a situation in which she has to decide if she will cooperate with those who she has little cause to trust. Readers’ satisfaction with The Midnight Star will likely hinge on their interest in seeing Adelina either redeemed or fully committed to her dark path.

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Previously in this series:

The Young Elites

The Rose Society 

Ruin and Rising (Grisha #3)

Cover image for Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugoby Leigh Bardugo

ISBN 9780805094619

Na razrusha’ya. I am not ruined. E’ya razrushost. I am ruination.”

Os Alta has fallen, and the Darkling rules Ravka. The Lantsovs have fled, and Alina is trapped underground in the hands of the Apparat and his zealots, unsure if Prince Nikolai is even alive. The only hope is for her and Mal to find the firebird, and finally unite all three of Morozova’s amplifiers so that she will have enough power to defeat the Darkling. But the Apparat is determined to keep her safe in the White Cathedral until he decides it is time to act. With the Second Army broken, and Alina’s allies scattered, the final amplifier is their only hope. But claiming its power will come at a terrible cost.

Ruin and Rising brings Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy to a stunning conclusion. Over the last couple months, I have been listening to the Grisha series on audio in my car, excellently performed by Lauren Fortgang. More than once I have found myself sitting in the parking lot at my destination, unable to turn off the book until I could find out what happened next. The action is fast-faced and Bardugo’s world-building is excellent. Add in charismatic characters like Nikolai and Genya, and grouchy-yet-endearing personages such as Baghra and Zoya, and this series has had me hooked from the get-go.

One of my favourite characters throughout the series has been Baghra, the grumpy old Grisha teacher who helps Alina break through her block in Shadow and Bone, and is eventually revealed to be the Darkling’s mother. David and Alina have been pouring over Morozova’s journals, but Baghra seems to know more than she is telling, even as she warns Alina against tampering with Merzost, the power of creation. A supporting character to this point, Baghra’s own intriguing history is revealed.

I also very much enjoyed following Genya’s character arc. After being brutally attacked by the Nichevo’ya as punishment for her betrayal of the Darkling, Genya is stripped of the beauty that largely defined her character in the early installments of the series. As a Tailor, Genya begins the series as the lowest of the Grisha, a mere servant to the King and Queen of Ravka, and a spy for the Darkling. By the end, we have seen her grow into a determined and independent character, once she is able to get out from under the thumb of the Darkling and the Lantsovs.

The epilogues of YA series tend to be a bit hit and miss for me, and Ruin and Rising was no exception. I bought who Alina ended up with, but not where they ended up. But no doubt folks on the other Alina ships were even more disappointed, so I suppose I can suspend a bit of disbelief about the risks of her final destination given the events of Ruin and Rising. Even considering this small disappointment with the ending, the Grisha trilogy has still been one of my most enjoyable reading experiences of 2016.

Certain Dark Things

Cover image for Certain Dark Things by Silvia Morena-Garcia by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

ISBN 978-1-250-09908-2

“She seems to enjoy your company, she may even like you, and yet. Don’t deceive yourself, my boy, this is not a love story.”

Domingo is a street kid who scrapes by as a junk collector on the streets of Mexico City, one of the few vampire-free zones in a world that learned in 1967 that vampires are all too real. Domingo is fascinated by the pop-culture lore of these creatures, but he has never seen one until Atl drops into his life. The scion of a powerful northern narco-clan, Atl is on the run after a disastrous clash with a rival clan. Sneaking into Mexico City is risky, but she needs to buy the papers that will allow her to escape to South America. Atl wants to get in and get out quickly and quietly, but she needs a source of blood that will not draw suspicion or attention. Unfortunately, her rivals are much less discreet, and soon the human gangs and cops of Mexico City become aware that vampires have invaded their territory.

Atl picks up Domingo on Mexico City’s subway, figuring that she can discreetly pay him to be her source of blood for the duration of her stay. This is not quite the arrangement Domingo expected when Atl solicited him, but he is fascinated by vampire stories, and willing to go along with what she wants. Soon, however, the two are bonded together by their adventures and Atl starts considering something more. Technically speaking, she is too young to be allowed to have a Tlapalehuiani, or a Renfield, but the unusual circumstances cause her to consider violating custom and binding Domingo even more closely. Yet it is also clear that Domingo is in danger of falling in love with her.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia pulls together a diverse variety of vampire lore, and is able to incorporate many different traditions by dividing her vampires into ten different sub-species. The protagonist, Atl, is descended from vampires that are native to Mexico with their roots in Aztec lore, but her family has been decimated by the Necros, a hardy and brutal European sub-species. A lot of information is built into the text, but for those who can’t get enough, there is also a glossary at the back for some extra details. Three sub-species of vampire feature in Certain Dark Things, but Moreno-Garcia clearly has a strong idea of the rest of her world as well.

Atl and Domingo are both vivid protagonists, but the secondary characters are no less interesting. Ana is a cop who used to work in vampire territory in Zacatecas, but moved to Mexico City for the promise of a better career, and a better life for her teenage daughter, Marisol. She has toed the line for so long, and tried to be honest, but the promise of Mexico City has proved hollow. The police force is still corrupt, and there are few opportunities for women. When a human gang offers a significant sum of money for Ana’s cooperation in helping them take out the vampires that have invaded their territory, she is tempted to accept.

Certain Dark Things is constantly shifting perspective, from Atl and Domingo, to Ana, to Nick Godoy and the Renfield Rodrigo. Rodrigo has worked for the Godoys for decades, and Nick is the spoiled son of his long-time employer. But this job has gotten out of control, leaving Rodrigo longing for retirement, and an escape from trying to harness Nick’s reckless appetite and careless disregard for caution. The Godoys relentlessly pursue Atl, even as she seeks passage out of Mexico City, while both the human gangs and the local authorities want to eliminate them both. The result is a perfect blend of real world crime drama and urban fantasy lore in this unique new take on the vampire story.

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Interested in learning more? Check out an interview with the author over at Read Diverse Books! 

Ash

Cover image for Ash by Malinda Loby Malinda Lo

ISBN 9780316040099

“But even if magic was so rare it was more like myth than reality, the people of that country still loved their fairy tales.”

When Aisling’s mother dies, she is heartbroken. Her father remarries quickly and unexpectedly, bringing his new wife and her two daughters to live with them in the house in Rook Hill, at the edge of the Wood. Then her father dies as well, and Aisling is left alone with her strange new family. Abused by her stepmother, Aisling loses herself in fairy tales, reading and rereading her favourite stories. Defying all caution, she takes long walks in the Wood, hoping to be stolen away by the fairies. But a powerful fairy lord who calls himself Sidhean makes himself her protector, denying her desire. Thus able to pass safely in the Wood, she meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress. Aisling owes Sidhean for the wishes he has granted her, but with Kaisa in her life, she is suddenly reluctant to pay.

Malinda Lo’s Ash uses many of the elements of the various versions of the Cinderella story, while also incorporating a magical wood, a common set piece in many other fairy tales. Lo’s world-building exceeds what you might normally find in a fairy tale, incorporating the role of the King’s Huntress and fleshing out the kingdom that surrounds the story. And Lo’s fairies have the bite of the older tales, rather than the fluffier friendliness of Cinderella’s Disney godmother. Sidhean has long protected Aisling from the other fairies, telling her it isn’t time, but he seems to constantly struggle with the temptation to take her himself, complicating matters.

By tweaking the traditional narrative, Lo also interrogates the idea of marrying for money. Both Aisling’s father and her stepmother marry with this high on their minds. Aisling’s father because his business is in trouble, and her stepmother because she cannot offer her daughters the advantages she thinks they deserve with only her inheritance to live on. Each is bitterly disappointed and Aisling pays the price. Her oldest step-sister Ana is under tremendous pressure to marry well in order to remedy the situation. There are several interesting exchanges between Aisling and her younger stepsister, Clara, who is caught up in the romantic idea of marrying a prince, serving as reminder to Aisling that some people want the things that hold no appeal for her.

Throughout the tale, Ash explores the theme of home, and how home is not a place, but the people who love you.  Aisling finds herself following the paths of the Wood back to Rook Hill several times to visit her mother’s grave. But of course, her mother isn’t really there, and the house in Rook Hill is empty. It is no longer home without her parents, but nor is Lady Isobel’s house home, because the Quinn family does not love her. This theme is especially apt for a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, since many LGBT people are rejected by their family of origin, and end up making their own family. Aisling’s world does not seem to share this stigma, but nor has her home been a loving one since her mother’s death.

Ash is an understated retelling of Cinderella, made up of a good blend of the traditional fairy tale and Lo’s own reinvention and additions. But it is the sweet, slow-burning romance at the heart of the tale that gives this retelling life.


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The Bronze Key (Magisterium #3)

Cover image for The Bronze Key by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

ISBN 9780545522311

“He felt as though no matter what he did, he veered closer and closer to Constantine’s life and Constantine’s decisions. It was like being on a collision course with himself.”

Call, Aaron, and Tamara are heroes in the world of mages, having presented the head of Constantine Madden, the Enemy of Death, to the Collegium. But it seems that not everyone appreciates their efforts, because on the night of the ceremony acknowledging their service, someone tries to kill Call. Call thought his secret was safe, but why else would someone be trying to kill him? Worse, being caught in the middle costs a fellow student her life.  Not even the Magisterium can protect them, but the teachers have forbidden Call and his friends from trying to catch the killer. But since the Masters don’t know that Call is the reincarnation of Constantine Madden—and he isn’t about to tell them—he is sure that they will never catch the killer without his help.

The Bronze Key is a fast-paced magical adventure laced with the signature humour that Holly Black and Cassandra Clare have brought to the series. But the Magisterium series turns on playing with tropes, using both the magic school setting and the Chosen One narrative to advantage in this regard. In an introduction to The Iron Trial, Black and Clare wrote “we wanted to tell a story about a protagonist who had all the markers of a hero: tragedy and secrets in his past, magic power. We wanted people to believe they knew what kind of story they were in for. And then we wanted them to be surprised…” Readers expecting a simple Harry Potter rehash were met with twists and turns in both The Iron Trial and The Copper Gauntlet.

That said, Black and Clare do not seem to have brought that philosophy fully to bear on the third installment of their series, which marks the mid-point of Magisterium. With the Enemy of Death publicly defeated, Call and Aaron’s Makar powers suddenly look more threatening. What if they become evil, too? There is a spy inside the Magisterium, and a new overseer of the school assigned by the government. Black and Clare typically play their hand late in the book, and this is true again here, with several plot twists and major events coming in the last few pages. But they don’t succeed in subverting the tropes in the same way as in previous installments, and that has been a large part of the allure of this series. As we ramp up into the two final volumes, there may still be room to play with these narrative choices, but it remains a disappointment for this volume.
The Bronze Key does have a good helping of mystery and adventure which will continue to hold many readers who are less interested in playing with convention. In addition to trying to identify Call’s would-be assassin, the trio also faces new magical tests, tensions within the group, and the daunting task of trying to save the Chaos-ridden animals like Havoc from extermination. Tamara is brought face-to-face with the fate of those, like her sister Ravan, who are Devoured by their power, and Aaron’s family secrets come out into the open. However, even those who enjoy the fast-paced plot may find the one-two punch of the cliff-hanger ending overwrought.

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