ARC Review: THE HELLION (Malus Domestica #3) by S.A. Hunt (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Horror
Year Release: July 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
Buy links: Bookshop | Unabridged Books | Barnes and Noble

Read a NetGalley eARC from the publisher
Content  and trigger warnings: domestic violence, dismemberment, gore, emetophobia, self-harm, misogyny

The Hellion picks up a few months after the end of I Come With Knives. Robin and her boo Kenway are on a road trip through Texas. On their way, a mother and daughter hide in their RV, away from an abusive father who may or may not be a shapeshifter. High octane violence ensues, and the witch hunter must harness new powers and protect friends new and old.

How Hunt keeps pulling off this pacing is truly outstanding. The book is split into an A side and a B side, like a cassette tape with a series of tracks. The first half definitely focuses on more human problems, while the second half goes full supernatural. The energy, however, does not let up at any step of the way. The denouement works so well because there is a hint of what’s coming next, but with enough breathing room for the characters to process the entire book that just happened

What I also greatly appreciated was that Robin was finally allowed to have some girl friends. The friendships here are spiky, but powerful. There is a lot of love, whether the characters want to admit it to themselves. The way Robin fights for those around her also strikes me as inspiring. Turns out this badass does have a soft interior, even if sometimes it is covered by a demonic exoskeleton (that’s all I’ll say about that.

On 9/15/2020, prepare for fans of Mad Max: Fury Road with shifters and even more found family feels and queer representation.

Review: THE LAST SMILE IN SUNDER CITY (The Fetch Phillips Archives #1) by Luke Arnold (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2020
Source: Audible

Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: Violence, drug use, fantasy gore, arson
I saw that Long John Silver from Black Sails had written a fantasy novel, and I was immediately interested. In this fantasy noir, Fetch Phillips is a human detective who doesn’t work for humans, investigating disappearances around town.

This city felt so alive. There is a deep sense of history and a contemporary culture. It manifests most obviously in the presence of a private school which teaches both magical and human students, and the various types of bars and tea shops. It feels modern in a way I don’t see too often, especially given the presence of cars and other non-magical technology. I found it interesting that perspective of the city came from a feeling of recent-history, not so much ongoing conflict. There is healing, there is trauma, and Arnold doesn’t flinch from any of it.

Fetch is also a compelling narrator. A depressed PI consumed by his regrets, he has insights into the city that ring true given its history. There’s a very self-inflicted kind of bitterness, and that kind of introspection lent the voice an authenticity. He doesn’t seem to feel that the world did him any wrong, but his view of things isn’t at all optimistic. Fetch, however, is also a bit of a disaster. He’s so nervous about repeating the mindset that set off his mistakes, at the expense of his own better judgment and safety.

The plot, however, is a bit slow, with not many action pieces until the very end. It meanders through the different worldbuilding pieces which help us get to know Fetch and Sunder, plus the things that ail both of them. It’s windy, but the bitter, darkly humorous voice helps bring it to life.

A fantasy noir about a city with as many regrets as our main characters, drenched in the aftermath of conflict.

ARC Review: THE SCAPEGRACERS (#1) by Hannah Abigail Clarke (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary Fantasy
Year Release: September 2020
Source: Physical ARC
Buy links: Bookshop | Unabridged Books | Barnes and Noble

Read a physical ARC from Erewhon Books
Content warnings: Parental death (in flashbacks), blood magic

Outcast teenage lesbian Sideways Pike performs magic at a killer party and gains a coven. What ensues is an exploration of identity, magic, and female friendship while trying to do normal teen things like go to class, have crushes, and run away from witch hunters.

The voice in this novel is powerful. There’s a bit of stream of consciousness, but Sideways has such a distinct POV and way of phrasing that feels authentic. Clarke makes this look effortless, especially as bits of witch lore and plot have to happen. The way Clarke depicts Sideways griefs and traumas don’t flinch from either the details or the underlying emotional journey. It’s so raw. And I liked the way it showed up within the narrative. What really stuck with me was how Sideways opens up to the reader as her new friends let her further and further into their circle. It’s endearing, it’s powerful, it gave a kind of joy that can only come from finding family-like friendships.

Magic within this novel implied stricter rules and more world-building, but since we’re discovering it as Sideways uses it for party tricks and later, teaching Daisy, Jing, and Yates how to cast spells, it made sense to me that it was mostly shown through the experience. The way Clarke ties it into the experience of queerness and teenhood felt powerful, especially as it relates to the trials and tribulations of leaving oneself vulnerable to let friends in. There was never a doubt that her friends would be her life line, even if Sideways herself didn’t quite know it yet.

On September 15th, join a coven of queer disasters as they discover magic and the power of friendship, told through a ferocious, fun voice all its own.

ARC Review: THE FOUR PROFOUND WEAVES by R.B. Lemberg (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: September 2020
Source: Edelweiss eARC
Buy links: Bookshop | Unabridged Books | Barnes and Noble

Read an eARC from Edelweiss

In the Birdverse, weaves carry magic and four are the most profound: change, wanderlust, hope, and death. Having mastered three of them, Uiziya goes on a journey with her close friend the nameless man to learn the fourth from her aunt.

What really makes this story stand out is how often we don’t see older protagonists get to go on an adventure. There is a sense of recovery and a continued exploration of identity even at older ages. The nameless man is searching for a name, and in a world where magic stems from the number of syllables in a name, this ties in the world-building to a character arc. I won’t spoil how it ends, but it left me with light in my heart.

In addition, the villain worked so well because he represents an opposite theory . There is melancholy in that to weave from death means weaving from bones, but the framing Lemberg establishes throughout infuses the book with brilliant, resistant hope (in addition to hope being one of the weaves). The novella takes its time in these explorations, especially as it relates to connections both familial and platonic.

A delightful debut about identity, art, and friendship.

 

Review: RAYBEARER (Raybearer #1) by Jordan Ifueko (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2020
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: Parental emotional abuse, blood magic, child death

Having to pause this book as I was listening to it brought me a reader’s pain that I hadn’t felt in a while. In this West-African-inspired fantasy, Tarisai has been sent to the capital by her absent mother, the Lady, to join the prince’s Council of 11 and kill him once she gains his trust.

The world of this novel feels so lived in. There are glimpses and snippets of all twelve nations within the Aritsar empire. Their shared histories make them feel like characters. The craft that went into highlighting and exploring generational grievances and traumas, connecting them to the choices the characters have to make as part of their own arcs.

Throughout the story, Tarisai navigates friendships and first loves in a political setting. Watching her try to wrangle her agency and identity from the task assigned her by her manipulative mother. The way her relationship (or lack there of) with her mother was handled with all its complexities. My heart ached for Tarisai because all she wanted was a family. Most of the emotional journey of this book is watching her navigate her found family versus her legacy. It’s an emotional and a very interior journey which shine through the action and magic through all the big events and major plot points.

In addition, magic plays a very big role. The king and his council, as well as the prince and his council, are all connected by the Ray. It causes sickness when council members are too far apart, and allows them to communicate across great distances otherwise. Moreover, each member represents a way the Raybearer can die. The way this weaves through the plot is masterful and never feels like a deus ex machina, especially during pivotal decision points both for Tarisai and Aritsar as a whole.

Speaking of relationships, the way this made-family comes together for each other. There is so much compassion among them all, even throughout betrayals and misunderstandings. The love triangle is also impeccably set-up, providing two possible avenues of Tarisai’s choices. You’ll have to read the book for yourself to see how those play out.

In terms of other delights, the storytelling traditions featured throughout include songs and new-to-me sounds. The audiobook narrator clearly had fun bringing these to life throughout my listening experience—I highly recommend listening-as-reading.

Raybearer is an ownvoices Black fantasy with impeccable plot twists and complex characters, an utter delight from start to finish.

ARC Review: NIGHT OF THE MANNEQUINS by Stephen Graham Jones (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Horror
Year Release: September 2020
Source: NetGalley ARC
Buy links: Bookshop | Unabridged Books | Barnes and Noble

Read an eARC from NetGalley

A slasher film comes to the page in this misadventure in a teenage prank gone wrong. Sawyer and his friends sneak a dressed-up mannequin into a movie theater and at the end, the mannequin gets up and leaves. Everything goes downhill from there.

This novella nestles deeply into Sawyer’s head. We get everything from his lens: his impressions of his friends, their families, his family, his logic (and all its holes), the town they live in, and all of it. The sentences meander, but paint such a clear image of his descent into paranoid homicide. By the end, you find yourself wondering what’s real and what’s a delusion and it works so well. Like a finely illustrated car wreck, I could not look away. Every moment had me wondering where Sawyer was going next, even when he was straight up telling the reader.

A wild ride from start to finish, definitely a must-read for fans of 80’s films coming to you on 9/1.

 

Review: THE SUN DOWN MOTEL by Simone St. James (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult Supernatural Thriller
Year Release: 2020
Source: Library audiobook

Content warnings: Stalking, violence against women, murder

The book’s dedication is to muderinos, and it truly feels like it was written by and for a true crime junkie. In Fell, New York, the Sun Down Motel has a checkered past, which include mysterious murders and hauntings. Viv Delaney ran away from home and settled in upstate New York in 1982. Thirty-five years later, her 20-year-old niece, Carly, searches for the truth behind her disappearance.

The pacing is impeccable. I had such a hard time putting this one down. Reveals and scares were perfectly balanced against each other. What St. James does so well in this one is also bringing attention to more everyday fears and considerations, like being wary of walking by yourself at night and the unsettlement of men getting too close.

One of the main highlights for me were the friendships between all the women. The balance between genuine care, tough love, and no-nonsense approaches to the terrors of Fell, New York felt authentic. Everyone had a sense of a life beyond the immediate problems. Carly felt a little flat, but she also had been through much grief before we meet her in this story (her mother recently died and she had no leads on who her aunt was). That being said, there were some wonderful male supporting characters.

It’s a true crime, small town spin on “1408” by Stephen King, with driven female characters, eerie hauntings, and a satisfying mystery.

 

Review: THE INDIFFERENT STARS ABOVE: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party by Daniel James Brown (2009)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult Nonfiction
Year Release: 2009
Source: Libro.fm

Trigger warnings: Cannibalism, starvation, suicidal ideation, gore, dog eating

I read The Hunger earlier this year, and the story of the Donner party has fascinated me since. This book was also used for a bulk of the Last Podcast of the Left’s research.

While Katsu’s story gets up close and personal with some of the key players in the party, Brown’s account loosely follows the key players. He structures the account around Sarah Graves and her survival, and it is novelesque. There is hope, there is fear, there are terrible decisions, and battles happening both among members of the camp and against individual physiology. The fact that he visited the trail to see what winter was like and gave in sensory details maintained the illusion of fiction, until grounded contexts gently reminded the reader that, yes, all of this really happened in 1846.

What really makes this book stand out is the level of contextualization. Whenever a new roadblock met the Donner and Reed parties, he paused to go into more detail, providing some scientific evidence that only could have been discovered from more contemporary research. Examples include the general dangers posed to children on the wagon train regardless of ill-fated detours, discussing if the weather had been particularly deadly the year they spent at Truckee lake, the physiology behind starving, and more. The focus never left the actual humans who underwent this truly harrowing ordeal. What I also found interesting was that he would zoom out to discuss life in the U.S. as a contrast. It’s something I hadn’t encountered in my nonfiction, and I would love to see more.

An epic read that contextualizes what was happening to and around the tragic members of the Donner and Reed parties.

 

ARC Review: DROWNED COUNTRY by Emily Tesh (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: August 2020
Source: NetGalley ARC
Buy links: Bookshop | Unabridged Books | Barnes and Noble

Read an eARC from NetGalley

Lush, folkloric storytelling returns in this sequel to Silver in the Wood. This time, Silver and Mr. Finch have broken up within the two years since the end of the previous book, but have reunited to solve a vampire problem. And then it’s off to Fairyland.

I really liked the yearning in this one. Silver clearly wants to prove himself, but he is a baby man who wants not much to do with responsibility. I loved the way the state of the manor reflected his inner turmoil, and the fact that Rothport wasn’t much better.

Maud was a fantastic addition to the cast, her introduction with a cleaver is some peak content. She served as an excellent contrast to Silver’s reluctance and Tobias’s more reserved natures. The bit in fairyland was every bit as deceiving as expected. The flashbacks worked really well to contextualize SIlver’s feelings and didn’t interrupt the narrative whatsoever.

If you want to get lost in some magical storytelling, definitely pick up the conclusion to thing duology on 8/18/2020.

ARC Review: YELLOW JESSAMINE by Caitlin Starling (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy Novella
Year Release: September 2020
Source: eARC from Neon Hemlock Press
Buy links: Physical copy | ebook

Content warnings: Poisoning, ideation, vomitingYellow Jessamine starts as a boat belonging to Evelyn Perdanu’s shipping company arrives home several people get sick with a mysterious illness. She’s already developed a bit of a reputation with her garden and tragic past, but it’s a race against transmission as the afflicted have one obsession: Evelyn.

Paranoid is one word to describe Evelyn. The way the fears, both self-inflicted and external, permeate the page creates its own kind of atmosphere. It adds to the gothic qualities of the novel, with the mourning veils, sprawling mansion, haunted histories, and the burden of an empire. There is also a sense of cycles that stretches from beginning to end that’s very well executed, but to say anything more than that, would be spoilers.

I really enjoyed Evelyn’s characterization beyond the paranoia. She has some clear regrets and an agenda that isn’t just her own survival. In addition, her expertise on poisons and medicines (and the balance between the two) fits and flows throughout the narrative and works double-duty as a means to set the mood. Plus, the love between Evelyn and Violetta is the kind of queer pining that fits the mood of these kinds of deadly, melancholic works.

An excellent entry into the gothic literature canon, with some queer pining throughout.