ARC Review: BURNING ROSES by S.L. Huang

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: September 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
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Read a NetGalley eARCFairy tales from the East and West come together in this brisk tale of regret, forgiveness, and closure told in flashbacks while two legends—Hou Yi and Rosa (Red Riding Hood)—hunt sunbirds to save their countryside.

I love how the present-day story serves as a book-end to having the two characters recount to each other their great tragedies. As readers, we get to watch that past unfold on page. Huang expertly balances nostalgia and regret, while also having the characters be open about feelings that made past decisions seem like a good idea in the first place. Both main characters are honest with each other in a way that’s compelling both as people who need to work together to solve an immediate problem and as people who need to make room for healing from the past.

In addition, how many retellings appeared in one novella impressed me. We got the fairy tales of our main characters, but Goldilocks and Beauty and the Beast also make an appearance. The world-building isn’t heavy in this one, but the subtle way Huang highlights the difference in Hou Yi and Rosa’s languages was a very nice addition.

Two older queer women (one of whom is trans) embark on a retelling that suggests that there other ways to make things last than quests for immortality.

ARC Review: THE SEVENTH PERFECTION by Daniel Polansky (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: September 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
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Content warnings: Cutting off a finger, removal of an eye

The structure of this novella is absolutely fascinating. Manet, Amanuensis to the God King, is trying to solve the riddle of her origin and the secret of the king himself. She also has the seventh perfection, a condition which grants her perfect memory.

Which leads seamlessly explains why and how each chapter of this book is told via dialogue from an intriguing character. It reads to me like the dialogue from an RPG, except we don’t have the visuals and interiority of the main character to ground us in a story. It’s all told from the perspectives of essentially NPCs. But the tone, pacing, and sense of a larger world are all there. The history and aesthetics of the land simply shines. It’s a magic-techno world where a discussion unfolds about mythology and the veracity of epic tales that become more legend than historical account, even if contemporaries still exist in the present.

The journey to having the curtains pulled on god’s truths is a wild ride, and The Seventh Perfection is highly recommended for those wanting to read experimental novels or novellas.

ARC Review: PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: September 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
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Content warnings: Water and drowning, cult activity

Piranesi is a book that takes place in an impossibly labyrinthine mansion where the basement is flooding. It is told from the journal of a narrator who may or may not be named Piranesi.

The plot centers on Piranesi cataloguing all the locations and the ways he spends his days. There are two other characters, the Prophet and the Other, who exist in the world of the House. Having the story be presented in the form of diary entries really worked for the intrigue. The narrator knows about as much as the reader does, and the pace which both reader and narrator learn the truth of this strange locale works really well. There is also an examination of identity and freedom, which come together seamlessly by the very end. To speak more specifically is spoiler-territory.

The prose and presentation read like a dream diary. The decision to capitalize most proper nouns and giving enough detail to get the sense of shape, but keeping the aesthetic overly vague really added to dream-like quality of this work. There is a sense of time being all sorts of broken, and it all works to unsettle but entrance the reader.

Creepy but entrancing, a whimsical novel with all the trappings of dream gothic.

ARC Review: EVEN IF WE BREAK by Marieke Nijkamp (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Thriller
Year Release: September 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
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Content warnings: Addiction, violence, transphobia

In this cabin-in-the-woods thriller, five friends reunite to play one last session of an RPG. Things take a turn for the worst as one of them goes missing and their game’s story beats turn deadly and real life.

There are 5 POVs: Finn (trans rep), Ever (nonbinary rep), Maddy (autistic rep), Liva, and Carter. Everyone has their secrets, and Nijkamp does a great job weaving the details of their RPG with letting the reader in, while also ramping up the tension. The problems these teens face feel more realistic than some of the trials I’ve read about in the back story portion of these thrillers. Two of them have to deal with being queer in high school, one has excessive pressure to succeed, another has to support their family. It’s very thoughtfully handled and presented, especially the darker aspects.

One of the delights that made this read almost-cute were two things:

  1. The friends-to-lovers romance
  2. The RPG itself

Gonfalon works really well as the string keeping the friends together both narratively and metaphorically. I thought it would be just a gimmick to get everyone in the same place, so I was pleasantly surprised that it threaded all the way to the end. There were interludes told from the point of view of a GM as well which worked as a meta-narrative.

Even If We Break reminded me a lot of the game Until Dawn, but with no supernatural elements. If that’s your thing, please give it a read when it hits shelves on 9/15/2020.

ARC Review: THE BONE SHARD DAUGHTER (The Drowning Empire #1) by Andrea Stewart (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: September 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
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Content warnings: surgery, body horror

There are few things I love more in a story than messy families, magical constructs powered by bones, and mythological lore returning. The Bone Shard Daughter has it all and then some.

The main POVs are the emperor’s daughter, a governor’s daughter, her girlfriend, and a smuggler. Stewart expertly balances these POVs to tell a story about a falling empire. But they don’t just do that, they all have their own goals and aspirations. The places where they intersect are particularly exciting, the choices made there driving the plot.

Much of the interior journey for the characters have one thing in common: they focus heavily on identity. Lin lost a bunch of her memories and tries to discover who she in her father’s shadow, in competitive solidarity with foster-brother Bayan. Both Ranami and Phalue are trying to work through the fact that Phalue is the governor’s daughter and Ranami is a commoner. Jovis, meanwhile, is burdened by how much he misses his wife and the deals he’s willing to make to find her. There is so much pain, but so much hope throughout. I definitely won’t spoil the endings here, but wow the twists were all incredible, and could not be separated from the greater world of the Empire. Every choice has consequences big and small, and the intricacy is simply impeccable.

Speaking of, the world-building filled me with glee. The incorporation of the constructs and the magical way shards powered them blew my mind. Stewart lays out the rules and programming for how the constructs work throughout, but in a deft way where it doesn’t interrupt the narrative. The concept of migrating islands also made me want to learn even more about the world. The fact that Book 2 is being worked on brings me so much joy.

On 9/8/2020, a empire begins its descent as the emperor’s daughter tries to uncover her father’s secrets and rebellion brews throughout migrating islands.

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
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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.

ARC Review: THE DARK TIDE (#1) by Alicia Jasinka (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Dark Fantasy
Year Release: August 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
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Every year in Caldella, a boy is taken to be sacrificed by the witches to prevent the dark tide from rising and swallowing the city. When Lina realizes her brother, Finley, and her crush, Thomas, are potential targets, she offers herself up.

The language throughout has the whimsy and atmosphere like a classical fairy tale. The atmosphere is just perfect and the reverence towards legends makes the world feel lived in. Every scene uncovers a new, dark secret about the world of witches and serpents, with some wonderful gray morality throughout.

Throughout, the book focuses on sibling relationships and takes a very deep dive into selfishness, grief, and what heroics mean. The tensions are very individual, but it never lets off the focus on saving the city. I wish we had gotten to spend more time in Thomas’s head to get to know him better, but perhaps that will be further explored in the next tome.

A fabulous tale that’s queer and dark, perfect for fans of Alexandra Cristo’s To Kill a Kingdom.

 

ARC Review: THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS by Stephen Graham Jones (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult Horror
Year Release: July 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
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Content and trigger warning for gore, animal violence, body horror, death of (several) dogsI like audibly screaming when reading a horror novel. The Only Good Indians follows four childhood friends who got a little greedy on a hunting trip and are now paying the price as adults.

This book hits all the highs of horror with gruesome imagery, specific language, and a deeply personal story. It is so intimate, with several layers of lived experience that just add depth to a book that also excels at delivering thrills. What makes this story particularly terrifying is the way Jones deliberately and pointedly plays with POV. For the most part, we see the terrors unfold from either Lewis, Ricky, Cass, or Gabe’s POV, but there are some surprises, like the shift to second person told from the Elk Head Woman’s perspective. She’s scary both from a character design standpoint and the strength of her character arc.

There are so many characters in this book and none of them feel frivolous or extraneous. Jones plays with the “final girl” trope in a way that I can’t speak more about because spoilers, but it is such a great exploration.

Gross at times and makes playing basketball one-on-one an absolutely terrifying experience, definitely a favorite new release of 2020.

ARC Review: I COME WITH KNIVES (Malus Domestica #2) by S.A. Hunt (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Horror
Year Release: July 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
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Content  and trigger warning for dismemberment, gore, violence against cats, emetophobia, fatal shootings

We return to the urban fantasy Untied States right off where Burn the Dark left off as Robin Martine reunites with her mentor, Heinrich Hammer, to take out the witches who killed her mother once and for all. Between those working with the witches and new allies, nothing is quite so simple.

Once again, the pacing in this book is impeccable. Between every intense action scene, there is enough room to breathe and really take in the other story elements. The world-building of the world of witches and demons really shines in this one. Robin undergoes some character development, but not as much as some of the other POVs like Joel, Wayne, and Kenway. It works because all her new friends and allies are being pulled into her violent, supernatural world by forces beyond their control, but also as a result of their devotion to each other. It’s really compelling and makes for some good found family feels.

Compared to the first book, this one is definitely more off the rails. The battles are more intense, the enemies have far more bite to them. And as alluded to in the warnings above, if you like cats, you’re going to have a really bad time because nothing feels particularly gratuitous. It is just taken to the next level as the story demands and the horror elements really work.

An action-packed sequel that leans really into the horror and the introduction of new allies and more terrifying enemies.

ARC Review: MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult Horror
Year Release: June 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC (wish granted)
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Haunted house stories are great because you’re lured in with the promise of a lavish home and maybe some romance with polite homeowners, and then things go down into a trash bin faster and more strangely than expected. When Noemí received a strange letter from her cousin Catalina, she goes to High Place in an old mining town Pachuca. Eerie visions and awkward encounters unfold, spiraling into eldritch horror.

The atmosphere in this book is simply perfect. The descriptions are lush, and the reader feels the same amount of dread as Noemí as she uncovers unexpected secrets and peels back the many layers wrapped around Catalina’s illness. There is a perfect sense of time too. The book takes place in 1950s in Mexico, and the little details about pop culture really help put together that sense of setting, even if the plot beats are familiar to those who enjoy gothic haunted house tales.

Noemí is also the perfect protagonist for this story. She is a socialite and never loses that lively air around her, even as things get progressively worse around her. She has a very strong sense of self-preservation and empathy for those she interacts with. When she fights, she fights and I loved that tenacity about her.

A perfect gothic haunted house story that doesn’t take place in Victorian England.