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.

 

ARC Review: BURN OUR BODIES DOWN by Rory Power (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Horror
Year Release: July 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
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Mothers don’t always tell their daughters anything, but Margot Nielsen just really wants to connect with the family she had never known. Some secrets lead to a rabbit hole and the truth puts Margot and her new friends in danger.

Much like her debut, Wilder Girls, Power has such a knack for writing feral, unlikable main female characters. Margot is determined to survive and not afraid to put up a fight. The stream of conscious writing is excellent because it allows room for these asides that show just how pissed off Margot is at, well, everyone around her. In addition, even though it has no real bearing on the plot, Margot is a queer girl who loves girls and it’s on the page.

The book is steeped in this creeping dread as the reader explores the notes and diaries left behind by Margot’s mom. Gram is also sweetly unsettling, and to say anything more would absolutely be spoilers territory. There’s definitely a sense of history in the farmhouse and the ruined cornfields, and the layers keep going and going.

A delightful Midwest horror in which family secrets are kept tucked away for good reason.

 

ARC Review: THE ORDER OF THE PURE MOON REFLECTED IN WATER by Zen Cho (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: June 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
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A bandit walks into a coffee shop and it goes about as well as you expect. This novella is a fun ride with a large cast that shares equal page space. Stakes are high as they are trying to deliver relics on contract in a shifting world.

This novel is much quieter than its boisterous beginning implies. There is a lot of fun banter between the nun from the titular order and the unsavory characters that are the bandits. Cho deftly weaves together worldbuilding in a dense package. Each character has their own stakes and tensions, plus moments of evolution and self-discovery. A feat, given that this novella is under 200 pages.

The world and its relationship to and understanding of magic weaves expertly from page to page. What I also admired is the normality of queerness. Though there is an organized religion, we do get moments when the gendered aspects of it are deconstructed and rebuilt into something into something refreshingly inclusive.

A wuxia fantasy novella which blends together tight world-building, fun dialogue, and found family.

 

ARC Review: THE REDPOINT CRUX by Morgan Shamy (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Thriller
Year Release: June 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
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Trigger warning: Suicide, mental illness episodes, murder, blood

Phantom of the Opera was one of my major fascinations when I was a child and it’s exciting to find a book that’s a beat-for-beat retelling with a bit of a different focus. In this tale, Megan Van Helsburg has been running from her theatrical past until her mountaineering career tanks and she finds herself back at a theater once terrorized by the Bridegroom Killer. The murders have started again and a mysterious stranger has taken a liking to her.

I really enjoyed how Shamy incorporated her expertise in ballet throughout the narrative. It felt very organic to the story. The new additions, like the mountaineering, also folded in very well, both from a character growth perspective and from a way that different types of physical activities build on each other. In addition, the book takes a Black Swan angle when it comes to the depiction of mental illness. It worked for me, but this might not be true for other readers. I appreciated the nuance of there being no cure and that sometimes “love” becomes mistakenly coupled with cruelty and this is challenged throughout.

The romance between Bellamy and Megan also worked, but what really struck out to me was how much there was a focus of friendship between Megan and Jane and Megan and Luke. In the original narrative, these side characters did not get much of a spotlight. Luke gets his own POV, and I really liked Jane’s arc.

A darkly romantic, twisted tale of legacy and the things people will do for the people they love, all taking place in a ballet theater.

ARC Review: THE FIERY CROWN (Forgotten Empires #2) by Jeffe Kennedy (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy Romance
Year Release: May 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
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When we last left Con and Lia, these two had gone from rivals to spouses, and this dynamic continuous throughout this sequel to The Orchid Throne.

Anure is still a big problem, but most of the political tensions in this fantasy stem from Con and Lia’s fundamental mistrust of each other. They are, after all, in a marriage of opportunity, rather than convenience. This especially comes to a head when they both learn that those in their  inner circles also can’t be trusted. At least these reluctant spouses can trust in their own political selfishness and it works so well.

I also really like the growth journey Lia went through. She’s not only a badass in that way where she’s a stern, but just leader. The entire last quarter of the book has her going through some shit. She shifts from defensive to offensive, especially when it’s shown just how monstrous the false emperor can be.

In addition, I absolutely cannot wait to see how the truth about Calanthe, the tropical paradise island, comes to fruition.

ARC Review: THE UNCONQUERED CITY (Chronicles of Ghadid #3) by K.A. Doore (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult LGBT+ Fantasy
Year Release: June 2020
Source: NetGalley eARC
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The Chronicles of Ghadid comes to a close with an epic story of community mourning, healing, and recovery as Illi is tasked with going away to Hathage get rid of the sajaami which is preventing all other restless spirits from passing on. There’s an f/enby romance, the lesbians are back, and all that assassination goodness we’ve come to love.

The guul continue to be the absolutely scariest things, but I really loved how Doore gave everyone–from cousin to captain to guard to marab–the agency and ability to face them. The fear was still there but it wasn’t insurmountable, especially as the threat takes over all those living in the Wastes.

Though this book introduces a third narrator, there are so many call-backs to the first book and dealing with the consequences of The Impossible Contract that make those necessary reads. The reader leans about the terrifying creatures at the same pace the characters do. Such a slow burn of conveying information is hard to pull off, and yet Doore has mastered it.

The romance between Illi and Canthem was such a delight. There was only one caravan! Their flirtations were so on point (who doesn’t love throwing knives and training sequences as a vehicle for chemistry). More over, I really liked how that relationship and others (namely between Illi and Heru) played a major role in the finale and the emotional arc of The Chronicles of Ghadid as a whole. No person is an island and the theme of community coming together for mutually assured survival was so good throughout.

A fabulous end to a wonderful queernorm trilogy about found family and community coming together to solve a major undead problem.

ARC Review: SHOREFALL (Founders #2) by Robert Jackson Bennett (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Year Release: April 2020
Source: NetGalley ARC

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Content and trigger warnings include: mass suicide, magical surgery, manipulation, body horror

Sometimes there are books I read that I know sticking around for the sequel will be absolutely worth it. Founders is another trilogy I should add to that category. Three years have past since the incident at the Mountain and the first heirophant, Crasedes, is on his way to returning. It is up to Sancia and her crew of Foundrysiders to put a stop to a being who wants to reshape reality in order to fix society. The Maker of that world is on a mission and sacrifices must be made or prevented.

This book had such a focus on the great world-problem: stop Crasedes Magnus. As a result, the characters were allowed to shine in all of their pieces of designing the plan and magic used for traps. Because the first book had spent so much time establishing the world, the plot was allowed to push through in a very character-driven way in this one. There is, however, much time spent on explaining the scrivings and the world’s internal logic, which might not be for everyone.

One of my favorite details, however, has to do with Crasedes. Not only is he a really compelling antagonist, but he is just such a mystery. So mysterious, in fact, that when he undoes his bindings, it causes madness. His design is unfathomable but he has so many dimensions from start to finish.

Fascinating use of coding as a type of magical tech in a story that winds intricate plot twists without ever turning into a knot. This sequel is so intense and I can’t wait for the third book.

ARC Review: THE LUCKY ONES by Liz Lawson (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Year Release: April 2020
Source: Netgalley ARC

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Content and trigger warnings include: School shootings, PTSD, panic attack, depression, alcoholism, death of a relative, blood

May McGintee lost her twin brother eleven months prior to the events of this book in a school shooting perpetrated by a classmate. Zach is a classmate in the school she transfers too, who also happens to be the shooter’s lawyer. They meet at band practice one night and an unexpected friendship forms.

Though the shooting is important in the set-up, it is the depiction of the aftermath from two points of view which really make this book unique. This book does a beautiful job depicting PTSD with a protagonist who is decidedly not okay. May has been let down by all the adults in her life and lost her favorite teacher and her brother in a horrific event. She’s angry. She acts out. She has less than favorable things said to those around her. The way her processing of her loss really stood out to me.

Zach’s perspective had been handled so compassionately. One of the things that really worked for me as a whole in this book was the thread of children not being held to their parents mistakes. No one handles anything appropriately, and it is so achingly human. This disappointment felt by the children is almost a character in and of itself. Lawson beautiful and heart-wrenchingly navigates all the facets, from individual disappointments to May’s rightful rage at the system which did nothing to address her specific trauma.

My heart still aches after finishing, but I couldn’t put it down. It is a powerful read full of grief, rage, and, most importantly, hope and healing.

ARC Review: THE SOUND OF STARS by Alechia Dow (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction
Year Release: 2020
Source: NetGalley ARC

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Electricity-powered Ilori attack Earth and subjugate humans as part of their expanding their reach across the galaxy. Janelle “Ellie” Baker keeps an illicit library. When another type of Ilori, a labmade named Morris, returns one of Ellie’s missing books, their friendship and connection sends them on a journey far from New York to neutralize a vaccine which could spell doom for the human race.

The music and references to other young adult novels are absolutely spot on. Dow deftly peppers them through the narrative, especially when connecting them to both the oppression brought by the Ilori, but also the rage that comes from injustices plaguing our world today. I appreciate Ellie’s musings of if humanity really is worth saving, especially given her lived experience as a Black girl in the United States. It gave her character so many layers as a heroine who wants to protect the things that matter to her most, rather than becoming a hero whose triumph saves the world.

The presentation of anxiety in this book is so spot-on. Even as Ellie gathers her courage to save her family and runs cross-country with Morris, her anxiety maintains a steady presence. It’s always there and doesn’t get magically cured by the end.

Definitely give this book a read for an alien invasion narrative in which humans find resistance in protecting their stories, music, and the people they love.