Review: THE MERCIFUL CROW (#1) by Margaret Owen (2019)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2019
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: Teeth, vomiting, blood, attempted murder

I’m sorry for having sat on this novel for a little too long. Fie is the chieftain’s daughter of a nomadic caste of mercy killers called Crows which are at the frontlines of protecting the land from a plague. They arrive at a home, thinking that the prince and his guard are dead, when they are very much not. On the run, the trio work together to deceive the Vultures on their trail to get to the prince’s aunts realm of mammoth riders.

This book was so fun for a multitude of reasons. The magic system might seem gross at first, but it fits the rituals of the Crows. There is lore and there is an established learning curve that comes with it. Unlike many fantasies where the main character stumbles upon The Magic, Fie had been training for it her whole life. If anything, it felt like she was taking her final exam and needed to use all the tools and cleverness at her side. Moreover, Jas and Tavin provided support but also deference when necessary when Fie’s rage clouded her judgment. The chemistry among the three of them as the central characters really worked for me and helped move the story along in a way that felt organic both for the plot and for each of their development.

In addition, the world is very thoughtfully constructed. There is a diversity among the cast (the prince is gay and his guard is pansexual). It is implied to be queernorm, which for me, is always refreshing. This work is another to add to the list of young adult studies which are wonderfully sex positive. Not only are periods addressed, but it is also implied that Fie had partners before the love interest, and consent is on the page. All the tension comes from secrets of an interpersonal nature which nod to some tropes, but ultimately only make sense for this cast.

Well-paced, great characters, and a fantastic world I can’t wait to visit in The Faithless Hawk.

Review: RULES FOR VANISHING by Kate Alice Marshall (2019)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Horror
Year Release: 2019
Source: Library audiobook

Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: Missing teens, some gore, family violence, mention of suicide

A few of my friends had read this book and since it’s officially spooky season, I am so excited to have this be my first read of October. Sara’s adopted sister Becca disappears and a year later, Sara and her groups of friends receive a text invite to “play the game” which involves going down haunted roads and solving puzzles. What comes next are the terrors of the woods, sordid history, and questioning the bonds that keep us together.

I really liked the focus on reliability as it relates to friendship in this novel. There were many blood-curdling scares and many moments where neither the reader nor the characters know exactly what reality has morphed into. Adherence to rules matters, but what really determines survival is trust. And with Sara having withdrawn from her friends due to her sister’s disappearance, that trust is fragmented from the start, which dials up the tension.

In addition to the storyline of the quest to find Becca by finding Lucy Gallows, there are segments which take place later. These are told in multi-media, which gives this novel a very Blair Witch Project feel. I found effective, especially when it throws a wrench in the reader’s understanding of the relationships and situations in the linear timeline. The ending is absolutely harrowing and makes phenomenal use of photo descriptions, texts, and other supplemental materials.

No one had told me before reading, but Sara is bisexual and one of her friends is a lesbian. The character development in general is great. The characters are complicated, and it was hard to predict who would be next to fall.

It’s Silent Hill meets The Blair Witch Project in this queer YA horror that had me genuinely spooked.

Review: WHO I WAS WITH HER by Nita Tyndall (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Year Release: 2020
Source: Hard Copy purchased at Unabridged Books

Content warnings: Grief, alcoholism

This book starts with Corinne Parker learning of her girlfriend’s death and continues with Corinne processing that loss and the truths about herself that she was hiding from everyone else in her life during her one year relationship. It hurts as much as it uplifts, ending on a well-deserved hopeful note.

The writing in Who I Was With Her is simply elegant. The chapters alternate between moments of Corinne’s year long relationship with Maggie and the present, during which she struggles with an alcoholic mother and not being out as bisexual to those around her. Corinne is a character I desperately wanted to hug, because I definitely related to her fears about coming out and about choosing things for herself, from low stakes decisions to high stakes debates about whether or not to go to college. The tension in this novel stems from a feeling that this too shall pass, focusing on the journey there. There isn’t a dramatic reveal, the plot beats are soft to lend power to the feelings woven throughout.

Another thing that struck me about this book was just how sex positive it was. There are discussions of sex, both queer and heterosexual, but it’s presented as a normal thing teens consider and something that happens between partners. There isn’t any taboo in the discussions, there’s no scandalous connotation, consent is on the page, and most of it is focused as another fragment of Corinne’s interior journey, not a major event in and of itself.

A quiet, heart-wrenching young adult novel about grief and being true to yourself and the fear that comes with that truth.

Author to Author with Hannah Abigail Clarke (#TheScapegracers)

Happy release day to The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke from Erewhon Books. This book is perfect for people who want to read about lesbian witches who are gay written by a queer author. In this young adult debut, Sideways Pike, an outcast, casts a spell at a Halloween party and accidentally forms a coven with three popular girls. Clarke hops by the blog to talk inspiration, craft, friendship, and a multitude of music recs.

Buy links: Bookshop | Unabridged Books | Barnes and Noble

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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
Buy links: Bookshop | Unabridged Books | Barnes and Noble

Read a NetGalley eARC
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 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.

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

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

Read my NetGalley eARC

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.

 

Author to Author with Rory Power (#BurnOurBodiesDown)

AtoA_RoryPower

If feral girls who just want to know where they came from are your jam, definitely check out Burn Our Bodies Down, the latest release from Rory Power. Read on to learn more behind the inspiration for this book about a ferocious queer heroine digging into her past to learn more about the deadly family secrets hiding in a farmhouse just one town over.

Buy links: Bookshop |Unabridged Bookstore| Barnes and Noble

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June 2020 Reading Recap

June2020RR

June was my birthday! I wound up reading a whole bunch of ARCs, a few new favorites, and even interviewed K.A. Doore to celebrate the release of the Chronicles of Ghadid finale, The Unconquered City.

In addition the blog, you will now be able to find my reviews on The StoryGraph, in addition to Goodreads. My handle is JoReadsBooks

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