Book Review: Kingdom of the Wicked by Kerri Maniscalco (ARC)

Kingdom of the Wicked by Kerri Maniscalco

Genre: Young adult, historical, paranormal  

Publishing Info: ARC from Hodder & Stoughton

Pages: 448

Star Rating: 3/5

Back Cover Summary:

Kerri Maniscalco introduces her next series, a dark tale of a beautiful young witch, a troubled demon, and their epic romance, set against a 19th century Italian backdrop.

Emilia and her twin sister Vittoria are streghe – witches who live secretly among humans, avoiding notice and persecution. One night, Vittoria misses dinner service at the family’s renowned Sicilian restaurant. Emilia soon finds the body of her beloved twin…desecrated beyond belief. Devastated, Emilia sets out to discover who did this, and to seek vengeance at any cost—even if it means using dark magic that’s been long forbidden.

Then Emilia meets Wrath, the outlier among the seven demon brethren, always choosing duty over pleasure. He’s been tasked by his master with investigating a series of women’s murders on the island. When Emilia and Wrath’s fates collide, it’s clear this disturbing mystery will take a bewitching turn…

Thank you so much to Hodder & Stoughton for sending me an ARC of this book, which I won as part of an #atHomeYALC giveaway on Twitter!

Kerri Maniscalco, author of the Stalking Jack the Ripper series, brings us another historical murder mystery, this time set in 19th Century Italy. I haven’t yet read her popular Stalking Jack the Ripper series, but the blurb for Kingdom of the Wicked sounded delightfully intriguing, so I was looking forward to this read. Unfortunately, while Kingdom of the Wicked had all the ingredients for a great book, it didn’t quite hit the mark for me. 

The opening was satisfyingly spooky and set up the book excellently. There are touches of this throughout the book, but the mysterious, eerie atmosphere isn’t utilised as much as it could have been.

The historical setting also wasn’t effectively conveyed. In the opening chapters, I had no idea in what time period the book was set. Since I knew Kerri Maniscalco had written historical fiction before, I guessed it was historical. But there wasn’t anything to indicate a time period. In the opening chapters, it could easily have read as having a modern setting, because there were no details that clearly showed when the novel was set. So I went digging for information and found a blurb online that said it was set in the 19th Century. But there’s quite a difference between early and late 19th Century. The one clue in the text is a mention of the ‘Kingdom of Italy’. A further online search and I discovered the Kingdom of Italy existed from 1861, meaning Kingdom of the Wicked must be set sometime after that. Emilia is supposed to be the one solving a mystery, not me! For a historical novel, it really was lacking in historical details and flourishes. I didn’t feel immersed in the setting at all. It felt vaguely historical, but there wasn’t anything to tie it to its particular time period.   

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Book Review: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Genre: Young adult, fantasy

Publishing Info: March 2018 by Hodder Paperbacks (first published 2017)

Pages: 532

Star Rating: 4.5/5

Back Cover Summary:

Since he was five years old, Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with the mythical lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to go in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself – in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors – and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

Strange the Dreamer is, well, strange and dreamlike, and absolutely beautiful. Laini Taylor’s writing is absolutely stunning. Her lyrical prose had me spellbound from the first page. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is one of my favourite books, so I had high expectations for Strange the Dreamer, which is the first novel in a separate duology.

The worldbuilding is phenomenal. I felt completely immersed in the world, as well as being captivated by the mysteries of Weep. I loved discovering the world along with Lazlo, and I was propelled through the first half of the book by my need to know the story behind the mystery of Weep. Even though it had a slower pace, I was intrigued enough for it to hold my attention. In the second half, we get to explore Weep itself, but I won’t tell you too much about that, because part of the wonder of this book was seeing the world unfurl through Lazlo’s eyes. It really is best going into this book not knowing what to expect, because the unexpected in this book is wonderful and mind-boggling.

The two main characters don’t meet until around halfway through the book, so the romance element did feel quite squidged into the second half. I believed Lazlo and Sarai’s feelings for each other and loved their scenes together, but it all happened in a relatively short space of time, and I would have liked more time for their connection to develop.  

There are no caricature villains here, but rather grey characters who do bad things, but you can completely understand the reasons behind their choices, which made for a really compelling cast of characters. There are two groups on opposing sides of a conflict, and the story is crafted in such a way that I felt empathy for both sides, rather than it being a simple case of good vs evil.

Strange the Dreamer is magical, but it also has dark undertones and ultimately explores the effects of tragedy and loss. There is deep meaning woven into this mystical story, and it provides important messages about issues in our own world.

The ending of this book broke my heart and left me feeling utterly devastated and breathless. There is a flicker of hope, but it comes with a price. I will definitely be getting my hands on the sequel, Muse of Nightmares.  

Book Review: Shielded by KayLynn Flanders

Shielded by KayLynn Flanders

Genre: Young adult, fantasy

Publishing Info: July 2020 by Delacorte Press (Fairyloot edition)

Pages: 424

Star Rating: 3/5

Back Cover Summary:

The kingdom of Hálendi is in trouble. It’s losing the war at its borders, and rumors of a new, deadlier threat on the horizon have surfaced. Princess Jennesara knows her skills on the battlefield would make her an asset and wants to help, but her father has other plans.

As the second-born heir to the throne, Jenna lacks the firstborn’s–her brother’s–magical abilities, so the king promises her hand in marriage to the prince of neighboring Turia in exchange for resources Hálendi needs. Jenna must leave behind everything she has ever known if she is to give her people a chance at peace.

Only, on the journey to reach her betrothed and new home, the royal caravan is ambushed, and Jenna realizes the rumors were wrong–the new threat is worse than anyone imagined. Now Jenna must decide if revealing a dangerous secret is worth the cost before it’s too late–for her and for her entire kingdom.

Shielded wasn’t on my radar but it came in the Fairyloot July box so I decided to give it a go. My initial impressions weren’t so good, but this one grew on me as I read. The opening chapters felt very introductory and it took too long for the story to get going.

The section in the Wild dragged on and at times it read like a list of Jenna’s actions, just her doing one thing and then another and another. Since she spent so long in the Wild, I was expecting something that happened in that part to become significant later, but there wasn’t a meaningful connection to anything else, so this part of the book needn’t have taken so long. Besides being referred to as a dangerous place in between the two kingdoms, the Wild isn’t referred to much in the rest of the book.  

I didn’t enjoy the writing style. It could be a bit clunky, and I times I even felt confused. There were bits of dialogue or description which I had to read a few times to understand what the author meant, and sometimes I still didn’t understand. Between some of the chapters there were short one or two page snippets showing what the villains of the story were up to. They were written in a very vague way, perhaps to provoke intrigue in the reader, but I just felt confused. Speaking of the villains, they were quite one-dimensional and I didn’t really get much grasp of their motivations.  

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Book Review: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy  

Publishing Info: 2017 by Orion Children’s Books (first published 2016)  

Pages: 560

Star Rating: 4.5/5

Back Cover Summary:

When you can’t beat the odds, change the game.

Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city’s dark and twisting streets―a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world.

Crooked Kingdom is the second book in the Six of Crows series. I feel there was a lot of pressure on this book since Six of Crows was so good, but Crooked Kingdom is even better. While Six of Crows was slow to get going and it took me a little while to warm to the characters, Crooked Kingdom hits the ground running. I didn’t realise quite how much I loved this crew of characters until I was reunited with them. As I was already invested in them and their stories, Crooked Kingdom had a grip on my heart right from the start.  

In Six of Crows, we see our gang travel to Fjerda for their heist, but in Crooked Kingdom the action is focused on Ketterdam. Leigh Bardugo does an amazing job of making the city come alive. The detail in the world building is phenomenal. There was a grittiness to this sequel which came from the setting and the closeness of that setting added to the intensity and suspense.

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Book Review: A Heart So Fierce and Broken by Brigid Kemmerer

A Heart So Fierce and Broken by Brigid Kemmerer

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy    

Publishing Info: January 2020 by Bloomsbury YA

Pages: 445

Star Rating: 3/5

Back Cover Summary:

Harper has freed Pronce Rhen from the curse that almost destroyed his kingdom. Bit all is not well in Emberfall: rumours are rife thatthete is a rival heir with a stronger claim to the throne and that ‘Princess’ Harper of Disi is nothing but fraud.

Grey has fled the castle carrying a terrible secret. When he is discovered by soldiers and returned to Ironrose by force, Grey’s allegiances begin to shift. And as he grows closer to an enemy princess, he is forced to decide whether he will stand against Rhen for the crown he never wanted …

A Heart So Fierce and Broken is the anticipated sequel to Brigid Kemmerer’s A Curse So Dark and Lonely, which was one of my favourite reads of the year so far. I had high expectations for this book and while I enjoyed it, I didn’t love it quite as much as A Curse So Dark and Lonely.

While the first book is told in the alternating perspectives of Harper and Rhen, the sequel focuses on the POVs of Grey and Lia Mara. Grey is such a great character so I was excited to get to see his perspective, but I didn’t feel like he developed enough in this book considering a lot of the focus was on him. Lia Mara is a new character, daughter of Karis Luran, the queen of Syhl Shallow. I did like her, but didn’t connect with her as much as I did with Harper.  

I liked getting to know some characters from the first book more, such as Jake, as well as meeting new characters like Tycho and Nolla Verin. Harper was my favourite character from the first book, so I did miss her in this one. She only has, I think, one POV chapter and pops up a couple of times but that’s all. Although the first book was told from Harper and Rhen’s perspective, I still felt I got to know Grey through their POVs. Whereas in this book, I felt very disconnected from Harper and Rhen. Also, Rhen seemed really different. I know a lot happened in book one, and I always liked that he was a bit of a grey character, but he was portrayed essentially as a villain in this one and that shift was kind of strange. I think the book would have benefited from including more chapters from Harper and Rhen’s perspectives.

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Book Review: Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee

Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy    

Publishing Info: June 2020 by Page Street Kids (Fairyloot edition)

Pages: 385

Star Rating: 4/5

Back Cover Summary:

Sirscha Ashwyn comes from nothing, but she’s intent on becoming something. After years of training, she plans on challenging her rival for the position of the queen’s next royal spy, but she’s forced to abandon her plan when shamans attack and kill her best friend Saengo.

And then Sirscha, somehow, restores Saengo to life.

With her mysterious ability uncovered, Sirscha is summoned to the domain of the Spider King—the only person powerful enough to control the haunted Dead Wood that separates the kingdoms and, ultimately, enforces peace. But the Spider King’s hold of the Dead Wood is weakening, and he needs Sirscha to use her newly awakened powers to obliterate the bloodthirsty forest. As war looms on the horizon, it’s up to Sirscha to learn what she can do and who she can trust before time runs out.

Forest of Souls is a fast-paced fantasy novel with an Asian-inspired setting and I absolutely loved it. I’ve read a lot of character-driven YA fantasy recently so I enjoyed reading something that was more plot-driven and a bit faster paced. The Dead Wood is so spooky! Some of the scenes were really atmospheric and creepy! The way the trees partly come to life and grab at the characters as they’re trying to get through the forest was really gripping. The world is painted really vividly and I loved learning about the various peoples, their cultures, history and magic, as I read.

There was no romance in this book and I have to say I was really happy about that. Every YA book seems to be either romance-heavy or at least have a main romantic subplot. So it was refreshing to read a fantasy novel that didn’t focus on romance or try and shoehorn a romance in.

Theyen was hands down the best character. He’s so full of sass and has some amazing lines. He really brought the scenes he was in to life. However, most of the supporting characters just didn’t seem very complex. By the end of the book we know hardly anything about them as the focus is so much on Sirscha. While I appreciated the book focused on her personal journey, I would have liked to have known the other characters more. Even though this book is clearly plot-driven, it would have benefited from the supporting characters having more depth. Having said that, I did love all the characters and can’t wait to see them again in the sequel.

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Book Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow (eARC)

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy    

Publishing Info: eARC from Orbit

Pages: 528

Star Rating: 4/5

Back Cover Summary:

In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters–James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna–join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.

Thank you so much to Orbit and NetGallery for the eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Once and Future Witches is a well-written and expertly crafted exploration of magic and feminism. Alix E. Harrow’s debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, made a big splash, so there have been big expectations for her follow up. I haven’t yet read The Ten Thousand Doors of January, so The Once and Future Witches is my first time reading her work. I have to say I was impressed by the quality of the writing. It’s lyrical and captivating, perhaps like a magic spell, which is why it suits this story so well.

The historical setting, the women’s movement and witches are woven together so well. It really works. I loved how magic is done through words from rhymes and stories passed down from mother to daughter through the generations. There are also some subtle and clever changes to history and literature, such as the Sisters Grimm instead of the Brothers Grimm. The rights of witches and the rights of women are tightly connected in this book and shows the struggles women faced in the 1890s. It isn’t just a story of witches and magic, it’s also deeply thought-provoking.

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Book Review: Heir of Fire by Sarah J. Maas

Heir of Fire by Sarah J. Mass

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy    

Publishing Info: September 2014 by Bloomsbury

Pages: 562

Star Rating: 4.5/5

Back Cover Summary:

Consumed by guilt and rage, Celaena can’t bring herself to spill blood for the King of Adarlan. She must fight back…

The Immortal Queen will help her destroy the king – for a price. But as Celaena battles with her darkest memories and her heart breaks for a love that could never last, can she fulfil the bargain and head the almighty court of Terrasen? And who will stand with her?

Heir of Fire is the third book in Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series and so far it’s been getting better and better with each book. Sarah J. Maas introduces us to new locations and new characters in Heir of Fire which helped keep the story fresh. While the first two books were focused on Rifthold, Heir of Fire is split between three locations and storylines – Celaena in Wendlyn, Chaol and Dorian in Rifthold, and Manon in the Ferian Gap.

Celaena’s story and character development had me gripped the most. Celaena is broken and grieving after the events of Crown of Midnight and she grows a lot in this book. Celaena learns to use her magic and it is not easy. I appreciated that she didn’t get a grip of her magic instantaneously. It took time for her to learn to control her power. I’m not always keen on training sequences as they can be a bit samey and boring, but I didn’t find that at all in this book. Rowan is an interesting addition to the cast. He and Celaena don’t get on at first but their friendship grows as they realise they have more in common than they thought. I didn’t find the sections with Chaol and Dorian as entertaining. Although these parts were necessary for the plot, in places I just wasn’t that gripped by their storyline. Though I did like the introduction of Aedion Ashryver.

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Book Review: Burn by Patrick Ness

Burn by Patrick Ness

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Publishing Info: June 2020 by Walker Books  

Pages: 384

Star Rating: 4/5

Back Cover Summary:

In 1956 Sarah Dewhurst’s father shocks her by hiring a dragon to work the farm. The dragon is a smaller blue rather than the traditional larger reds, though even the reds are now scarce. When the blue dragon, Kazimir, unexpectedly saves Sarah and her friend Jason Inagawa from the attentions of the racist police deputy, Kelby, everything changes. Sarah is part of a prophecy and she must escape the clutches of Malcolm, an assassin from a Believer Cell, the dragon-worshiping cult. When Sarah, Malcolm, and Kazimir eventually converge, they are thrown into another universe, where dragons seem never to have existed. Can they save this world and the one they left?

Patrick Ness’s latest book, Burn, took me on a journey I was not expecting. This is my second Patrick Ness book and I can’t quite put my finger on how to describe his work. He has a unique style and his books always seem unpredictable. Although they do sometimes use tropes (e.g. a prophecy in this book) they seem different to most YA books. This time, he’s taken dragons and put them in 1950s America. That concept alone had me desperate to read it.

Burn imagines a world where dragons are real and are a normal part of life. There has been a truce of sorts between humans and dragons, meaning dragons mostly stick to their own areas. There is a lot going on in this book. We have dragons, the Cold War, FBI agents, a cult and a prophecy. And it works. Patrick Ness has created a world where dragons wandering round rural America seemed totally normal. I don’t want to say too much more about the plot as I think this is one of those books where it’s best going into it not knowing much. At the midpoint it went in a direction I wasn’t expecting and kept me on my toes. There were so many twists and I loved that I never knew what was going to happen next.                                                                                   

There were a lot of characters packed into a short book, so we don’t get to know them in that much depth. But I felt I knew enough about them to be invested in their stories. Kazimir was my absolute favourite character. Patrick Ness does such an amazing job of showing his personality through his body language and facial expressions. Plus, he has some of the best lines. Although this is mostly a serious save the world kind of book, there are also some lines that had me chuckling.

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Book Review: Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Publishing Info: July 2019 by Alfred A. Knopf Books

Pages: 392

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Back Cover Summary:

Project Runway meets Mulan in this sweeping YA fantasy about a young girl who poses as a boy to compete for the role of imperial tailor and embarks on an impossible journey to sew three magic dresses, from the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for is to marry well. When a royal messenger summons her ailing father, once a tailor of renown, to court, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place. She knows her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to achieve her dream and save her family from ruin. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.

Backstabbing and lies run rampant as the tailors compete in challenges to prove their artistry and skill. Maia’s task is further complicated when she draws the attention of the court magician, Edan, whose piercing eyes seem to see straight through her disguise.

And nothing could have prepared her for the final challenge: to sew three magic gowns for the emperor’s reluctant bride-to-be, from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. With this impossible task before her, she embarks on a journey to the far reaches of the kingdom, seeking the sun, the moon, and the stars, and finding more than she ever could have imagined.

Spin the Dawn is a magical YA fantasy novel that had me thoroughly enchanted. There’s something mystical about this story and Lim’s writing that just drew me in right from the first chapter.

From the description, the contest sounds like a large part of the story, but I was aware from reading other reviews that it actually only takes up a relatively small part of the book. I knew to expect more of a travelling/adventure narrative so wasn’t disappointed that the contest was short. My attention did waver a little in the middle when Maia and Edan are travelling through the desert, but it quickly picks up again and I was hooked in the latter half in particular.

I really enjoyed seeing a YA novel told from a perspective I’ve not seen before – that of a tailor. Protagonists in YA are often princesses, queens, rebels, thieves, assassins etc. Maia’s skill, and her dreams, lie in tailoring. The descriptions of her creations are stunning and it was wonderful to see the world through the eyes of a tailor. I also liked that family is important to her and how that is woven into the story. The relationships she has with her brothers is shown really well.  

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