Alternate History

Review: That Inevitable Victorian Thing

Cover of "That Inevitable Victorian Thing," featuring a purple background with a green tree on the left that is paralleled by golden circuits on the left, with the title in golden text in the middle
Image from E.K. Johnston

Title: That Inevitable Victorian Thing

Author: E.K. Johnston

Genre: Alternate History

Trigger Warnings: Amputation, privacy invasion, f/f sex (implied)

Back Cover:

Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the empire, a direct descendant of Victoria I, the queen who changed the course of history two centuries earlier. The imperial practice of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage like her mother before her, but before she does her duty, she’ll have one summer incognito in a far corner of empire. In Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir apparent to a powerful shipping firm currently besieged by American pirates. In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and romantic country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an unusual bond and maybe a one in a million chance to have what they want and to change the world in the process.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book, but they’re good mixed feelings. Sort of. So this review is a little bit out of order because the setting is hugely important in my thoughts on the book and the characters, not so much.

First off, this book is set in near future Canada, but I categorized it as alternate history because it’s a near future where Britain didn’t lose its power and influence and also made a lot better choices regarding human rights, less colonialism, etc. It was almost utopian. There were things I liked about it (like racism not being a thing and healthcare being free), and there were things I didn’t like about it (like the way it felt a bit like an erasure of all the wrongs Britain has done, and the computer-based “genetic matches” to promote marrying someone who you would produce better children with smacked a bit of eugenics). I definitely enjoyed reading about it, but I’m not sure how I feel about it.

Uh, plot. Princess Victoria-Margaret takes an undercover vacation to Canada, makes some friends, and falls in love. The author’s note at the end of the book called the book “a very small story in a very big world,” and I like that description. It’s a small story of a girl meeting new friends and falling in love with one of them, but it has enough turns and surprises that it doesn’t feel plotless. The worldbuilding overshadows it, but the plot is definitely there and definitely strong if you like character-oriented stories. Plus, there’s a happy ending for everybody!

On that note, let’s talk about characters. The characters were all enjoyable to read about – I loved them all and wanted all of them to get a happy ending – but thinking about it, they weren’t really developed in the traditional sense. This is very much a slice-of-life story, and there isn’t really much of a need to learn much about these characters’ pasts or delve into their deepest fears or anything like that. I loved all of the people on the pages (literally all of them, there’s no “bad guy” or even a rival to hate) and I was happy to spend 300 pages with them, but I couldn’t really tell you much about them.

Really, the only thing I didn’t really like was the romance. And not because I didn’t like the romance itself – the concept was great, the characters were great together, and I’m super happy it happened. But it was just poorly done. The characters who fall in love feel little flutters when they look at each other (starting halfway through the book), they’re confused why their hearts beat faster when they accidentally touch … and then they’re making out on the couch. It came out of nowhere with hardly any buildup. And I just think it could have been done so much better.

And, because the diversity is so good, I have to mention it: Victoria-Margaret is a mixed-race person of color with African-textured hair, one of the characters is intersex, and there’s also polyamory.

That Inevitable Victorian Thing takes a small, slice-of-life story and mixes it with rich world-building to form a complex, multi-layered story that feels a lot bigger than it actually is. It’s not precisely lighthearted but definitely very wholesome. Despite my mixed feelings about some elements, it was an enjoyable book and I’m glad I read it.

Advertisements
High Fantasy

Review: A Harvest of Ripe Figs

Cover of "A Harvest of Ripe Figs," featuring a brown-skinned woman nursing a baby sitting on a throne with a blond-haired warrior wearing a mask standing beside the throneTitle: A Harvest of Ripe Figs

Series: Mangoverse #3

Author: Shira Glassman

Genre: High Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Emotionally abusive relationships, sexual content (heterosexual and homosexual)

Spoiler Warning: This book is third in a series, so this review probably contains spoilers of the previous two books, The Second Mango and Climbing the Date Palm. Proceed with caution!

Back Cover:

Esther of the Singing Hands is Perach’s Sweetheart, a young and beautiful musician with a Girl Next Door image. When her violin is stolen after a concert in the capital city, she doesn’t expect the queen herself to show up, intent upon solving the mystery.

But Queen Shulamit–lesbian, intellectual, and mother of the six month old crown princess–loves to play detective. With the help of her legendary bodyguard Rivka and her dragon, and with the support of her partner Aviva the Chef, Shulamit turns her mind toward the solution–which she quickly begins to suspect involves the use of illegal magic that could threaten the safety of her citizens.

Review:

Let me say this: I did not enjoy this book as much as the previous Mangoverse books. That’s not really any fault of the book, though. This book is first and foremost a mystery story, and I’m just not a huge fan of mysteries.

The plot focuses on the mystery of Esther’s missing violin, which also leads into the related mystery of “who’s using this illegal magic and where is it coming from.” As far as mysteries go, it wasn’t bad – like I said, I’m just not a huge fan of mysteries. And because this is a mystery, unlike the previous Mangoverse books, you will miss things if you try to read it in bits and pieces.

I also didn’t enjoy Shulamit as much this time around – but again, not really the book’s fault. Shulamit and Aviva are now parents, and most of their characterization in this book focused on their challenges as new parents to a baby. And as someone who has never had a child, that part wasn’t very relatable (or honestly, interesting) to me.

Beyond that, the major characters really haven’t changed much. Which isn’t a bad thing, since they’re all good, solid characters and I like them a lot. (See my review of Climbing the Date Palm for more specifics.)

This book also introduces a lot of new characters, most of whom were there because of the mystery aspects (suspects and/or witnesses) and I doubt they’ll be in future books. In some parts it gets kind of confusing because there’s so many different characters running around, and none of them are particularly interesting.

Okay, from reading this review so far you might get the impression that I don’t like this book at all. Which is not true. I didn’t like this book as much as the previous two, no, but I still enjoyed it. It was a lighthearted read, quick and fun, with solid characters, a good plot, and stakes that never seem super high. It’s a relaxation read, just like the other books in the series, and I definitely enjoyed it for that. And I will be continuing the series.

The Mangoverse Series:

  1. The Second Mango
  2. Climbing the Date Palm: A Labor Rights Love Story
  3. A Harvest of Ripe Figs
  4. The Olive Conspiracy
  5. Tales from Perach
Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic

Review: The Scorpion Rules

Cover of "The Scorpion Rules," featuring a gray background with a throne covered in a pattern of red and black scorpionsTitle: The Scorpion Rules

Series: Prisoners of Peace #1

Author: Erin Bow

Genre: Dystopian/Post-Apocalyptic

Trigger Warnings: Death, death of children, blood, torture (physical and psychological)

Back Cover:

The world is at peace, said the Utterances. And really, if the odd princess has a hard day, is that too much to ask?

Greta is a duchess and crown princess—and a hostage to peace. This is how the game is played: if you want to rule, you must give one of your children as a hostage. Go to war and your hostage dies.

Greta will be free if she can survive until her eighteenth birthday. Until then she lives in the Precepture school with the daughters and sons of the world’s leaders. Like them, she is taught to obey the machines that control their lives. Like them, she is prepared to die with dignity, if she must. But everything changes when a new hostage arrives. Elián is a boy who refuses to play by the rules, a boy who defies everything Greta has ever been taught. And he opens Greta’s eyes to the brutality of the system they live under—and to her own power.

As Greta and Elián watch their nations tip closer to war, Greta becomes a target in a new kind of game. A game that will end up killing them both—unless she can find a way to break all the rules.

Review:

Oh, my god, the emotions. This book was on my most anticipated reads of 2019, and it completely deserved that space. I devoured it in a total of 3 hours and it’ll likely end up on my favorite reads of 2019.

So let’s talk about why I loved it so much: Greta. Greta is our main character and our narrator, and she is me. I don’t mean that in an “oh, she’s #relatable” way – in fact, a lot of the Goodreads reviews found her bland and boring – but she is exactly like me if I was in that situation. She’s a good girl, following the rules. It doesn’t even occur to her to try and change her fate; she puts her energy towards being prepared to die with dignity. She’s unobservant, especially when it comes to people. Erin Bow said Greta’s character was inspired by Spock, and as someone whose siblings jokingly called them “Spock” as a child, I saw myself in everything Greta was.

In the standard dystopian trope, it’s the rule-breaking rebel who saves the world. (Although whether or not there’s any world-saving in The Scorpion Rules is debatable.) But Elián, the rule-breaking rebel of this story, doesn’t do much saving. His fighting spirit is what wakes Greta up to the idea that they shouldn’t just lay down and wait for their own deaths, and then he recedes into a supporting role. He’s not even the love interest. He’s a good character, as far as characters go, but especially in the second half he doesn’t really do much.

If you’re going into this book thinking, “Oh, it’s a dystopian, there will be a rebellion and Greta and Elián will save all these kids and upend the political system,” then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. The plot is a slow burn, but to me it didn’t feel slow because I loved Greta so much. Nothing happens in the first half of the book. The characters are going about their lives, taking classes, gardening, and caring for goats. Greta’s emotional arc takes center stage, even when something actually does happen, and if you’re not prepared for character- and emotion-focused and action-less (or if you don’t like Greta), you’re not going to like it at all.

Speaking of emotions, let’s talk about emotions. Specifically, how vivid and visceral the emotions are in this book. I cried a couple of times. I felt the emotional horror of the torture. Perhaps it’s because I was so invested in Greta, but the feelings leaped off the page and straight into my heart. It’s one of those books that leaves you emotionally wiped out, but in a good way, at the end, and I loved every second of it.

Yes, this book does have its problems. There’s no real reason for the other children at the Precepture school to look up to Greta as a leader. (Although the fact that she’s the daughter of a queen is emphasized, so maybe that’s supposed to be the reason, even though literally every other child there is a ruler’s kid.) And the romance, though very, very secondary, comes out of nowhere with no reason or buildup. But the romance part takes up maybe 10 pages TOTAL through the whole book, so I’m willing to overlook that.

I really, really want to talk about the ending, because I have Thoughts about it, but there’s spoilers there. So I’ll probably talk about it when I read The Swan Riders – because there is a sequel and you better believe I’m reading it. I loved this book (though I can see why some wouldn’t), and I can’t wait to continue the story.

The Prisoners of Peace series:

  1. The Scorpion Rules
  2. The Swan Riders
Did Not Finish, Paranormal

Review: As I Descended

Cover of "As I Descended," featuring the dark blue silhouette of a girl's head and shoulders on a light blue background with the title in a cursive script
Image from Robin Talley

Title: As I Descended

Author: Robin Talley

Genre: Paranormal

Trigger Warnings: Drug use, alcohol use by minors, blood, death

Back Cover:

Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten are their school’s ultimate power couple—even if no one knows it but them.

Only one thing stands between them and their perfect future: campus superstar Delilah Dufrey.

Golden child Delilah is a legend at the exclusive Acheron Academy, and the presumptive winner of the distinguished Cawdor Kingsley Prize. She runs the school, and if she chose, she could blow up Maria and Lily’s whole world with a pointed look, or a carefully placed word.

But what Delilah doesn’t know is that Lily and Maria are willing to do anything—absolutely anything—to make their dreams come true. And the first step is unseating Delilah for the Kingsley Prize. The full scholarship, awarded to Maria, will lock in her attendance at Stanford―and four more years in a shared dorm room with Lily.

Maria and Lily will stop at nothing to ensure their victory—including harnessing the dark power long rumored to be present on the former plantation that houses their school.

But when feuds turn to fatalities, and madness begins to blur the distinction between what’s real and what is imagined, the girls must decide where they draw the line.

Read to: Page 134 (39%)

Review:

This book is dark. Like, really dark. I probably found it darker than it actually was because I couldn’t get over the fact that these characters are high school seniors. They’re practically kids. And yet they’re doing hard drugs, drinking a lot, fighting and backstabbing and cheating to get ahead … maybe it’s because it’s so alien to my experience of high school (to be fair, I was homeschooled), but it just seemed really, really dark.

Let’s talk about the characters – or at least, what little there is of them. The characters themselves take a back seat to the rivalry between them. There’s Maria, who’s super smart and a good girl rule-follower and whose scores in everything are just behind Delilah, who is a druggie and party girl willing to cheat (or sleep with people) to get ahead. “Disabled” isn’t really a personality trait, but it seems to make up the bulk of Lily, and there’s also Maria’s friend Brandon, who is mostly just fat and gay. All of them are flat, and a lot of it reads like traits thrown in for diversity points.

The back cover promised a supernatural element, but beyond a creepy seance at the beginning and Maria experiencing some probably-a-ghost occurrences, there really wasn’t anything supernatural up to the point where I stopped reading. There wasn’t even anything supernatural involved in unseating Delilah and the death – it was all drugs. Which was pretty disappointing to me, because the main reason I picked this book up was for the supernatural element.

And that’s a big part of why I put it down. There wasn’t much of the supernatural like I wanted, it was so dark, and I couldn’t handle all the drugs and watching these kids destroy themselves and each other over … what? A scholarship? Rivalries? It’s high school. None of it will be that big of a deal in five years. Maria and Lily are acting like the scholarship is the only way for them to even see each other again after they graduate, and I’m pretty sure there are other options, even if they can’t go to the same college.

I enjoy a lot of YA books, but I’m just too old for this one. Having graduated college and being a bona fide Adult, reading about this high school drama just made me sad that these kids lacked perspective. It would probably be better enjoyed by someone actually in high school who doesn’t have the adult perspective I do.

High Fantasy

Review: Climbing the Date Palm

Cover of "Climbing the Date Palm," featuring two dark-skinned girls in dresses riding on the back of a giant swanTitle: Climbing the Date Palm: A Labor Rights Love Story

Series: Mangoverse #2

Author: Shira Glassman

Genre: High Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Threat of death, sexual content (implied or lightly described), homophobia

Spoiler Warnings: This book is second in a series, so this review will probably contain spoilers of the first book, The Second Mango.

Back Cover:

Prince Kaveh, the youngest son of the king of the City of Red Clay, is bisexual, and completely besotted with Farzin, the engineer his father hired to oversee the improvements to the city’s roads and bridges. However, the king doesn’t share his positive feelings. After Farzin ends up at the head of the protest that ensues when the workers are only paid a third of their promised wages, he’s thrown in prison and is scheduled to be executed.

Queen Shulamit, who rules over the neighboring nation of Perach, is eager to assist the desperate prince. She, too, loves justice and has a same-sex partner. She’s also hoping Kaveh, with his royal blood, is willing to give her and her sweetheart a legitimate heir in exchange. But can she find a peaceful solution that will pacify the king next door, get his workers fairly paid, and free Farzin? Or will she and her dragon-riding bodyguard Rivka have to go to war?

Review:

This story was very similar to the first book in the series, The Second Mango – in feel, that is, not in plot. Like the first book, Climbing the Date Palm was a fun, entertaining, not-very-deep story. However, it did go a bit darker than the first book.

Climbing the Date Palm introduces a whole new set of characters in a whole new kingdom, the main one being the bisexual Prince Kaveh, whose main personality trait seemed to be “being head-over-heels for this one guy.” Although, considering the circumstances of this one guy being sentenced to death, that can be forgiven. He kind of had that weak, wimpy younger prince trope going on, but overall I didn’t mind him.

I loved Shulamit again in this book. She’s brave, kind, and getting better at wielding her queenly power for the good of others. She feels scared and uncertain, and then she does what’s right anyway, and I admire her. The other major characters from The Second Mango, namely Rivka, Isaac, and Aviva, also play important roles, and they’re still great. Isaac gets a bigger part in this book, and he’s clever and fun to read about. Rivka is still awesome. And Aviva gets a bigger role and she’s sweet and supportive and a great complement to intellectual Shulamit.

As far as plot goes, this book mostly fixed the problem I had with book one – namely, that the problems didn’t have very high stakes. The stakes in this book involved a man’s life, war (if Shulamit and company can’t find a peaceful way to save Farzin) and the fate of an entire country (Perach if Shulamit doesn’t get a legitimate heir somehow). While it is pretty straightforward without any real twists, it was enough to keep me interested and thoroughly entertained.

There’s still not a whole lot about the setting in this book, but again, what you do get is great, and I love how Perach’s culture is based on Judiasm. Since this is the second book with not a lot of setting details, I don’t have super high hopes for getting more in future books, but I can dream.

I only have one real problem, and it’s kind of nitpicky – the subtitle. I appreciate what Shira Glassman was trying to do with the whole pro-union message, but the banding together of the workers against the king didn’t actually work. That was the whole plot, that the king just ignored the workers’ attempts to unionize, imprisoned the person he felt was responsible, and Shulamit had to step in.

Overall, while it did have its problems, Climbing the Date Palm was fun, mostly lighthearted, entertaining, and just a great light read when you want something simple but enjoyable. I’m excited for book three.

The Mangoverse Series:

  1. The Second Mango
  2. Climbing the Date Palm: A Labor Rights Love Story
  3. A Harvest of Ripe Figs
  4. The Olive Conspiracy
  5. Tales from Perach
Fantasy

Review: The Star-Touched Queen

Cover of "The Star-Touched Queen," featuring the image of a person with long dark hair wearing a red cloak and holding a lantern on a dark background
Image from Roshani Chokshi

Title: The Star-Touched Queen

Series: The Star-Touched Queen #1

Author: Roshani Chokshi

Genre: Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Blood, death, fire

Back Cover:

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. Content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…

But Akaran has its own secrets—thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most … including herself.

Review:

I sometimes like to distill my thoughts about books into a single adjective. Sometimes that adjective is “good” or “mediocre”; some books get more positive ones like “enthralling” or “fascinating” or occasionally “amazing.” But I think the best word to describe The Star-Touched Queen is “beautiful.”

The whole story is just gorgeous. A princess born with a terrible horoscope, suddenly becoming the wife of a mysterious man and trying to piece together the mysteries of her new husband, her new home, and her own life. A rich, gorgeous setting dripping with Indian mythology like a queen’s necklace drips with jewels. A plot that started small and then built layer by layer into something complex and beautiful. Some of the most rich, gorgeous writing I’ve ever encountered.

There is a tapestry in this book that is important to the story, and in a lot of ways, this book itself is like a tapestry. Strands of light and dark blend together, different colors and elements and characters all woven into a rich warp and weft of Indian mythology and folklore to form a darkly beautiful image. I loved Maya, she was strong and compelling and relatable. I loved how the stakes of the story built from the unpleasant idea of marriage to the fate of the world (but without ever feeling as heavy and serious as a save-the-world story). I loved the romance and how it grew and changed slowly, letting the feelings build and burn naturally and drawing me into the emotion. I loved how personal it was, focusing on Maya’s inner life and her search for power and completeness within herself, even when she didn’t know what she was searching for. I loved the ending, dark but happy and full of love.

This story is dark and rich and full and great and beautiful, the kind of story that if you put it into an image would be all dark silk and velvet and scattered jewels and rich dark wood and the feeling of something old and elegant but at the same time heavy and powerful. It was beautiful, it was gorgeous, I loved the story.

When researching this book for this review, I discovered that there’s actually a sequel, sort of – the second book, A Crown of Wishes, follows a minor character from this book in her own story, and I don’t think Maya is involved at all. Which I’m honestly okay with, because the ending of The Star-Touched Queen was perfect and I feel like more with Maya would undercut how good The Star-Touched Queen really was. Will I read it? Maybe. I don’t feel as much of an attachment to the minor character as I do to Maya. But if I ever get a craving for rich, gorgeous writing, I know where to find it.

The Star-Touched Queen series:

  1. The Star-Touched Queen
  2. A Crown of Wishes
Did Not Finish, Fantasy

Review: The Victory Perspective

Cover of "The Victory Perspective," featuring the title in white text on top of an image of dark ground with red and gray storm clouds aboveTitle: The Victory Perspective

Author: E.J. Kellett

Genre: Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Blood, death, misogyny, mind control, cannibalism

Back Cover:

Author E.J. Kellett is here to turn your world upside down. Asking questions so daring, not many before her have had the courage: Are we right to assume our “God” and creation were perfect and impeccable? If you are bold enough to follow this path, you can start a journey of discovery with a book that presents the Bible in the mirror. Turning the classic creation story on its head, this thrilling and thought-provoking dystopian novel pushes the boundaries of our preconceived notions.

“The Victory Perspective” is a controversial story that dares to confront the most fundamental beliefs that divide humanity. E.J. Kellett will leave you questioning everything.

Description: Five individuals find themselves in a wondrous paradise with the perfect climate and boundless resources. But when one develops remarkable powers, he hatches a plan to take control of his comrades and create his perfect world by any means necessary.

Read to: 47%

Review:

To start with, why did I pick up a book with such a self-important description? For two reasons: One is that I liked the idea of retelling the creation story from the Bible with a god who is not good. The other is that the ebook was cheap on Amazon.

Since that description doesn’t tell you anything about the book, I’m going to start with a short description before I move forward with the review. Five people wake up on a beach somewhere – Gabriel, Michael, Alpha, Raphael, and Lucifer. There is a fire on the beach, and they live off fruit from the jungle. When Lucifer accidentally catches a fish, Alpha tastes its blood and feels a strange power. He kills and eats more animals, and his power grows until he can create things at will. Lucifer is more concerned with his budding relationship with Raphael, but when Raphael disappears, he realizes cozying up to Alpha is the best way to find his lover – and he witnesses Alpha’s creation of an entire other world of creatures like them.

Based on the fact that I didn’t finish it, you’d probably assume it wasn’t a good book. And you’d be partially right. It was poorly written and you didn’t really get to know any of the characters. I rooted for Lucifer, but not because I particularly liked or related to Lucifer – I just hated Alpha and Lucifer opposed Alpha.

But on the other hand, the concept was great. Alpha was violent and bloodthirsty, and it was really cool to watch him grow in power and slowly become the God of the Old Testament as he strived for “perfection” with his creation. I kept reading because the story moved slowly, and I was excited for when Lucifer finally stood up to Alpha, got banished from the tropical paradise, and started working in the world Alpha created to foil Alpha’s plans. Plus there was an unexpected but cute relationship between Lucifer and the gentle, kind Raphael.

So what made me stop? Cannabilism. It was probably the most horrifying way cannibalism could have happened.

(Skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers/gory details.)

Lucifer lived with Alpha for a little bit and gathered food and water for him while he was using his powers to create humans. After Alpha creates a woman out of a man’s rib, he offers Lucifer some dried meat. Lucifer eats some of it, and then it’s revealed that the meat was actually Raphael. Not only did Alpha kill Lucifer’s lover, but he also fed him to Lucifer. Which is simultaneously heartbreaking and stomach-turning.

(Read from here if you’re skipping spoilers/gory details.)

I honestly don’t have much of a stomach for cannibalism anyway, but that legitimately made me sick to my stomach. I couldn’t read on after that. I’m sure the rest of the story is interesting (if poorly written) like the first 47%, but there’s no way I could finish the book after that horrifying turn of events.

Ignoring that bit, it was a solid 3- or 3.5-star book – not the best, but an interesting enough concept that I liked it nonetheless. But with that cannibalism bit … I just couldn’t. It was horrifying and stomach-turning and just tainted the whole book for me.

High Fantasy

Review: The Second Mango

Cover of "The Second Mango," featuring art of a brown-skinned girl with dark hair and a light-skinned girl with long blond hair riding on a green dragon
Image from Goodreads

Title: The Second Mango

Series: Mangoverse #1

Author: Shira Glassman

Genre: High Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Death, kidnapping, f/f sex (barely described), m/f sex (implied)

Back Cover:

Queen Shulamit never expected to inherit the throne of the tropical land of Perach so young. At twenty, grief-stricken and fatherless, she’s also coping with being the only lesbian she knows after her sweetheart ran off for an unknown reason. Not to mention, she’s the victim of severe digestive problems that everybody thinks she’s faking. When she meets Rivka, an athletic and assertive warrior from the north who wears a mask and pretends to be a man, she finds the source of strength she needs so desperately.

Unfortunately for her, Rivka is straight, but that’s okay — Shulamit needs a surrogate big sister just as much as she needs a girlfriend. Especially if the warrior’s willing to take her around the kingdom on the back of her dragon in search of other women who might be open to same-sex romance. The real world outside the palace is full of adventure, however, and the search for a royal girlfriend quickly turns into a rescue mission when they discover a temple full of women turned to stone by an evil sorcerer.

Review:

I’ve had this book on my to-read book for a while after discovering Shira Glassman somewhere on Tumblr and picked it up because the ebook was cheap on Amazon. It’s short and it was a quick read, and I did enjoy the story. But I do have some reservations about it.

So let’s talk about what was good. The characters were great. Shulamit is a solid character, and even though she seemed a little too focused on sex (although that could just be me, since I’m asexual and don’t really think about sex at all), she had a lot of complicated feelings that made her really likable. She also has serious food allergies (celiac disease and a poultry allergy) that cause her a lot of problems, which added an interesting dimension.

The other major character, Rivka the warrior, was also well done – and interestingly, you actually get more of her backstory than Shulamit’s. Her history makes for a great dramatic story and she has some emotional pain she’s dealing with, which makes her especially enjoyable to read. She also has a great dynamic with Shulamit and I loved watching the two girls interact.

Information about the setting was sparse, but what there was was solid. I’m hoping future books in the series have more of it, because I’d love to learn more about Perach and how it works. The plot also wrapped up nicely and it had a great happy ending that I thoroughly loved.

Now let’s talk about the not-so-good stuff. Namely, the tension, or lack thereof. The plot is super straightforward (there’s only one twist, and it has more to do with Rivka’s emotional arc than the actual plot) and the tension never ramps up. They meet a problem, they solve it. They meet a problem, they solve it. They meet a problem, their lives are in danger for a few moments, they solve the problem. The tension is minimal, they never run into other problems while solving a different problem, and in a lot of ways it just feels too easy.

But even given that, did I enjoy it? Yes, thoroughly. It was light and fun, and though it was missing a lot of the complexity I was expecting from a fantasy novel, sometimes simplicity is good and I missed next to nothing reading it in bits and pieces. It was a fun romp and I just bought book two – I’m looking forward to continuing the simple, light adventure in the Mangoverse.

The Mangoverse Series:

  1. The Second Mango
  2. Climbing the Date Palm: A Labor Rights Love Story
  3. A Harvest of Ripe Figs
  4. The Olive Conspiracy
  5. Tales from Perach
Fairy Tale

Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass

Cover of "Girls Made of Snow and Glass," featuring a black background with spikes of ice or glass sticking up from the bottom and the title in white text
Image from Melissa Bashardoust

Title: Girls Made of Snow and Glass

Author: Melissa Bashardoust

Genre: Fairy Tale

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood, emotional abuse, mild body horror

Back Cover:

At sixteen, Mina’s mother is dead, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone – has never beat at all, in fact, but she’d always thought that fact normal. She never guessed that her father cut out her heart and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Whitespring Castle and sees its king for the first time, Mina forms a plan: win the king’s heart with her beauty, become queen, and finally know love. The only catch is that she’ll have to become a stepmother.

Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: a magician created her out of snow in the dead queen’s image, at her father’s order. But despite being the dead queen made flesh, Lynet would rather be like her fierce and regal stepmother, Mina. She gets her wish when her father makes Lynet queen of the southern territories, displacing Mina. Now Mina is starting to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do and who to be to win back the only mother she’s ever known, or else defeat her once and for all.

Entwining the stories of both Lynet and Mina in the past and present, Girls Made of Snow and Glass traces the relationship of two young women doomed to be rivals from the start. Only one can win all, while the other must lose everything, unless both can find a way to reshape themselves and their story.

Review:

This may be the best fairytale retelling I’ve ever read. Girls Made of Snow and Glass is a retelling of Snow White, told from both “snow white” and the stepmother’s points of view, and it is fantastic.

First, there’s Lynet. The Snow White character in the story, she feels stifled by her overprotective father and would rather climb trees and scale the castle walls than be quiet and demure like her mother, the way her father wants her to be. She loves her father, but she also wants to be her own person, free from the shadow of the dead queen. She has an internal struggle between who she wants to be and who other people want her to be (which I found very relatable), and in the end she’s strong and courageous enough to make her own way in the world. I loved her.

Then there’s Mina, who, despite being the stepmother of the story, is far from evil. She was actually a very sympathetic character who knows she’s broken because she can’t love (and, she thinks, can’t be loved). I honestly didn’t root for Lynet to beat Mina because I cared about Mina, too. I wanted them both to win somehow.

If there’s a villain in this story at all, it’s Mina’s father, the magician Gregory. He’s cruel and cunning and selfish, and he has dark plans for Lynet that don’t get revealed until towards the end. He’s not even in most of the book, but his shadow hovers over Mina and she’s (rightfully) afraid of him.

The story alternates perspectives between Lynet and Mina. You get to see how Mina came to marry Lynet’s father and how having a glass heart incapable of love affected her life. You also get Lynet’s struggle between her love for her father and wanting to be who he wants her to be, and her desire to be her own independent person. Then circumstances cause the two women to clash. And while ostensibly the plot is about this clash between Mina and Lynet, with a little bit of politics and magic, it’s really more about the characters. How they’re feeling, how they think, how they react. Mina and Lynet are excellently written, and reading about their emotional journeys was fantastic.

And probably the best part – it has a happy ending!

Of course, the book isn’t perfect. Mainly when it came to the romance. I can’t even say that Lynet falls in love with someone, because the romance doesn’t get enough time or attention for that to really be shown. She likes this person and they kiss towards the end, so there’s definitely some romance going forward after the end of the book, but it was really sidelined during the main story and the love interest isn’t even in most of the book. I liked the romance, it was cute and I think it was a good way of showing Lynet growing up, but removing it would hardly have affected the story at all.

This book is amazing. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while, and probably one of the best fairytale retellings I’ve ever read. I loved how it was character-driven while still being a fantasy story and not neglecting either element. I enthusiastically recommend this book.

Fantasy

Review: Ruin of Stars

Cover of "Ruin of Stars," featuring an ornate golden brooch with two arrows crossed in front of it
Image from Linsey Miller

Title: Ruin of Stars

Series: Mask of Shadows #2

Author: Linsey Miller

Genre: Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood/gore, mentions of war, child abuse, fire

Spoiler Warning: This book is second in a series, so this review contains spoilers of the first book, Mask of Shadows.

Back Cover

As one of the Queen’s elite assassins, Sal finally has the power, prestige, and permission to hunt down the lords who killed their family. But Sal still has to figure out who the culprits are. They must enlist the help of some old friends and enemies while ignoring a growing distaste for the queen and that the charming Elise is being held prisoner by her father.

But there’s something terribly wrong in the north. Talk of the return of shadows, missing children, and magic abounds. As Sal takes out the people responsible for their ruined homeland, they learn secrets and truths that can’t be forgotten.

Review

This book was excellent. I absolutely loved the first book in the series, and Ruin of Stars was the perfect follow-up.

Let’s start with Sal. Sal is having an identity crisis – Erlend pushes a strict gender binary that they don’t fit into at all, and also how Nacean are they if they lost their home so young and don’t remember much of it? And they’re wrestling with the guilt of having killed so many people. They’re the same determined, angry, full-of-complicated-emotions Sal from Mask of Shadows, just with a lot more of the complicated emotions part. And even though they’re dealing with so much darkness, you just root for them.

Other people have said Sal’s talking about their gender identity gets boring, and I can see how it could, but as a nonbinary person I loved it because I have a lot of the same feelings.

You also get a lot more of some of the great minor characters in this book. Rath comes back, Maud gets a bigger role and so does Elise. All have distinct personalities and are generally fun to read (especially Maud’s boldness and smart mouth). The downside is you get almost nothing of the other Left Hand.

There is a lot more to the plot than you get from the back cover. North Star and Winter have retreated to Erlend and are working hard to not only reestablish Erlend, but take over Igna too. And they’re using some dark and brutal stuff to do that. Sal’s job is to stop them. And that’s really all I can say without spoilers. There’s a lot that happens. Political stuff takes a back burner as Sal’s solutions usually involve murder. (Which, admittedly, is probably the best way to solve these things because the Erlenians are perfectly fine with killing excessively to get what they want.) And there’s some huge twists at the end …

… which are actually my only real problem with the book. All of Sal’s motivation has been revenge for Nacea being destroyed, and in the last quarter of the book Sal learns some surprising things about Nacea. And then the book takes a sharp left turn. It goes from focusing on stopping a war/the evil magic the Erlenians are using and getting revenge to focusing on new information Sal’s learning about Nacea. On one hand, it makes sense, since grief for their country and a desire to avenge it are their main motivation. On the other hand, it’s done abruptly, and so much information is thrown at you at once that it’s hard to process it all – I found it harder to care about all the new stuff.

Besides that, though, the book was great, and it actually had a reasonably happy ending. It’s dark, definitely – I’d even say darker than the first book – but I tend to enjoy those kinds of books, and if you can handle darkness and murder I highly recommend you give both of these books a read.

The Mask of Shadows duology:

  1. Mask of Shadows
  2. Ruin of Stars