Science Fantasy

Review: Nimona

Cover of "Nimona," featuring three characters on a green background - a male knight with long blond hair, a male knight with black hair, a goatee, and one robotic arm, and in front of them a girl with mostly-shaved red hair and dragon wings
Image from Noelle Stevenson

Title: Nimona

Author: Noelle Stevenson

Genre: Science Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Violence, blood, death

Back Cover:

Lord Ballister Blackheart has a point to make, and his point is that the good guys aren’t as good as they seem. He makes a comfortable living as a supervillain, but never really seems to accomplish much – until he takes on a new sidekick, Nimona, a shapeshifter with her own ideas of how things should be done. Unfortunately, most of those ideas involve blowing things up. Now Ballister must teach his young protégé some restraint and try to keep her from destroying everything, while simultaneously attempting to expose the dark dealings of those who claim to be the protectors of the kingdom – including his former best friend turned nemesis, Ambrosius Goldenloin.

Review:

I first heard of Nimona as a webcomic on Tumblr and I devoured the first three chapters. It was creative, unique, and hilarious. But by the time I got to it, only the first three chapters were available online – it had been published as a book, so Noelle had taken the rest of it down. So I put the book of my list of things to read.

This was a year ago. Now that I’ve finally started the task of working through my list of books I want to read (as opposed to my former method of just grabbing whatever looked interesting off the library shelf), I got around to reserving this at the library.

This is actually more like a graphic novel than a book, but I’m going to review it like I would a book.

Nimona is the title character – she’s the one in the middle on the cover. She’s a shapeshifter who just shows up at the secret lair of Ballister Blackheart, asking to be his sidekick in villainy. She’s overenthusiastic about violence and mayhem and making a mess of proper society. But she also has some trauma from her past that explains a lot about who she is once you find out about it. Overall, she’s just a super fun character to read about – especially with Ballister Blackheart to bounce off of.

Ballister, the “actual villain,” is not nearly as destruction-minded as Nimona. In fact, when the story starts, he’s trying to reveal the evil plot of the Institution, which proclaims to be protecting the citizens but Ballister discovers they’re really conducting experiments that will endanger everyone. He’s very much a rule-follower and tries to minimize Nimona’s death toll. He’s a nuanced character with a fascinating backstory and an interesting motive for being a villain (including a friendship with the antagonist Ambrosius Goldenloin), and I liked him a lot.

The apparent plot is Ballister and Nimona (reluctantly in the case of the latter) trying to stop the Institution from hurting people and the Institution trying to stop them. But really it’s more character-oriented. A lot of the beginning focuses on Ballister and Nimona’s relationship, with Ballister trying to rein her in. Then as it goes on, it focuses a lot on Ballister’s character, Goldenloin’s character, and their relationship in the past and Ballister’s story of becoming a villain. Nimona’s backstory also gets worked in and it culminates in a fiery, action-packed, dramatic climax.

Nimona has a lot of science fiction and fantasy tropes – there’s magic and shapeshifters and knights and kings, but there’s also mad science and mechanical limbs and an Institute conducting experiments involving electricity and stuff. It’s an awesome and creative blend of the two.

Also, the art is really cool. It’s very stylistic, and not exactly what I’d call beautiful, but it’s interesting and engaging and perfectly melds the science fiction and fantasy elements of the story. And it somehow fits the tone – dark topics, but still lighthearted. It’s creative and just overall fun to look at.

This is one of the more unique stories I’ve read in a while. It’s a fantastic blend of science fiction and fantasy, manages to be lighthearted and fun for most of it (and extremely emotional at the end), and develop fascinating, multi-layered characters that play around with tropes. It was great, and I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

And the best part:

You can read the first three chapters online for free here!

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Dystopian

Review: Lizard Radio

Cover of "Lizard Radio," featuring a scale-like pattern of circles in varying shades of green with the silhouette of a large lizard and a short-haired person.
Image from Pat Schmatz

Title: Lizard Radio

Author: Pat Schmatz

Genre: Dystopian

Trigger Warnings: Gender-based violence, loss of a parent, death

Back Cover:

Fifteen-year-old Kivali has never fit in. As a girl in boys’ clothes, she is accepted by neither tribe, bullied by both. What are you? they ask. Abandoned as a baby wrapped in a T-shirt with an image of a lizard on the front, Kivali found a home with nonconformist artist Sheila. Is it true what Sheila says, that Kivali was left by a mysterious race of saurians and that she’ll one day save the world? Kivali doesn’t think so. But if it is true, why has Sheila sent her off to CropCamp, with its schedules and regs and what feels like indoctrination into a gov-controlled society Kivali isn’t sure has good intentions?

But life at CropCamp isn’t all bad. Kivali loves being outdoors and working in the fields. And for the first time, she has real friends: sweet, innocent Rasta; loyal Emmett; fierce, quiet Nona. And then there’s Sully. The feelings that explode inside Kivali whenever Sully is near—whenever they touch—are unlike anything she’s experienced, exhilarating and terrifying. But does Sully feel the same way?

Between mysterious disappearances, tough questions from camp director Ms. Mischetti, and weekly doses of kickshaw—the strange, druglike morsel that Kivali fears but has come to crave—things get more and more complicated. But Kivali has an escape: her unique ability to channel and explore the power of her animal self. She has Lizard Radio.

Will it be enough to save her?

Review:

I was going to wait to review this book until I had it sorted out in my head, but I’ve been thinking about it and I don’t think I’m ever going to sort it out. So heads up for a somewhat confused review written by a somewhat confused reviewer.

After I finished reading this, I tried to explain it to my fiance, which involved me giving a tangent-filled, disorderly, and increasingly agitated account of the events of Lizard Radio that ended with him completely baffled and me not even sure what I was trying to say. This book is hard to describe and hard to even wrap my head around.

Let’s start with Kivali. She’s right in the gray area between bender (transgender) and not, but chose not to transition. (In this world, transgender people are fine as long as they choose to transition before age 10.) I think bigender would be the best way to describe her, but I’m not really sure since she never gives herself a gender label. But anyway. She grew up with her guardian, Sheila, telling her that she was left behind by the saurians, a race of lizard-like aliens (I think?), and she kinda believes it. At least, she identifies strongly with lizards, to the point where she believes she has a lizard skin protecting her and occasionally has trance-like states where she feels like she actually is a large lizard. She also has lizard radio, which is like a psychic/trance thing where she gets visions of lizards and they talk to her … okay, it’s really hard to explain in words. My fiance suggested she could be schizophrenic – on one hand, it would fit, but on the other, so much weird stuff happens that some sort of supernatural/alien explanation almost feels like it makes more sense.

I thought Sully was going to get more page time than she did. She got quite a bit in the beginning as Kivali was falling for her, but in the middle and end not so much. For most of it, the romance angle was more Kivali dealing with her feelings than actually interacting with Sully. But she also had a close friend in Rasta and grows a friendship with Emmett and Nona, so it’s not like she was alone.

Then there’s the world. It’s some variety of dystopian world where the government has a lot of power and the value of community and working together are heavily emphasized – to the point where children between 15 and 17 are sent off to camps (like the CropCamp Kivali gets sent to) to learn how to get rid of their own individuality to become a community while learning a trade that will benefit society. But you don’t actually get a lot of the world. The story starts when Kivali gets to CropCamp and ends when she leaves, so all you really get is a microcosm of the world, ruled over by Ms. Mischetti, governed by gongs that announce when you can do things, and subject to strict regulations.

This book leaves you with so many questions. Is Kivali human or actually a saurian? What is lizard radio? How does this world even work? Is there a supernatural/alien explanation or is Kivali just absolutely insane? What is actually going on here? The plot is slow to start, and in the beginning the questions are what keep you hooked – how does this work? What does that word mean? But there aren’t answers. There aren’t ever answers. The questions are just left hovering in the air like the tension between two people who love each other but know it’s better for both of them if they just walk away.

This book is weird. It’s strange and unsettling and doesn’t make any sense – but at the same time it’s fascinating and beautiful and makes perfect sense. It’s dystopian without any of the grit. It’s paranormal without any actual paranormal events. It’s nonsense, but it’s fascinating, engrossing, wonderful nonsense. It’s a dystopian novel and a fever dream and Alice in Wonderland if Alice was part lizard and Wonderland was an agricultural camp.

I don’t have the proper words for what this book is. It’s one of those books where if someone asked if you liked it, you’d answer with “Well, it was interesting.” But it’s also one you can’t stop thinking about. As I told my fiance after finishing it, “Sometimes you finish a book and you just have to lay on the floor about it.” And I don’t know what more to say about Lizard Radio than that.

Did Not Finish, Fairy Tale

Review: A World Without Princes

Cover of "A World Without Princes," featuring a blond girl and a black-haired girl on either side of a blond boy whose face is in profile. Below them is a crest with two swans, one black and one white, on either side and the title of the book on a scroll across the crest.
Image from The School for Good and Evil

Title: A World Without Princes

Series: The School for Good and Evil #2

Author: Soman Chainani

Genre: Fairy Tale

Trigger Warnings: Kidnapping, attempted violence

Spoiler Warning: This book is a sequel, so if you haven’t read The School for Good and Evil, this review will probably have spoilers.

Back Cover:

In the New York Times bestselling sequel to Soman Chainani’s debut, The School for Good and Evil, Sophie and Agatha are back in Gavaldon, living out their Happily Ever After, but life isn’t quite the fairy tale they expected.

Witches and princesses reside at the School for Girls, where they’ve been inspired to live a life without princes, while Tedros and the boys are camping in Evil’s old towers. A war is brewing between the schools, but can Agatha and Sophie restore the peace? Can Sophie stay good with Tedros on the hunt? And whose heart does Agatha’s belong to—her best friend or her prince?

Read to: Page 76

Review:

Immediately after finishing The School for Good and Evil, I reserved this book at the library. The School for Good and Evil was fantastic, and I wanted to read more and find out how the story turned out.

I’m not really sure how to put into words how I feel about this book. In many ways, it was a letdown. (Obviously, since I didn’t finish it.) But it could have been great and I’m really disappointed in some of the choices made for this book.

Warning: long review ahead – I have a lot of Feelings about this one. Scroll to the bottom for the tl;dr version.

Agatha and Sophie bothered me a tiny bit – not in the sense that I didn’t like them, because I still loved them, but in the sense that they weren’t the same people they were at the end of book one and it felt like a little of the character development from the first book had been undone (although I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why). Overall, it was a minor problem that I probably could look past, especially if they developed in this book as much as they did in the first one.

I loved the world. I loved it in the first book and I loved it here. There were some changes to the school (which I didn’t get fully introduced to before I stopped reading), but I think I would have enjoyed those, too. The entire concept of the world is amazing and I love it.

My main problem is the entire concept of this book – at the end of book one, Agatha chose Sophie over everything else, and now she’s regretting her choice and wishing she had chosen Prince Tedros instead. I hated that. It didn’t fit with Agatha’s character and it was a horrible, forced straight romance angle when if there had to be a romance, a romance between Agatha and Sophie would fit so much better.

And it’s not just because I like gay romances better than straight ones (although I will admit I do). There really is a lot more potential for a romance between Agatha and Sophie than between Agatha and Tedros. Agatha obviously cares for Sophie a lot (protecting/helping Sophie was 99% of her motivation in the first book), and Sophie seems to also care, if not as deeply.  Book one ends with a very emotional, touching moment where Agatha chooses Sophie above everyone else. Even at the beginning of this book, they still care a lot about each other and stick together through everything.

On the other hand, Agatha barely interacted with Tedros at all in the previous book (except for trying to help Sophie catch is interest). She recognized him as handsome, like everyone, but instantly flagged him as unattainable and, to the best of my memory, never even considered liking him romantically. He’s hardly even a major character – he barely got any page time in book one, as the focus was more on Agatha and Sophie. Any feelings Agatha has for him can only be motivated by his status (son of King Arthur) or his dashing good looks, which is incredibly shallow and not something I think Agatha would do.

As my fiance pointed out, the concept of a character making an important choice and then regretting it later on is an interesting one, and I will admit that. It’s unique and interesting. But there’s no reason for Agatha to regret her choice except for Soman trying to force a romance where one won’t work. All through the first book, Agatha chose Sophie. She always chose Sophie over everything, even her own Happily Ever After. A romance growing out of their deep friendship would make perfect sense. Even a plot without a romance at all would be fine. But whatever attraction exists between Agatha and Tedros is based on looks or status, which is shallow and sad. (And honestly I love Agatha and want better than that for her.)

Okay, I’m going to stop now because this review is getting long. But I have a lot of feelings about this book. It could have been great with an Agatha+Sophie romance (or even no romance at all). But what’s actually going on in A World Without Princes … it’s disappointing and out of character.

And who knows, maybe it would have gotten better if I’d continued the book. But it seemed like the entire premise would be Agatha trying to redo her choice between Sophie and Tedros, and I honestly didn’t want to read about that, no matter how much I loved the characters in book one.

tl;dr

Any feelings Agatha had for Tedros were based on his looks and/or his status and (in my opinion) forced by the author. In book one, Agatha always chose Sophie over everything else, and there’s no reason for her to stop that now. If the concept was different and we returned to the School for Good and Evil for different reasons, with Agatha staying in character and continuing to choose Sophie – or at least getting to know Tedros enough that having to choose made sense – I would have loved this book. (And I would have loved it even more if Agatha and Sophie fell in love.) But as it is, I was disappointed and upset that this book wasn’t the sequel I wanted.

Definitely read The School for Good and Evil, it’s totally worth it. And give this one a shot. I admit I can be really picky about certain things, and maybe if you keep going it gets better. It wasn’t necessarily a bad book – it just wasn’t the one that I wanted. Maybe you’ll like it more than I did.

The School for Good and Evil series:

  1. The School for Good and Evil
  2. A World Without Princes
  3. The Last Ever After
  4. Quests for Glory
Fairy Tale

Review: The School for Good and Evil

Cover of "The School for Good and Evil," featuring the title on a banner in front of a crest with a black swan on one side and a white swan on the other, above it are two girls, one with short dark hair and one with long blond hair, standing back-to-back
Image from The School for Good and Evil

Title: The School for Good and Evil

Series: The School for Good and Evil #1

Author: Soman Chainani

Genre: Fairy Tale

Trigger Warnings: Violence, blood, death, fatphobia

Back Cover:

At the School for Good and Evil, failing your fairy tale is not an option.

With her glass slippers and devotion to good deeds, Sophie knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good, while Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks and wicked black cat, seems a natural fit for the villains in the School for Evil.

The two girls soon find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil, while Agatha finds herself in the School for Good. But what if the mistake is the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are?

The School for Good and Evil is an epic journey into a dazzling new world, where the only way out of a fairy tale is to live through one.

Review:

I picked this up because the cover was pretty cool and the concept – a school that trained fairy tale heroes and villains – was pretty darn awesome.

To start with, this book was a lot thicker than I expected. I was expecting a thin little paperback, not a nearly-500-page epic. And I definitely wasn’t expecting all of the twists, turns, betrayals, character growth, and, well, everything.

The book starts by immediately throwing you into a world where every year, the mysterious School Master kidnaps two village kids and every kid is afraid of being taken except Sophie, who is super excited to be taken from the boring village and sent to the School for Good, where she can focus on her beauty and win a handsome prince.

Except it’s pretty obvious from the beginning that Sophie isn’t as good as she thinks she is. Her “good works” are donating face wash to the orphanage, hanging mirrors in public restrooms, and spending time with Agatha, the frumpy, ugly, unfriendly girl who lives in the house in the graveyard (who she doesn’t particularly like, mind you, but sees as a good charity case).

The story is told in alternating perspectives between Sophie and Agatha, so you get to see what Agatha is thinking, too. Agatha actually cares about Sophie – she doesn’t necessarily consider them friends (she’s aware she’s just a charity case), but she cares anyway. A lot of her motivation during the first part of the book is to rescue Sophie from the School of Evil and get her home.

I really want to say more about these girls, but it’s hard because they change and grow so much throughout the book. Part of it is learning why they got put in the schools they did, part of it is leveraging their own unique strengths. (Sophie’s skills and interest in fashion and beauty are never played as a bad thing and are actually shown as a strength.) I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but they change a lot and it’s amazing.

It’s hard to say much about the plot. It starts off with Agatha wanting to keep Sophie from getting kidnapped, but that goes out the window pretty quick and then it’s Sophie wanting to get to the School for Good and Agatha wanting to get them both out of there and back to their village. And that’s the gist of it – but there’s so much more. Class rankings. Surviving things. Extra special magic powers. And I can’t say too much because spoilers.

The school itself is absolutely amazing. You get both Sophie and Agatha’s perspectives, so you get to see both schools, and it’s fantastic. They’re exactly what you would expect from schools for fairy-tale Good and fairy-tale Evil, but it’s all the little details (like the existence of beauty spas in the Good school and a classroom made of ice with a torture chamber beneath it in the Evil school) that makes it absolutely amazing.

I almost said the school was the best part of the book for me, but it’s hard to really say that. All of it was fantastic. Each element blended with the rest of them to create a fascinating world, an enthralling plot, and masterfully-written characters that made me devour the book in one day. (Yes, I read all 500 pages in one day. It was that good.)

There were only two downsides to this book. One was fatphobia, which was mild and mostly stemming from Sophie’s vain perspective. The other was the ending – not that it was bad, but it had the opportunity to be gay and wasn’t.

I don’t have enough positive adjectives to say about this book. I was expecting a fairy tale and I got so much more. So much more. I didn’t know this was a series when I picked this up, but I’m so glad it is because I want more. I want more of these characters and I want more of this world.

I’m trying not to ramble, so just … read the book.

(And if you’re a fan, the School for Good and Evil website is really awesome.)

The School for Good and Evil series:

  1. The School for Good and Evil
  2. A World Without Princes
  3. The Last Ever After
  4. Quests for Glory
Urban Fantasy

Review: Labyrinth Lost

Cover of "Labyrinth Lost," featuring gold text on a dark background above the head (from the nose up) of a brown-haired girl in sugar skull makeup
Image from Zoraida Córdova

Title: Labyrinth Lost

Series: Brooklyn Brujas #1

Author: Zoraida Córdova

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Blood

Back Cover:

Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

I fall to my knees. Shattered glass, melted candles and the outline of scorched feathers are all that surround me. Every single person who was in my house – my entire family — is gone. 

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange markings on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

Review:

I put this on my to-read list because there was magic and I’d heard it was gay. That’s about it. I picked it randomly when reserving books at the library, and when my fiance saw it sitting on the dresser I couldn’t even tell him what it was about. That’s how little expectations I had for this book.

The good news is, this is a great book.

It really was. The magic was amazing, Alex was a strong character with good development and growth, the plot seems straightforward but throws some twists in at the end, Los Lagos is an amazing setting (just as dark and twice as strange as you’d expect, but with a definite Wonderland vibe), and the layers of magic are revealed slowly and wonderfully.

It’s just … a beautiful book, really. It’s the kind of story that if you saw it visually, it would be elegant and graceful and eerie, rendered in dark purples and blacks and silvers. The writing and the mood is gorgeous, and it made me want to go out and practice magic and cast some powerful spells.

I only really had two problems:

  1. It’s never really explained why Alex is afraid of her magic. All you get is something about the family cat being possessed, and her magic kills it? And somehow that made her father leave? It’s not clear.
  2. It wasn’t gay. I was told it was, and I kept expecting a romance between Alex and her friend Rishi. (Maybe there will be in the next book, but there wasn’t here.) But on the bright side, there also wasn’t any romance with Angsty Brooding Hero Nova, either.

I feel like breaking it down and analyzing the components of it will ruin the magic. It was just … fascinating and absolutely gorgeous. And it ended on a twist. I’m totally looking forward to the next book (next year …).

The Brooklyn Brujas series:

  1. Labyrinth Lost
  2. Circle Unbroken (April 2018)
Superhero

Review: Sovereign

Cover of "Sovereign," featuring a silhouette of a short-haired female supherhero hovering in space with the earth in the background
Image from Tor

Title: Sovereign

Series: Nemesis #2

Author: April Daniels

Genre: Superhero

Trigger warnings: Extreme transphobia, rape mention, domestic abuse mention

This book is second in a series, so this review will probably contain spoilers of book one, Dreadnought.

Back Cover:

Only nine months after her debut as the superhero Dreadnought, Danny Tozer is is already a scarred veteran. Protecting a city the size of New Port is a team-sized job and she’s doing it alone. Between her newfound celebrity and her demanding cape duties, Dreadnought is stretched thin, and it’s only going to get worse.

When she crosses a newly discovered billionaire supervillain, Dreadnought comes under attack from all quarters. From her troubled family life to her disintegrating friendship with Calamity, there’s no lever too cruel for this villain to use against her.

She might be hard to kill, but there’s more than one way to destroy a hero. Before the war is over, Dreadnought will be forced to confront parts of herself she never wanted to acknowledge.

And behind it all, an old enemy waits in the wings, ready to unleash a plot that will scar the world forever.

Review:

After the difficult but absolutely fantastic story that was DreadnoughtI got my hands on this book as soon as it came out … a month ago.

I actually had to take a several-week break in the middle of reading this book. Remember how I said Dreadnought was “difficult” with all the transphobia? This book is worse.

So, if you remember Graywytch from the last book, she’s a major player in this one. With all of her TERF transphobia and man-hating. And I’m really trying to avoid spoilers here, but there’s a point about right in the middle of the book where really really bad things happen and there was so much pain and hatred and transphobia that I just had to put the book down and back away for a while. So heads up if transphobia is an issue for you – that section is going to pack one hell of a punch.

Once I came back to it after that, though, it was much easier and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Some of the greatest things it has going for it:

  • The master plot was fantastic and there’s a massive twist and you don’t find until AFTER the final battle what the actual evil plan is
  • Relationship issues between Calamity/Sarah and Danny
    • Pros: Great tension in the story and they’d-better-figure-this-out tension for me reading it
    • Cons: You don’t get as much Calamity epicness in this book
  • Character development! Danny grows SO MUCH in this book and it’s amazing watching her mature
  • Superhero/law enforcement politics – yes, it’s a thing, and it’s kinda cool
  • A superhero secondary character who’s genderqueer/nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns

My only actual plot problem with the book was all the legal stuff. Danny gets involved in a lot of legal battles, and they wrap up a little more conveniently than I expected. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mind – I was dreading getting through all the superhero action and then having to deal with frustrating legal stuff – the resolution just seemed to come out of the blue.

This book was really difficult, even more so than the first book. I kept anticipating transphobia around every corner, and it was hard when it showed up and a relief when it didn’t. But it came out to a happy ending with some cute romance and I’m glad I finished it. Sovereign wraps up neatly, but if there is an upcoming book three, I certainly wouldn’t object.

The Nemesis series:

  1. Dreadnought
  2. Sovereign
High Fantasy

Review: Of Fire and Stars

Cover of "Of Fire and Stars," featuring silhouettes of two princesses on a blue background with gold calligraphy text
Image from Audrey Coulthurst

Title: Of Fire and Stars

Author: Audrey Coulthurst

Genre: High Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Death, burning alive, torture mention

Back Cover:

Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile nations. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire–a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

Now Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses–and her teacher is the person who intimidates her the most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine–called Mare–the sister of her betrothed.

When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms–and each other.

Review:

I never used to be into books about court drama, but Of Fire and Stars completely changed my opinion.

Honestly, I wasn’t super excited about this book–yeah, it was queer and it looked good, but it wasn’t at the top of my list. I ended up picking it up because I needed another book and this one was easy to locate at the library. And it totally blew me away.

First, there was Denna. She was brilliant. She’d done a lot of studying in her preparation to become queen of Mynaria, but she was still “I’ve looked at this map twice and now I have it memorized” brilliant. I can’t find the words for what else I want to say about her–besides brilliant, there weren’t a lot of characteristics that stood out–but she was an absolutely fantastic character and the kind of person I’d hope to be if I were a princess.

Mare was, as it says on the back cover, an unconventional princess. She would rather wear riding breeches than ball gowns and valued independence above all else … and she also did quite a bit of sneaking out of the castle to gather information from spies, which was awesome. In retrospect, she was the kind of stereotypical tomboyish don’t-want-to-be-a-princess princess, but she didn’t feel like that while reading.

The cool part is the story is told in alternating perspectives, so you get both sides and the inner thoughts and feelings of both girls. And the romance between them is built slowly but the chemistry is undeniable.

It’s been a long, long time since I read a court drama book–which is a lot of what this is. Yeah, there’s some sneaking out of the castle and some “who’s behind this assassination?” but there’s also a lot of social niceties (and trying to do non-princess-y stuff without betraying all of the social niceties) and arguing with the council and “you have to do your duty because you’re a princess” stuff. And it was honestly fantastic.

Also, you know the trope of “main character is so much more powerful than other magic users”? This book uses that trope. But differently. It kinda turns the trope on its head and I love it.

I don’t have enough good things to say about this book. The characters were great, the plot was awesome, and even the setting, though a pretty standard high fantasy setting, was cool. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And though the ending wrapped things up nicely and a sequel isn’t necessary, I would enjoy one.

Post-Apocalyptic, Science Fiction

Review: The Edge of the Abyss

Cover of "The Edge of the Abyss," featuring a girl dressed in black standing on the seashore with massive read octopus tentacles rising from the surf
Image from Emily Skrutskie

Title: The Edge of the Abyss

Author: Emily Skrutskie

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic/Science Fiction

Trigger Warnings: Blood/gore, violence between sea monsters

WARNING: This book is a sequel and this review contains spoilers of The Abyss Surrounds Us!

Back Cover:

Three weeks have passed since Cassandra Leung pledged her allegiance to ruthless pirate-queen Santa Elena and set free Bao, the sea monster Reckoner she’d been forced to train. The days as a pirate trainee are long and grueling, but it’s not the physical pain that Case dreads most. It’s being forced to work with Swift, the pirate girl who broke her heart.

But Cas has even bigger problems when she discovers Bao is not the only monster swimming free. Other Reckoners illegally sold to pirates have escaped their captors and are taking the NeoPacific by storm, attacking ships at random and threatening the ocean’s ecosystem. As a Reckoner trainer, Cas might be the only one who can stop them. But how can she take up arms against creatures she used to care for and protect?

Will Cas embrace the murky morals that life as a pirate brings or perish in the dark waters of the NeoPacific?

Review:

This is one of the best emotional roller coasters I’ve been on in YEARS.

So I loved loved loved The Abyss Surrounds Us, and as soon as I finished reading it I immediately reserved this book at the library.

It never made it out of the library. I had a break between work and yoga, sat down in a chair, and devoured the entire book in a single 1.5 hour sitting. I couldn’t put it down and really didn’t want to.

You get more of the great characters in this book, including some backstories and more about Swift’s history. Also some of Cas’s family towards the end. But most of what you get is Cas and Swift and their relationship, which is a beautiful, complicated mess and a total emotional roller coaster. Ups, downs, love, hurt … so many emotions. It was so raw and real and vivid and I loved the way it wrenched my heart around.

We also get a lot more about pirates in this book. How they work, who they are … even meeting a lot more of them. And it’s interesting, because they’re all scheming and piratey, but none of them seem quite as ruthless as Santa Elena. (And as a bonus, you get to learn a lot about pirate politics, which there is apparently a lot of.)

There is a plot, and a really good one – other set-free Reckoners like Bao are destroying the ocean’s ecosystem – but it takes a bit of a backseat to Cas’s emotional turmoil and her messy relationship with Swift and the reoccurring ethical conundrum of working for and with pirates. But the emotional plot and the plot plot blend nicely, and even though emotions are the focus, it doesn’t overwhelm the sea monster plot.

The only thing I wasn’t 100% a fan of was the final battle. Yeah, it was epic and there were sea monsters and stuff, but in my opinion it wasn’t quite as epic as the ending of book one. Don’t take me the wrong way, it was still pretty darn epic. The Abyss Surrounds Us just set a really high bar that The Edge of the Abyss didn’t quite meet. The ending after the final battle, though, makes up for it.

Overall, this was a great book and an amazing series. This review really isn’t doing this book justice. I loved it. It pulled my heart out and played with it and it’s one of the best books overall I’ve read in a while. I’m just sad this is the end of the series. Logically, I know it’s a good ending, but still. I wish there was more!

The Abyss Surrounds Us Series:

Did Not Finish, Post-Apocalyptic

Review: Stung

Cover of "Stung," featuring red text on a black background and a translucent image of a honeybee superimposed with an image of a syringe
Image from Bethany Wiggins

Title: Stung

Author: Bethany Wiggins

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood/gore, alluded threat of rape

Back Cover:

Fiona doesn’t remember going to sleep. But when she opens her eyes, she discovers her entire world has been altered-her house is abandoned and broken, and the entire neighborhood is barren and dead. Even stranger is the tattoo on her right wrist-a black oval with five marks on either side-that she doesn’t remember getting but somehow knows she must cover at any cost. And she’s right. When the honeybee population collapsed, a worldwide pandemic occurred and the government tried to bio-engineer a cure. Only the solution was deadlier than the original problem-the vaccination turned people into ferocious, deadly beasts who were branded as a warning to un-vaccinated survivors. Key people needed to rebuild society are protected from disease and beasts inside a fortress-like wall. But Fiona has awakened branded, alone–and on the wrong side of the wall . . .

Read to: Page 72

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book.

Okay, let’s back up. I wasn’t all that excited about reading this. I picked it up because I’d heard of it many, many years ago and it was on clearance for $1 at my local bookstore. Those are the only reasons. I finally started reading it because I ran out of library books a few days before my next library trip.

I really like the concept. You get quite a bit from the back cover, and even though I didn’t get too far into the book, the world was great. It was dark and gritty and violent and fascinating, the kind of place where even when you know it’s day you picture the sky full of black clouds. And I really like that kind of setting. It was shaping up to be a pretty solid post-apocalyptic world.

The part that I couldn’t get past was Fiona. And not really Fiona herself. It was that it’s made really clear that she’s in her late teens and has an obviously well-developed body, but she’s lost a big chunk of her memory and still thinks she’s 13. The first ally character she meets has her disguise her gender because “it’s unsafe to be a girl” – and the reader knows exactly why, especially when you see the rough and rowdy bands of men roaming around, but Fiona is still 13 in her head and has no idea. And even though her body is older, it felt really gross and creepy to me to hang rape threats over the head of a 13-year-old kid.

Also it felt kinda weird for me, a 20-year-old, to be inside the head of a 13-year-old. It never really bothered me when I read middle grade books, but for some reason this one felt like an invasion of privacy.

Honestly, that was my only problem with the book. Without that part, I don’t think I would have found it spectacular, but I think I would have enjoyed it. That one little detail just gave me an uneasy feeling, and I couldn’t keep reading.

The Stung series:

  1. Stung
  2. Cured
Post-Apocalyptic, Science Fiction

Review: The Abyss Surrounds Us

Cover of "The Abyss Surrounds Us," featuring an Asian girl standing on the deck of a ship with the giant eye of a sea monster behind her
Image from Emily Skrutskie

Title: The Abyss Surrounds Us

Author: Emily Skrutskie

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic/Science Fiction

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood/gore

Back Cover:

For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. Shes been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the giant, genetically engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup and teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.

Review:

I first heard of this as a lesbian book recommendation on Tumblr and immediately reserved it at the library because heck yes scifi lesbians! I’m always complaining about there not being enough gays in speculative fiction. But anyway.

For some reason I thought this was set in space. Not sure how I got that idea. It was a little disorientating at first, because I’m expecting space and getting ocean, but once I got a couple chapters in I was hooked.

The Abyss Surrounds Us has everything I look for in a book.

The Characters: Fascinating! Cas is the protagonist, an East Asian girl from San Francisco who is just getting ready to take her place in the family business – which happens to be raising and training sea monsters. It’s pretty darn epic. Then there’s Swift, the pirate girl assigned to watch Cas while she’s training the pirate’s monster, who’s part badass and a tiny bit sweet and mostly just making the best of some crappy circumstances. Both girls have great character arcs, the romantic tension is obvious but built slowly, and you get cool minor characters in the pirates … it’s just awesome.

The Setting: So this is after a lot of global warming and stuff and the oceans have risen to ridiculous levels, countries have splintered into smaller countries, (hence why I put “post-apocalyptic” as a genre on this) and pirates run so rampant the only way legitimate ships could protect themselves is by genetically engineering sea monsters. It’s a great concept. The pirate ship that most of the story happens on is a combination of old-fashioned pirate-y stuff and modern technology, and there’s even a brief excursion to a floating pirate city which is also really cool. It’s just fantastic.

The Plot: The plot is really quickly paced, which I loved. It follows Cas, and starts with “what’s wrong with my Reckoner,” then moves into “survive the pirates/train the pirates’ monster enough that he looks trained/don’t actually train the monster because I don’t want to help the pirates because they’re evil.” But then she begins to wonder if they’re really so evil. And she starts getting to know (and kinda like) Swift. And what starts off so simply – survive the pirates, don’t help them, get home – suddenly gets super complicated with ethics and emotions and things.

The End: Holy crap, the end. An epic battle that made me feel Epic Battle Feelings that I haven’t gotten from a book in a long time. A twist I probably should have seen coming but didn’t. Romance that I did see coming but was still really happy about. And it wrapped up nicely while still leaving room for a sequel. There were no cliffhangers, just the confident knowledge that you’ll want to spend another book in this world with these characters. And I do.

One thing I will say about it, though, is it is pretty violent. (Hence the trigger warnings.) Some people do die, one death is described in somewhat graphic detail (even though Cas is disgusted by it), and there’s quite a bit of carnage in the final battle. So just be aware of that if that kind of thing bothers you.

If I have any complaints, it’s that the book was too short. (It’s less than 300 pages, which is short to me, and it feels shorter than it is.) But it’s paced perfectly, so I really shouldn’t complain. It was a fantastic book, and I’m super excited there’s a book two. Now, pardon me while I go reserve that one at the library …

(As a side note: If you’re a fan, you really should check out Emily Skrutskie on Tumblr.)

The Abyss Surrounds Us series:

  1. The Abyss Surrounds Us
  2. The Edge of the Abyss