Book review: The Roommate by Rosie Danan

Title: The Roommate by Rosie Danan

Publisher: Berkley

Publication date: 15 September 2020

Genre: Adult | Romance

Page extent: 336 pages

Rating:

Synopsis:

House Rules:
Do your own dishes
Knock before entering the bathroom
Never look up your roommate online

The Wheatons are infamous among the east coast elite for their lack of impulse control, except for their daughter Clara. She’s the consummate socialite: over-achieving, well-mannered, predictable. But every Wheaton has their weakness. When Clara’s childhood crush invites her to move cross-country, the offer is too much to resist. Unfortunately, it’s also too good to be true.

After a bait-and-switch, Clara finds herself sharing a lease with a charming stranger. Josh might be a bit too perceptive—not to mention handsome—for comfort, but there’s a good chance he and Clara could have survived sharing a summer sublet if she hadn’t looked him up on the Internet…

Once she learns how Josh has made a name for himself, Clara realizes living with him might make her the Wheaton’s most scandalous story yet. His professional prowess inspires her to take tackling the stigma against female desire into her own hands. They may not agree on much, but Josh and Clara both believe women deserve better sex. What they decide to do about it will change both of their lives, and if they’re lucky, they’ll help everyone else get lucky too.

This was my most anticipated romance of the year and it was everything I wanted it to be! I’m not a huge romance reader so I don’t really know how this compares to others in the genre, but I personally loved it! It has some of the best sex scenes I’ve read, the two characters are adorable, and it’s all about overturning the porn industry to focus on female pleasure!

Let’s start with the characters, I love romances with complete opposites because it always results in hilarious moments and we definitely had that here! Clara is a button-uped rich kid from Greenwich who hasn’t ever stepped a toe out of line, but who moves across the country to chase a childhood crush when she realises she could walk out of the life she was living and nothing would happen. But when she gets across the country, the man she crushes on says he’s going on tour with his band, leaving her alone in the flat with none other than popular porn star, Josh Darling. Josh Darling is confident and sexy and so freaking adorable it hurts and Clara knows he’ll never ever fall for someone like her. But then they get drunk and decide it’s time to topple a porn empire by making their own platform that focuses on partner intimacy and female pleasure. These two humans are just so so different and yet so so perfect together. Josh brings out all of Clara’s confidence and helps her see beyond her self doubt and she does the same for him. They both make each other into these powerhouse individuals who are going to fight for what they want. And what they want is to say fuck you to an exploitative porn corporation.

I loved how sweet and innocent Clara is. I could relate so much to her, she’s so full of self doubt and this horrible self esteem thinking she could never be attractive to someone like Josh. She’s so focused on never letting her family down that she forgets how to live which is just so sad. But Josh comes into her life and helps her get out of her shell and find freedom and joy in life.

And omg THE SEX. HOLY SHIT IT’S HOT. It’s so good, Danan is definitely now one of my favourite sex writers. Every scene was just so different but so powerful and fun. I loved reading from Josh’s POV because he is just so blown away by Clara and it was just so lovely to compare that to Clara’s POV who is so shy and self-hating and all I wanted to do was scream at her to look at this man drooling over her?!?

I also really loved the huge focus on the autonomy of sex workers. It’s a book which explores the exploitative nature of some aspects of the porn industry, but alongside this critique, also places emphasis on the autonomy and choice of sex workers and those in the industry which isn’t usually seen when discussing adult entertainment. It also places so much importance on female pleasure, partner intimacy and sex education. It’s just wonderfully sex positive and I loved reading about this!

This book was everything I wanted. I needed something fun and lighthearted and this is definitely that, Clara and Josh are so incredibly adorable together. It’s so so sexy, but alongside this fun, lighthearted romance is a great exploration of sex work, both the exploitative nature of the industry at times but alongside a positive and empowering portrayal of sex workers.

Book review: The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke

Title: The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke

Publisher: Erewhon

Publication date: 15 September 2020

Genre: Young Adult | Fantasy

Page extent: 400 pages

Rating:

Synopsis: An outcast teenage lesbian witch finds her coven hidden amongst the popular girls in her school, and performs some seriously badass magic in the process.

Skulking near the bottom of West High’s social pyramid, Sideways Pike lurks under the bleachers doing magic tricks for Coke bottles. As a witch, lesbian, and lifelong outsider, she’s had a hard time making friends. But when the three most popular girls pay her $40 to cast a spell at their Halloween party, Sideways gets swept into a new clique. The unholy trinity are dangerous angels, sugar-coated rattlesnakes, and now–unbelievably–Sideways’ best friends.

Together, the four bond to form a ferocious and powerful coven. They plan parties, cast curses on dudebros, try to find Sideways a girlfriend, and elude the fundamentalist witch hunters hellbent on stealing their magic. But for Sideways, the hardest part is the whole ‘having friends’ thing. Who knew that balancing human interaction with supernatural peril could be so complicated?

Rich with the urgency of feral youth, The Scapegracers explores growing up and complex female friendship with all the rage of a teenage girl. It subverts the trope of competitive mean girls and instead portrays a mercilessly supportive clique of diverse and vivid characters. It is an atmospheric, voice-driven novel of the occult, and the first of a three-book series.

The Scapegracers is a the gayest, witchiest book in the world and I loved every second of it. Whilst it is more of a slowburn plotwise, the focus on the characters and this deep connection that is formed between the four witches in the new coven was so brilliant. It completely subverts the mean girl trope and I found it one of the most refreshing and exciting portrayals of female friendship that I’ve read in a long time.

The Scapegracers follows Sideways, a lesbian witch who is invited to perform her magic at a party organised by three popular girls who want their party to be the spookiest in memory at the school. But instead of just getting a killer cool bit of magic out of it, the new coven finds friendship and support like never before. The four of them team up to help Sideways with her new crush, as well as fight off the modern day witchhunters who want to take their magic from them.

The Scapegracers is a slow book, I won’t deny it. There isn’t a clear enemy or plot across the book as you would expect from a YA fantasy novel. Instead, this book is more of an exploration of friendship with a side of fantasy as the girls investigate and try out their new powers. And whilst I wasn’t expecting that, I loved this surprise! The Scapegracers has one of the best portrayals of female friendship I’ve ever seen. Clarke has taken the trope of mean, popular school girls, and thrown everything you think about them into the bin. Here, these girls are so supportive, so badass and the way they take Sideways into their group is so incredibly beautiful and heartwarming. It’s done so well that I found myself tearing up when Sideways is just in awe that these beautiful, loving people want to be her friend because she’s so fucked up from being so alone. I also loved that these girls were allowed to embrace their femininity if they wanted and it was amazing because they can still be badass witches too? So often, YA fantasy has to feature “girls who aren’t like other girls”, ones who need to throw away their femininity in order to be cool and kick butts with magic. But The Scapegracers is just the opposite of that in every way: here are these girls who love make up, who wear tight dresses, who flirt, but can still kick butts with magic. More of this in fantasy please!

I also want to praise the casual queerness in the book which was so great to see. We have a lesbain main character, bisexual and queer side characters, and Sideways has two dads! And that leads me to my second favourite part of this book: Sideways is so. fucking. gay. She is such a clueless lesbian, it is amazing. I loved her pure awed joy when interacting with Madeline, which lead to lines like this: “Hell, if Madeline offered to beat me up, I’d probably weep with joy and give her a hearty tip when she was done” and “She wanted my number in a potentially gay way. Oh God, I wanted to die.” I couldn’t help but laugh at her, she’s such a great character who is a complete mess when she has a crush and it was so great to see.

I enjoyed the bringing of witchhunters into the modern world. Although it was only a small section, I loved finding out about the history of these witchhunters, it was so fascinating how they came to be and how they track witches. The reason I didn’t give this a full of five stars is because it did slow quite a lot, particularly in the middle of the book, when the witchhunters seemed to disappear. I think they could have been a bit more prominent to add a sense of tension and urgency to the book as they were a great, creepy villain!

All in all, I really loved this book! I’ve been having a bad run with YA fantasy this year, but because this was so different to what I expected from YA fantasy, it resulted in something so much better than I hoped for! The Scapegracers is a really lovely look at female friendships and had such a kickass group of queer witches, so much casual queerness, and a clueless lesbain crushing so bad it made for the funniest lines. Highly recommend this one!

Book review: The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Title: The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Publisher: Orbit

Publication date: 8 September 2020

Genre: Adult | Fantasy

Page extent: 448 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: In an empire controlled by bone shard magic, Lin, the former heir to the emperor will fight to reclaim her magic and her place on the throne. The Bone Shard Daughter marks the debut of a major new voice in epic fantasy.

The emperor’s reign has lasted for decades, his mastery of bone shard magic powering the animal-like constructs that maintain law and order. But now his rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire’s many islands.

Lin is the emperor’s daughter and spends her days trapped in a palace of locked doors and dark secrets. When her father refuses to recognise her as heir to the throne, she vows to prove her worth by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.

Yet such power carries a great cost, and when the revolution reaches the gates of the palace, Lin must decide how far she is willing to go to claim her birthright – and save her people.

Thank you to NetGalley and Orbit for providing me an advanced copy of The Bone Shard Daughter in exchange for an honest review.

Welcome to your new favourite fantasy world! The Bone Shard Daughter is a slowburn fantasy with such an interesting world (where islands move and sink!), a very fun magic system (using shards of people’s skulls!) and has a cast of brilliant characters (MEPHI, MY SWEET BABY ANGEL!)

From the blurb, I went into The Bone Shard Daughter expecting a story of power and privilege as daughter of the emperor Lin tried to take the throne from the father. And we do get that. But what was unexpected was this whole host of other POVs that made this world even better than I anticipated! It did through me off a bit at the start as I’d gone in with such different expectations to what we got, but I really loved these other characters by the end of the book. We follow five main POVs throughout:

  • Lin, the daughter of the emperor who recovered from a serious illness five years ago, but lost all the memories of her childhood. Her father now pits her against foster brother Bayan as the two compete to see who can learn most about bone shard magic and be named their father’s heir.
  • Jovis, a burly smuggler desperate to find his wife who disappeared seven years ago. Helping children escape the tithing festival, where they give away part of their skull bone to the emperor for his bone magic constructs, he runs into Mephi, a bedraggled looking kitten who just so turns out to be something else entirely.
  • Phalue, the daughter of a governor on one of the islands around the Empire, whose long term partner Ramani has wound up involved with the Shardless Few, a group who want to take down the Empire.
  • Ramani herself, who has to grapple with her love for a woman in a position in power who doesn’t seem to understand the depths of suffering in the lower classes.
  • And then there’s Sand, an outsider point of view at the far reaches of the Empire, who falls out of a mango tree and realises something odd about her island.

I had times when each of these POVs were my favourite, so it’s difficult to say who I liked best. Though I’m certainly not complaining, as big multi-POV fantasies like this one often suffer from a ‘this other character has a much more interesting POV and I don’t care about the rest at all.’ The Bone Shard Daughter was not like that. At the start, I found myself dying to know more about Lin, as she started her discovery and exploration of this very cool magic system that allowed bone shards to be created in constructs to protect the Empire. But then I was blown away and drawn into this mystery on Sand’s island, longing to know more about what the fuck was happening. Then Ramani and Phalue, this amazing f/f relationship who love each other but are struggling to resolve their morality and positions. But by the end, I think I was most in love with Jovis (which actually very much surprised me, because he starts out very rude and gruff and a unwilling to help, and almost left poor little Mephi in the sea). But by the end I cherished the strong love that had developed between Jovis and his magical animal companion Mephi, I adored the way his love for his wife drove his actions so much, the beauty of his emotion and heart break clear on every page. So there really wasn’t a single POV I wasn’t interested in and didn’t want to know more about!

The magic system is definitely one of the coolest in any book I’ve read this year. Parts of people’s SKULLS are used to power constructs to defend the empire? And citizens are forced to give their bones? But it means if your shard is in use, at some point you will grow suddenly weak and sick and no longer be able to function. This system made for such an interesting power dynamic, one that could really explore the experiences between the nobility and the working class. This was particularly apparent with Lin and Phalue, who had to challenge themselves and their role in power, and see how far they were willing to go to. For Lin especially, as a wielder of bone shard magic, the magic she must learn to use to win over her father, she was faced with the knowledge that by using these shards and using the working class as a stepping stone to power, she wasn’t really any different to her awful father. Her journey and development as she had to come to terms with this was one of my favourite parts of the book.

As much as I loved the magic system, the reason I didn’t give this a full five stars is also the magic system. There seemed to be some inconsistencies and I was rather confused about how this magic that took time and patience to wield could somehow be instantaneously used in the middle of battle? The battle scenes used this magic in a way that seemed to ignore time? As this was an ARC, I’m hoping this might be improved by the final book, but I was very confused about how a magic that requires time to actually work was suddenly either being used immediately in the heat of battle (and thus made no sense with the rest of the book), or the opponent’s simply sat around waiting for you to complete it before attacking (which makes equally little sense). It brought me right out of the story which was really disappointing because I’d been loving every minute until then.

But overall, I was really impressed with The Bone Shard Daughter! It has one of my favourite ensemble casts, each of their POVs were so interesting in their own ways, and this world, with islands that can move and sink and magic that is wielded with people’s skulls, made for a very exciting fantasy debut! And of course I will devour the sequel whenever it releases.

Blog tour and review: Iron Heart by Nina Varela

Hi everyone,

I’m here today with such an exciting post, it’s my stop on the blog tour for Iron Heart! Iron Heart is the sequel to the incredible sapphic science fantasy novel Crier’s War. Thank you so much to Shealea at Caffeine Book Tours, HarperTeen and Nina Varela for allowing me to scream excitedly about this book on this tour! You are in for such a treat with this sequel! Do check out the rest of the tour stops all week long, you can view the tour schedule here.

Title: Iron Heart

Author: Nina Varela

Publisher: HarperTeen

Publication date: 08 September 2020

Genres: Young Adult | Fantasy | Science Fiction

Rating:

Synopsis:

An unstoppable love between two girls—one human, one Made—both set on destroying the Iron Heart.

For too long the cruel, beautiful Automae have lorded over the kingdom of Rabu, oppressing the humans who live there. But the human revolution is on the rise, and at its heart is Ayla. Once handmaiden, now fugitive, Ayla escaped the palace of Lady Crier, the girl Ayla had planned to kill . . . but instead fell in love with. Now Ayla has pledged her allegiance to Queen Junn, whom she believes can accomplish the ultimate goal of the human rebellion: destroy the Iron Heart. Without it, the Automae will be weakened to the point of extinction.

But playing at Ayla’s memory are the powerful feelings she developed for Crier. And unbeknownst to her, Crier has also fled the palace, taking up among travelling rebels, determined to find and protect Ayla.

As their paths collide, neither are prepared for the dark secret underlying the Iron Heart.

In this stunning sequel to acclaimed author Nina Varela’s Crier’s War, the love that launched a revolution must now pave the way for a whole new era…and the ultimate change of heart.

You can purchase your own copy of Iron Heart at Amazon, B&N, Book Depository, IndieBound, or your own favourite local bookshop!

AUTHOR INFORMATION

Bio: Nina Varela is a nationally awarded writer of screenplays, short fiction, poetry, and novels. In May 2017, she graduated magna cum laude from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts with a BFA in Writing for Screen & Television. Crier’s War was her debut, and this is the sequel. She is originally from Durham, North Carolina, where she grew up on a hippie commune in the middle of the woods. She now lives in Los Angeles.

You can keep uptodate with Nina Varela at the following links: website, Goodreads, Instagram and Twitter

Please note that this review will contain spoilers for the first book in the series, Crier’s War. All quotes are from an advanced reader’s copy so may be changed in the final copy.

Ummmm so where on earth do I start with this book?! It’s probably one of my favourite sequels ever! I love it even more than Crier’s War, it went in a direction I never really expected and oh my god, it’s so, so gay. I am in love.

Iron Heart picks up where Crier’s War left off: Ayla and Benji are on their way to Varn to ally with the Mad Queen; Crier is betrothed to Scyre Kinok and waiting to be married. Meanwhile, Scyre Kinok’s alternative to Heartstone continues to wreck havoc on his followers and Crier and Ayla must find find a way to stop him.

All I have to say is wow. I wasn’t sure what we were going to expect in this sequel, but it certainly wasn’t what we got. But I loved it! I’m going to attempt to talk about this in some semblance of an order so here are some headings to assist.

Things got dark

This is probably the main element giving me the ‘I did not expect this’ vibe. But Iron Heart got so dark, it almost had a horror vibe at times which is of course why I’m so absolutely in love with this!! Let’s start with the shades, these creepy, terrifying creatures: goodness they are horrific! I absolutely adore the kind of ‘creature that is quite clearly dead but yet still fights on and on and will never, ever stop’. There is just something so spinechillingly creepy about it. Varela’s descriptions were so fantastic. They are definitely creepy and gross, and there is a MAJOR content warning for body horror. But I found the way the shades were described with their broken limbs, black veins and caved in heads, just so disgustingly fantastic!

The plotline surrounding the Iron Heart and how Heartstone was made also got rreeeal dark and I absolutely loved it. It was so unexpected, I was shook. There’s a moment in a room where Crier just freezes as she realises the truth and then you freeze when you realise what she’s realised, it was just amazing. Where Crier’s War was perhaps a little lighter, based within the safety of the palace, now that Ayla and Crier have left the confines of the palace, they are faced with a world darker than even I, someone who reads a lot of dark books, had anticipated.

Things got real gay

Crier oh Crier my sweet, sweet Crier. The love she has for Ayla is seriously unmatched. This Automa is literally fighting to the death and all she can think about is Ayla. It is so funny but also so sweet and tender. Meanwhile there’s Ayla who’s refusing to think about Crier at all even though she’ll see random day to day objects like a hairbrush or a bathtub and immediately think about Crier. The way these two are so constantly in the other’s thoughts was just adorable and so so beautiful. And their reunion scene is one of my favourites in the book. The horror and shock and disbelief is hilarious to read and also it’s just really really gay. There are so many moments of soft queer yearning and longing and glancing looks and holding hands and constantly checking back to make sure the other is okay, I love them to pieces. This book just gives us sapphic joy and I love it.

Other characters

I loved that we got to spend a bit more time with characters we didn’t get to see as much of in the first book, particularly Queen Junn of Varn, the Mad Queen, the Bone Eater. We saw her briefly in Crier’s War but she plays a much more important role in this book. I love seeing female monarchs kicking butts and ruling shit and Junn, as a queen who had to take the throne whilst still a teenager, is that to a tee. She’s had to build this air of ferocity and madness in an attempt to get people to fear her because it’s the only way they’d listen to a young woman. I also appreciated getting to see more of Storme and hear his backstory finally about how the heck he survived the village raid and made it to Queen Junn’s court. There’s also some really sweet anecdotes about the relationship between Junn and Storme, and despite it being such a small part of the book, the hidden story of how they met is really touching and beautiful. I’m still not a Benji fan however. Benji, can you seriously stop harassing Ayla for being in love with Crier, WHO WOULDN’T LOVE HER.

Alchemy

We also get a deeper look into alchemy in this book! I really loved the extra worldbuilding details added thanks to our time spent in Queen Junn’s court. I really love small worldbuilding details in fantasy, so there were some really interesting alchemy creations that I appreciated, like the little birds that flew about to stop intruders. We also got a better look at alchemy in the search for Yora’s heart, that mysterious substance from the first book which we learned powered the very first Automa. I would still have liked to see more of this, but that’s because I’m a big fan of very intricate and detailed adult fantasies and so love exploring new and exciting sciences or magics or religions – I always want more of it!

So all in all, I really loved Iron Heart! I enjoyed Crier’s War but loved this sequel even more. The darkness was unexpected but that’s part of what made me love this book as it provided such a deadly, tense atmosphere for the book. And finally, of course Crier and Ayla’s relationship continued to be both the sweetest and gayest relationship in YA and I will love them forever.

Book review: The Four Profound Weaves by R.B Lemberg

Title: The Four Profound Weaves by R.B Lemberg

Publisher: Tachyon Publications

Publication date: 4 September 2020

Genre: Adult | Fantasy

Page extent: 192 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: Wind: To match one’s body with one’s heart
Sand: To take the bearer where they wish
Song: In praise of the goddess Bird
Bone: To move unheard in the night

The Surun’ do not speak of the master weaver, Benesret, who creates the cloth of bone for assassins in the Great Burri Desert. But Uiziya now seeks her aunt Benesret in order to learn the final weave, although the price for knowledge may be far too dear to pay.

Among the Khana, women travel in caravans to trade, while men remain in the inner quarter as scholars. A nameless man struggles to embody Khana masculinity, after many years of performing the life of a woman, trader, wife, and grandmother.

As the past catches up to the nameless man, he must choose between the life he dreamed of and Uiziya, and Uiziya must discover how to challenge a tyrant, and weave from deaths that matter.

Set in R. B. Lemberg’s beloved Birdverse, The Four Profound Weaves hearkens to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. In this breathtaking debut, Lemberg offers a timeless chronicle of claiming one’s identity in a hostile world.

I’ve been having such a good year for novellas, I haven’t read a single bad one and this was no different! Queer novellas are pretty much the only thing giving me life right now.

The Four Profound Weaves is a novella set within R.B Lemberg’s Birdverse series. It follows a nameless man who has recently transitioned, as he searches for a name; and his friend, a weaver, who is searching for her Aunt so she can be taught how to weave from death, the last of the four profound Weaves.

As a newcomer to this series, I won’t lie, I did find the first half quite confusing. There is so much history, mythology and worldbuilding that needed to be crammed into such a small novella and I think I probably would’ve benefited by reading some of the Birdverse series prior to jumping straight into this, just so I had a better understanding of this world. But by the second half, I felt much more comfortable in the world and really enjoyed this!

My absolute favourite thing about this novella is the magic system. Interesting magic systems are of one the best parts of reading fantasy because they’re all so unique, and the fact this one was all about weaving was so cool?? I need more crafts and magic in my life! Weaving magic can be created through four elements: wind, for change; sand, for wanderlust; song, for hope; bones, for death. The way these magics influenced the story and world were so interesting. I found the carpets of change, made from wind, particularly amazing: that these carpets are used by individuals who wish to change their bodies to match their identities is just so cool?!

Which leads me to my second favourite thing about this novella, the exploration of gender, expression and identity. God I really just fucking love books that have magic systems that allow for trans and nonbinary individuals. We have evolved past the need for binary magic systems!! I loved how the nameless man explored his new identity but in a way that took into account the fact he’d lived life as a woman for 60 years? The way he embraced the fact he was a man but also that he’d been raised to trade and explore the world, which would usually be a woman’s role. It was so great to see that acknowledged? That yes he was a man, but you don’t just lose everything that made you who you are for the last 40 years after transitioning?

This was a really great novella. Given the subject matter, there is a great deal of transphobia, dead-naming and misgendering so do be aware of that going in. But I’m definitely very interested in reading more of Lemberg’s work set in the Birdverse!

Book review: Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles

Title: Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles

Publisher: Wednesday Books

Publication date: 25 August 2020

Genre: Young Adult | Fantasy | Magicians

Page extent: 464 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: In a city covered in ice and ruin, a group of magicians face off in a daring game of magical feats to find the next headliner of the Conquering Circus, only to find themselves under the threat of an unseen danger striking behind the scenes.

As each act becomes more and more risky and the number of missing magicians piles up, three are forced to reckon with their secrets before the darkness comes for them next.

The Star: Kallia, a powerful showgirl out to prove she’s the best no matter the cost

The Master: Jack, the enigmatic keeper of the club, and more than one lie told

The Magician: Demarco, the brooding judge with a dark past he can no longer hide

Where Dreams Descend is the startling and romantic first book in Janella Angeles’ debut Kingdom of Cards fantasy duology where magic is both celebrated and feared, and no heart is left unscathed.

Where Dreams Descend was one of my most anticipated books of the year: the combination of Moulin Rouge x Phantom of the Opera, two of my absolute favourite pieces of media, was so powerful. But ultimately, as lush as this was at times, I hate to admit I was a little bored. It was always going to be a very tough ask to stand up to literally two of my favourite films of all time. But unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much of a plot for a lot of the book, instead the majority of the book are just detailed descriptions of Kallia’s show. Which was amazing the first time! And the second time! But by the end, I was just a bit underwhelmed because that’s all there was.

Where Dreams Descend follows Kallia, a showgirl magician who is running away from her master, Jack, the owner of the house she performs at. She runs to Glorian, an odd city that seems to hate magic and has forgotten everything about its past. But Glorian is trying to put itself back on the map and so is holding a competition to find a magician to be the star of a circus. Kallia, enters herself and vows to win at all costs, as the only woman in the competition. But Jack isn’t keen on letting her go…

I love a good story about theatre, performance, dance, performing magicians! As a theatre nerd in my school days, the setting of this book was so perfect. Between Kallia’s time as a showgirl with Jack, and then her experiences as a magician, I really enjoyed the lush and detailed prose around these (at least the first few times….) I also liked exploring Glorian, this old dead city with an intriguing layout and lots of old dusty buildings to explore. That is completely my jam. Did I wish we had more of it? Yes. The worldbuilding was limited – it almost felt like having the city forgetting everything about their past was kind of an easy way out to avoid actually having to worldbuild?

When we get to the characters, we have three main players:

  • Kallia: a powerful magician and performer who adores the spotlight. I did really appreciate the way Angeles made Kallia so ambitious, even to the detriment of others, as I think that’s a trait we still don’t see much of in female characters. Give us more ambitious female characters, because this was so much fun to see!
  • Jack: the mysterious, brooding master. We don’t get much time with Jack and that made me struggle to understand his goals: I still have no idea why he was so obsessed with Kallia because we spent so little time with him.
  • Demarco: Demarco felt the most fleshed out to me of these three, and he felt like a much more complex figure. He’s got a secret to hide, a missing sister he’s trying to find, no one knows why he no longer uses magic, so he’s this tense and stressed out figure who really makes sense. I also love how flustered Kallia made him, it was a very cute trait!

The side characters however were my favourites. I particularly liked the grouchy old seamstress who helps out with Kallia’s costumes; Aaros, Kallia’s trusty sidekick, he’s just such a loyal and caring character and I felt he really shone; and Lottie, a journalist and also apparently the only person who can actually get shit done. #TeamLottie

However, the lack of a plot or any resolution to anything is something I really struggled with. For most of the book, it’s just scene after scene of Kallia in her dressing room preparing for a show, Kallia performing in said show, Kallia passing out from magic. And repeat. There needs to have a plot or something that’s driving the story onward. In Where Dreams Descend, odd things are happening with magicians from the competition disappearing and more, but no one cares? Instead everyone brushes past it very quickly and we just have another three chapters focusing on yet another Kallia performance. There was just no point to anything? And so because of the repetitive nature, I just found it quite boring. And I am devastated that I felt this way because I thought I would adore this. We find out nothing about what’s actually happening in the city ever? We eventually meet the villain in the last pages and then it just ends? I assume there will be a second book exploring the “villain”….but I just felt that almost 500 pages of almost nothing but Kallia dancing and performing magic could easily have been edited down and condensed and we could have had more interaction and mystery that engaged with the actual villains who are driving on the plot.

So ultimately this was a disappointment to me. I was so excited for this, it’s pretty much my dream pairing of Moulin Rouge and Phantom of the Opera. And whilst I did initially enjoy the lush, unhurried nature of Kallia’s magic and performance, the lack of a plot and repetitive nature of this book really impacted my enjoyment. But as always, even though I was a little disappointed, you might love it! If you like the sound of very detailed prose, with a focus on magic shows, dance, performance, and a side of mystery, I would definitely recommend you read this one to see for yourself!

Book review: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Title: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Publisher: Ace

Publication date: 21 July 2020

Genre: Adult | Horror | Witches

Page extent: 368 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: A young woman living in a rigid, puritanical society discovers dark powers within herself in this stunning, feminist fantasy debut.

In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.

But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.

Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.

Content warnings: blood, animal death, ritualistic animal sacrifice, self-harm, rape, paedophilia, child abuse, domestic abuse, starvation, death, gore, dead bodies, misogyny, racism

Welcome to spooksville, population one coven of terrifying witches threatening to destroy a community of sexist menfolk! The Year of the Witching was one of my most anticipated books of the year, promising all of the dark, spooky, filled with blood and gore magic that I desired, and it definitely lived up to my expectations! Combining the kind of puritan society seen in The Handmaid’s Tale, with the dark blood magic seen in horror brings a wonderful (and very dark) witchy book to our shelves. Like seriously. It’s so fucking witchy.

The Year of the Witching is set in Bethel, a small community barred to outsiders. There, they are led by the church of The Father, with a Prophet and his apostles who look after their Bethelen flock. But all is not well: in this society, women are treated as cattle, carved with a symbol of marriage on their foreheads, Outsiders who skirt the borders of Bethel are treated with disgust and disdain, and Immanuelle, who’s mother attempted to kill the Prophet himself, is desperately trying to live a life without sin to avoid others claiming she’s a witch thanks to her mother’s blood. But then Immanuelle ends up in the dangerous woods by accident, where she sees some strange witches cavorting together and now four plagues have come upon the town and Immanuelle will do everything in her power to stop it.

The list of things I loved about this book is huge so let’s just dive straight in because this review is likely going to be biiiiiiig.

The witches

Oh my god the witches!! They were just amazing. I loved everything to do with them, from Lilith with her stag head, to the sigils used to carve curses, to the extracts from Immanuelle’s mother’s diary. The four witches are just thrillingy creepy. Can you actually imagine how terrifying a female body with the skull of a stag would be?! The way the other witches are described is just as terrifying: each of them are quite clearly dead, bodies brokenly moving and twitching, eyes dead and staring, I thought they were expertly detailed to be as scary as possible.

And the four plagues these witches brought were so much fucking fun!! (Yes I realise I’m saying four world destroying plagues were FUN but that is why we read HORROR). These plagues were just so dark and creepy, water turning to blood, the blight making people smash their own heads against walls?! But it was so interesting to explore how these plagues actually impacted the day to day lives of people. Usually we see the world sort of stop and everyone panics (which, to be fair, does seem to be the way humans would react given *gestures to coronavirus*) But I liked that this book took a different approach, here we saw everyone needing to get on with life and do their best – it explored what actually would happen if all the water turned to blood. From the crops failing, to animals dying of thirst, to stored reservoirs of water, to using the rain, I just found it really interesting to explore how people were getting on with life in a plague as opposed to seeing the usual sense of despair and panic.

Worldbuilding

The history and worldbuilding is so detailed and in-depth and just absolutely fascinating. I really love books about puritanical societies that actually delve into how the society got there and why they act the way they do. I find it fascinating to explore how humans can come to do such terrible things, what actually takes a society from what we know to something so much worse, it’s why I love books that explore villainy. And The Year of the Witching gave us so much backstory to Bethel, how it came to be, the religion that started the war between the witches and Bethel. I adore SFF books with religion, and I loved it even more than usual in The Year of the Witching. Like all books about puritanical societies, plagues, end of the world dystopias, they feel particularly scary in the current world climate. The essence of misogyny that runs deep through Bethel’s community, the way the community targets women and girls and uses them to give themselves power is just terrifyingly good. That sliver of pure evil throughout just fills me with so much rage and anger, and I love books that just overtake my emotions like that.

The unexpected romance

Ezra and Immanuelle?! I didn’t expect there to be a hint of romance in the book but it was so lovely and unexpected. I loved that they were both such loyal friends first and foremost, before romance. Their loyalty and strength is really magical to read about. Every time they’re on page together there is such a beautiful sense of friendship before anything. It’s like these two teens are faced with such evil and horrors in the rest of their lives but then with each other they just have this sweetness and innocence which I loved.

Family

I really liked Immanuelle’s close relationship to her family, particularly the love she and her grandfather have. He doesn’t spend much time on page, but I really felt every moment he was because there is so much emotion in his pages. I very much appreciated the importance put on familial love in this book. Despite the flaws of Immanuelle’s family (hi Martha and your punishment), they still have so much love and support for each other? Martha and Anna and Abram clearly have so much love for their children. It would have been so easy to turn Immanuelle’s family against her, for them to be as evil at heart at The Prophet and his apostles, but they had such strength and love for each other that was really nice to see in this very dark book. Even when looking at the other families, there is such a strong connection beween Ezra and his mother Esther, between Leah and her unborn child, between Vera and Sage. It brought a lightness and comfort to a very dark book.

The ending

Please note, the following paragraph has some spoilers for the ending so skip ahead to past the nachos if you don’t want to know about it! I wanted to talk about the ending because it’s the reason I didn’t give this a full five stars.

However, I actually think it could’ve been a touch more dark. I KNOW, I’m the worst. It just felt a little incomplete, like we were just waiting for Immanuelle to say fuck this shit and blast everyone. And I think it would have been really interesting to see her descent into darkness. It’s a book about overthrowing a society and building from the ground up. Except for a person who spends the whole book wanting to change things, when she gets the chance, she says nah actually I’ll let the Prophet remain in charge and keep carving girls thanks? The ending (the epilogue in particular where it talks about what has actually happened since the events of the book), just felt a bit like a different story. I wanted dark Immanuelle. And if she wasn’t willing to be dark, I at least wanted her to overthrow the society and make some change. What was the point of everything then?

Okay spoilers over.

Please don’t take that to mean I don’t love it! Because I really enjoyed this book. I had an absolute ball reading it, it’s by far the most engaged I’ve felt in a book in a little while. The worldbuilding and religion was so interesting and detailed and I loved exploring these four very dead, creepy witches!

Book review: These Witches Don’t Burn by Isobel Sterling

Title: These Witches Don’t Burn by Isobel Sterling

Publisher: Razorbill

Publication date: 28 May 2019

Genre: Young adult | Fantasy |Witches

Page extent: 336 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: Hannah’s a witch, but not the kind you’re thinking of. She’s the real deal, an Elemental with the power to control fire, earth, water, and air. But even though she lives in Salem, Massachusetts, her magic is a secret she has to keep to herself. If she’s ever caught using it in front of a Reg (read: non-witch), she could lose it. For good. So, Hannah spends most of her time avoiding her ex-girlfriend (and fellow Elemental Witch) Veronica, hanging out with her best friend, and working at the Fly by Night Cauldron selling candles and crystals to tourists, goths, and local Wiccans.

But dealing with her ex is the least of Hannah’s concerns when a terrifying blood ritual interrupts the end-of-school-year bonfire. Evidence of dark magic begins to appear all over Salem, and Hannah’s sure it’s the work of a deadly Blood Witch. The issue is, her coven is less than convinced, forcing Hannah to team up with the last person she wants to see: Veronica.

While the pair attempt to smoke out the Blood Witch at a house party, Hannah meets Morgan, a cute new ballerina in town. But trying to date amid a supernatural crisis is easier said than done, and Hannah will have to test the limits of her power if she’s going to save her coven and get the girl, especially when the attacks on Salem’s witches become deadlier by the day.

This book has been on my TBR for so long, and I don’t know why I hadn’t picked it up yet but just add that to the list of reasons why I hate myself because this so good?! It’s so cute and funny, full of very fun (and very queer) relationships, all mixed up in a delicious barrel of blood magic and elemental magic which are the TWO BEST KINDS OF MAGIC. Anyway I’m mad at myself for not reading this sooner because I enjoyed this so much!

These Witches Don’t Burn follows elemental witch Hannah in the aftermath of a very bad breakup. But when Hannah starts seeing signs that a blood witch has come to town, she must team up with her ex to hunt them down because no one else believes her. Enter new hot cutie Morgan, just who Hannah needs to complicate her life more!

I’m going to start by getting my one major peeve about this book out of the way quickly: why oh why oh why oh why do so many YA books insist on plot that hinges off parents and other responsible adults making an environment so toxic and terrifying for a child that they would rather BE KILLED BY A BLOOD WITCH than talk to you about the situation?

Okay short mini rant over, onto the good stuff! I didn’t expect this to be as funny as it was (I have no idea why, maybe because I don’t really associate fantasy with humour?) But Hannah has such a great voice, she’s funny and sarcastic (my favourite form of humour) and thus I loved her. She gets so angry at her ex, I thought their relationship was perfect, it really exemplified the kind of messy awkward breakups that happen in high school. Victoria, as set up as the brooding evil ex, is obviously therefore my favourite. I mean Morgan is fine, she was a nice enough character if a little bland and lacking something defining I could talk about right now. But Victoria was just so fucking confident and powerful and kind of a little mean, but also very obviously still had feelings for Hannah which makes her vulnerable (and thus more dangerous). Which just made her such a perfect character for me!

The whole environment of this book was just very cute and very fun. The pacing was excellent, there’s lots of action, there’s lots of fires and magic and witchy coven meetings. I particularly liked the odd little bits of magic we got to see that really helped build this world up: for example, the binding rings or tattoos used to keep children from accidentally revealing their magic, to the very cool air bubble things that can be used to send messages, to more traditional witchy things like pentagrams and blood magic animal sacrifices. (Gotta love that blood magic).

This was such a fun read, I had such a great time reading it. Whilst I’m still mad that I didn’t read this earlier, it does mean I don’t have to wait for the sequel because it’s already out!

Book review: The First Sister by Linden A Lewis

Title: The First Sister by Linden A Lewis

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Publication date: 4 August 2020

Genre: Adult | Science fiction | SPACE WARS

Page extent: 352 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: First Sister has no name and no voice. As a priestess of the Sisterhood, she travels the stars alongside the soldiers of Earth and Mars—the same ones who own the rights to her body and soul. When her former captain abandons her, First Sister’s hopes for freedom are dashed when she is forced to stay on her ship with no friends, no power, and a new captain—Saito Ren—whom she knows nothing about. She is commanded to spy on Captain Ren by the Sisterhood, but soon discovers that working for the war effort is so much harder to do when you’re falling in love.

Lito val Lucius climbed his way out of the slums to become an elite soldier of Venus, but was defeated in combat by none other than Saito Ren, resulting in the disappearance of his partner, Hiro. When Lito learns that Hiro is both alive and a traitor to the cause, he now has a shot at redemption: track down and kill his former partner. But when he discovers recordings that Hiro secretly made, Lito’s own allegiances are put to the test. Ultimately, he must decide between following orders and following his heart.

Phheewww I’m on a roll of incredible sci-fi right now, and The First Sister was no exception. This is a dark and epic tale of war across the solar system, following three main protagonists on opposite sides of the war as they try to fight for control over their own bodies.

The First Sister is a story of bodily autonomy, or rather, the story of what happens when bodily autonomy is removed, when people have no control over what happens to them and what happens when they fight back. We follow three individuals on opposite sides of the war:

  • First Sister: a priestess of the Sisterhood serving on the Juno, a warship. As a priestess, she is there to provide distraction to the soldiers, be that hearing their confessions or providing them with sex to prevent distraction whilst they do their duties. Her voice was taken from her as a child, to prevent her ever spilling the secrets of the captain of her ship. When the Juno gets a new Captain, war hero Saito Ren, First Sister is asked to gain her trust and spy on her for the Sisterhood, who thinks she is a traitor.
  • Lito sol Lucius: on the opposite side of the war from First Sister is Lito, a duelist who has recently recovered from wounds gained in the fall of Ceres, and for which he is blamed. He is ordered to return to Ceres, kill the Mother, the head of the Sisterhood, and kill his traitorous ex-partner, Hiro, who assisted in the fall of Ceres.
  • Hiro: for Hiro’s POV, we get short clips from a recorded message they sent to Lito, explaining how they betrayed their Empire. For as they explain at the start of the recording, they are most definitely guilty and they betrayed the Icaari.

These three each follow very different, exciting plots that all combine in one last final showdown on Ceres. Whilst each of these POVs were interesting on their own, I was particularly in love with that of First Sister. There is something so incredibly powerful about this POV from a person who cannot speak, so dialogue instantly becomes not a tool that the author can use. And I just loved the more introspective nature of First Sisters POV that therefore happened. Forced into the Sisterhood, her POV provides lots of insight into this religious powerhouse and the dark insides of the religion. So seeing her grow to become a person who gains control over her body after all these years in service to the awful Sisterhood was so powerful.

I did love her POV a lot more than Lito’s. I thought his a little detached and I found it more difficult to get attached to him as a character, which is why this book didn’t get a full 5 stars. But then comparing that to Hiro, who despite having the smallest part, just small extracts from their recordings, got so much personality through. I loved them. The way the Icaari have destroyed Hiro’s bodily autonomy is truly horrific, it’s so shocking and so disgusting and I was blown away when we first read what has happened to them. This is a world with such horrors in it, where a few powerful individuals hold the power and control over millions, where the lives of the many are used and discarded as a tool for the few powerful people. But it’s also a story about those who refuse to be used, who refuse to let the powerful discard them like nothing, and what happens when those few individuals decide to fight back. And it’s spectacular.

As a short side note, Lewis is another author going onto my list of authors who write epic battle scenes. This is something I struggle with as a writer so I’m always hugely impressed when authors can do it so well. These battles were so fun and filled with really badass technology, and this lightened the load of a book discussing some really dark issues surrounding bodily autonomy.

The world was just as diverse as I’d hoped, pretty much everyone is queer. Between nonbinary Hiro, Saito Ren and First Sister’s relationship, we’re full of diverse queer characters. I really loved the soft slow development of the relationship between Ren and First Sister. I just love SFF books that also have brilliantly queer romances that impact the story, so this was just perfect.

Also kudos to Lewis because there were so many twists at the end and I guessed NONE OF THEM. It was such a moment of shock and disbelief and omg OF COURSE this all makes sense I love it?!?

It’s hard to talk too much about this book without giving spoilers, so all I’ll say is I really liked this one. There’s a lot going on, and a lot of difficult issues being discussed, but this is paired with lots of epic battles and some very cool tech, so it pretty much combines the best two things about SciFi!

Book review: The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Title: The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Publication date: 4 August 2020

Genre: Adult | Science fiction | Multiverse

Page extent: 336 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: A multiverse-hopping outsider discovers a secret that threatens her home world and her fragile place in it–a stunning sci-fi debut that’s both a cross-dimensional adventure and a powerful examination of identity, privilege, and belonging.

CARA IS DEAD ON THREE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-FOUR WORLDS.

The multiverse business is booming, but there’s just one catch: no one can visit a world where their counterpart is still alive.

Enter Cara, whose parallel selves happen to be exceptionally good at dying–from diseases, from turf wars, from vendettas they couldn’t outrun.

But on this earth, Cara’s survived. And she’s reaping the benefits, thanks to the well-heeled Wiley City scientists who ID’d her as an outlier and plucked her from the dirt. Now she’s got a new job collecting offworld data, a path to citizenship, and a near-perfect Wiley City accent. Now she can pretend she’s always lived in the city she grew up staring at from the outside, even if she feels like a fraud on either side of its walls.

But when one of her eight remaining doppelgangers dies under mysterious circumstances, Cara is plunged into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and future in ways she never could have imagined–and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her world, but the entire multiverse.

Well this book was fucking excellent. Like, really fucking excellent. I think it might be my favourite sci fi. Ever. God, it was so good. From the plot twists 9% in that continued all the way through, to the deep social commentary on issues from gun violence to class to climate change, the exploration of trauma and survival, The Space Between Worlds managed to bring together so many different issues into one perfect sapphic scifi that’ll I’ll be thinking about for pretty much the next five years.

The Space Between Worlds is set on an Earth which has discovered multiverse travel. But there’s a catch: you can only visit a parallel universe if the parallel you is already dead. Traversers, those who have died on other worlds, are hired to travel across the multiverse to get information. Cara is one of these traversers. But when one of the parallel Cara’s is killed in mysterious circumstances, Cara is drawn into a plot that endangers the entire multiverse.

It’s difficult to put into words how much I loved this book. I was hooked completely from the very first page. We’re drawn into this incredibly detailed world, and Johnson has done such an epic job of the worldbuilding. There’s an enclosed, rich city, protected from the harsh weather outside and a Mad Max style desert, where the poorer individuals live overruled by a self-styled emperor. We’re thrust into this world that has been ravaged by climate change, and it felt like a bleak look into our future, so realistic and well detailed was this world. The Space Between Worlds subtly explores issues like climate change in a way that isn’t in your face or preachy – it’s anything but that. In fact, on the surface, there is no blatant discussion of issues like climate change or gun violence. But Johnson has woven these concepts throughout in subtle descriptions of the world: from the way people get around with tarps to protect from the sun, to the stark absence of guns at all, to the descriptions of acid in the air, Johnson weaves social commentary into the story with such a powerful impact.

But what’s most powerful is the depiction of trauma, domestic abuse, and an individual who has survived but is still deeply affected and damaged by what she’s been through. The way Cara is written is just phenomenal. She is such a brilliant, morally grey character. I longed for her to find her safety as much as I longed for her to get her revenge. I won’t say too much about her (spoilers…) but it breaks my heart to see how wrecked and lonely she is and then to see her grow and survive what she’s been through and learn how to use what she’s been through against her enemies, it’s so fucking perfect. Also she’s bi/pan and my heart is just singing to see a bi/pan character get a story this epic.

The romance made my heart hurt (ofc). To see Dell and Cara constantly come close and drift apart, to see how their misunderstandings tear them apart when all I wanted to scream was PLEASE BE HAPPY TOGETHER was just 😭😭😭😭

To conclude: I have so many thoughts about this book. It left me with that feeling that really good books often do, the feeling like I got run over by a car, or that a hole was punched through my chest, that emotional ‘god I can’t quite believe I read this’ level of awe. I can’t wait to see what Johnson does next.