Review of "Lord of the Last Heartbeat" (The Sacred Dark #1) by May Peterson

Peterson, May. Lord of the Last EHeartbeat. Toronto, Ontario: Carina Press/Harlequin, 2019.

eBook | $4.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1488025102 | 351 pages | Fantasy Romance

5 stars

I picked up Lord of the Last Heartbeat because I happen to follow May Peterson on Twitter, and she also recently withdrew this title from the RITAs in the midst of the ongoing RWA kerfuffle. And, although I didn’t plan it this way when I started it, I read it on her birthday, and was pleasantly surprised by the serendipity.

This is an excellent debut fantasy romance, with an incredibly sensual writing and a beautiful romance in the midst of darkness. The fantasy elements in particular are super interesting, with inclusion mythical creatures like sirens and witches. I really enjoyed the twist on Mio’s character being the siren son of a witch who wishes to stop being used to further her ends.

He finds a great romantic partner in Rhodry, a cursed moon-soul, and their developing relationship was at turns sweet, sometimes sensual, and occasionally quite dark. But the relationship at its core is one of acceptance, especially of Mio’s gender identity, and that facet in particular is wonderful to read, especially since it’s likely very personal to Peterson’s own journey.

This is a wonderful fantasy romance that hits all the right notes, and Peterson is a great rising talent who I can’t wait to read more from. I recommend this to to fantasy romance lovers, especially those looking for a new and more inclusive take on the genre.

Review of "Flamebringer" (Heartstone #3) by Elle Katharine White

White, Elle Katharine. Flamebringer. New York: Harper Voyager, 2019.

Paperback | $16.9 USD | INbN-13: 978-0062747983 | 351 pages | Fantasy

4 stars

Flamebringer is the final installment in the Heartstone series, and it’s bittersweet to see it come to an end. It’s also wonderful to marvel at how much development has happened over the course of three books, with book one paying homage to Pride and Prejudice, and the other two books building from there.

Thus, this book is considerably darker than I would’ve expected going in, especially reflecting on the first book. On the one hand, I love that White embraces these epic fantasy stakes, and allows for major consequences and loss, a flaw with many fantasy series where all the important characters survive to the end. But, given the source material, it’s hard not to feel a little betrayed when a character inspired by a beloved major character in a classic is killed off.

But the exploration of the characters and their growth in this one is wonderful, particularly that of the protagonist, Aliza and her husband, Daired, especially as they discover more about his family’s past. One of the moments that really stands out to me is the revelation of the deeper connection between Wydrick and the Daired family, particularly Daired’s own disbelief and shock.

This is a great third installment, and fans of the series and those looking to see characters inspired by beloved classic Austen ones go into a darker, grittier direction will love this.

Review of "Queen of the Conquered" (Islands of Blood and Stone #1) by Kacen Callender

Callender, Kacen. Queen of the Conquered. New York: Orbit, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-031645933 | 391 pages | Fantasy

3 stars

Queen of the Conquered is conceptually awesome. Rooted in the idea of giving the African American perspective of slavery to a fantasy novel, this had a lot of potential, especially with its gritter tone and the nuance it discusses in terms of how, like in real life, an oppressed character will choose to be complicit and align themselves with their oppressor.

For the most part, I enjoyed Sigourney’s character arc. She’s not meant to be likable, but I found her thought process morbidly fascinating. For any other flaws, both with her decisions (acting rashly at times) and the other things, which I will get into momentarily, I feel it was worth it for this aspect.

But the world building didn’t feel particularly compelling. While I understand the author’s historical inspiration, I didn’t feel the world was that well developed to be its own thing. Inspiration is absolutely fine, and to be expected, but aside from the map, I didn’t get any sense of the world or its structures.

I also found myself struggling to engage with the story beyond that, particularly towards the end. Some others have noted the writing feels awkward and repetitive, and I felt the same. And despite the darkness of what was going on, I didn’t feel much for anyone apart from Sigourney, except from an objective standpoint.

This was kind of just ok, and I think some of these aspects will mean that it’s going to be a love-it-or-hate-it book for a lot of people. I think if you like stories with unlikable lead characters (a critic compared it toThe Count of Monte Cristo), you’ll probably enjoy this one.

Review of "The Rise of Magicks" (Chronicles of the One #3) by Nora Roberts

Roberts, Nora. The Rise of Magicks. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019.

Hardcover | $28.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1250123039 | 454 pages | Fantasy/Dystopian

3.5 stars

I was ambivalent about this book’s release to an extent. Not for any reason due to the book itself, as I did enjoy its predecessors and saw its potential. But the dark cloud that is the Macmillan library ebook embargo came into effect shortly before this book’s release, and while I always planned to read the print version which has no borrowing/copy limits, I felt sad for those who didn’t have the option, due to accessibility issues and are stuck waiting around six months, according to OverDrive.

As for The Rise of Magicks itself? It’s pretty solid, both continuing in the different vein Roberts took with the series, while also containing some familiar Roberts flair. One of her signatures is building great relationships, and that’s definitely the case here. While the romance didn’t win me over any more this time around (some of the writing there is pretty cringey), I love the bonds Fallon shares with her family and her mentor, Mallick.

And conceptually, as always, Roberts has all the pieces there. She’s doing something interesting with the familiar light vs. dark concept, and the ultimate fulfillment of the “Chosen One” archetype. And while it never really gets dark enough in execution, it’s still enjoyable nonetheless.

I think if you liked the other books in the trilogy, you will (probably) like this one, particularly if you’re a Nora Roberts diehard. For the most part, I enjoyed it, in spite of some of the issues, and I’m most certainly more critical of her work than some.

Review of "The Brilliant Death" by Amy Rose Capetta

Capetta, Amy Rose. The Brilliant Death. 2018. New York: Penguin Books, 2019.

Papeback | $10.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0451478467 | 351 pages | YA Fantasy

5 stars

I picked up The Brilliant Death out of interest in reading more of her work after loving Once and Future, which Capetta wrote with their partner, Cori McCarthy. And while all of their books appealed to me in some way, there was something about a gender-fluid, Italian-inspired fantasy that spoke to me.

And it lived up to my expectations. The world, as some critics have pointed out, feels very much like The Godfather, with the protagonist, Teodora, being from a mafia king’s family. And in some ways, it feels reminiscent of historical fiction, with Teo’s chafing against the patriarchal form of inheritance, with the magic correlating to gender fluidity adding further layers to this.

And Teo herself is a truly great protagonist. The environment she was raised in has made her into a cutthroat, but it never feels like it’s just for the sake of her being a “strong female character,” and I like that she has a highly original arc that makes her compelling lead to follow, as she learns to define who she is, including defining herself outside gender binaries.

And Cielo is a great love interest, doubling as a sort of mentor figure as Teo starts discovering her magic. I enjoyed their somewhat roguish nature, and their romance, in the midst of everything else going on, was so sweet!

This is such a fun book, and I CANNOT wait for the sequel. I recommend this book if you love historical fantasy, or are looking for books with awesome queer representation.

Review of "Girls of Storm and Shadow" (Girls of Paper and Fire #2) by Natasha Ngan

Ngan, Natasha. Girls of Storm and Shadow. New York: Jimmy Patterson Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2019.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0316528672 | 402 pages | YA Fantasy

3 stars

After finishing Girls of Paper and Fire, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted a sequel, both because of some of the issues I had with the portrayal of the blooming of a sexually charged romance in the midst of a situation where both are dealing with sexual assault, and because the story felt pretty self-contained. And while for the most part, I feel like Girls of Storm and Shadow did ok in proving its need for existence, I still feel very mixed, due to it falling into some of the issues of second books in trilogies, of upping the stakes but also feeling rather incomplete.

On the one hand, getting to see the world outside the “court” is great, grasping the wider world consequences of the Demon King’s rule and why it’s important to bring him down.

And I did like seeing more of the characters, especially Wren and the further exploration of her character. While it did mean the introduction of a rival who sort of comes between her and Lei (and I loathe most love triangles!) I enjoyed seeing more of her and the development of her relationship with Lei.

I also felt that the overall plot was going in a somewhat unoriginal direction, even within the confines of YA fantasy, which can be very tropey. A few compared it to the Hunger Games, and while I haven’t read that series, I kind of see similarities to those “bring down the corrupt regime” arcs of the dystopian subgenre, but within a fantasy “skin.”

This is kind of just an “ok” sequel, which, given the way middle books can be, is kind of expected. I’ll probably still read book three, as there’s enough interesting stuff here that I want to know what happens, in hopes that it ends satisfactorily. And I feel like you might like this book a lot more if you enjoyed the first one more.

Review of "Song of the Crimson Flower" (Rise of the Empress #2.5) by by Julie C. Dao

Dao, Julie C. Song of the Crimson Flower. New York: Philomel Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1524738358 | 272 pages | YA Fantasy

4 stars

I put Song of the Crimson Flower on my TBR without even thinking about it, as the Rise of the Empress duology was so good, I would pretty much read anything Julie C. Dao writes. Imagine my surprise when I found out this was a sort of spinoff of those books…HOW DID I MISS THAT?! That being said, while there are some recurring characters, this story completely stands on its own, and while I heartily recommend reading the duology as well, you can read this one as a standalone.

The fairytale vibe continues in this book, but while the duology was Snow White inspired, this one feels like an original story with a Vietnamese folktale feel, although it features archetypes from familiar stories, like the orphan hero and the curse that needs to be broken through true love.

I wasn’t sure about Lan at first, as she pretty much treats Bao poorly early on, because of his birth. But I did understand where she was coming from to an extent, with her higher status and expectations, and when she agreed to journey with Bao to find the solution to his curse, I felt my respect for her grow a lot more due to my growing understanding of the stakes she faced and her susequent willigness to go against them.

Bao is really sweet throughout, and I rooted for him to find out who his mother was and why she gave him up, and subsequently was torn up for him when I found out the path she had ended up on.

And for those who happened to read the duology, there is the special treat of seeing a key secondary character finally get a happy ending, given how a major part of his arc in those books was him falling in love and losing her.

The main failing of this book is that it is a long novella/short novel, and I did feel like things could have been fleshed out a bit more. However, it was just a lot of fun spending time in this world again, and I hope this isn’t the least time. However, Dao’s splendid world building and character development stands out, and, thus, it makes a great recommendation for fans of YA fantasy.

Review of "Blood Heir" by Amelie Wen Zhao

Zhao, Amelie Wen. Blood Heir. New York: Delacorte Press, 2019.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0525707790 | 452 pages | YA Fantasy

4 stars

Reading Blood Heir after all that’s happened on Book Twitter is something of a surreal experience. While I understand things did get pretty ugly when that controversy was first going on, I respect Zhao’s grace through it all (much more than some of the veteran authors who’ve drawn ire for their response to criticism) and her bravery to go forward with publishing once she’d examined some of the legitimate criticism that probably didn’t contain personal attacks, while acknowledging that a couple of the people who didn’t sink so low as to make it about her instead of the book had valid opinions as well.

That said, is this book worth the hype and publicity it generated due to the scandal? In my opinion, yes, if you love YA fantasy and don’t mind something that’s does tread some familiar tropes. It’s a promising debut, taking some influence from Anastasia (although, make no mistake, it’s not a retelling, but more “inspired by” the story), and while it may inspire some nitpicks from those with more experience with Russian culture and language, I personally felt it was a nice tribute to the culture and to Zhao’s globally-conscious upbringing, especially as she delves into the real-world issue of human trafficking.

While Ana has her “dumb” moments, I did like how she eventually came into her own with her Affinity. And while I’m not as big a fan of Ramson, given he tends toward the “broody hero” type, I like the relationship that develops between them that doesn’t feel over-the-top.

In general, it’s a pretty good book, even if it does lean a bit heavily on tropes from other popular books. I’m excited to see how Zhao continues to grow as an author, both in this series and in any possible future endeavors, as there is a lot of potential here. I recommend this to other fans of YA fantasy.

Review of "Realm of Ash" (The Books of Ambha #2) by Tasha Suri

Suri, Tasha. Realm of Ash. New York: Orbit, 2019.

Paperback | $16.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0316449755 | 450 pages | Fantasy

5 stars

Tasha Suri is one of my favorite new discoveries this year, and while I wasn’t massively wowed by her debut, I found it enjoyable as a new romantic fantasy with Indian influences. But with Realm of Ash, while the trajectory is slightly different, given the different characters, I felt much more connected to the story and the world.

I enjoyed seeing a new facet to Ambha through the eyes of the widowed Arwa, given that this status comes with a different set of expectations, as well as the different ways other facets of her identity, like her difference of birth and color of her skin contrasted to Mehr’s experience.

I could also empathize with her character growth from someone who feels compelled to make herself small, and there’s this wonderful growth to finding her strength over the course of the story as she’s thrown into the court intrigue and solving the curse on the Empire.

I also was quicker to warm up to her romance with Zahir than I was with the romance in the last book. There was nothing ultimately wrong with that one in the end and both were gradual, but I liked the development of Zahir as a character and counterpart for Arwa in this one, and that made the story much more convincing.

This is a wonderfully sumptuous fantasy with great world building an complex characters. I recommend it to all romantic fantasy fans.

Review of "The Princess Beard" (Tales of Pell #3) by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne

Dawson, Delilah S., & Kevin Hearne. The Princess Beard. New York: Del Rey, 2019.

Hardcover | $27.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1524797805 | 363 pages | Fantasy

3.5 stars

In spite of the Tales of Pell being uneven quality wise, I was excited to read the conclusion (?) to the series, based purely on the title, The Princess Beard, alone. And it’s just as much of a silly romp as the other two, better than the second, which felt all over the place, but not quite as good as the first, where the novelty is the freshest.

The twists on classic fantasy tropes and stories are fun this time around, especially concerning the titular bearded princess-turned-pirate. It was fun to see them working with those archetypes and twisting them into new and fun creations.

While some of the jokes do feel a little on-the-nose and even more off-the-wall than I found funny, there are still some little gems in there that had me in stitches, whether it be from clever uses of wordplay or an easily recognizable real world or fantasy character reference. For example, there’s a fabulous sequence featuring a parody of Harry Potter and another jab at Chosen Ones that I wish had been expanded, even if it did result on them retreading some of the same territory from book one.

Like the others, this is a fun(ny) take on fantasy that may not win over everyone, but it will definitely please the children-at-heart who love a good whimsical story that they can escape to for a good laugh or ten.