Review of "Brightly Burning" by Alexa Donne

Donne, Alexa. Brightly Burning. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD |ISBN-13: 978-1328948939 | 394 pages | YA Science Fiction

3 stars

I had Brightly Burning on my radar for a while, and FINALLY had time to get to it. The idea of “Jane Eyre in space” intrigued me, and while it’s not the perfect book, I enjoyed it for the most part.

The best part of the book is the way it reimagines the romance. I’ve mentioned in previous Jane Eyre retelling reviews how much the Jane/Rochester romance bothers me, so I’m always up for a version that makes it less creepy. And this one is. I loved the tension between Stella and the slightly broody, but still likable Captain Hugo. They have a great slow-burn relationship that I was rooting for throughout, and without a lot of the major complications of their classic counterparts.

As a sci-fi book, my feelings are a bit…mixed… in terms of the world building. I enjoyed some of it, like the idea that they’re looking back a couple hundred years in the future on stuff that is still relatively modern to us. But it contradicts itself quickly, with the idea that Stella would leave an engineering job to become a governess of all things. It’s stated in the blurb, but I would have liked some further explanation as to why a futuristic society incorporated some concepts from Ye Olden Days, while seeming farther advanced in others.

This is a fun concept, but it could have done with some fine-tuning. I’m hoping Donne’s forthcoming Austen-inspired book will have sorted out some of these issues. But it’s a fun retelling that you don’t have to have read the classic to understand, and one I would recommend to someone looking for a fun YA sci-fi romanc.

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 "Meg & Jo" by Virginia Kantra

Kantra, Viginia. Meg & Jo. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0593100349 | 390 pages |
Women’s Fiction

4 stars

While I am still a little iffy about the need for another Little Women adaptation, I am glad if that movie played any role in the timing of the publication of the excellent Meg & Jo. While I’m pretty sure there have been literary updates to Little Women in recent years, this is the first one I’ve read and I’m pretty sure it’s the first targeted to adults, so I was excited about it.

And this is one of those retellings that strikes the perfect balance of capturing exactly what readers loved about the March sisters, while also changing things to suit the change in time period and to suit Kantra’s personal style. The heart of the book is the relationship between the sisters, with particular emphasis on the bond between Meg and Jo. While the bond between Kantra’s versions of them may owe just as much to other literary sisters (Jane and Elizabeth Bennet are name-dropped in comparison to them), I still enjoyed seeing how they rely on each other, and getting hints of the larger family bonds, which it seems will be discussed further in the forthcoming Beth & Amy.

One thing I loved about Jo’s POV was the way it provided further insight into why Eric Bhaer is the right match for her in this version, as the Professor was in the original. I like that they establish a connection, and in spite of some of the obstacles, come together and he proves himself to her, in spite of her doubts about love. And the aspect of him challenging her creatively to pursue her true goals is a thread that I love was kept in the most wonderful and surprising way.

I admit I enjoyed Meg and John’s relationship a bit more without the forced sense of female domesticity and her actually seeming to care about him consistently in spite of the fact that there are some cracks, as opposed to constantly wanting to fit in with her vapid friends, coming off as rather selfish at times. It was nice to see the modern version of Meg who was happy as a mother, but also wondered if something was missing, and there being this question of whether she and John should try to incorporate aspects of their old lives into their current one.

My one complaint is that I feel like the dad was made to be horrible for no apparent reason. I can see him being absent in the prologue, as he’s fighting in the war, like his classic counterpart, but it just seemed odd to turn an otherwise decent family man into someone who apparently all but abandoned his wife, especially when she’s sick and in the hospital. Yeah, he does still have some redeeming features, particularly seen from Jo’s perspective, as she’s “Daddy’s girl,”but it just seemed like kind of a downer on the rest of it, which otherwise felt like a nice tribute to such well loved characters.

This is more or less a delightful retelling of Little Women, and one I think fans of the original will enjoy. However, it stands on its own, and I would also recommend it to fans of a good sister-focused story that also has strong romantic elements as their first experience (but hopefully not their last) with this amazing story.

Review of "Milady" by Laura L. Sullivan

Sullivan, Laura L. Milady. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0451489982 | 366 pages | Historical Fiction

5 stars

I first heard about Milady from Elisabeth Lane when she picked up an ARC and a conference and featured it in a video, finding myself mildly intrigued at a spin on a male-dominated classic told from one of the only female characters, relegated to the role of villain. Subsequently, Dominic Noble’s video summing up the book (uploaded a day after the book released, but given his tremendous backlog of Patreon funded requests, and that this was based on one such request, I’m willing to chock it up to pure coincidence), and it made me realize, just as Laura L. Sullivan did, that the “heroes” of The Three Musketeers are horrible people, even allowing for historical context, and Milady is arguably much more sympathetic, in spite of being cast in the role of villain.

Sullivan thus takes the original story and allows Milady to reclaim the narrative in a wonderful way. Splitting between time periods, focusing on her backstory showing how she got to that point, and the “present” showing her version of the events of the original novel, it shows that while she was miscast to lift up D’Artagnan and the Musketeers, it was all by her design, with her use of excellent deception every step of the way to influence their perception of events.

As a result, I really loved the twists she put on the relationships between the characters, especially focusing on the relationships between women to contrast the theme of fraternity in the original. I love the twist that instead of being essentially a tragic figure, Constance (called “Connie” in the novel) is also in league with Milady and is given a better ending, and there’s a couple memorable scenes of them together that show the depth of their friendship.

As for Milady’s romantic life, I enjoyed seeing how she developed from a naive girl more or less who falls in love with someone who doesn’t reciprocate to seizing control of her own sexuality and eventually finding someone who respects her for it…and the fact that he was revealed to have essentially been there all along as well as being a great tie-in with a relationship her character has in the original is wonderful.

This is an absolutely amazing book in its own right, and I love how it pays tribute to the Dumas classic while also acknowledging that some characters deserved way better than they got…and giving it to them. I recommend this to anyone who loves female-centric historical fiction or female-centric retellings of classic novels.

Review of “A House of Rage and Sorrow” (The Celestial Trilogy #2) by Sangu Mandanna

Mandanna, Sangu. A House of Rage and Sorrow. New York: Sky Pony Press, 2019.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1510733794 | 248 pages | YA Science Fiction

5 stars

It’s beginning to feel increasingly rare that we have second books in trilogies that not only deliver, but actually exceed their predecessor in terms of quality as opposed to falling into the dreaded “second-book syndrome.” But A House of Rage and Sorrow is one of the few exceptions to this trend, actually functioning as a second book in terms of both building on the first and building anticipation for the third, without feeling too much like filler.

And one of the technical things that made it better was that the connection between characters were made more clear with a character guide, while still leaving room for suspense, as the lack of one left me feeling a bit confused with book one. And since these can feel a little info-dump-y, I love the stylistic choice to convey it through the voice of Titania the warship, who also gets a few chapters from her perspective. She’s my favorite character from book one, so I enjoyed seeing her utilized in such a fun and creative way.

I also enjoyed getting a much more intense look at the relationships between characters this time around. As the title implies, there is a lot of “rage and sorrow,” and the fact that it’s centered around family and politics makes it all the more heightened. I could sympathize so much with Esmae’s rage, especially toward her brother following the events at the end of the lat book, and the way things come to a head in this one.

I enjoyed this sequel, with all its twists and turns, and can’t wait to see how it’ll all come together in book 3. I would recommend this to fans ofYA SFF with great world-building and complex family-centered politics.

Review of “A Spark of White Fire” (The Celestial Trilogy #1) by Sangu Mandanna

Mandanna, Sangu. A Spark of White Fire. New York: Sky Pony Press, 2018.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1510733787 | 311 pages | YA Science Fiction

4 stars

I first heard about Sangu Mandanna and A Spark of White Fire somewhat recently on Twitter when she spoke about her own experience with non-Indian people imposing their beliefs of her culture when reviewing her book, a common struggle for authors of color writing ownvoices stories. And despite not knowing much about the Mahabharata prior to reading the book, I loved the idea of a new take on Indian mythology in space.

And this book more or less delivers. While I did feel like the cast and its connections is a bit hard to follow at times, and I would have liked a family tree or some sort of character guide to keep them all straight, yet the relationships that were conveyed and how they evolve over the course of the book, and were conveyed very well.

And Esmae is a great protagonist as well. I loved seeing the conflicts through her eyes, and how she had to constantly negotiate the competing loyalties in this tense atmosphere.

And overall, it just does some cool things with its mix of sci-fi and fantasy, like the amusing sentient spaceship, as well as the wonderful world-building, steeped in cultural significance. This is a wonderful beginning to a great SFF trilogy, and one I’d recommend to other lovers of YA SFF.

Review of “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter” (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club #1) by Theodora Goss

Goss, Theodora. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter. New York: Saga Press, 2017.

Hardcover | $24.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1481466509 | 402 pages | Fantasy

4.5

I randomly heard about The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter through an advertisement at the end of another book, something that hasn’t happened in a while, but I was immediately intrigued by the idea of the daughters/creations of famous Victorian Gothic literary figures, not to mention Sherlock and Watson. And while I have not read all the books the characters come from, I appreciated how well each major character’s backstory was explained, while also showing some recognizable differences in the narrative arcs to give the characters more agency.

And this is just pure fun. Given the mystery and monster elements, it does get a bit gritty, but it was ultimately a fun ride that I zipped through in a matter of hours, with lots of questions left open that kept me intrigued to immediately pick up the next one.

The writing style does take a bit of getting used to, because, in between the actual narrative and plot, there will consistently be interruptions from the characters, commenting on the text itself, uner the pretext that the book itself is one they’re collaboratively writing, which is made even odder by third person for most of the book, and the revelation of an external narrator making themselves fully known at the end. However, it is such a fun and quirky book, I just kind of went with it after a while. But I can see why some might find the style a little jarring.

This is a delightful homage to 19th century Gothic literature, and meshed together in such a natural way too. I’m sure other fans of those clssics who are looking for a new take on them would love them.

Review of “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Kiersten White

White, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein. New York: Delacorte Press, 2018.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0525577942 | 292 pages | YA Historical Fiction

4.5 stars

I had seen some good reviews for The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein on BookTube, so this book has been on my radar for a while. And while I did read Frankenstein in school, and it’s one of the required readings I have fonder feelings about, I was excited at the prospect of a story from Elizabeth’s perspective, especially since I heard it further amplifies some of the twisted stuff that happens in the original.

And I was not disappointed. While a few of the plot beats are predictable and the first hundred or so pages takes a bit to get into, there is still enough new elements that there were still moments of surprise, particularly the jaw-dropping ending.

I also love the contrast between Elizabeth and Victor in terms of how their arcs run both parallel and in reverse to one another. While she starts out somewhat manipulative in order to ingratiate herself with Victor, she softens in a believable way as Victor goes down a dark path of murder for the sake of his experiments.

This book forms the perfect complement to Frankenstein, and while I think you could read this without having read the original, it is helpful to have at least have a basic grasp of the central themes, as this serves to fill in the gaps more than to fully retell the story.

Review of “Ayesha at Last” by Uzma Jalaluddin

Jalaluddin, Uzma. Ayesha at Last. 2018. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1984802798 | 351 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

Ayesha at Last is yet another Pride and Prejudice retelling published in 2019, but it is by far my favorite of the three, with both its subtle take on the Austen classic and the way it chooses to handle the issues it does, including arranged marriage, workplace discrimination, and characters defining their identity within a Muslim community in Toronto.

I love that this take allowed for a fresh and unique conflict between the two main characters, and one that led to me learn a lot more about Muslims and the differences in their belief systems that exist. And I found it interesting the way Jalaluddin played with reader expectations, having Khalid, the one raised in Toronto, being more conservative and adopting the very traditional look for the majority of the novel, as well as believing his mother knows what is best, including in marriage, while Ayesha, who lived in India before immigrating following her father’s death, is also religious, but has more progressive ideas, including about marriage.

And while the Elizabeth/Darcy parallels are there, what with them clashing, yet having feelings for each other, and especially that memorable awkward proposal scene (fixed with an adorable letter!), this is one of the ways in which Jalaluddin makes the characters and their relationship truly her own, and I love that.

The other characters also were incredibly fun, the villains being the exception to this, and I like how there was just as much focus on the importance of family in spite of everything as there was on the relationship. I did really want more Zareena, as the hints given about how she fell in love with Iqram were so beautiful, and he doesn’t even appear on the page? That’s a crime.

I really enjoyed this book, and I enjoyed the positive and nuanced perspective that it presents about Muslim and South Asian people/communities, especially when there isn’t a ton of other media (and definitely not many other romances) that are doing the same thing. I would recommend it to all rom-com fans, whether you’re familiar with Pride and Prejudice or not.

Review of “Heartstone” (Heartstone #1) by Elle Katharine White (Throwback)

White, Elle Katharine. Heartstone. New York: Harper Voyager, 2016.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062451941 | 336 pages | Fantasy

5 stars

A mix of preparing to read the second book in preparation for the release of the third (but having forgotten the specifics of this one) and the recent uptick in new Austen retellings in other genres led me to feel the urge to revisit Heartstone. And while I still enjoyed it much more this time around, my recent renewed interest in fantasy, which wasn’t the case so much last time, led to me finding new things to enjoy apart from this new take on the story itself.

One of the things I continue to love is the way the story was adapted to suit the new world, especially in terms of how it deals with the class conflict at the center of the plot. While there are elements While clearly makes her own, I could easily recognize the struggle between the nakla and the Dragon Riders and empathize with them.

The wider world of the story is also incredibly rich with history and lore, ensuring that this is just one adventure with these characters and this world, and that I was even more excited for the succeeding books and how they develop things from there, especially with the creative turn the last few chapters took.

I still very much love this book, and would still recommend this to fans of Austen retellings, especially if they also happen to be fans of epic fantasy.