Reviews

Review: The Girl and the Grove

39934046The Girl and the Grove by Eric Smith

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Published: May 8th 2018 by North Star Editions
Purchase: Publisher | Amazon | Book Depository
LGBTQAI+: None
Other representation: adopted MC of colour (#ownvoices) with seasonal affective disorder

Teenager Leila’s life is full of challenges. From bouncing around the foster care system to living with seasonal affective disorder, she’s never had an easy road. Leila keeps herself busy with her passion for environmental advocacy, monitoring the Urban Ecovists message board and joining a local environmental club with her best friend, Sarika. And now that Leila has finally been adopted, she dares to hope her life will improve.

But the voices in Leila’s head are growing louder by the day. Ignoring them isn’t working anymore. Something calls out to her from the grove at Fairmount Park. Is she ready to answer?

I received an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Girl and the Grove was one of my most anticipated 2018 releases. I requested the ARC months ago and I was overjoyed when I got it, but somehow I only got around to reading it in May.

It was awesome to read a book with a teen protagonist whose hobby is protecting the environment, with a fondness for trees in particular. I also think this is one of the only #ownvoices books with an adopted protagonist that I’ve read, especially a protagonist who was adopted as a teen and not as a small child. (In fact, the only one I can suddenly think of is one of Vavyan Fable’s books, but as far as I know, that wasn’t #ownvoices.) It was really interesting to read about Leila’s experiences, and how she struggled with accepting that she finally had a home and a family.

I also loved the text messages, Google searches and messages from a forum/board that appeared between chapters. I always love books that have some kind of quote or social media messages in each chapter that gives more information about the characters and their lives, even outside of what we see in the books.

The plot itself was exciting as well, and even terrifying at some points as Leila and her friends were running out of time to save the grove and their city. I loved Leila’s best friend, her parents, and also her love interest. (Jon’s dad jokes were the best, and also the way he and Liz cared for Leila.)

I’m giving it four stars because the characterisation and the writing style didn’t always work for me, but ultimately this was a pretty great book. It’s an urban contemporary story with just a little fantasy/magic written into it.

My rating: 🌳🌳🌳🌳/5.

~ Alexa

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Reviews

ARC Review: Sky in the Deep

Sky in the Deep_cover imageSky in the Deep by Adrienne Young

Genre: Fantasy, YA
Published: April 24th 2018 by Wednesday Books
Pages: 352 (Kindle edition)
Purchase: Publisher | Amazon | Book Depository
Sex on page: No (fade-to-black yes)
LGBTQAI+: None

Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient, rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield—her brother, fighting with the enemy—the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother’s betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan thought to be a legend, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.

I received an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I am usually skeptical of books that get a lot of hype, especially books without queer characters. Based on the cover and the blurb, I also expected a cold, gritty, bloody tale of warriors and betrayal.

(Note: There are minor plot spoilers in this review, but honestly, the blurb already gives away a lot of things that happen quite late, so you won’t find anything major that’s not already in the blurb.)

“Do you know how?” Halvard asked, looking up at me from where he sat on the ground.
Inge laughed. “She has hair, doesn’t she?”
“I used to do my brother’s,” I answered. The breath caught in my chest.

Don’t get me wrong – I got all of that. There is cold and ice, there are betrayals, and there certainly are warriors. And yet, this book is anything but gritty. Finding out that her brother has been alive and living with the enemy all this time, and forced to live among the enemy for the winter, Eelyn is full of anger and betrayal and doubt.

And yet, there is so much gentleness in this book. Gentleness between Inge and her children. Gentleness between Eelyn’s brother and his new family. Gentleness between Eelyn and the Riki family she lives with. Gentleness between community members who help each other and take care of their own.

“We find things, just as we lose things, Eelyn.” Inge stood. “If you’ve lost your honor, you’ll find it again.”

In a lot of places, this book reminded me of Ice Massacre, another book of teenage warriors who are trained to kill and fight yearly against a specific enemy from a young age. I only read the first book in that trilogy, so I don’t know where the story goes – but Sky in the Deep is a standalone, so you get the ending in the first book, and it’s much more positive than I expected.

I am also wary of m/f romances in YA because many of them are built on no chemistry and toxic tropes, but that wasn’t the case here. This might be strange to say given the circumstances, but Eelyn and Fiske felt equal in their relationship from the beginning. I admit I didn’t read the whole blurb, so I wasn’t actually sure they would end up together at first, but I could feel the romance and the trust build between them.

I uttered the words that had once been said to me, the night my mother died. “You run into the forest. You don’t stop until morning. No matter what.”

In the end, this book had much less grittiness and betrayal, and much more gentleness and found families than I expected. And by that I mean, there are found families literally everywhere.

In short, Sky in the Deep was a beautiful standalone novel that had a violent plot in a cold climate, and yet still felt heartwarming.

Content warnings: attempted sexual assault. violence. cutting out an eyeball at one point.

My rating: 🗻🗻🗻🗻🗻/5.

~ Alexa

Reviews

ARC Review: Not So Stories

35894420Not So Stories edited by David Thomas Moore

Genre: Anthology, Fantasy
Published: April 10th 2018 by Abaddon Books
Length: 334 pages
Number of stories: 14
Purchase: Publisher | Amazon | Book Depository
Sex on page: No

Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories was one of the first true children’s books in the English language, a timeless classic that continues to delight readers to this day. Beautiful, evocative and playful, the stories of “How the Whale Got His Throat” or “The First Letter Written” paint a magical, primal world. It is also deeply rooted in British colonialism. Kipling saw the Empire as a benign, civilizing force, and his writing can be troubling to modern readers. Not So Stories attempts to redress the balance, bringing together new and established writers of color from around the world to take the Just So Stories back; giving voices to cultures that were long deprived them.

I received an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

“Because every day of freedom is a small act of victory against those who would rob you of it.”

Not So Stories is a response to a book by Rudyard Kipling that I confess I have never read, but according to the blurb, it’s a book rooted in British colonialism. Even without knowing this information, it is clear that the stories in Not So Stories are all against the different aspects of colonialism, explotiation and racism. While I sometimes felt like I lacked context for the stories, I still enjoyed reading them.

I’m not going to write an individual review for every story, but I’m going to list my favourites from the collection:

queen by joseph e. cole (this is the one the quote I started with is from)

best beloved by wayne santos

saṃsāra by georgina kamsika 

the cat who walked by herself by achala upendran 

how the simurgh won her tail by ali nouraei

how the camel got her paid time off by paul krueger

My rating: 🐪🐪🐪🐪/5.

~ Alexa

Reviews

ARC Review: Dracula: The Rise of the Beast

38920597Dracula: Rise of the Beast edited by David Thomas Moore

Genre: Anthology, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Release date: March 13th 2018 by Abaddon Books
Length: 381 pages
Number of stories: 5
Purchase: Publisher | Amazon | Book Depository

GENESIS OF A MONSTER
Vlad III Drăcula. A warleader in a warlike time: brilliant, charismatic, pious. But what became of him? What drove him to become a creature of darkness—Bram Stoker’s cruel, ambitious “Un-Dead”—and what use did he make of this power, through the centuries?
More than a hundred years after the monster’s death, the descendants of the survivors piece together the story— dusty old manuscripts, court reports from the Holy Roman Empire at its height, stories of the Szgany Roma who once served the monster—trying to understand. Because the nightmare is far from over…
Five incredible fantasy authors come together to reveal a side to literature’s greatest monster you’ve never seen before.

I received an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I read this anthology very slowly – while it only has five stories, they were longer than in most anthologies I read… and also, because I was not used to seeing so many European names and words in English texts. And yet, that was exactly why this book was so amazing to read – so validating and encouraging, in a way, that I can still write and publish with a name like mine and with characters named like me.

This anthology was also unique because all five stories were connected by an outside story – in fact, the five stories all consisted of documents e-mailed to each other by two people, who were researching Dracula and his presence through centuries. I really appreciated this kind of framing, and the connection between the stories. Because of this, most of the stories consist of letters and documents from several different sources and have several different storylines going on. It might take a while in each story to see how they are all connected, but it’s worth it when it all comes together.

Despite their connection, the five stories were obviously all by different authors, and all were about a different aspect of Dracula’s life. There were morbid love stories, romantic love that turned to resentment, brotherly love… And so many amazing characters who got into contact with this man.

the souls of those gone astray from the path by bogi takács: I first heard of this anthology from Bogi, who is Hungarian like me (and also uses the same pronoun!). I didn’t know that eir story was the first in the anthology, but it was definitely a strong start, and one of my favourite stories. This story is about two Jewish rabbis and the young nephew of one of them who set out to spy on the Hungarian king, Mátyás, and his connection to the man who later became Dracula.

I really appreciated the little nods to Hungarian folklore – as it is also explained in the story, Hungarians have many folk stories where King Mátyás wears a disguise to walk among his people, and it has always been a little funny, since he has a pretty unique face. This story gives an explanation by making Mátyás a creature that can shapeshift, which I loved. Still, my absolute favourite part of this story were the letters written by Majsi, the rabbi’s young nephew. He has his unique style which was hilarious and loveable – his excitement and his heart really made this story worth reading. 5/5 stars for the story, 10/5 stars for Majsi

noblesse oblige by adrian tchaikovsky: A story about Erzsébet Báthory!! Absolutely amazing. I was worried at the beginning that she would turn out to be a victim in this interpretation, but no – her cruelty was not downplayed, and was indeed fascinating (while also creepy) to read. I also LOVED the totally “unpronouncable” Hungarian names included, like Dorottya Semtész or Németkeresztúr. It felt strangely defiant and powerful. 4.5/5 stars

a stake too far by milena benini: One of my favourite parts of this story was the two random bird watchers that mistook a flying vampire for an owl. Amazing. Other than that, this story was the tragic story of two brothers (Vlad and Radu) that I mentioned at the beginning. It also had a witch, and Vlad as a sympathetic character. 4.5/5 stars

children of the night by emil minchev: This story is one long letter, and it starts by the writer (Dracula) revealing that he’s replying to a letter spent over a century ago… Vampires are amazing. — This ended up being a pretty morbid love story between Dracula and a witch (??), including a description of their children. It definitely made for strange reading, but I liked it. I loved the writing style and I’m going to leave one of my favourite quotes here. “My blood has irrigated this land for hundreds of years, the bones of my ancestors form its sturdy spine. I am as much a part of the landscape as the great black mountains that tower over my castle and the deep dark forest that surrounds it.” 4.5/5 stars

the woman by caren gussoff sumption: This story. This STORY. It’s not really about “the woman”, more like about three Romani women, and it’s one of those stories where at first you really don’t understand how the different documents/letters/blog posts are connected, and then it all fits together and aaaah. It also has a trans woman talking about transition, family values, Romani culture, Mátyás as an antagonist again, and a connection to the interludes between stories. It’s my other favourite. 5/5 stars

An interesting/strange thing in this anthology for me was the way they portrayed Mátyás Hunyadi, the Just King of the Hungarians. While I am obviously aware that no king is perfect, I (as many other Hungarians) grew up on folktales of his generosity and thus have a sort of misplaced sentimentality when it comes to him, so seeing him portrayed as the immortal antagonist in several stories (such as Bogi’s and Caren’s) was disorenting – and yet definitely an interesting take.

As you can see from my individual ratings, I was quite impressed with this anthology, even if it made for slow and sometimes difficult reading.

My rating: 🧛🧛🧛🧛🧛/5.

~ Alexa

Reviews

Review: Ice Massacre

23272410Ice Massacre by Tiana Warner

Genre: Fantasy, Mermaids, YA, LGBTQAI+
Series: Mermaids of Eriana Kwai, #1
Published: September 18th 2014 by Rogue Cannon Publishing
Length: 375 pages (Kindle edition)
Purchase: Author | Amazon | Book Depository
LGBTQAI+: Sapphic main character + love interest
Sex on page: No

A mermaid’s supernatural beauty serves one purpose: to lure a sailor to his death.

The Massacre is supposed to bring peace to Eriana Kwai. Every year, the island sends its warriors to battle these hostile sea demons. Every year, the warriors fail to return. Desperate for survival, the island must decide on a new strategy. Now, the fate of Eriana Kwai lies in the hands of twenty battle-trained girls and their resistance to a mermaid’s allure.

Eighteen-year-old Meela has already lost her brother to the Massacre, and she has lived with a secret that’s haunted her since childhood. For any hope of survival, she must overcome the demons of her past and become a ruthless mermaid killer.

For the first time, Eriana Kwai’s Massacre warriors are female, and Meela must fight for her people’s freedom on the Pacific Ocean’s deadliest battleground.

This book was 2018 March’s Sapphic Book Club read hosted by @sapphicliterature.

I discovered this book several months ago – I was drawn to it by the beautiful cover, the fact that it had mermaids, and the intriguing blurb. Since it’s not clear from the blurb or the Goodreads tags, I didn’t actually know this book had a queer main character until much later.

I finally picked up the Ice Massacre for the Sapphic Book Club, and I am really glad I did. This book was action-packed and amazing, although darker than what I usually read… and definitely involving more character deaths.

I loved the all-female crew, and the way they interacted with each other. They have been trained as warriors, and yet they were still children, wanting to have fun and relax before things got real. Later, desperation and the will to survive created rifts between them. At some parts, I kind of felt like I was reading a female Lord of the Flies – which was a little disturbing, given that I hated the Lord of the Flies, but thankfully I was able to get over the association.

I also loved the plot, and the way things weren’t exactly how you – and the characters – thought at first. I loved the relationship between the two main characters, and how their loyalty towards each other crashed with the loyalty toward their people. I was a little worried that Meela’s sexuality would be left ambiguous, but if nothing else, then the ending of the book really makes it impossible to deny even with the most heteronormative lenses.

One major complaint I had was the pacing towards the beginning. The book starts with one chapter in present time, then a few chapters as a flashback, and then back to present time. Personally, I felt this was really weird and I would have preferred the flashbacks to be built into the main story gradually. I also didn’t enjoy reading the flashbacks in general – I don’t think the characters sounded like ten-year-olds, and it was a little off-putting.

As someone who is often bored by action scenes, I was pleasantly surprised when this action-packed novel almost always held my attention instead of just turning into a series of almost identical battle scenes. Overall, I really enjoyed this story and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

(Okay, but seriously though – what kind of person uses someone’s dead brother to make fun of them?)

Final rating:🧜‍♀️🧜‍♀️🧜‍♀️🧜‍♀️🧜‍♀️/5

~ Alexa

Reviews

Review: Smoke Signals

38880586Smoke Signals by Meredith Katz

Genre: M/M romance, Fantasy
Collection: For The Hoard
Published: February 28th, 2018 by Less Than Three Press
Length: 83 pages (Kindle Edition)
Purchase: Publisher | Amazon
LGBTQAI+: Gay male protagonist, bisexual male love interest, lesbian author
Sex on page: Yes

Mike St. George figured that working customer support during the Black Friday sale at SmokeSignals, a game distribution company, would just feature the usual sort of problem customers. He wasn’t expecting an aristocratic, self-centered dragon to demand the company send someone to his house to install games in exchange for gold. And he definitely wasn’t expecting that to somehow put him in charge of working with and protecting the digital side of the dragon’s hoard of games.

But with a possible promotion in his future, Mike’s ready to take on anything. And while the blue-blooded Zali’thurg might be egotistical and prideful, Mike’s wrangled worse customers on a regular basis. At least this one’s cute, albeit in an ‘apex predator’ sort of way.

I received a copy through NetGalley in exchange of an honest review.

#IndieAthon is off to a great start, because wow, this book was amazing.

It’s not often that you find videogames, customer service, Black Friday sales and real, actual dragons in the same story, but Smoke Signals certainly ticks all those boxes. There’s also an adorable romance, cultural differences that lead to awkwardness, dragon lore incorporated into modern human culture, communication about boundaries, knitting and cooking shows…

Honestly, I adored this story from the beginning to the end. First, I related to Mike’s customer service job and his difficult customers, and later I was pulled in by the gradually developing relationship between him and Zali’thurg. I also spent most of it grinning ear-to-ear – there are quite a few humorous parts or comments, and some really sweet gestures coming from both love interests.

While there is a quite explicit sex scene, even that is intriguing in terms of cultural differences, and Zali’thurg’s, well, dragonness. While he has a pseudohuman form that he often uses around Mike, I appreciated that this form wasn’t fully human and Zali’thurg still retained several characteristics of his species.

I understand that romance with a non-human character may not be for everyone, but personally, Smoke Signal was one of my favourite reads of the year.

My rating: 🐉🐉🐉🐉🐉/5

~ Alexa

Reviews

Review: Starlings

35967251I received a copy through NetGalley in exchange for a honest review.

I was recommended two different books by Jo Walton (The Just City and My Real Children, specifically) and while I unfortunately haven’t managed to get a copy of either of those, after reading those two blurbs my thoughts were pretty much “I want to live in this person’s brain”. Jo Walton seemed to be an author with incredibly creative and unique ideas, and I wanted to read something of hers. Thus, I picked up Starlings.

Starlings is a collection of short pieces of writing, both in prose and in verse. I admit that not all of the short stories worked for me and I didn’t like most of the poems (note: there were fewer poems than short stories), but that’s expected in collections. There were still several stories that I adored, and I am now even more excited to be picking up more of Jo Walton’s work in the future.

Since there were so many stories (around 21 short stories and 15 poems), it would be difficult to review all of them, so let me say a few words about my favourites. Some of these are only one or two pages long and yet they absolutely blew me away. More than anything, what really grabbed me was how different all these stories were from each other, and how many topics they covered.

Relentlessly Mundane: I may be biased, but this one had one of my favourite concepts/tropes, and carried it out beautifully. What happens to the children who become the heroes of fantasy worlds and then have to go back to live in their own? How do they deal with their past experiences as adults?

Out Of It: A story about angels, devils, and making deals with them. “You never give up, do you?” “Never.”

Parable Lost: An interesting take on the parable of throwing jellyfish in the sea.

Tradition: A short sci-fi story about traditions with an endearing twist.

What Joseph Felt: A few beautiful pages from the perspective of the Bible’s Joseph and his views on his wife and newborn child.

The Need to Stay the Same: I absolutely loved this one. It’s a book review of a book where humans are a fictional race.

A Burden Shared: Is it really easier to carry someone else’s pain than your own?

Since most of these stories are short, it’s difficult to say a lot about them without spoiling the whole thing (and often, it’s not really the plot that is interesting but the writing, so summing them up is difficult). In any case, this collection had some amazing short stories (and the poems were alright too I suppose). There’s some sci-fi, something more like fantasy, some Greek and Norse mythology, some Christian mythology… A little something for everyone, really.

My rating: ★★★★★

~ Alexa

Reviews

Review: Embrace by Megan Derr

38055677I received a copy through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I was drawn to this book because it’s a supernatural m/m novel with a beautiful cover, but in the end it mostly just left me feeling uneasy.

Note: this is not a spoiler-free review.

First, the whole premise of the story is that in this world, vampires are kept by nobles as Pets – basically slaves. The main romance is between the main character, Aubrey and his Pet, which is already sketchy. Thankfully it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been (there weren’t any instances of Aubrey taking advantage of Ruthven, and as it gets gradually revealed, Ruthven is much more in control than you’d think), but their relationship still seemed unhealthy to me, although in a completely different way than expected. Namely, Ruthven keeps making advances on Aubrey despite Aubrey telling him to stop, and while it’s not entirely non-consensual, it gives an unhealthy message that you can ignore someone saying no because they don’t really mean it. (This shit isn’t any better because Aubrey isn’t a girl, guys.)

While it’s not clear from the blurb, this book actually has two POVs – the other is the physician and good friend of Aubrey’s family, Stregoni. The first Stregoni POV chapter (and the third chapter in the book overall) is immediately an out-of-context, explicit sex scene between Stregoni, Gilles (Aubrey’s cousin) and Francois (Gilles’s vampire Pet). It is then revealed that they’ve had this kind of sexual relationship for years, even though Gilles and Francois are always cold to Stregoni afterwards and he hates what they’re doing to him emotionally. Overall, it is not at all a healthy relationship.

Later it gets revealed that Gilles has a reason for acting cold with Stregoni and shutting him out, and surprise – the reason is that he, a queer man, has been abused by his father his entire life. The situation is more complicated, but part of the abuse is that Gilles’s father told him that if Gilles ever loved anyone, his father would kill his lover. Now, George isn’t motivated by homophobia in this, and I’m sure he would act the same if Gilles’s lover was a woman, but it’s not. It’s two other queer men.

Moreover, there are like, two female characters in the story who both have names and are alive, and they are both minor.

One of these things might be okay, but all of them together kind of just painted a perfect picture of why I’m uneasy about women writing m/m fiction. Unhealthy m/m relationships, vaguely fetishistic sexual scenes, abused queer men, lack of female characters – this book has it all.

I do admit that the book got better during the second half when the characters finally decided to communicate with each other. (Gasp!) Both relationships involving the two main characters got healthier by the end, but that doesn’t erase the start (and in Stregoni’s case, several years of unhealthy bullshit).

I also appreciated that this book had two polyamorous relationships, but as I detailed above one of them is pretty unhealthy, and the other (m/f/f ship that is actually supportive and healthy) is in the past because the two women die in the prologue.

(There was also this one point where a character called Jack was mentioned a few times and I genuinely have no idea who that was supposed to be? Maybe it was somebody’s first name who was usually mentioned by his last name and I just missed it? Idk man.)

tldr; There were some aspects of this book that I enjoyed (I loved the connection between the titles and the cover for example), but overall I wouldn’t really recommend it.

My rating: ★★★☆☆ (more like 2.5?)

What is your favourite story with vampires? Bonus points if it’s queer and not creepy.

~ Alexa