The Unbound (The Archived #2) Review

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Book: The Unbound (The Archived #2)

Author: Victoria Schwab

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Mackenzie and Dallas talk about her problems.

Content Warnings: PTSD, death, grief, incidence of self-harm, dissociative episodes, blood, mention of attempted sexual assault, incidence of drugging a drink, hospital & scenes of a medical nature, mental torture, explosions

I first read The Archived in 2017, and I’ll be honest, I’d been putting off reading The Unbound, because I knew the series was unfinished and not knowing if the third book was ever going to come out, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read the second book knowing we might never get the proper ending. I definitely had to familiarise myself with what happened in The Archived before reading this, which I don’t usually do, but it had been so long, I’d definitely forgotten a lot of stuff! Still, this year I finally decided to dive into The Unbound as one of my #RockMyTBR Challenge books and I have to admit, I was disappointed. It was a really slow paced book, taking me almost three months to get through, and I still didn’t really connect with Mac as a character. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

Imagine a place where the dead rest on shelves like books.

Each body has a story to tell, a life seen in pictures that only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive.

Last summer, Mackenzie Bishop, a Keeper tasked with stopping violent Histories from escaping the Archive, almost lost her life to one. Now, as she starts her junior year at Hyde School, she’s struggling to get her life back. But moving on isn’t easy-not when her dreams are haunted by what happened. She knows the past is past, knows it cannot hurt her, but it feels so real, and when her nightmares begin to creep into her waking hours, she starts to wonder if she’s really safe.

Meanwhile, people are vanishing without a trace, and the only thing they seem to have in common is Mackenzie. She’s sure the Archive knows more than they are letting on, but before she can prove it, she becomes the prime suspect. And unless Mac can track down the real culprit, she’ll lose everything, not only her role as Keeper, but her memories, and even her life. Can Mackenzie untangle the mystery before she herself unravels?

So as I said at the top of the review, my biggest problem with this book was definitely the pacing. I had the same problem with the first book, but it felt even worse here. The pace didn’t really start to pick up until around the last three chapters, so that’s a very long time to not feel massively invested as a reader. Honestly if it hadn’t been Schwab, I probably wouldn’t have finished this book. It was a slog to get through the first half and then the ending felt really rushed, so you didn’t really have time to take in all the stuff that was happening. A lot of the chapters were overly long as well which added to the slow pace.

This book is focused a lot around Mac’s time at her new school, which I found kind of dull, though I’m sure actual teen readers would probably like that more. This was definitely more of a me thing, at almost 25, I don’t really relate to school stories anymore, which is why I read more YA fantasy than contemporary, but the problem here for me was that there was so much focus on the mundane day to day of Mac’s school life rather than the fun fantastical elements.

I appreciated once again that her parents were actually present in this book, and I feel like this was a really good example of how including parents can actually increase rather than take away the drama from characters’ lives as Mac’s parents were somewhat of an obstacle to her adventures in the Archive. I actually felt kind of bad for Mac’s parents and didn’t blame them for not trusting her, she was constantly lying to them and even though I know she couldn’t tell them the truth, she did seem quite harsh on them when all they wanted to do was protect her (I’m clearly getting old being on the side of parents in YA books!).

I was glad that Mac’s trauma from the first book was addressed in this book: she’s really struggling after the confrontation with Owen at the end of the last book. It was super frustrating to see her refuse help, I understand that she couldn’t tell anyone about The Archive, but I felt like she could definitely have dealt with her other issues. Still, that is probably coming from a privileged place, never having dealt with the kind of trauma that Mac is in this book, and I’m sure there are a lot of people dealing with mental health issues that find it hard to ask for help, so on that front it did feel realistic, it was just more frustrating from a reader perspective because you so want her to deal with everything that’s happened to her. I was so glad when she finally did get to a therapist though, and it was really refreshing to see a YA fantasy book actually deal with the trauma that a main character faced, as honestly, pretty much all YA fantasy heroes could probably use therapy!

It was super frustrating that Schwab threw Mac into another love triangle situation, with Mac, Wesley and Cash in this book. Not only did it feel unnecessary because it was so clear that Mac and Wesley were going to get together, I felt genuinely bad for Cash because he seemed like a really sweet guy. It also just felt like super contrived drama to keep Mac and Wes apart.

It was frustrating that even though Mac ostensibly had a little circle of friends in this book, that she kept them all at arms’ length and seemed like she only used Amber in particular to get information because of who her dad was. I also didn’t love that the only people Mac seemed able to form proper connections with were the boys, her connection with Amber was very superficial, Safia seemed to hate her for no reason and the same with Sako. Schwab does seem to have a bit of problem with allowing her female characters to have proper and meaningful friendships with other women, which is something that I’ve seen carry through in her work: aside from Vengeful, and her Cassidy Blake books, her other books really aren’t that great with female friendship and I hope this is something that she works on in future!

Surprisingly, I didn’t think the writing in this one was all that great? I mean this was one of her earlier published books, so naturally she’s improved a lot since it was released, but even compared to The Archived this one wasn’t that great. There were a lot of overly long, clunky sentences and it didn’t have the same atmosphere as The Archived. The dialogue at least was still good, Schwab has always done great dialogue.

The cycling of settings was very repetitive, we were either at the coffee shop, at school, in Mac’s apartment building or in The Archive building, so once again, you really don’t get a good sense of the world. I still have a lot of questions about The Archive: how do they decide on who gets to be a Keeper? It’s clearly a genetic thing as it seems to get passed down through families but what is it in your genes that makes you a good Keeper? I was hoping that Schwab would expand on the world of The Archive more in this book but it didn’t seem like that was the case.

I wasn’t massively invested with the villain in this book, without wanting to spoil anything, I wish Schwab had gone in a different direction as to who was responsible for the people disappearing into the voids. The villain reveal felt kind of cheap and I feel like had she gone in a different direction, it would have actually resulted in a more interesting plot.

I don’t really get why Mac looked up to Da so much? I mean I understand he was her grandfather and she loved him, but he threw her into this life that she doesn’t even really seem to want and lied to her so much, I was surprised that she wasn’t angrier with him to be honest.

The characters in this all felt kind of flat. I had that problem with Mac in the first book and it didn’t seem to have improved any in this one. The villains were also surprisingly two-dimensional for a Schwab book when she’s usually so good at villains. Even Wesley who I really loved in the first book came across as kind of a jerk, at least in the first part of this book, though he did improve towards the end.

Mac made a lot of stupid decisions in this book, which yes, realistic for traumatized teenager, but very frustrating as a reader! She could have let Wes in on her plans, especially when she went to break into the crime scene and it didn’t really make sense to me when she didn’t. She cuts Wes out a lot in this book, which didn’t really make much sense to me as he’s literally the only person in her life who she can actually be honest with.

Honestly I wasn’t really sympathetic with Mac wanting to keep on with her Archive duties, because it felt to me like it actually would have been better for her if she’d been declared unfit for duty as she clearly wasn’t in a place to be handling Archive work. I mean I get why she was so adamant about wanting to hide it because she didn’t want her mind altered, but it was tough to read about her pushing herself way too far when she clearly wasn’t ready. I didn’t think Roland was actually really helping her out by covering for her, I think having the one adult she could trust pretend like she was able to do something she was clearly struggling with, actually made things worse for her.

There were quite a few YA cliches that as an adult reader kind of made me roll my eyes, like Wes being the guy that all the girls fawn over and Mac drooling over his abs. Again this is just a me thing, I’m sure actual teens would probably be able to relate to it more than I could!

There were a few kind of unrealistic things that bothered me: the fact that Mac was able to function as well as she did on less than four hours sleep a night was kind of unbelievable. Also I went to a private school, and okay maybe it’s different in the US, but I found it hard to believe that the Hyde school party dress code would be so strict that everyone wore uniform to it. When we had no uniform days at my school, as long as you weren’t wearing anything too short (like super short shorts and crop tops), you could wear pretty much whatever you wanted.

The action when it finally did happen at the end of the book was great, I just wish there had been more of it throughout.

Honestly Mac was supremely lucky throughout the book that things went her way, a lot of her plans were not well thought through and it was sheer chance that anything came off. It seems like Mac has nine lives the amount of times she managed to overcome what were surely fireable offences in this book!

Despite me really not getting along with this book, I really do hope that the third book eventually comes off because the way the book ended was not conducive to a proper ending and I want to see Mac and Wesley get a proper send-off. I also think Schwab has improved so much as a writer since writing this book, that Archived #3 will probably be the best book of the trilogy-if or when it happens!

Overall, I was really disappointed in this book. It was poorly paced, had flat characters and the things that Schwab usually does well like world building and villains just weren’t up to standard here. Maybe that is just a sign of how much she’s improved as a writer since 2014 though. Either way, I do still hope that she gets a chance to end this series on a high and in the way she always intended to.

My Rating: 2.5/5 (it kills me to give a Schwab book such a low rating, but here we are).

My next review will be of my June audiobook read, The Poppy War, by RF Kuang.

The Rose Code Review (Audiobook)

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Book: The Rose Code

Author: Kate Quinn

Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Mab, Osla and Beth have multiple conversations that don’t revolve around men.

Content Warnings: Death, bombing depictions, parental abuse, patient abuse, incidence of using a straightjacket, vomiting, sexual assault, blood, description of lobotomies, alcoholism, infidelity, PTSD, racial slurs, sexist slurs, grief depictions, war themes, forced institutionalisation

I actually came across The Rose Code by chance, I was scrolling through Instagram and shown an ad for it, it sounded interesting and so I decided to check out the audiobook! Never say targeted ads don’t work eh? Anyway, it’s no secret that I love women’s history, so naturally, a story about female codebreakers in WWII was always going to be right up my alley. I ended up really enjoying it, particularly the narration and have gone on to read another of Kate Quinn’s books, The Alice Network since. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

1940. As England prepares to fight the Nazis, three very different women answer the call to mysterious country estate Bletchley Park, where the best minds in Britain train to break German military codes. Vivacious debutante Osla is the girl who has everything – beauty, wealth, and the dashing Prince Philip of Greece sending her roses – but she burns to prove herself as more than a society girl, and puts her fluent German to use as a translator of decoded enemy secrets. Imperious self-made Mab, product of east-end London poverty, works the legendary codebreaking machines as she conceals old wounds and looks for a socially advantageous husband. Both Osla and Mab are quick to see the potential in local village spinster Beth, whose shyness conceals a brilliant facility with puzzles, and soon Beth spreads her wings as one of the Park’s few female cryptanalysts. But war, loss, and the impossible pressure of secrecy will tear the three apart.

1947. As the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip whips post-war Britain into a fever, three friends-turned-enemies are reunited by a mysterious encrypted letter – the key to which lies buried in the long-ago betrayal that destroyed their friendship and left one of them confined to an asylum. A mysterious traitor has emerged from the shadows of their Bletchley Park past, and now Osla, Mab, and Beth must resurrect their old alliance and crack one last code together. But each petal they remove from the rose code brings danger – and their true enemy – closer. .

I have start with the thing I loved most about this book: the narration. Saskia Maarleveld was incredible, I think the best audiobook narrator I’ve listened to. She does the whole audiobook in an accent that isn’t her own, which is impressive enough anyway but then she does multiple different accents for all the different characters as well, and slips into and out of them so easily. She really made the book such an excellent listening experience, and one of the reasons I was so excited to read The Alice Network is because I saw she was the narrator.

I also really loved how much this book centred female friendships, as I’m sure you know if you’ve followed me for a while, female friendships are like catnip to me. Anyway, I loved how supportive Osla, Mab and Beth were of each other and the way that they formed their own little family. Even though I knew the moment that their friendship fell apart was coming (not a spoiler, it’s in the synopsis), I was so devastated when that moment came because I had become so invested in their friendship as Quinn had developed it so well.

Beth’s character development was a highlight of this book for me. At the start of the book, she’s 24 and under the thumb of her emotionally and physically abusive mother. As a result, she’s painfully shy and withdrawn, to the point of barely being able to speak to people and has very low self-esteem. It was so wonderful to see her come into her own over the course of the story, gaining confidence through her work as a cryptanalyst and eventually being able to stand up to her abusive mother. Of the three characters, I felt like she grew the most over the course of the story.

I also really loved Osla, I think she was my favourite of the three girls (Beth being a close second). She’s smart, determined, desperate to prove herself and not be overlooked as a “silly deb” & she’s the most fun of the three. I also thought her trauma was really well handled, she experiences a bombing fairly early on in the war and it really colours her experiences afterward, it’s not just brushed under the carpet. The way she used humour as a way of dealing with her trauma really rang true, and her loneliness and longing for a family really made me feel her.

Mab on the other hand, kind of rubbed me up the wrong way. There were certain things I did like about her, I liked how feisty she was and how determined she was to forge her own path in life but I didn’t love how judgemental she was of other women. In the beginning, she’s incredibly judgemental of Beth, referring to her as “weak” and “spineless” and I thought this was really unfair given that Beth has been emotionally and physically abused by her mother for years. She’s also fairly unreasonable to Osla following the incident that breaks up their friendship, and whilst it is somewhat understandable given her state at the time, Osla had also been through a lot of trauma and it seemed like she was trying to be supportive of Mab’s trauma, but Mab gave no thought to hers. Having said that, I did appreciate that Quinn allowed her female characters to be flawed: Mab is judgemental, Beth is so hyper focused on work to the extent of ignoring other people’s feelings and what is happening in their lives and Osla constantly referring to not wanting be considered a “silly deb” could be annoying.

The dual timeline was generally done well: they tied together nicely, but I definitely found the past timeline more engaging and better paced than the present: the present was a lot of Osla and Mab griping at each other which wasn’t the most fun to read.

Speaking of the pacing, this book is a little long and could probably have been trimmed down a little, it definitely took a while for things to build up. Having said that, the narration was so engaging that it didn’t really matter, I still wanted to keep listening, even when the plot was lagging a little. The chapters were also nice and short, which kept things ticking over nicely.

All the codebreaking stuff was really interesting and I learned a lot that I didn’t previously know by the end of this book-for instance, I had no idea that the Duchess of Cambridge’s grandmother was a codebreaker at Bletchley!

I wasn’t massively enamoured with the romance plots. I didn’t find Mab and Francis’ relationship particularly interesting, they didn’t seem to have much chemistry and I found Francis kind of dull so I wasn’t massively convinced when she was suddenly in love with him. Osla and Philip definitely had more chemistry, but I found it slightly odd reading about them since Prince Philip was a really person and died not long before I started reading the book. You also know from the start that it’s going to end: though I will say Quinn did a great job of making the inevitable still seem heartbreaking. Beth and fellow codebreaker Harry Zab actually had the most convincing connection as they had a lot in common, but he was married, so I couldn’t really invest in their relationship as I really hate cheating.

I really loved that this book made a big deal of talking about contraceptives, not many contemporary books do, so it was really great to see it in a historical one.

Quinn’s writing style was really great, she creates a wonderful atmosphere throughout and the sense of suspense heading up to D-Day was really well done. You get a very vivid picture of the inner workings of Bletchley Park and she captures the sense of camaraderie but intense secrecy very well.

Obviously being a war book there are some very devastating parts, and whilst I don’t want to go into too many details about the specifics in order to avoid spoilers, Chapters 43-46 are particularly heartrending. Quinn handles character grief exceptionally well.

It’s not the most diverse cast, all of the main characters are white & the one important non-white character suffers much racial abuse. Being a WWII book isn’t an excuse for lack of diversity, plenty of POC were involved in the Allied War effort and it would have been nice to see more of that here. It’s also very heteronormative, and the only non able-bodied character is the son of Beth’s love interest, who has leg braces after suffering from polio.

The scene where Osla and Mab first meet is probably one of my favourites of the entire book: the way Osla embarrasses the man who was masturbating on the train was priceless!

Quinn has clearly done her research in terms of the real life operations, bombing raids, the way that cryptography worked, the day to day life of Bletchley Park, all of this detail really enhanced the story. Being a history graduate, I love it when I read historical fiction and it’s clear that author has properly researched the time period! She also managed to integrate the historical cameos very well, in a way that felt natural to the story.

Some of the 1940s slang felt a little cringey and there were some overused phrases like “silly deb”, but generally the dialogue was really good.

I liked that Quinn wasn’t afraid to confront some of the harsh realities of 1940s Britain, like the treatment of patients in asylums, and the sexism that the three girls faced in their work, especially Osla who is constantly looked down on for being traditionally feminine and a society girl, and is even suspected of being a traitor just because of who she is dating. I found the asylum parts of the book particularly harrowing to read, Beth’s experience there sounded truly horrendous.

Being a mystery book, there are naturally quite a few twists along the way, the main one being this traitor from Bletchley Park and I have to admit, I had the completely wrong end of the stick for a long time on that one. There were also a couple of other mysteries from the past that I didn’t work out, even though in hindsight they probably should have been super obvious.

I loved Beth and Dilly’s mentor/mentee relationship, I thought that was really heartwarming, and I enjoyed the little nods to Alice in Wonderland throughout the book (the characters’ book club being called “The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the asylum parts being referred to as into the clock, several allusions to codebreaking being like “going down the rabbit hole” etc).

Also I feel I should mention: there is a dog in this, the DOG IS FINE. The dog survives, I promise.

I did feel like the end was almost a little too neat? Don’t get me wrong, the characters definitely deserved a happy ending after everything they went through and I found it quite heartwarming, but everything was resolved just a bit too easily for me and we didn’t get to see any of the fallout from the events that happened towards the end of the book. It would have felt a bit more earned I think if more development had gone into rebuilding the girls’ relationship and if everything hadn’t been resolved so quickly: I think the conclusion could have actually done with a bit more space, which is strange to say for such a long book!

Overall I really enjoyed this book. The narration was fabulous, I loved the female friendship at the heart of the story, I enjoyed the characters and the setting, and whilst it could have been a little pacier in places, I found myself engaged the whole way through. Plus it made me seek out another of Quinn’s books, which is always a mark of success!

My Rating: 4/5

My next review will be of The Unbound by Victoria Schwab, I know I said that would be my next one last time, but I do these in the order I finish them, and I finished The Rose Code before The Unbound. Please bear with me as I catch up on reviews, I’ve been busy with work over the past few weeks and haven’t had a chance to sit down and write reviews for my most recent reads! I’m hoping I should be all caught up by the end of the month!

Lore Review (Audiobook)

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Book: Lore

Author: Alexandra Bracken

Narrator: Fryda Wolff

BECHDEL TEST: Uncertain (didn’t really keep track! Find it super hard to on audio).

Content Warnings: Blood depiction, murder, loss of loved ones, graphic torture depictions (some to children), graphic violence, gore, sexual assault, grief depiction, PTSD, child abuse, threat of paedophilia, threat of rape, implied paedophilia, slavery, talk of cancer (leukaemia), child cancer (mention of chemo, radiation & stem cell transplants), mention of heart attack, mention of cancer recurrence, bombings, explosions, brief mentions of suicide, war themes, sexism, loss of a limb, drowning, injury, discussions of child marriage, animal attack, fire/burning, sacrifice & self-sacrifice.

As I’m sure you’re all aware by now, I love Greek mythology, I’ve been interested in it since I was a kid (actually pre Percy Jackson!) so naturally when I saw Lore, which was described as Greek mythology meets The Hunger Games (one of my favourite books) I was immediately hooked. Sadly, I didn’t find that the final product lived up to the inventive premise: it was confused in a lot of places, somehow managed to be both too fast and too slow at the same time and I didn’t feel massively invested in any of the characters. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

Every seven years, the Agon begins. As punishment for a past rebellion, nine Greek gods are forced to walk the earth as mortals, hunted by the descendants of ancient bloodlines, all eager to kill a god and seize their divine power and immortality.
Long ago, Lore Perseous fled that brutal world in the wake of her family’s sadistic murder by a rival line, turning her back on the hunt’s promises of eternal glory. For years she’s pushed away any thought of revenge against the man–now a god–responsible for their deaths.

Yet as the next hunt dawns over New York City, two participants seek out her help: Castor, a childhood friend of Lore believed long dead, and a gravely wounded Athena, among the last of the original gods.

The goddess offers an alliance against their mutual enemy and, at last, a way for Lore to leave the Agon behind forever. But Lore’s decision to bind her fate to Athena’s and rejoin the hunt will come at a deadly cost–and still may not be enough to stop the rise of a new god with the power to bring humanity to its knees.

My biggest problem with this book was honestly that I was confused a lot of the time! There are an awful lot of characters to follow (9 houses in the Agon, all with a lot of people in them), there were a lot of new terms to learn and very little explanation as to how everything worked, so I spent a lot of the first part of the book incredibly confused. The book sort of acts as if the readers have the same information as Lore and that we don’t really need to know how the Agon works, so it takes a while before you get any kind of explanation for what is going on, which meant in the beginning, I didn’t really know what was happening. I settled into things more during the middle, but then the breakneck speed of the events at the end meant I again lost track. I felt kind of at sea for most of the book, which is not an experience you want to have as a reader.

I also wasn’t the biggest fan of the narrator which is quite a big problem when you’re listening to an audiobook. Her actual reading voice was fine, but I didn’t like her accents for the characters: some it was difficult to tell the difference between them, so I couldn’t really follow when different people were speaking and some were just bad (her French accent for Iro for instance grated on me, and her British accent for Van was the kind of posh accent that every American show assumes that British people have. That’s not to say that accent doesn’t exist, but it definitely felt like the kind of British accent that is hammed up for an American audience!).

I liked the idea of the Agon, but I was expecting there to be more action than there was. Most of the book involves plotting and planning and sneaking around each other but with no actual conflict until the end when there was so much that it was hard to keep track of, it would have been nice if the action had been more evenly spread throughout the book and that the Agon had been a bit more dramatic.

Also I would have liked to know more behind the logistics of the Agon, for instance, this book marks the second cycle in a row that the Agon has taken place in New York, is that usual? Because the author also says that the Agon moves round different cities, so do these Hunters only take part when it’s in New York and there are other Hunters in other cities? Do all these Houses pick up and move to other cities every seven years? Are they usually based in New York? I had so many questions and felt like I got fairly few answers! How the Agon came about was also very vague, we learned that it was a punishment from Zeus for a rebellion, but we never know what the rebellion was about.

This book was definitely trying to make feminist points, by talking about how women were forgotten in Greek mythology and how the women of the Agon were treated by the men, but I think Bracken could have gone further with this as there didn’t seem to be anyone actively pushing for change within the Agon (even Lore just complained about her position without trying to do anything to change it). I also found it hard to believe that the Hunters would be so cut off from the mortal world that feminism completely passed them by? It’s been several centuries and they treat their women like they’re in Ancient Greece even though all of them would have grown up in the modern world. Like I get they are somewhat of a insular society but it seemed ridiculous to me that this generation of hunters would have the same views on women as ancestors several thousand years earlier. Basically, the violent misogyny was a bit much, and unnecessary in my opinion.

One of my other issues, aside from the violent misogyny, is that this book talks so much about female power and how women have been abused and forgotten, but LORE HAS NO FEMALE FRIENDS? I mean kind of Iro, but they’ve not been friends in a long time by the current events in the book. It just felt very wrong to me in a book which I think was attempting to have a feminist message, that the main female character has no female friends AT ALL? It’s also something I really hate just in general, that so many books with female MCs don’t allow them to have any female friends.

The classic YA drooling over boys with perfect muscles was a bit cringey for me, now obviously I’m not a teenager anymore, so not the target audience, but to be honest, I found it quite cringey even when I was a teenager. I really don’t love the general trend in YA that boys must be super muscled and attractive because I think it sets unrealistic standards for boys reading YA if all the boys they read about have “perfect abs” and look like movie stars.

I wasn’t a massive fan of the romance in this book. Usually friends to lovers is one of my favourite romantic tropes, but I didn’t feel like it was done well here. Castor and Lore haven’t seen each other in seven years, they’ve both changed a lot in that time, and barely know who the other one is now and yet suddenly they’re instantly in love after spending less than a week together? I mean I get that there might have been feelings there when they were younger, but it still seemed kind of out of the blue for them to almost instantly couple up given how much time has passed.

Speaking of the past, the flashbacks to Lore’s childhood and the last Agon were kind of clumsily integrated into the main storyline, just as something exciting was happening in the present, which took me out of the story somewhat.

I almost think Bracken crammed too much into one book, it felt like it would have been more natural if this had been a duology? I mean this entire book takes place over one week, and we have to learn all of the logistics of the Agon, Lore’s past, finding the Aegis, there was so much in here, it definitely could have used being two books rather than one.

The world building was fairly lacking, not just in terms of the Agon and the logistics of how everything worked, the relationships between the Houses etc but also just that the author seemed to assume that everyone was familiar with New York City? Like I’ve visited New York once, I could name the tourist attractions but in terms of being intimately familiar with the city? Nah. Even if you are setting your book in a real place, you can’t assume that everyone who reads it is going to be familiar with the place: if I was writing a book about London for instance, I wouldn’t assume all my readers knew London in the same way I did (and even then London is massive, people may be more familiar with certain areas than others). Basically assume that everyone has as limited a knowledge of a real world setting as they do with a fantasy one and put the same amount of effort into your world building please!

The characters weren’t all that well developed, I had high hopes for Lore in the beginning but she never really develops much beyond the surface level, “badass fighter girl” and the same went for all the other characters-like I liked Miles because he seemed sweet and funny but he doesn’t get much development beyond that.

I was expecting the Medusa myth to be more important to the plot of this one given the cover and I was kind of disappointed that it wasn’t.

There is an assault scene in this which I wish I’d known about before because I find them really hard to listen to, thankfully it wasn’t too graphic, but pre-warning for survivors who might be triggered by it.

The writing style was fine, there were some really lovely lines but overall, it wasn’t anything particularly standout or special.

I felt like the characters should have been older, really, at least they read as older to me. I mean the flashbacks has Lore doing all of this stuff when she’s supposedly ten, but she feels more like a teenager and Lore in the present feels more like she should be in her early twenties. I don’t know if this is another case of a story that’s been aged down to be considered YA, or if I just read characters as older than they are a lot, but yeah, I didn’t buy Lore as a teenager.

I struggled to get a handle on Lore’s motivations as well, which made it hard for me to root for her. I almost had whiplash trying to work out exactly what she wanted, if she wanted revenge, if she just wanted out of the Agon, if she wanted power and glory, it was difficult to tell because she seemed to change her mind every ten seconds. I wouldn’t have minded if she did have multiple motivations, if it had been clear, but it wasn’t.

There was some diversity, Miles is Korean and gay, Van is Black, gay and disabled, but it all felt very surface level as neither of them were that well developed and seemed to only exist to help the white MC rather than having their own developed personalities and storylines.

I would have liked the gods’ powers to be developed more, we learn a little about them but not really enough in my opinion, it all felt kind of hand-wavy. Athena was really interesting, I was definitely suspicious of her from the beginning, but she felt kind of flat and distant and I would have liked it if she had been developed more.

There were some great twists, I didn’t predict all of them, though I had my suspicions and some took me completely off guard.

I was a bit annoyed that certain things didn’t really get a resolution, I can’t really talk about them in detail without being spoilery, but there were some storylines that were kind of dropped and unresolved by the end, which is fine in a series, but this was a standalone, I kind of expect everything to be largely resolved and I didn’t feel like it was here.

And that brings me to the most infuriating part of the book: THE ENDING. Never mind that I was super lost and couldn’t really follow what happened in the final battle, which was annoying enough, but the ending was so abrupt! It didn’t feel like there was any resolution to what happened in the book, it was all just kind of over. Like what happened to Lore and Castor? Was the Agon really over? I was just so confused and it kind of left me with a sour taste in my mouth because I just had no idea what happened.

Overall, the concept of this book had a lot of potential, but it didn’t live up to it and I reckon it could have really benefitted from being a duology because there were too many big ideas and too many characters to really do justice to in one book.

My Rating: 2.5/5

My next review will be of The Unbound by Victoria Schwab.

The Silvered Serpents (The Gilded Wolves #2) Review

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Book: The Silvered Serpents (The Gilded Wolves #2)

Author: Roshani Chokshi

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Zofia and Eva talk about dance and then Laila.

Content Warnings: Ableism, racism, misogyny, anti-semitism, classism, colonialism, sex work shaming, sexual assault (attempted rape by coercion), past child abuse, self-harm for magical purposes, mentions of stillbirth & infertility, blood depiction, physical injury, terminal illness, grief & loss, murder, poisoning, kidnapping, psychological torture, explosion, mentions of being buried alive, animal death mentioned, bodily harm

SPOILER ALERT: This review will include slight spoilers for The Gilded Wolves, I have tried to make them as vague as possible but if you haven’t read the first book then stop reading here.

The Gilded Wolves was one of my favourite books of last year, so naturally I was very excited to read the sequel when it came out (and then I proceeded to not read it for three months, as you do) and find out what happened to Severin and his crew next. I was slightly disappointed? Don’t get me wrong, I still really loved the characters but the plot was a little thin and it was incredibly slow paced (the first book did have some pacing problems but this book had even more for me). Here is a short synopsis of the book:

They are each other’s fiercest love, greatest danger, and only hope.

Séverin and his team members might have successfully thwarted the Fallen House, but victory came at a terrible cost — one that still haunts all of them. Desperate to make amends, Séverin pursues a dangerous lead to find a long lost artifact rumored to grant its possessor the power of God.

Their hunt lures them far from Paris, and into the icy heart of Russia where crystalline ice animals stalk forgotten mansions, broken goddesses carry deadly secrets, and a string of unsolved murders makes the crew question whether an ancient myth is a myth after all.

As hidden secrets come to the light and the ghosts of the past catch up to them, the crew will discover new dimensions of themselves. But what they find out may lead them down paths they never imagined.

A tale of love and betrayal as the crew risks their lives for one last job.

So we’ll start with my old friend: PACING. I know, I know, I sound like a broken record because I talk about this so much, but it’s a major problem with a lot of books, so it’s probably going to keep coming up. But this book really is far too slow paced, it only really picks up in the last third and there’s fairly little action, most of the book is the characters wandering around the Sleeping Palace looking for The Divine Lyrics. Now the first book wasn’t without its pacing issues but because it was a heist, there was a fair amount of action and this book didn’t really have that. Roshani’s description of this book being “more adverbs than action” in the acknowledgements, really did ring true and unfortunately, I am not the kind of reader who likes that! Some of the chapters were overly long as well, which didn’t help with the pacing.

Which brings me to my next point. The writing. The writing is beautiful, but I didn’t feel like it was as good as the previous book? There were far too many adverbs and some of the sentences felt quite long winded and clunky which really bogged me down whilst reading.

On the positive side, I still loved the characters. Zofia’s arc in this book was particularly notable for me, as I thought she grew a lot through the book and I loved seeing how she really came into herself and embraced her power. My favourites didn’t really change from the first book, I still love Zofia, Enrique and Laila the most, they are definitely the standout characters for me, but I wanted to particularly note Zofia’s arc because it was the one I enjoyed the most. It also seemed to suggest that Zofia is on the asexual spectrum, I’d guess demi-sexual which is pretty cool to see!

I also really love how soft Enrique is, it’s so lovely to see a male character who is sweet and sensitive and comfortable with his feelings!

However, the group dynamic was a little frayed, understandably because of the grief all of the characters were experiencing. I do appreciate how well that was done, and how thoroughly Chokshi explored how grief from the death in The Gilded Wolves affected all of the main characters. It did however mean that the fun characters bouncing off each other from the first book wasn’t there as much. I still loved the dialogue in this, but there was by necessity, something missing from the group dynamic I loved so much in the first book.

Severin however really annoyed me. I do understand that his actions were driven by his grief, but it was really hard to see him treating his friends so badly and pushing them away and that lasts throughout the book. I especially hated the way he treated Laila, the whole collar thing really left sour taste in my mouth. Their whole dynamic in this book was super frustrating, Severin basically pushes her away by being cruel because he can’t face losing her and whilst that’s understandable, Laila deserves so much better than the way Severin treated her in this book.

Speaking of the relationships in this book, the Enrique-Hypnos-Zofia love triangle also frustrated me, though I do give Roshani Chokshi props that her love triangle did actually feel believable as Enrique did have chemistry with both Enrique and Zofia, I’m just not a fan of love triangles in general. I also love all three characters so I didn’t want to see any of them hurt and that’s how a love triangle inevitably ends for at least one person in it. I was also really upset with how Hypnos treated Enrique in this book, he doesn’t listen to him, he ignores him and he leads him on. I appreciated that this book showed a break-up as I think it’s important in YA books that characters don’t always end up with the first person they go out with but that doesn’t mean I approved of how Hypnos treated Enrique and I was really rooting for them before this book.

Zofia and Enrique really seem to understand each other, and they seem well suited, but of course neither admits their feelings for each other in this book which is frustrating because they basically spend the entire book internally talking about their potential feelings for each other but it doesn’t go anywhere. I hope that their relationship gets more development in the next book because they have a lovely dynamic with each other.

In terms of the world building, this book still left a lot to be desired. We don’t really get to see much of Russia despite the fact that a large majority of the book takes place there because for most of the book they are in the Sleeping Palace. Whilst I did think The Sleeping Palace was a cool setting, it was fairly limited and I would have liked to have seen more of Russia. I’m also SO FRUSTRATED THAT IT’S THE SECOND BOOK AND I STILL HAVE NO IDEA HOW FORGING WORKS. We get introduced to a new type of forging, Blood forging in this book, which is super cool but I still wish I knew how it worked! So much detail goes into all of the mythology references and I just wish the same detail went into the rest of the worldbuilding. We also didn’t get much of a sense of House Dazbog, and how they worked, despite them being the only house in Russia, which felt like a bit of an oversight. I did love how wintery this book was though!

I’d like to see a little more of the characters interacting with others in the group outside of their regular groups: we get a lot of Severin/Laila and Zofia/Enrique, or Zofia/Enrique/Hypnos but some of my favourite moments in this book actually came when lesser explored pairings were together, like heart to hearts between Enrique and Laila and a nice moment with Zofia and Hypnos. I also missed seeing Laila and Zofia one on one as those moments were some of my favourites in the first book and we don’t get as many of those here.

I had a big issue with some girl hate in this book. A new female character, Eva is introduced, basically as a rival to Laila and it’s another case of girls pitted against each other because they like the same guy. I do appreciate that the text did acknowledge this pattern but it still annoyed me that it leaned into this trope because it wasn’t necessary and didn’t really add anything to the story as a whole. It was especially disappointing because I noted in my review of The Gilded Wolves how much I loved how supportive Laila and Zofia’s friendship was. Eva doesn’t really seem to have much of a personality beyond the stereotypical mean girl, which I thought was a bit of a shame.

I didn’t feel like the plot was as strong this time around, I felt like The Gilded Wolves was definitely more plot focused and it had lots of twists and turns and I never really knew how things were going to turn out, whereas in this book, the plot felt kind of thin and stretched out as they only had the one goal and they were in one place for the majority of the book & I just didn’t think the story in the Sleeping Palace needed to be as long as it was.

I really want Hypnos to have a POV, he doesn’t feel as fleshed out as the other characters and I feel like that’s because he doesn’t have a POV (until the epilogue). We did get to see a little more past the comic relief aspects of his character in this book, but I would really like to get to learn more about him and I feel like he needs to have a POV in order for that to happen. I felt so bad that he was feeling so lonely and left out in this book, he tries so hard to be helpful and is basically unacknowledged by the rest of the group a lot of the time (having said that, that’s no excuse for the way he treats Enrique). I’m also kind of confused as to whether Hypnos romantically likes Severin, or if he’s just desperate for his approval in a familial type way? I don’t know, I could be reading way too much into it but there were definitely points in this book that felt like Hypnos might have an unrequited crush.

I liked getting to know the House Kore matriarch (Delphine) a bit more in this book, especially finding out more about her backstory with Severin. I would have liked to have seen more one on one moments with her and Laila though because I really liked their dynamic, I thought it was really interesting.

There are quite a few twists in this especially towards the end of the book, one I definitely called from the beginning, one I felt a bit silly not working out because it was kind of obvious. The main one though, I didn’t feel like it was quite built up enough. There’s hints in the epilogue of the last book and the prologue of this one, but the book spends so long trying to bait and switch you into thinking that it’s someone else and then when the reveal happened, it didn’t feel entirely earned to me, because I felt like it hadn’t been built up well enough (I know this is super vague, I’m trying to talk about it in the least spoilery way possible)!

So much of this book relies on the miscommunication trope as many of the characters’ problems and puzzles could have been solved if THEY’D JUST TALKED TO EACH OTHER, and it’s one of my least favourite tropes because it really frustrates me!

Some of the historical details in this book are a little messy: to start with, Poland. So in 1890, when this book is set, Poland wasn’t an independent country, it was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austro-Hungary, so having it referred to as if it’s an independent entity, is a bit misleading. It’s also strange that Zofia never mentions it, as she does talk about how much she hates Russia, but in relation to her being Jewish, which is of course very valid, but you’d think she’d also mention the fact that Russia has partitioned her country!

There’s also the fact that one of Laila’s dresses is mentioned to have A ZIPPER, when zippers were really only in their infancy in the 1890s and weren’t used in France until the mid 1920s. I know it’s a super petty detail compared to the first but these things do matter. I also saw a review from Uma (@Books.Bags.Burgers) who mentioned that Laila knowing about the story of Laila & Majnun in 1889/1890 was incredibly unlikely, along with some other issues with Laila’s representation that I wouldn’t have noticed so I wanted to point that out and link to their review, since they are South Indian and know a lot more about this than me.

I’m still a little confused as to how old Enrique is meant to be, I thought they were all around 19/20, but then he’s described as being a University graduate when he met Severin two years ago, which suggests that he might be a bit older than the others? Unless he started University very young, or uni was much shorter back then, but it seems more likely that Enrique would be a bit older. I know his age isn’t stated on page (I don’t think) and it’s not really a big deal, I’m just a little confused!

THAT DAMN ENDING. The whole last few chapters of the book were super intense, but THAT ENDING. I can’t believe that Roshani Chokshi ended the book this way and that we have to WAIT UNTIL SEPTEMBER TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. I need The Bronzed Beasts now!

Overall, this book definitely suffered from middle book syndrome, with slow pacing and a fairly thin plot and world building that still wasn’t fully explained. However, the characters definitely carried the story and I’m excited to see where the final book in the trilogy goes.

My Rating: 3.5/5

My next review will either be of Lore by Alexandra Bracken or The Unbound by Victoria Schwab depending on which I finish first.

The Midnight Library Review (Audiobook)

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Book: The Midnight Library

Author: Matt Haig

Narrator: Carey Mulligan

BECHDEL TEST: Uncertain, honestly I didn’t keep track!

Content Warnings: Suicide attempt, depression, death of an animal, death of parents, death of a friend, anxiety, panic attacks, alcoholism, mentions of cancer, grief, self-harm, mentions of death by overdose, infidelity

The Midnight Library is one of those books that was seemingly everywhere in the second half of last year. I became aware of it after Matt Haig was on Jameela Jamil’s I Weigh podcast and was really drawn in by the concept of a library that contained all the different options for paths your life could have taken. In the end though, this was slightly overhyped for me, it was a nice enough book but nothing ground-breaking, it was kind of slow in places and I found the ending a real let down. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

‘Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?’

A dazzling novel about all the choices that go into a life well lived, from the internationally bestselling author of Reasons to Stay Alive and How To Stop Time.

Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life. While we all wonder how our lives might have been, what if you had the chance to go to the library and see for yourself? Would any of these other lives truly be better?

In The Midnight Library, Matt Haig’s enchanting novel, Nora Seed finds herself faced with this decision. Faced with the possibility of changing her life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, realizing her dreams of becoming a glaciologist; she must search within herself as she travels through the Midnight Library to decide what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.

My main issue with this book was our perennial friend, PACING. This book is relatively short, and has short chapters for the most part which usually works well for me, but because it’s a very introspective type of story, it takes a while to get going and there are definitely places where it lags. Weirdly, it actually felt longer than it needed to be, even though it was only a nine hour audiobook! I think if Haig had chosen less lives to explore for Nora but explored them in more detail, that would have helped with that, at times it felt like he was just trying to fit as many lives as possible into the book. I will admit that part of this is probably a me issue though as super introspective novels are not usually my thing!

On the upside, Carey Mulligan’s narration was really great, she has a lovely soothing voice and it was very easy to listen to her.

The library was also super cool! Yes, it’s more of a metaphorical representation of the multiverse than an actual library, but the idea was definitely really cool and I think my “Midnight Library” would definitely be a library or a bookstore (not that it’s appealing to go there since you would have to be dying!).

The chapter names were really great, I love it when authors name their chapters and one of them was “Why Would You Want Any Other Universe When This One Has Dogs?” to which I heartily concur.

I will admit, it’s super unrealistic for Nora to be super successful in all her lives? Like just because she followed through with music, swimming or being a glaciologist, doesn’t mean she would have been super successful at everything. I mean I get the point of The Midnight Library is to allow her to live out her dream lives, but it just felt like A LOT that she would be that successful at everything she did.

I had some issues with the actual workings of the Midnight Library. For one thing, Nora doesn’t remember anything about the life that she’s entering, she’s basically taking the place of the version of her that had already been living the life. So this brought up a few issues for me: firstly, of course Nora isn’t going to be satisfied with a life she feels like an imposter in. So it’s not really giving her a fair shot at deciding whether a life is for her when she has to spend most of her time in a life finding out about what she was like in that life: I feel that if Nora had gone into her lives with the same knowledge and experiences of the version of herself who lived that life then the outcome would have been very different. It was weird to me that it took Nora so long to realise that her lack of knowledge going into a life was the reason why she was dissatisfied with all of them. I do appreciate that finding a new life wasn’t shown to be a cure for Nora’s depression, but I think it would be a lot more interesting if Nora had actually had the knowledge she needed about her other lives and still found them dissatisfying.

To that end, I also wish you found out what happened to the version of Nora who lived the lives she entered? Like does she just get pushed aside while you take over? What happens if you decide to stay in that life, does the version of you who was already there cease to exist? What happens to you in your root life if you decide to go to another life? There’s a lot of mechanics of the Midnight Library that aren’t really explored and as a world building nerd, I would have liked it if they had been!

Matt Haig’s writing was nice enough, though there were definitely times when it felt a little overly preachy and sentimental but generally it was nice enough to listen to.

I will admit, the characterisation in this was a bit flat. All the other characters around Nora are barely fleshed out and even Nora could have done with a little more development, she felt fairly flat like she was kind of just meant to be a blank slate for the reader to impose themselves on to rather than feeling like a developed, nuanced person.

It does get very repetitive, Nora tries out a life, isn’t satisfied, rinse, repeat. I mean that is one of the pitfalls of this kind of story, but as I said earlier in the review, I think this definitely could have been solved if she hadn’t tried out as many lives.

I wish she’d spent a bit more time with Hugo, or met some other sliders in the course of her book, because I felt like that plot thread kind of got dropped which was a shame as I thought it would be really cool to hear about what other people’s “Midnight Libraries” were like.

I did find it kind of annoying that the life she found the most fulfilment in had to be the one where she was a mother. Of course there’s nothing wrong in finding fulfilment in motherhood but it’s just the most common story pushed in media for women, and it would have been nice if this book hadn’t leaned into that.

The ending, UGH THE ENDING. It was so predictable and far too sickly sweet and easily wrapped up. I can’t really say more about it for spoilery reasons, but I actually would have been more surprised if he had gone for a different ending that perhaps might seem more expected. I mean I do get what Haig was trying to go for with the ending, but it just didn’t really work for me.

Overall, this was a decent read, but I think the hype got to me, as I found it kind of slow and wished that the mechanics of the Midnight Library, and the characters had been more developed.

My Rating: 3.5/5

My next review will be of my February #RockMyTBR read, The Silvered Serpents (sequel to The Gilded Wolves) by Roshani Chokshi

Seasons of War (Skulduggery Pleasant #13) Review

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Book: Seasons of War (Skulduggery Pleasant #13)

Author: Derek Landy

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Valkyrie and her mum talk about her sister, Alice.

Content Warnings: Death, violence, war, transphobia, PTSD, blood, gore, torture, mutilation, grief, addiction, imprisonment

SPOILER ALERT: There will be some major spoilers for Book 12 in this review, and for other books in the series. If you are not caught up, stop reading now.

I was really excited for the latest Skulduggery Pleasant book, after really enjoying the 12th book last year. Sadly, it was unlucky number 13 for Skulduggery, as this 13th outing fell considerably short of my expectations. It was a rather messy book, with too many plot threads crammed in, slow pacing and one of the main plot threads of this new arc of the series being resolved far too easily. I still love Skulduggery but this was definitely one of weaker instalments of the series. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

The thirteenth thrilling novel in the internationally bestselling Skulduggery Pleasant series, SEASONS OF WAR will test the Skeleton Detective and Valkyrie like never before…

War is coming. To avert catastrophe, Skulduggery and Valkyrie are sent on a secret mission that takes them away from everything they know, to a forsaken land of magic and grim, unrelenting terror. It is here that Valkyrie will have to fight the hardest ― not only against the enemies who want her dead, but also against her own self-destructive impulses. It’s only by crawling through darkness that she’ll be able to once again stand in the light… 

So I’ll start off with my biggest problem with this book, our old friend pacing rears its ugly head again! This is a super thick book, and it’s not very well paced at all. A lot of this book is JOURNEYING, which is never my favourite thing in the first place and here it really ground things to a snail’s pace. All the excitement really happens in the last 200 odd pages. The chapters are really short which helps, but I think it still could have used some trimming off the page count.

There’s also a lot of subplots in this that add very little to the overall story. The Flanery subplot, which has been fairly weak throughout Phase 2 of the series, has very little impact here, he’s only present for two or three chapters and since his plot to expose magic was foiled in the last book, I don’t really understand why he’s still present at all. The Sebastian and Darquesse subplot is JUST WEIRD, I don’t want to go to far into it because it would be super spoilery, but yeah….wasn’t a fan.

I also didn’t think the Temper Fray plot added a lot? I reckon had the book simply focused on Omen and Skulduggery and Val’s adventures in the Leibniz Universe, then it would probably have had a better focus and would have been a more enjoyable read.

However, there were things I did enjoy in this book. One of the highlights of this whole Phase 2 of the series has been Valkyrie’s journey with her mental health, YA fantasy books have a tendency to not really explore the impact that traumatic events have on their teenage characters and Val has dealt with A LOT over the years, so it was really cool to see that journey come to a head in this book, and for her to acknowledge that her coping mechanisms have been unhealthy and that she needs therapy was really great. I hope we get to see more of Val working through her trauma in the next two books.

Saracen’s power reveal! We waited years for it and it was hilarious! I’d always figured that some sorcerers must pick a fairly limited use power that seems super cool at the time but turns out not to be and it was so funny to see that with Saracen. Like if you give an 18 year old free reign to pick any magic they want, chances are some of them are going to pick something that’s really only appealing when you’re that age and get stuck with it for hundreds of years!

I’ve been watching Heroes over the past few months (I know, super late to the party, but in my defence, I was like 10 when it first came out, so it wasn’t really suitable!) and Valkyrie’s ability to be able to mimic other people’s powers in this really reminded me of Peter Petrelli in that series. I look forward to seeing more of it, because I think it’s pretty cool.

The whole Last of The Faceless Ones thing that was a super big reveal in the last book? I was really disappointed that hardly anything was done with it in this book. I mean I get that Mevolent is a big deal and they needed to get rid of him, but Valkyrie learned a huge new thing about herself and she barely spends any time digesting it? As a reader, I just wanted more to be done with that.

It was really nice to see the whole group of Val, Tanith, Skulduggery, Saracen and Dexter back together in this book, I think this series really thrives off the group dynamics and I was kind of sad that they got split up for most of the book because the series really thrives on that dynamic.

I was especially sad that we didn’t get as many Val and Skulduggery scenes in this book because I loved that they were finally getting closer again in the last book. Having said that, the ones we did get: GOLDEN. They definitely seem to be getting back into their old rhythms now, which I love.

The dialogue is still great, all the sarcasm and wit that we know and love from this series is definitely still a firm feature. I will say though that I’m not sure this was Derek Landy’s best written book? A lot of the sentences seemed kind of clunky, and I know that this has never been a particularly description heavy series, but this book in particular, they seemed very sparse! I will admit though, some of this may come from the fact that I was editing my own novel whilst reading this and I have some similar issues with description!

It was nice to see Val’s whole family back in this book, it’s been ages since we’ve had a whole family get together!

Also can we talk about Serpine for a second? I was not expecting to enjoy him as much as I did, but he was one of the highlights of this book for me! He was a really entertaining addition to this book and his dynamic with Valkyrie was strangely charming!

The fact that the Leibniz Universe has the same name as a biscuit makes me laugh every time.

It was nice that Omen had more to do in this book, though his storyline had very little to do with what was going on with Val and Skulduggery. I am a little peeved that Landy had to introduce Omen having feelings for Never, WHY CAN WE NEVER HAVE PLATONIC FRIENDSHIPS?????? I mean I’m glad he doesn’t seem to want to act on it, and at least Omen and Axelia seem to have found their platonic friendship groove, but it would be nice if Omen didn’t have to have romantic feelings for all his friends!

Landy always does really great action scenes, though I will admit, a lot of the tension was kind of drained from the final battle with Mevolent because we take a big break in between the first wave of the battle and then the second one. There’s also a lot of deus ex machinery bits with Valkyrie’s injuries in this one as she always seems to be easily able to find a doctor whose powers she can use to heal herself.

It does seem really convenient that Landy has brought back pretty much all of the main villains from the series now! I mean don’t get me wrong, he has had some great villains over the years, but it would be nice if we got to see some new ones rather than Val and Skulduggery defeating the same big bads over and over again. I also felt that Mevolent felt kind of flat as supposedly the biggest bad of the big bads? He could have been way more scary!

I was really disappointed by how the whole King of The Darklands thing was handled, that’s been a plotline that’s been building up throughout the series and I wasn’t expecting it to be resolved as easily as it was.

I’m really interested in Crepuscular, he definitely seems like he’s being set up to be a villain but in this book he’s fairly helpful to Omen, so I’m still kind of wondering what side he’s going to be on? He was actually way more interesting than Mevolent, and his backstory with Skulduggery is really cool, so I hope that gets explored more instead of some of the other weird series subplots in the next book.

I was really sad with the way Saracen’s story was handled in this book, I think it could have been done so much better and I didn’t really feel enough of the emotional impact from it.

The whole Religious Freedom Act was an interesting addition to this book, I look forward to seeing how this is explored in the upcoming two books, this series has kind of touched on religion before but never really gone deeply into it, so it would be nice to see that explored more.

Overall, this book was definitely a pretty messy instalment of the series, it did have some good aspects but it’s definitely not amongst my favourites of the books. I hope that the next book is better and I look forward to seeing what adventures Val and Skulduggery have next.

My Rating: 3/5

My next review will be of Rory Power’s Burn Our Bodies Down.

Kingdom of The Wicked (Kingdom of The Wicked #1) Review (e-ARC)

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Book: Kingdom of The Wicked (Kingdom of The Wicked #1)

Author: Kerri Maniscalco

Published By: Hodder and Stoughton

Publication Date: 27th October (sorry!)

Format: e-book

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Emilia and Carolina talk about summoning spells

Content Warnings: Gore, violence, blood, self harm (in the context of blood offerings for spells), loss of a loved one, depiction of grief, murder, death, brief mention of unwanted touching, magical compulsion

Thank you to Netgalley UK and Hodder and Stoughton for allowing me to read this book early, this in no way affected my opinion of the book.

I discovered Keri Maniscalco with her Stalking Jack The Ripper series in 2019 and finished the final two books in the series last year. I enjoyed the series, though I definitely admit to being pretty disappointed with the final book in the series, Capturing The Devil. Still, when Kingdom of The Wicked was announced, I was super excited for it because a witchy fantasy that involved the seven deadly sins as Princes of Hell sounded really fun. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed by the end result, the book wasn’t as exciting as I was expecting and the worldbuilding was sparse and confused. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

Two sisters.

One brutal murder.

A quest for vengeance that will unleash Hell itself…

And an intoxicating romance.

Emilia and her twin sister Vittoria are streghe – witches who live secretly among humans, avoiding notice and persecution. One night, Vittoria misses dinner service at the family’s renowned Sicilian restaurant. Emilia soon finds the body of her beloved twin…desecrated beyond belief. Devastated, Emilia sets out to find her sister’s killer and to seek vengeance at any cost-even if it means using dark magic that’s been long forbidden.

Then Emilia meets Wrath, one of the Wicked-princes of Hell she has been warned against in tales since she was a child. Wrath claims to be on Emilia’s side, tasked by his master with solving the series of women’s murders on the island. But when it comes to the Wicked, nothing is as it seems…

As usual, my biggest problem with this book is something you’re probably sick to death of me going on about…..can anyone guess? Yes, it’s PACING. The pacing in this book was all over the place, after a really gripping opening, and a fairly good first couple of chapters, the middle of this book SAGGED. It did pick up again towards the end but there was quite a large portion in the middle where I was honestly just super bored? Not much was really happening, except Emilia wandering around and badly trying to solve a murder. I don’t need action all the time for a book to grip me, but I do need to feel that something is going on, and all too often I found my mind wandering whilst I was reading this.

My other main problem was the worldbuilding. For one thing, for a supposedly historical book, it really didn’t feel that way? You don’t get a very good sense of the setting (obviously we know it’s Sicily, but the settings on the island felt pretty poorly described), and the time period isn’t really properly defined. We know it’s the Kingdom of Italy, but that could put the time anywhere between 1861 and 1946, and there aren’t really many real clues to suggest as to where this book falls in that. I was quite surprised because Keri Maniscalco was pretty good at the historical details in the STJR series, so it was strange that things were so loosely defined here. You don’t really get much of a sense from the writing either, obviously no writer is ever going to go full 19th century in their writing, but I felt in Stalking Jack The Ripper, she at least made a better attempt to not make the characters sound like they were straight out of the 21st Century.

The fantastical elements could also have used some more development. I loved the idea of basing the demon princes around the seven deadly sins, but aside from Lust, it didn’t feel like their powers really all that developed? I thought Maniscalco could have done much cooler things with Greed, Envy and Wrath than she did, considering that with Lust, he was able to cause people to feel an overload of happiness and joy and then suck it all away leaving them hollow? That was super cool and I wish she’d been a little more inventive with what the other three princes could do. Also for a book called Kingdom of The Wicked, we never really get to see their Kingdom which felt like a bit of a cheat!

I’d also have liked to learn more about the Witch families, we learn that there are thirteen of them and that they’re descended from the first witch (called La Prima) but because they aren’t allowed to interact, we don’t really get a sense of any other the other families’ histories. There’s also loads of lesser demons introduced later on in the book, with very little explanation. There’s this whole thing about “shadow witches” and “star witches” as well which didn’t seem to be properly explained.

On the upside, all of the food sounded delicious, and I was super hungry when I was reading this, I just wish Maniscalco had given the same attention to setting description as she did to food!

Emilia’s grief over her sister was really well drawn, but I wish we’d got to see Vittoria for a little longer before she’d been killed. Since we as readers didn’t know her that well, even though Maniscalco does a good job describing Emilia’s grief, it doesn’t have as much impact as I would have liked, because we’d barely got to know Vittoria before she’d been killed and everything we find out about her is very second hand.

Speaking of the family, for someone who is supposedly so close to her family, we don’t really get to learn all that much about them and Emilia is separated them for much of the book. Also her parents and grandmother are somehow totally fine with her moving out? Nope, do not believe it.

It’s a problem that the book suffers from with all of the secondary characters, none of them were developed massively well.

As for Emilia herself, I wasn’t a big fan. She was kind of bland as a character, and she didn’t really drive the story forward, she more stumbled into a bunch of stupid decisions. I like introverted main characters, but they need to be active in driving the story forward and Emilia felt very passive. I did like that she was starting to come into herself more towards the end, but for the most part, she was fairly dull as a protagonist. From the little we know of Vittoria, it sounds like she probably would have made a more interesting main character!

I wasn’t a fan of the romance, I know, surprise, surprise. I really just don’t love mortal/immortal romances, it’s a bit of an awkward power dynamic, not to mention a ridiculous age gap. I mean I suppose this is slightly different because Emilia is a witch, not a human, but it still felt kind of weird for this immortal creature to be interested in an eighteen year old girl. I also just don’t think Kerri Maniscalco writes romance scenes very well, every time I read one in this book I cringed.

The romance also wasn’t really developed properly? Wrath and Emilia spend most of the book hating each other and then it feels like a switch flips and suddenly they love each other? As a couple they didn’t really make much sense to me, Emilia is pretty awful to Wrath for most of the book and he doesn’t really do anything to deserve it. I mean they had some decent banter, but aside from that, I didn’t really feel their connection as a couple.

Speaking of Wrath, for a demon of war, he’s super tame, I would have liked it if he’d been a bit more scary! Also why do all demons have to be incredibly attractive? Seriously do authors think pretty immortals are revolutionary? At this point it would be more unique to actually have an ugly demon!

There’s some iffy consent in this book, or rather lack thereof: there’s a scene where Emilia and Wrath are required to be naked in a bathtub for some spell and she’s unconscious when he removes her clothes, which is a complete no in my book. There’s no excuse for it, Maniscalco could have thought up another way for him to save her life that didn’t involve him removing her clothes without her consent. There’s also the scene at Lust’s party where Emilia is under his compulsion which involves invisible demons touching her, which she’s obviously not in the right mind to consent to, though that is addressed in the book, where the previous incident is not. The spell to summon Wrath involves Emilia accidentally betrothing the pair of them, again without Wrath’s consent, which is addressed in the book but again, I didn’t feel was really necessary.

The map was super cool, but since we don’t actually go to the Kingdom of The Wicked, kind of unecessary!

I wish the eerie atmosphere that Maniscalco created in the prologue was kept throughout the book, I was expecting this really dark, spooky read and it didn’t really deliver the way I hoped it would.

I was really annoyed by how much Nonna kept from Emilia! I mean I do get it, the plot kind of relied on Emilia being oblivious to a lot of the things Nonna knew, but it seems so strange that you wouldn’t arm your granddaughters with the information they needed to fight the Wicked, if you knew they were going to have to go up against them one day.

The murder mystery was far more convoluted than it needed to be, which is an issue I had with a couple of Kerri Maniscalco’s other books as well. It was pretty obvious who the murderer was from the start, but she made the whole explanation super confusing, where it could have been far more straightforward.

THE ENDING. I AM SO ANGRY WITH THAT ENDING. I NEED SO MUCH EXPLANING ABOUT PRIDE AND WRATH AND HOW THEY ARE LINKED, AND THE WAY IT JUST STOPPED AS THINGS WERE GETTING EXCITING? NOT COOL.

Overall, I thought the concept for this book was cool, but everything was super underdeveloped and I wasn’t happy with the cliffhanger ending. I will probably read the next book because I’m interested in what happens next, but I don’t have high expectations.

My Rating: 3/5

My next review will be of my first read of 2021, which is really a hangover from 2020, Seasons of War by Derek Landy.

Good Omens Review (Audiobook)

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Book: Good Omens

Authors: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Narrator: Martin Jarvis

BECHDEL TEST: FAIL-Anathema Device is really the only main female character of significance, Adam’s friend Pepper has a role but the pair never really interact.

Content Warnings: Racism, sexism, animal abuse, blood, reference to slavery, snakes, starvation, violence, war, death, mild gore, insects

I only really became aware of Good Omens after I watched and loved the TV miniseries when I watched it with my mum last year, which yes, I realise is quite late, but in my defence it did come out before I was born! Anyway, after watching the TV show, I became interested in reading the book, and got around to it in November/December of last year. Sadly, this is one of the rare cases where I felt I enjoyed the TV show more than the book, I felt like the book plot was kind of confused and hard to follow. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

The world will end on Saturday. Next Saturday. Just before dinner, according to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, the world’s only completely accurate book of prophecies written in 1655. The armies of Good and Evil are amassing and everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan. Except that a somewhat fussy angel and a fast-living demon are not actually looking forward to the coming Rapture. And someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist.

So I’ll start with my main issue with this book: the plot was super confusing. And this is coming from someone who had seen the TV show first, so I already knew the plot! But the TV show definitely streamlined A LOT, there are a lot of tangents that the book goes off on that aren’t massively relevant, and it honestly stretches what could be a pretty solid novella into a full length novel with a plot that has very little direction. There are plot threads introduced that seem to be completely forgotten about (like what on earth the not-Antichrist is doing during in all this) and characters who are seemingly irrelevant that are brought up before being quickly dropped again. Honestly if I hadn’t watched the TV show, I wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on.

The chapters are also WAY TOO LONG. I mean Saturday, which is the apocalypse chapter is over SIX hours long! That’s half of the entire book. By the time you get to the end of the chapter, it’s honestly difficult to remember everything that happened! The pacing is also super off, they cover eleven years of story in one chapter: NO!

The narrator did do a great job though, I think that was actually the highlight of the book for me, Martin Jarvis’ performance was excellent and he was very good at capturing all the different voices.

The relationship between Crowley and Aziraphale, much like the TV show was the highlight of the book. However, I felt like it wasn’t really focused on enough? They had such an interesting dynamic and I would much rather have seen more of the pair of them than Adam and his friends (know in the book as the “Them”). Aziraphale owning a bookshop, but not wanting to ever sell a book is definitely a mood.

It was mildly amusing, but it seemed like it was trying too hard? Like the authors were constantly laughing at their own jokes and expecting everyone else to find them funny as well? It’s not a terrible satire, but a lot of the humour just didn’t particularly land for me.

A lot of it probably came from the fact that the humour relied on a lot of sexist, racist and homophobic observations that were probably commonplace in the 90s when this book came out, but feel incredibly dated now (and obviously shouldn’t have been tolerated then).

Being that the book came out in the 90s, all the technology mentions also feel super dated, like I get that desktop computers and landlines would have been impressive in the nineties, but reading it in the 21st century? Not so much.

The character development was kind of lacking, aside from Aziraphale and Crowley, the other characters all felt super flat.

I wasn’t a fan of footnotes, and especially in an audio format, they felt really strange.

I was really expecting the apocalypse to be more action packed, for what is essentially the climax of the book, it was actually fairly pedestrian! I also thought that the whole chapter that followed was kind of jumbled and confused.

I did however love the idea of a hellhound being a tiny dog!

Overall, this was a fairly disappointing read, for such a well loved book, it was a bit of a mess of a plot and the characters felt fairly flat. I definitely preferred the TV show for this one which is strange for me to say!

My Rating: 2/5

My next review will be of my last read of 2020, Kingdom of The Wicked by Keri Maniscalco.

The Book of Two Ways Review (e-ARC)

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Book: The Book of Two Ways

Author: Jodi Picoult

Published By: Hodder and Stoughton

Publication Date: 20th October (oops!)

Format: e-book

BECHDEL TEST: Uncertain, honestly I didn’t keep track!

Content Warnings: Death, infidelity, fat shaming, mentions of cancer, hospice care, loss of a parent, plane crash, grief

Thank you to Netgalley UK and Hodder & Stoughton for allowing me to read this book early, it in no way affected my opinion of the book.

I’ve loved Jodi Picoult’s books for a long time, and I always eagerly anticipate her new releases, and this one was no exception, it sounded really cool with the whole Sliding Doors-esque premise and the Egyptology, I thought I would really love it. Sadly, I was left somewhat lukewarm by it, with an overload of technical information and not enough emotional connection to the characters. It felt like she tried to include too much, with Egypt, Dawn’s career as a death doula, the complex timelines, had she narrowed her focus, the book might have been better for it. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

Everything changes in a single moment for Dawn Edelstein. She’s on a plane when the flight attendant makes an announcement: prepare for a crash landing. She braces herself as thoughts flash through her mind. The shocking thing is, the thoughts are not of her husband, but a man she last saw fifteen years ago: Wyatt Armstrong.

Dawn, miraculously, survives the crash, but so do all the doubts that have suddenly been raised. She has led a good life. Back in Boston, there is her husband, Brian, her beloved daughter, and her work as a death doula, where she helps ease the transition between life and death for patients in hospice.

But somewhere in Egypt is Wyatt Armstrong, who works as an archaeologist unearthing ancient burial sites, a job she once studied for, but was forced to abandon when life suddenly intervened. And now, when it seems that fate is offering her second chances, she is not as sure of the choice she once made.

After the crash landing, the airline ensures the survivors are seen by a doctor, then offers transportation wherever they want to go. The obvious option for Dawn is to continue down the path she is on and go home to her family. The other is to return to the archaeological site she left years before, reconnect with Wyatt and their unresolved history, and maybe even complete her research on The Book of Two Ways–the first known map of the afterlife.

As the story unfolds, Dawn’s two possible futures unspool side by side, as do the secrets and doubts long buried beside them. Dawn must confront the questions she’s never truly asked: What does a life well-lived look like? When we leave this earth, what do we leave behind? Do we make choices…or do our choices make us? And who would you be, if you hadn’t turned out to be the person you are right now?

My main issues with this book can be boiled down to two things: technical information, and our old friend PACING. The pacing in this book is super off, the chapters are FAR TOO LONG, between 30-40 pages in most cases which meant I kept having to leave off in the middle of chapters which is something I really hate doing. And even though the opening is super gripping, as soon as the story proper starts, it feels like we’ve kind of ground to halt for the first 200-300 pages before things finally start to pick up again. This meant that I was with it for almost two months which is a lot longer than I tend want to spend on one book.

The second part was the technical information. Now I appreciate that Jodi Picoult always does her research and that her books are super detailed on the topics they explore, but I feel like this time rather than integrating her research seamlessly into the plot like she usually does, there were a lot of infodumps of technical information that were only there to show how much she had learned about Egypt rather than adding anything to the plot. I appreciate you doing your research but if I don’t understand half of it, then it’s not really adding anything to the experience for me. I also could have done without all the Quantum physics stuff, it kind of bored me and again, I didn’t really feel like it added anything.

I feel like the blurb is kind of misleading? Without meaning to give away too much, the blurb makes it sound like a Sliding Doors sort of scenario, but it’s not really like that at all.

It’s very difficult to feel connected to a book when you don’t love the main character, and I have to admit, I found it hard to like Dawn. She basically destroys her whole family to follow a whim for a guy who was essentially a summer fling fifteen years ago, abandoning her husband and teenage daughter and cheating on her husband with this guy. I really don’t like infidelity as a plotline, so that made it even harder for me to root for Dawn, or for Wyatt as they both knowingly cheat on their partners and it’s portrayed as somehow okay because they loved each other first? NO. I felt super bad for Dawn’s husband Brian, because he seemed like a genuinely kind and supportive guy and she treated him awfully.

I wish there had been more focus on Dawn’s career as a death doula and less on the other stuff because I thought the parts between her and Win were some of the strongest of the book, and I’d never heard of death doulas before and found all that stuff really interesting. The parallels between her and Win were well done, and I really liked their whole dynamic.

I do usually find love triangles super predictable and that wasn’t the case here, I really couldn’t tell who Dawn would choose but at the same time, I really don’t think you should be able to have a love triangle when one of the parties is married to the other? I didn’t feel like Wyatt and Dawn’s relationship was developed enough that I felt like it had the potential to break up a fifteen year marriage! Also if she and Wyatt loved each other that much it seems ridiculous that they didn’t once try to find each other in fifteen years? It felt like a lot of her frustrations came down to her leaving Egyptology, but that was her choice? She could have taken a leave of absence when her mother died and gone back to Yale later, or transferred into a graduate program closer to home? Like I don’t really get why she gave it up altogether.

The timeline left me kind of confused, we switch between Egypt and Boston and the past and the present, but there are a lot of flashbacks within the chapters, so it was hard to keep track of whether we were in the past or the present at any one point within a chapter. I appreciate that Picoult tried to do something creative here, but I feel like her reverse timeline in A Spark of Light worked much better than what she tried to do here.

It felt like there were almost too many threads to the story, Egypt, death doulas, quantum physics etc, I think if Picoult had narrowed her focus a little more, the story would have been tighter and more enjoyable.

There’s a storyline with Dawn’s daughter Meret that shows her struggling with her weight, and I wasn’t a fan of some of the fat-shaming implications in that, it all felt like it was handled a little clumsily.

As with any Picoult books, there are of course twists, and I felt like the main one in this was super obvious? I worked it out like a hundred pages before it was revealed.

I feel like all the characters lacked a certain amount of depth, I could tell you who they were on a surface level, but I didn’t feel like we got to know them much beyond that.

I did however, enjoy Picoult’s writing style, as I always do.

The climax I felt was super rushed and not entirely realistic? I felt if there had been more time to explore the aftermath of Dawn’s decisions, then Brian and Meret would not have forgiven Dawn right away, it seemed like they should have been more mad at her. There were only 40 odd pages given to the conclusion of the book and I feel like had it been give more space, it would have been more satisfying. I also felt super frustrated by the ending because it kind of felt like cheating? Like we’ve been waiting the whole book for this moment and it never comes? WAS NOT HAPPY.

Overall, this book had potential but it just didn’t really live up to it, it was too stuffed with technical information and lacked character depth and emotional beats and I reckon had Picoult narrowed her focus and built up the characters more, it would have been a far more enjoyable novel.

My Rating: 3/5

My next review will be of my latest audiobook, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens.

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin Review (Audiobook)

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Book: A Song of Wraiths and Ruin (A Song of Wraiths and Ruin #1)

Author: Roseanne A.Brown

Narrator: AJ Beckles (Malik), Jordan Cobb (Karina)

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Karina and her mother talk about the barrier surrounding Ziran.

Content Warnings: Anxiety, panic attacks, grief, death of parents, murder, violence, self harm, alcohol dependency, colonialism, human sacrifice, emotional and physical abuse, animal death, immigration raids, mentions of slavery

I first became aware of Song of Wraiths and Ruin way back in June when everyone was sharing their Black author reading lists, and added it to my TBR for later reading. I finally got around to it this November and it turns out the hype around it was definitely not misleading, I really enjoyed it! There were a few problems with pacing and the magic system was a little confusing in places but all in all it was a fun read and I’m looking forward to the sequel next year. Here is a short synopsis of the book (I’m actually only going to include a small section of the Goodreads synopsis as I think what they went for was too spoilery!):

The first in a gripping fantasy duology inspired by West African folklore in which a grieving crown princess and a desperate refugee find themselves on a collision course to murder each other despite their growing attraction – from debut author Roseanne A. Brown. Perfect for fans of Tomi Adeyemi, Renée Ahdieh, and Sabaa Tahir.

 

I’m going to start with what I loved most about this book which is the characters. Malik and Karina are both great protagonists and I really enjoyed following them throughout the book. I want to touch on Malik especially because he’s the kind of male main character that you don’t get to see a massive amount of in YA. He is SO SOFT, sweet and sensitive and he suffers from anxiety (more on that later) and you basically want to do everything that you can to protect him. I feel like the alpha male lead has become so commonplace in YA, so it was nice to find a book where the male lead is genuinely lovely and doesn’t display any of the toxic masculine qualities that are unfortunately all to prevalent in a lot of Fantasy books.

Karina on the other hand seems at first like your classic rebellious princess, who wasn’t born to lead and doesn’t want to and is seen by everyone around her as a bit of a spoiled brat. It would have been so easy for this book to make Karina completely unlikeable, but the more I read of her, the more I feel in love with her. Once you see past the bratty princess exterior to the grief and loneliness and insecurity that lies beneath, it’s quite easy to root for her. I liked that Brown wasn’t afraid to give her flaws, women can be just as messy and complicated as men and Karina definitely embodies that.

As always, I did have a couple of pacing issues with this book but weirdly they’re not the ones you would think? This book is very fast paced, we move through the action pretty briskly and never I felt bored or like nothing was happening. The problem that I had here was that sometimes it felt like we were moving through things so fast that occasionally I missed what happened? I mean I still followed the story for the most part, but there were a few places were I just missed a bit because the narrative went over them a little too fast.

Speaking of confusion, the magic system. The magic system is massively confusing. We have Zawengi and Telraji, elemental magic users and those who manipulate the mind. Simple enough? Sure, but then you add in the fact that these two groups are rivals, that not everyone in the world has magic, that there are patron deities for the different Zawengi magics, basically it all just got a little complicated and I found it difficult to follow exactly how the magic worked in this world. The same went for the worldbuilding, there was all this lore and history and it was just a little hard to keep track of throughout the book. There are also some names that are a little too similar, Malik’s fake name for the contest is Adil and the villain’s name is Idir, and I kept getting those confused. 

There are also a couple of plot holes to do with the Rite of Resurrection that I can’t really talk about because spoilers, but there were definitely a couple of things that it didn’t seem like Brown had thought all the way through. 

I also felt like it took FOREVER for Karina and Malik’s paths to properly cross? They bump into each other at the beginning but don’t officially meet and then it takes ages for them to properly meet again. For a good portion of the book it feels like we’re following two different stories and it’s only when they meet that they really intertwine. I mean I appreciated that the romance aspect of this was limited, but when you have a dual POV book, you don’t expect to be waiting till about halfway through for the two POV characters to officially meet!

Speaking of the romance, it was VERY INSTALOVEY. This book only takes place over the course of a week, and yet Malik is considering not killing Karina pretty early on because he likes her which would in turn endanger his sister’s life? That felt very out of character given how much Malik clearly cares about his family. 

There is a lot of representation in this book, obviously the cast is all Black (yes!) & Karina suffers from a chronic illness (migraines). But the one I really wanted to talk about was Malik, and his anxiety. Anxiety is definitely something that it’s becoming more common to see in contemporary books, but mental illness is still something that isn’t touched on as much as it probably should be in fantasy. Malik’s anxiety and panic attacks are a central point in the story, and though I don’t have anxiety so I can’t really speak to the authenticity of the representation, it certainly felt like it was handled with real care, especially in a chapter at the end which is key to the climax of the book so I can’t talk about it in more detail for spoilery reasons, but I loved how Brown took Malik’s anxiety and turned it into his strength. 

I do appreciate that Brown made it clear that LGBTQ+ relationships are completely normal in this world (the prize for winning Solstasia is Karina’s hand in marriage and she makes it clear that she would marry whoever won, man or woman), and there are a couple of LGBTQ+ characters in this book, though none are in relationships. 

Karina’s grief was also really well drawn, often when characters lose someone in a fantasy book, it can be quite brushed over, but her grief for her family is a really important part of her character and I loved that. In fact in general, I love how important family is in this story. Both Karina and Malik are driven ultimately by love for their families (though Karina’s reasoning may seem a little more selfish than Malik’s on the surface, it still comes down to love). They’re both also dealing with a lot of trauma, and this is handled pretty well. 

The narration in this was really good, I haven’t actually read many multiple narrator books, but I think both Beckles and Cobb did a really good job in making the voices seem distinctive and hooking me into the story.

I’m not massively familiar with West African culture, but I definitely feel like I learned a lot from this book! The food descriptions made me feel so hungry and everything in this world sounded so vibrant, it was a joy to read about! I loved all the references to creatures from African mythology like the Serpopard. I also loved how much African storytelling tradition played into the storyline, with the griots and oral storytelling being a huge part of the world. 

I always love magical contests, and I did like some of the Solstasia challenges, but I feel like others let me down a little? The first challenge with the masks for instance, I found it kind of hard to follow. The one that really stood out for me was the second one where Malik weaves all the illusions, I thought that was super well done.

I was really glad that Brown included content warnings at the start of her book, it made my job so much easier finding them for my review, and it should just be the norm anyway!

The writing style was pretty good, I had no real complaints about it, Brown paints a very vivid sounding world and it kept me engaged throughout.

I loved that this world was an established matriarchy, more royal matriarchies in YA please! The gender roles in this book in general were really pleasing, there doesn’t seem to be any hint of sexism in this world which I absolutely love! 

There are a lot of great plot twists in this which kept things exciting, I was never entirely sure how things were going to turn out, even when I predicted a couple of them. There were a few that felt a little deus ex machina, but I can forgive that for a debut author.

It touches on a lot of topics that are relevant to our world really nicely, like immigration, and colonialism and police brutality. I hope that Karina has to face her privilege a little more in the next book though, whilst she’s clearly against what the Ziranis are doing to the Eshrans, she doesn’t really face her own complicity in the system. 

The book definitely left off in a really exciting place and I look forward to seeing where Brown takes the characters in the final book in this duology! 

Overall this was a really exciting fantasy debut, and whilst it did have its problems, I generally really enjoyed it and can’t wait to read the final instalment in the duology.

My Rating: 4/5

My next review will be of Jodi Picoult’s most recent release, The Book of Two Ways.