Monday, November 11, 2019

Review: The Heartstone Trilogy: Heartstone, Dragonshadow, Flamebringer

Elle Katharine White's YA Heartstone trilogy draws to its dramatic conclusion this week with the release of Flamebringer. Here I review all three books.

HeartstoneHeartstone by Elle Katharine White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.75 Stars

Any lover of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is both intrigued and wary of books with the novel as its inspiration. From books purporting to be sequels, to those claiming to recast the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy (from Seth Grahame-Smith's awkward adaptation Pride and Prejudice with Zombies to Mary Robinette Kowal's artful Shades of Milk and Honey Glamourist Histories) one can only hope that the author catches Austen's tone and a sense of period. Yet Elle Katharine White has managed to take the plot and some of the tone of Austen's story and recast it without the window dressings of the Georgian period, opening up the possibilities of creating a fantasy world inspired by, but not constrained to, Austen's creation. It's a clever move and pays off. While there are aspects of the story that I didn't enjoy (animal cruelty on the part of the Wickham/Wydrick character) there are other changes that White has made that I heartily approve of, including that White's Lady Catherine (Lady Catriona) is more concerned about Aliza's loyalty to Alaistar Daired (White's Darcy) than about some misguided or inconvenient society rules, since the Daireds are so powerful they pretty much make the rules.

A lovely audiobook, well voiced by Billie Fulford-Brown. All things considered, an enjoyable read, though I'm curious to see where White takes the story since the couple wed at the end.

I received a review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


Dragonshadow by Elle Katharine White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 Solid Stars

Okay, full confession: I received the ARC of this novel from the publisher last year and ended up backlisting it because I was afraid of what might have been done to Austen's creation in the first novel and wondered where on earth White would go in a sequel. Well, my bad. I ended up reading Heartstone after getting the concluding book in the trilogy (Flamebringer) and basically promising I was going to read and review the third book which meant I was honor-bound to read the first two. And after finding the first in the series, Heartstone much better than I had feared, I was really curious to move on to the second book. How would White handle the possible departure from the Pride and Prejudice template?

Dragonshadow finds White no longer constrained to the Pride and Prejudice plot structure, though she keeps the tone of the era. While flies full-dragon ahead into fantasy territory, with Lady Aliza Daired and her husband Alastair lured into... a selkie story!? Sure there are other elements here, like revenants called ghastradi who take the form of new characters or... shudder... old characters we loved to hate, and the usual direwolves, wyverns, and nixies. But this is also a surprising story in a number of its elements. Like the evil old woman/must be a hag who turns out not just to be good but to be kind and a leader, and other trope-breaking characters. The women White writes continue to be strong partners and sisterly affection lasts beyond death. Plus, you just can't beat Akarra the dragon for her sarcasm and fondness for Aliza. All in all, I enjoyed this one even more than the first.

An enjoyable audiobook, narrated by Billie Fulford-Brown.

Content Warning: a graphic and very sad miscarriage in this plot may be troubling for those of us who have suffered miscarriages.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

FlamebringerFlamebringer by Elle Katharine White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.75 Stars

Elle Katharine White brings her Heartstone trilogy to a dramatic conclusion in Flamebringer. Her protagonist Aliza finds that she has married into a Fireborn family with a mysterious history and that the younger generation of the family is being held to account for events that took place centuries before. Wydrick is truly back (though not alone in his being back...) and there are others, like Rookwood, from Aliza and Alastair's past who have returned to plague them. Aliza's sight (a kind of foresight) has been her greatest strength, other than her powers as a healer. In this instance, it is her resolute nature and loyalty to the family that she married into that will save the day. We also see her reunited with her beloved sister Anjey, and her much loved sister in law, Julienna. The Silent King of the Els is a part of this dark story and when he starts speaking everyone will have to try their hardest to survive his wrath.

I'll update about the audiobook when I have a chance to listen to it but have no reason to think that there will be a difference from the two excellent prior installments.

A fitting conclusion to this YA series, it will be interesting to see where White goes next. Is more epic fantasy in her future plans?

Content Warning: The protagonist ends up with disfigurement/permanent damage.

I received an Advance Review Copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Review: The Deep

The Deep The Deep by Rivers Solomon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

5+ Stars

A fabulous and subtle take on the mermaid mythos.

Let me say upfront that there are a lot of people I have a lot of admiration for in this project and one, Navah Wolfe, is NOT listed on the front cover. (I hope you read this Saga Press and Simon and Schuster, because reasons.) I really loved Rivers Solomon's An Unkindness of Ghosts and The Deep was already on my radar because of the aspect dealing with women being tossed from slaver ships because they were pregnant. (Pregnant women being such a bother.*) Anyway, this whole novella is worth your time. Though a fantasy, it has so much to say about embracing difference, about modern Afrofolklore, and about Rivers Solomon as a growing force in Afrofuturism. And let's not forget Clipping, who inspired the novella.

What do we ask of our historians? Do we ask them to remember the best, the worst, the everything? Do we ever consider the impact on historians who parse the very worst of history? Do we ever wonder if they sleep at night? If the darkest moments of history steal their peace, their very breath? Yetu is both fragile and strong, a character embodying everything that is human and not. She also embodies the history of the Wajiru people. She's a compelling character.

This novella already had me at its premise, and it has moments of immense emotional power. Where are we all from? No, really. Didn't we crawl out of the sea? What about those who went into it? And woe to the entity that is the Historian who has to remember. This novella is on my list of Hugo nominees for Best Novella, and also has my future Locus Award vote.

The audiobook, narrated by Daveed Diggs, is terrific. Thanks for letting me "read" it again,

*Full disclosure: my paternal family, some of which is from Sub-Saharan Africa, is from the Canary Islands, which were involved in the slave trade. The underlying premise of this book engenders a rather visceral reaction.

I received a digital review copy of this novella from Saga Press, and also the audiobook from

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Review: The Starless Sea

The Starless Sea The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

Have you ever read a book with shimmering, poetic prose where you just didn't care about anyone in the story? This is my problem with The Starless Sea. The story of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, and a bunch of collateral characters who are interrelated in mysterious (for a time) ways, The Starless Sea is a story about stories and stories within stories. It's basically a Möbius strip of stories. I was literally at 56% of my ARC before I figured out relationship connections between two of the fairy tale figures. Zachary's story is nested between fairy tales and we're not even talking alternating tales, we're talking sometimes three fairy tales to one chapter driving forward Zachary's narrative. I was frustrated by progress in my review copy so I started all over again when Doubleday gave me the audiobook ARC through And though I am impressed with the quality of the audio production (full cast, which makes a lot of sense because it allows you to separate the fairy tale narration from Zachary's voice, that of his friend Kat, and then some of the characters like Mirabel, Dorian, Eleanor, and the Pirate, who come alive within Zachary's story in the Starless Sea), it didn't really make me like the book any better.

I really wanted to care more about Zachary. I enjoyed Kat. As for the fairy tale cast of characters, I didn't really feel much affinity for any of them, other than perhaps Eleanor. I love the idea of a book about books, libraries, and fairy tales, and I really wanted to feel more vested in these characters. I may try to reread, splitting my reading into first either all the fairy tales or all of Zachary's chapters (up to the point it all merges) to see if it enhances my feeling for the book.

I strongly recommend the audiobook. It will make the going easier, as I realized first hand.

I received a paper review copy from the publisher, along with an audiobook ARC, in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: How Not to Die Alone

How Not to Die Alone How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How Not to Die Alone is a funny and poignant novel about love and loss and rebuilding hope and heart. Andrew works with his town's council. He's had various jobs in the past but his present job is handling death matters for those who die alone, without family, and who go unnoticed, sometimes for months. After discovery Andrew goes through the deceased's assets, both tangible and financial property, trying to find enough to cover the cost of a funeral which the UK has mandated councils arrange for the deceased. When we meet Andrew he'd arranged twenty-five in the previous year and attended all of them. To say it's a sobering job would be an understatement, as the cynicism about other people is broadened by such work. People always show up and pretend to have been acquainted with the deceased who, don't you know, just happened to owe them money or wanted to leave them that lovely vase, or whatever. Not work that makes you happy. And on that note, Cameron, Andrew's boss, wants to build a sense of team spirit by having each member of the death council team host a dinner party at their home. Cameron is hosting first (a disastrous event, by the way) but eventually, it will be Andrew's turn. And that is going to be a disaster. Because Cameron has never met Diane, Andrew's wife, and Steph and David, his two children. And there's a reason for that. Andrew lives alone with only Ella Fitzgerald's songs for solace. His sister Sally is pressing him to date someone and connect with life and love, but since he and Sally have their own complicated history, he doesn't listen to any of her advice. His life becomes even more complicated when the irrepressible Peggy joins the council team. Andrew is equal parts attracted to her and terrified of his attraction.

This is a lovely, poignant book that has passages that make the reader laugh out loud with their humor. Andrew's story is so much more than what the reader thinks at the start. This book is a fast read and a perfect weekend novel. I listened to the audiobook, performed by the delightful Simon Vance.

I received a Digital Review Copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Review: Laughter at the Academy

Laughter at the Academy Laughter at the Academy by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How long have we waited for a collection of short fiction by Seanan McGuire? So long, and yes, I know there is a collection of her short fiction as Mira Grant, but that's Mira fiction (Rise: A Newsflesh Collection and watch out, because it's full of zombies.) This collection, as Seanan McGuire, doesn't have stories from any of her series universes. You will find no Velveteen, no Toby Daye, no InCryptid, and no portals for Wayward Children. But you will find some of my favorite stories she's written over the past decade, from the heart-searing "Threnody for Little Girl, With Tuna, at the End of the World" to the chilling "Down, Deep Down, Below the Waves," an entirely satisfying Lovecraftian tale that strips out everything I loathe about Lovecraft's world and leaves me with the creepy-scary things I love about it. Of course, we aren't short on horror here, because it's still Seanan, though it isn't the science-y horror of Mira Grant. There are still places you shouldn't go to, like the Connolly House. (No, really, don't go there, really don't... go... don't... Come, Come, Come) There is the story of Dot (that would be Dorothy) in her role as the Wicked Witch of the West, Princess of Oz, Crossover Ambassador, and her falling out with the Undying Empress, Princess Ozma, her ex, who called Dot a political liability. There are twenty-two stories in the volume, which is a generous 376 pages in length. Longtime readers may recognize them, though the author has polished them further for this edition. The collection is already sold out in a limited hardcover edition with beautiful illustrations from Subterranean Press. But you can still enjoy it in ebook format if you didn't get in early on pre-orders, which are becoming a must for SubPress's Seanan McGuire titles.

Laughter at the Academy releases October 31 (so apropos), but readers should note that a series of printing press repairs have slightly delayed the hardcover edition. Anyone who has ever held one of the spectacular limited editions from Subterranean Press in their hands will know that a short delay means nothing once you're holding a gorgeous volume in your hands. The paper! The illustrations! I'll happily wait for mine to arrive.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Subterranean Press in exchange for an honest review.

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