An Assassin’s Guide to Love and Treason by Virginia Boeker

An Assassin's Guide

Oh man, was this book fun. There’s simply no other way to put it. If you’re like me and are weak for enemies to lovers, Shakespeare, Elizabethan England, and anything having to do with spycraft, then this is the book for you.

The story follows two spies, Katherine and Toby, one trying to kill the queen as an act of revenge for killing her father, and the other trying to root out the conspirators of a new assassination plot against the queen. Set the stage for Shakespeare’s newest play, being performed for the queen—the perfect opportunity for a would-be killer, and both Katherine and Toby join the cast, Katherine hoping to get close enough to kill the queen, Toby needing to find the killer before the assassination plot comes to fruition. Oh, did I mention Toby and Katherine, masquerading as a boy named Kit because, you know, Elizabethan England, are playing love interests?

One of the things I loved most about this book was its weaving of Twelfth Night, the play the cast is performing and the one Katherine and Toby find themselves living. Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most convoluted, at times ridiculous, plays, and An Assassin’s Guide to Love and Treason managed to capture that spirit of the fanciful without becoming ridiculous, in part because of brilliant nuances of Katherine and Toby’s inner conflicts and doubts regarding the paths they’d been set on and in part because of the author’s brilliant historical research. The atmosphere of this book was incredible, I truly believed all of this happened in Elizabethan England and that I was living there, everything from the clothing to the architecture to the customs was so well done, and as a massive history nerd (and a history minor) with a soft spot for Shakespeare’s London, I was thrilled and impressed.

Aside from the historical touches and atmosphere, Katherine and Toby were what really captured my heart. The two of them had such rich inner thoughts, Katherine torn between loyalty to her father, the conspirators who have taken her in, her upbringing as a Catholic in a very Protestant England and what she knows in her heart to be right as well as the new life and independence she’s found as the boy Kit, Katherine delved into the struggles of blood family versus found family, gender in a very patriarchal society, religious freedom, as well as who she is and what being a killer would demand of her. Toby is equally complex, struggling with unresolved feelings for his dead mentor, hiding his bisexuality in a world where it’s illegal, and being trapped in a life he no longer wants. The two of them individually and together are beautiful, charming, resilient, and ultimately hopeful. Oh, and did I mention they’re true enemies to lovers, on opposite sides with conflicting loyalties and biases, and outside forces they need to overcome before they can be together and not just bickering-for-no-reason enemies?

An Assassin’s Guide to Love and Treason is a criminally underrated book of mistaken identities, intrigue, star-crossed love, and betrayal, and more than that, a book of finding hope, freedom, identity, and yes, love, all tangled in Shakespeare’s theatre. It’s a love letter to Twelfth Night and Viola’s ability to break from societal conventions to find freedom, the person she wants to be, and the person she wants to be, a love letter that gets to the true heart of the play—shedding the masks of the people we were expected to be in order to become the people we were born to be.

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Again, But Better by Christine Riccio

Again, but Better

Once upon a time there was a girl named Lindsay who was smiled down upon by the ARC gods and received this (signed!) beauty. And by ARC gods I mean arcfortrade, because we all know I’m not important enough to get ARCs any other way, BUT IT DOESN’T MATTER BECAUSE I HAVE THIS BEAUTY NOW *evil laughter* For real though, friends, I DEVOURED this book. Like, hiding under my blankets like a gremlin, refusing to emerge for food or showers or finals because I needed Christine’s debut more than I needed to be a person, and let me tell you, it was worth it.

20 year old Shane Primaveri is ready for a change. She’s done college all wrong so far—no real friends, no major she’s passionate about, no boyfriend—and so she sets out to study abroad in London during her junior year, determined to start over, make some lasting friendships, write her great American novel, and maybe even fall in love…

I was so nervous opening this book—more nervous than I’ve been for a book in a long time. I’m a huge fan of Christine’s channel and have been watching her work so hard on this book. But with a cast of memorable characters, hilarious banter, and quippy dialogue, I had nothing to be nervous about. Again, but Better is one of those books that makes you feel warm and gooey on the inside, not unlike eating a chocolate chip cookie straight from the oven, and I found myself smiling like an idiot while reading (really messing with my heartless, gremlin vibe).

Characters were definitely the strongest part of the novel. The banter and development of relationships flowed really well, and I just really want to be a part of their study abroad squad, okay??? But I’m definitely not witty enough, so I guess I’ll just stay here and cry.

Shane:
Our main character and not at all fearless traveler whose Lost and Davinci Code references went right over my head. I really loved Shane and saw so much of myself in her—except she’s funnier and has better hair. Her journey of reinvention was so relatable, especially when she wants to try to be more outgoing instead of resorting to her comfort zone. Did she seem a little self-insert for Christine? I mean, the girl wants to be a writer, keeps diaries she refers to as her horcruxes, and has a blog called Frenchwatermelon19, but I love Christine and it’s a debut and a contemporary, so you know what, I’m not mad about it.

Pilot:
Yes, like the plane or of a television series. Pilot is like if Etienne St. Clair from Anna and the French Kiss hadn’t been the absolute worst to his girlfriend, and while I appreciate it, there were also too many “ho don’t do it” moments for me to add him to the *very* exclusive fictional boyfriend list.HOWEVER, he did experience great character development, especially in the, let’s call it, again, but better (YES, I KNOW I AM BEING A TEASE) part of the book.

Do any of the other characters really matter? Nah.

My biggest issue with this book was the pacing. It was like a first date, going really well at first, but then you hit that part when things get ~weird~ and you’re sort of confused how things spiraled so quickly, but then you go home, take a bath, think about it, and go “ohhhhhhhh.” It almost felt as though parts one and two of the book could’ve (and should’ve) been standalone novels, because while the character and story arcs were completed, it wasn’t the smoothest of rides and I’m still not sure how we got there.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot itself because it’s still a new (and highly anticipated) release, but I will there is a plot twist that I’m still not sure how I feel about. My thoughts can best be described as “oh no, what’s happening, I’m uncomfortable, oh no, holy High King Cardan this is not what I signed up for. Oh no, I think I might like this? I like the results of this, but I don’t like this. High King Cardan help.”

Overall, I’m still going to keep with my chocolate chip cookie analogy—I laughed, I felt the warm fuzzies, I smiled, and I wanted more. I can’t wait to see where Christine’s writing career goes from here, and I’ll certainly be reading the next project she blesses us peasants with!

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The Waking Forest by Alyssa Wees

The Waking Forest

“I’m still here. Stuck at the point where madness meets miracles, immovable. Me, the God of all shadows that shimmer, of all souls burdened with a bottled scream.”

I can’t remember the last time I’ve read a book so beautifully, wondrously written. The prose is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and yes, experienced. Reading this book is akin to being transported to a fairytale, but not the tales of damsels and shining palaces—of thorns and brambles and nightmares, of witches in woods and luminous stars. For the writing alone I will read literally anything Alyssa Wees writes, including her grocery lists.

“Spider-bite midnight: an infected emerald sky strung with clumps of silk-woven stars, a cobweb moon.”

Rhea Ravena’s nightmares aren’t ordinary. They exist outside her dreams and transform her waking world into a liminal space where her senses deceive and impossibilities are realities. The lines between her two worlds blur further still when a boy of shadows and darkness appears in her attic and seems to know everything about her. Thus begins a game between the two where her family’s existences are at stake. And intertwined with Rhea’s story is that of the Witch of Wishes who lives in a palace of teeth and bone, granting wishes to children, and one day meets a fox-like boy who tells her stories of a princess who needs to save her land from her tyrannical grandfather.

“I will use your bones to drum the beat of our song, if you will not join along.”

I absolutely adored the first 2/3 of this book. It was everything I’d ever wanted—games, riddles, transformative prose, interweaving storylines—but unfortunately once the storylines came together, things became messy. It felt as though the author wasn’t quite ready to tackle the scope of the story, and the result was that while the idea was brilliant, the execution was sloppy. I would say more, but I can’t get into details without spoiling the plot twists. It’s one of those stories that works so well in theory and sounds incredible, but may have been a bit too ambitious for a debut.

“He laughs: rabid, enraptured a sound somewhere between an elegy and an alleluia”

Aside from the prose, I really did love the characters. While Rhea’s dynamic with the boy of shadows was both beautiful and riddled with games, it was the Witch of Wishes and her fox who captured my heart. I’m always a sucker  one character telling another stories, and especially when they use stories to capture a cold heart, which is exactly what these two gave me. I adored the slow burn between them, the buildup of their friendship, and the hesitant trust. Everything between them felt as fragile as whisper, yet tense as a knife’s blade, and I was completely enchanted.

“This is how the world ends: in a kiss cut short, a storm of sleeping synapses, in a murder mistaken for mercy. My dream is dying, dead.”

Overall this is a gorgeously written book. The prose alone makes it a 5 star read, and the first 2/3 of the book were outstanding. I’d definitely recommend this book to writers because it’s a masterclass in evocative, lyrical prose, and I’ll be reading every book this author writes. I just wish the execution of the story had been better—but because it’s a debut I’m excited to see how the author grows, and I truly think she bit off more than she could chew with this one, but that her storytelling craft will improve with subsequent books.

“‘You are breathlessness,’ and I am all skin and nerves, and every inch of me glitters, every inch of me groans. ‘You are cold fire. You are wonder and curiosity that cuts through bone. You speak to Death and convince him to give you what’s rightfully his. You promise him diamonds in exchange for souls, but give him coal and time instead. And Death, he falls for it again and again, because your smile is a sword that no one, not even a god, wants to feed with his blood.’”

Preorder The Waking Forest

*All quotes are taken from an advanced reader’s copy and are subject to change upon publication*

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Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte

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“Get in quick, get out quicker”

Excuse me while I petition for every YA fantasy world to be a queendom instead of a kingdom because Four Dead Queens is the feminist fantasy murder mystery I never knew I needed. Vivid, fast-paced, and suspenseful with the perfect amount of humor and romance, make me the fifth dead queen because I am trash for this book.

Keralie is a thief and quite good at it, possibly the best, but when one of her assignments from Makiel, her mentor and a Kaz Brekker type who runs a thriving black market, goes horribly wrong, Keralie finds herself in possession of crucial information about the murders of the four queens of Quadara. As Keralie tries to untangle the mystery of what happened to the four dead queens and who killed them, she’ll learn just how little she knows about Makiel, herself, and her world.

Intricately woven with immersive world building, complex characters with hidden motives, and unpredictable plot twists, Four Dead Queens is a standalone fantasy that will keep you at the edge of your seat and flipping each page frantically, dying (horrible pun intended) to know just what happened to these queens. I tried playing detective while reading, and wasn’t able to predict anything that happened. This book is a RIDE that had me gasping at the plot twists and hungry to piece everything together.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Four Dead Queens was how cleverly the story was told. Alternating between the perspectives of Keralie and the queens, the reader gets to see both Keralie attempting to unravel the murders and the events immediately preceding them. I’m particularly a sucker for political intrigue, so getting to see the politics from the queens’ perspectives and the secrets they had was especially a treat—and trust me, there were some wonderfully scandalous secrets.

Of course, I can’t end this review without talking about the world, because WOWZA, catch me packing my bags and moving to Quadara because I’m obsessed. Each region was so unique and well-built with distinct cultures and values, and the author did a fantastic job of making the reader feel as though they knew and lived in each one. I can already imagine the BuzzFeed “Which Region of Quadara Do You Belong In” quizzes. The story was perfect for a standalone, but the world makes me wish it was a series, and I’m really hoping the author will write more books in this universe, because I’m in love.

If this review hasn’t convinced you already, let me put it bluntly, Four Dead Queens is GOOD. I haven’t been this excited for a YA fantasy—especially a standalone—in a long time. Plot twists. Queendom. Political intrigue. Mystery. Need I go on? (Trust me, I can). If you haven’t already, be sure to preorder Four Dead Queens (release date, FEBRUARY 26th 2019) because I need people to obsess over this book with as soon as it’s released. In the meantime, I’ll be chilling in Quadara with Keralie and Varin—a girl can dream, okay?
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The Winding Maze by K.A. Dowling

e-ARC provided by author in exchange for an honest review

1.)  The Changing Tide ★★★★
2.)  The Forbidden City ★★★★★

“Prison of gold or prison of iron, it doesn’t make a bit of difference, does it?” 

The Winding Maze is the heart-stopping, page-turning, epic conclusion of The Rogue Elegance series. With a throne and the fate of Chancey on the line, all of our main characters are thrust together in a world where everyone has a hidden agenda and magic and prophecies have more power than anyone had anticipated. The Winding Maze is an all-consuming race that made me laugh and cry and shook me down to my core—I loved every moment of this incredible book and Emerala and Nerani’s journeys.

“This entire battle—this bloodshed, this hate—all hinges on a single beating heart. And hearts, he’s learned, are a terribly easy thing to break.”

Epic in scale an importance, there’s so much I could say about this story. It’s a story that transcends the island of Chancey and will be relevant for all people of all cultures within any historical context. It is a story about overcoming persecution, of fighting back and rebelling,  a story of identity and friendship, of family and what we’re willing to do for our loved ones. It is an adventure with swoon-worthy romance, tear-jerking sacrifices, and side-splitting laughter.

“I view everything in life as a game, you see? It’s the only way to stomach it. Without a little bit of fun, the whole world turns rotten.”

To say that I love the world in this series would be an understatement. If The Forbidden City shows the reader the scope of the world, then The Winding Maze takes us back to Chancey, where this amazing story all began, and shows us the intricacies of the island’s political and social dynamics. Oh, and did I mention we learned more about the other pirate lords and the rules of the sea? It was epic.

“You should see what I see. You should see how lovely you look, your skin all painted in moonlight.”

If there’s anything I love more than the world of The Rogue Elegance series, it would have to be its characters. Emerala has grown so much from the spitfire we meet in The Changing Tide and has transformed into a bold, courageous, and intelligent woman who refuses to let anyone stop her from conquering the world. She still has the fire and spirit that made me fall in love with her from the beginning, but has grown infinitely and learned how to channel her rebellious nature to make a difference in the world. Nerani too has grown so much and she had my favorite character arc in the series, transforming from the quiet and responsible girl who keeps her head down and cleans up after her cousin’s messes into a powerful and commanding woman who fights for what she believes in. There are so many other characters I could go into depth about because they’re all so wonderfully complex and fleshed out, but just to name a few I’m going to say that in addition to Emerala and Nerani, Evander, Peterson (I would die for him), James, Alex, and Frederick have my heart—but ESPECIALLY Evander.

“He’d loved her then. He loves her now. It’s the simplest thing in the world—so simple that it makes his gut ache to think of it.”

Thank you so much K.A. Dowling for taking me on this ride and sharing Emerala and Nerani’s stories with me. Words cannot express my love for this book, the characters, and their world. This is a series I’m going to return to for years to come and EVERYONE needs to fall in love with Emerala and Nerani’s stories as much as I have.

“No prisoners, no mercy.”

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The Forbidden City by K.A. Dowling

1.) The Changing Tide ★★★★

“Which is better, do you suppose? To dive or to jump straight down?”

Book 2 of the Rogue Elegance series, The Forbidden City, takes place shortly after the events of The Changing Tide. With the prophecy set in motion and our main characters scattered throughout Chancey, The Forbidden City, and in Emerala’s case—the world, the stakes are raised and the reader is left in a state of uncertainty, unsure of who will survive, who will succeed, and how all of the characters’ storylines will intertwine.

“The world has never stayed still. Even boys with hearts of ice find themselves melted down into something new.”

Atmospheric. Vivid. Cinematic. The world has always been my favorite part of this series, and in this book we see it expanded in ways I hadn’t thought possible. With Emerala at sea, James’ life in Chancey further explored, and the Forbidden City introduced, we learn more about the the harshness of the world these characters inhabit and how that has shaped them, as well as are introduced to more lovable characters—my favorite being Peterson.

The new characters and setting added another layer of richness to a world that was already extremely detailed. By the end of The Forbidden City, I felt as though I knew the world as well as I had known Chancey by the end of The Changing Tide. I loved seeing the world both through Emerala, who, like the reader, is experiencing it for the first time, and through The Hawk and Alexander who have traveled the seas and seen it all before.

Speaking of those three…

“She looks inhuman—otherworldly—like some ancient, wild thing. He could love her for it if things were different—if he was a man with the luxury of romance.”

The love triangle(s) in this book were AMAZING! I’m usually the first person to say I’m not a fan of love triangles, but Dowling handles them masterfully, sprinkling in the romance and sexual tension, without ever allowing them to overtake the main plot. Both Emerala and Nerani are strong and complex women whose stories are not defined by the men they end up with—I’m personally on team Hawk for Emerala, as he’s a pirate to the core and I’ll always be rooting for the morally ambiguous characters and team James Byron for Nerani because I’m a sucker for star-crossed lovers. But I’m not counting Alexander or Topan out of the running yet!

“Tonight I will sleep with my regrets. Tonight I will spend another midnight choking on my cowardice. Perhaps tomorrow will be the day the fates finally catch up to me. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll finally be able to rest, even if that rest shall be at the bottom of the storming sea.”

There simply aren’t enough words to describe my love of this story, the characters, and their world. Dowling has managed to capture everything I loved about The Changing Tide and heighten it all in this book. The magic is elevated while the real world themes of prejudice and social justice are still explored in depth. After the events of this book I am so uncertain as to what will happen next and am eagerly (and nervously!) awaiting the release of the third and final installment in the Rogue Elegance series, The Winding Maze (available May 18th!) If you are a lover of the sea, adventures, pirates, magic, and complex characters, then this is the book series for you—I will never not recommend it!

“We can’t live in fear just because there might be death at the end of an adventure.”

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The Changing Tide by K.A. Dowling

The Changing Tide.jpg

“She recalls the endless summers—recalls standing waist deep in the waves and waiting for a ship that never came. She has spent her entire life dreaming of escape.”

Emerala the Rouge has spent her life dreaming of the sea and escaping her life in Chancey. For in Chancey, her Cairan people are persecuted by the king and his Gold Cloaks. As the years have gone by, things have only grown worse for the Cairans. A city balancing on the edge of a sword, a girl with the power to set an ancient prophecy in motion, and newly arrived pirates set the stage for the beginning of an epic adventure.

“He is a man of the law, and justice is his duty. He thinks of the body that hung limp in the square. He thinks of his father wringing his cap in his hands, turning away. He thinks of the bear king—of the man who would-be-god—kneeling on the floor and praying for luck. Pulling up his dead wife’s flowers by the roots.
What is justice?” 

Told from multiple perspectives, The Changing Tide offers a wide cast of characters, all of whom have faced struggles that have made them the people they are today. All with their own motives, these characters become entangled in a story that is larger than each of them individually and are forced to reevaluate everything they were taught to believe and determine for themselves who they want to be.

In particular, I loved the characters of Emerala the Rouge and Captain James Byron. Emerala is brave, stubborn, passionate, and has a strong obligation to do what is right, even if it gets her into trouble—and this girl has a penchant for attracting trouble. James has such great character development. Watching his internal struggle between what he was taught to believe in and what he knows deep down is morally right was incredibly powerful and I cannot wait to see the rest of his character arc in the later installments of this series.

“You cannot change the hearts of men.”

Beautifully told, this story is fast paced and I found myself flipping through each page to learn what would happen next. Throughout the novel Dowling uses vivid descriptions to create a rich world I felt as though I were a part of while reading.

“Gold blood bleeds red.”

The Changing Tide is the beginning of a grand adventure that tackles issues of identity, prejudice, and hate that is passed down through the centuries. I cannot wait to read the next book in this series, The Forbidden City!

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