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.’”

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*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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Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan

Wicked Saints.jpg

ARC provided by publisher in exchange for an honest review

“Blood and blood and bone. Magic and monsters and tragic power.”

Listen, no one is as shocked or disappointed by this rating (★★) as I am. But, with female characters like Jude Duarte, Vasya Petrovna, and Inej Ghafa, I couldn’t give this book a higher rating. Before we get into why I didn’t love Wicked Saints the way I’d hoped, let’s start with what it’s about.

Nadya is a cleric, but unlike other clerics *refrains from making a bad not-like-other-girls joke* can communicate with not one, but all the gods and use her prayer beads to call upon their powers. Within the first few pages of the book, the monastery Nadya was raised in is under attack by Serefin—blood mage and the crown prince of an enemy country—and so Nadya must flee the only life she’s known with the hopes of her country’s future resting on her shoulders. While on the run, Nadya teams up with a group of rebels, led by Malachiasz, another powerful blood mage to end the war.

“You must make a choice, little bird. Do you continue on with your wings clipped or do you fly?”

Promising, right? I’d thought so too. I was so excited for this book, like, who-needs-to-study-for-midterms-when-I-can-devour-this-book excited. In all honesty, I’m a little afraid to post this review because there’s been an unbelievable amount of hype surrounding this book, and that’s why I’ve put off writing this, but it’s 2019 and YA readers deserve better. We deserve female characters who are allowed to have both agency and a romantic relationship, not one or the other.

My biggest issue with Wicked Saints is Nadya. This isn’t Nadya’s book, it’s Malachiasz’s. The book promises a strong and powerful female character who is determined to vanquish her enemies, the tagline is even “let them fear her,” but Nadya doesn’t do anything. While she does have arguments with Malachiasz and is steadfast in her beliefs for a bit—I’ll get more into this when I discuss the handling of religious discourse, which I did think was very well done—there comes a point when she doesn’t make any decisions of her own, simply going along with Malachiasz’s plans and listening to whatever he says.

I’m so tired of being promised strong female characters only to have them forsake agency as soon as a romantic subplot is introduced. Nadya has such an amazing power, one she learns has much more potential than even she had known, and yet, she’s reduced to the love interest in her own story as soon as she has a romance. Friends, when I say she doesn’t do anything, I mean anything. She can’t even kill someone in a fight to the death, Malachiasz has to do it for her. And she constantly forgives him for everything, only standing up for herself to a point before literally going weak at the knees.

It truly feels as though Nadya is a side character in Malachiasz’s story, and it makes me so sad because I thought we’d finally reached a point where female characters are allowed to have agency and romantic relationships, not one or the other. With iconic lines such as Inej Ghafa’s, “She would fight for him, but she could not heal him. She would not waste her life trying,” and female characters such as Jude Duarte who can kiss a boy, plot with him to steal a kingdom, and then betray him in order to do so, I can’t support stories that make female characters choose between the two, and worse, be reduced to one dimensionality as soon as they enter a romantic relationship. I’ve seen discussion online about Wicked Saints dismantling tropes, but for me it relied heavily on tropes without questioning or subverting them.

“Don’t be a martyr. We have no use for yet another saint.”

With everything I didn’t like about the book, I will say the braiding of religion, magic, and politics was extremely well done and handled carefully and respectfully. Wicked Saints starts a really great and important dialogue about questioning our beliefs, opening our minds to others, and thinking/deciding for ourselves instead of simply following the things we’re taught. It’s the kind of YA book that is truly written for teenagers because it has the conversations they should be reading about—without passing judgement or shying away from the various arguments. While reading, I kept going back and forth between who I agreed with, who I wanted Nadya to agree with, and how I wanted the characters to find a middle ground.

However, while thematically the magic system worked well because of how it related to religion and politics, I will say, on a practical level, it did fall apart at the end. I’m a stickler when it comes to magic systems, and in particular, well-built magic systems with rules and consequences for broken rules. I’ve seen a lot of comparisons between Wicked Saints and Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, and while I do see similarities, those books have a highly structured magic system where we know the rules, limitations, and what happens when the boundaries of magic are pushed too far. Wicked Saints, on the other hand, does a good job of building the magic system and its rules throughout the book, but everything we learned about it collapses in the end in order for certain plot points to occur. I’ve reread the ending multiple times and am still confused, and in all honesty, it almost feels lazy? As though the rules that had been previously established suddenly didn’t matter because certain plot points needed to happen. This is definitely something I’m finicky about and other readers won’t mind, but I’m a very logic driven reader and love well-structured magic systems, so I was disappointed with how the ending events transpired.

The other thing Duncan really nails is atmosphere. It’s clear she not only has a love and appreciation for Russian and Polish culture, but also did her research. The setting descriptions were hauntingly beautiful with snow and iron spires and architectural descriptions that left me drooling. The world is so vivid and rich with lore, geography, history, and religious canons that created an immersive reading experience. The world building was easily one of my favorite things about the book and was done with such care and precision, even the languages being artfully constructed, and this is a world I didn’t want to leave.

“He was a liar and she wanted his truths.”

Overall, I did have a lot of issues with the book, but I also flew through it. I like to think of it as candy—easy to gobble down quickly, but not necessarily the best thing for you and your teeth and stomach may hurt a little after. A big reason why I was so disappointed by Wicked Saints was because of how it was marketed. I’d expected an epic story on par with the works of Holly Black and Leigh Bardugo, and it simply didn’t deliver. I will say though, the sexual tension is peak and there’s enough angst in here to rival your emo years, so if you love all those things and Slavic lore and aren’t expecting a masterpiece, life-altering book, go forth and conquer—I hope you love it more than I did!

“This act—the pressure of his lips against hers, and the heat that flooded her veins—this was heresy.”

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*All quotes are taken from a bound manuscript and are subject to change upon publication*

Trigger warning: self-harm and parental abuse

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The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale

“I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.” 

The Bear and The Nightingale is about a girl named Vasya who must save her village and loved ones from a threat that should belong in the fairytales her nurse Dunya told her. But more than that, it’s about family dynamics, gender roles in society, and the courage to stand up for what you believe in.

“In the north, the wind had teeth that bit after sunset, even in summer.”

This book’s strengths really come through in the setting. Katherine Arden has created a rich and atmospheric world. A hybrid of a Russia rooted in history as well as fantasy, you feel as though you live in this world with the characters. As I was reading I could feel the cold, the chill of the Winter Demon’s words in my ear.

In terms of characters, I loved Vasya, it was impossible not to. She’s wild, she’s fearless, she stands up for what she believes in, she doesn’t conform to what society expects of her, and she has a kind heart. She endures a lot from not only her stepmother, but also her village, but does so with such strength. She has a wonderful relationship with her brother, Aloysha, which was wonderful to read, because so often the most important relationship for a female character will be the one between her and her romantic interest.

“Sleep is cousin to death, Vasya. And both are mine.”

Speaking of romantic interest…I really hope something more develops between Vasya and Morozko because between the scene with them after her nightmare and the kiss, I’m dying to see more interactions between them in the sequel.

Overall, I loved this book so much and I can’t wait to pick up the sequel, The Girl in the Tower! I’ve left more of my favorite quotes below!

“Wild birds die in cages.”
“Vasya felt cold despite the steam. ‘Why would I choose to die?’ ‘It is easy to die,’ replied the bannik. ‘Harder to live.’”

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An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes

“Life is made of so many moments that mean nothing. Then one day, a single moment comes along to define every second that comes after. Such moments are tests of courage, of strength.”

Harrowing. Breath taking. Heart wrenching. Beautiful. An Ember in the Ashes is Sabaa Tahir’s debut novel about a slave, Laia and a soldier, Elias. Both of them belong to the Empire and neither of them is free.

“All the beauty of the stars means nothing when life here on earth is so ugly.”

An Ember in the Ashes is a haunting story about what it means to be free, how far people can be pushed, what it means to lose our humanity, and the power of fighting back in an brutally ugly world.

Laia begins as a meek character, very much unlike the callous female assassins we’re now used to seeing in YA, and I loved it. Throughout the book, Laia grows into such a brave character who’d rather die fighting for her loved ones than run away and see them hurt. She has one of the strongest character arcs I’ve seen in YA. Her fear is something readers will be able to connect with, and her spirit, resilience, and determination will inspire them.

Our other main character, Elias, is one of the most beautifully written and complex male characters I’ve ever encountered. Elias, from the beginning, does not support the Empire, but is forced to be a soldier and defend its corrupt and inhumane ways. Like Laia, he is not free. But, Elias constantly has to hide from the people he loves because he is a martial and expected to not only support, but to also continue and enforce the ways of the Empire. Elias’ anger, sadness, powerlessness, and then resistance was heart aching to read, and he was by far my favorite character in this book.

“The field of battle is my temple. The swordpoint is my priest. The dance of death is my prayer. The killing blow is my release.”

I don’t have enough words of praise for this masterpiece that Sabaa Tahir has created. I felt every emotion ranging from anger, sadness, hope, fear, and happiness. This world is cruel and unforgiving, our characters are so heartbreakingly real, and their story is sweeping and much bigger than any of them can imagine.

Thank you Sabaa Tahir for writing this book and for sharing these characters, their world, and their story.

“You are an ember in the ashes, Elias Veturius. You will spark and burn, ravage and destroy. You cannot change it. You cannot stop it.”

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Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone

“I won’t let your ignorance silence my pain”

WOW. I don’t normally find myself at a loss for words after a book, but Children of Blood and Bone has left me speechless. This is a book that will take you on a wild ride and shake you down to your core, making sure you feel every emotion possible. I laughed, I raged, I grieved, and I loved every moment of it.

“Reality told us we would fail. But again and again, we fought. We persevered. We rose.”

Featuring an entirely non-white cast (YASSS!!!) Children of Blood and Bone follows Zélie as she fights to bring magic back to her people after it was taken by the king who killed her mother. Told from three different perspectives, CBB follows Zélie, Amari, and Inan.

Zélie has been oppressed and beaten down by the royal regime her entire life because she is a diviner—a person with the potential to become a Maji, someone with the gift of magic—and she is an angry and fierce warrior who has experienced so much grief and trauma. She has been chosen by the gods to bring magic back to Orïsha. Amari is a princess whose best friend was a diviner. She turns her back on everything her father has taught her about the Maji in order to aid Zélie in her quest to bring magic back to Orïsha. Our third POV is actually the antagonist, Inan, Amari’s older brother and the crown prince of Orïsha, who is determined to prevent magic from coming back.

“It doesn’t matter how strong I get, how much power my magic wields. They will always hate me in this world.”

I don’t know how Tomi Adeyemi did it, but CBB is an incredible story. Fast-paced. Heart-wrenching. Beautiful. Children of Blood and Bone is the best YA debut fantasy on the market. Adeymi did an amazing job of not only writing an amazing and harrowing story, but also one that is relevant and speaks to larger issues in our society. I was angry with the world Zélie lived in and all of the hate, trauma, and oppression she endured—a world that holds up a mirror to our own. It is worth reading Adeyemi’s author’s note at the end of the book where she discusses her inspirations for CBB.

“As long as we don’t have magic, they will never treat us with respect. They need to know we can hit them back. If they burn our homes, we burn theirs, too.” 

I adored Zélie’s character and her transformation of learning how to channel her anger and grief and conquer her fears in order to become the leader her people need. Tzain, her brother, is perfect and his love, strength, and loyalty broke my heart over and over again. Amari experienced such beautiful growth throughout the book, transforming from a timid girl and to a brave one, unafraid to stand up to a world of hatred. The one character I wasn’t crazy about was Inan. There were times when I sympathized with him and really enjoyed having him as a POV, but I felt as though a lot of his thoughts and actions didn’t make sense and were tailored more so to fit the plot than his character.

“The gods don’t make mistakes.”

Children of Blood and Bone is a chilling, powerful, emotional, and stunning story that everyone needs to read. There is a reason why this is the book that is taking over the world. Read it, savor it, love it, and shout about this book until everyone you know has read it. Thank you Tomi Adeyemi for giving this story to the world and for revolutionizing YA fantasy.

“Courage does not always roar. Valor does not always shine.”

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The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

The Belles

 

“Don’t be fools. You can’t have both. Who wants love when one can be powerful?”

I expected The Cruel Prince—high stakes court politics, twists, nastiness, and complex, morally grey characters with hidden motivations. And I got The Selection—flimsy characters, a lackluster plot more focused on silly drama than court politics, but YA candy all the same.

The Belles takes place in the fictional world of Orléans where people are born grey, beauty is everything, and only the Belles have the power to make the people of Orléans beautiful. The main character, Camellia, dreams of being better than her Belle sisters, she wants to be the Belle—the Favorite, chosen by the queen to live at the palace and tend to the royal family and the court.

“No one is a prisoner. Even you have the power to make your own choices.”

The world of this book is definitely the strongest component, and why I was so disappointed by the story. I had expected nastiness, a cruel world where beauty measures worth, the members of the court are wicked vipers, hiding their motives behind painted smiles, and an ambitious main character who would stop at nothing to be the best and not only survive her world, but dominate it. Instead, the main characters were predictable and flat with one dimensional motivations and character arcs, and the side characters were forgettable—with the exception of Edel and Amber who were tropes of the rebel and the perfectionist, I could not distinguish between Camellia’s sisters, and don’t even ask me to try to remember the names or personalities of Sophia’s ladies.

“Lies are as dangerous as a sword. They can cut to the bone.” 

I wish I had more to say about this book, the writing was gorgeous, albeit a bit too flowery for my taste at times, and I love the world, but I felt no attachment to the characters—having no stake or vested interest in their fates—and was not surprised by the plot “twists.”

Overall, I’ll probably end up picking up the next book in the series because Dhonielle Clayton is a skilled writer, I love the world, and I want to support a YA fantasy written by a POC author featuring a POC main character, but I can’t say I’ll be anticipating its release or really care what happens.

“Dreams remind us of who we are and how we feel about the things around us.”

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To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo

To Kill a Kingdom

“It started with a prince, as most stories do. Once I felt the thrum of his heart beneath my fingers, I couldn’t forget it.”

Wow. I’m ready to forsake my entire life, find a pirate crew, and live on the seas hunting for my next read because this book was SO GOOD. It should be named To Kill a Reading Slump, because after The Wicked King I thought I’d just slowly wither away until The Queen of Nothing and never be consumed by another book. But, To Kill a Kingdom was un-put-downable, true candy, a pearl amongst other lackluster YA books.

Known as The Prince’s Bane, Lira is a siren, who, every year on her birthday, steals the heart of a prince. And no, we’re not talking make him fall in love with her steal, more like rip his still beating hearts out of their body as he drowns steal. This a LOOSE Little Mermaid retelling, and Lira is, thankfully, no Ariel—She doesn’t want to be where the people, doesn’t want to see them dancing, walking around on those, what do you call them? Oh, feet! (okay I’ll stop now). When Lira breaks one of the most important siren rules, her mother, the Sea Queen, gives her the worst punishment a siren can receive, turning her into a *gasp* HUMAN!!!

Left for dead in the middle of the ocean, now with two legs instead of her tail and no siren song (but she can still talk), Lira is rescued by none other than Elian, our other POV, the golden prince, the pirate captain with a jawline that can cut glass, and who just so happens to be a siren hunter set on killing the Prince’s Bane. Do I sense enemies to lovers??? Yes, yes I do, and I am so here for it.

“It’s like holding a story rather than a person; she feels wild and infinite in my arms.”

Did I already mention how much I love To Kill a Kingdom and want to shout about it from the rooftops? Well too bad because I LOVE TO KILL A KINGDOM. Lira and Elian are one of my new favorite ships. What begins as murderous intentions on Lira’s end and extreme distrust on Elian’s—he doesn’t yet know they’re enemies and she’s the Prince’s Bane—evolves into a dynamic of playful and sarcastic banter with murderous undertones (THE GOOD STUFF) and Lira and Elian fighting side by side and risking their lives for one another (ALSO THE GOOD STUFF.)

Aside from Lira and Elian’s relationship—which is amazing and wonderful—this book also has a cast of side characters with fully developed personalities and stories that I completely adored and an immersive world. I’d love to see a spin off book set in the same universe so we can explore more of the world!

“They celebrate love as though it’s power, even though it has killed far more humans than I ever have.”

If isn’t apparent already, I love this book. Anti-heroines, enemies to lovers, slow-burns, murderous banter as flirting, pirates, fairytale/folklore vibes, what more could I want in a book? If you haven’t read To Kill a Kingdom, do yourself a favor and pick it up and then proceed to not be able to put it down. In the meantime, I’ll be sailing across the seas in my pirate garb, hunting for my next book, and demanding Alexandra Christo write another book set in the same universe.

“Love and madness are two stars in the same sky. You cannot build a roof to keep out last year’s rain.”

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