Monday, March 21, 2022

Review: THE COTTINGLEY SECRET by Hazel Gaynor


Rating: 4/5 stars

If you enjoy dual timeline narratives that are inexplicably connected, one story set in the past and one story set in the present, and you enjoy fairies and the whimsy of childhood, then you should check out The Cottingley Secret.

I originally picked up this book because I thought it sounded similar to the kinds of books that Kate Morton writes, and I absolutely love her stories. While there are some similarities in the fact that there are two POVs from two time periods that are somehow linked together, this book just had a different feel to it. There wasn’t that deep mysterious component or the endless unexpected plot twists like Morton’s books have. 

Nevertheless, I still really enjoyed this story for what it is.

Olivia, in the present day, inherits her grandfather’s failing bookshop after he passes away, and she’s going through his things when she finds an old journal that talks about fairy sightings with a subsequent photograph to accompany it. 

In the early 1900s during the First World War, cousins Elsie and Frances photograph fairies in their garden, and the photographs garner national acclaim as the girls convince everyone that the fairies are real. 

As much as I enjoyed the historical narrative following Elsie and Frances, it was Olivia’s story that I was most drawn to. I love the idea of inheriting an old bookshop and being able to rifle through everything—just imagine what you could find in there! Plus Olivia’s story has a tiny bit of romance in it, which I honestly just loved. 

I found out, after I finished reading The Cottingley Secret, that this book is based on a true story! Cottingley is a real place in England, and cousins Elsie and Frances really did exist and really did take photographs of fairies there (you can easily find copies of them online). I would recommend reading this book before looking up anything about the story online though, as the internet will inevitably spoil the end of the book for you. 

Overall, I found this to be a really charming story. I’ve always loved fairies and I used to pretend I could see them when I was little, so reading a book about two young girls believing in them and convincing others to believe in them satisfied that bit of nostalgic magic that lives in all of us as children. I think this book is even more interesting knowing it’s based on actual history, and I definitely recommend checking it out if you’re looking for a different kind of historical fiction book with just a little bit of magic. 

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Review: THE STARDUST THIEF by Chelsea Abdullah


Rating: 4.75/5 stars

The Stardust Thief is a fantastical character-driven story of adventure across a sea of shifting sands on an impossible journey to find an ancient relic in a hidden jinn city. 

Loulie is the Midnight Merchant, known for procuring rare magical relics that she illegally sells in the Night Market. When the sultan hears of her and her abilities after she saves the life of his son, he summons her to the palace to blackmail her into going on a quest for him if she wants to keep her life: find an ancient lamp that houses a jinn king inside, buried thousands of years ago somewhere in the vast Sandsea. Accompanied by her jinn bodyguard, the best thief in Madinne, and one of the sultan’s sons, Loulie sets out into the desert to find the magical relic, which she knows will have deadly repercussions for jinn everywhere if it ends up in the hands of the sultan. 

I absolutely loved this book! I have been excited to read it for months ever since I saw the stunningly gorgeous cover design, and it did not disappoint. 

The Stardust Thief feels similar to The City of Brass while still being entirely its own story. I love that. Readers who loved that series need to read The Sandsea Trilogy next. The Daevabad Trilogy was incredible, and I’m so excited to find something similar—an Arabian fantasy about deserts, magic, jinn, and politics. I might even like The Stardust Thief more though… 

This book was very easy to read and become immersed in. I feel like I flew through it, which is not normally the feeling I have while reading a long adult epic fantasy. I loved Chelsea Abdullah’s writing style, and it was very easy to get lost in these pages. It also helped that this book had very short chapters, which is always a good thing in my eyes. 

I loved every character. Loulie is cunning and smart and strong. Mazen is delicate and precious and definitely my favorite character. Qadir is mysterious and safe. Aisha is hard-hearted and severe but I still liked her determination and resilience. Ahmed is charming and happy. Even Omar has his good moments too. 

One thing that I didn’t really understand, however, is why the jinn killers are also so interested in jinn relics. They want the magical artifacts imbued with jinn magic, but the jinn can’t make them if they’re dead, and the killers’ goal is to slay every jinn. So that didn’t really make sense to me. I get that it’s about being powerful, but you have to keep some jinn alive so they can create more relics. 

The Stardust Thief is full of unexpected plot events. I wouldn’t necessarily say plot twists because I believe a plot twist is when you expect the plot to go in one direction but then it suddenly “twists” and goes this other direction. This book is more along the lines of you have no idea what will happen next, so when the plot progresses you’re surprised because you never would have guessed that the characters would end up here or do this thing because it’s an unconventional outcome, but you roll with it anyway. So many things happened in this book besides what the synopsis on the cover alludes to, and I liked that because it made the story feel like it had more depth. 

My only real complaint is that the last fifty or so pages had a lot of reveals in them that weren’t fully explained because the plot was moving along so quickly, and I’m not sure if I fully understand everything that happened or the implications of it all. The main characters would have these revelations of knowledge, but they wouldn’t outright say what they figured out, and it made me feel dumb because I wasn’t catching on. Sometimes the “obvious” things were not as obvious as they seemed. Other than that though, I have no complaints about this book. It was so very good. 

“The only difference between a hero and a coward is that one forgets their fear and fights, while the other succumb to it and flees.”

I’ve recently discovered that I love Arab fantasies. Give me more of them. I appreciated that the Arabic words in this book were used in a way that the reader could intuit their meaning. Including them made the story feel genuine, but I’m also grateful I didn’t have to stop to define every new word because Chelsea Abdullah used them organically. 

Overall, The Stardust Thief was phenomenal! It is a story for lovers of stories and adventures. Mini tales are dispersed throughout the novel, and I loved seeing how they were woven into the story after they appeared. I am so excited I got to read this book early, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy because I know I am going to love it. Any fantasy fan out there has to pick this one up.  

Thank you to Orbit for sending me an early copy for review. 

Character List & Glossary 
(I made a spoiler-free list to reference when I continue the series so I don’t forget who’s who.) 

Ahmed bin Walid, wali (leader) of the city Dhyme, old friend of Loulie’s, always happy and smiling

Aisha bint Louas, one of Omar’s best and most honest thieves, hates men

Dhahab, the lost jinn city of legend, located in the Sandsea

Dahlia bint Adnan, the tavernkeeper who owns the tavern where Loulie resides

Hakim, the sultan’s bastard second son, mapmaker, 25

Ifrit, powerful beings of fire feared by other jinn, capable of learning multiple types of magic, the seven jinn kings 

Imad, the Hunter in Black, jinn killer, one of the sultan’s original forty thieves 

Loulie Najima al-Nazari, the Midnight Merchant, relic seller, birth name and alias is Layla, 20

Mazen bin Malik, the sultan’s third son, sheltered in the palace, a storyteller who yearns for adventure, 22

Omar bin Malik, the sultan’s firstborn son, King of the Forty Thieves, killer of jinn 

Qadir, Loulie’s jinn friend and bodyguard, can transform from a man into a lizard, has an affinity for fire magic 

Rasul al-Jasheen, the One-Eyed Merchant who is one-eyed no longer after Loulie sold him jinn blood that he used to heal his eye 

Safiya, the sultan’s deceased wife, storyteller, Mazen’s mother

Tawil, a thief who works for Omar 

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Review: ASH PRINCESS by Laura Sebastian


Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at 66%. 

Ash Princess is a generic young adult fantasy about a princess reclaiming her throne. I’ve read this story so many times before, and this one didn’t really bring anything new to the genre, plus it’s easy to predict how the series will ultimately end. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this book, but it just wasn’t for me. The more I read young adult, the more I realize I just can’t relate to most of it like I used to. I was just unengaged with every facet of the story, unfortunately. 

I was fairly detached from both the plot and the characters and didn’t really care how either would turn out. I knew halfway through the book I was going to rate it one star and that I wouldn’t be finishing the series, but I decided to continue listening to the audiobook anyway. But then I thought, why am I finishing this if I don’t like it? So I just decided to stop; I have too many other books I’d rather be reading instead. 

After I made the decision to not finish Ash Princess, I read up on some spoilers about how both this book and this series ends, and I found that I didn’t care one bit about who died or what happened, which is a good sign that DNFing this was the right decision for me. 

It’s not the book, not really; it’s me. I think a lot of people will enjoy this story, and I think I would have also enjoyed it a few years ago before I had read so much in the YA fantasy genre and subsequently became more enamored with adult fantasy instead, but I’m not the right audience for this book anymore. 

Review: A DEAL WITH THE ELF KING by Elise Kova


Rating: 3.5/5 stars

After reading and loving Elise Kova’s Loom Saga, I knew I wanted to read everything she’s written. I decided to make A Deal with the Elf King my next pick.

This is a standalone romantic fantasy set in a world Elise has created called Midscape, where she plans to write many standalone novels following different heroines with different kinds of magical romances. This one follows Luella as she is chosen as the next Human Queen to be wed to the Elf King. She must leave her home and her beloved calling as a healer to venture into Midscape and learn the ways of the Elves alongside her brooding new husband.

This book is fun and engaging all the way through. It’s a bit predictable at times but I think that’s part of the comfort that comes with reading it—that you can trust a happy ending is just around the corner. I had a really good time reading it.

I do wish this book had a map. I was a little unsure of the lay of the land based on how it was described, so being able to see it all laid out would have been nice. The characters talked about where the fae, merpeople, werewolves, and vampires lived in relation to the elf lands, and I think a map would have been beneficial for that scene. However, it was cool to get a preview of the different kinds of creatures that the future books will be based on. 

The world-building was a bit flimsy, unfortunately, and the magic very simple. But this book isn’t meant to be an epic fantasy, it’s meant to be a romance, so I don’t think this was too much of an issue. It was still very fun to read. 

I really enjoyed both Luella and Eldas as protagonists. They had a slow-burn romance, which felt right for them as they were thrown together at had to spend time getting to know each other. 

I love how the focus of the story is on Luella making choices for herself and not being tied down to traditions or expectations. I think that is a super important message to send, in any context: you always have a choice, your consent matters, and you should choose to follow your dreams. 

Overall, A Deal with the Elf King was a fun story and I’m looking forward to reading more books set in this world. 

Monday, March 7, 2022

Review: THE BLOOD TRIALS by N. E. Davenport


Rating: 1.75/5 stars

I had been very excited to read The Blood Trials for quite some time, ever since I first saw the amazing cover a few months ago, and I was very lucky and ecstatic to receive an early copy of it, which I immediately jumped into. Unfortunately, however, this book had so much language and violence in it that I almost DNFed it in chapter 3 for that reason alone. I persevered, though, because I really wanted to read this book and enjoy it, but the vulgarity and violence only got worse. 

The story here is surrounding Ikenna, a strong female protagonist who is hot-headed and quick to start a fight, in the aftermath of her grandfather’s murder. Her grandfather was the former Legatus Commander, a high-ranking official who trained her to keep her Blood gift a secret. Determined to discover who killed her grandfather and avenge his death, Ikenna pledges in the Praetorian Trials, a grueling set of physical tests that mean death for most who try. But Ikenna has an advantage with her Blood gift, a power that no one knows she has and that the government of Mareen tried to wipe out years ago. If she is found out, she will be killed. If she fails the trials, she will be killed. She might just be killed anyway because of her mixed heritage and dark skin color. But she will die fighting if that’s what it takes. 

One of the very first things I noticed about this book, which continued throughout the whole story, is that the writing is very choppy. There are lots of short sentences right after each other instead of being combined with commas and contractions. Stopping at so many periods so frequently was jarring and made for a reading experience that wasn’t too enjoyable for me. There also was not a lot of worldbuilding at all—just a little bit about the government of Mareen and the Pantheon of gods they may or may not believe in, but not much else. The writing style really makes this book feel like a debut novel to me. I kept being pulled out of the story because of how something was explained or the word choices made, and it made it clear that this story has a really cool concept but with poor execution. 

The trials started with over a thousand people, then there were 600, then 300 people left, yet the same five people are the only ones who ever get mentioned. It feels like no one important dies and no one else is even present because the lack of talk about them. Why do the training officers pick on the same handful of people in every chapter when literally hundreds of more options are out there? I know Ikenna isn’t going to interact with every single person in the trials with her, but how few people were actually mentioned made it feel rather unrealistic and like there was only a small group of people present the whole time. 

I could not connect to or care about any of the characters besides Ikenna. A lot of minor characters I got mixed up because they would be referenced once or twice in the beginning and then not at all in the middle and then again at the end, or there would be a ton of side characters introduced at once with no distinguishing traits between them and I was expected to remember them all. Just not very good character work in this book, in my opinion. 

This definitely feels like just a dystopian with a little bit of futuristic technology, instead of the science-fiction / fantasy crossover that I thought this was and that the cover and synopsis alluded to. I absolutely love the cover for this book, but I think it’s the wrong cover for the story within. The appearance of multiple planets and spired buildings are not indicative of the type of story this is; the vibrant colors on the cover make it seem more lighthearted, action-packed but fun, instead of the dark aggressive story focused on murder, racism, and bigotry that it is. 

The Blood Trials is very dark and gritty and violent, most of the book focusing on what Ikenna has to go through to survive the brutal trials. This honestly looks like a young adult book cover, but this is very much an adult book with adult content, and that’s to this book’s disadvantage because it is likely that the type of audience that will be drawn to the cover is not the type to be prepared for the directions the story takes (like me). 

I wanted to love this book, but I spent most of the story just waiting for it to end because I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I wanted to. I think this will be an amazing book for the right audience, and I thought that was me before I started it, but now after having read it, I know I’m not the right audience anymore. 

Because Ikenna is Black and suffers unnecessary racism in her world because of her mixed heritage, I think Black women looking for a strong female protagonist that they can see come out on top of all the suppressors would really enjoy this story. The author is Black and the main character is Black, and this just feels like a story written for the strong Black women out there who feel like they don’t belong but are powerful, determined fighters. This is a book for them, and that’s great because we need more books like that. But that’s not me. 

Even though this is a book I would describe as “good,” I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Ikenna faces so much hatred and injustices that it constantly made me just so mad. I read books to feel happy, so I didn’t want to keep returning to this story that I knew was going to keep making me angry with every passing page. 

I quit reading at 84% and skimmed to the end, reading dialogue here and there and then reading the last page. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had been suffering through this book for over two weeks, reading during every spare second I had, and it still would not end. I brought the book on vacation with me and read and read and read it, and I still was not done. From about 50% onward is when I switched from being engaged in the story to just wanting it to be done simply because I was not enjoying it anymore, but I pushed forward until I eventually decided to stop at 84%. The trials end at the 70% mark and the last 30% is just politics that set up the story that will take place during the sequel, which I already know I won’t be reading. Plus, even though I normally like political intrigue, I did not care about a single thing the characters were talking about or doing. I didn’t know who they were talking about or what the nations and alliances were, and I certainly didn’t care about the future of any one character or country. 

Overall, I am very disappointed with The Blood Trials. I wanted both more fantastical elements and more science-fiction elements, and I wanted less graphic on-page violence and less vulgarity. I also wanted more character development and world-building. I expected this book to be a new favorite, but I struggled to push myself through it and found myself not caring what happened in the end. Even though this book didn’t work out for me, I think this will be a great book for the right audience, so I encourage you to check if out if you’re interested. Just know ahead of time the content gets very dark.