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*I vow never to use ChatGPT to write content for this blog. First, I think it’s cheating and, second, the point of this book is for me to talk to the internet about what I’m reading.

The Magician’s Daughter, by H.G. Parry

Life on Hy-Brasil, off the west coast of Ireland, is nearly idyllic. Biddy would say nearly because, life on a remote island with only her guardian and his familiar can be a bit lonely, especially since that guardian regularly leaves the island on mysterious and dangerous errands. But in The Magician’s Daughter, by H.G. Parry, Biddy finally gets her chance to leave the island, only to find out what she’s been hidden from all these years. This book had me completely hooked and its spectacular ending is beautiful, poignant, and the perfect conclusion to an absolutely outstanding story.

There are few rules on Hy-Brasil. Never talk to the púca. Don’t use any of the magical items in Rowan’s study if Rowan isn’t there to supervise. Other than that, Biddy is free to roam and read her days away. Rowan’s nightly travels—from which he sometimes comes home injured—worry her. Biddy is sixteen and magic-less, so there’s not a lot she can do other than worry…until on night when Rowan doesn’t come home and, shortly after that, the day when Rowan’s magical fight with the Council arrives on Hy-Brasil in the form of menacing birds made of nothing but bone. After she and Rowan fight the birds off, she manages to coerce the mage into finally telling her what’s really been going on.

Biddy and Rowan’s world used to be full of magic. Wild magic could be harnessed for spells or, if left alone, change the luck of people whose lives it entered. Perhaps someone in desperate poverty would find food from nowhere on their tables or gold in an unlikely place. Someone sick might finally find that tubercular cough fading to nothing. But, seventy years before our story takes place, magic started to grow scarce. Mages hoarded every scrap they could find. In the United Kingdom, the Council hunted and kept any hint of magic in the isles. Rowan, however, turned rogue on them. He would steal and distribute magic to the poor, the sick, and the powerless. This is why the Council’s head, the sinister Vaughan and his monstrous henchman, Storm, very much want to kill Rowan.

Once Biddy’s in on the secret, she refuses to let Rowan fight alone. That’s also when the plot ramps up. There are magical fights, daring escapes, cunning plans, and a lot of tests of loyalty and love that had my heart aching for Biddy. I don’t want to give away anything else, for fear of ruining The Magician’s Daughter. So I’ll wrap this up by saying that you’ll love the characters, get swept away by the plot, and be astonished by the originality of it all. At the risk of being corny, I declare The Magician’s Daughter to be an utterly magical read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Bandit Queens, by Parini Shroff

Trigger warnings for domestic violence, attempted rape, and references to rape.

Geeta’s life is, paradoxically, easier now that her abusive husband is gone. I say paradoxically because, first, everyone in her village in rural India believes that the best life for a woman is as a wife and mother and, second, everyone thinks Geeta killed Ramesh. On the one hand, no more abuse and the pleasure of “eating her own salt”—earning a living and providing for herself. On the other, she does get a lot of side-eye and people calling her a witch. Geeta puts up with a lot in Parini Shroff’s blackly funny novel, The Bandit Queens, especially once the other women in her microloan group come to her for help getting rid of their own awful husbands.

The first woman who comes to Geeta is Farah, whose husband drinks away the family’s money and worse. Farah begs Geeta to help her kill off Samir and, reluctantly, Geeta agrees: but only to give Farah ideas. Farah has to do the deed herself. Even though Geeta has a reputation as a murderer, she is regularly horrified at her much more unethical and criminal acquaintances. The farce that follows as Farah and Geeta plot to murder Samir sets the tone for the rest of The Bandit Queens. I laughed out loud more than once as Geeta bickers with Farah, Solani, Preity, and Priya as the scheming thickens around her.

The comedy is tempered with a lot of surprisingly moving conversations Geeta has with Solani, Farah, and the others. Solani and Geeta used to be the best of friends until Ramesh came between them. It’s only now, when things are at their most chaotic, that Geeta and Solani finally have time to talk and realize how much they’ve wronged each other by letting a man sow mistrust between them. I was also touched by Geeta’s growing relationship with single dad, Karem. If only she can get through a few murders, she might be able to have love and friendship at last.

Some readers may shy away from the violence and references to violence in The Bandit Queens, but I had a surprising among of fun reading this book. I hope Shroff puts out another book soon!

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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The Stardust Thief, by Chelsea Abdullah

In Loulie’s world, magic is a scarce commodity. Its rarity not only affords her a decent living through trading magical relics but also has helped her build a fearsome (and therefore protective) reputation as the Midnight Merchant. Magic is rare in Loulie’s world because it comes from jinn, who have been hunted for centuries. Few people have ever seen a jinn, let alone their magic. And that’s where Loulie’s other secret comes in: her friend and bodyguard, Qadir. The two seem content living on the margins at the beginning of Chelsea Abdullah’s vibrant debut novel, The Stardust Thief. So when the sultan summons the Midnight Merchant to deliver a mission she can’t refuse, Loulie is more than a little miffed…and scared.

The Stardust Thief is one of those immersive, beautifully three-dimensional novels that picks readers up and carries them away into its story. We join the story as Loulie and Qadir are dealing with a wealthy merchant, who needs jinn blood to restore his lost eye. Scene set and magic introduced, we follow Loulie back into the city only to bump into another major character, Mazan, a prince who likes to listen to storytellers while incognito. I can’t sing Abdullah’s praises highly enough for the way she blends plot and exposition and character development in The Stardust Thief.

The unrefuseable job offer from the sultan turns out to be a journey to the lost city of the jinn, to find a lost relic with unimaginable power. Oh, and to make sure that Loulie doesn’t just disappear into the desert, the sultan informs her that his other son, the formidable jinn-hunter, Omar, will accompany her. Except, Omar has his own plans afoot and has worked out a way to swap places with his much more peaceful brother, Mazen. There are layers and layers of plot here, made all the more enthralling when we start to learn everyone’s secrets.

There is so much to enjoy in The Stardust Thief that it’s hard to say what I loved best about it. I adored the characters, especially the fierce Loulie, the story-seeking Mazan, and the conflicted warrior sent to accompany the group into the desert, Aisha. The plot is original and excellently paced. But I think what really does it for me in this book is the world-building. The world Abdullah created feels rich and lived-in, in a way that I’ve found rare in fantasy novels. There’s a sense of history to Loulie’s world, developed from snatches of folklore, clothing, and customs over the course of the book, that has real weight. I just want more of it and am going to have a very hard time waiting patiently for the next entry in the series.

Killers of a Certain Age, by Deanna Raybourn

The quartet of Billie, Helen, Natalie, and Mary Alice were supposed to kick off their retirement after decades of service to the Museum with a luxury cruise and a very large pension but, as Deanna Raybourn’s very satisfying thriller, Killers of a Certain Age kicks off, they learn that another operative has been sent to kill them off before they can enjoy the rewards of their hard work. Through flashbacks to different points in Billie’s career as an assassin, we learn more about what the Museum is and also how very, very deadly Billie and her team are. This book was a complete delight to read.

Once Billie et al. learn that someone at the Museum is after them, they spring into action—in spite of their aches and pains and their bewilderment that the organization they’ve worked for for such a long time has suddenly turned on them. Instead of enjoying the spa and luxury foods and, for Natalie, flirting with handsome staff members, the hunt down the operative, kill him, and discover that the operative has a bomb scheduled to blow the entire ship to smithereens. The action doesn’t slow down there. The plot races along as Billie and her crew work out the conspiracy against them, dispatch the agents sent to kill them, and plan their own revenge. Seriously, this book just doesn’t quite.

In addition to the excellent (I’m trying hard not to say killer here, but what the hell) present-day plot, Raybourn peppers the narrative with flashback chapters that take us back to the late 1970s, to Billie’s recruitment, and the 1980s, to see the quartet in action. The Museum we (and a young Billie) learn assembled in the wake of World War II out of members of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), Special Operations Executive (SOE), and other organizations in order to assassinate Nazis who escaped justice. The mission rolled into a new one, by the time Billie came around, to execute lethal justice to drug cartel leaders, international criminals, and other people they decided the world was better off without. We also learn that when an organization has the resources and will to be judge, jury, and executioner for a whole planet, it’s really hard to stay strictly ethical.

Killers of a Certain Age is one of the best, most original, and most entertaining thrillers I’ve ever read. I can’t praise it highly enough.

VenCo, by Cherie Dimaline

Lucky St. James is just trying to keep herself and her grandmother (who has dementia) fed, sheltered, and safe in Toronto when she is pulled into a centuries-old conflict between witches and the men who hunt them down in Cherie Dimaline’s tense novel, VenCo. We never really learn a lot about this world’s explanation for witch-hunting, which is a little frustrating, nor do we get much more than a series of backstories about the members of the coven Lucky is fated to join. The best parts of this book are the sections focused on Lucky herself, who stands out in an otherwise thin story.

Lucky has lived on the thin boundary between poverty and absolute penury for most of her life. Her mother, who had a knack for making magic out of nothing, taught Lucky everything she knew about survival before dying of cancer when Lucky was very young. When we meet her, Lucky makes ends meet with temp work and struggles to make sure that her grandmother is safe. Unfortunately for the duo, Lucky has just received word that she and her grandmother are going to be evicted. The sudden offer of a job in Salem, Massachusetts, delivered by a woman who is clearly not telling Lucky everything, is the kind of offer Lucky can’t turn down.

Once Lucky is introduced to the world of the Salem coven and its guiding organization, VenCo, things get a lot more interesting. Lucky and her new cohorts have to find the last member of their coven, to fulfill the hope that they will somehow (?) make the world a better place. The only thing standing their way is an immortal witch hunter, whose chapters absolutely made my skin crawl as this creature describes using everyone around him for his own advantage or pleasure.

The climax of VenCo is outstanding and may be worth the price of admission for fans of original witchy fiction. My biggest problem with VenCo is that, in spite of some really good characterization and magical combat, it races along so fast that we never get to settle into the other characters or how magic works or what VenCo and the Maiden, Mother, and Crone and its helm are really for. I feel like the plot and cast list should’ve been scaled back or expanded greatly so that all of the characters have more development and so that we can see further behind the scenes.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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The Spite House, by Johnny Compton

I’ve seen plenty of characters contemplate the price they’re willing to pay to achieve their ends, going all the way back to Odin plucking out his own eye for wisdom. Characters who pay these kinds of prices are heroes or legends; they do what we often can’t bring ourselves to do. Before I read Johnny Compton’s terrifying novel, The Spite House, I don’t think I’d ever seen a story that asked the corollary question: what price are we willing to make others pay so that we can have what we want? This book is full of selfish characters. Some are flat-out evil. Others (possibly even scarier ones) are convinced that their selfishness is justified by whatever “good” they want to achieve. Oh, and all of this takes place in a house so haunted that I couldn’t help but compare it to the one in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

We don’t know why Eric Ross and his two daughters have fled their previous lives in Maryland for an under-the-radar existence on the road. All we know is that the stakes are high enough that they have to keep their profiles so low that Eric has trouble making enough money to keep them fed and sheltered on their way back to his grandfather’s home in Odessa, Texas. That pressure leads Eric to answer an absolutely bonkers job offer, to stay in a potentially haunted house in Degener, Texas and report back any signs of the supernatural to its owner. The payout is big enough to tempt Eric to ignore the red flags and apply.

Meeting with Eunice Houghton, the owner of the Masson House and a good chunk of the town of Degener, reassures Eric and his oldest daughter, Des, enough that they agree to the job. We readers know, however, that Eunice isn’t being honest about the Masson House’s full history. She certainly doesn’t tell Eric what happened to the last two people who stayed in the house. Instead, she tells Eric a bit about how the strange spite house came to be built and a little about her family’s curse, which has roots back in the American Civil War. Unfortunately, the supernatural shenanigans start the very first night the Ross family stays in the spite house. The only character who isn’t frightened out of their wits for most of the book is Eric’s youngest daughter, Stacy—but then, she has a very good reason not to fear death.

At first, The Spite House keeps its cards close to its metaphorical chest. I actually thought it waited a little too long to start revealing what was really motivating Eric and Eunice. But once the secrets start to spill, the pace really picks up. And what secrets they are! I thought I had a good handle on what to expect but The Spite House defied every one of my expectations. Aside from my quibble about its initially slow pace, I was completely hooked by this novel. I blazed through the last third of the novel because I had to know who would survive the big climax and what price the characters would have to pay for their survival. Also, a big part of what kept me reading was a kind of horrified fascination with how far the characters would go to achieve their goals. Rational behavior goes straight out the window for most of the major characters, especially Eric, in part because everyone has justified their own actions so well that they never stop to really consider the harm they might be doing to the people caught in their wake. I just couldn’t look away from this big, haunted car wreck.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

1912 postcard featuring a spite house in Massachusetts (Image via Wikicommons)

The Daughters of Izdihar, by Hadeer Elsbai

I’ll be blunt about Hadeer Elsbai’s The Daughters of Izdihar. There are some serious problems with this book. There’s the fact that it ends on a massive cliffhanger. (This is the first half of a duology.) There’s the fact that most of the characters, especially the men, are utterly repellent misogynists. There’s the the fact that the entire magic system is criminally underdeveloped, even though one of the protagonist’s goals is to study that very magic system. And yet, in spite of all of that, I still want to know what happens in part two.

The Daughters of Izdihar follows two protagonists, the impulsive and domineering Nehal and the more circumspect Giorgina. Nehal spends much of the narrative full of (rightful) anger at her circumstances. All she wants is to learn more about her water magic and use it to defend her country. Instead, she learns that she is going to be married to a rich aristocrat she’s never met so that her dowry can be used to pay off the family’s debts. Giorgina, meanwhile, lives on the other end of the class structure. Her poor family needs her income to survive, but she doesn’t mind that—what she minds is her very conservative father’s dictates on her behavior and that of her sisters. When she’s not at work, Giorgina agitates with a women’s rights group or spends time with her rich boyfriend. Unfortunately for Giorgina, that rich boyfriend is the same man that Nehal has just been forced to marry.

From that inauspicious start, we watch as Nehal uses her force of personality to get what she wants out of the marriage (permission and funding to learn how to use her magic) before she pushes her way into the same women’s rights group Giorgina has been working for. The two seem set for conflict but, thankfully for all involved, Nehal has no romantic feelings or attraction for her unwilling husband. The major plot points instead focus on escalating episodes of violence. Whenever the eponymous Daughters of Izdihar show up to protest or march, police and anti-magic/anti-women groups show up to provoke violence, landing the women in increasingly dire straights. Other readers have pointed out that Giorgina, Nehal, and others turn to men to get out of these predicaments and found this problematic. I agree to a certain extent but the world that Elsbai created for her characters doesn’t allow for them to save themselves…at least until enough women lose their tempers that they might actually start a revolution to claim their rights.

There are things in this book that could’ve been written with more nuance but I am very curious to see if Nehal, Giorgina, and their allies blow everything up in part two. Readers who want more realistic and believable depictions of male characters or more magic should steer clear of The Daughters of Izdihar. Readers who are intriguied should probably wait for part to to come out; I really wasn’t kidding about the cliffhanger at the end.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.