Into the Riverlands, by Nghi Vo

Into the Riverlands, the third volume of Nghi Vo’s delightful series of novellas (see my reviews for The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain), continues the adventures of Chih and Almost Brilliant as they collect whatever stories the people they meet care to share. Chih also seems to be a magnet for trouble, too, although they never cause it. They are modest enough that they probably wouldn’t consider their (mis)adventures worth saving, so it’s definitely a good thing that their avian companion Almost Brilliant has perfect recall and can share all the thrilling and comical details of what befalls the pair.

Chih and Almost Brilliant walk into a tea shop for food and refreshment in the notoriously dangerous Riverlands (home of the fearsome Hollow Hand bandits, warlords, and other people who like to murder and rob) and, before their order arrives, a fight breaks out. The waitress carrying Chih’s tea collides with a belligerent man. The man starts to throw his weight around and, like a good (if less than pious) cleric, Chih attempts to defuse the situation. Chih’s efforts are in vain. Thankfully, a martial artist sitting nearby decides to throw her weight around with the bully. Fists and furniture fly in a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a wuxia movie. The next thing we know, Chih is traveling deeper into the Riverlands with the martial artist, her sworn sister, and an older couple who take charge of the scene in the tavern before turning into something like camp counselors for the younger members of the party.

The Riverlands road the quintet travel is not entirely safe and everyone except Chih keeps a weather eye out for trouble. In between episodes of “trouble,” they tell stories to Chih and Almost Brilliant about warrior women and legendary heroes. These stories provide an extra couple of layers to Into the Riverlands, which is one of the things I love about this series; you get many more stories than you pay for here. The tellers don’t intend it but, through our vantage point at Chih’s shoulders, we can see connections in the form of women who break out of their expected roles to make their own destinies with their fists, determination, and the help of good friends. By the time Chih separates from her road companions, it’s easy to see that there might be another pair of sworn companions who might someday become legends.

These vibrant novellas are the perfect way to be transported for an afternoon; I had a wonderful time with Chih, Almost Brilliant, and their protectors in the Riverlands. I adore the way that Nghi Vo borrows from Chinese, Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian cultures for worldbuilding and story inspiration and I hope this series continues for many more books.

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

The Path of Thorns, by A.G. Slatter

Trigger warning for references to interpersonal violence.

I’m not sure if this is true of nannies in real life, but governesses in fiction always seem to end up with more duties than were on the original job description. The employers might say that the job entails nothing more than taking care of the children and tutoring them, but the description always seems to expand to keeping the previous wife from murdering the man of the house (Jane Eyre), preventing the young son from turning into a psychopath (Agnes Grey), or magically healing the family (Mary Poppins et al.). The protagonist of A.G. Slatter’s thrilling novel, The Path of Thorns, is no different from her fictional peers in this respect; her list of duties never stops expanding. What makes her different is that she seems to have all of these duties: tutoring, minding the kids, preventing murders, healing families, mitigating the actions of a psychopath—plus she also has to contend with ghosts, a handsome werewolf, and a ghastly scheme to hold on to wealth and power on top of all that.

Asher Todd certainly has a lot on her plate. Thankfully, she’s one of the highly capable protagonists that I love to see in fantasy novels. Instead of swooning or looking to someone else to be the hero, Asher starts righting wrongs almost from the moment she sets foot in Morwood Grange. There is something very wrong at the Grange. Well, to be honest, there are a lot of things wrong at the Grange. The man of the house, Luther Morwood, is a monster. His wife is a shadow of herself after years of abuse. She wants to protect her children but isn’t able to stand up to her husband. Luther’s blind mother might be able to rein in her son but, when Asher whips up a potion to cure her cataracts, turns out to be as much of a villain as her son. Meanwhile, it seems like there’s someone running around poisoning people, so there’s one more thing for Asher to attend to. Plus, Asher’s being haunted by her mother who, before she died, Asher made impossible promises to.

There’s a lot of plot in The Path of Thorns, making for a highly entertaining read, with plenty of twists to keep you on your toes. These twists revolve around all of Asher’s obligations. Although she might strike one as a reserved character, Asher is the sort of person to jump in with an offer of help without stopping to ask questions. Ordinarily, Asher is just the sort of Samaritans we need more of (in fiction and in real life). The problem is that unscrupulous characters use that sense of duty to wheedle promises out of her that, if fulfilled, would cause even more harm. Asher is frequently torn between her promises and other characters she wants to protect. Watching her find a way to thread that needle was utterly engrossing.

The Path of Thorns is full of allusions to other stories and fairy tales that we might know, like Little Red Riding Hood and Frankenstein and Jane Eyre and others. I’ve noticed that Slatter is particularly good at taking characters and motifs from other stories and spinning them into wholly original and engaging stories (see my review for All the Murmuring Bones). Slatter is so good at this—and character development and plot twists and pacing—that she’s near the top of my “I must get my hands on a copy forthwith” list. I hope she similarly rises to the tops of your “gotta have it” lists.

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

Nettle & Bone, by T. Kingfisher

Trigger warning for intimate partner violence.

When someone tells us something is impossible, we usually take that pronouncement at face value. We know that we either don’t have the talent to do the thing or that the thing requires too many resources or changes or that the thing violates the laws of physics. When Marra hears that something is impossible, she does the thing. She does the thing because not doing the thing means that her sister will die at the hands of a wicked prince. In Nettle & Bone, by T. Kingfisher, we see Marra and her band of allies take on the impossible in this dark but very satisfying fantasy. This book will be perfect for readers who like fairy tales but who also wish that they could be a little more practical.

Marra is the youngest of three sisters in a very small kingdom caught between two more powerful ones. In order to eke out a little more independence, Marra’s mother arranges for Marra’s oldest sister to marry the prince of the northern kingdom. When this sister dies abruptly, Marra’s next oldest sister goes as a replacement. Marra is sent to a convent to be kept out of the way. She is not very diplomatic; she asks far too many questions for anyone’s comfort. But when she’s summoned north for her sister’s laying-in and subsequent christening of her niece, those uncomfortable questions reveal that the prince is dangerously violent. Marra has to do something to get her sister out of there while also avoiding an invasion of her home. It’s an impossible task, but we know from page one that Marra isn’t afraid of doing impossible things in the name of saving lives.

On page one of Nettle & Bone, we see Marra create a dog from bones and wire. Anyone else would say that this is impossible. To Marra, the bone dog is just the latest in a list of impossible tasks given to her by a dust-wife (a witch who can speak with the dead) in exchange for help getting rid of the prince. Before long, Marra assembles a group of unlikely heroes to go north and death with the magically protected prince: the bone dog and the dust wife, of course, but also a warrior who made the mistake of sleeping in a fairy ring and a godmother who is better at cursing things than delivering blessings.

Once I got the hang of the book’s tone (adventurous with lashings of metafictional snark), I enjoyed the hell out of Nettle & Bone. Marra delighted me as a heroine and I loved Kingfisher’s originality. I would definitely recommend this to readers looking for a fast, fun read that’s not too fluffy.

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

The Bone Orchard, by Sara A. Mueller

Trigger warnings for references to rape, pedophilia, and physical abuse.

Charm is a hard woman to figure out. Most people know that she came from an area brutally conquered by the emperor but, now, she closes her exclusive brothel on Tuesdays to cater to that emperor. She seems to have made a very cozy nest for herself, as far as we can tell at the beginning of Sara A. Mueller’s enthralling The Bone Orchard. It wasn’t until near the end of Charm’s story of revenge, politics, healing, and hope that I understood Charm’s contradictions–and she seems to finally understand herself.

Charm is a woman in a gilded cage. A bit of magic implanted in her skull keeps her from doing anything more rebellious than coloring her hair in bright colors while only wearing mourning black. Almost as soon The Bone Orchard opens, Charm is summoned to the imperial palace where the emperor who ruined her life and destroyed her country lies dying after someone poisoned him. Once there, the emperor gives Charm one final set of commands: she has to find out which of his three sons poisoned him and make sure that none of them sit on the throne. He then reverses all of his other commands so that, once she finishes this last task, she’ll be free.

As if Charm doesn’t already have enough on her plate, The Bone Orchard takes us behind the scenes at Orchid House and its very unique staff. The women who work there are bone ghosts, created by Charm and a mysterious woman known as the Lady. They are created from bones grown behind Orchid House, then animated by ghosts known as Pain, Pride, Justice, and Shame. We learn where the ghosts came from over the course of the book in some of the best character development I’ve ever read.

I loved a lot of The Bone Orchard. Charm and her women are fantastic creations. The magic system is original and deadly. And the politics are top notch. The only thing that bothered me about this book is the way that mental disorders and illness are treated. Where Charm’s psyche is portrayed with compassion and depth, the men are written off as irredeemably insane and violent. The magic system probably make that true, but it was still an odd note to strike. This is definitely Charm’s book and there are other great characters here. Like I said, I loved a lot of this book. I just wished that every part was written as well as Charm was.

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

The God of Lost Words, by A.J. Hackwith

With The God of Lost Words, A.J. Hackwith’s wonderful trilogy about Claire, her friends, and Hell’s library comes to a close. I’m a little sad about it, but this closing volume is a beautiful, magical send-off. Readers will definitely want to read the first two books in the series, because this one starts with the cast in the thick of plots kicked off in the earlier volumes. I kind of envy those readers. They don’t have to wait a year between each part of the series; they can swallow the trilogy whole.

In the first volume of the series, we meet Claire, the librarian of the Unwritten Wing of a massive supernatural series of libraries that collect all kinds of unpublished and unrecorded stories. For centuries, the Unwritten Wing has been tucked away in a corner of Hell. The status quo was disturbed when an exiled demon made a move to take over the library, setting off all kinds of infernal schemes that took Claire out of the Library and into different versions of the afterlife, introduced her to all sorts of amazing characters, and made her question if there is something greater to fight for than a comfortable existence in a cozy library with an endless supply of tea. (Although, how awesome would that be?)

The most important thing that Claire has discovered is the power—the real power of stories—and the thing that has caused all the fuss in the first place as various entities have scrambled for control of the library. This is what I loved most about The God of Lost Words, and the Hell’s Library series. I am a firm believer in stories. I think they are how we interpret everything, how we understand each other, and how we learn who we are. Stories are how the lost angel Remi learns to free himself of past ties and how the newly freed Hero discovers that he’s worthy of love. I feel myself starting to gush, but that’s how much I loved this conclusion to the Hell’s Library series.

If you love stories as much as I do, I strongly recommend this series. I hope that it warms your bookish soul the way it warmed mine.

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

Look to the Sun, by Emmie Mears

A city on the brink of civil war is a lousy place to start falling in love, but it turns out to be a perfect place to set a love story. In Look to the Sun, by Emmie Mears, a series of chance events in the first pages leads Beo to Rose. They share a love-at-first-sight look that comes straight out of a romance. The difference for these lovers is that a menacing, anti-LGBT+ and anti-polyamory fascist government is intent on turning the city of Sanmarian into a place where men are men, women are housewives, and there is no place whatsoever for anyone who refuses to conform. So while a civil war maybe isn’t a great place for finding the love of one’s life, it’s absolutely a great place to find the strength to fight for everyone’s right to love who they love.

Rose and Beo have one thing in common before they meet. They’ve both read a book that no one else has ever heard of. After they track each other down after their first accidental meeting, the book helps them connect. Meanwhile, the fascist government is making moves to ramp up their transformation (they call it reconditioning) of society. Anyone who stands in their way is disappeared. Propaganda and slogans of their views are daubed across the city, to entice like-minded people to their side and warn their enemies that their time is coming. Rose and Beo barely have time to understand their feelings—let alone declare them—before they also have to ask themselves how involved they want to be in the resistance.

For all the fear and violence in Look to the Sun, I found myself falling in love with the protagonists and Sanmarian. I loved seeing all the throuples and same-sex couples living together without anyone questioning the normality of it. I loved that no one faced any shame or discrimination because of their sexuality or gender expression. I also adored the way that so many different European traditions are blended together into the cities culture: Pamplona’s running of the bulls, the Mediterranean’s warm stone architecture, street food and tea, and so on. I want to go to Sanmarian (but after the revolution, of course). I just can’t say enough good things about this novel; I loved every page.

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

The Death of Jane Lawrence, by Caitlin Starling

The Death of Jane Lawrence, by Caitlin Starling, has just joined the club of books that made me think, “what the hell did I just read?” This fantastical, horrifying novel takes place in a world that feels Victorian, but where magic is a mythical and very dangerous thing. The rules of this world’s magic involve rituals, strange ingredients, and a lot of dedication. After nearly 400 pages, that’s all I know. This might frustrate some readers. It certainly frustrated me a bit. The eponymous character Jane was so interesting and so fierce that I was able to make it through whole chapters where I wasn’t sure I knew what was going on, but she doesn’t quite make up for the muddled narrative. To be honest, my favorite parts of this book were the chapters before Jane takes up magic.

Jane is an odd duck. She prefers accounting and mathematics to anything else, and we are told that her cool logic puts people off. When her guardians decide to move to the capital, where her annuity won’t go far enough, Jane surveys the local bachelors to try and find herself a husband. She decides on the new(ish) doctor, Augustine Lawrence. After a little argumentation—and some sparks that romance readers will recognize—Jane and Augustine come to an agreement. They will marry. Jane will live in the surgery in town. Augustine will spend his nights at his ancestral pile, where Jane is forbidden to stay. Of course, that agreement immediately breaks down due to a washed-out road that prevents Jane from traveling back to town after a semi-celebratory dinner.

And then things get weird. Really weird. There are ghosts. The house is haunted by strange creatures. Things move around with no explanation. Worse of all for Jane, she learns that Augustine is emotionally haunted by a dead woman who later turns out to be his dead first wife. By this point, I was getting serious Jane Eyre vibes; vibes that might have made me feel more disappointed by this book than I might have otherwise. (For a much better, and much more interesting, retelling of Jane Eyre, try Jane Steele, by Lindsay Faye.) Just when I thought things couldn’t get any weirder for Jane and the doctor, Jane starts manifesting magic against whatever is trying to either drive them mad or kill them both.

The Death of Jane Lawrence touches on some interesting themes about arrogance, the limits of human ingenuity to prevent death, and messing with things that should not be messed with. But the end of this book is such a muddle that I really have no idea what Jane was doing or why in her efforts to try and rescue her husband. Worse, I thought that all of the solid character development for Jane went right out the window after she gets married. We are told more than once that Jane is logical, a problem-solver. But the hauntings and her growing affection for Augustine turn her into almost a completely different person. I hate to use the word, but Jane is hysterical more often than not. It’s only later, after Augustine gaslights her or another character tries to explain away whatever supernatural shenanigans just happened, that she manages to calm down and use her brain. This is what I found out of character and it really bothered me. I expected a so-called coldly logical woman to be able to walk into a haunted mansion without going to pieces. I really wish this book had lived up to the promise of its first chapters.

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

Under the Whispering Door, by T.J. Klune

T.J. Klune’s new novel, Under the Whispering Door, hit me right in the feels. This funny, beautiful, profound, slightly soppy story is just what I expect from the writer who gave us The House in the Cerulean Sea. It’s a sign of Klune’s brilliance that this book is so full of warm fuzzies considering that it’s about death and what comes after.

When we first meet him, protagonist Wallace Price is an asshole. He’s a workaholic lawyer who lives a life so efficient that it’s devoid of any hint of happiness. His sudden death from a heart attack doesn’t change anything. The hilarious roasting at his funeral doesn’t help his mood much either. Then a young woman who says she’s a reaper whisks him away to a ramshackle tea shop in the middle of nowhere and a man who calls himself a ferryman. Mei (the reaper) and Hugo (the ferryman) declare that they’re here to help Wallace transition from his new ghostly state to whatever lies in the afterlife. Wallace is having none of it.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief are a frequent theme in Under the Whispering Door. Wallace bounces back and forth between denial, anger, and some brief moments of depression eventually give way to acceptance as Wallace sheds his identity as a Scrooge-like lawyer to become an actually alright kind of guy. More than that, Wallace appears to have found his soulmate in Hugo. Too bad Wallace is dead. This not-so-little fact provides a whopping dose of pathos. The two of them are so delightful together that I started hoping that they would find a way to be together, for real. The stages of grief come back with a fury when that little dilemma suddenly gets a deadline when Hugo and Mei’s boss shows up.

Under the Whispering Tree is as close to a perfect book as I’ve ever seen. There are action scenes and hilarious moments of ghostly shenanigans to leaven the long discussions Hugo and Wallace have about life, happiness, regret, their jobs, the afterlife, mistakes, and so much more. Readers with a more traditional view of the afterlife might not enjoy this book as much as readers who are more flexible about what might happen after death. Religion is conspicuously absent from this book and I loved that Klune offers such a wide-open possibility for what happens after we shuffle off our mortal coils. And I especially love that the possibility might include a cup of tea that always tastes like home.

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

Notes for Bibliotherapeutic Use: Recommend to readers who are grieving.

Honeycomb, by Joanne M. Harris

Once upon a time—or as the story begins here, Long ago and far away—there were the Silken Folk. Normal humans can’t see these fantastical, magical insects. The many (mostly linked) stories in Honeycomb, by Joanne M. Harris, tell the story of the Lacewing King, the High King of the Silken Folk, and his long path towards redemption for his early cruelty. More stories interrupt the main narrative to reinforce lessons about common sense, kindness, karma, and being able to see things as they really are. Harris doesn’t quite capture the sound of Grimm and Perrault’s tales, but she definitely nailed the essence of a good fairy tale.

Perhaps it’s their magic or their insectile natures, but the Silken Folk are often oblivious to the pain they cause others—especially to humans who come across their path. It’s little wonder, then, that Lacewing King is demanding, temperamental, and frankly cruel. He only cares about what might amuse him or taking things from others when they catch his eye. And then he flits off, never to be seen again for the most part. He makes enemies the way other people make their morning coffee. In fact, one of those enemies, the Spider Queen, plots against him for most of the book. In spite of his casual cruelty, however, the Lacewing King does manage to capture the love and loyalty of people and Silken folk who later bail him out from his biggest catastrophes.

The first half of Honeycomb is a long set-up. The linked stories and the side stories about politicking farm animals, clockwork creatures and inventors, lots of kings who will never be satisfied, slowly introduce characters and concepts in a universe that alludes to Shakespeare, Norse mythology, First Corinthians, and much more. It all slowly builds to a confrontation between the Lacewing King and three Queens that sees the King put on trial for one of his early crimes. At the risk of spoiling things, the aftermath of the trial sends the King and his adopted Barefoot Princess spinning through the Nine Worlds. The second—and much more melancholy—half is a long struggle for the King and the Princess to get back to their rightful places.

The more I read of Honeycomb, the more I enjoyed it. It took some time to adjust my reading to accommodate the linked stories and the interstitial stories. This book requires a lot of mental juggling to keep all the plots and the characters straight, as well as to read the interstitial stories in such a way that I would see their morals. Having said that, I worry that I’m making Honeycomb sound too challenging and that I’ll scare off readers. Don’t be afraid of this amazing book! Reading it left me reveling at Harris’s artistry and with a whole head full of rich stories to reflect on. This book is as close to genius as I’ve ever seen.

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

The Beautiful Ones, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I love a great love story. The meet-cute. The falling in love. The happily ever after especially. I got all of that in The Beautiful Ones, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, along with the epiphany that I probably never want to be in a great love story. I wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure. The emotions are too high. The stakes are enormous. That said, I was swept away by the incredible characters and the fantastically tangled plot of this book. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s books just keep getting better and better.

Hector Auvrey has returned to Loisail after a decade away, making his fortune to win back his great love, Valerie. Except, at the first social engagement where they might meet, Valerie doesn’t show. Hector then retreats to the great house’s library until he can leave without insulting anyone. But instead of slinking off to formulate a new plan, Nina ducks into the library to hide, too. (I love it when characters meet in a library.) To both their surprise, Hector and Nina can talk to each other without any artifice or shyness. When Hector learns that Nina is Valerie’s cousin-by-marriage, he realizes that he might have his plan B…except that their budding connection seems to be more real than Hector and Valerie’s remembered love.

The characters grow against the backdrop of a high-drama plot, so much so that I had to read The Beautiful Ones as fast as I could to see if Moreno-Garcia was going for a happily ever after or for tragedy. Hector’s broken heart slowly heals as he realizes what really matters in a partner. Nina comes out of her shell after finding someone who doesn’t judge her for her lack of social graces. Valerie fascinated me the most. She is one of the glittering Beautiful Ones of the title. It didn’t take me long, however, to see that Valerie’s beauty was only skin deep. Valerie was pushed into marriage to a rich man to repair the family fortunes; she only survives her unhappiness by transforming herself into the perfect society lady. Her disappointments and transformation have made her cruel. She became one of the most spectacular villains I’ve ever read.

There is a fantasy element to The Beautiful Ones. Both Hector and Nina can move things with their minds. While this ability gives the characters an excuse to meet repeatedly, I don’t know that it was necessary. There was enough going on in this fin de siècle French-flavored novel. I was enchanted by the setting and Loisail society. The setting was the perfect venue, rich enough to support all the drama. The setting, together with the plot and the characters, made for a banquet of a book. There is so much wonderful stuff in The Beautiful Book that my tiny quibble about the possible superfluity of the telekinesis doesn’t matter at all. Read this gorgeous book immediately!

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