Book Review: Soulstar (The Kingston Cycle, #3) by C. L. Polk

Title: Soulstar
Series: The Kingston Cycle, #3
Author: C. L. Polk
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: February 16, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

With Soulstar, C. L. Polk concludes her riveting Kingston Cycle, a whirlwind of magic, politics, romance, and intrigue that began with the World Fantasy Award-winning Witchmark. Assassinations, deadly storms, and long-lost love haunt the pages of this thrilling final volume.

For years, Robin Thorpe has kept her head down, staying among her people in the Riverside neighborhood and hiding the magic that would have her imprisoned by the state. But when Grace Hensley comes knocking on Clan Thorpe’s door, Robin’s days of hiding are at an end. As freed witches flood the streets of Kingston, scrambling to reintegrate with a kingdom that destroyed their lives, Robin begins to plot a course that will ensure a freer, juster Aeland. At the same time, she has to face her long-bottled feelings for the childhood love that vanished into an asylum twenty years ago.

Can Robin find happiness among the rising tides of revolution? Can Kingston survive the blizzards that threaten, the desperate monarchy, and the birth throes of democracy? Find out as the Kingston Cycle comes to an end.

In the third and final book in the Kingston Cycle trilogy, we pick up within weeks of the end of book #2 (Stormsong), this time with the character Robin Thorpe serving as our narrator.

Robin was introduced in the previous books, but here takes center stage. She’s a nurse at the veteran’s hospital, but also comes from a witch clan and has strong ties to the activist movement within Kingston. As the book opens, Robin is very involved in the mission to free imprisoned witches from the horrific asylums where they were kept for the past twenty years and bring them home to their families. Among the freed witches is Zelind, Robin’s spouse, whom she hasn’t seen in all these years.

Society within Kingston is in turmoil, as the aether powering the city has been cut off, the lower classes are suffering, and demands for social justice are on the rise. Meanwhile, the new King has promised change, but seems especially focused on slow, incremental change that doesn’t challenge the status quo in a significant way. Robin’s people want dramatic action, and she becomes in political activism that threatens to overturn the entire government structure of Aeland.

The book very much focuses on activism, political change, and reparations — but the thematic elements don’t seem to mesh well with the fantasy elements. The witches are present as an oppressed class demanding justice, but the politics take precedence. As in the previous books, I was frustrated by the lack of clarity over some basic questions around the fantasy world, such as the presence of ghosts and who can see them, the significance of soulstars, and even the question of who knows what about magic and witches. Additionally, the various political and social and community-based factions introduced all become one big blur over the course of the novels. At times when there was a big reveal, rather than feeling the impact, I first had to go back and check to see who these people were and what role they played.

Wrapping up the trilogy:

I’ve had my eye on these books ever since Witchmark (book 1) was released, and picked up paperback editions over the years. With all three books on my shelf, I was determined to make 2022 the year I finally read them.

Sad to say, I was for the most part underwhelmed. While I liked key characters, I was disappointed to see the main characters from the first two books shunted aside in the narrative from book to book, relegated to supporting roles and with no further exploration of their inner lives.

For a fantasy world, I expected much more in terms of the fantastical elements and the world-building. Instead, I’d describe these books as a story of political change and social justice that happens to be set in a fantasy world.

I had hoped to love these books. I didn’t. I was interested enough in the characters to see the trilogy through to the end, but I can’t say that this trilogy will ever make a list of my favorites.

Book Review: Stormsong (The Kingston Cycle, #2) by C. L. Polk

Title: Stormsong
Series: The Kingston Cycle, #2
Author: C. L. Polk
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: February 11, 2020
Length: 346 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

After spinning an enthralling world in Witchmark, praised as a “can’t-miss debut” by Booklist, and as “thoroughly charming and deftly paced” by the New York Times, C. L. Polk continues the story in Stormsong. Magical cabals, otherworldly avengers, and impossible love affairs conspire to create a book that refuses to be put down.

Dame Grace Hensley helped her brother Miles undo the atrocity that stained her nation, but now she has to deal with the consequences. With the power out in the dead of winter and an uncontrollable sequence of winter storms on the horizon, Aeland faces disaster. Grace has the vision to guide her people to safety, but a hostile queen and a ring of rogue mages stand in the way of her plans. There’s revolution in the air, and any spark could light the powder. What’s worse, upstart photojournalist Avia Jessup draws ever closer to secrets that could topple the nation, and closer to Grace’s heart.

Can Aeland be saved without bloodshed? Or will Kingston die in flames, and Grace along with it?

Book two of the Kingston Cycle by C. L. Polk continues and builds upon the story begun in Witchmark. In Witchmark, we’re introduced to the world of Aeland, an early industrial-age country coming out of a brutal war with neighboring Laneer. Our point of view character is Dr. Miles Singer, a traumatized war veteran who himself treats suffering war veterans, all the while keeping his true identity — son of one of the most powerful families in Aeland — a tightly held secret.

In Aeland, the ruling families control the climate through magical rituals, maintaining the even, pleasant seasons year-round and enabling good harvests and a strong economy. By the end of Witchmark, certain truths have come to light, among them the fact that the aether powering Aeland (basically, electricity) is generated via a truly heinous conspiracy. Through the intervention of Miles, his lover, and his sister, the conspiracy is broken apart, but that’s resulted in the shutdown of aether power.

As we pick up in Stormsong, the country is facing a harsh winter without heat or power, and the food supply is threatened as well. Aeland is a country of haves and have-nots, and outside of the royalty and the inner circle of ruling families, almost eveyone is in the latter category.

In Stormsong, Miles’s sister Grace takes over as the point of view character. Dame Grace Hensley is a powerful mage and political leader, but she faces a growing circle of enemies and obstacles. The conspirators behind the aether atrocities are all imprisoned, but their influence is still widely felt. The remaining power players are jockeying for key positions, and Grace’s leadership may come apart at any moment if she can’t solidify her political alliances.

Stormsong is very much about enacting social change. Grace knows that certain horrible laws need to be overturned, but at the outset, she thinks the country needs to ease into it. Yes, the persecution of witches (as revealed in Witchmark) is a travesty, but she fears that the outrage that will erupt when this becomes widely known will have a devastating effect on the country. Slow and steady seems to be her initial approach — maybe stop the badness, but still keep it a secret?

Over time, though, a courageous journalist and other activists push the agenda forward and force Grace’s hand. It’s a complex set of considerations and actions — social justice issues, political power, and the stability of the reigning monarchy are all at play.

The author finds a way to blend the personal and the political here in Stormsong, showing us the stakes for the society as a whole as well as the personal risks to Grace and those she cares about. Grace as an individual is fascinating — a young professional woman who seeks to stay in power because she knows she can do good, but who’s also very much aware that her family’s privilege, built over many years of corruption, are what gave her access to power in the first place.

I would have liked to have seen Miles more in this book (I became very attached to him in book #1), but he does participate with Grace in key scenes, and it’s nice to see that he’s doing well and that his love life is thriving!

One of my complaints about Witchmark was about insufficiently clear world-building. I felt that there were too many concepts that were introduced but not well explained. Some aspects are clearer to me now after reading Stormsong, but I’d still like certain things spelled out even more — especially the Amaranthines, a race (?) or species (?) of people (?) who are feared by all, seem to have unfathomable magical powers, and who intervene in the conflicts between people when they seem fit. I’ve seen other bloggers and commenters interpret them as being this world’s equivalent of the Fae, which helps me make better sense of them, although I think they’re maybe also supposed to be some sort of celestial (?) beings, and their world is called Solace (?) but also has something to do with where souls of the dead go, so maybe some sort of heaven (?).

As you can see, I’m still somewhat confused!

I like the overarching story and the characters enough that I want to know what happens next, so I’ll be continuing onward to book #3, Soulstar. Here’s hoping it all comes together and that everything is crystal clear by the time I finish the trilogy!

Book Review: Witchmark (The Kingston Cycle, #1) by C. L. Polk

Title: Witchmark
Series: The Kingston Cycle, #1
Author: C. L. Polk
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: June 19, 2018
Length: 318 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

C. L. Polk arrives on the scene with Witchmark, a stunning, addictive fantasy that combines intrigue, magic, betrayal, and romance.

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.

Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.

When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen. 

I’ve had my eye on Witchmark for a few years now — I’m so glad I finally sat down with the book and gave it a try!

In Witchmark, we’re introduced to a steampunk-flavored world in which aether lines power lighting and telephones, while average people get around the city on bicycles or in horse-drawn carriages. Witchcraft exists, but it’s divided very sharply along class lines: There is a secret inner circle of nobility with magical powers, known as the Invisibles. They serve the Queen, and keep Aeland protected from storms and natural disasters through quarterly rituals to sing in the seasons.

Invisibles have powers that run through the generations of their families, and in general, there’s one main mage in the family, who uses a lesser-powered family member (known as a Secondary) essentially as a backup battery. The Secondary is magically bound to the family mage, and their own strength is drained as needed in order to power the required spells.

In the lower classes, however, witchcraft is feared and something to be punished. A person accused of witchcraft is tried and examined, and if found guilty, is committed to a witches’ asylum — permanently. It’s a scary, gruesome fate.

The main character in Witchmark is Dr. Miles Singer. A son of the powerful Hensley family, Miles fled home years earlier to join the army and pursue a medical education. He let it be known that he was killed in the vicious war with Laneer; meanwhile, he actually returned home to the city of Kingston, where he works in psychiatric medicine at a veterans’ hospital.

When a dying man, claiming to have been poisoned, identifies Miles as a Starred One — someone gifted with magic — he sets off a chain reaction that leads to Miles becoming embroiled in investigating the possible murder, as well as strange occurrences involving war veterans, otherworldly interest in missing souls, and dire scheming and jockeying for political power among the nobility. He also becomes unwillingly reintroduced to his estranged family and forced to participate in their power plays.

Something sinister is happening behind the scenes, threatening all of Aeland society, and with an unexpected companion, it’s up to Miles to figure it out before it’s too late, even at the risk of his own life.

Witchmark is an engaging read, thanks especially to Miles. Miles is a complex character, with his aristocratic background, his war service and resulting psychological damage, and his commitment to treating and supporting the wounded veterans in his care. His compassion makes him a sympathetic character, one whom it’s easy to root for.

There’s an enigmatic love interest who is very interesting, but I don’t feel as though I understood enough about this individual, their powers, and what they represent.

That brings me to my chief complaint about Witchmark: The world-building is insufficient, from my point of view.

There are a lot of names and terms thrown around — Invisibles, Secondaries, Amaranthines, Solace — which only get minimal explanations. I liked what I saw of this world, but felt like I was missing a deeper knowledge of the types of power, the mystical elements, and more. I often felt like I was trying to catch up, but I think this was because of the lack of specifics in some key areas. I think we’re meant to get a feel for this world and its societies through the plot of the story, but I couldn’t help feeling as though I needed more in order to truly become immersed and connected.

There are two more books in the Kingston Cycle, and I do plan to continue. I like the characters and the overarching story enough to want to see what happens next. I’m hoping that I get deeper into the trilogy, some of the more confusing elements will become clearer.

Shelf Control #294: Curse Workers trilogy by Holly Black

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: Curse Workers (trilogy)
Author: Holly Black
Published: 2010 – 2012
Length: White Cat – 310 pages; Red Glove – 325 pages; Black Heart – 297 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Holly Black comes the “dangerously, darkly gorgeous” (Cassandra Clare) Curse Workers trilogy

Cassel Sharpe comes from a family of curse workers, people who have the power to change emotions, memories, and luck with the slightest touch of their hands. And since curse work is illegal, they’re also all criminals. Many become mobsters and con artists, but not Cassel. He doesn’t have magic, so he’s an outsider, the straight kid in a crooked family—except for the small detail that he killed his best friend, Lila, three years ago.

Cassel has carefully built up a facade of normalcy, blending into the crowd. But his facade starts to crumble when he finds himself sleepwalking, propelled into the night by terrifying dreams about a white cat that wants to tell him something. He’s noticing other disturbing things, too, including the strange behavior of his two older brothers, who are keeping secrets from him. As Cassel begins to suspect he’s an unwitting pawn in a huge con game, he must unravel his past, and his memories. To find the truth, Cassel will have to out-con the conmen.

How and when I got it:

I bought the three paperbacks many years ago — and yes, the gorgeous covers had a lot to do with it!

Why I want to read it:

It’s Holly Black! Of course I want to read these books!

I actually bought these books several years before reading one of my all-time favorite series, The Folk of the Air — but especially after reading those amazing books, I’m willing and eager to read anything and everything by this author!

The overall plot of the trilogy sounds terrific. I love the idea of being able to change emotions with a touch — it sounds like such a dangerous power to possess.

In case you’re interested, the three books of the trilogy are being released this coming December as an all-in-one edition. 992 pages!! Somehow, it seems a lot more intimidating to think about reading it that way. (And I way prefer the covers of the editions I have!)

What do you think? Would you read this trilogy?

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: Any Way the Wind Blows (Simon Snow, #3) by Rainbow Rowell

Title: Any Way the Wind Blows (Simon Snow, #3)
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: July 6, 2021
Length: 579 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In Carry On, Simon Snow and his friends realized that everything they thought they understood about the world might be wrong. And in Wayward Son, they wondered whether everything they understood about themselves might be wrong.

In Any Way the Wind Blows, Simon and Baz and Penelope and Agatha have to decide how to move forward.

For Simon, that means deciding whether he still wants to be part of the World of Mages — and if he doesn’t, what does that mean for his relationship with Baz? Meanwhile Baz is bouncing between two family crises and not finding any time to talk to anyone about his newfound vampire knowledge. Penelope would love to help, but she’s smuggled an American Normal into London, and now she isn’t sure what to do with him. And Agatha? Well, Agatha Wellbelove has had enough.

Any Way the Wind Blows takes the gang back to England, back to Watford, and back to their families for their longest and most emotionally wrenching adventure yet.

This book is a finale. It tells secrets and answers questions and lays ghosts to rest.

Carry On was conceived as a book about Chosen One stories; Any Way the Wind Blows is an ending about endings. About catharsis and closure, and how we choose to move on from the traumas and triumphs that try to define us.

Note: I’ll try not to be too spoiler-y about Any Way the Wind Blows, but since this is the 3rd book in a trilogy, there will be spoilers for the first two books. You have been warned!

In Carry On, we meet Simon Snow, the most powerful magician of his generation. Simon is the Chosen One, the boy destined to save the World of Mages from its most dastardly threats. Carry On is very much a Harry Potter-esque story — Simon is an orphan, brought to Watford, England’s school of magic, and nurtured as the protégé of the Mage, the school’s powerful, dashing headmaster who exerts influence over all elements of the magical world.

But what would have happened to Harry Potter if, rather than killing the evil Lord Voldemort, he grew in power only to discover that his beloved mentor Albus Dumbledore was actually the villain, set on gathering all power for himself and bending the magical world to his own wishes? This is more or less where Simon finds himself at the end of Carry On. He and his friends confront the greatest evil, ready for the ultimate showdown, only to discover that it’s the Mage himself who’s behind all the bad. And then, inadvertently, Simon kills him.

The end.

But what happens to Simon next? What happens after you face your biggest foe and win, but cause death and the end of the life you knew?

In Wayward Son, Simon and his friends go on a roadtrip in America, experiencing challenges and dangers and adventure, while also giving Simon time to process how very upended his life has become. It’s very action-packed, and there isn’t a whole lot of time for contemplation.

But in Any Way the Wind Blows, back in England, it’s time to confront their futures. For Simon, he’s finally romantically involved with Baz, who was his nemesis and awful roommate during their years at Watford, only to eventually realize that beneath their mutual distrust and dislike was a simmering attraction and depth of feelings. For Simon’s bestie Penelope, she’s ready to resume being the cleverest magician around, except she’s brought a Normal (Muggle) back from American on a mission to cure him of a demonic curse — and as a result, has to not only put all her magical skills to the test, but also challenge magical society’s prejudices about non-magical people. And for Agatha, Simon’s former school girlfriend, she has to find a way to make sense of her life apart from being the beautiful girl always being rescued by Simon.

They all have a lot to deal with, clearly.

Simon suffers the most of all of them. At the end of Carry On, he lost all his magic, but ended up with dragon wings and a tail. He’s madly and passionately in love with Baz, and they’re trying to have a relationship, but at the same time, Simon absolutely doesn’t know how to be intimate or open with another person. It’s not just about physical intimacy — he loves Baz and knows that Baz loves him, but he has literal panic attacks when they get too close. Simon has spent his early life in foster homes, has no family, and has spent his formative years being a savior. What does he do when he has no magic, can’t save anyone, and no longer belongs in the world he thought he was meant to save? And how does he let Baz in when he doesn’t understand himself or who he is?

Simon and Baz’s relationship has ups and downs throughout the book, and parts are painful to read. They’re awkward, and Simon is so clearly suffering. He’s so full of want, but also so fearful, and he just doesn’t know how to be. Baz is absolutely lovely with Simon, even as he also learns more about his own (vampiric) nature and what that might mean for the rest of his life.

To be honest, while I wasn’t exactly bored at any point, I did find Penelope and Agatha’s storylines less interesting than Simon and Baz’s, and since the book alternates focus between the characters from chapter to chapter and section to section, I was always a little reluctant to move away from the main points of interest to delve into the supporting plotlines.

At almost 600 pages, this book is much longer than the previous one, and while I loved it as a whole, I think a large part of that is due to how much I love the characters. When you read a long, involved series, the characters can become more than just people on a page — or at least, that’s true for me when reading really excellent stories with amazing world-building and character development. It’s something of a double-edged sword though, because I become so invested in the characters I love that I don’t particularly want any plot points to get in the way of their happiness… which wouldn’t lead to a very interesting story.

In the case of Any Way the Wind Blows, this means that I was unhappy whenever Simon and Baz were unhappy, even if their unhappiness was part of their journey toward finding their way forward in their relationship. (If I’m making any sense at all…)

In terms of the plot, I enjoyed a lot of this book, although the overarching mystery/drama about the rise of a new Chosen One didn’t particularly resonate for me. There were things I was hoping would happen by the end of the book that didn’t (being cryptic here), and even though that’s hard for me to accept, it makes sense. At the same time, I felt unsatisfied by the lack of answers to certain questions, and felt that the story just kind of ended. There’s an epilogue that gives a lovely ending situation to one character, but it’s a year after the main events of the book… so what happened to everyone else and where are they now??

I love the Simon Snow books as a whole, and I love Simon and Baz so much (and yes, even Penelope and Agatha)… but I wish I’d felt a little more fulfilled when all was said and done. I may need to let this one simmer for a bit and come back to it again, to see if my feelings change over time.

Meanwhile, I think I’ll go back and listen to Carry On all over again, to revisit the origin story with full knowledge of how it all turns out. Carry On is an introduction to a trilogy that — with Wayward Son and Any Way the Wind Blows — ends up not being about a powerful magician in a magical world, but what happens to a formerly powerful magician who doesn’t fit in in any world.

Overall, it’s a fabulous journey with characters who can make my heart happy and also break it into pieces. Come for the magic wands, stay for the Simon and Baz lovefest. And Agatha. And goats (yes, really). And even Penelope and her Normal. As a whole, I heartily recommend the Simon Snow trilogy. It’s not what it seems like it’s going to be, but what it is is very, very cool.

**********

Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

Buy now at Amazon – Book Depository – Bookshop.org

Book Review: Flash Fire (The Extraordinaries, #2) by TJ Klune

Title: Flash Fire (The Extraordinaries, #2)
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: July 13, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Flash Fire is the explosive sequel to The Extraordinaries by USA Today bestselling author TJ Klune!

Through bravery, charm, and an alarming amount of enthusiasm, Nick landed himself the superhero boyfriend of his dreams. Now instead of just writing stories about him, Nick actually gets to kiss him. On the mouth. A lot. But having a superhero boyfriend isn’t everything Nick thought it would be—he’s still struggling to make peace with his own lack of extraordinary powers.

When new Extraordinaries begin arriving in Nova City—siblings who can manipulate smoke and ice, a mysterious hero who can move objects with their mind, and a drag queen superhero with the best name and the most-sequined costume anyone has ever had—it’s up to Nick and his friends Seth, Gibby, and Jazz to determine who is virtuous and who is villainous.

And new Extraordinaries aren’t the only things coming to light. Long-held secrets and neglected truths are surfacing that challenge everything Nick knows about justice, family, and being extraordinary. Which is a lot to handle when Nick really just wants to finish his self-insert bakery AU fanfic.

Will it all come together in the end or will it all go down in flames?

I’m not sure that I can say anything more positive about this book than the fact that I WANTED TO HUG IT throughout the entire reading experience. Flash Fire is sweet and funny and adorable. It’s also a superhero story! But secret powers and daring escapades — while awesome — are really secondary to me in terms of why I love this book so much.

The heart and soul of Flash Fire (and The Extraordinaries, the first book in the series) is Nicky, the sweet, nerdy fanboy who is madly in love with his best friend Seth… who just happens to secretly be Pyro Storm, the superhero who recently saved the people of Nova City from the villainous Shadow Storm.

Now that Nick knows the truth about Seth and his superhero alter ego, he’s even more head-over-heels in love. Fortunately, Seth is just as crazy about Nicky, and the two of them are are maddeningly sweet and goofy whenever they’re together.

Gah. I can’t seem to write a single paragraph about Flash Fire without using the word sweet. Guess I should just accept it and move on.!

As Flash Fire moves forward, Nicky and Seth are starting to explore more of their physical relationship, but they can’t seem to get very far without Nick’s super embarassing yet incredibly lovable father giving them demonstrations on how to use condoms or make dental dams. It’s SO cringe-y, yet also amazing. Meanwhile, Shadow Star has been caught and imprisoned, but there’s a sense that more danger is on the way.

Nick and Seth are joined by their best friends Gibby and Jazz, and with the backing of their supportive parents, the four are on high alert for any new threats. And new threats do surface, and violence seems to stalk Nick and Seth wherever they go — and they’re also endangered by nosy, unethical reporter Rebecca Firestone, whose mission seems to be to expose Pyro Storm’s secret identity, no matter the cost.

One of my favorite YA tropes is cataclysmic events happening at prom, and Flash Fire does this to the nth degree and then some. Who doesn’t love a streamer-decorated school gym becoming the setting for a superhero showdown? The battle at prom is all sorts of awesome, and I won’t say much more about it, but you’ll love it too. Nicky’s sequined and spangled prom suit is just icing on the cake. Trust me.

This book!! HUGS HUGS HUGS. The dialogue is amazing, the writing overall is lovely and funny, the plot zips along, and there’s so much heart in it all that I can’t stop talking about how fabulous the whole thing is. Basically, rather than writing a review, I’m apparently participating in a one-woman love fest.

I’ll just wrap by sharing some great moments from the book, starting with a snippet that’s comes up a lot in the book, whenever Nicky is about to do something incredibly stupid or brave or both. (Have I mentioned that Nicky is a lot? He’s very extra.)

“Nicky, no,” they all groaned

“Nicky, yes!”

Seth was pretty much the hottest thing in existence when he wore a cravat and spoke forcefully.

“Hello, boyfriend of mine,” Nick said, and because he could, he leaned forward and kissed Seth right on the mouth. He hoped a homophobe had been watching and was now filled with so much heterosexual rage, they were choking on it.

“Yeah, no,” Gibby said. “It’s weird. What are the chances that three people we know personally ended up being Extraordinaries?”

“And they’re all gay,” Jazz said with a frown.

“Seth’s bisexual,” Nick said, because he’d be damned if he’d allow bi erasure, even in the face of all the ridiculousness.

“Quiet,” Jazz hissed at her. “We can’t interfere. We can only observe. We talked about this. You know how queer boys are in the wild. If they know they’re being watched, they get skittish and run for the forest.

He didn’t even realize he was crying until Seth said, “Hey, hey, Nicky, it’s okay. You’re okay.”

“I know,” he sobbed. “I’m pretty much the best thing ever. You’re so lucky to have me.”

“I really am,” Seth said.

So yeah. Five stars all the way!! I love this SWEET book so much, and just CANNOT WAIT for #3.

Book Review: Ironside (Modern Faerie Tales, #3) by Holly Black

Title: Ironside
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: McElderry Books
Publication date: 2007
Length: 323 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In the realm of Faerie, the time has come for Roiben’s coronation. Uneasy in the midst of the malevolent Unseelie Court, pixie Kaye is sure of only one thing — her love for Roiben. But when Kaye, drunk on faerie wine, declares herself to Roiben, he sends her on a seemingly impossible quest. Now Kaye can’t see or speak to Roiben unless she can find the one thing she knows doesn’t exist: a faerie who can tell a lie.

Miserable and convinced she belongs nowhere, Kaye decides to tell her mother the truth — that she is a changeling left in place of the human daughter stolen long ago. Her mother’s shock and horror sends Kaye back to the world of Faerie to find her human counterpart and return her to Ironside. But once back in the faerie courts, Kaye finds herself a pawn in the games of Silarial, queen of the Seelie Court. Silarial wants Roiben’s throne, and she will use Kaye, and any means necessary, to get it. In this game of wits and weapons, can a pixie outplay a queen?

Holly Black spins a seductive tale at once achingly real and chillingly enchanted, set in a dangerous world where pleasure mingles with pain and nothing is exactly as it appears. 

I’m going to keep this post short, because I just don’t find myself having all that much to say about Ironside. But hey, I posted reviews for the first two books in the trilogy (Tithe and Valiant), so I might as well be complete about it!

In Ironside, we go back to the main character from Tithe — Kaye, the pixie raised as a human, who has fallen in love with Lord Roiben, the ruler of the Unseelie Court. He sets her on what seems to be an impossible quest, and meanwhile, is on the brink of war with the Seelie court, which his outnumbered people seem destined to lose.

Alongside her best friend, the mortal Corny, and their new friend Luis (who was introduced in Valiant), Kaye has to try to solve the riddle of her quest and find a way to prevent the war that’s likely to end with Roiben’s death, while also keeping Corny from the endless disasters that seem to pop up wherever he goes.

As in the other books in the trilogy, Ironside is set in New York, where faeries need magical powders of protection to live amidst all the poisonous iron of the human world. This book is not as bleak and grim as the 2nd book. There’s still danger, but the focus is mostly on events involving the faerie courts, and it doesn’t have quite the same sense of urban grittiness.

I’m not mad that I finished the trilogy, but I didn’t love the overarching story as a whole. Some characters are endearing, but the plot didn’t grab me, and key moments felt kind of brief and lacking in substance.

My edition of the trilogy (a three-in-one volume) includes The Lament of Lutie-Loo, a short story (written in 2019) about Kaye’s sprite companion and the visit she makes to Elfhame. I liked this a lot — it’s light and fun, and I think I particularly liked it for the glimpses of beloved characters from the Folk of the Air trilogy.

I’d been curious about these books, and they were on my list of series I wanted to read this year, so I’m glad to have accomplished what I set out to do. This trilogy as a whole didn’t thrill me, but I do love Holly Black’s writing and imagination, and look forward to reading a few more of her books.

Book Review: Valiant (Modern Faerie Tales, #2) by Holly Black

Title: Valiant
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: McElderry Books
Publication date: 2002
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Return to New York Times bestselling author Holly Black’s enthralling realm of faerie in the second Modern Faerie Tales novel, where danger and magic come hand-in-hand in the dark underground of New York City.

When seventeen-year-old Valerie runs away to New York, she’s trying to escape a life that has utterly betrayed her. Sporting a new identity, she takes up with a gang of squatters who live in the city’s labyrinthine subway system. But there’s something eerily beguiling about Val’s new friends that sets her on edge.

When Val is talked into tracking down the lair of a mysterious creature, she must strike a bargain to make it out with her life intact. Now drawn into a world she never knew existed, Val finds herself torn between her affection for an honorable monster and her fear of what her new friends are becoming.

While Valiant is the 2nd book in Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales trilogy, don’t pick it up expecting to continue where Tithe left off. In Valiant, we meet a completely new cast of characters in a mostly new setting, and it’s only toward the end that there’s some cross-over with the previous book’s characters.

Val is 17 years old when she discovers a major betrayal by the people she trusted the most. Distraught, she takes a train into Manhattan to get away for a few hours — but then can’t bring herself to go back home. She shaves her head and takes to the street, fortunately meeting up with a few other teen runaways who welcome her into their circle. She soon finds herself squatting with them at an abandoned subway platform, where they can be relatively safe, keep warm, and have a regular place to sleep.

Val’s new friends — Lolli, Dave, Luis — have secrets. It turns out that they do odd jobs for the faerie underground in the city, making deliveries of a special potion that helps the Fae stay healthy in a world full of poisonous iron. What Val’s friends have discovered is that when a human uses this potion, especially by injecting it, it gives them all sorts of delicious borrowed power. It’s also highly addictive, and none of them seem able to resist it for long.

Meanwhile, someone is murdering solitary fae, and suspicion falls on Ravus, the bridge toll who creates and distributes the magical potion. Val has grown closer to Ravus, but being in his circle becomes more and more dangerous. There’s adventure and chaos, friendship and betrayal, growing up and going home. There’s a LOT going on this book.

Val & Ravus fan art via https://hollyblack.tumblr.com/

In some ways, Valiant could be seen as a metaphor for the dangers of being a runaway. Remember how people used to talk a lot about how Buffy is really a metaphor for the teen years (high school is hell!)? You could look at Valiant in a similar fashion. There’s a point to be made here: The experiences of Val and her friends are dark and grim and in no way glamorous or magical. The book shows their daily struggle to get enough to eat, find a bathroom to clean up in, sleep where they won’t be robbed or assaulted, and figure out who to trust. Several characters fall quickly into addiction, and the fact that it’s a magical drug doesn’t change the fact that it’s destroying them more and more each day. Through the constant threats and uncertainties, this book makes clear that running away shouldn’t be seen as the answer. Home may be hard, but being on the streets isn’t the “magical” solution either.

At the same time, this is a faerie tale, although a very dark one. It’s bleak and hard, the fae the characters meet are mostly cruel, and the stakes are high — if they survive their lives on the streets, they can still be killed by creatures that want to hurt them just for fun.

This isn’t a pleasant read, but it did keep me interested. I liked Val and Ravus as characters, and I’m interested in seeing how the 3rd book, Ironside, wraps up the plots of Tithe and Valiant. As I mentioned in my review of Tithe, I don’t feel these books are anywhere near the greatness of the Folk of the Air trilogy — but considering that the Modern Faerie Tales books were written about 20 years earlier, it’s nice to be able to compare and see the author’s development of her craft and the worlds she creates.

Onward to #3!

Book Review: Tithe (Modern Faerie Tales, #1) by Holly Black

Title: Tithe
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: McElderry Books
Publication date: 2002
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Welcome to the realm of very scary faeries!

Sixteen-year-old Kaye is a modern nomad. Fierce and independent, she travels from city to city with her mother’s rock band until an ominous attack forces Kaye back to her childhood home. There, amid the industrial, blue-collar New Jersey backdrop, Kaye soon finds herself an unwilling pawn in an ancient power struggle between two rival faerie kingdoms – a struggle that could very well mean her death. 

I have been wanting to read the Modern Faerie Tale trilogy ever since reading the author’s more recent Folk of the Air series, which I love to pieces. Tithe, the first book in the trilogy, was first published in 2002, and is Holly Black’s first novel.

Kaye is a 16-year-old girl who lives wherever her mother happens to land, raising herself while her mother focuses on her band. She stopped going to school a couple of years earlier, rather than continuing to go through the process of starting over every time they pick up move somewhere new for the sake of a new gig.

When they need a sudden escape from a dangerous situation, they move back to Kaye’s hometown in New Jersey to live in her grandmother’s house. Kaye is happy to reconnect with her elementary school bestie, Janet, and also hopes to see her imaginary friends again. But are they really imaginary? In her early years, Kaye would tell anyone who would listen about her magical fairy friends, which no one ever believed, earning herself the reputation of being a weird kid.

Some strange things start to recur, and after a bad night out, Kaye runs into a beautiful, otherworldly man in the forest who’s been injured. As she tries to help him, a bond is forged, and she starts to learn more about her own true nature. It turns out that Kaye is a pixie changeling, placed under heavy glamours to appear human and exchanged for the real baby Kaye, who’s been raised in Faerie in Kaye’s place.

Things escalate quickly, and Kaye finds herself pulled into a power struggle between the different Fae courts. She’d like to trust Roiben, but he’s clearly dangerous as well, and Kaye is still learning about her own magic and abilities, as well as worrying about her mortal friends who have inadvertently gotten mixed up with the world of Faerie.

Kaye is a great character, a little jaded and world-weary, but also in awe of the new world that opens before her. She hates the power games and brutality shown by some of the Fae, but she sees beauty in this world as well. The dynamic between Kaye and Roiben is quite fun. (Side note: Kaye and Roiben make brief appearances in the Folk of the Air trilogy, and once I realized that they were the main characters in Tithe, I knew I needed to read it.)

There are some tragic turns and dramatic encounters, and the pacing of the story is quick and engaging. That said, this book was written almost 20 years ago and is a first novel, and both of those elements show. I can’t fault a book for depicting the time in which it was written, but it’s still jarring, here in 2021, to have teens not glued to their cell phones, see them using pay phones, or mention the noise their modem makes while connecting to the internet.

In terms of this being a first novel, it’s well-written and engaging, but having read the Folk of the Air trilogy, Tithe suffers by comparison. Which may just be a round-about way of saying how amazing the Folk of the Air books are — sophisticated plotting and world-building, powerfully depicted characters, intricate relationships… I could go on and on. Reading Tithe after those books, it’s clear that Tithe is much simpler writing, and at the same time, doesn’t do as good a job of explaining the various power dynamics of the Fae courts (which we basically get to know about via one massive information dump).

Holly Black is an incredibly gifted writer, and it’s interesting to see where she started. The world of Tithe is related to the world of the Folk of the Air, and reading Tithe is a great chance to experience Faerie as the author first depicted it.

I will definitely read the other two books in the series (Valiant and Ironside), and then have an unrelated trilogy (Curse Workers) and an unrelated novel (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown) by Holly Black on my TBR shelf.

I do recommend Tithe, especially for fans of the author’s later books.

For more of my reviews of Holly Black books:
The Darkest Part of the Forest
The Good Neighbors (graphic novel trilogy)
The Cruel Prince
The Wicked King/The Queen of Nothing
How the King of Elfhame Learned To Hate Stories

Book Review: The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune

Title: The Extraordinaries
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: July 14, 2020
Length: 405 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Some people are extraordinary. Some are just extra. TJ Klune’s YA debut, The Extraordinaries, is a queer coming-of-age story about a fanboy with ADHD and the heroes he loves.

Nick Bell? Not extraordinary. But being the most popular fanfiction writer in the Extraordinaries fandom is a superpower, right?

After a chance encounter with Shadow Star, Nova City’s mightiest hero (and Nick’s biggest crush), Nick sets out to make himself extraordinary. And he’ll do it with or without the reluctant help of Seth Gray, Nick’s best friend (and maybe the love of his life).

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl meets Marissa Meyer’s Renegades in TJ Klune’s YA debut. 

Based on having read two of his books, I can now pretty confidently state that TJ Klune writes books that makes me want to hug them. I loved The House in the Cerulean Sea, which came out earlier this year, and now The Extraordinaries is here, with adorableness galore.

Our hero, Nick Bell, has no superpowers to speak of — unless you count his amazing imagination, his neuro-atypical brain that never slows down, and his ability to screw up no matter his good intentions.

Nick is starting junior year of high school with a promise to his dad to do better. No more getting into trouble. No more disrupting class or showing up late. And he really, really means to live up to that promise, but things have a way of not working out the way he plans.

Nick and his father live in Nova City, where his dad is a hard-working cop on the night shift. They live in the After — the years that have passed since Nick’s mother was killed during a bank robbery. Now it’s just the two of them, and while they love each other very much, it’s just not always easy.

Nova City is also the home of two Extraordinaries — superheroes who swoop in to fight crime and save the day. Shadow Star is the good guy, the masked man whose every move causes people to swoon in awe (and Nick to swoon in lust). Shadow Star’s archnemesis is Pyro Storm, the villain who can create and control fire, blocked from evil deeds by Shadow Star’s ability to manipulate shadows to carry out his will. They engage in epic battles over and around Nova City, but lately, these battles have escalated in their seriousness and the amount of damage left behind. The police chief is determined to put a stop to the havoc caused by these Extraordinaries.

Besides having a huge crush on Shadow Star, Nick writes incredibly popular fanfiction about him, and lives for the idea of meeting him eventually. Meanwhile, he goes to school and spends time with his best friends, who love Nick unconditionally, even when his brain and his tongue get him into trouble again and again. He’s a lot. But he’s theirs, and he’s a good guy (so lovable!), and they have his back no matter what.

Where do I even begin to describe how much I loved this book? It’s delightful and funny, but also surprisingly tender and lovely.

The relationship between Nick and his dad isn’t always smooth, but it is always grounded in love and devotion, and it’s really special to read about. While Aaron, the father, often causes Nick to squirm with his frank talk about sex and other matters, he’s coming from a place of support, and he’s determined to be the parent Nick needs, knowing that the two of them have to stick together through good times and bad.

Nick’s friend group is amazing — each quirky and unique in their own way, and so much fun to read about. Also, all queer and proud, in a no big deal, this is who I am sort of way. Each one of them deserves so many hugs! (Except Gibby might twist your arm if you try to hug her, so watch out. She’s tough.)

The writing is funny and charming, and Nicky especially has great lines. He’s a total smart-ass, even when he doesn’t necessarily intend to be.

The Great Romance of Nick and Owen came to an end as quickly as it started. (“You’re a great guy, Nicky, but I’m a wild animal who can’t be caged.” “Oh my god, you are not!”)

Nick really didn’t understand straight people. They didn’t seem to have any sense of self-preservation.

He wasn’t very adept when it came to comforting people he’d made out with. Or, at least, that appeared to be the case. He’d never made out with anyone else. He wondered if he needed to find someone else to make out with and then have them talk about their damaged relationship with their family to make sure.

Nick wondered if it were possible to disappear into the floor. He tapped his foot against it. Solid as always.

Nick groaned. “This sucks. Not only am I the comedic relief/love interest, I’m also the clueless comedic relief/love interest who is a pawn in a game I didn’t even realize was being played. God, my life is so cliche.

I feel like I could go on and on about how awesome this book is, or spend another 10,000 words or so just picking random paragraphs from the book to prove to you how fantastic and whimsical and hilarious and touching the writing is.

But let’s leave it at this: Nick is a damaged, imperfect guy living in a superhero world, and he’s extraordinary in his own ordinary way. I love him bunches and bunches, and I’m thrilled to know that The Extraordinaries is apparently the first book in a trilogy. I will absolutely read more about these characters and this world, and wish I didn’t have to wait for 2021 for the next installment.

Meanwhile, I’m clearly going to need to start working my way through TJ Klune’s backlist, pronto.