Book Review: Fairy Tale by Stephen King

Title: Fairy Tale
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: September 6, 2022
Length: 608 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Legendary storyteller Stephen King goes deep into the well of his imagination in this spellbinding novel about a seventeen-year-old boy who inherits the keys to a parallel world where good and evil are at war, and the stakes could not be higher—for their world or ours.

Charlie Reade looks like a regular high school kid, great at baseball and football, a decent student. But he carries a heavy load. His mom was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was ten, and grief drove his dad to drink. Charlie learned how to take care of himself—and his dad. Then, when Charlie is seventeen, he meets Howard Bowditch, a recluse with a big dog in a big house at the top of a big hill. In the backyard is a locked shed from which strange sounds emerge, as if some creature is trying to escape. When Mr. Bowditch dies, he leaves Charlie the house, a massive amount of gold, a cassette tape telling a story that is impossible to believe, and a responsibility far too massive for a boy to shoulder.

Because within the shed is a portal to another world—one whose denizens are in peril and whose monstrous leaders may destroy their own world, and ours. In this parallel universe, where two moons race across the sky, and the grand towers of a sprawling palace pierce the clouds, there are exiled princesses and princes who suffer horrific punishments; there are dungeons; there are games in which men and women must fight each other to the death for the amusement of the “Fair One.” And there is a magic sundial that can turn back time.

A story as old as myth, and as startling and iconic as the rest of King’s work, Fairy Tale is about an ordinary guy forced into the hero’s role by circumstance, and it is both spectacularly suspenseful and satisfying.

In Fairy Tale, master author Stephen King takes a kind-hearted 17-year-old and sends him on an epic quest to battle forces of evil and save a kingdom.

Also, there’s a very good dog. And because I know this is important for many readers to know up front: The dog will be fine! (Stories that treat book doggos badly can be a deal-breakers for many readers, so now you can rest easy and proceed).

Charlie is a strong, self-reliant boy who loves his father, but he’s also had to shoulder far too heavy a burden in his short life. After his mother’s tragic death, his father became lost to alcoholism, and Charlie had to care for himself and his father through the dark years until his father finally found sobriety. For all that, Charlie is remarkably well-adjusted, but he does think back with regret on the mean-spirited pranks and cruel behaviors he indulged in during the worst of days.

When he hears a dog barking from behind the large, spooky house on the hill, he intends to just move on, until he hears a faint voice crying for help. Charlie discovers Mr. Bowditch, the old man who lives alone in the house, severely injured in the backyard. He calls for help, then makes a decision that this perhaps is his opportunity to atone for the bad behavior in his past, and becomes completely devoted to Mr. Bowditch and his elderly dog Radar.

While Mr. Bowditch is hospitalized, Charlie takes on caring for Radar, and begins work on cleaning and repairing the house. After Mr. Bowditch is released, it’s Charlie who takes on the responsibility of daily care, going far above and beyond would might be expected of a teenager (or even most adults). Through their time together, the two become very close, but Mr. Bowditch holds onto his secrets tightly — although he does tell Charlie how to access his safe and the bucket full of gold pellets stored within, and how to exchange the pellets for the money needed to pay the hospital bills.

When Mr. Bowditch suffers a fatal heart attack some months later, Charlie and his father are shocked to learn that Charlie has inherited the house, the property, and everything it contains. Even more shocking is the cassette tape Mr. Bowditch has left, telling Charlie a strange tale about a journey to a hidden world and the magical device there that allows one to regain youth and health. With Radar in sharp decline, Charlie realizes that following the instructions on the tape might be his only option for saving Radar’s life. And so the quest begins.

Fairy Tale in many ways embodies the traditional Hero’s Journey, with Charlie receiving a call to action, setting out on a quest, gaining allies along the way, sinking to darkest depths (in this case, spending weeks/months (?) in a literal dungeon), before finding redemption and reemergence. It’s brilliantly constructed — we can see the framework and understand what King is doing, while still becoming totally immersed in the magical and dangerous world that Charlie enters.

At the same time, Charlie himself recognizes the influence of stories and how they seep through worlds into realities. Rumpelstiltskin, the Goose Girl, the Little Mermaid, Jack and the Beanstalk — all are present in some variation here, not as literal retellings but as universal tropes that inform the reality that Charlie now finds himself in.

Based on the synopsis, I’d expected the portal elements to kick in pretty early in the story, but in fact, it’s not until around 30% that Charlie first ventures through the passage to the alternate world. The first third of the story is devoted to Charlie’s family’s backstory and his growing relationship with Mr. Bowditch (and Radar!). This is really effective, as it grounds everything that follows in a realistic beginning in our own world, and gives a solid basis for why Charlie acts as he does, both his devotion to providing care to Mr. Bowditch and his actions on his portal adventure.

The flow does seem to lag for a bit in the middle of the story. As I mentioned, there’s a dungeon involved, and Charlie’s time imprisoned there drags on long enough that my interest flagged. Likewise, the sections about Charlie and his fellow prisoners being forced to train for and then compete in a Hunger Games-like tournament to the death felt overly long and drawn out.

Those elements aside, the plot is mostly fast-paced, full of surprises, odd-ball and quirky characters, memorable settings, and a superbly crafted sense of wonder and menace that hangs over every step of Charlie’s journey. Charlie himself is wonderful — smart, caring, and sensitive, but flawed enough that he’s not too good to be true.

Fairy Tale is a big, thick book, but absolutely worth the time and attention. I was captivated, often scared on behalf of the characters, and fully invested in the outcome and the stakes. The world Charlie visits is fascinating, and I would have loved to have spent even more time exploring it at the conclusion of the quest.

Wrapping this up… I highly recommend Fairy Tale! It’s a treat for King fans, but also an easily accessible entry point for those who haven’t read his books before or who feel that his books are too terrifying for them! Yes, there are some frights and scary beings, and as I said, plenty of menace, but this book doesn’t have the absolute terror of, say, Pet Sematary or It.

Fairy Tale is both a coming-of-age story and a tale of a mythical, magical adventure, and it’s a wonderfully engaging read, start to finish. Don’t miss it!

Shelf Control #333: Daughter of the Forest (Sevenwaters, #1) by Juliet Marillier

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: Daughter of the Forest (Sevenwaters, #1)
Author: Juliet Marillier
Published: 1999
Length: 554 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Lovely Sorcha is the seventh child and only daughter of Lord Colum of Sevenwaters. Bereft of a mother, she is comforted by her six brothers who love and protect her. Sorcha is the light in their lives: they are determined that she know only contentment.

But Sorcha’s joy is shattered when her father is bewitched by his new wife, an evil enchantress who binds her brothers with a terrible spell, a spell which only Sorcha can lift—by staying silent. If she speaks before she completes the quest set to her by the Fair Folk and their queen, the Lady of the Forest, she will lose her brothers forever.

When Sorcha is kidnapped by the enemies of Sevenwaters and taken to a foreign land, she is torn between the desire to save her beloved brothers, and a love that comes only once. Sorcha despairs at ever being able to complete her task, but the magic of the Fair Folk knows no boundaries, and love is the strongest magic of them all…

How and when I got it:

I’ve had an old paperback on my shelves for years — no idea exactly where it came from!

Why I want to read it:

I’m always up for a good faerie kingdom story, and this is a book (and series) that I’ve seen recommended many times over the years. It regularly appears in lists of great fantasy series, and I know I’ve seen readers with tastes that align with my own talk about how much they love this book.

The plot sounds complicated but compelling. Faerie bargains, strange kingdoms, and mystical elements all sound right up my alley — plus, from descriptions on Goodreads and elsewhere, it seems that these books are very much influenced by Celtic folklore, which absolutely appeals to me.

Daughter of the Forest is the first in a six-book series. I tend to be pretty reluctant these days about starting new series… but I do feel tempted to at least give this first book a try.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

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: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

Title: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches
Author: Sangu Mandanna
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: August 23, 2022
Print length: 336 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A warm and uplifting novel about an isolated witch whose opportunity to embrace a quirky new family–and a new love–changes the course of her life.

As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon knows she has to hide her magic, keep her head down, and stay away from other witches so their powers don’t mingle and draw attention. And as an orphan who lost her parents at a young age and was raised by strangers, she’s used to being alone and she follows the rules…with one exception: an online account, where she posts videos pretending to be a witch. She thinks no one will take it seriously.

But someone does. An unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches how to control their magic. It breaks all of the rules, but Mika goes anyway, and is immediately tangled up in the lives and secrets of not only her three charges, but also an absent archaeologist, a retired actor, two long-suffering caretakers, and…Jamie. The handsome and prickly librarian of Nowhere House would do anything to protect the children, and as far as he’s concerned, a stranger like Mika is a threat. An irritatingly appealing threat.

As Mika begins to find her place at Nowhere House, the thought of belonging somewhere begins to feel like a real possibility. But magic isn’t the only danger in the world, and when a threat comes knocking at their door, Mika will need to decide whether to risk everything to protect a found family she didn’t know she was looking for….

This witchy book is sweet, a bit romantic, and very whimsical. It’s a bit Mary Poppins, a bit House on the Cerulean Sea… and just a wee bit naughty too (more on that later).

Mika is a young, kind-hearted witch who grew up in loneliness and isolation — because the biggest rule for witches is to stay very, very far away from one another. When witches gather, so does magic, and when a lot of magic gets concentrated in one place, all sorts of unwanted outcomes can result — and when there are big magical accidents, it attracts attention. As history has shown, attention can be very bad for witches, so it’s best to just avoid it at all costs.

But Mika is lonely, and to keep herself amused and engaged, she creates a web series where she pretends to be a witch offering videos on potion-making. It’s cute and silly, and she doesn’t expect anyone to actually believe her… but of course, as the synopsis points out, someone does.

She’s invited to Nowhere House, where three young, orphaned witches are being raised by an assortment of adult caretakers. They’re sheltered and fed and clothed (and completely doted upon), but they have no control over their magic, and no one to teach them. Without some sort of intervention, the adults in charge are afraid of what might happen. Mika seems to be the answer to their prayers.

Before long, she’s made herself a part of the household, captivating the girls with her magical abilities, and captivating the sexy librarian with her sweetness and smiles. There are some outside threats to their happy household, but I felt pretty confident throughout that nothing too bad could happen, given the light, bubbly tone of the book.

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches could almost be a children’s story, if the point-of-view characters changed a bit and if you stripped away the romance. There are some adorable scenes of wide-eyed wonder, as Mika shows the girls the possibilities of a life infused with magic — like, for example, when she arrives at Nowhere House with an entire koi pond in the backseat of her car.

The romance elements are for the most part understated, although (as I hinted earlier) there is one scene that’s fairly steamy in nature (not anatomical, in terms of graphicness, but more than just implied). Side note: I was annoyed that the characters did NOT use a condom! Most contemporary romances incorporate safe sex practices into the sex scenes these days, so it’s very noticeable (and not okay!!) when one doesn’t.

The cast of characters is nicely diverse, with many different ethnicities, national origins, genders, ages, and orientations represented. I appreciated that this element was all very matter of fact, too — the diversity is just part of the whole, and not presented in a “hey, I’m being so hip and inclusive!” sort of way (if that makes any sense).

Overall, the mood and tone of this book is light, cheery, and yes, very whimsical. Nothing terrible ever happens, the characters are delightfully quirky, there are plenty of silly little moments, and there’s an overarching sense of wonderful awe whenever magic is involved.

This is a sweet, quick read, good for when you’re looking for a fanciful diversion with lovable characters. A great choice to read with a mug of hot cocoa and some fuzzy slippers!

Book Review: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen

Title: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy
Author: Megan Bannen
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: August 23, 2022
Print length: 336 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Hart is a marshal, tasked with patrolling the strange and magical wilds of Tanria. It’s an unforgiving job, and Hart’s got nothing but time to ponder his loneliness.

Mercy never has a moment to herself. She’s been single-handedly keeping Birdsall & Son Undertakers afloat in defiance of sullen jerks like Hart, who seems to have a gift for showing up right when her patience is thinnest.

After yet another exasperating run-in with Mercy, Hart finds himself penning a letter addressed simply to “A Friend”. Much to his surprise, an anonymous letter comes back in return, and a tentative friendship is born.

If only Hart knew he’s been baring his soul to the person who infuriates him most – Mercy. As the dangers from Tanria grow closer, so do the unlikely correspondents. But can their blossoming romance survive the fated discovery that their pen pals are their worst nightmares – each other?

This Western-tinged fantasy novel about undertakers, marshals, and drudges (the undead) includes romance, the classic enemies-to-lovers trope, old and new gods, and so much more. The biggest surprise for me? It actually brought me to tears at one point! (And this is not an easy feat… I’m afraid I’m more of a hard-hearted cynic when it comes to tugging-on-the-heartstrings moments, as a general rule).

The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is set in the town of Bushong, on the border of the sealed, people-less area known as Tanria. In this frontier town, undertakers do a booming business, as more and more people attempt to cross into the forbidden Tanrian wilds for profiteering opportunities — and often come back as corpses.

Within Tanria, untethered souls look for human bodies to inhabit, turning them into drudges, highly dangerous creatures that exist to kill. The marshals patrol Tanria and take down drudges when they find them, stabbing them through the appendix to release their souls, then bringing the bodies back to a border-town undertaker for death rituals (pre-paid, of course).

Fun fact: The human soul resides in the appendix. Now we know what that weird little body part is for!

Mercy’s family undertaking business is in dire straits when the story opens. After suffering a heart attack the previous year, her father is supposed to be taking it easy. Her younger brother Zeddie is expected to take on the mantle of running Birdsall and Son once he graduates from his training program… but Zeddie definitely has other ideas about what his future should look like. Mercy, on the other hand, loves the work and values the importance of carrying out the rituals and sending people on their way to their final rest with honor and dignity. But the undertaking business is a men-only affair, and despite having done the work for years, no one considers Mercy as the heir to the family business.

Meanwhile, there’s Hart Ralston, a demigod marshal who lives a lonely life, carrying out his grim trade and never allowing himself to get close to anyone. Four years earlier, when he and Mercy first met, they took an instant and deep dislike to one another (although I had a hard time understanding why, exactly), and nothing has changed in that regard in the years since then.

But things take a big turn when Hart writes a letter addressed to a “friend”, assuming it’ll just get lost out in the world somewhere. Due to magical mail deliverers (it’s a thing), however, the letter ends up with Mercy, who writes back. As their anonymous correspondence continues, Hart and Mercy unknowingly forge a connection that’s honest and deep, never realizing that they’re writing to their self-proclaimed enemy rather than their “dear friend”.

Eventually, though, Hart and Mercy are propelled past their hatred and discover it’s a cover for strong attraction, chemistry, even love (although still without sharing the truth about their secret correspondence). They fall passionately and emotionally for one another, but since this is a bordertown and there are drudges to slay, life doesn’t give them much room to savor their new-found love before danger strikes and threatens to separate them… permanently.

There’s so much to like about The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy! I enjoyed the banter, the Western vibes, Mercy as a strong, talented, professional woman determined to save the business she loves, and the various friends and family members who create the background community for the main characters. (And don’t get me started on the talking, hard-drinking bunny and owl who deliver the mail…) Hart and Mercy are terrific together, and even though we’ve all read a gazillion versions of the enemies-to-lovers story, somehow it still manages to feel fresh here.

I do have quibbles when it comes to this book, and the biggest for me is the incomplete and confusing world-building. With its Western vibe, I pictured a dusty, dry setting originally, but the location actually seems to be water-based and set amidst an island nation. The marshals ride equimares (singular: equimaris), which appear to be some sort of amphibian horse… maybe? They’re not really described, although there are references to webbed feet and they seem to be very good in water. For vehicles, people drive autoducks, which (I think) are some sort of amphibious truck… maybe?

The undertaking business has its own mysteries. Bodies must be salted and wrapped in sailcloth, and undertakers also build boats for the remains (which I assume are kind of like coffins) — which are usually then cremated or sent to the burial grounds… I think?

There’s a lot of exposition about old gods and new gods, who they are, where they’ve gone, why Tanria exists, etc… but honestly, the information seems to get dumped in big chunks and it’s too much to really keep track of — although I did like the incantation describing the death gods, which we hear from Mercy as she prepares a body:

From water you came, and to water you shall return.

You shall sail into the arms of the Salt Sea, and Grandfather Bones shall relieve your body of your spirit.

The Warden shall open the door unto you, and the Unknown God shall welcome you into their home, where you shall know peace.

I should note here that I read this book as an e-ARC (via NetGalley), and it indicates that a map will be included in the finished book. Perhaps if I’d had access to the map while reading this book, I might have had a better grasp of the setting, at the very least, even if the terminology and gods/religion remained unclear. I hesitate to criticize the book based on something that may be better in the final version, but at the same time, I’m writing to express how I experienced this book, and for what it’s worth, the world-building was incomplete and confusing from my perspective.

I initially found the book slow and didn’t feel absorbed right away, but by midway through, this definitely changed. Hart and Mercy’s breakthrough from enemies to lovers is the turning point of the story, and from that point onward, I was hooked! Their dynamic is sweet, funny, and lovely, and I became very invested in their individual well-being and happiness as well as in their relationship.

There were moments when I thought my heart would break (remember, I did say earlier that this book brought me to tears!), but also moments of joy and delight. Overall, I’m very glad I spent time with Hart and Mercy, and enjoyed the book and its characters very much. If you’re looking for a very different sort of fantasy, this is one to check out.

Book Review: Heat Wave (The Extraordinaries, #3) by TJ Klune

Title: Heat Wave (The Extraordinaries, #3)
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: July 19, 2022
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Heat Wave is the explosive finale to the thrilling Extraordinaries trilogy by New York Times and USA Today bestselling author TJ Klune!

Nick, Seth, Gibby, and Jazz are back in action bringing justice, protection, and disaster energy to the people of Nova City.

An unexpected hero returns to Nova City and crash lands into Nick’s home, upturning his life, his family, and his understanding of what it means to be a hero in the explosive finale of the thrilling and hilarious Extraordinaries trilogy by New York Times bestselling author TJ Klune.

This series! This book! These characters! At this point, I love the characters so much that I just want to tuck them all away somewhere safe and shower them with love and ice cream. THEY ARE SO ADORABLE AND AMAZING.

Heat Wave, the 3rd and final book in the Extraordinaries trilogy, opens as a hot summer rolls through Nova City. The main characters are on summer break, hanging out, fighting crime… you know, like kids do! But it doesn’t take very long before something starts to seem just a little bit off. I won’t say what, but at first it was just a nagging little “huh?’ voice in my head, which soon escalate to full-on shouts of WTF?

Never fear, it all makes sense eventually. Our gang – the incredibly lovely and awesome and over the top Nicky, his true love Seth, and their best friends (who are also deeply in love) Gibby and Jazz — continue their Extraordinary activities as, respectively, superheroes Guardian and PyroStorm, with Gibby and Jazz as their tech support and secret lair gurus, aka Lighthouse. Also involved are the various parental units of our four teens, and the parents are equal measures supportive, loving, and totally embarrassing. (Oh, the Dad jokes! These people are just so much).

I really don’t want to say too much about the plot. There’s action, adventure, danger, and telekinetic and fire-power heroics! There are also bad guys who are very, very bad and very, very powerful. Plus, a mayoral election that’s truly a battle for the heart and soul of Nova City, and a police reckoning that’s very much a reflection of today’s real-world society.

I need to stop and mention that Nick and his dad Aaron have THE BEST father-son dynamic I’ve ever witnessed. Aaron is excruciatingly in Nick’s face in the most cringe-y ways, and it’s so clearly coming from a place of unconditional support and love that you want to stand up and shout “YES!” whenever they have a scene together. This book does also include the most cringe-worthy Nick and Aaron scene of the entire series. Suffice it to say that Aaron loves his gay son and wants him to be fully informed, prepared, and safe when it comes to moving things forward with Seth. I kind of wanted to die of embarrassment reading this scene, and at the same, I couldn’t help thinking how absolutely affirming it might be for gay teens who need that kind of open information and communication in their own lives.

Likewise, Seth and Nicky’s physical relationship moves forward, and the author does not shy away from the details… but it’s not at all gratuitous. Again, all I could think was that there are probably teen readers who really need to see a healthy, loving, consensual relationship depicted in such a positive way, and I hope this book finds its way to those who need it.

But anyway… even putting aside how amazing all of the above is, this is just a GOOD STORY. The action zips along, there are some astonishing surprises and big reveals, and a major blam-pow-kabam superhero battle to finish it all off. (Also, there’s the introduction of a new character named Burrito Jerry, and he’s pretty amazing, so there’s that too.)

The book’s epilogue ties up the story and gives us a flash forward into the characters’ lives several years down the road, and while it’s a little disconcerting to see them all as adults, it’s also wonderful. And yes, the conclusion is quite definitely a conclusion… but I’d pay oodles to get to spend more time with Nicky, Seth, Gibby and Jazz! I’m sure they’re all going to go on to lead fabulous, fascinating lives, and I just wish we could see it!

As always, the writing in Heat Wave is smart and funny, and I’ll wrap up this big gushy love letter to The Extraordinaries trilogy by sharing some favorite bits and pieces:

“We’re queer. We walk fast because of our survival instinct.”

He snorted. “Okay, that was funny in a really sad way. I feel bad for the heteros. They wanted us to run from them, and so we did, and now we evolved to be much quicker than they are. They really don’t get anything aside from having all the rights they could ever ask for.”

If he’d known how much worse it was about to get, Nick would’ve probably fled the house, moved to Canada, and spent the rest of his days living in a cabin while making maple syrup, or whatever it was Canadians did aside from being pleasant and supportive, most likely because they enjoyed the benefits of universal healthcare.

Owen had been Nick’s first… well. Almost first everything. First kiss. First sort-of boyfriend. First breakup. First (and so far only) former flame who’d turned into a villain and had tried to kill them.

You never forgot your first.

“I’m supposed to be in a romantic comedy, not a horror movie!” Nick cried as the blade wiggled from side to side as if it was stuck…

But before Nick could be dragged away he leaned forward, knowing he’d never get the chance again to have this many people listening to him. “Queer rights!” he shouted. “Down with the patriarchy! Defund the police! Support fanfic writers!”

“We’re going to hug you, but then we’re going to yell at you. It’s going to be very loud, but you will sit there and take it.”

I’m tearing up just thinking about these characters and their lives and how amazing they are. I can’t believe the story is over!

The 3rd book, and the trilogy as a whole, get five glittery stars!

Shelf Control #327: The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein

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: The Red Magician
Author: Lisa Goldstein
Published: 1982
Length: 192 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Winner of the 1983 American Book Award, The Red Magician was an immediate classic.

On the eve of World War II, a wandering magician comes to a small Hungarian village prophesying death and destruction. Eleven-year-old Kicsi believes Vörös, and attempts to aid him in protecting the village.

But the local rabbi, who possesses magical powers, insists that the village is safe, and frustrates Vörös’s attempts to transport them all to safety. Then the Nazis come and the world changes.

Miraculously, Kicsi survives the horrors of the concentration camp and returns to her village to witness the final climactic battle between the rabbi and the Red Magician, the Old World and the New.

The Red Magician is a notable work of Holocaust literature and a distinguished work of fiction, as well as a marvelously entertaining fantasy that is, in the end, wise and transcendent.

How and when I got it:

I’ve had a paperback edition on my shelves for years and years, and I honestly don’t remember when or where I got it… but there’s a good chance I picked it up at a library sale at some point.

Why I want to read it:

I really wonder if I knew that this was Holocaust-related fiction when I picked up a copy, or if I just expected magic-based fantasy. In any case, the synopsis is really intriguing.

I’m always cautious when it comes to fiction set during the Holocaust, because if not done well, it can feel manipulative or even exploitative. I’m very curious to see how this fantasy story plays out, and I’m also pretty surprised that a book with this combination of real world horror and fantastical elements ended up winning the National Book Award!

I’ve read one book by this author (Ivory Apples), and have one other on my shelves that was among my very first handful of Shelf Control books (The Uncertain Places). I’d definitely like to read at least the two books I own, and I’d certainly be open to exploring more of her work.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

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!

Shelf Control #326: In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

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: In Other Lands
Author: Sarah Rees Brennan
Published: 2019
Length: 487 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

The Borderlands aren’t like anywhere else. Don’t try to smuggle a phone or any other piece of technology over the wall that marks the Border — unless you enjoy a fireworks display in your backpack. (Ballpoint pens are okay.) There are elves, harpies, and — best of all as far as Elliot is concerned — mermaids.

Elliot? Who’s Elliot? Elliot is thirteen years old. He’s smart and just a tiny bit obnoxious. Sometimes more than a tiny bit. When his class goes on a field trip and he can see a wall that no one else can see, he is given the chance to go to school in the Borderlands.

It turns out that on the other side of the wall, classes involve a lot more weaponry and fitness training and fewer mermaids than he expected. On the other hand, there’s Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle, an elven warrior who is more beautiful than anyone Elliot has ever seen, and then there’s her human friend Luke: sunny, blond, and annoyingly likeable. There are lots of interesting books. There’s even the chance Elliot might be able to change the world.

In Other Lands is the exhilarating new book from beloved and bestselling author Sarah Rees Brennan. It’s a novel about surviving four years in the most unusual of schools, about friendship, falling in love, diplomacy, and finding your own place in the world — even if it means giving up your phone.

How and when I got it:

I bought the paperback early in 2021.

Why I want to read it:

I’m not sure why, but for several weeks straight in early 2021, my social media feeds kept pushing this book at me. Hey, it’s the power of marketing — it worked! I kept seeing this mermaid cover popping up whenever I went to check up on my friends’ latest updates, and eventually, I gave in to my curiosity. I mean, who doesn’t love a mermaid cover?

The paperback edition is big and chunky, and at first glance, the plot seems to skew younger than what I usually prefer. This sounds very much like middle grade to younger young adult fiction, which I haven’t been gravitating toward much in recent years.

Still, between the magical school setting, the strange new world, and the fantastical beings that the main character meets, it does sound quite charming. I think I initially bought the book without looking very far into the details, which may be why it’s been sitting on my shelf (unread) since I got it.

I’m a little torn. I see a lot of very positive reviews on Goodreads, but I’m not convinced that this is something I want to devote much time to.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

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!

Shelf Control #320: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

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: Foundryside
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Published: 2018
Length: 512 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle.

But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving. The Merchant Houses who control this magic–the art of using coded commands to imbue everyday objects with sentience–have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims.

Now someone in those Houses wants Sancia dead, and the artifact for themselves. And in the city of Tevanne, there’s nobody with the power to stop them.

To have a chance at surviving–and at stopping the deadly transformation that’s under way–Sancia will have to marshal unlikely allies, learn to harness the artifact’s power for herself, and undergo her own transformation, one that will turn her into something she could never have imagined.

In a city that runs on industrialized magic, a secret war will be fought to overwrite reality itself–the first in a dazzling new series from City of Stairs author Robert Jackson Bennett. 

How and when I got it:

I picked up the paperback edition 2 – 3 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I remember seeing very positive reviews when this book first came out, and since some of these positive reviews were by bloggers whose tastes tend to align with mine, I made a note to check it out. So, of course, when I stumbled into a used book store and found a copy, I couldn’t resist!

The synopsis sounds complicated but intriguing. Industrialized magic? Deadly transformations? Powerful artifacts? Check, check, and check — definitely up my alley.

My hesitation about starting Foundryside are (a) lately, anything over 500 pages feels pretty daunting, and (b) it’s the first in a trilogy, and I already have too many series and trilogies to keep up or catch up with. On the plus side, it’s a (soon-to-be) finished trilogy, since the 3rd book will be released next month — so no getting invested in an ongoing story and then having the conclusion not yet published or not expected for years and years.

This sounds like a book with complex world-building, which means I shouldn’t start it until I know I have the patience and uninterrupted time to really concentrate. I have a strong suspicion I’ll enjoy it once I start — the problem will be psyching myself up to actually dive in.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

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: Seasonal Fears by Seanan McGuire

Title: Seasonal Fears
Series: Alchemical Journeys, #2
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tordotcom
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Length: 496 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Melanie has a destiny, though it isn’t the one everyone assumes it to be. She’s delicate; she’s fragile; she’s dying. Now, truly, is the winter of her soul.

Harry doesn’t want to believe in destiny, because that means accepting the loss of the one person who gives his life meaning, who brings summer to his world.

So, when a new road is laid out in front of them—a road that will lead through untold dangers toward a possible lifetime together—walking down it seems to be the only option.

But others are following behind, with violence in their hearts.

It looks like Destiny has a plan for them, after all….

Seasonal Fears returns to the complicated world of alchemy made real first explored in the author’s 2019 novel Middlegame. In Middlegame, the story centered on Roger and Dodger, two people with an inexplicable connection who come to embody the living personifications of Math and Language.

In Seasonal Fears, alchemists are once again at work, and the impact on the main characters is huge. Melanie has been frail since birth, with a severely damaged heart, a lifetime of illness and medical treatments, and slim chances of living past her teens. But her best friend since kindergarten (and later, her boyfriend) Harry will never give up on Melanie. He loves her; she loves him. Her death may be inevitable, but he’ll never leave her for as long as she remains alive.

Meanwhile, we learn early on that the seasons themselves have living personifications — humans who come to embody Winter and Summer through a complicated and usually bloody coronation process. Alchemists have been aware of Winter and Summer kings and queens for centuries, but it’s only in modern times that they’ve tried to steer the process by creating the perfect vessels for the seasons in their labs.

As Melanie and Harry prepare to attend their high school Valentine’s Day dance, they both undergo a shocking process and learn that their destinies lie beyond tragic high school romance tropes. Accompanied by their Attendants, they start a journey toward the coronation of the seasons, each a candidate for becoming a season Incarnate.

Sound complicated? It is.

Seanan McGuire is an absolute favorite author, and I love her writing style, her characters, and her snark. But here in Seasonal Fears, these factors often become overshadowed by the incredibly confusing plot elements. The seasons, the embodiment of alchemical doctrines, the impact on the natural world, the coronation process… it’s a lot, and I often simply could not wrap my brain around the overarching concepts.

That said, the plot does zip along, with moments of horrific violence as well as quieter moments of emotional connection and elements of wonder and magic. Still, this is a big, dense book, and I’m not sure that the whole ends up being greater than its parts. Also, the end felt strangely anti-climactic.

Apparently, if the series continues, there’s an intention for there to be five books in total. Right now, having finished Seasonal Fears, the idea of continuing seems exhausting. Ask me again, though, when the next books comes out! Since I do tend to read everything this author writes, there’s a good chance I’ll have recovered enough by then to keep making the effort with these alchemical stories.

Book Review: Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher

Title: Nettle & Bone
Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 26, 2022
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

After years of seeing her sisters suffer at the hands of an abusive prince, Marra—the shy, convent-raised, third-born daughter—has finally realized that no one is coming to their rescue. No one, except for Marra herself.

Seeking help from a powerful gravewitch, Marra is offered the tools to kill a prince—if she can complete three impossible tasks. But, as is the way in tales of princes, witches, and daughters, the impossible is only the beginning.

On her quest, Marra is joined by the gravewitch, a reluctant fairy godmother, a strapping former knight, and a chicken possessed by a demon. Together, the five of them intend to be the hand that closes around the throat of the prince and frees Marra’s family and their kingdom from its tyrannous ruler at last.

This is my 4th book by T. Kingfisher, and I’ve never once been disappointed! Nettle & Bone is another terrific tale from this gifted author.

I’m not sure why I expected horror (well, it was probably a misinterpretation of the cover), but this isn’t that! Nettle & Bone is a fairy tale about curses and kingdoms and doomed princesses — but forget all the traditional stories about dashing princes riding to the rescue. Here, the rescuer is none other than one of the princesses, the overlooked third daughter of a king and queen whose tiny kingdom is constantly threatened by the larger kingdoms along its borders.

To save their kingdom, the royal couple marry off their oldest daughter Damia to Prince Vorling of the Northern Kingdom, but soon after their marriage, the princess dies. The Northern Kingdom still has its eyes on the smaller kingdom’s ideally located ports, and to keep their land safe, the king and queen send their second daughter Kania to be the prince’s new bride. The prince longs for the day when he and his heirs are the sole rulers of both kingdoms, and to that end, he insists that the third daughter, Marra, remain unmarried, so that there will be no competing heirs to the thrown.

Marra is perfectly content with this arrangement, and spends the next years of her life as an “almost” nun at a convent that’s much more about female empowerment than strict rules or deprivations. Over time, however, Marra becomes aware that something is seriously wrong with Kania’s marriage. Fearing for her sister’s life, Marra sets out to save her, enlisting the aid of a dustwife (a woman with the ability to speak to the dead), a godmother, and a disgraced knight whom she frees from enslavement to the fae.

With her strange band of allies, Marra sets off to the Northern Kingdom, determined to rescue her sister, break an ancient curse, and protect her own kingdom… and hopefully, not get killed along the way.

Nettle & Bone is often funny, and the author has a light touch with humor and clever dialogue. At the same time, Kania’s situation is disturbing and serious, and the book manages to balance the adventurous tone with the heavier themes related to Marra’s quest and its dire nature.

The situations the band of allies encounter are often absurd, but quite entertaining, and I loved how the fairy tale tropes used here receive fresh, new twists.

T. Kingfisher excels at depicting creepy scenes too, as is evident from the book’s opening lines:

The trees were full of crows and the woods were full of madmen. The pit was full of bones and her hands were full of wires.

From this opening, I expected a much more sinister feel overall to the book, and was happily surprised to find many lighter-spirited moments and even downright silliness amidst the high stakes perils and quests.

All in all, Nettle & Bone is a terrific read. The author has another new book coming out this summer, and meanwhile, I have a few of her backlist books yet to read on my Kindle!