Book Review: Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

Title: Under the Whispering Door
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: October 21, 2021
Length: 373 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead.

Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.

But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.

When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.

Under the Whispering Door is a contemporary fantasy about a ghost who refuses to cross over and the ferryman he falls in love with.

I absolutely adored TJ Klune’s 2020 novel, The House in the Cerulean Sea, so I had very high expectations for Under the Whispering Door. While I enjoyed this novel, it doesn’t quite live up to my (admittedly super high) expectations, but it’s still a sweet, lovely read.

In Under the Whispering Door, we have a very unpleasant first encounter with lead character Wallace Price. Wallace is a powerful, wealthy partner in a powerful, wealthy law firm, and an absolutely awful person. His whole life revolves around his work, and he’s completely heartless in dealing with an employee in need.

Which makes it kind of ironic that he soon drops dead from a heart attack.

When Wallace regains awareness, he’s at his own funeral, which is attended only by his business partners and his ex-wife, none of whom have anything good to say about the dearly departed. But there’s also a stranger there — a young woman whom Wallace has never seen before, who takes charge and informs Wallace that (a) he’s dead and (b) she’s a Reaper, there to escort him to his next step on the journey.

Where they end up is at a strange little tea shop in the woods, run by a kind man named Hugo, and inhabited by Hugo’s ghost grandfather and ghost dog. The tea shop is a real place, with real (living) customers, but it also houses the door to the next world, a portal for dead souls when they’re ready to move on. It’s a lot to take in, and Wallace goes through all the stages of denial and anger and so on — but ultimately, he comes to accept that what’s happening to him is real.

The longer Wallace remains at the tea house, the more he begins to reclaim something like his own humanity, as his contact with the people of the tea house helps him to see how terrible he’s been, and to remember times in his life when he actually experienced the joy of caring and being kind.

The book deals with loss and sorrow and depression throughout, and while the overall tone is whimsical, there’s a seriousness underlying everything that keeps the story grounded even during its most fantastical or silly episodes.

I loved the characters. Hugo, the ferryman, is kind and patient and possesses endless wells of empathy. I got a huge kick out of his grandfather Nelson (and also the very good dog Apollo). Mei, the Reaper, is one character that I couldn’t quite connect with — her scenes are always entertaining, but I didn’t feel that I had a very good grasp on who she was as a person.

Wallace is a tricky one, so utterly unlikeable to start with. It’s a real achievement that the author is able to take this awful person and show his development so carefully and believably that by the end, we really do care about him and want the best for him.

The plot itself isn’t always completely logical, in my opinion — the tea house is perhaps a little too weird to actually function in the real world as it does. And where even is it, besides being in the woods? But these little quibbles don’t really matter.

Ultimately, Under the Whispering Door is a lovely book about it never being too late to become a better person and about finding and seizing joy and choosing kindess wherever possible.

TJ Klune has quickly become one of my favorite authors, and I’ll read whatever he writes next! And meanwhile, I’m going to need to spend some time on his backlist.

Don’t miss Under the Whispering Door!

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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.

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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: Questland by Carrie Vaughn

Title: Questland
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Publisher: John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books
Publication date: June 22, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

YOU FIND YOURSELF IN A MAZE FULL OF TWISTY PASSAGES…

 

Literature professor Dr. Addie Cox is living a happy, if sheltered, life in her ivory tower when Harris Lang, the famously eccentric billionaire tech genius, offers her an unusual job. He wants her to guide a mercenary strike team sent to infiltrate his island retreat off the northwest coast of the United States. Addie is puzzled by her role on the mission until she understands what Lang has built:  Insula Mirabilis, an isolated resort where tourists will one day pay big bucks for a convincing, high-tech-powered fantasy-world experience, complete with dragons, unicorns, and, yes, magic.

 

Unfortunately, one of the island’s employees has gone rogue and activated an invisible force shield that has cut off all outside communication. A Coast Guard cutter attempting to pass through the shield has been destroyed. Suspicion rests on Dominic Brand, the project’s head designer— and Addie Cox’s ex-boyfriend. Lang has tasked Addie and the mercenary team with taking back control of the island at any cost.

 

But Addie is wrestling demons of her own—and not the fantastical kind. Now, she must navigate the deadly traps of Insula Mirabilis as well as her own past trauma. And no d20, however lucky, can help Addie make this saving throw.

To understand the basic premise of Questland, it’s helpful to refer back to Arthur C. Clarke’s famous statement, explicitly referred to in this book:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Questland is contemporary fiction, but with technology and fantasy as its underlying themes. In Questland, Professor Addie Cox, an expert in comparative literature with a focus on mythology and fantasy, is approached by tech billionaire Harris Lang with a proposition: Help him reclaim control of his top-secret project, which has been hijacked (supposedly) by his underlings.

The project is a fantasy island in the truest sense of the words: Think Jurassic Park, but instead of T-Rex and velociraptors, insert wizards, goblins, elves, and archers. Insula Mirabilis is conceived of as a fantasy vacation resort, where hardcore gamers and fantasy geeks can immerse themselves in a world in which magic appears to be real. Thanks, of course, to the sufficiently advanced technology to pull it all off.

But Insula Mirabilis seems to have cut off all access and communication with the outside world, and Lang wants it back. Addie is sent to infiltrate the island along with a small band of mercenaries. Addie’s gaming/fantasy brain immediately recognizes her role in all this — their group may have a Cleric and a Ranger, but she’s clearly the Bard.

Her unique knowledge and experience in fantasy worlds quickly becomes important, as the team encounters a Sphinx, a maze, and all sorts of dangerous riddles and traps. Worryingly, the fail-safes for the fantasy elements seem to be turned off — so yes, those arrows and stunners and spider claws can do real damage, and worse.

Addie also carries with her very significant baggage. As a teen, she survived a school shooting, but watched her two closest friends die. Fantasy worlds and gaming became a sort of refuge for Addie:

All I’d ever wanted to do was escape. No, that wasn’t true. All I wanted was for what happened to mean something. Stories meant something, and real life… didn’t.

The plotline of Questland follows Addie and her team’s journey across the island, from the realms of dwarves to the magical and beautiful realm of elves, with random weird encounters with animal villages, Robin Hood and his Merry Men, unicorns, wargs, and more. It’s all so real — but Addie knows it’s not.

My feelings on Questland are mixed. First, delight — who wouldn’t want to inhabit a real-feeling world that incorporates every fantasy element you could possibly desire? It sounds too good to be true, and of course, none of it really is true. For all the mead and antlers and fairy lights, there’s a backroom filled with computers and controllers and transmitters. It may feel like entering a fantasy world, but the ancient stone castle is 3D-printed.

Beyond the delight of the concept, I was often frustrated by the quest itself. The overarching plotline about the corporate takeover veers between being overly complicated and just not very rational. So one faction seizes control of the island — and then everyone there just stays there, wearing costumes and acting as if they live inside the fantasy? To what end, ultimately? If Addie’s team hadn’t arrived, how long would this have gone on?

Still, it’s fun to see Addie use her wits and her geek sensibilities to outsmart the traps and puzzles of the island, getting to be heroic while those around her want to view her as a damsel to be shielded. I wish Addie’s backstory had been even more fleshed out — the pieces dealing with her PTSD and the lingering trauma of her past are sensitively depicted and quite moving.

Never having played D&D or other fantasy-based games or RPGs myself, perhaps I wasn’t quite primed to be the perfect audience for Questland, although I did appreciate how seriously Addie and the island characters take Harry Potter, the Tolkien masterpieces, Narnia, Labyrinth, and more. These aren’t presented in the wink-wink pop culture cool way of many contemporary novels that want to show their characters’ geek cred — instead, in Questland, knowledge of modern fantasy epics is as foundational as a knowledge of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey.

Overall, I enjoyed Questland, but got bored at points with the quest elements. And yet, it’s never a bad thing to see geek culture front and center, being celebrated for all its complexity and wonder. As Addie explains:

I’m not sure any of them really understand — it’s not the stuff. It’s not the magic, the unicorns, the rings. All that’s just things. Fantasy is about what you can’t patent. Honor and heroism and… and… hope.

And as the author says in the end notes:

It’s not just about the sufficiently advanced technology that appears to make magic possible. It’s about a culture hungry for worlds and stories filled with magic. That embraces a sense of wonder instead of being suspicious of it.

If you’re a fan of magical worlds, and especially if you’ve grown up immersing yourself in games and movies that transport you into those worlds, do check out Questland.

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Book Review: The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison

Title: The Witness for the Dead
Author: Katherine Addison
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: June 22, 2021
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Katherine Addison returns to the glittering world she created for her beloved novel, The Goblin Emperor, in this stand-alone sequel.

When the young half-goblin emperor Maia sought to learn who had set the bombs that killed his father and half-brothers, he turned to an obscure resident of his father’s Court, a Prelate of Ulis and a Witness for the Dead. Thara Celehar found the truth, though it did him no good to discover it. He lost his place as a retainer of his cousin the former Empress, and made far too many enemies among the many factions vying for power in the new Court. The favor of the Emperor is a dangerous coin.

Now Celehar lives in the city of Amalo, far from the Court though not exactly in exile. He has not escaped from politics, but his position gives him the ability to serve the common people of the city, which is his preference. He lives modestly, but his decency and fundamental honestly will not permit him to live quietly. As a Witness for the Dead, he can, sometimes, speak to the recently dead: see the last thing they saw, know the last thought they had, experience the last thing they felt. It is his duty use that ability to resolve disputes, to ascertain the intent of the dead, to find the killers of the murdered.

Now Celehar’s skills lead him out of the quiet and into a morass of treachery, murder, and injustice. No matter his own background with the imperial house, Celehar will stand with the commoners, and possibly find a light in the darkness.

Katherine Addison has created a fantastic world for these books – wide and deep and true.

Thara Celehar is the Witness for the Dead of this book’s title. He’s gifted with the ability to find out the truth of a death by making contact with the deceased’s body. He says a prayer of compassion, then asks the dead to answer questions. Sometimes, it’s too late, and there’s no one left in the body to answer the query. But sometimes, he’s able to get answers or at least an impression of the person’s last moments. He then bears witness for the dead person, testifying to what he’s learned in order to solve a mystery or resolve a dispute. His basic goodness allows him to carry out his duties with dignity.

However, despite being located in a smaller city far from the capitol, Thara is not completely shielded from the backbiting and political striving that characterizes the prelacy of Amalo. There are some who are jealous of Thara’s connection to the emperor; others fear that he might gain power and seek to tear him down. No matter how he tries to stay outside the fray, he’s drawn in repeatedly.

As the book opens, Thara becomes involved in several unsolved cases. In one, a family needs him to discover who their patriarch’s intended heir is, as the will is in dispute. In another, sadder case, a brother seeks his sister’s body, believing that the man she eloped with may have done her harm. And in the story that becomes the overarching plotline of the book, a beautiful young woman’s body is pulled from the canal — was her death an accident, or was she killed? And if it was murder, who did it?

As he investigates, he becomes drawn into the worlds of the opera, the rich patrons, the seedier bars and teahouses, the gambling establishments, and the law enforcement of Amalo. He persists in pursuing the truth, even when his own life and reputation are at stake. Despite his fears and doubts, Thara is always true to his calling, and his intelligence and bravery enable him to see his inquiries through until he can find the truth on behalf of the dead.

The world of The Witness for the Dead is the world of The Goblin Emperor… and I can’t even begin to describe or explain how much I love this world. Author Katherine Addison has meticulously crafted a world with a finely developed culture, religious underpinnings, class stratifications, nobility and commoners, courtiers and princes. There’s a strange beauty to the descriptions of the people and the society, and I am particularly head over heels in love with the language of The Goblin Emperor‘s world.

In her books, the author creates a vocabulary and grammar that is dizzyingly strange and difficult, making the books seem almost impenetrable at first — but if we stick with it (as I encourage everyone to do), the names of the people and places and institutions, as well as the forms of address and the contrasting formal and informal speech patterns, all create a sort of linguistic magic. As I re-read The Goblin Emperor via audiobook, I was enthralled all over again, not just by the story, but by the very sound of it all. Truly an incredible experience.

Back to The Witness for the Dead: I loved this story. It was fascinating seeing Thara Celehar about his work. We see him in action in The Goblin Emperor through his interactions with the Emperor, but here, we’re privy to more of his inner life and learn more about what sort of person he is and what drives him. It’s an engrossing character study, enhanced by clever mysteries for Thara to solve.

I suppose my only complaint about The Witness for the Dead isn’t really about this book at all: I just missed Maia (Emperor Edrehasivar VII) so, so much. I would gladly read a multiple-volume history covering the reign of the emperor… but I’d also happily settle for just one more novel!

I can’t imagine reading The Witness for the Dead without having read The Goblin Emperor. I do know at least one person who’s planning to do just that, and I’ll be interested to hear her thoughts. I don’t think this book would work as a stand-alone, since I can’t see how someone could truly make sense of the world (not to mention all those names!!) without having read the previous novel. But, I’d be happy to be proven wrong!

I highly recommend The Witness for the Dead, but please do yourself a favor and read The Goblin Emperor first. I hope you’ll love it as much as I do!

Note: As part of a preorder sales promotion, I also received a digital copy of a new short story called Lora Selezh. It’s a compact story about Thara witnessing on behalf of a petitioner, and I really liked it. I don’t know if it’s available elsewhere, but if so, don’t miss it.

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Book Review: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: The Beautiful Ones
Author: Silva Moreno-Garcia
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: April 27, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Mexican Gothic comes a sweeping romance with a dash of magic.

They are the Beautiful Ones, Loisail’s most notable socialites, and this spring is Nina’s chance to join their ranks, courtesy of her well-connected cousin and his calculating wife. But the Grand Season has just begun, and already Nina’s debut has gone disastrously awry. She has always struggled to control her telekinesis—neighbors call her the Witch of Oldhouse—and the haphazard manifestations of her powers make her the subject of malicious gossip.

When entertainer Hector Auvray arrives to town, Nina is dazzled. A telekinetic like her, he has traveled the world performing his talents for admiring audiences. He sees Nina not as a witch, but ripe with potential to master her power under his tutelage. With Hector’s help, Nina’s talent blossoms, as does her love for him.

But great romances are for fairytales, and Hector is hiding a truth from Nina—and himself—that threatens to end their courtship before it truly begins. The Beautiful Ones is a charming tale of love and betrayal, and the struggle between conformity and passion, set in a world where scandal is a razor-sharp weapon.

A book doesn’t have to be long to be a completely immersive reading experience. Case in point: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — a 320-page novel that left me feeling utterly transported.

The Beautiful Ones was originally published in 2017, but is being reissued this month via Tor Books, with a gorgeous new cover. I hope this book gets tons of attention — it’s definitely one of my top reads of the year.

From the very first page, we’re swept up in a love story that feels desperate, epic, and heart-pounding all at once.

Ten years earlier, a pair of nineteen-year-olds, Hector and Valerie, fell madly in love. But their relationship was unsanctioned and seemingly faced impossible hurdles. Hector was a young, poor performer, but Valerie was one of the “Beautiful Ones” — a descendent of an old-money upper class society family. Valerie’s family, however, having lost its fortune, was relying on Valerie marrying wealth in order to redeem them from impending disaster. Hector and Valerie pledged to marry and became secretly engaged, and then he left to seek his fortune — only to receive a letter from Valerie several months later, letting him know she’d married someone else.

The world of The Beautiful Ones is familiar in many ways, yet with its own oddities. It has a Victorian feel to it, with a huge emphasis on manners, class distinctions, reputation, and social connections. At the same time, this is a world where people may have rare talents, such as Hector’s telekinesis — which elevates him to heights of fame and admiration, but which in a woman is considered somewhat gauche, a bit of a magic trick that polite women don’t display in public.

“Nina, if you want to play these games in the privacy of your room, I will not chide you, but in the presence of others, you should restrain yourself…

“It is not normal. It is a performance at a fair, like the freaks they display for a few coins…

“I don’t mean you. I mean, in general, these are carnival games, these are things unfit for ladies.”

The story is centered in the city of Losail, considered the epicenter of fashion and society. There’s a continent called Iblevald where Hector spends ten years exploring and performing, which sounds tropical and dangerous, with cities as well as undeveloped areas. Losail sounds like it could be in France (certainly, many of the names are French or French-inspired), but this is really a world that’s not ours, so the comparisons only go so far.

As the story begins, Hector returns from his ten years abroad, now a wealthy and famous man, appearing in performances in Losail to great fanfare. Why Losail? Because that’s where he’s heard that Valerie and her husband live, and after all these years, he’s still obsessed. He knows she’s married, but he can’t help himself — he has to see her, be near her once again.

As he attends his first social engagement, he’s crushingly disappointed to learn that Valerie is not present, but instead ends up meeting Antonina — who prefers to be called Nina — Valerie’s husband’s young cousin who is staying with the couple as she enters her first social season. Nina is sweet, impulsive, not held back by manners, and very, very curious. She also has talents of her own — telekinetic powers that come out when she’s particularly emotional, usually without her control, which have earned her scorn and a nickname (the Witch of Oldhouse) back in her country village.

Nina is starstruck and full of admiration for Hector, but he sees her as a means to an end — getting close to Valerie again. As Hector starts to court Nina, he’s clearly using her, but even as his obsession with Valerie continues, Nina’s essential goodness begins to impress him in unexpected ways.

But then Nina smiled. It was like looking down and finding the first green sprouts rising from the frozen, black earth. Almost invisible and yet there, heralding spring.

I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll stick to major themes instead of plot points from here on out. The Beautiful Ones has the breathless feel of a romantic tragedy, but there are also moments of joy and sweetness and emotional connection. The obsession that at first had me thinking of Wuthering Heights turns into something else, and I loved both Nina and Hector’s emotional journeys over the course of the book.

The book includes chapters from different points of view, and it’s fascinating and illuminating to be inside Nina, Hector, and Valerie’s heads. Each are very, very different, and the intentions (and manipulations) that become apparent can be moving or shocking, depending on whose POV we’re focused on in any given moment.

I was thoroughly spellbound as I read this book, and found it hard to focus on anything else in my life until I could sit back down and keep reading. There’s so much drama and tension, and it all builds to an unforgettable set of confrontations and consequences.

Nina herself is a fabulous character, with hidden depths, a core of steel, an undeniable curiosity and intelligence, and a heart that wants nothing more than to love and be loved. She makes this book so enjoyable, and you can’t help rooting for her happiness at every turn.

I love the elegance and the urgency of The Beautiful Ones. There’s a tense, dramatic mood created right from the start, and I couldn’t help fall under the spell of the beautiful writing and the magical atmosphere that builds from page to page.

The Beautiful Ones is a must-read! Don’t miss it.

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Shelf Control #265: Slayer by Kiersten White

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: Slayer
Author: Kiersten White
Published: 2019
Length: 404 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Nina and her twin sister, Artemis, are far from normal. It’s hard to be when you grow up at the Watcher’s Academy, which is a bit different from your average boarding school. Here teens are trained as guides for Slayers—girls gifted with supernatural strength to fight the forces of darkness. But while Nina’s mother is a prominent member of the Watcher’s Council, Nina has never embraced the violent Watcher lifestyle. Instead she follows her instincts to heal, carving out a place for herself as the school medic.

Until the day Nina’s life changes forever.

Thanks to Buffy, the famous (and infamous) Slayer that Nina’s father died protecting, Nina is not only the newest Chosen One—she’s the last Slayer, ever. Period.

As Nina hones her skills with her Watcher-in-training, Leo, there’s plenty to keep her occupied: a monster fighting ring, a demon who eats happiness, a shadowy figure that keeps popping up in Nina’s dreams…

But it’s not until bodies start turning up that Nina’s new powers will truly be tested—because someone she loves might be next.

One thing is clear: Being Chosen is easy. Making choices is hard.

How and when I got it:

I picked up a Kindle version of this book during a one-day price drop, sometime last year.

Why I want to read it:

BUFFY!

Yes, I’m a Buffy fan. I miss the show, and I’m probably long overdue for (another) re-watch binge. I remember seeing the buzz about Slayer when it came out in 2019, and I was impressed by how many positive reviews I read at the time.

While the show ended way back in 2003, Buffy’s story lives on! I kept up with the comic seasons that followed (although I realize that I never did read the final one). These characters have a life of their own, and I’m always open to revisiting their world. While Slayer is apparently about a new main character and a very changed version of Buffy’s world, it sounds like there’s enough of a connection to pull me in and make me happy.

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.
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Buy now at Amazon or Audible.

Audiobook Review: The Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski

Title: The Time of Contempt (The Witcher, #2)
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Narrator: Peter Kenny
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: 2013 (first published 1995)
Print length: 331 pages
Audio length: 11 hours, 55 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Geralt is a witcher: guardian of the innocent; protector of those in need; a defender, in dark times, against some of the most frightening creatures of myth and legend. His task, now, is to protect Ciri. A child of prophecy, she will have the power to change the world for good or for ill — but only if she lives to use it.

A coup threatens the Wizard’s Guild.
War breaks out across the lands.
A serious injury leaves Geralt fighting for his life…
… and Ciri, in whose hands the world’s fate rests, has vanished…

The Witcher returns in this sequel to Blood of Elves.

It’s always confusing to try to keep track of the book of the Witcher series — an explanation is always necessary.

The Time of Contempt is the 4th book in the Witcher world, but it’s considered The Witcher #2, because it’s the second novel — the first two books are interwoven short stories, but they rightfully should be considered books 1 and 2. Anyhoo…

The Time of Contempt picks back up with the story of Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher of the series’ title, his ward/foster daughter Ciri, and the enchantress Yennefer. Our main characters spend most of their time separated from one another, but always trying to to reconnect or find a way to save the others.

Ciri is young and impetuous, trained as a Witcher but also with her own magical powers. In the company of Yennefer, she’s traveling to Aretuza, the academy for young enchantresses, where she’ll be enrolled as a novice. Meanwhile, Yennefer plans to attend a conclave of mages, where intrigue and alliances and plotting take center stage. Geralt is in pursuit of both, aware that there are terrible forces trying to locate and control Ciri, if not outright kill her.

It all goes to hell, as the conclave turns into a massive battleground. After briefly being reunited, the main trio is once again separated, with Geralt left critically injured, Yennefer’s whereabouts unknown, and Ciri isolated and forced to survive danger after danger.

If you’ve read this far in the Witcher series, none of this will be terribly surprising. The series thrives on thrusting the main characters into horrible danger over and over again. It’s at its strongest when we see them using their skills and their wits to outmaneuver, outfight, and outthink their opponents.

In The Time of Contempt, a lot of time is spent on political wrangling, and that’s where the story frequently lost me. There are kingdoms, kings, the kings’ mages, borders, fortresses, and all are seemingly at odds or in cahoots or shifting loyalties or betraying one another. It’s a lot, and maybe especially because I listened to the audiobook, I had an awfully hard time trying to keep all the players straight.

At the same time, I do truly love the narration of the audiobooks. Narrator Peter Kenny does a fabulous job with the characters, and I especially love hearing him do Geralt and the bard Dandelion. He also does a great Ciri and Yennefer, and excels at all the various accents the supporting characters of different countries and races speak in.

Overall, I have very mixed feelings about The Time of Contempt. There are some compelling new developments, but too much time is spent away from the main characters, and that’s where my attention and interest inevitably drop off. I found the politics too confusing to follow via audio, but fortunately, there’s a huge Witcher fandom and I counted on the various wikis to clarify matters for me whenever I lost track of who was who and which side they were on.

I do want to continue the series, and I have a hard time imagining sticking to the print version, since I’d really miss the sound of Geralt’s voice. Still, I’m a little hesitant, because I can only imagine that as the plot progresses, it’ll only get more complicated, and potentially all that much more difficult to follow.

If you’ve read the Witcher books, I’d love a little advice: Continue with the audiobooks, or switch to print? I guess the bigger question is whether it’s worth continuing with the series at all, but my gut is telling me yes! And how could I stop now?

Shelf Control #261: Other Kingdoms by Richard Matheson

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: Other Kingdoms
Author: Richard Matheson
Published: 2011
Length: 316 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

For over half a century, Richard Matheson has enthralled and terrified readers with such timeless classics as I Am LegendThe Incredible Shrinking ManDuelSomewhere in Time, and What Dreams May Come. Now the Grand Master returns with a bewitching tale of erotic suspense and enchantment.…

1918. A young American soldier, recently wounded in the Great War, Alex White comes to Gatford to escape his troubled past. The pastoral English village seems the perfect spot to heal his wounded body and soul. True, the neighboring woods are said to be haunted by capricious, even malevolent spirits, but surely those are just old wives’ tales.

Aren’t they?

A frightening encounter in the forest leads Alex into the arms of Magda Variel, an alluring red-haired widow rumored to be a witch. She warns him to steer clear of the wood and the perilous faerie kingdom it borders, but Alex cannot help himself. Drawn to its verdant mysteries, he finds love, danger…and wonders that will forever change his view of the world.

Other Kingdoms casts a magical spell, as conjured by a truly legendary storyteller.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy when the book was first released.

Why I want to read it:

Richard Matheson is the author of some incredibly well-known horror stories (I Am Legend, among others), as well as being a prolific screenwriter and writer of a vast number of novels and short stories. While I haven’t read a ton of his work, he is the author of one of my all-time favorite books-turned-movies, Somewhere in Time (for which he wrote the screenplay based on his novel). Other Kingdoms is one of his later works published before his death in 2013.

When I heard about Other Kingdoms, I was drawn to it not only because of the author, but also because of the description. I’m a total sucker for faerie worlds and haunted woods, and the mortals who go where perhaps they shouldn’t. I think it sounds terrific!

What do you think? Would you read this book? Have you read any other books by Richard Matheson, and if so, do you have any to recommend?

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 Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers

Title: The Ladies of the Secret Circus
Author: Constance Sayers
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: March 23, 2021
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Paris, 1925: To enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder-a world where women tame magnificent beasts, carousels take you back in time, and trapeze artists float across the sky. But each daring feat has a cost. Bound to her family’s strange and magical circus, it’s the only world Cecile Cabot knows-until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate love affair that could cost her everything.

Virginia, 2005: Lara Barnes is on top of the world-until her fiancé disappears on their wedding day. Desperate, her search for answers unexpectedly leads to her great-grandmother’s journals and sweeps her into the story of a dark circus and a generational curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations.

The Ladies of the Secret Circus is a tale of family secrets and a dark heritage — but it doesn’t quite live up to the mysterious air promised by the cover and synopsis.

Lara is eagerly awaiting her wedding to Todd, the man she’s loved since her teens. But her joy turns to heartache when she’s left waiting at the altar on her wedding day. Did he jilt her? Did something happen to him? His abandoned car seems to provide a link to a similar disappearance that occurred 30 years earlier. Dark forces seem to be at play. Could this be related to Lara and her mother Audrey’s talent for magic? Or the fact that their small town in Virginia hasn’t had a single murder case in decades? Or Lara’s strange memories of being visited as a child by an unusual man who made incredible things happen?

In the months that follow, Todd’s fate remains a mystery and Lara starts to rebuild her life, but a gift from her mother sends her on a strange journey. The gift is a small painting that’s been hanging in Audrey’s house for as long as Lara can remember — a portrait of her great-grandmother Cecile as a young circus performer.

When Lara takes the painting to be reframed, the art expert who handles it is astonished to realize that this may be one of the rumored missing paintings by the great Jazz Age artist Emile Giroux. He supposedly painted his masterpiece, a series of three paintings called The Ladies of the Secret Circus, before his death, but no one has ever seen the paintings. If Lara’s painting is authentic, then its value is in the millions, and its discovery will rock the art world.

But as Lara investigates, the connection to ancient magics is revealed, especially once she begins to read Cecile’s long-lost diaries. The diaries tell a story of a mysterious, otherworldly circus that only appears to those who truly seek it, and the strange, damned performers who populate the circus and seemingly can never leave. There’s a connection to Lara’s family, but it’s beyond anything Lara could have expected, and carries huge dangers for her and everyone around her.

While the set-up is promising, the book itself didn’t meet my expectations. Some of this may be me — I seem to have issues with magical circus settings, since apparently I’m the only person in the world who didn’t love The Night Circus. The big revelations in this book about the Secret Circus struck me as too out-there to accept. I have problems with books where the use of magic makes anything and everything possible — at some point, it stops feeling like any rules apply at all.

The connections to Lara’s family are confusing, and the origin of the connection is just kind of dumped on the reader earlier on. The how’s and why’s of it all just didn’t work for me. So many of the more fantastical elements are stated as fact, but without a sense of build-up or setting to make these aspects feel at all plausible. The identities of some of the circus performers are supposed to ground the circus in our own world, but without giving anything away, I’ll just say that these pieces struck me as absurd and funny, rather than dramatic.

I enjoyed the diary entries, with their 1920s Paris setting, but again, the constant name-dropping of artists and authors like Hemingway, Chagall, and Man Ray made me feel distracted and as if the author were trying too hard to make the story real. It just didn’t work for me — somehow the use of real artists in this fictional tale felt out of place and at odds with the story the author was trying to tell.

Sad to say, overall this was a disappointing read for me. I loved the author’s previous book, A Witch in Time, and such high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, The Ladies of the Secret Circus started slowly and never fully pulled me in.