Audiobook Review: The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk

Title: The Midnight Bargain
Author: C. L. Polk
Narrator: Moira Quirk
Publisher: Erewhon
Publication date: October 13, 2020
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 11 hours, 49 minute
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken

I was not prepared to get as swept away by this book as I was!

In The Midnight Bargain, we’re transported to a world in which magical powers are the key to financial success… and belong squarely to the male population. Women with powers are seen as desirable in marriage because they’re most likely to provide magically gifted children. The catch is that women are not actually allowed to practice magic or study it seriously. Upon marriage, women are locked into silver collars that cut off their access to magic for as long as they wear it — supposedly to ensure the safety of future children, but (conveniently for their husbands) also ensuring that they’re kept under tight control.

For Beatrice, the idea of never developing her magical gift is horrifying. Her father, having speculated unwisely in business ventures, is on the verge of financial (and thus, social) ruin. Only a good marriage to the son of a wealthy family can save her own family. But Beatrice dreams of studying magic and strengthening her own powers, and her secret dream is to bind a powerful spirit to herself, making her ineligible to marry and giving her the opportunity to work behind the scenes to help her father build back his fortune.

Sadly, Beatrice’s father is a rigid conformist who is only focused on money and getting ahead. Bargaining season — the time each year when “ingenues” are placed on the marriage market and wealthy families compete to secure a good match — is the Clayborn family’s last chance to dig themselves out of debt, and there’s simply no way that her father will allow her to evade her duties. Beatrice knows that it’s a race against time to find the right grimoire that will unlock the mysteries of binding a spirit.

Her plans are confounded by Ysbeta Lavan, the powerful daughter of an incredibly wealthy family, who has her own reasons for wanting to escape bargaining season unmarried. A further complication is Ianthe Lavan, Ysbeta’s (super hot) brother, who falls for Beatrice just as hard as she falls for him. Beatrice’s feelings for Ianthe stand in contradiction to her personal goals. Can she give up her dreams of developing her magical gifts for the sake of true love, even if it means locking herself in a collar for the duration of her child-bearing years?

I hesitated a bit when starting this book, having read the author’s earlier Kingston Cycle trilogy and coming away from it with mixed feelings. While I admired the author’s inventiveness, I felt that the world-building in the trilogy wasn’t strong enough to satisfy me or provide sufficient groundwork for understanding the intricacies of the society the books portrayed. I worried that I might have a similar experince with The Midnight Bargain.

Fortunately, my worries were soon set to rest. While I do feel that more explanation would have been helpful at the start of the book, I easily became immersed in the plot anyway. I wished for more explanation of the countries named and their different customs, as well as some basics on geography. The world itself felt a little shakily defined.

However, I still was able to fully engage with the characters and enjoy the story. Beatrice’s quest is fueled not by a desire for personal power, but by her need to make her own decisions and be truly free. At one point, Ianthe swears that if they marry, he’ll leave her free of the collar whenever possible and support her pursuit of magic… but even that may not be enough. As Beatrice struggles with her choices, it’s clear that being allowed freedom isn’t the same thing as actually having freedom. It’s fascinating to see the characters’ journeys and conflicts, and I appreciated that decisions for the main characters are never clear choices between a right and wrong path.

The nature of the society is, of course, horrifying. There are some truly terrible scenes later in the book when it appears that Beatrice’s independence and agency will be stripped from her against her will, and I literally found myself short of breath during these moments! This is a fantasy world, but the stakes are women’s rights and the freedom to determine one’s own path and make one’s own choices. It feels real, despite the trappings of magic and spirits.

I listened to the audiobook, which was a truly captivating experience. The narrator, Moira Quirk, is a delight. Having listened to her narration of many of Gail Carriger’s books, I knew I’d be in for a treat with the audio version of The Midnight Bargain, and I definitely was not disappointed!

I’m so happy to have experienced The Midnight Bargain. The plot zips along, but packs quite an emotional punch too. With terrific characters, a compelling fantasy set-up, and high stakes, it’s hard to stop once you get started. Highly recommended.

Book Review: All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

Title: All of Us Villains
Author: Amanda Foody & Christine Lynn Herman
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: November 9, 2021
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Blood Moon rises. The Blood Veil falls. The Tournament begins.

Every generation, at the coming of the Blood Moon, seven families in the remote city of Ilvernath each name a champion to compete in a tournament to the death.

The prize? Exclusive control over a secret wellspring of high magick, the most powerful resource in the world–one thought long depleted.

This year, thanks to a salacious tell-all book, the seven champions are thrust into worldwide spotlight, granting each of them new information, new means to win, and most importantly: a choice – accept their fate or rewrite their story.

But this is a story that must be penned in blood.

All of Us Villains, like a certain incredibly successful YA book trilogy, centers on a fight to the death. Participating families each choose a champion, and their tasks is simple: Kill all the other champions, or be killed yourself.

For centuries, the seven key families of Ilvernath have participated in the tournament, a deathly serious competition that occurs once each generation, heralded by the arrival of the Blood Moon. Each of the seven families chooses, by their own means, the person to represent the family interests. The winning family gains control over high magick, which is available to no one else — in fact, none but the victorious family can even perceive it, yet alone use it.

With such high stakes, it’s no wonder that the families are obsessed with winning. Some families groom their offspring from childhood with a single-minded focus on victory at all costs. Some engage in desperate attempts to curry favor with the spellmakers and cursemakers whose devices and enchantments can mean the literal difference between life and death for the competitors. And there’s one family who has never, ever won, but still they compete — and it’s rumored that this family is the one which did the unthinkable and shared the secrets of the tournament’s existence through the scandalous book, A Tradition of Tragedy.

Now the whole world is watching to see the newest round of the tournament unfold, and the champions are under immense pressure and scrutiny like never before. Additionally, government agents from outside Ilvernath seem to be very, very interested in the tournament and its outcome… and meanwhile, seven teens from seven families are preparing to face their fears and kill their opponents in a bloody, unbreakable competition.

In All of Us Villains, we gain entry to this strange and dangerous world through four main characters. As we alternate chapters between these characters’ points of view, we learn more about their families, their backgrounds, their own personal stakes, and most importantly, just how far they’re willing to go to stay alive and win glory for their families.

The tournament, as described in this fast-paced, thickly-detailed novel, is disturbing and dark and incredibly dangerous. The champions are all skilled, to one extent or another, in casting spells and curses, and must rely on their magical talents, as well as their wits, their ability to manipulate, and their powers of persuasion, to both form alliances and yet make sure they’re the last one standing. (Kind of like Survivor, but with death and magick.)

In The Hunger Games, the districts’ tributes are chosen at random, forced to compete as ongoing punishment by the Capital. No one actually wants their children to compete. Not so in All of Us Villains. Here, it’s all about power. The seven families are party to the curse that created the tournament so many centuries earlier. Without the tournament, the high magick becomes unreachable to everyone, something the families cannot tolerate — so they groom their children and celebrate their selection as champions, then send them out to win or die.

What kind of people think it’s an acceptable loss to put forward their own children in the hopes of attaining power? Clearly, none of the families could be considered good-hearted, although the champions’ own weighing in on the scale of good vs evil is up for debate.

I found myself completely captivated by this compelling, dangerous fight to the death. The story is so dire, and the contestants are all so doomed. There’s no way out, and they know it. They also all know that their families are sending them into this tournament to kill or be killed, and no matter how confident some families are about their chances, the fact remains, six of the seven will be dead before the tournament ends.

The action is non-stop, but there’s compelling character development too — at least for the four characters whose points of view we get to experience. As for the other three competitors — well, it’s hard to care about them too much when we only see them from the outside, and while we get hints of personality, they’re clearly not the ones to pay attention to.

While I couldn’t put the book down, there are a few reasons why this doesn’t quite rise to 5-star level for me:

  • It’s a bit over-complicated. We need to learn the distinguishing characteristics of the seven families, keep the competitors straight, learn about the tournament’s Relics and Locations, understand the difference between common magic, raw magic, and high magic, and keep track of an endless list of curses and spells. It’s a lot. I’m not usually a fan of character lists or glossaries at the start of books, but here, it would have been helpful.
  • The four main characters have a tendency to blend together. Their motivations and backstories are important, but pieces seem to shift too often — and maybe this is really just part of the previous bullet point, but it gets to be too much to track.
  • This is not a complete story!! This is perhaps my biggest complaint. I didn’t know before I started, and there’s nothing on the cover or in the description to state this… but this is only book 1! The book ends, but the story doesn’t conclude. We end at a turning point, but it feels just like a random stopping point in the action rather than the end of a section. As of the end of the book, the tournament is still ongoing! Book #2 (no name yet, as far as I can see) is listed as due out in 2022 (per Goodreads), but it’s a little frustrating to get this absorbed in a story and then have it abruptly… end. Argh.

Of course, if I didn’t feel invested, I wouldn’t mind so much that the story just stops. So, my response is decidedly mixed: I really got into the story, but I’m really frustrated that this is only the first part!

One more minor quibble: I have the hardest time with the book’s title! It nibbles at my comfort… it doesn’t quite feel grammatically correct to me, but I suppose that depends on how it’s meant. Is it the start of a sentence — “All of us villains… went to the supermarket”, for example? In that case, it’s wrong. Is it just a description of the group — “all of us villains” — kind of just hanging out there as a phrase? I don’t love it; don’t know quite what to do with it. Is it a more elegant statement of who they are — “All of us. Villains.” or “All of us, villains.” I could live with that, but then the title is missing punctuation. Someone stop me. I know I’m being ridiculous.

In any case…

Overall, this book is one to read in one huge sitting, if you can. It’s easy to become obsessively involved with the intricacies of the plot and the complex inner workings of the characters. There is such a sense of doom hanging over the whole thing — this is the least cheerful YA story I’ve read in a long time! Still, it’s a terrific read, and I suppose my intense frustration is just another sign that I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

Will I remember the details by the time the sequel arrives? Probably not, but that’s what re-reading is for.

If you’re looking for a weird tale of magic and murder, set in a world that’s very similar to our own in so many ways, but with a deadly difference, definitely check out All of Us Villains.

PS – For more about All of Us Villains, check out this discussion with the authors over on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog. So interesting!

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Audiobook Review: Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal — and so we reach the end of the amazing Glamourist Histories series!

Title: Of Noble Family (Glamourist Histories, #5)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrators:  Mary Robinette Kowal, Prentice Onayemi, Robin Miles
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 28, 2015
Print length: 572 pages
Audio length: 15 hours
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The final book of the acclaimed Glamourist Histories is the magical adventure that might result if Jane Austen walked on the darker side of the Regency…

Jane and Vincent have finally gotten some much-needed rest after their adventures in Italy when Vincent receives word that his estranged father has passed away on one of his properties in the West Indies. His brother, who manages the estate, is overwhelmed, and no one else in his family can go. Grudgingly, out of filial duty the couple decide to go.

The sea voyage is long and Jane spends enough time unable to perform glamour that towards the end of the trip she discovers that she is with child. They are overjoyed, but when they finally arrive at the estate to complete what they expect to be routine legal tasks, they realize that nearly everything they came expecting to find had been a lie. Also, the entire estate is in disarray, with horrifying conditions and tensions with the local slave population so high that they are close to revolt.

Jane and Vincent’s sense of peril is screaming out for them to flee, but Vincent cannot stand to leave an estate connected with his family in such a condition. They have survived many grand and terrifying adventures in their time, but this one will test their skills and wits more than any they have ever encountered before, this time with a new life hanging in the balance.

Allow me to wipe away my tears before I start writing my review…

Not that this book itself is heart-breaking (although it does have its moments) — but simply because I’ve now reached the end of the Glamourist Histories series, and I’m so sad to be done! Over the course of these five books, Jane and Vincent have become so dear to me, and I just hate to leave them and their world behind.

In Of Noble Birth, Jane and Vincent must undertake a sea voyage to the Caribbean, to the Hamilton estate on the island of Antigua, after Vincent receives word that his father has died. His elder brother, the heir to the estate, has been injured in an accident and is unable to travel, so calls upon Vincent to go retrieve their father’s will and settle the family’s affairs in Antigua.

After an arduous journey, during which Jane discovers her pregnancy, they arrive at the Hamilton estate to discover unwelcome surprise after unwelcome surprise. The couple, thanks to Lord Verbury’s manipulations, is unable to leave, and are forced into staying at the plantation, at least until Jane can safely deliver her baby.

Once there, they find deplorable conditions amongst the slave population, a lack of appropriate medical care, an untrustworthy overseer, and a household staff who bear a remarkable resemblance to Vincent and his brothers. Jane and Vincent have a lot on their plates, including Jane’s worrying health, the deceit of the overseer, and the ongoing aftereffects of Vincent’s horribly cruel and abusive upbringing.

While Jane and Vincent are honorable and well-intentioned, they still make mistakes, although they try their best to rectify their errors and to support and protect the people enslaved by Vincent’s father. The severity of the conditions is portrayed sensitively yet without shying away, and I appreciate that Jane is once again not perfect but is given room to learn from her errors.

Glamour itself takes a backseat to the conditions on the plantation and Jane and Vincent’s efforts to protect the people there and improve their lives. There are plenty of new characters, many of whom are quite delightful, and we get an introduction (alongside Jane) to non-European approaches to glamour thanks to the elder women of the plantation.

As with previous books, I felt absolutely drenched with anxiety whenever my beloved Jane and Vincent were in danger, and in particular, Jane’s experiences with a devastatingly high risk pregnancy had me in tears.

Without offering egregious spoilers, I’m happy to say that the series has a perfectly happy conclusion… despite leaving me wanting more, more, more.

Mary Robinette Kowal again narrates her novel, although this time around she’s joined by two additional narrators, Robin Miles (who’s so amazing as the narrator of the Binti books) voicing the women of Antigua, and Prentice Onayemi doing all the male voices. It was a little jarring to me to have someone besides MRK herself narrating, especially having listened to the series pretty much straight through — and this is most noticeable for the voice of Vincent, since I’d gotten quite used to the author’s version. Still, after I got past the initial shock, I finally adjusted and ended up enjoying the listening experience very much.*

*Although the male narrator’s voice for one elderly character sounded an awful lot like Voldemort, which was more than a little distracting! Then again, it’s a truly despicable character, so I suppose it fits.

I also need to mention that Mary Robinette Kowal tends to sneak in little geeky moments throughout the books, not usually too obvious — usually just a wink to pop culture fans. This one made me laugh out loud:

She sighed to cover her agitation. “You are insufferable.”

“I prefer ‘inscrutable.’” He smiled, softening a little at her teasing tone, and because she had allowed the change of topic.

“Inexplicable would be more accurate.”

“Inconceivable!”

She rested her hand on her ever-increasing stomach. “Not any longer.”

He laughed and kissed her on the forehead. “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

“Humph!” But Jane was delighted that she had managed to make him laugh. 

I can’t say enough good things about The Glamourist Histories as a whole. I’m so glad that I finally read/listened to them, and loved experiencing them all in a row, as one cohesive story. The world of glamour is amazingly rich, and Jane and Vincent are simply unforgettable. I know the author is supposedly done with this world… but if she ever goes back to it, I’ll be first in line to get my hands on future books!

Audiobook Review: Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Valour and Vanity (Glamourist Histories, #4)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator:  Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 29, 2014
Print length: 405 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 12 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Acclaimed fantasist Mary Robinette Kowal has enchanted many fans with her beloved novels featuring a Regency setting in which magic–known here as glamour–is real. In Valour and Vanity, master glamourists Jane and Vincent find themselves in the sort of a magical adventure that might result if Jane Austen wrote Ocean’s Eleven.

After Melody’s wedding, the Ellsworths and Vincents accompany the young couple on their tour of the continent. Jane and Vincent plan to separate from the party and travel to Murano to study with glassblowers there, but their ship is set upon by Barbary corsairs while en route. It is their good fortune that they are not enslaved, but they lose everything to the pirates and arrive in Murano destitute.

Jane and Vincent are helped by a kind local they meet en route, but Vincent is determined to become self-reliant and get their money back, and hatches a plan to do so. But when so many things are not what they seem, even the best laid plans conceal a few pitfalls. The ensuing adventure is a combination of the best parts of magical fantasy and heist novels, set against a glorious Regency backdrop.

More fun with Jane and Vincent! Yes, I’m hooked on this series. Listening to the audiobook for #4, Valour and Vanity, was just as much fun as the first three. I’m only sad that there’s just one more left!

In Valour and Vanity, we’re treated to a high calibre caper. The synopsis is right to describe it as something out of Ocean’s Eleven!

Following a disastrous sea voyage in which they lose all their money and possessions, Jane and Vincent arrive in Venice penniless. To make matters more difficult, their intended host, Lord Byron, has left town on romantic pursuits, leaving Jane and Vincent with no place to go and no funds to pay for lodging or even a fresh set of clothes. Fortunately, a fellow traveler from their ship offers them his generous assistance…

And clearly, there’s more to the story, but I’m not going to give any spoilers! Let’s just say that there are twists and turns, all sorts of sneaky double-dealing, plus helpful nuns, a brave puppeteer*, gondola chases (yes, you can in fact have a chase scene with gondolas!), glass-blowing, and so much more.

*Fun fact: Author Mary Robinette Kowal is a professional puppeteer, so her inclusion of a heroic puppet-master here is just delightful.

Once again, Jane and Vincent are a terrific twosome. They’re unconventional, incredibly talented, and very much in love. They also feel real in the way that they face difficulties and disagreements, react emotionally, talk things through, and find ways to move forward. They don’t have to be perfect around each other — they love each other passionately and accept each other exactly as they are.

The Venice setting is new and different for this series, and provided a great setting for a plot where Jane and Vincent have to navigate without any of their usual allies or safety nets. The action is fast-paced, and the schemes are just oh-so-clever.

One sure sign that you’ve become overly involved as a reader is when you can’t stand for bad things to happen to beloved characters, even if the bad things lead to exciting storylines. This was my only problem with Valour and Vanity — I’m so in love with Jane and Vincent that it upsets me too much when their well-being is threatened, so even though the caper aspects of the story are really fun, I was also incredibly tense throughout! I just needed to know that the characters I care about would come out okay in the end. (Yes, of course they do. After all, we still need to get to book #5!)

This series continues to be a delight, and I can’t wait to start the final book, Of Noble Family. Well… I’m actually dreading it, because I don’t want the series to be over… but still, I have to know what happens next!

For an interesting look at the author’s puppetry career and her transition to writing, check out this article.

Audiobook Review: Without A Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Without a Summer (Glamourist Histories, #3)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator:  Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 2, 2013
Print length: 361 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 35 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Up-and-coming fantasist Mary Robinette Kowal enchanted fans with award-winning short stories and beloved novels featuring Regency pair Jane Ellsworth and Vincent. In Without a Summer the master glamourists return home, but in a world where magic is real, nothing—even the domestic sphere—is quite what it seems.

Jane and Vincent go to Long Parkmeade to spend time with Jane’s family, but quickly turn restless. The year is unseasonably cold. No one wants to be outside and Mr. Ellsworth is concerned by the harvest, since a bad one may imperil Melody’s dowry. And Melody has concerns of her own, given the inadequate selection of eligible bachelors. When Jane and Vincent receive a commission from a prominent family in London, they decide to take it, and take Melody with them. They hope the change of scenery will do her good and her marriage prospects—and mood—will be brighter in London.

Once there, talk is of nothing but the crop failures caused by the cold and increased unemployment of the coldmongers, which have provoked riots in several cities to the north. With each passing day, it’s more difficult to avoid getting embroiled in the intrigue, none of which really helps Melody’s chances for romance. It’s not long before Jane and Vincent realize that in addition to getting Melody to the church on time, they must take on one small task: solving a crisis of international proportions.

My love affair continues! Book #3 in Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Glamourist Histories is just a captivating as the first two. I simply love the story and the characters and the storytelling!

In Without A Summer, the weather is unseasonably cold, with snow lingering into May and June. Unhappy, desperate people need someone to blame, and so they blame the coldmongers — the glamourists who are skilled in providing cooling for people with fevers, for overly warm indoors during the summer, and to help grocers keep their produce longer. But as any knowledgeable glamourist can attest, it is simply impossible for glamour to affect the weather. Even the relatively smaller amounts of glamour worked by the coldmongers often leads to severe injury or death.

In the midst of the weather crisis, Jane and Vincent travel to London to work on a commission. They bring along Jane’s younger sister Melody, who lacks society or any prospects of a match on her parents’ country estate.

Jane and Vincent soon find themselves involved in intrigue, with a suspected plot involving both the coldmongers and Melody’s Irish Catholic suitor. What’s more, the couple encounter Vincent’s estranged father while in London — a hateful man with lots of power, who clearly wants to make Vincent pay for separating himself from the family and his father’s toxic influence.

The plot quickly becomes complicated and suspenseful, and by the final section of the book, I found myself incredibly worked up and tense with worry over Jane and Vincent’s fate. Rationally, I knew that — with two more books in the series — they’d surely be okay in the end. Still, until reaching the resolution of the high stakes drama, I was fairly terrified over seeing them in mortal peril.

As with the other books in the series, I found this one delightful. Beyond the action of the main plotlines, I just love seeing Jane and Vincent together. Too often, stories of romance end with the wedding ceremony. In The Glamourist Histories, we get to see what a devoted, happy, passionate marriage looks like. Jane and Vincent are deeply in love, enjoy a robust physical relationship, and have a true partnership as equals, pursuing their chosen professions together with grace and trust.

A nice surprise in Without A Summer is getting to see Melody as something other than the pretty, shallow girl she’s been portrayed as so far. Here, she shows surprising intellectual depth and curiosity, as well as commitment and bravery that are quite admirable. It’s a nifty trick of the author’s to make us share Jane’s surprise at Melody’s underlying strength and seriousness — having seen her through Jane’s eyes, we’ve only seen her as the sum of her face, her flirtations, and her standing as the pampered little sister.

Another aspect that bothered me at first, but ultimately made me appreciate the writing all the more, is seeing Jane as flawed. She’s always so strong and good, but in Without A Summer, she allows her unknowing prejudices to influence her interpretation of the events she witnesses. It’s not malicious on her part, but it’s still there, and puts certain characters in grave danger that might otherwise have been discovered or averted sooner.

The audiobook narration, courtesy of the author herself, is wonderful as always. I love her presentation of Jane, Vincent, Melody, and especially some of the young coldmongers they encounter.

I do love this series, and book #3 is a fabulous story. I can’t wait to continue!

Audiobook Review: Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Glamour in Glass (Glamourist Histories, #2)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator:  Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 10, 2012
Print length: 334 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 8 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

 Mary Robinette Kowal stunned readers with her charming first novel Shades of Milk and Honey, a loving tribute to the works of Jane Austen in a world where magic is an everyday occurrence.

This magic comes in the form of glamour, which allows talented users to form practically any illusion they can imagine. Shades debuted to great acclaim and left readers eagerly awaiting its sequel.

Glamour in Glass follows the lives of beloved main characters Jane and Vincent, with a much deeper vein of drama and intrigue.

In the tumultuous months after Napoleon abdicates his throne, Jane and Vincent go to Belgium for their honeymoon. While there, the deposed emperor escapes his exile in Elba, throwing the continent into turmoil. With no easy way back to England, Jane and Vincent’s concerns turn from enjoying their honeymoon…to escaping it.

Left with no outward salvation, Jane must persevere over her trying personal circumstances and use her glamour to rescue her husband from prison…and hopefully prevent her newly built marriage from getting stranded on the shoals of another country’s war. 

It’s official: I’m in love.

The Glamourist Histories is a series that’s been on my to-read shelf for far too long, and now that I’m two books in, I’m just mad I waited this long!

The first book, Shades of Milk and Honey, is a gentle comedy of manners a la Jane Austen, if only Austen’s heroines had magic at their fingertips. In book #2, Glamour in Glass, lead character Jane is newly wed to her beloved Vincent, and the two are blissfully happy living and working together, blending their lives and their glamour into a harmonious whole.

When Vincent’s old friend has a breakthrough in developing a new glamour technique, he and Jane set off for a honeymoon on the Continent, heading to Belgium to rest, relax, and further perfect their artistic talents. But Napoleon’s army is on the move, and as the situation becomes more tense, Jane and Vincent become caught up in an increasingly dangerous situation.

The mood in Glamour in Glass is quite different than in the first book, which was all about romance and courtship. Here, the focus is on what happens after the wooing. Austen’s books stop at the wedding — here, we get to see the happy couple as they begin their married life together.

Jane and Vincent are quite lovely as a couple (I swoon a little every time Vincent refers to Jane as “Muse”), and I love that their talents complement one another so well. Vincent at no time is inclined to relegate Jane to the usual wifely pursuits — they are full partners in their art, even when Jane’s presence raises eyebrows.

For brief sections in the middle, I was a little bored by the politics, but once Napoleon is on the march, the action picks up and the story regains its excitement. And if I thought Jane was awesome before, seeing her in full-on hero mode is just glorious.

Once again, I listened to the audiobook — narrated by the author — and thought it was wonderful. In the first book, her accent was a little uneven, but here, she sticks to her more natural speech patterns for the narrative and only puts on accents for the characters’ dialogue, and it works a lot better.

What more can I say? I’m hooked! I’d thought to take a break and listen to a few other books before continuing with the series, but now I don’t want to.

Two books down, three to go! I can’t wait to start the next one!

Audiobook Review: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories, #1)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator:  Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: July 26, 2010
Print length: 306 pages
Audio length: 7 hours, 32 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men. 

Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right–and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

This debut novel from an award-winning talent scratches a literary itch you never knew you had. Like wandering onto a secret picnic attended by Pride and Prejudice and Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellShades of Milk and Honey is precisely the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen…if only she had been a fantasy writer.  

What a delight! Just like the synopsis promises, Shades of Milk and Honey is Austen-inspired fiction, set in a world just like Austen’s — except magic is real, and is a highly coveted art form.

Men in search of a worthy wife look for someone who can create a warm and lovely home, and someone skilled in the art of glamour can turn a bare room into something beautiful, or can create music and light that enhance any gathering.

At age 28, Jane expects to remain an old maid. Her best chance for a fulfilled life is likely dependent on her younger sister marrying well, then bringing Jane into her household as companion.

Melody, ten years younger, is beautiful and flighty, without any real patience for the careful study and effort needed to reach heights of glamour similar to Jane’s talents. Melody comes across as a mix of Lydia Bennet and Marianne Dashwood, delighting in emotion, eager to flirt and captivate, and not above resorting to a little conniving to make sure every eligible man’s attention is fixed on her.

When the famous glamourist Mr. Vincent is commissioned by a wealthy neighbor to create a glamural for her home, Jane finds herself in the gruff artist’s company more than feels comfortable. At the same time, she pines for the upright Mr. Dunkirk, whose younger sister she befriends, but she fears that his attention is far more focused on Melody than on her.

The story is charming and enchanting, mixing Austen-esque society and manners with clever magical artistry and talent. Jane is a wonderful main character, gifted yet lacking the passion to lift her illusions from technical skill to true art. While she’s brutal in her self-reflection, considering herself plain at best, she’s warm-hearted and generous with the people she cares about, and ends up caught in the snares of polite society etiquette and keeping confidences.

I listened to the audiobook of Shades of Milk and Honey, which is a very entertaining way to enjoy this story. The pacing and style work really well in audio format, and the clever dialogue and social niceties come across as both polite and very funny.

Author Mary Robinette Kowal is a talented audiobook narrator, and it’s fun to listen to her narrate her own story. (She narrates Seanan McGuire’s October Daye audiobooks, which are amazing.). My only complaint about the narration is that the accent used comes across as fake from time to time, but on the whole, I was swept up enough in the story not to mind it too much.

I’m happy that this book is the first in a series. While it seems like a full and complete story, I’m looking forward to exploring more of this world in the four books that follow.

Book Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

Title: The House in the Cerulean Sea
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: March 17, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.

In these crazy, unsettled times, who doesn’t need a perfect pick-me-up of a book?

If you’re looking for something special and heart-warming, have I got a book for you!

The House in the Cerulean Sea is utterly lovely and altogether charming. It makes me smile just thinking about it.

The main character is a buttoned-up pencil-pusher named Linus Baker, who is a caseworker for DICOMY — the Department In Charge of Magical Youth. DICOMY is a marvel of bureaucracy, supposedly invested in the well-being of magical children, but really focused more on containment and concealment.

And don’t be fooled into thinking we’re talking a Hogwarts-type setting here. In this world, there are magical children, but they’re problems to be solved, not gifted youth to be nurtured. And for at least the children we meet in The House in the Cerulean Sea, they don’t (mostly) have human appearances. These children are very clearly other, and they live in a world in which they’re adamantly and obviously unwanted.

Linus’s job is to visit orphanages housing these children and to file reports. His life and his job haven’t changed in years and years — until he’s summoned to a meeting with Extremely Upper Management, who send him on a classified, top-secret mission to Marsyas Island and the orphanage there. Linus’s new assignment is to spend four weeks at Marsyas, filing weekly reports on the headmaster and the children in his charge, and ultimately to recommend whether the orphanage should remain open or be shut down.

Linus is not at all prepared for what he finds there. First of all, it’s on the sea — and he’s never seen an ocean or a beach before. It’s beautiful, and he’s immediately enchanted. And then there are the children. All are strange and different, and at first, Linus is more or less terrified, yet before long, he sees how truly special the children are… once he gets past the somewhat scary and strange exteriors of a few of them.

The story is just lovely. I loved seeing how Linus reluctantly opens up and connects with the children and headmaster of Marsyas, and how his warmth brings out new interests and confidence in each of them. This is a perfect example of a found family story, and it’s marvelous.

The writing is descriptive and lively and funny, but also has great emotional depth. The author does an excellent job of showing us the individuals living inside each of the odd exteriors that the public sees.

My favorite has to be Lucy — short for Lucifer — a six-year-old boy who’s adorable and also happens to be the Antichrist. He’s prone to making such statements as:

“Mr. Baker… Can I get you something to drink? Juice, perhaps? Tea?” He leaned forward and dropped his voice. “The blood of a baby born in a cemetery under a full moon?”

… and

“There,” he said brightly. “You’re welcome! And I’m not even thinking about banishing your soul to eternal damnation or anything!”

Really and truly, this book was a special read, and was a perfect distraction for me from the chaos and confusion of our current world. But I’m sure that even in relatively normal times, I’d love this book! Don’t miss it.

Take A Peek Book Review: Winterwood by Shea Earnshaw

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

From New York Times bestselling author of The Wicked Deep comes a haunting romance perfect for fans of Practical Magic, where dark fairy tales and enchanted folklore collide after a boy, believed to be missing, emerges from the magical woods—and falls in love with the witch determined to unravel his secrets.

Be careful of the dark, dark wood…

Especially the woods surrounding the town of Fir Haven. Some say these woods are magical. Haunted, even.

Rumored to be a witch, only Nora Walker knows the truth. She and the Walker women before her have always shared a special connection with the woods. And it’s this special connection that leads Nora to Oliver Huntsman—the same boy who disappeared from the Camp for Wayward Boys weeks ago—and in the middle of the worst snowstorm in years. He should be dead, but here he is alive, and left in the woods with no memory of the time he’d been missing.

But Nora can feel an uneasy shift in the woods at Oliver’s presence. And it’s not too long after that Nora realizes she has no choice but to unearth the truth behind how the boy she has come to care so deeply about survived his time in the forest, and what led him there in the first place. What Nora doesn’t know, though, is that Oliver has secrets of his own—secrets he’ll do anything to keep buried, because as it turns out, he wasn’t the only one to have gone missing on that fateful night all those weeks ago.

For as long as there have been fairy tales, we have been warned to fear what lies within the dark, dark woods and in Winterwood, New York Times bestselling author Shea Ernshaw, shows us why.

My Thoughts:

It’s interesting that the blurb mentions Practical Magic — I definitely got an Alice Hoffman vibe while reading this story. The language is very lyrical and has that tinge of magic that elevates it above ordinary storytelling.

Walkers cannot trust our own hearts — our slippy, sloppy bleeding hearts. They are reckless, stupid things. Muscles that beat too fast, that cave inward when they break. Too fragile to be trusted.

The plot itself has a really unique setting — an isolated lakeside community surrounded by forests that becomes completely cut off from the outside world once the snow starts to fall. Shades of The Shining, perhaps? In this remote location, Nora thrives in her own isolation, while keeping an eye on the camp for troubled boys across the lake. As her path collides with the boys from the camp, she becomes enmeshed in a mysterious event and its violent outcome. The ensuing events threaten everyone around the lake, even the woods themselves.

“Trees have a long memory,” I warn, my voice like gravel. The forest remembers who carved names into their trunks, with little hearts dug into the wood; who dropped a cigarette into a clump of dry leaves and scorched their raw bark. They know who broke a limb and tore off leaves and pine needles by the handful just to start a bonfire.

They remember. And they hold grudges.

I’m being intentionally vague on the plot, because it’s best to just immerse yourself in the writing and let it flow over you, no preconceptions allowed! The romantic elements of the plot didn’t do much for me, but I did appreciate the interweaving of magic and nature, and a pretty cool twist that comes about 3/4 of the way through the story.

End note: Just being a geek here, but I do need to add that I kept having to remind myself that Walker is the main character’s family name. Every time Nora has a thought about “Walkers” (which is pretty often), I’d start picturing zombies… definitely not what this book is about!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Winterwood
Author: Shea Earnshaw
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: YA fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Shelf Control #188: Firebird by Mercedes Lackey

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!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.pngTitle: Firebird
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Published: 1996
Length: 352 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In Mercedes Lackey’s Firebird, Ilya, son of a Russian prince, is largely ignored by his father and tormented by his larger, older brothers. His only friends are three old people: a priest, a magician, and a woman who toils in the palace dairy. From them Ilya learns faith, a smattering of magic, and the power of love–all of which he will need desperately, for his life is about to be turned upside-down.

The prince’s magnificent cherry orchard is visited at midnight by the legendary Firebird, whose wings are made of flame. Ilya’s brothers’ attempts to capture the magical creature fail. When Ilya tries to catch the Firebird, he sees her as a beautiful woman and earns a magical gift: the speech of animals.

Banished, the young man journeys through a fantastical Russia full of magical mazes, enchanted creatures, and untold dangers. As happens in the best fairy tales, Ilya falls in love with an enchanted princess, but to win her freedom will be no easy task.

How and when I got it:

Yet another find at a library book sale! No idea when — but probably in the last two years at some point.

Why I want to read it:

I’ve never read anything by Mercedes Lackey, and I know I should! She’s one of those authors whose books I’ve been wanting to read, yet there are so many that I never know where to start. Any suggestions? I grabbed Firebird when I saw it, and I do think it sounds great — but as someone new to this author, I wonder if this is representative of her works, or if there’s a different book (or set of books) that I should try first. Any recommendations?

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

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  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
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Have fun!