[The Last Magician] Lisa Maxwell

I love the ouroboros element on the cover.

Find the Magician. And stop him before he destroys our future.*

The Lost Magician starts with a connection, though they don’t know it yet. Esta is a thief who uses her old magic to manipulate time, slowing it down and even jumping to the past and present. Dolph is the leader of a gang of Mageus who use their powers to protect those who cannot. And Harte is trying to blend in as a Sundren magician, hiding his Mageus powers in plain sight in a time when having old magic marked you as a target for the Order of Ortus Aurea in their climb to power. Their stories are connected by the Ars Arcana–a book that was thought to be lost. A book that is said to hold the secret to magic itself. A book that they all want.

Lisa Maxwell has created a story full of fascinating characters, a vivid setting, and an interesting plot. At 512 pages, it may seem a little long, but it kept me fascinated the entire time. As the story progressed and the twists began to show themselves, I seemed to read it faster, hurtling toward an end that made me angry–because it was over and I wanted to read more! While I initially thought The Last Magician was a stand-alone novel, it turns out that it’s the first part of a duology. I’m so glad I get to spend more time with the people and places of Maxwell’s Mageus society, even though I’m not happy about having to wait. I will just have to practice my patience.

The bulk of The Last Magician is set in the world of 1900s Manhattan, in the city before it became soaring skyscrapers and cacophonous noise at all hours of the day and night. The Manhattan of The Last Magician is full of the clip-clop of horse drawn carriages through cobblestone streets, the sickly-sweet smell of opium nests, and the thrill of living in a city that looks toward the future. The city has elements of hope and fear as the Sundren and Mageus live together, sometimes unknowingly. For the Mageus, having the old magic means that you have an affinity: power that allows you to manipulate time, know someone’s thoughts, or kill someone without touching. Naturally, the Sundren fear this, because people often fear what they don’t understand. The old magic is palpable in the air, with a warmth and a hum that is so different than Esta’s Manhattan.

In present-day Manhattan, the old magic–the magic that Esta and the rest of the Professor’s Mageus crew have–is nearly dead. The one thing that connects the two times, other than the magic flowing through their veins, is the Brink. The Brink, to those without magic, is nothing. To those with magic, it is terrifying. If they get too close to the Brink, it seems to pull at the magic in them, desiring to take it from them. To get close is to feel like you are losing part of yourself. To pass through means the loss of your mind and certain death. The Mageus have been trapped on the island ever since the Brink was created by the Order. And in 1902, more and more Mageus flock to Manhattan and the promise that they will not be persecuted there like they have been in their old countries, only to find that they are trapped there by the Brink.

A view of the Brooklyn Bridge, where the Brink is located.

Maybe it was because the Order of Ortus Aurea and all they’d done so long ago seemed more like myth than reality. The stories had been so monstrous, but in actuality, the Order itself had always been little more than a shadow haunting the periphery of Esta’s vision, the boogyman in her unopened closet.* 

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[Emma in the Night] Wendy Walker

There are so many pieces to our story, pieces that, if taken away, might have changed the whole course of it. […] And…it took all of us, our flaws and our desires. My hunger for power, which I will get to next. It was all in it, in our story, like the ingredients to a complicated recipe.*

Daughters of Mothers with Narcissism: Can the Cycle Be Broken?*

That is the name of the fictional paper that Emma in the Night keeps going back to explore: Can daughters escape a narcissistic cycle when it’s the only thing they’ve known their whole life? Three years ago, Cass and Emma Tanner disappeared. When Cass comes back this cold case reopens, and with it comes things that Dr. Abby Winter tried so hard to forget. It was the case that stuck with her and now she has a chance to solve what happened the night that Emma and Cass disappeared. Something didn’t add up to Abby then, and it doesn’t add up now. As Cass weaves a story of betrayal, kidnapping, and lost time, Abby has to untangle the truth from Cass’ words. Her return doesn’t mean it’s over.

I think there are two types of people. Ones who have a scream inside them and ones who don’t. People who have a scream are too angry or too sad or laugh too hard, swear too much, use drugs or never sit still. Sometimes they sing at the top of their lungs with the windows rolled down. I don’t think people are born with it. I think other people put it inside you with the things they do to you, or say to you, or the things you see them do or say to other people. And I don’t think you can get rid of it. If you don’t have a scream, you can’t understand.*

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[Caraval] Stephanie Garber

Once people leave this isle, the things they’ve done here don’t just unhappen, no matter how much they wish them undone.

Well, I’m glad that I didn’t pursue the idea of buying a UK edition. While Caraval did suffer from the fact that I went through a major reading slump while reading it, it wasn’t just that. I feel like Caraval was far too long for a story where very few things happened.  We were promised a carnival-esque setting, but I feel like I didn’t see much of it. The story primarily focused on Scarlett and Julian instead of the scavenger hunt / performance of Caraval.

Anytime I heard anything about Caraval, I heard about carnivals and circuses.  The people who participate in Caraval are supposed to solve a mystery–the disappearance of Scarlett’s sister–by following a set of clues like a scavenger hunt. It was something that sounded so interesting–a carnival steeped in a fantasy world. At the beginning of the novel, we’re introduced to several characters who are participating in this scavenger hunt, so it seems like Scarlett will have to compete against people who only want the prize, where she has a lot more at stake because it’s her sister. However, as the novel progresses, the only characters we consistently spend time with are Scarlett and Julian. The other characters are somewhere else, only showing up when they need to give hints to Scarlett or reveal that another character is villainous. There’s been other novels where I’ve complained about this before, but Caraval was the absolute worst that I’ve read to date. It basically was Scarlett and Julian wandering around Caraval and happening upon clues. I was really disappointed that the novel ended up focusing on the romance (instant-love, by the way, no matter how much Scarlett feels it’s meant to be and complains about her sister doing the same thing).

I wanted to know more about the tattooed young man and the woman who records all of Caraval–both past and present–in her book. There were shops where you answered truthfully or lost a day of your life–in the sense that you literally die for a day and then wake up the next. Those little bits of fantasy elements that were thrown in were so fascinating that had they been focused on and expanded, I think I would have liked Caraval more than I did. Despite it being about a performance, we didn’t see much of any performance. It had so much potential that wasn’t met, despite the fact that it was heavily marketed as a fantasy-circus novel. I think that Caraval is a prime example of book marketing done right–in the sense that many readers, myself included, were eagerly looking forward to getting our hands on this book. I feel so disappointed that it disappointed me.

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[Now I Rise: The Conqueror’s Saga II] Kiersten White

This review contains some minor spoilers for the first novel in The Conqueror’s Saga. This review is also long because I loved this book so much.

One of my minor complaints about And I Darken (the first in the series) was that it got a little long purely because there’s a lot of unfamiliar names, places, and events that I had to first get through in order to get to the story. That was not the case with the second novel. Now I Rise benefits from the world building that was done in the first novel and further expands on locations that had smaller parts in the first novel. It balances character growth with action, creating a thrilling story that had me questioning characters’ motives. It is a a great continuation of a series that is set in a historical context that is real, yet also genderbends a historical figure. It made me more excited about a series that I already loved.

Lada and Radu burst back onto the scene shortly after where And I Darken left them. Radu remains in the Ottoman Empire, and Lada is trying to regain what she believes is rightfully hers: Wallachia. They’ve taken different paths that are still connected to each other, but Radu uses gilded words and Lada uses cold steel. Mehmed remains, but Now I Rise quickly becomes about Lada and Radu. Mehmed takes on a role in the background but occasionally comes back to interact with our main characters. And even when he’s not physically there, both Radu and Lada often think about him. Sometimes he still affects how they act, but gradually that changes.

Shortly into the novel Radu is sent to Constantinople to act as a spy for Mehmed. Although he has quite a bit of worries about going there, he follows Mehmed’s orders because he loves him. In the first novel, Radu learns how to use his skills to further Mehmed and through close proximity, himself. He is very charismatic, and it was interesting to read how he grew into it in And I Darken. This novel finds Radu questioning much of what he believes and who he believes in. Radu is semi-stranded in Constantinople for months. At first, he eagerly awaits a war that he knows is coming, playing his role as defector to the Christians as he secretly plots to bring Constantinople down. The longer he stays in Constantinople, however,  the more he questions the motives of Mehmed and what he’s doing.

He had imagined Constantinople, had wanted it for Mehmed. It had been simple and straightforward. But now he knew the true cost of things, the murky horrors of the distance between wanting something and getting it.*

Radu is becoming a part of Constantinople and being accepted by people there, but he knows that he ultimately will betray them. It begins to wear on him. Reading this expanded his character in a new direction that was so raw I was heartbroken for him. While this series does tend to focus more on Lada as the female Vlad, I feel that Radu has the greater emotional response in Now I Rise.

Radu had seen what it took to be great, and he never again wanted to be part of something bigger than himself.*

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[I Hunt Killers: Jasper Dent I] Barry Lyga

I Hunt Killers is a book that really focuses on the nature vs nurture debate when it comes serial killers. Are killers born? Or are they made? Jasper Dent, Jazz to those in the know, has both boxes ticked: his father is the country’s most notorious serial killer and he made Jazz help–perhaps more–but some of Jazz’s memories are fuzzy. When a killer seems to be following in the footsteps of Jazz’s father, suspicion naturally falls on Jazz. He knows that he didn’t do it, so he decides to use his unique knowledge to try and bring the true killer into the light. It brings him closer to his past than he likes.

I Hunt Killers is narrated by Jazz, who is a likable-unlikable character. He’s really calculating, and I spent most of the book being unsettled with how he sees things, particularly people. His dad was a definite psychopath who manipulated Jasper throughout his life–to the point that Jazz isn’t one hundred percent sure that he hasn’t done anything–and he’s the one that Jasper spent his childhood with. So it’s perhaps natural, then, that Jasper also knows how to be charming and how to use that charm to get what he wants from people. Being well aware of this doesn’t help him. There are times when he uses this ability to his advantage, but the whole time he’s wondering if that’s the first step on the path to making him Killer Dent 2.0. Some would say that it’s inevitable that Jasper becomes the next serial killer out of Lobo’s Nod.

I really liked that he was really struggling throughout the whole book with this concept. I don’t think that Jazz is a bad person, but I think that if the other characters knew how he thought about certain things, they’d be a little concerned. This goes beyond jokingly asking if someone needs help to hide the body. Jazz knows. Jazz could. He is constantly battling the fear that he could become his dad.  However, it does put him in a unique position to help the cops catch the killer. There’s only one problem: he’s a teenager.

In a lot of novels, the adults don’t exist. It focuses on the protagonist teenager who solves the crime. I really appreciated that the adults existed in this book. Granted, Jazz is still extremely involved because he is the main character, but it doesn’t put everything on him. Barry Lyga takes some of it away from him because teenagers can’t always go sneaking around crime scenes or morgues. I thought that there was a nice balance between Jazz doing things and the adults doing their jobs. It was realistic but not in a boring way.

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[The Suffering Tree] Elle Cosimano

Warning: I discuss cutting and the inclusion of it in The Suffering Tree in this review.

This cover is really nice. The colors are so lovely.

When I finished The Suffering Tree and read reviews of it I asked myself if I read the same book as these other reviewers because I absolutely do not have feelings of this being a five, four, or even three star book. The initial look at the book, aka the summary, had me hooked. It seemed right up my alley: it has a curse, a mystery, and a character coming back from the dead coupled with the outsider / outcast aspect. That summary was what led me to request an ARC on NetGalley. Sadly the summary led me astray.

The things I liked about this book are slim compared to the problems I had with it. It’s exceedingly frustrating as a reader to have most of the excitement about the book explained in the summary, because I found the actual book quite slow and boring at times. Even though the writing had beautiful and sometimes poetic moments, I couldn’t shake the disconnect from the characters despite following Tori throughout the entire novel.

Normally this is where I’d go into talking about the characters to keep with the flow of my writing, but I wanted to talk about the things I had issues with in order of importance. Because all of my issues with the characters and the points of view pale in comparison to this:

Using cutting as a way to have magical things happen is a HUGE problem

There was no indication going into The Suffering Tree that Tori self-harmed. Like this review here, I agree that self-harm is not something that should be completely erased from young adult books, but it does need to be done in a way that doesn’t glorify it the way that I felt The Suffering Tree did. The inclusion of self-harm was completely unexpected. I’ve read a few other books with self-harm in them, and generally there’s something in the plot summary that indicates to the reader that it will be discussed in the book.

I hated that other characters, namely her mother and brother, seemed to ignore that Tori was hurting. Tori had been caught before and was required to talk to someone (she no longer is talking to someone ) and Tori’s mother counts the knives in the drawers, but there’s just something so dismissive about how it was handled in the book. They just scurry out of her way in their attempts to not talk about it.  With the death of Tori’s father, subsequent eviction, and move to a new home and town, you’d think that Tori’s mother would be aware of the stressors in Tori’s life that would lead to more cutting. There’s absolutely no discussion about how Tori is doing and there’s no therapy, even though the discussion of therapy is halfheartedly made later on. Nothing comes of it, however.  It made me feel like the author just used it as a way to further the story rather than call attention to the real harm it can be.

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[The Bear and the Nightingale] Katherine Arden

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I absolutely loved The Bear and the Nightingale. Katherine Arden has crafted a beautiful tale of wildness, beauty, and fantasy. It’s the story of Vasilisa–called Vasya by those who love her–and her family’s trials and triumphs in a world that doesn’t always believe in the mystical. In the wilds of Russia, far from the civilized world of Moscow, Vasilisa and her siblings grow up believing in Morozko–the not-always-nice Frost–and other household and wilderness beings such as the domovoi and the rusalka. It chronicles the life of Vasilisa as she grows and discovers how to reconcile her old beliefs with new ones that make their way to her household.

The Bear and the Nightingale opens with a Russian folktale, that of Morozko and the maiden. It sets up the story quite well, as there are parallels to this folktale throughout The Bear and the Nightingale. While I would say that is the main folktale that is threaded throughout the book, Arden has included more of the mythology and stories of the region to create a rich cultural setting in addition to a rich physical setting. And it wasn’t mentioned just to have “culture.” The beliefs of the North–which is, according to those who live in the cities, obsolete and incorrect–are consistently in the narrative. As Vasilisa grows, Arden introduces more of the mythology as she learns about it through exploring her world. It was a natural way of storytelling and of growing the world contained in the book.

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Morozko and the Maiden

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