Friday, March 22, 2019

#Review - The Way of the Shield by Marshall Ryan Maresca #Urban #Fantasy

Series: Maradaine Elite #1
Format: Paperback, 368 pages
Release Date: October 2, 2018
Publisher: DAW
Source: Publisher
Genre: Fantasy / Urban

The first novel in the Maradaine Elite series blends fast-paced high fantasy and political intrigue.

Dayne Heldrin always dreamed of being a member of the Tarian Order. In centuries past, the Elite Orders of Druthal were warriors that stood for order, justice, and the common people. But now, with constables, King’s Marshals, and a standing army, there is little need for such organizations, and the Tarian Order is one of the last remnants of this ancient legacy. Nevertheless, Dayne trained his body and mind, learned the arts of defense and fighting, to become a candidate for the Tarian Order.

When a failed rescue puts Dayne at fault for injuring the child of a powerful family, his future with the Tarians is in jeopardy. The Parliament controls the purse strings for the Order, and Dayne has angered the wrong members of Parliament. He returns to the capital city of Maradaine in shame, ready to be cast out of the Order when the period of his candidacy ends.

Dayne finds Maradaine in turmoil, as revolutions and dark conspiracies brew around him, threatening members of Parliament and common people alike. Dayne is drawn into the uproar, desperate not to have one more death or injury on his conscience, but the Order wants him to stay out of the situation. The city threatens to tear itself apart, and Dayne must decide between his own future and his vow to always stand between the helpless and harm.


The Way of the Shield is the first installment in author Marshal Ryan Maresca's Maradaine Elite series. The fourth series of the Maradaine universe tells the story of Dayne Heldrin, an elite warrior and protector of the city of Maradaine. This is a series set to the back drop of high fantasy, which means lots of characters, political machinations, with the introduction of the grand ten, as well as plenty of action, magic and adventure. 

The Maradaine Elite series introduces a new layer of the city—the aristocracy and powerful officials—building on the perspectives introduced in the other three Maradaine series for which you will see some crossovers with the other three series. In fact, Dayne and his colleague Jerinne Fendell appear in the next Maradaine Constabulary novel which I will be reviewing soon. This book shares the same setting with the authors other series – the sprawling metropolis of Maradaine, populated by mages, vigilantes, police investigators, criminals, cults, politicians – and now, knights.

For the first time, we are introduced to the Tarian Order, an order with a code who carry shields and swords. This group is one of the rare groups that hasn't been consumed by the navy, or the army, or the King's Marshal's. Dayne has spent 2 years in a place called Lacanja with his mentor. After a rescue goes sideways, Dayne is recalled to Maradaine where he discovers that his actions haven't been forgotten by the elite who choose who will gain a promotion to the next level. 

In the meantime, a group of wannabe Patriots decide to try to kill members of Parliament, and he and Jerinne, one of the initiates, become involved in trying to stop the plotters, whose real leaders are very high in status. Dayne is a solid character who puts others ahead of himself. He is also self-punishing and self-deprecating at times. In fact, due to his attempt at saving an innocent from a vindictive villain who readers will see again soon, there is a very dark possibility that he won't be granted a promotion to the position of Adept. 

This would weigh heavily on anyone in the same position hoping for a promotion to a position he is more than qualified for. Dayne also has an interesting relationship with the daughter of a Duke which we really need more background information on. Dayne isn't the only focus of this story. Jerinne Fendall is a 2 year initiate who gets caught up with Dayne's desire to see justice and to stop a serious threat towards those who serve in the Parliament. 

The most curious characters of this book are the Grand Ten. These people come from all walks of political life and have gathered together to create a conspiracy not like anything that Maradaine has seen in a very long while. There is a very deep corruption in this city where not everyone gets a fair slice of the freedom pie. It is so corrupt, that the same people are being elected over and over again while the King seems to be vacant from his duties. 

This is a world that doesn't allow women the opportunity to vote, but women like Jerinne are able to stand tall as an initiate and join Dayne is fighting for what's wrong, and not what's easy. The Way of the Shield is full of intrigue and interesting characters, I will be eager to see where the author takes his characters next. As I said before, Dayne and Jerinne also appear in the next Maradaine Constabulary series which I think you will find interesting. I like the crossover aspects giving each story a bit more depth and excitement.

Chapter 1
From the Trelan docks, on the northern bank of the great Maradaine River, the city of Maradaine smelled of tar, horses, burning oil, and sweat. The scent hit Dayne Heldrin like a wet sack, but he was amazed at how much he missed it, how immediately he recognized it. This wasn’t home, but it was very close to it. It was far more home than Lacanja had been for the past two years.
A small crowd gathered right at the foot of the gangplank, demanding the attention of the ship’s recent passengers. They shouted and waved, ready to sell trinkets or sweets. Several old men were waiting with rolling carts, anxious to help people with their trunks. Dayne had let most of his fellow passengers leave the ship first, partly from politeness, but mostly in the hope it would thin out this crowd.
“You, you!” one old man called out to him. “You need help, yes?”
Dayne was carrying his trunk over his shoulder. Heavy,but nothing he couldn’t handle. If this man tried to carry it, Dayne feared it would break his spine.
“No, thank you,” Dayne said and continued to walk by.
The man pulled his cart along as Dayne walked. “No, sir, please. Allow me.”
“I’ve got it.” Dayne knew this aggressive helpfulness was simply this man’s way of making of living. The old man’s arms were bare, wearing short sleeves in the warm spring sun. A faded tattoo of a ship’s helm and hash marks showed he had given twenty years to the Druth Navy. Given the man’s age, that had to have been during the war years.
“Then maybe you need a carriage? Or a room to rent?”
“No to both,” Dayne said. “I know where I’m staying, and it isn’t far.”
“Where’d you come from?”
“Oh, lovely city,” the old man said. “Tell you what, I should have gone there when my tour ended. Could have gone to any city on the coast, and I chose here. Stupid mistake.”
“I didn’t care for it,” Dayne said. That was an understatement. Enough misery and failure had befallen him in his two years in Lacanja to last a lifetime.
A pair of newsboys came up to Dayne as well, holding out newssheets from rival presses.
“Where’d you come from, mister?”
“Why you got a shield, mister?”
“You want to know what’s going on, mister?”
“That a real sword, mister?”
“Off, scads,” the old man said. “The man’s a Tarian Knight. Don’t you know anything?” He then snarled, and the boys ran off.
“Tarian Knight” was not the proper term, even if he had been an Adept or Master in the Order. It was a common mistake that Dayne wasn’t going to bother to correct. Instead he handed a half-tick coin to the old sailor, and pointed to the small group of men standing on a low crate holding up a crude wooden placard. “The True Line Lives” was painted in blue letters.“I want to know what that’s about.”
“Foolishness,” the old man said, taking the coin. “How long’ve you been gone?”
“Two years.”
“This doesn’t make it down south?”
“First I’ve seen it.”
The old man chuckled. “That’s comforting. The stupid hasn’t infected the rest of the country.”
“Is it dissent against the throne?”
“Against the king, not the throne, to hear those folk. Their whole point—I’m just telling you what they say, I think it’s bilge.” There was something in his tone that was a bit too apologetic, like he was telling Dayne what he thought Dayne would want to hear.
“I understand,” Dayne said. He noticed a fewmen—dockworkers, oystermen, something of that nature—moving over to the men on the crate, walking with the predatory swagger that comes with a few beers. Men who had the intention to start things. Keeping an eye on them, he nodded for the old sailor to go on.
“It’s popped up since the old king died,” the sailor said. Dayne had already left for Lacanja before King Maradaine XVII died, and his son took the throne as Maradaine XVIII. Some major news of the royal house had reached him: he knew the new king had married, and then the queen had died in childbirth. He had heard some talk about the Parliament wanting to force the king to remarry to produce an heir. “This sort of thing was even around when Seventeen first took the throne back in the day, but I think you’re a bit young for that.”
“Yes, but I read about it,” Dayne said. The dockworkers were moving in. Dayne got a count of them—eight men, all stout of arm and back. One of the drunken dockworkers had picked up a rock from the ground. Dayne put down his trunk. “One moment.”
The dockworker had wound back his arm and hurled the rock at the men on the crate. Dayne dashed across the distance, bringing up his shield. The rock clanged against it and dropped to the ground.
“Step away, gentlemen,” Dayne said. “No need for this to escalate.”
“Who are you to say what?” the main dockworker asked. He came up, puffing up his shoulders in his approach. This was a man who was clearly used to intimidating people with his height and muscles. With most people, he’d probably succeed.
With Dayne, he had to crane his neck. Dayne was at least a head taller.
“I’m the one who said ‘step away.’”
“Ayuh, what’s with this fool?” another dockworker said.“Who carries a rutting shield anymore?”
“He’s got a sword, too,” the third said. That one looked a bit nervous. “And he’s in uniform.”
“Ain’t a constable or river patrol.”
“He’s a Tarian, you dunces!” the old sailor shouted.
“Look,” the lead dockworker said, still trying to stare Dayne down. “We’re going to show these traitors we don’t like their kind on our docks.”
“They have a right,” Dayne said.
“You’re going to stand up for their disloyal sewage?” He glanced around Dayne to look at the three men on the crate. “You’ve got a thrashing coming, you do.”
“I’m going to defend their right,” Dayne said. “Even if they’re wrong.”
“Wrong to want an unsullied bloodline on the throne?” the center man on the crate snarled back. Dayne sighed a bit. He feared that was what this was about. Some people never move on.
“Shut it,” the lead dockworker said.
“Make us!”
“You aren’t helping,” Dayne muttered.
“Come on, boys,” the lead dockworker shouted to his mates. “We’ve still got numbers here.”
“No,” Dayne said firmly. “You will leave these men unmolested.”
“You’re going to stop us?” The rest of them found their courage and took a few steps forward.
“I’m a Tarian,” Dayne said. “And I will stand between them and harm.”
Dayne wasn’t being completely honest with them, but he doubted any of them were familiar enough to read the pips on his uniform collar. To truly call himself a Tarian, he’d have to have reached the rank of Adept. He was just nearing the end of the second year of his Candidacy. He might be promoted to Adept in a few days, but…
But that was definitely not why he had been recalled to Maradaine.
“You’ll get a thrashing, too, Tarian,” the dockworker scoffed. “We’ll knock you back a whole century, where you belong.”
Dayne knew he had to disable the leader in a way that would dissuade the rest from fighting. He knew he could hold off all eight of them, but not without hurting them. And that would hardly be fitting for a Tarian, especially a second-year Candidate hoping to make Adept.
As the dockworker took a swing at Dayne, Dayne crouched down, bringing his shield into the man’s chest. Rather than knocking him to theground, Dayne went up, raising his shield high with the man on top of it.
The man flailed about uselessly while Dayne held him nine feet off the ground.
“Stand down and disperse,” Dayne said firmly to the rest.“Before anyone gets hurt.”
The dockworkers scattered.
Dayne smirked. Feats of strength usually let him avoid an actual fight. He looked up at the leader. “I’m going to put you down, and you’re going to walk away, yes?”
“Yeah, yeah!”
Dayne tilted his shield and let the man slide to the ground in a crumpled heap, and then he scrambled away.
“Thank you—” the leader of the True Line started.
“It’s what I’d do for anyone,” Dayne said. “No matter how distasteful I find their views.”
He went back over to the trunk, which the old sailor was diligently guarding. “So you see what that’s about,” the old man said.
“I thought it had gone away,” Dayne said.
“Yeah, well,” the old man said. “New king, he…he’s not who his father was, you hear? Doesn’t inspire the same adulation.”
“There is a proper line of succession!” a man on the crate yelled. “You should know, Tarian, of Romaine’s Gift.”
“Shut your blight hole!” the old man shot back. Dayne had had enough of this encounter. It was well past time to make his way to the Tarian Chapterhouse.
“Thanks, sir,” Dayne said, giving him another coin.“You’ll excuse me, but I think I see a friend here for me.” The man let him go, not arguing with getting two ticks for little effort. And, indeed, on the far side of the dock, standing up on a tall crate, there appeared to be a Tarian Initiate, searching the crowds.
Grandmaster Orren had sent someone to escort him. Even if it was just an Initiate, that could not be a good sign. This was not to be a joyous homecoming.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

#Review - The Warrior by Sarah Fine (#Urban #Fantasy)

Series: The Immortal Dealers #3
Format: Paperback, 300 pages
Release Date: March 26, 2019
Publisher: 47North
Source: Publisher
Genre: Urban Fantasy

For those who deal in the fate of the world, salvation and destruction are not games of chance.

Ernestine “Ernie” Terwilliger never intended to live among the Immortal Dealers, much less to be party to an ongoing battle where the fate of humanity is in the draw of a card. And the stakes have gotten only higher now that a shady new Forger has been crowned.

Virginia may be in charge of creating the chaos that makes the universe tick, but her assignments have been noble—each one in the aid of strangers. But when Ernie discovers Virginia’s true purpose, she realizes it’s going to take an entirely new kind of play to stop her.

The game changer lies within a mysterious artifact dredged from the ocean. To unlock its powers, Ernie and her partner, Gabe, must traverse dangerous new realms and uncover the history of Forgers past. Joined in a tenuous alliance with a former enemy and stalked by old friends turned lethal foes, Ernie had better play her cards right—because this time, the whole universe could be destroyed in the shuffle.

The Warrior is the third and final installment in author Sarah Fine's The Immortal Dealers trilogy. It has been six weeks since the events of The Guardian. There is a new Forger, Virginia, who Ernestine "Ernie" Terwillger doesn't trust as far as she can throw her. There have been no attacks, no ambushes, but also no assignments for her. Ernie has been one of the Immortal Dealers for four months now, and to say it's has been anything but boring, would be greatly understated. 

But, things quickly gain momentum. Gabe gets an assignment, then Ernie is given one where she has to travel to Munich, Germany and stop a bank robbery which leads to a bunch of questions. Ernie controls what's being called the Diamondback card and her companion is a snake that she calls Legs. Ernie has an abundance of issues to deal with this story along with keeping her alliance with other immortal dealers like Gabe, Minh, Kot, Nuria, and even Tarlae even though she blames Ernie for events that happene in the previous story. (NO SPOILERS!)

As the dealers form a plan to take down Virginia, they quickly find they need help, but at what cost? Who can they trust to teach them their new powers? Can they take Virginia down and stop the chaos? If they do take down Virginia, who can they trust to take her place? Ernie forms an unlikely alliance with Rupert in order to find the one artifact (Sunrise) that might be able to stop Virginia and her diabolical plans for domination. 

Readers will also get a huge storyline whereas new dealers on both sides of the confrontation are introduced. Readers also get a hint about how utterly awful Andy and other forgers were to the dealers. A fact that leads to yet another possible villain to walk through the door and up end the apple cart. This is a world where there are unlimited number of splinter dimensions, and here is the place where one can maybe fine allies in their fight against Virginia.

I would like to thank the publisher for allowing the author to continue this trilogy from start to finish. That is a sign of true loyalty. I really liked the idea behind the Immortal Dealers, and the kinds of decks they each carry, and the ideas behind the use of each card that allows the holder to do near impossible feats. I am glad that the whole Ernie/Gabe situation was resolved to a satisfaction, and I am glad that there was yet another story which managed a happy ending as well. I think I am absolutely satisfied with the way the story ended. It made absolute sense to me that this is the choice that was made, especially considering who Ernie is and the fact that she never once wanted more power than anyone else.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

#Review - Sherwood by Meagan Spooner #YALit #Fantasy

Series: Standalone
Format: Hardcover, 480 pages
Release Date: March 19, 2019
Publisher: HarperTeen
Source: Publisher
Genre: Young Adult / Fairy Tales & Folklore / Adaptations

The Lady becomes the Legend in this gender-bending, action-packed, and highly romantic retelling of Robin Hood by the New York Times bestselling author of Hunted, Meagan Spooner.

Robin of Locksley is dead.

Maid Marian doesn’t know how she’ll go on, but the people of Locksley town, persecuted by the Sheriff of Nottingham, need a protector. And the dreadful Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff’s right hand, wishes to step into Robin’s shoes as Lord of Locksley and Marian’s fiancé.

Who is there to stop them?

Marian never meant to tread in Robin’s footsteps—never intended to stand as a beacon of hope to those awaiting his triumphant return. But with a sweep of his green cloak and the flash of her sword, Marian makes the choice to become her own hero—Robin Hood.

Robin Hood is dead. Long live Lady Marian! That is pretty much the premise of this retelling by author Meagan Spooner. There have been numerous retellings of Robin Hood in the movies, including 2018's Robin Hood. Recent books include Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen, and The Forest Queen by Betsy Cornwell. But, this story takes a different twist on Robin Hood tale from the perspective of Marian. 

Lady Marian grew up with Robin of Locksley. As kids, they learned how to fight, and how to shoot bow and arrow. Marian was always a little faster to learn and a better shot. She was also taller. With Robin, she could be who she wanted to be. He didn't try to imprison her in the usual role for women of her time. He even took his time in asking Marian to marry him before joining King Richard's Crusades. 

Things change when news that Robin has died in the Holy Land in service to his king. While Marian is inconsolable over the loss of Robin, things change when her maid's brother Will Scarlett is arrested by the Sheriff of Nottingham's men. After discovering the injustices perpetrated by the Sheriff, and his men, she decides to do something about it. She finds Robin's signature cloak, the sword and bow he had made for her, and sets out to rescue Will. 

Her adversary is Guy of Gisborne who wants to take Robin's place both at Locksley and as Marian's new husband. One could say that she never intended to become Robin Hood, but once she saw how much hope Robin's reappearance brought to the people of Nottingham, she sets out on a dangerous path which can either lead to legendary status, or a quick death by hanging. Her crew includes Little John, Alan-a-Dale, Will Scarlet, her maid Elena, her stableman Midge (Much) and Frère Tuck. 

This story incorporates a bit of a back story with Marian and Robin growing up. Robin is also in Marian's head at times during the course of this story. Robin and Marian's relationship is legendary, so yes, I was absolutely saddened by the way this book opens. For years, I've read and watched movies where Robin was nearly indestructible. Marian as a main character was very interesting to read. She's headstrong, and very independent. She was so immersive and shows herself to be incredibly resourceful throughout the story. 

My only real complaint - I absolutely loathed the "mandatory love story". It didn't sit right with me in any way, and I had so much trouble with it through the whole novel. I cast my rating down a bit thanks to the ending and the forced romance. One could say, well, it was time or Marian to move on and find happiness. Or, one could say, just get over it! Read the book and make your own choices. That is my recommendation.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

#Review - Boundary Broken by Melissa F. Olson (Urban Fantasy)

Series: Boundary Magic #4
Format: Paperback, 350 pages
Release Date: March 19, 2019
Publisher: 47North
Source: Publisher
Genre: Urban Fantasy

Years ago, boundary witch Allison “Lex” Luther made a promise to an alpha werewolf. Now, just when the supernatural community in Colorado is enjoying a period of hard-won peace, the alpha turns up at Lex’s door to call in his marker. Two of his pack members have disappeared in the Colorado sand dunes, and he needs safe passage to hunt for them.

With her friend Simon Pellar along for backup, Lex ventures into the dunes to search for the missing couple…but what they find is only the opening move in an ambitious assault against those who hold power in the Colorado Old World. An old enemy has returned to tear their peace apart, and Lex is soon embroiled in politics she doesn’t understand, from a time before she had magic.

To save her friends and her way of life, Lex will have to cross every line she’s drawn since learning what she is—and it may still be too late.

Boulder boundary witch Allison “Lex” Luther returns in the fourth installment in author Melissa F. Olson's Boundary Magic series. Apparently, the book jumps 2 years from the last book titled Boundary Born, but she did appear in Scarlett Bernard's Shadow Hunt. Lex is a former Army veteran who was left to die, but managed to survive thanks to her previously unknown boundary magic.

After losing her sister to a brutal attack which left her only daughter Charlie behind, Lex vowed that nothing would ever touch Charlie who, like Scarlett, is a null. In return for her protection of Charlie, Lex works for Maven, a cardinal vampire who is likely the most powerful & oldest vampire in the so called Old World, as a daytime security person. She is partnered with Quinn, a vampire who is also an investigator and her boyfriend. 

A promise made in the past to a werewolf named Ryan Dunn comes knocking on her door, and it may lead to even more turmoil than she has had to deal with since watching the Vampire Trials with Scarlett. Years before, Ryan and his pack helped Lex defeat a dangerous Sandworm as well as the witch who called summoned it. When Ryan's pack mates are found dead, Lex's attempt at paying off her debt may end up making an already fractured alliance between witches and Maven come unraveled. 

To further exasperate the situation, Lex's allies in the Pellar clan, Lily and Simon, find themselves being attacked and targeted with loss of their abilities. Someone from the past is playing a dangerous game and is well funded. It appears that Lex may be the only one able to stand up and ensure Maven's territory isn't taken over by zealots and an unknown power behind the woman who would do anything to see Maven exiled from Colorado. 

It's fair to say that a whole lot happens in this book, but the most intriguing aspect is the fact that the author doesn't reveal who the mysterious benefactor is, and what this person wants. If you haven't yet read this series, I'll give you a brief summation of why you should. Being a boundary witch means that Lex has abilities that intersect life and death. She can see and speak with ghosts and help them move on. She can also can 'press' humans and vampires (mind control), and raise the dead. She has a steady relationship with Quinn, but there are still hiccups along the way.  

I have to say that I was pleasantly pleased when this book was announced. It's fair to say I like Lex more than I do Scarlett. I like that she's a veteran who experiences episodes of PTSD and claustrophobia since I have similar episodes that take a lot out of me. I like that she's more powerful than she realizes but never once has allowed that power to overshadow who she is. 

Since it has been a few years since the author wrote a book in this series, I do hope the second book in this new arc is released in a timely manner. She's spent the past 3 years writing the Disrupted Magic trilogy featuring Scarlett Bernard.

Monday, March 18, 2019

#Review - Girls with Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young #YALit #Fantasy

Series: Girls with Sharp Sticks# 1
Format: Hardcover, 400 pages
Release Date: March 19, 2019
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Source: Publisher
Genre: Young Adult, SyFy

Westworld meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this start to a thrilling, subversive near future series from New York Times bestselling author Suzanne Young about a girls-only private high school that is far more than it appears to be.
  Some of the prettiest flowers have the sharpest thorns.

The Girls of Innovations Academy are beautiful and well-behaved—it says so on their report cards. Under the watchful gaze of their Guardian, they receive a well-rounded education that promises to make them better. Obedient girls, free from arrogance or defiance. Free from troublesome opinions or individual interests.

But the girls’ carefully controlled existence may not be quite as it appears. As Mena and her friends uncover the dark secrets of what’s actually happening there—and who they really are—the girls of Innovations Academy will learn to fight back.

Bringing the trademark plot twists and high-octane drama that made The Program a bestselling and award-winning series, Suzanne Young launches a new series that confronts some of today’s most pressing ethical questions.

“The only worthy girls are well-behaved girls.”  

Girls with Sharp Sticks is the first installment in author Suzanne Young's new series by the same name. Philomena (Mena) attends a school called Innovations Academy. It is an all-girls school where students attend for 8 months before being eligible for graduation. The rules are very strict and all the authority figures are men. They are taught to be obedient and demure, as well as specifically attuned to maintaining their beauty.

The girls know they're being groomed for life beyond the academy, where they'll be given to a husband or "investor" to do what they may. Mena has a group of friends, (Marcella, Brynn, Sydney and Annalise), who basically stick with her front the first page until the final chapter. When something strange happens to one of her school mates, Mena starts to unravel the mystery behind the school and what is really happening and why there only men teaching at this school. The school has dark secrets and Mena and her friends are determined to discover them, and in turn, who they really are. 

Speaking of friendships, friendship between these girls was well done. At no point was there any cattiness or competition. These girls supported each other through thick and thin. It is fair to say that I caught onto the so called surprise early on in this story. So when Mena, a boy named Jackson, and her friends discover the truth, I was more than ready to figure out what happens next.

If you are going to compare this story to Handmaids Tale and Westworld, you could also add Dollhouse to make this an even more accurate betrayal of what is happening in this school. Mena's message to readers is pretty simplistic: girls need the courage to fight back and stand up for themselves and as long as they have friends to stand with them, anything can happen. It is also a message that the patriarchy is bad and men are somehow intentionally taking away women's rights by creating what they feel is what women should act like. 


It’s been raining for the past three months. Or maybe it’s only been three days. Time is hard to measure here—every day so much like the one before, they all start to blend together.

Rain taps on my school-provided slicker, the inside of the clear plastic material growing foggy in the humid air, and I look around the Federal Flower Garden. Precipitation has soaked the soil, causing it to run onto the pathways as the rose petals sag with moisture.

The other girls are gathered around Professor Penchant, listening attentively as he points out the varied plant species, explaining which ones we’ll be growing back at the school this semester in our gardening class. We grow all manner of things at the Innovations Academy.

A thought suddenly occurs to me, and I take a few steps into the garden, my black shoes sinking into the soil. There are red roses as far as I can see, beautiful and lonely. Lonely because it’s only them—all together, but apart from the other flowers. Isolated.

The sound of rain echoes near my ears, but I close my eyes and listen, trying to hear the roses breathe. Thinking I can hear them live.

But I can’t hear anything beyond the rain, so I open my eyes again, disappointed.

It’s been a dreadful start to spring due to the constant rain. Professor Penchant explained that our flowers—and by extension, us—will flourish because of it. Well, I hope the flourishing is done in time for graduation in the fall. Our time at the academy will be up, and then the school will get a new batch of girls to take our place.

I glance at the group standing with Professor Penchant and find Valentine Wright staring blankly ahead, her gaze cast out among the flowers. It’s unusual for her to not be paying attention; she’s the most proper of all of us. I’ve invited Valentine, on multiple occasions, to hang out with me and the other girls after hours, but she told me it was unseemly for us to gossip. For us to laugh so loudly. Be so opinionated. Eventually, I stopped asking her to join.

Sydney notices me standing apart. She rolls her eyes back and sticks her tongue out to the side like she’s dead, making me laugh. Professor Penchant spins to find me.

“Philomena,” he calls, impatiently waving his hand. “Come here. We’re at the apex of our lesson.”

I immediately obey, hopping across the rose garden to join the other girls. When I reach the group, Professor Penchant presses his thumb between my eyebrows, wiggling it around to work out the crease in my skin.

“And no more daydreaming,” he says with disapproval. “It’s bad for your complexion.” He drops his hand before turning back to the group. I imagine he’s left a reddened thumbprint between my eyebrows.

When the professor starts to talk again, I look sideways at Sydney. She grins, her dimples deep set and her brown eyes framed with exaggerated black lashes. Sydney has smooth, dark skin and straightened hair that falls just below her shoulders under the plastic rain slicker.

On the other side of her, Lennon Rose leans forward to check on me, her blue eyes wide and innocent. “I think your complexion is lovely,” she whispers.

I thank her for being so sweet.

Professor Penchant tells the group about a new strain of flower that Innovations Academy will be developing this semester. We love working in the greenhouse, love getting outside whenever we can. Even if the sunshine is rare.

“But only those who are well-behaved will get a chance to work on these plants,” the professor warns. “There are no rewards for girls who are too spirited.” He looks directly at me, and I lower my eyes, not wanting to vex him any more today. “Professor Driscoll will concur.”

As the professor continues, turning away to point out other plants, I glance around the flower garden once again. It’s then that I notice Guardian Bose standing near the entrance where we came in. He’s talking to the curator of the garden, a young woman holding an oversized red umbrella. While one hand holds the umbrella, she puts the other on her hip, talking impatiently to the Guardian. I wonder what they’re discussing.

Guardian Bose is an intimidating presence in any setting, but even more so outside the walls of the academy, where he’s become commonplace. He’s here to ensure our safety and compliance, although we never misbehave—not in any significant way.

Innovations Academy, our all-girl private school, is very protective of us. We’re confined to campus most days of our accelerated yearlong program, and we don’t go home on breaks. They say the complete immersion helps us develop faster, more thoroughly.

Recently, the academy raised its curriculum rigor, increasing the number of courses and amount of training. Our class of twelve was selected based on the new heightened standards. We’re top of the line, they like to say. The most well-rounded girls to ever graduate. We do our best to make them proud.

Guardian Bose says something to the woman with the red umbrella. She laughs, shaking her head no. The Guardian’s posture tightens, and then he turns to find me watching him. He angles his body to block my view of the woman. He tips his head, saying something near her ear, and the woman shrinks back. Within moments, she hurries toward the indoor facility and disappears.

I turn away before Guardian Bose catches me watching again.

Thunder booms overhead and Lennon Rose screams before slapping her hand over her mouth. The professor looks pointedly in her direction, but then he glances up at the sky as the rain begins to fall harder.

“All right, girls,” he says, adjusting the hood on his rain slicker. “We’re going to wrap this up for now. Back to the bus.”

A couple of the girls begin to protest, but Professor Penchant claps his hands loudly to drown out their voices. He reminds them that we’ll return next month—so long as we behave. The girls comply, apologizing, and start toward the bus. But as the others head that way, I notice that Valentine doesn’t move; she doesn’t even turn in that direction.

I swallow hard, unsettled. Rain pours over Valentine’s slicker, running down the clear plastic in rivers. A drop runs down her cheek. I watch her, trying to figure out what’s wrong.

Sensing me, she lifts her head. She is . . . expressionless. Alarming in her stillness.

“Valentine,” I call over the rain. “Are you okay?”

She pauses so long that I’m not sure she heard me. Then she turns back to the flowers. “Can you hear them too?” she asks, her voice soft and faraway.

“Hear what?” I ask.

The corner of her mouth twitches with a smile. “The roses,” she says affectionately. “They’re alive, you know. All of them. And if you listen closely enough, you can hear their shared roots. Their common purpose. They’re beautiful, but it’s not all they are.”

There’s tingling over my skin because a few moments ago, I did try to listen to the roses. What are the chances that Valentine and I would have the same odd thought?

“I didn’t hear anything,” I admit. “Just quiet contentment.”

Valentine’s behavior is unusual, but I want to know what she’s going to say next. I take a step closer.

Her smile fades. “They’re not content,” she replies in a low voice. “They’re waiting.”

A drop of rain finds its way under the collar of my shirt and runs down my spine, making me shiver.

“Waiting for what?” I ask.

Valentine turns to me and whispers, “To wake up.”

Her eyes narrow, fierce and unwavering. Her hands curl into fists at her side.

I shiver again, but this time it’s not from the rain. The academy tells us not to ask philosophical questions because we’re not equipped for the answers. They teach us what we need, rather than indulging our passing curiosities. They say it helps maintain our balance, like soil ripe for growth.

Valentine’s words are dangerous in that way—the beginning of a larger conversation I want to have. But at the same time, one I don’t quite understand. One that scares me. Why would the flowers say such a thing? Why would flowers say anything at all?

Just as I’m about to ask her what the flowers are waking up from, there is a firm grip on my elbow. Startled, I spin around to find Guardian Bose towering over me.

“I’ve got it from here, Philomena,” he says in his deep voice. “Catch up with the others.”

I shoot a cautious glace at Valentine, but her expression has gone back to pleasant. As the Guardian approaches her, Valentine nods obediently before he even says a word. Her abrupt change in character has left me confused.

I start toward the bus, my brows pulled together as I think. Sydney holds out her hand when she sees me and I take it gratefully, our fingers wet and cold.

“What was that about?” she asks as we walk.

“I’m not exactly sure,” I say. “Valentine is . . . off,” I add for lack of a better word. I don’t know how to explain what just happened. Especially when it’s left me so uneasy.

Sydney and I look back in Valentine’s direction, but she and the Guardian are already heading our way. Valentine is quiet. Perfect posture. Perfect temperament.

“She looks fine to me,” Sydney says with a shrug. “Her usual boring self.”

I study Valentine a moment longer, but the girl who spoke to me is gone, replaced with a flawless imitation. Or, I guess, the original version.

And I’m left with the burden of the words, an infectious thought.

Wake up, it whispers. Wake up, Philomena.

Friday, March 15, 2019

#Review - Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian #YALIT #Fantasy

Series: Ash Princess (#2)
Format: Hardcover,512 pages
Release Date: February 5, 2019
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Source: Library
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy / Epic

The sequel to the instant New York Times bestseller that was “made for fans of Victoria Aveyard and Sabaa Tahir” (Bustle), Lady Smoke is an epic new fantasy about a throne cruelly stolen and a girl who must fight to take it back for her people.

The Kaiser murdered Theodosia’s mother, the Fire Queen, when Theo was only six. He took Theo’s country and kept her prisoner, crowning her Ash Princess—a pet to toy with and humiliate for ten long years. That era has ended. The Kaiser thought his prisoner weak and defenseless. He didn’t realize that a sharp mind is the deadliest weapon.

Theo no longer wears a crown of ashes. She has taken back her rightful title, and a hostage—Prinz Soren. But her people remain enslaved under the Kaiser’s rule, and now she is thousands of miles away from them and her throne.

To get them back, she will need an army. Only, securing an army means she must trust her aunt, the dreaded pirate Dragonsbane. And according to Dragonsbane, an army can only be produced if Theo takes a husband. Something an Astrean Queen has never done.

Theo knows that freedom comes at a price, but she is determined to find a way to save her country without losing herself.


Lady Smoke, by author Laura Sebastian, is the second installment in the authors Ash Princess Trilogy. The story picks up where Ash Princess left off. Ten years ago, the Kalovaxian's Kaiser murdered Theodosia's mother, The Queen of Fire, and kept Theo around as a sort of hostage. Every time her people acted out, Theo was punished. Those days are now over. Theo finds herself is onboard the Smoke, Dragonbane’s ship, with her Shadows and Soren. 

With the help of her aunt Dragonsbane, her Shadows Heron, Blaise, and her cousin Artemisia, Theo was able to escape the Kalovaxians and her former best friend Crescentia. Also, Theo kind of kidnapped Prinz S0ren as a sort of hostage to use in her plans to back at the Kaiser. Theo escaped to form an alliance with another country in hopes of taking back Astrea and defeat the Kaiser. The only problem is, she may end up having to a husband, something a queen of Astrea has never done. 

Theo has a loyal group of friends that she can depend on. I would put S0ren in that category as well. When she is forced into a sort of bachelorette game show, she must find a way to find the perfect match that she is being forced into in order to gain the necessary support without giving away parts of herself. When Theo visits a camp in a country she is temporarily staying in, she is taken aback by how bad the refugees are treated.This is perhaps the most political statement in the entire book. Note: Not putting the author down!

I have to give the publisher and author credit for putting the world map in front of the book. Trust me, this is really important part of the story. You can see where the countries are, and who chooses to attend to Theo hoping for an alliance. You can also see how isolated Astrea is from the rest of the world. The main positive for me was the character growth of Theo. 

She's a very different character from the one who appeared in Ash Princess. Theo was in a state of self-preservation worrying about how long the Kaiser was going to keep her around. But the continued harsh treatment and exposure to the pain of both herself and her people slowly whittled away this softer exterior to reveal an inner-core of strength that disallowed either to become the playthings of another, ever again. No matter the cost. Her resolve has hardened and, with it, my hope for a fantastic finale to this series.

Admittedly, the most exciting parts of this book were the second half and yes, even the ending shocking as that might be for me to say. When all is said and done, there really is some pretty interesting things that I am looking forward to finding out about in the sequel.


The spiced coffee is sweet on my tongue, made with a generous dollop of honey. The way Crescentia always orders it.

We sit on the pavilion like we have a thousand times before, steaming porcelain mugs cradled in our hands to ward off the chill in the evening air. For a moment, it feels just like every time before, a comfortable silence hanging in the dark air around us. I’ve missed talking to her, but I’ve missed this, too—how we could sit together and not feel the need to fill the silence with meaningless small talk.

But that’s silly. How can I miss Cress when she’s sitting right in front of me?

She laughs like she can read my mind and sets her cup down on its saucer with a clatter that rattles my bones. She leans across the gilded table to take hold of my free hand in both of hers.

“Oh, Thora,” she says, her voice lilting over my false name like a melody. “I missed you, too. But next time, I won’t.”

Before her words can make sense to me, the lighting overhead shifts, the sun growing brighter and brighter until she’s fully illuminated, every awful inch of her. Her charred, flaking neck, burned black by the Encatrio I had her served, her hair white and brittle, her lips gray as the ersatz crown I used to wear.

Fear and guilt overwhelm me as the pieces fall into place in my mind. I remember what I did to her; I remember why I did it. I remember her face on the other side of the bars of my cell, full of rage as she told me she would cheer for my death. I remember the bars being scalding hot where she’d touched them.

I try to pull my hand away but she holds it fast, her storybook-princess smile sharpening into fangs tipped with ash and blood. Her skin burns hot against mine, hotter even than Blaise’s. It is fire itself against my skin, and I try to scream, but no sound comes out. I stop feeling my hand altogether and I’m relieved for a second before I look down and see that it has turned to ash, crumbled to dust in Cress’s grip. The fire works its way up my arm and down the other, spreading across my chest, my torso, my legs, and my feet. My head catches last, and the final thing I see is Cress with her monster’s smile.

“There. Isn’t that better? Now no one will mistake you for a queen.”

My skin is drenched when I wake up, cotton sheets tangled around my legs and damp with sweat. My stomach churns, threatening to spill, though I’m not sure I’ve eaten anything to spill, apart from a few crusts of bread last night. I sit up in bed, placing a hand on my stomach to steady it and blinking to help my eyes adjust to the dark.

It takes a moment to realize that I am not in my own bed, not in my own room, not in the palace at all. The space is smaller, the bed little more than a narrow cot with a thin mattress and threadbare sheets and a quilt. My stomach pitches to the side, rolling in a way that makes me nauseous before I realize it isn’t my stomach at all—the room itself is rocking from side to side. My stomach is only echoing the motion.

The events of the last two days filter back to me. The dungeon, the Kaiser’s trial, Elpis dying at my feet. I remember Søren rescuing me only to be imprisoned himself. As quickly as that thought comes to me, I push it away. There are a good many things I have to feel guilty about—taking Søren hostage cannot be one of them.

I’m on the Smoke, I remember, heading toward the Anglamar ruins to begin to reclaim Astrea. I am in my cabin, safe and alone, while Søren is being kept in chains in the brig.

I close my eyes and drop my head into my hands, but as soon as I do, Cress’s face swims through my mind, all rosy cheeks and dimples and wide gray eyes, just as she looked the first time I met her. My heart lurches in my chest at the thought of the girl she was, the girl I was, who latched on to her because she was my only salvation in the nightmare of my life. Too quickly, that image of Cress is replaced with her as I last saw her, with hate in her cold gray eyes and the skin of her throat charred and flaking.

She shouldn’t have survived the poison. If I hadn’t seen her with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it. Part of me is relieved that she did, though the other part will never forget how she looked at me when she promised to raze Astrea to the ground, how she said she would ask the Kaiser if she could keep my head after he executed me.

I flop down on my back, hitting the thin pillow with a thud. My whole body aches with exhaustion, but my mind is a whirl of activity that shows no sign of quieting. Still, I close my eyes tight and try to banish all thoughts of Cress, though she lingers on the edges, a ghost of a presence.

The room is too quiet—so quiet it takes on a sound all its own. I hear it in the absence of my Shadows’ breaths, their infinitesimal movements as they fidget, their whispers to one another. It is a deafening sort of silence. I turn onto one side, then the other. I shiver and pull the quilt tighter around me; I feel the fire of Cress’s touch again and kick the quilt off entirely, so that it falls in a heap onto the floor.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

#Review - Bloodwitch by Susan Dennard #YALit #Fantasy

Series: The Witchlands (#3)
Format: Hardcover, 464 pages
Release Date: February 12, 2019
Publisher: Tor Teen
Source: Library
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy / Wizards & Witches

The breakout third novel in the New York Times bestselling Witchlands series, an epic fantasy adventure hailed by Alexandra Bracken (The Darkest Minds) as “a world you will want to inhabit forever.”


Fans of Susan Dennard’s New York Times bestselling Witchlands series have fallen in love with the Bloodwitch Aeduan. And now, finally, comes his story. Aeduan has teamed up with the threadwitch Iseult and the magical girl Owl to stop the coming destruction. But to do so, he must confront his own father.


Bloodwitch, by author Susan Dennard, is the third installment in The Witchlands series. Bloodwitch follows events two weeks after the conclusion of Windwitch and the characters are all over the place and in strange combinations. This is a story that has lots of points of view that merge and diverge, with more plots within plots and added layers of world building. The story takes place in various places which gives it more depth and scope and you absolute learn about the undertows that each character is facing.  

It is fair to say that this is a character driven series which features Aeduan (Bloodwitch), Iseult (Threadwitch), Safiya (Truthwitch), Empress Vaness of Marstok, Windwitch Merik Nihar as well as his sister Vivia Nihar who is the presumed Queen-in-Waiting. If you haven't yet guessed, this book was intended to put the spotlight on Aeduan who has found himself allied with Iseult, and a girl called Owl, an extremely powerful Earthwitch child. We learn more about his parents, his steadily changing motives, his feelings towards Iseult, and his evolving relationship with Owl. 

Aeduan and Iseult make a fascinating case study in how one can go from being enemies, to being almost happy to be together. Aeduan is such a complex character, that it was nice to actually learn more about who he really is, and what he has had to go through that has led him to this point with Iseult and Owl. Aeduan and Iseult may have darkness inside, but they learned they are not bound to it. Aeduan knows that he can't remain free for long.

Safi has agreed to travel to Marstok to be the Empress Vaness's Truthwitch. So much for keeping her secret from her enemies. While Safi and the Marstoki Empress are hanging out in Marstok, attempting to cleanse the Marstok court of those who have been working against the Empress, an unexpected relation of Safi’s appears and throws her whole dynamic into chaos.

Vivia has been trying her hardest to care for her people after the city was nearly flooded and destroyed, but her father and the members of her council undermine her at every turn. When her best friend Stix disappears, Vivia decides to make an attempt at an alliance with Vaness. She needs to be strong, but she can't help but wonder what will happen once the Raider King forces invade their lands.

Merik is very much alive and has probably the hardest road of any character in this book. He finds himself taken by the Fury, used by Esme who tried to control Iseult, and then a bunch of things happen that I won't spoil. I think it is fair to say that I have not yet read Sightwitch, but really wish I had. I need to borrow it from my library and go back and catch up so that parts of this story can be further explained.

My only complaint about this story is that I waited several years for this to be released and wasn't certain I remembered why I should care about certain characters. I had to go back to my past reviews and refresh my memory. I would have preferred, I think, to have read the books back-to-back to keep things fresh in my mind. Apparently, there are at least 2 more books in this series. Hopefully the next book will be released next year.