Friday, July 30, 2021

#Review - A Season of Sinister Dreams by Tracy Banghart #YA #Fantasy

Series: Standalone
Format: Hardcover, 416 pages
Release Date: June 22, 2021
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Source: Library
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy / Dark Fantasy

Furyborn meets A Curse So Dark and Lonely in this thrilling fantasy about two powerful girls coming together to protect their beloved kingdom—from the author of Grace and Fury.Annalise may be cousin to the prince, but her past isn't what she claims, and she possesses a magic so powerful it takes all her strength to control it. 

Evra is a country girl, and has watched as each friend and family member came into their own magic, while hers remains dormant. But everything changes after Annalise loses control of herself and Evra begins experiencing the debilitating visions of a once-in-a-generation clairvoyant meant to serve the crown.

Thrown together at court, Evra and Annalise find that they have the same goal: to protect their kingdom from the powerful men who are slowly destroying it. But neither is quick to trust the other—Evra's visions suggest a threat to royal rule, and Annalise worries that her darkest secrets will be revealed. Their magic at odds, the young women circle each other, until the truth must come out.
Full of intrigue, romance, and shocking twists, this gorgeously immersive fantasy will keep readers spellbound until the very last page.


A Season of Sinister Dreams, by author Tracy Banghart, has magic in spades, along with the strong female protagonists. YA fantasy titles continue to break out in the market, as evidenced by recent bestsellers like Wicked Saints and A Curse So Dark and Lonely, and this new book from Tracy Banghart will captivate the same audience. The story takes place in a country called Tyne. The King of Tyne tends to grab the most powerful magic users which causes major problems for the villages these men and women are taken from. The only thing that is keeping him alive is by having the best healers around. 

The story focuses on two young women; Annalise, and Evra.  Annalise lives in the palace as the niece to King Adler. She hides her powerful magic that threatens to overtake her, as she has vowed for herself and her mother that she will change the way the kingdom is being run if it's the last thing she does. When she is betrothed to a foreign nobleman from Kingdom from the south, her anger lashes out with dangerous consequence.

As she tries to cover up what she's done to Prince Kendrik, she soon learns it has made her the new heir, potentially allowing her to make the changes she is so desperate for - if her secrets are not exposed. One could absolutely called Annalise the villain of this story. She does some Maleficent level villainy towards many different individuals including Evra and her family. However, one also needs to look at her circumstances prior to becoming an entirely new person to keep promises to her mother who sacrificed everything so that she could survive the King's unfair laws.

Evra is a magic less daughter of farmers in a poor village who faces bullying and prejudice from almost everyone, except her best friend Tamsin. Almost everyone is born with magic, including her mother and brothers, though the strength of it varies from person to person. Between the king's taxes and his claiming of everyone of strong magical ability, the village is struggling. They do not have the magic they need to keep their crops alive and protect their houses, and they do not have money to buy it from elsewhere. Soon after Annalise's blow up, Evra starts having visions that mean the kingdom is in danger. 

She’s this generations Clearsee. The Clearsee’s only appear once in a generation, and only when the kingdom is in danger. Clearsee's see the future, and the past. Evra must travel to court to meet with the king and inform him that she has been shown. Evra travels with her best friend Tamsin who is the daughter of the village leader and has had the necessary training to actually fit in where they are going. Evra soon finds herself having dreams of a young man, and a wolf. Could the two be the same?  

One of the best things that the author did is write the story in first person so that both Annalise and Evra can tell their own stories so that readers can walk in their shoes and understand what is happening around them. For Evra, she never wanted to be in a position of power or a position that would find her at the center of a conspiracy involving Annalise. Thankfully, she had her best friend and even one of her brothers along for the ride. She also finds herself connection to Prince Kendrik which is one of the only romantic moments in the entire book.

A Season of Sinister Dreams is a satisfying standalone novel, which will be refreshing in the crowded series market. A potential light cliffhanger ending, however, sets the stage for additional books if the first does well.  

Thursday, July 29, 2021

#Review - Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim #YA #Fantasy

Series: Six Crimson Cranes (#1)
Format: Hardcover, 464 pages
Release Date: July 6, 2021
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
Source: Publisher
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy / Epic

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A princess in exile, a shapeshifting dragon, six enchanted cranes, and an unspeakable curse…Drawing from fairy tales and East Asian folklore, this original fantasy from the author of Spin the Dawn is perfect for fans of Shadow and Bone.

“A dazzling fairytale full of breathtaking storytelling.”—Stephanie Garber, New York Times bestselling author of Caraval

Shiori’anma, the only princess of Kiata, has a secret. Forbidden magic runs through her veins. Normally she conceals it well, but on the morning of her betrothal ceremony, Shiori loses control. At first, her mistake seems like a stroke of luck, forestalling the wedding she never wanted. But it also catches the attention of Raikama, her stepmother.

A sorceress in her own right, Raikama banishes the young princess, turning her brothers into cranes. She warns Shiori that she must speak of it to no one: for with every word that escapes her lips, one of her brothers will die.

Penniless, voiceless, and alone, Shiori searches for her brothers, and uncovers a dark conspiracy to seize the throne. Only Shiori can set the kingdom to rights, but to do so she must place her trust in a paper bird, a mercurial dragon, and the very boy she fought so hard not to marry. And she must embrace the magic she’s been taught all her life to forswear—no matter what the cost.
Weaving together elements of The Wild Swans, Cinderella, the legend of Chang E, and the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Elizabeth Lim has crafted a fantasy like no other, and one that will stay with readers long after they’ve turned the last page.

Six Crimson Cranes, by author Elizabeth Lim, is the first installment in the authors Six Crimson Cranes duology. This is retelling of The Six Swans, a German fairy tale. The story follows 17-year-old Shiori'anma, the only daughter of the Emperor Hanriyu and the late empress of Kiata. She has six older brothers who are as different as they come. But what makes Shiori so interesting is that she is able to wield forbidden magic which allowed her to make a paper crane she calls Kiki come alive. 
On the day of her betrothal ceremony to a boy from the North named Takkan, she ends up chasing her friend Kiki straight to the palace lake where she nearly drowns. She meets Prince Seryu of the Easterly Seas, who just happens to be a dragon, and who just happens to save her from drowning. He also offers to help Shiori learn about her magic. Shiori's trouble begins after she learns that her stepmother, Raikama, is a snake like human who can perform dark magic and doesn't appreciate Shiori learning her secret. Raikama curses Shiori by putting a bowl magically glued to her head, even her eyes are covered by bowl so nobody can recognize her. 
Raikama also curses her brothers into cranes, and tells Shiori that if she speaks one word, her brothers will die. Now lost and alone in a far off land with a bowl on her head and unable to speak for fear of killing one of her brothers, Shiori sets off to find a way to break the curse. On her journey, she discovers enemies, allies, and schemes that she never could’ve imagined. She'll discover the boy that she ran away from isn't as bad as she made him out to be and he ends up being part of her journey to discover a way to save her brothers. She'll discover that she is the glue that keeps the family together even though she has an adventurous spirit that longs to explore her own magic and often gets her into trouble.
It is fair to say that the book ends on a cliffhanger. It is the only reason that there must be a second and final book in this series. Shiori's journey is far from over. She still has a Dragon Lord to deal, she has demons eager to get another chance at Shiori, and she has to find a way to save her family from the horrors they face in this story. I'll be waiting for the sequel. 

Chapter One 

The bottom of the lake tasted like mud, salt, and regret. The water was so thick it was agony keeping my eyes open, but thank the great gods I did. Otherwise, I would have missed the dragon.

He was smaller than I’d imagined one to be. About the size of a rowboat, with glittering ruby eyes and scales green as the purest jade. Not at all like the village-sized beasts the legends claimed dragons to be, large enough to swallow entire warships.

He swam nearer until his round red eyes were so close they reflected my own.

He was watching me drown.

Help, I pleaded. I was out of air, and I had barely a second of life left before my world folded into itself.

The dragon regarded me, lifting a feathery eyebrow. For an instant, I dared hope he might help. But his tail wrapped around my neck, squeezing out the last of my breath.

And all went dark.

In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have told my maids I was going to jump into the Sacred Lake. I only said it because the heat this morning was insufferable. Even the chrysanthemum bushes outside had wilted, and the kitebirds soaring above the citrus trees were too parched to sing. Not to mention, diving into the lake seemed like a perfectly sensible alternative to attending my betrothal ceremony—or as I liked to call it, the dismal end of my future.

Unfortunately, my maids believed me, and word traveled faster than demonfire to Father. Within minutes, he sent one of my brothers—along with a retinue of stern-faced guards—to fetch me.

So here I was, being shepherded through the palace’s catacomb of corridors, on the hottest day of the year. To the dismal end of my future.

As I followed my brother down yet another sun-soaked hall, I fidgeted with my sleeve, pretending to cover a yawn as I peeked inside.

“Stop yawning,” Hasho chided.

I dropped my arm and yawned again. “If I let them all out now, I won’t have to do it in front of Father.”


“You try being woken up at dawn to have your hair brushed a thousand times,” I countered. “You try walking in a god’s ransom of silk.” I lifted my arms, but my sleeves were so heavy I could barely keep them raised. “Look at all these layers. I could outfit a ship with enough sails to cross the sea!”

The trace of a smile touched Hasho’s mouth. “The gods are listening, dear sister. You keep complaining like that, and your betrothed will have a pockmark for each time you dishonor them.”

My betrothed. Any mention of him went in one ear and out the other, as my mind drifted to more pleasant thoughts, like cajoling the palace chef for his red bean paste recipe—or better yet, stowing away on a ship and voyaging across the Taijin Sea.

Being the emperor’s only daughter, I’d never been allowed to go anywhere, let alone journey outside of Gindara, the capital. In a year, I’d be too old for such an escapade. And too married.

The indignity of it all made me sigh aloud. “Then I’m doomed. He’ll be hideous.”

My brother chuckled and nudged me forward. “Come on, no more complaining. We’re nearly there.”

I rolled my eyes. Hasho was starting to sound like he was seventy, not seventeen. Of my six brothers, I liked him most—he was the only one with wits as quick as mine. But ever since he started taking being a prince so seriously and wasting those wits on chess games instead of mischief, there were certain things I couldn’t tell him anymore.

Like what I was keeping inside my sleeve.

A tickle crawled up my arm, and I scratched my elbow.

Just to be safe, I pinched the wide opening of my sleeve shut. If Hasho knew what I was hiding under its folds, I’d never hear the end of it.

From him, or from Father.

“Shiori,” Hasho whispered. “What’s the matter with your dress?”

“I thought I smudged the silk,” I lied, pretending to rub at a spot on my sleeve. “It’s so hot today.” I made a show of looking out at the mountains and the lake. “Don’t you wish we were outside swimming instead of going to some boring ceremony?”

Hasho eyed me suspiciously. “Shiori, don’t change the topic.”

I bowed my head, doing my best to look remorseful—and covertly adjusted my sleeve. “You’re right, Brother. It’s time I grew up. Thank you for…for…”

Another tickle brushed my arm, and I clapped my elbow to muffle the sound. My secret was growing restless, making the fabric of my robes ripple.

“For escorting me to meet my betrothed,” I finished quickly.

I hastened toward the audience chamber, but Hasho caught my sleeve, raised it high, and gave it a good shake.

Out darted a paper bird as small as a dragonfly, and just as fast. From afar, she looked like a little sparrow, with an inky red dot on her head, and she flitted from my arm to my brother’s head, wildly beating her slender wings as she hovered in front of his face.

Hasho’s jaw dropped, his eyes widening with shock.

“Kiki!” I whispered urgently, opening my sleeve. “Come back inside!”

Kiki didn’t obey. She perched on Hasho’s nose and stroked it with a wing to show affection. My shoulders relaxed; animals always liked Hasho, and I was certain she would charm him the way she’d charmed me.

Then my brother swooped his hands over his face to catch her.

“Don’t hurt her!” I cried.

Up Kiki flew, narrowly avoiding his clutches. She bounced against the wooden shutters on the windows, seeking one that was open as she darted farther and farther down the hall.

I started after her, but Hasho grabbed me, holding fast until my slippers skidded against the whispery wood.

“Let it go,” he said into my ear. “We’ll talk about this later.”

The guards flung open the doors, and one of Father’s ministers announced me: “Princess Shiori’anma, the youngest child, the only daughter of Emperor Hanriyu and the late empress—”

Inside, my father and his consort, my stepmother, sat at the head of the cavernous chamber. The air hummed with impatience, courtiers folding and refolding their damp handkerchiefs to wipe their perspiring temples. I saw the backs of Lord Bushian and his son—my betrothed—kneeling before the emperor. Only my stepmother noticed me, frozen at the threshold. She tilted her head, her pale eyes locking onto mine.

A chill shivered down my spine. I had a sudden fear that if I went through with the ceremony, I’d become like her: cold and sad and lonely. Worse, if I didn’t find Kiki, someone else might, and my secret would get back to Father…

My secret: that I’d conjured a paper bird to life with magic.

Forbidden magic.

I spun away from the doors and pushed past Hasho, who was too startled to stop me.

“Princess Shiori!” the guards yelled. “Princess!”

I shed my ceremonial jacket as I ran after Kiki. The embroidery alone weighed as much as a sentinel’s armor, and freeing my shoulders and arms of its heft was like growing wings. I left the pool of silk in the middle of the hall and jumped out a window into the garden.

The sun’s glare was strong, and I squinted to keep my eyes on Kiki. She wove through the orchard of cherry trees, then past the citrus ones, where her frenzied flight caused the kitebirds to explode from the branches.

I’d intended to leave Kiki in my room, tucked away in a jewelry box, but she had flapped her wings and knocked against her prison so vigorously I was afraid a servant might find her while I was at the ceremony.

Best to keep her with me, I thought.

“Promise to be good?” I’d said.

Kiki bobbed her head, which I’d taken as a yes.


Demons take me, I had to be the biggest idiot in Kiata! But I wouldn’t blame myself for having a heart, even for a paper bird.

Kiki was my paper bird. With my brothers growing older and always occupied with princely duties, I had been lonely. But Kiki listened to me and kept my secrets, and she made me laugh. Every day, she became more alive. She was my friend.

I had to get her back.

My paper bird landed in the middle of the Sacred Lake, floating on its still waters with unflappable calm—as if she hadn’t just upended my entire morning.

I was panting by the time I reached her. Even without the outer layer, my dress was so heavy I could hardly catch my breath.

“Kiki!” I tossed a pebble into the water to get her attention, but she merely floated farther away. “This isn’t the time to play.”

What was I going to do? If it was discovered I had a talent for magic, no matter how small, I’d be sent away from Kiata forever—a fate far worse than having to marry some faceless lord of the third rank.

Hurrying, I kicked off my slippers, not even bothering to shed my robes.

I jumped into the lake.

For a girl forced to stay indoors practicing calligraphy and playing the zither, I was a strong swimmer. I had my brothers to thank for that; before they all grew up, we used to sneak to this very lake for summer-evening dips. I knew these waters.

I kicked toward Kiki, the sun’s heat prickling against my back, but she was sinking deeper into the water. The folds of my dress wrapped around me tight, and my skirts clung to my legs every time I kicked. I began to tire, and the sky vanished as the lake pulled me down.

Choking, I flailed for the surface. The more I struggled, the faster I sank. Whorls of my long black hair floated around me like a storm. Terror rioted in my gut, and my throat burned, my pulse thudding madly in my ears.

I undid the gold sash over my robes and yanked at my skirts, but their weight brought me down and down, until the sun was but a faint pearl of light glimmering far above me.

Finally I ripped my skirts free and propelled myself up, but I was too deep. There was no way I would make it back to the surface before I ran out of breath.

I was going to die.

Kicking furiously, I fought for air, but it was no use. I tried not to panic. Panicking would only make me sink faster.

Lord Sharima’en, the god of death, was coming for me. He’d numb the burning soreness in my muscles, and the pain swelling in my throat. My blood began to chill, my eyelids began to close—

That was when I saw the dragon.

I thought him a snake at first. No one had seen a dragon in centuries, and from afar, he looked like one of my stepmother’s pets. At least until I saw the claws.

He glided toward me, coming so close that I could have touched his whiskers, long and thin like strokes of silver.

His hand was extended, and above his palm, pinched between two talons, was Kiki.

For an instant, I bubbled to life. I kicked, trying to reach out. But I had no strength left. No breath. My world was shrinking, all color washed away.

With a mischievous glint in his eye, the dragon closed his hand. His tail swept over me from behind and encircled my neck.

And my heart gave one final thud.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

#Review - Traitors by Alex Shaw #Thriller #Suspense

Series: Sophie Racine # 1
Format: E-Book
Release Date: July 23rd 2021
Publisher: HQ Digital
Source: Publisher
Genre: Thriller / Suspense

The start of a gripping new crime thriller series introducing Intelligence officer Sophie Racine and featuring ex-SAS officer Aidan Snow!

‘Alex Shaw is one of the best thriller writers around!’ Stephen Leather

French Intelligence officer Sophie Racine is tasked with traveling into the heart of a warzone in Ukraine. Her mission is to assassinate a Russian spy who took the French secret service apart piece by piece and gave their secrets to the Kremlin.

Ex-SAS trooper and MI6 Officer Aidan Snow is also in Ukraine. Sent by British Intelligence, he must extract an innocent citizen caught up in the conflict in rebel-controlled Donetsk.

When their missions collide, Snow and Racine find themselves outgunned and outnumbered. Even if they make it out of the warzone alive, danger won’t be far behind…

Perfect for fans of Killing Eve, Chris Ryan, James Deegan and Vince Flynn, this is an explosive action thriller you won’t be able to put down.

Traitors, by author Alex Shaw, is the first installment in the authors Sophie Racine series. Sophie Racine is a highly-skilled assassin who is employed by The General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), a blacks ops unit and part of the French Secret Service bureau of Foreign Intelligence. Known as the Division Action, its mandate included the design and delivery of clandestine and covert operations. The DA specialized in the black arts of sabotage, assassination, detention, and kidnapping, and the infiltration and exfiltration of agents into and out of hostile territory.

The story actually begins 3 months, before in Tunisia. Racine's target is a former paratrooper named Jean Yotte who is now a private contractor who overseas security and babysitting of dignitaries. He's also been known to be an assassin with direct links to terrorists. Racine's own division determined that he should be removed and who is better than Racine to get the job done and they vanish without getting caught? Unfortunately, Racine exposes herself and is forced into hiding.

Three Months Later, a man named Roman walks into DGSE safe house where he is met by Jean Baptiste Moreau who works for the Ukrainian desk. Roman apparently has fresh intelligence on a man called Raduga who not only betrayed the DGSE, but revealed the secret identities of dozens of French undercover agents who were eliminated. Roman spins a web and a story about a man named Mohammed Iqbal who was taken by the DNR rebels backed by Russia as well as a future attack on Paris itself. 

For the first time in 8 years, the DGSE has its best leads where to find the traitor named Sasha Vasilev who nearly brought down the organization. The only person capable of getting in and out without getting caught is Racine who, even though she disobeyed orders in Tunis, she saved dozens of tourists. Racine joined the organization because of Vasilev and would love to have a crack at being the person who brought him to justice.

While in the Donetsk People's Republic, Racine runs into Ex-SAS trooper and MI6 Officer Aidan Snow who is a teacher in the Ukraine. British Intelligence wants Snow to extract Mohammed Iqbal who got caught up in the conflict in rebel-controlled Donetsk and Sasha's much larger game. In a weird sort of way, Racine needs Snow in country in order to avoid being caught or captured by the DNR rebels and their Russian financiers. The sooner both can complete their respective jobs, the sooner they can get on the first transport out of country.

This story plays itself out in France, Russia, Donetsk, and Ukraine. This is one of those books that will remind you of Jason Bourne with his unbelievable feats that he somehow manages while getting the job done. Racine is almost inhuman in the way she can manage to get in and out of tight spots. This mission is also highly personal for Racine as she lost someone close to her thanks to Sasha's betrayal. The book ends on a brutal cliffhanger ending and I am eager to pick up where this one left off. 

*On a historic note, Donetsk is part of the Ukraine which illegally declared its independence in 2014. They can thank the Russians for their independence as this part of the country was part of Putin's plans to reunite the former USSR under his rule. See Crimea who was invaded in 2014 and separated from Ukraine because of its access to the Black Sea. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

#Review - These Hollow Vows by Lexi Ryan #YA #Fantasy

Series: These Hollow Vows # 1
Format: Hardcover, 448 pages
Release Date: July 20, 2021
Publisher: Clarion Books
Source: Publisher
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy / Dark Fantasy

From New York Times best-selling author Lexi Ryan, Cruel Prince meets A Court of Thorns and Roses in this sexy, action-packed fantasy about a girl who is caught between two treacherous faerie courts and their dangerously seductive princes.

Brie hates the Fae and refuses to have anything to do with them, even if that means starving on the street. But when her sister is sold to the sadistic king of the Unseelie court to pay a debt, she'll do whatever it takes to get her back—including making a deal with the king himself to steal three magical relics from the Seelie court.

Gaining unfettered access to the Seelie court is easier said than done. Brie's only choice is to pose as a potential bride for Prince Ronan, and she soon finds herself falling for him. Unwilling to let her heart distract her, she accepts help from a band of Unseelie misfits with their own secret agenda. As Brie spends time with their mysterious leader, Finn, she struggles to resist his seductive charm.

Caught between two dangerous courts, Brie must decide who to trust with her loyalty. And with her heart.

  "Once upon a time, a gold faerie princess fell in love with the shadow king, but their kingdoms had battled for hundreds of years and her parents were sworn enemies of the king and his kingdom."

These Hollow Vows, by author Lexi Ryan, is part one of a two part duology. Abriella's (Brie) mother abandoned her and her younger sister Jas 9 years ago. To make matters worse, their uncle passed away shortly thereafter forcing them to live with their horrible aunt and cousins. Brie is bound by a magical contract with no end in sight. By night, Brie is a thief who steals from those who have more than they need in order to pay her bills. By day she cleans and picks up after her ungrateful cousins; kind of like Cinderella and her step sisters.
9 years of living by the rules; don't steal from those who who are honest, don't work for those who try to blackmail you into prostitution, and don't steal from anyone powerful enough to track you down. In this world, Fae pay a premium for young women. Women are bound to the Fae to be exploited and tossed away. People once believed the Fae were guardian angels before the sky split and a portal opened. Only a group known as the Magical Seven of Eldra were capable of stopping the Fae. Brie believes that Fae are demons who exploit, steal babies, and use humans as slaves.
Brie's only bright spot in her life is her neighbor Sebastian who showed up 2 years ago. But things quickly spiral out of control. Brie's last job comes calling and he wants blood which forces her to run. Because of Brie's debts, Jas is sold to into the world of Faerie. Chancing an open invitation by the Seelie Queen to come to Fae where the Prince is trying to find a human bride, Brie gathers all her strength, puts aside her hatred for the fae, and braves this very different world in order to save her sister.  
While there, Brie learns that Jas ended up in the hands of the sadistic king of the Unseelie court. When Brie arrives in the Unseelie Court, she finds that in order to get her sister back, Mordeus wants Brie to find and bring back three powerful artifacts that he claims were stolen by the Seelie Queen. To make matters even worse, Brie ends up facing a truth about herself, she has magic, that fae are manipulative bastards who can't be trusted, and the boy she though as Sebastian is not who he claims to be. 
I tried to like Ronan/Sebastian, and I did for a while, but somehow I always remained suspicious of him. Something in the back of my mind kept buzzing not to trust him fully. I felt as though he was playing a dangerous game that would end up with Brie in a bad situation. Brie also meets Prince Finnian who seems awfully curious about Brie's magic which leads to all sorts of questions about her own mother and father and what fate they may have met. 
❝I am not a pretty thing to be manipulated. I am darkness, and the power rushing through my veins is stronger than ever… with the darkness swirling about the room and my shadows becoming one with it, I feel more alive than I ever have.❞

There are lots of secrets in this book. With the story being told by Brie in the first person, readers learn everything that Brie knows and does and will be there when she's had enough and is ready to bring hell down those who betrayed her. The finale will release in the Spring of 2022. 

Chapter One

Cool shadows wash over my sweaty skin, welcoming me, disguising me. I could revel in the darkness—happily lie under the stars and let the night air unravel my knotted, overworked muscles—but I won’t waste tonight on rest or fleeting pleasure. These are the hours of spies and thieves. They’re my hours.
      I slide two hairpins into the lock, my chapped fingers dancing over them like the strings of a viola. This is a song I’ve rehearsed a thousand times, a hymn I’ve played in my most desperate moments. Better to pray to deft fingers, to shadows and camouflage, than to the old gods. Better to steal than to starve.
      Frogs sing in the distance, and their chorus nearly covers the satisfying click of the lock releasing. The servant door into Creighton Gorst’s manor house swings open.
      Gorst has business elsewhere tonight. I made sure of it. Nevertheless, I scan my surroundings for any sign of him or his staff. Most of the wealthy keep guards on duty, but a few—like Gorst—are so paranoid that they don’t even trust those in their inner circle to be unaccompanied near their vaults. I’ve been waiting for a night like this for months.
      I pad down the stone stairwell into the cellar. The temperature drops with each step, but my skin is flushed from adrenaline and the climb over his property walls, and I welcome the chill that skates across my skin.
      At the base of the stairs, a glowstone senses my movements and kicks on, dimly illuminating the floor. I disable it with a gash of my knife along its soft center, blanketing the room in a darkness so complete that I can hardly make out my own hand in front of my face. Good. I’m more comfortable moving in the dark, anyway.
      Following the walls around the periphery of the cellar with my hands, I reach the cool steel of the vault door. I blindly examine it with my fingertips—three locks, but none too complex. They yield to my blade and pins. In less than five minutes I have the door open and can already feel relief loosening my muscles. We’ll make this month’s payment. Madame Vivias won’t be able to enforce more penalties this time.
      My smile of triumph is short-lived as I catch sight of the symbols etched on the threshold. That quickly, the rush from my success ebbs.
      Gorst’s vault is protected by wards.
      Of course it is.
      A rich man paranoid enough to forgo sentries would be a poor man very quickly if he didn’t employ a little magic to guard his wealth.
      Tonight’s mission is dangerous, and I can’t risk forgetting that for even a moment. I only steal from those who have more than they need, but with wealth comes power—the power to have thieves like me executed if we’re caught.
      I sidestep the markings and pull a starworm from my satchel. Its silky-wet skin is slippery between my fingers, but I lead it to my wrist, wincing when it latches on. As it slowly draws a trickle of blood from my veins, its skin glows, lighting the ground before me. I hate losing the darkness, but I need to see the symbols. Sinking to my haunches, I trace every line and curve, confirming their shape and intent. Clever magic, indeed.
      These runes wouldn’t keep me out of the vault. They’d let me in and lock me there, make me a prisoner until the master of the manor could deal with me. A common thief schooled only in protection runes might make the mistake of thinking the wards were faulty when he passed them. A common thief would find himself locked inside. Good thing I’m anything but common.
      I scour my mind for an appropriate counterspell. I’m no mage. I might like to be, if my fate had been different and my days weren’t so full of scrubbing floors and cleaning up after my spoiled cousins. I don’t have the time or the coin to spare on training, so I’ll never be able to carry magic at my fingertips with spells, potions, and rituals. I’m lucky to have a friend who’s taught me what he can. Lucky to know just how to get out of this vault when I’ve taken what I need.
      I slide my knife from my belt and bite my cheek as I drag the blade across the palm opposite the starworm. The sharp pain makes my head spin and pushes every thought from my head. For too many moments I teeter, my body begging to give in to the reprieve of unconsciousness.
      Breathe, Abriella. You have to breathe. You can’t trade oxygen for courage.
      The memory of my mother’s voice has me dragging air into my lungs. What is wrong with me tonight? I’m normally not so squeamish about blood or pain. But I’m exhausted and hungry after working all day with no break. I’m dehydrated.
      I’m running out of time.
      I dip my finger into the blood welling in my palm and carefully draw the counterspell runes atop those etched into stone. I wipe my bloody palm on my pants and study my work carefully before rising.
      I don’t let myself hold my breath as I cross the threshold, immediately passing the symbols in each direction to make sure my runes are working. When I step into the vault, I cast the light from the starworm across the space and gasp.
      Creighton Gorst’s vault is bigger than my bedroom. The walls are lined with shelves holding raqon coinbags, jewels, and shining weapons. My hands itch to take as much as I can carry, but I won’t. If I let my desperation get the best of me, he’ll know someone was here. Perhaps he will anyway. Maybe I underestimate the drunkard’s ability to account for the wealth he’s amassed dealing in pleasure and flesh, but if I’m lucky, he’ll never know that someone breached his wards.
      I knew Gorst was rich, but I didn’t expect riches like these. Prostitution and drink make wealthy men, but this wealthy? I scan the shelves and instinctively reach out when I spot the only explanation. I hover my hand over a stack of life deeds but yank back at the magical heat radiating from them.
      Had I been born into a different life, I would have very much liked to become a powerful mage for contracts like this alone. I would unravel the magic that binds these lives to evil men like Gorst. I’d gather my resources and free as many girls as I could before I was caught and executed. Even knowing that I don’t have the skill to undo the magic in those documents, it’s all I can do to leave them where they sit. Everything in me screams that I should at least try.
      You can’t save them.
      I force myself to step away. Choosing a cluttered shelf where a missing coinbag might go unnoticed, I scan for markings. None. Maybe Gorst should pay me to teach him how to truly guard his treasure. I lift a single pouch and peek inside to check the contents—more than enough raqon for our payment. Maybe enough for next month’s as well.
      He has all this wealth. Will he really notice if I take more?
      I scan the shelves and carefully choose two more bags that are tucked behind unorganized piles of treasure. I knew Gorst was despicable, but this is the kind of wealth that people of Fairscape see only if they do business with faeries. With that realization, each of those magical contracts takes on a new meaning. It’s bad enough that he can make those people do his bidding, bad enough that they’ll spend their lives paying an impossible debt, but if Gorst deals with the fae, he’s shipping humans off to another realm to spend their lives as slaves. Or worse.
      There are three stacks of contracts. I can’t risk touching them, but I make myself look at each pile. Someday I’m going to buy my freedom, and once my sister isn’t relying on me, I’ll come back here. Someday I’ll find a way.
      My gaze snags on the stack closest to the vault door and the name on top. I reread the name and the date the payment is due in full. Once. Twice. Three times. My chest ratchets tighter each time. I don’t believe in the old gods, but I send up a prayer anyway at the sight of that name, that child’s scrawl. At tomorrow’s date highlighted with a streak of her own blood.
      Steps sound overhead, the booming of men’s boots, and I hear a deep voice. I can’t make out his words from down here, but I don’t need to understand what he’s saying to know that I need to run.
      My satchel is heavy with my stolen goods, and I clutch it to my side so it won’t clang against my hip as I race out of the vault. I lift the starworm off my wrist, gasping as it fights me, trying for more blood.
      “Patience,” I whisper, guiding him to the floor. The leech crawls across the threshold, cleaning away my blood with its tiny tongue.
      More steps above. Then laughter and the sound of clinking glasses. He’s not alone, but if I’m lucky, everyone up there will be too intoxicated to notice me slip out.
      “Hurry, hurry,” I whisper to the starworm. I need to close the vault, but if I leave my blood behind, I’ll risk Gorst knowing someone was here. Or worse—taking a sample to a mage and tracing it back to me.
      The voices come closer, then steps on the stairs.
      I have no choice. I wrench the starworm from his bloody feast and slip him into my satchel.
      I splash water from my canteen onto the stones before I swing the vault closed.
      “I’ll get a new bottle,” Gorst shouts from the top of the cellar stairs. I know that voice too well. I used to clean his brothel. I mopped his floors and scrubbed his toilets until a month ago, when he tried to corner me into working for him in a very different capacity.
      I’ve spent the last nine years living by two rules: I don’t steal from those who give me honest work, and I don’t work for those who steal from me. That night, I added a new rule to the list: I don’t work for those who try to blackmail me into prostitution.
      Every scuff of his boots brings him closer, but I keep my movements smooth and steady.
      I latch one lock. Snick.
      Scuff, scuff.
      The second lock. Snick.
      Scuff, scuff.
      The third—
      “What the hell?”
      “These glowstones are worthless,” he grumbles from the foot of the stairs.
      I keep my breathing shallow and press myself against the wall, where the darkness is deepest.
      “You coming or not?” A female voice from the top of the stairs. She giggles. “We found the other bottle, Creighton. Come on!”
      “I’m coming.”
      I count his steps back up and inch closer to the stairs as he stumbles his way toward the top. He’s drunk. Perhaps luck is on my side tonight.
      Listening carefully, I track their progress through the manor house until there’s no more noise in the servants’ quarters above me and the sounds all come from the front of the house. I can’t risk opening the vault again to remove the rest of my blood. Not tonight.
      I pad silently up the stairs, retracing the steps that brought me here.
      I don’t register the extent of the tension locking my muscles until I’m out of the house and it leaves me in a rush. Under the cool night sky, I’m hit by a wave of exhaustion. I won’t stop now, but I’ve pushed myself too hard this week and I can’t deny my body much longer.
      I need sleep. Food. And in the morning, maybe even a few mindless minutes of watching Sebastian train in the courtyard behind Madame Vivias’s. That might be better than sleep or food.
      The thought is like a shot of adrenaline to my system, pushing me to finish what I need to do. The shadows guide me out of the manor—a meandering path around trees and shrubs, dodging the moonlight as if this is a game.
      The gates to the front are wide-open, and though my weary muscles beg me to take that easy exit, I can’t risk it. I pull the rope from my satchel and toss it over the perimeter wall of Gorst’s property. The fibers bite into my chapped hands, and my arms scream with each pull to the top.
      I jump down on the other side, landing on soft knees. My sister says I’m like a cat because of the way I’ve always jumped from trees and roofs without getting hurt. I think of myself more like a shadow, unnoticed and more useful than people bother to notice.
      I’m a ten-minute walk from home and am nearly limping under the weight of what I’ve stolen. It would be so easy to hand Madame Vivias what she’s due, climb into bed, and sleep for twelve hours.
      But I can’t. Not after what I saw on that last stack of contracts.
      I turn away from home and head down the alley past the dress shop where my sister Jas works. Around the corner from Gorst’s tavern and behind an overflowing bin of trash, I slip past the entrance to the city’s “family housing.” What a joke. The four-story building has twelve two-room units and one shared bath and kitchen on each floor. It’s shelter, and better than many have, but after seeing Gorst’s massive estate, the inequity disgusts me.
      My friend Nik’s door is ajar, and there’s sobbing coming from inside. Through the crack, I can see her daughter, Fawn, curled up against the wall, rocking, her shoulders shaking. Fawn has the same dark skin and curls as her mom. Once, Nik told me that everything changed for her when her daughter was born—that from that moment on, all that mattered to her was being the best mother she could be, even if it meant crossing lines she’d never want her own daughter to cross.
      I push inside, and Fawn startles. “Shh. It’s just me, baby,” I whisper, sinking to my haunches. “Where’s your mama?”
      She lifts her head, and tears stream down her cheeks. Her sobs grow louder and harder, her whole body shaking and teetering as if she’s trying to hold still through the gusts of an invisible storm. “I’m out of time,” Fawn says.
      I don’t ask what she means. I already know. I hear footsteps and turn to see Nik standing behind me, her arms crossed, horror on her face.
      “She did it to save me,” Nik says, her voice raspy, as if she’s been crying but has dried her tears through sheer will. “She got money from Gorst to buy me medicine from the healer.”
      “You were dying,” Fawn says, angrily swiping at her tears. She looks at me. “I didn’t have a choice.”
      “You did. You should’ve told me. I wouldn’t have let you sign that contract.”
      I reach for my friend’s hand and squeeze. The thing about desperation is that it steals the right choice from our list of options. Nik knows this as well as anyone.
      “I’ll give myself in your place, Fawny. Got it?” Nik says. There’s a quiet resolve in my friend’s expression that breaks my heart.
      “And what happens to me then?” Fawn asks.
      I wish she wasn’t old enough to understand that by going in her place, her mother would be sentencing her to a fate that could be worse. No one in Fairscape wants an extra mouth to feed. The only people who can afford charity are too greedy to bother.
      “Can you take her, Brie?” Nik asks. “You know I wouldn’t ask if I had a choice. Take her.”
      I shake my head. I want to, but if Madame Vivias found Fawn living in the cellar with us, there would be horrible consequences—and not just for Jas and me. For Fawn too. “There has to be someone else.”
      “There’s no one else, and you know it,” Nik says, but there’s no bite in her words, only resignation.
      “How much does she owe?”
      Nik winces and looks away. “Too much.”
      “How. Much.”
      “Eight thousand raqon.”
      The number makes me flinch. That’s two months’ payment to Madame Vivias, even including all her “penalties.” I don’t know how much I got from Gorst’s vault tonight, but there’s a good chance I have enough in my satchel to cover it.
      Fawn looks at me with those big eyes she was named for, begging me to save her. If I don’t do this, it’s the end of Nik’s life and possibly the end of Fawn’s. Best-case scenario, Fawn ends up as some rich noblewoman’s handmaiden. And worst? I can’t let myself think the worst.
      Nik wanted better for her daughter. A chance to be better, to have better. If I miss this payment to Madame V, it’s just more of the same for me. Our debt is too deep, our lives too entangled with the witch we were stuck with when Uncle Devlin died. The contents of this satchel can’t save me and Jas, but they can save Fawn and Nik.
      I reach into my bag and pull out two pouches. “Here.”
      Nik’s eyes widen. “Where did you get this?”
      “It doesn’t matter. Take it.”
      Wide-eyed and slack-jawed, Nik peers into the bags before shaking her head. “Brie, you can’t.”
      “I can and I will.”
      Nik stares at me for a long beat, and in her eyes I see her desperation warring with her fear for me. Finally she pulls me into her arms and squeezes me tight. “I’ll repay you. Someday. Somehow. I swear it.”
      “You owe me nothing.” I pull out of her arms, eager to get home and clean up. Desperate to sleep. “You would’ve done the same for me and Jas if you could have.”
      Her eyes fill with tears, and I watch one spill over and down her cheek, smearing her makeup as it goes. Her gratitude morphs to worry as she spots my bloody hand. “What happened?”
      I make a fist to hide my sliced palm. “It’s nothing. Just a cut.”
      “Just a cut? It’s an infection waiting to happen.” She nods to her bedroom. “Come with me. I can help.”
      Knowing she won’t let me go without a fight, I follow her into the tiny room where there’s a rickety dresser and the bed she and her daughter share. I sit on the edge of the bed and watch as she shuts the door behind her and gathers supplies.
      She sinks to her haunches in front of me and paints a salve on my cut. “You got this getting that money.” It’s not a question, so I don’t bother with a lie. “Are you okay?”
      I try to hold still as the salve seeps into my skin. The flesh itches where it knits together. “I’m fine. I just need some dinner and a nap.”
      Dark, incredulous eyes flash to mine. “A nap? Brie, you’re so run-down I’m not sure anything but a coma would refresh you.”
      I laugh—or try to. It sounds more like a pathetic mewl. So tired.
      “Another payment due to your aunt?”
      “Tomorrow.” I swallow hard at the thought. I’m seventeen, but I’m magically bound to a contract that will, at this rate, keep me in Madame Vivias’s debt for the rest of my life. When my sister and I signed ourselves into servitude nine years ago, Uncle Devlin had just died and Mom had abandoned us. The payments Madame V required then seemed reasonable—and much better than the uncertain fate of an orphan—but we were little girls who didn’t understand things like compound interest or the insidious trap of her penalties. Just as Fawn didn’t truly understand the contract she’d signed with Gorst.
      “And thanks to us,” Nik says, reaching for the gauze, “you’re going to be short again.”
      “Worth it,” I whisper.
      Nik squeezes her eyes shut. “This world is so screwed up.” There’s no way Fawn can hear us unless she’s listening at the door, but Nik lowers her voice anyway. “I have a friend who could give you work.”
      I frown. “What kind of work?” There’s none that can earn me the kind of money I need. None except— “I might as well work for Creighton Gorst if I’m going to do that.”
      “Creighton would take half your earnings.” Nik wraps my hand and gives me a sad smile. “There are fae who pay a premium for the company of a beautiful human and more if you’ll bind yourself to them. Far more than Creighton can offer.”
      “Faeries?” I shake my head. I’d sooner get involved with Creighton’s handsy clients than give myself over to a faerie. My people used to believe the faeries were our guardians. Before they split the sky and opened the portals, the fae visited at twilight in their spirit forms—just a shadow or an outline in the trees that looked like something living.
      My people called them angels. They’d kneel and pray for the angels to stay close, to protect them, to watch over their sick children. But when the portals opened and the angels were finally here, they didn’t protect us at all.
      Because the fae aren’t angels. They’re demons, and they came to exploit us, to steal babies and use humans as their slaves and their breeding stock. They tricked thousands into signing over their lives to fight in their wars. Only when the Magical Seven of Elora, the seven most powerful mages from this world, came together did we guard the portals against them. Now they can take a human life only if it’s fairly purchased or freely given—a magical safeguard that the clever faeries have created a hundred workarounds for. In practice, this protects only the rich and powerful.
      “Better than nothing,” say so many who support the Seven. “It’s a start.” Or worse, “If people don’t want to be sold to the fae, they shouldn’t take on so much debt.”
      “Why would they pay when they can just glamour women into giving them whatever they want?” I ask Nik.
      “Keep your voice down!” She cranes her neck to check that the door behind her is still closed. “Not everything you hear about them is true. And my friend can—”
      “It’s out of the question. I’ll find another way.” If I know anything, it’s that I’ll never trust the fae.
      “I’m worried about you,” Nik says. “In this world, the only power we have is in our autonomy. Don’t let anyone back you into a corner. Don’t let your desperation make decisions for you.”
      Like it did for Fawn. “I won’t,” I promise, but it feels hollow, as if my voice already knows it’s a lie. I’m working all the time and stealing as much as I can get away with, but I can’t keep up.
      Even if I were okay with selling my body—and I’m not—I don’t want anything to do with the fae. I don’t care how much money they offer. There are more important things in life than money. Even more important things than freedom—like taking care of your two little girls and not abandoning them so you can run off with your faerie lover.

“I hear you, girl,” Madame Vivias says the second my hand hits the knob for the basement.
      I squeeze my eyes shut. I should’ve come in through the cellar door. It’s after midnight, and I have no energy for whatever task she’s planning to give me. Lowering my head, I turn to her and give a brief curtsey. “Good evening, Aunt V.”
      “Good evening. Tomorrow’s the full moon.”
      “Yes, ma’am.”
      “You have my money?”
      I keep my gaze leveled on the hand propped on her hip—a sparkling ring on every finger. Any one of those rings could cover this month’s payment. I don’t lift my head. I won’t give her the satisfaction of seeing the fear in my eyes. “I’ll have it tomorrow, ma’am.”
      She’s silent for so long that I dare to lift my gaze to hers. She’s adjusting the thick strands of glittering jewels hanging from her neck and scowling at me. “If you don’t have it today, what are the chances you’ll have it tomorrow?”
      Not very good. But until it’s officially too late, I won’t admit it. Every time we’re short, our contract grows longer and our payment higher. It’s a vicious cycle we can’t seem to escape. “I’ll pay you tomorrow, ma’am.”
      “Abriella!” The shrill cry comes from the stairs, and I have to fight my flinch at my cousin Cassia’s voice. “My dresses need washing!”
      “There are fresh dresses in your room,” I say. “I pressed them this morning.”
      “None of those will do. I don’t have anything to wear to dinner tomorrow night.”
      “My room needs cleaning,” Stella, her sister, says, because gods forbid I do more for one spoiled cousin than the other. “The last time she did it, she barely spent any time in there, and it’s beginning to feel grimy.”
      Madame V arches a brow and turns back to me. “You heard them, girl. Get to work.”
      Sleep will have to wait a few more hours. I pull back my shoulders and turn toward my cousins’ rooms.

Monday, July 26, 2021

#Review - Savage Bounty by Matt Wallace #Fantasy

Series: Savage Rebellion # 1
Format: Paperback, 400 pages
Release Date: July 20, 2021
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Source: Publisher
Genre: Fantasy

The sequel to the acclaimed, spellbinding epic fantasy Savage Legion by Hugo Award–winning author Matt Wallace about a utopian city with a dark secret…and the underdogs who will expose it—or die trying.

The call them Savages. Brutal. Efficient. Expendable.

The empire relies on them. The greatest weapon they ever developed. Culled from the streets of their cities, they take the ones no one will miss and throw them, by the thousands, at the empire’s enemies. If they live, they fight again. If they die, well, there are always more.

From Hugo Award–winning author Matt Wallace comes the much-anticipated second installment to the “epic fantasy the genre has been waiting for” (Sarah Gailey, Hugo Award–winning author of Magic for Liars)

Savage Bounty, by author Matt Wallace, is the second installment in the authors Savage Rebellion trilogy. This story revolves around FOUR characters: Dyeawan, Evie, Lexi, and Taru. Dyeawan works for the Planning Cadre and just recently became its leader. Evie is the leader of the Savage rebellion who was sent to find Brio, the husband of Lexi. Lexi Xia is a Gen who is up to her eyes in trouble from the moment this story begins, to the moment it ends. Taru was Lexi's protector until kidnapped and forced into joining the Savages. 

The story itself is set in a fictional place called Crache. Crache was once a nation led by nobility like England. But, centuries ago, the nation underwent a revolution that put committees and cooperatives ("Gens") in charge of society. Everyone is supposed to contribute and share resources. The Aegins keep the peace. The Planning Cadre comes up with new technologies. The Gens provide all necessary services. But nothing is a good as it seems.  

There are people living in the Bottoms who are struggling to survive. Many have been rounded up for small crimes, or no crimes at all, and are never seen again. These people end up becoming Savages and fighting wars. One of the main core storylines of this story is rebellion. Evie, not her real name but a name she chose not to expose herself into revealing her connection to Brio, is a leader, a general, a brutal fighter who has been in numerous bad situations and managed to survive. But with greater forces pushing to put the rebellion down, Evie's forces will be lucky to survive.

Dyeawan, once called "Slider" because she has no use of her legs, has become a leader. But being a leader isn't easy when you are being challenged by others and threatened by the Protectorate Ministry. The Cadre is split into young and old with the old not willing to offer any compromise to Dyeawan's plans for changes in Crache. Dyeawan is challenged to prove that she is a worthy successor to Edgar. She's forced to face three hard challenges that will push her mind and body to the limits. People need to stop messing with this girl. She may have been found on the streets, but she gobbles up information quickly. 

As I said, Lexi's life is in constant turmoil from the moment this story begins, until it ends on shocking cliffhanger. Lexi's husband tried to uncover secrets about the Savages and was taken from her. Her bodyguard Taru, who protected Lexi from assassins, was taken after following a lead that might shed light into Brio's disappearance. The Protectorate has her under constant surveillance, and a larger threat in the form of Lady Burr, a woman trying to bring back the nobility, will push Lexi to the limits. 

Lastly is Taru. Taru is an undecided and in this world, that is a huge problem for most people. Because of Taru's connection to Lexi, Taru is kidnapped, and forced into becoming a Savage. But Taru has an interesting side trip that leads them to the only country who has not fallen to the Crache. Taru is hopeful that they can get help from these people and maybe they can arrive in time to help Lexi, and Evie survive what is coming for them. 

This book, like the previous one, ends on a cliffhanger. I abhor cliffhangers. The only redeeming quality is that they force the author to address issues he left behind. It's not propaganda to say that every character is in deep trouble as the story ends. I will gladly read the sequel to see who survives and how Wallace wraps up this series.