Monday, July 31, 2023

#Review - Bonesmith by Nicki Pau Preto #YA #Fantasy

Series: House of the Dead Duology
Format: Hardcover, 464 pages
Release Date: July 25, 2023
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Source: Publisher
Genre: Dark Fantasy

Gideon the Ninth meets the Game of Thrones White Walkers in this dark young adult fantasy about a disgraced ghost-fighting warrior who must journey into a haunted wasteland to rescue a kidnapped prince.

Ready your blade. Defeat the undead.

In the Dominions, the dead linger, violent and unpredictable, unless a bonesmith severs the ghost from its earthly remains. For bonesmith Wren, becoming a valkyr—a ghost-fighting warrior—is a chance to solidify her place in the noble House of Bone and impress her frequently absent father. But when sabotage causes Wren to fail her qualifying trial, she is banished to the Border Wall, the last line of defense against a wasteland called the Breach where the vicious dead roam unchecked.

Determined to reclaim her family’s respect, Wren gets her chance when a House of Gold prince is kidnapped and taken beyond the Wall. To prove she has what it takes to be a valkyr, Wren vows to cross the Breach and rescue the prince. But to do so, she’s forced into an uneasy alliance with one of the kidnappers—a fierce ironsmith called Julian from the exiled House of Iron, the very people who caused the Breach in the first place…and the House of Bone’s sworn enemy.

As they travel, Wren and Julian spend as much time fighting each other as they do the undead, but when they discover there’s more behind the kidnapping than either of them knew, they’ll need to work together to combat the real danger: a dark alliance that is brewing between the living and the undead. 

Bonesmith, by author Nicki Pau Preto, is the first installment in the authors House of the Dead duology. Protagonist Lady-Smith Wren Graven, of House of Bone, has a lot to prove as she prepares the Bonewood Trails to officially become a full fledged valkrys. Bonewood is a forest of dead, soulless bones. Undead, haunted bones. The Bonewood was once a graveyard and training ground where bonesmiths tested their skills and magic and showed their mastery over the undead. 

Wren tends break the rules. She's snarky, largely undisciplined and cares for little other than the approval of her father Lord-Smith Vance Graven and grandmother Lady-Smith Svetlana Graven who act as the head of her house. As a bastard-born Heir to her house many, including her own cousin, would prefer to see her fail. Just as Wren is trying to finally play by the rules, and win, she is betrayed, sabotaged, and finishes last. No longer welcome in the Bonelands, Wren is exiled to the Border Wall (Breachfort).

Upon arrival, she finds friendship with House of Gold Prince (Leo). Wren and Leo have so many similarities that they quickly become friends. Until he is kidnapped and taken into the Haunted Territory. The most curious thing happens when she encounters an Ironsmith Knight (Julian) who appears to also betrayed by his own people. Julian belongs to House of Iron, the sworn enemy of the House of Bone. Confused and alone, the two of them form a tentative alliance.

Get Leo back and figure out why everyone's trying to kill them. As they fight their way through ghosts, while discovering that things aren't what Wren was told, they come closer and closer to unraveling a conspiracy for a new war. Entertaining story. Curious world but at least the author tried to get the readers involved in how gray this world really is. I am not going to make any comparisons to Gideon the Ninth since I did not read that book, nor will I any time in the future. 

Shockingly, I have also not read or watched Game of Thrones so let's just judge the book on its own merits. Loved Wren even though she is dangerous at times. Curious about Leo and Julian and if the author decides to explore more of a physical relationship between the characters. Oh yes, the book ends on a Cliffhanger!

Chapter OneONE
“Ready your blade.”

As one, the novitiates knelt in the snow, their weapons held high on upturned palms. For valkyrs like Wren, it was a blade fashioned from dead bone. For reapyrs, a scythe of gleaming steel.

The sun had set, the sky inky black and riddled with stars—the Gravedigger’s hour was upon them. Any moment now, the sickle moon would crest the would-be trees.

Any moment now, the trial would begin.

Wren’s heart thundered in anticipation.

The branches of the forest stood pale and stark before them, sharp with reaching hands and gaping mouths. With splintered spines and cracked ribs.

This was no ordinary forest, after all. This was the Bonewood.

Arms and legs soared up from the ground, twisted and warped. Bent and broken.

Dead, soulless bones.

Undead, haunted bones.

Human bones, yes, but other creatures too. Reindeer with spiky antlers and great woolly mammoths with arching tusks. Ancient bones from unknowable beasts. Bones from the dawn of time.

The Bonewood was at once a graveyard and a training ground. It was here that bonesmiths tested their skills, extended their magic… and showed their mastery over the undead.

Now, after years of training and a lifetime of living in its shadow, Wren would traverse the Bonewood and compete in the Bonewood Trial.

She lifted her head slightly, considering the novitiates kneeling on either side of her. There were ten of them total, each dressed in Bone House black and with black grease lining their eyes, making their sockets look sunken like skulls. Ghostlight was bright enough on its own but turned blinding when it flashed against the snow, so they used the wax-and-charcoal mixture to reduce glare. It also made the mark of their magic—their pale, bone-white irises—stand out all the more.

Sometimes Wren extended the eye black into her hairline or painted her lips for a more dramatic effect, though her teachers usually told her to wipe it off.

Sometimes she spread it on her teeth and smiled wide, just to give them a fright. There wasn’t much to entertain in the House of Bone, frigid and isolated on the northernmost tip of the Dominions, so Wren had to make do.

Not tonight, though. Tonight Wren would play by the rules… for once.

If she passed the trial, she would serve for life as a valkyr of the House of Bone. In the Dominions, where magic welled up from deep in the earth, the dead lingered—violent and unpredictable—unless a bonesmith severed the ghost from its earthly remains. That was the duty of the reapyr.

But not all ghosts went quietly. Some put up a fight, so it was the valkyr’s task to defend the reapyr from the undead.

Without the House of Bone, ghosts would overrun their land, making it uninhabitable, as it had been for centuries. Their work was more than a job or a calling. It was a necessity.

But that didn’t mean Wren couldn’t enjoy it.

In contrast to their blacks, the valkyrs also wore bones. They wore them fastened to their forearms as gauntlets and their chests as breastplates, and bone weapons were strapped across shoulders and in belts or loaded as artillery into bandoliers.

They all had their favorites—Wren wore twin swords in sheaths on her back, while Leif had a broad ax made of sharpened pelvic bone and Inara carried a flail with a spiked skull on the end.

In short, they were dressed for war. The battlefield was the Bonewood, and the enemy was the undead.

Though they would one day be allies, tonight the other valkyr novitiates were Wren’s rivals, her competition—sons and daughters of the House of Bone and its various branches, or upstart nobodies from across the Dominions who somehow found themselves with bonesmith blood. Cousins and distant relations, strangers and outsiders, but not friends. Not family.

Her father had explained it to her during one of their rare conversations: They were linked by magic, not love. Duty, not affection.

That was the way of the House of Bone.

Wren had worked hard, had scraped and clawed to get here. She was the best damn valkyr novitiate her house had seen in years, and tonight she would prove it in front of everyone: her teachers and instructors, Lady-Smith Svetlana Graven—head of the House of Bone—and most of all, her father.

“Psst,” whispered a voice from her right.


Of all Wren’s cousins, Inara Fell was the biggest threat to her superiority among the valkyrs—and her only worthy adversary. They were of an age and had comparable height and build, so they were often paired together for lessons and exercises, though the similarities ended there. Inara had coarse black hair, carefully arranged in rows of tight braids, while her ivory bonesmith eyes stood out starkly against her brown skin. Wren, meanwhile, had wild bone-white hair—always tangled and unkempt—and eyes to match, her skin equally pale and colorless. Inara was organized, by the book, and always on time. Wren was more intuitive, coming and going as she pleased, and considered rules as suggestions more than laws to follow to the letter.

The two of them had been at each other’s throats for as long as she could remember, but after tonight, they’d go their separate ways. Once they passed their trial, they’d each be paired with a reapyr and sent to travel the Dominions, performing death rites and battling dangerous ghosts, ensuring all the dead were reaped. Elsewise, they might be lost and forgotten for centuries until some hapless fool dug them back up and unleashed an undead horde.

Like what had happened at the Breach—the darkest challenge the bonesmiths had ever faced. But it was in such times that heroes were forged and legends were made, like Wren’s uncle Locke Graven.

She longed for such notoriety, and one day she would achieve it. But first she had to pass the Bonewood Trial.

“Shut up,” she said to Inara, not turning her head. She was generally in favor of whispered conversation—the more inopportune the time, the better—but tonight was far too important for Wren to allow herself to get distracted.

The terms of the trial were simple: Each valkyr and reapyr pair must pass safely through the Bonewood, reaping three ghosts along the way. They had until dawn.

But the Bonewood did not suffer travelers lightly. There were ghosts there that did not sleep, undead that would never find peace.

And that was to say nothing of the living.

Wren had to protect her reapyr from violent ghosts and contend with the other valkyrs making their way through the trees. Valkyrs like Inara, who would love nothing more than to see her fail.

“Want to make things interesting?” Inara pressed. For someone who loved to toe the line, she was being surprisingly insistent tonight.

“I’m talking to you,” Wren drawled. “I’m not sure that’s possible.”

Yes, Inara was worthy competition… but she was also a constant thorn in Wren’s side and always nipping at her heels. Second place in everything, except rule breaking.

In that regard, Wren had no equal.

Inara was unfazed. “You might make things more interesting for him, then,” she said softly. She spoke to the ground, the pair of them still poised on their knees in the snow, but Wren heard the words clearly. There was only one “him” she could mean.

She glanced up at her father.

Lord-Smith Vance Graven stood next to his mother, Svetlana, atop the podium with the rest of the trial’s judges. As heir to the House of Bone, he was required to witness certain events—whether his only child participated in them or not.

He gave her the subtlest of nods. Acknowledgment, yes, but also a reminder.

“I’m counting on you today,” he had said to her mere hours before. They’d stood inside the training grounds of Marrow Hall, bone-white pillars arching over them and black sand underfoot. “Make me proud.”

To Wren, it sounded like a challenge. She hadn’t seen him for three months, and she was determined to make him more than proud. She wanted to make him stay, even just for a little while.

She lifted her chin. “Yes, Father.”

He’d surveyed her for several silent moments, then given her a reluctant, indulgent smile. “They tell me you spent half the night sweeping bonedust from the librarian’s bookshelves. Why?”

Wren couldn’t help but smirk back at him. She shrugged. “I was bored.”

Technically true. She’d climbed the bookshelves on a dare because she’d been bored during lessons, and when the librarian caught her three stories high with her dirty boots perched on a first edition of The Gravedigger’s Watch, the cleaning had been the eventual punishment.

Her father’s pale eyes danced, reading between the lines as he often did. Whenever he came home for a visit, however rarely, he asked Wren about her various studies—and accompanying punishments—with a serious air, like he was looking for something. For proof of her abilities? Or lack thereof? The topic was dull, even to her, so it seemed only proper, then, that her antics should entertain him. It was the least she could do.

He sighed, going for stern, but the amusement was still there in his gaze. Wren lived for that spark. Though he’d never own up to it, Wren had heard stories of Vance Graven as a young bonesmith, and he was at least as much of a troublemaker as she was. In fact, given Wren’s problematic origins, he was more so.

“I do hope the lack of sleep won’t affect your performance in the trial,” he said, the smallest amount of censure there.

Wren shook her head resolutely. “Never.”

He nodded, then turned to survey the rest of the novitiates who continued to practice in the training sands. Forgetting her already.

“In fact,” she added, reclaiming his attention. “I’d been planning on staying up anyway—acclimate to the night trial, you know—so the librarian did me a favor.”

His lips quirked. “I suppose that also explains why you slept until noon and missed morning lessons?”

Wren beamed. “Exactly.”

His focus shifted back to the other novitiates, Inara among them, and Wren had the sudden urge to tell him about the things she hadn’t screwed up lately. “I’m undefeated in our sparring class, and—”

He spoke over her as if he hadn’t heard. “Your grandmother is watching you, Wren. You must be careful. She will take any excuse to fail you.” His gaze returned to hers. “Do not give her one. You cannot simply pass tonight…. You must pass spectacularly. Do you understand?”

Now, with the Bonewood Trial mere moments away, Wren tilted her head toward Inara. “What did you have in mind?”

Inara smiled, and behind her, Ethen—her reapyr novitiate for the trial—exchanged a look with Wren’s novitiate, Sonya. This was not Wren’s and Inara’s first time going toe-to-toe, and their conflicts rarely ended without some form of collateral damage. Both reapyrs likely feared they might be it.

“A race,” Inara said, darting a glance up into the trees before looking down again. “First one through wins.”

That was already, more or less, the purpose of the trial. It was not timed, but being last to finish would not look good. Everyone wanted to be first, Wren most of all.

“And the second one through?”

Inara turned her head enough to frown, as if the answer were obvious. “Loses.”

Wren smirked. It was sufficient motivation for both of them, but… “That hardly makes things interesting. I plan on winning whether you dare me to or not.”

Inara licked her lips, her gaze fixed on the ground. “If you win, I’ll give you Nightstalker.”

That caught Wren’s attention. Nightstalker was the Fell ancestral dagger, currently sitting in Inara’s open hands and gleaming in the moonlight.

Like Wren’s own blade, it had a long history within the House of Bone and had belonged to dozens of talented valkyrs over the years—most recently, Inara’s mother. She had been Wren’s father’s schoolhouse rival, just as Inara was hers.

How sweet would it be to lay claim to such a weapon? To show her father that she had not only outclassed her greatest competition—and in a lesser way, his—but now possessed two valkyr blades?

They were more than just practical weapons; they were symbols of the valkyr order itself, representative of their place within the House of Bone. They were not given lightly and could only be taken by a worthy opponent during a formal challenge. Or by the head of the house if a blade bearer was deemed unworthy.

Wren couldn’t imagine a more powerful way to prove herself. To be spectacular.

There was, however, a flip side to the arrangement.

“And if I win,” Inara continued, “you give me Ghostbane.”

Wren’s dagger, and her father’s dagger before her. It felt heavy suddenly, sitting in her palms, causing her arms to tremble with the weight.

Once this night was through, Wren would either have two ancestral blades… or none.

But with or without the bet, she had no intention of losing, as Inara put it, and not coming first. Then again…

You cannot simply pass tonight…. You must pass spectacularly.

“Oh, one more thing,” Inara added, with the superiority of someone who has set the bait and is ready to release the trap. “We have to take the Spine.”

The Spine. It was the hardest path between the trees, slicing right through the middle of the forest. It was the shortest way, but also the oldest and most severely haunted, traversing the very heart of the Bonewood.

It was the surest way to run into trouble, even if they weren’t traveling together. But they were. They’d be directly in each other’s path the whole way through, which presented its own opportunities and obstacles. Much as Wren flouted the rules on principle, she didn’t intend to sabotage Inara. But if they traveled together, she could.

And, of course, Inara could sabotage her, too. Doubtful, since Inara was a teacher’s pet who loved the rules, but this was the Bonewood Trial. The stakes had never been higher.

It would be risky, and reckless, and make what was already a challenging test twice as dangerous.

You cannot simply pass tonight…. You must pass spectacularly.

A horn call sounded, making Wren jump. She looked up at the moon, just now cresting the highest branches. She lurched to a standing position along with the others, her grip on her dagger achingly tight.

She glanced at her father once more; then her gaze shifted to Inara. “You’re on.”

The moon cleared the bonetrees.

All eyes fell on Lady-Smith Svetlana. It was she who had called them to arms in the first place.

Ready your blade.

And it was she who spoke again now.

“Defeat the undead.”

The Bonewood Trial had begun.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

#Review - The Weaver and the Witch Queen by Genevieve Gornichec #Historical #Fantasy

Series: Standalone
Format: Hardcover, 432 pages
Release Date: July 25, 2023
Publisher: ACE
Source: Publisher
Genre: Historical / Fantasy / Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, Legends & Mythology

Oddny and Gunnhild meet as children in tenth century Norway, and they could not be more different: Oddny hopes for a quiet life, while Gunnhild burns for power and longs to escape her cruel mother. But after a visiting wisewoman makes an ominous prophecy that involves Oddny, her sister Signy, and Gunnhild, the three girls take a blood oath to help one another always.

When Oddny’s farm is destroyed and Signy is kidnapped by Viking raiders, Oddny is set adrift from the life she imagined but determined to save her sister, no matter the cost. Gunnhild, who fled her home years ago to learn the ways of a witch in the far north, is on her way to her exalted destiny. But the bonds—both enchanted and emotional—that hold them together are strong, and when they find their way back to each other, these bonds will be tested in ways they could never have foreseen in this rich, searching novel of magic, history, and sworn sisterhood

The Weaver and the Witch Queen, by author Genevieve Gornichec, is the story of two women—one desperate to save her missing sister, the other a witch destined to become queen of Norway—intertwine in this spellbinding, powerful novel of Viking Age history and myth from the acclaimed author of The Witch’s Heart. The story itself begins in the year 900 CE Norway in the time of Vikings. The key characters are Gunnhild Ozurardottir and Oddny Ketitsdottir. 
Gunnhild, Oddny, and her sister Signy were thicker than thieves in the night when the were around 12 years old. When a seerees named Heid arrives, Gunnhild is told she is not to participate by her own mother who seemingly hates her. But after a visiting wise woman makes an ominous prophecy that involves Oddny, her sister Signy, and Gunnhild, the three girls take a blood oath to help each other always. Gunnhild also makes a deal with Heid that she will be her apprentice and learn what it takes to be a powerful witch. 
12 years later, Gunnhild is thought to be dead since nobody has heard from her in years. In reality, Gunnhild has been training with Heid to learn how to shapeshift while also watching over her friends Oddny (who has become a really good healer) and Signy who likes to have her own kind of fun. When raiders storm the sisters village, and Signy is taken, Gunnhild finds herself in a life and death battle with powerful witches and ends up losing the woman who was more of a mother to her than her real mother.
The era that this story takes place is deep in Viking, and Norse mythology with some worshiping Gods like Odin, and Freyja. It is a story of two remarkable women who must rise or fall with the tides as they must decide who they will become. Gunnhild will eventually make a deal with King Eirik and become Queen even though he hates witches as do most of his hoard. A Queen that will, according to history, be called the Mother of Kings. Oddny must walk her own path regardless of the oath she made with Signy and Gunnhild. The only thing that matters to her is getting her sister back and trusting the person that she ends up losing her heart to.
Thoughts: I have the authors previous story but have not yet gotten around to read it. After reading this book, I shall have to go back and dig it out of my pile of books to read. Also, the author does a really good job of letting the readers know that yes, she has done due diligence when it comes to researching the subject of Gunnhild, but history is not kind when it comes to powerful women. There are a lot of ups and downs in this book as each character must do what they need to do in order to find their own destiny while keeping a promise make 12 years ago. Both of the main characters have deep, meaningful romances but they are tested at every angle. This story is filled with magic, intrigue, romance, and not all the battles take place on the battlefield, but in hearts and minds, and words.


A horn sounded across the water in two short bursts.

Upon hearing it, Gunnhild Ozurardottir dropped her spindle and distaff and ran, ignoring the admonishments of the serving women she'd been spinning with under the awning. They would scold her later, but she cared little.

Her friends were about to arrive. And at such times she found it hard to care about anything else.

Gunnhild rounded the corner of the longhouse and sprinted up the hill, making for her father's watchman on the eastern side of the island. He was stationed on a small platform overlooking the water and always had a blowing horn on hand.

"One ship!" he called over his shoulder at the other men milling about, not noticing as Gunnhild hiked up her dress and scrambled up the platform's short ladder. "It's Ketil's!"

Before he could protest, Gunnhild grabbed the horn off its peg and blew it twice. As she lowered it she heard noises of disappointment coming from the children on the incoming ship, and she pumped a fist in victory. "Yes!"

"Oi!" the man said, snatching the horn from her. "That's only for emergencies!"

"This is an emergency," Gunnhild replied with gravity. She pointed to a dark shape in the water. "As soon as they pass that big rock in the bay, they blow the horn. And if I don't respond before they dock, I owe them a trinket. Two blasts for 'hello,' three for 'goodbye.'"

"Aren't you a little old for games, girl?"

"Not when I know I can win!" With that, Gunnhild scampered back down the ladder and ran for the shore, leaving the watchman shaking his head.

As she approached, Gunnhild could see Ketil and his son, Vestein, tying up their ship at the rickety wooden dock. Three other people disembarked: Ketil's wife, Yrsa, and their daughters, Oddny and Signy, whom Gunnhild practically tackled in a hug. Sighing and shifting the bedroll in her arms, Signy rummaged in her rucksack and handed over a single glass bead, which Gunnhild snatched up with an air of triumph and stuffed into the pouch at her belt.

At twelve years old, Gunnhild was exactly between the sisters in age-Signy a winter older, Oddny a winter younger-and the girls rarely got to see one another except at gatherings, which made this day even sweeter.

"You're too fast," Signy complained as Gunnhild threw an arm around each of her friends and herded them up the hill toward her father's hall.

"Or maybe you're not fast enough," Gunnhild said, "because when I visit you I still win. I have a collection to prove it."

Oddny sniffed and picked at one of the furs in her bedroll, her thin shoulders hunched, her pinched face looking more so than usual. "Maybe we'd win every once in a while if Signy ever stopped daydreaming and paid attention."

"Hush, you. I pay attention," Signy said lightly, but her green eyes were brimming with mischief. Gunnhild appreciated that about her: Whether it was stealing oatcakes from the cookhouse or pulling a well-timed prank on the farmhands, Signy was always up for a little fun, whereas Oddny was more likely to sit back from whichever of her chores she was dutifully performing and give them a disapproving look. Oddny wasn't much fun, but at least she never tattled on them.

As they entered the longhouse, Gunnhild saw that preparations were well underway for the ritual and feast taking place that evening. Near her father's high seat at the far end of the hall, a small square platform had been raised for the visiting seeress to sit on, so she could look out over the crowd as she revealed their futures. It sat just under the wooden statues of the gods Odin, Thor, and Frey, which loomed beneath the jutting lintel above the entrance to the antechamber where Gunnhild's family slept.

Gunnhild had never seen her father's hall looking quite like this: buzzing with activity, the air charged with excitement. The seeress's impending arrival had turned the entire household upside down, and Gunnhild considered herself lucky to have escaped from her spinning in the chaos.

A knee-high platform ran the length of the hall on each side, where guests would feast and then sleep. By day, light streamed in through the holes in the roof above the two center hearths; by night, the longhouse would be dim and smoky, lit only by the hearth fires and by the lines of oil braziers hanging from the posts that ran down either side of the hall and divided the seating areas into sections.

"Where is our family sitting?" Oddny asked her as they neared the center of the hall.

"My mother assigned the seats," Gunnhild said. "We can ask-"

As if on cue the woman in question came out of the antechamber, already dressed to welcome the guests in her finest brooches and beads, and with a gauzy linen head scarf knotted at the nape of her neck. Before Gunnhild could so much as speak, her mother was upon them.

"What mischief have you been up to, Gunnhild?" Solveig demanded. "Why aren't you spinning with Ulfrun and the others? They're supposed to be keeping you out of the way."

They didn't tell on me, Gunnhild thought with short-lived relief, for the look on her mother's face was nothing short of hostile.

Oddny and Signy moved in fractionally closer on either side of Gunnhild, Signy's arm tightening around her friend's back, and even Oddny-a paragon of submitting to parental authority-stiffened as if bracing for an attack. Solveig would never dare strike her daughter in front of guests, but that didn't mean she hadn't done so in private, and both Ketilsdottirs knew this. They had seen the proof more than once.

"I-I heard the horns," Gunnhild said at last, her friends' presence giving her strength, helping her find her voice. "I had to win."

"Not this silly game again," Solveig said scathingly, and she echoed the watchman's earlier sentiment: "Aren't you girls a little old for this?"

"It's only a game." Gunnhild raised her chin. As she stared her mother down, Oddny and Signy held their ground beside her until their own mother entered the hall.

"Hello, Solveig," said Yrsa with forced politeness. "Are my daughters causing trouble already? We've only just arrived."

Solveig plastered a look of equally strained courtesy onto her face. "Not so. I only suspect that mine is, as always, up to no good."

Yrsa's voice turned cold. "Gunnhild just came down to the dock to escort us to the hall. Why does this offend you?"

"I feel compelled to remind you, Yrsa, that you are a guest in my home," Solveig said stiffly. "I don't recall asking for your opinion on the way I choose to deal with my own daughter."

"Of course." Yrsa's eyes narrowed, but she gave her host an insipid smile. "Before we get settled in, is there anyone in need of my services?" There was usually no shortage of sick or injured people on any given farm, and Yrsa was a skilled healer.

"Not that I know of. Please, make yourselves comfortable." Solveig gestured to the section of the platform two spaces down from the high seat, then looked to Gunnhild. "Clean yourself up and get ready at once." She made to breeze past them but stopped to hiss in her daughter's ear, "And do not embarrass me tonight."

Then she was gone, and Gunnhild could breathe again.

Yrsa's keen eyes followed Solveig as the woman went to greet the next guests. "Oddny, Signy-why don't you help Gunnhild get ready?"

The sisters dumped their bedrolls and scurried off with Gunnhild to the antechamber. Her parents slept on the right side, and behind a curtain on the left side were two wooden bunks with thin straw mattresses atop them.

Gunnhild had once shared this room with her sisters, but as they were much older and had long since been married off, she now bunked with Solveig's most trusted serving women, and she was glad to see that none of her aged roommates were present. Besides the bunks, the only other fixtures were a few small chests, one of which was Gunnhild's. She opened it and added the bead Signy had given her to the little pouch full of smooth skipping stones, seashells, and other baubles she'd won over time from the Ketilsdottirs. Then she took out a bone comb and began to assault her thick dark red hair.

Gunnhild's feast clothing was already spread out on her bunk: a linen dress soft from years of use; a woolen apron-dress, faded and threadbare but woven in a fine diamond pattern; and a pair of tarnished oval brooches with a simple string of beads. All had been handed down to Gunnhild from her older sisters.

"Mother asked to foster you again at the midsummer feast, last time we were all together," Signy said as she sat down on the bunk with the clothing on it, the beads clinking together at the movement. "Your mother refused."

"She said you were too old now." Oddny sat down on the opposite bunk. "As if she hasn't been asking forever."

Gunnhild grimaced, but this came as no surprise; she knew there was no escape for her. She'd tried to run away once or twice, slipping out during the commotion of a feast after stealing some finery from her parents' chests to pay her way to . . . Where? If not to Ketil's farm-the first place they would look for her-where could she possibly go? Each time, she'd ended up returning in the dead of night, putting her parents' things back where she'd found them, unpacking her bag, and slipping into bed.

She had thought that nothing would frighten her more than Solveig, but it turned out that the unknown was more terrifying still.

"Of course she refused," Gunnhild said hollowly. She loves to deny me anything I could possibly want. "And on top of everything else, I'm not allowed to have my fate told tonight."

Signy had been running her hand enviously over the diamond twill of the apron dress on the bed, but her head snapped up at this. "What do you mean, you're not allowed to have your fate told?"

"My mother decided it." And, as usual, she hadn't offered an explanation besides because I said so. Her father, however, had been a bit more willing to talk after a few drinks and a prolonged exposure to Gunnhild's whining. "But Papa said it's because I had my fate told when the last seeress came through."

"But you were three when the last one was here," Oddny said with a frown. "That's not fair. You can't possibly remember what she said."

"Of course I don't." Gunnhild crossed her arms. "And no one will tell me!"

"For once, I agree with Oddny Coal-brow," Signy said, and her sister hmphed at the nickname, earned because Oddny's thin eyebrows were a much darker brown than her fine, mousy hair. "What if you just came with us when our mother calls us forward? Solveig can't make you sit back down without embarrassing you both. People would want an explanation."

"She'll make my life even more miserable this winter if I disobey her," Gunnhild said glumly, and neither of her friends disagreed.

Gunnhild braided her hair into a thick plait, donned her dresses, and pinned her beads and brooches in place. When she was done, Signy gave a sigh of admiration and Oddny gave a nod of approval. Neither of the sisters owned a set of brooches. The two wore faded woolen gowns-red for Signy and dull yellow for Oddny-and Gunnhild knew Oddny's was a hand-me-down, for the younger girl had it tightly cinched at the waist with a thin overlong leather belt.

Nevertheless, their dresses were free of stains and didn't show any obvious signs of mending or patching, so Gunnhild knew that these were likely the best garments her friends had; even their mother's weren't much better. And yet, though the family had so little to their name, Yrsa was still adamant about bringing their neighbor's mistreated daughter into their home.

Gunnhild swallowed the lump in her throat and sat down beside Oddny. "Let's stay out of the way until the ritual starts."

"Otherwise Mother might put us to work," Signy said, disgusted, as she flopped onto her back on the bed. "I want to go one single day without picking up a spindle. Is that too much to ask?"

"Just because you pick up a spindle doesn't mean that you get anything accomplished with it," Oddny said under her breath, and Signy stuck out her tongue.

To keep themselves busy, they decided to rebraid Oddny's and Signy's hair, which had become windswept during the crossing. By the time Gunnhild had fixed Oddny's twin plaits and Oddny had done the same to Signy's, they could hear more and more voices coming from the main hall.

"I suppose we should go before our mothers come looking for us," Gunnhild said at last, standing. The ritual would begin at dusk, and by now the sunlight outside was spent; the start of winter was almost upon them, and the days were getting shorter. Soon the sun would barely rise at all, and she'd be trapped inside this hall, weaving and sewing by firelight, completely under her mother's thumb.

But not yet. Tonight, she had her friends by her side, and the future awaited.

The hall was full and the braziers had been lit, and the seeress herself was the last to arrive, borne north by King Harald’s tax collector and his retinue.

Along with the neighboring farmers, Gunnhild's father's friends among the Sámi had been invited to attend. They clustered together at the back of the hall, although Gunnhild saw that a few of the women had wandered over to chat with Yrsa in Norse. Ketil and Ozur had stopped to talk with the Sámi in their language, and Gunnhild heard Ketil's roaring laugh from across the room as the largest of the men clapped him on the back with a grin.

Gunnhild would have to go sit with her parents once the feast began, but for now she sat with Signy and Oddny, content to watch their fathers conversing in a tongue the girls didn't understand.

"I wonder what they're talking about," Signy said.

"I wonder what the Sámi will think of the seeress," Oddny replied. "Did you know Papa said their men are more likely to be seers instead of the other way around? I'll bet their rituals are much different, too-"

Signy batted her sister's arm. "Shh. It's starting!"

A hush came over the hall as the seeress finally appeared. The old woman was frail and peculiar, from her lambskin cap and gloves to the multitude of mysterious pouches at her belt. But what drew Gunnhild's eye most of all was her iron staff, twisted at the top, its brass fittings gleaming in the firelight.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

#Review - Legends and Liars by Morgan Rhodes #YA #Fantasy

Series: Echoes And Empires (#2)
Format: Hardcover, 352 pages
Release Date: June 13, 2023
Publisher: Razorbill
Source: Library
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy

This riveting sequel to Echoes and Empires sees Joss and Jericho team up with some of their greatest enemies to bring an end to the queen’s empire of lies, from New York Times bestselling author Morgan Rhodes. Perfect for fans of Realm Breaker and The Queen's Assassin.

Josslyn Drake is in over her head—again. After fleeing the Queen’s palace with Prince Elian in tow, she’d hoped to finally find a way to solve both of their magical problems in one fell swoop, with the help of criminal-turned-ally Jericho Nox. But Valery, Jericho’s boss—and a notoriously powerful mage—has other plans.

It soon becomes clear that Valery can’t, or won’t, provide assistance. And as Joss’s relationship with Jericho becomes more confusing than ever, she realizes that she’ll have to find her own way out of this magical mess, with or without help from those around her. 

Amid high tensions, Joss sets out to learn to control the memory magic—along with her own natural powers. As the struggle between Lord Banyon and the Queen threatens the people Joss cares about, she stumbles onto hints of a monumental royal secret. Her unwanted power just might hold the answers she needs to solve all her problems—but she’ll have to work quickly, because the fate of an empire hangs in the balance. 

Legends and Liars is the second installment in author Morgan Rhodes Echoes and Empires duology. After being infected by a dangerous piece of magic—one that allows her to step into the memories of an infamously evil warlock—Lord Zarek Banyon the most infamous warlock in the history of the Empire17-year old Josslyn Drake has found herself in the middle of a major conspiracy that may bring down Regorian Empire and the reign of Queen Isadora.
Joss, Prince Elian, Viktor (Queensgard and Jericho's brother), and Jericho Nox are hiding from the Queen after escaping the palace. Prince Elian wants to be cured of his beastly curse, Viktor wants to help his brother Jericho, and Joss wants to learn more about magic in the kingdom, and all of them want to be free. Joss had hoped to finally find a way to solve both of their magical problems in one fell swoop, with the help of criminal-turned-ally Jericho Nox, the Blackheart. 
But Valery, Jericho’s boss—and a notoriously powerful mage who carries a knife that can pull the truth out of anyone—has other plans. It soon becomes clear that Valery can’t, or won’t, provide assistance. In fact, Valery seems all too happy to watch Joss and her allies struggle to survive.And as Joss’s relationship with Jericho becomes more confusing than ever, she realizes that she’ll have to find her own way out of this magical mess, with or without help from those around her. 
Amid high tensions, Joss sets out to learn to control the memory magic—along with her own natural powers. As the struggle between Lord Banyon and the Queen threatens the people Joss cares about, she stumbles onto hints of a monumental royal secret. Her unwanted power just might hold the answers she needs to solve all her problems—but she’ll have to work quickly, because the fate of an empire hangs in the balance. Because if what Joss knows gets out, it might destroy the Empire in one fell swoop and anyone who stands in the way, might get burnt or left behind. 
Thoughts: It is fair to say that when this story began, I had no thoughts of Josslyn making this far in life without being killed or thrown in a far off prison never to be heard from again. She started out as the First Daughter of the Empire, only to see her surrogate father murdered, and being forced to carry the memories of a man who she believe killed her father. Joss's growth in this book takes some time, but once she understands the powerful secrets that she has access to, she steps up and delivers a well earned pat on the back.  

The witch moved through the crowded restaurant, drawing the eye of everyone she passed. She had long, dark brown hair, pale white skin, and lips as scarlet red as the dress that hugged her slim body. Diamonds sparkled at her ears, throat, and wrists. She could easily pass for the young wife of a politician or businessman, meeting her friends for dinner. Most would view her as beautiful, elegant, fashionable, and entirely harmless.

They’d be dead wrong.

She didn’t look to the left or right. Her attention was fixed on only one person.


I didn’t try to smile. I didn’t wave my hand in greeting. Instead, I focused on hiding my fear, since it wasn’t the least bit helpful tonight.

My gaze shifted from the witch to the tall young man who accompanied her. Black eyes. Dark hair. Broad shoulders. A tense, square jaw. The tattoo of a dagger on the side of his neck, visible above the collar of his black leather coat. Contrary to the witch’s benign appearance, most casual onlookers would immediately assume Jericho Nox was dangerous, and instinctively want to run in the opposite direction. For me, however, the relief at seeing the Blackheart stole the air right out of my lungs.

Shortly after we’d arrived in Cresidia, a city six hundred miles north of Ironport, Jericho had disappeared without a word. And then five long days had passed in utter silence. I’d convinced myself that his evil boss had punished him for failing his latest mission. Or worse . . . killed him. But then, earlier today,I received a message to meet him and the witch here tonight. Alone.
Jericho scanned the restaurant vigilantly, his expressionimpenetrable steel. The table I’d been taken to upon my arrivalwas in a private alcove set slightly apart from the rest of the restaurant, through a carved stone archway. Just beyond the archway, the restaurant bustled with waiters and, most importantly, a dining room full of patrons. There was no way I’d ever meet with this witch without knowing there were a hundred witnesses present.

She took a seat across from me, and I tensed. I’d be perfectly happy if tomorrow this witch was executed for her long list of heinous crimes. I’d make sure I had a front-row seat. Tonight, however, her death would do me no good at all. Elian needed her help. And, in more ways than I cared to admit, so did I.

“Jericho, please make the introductions.” Her voice took me by surprise—­it was as sweet and smooth as honey. I guess I’d expected her to sound as shrill and cruel as her reputation.
The Blackheart took the seat next to his boss. I tried to read his expression, but it gave me no clues as to where he’d been for five long days.

“Valery,” he said evenly, and his familiar deep voice betrayed not even a whisper of emotion, “this is Josslyn Drake. Josslyn Drake, this is Valery.”

He’d called me simply Drake so many times that my first name sounded strange on his lips. Not strange in a bad way. Just strange.

Valery gestured for a waiter to approach. He had a bottle of red wine already in hand, and he poured two glasses from it without being asked—­one for me and one for her.

“I took the liberty of ordering this for us,” she said.

“How thoughtful of you,” I replied dryly. “No wine for Jericho?”

“I prefer that my employees don’t drink alcohol.”

“It’s fine,” Jericho said. “I’m not thirsty.”

I wished that we’d had time to talk before this, to help me get my bearings when it came to meeting his boss. What she knew, what she wanted, what she planned to do next.

“Have you visited Cresidia before, Josslyn?” Valery asked when the waiter moved away from the table.

Small talk didn’t seem to suit the occasion, but I’d do my best to endure it.

“No,” I replied. “I’ve rarely traveled far from Ironport all my life. At least, not until recently.”

Ironport was in South Regara, and Cresidia was in North Regara. While Ironport was straightlaced, business minded, and highly respectable with its gray-and-silver skyscrapers, and meticulously groomed green spaces, Cresidia was known more as a vacation destination—­with luxury shopping, glittering hotels, and sandy beaches. I’d spent most of my time since our arrival on one of those beaches, staring out at the sparkling blue sea, piecing together everything I’d seen and learned over the last month that had shattered the life I’d always known into a million jagged pieces.

“The life of a prime minister’s daughter,” Valery mused. “How very limiting that must have been for you.”

I fought to hold on to my calm expression. “Actually, my life felt quite limitless. Until last year, of course.”

She nodded, her expression serene. “Yes, of course. My deepest condolences on your father’s death.”

My fingers itched to grab the steak knife in front of me and shove it through her eyeball, straight into her evil brain.

“I’m trying very hard to be polite to you,” I said tightly. “Really, I am. But I’m sure you must understand why that’s going to be a challenge for me.”

She studied me for a moment, a glass of wine poised in her perfectly manicured hand. “Jericho tells me that you know everything.”

“I know enough,” I bit out. Then I chose to ignore her and focus on the Blackheart for a moment while I gathered my poise and control again. “Where have you been for the last five days?” I asked him bluntly.

Jericho blinked, his jaw tense. “There was something I needed to take care of.”


His black eyes flicked to mine, a silent warning in their depths. “Something.”

“I needed Jericho to retrieve this for me,” Valery said as she reached into her handbag to pull out an object, which she placed on the table. It was a small golden box covered in geometric etchings.

My breath caught at the sight of it, and my confused gaze shot to Jericho.

“You may explain,” Valery said to him with a casual wave of her hand.

Something tight in his expression eased just a little as the Blackheart nodded. “Val wanted me to pay a quick visit to Tobin to get the memory box back. She’d heard through the grapevine that he was planning on selling it. He’d already put feelers out to see how much it was worth on the black market. I got there just in time to retrieve it.”

“I thought you said it didn’t matter,” I said, my throat painfully tight. “That the memory magic could be contained inside any object.”

“I was wrong,” he replied.

I glared at him. “You were wrong?”

He shrugged. “It happens occasionally. Apparently, the symbols on the box are specific to this piece of contained magic in particular. Live and learn.”

I realized then that the black leather coat Jericho currently wore was the same one that Tobin, a Queensguard who secretly worked for Valery—­aka a traitor to the Empire—­had forcibly taken from him. The box had been in his pocket at the time.

“Nice coat,” I said.

“It sure is,” he agreed. “Glad to have it back.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask my next question, but I really wanted to know the answer. “And is Tobin . . . still alive?”

Jericho didn’t speak for a moment. “I’m sure he’s still alive in the hearts of the people who loved him. If those people actually exist, which I highly doubt. But generally speaking? No. Tobin is very dead.”

I didn’t have to ask how Tobin died. I could guess. By Valery’s command. It was how she dealt with difficulties. She’d wanted the memory box stolen from the Queen’s Gala by any means necessary. And now she had it, only three weeks past the original deadline. Missing its valuable and vitally important contents, of course. But she had it.

The witch watched me carefully for my reaction to all of this. Perhaps she expected me to be appalled or squeamish or frightened at the suggestion that Jericho had killed someone on her orders. She would be disappointed.

Tobin had shot Jericho in the chest and then shoved both of us into a walled prison without sparing a moment of concern for either of our fates. And I wouldn’t spare a moment of concern for his.

So, now I had my answer about where Jericho had been for five days. Time to deal with the present and what it meant for my future.

“What did you tell her?” I asked Jericho.

He met my gaze directly, his expression now unreadable apart from a nearly imperceptible tightness along his jawline.

Monday, July 24, 2023

#Review - You Can Die by Rebecca Zanetti #Thrillers / #Suspense

Series: A Laurel Snow Thriller # 3
Format: Mass Market, 368 pages
Release Date: July 25, 2023
Publisher: Zebra
Source: Publisher
Genre: Thrillers / Suspense

Set against the atmospheric snowy backdrop of rural Pacific Northwest, New York Times bestselling author Rebecca Zanetti’s edgy, page-turning thriller will have readers guessing until the very end as rising star FBI profiler Laurel Snow navigates her career as a serial killer hunter with her complicated family life. Now she’s in pursuit of a killer with a chillingly bitter M.O. – one that hits far too close to home…

Men are dying in the Pacific Northwest, their bodies found near churches, charities, and counseling centers—each with valentine candy hearts shoved down their throats. They’re good men with families and community ties—or so they seem until Laurel Snow and her team begin to investigate. Then the case takes a shockingly personal turn when the father she’s never met, a former pastor, turns up among the dead.

Now, besides solving her father’s murder, Laurel is on the hunt to discover the truth of his past. Complicating things is Laurel’s troubled half-sister, Abigail, a brilliant sociopath determined to prove that they’ve both inherited their father’s malignant narcissism.

Assisting Laurel is Washington Fish and Wildlife Captain Huck Rivers, a dangerous loner whose reliance on gut instinct puts him at odds with Laurel’s coolly analytic approach. But the choice may be moot when the killer hones in on Huck’s own dark secrets—putting him and Laurel squarely in the crosshairs.

You Can Die is the Third installment in author Rebecca Zanetti's Laurel Snow Thriller series. The Blacklist meets The Profiler in this edgy, gripping thriller that is set against the atmospheric snowy backdrop of rural Pacific Northwest. FBI profiler and Special Agent Laurel Snow navigates her career as a serial killer hunter with her complicated family life, especially her half sister Abigail, who may or may not be a sociopathic killer. Laurel has recently been given tentative approval to establish the FBI Pacific Northwest Violet Crimes Unit in Genesis Valley.

Laurel has already proved herself in two high profile cases. Now, Laurel and her team must deal with yet another possible serial killer who is leaving a trail of bodies behind. Men are dying in the Pacific Northwest, their bodies found near churches, charities, and counseling centers—each with valentine candy hearts shoved down their throats. They’re good men with families and community ties—or so they seem until Laurel Snow and her team  begin to investigate. Assisting Laurel is Washington Fish and Wildlife Captain Huck Rivers. 

As the bodies pile up, and the list of possible suspects grows, including Laurel and her friend and Co-Worker Kate Vuitton, who was the ex-wife of the first man found murdered. Then the case takes a shockingly personal turn when the father she’s never met, a former pastor name Zeke Caine, turns up among the dead. Now, besides solving her father’s murder, Laurel is on the hunt to discover the truth of his past. Laurel would love to arrest Zeke for what he did to her own mother, but the case against him is decades old. Unless Laurel can find recent victims, Zeke is likely to walk away.

Complicating things is Laurel’s troubled half-sister, Abigail, a brilliant sociopath determined to prove that they’ve both inherited their father’s malignant narcissism. Abigail is by far the most dangerous person in this entire series. She hasn't been caught killing anyone, yet, but the signs and evidence are there that she has had her hands in pushing men with low self esteem to commit unthinkable crimes. Abigail is a brilliant, manipulative sociopath who likes to play mind games with Laurel to test her mettle. 

It’s not one-hundred-percent clear whether Abigail intends to kill Laurel, but it is one-hundred-percent clear that Laurel intends to hold Abigail accountable for her crimes. This is a series that ratchets up the suspense. The series is ideal for fans of shows about gritty underworlds, rural crime, and criminal profiling. The series’ unique blend of these elements will be like catnip for these robust fandoms. The two sisters at the center of the series are like two halves of one whole - one light, and one dark - one in law enforcement, the other a sociopath. This fascinating family dynamic set against a suspenseful crime mystery is sure to entice readers.

Thoughts: I have to say that I am curious as to where the author goes from here. Honestly, I thought this was a trilogy but with the ending, and things that happen to Laurel and Huck, as well as the fact that Abigail is a cyst that needs to be excised, there must be a fourth installment! 

Friday, July 21, 2023

#Review - Thick as Thieves by M.J. Kuhn #Fantasy

Series: Tales of Thamorr # 2
Format: Paperback, 384 pages
Release Date:  July 25, 2023
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Source: Publisher
Genre: Fantasy / Epic

M. J. Kuhn returns to the gritty world of heists, magic, and deception in this high-stakes fantasy follow-up to internationally bestselling Among Thieves perfect for fans of Leigh Bardugo and V.E. Schwab.

Ryia Cautella, a.k.a. the Butcher of Carrowwick, and her motley crew have succeeded in the ultimate heist...with the most dire possible consequences. A terrifyingly powerful tool has fallen into the hands of Callum Clem, the criminal leader of the Saints, who was already one of the most dangerous men alive. With the newfound ability to force magic-wielding Adepts to his will, he is unstoppable.

With their group scattered throughout the five kingdoms of Thamorr—and not all on the same side of the fight—things seem hopeless. But can Ryia get the gang back together for one last job? Or will chess-worthy power plays and shifting loyalties change Thamorr as they know it? 

Thick as Thieves is the installment in author M.J. Kuhn's Tales of Thamorr series. The author takes a very interesting approach with the storyline as she weaves the plot through multiple POVs, each taking on their own chapters, and giving you their perspectives of the happenings throughout all of the trials. Ryia Cautella aka Butcher of Carrowwick spent 6 years running and hiding from the dangerous Guildmaster after what her father forced her to go through in his diabolical experiment. 

Ryia and her crew did the unthinkable by invading the powerful Gildmaster's Island and stealing the fabled Quill that is said to have power over the Adepts. Adepts are humans born with supernatural powers, but taken from their parents before their first birthday. Evelyn, the disgrace Captain of the Needle Guard, has found herself falling for the diabolical Ryia who seems to be carrying more secrets than she is willing to tell. Secrets what will be exposed after she's captured trying to rescue none other than the betrayer himself, Tristan Beckett aka Prince Dennison Shadowwood.

The one good thing that comes from Ryia's capture, and subsequent escape, is that we meet a new character named Joslyn who looks eerily similiar to Nash. Joslyn is also a powerful pirate who gets under Ryia's skin, and forces her to accept that what her father did to her, was perhaps the best thing to happen to her since it makes her more of a scary badass which can stand up to Callum and the Guildmaster. Meanwhile, Nash, and Ivan chose to hitch their fates to Callum Clem who actually ended up with the Quill (a magic item that lets its owner control the Adepts) after Tristan's betrayal and double betrayal by Clem of another character. 

Ivan, it should be told, has his own reasons for following Clem, which I won't spoil. But I will say that Ivan's motivations are from the heart, and anyone else would have walked the same path to help rescue someone who was left behind in a devilish prison where nobody ever escapes. I will say this to avoid the questions, this is very much a character driven story, and the world building takes a back seat for most of the story. I think that is okay in this instance because the key characters plus Clem, and Joslyn give the story an even deeper depth to it.

The ending is a bit on the curious side. In all honesty, it seems like a duology, but there could be more to come if the author wanted to focus on other characters in this book. Also, I am not a fan of intentionally doing bad things to primary characters for the sake of entertaining the audience. Especially after said characters just reunited with family members they have either never seen, or lost and though they would never find them again. That's just rude.   

Chapter one RYIA
“Are you sure this is a good idea★” Evelyn Linley, ex-captain of Dresdell’s Needle Guard, waded through the puddles in Ryia’s wake, swiping a rain-soaked red curl out of her face.

“Of course I’m sure. When have I ever had a bad idea★” Ryia answered, holding a hand to stop Evelyn from looping around the next corner. She gave a sniff, checking for the telltale stench of danger. Her Adept senses detected nothing beyond the normal unpleasant smells that always clung to places like this, where too many humans lived crammed together in too little space.

Ryia smirked at Evelyn’s silence as she waved them both forward. “See★ You can’t think of a single time.”

“No,” Evelyn said, pushing her hair back once more. It was in her face again within seconds. “The problem is that there are too many bloody examples to choose from….”

“Ha-ha,” Ryia said, voice dripping with sarcasm.

The fact was it didn’t really matter if their current plan was a good idea, and they both knew it. It was the only idea they had.

A fork of lightning split the night, throwing the wood-shingled roofs of houses, shops, and inns into sharp relief against the rain-blurred sky. Ryia’s lip curled. Edale. Land of mud, soot, and shitty memories. For ten long years she had avoided the kingdom at all costs. Now she was back—though not for long, if she had her way about it.

She and Evelyn had arrived in the stinking city of Duskhaven three days ago. Like her most recent home of Carrowwick, the Edalish capital was a tangled mess of close-knit houses crowding the edge of a river, but there were some key differences. For one, Duskhaven was about ten times the size of Carrowwick, with the filth and stench to match. And the people here were colder and harder than the Dresdellans—the lifeblood of Edale ran with coal and steel instead of Dresdell’s delicate lace, and it showed. All in all, Duskhaven was a bleak, disgusting pit of a city, filled with dour bastards and sallow-faced wenches.

After weeks of hard travel on the roads of Dresdell and Edale, sleeping on the wet ground and eating gathered mushrooms and stolen bread, they had been rewarded with a pair of cots in the foulest city of all Thamorr. All in all, it was an awful lot of trouble to go through to rescue the son of a bitch who had betrayed and abandoned Ryia in the lair of her lifelong enemy.

Tristan Beckett had only been in Carrowwick about six months by the time they had traveled to the Guildmaster’s island together, but in those six months, he had become the closest thing to a friend she’d had in the city. Which made the betrayal sting even more.

Bafflingly, he had turned out to be Prince Dennison Shadowwood, heir to the throne of Edale. In the end, he had only betrayed her to stay out of his father’s clutches, a motivation she was uniquely positioned to understand, given her own bastard of a father. Tristan—Dennison—had also saved her life in the Catacombs, stopping the Kinetic pit fighter who had been hell-bent on tearing her throat open. Saving her skin had put him back in his father’s grasp again. So she had come to Edale to return the favor. An eye for an eye, as it was. Or in this case, a harebrained rescue mission for a harebrained rescue mission.

Shit, she was getting soft these days.

On their first night in the city, she and Evelyn had learned where the prince was being kept. A drunken guard who had stared at Evelyn a bit too long for Ryia’s liking had been more than happy to let the information slip, especially since it didn’t seem too secretive or scandalous.

Prince Dennison was in his old quarters—a sprawling set of rooms located in the western tower of the keep. The stories all said the Shadow Keep was impregnable, but that seemed like one hell of an exaggeration to Ryia. Sure, it was situated on an island, surrounded by deep, murky water on all sides, and its walls were made of tall, solid blocks of shining obsidian. But Ryia was never one to shy away from a challenge.

The trouble would be getting Tristan—Dennison—back out.

Unless he had grown a pair of wings or gained some serious coordination since she had last seen him, there was no way he was going to be able to leap from his tower to the ramparts or climb down the outer wall from there or swim the width of the entire moat without attracting the attention of the guards patrolling either side. They had to find a way to get him out through the castle. Somehow Ryia doubted they were going to be able to saunter out the front gate.

Which brought them to their current predicament.

“You really think we can trust this… this skiver★” Evelyn asked.

“I think if you keep using words like ‘skiver,’ no one is ever going to buy that you’re from Edale,” Ryia said, chuckling at the Dresdellan slang. “But no. I don’t trust anyone; you know that.”

“Not even me★” Evelyn asked.

“Especially not you, you skiver,” Ryia shot back, avoiding the question. The truth was she trusted the ex-captain from Dresdell a hell of a lot more than she was willing to admit. After all, she had helped Ryia escape the Guildmaster. And Carrowwick. And helped her destroy the fabled Quill—the secret relic that gave the Guildmaster of Thamorr the ability to control all the branded Adept of the world. She was starting to rely on Evelyn quite a bit, actually. Not that she’d ever say so out loud.

“Well, if you’re not planning on trusting Mr. Berman, why exactly are we out in this ruddy downpour★”

“Because we can’t get Tristan out without a boat. Berman has a boat. So we’re going to go… have a chat with him.”

After two days of scouring every inch of the stinking hellhole that was Duskhaven, Ryia had found a way to get Tristan—Dennison—out of the castle. And actually, “stinking hellhole” was a pretty good description of the exit she’d found.

The royals of Thamorr didn’t shit in pails like the common folks of the kingdoms. They preferred to send their waste down an elaborate system of chutes and tubes that wound through the walls and cellars of their castles before leading outside. Through eavesdropping on some servants in a tavern called the Jackal’s Mug, Ryia had learned the sewer in the Shadow Keep ran underneath the wine cellar. Observation proved that the mouth of the sewer was positioned along the southeastern wall of the castle. With a little luck, a boat, and the right cover, it should be possible to get in and out without anyone being any the wiser. Another bolt of lightning crackled through the sky. They certainly had the “cover” bit down. The guards would have trouble seeing the ends of their own noses in this mess. Now they just needed the other two pieces of the puzzle.

Ryia threw a hand out, halting Evelyn in the shadow of a tavern just beside the moat surrounding the castle. A pair of City Watch stomped by, rain pinging off their armor as they went. Strains of string music floated out from the tavern, a dark and powerful ballad of some sort.

Felice, even the music in Edale was dull.

“And once we get Mr. Berman’s boat,” Evelyn said, eyeing the City Watch as they disappeared around the next corner, “what do you suggest we do with Mr. Berman himself★”

Just a few months ago, Ryia would have said, Easy, we slit his throat and throw him in the water. But, for better or for worse, Evelyn’s noble bullshit was rubbing off on her. “I already paid him,” she said.

Evelyn raised one eyebrow. “And you’re naive enough to think a few silvers is going to stop him from reporting a break-in to the castle guard★”

“You really think the man cares about his job that much★”

“No,” Evelyn answered, “but if he cares about lining his pockets as much as I assume he does, he’ll be very interested in collecting the coppers he’d get as a reward for turning in a pair of criminals breaking into the keep.”

Ryia shrugged. “Then we’ll ask him nicely to stay where he is and keep his mouth shut.” She pulled a length of frayed rope from her cloak pocket, holding it up in the light of the storm. “By tying him up with this.”

Before Evelyn could argue, Ryia darted out from the cover of the overhang. The sounds of rattling dice and murmured voices faded away as they splashed through the puddles, running for the lopsided hut that stood just beside the heavily guarded crest gate separating the Rowan River from the moat. The hut looked like a candle that had half melted on a hot day, the crumbled mortar barely holding the stones together as they tried desperately to collapse onto the mucky ground below. A tiny rowboat sat tethered to the side of the hut with a thick chain and a thicker lock, tossing and rocking in the wind as the storm raged on.

By the time they reached the door, Evelyn’s cloak was more brown than it was black, splattered with thick, dark mud all the way from the hem flapping at her boots to the seams underneath her arms. She thrust both hands down, sending a wave of mud and rainwater splashing onto Berman’s front stoop with a “yuck.” She looked at Ryia through narrowed eyes. “Can’t you do something about this★” she asked, waving a hand vaguely toward the sky.

“What, stop the rain★” Ryia asked, incredulous. “I’m sorry—I didn’t realize I was one of the twin goddesses.”

“Not stop it,” Evelyn griped, wringing out the hood of her cloak. “Just keep it off our bloody heads.” She wiggled her fingers in the air. “You know, with your special… skills★”

She was referring to Ryia’s Kinetic magic. Ryia snorted. “Yeah, sorry, you didn’t partner with a true-blood Adept. You’ve only got a cheap imitation on your team.” She tapped the hatchets slung over her shoulders, then ran her fingers over the throwing axes on her belt. “These are the only things my particular skills have ever had any control over.”

Her father’s axes. The very same weapons that had cut the throats of a hundred Adept or more. Bled them dry so the sick bastard could funnel the sickly red liquid down Ryia’s throat. The weapons that had made her were the only thing her telekinetic magic would ever lock onto. The objects she would have liked to have never seen again after escaping from her father’s mansion were the only constant in her life since leaving that burning hellhole behind. If that wasn’t one of the goddesses’ sick jokes, Ryia didn’t know what was.

When it seemed that Evelyn was finally satisfied with the dryness of her hood, Ryia lifted a gloved hand to the door, giving it a resounding knock. The thunder rumbled. The rain poured. The music in the tavern across the way fell into a new, equally depressing-sounding tune. No one answered. Ryia knocked again. Still there was no response.

“Are you sure this is the right hut★”

Ryia rolled her eyes. “No, you’re right, this is the house of the other poor sod whose job is to unclog the pipeways and scrub the shit off the windows.”

She knocked again. She had come across Berman earlier that day, balancing haphazardly on his rowboat as he scrubbed at the lower windows of the keep with a rag tied to a stick. When he’d come back to his house, he had found Ryia lounging on his front stoop, waiting for him. For five silver halves, he had agreed to let her borrow his boat that night, and for another five, he had agreed to keep his filthy, crooked-toothed mouth shut about it. The money didn’t matter to Ryia—she had pickpocketed it all anyway.

After another knock returned only silence from inside, she lost her patience and shouldered the door open. Even without her stolen Kinetic strength, it would have been easy enough to break in. That door frame had been held together by mold and prayers to Felice, goddess of luck.

“Whuzzat!” came a disoriented reply from inside.

Berman was on his feet, but it was clear from his red-rimmed eyes—not to mention the smell of the room—that until a few seconds ago, he had been in a drunken stupor on the moldering couch beside the cold, empty fireplace. Ryia felt the weight of the rope in her pocket. This would be even easier than she had anticipated.

“Ah, Berman, good to see you’re ready for me,” she said, pulling her gloves from her hands one finger at a time.

“Close the twice-damned door, would you★” he said, lunging forward and shutting it himself. With the latch broken, it just swung right back open. “Lettin’ in more water than the bloody Rowan, you are.”

“Sorry,” Evelyn said, reaching forward to help him jam the door shut with the lone chair beside the tiny dining table. Polite as ever, she was, even when breaking into a man’s home in the middle of the night.

“What’d you break down my fuckin’ door for★” he asked, wiping his eyes like he was trying to rub the drunkenness away. It didn’t work.

“We made a deal, Berman.” Ryia leaned against the wall, pulling her cloak aside to reveal the belt of throwing axes at her hip. She then held out one hand, palm up. “I wouldn’t go back on it if I were you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Berman muttered, patting his trouser pockets, then the pocket of his sweat-stained shirt, before finally unearthing a small silver key. “You better bring ’er back in one piece, or you’ll owe me a hell of a lot more than ten silvers.”

“And I’d request that you keep to yourself and your ale tonight,” Evelyn said, stalking toward him. “If you get my drift.”

“If I… who in the hells are you, anyways★” Berman asked, bleary eyes focusing on her for the first time.

“The key, Berman,” Ryia prompted. “We haven’t got all night.”

“All right, all right.” He went to put the key in her hand, then drew back at the last second. “Don’t get yourselves caught out there, neither. There’s more than City Watch up on those walls at night.”

He meant Adept, of course: Kinetics and Sensers, brainwashed and trapped in service to the king of Edale. The castle was bound to be crawling with them.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now, the key.”

Ryia scowled as she snatched the key from Berman’s grip. For the first few days after she and Evelyn had destroyed the Quill and fled Carrowwick, she had been waiting to hear the news that the whole damned world was burning. That the Adept servants had all rebelled against their masters, risen up, run away, something. But there had been nothing. When she and Evelyn had stopped in the city of Taravan to pick up a pair of horses, she had finally seen why.

The Adept were no different from the way they’d been before Ryia and Evelyn had stolen Declan Day’s ancient device from the Guildmaster. They still plodded behind their masters, dead-eyed as corpses, obedient as hunting hounds.

Ryia didn’t know exactly what she had been expecting, of course. She’d known from the start that the cursed Quill could sense all the Adept in the world, could hunt them down in any corner of Thamorr. After watching Tristan—Dennison—use the Quill to take control of the Adept fighter back in the pits of the Catacombs, Ryia had thought the relic was the key to their obedience, too… but evidently not. No, it seemed that the Adept were bound to service by their masters’ brands. And if that were true, then the only way to free the poor saps who were already branded would be to go back in time.

At least the Adept serving now were the last ones who ever would, now that the Quill was gone. She had smashed it to bits herself up on top of the wall in Carrowwick. Had watched the pieces float away down the Arden River and out to the Yawning Sea. But still. The branded Adept would continue to serve their masters until the day they died, apparently. Thousands, alive, but trapped forever in their invisible shackles. It made everything they had done seem far too small.

Evelyn was watching her carefully. They’d had enough conversations about this since Taravan that she knew the ex-captain could tell exactly what she was thinking about right now. Evelyn’s hand brushed hers, and Ryia flinched away instinctively.

All right. Enough screwing around. She reached for her pocket, pulling out the length of rope.

“What’s this all about★” Berman asked, drawing back.

Ryia charged forward, pushing the man down into the chair, wedging the door shut. In three deft motions, she wound the rope around him and the back of the chair and knotted it tightly. He would be able to break free eventually, but definitely no time soon, and definitely not in his current state.

Leaving Berman shouting obscenities in their wake, she and Evelyn slipped out the back door to the tiny inlet where the boat was tethered.

The rain continued sloshing down from the sky in buckets, plastering Ryia’s hair to her scalp. It was still short, barely reaching the tips of her ears. Ivan had shaved her head so she could pose as a Kinetic pit fighter back in Carrowwick just under a month ago. It had been so damned convenient that for a moment, Ryia had considered keeping her hair that way. Then she had learned the branded Adept still weren’t free. The shaved head had felt like a pair of shackles from that point on.

Still, watching Evelyn wrestle her own long curls back behind her shoulders as she leaned over to unchain the rowboat, Ryia had to admit she was glad to have it shorn as close as it was.

Lightning crackled across the sky, and in the white flash Ryia saw it. The Shadow Keep. The Edalish castle was situated on a hard, rocky island about the size of most of the towns they had ridden past on their road north. The water surrounding it, now sloshing around their boots, was a stagnant and murky brown.

The keep was framed by thick stone walls, each corner marked with a tall tower studded with arrow slits. A single gate stood on the northern wall, but at the moment it opened to a stretch of disgusting water. The bridge rested alongside the wall for now, but Ryia had seen it in motion. Its mechanics were powered by magic, taking a team of Kinetics to raise and lower it over the moat. Another reason it was a shame destroying the Quill hadn’t instantly freed every branded Adept in the world. She would have liked to see Tolliver Shadowwood swimming through that thick, shit-filled water to get back to his castle….

In the center of the walls stood the keep itself, a tall structure built of stone so dark it almost looked black. It towered over the walls, jutting so high into the sky it almost blocked the twice-damned moon. Four turrets stood from its hard, angled roof. Evelyn eyed the western tower nervously through the sheets of rain pouring from the clouds.

“Are you sure about this★” she asked. “There’s bound to be a ton of guards up there. Or worse.”

After all, only Evelyn would be taking the boat tonight. Ryia would enter the castle by a different path—one where she was less likely to leave a trail of disgusting stains as she led Tristan—Dennison—back out.

Ryia snorted. “Have you really forgotten how impressive I am★” She had gotten through tighter spots than this before. She would break in and get the king’s brat down into those sewers to meet Evelyn before Tolliver Shadowwood and his men ever knew she was there.

For a long second, Evelyn didn’t respond. Ryia stared determinedly at the Shadow Keep as she felt the ex-captain’s eyes on her. “See you on the other side,” Evelyn finally said.

“Enjoy the shit tunnel.”

“Fuck off.”

Ryia grinned, turning to watch Evelyn hop into the boat and row toward the castle walls. If this went sideways, the sight of the former captain disappearing behind the curtains of heavy rain might be the last she ever saw of her. The grin slid off Ryia’s face. She kept one eye on the Shadow Keep as she looped around to the western edge of the moat.

“This had better be worth it, Tristan,” she muttered, staring up at the western tower, ringed in the shadows of a fresh lightning flash.

With that, she took a deep breath and dove into the filthy water of the Duskhaven moat.