Mini-Reviews: Hide and Seeker + The Midnight Bargain

This is my first post trying to use the new block editor for my reviews and I hate it so much. It was so much easier to copy and paste html code from previous posts, but now when I try to do so, the html is just a mess to navigate. Why have you done this to us, WordPress? I need my classic editor back. I can’t even do something as simple as put a border around the synopsis because every time I do, I get an error message. This is the worst, ugh! I am beyond frustrated, but today I am bringing you two mini-reviews of recent reads. Overall, I enjoyed both, but I definitely preferred one over the other.

Title: Hide and Seeker
Author: Daka Hermon
Series: N/A
Pages: 320
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: September 15th 2020

TW: death of a parent

“One of our most iconic childhood games receives a creepy twist as it becomes the gateway to a nightmare world.

I went up the hill, the hill was muddy, stomped my toe and made it bloody, should I wash it?

Justin knows that something is wrong with his best friend. Zee went missing for a year. And when he came back, he was . . . different. Nobody knows what happened to him. At Zee’s welcome home party, Justin and the neighborhood crew play Hide and Seek. But it goes wrong. Very wrong.

One by one, everyone who plays the game disappears, pulled into a world of nightmares come to life. Justin and his friends realize this horrible place is where Zee had been trapped. All they can do now is hide from the Seeker.”

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My tongue skims across my dry lips as my numb fingers release the dead bolts. Click. Click. Click. With a slight push, the door glides open with a loud whine. Cold air whooshes from the room and chills my skin.”

Daka Hermon delivers a gut-punching horror novel with her middle grade debut, Hide and Seeker. Justin knows his life will never be the same after his mother’s passing. With bills piling up and his sister struggling to support them, Justin knows that they are barely getting by. One of his best friends just returned after going missing and what should be a celebratory birthday party for him, ends up being the beginning of another nightmare. After a game of Hide and Seek, Justin’s friends begin disappearing. Justin and those who still remain must piece together what is happening before they too are taken. The antagonist of Hide and Seeker taps into children’s fears, holding them captive by bringing their nightmares to life in a place called Nowhere. Middle grade horror always hits a little differently than YA or adult horror. Maybe it’s because the characters are so young or maybe it’s because their fear feels so much more palatable, but reading the horror these kids go through was intense. Justin makes a great lead character and I enjoyed seeing his arc come full circle. In the beginning of the novel, Justin knows he’s never going to be the same person he was before his mother died. His friends have always relied on him to keep them together, but he is unsure if he can be that person anymore. Justin’s fears are tied to his mother. He is forced to deal with this loss while also trying to survive in this world of fear and keep his friends from losing hope. Daka Hermon’s Hide and Seeker is sure to provide enough thrills and chills to make you reconsider ever playing Hide and Seek again.

★ ★ ★ ★

themidnightbargainTitle: The Midnight Bargain
Author: C.L. Polk
Series: N/A
Pages: 384
Publisher: Erewhon
Release Date: October 13th 2020

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

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

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

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She breathed in magic, shaped it with her need, and charged the circle closed. She was between. Her body felt bigger than it was. Her awareness had expanded to to the skin of her aetheric form, the body that spirits and magicians could see, glowing softly within the circle spun of her mortal life.

C.L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain had all the elements needed to be a sweeping, romantic fantasy but faltered with its protagonist constantly being outshined by a minor character. Beatrice Clayborn is entering her first bargaining season in which she is declared eligible for marriage. But marriage is the furthest thing from her mind. She wants to pursue magic, to become a mage and help her family financially. But in this world women with magical abilities are only prized for their ability to produce male children with magic. When Beatrice meets someone who makes her think marriage may not be the worst fate, she’s torn between two impossibilities. Give up her dream or her only chance at finding someone who understands and respects her for who she is and wants to be. Beatrice is up against a patriarchal society that devalues womanhood. They’ve adopted harmful methods to keep pregnant women safe from evil spirits by collaring married women, cutting them off from their own magical abilities. Only widows and spinsters are allowed to study magic further. Beatrice has very strong opinions that run counter to these ideas and though this should have endeared her to me immediately, I grew frustrated with how passive she was. Though she wanted something different for herself beside marriage, she didn’t seem willing to give up her relationships with the men in her life who were essentially holding her back. This was never more apparent than when Ysbeta entered the picture. Ysbeta, like Beatrice, wishes to expand her knowledge of magic and does not wish to marry. She enlists Beatrice’s help in teaching her magic that has been beyond her reach and is prepared to do anything to take control of her own life. I could not help but wish the novel had cast Ysbeta as its lead on multiple occasions. Ysbeta did not wait for the approval of those around her, but dove head first into her ambitions. I did enjoy the development of Beatrice’s relationship with her younger sister Harriet. The latter does not understand why her older sister is so interested in magic and all its dangers. They have very opposing views but both their fears are valid and no fault of their own but of the misogynist society they have been raised in. The Midnight Bargain provided an interesting exploration of female autonomy in a world where marriage is a type of prison, but failed to hook me with its lead character.

★ ★ ★

Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

Title: Grown
Author: Tiffany D. Jackson
Series: N/A
Pages: 384
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Release Date: September 15th 2020

TW: sexual abuse, rape, assault, child abuse, kidnapping, addiction, grooming, emotional abuse, suicide

      “Korey Fields is dead.
      When Enchanted Jones wakes with blood on her hands and zero memory of the previous night, no one—the police and Korey’s fans included—has more questions than she does. All she really knows is that this isn’t how things are supposed to be. Korey was Enchanted’s ticket to stardom.
      Before there was a dead body, Enchanted was an aspiring singer, struggling with her tight knit family’s recent move to the suburbs while trying to find her place as the lone Black girl in high school. But then legendary R&B artist Korey Fields spots her at an audition. And suddenly her dream of being a professional singer takes flight.
      Enchanted is dazzled by Korey’s luxurious life but soon her dream turns into a nightmare. Behind Korey’s charm and star power hides a dark side, one that wants to control her every move, with rage and consequences. Except now he’s dead and the police are at the door. Who killed Korey Fields?
      All signs point to Enchanted.”

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“Trying to reclaim your life is a lot like drowning. You attempt to stay above water as waves of new information hit you sideways, carrying you further into the unknown. People throw life preservers, but the ropes can only reach so far, and once a riptide catches you by the ankle, all you can do is wonder why you ever thought you’d be OK jumping into the deep end, when you could barely manage the shallows.”

Tiffany D. Jackson delivers another riveting story with Grown, shining a light on predatory relationships and society’s complicity when it comes to disbelieving victims, especially when it comes to Black girls and women. Enchanted Jones is a talented singer, but knows the odds of being discovered aren’t in her favor. That is until Korey Fields, famous singer and heartthrob, takes notice of her at a competition. Drawn into his world, Enchanted can’t quite believe someone like Korey would take an interest in her musically and personally. He might be eleven years older than her, but no one seems to get her quite like he does. But his attention takes a dark turn and soon Enchanted isn’t sure how to escape this relationship. When Korey ends up dead, Enchanted becomes the obvious suspect. Proving her innocence won’t be easy when she had more reason than anyone to want Korey dead and can’t remember exactly what happened the night of his murder.

Grown is not an easy book to read. Told through Enchanted’s perspective, what feels like innocent flirting to this seventeen-year-old feels much more sinister to the reader. Enchanted is quickly enamored with Korey. His attention feels special, he makes her feel heard and in his eyes, she feels beautiful and more mature. He subtly manipulates her, first getting her to trust him and then using this trust as a weapon when she thinks about pulling away. As an adult, Korey already holds a lot of power over Enchanted, but when you couple this with the power he has in the very industry Enchanted is hoping to break into, his influence over her becomes almost unbreakable.

Tension builds as Jackson shifts between past and present timelines. As a reader, you watch as Korey’s attitude toward Enchanted slowly changes. He becomes irrationally possessive, threatening her, and isolating her from her friends and family. Korey’s death is not a surprise, you know it’s going to happen. And as he begins to continually abuse Enchanted, you begin to want it, to hope for it in order for her ordeal to end. But this is not the end for Enchanted. The present timeline begins with Enchanted discovering Korey dead and no memory of how it happened. Afterward Enchanted is further victimized by her peers and adults who slut-shame her behind her back, placing the blame of this relationship on her rather than the adult in the situation. The police are much more interested in building a case against her than hearing her story even when it becomes clear that Korey has a pattern of abusing underage girls. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent just how complicit those around Korey are. People like Korey cannot get away with what they do without the people around them turning a blind eye.

Grown is a gut-punch of a novel that will have the readers holding their breath from its bloody opening scene to the gradual exploitation of its protagonist and the final scenes where the truth of what happened to Korey Fields is finally revealed.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Mini-Reviews: Raybearer + You Should See Me in a Crown

I got a chance to catch up on some 2020 releases by Black authors this Black History Month. Today I am bringing you reviews from two debut authors from 2020. Jordan Ifueko’s Raybearer immediately caught my attention when I saw the cover below. Fantasy is my favorite genre and so I am always on the lookout for diverse fantasy books. Leah Johnson’s You Should See Me in a Crown is also a book that caught my attention because of the cover. I know illustrated covers are the current trend, but I would still like to see more Black models and other people of color on covers.

Title: Raybearer
Author: Jordan Ifueko
Series: Raybearer, #1
Pages: 496
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Release Date: August 18th 2020

TW: domestic homicide, abuse, suicide

      “Nothing is more important than loyalty.
But what if you’ve sworn to protect the one you were born to destroy?
      Tarisai has always longed for the warmth of a family. She was raised in isolation by a mysterious, often absent mother known only as The Lady. The Lady sends her to the capital of the global empire of Aritsar to compete with other children to be chosen as one of the Crown Prince’s Council of 11. If she’s picked, she’ll be joined with the other Council members through the Ray, a bond deeper than blood. That closeness is irresistible to Tarisai, who has always wanted to belong somewhere. But The Lady has other ideas, including a magical wish that Tarisai is compelled to obey: Kill the Crown Prince once she gains his trust. Tarisai won’t stand by and become someone’s pawn—but is she strong enough to choose a different path for herself? With extraordinary world-building and breathtaking prose, Raybearer is the story of loyalty, fate, and the lengths we’re willing to go for the ones we love.”

swirl (2)Jordan Ifueko’s Raybearer is unlike any other fantasy I’ve ever read. From its magical system to its politics, the Arit empire is a fully formed world. Tarisai is a compelling lead character as Ifueko takes readers on a journey from her unconventional childhood to the tribulations she faces coming into her own power. Tarisai was raised for one purpose only, to be her mother’s weapon against those who had wronged her. But even as a child, Tarisai shows a strong sense of right and wrong. She finds herself as a potential future council member of Prince Ekundayo. But caring about the prince could spell his doom as well as her own if her mother has her way. Raybearer explores many different kinds of relationships, but none are more important than the bonds Tarisai forms with her fellow council members. She finds a kindred spirit in the kind Sanjeet, whose own childhood haunts him. Found family plays a significant role in shaping who Tarisai becomes. Council members are bonded by their love for their Raybearer and for each other. Tarisai is not a warrior in the traditional sense, her strength lies in her ability to lead, her desire to see the world become better, and the strong sense of justice that leads her to go against even the most powerful players in the empire. But this doesn’t mean she doesn’t falter. She continuously struggles with her own inner demons, trying to discern between whether she can determine her own future or if her fate has already been decided for her. Raybearer is perfect for those looking to be swept up in a unique fantasy world’s mythology as well as those interested in a character-driven narrative.

★ ★ ★ ★

Title: You Should See Me in a Crown
Author: Roseanne A. Brown
Series: N/A
Pages: 336
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: June 2nd 2020

TW: death of a parent, racism, homophobia, public outing, panic attacks

      “Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it’s okay — Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor.
      But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down . . . until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington.
      The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She’s smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams . . . or make them come true?”

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Liz Lighty’s future is perfectly planned out. She’s going to attend her mother’s alma mater, Pennington, on her way to becoming a hematologist. But everything falls apart when she doesn’t receive the scholarship she needs. Now, in order to salvage her dreams, Liz is doing the unthinkable. She’s running for prom queen. Prom is not just a high school dance in Campbell County, it’s the event of the year. Thrust into the spotlight, Liz must find a way to carve space for herself in a world where her Blackness and queerness set her apart and sometimes makes her feel unwelcome. Liz is an easy character to like. Her dreams for the future are intertwined with the death of her mother and her younger brother’s same sickle-cell diagnosis. She tends to spread herself thin if it means keeping the burden off her loved ones. She isn’t used to having good things come her way easily and so accepting these good things can sometimes be hard. When she meets Mack, a fellow prom queen candidate, her attraction to her throws her off. I loved the easy rapport between these characters. Liz is only out to her family and close friends and knows that starting a relationship with Mack might jeopardize her campaign, but she keeps getting drawn to the gregarious and alluring Mack. Johnson explores a trope that we really don’t see often and that’s the second-chance friendship. Liz ends up reconnecting with her former best friend, Jordan, and even though there is still a lot of past hurt, they fall into step with one another effortlessly. These two get each other in a way that is rare and feels truly special. You Should See Me in a Crown is all about embracing who you, not allowing others to change you, and demanding that people make room for you. Leah Johnson’s debut is infused with charm and is guaranteed to leave you with a big grin on your face.

★ ★ ★ ★

We Free the Stars by Hafsah Faizal

Title: We Free the Stars
Author: Hafsah Faizal
Series: Sands of Arawiya, #2
Pages: 592
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Release Date: January 19th 2021

TW: mentions of physical and emotional abuse by a parent

**Includes spoilers for We Hunt the Flame**

      “The battle on Sharr is over. The dark forest has fallen. Altair may be captive, but Zafira, Nasir, and Kifah are bound for Sultan’s Keep, determined to finish the plan he set in motion: restoring the hearts of the Sisters of Old to the minarets of each caliphate, and finally returning magic to all of Arawiya. But they are low on resources and allies alike, and the kingdom teems with fear of the Lion of the Night’s return.
      As the zumra plots to overthrow the kingdom’s darkest threat, Nasir fights to command the magic in his blood. He must learn to hone his power into a weapon, to wield not only against the Lion but against his father, trapped under the Lion’s control. Zafira battles a very different darkness festering in her through her bond with the Jawarat—a darkness that hums with voices, pushing her to the brink of her sanity and to the edge of a chaos she dare not unleash. In spite of the darkness enclosing ever faster, Nasir and Zafira find themselves falling into a love they can’t stand to lose…but time is running out to achieve their ends, and if order is to be restored, drastic sacrifices will have to be made.
      Lush and striking, hopeful and devastating, We Free the Stars is the masterful conclusion to the Sands of Arawiya duology by New York Times–bestselling author Hafsah Faizal.”

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“He melted into the night, his feet barely touching the ground as he sprinted along the edge. Her heart crammed half a croak into her throat as he leaped at the end, arms spreading, a falcon in flight for the barest of moments before he tumbled onto the next rooftop, silhouetted against the night.”

Hafsah Faizal concludes her duology We Hunt the Flame with We Free the Stars, a chunky sequel with heartstopping action at every turn. At the conclusion of We Free the Stars, Zafira, Huntress of Demenhur, found herself joining forces with unlikely allies to defeat the Lion of the Night and restore magic to Arawiya. But facing off against a foe far more powerful comes at a cost. Forced to leave behind one of their own in order to escape, Zafira, along with Nasir and Kifah race to restore the hearts of Sisters of Old and usher Arawiya into a new era. Meanwhile Altair is held captive by his own father, the Lion of the Night, a revelation that has sent him reeling and which will test the bonds he has formed while on Sharr.

Faizal builds on her universe with this sequel, diving deeper into the world of Arawiya and a story of revenge that’s been brewing for generations. We learn in this sequel that Arawiya’s fate will be shaped by both mortal and immortal beings. The Lion of the Night has dark plans for this world. He is cunning and secretive. The small glimpses we get of his humanity make him an interesting, but still terrifying character. Though restoring magic is Zafira and company’s ultimate goal, we learn just how much magic can be influenced by darkness. The Jawarat, a book that promised a way to restore magic, has its own goals. It has become sentient and has begun to dig its claws into Zafira. It pushes and whispers to her, clouding her judgment.

As much as I love the world building in this duology, it’s the characters who have kept me glued to the pages. Both their personal journeys as well as the shifting dynamics between them. Zafira has gone from hiding who she is to embracing it, but in so doing, she also must confront the darkness inside her, a darkness the Jawarat continues to call to. Nasir was raised by his father to be a cold-blooded killer. He’s done his best to stomp out the empathy his mother once fostered. While on Sharr, he developed an unexpectedly connection to Zafira which made him question his own objectives as his father’s assassin. He also grew closer to Altair, who is later revealed to be his half-brother. The relationships Nasir has forged are changing him and his new purpose pits him against his own father. Zafira and Nasir’s interactions are so delectable. I loved seeing them navigate this connection between them when neither of them are very good at being open with others. Every look they exchanged, every conversation, and every interaction was torturous, but in the best possible way.

Faizal also expands on Altair’s characterization in this sequel. Though he often comes off as frivolous, Altair has been playing the long game, working behind the scenes. I loved seeing a more vulnerable Altair in this one. He’s used his charm to cover up the ways he’s been hurting. He has both loved and hated his brother, resented and craved the attention of his mother. I would have loved to have seen chapters from Kifah’s POV, but still appreciated the bond she forms with the others, Zafira in particular. Kifah’s always wanted to prove her father wrong, but has found another purpose and another family where she least expected it.

We Free the Stars is a daring conclusion to one of the most memorable fantasy series I’ve ever read. I look forward to devouring everything Hafsah Faizal writes and am hoping we might see a spin-off series in the future.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★