ARC Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

Title: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
Author: Julie C. Dao
Series: Rise of the Empress, #1
Pages: 384
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: October 10th 2017

      “An East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl’s quest to become Empress–and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny.
      Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high?
      Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins–sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute.

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Julie C. Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns delights with its dark imagery and compelling protagonist. Raised under the watchful eye of her stringent aunt, Xifeng has been raised to believe she is destined for more than her humble roots. Fate has foretold that one day she will become the Empress of Feng Lu and Xifeng will do whatever it takes to make this come true. When an opportunity to go to the Imperial City presents itself, Xifeng takes hold of it. But her lofty ambitions may cost her the only bright spot she’s had in her life. Inside the Imperial Palace, Xifeng discovers that she isn’t the only one who seeks to be Empress. She finds herself in the midst of a power struggle and the new target of one who will also do anything to take her place next to the Emperor of Feng Lu.

Xifeng is one of the most complex and interesting protagonists I’ve come across. Her beauty has set her apart since her birth. She’s used to being flattered, being on the receiving end of lingering looks, but also being resented by those who can only dream of being so beautiful. Her aunt Guma has fed into her vanity, teaching her that her beauty can be used as a weapon to get what she wants. Her lessons have taught Xifeng to tie her self-worth to her beauty and throughout the novel, we see the lengths she will go to to keep it. At the beginning of the novel, Xigeng is equally eager yet afraid to embrace her destiny. There is a darkness inside her that she has kept hidden, but with each passing day, the evil inside her grows stronger, calling her to take what rightfully belongs to her.

For years, Xifeng’s only refuge in the world was her childhood sweetheart Wei. She has sought to forget about her aunt’s prediction in his arms, but can’t help but hold herself back from giving him her entire heart. Wei wasn’t a character that I felt particularly strongly about. He often puts Xifeng on a pedestal and she grows frustrated with him for not seeing her for who she really is. Any darkness he sees in her is because of her aunt and not a part of Xifeng herself. I actually found myself leaning toward another love interest for Xifeng. I won’t say who it is for spoiler’s sake. There’s no promise of a happy ending for Xifeng in this series and there very likely won’t be, but I still found this newer romantic relationship to be entirely captivating.

Aside from Xifeng, the women in the Imperial Palace are the most compelling characters. The current Empress was not seen fit to rule with her kind heart, but she has other strengths that those around her underestimate. I really enjoyed Empress Lihua’s relationship with Xifeng, as the former desires a daughter and the latter a mother. Lady Sun is another player in this political world that Xifeng must outwit if she has any hope of becoming Empress, but the concubine is both ruthless and powerful. Her personal war with Xifeng will push the protagonist to her limits, but Lady Sun has no idea the dark power lurking underneath Xifeng.

Though Forest of a Thousand Lanterns starts off a little slow, it isn’t long before I was wholly absorbed into Dao’s world. Xifeng’s descent and transformation into villainess is a strangely satisfying journey that has me desperate for more.

4/5

★★★★

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ARC Review: Odd & True by Cat Winters

Title: Odd & True
Author: Cat Winters
Series: N/A
Pages: 368
Publisher: Amulet Books
Release Date: September 12th 2017
**I received a copy of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review**

      “Trudchen grew up hearing Odette’s stories of their monster-slaying mother and a magician’s curse. But now that Tru’s older, she’s starting to wonder if her older sister’s tales were just comforting lies, especially because there’s nothing fantastic about her own life—permanently disabled and in constant pain from childhood polio.
      In 1909, after a two-year absence, Od reappears with a suitcase supposedly full of weapons and a promise to rescue Tru from the monsters on their way to attack her. But it’s Od who seems haunted by something. And when the sisters’ search for their mother leads them to a face-off with the Leeds Devil, a nightmarish beast that’s wreaking havoc in the Mid-Atlantic states, Tru discovers the peculiar possibility that she and her sister—despite their dark pasts and ordinary appearances—might, indeed, have magic after all.

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Cat Winters’s novels are some of the best, but underappreciated historical fiction I’ve ever read. Od and Tru grew up with stories about their mother and her siblings’ bravery. They grew up believing in the paranormal, that monsters exist and it was their family’s responsibility to protect the world from them. But life has taken many things from both Od and Tru. Their father disappeared when they were young and their mother hasn’t been in their life. Even their beloved Uncle Magnus hasn’t been seen for years. After being sent away, Od shows up at her sister’s window, begging her to come away with her and to accept their family’s legacy. But Tru no longer believes in monsters. Still, her love for his sister Odette will take them far from the safe haven of their aunt’s house and into a dangerous, unknown world. Using dual perspectives and shifting timelines, Cat Winters crafts a tale of two sisters whose lives are full of loss, but also perseverance.

At the heart of this story are two sisters who hold very different views of the world. As the oldest, Odette has always felt that she needed to protect her younger sister. Her stories of monsters and the heroes that slay them have been the only way in which she has been able to help shield her sister from the realities of life. What goes unsaid is that Odette is also in need of these stories. Being older has exposed her to the flaws of the adults in her life and it’s been easier to embrace a story about these people than to accept who they really are. Unlike her sister, Tru no longer holds fast to these myths. Ever since her sister was forced to leave her aunt’s home, Tru has grown up to resent these tall tales and the letters from her sister that speak of harrowing travels. While life with her Aunt Viktoria has been stifling, Tru isn’t sure she’s brave enough to step outside into the great unknown. Though she’s suspended any belief in the paranormal, she’s taken to reading tea leaves in secret because a part of her still wants to believe in her sister’s stories.

Odd & True takes its time separating fact from fiction as the girls embark on a hunt for Leeds Devil which has been terrorizing the people of New Jersey. From the cover and synopsis, I expected an action-packed novel about monster hunting, but instead was treated to a slow-paced narrative about a flawed family, two sisters who survive despite injustices done to them, and the power of a story to weave magic if only one takes a leap of faith and believes.

4/5

★★★★

ARC Review: Black Bird of the Gallows by Meg Kassel

Title: Black Bird of the Gallows
Author: Meg Kassel
Series: N/A
Pages: 300
Publisher: Entangled Publishing
Release Date: September 5th 2017
*I received a copy of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review*

      “A simple but forgotten truth: Where harbingers of death appear, the morgues will soon be full.
      Angie Dovage can tell there’s more to Reece Fernandez than just the tall, brooding athlete who has her classmates swooning, but she can’t imagine his presence signals a tragedy that will devastate her small town. When something supernatural tries to attack her, Angie is thrown into a battle between good and evil she never saw coming. Right in the center of it is Reece—and he’s not human.
      What’s more, she knows something most don’t. That the secrets her town holds could kill them all. But that’s only half as dangerous as falling in love with a harbinger of death.

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Meg Kassel’s Black Bird of the Gallows is your average, run-of-the-mill fantasy novel with a predictable plot and lackluster characters. Angie Dovage’s life takes a turn when Reece Fernandez moves in next door. Almost immediately, strange occurrences begin to happen. The closer Angie gets to Reece, the more she begins to realize that these strange events are tied to her new neighbors. As a harbinger of death, Reece can sense when death is near and he’s come to Angie’s town because disaster is imminent. But there are even darker players who have descended upon Cadence with their own nefarious plans and Angie is about to be caught in the middle.

When it comes to fantasy novels and especially ones that showcase a romance, I always feel that it’s better for an author to establish the world and protagonist first before introducing a love interest. This was not the case with Black Bird of the Gallows and it was difficult from the first page to care about Angie and Reece as a potential couple when there was no time to grow to like them as individuals. While I wouldn’t necessarily class this as an insta-love story, Angie is taken quite suddenly with Reece that I almost put down the novel. In one conversation, specifically with one look, Angie already thinks she can understand him on a “deep level.” She notes a couple of lines later that it was a six minute conversation. If there relationship had progressed rapidly from this point, I wouldn’t have been surprised. The story saves itself somewhat by allowing these two characters to be in each other’s presence for a more appropriate amount of time before a relationship between them begins.

Harbingers of death are really interesting entities in this world as they don’t cause calamities themselves, but they feed off the energy of the dead. There was apt opportunity to explore these creatures more in the novel, but readers are limited to only learning about Reece at length. Because of this, I never felt like the world-building was fully realized. The Beekeepers are another nonhuman creature in Cadence, one more diabolical than harbingers of death. Using a bee sting to infect humans, Beekeepers cause chaos by driving those stung into doing horrendous things. What bothered me the most about the Beekeepers is the fact that the story seemed to rely on them only preying on the “mentally unstable.” The text does not make it clear if this is in reference to those with mental health problems or just those who have problems controlling their anger. Either way I found it be a really unsettling premise, especially when later the Beekeepers proclaim that they don’t like to sting strong people.

Black Bird of the Gallows fails to really delve deep into its characters, its relationships lacked the kind of emotional depth that would allow me to feel invested, and the world-building felt too small when it came to its imaginary creatures.

2/5

★★

ARC Review: The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

Title: The Bone Witch
Author: Rin Chupeco
Series: The Bone Witch,, #1
Pages: 400
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Release Date: March 7th 2017
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher, which does not influence my review*

      “Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living—and of the human.
      Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong—stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland…and threaten the very survival of those she loves.

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Rin Chupeco’s The Bone Witch is a unique story of one girl’s rise through the ranking of the asha, a order of women whose responsibilities range from entertainment to battling daeva, the deadly creatures set loose by the False Prince. The story shifts between past and present storylines, as we’re given a glimpse of who Tea will become and what made her into an asha in exile. When Tea is far too young to understand her own power, she accidentally resurrects her brother. This show of power does not go unnoticed and Tea is given the opportunity to learn under the tutelage of the bone witch Lady Mykaela. But bone witches are not as highly revered as other kinds of asha. Many fear them as their power more closely resembles that of the Faceless, those who serve the False Prince. Tea learns that becoming an asha will not be easy, but she may not have a choice when those battling daeva are failing and she may be the only one who can stop them.

Chupeco’s world is well-developed and often times lush. As Tea learns what it means to be an asha, so we learn alongside her. While I enjoyed the various aspects of the asha life, there were times when this really slowed down the narrative and I got impatient for something to happen. One part of being an asha that was really intriguing was the importance of one’s attire. The wardrobe of an asha is unique and significant to her. Chupeco’s writing shines the most when she is describing these traditional ensembles. I found it really unique that each person had a heartglass that they wore around their necks that they could exchange with the person they loved as a sign of commitment. With the right kind of skill, you could learn to discern a person’s feelings from the color of their heartglass.

Readers are given two simultaneous portraits of Tea. Her younger self is bright-eyed and untested. She is only beginning to understand the power she yields and to many, she is an easy target. She is infatuated with Prince Kance as he is kind to Tea in a way that not many are. The most important figure in her life is her older brother Fox. He is forever tied to her because how she brought him back to life. Only a few years older, the exiled Tea we are introduced to is wise beyond her years. She yields her magic in a controlled and graceful fashion. She also holds close the loss of people dear her, one who died for her and another that chose to turn away from her. I’m really interested in learning more about this older Tea and what transpires in the couple of years between the close of this first installment and the future Tea.

You probably won’t read another book like Rin Chupeco’s The Bone Witch. Her world is both dark and enchanting. Chupeco pays particular attention to detail in a way that many other fantasy books don’t. I’m looking forward to finding out more about Tea’s journey and transformation, and I’m also hoping we get to explore her abilities more.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

ARC Review: Gilded Cage by Vic James

Title: Gilded Cage
Author: Vic James
Series: Dark Gifts, #1
Pages: 368
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Release Date: February 14th 2017
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher, which does not influence my review*

      “Our world belongs to the Equals — aristocrats with magical gifts — and all commoners must serve them for ten years. But behind the gates of England’s grandest estate lies a power that could break the world.
      A girl thirsts for love and knowledge.
      Abi is a servant to England’s most powerful family, but her spirit is free. So when she falls for one of the noble-born sons, Abi faces a terrible choice. Uncovering the family’s secrets might win her liberty, but will her heart pay the price?
      A boy dreams of revolution.
      Abi’s brother, Luke, is enslaved in a brutal factory town. Far from his family and cruelly oppressed, he makes friends whose ideals could cost him everything. Now Luke has discovered there may be a power even greater than magic: revolution.
      And an aristocrat will remake the world with his dark gifts.
      He is a shadow in the glittering world of the Equals, with mysterious powers no one else understands. But will he liberate—or destroy?

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Gilded Cage by Vic James has a unique premise, but never quite held my attention. It’s always disconcerting to go into a book thinking one thing and finding out it’s entirely something else. From the synopsis, I got the impression this was a historical fantasy; however, the novel is more in the vein of dystopian fantasy. In a world divided between those with unique Skills and those without, the Equals wield power through unconscionable means. Each citizen is required to fulfill ten years of slavery, most in the dilapidated slavetowns. When Abi arranges for her family to serve the Jardines, one of the most powerful Equal families, she hopes the decade passes quickly without incident. But her plans immediately go awry when her younger brother, Luke, is torn from his family and forced to work at the slavetown of Millmoor. Both will discover that Equals are far more dangerous than anyone imagined and there may be no stopping them.

Abi is a character that deserved a better storyline. She’s a hopeless romantic, but she’s smart and keeping her family safe is of utmost importance to her. Unfortunately, much of Abi’s story centers on her attraction to one of the Jardine sons. She spends most of her time inquiring about her brother or swooning over Jenner. Jenner was the least complex of the three Jardine brothers. None of the chapters are told through his perspective and he only shows up in order for Abi to silently wish he felt the same way about her. Abi’s crush is hard in itself to understand. The Equals are not known for their generosity and for whatever reason, Abi seems to forget that Jenner is part of the family that has enslaved hers. They literally treat a man like a dog, though Abi never struggles to reconcile Jenner’s supposed goodness with the acts of his family. There’s never a moment where he needs to prove himself to her as she’s all too ready to admire him based on the fact that he’s nicer than his brothers (which isn’t a hard thing to be).

Luke had the far more interesting storyline when he ends up working in harsh conditions, but finds light when he meets a group of commoners who aren’t ready to give up total control to the Equals. There’s a strong sense of community among them as they look after and provide for one another when those in charge see them as less than human. Their plans begin to expand as they get word that there is a possibility of the slavedays ending for good. Luke learns a lot through his time at Millmoor, but I did begin to wonder why neither he nor Abi had any real understanding of what went on in the slavetowns if everyone in the population, save for the Equals, was required to serve. Luke is just beginning to find his place in this group when he’s suddenly pulled right out of it. His arc comes to a chaotic close at the end of the novel that left me wondering if the rebellion really knew what they were doing to begin with.

The most interesting character was the youngest Jardine brother Silyen. He was manipulative and vicious and it was only when he was yielding power that I felt I had a grasp of what having a Skill meant. But even he wasn’t enough to save this novel. The periodic info-dumping didn’t help either, especially as I struggled to get through these chapters in particular. I was also never sure if this was a universe built upon real-world history or a form of alternate history as it never addressed colonialism and slavery, which I imagine would have an impact on how this new form of slavery would be received.

Rating: 2/5

★★

ARC Review: Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

Title: Wintersong
Author: S. Jae-James
Series: N/A
Pages: 448
Publisher: Thomas Dunne
Release Date: February 7th 2017
*I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, which does not influence my review*

      “All her life, nineteen-year-old Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, mysterious Goblin King. He is the Lord of Mischief, the Ruler Underground, and the muse around which her music is composed. Yet, as Liesl helps shoulder the burden of running her family’s inn, her dreams of composition and childish fancies about the Goblin King must be set aside in favor of more practical concerns.
      But when her sister Käthe is taken by the goblins, Liesl journeys to their realm to rescue her sister and return her to the world above. The Goblin King agrees to let Käthe go—for a price. The life of a maiden must be given to the land, in accordance with the old laws. A life for a life, he says. Without sacrifice, nothing good can grow. Without death, there can be no rebirth. In exchange for her sister’s freedom, Liesl offers her hand in marriage to the Goblin King. He accepts.
      Down in the Underground, Liesl discovers that the Goblin King still inspires her—musically, physically, emotionally. Yet even as her talent blossoms, Liesl’s life is slowly fading away, the price she paid for becoming the Goblin King’s bride. As the two of them grow closer, they must learn just what it is they are each willing to sacrifice: her life, her music, or the end of the world.”

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Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones has a gorgeous setting that begs to be explored, but its characters failed to draw me in. Liesl has grown up in a family that doesn’t quite appreciate her. Much of her life revolves around taking care of her younger brother, Josef, and helping him grow into a talented musician. Though Liesl once had her own dreams, she chose to bury them deep in order to help her brother succeed. Her relationship with her sister Käthe is much more rocky. Liesl’s practicality is juxtaposed with Käthe’s easy nature. Liesl is haunted by memories of an otherworldly childhood companion, memories that she is convinced are just a figment of her imagination. When Käthe is taken, Liesl can no longer deny these memories and must enter the Underground and claim her sister before she is lost forever.

Liesl is supposed to be a sympathetic character and for the most part, I did sympathize with her. She had loads of musical talent herself, but was forced to play second fiddle to her brother. Käthe was always looked at as the pretty one, while Liesl has come to accept that she is plain. Unfortunately, Liesl spent far too much time bemoaning these things. She continually put herself down and at every turn, denied her own talent because in her mind it would detract from her brother. What bothered me more was Liesl’s insistence on describing herself as plain. She seemed far too wrapped up in this fact and after a while, I tired of her putting such importance on how she looked. Liesl’s character does shine when it comes to music. A talented composer, Liesl has had little time to devote to her art and it was only when she was embracing this side of her, that I really felt moved by her character.

Liesl’s relationship with the Goblin King is confusing. Der Erlkönig is many things, beautiful and dangerous, one moment he is callous and the next surprisingly shy. Unfortunately, this made me feel like I was reading about two different characters that I was never able to reconcile. These contrasting traits made it even more difficult to feel anything when it came to the romance. Liesl and the Goblin King’s exchanges were at first filled with tension and it kept me reading, but quickly became tedious, especially when the protagonist didn’t quite understand her feelings and never really seemed to question them. We are told these two were friends when they were children, but are given little to no backstory regarding this. I would have liked a couple of flashbacks, just to put their relationship into perspective.

I did appreciate that Liesl finally came into her own and Jae-Jones had such beautiful descriptions when it came to the Goblin King’s world, but in the end I was left wanting more.

Rating: 2/5

★★