The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw

Title: The Wicked Deep
Author: Shea Ernshaw
Series: N/A
Pages: 308
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: March 6th 2018

      “Welcome to the cursed town of Sparrow…
      Where, two centuries ago, three sisters were sentenced to death for witchery. Stones were tied to their ankles and they were drowned in the deep waters surrounding the town.
      Now, for a brief time each summer, the sisters return, stealing the bodies of three weak-hearted girls so that they may seek their revenge, luring boys into the harbor and pulling them under.
      Like many locals, seventeen-year-old Penny Talbot has accepted the fate of the town. But this year, on the eve of the sisters’ return, a boy named Bo Carter arrives; unaware of the danger he has just stumbled into.
      Mistrust and lies spread quickly through the salty, rain-soaked streets. The townspeople turn against one another. Penny and Bo suspect each other of hiding secrets. And death comes swiftly to those who cannot resist the call of the sisters.
      But only Penny sees what others cannot. And she will be forced to choose: save Bo, or save herself.”

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“Once a Swan sister has whispered into your ear, promised the touch of her skin, you can’t resist her. She will lure you into the water then pull you under until the life spills out of you.”

When the town of Sparrow drowned the Swan sisters, convinced they were witches, they set upon themselves a curse that has plagued the small town for two centuries. Penny Talbot hasn’t had a normal life since her father disappeared three summers ago, but in a place like Sparrow, it’s hard for anyone to have a normal life. Each year the Swan sisters return, inhabiting the bodies of young women and lure young men to their deaths. Every year the families of Sparrow are devastated by the loss of their sons, but are powerless to stop it. When Bo, an outsider, wanders into Sparrow with no knowledge of the town curse, Penny befriends him despite the warnings in her head. But soon the sisters begin their killing spree and Penny becomes desperate to keep Bo from danger, but secrets from both their pass threaten not only their new bond, but their lives.

Shea Ernshaw’s The Wicked Deep beguiles with its eerie setting, transporting readers to a place where the town’s transgressions are a tourist attraction to outsiders, but an inescapable curse upon generations of inhabitants. The most interesting part of this book is by far the town itself. Not only its history of executing young women suspected of witchcraft, but how it has both embraced and feared the consequences of its actions. The young people of Sparrow throw parties when the summer solstice rolls around perhaps because most of them don’t quite believe in the curse. But it’s enough to keep many of them away from the water where it’s said the sisters claim their host bodies and where their victims are eventually led to drown. It isn’t surprising that this uncertain and deadly time brings about a level of paranoia. Just because the town’s curse hasn’t been broken doesn’t mean it can’t be and for a few desperate individuals hunting down the sisters and killing them before they can do more harm is the only way to stop them. But with no way of knowing who has been possessed, the town becomes the center of a witch hunt and history often repeats itself.

Penny has never quite gotten over how her town treated her father. As an outsider, he was never fully embraced and when he disappeared, Sparrow found little time to care. For the last three years it has been Penny who maintains the lighthouse on the little island just outside of Sparrow. Her mother is no more than a shadow of her old self and with no other occupants on the island, Penny feels both its isolation and comfort at once. Bo, who carries his own losses close to his chest becomes a kind of mirror for Penny. Their connection represents the part of herself that longs to escape Sparrow, but which inevitably knows Sparrow is both her beginning and end. Bo is a tricky character to really get a handle on. Ernshaw relies on belated reveals to shock the reader and while I will say I enjoyed most of her twists, this method made Bo’s character in particular feel inconsistent. What we discover later didn’t mesh well with the Bo we meet at the beginning. I felt little sympathy for him and found myself actively rooting against him at times. The ending as a result of all the plot twists also didn’t sit well with me and kind of left me feeling that Penny really got the short end of the stick in the end.

Shea Ernshaw’s The Wicked Deep is atmospheric and eerie. The mystery of the town’s curse and romance between Penny and Bo will have many readers enthralled. The ending however left a bad aftertaste in my mouth.

3/5

★★★

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Mini Reviews: Sadie + A Room Away From the Wolves

MiniIn October, I did my best to pick up as many thrillers/mystery novels as I could. I usually go for more horror-themed novels during this time of year, but I heard such great things about the following two books, I just had to check them out myself. I read Sadie, but after hearing everyone praise the audio book, I kind of regret not listening to it. Maybe sometime in the future, I’ll at least check out the podcasts the publisher made available to readers. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: Sadie
Author: Courtney Summers
Series: N/A
Pages: 311
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Release Date: September 4th 2018 

      “Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.
      But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.
      When West McCray—a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America—overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.”

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“I live in a place that’s only good for leaving, is all that needs to be said about it, and I don’t let myself look back. Doesn’t matter if I want to, it’s just better that I don’t.”

Courtney Summer’s Sadie cleverly alternates between two timelines. In the first, Sadie Hunter’s little sister Mattie has been murdered and although the police have run out of leads, she hasn’t. She’s determined to find the person responsible and make them pay. A year after Mattie’s death West McCray, radio personality who focuses on small towns, receives a phone call from May Beth Foster, the girls’ surrogate grandmother. Sadie’s been missing for months and she’s hoping that he may be the one person out there who cares enough to look for her. As Sadie moves from one town to another, in search of her sister’s killer, she leaves behind a trail of blood and uncovered secrets. As a reader you’re drawn into Sadie’s story, her traumatic past and the rage that bubbles underneath every decision she makes. She’s never been an open person and Mattie has been her whole life since the day she was born. When their mother left them years ago, it was Sadie who picked up the pieces, but the girls’ relationship hasn’t always been easy, especially when they have such stark views of their mother. For Sadie, Claire Southern has never been the kind of mother she needed her to be. Her alcoholism, drug addiction, and compulsory need to always have a good-for-nothing man in her life, has made it impossible for Sadie to not resent her. But for Mattie, Claire was her mother and whatever flaws she might have had, she never questioned her mother’s love for her. Though Sadie and West’s timelines are separated by months, Summers has a way of writing that makes it feel like West is only two steps behind Sadie. So in the moments where Sadie is in real danger, you can’t help but hope West can be fast enough in his search to help her before it’s too late. Sadie is not a pleasant story, it’s incredibly violent and heartbreaking. It has a lot of triggering content, mostly due to with mentions of sexual abuse of children, but if you can handle the heavy-heartedness of the story, Summer’s has written a compulsory mystery that will leave you contemplating Sadie and her story long after you close the book.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★


Title: A Room Away From the Wolves
Author: Nova Ren Suma
Series: N/A
Pages: 315
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Release Date: September 4th 2018

      “Bina has never forgotten the time she and her mother ran away from home. Her mother promised they would hitchhike to the city to escape Bina’s cruel father and start over. But before they could even leave town, Bina had a new stepfather and two new stepsisters, and a humming sense of betrayal pulling apart the bond with her mother—a bond Bina thought was unbreakable.
      Eight years later, after too many lies and with trouble on her heels, Bina finds herself on the side of the road again, the city of her dreams calling for her. She has an old suitcase, a fresh black eye, and a room waiting for her at Catherine House, a young women’s residence in Greenwich Village with a tragic history, a vow of confidentiality, and dark, magical secrets. There, Bina is drawn to her enigmatic downstairs neighbor Monet, a girl who is equal parts intriguing and dangerous. As Bina’s lease begins to run out, and nightmare and memory get tangled, she will be forced to face the terrible truth of why she’s come to Catherine House and what it will take for her to leave…”

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“I hear myself cry out and stand to take it, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. The girls have grown countless arms in the dark. The trees themselves have joined in. I can’t fight them off, can’t keep them away”

Nova Ren Suma is one of those authors whose books I go into thinking I’m going to enjoy them more than I actually do. I love how strange and eerie her stories are, but always find them more than a little confusing. A Room Away From the Wolves is beautifully written with an interesting protagonist at its center, but I found myself scratching my head more than once trying to figure out exactly what was going on. When Bina is basically thrown out of her own home, she goes to the only place that makes sense to her: Catherine House, where her mother once sought refuge. But almost immediately upon her arrival, she notices something strange about the place and the other young women who are renting rooms. Part ghost story and part mystery, A Room Away From the Wolves, like its protagonist, keeps its secrets close, revealing only a little at a time. Although I enjoyed the writing in this one, I’m still left with a lot of questions. Bina isn’t the most reliable narrator, but I was still hoping to get a full picture of what her life was like before she leaves her home. There are a few flashbacks, but I often felt that Nova Ren Suma was only giving us a few pieces of a puzzle and we as readers have to accept that we’ll never see the full picture. I did like how atmospheric this one was. There are a few creepy scenes that made me sit up in my seat, but I wanted a more complete understanding of who Bina was and wanted to know more about the mysteries of Catherine House.

Rating: 3/5

★★★

ARC Review: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix by Julie C. Dao

Title: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix
Author: Julie C. Dao
Series: Rise of the Empress, #2
Pages: 384
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: November 6th 2018
*I received an ARC of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review*

      “This fairy tale retelling lives in a mystical world inspired by the Far East, where the Dragon Lord and the Serpent God battle for control of the earthly realm; it is here that the flawed heroine of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns finally meets her match. An epic fantasy finale to the Rise of the Empress novels.
      Princess Jade has grown up in exile, hidden away in a monastery while her stepmother, the ruthless Xifeng, rules as Empress of Feng Lu. But the empire is in distress and its people are sinking into poverty and despair. Even though Jade doesn’t want the crown, she knows she is the only one who can dethrone the Empress and set the world right. Ready to reclaim her place as rightful heir, Jade embarks on a quest to raise the Dragon Lords and defeat Xifeng and the Serpent God once and for all. But will the same darkness that took Xifeng take Jade, too? Or will she find the strength within to save herself, her friends, and her empire?
      Set in an East Asian-inspired fantasy world filled with breathtaking pain and beauty, Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix is filled with dazzling magic, powerful prose, and characters readers won’t soon forget.”

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Julie C. Dao concludes her Rise of the Empress duology with Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix. Filled with enchanting storytelling and a likable cast of characters, this companion novel is sure to please fans of the first book. In Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, readers witnessed the downfall of the protagonist Xifeng as she embraced the darkness within. In this follow-up novel, years have passed since Xifeng has become Empress. The empire has suffered under a cruel regime and many of the people have become restless. When Jade, the heir to the Empire, is summoned back home by her stepmother Xifeng, she discovers that evil can take many forms. Xifeng is not the doting wife and stepmother she pretends to be and when Jade uncovers the truth about how Xifeng has been able to hold on to power, she is forced to flee. In order to save her people and regain her rightful place as heir, Jade will have to journey far and overcome challenges meant to crush even the strongest of people.

Jade is just shy of eighteen years old. Having spent the majority of her life in a monastery, Jade’s understanding of the world has been limited. Though she has grown up far from the luxuries befitting her rank, her ignorance is a privilege in itself. Jade has always wanted to forget who she really is, to make vows and become a monk. When she arrives in the Imperial City and sees how much her people are suffering, she is forced to confront the world she’s spent her whole life hiding from. I loved that Jade’s journey isn’t just an outward one, that she must reflect on who she’s been and who she will choose to be. For people like Xifeng, who only see others as pawns in their own story, having friends and family is an easy way to be manipulated. For Jade, the allies she surrounds herself with become her greatest strength. From her surrogate grandmother Amah, who raised her when she was cast aside, to Amah’s granddaughter Wren, who exhibits a very different form of strength than Jade, these relationships are what keep Jade from being entice by the same kind of temptations that Xifeng has fallen prey to. The strongest influences in Jade’s life have always been women, including the mother she lost at such a young age and are the reason Jade, while not necessarily the strongest or bravest character, is able to challenge someone as powerful as Xifeng.

Xifeng is one of my favorite literary characters because she is allowed to want power for power’s sake. While I would never personally side with Xifeng, at the end of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, I could not help but root for her just a little. The biggest challenge with this novel was shifting my own perspective. Seeing Xifeng not just as a ambitious young woman who did everything in her power to get what she wanted, but as an antagonist to Jade, a woman who took her mother’s place and who has continued to poison the people in order to hold on to power. One of my favorite elements of the novel was the importance of folktales. Jade grew up hearing Amah tell her stories and though she didn’t fully appreciate what Amah was trying to teach her, these tales become the building blocks of Jade’s journey.

If you’re looking for a unique take on fairytale retellings, Julie C. Dao’s Rise of the Empress duology is a must. She’s written a vibrant world with characters you can both love and love to hate.

4/5

★★★★

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Title: Pride
Author: Ibi Zoboi
Series: N/A
Pages: 304
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release Date: September 18th 2018

      “Zuri Benitez has pride. Brooklyn pride, family pride, and pride in her Afro-Latino roots. But pride might not be enough to save her rapidly gentrifying neighborhood from becoming unrecognizable.
      When the wealthy Darcy family moves in across the street, Zuri wants nothing to do with their two teenage sons, even as her older sister, Janae, starts to fall for the charming Ainsley. She especially can’t stand the judgmental and arrogant Darius. Yet as Zuri and Darius are forced to find common ground, their initial dislike shifts into an unexpected understanding.
      But with four wild sisters pulling her in different directions, cute boy Warren vying for her attention, and college applications hovering on the horizon, Zuri fights to find her place in Bushwick’s changing landscape, or lose it all.
      In a timely update of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, critically acclaimed author Ibi Zoboi skillfully balances cultural identity, class, and gentrification against the heady magic of first love in her vibrant reimagining of this beloved classic.”

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up. But it’s not just the junky stuff they’ll get rid of. People can be thrown away too, like last night’s trash left out on sidewalks or pushed to the edge of wherever broken things go. What those rich people don’t always know is that broken and forgotten neighborhoods were first built out of love..”

Ibi Zoboi’s Pride reimagines Jane Austen’s classic in the modern world, making the story feel both familiar and new. Zuri Benitez is supposed to spend the summer before her senior year hanging out with her older sister Janae, back from her first year away at college. But Zuri’s summer takes an unexpected turn when the Darcys move in across the street and her sister develops a growing interest in the older Darcy son, Ainsley. Not exactly an ideal situation when Zuri can’t stand his judgmental brother Darius. With their fancy clothes, fancy parties, and fancy house Zuri can’t help but be wary of the Darcys. After all, rich people do not move into neighborhoods like hers without hoping to improve it and Zuri knows that means everyone who’s been there, even for generations, eventually gets pushed out.

Ibi Zoboi writes with a lot of heart and while a lot of Pride and Prejudice retellings focus heavily on the romance, Pride finds its stride with family and community at its center. Zuri is proud of where she comes from, she never pretends to be anything different than who she is, and is deeply protective of the people in her community. So while to many Bushwick might look a little run down with their dilapidated buildings and a little too loud with their block parties, Bushwick is always foremost Zuri’s home. I loved how much personality this community had, how it felt from the very beginning like a family rather than just a place you happen to live, and it wasn’t hard to see why Zuri loved it so much. We rarely talk about world building when it comes to contemporaries, but it’s an aspect that I’d love to see given more care in the genre. I want to get to know the characters, but I also want to see where they come from and how this has shaped the people they’ve become. This is very much what you get with Zoboi’s Pride. I really like that both American Street, Zoboi’s debut, and this novel have a subtle spiritual element to them. Zuri’s relationship to the character Madrina gives Zoboi an opportunity to bring Santería, a religion I hardly see explored in YA lit,  to life and added depth both to Pride’s characters and its world.

I really loved Zuri as a character. She’s independent, unapologetically opinionated, and fiercely protective of her family. While her older sister Janae has taken on the role of a second mother to her sisters, Zuri as the next oldest has become their defender. Though she shakes her head whenever her mother and younger sisters get a little too excited when it comes to gossip or boys, she loves them and has no room in her life for anyone who disrespects them. Zuri has big dreams for herself, to attend Howard University, to travel, but to always come back home and help the community that raised her. She’s a poet at heart and I loved all the poems sprinkled throughout the book. Words are a way for Zuri to work through her feelings and gives her an outlet for her emotions. Darius is a harder character to like. Like Zuri, you feel his disapproval of her family and her neighborhood from day one and you can’t help but feel protective of it. The two characters do not get off to a good start and part of this is Darius’s bad attitude, but another part is Zuri’s instant animosity of anyone rich moving into her neighborhood. For her, Darius and his family represents change–a familiar change that has happened to one too many neighborhoods like hers–the rich move in, soon people are forced out, and the neighborhood eventually becomes unrecognizable. By the end of the novel, I’m not sure I have the best grip on every facet of Darius’s character, but like Zuri, I don’t mind finding out more. 

Ibi Zoboi’s Pride is the kind of retelling I’d like to see more of. It centers a Haitian-Dominican character surrounded by a strong community, allows said character to be both confident and sometimes wrong, and there’s a strong undercurrent of hope present even in the most catastrophic of circumstances.

4/5

★★★★

Mirage by Somaiya Daud

Title: Mirage
Author: Somaiya Daud
Series: Mirage, #1
Pages: 320
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Release Date: August 28th 2018

      “In a star system dominated by the brutal Vathek empire, eighteen-year-old Amani is a dreamer. She dreams of what life was like before the occupation; she dreams of writing poetry like the old-world poems she adores; she dreams of receiving a sign from Dihya that one day, she, too, will have adventure, and travel beyond her isolated moon.
      But when adventure comes for Amani, it is not what she expects: she is kidnapped by the regime and taken in secret to the royal palace, where she discovers that she is nearly identical to the cruel half-Vathek Princess Maram. The princess is so hated by her conquered people that she requires a body double, someone to appear in public as Maram, ready to die in her place.
      As Amani is forced into her new role, she can’t help but enjoy the palace’s beauty—and her time with the princess’ fiancé, Idris. But the glitter of the royal court belies a world of violence and fear. If Amani ever wishes to see her family again, she must play the princess to perfection…because one wrong move could lead to her death.”

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“The bones of our old ways of life were there, barely traceable, and I wanted them back. I wanted all of us to remember what we’d been, how strong we were. And endurance was strength, to be sure, but even a rock wore away to nothing if asked to endure enough rain.”

Somaiya Daud wows with her debut Mirage, a sci-fi novel that also functions as a commentary on the effects of colonialism. Amani’s majority day should be a time for celebration, as it marks her transition into adulthood. There are very few traditions Amani and her people are allowed to take part in since the Vath have conquered their home planet and surrounding moons. When droids interrupt the celebration, kidnapping Amani and whisking her off to the planet Andala where the Vathek have established themselves as rulers, she has no idea what’s in store for her. That is until she comes face-to-face with Maram, High Princess of the Vath, and implausibly her doppelgänger. Forced to be the princesses’s double, Amani is thrust into a world wholly unlike her own where any wrong move could cost her her life.

One of my favorite things about Mirage is how full-realized the world is. Daud has created a people whose history and culture feel very real. For Amani and her people, Vath rule has cost them more than their ability to govern themselves. It has meant a loss of their religion, their language, and their customs. Using the fear of rebellion as a front, the Vath have made it nearly impossible for the Andalaan people to keep their culture intact. Large gatherings are prohibited, their religious poetry is deemed illegal, and if caught aiding rebels, they are quickly exterminated. Though Amani cannot remember a time when the Vath were not their rulers, she understands the loss that her people have endured. She knows she’s been cheated out of experiencing the full scope and beauty that is her culture. The Vathek people for their part do not see Andalaans as equals. But a treaty between the two was necessary to stop a war that would have resulted in even more deaths. Mathis, the High King of the Vath, married an Andalaan woman, and their only child, Maram, has the only legitimate claim to the throne. But for some Vathek, this doesn’t sit well with them and there is always the threat that some may rise and take the throne by force.

Amani was content to live a quiet life, but circumstances have dropped her into a position to do more for her people. She has the ability to see goodness even in those that do her wrong, to feel pity even when someone doesn’t necessarily deserve it. Amani is tasked with taking on a persona that is often cruel and never generous, but Amani never loses her ability to be kind. My favorite relationship in the novel was Amani’s and Maram’s. Maram is used to getting her way, of basking in her own power, and never having to worry about the needs or wants of others. I never expected to like Maram, but seeing her through Amani’s eyes changed my opinion of her. She grew on me and I didn’t simply see her as a cruel princess, but as a person caught between two worlds and forced to embrace only one side of herself. Amani’s relationship with Maram’s fiancé, Idris, an Andalaan himself, will either thrill the reader or leave them wanting more. I fell somewhere in the middle. I do think their relationship should have taken a little more time to develop and wouldn’t have minded having to wait until the next book to see their relationship blossom. On the other hand, I loved their connection with one another. Idris is old enough to remember how his family was taken from him, but he is beholden to the Vath for keeping him alive; the peace treaty is also contingent on his marriage to Maram. Amani is taken with Idris almost immediately and in him she finds a safe haven from her precarious position. For Idris, Amani helps him reconnect with a part of himself that he lost thanks to the Vath.

Somaiya Daud’s Mirage won’t thrill you with its non-stop action, but its charm lies in the brilliance of its worldbuilding and the message that enduring hope can be found even in the bleakest of circumstances.

4/5

★★★★

ARC Review: Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore

Title: Blanca & Roja
Author: Anna-Marie McLemore
Series: N/A
Pages: 384
Publisher:  Feiwel & Friends
Release Date: October 9th 2018
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review*

      “The biggest lie of all is the story you think you already know.
      The del Cisne girls have never just been sisters; they’re also rivals, Blanca as obedient and graceful as Roja is vicious and manipulative. They know that, because of a generations-old spell, their family is bound to a bevy of swans deep in the woods. They know that, one day, the swans will pull them into a dangerous game that will leave one of them a girl, and trap the other in the body of a swan.
      But when two local boys become drawn into the game, the swans’ spell intertwines with the strange and unpredictable magic lacing the woods, and all four of their fates depend on facing truths that could either save or destroy them. Blanca & Roja is the captivating story of sisters, friendship, love, hatred, and the price we pay to protect our hearts.”

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I’ve been enamored with Anna-Marie McLemore’s writing since her debut The Weight of Feathers. With each novel she has written, I have fallen even more in love, not with just her words but with her ability to weave together stories where sadness and hope, magic and reality meet as though they were two sides of the same coin. In Blanca & Roja, a novel inspired by the fairy tale Snow-White and Rose-Red, two sisters have grown up knowing that a bargain made by their ancestor means one day the los cisnes, the swans, will come to claim one of them as their own, as they have done with each generation of their family. Their love for one another has kept them from falling into the same trap sisters before them have, allowing the fear of being taken from this world to overpower their love for one another. The del Cisne girls have always been viewed by outsiders as something more akin to witches, these strange and unknowable sisters who live in the woods and whose very existence they blame whenever anything goes wrong in town. With each passing day los cisnes do not come to claim one of them, Blanca and Roja grow more confident that they have outsmarted them. But the swans are not to be cheated and when two boys disappear into the woods, they are inexplicable lured into a story that could break both them and the de Cisne sisters.

Blanca & Roja alternates between four different perspectives: the del Cisne sisters and the two boys whose stories collide with theirs. Blanca and Roja are as different as night and day. Blanca has always been viewed as the more gentle of the two, her golden hair and lighter skin have made it easier for her to move around in the world, for people to see her as otherworldly and blessed, rather than feared. She instinctively protects her younger sister, wanting to save her from being taken by los cisnes. Blanca has done her best to keep her sister close, to not allow any discord to grow between them. She’s tried to harden her edges, to make herself a little more like her sister while also helping Roja become softer, so when los cisnes comes to claim one of them, the sisters would be too much alike for the swans to lay claim to either. But her fear that Roja has already been marked as the “bad” sister leads her to decisions that will inevitably cause a rift between the two. Roja has never been an easy child. When she was younger her temper always got the better of her. Though prized by her father for her unwavering curiosity, there aren’t many others who’ve seen Roja as anything other than a foil to her sister. Unlike Blanca, Roja has all but accepted that she will be the sister taken. She knows that fairy tale stories are never about the darker of the two sisters, the one with brown skin and sharp edges. Both sisters are desperate to save the other, but secrets have a way of sowing distrust and when you grow up being told you are only allowed to be one thing while your sister is another, resentment inevitable follows.

This is as much Page Ashby and Barclay Holt’s story as it is the title characters’. Page is non-binary and has fought to claim himself in a world where everyone wants to attach one name to him and be done with it. Barclay becomes the first person to accept Page as he is, but it is Blanca who becomes the first person to ask. Page does not have a preference when it comes to pronouns, sometimes “he” feels right and sometimes “she” (McLemore uses both pronouns for Page throughout the novel), the most important thing for Page is that people don’t box him in. Page and Blanca are drawn to one another, but also doomed from the very beginning because like Roja, Page knows that people like him do not get to be princes in fairy tale stories. Barclay has grown up in a family where loyalty to your blood is placed above all else. When he ends up in the woods, he is trying to outrun the consequences of not holding fast to this mantra. He carries a secret that he isn’t quite ready to let out, lest everything he’s ever known to be true be destroyed. Unlike Page and Blanca’s relationship, Barclay and Roja are too rough around the edges to be taken with each other so readily. They navigate around each other like wounded wolves, afraid the other won’t or will make the first move. 

Anna Marie McLemore’s Blanca & Roja has every element I’ve come to love about her novels. Her descriptions are lush, her storytelling skill unparalleled, and her ability to bring such nuanced characters to life keep me invested from page one.

5/5

★★★★★