ARC Review: The Hollow Girl by Hillary Monahan

Title: The Hollow Girl
Author: Hillary Monahan
Series: N/A
Pages: 272
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Release Date: October 10th 2017
*I received a copy of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review*

      “Five boys attacked her.
      Now they must repay her with their blood and flesh.

      Bethan is the apprentice to a green healer named Drina in a clan of Welsh Romanies. Her life is happy and ordered and modest, as required by Roma custom, except for one thing: Silas, the son of the chieftain, has been secretly harassing her.
      One night, Silas and his friends brutally assault Bethan and a half-Roma friend, Martyn. As empty and hopeless as she feels from the attack, she asks Drina to bring Martyn back from death’s door. “There is always a price for this kind of magic,” Drina warns. The way to save him is gruesome. Bethan must collect grisly pieces to fuel the spell: an ear, some hair, an eye, a nose, and fingers.
      She gives the boys who assaulted her a chance to come forward and apologize. And when they don’t, she knows exactly where to collect her ingredients to save Martyn.”

swirl (2)

Hillary Monahan’s The Hollow Girl is one of the few books that I would strongly suggest reading the synopsis of before diving in. The storyline involves the rape of the protagonist and how this dramatically changes her, as well as following her quest for retribution. Knowing the inevitable assault was coming did not make the beginning of the story any easier to read. There’s a lot of building tension that is both frustrating and representative of what the character is about to go through. The reader knows what’s coming, but is powerless to stop it. So many times we see the rape of a character used to shock audiences or propel another character’s arc forward. In The Hollow Girl, rape isn’t used for shock value and thus the author is able to approach it with sensitivity to the victim by centering Bethan.

Bethan has been raised as the eventual successor to the drabarni in her Romani clan. As drabarni, “Gran” functions as a healer to her people and is well respected within the community. Bethan has spent a considerable amount of time learning herbcraft, but has always been more interested in Gran’s other magical talents. To outsiders, the most that is shared is a cure for common ailments or a charm for dreams, but Bethan knows that Gran has greater power than this. After Bethan is raped, Gran offers her the opportunity to learn the craft in order to save the life of her new friend Martyn by taking something from the individuals responsible. Bethan learns that this kind of magic is costly. It not only demands sacrifice from these violators, but also demands her to do things she never thought herself capable of.

Bethan’s strongest relationship is with Gran. Though the older woman is harsh at times, she looks out for Bethan in her own way. Gran is a character who I won’t soon forget. She’s fierce, strong, and with a few words can induce fear in others. Bethan slowly begins to understand what it truly means to be drabarni by following Gran’s lead and in so doing gains a more complete understanding of her mentor. Bethan has always believed she will follow in Gran’s footsteps, but the accumulation of her experiences, has her calling this belief into question. I’m a big fan of fictional witches, but am mostly drawn to darker depictions. I loved the details in this one when it came to the witchcraft. It was messy and gruesome, but by making it so the author is able to show that these facts take a toll on the wielder of magic.

The Hollow Girl is not an easy read. It can be an emotionally exhausting experience. It is however an important story about a girl who endures a horrific trauma, but who takes back control of her life.

4/5

★★★★

Advertisements

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.

swirl (2)

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

★★★★

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.

swirl (2)

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

★★

Mini Reviews: Three Dark Crowns + Song of the Current

MiniI decided to do something a little different in July and wrote mini reviews for all the books I read. This week I have two mini-reviews for fantasy novels, one of which I enjoyed way more than the other. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: Three Dark Crowns
Author: Kendare Blake
Series: Three Dark Crowns, #1
Pages: 398
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: Septemebr 20th 2016 

      “In every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born—three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.
      But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins.

      The last queen standing gets the crown.

swirl (2)

“Looking into the mirror, she imagines her body in pieces. Bones. Skin. Not enough blood. It would not take much to break her down to nothing, to strip away scant muscles and pull the organs out to dry in the sun. She wonders often whether her sisters would break down similarly. If underneath their skin they are all the same.”

Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns starts off promising, but its muddle storylines in the end left a sour taste in my mouth. I really appreciate novels that focus on sisters because it’s a great opportunity for an author to explore these complex relationships. Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly what I got with Three Dark Crowns. Every generation triplets are born to the queen and they spend their formidable years apart until their sixteen birthday when they must fight until only one of them is left standing. Katharine, Arsinoe, and Mirabella have been raised apart under the influence of some of the most powerful players on the island of Fennbirn. Though one of them is destined to become queen, who they are and how the navigate the world has been influenced by people who have their own interests in mind. In many ways, these three girls are the least influential players in their own lives. I loved how distinct each sister is from one another and in the beginning, what held my attention was the character study of each. Katharine, though weak in many people’s eyes, is surprisingly ruthless; Arsinoe hides behind a mask of indifference, but has earned the unshakable loyalty of many; Mirabella who is one the most powerful elementals to be born has a very soft heart. About half way through the book, I began to lose interest. At times the novel spent far too much time on its minor characters and although I appreciated this scope, it was at the detriment of its main characters. There was one particular romantic relationship that really derailed this novel for me, both figuratively and literally. I’m still shaking my head at how little preamble there was and wished this novel had focused more on the relationship between the sisters.

Rating: 2/5

★★


Title: Song of the Current
Author: Sarah Tolcser
Series: Song of the Current, #1
Pages: 373
Publisher: Bloomsbury Childrens Books
Release Date: June 6th 2017

      “Caroline Oresteia is destined for the river. For generations, her family has been called by the river god, who has guided their wherries on countless voyages throughout the Riverlands. At seventeen, Caro has spent years listening to the water, ready to meet her fate. But the river god hasn’t spoken her name yet—and if he hasn’t by now, there’s a chance he never will.
      Caro decides to take her future into her own hands when her father is arrested for refusing to transport a mysterious crate. By agreeing to deliver it in exchange for his release, Caro finds herself caught in a web of politics and lies, with dangerous pirates after the cargo—an arrogant courier with a secret—and without the river god to help her. With so much at stake, Caro must choose between the life she always wanted and the one she never could have imagined for herself.

swirl (2)

“Once we reached the murky dark of the opposing riverbank, I didn’t stop. I rowed so hard it sent up a swirling wake behind our stern. My heart pounded and my blood rang hot. The rain fell in torrents, trickling down the collar of my jacket and into my sleeves. The knit cap kept my ears warm, but my fingers were clammy and half-numb.”

Sarah Tolcser’s debut novel Song of the Current is a swashbucking adventure where a young woman discovers that fate has more in store for her than she ever imagined. Caro Oresteia grew up on the water. The Cormorant isn’t just a wherry, it’s her home and her destiny to take over for her father as captain one day. Her life takes a unexpected turn when her father is taken captive and Caro agrees to deliver a mysterious box in exchange for his release. Caro’s resolve is tested throughout her journey. She discovers more about herself and what she is willing to sacrifice for the people she cares about. I really enjoyed Caro as a character and loved that so much of the novel focused on who she was, her complicated feelings when it came to her mother and heritage, and the internal struggle she has with accepting her fate. I don’t want to give too much away when it comes to her romantic interest, but I loved that although the two characters immediately clash, they eventually develop a mutual respect for one another and they both challenge the other to see the world differently. I was really impressed by Tolcser’s writing considering this is a debut, her descriptions really brought this one to life. The minor characters were also really interesting and I’m particularly curious to learn more about Caro’s cousin Kenté. Song of the Current is a fun fantasy with a touch of romance and magic that’s sure to intrigue fans of the genre.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Title: Sorcerer to the Crown
Author: Zen Cho
Series: Sorcerer Royal, #1
Pages: 371
Publisher: Ace
Release Date: September 1st 2015

      “At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, eminently proficient magician, and Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers—one of the most respected organizations throughout all of Britain—ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up.
      But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…

swirl (2)

“Magic infused the air; her every breath was haloed with green mist. Prunella felt as though she were standing at the brink of a sea of magic, watching a swelling wave gather force before it crashed upon the shore.”

I love it when a book that you haven’t heard a lot about completely surprises you. Zen Cho’s The Sorcerer to the Crown combines magic and historical fiction into a truly entertaining and enjoyable experience. Cho imagines a world where magic freely flows from Fairyland into our realm, but much like any kind of resource, those with power have found a way to regulate its use and keep it from others. In England, those gifted with magical abilities can join the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, but only if they are wealthy enough and male. Magic in England has been on the decline for years and no one is sure why. The Sorcerer Royal is under assault in every direction, both literally and figuratively. Determined to discover the reason behind England’s decrease in magic, Zacharias Wythe’s quest for answers puts him in the path of Prunella Gentleman, a young lady with extraordinary magical ability and a secret that may save England from losing all its magic.

Someone like Zacharias Wythe should never have been allowed to become Sorcerer Royal. Born to slaves, Zacharias’ skin color is enough for many to draw their conclusions about him. As a young boy, he was taken in by Sir Stephan Wythe, former Sorcerer Royal before his death. Zacharias has spent his life as an outsider, excelling at magic despite the skepticism from members of the Society. Despite what his detractors may think of him, Zacharias is a proficient sorcerer. Unlike his colleagues, he does not use his power or influence for any sort of personal gain, but is always thinking of how he can help England and her dwindling source of magic. He’s used to relying on himself and not expecting a lot of help from others. His feelings toward his benefactor and his role as Sorcerer Royal are complicated. There’s affection and gratefulness, but he has also suffered a great deal because of prejudice. I loved that this historical fantasy addressed issues of racism. Often times these books focus on white characters and we get an incomplete version of the time when slavery and colonialism played key roles in how the world operated.

Prunella Gentleman is a character I immediately took to. She’s bright, cheeky, and isn’t one to back down. At Mrs. Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches, Prunella has taken on many roles. Her father passed away when she was younger and she’s been under the care of Mrs. Daubeney. Mrs. Daubeney was familiar with Prunella’s father, who spent a considerable time in India where he met Prunella’s mother, but save for his name, Prunella knows nothing substantial about either of them. Many do not know what to make of the young lady, who’s brown skin and features speak of foreign origin, but who speaks as well as any English girl. In England, women are not allowed to practice magic, so instead they are taught to suppress their talents. Still, in a school full of magically-inclined young ladies a hex or two is known to be thrown. Unlike Zacharias, Prunella is prone to act before thinking. She is resourceful and strong-willed, but undeniably reckless. Magic has always been a part of who she is, but more than anything, she wishes for some sort of security in her life. In Zacharias, she finds an unlikely friend who understand the misgivings that come with being a part of a world that never wholly accepts you.

Cho’s writing made me fall immediately into this world. I loved how Cho combined magic and politics, showing that power and prejudice can have a huge influence on people’s views of the world. Sorcerer to the Crown is full of complex characters that are easy to fall in love with, an intricate world that addresses both racism and sexism, and is surprisingly amusing on top of all of this.

5/5

★★★★★

Mini Reviews: The Dark Days Pact + Flame in the Mist

MiniWriting slumps are the worst when it comes time to write a review or discussion post. I’ve found a way to work through those slumpy times by utilizing the mini-review. It’s loads less stressful when I know all I got to do is make my brain work for a paragraph or so before allowing it to check out again. This week I’ve got mini-reviews for Alison Goodman’s sequel The Dark Days Pact and Renée Ahdieh’s highly anticipated Flame in the Mist. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: The Dark Days Pact
Author: Alison Goodman
Series: Lady Helen, #2
Pages: 496
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
Release Date: January 31st 2017

      “June 1812. Just weeks after her catastrophic coming-out ball, Lady Helen Wrexhall—now disowned by her uncle—is a full member of the demon-hunting Dark Days Club. Her mentor, Lord Carlston, has arranged for Helen to spend the summer season in Brighton so that he can train her new Reclaimer powers. However, the long-term effects of Carlston’s Reclaimer work have taken hold, and his sanity is beginning to slip. At the same time, Carlston’s Dark Days Club colleague and nemesis will stop at nothing to bring Helen over to his side—and the Duke of Selburn is determined to marry her. The stakes are even higher for Helen as she struggles to become the warrior that everyone expects her to be.

swirl (2)

“She wet her lips, remembering the animal savagery she had felt on the arrival of her full Reclaimer strength. She had lost precious reason, all control, and had tried to kill his lordship. It had been one of the most terrifying moments of her life. One that she did not want to repeat.

Alison Goodman delivers another intriguing novel with The Dark Days Pact, sequel to the first installment in her Lady Helen series. Since learning that the world is a much more dangerous place than she ever imagined, Lady Helen has finally embraced this new world full of demons and accepted that she has a role to play in protecting humanity as a Reclaimer. Lord Carlston is determined to complete her training before the Grand Deceiver makes his or her appearance, but time is running out and Lady Helen isn’t quite sure if she can live up to his expectations. Just like the first novel, with this one I was hoping to read a more action-packed novel. If you don’t go into this one or the previous installment understanding that it’s a slow-paced kind of novel that does eventually culminate in an exciting ending, it might be a really frustrating read. The conflict in this sequel focuses more on the on-going politics within the Dark Days Club. Though its members should be looking out for the good of humanity, their personal biases and motivations pit them against one another. I did find it kind of frustrating that Helen was a bit naive when it came to the machinations of these players, but the storyline is really driven by Helen’s big heart and thus her capacity to be manipulated because of it. The ending for this one knocked the air right out of me–even when I did see a particular twist coming–but I’m eager to read where Lady Helen’s story goes from here.

Rating: 3/5

★★★


Title: Flame in the Mist
Author: Renée Ahdieh
Series: Flame in the Mist, #1
Pages: 393
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Release Date: May 16th 2017

      “The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.
      So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.
      The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.”

swirl (2)

“Mariko bit back a scream as clanking metal and rustling bodies converged in the nearby shadows. Chaos grew with each passing moment. The flames in the norimono leapt higher. Faster. Their heat turned her skin pink. She clasped her fingers tight, smothering her coughs as she shrank farther into the corner.

I had a tremendous amount of expectations going into Renée Ahdieh’s Flame in the Mist, the first installment in her newest series. The Wrath and the Dawn is one of my favorite duologies and I am still struck by the beauty of Ahdieh’s writing. Flame in the Mist unfortunately did not meet my expectations. It’s a novel that I really wanted to like, but I never felt fully immersed in its world. I liked the concept of the story more than it’s execution. I liked the idea of a girl disguising herself as a boy in order to uncover the truth about the failed assassination attempt on her life, but Mariko herself felt like an incomplete character. We’re told countless times that she is odd and clever, but I never felt that the story actually showed these characteristics in action. She infiltrates the Black Clan, a group of thieves who she believes tried to kill her, but she never really has a concrete plan on how to find answers to her questions. I found myself really frustrated while reading this one because a lot of time is spent on character introspection. I wouldn’t mind this normally since inner conflict is a good sign of a character-driven novel which I love, but so many times these characters were reflecting on things I’d already been told and it felt very superfluous. The book has this really interesting magical element that is not explored enough and which I wanted so bad to learn more about. In the end, I never felt an emotional connection to any of the characters which really affected the way I received this book.

Rating: 3/5

★★★