REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast (Timeless Fairytales #1)

Beauty and the Beast (Timeless Fairytales #1) by KM Shea

Do I need to recap the plot of this book? If a series is entitled ‘Timeless Fairy Tales’, I’ve hope you know what you’re in for. As an unashamed fan of Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter (what I consider to be the better of her two Beauty and the Beast retellings), I’m always on the look out for a lovely little retelling like this. KM Shea does an excellent job of bringing her own touch to this story, and it still rings true to the heart of the tale.

The best part of this story is that Elle, the beauty half, has a logical reason to be trapped in the chateaux. In the first scene, she falls through the roof and breaks her leg. Hearkening back to the French roots of the tale, Elle is trapped in a country chateaux in the fantasy country of Loire, which is fantasy France. Prince Severin, the younger brother and non-heir apparent, reluctantly keeps Elle through the summer and autumn in his chateaux until her leg heals. There’s a certain Enlightenment feel to the culture and architecture of the chateaux, and I would’ve enjoyed if the story played up these elements a bit more. For me, it’s not possible to go part French–all aboard the Francophile train or go home. That said, there are nice little allusions to French culture, and I’m clearly freaking obsessed with finding a Beauty and the Beast tale where one of the characters rants about French art and literature.

That said, I liked Elle’s character a lot. At first, she doesn’t seem particularly special as a heroine, but there’s some hints that she’s a bit more than she seems. There’s some playing coy with her backstory, and if it was dropped earlier in the novel, I think it would’ve heightened the tension at the end. As much as I try not to judge a book by its ending, this one was one where I had to do that. The end could’ve–should’ve–been more tense. Frankly, the story ended a bit too soon, and I was waiting for another twist, another action sequence, but it never came.

But let’s get back to the parts I did love: the characters. This is the clear strength of the novel. Elle’s friendship with the servants, especially Emele, is poignant and didn’t bore me. The servants all have personalities of their own, and their part in the curse (being unable to speak and wearing masks) adds a distinctive aura to the story that made it stand out. By including other characters, instead of just having the palace be empty, the world becomes richer, the story filled with more emotional stakes because that’s where the real action is in this novel. The servants also push the romance along with gossip and schemes, and the crown prince, Lucien, helps add depth to the greater political landscape of the story. Also, it was nice to see Severin have relationships outside of his one with Elle.

The central relationship in the story between Elle and Severin worried me at first. Severin is in the unique position that he’s tried to break his curse before and failed, so he has no interest in trying again. This let some of the tension out of the relationship initially, but the servant supporting cast stepped in to help kindle the initial friendship between Severin and Elle. For most of the story, it’s a friendship. That works well with Elle’s character and her supposed station, but this is where I would’ve loved a surprise drop in her backstory. Things would’ve gotten crazy a lot earlier, and more could’ve happened in this novel. There was a certain amount of ease with which the curse was broken, but I like more teasing out of my finales. I know what the ending is going to be. I want to need that ending, anticipate it with every freaking page, and this story didn’t quite deliver that longing. Still, there are sweet, tender moments between the main characters, and they’re both fully fleshed out humans with flaws and pasts.

Notes:

  • I really liked how the servants were incorporated. Emele with the fan was intensely French.
  • Did I imagine the chateaux looking like Versailles (even though that’s anachronistic for the period the story was implied to be in)? Yes, I did.
  • This story delivered the animal companion goods. Fairy tale retellings without animal companions is heresy.
  • Severin is a giant cat. This particular version of the beast is more similar to the gentleman beast than the half-mad one that’s become a bit more popular of late.
  • This is a writer thing, but there were lots of repetitive description words in this story. That’s a difficult part to edit, but it made the world less evocative.
  • Could we’ve gotten something a bit more interesting than ‘working in his study’ for 90% of what Severin did. That would’ve helped build his personality for me.
  • We got a Princess and the Frog sequel tease with Lucien. MAKE IT SO.

Rating: 3 stars

I’m being freaking picky with this, but there are lots of great reasons to read this book. The real reason for this rating is that 1) the ending is a bit slack with the overall tension and 2) the world building needed a bit of work. The pro-part is that there’s a fresh take on the characters, and this makes the story charming throughout, even if it doesn’t hit all the right notes with the plot.

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REVIEW: The Pages of the Mind

The Pages of the Mind by Jeffe Kennedy

I wanted to like this book. I really did. It has a fantastic cover, a great title, and it implied it was going to be about a badass librarian. I was hooked on that concept. Unfortunately, this story didn’t deliver. It’s not really about Dafne, the aforementioned librarian, and if there’d been a focus on her earlier in the book (or if the book had started later when she became more important to the story), I would’ve cared about her more. This story also should’ve been told in third person. It simply would’ve worked better, and I don’t come across many stories where I feel that way being that I don’t prefer a POV. It’s author’s choice, but first POV did nothing to help this story or build Dafne’s character.

Ursula is the new queen, and this book picks up where the previous book in the series left off. The early parts of this book are chronicling Ursula and Harlan’s more interesting adventures, and Dafne literally sits on the sidelines. This is why this didn’t work well as a first person POV–Dafne tells someone else’s story. That’s massively boring. When the early part of the book doesn’t involve the main character at all, I’m concerned.

It took 20% of the book before it felt like Dafne was the main character. The story should’ve just started there or else the earlier parts of the book needed to make Dafne important. She’s a wall flower, and that’s not interesting, even for an introverted character. There’s a lot of characters talking about the plot and not a lot of plot. I felt like this story is about Ursula, which makes sense in the context of the series, but not for this book in particular.

The characters spend so much time talking about things. Less dialogue would’ve helped because there was too much of it. I know, there’s this thing about not putting info dumps and unnecessary description into the story, but less dialogue would’ve tightened this narrative. But shouldn’t characters be interacting? Yes, but when they prattle, all of the meaning in the dialogue is lost. The importance is gone, and all of the conversations felt meandering and useless. In the latter parts of the book, it becomes more descriptive and starts to rely on Dafne’s internal narrative more, and that’s the only reason this book became remotely bearable. This makes the early parts of this book baffling. It feels like an infinitely worse book and a completely different story!

King Nahoka KauPo and the descriptions of his people and traveling to the island relieved the amazing boredom of the earlier parts of this story. This happens a third of the way through, and if you can’t get to this part, I honestly can’t blame you. The first third of this book is DNF bad, but the volcano king’s island focuses the world building and presents Dafne with definitive challenges. The bad news is that the remainder of the story leaves Dafne languishing on an Nahoka’s island, which delivers the story back to some of the more monotonous elements of the earlier part of the novel.

The narrative voice of this novel (and the choice of 1st POV) grated on me the entire time. It was like sandpaper in my eyes. The positives of the book kept drowning in this problem, and no mistake, it was a huge problem for me. I already mentioned the drastic change in writing between the first part of the book and the latter part of the book, and I ‘d honestly skip the first 100 pages if I were to start reading this all over again.

Notes:

  • Maybe it’s because this is an ongoing series, but there’s a lot of ‘fantasy speak’ and fantasy name dropping. So much so that it pulls me out of the story, which is rare.
  • If Dafne keeps talking about other characters instead of doing something, I’m going to stop reading this freaking book.
  • We’re going to talk about sex a lot but not have any actual scenes with sex in it. *sigh*
  • The women in Ursula’s court (the Hawks) are SUPER SASSY. *sigh*
  • Shape-shifters having clothes when they shift back is dumb. This is my official opinion.
  • This also features the world’s most unimportant and boring dragon.

Rating: 2 stars

The major issues–this book not feeling like Dafne’s story–is fixed in the latter two-thirds of the book.  If I hadn’t tried to hack it through the first third, I probably would’ve enjoyed this book a bit more. This was a wildly inconsistent book.

REVIEW: The Emperor’s Railroad

The Emperor’s Railroad by Guy Hailey

I read this novella by Guy Hailey being completely unfamiliar with his writing style or his previous works. On reflection, while novellas can help introduce you to an author and their style, I don’t think this is a particularly good way to get into this author (especially if you love long novels and series). There’s no previous works of his that this novella made me want to read. If you’re a novella person, this is a quick read, and if you’re already familiar with the author, you’ll probably like it more than I did. The Emperor’s Railroad is the first in the Dreaming Cities series, and if it’s a series of novellas, and you like this story, this might be a series that’s worth your time. The description of the world sounded amazing, which is what drew me to it.

Global war devastated the environment, a zombie-like plague wiped out much of humanity, and civilization as we once understood it came to a standstill. But that was a thousand years ago, and the world is now a very different place.

Conflict between city states is constant, superstition is rife, and machine relics, mutant creatures and resurrected prehistoric beasts trouble the land. Watching over all are the silent Dreaming Cities. Homes of the angels, bastion outposts of heaven on Earth. Or so the church claims. Very few go in, and nobody ever comes out.

Until now…

Zombies! Futuristic fantasy wars! Mutants! Dragons! The world building in this novel doesn’t disappoint. The zombie apocalypse reminded me of World War Z, which I loved. The invasion of New Karlsville scarred and shocked me, and felt like a vignette out of World War Z with a fantasy twist. This was the strongest aspect of the novella for me. This scene was genuinely scary and impactful, and I wish the novella would’ve opened with this instead because it would’ve roped me into the story faster. Instead, we’re introduced to Quinn as this ultra-badass, and I kind of hate when a non-POV character is heralded as such a badass immediately. It takes time to establish awesome characters are awesome and don’t just tell me this guy is awesome–I have to come to believe it for myself by the character’s actions. I was never as in awe of Quinn as the narrator, 12 year old Abney. That’s probably intentional, but this story is notably better once the focus shifts from how awesome knight Quinn is to the stakes of Abney and his mom attempting to resettle after the New Karlsville disaster.

Unfortunately, like with many novellas, I always feel like I’m in the middle of a story that feels half-baked. There’s a lot of world building that’s vague, and no amount of connecting with the characters or potential coolness of the world could eliminate this feeling of being unmoored for me. There’s also an incongruous aspect to this novella: Abney is a 12-year old protagonist, which really works for introducing us to this futuristic world. However, this is another narrative retelling, where we’re being told about Abney’s journey from New Karlsville to Winfort by the older Abney that already made the journey. Older Abney, presumably, should’ve known more about the world than 12-year old Abney, but we’re never given this perspective. It gives the world building a bait-and-switch feel where a lot of information is purposefully kept from us by the narrator and characters in story.

Notes:

Because this novella was short and a quick read, I don’t have any real notes on it. Instead, I have a major complaint about the overall production of the novella. Being that this is the ‘notes’ section, you’re free to agree or disagree, but it’s how this novella is positioned within a series that ultimately broke my engagement with it, not anything in particular to do with the writing or the characters or the admittedly amazing setting. The Emperor’s Railroad is listed as a Dreaming Cities story. I went looking for more Dreaming Cities books to see if this was a story about a side character in a larger series. If there had been preexisting, full length novels about the angels and the wars between the dreaming cities and the emperor, I would’ve read them. I felt like I was missing SO MUCH backstory, and I was freaking sick of being teased about it by the end of the novella. I wanted that story. This novella? It’s not that story. It’s not even a companion to that story. This is supposed to be the first in a series, which is why the world building teased me so much, but it should’ve been an entire novel. Maybe not this individual tale of Abney and his mom, but it’s a good side-character vignette, world-expansion novella for an already established series. This novella didn’t make me want to continue reading this series because I didn’t care about Quinn and all his mysteries because the story wasn’t about those.

Rating: 3 stars

There is a lot of strong aspects to this story, and it’s ultimately a captivating and well-done vignette. If it would’ve been a companion novella to an additional series, I would’ve given that series a try. As a part one in a new series? I’m not sure this works as that. Does it intrigue? Yes, but this story referenced events that we had no idea about–and that we weren’t going to learn the full meanings of in this novella. It’s a testament to how well-done the overall work is that this didn’t make me rage quit, but this world is well-developed and frustratingly under explained and under explored.

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REVIEW: Minotaur

Minotaur by Phillip W. Simpson

The summary of this story is obvious: it’s a retelling of the infamous Creteian Minotaur’s life. The minotaur, Ast, meets Ovid, the famous Roman poet, and recounts the details of his life over a thousand years after the events of the labyrinth occurred. I love mythology and ancient history, and that’s what drew me to this book initially. This novel was a quintessential For Want of A Nail story for me,  and if you love stories from the monster’s POV (think the classic Grendel), then Minotaur is going to be a net positive read for you (it was for me). There’s a lot of good in this novel, but the format of the retelling weighs it down and limits how connected I felt to this story at any given time.

Ast retelling his life to Ovid is an interesting premise. The narrative retelling format makes sense for this story, and it lends the story a mythological feel. However, after reading a couple stories that relied on this narrative retelling format, I think there’s some major draw backs in telling a story this way. Because Ast tells you a lot of things, this makes some of the other characters in the story seem under developed. Pheadra suffers the most from this, and that’s a shame because it would’ve been a better story if I understood her more or had a better feeling of her as person.

I love mythology retellings and reimaginings, but this story didn’t quite do it for me. How you feel about this retelling will likely depend on how engaged you are with Ast’s narrative voice. It’s not bad, and the style is purposefully archaic, but that does mean that it’s a bit dry. Still, I liked Ast as a character; he’s a purposeful gentle giant, and his treatment during his childhood, his encounters with bandits, and his events in the labyrinth turn on the foil between Ast’s appearance and his true personality. We rely on Ast for most of the story–and solely during the retellings–to form opinions on the characters. All their actions are filtered through his perspective, which causes the characters to lose a bit of their own agency and personality. At the same time, Ast is a reliable narrator, and there’s no reason given why he’d be anything but honest with Ovid. In some ways, this creates a more boring story–Ast has clearly developed some emotional distance and perspective on the events of his childhood.

Ovid isn’t much of a character, and that’s a shame because a more developed character could’ve helped this story. Ovid is a drunken old man with three divorces, and he serves mainly as a personality foil for Ast. There are also a lot of ‘genius bonuses’ for readers who know a bit about Minoan society and Greek mythology. Icarus makes an appearance; of course Theseus does, and his characterization stands out a bit stronger than most. King Minos comes across as a mustache twirling villain, but this hardly matters as the story needs a strong antagonist, and he fits that role.

Notes:

  • I did end up sympathizing with Ast. I mean, it’s hard not to after all the kick-the-dog moments in this novel.
  • This is one of my favorite myths. I mean, this is catnip to me.
  • The ‘twist’ ending is telegraphed pretty hard; Ovid seems like a  moron for not figuring this out, but I guess he’s drunk.
  • There’s a pet rat in this novel! Glacaus was an adorable character, but once again, this my me being a sucker for animal companions. Rats are the cutest. Videos of pet rats:

Einstein and Darwin

Baby rats (bonus dog)

Rating: 3 stars:

The minotaur is my favorite myth, and I love monster POV retellings. However, the style of this story was too dry for me to ultimately love the book. The narrative retelling hampered my ability to connect with other characters beside Ast.

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REVIEW: Saint’s Blood

Saint’s Blood by Sebastien de Castell

(Note: Saint’s Blood is the third book in The Greatcoat’s series. This was the first time I’d heard of this series, and I’d highly recommend you start from the beginning at Traitor’s Blade because these books are worth it. The Greatcoat’s series has gotten a fair share of comparisons to The Three Musketeers. Tristia has a Spanish (Castilian if you want to be technical) feel to it, which sets it apart from the clear Dumas influences that inspired the series initially.)

There’s so much about this book to love. It’s a quality swashbuckler tale, and every time I thought I had this story figured out, it kept going and changing the rules. With less competent narration, this wouldn’t work, but Falcio’s blend of humor, stubbornness, and world-weariness ground this fast-paced story in a depth of human emotions. Falcio, the First Cantor of the Greatcoats, starts the story in a duel. The entire novel revolves around duels, which works well because the fight scenes are all well-paced and authentically fun. That’s another thing about this series that I loved: the humor between the characters (especially the three friends Brasti, Kest, and Falcio) fits with their personalities and helped me get into the story. I love humorous fantasy, but it’s so rare to find quality humor mixed in with gory action scenes and have it work.

The duel transitions to a palace attack, and the fearful attacker is the Saint, Birgid, who’s controlled by powerful magical mask. The main plot launches here, and the Greatcoats have to figure out who is killing the Saints of Tristia before said murderer can kill Ethalia, the newest Saint of Mercy and Falcio’s on-again-off-again-it’s-complicated lover. If you’re new to the series, there’s a lot of back story with the dead King, Falcio’s daughter Valiana, and Falcio’s dead wife Aline that consume the beginning chapters of the story. You can get into the series here, but it’s going to be a bit of a tough go for several chapters until they get to the church and try to save Saint Birgid.

The tension between the various factions drives this story. If you like the political elements of A Song of Ice and Fire, these political intrigue plots are for you. It can be a bit hard to keep track of them, but the general gist of who they support is well-defined. The church and what their end game is won’t be apparent until later in the novel, but the tension between Aline, the future girl queen, and the nobles is clear the entire time. Valiana, in particular, is an interesting character, and her duty to uphold the laws of the crumbling kingdom of Tristia and her personal struggle throughout the story is poignant.

This is one of those reviews where I feel that I can’t say a lot because there are so many plot twists in the story, and the layers of plot build organically upon each other. The God’s Needle cult is terrifying, and every time they appear, their importance is intensified. Their introduction is brilliant, too, and the way the cult and religion are used to try and control the kingdom felt realistic.

The world building blew me away. I kept wondering when the author would run out of plot twists or when something would fall flat, but none of the build up into the finale did. There kept being more, but the narrative is so solid that this doesn’t feel fast or clunky. Maybe, if I’m pressed, I’ll say I didn’t care about the resolution after all of the amazing layering of the plot leading into the final battle. The world building is powerful, and after we meet the real villain (WAY further into the novel than you’ll be expecting), it becomes difficult for the resolution and climax to live up to the phenomenal story that leads up to it. That’s not to say the ending is bad–it’s not–but this isn’t a book you read for the ending but for the thrilling, poignant, and occasionally humorous journey that takes you to it.

 

Notes:

  • I know a little about fencing, and the fight mechanics during this story always work. There’s no cheap moments during the fight scenes, and if you like a nice mix of realistic fighting with a little sprinkling of fantasy thrown in, this is the book for you. I can’t stress enough how great the actions sequences are.
  • Inconceivable—got to get that sweet, sweet Princess Bride shout out.
  • Bless fantasy that makes me laugh. I’m serious. There’s not enough of that out there, and it’s one of the main reasons I love heroic fantasy. Bring me joy, damn it, and then SMASH IT. Thanks. 🙂
  • “They’re never expecting the Spanish Inquisition.”
  • The diversity of weapons used by the Greatcoats is fantastic. It helps define their characters, but in heroic fantasy, that works well.
  • I’ve laughed more times in this novel than I do with most. That made the relationships between the character feel real.
  • Blood moths. Glad someone tapped into the natural horror that is moths.

Rating: 5 stars

This is a strong entry in an already strong series. If you like swashbuckling fantasy, this is the story for you. There’s a nice blend of humor, action, and world-building that’s underpinned by a unique narrative voice.

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REVIEW: The Blood Sigil

The Blood Sigil by Kevin Hoffman

I enjoyed the fantasy sci-fi magic blend that’s The Fifth Vertex. This is a sophomore slump in the series. The three main characters, Urus, Cailix, and Goodwyn are still as well fleshed-out as they were in the first book, but there are pacing problems that hampered my interests in this follow up book. The world building is still solid, but some of the new characters don’t work, which is a problem for the plot.

The story starts when Urus is going to a council meeting to determine if he lives or dies. He’s sentenced to death, but he’s saved by another sigilord, Lu (or Luse). Lu wasn’t as fleshed out as the main three cast members, and she had LOVE INTEREST plastered on her from page one. Her relationships with the characters, even Urus, never felt fleshed out enough. She’s a huge character early in the book, which is what I think drags it down.

Cailix starts on an island with the shepherds. She’s bored and sneaking off to use blood magic. She develops a relationship with farm-boy Colin, and their relationship develops more naturally, and her coming to care about Colin worked well to grow her character. Cailix caring about her adopted family and being the most ruthless character is interesting. Anderis returns and gets stabbed with a pitchfork is excellent.

In general, this moves slower than the first book. Having all the characters split up so early on makes it feel fractured. Goodwyn is chasing hellhounds, but these scenes lack the interests of Urus and Cailix’s chapters. Goodwyn felt more relevant in The Fifth Vertex. His scenes feel so disconnected from the rest of the action, which is a shame, because I liked his character so well in the first book when he was more connected to the plot.

The story picks up momentum when Urus gets back to Kest. The first book relied on Kest, and the second book lacks that central thematic location and driving cultural force of the first story. As the characters come together and the plots connect, the story gets new life when Murin and Goodwyn are united. Autar is the best addition to the series, and his arrival automatically engaged me again, but it just takes too long to get there (about two-thirds of the way through).

Notes:

  • The blood magic is back, and it’s still the best. I don’t care for Anderis’s dues ex machina powers.
  • Cailix is the star character of this novel. She’s a well-rounded character this time around, and she has the greatest struggle with her blood magic and the corruption.
  • Lu is a bore. It’s unfortunate so much of the early story hangs on her character.
  • Like it when the space/fantasy elements show up again. Reminds me of Andre Norton a bit.

Rating: 3 stars

The series has some interesting world building elements in it, and those come into play towards the end of the book. However, the beginning of this book drug on and on for me, which hampered the solid characters in the series.

Book Review: A Stolen Kiss

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A Stolen Kiss by Kelsey Keating

A Stolen Kiss

Derric is a stable boy whose sister, Sarah, is the lady in waiting to Princess Maria. Maria is under a curse, which she thinks can be broken by Prince Humphrey. However, curses are like contracts, and true love gets in the way, so Derric has to have is step mother, the evil sorceress, but the curse on Maria. There are a lot of good plot elements that should be in this story, but the characters are one-dimensional and the writing lacks the humor needed to carry off the story’s more interesting ideas.

The book starts as info-dumpy with characters wondering about their lives. There’s not enough world building and the characters do a lot of talking about each other without becoming fleshed out as characters. There’s nothing more tedious than characters talking about themselves without doing anything that shows they’re well-rounded people. They problem could’ve been avoided because there’s some tension buried deep in the story.

Derric’s mom is an evil sorceress, Gilda Harver, who provides some twists towards the end of the story, but this should’ve come earlier in the book because I just didn’t care by the end. Gilda shows up almost at the end, and there’s no tension because of this. There’s a lot of ‘point A’ to ‘point B’ without any real movement in the narrative. There’s a lot of ‘cryptic’ messages, but this is the problem with having the main plot rely too much on hidden backstory. It saps the novel of any tension it might’ve had.

This brings me to the world building, which is thin and hinders the character growth. The characters only talk about the plot because there’s nothing else they like and no other context to their world. There’s not enough world building in this story to make it an interesting MG tale, and a bit more development in both characters and ANY of their surroundings would’ve helped. There just keeps being more and more random characters added, and none of them stick with you.

Random Notes:

  • Too many riddles, too thin on details.
  • I wanted to love this book, but these characters are so thin. Very little they did made me care about them. Maria’s curse and Derric’s mother were interesting, but it was too little too late.
  • This story wants to be funny, but it’s not. It wants to be cute, but it’s not.
  • There shouldn’t literally be a list of ‘why’ questions you want your readers to think about.

Rating:

2 stars: This might work for MG readers, but if you’re a fantasy fan or fairy tale retelling junkie, skip this book.