“Wild is the Witch” by Rachel Griffin – Review

By: Angie Haddock


When eighteen-year-old witch Iris Gray accidentally enacts a curse that could have dire consequences, she must team up with a boy who hates witches to make sure her magic isn’t unleashed on the world.

Goodreads


Iris and her mom are both witches. Iris’ best friend back home, Amy, was a witch, too. But she got into trouble, and the witch council took her magic away. Iris was present, but the council determined that she was not involved. Not everyone trusted her after that incident, though, and eventually she and her mom moved away to start over. Her dad did not come with them, which causes Iris to not want to get close to new people. She is especially guarded about being a witch. If even her own dad ended up not being able to handle it, why would other people?

Their new home is in the Pacific Northwest, where they run a wildlife refuge. It’s perfect for them, as their magic is one that focuses on animals. An old friend of her mom’s is also in the area, and runs a restaurant. They’ve established a good “home” there.

Pike Adler, a college student studying ornithology, is interning at the refuge. Not only is he cocky, but he mentions more than once that he hates witches. This makes Iris feel threatened. She doesn’t want her or her mom’s lives disrupted again, not when they seem to have found the perfect place. So she writes a curse for Pike. Now, she wasn’t really intending on cursing him – the plan was to write it out and not use it. Like some people write angry letters they don’t ever send. She means to bind the curse to a bundle of herbs, and burn it. No one gets hurt, right?

Except that an owl swoops down while she’s doing this ritual, and now the owl carries the curse. And then he flies away.

Obviously, Iris is panicking and wants to go after the owl. She knows how much trouble she could cause with the curse out there in the wild, and she’s already had to witness her best friend lose her sense of magic. Her mom, not knowing about the curse part, agrees to let Iris track the owl and try to bring him back… if she takes Pike along. He is a bird expert in training, after all.

This is a YA book, so of course some romance blossoms during their adventures. And in fact, the ending is a little too happy to be believable, in my opinion. (It’s fine, it’s what the audience probably wants, but it’s not super realistic. But then again, it’s a book about magic, so…) But I enjoyed the adventures they have trying to get to the owl, nonetheless. The book takes place in the spring, but I felt like summer was still a great time to be reading about nature, hiking, and camping (and s’mores).

This book comes out today, August 2nd. I was able to read ahead thanks to the publisher, Sourcebooks, and NetGalley.


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“The Final Strife” by Saara El-Arifi – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Sylah dreams of days growing up in the resistance, being told she would spark a revolution that would free the empire from the red-blooded ruling classes’ tyranny. That spark was extinguished the day she watched her family murdered before her eyes.

Goodreads


This is a thick fantasy book, and only the first in an intended trilogy. It reminds me a lot of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, with a little bit of The Hunger Games thrown in. When the book has a map in the front, you know you’ll be doing some work!

In this land, everyone looks mostly the same on the outside – they are brown people, but their tattoos, clothes, etc. might differentiate them as one of three classes. But the real difference is underneath the skin, as these three classes are determined by blood color. Red for Embers, the ruling class; Blue for Dusters, the working class; and Clear for Ghostings, the servant class.

The Embers rule through four Wardens – Strength, Knowledge, Duty, and Truth. Every ten years, the Disciples of these four Wardens are promoted to be the new Wardens. Then new Disciples are chosen to train under them for the next ten years. They are chosen by holding a competition, which lasts over the course of several months.

We open with a storyteller, telling the story of The Sandstorm. About 20 years ago, twelve Ember babies were stolen overnight, and replaced with Duster babies. Most had been found and killed, but some wonder if any remain.

And then we meet Sylah. She is one of the Stolen, raised by Dusters to one day compete in the trials to become the Warden of Strength. But the training grounds of the Sandstorm were found and raided six years ago, when she was fifteen, and the people she was raised with were mostly killed. Since then, Sylah gets through her days by keeping herself drugged. She makes quick cash by fighting in an underground ring.

One night, her adoptive mother tells her that her real baby is being raised as the Warden of Strength’s daughter. In a drunken haze, Sylah decides to break into her quarters and see this other girl for herself. Thanks to some booby traps, though, the daughter of the Warden, Anoor, captures Sylah. Recognizing that she is on drugs, Anoor keeps her locked in her closet while she goes through withdrawals. Anoor has decided she wants to compete for the Disciple of Strength position, and, thinking Sylah is a trained assassin, she wants her to train her for the competition.

And y’all, this is just the first quarter or so of the book. Obviously, there are trainings, more withdrawal symptoms, competitions, and revelations on both sides as these two slowly begin to trust each other. We learn that there may be a new Sandstorm out there, reviving the old dream of overthrowing the Wardens. But whose win would be more effective in that pursuit: an Ember raised by Dusters, or a Duster raised by Embers?

There’s a lot to sink your teeth into here. If you’re in the mood to visit a juicy, in-depth, and sometimes violent fantasy world based on African lore – this one’s for you. “The Final Strife” comes out today, June 21st. I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley.


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“Gods of Jade and Shadow” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Review

By: Angie Haddock


The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.

Goodreads


This book starts out in the tiny village of Uukumil, in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico, in the year 1927. Our heroine, Casiopea Tun, is a teenager living in her grandfather’s household, alongside her widowed mother and various members of her extended family.

Casiopea is practically a slave to her grandfather, and is looked down upon by other members of her family. She is darker, with partially indigenous heritage, and her mother came back home poor. Casiopea waits on her cranky old grandfather hand and foot. Her older cousin, Martín, is the rightful heir to the family homestead and reputation – he’s male, after all – and he is constantly mean to her. She dreams of getting out into the world someday, but assumes this will always be just a dream.

One day, while the rest of the family is away, she opens a trunk that has always sat near her grandfather’s bed. Shockingly, the bones inside reassemble themselves into a man – of sorts. He has a commanding presence, but does not look like most men she’s met before. He’s also missing a few parts.

Hun-Kamé, who claims he is the rightful ruler of the Underworld, Xibalba, was imprisoned decades ago in this trunk. He was disassembled by his brother, and left to Casiopea’s grandfather for safe keeping. But now that he’s free, he must travel to other regions to find all his missing parts, then face his brother to reclaim his throne. And Casiopea is going with him.

So, one fun aspect of this book is all the mythology involved. We also have a road trip aspect, which is great for our main character, because she has always wanted to get away. A lot of it is an ode to the landscapes, both within Mexico and along the Mexico-US border, and to the era – women cutting their hair short, riding in an automobile for the first time, etc.

The full description also mentions that it’s a love story, and that had me worried. Our main character is a young-seeming teen, and her travel companion is an immortal god. Of death. So, that seems creepy. But, Hun-Kamé has never had to live like a human before, so inevitably he comes away learning as much from Casiopea as she does from him (or, their travels overall). This aspect makes him a lot less intimidating, to both Casiopea and the reader.

Our big final battle takes shape as a race down the Black Road, the main road in Xibalba that leads to the palace. The usurper brother had chosen Martín as his proxy, and Hun-Kamé has Casiopea as his. This part of the story doesn’t really get started until about 80% in, so the traveling and getting close to the main characters are truly the bulk of the book.

No, I won’t tell you how it ends. But it’s surprisingly emotional.

If you’re into fantasy stories with some real world geography thrown in, this one might be for you.


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“Yume” by Sifton Tracey Anipare – Review

By: Angie Haddock

A modern-day fantasy novel about demons, dreams, and a young woman teaching English in Japan.

Goodreads


This was a pretty hefty read – the paperback is expected to come in at 536 pages – with twisty and sometimes intense story lines. I am also not very well-versed in Japanese mythology, so I definitely took a while getting through this one. But it was certainly a wild and colorful ride!

Our main characters are Cybelle and Zaniel, although they don’t officially meet each other until the middle of the book. Cybelle is a black woman, originally from Canada, who has been teaching English in Japan for a handful of years now. Zaniel has a day job that is unimportant to the story… but by night, he finds human women for his boss, a demanding yokai named Akki.

How gorgeous is this cover?!

The world of yokai (mythical creatures of all shapes, sizes, and abilities) has been rocked recently by the arrival of a new creature. She grows larger and more powerful by eating – and she can also turn anything she wants into food to eat. At one point this includes Akki’s house, which puts her immediately at odds with the hot-tempered elder yokai.

Meanwhile, Cybelle is struggling to decide whether or not to renew her contract at the English school. The kids and parents are mostly ok, but she only gets along with one of her co-workers. She still feels like an outsider, at work and out in the world, even though she’s lived in Japan for over five years.

SEMI-SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT!

The new yokai eating her way through the dream world is Cybelle, when she’s asleep. I say this is a semi-spoiler because I felt like it was fairly evident from early on… but Cybelle herself doesn’t understand it until the end of the story.

Zaniel, being well-versed in yokai, figures out the new yokai’s identity much earlier. This is what brings him to Cybelle’s school, acting like he’s applying for a job. He really wants to get to know her real life persona, and thinks that they can help each other.

Their adventures together are wild – both the ones they take in person, and in the mythical dream world. This is where the book really starts gaining speed, in my opinion. As Akki comes after them, and they need to fight to save themselves, things also start to get pretty gruesome.

One of the interesting things to ponder throughout this story is how Cybelle’s feelings – being an outsider, being different, being tired and hungry – seem like intangibles in the real world, but are then very real in the dream world. How much of her transforming into a yokai directly came from these feelings? Or was it something else entirely – a cursed object or apartment?

This was a fun read, although not a quick one. It is the author’s first novel, and the part about teaching English in Japan is autobiographical. This book comes out today, but I was able to read an advanced copy through Netgalley and Dundurn Press.


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“Sing Me Forgotten ” by Jessica S. Olson – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Isda does not exist. At least not beyond the opulent walls of the opera house.

Goodreads


This one was outside my normal, but I feel like it’s good to read things that are new and different. I’d definitely put this in the realm of fantasy, but it also had a historical/classic vibe. I mean, where else have we seen a creature hiding in the shadows of an opera house? (Several blurbs about this one have already called it a gender-swapped “Phantom of the Opera.”)

Ostensibly, this takes place in a fictional town that seems to be in France. The period is probably more than a hundred years ago, as there are guns (rifles) but people ride in carriages or on horses. These things are pretty similar to our real world.

There is a definite mythology built here, though, and it involves creatures called fendoirs and gravoirs. These look like humans, but they have deformed faces. They also have powers to either steal or manipulate memories. Fendoirs are allowed to live in society, although with many restrictions. Mostly, they serve an economic purpose. Gravoirs, whose powers are greater, are killed at birth.

Our main character, Isda, is a gravoir. Since she should not have been allowed to live past birth, her reasons for needing to hide are obvious. She serves a purpose at the opera house, though – she manipulates the audience’s memories of the performances to make them all great, and erase any parts that went wrong. This inflates the reputation of the opera house, and Cyril, the man who runs it. Eventually, Cyril calls on Isda to use her powers to inflate his own political reputation, too.

Inevitably, Isda meets a boy. Emeric is roughly her age, and she is initially drawn to him because he has a fabulous singing voice. (She was raised in an opera house, after all, so she knows a lot about singing.) Rooting around in his memories, however, she realizes that he also knows more about gravoirs than she does. This leads her to start digging around to learn more about her powers. Both the digging and the experimenting/growing her own prowess lead to various sorts of trouble.

Toward the end, Isda is eventually found out. She must race and fight for her own life and Emeric’s. The ending is destructive and bittersweet.

This YA novel comes out today, March 9, 2021. I was able to read a digital advanced reader’s copy through Books Forward Friends and Netgalley.


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