A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic #1) by V.E. Schwab

Here is Grey London, a dirty and boring city with no magic and a mad king. Then there is Red London, a city of excitement where life and magic are revered. There is also White London, a city slowly dying from being drained through magical war. Once, there was a Black London, but no one speaks of that land now.

Kell is from Red London. He is one of the last magicians that is able to travel between worlds. Officially he acts as ambassador and messenger, moving between the different Londons in service of the Maresh empire. Unofficially, he is a smuggler; a dangerous hobby that becomes even more so when he comes across a forbidden token from Black London.

Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard; a thief with aspirations of her own. First, she robs him, then she saves him, and finally, she forces him to take her to another world for what she believes will be a proper adventure.

A Darker Shade of Magic is one of those books that several people, both online and offline, had recommended to me. With my love of fantasy-type stories, I knew it would simply be a matter of time before I eventually read it.

Oh, dear reader, I do not know why I waited so long.

From the first page where we are introduced to Kell and the multiple Londons to the last page when we are forced to part ways with him, I was enraptured.

Schwab does a most admirable job in creating a world that is both familiar and new. Those who have been to London will recognize some of the places she describes; because even though they are from an earlier time, many of these places stand today. The Grey London she describes is the London of the early 1800s, it is messy and dark and it isn’t always pleasant. But it is real.

The same can be said of Red London and White London as well. There is the air of familiarity but there is also the foreign. The people who inhabit these places are a result of the realms they live in and it is evident when Kell and Lila interact with them.

At times the background characters can come across as a little one-dimensional, but this is often the case. Because they are often deemed as not important, the author often gives only the most basic of information to us, the reader. I am not terribly affronted or concerned with this as it happens quite often.

A Darker Shade of Magic is one of those rare books that I eagerly recommend to all of my followers. I am quite sure everyone will find something in this book to love. Personally, I am looking forward to getting the next book in the series to read and review.

The Paper Magician (Paper Magician #1) by Charlie N. Holmberg

Ceony Twill arrives at the cottage of Magician Emery Thane with a broken heart. Having graduated at the top of her class from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony is assigned an apprenticeship in paper magic despite her dreams of bespelling metal. And once she’s bonded to paper, that will be her only magic…forever.

Yet the spells Ceony learns under the strange yet kind Thane turn out to be more marvelous than she could have ever imagined—animating paper creatures, bringing stories to life via ghostly images, even reading fortunes. But as she discovers these wonders, Ceony also learns of the extraordinary dangers of forbidden magic.

An Excisioner—a practitioner of dark, flesh magic—invades the cottage and rips Thane’s heart from his chest. To save her teacher’s life, Ceony must face the evil magician and embark on an unbelievable adventure that will take her into the chambers of Thane’s still-beating heart—and reveal the very soul of the man.

Trigger Warning: Blood, Fantasy violence, Toxic relationship, Death of a child (occurs off-page), Death of an adult (occurs off-page), Death of an animal (paper animal)

The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg is one of those books that’s been sitting on my To Be Read list for a while. I remember downloading it to my e-reader ages ago but I never got around to reading it. Finally, I decided it was time to start whittling down my TBR list and this was one of the first books I picked up to do it with.

Like so many who have read and reviewed it, it’s a bit difficult to pin down the exact genre this book would fit into. The main heroine is 19 so does that make it Young Adult? No, not quite. The setting is a pseudo-Victorian era England so does that make it Historical Fiction? Again, no not quite. Over the course of the book, Ceony develops a kind of crush on Emery and it’s hinted that he might like her back. So does that mean it’s a Romance? Yet again, I have to say no.

For everything that The Paper Magician is not, there is one thing I can definitely say. And that is it is an enjoyable read. As with so many books, there are of course flaws. The overall plotline and story can be a bit slow and maudlin at times. The characters can be wishy-washy and sometimes one-dimensional. Some of the violence was a bit over the top as was the overall final “battle”.

Does that mean I won’t recommend it to my readers? Not at all. Like some whose reviews I read in order to write this one – while reading The Paper Magician, I was reminded of Howl’s Moving Castle (both book and movie). It too is a not quite perfect book that gets mixed reviews but there are people who love it deeply. Myself included.

A History of What Comes Next (Take Them to the Stars #1) by Sylvain Neuvel

Always run, never fight.
Preserve the knowledge.
Survive at all costs.
Take them to the stars.

Over 99 identical generations, Mia’s family has shaped human history to push them to the stars, making brutal, wrenching choices and sacrificing countless lives. Her turn comes at the dawn of the age of rocketry. Her mission: to lure Wernher Von Braun away from the Nazi party and into the American rocket program, and secure the future of the space race.

But Mia’s family is not the only group pushing the levers of history: an even more ruthless enemy lurks behind the scenes.

A darkly satirical first contact thriller, as seen through the eyes of the women who make progress possible and the men who are determined to stop them… 

When I originally picked up A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel, I was intrigued. As someone who has had a lifelong love of space and science fiction, I have always enjoyed reading books where characters dream (and often achieve) going to the stars.

Unfortunately though, what I got when reading A History of What Comes Next was vastly different than what I was expecting. While the general story itself was quite interesting, the writing was often dry and lackluster. The characters of mother Sarah and daughter Mia were difficult to connect to. It was difficult to actually care about what happened to them over the course of the book. Much like the characters do with the people around them, we too are held at arms’ length and are not let in close.

Neuvel relies heavily on the scientific and technical details throughout A History of What Comes Next. And while this is fine for some scenes, it simply does not work for others. It also means a good bit of background information is left out. Like, who exactly are the Kibsu? Why must there only be two? Why do the daughters look exactly like the mothers? What is the significance of the necklace mother passes down to daughter?

None of the questions are answered and when there is the occasional interlude into previous eras it leaves one with only more questions and few answers.

There is a second book in the series and I am curious about it. It continues where the first book leaves off with Mia. I will likely be reading it only to see if any of my questions are answered.

It would be hard for me to recommend this book to any but the most hardcore space enthusiasts out there. Perhaps if the book were handled differently, written in a smoother style it would be easier to read and enjoy.

Provided for Review: The Knave of Secrets by Alex Livingston

Never stake more than you can afford to lose.

When failed magician turned cardsharp Valen Quinol is given the chance to play in the Forbearance Game—the invitation-only tournament where players gamble with secrets—he can’t resist. Or refuse, for that matter, according to the petty gangster sponsoring his seat at the table. Valen beats the man he was sent to play, and wins the most valuable secret ever staked in the history of the tournament.

Now Valen and his motley crew are being hunted by thieves, gangsters, spies and wizards, all with their own reasons for wanting what’s in that envelope. It’s a game of nations where Valen doesn’t know all the rules or who all the players are, and can’t see all the moves. But he does know if the secret falls into the wrong hands, it could plunge the whole world into war…

This book was provided for review by the author and the kind folks at The Write Reads. Thank you!

“Words had power. Words could kill. And secret words all the more.”

The Knave of Secrets by Alex Livingston is a fictional fantasy story of con men and cards, of gamblers and games, and the lengths some are willing to go to win.

The world that Livingston has created for The Knave of Secrets is a complex one. There are numerous cultures featured, not all of them friendly but all with one thing in common – the love of gambling and games. The same can be said for the characters, they too are complex with their love of gambling the main thing in common.

The main character Valen Quinol isn’t a young man but is described as one of middle age. A rarity in that most books of this kind feature a younger character often just starting out on their journey. Valen is well on his journey, having traveled it along with his wife and friends for some years already.

All of the characters are interesting in their own right and thankfully none of them are perfect. Mistakes are made and learned from. Fights and disagreements happen over plans. Even when things seem to go smoothly they don’t. Because of this, the characters are easy to relate to. Who doesn’t have arguments with their friends? Who doesn’t disagree sometimes with the ones they love most? It doesn’t mean we love them any less.

The only real quibble I have with The Knave of Secrets is the lack of “show don’t tell” in the storytelling. This is especially true during the many scenes featuring one game or another. In these instances, Livingston tells us what happens in the game but doesn’t really show us the action. While these scenes are intended to move the story along, sadly they fall flat while they attempt to do so.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Alex Livingston’s The Knave of Secrets. While the book is meant to be a standalone, I would very much enjoy seeing more tales from this world he has created. I recommend this book to my readers and I would remind them of an adage that every gambler knows:

The House Always Wins.

Provided for Review: Hall of Mirrors by Roxanne Lalande

The year is 1682, and the place is the palace of Versailles, where the Sun King, Louis the Fourteenth, reigns supreme over four thousand resident courtiers. Their social and political lives are intricately intertwined within a rigid hierarchy of etiquette.

Behind the brilliant facade of lavish festivities lies a shadowy world of intrigue, promiscuity, sorcery, and murder.

When human remains and a silver locket are unearthed on the neighboring estate of her husband’s lover, the duchess Elisabeth Charlotte d’Orleans investigates their origin and jeopardizes her own safety when her discoveries lead to the criminal involvement of her most powerful enemies at court.

This book was provided for review by Netgalley. Thank you!

Hall of Mirrors by Roxanne Lalande has the perfect setting for a murder mystery – the court at Versailles under the rule of the Sun King, Louis XIV. In a place where conspiracies and hidden plots were part of the norm, the discovery of human remains and a mysterious locket compel Elisabeth Charlotte d’Orleans to delve further into the mystery behind them.

My dearest reader, I so wanted to like Hall of Mirrors but unfortunately, it was disappointing. With so many characters it was difficult to keep track of what exactly was going on and to who it was happening. This is especially true since many of the characters have more than one name or title and could be called one or the other. The writing was confusing at times and the dialogue often had a stilted feel to it. Character information was often given in huge chunks of dialogue which I presume is meant to feel like listening to gossip but comes across more like clunky info dumps.

While I did enjoy reading about life at Versailles under Louis XIV and how frustrating it could sometimes be, it would have been nice if the main murder mystery plot had been given the same attention.

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Isabelle should be blissfully happy – she’s about to win the handsome prince. Except Isabelle isn’t the beautiful girl who lost the glass slipper and captured the prince’s heart. She’s the ugly stepsister who’s cut off her toes to fit into Cinderella’s shoe … which is now filling with blood.

When the prince discovers Isabelle’s deception, she is turned away in shame. It’s no more than she deserves: she is a plain girl in a world that values beauty; a feisty girl in a world that wants her to be pliant.

Isabelle has tried to fit in. To live up to her mother’s expectations. To be like her stepsister. To be sweet. To be pretty. One by one, she has cut away pieces of herself in order to survive a world that doesn’t appreciate a girl like her. And that has made her mean, jealous, and hollow.

Until she gets a chance to alter her destiny and prove what ugly stepsisters have always known: it takes more than heartache to break a girl.

Trigger Warning: body mutilation, general violence, general blood and gore, character death

There are quite a few Cinderella retellings on book shelves, but there are very few that focus on characters beside Cinderella or the Prince. But that is exactly what Jennifer Donnelly’s Stepsister does. Cinderella and her Prince are merely side characters in this retelling. Instead, the focus is shifted to the “evil” stepsisters and leads the reader to wonder if maybe they weren’t so evil after all.

Who among us has not sacrified part of themself for something they believed they wanted? Who has not changed who they were to make the people they loved happy? Who has not made themselves miserable to please others and done it with a smile?

Isabelle has done all of these things in the belief that one day she will be happy.

Isabelle’s path is one that many will likely recognize and relate to. In order to fit in and make her mother happy she has changed who she fundamentally is even at the risk of destroying herself. When given the chance to have her happily ever after she believes she knows exactly what to do.

The journey Isabelle, her sister, and their mother go on is not an easy one. They are met with the same cruelty and indifference they meted out on Cinderella and some readers might find that hard to take. Their bullying ways are turned back on them making them the ones being bullied. And while it does end up being a worthwhile lesson, it is also a painful one.

I personally enjoyed reading Stepsister. Isabella and her sister Tiva show great character growth from beginning to end. In my opinion it has a good ending and a good message without being too preachy. It is very likely that I will be seeking out more books by this author.

The Strings of Murder (Frey and McGray #1) by Oscar de Muriel

Edinburgh, 1888. A virtuoso violinist is brutally killed in his home. Black magic symbols cover the walls. The dead man’s maid swears she heard three musicians playing before the murder.

But with no way in or out of the locked practice room, the puzzle makes no sense…

Fearing a national panic over a copycat Ripper, Scotland Yard sends Inspector Ian Frey to investigate under the cover of a fake department specializing in the occult. However, Frey’s new boss – Detective ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray – actually believes in such nonsense.

McGray’s tragic past has driven him to superstition, but even Frey must admit that this case seems beyond reason. And once someone loses all reason, who knows what they will lose next…

Trigger Warning: Murder, general gore, death of an infant

Set in the Victorian Era, The Strings of Murder follows Inspector Ian Frey as he is sent to Edinburgh to investigate the brutal murder of a well-known violinist. Upon his arrival, he is paired up with Detective McGray, a local detective who has also been selected to investigate. Immediately the two men butt heads; their personalities could not be any more different.

With McGray’s fervent belief in the occult and Frey’s skepticism, I was reminded of another pair of investigators – the X-Files Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.

Though I never wanted to slap Scully as much as I did Ian Frey.

Frey’s penchant for what could only be considered whining was irritating and quickly became tiresome. McGray wasn’t nearly as bad but sometimes he felt more like a stereotypical caricature of a Scotsman and less like an individual.

The actual resolution to the murder itself though was a unique one. Locked room mysteries can be solved in so many different ways and de Murial was able to accomplish it in a way I had yet to encounter.

Final thoughts: Good mystery, satisfactory ending, incredibly irritating characters.

Provided for Review: Lying with Lions by Annabel Fielding

Edwardian England.

Agnes Ashford knows that her duty is threefold: she needs to work on cataloguing the archive of the titled Bryant family, she needs to keep the wounds of her past tightly under wraps, and she needs to be quietly grateful to her employers for taking her up in her hour of need.

However, a dark secret she uncovers due to her work thrusts her into the Bryants’ brilliant orbit – and into the clutch of their ambitions.

They are prepared to take the new century head-on and fight for their preeminent position and political survival tooth and nail – and not just to the first blood.

With a mix of loyalty, competence, and well-judged silence Agnes rises to the position of a right-hand woman to the family matriarch – the cunning and glamorous Lady Helen. But Lady Helen’s plans to hold on to power through her son are as bold as they are cynical, and one day Agnes is going to face an impossible choice…

This book was provided for review by the author via NetGalley. Thank you!

Trigger Warning: Death of a child (mentioned, happens off-page), Abortion (mentioned, happens off-page), Rape (mentioned, happens off-page)

Set at the end of the Edwardian Era and in to the first World War, Lying with Lions is a page turning tale.

Told primarily from the view point of archivist Agnes Ashford, she is a young woman who has been hired to sort and categorize the countless documents amassed by the Bryant family. It is during this time that Agnes uncovers a secret the Bryant family would rather forget. Armed with this information Agnes positions herself closer to Lady Helen, moving from mere employee to close companion and even lover.

The story of Lying with Lions takes place over many years, through numerous changes both to society as a whole and to the Bryant family itself. There are not only changes without but within as slowly Agnes’ “power” grows. Like Lady Helen, Agnes need only say the right word to the right person and she can move mountains. As the relationship between the two women deepens over time, one is left to wonder who is controlling and influencing who.

It is obvious that Fielding put in a great deal of research to write Lying with Lions. The atmosphere she is able to create is at times breathtaking, as is the way she is able to effortlessly weave historical and fictional events. The relationships between characters – not just Agnes and Helen, but the Bryant children, Harold and Meredith – are so carefully thought out. Each event serves not only to push the story forward but to also subtly reveal new facets of each person involved.

Some readers might have issue with the overall pacing of Lying with Lions. Much like the Bryant family, change – and the overall storyline – can be slow. And while there are a few placed where the story does seem to drag, I encourage any reader to stick with the book as it all pays off in the end.

A wonderfully gothic tale centering on the lengths one will go to for power and control, Lying with Lions is for older readers.

Provided for Review: The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

Practical, unassuming Jane Shoringfield has done the calculations, and decided that the most secure path forward is this: a husband, in a marriage of convenience, who will allow her to remain independent and occupied with meaningful work. Her first choice, the dashing but reclusive doctor Augustine Lawrence, agrees to her proposal with only one condition: that she must never visit Lindridge Hall, his crumbling family manor outside of town. Yet on their wedding night, an accident strands her at his door in a pitch-black rainstorm, and she finds him changed. Gone is the bold, courageous surgeon, and in his place is a terrified, paranoid man—one who cannot tell reality from nightmare, and fears Jane is an apparition, come to haunt him.

By morning, Augustine is himself again, but Jane knows something is deeply wrong at Lindridge Hall, and with the man she has so hastily bound her safety to. 

This book was provided for review by NetGalley. Thank you!

When I first saw the blurb on NetGalley for The Death of Jane Lawrence, I was intrigued. Especially once I saw it compared to Crimson Peak – a personal favorite in both book and movie. So it leaves little doubt that I had to request it.

The Death of Jane Lawrence on the surface has a basic enough premise. There is a young woman with a potential decision to make and there is a handsome young man with a dark secret. Add in the ubiquitous crumbling manor house and you have the recipe for most any gothic novel. That however is where the comparison ends because this book contains so much more.

I think what I liked best about The Death of Jane Lawrence was how unexpected it was. What I mean is, while reading it I was quite sure I knew the direction in which the story would go. Having read my fair share of gothic novels – both modern and historical – I tend to be able to guess how a story of this kind will end. And while sometimes I am correct there are other times where I am wrong. The Death of Jane Lawrence proved that point to me, that one cannot always guess how a book is going to go.

I quite enjoyed reading this book. Starling does a wonderful job of creating the perfect moody setting with Lindridge Hall and its surroundings. She peoples it with characters that are sympathetic and ones that are insensitive and at times they are the same person.

As a fan of gothic novels, I heartily recommend The Death of Jane Lawrence to my readers. With the colder months soon upon us it the perfect spooky book to settle down with on a dark night.

Tidelands (The Fairmile #1) by Philippa Gregory

Midsummer’s Eve, 1648, England is in the grip of a civil war between renegade king and rebellious parliament. The struggle reaches every corner of the kingdom, even the remote tidelands —the marshy landscape of the south coast.

Alinor, a descendant of wisewomen, trapped in poverty and superstition, waits in the graveyard under the full moon for a ghost who will declare her free from her abusive husband. Instead, she meets James, a young man on the run, and shows him the secret ways across the treacherous marsh, not knowing that she is leading disaster into the heart of her life.

Suspected of possessing dark secrets in superstitious times, Alinor’s ambition and determination mark her out from her neighbors. This is the time of witch mania, and Alinor, a woman without a husband, skilled with herbs, suddenly enriched, arouses envy in her rivals and fear among the villagers, who are ready to take lethal action into their own hands.

It is dangerous for a woman to be different. 

Trigger Warning: mentions of abortion, mentions of childbirth

England, 1648. It is a dangerous time to be a woman. It is an even more dangerous time to be an intelligent woman.

Alinor is one such woman. A skilled midwife and herbalist, she is determined to make a life for herself and her two children. Not knowing if her husband is alive or dead, she lives in a kind of limbo as neither a widow or a wife. Meeting the mysterious James in a graveyard at midnight only complicates matters. He has taken a liking to the lovely young mother and worse still, she has taken a liking to him.

Author Philippa Gregory is well known for her historical novels. Sweeping stories with a variety of characters from all walks of society. Tidelands is her latest novel, the first in a new series. Different in that the main focus is on the “common” man as opposed to royalty with her other books yet alike in showing that while the way of thinking might change and become more modern, the old ways never truly leave.

The romance between Alinor and James is best described as a slow burn. And it is a very slow burn. Any real action between the two characters doesn’t happen until the second half of the book. With the first half being dedicated to mostly describing Alinor’s life and routine in the tidelands it is easy to understand how some readers were unable to finish the book.

While it is obvious Gregory has once again done a great deal of research in to the time period and lays it out for us the reader, it comes at the expense of character development. Especially in regards to the main character, Alinor. The term “one note character” is often used in reviews and this term can also be used here. It is quite understandable that for a woman in Alinor’s circumstances a smart move would be to keep one’s head down and be unobtrusive. But how many times can a person be expected to turn the other cheek and not show some kind of reaction?

I can understand wanting to keep the peace but surely some kind of emotional reaction would have been felt? A grimace, grit teeth, clenched hands hidden in an apron, something? Sadly, on more than one occasion Alinor simply takes what is dished out to her and says nothing.

The ending of the novel felt very rushed and had an abrupt stop. It is obviously meant as a lead in to the next novel in the series but a little more to the story would have been nice. A better explanation of what happened to the characters between one scene and the next would have been most welcome.

As someone who has read and enjoyed other novels by Philippa Gregory, I felt rather let down by Tidelands. It is one of those books that while I cannot readily recommend it, neither can I tell anyone to firmly stay away. All I can say is try it and make your own decision.