Dragon Springs Road

By Janie Chang
Reviewed by SA

A few months ago, I jot the January Muse Monthly box, and the French postal system was having nothing of it. The box made a few loops around the world before this book landed at my doorstep, at which point I was far too excited about the book within and dying to drink the tea.

Faithful readers of this blog might notice that this is not a genre I usually read – I’m more of a scifi, fantasy type of gal – but I have a fascination with any historical fiction novel set outside of Europe. Double points if the main character is a girl. Triple points if she’s also biracial. And if you throw in some magic, I’m not going to be disappointed. And Dragon Springs Road is all of the above.

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That night I dreamed that I had wandered out to Dragon Springs Road all on my own, when a dreadful knowledge seized me that my mother had gone away never to return . . .

In 1908, Jialing is only seven years old when she is abandoned in the courtyard of a once-lavish estate outside Shanghai. Jialing is zazhong—Eurasian—and faces a lifetime of contempt from both Chinese and Europeans. Until now she’s led a secluded life behind courtyard walls, but without her mother’s protection, she can survive only if the estate’s new owners, the Yang family, agree to take her in.

Jialing finds allies in Anjuin, the eldest Yang daughter, and Fox, an animal spirit who has lived in the courtyard for centuries. But Jialing’s life as the Yangs’ bondservant changes unexpectedly when she befriends a young English girl who then mysteriously vanishes.

Murder, political intrigue, jealousy, forbidden love … Jialing confronts them all as she grows into womanhood during the tumultuous early years of the Chinese republic, always hopeful of finding her long-lost mother. Through every turn she is guided, both by Fox and by her own strength of spirit, away from the shadows of her past toward a very different fate, if she has the courage to accept it.

Twenty years in the life of a young biracial girl in China, at the turn of the century. A country in political turmoil, with old ways fading into new. An orphaned girl trying to make a way for herself in a world that will not accept her, aided by a fox spirit who knows more than she lets on.

This novel was simply captivating. It drew me in with lyrical prose, beautiful description, astounding storytelling. At times, it unfolds like a fairy tail, while in others it reads like a dickens novel. We follow Jialing, the daughter of a prostitute, as she grows from girl to young woman, her word expanding, just as the country itself starts shifting its customs. Still, not enough to make life easy for an orphaned “zazhong” (cruel name for mixed race). The characters are complex and have depth, many interconnected in ways you don’t realize until later.

While many events seem improbable, too coincidentally perfect to make sense, the author washes away those worries by putting the blame on Fox, a spirit who cares for young Jialing. The fact that yangs take her in, or how the missionary ladies want to make sure she can go to school and get an education, could only happen if there was a push from our caring friend.

Fox might have been the most fascinating of them all, and now I sort of wish there was a novel about her very long life. She waits at Dragon Springs Road for a door to the immortal realm, where she was finally be reunited with the humans she loves. The burdens of immortality. She was such a fascinating character: at times, I wondered if she was just a figment of Jialing’s imagination, but the world was much more magical with her in it.

While the ending felt a little melodramatic, as if the author wanted us to have more conflict in such a short amount of time, I quite loved this book. I mean, how can I not? It’s just so beautiful!

Brimstone

by Cherie Priest
Reviewed by S.A.
I did not expect to love this book as much as I did, and once the plot got rolling, I really devoured it. The novel was truly spellbinding, and I would myself sucked into the pages, feeling the heavy Florida heat and smelling fire all around me.

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In the trenches of Europe during the Great War, Tomas Cordero operated a weapon more devastating than any gun: a flame projector that doused the enemy in liquid fire. Having left the battlefield a shattered man, he comes home to find yet more tragedy for in his absence, his wife has died of the flu. Haunted by memories of the woman he loved and the atrocities he perpetrated, Tomas dreams of fire and finds himself setting match to flame when awake….

Alice Dartle is a talented clairvoyant living among others who share her gifts in the community of Cassadaga, Florida. She too dreams of fire, knowing her nightmares are connected to the shell-shocked war veteran and widower. And she believes she can bring peace to him and his wife s spirit.

But the inferno that threatens to consume Tomas and Alice was set ablaze centuries ago by someone whose hatred transcended death itself….

Musings

We’re in 1920s Florida. It’s hot. The radio doesn’t reach everywhere yet. Electricity in homes is relatively new. Prohibition is on, but this is Florida, and Rum overflows. The Great War is over, taking many in its wake; Spanish Influenza has scoured the country, taking even more. It’s here that our story takes place: in the small town of Cassadaga, a home for Spirtalists that still exists to this day.

The novel alternates viewpoints between Alice Dartle, a seventeen year old girl from Virginia, and Tomàs Cordero, a cuban-american who’s just returned from war. At first, I thought I wasn’t going to like Alice: she breaks into tears too easily, sometimes acting more like an impetuous twelve year old than a smart young woman. But soon, I realized that her sensitive side didn’t stop her from being strong and brilliant all the same. Her insatiable love for bourbon, her huge heart, her adorable nervousness; she’s a fun character whom I would love to hang out with. Not to mention that she’s got some interesting skills she wants to develop: talking to spirits, predicting the outcomes of bets, her need to learn has brought her to Cassadaga, in hopes of honing her abilities.

And then, there’s Tomàs. A bit of a tragic character: he returned from the war, but it was his wife who stayed home who passed away. His dear Evelyn died of Influenza. He’s getting his tailoring business up and running again, trying to get things back in order, but for some reason, small fires seem to be following him around. Well, they were small at first. Now, they’re growing. They’re taking more in their wake, but they’re leaving things behind. Things, signs maybe, that make Tomàs think it could be Evelyn, trying to reach to him from beyond, trapped as a spirit. Could it be so? As the novel progresses, he seems more determined than ever, while the reader… less so.

Alice and Tomàs’s lives are connected through her talents. She sees his dreams, sees the man who’s always surrounded by fire. She knows there’s a presence there. When the fires devour more than they should dare, Tomàs makes his way to Cassadaga to beg for help. This isn’t going to be easy.

There was so much to love about this book: the style the author uses flows almost effortlessly, beautifully. The city of Cassadaga which is so beautifully evoked, with the small town feel or Turn of the Century USA while at the same time being a spiritualist camp. I ended up googling Cassadaga, and it still exists! The added sense of realism that comes from an author doing an insane amount of research was very much worth it.

I have to say, my favorite character was Felipe, the chihuahua. Good doggy. But there are so many other great people to meet.

Priest also managed to make a fantastic study of the brutality of war. So many soldiers came back from the front with PTSD, while here Tomàs comes back with something a little more… physical. The horror of the new technology of death used – the invention of the flamethrower, for example – takes a real shape here. Pure evil walks the battlefields.

I have never read a book like this before. It’s very different from what I expected, but I really loved it. The ending was beautiful, touching in a way I didn’t see coming. All in all, we have fantastic characters, fascinating setting, and a talented author to craft this all together. Well worth the read, I highly recommend it.

I received an advance copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, Ace Books! Expected publication, April 4th. 

A Conjuring of Light

by V.E. Schwab
Reviewed by S.A. 

There is so much I want to say about this book, yet so little that I can without giving it away. It’s safe to assume that if you’re looking to read it, it’s likely that you’re enjoyed (or, dare I say, devoured) the previous installments of the Darker Shade of Magic trilogy. Followers of my instagram and tumblr have been hearing me rant and rave about how excited I was for it to finally come out, and now that I’ve read it, I desperately wish for someone I can blabber on about it with.

* Review spoiler free for A Conjuring of Light, but if you haven’t read the rest of the series you might want to stop here*

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Witness the fate of beloved heroes – and enemies.

THE BALANCE OF POWER HAS FINALLY TIPPED…
The precarious equilibrium among four Londons has reached its breaking point. Once brimming with the red vivacity of magic, darkness casts a shadow over the Maresh Empire, leaving a space for another London to rise.

WHO WILL CRUMBLE?
Kell – once assumed to be the last surviving Antari – begins to waver under the pressure of competing loyalties. And in the wake of tragedy, can Arnes survive?

WHO WILL RISE?
Lila Bard, once a commonplace – but never common – thief, has survived and flourished through a series of magical trials. But now she must learn to control the magic, before it bleeds her dry. Meanwhile, the disgraced Captain Alucard Emery of the Night Spire collects his crew, attempting a race against time to acquire the impossible.

WHO WILL TAKE CONTROL?
And an ancient enemy returns to claim a crown while a fallen hero tries to save a world in decay.

Musings

I could not have asked for a more fitting and beautiful ending to this stunning series. The book is as fast paced as the first novel, maybe even more so: it’s the end of the world, in simple terms, and our beloved Kell, Lila, Alucard and Rhy are trying to hold it together. All with the help of one surprising ally: Holland. Together, they have to find a way to trap Osaron and put everything back in place.

With the major discovery at the end of A Gathering of Shadows pertaining to Lila’s magic, the world is really turned upside down. And she has got to learn to master her skills fast, since there’s no time to train her properly. She, Kell and Holland are the world’s best bet to win against Osaron.

We learn a whole lot more about the nature of this villain, his motivations and powers. But he’s not the only one in trying to take London: Rhy has to deal with some political adversaries trying to take advantage of the situation so as to overrun his kingdom. Not an easy thing to manage when walking outside could potentially turn you into the puppet of an evil being.

Schwab also delivers on some promises of hers: we get more of Lila being a badass pirate (favorite lady of fiction, right there) and a certain relationship we’ve been shipping finally… well, I did promise no spoilers, right?

The ending was beautiful, but honestly, I’m still dying for more. The author closes off the series quite nicely, but still leaves us with a few questions. I hope our beloved characters come back: the world she’s crafted is too fantastic to leave!

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Note from Sarah: you might be wondering why, if I’ve been raving about this book so much, I’ve taken so dang long to read it. Well, it’s because I really didn’t want the series to end. I both wanted to know what happens next and didn’t want to bring myself closer to the end! First book this has happened to me in a while.

Someday I’ll Be Redeemed

by Kelly Blanchard
Reviewed by Sarah A

Happy Self Published Saturday! I’m so excited to share this book with you, that I spent the past week speed reading it so I could talk about it STAT – it’s quite a long book, and so full of incredible… well, everything… that I didn’t want to wait until next week.

Someday I’ll Be Redeemed is the first in the Chronicles of Lorrek series, set in a high/epic fantasy universe and infused with science fiction and technology. It’s full of political intrigue, plots, and magic, along with characters so complex they’ll have your head spinning. By the end of it, you’ll be devastated – and yes, that’s a good thing.

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Everyone thinks him to be dead–or guilty. Without a word or sighting of Prince Lorrek of Cuskelom these last ten years, all believe the rumors of his crimes, which he is said to have committed, are true. However, when he finally returns to clear his name, Lorrek realizes the only way to find redemption is to become the very man they think him to be in this time when advanced technology challenges ancient magic to war.

Musings

Lorrek’s been dead for a decade – only he hasn’t. When he appears at the gates of a neighboring kingdom, begging for sanctuary, he begins a chain of events that put the realms on the brink of war… but what really happened, ten years ago, that shattered the kingdoms?

I have to admit, at first, I was struggling to get into this book: the political back and forth is not usually my cup of tea, and took a little while for me to follow. The effort in world building here is outstanding, but the author has a lot to tell in so short of time that I felt overwhelmed by the information. But as soon as the ball is rolling, the story gets faster and more exciting, to the point where you cannot put it down.

This is especially true in the second half of the book, which takes place back before the events that sent Lorrek into Oblivion. Here, we have medieval fantasy characters coming to a realm of technological innovation in search of a cure for Lorrek’s cousin (and subsequent lookalike) whose magic has been infecting him. But no-one’s motives are as they seem, and there’s a lot more going on than anyone can realize… this for me was an outstanding portion of the book, and it had me completely engrossed.

And the ending? I have no words. Ok, maybe one – WOW.

Which is not to say I wasn’t impressed with the rest of the novel – the first half lays the groundwork, filling you with so many questions, while the second answers them, in such a way that you can’t help but notice just how intricate the plot really is. Everything is connected. And the way the characters grow and change in those ten years? Incredible writing.

Speaking of the characters, I just love them. Vix is by far my favorite: a brilliant assassin, who can be hard and cold but also adorable and romantic. There’s a depth to her you hardly ever see in fantasy women. Even the villains aren’t 100% evil – we see their motivations, we even root for them at moments.

Stylistically, the author could have done with a little less repetition: sometimes a sentence would pull me out of the story, which got a little annoying. But no matter. The story is what counts, and Blanchard has crafted a complex narrative with brilliant world building and relatable characters. I just can’t wait for the sequel!

You can purchase Someday I’ll Be Redeemed here on amazon, in ebook and paperback. Don’t forget to check out the sequel, I Still Have A Soul!

This Savage Song

By V.E. Schwab
Reviewed by SA

This book has been out for a while now, and I’d been meaning to read it for ages. I can’t believe it took me so long to pick it up – it’s fantastic!  V.E. Schwab has done it again! Another amazing book that sucks you into a world so carefully crafted you feel as if you’re actually there. If you haven’t read it yet, you need to.

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Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives.

Musings

Have you ever just forgotten how good an author is, then pick up a book and start reading and say to yourself, ‘dang, I want to read everything this person has ever written!’ before realizing that you have? That’s how I felt when reading This Savage Song. Schwab’s style is fluid and engrossing, like magic.

The city of verity is split in half: the north is controlled by Harker, Kate’s father, who deals in protection for those who can afford it. The Flynn controlled south takes a more violent approach, and August’s family run the task force that defends their half of Verity. They share the same problem – that monsters are growing. Born from murders and violence, they are a danger to any and all. Fear of the dark is not irrational in Verity.

While Kate is trying to gain her father’s approval, August is just trying to fit in. Back in Verity, Kate is finally where she wants to be – in the same city as her father, who can no longer send her away. When she starts to attend a prestigious school, the Flynns jump at the chance to get close to Harker’s only daughter, and enroll August under and assumed name.

Admittedly, it took me a little while to get into. I’d say I couldn’t put this book down, but that was only true in its second half (which kept me up reading at 2am – sorry not sorry). The author had to establish the world first, which was engrossing but not gripping, a little slow paced. Anybody who thinks they should put the book down should rethink that action. The pacing in the second half is so quick that it’ll actually boost your heart rate.

I love the characters, too; the monster who wants to be human, and the human who wants to be a monster. Or maybe, things are not as black and white as they seem at first. It was exciting to unravel August’s identity, to understand Kate’s anger. To see them grow closer as friends and allies. To see a badass girl and a sensitive monster.

What is to there say, other than “It’s Victoria Schwab, you know you’ll love her books.” So now, I patiently await the sequel!

The Impossible Fortress

by Jason Rekulak
Reviewed by SA

This book was not at all what I expected, and yet it was a fun and awesome read. A book that made me feel like I was living the teen years my parents had, a book that made me fall in love with coding, a book that conjured up the magic of the 80s in a way you only see in movies like War Games and Tron.

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The Impossible Fortress begins with a magazine…The year is 1987 and Playboy has just published scandalous photographs of Vanna White, from the popular TV game show Wheel of Fortune. For three teenage boys—Billy, Alf, and Clark—who are desperately uneducated in the ways of women, the magazine is somewhat of a Holy Grail: priceless beyond measure and impossible to attain. So, they hatch a plan to steal it.

The heist will be fraught with peril: a locked building, intrepid police officers, rusty fire escapes, leaps across rooftops, electronic alarm systems, and a hyperactive Shih Tzu named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Failed attempt after failed attempt leads them to a genius master plan—they’ll swipe the security code to Zelinsky’s convenience store by seducing the owner’s daughter, Mary Zelinsky. It becomes Billy’s mission to befriend her and get the information by any means necessary. But Mary isn’t your average teenage girl. She’s a computer loving, expert coder, already strides ahead of Billy in ability, with a wry sense of humor and a hidden, big heart. But what starts as a game to win Mary’s affection leaves Billy with a gut-wrenching choice: deceive the girl who may well be his first love or break a promise to his best friends.

Musings
Billy is not your usual nerd – his grades are awful, he doesn’t care for books or role playing games. He is, however, more than slightly obsessed with his Commodore 64. He codes for fun, and he’s outstandingly good, not just for a 14 year old. It’s a hobby he doesn’t expect his friends or family to understand, but it’s something he loves to do.

So when he meets Mary, a girl his age who might just be better at coding than he is, a friendship blossoms that could change everything.

It’s important to remember that we’re int he mind of a 14 year old, here. Billy’s friends Alf and Clyde share one goal – to get the newest issue of Playboy, and get a look at the nude goddess that is Vanna White. It’s all they can think about, and they’re hatching a plan to get their hands on it. And they need Billy to seduce Mary as part of it.

This doesn’t seem like a problem for Billy: it even gives him an excuse to hang out with this brilliant girl, and work together on their video game, the Impossible Fortress, which could win them fame and fortune… all without getting mocked by the boys. You see, Mary is a little chubby. Or outright fat, if you believe Alf and Clyde. She isn’t really worth Billy’s time, they say. Plus, she has a reputation – if you know what I mean.

Some of the characters felt a little flat to me, but I don’t think it’s a problem, since Billy and Mary have so much depth. The story is about them, after all. It’s partially love story, partially friendship – though maybe you could say the real love story is between Billy and coding, or the reader and the 80s.

And while part of the story was a little predictable, the real twist came right out of left field. Totally unexpected, though made perfect sense all in the end, answering questions we didn’t know we had. It’s also fun to read a book intended for 14 years olds as an adult, seeing how bad a lot of the decisions are, wanting to reach in and tell a character to their face that what they’re doing is a bad idea.

It’s also fun, if you want to go deeper, to look into the symbolism of impossible fortresses through the book. There are the evident ones: like the game itself, impossible to code, or the school at the very end, or even the heist itself. But you’ve also got the impossible fortress of Mary herself – can you break down her walls, and navigate the maze of her personality? Maybe life itself is an impossible fortress.

It’s a book about expectations, a book about first impressions, a book about being a teenager in the age of arcade games. It combines the tropes of the teenage heist with the ultimate competition, all wrapped up in a coming of age story. I mean, what’s not to love about a love letter to the 80s?

Expected publication: February 7th 2017 by Simon & Schuster

By the way, you can actually play the game Billy and Mary create, On the author’s website! http://jasonrekulak.com/ (Click ‘play the game’ at the top!)

Get it Together, Delilah!

by Erin Gough
Reviewed by SA

I did not expect this book to grab me so tightly. I had been struggling lately with YA lit, worrying I might not enjoy it anymore. Well, Get it Together, Delilah! proved me wrong. What I was missing were characters as vibrant and real as Delilah, and she made the book come alive. Gosh, I am happy. Plus – it’s Australian!

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Seventeen-year-old Delilah Green wouldn’t have chosen to do her last year of school this way, but she figures it’s working fine. Her dad is on a trip to fix his broken heart after her mom left him for another man, so Del’s managing the family café in his absence. Easy, she thinks. But what about:

  • homework and the nasty posse of mean girls making her life hell
  • or how one of Del’s best friends won’t stop guilt-tripping her
  • and her other best friend is so in love with his tutor he might go to jail for her if Del doesn’t do something

But who cares about any of that really, because above all else, she can’t stop thinking about beautiful Rosa who dances every night across the street until one day Rosa comes in the café door …

And if Rosa starts thinking about Del, too, then how in the name of caramel milkshakes will Del get the rest of it together?

Musings

Delilah’s a character with depth and dimension. She’s bold, stubborn, and adorable. This is also the first time I’ve read a lesbian character who didn’t feel like a cliché: she felt like any real teenager. She has crushes on the cute girls in her life, especially on Rosa, the flamenco dancer from across the street. But her past experience with love hasn’t been so good: seeing how being ‘out’ in high school isn’t exactly easy.

I don’t even really know where to start on my review, because I just so happened to like every aspect of this book. It read like real life, the characters were realistic and relatable, and just so engrossing. The plot itself is simple: Delilah’s trying to run her father’s café – the Flywheel – as he travels through Asia (coping with his wife’s leaving him for another man), while also finishing school, maintaining friendships, and falling head over heels for the girl next door.

But soon, the café itself is running her life, and it’s hard on a 17 year old to deal with thieving employees, and competition with chains. Soon, it’s consumed her life, and it begins to drag everything else down with it. She has to drop out of school to work full time, and it’s taking a toll on her relationships as well. Eventually, the stress causes her to alienate the people who love her most.

When I put it like that, it sounds dark and depressing – but it’s not. The book is bursting with life. The characters jump off the page, each one probably impossible to sum up in just one line. And the fact that this all takes place in Australia just makes it even more exciting. Plus a cute romance I actually was rooting for!

All in all, what else can I say than this book is perfect? I really cannot sum it up into words. The style was simple and elegant, the characters complex and vibrant, the relationships so realistic. Not to mention I’m a sucker for a happy ending. I would give this book six stars if I could.

Expected publication: April 4th 2017 by Chronicle Books. (First published February 1st 2015 as “Flywheel”)