I'm just going to get right to the point. 'Witches Steeped in Gold' by Ciannon Smart is the most enjoyable witchy fantasy book I've ever read. There is depth and texture here that's decidedly uncommon in similarly marketed titles.
I know there's been a lot of hype surrounding this title for months. I, myself, have been just as much a part of that hype engine as any other reader I know.. because it sounded so good. However, it absolutely blew the doors off the genre for me.
A Jamaican-inspired fantasy, the story is about a pair of witches from rival orders who have little choice but to make a pact in order to take down a common enemy. Told in a split-narrative, it follows Iraya.. who has spent her life in captivity plotting her vengeance and Jazmyne, the Queen's daughter.. with her own brand of retribution on her mind.
Both women have endured heavy losses at the Queen's hand and neither of them is apt to forgive or forget, but their paths are ever-shifting and the only thing that's certain is they will do anything to achieve their goals.
Honestly, I cannot possibly convey exactly how much I loved this book. From a pure writing quality perspective, it's quite likely sitting in my top two releases so far this year and it would take a truly groundbreaking read to dislodge it. I fully expect to be giving my 2021 year-end recap with Smart's debut novel sitting right where it is today.
The magic system is complex, seemingly based largely in the ritual magics of the Caribbean. Primarily focusing on blood and herb magics, the story reads almost like a folktale at times. As my personal experiences are with a different variation, I cannot theorize too much about the actual source other than to reiterate that the author herself has said much of her inspiration came from stories told by family on a trip to Jamaica.
Everything is detailed ideally throughout the world-building and delivered naturally. From the political structure of the court to the social-ecological models both within and between Aiyca and the neighboring cultures, it's all crafted so perfectly. The result is an incredibly immersive tale.
Challenges rise up to meet the women everywhere and I found myself conflicted throughout, unable to fully commit to some of my choices until late in the story. There are twists strewn about all the way to the end of the tale, but never so many that they feel overused.
Besides Iraya and Jazmyne, there's a whole cadre of supporting players in the game. Some of whom I enjoyed as much as the main characters. Kirdan, Anya, and Roje are all spectacular in their own ways, as are those in the small group of friends amongst the Obeah.
Admittedly, I did have favorites from the start. Kirdan is intriguing and Iraya is my kind of female lead. She's not infallible, but she is determined. She doesn't back down easily and she's not afraid to get her hands dirty. In fact, she rather likes them dirty. Bloodied.. whenever possible.
I'm already eagerly awaiting book two and if this isn't on your TBR list yet, it should be. In fact, you could probably brush aside most of whatever else is there and push it towards the top because if you haven't read it yet, you're missing out.
Continue below to read my review of the book and be sure to follow this link - [TOUR SCHEDULE] to check out the rest of the stops on the 'AOFIE'S QUEST' blog tour brought to you by LITERARY BOUND TOURS and ANGELA J. FORD!
Angela J. Ford
March 26th, 2021
Upper YA, Coming of Age, Epic Fantasy
A warrior princess with a dire future embarks on a perilous quest to regain her fallen kingdom.
Eighteen-year-old Aofie’s Mor is an outcast princess, hiding in the sacred forest of the centaurs. She’s spent her life training for one purpose: to take back her kingdom from the angel of death. When she comes of age, the centaurs prepare her to reunite with the humans. However, on the morning of her departure, she learns a horrific truth that leaves her questioning her true identity.
Frustrated, but taught not to question the will of the gods, Aofie travels deep into perilous lands in search of her birth mother. Along the way she accidentally frees a dangerous goddess, befriends a mysterious iceman, and meets a magic-wielding nymph. But threads of betrayal and corruption run deeper than Aofie imagined. As she faces trials and tribulations, she begins to question everything she’s assumed to be true. Caught in the ultimate war between good and evil, Aofie must make a choice about her future.
Will she have the strength and courage to take back her kingdom? Or will she turn her back on fate and choose her own destiny? Welcome to the land of Labraid, a war-torn world where demons rise and the gods and goddesses toy with the desires of humans.
Aofie’s Quest is a dark and exciting fantasy adventure. If you like fierce heroines, treacherous royals, mischievous immortals, wild plot twists and Celtic Mythology, buy Aofie’s Quest today.
rating: ★ ★ ★ (3/5 stars)
'Aofie's Quest' by Angela J. Ford is about an outcast princess who is raised in the centaur's forest, enabling her to hide from those who would see her dead while she trains to take back her kingdom from the angel of death.
When she comes of age, her caregivers prepare her to reunite with the humans, but reveal something to her that has her reeling. Journeying out in search of her birth mother, she crosses paths with a goddess, an iceman, and a magic-wielding nymph.
The story moves along quickly, throwing lots of adventures and difficulties into the main character's path. There are diverse elements at play, in fact.. the book seems to be a mixture of magic and mythos from across the fantasy genre, all brought together.
Ford does a good job of combining a lot of popular fantasy concepts, likely making the world-building exciting for a novice fantasy reader. There are plenty of interesting magical creatures here and it's a good choice to start Aofie out lacking knowledge in some very specific areas due to her unusual upbringing.
Though it's light fare, the path still has touches of epic saga styling with new characters being introduced and explored a little along the way and distinctive challenges rising up to interrupt Aofie's progress.
While the writing is solid enough, there's a lot of information download through conversation right up front and the pattern only continues as you make your way through the tale.
From a technical standpoint, the book is fine.. it just isn't for me. I feel the narrative just comes across in a bit of a drone and Aofie seems whiny for someone I'm supposed to connect with as a 'fierce heroine' and 'trained warrior.' I assume it's meant to give her a touch of that spoiled princess appearance, but that isn't the way it came through.
Upon doing a bit of research, I am definitely in the minority here. So, if you like a 'chosen one'/coming of age/off to regain what's theirs.. sort of read.. give this one a try.
Angela J. Ford is a bestselling author who writes epic fantasy and steamy fantasy romance with vivid worlds, gray characters and endings you just can’t guess. She has published 14 novels, 6 short stories and sold over 32,000 copies.
Angela is also a Co-Founder of Booksniffer. A new app for book lovers, plus an effective way for authors to market their books to new readers.
She enjoys traveling, hiking, and playing World of Warcraft with her husband. First and foremost, Angela is a reader and can often be found with her nose in a book.
Aside from writing she enjoys the challenge of working with marketing technology and builds websites for authors.
Angela is passionate about helping indie authors succeed and co-hosts a podcast called Indie Author Lifestyle.
If you happen to be in Nashville, you’ll most likely find her enjoying a white chocolate mocha and daydreaming about her next book.
Continue below to read my interview with Alicia J. Novo and be sure to follow this link - [TOUR SCHEDULE] to check out the rest of the stops on the 'UNWRITTEN' blog tour brought to you by XPRESSO BOOK TOURS, INTENSE PUBLICATIONS, and ALICIA J. NOVO!
What do you love most about ‘Unwritten?’
I love that Unwritten is magical and fun, but that it also can be read at a deeper level and addresses issues that matter to me, like discrimination and rejecting what’s different.
My favorite part is the Zweeshen, the world of Unwritten. To have all characters ever written in one place opens up so many possibilities. I wanted to write an immersive, whimsical story, a place—because I do think of books as places—where one could go when in need of refuge and adventure. The Zweeshen is such a unique and eclectic place, diverse and wacky and playful. But it can also be dark and a bit oppressive. I enjoyed playing with those contrasts.
What do you feel makes your novel unique?
I think Unwritten has fun with itself. There is an offbeat, tongue-in-cheek element to it. Because it is the world of stories, devices from multiple genres are weaved into the story. Darkness and light are balanced, and there is a hopeful message. The combination of those things makes it different from a lot of what’s out there right now. It is a wild ride, a high-stakes fantasy adventure set in a book lovers world.
If you had to describe Beatrix using her three strongest personality traits, what would they be?
Beatrix’s character was fascinating to write because she has this big dichotomy within her: she is bullied but powerful, strong but insecure. She is loving, but her rage overpowers her. I had to find a way to portray that and make it believable. I needed to connect those opposing reactions to the driving force within her, the one thing that defines her, which is her determination. Beatrix finds her way by being unrelenting in her quest. Her core attributes are her resilience and her willingness to be brave both against violence and danger but also against the hurts and risks of love.
If time were running out for your favorite bookworlds as a reader and you could visit just one, which would it be and why?
Such a difficult question. I change my mind about this depending on the day. That’s the great thing about bookworlds; we can always visit one that fits our mood. Today, I’d say I would visit Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the Rivendell of the elves. I’ve always found it enthralling in a very romantic, evocative way. And I love the idea of beings who’ve had many centuries to learn.
If ‘Unwritten’ had a playlist, what genre would be most prominent? What’s one song that would probably be included?
By force, it would have to be a mix of genres. I think finding a way to combine the old and new, the upbeat with the more soulful, voice with instrumental. One song that really resonates and speaks to some of the underlying themes in Unwritten is Runaway by Aurora.
I read on your blog that your publisher also optioned a sequel. Is that something you’re looking ahead at yet?
Yes, absolutely. Unwritten was created as a series—and while it can be read as a standalone—there is an overarching world arc and pending questions meant to be answered in future installments. I’m busy working on the sequel.
What quality is the most critical for you to enjoy a story?
I need a story to transport me. Some authors accomplish that through amazing settings, others with characters that squeeze our hearts or get under our skin. Others give you a plot so riveting you can’t sit still. I want a writer to guide me away from my life so that when I’m done reading, I will look around and only half-recognize my house.
What’s a book you’ve read that made you take a step back and think differently about fiction?
It was a long time ago, but as a teen, I read The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges. It is a short story, so not even a novel. But it made me realize stories could be something different from what I had thought. There is a need to have conflict and interesting characters, but beyond that, an author has the freedom to go in many directions, even down a rabbit hole that forces one to think. Stories are a way to make the complex simple, to tell hard truths through make-believe. The concept of the Aleph changed me. It is not a coincidence that a similar idea makes an appearance in Unwritten.
Your author bio says you love history and astronomy. What’s the most obscure history or astronomy fact you can think of?
I don’t know if it’s obscure, but for history, what never stops surprising me is that things we assume are set in stone weren’t always so: In the early middle ages Catholic priests married, people didn’t sleep the night through but had a first sleep and second sleep, and in between they met with neighbors, did chores, and chatted—all in the middle of the night.
As far as astronomy, I love that when we look at the sky, we’re observing the past, like through a time machine. And the idea that every element in our chemical makeup was created in the heart of a supernova. We’re not just stardust; we’re the afterlife of stars. Oh, and scientists believe that in Neptune, it rains diamonds.
Since you’ve lived and explored numerous places around the world, what would you say in your personal experiences might be universal between the cultures you’ve encountered and their approach to storytelling?
The love and need for stories are what’s universal. Nothing connects people as much as stories, and we’re lucky to live in a time with access to tales from many places. I think the differences are in the style. In America, we do a lot of “show, don’t tell.” In other places, the “telling” is still in vogue, and it can be very beautiful because it creates a distance that feels otherworldly. Pacing is something that varies too. Here things are faster. Some stories from other cultures take more time, pay more attention to small things, describe more with a critical eye. It is hard to generalize, and genre plays a role, of course. But in truth, the differences are in the details. Tales unite us because of the human experience we share. Everywhere in the world, from the beginning of civilization, what we want is the same. To be safe, to be accepted, and to be loved.
What’s something memorable you experienced during your travels?
A few years ago, I walked the Way of St. James, a 500-mile pilgrimage road that winds from the Pyrenees in France to Compostela in the North of Spain. I did the journey on foot with just a backpack, staying at hostels. It took me six weeks, and it was such a demanding and wonderful experience.
You get worried you might not hit the next hostel before they run out of room, you get rained on, you get blisters under your toenails. But then you eat at a lady’s living room where she shows you pictures of the husband she lost. You meet a torero and a Japanese Opera singer; you encounter a Dutch guy with cancer who does 20 miles a year but is determined to complete a trip. You sleep in a convent with fifty people, and you participate in an impromptu dance on a cobblestone street. You share tapas with strangers who spill their secrets to you.
That, to me, is what makes traveling memorable, the moments that open you up and show you glimpses of others with very different lives. I tried to capture that surprise and wonder in Unwritten.
'My Husband's Girlfriend' is the latest psychological thriller from author, Sheryl Browne. It's a twisty, intriguing page-turner of a story, packed with mystery and misdirection.
A shifting narrative told from multiple points-of-view, the plot mostly follows Sarah. Amidst the early stages of divorce and doing her best to prioritize her son, Ollie.. and his best interests.. Sarah's uncertain about her soon-to-be ex-husband's new girlfriend.
Noticing his favorite toy, Bunny, is gone. Replaced suddenly with something new given to him by Laura, the newest addition to their familial situation, Sarah asks Ollie about it but he becomes nervous and evasive.
When she broaches the subject of her concern with Steve and even Joe, the new person in her own life, no one wants to hear it. Sarah comes across as the jealous ex-wife, while Laura seems to be the perfect stepmother figure with the sweet, often fearful vulnerability.
As a separated parent, to a degree this was kind of a worst nightmare scenario for me. I certainly never liked the feeling I might be replaced by someone in my child's life.. becoming less important to them or having them prefer to be elsewhere. To add to that idea, the very real possibility that my child might have been at risk from someone who was a part of their family unit when I wasn't around.. was frightening.
Now for me, the reason was more along the lines of toxicity and self-destructive splash damage, rather than deliberate maliciousness. At least where my child was concerned. To be facing it with some methodical outsider and have no one willing to give credence to my concerns would be terrifying.
Though I picked up easily on who did what and when, early on in the story.. it was not due to lack of plot turns on the author's part. In fact, there were so many that the ride is a bit of a rollercoaster, always coming up on some new jarring curve over the next climb.
My one complaint is small and common for these types of stories. The characters are prone to extreme overreactions all the time and that kind of constant melodrama just makes it feel a little less real for me. That's not to say people never act like that, but ALL the people in any given situation rarely do.
Other than that, the story was intense and did a great job investing me in the outcome for Ollie as well as the final reveal for an older mystery drawn throughout. I was pretty certain I knew what happened, but it's always satisfying to find out whether or not you're right.
The pacing is very solid, moving smoothly enough that I was able to make my way through it very quickly. Only putting the book down to take care of obligations. Definitely a fun read if you like winding thrillers and a lot of family drama.
Continue below to read my review of the book and be sure to check out the rest of the stops on the 'WHERE THE ROAD LEADS US' blog tour brought to you by MTMC TOURS, ROBIN REUL, and SOURCEBOOKS FIRE!
April 5 - Paper Fury
April 6 - Betwixt the Sheets
April 7 - DJ Reads Books
April 8 - What a Nerd Girl Says
April 9 - Shelf Love
April 10 - Vanilla Moon Books
April 11 - Yours A-fiction-ately
April 12 - Lara Jane Reviews
April 13 - Jupiter's Solo Bibliophile
April 14 - Books, Tea, Healthy Me
April 14 - Shelves of Starlight
Title: Where the Road Leads Us | Author: Robin Reul | Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: April 6, 2021 | Genres: YA Contemporary
'Where the Road Leads Us' by Robin Reul is a dual narrative about a pair of teens who find themselves at a different, but equally life-altering crossroads.
Jack is pretty much the golden boy. He's such an over-achiever that he's stacking self-taught AP studies on top of those he's been scheduled for in school. Here, literally getting ready to pack up and leave for college, life throws him a curveball.
Reeling from the unexpected, Jack finds himself rethinking everything. Before he follows that pre-designated path.. he wants to locate his estranged brother and set some things to rest.
Hallie seems more free-spirited. Life has been kicking her while she's down for awhile and it's forced her to adopt a sort of 'roll with the punches' approach. When she gets some upsetting news about a friend, she makes a spur of the moment decision to go see him while she can.
Generally speaking, this is a sweet, quirky novel. Though there are some heavy topics being dealt with, the story is never really sad. There's a concerted effort both between the characters and clearly by the author to sort of recalibrate the emotional perspective whenever something potentially negative occurs in the story.. which supports the whole 'bright side' theme.
Jack and Hallie have a really cute, warm dynamic and their rideshare driver turned newfound friend actually adds to that feeling within the story. Though some of the dynamics that pop-up between side characters throughout the book are a little clunky, 'the trifecta' as I like to call them, doesn't suffer from it at all.
Their adventures as they travel together are a bit wild and some might even feel they're unrealistic, but as someone who's made road trips with similarly strange incidents littering the way, it just made me laugh and keep reading.
I enjoyed the way Jack and Hallie tended to be each other's true North. Whenever one of them would get lost along the way, sort of faltering with their personal struggle.. the other would be there to right them and keep them going.
This is a story full of hope.. and with the last year we've all had, I don't think we can have too much of that. If you're looking for a light read, that still has some emotional depth as the characters deal with their traumas, this might be the book for you.
Mild caution for triggers regarding loss of loved ones and severe illnesses.
About Robin Reul:
The author of MY KIND OF CRAZY and the forthcoming WHERE THE ROAD LEADS US, Robin Reul has been writing since she was in early elementary school, when she used to make her own book club flyers for her classmates and then pen them original stories.
Though she grew up on movie sets and worked for many years in the film and television industry both as an actress and in motion picture development, she ultimately decided to focus her attention on writing young adult novels. Inspired by novelists like John Green and Sarah Dessen and screenwriters like John Hughes and Richard Linklater, she loves to write stories that straddle the line between humor and heartbreak, filled with quirky, memorable characters who stay with the reader long after the story ends.
When she's not writing, Robin can be found drinking copious amounts of iced coffee and listening to way too much 80's music. She lives in Los Angeles suburbia.
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'The Other Side of Magic' by Ester Manzini is a mixture of magical realism and fantasy inspired by 16th century Italy. The story is told in a shifting narrative between Gaiane Asares, a magically gifted princess from Zafiria and Leo, a magicless commoner from Epidalio.
Everyone in both realms is traditionally born with magic, but with every use.. it slowly depletes. Marked by a dark halo which wraps around their foreheads, as their power wanes, so does the color of the mark.
Gaiane is the result of a very deliberate pairing chosen by her mother, the Queen. A child by design, born infinitely powerful.. her magic doesn't deplete like others upon use. Kept as a prisoner, collared and held in a tower to be used as a weapon to conquer Epidalio.. she ultimately wants only two things. Love and freedom.
Leo, having been born without magic, is a rarity. Having lost her home and family in the attacks, she hasn't forgiven or forgotten those from Zafiria are to blame.
I feel like this story is incredibly ambitious.. yet still falls a bit flat for me. The magic system is very creative, but the world building is almost a second thought. There's a fair bit of just coasting on the concepts, there's plot progression.. but development is limited.
Honestly, I found all of the characters kind of annoying. Some of them, like the princess.. are just whiny.. and while to a degree I kind of get that, it also doesn't really fit the situation in which she was kept. The inner-monologues felt like a shortcut to letting us witness their experiences and the dialogue was often overly angsty.
There's a consistent theme of manipulation and abuse that transcends beyond the parental relationship. While I'm not opposed to dramatic storytelling, I do want to see things like that occur with intent to further plot if they're going to be leveraged. In the case of this story, they feel as if they exist solely for the purpose of existing. In fact, there's some potentially problematic representation here with predatory imagery as well.
As the author is Italian, it's certainly possible that the themes and storytelling style just didn't translate well for me. If it sounds interesting to you, give it a shot.. maybe you'll connect with it differently.. but I found it mediocre at best.
'Havoc' is book two in the Haven series by Mary Lindsey, a YA paranormal romance where the balance between wolf shifters and witches has never been equal. While the shifters are looking to achieve their freedom from the dominance of the witches, a group that controls everything they do.. right down to who they can pair up with, others want to see them kept in their place.
Though I didn't read the first book, this one was very easy to pick up with. Pertinent major events from the debut title, Haven, were referenced and explained in passing, so that everything still made sense.
Pacing is very solid throughout the story, plenty of action and emotional drama to keep the reader turning pages, making it a quick read. In fact, most of the story is just really well-executed. My one minor complaint is the conclusion is done in a quick information dump.. like the author didn't know a better way to convey all the little details she'd held onto. Almost all of it was delivered by the same character in a conversation with another.. and the effect was if felt like sort of a Scooby Doo ending, which is sad.. because the book deserved better.
That one small thing aside, I really enjoyed the story. I loved Rain, who is exactly my type of character. His background was unpleasant, but he's loyal and loving.. desperate to hang onto the bit of happiness he's found. The rest of the group is interesting as well.. Merrick, Petra, and Freddie are all pretty richly textured, likeable people.. and the dynamic with Grant is amusing in spots.
The author definitely tried to drop hints with the intention the reader would either overlook them or forget them, so they'd have that moment later where they realized they should have spotted the anomaly.. but they weren't very subtle. Rather than dropping a clue, sometimes Lindsey would outline the entire area with them before moving on.. but really that's just lack of experience where some finesse would have gone farther to achieving her goal.
As with all skills though, we only get better with time.. and with so few constructive criticisms to be stated, I look forward to seeing more work from her in the future. If you like underdog stories (no pun intended) and paranormal worlds, this one is probably for you.