'Spells Trouble' by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast is book one in the Sisters of Salem series.
After centuries as the Gatekeepers to five ancient underworlds, descendants of the founder of Goodeville face a challenge none of their kind have ever seen before. The integrity of the portals is weakening and if they fail, all manner of walking nightmares would come through.
On the night of their birthday, Hunter and Mercy Goode lose their mother. The first in a string of deaths that the twins must understand before they can find a way to heal the Gates and put a stop to the inevitable. If they don't, their world will not survive.
This book is kind of a welcome surprise. Though the premise sounded interesting, when I first started reading it.. I thought it seemed very light-hearted, which is fine. The girls are high schoolers, one is stereotypically popular and the other is stereotypically shunned, but their twin bond is tight and the love at home with their mom is warm and welcoming.
Initially, I genuinely didn't take any of it too seriously. There's a mention within the book of Sabrina and of course, some of the vibe is definitely similar. But like Sabrina, there's also a surprising darkness kind of strewn throughout.
For me, the difference is that the darkness never feels campy. I'm not disparaging Sabrina, I was surprised to find I enjoyed that too, but even with the dark tones.. it's sort of tongue-in-cheek at times. And this can be, but again.. not really in the campy way. Though.. Xena. Very fun.
Mixed into this high school romp through spell casting, are some distinctively Stephen King-esque textures, some Stranger Things adventure horror, and a fascinating dash of mythology. Now, if you don't know much about mythology, don't worry. The part it plays is all clearly explained, as are any connections of importance.
The characters, are all well done. Some I liked and some I didn't, but as was fitting with the story. Hunter and Jax are probably my favorites, as the latter is a really lovely friend, and the former is the more reasonable of the two MCs. But Mercy is cool too, if a bit misguided at times. They do really love each other and try to look out for each other.
As for the magic system, though it's kind of dressed up and modernized a bit, it's also rooted in a couple of traditional ritual styles.. giving it a sense of believability even in fantasy use.
Admittedly, I really loved the choices that were made as to the mythological connections. I especially enjoyed what little we were shown in relation to the underworlds and the ways and reasons each of the Gates were different.
I definitely added book two in my Goodreads list as soon as I finished reading this one. So, if you like witchy stories with a lot of interesting elements that aren't too atmospheric, give this a try!
'Victories Greater Than Death' by Charlie Jane Anders is a YA space opera in the general vein of Crownchasers and Aurora Rising about the clone of a famed alien hero, left on Earth in a human disguise to give the universe another chance to defeat a villain with one seriously nasty ability.
Tina Mains, seemingly average teenager.. is also the keeper of an interplanetary rescue beacon that she knows will one day switch on, leading her to the heroic life she's always dreamed of among the stars. But when that day finally comes, things don't go at all as planned.
Those who know her secret identity expect her to actually be the legend she was born of.. and she only has limited access to the late Captain's knowledge and skills. War has taken a toll on the Royal Fleet meant to retrieve her when the time came. They're losing badly and resources are already low. They barely escape Earth with Tina and her best friend with the planet intact.
This story is a quick read full of lots of page-turning action and drama, but there are some things I had to adjust to. Initially, I thought the dialogue was incredibly awkward. Stilted in large part by a strange greeting ritual, which.. though I applaud what I perceive as the intent, just felt overly formal.
It becomes more likely, as the social interactions only get stranger from there, that this almost discordant social dance is an intentional representation of just how different things are from what we know. These are people from different worlds, and the most common ground between them is an organizational social structure likely devised by the Royal Fleet itself. Probably the only thing more universal between them is the hope for survival against the odds.
Relatively quickly, the group assembles what can only be called a collection.. of the Earth's best and brightest to be of assistance on their journey. A rag-tag band of talented misfits, who together.. just might have all the skills necessary to save the worlds.
Of course, most of them are prone to melodrama on some level. However, there are a couple of lovely potential love interests and the cast is beautifully diverse. I loved seeing that diversity framed of its strengths as an ideal in societies less concerned with labels and more focused on supreme happiness. Though the story is pretty wild and generally outrageous, it's definitely a lot of fun and well worth the read.
'The Shadow in the Glass' by JJA Harwood has all the classic Gothic atmosphere of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, delivered in the wrappings of an elegant, dark modern fairytale.
Putting a delightfully morbid twist on the age old Cinderella story, the book follows a lowly maid named Eleanor.. 'Ella'.. as she struggles in the wake of loss. Having fallen into service after the passing of the only person who looked out for her after her mother's death, Ella's left with a licentious man who she once called stepfather.
Secreting herself away in the late Mistress' library whenever she can manage, Ella escapes through the stories tucked along the shelves. One night, a fairy godmother hears her pleas and makes her an offer that will change her life immeasurably. Ella gets seven wishes, but each comes at a price.. and the cost is steep.
Honestly, the retelling is such a strong story on its own that it was easy to forget its origins. Though there are obvious connections like the main character's nickname and a distinctive detail at the very end of the book, it just doesn't really read like a Cinderella story unless you go in looking to match things up.
From a presentation standpoint, if I hadn't known the premise.. the fairy godmother and evil stepfather are almost unrecognizable. I was so caught up in the familial logistics and the defining traits of the author's creations.. that for much of the book if the synopsis hadn't told me who these people were, I probably wouldn't have seen the correlation until the end.
The storytelling is gritty and magnificent. From the opening pages, there's an undercurrent of something bad on the horizon. It isn't spelled out right away, but like a classic Poe story.. your instincts pick it up and you can just feel the tension building with dreadful slowness. You can see what lies in the road ahead once things get going and it feels like it just might swallow you whole.
There's something special about an author who can make you feel like you're slowly marching to your own end, while simultaneously keeping your hope alive that just maybe you'll be wrong. That someone or something will avert the crisis in your path.
Harwood has just such a gift. If you're a fan of eerie Gothic tales, don't miss this one. Since it's only her debut novel, I'll be eagerly watching to see what else she might have up her proverbial sleeve.
The Midnight Lie
I feel like I've been waiting for the release of 'Unwritten' by Alicia J. Novo for ages. The beautifully intricate cover design caught my eye late last year and I fell in love with the synopsis.
The story follows sixteen-year-old Beatrix Alba, who has secrets. For one, books talk to her. Sometimes in whispers.. sometimes in shouts, they're a constant companion in a world she doesn't seem to belong in.
Bullied both at home and in school, she could put a stop to it all.. but she doesn't. Taught to keep her dangerous hidden power bound tightly within her, that hard-won control starts to slip with the loss of her beloved grandfather.
When the spell that keeps her and her magic hidden fails, one decision thrusts her into the midst of Zweeshen, a world seemingly made of stories like those tucked safely on the library shelves back home. But that realm isn't the whimsical escape from her own that Beatrix wishes it to be. A character is burning bookworlds in pursuit of a weapon to rule both stories and storytellers.. and Beatrix holds the key.
Even now, just sharing the premise with you.. I get a little swept up in the concepts. Cursed conjurers, Egyptian gods, Regency heroines, there are so many fascinating elements that the very idea of it excites me.
Unfortunately, though the technical aspect of the writing is very smooth, it's just not executed in a very interesting way and it really slowed the reading for me because I kept putting it down. William was intriguing from the get-go with his dark, broody visage and his standoffish nature. He's brusque, but magnetic.. and possibly the character I was most invested in. Beatrix, the main character, has a lot of unique attributes to draw from.. but she just didn't draw me in.
Novo does an excellent job crafting backstory and developing her characters, but the journey itself feels inconsistent in depth. I love the whole 'books as portals to other worlds' trope and there's a test Beatrix goes through which could be really stunning imagery, but that was kind of glossed over for quantity instead.
Early on.. when I found myself facing what was ultimately a Monsters Inc door scene, I became disillusioned by the construction of some of the ideas utilized in this tale. In actuality, it's these last two things that for me are good examples of what didn't work for me with this book.
From a writing standpoint, Novo excels at scene writing. The strength of them still varies dramatically, but as this is her debut, I'm completely willing to give her time. Nonetheless, possibly because she can be so good at them.. it becomes much more obvious when they're weaker, and the paths in between them rather dull.
At this point, I'd think she'd do well with screenwriting, but her approach to the novel just needs more practice. The writing is still intelligent and elegant, she just needs to focus on managing the gap in her skills. That being said, though that lack of consistency made it difficult for me to stay invested, I think she has a ton of potential and I'm eager to see what her future holds as she learns and grows.
'Hurricane Summer' by Asha Bromfield is the story of a girl named Tilla coming of age during a tumultuous visit with her extended family in Jamaica.
Along with her sister.. Mia, Tilla lives in Canada with their mother, while every six months their father returns home to the island. The result of all those fatherly disappearances, is a pretty big disconnect between them.
Though it's supposed to be a safe, happy place for the girls.. the visit is not what's expected. While Tilla's life takes a dark turn, the impending summer storm turns out to be a hurricane to be reckoned with.. but the swell of personal drama she's dealing with might be even more destructive.
This book is Bromfield's debut as an author, but some may know her from her acting roles in Locke and Key, Riverdale, and Josie and the Pussycats. Like her lead character, she lives in Canada and used to spend her summers in Jamaica.. and it's easy to see her love of the island in her writing.
Honestly, I think I expected a little light-hearted familial drama. I blame the beautiful cover that seems to be filled with.. an unabashed longing.. and there is some of that present, just not entirely in the way I thought there would be.
They say that fathers are especially important to daughters. They say that in an ideal situation, the love between the two.. gives daughters confidence and high self-esteem.. and without that, they have a tendency to undersell themselves. Personally, in my experience.. I find this more applicable to relationships than life paths and it's really apparent in Tilla's story.
She seems to spend the majority of her energy trying to please those around her. Don't get me wrong, it's always more pleasant when those around you like you.. but she really fights hard to be liked. There is not a lot of time for love and understanding amongst those she finds herself staying with. Just a ton of judgement, bitterness, and jealousy.. manifesting in some of the nastiest ways.
I really felt for Tilla throughout her journey. She's a good person, still carrying a bit of optimism even when it's difficult to maintain, but those around her seem determined to crush it into dust. Moments of astonishing beauty and tenderness make it even worse when they're ripped away by the harsh realities of her situation.
Frankly, I wasn't expecting to be so affected by this story emotionally.. but it really shook me. Though I might make little tweaks here and there to the way Tilla sometimes almost rewrites reality based on what others have said, I get what the author was trying to do.. and ultimately, it moved me all the same. What a heart-wrenching read.. well done.