ARC Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

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review4/5 Stars 

***I received this eARC as a gift in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley and  Del Rey

The Bear and the Nightingale is a love letter to old Rus’. 

The other day I found myself missing the Motherland. Once you’ve been to Russia, the spirit of the country latches on to you and you’ll never be able to forget it, even if it forgets you. The Bear and the Nightingale was the perfect answer to my melancholic nostalgia. That being said, rating this book was tricky for me because I love Russian culture so much, so deeply, that it hypnotized and transported me back to those dark and beautiful nights in Moscow and Suzdal and Vladimir and Tolstoy’s estate. I digress, but the point is if you have even the tiniest interest in Russian folklore, the old culture, and adore fairy tales, you’ll be swept up into this rustic and romantic tale of a girl kissed by magic and determined to save her people. 

Side note: Throughout the story I yelled at the book in Russian. Like full on what is this??? yelling. The transliteration irked me to no end and then I got to the end of the book and I laughed so hard. That author’s note made my day. She explained her choices and described how she though Russian speakers/students would react to the transliteration-with disdain and hands pretty much clenched in fists. Somehow, the fact that she knew it made it okay. 

The Bear and the Nightingale is whimsical, haunting, and twisted like any good fairytale. A blend of many stories known, loved, and feared in Russia still today, The Bear and the Nightingale is one epic journey that spans years. From the house-spirits, to the gods of the elements, to the celebrated figures of Baba Yaga and the Firebird, everything that is inherently Russian is present and accounted for. I loved that the focus was not on these known figures, but on the everyday ones that live in the household and receive offerings, that protect the hearth and livelihood of the family. 

This is a love story. Not in the traditional sense, but one of love for the land, for heritage, for culture, and in beings that others believe are myth. There’s not romance in the usual fashion, but there is a hint. 

The atmosphere and world building is strong. You’ll become fully immersed in the countryside, the power of the forest and all the magical beings that inhabit it. 

I loved Vasya. She’s known for being unattractive, frog-like, and weird, but her spirit makes her beautiful. She’s fierce, determined, sure of herself. She believes when others are filled with doubts. She throws herself into danger, she risks her life, she loves hard and barters for her people. She’s small, but she’s crafty and wild and bold. She does what everyone else in the story wouldn’t dare and that’s what makes her compelling. 

On a more somber note, there is some conversion that goes on in the story. Religious crusade of a sort that makes the reader question what happens when people story believing in their folklore, in their old gods, and all the stories that come with them. There’s something heartbreaking and sobering about this war within the people. 

The pacing may be slow for some, but it builds as it goes and Vasya becomes more adventurous. 

If you like any of the following, you’ll enjoy this:

Magical reading, 

Jordan

ARC Review: Frostblood by Elly Blake

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Seventeen-year-old Ruby is a fireblood who must hide her powers of heat and flame from the cruel frostblood ruling class that wants to destroy all that are left of her kind. So when her mother is killed for protecting her and rebel frostbloods demand her help to kill their rampaging king, she agrees. But Ruby’s powers are unpredictable, and she’s not sure she’s willing to let the rebels and an infuriating (yet irresistible) young man called Arcus use her as their weapon.

All she wants is revenge, but before they can take action, Ruby is captured and forced to take part in the king’s tournaments that pit fireblood prisoners against frostblood champions. Now she has only one chance to destroy the maniacal ruler who has taken everything from her and from the icy young man she has come to love.

Fast-paced and compelling, Frostblood is the first in a page-turning new young adult three-book series about a world where flame and ice are mortal enemies—but together create a power that could change everything.

review4/5 Stars 

***I received this eARC as a gift in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley & Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

This year is already shaping up to be one of my best reading years. I’ve read 8 books so far  and I have not been disappointed. Frostblood is the book you’re going to hear about and will become an instinctive recommendation to anyone and everyone you know because it’s epic. 

How I love this book, let me count the ways:

World Building. A blend of dizzying and addictive folklore mixes with myth and elemental magic. The stories of the gods and goddesses are sweeping, dark, and have that campfire-tale quality that sucks you in and refuses to let go. Wow. These stories themselves would make an amazing companion for the series. I’d love to have a collection. And they keep coming. They’re a solid foundation that keeps giving as the story progresses. There are layers of world building. The first is myth, the second is this terrifying world of witch-hunt style persecution and violence. AND then a gladiator-like battle in an area. I don’t know what else you could possibly want, this is all sorts of epic. 

Ruby. As a main character, she’s unexpected. Filled with doubts, insecurity and yet, thirsting for revenge, she’s not the typical heroine. Her drive is largely to pay back those who destroyed her world and make them suffer. That vehement determination is something else. At the same time, her heart is tested. She learns compassion and to care in new and surprising ways. Everything that Ruby is is tempted. Darkness beckons her and she must decide between darkness and light. That conflict is written so well. She truly wars within. 

Arcus. There’s some serious star-crossed lovers going on here. He’s not what you’d picture as a love interest. Cold, dismissive, scarred, and gruff. He’s not your typical flirty hot guy. He’s got an air of mystery, but for the most part her’s serious, seems much older than his years. Arcus will grow on you. His focus, the way he fights through his icy exterior, how he doesn’t know how to process his emotions…I mean, he’s the kind of character you tilt your head to the side, raise an eyebrow and examine-a puzzle. 

Romance. It’s soft, subtle, and hits hard when it does. There’s definitely a love-hate, comparative fight against the attraction. It’s spirited, intriguing, and the banter, yes, give me more of that. Fire and ice. Who knew it could be so steamy? 😉 

Secondary characters. Everyone in the abbey left an impression. From the good guys to the bad ones. The presence is there. The adrenaline high. No one can be fully trusted. A character who had a fairly important part, Marella, was a wishy-washy, almost forgettable character despite her pretty regular appearance near the end of the book. Rasmus!!! OMG. Yes. A complex villain with a twisted and heartbreaking background. I felt for him. The revelations about his character are short, blunt, and leave you reeling. His evil is there. He’s vile, violent, and glorifies others’ pain, but whether he would truly be that way without the influence of the throne leaves him questionable. And for some strange reason, he’s oddly sexy, maybe even more so than Arcus. I only wish he was present sooner.

The Arena. Flashbacks to Gladiator. “Are you entertained?” I certainly was. The mythical and beastly creatures, it was a rush.

The story leaves room for a sequel and I cannot wait. The resolution was hard to come by. There was a great level of uncertainty that the good would win. I loved that. 

If you like any of the following, you’ll enjoy this:

Keep reading, 

Jordan

ARC Review: Poison’s Kiss by Breeana Shields

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Release Date: Jan 10, 2017

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A teenage assassin kills with a single kiss until she is ordered to kill the one boy she loves. This commercial YA fantasy is romantic and addictive like– a poison kiss– and will thrill fans of Sarah J. Maas and Victoria Aveyard.

Marinda has kissed dozens of boys. They all die afterward. It s a miserable life, but being a visha kanya a poison maiden is what she was created to do. Marinda serves the Raja by dispatching his enemies with only her lips as a weapon.

Until now, the men she was ordered to kiss have been strangers, enemies of the kingdom. Then she receives orders to kiss Deven, a boy she knows too well to be convinced he needs to die. She begins to question who she s really working for. And that is a thread that, once pulled, will unravel more than she can afford to lose.

This rich, surprising, and accessible debut is based in Indian folklore and delivers a story that will keep readers on the edge of their seats.

review

4/5 Stars 

***I received this eARC as a gift in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley & Random House Books for Young Readers

Poison’s Kiss is a sweeping and thrilling journey into rich Indian folklore. Full of mystery, intrigue, a reluctant assassin, and gods, Poison’s Kiss is an adventure that will leave you hungry for more. 

PROS: 

  • Poison’s Kiss is a blend of Northern and Southern Indian legends, with a twist. In this world, based on India, the gods of folklore are spoken of in whispers, they’re on coins, they’re known by the masses, but more of as a hazy bedtime story. As someone who knows very little of Indian lore besides the main stories related to religion, this was epic. It’s whimsical and dark. There’s a sinister and revered undercurrent that runs throughout the story that keeps you on edge for the unexpected. I loved that the culture was just present. It wasn’t knock-you-over-the-head, explanations all over the place. From the food, to the clothing, to the bustling markets and snake charmers. You become immersed fast and it will consume you. 
  • Visha kanya. Poison maidens. This takes the idea to a whole new level. The poison becomes a vicious and deadly part of the maiden’s body. A kiss that kills. The process, how the poison takes hold, the connection to snakes, everything is elaborate and terrifying and absolutely addictive. 
  • Marinda grew on me. At first, I wasn’t sold on her. She takes forever to figure things out, she is defiant, she puts herself in danger, she doesn’t think and rushes in. There’s nothing that drives me nuts worse than someone who doesn’t take a second to think. But Marinda is incredibly brave, compassionate, and will do anything for her brother, who is not even hers by blood, but he’s the only thing that helps her keep her humanity after so much death and destruction. The guilt consumes her. The toll of killing, knowing what the poison does, it breaks her despite the knowledge that she is doing something for the greater good. Marinda doesn’t want to be what she is, but she has no choice. The danger is so high and she knows the consequences of trying to escape her keeper. Marinda has a beautiful heart. She genuinely loves and gives that love to her brother, no matter how down she is. Scenes from her childhood and how she became a visha kanya are brutal and heartbreaking. 
  • Not all villains are wholly evil. The characters are complex. Their beliefs are deeply rooted and not everyone is what they seem. Gopal is a true villain. He’s sadistic, horrible, and the carnage he leaves behind, it’s the stuff of nightmares. Kadru, she’s super creepy, otherworldly, and vicious. Those snakes, chills. 
  • Devin’s charm is in how much he cares. It doesn’t matter that he’s hot, it’s his heart. The way he treats Mani is enough to make any girl fall for him. 

CONS:

  • I wish there would have been a more in-depth look at the various gods and how they featured in the culture at their height. The main character knows pretty much nothing about them because she was so sheltered, so that’s a big blank for the reader as well. A little more world building would have solidified each of these figures, their strengths, their weaknesses, and how they relate to the world as it is now. 
  • The romance was so-so. On one hand, I liked that it wasn’t so centered on the falling. On the other hand, I would have liked more build up. Near the end it feels rushed and clumsy. I mean the surge of emotion. Sure after everything they’ve been through emotions are off the charts, but it bordered on instalove because of how it’s slammed into the story at the end. There were some cute interactions before everything fell apart though.

If you like any of the following, you’ll enjoy this:

Epic reading, 

Jordan

ARC Review: The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

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synSubhi is a refugee. Born in an Australian permanent detention center after his mother and sister fled the violence of a distant homeland, Subhi has only ever known life behind the fences. But his world is far bigger than that—every night, the magical Night Sea from his mother’s stories brings him gifts, the faraway whales sing to him, and the birds tell their stories. And as he grows, his imagination threatens to burst beyond the limits of his containment.

The most vivid story of all, however, is the one that arrives one night in the form of Jimmie—a scruffy, impatient girl who appears on the other side of the wire fence and brings with her a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it herself, she relies on Subhi to unravel her family’s love songs and tragedies.

Subhi and Jimmie might both find comfort—and maybe even freedom—as their tales unfold. But not until each has been braver than ever before.

review4/5 Stars 

***I received this eARC as a gift in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley & Disney-Hyperion

Sometimes a great book is balm for the soul, and other times, a book wakes you up. Sometimes the darkness in this world is too much that it’s easy to look away and selectively forget the atrocities that happen every single day to people who seek nothing but peace and a place to call home. The Bone Sparrow reads like a folktale. With a blend of lyrical storytelling, startling bursts of horrific reality, and two children from different worlds even though they live footsteps apart, The Bone Sparrow brings those who don’t have a voice and are cast aside like a dirty little secret to vibrant life. 

Subhi is dreamer. Caught up in his world of stories and a father he’s never met, his hope is a burst of light and longing that fights hard against the injustice that surrounds him. Cushioned by his child-like wonder at the simple magic of dreams, words, and legends, Subhi is a captivating character. His words are innocent and full of loyalty. He holds those he loves so high as protectors and the good. What others see as negative, he sees as okay because he’s never known any different being born in the refugee camp. Kids find truths and say them with such simplicity that it’s both profound and enlightening. So many times, I had to pause and reread. What initially seems light and offhand is actually jarring in its insight. After witnesses something truly despicable and triggering, Subhi’s world is no longer Night Seas and whales who sing to the moon, it’s starvation, pain, and abuse. It’s a letdown he never expected. This awakening is heartbreaking and crushing. This perfect little spirit who lived the world on a cloud and reveled in simple happiness broken and downtrodden. Seriously, it sucks the life right out of you. So powerful and emotional.

Friendship is everything in this story. It’s a hero, it’s a savior, it’s hope and longing and love. This unlikely pairing between a motherless girl with just as much yearning as Subhi, clinging to a past that she refuses to let go, is so special. 

Some parts of this story are graphic and dark. This book is categorized as MG on some sites and I’d really consider it before sharing with young kids. Though the protagonists are 10, the subject matter is more mature. The violence might be a bit much, especially one scene in particular. 

The pacing was so-so. The build up far less and later than I would have hoped for to create the right amount of tension and anxiety. 

Jimme is an outside oblivious to what is really going on behind the fence or to how detention centers work. She’s heard rumors of how lucky the refugees are, how much food they get, and her curiosity makes her fearless. Jimmie doesn’t have a care in the world besides her desperation to preserve the last vestiges of her mother through her mother’s journal. Like Subhi, she doesn’t understand what she’s looking at and no one takes the time to explain. Those who are part of the situation and don’t explain the gravity are just as culpable as those who ignore. Jimmie’s ignorance is hurtful, but full of heart. She adores Subhi and their friendship is cute and full of instance love. Through stories, they grow to trust and rely on each other. 

The story of Burma, the conditions in refugee camps, detainment centers, how those seeking asylum are treated are all brushed under the rug unless it is brought to international headlines and even then it disappears after a while. What happens to these people? How are they living? Who is helping them? Are they getting help at all or are they worse off? These questions and many more are addressed and examined in this book. They shouldn’t be forgotten and unfortunately, it takes perseverance and willingness to care, and compassion to make change. 

Insightful reading, 

Jordan

Review: The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

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A startling, seductive, deliciously dark debut that will shatter your definition of YA fantasy.

Sixteen-year-old Twylla lives in the castle. But although she’s engaged to the prince, no one speaks to her. No one even looks at her. Because Twylla isn’t a member of the court. She’s the executioner. As the goddess-embodied, Twylla kills with a single touch. So each week, she’s taken to the prison and forced to lay her hands on those accused of treason.

No one will ever love her.

Who could care for a girl with murder in her veins?

Even the prince, whose royal blood supposedly makes him immune to her touch, avoids her.But then a new guard arrives, a boy whose playful smile belies his deadly swordsmanship. And unlike the others, he’s able to look past Twylla’s executioner robes and see the girl, not the goddess. Yet a treasonous romance is the least of Twylla’s problems. The queen has a plan to destroy her enemies-a plan that requires an unthinkable sacrifice.

Will Twylla do what it takes to protect her kingdom?

Or will she abandon her duty in favor of a doomed love?

review

3.5/5 Stars

The Sin Eater’s Daughter is a dark and deadly fairy tale. Full of twists, temptation, and manipulation, The Sin Eater’s Daughter is spellbinding and different in the best way.

This cover is sinfully beautiful. 

The world building. I want to live in this twisted, dusty place full of magic and lore. I want to learn their customs, and breathe in their past. It’s like Brothers Grimm meets Sarah J. Maas. The curses, the actual act of eating people’s sins so that they can move on to the afterlife and not become a restless spirit. Absolute genius and so dark. It is reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. 

Twylla is resigned to her fate. She’s consumed with guilt and riddled with grief at her past. She knows that as a chosen symbol, she must make sacrifices for the good of the people, even if she’s forfeiting her heart and soul. Twylla is complex. She wades through her feelings and slaps herself in the face with hard truths. What I LOVED was that Twylla was hard on herself. When she realized her mistakes, she accepted her complacency, her fault in everything, and that in itself was empowering.

The story got lost in the complex love triangle. It became more about the romance than the original story. I wanted more of the sin eating, the death and judgment. As an executioner, there were surprisingly few deaths. It faded away too fast. This part of the story arch needed more development before it transitioned into a full-scale romance. 

That plot twist. There’s a teeny, tiny clue, but wow, it was a heartbreaking, scathing shocker. 

Characters are brutal and manipulative. Everyone has an agenda, whether it’s pure or evil. No one is what they seem. They’re layered and wear many masks. You have to decide what to take as truth.

While the Sleeping Prince was mentioned briefly as almost an afterthought, the later importance feels like a throw in at the last minute rather than a planned plot decision. That magical transition turns the story on its head and brings it back to the smoky, fairy tale that was lost in the romance. 

Twylla falls extremely fast. While there’s build up, it wasn’t enough to offset her encounters with the Prince.

If you like any of the following, you’ll enjoy this:

Magical reading, 

Jordan

 

ARC Review: Riverkeep by Martin Stewart

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synThe Danék is a wild, treacherous river, and the Fobisher family has tended it for generations—clearing it of ice and weed, making sure boats can get through, and fishing corpses from its bleak depths. Wulliam’s father, the current Riverkeep, is proud of this work. Wull dreads it. And in one week, when he comes of age, he will have to take over.

Then the unthinkable happens. While recovering a drowned man, Wull’s father is pulled under—and when he emerges, he is no longer himself. A dark spirit possesses him, devouring him from the inside. In an instant, Wull is Riverkeep. And he must care for his father, too.

When he hears that a cure for his father lurks in the belly of a great sea-dwelling beast known as the mormorach, he embarks on an epic journey down the river that his family has so long protected—but never explored. Along the way, he faces death in any number of ways, meets people and creatures touched by magic and madness and alchemy, and finds courage he never knew he possessed.

review

3.5/5 Stars

***I received this eARC as a gift via Penguin’s First to Read 

Riverkeep is a dark and gritty surprise.

Intense, it drags you down into its dark depths and introduces you to unlikely monsters that can be found within ourselves and our surroundings. Full of lore, an unconventional protagonist, and sweeping imagery, it will hold you captive until the last page.

A little slow to start, it takes a bit to get into the story, but once you do, it’s a continuous adventure.

Wull in bumbling, uncertain, and makes mistakes. Despite his intriguing and slightly disturbing profession, he’s surprisingly normal and easy to relate to. Everyone can recognize that primal need to impress their parents and the fierce love you have for them despite their flaws (though in Wull’s case, it’s way more intense and complicated than that). No matter how hard he tries, it seems like he’s destined for failure and can’t live up to his father’s image. It’s funny and a little heartbreaking, but Wull finds his own strengths and takes risks when he needs to.

The self-discovery is poignant.

The Scottish lore creatures. Wow. Crazy violent and oh so interesting. At first, it’s hard to know what they are and what exactly is being referred to. The preludes to each chapter introduce the creatures but initially you’re grasping for straws to figure out just what these beasts are and where they came from.

The atmosphere and mood are immense and consuming. The world building intricate and extensive. The story is a coming of age in a way that honors epic tales like Gilgamesh and Beowulf without the politics.

If you like any of the following, you’ll enjoy this:

Epic Reading, 

Jordan

ARC Review: Devil and the Bluebird by Jennifer Mason-Black

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Release Date: May 17, 2016

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“Devil-at-the-crossroads” folklore finds its way to YA via this moody, magical tale

Blue Riley has wrestled with her own demons ever since the loss of her mother to cancer. But when she encounters a beautiful devil at her town crossroads, it’s her runaway sister’s soul she fights to save. The devil steals Blue’s voice—inherited from her musically gifted mother—in exchange for a single shot at finding Cass.

Armed with her mother’s guitar, a knapsack of cherished mementos, and a pair of magical boots, Blue journeys west in search of her sister. When the devil changes the terms of their deal, Blue must reevaluate her understanding of good and evil and open herself to finding family in unexpected places.

In Devil and the Bluebird, Jennifer Mason-Black delivers a heart-wrenching depiction of loss and hope.

review

3.5/5 Stars

***I received this eARC as a gift in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley & Amulet Books 

PROS:

  • The supernatural moments were sultry, devious, and insanely creepy. The kind of stuff that makes your skin crawl. I was crazy impressed with how terrifying these small scenes were. Chills. The devil is seductive, manipulative, playful, and yet, doesn’t seem inherently evil. She’s complex (I wish there was more of her and these teeny scary scenes).
  • This blend of folk legend and cross-country journey of self discovery is pervasive and grips you immediately. Blue’s quest to find her sister to hold on to some semblance of the life she used to know is poetic, beautiful, and cathartic. There’s a smokey air of supernatural and uncertainty that keeps the story fresh despite the slow pace.
  • Secondary characters are something else. They each have strong, unique voices and carry their own pain. No matter how fleeting their time in the story, they add a sharp “realness” that contrasts strongly with the paranormal. Diversity is a powerful component. There are people from all walks of life, trans, homeless, extremely religious, wanderers, dreamers, musicians. They’re all there, bursting into life with each moment on the page. There are a lot of dangers on the road as well. From thieves, to traffickers, to serial killers, you never know what’s coming.
  • This story is really about finding yourself when everything spins out of control and all stability is lost. When so much of who you are is based on your relation to others and how they perceive you, what do you have left when they’re gone? Blue struggles to learn who she is, who she wants to be, and to find her voice after it was robbed from her by the devil. Ironically, Blue’s voice, her individuality was gone well before that and only through her deal with the devil does she realize how much she wasn’t living.

CONS:

  • The pacing was overall pretty slow. The story dragged a bit, especially when there wasn’t something supernatural happening (granted hitchhiking across the country is not the fastest). The constant wandering got monotonous at times, partially because Blue’s voice wavered. Occasionally it was strong and passionate; she was finding herself along the way, but other times it is diminutive and she reverts back to the little sister constantly being cast in the shadow of everyone else’s talent. 
  • The romance was light and felt randomly inserted. Unnecessary is a better word. It jumps from attraction to instalove and it shifted the focus of the story, not in a good way. 
  • Blue’s relationship with her sister wasn’t built up enough. What little we know of Cass makes her extremely unlikable and you sort of wonder why Blue is putting so much effort into finding someone who is ungrateful and clearly doesn’t want to be found. She totally abandoned her sister in her time of need. Not cool.

If you like any of the following, you’ll enjoy this:

Spooky reading, 

Jordan