Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

33958230by Julie C. Dao
YA Fantasy / Fantasy
5 of 5 stars
Debut novel: October 10, 2017
*ARC review

This was one of my most-anticipated releases for this fall and I was lucky enough to snag an advanced reading copy at ALA this summer. This swept me away from the first chapter and I’m so sad this dark dream is over!

Xifeng’s impoverished existence is shadowed by her aunt Guma’s continual predictions for her greatness. Every time she reads Xifeng’s cards, they indicate she is meant to be Empress. Xifeng scoffs at the idea. She is no one, her incredible beauty and cleverness wasted in obscurity. Guma wants her to reject Wei, the man who loves her, because of her destiny, but Xifeng continues to see him–enduring brutal beatings from her aunt as a result. When Wei gives her the chance to run away, Xifeng thinks she is free of Guma’s abuse and can find her own fate. But her journey takes her to the imperial palace, and Xifeng decides to embrace her destiny and enter the palace as a lady-in-waiting. The competitive house of women tests Xifeng’s cunning in ways she didn’t expect, but each choice and gamble brings her closer to her goal. But becoming Empress will mean sacrificing everything she values and the man who loves her to claim the Emperor’s heart.

This is such a dark, addictive character study of a woman who believes her only worth lies in her flawless face and the power it provides. Xifeng is ruthless yet insecure as she feels the pull of destiny unraveling her morality. All she wants is the ability to control her own life, but as a woman in a patriarchal society her options are limited. Becoming Empress symbolizes safety and happiness for her because no one would outrank her.

Based on the stories of the Evil Queen, the fairy tale skeleton is visible beneath layers of fresh material and it provides additional significance to key moments in the best way. Xifeng’s journey feels inevitable and yet it’s clearly happening based on the choices she makes. Despite her darkness I could never bring myself to stop hoping she succeeded.

Although this is marketed as YA fantasy, I think the pacing, style, and themes better fit adult fantasy. Any readers who enjoy fairy tale re-tellings would enjoy this though!

The writing is vibrant, poetic, yet just as direct as its protagonist. Xifeng is unapologetically ambitious and I just wanted this story to last forever. Her rise from lowly peasant to life in the palace reads like a magical, disturbing Jane Austen / royal court drama and I was completely addicted to her bold game of chance and fate. I can’t wait for the sequel!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik – Agnieszka knows her perfect best friend is going to be the local wizard’s captive apprentice—except when he comes to choose a girl it isn’t Kasia. Incredible world-building, dark magic, excellent twists. This is the only fantasy novel nearly as dark and addictive as Forest that I’ve come across. See my review here.
  • Heartless by Marissa Meyer – The Queen of Hearts used to be a girl that wanted to open a bakery, but from the day she makes tarts for the King her parents try to push her towards royal ambitions. Cath is convinced she doesn’t want status or riches, but she doesn’t expect a forbidden romance with a joker to change her fate. See my review here.
  • A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab – Kell is one of the last Antari, magicians that can travel between the four parallel worlds. Officially, he works for the king of Red London (where magic is vibrant and free) but unofficially, he smuggles objects between the worlds for those willing to pay. But when he accidentally smuggles a piece of Black London (which should be extinct) into Red London, all hell breaks loose across the four worlds. See my review here.
  • The Rose Society by Marie Lu – Adelina’s journey to power and descent into darkness becomes more compelling and dangerous in this sequel. The stakes continue to rise and Adelina must continually sacrifice to achieve her dark dreams. See my review here.
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The Brothers Grimm Vol 2: 110 Grimmer Fairy Tales

16000356by Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm
Fantasy
4 of 5 stars

Over a year later, I finally finished this volume! It’s organized just like the other one, with similar tales grouped together, but this one had fewer famous stories and a lot more obscure tales of morality and violence. I would agree that these are “grimmer” because there were more chilling stories than I recall from the first volume!

However, I have to admit that some of my favorite stories were simply hilarious! “Donkey Cabbages” in particular had me cracking up (just read it—it should be a film). This volume also featured more stories with tricksters. Peasants, women, and nobles pull hilarious (and at times vindictive) pranks on each other for the strangest reasons! Like the other anthology, I enjoyed poring over this for a few months, just reading a few tales at a time.

These volumes are pretty and they’re very small, so I’d recommend these for anyone wanting to build their fairy tale collection with limited space. If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Brothers Grimm is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Rags & Bones: Timeless Twists on Classic Fairy Tales by Melissa Marr – Takes these fairy tales and give them a modern spin from a host of talented authors! Creepy and compelling, just like the best of the Grimm stories. See my review here.
  • Cinder by Marissa Meyer – One of the more interesting fairy tale retellings, this follows Cinder the cyborg in New Beijing as the prince prepares to host a ball to find his queen. See my review here.
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik – If you like your fantasy dark enjoy this story about a girl apprenticed to a wizard to fight off a sentient, creepy forest. See my review here.

A Conjuring of Light

29939230by V. E. Schwab
Fantasy
5 of 5 stars

The perfect ending to this series! I so rarely enjoy the last book in a series as much as the others, but this one hit all the beats I could have asked for. The end for each character felt right—probably because they all experience deep loss. Don’t worry, no spoilers!

This book picks up the instant after the cliff-hanger ending of book 2, which is perfect because I had to know what happened to Lila! She charges into White London to save Kell, and it is nonstop action from there. Essentially, Kell, Lila, Rhy, Alucard, and Holland must figure out if they can stop the warped magical incarnation Osaron before it destroys Red London in its quest for power. Of course, all the personal feuds and past history between them makes that task seem even more impossible.

Some of my favorite scenes in this series occur in this book! Lila in particular had me laughing out loud, and there are final revelations about magic in all the Londons that are clever and fun. It was probably important to include these moments to balance the relentless death and destruction. (Because it is absolutely relentless!)

Enjoy an excellent blend of dark magic, black humor, and awkward moments between these characters. It’s a bit faster-paced than the first two books and continues to build on everything I loved about the first two. Schwab stuck the landing and I can mark this trilogy as a new favorite series!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, A Conjuring of Light is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden – A slow-burn story of dark magic in the wilderness of Rus’. One girl is destined by her mother to save her village from the growing power of the Bear. The atmosphere of this story is incredible and will keep a hold on you long after the last page! See my review here.
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman – Because if you can’t get enough of magical doors in London you can read about Richard and how his encounter with the strange girl named Door sets off a chain of events that threaten everyone in the city.
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik – A wonderfully dark story of a sorcerer and a girl with unusual magical talents that must learn to work together to save their land from the evil in the heart of their forest. See my review here.
  • The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon – Even more adventures in magical futuristic London! Paige tries to gather voyants to her side as Scion’s threat grows. See my review here.

The Bear and the Nightingale

25489134by Katherine Arden
Fantasy
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel: January 10, 2017

This had a bit of a quiet debut but it delivered everything I hoped for! Plenty of Russian folklore, magic, a mysterious protagonist, and all things winter. I loved this!

Although Vasya is the main character, we follow a large cast over several years in the remote northern woods of Rus’. Vasya’s parents are beloved by their people, and everyone grieves when Vasya’s mother dies giving birth to her. When her father brings a new wife to their lands, the conflict between Christianity and the old traditions intensifies. The people, fearful of the hell their new monk preaches each week, begin to view Vasya as the daughter of a witch because of her strange ways. Her father, brother, and nurse attempt to shield Vasya both from the village’s growing hostility and the knowledge that the frost demon, the winter-king, seeks her life for his own reasons.

I came for the world and stayed for the characters. The relationship between Vasya and her older brother Alyosha was my favorite—watching them evolve from siblings that teased each other to adults that look out for each other was a satisfying and enjoyable journey. About halfway through is when the story becomes truly creepy! The winter-king, his brother the Bear, and different events in the village had me on edge until the end. (I would jump so hard if someone interrupted my reading!) The constant feeling of being watched by dark creatures or mercurial spirits soaks through each page and creates the best kind of tension. Vasya’s determination to protect her family and village despite their disapproval is a moving conflict, and I could not get enough of the winter-king!

The last page had me wistful to go back and stay in the wintery forest—this debut provides that lush experience of listening to stories by the fire at night. The writing is savory without being too flowery. This is a perfect read for snowy days!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Bear and the Nightingale is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik – A lyrical and dark tale of a girl taken by a sorcerer to learn magic. This seems foolish until she learns of the evil power festering in the kingdom’s forest, threatening to rise and destroy everything. Beautiful, funny, romantic, dark–I absolutely love this book! See my review here.
  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker – Chava the golem and Ahmad the jinni find themselves in New York City in 1899 through strange circumstances. Their unlikely friendship is marked by strange happenings as they try to build lives in the city of immigrants.
  • The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell – If you want a bit more of the Russian winter, follow Feo’s quest to save her mother, the wolf wilder. With only her half-wild wolf pack and the help of a young soldier, Feo must journey through the forest to St. Petersburg and free her mother from unjust imprisonment. See my review here.
  • The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley – Another story featuring a girl unsure of her powers and destiny thrust into saving her kingdom from dragons and other evil forces. It has a similar mood and is one of my favorite books! It’s rare that anything I read reminds me of it. See my review here.

A Gathering of Shadows

20764879by V.E. Schwab
Fantasy
5 of 5 stars

I loved the first book in this series from the first line (magic coats? Yes, there are never enough). In keeping with this fantastic year for sequels, this one completely lived up to my hopes! I put off reading it for a few months because of sequel fear, and now I’m glad I did that because the cliff-hanger ending is terrible and I have to wait months for the last book!

Set in Red London four months after the magic and mayhem in the previous book, we find Delilah Bard adrift at sea while Kell and Rhy deal with their newfound bond in the castle. A magical contest is scheduled to begin soon to unite the three empires in a traditional, peace-keeping event. Will this bring together our heroes in dangerous, unexpected, often hilarious and sexually charged ways? You know the answer to that!

Lila’s new temporary home aboard the Night Spire with Captain Alucard Emery highlights her acute confusion about her future as she achieves most everything she ever wanted yet still wants to run. Kell chafes at the new restrictions placed on him after the disaster months ago and tries to hide it from Rhy, which doesn’t work because Rhy now feels everything Kell feels.

Although the setup for the magical contest takes up most of the pages, if you love these characters you won’t mind the gradual buildup and relational drama as they reveal uncomfortable truths about themselves. Especially since relational drama was in very short supply in the first book. If you view the trilogy with each book taking Act 1, 2 or 3, it is flowing along perfectly in that respect. Welcome to Act 2 – dealing with the inciting incidents and how they want to handle future incidents. Enjoy some familiar tropes (magical contests) with addictive secrets and biting remarks.

My favorite thing about exploring any fantasy world is delving into the inner workings. Any book introduces the rudimentary aspects, but in a series you can go beyond the surface level and find surprising new things about how the magic works, or what the characters are responsible for, or new locations and favorite haunts. And in this case, tons of amazing coats as well. (Diana Wynne Jones ruined me, don’t judge me!)

If the most important thing for your enjoyment of a series is consistency, you will find that here! If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, A Gathering of Shadows is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon – If you just love mythical forms of London, soak up this vision of a futuristic underworld ruled by clairvoyants fighting against a regime that seeks to destroy them. Paige returns to her old haunts hoping to win her old boss Jaxon Hall to her cause—and when he seems hesitant she decides to fight on without him. See my review here.
  • Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones – If you can’t get enough of angsty wizards in magical coats, enjoy some time with Wizard Howl as he avoids all responsibilities to multiple kingdoms and deals with Sophie, an infuriating girl under a spell who insists on seeing the best in him. See my review here.
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman – Another version of London with strange magic and stranger inhabitants. Richard stops to help a strange girl on the streets and is pulled in to a battle for the city and for himself.
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik – A village thinks their local sorcerer is the most dangerous thing they face, but the reality is much worse. Agnieszka becomes his unwilling apprentice and finds that she has unusual magic that might defeat the evil looming at the kingdom’s borders. See my review here.
  • Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake – A magical competition between three sisters for the crown. A Poisoner, a Naturalist, and an Elemental must see who is strongest by killing their sisters before they kill her. See my review here.

Nevernight

26114463by Jay Kristoff
Fantasy
4 of 5 stars

This cover grabbed me – and then the jacket summary grabbed me – and then finally I had it in my hands! Although this didn’t have quite the start that I hoped, by 100 pages in I was devouring Mia’s story as fast as I could.

Assassins might seem a little in vogue right now, but Mia is the first one to have real teeth behind the name.  We meet her at 16, as she begins the journey of finding and gaining acceptance into the Red Church, to serve Our Lady of Blessed Murder (the Dark goddess, Niah) as a Blade. There are two religions at work in this world, the dominant worship of Aa, the god of Light (and the three suns, etc) and those who serve the Dark. The Luminatii, Aa’s followers, killed Mia’s father and his men for treason, and locked up her mother and baby brother in the darkest prison available. Mia escaped thanks to her strange powers with shadows, and nursed her hatred for six years as she trained in the bowels of the city, waiting for her chance at revenge.**

We learn of Mia’s exploits via a narrator that seems to be part-historian part-confidante. Despite the built-in distance we get from this, I felt so invested in Mia and her quest for vengeance. She is clever enough to be exciting and interesting, but not so perfect that it saps the tension from her battles (of wits and steel). She’s ruthless but calculating, her pragmatism outweighing her fiery temper. I loved seeing her story unfold and I can’t wait for more!

What else did I love?

The world-building is heavy at times but when it came to the Red Church and the darkin I couldn’t get enough of the dark magic, rituals, and mythology. There’s a definite sense of atmosphere and you can never let your guard down. Speaking of guard, the plot is just twisty enough to suit me without feeling like I was strung along or information was withheld. The side characters are all rivals or teachers, yet they felt solid and real even if they weren’t given much page-time.

Finally, assassins that actually perform assassinations. Maybe the issue lies in YA, but this is the first time I felt like a group of assassins were actually dangerous, a bit bloodthirsty, and ruthless. I will say there’s lots of blood and gore, so if that is off-putting you may find this a difficult read. Personally, this is a world and a character I can’t wait to reacquaint myself with when the next installment comes out!

**There are footnotes throughout that range from sarcastic asides, to myths, to history. I found them annoying at first, but they diminish about halfway through, so don’t lose heart, Gentlefriend.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Nevernight is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • The Young Elites by Marie Lu – The YA version of a dark heroine coming to terms with her powers and the revenge she’ll have with them. Adelina survived the blood fever, but like other children who didn’t die, she bears the marks and scars—she lost her left eye, and her black hair is now white. Betrayed by her father, she finds a new home with the Dagger Society, a group that tries to find the Young Elites before they are discovered and killed for their abilities. But Adelina’s powers are unlike anything they’ve ever seen. See my review here.
  • The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman – Lyra’s carefree childhood comes to an end when her estranged uncle Lord Asriel returns to put her in the care of Mrs. Coulter, a powerful scholar who offers her all the attention Lyra has lacked. But both of them are involved in a strange and dark battle for alternate universes and the nature of human souls. Lyra journeys to the mysterious north with a magical truth-telling device, the alethiometer, as her only aid to discovering what’s really happening.
  • A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab – Kell is one of the last Antari, magicians that can travel between the four parallel worlds. Officially, he works for the king of Red London (where magic is vibrant and free) but unofficially, he smuggles objects between the worlds for those willing to pay. But when he accidentally smuggles a piece of Black London (which should be extinct) into Red London, all hell breaks loose across the four worlds. See my review here.
  • The Assassin’s Blade by Sarah J. Maas – For less bloody but no less brilliant plotting and backstabbing, these 5 novellas about Celaena Sardothien’s assassin education manage to be both fun and dark. See my review here.
  • Sabriel by Garth Nix – Sabriel’s father is the Abhorsen, the only one who can keep the Dead in Death. But when he goes missing, Sabriel must assume his role despite having no training and limited knowledge. She’ll be the only one to stand against the greatest evil her world has ever seen. See my review here.
  • Blood Magic by Tessa Gratton – Not nearly as gritty as these other recs, but still creepy. Silla will do anything to learn the truth behind her parents’ deaths—even some blood magic from a strange book that appears on her doorstep. But she quickly realizes she’s part of a larger story that hasn’t ended yet, and someone else will stop at nothing to claim her life and the book as well.
  • Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo – A gang of criminals on an impossible heist, each determined to betray the others first. What could go wrong? See my review here.

A Darker Shade of Magic

22055262by V.E. Schwab
Fantasy
5 of 5 stars

I’ve had this on my list for almost a year and I am so glad I got around to it! I knew from page 1 that this is exactly my type of poison, and it only got better from there. (I am now pestering everyone I know to read it). Dark magic, characters in fabulous coats, and four Londons—my favorite city multiplied by four. For me, it was insta-love!

Kel is one of only two Antari left—powerful magicians that can move between the parallel worlds. He also has a bad habit of smuggling items between the worlds, which is expressly forbidden by laws in all four of them. When he accidentally transfers a piece of Black London (destroyed by dark magic and the reason the four worlds are sealed off and kept separate) he must return it before it destroys the remaining three worlds with its power.

Lila is an aspiring pirate, current thief, making her way in Grey London when she bumps into Kel and proceeds to steal the stone without knowing what it is. Fighting turns to tentative friendship and of course complete chaos follows them from one London to the next.

So much to love here: excellent character studies, fast-paced action, and a twisting plot. The magic system continually evolves and derails what at first glance seems to be a straightforward story, which I loved. You’re never comfortable for long because the minute the characters decide what to do, you can bet it won’t work. I didn’t realize how often you can anticipate the steps of a story until my expectations were thrown aside for an alternative (and satisfying, that’s key) option. The writing isn’t pretty or delicious because it isn’t purple, but it’s my favorite type of specificity that I tend to find with Maggie Stiefvater’s work. There were a few sections of info-dumping but by that point I was so curious I didn’t care. The narration is a bit like a fairy tale or Diana Wynne Jones, so if you like those you will love this!

This is a fun adventure and though you can see its roots clearly (they’re even alluded to on the back jacket flap) this had me hooked! I’m excited to see where the series goes.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, A Darker Shade of Magic is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik – I recommend this partly because it’s another book where I knew it was for me from page 1! Agnieszka knows her perfect best friend is going to be the local wizard’s captive apprentice—except when he comes to choose a girl it isn’t Kasia. Incredible world-building, dark magic, excellent twists. See my review here.
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman – Another dark London portal fantasy (unsurprising since Gaiman is one of Schwab’s influences) where ordinary office worker Richard Mayhew meets a young girl wounded on the street. Her name is Door, and the doors she creates and opens will change Richard’s life forever.
  • Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones – One of my favorite YA fantasy novels of all time, also featuring a reluctant wizard with a penchant for magical coats who needs a strong-willed female sidekick to keep him honorable. See my review here.
  • Sunshine by Robin McKinley – Her foray into adult fantasy features vampires, delicious baked goods, and a girl known as Sunshine that finds herself befriending the very enemy her town is fighting against. This is a vivid, memorable book that I love!
  • Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo – A gang of criminals with an impossible heist unite to beat the odds—even though they all plan to betray each other in the process. This book is amazing, just read it. If you need convincing, see my review here.
  • The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon – Book 2 in a seven-part series, the author describes this as her love letter to London. Paige returns to her underground criminal home with the intent of turning the voyants against the Rephaim. It’s full of intrigue, action, and theatrics! See my review here.
  • Nevernight by Jay Kristoff – Mia Corvere is determined to survive initiation into the Red Church to become one of the best assassins in the land. Only then can she avenge her fallen family. See my review here.

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