Welcome to another rapid book review. It’s been about a month since I’ve done one of these so I have several books to get through. The first one was an audiobook. The rest were physical copies. All but the audiobook were fantasy novels, so if you’re looking for some fantasy recommendations, you’re in luck. We do have a couple of really good books on this list today.
This may go without saying, but as is the case for all my rapid book reviews, I try to keep things spoiler-free. As in, if you haven’t read any of these books yet, and you’re trying to decide if you want to, the post should be safe. I hope you’ll let me know in the comments if you’ve read any of these before, but of course, as the post is spoiler-free, I just ask that the comments remain such as well. Enjoy!
Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil by Lezley McSpadden (audiobook)
A synopsis: The mother of Michael Brown (the young man killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014) wrote a memoir chronicling her life, from growing up to becoming a mom to dealing with the aftermath of her son’s death. It tells the story of a strong young woman who wanted nothing more than to raise a good son
The review: It was a little disappointing to find out that the book focused primarily on the life of Michael Brown’s mother since I had picked up the book hoping to read more about Brown himself. But once I got through the first few chapters and realized it would be more about Lezley, I found that I didn’t really mind. Lezley’s focus in the book is to tell the truth about what happened, and she couldn’t do that properly if she tried to make up details about her son.
Instead, we get a well-written story about the kind of life Lezley lived. Not all of it is pretty, but those darker moments give credence to lighter ones. Oddly, the darkest moment of all–Michael’s death and the aftermath–came rather abruptly. Of course, it would have felt abrupt to Lezley in the moment, but the readers know where the story ends, so it was weird how sudden it felt. But, other than that, I had no real issues with it. It didn’t feel like Lezley was romanticizing anything. She told the story from her perspective and it felt real. More importantly, it was informative. Maybe it did not provide the information its readers were hoping for, exactly, but it was enough.
Recommendation: I think this book is probably going to be most appreciated by readers who are curious about the events surrounding the Ferguson shooting or those who are curious about the extent to which police brutality is an issue. Although Tell the Truth involves few interactions with the police, I think both the small interactions and, of course, the actions of those trying to get to the bottom of Darren Wilson’s misconduct, is telling.
Malice by Heather Walter
A synopsis: A “Sleeping Beauty” retelling taking place in the land of Briar, some people are Graced with abilities gifted by the Fae. Whether it is a wisdom Grace or pleasure Grace or beauty Grace, all are revered. All, that is, except for Alyce and her Dark Grace, magic founded instead by her Vila blood. Alyce wants nothing more than to be accepted like the others, but the more she tries, the more people despise and try to use her. Her saving grace is Princess Aurora, but even she may not be enough to save Alyce from her dark path.
The review: Villain origin stories tend to be problematic, as they try, more often than not, to excuse what the villain did by showing how cruel and terrible everyone else in their life is. Malice is no exception. Truly, its biggest draw was the fact that it was supposed to include a sapphic relationship with the main character, and even that fell flat. The relationship was surprisingly lackluster.
Overall, lackluster would probably describe most elements of the book. The plot twists were generally predictable, the magic system wasn’t particularly inspiring, and most of the characters were rather two-dimensional. Either they were evil, or they were kind. No in between. If the second installment of the duology involves Alyce having to face the consequences of her actions, I could forgive most of the book’s flatness, but I have a feeling that it won’t. Granted, it’s not a terrible novel. I had just been hoping for more.
Recommendation: This book is good for any reader looking for LGBT+ representation in a high fantasy setting. If you love reading about unlikable characters and have a general appreciation for Disney characters (especially Disney villains), you’ll probably enjoy this book far more than I. However, most of the book is relatively slow-paced, so be prepared.
Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater
Spoilers for the Raven Cycle.
A synopsis: Something is coming. Something big. For the dreamers and the dreamed and the mysterious people who are terrified of their abilities. Carmen Farooq-Lane wants to save the world. Jordan Hennessy wants to find a way to survive. And Ronan Lynch just wants to be with his boyfriend. But when Ronan is given the Call, he answers it, and it leads him to people wearing the faces of the dead, and to another dreamer who treads closer and closer to death. If either of them are going to survive, they’re going to have to untangle two mysteries. First: who is Bryde? And second: who is killing the dreamers?
The review: The book was…chaotic. There are three main plotlines: one revolving around Ronan, one around Jordan Hennessy, and one around Farooq-Lane. It takes far too long for the different threads to start tying into one another, and there’s a disappointing amount of Ronan (and an even more disappointing amount of Adam). That said, you won’t find an author who knows how to write realistic characters better than Stiefvater. Even the characters that could have been two-dimensional were given their own distinct personalities. There is also an expansion on the magic set up in the Raven Cycle series, which I’m always down for.
Call Down the Hawk was not without its problems. Farooq-Lane’s storyline felt boring at best and a waste of time at worst, drawing the reader away from the stories that they actually wanted to delve into. Her story added yet another layer of mysteries in a book that was a bit too full of them. What’s worse is, by the end of it, the novel doesn’t really resolve any of its mysteries. The book is the first in the Dreamer trilogy, so there’s plenty of time for those mysteries to be resolved, but on its own, Call Down the Hawk did seem oddly messy. I suppose how Stiefvater cleans up that mess in Mister Impossible (which will be officially out by the time this post is published). I do remain optimistic. Stiefvater hasn’t let me down yet.
Recommendation: Fans of Stiefvater’s previous work will undoubtedly like this book, but I’m guessing if you’re a fan, you probably read this when it first came out. For those who haven’t read much of her work, I do recommend it. This is a sequel series, so I have to recommend reading the Raven Cycle before hitting the Dreamer trilogy. (Good news: it reads really fast.) That said, Stiefvater loves writing paranormal-type stories sans werewolves or vampires or fairies, etc., so if you like your urban/paranormal fantasy, you will love these books.
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna
A synopsis: All of her life, Deka has looked forward to the Ritual of Purity where she could prove she had red blood, not the cursed gold, and show that she belonged. But when the day comes and Deka fails the test, her very friends and family turn on her. Only a mysterious visitor saves her, taking her to a place where she can learn to fight for the emperor’s army. Deka revels in the feeling of belonging she finds there, but not everything is as it seems. Maybe not even Deka herself.
The review: The novel was a serviceable debut fantasy. The setting wasn’t exactly immersive, lacking in details that would really help ground the reader, but it was expansive. There were different dialects and different physical characteristics for its population. There were more world-specific creatures than earth-borrowed ones. The inclusion of a heavily patriarchal religion made the feminist themes a little heavy-handed at times.
There were several elements that Forna hit really well. The relationship her quasi-immortal characters had with death was incredibly well-written, for one. For another, unlike in Malice, the protagonist’s differences are not immediately and inherently accepted, even by her newfound and most trusted friends. It gave their relationships a more realistic flair. Lastly, although there’s technically a rather large cast of characters–many of whom appear off and on but not with any regularity to really keep them straight–Forna actively reminds the readers who is who whenever they enter the page.
Recommendation: Those looking for diverse cast of characters in expansive worlds will find The Gilded Ones to be enjoyable. But readers should be aware that the book’s in-world religion plays a massive role in the novel’s plot which can, in some cases, detract from enjoyment. Most of all, the novel is not euro-centric, in most ways. The empire is expansive, as previously noted, but even the small village life at the beginning did not feel too Medieval Europe, which made for a refreshing setting. Also, readers seeking representation will be pleasantly surprised. Deka’s mother is from the dark-skinned south, but Deka grows up in the light-skinned north, and she is discriminated against because of that. Additionally, there is an openly gay character, and hints that Deka might not be into just men.
The Magician King by Lev Grossman (The Magicians #2)
Spoilers for The Magicians.
A synopsis: After the defeat of the Beast and Quentin’s return to Fillory, everything seems perfect. There is not much in the way of conflict in Fillory, and Quentin feels as if he has no purpose in life. Deciding to give himself a quest, Quentin sets out, accompanied by Julia, only to find themselves inexplicably thrown back onto Earth. As they follow what few leads they have to get back home, they become embroiled in a real quest, one in which entire worlds hang in the balance.
The review: A far cry from the hateful, spiteful protagonist of Book 1 Quentin, the sequel was pleasantly delightful. The main plot was relatively slow-paced, but the story of Julia’s past was woven in and kept the story interesting. Quentin’s character was still rather whiny and unlikable, but there was proof of growth in his arc from the end of the first book into the beginning of the second, and that growth only continues from there. The character work for both is just immaculate.
The book’s magic system is also expanded upon, showing what magic looks like for those unlucky enough to be refused from Brakebills. The plot itself revolves around finding out where one belongs and how to discover one’s purpose. Overall, it left a very pleasant taste in my mouth at its conclusion, and where I’d been hesitant to finish the series after the first book, I cannot wait to grab The Magician’s Land and see how this ends.
Recommendation: First I must put a fervent content warning for sexual assault. I think Lev Grossman wrote about it in a respectful manner, if that makes sense, as in, not just doing it to make things “realistic” or to set the character on a path towards becoming stronger. Rather, Grossman writes it as a tragedy, showing the dark effects, and showing the character’s personal strength. It’s a grittier version of Tess of the Road, but if you liked Hartman’s work I think you’ll probably also like this. The dark undertones of depression and self-destruction are also present in Quentin’s plotline. Overall, the story is about characters who learn that magic is real yet has very little sway in the “real” world. Seeing how they interact with it, try to give it meaning, makes for an interesting read.