I’m excited to say that, after half a year of waiting, I’ve finally finished the second books of two series that had me hyped last year. Those being: The Fires of Vengeance by Evan Winter, part of a four-book series called the Burning; and Our Dark Duet by Victoria Schwab, the conclusion to the Monsters of Verity duology. The other three books included in today’s rapid book review were essentially impulse buys; Romanov by Nadine Brandes was on sale on Chirp, and both Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan and Wings of Ebony by J. Elle have been making waves.
As per usual, my rapid book reviews are spoiler-free. However, if you have not yet read Rage of Dragons or This Savage Song, my review of the second books might spoil the first. There is a Rage of Dragons book review and an RBR of This Savage Song for reference, both of which are spoiler-free. There is also a spoiler-filled Setting Study for Wings of Ebony if you want a more in-depth analysis of that novel.
Romanov by Nadine Brandes (audiobook)
A synopsis: One of history’s great mysteries deals with the fate of the missing Anastasia Romanov following the deposition of the czar. Nadine Brandes tells her story now, throwing in spellwork in this historical fantasy as it follows Nastya and her family in their captivity, waiting for the newly minted Russian government to decide between their exile and their execution.
The review: The novel is a miracle when it comes to pacing. Despite spending so much time following the characters during their captivity, Romanov rarely, if ever, drags. The stakes are established very early on, hanging over the characters’ heads so that the reader is always worried to some degree about something happening to their characters. It features a realistic enemies-to-lovers trope, aided by the mindset established at the very beginning of the book that Nastya and her family work hard not to see the Bolshevik guards as their enemies, but rather as men who are trying to serve the country just as the Romanovs had tried to do.
The inclusion of spellwork was, strangely, sometimes at odds with the tone and feel of the rest of the narrative. Everything else felt so realistic and well-researched that mention of magic stuck out like a sore thumb at times. Beyond that, the only other disappointing element fell in its character work. While Nastya’s sister, Maria, and brother, Alexei, were almost as well-developed as Nastya and the love interest, Zash, other siblings like Ulga and Tatiana felt as insubstantial as paper compared to a relatively minor character like Abdiev, one of the men in charge of the Romanov’s care in captivity.
Lastly, regarding the listening experience itself: a word of warning might be in order. While the narrator uses a Russian accent for the dialogue, the rest of the narration is in a British accent, which took a little getting used to. It didn’t bother me after a bit, but it was pretty funny at the beginning. Overall, I would say that the writing style was just as good as the narration; reading the book would likely be as enjoyable as listening to the audiobook version.
Recommended for: Readers who like a little magic woven into real history, and, obviously, people who have ever been interested in the mystery of Anastasia Romanov’s disappearance. It’s not particularly fast-paced, but again, neither is it slow and boring. And although there is almost no diversity in the book, it does brush on the politics of Russia and how people from the northern cultures are viewed versus the southern edges of the country. Lastly, although it has some intense scenes and some really bleak moments, it is a good read for someone looking for a feel-good book, as the overall tone is one of stubborn hope and optimism.
The Fires of Vengeance by Evan Winters
A synopsis: Following several Nobles’ betrayal of Queen Tsiora and the dissolution of the peace talks between the Omehi and the people of Xidda, Tau and Queen Tsiora are stuck in Citadel City and facing enemies on two fronts. Their only hope is to delay the attack of one in order to defeat the other, but their odds of winning either battle are low unless they can come up with something clever, and fast. Relying on the survivors of Scale Jayyed, Tau gives everything he can to the Queen that promised him his long-awaited vengeance.
The review: One of the things that I will forever appreciate Evan Winter for is not giving his characters plot armor or magic cure-alls. It is a series about war and just how messy it can be, and sometimes people get hurt in a way that they can’t fully heal from. That the scars of war are not always physical, either.
The pacing of The Fires of Vengeance was not as on-point as Rage of Dragons. Some moments dragged, and the fight scenes sometimes felt disjointed. Overall, though, it was still a solid addition to the series. The readers are introduced to two new fighters. The political ramifications of trying to change the system are always on a the backburner if they aren’t being discussed outright, and the logistics of getting an army up and running is not forgotten, either.
There was also a few additions to the world-building sprinkled into the story. Tau is given reason to re-evaluate his own sanity, and another enemy is thrown into the mix near the end, no doubt to set up for the last two books. It added a lot of chaos to the plot, most of it controlled, but there were a few elements that shook my suspension of disbelief. That is not to say the book was bad. Far from it. It was still intense, hard to put down, and full of characters so realistic they could have jumped off the page. I think Rage of Dragons was just that good, that Fires of Vengeance had some big shoes to fill.
Recommended for: Readers who like a gritty, realistic approach to battles, who don’t mind reading a slightly chunky book as long as it’s fast-paced. The protagonist is not the smartest, but he never claims to be, and his rash decisions do have consequences, good for readers who like to see strong character development in their protagonists (and in many of the side characters). And, of course, this is a good palette-cleanser for the fantasy reader who tires of the typical Euro-centric fantasy.
Our Dark Duet by Victoria Schwab
A synopsis: Callum Harker is dead, but in the power vaccum left by his demise, his Malchai, Sloan, is more than happy to take up the mantle. As August tries to come into his own and embrace what it means to be a true Sunai, Kate is hiding out in Prosperity, trying to keep the city safe from the quieter monsters that prowl its streets. When she stumbles across a completely new monster and accidentally sends it towards Verity, however, she knows her days of hiding out are over. It’s time to return home.
The review: A solid conclusion to the duology, Our Dark Duet presents us with characters dealing with the fallout of their actions in the first novel. They are different, and yet, they are the same. More than anything, I appreciate Schwab’s commitment to the consequences of her character’s actions, and to making an effort to be inclusive. Like Adam in Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, Kate is deaf in one ear, and it is mentioned frequently in passing, enough to remind the readers without hitting them over the head about it. One of Kate’s new friends is gay and has a boyfriend. One of the characters in August’s camp is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.
The novel did feel slightly predictable, in that it seemed there was only one or two ways in which it could end, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It did make the plot drag just a little as I kept waiting for a big to happen. I like to think that when the climactic fight did happen, it was incredibly intense, but I have a confession. My copy had deleted scenes at the end and, thinking nothing of it, I skimmed a couple of them midway through the novel. One of them revealed something that I had been sort of expecting but wasn’t completely certain of, and it took away from some of the emotional stakes at the end, which means I can’t really speak much on it.
I will say this: there are a few plot and world-building questions left unresolved. It has a bittersweet ending to it, but neglects to imply the effects of the big, climactic showdowns on the city as a whole, and the other cities beyond it.
Recommended for: Readers looking for something quick and fun, yet sometimes intense, with strong character development. I would also recommend it for readers who like to form strong emotional attachments to the characters they read about. The duology is a strange but delightful combination of dystopian, alt-history urban fantasy, so if you like to try books that are on the fringes of the fantasy genre, this is a good one to try.
Wings of Ebony by J. Elle
A synopsis: A year after her mother’s murder, Rue returns from the magical, hidden land of Ghizon to her home in East Row. But when she breaks rule #1 about Ghizoni magic–do not touch a human–she finds herself on the run and without any real magic to speak of. Worse, her enemies are no longer content to stay in Ghizon; someone is out to destroy East Row and burn to the ground everything that Rue holds dear.
The review: As a debut novel, Wings of Ebony is…alright. It is full of half-measures that make for a story that feels like it should be fast-paced but instead makes itself difficult to remain invested in. The protagonist, Rue, and her best friend, Bri, have solid characters arcs. I was especially impressed with Bri’s. Rue, I loved for her compassionate view of those who live in East Row, never judging whatever hustle this character or that does to survive. But the two antagonists are another story altogether, with flimsy motives that undercut the stakes.
I did like the world-building. East Row is based on a real neighborhood, but obviously Ghizon is all J. Elle’s, and there are quite a few elements that I enjoyed: the surprisingly drab living conditions for most Ghizoni people, the magic gadgets that incorporates science in an interesting way. The process of getting magic is a little gruesome, too, which is pretty atypical. But although they offered points of interest, and although Rue’s motivations were compelling enough, not knowing why one of the antagonists was targeting East Row made it hard to stay invested.
My last point is something small, and perhaps something that most people won’t really care about, but I found the title a little misleading. Ebony does play a role in the story, in several different capacities actually: in the actual wood, the skin-tone, and in a random name thrown out near the end. But one way of the ways it does not get presented is in the form of wings; in fact, wings play no role in the story. I kept waiting for them to appear in some form or another, so it was kind of strange to reach the end of the story and realize that particular thing had never come. Obviously, this wasn’t a deciding factor on my general disappointment in the book, but something I wanted to mention nonetheless.
Recommended for: Readers looking for more black characters stepping into the Chosen One trope. There is also a possible love triangle for protagonist if one enjoys such tropes–although it was more set-up in this book and will likely have more substance in the second novel. Readers who liked Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn will probably like this as well, especially because both tackle different facets of racism by weaving it expertly into the narrative so it is more informative than preachy. That, in addition to the fact that both are urban fantasy, giving black characters the space to save the world through magical means.
Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan
A synopsis: In a world where the human Paper caste shares space with the demonic, animal-featured Moon caste, Lei is content with the humble life she leads. The last thing she wants is to be stolen away to the capital, to become one of eight of the Demon King’s Paper Girls, forced to serve as the king’s concubine for a year. Everyone says it gets easier, but Lei is not the type to lay down and accept her fate. If she must set the world on fire to end this terrible fate, she will.
The review: There is so much to love about this book that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Like with Romanov, the pacing is a masterpiece. Huge swaths of the book are spent in waiting, and yet it never feels slow. The chapters plod along at a decent clip, and most chapters end somewhere that makes you want to move onto the next one, and then the next. A few character elements were a little shaky–Aoki is supposed to be sixteen yet frequently acts like a naive twelve-year-old, for one thing–but it is still easy to differentiate between most of the characters in how they deal with their situation.
I also have nothing but praise for the writing style. First-person, present tense is one of my least favorite writing styles because it frequently comes with a lot of clunky phrasing that pulls me out of the story. Ngan did not stumble into the same pitfalls; if there were a few sentences that followed those annoying structures (i.e., “rage burned through me”), they were so rare as to be hardly noticeable at all. The fight sequences, few though they were, are well-written. The only prose that dragged was, oddly, setting details. There’s enough world-building woven in early on that the tension remains throughout, and a lot of the details included later feel more like background filler, easy to skim.
The only real element of the plot that felt like it was written that way specifically for plot reasons was in the–I hate to use the word convenient considering the subject matter, but I’m not sure what word would work better–conveniently few times Lei is asked to do the “job” she was brought to the capital for. But, that time does allow for another romance, sapphic in nature, to bud. And if the very end also shook my suspension of disbelief, the climactic scenes that came before it were intense in their own right.
Recommended for: Readers interested in looking into more fantasy outside that Euro-centric setting. Warning: this may not come as a surprise considering the premise, but there are several mentions of sexual assault. I would say it’s written respectfully (as in, it’s not just a plot device to show how strong the female character is or whatever) and, presumably, realistically, but if that’s something that might bother you, you may want to look elsewhere. But the novel does acknowledge just how different people can react to trauma, and that one reaction is no less valid than the other, and I think it is worth the read.