Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix Harrow

Title: The Once and Future Witches
Author: Alix Harrow
Publisher: Redhook Books
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Length: 528 pages
My Rating: ★★★★★
5/5 stars

SUMMARY

“In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters–James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna–join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.”

REVIEW

Between this book and The Midnight Bargain (review coming soon!), I think my new favorite oddly-specific subgenre of books is “ultra-feminist witches fighting the patriarchy with books”. 

More specifically in The Once and Future Witches, three sisters caught up in the suffragist movement in their alternate United States reawaken magic that had long been erased. This book felt so real that, on several occasions, I had to stop and ask myself if some of these characters were real historical figures. They weren’t, but I’ll be damned if they didn’t feel like they absolutely could have been. Even the most fleeting of side characters had a personality that felt lifelike and multifaceted. Coming from a family of three sisters myself, I loved the focus on the sibling relationship and the power that can come from it. This book was beautifully written, smartly plotted out, and carries a message like every good fairy-tale should. Instead of analyzing three aspects of the book, I’m just going to highlight some of my favorite quotes that I earmarked throughout my read!

“Witching and women’s rights. Suffrage and spells. They’re both…” She gesture in midair again. “They’re both a kind of power, aren’t they? The kind we aren’t allowed to have.”

pg 47

Except she doesn’t get to choose for herself anymore. She smooths her blouse over her belly. “I can’t start any trouble. For her sake.”

Juniper looks down at her hand. “Oh, I think you’ve got to. For her sake.” She meets Agnes’ eyes, challenging. “Don’t you want to give her a better story than this one?”

pg 126

“I wonder sometimes where the first witch came from. If perhaps Adam deserved Eve’s curse.” His smile twists. “If behind every witch is a woman wronged”

pg 222

In short, I really loved this book. I’m fully ready to go take up witchcraft and smash an oppressive patriarchy. On that note, I will also leave you with one of my favorite tumblr text posts of all time and a reminder to my American friends: GO VOTE.

Review: Hush by Dylan Farrow

Title: Hush
Author: Dylan Farrow
Publisher: St. Martin’s Publishing Group
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Length: 384 pages
My Rating: ★★★
3/5 stars

Summary:

“Seventeen-year-old Shae has led a seemingly quiet life, joking with her best friend Fiona, and chatting with Mads, the neighborhood boy who always knows how to make her smile. All while secretly keeping her fears at bay… Of the disease that took her brother’s life. Of how her dreams seem to bleed into reality around her. Of a group of justice seekers called the Bards who claim to use the magic of Telling to keep her community safe.

When her mother is murdered, she can no longer pretend.

Not knowing who to trust, Shae journeys to unlock the truth, instead finding a new enemy keen to destroy her, a brooding boy with dark secrets, and an untold power she never thought possible.”

Review:

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Publishing for a copy of Hush in exchange for an honest review! Hush releases tomorrow if you’d like to pick up a copy. I enjoyed this, though I think I’d enjoy it more with a reread than my first time around. This book is filled with small details that don’t pull together until in hindsight, which is excellently done but can lead to some confusion for me. The concept of Bards was really cool, and the Blot is such a unique sickness – it felt so threatening and so new. I had a lot of questions about the Blot and how it came to be throughout the book.  Though some parts felt a little unclear, I’d say most of those sections were quite strategic and tied together by the plot’s final revelations quite nicely. The way the author holds out until absolutely necessary to provide some key information threw me headfirst into the Shae’s fear of succumbing to madness, and it added a strong effect to those moments alternating between fear and clarity. If you’re a very empathetic reader, this book is a wild ride; however if you prefer to know secrets or guess where a book is headed before the main character knows, you might end up a little frustrated by Hush. What I truly appreciated is seeing the way a world can be rebuilt to focus on the power of words where once they existed freely for everyone, and how the Bards being the safe-keepers of language and writing influences the world at large. 

On the shows of power – 

  1. “Only the Bards can harness words safely, through their Tellings. Everyone in Montane knows that any fool can speak disaster into existence by uttering something forbidden”
    The Tellings are how the Bards ultimately maintain power in Shae’s world. As is seen later, Tellings are powerful enough to change entire landscapes. As a reward for a good tithe, a town will be blessed with a Telling for rain, fertile crops, etc. If the tithe is unsatisfactory, the town will be punished and not receive a Telling for the coming year. This turns into a vicious cycle where the towns that struggle most continue to struggle, as they can’t keep up with the demands of the Bards without help. 
  2. “For every Bard in the ranks of High House, there are dozens more hopefuls who cannot withstand such power… Such occurrences are sadly more prevalent among the few women we have discovered in possession of the gift” The main character, Shae, seems about as in control as she could be given the nature of the magic and secrets surrounding her life. A Bards magic, when misused, seems to be an extended practice in gaslighting. It raises some interesting questions throughout the book that become very important to the plot, pitting women against women and making Shae work 5x harder to be taken seriously. That threat of madness, in part due to her magic and in part due to her gender, makes the book feel all the more intense. 
  3. “If I want to exert my will over the castle’s, I need to lend my Telling permanency. My eyes fall on my needles and thread, discarded in the corner” The most important act of telling is its staying power. Writing is mostly outlawed throughout Shae’s world to prevent more permanently etched Tellings from taking hold. Words or impulses make for impermanent, esily changed Tellings. This ultimately brings about the heart of the matter: nothing in Shae’s world is really permanent. The Bards have established themselves as the only people responsible enough for writing, for keeping everyone safe. But they behave in shady ways and don’t lend themselves easily to being trusted, instead working through propoganda and militant control of the surrounding areas. A world without writing, with no permanence to be had, is an easily subjugated world. The hints at resistance are strong throughout Hush, and I can’t wait to see where the blossoming resistance to the powers that be leads in book 2. 

Review: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

Title: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars
Author: Christopher Paolini
Publisher: Tor Books
Genres: Science Fiction
Length: 880 pages
My Rating: ★★★.5
3.5/5 stars

Kira Navárez dreamed of life on new worlds.

Now she’s awakened a nightmare.

During a routine survey mission on an uncolonized planet, Kira finds an alien relic. At first she’s delighted, but elation turns to terror when the ancient dust around her begins to move.

As war erupts among the stars, Kira is launched into a galaxy-spanning odyssey of discovery and transformation. First contact isn’t at all what she imagined, and events push her to the very limits of what it means to be human.

While Kira faces her own horrors, Earth and its colonies stand upon the brink of annihilation. Now, Kira might be humanity’s greatest and final hope . . .”

Review

The middle portion of this book became so incredibly intense that I actually had to take a break and read a fluffy rom-com book in the middle of it. If I was any other person, this would be a 5-star read. Instead, I am the person who gets so anxious about where a movie is going that I have to google the ending halfway through to even bear the crescendo of an intense plot. There are multiple episodes of The Office that, to this day, I cannot rewatch thanks to how overwhelmingly anxious they make me feel. Seriously – don’t make me watch Scott’s Tots. I try my best to not read ahead to the ending of books because I can take them at any pace I need to set my heart at ease. The pace I needed in the midst of this book just so happened to be an entire intermission period in which I finished One to Watch while trying not to daydream about evil, cancerous alien abominations, and how heavy the burden of keeping the peace and saving all known life in the universe must be. This book was so much that I don’t think I can break it down into a neat, three-part highlight of where the author did or didn’t shine like I typically do. It might take several rereads before I hit a point like that. On top of the fact I don’t know if I could make myself experience that emotional rollercoaster again so soon, I fear vastly oversimplifying an intricate web of moral quandaries, diligently researched physics, and intriguingly structured character arcs. 

Disclaimer for the faint of heart like me aside, this was an impressive book. Eragon was a long time ago, and I was curious to see what aspects of Paolini’s writing became a stylistic pattern, and what were habits he outgrew. On one hand I’m happy to say that this story arc and the approach to writing female characters are so. damn. amazing. There was depth, there was range, and it didn’t feel cliche or tropey in the slightest. On the other hand, I’m so happy for one specific character type he kept exactly the same: There’s an eccentric wise woman with a cat that I dearly wish had been named Solembum. This oddball potential space-witch (unconfirmed but I can dream, okay?) said arguably the most memorable quote of the whole book: “Eat the path”. 

Don’t like the choices laid out before you? Eat the path. 

Want to seize the day? Eat the path.

No idea what the hell you’re doing? Eat the path. 

It’s really quite a versatile platitude – I fully intend to adopt it into a daily mantra. 

So, pros of reading To Sleep in a Sea of Stars:

  • (possible) Space witch
  • empowered women empowering women
  • super cool, theoretically possible science
  • pretty cover
  • classic sci fi, raising thoughtful questions about what it means to be human

cons:

  • Incredibly intense if you’re a wimp like me
  • no really, spoilers but you read a scene where somebody cuts off their own limb
  • like please if you’re faint of heart maybe have a happy place or some ice cream easily accessible

So, long story short, this was a great book and I blame my own quirks for the fact I wasn’t wholeheartedly obsessed with it. If you’re into science fiction at all, you absolutely should read it. Even if you’re a wimp like me you should read it – just have something soothing available for when you need a break 🙂

Review: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

The book legendborn sits atopa stack of two other, untitled books. Beside it is. a white vase with eucalptus leaves in it and, on the other side, asun-bleached sunflower lays sideways. All of this rests on a wooden tray, surrounded by blankets and pillows.

Title: Legendborn
Author: Tracy Deonn
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry books
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Length: 490 pages
My Rating: ★★★★.5
4.5/5 stars

“After her mother dies in an accident, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews wants nothing to do with her family memories or childhood home. A residential program for bright high schoolers at UNC–Chapel Hill seems like the perfect escape—until Bree witnesses a magical attack her very first night on campus.

A flying demon feeding on human energies.

A secret society of so called “Legendborn” students that hunt the creatures down.

And a mysterious teenage mage who calls himself a “Merlin” and who attempts—and fails—to wipe Bree’s memory of everything she saw.

The mage’s failure unlocks Bree’s own unique magic and a buried memory with a hidden connection: the night her mother died, another Merlin was at the hospital. Now that Bree knows there’s more to her mother’s death than what’s on the police report, she’ll do whatever it takes to find out the truth, even if that means infiltrating the Legendborn as one of their initiates.

She recruits Nick, a self-exiled Legendborn with his own grudge against the group, and their reluctant partnership pulls them deeper into the society’s secrets—and closer to each other. But when the Legendborn reveal themselves as the descendants of King Arthur’s knights and explain that a magical war is coming, Bree has to decide how far she’ll go for the truth and whether she should use her magic to take the society down—or join the fight.”

Review

Urban fantasy is so difficult to do right, y’all. It’s easy to suspend reality in a completely fake, made-up world because it’s the author’s world! They are god, and they can do whatever the heck they want with it to make everything make sense. Urban fantasy, on the other hand, has to walk the delicate lines of creating a new reality without suspending too much of our reality. In that sense, I think that’s where Tracy Deonn shone. She took the realities of our world and the realities of life for a young black girl in the South, and still managed to make it magical and empowering at the same time. Honestly, there wasn’t an aspect of the magic that pulled me out of my reading experience – it was the use of YA tropes that gave me pause. The initial timeline of this book only covers a few weeks with a lot of action all packed into a short timeframe. As a result, the love interest in the book had to develop at the same breakneck pace. Without giving too much away, it felt very insta-lovey and eventually gets a magical explanation which I am undecided on. You know what would’ve happened if I pledged my entire life to the guy I was dating at 16? I’d be a mess. A hot freaking mess. He was in a punk band and I distinctly recall the sweetest note he ever wrote me – a yearbook inscription that started out with “You’re really hot”. Young love at its finest. But, I digress. I’ll need to read book two before I can truly decide how I feel about that character’s relationship, so I’m only taking a half star off for it. 

This was an extremely inclusive and diverse book, which I adored. I think even when some books try to be inclusive, they tend to utilize tokenization or focus the entirety of a character’s arc on their ‘otherness’ instead of treating them like a whole, complicated, and nuanced human being. We need to show more characters living out their lives regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and Tracy Deonn did a great job of that. Though I can’t speak from a place of knowledge for some of the topics Deonn touches on, I appreciated how she handled them and think it was a well-balanced portrayal of a wide array of individuals. On that vein, I’m going to highlight some of the issues Deonn brings up and how they’re addressed. 

Profiling

In the first few chapters, an officer gives Bree and her best friend Alice a ride back from a student event gone awry. The scene itself goes – 

‘How ‘bout you, girlfriend?’ Norris’ eyes find me in the mirror. ‘I’m guessin’ need-based?’

Alice stiffens, and my hackles raise. I’m not his girlfriend and I’m not ashamed to have financial aid, but that’s not what he’s asking. ‘Affirmative action?’ is written all over his knowing sneer. 

‘Merit’ I bit through gritted teeth, even though it’s none of his business either way. 

He chuckles.  ‘Sure.’

Legendborn pg.30, Tracy Deonn

THIS. Regardless of how anyone feels about affirmative action, I think we all could agree that the assumption anyone gets into a competitive program for anything less than their skill is shitty. Assuming that just because someone is black they didn’t actually deserve to get into a good  program? Absolutely awful.This was well handled and well presented in the book, and I appreciated the inclusion of it. 

Gender

In this book, there is a character that is referred to with they/them pronouns. It was so meticulously and seamlessly done that I didn’t even notice the difference at all until I was two thirds of the way through the story. Greer was well presented and shown as more than just the sum of their parts – they were smart, caring, and a good friend. Again, Tracy Deonn did an excellent job of showing that a diverse array of characters are nuanced and contribute so much more than just their race or gender identity. 

STOP RIGHT THIS SECOND TO AVOID A MASSIVE SPOILER.

Have you stopped?

Are you really sure you want this?

Scroll past it real fast right now or forever hold your peace.

Bree’s Ancestry

Listen. A massive theme in this book is highlighting the privileged lives the Legendborn live thanks in part to the fact they can track their family lineage all the way back to King Arthur’s times. Juxtapose that with with Bree, who only knows that once upon a time her family was enslaved in this same land. It painted an amazing picture of the tightrope Bree walks in her newfound world. BUT THEN. Tracy Deonn, writer extraordinaire, hinges an entire plot twist on the fact that Bree’s ancestor is also King Arthur? That her great-great-something grandmother was a victim of rape by her enslaver? That her ancestress, pregnant and afraid, ran away because her enslaver would rather murder her than have the power of King Arthur pass to a mixed race heir? WOW. The depths this took the book to had me stunned. It was a painful and beautiful moment as Bree connected with her line of ancestors through magic and tapped into King Arthur’s legacy as his one true Scion. It left me stunned and absolutely speechless. I absolutely had not expected that and keep thinking back to it like “damn. That was… damn. Wow.”

So, 4.5 out of 5 stars for Legendborn. Would’ve been 5, but in my heart even an amazing ending and some phenomenally written characters cannot make up for the instalove that every 16 year old book character seems to experience.

Review: Fable by Adrienne Young

The book Fable sits on a plush blanket. The cover features half of a woman's face, with the shape of a pirate ship reflected in her eye. Next to the book, minerals and gemstones spill out of a cup. On the other side, a green vine hangs down and obscures part of the book cover.

Book Review & Summary

Title: Fable
Author: Adrienne Young
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy, Romance
Length: 368 pages
My Rating: ★★★★★
5/5 stars

“As the daughter of the most powerful trader in the Narrows, the sea is the only home seventeen-year-old Fable has ever known. It’s been four years since the night she watched her mother drown during an unforgiving storm. The next day her father abandoned her on a legendary island filled with thieves and little food. To survive she must keep to herself, learn to trust no one and rely on the unique skills her mother taught her. The only thing that keeps her going is the goal of getting off the island, finding her father and demanding her rightful place beside him and his crew. To do so Fable enlists the help of a young trader named West to get her off the island and across the Narrows to her father.

But her father’s rivalries and the dangers of his trading enterprise have only multiplied since she last saw him and Fable soon finds that West isn’t who he seems. Together, they will have to survive more than the treacherous storms that haunt the Narrows if they’re going to stay alive.

Welcome to a world made dangerous by the sea and by those who wish to profit from it. Where a young girl must find her place and her family while trying to survive in a world built for men.

REVIEW

Adrienne Young has a special talent – she doesn’t just build a world, she throws you right into it and makes you breathe it in. From the first line Fable proves herself to be a smart, confident heroine. After losing her mother and being abandoned by her father, she has to spend the next four years clawing her way for survival on a legendary island of thieves and cutthroats. She is fierce, she is wise, and somehow she is still quite relatable. Don’t be fooled, though. This book is not a light adventure with swashbuckling heroes. Young manages to entwine an admirable heroine and an endearing ship’s crew with a grim story that pulls no punches. The realities of life among seafarers is readily presented throughout the book, but only to a point that’s necessary for building the world. I appreciated the well done balance between warmer moments and harsh realities. Fable follows five rules that her father ingrained in her before abandoning her:

  • Keep your knife where you can reach it.
  • Never, ever owe anyone anything.
  • Nothing is free.
  • Always construct a lie from a truth.
  • Never, under any circumstances, reveal what or who matters to you.

This list serves almost as a compass guiding the book itself. Fable and her newfound companions weren’t a perfect, mary-sue kind of team. They made mistakes, they kept secrets, and they paid dearly for it at every turn.

CHARACTER RELATIONSHIPS (be warned – light spoilers lay ahead)

  • Fable & West
    • really the main event in terms of character relationships. Fable may keep her cards close to her chest, but West had her beat in terms of being a closed book at the start. They had a great rapport and fit together in scenes quite naturally. Seeing their interactions build and grow helped develop the characters as well, showing me more about their ultimate goals and what drives them to act. I absolutely loved this pair and am SO excited for more in book two! When he kissed her at the shipwreck, I think I literally felt my heart jump out of my chest.
  • West & Willa
    • ooh, ooh, ooh. At first I was fully expecting (re: dreading) some sort of love triangle. The actual state of this situation was SO much better, in my opinion. It really drove home the idea of rule 5: “Never, under any circumstances, reveal what or who matters to you”. Willa let Fable into this secret aspect of their life out of pure desperation, and once I understood the connection between West and Willa everything else clicked into place. They are integral to the Marigold, and now I can’t imagine one without the other; although I presume we’ll have to see that at some point.
  • Fable & Saint
    • Wow. If you read the dedication, Adrienne said this book was a goodbye to her father. Because of that, I was expecting a tender reunion when they met. Actually, I was expecting lovely father daughter relationship where everyone apologizes for their mistakes and comes out the other side with a deeper understanding of what family means… but this was so. much. better. Fable and her father, Saint, are a complicated pair. It’s clear that there’s a lot of love there in it’s own little effed up way, but it really is in an effed up way. From their very first meeting this dynamic had me absolutely enraptured. They are such a beautiful, frustrating mess. I’m intrigued to see what happens now they they’re going their own ways and will, inevitably, end up at odds with each other in book two.

Overall, I’d say the strong points of this book were the stunning world building, the complicated character relationships, and that absolute sucker punch of an ending. I would highly recommend picking up Fable as soon as you can get your hands on it! Have you read Fable? What did you think?