Review: The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

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

SUMMARY

“Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken?”

REVIEW

As mentioned in my review of The Once and Future Witches, I am absolutely loving the way authors this season have tied together magic and women’s empowerment in new ways. The Midnight Bargain takes a more individualized, romantic approach to a similar theme. I absolutely adored it! It’s a rare occasion in which I can pinpoint the exact scene where a book becomes a five star read for me – but in The Midnight Bargain, I already knew from the ballroom scene that I was enamored. This doesn’t mean it’ll be a five-star read for everyone, though. I have read some valid criticisms of the pacing in this book. As a fast reader, I tend to charge through those sections anyway but if you’re a slow reader it may impact your opinion. This spellbinding read did an excellent job portraying that feminism in any world is not black and white – progress has gray areas, and though those gray areas are better than the alternative we can still fight for more. Ianthe was a delightful love interest, and their struggles as a couple felt so real despite being of magical origin. Beatrice and ysbeta were the perfect example of the idea that strong women don’t all have to want exactly the same thing. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for magic and empowerment wrapped up in a world of social politics. Spoiler ahead, but I’m going to highlight the three ‘solutions’ people have to the issue with women and magic in the world of The Midnight Bargain

  1. Permanent Collars

For many women in this world, they are collared as soon as they’re wed.  Typically, these women aren’t even fully grown when they marry: they’re still just teenage girls. Beatrice describes the collar as a light going out. The world becomes gray and drab, and it feels like her soul was sucked out of her body. With this alternative, women have to spend their lives from their teens to past childbearing age (so, somewhere between 30 and 40 years) in this state. Their husbands control their lives and they go through the world as a shell of themselves. 

  1. Pregnancy Collars

In the world’s existing “radical” option, some societies only collar women when they’re likely to be pregnant. Though this is slightly better, the way magic develops in The Midnight Bargain means that a woman could still never become a fully achieved Magus. The collar cuts off their access to the magic, leaving them unable to ever fully bond a greater spirit. 

SPOILER

SPOILER 

SPOILER

  1. Collar-Free

At the end, Beatrice and Ianthe learn that all of these methods existed to erase the actual, existing safe method used in the past. In ancient societies where women were equal, a sorcerer father and sorceress mother would both send their greater spirits to defend the fetus while it grows. In this way, neither spirit would be able to possess it and turn the child into a dangerous creature. By hiding this method and erasing it from common knowledge, men were able to subjugate women and prevent them from ever reaching full equality. By bringing it back into the world, Beatrice gives the choice back to women. I really appreciated this ending, instead of Beatrice coming to terms with sometimes being collared. It did a wonderful job of representing an actual, real-life problem. Just because a society is slightly better to oppressed groups of people doesn’t mean they can’t still improve. 

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Be sure to check out my instagram for some moore bookish posts and photos @paiges_next_pages ! I’ll be doing a giveaway on there quite soon.

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: 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.

Fun Friday: Comparing book covers from different countries

Happy Friday! A quick reading update – this week, I finished Legendborn by Tracey Deonn and just started To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini. I also read an ARC of Each of Us a Desert by Mark Oshiro a while ago which released this week, so I’ll be trying to post a review of that soon! Now if you will, take a moment to consider Middle Earth, the land Tolkien created long ago. Majestic spaces, stunning sites, and merry hobbits living in the Shire. All things considered, the cover of The Hobbit shown below seems quite fitting. I have a similar edition, it’s quite stunning and vibrant in person.

In what I admit was over 22 years of being dumb I never really considered the idea that other covers of The Hobbit might not paint the same picture of majestic natural beauty. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon an original Dutch cover of The Hobbit online, covered in fun hobbits that look nothing like I’d imagined! Below, you can drag and compare the two covers. If I was judging a book by its cover, I’d be imagining two entirely different types of book. I think I quite like the Dutch edition though, as it adds a different spirit to the book. This got me thinking: what other books do I love that might sell a different story based on the cover?

  • Scythe by Neal Shusterman
    Scythe is one of my favorite futuristic YA books. It raises a lot of great moral questions without feeling overly heavy or like it’s trying too hard. It flows quite naturally, and the cover represents. that to me. Yes, this book focuses on a lot of death, but it’s not an overly dark book. Shown first is the original United States cover – it’s bright, has a futuristic font, and feels quite mysterious. Shown in the middle is the german edition, published by FISCHER Sauerländer. It’s a lot more eery, though maintains the element of mystery and clearly shows the scythe. On the far right is the Indonesian paperback edition published by Gramedia Pustaka Utama. This one goes fully eery, with a full moon lighting a ghostly scythe’s path. The building surrounding the figure are worn down and cast in shadows, contrasting starkly with the scythe’s glowing white robes. It may be because I’m used to the United States edition, but I think it’s still my preference.
  • The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
    Another of my all-time favorite reads is The Starless Sea. It came out quite recently actually and has a gorgeous cover that feels vintage and new at the same time, with symbolism from the book drawn in black and gold detailing. And yet, each other country I looked at doesn’t have the black and gold color scheme! On the far left is the US edition, with gold keys twined with gray ribbon resting on a black background. The three editions next to it are respectively the Waterstones edition sold in the UK, the Italian edition, and the Canadian edition. Each maintains a semblance of the gold tones present in the US edition, however all three have shades of blue instead of black. The Waterstones edition’s gorgeous gold bee painted over the marbled blue background is, frankly, amazing. I want it so badly now. The Italian edition feels like a vintage journal with the symmetrical design of keys and filigree, and the Canadian edition’s keyhole door revealing a ship at sea stands out from the rest for portraying a scene instead of symbols. Ultimately, though, I am obsessed with that Waterstones edition more than anything. It’s the type of cover that would make me buy the book without reading a description.
  • The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory
    The US cover of the wedding date gives me classic romance vibes, with the couple shown in drawn profile and the classic red, black, and white color scheme. Even the handwritten font with little swirls screams rom com – but the international counterparts don’t have that same vibe. The middle edition, published by Hachette UK, takes the cover in a lot more of a contemporary romance direction. Between the San Francisco skyline, the pink sunset fading to purple, and the cutesy flower garland bordering the edges I can’t help but get a much more cool modern feel. Plus, they used that same ‘casual’ calligraphy that’s become a trademark of modern weddings! The Croatian edition on the far right, meanwhile, doesn’t really strike home with me. The chess pieces imply a game, and I don’t think that fits the way the relationship in the book grows. If I’d seen this edition on the shelf I might not have picked it up… but then again, I’m not the target market. I’m not Croatian.
  • Serpent and Dove by Shelby Mahurin
    The edition of Serpent & Dove on the left seems to be cover for all English language editions, and even some foreign language editions. I can see why – the dark feathery background, covered in that metallic gold snake and title, are all over Instagram. It’s a gorgeous book, and even prettier in person on the glossy dustjacket. I figured the alternative covers of Serpent & Dove wouldn’t capture me as much, but dang I do love this Spanish language edition. The title is changed to basically Witch Killer, and has that gothic purple design highlighting two red daggers and a three eyed raven. The small sigils peppered around the cover are a nice final touch. Though it’s a lot less slick than the US cover, there’s something I really adore about the Spanish edition. It feels like a real witch’s grimoire!

Which ones were your favorite? Let me know! Overall, I think I liked US Scythe, Waterstones The Starless Sea, US The Wedding Date, and Spanish language Serpent & Dove.

Have a great weekend & stay safe!

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?