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ARC Review: The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Well, that was a ride. First, this book is absolutely fantastic and a must-read. I was hooked from the beginning (who doesn’t love a long con? And that cover is gorgeous.) and things just kept getting more interesting from there. For nearly 700 pages I was completely enthralled and on the edge of my seat. There were some plot twists I definitely didn’t see coming and such richness and depth to the world and characters that it felt real. I can’t wait to read the next one.

There is a lot of exploration of morally grey characters here (I mean, our main POV is a street rat pulling a long con on the nobility by worming her way into their lives) – but what she finds is not what she expected. And as the political sands shift around her, and she struggles to keep her assumed identities separate, she finds herself struggling with who she can trust.

The magic system is based on pattern – Tarot cards, essentially – and is complex and the cards are woven into the story beautifully.

Also! There is no difference between how same sex and opposite sex relationships are approached and I found it very refreshing.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Orbit books for providing an e-arc to review.

ARC Review: Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Got a little behind last year and ended up pushing this one back a few months and I’m glad I was able to do so and come back with fresh eyes because it was So. Good. Like City of Lies, this one hooked me from the start, though familiarity from the previous book with Jovan, Kalina, Tain, and Hadrea helps things get moving faster.

One of the things I loved about City of Lies, and I continue to love in this installment, is the pacing. It starts slow, with small, seemingly unconnected events. But nothing is truly small or unconnected, which Kalina and Jovan slowly realize as the web weaves tighter and tighter around them. The pacing speeds up until I was racing through the chapters, desperate to find out how it all fit together and how it would end. And it was genius of Hawke to use Kalina and Jovan this way – splitting them up so they each discovered vital pieces of the puzzle but couldn’t understand the significance without the pieces the other had discovered. That definitely ratcheted up the tension, as they were frequently physically separated. The ending was truly breakneck speed and left me breathless at its abrupt ending. Because it doesn’t feel like an ending, not really. It feels like more is coming just beyond the horizon. I certainly hope more is coming, because an ending to a series this was not.

Dija was a wonderful addition, especially as she brought out a side of Jovan we didn’t really get to see in City of Lies. She’s smart and clever and determined to help, even though she’s still young. I loved seeing Jovan struggle with his duty to both protect Dija as her Tashi but also to repeatedly poison her in the course of her training. Not, I think, an easy thing to do.

Another of my favorite things about this book (and City of Lies, but it’s even more prominent here): Jovan and Kalina are strong and brave and courageous characters even with their personal struggles. Jovan battles severe anxiety and compulsive behaviors; Kalina’s body never recovered from the poisonings when she was being trained by their Uncle Etan and she frequently is forced to rest because her body threatens to give out. Despite this, they are never treated as heroes despite their disabilities but their disabilities are just… secondary things about them that they don’t let hinder their mystery solving. Yes, other characters sometimes look down on them or distrust them partly because of those disabilities, but most do not.

I cannot wait to continue this story and read more of these characters – especially after that ending.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Random House UK / Bantam Press for providing an e-arc for review.

ARC Review: Blood Sworn by Scott Reintgen

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I LOVED this book. It was so unexpected! Told once again from alternating POVs of Pippa, Adrian, and Imelda – an Ashlord, a Longhand, and a Dividian – the story is no longer about winning the races, but rather of winning the war. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but there was a major twist around 25% in that left me on the edge of my seat for the entire remainder of the book. The ending also brings everything back around to echo the beginning of Ashlords as it wraps up which is very satisfying.

The start of the story has Pippa leading the Ashlord army, Adrian leading the Longhands, and Imelda accompanying Bastian and his crew on missions around the edges of the war. At first, everything they learned (especially Pippa) during the Races seems to have been shoved to the backs of their minds, but with the reappearance of Quinn, everything changes and you really get to see all three of them shine as it becomes very clear that they’ve grown since entering the Races.

I also loved each of their POVs and thought the moments chosen to switch were perfect. And there were some great moments of sleight-of-hand and distraction in this book, where they mislead both the characters around them and sometimes even the reader. It was very well done.

I’ve read 21 books so far this year and this one is absolutely my favorite so far.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Random House Children’s for providing an e-arc for review.

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ARC Review: The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Kiddo (6) says four stars because it was good (and about trains) but also a little scary.

I say four stars because the moral lessons (which I agree with) were not particularly subtle.

Update: changing my rating to 5 stars because it’s 10 days after we finished the library copy and they have their own copy and we’re rereading it – but this time they’re willing to alternate reading chapters with me. They love it just as much this time around. We’ve discussed the bits about endangered animals and the things we can do to help. I thought the endangered animals bits were a bit too ‘hit you over the head’ the first time around, but they seem to have made my kiddo think so I’m willing to admit that Lev Grossman might just know what he’s doing.

Also, note that while they normally try to get out of reading picture books they are perfectly happy reading entire chapters of this book. We get done with school for the day and they immediately go, “can we read the Silver Arrow? You read 2 chapters and I’ll read a chapter?” Sometimes they even read two.

They draw pictures of the Silver Arrow and Twilight Star. They build them in LEGO. They are basically obsessed lol. Any book that can kick off a kid’s love of reading deserves 5 stars in my opinion.

They’ve even decided we’ll read a new book once we finish this one – another book about a magical train I’ve suggested but they were hesitant about. (They are skeptical of new books because I guess new books are more stressful than familiar books.)

So, anyone with middle-grade magical train book recommendations — send ’em my way.

ARC DNF Review: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Rating: 1 out of 5.

I was honestly expecting something very different from the description and blurb. What we get is… basically the Handmaid’s Tale and Skyhunter smooshed together. While I thought both of those were very good, this one just seems lacking.

I don’t like the main character. She lives in an extremely patriarchal world and buys into it completely, even when she turns out to not be ‘pure.’ Even once removed from it she doesn’t really change and I don’t care at all what happens to her.

The worldbuilding is sparse and confusing. Why do women have to wear masks? What is up with the map and the layout of the world? Just why all of it basically?

I pushed myself to read a quarter of the book and I just can’t anymore. I don’t like it, I don’t care about the characters, plot, setting, anything. I’ve seen a couple reviewers call it grimdark, and that could be why I’m not enjoying it. There’s just so much pain and torture and rape and suffering and it all seems rather pointless – and I don’t feel like putting myself through any more right now. Especially since several reviewers say it gets worse in the second half.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Random House Children’s for providing an e-arc to review

ARC DNF Review: Wild Rain by Beverly Jenkins

Rating: 1 out of 5.

I don’t normally read historical romance set in the Old West but I’d heard good things about Beverly Jenkins so I thought I’d try it, with mixed results.

I really enjoyed the way Jenkins captures Spring’s terse, independent personality. The dialogue was good – especially Spring’s. But at the same time, the exposition was choppy and almost clumsy, with sentences all approximately the same length of the “she did that. Then she did that. Later she did that” variety which is a personal pet peeve of mine.

Ultimately the good didn’t outweigh the bad for me, so I stopped reading when it became clear that I wasn’t going to get more interested in the story and sexual assault made an appearance.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Avon and Harper Voyager for providing an e-arc to review.

ARC Review: The Duke Heist by Erica Ridley

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I adore the Wynchesters. The concept of this close-knit family is so wacky and so utterly brilliant: A foreign wealthy Baron offers to adopt an orphan, then quickly follows with 5 more. The siblings are wealthy but live outside of society’s strictures, practicing circus tricks, keeping a menagerie of animals, donning disguises and infiltrating the House of Lords and the houses of the Ton, and otherwise causing mischief. I want to be a Wynchester!

Chloe Wynchester is a former pickpocket and orphan who is so good at blending in and being unnoticed that she fears no one will ever remember her. She is determined to infiltrate the Duke of Faircliffe’s townhouse and steal back the painting his father stole from her and her siblings. The Duke of Faircliffe is desperately searching for an heiress to pull his crumbling estate from ruin, but he sees Chloe. He has no choice but to see her when she accidentally kidnaps him, but unlike everyone else, he remembers her. Antics and Hijinks ensue.

This was such a lovely novel, with so much warmth and heart, and I heartily enjoyed every minute I spent reading it. I will definitely be snapping up any and all Wynchester books in the future.

Also, there are hints that a future Wynchester novel – perhaps the next one?? – will be an LGBT+ romance, and I am here for it. We need more brilliant historical romance authors adding LGBT+ romances to their repertoires. And Philippa deserves a good romance after all she had to put up with in this book.

*Thanks to NetGalley, Grand Central Publishing, and Erica Ridley for providing an e-arc to review.

ARC Review: Tell No Tales by Sam Maggs

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I was looking forward to this one but it just didn’t…. I don’t know. For one thing, it would be better in color than black and white – but I don’t know if the final version is in color and it was just the arc that was black and white? Mostly it was just confusing though. It wasn’t always clear which of the crew was speaking. Each crew member got a side story of a few pages so at least they each were distinct personalities, but… The overarching story didn’t make much sense. It was also very short, so that very little time is actually spent on the overarching story. I think if it were twice as long I would have liked it better and had a better grasp of what was going on. Also it was really annoying that when one of the characters cursed they replaced the word with the poop emoji. Like… why? It felt gimmicky and condescending or something. Mostly I was just reading to get it over with because I didn’t care at all and I normally LOVE pirate stories.

Thanks to NetGalley and ABRAMS kids for providing an e-arc for review.