Elatsoe – Magical Murder Mystery Tour

Darcie Little Badger (referred to as Little Badger for the rest of the review) has burst onto the fantasy scene with Elatsoe, a stunning debut. Little Badger deftly mixes elements from multiple genres into a cohesive and thoroughly enjoyable story that I devoured from cover to cover. 

Elatsoe takes place in a world remarkably like our own, with a single defining difference best described by the book’s own blurb: “This America has been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those indigenous and those not.” Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer, and she draws on Native stories to create a stunning, magical alt-America. Her protagonist, Ellie (short for Elatsoe), can raise, communicate with, and train spirits of deceased animals–she even has a ghost-dog pet named Kirby and he’s a really good boy. In Elatsoe, human ghosts are things of rage and vengeance, completely removed from the compassion they may have felt in life and immensely dangerous things to summon. There are also common tales of magical creatures–vampires, shapeshifters, and more–that are passed down through generations even as they roam the modern landscape of Elatsoe. Ellie’s six-great grandmother, from whom she gets her name, is somewhat of a legend among the family, and stories of her adventures are interlaced with present-day scenes that show Ellie investigating a murder. Ellie’s cousin Trevor dies mysteriously in a car crash near the town of Willowbee, Texas. But Trevor’s spirit comes to Ellie in a dream and tells her he was murdered. He even names his killer. Ellie and her family travel to Trevor’s home outside of Willowbee to investigate, and the dark tendrils of a magical conspiracy start to grip the town as immense danger rears its head. 

Elatsoe can best be billed as a fantasy mystery thriller. It’s hard to assign labels to it because Little Badger’s tone has its own distinct feel. During my readthrough, I never felt like Elatsoe fit neatly into a genre- or age-group. It traverses the thin lines between YA and Adult fiction, between fantasy and mystery, with the confidence of an experienced tightrope walker. For me, that’s what made Elatsoe so remarkable. I wanted to solve the mystery at its core. But I also wanted to learn more about Ellie’s world and explore her relationships with characters like ghost-dog Kirby, best friend Jay, and myriad others. Every element of Elatsoe clicks into place like well-oiled gears, and each turn of the interlocking mechanisms that make this story unique advance the narrative in a meaningful way. The story itself is rooted in a murder mystery, and it’s a gripping affair. Willowbee’s suspicious nature lends the novel an eerie atmosphere that serves as a backdrop for Ellie’s exploration of her power over the dead. My one gripe–such a small one that it does very little to affect my review score–is that Ellie and her cohorts solve the mystery with relative ease. It’s forgivable because the solution feeds into a captivating climax that feels true to the story. 

And what a climax it is! Little Badger slaps the reader with a riveting resolution that elegantly combines previous plot points and character powers. The final pages of Elatsoe fly by in a mystical breeze, and every element that came before, even quiet conversations between two friends, is important. Put simply, Little Badger closed her novel with resounding purpose. She had a goal from the outset, and she achieved it with a fun and intriguing denouement. In fact, it’s so fast-moving that I often had to pause and retrace my steps by flipping back a few pages. 

Come for the plot, stay for the subplots. My personal favorite aspect of Elatsoe is the interwoven oral stories of Ellie’s six-great grandmother. Ellie’s mom shares the stories as teachable moments, and each adds a meaningful significance to the “real” story happening in the foreground. These stories also culminate in a reveal from Ellie’s mother, Vivian, that hits hard and adds yet another layer of depth to Elatsoe.

I genuinely enjoyed Elatsoe. It’s a treat to read and a noteworthy debut from Darcie Little Badger. Her strong first outing as a novelist makes me incredibly excited for whatever she writes next. Elatsoe is one of my 2020 Dark Horse highlights, and Little Badger is a great new author to watch.  

Rating: Elatsoe – 9.0/10

-Cole

Star Daughter – Shine Bright, Shine Far

Shveta Thakrar’s (wait for it) stellar (I had to) debut comes from our 2020 Dark Horse list. Star Daughter journeys to the cosmos, telling a celestial coming of age story. Thakrar weaves Indian mythology and folklore with resonant characters from our world. The result? A pleasant and imaginative read.

Star Daughter follows Sheetal Mistry, 16-going-on-17-year-old with a cosmic secret. Her mom is a star–the celestial, twinkle twinkle kind, not the Hollywood walk of fame kind. Her dad, meanwhile, is human. Sheetal’s mom rejoined the constellations in her nakshatra (a celestial palace/governing body), leaving a 7-year-old Sheetal with her father. Ten years later, near Sheetal’s 17th birthday, she feels the pull of the starsong, a sidereal melody that pulls her toward the celestial realm. Just when she and Dev, her boyfriend, start to hit it off, Sheetal’s celestial origins start to manifest in ways she can’t control. In response, her aunt gives her a letter left by her mother many years ago. It instructs Sheetal to answer the starsong and travel to the stars. She follows the call, bringing her best friend Minal along for the ride, and sees her mother for the first time in 10 years. The current matriarch and patriarch of the stars are stepping down, which means it’s time for houses to compete for the right to rule. Sheetal must represent her nakshatra in the competition, which sees mortals perform or compose an art piece while being inspired by a star. Sheetal and Minal are thrust into an unfamiliar world, and with the competition looming, Sheetal has to work quickly to get a grip on the intricate starry politics, her family history, and the stars’ complicated relationship to humans. 

Thakrar’s debut novel bursts at the seams with imagination. Star Daughter makes elegant use of Indian myths and legends. Every few pages introduced a reference to Indian folklore I had never heard of, and I eagerly Googled mythical beings and settings I was unfamiliar with. Thakrar weaves mythology into her story so well that Star Daughter felt as much like an education in unfamiliar tales as it did a gripping story. Astrology plays a huge role in the book, and the narrative Thakrar sets forth rests sturdily on a strong foundation of generations-old tales.

This otherworldly celestial mythos is a joy to behold through Sheetal’s eyes, who knows of her starry heritage but knows little about it. Sheetal struggles to balance her relationship with her father, having a boyfriend, missing her mother, and her yearning to answer the call of the starsong. She’s a distinct and rounded character with flaws and talents. It’s just easy to believe Sheetal is a living, breathing person. At the same time, Thakrar allows Sheetal to hold up a reader-facing mirror. The reader experiences the new world just as Sheetal does, and her uncertain exploration of her nakshatra welcomes readers in and provides a nice anchor through which the story can be read. 

Even outside of the solid protagonist, Thakrar has a knack for characters. Every cast member feels fleshed out, even though Star Daughter reads at a brisk pace. Nani and Nana, Sheetal’s grandparents (also stars) have a quiet, controlling, subtle air about them with sinister undertones that unravel alongside the primary narrative. Sheetal’s mother, Charumati, shines bright with a love for her daughter, but there’s a hesitant air about her–another thread Thakrar gently pulls throughout the book. Every character–Sheetal’s best friend Minal, her boyfriend Dev, his cousin Jeet, and a whole cast of supporting stars (literal stars) all have meaningful and memorable moments in Star Daughter. Everything has a purpose, and Thakrar takes great care to give readers plenty of relatable and intriguing characters. 

The settings of Star Daughter vary wildly from one another. I found myself riveted by some locales and underwhelmed by others. Sheetal’s home life on Earth is classic teenager fare. She dodges questions from her family about career and education. She sneaks out at night to meet Dev and make cookies. Her life as a human contrasts her place in the world of the stars, which Thakrar doles out with skill. My personal favorite locale was the Night Market, a waystation between the Earth and the celestial realm. At the Night Market, Sheetal encounters magical creatures that offer entire worlds contained in glass orbs and various other whimsical trinkets. She doesn’t spend much time there, but the Night Market stood out to me as a riveting setting for the beginning of Sheetal’s starry tale. On the other hand, the settings that follow the Night Market left me disappointed. Thakrar has a lot of heavy lifting to do. Star politics and policies are complex, and the author does a fantastic job entrenching the reader in her intricate world. But the actual celestial realm where the bulk of the novel takes place is hard for me to visualize. 

Layered into all of this glorious cosmic madness is a story with high stakes. Thakrar has a tight, carefully plotted narrative, and she executes it well. Sheetal’s story quickly intertwines with centuries of celestial history and a faction of humans known to hunt stars. Her performance at the competition will determine whether her family will rule the stars for hundreds of years to come, but she isn’t sure if that’s the best path. Sheetal is presented with so many perspectives that it’s easy to relate to her flustered, pressured feeling throughout the majority of Star Daughter. Thakrar does an excellent job wrapping up the narrative loose ends and bringing the novel to a satisfying conclusion. 

Star Daughter does so much right that it’s easy to overlook any small personal misgivings I had. Shveta Thakrar breaks new ground in fantasy by employing a mythology that (in my opinion) is under-utilized. By taking a grounded coming-of-age tale and bringing it to the stars, Thakrar has crafted a worthwhile and entertaining story. 

Rating: Star Daughter – 8.0/10

-Cole

The Dark Horse Initiative: January-June Wrap Up

Welcome to our Dark Horse Initiative wrap up for the first half of 2020! This year, we found a surplus of debuts we wanted to review, so we divided our Dark Horse list into two halves. 

January through June brought us 12 debuts. After a handful of delays, we finally knocked most of these off our TBR. We didn’t get to every book on our Dark Horse list for January to June, but we did finish nine of them. Now it’s time for a wrap up before we shift focus to the second half of the year, which is also stacked with anticipated reads. Here’s our round-up:

Repo Virtual Repo Virtual feels like a poignant and clever criticism of capitalist society and commentary on AI wrapped up in a single package. The story is short, entertaining, and drives its points home well. White has done a great job crafting a novel that depressed, then uplifted me – all the while entertaining me with a kick-ass action-adventure.

From our review: “Repo Virtual is a peculiar and somber book that feels like a mash-up of different stories…The result is a fascinating and chaotic story of a possible near-future Korea where the virtual and the physical worlds are almost indistinguishable.”

The Unspoken Name The Unspoken Name is a stroll through a garden of wonders in book form. It is filled with whimsy and wonder and tells the story of a woman finding her place in the world after rejecting the role fate placed on her shoulders. It is a wonderful book that surprises and delights from the first page to the last.

From our review: “This story is mercurial, untraditional, engrossing, and occasionally a little rough. But, above all else, it is a beautiful story that is worth reading and a debut that promises that Larkwood is an author to keep an eye on.”

The Vanished Birds – Although we read it, we didn’t review The Vanished Birds. It’s a poetic and beautiful piece about suffering and the tenacity of the human spirit. It is certainly a beautiful and powerful book – it was simply too depressing for us to find the right words to accurately talk about it. If you want to feel profoundly sad, check it out.

Docile – K.M. Szpara’s debut is stunning in its portrayal of two men developing an unhealthy and antagonistic romantic relationship that negates their humanity. If it had been the destruction of said men, this book would have been good, but the healing process and the slow reconciliation makes this book a real treat. 

From our review: “Szpara succeeds in balancing his knack for subtlety and smashing through a brick wall with a megaphone. He achieves subtlety in the quiet moments, where the characters reflect on their actions, and through which point of view situations are described. His loudness comes through in his use of language and Szpara’s refusal to couch actions in metaphor or euphemisms.”

Beneath the Rising – Preemee Mohamed busts through several dimensions with this debut, offering a fast and fresh take on the Cthulu Mythos, bending it and twisting it to reveal some of its darker and more haunting origins. 

From our review: “Overall, if you’re looking for a fast, fun take on the cosmic horror genre that pushes its characters to the limits, Beneath The Rising is for you. Mohamed cares for her characters, and her love of the world that she’s built shines through. There are plenty of twists that are as revealing of the story as they are impactful to the characters.“

The Loop – Ben Oliver’s debut left a lot to be desired. It engages the reader as much as it engages with its own world: barely. 

From our review: “…I did not care about this world. Sure, it’s cruel, it’s mean, and it’s hard, but I just never got the sense that it could be real. I didn’t believe that the characters were frustrated with it or dealing with it in any significant way. I’m not even sure there was an accepted resignation to it either. It was frustrating given that on the surface, the world they inhabit is terrifying but hollow.”

The Dark Tide – Alicia Jasinska’s debut novel boasts delectable prose and a gritty, satisfying concept, but the characters and plot might make some readers hesitant.

From our review: “The Dark Tide meshes unique twists on classic fairy tale fantasy tropes and lyrical prose, forming a reading experience that feels breezy and poetic. And while those elements bring a fresh feel to the narrative, I struggled to connect with the characters or their stories.” 

The Kingdom of Liars The Kingdom of Liars offers an impressive fantasy debut and a promising start to Nick Martell’s The Legacy of the Mercenary King series. 

From our review: “There’s a veritable treasure trove of fantasy fun to be had in The Kingdom of Liars for the right reader. For me, it was an enjoyable and breezy read. Though I saw some slight issues, I’m really excited to see where Martell takes us next. This debut neatly sets the stage for book two, where I’m hoping the worldbuilding takes a front seat and the larger web of intrigue starts to point toward a climactic conclusion.” 

Goddess in the Machine – Lora Beth Johnson’s sci-fi debut brims with fun moments, clever twists, and an intriguing concept. 

From our review: “…Goddess in the Machine emerges an interesting and readable concoction. Johnson’s unique perspective and ideas go a long way in carving out a niche for this book within the sci-fi community. Even with lackluster character and setting work, I’m convinced that Lora Beth Johnson is a debut author to watch. After reading Goddess in the Machine, I’m eager to see where she takes us next.”

Eager for more debuts? Check out our Dark Horse picks for July through December 2020, and keep an eye out for more reviews every week!

The Kingdom Of Liars – Fast Fun Fantasy Fodder

Nick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars delivers a strong debut that lays the foundation for a promising epic fantasy saga. Martell’s story of king killers, magic-induced memory loss, and political corruption springs off our Dark Horse 2020 list with fresh concepts and a high-speed narrative. 

Michael Kingman wears the fire-seared brand of a traitor thanks to his dad. His father, David Kingman, was executed ten years ago for the murder of the king’s nine-year-old son. Now, Michael and his siblings Gwen and Lyon are also branded and ostracized, their Kingman name disgraced. As Gwen and Lyon struggle to rebuild lives removed from the Kingman legacy, Michael begins to find inklings of evidence that may prove his father’s innocence and expose the corrupt royal family of Hollows. But as Michael explores the possibility of his father’s innocence, he finds his life at risk when he learns that the mercenaries, politicians, Nobles, churches, and royalty of Hollows all have a stake in the game. Meanwhile, Michael begins to notice gaps in his memory, usually a symptom of using Fabrications (magic) without learning to control them first. 

Michael tells his tale in the first person, ushering readers on a journey through Hollows (the primary setting) and the Endless Waltz, an extravagant multi-event celebration meant to pair High Nobles into political relationships and solidify powerful alliances. Michael joins the event thanks to the guiding hand of a rich maniac who the royals won’t dare defy. His presence alone sends ripples of discontent through the nobility, eventually reaching corrupt Prince Adreann, who makes his distaste for Michael abundantly clear. 

Naturally, I’ve managed to scratch only the thinnest surface layer of what this novel has to offer. Michael’s trek through Hollows and the details of his family’s past, present, and future feel like a supercut parkour video. The story jumps from one plot point to the next at a breakneck pace with the occasional pause for dramatic effect. I think this tone is the result of Martell’s succinct-yet-descriptive prose and the myriad plot elements that Michael needs to encounter for the narrative to work. The Kingdom of Liars is one of those books that you pick up for a quick 20-30 page reading stint, only to end up flying through 150 pages. And that feeling fits the style of the novel really well. There are so many moving parts that even Michael has trouble tracking all the information he receives, the conversations he has, and the events he attends. Michael’s experience mirrors the reader’s; the more invested he becomes in the events unfolding throughout the novel, the more I felt drawn to the story. This breakneck spiral of a story could be a massive draw or a significant detriment, depending on the reader. Personally, I loved being whisked from one locale to the next through Michael’s eyes. Each page gave me something more than the last.

Kingdom’s scattershot worldbuilding slots neatly into the narrative. It’s clear that Martell has a unique and vivid setting constructed in his mind, and for the most part that translates to the page. Hollows is a poverty-ridden city with a rich history of turbulent politics. The military factions and rebellion add some nice flavor to the personal story Michael tells. The magic system is a novel concept: overuse your magic, and you risk losing memories. Not just recollections of events, but possibly the muscle memory of how to see or how to walk. The world of Kingdom has two moons, one of which has shattered into 7 separate pieces. Bits of the moon fall from time to time, and the city has an alarm system to indicate where the piece will hit. 

All these worldbuilding tidbits offer refreshing takes on tried-and-true fantasy tropes. However, it’s tough as a reader to truly grasp what this world is like. Cogs turn and the story moves at a relentless speed, so much so that I often wished for a filler chapter that would tell me about one tiny aspect of the world. Martell constantly drops hints about the history of the shattered moon Celona, mercenaries, Hollows royalty, mythical beasts, and Fabrications. There’s a bigger picture here, but The Kingdom of Liars zooms so far in that it’s easy to miss things. 

Space to breathe is the one thing Kingdom is missing, but the end promises much more from this richly imagined world, and I think Martell’s second and third outings will up the ante big time. Michael as a character has a fun arc. He begins the book as a stubborn, overly-independent child, but he spends much of the book learning from his mistakes and trusting those he loves. So much of the book’s central narrative results from Michael’s own growth, so I won’t spoil much here. One thing is worth noting, though: if you find Michael an insufferable brat for the first half of the book, you’re not alone. The second half makes it worthwhile, in my opinion. The supporting characters, meanwhile lend some verve to the book, much needed considering Michael’s single-minded purpose and frustrating first half. Domet, an incredibly rich aristocrat with a secret, stands out among them. Michael takes a job with the rich, elite, functioning alcoholic Domet that eventually catapults him into the center of political unrest. Michael’s siblings Gwen and Lyon have great moments as well. They both dealt with their father’s execution in different ways, shaping their unique relationships with Michael. 

Like I mentioned, I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ve left out some details–a few because they’re spoilers and others because they take a backseat to the main points of the story. There’s a veritable treasure trove of fantasy fun to be had in The Kingdom of Liars for the right reader. For me, it was an enjoyable and breezy read. Though I saw some slight issues, I’m really excited to see where Martell takes us next. This debut neatly sets the stage for book two, where I’m hoping the worldbuilding takes a front seat and the larger web of intrigue starts to point toward a climactic conclusion. For now, though, I’m happy I picked up The Kingdom of Liars, and I look forward to following Nick Martell as he explores his unique world. 

Rating: The Kingdom of Liars – 8.0/10

-Cole

Driftwood – Something to Hang Onto

I’m not a huge fan of post-apocalyptic stories. I don’t read them because they often have similar set ups and I usually come away with the feeling that I’m reading someone’s version of “here is what I would do.”  I have read a couple that make me think there are still some diamonds in the rough, but generally I tend to stay away after a number of offenders have left a bad taste in my mouth. But, considering the unraveling that has been 2020 so far, I decided to give the genre another try but with a little flavor to ease myself into it. Driftwood, by Marie Brennan, is a short, sweet, and dark apocalyptic fantasy that does not overstay its welcome while leaving you desiring more.

The titular ‘Driftwood’ is a weird place, where worlds go to die. Imagine a location where multiple parallel worlds exist with different cultures, species, languages, plants, and everything in between, yet these places are all slowly converging towards a central point called “the crush”. As these worlds get closer to the crush, parts of them begin to disappear. People no longer exist and eventually everything is eaten by the crush, and only those who learned to live outside their own reality survive. Driftwood is a collection of stories centered around one man, named Last, who is seemingly immortal to the drifters that inhabit the land. The fun part is these stories are told by people who were helped by Last as they tried to find ways to save their worlds, or little pieces of them. Unfortunately, there are rumours that Last has finally died, and the one hope they have of finding him is discovering the person who saw him… last. 

What I enjoyed most about Driftwood was the structure of the book. Everything takes place in a tavern that has been built numerous times called Spit In The Crush’s Eye. It is a gathering ground for the people who have eventually been able to leave their own world and move through Driftwood. Prior to each story, there is a short section in the tavern where someone introduces themselves before launching into their tale. It makes each personal recounting have a parable-like quality that adds a little whimsy. Sometimes they feel as if little lies have been added to make the story somewhat grander, but it feels personal and true all the same. This structure also adds a humanity to Last, while simultaneously instilling a sort of mythic sheen, as he stops at nothing to help someone in need. Most of these stories involve near Sisyphean tasks, but Brennan writes in a way that reveals how personally everyone takes the end of their own world that sort makes the individual stories seem smaller and less daunting. It’s a really clever way of handling the fact that all of these people are just watching and waiting for the apocalypse to come to them and made the endless calamity a little more digestible.

On top of all that, Brennan has a very distinct writing style that feels like someone recounting another person’s stories. She does not go overboard with descriptions, allowing the chaotic presence of the Crush, and slow convergence of worlds to fill your headspace. There is a mystery to it that leaves the reader feeling like this place cannot really exist, but it feels so real to those recounting, so how could they lie? It’s honestly wonderful to just pick up and read one story at a time so you can sit around and think about what it might mean afterwards. Brennan even writes some of the stories to feel as though the storyteller is trying to impart meaning whilst telling it, but unable to relay its personal importance to others in the room. It’s wonderful and terrifying to see something portrayed in such a sincere way, especially considering it’s people grappling with the death of everything they once knew.

There is not much else to say, or at least, to say to others who have yet to read the book. Each story feels special in its own way. While there seems to be a broader theme about storytelling, it also feels carefully crafted so that at least one story will resonant with every reader who picks up this book. I imagine it would be great to sit around a campfire with some friends, going over the stories, having someone tell each one in a sort of somber backyard theatre way. Then as the night grows quiet, think about all the stories that have been told through time, authored by civilizations that no longer exist. And then ask yourself, “why tell these stories?”

 Rating: Driftwood – 8.5/10
-Alex

The Book Rookie – The Hero of Ages

We’re back with another installment of The Book Rookie! This time, Alex and Andrew join cole to discuss The Hero of Ages, Brandon Sanderson’s thrilling conclusion to the original Mistborn trilogy!

Just catching up? Listen to our discussions about Mistborn and The Well of Ascension before you dive in.

And enjoy our shiny new musical intro!

The Book Rookie is a book club in which Cole (the eponymous rookie) reads flagship fantasy and sci-fi books, then discusses them with readers who have more experience with the genre.

This isn’t a book club for niche reads. We’re talking big series: The Gentlemen BastardsA Song of Ice and FireThe Broken EarthThe Stormlight ArchiveThe ExpanseThe Malazan Book of the Fallen, and countless other top-tier fantasy and sci-fi reads. We want to compare readings of the SFF world’s MVPs. A relative newcomer to adult fantasy will inevitably perceive a book differently than two readers who have travelled the many worlds available to SFF readers. We hope you enjoy the new series! If you have a book you want us to discuss, drop a comment below!

Cuphead Carnival Chaos: A Gollywompin’ Good Time

When you see Cuphead Carnival Chaos on shelves, be they virtual or digital, you may ask yourself: who is this book for? Fair question. There are two answers. One is obvious, and the other is semi-obvious. The obvious answer: Cuphead Carnival Chaos is for fans of Cuphead. The semi-obvious answer is that this book is for kids. I know nothing about kids, other than having virtually identical hobbies to most elementary-level young-ins. Carnival Chaos won’t reinvigorate your love of prose, nor will it take your breath away with nuanced characters. You know what it will do, though? Make you exhale through your nose in that pseudo-laugh we all do when nobody else is around to laugh with us. 

So if you’re a kid (or you have one) who could use a fun little book, pick this one up. If you’re a Cuphead fan looking to dive deeper into the lore, then you probably look like this:

Anyway, to the book. Ron Bates does a wallopin’ good job at capturing the essence of the Inkwell Isles in Carnival Chaos. You’re on an adult fantasy/sci-fi review website, so if you’re reading this review I’ll just assume you fall into that Cuphead fan bucket I mentioned earlier. Here’s the skinny, fellow Cuphead fanatic: this book evokes the 1930s cartoony feel of the Cuphead universe. It’s silly, it’s funny, it’s wacky. But it’s also–as I warned you–for kids. Cuphead Carnival Chaos expands on Cuphead’s world in tame ways. For example, Cuphead apparently goes to grade school (didn’t he make a deal with the Devil at a CASINO in the video game?!), loves baseball, and can’t resist the allure of an obviously villainous carnival that just happens to show up on the day of Elder Kettle’s surprise birthday party. 

Carnival Chaos’ paper-thin plot is just fine, to be honest. Cuphead and his pal (actually his brother, but you can be friends with your brother, I think my sister considers me a friend… anyway) Mugman are tasked with buying Elder Kettle a gift, but the temptations of the titular carnival whisk them away into a world of treachery, thievery, and classic carney scams. The story serves more as a vehicle through which we experience the Inkwell Isles and their many wonders than it does as a worthwhile narrative, and that’s okay in a book marketed to kids and that nerd pictured above. 

When you pick up Carnival Chaos, you’ll be treated to such verbal morsels as “humdinger” and “gollywompers.” Bates plays around with language in a way completely befitting Cuphead’s signature style. My eyes awooo-gah-ed out of their sockets a few times to appreciate the linguistic inventions on the page. The imagery packs a punch, too. I remember one segment vividly, in which Cuphead is a nickel short when he’s paying for an item. He reaches into his pocket and his hand, walking like a person using the index and middle fingers as legs, traipses through “pocket world,” a literal universe made of lint in his pocket. The hand asks one of pocket world’s citizens for a coin. The linty denizens oblige, and I can only assume Cuphead is their god and is swindling them and/or dropping huge metal discs onto the poor saps. But damn if that visual isn’t striking as heckaroo. 

I have one gripe with Carnival Chaos, and it has nothing to do with the writing, story, or characters. My edition of the novel skipped from page 220 to 253. From there, it continued through to the end, then resumed on page 221 after the author bio. Unless this is some late-90s choose your own adventure BS (trust me, it’s not), it’s just a blatant misprint. I sat, shook, staring blankly at the page and wondering what I had missed for about five minutes before I realized the error. And I’m a 28-year-old man. Maybe sharp-minded youth will notice the issue faster, but buyer beware. 

Carnival Chaos, like its video game source material, is fun and wacky. As a kids’ book, it’s nowhere near as gut-wrenchingly difficult as the game is, but it does offer a bright story that showcases author Ron Bates’ respect for the Cuphead universe. He had “too much fun” writing the book, according to his bio appearing smack-dab in the middle of the story, and it shows even beyond the misprint. 

Rating: Cuphead Carnival Chaos – 8.0/10

5 Lighthearted Reads for Dreary Times

Let’s get straight to the point: everything is tough right now. And rather than regurgitate the buzzwords and messaging you see on all your social platforms, I’d like to shift gears and offer you a little light to get through some dark times. Here are five lighthearted reads that will put a smile on your face!

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune 

This book. This. Friggin’. Book. I turned the final page of The House in the Cerulean Sea with glistening, teary eyes and a smile so large it probably threw Earth’s gravity off-kilter (if you felt that, I’m sorry–should be back to normal now). TJ Klune has served up an unassuming book with an unassuming protagonist that just wrecks you by the end. It’s a tale of found family and unconditional love and fighting for what’s right in the face of adversity. It’s told with careful attention to detail and a glimmer of hope. Our recent review (a well-deserved 10/10, by the way) covers the main points, but here’s the skinny: it’s a glorious fantasy novel featuring a diverse cast of characters and a world exploding with magic. For what it’s worth, I can remember two books EVER making me cry, and this is one of them (the other being City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett, but those were tears of well-earned sadness). 

For the love of all that you hold dear, read this book. 

Strange Planet by Nathan W Pyle

You may have seen these charming aliens gracing your Instagram feed. Nathan W Pyle’s account of the same name features cute-as-heck extra-terrestrials experiencing the wonders of Earth through fresh eyes. The book (and its June-slated sequel, Stranger Planet), collects these charming cartoons and reignites the beauty in everyday things that we too often take for granted. 

To Pyle’s aliens, sunburn is an adventure and cats are mysteries to solve. No familiar scenario or phenomenon is exempt from the adoration of the creatures, and every panel offers thoughtful observations on everyday life and human emotion. 

Everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too by Jomny Sun

Oh, you already finished Strange Planet but you can’t wait for the sequel? You need another charming illustrated exploration of Earth through an extra-terrestrial’s eyes? Dang, sorry I can’t hel–BAM. Here’s Jomny Sun’s charmingly magnificent masterpiece. Jomny, a misfit alien, is sent to study earth. He befriends animals and plants. He discovers what it means to feel. He learns that it’s okay to be sad just as much as it’s okay to be happy. 

Jomny Sun presents a lovely view of humanity, and every single page teaches some sort of life lesson. I’ll leave you with a personal favorite, aliebn misspellings-and-all: “I’ve been wonderimg why the lonely ones make the most beautifubl music and i thimk its because theyre the ones most invested in filling the silence.”

Year Zero by Rob Reid

Sometimes, you need a rich sci-fi world complete with intergalactic federations, societies on the brink of war, and weapons capable of destroying entire solar systems. Sometimes, you need a humorous sci-fi romp in which aliens have been illegally streaming Earth music for years and, as a result, owe us trillions upon trillions of dollars. For those in need of the latter, I offer you Year Zero.

Backed by a wealth of his industry knowledge as the founder of Rhapsody, Rob Reid weaves a hilarious tale of intergalactic copyright infringement and piracy. It’s a hoot from start-to-finish, and while Year Zero explores some important questions about art and consumption in the space-travel age, it’s really just a straight-up adventure that pokes a lot of fun at many of our artistic institutions. Oh, and it’s kind of a love letter to music as a whole. 

If you’re looking for an overly-hyphenatedly-described genre-defining space-faring sci-fi mega-masterpiece, well…*gestures to The Expanse.* If you want to heed the words of Cyndi Lauper and sneak in a few chuckles, check out Year Zero

What If? By Randall Munroe

Randall Munroe’s collection of “serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions” induced more riotous laughter in me than any book I’ve read in recent memory. A former NASA employee and all-around talented writer, Munroe approaches said questions with a flair for scientific accuracy and a sharp penchant for gut-busting punchlines. Throw in the hilarious stick-figure comics, and you’ve got the full package. 

Here are some of the questions on display: “How much force power can Yoda output?” “If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time, would it change color?” “What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?”

So, yeah, things get crazy. What If? provides a refreshing escape from these tough times into rampant absurdity.

In an Absent Dream – Indecision Meets Duality

In an Absent Dream marks a return to form for Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, which faltered in book three after its impressive first and second installments. Here, we learn the backstory of Lundy, a character left tragically underexplored in Every Heart A Doorway

Lundy’s arc in Every Heart was short but sweet, and her interactions with the students at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children opened up an entire world of questions about her history with portal worlds. I’m saying this as vaguely as possible to avoid spoilers for In an Absent Dream, but this much I can divulge: the novella has a marvelous, heartbreaking payoff that leads right up to Lundy’s Every Heart narrative. 

We meet Katherine Lundy (never Katie, Kat, or Kathy) in her early days of childhood. She follows the rules. She reads lots of books. Her father is the principal of her school, and her classmates shun her for fear of being reprimanded by his strict hand. She discovers the Goblin Market, a fantasy world inhabited by a hodge-podge of magical creatures where the rules are enforced by some intangible, ever-present enchantment. The Goblin Market’s unique magic forces its inhabitants to provide “fair value” for everything, which is agreed upon by two parties. As we charmingly see here, a pie-maker may decide that pencils are of great value and could buy you two pies per day for a full year. Make an open-ended request, though, and your fellow barterer could decide that your life is fair value; to avoid loopholes like this, residents must make general statements about their needs instead of outright asking for things. There’s a dark side, though; incur too much debt, and you slowly transform into a bird. You can buy your way back to humanity (or the magical beast’s equivalent of it), but it’s a long road–birds can only offer so much value. Lundy befriends Moon, a girl slightly indebted and feathery, but not beyond recovery, and the two explore the intricacies of The Goblin Market together. 

The tale that follows is easily McGuire’s strongest outing in this wonderful and macabre intersection of our world and the fantasy worlds that connect to it. Unlike the other worlds we’ve encountered throughout the series, The Goblin Market’s presence is more transient, allowing Lundy to leave and return for various stretches of time. However, she’s told from the start that she must make a choice before she turns 18: stay in the Market or stay with her family in the “real” world. 

Lundy’s story brims with indecision and streams of consciousness that coalesce into a dynamic and relatable character. She adores the wonder and the magically enforced rules of the market. She loves that fair value puts everyone there on a level playing field; nobody asks for more than what they need and nobody offers more than they can give. To Lundy, the world makes sense. However, as she makes multiple journeys between The Market and her original home, she must come to terms with the choice she knows she must make. And with every trip, the choice becomes more difficult. McGuire’s sharp focus on such a beautiful character–and how torn she is by the looming choice set before her– sets this novella apart from its series’ brethren, and by the time I turned the final page, Lundy shot to the top of my completely real “favorite Wayward Children characters” list. 

Speaking of characters, this installment is chock-full of great ones. Moon is an interesting foil to Lundy. She knows more about the Goblin Market’s rules but is more careless with them. She has a reckless streak that both intrigues and confuses Lundy. The dynamism between the two makes for some satisfying character moments. Other unexpected spotlight-stealers include The Archivist, Lundy’s pseudo-guardian in the Market, and Lundy’s actual father, who has a secret that slowly unravels throughout the tale. 

Dichotomy rests at the heart of In an Absent Dream. Lundy’s deadline to decide between two worlds is chief among them, but it’s more of a lingering presence. Her two actual worlds–her home and the Goblin Market–exist in stark contrast to one another. Lundy discovers sisterly and familial love in our world, even as she watches her family break down in light of her long leaves of absence. In the Market, she finds a comforting world that finally makes sense to her, where fair value drives everyone’s actions. By exploring the two biggest extremes of Lundy’s life, McGuire busts open a number of questions about structure, rules, breaking them, and fitting in. 

If there’s one minuscule quibble I could make about this book, it’s the worldbuilding. The Goblin Market proves a fascinating setting and McGuire laces it with small details that make it feel real. But it simultaneously feels very small and contained, and many of Lundy’s more whimsical adventures are recounted as memories or in passing conversation. Don’t take this as an outright criticism, though. There’s a lot to sink your teeth into, and McGuire has a knack for giving just enough detail to build a vibrant and interesting setting within a small page count.

All of these wonderful components come together for a heartwrenching ending that had me shaking as I turned the final pages. In an Absent Dream doesn’t tie itself in a neat little bow. It ends with an emotional gut-punch that left me reeling for hours after I closed the book.

Following a turbulent Wayward Children outing in Beneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire brought me back in, full-force, with In an Absent Dream. This is the story I’ve wanted from this series all along, and I absolutely, unabashedly, unequivocally loved it. 

Rating: In an Absent Dream – 9.0/10

Beneath the Sugar Sky – Nonsense Meets Mortality

Beneath the Sugar Sky

Beneath the Sugar Sky returns, if only for a moment, to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. The third novella in the aptly named Wayward Children series brings us back to present-day following Jack and Jill’s prequel adventure in Down Among the Sticks and Bones. This pattern of alternating past-present stories will continue, according to author Seanan McGuire in this Twitter thread, through at least book eight in the series! But for now, let’s focus on this third installment. Spoilers follow, particularly for Every Heart a Doorway, so proceed with caution.

Beneath the Sugar Sky introduces Cora, a new student at Eleanor West’s school. Cora comes from The Trenches, where she lived her otherwordly years as a mermaid. Cora and her friend Nadya (who traveled to the watery world of Belyrekka, making the two an apt pair) are exploring the pond on school grounds when a young woman falls, seemingly from nowhere, into the water. The newcomer introduces herself as Rini, daughter of Sumi. *Pause for effect.* Yes, she’s the daughter of Sumi, the first victim of Every Heart’s serial murderer. Rini hails from Confection, a land comprised of baked goods, soda, and literal tons of sugar. Her existence itself is a miracle, seeing as her purported mother died a teenager before she ever met Rini’s father. But it’s possible because Confection is a “nonsense” world, dictated by its own rules and timelines but beholden to no others. However, Rini is disappearing after her mother’s untimely death, so a Confection wizard gives her a way to travel between worlds, and she ventures to Eleanor’s School for help. 

There are literal and figurative worlds of themes to explore in Beneath the Sugar Sky. The characters, plot, and themes mix together in a batter worthy of Confection’s countless baked goods, but after some time in the metaphorical oven, those parts don’t coalesce into a satisfying treat. 

That said, Beneath the Sugar Sky offers some distinctly positive ideas. Cora and Nadya both explore body positivity in compelling ways. Cora is overweight, and she openly calls herself “fat.” But she comes from a world where size doesn’t matter, and the weightlessness of living underwater allows her to shed any insecurities about her weight. These learnings carry over into the real world, where she sees judgmental eyes and hears judgmental words but remains confident and poised as ever. Nadya’s right arm is missing below the elbow, and she’s part of a storyline late in the novella (which I won’t spoil here) that echoes Cora’s sentiments and sends a powerful message about being comfortable in one’s own skin. McGuire elegantly discusses body image and positivity through these two new characters, and it’s genuinely inspiring stuff to read. So far, Wayward Children has excelled at conveying strong morals. 

Powerful message aside, Beneath the Sugar Sky suffers from a weak plot and low stakes. The characters shine, as always, but their involvement in Rini’s story doesn’t make much sense. Cora never knew Sumi and just met Rini, yet she embarks on the quest to save both without much thought. It’s a kind gesture, and I’d overlook it, but the plot continues meandering through weird whirls of wackiness (much like this sentence) straight through to the end. Cora and Nadya are accompanied by Kade (a Fairyland reject and Every Heart staple) and Christopher, who can reanimate skeletons with his bone flute (also an Every Heart staple, though he gets more well-deserved screen time here). The ragtag bunch decides that reconstructing Sumi is the best path forward, so they set out on a quest of sorts to revive her. I’ll spare the spoilerific details here, but the crew travels to two separate portal worlds on their quest to save Rini and Sumi. 

Confection is the primary setting, and we’re whisked along as readers through various locales without any real chance to take it all in. Confection’s nonsensical nature feels like a crutch, allowing the characters to duck and weave, avoiding any real danger. Just when the stakes could spark an adrenaline rush, the world throws curveball solutions that allow Cora and her companions to brush aside every threat that comes their way. Would-be emotional moments are stilted by the plot’s racing pace as it speeds toward a conclusion. As I read the conclusion, I asked myself “Did I miss something?” And I don’t think I did–the ingredients of Sugar Sky don’t have the time they need to rise into a delicious morsel. 

While it’s hard to buy into the plot and the stakes of Sugar Sky, there’s still plenty to love. McGuire’s positive messages and morals shine through despite the book’s weaknesses. The lure of doors to new worlds still rings in my head as I journey through the series, and visiting those worlds is a real treat.

Beneath the Sugar Sky: 6.5/10