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

Construct – The Foundations Have Been Laid

23365568I’ve never had the inclination to read self-published titles. I’m always worried I’ll read into it too deeply or be overly critical, because I can so rarely turn off that portion of my brain. So when Luke Matthews reached out to me and requested an honest review of his self-published book Construct, I was a little hesitant. After thinking about it though, I decided to give it a shot. Construct ended up being something unexpected, and though it certainly has some flaws, the work Matthews put into his world and characters shows a lot of potential.

Construct follows Samuel, an artificial being that has awakened from a terrible memory as the building he is in is burning down around him. He recognizes he is not human, doesn’t know his own name, but feels hunted nonetheless. Deep down he feels his memory is important and puts him in further danger, and so he hides from nearby voices searching the wreckage. He sets off on a journey to find out who and what he is, and why someone would want to kill him. It is a streamlined and clean concept that works for the book.

I want to start off by highlighting my favorite part about this book: Matthews’ writing. He is incredibly thorough with his descriptions, allowing the reader to feel the world. I immediately felt as if I was in some sort of dark fantasy western, where small towns and large cities were miles from each other, and the populace mostly tried to keep out of trouble. People knew each other by their dealings and less by reputation, which was something I rarely notice in other books. Matthews’ descriptions built a good sense of rhythm too, allowing the pace to slow down a little and take stock with more vivid descriptions. Meanwhile, the action scenes and tension heavy dialogues were focused on the characters and their emotions. While Matthew’s prose is his greatest strength, it also shows some weaknesses. Especially when it comes to the emotional range of the characters, they often felt like anime characters, where the most extreme forms of emotion were always on display. It wasn’t bad – especially since he uses a large vocabulary – but once I noticed it, I could not unsee it.

The characters, in general, were enjoyable.. Samuel as the ever-curious and ever-surprising construct was delightful. He has a childlike curiosity that was heightened, not hampered, by the danger he felt. However, this felt like one of the only aspects of his personality and he rarely ever made any character-defining decisions for himself. There often was a lot of telling about how he was different from “other” constructs, without too many comparisons showing how others operate. It became stale fairly quickly as even Samuel began to finish other character’s sentences pointing it out. I do want to point out though that for a decent amount of the book, Samuel did feel out of place, in a good way. The beginning of the book highlighted this the most with his interior narration being distanced even from himself, as he tried to work out who or what he was. It was an excellent beginning to his character that really showed off Matthews’ style.

A lot of the intrigue was dictated by a fairly solid supporting cast. The people Samuel meets along the way, felt like they had their own little lives that were interrupted by his presence. Conversations between Samuel and others were more often revealing of the supporting cast, highlighting their motivations and concerns. They never felt insightful of Samuel himself however, beyond the aforementioned curiosity. There were a few unexplained moments where characters seemed overly reactive to others’ choices, but I think some of that is supposed to be left for another book. The villains felt pretty typical– overly caricatured as headhunters who really loved to headhunt. I enjoyed the dynamic between the villainous duo, their banter being something I looked forward to, but it didn’t really give me too much insight into who they were. Since they are about thirty percent of the book’s point of view, it felt like more could have been made of them.

As far as the plot goes, while it didn’t reinvent the genre it was also clean and direct. In particular, Matthews excelled in his pacing. The book moves fast, but gives some time for the plot and characters to breathe. There wasn’t a single moment that felt wasted, and it felt pretty good to read a plot-heavy book that did not dilly dally. Each stop along Samuel’s path gave him something to consider, and his presence altered characters he encountered in some fashion. The constant feeling of the chase saturated every page once the reader and Samuel were made aware of it. There were a few contrived moments, especially when there were some out of left field point of view switches, but overall I enjoyed the story. It was a fairly typical story of lost memory but executed well in an entertaining way.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Construct. It is not a heavy read, and it’s fun despite some of its issues. The world is intriguing though I feel like it has not been fully revealed. The characters went through a lot and not everyone comes out okay in the end. Matthews clearly left room for more to be told as there is a lot of character tension left unresolved. I want to thank the author for both the opportunity and the free copy of his book in exchange for an honest review. And In the spirit of that, I can honestly say I’m looking forward to more of Matthews’ work.

Rating: Construct – 7.0/10
Alex

Down Among the Sticks and Bones – Childhood Meets Brutality

Down Among The Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire’s first prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, offers brutal ruminations on the nature of childhood and the implications of growing up. This story, starring twin sisters Jacqueline (Jack) and Jill (before you ask–yes, there are plenty of references to the nursery rhyme. No, they’re not overdone), paints a sweeping picture of a difficult upbringing and self-discovery. Seanan McGuire explores the darkest corners of individuality and coming of age while giving us a much-needed injection of Jack and Jill, two key characters from Every Heart

Jack and Jill are thrust into life after their unfit parents decide to have children for no good reason. The book’s first third collects a series of vignette-ish descriptions of their parents, Chester and Serena Wolcott, and their stubborn natures. They want kids to show them off, to earn social status, and to mold them into something convenient rather than unique. Jack and Jill, born into this mindset, find a temporary savior in Gemma Lou, their paternal grandmother. Until they’re five years old, Gemma Lou teaches Jack and Jill to think for themselves, at least as well as a toddler can. When Chester and Serena abruptly eject Gemma Lou from the twins’ lives, Jack and Jill must look out for one another. The years that follow breeze by within a single chapter as Jack and Jill struggle against the strict barriers their parents have erected. It is only when they turn twelve that everything changes. Jack and Jill discover a hidden staircase to another world in what was once their grandmother’s trunk. The secret doorway closes behind them, and they begin their adventure in the Moors. 

The Moors are an unforgiving place. The recently dead don’t always stay that way. Vampires and werewolves roam villages at night. Science is a tool to be wielded with none of the inconvenient limits so prevalent in our world. The Moors burst with possibility and dread. Jack and Jill choose their own paths. Each twin grows up in the Moors under the careful watch of her chosen master–Jill’s, a ruthless vampire known only as “the Master,” who has a stranglehold on the village; and Jack’s, a mad scientist named Dr. Bleak, who resurrects the dead and stretches the limits of science with every experiment he performs. 

The summary above covers a vast swathe of McGuire’s prequel, but context here is crucial. The Jack and Jill from Every Heart a Doorway have already experienced the events of Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and reading this preamble makes the continuation of their story even more intriguing. Sticks and Bones cuts deep and hits hard. As I learned quickly, McGuire doesn’t pull punches. The Moors are a devastating place, and while Jack and Jill both call it “home,” the world shapes them in remarkable ways. Jack, consumed by science, learns all she can under Dr. Bleak’s stewardship, crafting her logical mind into a sharply honed weapon able to solve problems quickly and creatively. Jill learns obedience and patience, at least at first, and must stay vigilant under the Master’s tutelage. Even as the twins find their place, The Moors carves out their dark sides and forces them to the surface. Just as this new world augments Jack and Jill’s inherent individuality, it siphons out their demons. 

So far, Wayward Children is more about the children than the waywardness, and that’s okay. McGuire’s talent for character-driven prose conjures images from words, and the people within these novellas feel fleshed out and believable. That said, for a series with other worlds at its heart, this installment didn’t completely satiate my need for a rich, distinct new world. The Moors serves more as a catalyst for growth than a vibrant setting. I appreciate the approach, and I relish the world-building–I just want more of it. 

Like its predecessor, Sticks and Bones breezes by at a lightning-quick pace. McGuire knows how to tell a story in limited space. She cuts the fat and offers a lean, juicy tale. The plot here doesn’t offer much by way of surprise or shock; most of the significant events are mentioned or hinted at in Every Heart. But it’s still worthwhile. Questions of identity, quarrels between right-and-wrong, and unconventional upbringings make Sticks and Bones a melting pot of intrigue. Worth noting as well is McGuire’s inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters and how she writes them: they’re real, they’re people, they love, and they lose. Their orientation doesn’t make them different or “other.” It’s refreshing to read. 

The Wayward Children series continues to discuss big questions, explore hard truths, and tell stories worth telling. Pick it up, stack it neatly on top of Every Heart A Doorway, and make space for Beneath the Sugar Sky, which I’ll review next. 

Down Among the Sticks and Bones: 8.0/10

Hearts of Oak – It Did Not Grow On Me

When I read the premise of Hearts of Oak, by Eddie Robson, I got excited. Growing buildings within an expanding city? Sign me up. The main character is an architect trying to understand the underpinnings of her world after being awoken from a stupor that required her to continuously expand the kingdom? Heck yeah, this is right up my alley. On top of that, just throw in a talking cat, who is the best friend and advisor to the king of this land? Let me get a blanket and curl up on the couch. Unfortunately, this little novella did not really live up to the hype, and maybe that is my fault in some respects. All in all Hearts of Oak is a short novel that is full of twists and turns but lacks any real character and heart. 

The book starts off interesting enough as Iona, the main protagonist, is reviewing plans for several of the buildings in her city, noting the absurdity of the continuous expansion of buildings for what seems to be no reason. Her colleague has recently died in a building collapse, and something weird happens at his funeral. Another man runs and jumps onto the casket as it is carted into a furnace for cremation. While unsettling, it is not until she investigates the collapsed building, does Iona start to feel like something is off. Meanwhile, the King debates with his advisor, the aforementioned talking cat, about approving more and more construction, confused as to why he should not be concerned with the people within his city. o

I’ll just pull this splinter out right away, I did not like this book. The beginning felt charming at first but quickly lurched into tedium. Iona was unconvincing as a character, let alone an architect. She often griped about her job, and the sheer audacity of the King to request larger and larger buildings without accounting for the needed strength to ensure their long term viability. Character moments involved a lot of telling, leading to Iona feeling like what someone thought an architect should act like. There was no real connection to the city or the world she had a part in building, the descriptives were minimal, and there was no real enchantment with particular buildings or the city as a whole. Her sole trait of “being an architect” felt superficial and became completely irrelevant as the book progressed. One could say, “well the twists make it irrelevant”, and to them I say hooey. The plot did not connect me with Iona, nor did it set her apart from the other characters. 

Speaking of the other characters, they barely felt integral to the plot. The King, the book’s other point of view, just spends his time listening to his cat and sitting around for most of the book. He barely adds any real context beyond “this is why the city must expand.” It could have been interesting if the humor or satire felt more direct, but most of the time it just felt like a red herring. As with most of the characters, the King felt like an undeveloped concept tossed into the book to make the world feel interesting, but ended up adding no real character or drama. The other characters I could barely remember, and didn’t have any particular traits beyond “they existed.”

I hear you say, “Alex, but if everything is in service to the plot, that must at least be enjoyable right?” Well, readers, this is where it gets a little messy. I will say there were certainly interesting twists and turns throughout the book that made the plot somewhat exciting. However, there was no weight to the discoveries. I did not get any sensation from the fast-paced unraveling of the mysteries. I do not want to get into specifics to avoid spoilers, but if things feel off as you read the book, it’s because things are off. As much as I wanted to enjoy these revelations, they felt hamstrung by their spontaneity. Each successive reveal felt like a jack-in-the-box, with Iona furiously cranking until the clown pops out, and she can move onto the next one. It just had no real build-up, and the absurdity of each reveal quickly lost its luster after the second or third twist.

In the end, Hearts of Oak was not bad, it just did not resonate with me in any way. The interesting bits of the premise were window dressing with no real impact on the story. The characters were a vehicle to move the plot along, offering no substantive opinions of their own, and having zero on-screen development. The climax left much to be desired, as whatever cathartic character moment Robson was going for fell flat. There were some cool ideas through the book, but there was no exploration of them. I can’t even really recommend it as a fast-paced low-stakes palate cleanser, as it just left a bland but coating taste in my mouth. 

Rating: Hearts of Oak – 5.0/10
-Alex

Every Heart A Doorway – Magic Meets Reality

Every Heart a Doorway Cover

Seanan McGuire weaves a poignant tale in Every Heart A Doorway, the first novella in her award-winning Wayward Children series. Through expert world-building and a sharp writing style, Every Heart A Doorway provides a heart-wrenching look at belonging, acceptance, and what it means to be stripped of them. 

When protagonist Nancy finds herself ejected from The Land of the Dead back into the “real” world–our world–her parents don’t understand her anymore. After finding a doorway to the Land of the Dead, Nancy spent months learning to be perfectly still, walking the pomegranate orchards under a dark sky, and dancing with the Lord of the Dead. Convinced of her “delusions” after what they believe was a kidnapping, Nancy’s parents send her to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. There, Nancy discovers that her story, though unique in its details, is more common than she thought. The Home for Wayward Children hosts a few dozen students who found portals to other worlds. Lands of sugar and sweets, worlds where children can run across rainbows, goblin kingdoms, fairy worlds, frolicking skeletons, and many others are counted among the places her peers have visited–and left. Nancy quickly learns that all of Eleanor West’s students wish, on some level, to return “home.” Tragedy strikes as a fellow student is murdered, and Nancy spirals into the darkness of her new world as she and her new cohorts struggle to stay alive while simultaneously trying to solve the murder.

It’s hard to do right by Seanan McGuire’s beautiful plot with only a short paragraph like that. Every Heart a Doorway, clocking in at a brisk 163 pages, packs a dense narrative punch. The effortless homage to classic portal fantasy and the subversion of the tropes it has created reverberate throughout the book’s plot. This is a story about stories, and the layers are stacked with such care that it’s easy to balance them all even as the pages whisk by at breakneck speed. It’s a testament to McGuire’s talent that these precariously perched elements all blend together so well. Her words about magic have a way of becoming magic on the page, and her narratives are joyous to read. Every Heart contains a murder mystery, tales of worlds beyond our own, coming-of-age commentary, hardship, loss, and so much more. McGuire deftly handles her myriad concepts within a small space, and it’s beyond commendable; it’s worth celebrating. The most I can truly say while remaining spoiler-free is that all the interwoven concepts within this single story are worth exploring, and the story is worth reading.

Dissonance prevails in Every Heart a Doorway. Nancy and her classmates have been ejected from worlds where they felt perfectly at home, and their original world doesn’t make sense to them any longer. Nancy’s desire for stillness, honed by her long stay in the Land of the Dead, is in constant competition with our world’s need for incessant motion. The Wayward Children are dissonant with one another, each coming from portal worlds that have different rules and ways of living. The happiness of finding a world you can call home spars with the darkness of being expelled from that home. McGuire’s concepts are at odds with one another on every single page, offering an elegant commentary on what it feels like to be different, to come from a different place, or to be perceived as different despite countless similarities.

That said, Every Heart a Doorway brushes some of its dissonant narrative elements under the rug. These moments are jarring–for example, the students at Eleanor West’s Home remain virtually unfazed by the death of a fellow student after finding the body. Eleanor cancels classes for half a day, and the teachers notice something is off about the students. The police are referred to as “authorities,” but there’s always some sneaky way Eleanor can conveniently avoid their involvement in anything suspicious or outright villainous. For a book whose premier strength is its handling of intriguing concepts, this glancing over is a significant blemish. 

Fortunately, Every Heart’s weaknesses end there. The characters shine with a unique type of radiance only one who has walked between worlds can claim. Two adult figures bear signs of deep loss and yearning while they try to imbue their charges with a sense of hope. Nancy’s ragtag group of former world-hoppers comprises a few really compelling characters. Among them is Kade, a gender-fluid expatriate of Fairyland; twin sisters Jacqueline (who prefers “Jack”), a bowtie-wearing scientist, and Jill, a vampire’s ward; and Christopher, a flutist whose instrument can animate skeletons. Like I said above, there’s a lot to explore here, and McGuire delivers with dynamic and sympathetic characters. 

Every Heart a Doorway ends with a glimmer of hope and the promise of more beyond Nancy’s story (don’t worry, I’m reviewing the rest of the series, too!). Brimming with personality and breezing by with the help of smart and succinct prose, McGuire’s charming novella is an excellent read. 

Every Heart A Doorway: 8.0/10

The Wolf Of Oren-Yaro – Fantasy Divorce Simulator

The Wolf Of Oren-Yaro, by K.S. Villoso, is equal parts compelling, refreshing, engrossing, and frustrating. The novel has a problem– it has an extremely rough start in the service of setting up a brilliant finale. Before I dive in and start lauding the book’s many positive qualities, I want to say this upfront: if you get easily frustrated with dumb characters, or you don’t like investing in unenjoyable characters for long term payoff, this book likely isn’t for you. However, if you consider yourself of great patience, want to read a refreshing fantasy story, and like character growth, I may have a treat for you.

Oren-Yaro grabbed my attention right off the bat with its premise. Our story follows Queen Talyien. Princess of a country that lost a bloody war, she was sold off as a hostage bride to the winning side in order to secure peaceful days for both nations. This works (for a while) until her husband metaphorically goes for a pack of cigarettes and just never comes back. Left to raise their only son and govern a hostile nation, Talyien suddenly has problems. However, she manages to make do and come out on top, until she receives a message from her deadbeat co-monarch (duarch?) that he wants to meet and talk. She agrees to meet him and this is where our story takes off. The story follows Talyien as she navigates her way to the meeting, deals with the meeting (which is a request for a divorce), and decides what she wants to do. All of it is a rollercoaster of both good and bad.

The good: Talyien, when alone, is really fun to watch. There are a number of “princess slumming it” scenes that are very endearing with great dialogue. The investigation of divorce in a feudal state is interesting – and Villoso’s idea of how it might play out is captivating. There is a clear air of mystery and unreliable narrator in the first 90% of the book, and the reveal of what has been hidden at the end is pretty good.

The bad: Talyien, when with other characters, is awful. She is obnoxious, seems to drop several points of intelligence, and is just grating. The politics and lore of the world feel unnecessarily dense and confusing due to their stark and vague descriptions. Several of the supporting cast, like Talyien’s son, have zero character depth other than “make Talyien feel bad.” Seriously, her son shows up like five times in the first quarter of the book and all he ever contributes is “why did you make dad go away?” The unreliable narration is a little too unreliable. Talyien comes off as unlikable due to a perceived lack of consistent character for the majority of the book and it can be very hard to read.

The ending of the book is awesome, but I had to be told by someone else to finish the novel as I quit Oren-Yaro my first time reading it due to frustration. I think Villoso played her cards a little too close to the chest in order to make a grand reveal– though the reveal is indeed grand. If you have a lot of patience and you find the premise compelling, I hesitantly recommend The Wolf Of Oren-Yaro. However, I think its choppy narration and its sometimes difficult characters would make it hard to recommend it to everyone.

Rating: The Wolf Of Oren-Yaro – 6.0/10
-Andrew

The Prestige: Showstopper

My journey with The Prestige fittingly began with a bit of magic trickery. “Oh, if you like the movie you have to read the book.” The bookseller explained. He went on, “One hundred percent worth it.” Then, with a flourish of legerdemain and misdirection, the book miraculously appeared in my bag while my fifteen dollars in cash (a budget set by my wife to limit my purchase to one book) materialized in the cash register. And so Christopher Priest’s novel of feuding stage magicians, famously developed for the silver screen in 2006, landed on my to-read pile. 

Normally I would disregard a book’s adaptation to any other media in my review. But like the lives of magicians Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, the film and the book versions of The Prestige remain inextricably intertwined. To keep things spoiler-free, here’s my warning: if you’ve seen the movie prior to picking up the novel, you will start ahead of the game. You’ll be privy to many, but crucially not all, of the secrets within. 

Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier each have a great-great-grandchild exploring the mysteries of their descendants. This delicately frames the narrative in a semi-modern day (the book was first published in 1995) mystery. These short segments bookend the crux of the novel: two large sections that outline each of the dueling magician’s lives in his own words. Alfred Borden sets the stage with beautiful descriptions of magic and how it’s performed. He tells of his feud with Rupert Angier and the many years over which it occurs. His story sways beautifully between personal growth and regression, and he drops details that form the outside borders of a puzzle. The first pieces are there, but there’s much left to fill in. 

After an interlude from the two descendants, Rupert Angier tells his side of the story through his diary. It covers 20 years of his life and often skips huge chunks of time, but the burden of completing the puzzle falls on his narrative. In this, author Christopher Priest delivers. 

I’ve stayed deliberately tight-lipped about the details of the plot for good reason: it’s juicy and immensely entertaining. Watching this story unfold reflects the wonder of a magic show. Laden with misdirection and twists, The Prestige reads as one fantastic illusion. Borden and Angier tell their respective sides of the tale with brash egos befitting career stage performers, and the first-person approach lends a certain weight of plausibility to their outlandish recountings. Priest’s deep characters and elegant prose go a long, long way in making this book a mystery worth unfurling.

The downside to Priest’s narrative approach is the pacing. Borden and Angier feel incredibly real throughout the novel, thanks to Priest’s prosaic heavy lifting. The downside? Reading through two entire lives told autobiographically feels slow. In a book where details are essential to the story, it’s easily forgivable. But it’s also worth noting that, even at 360 pages, it’s a slow read. What I’m really trying to say here is this: if you start The Prestige, you’re signing up for a slow burn. You have to be content to let the details simmer as you trek through the pages. If you can manage that, you’re in for a great payoff. 

And that’s where the book really shines. The ending, though crafted with similar reveals to the movie, takes things one step further. The final 30 pages offer a veritable treasure trove for prefer-the-book purists. There’s merit in the entire story, but the finale alone makes the journey worthwhile. Combining elements of horror and mystery, it packs a real mystical punch. The end of this novel-length magic trick is the exclamation mark on a beautifully written, sometimes rambling, entirely entertaining sentence. 

Rating: The Prestige – 8.5/10

The Shadow Saint: Out Of The Shadows, Into The Limelight

shadowsaint

Okay, let’s do a checklist here of things I like that The Shadow Saint has in it, yeah? Krakens attacking ships: check. Skeletons with dry senses of humor: check. Horrifying surreal imagery: big ol’ check. Ghouls: still a check there too. I could keep going for a while but I think you all get the idea, The Shadow Saint ticks a lot of the boxes of things that I like in a book, and I really, really liked it. Sorry for the review spoiler, but get over it, or don’t, whatever.

The Shadow Saint, by Gareth Hanrahan, is the second book in The Black Iron Legacy series. Given that it is the second book, you probably shouldn’t be reading a review or a synopsis of it if you haven’t read the first book, The Gutter Prayer, but I’m not your dad so you can do whatever you want, man. You can find our review of Prayer here if you are wondering if it’s for you. That said, spoilers lie ahead for the first book and you should venture forth at your own peril. 

Our story picks up soon after the close of the first novel, with our previous protagonists mostly either dead or fundamentally changed by their experiences. The appearance of the New City, due to the Gutter Miracle from book one, and the fall of the alchemical stranglehold of the guild and their Tallowmen, have thrown Guerdon into chaos. For those familiar with the city, it’s pretty much business as usual. Unfortunately, that is about to change when the Godswar finally comes to Guerdon. 

One of my minor complaints in my review of the previous book (still here), was that the rest of the world felt a little underdeveloped compared to all of the information and history we received about Guerdon and its place in the world. We knew that there was a death empire called Haith, but little else about it. We knew that Ishmere was perpetrating a “godswar” that was causing a massive influx of refugees, but outside of a couple of chapters and descriptions of the various horrors, we never got a chance to experience them. In The Shadow Saint, all of that changes. It almost felt as if Hanrahan heard the (very mild) criticism, and decided that if we wanted to know about the rest of the world, then we’d best buckle up for book two. Saint packs so much worldbuilding and information into its runtime, without feeling bloated at any point, that I am frankly amazed. I have a much better understanding of the world and how it functions after this book, and it all felt surprisingly important to the overall plot. Ishmere is the one small exception to this because while we did get more of a glimpse into individual Ishmerians and their choices and beliefs, the actual society still feels a little blank. 

On the other hand, we have the empire of Haith. Normally I would briefly go over all of the various factions in my paragraph about worldbuilding, but I am so enthralled with and enraptured by the idea of Haith that I just need to gush about it for a little bit. Haith is an “eternal empire” run by necromancers (necromancers are so hot right now). Instead of worshipping gods, their power instead comes from the creation of magical artifacts they refer to as phylacteries. These phylacteries are held by the head of an individual noble house and contain the souls and accumulated knowledge and experience of all those who have held the artifact before. Think Avatar the Last Airbender, with each phylactery granting the holder knowledge of thousands of their greatest ancestors rather than the previous avatars. The moments that we see this in the book are incredibly cool and I loved the descriptions of how the character going through this moment experienced it personally. As I mentioned before, only the previous wielder of the phylactery can transfer their soul into it and become Enshrined, the highest class in Haith. Beneath the Enshrined, we have the Vigilant; individuals whose souls are bound to their bodies after death and become magical living skeletons forever working toward the betterment of the Empire of Haith. Needless to say, the concept of legions of skeleton warriors led by necromantic superhumans against a nation of mad warring gods is pretty far up my alley, and I absolutely loved it.

I also loved Hanrahan’s improvement in terms of the plot. I mentioned in my last review that while The Gutter Prayer was a fun ride, I felt the plot could be directionless and meandering at times before it finally found its stride. The Shadow Saint felt like it noticeably addressed this issue with a much more cohesive and streamlined plot. I’m not sure how much of it was my preexisting knowledge of the city of Guerdon and the characters that live there, and how much of it was Hanrahan smoothing out the hiccups from the previous installment, but the pacing and engineering of the plot is spot on in The Shadow Saint. However, I did feel that the actual climax happened rather quickly – but I think that was more a result of the sheer amount of things happening than any mechanical failing on Hanrahan’s part.

I’d like to wrap up with a note on the prose and descriptions. Hanrahan has a gift for describing the miraculous and horrifying in a way that makes it easy to imagine and hard to forget. In a book that is about warring gods and saints, miraculous massacres of undead bone soldiers, and a living city that was created by magic everything still manages to feel real and weighty. I could envision every stilling of the waters by the Kraken, and the descriptions of the Smoke Painter drawing glowing sigils in the sky that turned those that looked at them mad clicked with the part of me that loves cosmic horror and the rabbit hole of the SCP Foundation wiki. I need more of this world in my life, and I hope that Hanrahan decides to continue this world’s story whether it revolves around Guerdon and the characters from this series or not. I had a ton of fun reading this book. The Shadow Saint is a stellar sophomore effort and I can only hope that Hanrahan continues his skyward trajectory from here. I will be on the lookout for more news on the world of The Black Iron Legacy, and I desperately hope that I get the opportunity to return to this world sometime in the future. As it stands, we already have two fantastic books and I cannot recommend highly enough that you bump this series to be next in line on your reading schedule. 

Rating: The Shadow Saint – 9.0/10

-Will