Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn is a high fantasy adventure featuring a merry band of queer misfits who must work together to pull off an impossible heist. Sounds manageable enough…unless they’re all scheming to double-cross each other the entire time. Brought together by a common enemy — the Guildmaster who rules over the five kingdoms of Thamorr — Ryia Cuatella and this plucky group of outsiders must carefully tread the line that glimmers between monster and menace to dismantle an oppressive magical system that could change life as they know it.
From the summary, I expected Among Thieves to focus solely on Ryia, but each chapter is told from a different character’s point-of-view. Ryia, Evelyn, Nash, Ivan, and Tristan all come with their own motives and backstories, so initially, it was difficult to understand who we’re supposed to be rooting for. I kept muddling through chapters that weren’t about Ryia because I was waiting to return to the story and character that initially sparked my interest. Fortunately, I was able to appreciate the storytelling format as I got further into the heist plot, but the alternating chapters meant it took a long time to get my bearings.
Kuhn’s ability to develop characters and personalities that can blend well together and stand apart is the driving force behind this novel. It’s a delight to witness this ensemble cast transition from enemies to reluctant allies to something like friends. There are so many comforting found family moments balanced by thrilling fights and blindsides that make for a gripping story that isn’t too easy to predict. Character foils Ryia and Evelyn are my favorites, but I have to admit I have a soft spot for Tristan, too!
Among Thieves is full of twists and turns and doesn’t read like a typical debut. Kuhn’s worldbuilding is impressive, full of intricate details that make for a memorable romp in this high fantasy world. I love a good anti-hero story, but the one thing that’s a bit of a speed bump with this one is it’s challenging to keep up with a plot that’s constantly stretching in at least five different directions. Still, the suspense ramps up as the novel progresses, and that ending is going to leave you begging for the sequel!
Thank you to NetGalley and Gallery Books/Saga Press for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Forestborn by Elayne Audrey Becker, the first book in a duology, is a young adult fantasy that features the enemies-to-lovers trope, mythical creatures, and an impossible quest. When a magical sickness targets all the humans in the realm, Rora, a shapeshifter and spy for the kingdom, is tasked with finding a cure. Flanked only by her older brother, the only person in the world she trusts, and a surly prince who doesn’t trust her at all, Rora must traverse a mysterious forest and come to terms with a past that haunts her in order to understand why magic has turned on them and how to restore balance before it’s too late.
As a shifter who lives among people who fear magic, Rora makes for a fascinating main character because she is neither human enough for the people in her kingdom nor creature enough for the magical beings with whom she identifies. It’s an extended metaphor for the hybrid existence many readers also experience, which makes Rora especially relatable and refreshing. Even better is how Becker allows her to agonize over her fears and anxieties but never actually forces her to change who she is in order to be accepted. Instead, Weslyn, the human prince who starts out detesting Rora’s very existence, is the one who must evolve his mindset. I adore both characters and their journey in this book. They’re frustrating and funny and both gentle and strong, and they’re everything you want to root for in an epic fantasy romance.
In addition to character development, Becker excels at world building. There is so much that readers need to learn—rules for a magic system even the characters find difficult to grasp at times as it’s part of the core mystery, shapeshifter logic, politics and alliances, relationships and backstories—but it never feels as though Becker is info-dumping. The pacing is perfect, and I never found myself thinking about issues with show vs. tell. Also, Becker’s beautiful prose is absolutely captivating and is the first thing that drew me into this novel. Her words paint a picture of a forest both easy to imagine and impossible to find in real life. This balance is absolutely vital to setting the tone in a novel that relies on the stark contrast between nature and civilization in order to illustrate the transformative magic of green spaces and how in our world, too, we are all “forestborn” to some extent.
Forestborn also features great representation, from both platonic and romantic relationships (m/f and m/m), old and young partners, sibling bonds, and parental love. I love it when authors understand fantasy means you can give the characters we love an inclusive world that doesn’t discriminate based on sex, sexuality, or gender. I’m especially drawn to Helos, Rora’s older brother, and his love story with Prince Finley, Weslyn’s younger brother. We don’t see enough of Helos or Finley in this book, but their love for each other underscores the main quest and, therefore, is a central part of the plot. We start to see more of Helos’ personality at the end of this book, and I have a feeling we’ll see more of him and Finley in the next installment.
Growing up, The Merlin Saga by T.A. Baron and The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander were among the books I checked out over and over again at the library. I loved the epic quests and world building, the grueling treks across unknown terrain, the mysterious magic and creatures, the packs of equipment and food (and tunics!), and the camaraderie around the fire each night. I’m always looking for stories that can measure up to the adventures that made me love books in the first place, and Forestborn absolutely scratches that itch. I couldn’t stop thinking about these characters for days after I finished the book, and I can’t wait until the next one is released. If you love old school epic fantasy adventures like I do, Forestborn is a must-read!
Thank you to NetGalley and Macmillan/Tor Teen for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron is a young adult urban fantasy featuring Briseis, a teenager with the peculiar ability to grow flowers simply by touching seeds or plants. When her aunt dies and leaves Bri a mysterious estate in rural New York, she and her moms move there for the summer, away from the bustling concrete jungle that is Brooklyn. Surrounded by verdant forests and bucolic scenery full of plants and flowers for the first time in her life, Bri hopes to use this opportunity to learn more about herself and gain better control of her gift.
The premise of this novel—a poison garden, ancient magic, and a gothic home packed with secrets—is absolutely delicious, but I felt like I was constantly waiting for the plot to take off. Bri discovers an apothecary fully stocked with mysterious plants and a poison garden (inspired by the actual Poison Garden at England’s Alnwick Garden) hidden within her new home, and beyond Bri realizing her specialty is in handling poisonous plants, the plot seems to stall for a while here. I kept wondering what she would do with her powers, other than creating elixirs and growing ingredients for eccentric townsfolk who abruptly barge into her home requesting remedies only she can provide. The novel is heavy on exposition, and the awkward pacing made the first half a struggle to get through.
The charming if odd host of friends, family, and new acquaintances Bri makes is one of the best parts of this novel. In Brooklyn, Bri’s friends aren’t very understanding or kind towards her, and Bayron effectively illustrates how lonely it can feel to have bad friends. It’s so satisfying to experience Bri cultivate some real friendships as her story unfolds. Bloom where you’re planted? More like bloom where you’re transplanted.
Bayron subverts familiar, maybe even predictable metaphors and symbols associated with gardening and nature. This is especially noticeable in Bri’s close relationship with her parents; she’s adopted, and Bayron is especially thoughtful outlining Bri’s concerns about possibly hurting her mothers’ feelings in wanting to explore her biological family’s lineage to learn more about herself. I love that Bri’s bond with her mothers is so strong that even though she worries about hurting their feelings, she never actually tries to hide her curiosity about her ancestry or her desire to learn more about her heritage. The openness in their relationship is refreshing, and it’s so comforting that that angst is never true cause for any grief in her life.
Bayron’s use of Greek mythology as a foundation for the magic surrounding Bri’s powers and bloodline is one of the most unique elements of this story, but it takes too long before it‘s fully revealed to readers. Bri and her parents don’t even arrive at their summer residence until a quarter of the way through the book, and the process for Bri to stumble onto clues about her magic and heritage is too drawn out and convenient. I never quite understood why so many clues were hidden throughout the house if Bri’s biological family didn’t intend for her to discover those secrets. Perhaps they never anticipated she would be in the house, but then why were the clues there at all? There are so many questions and so few answers, though I should point out this novel’s the first in a series, so maybe this ambiguity is by design.
This Poison Heart puts a fresh new spin on the nature vs. nurture dialogue (quite literally where the plants are concerned!), and its strength is in the relationships Bri establishes, nurtures, and grows. While the mythology aspect is interesting, the info dumping was difficult to process, and the story at the end of this book left us with far more questions than answers. I can only hope the seedling that is this book will sprout into a series that is a bit more fully realized because I otherwise like the individual elements of this world.
Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
The Shadow in the Glass by J.J.A. Harwood is a dark, gothic retelling of Cinderella set in Victorian England. After Eleanor Hartley’s wealthy benefactor dies, Mr. Pembroke, her new guardian, relegates her to service as a maid in the same household where she was being trained to be a lady. Now she spends her days doing grueling, thankless work while also protecting herself and the younger maids from Mr. Pembroke’s drunken advances. The library is her only respite, where she finds comfort and hope locked inside books. One night while reading about Doctor Faustus, a mysterious figure appears to offer Eleanor seven wishes to change her life. The price? Only her soul. What could possibly go wrong?
Despite the fact that Eleanor delights in the magic, mystery, and escape her favorite fantasy novels offer, her real life simply does not compare, so she’s understandably hesitant to believe her wishes might actually come true. She tests the waters by wishing for the fabled glass slippers first, and in doing so, discovers each wish has a price: life. Horrified by this revelation, Eleanor wants to back out of the bargain, but it’s too late. She decides not to make anymore wishes, but a number of unfortunate events force her hand. Instead of making extravagant wishes that might truly change Eleanor’s circumstances, her wishes end up being relatively small, focused only on individual aspects of immediate, arguably temporary problems.
One of my favorite parts of reading this novel is critiquing Eleanor’s wishes: Should we fault her for her surgical approach to wish-making? Would it have been better to make one giant wish that might truly help Eleanor to rise from her station? Maybe. But these questions reveal far more about the reader. Eleanor’s sold off her soul in pieces, and we’re compelled to wonder how she might have done it better. How deliciously horrifying to implicate us in her descent!
Eleanor rationalizes her actions, even as they hurt innocent people, and she’s repeatedly stunned to learn people don’t actually like her much once they get to know her true nature. She claims all she wants to do is protect her friends, liberate her fiancé from those wishing to control him, and make her way in society as a respectable lady, but she never actually manages to do any of it successfully, in spite of all her wishes. She constantly insists she’s a good person who deserves good things, especially as her decisions become increasingly chaotic and morally ambiguous. In proper gothic fashion, other events that occur over the course of the story can explain the wishes granted, so at certain points, I wondered if there was even a fairy godmother at all. Perhaps the dark spirit that appears to Eleanor is actually a reflection of her own soul.
They say the best villains view themselves as the heroes of their own stories, and without even realizing it, Eleanor transforms into a villain. This forces us to reassess our read on her: Can we still root for her? Are we obligated to hope for her redemption now? Certainly, Mr. Pembroke is a vile character, and a couple young women in the novel are despicable enough to be wicked stepsisters, and the fairy godmother isn’t sweet and doting at all, but what does it mean when our hero can be lined up in their ranks? And what does it mean when we want her to triumph anyway?
A twisted fairy tale told in seven parts, The Shadow in the Glass is a fast-paced fantasy with familiar characters and themes cast in a dark new light. Enjoyable, surprising, and engaging, Harwood’s spin on Cinderella is sure to stay with you. Eat your hearts out, Brothers Grimm!
Thank you to NetGalley and HarperVoyager for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur uses magical realism to explore Korean mythology, cultural identity, mental health, and the enduring bonds of family. The novel opens with Elsa Park, a Korean-American experimental physicist conducting doctoral research on neutrinos (also known as ghost particles). She is confident in her studies, has no filter, and a prickly disposition, making her decidedly unlikable to those around her—yet an interesting character for readers to follow. Upon learning of her mother’s sudden passing, Elsa is forced to return home, where she begins a journey of self-discovery as she explores the Korean folktales her mother has left behind.
As far back as she can remember, Elsa’s mother has warned her that the women in their bloodline are doomed to live out the traumatic events outlined in a series of Korean folktales. Elsa constantly questions the abiding narratives that define cultural hegemony, so it’s in her nature to doubt her mother’s warnings; however, when she begins to see the supposedly imaginary friend she had as a child, Elsa interprets it as a portent of things to come and realizes there must be more to her mother’s stories. It’s either that, or she’s inherited her mother’s mental health issues, and the former is somehow easier to stomach than the latter, so she commits herself to researching the origins of her mother’s stories.
Folklorn is an especially nuanced examination of identity and race as they pertain to immigrants and diasporic communities. Elsa’s parents moved to America to make a better life for themselves, although they could not outrun the problems resulting from their own personal flaws. In addition to generational traumas, Elsa and her brother Chris struggle with the “model minority” myth, as well as “the freedom not to be grateful, indebted and beholden” like their immigrant parents. And Oskar, whom Elsa meets while learning about her mother’s folktales, is a Korean orphan adopted by Swedish parents and raised to ignore his race completely. Together, these seemingly disparate narratives provide a robust, decolonized illustration of the immigrant experience seldom seen in other novels.
The narrative structure in this book is difficult to follow as it jumps across time and space and struggles to straddle the line between academic book project and contemporary novel. The first of three parts, which consumes a little over 40% of the novel, was most challenging to read. Dense language and physics concepts attempt to teach readers about Elsa’s doctoral work while juxtaposing her passion for ghost particles with the Korean folktales that continue to haunt her. However, it’s simply too tedious for non-experts to digest while also attempting to establish other expository details at the beginning of the book. Elsa’s work is easiest to understand during a brief conversation she has with a cab driver, where she uses a metaphor about ice cream flavors to explain her research to an ordinary person. I would argue that’s all we need to know about it. Simply because Elsa is always thinking about her work does not mean we need to read about her thinking about her work, particularly because the more interesting aspects of Folklorn are about her family’s heritage and the mystery surrounding her mother’s stories.
Similarly, much of the dialogue about Korean myth, provenance, and book history in the third part of the novel is so heavily academic that it feels like a chore to read unless I’m getting a CV line for my efforts. I like a well-researched novel just as much as anyone else, but many parts of Folklorn read more like a scholarly publication (or conversations and correspondence about one). I repeatedly became impatient with the plot and pacing while Elsa and Oskar waxed poetic about their research.
Execution of the magical realism in this novel is disorienting, but I’m beginning to think that’s by design. The Korean folktales are real insofar as they’re stories with histories that span across centuries, but Elsa’s spiraling mental state paired with ill-advised efforts to self-medicate left me confused as to how we ought to perceive her visions. Sometimes I’d be halfway into one of her hallucinations before I realized what was happening. In retrospect, I wonder if the point was to illustrate just how unsettling and frustrating the experience is for Elsa. It is this ambiguity that makes the novel’s conclusion strangely wistful yet satisfying.
As an Asian-American academic with immigrant parents in a diaspora community, I related strongly to much of the experiences Elsa describes, and I particularly enjoyed learning about her family in the portions of the novel that highlight her past and her time with her brother. I also appreciate that Folklorn tackles the ambitious task of unpacking the many aftereffects of colonialism that continue to impact Asian diaspora communities. However, I wish the novel focused less on Elsa’s academic personality so that this important story could be a little more accessible for readers.
Thank you to NetGalley and Erewhon Books for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.