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.
Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé is a terrifying young adult thriller that crosses Pretty Little Liars with Get Out. Chiamaka and Devon, the only two Black students at their private school, begin their senior years as prefects, putting them both in the running for valedictorian. But when Aces, an anonymous bully, starts to release damaging secrets about them both, they must figure out who’s targeting them before their bright futures are completely out of reach. It isn’t long before Chiamaka and Devon discover the conspiracy isn’t as simple as locating one random bully. Their entire high school perpetuates a system of racism built to tear them down.
I have to be honest and say I groaned a bit at the Pretty Little Liars premise before I started reading Ace of Spades because what’s interesting about that? Beautiful people misbehaving at a fancy school with enough networks and funds to ensure continued success and wealth for all who walk those hallowed halls? Yawn. But I’ve never been more pleased to be proven wrong.
Àbíké-Íyímídé masterfully builds tension and suspense as Aces preys on her characters, slowly tearing them down, making readers just as anxious waiting on the next bombshell.And just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you realize the great mystery is you weren’t thinking big enough. This novel exists at the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexual politics, and it sheds light on the nefarious microaggressions society uses daily to plant seeds of doubt that make us question the existence of any of it. Protagonists Chiamaka and Devon are complex and interesting, and they’re so much more than they appear on the surface as Àbíké-Íyímídé carefully shows us the way each character has built themselves up over the years, and how a prickly disposition, an aloof personality, or something as simple as a hairstyle is actually armor. And it’s a good thing, too, because it turns out they needed it.
The most striking part of this novel is the doubt the protagonists experience, particularly when they guess quite early in the plot that institutional racism is at the heart of the conspiracy against them. Both Chiamaka and Devon dismiss the possibility immediately, given the reality of racism is so prevalent in their lives that it seems almost too obvious a threat to single out since it touches every part of their lives already. Chiamaka’s family is wealthy, yet she hides the parts of herself that highlight her Nigerian-Italian heritage in order to change herself into what she believes will get her ahead in a society with predetermined ideals for success and worth, while Devon strives to escape the parts of his upbringing and sexual identity that he believes will prevent him from achieving his dreams. Both characters have spent so much of their lives fighting to escape the pitfalls of systemic racism that they blamed themselves—their past actions, sexual preferences, and histories—before ever considering they were victims of a system built specifically to target people who look like them, who dare to be great.
Ace of Spades never shies away from how all-encompassing and rotten the system is at its very core, no matter how much the characters or even the readers may want to reject or deny that horror. That thought distortion is a product of the very system. And still, I found myself constantly taking a step back to wonder if every person and thing involved in the conspiracy was too much, but really, it’s not. The novel features an abundance of bad actors, like the truly insidious Ace of Spades campers and the Niveus students; some, like Belle and the legacy families, are guilty of continuing to reap benefits from established systems even though they recognize it’s wrong; and others, like Terrell, are pulled into these larger plots because other parts of the system (like health care) already hold them hostage. In spite of their varying levels of involvement, every character played a part in propping up the current systems that perpetuate harmful, outdated narratives. That only means everyone must work together to dismantle and rebuild institutions that perpetuate systemic racism so that they no longer disadvantage some people in order to elevate others.
When a novel includes an epilogue, I’m typically already done with the story and seldom feel the need for follow-up, but Ace of Spades surprised me here as well. Without spoiling the end, I’ll only say that I like how all the problems Chiamaka and Devon identified throughout the course of the novel did not simply vanish. One victory alone cannot so easily vanquish injustice and inequality kept alive by hardened roots that have been strangling our society for centuries.
Ace of Spades is an explosive debut from Àbíké-Íyímídé that uses the high school landscape as a model for the very institutions that continue to shape the world after graduation. If at times it seems sensational, that’s only because you’ve allowed yourself to forget it’s all real. It’s a quick read, both eye-opening and validating, and an excellent way to encourage discussions among young adult readers about the injustices of systemic racism and the importance of fighting against it.
Thank you to NetGalley and Feiwel & Friends for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers opens with 28-year-old Dr. Grace Porter celebrating her PhD in astronomy with a girls’ trip to Las Vegas, which ends with Grace drunkenly marrying Yuki, a woman she meets that night. The dreamy, lyrical prose describing her wife and the way Grace feels when she’s with her instantly makes clear this isn’t an embarrassing mistake to be undone as quickly as possible. This is a new beginning for Grace, a swerve from her otherwise carefully planned life. It sets her on a path to figuring out if she actually wants the idealized visions of success she’s felt compelled to pursue all her life.
Yuki, who hosts a late-night radio show for “lonely creatures” when she’s not busy waitressing, leans into everything Grace has been conditioned to believe works against her pursuit of success. These two characters work remarkably well as foils to one another. Yuki helps reveal to Grace what she’ll lose if she continues sacrificing personal relationships and mental health in order to grasp at professional opportunities that aren’t promised. She teaches Grace it’s okay to toss the entire script and redefine what’s best for her. And Grace grounds Yuki, who’s constantly getting lost in fleeting adventures from her listeners as she searches wearily for a home in her very own story. It is such a delight to witness these fully realized characters learn how to weave their lives together and grow into better people as a result.
The monster motif—particularly persistent in Yuki’s radio shows about actual supernatural creatures—is most striking when Rogers employs it as a metaphor in Grace’s struggle to find belonging. It is only in refusing to be the monster in her own story—the element that won’t fit or conform—that empowers Grace to start prioritizing herself by attending therapy to be better present in her own life. This part of the novel is messy and emotional and often difficult to read, but learning to be kind to yourself—to be your best self—is hard work.
Grace’s parents—her father, especially—cement the idea that you’re never too old for a coming-of-age. Colonel, her ex-military father, might initially remind readers of toxic parental figures who’re immovable forces against progress and growth. But he eventually reveals his own struggles and anxieties, making his point-of-view more understandable. Grace’s relationship with Colonel is complicated and nuanced; they’re rarely on the same page as she begins to explore what will make her happy, but Rogers never makes him Grace’s enemy. Grace’s upbringing is different from her father’s, which causes much of the strife in their relationship, but ultimately, they both want Grace’s happiness. It’s worth noting, however, that were it not for the importance Rogers places on communication between all her characters, Grace and Colonel might never have moved past their misunderstandings. Of course, communication only works when both sides are willing to engage.
At its core, Honey Girl is largely a novel about queer friendships and found family. Grace and Yuki each boast a quirky cast of warm, caring companions who offer support, witty banter, and sage advice as they strive to build a life together. The characters who orbit Grace and Yuki also have their own romances and dramas, making their social lives especially immersive and comforting for readers.
As a woman of color who’s also earned a PhD, I love this novel for how it so precisely gives voice to the anxiety and existential dread that comes with attempting to balance what is expected of me personally and culturally alongside the urgency of what I yearn to achieve professionally within an institutional model that relies on outdated narratives and histories to define value in a system that doubts and excludes me at its ivory tower core.
Rogers does the important work of shining a light on this tension by broaching difficult topics that don’t always have easy answers. And she gifts us with Grace, who chooses to invest in herself when she comes to terms with the reality that is an academic system that will only suffer for its inability to make room for her at present.
Honey Girl refuses to endorse systems that demand contorting yourself into something unrecognizable and uncomfortable to fit within boxes you don’t even want. It champions self-care as the path towards self-empowerment; it highlights the value of finding your tribe and being a good friend. Finally, it reminds us that happiness and success are subjective concepts defined only as broadly as we allow.