Review: A Curse of Roses by Diana Pinguicha

With just one touch, bread turns into roses. With just one bite, cheese turns into lilies.

There’s a famine plaguing the land, and Princess Yzabel is wasting food simply by trying to eat. Before she can even swallow, her magic—her curse—has turned her meal into a bouquet. She’s on the verge of starving, which only reminds her that the people of Portugal have been enduring the same pain.

If only it were possible to reverse her magic. Then she could turn flowers…into food.

Fatyan, a beautiful Enchanted Moura, is the only one who can help. But she is trapped by magical binds. She can teach Yzabel how to control her curse—if Yzabel sets her free with a kiss.

As the King of Portugal’s betrothed, Yzabel would be committing treason, but what good is a king if his country has starved to death?

With just one kiss, Fatyan is set free. And with just one kiss, Yzabel is yearning for more. She’d sought out Fatyan to help her save the people. Now, loving her could mean Yzabel’s destruction.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

2020 has blessed us with several queer retellings of myths and fairytales, and I was admittedly concerned that A Curse of Roses would feel too similar to other books I’ve read this year to give it an objective review. Luckily, I needn’t have worried. Elements of Portuguese history and culture are both deeply interwoven into Yzabel’s story, which gave this book a unique perspective – exactly the purpose of an #ownvoices retelling.

Like most retellings, the plot is fairly basic, and Yzabel and Fatyan’s relationship follows a fairly standard cursed-mentee/wise mentor template, though both characters are interesting enough in their own right to make up for the straightforward narrative. Also, Yzabel is thirsty for Fatyan, and I loved it.

However, this book is much more a historical novel than I anticipated; Yzabel and her fiancé, Denis, are based on real Portuguese royals, and there are several references to the Reconquista. This leads to the most interesting part of the novel, for me: Yzabel struggles deeply with internalised homophobia and reconciling her desire for Fatyan with her Christian faith. I thought this book did an excellent job of pointing out the role that religion played in controlling women’s lives in the Middle Ages and the hypocrisy of various religious leaders, while also respecting Yzabel’s beliefs and the way she embodied what she saw as Christian values of charity and kindness. Pinguicha also does an excellent job at balancing the period-typical homophobia with an acknowledgment of the fact that queer women existed everywhere in history, and were often able to use gender stereotypes to their advantage in carving-out safe spaces for themselves without men getting suspicious.

If I had any issues with this book, it’s that I would have liked a slightly broader scope. This is a very tight-knit book with a small cast of characters, and almost all of the action takes place within the castle and the immediately surrounding streeting (save for one steamy scene in the local baths… ). I also think this book could have benefited from expanding a little more on Portuguese history for those of us who are relatively unfamiliar; without going into spoiler territory, some of the final conflict in this book is based on the divide between Christians and Muslims, which feels a little abrupt without a good understanding of the historical context. (I did quite a bit of Googling afterwards).

I’m not sure it’s really necessary for me to extoll the importance of ownvoices narratives to anyone who’s gotten this far into my review, but A Curse of Roses was definitely another example of how much diverse perspectives can bring to the fantasy genre.

Note: I received an ARC from Entangled Teen. A Curse of Roses is available from 1 December.

Review: The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss… with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken?

Rating: 4/5

Review

I have been a fan of C.L. Polk since I read Witchmark late last year, and she lived up to my expectations here – The Midnight Bargain is my favourite of her works to date.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, though there were definitely moments where I found myself enraged on Beatrice’s behalf regarding her treatment. The premise of this book is that sorceresses have their magic suppressed when they get married, to prevent the risk of their future unborn children being possessed by spirits during pregnancy and turned into dangerous monsters. Which sounds horribly dystopia-esque, but this book is actually a secondary world regency fantasy, where the focus is on a few individual women trying to find a way out of such a fate and continue to pursue their interests as Mages (a mission complicated by society’s obsession with marriage as a way to bolster a family’s fortunes). It’s not the tone I was expecting, but it really worked for the purposes of this book, as it showed how the subjugation of women becomes ingrained in society in part by robbing individual women of their agency and stopping them from collaborating to end their own oppression.

Beatrice is a determined (if occasionally reckless) character, and I found it rewarding to follow her journey throughout the book. I particularly liked her friendship with Ysbeta, Ianthe’s sister. The synopsis paints them as rivals, but they quickly realise that they have a mutual interest best achieved through cooperation and collaboration, which is a much more interesting story – proving yet again that female friendships make everything better. Her relationship with Ianthe had an unfortunate air of insta-love about it, and it took me a while to warm to him as he, too, was forced to slowly let go of his assumptions about women’s ability to wield magic. (I gave the insta-love somewhat of a pass in this book as it was at least necessary for the plot to proceed – and by the end I was totally rooting for them).

Otherwise, I found the magic system fascinating – after their training, a sorcerer binds themselves to a spirit who helps them wield magic, but they must offer something as part of a bargain in return. Nadi, Beatrice’s chosen spirit, is a fun addition to the cast with her witty commentary on everyone they meet and steadfast determination to put some of the more smug male villains in their place.

The Midnight Bargain is an excellent addition to the feminist fantasy genre, which speaks to current issues around women’s bodily autonomy in a relevant way while still managing to remain lighthearted and fresh.

Note: I received an ARC from Erewhon in exchange for a review. The Midnight Bargain will be released on 13 October 2020.

Review: Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler

Long ago, a magical war destroyed an empire, and a new one was built in its ashes. But still the old grudges simmer, and two siblings will fight on opposite sides to save their world in the start of Django Wexler’s new epic fantasy trilogy.

Gyre hasn’t seen his beloved sister since their parents sold her to the mysterious Twilight Order. Now, twelve years after her disappearance, Gyre’s sole focus is revenge, and he’s willing to risk anything and anyone to claim enough power to destroy the Order.

Chasing rumors of a fabled city protecting a powerful artifact, Gyre comes face-to-face with his lost sister. But she isn’t who she once was. Trained to be a warrior, Maya wields magic for the Twilight Order’s cause. Standing on opposite sides of a looming civil war, the two siblings will learn that not even the ties of blood will keep them from splitting the world in two.

Rating: 4/5

Review

I’m an only child who loves stories about other people’s complicated sibling relationships, which is what originally drew me to this book. Ashes of the Sun alternates between Gyre and Maya’s POVs, and while we don’t see a lot of them interacting with each other in this book, the set up for the broader conflict was fantastic and still kept me engaged all the way through. There are a lot of complicated – and legitimate – feelings on both sides, that will need to be worked through once Gyre and Maya are both in the same place at the same time.

The author notes Star Wars as an inspiration, which is clear in the world-building, most notably in the role of the Twilight Order, which is made up of heirs of the former magic-wielding Chosen, and is responsible for protecting the Republic, as well as use of lightsaber like weapons. It does occasionally feel derivative, but this book takes the premise to a really interesting place and pokes at the moral questions Star Wars never really wanted to explore – at what point does protection become a form of subjugation in its own right? And how ethical is it for a single group to regulate the use of magic, even if they use it for the greater good? With one sibling on each side of this divide, I look forward to seeing them wrestle with these questions in future books.

In addition, this book features a really sweet f/f romance (and a less sweet, but highly entertaining m/f one) and a begrudging ally (my favourite kind). There are also the plagueborn: mutant, ever-evolving creatures that the Twilight Order defends its citizens against, and which I literally pictured as giant, plague-ridden rats. While there are no plagues in this book, it’s probably an unfortunate time for your main monsters to have such connotations.

If I have one complaint, it’s that this book could have been 50-100 pages shorter – the fight scenes are a little more detailed than they need to be, and some events feel rather drawn out. (Anyone who’s read Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series is likely to already be familiar with this particular issue).

I highly recommend Ashes of the Sun and am looking forward to the sequel.

Note: I received an ARC from Head of Zeus. Ashes of the Sun was released on 21 July 2020 (October 2020 in the UK and Aus).

Review: The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall

A desperate orphan turned pirate and a rebellious imperial daughter find a connection on the high seas in a world divided by colonialism and threaded with magic.

Aboard the pirate ship Dove, Flora the girl takes on the identity of Florian the man to earn the respect and protection of the crew. For Flora, former starving urchin, the brutal life of a pirate is about survival: don’t trust, don’t stick out, and don’t feel. But on this voyage, as the pirates prepare to sell their unsuspecting passengers into slavery, Flora is drawn to the Lady Evelyn Hasegawa, who is en route to a dreaded arranged marriage with her own casket in tow. Flora doesn’t expect to be taken under Evelyn’s wing, and Evelyn doesn’t expect to find such a deep bond with the pirate Florian.

Soon the unlikely pair set in motion a wild escape that will free a captured mermaid (coveted for her blood, which causes men to have visions and lose memories) and involve the mysterious Pirate Supreme, an opportunistic witch, and the all-encompassing Sea itself.

Rating: 2/5

Review

Warning: This review contains some mild spoilers.

The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea was among my most anticipated for 2020: a sapphic pirate story that promised to actively grapple with colonialism sounded right up my alley. Not to mention the gorgeous cover…

Unfortunately, everything about this book felt unpolished. I could see what the author was trying to do, but unfortunately the pieces never fully came together. To list a few of my gripes: the instalove between Evelyn and Flora was entirely unbelievable; the plot devices that brought them into the same orbit were flimsy; and the magic system was only introduced halfway through the story, and its origins were never properly explained.

Of course, there were a few shining moments in the darkness. This book shows one of the main characters exploring their gender identify, and I am glad to see more nonbinary representation in YA fiction.

By far my biggest disappointment, however, was how The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea tackled colonialism and slavery. I should note outright that these are just my views, and there are plenty of positive reviews on this subject, but the exploration of these issues didn’t work for me.

My main criticism is that there was a clear disconnect between the message Tokuda-Hall wanted to portray – that colonialism is bad – and how the characters who deliver that message behave. The really bad characters all meet horrible ends, but Evelyn and Flora, who also uphold and benefit from the system in different ways, are never forced to acknowledge the consequences of their actions.

Evelyn starts this book by abusing her power over her maid and lying about to her maid’s face about how she feels. Later, Evelyn is horrified by the revelation that her parents are looking to expand the empire at all costs, but only because she’s surprised that they’re evil and dared to make her a pawn in their imperial game. Apart from them failing in this particular endeavour to colonise another land, there are no consequences for her family, or for the imperial system as a whole. Flora, meanwhile, is a literal slaver (and also black, which was a weird dynamic), but never really grapples with that choice except to note that she does what she has to survive. It’s only seeing the girl she loves become enslaved that prompts her to change her mind.

I’m sure there are people much more knowledgable than me who may have differing views on how The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea dealt with these issues, but this book left a weird taste in my mouth.

Note: I received an ARC from Candlewick Press.

Review: Dangerous Remedy by Kat Dunn

Camille, a revolutionary’s daughter, leads a band of outcasts – a runaway girl, a deserter, an aristocrat in hiding. As the Battalion des Mortes they cheat death, saving those about to meet a bloody end at the blade of Madame La Guillotine. But their latest rescue is not what she seems. The girl’s no aristocrat, but her dark and disturbing powers means both the Royalists and the Revolutionaries want her. But who and what is she?

In these dangerous days, no one can be trusted, everyone is to be feared. As Camille learns the truth, she’s forced to choose between loyalty to those she loves and the future.

Rating: 2.5/5

Review

The concept behind Dangerous Remedy – assemble a ragtag bunch of outcasts in the middle of the French Revolution and then add magic – is a fun one, and I expect it will draw a lot of readers in. I did, in fact, have a lot of fun: the setting was fantastic and I loved all the little nods to history that were included. You don’t need a good knowledge of the French Revolution to follow this story, but there are lots of extra nuggets to enjoy if you do.

Additionally, the dialogue made me laugh out loud at several points, though it occasionally did veer past funny and into unrealistic and cheesy. The queer rep (including the explicit bi rep) was also great, and it was nice to read a historical novel that didn’t constantly dwell on how hard it was to be queer at this point in time.

Unfortunately, the execution of this idea could have benefited from some more work. This book races through each plot point, changing direction as quickly as the French Revolution itself often did, and there was often no time to reflect on what had just happened or to fully engage with the characters’ reactions. Various characters’ backstories were hinted at but never really fleshed out, and I found it really hard to connect with any of the main characters on more than a superficial level. Additionally, while this is marketed as fantasy, this often felt more like straight up historical fiction. Olympe – the girl our intrepid squad rescues – has magical abilities that mean she’s wanted by every high ranking law enforcement officer in Paris. However; the exploration of why Olympe has such powers or what they could be used for never really goes beyond the superficial, and I would have liked to see more of the characters investigating her strange talents and trying to understand them.

Overall, while Dangerous Remedy showed plenty of promise, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations and, with so many books out there to enjoy, I’m unlikely to personally pick up the sequel.

Note: I received an ARC from Zephyr. Dangerous Remedy is available from 5 May.