Review: The Magic Between by Stephanie Hoyt

In a world where everyone has magic coursing through them, legend says magic itself craves a mate. Legend says those with opposite magics have the greatest chance of forming the unbreakable Bond it desires.

A.B. Cerise is an obsessive compulsive pop star with the ability to turn invisible. He’s an out bisexual with absolutely no belief in Bonds. He has a love-bruised heart, thinks dating in the spotlight is a hassle at best and a nightmare at worst, and has no intention of going through it all over again.

Matthew Hellman-Levoie is the NHL’s number one goalie prospect, the youngest in a hockey dynasty, and one of the rare few who can see the unseeable. He’s a straight man who wears his heart on his sleeve, has grown up searching for a Bond, and dreams of finding the love of his life.

Legend never said anything about what to do when sparks fly between two people opposite in more ways than just magic.

Publication details: 14 February 2022, by Ninestar Press. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

This is a tough book to review, because I had a few major issues with it… but I also had a lot of fun. I definitely debated for quite some time about rounding up vs. down on Goodreads (and ultimately went up).

This book reminds me a lot of fanfic, in many ways; in that it’s very focused on the internal lives of our two main characters – A.B. and Matthew – and developing a sense of camraderie, sexual tension and eventually love between them. There’s a lot of fun inside jokes, callbacks to previous chapters, and a lot of tension. This is definitely one of those books where frankly, you’re just waiting for that moment where the characters finally get their shit together. All of which made The Magic Between very bingeable; it’s much longer than a typical fantasy romance at 428 pages, but it read very quickly.

It’s also unapologetically queer. In addition to A.B. and Matthew, most of the supporting cast is queer (it sort of feels like going around and collecting a big bisexual found family). The book is very clear that there is more than one way to be bisexual, and tackles bi-erasure as well as the challenges of coming out as bi (including when famous). That’s probably the strongest element of this book – and it’s worth recommending for that alone. There’s some good mental health rep as well; both characters are aware of their challenges and are working on them.

While I enjoyed the romance, I am primarily a fantasy blogger, and yet – the magic system in this book was actually too much. The book started with an extended info-dump about the various types of magic in the world (which I note is now being revised before publication) that was incredibly overwhelming and almost turned me off the book before I began. It’s also a bit unnecessary; this book could have trimmed the enormous magic system down to two or three key types of magic, and it wouldn’t have changed a thing about the plot, and would have saved the need for readers to keep remembering a bunch of terms and getting distracted by more info-dumps. I did also find some of the bonded soulmates stuff a little too cheesy. I love cheese, but it was hard to take a book seriously when the main characters started glowing every time they made out.

My other complaint is that the character’s professions are a big selling point of this story – and the driver of the conflict – but don’t actually seem to matter much to either of them. We’re constantly told that coming out could jeopardise Matthew’s hockey career but we’re never told why he even likes hockey or wants to pursue it beyond being the son of a famous hockey player, and there is very little about how hockey is a part of his life: when does he go to practice? how does it impact his health and fitness regime outside of training? We just don’t know. Similarly, A.B. is a pop-star who struggles with anxiety and (quite literally) being seen, so why choose a career that makes you famous? How did he get into music in the first place? Again, we just don’t know. That probably doesn’t matter to some people, but as someone who loves stories about famous people whose lives are just unfathomable to those of us less famous, it bothered me a lot.

Despite all that I did, like I said, have a lot of fun – and with everything else going on right now, that’s probably what matters most.

Review: Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong

The year is 1927, and Shanghai teeters on the edge of revolution.

After sacrificing her relationship with Roma to protect him from the blood feud, Juliette has been a girl on the warpath. One wrongmove, and her cousin will step in to usurp her place as the Scarlet Gang’s heir. The only way to save the boy she loves from the wrath of the Scarlets is to have him want her dead for murdering his best friend in cold blood. If Juliette were actually guilty of the crime Roma believes she committed, his rejection might sting less.

Roma is still reeling from Marshall’s death, and his cousin Benedikt will barely speak to him. Roma knows it’s his fault for lettingthe ruthless Juliette back into his life, and he’s determined to set things right—even if that means killing the girl he hates and loves with equal measure.

Then a new monstrous danger emerges in the city, and though secrets keep them apart, Juliette must secure Roma’s cooperation if they are to end this threat once and for all. Shanghai is already at a boiling point: The Nationalists are marching in, whispers of civil war brew louder every day, and gangster rule faces complete annihilation. Roma and Juliette must put aside their differences to combat monsters and politics, but they aren’t prepared for the biggest threat of all: protecting their hearts from each other.

Publication details: 16 November 2021, by Hodder & Stoughton. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 4/5

Review

I really enjoyed These Violent Delights earlier in the year despite that ridiculous cliffhanger – so now is a great time to pick up both books in the duology. There’s a lot going on – monsters in Shanghai, not to mention the lovers to enemies to reluctant partners to lovers and back to enemies again romance (and that’s just the first book) – but ultimately it’s an action packed duology with plenty of depths. If you like YA fantasy that actually pokes at gender inequality and colonialism, and includes multiple queer characters despite the historical setting, I’d highly recommend this series. 

Our Violent Ends is a thrilling ride – it took a little bit to get going (and possibly spent a little too long rehashing character dynamics from book one), but once the plot kicked off I binged the last 50 per cent in a single evening, and couldn’t put it down. Gong really captures the complexities of 1920s Shanghai, even before you add monsters to the equation; everyone’s loyalties are constantly shifting, and the broader political tensions of the era intersect with the more localised gang conflict in a meaningful way. Juliette and Roma both love Shanghai and hate what it has become after decades of colonial interference, and the scenes where they debate whether it is worth saving are some of the most hard-hitting. 

This is Juliette’s story – she is by far the most fleshed-out character – and I found her fascinating to spend time with. She’s violent, often reckless, and quick to anger, but I wouldn’t really call her an anti-heroine (even if I was surprised by how far she pushed the limits in the sequel). It’s pretty clear she is just making all of her moral choices in the context of her tumultuous upbringing. The other characters are a lot of fun to be around even if they are not quite as engaging, and I am very excited about the recent news of a standalone sequel potentially starring one of my favourite side characters in this series. 

I do have one complaint, which is that I really wish this had been an adult book – and I really think Gong is capable of writing a great one, despite only being in her early 20s. I simply couldn’t believe the strength of Roma and Juliette’s love for each other – a love that started when they were 14, per the series’ timeline – which meant that a lot of the romance scenes didn’t quite land for me (an important part of any Romeo and Juliet retelling!). I also had to keep mentally aging the characters up in my head because otherwise some of the plot elements felt somewhat far-fetched, particularly the extent to which several grown men were scared of or went along with the whims of an 18 year old woman. I am fully aware that I am outside the target age range, however, and accept that as my lot. 

The ending is appropriately bittersweet: it’s a Romeo and Juliet retelling, so I hope no one was expecting a perfectly happy ending. But it’s satisfying and rounds out the story nicely, particularly after some of the high stakes scenes in the middle. And it leaves open the possibility of more stories in this world, which I’m definitely looking forward to. 

Review: The Bone Shard Emperor by Andrea Stewart

The Emperor is Dead. Long live the Emperor.  
 
Lin Sukai finally sits on the throne she won at so much cost, but her struggles are only just beginning. Her people don’t trust her. Her political alliances are weak. And in the north-east of the Empire, a rebel army of constructs is gathering, its leader determined to take the throne by force.  
 
Yet an even greater threat is on the horizon, for the Alanga – the powerful magicians of legend – have returned to the Empire. They claim they come in peace, and Lin will need their help in order to defeat the rebels and restore peace.  
 
But can she trust them? 

Publication details: 23 November 2021, by Orbit. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

To recap briefly (and without spoilers), The Bone Shard Daughter saw the Emperor’s Daughter Lin and renowned smuggler Jovis embroiled in a revolution, and also prevent their island kingdom from going – literally – underwater. There are also a number of mysteries around the creation and use of the bone shard constructs – animated creatures made from samples of people’s bones, which are programmed to protect the kingdom from external threats. Of course, I was always going to come back to this series for the character Mephi, who remains a delight to spend time with – who doesn’t love animal companions?

Thankfully, there are other things to love about The Bone Shard Emperor as well. I continue to be impressed by Stewart’s world-building, which takes inspiration from a variety of East Asian cultures and blends them into something that feels unique, instead of being a simple cultural analogue. As someone who grew up by the ocean, I am also particularly into the island aesthetic. Additionally, I think Stewart would make an excellent horror writer if she put her mind to it, as the entire concept of the bone-shard constructs and the tithing festival that facilitates people having their bones harvested to make them is appropriately very creepy – I found myself recoiling at several points as we learn more about the practice of making and controlling constructs.

The Bone Shard Emperor is also much more politically complex than the first book – everyone is conflicted, their loyalties tested. There are no easy or clear answers, and everyone finds themselves pulled between multiple loyalties. I’ve seen a lot of reviews say they don’t buy the romance that springs up between Lin and Jovis in this book, but it’s for this reason that I actually really enjoyed this element of the story: Stewart makes it very clear that their feelings are as much driven by them looking to process what is happening to them individually as it is about whether or not they have romantic feelings for reach other. Of course, this means there’s a lot of potential for it to all blow up spectacularly – and for it to be very messy when it does.

All that said, there were two issues for me with this book, and they’re both the same issues I had with book one. The first of these is pacing – the first half of The Bone Shard Emperor is very slow, and I feel it could have benefited from another round of editing to make it tighter, as there is a lot of unnecessary exposition. Stewart really builds up to her explosive endings – which are great – but I wish it didn’t sometimes feel like a chore to get there.

The other issue is the uneven POVs. In addition to Lin and Jovis, we have married couple Phalue and Ramani, who rule over one of the islands in Lin’s empire and Nisong, a character with a mysterious past. I typically always gravitate to the sapphics, but where Lin and Jovis feel like dynamic characters, Phalue and Ramani feel rather one-note and seem to play out the same interpersonal conflict on repeat. In addition, their contribution to the plot simply isn’t as compelling as Lin and Jovis’ story, and I think this book would have benefited from finding some other way to integrate the parts of their story that the reader absolutely had to know about, rather than having us spend time following their POVs. I’m not sure there’s much scope to change this now – given we’re two-thirds into this trilogy – but it’s a fairly significant element and the one thing that stops me recommending this series wholeheartedly.

That said, I do still recommend this series – there’s a lot of elements I love and I definitely think it’s worth giving it a shot if you haven’t already (or picking up book two).

Review: Blood of the Chosen by Django Wexler

Four hundred years ago, a cataclysmic war cracked the world open and exterminated the Elder races. Amid the ashes, their human inheritor, the Dawn Republic, stands guard over lands littered with eldritch relics and cursed by plaguespawn outbreaks. But a new conflict is looming and brother and sister Maya and Gyre have found themselves on opposite sides.

At the age of five, Maya was taken by the Twilight Order and trained to be a centarch, wielding forbidden arcana to enforce the Dawn Republic’s rule. On that day, her brother, Gyre, swore to destroy the Order that stole his sister… whatever the cost.

Twelve years later, brother and sister are two very different people: she is Burningblade, the Twilight Order’s brightest prodigy; he is Silvereye, thief, bandit, revolutionary.

Publication details: 5 October 2021, by Head of Zeus. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 4/5

Review

I really enjoyed Ashes of the Sun and was glad to get an ARC, which didn’t disappoint.

The premise of this series is fairly straightforward – two siblings, one a staunch upholder of the Republic’s ideals, the other a sworn rebel – but what’s interesting about it is Wexler’s interest in examining some of the often unstated mantras of fantasy worlds. There’s no black and white, here; the Twilight Order has an important role to play in protecting people from the plaguespawn, but they’re also founded on ideas about magical supremacy that are fundamentally incompatible with equality. This makes a nice change from of a lot of stories – cough, Star Wars, cough – that never really think about what it might mean to have an exclusionary group of people calling the shots. Meanwhile, the rebels have a vision of a society free from rule by the Twilight Order, but there are many different views about what it might take to get there. These conflicts play out for both Maya and Gyre in this book, which also makes them compelling characters – what are they willing to sacrifice, and how do they reconcile the good and the not so good parts of their communities? (It does occasionally see them – particularly Maya – make some really dumb decisions, but these are at least believable in the context of what they know).

Blood of the Chosen also expands the world in interesting ways, exposing us to more of the fallout from a war centuries’ ago, and also allowing us to get to know some of the side characters a little better, particularly Beq, Maya’s girlfriend, and Elariel, Gyre’s ghoul companion. They’re a lot of fun to spend time with, and there are plenty of lighthearted moments among the plaguespawn attacks and other horrors lurking in every tunnel. I did think the central conceit of Gyre and Maya being separated with opposite storylines dragged on a little too long – we are now two-thirds through the trilogy and they’ve spent more page time apart than interacting – but the sequel set their relationship up to move into a new phase in book 3. Which can’t come soon enough, given the ending. I’m curious to see how Wexler ties everything up, and where Maya and Gyre’s loyalties will eventually lie.

Review: The Bone Ship’s Wake by R.J. Barker

The sea dragons are returning, and Joron Twiner’s dreams of freedom lie shattered. His Shipwife is gone and all he has left is revenge.

Leading the black fleet from the deck of Tide Child Joron takes every opportunity to strike at his enemies, but he knows his time is limited. His fleet is shrinking and the Keyshan’s Rot is running through his body. He runs from a prophecy that says he and the avian sorcerer, the Windseer, will end the entire world.

But the sea dragons have begun to return, and if you can have one miracle, who is to say that there cannot be another? 

Publication details: 28 September 2021, by Orbit. Review copy provided by the publisher

Rating: 5/5

Review

I’ve been putting this review off for a few days because I wasn’t sure where to start with how much I loved this book. Anyone who has read the first two books in the series – The Bone Ships and Call of the Bone Ships – will know what to expect, but Barker really took it up a notch in this finale. I don’t typically get outwardly emotional about books, but The Bone Ship’s Wake left me open-mouthed and a little teary.

We pick up where Call of the Bone Ships left off, with Joron as the new shipwife of The Tide Child, and desperate to get Meas back from her captors. The synopsis paints this as a revenge story, but in my opinion it’s much more nuanced than that – the book is ultimately about about Joron coming to terms with what it means to be a leader and how to weigh up what is necessary, what is right, and the consequences of one’s actions. We also return to a number of the other themes threaded throughout the series – courage, duty, and finding hope and light in the darkness. Joron has no idea who he can trust as friends become enemies and enemies become allies, but there is still a focus on finding meaning and solace in relationships with others despite all the treachery and betrayal the Tide Child’s crew face.

Those who came to the series for the naval battles also won’t be disappointed; there is plenty of action, particularly in the first part of the book, including a terrifying encounter with a sea kraken that had me on the edge of my seat. My biggest concern with the first two books, and the reason I didn’t give them five stars, is because I found the pacing could drag a little, but that’s not the case here – the story moves along at a perfectly balanced pace. There is always some event unfolding, but readers are also given time to soak in the world-building and themes that Barker has layered throughout the series. The action scenes are great, but I also love the little details, such as the uniqueness of the flora and fauna (which goes beyond the dragons and the guillame), and the subtle shifts in language that mark the Hundred Isles as a matriachal society in all aspects of its culture.

If you’ve read to this point in the series (which, this is definitely not a book that stands alone) you’ll know not to expect a happy ending, but the conclusion is appropriately bittersweet and, most importantly feels right for the characters that we, as readers, have gone on this journey with. Thank you, R.J. Barker.

.

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?

Publication details: 13 October 2021, by Erewhon. Review copy provided by the publisher.

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.