Tag: review

Book Review: Snowspelled, by Stephanie Burgis

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This is the most charming, delightful fantasy novel you will read this year.

Set in an alternate-history England, in approximately the Regency era (early nineteenth century), this is the story of Cassandra Harwood, the first female magician in Angland. In this alternative reality, where Boudicca drove the Romans out of Britain, women hold political power while men have traditionally been the magicians. Cassandra was not only the first female magician, but also a very capable one. That is, until she tried a too-powerful spell that nearly killed her. Now, if she uses magic again, it will very likely finish the job.

Which would be all very well. Except that now she has stumbled into the path of a malevolent elf lord. If she can’t carry out his demands within a week, her life will be forfeit. But without magic, how can she hope to unpick the mystery and face up to his overwhelming power?

And if that isn’t enough, she’s trapped in the snow in a house party with her ex-fiance, her interfering family, manipulative lady politicans, and troublesome male magicians: her former colleagues, who never thought she should be allowed to be a magician in the first place.

Cassandra will have to find a way to neutralise the deadly elf lord and deal with her infuriating former fiance and the feelings she still holds for him.

Snowspelled is wonderful fantasy novel, full of spark, energy, and brilliant, sharp characters. There is a mystery, a romance, and a magical threat growing ever closer in a completely unique setting. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Snowspelled is a very short novel, just a little longer than a novella, but it is fast moving and you never feel like anything is lacking. The characters and plot are all fully developed. It’s the first of three novellas. The second, Thornbound, is due out in 2018, and I can’t wait!

Go and get Snowspelled right away.

5 Stars!

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Book Review: Congress of Secrets, by Stephanie Burgis

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The year is 1814, and the Congress of Vienna has just begun. The Emperor Napoleon has been defeated, and the great powers of Europe have gathered in Vienna to carve up Europe among themselves. Along with them have come the powerful, the deposed nobility of old Europe, and the opportunistic, hoping to grab power and wealth for themselves. Amid glittering balls, parties, and salons, the great of Europe meet, plot, and position themselves.

Into Vienna come Lady Caroline Wyndham, a wealthy English widow, and charming con man Michael Steinhüller. Both of them have secrets. Caroline was born Karolina Vogl, daughter of a radical Viennese printer. Caroline’s father was arrested by the secret police and her childhood was cruelly stolen from her by dark alchemy in the cells of the secret police.

Michael, meanwhile, was once the apprentice of Caroline’s father. Neither has seen the other since their childhoods were shattered, and both have returned to Vienna with plans of their own, Caroline’s to save her father, and Michael’s to pull one last con before he retires. Neither of them expect to encounter the other, and when they do, both their plans will be in danger, and so will they.

I’ve said before that a really well-researched piece of historical fiction can be as full of wonder as the most inventive fantasy or science fiction novel, and this historical fantasy proves that. Every scene comes alive with wonderful, vivid, and sometimes alien detail that make you feel like you’re really there. I lived for six months in Vienna, and in Congress of Shadows, I really felt like I was back there, strolling around the first district or through the royal palaces. This is lush and all-enveloping.

The characters, too, are incredibly involving and well-conceived. From the moment you first meet Caroline, Michael, and the third main character, Peter Riesenbeck, you are swept into their stories, their fears, their desires, and their plans. But it’s not just the main characters who are so believable and enticing. There is also a whole array of historical figures – from the quipping Prince de Ligne and the paranoid Emperor Francis to the manipulative head of the secret police, Count Pergen – and fictional counterparts who leap off the page.

The story is fast paced and increasingly tense as Caroline, Michael, and Peter’s plans begin to crumble in the face of the dark alchemy wielded by Count Pergen.

This is a fantastic book and I have no hesitation in giving it five stars. I loved Stephanie Burgis’s previous historical fantasy, Masks and Shadows, but Congress of Secrets is even better.

5 stars!

Buy Now: Indiebound | Book Depository (international) | Amazon U.S. | Amazon UK

Book Review: Masks and Shadows, by Stephanie Burgis

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The year is 1779, the place is the Eszterháza Palace in Hungary. The famous castrato singer Carlo Morelli is travelling to the palace as a guest of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, but he is not the only one. He’s accompanied by a famous alchemist, Ignaz Von Born, and a man he suspects to be a spy. Already arrived at the palace is the recently widowed Charlotte von Steinbeck visiting her younger sister, Sophie.

But there are plots brewing at the palace. The Habsburg Emperor and Empress are about to visit, and there are forces at work who will stop at nothing to assassinate them. There is blackmail, alchemy, and betrayal, and not everyone is who they seem to be.

Masks and Shadows is a historical fantasy set in an unusual location with characters who are quite unique. If you’ve read Stephanie Burgis’s previous middle grade books, you’ll know she has a knack for convincing, lively, three dimensional characters with complex motivations, and in this, her first adult novel, she has been able to create some of the most interesting characters you’re likely to read in a fantasy novel, from the castrato singer, Carlo Morelli, playing a role he no longer believes in to Charlotte von Steinbeck, the very proper young widow who is forced to confront the scandalous fact that her younger sister, Sophie, is the very public mistress of Prince Esterházy. Then there are the members of the prince’s opera company who are unwillingly caught up in the plots and Sophie’s husband, a member of the prince’s guard, unsuccessfully trying not to regret the deal he made that allows his own wife to be the prince’s mistress.

Add to those the real historical characters in the book: Prince Esterházy and his wife, the princess forced to live in the palace alongside the prince’s mistress, the composer Joseph Haydn, and a host of others and you have a setting that is rich and highly believable.

This is an enormously well-researched book, full of colour and atmosphere, but it’s not one of those books where the author feels the need to pile all the research on you. The story is fast-moving, touching, tense and enormously involving. You will genuinely believe you are in the Esterháza Palace along with these wonderful and conflicted characters, and the story won’t let you go until you reach the desperate finale.

This book draws heavily on opera and the opera company contracted to Prince Esterházy. I am not a fan of opera (to say the least) and know pretty much nothing about eighteenth century Hungary but everything about the story thread of the company trying to put on a performance of Haydn’s new opera for the visiting royals while being unwittingly caught up in the various plots and under threat of disapproval from the unforgiving prince caught me up and enthralled me.

Masks and Shadows is the kind of book that utterly absorbs you and drags you through the conflicting emotions and dilemmas of its rich cast of characters.

I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes fantasy, historical fiction or romance.

A brilliant and unusual book.

5 Stars

Buy Now: Indiebound | Wordery (International) | Barnes and Noble | Amazon US | Amazon UK

A Quicky…

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A lovely review for SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB from the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. It’s wonderful when a reviewer really gets your book.

Readers might as well check all disbelief at the door and just embrace this look at a nineteenth-century British Mars that has solid hints of steampunk and features dangers aplenty to excite a kid hooked on spy tales. Such a kid is twelve-year-old Edward, who has been waiting his whole life for something like what he reads in Thrilling Martian Tales. Adventure comes in a rush, as a kidnapping, a much-desired water abacus, a metal assassin, and a mysterious cousin who may be a good guy, bad guy, or just bumbling fool all fall into Edward’s lap (and into the lap of his gender-defying little sister who aids him more than he’ll ever admit). Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that to save their family, Edward will need the skills of his more clever younger sister, his more socially graceful older sister, and his more adept cousin, even if he wishes he could be a solo hero like in the stories. The dialogue is snappy, and the characterization is historically plausible while still giving room for the characters to react to being on another planet. Science fiction meets classic adventure tales in this quirky novel, and it’s a real treat to know that it’s the first in an intended series. Fans of Reeve’s Larklight (BCCB 2/07) will embrace the premise, and readers will happily return for the next entry to see what happens next on Mars.

April Spisak, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

Some News! (A full book jacket, interior art, a giveaway, and reviews)

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My lovely editor, Christy Ottaviano, sent me through the full jacket of SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB: front cover, back cover, spine, and internal flaps all in one lovely, lovely image. I think it’s absolutely awesome. I love all the little details like the airships holding up the text panels. The art is by Jeremy Holmes (who also did the internal artwork, which is just as awesome) and the cover design is by Eileen Savage. (TBH, I don’t know exactly which of them did exactly what on the cover, but clearly they are both incredibly talented!)

While we’re at it, here’s one of the interior illustrations, showing Cousin Freddie inspecting a mysterious invention, the water abacus (click on the picture to see it larger):

Reviews

A week or two ago I put up an extract from the School Library Journal review of SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB, but I didn’t put it all up because it wasn’t online. Well, now it appears to be Amazon and everywhere else, so I might as well share it here:

“Twelve-year-old Edward Sullivan wishes his life on 19th-century British Mars were more like the adventures he reads about in his Thrilling Martian Tales magazine. Sadly, it’s school break and instead of being off with his friend Matthew Harrison, he’s staying home trying to keep his family on track. His father is a brilliant yet absent-minded mechanician, and his mother’s main concern is gaining back the family status she lost when her own father lost the family fortune. When dim-witted cousin Freddie literally comes crashing down, Edward wonders how much worse things can get, but before he knows it, he is tangled up in a madcap adventure with even more action than his magazines.

“It seems that Edward’s father’s latest invention, the water abacus, is thought to be the key to perhaps one of the last of the great dragon tombs of Mars. In the past, it was these tombs that held the wonderful Martian technology that enabled British Mars to thrive—and made the tomb explorers rich. There are many who want to use the water abacus for their own purposes, which leads to fights, kidnappings, attempted murder, and a great chase. All of this is set in a perfectly delightful steampunk and fantasy world complete with clockwork automatic servants, dragon paths, and spaceships. Deeper topics of race relations and colonization are deftly explored through the political unrest among the British, the French, and the Martians.

“VERDICT A smart addition for middle grade collections; be prepared to purchase planned sequels.”

And while we’re at it, here’s an extract from the ALA Booklist review:

“Engaging characters and an action-packed plot are bolstered by some meaningful observations on Martian colonialism … this will appeal to fans of zany adventure tales.”

Giveaway

And, in case you missed it, I’m giving away a SIGNED ARC (ADVANCE READER’S COPY) on Goodreads.

That’s all!

Book Review: Where Futures End, by Parker Peevyhouse

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If it’s not hard enough to write a straightforward, linear novel, Parker Peevyhouse has made it far harder for herself by writing a novel that is actually five interconnected novelettes. So it’s enormously to her credit that this book has turned out so well. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the best YA novel I’ve read this year.

The first story is set right now (or very close to now) and the subsequent ones step into the future, developing the story up to some unstated point over a hundred years from now. Our universe has somehow intersected with another universe, and a very few people can cross between them, weakening the barrier between the universes.

Over the course of the five stories we experience the lives of different characters – some of whom are able to cross between universes and some of whom aren’t – as the intersection alters both universes, as technology advances, and as global warming begins to take hold.

So what’s so great about Where Futures End? Well, first up the structure is not easy to pull off. Different characters? Different time periods? Different voices? Not an easy thing to manage, but something that could go terribly wrong. Well, it doesn’t. It works beautifully, and rather than losing narrative drive, the end of each story leaves you wanting to read the next to add more pieces to the puzzle. Each adds another layer, revealing more about what was going in the previous stories while developing its own story.

Then there are the stories themselves. I’m going to come right out and say that the stories remind me a lot in style and type of many of the short stories that I’ve written, although these are more fully developed, and no doubt that makes them appealing to me. But each is a really well thought through glimpse of the future, rigorously developed, with compelling characters.

Ambitious. Clever. Gripping. You should add this one to your wish-list right away!

Rating: 5 Stars!

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Publication date: February 9, 2016

I received this book as an eARC from the author.

Book Review: Ash Mistry and the City of Death, by Sarwat Chadda

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Note: in the US, this is book is called The City of Death.

Here’s what I like in a book: action, humour, a cool setting, great characters, and a plot that doesn’t let up. Not to mention hidden compartments containing little dark chocolate liqueurs.

So, how does Ash Mistry and the City of Death stack up?

Well, it doesn’t have any chocolate liqueurs, so that’s a black mark for a start. But it does have the rest of it, and hooray for that!

This is the second Ash Mistry book. Ash is now the Kali-aastra, the weapon of the goddess of death and destruction. Which kind of gets in the way of the normal life he’s trying to lead back in England. He might have thought he’d left behind the great battles between demons and gods that he’d been caught up in in India, but those battles have followed him home.

The Koh-i-noor, a great diamond from the crown jewels has been stolen. But it’s not just any diamond. It was looted from India by the British, and it holds the power of one of the Hindu gods. If Lord Savage, the English sorcerer who murdered Ash’s aunt and uncle and nearly killed Ash, gets hold of it, he may be unstoppable.

So, well, where does that leave us? Right in the middle of a wild adventure full of demons, magic, deadly living statues, and some serious super-powered ass-kicking.

If I had a criticism of the first Ash Mistry book it was that it took a little while to really get going. Well, The City of Death doesn’t have that problem. It’s into the action right from the beginning, and it doesn’t let up.

Ash is a great character, and with the action, sense of fun, and original setting, this is a book well worth reading.

If you like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, you’ll like this too.

4 ½ stars.

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