Review: Mayhem by Estelle Laure – A Gorgeous Chaotic Mess

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Title: Mayhem
Author:
Estelle Laure
Publisher:
Wednesday Books

Genre(s): YA Historical Fiction, Paranormal, Magical Realism
Subject(s): Multigenerational, Abuse

Release Date:
July 14th, 2020
Page Count: 304 (hardback)

Rating: 4.0/10

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It’s 1987 and unfortunately it’s not all Madonna and cherry lip balm. Mayhem Brayburn has always known there was something off about her and her mother, Roxy. Maybe it has to do with Roxy’s constant physical pain, or maybe with Mayhem’s own irresistible pull to water. Either way, she knows they aren’t like everyone else.

But when May’s stepfather finally goes too far, Roxy and Mayhem flee to Santa Maria, California, the coastal beach town that holds the answers to all of Mayhem’s questions about who her mother is, her estranged family, and the mysteries of her own self. There she meets the kids who live with her aunt, and it opens the door to the magic that runs through the female lineage in her family, the very magic Mayhem is next in line to inherit and which will change her life for good.

But when she gets wrapped up in the search for the man who has been kidnapping girls from the beach, her life takes another dangerous turn and she is forced to face the price of vigilante justice and to ask herself whether revenge is worth the cost.

CW: talk and depictions of domestic abuse, sexual assault, suicide

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Set in 1987 against the backdrop of Santa Maria, with a girl and her mother fleeing their abusive household, Mayhem is a poetically wrought mess that disappointed me the more I read.

The core message of the story is sound and impactful, about taking control and power in an environment where you’re offered little of either, but it’s heavily stifled by a tangle of storylines and genres that gets thrown onto your lap without much fanfare. From research, it seems that the book is less of a mashup of The Lost Boys and The Craft and more of a direct retelling with a few changes made here and there. Which is a little eyebrow-raising considering how the marketing did its usual “If you like X and Y, you must check this out!” and made it out to be a book that takes elements of those films while still remaining an original, not a near-same story with a different filter. And I would have been fine with that, since I didn’t know much about the source materials to begin with, if it wasn’t obvious that the book is multiple stories awkwardly cobbled into one. It tries to fit magical witchy elements, mother-daughter relationships, new friendships, budding romance, navigation of past trauma, an abusive husband/stepfather on the loose, and a serial killer mystery in 300 pages.

It just doesn’t work.

It picks up a plotline and then pushes it aside in favour of a different one, resolves the latter with underwhelming speed, and returns to the old one only to leave it hanging or tied in the messiest knot imaginable. Characterization also suffers because of this. There are just too many people introduced all at once–Roxy, Roxy’s twin sister Elle, the three children living in Elle’s attic, Roxy’s old friends–and Roxy, the one character aside from May who should have had the main focus throughout, fades into the background in the second half. The other side characters are surface-level interesting, but again, never given enough time for me to get attached to.

The writing is beautiful, however; that’s what hooked in the beginning. And environmental storytelling is the story’s strongest suit. Laure knows how to create quiet scenes that seem to expand with each sentence, and some of the chapters read like haunting vignettes, a moment in time frozen by the lingering memories of what May and her mother endured. There are scenes that made my throat close up in empathy and anger, and the horrors of abuse and assault are depicted with care.

If Laure had just taken that and expanded on it for the rest of the book, focusing solely on the relationships between the characters and their individual pains and journey to healing, while introducing the magic as a subtle undercurrent? How complete the story might have been.

As it is, Mayhem knows what it wants to accomplish, and the emotional depth is well present, but it tries to go about it with more tools than it can hold and falls in the execution.

 

 


About the Author

AP Estelle Laure_Credit Zoe Zimmerman

Twitter || Instagram

Estelle Laure, the author of This Raging Light and But Then I Came Back believes in love, magic, and the power of facing hard truths. She has a BA in Theatre Arts and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and she lives in Taos, New Mexico, with her family. Her work is translated widely around the world.

 


Bonus Content

A Letter from the Author | Chapter One Excerpt

 

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Thank you to Wedneday Books for having me on this tour!

Find me (and my art) @aildreda on:

Twitter | Instagram | Tumblr

A Tarot Black Lives Matter Reading Bingo


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Hello my hippest of friends! Hope you are all having a fabulous day. If so, it is about to get even more fabulous, for today I’m unveiling the Tarot Black Lives Matter book bingo, presented by The Tarot Sequence fandom. This is s reading challenge event running from July 6 to December 6 aimed to help us discover, read, and support Black authors and their work.

Absolutely ZERO knowledge of The Tarot Sequence series is required in order to participate, as the event is meant to be, first and foremost, a celebration of Black voices within the book community. It’s a chance to show our love for Black authors, especially queer Black authors, and encourage each other to read more diversely and smartly, to read beyond the reaches of our comfort genres, and further educate ourselves on the subjects that are raised in these stories. And most importantly, to make that a habit, not just a one-off.

We have created a bingo card with each square corresponding to a tarot-specific prompt (the 22 Major Arcana, plus a few custom additions). After reading a book that fulfills said prompt, you can cross it out. For each filled square you will gain ONE (1) entry, with a bonus entry if the book is LGBTQ+, into a raffle for some incredible prizes detailed below. For each line of five squares in a row that is completed, you will gain an additional THREE (3) entries. By completing the entire grid, you’ll gain a bonus of SIX (6) entries. The overall number of squares you’ve filled out will count towards your ranking, which comes with a cool badge that you can show off for bragging rights.

You can go for as few or as many squares as you want, and you’re welcome to do update posts, TBRs posts, reviews, recommendation lists, and share on your blog and other social media using #TarotBLMBingo.



Rules

  • Books must be written (or co-written) by Black authors.
  • Unless specified, books can be fiction or non-fiction; prose, verse, or graphic novel.
  • Only one square may be filled by a re-read, and each book can only be used once. Multiple books by the same author is perfectly okay!
  • After each book, we highly encourage you to write a review (or draw or film–get creative!) and share on Goodreads, Amazon, and social media (please do NOT tag authors in negative reviews). 
  • Email your bingo cards to tarotsequenceevents@gmail.com, along with country of residence (for prize purposes) and, if you’re comfortable sharing, social media usernames (so that we know to tag you in winner announcement posts).

End date: December 6 (11:59 PM PST)

For more info, please refer to the guidebook pdf attached at the end of the post, which will go into all the prompts, prizes, and more in detail.



Prizes (International + US)

All prizes, unless specified, are available for international participants. And you can, of course, opt out of the prize draw while still participating in the bingo.


  • Grand Prize: A BIG special prize that will be revealed closer to the end date

  • Three Winners: A book purchase up to $30 from a Black author (Book Depository or if in US, from a Black-owned bookstore) 

  • Two winners (US only): A copy of K.D. Edwards’ The Hanged Man (The Tarot Sequence 2)

  • One Winner: A book sleeve

  • One winner (US only): A mini book bundle containing a paperback of Check Please Vol. 2, Fragile Remedy bookmarks, and a small curated tea package

  • One winner: An art commission of anything and anyone (with or without background) by artist @JakeShandy

  • One winner: A podfic up to 10k words (any fandom, requires permission from fic author, preferably no NSFW). Offered by Sam @HeartS530. (Note: a podfic is a fanmade audio recording of a fanfic)

  • One winner: A significant recurring cameo in Book 3 of K.D. Edwards’ The Tarot Sequence



Rankings


5 SQUARES COMPLETE – Elemental


5 SQUARES COMPLETE – Dragon

10 SQUARES COMPLETE – Principality


15 SQUARES COMPLETE – Companion


20 SQUARES COMPLETE – Arcana



Relevant Files and Graphics


Drive Folder (containing all graphics, cards, guidebook): https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/17CVKuhTHw_kx9-PhWjvETb__TCpdT00n?usp=sharing


I hope you can find the time to join us! And if you have any questions you can leave them here below in the comments or contact me on Twitter @aildreda, or email directly at tarotsequenceevents@gmail.com.

Happy reading! ❤

Joint Rainbow Review: Felix Ever After | Return of the Kathy (Again)

Hello everyone!

I come out of hiding once again like an anxious little mole. The thing I learned about staying home during this darkest timeline is that “extra free time” comes with a HUGE disclaimer that’s deviously written in tiny scrawl, and in Papyrus to boot. As free time goes up, productivity plummets. Hard. So my schedule has been thus: waking up all pumped up and wanting to be productive, getting heavily distracted, staring off into space, remembering I have things to do, rinse and repeat. Everyone who’s been able to tackle dozens and dozens of books during quarantine, my hat goes off to you and I very much want to steal the secrets to your superpower, because I’ve barely been able to read four books per month since April.

There was also the niggling anxiety of feeling like I’ll be erased from the blogsphere if I don’t post consistently during this time when everyone is home, which led to more anxiety, and…. well–that’s a topic for another day.

But I hope you’ve been well and keeping safe, and I’m looking forward to catching up with you all! ❤

Today I have a special buddy read collab review (collabview?) with the darling Pei of Pei Reads, who is sunshine and starlight stirred into a pot and poured into an adorable mold.

We hope you enjoy!



Yahoo, gentlefriends and gentleenemies and gentleenemies-soon-to-be-lovers (we see you). On this fine post-Pride day we have double the reviews and double the fun. Peikat (Pei + Kathy = delicious chocolatey wafery goodness) here with our first ever buddy read and review! 

We’d planned for June to be an entire month of Pride buddy reading and reviewing, but plans are for people with a better grasp on reality and time than either of us, so we’re extending it to a full summer of rainbow goodness and joy. 

Our first book is Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, released May 5th, 2020 by Balzer + Bray.




What starts out as a revenge story, an anger-fueled story, becomes an introspective, heart-forward narrative about experiencing love and life to the fullest, and flipping the lens to see where you fit in this world. Felix Ever After isn’t a romcom fairy tale where the hero collects all the friends, defeats the baddies, and rides off with the love of their life. Mistakes get made. Bridges get burned. Life offers its slivers of heartbreak and casual pain on a platter because that’s typical behaviour for life and no one’s going to convince it otherwise. But the dark moments make the eventual triumphs burn all the brighter, and the interplay of the two makes Felix my favourite YA contemporary of the year so far

Callendar’s approach to the narration is a beautiful example of what first person can achieve, especially in YA. It’s raw. It’s winding. It’s messy to its bones. And with a story that tackles so many of the nuances of queer adolescence, and the confusion and wild joy that comes with it, messy is the minimum of what it needs to be, and the author fully delivers on that. Felix is layers of flaws and wonder, all of which Callendar portrays vividly, holding the latter up to the sky without downplaying any of the ugliness. He’s a teenager sitting in the middle of a trifecta of personal markers – trans, demi, black – that he tries to get comfortable with. He’s the soul of every artist with dye-stained fingers and sleep-deprived poets who talk about love like it’s something you need in order to breathe. He’s a hurt kid who lashes out in anger because that’s the one thing he can control in that moment, and because anger is preferable in the face of helplessness. When it comes to her lead–and any of the characters, really–Callendar never takes the shallow route. It’s gorgeous, heartfelt stuff. 

The notion of art is so entwined with the narrative, of the self-portraits that we all paint in our minds, and the way Felix explores it makes my heart soar. Whether it’s his love for a particular piece, or doubts regarding his own work, or him trying to reconcile with the thought that he’s surrounded by peers who seem to be naturals, whereas he has to work so hard to match a fraction of their talent, there’s passion and longing wedged into every word. My boy is so relatable that it hurts to read at times. 

And quite often I was reminded of Keating’s lines from Dead Poet’s Society. This one in particular: 

To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

This story is Felix’s journey in trying to figure out what that verse could be, in all facets of his life. Of wanting to feel secure in his skin, but challenged with walls of bigotry and confusion; to create art but getting tangled up in his insecurities; to experience love but fearing ghosts present and future. And what I loved especially is that for every cut he receives–every blind ignorance and hatred that’s thrown at him–there’s a counterbalance of warm support, casual acceptance, and acknowledgments that while this is not a world they’re familiar with, they’re still willing to learn more about it and grow. 

My one gripe is that the last stretch of the book feels abridged in terms of character work compared to the rest. It’s probably the slow-burn maniac in me shaking fists, but it could have easily been longer to better highlight some of the relationship transitions, because for someone who ruminates on everything Felix moves on from certain events without much of a thought. 

In the end, Felix Ever After is a fierce reminder of love existing in all shape and form, and that your identity, cast in stone or not, questioning or not, is a thing to hold to your chest and nurture and let loose into the world with pride. 

Rating: 8.5/10 (Excellent)

Felix Ever After is a beautiful celebration of trans identity and discovery. The writing is engaging and poignant, with emotional and deeply personal scenes that tug at your heart and make you feel. The story follows Felix Love as he sets out to get revenge on the anonymous student who’s been trolling him online with transphobic messages and a gallery displaying Felix’s deadname with pictures of him before his transition, and along the way, ends up developing feelings he has to sort out while trying to figure himself out. 

Felix’s character is wonderfully nuanced, with layers of confusion and confidence and yearning interwoven, and the side characters, each with their own secrets and motivations, balance out the cast well. There is Ezra, his best friend, fiercely loyal and protective, and Marisol, complicated and haughty. Their relationships aren’t always perfect in the way they sometimes are in fiction. There are fights and betrayals and tears, and that resonated painfully with me, making this story hit even closer to home. It was a jagged reminder of the growing pains that comes with discovering yourself, in shedding toxic friendships and entering new chapters in your life.

Callender’s writing is engaging and honest, and one of my favorite parts of the book were the text conversations Felix has, where his longing to be loved and as his fierce pride for his identity are laid out in a beautifully poetic way. The book walks the reader through Felix’s quest to understand himself as well as develop his identity as an artist while he navigates complicated friendships. I loved the depth in which these relationships were explored, but when the book comes to a climax in the latter pages, the resolution of certain relationships seemed a little bit rushed. 

This book made me laugh and cry and cycle through thousands of emotions in between, and I absolutely loved it. The story is messy and complex, punctuated by lost friendships and pain, but the end result is heartachingly lovely. It’s the story I wish I could have read as a queer teenager struggling to understand herself, and the story I hope everybody can come across because it still reaches into your chest and touches you in a way that is so wonderful and special. It’s a celebration and such an absolute joy to read. I cannot recommend this book enough to all readers in all its raw, unfiltered queer glory.

Rating: 9/10



Overall, we both really enjoyed this book and had a lot of fun reading it together. First buddy review was a success! Please stay tuned for part 2 of our review where we ask each other invasive questions regarding how the themes of the book relates back to our own experiences! Peace out, sleep well.

Review + Giveaway (US): They Went Left – Beautifully Written But Incomplete

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Title:
They Went Left
Author:
Monica Hesse
Publisher:
Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Genre(s): YA Historical Fiction
Subject(s): WW2, Holocaust, Mental Health, Siblings

Release Date:
April 7th, 2020
Page Count: 384 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

 

 


 

I admit, I’m not exactly in the right mood for Holocaust fiction at this point in 2020, but I went into this book for a specific reason: I wanted something hopeful. Something about finding light at the end of a tunnel and holding onto it, despite how much easier it might be to turn and walk right back in. Nothing blindingly happy. Just reaffirming.

And that’s what I got. A story set right after the end of WW2, during its first few months of tentative chaos, with people trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. It’s not a healing story, exactly, but it is a story about healing and the complications that come with such a journey. Zofia’s mental state–her looping thoughts and fears, her gaps in memory, her disassociation– are presented with such great care and lyricism. There just aren’t a lot of WW2 stories out there that focus on camp survivors who were just recently liberated, and I really appreciate Hesse for shining a light on the topic. Because while there’s strength in surviving, I think there’s even greater strength in living. In moving forward with your life, carrying all the horrors you’ve experienced, and choosing to embrace love and laughter in spite of the pain. It’s a kind of courage that deserves to be highlighted more in narratives.

 

“Today I am choosing to love the person in front of me. Do you understand? Because he’s here, I’m here, and we’re ready to not be lonely together.”

 

I was also anticipating a good mystery, though (I mean, the blurbs and synopsis lean heavily on it) but that I didn’t get at all. What little mystery there is predictable and rushed and its conclusion left me feeling underwhelmed. And “rushed” is more or less my biggest complaint about the whole thing. The story throws a handful of plot threads at you–a slice-of-life angle focusing on the refugees in the displaced person camp; a romantic subplot between Zofia and Josef; a search for Zofia’s brother–and while their skeletal structure is interesting, the execution needs a lot more fleshing out. More development of the characters at the camp, better exploration of the romance.

Right now it feels more like an abridged book, and while I really liked the prose and the themes presented, I can only dream longingly for the unabridged version that never existed.

 

 

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Synopsis

Germany, 1945. The soldiers who liberated the Gross-Rosen concentration camp said the war was over, but nothing feels over to eighteen-year-old Zofia Lederman. Her body has barely begun to heal; her mind feels broken. And her life is completely shattered: Three years ago, she and her younger brother, Abek, were the only members of their family to be sent to the right, away from the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Everyone else–her parents, her grandmother, radiant Aunt Maja–they went left.

Zofia’s last words to her brother were a promise: Abek to Zofia, A to Z. When I find you again, we will fill our alphabet. Now her journey to fulfill that vow takes her through Poland and Germany, and into a displaced persons camp where everyone she meets is trying to piece together a future from a painful past: Miriam, desperately searching for the twin she was separated from after they survived medical experimentation. Breine, a former heiress, who now longs only for a simple wedding with her new fiancé. And Josef, who guards his past behind a wall of secrets, and is beautiful and strange and magnetic all at once.

But the deeper Zofia digs, the more impossible her search seems. How can she find one boy in a sea of the missing? In the rubble of a broken continent, Zofia must delve into a mystery whose answers could break her–or help her rebuild her world.

 

 

About the Author

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Monica Hesse is the New York Times bestselling author of Girl in the Blue Coat, American Fire, and The War Outside, as well as a columnist at The Washington Post writing about gender and its impact on society. She lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband and their dog.

 

Tour Schedule

You can check out all the other stops on the tour HERE!

 

Giveaway (U.S.)

Two lucky U.S. residents have a chance to win a physical copy of They Went Left! ENTER HERE.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review

Find me (and my art) @aildreda on:

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Mini Reviews: Untamed Shore & Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing – A Shark and a Wolf Walk(?) into a Bar

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Publisher: Agora Books
Genre(s):
Historical Fiction, Crime
Release Date: February 21st, 2020
Page Count: 339 (hardback)

Rating: 6.5/10

This is an odd one. One of those books that send your brain into a bit of a lull. And I enjoyed it (with a faint question mark attached). But I think I enjoyed it as I’d enjoy sitting on a boat in the middle of a lake for five hours, fishing line cast out, the sun dipping in and out, and catching a single minnow at the end of it all. I can’t decide whether it was meditative or just plain dull, but then I remember that it was a nice day and the birds were singing, so I decide on the former. I probably wouldn’t try it again, but I appreciate the one experience.

It’s an atmosphere-driven book first, character second, and plot third. Moreno-Garcia shows why she’s one of the best when it comes to immersive settings. Baja California is a slow and stifling shoreside town and you can practically feel the heat emanating through the pages as you read. It’s no big city offering glitzy displays of culture, but small places can have just as much character and magnetism, and this story shows that. And Viridiana is a realistic, if unlikable, product of such a place: a little impulsive, a little adventurous, and teeth-grindingly naive. The book definitely works better as her coming-of-age story than a thrilling crime novel because the latter aspects, with the American tourists and their secret troubles, rather underwhelming and a side attraction to the Viridiana Show.

Overall, it’s a lazy immersive sprawl of a story that was worth the read but nothing that really stayed with me afterwards. A brief, quiet fling.

 

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Series: Big Bad Wolf 4
Publisher:
Carina Press
Genre(s):
Paranormal, LGBTQ Romance
Release Date: March 2nd, 2020
Page Count: 268 (paperback)

Rating: 7.5/10

Two of my most pressing questions in the last few years (pre-COVIDapocalypse): 1) When will Blackpink get the respect they’re due from their company? and 2) When will Charlie Adhara release a mediocre book?

The answer is probably the same for both.

We are sitting at book 4 in the Big Bad Wolf series, and I continue to be impressed and delighted by Adhara’s ability to write consistently at the top of the game. She dives into the shapeshifter trope with fresh eyes, creating characters who feel like real people navigating traumas and insecurities, not cardboard cutouts doling out conflict for conflict’s sake, and each book adds new lines and shading to the image that is Park and Cooper. And that continues here. An undercover mission to a couples resort. Murder upon murders. Cooper figuring out that there are so many layers to a relationship, and huh, isn’t that a scary thing, but also a massively wonderful thing?

It wasn’t the strongest of the series in terms of plot and secondary characters, but “not my favourite” for a BBW story equals “really friggin good” for most other paranormal romances. Overall, a solid, solid entry to the next chapter of Cooper’s life.

Expect an overdue Why You Need to Read this Series post in the next week or so!

 

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Find me (and my art) @aildreda on:

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Review: Dragon Age Tevinter Nights – Burn, Thedas, Burn

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Title: Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights
Author(s):
Patrick Weekes, Sylvia Fektekuty, John Epler, Lukas Kristjanson, Brianne Battye, Caitlin Sullivan Kelly, Courtney Woods, Ryan Cormier, Arone LaBray

Publisher: Tor Books
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy, Game-to-Novel
Subject(s): Gods, LGBTQ+

Release Date:
March 10th, 2020
Page Count: 496 (paperback)

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

The Dragon Age games are dark, heroic, epic fantasy role playing games that have won legions of devoted fans. The first game went triple platinum (over three millions units sold) worldwide, and the second game was released in March of 2011 to solid reviews. This sixth book in the series is an anthology put together by the game’s writing staff and specifically follows the fates of various characters and events from the previous three games and the newly announced fourth game.

 

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So you thought your patience meter was pretty high with regards to DA4’s release? Thought “Yeah, sure, I can wait another few years for it”? Well, you can kiss that serenity goodbye, my friends, because that bar’s going to be bottomed out by the time you finish this.

Tevinter Nights just displaced The Last Flight as my favourite Dragon Age novel. Not so much in terms of prose and character work, but in terms of the breadth of content –walking you through the northern regions of Thedas, throwing you hints and speculation fodder, teasing you with storylines that will most definitely reappear in the next game (I’ll eat my stuffed nug if they don’t), and just re-immersing you and setting up the stage for everything that’s to come–Tevinter Nights is fantastic and a must-read for all fans of the series.

And here’s what the stage looks like: the Qunari invasion is well underway; Tevinter is being eaten up bit by bit even as the Magisters and the Venatori scheme from within; Nevarra is standing on a fracture line that cuts between the Mortalitasi and the royal family; Antiva is being forced to rely on the Crows as their main defense against the Qunari; and a bald overpowered heartbreaker idiot thinks he knows what’s best for the world and will stop at seemingly nothing to achieve it. And that’s just what’s on the surface and on this side of the Veil.

Things aren’t looking too great right now–and as this is THEDAS we’re talking about, that’s saying something.

A few general criticisms, though. Some of these stories are obviously a lead-in to side quests or the main quest in DA4, so their conclusions aren’t super satisfying; they serve more as teasers (though they’re pretty good teasers). Also, a lot of them follow the same plot formula: “x is killing y” or “x wants to kill y”, followed by “z has to step in to find out who and why.” It gets a bit repetitive, especially if you’re reading the book all in one go. And as with all anthologies, you’re going to get a mix of stories that you like and stories that just don’t work.

 

My favourites in order:

“The Wigmaker” by Courtney Woods
“The Horror of Hormok” by John Epler
“Eight Little Talons” by Courtney Woods
“Half Up Front” by John Epler
“The Dread Wolf Take You” by Patrick Weekes

(Courtney Woods and John Epler are really the MVPs of this anthology. Their stories are stuffed with interesting lore, they nail the balance of teaser and substance, and character-wise, they’re just more solidly crafted than the others)

As far as anthologies go, this was one of the best I’ve read in recent memory. And my furious obsession with the series has no bearing on that assessment. None whatsoever!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go play Inquisition for the 50th time.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review

 

Find me (and my art) @aildreda on:

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How Historical Fiction Became a Source of Comfort These Last Few Weeks

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Gentleman Jack (HBO)

Happy Wednesday everyone! I hope you’re all doing well and keeping relatively sane! I kind of pulled a disappearing act again, but March was uh…yeah. I had to go through some adjustments.

The past couple of weeks has been interesting. I’m forgetting what day it is, I’ve been crying non stop to The Weeknd’s new album, I’m in danger of overwatering my succulents, and I’ve been binging on….historical fiction.

Huh.

I mean, I love historical fiction and I always have, but it’s become this weird fixation since the quarantine began. Weird because contemporary romance is usually my go-to comfort genre; they’re the books I reach for when I’m stressed and need an immediate escape. So why historical fiction? Why now?

My tentative answer? Because I know how those stories end.

Well, okay, not entirely. I may not know how each and every storyline ends, or how a writer will re-interpret something that’s already written in stone. Historical fiction is still fiction, even ones that are based heavily on true events, and there’s at least some degree of surprise and unpredictability to them.

But I know the general picture of the world that serves as an endnote to these stories. And I know the world which will follow that ending. I’m living in it right now.

And that’s become an emotional anchor of sorts. A reassuring embrace of certainty when tomorrows come with looping anxieties and new fears pitching tent above old ones. Not so much in the way of “Look how terrible things were back then and see how rosy this looks in comparison,” but rather in the sense of recognizing that there were hurdles people faced in every era, in every corners of the world, and then looking at today and saying, “Despite everything, we’re still here.”

So I’m taking it day by day, moment to moment, but also keeping the past close in hand because they serve as reminders of hope and resilience. And “past” doesn’t have to mean 100-200 years ago. I can rewind 10 hours and remember that this morning I woke up, got out of bed, and pulled myself through the rest of the day.

So yes, I’m on a bit of a historical fic binge. I caught up on the last two seasons of Outlander, reread a few Mary Renault books, and rewatched The Handmaiden.

I’m also a couple of episodes into Gentleman Jack and Harlots and enjoying both. The former has been called the Lesbian Downton Abbey, if you’re into that (I’m very much into that). The latter is an 18th century drama set in a London brothel. So kind of like Game of Thrones–the sex and intrigue part, at least–but actually written and produced by women, and told from the perspective of the sex workers (also something I’m super into).

 

To Watch: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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Okay, how many souls do I have to steal and sell to be able to watch this movie? I’m asking for a friend. Quite literally.

The film was released in North America on February, and I was chomping at the bits to run to the nearest theater. I’d heard things about it for months. Exquisite pining, unapologetic sapphic beauty, gazes that say everything words can’t. I was ready to throw myself onto my imaginary fainting couch and sob into a handkerchief. But I had also promised a friend we would watch it together in March when they’re in town. Fast forward a few weeks: the news of the virus became loud and worrying, so we waffled back and forth about the schedule and the possible risks, and then bam, the theaters closed, cities went into lockdown, and the decision was pretty much made for us. 

So no romantic movie and dinner, sadly. But good news! The film will be made released  exclusively for streaming on March 28th! Sweet, sweet joy! And it’s on…on Hulu. Which isn’t available in Canada. Oh.

I mean, I guess it’s fitting that I’ve been gazing longingly at a movie that’s centered around looking. (It’s coming out in VOD form sometime this month, though, and I’m super excited)

 

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Have you been reaching for any specific genres lately?  Have you watched Portrait of the Lady on Fire? And if so, should I have an embroidered hankerchief ready to sob in??

Review: Docile – Important and Poignant Enough to Write a Poem For (Which I Did)

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Title: Docile
Author:
K.M. Szpara
Publisher:
Tor Books

Genre(s): Speculative Fiction
Subject(s): Consent, BDSM, LGBTQ+ (main and secondary)

Release Date:
March 3rd, 2020
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 9.0/10

 

 

 

To be a Docile is to be kept, body and soul, for the uses of the owner of your contract. To be a Docile is to forget, to disappear, to hide inside your body from the horrors of your service. To be a Docile is to sell yourself to pay your parents’ debts and buy your childrens’ future.

Elisha Wilder’s family has been ruined by debt, handed down to them from previous generations. His mother never recovered from the Dociline she took during her term as a Docile, so when Elisha decides to try and erase the family’s debt himself, he swears he will never take the drug that took his mother from him. Too bad his contract has been purchased by Alexander Bishop III, whose ultra-rich family is the brains (and money) behind Dociline and the entire Office of Debt Resolution. When Elisha refuses Dociline, Alex refuses to believe that his family’s crowning achievement could have any negative side effects—and is determined to turn Elisha into the perfect Docile without it.

 

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I tried writing a long review for this. I really did. On my first attempt I stared at the screen for a few hours and wrote a poem about it instead. On my second attempt I wrote a rambly essay that got way too personal and I figured I should just save that for therapy.

This is a book I feel deserves a long review, but well–sometimes my brain says, “I don’t think so.” And who knows? Maybe it’s right.

My favourite formula for storytelling is “Present it big, but tell it small.” As in, I love stories that offer a grand concept, but instead of focusing on the big pieces, it goes through the intimate details–the minutiae of everyday life. That’s one of the main reasons why I love this book so much. Because Docile commentates on a broken system that feels too-adjacent to our own–a Black Mirror-ish look at class divides and capitalism–but it does it through a story about healing and self-discovery, and a relationship that was built terribly wrong and brittle but nonetheless became real.

The other reason is Elisha.

It’s funny, because I don’t really know who Elisha as a person. He’s not as present or as bold as Alex is on the page. Which is, to be fair, kind of the point, as he spends most of the book getting scrubbed away, and the rest trying to figure out who he is as an individual. But a blank slate is a blank slate, so there’s really no reason for me to be attached to him, or relate to him. Except I am and I do. It’s his journey that I looked at and said, “Oh, this rings a bell.” Not the rape and the mindfuck, thankfully, but the aftermath and the healing process. The pain of being lost and looking over your emotions and feeling like you can’t trust any of them. And the use of bondage and power play to help reclaim his sense of control and autonomy (seeing BDSM in a therapeutic context in fiction makes me a happy otter). This was a case of the journey shaping the character, rather than the character shaping the character. If that makes sense.

I broke for him. And I was proud for him.

“I’m still in here.” I curl my finger against my sternum. “I need help. I need someone to love me and be patient with me.”

The thing with stories about sexual servitude is that there’s a very fine line that you need to toe, otherwise the whole thing devolves into an uncomfortable cousin of torture porn, and the point you’re trying to raise about consent–if that was even a point you set out to make–becomes moot (Bliss by Lisa Henry and Heidi Belleau is one example).

Docile toes that line decked out in Wes Anderson pastels and vintage floral prints.

It heats things up, but never condones. It presents you with kindness and care and love, and then asks how much they’re worth when, at the end of the day, your body isn’t yours and your mouth is sewn and there is never an option to say “No.”

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review

 

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January & February 2020 Wrap-Up: Begone, Cursed Months! (Feat. Pretty Lights)

Happy March, everyone!

These past two months felt overly short and dragged out at the same time. And I’m torn between wanting to re-do them or wanting to stuff them into a burlap sack filled with rocks and hurl them into the nearest lake.

I ended up re-reading a lot of old comfort books, partly because of a two-month reading slump I was still shaking off, and partly because I’ve been in and out of a really bad mental place and trying to do my best to stay afloat.

And kind of jumping from that, here’s a little PSA for anyone with depression and suicidal thoughts: don’t wait until you reach the lowest of the lowest breaking point before calling hotline numbers or checking yourself in. I used to think those were things you only do when you’re in a really fucked-up mindspace, and it took me a while to learn otherwise. Do it before you start playing roulette with yourself. Sure, they’re not one-shot fixes; no one comes to you with a platter of solutions and a magic wand to neatly sprinkle them into your brain. But they do try their best, and they give you a safe place when you’re not in a position to trust yourself. Sometimes that’s enough, sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, but it’s always better than nothing.

Good? Okay, onto more fun things!

I did manage to get to a few new/upcoming releases, so here are some of the highlights:

⚔️= Fantasy; 🚀= Scifi; 🐺= Paranormal; 👻= Horror; 🔍= Mystery; 🌺= Contemporary; 🗝️= Historical; 🌈= LGBTQ+

 

The Best

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The Poet King (The Harp and Ring Sequence 3) by Ilana C. Myer ⚔️🌈:

I adore this series and sometimes I have a hard time explaining why except to say that it just speaks to me. The characters. The aesthetics. The texture of the world and how music shapes it. The Poet King is the end to a saga that started with Last Song Before Night and I loved it. I mean, it’s got some glaring conclusion issues, but I still loved it.

The “Sequence” part makes me wonder if there’s going to be more stories set in the world. It confuses me (and gives me false hope) when authors don’t come right out and say “trilogy” or “duology.”

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow (Watchmaker 2) by Natasha Pulley 🗝️🌈:

I was nervous about this because Watchmaker on Filigree Street was kind of a disappointment, especially after reading Bedlam Stacks, but Pepperharrow shows how much Pulley is growing as a writer. It’s got everything I adore about her stories–the whimsical seeping into the everyday normal, love that’s portrayed by its negative spaces–plus a lot of the issues in the first book addressed.

 

The Great

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Bent Heavens by Daniel Kraus 👻🌺:

The worst and also the best alien abduction story I’ve read in a while. Daniel Kraus has no chill. [Review]

Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights ⚔️:

Tevinter Nights is the first Dragon Age novel since 2014 and the first major romp through Thedas since 2015, and my god, I was stupidly excited. It’s an anthology, and while I’m not the biggest reader of anthologies and definitely not someone who finishes them in one go, make it Dragon Age and I’ll read dozens of them in one month. DA has been my number one game world obsession for the past 10 years. By far. And there’s a running joke–which isn’t really a joke–that when my friends and I play through the series we spend half the time playing the game and the other half combing through pixels trying to catch every bit of information about the world and compiling dossiers. Save the world? Sorry, that’s gotta wait; I have to stare at some statues for the next two hours and cross-reference them with these texts. And sometimes the sleuthing is even more fun than the actual gameplay.

Okay, I’m being told I need to stop before I diverge into full tumblr mode.

But yeah, the stories? *chef’s kiss* They were (mostly) a joy to read through, and I’m back with my tinfoil hat on. The review is going to be horrendously biased and I don’t even care.

 

The Good & Fine

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Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore 🗝️🌺⚔️:

My first venture into Anna-Marie McLemore and I wasn’t disappointed. Story-wise it’s nothing amazing, but I love McLemore’s style of writing and the way she approaches certain details. I’ll be working my way through her other books this year. [Review]

Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia 🌺:

This was, uh…..fine? Pleasant? More of a quiet experience than a story that I want to shout from the rooftops about. Review to come!

 

The Could Be Better, Could Be Worse

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The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood ⚔️:

This wasn’t really up to the hype and expectations, but I do like the protagonist–a lesbian orc fighter/merc who tries her best–and I’m hoping the sequel irons out some of the problems. [Review]

 

 


Life Things

I sprained my neck during a hike a few weeks ago which meant little to no drawing or painting (another reason to chuck February to the bottom-most depths), but it’s mostly healed now and I’m eagerly getting back into it.

Also, we got our first winter snow in January! There’s a lake-that’s-more-of-a-large-pond outside my apartment complex and it’s host to a lights festival during winter–creative light sculptures and light-strewn trees winding all around, everything from Christmas themes to Canadian-centric stuff (lots of beavers and maple leaves).

They look gorgeous on any normal night. But when it snows? It’s like you’re moving through these little pockets of magical worlds. Kind of ethereal. Kind of eerie. And super, super neat.

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Tell me how your winter months went and what you’re looking forward to in spring!

Review: The Unspoken Name – A Saga of Badass Lesbian Orc and Wonder Bread Boy

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Title: The Unspoken Name
Author:
A.K. Larkwood
Publisher:
Tor Books

Genre(s): Epic Fantasy, Portal Fantasy
Subject(s): Gods, Coming-of-Age, LGBTQ+ (main and secondary)

Release Date:
Feb 11th, 2020
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

 

 

 

 

What if you knew how and when you will die?

Csorwe does. She will climb the mountain, enter the Shrine of the Unspoken, and gain the most honored title: sacrifice. On the day of her foretold death, however, a powerful mage offers her a new fate.

Csorwe leaves her home, her destiny, and her god to become the wizard’s loyal sword-hand — stealing, spying, and killing to help him reclaim his seat of power in the homeland from which he was exiled.

But Csorwe and the wizard will soon learn – gods remember, and if you live long enough, all debts come due.

 

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Turns out I have a few things to say about this book, so to keep everything organized we’re doing sections today. Huzzah!

 

❤️❤️❤️

Unconventional But Likeable Protagonist

Csorwe is a female orc and also a fighter who’s pretty laid back–almost humble–about being a well-oiled sword swinging machine. That makes her a bit of a unicorn in a genre that lauds its “badass” female human characters. She’s skilled and pragmatic and levelheaded, which is a super underrated character trait, and just plain readable. And the contrast between her calm and Tal’s anxiety-ridden disorder is a joy to behold.

 

  Fun and Genuine Character Interactions

The dialogue is pitch-perfect and arguably the shining point of the whole thing. From scenes of vulnerability to wry sarcasm to fuck-it anarchy (mostly on Tal’s part), they do much to convey the characters’ personalities and their relationships. Csorwe and Tal’s dynamic is pure schoolyard antagonism and entertaining as hell to see played out. Though I’m hoping the sequel adds a few more layers to them because the 24/7 sniping (and nothing else) is going to get old pretty quick.

The slow-burn romance between Csorwe and Shuthmili is also one of the highest points of the story. I mean, Shuthmili is a great character to begin with–her surface coldness a product of a life that’s always been about fearing and being feared for her powers–and her journey of learning to see choices beyond ones that have been spoonfed to her is a nice parallel to Csorwe’s own journey of independence (and I would say better written than Csorwe’s).

The two together are cute and sweet and make me smile–what more can you ask for?

 

Cool Worldbuilding Setup

Dying worlds and broken gods and airships. It’s like the book knows me. Oh, and any author who includes a sentient and intelligent serpent race in their story has my eternal love.

 

 


💔💔💔

Picturing this World in My Head is Like Walking to the Grocery Store Without My Contacts On

You can have an interesting broad scheme for your worldbuilding but drop the ball on the details. And that’s the case here.

This is a story that hops through different worlds, but if you ask me to sketch out what each of them looks or feels like, I’d shrug at you from across a blank page. At best I’d call the settings minimalist–and nothing wrong with that, no one needs a two-page description of the texture of a tavern wall–but mostly they’re a frustrating landscape of vague shapes and smells. It’s like squinting though a mist while a tour guide yammers at your ear about how wonderful the place looks and how rich the culture is–all well and good except you can’t see any of it.

The snake world near the beginning is pretty interesting, but that’s the only one that left a solid impression. The rest are an absolute blur, to the point where I felt disoriented. I’m assuming this was a stylistic decision on the author’s part, but it makes the story resemble too much of an elongated dream sequence. And with an epic portal fantasy, it just feels like a lost opportunity.

 

Sethennai the Wonder Bread Boy

Speaking of blurs! Let’s talk about Belthandros Sethennai. Oh, Sethennai. Sethennai the poster boy for not living up to a badass name.

You know when your friend tells you about their celebrity crush and the person in question turns out to be a bland white dude whose appeal is completely lost on you, and you can’t even differentiate him from the previous bland white dude they were crushing on, so you’re just sitting there thinking, “This is the greatest mystery of my life”? Well, that’s Sethennai. Minus the white bit.

The book tries to make me believe that most everything in its narrative orbits this man. He’s the “kindly” mentor/savior figure who rescues Csorwe. His quest for the reliquary is what propels the storyline forward. Women swoon over him. His mentees fall over themselves to try to please him. It’s devotion at its finest, and all I want to know is WHY. Just why. What makes him so special? From Csorwe’s point of view, I kind of understand; he pulled her out from a horrific fate and I imagine a life debt makes for some thick rose-tinted glasses. But what about everyone else?

The characters tell you that he’s charming and suave and convincing. Whether or not he actually is any of those things is very much the greatest fucking mystery of my life, because at the end of the day, I don’t know who Sethennai is. He’s clear paint smeared atop a clear canvas and just about as exciting and remarkable.

And his weak characterization affects other major aspects of the story, like his quest for the Reliquary. In order for me to have cared about this plotline at least one of the following had to be true:

(1) I’m interested in the premise of the quest itself
(2) I think Sethennai is an interesting person
(3) I care that Csorwe cares about Sethennai

And…yeah. None of those were happening.

 

Lackluster Character Development

This also leads back to good ol’ Belthandros! (He’s out here just ruining everyone’s day, isn’t he?) The other reason why Sethennai had to be a solid character is that both Tal and Csorwe’s storylines lead back to him. So the fact that he isn’t makes Csorwe’s journey of self-discovery, and kicking herself out of the nest, so to speak, less impactful than it should have been. And Tal’s journey is even more underwhelming. If I have zero impressions–good or otherwise–about the man they’ve had this complicated and mostly-one-sided relationship with, then I can’t be expected to feel much for a series of character developments that directly depend on the guy being at least somewhat complex.

Also, there’s a big gap in Csorwe’s development from Csorwe the Chosen Bride and Csorwe Thereafter. From 14 years of living in a convent and being slated for death to being told you’re now a free agent with a future, and the transition between the two is basically non-existent. No exploration of how she’s had to adjust, or how her world views have changed, just a “Okay, I was living in Point A, now I’m living in Point B. The end.”

 


Okay, I know, that seems like a lot of ranting. But I did mostly like the book! On the surface it’s an enjoyable story with great potential, and it’s got a set of main characters (minus He Who I Shall No Longer Name) that interest me enough to keep going. But things start fraying when you try to delve deeper, and I just wish it ended up being more than what it turned out to be.

 

(Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review)

 

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