Review: The Last Sun – Fantasy Written to Perfection

the last sun

Title: The Last Sun (The Tarot Sequence 1)
Author: K.D. Edwards
Publisher: Pyr
Release Date: June 12th, 2018
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Page Count: 367 (paperback)
Goodreads

Rating: 10/10

 

 

 

I’ve been sitting on this review for over a month, all the while rewriting and tweaking and coming to the realization that a written review can’t properly encompass the  adoration I have for this story and its characters. A hundred gifs of muppet flails would be a better representation of my feelings, but I figure I still have some shred of respectability and professionalism to maintain.

But that was more or less my experience reading this book–every cell of my body flailing their tiny cytoplasmic limbs in abject worship. Because The Last Sun shines with the light of a supernova. It brims with life and love and wonder and serves as a testament to some of the best this genre has to offer. It’s everything I want in quality fantasy and more: a lovingly-crafted, rich setting that’s a blend of contemporary and high fantasy; prose that moves from laugh-out-loud humour to quiet poignancy; caffeine-fueled pacing and breakneck action sequences; complex, unabashedly queer characters, and heartfelt exploration of the many kinds of male relationships.

The story takes place in New Atlantis, an island formerly known in the human world as Nantucket. This Earth is very much like our own–same countries, same pop culture, same technology–except for the presence of various magical beings. These magical beings used to exist unbeknownst to humans, but then came the Atlantean World War and the boundaries between Atlanteans and humans became frayed. Among these beings are those called the “Arcana.” Named after tarot cards–like The Tower, The Fool, Justice, and The Sun–they’re the closest things to gods of this world. Their access to immense power and their considerable influence within and outside of New Atlantis make them the de facto Atlantean rulers.

New Atlantis is like if Shadowrun had a baby with Neverwhere. Worldbuilding in urban fantasy don’t normally excite me because many of them feel the same. There’s either the fae–the Seelie and the Unseelie–or the paranormal–wereanimals, vampires, spirits, and such. You get the gist after reading half a dozen UF series. The Last Sun, though? It makes me giddy in a way that the Shadowrun world does. For those who are unfamiliar, Shadowrun is a cyberpunk RPG that’s unfortunately shadowed (no pun intended) by the popularity of D&D. And what I adore about Shadowrun is its diversity. Its major cities are a hub for not only human diversity–various ethnicity, sexuality, and gender–but magical diversity. When you walk down a street, you would see orcs intermingling with trolls, elves, dwarves, shamans, druids, and more.

The same goes for New Atlantis. The island is crammed with all manner of magical beings. Wereanimals, spirits, fae, ghouls, elementals–pick the name of any random fantasy creature floating around in your brain and it can probably be found in New Atlantis. Every corner of the story unveils something new and exciting and I couldn’t help but grin like an idiot tourist at the absolute wonder of it all.

The magic system is very reminiscent of RPGs–dynamic and fiendishly delightful. The plot moves from your standard mystery to something with larger implications, and its pacing grabs you by the neck and hurls you forward at a hundred miles per hour. And what’s incredible is that even though the pacing hardly ever lets up, Edwards still makes time for meaningful character interactions without disrupting the momentum.

The book could have stopped there and I still would have given it a very high score. But Edwards takes it a step further. Let’s talk about the reason this gets a 10 out of 10: the characters. Because the characters of The Last Sun have wormed their way into my heart, built themselves a little cabin, and are now refusing to leave.

In a genre that so often celebrates a testosterone-laden brand of masculinity, Edwards whittles down stereotypes. Take Brand, our protagonist’s foul-mouthed, sarcastic bodyguard. We’re all familiar with the type. But the thing with Brand is that he never shies away from showing how much he cares about Rune. He dons the tough bodyguard look and the emotionally vulnerable look with equal confidence.

Take Addam, who is a perfect example of the Knight In Shining Armour archetype done right. He’s one of those people that you want to hate because they’re so perfect, but can’t because they’re so perfectly nice. In fiction, nice characters–especially nice male characters and especially nice male love interests–are often disparaged as boring. Dull. Weak. Addam shatters this notion to pieces. He’s a pillar of strength born of unconditional kindness and love and trust–qualities that we as a society often misconstrue as naiveté.

And then there’s Rune, our protagonist. The heir to the fallen Sun Throne. Victim of an unspeakable tragedy. He lives in a tiny house on the edge of poverty with the fear over his head that someday his luck will run out and his enemies will catch up to him. But most of all, Rune is a survivor. And his display of strength–through his jokes, his empathy, his determination to keep moving forward–amidst the demons of his past is nothing short of inspiring.

But what I love and appreciate the most, and what makes the book special to me is in the way that Edwards tackles relationships. Specifically, the notion that deep, emotional intimacy can’t exist between two people who are not romantically involved.

I’m always drawn to stories about friends who share hugs and kisses and tell each other, without shame or hesitation, “I will walk to the deepest of hell for you.” Because my own relationship with my best friend is a very intimate one where we tell each other things like “You’re my raison d’etre” with complete seriousness. But I hardly ever see this explored in modern western literature–mostly in manga and anime.

Then this book comes along.

Rune’s relationship with Brand is different to his relationship with Addam–in that it’s not a romantic or sexual one. Yet it’s no less intimate. It’s still love. It’s palpable love that makes you want to burst into tears at the sheer beauty of it. To see this portrayed with pitch-perfection in a book–a fantasy one at that–makes me ridiculously happy. Reading through Rune and Brand’s snarky exchanges are always great, but the moments of quiet, during which they reiterate their bond to one another, are what makes this relationship so compelling. They make my heart soar in the same way that the genre’s best duos do.

What else can I say? The book is only just over 350 pages, but Edwards utilizes every single one of them and takes you through a whirlwind of an adventure. The Last Sun gives so much and leaves room for yet so much more. And I feel incredibly privileged to witness the start of what’s no doubt going to be a magnificent one-of-lifetime journey alongside these characters.

~

Review copy provided by Pyr and Edelweiss.

 

May To-Read Pile & Mini Break (Health Update)

Boy, this week has not been a fun one. At all. To be vague, something has happened (or, rather, not happened), and while it very much could mean nothing, my brain has been working in overdrive to churn out the worst possible scenarios. And the looming possibility that I unwittingly did something terribly wrong has been knifing away at my heart and siphoning off energy like nothing else. So I’ve been oscillating between getting too little sleep and too much sleep–and feeling exhausted regardless of which–with panic attacks in between. And it’s gotten to the point where I just don’t have the willpower or focus to write anything substantial for the blog (which is why I ended up skipping Top 5 Wednesday and Diversity Spotlight Thursday).

Anxiety is a fucking bitch, guys.

So I’m going to step away for a week so to try to figure things out. A part of me thinks that taking any kind of break or hiatus is going to make my content obsolete and my audience vanish–which I know is a common fear for most content creators–but, really, I don’t see much choice. I do apologize for the comments that I haven’t gotten to yet and for not being very active on some of your blogs this week.

On a cheerier note, I did get a May TBR list ready before this week, so we can still go through those today! I also have a half-completed Most-Anticipated list in the draft, so I might just end up posting that sometime early next week.

May-To-read

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang:
I’ll be starting a buddy read of this tomorrow with Alice from Arisutocrat and I’m pretty excited. The story apparently descends into brutal, bloody stuff in the second half, so I’m not sure if it’s a right thing to dive into in my current state, but we’ll see. I’ll kick myself later if I have too.

Armistice (The Amberlough Dossier 2) by Lara Elena Donnelly:
Last year, Donnelly’s debut Amberlough took my heart in its beautiful art deco hands and crushed it to smithereens. The first book was unapologetically, gloriously queer and explored the creeping emergence of fascism–making it very, very topical–and I expect the good things to continue in the sequel.

 

May-To-read2

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
Native American urban fantasy is not something you see everyday and I’ve been looking forward to digging my fingers into this debut for a while now.

The Rig by Roger Levy
When I first read the blurb for this book months ago, I knew I had to get my hands on it. I mean, just listen to this:

On a desert planet, two boys meet, sparking a friendship that will change human society forever.
On the windswept world of Bleak, a string of murders lead a writer to a story with unbelievable ramifications.
One man survives the vicious attacks, but is left with a morbid fascination with death; the perfect candidate for the perilous job of working on a rig.

Welcome to the System. Here the concept of a god has been abandoned, and a new faith pervades: AfterLife, a social media platform that allows subscribers a chance at resurrection, based on the votes of other users.

So many Lives, forever interlinked, and one structure at the centre of it all: the rig.

May-To-read3

A Lite Too Bright by Samuel Miller
I didn’t know this book even existed until several days ago when I saw it among the deals of the week on Chapters Indigo, but I couldn’t not preorder it. It’s a road-trip story in which a teenage boy embarks on a quest to uncover truths about his grandfather who had been a very famous writer. In other words, it’s right up my alley. I fell in love with the premise and the cover and hopefully the content will be as equally wonderful.

Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro
This books has a similar premise to The Hate U Give and from what I’ve heard, it’s just as much of a gutpuncher. Give me all the books, contemporary or otherwise, that tackle matters of societal injustice and brim with righteous anger.

flourish

I’ll definitely be checking out other books this month, but these are the definite ones.

I hope the rest of your week is much, much better than mine. See you all on the flip side.

 

Review: This I Know – Psychics and Queerbaiting in 70’s America

This I know

Title: This I Know
Author: Eldonna Edwards
Publisher: John Scognamiglio Book
Release Date: April 24th, 2018
Genre(s): Paranormal, Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age
Page Count: 320 (hardback)
Goodreads

Rating: 3.0/10

 

 

 

This is the first score below 5.0 I’ve given on this blog, so I think a little preamble is in order to mark the occasion. Objectively, this isn’t a terrible book–the prose is nice, the protagonist is engaging, and so forth. But I think the phrase “objective review” is an oxymoron. Once a piece of media content enters your brain, it automatically becomes subjective. No two people experiences anything in the exact same way. My neural map is different from your neural map.

So subjectively speaking? This I Know is a mix of historical fiction, paranormal, and coming-of-age that sounds fantastic in premise but suffers in execution and left me grinding my teeth in distaste.

Set in 60’s and 70’s midwest U.S., it stars an eleven-year old girl named Grace who is rather quite extraordinary. First of all, she has an ability that she calls “The Knowing,” though others may call it clairvoyance or telepathy. It works as it sounds–Grace knows things most people don’t. She can pick up people’s stray thoughts, their desires, and even their future–like what bra size a girl would end up wearing as an adult. Secondly, she’s connected to the spirit (or soul) of her twin brother who had died shortly after birth–and by “connected” I mean “have full conversations with.” The story is about Grace struggling to find her place in a family and town that views her with skepticism and fear.

There’s a lot to like in the first half. Grace’s narration is incredibly charming and funny without coming across as cheeky. She does sound a little too mature for an 11-year old at times and I oscillated between “This narrative voice is so great!” and “No kid thinks like this, however psychically gifted they are.” She uses words like “dilapidation” and complex metaphors that many adults wouldn’t even think of. After a while, though, I ended up burying my skepticism and started enjoying it for what it was. And Grace is an easy character to love. She’s a compassionate girl with a great sense of humour and I love the way she picks out the small details in people–the interesting descriptions she pastes onto their looks and personalities.

Earl is a farmer who spends a lot of time in the sun. The back of his neck has crisscross crinkles that make me want to stick cloves in it like an Easter ham.

Now here comes the negatives.

The plot–there isn’t much of it. Most of the story deals with Grace’s daily life in town as she helps out people and tries to fit in among her somewhat dysfunctional family. While this doesn’t normally bother me in coming-of-age stories, my problem with This I Know is that it half-heartedly tries to throw in a plotline–a mystery regarding a man who’s been assaulting young girls around town– in the last 20% of the story. A half-formed, uninteresting plotline that fizzles out in the very definition of anticlimax.

Also, the side characters lack depth. Grace’s father starts out as a fire and brimstone preacher, strict to the point of stifling, and a neglectful father. He continues that way up until the very last moment where he does a complete 180 and becomes a changed man. Grace’s three sisters spend most of the story picking on Grace and not much else. As for the mother, it would have been great to see her postpartum depression explored further but unfortunately, she’s very much absent for a large chunk of the book.

Third and final point, and what ultimately ended up plummeting the score: queerbaiting. I was so sure that Grace was going to come out as queer by the end of the book–if not to the town, then at least to herself. Throughout the book she’s constantly noting how amazing and gorgeous other girls are and admiring their figures and wanting to touch their breasts. But then, near the end, when her best friend Lola kisses her, she recoils and says (to paraphrase), “Sorry but no. Being gay is a sin.” Which is rather rich coming from a girl who can see the future and talk to dead people. If that doesn’t get you tossed into Satan’s fiery pits, I highly doubt kissing a girl would. There is little point to this scene except to shove Lola into the role of a temptress and Grace into the role of the pure Christian girl who is Definitely Not Gay.

But what really put the final nail on this coffin is the ending (minor spoilers here), where we find out that Grace eventually gets married to a boy named Robin who appears in a total of two short scenes throughout the entire book. They marry, build a house for themselves, have a beautiful baby boy, and live happily ever after. I nearly threw my tablet in disgust at this point.

The obvious lesson we’re supposed to take from this story is that we should examine the world with an open mind and treasure our differences. But in a story where heteronormality is celebrated at the expense of LGBTQ characters, such lessons come tainted with hypocrisy.

~

Thank you to Netgalley and John Scognamiglio Book for providing a review copy.

Review: Fire Dance – Beautiful and Etched with Heartrending Loneliness

Fire Dance

Title: Fire Dance
Author: Ilana C. Myer
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: April 10th, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy
Page Count: 368 (hardback)
Goodreads

Rating: 9.5/10

 

 

 

 

That, he believed, was the essence of what it meant to be a poet. Not to work magic. Rather it was to see, and weave verse from, life’s manifold truths. Even if they hurt.
They nearly always did.

This book is a triumph. A masterwork of character and prose that wind through your soul like the final trembling notes of a song. Myer’s debut, Last Song Before Night, was brimstone and fire and icy winds and music that rumbled low through your body. Fire Dance plays out like a haunting ballad that recounts a yearning for a time and place long lost and bone-deep loneliness.

There is honestly no one who writes quite like Ilana Myer. The genius of her writing isn’t in the way her individual sentences are constructed (though they are very lovely); you won’t find many quotable one-liners in her books. It’s the way the sentences combine together to evoke emotions in you. Her words just have so much sadness running through them. But there’s also music. And poetry. And the inviolate truths of life and all the wonder and beauty that’s wrought from them. I feel the same way reading her stories as I do listening to Damien Rice songs. Like my soul has been gently lifted and carried off on a journey.

While Fire Dance is marked as a standalone, I highly recommend reading it after Last Song Before Night, because half of the main cast are characters from the first book and much of their past rear their heads in this one. The story is split between Eivar, a country of poetry and music, and their neighbouring ally, Kahishi, which is a land of magicians and prophecies divined from the stars. Lin Amaristoth, Court Poet and Seer (which is pretty much the highest recognition you can get as a poet in Eivar), travels to Kahishi to aid their court against the mysterious Fire Dancers. While Lin mires herself in politics and intrigue, three other characters are caught up in strange magical matters at the Academy (a school for aspiring poets) in Eivar.

The contrast between lush and vibrant Kahishi and the grey austerity of the Academy is utterly fascinating. Myer has a talent for dragging out the best that a setting has to offer, and her descriptions of the major landmarks within Majdara, the capital city of Kahishi, left me breathless with wonder:

Lin’s gaze was drawn up, to the walkways that ran alongside the walls in three levels, accessible by staircases of porphyry and gold. The walls that were entirely glass, clear as air, so that along the walkways burned countless stars.
All this overseen by an arched ceiling like a second sky, adorned with stars and spheres. Against a backdrop of black crystal, jewels made the constellations.

Myer cites Robin Hobb as a major inspiration, and this is readily apparent in her writing because she writes some of the best layered characters in fantasy. You try to peel away at them throughout the course of the story and find there’s yet still more…and more. Morever she is fantastic at writing tortured characters. And I say that, from the bottom of my heart, as a compliment. All her characters have gaping holes. Hunger desperate to be filled with something–friendship, love, recognition, power. The specifics of their hunger may be different, but they all seem to share a common root: loneliness. And often times we see that loneliness twists into something uglier. Sharper.

Like jealousy.

Resentment.

Despair.

They are a symphony of warring longings and pains, and it’s this internal struggle that keeps you so completely–helplessly–enthralled, more so than any strange magical happenings or political intrigues.

The only thing that prevents me from giving it a perfect score is the ending, where the story halts just a bit too prematurely for my liking. The book definitely feels like a Part One of a larger story, and while the main storyline is wrapped up, there are still many questions newly posed or left unanswered.

Reading Fire Dance is like eating chicken noodle soup and watching the ending of Brokeback Mountain at the same. It will heal your soul and simultaneously break it.

So please go check it out.

flourish

And as a little bonus, I leave you with two songs! One that captures the rousing cry of Last Song Before Night (I must have listened to this at least a dozen times while reading the book):

And one that captures the heartaching melancholy of Fire Dance:

 

[Review] From Unseen Fire – When in Rome…Do as the Mages Do?

From Unseen Fire.jpg

Title: From Unseen Fire (Aven Cycle 1)
Author: Cass Morris
Publisher: DAW Books
Release Date: April 17th, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy, Alt-History
Page Count: 400
Goodreads

Rating: 5.0/10

 

 

 

This book is a lesson in tempering expectations. One would think that, being a fan of the video game industry, it’s one I’ve learned backwards and forwards by now, but nope–not when it comes to books, it seems. I came into the story wide-eyed and giddy. Months and months before, I’d feasted my eyes on the gorgeous cover, read the words “alt-history” and “Rome” and “magic,” and thought “holy hell, this is made for me,” then fell headlong into hype town. But alas, reality is a cruel mistress. Because while it’s not a terrible historical-fantasy story, it’s a painfully mediocre one–which, to me, is the ultimate kiss of death.

The premise of the story is based around one question: what would the fate of the Roman Republic have been if it’d had mages at its disposal?

First of all, the story suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. It’s mainly set in a city called Aven. And pretty much everything about Aven (minus the magic), from architecture to social and political structure, to its dictator, is identical to Ancient Rome.

Well, okay, so it’s a fantasy world inspired by Rome!

Well, no. Because Aven gods are Roman gods–Jupiter, Juno, Mars, and the like. And the protagonist mentions “Remus” at one point, so Romulus and Remus and the legend of how they founded the ancient city obviously exists in this world (though it makes no sense then as to why the city would be called “Aven” rather than “Rome”).

Then it’s…an alternate history with a dash of fantasy!

No, not quite! Because while Aven does have its own Julius Caesar equivalent, his name of “Ocella,” and he dies not of an assassination but an illness. Also, the Mediterranean Sea is called the “Middle Sea” and Lusitania (known today as Spain and Portugal) has been ever so slightly altered to “Lusetania.” It’s as if Aven is your white friend, Adam Smith, who’d one day decided he would get dreadlocks and call himself Swift Flowing River and sell vaginal cleansing moon water at $69.99 per bottle. It’s all just so weirdly dressed-up and unnecessarily inconsistent. There are too many changes made for it to be alternate history, yet too similar to history for it to be an original fantasy world.

Secondly, let’s take a look at the magic system, which I thought was full of potential:

Aven-magic-list
There are nine types of elemental magics in this world and each has its own patron gods–Spirit mages, for example, are said to be blessed by Jupiter and Juno. When charted all out like this on paper, it looks really neat. Nothing too original, but familiar and cool. My problem is that we don’t get to see many of these magics at work in the story itself. There are throwaway comments here and there about a certain mage doing this or that, but Fire and Shadow are the only ones that the story (sporadically) focuses on.

Moreover, Aven feels like plain old Rome, with little to indicate that it’s a city of mages. There are so many ways that the magic could have been incorporated into the setting. Architectural inventions that rely on magic. Elaborate fashion designs that are reflective of specific patron deities and their powers. There are so many cool possibilities that the story just doesn’t explore, and I was left gnashing my teeth in frustration and disappointment.

The characters are a hit and a miss–mostly the former. Latona is a fine lead character. She’s a Spirt and Fire Mage, which means that she can influence emotions and blow shit up, respectively. She’s independent and fiercely protective of her loved ones, but she’s also dealing with trauma from her time at the Dictator’s court, where she was manipulated and kept under leash. I liked how she channels all the guilt, rage, and helplessness she’d felt into helping other vulnerable women.

The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for her male co-lead, Sempronius, and most of the supporting characters. Stories with large casts run the risk of uneven distribution of character development, and that’s exactly the case with this book.

Sempronius is a Shadow and Water mage. Immediately following the death of Oscella, he scries a vision of two possible Avens: one of properity and strength like it has never seen before; the other, of ruin and dust–our Rome, basically. And so Sempronius is determined to do whatever it takes to prevent this second future from taking hold. We see very early on that he’s a noble, charismatic, and ambitious man. And as the story goes on, he continues to be noble and charismatic and ambitious, and…nothing much more. Interesting, complex characters either shed layers or have layers added to them over the course of a story. But Sempronius at the beginning of this story is the same as the Sempronius at the middle and at the end. Bland and paper-thin, he essentially exists for the sole purpose of moving the plot forward (and very slowly, at that).

The supporting characters fare no better, with perhaps the exception of Aula, Latona’s older sister, and Merula, Latona’s handmaiden. Part of the problem is that we see so little of so many of them that it’s hard to feel one way or the other about any. The other problem is that they’re just not very interesting. There’s nothing notable that distinguishes one from the other and they all kind of blend together after a while.

There are two main plotlines: the upcoming election of Aven, which Sempronius is campaigning for, and the rising conflict in Lucenatnia, led by the 20 year-old war-leader, Ekialde. I wasn’t really invested in either of them, and a lot of that has to do with uneven pacing. Nothing much important happens throughout a large chunk of the middle, and then there’s a sudden flurry of activities in the last 70 pages. It also has to do with the the structure of the narration, which was very different from what I’d expected. Many of the scenes are written almost like vignettes: there’s a lot of dialogue and exposition and description of actions, but no detailed descriptions of the setting (or any extraneous details) in between. It’s very economic. Which makes it digestible but doesn’t keep me deeply immersed in the world.

The bottom line is that I was bored. I was bored reading a character-driven story about Ancient Rome and political intrigue and foreign threats and magic influenced by Roman gods. It’s a brilliant premise that fails to deliver. And I tried to like it. I wanted to like it. But for that to happen, you got to give me something to hook my interest onto, and all I found were smooth, flat walls.

Thank you to DAW Books and Netgalley for providing me with a review copy.

[Review] Imposter Syndrome – A Brilliant Combination of Action, Complex Characters, and Heartfelt Examination of Mental Health

Imposter Syndrome

Title: Imposter Syndrome (The Arcadia Project 3)
Author: Mishell Baker
Publisher: Saga Press
Release Date: March 13th, 2018
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Page Count: 481 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 9.0/10 (Champions of the Genre)

 

 

 

So this review started out as a normal review and then it morphed into a weird self-reflection/series appreciation/review monstrosity. Because my god, Imposter Syndrome made me feel a lot of things. It’s a pitch-perfect conclusion (maybe?) to a series that has wormed itself into a special place in my heart, and it left me crying for most of its latter part.

So buckle up. This might be a long one.

Following the shattering revelations at the end of book 2, Imposter Syndrome starts out three months later, smack in the middle of a Cold War between LA-New Orleans Arcadia, led by Alvin, and UK Arcadia, led by Dame Belinda Barker. To make matters worse, there’s tension building among the fey. King Claybriar and Queen Dawnrowan are on opposite sides of the Seelie, the latter supporting Belinda, and Queen Shiverlash and King Winterglass of the UnSeelie would gladly see each other’s throats torn out. So when Tjuan (senior agent of LA4 Arcadia) gets framed by Belinda for a crime he did not commit, our protagonist Millie Roper decides that the best defense is an offense and plans a heist that would strip Belinda of crucial resources that grant her complete control of this conflict.

I found Imposter Syndrome much better in terms of plot and pacing than Phantom Pains. My problem with book 2 was that the plot felt very scattered–one minute Millie would be investigating the possibility of a ghost, the next she’s dealing with a murder investigation, and so forth. Everything is more focused this time around, on the heist and thwarting Belinda Barker. The characters know what they need to do, they know what’s at stake, and they just go for it. It’s simple yet perfectly executed.

The heist itself is brilliant. This is no Ocean’s Eleven with the best of the best doing their thing with confidence and cool. This is Millie and her wayward companions fumbling their way through one of the most ridiculously-plotted heists in the history of heists. It is a ton of fun with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. And there’s this one sequence in the middle of it that’s so cleverly-structured, it made me punch the air in excitement.

But as it has been for the past two books, the characters are the focal point of the story. The series remains one of the most diverse in fantasy: there are major POC characters, a bisexual protagonist, a lesbian love interest, a trans male character, and bi(pan?)sexual fey. And Millie continues to prove why she’s one of my favourite protagonists ever, with Mishell Baker finding the perfect balance between self-deprecation and snappy humour.

“Everytime I try to put it down I freak out. Last night I slept with it tucked into my pillowcase.”
“That is called anxiety, Millie.”
“Gotcha. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between sorcery and insanity.”

Millie has a lot on her plate–she has to deal with her BPD on top of all the Belinda and the fey stuff. And she fucks up. A lot. She gets paranoid and jumps to conclusions and sets back her own plan by miles. But what she doesn’t get are excuses from the people around her. They don’t coddle her; they don’t blame her BPD. They say: “This is your mistake. So take responsibility and fix it.” And she does try to fix them. I can’t properly express how much I appreciate this. To see a mental disorder depicted not as a throwaway quirk or stepping stones to a hurt/comfort plotline, but as something that’s a part of the character and which she needs to learn to manage. And the latter is an ongoing process with a lot of stumbles and failures, but also successes. I have yet to find such candid portrayal of mental health in any other fantasy.

Meanwhile, Caryl is dealing with the fact that all her emotions are now hers to feel and hers alone (most of the time, at least), with her familiar Elliot no longer permanently acting as her “trauma container.” So things are hard for her as well, especially when it comes to Millie. While they have cute and sweet moments together, their relationship overall is a kind of a trainwreck. There’s no doubt that, professionally, they’re both talented and competent people; it’s just when the personal issues rear their heads that things start to go sideways.

And I love that. I love how messy it all is.

Because while I don’t have BPD like Millie or a history of childhood abuse like Caryl, I see a lot of myself in both–Millie’s impulsiveness and selfishness, Caryl’s hyper-emotional, sponge-like state, and both of their low self-esteem. And some of their struggles hit a little too close to home, like Millie’s unwillingness to acknowledge her relationship with Zach, her maybe-boyfriend. And her struggles with relationships in general:

Claybriar: “You’re always the first thing in my mind. I’d fuck you if I could, believe me. But with her, it’s that–you know, that breathless thing where you don’t even feel quite safe. Like you’re falling.”

Millie: “It’s always like that for me at first…And then it mellows. Or goes away altogether.”

(Get out of my head, Mishell!)

And all the times Millie and Caryl burst into tears, seemingly out of nowhere, struck me to the core. Because in the words of Moonlight, “sometimes I cry so much I feel like I’m gonna just turn into drops.” Because a lot of the times I find myself wishing for an Elliot of my own. Something to stop me from reacting to everything around me with so much anxiety and sadness and heartbreak.

And that’s really what this book, and this entire series, is. Not about Seelie and Unseelie and Hollywood, but about people, both human and fey, who have extraordinary abilities and walk through extraordinary worlds, and yet still grapple with the same pains that I do.

Now, is it realistic that people carrying around so much emotional trauma and mental health struggles can come together in such a short time to pull off a high-stakes heist? I don’t know–maybe not.

Is it inspiring and validating?

Fuck yeah.

None of these characters are, in the traditional sense, heroes–Millie even says at one point, “I’m more of a shit-stirrer than a hero.” They mess up; they act selfishly; they hurt one another on purpose and by accident; and they’re constantly at war with their own minds.

But nor are they broken people. These guys spend most of the story running around scared out of their minds and full of doubt and they still somehow manage to pull things off. They’re always, always trying to move forward, with however many falls and stumbles they experience along the way. And sometimes that’s all that matters.

And that, to me, is realism. That is what being a human is all about.

I applaud and thank Mishell Baker for writing characters whose honesty doesn’t leave me feeling trapped or vulnerable, but included. Known. And if this is truly the end of the series, then it’s a fitting one. Not a happily ever after, but one that feels right and brims with hope.

Read this book. Read this series. You’ll not find another like it.