Guest Post (The Vine Witch): A History of Witches in France | Feat. Giveaway (US)

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I’m so excited to bring you this (belated) guest post today about the history of witches in France, written by author Luanne G. Smith whose debut was released recently on October 1st–a story about witches, revenge, French vineyards, and vine magic (which sounds like the coolest thing). The book is giving me seductive looks from my TBR pile right now, so I’m hoping to get to it soon.

Hope you enjoy this little piece! (I definitely did)

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It’s always an interesting question to consider the witch trials of the past. One thing that’s always struck me as a rather obvious notion is that none of the people executed for sorcery, in France or elsewhere, were actually witches. They were invariably mortal men and women (and France was less gender-biased in the persecution of “witches” than other nations) who perhaps dabbled in herbs and fortunetelling on the side, but that was fairly common stuff in certain circles. France, in particular, has had a reputation for being obsessed with the occult for centuries, going back to the days of Louis XIV and the Affair of the Poisons. If you’ve never heard about Catherine Deshayes Monvoison, aka La Voisin, and the things she was up to, you’re in for a ghastly read. But in general, the accusations of witchcraft against citizens often served more than merely appeasing moral righteousness and saving the world from the Devil’s influence. They were often acts of retaliation or outright villainy by aggrieved neighbors who used the law to disguise their motives. I mean, if you think about it, a real witch ought to have had the cunning and skill to escape a hapless group of pitchfork-wielding mortals.

From what I was able to discern, the last person to be burned for the crime of witchcraft in France occurred in 1745. That’s why, in The Vine Witch, the laws for witches are referred to as the 1745 Covenants. I was playing off the premise that mortals and witches were forced to come together as a matter of necessity in that year. Too many mortals had been executed as witches, and too many witches had been getting away with harming mortals. So, the two sides drew up the Covenant Law agreements and each, from then on out, left the other alone. Mostly. Which is my interpretation for why there’s no more mention of witches being executed in the public record after that date. Doesn’t mean witches went away. Or mortals stopped being afraid of witches and their powers. Or that everyone obeyed the laws. After all, stories aren’t written about the law-abiders.

 

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About the Book

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The Vine Witch (Vine Witch #1)

Author: Luanne G. Smith
Publisher: 47North
Release Date: October 1, 2019
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Historical Fiction

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About the Author

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Luanne G. Smith is the author of THE VINE WITCH, a fantasy novel about witches, wine, and revenge set in early 20th century France, and the forthcoming second book in the series, THE GLAMOURIST. She’s lucky enough to live in Colorado at the base of the beautiful Rocky Mountains, where she enjoys reading, gardening, hiking, a glass of wine at the end of the day, and finding the magic in everyday life.

 

 

Giveaway (US Only)

One finished copy of The Vine Witch is up for grabs! ENTER HERE

 

Tour Schedule

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

 

Top 5 Wednedsay – BFFs in Fantasy (plus musings about intimacy, societal expectations, and friendships in western vs eastern media)

The prompt for this week is actually BFFs in SFF, but since this is Wyrd and Wonder month, I figured I’d just stick to fantasy. Also, a special shout-out to Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen who totally would have made the list, but things were turning into a bit of a sausage fest so I ended up replacing them with a female duo.

This post is brought to you by Wyrd and Wonder, a month of fantasy-loving for fantasy lovers by fantasy lovers.

Join us, friends. There’s plenty of love to go around.

(This sounds like I’m advertising a cult and I’m okay with that)

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Fitz & Fool & Nighteyes – Realm of the Elderlings:

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“I set no limits on that love.”

There are many reasons why RotE is my favourite series of all time, but Fitz/Fool/Nighteyes stands at the top of the list. I. Just. I don’t know how to explain how much this OT3 means to me without coming across like a crazy person. They have been the subject of too many poems scribbled out in the fury of 2 AM writing sessions. When the series ended, I had to sit my friend down to blubber about them for an entire afternoon because they were haunting my waking hours and it felt like my heart was imploding. It sometimes scares me how deeply I feel about these characters, because hell, they’re fictional. But then I think, “So what?”

And here’s an unpopular opinion for the RotE fandom: I’m perfectly fine with Fitz and Fool’s relationship being a platonic one, because their relationship is as romantic as you can get without actually being romantic and we need more examples of those in mainstream media (more on that later). Also, I don’t believe your soulmate has to be someone you’re romantically involved with. I just think it’s someone–anyone–who gets you right down to your marrow, and spending two days with them is equivalent to two lifetimes’ worth of connections. We’d all be very fortunate to experience that once in our life, and Fitz has had two of them. One with a wolf, the other with a prophet.

I’ve never come across a group of characters who throws so much of themselves into loving each other as these three, and I don’t think I ever will.

 

Agniezska and Kasia – Uprooted

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I don’t think I realized how desperate I was to see good female friendships in adult fantasy until Uprooted came along. The romance with the Dragon wasn’t the highlight of the book for me (male love interest who’s broody for the sake of being broody  = been there, done that); it was Niezska and Kasia’s relationship that captured my heart. Their friendship is built on a foundation of mutual love and support, but also acknowledgement of some of the more negative feelings (jealousy in particular) that stand between them.

 

Felicity and Johanna – The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

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I enjoyed Lady’s Guide far more than I did Gentleman’s Guide and I can thank Felicity and Johanna for that. What I love about their relationship is that it’s not all smiles and matching friendship bracelets. There’s several suitcases worth of resentment and misunderstandings that they need to sort out before they get anywhere, and I love that. I love seeing girls with vastly different personalities learn from each other, admit when they’re wrong, and come out of the whole kerfuffle with a more open mind.

 

Rune and Brand – The Tarot Sequence

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I rambled on about intimacy and the rigid preconceptions of romance versus friendship in my review for this a year ago, and I’m going to ramble about it again now, because this is something I feel very, very strongly about.

It so often feels to me that society draws a line in the sand when it comes to relationships and gives us a list of acceptable behaviours for each respective side–one for friendship, one for a romantic/sexual relationship. So two friends can kiss each other on the cheek, but kissing on the mouth is, like, a sexual territory, so watch out for that! And et cetera.

At best it’s annoying (in my experience, super invasive questions from family and acquaintances). At worst it contributes to toxic behaviours and insecurities about intimacy and affection, along with a horde of other mental health issues.

So I think it’s incredibly important for fictional media to portray the kinds of relationships that blur this line. Relationships that can’t be shoved into boxes and stuck with a big, fat label. This means friendships with the kind of emotional depth and physical intimacy that you find with romantic pairings.

And that’s exactly the kind of relationship that Rune and Brand has. Romantic without the romance. Intimacy without the sex. Snark without the underlying cruelty. Their friendship is by far the best one I’ve found since finishing Realm of the Elderlings, and if you read what I wrote above, you know I don’t say that lightly.

 

Frodo and Sam – The Lord of the Rings

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No explanations needed, really. They’re Frodo and Sam. They’re the OG ride or die male duo. Their love and loyalty to one another kept the world from descending into darkness, and if that’s not friendship goals, I don’t know what is.

 

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EXTRAS (Anime) | Western vs. Eastern?

So, I wanted to talk about these two anime series as a bonus because their friendship storylines are off-the-walls phenomenal and I couldn’t not include them. And then I got a bit sidetracked thinking about friendships in western versus eastern SFF media.

I always enjoy comparing North American and East Asian narrative works (Korean and Japanese, primarily) because I grew up on the latter and then partially migrated to the former, and while I adore both, there are some things that one offers that the other often doesn’t. And while the reasons for some of them are obvious, like the lack of non-fetishized LGBTQ+ and mental health rep in East Asia, others aren’t (for me, anyway). And that includes intense, no holds barred, I’ll-walk-into-the-depths-of-hell-for-you types of friendships–which I always found that Japanese and Korean media does a better job of than NA.

…And I’m not quite sure why.

I have some vague hypotheses but it’s something I need more than a few nights to think about. It’ll be a future post, maybe. And if you have any ideas, leave them in the comments! I love love love discussing these things.

For now, onto the anime!

 

Gon and Killua – Hunter x Hunter

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Killua (left); Gon (right)

These two kids slay me. Watching Killua become best friends with Gon and go from an assassin-in-training with the social skills of a cactus to a kind-hearted, sensitive boy is honestly the best thing about this series.

And there’s this one scene where Killua breaks down into sobs in front of another character (in the middle of a friggin battle) and talks about how helpless he feels because his best friend is suffering and he doesn’t know how to fix that. It’s beautiful, heartwrenching, and startlingly vulnerable, and I would give my left arm to see more scenes like that in western fantasy.

 

Madoka and Homura – Puella Magi Madoka Magica

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Back in 2011, Madoka Magica grabbed the magical girl genre by the throat and shook it into something we’ve never seen before. There have been many copycats since then but none with the same kind of presence as the original, and that largely has to do with these two characters. There’s a reason why I own six figurines of them.

Get yourself a friend who would travel back through a timeline again and again to save you from a terrible fate, only to watch the same tragedy played out in increasingly worse ways, and then swallow that pain and do it all over again because she believes you’re worth sacrificing everything for.

I would, no question, die for Madoka and Homura. And then reset the timeline and do it again.

 

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Soooo this was meant for this to be a short and sweet post because I was on a mini break for the past week and a half and I wanted to write something that was easy.  I don’t know how it devolved into a rant about three different topics. 😂

Well, onto you! Who are you some of your favourite fantasy (or scifi) BFFs?

Review: The Binding – Sweetly Flawed and Somewhat Forgettable

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Title: The Binding
Author: Bridget Collins
Publisher: HarperCollins UK
Release Date: January 7th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Romance
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+, Memories
Page Count: 448 (hardback)

Rating: 7.0/10

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Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a letter arrives summoning him to begin an apprenticeship. He will work for a Bookbinder, a vocation that arouses fear, superstition and prejudice – but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.

He will learn to hand-craft beautiful volumes, and within each he will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, he can help. If there’s something you need to erase, he can assist. Your past will be stored safely in a book and you will never remember your secret, however terrible.

In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, row upon row of books – and memories – are meticulously stored and recorded.

Then one day Emmett makes an astonishing discovery: one of them has his name on it.

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“Don’t think of it as a fantasy. Think of it as a romance” was the mantra I repeated to myself when I started this book because I’d heard it was less of a fantasy and more of a relationship-focused story with a tinge of magic, and I was determined to do whatever it took to love it.

Because guys. I adore stories about memories. I mean, I adore memories, period. I love the nitty-gritty cellular study of it, and as a wannabe armchair philosopher, I love musing about it in the wee hours of the morning. And I especially love it when the sciences and humanities decide to join hands and create masterpieces like The Endless Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Now, The Binding isn’t science fiction. But it is historical fantasy holding hands with queer romance–which I figured was the next best thing.

So I was ready to overlook a lot of stuff, and I did.

I could overlook the vague details surrounding the process of binding and the history of how it came to be, because a lot romance stories tend to be light on worldbuilding. I could also overlook the very convenient series of events leading up to the ending, because this isn’t trying to be a masterfully plotted story. And I could overlook the ending feeling a little unfinished because, hey, satisfying endings are hard to pull off.

But I could not overlook the main character. More specifically, I couldn’t overlook the main character being bland and shallow and more or less a blank slate from beginning to end.

Emmett’s narration (totaling about 2/3 of the book) is a frustrating example of first person PoV being used like a third person. With his ailments and memory loss he would have been the perfect character to deep dive into–which first person should allow and entourage us to do–but we never end up getting past the surface layer. And his surface layer presents him as farmer’s son who becomes a bookbinder who’s also kind of judgemental of the people he meets. And…that’s about it.

Lucian, his love interest, is a far more interesting character and once his narration takes over last 1/3 of the story, things really kick off for the better. We get a little more insight into binding and how it can abused in the hands of wrong people, and the suffocating atmosphere of Lucian’s household is portrayed very well. I also quite enjoyed seeing the changing developments in their relationship from his perspective.

But at the end of the day, a love story isn’t a one-person show. If I can’t connect with one of the involved parties, I can’t fully connect with the story as a whole.

So while I didn’t dislike the book–it was a pleasant read for the most part, with some genuinely beautiful and thought-provoking moments–I’m still fiercely disappointed because it could have been so much more. A deeper love story and a deeper look into the erasure of memories and whether the loss of pain is an acceptable trade-off for the loss of yourself. And I’m having a hard time getting over that.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own. 

Series Review: The Wode – THIS is How You Do a Robin Hood Retelling

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By J. Tullos Hennig
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press

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The Robin Hood legend sat beside King Arthur as “stories I was obsessed with as a kid but am now sick to death of thanks to all the retellings that do the same things over and over” (except Robin Hood: Men in Tights. That one’s a masterpiece. Fight me).

And then The Wode came along.

Forget all the Assassin’s Creed-esque action flicks starring Robin Hood in machine-stitched jackets. All those dozens of stories telling you that this time, for sure, they’ve taken the classic in a fresh new direction? They have nothing on this series.

Because this is how a Robin Hood retelling should be done.

The most basic version of The Wode‘s premise is this: queer historical fantasy Robin Hood with a friends to lovers to enemies to lovers plot.

And the author could have taken that and made it into a one-shot 200-300 page romance. I’ve seen it done countless times with other classic retellings. And that’s fine. That’s wonderful.

But turns out Hennig is an overachiever after my own heart. She takes a premise that sounds like a fanfiction prompt and makes a saga out of it (and at four books in, it’s still not finished). And its complexity is astounding–characters built upon layers and layers and tripping over their own demons, pagan folklore woven into a 12th-century England, prose lush with passion and poetry.

It’s a textbook demonstration on what it means to take an original tale and transform it into something that’s wholly your own.

Let’s meet the cast!

Marion – Maiden, Consort, Catalyst

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We’ll start with our leading lady first because Marion plays an actual role in this story beyond trophy love interest. In this version, Marion and Robyn are siblings, and together they’re the mortal representations of the dual pagan deities, the Mother Goddess and her consort the Horned God (with the magic to match).

Marion is kind of the glue that holds our main characters together and her arc goes through the struggles of being a woman who’s not a fighter but who’s still determined to be treated with the same kind of respect given to her brother and not like damaged porcelain.

 

Robyn Hood (Or “Hode”) – Archer, Outlaw, Winterking

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Robyn is the earthly avatar of the Horned Lord, Cernunnos. He stands against the nobility, not only because of the atrocities committed against the peasants, but because their prosperity means the fall of the pagan faith. And he’s determined to stand as the last bulwark against Christianity. Or die trying.

Robyn represents the wild and the untamed, every bit the forest king. Giving little thought to the future, he lives moment to moment, wearing his heart on his sleeves. He rides his emotions to their keenest point–diving head-first into love and passion, welcoming every pain and sorrow and letting them shape him into a weapon to strike against his enemies. He revels in that space where danger and recklessness dance arm in arm which is a source of frustration for his loved ones, but also what makes him so irresistibly magnetic.

Not gonna lie. He’s my favourite incarnation of Robin Hood to date (and I’ve met a lot of them over the years). Not just because of how well-written he is, but also because he manages to be both Robin Hood and someone completely new at the same time.

 

GUY DE GISBORNE/Gamelyn – Templar, Crusader, Summerlord, One Very Confused Man

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The Sheriff of Nottingham would have been the obvious counterpart for Robyn to star in an enemies-to-lovers plot. He’s Robin Hood’s prime nemesis, after all–the villain you see in every retelling.

Instead Hennig chose a man by the name of Guy de Gisborne, this random guy (heh) who appears in one Robin Hood ballad as the mercenary hired to dispatch the outlaw. In the ballad, Gisbourne finds his mark but fails the whole assassination bit and gets beheaded for all his troubles. End of story. The curtain closes.

But what if…

What if Guy and Robyn knew each other from childhood, when they both went by different names? What if they had been two boys learning to navigate the murky waters of friendship and love together?

What if Fate has decreed that their lot in life is to be rivals, Summer and Winter, doomed to destroy one other?

What if they (or Robyn, at least) said, “Fuck that”?

Guy/Gamelyn is ice to Robyn’s fire. Whereas Robyn embraces his emotions, Gamelyn bottles them up, because he’s learned during his years in the Crusade that coldness is where he works best. It’s where he can think and do his job without old pains and doubt surfacing up and muddying things.

The irony of the gods anointing Robyn as “Winterking” and Gamelyn “Summerlord” isn’t lost on any of the characters, and the interplay between the two is utterly engrossing.

“This is one thing about you I’ve never kenned.”

Guy blinked, frowned. “What?”

“How Summer can be so bloody cold.”

 

Paganism and Christianity – Guy/Gamelyn’s Inner Conflict

So, all the previous things I mentioned? Love them. Love them all. But this here is what really sells the series for me. See, as much of a leading character Robyn is, he’s actually not the heart of the story.

That title belongs to Guy/Gamelyn and his push-and-pull conflict of identity.

Their consort, wearing the tabard of his father’s god, but in whom the old Saxon gods of his mother pounded through his veins with undeniable talent and the sap and salt of Summer’s coming….

What I love about Gamelyn’s attraction to the Templar Order is that it has less to do with his love for Christianity and more to do with the sense of belonging it gives him. With the Templars, things are simple. The higher-ups give him orders and he can just follow them without question. No complications of destiny and magic and old gods who would yank him around like a puppet. And for someone who feels he’s had so little control over his life, that means everything. That means a peace of mind and a purpose he can actually name (which is something I can seriously relate to).

And then in waltzes Robyn with his stupid hood and his stupid eyes that see right into him–the very definition of Complication–proclaiming that Gamelyn’s place is in the Wode at the siblings’ side.

Yeah, great. Thanks.

Who am I, here? Just tell me who I am.

Poor guy.

Templar or Summerlord? The Holy Cross or the Oak? This series is about him trying to figure out if it’s possible to exist in two (seemingly) different worlds at the same time, and the process is messy and brilliantly, endlessly fascinating.

 

Love, love, love — ALL kinds of love

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Paternal, platonic, sexual, romantic, and blurry lines between all of them–this has everything covered.

The love between Robyn and Gamelyn is like pouring gasoline in a car and lighting it up, and then throwing in a handful of firecrackers for good measure. It’s explosive. It’s electric. It’s bad news. But at the same time, no–it’s the best news you could hope for.

Gamelyn and Marian? More like a cool running creek. Gentle and soft and peaceful.

Robyn and Little John? Same thing.

It’s all rather open and poly (but NO INCEST) and Hennig shows so well how the strength of one kind of love doesn’t diminish the strength of another.

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This isn’t to say that the books are perfect. Pacing is the biggest issue I have with it; there are periodic lulls in the story where nothing really happens. And as much as I like Marion, I do wish she had more variety of things to do.

But.

The Wode hauls itself out from the box of Recyled Robin Hood Retellings and tries to cobble together something that’s new and unique and ambitious. And for the attempt alone I would have awarded it points.

But to largely succeed in that endeavour? Well, that deserves me banging pots and pans out on the balcony screaming, “GO READ THIS.” But after that last fiasco with the water balloons and the inflatable flamingo, I don’t think my neighbours will be all that impressed.

So this is me banging pots and pans right through your screen.

Go read this.

Review: Where Oblivion Lives (Los Nefilim) – A Nephil’s Quest for a Missing Violin

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Author: T. Frohock
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: February 19th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Subjects and Themes: Angels/Demons, European History, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 368 (paperback)

Rating: 7.5/10

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Born of daimon and angel, Diago Alvarez is a being unlike all others. The embodiment of dark and light, he has witnessed the good and the horror of this world and those beyond. In the supernatural war between angels and daimons that will determine humankind’s future, Diago has chosen Los Nefilim, the sons and daughters of angels who possess the power to harness music and light.

As the forces of evil gather, Diago must locate the Key, the special chord that will unite the nefilim’s voices, giving them the power to avert the coming civil war between the Republicans and Franco’s Nationalists. Finding the Key will save Spain from plunging into darkness.

And for Diago, it will resurrect the anguish caused by a tragedy he experienced in a past life.

But someone—or something—is determined to stop Diago in his quest and will use his history to destroy him and the nefilim. Hearing his stolen Stradivarius played through the night, Diago is tormented by nightmares about his past life. Each incarnation strengthens the ties shared by the nefilim, whether those bonds are of love or hate . . . or even betrayal.

To retrieve the violin, Diago must journey into enemy territory . . . and face an old nemesis and a fallen angel bent on revenge.

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For those who are new to the series, Los Nefilim presents an early 1930’s Europe in which nefilim, the children of angels and daimons, live hidden amidst mortal kind and serve the angels as earthly soldiers in the angel-daimon war. We follow the activity of the Spanish nephilim branch, Los Nefilim, particularly one Diago Alvarez–a half-angel, half-daimon being who’s recently been inducted into the organization.

While I’d enjoyed the novellas (the characters in particular), I did feel like I was getting held back on the worldbuilding and nefilim lore. This full-length novel firmly addresses those problems. So now we get the heart-tugging family dynamic of the novellas plus a deeper exploration into the nefilim’s magic and their history. The story also widens its field of view to include Germany, introducing a new kind of tension relating to growing Aryan supremacy and too-curious Nazi officers.

While we don’t see a lot of interaction between Diago and his companions (and thus not a lot of development), what we do see of the characters individually I really liked.

Diago’s existence continues to spit in the face of toxic masculinity. Besides being a badass half-angel, half-daimon being who can harness musical energy, he’s also a loving husband, doting father, and a battler of PTSD, full of insecurities and fears but also a willingness (however reluctant) to voice them, which frankly makes him all the more badass.

Rafael continues to be the best kid character I’ve encountered in adult fantasy in the past year. So sweet. So adorable. So authentically child-like–not an adult’s skewed vision of what a child should be. And so incredibly bad for my heart because it melts every time he shows up on page.

“Don’t come home beat up. Every time you go away without us, you come home beat up.”

Disappointingly, Diago’s husband Miquel takes a backseat in this story, but on the upside, we do see a lot of Guillermo, the leader of Los Nefilim, and through his eyes we get more deeply entrenched into the political side of the war which I wholly enjoyed.

The espionage section of the story is the really interesting bit. The blurb dresses it up in this flashy action-adventure garb, but the reality is something more intimate and ordinary and creepy:

One house, two brothers, strange happenings, and suspense threatening to spill through the edges.

When you lay out such a seemingly mundane setting and plop down a character who’s as powerful as Diago is and still manage to make the readers fearful for him, you’ll hear me applauding in the background because that’s such a hard thing to pull off.

While reading the novellas beforehand would be helpful, I don’t think it’s necessary for the enjoyment of the story. I heartily recommend this to anyone who likes angel/demon stories, music magic, fantasy mixing with pre-WW2 history, and male protagonists who embrace vulnerability.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Edelweiss. All opinions are my own.

Review: The Wolf in the Whale – An Inuk, Three Wolves, and a Viking Walk into an Igloo (And Go On a Soul-Searching Journey)

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Title: The Wolf in the Whale
Author: Jordanna Max Brodsky
Publisher: Redhook
Release Date: January 29th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Subjects and Themes: Inuit Mythology, Norse Mythology
Page Count: 560 (paperback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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Born with the soul of a hunter and the spirit of the Wolf, Omat is destined to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps-invoking the spirits of the land, sea, and sky to protect her people.

But the gods have stopped listening and Omat’s family is starving. Alone at the edge of the world, hope is all they have left.

Desperate to save them, Omat journeys across the icy wastes, fighting for survival with every step. When she meets a Viking warrior and his strange new gods, they set in motion a conflict that could shatter her world…or save it.

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Note
: the main character Omat was born female and identifies as both a man and a woman, but the author uses she/her pronouns in her endnotes, so that’s what I’m going to use as well.

Trigger Warning: Scenes of rape and discussions of them.

The Wolf in the Whale is a languid, immersive tapestry consisting primarily of Inuit culture and mythology but one that has threads of Norse mythos weaving through it. And the result has a little bit of everything–fantastic character work, slow-burn romance, meddling gods, wolves that are whales that are wolves, battles ranging from small-scale to continent-spanning, and themes of gender roles and identity.

Above all that, though, it’s about changing narratives that others have set up for you. And I think that’s what I loved most about it.

I found the story to be a very spiritual and empowering one as it follows the “Heroine’s Journey” template in a way that’s very reminiscent of Juliet Marillier’s work (I talked a bit about the ins-and-outs of the Heroine’s Journey in this post and why I love it so much).

The TL;DR of Heroine’s Journey and what differentiates it from the Hero’s Journey is that while the latter is very external (big baddie to defeat, world to save, etc), the former is very internal. So the plot follows this trajectory:

Omat starts out with nearly everything she could hope for. She’s an Inuit shaman-in-training who will one day lead her camp, and though born female, she thinks of herself a boy and no one really challenges her on that. So she’s allowed to hunt with the men and do other “male” activities (which she’s very good at). All in all, she’s content with her current role and her future.

And then all of that comes crashing down around her.

What follows is a brutal and lonely journey across the ice that culminates in a quest to rescue her brother. But running parallel to that, and what is ultimately the heart of the story, is a personal quest to find herself in a world where people and gods alike are determined to put her in a labelled box, saying “This is where you belong.”

So the Heroine’s Journey doesn’t really work if the main character doesn’t work. Luckily that’s not a problem here because Omat is utterly fantastic–hard-headed, empathetic, vulnerable. Brodsky takes her sweet time to set her up and people might complain that it makes the beginning too slow and ponderous, but I think a comprehensive foundation for the protagonist is essential with these types of stories.

The main plot you see in the synopsis doesn’t actually appear until about 40% of the way in. Everything before that is dedicated to exploring Omat and her relationship with her family and immersing in Inuit culture and mythos (all very well-researched). And I read it in one sitting which doesn’t happen often these days, so that should tell you how engaging this slow first half is.

My second favourite part about the book? The relationship between Omat and Brandr, a battle-weary Norseman who starts out as her enemy but soon becomes her companion.

This isn’t a one-sided “hotshot hero comes in to rescue the heroine and teach her about love” relationship. These are two fractured people–both nursing pain and loneliness–who are learning to understand each other’s language (literally and metaphorically) and helping each other heal and become stronger.

And Brodansky shows exactly what I want to see in a story about two “enemy” characters from different cultures working together–a sharing of beliefs and faiths and the acknowledgement that yes, the other might be strange and foreign, but the world as a whole is strange and foreign. And there’s always more they could learn from it.

There’s this gorgeously drawn-out scene where they talk about the dead and the possibility of afterlives, and Omat consoles Brandr by saying that the souls of your loved ones are reborn within you when they die. His response is skeptical so she counters with this:

“You don’t seem to believe in a world you cannot see. And yet, if I were you, I wouldn’t believe your stories of deserts and volcanoes and tall buildings of stones. I would say you made them up, since I’ve never seen them. But instead, I trust that there are many things beyond my understanding.”

It’s a quiet, introspective scene that does nothing to further the plot and everything to further the characters, and I love it so damn much. There are many like it and they show that, beyond the meshing of mythologies, this is the area Brodsky truly excels at.

Speaking of which…to cap all this praise off, you also get Norse gods clashing with Inuit spirits and the result is exactly what I’d hoped for–exhilarating, educational and, again, highlighting parallels between the two cultures.

That being said, I did have issues with the pacing in the latter third of the book. I think the events leading up to the ending could have been a lot shorter, or if not shorter, then had more of an in-depth exploration into Freydis, the woman who’s leading the Norsemen. She’s a fascinating character and I wish I could have gotten a bit more from her.

I also have a niggling issue with the fact that Omat only becomes comfortable with her female body the moment she starts getting sexually involved with Brandr. It obviously wasn’t the author’s intent to be like, “Hey, kids, you only need to meet the right man to make you feel comfortable in your own skin!” But that’s kind of what it comes across as.

Overall, this is a wonderful standalone mashup of history and fantasy, and one that celebrates a culture that isn’t often explored in mainstream fiction.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Review: Los Nefilim – Came for Angels and Demons, Stayed for the Sweet Family Drama

Los Nefilim

Title: Los Nefilim
Author: T. Frohock
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: April 26th, 2016
Genre(s): Paranormal, Dark Fantasy, Historical
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 464 (paperback)

Rating: 7.5/10

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Note: Los Nefilim was originally published as three separate novellas, but they’re more like three parts of a single novel, so I suggest reading them right after the other.

Part 1- In Midnight’s Silence

Set in 1931 Spain, the story introduces our protagonist Diago, a half-daimon, half-angel being working for Los Nefilim, which is an organization made of the offspring of angels and daimons. The Los Nefilim were created to be the foot soldiers of higher angels and all members have the power to harness music and light as a source of power. But power comes with a price and the life of a Nefilim is not pretty one, but one of perpetual reincarnation which forces them to stand between the angel-daimon war presumably until the end of time. If you’re looking for pure, sweet portrayal of angels with halos and white robes woven from the hair of virgin unicorns, this isn’t for you. Frohock’s are petty, scheming, and have no qualms about sacrificing their own to further the big picture.

First of all, the music-based magic is great and something I want to see more of in fantasy. I also liked how the historical elements twine with the paranormal; the idea of this angel-demon war getting tangled up with human affairs–specifically, the start of the Spanish Civil War–is deliciously intriguing.

I also quite enjoyed the dynamic between Diago and his husband Miquel. It’s not often we see a married couple at the forefront of a fantasy book and even rarer for them to be a queer married couple, so kudos to Frohock for that. The real show-stealer of the story, however, is Rafael, Diago’s newfound son, who just melted my heart to putty.

 

PART 2 – Without Light or Guide

This one’s a lot more introspective than the first. We see Diago grappling with PTSD from the events of Part 1, which is another thing I don’t see enough of in fantasy, so that was pretty wonderful (though not so much for Diago). You know what else I don’t see often? A male protagonist saying aloud to another character, “I’m afraid.” Such show of vulnerability is what makes Diago such an engaging and sympathetic character.

As for the plot, we get whiffs of a civil war brewing within the angel faction and delve a bit more of Diago’s background and his relationship with his father. There’s also more of the warm and fuzzy family goodness between Diago, Rafael, and Miquel. I found myself torn between wanting more of Rafael and fearing for the condition of my heart because, my god, this kid just squeezed it so tightly.

 

PART 3 – The Second Death

This was my least favourite of the three. Things get considerably darker in this one as we move away from “cute family drama” and into “a woman getting tortured via electric shocks.”

My main criticism for this part–and the book as a whole–is that even by the end of it, I still didn’t know much about the Los Nefilim, the daimons, and the hierarchy of angels. The story’s got all the foundations for complex worldbuilding, but I feel like it’s only laid down the first five layers out of, like…a hundred. The series could be an amazing one but right now it falls a little short of that mark.

All in all, though, with music magic, vulnerable protagonists, and a grimdark take on angels and demons, Los Nefilim has everything I crave in fantasy, and I’ll be eagerly anticipating the sequel.

Review: The Poppy War – Beautiful and Terrible in Equal Measure

the poppy war

Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: May 1st, 2018
Genre(s): Historical, Fantasy
Page Count: 544 (hardback)
Goodreads

Rating: 8.5/10

 

 

 

Was she now a goddess or a monster?
Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.

Before we get into the review, I would like to put out a Massive Trigger Warning: Much of this story is directly pulled from Chinese culture and history–specifically, the brutality and the mindset of the Sino-Japanese war. Chapter 21 (Part 3) features stark accounts of mass mutilation (of men, women, children, and infants), rape (one of the hardest I’ve ever had to read through), forced prostitution, and animal violence. If you’re sensitive to such subjects, for the sake of your mental health, please, please skip or skim this chapter. Beyond that, there’s genocide, human experimentation, drug use and addiction, and other senseless violence associated with war.

Also, a note to the misguided reviewers calling this book anti-Japanese propaganda: I’ve seen and experienced anti-Japanese propaganda when I was living in Korea, and this is far from it. So kindly go sell that elsewhere.
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The Poppy War is obviously a very different story for Chinese readers (my reading buddy can attest to that). Though I’m acquainted with some of the culture through osmosis from my friends, and due to my own culture’s closeness with China, most of the references slipped by me. That isn’t to say you can’t understand or enjoy the book if you’re not of Chinese heritage; it just means that there are a few deeper layers to the story that you probably won’t be able to access.

The comparisons made to Name of the Wind are fully justified in the first half of the book. Throughout her years at Sinegard Academy Rin meets new friends, makes an enemy with powerful social connections, butts heads with a teacher who hates her, and steals books from the restricted section of the library (which always seems to a staple for fantasy school fiction). Plus, she’s taken under the wing of a teacher who reminds me a lot of Elodin from The Kingkiller Chronicle–mercurial, eccentric, and prone to assign unorthodox tasks as lessons (at least he never tells her to jump off a roof). It’s fun, lighthearted stuff, but there’s always an undercurrent of violence and unease running through it, which eventually erupts in the second half.

Rin is a fantastic protagonist–even at her worst, you can’t not fall in love with her. She’s the ultimate underdog and she scrabbles hard–so fucking hard–to get what she wants. Her determination to succeed at the academy leads to hilarious, intense, and disturbing sequences of events. Moreover, she actually sounds and acts like a teenager, which you don’t often find in adult fantasy–she sasses, she’s brash, and she makes a ton of mistakes. Her struggles will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever had to work twice as hard, twice as much, to obtain the same things that some people are just granted from birth.

The side characters are also interesting and varied in personality–Altan especially. The development of his relationship with Rin is probably my favourite part of the book. It starts off as an adoration, at least on Rin’s part, and companionship. Then it becomes this toxic echo chamber of anger and hatred and vengeance. It’s fascinating, terrible, and heartbreaking stuff, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

What I also love about this book is that it presents two enemies. One is obvious from the start: Mugen Federation, the small island nation to the east of Nikara. They’ve been imbibed with the drug that is nationalism and the belief that it’s their destiny to expand their borders and subsume Nikara.

I know many people didn’t like the second half part of the book, and for obvious reasons–it’s gruesome stuff. And I didn’t think I’d particularly like it either, but while I got little enjoyment out of it, I did find it to be the best part of the book. Because this is where our characters face hard truths and harder choices. This is the where Rebecca Kuang stares you in the eye and tells you that this story isn’t military fantasy–it’s real-life culture and history and the brutality of warfare infused with magic. It’s also where the second enemy rears its head: hatred and vengeance. I don’t want to go into detail because it’s something you need to experience for yourself, but the way Kuang slowly reveals how Mugen isn’t the enemy you should most be afraid of is rather quite masterful.

There are a few issues with the book that nagged at me. Uneven pacing is evident at the latter end of Part 1 and start of Part 2. As with many school-based stories, the lesson scenes tend to drag on, and there’s a lull in the transition from Rin-the-schoolgirl to Rin-the-soldier. My biggest pet peeve is Kuang’s tendency to hold the readers’ hand. She would describe a particular scene or a situation and then have Rin explain what it means. You can clearly tell from the dead bodies littering the ground that war is hell, so it’s unnecessary for Rin to literally spell it out in the next paragraph.

Despite its flaws, however, this is a fantastic debut. The Poppy War not only paints a stark portrait of imperialism, war, and destiny versus choice, it asks the question of what you do in the face of senseless evil. Do you meet atrocities with atrocities? And at what cost? What happens when one day you look in the mirror and see that you’ve become the very thing you’re fighting against?

Kuang leaves you with no easy answers and I don’t expect any in the near future.

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Thank you to Edelweiss and Harper Voyager for providing a review copy.

And thank you to Alice for the buddy read! Go check out her review here.

Diversity Spotlight Thursday: Historical Fantasy

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Diversity Spotlight Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by Aimal from Bookshelves & Paperbacks. Each week you come up with three book for three different categories: a diverse book you’ve read and enjoyed; a diverse book that’s already been released and is in your TBR; and a diverse book that hasn’t been released yet.

This week’s topic is: Historical Fantasy (aka my two favourite genres mashed together)

Diversity-Spotlight---Historical-Fantasy

A-book-I-have-read2The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

I came into this book expecting nothing and left it in a state of euphoria. The Bedlam Stacks is not only one of my top 5 books of last year, it’s one of my favourites of all time. I will definitely do a mini review on it sometime in the future, but here’s what I have to say for now.

This is a story of a 19th-century expedition to the heart of Peru starring Merrick, an ex-smuggler from the British East India Company, and Raphael, a Peruvian priest who guides Merrick to the mysterious village of Bedlam. It’s a quiet, magical, beautiful journey that ruminates on the nature of time and human connection. Natasha Pulley captures the heart of loneliness and love in a way that few writers can, and her characters wind through your very being and leave an indelible mark.

Goodreads | Amazon (US) | Book Depository

A-book-on-my-tbrLovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

H.P Lovecraft is one of those talented, now-deceased authors who paved the way for so many subsequent writers (and other artists) and whose work is admired by many, but who were also human trash fires when it came to morality.

Lovecraft and racism and go together like Russia and political interference of foreign countries. So what better way to tackle Lovecraftian horror than through the eyes of a black family in 50’s America? This book probably has dear old Howard writhing in his grave, and just for that it deserves a read.

Goodreads | Amazon (US) | Book Depository

a-book-releasing-soonWitchmark by C.L. Polk

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.

Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.

When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

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Does that sound good to you? Because it sounds pretty damn good to me. I love World War stories and while historical fiction is currently oversaturated with it, we don’t see enough of it explored in speculative fiction. This sounds like just the thing to satisfy my cravings and I can’t wait.

Releases June 19th
Goodreads | Amazon (US) | Book Depository

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Let me know if you’ve read any of these books and/or if any of them catches your eye! And recommend me more historical fantasy books to read!