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

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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Blog Tour + Giveaway: The Babysitters Coven by Kate Williams

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I’m thrilled to present a spotlight and a giveaway (US only) for Kate Williams’ upcoming The Babysitters Coven! I’ll be posting a mini review for it after the tour ends.

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Title:
The Babysitters Coven
Author: Kate Williams
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Release Date: September 17th, 2019
Genre(s): YA Paranormal
Subjects and Themes: Witches, Female Friendships
Page Count: 368 (hardback)

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Adventures in Babysitting meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer in this funny, action-packed novel about a coven of witchy babysitters who realize their calling to protect the innocent and save the world from an onslaught of evil. 

Seventeen-year-old Esme Pearl has a babysitters club. She knows it’s kinda lame, but what else is she supposed to do? Get a job? Gross. Besides, Esme likes babysitting, and she’s good at it.

And lately Esme needs all the cash she can get, because it seems like destruction follows her wherever she goes. Let’s just say she owes some people a new tree.

Enter Cassandra Heaven. She’s Instagram-model hot, dresses like she found her clothes in a dumpster, and has a rebellious streak as gnarly as the cafeteria food. So why is Cassandra willing to do anything, even take on a potty-training two-year-old, to join Esme’s babysitters club?

The answer lies in a mysterious note Cassandra’s mother left her: “Find the babysitters. Love, Mom.”

Turns out, Esme and Cassandra have more in common than they think, and they’re about to discover what being a babysitter really means: a heroic lineage of superpowers, magic rituals, and saving the innocent from seriously terrifying evil. And all before the parents get home.

 

 

About the Author

kate williams
I’m a YA write or die, originally from Kansas but now living in California. I’ve written for Cosmopolitan, NYLON and Seventeen, amongst other magazines, and worked with brands including Urban Outfitters, Vans and Calvin Klein.
The Babysitters Coven is my first novel, but fingers crossed it won’t be my last.

WebsiteGoodreads | Instagram

 

 

Giveaway (US ONLY)

You have a chance to win 1 finished copy of the book! ENTER HERE

 

 

Tour Schedule 

September 11th

The Unofficial Addiction Book Fan Club – Welcome Post

 

September 12th

Moonlight Rendezvous – Review + Favourite Quotes

Bookmark Lit – Review + Cover Colours

TBR and Beyond – Review + Playlist + Dream Cast

The Reading Chemist  – Review

Musings From An Addicted Reader – Review

 

September 13th

Here’s to happy Endings – Review

Hauntedbybooks – Review + Favourite Quotes

Flipping Through the Pages – Review

Phannie the ginger bookworm  – Review + Favourite Quotes

The Bibliophagist – Review

 

September 14th

Confessions of a YA Reader – Review + Favourite Quotes

Ambivert words – Review + Favourite Quotes

The Art of Living – Review

Pages Below the Vaulted Sky – Review

The Book Dutchesses – Review + Favourite Quotes

 

September 15th

The Book Nut – Review + Playlist

Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile – Review

The Layaway Dragon – Review + Favourite Quotes

Kait Plus Books – Review + Favourite Quotes

A Dream Within A Dream – Review

 

September 16th

Bookish Geek – Review

Artsy Draft – Review + Favourite Quotes

We Live and Breathe Books – Review

Bookish In Bed – Review + Favourite Quotes

The Desert Bibliophile – Review

 

September 17th

Wishful Endings – Review

Novel Nerd Faction – Review

Lili Lost in a Book – Review

The Mind of a Book Dragon – Review + Playlist

Lost in Storyland – Review

Review: Missing, Presumed Dead – A Gritty Queer Paranormal Mystery that I’m Side-Eyeing

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Title: Missing, Presumed Dead
Author: Emma Berquist
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Release Date: May 21st, 2019
Genre(s): YA Paranormal, Mystery
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+ (f/f)
Page Count: 384 (hardback)

Rating: ???

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With a touch, Lexi can sense how and when someone will die. Some say it’s a gift. But to Lexi it’s a curse—one that keeps her friendless and alone. All that changes when Lexi foresees the violent death of a young woman, Jane, outside a club.

Jane doesn’t go to the afterlife quietly. Her ghost remains behind, determined to hunt down her murderer, and she needs Lexi’s help. In life, Jane was everything Lexi is not—outgoing, happy, popular. But in death, all Jane wants is revenge.

Lexi will do anything to help Jane, to make up for the fact that she didn’t—couldn’t—save Jane’s life, and to keep this beautiful ghost of a girl by her side for as long as possible.

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Here’s a fun dilemma:

What rating do you give a book that contains literally everything you love–a complex bisexual female protagonist, a gritty paranormal mystery, exploration of mental health, ghost girls, f/f romance–and executes most of them very well, but then you come across three or four lines that make you go, “I’m sorry, what??” and put a damper on the whole thing?

Asking for a friend. (Hashtag-I-am-that-friend)

Okay, let’s backtrack for a bit. Missing, Presumed Dead is like the queer YA version of Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series, starring a girl who can tell the how’s and when’s of someone’s death by touching them skin-to-skin. Except I’m not sure ‘YA’ is even the right label because many of the characters either feel older than their teenage years or are actually older; personally, I think it’d sit more comfortably as a New Adult.

As far as paranormal mysteries go, it’s fairly typical of what you’d find in a lot of adult books: a club that doubles as a sanctuary for people with magical abilities (witches, psychics, etc), a sudden surge of missing and/or dead kids, and a ghost girl with no recollection of how she died. Thing is, though, we don’t really find these kinds of stories in YA–especially ones tinted with shades of horror and noir–so this was a much-needed breath of fresh air for me. The mystery is engaging, the pacing is quick, the worldbuilding just vivid enough to hold your interest, and the protagonist is….well. The protagonist is messy and sharp all over and I was such a huge fan in the beginning.

Lexi is, to be blunt, miserable, and understandably so, considering how her abilities don’t allow her to engage in physical affection and intimacy of any kind. Through Lexi’s lens the story becomes a portrait of loneliness and depression, and I can’t emphasize enough how much I adore stories that dive deep into the psychological baggage that comes with having supernatural powers.

Really, the only major issue I had was with the love interest Jane, who just isn’t as interesting or well-developed as Lexi.

And then I ran up against The Problem, which starts with this little passage:

“My Jane has never looked this carefree, this innocent. My Jane is angry and wild and a little cruel. I know which one I prefer.”

and this one:

“I’d rather have her furious and bitter, I’d rather have her sad, anything but this scornful, spiteful ghost sneering at me across the seat.”

It’s perfectly normal to desire a connection with someone who understands first-hand the pain you’re going through. I get it. I’ve been there. And that’s what initially drives Lexi and Jane together. But you can’t build a relationship on a foundation of mutual suffering. “I can fix your pain and you can fix mine” may sound sweet and romantic, but what it often ends up becoming is an echo chamber of hurt coupled with codependency.

And wanting someone to remain miserable and fucked-up, because that’s how you feel most of the time, is selfish and unhealthy. I’m all for YA stories exploring unhealthy relationships or unhealthy mindsets regarding relationships, but I need them to address the fact that yes, this is, in fact, unhealthy and here’s how we can move forward from that, which this book never does, and that sits so wrong with me.

And the crazy thing is that the core this issue can be fixed by just taking out those four lines.

So yeah. I’m conflicted. And frustrated. And I spent more time trying to figure out what rating to give the book than writing the actual review.

Which is why I’m giving it a big fat ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ in the end.

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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Review: The Mortal Sleep – Stripped Me Open and Healed Me Anew (Why I’m BEGGING You to Read this Series)

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Title: The Mortal Sleep (Hollow Folk 4)
Author: Gregory Ashe
Publisher: Independent
Release Date: April 5th, 2019
Genre(s): Paranormal, Mystery, Romance
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, Abuse, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 491

Rating: ∞/10

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Brief overview of Books 1-3: A gay psychic teenager named Vie Elliot moves into a small rural town in Wyoming and gets himself involved in a series of murders, kidnappings, and paranormal activities. This is a story of found families, love, complicated relationships, and facing demons within and without.

(You can read my reviews of Book 1-3 HERE)

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 “Maybe it’s all of us, I thought in a flash. Maybe we all believe, deep down, that we don’t deserve love. Or— maybe not all of us, maybe not some lucky assholes— but most of us. Maybe most of us are just as uncertain, just as frightened, just as desperately hoping that we’re worth loving and that the person we love loves us back.”

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I’ve been writing reviews for over a year now. And within that period I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing a whole range of emotions–from hair-pulling anguish frustration to joy and nervousness and anxiety.

This is my first time being scared of writing a review.

Like, really fucking scared. Like, shaking in my chair scared. Because I could string together every language that has ever existed in this world, scrawl them into a 1000-page epic, recite it from dawn to dusk until my throat is torn, and still come up with nothing that could describe what this book means to me. And that kills me.

My brain tells me I need to spend several weeks on this review at the very least. But my heart tells me no, I need to do this right now. Because all those immediate emotions that I’m feeling? They’re the ones I need to seize. And because fears need to faced when they’re at their freshest.

So, okay.

This is a book that feels entirely too big to fit in this universe let alone my heart. One that I want to clutch so hard to myself that I become it, or it becomes me. And I would happily give up half of my consciousness, half of my soul, for it to live and grow inside me. But then I realize there’s no need because it’s already claimed it from Book 1.

And when I walk, it walks with me, anchoring my steps. When I look out into the morning light, it looks out with me, radiating hope. When I’m crumpled on the ground it’s there, pulling me up.

Which all sounds a little crazy. It sounds like the ramblings of a soon-to-be maybe-killer (“Well, that Kathy. I mean, she was pleasant. Polite. Never caused any trouble. Although…she did say all those things about that book that one time. Guess that should have been a warning bell, huh?”) But “crazy” just about defines this book. Because perfection doesn’t exist. Shouldn’t exist. And yet it’s sitting right here in my hand.

So what can I tell you about The Mortal Sleep?

I can tell you how heartstoppingly beautiful Ashe’s writing is. I can tell you how his characters aren’t characters; they’re people existing in some other reality, other dimension, projecting their lives into his brain, and now they live in these books like it’s where they always belonged–across ink and paper, instead of flesh and blood–and their relationships are so exquisitely developed that they become your relationships.

I can talk about how the buildup of tension, with regards to both plot and character development, is off-the-walls phenomenal. I can talk about how he’s raised the bar for storytelling from book to book and how he has surpassed it yet again. I can talk about how series finales are so, so incredibly hard to nail, and yet he does it (because of course).

But what makes this book a veritable masterpiece (and I don’t use that term lightly), what makes it stand shoulders every other book I’ve read in the past two years, is that it peers into every dark crevice of the characters’ pain and suffering–into the heart of what makes us us–and it Does. Not. Flinch.

The line between honesty and gratuitousness is a thin one when it comes to stories that try to tackle depression and suicidal behaviour. Gregory Ashe walks it while balancing four different genres and reciting poetry that would make the angels weep. Without condoning it, the book doesn’t shy away from the ugliness and the violence that comes with mental illness.

And it’s not pretty. It’s not sugar-coated.

But it’s true. It’s so, so fucking true.

Like, there’s a scene where Vie goes out his way to deliberately hurt his boyfriend (using words), and at first he tells himself that he’s doing it as a favour–he’s doing it to push him away, to save his life. But then it morphs into something uglier. Because sometimes you turn other’s words and actions (even the innocuous ones) into ammunition against yourself–reasons for why you’re unlovable and discardable. Because sometimes you’re hurting so much and you don’t know how to deal with it, so it overflows onto the people you love. Because sometimes you’re hurting so much that you want them to feel just an ounce of it, and you derive a kind of awful, aching almost-pleasure from that. And on the heels of that comes blackness and self-loathing.

All of that. And all the reasons why we might hurt ourselves (and, in turn, the ones we love). And hate ourselves. And try to end ourselves.

Just…How.

How do you put that mess of emotions into words that I can recognize?

This book gets so many things so right, so real, that it felt like I was experiencing them again for the first time. And I was shaking and crying so hard that I had to go take multiple walks to calm myself down (and this was past 12 AM).

And I honestly don’t know how he does it. Maybe it’s magic. Or pure talent. Or power sourced from earth’s core. I don’t know how he does it but he does it, and I’m thankful to the point of tears because I can look at Vie’s scars and look to my own and nod and say “Okay.” And that’s enough.

This book (and series) is a bulwark against the voices urging me in the middle of the night, whispering that surely this time I can get the dosage right. And I know it can be so much for so many of you too. For all of you who have been broken and ground down. Because in spite of how dark it gets, this is a series about hope. And love–so, so much love. Finding it. Losing it. And slowly, oh so slowly learning that maybe, just maybe, you’re worthy of it and every other goddamn thing that life has to offer.

The Mortal Sleep has taken the top of my Best of 2019 list (and my heart and my sleep and my every waking thought) and it won’t be moving for the rest of the year.

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Complimentary copy provided by the author. All opinions are my own.

Monday Books & Games – Broken Hearts and a Romp Through Sengoku Japan

I’ve seen Sionna (Books in Her Eyes) and Lisa (Way Too Fantasy) doing Monday updates forever now, talking the books they have lined up for the current week, and I was always on the sidelines going, “Huh, I should join them someday.”

Well, someday is now, apparently, and as my creatively-lacking title suggests, I’m expanding the concept to include video games!

I’ve also smooshed it with the Sunday Post (instead of doing a separate Sunday Post, because I have something else planned for Sundays), so I’ll also be talking about stuff I read and played in the previous week.

 

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

 

Last Week – Books

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Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver: 🔍🗝️
I loved Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series when I was a teen but never tried her adult books, so I thought “why not?” Well, I went into this expecting gothic chills and witchcraft and got a really boring coming-of-age story instead, so I guess that’s why not.

Deposing Nathan by Zack Smedley: 🌺🌈
This one trampled all over my heart and hung me up like wet laundry. It’s a queer YA in the vein of Adam Silvera with grey characters and exploration of religion and sexuality, all of which are handled beautifully.

The Mortal Sleep (Hollow Folk 4) by Gregory Ashe: 👻🔍🌈
*hysterical laughter*
*uncontrollable sobbing*
(Full review to come)

 

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Ancestral Night (White Space 1) by Elizabeth Bear: 🚀
(DNF @ ~30%)
I like Bear’s fantasy stuff but her first foray into space opera just…didn’t work out for me.

Upon a Burning Throne by Ashok K. Banker: ⚔️
(DNF @ ~20%) It’s criminal how gorgeous that cover is, and it’s even more criminal just how awful the content is in comparison. So, so disappointed by this, but I’m glad I DNFed early because from the reviews I’ve read, it apparently gets worse.

 

Last Week – Games

Between hating on Epic Games exclusives and being busy with a dozen other things, I didn’t have time to play much last week. I did get a chance to finish Eastshade, though!

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Developed by Eastshade Studios, Eastshade is a RPG/walking sim/artist sim where you play as a painter exploring a fantastical island full of anthropomorphic animals. You meet people, help them with their troubles, and paint whatever you want of the world.

It’s got its share of issues and some parts definitely feel unpolished, but overall it’s…wholesome. And strangely charming and beautiful. Most importantly, I can’t stop thinking about it. And that’s a win in my book. Full review possibly to come!

 

 

This Week – Books

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We Rule the Night by Claire Eliza Bartlett: ⚔️
This has been blurbed as a fantasy Code Name Verity, with a focus on female friendships, so of course I’ll be checking it out. Look out for the blog tour post on Thursday!

Miranda in Milan by Katharine Duckett: ⚔️🌈
A queer pseudo-sequel to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Enough said.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine: 🚀
I’m having a hard time with this one. I love, LOVE the setting but I just…can’t get into the writing style. Hopefully it’ll grow on me by the end.

 

This Week – Games

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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Developed by FromSoftware, the brains behind Dark Souls and Bloodborne, Sekiro is a brutal action game set in 1500s Japan. I’ve heard mostly good things about this one which is awesome. And it’s apparently different from the Souls series which is even better because I want something new and fresh from the studio, not another Souls game dressed up in a different outfit.

 

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What do you have planned for this week?

 

Blog Tour Review + Giveaway: The Fever King – Baby, You Burn My Brain Up Like a Fever

The Fever King Character Highlights & Giveaway

Title: The Fever King (Feverwake, #1)
Author: Victoria Lee
Publisher Skyscape
Release Date: March 1, 2019
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Paranormal, Dystopian
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+, Politics, Abuse
Page Count: 384

Rating: 6.5/10

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In the former United States, sixteen-year-old Noam Álvaro wakes up in a hospital bed, the sole survivor of the viral magic that killed his family and made him a technopath. His ability to control technology attracts the attention of the minister of defense and thrusts him into the magical elite of the nation of Carolinia.

The son of undocumented immigrants, Noam has spent his life fighting for the rights of refugees fleeing magical outbreaks—refugees Carolinia routinely deports with vicious efficiency. Sensing a way to make change, Noam accepts the minister’s offer to teach him the science behind his magic, secretly planning to use it against the government. But then he meets the minister’s son—cruel, dangerous, and achingly beautiful—and the way forward becomes less clear.

Caught between his purpose and his heart, Noam must decide who he can trust and how far he’s willing to go in pursuit of the greater good.

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The Fever King has been getting 5 stars left and right, so before my rating scares you off, I’d to like say that 1) Anything I rate above a 5 is not bad, and 2) I don’t even know if 6.5 is the right rating for this because overall I think (??) I liked it, but I had some major issues with the execution, but at the same time I still recommend it. I haven’t been this conflicted about a book in a while (hence the review title).

This is gonna be a messy one, folks. Strap in. (We’re doing sections today. :D)

 

Some general things I really liked about the book:

♦ The story features very, very pointed themes of immigration policies, refugee crises, and fearmongering–ones that obviously parallel U.S’s political climate in the past handful of years. One could call it too on-the-nose, I suppose. I found it passionate and unapologetic. For me, the political message and scenes relating to it are the strongest aspects of this book.

♦ The integration of science with magic. Something I’ll never not love.

♦ The diversity. We have a protagonist who’s biracial, Jewish, and bisexual, and a queer brown love interest.

♦ Noam and Dara’s relationship, once it gets going, is about navigating the line between unbridled affection and respecting boundaries, which I thought was done very well. And the two are really sweet together.

♦ The last 1/4 of the book ramps up in pace and it’s one crazy event after another. Really entertaining stuff.

 

Onto more specific things:

Worldbuilding:

I love the setup of this world–this future dystopian North America that’s been ravaged by plague that can turn you into a magic user (“witching”). I would have loved to see more of it, but I feel like what I got in the end was a handful of blurry images.

And for such an elite training program, we see so little of Level 4 (the government’s witching school) and the people involved–students and instructors and all–so most of the time it feels like Noam, Lehrer, and Dara are interacting in their own little vacuum. That made things weirdly stifling.

 

Noam:

Noam. Noam. Noam. Noam. Noam.

I love his passion and his determination to fight for what’s right, I really do; he’s got a big heart and the anger that runs through it is utterly infectious. But some of the other aspects of his personality–his obliviousness, naivete, doing things without thinking–annoyed me to no end. Not because I have a problem with those character traits in general, but because they didn’t seem to really fit him.

Noam Alvaro’s background: hacker whiz; political activist; newly-made orphan; been to juvie; and knows first-hand the corruption of government and the sting of discrimination. He’s not some sheltered rich kid who’s ignorant about the ways of the world, and his life thus far has been a string of hardships underlined with tragedies.

So I had trouble reconciling all of that with someone who has the naivete of a storybook princess and the situational awareness of a brick wall. Someone who, among other things, breaks into a high-security government building with zero foreplanning and thinks, “I should just surrender. I’m sure they’ll understand” when he’s about to get caught. It just didn’t make sense.

 

Lehrer and Dara:

Lehrer reminds me quite a bit of Magneto from X-Men, which is probably why I find him the most interesting of the three. Going down the checklist, he’s: German-Jewish; survivor of experimentation and torture; wanted to create a utopia for witchings to live without discrimination; and has a moral compass that veers wildly from “manipulative SOB” to “caring leader.”

My problem with both Lehrer and Dara is that the book (or Noam, rather) keeps nudging me in the ribs and whispering, “Oh wow, aren’t these guys so contradictory and fascinating?” without really showing me that. While we get to see more of Lehrer’s past from the excerpts at the end of the chapters (which I did like), we don’t get much from him in the main story, and Dara is all evasiveness and cryptic “I can tell you things, but I won’t.” And while there’s a good reason for that, a more in-depth look into his character would have been great.

But Dara did grow on me in the last 1/3 of the book, and his story is one that’ll have you reaching for a pillow to hug.

 

Conclusion:

If it seems like I’ve just been ragging on the book, let me give you this:

My brain sometimes acts like an overly persistent, sporadically cantankerous dog that thinks it has something to prove to the world, so once it snags a particular issue, it doesn’t like letting go. And that kind of ends up setting the tone for the rest of the reading experience.

But there’s a a high chance your brain is a nice affable pup. An annoying squirrel throwing nuts at you from a tree? Who cares! Shake if off! (Literally!) The day is sunny and warm, the flowers are in bloom, and holy crap, there are miles and miles of sticks to chew on. Life is amazing.

So some of these issues I had you might be able to easily overlook. And if that’s the case, then I think your experience will be a much, much less conflicting one.

TL;DR. The Fever King was too uneven for me to fall headlong in love with it, but it’s got a good foundation, a heartfelt message, and an ending that just begs you to pick up the sequel (which I will be doing). 

 

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Favourite Quotes

 

Everything worth doing had its risks.
Sometimes you had to do the wrong thing to achieve something better.

“And I meant it when I said I wasn’t gay,” Noam said.
Ames looked disbelieving, but she didn’t pull away.
Noam smirked. “Bisexual isn’t gay.”

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Victoria Lee grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where she spent twelve ascetic years as a vegetarian before discovering spicy chicken wings are, in fact, a delicacy. She’s been a state finalist competitive pianist, a hitchhiker, a pizza connoisseur, an EMT, an expat in China and Sweden, and a science doctoral student. She’s also a bit of a snob about fancy whisky.
Victoria writes early in the morning, then spends the rest of the day trying to impress her border collie puppy and make her experiments work.
She is represented by Holly Root and Taylor Haggerty at Root Literary.

 

Giveaway (US Only):

Giveaway starts on March 19th and ends on the 30th. ENTER HERE.

 

Tour Schedule:

Check out the other tour stops HERE.

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

Add to goodreads

 

 

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.

Interview with Gregory Ashe (Author of Hollow Folk) + GIVEAWAY!

Gregory Ashe’s Hollow Folk series has not only stormed its way into my Best of 2018 list, it’s currently lounging on the extra-cushy VIP sofa reserved for the top three and getting fed grapes. There are also nymphs and satyrs giving it full-body massages. It’s having time of its life, really, and I’m pretty sure it’s not budging anytime soon. You can read my review here but, honestly, no words can do these books justice. So please, please go check them out. They’re only $3 (USD) each on kindle!

In the meantime, I’m so excited to be presenting my interview with Mr. Gregory Ashe himself! There’s also a giveaway for an ebook of MR. BIG EMPTY (HOLLOW FOLK 1) at the end!

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1. Thank you so much for agreeing to the interview, Greg! To start off, can you tell us a little about yourself and the books you’ve written? 

Thank you for having me. This is a huge honor, and I really appreciate that you’ve invited me to be here. Like most writers, I’ve been writing on and off for most of my life, but I didn’t start working on it seriously until about ten years ago. Since then, I’ve been pretty dedicated to improving my craft and writing the best stories I know how. By day, I teach high school, and the rest of my time goes to reading and writing! It’s a pretty great life.

I’ve written across a variety of genres, but more and more I find myself drawn to writing stories with strong gay protagonists–I’ll say more about that below.

 

2. How did the idea for the Hollow Folk series come about? What made you want to write about a gay psychic teenager solving crimes in a small town? 

The Hollow Folk series actually came about from a very real tragedy. After a bad divorce, a friend moved her family to a very small town in Wyoming. Soon after that, one of her sons tried to die by suicide. Although there were a lot of underlying issues (and that friend is nothing like Vie’s mom!), one of the causes for her son’s attempt was the move. That got me thinking about a boy stuck in Wyoming. And the more I started thinking about that boy, the more he started to take shape!

I mentioned above the focus on gay protagonists in my recent writing; a lot of that has to do with the fact that, growing up gay, I had very few strong gay role models. That has changed to some degree, but it’s something that I want to explore. I love mysteries (most of what I write is structurally a mystery, even if it has other genre elements). And I love sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal fiction. The more I thought about Vie, the more those elements coalesced.

 

3. Vie is a character with a lot of demons. And I can only the imagine the emotional toll that comes with being in his head. I hope I’m not prying, but can you share with us the mental process of writing a character who forces you to draw on so many personal experiences?

I’m lucky that I can say I share relatively little with Vie. Although I’ve struggled with depression and suicidal ideation, I have had a very happy life (and a relatively sheltered one). I tried to work backward from the authenticity of my feelings so that the story would be as ‘true’ as possible; for me, another underrepresented group is people struggling with mental health, and so I wanted Vie to be someone who is flawed but who is honestly trying his best. The reality, though, is that writing this character was hard precisely because of how powerful those emotions are. That’s one reason I had to take a break from the series. The final book, which should be out by the end of this year, will see Vie struggling to find healthy ways of coping with mental health issues (and, since he’s Vie, you can probably imagine that he’s going to be hard-headed about the whole thing).

 

4. One of the things I love about Hollow Folk is how complex and messy all the teenage characters are. With your experience as a high school teacher, is that something you specifically wanted to explore?  

What a great question! I feel very self-conscious writing about high school as a teacher because I don’t want that to dominate my work (or, for that matter, my life). But the reality is that I see so many interesting kids every day, and their stories are funny and sad and powerful. I’m careful not to take anything directly from what I see, but it definitely provides a lot of fodder. High school is a fun age to write about because everything is, as you said, complex and messy! Teenagers still don’t know who they are, no matter how much they tell you otherwise. And that’s a good thing–that’s one of the things that should give everyone (including Vie and his friends) a lot of hope!

Another reason that I chose to set Hollow Folk in a high school age group was the rising suicide rates among LGBT youths, especially in Utah. YA literature has a growing amount of LGBT characters, but very few of those characters are heroes in genre fiction. Much more frequently they are in literary or ‘realistic’ fiction (whatever that means). So I saw this as another opportunity to explore!

 

5. From what I’ve seen, your books genre-hop quite a bit. The Hollow Folk books have elements of paranormal, romance, and mystery (all of which you nail!) and you’ve also written historical, thriller, and fantasy. What makes you experiment with all these different genres?

Thank you so much for saying that! A lot of my experimentation, as you call it, was exactly that: experimenting. I was trying to figure out what I could do well, what I wanted to do well, and what I needed a lot more work at! For me, an important part of improving as a writer has been to challenge myself with different genres, different narrative structures, different points of view, etc. Over time, I started to realize that genre was a less helpful way for me to think about my writing than about the emotional experience that I wanted to create for myself and for the reader. That’s why my writing has begun to converge around mystery, romance, and the paranormal. I really find myself drawn to the emotions that those elements raise, and I feel like those are the stories I want to tell right now.

 

6. Over the course of the series Vie and his friends get mixed up in all sorts of criminal activities–drug and sex trafficking to name a few. What was the research process for that like?

Oh dear. Well, to be honest, when I got to the sex trafficking, I paid for a VPN subscription. I was (still am) worried about a government agency seeing a pattern in my research and assuming I’m a serial killer / Unabomber / drug trafficker / etc. The research also took me down a lot of rabbit holes! I found that I finally had to draw a line in the sand and make myself start writing rather than keep researching. When possible, I’ve also tried to use people as sources–a few friends have been willing to provide insight into their areas of expertise, and some of that includes law enforcement!

 

7. What are some of the benefits and challenges you’ve encountered with self-publishing?

Great question. Benefits? The freedom to publish stories that I want to tell; access to niche audiences that traditional publishing has underserved; and higher royalty rates. Challenges? Sigh. A lot. Learning to do everything. Not doing it well. Trying again. Doing it slightly better. Lots of time invested that way! I have sold a few rights to my work when I wasn’t sure how to move forward (my first audiobooks came about this way), but more and more I think self-publishing is the way to go (although I’m always researching and trying to stay up with the industry).

 

8. Can you share with us any soon-to-be published stories or WIPs you have on the horizon?

criminal Pasts.jpg
Yay! So exciting! In November, book six of the Hazard and Somerset Mysteries is coming out. I hesitate to call Criminal Past the last book in that series; it’s definitely the last book in this arc, but I’m so invested in those characters that I have a feeling I’ll be back to tell more stories about them.

Then, in December (fingers crossed!!!!), the final Hollow Folk book will come out. I don’t have a title for it yet, but tentatively I’m calling it The Mortal Sleep (could change; might change; no guarantees!). After that, I’m starting a new mystery series, but I’m keeping that one under wraps for now!

For people who enjoy the Hollow Folk series (or any of my books), I give away a free short story through my mailing list with every new release. So there will be another H & S short story in November, and a Hollow Folk short story in December!

 

9. What are some books–of any genre–you can recommend? 

So, so many. This is hard! I’ll limit myself to three:

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Stephen King, The Shining (I know, it’s old; I know, it’s horror; those are automatic turn-offs to some people, but it’s just so dang good. If you’ve already read it, pick up It)

Jordan L. Hawk, Widdershins (great m/m Lovecraftian horror + mystery!)

Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways (nonfiction; one of the best prose writers alive, in my opinion, plus he always chooses fascinating topics)

 

10. And lastly, if you could form an adventuring party with any three people–fictional or real–who would you pick?

I love this question. I would want to be the wizard, so I’m going to leave out Gandalf and Raistlin and all the Weis and Hickman / Sanderson magic-users I love! For a rogue, I would want Han Solo. For the cleric/priest, I would want either Reverend Lovejoy or Father Brown (I know, that’s a cheat; I guess I’ll pick Father Brown!). And for our fighter, I would want Jack Reacher.

Thank you so much for inviting me to do this interview. I had a ton of fun, and it challenged me to think about my work from some new angles! I really appreciate this opportunity!

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(This is the second interview I’ve done and it’s the second time I’ve asked that adventuring party question and I’ll probably continue asking it in future interviews :D)

Giveaway for Mr. Big Empty – Enter Here!

 

Review: The Hollow Folk – Why You NEED To Read This Brilliant Series

Hollow-Folk

Series: Hollow Folk
Author: Gregory Ashe
Publisher: Self-published
Genre(s): Paranormal, Mystery
Themes: Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+
Goodreads | Amazon
Rating: 10/10

Before we begin, I’d just like to point out that this is a long review. So to prevent the post from being a giant wall of text, I’ve peppered it with pretty pictures. And not random pictures–ones actually relevant to the story and the characters!

So I’m BEGGING you to stick through it to the end, if not for my sappy writing, then for the aesthetics, because these books deserve it.

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The Hollow Folk books are about a queer psychic teenager investigating serial murders and criminal activities in a small rural town. There’s drugs, corruption, grisly corpses, and–

No no no, wait. That’s not right. I mean, all of that’s true, but it sounds…I don’t know, too flippant.

Let me try again:

The Hollow Folk books are about about a queer psychic teenager named Vie Elliot. Vie has been taken away from his abusive mother and sent to Wyoming to live with his father. His father who is marginally better than his mother–which is kind of like saying that tickling a grizzly bear is slightly less dangerous than pulling its tail. He’s juggling a lot of demons–like anger issues and mental health struggles–and his powers only add to his misery because whenever he touches or makes eye-contact with someone for the first time, he gets funneled into their worst memory. But he finds himself having to to rely on his ability to solve a series of murders in his new town.

Eh…Kind of. But still missing something.

C’mon brain, third time’s the charm:

The Hollow Folk books are about the monsters that we fight–both within and without. About going toe-to-toe with your darkness and emerging shaking and triumphant. About the pain and hardship that seep into our bones and shape us in ways that we can’t predict. A story about how power comes in all different forms and vulnerability is sometimes the greatest–hardest–form of courage. A story about finding love and acceptance even when you can’t find the will to love and accept yourself.

Yeah. That’s more like it.

Last month I wrote a post on the five topics I’d like to see explored more in fantasy, and mental health was one of them. These books show exactly how it should be done. The Hollow Folk series weaves paranormal, mystery, and romance alongside issues of self-harm, depression, and suicide to create a story that is as exciting and thrilling as it is heartwrenching and so, so important.

Let’s get to the plot first, shall we?

The series opens up with the disappearance of a high school girl and the realization that Vie isn’t the only “gifted” person in this town. Each sequel follows a new mystery that links back to the previous book and each are fresh and different and wholly engaging. This small town isn’t as innocent as it appears, and seeing our characters peel back layer by layer, all its strange, sordid, extraordinary secrets is such a treat to experience. And with each book, the paranormal stuff ramps up to exciting heights. Among other things we get telekinetics, pyros, ghosts, a Native American woman with the ability to create psychic pocket dimensions (at least, I think that’s what they are), and in Book 3, we get an all-out X-Men style battle with a bunch of superpowered people going to town on each other. It’s exhilarating, badass as hell, and the series is worth reading just to experience that scene.

Now for the characters.

Gregory Ashe writes his characters with an astounding degree of patience and poise. And Vie is without a doubt the most complex character I’ve encountered this year. I was this close to making a diagram to explain what makes him so phenomenal, but I figured that would make this already-too-long review into a 20-page essay.

Here’s the short version: every part of his character–from his past actions, his current actions, his physical appearance and so forth–says one thing about him, but it also says the opposite. Take his appearance: Vie’s built himself up to this big, tough, strong physique. Everything about it says, “Nothing can touch me. I’m invincible. I’m fearless.” But he’s not invincible. And he has fears. A lot of them. He’s given himself this tough outer shell because he is afraid–because of all the abused that’s been heaped on him over the years. And that’s what people do. We try to make ourselves into something more than what our brains tell us we are–weak, ugly, small, whatever–and the author portrays this so goddamn beautifully.

Ashe adds layers to Vie, and then layers to the layers. It’s just so absolutely masterful and my heart aches at the complexity of it.

Vie Collage

I think suicide and self-harm are minefield subjects to tackle in fiction. They’re very easy to romanticize and books sometimes have them just for the sake of adding an extra dollop of angst and conflict. But these books nail them. Like, really nail them. There are small details that knocked my breath flat with how real they are and I was a teary mess by the end of many chapters. These scenes aren’t easy to read through (understatement of the year); they’re heartbreaking and painful and they dredge up a lot of emotions that I’ve tried to bury in some dusty corner of my mind.

But I still couldn’t take my eyes away.

And a lot of that has to do with Vie’s narrative voice, which is sometimes funny, other times sad, and all-around gorgeous and stunningly raw. Reading it is like seeing the rest of the world drop away until there’s just you and him and this journey that you’re taking together, because make no mistake, you are experiencing the story with him– through every danger, every heartbreak, every faltered step, you will be right there feeling everything alongside Vie. It is utterly impossible to not love this character.

It was music like rain falling on lake water, like storms that had closed in and made sunshine a thing that was always just a little farther to the west. It was shaking free all the razored thoughts I kept packed away.

But guess what? There’s more to this story’s brilliance. Because Vie isn’t the only character with layers.

We also get Emmett, the rich kid with the razor-sharp attitude. The kid who has everything that Vie never had–money, designer clothes, food, a future, and a mostly-intact family. The kid who cloaks himself in arrogance to hide the fact that he’s actually a kid who’s drowning in self-hatred but cannot fathom saying the words, “Save me.”

There was a relentless drive in Emmett towards self-harm, and it masqueraded as self-protection. That a was nightmare combination.

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There’s Austin. Your typical jock with the blonde All-American Boy vibes. Your typical jock who’s really not a typical jock at all but just a boy whose anger and discontent masks a kind, insecure heart.

He was the boy next door, and seeing him made me think of those dumb horses River and Jimpson, and the way he held the steering wheel, and how he stood sometimes with his back straight, so cocky but not realizing it, and I thought of sunset and how the Wyoming sky became vertical instead of horizontal, a sheet of gold that ran straight up to the stars, and all of that was Austin.

Austin collage

There’s Becca, the computer whiz who just wants to help her friends. There’s Sara, who brims with so much love and compassion and becomes a maternal figure that Vie sorely needs. And on and on.

None of these characters are perfect. They hurt one another–sometimes by accident, other times on purpose. All of them carry scars that they try to etch onto others because bearing them alone is sometimes too impossible. Seeing them weave in and out of each other’s lives throughout the course of these three books is one of the most breathtaking things I’ve experienced this year.

I think what I love most of all, though, is how Ashe plays the long game with his characters. Personal problems don’t get neatly resolved in Book 1, or Book 2, or even Book 3. Or if they do get resolved, another quickly takes its place. Nothing is easy for these guys and these books portray, so exquisitely, the sheer messiness of relationships, being a teenager, and living in a world that seems hell bent on breaking you down.

Don’t think it’s all doom, gloom, and sadness, though; there’s also a lot of hope. The greatest message that the Hollow Folk books give you is that bruised, cracked, and battered doesn’t mean ruined, unsalvagable, unwanted. For every person who beats you down, there’s another to haul you up. Because while humans can be terrible, they can also be so incredibly beautiful, and human connections can be as potent as any superpower. So even though scars may not fully fade, you’re still here–alive, maybe a bit worse for wear, but still moving. And you’re gonna be okay.

And if you can kick some villain asses in the process? Well, that’s just the cherry on top.

Vie Elliot and his friends remind me why I read and write. There’s no feeling in the world like having a character stare into your heart and say, “I see you. I am you. Those wounds and fractures you have? They map my entire body. The darkness that presses into your every pore? We’re close acquaintances. So yeah, I’m with you. All the way.”

And you know what else? The books currently cost $2.90 (USD) each on Kindle.

That’s insane. That’s less than the cost of a morning coffee. That makes me want to buy 10 more copies just to even things out because surely some cosmic scale has become unbalanced. It makes me want to grab every passerby on the street and shake them while blubbering “You–book–3 bucks–” and get clapped in handcuffs for public harassment because these books are worth a night in a cell.

So what I’m saying is, go buy these damn books. Right now.

And if you find that they’re somehow less than amazing, then you’re to free direct all your angry complaints to me.