Double Reviews: The Guildmaster and All the World Between Us – Water-themed Romances

One book has pirates. The other has swimming. Both involve water. (And I’m a sucker for themes)

Let’s get to it.

 

The Guildmaster (Vanguards of Viridor 3) by T.S. Cleveland

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Having helped foil the attempt to kill Viridor’s queen, Merric’s return to the Guardians’ Guild should have been celebrated. Instead, his support of elementals has earned him nothing but scorn. With the man he loves presumed dead, and fearing his injuries may prevent him from ever becoming a full guardian, Merric believes his life may as well be over. But when a series of mysterious attacks puts the fate of all Viridor in jeopardy, Quinn, a handsome and dangerous pirate, may be just the man to help save the kingdom – and Merric.

Genre(s): Fantasy, LGBTQIA+ Romance
Publisher: Self-published

Rating: 7.0/10

 

Do you like charming pirates?

Do you like charming pirates who are openly kind, respect boundaries, and engage in hurt/comfort?

Well, do I have a book for you.

The Guildmaster is the third book in the Vanguards of Viridor series set in a loosely constructed fantasy world where magic users called “elementals” are feared and discriminated by the general public (it’s always the mages, isn’t it?) Reading the previous books would probably add to your enjoyment of the story, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

I thought it was a fun, romantic read with a good balance of action and intimate character moments. Merric’s struggles to establish himself outside of his father’s shadow are compelling, as is Quinn’s efforts to help him heal, both physically and emotionally.

I did have issues with the second half of the story. At one point, there’s a lot of deliberate vagueness and lack of communication from the love interest (which didn’t really make sense considering how open he is about everything) and that contributed to a lot of unnecessary angst on the MC’s part. I also wish the worldbuilding was more robust than “*shrugs* It’s high fantasy. Half its characters run around waving swords. The other half runs around shooting fire from their fingers.”

Overall, I really enjoyed it. Also, bonus points for a completely unexpected reference to Dragon Age: Origins–“And swooping was bad.” Actually the first time I’ve seen that line in a book. Delightful.

 

 

All the World Between Us by Morgan Lee Miller

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Seventeen-year-old Quinn Hughes needs to be in top shape if she wants to medal at the swimming World Championships in ten months. This means no easy distractions, no matter how pretty they are.

She’s still piecing her confidence back together after not qualifying for the Olympics, her relationship with her twin brother is getting worse the more he hangs out with the popular kids, and then Kennedy Reed suddenly squeezes herself back into Quinn’s life. The girl who was her best friend. The girl who gave Quinn her first kiss. The girl who hasn’t spoken to her since.

Soon, Quinn finds herself juggling her new girlfriend, training for the biggest competition of her life, and discovering she’s not the only Hughes twin with a crush on Kennedy Reed. All these distractions are getting to her, and if she wants that medal she needs to find a way to stop drowning on dry land.

Genre(s): YA Contemporary, LGBTQIA+ Romance, Sports
Publisher: Bold Stroke Books

Rating: 6.0/10

I’m a girl of simple tastes. I see “swimming” and “gay” in the same sentence and I glomp onto it like an overattached koala. All the Worlds Between Us is an ownvoices second-chance story about two friends navigating the rocky paths of first love. It was quick and light and fine but didn’t really scratch my swimmer romance itch. Most of the story revolves around highschool drama and less of Quinn’s experiences as an aspiring Olympic swimmer, which was kind of disappointing. When a romance story is set against the backdrop of a sports world, I want the sports side to be as well-developed as the relationship aspect. That’s not always the case, though.

The narration also felt more juvenile than Quinn’s age warranted, and combined with a few explicit scenes, it got a bit jarring. I did find Kennedy’s experiences of being a closeted teen portrayed pretty well, however, and I enjoyed the mix of sweet and heartbreaking moments.

Overall, it’s not a bad sports f/f (especially if you’re new to the subgenre) but definitely not the best I’ve read either.

 

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Review copies provided by the author and the publisher. All opinions are my own.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.