A Deadly Education (Scholomance, #1)

A Deadly EducationA Deadly Education
by Naomi Novik
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781529100877
Series: Scholomance #1
Publication Date: March 4, 2021
Pages: 320
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House

Enter a school of magic unlike any you have ever encountered.

There are no teachers, no holidays, friendships are purely strategic, and the odds of survival are never equal. Once you're inside, there are only two ways out: you graduate or you die.

El Higgins is uniquely prepared for the school's many dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out untold millions - never mind easily destroy the countless monsters that prowl the school.

Except, she might accidentally kill all the other students, too. So El is trying her hardest not to use it . . . that is, unless she has no other choice.

Let me get this out of the way right up front: the amount of introspective, meandering, narrative in this book is crippling.  There is a 12 page scene devoted to El just walking the length of the book stacks in the school library.  Granted, it’s a magical library, and part of the point in this scene is the schools way of stretching space when it wants to, so this scene is effective at making the reader feel the interminable-ness of El’s trip to the end of the row to see what’s attacking the other kids, but while she had the benefit of adrenaline, I was just bored after 6 pages of it.  And there are several further instances of the narrative just wandering away from the main subject or banging on way too long about one thing or another.

And El is … well, someone needs to tell El to pull her head out of her own ass.  She’s rude – unspeakably rude – to people who don’t deserve it, and then bemoans in all her endless inner dialogs about how much she just wants friends, to be liked.  The prophecy, in my opinion, isn’t convincing enough a reason for her to act like such a bitch.

Saying all that, it’s a heck of a good story.  If I was irritated while reading it, it was because the Scholomance construct, how the school works, and the other characters were so fascinating, and I felt like the eternal inner-narrative and El’s occasionally appalling rudeness got in the way of the greater story.  When I wasn’t drowning in El’s attitude, I was having a rollicking good time with everything else.

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022 and while it’s a perfect fit for Dark Academia, I’ve already read for that square, so I’m going to use it instead for Murder & Mayhem by the Book.  Much of the action takes place in the school library, and El finds a spell book that becomes important to her and her friends in the second half of the book.


Crowbones re-read (World of the Others, #3)

by Anne Bishop
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780593337332
Series: The World of the Others #3
Publication Date: March 8, 2022
Pages: 368
Genre: Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Ace

I don’t typically re-review re-reads, but my first reading of Crowbones left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied; in spite of a returning cast of characters I loved, the story felt disjointed and scattered.  I knew as soon as I finished I’d need to re-read it to be able to determine of it was the story, or it was just me.

I’m happy to say, it was just me.  While my thoughts from the first review still stand overall, the story felt more cohesive and not at all disjoined the second time around.  Some of this new found clarity is because it’s a re-read, of course; Bishop has a tendency to switch to the 3rd person POV of “them” without naming “them”.  When this works well, it adds a bit of buildup to the story; if the author doesn’t nail it though, it can muddle things.  This time around, I knew who all the “them”s were, and I knew who the mystery guest was, which just made everything jell nicely, making it easier to immerse myself in the world and the story.

I still think it’s a 4 star read: as much as I enjoyed it, it’s still not on par with the previous books, but it’s a 4+, rather than a 4-.

I’m going to use this for my Raven/Free Square on my Halloween Bingo 2022 card.

Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder

Marion Lane and the Midnight MurderMarion Lane and the Midnight Murder
by T.A. Willberg
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781409196648
Series: Marion Lane #1
Publication Date: June 10, 2021
Pages: 320
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: Hachette Books

They were a band of mysterious private detectives who lived beneath the streets of London in a labyrinth of twisted tunnels and ancient hallways, the entrance to which no one had ever found. The Inquirers were something of a myth, a whispered legend that may or may not exist, depending on whom you asked. They were like ghosts, some said, these sleuths who guarded the city...

London, 1958:

Elaborately disguised and hidden deep beneath the city's streets lies the world of Miss Brickett's, a secret detective agency, training and housing the mysterious Inquirers. From traversing deceptive escape rooms full of baited traps and hidden dangers, to engineering almost magical mechanical gadgets, apprentice detectives at Miss Brickett's undergo rigorous training to equip them with the skills and knowledge they will need to solve the mysteries that confound London's police force.

But nothing can prepare 23-year-old apprentice Marion Lane for what happens after the arrest of her friend and mentor Frank on suspicion of murder: he has tasks Marion with clearing his name and saving his life. Her investigation will place Marion and her friends in great peril as they venture into the forbidden maze of uncharted tunnels that surround Miss Brickett's.

Being discovered out of bounds means immediate dismissal, but that is the least of Marion's problems when she discovered that the tunnels contain more than just secrets...

Meh.  Brilliant idea but mediocre execution.  I wanted to like it, and the really cool premise of the underground detective agency kept me reading when it felt like a slog, but unfortunately, the characters, while all likeable, failed to click with each other; there was no spark.

In better hands this would have been an amazingly fun book and start of a great series.  I don’t regret reading it, but I don’t regret getting from the library either.  There’s at least one more, but I can’t say I’m at all curious about it.

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022’s Darkest London square – it’s a perfect fit for it.

Blood and Moonlight

Blood and MoonlightBlood and Moonlight
by Erin Beaty
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: June 28, 2022
Pages: 442
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Farrar Straus and Giroux

Rising above the city of Collis is the holy Sanctum. And watching over its spires is Catrin, an orphan girl with unique skills―for she alone can spot the building’s flaws in construction before they turn deadly.

But when Catrin witnesses a murderer escaping the scene of his crime, she’s pulled into a dangerous chain of events where the only certainty is that the killer will strike again. Assigned to investigate is the mysterious and brilliant Simon, whose insights into the mind of a predator are frighteningly accurate.

As the grisly crimes continue, Catrin finds herself caught between killer and detective while hiding her own secret―a supernatural sight granted by the moon, destined to make her an outcast, and the only thing that might save her and those she loves from becoming the next victims...

Thanks to Whisky in the Jar for putting this book on my radar.  I finished it last night and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The characters make this a YA murder mystery with a side of romance, but the plot has some dark and disturbing elements that are touched upon (sexual violence/incest) that put it at the older end of YA.  The setting is supposed to be, I think, medieval, but it worked better for me to imagine it as an alternate reality, thereby making anachronisms less anachronistic.  This was easy to do as the city/country names have little to no similarity to real ones, and the religious system is based entirely on the sun and moon.

Mental illness is a very prominent theme in the story and though I have no first, or even second-hand experience with it myself, the inclusion in the story didn’t feel disrespectful or heavy-handed.  The moon magic was interesting and felt like a fresh take on magic systems; the mystery plotting was a little clunky, possibly over-complicated, but overall it kept the story moving along.

In general, I thought it was a good read and if the author were to make a series out of it (could easily go either way) I’d read the next one happily.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive BakingA Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking
by T. Kingfisher
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781614505242
Publication Date: July 21, 2020
Pages: 309
Genre: Fiction, Middle Grade
Publisher: Argyll

Fourteen-year-old Mona isn't like the wizards charged with defending the city. She can't control lightning or speak to water. Her familiar is a sourdough starter and her magic only works on bread. She has a comfortable life in her aunt's bakery making gingerbread men dance.

But Mona's life is turned upside down when she finds a dead body on the bakery floor. An assassin is stalking the streets of Mona's city, preying on magic folk, and it appears that Mona is his next target. And in an embattled city suddenly bereft of wizards, the assassin may be the least of Mona's worries...

This title flowed across my radar a while back, and I’ve seen a lot of other T. Kingfisher titles too, but this one is the title that kept standing out, so I thought I’d give it a go.

As the YA book it’s labelled as:  meh.  Maybe it’s me, but it isn’t all that dark and the voice is a bit juvenile for YA.  I suspect my 13 year old niece wouldn’t have patience for it.  But her younger sister, who’s 11, might love it.  So as a middle grade level book, it’s probably not bad.

Mona was a bit whiney (again for the YA it’s labelled as), but I loved Bob the sourdough starter, and the gingerbread man.  Neither of whom had any dialog, which might be a bit telling.  But Kingfisher packs a lot of personality into these two without giving them a voice.  The rest of the characters – the adults – all spoke to Mona as if she was 10 rather than the 14 she is, and yet she’s asked to save the kingdom single-handedly.

There is a very poignant scene at the end between a character named Molly Knacker and her skeleton horse; that scene stood out in what was on whole rather bland writing.

<img class=”alignleft wp-image-16083″ src=”https://www.secretreadingroom.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/monsters-300×300.jpg” alt=”” width=”110″ height=”110″ />I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022, although without any thought about what square it might fit.  After some consideration, I’m going to use it for the <strong>Monsters square</strong>, and re-assign my original book, <em>The Dark Place</em> to Genre: Mystery.  It would also fit <strong>Dem Bones, Gallows Humor, Genre: Supernatural, Spellbound,</strong> and <strong>Sword and Sorcery.</strong>

Unseen Academicals (Discworld, #37)

Unseen AcademicalsUnseen Academicals
by Terry Pratchett
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780385609340
Series: Discworld #37
Publication Date: January 1, 2009
Pages: 400
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Doubleday

Football has come to the ancient city of Ankh-Morpork. And now, the wizards of Unseen University must win a football match, without using magic, so they're in the mood for trying everything else. This is not going to be a gentleman's game.

The prospect of the Big Match draws in a street urchin with a wonderful talent for kicking a tin can, a maker of jolly good pies, a dim but beautiful young woman, who might just turn out to be the greatest fashion model there has ever been, and the mysterious Mr Nutt (and no one knows anything much about Mr Nutt, not even Mr Nutt). As the match approaches, four lives are entangled and changed for ever. Because the thing about football - the important thing about football - is that it is not just about football. Here we go! Here we go! Here we go!

Every time I start reading a Pratchett, I always ask myself why?  Then I get 20 pages or so in, and ahhh, yes, that’s why.  MT asked me what about his writing made the beginning such an obvious struggle when I end up laughing myself stupid through the rest, and I think – for this book at least – it’s because he starts with so many random bits.  I never quite know where he’s headed or what’s necessarily important, and it makes my brain ache.

But it’s generally worth the ache, as it was with this one.  Unseen Academicals, even though it’s about football, or foot-the-ball, as it’s known in Ankh Morpork, and soccer everywhere outside Europe and the UK, was possibly the … earthiest, in terms of humor and innuendo, of all the Pratchett’s I’ve read so far.  It was hilarious, and there were a few parts about the football that I had to read to MT.  Pratchett nails both the lunacy, and I suppose, the community of fanatical sports.

Underneath all that though, were rather endearing stories about 4 different people who start out only tangentially acquainted through work (although Glenda and Julia grew up together), but who come together to help the Unseen University build a football team, and consequently find their dreams.

This felt like a very sympathetic, dare I say, romantic?, Pratchett, and it was one of the few where I became invested in the characters’ outcomes.  Oddly, I’m not sure how I feel about Mr. Nutt’s resolution.  I think I’d have liked his ending more if Pratchett hadn’t turned him into a future hero.  Regardless, he was my favourite of the four.  The wizards got all the best lines, though.

When I started, I feared it was going to take me an age to finish, but once I got past the randomness and the story coalesced, I really did not want to put it down.

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022’s Dark Academia square, as the book takes place entirely at the Unseen University.  It would also work for Gallows Humor, oddly enough, Monsters might work (Mr. Nutt’s potential), Spellbound, and Sword & Sorcery.

Soul Taken (Mercy Thompson, #13)

Soul TakenSoul Taken
by Patricia Briggs
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780440001614
Series: Mercy Thompson #13
Publication Date: August 23, 2022
Pages: 389
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Ace

The vampire Wulfe is missing. Since he’s deadly, possibly insane, and his current idea of “fun” is stalking me, some may see it as no great loss. But, warned that his disappearance might bring down the carefully constructed alliances that keep our pack safe, my mate and I must find Wulfe—and hope he’s still alive. As alive as a vampire can be, anyway.

But Wulfe isn’t the only one who has disappeared. And now there are bodies, too. Has the Harvester returned to the Tri-Cities, reaping souls with his cursed sickle? Or is he just a character from a B horror movie and our enemy is someone else?

The farther I follow Wulfe’s trail, the more twisted—and darker—the path becomes. I need to figure out what’s going on before the next body on the ground is mine.

My first read of HB bingo, done and dusted.  I tore through this one in one day, which is easier to do when walking is still an iffy proposition; I have to do something while icing my leg.

The first chapter frustrated me, as Briggs put the reader in the same confusing space Mercy was in, but strung the confusion out just a little bit too long.  Once past that though, the reader is treated to some answers to questions left open in the last Alpha/Omega series book, Wild Sign (if you don’t read this series it doesn’t matter in the least).  This scene slowly segues into the main plot of the book, the disappearance of Wulfe, and secondarily, Stefan and Marsilia.

It was hard for me to move on from Sherwood’s intrigue, smallish though it was, and I was disappointed that he played little to no part in the main story, but the race to figure out why so many low-level magic users disappeared, and finding Wulfe and his connection to events was one of the better storylines, I think (probably because Briggs laid off on the black magic stuff).  Wulfe’s story is rather convoluted, but I suspect Briggs has no intention of bringing clarity to his character.  Even though the plot is about the vampires, the story itself is about the fae, and Zee gets a little more depth.

I’m rambling a bit.  It was a good read.  Not blow the doors off spectacular, but good.

I read this for the Urban Decay square in 2022’s Halloween Bingo.  It also definitely fits Relics & Curiosities, Monsters and Splatter.

Ruby Fever (Hidden Legacies, #6)

Ruby FeverRuby Fever
by Ilona Andrews
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780062878397
Series: Hidden Legacy #6
Publication Date: August 23, 2022
Pages: 384
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Ace

An escaped spider, the unexpected arrival of an Imperial Russian Prince, the senseless assassination of a powerful figure, a shocking attack on the supposedly invincible Warden of Texas, Catalina’s boss... And it’s only Monday.

Within hours, the fate of Houston—not to mention the House of Baylor—now rests on Catalina, who will have to harness her powers as never before. But even with her fellow Prime and fiancé Alessandro Sagredo by her side, she may not be able to expose who’s responsible before all hell really breaks loose.

This arrived on Wednesday, and I tried, I really did, to hold out for Halloween Bingo.  I made it 2 whole hours before I caved.  I don’t think I’ll need it for HB, but if I do, I’m happy to re-read it.

I admit that of the two sets of characters in Hidden Legacies, I prefer Nevada and Connor, featured in the first 3.  I think in part because there was less romance and more telekinesis; I think I prefer someone throwing huge things around to hand-to-hand combat and magic singing.  Still, it’s the same family and it’s the family that pulls me in and makes me want to re-read, as much as the action.

A couple of random things: I was not surprised by the revelation of Caesar’s identity; I had that nailed after book 1.  I was surprised at Andrews’ attempts to humanise Victoria, and the whole ‘we love you even though you’re terrible’.  I did not buy that at all.  I was also a little surprised by Grandpa, although I shouldn’t have been; I remember well Allessando’s muttered comment in the first Catalina book.

The story wraps up all the open threads, while definitely leaving a few openings for Arabella’s story, presumably in books 7-9, but I read something on the authors’ site about ‘now that we’re through with main-steam publishing’ that makes me wonder if Arabella will get her three books or not, and if so, if we’re going to have to wait years for the authors’ to get around to writing them. (I’m getting bitter about how long it’s taken to get Hugh’s second book, never mind Julie’s).

The Cat Who Saved Books

The Cat Who Saved BooksThe Cat Who Saved Books
by Louise Heal Kawai (Translator), Sosuke Natsukawa
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780063095724
Publication Date: December 7, 2021
Pages: 198
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: HarperVia

Bookish high school student Rintaro Natsuki is about to close the secondhand bookstore he inherited from his beloved bookworm grandfather. Then, a talking cat appears with an unusual request. The feline asks for—or rather, demands—the teenager’s help in saving books with him. The world is full of lonely books left unread and unloved, and the cat and Rintaro must liberate them from their neglectful owners.

Their mission sends this odd couple on an amazing journey, where they enter different mazes to set books free. Through their travels, the cat and Rintaro meet a man who leaves his books to perish on a bookshelf, an unwitting book torturer who cuts the pages of books into snippets to help people speed read, and a publishing drone who only wants to create bestsellers. Their adventures culminate in one final, unforgettable challenge—the last maze that awaits leads Rintaro down a realm only the bravest dare enter . . .

An enthralling tale of books, first love, fantasy, and an unusual friendship with a talking cat, The Cat Who Saved Books is a story for those for whom books are so much more than words on paper.

I have no idea how I discovered this book – I know I read about it somewhere online, and I thought it was here, but I can find no reference to it, so I’ll just throw out a ‘Thank you!’ to the universe at large for putting this book in my path.

Saying that, the title is a little misleading; I’d argue that the cat does not save the books, but is merely a guide for the teen-aged boy who does save the books.  Since I don’t speak Japanese beyond ‘arigato’ I can’t say if this is a translation issue or a marketing one.

As I was reading, two thoughts stayed with me: the first was that this book had a definite Wrinkle in Time vibe – which should be taken with a grain of salt, because I never liked that book, so the parallel is likely tenuous – and second, the philosophy that props this book up feels far more Franciscan than Zen.  The translator’s notes at the end point out the so-obvious-I-missed-it connection to Greek mythology and it’s labyrinth, so who knows what connections each reader of this book will make?  And I think that’s one of the points this book makes – each reader takes what they need from every book they need, and rarely do two people need the same things.

As a story, it’s an engaging one; a little sweet, a little naive from a Western viewpoint (I’m assuming school attendance laws are laxer in Japan? And perhaps too emancipation laws?), but it’s also a fantasy, so some slack needs to be cut, but not all that much.  Rintaro’s life in his grandfather’s bookshop sounds like heaven to me, even without the talking cat; Tiger the Tabby just made it even better.  But the ideas addressed about books and the people that love them are anything but sweet and naive, and for book lovers, there’s some deeply fundamental stuff going on just under the surface.

The book seemingly wants to end after the 3rd labyrinth, when suddenly a fourth one is tacked on – and it feels tacked on.  At first I resented this … addendum, because it felt like it was pandering and gilding the lily, so to speak, not to mention the ill-fitting ‘save the damsel’ conceit of it.  But I have to not only concede that it worked, but that 1/2 star in my rating is for Natsukawa’s cleverness.  I like what he did there, in spite of the way he framed it.  The ambiguity of who is at the centre of the fourth labyrinth is delicious – I have my suspicions, but so will others that read this book, and I doubt any of us would agree and none of us would be wrong.  I love it when that happens!

Heroic Hearts

Heroic HeartsHeroic Hearts
by Anne Bishop, Charlaine Harris, Chloe Neill, Jim Butcher, Kerrie L. Hughes, Kevin Hearne, Patricia Briggs
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780593099186
Publication Date: May 3, 2022
Pages: 350
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Ace

In this short story collection of courage, adventure, and magic, heroes—ordinary people who do the right thing—bravely step forward.

In Jim Butcher’s “Little Things,” the pixie Toot-Toot discovers an invader unbeknownst to the wizard Harry Dresden . . . and in order to defeat it, he’ll have to team up with the dread cat Mister.

In Patricia Briggs’s “Dating Terrors,” the werewolf Asil finds an online date might just turn into something more—if she can escape the dark magic binding her.

In Charlaine Harris’s “The Return of the Mage,” the Britlingen mercenaries will discover more than they’ve bargained for when they answer the call of a distress beacon on a strange and remote world.

And in Kelley Armstrong’s “Comfort Zone,” the necromancer Chloe Saunders and the werewolf Derek Souza are just trying to get through college. But they can’t refuse a ghost pleading for help.

ALSO INCLUDES STORIES BY Annie Bellet * Anne Bishop * Jennifer Brozek * Kevin Hearne * Nancy Holder * Kerrie L. Hughes * Chloe Neill * R.R. Virdi

This sounds like a romance, but as the cover makes clear it’s an urban fantasy anthology, and the title refers to acts of heroism by characters that would normally be considered bit players or underdogs.

And it’s an excellent collection; with the exception of one (The Vampires Karamazov, which felt like a story fragment, or at least, a story with an incomplete ending), I enjoyed all of them; not something I can often say about anthologies.  Of course this collection’s deck is stacked, if you know what I mean, with authors like Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Anne Bishop, Kevin Hearne, and Chloe Neil, each of them offering short stories that complement or extend their most popular series.

I’m not sure I can come up with a favourite.  As much as I enjoyed all my favourite authors’ entries, when I think back across all of them the two that immediately come to mind as stories that ‘stick’ are Jennifer Brozek’s The Necessity of Pragmatic Magic – perhaps because I might overly identify with Felicia, who only wants to be left alone, and Kerry L. Hughes’ Troll Life which somehow charmed me in ways I can’t quite pinpoint; maybe the sentient trains?

Patricia Briggs’ story features Asil, Dating Terrors, and while it’s always fun to read about Asil – he makes me laugh – and the story is good, I have to admit I think he plays to best advantage when he’s surrounded by Charles, Anna, Bran and the rest of the pack.  For those interested, this short story is not the same one as Asil and the not-date found in the Laurel K. Hamilton anthology Fantastic Hope; it’s related, I suspect, and I’m certain Dating Terrors takes place after Asil and the Not-Date.  It also appears to have long-reaching implications for Asil and his fans; I’m wondering if they’ll play out in the next Alpha and Omega book?