ARC Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

The Hazel Wood
The Hazel Wood
by Melissa Albert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow this book was good. So dark and creepy and just wonderfully well written. I found myself becoming lost in the story which considering how tired and stressed I was while reading it was pretty impressive.


THE BLURB

Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the strange bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate – the Hazel Wood – Alice learns how bad her luck can really get. Her mother is stolen away – by a figure who claims to come from the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother’s stories are set. Alice’s only lead is the message her mother left behind: STAY AWAY FROM THE HAZEL WOOD. 

To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother’s tales began . . .


MY REVIEW

I have to admit that while I initially had high hopes for this book, I did see some negative reviews that put a little bit of doubt in my mind. Thankfully though this book was right up my street. I am a huge fan of retellings and all things fairy tale and this, while not really being a retelling, certainly has the feel of one albeit a very dark and creepy one.

This is a story about stories where the lines between the real and the imagined become decidedly blurred. It’s a little confusing and frustrating at times and occasionally nonsensical but there’s so much mystery and so many twists that it’s difficult to put down. The world the author builds is incredible and draws you in so completely that it feels real. It’s dark and disturbing pretty much all of the time and I found myself getting genuine chill in places.

I’m not going to say much about the story as I think you really need to read it for yourself but essentially it’s a voyage of discovery for Alice as she tries to find her mother after she suddenly disappears. She uncovers a link to her recently deceased grandmother’s collection of dark fairy tales and has to find her way first to her grandmother’s estate, The Hazel Wood and then to the place that inspired her stories. She’s pretty much on her own with no other family and no money or resources so has to rely on a boy from school to help her but he seems a little too excited about going to the Hazel Wood.

The story is told entirely from Alice’s point of view and she is very much the focus of this story. There are other characters but they generally appear briefly, play their part and then move on. I’m not sure I would necessarily say I liked Alice but I’m not sure you’re supposed to. She’s cold, sharp and angry and not very nice but I did admire her determination and liked how the author developed her over the course of the story.

It was though, the other characters who left more of an impression on me despite only their relatively brief appearances in the story. They tended to the eccentric, with erratic sometimes violent behavior and talking in riddles (this is where it goes a little Alice in Wonderland). It’s rarely clear whether they are there to help Alice, are playing with her or using her for their own ends. I can understand some may find them frustrating and annoying but I just loved the mystery around it and found myself wanting more of them. There were a couple of characters in particular who I really wish we’d gotten to understand more about but if I’d gotten everything I wanted the book would probably be twice as long.

The one problem I will say I found with the characters however is that I thought the relationships between them were a little lacking. There just isn’t enough time spent fully developing them and consequently I didn’t feel their connection to each other. The relationship between Alice and her mother for example is key to the story, the whole plot is Alice trying to find her, but because her mother only appears briefly I didn’t feel any closeness. We have to rely on Alice’s assertions of how much her mother means to her which for me is not the same as showing it. Similarly the relationship between Alice and the boy who’s helping her just felt a little odd and uncomfortable. That may be intentional but even by the end there was something incomplete about it.

That being said though I did love the story. It drew me in completely, so much so that I almost missed my stop on the train. I especially loved the dark fairy tales that are told as part of the story and would really love it if the author wrote the whole complete collection at some point. Almost every story is left unfinished or interrupted and they were just so creepy and dark that I want to know how they end.

Overall, despite a few niggles over the relationships I have to say I really loved this story. It’s one I’d recommend to anyone who likes fantasy and fairy tales with a dark twist.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC. As always all thoughts are my own.

The Hazel Wood is due to be published on 30th January in the US and 8th February in the UK.

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Review: Everless by Sara Holland

Everless
Everless
by Sara Holland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Original, addictive and frustrating as hell. This is one of those books where I just wanted to give the main character a good shake but couldn’t put it down.


THE BLURB

Time is a prison. She is the key. Packed with danger, temptation and desire – a perfect read for fans of The Red Queen. 

In the land of Sempera, the rich control everything – even time. Ever since the age of alchemy and sorcery, hours, days and years have been extracted from blood and bound to iron coins. The rich live for centuries; the poor bleed themselves dry.

Jules and her father are behind on their rent and low on hours. To stop him from draining himself to clear their debts, Jules takes a job at Everless, the grand estate of the cruel Gerling family.

There, Jules encounters danger and temptation in the guise of the Gerling heir, Roan, who is soon to be married. But the web of secrets at Everless stretches beyond her desire, and the truths Jules must uncover will change her life for ever … and possibly the future of time itself.


MY REVIEW

There seems to be a lot of buzz about this book and I have to admit I was a little bit skeptical going in. Is there anything truly original left to do in YA fantasy? But actually, Holland does somehow manage it. Yes there are a lot of the familiar tropes but the central concept, that in this land time is used as a currency, is absolutely brilliant. Add to that some wonderful writing and world building and this is a book that’s definitely worth reading.

There is something instantly likeable about the authors writing style and the whole story feels very much like a fairytale, from the dark and dangerous woods, the poor peasant girl with the sickly father, powerful royals and secrets from the past. In the beginning it reminded me a little of beauty and the beast as Jules takes on her fathers debt in order to save him, venturing to the palace they ran from when she was a child to work as a servant. In Everless she finds cruelty, greed and excess but she also finds friends, old and new, and begins to uncover the secrets from her past.

The story is a little predictable, I saw pretty much everything coming, but while it’s frustrating watching Jules do ridiculously stupid things and trusting the wrong people it does make for some addictive reading. I was literally shouting at the pages but I couldn’t stop turning them.

Jules as you can probably tell drove me crazy. She is kind and brave but she’s a little too naive and trusting and I’m not sure that really changes over the course of the story. The other characters are a bit more complex and many are not as they first appear, although again the author scatters enough hints that nothing is wholly unexpected.

The pacing of the story is pretty much spot on and the author creates a very believable and engaging world. There are a few areas I think the author could have developed further, maybe that will come in subsequent books, but there are moments that are absolutely wonderful, shocking, touching, tragic or jaw dropping.

There is plenty of action and intrigue, a few twists and a little bit of romance to carry the story along to a pretty epic conclusion, although with this being the first in a series there are of course a few unanswered questions and a bit of a cliffhanger. This is the authors debut novel so it’s not perfect but it definitely shows a lot of promise and I will certainly be looking out for more.

Overall a great start to the series with a very unique premise and some wonderful writing. I’d recommend you give this series a try if you love YA fantasy and are looking for something a little different.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC. As always all views are my own.

Review: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air, #1)
The Cruel Prince
by Holly Black

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Dark, twisted and brutally violent at times, I absolutely loved this book. Black truly creates a wonderfully vivid world that you can quite happily lose yourself in.


THE BLURB

Of course I want to be like them. They’re beautiful as blades forged in some divine fire. They will live forever.

And Cardan is even more beautiful than the rest. I hate him more than all the others. I hate him so much that sometimes when I look at him, I can hardly breathe.

Jude was seven years old when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.

To win a place at the Court, she must defy him–and face the consequences.

In doing so, she becomes embroiled in palace intrigues and deceptions, discovering her own capacity for bloodshed. But as civil war threatens to drown the Courts of Faerie in violence, Jude will need to risk her life in a dangerous alliance to save her sisters, and Faerie itself.


MY REVIEW

Holly Black truly is the Queen of the Fae.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a story featuring Fae and I’m so glad I waited for this one. It’s deliciously dark and twisted and so, so good. The writing is wonderful, Black creates a fantastically vivid world and a story that gripped me from the very start.

Main character Jude is incredible and I loved how she developed over the course of the story. The other characters are similarly unexpected and complicated and the relationships between them are just as unpredictable. As the majority of characters are fae, there are a lot of tricksters, some charming and some vicious, nasty and horrible. Very few are who they seem and many turn out to be completely different than you thought.

There are a lot of twists and turns in this story, some I saw coming and others that took me completely by surprise. Almost everyone seems to be scheming and plotting to maneuver themselves into a position of power or at the very least safety. It’s a dangerous and violent world, think Game of Thrones, where there are sudden bursts of brutal and bloody violence as the various factions try to take out their enemies.

As humans in a powerful fae family, twins Jude and Taryn are particularly vulnerable. They have no power and spend most of their time afraid and on the defensive, at the mercy of whoever decides to risk the wrath of their guardian Madoc. It fascinated me how both sisters were in the same position but took such different approaches, Jude looks for her own power while Taryn seeks protection. It makes for an interesting dynamic between them and quite a bit of conflict. I could understand Taryn’s attempts to go unnoticed and smooth the waters but I loved Jude’s determination and fire. The moment where she pretty much goes f*ck it and starts playing the game had me cheering.

There is some romance in this, those fae can be very tempting, but it is fairly light and like a lot of the story not necessarily what it seems. The focus is much more on family relationships, friendship, loyalty and trust. Basically all of the good things and I loved it.

Overall this is a brilliant story, so dark and twisty with a lot of violence. It’s one I’d recommend to all YA fantasy readers and I can’t wait for the next in the series.

Thanks to the publisher for providing me with an ARC of this book. As always all thoughts are my own.

ARC Review: The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

The Rules of MagicThe Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

A prequel to Practical Magic, this is a book I was eagerly anticipating but took a bit of time to warm up to. The writing is wonderful, as you would expect from Hoffman, but with a slow pace, detailed descriptions and the focus very much on the characters and their relationships rather than spells and potions it took a while to fully engage me.

Franny and Jet’s story is fascinating and truly heartbreaking at times and I’m glad to have read it.


The Blurb

Find your magic

For the Owens family, love is a curse that began in 1620, when Maria Owens was charged with witchery for loving the wrong man.

Hundreds of years later, in New York City at the cusp of the sixties, when the whole world is about to change, Susanna Owens knows that her three children are dangerously unique. Difficult Franny, with skin as pale as milk and blood red hair, shy and beautiful Jet, who can read other people’s thoughts, and charismatic Vincent, who began looking for trouble on the day he could walk.

From the start Susanna sets down rules for her children: No walking in the moonlight, no red shoes, no wearing black, no cats, no crows, no candles, no books about magic. And most importantly, never, ever, fall in love. But when her children visit their Aunt Isabelle, in the small Massachusetts town where the Owens family has been blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong, they uncover family secrets and begin to understand the truth of who they are. Back in New York City each begins a risky journey as they try to escape the family curse.

The Owens children cannot escape love even if they try, just as they cannot escape the pains of the human heart. The two beautiful sisters will grow up to be the revered, and sometimes feared, aunts in Practical Magic, while Vincent, their beloved brother, will leave an unexpected legacy.


Review

I have to confess I’m really struggling with how to rate and review this. I finished it quite late in the evening yesterday and hoped that after a good night’s sleep I’d know how I felt about it but unfortunately my feelings are still all over the place.

I think it’s pretty safe to say when I first started reading it I struggled. Practical Magic is one of my favorite films (I haven’t read the book – sorry) so I think I was expecting something very similar in style and tone. When I was faced with a slow and drawn out story that felt more like a family saga I have to admit I was disappointed. Hoffman’s writing is brilliant and very vivid and she really makes siblings Frances, Jet and Vincent come to life but it’s done in such a slow and meandering way that it really couldn’t hold my attention.

The focus of the story is very much on the family and the relationships between them. There is however a lot of magic in this book, particularly in the beginning as the siblings set out to discover who they are and what they can do. Forbidden by their parents to dabble, they learn first from a hidden magical text and some experimentation and then from their Aunt Isabelle all of the rules, potions and spells they could ever need to know.

Like a lot of the story though there is no big bang or excitement when it comes to magic. It’s all very gently introduced with a focus on the theory rather than the practical. As information on what each and every herb could be used for or what ingredients are required for specific potions was presented I must admit I found my attention wandering. I began finding excuses to put the book down and go do something else and on a few occasions I was pretty close to just giving up on the whole thing.

This wasn’t really helped by my inability to really connect with any of the characters or the relationships between them. With Hoffman’s wonderful writing ability they are drawn beautifully and you get a real sense of even the most minor characters but there was something about them that left me a little cold. They are all well rounded, with both strengths and flaws but I just couldn’t relate to them. Given the nature of the story, it should have been packed with emotion but I just couldn’t feel it.

I think it was around the midpoint, when Franny, Jet and Vincent are on their own, that I finally began to feel and it was at that point I became engrossed in the story. Whereas previously I’d been struggling to pick it up I began to find it difficult to put down. I’m still not sure I really liked any one particular character, a lot of the time I wanted to shake them, but somehow, very stealthily they managed to sneak in and I found myself truly caring about them and hoping things would work out for them.

This is a story about family, love and accepting who you are more than a story of witchcraft and magic. The pace is slow and the writing full of vivid imagery and detail. There isn’t much in the way of fun or light and to be honest the whole thing left me feeling pretty depressed, I cried a lot, but overall I am glad I stuck with it and read to the very end.

It’s probably not a book I would recommend everyone reads, I think it’s more suited to the type of reader who likes a slow paced story about family and relationships rather than one looking for magic and excitement, but I did enjoy it.

Many thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC. This has in no way influenced my review.

ARC Review: Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody


Daughter of the Burning CityDaughter of the Burning City
by Amanda Foody

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A dark and twisty story with a wonderfully diverse cast of characters. The world the author has created is incredibly detailed and I loved the combination of fantasy and murder mystery. There are a few pacing issues and I thought there was a little too much crammed in but it’s definitely an enjoyable read.


Synopsis

A darkly irresistible new fantasy set in the infamous Gomorrah Festival, a traveling carnival of debauchery that caters to the strangest of dreams and desires.

Sixteen-year-old Sorina has spent most of her life within the smoldering borders of the Gomorrah Festival. Yet even among the many unusual members of the traveling circus-city, Sorina stands apart as the only illusion-worker born in hundreds of years. This rare talent allows her to create illusions that others can see, feel and touch, with personalities all their own. Her creations are her family, and together they make up the cast of the Festival’s Freak Show.

But no matter how lifelike they may seem, her illusions are still just that—illusions, and not truly real. Or so she always believed…until one of them is murdered.

Desperate to protect her family, Sorina must track down the culprit and determine how they killed a person who doesn’t actually exist. Her search for answers leads her to the self-proclaimed gossip-worker Luca, and their investigation sends them through a haze of political turmoil and forbidden romance, and into the most sinister corners of the Festival. But as the killer continues murdering Sorina’s illusions one by one, she must unravel the horrifying truth before all of her loved ones disappear.

Review

I’m a little bit torn on this one. There were parts that I absolutely loved and it’s wonderfully original and dark but there was something about it that didn’t quite work.

I loved the idea of this traveling carnival that’s as big as a city. I loved the diversity of those that live and work there, the different types of magic, the performers, vendors, guards and the thieves and assassins who all consider themselves equal. Most of all I loved the mystery and just how dark and twisted it was.

It’s called Gomorrah for a reason. There are prettymen and prettywomen (prostitutes), con artists, thieves and assassins. All visitors to the carnival do so at their own risk and literally within the first few pages one person is robbed and a seemingly central character murdered.

Sorina made for an interesting main character. The only illusion worker in Gomorrah she’s considered a bit of a freak and outsider in a city of freaks and outsiders. She has no eyes but can see via her illusions (something I still don’t quite understand). She has however used her illusion work to create a family of “freaks” and together they have quite a happy life until one of them is suddenly murdered. So begins the mystery of who is behind the murder but also how do you kill an illusion.

In many ways I did like Sorina. She’s quite a lonely character and just wants to be accepted. She wants the fairytale romance but doesn’t believe anyone will be interested in her. She does get a little annoying with the woe is me all of the time and being so easily influenced by others but she is only 16 so it’s largely forgivable.

I have to confess I found her family/illusions confusing in the beginning. I have a goldfish like memory and was extremely tired at the time so I suspect it may just have been me who couldn’t remember who was who and what they did (I think the physical book has drawings so that will make it easier). I also didn’t feel the connection between them. One is the baby of the family, the other like a grandpa, one the best friend/sister but while I knew this it didn’t feel real to me. Maybe because they are illusions but I suspect it was because there was more telling than showing, something I think the book was guilty of in quite a few places.

The author has created this big and complicated world with a whole city/carnival that moves from place to place across the continent. I think it was perhaps overly complicated particularly for one book. We have the city of Gomorrah to try and understand with its very distinct areas and layout and all of its people/magics. There are the different places they visit, the world as a whole, politics and religion. It’s a lot to cram into around 380 pages and led to a bit of info dumping, something I struggle with.

There are some wonderful descriptions of the carnival and times when you are in the moment but these were a little too fleeting. I wish it had been kept simpler allowing more time for character development and relationships to develop. I didn’t feel any of the connection between the characters and consequently a lot of the events had less of an impact (the murders for example).

The storyline is good and I loved the idea of a YA fantasy with a murder mystery. There were however some issues on timing and it felt a little disjointed at times. There were certain events that felt unnecessary and others that were rushed over and didn’t make sense.

There are plenty of twists and turns as you try to work out who is behind the murders and I did for the most part enjoy it. I just wish it had been a little simpler with a little less tell and a little more show.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC. As always all views are my own.

Review: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Strange the Dreamer (Strange the Dreamer, #1)Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Genre: YA Fantasy

Format: Hardback (purchased)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Terrible as it is to admit I’ve never actually read Daughter of Smoke and Bone so this was my very first Laini Taylor. With all of the good things I’d heard about her stories and her writing I was very excited but I have to confess my experience of reading Strange the Dreamer was mixed.

The story is wonderful. It’s about an orphan, Lazlo Strange, who follows his dreams and travels to the mysterious, and cursed, city of Weep. It’s full of magic, monstrous creatures, heroes and stories, basically all the things I love.

I absolutely adored Lazlo Strange, the Dreamer, who sees the best in everyone and everything and is happy to help others do great deeds rather than seeking glory for himself. He loves stories and fairytales and believes anything could be possible and he’s just so sweet. I think I fell a little in love with him.

The other characters are also wonderfully etched from Eril-Fane the Godslayer who is plagued by nightmares of past deeds, to Thyon Nero the golden boy considered a genius and Lazlo’s tormentor, to Minya the woman trapped in a child’s body who is so full of hate and anger. Each and every one was captivating in their own way.

The writing is beautiful but for me I found it a little too flowery for my taste. I’m generally not a fan of lots of description and imagery though so this is definitely a me issue. I also believe it could have been shorter without really losing much.

The ending was however stunning, edge of the seat reading so there is absolutely no question over whether or not I will read the sequel (I will).


Synopsis

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Welcome to Weep.

Review: Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Flame in the Mist (Flame in the Mist, #1)Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Genre: YA Fantasy

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Source: NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A captivating fantasy set in feudal Japan with mythology, monsters, samurai and just the right amount of romance. There’s definitely a lot to like about this story and with a heroine who uses her knowledge and talents rather than special powers or fighting skills we have someone we can all relate to.


Synopsis (from GoodReads)

The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.

So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.

The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.


My Review

I’ve never been angry to have been born a woman. There have been times I’ve been angry at how the world treats us, but I see being a woman as a challenge I must fight. Like being born under a stormy sky. Some people are lucky enough to be born on a bright summer’s day. Maybe we were born under clouds. No wind. No rain. Just a mountain of clouds we must climb each morning so that we may see the sun.

Yay!!! At long last we finally have a YA fantasy with a female main character we can relate to. Mariko may not have special snowflake super powers, be particularly blood thirsty or have incredible fighting skills which allow her to defeat all of her enemies and save the world in the blink of an eye but this story is all the better for it. She’s scared a lot of the time, she’s physically weaker than the boys but she’s smart and inventive and learns to use those abilities to hold her own and find her place.

There is a real girl power theme running throughout this book, which I loved, but unlike most YA fantasy stories this power doesn’t come from Mariko competing to show she’s just as strong or fierce but from realizing she has unique skills that make her just as valuable, something a lot of girls can relate and aspire to.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of action as this story is packed full of it. It begins with a young boy watching the execution of his father (which was brutal but gripping) and from there on in it doesn’t let up. I’ve seen a lot of reviews describing it as a Mulan retelling but while Mariko disguises herself as a boy and has to learn to fight that’s pretty much where the similarities end. There’s no noble purpose of trying to save her father by going off to war in his place but a slightly more selfish desire to find out who was behind an attack on her and also to find some freedom from the role she’s being pushed into.

There are a few twists and turns in the story and it definitely makes for some addictive reading. I have to confess there weren’t many twists that surprised me, I had an inkling around most of them, but it was still enjoyable following Mariko on her journey of discovery.

There is a bit of romance in this but it’s not too heavy and I really liked it as it has that hate to love thing going on. There’s a definite spark between Mariko and a certain bandit and one of the highlights of this book for me was the banter and teasing between them.

The other characters and the world the author creates were also fantastic. Ahdieh has a real talent for describing both people and places so that you can perfectly imagine them and they feel completely real.

With all these pluses this book could have been a five star read but it’s not quite perfect. It’s a little lacking in originality, Mariko does some downright silly things despite supposedly being clever and great at reading people and it felt like the magical elements were a bit light. I would have really liked to have a bit more explanation of the magic system in particular, although maybe the author’s leaving that till the next book in the series.

Overall it’s a great story and definitely one I’d recommend.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC