Book Review: All for One by Lillie Lainoff

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Retelling
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: March 8th, 2022
Pages: 12hr 23mins, audiobook
Source: Library

Tania de Batz is most herself with a sword in her hand. Everyone in town thinks her near-constant dizziness makes her weak, nothing but “a sick girl”; even her mother is desperate to marry her off for security. But Tania wants to be strong, independent, a fencer like her father—a former Musketeer and her greatest champion.

Then Papa is brutally, mysteriously murdered. His dying wish? For Tania to attend finishing school. But L’Académie des Mariées, Tania realizes, is no finishing school. It’s a secret training ground for a new kind of Musketeer: women who are socialites on the surface, but strap daggers under their skirts, seduce men into giving up dangerous secrets, and protect France from downfall. And they don’t shy away from a swordfight.

With her newfound sisters at her side, Tania feels for the first time like she has a purpose, like she belongs. But then she meets Étienne, her first target in uncovering a potential assassination plot. He’s kind, charming, and breathlessly attractive—and he might have information about what really happened to her father. Torn between duty and dizzying emotion, Tania will have to lean on her friends, listen to her own body, and decide where her loyalties lie…or risk losing everything she’s ever wanted.

This debut novel is a fierce, whirlwind adventure about the depth of found family, the strength that goes beyond the body, and the determination it takes to fight for what you love. 

Oh, I wish I could rate this higher, but there were a lot of flaws in One for All, most of them the author’s, but one that wasn’t.

The biggest issue I had was the pacing. Tania doesn’t meet Etienne until the 50% mark, and by that point, any relationship they might have had no room to breath or time to feel natural. Maybe this was intentional on Lainoff’s part, but I think there were better ways to go about it, so when the third act came along I would have been more emotionally engaged than I was.

There’s also the issue that the Musketeers fight for the King of France, and, well, Lainoff does attempt to flesh this out by having the characters criticize the King and say they’re fighting more for France, and that if the King dies then the poor will suffer most, and while that’s true… it still felt like it was mostly just pasted in and not really developed enough. Yes, the girls are fighting to prove women can be Musketeers, and they disagree with the villain’s plot, but they also don’t seem to have any alternate ideas as to how to improve things.

They say they want to avoid having the poorest people pay the price in blood, but frankly, their actions will kill those same people eventually, either through starvation or illness or any of the other myriad, slow ways people died while the rich did their thing. All that fell flat for me and left the characters not looking the greatest.

One for All does start out pretty strong, and I was engaged up until Tania leaves her village to go to Paris. There, the pacing combined with Wilson’s inability to differentiate her voices for the characters (or, when she does, her inability to stick to those voices) made it harder to follow.

The other issue was the choice of narrator. I like Mara Wilson herself well enough, but her skills at narration were… lacking. I’m not sure if this was a director’s choice or her own, but sometimes she had long pauses between lines, up to 2 seconds long, which made me think we were starting a new scene or a new paragraph altogether, only for the scene to continue. The pauses and the speed of her speech were so slow even at 1.50x speed that I had to turn it up to 1.75x just for it to be manageable for me to listen to. She wasn’t consistent in this, either, so sometimes we had long pauses, other times not, so it threw me off.

I suspect if I had read this instead of listened to the audiobook, I would have liked it slightly better. I’ll probably look into Lainoff’s next book, to see how she improves past the typical debut shakiness.

Book Review: Little Thieves by Margaret Owen

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy Fairytale Retelling
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Publication Date: October 19th, 2021
Pages: 512, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Once upon a time, there was a horrible girl…

Vanja Schmidt knows that no gift is freely given, not even a mother’s love–and she’s on the hook for one hell of a debt. Vanja, the adopted goddaughter of Death and Fortune, was Princess Gisele’s dutiful servant up until a year ago. That was when Vanja’s otherworldly mothers demanded a terrible price for their care, and Vanja decided to steal her future back… by stealing Gisele’s life for herself.

The real Gisele is left a penniless nobody while Vanja uses an enchanted string of pearls to take her place. Now, Vanja leads a lonely but lucrative double life as princess and jewel thief, charming nobility while emptying their coffers to fund her great escape. Then, one heist away from freedom, Vanja crosses the wrong god and is cursed to an untimely end: turning into jewels, stone by stone, for her greed.

Vanja has just two weeks to figure out how to break her curse and make her getaway. And with a feral guardian half-god, Gisele’s sinister fiancé, and an overeager junior detective on Vanja’s tail, she’ll have to pull the biggest grift yet to save her own life.

Once, many moons ago when I was just a baby Miranda, my friend and I were obsessed with a comic on deviantART. It was part of a challenge where several different artists created characters and storylines set in a world that the person in charge of the challenge had created. Week by week, the artists would post their own comics, and people would vote on which story and characters could go through to the next round.

My friend and I loved the storyline following two outlaws, Annie and the Professor (or as Annie called him, Ginger.) It was hilarious, the characters were well crafted, and the storyline was moving. I loved it so much, in fact, that I followed the artist for the next fifteen years, because I wanted to see what else she would eventually put out.

The artist was Margaret Owen, and I am so excited to be able to read her books.

Little Thieves is a loose retelling of The Goose Girl but focused on the villain of the story, the maid who steals the princess’ life. When Vanja steals something she shouldn’t and is then cursed by a Low God to repay her debt, she has only two weeks to break the curse before she turns to jewels.

To say this book is a triumph is an understatement. Owen takes the fairytale of The Goose Girl and upends it while still keeping the recognizable bits of the tale. It’s creative and the way she uses the bits from the fairytale make sense, in a way that leaves you thinking, “How did she come up with that?” I read the book almost entirely in one sitting. That’s how much I enjoyed it.

Perhaps what I enjoyed most was how clearly Owen has taken her ability to create comics and translated it into prose. Little Thieves is bursting with detail that I could visualize very easily simply because Owen knew how to describe what she was seeing artistically in her head into words. I sometimes have trouble picturing what an author is trying to describe; I didn’t have an issue here.

All of the things I loved about Margaret Owen’s comic on deviantART years ago are present in Little Thieves as well: Wonderfully layered characters, hilarious banter, an interesting world, and a romantic arc that made me squee. Yes, squee. Vanja herself is one of the best YA characters I’ve read in a long while. She does horrible things, yes, but given the world she grew up in, it makes sense. Owen treats her both with sympathy but also making certain she does, indeed, pay her debts. If the book had simply been entirely of banter between her and Emeric, I would have been over the moon. Owen simply has a way with words that can make you laugh like a donkey — then pages later, she’ll have you tearing up.

Some readers may find the villain to be lacking in nuance, but frankly, the world is full of men like the villain, and I find him all too believably real. The ending may also lack a bit of a punch to some readers; again, I didn’t mind it.

I honestly have very little else to say except that I adored Little Thieves, and I’m so looking forward to everything else Owen releases in the future.

Book Review: Iron Widow (Iron Widow #1) by Xiran Jay Zhao

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Sci-Fi
Publisher: Penguin Teen
Publication Date: September 21st, 2021
Pages: 400, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

Iron Widow has a solid premise and, unfortunately, not much else.

I wanted very badly to love this novel, as I enjoyed all of its comp titles and I like what I’ve seen of Xiran on twitter. But Iron Widow feels a bit like a first rough draft where the writer was just getting the general beats down and not overly paying attention to anything else such as the world building, characterization, or pacing, or even making certain the characters’ dialogue doesn’t sound exactly the same.

Even accounting for the fact that English isn’t Xiran’s first language and the differences in storytelling norms between English and Chinese, the writing simply isn’t good. It’s very blunt, and while maybe that was the point as the novel is entirely in Zetian’s POV and she’s not a subtle person, I can’t be sure about that. We’re given no time to really pause and reflect on certain scenes or emotions, which leaves it all feeling shallow. Even Zetian’s relationship with her Big Sister, who’s the entire driving force behind the events of the novel, barely gets any mention. We’re told everything and shown nothing.

It really seems as if the author only had a few scenes crystal clear in their head but had no interest in building the rest of the novel around those scenes in a way that made sense. There are a few bits of the novel that really shine, while the rest are hastily put together and shoved to the side so the author could get to the stuff they actually cared about. I couldn’t really tell you a thing about the worldbuilding except that it’s a Chinese sci-fi world where boys and girls have to fight aliens called Hunduns, and the girls are basically batteries for the boys and die in the process of the fighting.

Which brings me to Zetian’s story: I could not, in any way, believe her arc because it made no sense. Where she ends up at the end of the novel is unbelievable; at several points in the story, she should have been stopped simply because she’s about as subtle as a trainwreck on a boat and, frankly, not entirely smart about her plots. Readers looking for a character who manages to play the game intelligently and with subtlety should look elsewhere, because that’s very much not Zetian’s style, and while I understand that’s what Jay Zhao was going for, it doesn’t work. At all.

In a way, I think Iron Widow would have benefited incredibly from not being a YA novel–being an adult novel focused on teenage characters instead–and having multiple POVs. Zetian is limited in a lot of ways (including physically–she has bound feet, though at times it seems like Jay Zhao forgot about that, given that it doesn’t overly impact Zetian’s ability to do things that much) and the middle drags because we can’t see how other pieces are being moved, if they’re being moved at all. Given how the novel was written, I sort of doubt it; the characters come in when they’re needed, do what the plot/Zetian’s characterization and arc require them to do, and then leave, as if they don’t exist outside of their on-page appearances or have an impact on the world outside of them.

And now my final, biggest issue with the novel: For all that it touts itself as a feminist novel, and for all that Zetian claims she wants to save girls, neither Zetian nor the novel seem to actually like other girls that much. Zetian is a prickly person, so I get that she wouldn’t get along with everyone, but the novel itself doesn’t treat girls other than Zetian that well. There’s a difference between your character having some internalized misogyny issues and the writing backing her up on it by having every female character she encounters either be an enemy or get killed by the end of the novel. I don’t require Zetian to never have a bad word to say about other girls or for the novel not to have antagonistic relationships between them, but her scenes with other girls are so scant and overwhelmingly negative. If feminism means only One True Awesome Girl, it’s not one I’m interested in.

I did like the way the mecha functions, and I like that the love triangle resolves itself into an actual poly relationship. I wish the rest of the novel had been as good as some of the scenes inside, but unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Book Review: Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Horror
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: August 24th, 2021
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Katrell doesn’t mind talking to the dead; she just wishes it made more money. Clients pay her to talk to their deceased loved ones, but it isn’t enough to support her unemployed mother and Mom’s deadbeat boyfriend-of-the-week. Things get worse, when a ghost warns her to stop the summonings or she’ll “burn everything down.” Katrell is willing to call them on their bluff, though. She has no choice. What do ghosts know about eating peanut butter for dinner?

However, when her next summoning accidentally raises someone from the dead, Katrell realizes that a live body is worth a lot more than a dead apparition. And, warning or not, she has no intention of letting this lucrative new business go.

But magic doesn’t come for free, and soon dark forces are closing in on Katrell. The further she goes, the more she risks the lives of not only herself, but those she loves. Katrell faces a choice: resign herself to poverty, or confront the darkness before it’s too late.

Content warnings: Murder of a dog on-page about 9% of the way in, physical abuse of a child, emotional abuse/manipulation of a child, food insecurity, some gore.

This took me by surprise, but in a good way. From the summary I expected more of a young adult urban fantasy/paranormal read, but Bad Witch Burning ended up being more of a contemporary novel with heavy horror elements. Readers expecting a fast paced novel will be disappointed as there’s more of a character driven focus for the plot. Which is fine because Katrell and the supporting cast are well written and I didn’t mind spending time with them (save for her abusers).

Katrell herself is a worthy main character, although near the end she did end up having to hand part of the reins over to her best friend, Will. However, I didn’t mind this, as Katrell’s whole story was about having to always fend for herself and believing no one was there for her. The fact that she has to learn to depend on her friend and allow Will to help save her was a satisfying conclusion to her arc. This may not be some readers’ preference, however, as it might come across as Katrell becoming a little passive.

The paranormal aspects are likely what will disappoint some readers; we’re never given any kind of explanation as to why Katrell’s powers suddenly change, or whether she was always able to bring a person back to life and just didn’t know until she was desperate enough to try. Personally I would have preferred a bit more explanation in this, but it may not bother others.

The only criticisms I have concern the pacing for the first part of the novel, which seems to meander just slightly, and the fact that Katrell is warned about her powers by Will’s deceased grandmother in one of the first chapters. At this point Katrell can only bring a shade back for about ten minutes. Will’s grandmother waits until the very end of these ten minutes to tell Katrell not to do any more summoning, and won’t explain why. Lewis does poke fun at this a bit in the end by having Will say her grandmother could have given a better warning, but it was a bit late, so the scene mostly came across as a contrived way to build suspense.

Bad Witch Burning isn’t perfect, but I enjoyed it and it even made me cry at the end. I look forward to what comes next from Jessica Lewis.

Book Review: That Weekend by Kara Thomas

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Thriller
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: June 19th, 2021
Pages: 336, hardcover
Source: Library

Three best friends, a lake house, a secret trip – what could go wrong?

It was supposed to be the perfect prom weekend getaway. But it’s clear something terrible happened when Claire wakes up alone and bloodied on a hiking trail with no memory of the past forty-eight hours.

Three went up the mountain, but only one came back.

Now everyone wants answers – most of all, Claire. She remembers Friday night, but after that… nothing. And now Kat and Jesse – her best friends – are missing.

That weekend changes everything.

What happened on the mountain? And where are Kat and Jesse? Claire knows the answers are buried somewhere in her memory, but as she’s learning, everyone has secrets – even her best friends. And she’s pretty sure she’s not going to like what she remembers.

This was fully engaging up until the point where Claire goes to college. After that, it seems to lose itself a bit, especially as her going away to college takes her out of the main setting where the action is happening. It never really regained its footing after that and it lost the urgency. 

I do understand that this happens in real life, too, where investigations can go for months and people have to live their lives, so perhaps Thomas was trying for realism here. The problem is that we lose a lot of what happens to Claire during this time, which as we’re told by Claire is quite a lot. 

The other issue was the ending, where Thomas evidently wasn’t content to just have the expected twists; she includes another huge twist that, frankly, was unnecessary and added nothing to the story overall, especially as it’s revealed in one of the last chapters and so the story can’t explore the impact it has on the characters it involves. It felt a bit cheap, to be honest, and didn’t give that sort of thing the severity it deserves. 

So, it’s not my favorite of Thomas’, but it hardly ruins my enjoyment of her works overall. 

Book Review: What We Devour by Linsey Miller

Rating: 0.5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: July 6th, 2021
Pages: 336, paperback
Source: NetGalley

From the author of Mask of Shadows comes a dark and intricate story of a girl who must tether herself to a violent ruler to save her crumbling world.

Lorena Adler has a secret—she holds the power of the banished gods, the Noble and the Vile, inside her. She has spent her entire life hiding from the world and her past. She’s content to spend her days as an undertaker in a small town, marry her best friend, Julian, and live an unfulfilling life so long as no one uncovers her true nature.

But when the notoriously bloodthirsty and equally Vile crown prince comes to arrest Julian’s father, he immediately recognizes Lorena for what she is. So she makes a deal—a fair trial for her betrothed’s father in exchange for her service to the crown.

The prince is desperate for her help. He’s spent years trying to repair the weakening Door that holds back the Vile…and he’s losing the battle. As Lorena learns more about the Door and the horrifying price it takes to keep it closed, she’ll have to embrace both parts of herself to survive.

DNF at 22%

This should have been right up my alley. Some light Beauty and the Beast elements in an interesting fantasy world? I should have loved this.

The issue started right off the bat with the world-building. There’s a lot of information thrown at the reader in the first few chapters, which isn’t explained well and left me deeply confused. The basic idea of it is intriguing, but the way Miller went about presenting her world made a muddle of it. 

The biggest issue I had was with Lorena. The book is told from her perspective, in first person, and it’s almost as if the book was written in third person for all that we see Lorena’s thought processes or emotions. She barely even reacts to things. At one point, another character tells Lorena to kill her, and there’s no in-text reaction from Lorena, either outwardly or inwardly. This is made far more apparent when she meets three side characters who frankly outshine her in every way. I could have read a novel about those three characters. I could not continue reading a novel about Lorena, who came across more as a placeholder for the reader than a character in her own right. 

So, it’s a no from me, unfortunately. 

Book Review: Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Thriller
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication Date: June 1st, 2021
Pages: 432, hardcover
Source: Library

When two Niveus Private Academy students, Devon Richards and Chiamaka Adebayo, are selected to be part of the elite school’s senior class prefects, it looks like their year is off to an amazing start. After all, not only does it look great on college applications, but it officially puts each of them in the running for valedictorian, too.

Shortly after the announcement is made, though, someone who goes by Aces begins using anonymous text messages to reveal secrets about the two of them that turn their lives upside down and threaten every aspect of their carefully planned futures.

As Aces shows no sign of stopping, what seemed like a sick prank quickly turns into a dangerous game, with all the cards stacked against them. Can Devon and Chiamaka stop Aces before things become incredibly deadly?

There were aspects of this I really liked, but there were two big things that kept breaking my suspension of disbelief: 

1. Where are the parents? We have a reasoning for Devon’s mother not really being present in the story, but what about Chiamaka’s parents? Chiamaka reasons that her white Dad, who wouldn’t even protect her from his family’s racism, won’t be much help and of course she doesn’t want her parents to know about what she’s done, but her mother is almost forgotten and there’s no reason given for why. It feels like this was originally written with Chiamaka and Devon in college, that’s how little their parents are around. If Niveus really wanted to ruin their lives, why wouldn’t they pull their parents in as well? 

2. The ending was fine, but it suffers from the same flaw as in Get Out‘s ending: Once you think about where things go from there, it sort of falls apart. I couldn’t buy that Niveus and the Aces wouldn’t somehow pin the events of the ending on Chiamaka and Devon, that they were beaten by this one thing that happened. I do understand what the author was going for (an institution built on racism and white supremacy can’t be salvaged, and the only way forward is scorched Earth) but it wasn’t well thought out. 

At times I got the feeling I was reading a draft of the novel. The main plot was mostly pinned down, but everything else sort of fell by the wayside, including Chiamaka and Devon’s relationship, the setting, and the fact that the author had to very obviously make the parents disappear in order to get the plot to do what it needed to do. 

The atmosphere was appropriately claustrophobic and sinister, and I liked both Devon and Chiamaka’s characters. Their voices were distinct from each other, and their stories on their own stand up well. Their relationship just never clicked for me, especially not to the point that the author took them to in the ending. It seemed as if they mostly tolerated each other because they had to, and I couldn’t see them being in contact after the events of the book. 

Ace of Spades has a lot of good things going for it, but the execution was sloppy. I look forward to what Àbíké-Íyímídé does in the future, as I think once she has more experience writing books, the issues I had in this book will disappear.

Book Review: King of Scars (King of Scars #1) by Leigh Bardugo

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Imprint
Publication Date: January 29th, 2019
Pages: 514, hardcover
Source: Own

Face your demons… or feed them.

The boy king. The war hero. The prince with a demon curled inside his heart. Nikolai Lantsov has always had a gift for the impossible. The people of Ravka don’t know what he endured in their bloody civil war and he intends to keep it that way. Yet with each day a dark magic within him grows stronger, threatening to destroy all he has built. 

Zoya Nazyalensky has devoted her life to honing her deadly talents and rebuilding the Grisha army. Despite their magical gifts, Zoya knows the Grisha cannot survive without Ravka as a place of sanctuary—and Ravka cannot survive a weakened king. Zoya will stop at nothing to help Nikolai secure the throne, but she also has new enemies to conquer in the battle to come.

Far north, Nina Zenik wages her own kind of war against the people who would see the Grisha wiped from the earth forever. Burdened by grief and a terrifying power, Nina must face the pain of her past if she has any hope of defeating the dangers that await her on the ice.

Ravka’s king. Ravka’s general. Ravka’s spy. They will journey past the boundaries of science and superstition, of magic and faith, and risk everything to save a broken nation. But some secrets aren’t meant to stay buried, and some wounds aren’t meant to heal. 

After falling headfirst into the Shadow and Bone series on Netflix, I decided to go ahead and read all the books that take place in the Grishaverse. The Six of Crows duology will likely remain my favorite of Bardugo’s work, but Nikolai was my favorite character in the original trilogy, so I was looking forward to reading his story and getting his POV.

Which… well.

King of Scars is very uneven, which is surprising considering how deftly Bardugo handled multiple POV characters and chapters in Six of Crows. I think the main trouble I had with King of Scars is that, despite being the literal title character, Nikolai just doesn’t have as much of a presence here as I would have thought. It’s hard to explain, but I noticed a definite difference in his chapters versus, say, Zoya and Nina’s. We were in Nina and Zoya’s heads pretty firmly, especially Zoya; Nikolai, however, felt a bit more removed from the reader. Considering what a force his character was in the original trilogy, this was surprising. 

It honestly felt as if Bardugo was more interested in Zoya’s character than Nikolai’s. Which is fine, but maybe then just make the story about Zoya and stay in her head instead of trying to force Nikolai into the equation as well. 

Nina’s storyline felt too removed from the main one in Ravka, though I do see how it’s going to come together in the second book. It was also frustrating in the climax of the book to continually switch POVs from Zoya and Nikolai to Nina in Fjerda. If something big and epic was happening with Zoya and Nikolai, I didn’t want to cut away to Nina’s storyline in the middle of it. This is the issue with having multiple POVs spread across different locations undergoing different storylines. Six of Crows kept the crew together and going through the same events, so it flowed better. Here, it was just irritating. I honestly wish Nina’s POV had been taken out of this novel and given her own, maybe a novella. It would have worked better.

The potential romance between Nina and Hanne fell a bit flat to me, which was surprising, considering the fact that I wasn’t overly into Nina and Matthias as a couple. But Bardugo wrote them in a way that, while it wasn’t my cup of tea personally, I could see how they worked together, and their interactions had an ease and a flow to it that Nina and Hanne simply lack. It felt like Bardugo was trying to force the attraction and really make her readers believe it, which consequently made me not really buy into it.

I’m also uncertain how to take to the development of the lore in the world. Once Nikolai and the others are in the Fold, it just exacerbates the issues the book had been having with being more interested in Zoya’s character than Nikolai’s. He doesn’t do much during this part until the end; meanwhile, Zoya is learning and growing in groundbreaking ways. It was an interesting take on the Saints, but their inclusion didn’t feel entirely natural.

We’ll see if Rule of Wolves resolves these issues or if it’s just more of the same.

Book Review: Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Genre: Gothic Fantasy Romance Young Adult
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication Date: March 2nd, 2021
Pages: Hardcover, 400 pages
Source: NetGalley

He saw the darkness in her magic. She saw the magic in his darkness.

Wren Southerland’s reckless use of magic has cost her everything: she’s been dismissed from the Queen’s Guard and separated from her best friend—the girl she loves. So when a letter arrives from a reclusive lord, asking Wren to come to his estate, Colwick Hall, to cure his servant from a mysterious illness, she seizes her chance to redeem herself.

The mansion is crumbling, icy winds haunt the caved-in halls, and her eccentric host forbids her from leaving her room after dark. Worse, Wren’s patient isn’t a servant at all but Hal Cavendish, the infamous Reaper of Vesria and her kingdom’s sworn enemy. Hal also came to Colwick Hall for redemption, but the secrets in the estate may lead to both of their deaths.

With sinister forces at work, Wren and Hal realize they’ll have to join together if they have any hope of saving their kingdoms. But as Wren circles closer to the nefarious truth behind Hal’s illness, they realize they have no escape from the monsters within the mansion. All they have is each other, and a startling desire that could be their downfall.

Allison Saft’s Down Comes the Night is a snow-drenched romantic fantasy that keeps you racing through the pages long into the night.

Love makes monsters of us all.

There are slight spoilers for the novel in this review.

Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft is an interesting mix of two genres, Gothic and fantasy romance, that Saft doesn’t quite manage to blend well.

Saft has all the pieces of a good story here, but the way they’re brought together doesn’t make sense after a while. I don’t often say this but Down Comes the Night has too much going on to just be a stand-alone novel, and that’s thanks to the fantasy elements. There are things that happen that are easily solved in order to keep the plot going in the direction Saft needs it to go. The biggest offender is near the end, when Hal has been imprisoned and Wren and her commanding officer/first love go to save him. There are only three guards in front of his cell, and they’re all “inexperienced” according to Saft. Why would you put inexperienced guards on a notorious war criminal’s cell? You put your best on that post. Predictably, Wren and her commanding officer are able to intimidate the officers away, and they literally walk out of the prison with Hal.  Everything worked too conveniently according to what Saft needed to happen, even when logic dictates that it shouldn’t have. I spent too much of this novel going, “This shouldn’t have worked, and I can literally think of several reasons why.”

The timeline of the novel is literally two weeks, maybe three, and in that time I’m meant to believe that Wren and Hal are able to not only put aside their differences to be civil with each other, but fall in love? I couldn’t buy it, unfortunately. I can see what Saft was trying to do with Wren’s character, making her a compassionate, emotional girl who can connect with people, and I do appreciate that. There just wasn’t enough time for me to believe that her relationship with Hal progressed the way that it did.

Added to that, the villain’s plot doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. The villain is an interesting character on their own, but ultimately their storyline had too many holes in it I couldn’t ignore, and too many instances of characters acting a certain way so that Saft could get the villain to do what she needed him to do. The worldbuilding, which influences the villain’s plot, also doesn’t hold up once you think about it for too long.

Maybe if Saft hadn’t tried to do so much in one novel, it would be better. But the constant convenience of everything going whatever way Saft needs it to in that moment in order to get to the next checkpoint on the plot became too much to ignore, and ultimately, does the story a severe disservice.

Book Review: The Project by Courtney Summers

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Contemporary Young Adult
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication Date: February 2nd, 2021
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Lo Denham is used to being on her own. After her parents died, Lo’s sister, Bea, joined The Unity Project, leaving Lo in the care of their great aunt. Thanks to its extensive charitable work and community outreach, The Unity Project has won the hearts and minds of most in the Upstate New York region, but Lo knows there’s more to the group than meets the eye. She’s spent the last six years of her life trying—and failing—to prove it.

When a man shows up at the magazine Lo works for claiming The Unity Project killed his son, Lo sees the perfect opportunity to expose the group and reunite with Bea once and for all. When her investigation puts her in the direct path of its leader, Lev Warren and as Lo delves deeper into The Project, the lives of its members it upends everything she thought she knew about her sister, herself, cults, and the world around her—to the point she can no longer tell what’s real or true. Lo never thought she could afford to believe in Lev Warren . . . but now she doesn’t know if she can afford not to.

In The Project, Courtney Summers takes on cults and how people fall into them, to varying degrees of minimal success. 

This will probably be my least favorite Courtney Summers book. While I found her technical writing style to be as good as ever, her character work is surprisingly not her strongest, especially when it comes to the main character, Lo. Bev’s story was far more believable than Lo’s, and we only get bits and pieces of it interspersed throughout the novel. 

Considering how against The Unity Project Lo is, her slide into becoming entangled with the cult is unconvincing. She offers up very little fight even in the beginning. I do understand that Summers wanted to show that Lo is in over her head, which is why she frankly fails at being a journalist on her first outing, but there were several instances where I found her to be almost unbelievably gullible and just not very bright. On her very first meeting with Lev, she accepts and drinks a glass of water made for her by someone else in the cult. Maybe I’m just a suspicious person, but I found it hard to swallow that Lo, who is so suspicious of the Project, would drink something given to her by one of the members without stopping to be like, “Wait, could this be drugged?” 

I also didn’t find Lev to be that compelling a cult leader or character. At least, I didn’t find him compelling enough that both Bev and Lo fall into lust with him and have sex with him. Which is also never brought up as a kind of, “Uh, hey, isn’t it kind of creepy that this dude in his late 30s is sleeping with an eighteen year old girl and then a nineteen year old girl?” thing. It happens and then no one, not even Bev and Lo, bring it up, internally or otherwise. To be fair, though, it’s probably incredibly hard to write those kinds of characters convincingly. 

I think Courtney Summers just bit off more than she could chew in The Project, which is a shame, as she’s a skilled and experienced writer. But sometimes, even if you give it your best shot, the story just gets away from an author, and that’s what happened here.