Review: The Witch Hunter

The Witch Hunter
The Witch Hunter by Virginia Boecker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

*Thank you to Little Brown Books for Young Readers via NetGalley for providing me a digital ARC of this novel to review*

Witches, alternate history, phenomenal characterization — how was I not going to enjoy this book?

It’s a fun sensation going into a book blind, which is what I did with this novel, and it yielded a delightful reward. Virginia Boecker has crafted a slow-burner of a story with characters that are out of this world entertaining, from our heroine, Elizabeth Grey, to every one of the supporting cast that appears along the way. I love ensemble stories, especially ones with a wild host of very different characters. Boecker’s character-crafting and developing skills are clearly her forte. Every person in this novel has a unique voice and personal ambitions/interests that exist outside the collective goal.

Set in an alternate 1500’s, the story kicks off with a relative bang as we first meet our heroine, Elizabeth Grey, witness a witch burning at the stake. But she’s not there to watch: she’s there to capture someone else. Elizabeth is a very real, very grounded heroine. She’s not only a product of the world in which she lives as well as the –later revealed to be totally horrific — training she has received. She’s clever and brave but also equally vulnerable and emotional. In other words: she’s human and flawed. But the best part of Elizabeth is that, at the end of it all, she’s a genuinely decent human being. Also, she develops immensely over the course of the novel.

The side characters range from a King’s fool to a father-and-son pirate and healer team to a fiery witch and even partially-deaf lords. Every single character that enters the story is a joy to read, not always because they’re nice or good, but because they are interesting. John, Fifer, Peter, and George are a crew I’d be more than happy to join up with and have on my team. Absolutely excellent.

If I have one criticism of the novel, it’s the ending. It’s an odd pacing, at first taking it’s time and then careening full-gallop to a conclusion that doesn’t really give the characters time to breathe or digest, or even grieve. If this is a standalone, an epilogue would have been a welcome addition; if this is the start of a series, which I suspect it is, then I suppose the pacing could have been slowed and stretched just a hair. Other than that, a wonderful, entertaining debut!

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Review: Uprooted

Uprooted by Naomi Novik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I went into this book with trepidation for one reason alone: I was afraid the pacing would be as slow as Ms. Novik’s acclaimed TEMERAIRE series. I love the creativity of that series, but the pacing is one that drives me mad.

I have never been so happy to be wrong in my entire reading life. UPROOTED grabbed me from its opening paragraph and whisked me off into the dark woods of this twisted, captivating world. The brilliance of the story’s introduction is its simplicity: like most fairy tales, we meet a likable female protagonist to whose routine life is interrupted by something unexpected. Except, unlike Brothers Grimm or other such stories, what happens to her isn’t something horrible: it’s actually, well, kind of okay.

Now, don’t get me wrong and then think this book is all sunshine and rainbows: this is a dark and dangerous fantasy world full of sentient woods, political plots, and dark schemes. Something I just have to note and praise is an element of this darkness that is too often absent from many fantasy novels: the consideration of the use of violence and its effect upon the people involved, wielder and victim alike. Does the books sit around and moan on a moral debate about violence? No. But the consideration is there, especially given the situations in which our protagonist, Agnieszka, frequently finds herself. And, yes, while I certainly like my fantasies on the darker side of the spectrum, I appreciated the kind of strange humour that wove its way through this novel: the humour of true life. Sometimes things make us laugh that aren’t really that funny but, well…we laugh anyway! That’s the humour of this novel.

Anyone who is a fan of Dianne Wynne Jones will see the echoing ghosts of Sophie and Howl in the relationship between Agnieszka and the Dragon — something to be rejoiced! What’s better than rooting for a team so fundamentally different but, as a whole, so wonderfully cohesive? I think this book will go down as a classic, a phrase I usually hesitate to say but, in this case, it’s true. Everything about this novel from the writing to the characters to the richly-imagined world are done on the level to which we hold fantasy classics.

A true rare gem.

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Review: Hold Me Like a Breath

Hold Me Like a Breath
Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

*Thank you to Bloomsbury via NetGalley for providing me with a digital ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review*

I’m torn over this book — I’m sitting here, even still, scratching my head and trying to decide whether or not I enjoyed this book. On the whole, I feel like I should just shrug and say, “Eh, it’s a book.”

I think the ultimate problem is this: this books is pitched very much like a thriller involving a mafia based in the organ black market with high intrigue and stakes. But it’s not — nowhere even close! This is a romance novel…that just so happens to have a protagonist whom is the daughter of a mob boss.

This wouldn’t be as disappointing if the protagonist were tolerable. Penelope is the weakest link of the entire story, and we’re forced to traverse this literary realm through her and her voice. I don’t object to her suffering from a rare autoimmune disease — one so deadly that even a small touch will cause her to bruise horribly or start bleeding — especially since her father is in the organ market. It’s an interesting aspect! She has every right to be frustrated with being treated like she’s some fragile glass ball, but I’m not so sure the Family kept her out of the business because of that: I think they did it because she’s a nitwit. A spoiled, whining nitwit.

You can sum up Penelope in her sea of temper tantrums and childish attitude. I don’t care how sick she is: nothing excuses her behaviour. In the one moment she does get to attend a meeting and be involved in the Family business…she completely spaces out! By the time she’s actually paying attention, the meeting is over! I’m sorry, isn’t the hook of this book that she’s the daughter of a major crimeboss? Wouldn’t it be important to actually share some of the details of this world with us?

I started wondering if Ms. Schmidt wrote Penelope in this way just so that she could avoid in-depth worldbuilding.

So, yes, this isn’t a thriller of a mob story so much as a romance. So, how was it? Well, it was there. Her love interest was just there to be a love interest — not too much depth, though certainly more than Penelope. It’s insta-love without question and, honestly, I almost put the book down at that point.

The strongest character is Garrett, the second-in-command to Penelope’s father. I vote that the sequel focus on him and his story. Let’s get some depth — let’s get some crime! I want the mafia and the Family and its business! If you’re going to pitch me a great crime novel, actually give me some crime in the novel!

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Review: ARIVACA: Guardians of the Light

ARIVACA: Guardians of the Light
ARIVACA: Guardians of the Light by John Poulsen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

*Thank you to AuthorBuzz via NetGalley for providing me a digital ARC of this novel for review*

*2.5/5 rating*

I love going into books blind — it means I have zero expectations and tons of expectations at the same time. A strange dichotomy, but one that makes for a unique reading experience.

I went into ‘Arivaca’ completely blind. No recommendations, no expectations, no pre-reading hype. Total carte blanche head-first dive into the book.

And it was good. It is — there’s no denying that ‘Arivaca’ is objectively a good book. It has a more than promising beginning, reminiscent of Louis Sachar’s classic YA novel ‘Holes’ — a personal favourite of mine — in which a teenage boy goes away to a ranch that will help him recover while simultaneously being punished as opposed to serving time in prison.

But this is a more fantastical world than ‘Holes’ which, despite its elements of magical realism, didn’t have its boys develop magical powers and try to protect holy relics from King Solomon’s Temple. There was potential in that premise, but the problem isn’t the story: it’s the writing.
The simplicity of the writing means that these characters start out poorly: they’re poorly sketched, they interact poorly, and their dialogue is cringe-inducing. They do, however, develop. That’s a plus, despite some of the interactions and chemistry feeling more than a little forced, even through the end. Furthermore the pace at which the story unravels is very, very slow. There was more than one moment while reading where I thought, “Where are we going with this?” Overall, the reading of this novel felt more like a taxing chore than an enjoyable activity.

But, on the whole, as a first novel it’s a solid and good try. There are definitely going to be people who will enjoy it and want to continue on with the series — I just don’t think it was my cup of tea.

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Review: Rook

Rook by Sharon Cameron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Alrighty guys, brace yourself: fangirl overload is coming.

But first, a brief history.

When I was 13, I was presented with my first ever book report project. My 8th grade English teacher laid out a line of books on a table and told us to go and pick one. Being the sensible bibliophile that I was, I took my time with each book; I read the first few pages or so of each.

There was one book — one out of the twenty or so that sat upon that table — for which I didn’t need to read the first few pages. I only needed to read the first line:

A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.

I still love that line, love reading it aloud and tasting the words on my tongue. The sharp cracking of the consonants and the mellifluous quality of the cadence of Baroness Orczy’s use of language. Yes, friends, that is the opening line to The Scarlet Pimpernel. It’s not only one of my favourite classics of all time, it’s one of my favourite books of all time.

Fast forward to last month when I stumble across a book called Rook by Sharon Cameron here on Goodreads. I know nothing about it, but the very synopsis calls to me: it sounds an awful lot like a book I know and love.

That was not a coincidence.

Rook is not a retelling nor a re-spinning so much as an homage to Orczy’s classic swashbuckling tale of intrigue, romance, and derring-do. From foxes named St. Just and devilishly clever men with notably blue eyes, references to the Pimpernel are everywhere. The best part is that it’s also a little meta in that aspect: the character of the Red Rook became such because of having read parts of Pimpernel. Be still my heart, it is too much!

As much as these things alone make my Pimpernel-loving heart beat a little faster, it’s the fact that they are done so well that makes me smile. Throw in a story with a little more steam, high-octane adventure, and just as much nail-biting tension in a turbulent Paris…and you have the glorious fun that is Rook.

I adored this book. I adored it as an homage, and I adored it as a story in its own right. It holds a place next to my special hardback of The Scarlet Pimpernel on my bookshelf, and it deserves its place there.

The Scarlet Pimpernel lives…and so does the Red Rook.

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Review: Making Your Mind Up

Making Your Mind Up
Making Your Mind Up by Jill Mansell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

*Thank you to Sourcebooks Landmark via NetGalley for providing me with a digital ARC of this novel for review*

MAKING YOUR MIND UP makes the fifth of Ms. Mansell’s novels that I’ve read and beautifully re-emphasized why I have so much fun with her stories.

All of the familiar aspects of a Jill Mansell novel are here: adults with real-world problems; dialogue that is both delightful and, for lack of a better word, ‘sparkling’ with characters’ personalities; and a tight-knit community of supporting characters.

The novel also benefits from the inclusion of a children. I find they can either make or break contemporary novels — it’s the former, in this case. Lottie’s children are mischievous little devils that I couldn’t help but love because, well, I felt like I had definitely met these children before.

Therefore, as always, Ms. Mansell delivers a light, breezy romance with a good deal of heart.

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