Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

**A huge thank you to Bloomsbury USA via NetGalley for providing me a digital ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review**

Had I known that this book would feature one of the loveliest friendships I’ve encountered in some time, I’d have snapped it up much faster. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This Sherlock Holmes-esque story — in which our “Holmes” is a clairvoyant Japanese watchmaker and our “Watson” is a Whitehall telegraph clerk who possesses synesthesia — follows in the footsteps of more recent Holmes adaptations by focusing on character over plot. Considering I’m someone who loves a good plot, you’d think this might irritate me, and I’ll admit that I found the first quarter or so of this novel before our watchmaker and clerk meet quite slow. But, goodness, once they do meet, this novel caught me in a kind of hypnosis and I just couldn’t stop reading.

The characters are first-rate because they’re on the verge of being misfits who manage to blend relatively well within the society of Victorian London — whose atmosphere and period is beautifully recreated without ever seeming to steal the thunder of the characters. One is always aware that this story really could not have taken place anywhere else: the story and the characters’ own professions depend upon the setting, and I for one wouldn’t want this story to have taken place in any other time. Everything about the city feels alive in this novel — full of sights and sounds and colour.

Despite the plot playing second-fiddle to the phenomenal, lovable characters, it is delightfully labyrinthine as would befit anything from Sir Arthur’s mind. Is it a tad ludicrous at its conclusion? Sure — but would it be any fun if it weren’t? It’s the element of the outrageous that has cemented Sherlock Holmes as one of the most beloved literary characters of all time. And I am sure it is that sort of thing that will find “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” a good legion of devoted fans.

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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
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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