Forging Silver into Stars by Brigid Kemmerer (ARC Review, No Spoilers)

Information

Goodreads: Forging Silver into Stars
Series: Forging Silver into Stars #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Netgalley for review
Publication Date: June 7, 2022

Official Summary

When ancient magic tests a newfound love, a dark fate beckons . . .

Magic has been banished in the land of Syhl Shallow for as long as best friends Jax and Callyn can remember. They once loved the stories of the powerful magesmiths and mythical scravers who could conjure fire or control ice, but now they’ve learned that magic only leads to danger: magic is what killed Callyn’s parents, leaving her alone to raise her younger sister. Magic never helped Jax, whose leg was crushed in an accident that his father has been punishing him for ever since. Magic won’t save either of them when the tax collector comes calling, threatening to take their homes if they can’t pay what they owe.

Meanwhile, Jax and Callyn are astonished to learn magic has returned to Syhl Shallow — in the form of a magesmith who’s now married to their queen. Now, the people of Syhl Shallow are expected to allow dangerous magic in their midst, and no one is happy about it.

When a stranger rides into town offering Jax and Callyn silver in exchange for holding secret messages for an anti-magic faction, the choice is obvious — even if it means they may be aiding in a plot to destroy their new king. It’s a risk they’re both willing to take. That is, until another visitor arrives: handsome Lord Tycho, the King’s Courier, the man who’s been tasked with discovering who’s conspiring against the throne.

Suddenly, Jax and Callyn find themselves embroiled in a world of shifting alliances, dangerous flirtations, and ancient magic . . . where even the deepest loyalties will be tested.

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Review

Brigid Kemmerer hooked me on the Cursebreakers series with the swoon-worthy romance in A Curse So Dark and Lonely, but Forging Silver into Stars is the book that has convinced me she’s finally come into her own as an expert fantasy writer. (Her contemporary YA has always been excellent, though not as popular.) With complex characterization, cleaner world building, and a plot focused on magic and assassinations and just pure survival, there’s a lot to keep readers turning the pages.

I have always loved the action and adventure, as well as the romance, in Kemmerer’s fantasy, but I had reservations about her attempts at nuanced characterizations. I always thought her attempts to paint characters (especially Rhen and Grey) in shades of, um, gray fell flat, as the book would try to excuse actions that seemed obviously cruel and wrong to me and suggest they were somehow necessary or sympathetic. This was much less of an issue for me in Forging Silver into Stars, and it really elevated the reading experience.

Kemmerer is still interested in what makes people tick, what choices they will make to survive or support their families or defend their questions. There are still characters who might be doing the right things for the wrong reasons or the wrong things for the right reasons, and the book still asks readers to consider whether the “villains” might have some valid points. It just . . . works a lot better in this book, and I love that Kemmerer continues to work through these questions and has landed on (for me) some more reasonable answers. There are still references to Rhen and Grey glossing over their past decisions, which I continue to find unconvincing, but I love all the newly introduced characters and all their complexities.

The politics, the disputes, and what exactly is at stake in the two kingdoms now that Syhl Shallow and Emberfall are allied through marriage are also smoother here, and I think Kemmerer has learned a lot about making the political issues logically click, as well.

With the characterization and world building ironed out, I was also able to focus more on the plot, which is engaging. While there were a few times I felt the book was a little long, in general I was extremely interested to find out what happened next, and I enjoyed the shifting of POVs among Jax, Callyn, and Tycho. There’s also romance to spare in this book, as well as cute family relationships, and a lot of questions about magic that have yet to be unraveled throughout the series.

If you enjoyed the Cursebreakers trilogy, you will certainly love this continuation. If you were on the fence, I think it’s worth picking this up and giving Kemmerer another shot, as her writing only continues to improve.

Note: This is a separate trilogy from Cursebreakers and takes place four years after A Vow So Bold and Deadly, so technically it can be read separately. However, so many characters from the original trilogy and so many events are referenced that personally I think it would make more sense to read the original trilogy before tackling this one.

Briana
4 stars

Defy the Night by Brigid Kemmerer

Information

Goodreads: Defy the Night
Series: Defy the Night #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: September 2021

Official Summary

The kingdom of Kandala is on the brink of disaster. Rifts between sectors have only worsened since a sickness began ravaging the land, and within the Royal Palace, the king holds a tenuous peace with a ruthless hand.

King Harristan was thrust into power after his parents’ shocking assassination, leaving the younger Prince Corrick to take on the brutal role of the King’s Justice. The brothers have learned to react mercilessly to any sign of rebellion–it’s the only way to maintain order when the sickness can strike anywhere, and the only known cure, an elixir made from delicate Moonflower petals, is severely limited.

Out in the Wilds, apothecary apprentice Tessa Cade is tired of seeing her neighbors die, their suffering ignored by the unyielding royals. Every night, she and her best friend Wes risk their lives to steal Moonflower petals and distribute the elixir to those who need it most–but it’s still not enough.

As rumors spread that the cure no longer works and sparks of rebellion begin to flare, a particularly cruel act from the King’s Justice makes Tessa desperate enough to try the impossible: sneaking into the palace. But what she finds upon her arrival makes her wonder if it’s even possible to fix Kandala without destroying it first.

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Review

Brigid Kemmerer has long written captivating YA contemporary, but she broke into the fantasy scene with the bestselling A Curse So Dark and Lonely (Cursebreakers #1), and she’s following up that success with Defy the Night, a book with a different setting but similar themes and moral questions. While the themes are familiar, the plot is different, and I enjoyed every minute reading about Tessa and her country and the people’s attempts to find healing and hope.

One of my biggest complaints about the Cursebreakers series (as much as I enjoyed it) is that the politics rarely made sense. I can tell that Kemmerer really wanted to address that here, and there are a lot of more explanations of the political system and why things are being done and why things that look like better options are not being done. While it’s still not perfect, I am much more satisfied with the explanations in Defy the Night, and I love how far Kemmerer has come in this regard.

On the flip side, she still has a fixation (like in Cursebreakers) with trying to create a morally gray love interest who does evil things and asking questions like whether the evil is necessary and whether the person is really bad, etc. It didn’t work out for me in Cursebreakers, and it’s still not working out for me here. There are often things I really do NOT think the love interest HAD to do and that there were clearly kinder options. I like the love interest as a whole, and I think the romance is quite swoon worthy, but I just don’t think this repeated theme of, “Are people who do evil things actually good?” is working out the way Kemmerer likely hopes it is for readers.

I enjoyed Tessa as a character, and while she’s introduced as some thieving badass scaling walls, that’s not her persona in most of the book. Her defining character seems to be kindness, and her hopes are for peace and healing. (In many ways, like the female characters in Cursebreakers. Sorry, I can’t stop drawing comparisons. They’re just too obvious.) I do love THIS recurring theme, that kindness is important and possibly more powerful than fear or violence or even cleverness.

The side characters really shine here, too, from the king to the Palace Master to Tessa’s friends at home. Some of them disappear from the narrative, only to come back stronger later and really add something to the narrative. Characterization and making readers care about the people in her books is truly one of Kemmerer’s strengths.

This book really isn’t Cursebreakers, as much as it reminds me of it. It’s a fast-paced fantasy with memorable characters that can stand on its own. It’s found a lot of fans already and is likely to find a lot more.

Briana
4 stars

A Vow So Bold and Deadly by Brigid Kemmerer (Spoilers!)

A Vow So Bold and Deadly Instagram photo

Information

Goodreads: A Vow So Bold and Deadly
Series: Cursebreakers #3
Source: Purchased
Published: January 26, 2021

Official Summary

Face your fears, fight the battle.

Emberfall is crumbling fast, torn between those who believe Rhen is the rightful prince and those who are eager to begin a new era under Grey, the true heir. Grey has agreed to wait two months before attacking Emberfall, and in that time, Rhen has turned away from everyone—even Harper, as she desperately tries to help him find a path to peace.

Fight the battle, save the kingdom.

Meanwhile, Lia Mara struggles to rule Syhl Shallow with a gentler hand than her mother. But after enjoying decades of peace once magic was driven out of their lands, some of her subjects are angry Lia Mara has an enchanted prince and magical scraver by her side. As Grey’s deadline draws nearer, Lia Mara questions if she can be the queen her country needs.

As two kingdoms come closer to conflict, loyalties are tested, love is threatened, and an old enemy resurfaces who could destroy them all, in this stunning conclusion to bestselling author Brigid Kemmerer’s Cursebreaker series.

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Review

Spoilers for the whole series.

A Vow So Bold and Deadly drops readers right back into the conflict between Emberfall and Syhl Shallow, which, frankly, is actually a conflict between Rhen and Grey. Accordingly, the story is fast-paced and exciting but really focused on the interpersonal dynamics of the characters– which is where it excels at some parts but fails at others. As in A Heart So Fierce and Broken, Kemmerer seeks to make her characters nuanced, but the execution sometimes just makes them seem cruel.

The entire A Curse So Dark and Lonely series is riveting. The first book caught my attention with its original twist on a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling and its swoonworthy romance, as well as Kemmerer’s attention to making her characters seem real: strong and brave but also flawed and with certain things they have hang-ups about. And I’ve continued to be engaged with the entire series, turning page after page wondering to find out what will happen next– even if what will happen next is sometimes a bit obvious.

However, after book one, I’ve struggled a bit with Kemmerer’s characterization, mostly of Rhen but also of Grey. In A Heart So Fierce and Lonely, Kemmerer seemed to be getting at the fact that Rhen is traumatized after spending a magical eternity being tortured (completely fair, and something I’ve been seeing more books address instead of just letting characters move on from horrible events with no apparent effect on their mental health). She continues that theme here, showing how frightened he is of magic and how far he’ll go to protect himself, his friends, and his kingdom from magic. However…none of this can erase the events of book two for me, where Rhen whipped his friend, whipped an innocent child to manipulate his friend, and then murdered a bunch of innocent people while mounting a manhunt to find Grey. The book ultimately latches onto a theme of, “Does one bad choice erase a thousand good choices?” but when the “one” bad choice is actually several, and Rhen literally killed innocent people, this theme isn’t as effective for me as Kemmerer probably hopes it is.

Worse, Kemmerer tries to set up Rhen and Grey as two halves of the same coin: that is, that both of them did something wrong, so they’re both at fault, they both need forgiveness, etc. However Grey’s “crime” is not telling Rhen he is the rightful heir (when he also knew Rhen was interested in killing the rightful heir). So it’s really hard for me to believe that Rhen’s and Grey’s faults are on the same level. I really do appreciate that Kemmerer wants her characters to be flawed and gray and to explore the idea that people in power sometimes make tough choices, and sometimes those choices are necessary and sometimes they’re just wrong, but I didn’t really come away feeling Rhen and Grey are nuanced, just that the book was dragging me back and forth saying, “They’re good! No, now they’re bad! Now they’re nice! Now they’re cruel!” It all feels a little disjointed.

Harper and Lia Mara are more evenly drawn, and I found the idea they were both more interested in peace than the men interesting, whether or not that was intentional commentary on the part of the author.

Overall, I truly did love reading A Vow So Bold and Deadly. It has action and magic and a few plot twists. It strives to do interesting things with its characterization and not just give readers pure heroes. I don’t think it always lived up to its goals, but story is still engaging, and I look forward to reading more from Kemmerer.

Briana
4 stars

A Curse So Dark and Lonely Book Discussion: Would People Really Believe in the Existence of a Made-Up Country?

A Curse So Dark and Lonely Discussion on Made-Up Countries

Spoiler warning for A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer. I think the details discussed are relatively minor (I’m not giving away major plot points, twists, the ending, etc.), but if you like to know practically nothing about a book before beginning to read it, you’ll probably want to pass on this post.

As I was reading A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer recently, I found myself enthralled by the romance but slightly skeptical of some of the political machinations.  Then I came across a review on Goodreads that had one major complaint I hadn’t thought fully about: that a decent part of the plot revolves around the protagonist (who is from Washington, D.C. but pulled into a parallel world into the country of Emberfall) convincing the people of Emberfall that she is from a country in their world that she has completely invented, Disi. The Goodreads reviewer argues that this is a ridiculous plot devise and it’s absurd to think people would accept this story from the protagonist.  But…it is really that absurd?  Are there circumstances where a decent percentage of people would believe the protagonist was from a country they’d never heard of before?

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As we begin to address this question, I think we first need to address two main issues:

  1. We’re probably used to fantasy worlds where there are roughly five major countries.  Fantasy worlds, likely for the convenience of the author, tend to be small, and in that case it does seem laughable that someone would not be familiar with every single other country in existence.  For the sake of this discussion, however, we should imagine a world more like ours, which (Google informs me) has 195 countries currently.
  2. We need to remember A Curse So Dark and Lonely takes place in a medieval-esque world where getting information on what countries exist is not as a simple as asking Google.

Next, we should keep in mind some aspects of the plot of A Curse So Dark and Lonely:

  1. The borders of Emberfall have been closed for about five years, and practically no information has come in or out.
  2. The people are poor, desperate, and hungry and facing a possible invasion from the country directly to their north.

So, if the protagonist comes along and tells people that she is the Princess of Disi (a country they have never heard of before…because she made it up) AND that her father has a powerful army he would like to bring to their aid, is it plausible that characters would actually believe her?  Is it reasonable they wouldn’t start laughing and tell her they’d never heard of Disi and clearly she’s lying?

Actually, I think yes.  I think under these circumstances that many people would believe in DIsi.

In a medieval-esque world, the common people are likely not very educated.  They probably are not literate.  They probably don’t know much about geography beyond their own borders or what tales travelers bring.  In our own world, the average medieval peasant would not have known a great deal about far away places like the Middle East, Asia, or Africa (nevermind the very existence of North and South America).  If someone came to a village in medieval England and told a commoner they were from a kingdom the commoner never heard of before, I don’t think that would have struck them as odd. There were plenty of places and kingdoms they didn’t know much about.

Now add to this the particular details of the plot of A Curse So Dark and Lonely. The borders of Emberfall have been closed for a couple years.  In that time, it’s possible the kingdom of Disi had actually arisen, completely new, and no one had heard the news.  Also, Emberfall is in poverty and on the brink of war.  The people want to believe the Princess of Disi is going to bring her army to save them.  They have no immediate reason to think she’s lying, and they have plenty of reason to hope she’s telling the truth.

This is contrast to the more educated characters in the novel, some of whom are a bit more suspicious about the sudden appearance of a princess from a kingdom they’d never heard of before.  These people are probably literate, might have had access to world maps, and know enough of politics and court intrigue to realize there could be a motive for making up a princess with a powerful army.

I still have questions with some of the politics in A Curse So Dark and Lonely, but I’ve decided I can buy into the idea that  bunch of peasants would believe in the existence of a country that…doesn’t exist at all. What do you think?

Briana