Shuna’s Journey by Hayao Miyazaki, Trans. by Alex Dudok de Wit

Shuna's Journey Book Cover

Information

GoodreadsShuna’s Journey
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 1983; Translation 2022

Official Summary

From legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki comes a new manga classic about a prince on a quest for a golden grain that would save his land, never before published in English!

Shuna, the prince of a poor land, watches in despair as his people work themselves to death harvesting the little grain that grows there. And so, when a traveler presents him with a sample of seeds from a mysterious western land, he sets out to find the source of the golden grain, dreaming of a better life for his subjects.

It is not long before he meets a proud girl named Thea. After freeing her from captivity, he is pursued by her enemies, and while Thea escapes north, Shuna continues toward the west, finally reaching the Land of the God-Folk.

Will Shuna ever see Thea again? And will he make it back home from his quest for the golden grain?

Star Divider

Review

Two years before Studio Ghibli was founded, Hayao Miyazaki’s book Shuna’s Journey was released. Based on a Tibetan folktale, it follows Prince Shuna as he leaves his famine-stricken land to search for a fabled golden grain that can save his people. The trademarks of Miyazaki are all here–the epic scope, the flawed hero, the strong and determined heroine, and the beautiful artwork. Fans of Miyazaki will not want to miss out on another compelling story from the master storyteller!

Perhaps what intrigued me most about Shuna’s Journey was the sense of ambiguity it has. As with many of Miyazaki’s stories, much of the storytelling is actually left to the reader. Shuna travels across strange lands and encounters people both cruel and kind, but often what exactly is happening is never explained. Why do the city dwellers want to capture Shuna? What are the green giants? Are the gods still there? And, if so, are they good? Only the reader can decide.

The storytelling also does not fear to go its own way. Many stories on the market today seem similar to the point of being formulaic, but Miyazaki’s tale does not follow convention. If he wants to follow Shuna for most of the book, only to switch to another character’s perspective towards the end, he will! If he wants to upend the traditional way of fairy tales, he will do that, too. It is always pleasure to read something that feels original, and Miyazaki always delivers with his own unique vision.

Miyazaki fans will definitely want to check this one. The gorgeous water color artwork, especially the landscapes, are evocative, as always. And the story, strange and mysterious, is compelling, as always. This is a book that is more of an experience than a book.

4 stars

Stellarlune by Shannon Messenger

Stellarlune

Information

Goodreads: Stellarlune
Series: Keeper of the Lost Cities #9
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2022

Summary

Keefe is on the run. But Sophie has to trust he is okay. She struck at the Neverseen, and now her allies fear retaliation. But Lady Gisela is planning something, too. Sophie just doesn’t know what.

Star Divider

Review

I have had conflicting thoughts about the Keeper of the Lost Cities books, and book nine neatly encapsulates many of the things I both love and hate about the series. Initially, I fell in love with the series, and would loudly proclaim to one and all the reasons everyone should pick it up. However, the series kept growing. I think it was supposed to initially only be five books, then seven, then nine, then book 8.5 came out, and then this book, Stellarlune was finally supposed to wrap everything up. But guess what? It doesn’t! Book 10 (or 11, if you count book 8.5) is on the way!

As the series grew, Messenger started obviously making up new plot twists that didn’t really make sense, but made for good cliffhangers. Consequently, the overall plot was lost and the series ended up with three different villains who probably should be connected, but aren’t, really. Additionally, the character list became so long that Messenger tends to drop them for a few books at a time–even main characters like Sophie’s “best friend” Dex or boys who were set up to be potential crushes. Then, plot elements started to repeat themselves. Book 8.5 was an especial low for the series, as it is almost entirely just a compilation of already known facts from the series, presented as an “encyclopedia,” with a novella at the end that made it so that fans had to buy the book to keep up with the story–even though it felt like a blatant cash grab. And now, there is…whatever Stellarlune is. Which is a book heavily suffering from middle book syndrome, rehashing old plot points for at least 350 pages, before finally getting the plot moving again.

One of the most annoying features of the series is that the books range from 700-900 pages, but they could each easily be half the length, if any editor wanted to bother reining Messenger in. (But this is a bestselling series, so no need to bother trying for a good book when people will buy it anyway, yeah?) Much of the waste comes from Sophie discovering something, then reporting her discovery to everyone she knows, usually two or three times. While most books would cut to the chase with a phrase such as, “Sophie filled them in,” and then describing the listener’s reaction, Messenger loves to have Sophie actually tell everyone what happened with a blow-by-blow, every. single. time. Heck, she even had Sophie recap the last few books for another character in what was supposed to be a pep talk, but really just sounded like Sophie humble bragging. I don’t know why this is such a prominent feature of the books, but apparently what Messenger thinks fans want is the characters standing around talking for hundreds of pages about what happened and how they all feel about it, but never doing anything till the big finale.

For years, I was okay with how goofy this series is and loved to laugh at how bad the writing is, just because I like being in Sophie’s world and because I like the characters. Book 8.5 really soured me on the series, though, since now Messenger seems to be drawing out the books just because she can–and presumably because the publisher thinks they will sell no matter what. Book 8.5 ends with a repeat of a plot point that had already happened. Book 9 then opens with everyone discussing this event, then goes into a rehash of the Fitz-Sophie relationship drama, even though it should be clear by now that that ship has sailed. I honestly felt like throwing the book at a wall until the midway point, when things started to happen and the plot actually seemed to be relevant again. I did have to laugh, though, at how this book has characters suddenly and repeatedly pointing out how the protagonists do nothing but stand around and argue, leading them to be the world’s most ineffective defense team. I guess if you point out the main flaw in your plot, that makes it okay?

Sadly, the mystery and drama promised to fans never get realized. [Potential spoilers.] Caches with Forbidden Secrets are now in play, and they are supposed to hold memories so terrible, they could shatter a person’s mind. They don’t. And it is strange even Messenger does not seem to realize that, since Sophie is going around collecting Forbidden Secrets like Pokemon cards and does not seem the least bit worried or upset by them. If a teenager can open the caches, why is the Council so intent on insisting they are dangerous? More dangerous truths were revealed about Elven actions in previous books when the big showdown with the Neverseen was not even supposed to be imminent. I also am confused about the new role of caches here, as I thought the whole point was that guilt could shatter an Elven mind, so they had to hide their terrible deeds done in the name of leadership. But the memories here are typically not anything that the holders should feel that guilty about–often just stuff they saw that made them sad. And, as the book suddenly seems to have realized, but doesn’t know how to address–erasing memories of important matters of state is strikingly ridiculous when government leaders need to know what happened in the past! [End spoilers.]

If you can get to the midway point, the plot is delightful, once more. Readers finally get the Sophie-Keefe confrontation they have all been waiting for. And then lots of dramatic stuff happens so Messenger can end on one of her trademark cliffhangers. I truly did enjoy this half of the book! I just dearly wish that the editor had reduced the page count by half. Or, even more importantly, cut the first 350 pages so Messenger could have actually ended this series.

Because it’s time to let go. Keeper of the Lost Cities was a great series. But, like any thing that becomes successful, it lost its way when the creators wanted to keep it going and the original plot had to be trashed just to keep the thing alive. Now it’s staggering onward, but it’s not particularly pretty to watch. And it’s not fair to fans to milk them each year for cash by publishing a 700-page book in which almost nothing happens.

3 Stars

Unspoken Magic by Emily Lloyd-Jones (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: Unspoken Magic
Series: Unseen Magic #2
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: February 21, 2023

Official Summary

Deep in the redwoods, in a magical town, anything can happen, and any creature—or monster—could exist. But when a team of myth-busters comes to Aldermere, they threaten its very existence—and eleven-year-old Fin will do anything to protect her home. For fans of Nevermoor and Amari and the Night Brothers, Emily Lloyd-Jones’s sequel to the acclaimed Unseen Magic is a story of trusting yourself and finding the friends who believe in you, no matter what.

Aldermere is a town with its own set of rules: there’s a tea shop that vanishes if you try to force your way in, crows that must be fed or they’ll go through your trash, and a bridge that has a toll that no one knows the cost of. Some say that there may even be bigfoots wandering through the woods.

It’s been six months since Fin saved Aldermere from someone intent on exploiting its magic. With spring break just around the corner, Fin’s plans are to relax, try to train her new raven friend, and read some of the mystery books she loves. But her plans are derailed when Fin and her friends find a baby bigfoot who’s been separated from her pack.

Then a film crew shows up, intending to add Aldermere to their web show debunking strange and magical legends. Fin can’t let the film crew put the bigfoot—and Aldermere—at risk. Now, Fin, Eddie, and Cedar must keep the bigfoot hidden and find a way to track down her family. But Cedar’s been hiding a secret of her own; one that may complicate everything.

As monsters, friends, and enemies collide, Fin, Eddie, and Cedar have to trust one another with secrets both good and bad if they’re going to save the town they all love.

Emily Lloyd-Jones crafts a novel infused with magic that is sometimes wonderful and charming—and sometimes dangerous. The sequel to Indie Next Pick Unseen MagicUnspoken Magic is perfect for fans of Christina Soontornvat’s A Wish in the Dark and Claribel A. Ortega’s Ghost Squad

Star Divider

Review

Unspoken Magic is a charming story about a girl and her friends who would like to protect their bizarre little magical town from being discovered by outsiders (that is, they don’t want the magic part discovered; apparently the place routinely gets a lot of hiking tourists). It has a perfect blend of heart, friendship, mystery, and weirdness that made me fall a bit in love with the town myself, even if the magic isn’t the kind one might expect.

It’s worth nothing that this is a sequel to Unseen Magic, but I didn’t know that when I requested it from Netgalley (oops), so I read a couple chapters to see if it functions as a standalone, and I really think it does! There are references to things that happen in book 1, but they’re always so clearly elaborated on that I didn’t feel confused, and the story itself is entirely separate, not a continuation from book 1. So pick this one up first, read Unseen Magic first. Either way should work.

I had some initial questions about how Lloyd-Jones would focus the plot. “Make sure a paranormal research team doesn’t discover anything strange or magical” seems very broad, and I had imaginative flashes of the team almost encountering magic left and right and the townsfolk scrambling to stop them, like putting out little fires everywhere. Lloyd-Jones didn’t do that. The book focuses on ONE very noticeable magical thing protagonist Fin and her friends must hide/fix without the investigators. This keeps everything neatly together, and I liked the approach.

I also liked Fin. She’s anxious but working to overcome some of her roadblocks. She clearly means to do well and be kind to others. She has a great relationship with her cousin, who is outgoing and sometimes a goofball but also seems like a very nice kid. And there is Cedar, who is equally kind and also has some interesting psychological insights into other people for a kid. They’re a fun trio, working together to have fun over their spring break and enjoy the strangeness of their town.

Together, they have a quick adventure, hiding things from both their parents and the paranormal investigation team. They run into a few snags, sneak about the woods, all kinds of fun stuff. It’s just a nice romp of a book. A quick read, and definitely worth it if you like middle grade.

Briana
5 stars

Greywaren by Maggie Stiefvater

Greywaren Book Cover

Information

GoodreadsGreywaren
Series: Dreamer Trilogy #3
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Official Summary

This is the story of the Lynch family.

Niall and Mór escaped their homeland for a new start, and lost themselves in what they found.

Declan has grown up as the responsible son, the responsible brother–only to find there is no way for him to keep his family safe.

Ronan has always lived on the edge between dreams and waking… but now that edge is gone, and he is falling.

Matthew has been the happy child, the brightest beam. But rebellion beckons, because it all feels like an illusion now.

This world was not made for such a family–a family with the power to make a world and break it. If they cannot save each other or themselves, we are all doomed.

Star Divider

Review

Potential spoilers for the book below!

I have mixed feelings about Greywaren. While Call Down the Hawk and Mister Impossible blew me away with the sheer inventiveness of the worldbuilding, and the stakes of the drama, Greywaren meanders a bit though a futile attempt to give page time to its large ensemble cast, before devolving into a too-easy conclusion that makes the former two books feel irrelevant, and that fails to give readers much closure. I wanted to love Greywaren as much as I have loved the Raven Cycle and the first two books in the Dreamers Cycle, but I admit I closed the final pages feeling perplexed. The complexity and originality I have come to expect from Stiefvater do not seem fully there.

While many readers struggled to connect with some of the characters, or found themselves disappointed by an ensemble cast instead of a full focus on Ronan Lynch, I always greatly enjoyed all the characters and the chapters from their perspectives. Hennessy and Jordan fascinated me. Carmen seemed to have great potential as a do-gooder clearly working for the wrong side. Declan easily became my favorite, as he finally got the chance to tell his story and was not simply the villain in Ronan’s. And lovable Matthew grew in the telling, finally shedding some of his naivete as he was forced to reckon with reality. All of them were great. I was even vaguely intrigued about what role Adam would play in this saga, and if the Crying Club would become relevant. So I was left wondering why half the threads in the previous books seemed dropped. I was even left wondering why the threads in this book were dropped.

In the end, it seems like maybe too much was going on for Stiefvater to deal with it all, but that seems strange given her prior books. But I was left baffled that Adam basically disappeared from the narrative, after getting a set-up that seemed to suggest his scrying would play a prominent role in Ronan’s mission. The Crying Club was never relevant at all. Matthew was set up to do something remarkable, but didn’t. And then all the characters acted completely out of character just so things could wrap up neatly. Rebels become domesticated. People die so other people can end up together, even though they don’t make sense together. Even the characters from the Raven Cycle appear, ostensibly for Declan, even though they are Ronan’s friends and not Declan’s at all? I understand the desire to give readers closure by neatly pairing everyone off and making everyone seem happy, but this is not the way.

And the ending of the book just kind of makes the whole dilemma of the first two books…disappear. I thought interesting concepts were at play. How can dreamers survive in a world that is not built for them? Should they continue to fight the nightwash, or should Ronan awaken the ley lines? If Ronan does awaken the lines, what other horrors could occur if the dreams become too powerful to control? Just because no current dreamers have thought to dream something monstrous and world destroying does not mean no one could. What if that happens? What is the plan? Well…none of that matters, anymore, dear readers! Apparently Ronan is just going to toss the whole ley line idea because, well, I’m not sure. Yeah, Bryde is gone, but the problem isn’t. Essentially, this book says, Ronan went on this entire journey to figure out who Bryde is and to awaken the ley lines just to decide he doesn’t need to because he had some personal growth instead and he doesn’t really care anymore. Or something.

The book is not a complete letdown because I still love the characters and the world Stiefvater has created. However, it does seem clear that Stiefvater struggled with the ending. I was in awe with the complexity and imagination of the first two books in the series, but it all comes crashing down here, with the book not sure where to go with all the big ideas that were raised.

3 Stars

Cursed by Marissa Meyer

Cursed by Marissa Meyer

Information

GoodreadsCursed
Series: Gilded #2
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Official Summary

Before the Endless Moon, when the Erlking means to capture one of the seven gods and make a wish to return his lover, Perchta, from the underworld, Serilda and Gild attempt to break the curses that tether their spirits to Adalheid’s haunted castle. But it soon becomes clear that the Erlking’s hunger for vengeance won’t be satisfied with a single wish, and his true intentions have the power to alter the mortal realm forever. Serilda and Gild must try to thwart his wicked plans, all while solving the mystery of Gild’s forgotten name, freeing the ghosts kept in servitude to the dark ones, and trying to protect their unborn child.

Romance, danger, and Serilda’s journey to find her power as a woman, a mother, and a storyteller make this reimagining of Rumpelstiltskin one that Meyer fans—old and new—will treasure.

Star Divider

Review

Marissa Meyer has done it again! The sequel to Gilded brings readers on a breathtaking journey full of romance, mystery, suspense, and danger–one fans will find difficult to put down. The atmospheric worldbuilding and the intertwining of folklore and fantasy will draw readers in. But the empathetic characters and the high stakes they face will capture readers entirely. A must-read for fans of YA fantasy and fairy tale retellings!

Gilded ended on a dramatic cliffhanger, so I was only too eager to see where Meyer would take the story next. I loved that the narrative did not keep the characters safe, but repeatedly put them in untenable situations. The Erlking and his court are meant to be monsters, and it was imperative for the integrity of the story for this to be true. Fairy tales such as this are meant to be dark, meant to show that humans can persevere beyond all reasoning. And, maybe, just maybe, triumph. But that question of whether triumph is even possible anymore is the part that makes this story so gripping.

I also really loved that Serilda is a mother in this story. Motherhood is not often explored in YA books, even though it is a part of life and even something some teens might experience. Granted, I felt at times that Serilda read more like a young twenty-something than a teen, but readers do not need to only read books with protagonists exactly their age. And the motherhood element made this book feel more unique, as well as adding higher stakes to Serilda’s struggle for freedom.

Cursed is that rare thing, a sequel that lives up to its predecessor. More mythology, more intrigue, and more romance all come together to create an unputdownable read that will leave readers wishing for more. Fans of Meyer’s will not want to miss out on this stunning conclusion to the duology!

5 stars

Gleanings: Stories from the Arc of a Scythe by Neal Shusterman (and Co-authors)

Information

Goodreads: Gleanings
Series: Arc of a Scythe #4
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: November 8, 2022

Official Summary

The New York Times bestselling Arc of the Scythe series continues with thrilling stories that span the timeline. Storylines continue. Origin stories are revealed. And new Scythes emerge!

There are still countless tales of the Scythedom to tell. Centuries passed between the Thunderhead cradling humanity and Scythe Goddard trying to turn it upside down. For years humans lived in a world without hunger, disease, or death with Scythes as the living instruments of population control.

Neal Shusterman—along with collaborators David Yoon, Jarrod Shusterman, Sofía Lapuente, Michael H. Payne, Michelle Knowlden, and Joelle Shusterman—returns to the world throughout the timeline of the Arc of a Scythe series. Discover secrets and histories of characters you’ve followed for three volumes and meet new heroes, new foes, and some figures in between.

Gleanings shows just how expansive, terrifying, and thrilling the world that began with the Printz Honor–winning Scythe truly is.

Star Divider

Review

If anyone had asked me if a short story collection set in the world of Arc of a Scythe could live up to the original trilogy, with its complex characters, twisty plot, and thought-provoking questions about what it means to be human, I would have said no. And I would have been completely wrong. Gleanings sweeps readers back into the post-mortal world as if no time has been lost between book 3 and book 4, and I was riveted by nearly every page.

The Arc of a Scythe is immersive because looks unflinchingly at what it would mean for humans to “conquer death” — and really any unpleasantness, from pain to crime. No facet is left unexplored, from the effect this would have on the creation of art to the question of free will and the ethics of having an AI run the world. There are also, of course, the scythes, who do deal out death, having a power perhaps no one should have. Much of the book is about how such a community would play out, if it could stay true to its ideals.

And Gleanings goes right back into this. Some of the questions are the same that are explored in the original trilogy, but the angles and the answers feel new. After all, is there really a definitive answer to the question of, “Can art exist without pain?” What even is art? What counts as pain? Must fear of death be involved? And fear of death isn’t even completely gone because of the scythes. This book made me stop and think, and it made me feel, and it was wonderful.

It’s also at times humorous, which is great when you have a book called Gleanings where, you know, people are gleaned (coughkilledcough). Some of the scythes manage to be ridiculous or get themselves into ridiculous situations, which helps put in perspective that they are still human, no matter the power they have been given.

The only two stories I found disappointing were about Scythe Marie Curie, which is odd considering she’s such a striking character in the first three books, and these stories should have been marvelous gifts to fans who would like to see more about her. I felt the first had very little conflict/movement, and an event that should have been interesting simply fell flat. The second one will help tie up loose ends for fans, but also didn’t feel like much of an actual story.

You do need to have read the first three books to understand this book. I struggled a bit even though I have, and I think it’d be best enjoyed for people who have a fresh memory of the rest of the stories. Definitely one of my top reads of 2022 (though I posted my favorite YA books of 2022 list before I read this. Oops.).

Briana
5 stars

On Rereading C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Again)

It’s hard for me to “review” The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when I’ve read it so many times at different times of life and had so many different thoughts. To say I was obsessed with Narnia is an understatement. My third grade teacher read this book aloud to the class, and then I was hooked, reading and rereading the series (except The Last Battle, which I’ve read only twice; I struggled with it a lot). I imagined I was in Narnia, watched the movie, went to a local play. I would have said it (the series as a whole, I guess) was one of my favorite books.

So when I reread The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe a couple years ago as an adult, I was horrified to discover I didn’t think it was that good. It’s . . . very short. I couldn’t comprehend how very little happens and how what does happen, happens so quickly! The story seemed so underdeveloped, so sparse! I must have just used my child’s imagination to make everything seem so much bigger. It was a huge letdown, to discover that Narnia are NOT among the children’s books that withstood rereading for me as an adult.

So what did I think this time?

My opinion is more in the middle. The book is still short. It’s kind of shocking to realize that the Pevensies win the final battle, are installed as Kings and Queens of Narnia, live their lives in Narnia, and fall back through the wardrobe into England all in a single chapter. It’s hilarious that a “great battle” is about three paragraphs long. I was confused to see the children reference great hardships and being all dramatic about how much had happened when they’d been in Narnia for literally a day.

But, whatever. I guess I was expecting it this time. It doesn’t really work for me as an adult, but I remember I had absolutely no problem with it as a child reading the books, so I need to give Lewis credit where credit is due.

I did notice this time around, however, that Lewis’s prose is rather repetitive. I mentioned the “always winter, never Christmas” bit to a friend as I was reading, and he said he didn’t remember anything about Christmas in the book. That was surprising to me because, you know, Santa is literally a character in the story, but I realized someone says something about “always winter, never Christmas” five or six times It’s not a one time quote. And Lewis does that often. I remembered the direction not to shut oneself in a wardrobe, of course. I didn’t remember that is ALSO mentioned about five times. And various other bits are repeated.

There’s much to love about Narnia. I suppose Lewis had a talent for writing something short that ends up being very evocative for children. And, of course, many adults continue to see a lot in it academically.

As entertainment, I enjoyed it more this time than I thought I would, judging from the tragedy that was my previous reread. I just need to remember that the book seems rushed and go in expecting that, and then I can still access some of the charm I saw in it as a child.

Briana

The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Last Wish book cover review The Witcher

Information

Goodreads: The Last Wish
Series: The Witcher 0.5
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 1993

Official Summary

Geralt the Witcher—revered and hated—is a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent.

But not everything monstrous-looking is evil and not everything fair is good… and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth.

Star Divider

Review

The Last Wish is a collection of connected short stories that alternate between the present and flashbacks to Geralt’s past. Overall, it’s an evocative collection that feels familiar in its use of fantasy tropes and allusions but also somehow new. I enjoyed learning about Geralt’s world and his feats as a particularly well-known witcher, while the allusions to things changing in the world added an air of bittersweetness.

My primary concern is the treatment of women in the book, and I believe this needs to be addressed first because the opening scene is just Geralt opening his eyes from sleep to see some random woman coming nymph-like to straddle and seduce him. It’s an odd prologue since it doesn’t seem to have a point besides “ooh sexy woman throwing herself at Geralt because men deserve that” or something, and I wasn’t impressed. I saw a review on Goodreads where someone just quit reading the book entirely after this scene, and I can’t even blame her because I was tempted to DNF, too. As for the rest of the book . . . it waffles a bit on women. Geralt seems to respect women generally and has a firm anti-rape stance that he repeats (a low, low bar), but the book does rather objectify them, and there’s a distinct male gaze. Women’s dresses ripping during fight scenes to expose their breasts. That sort of thing. If you can get over this aspect of the book (and I’m on the fence about whether I did get over it myself), the book has a lot of other merits.

The stories themselves are interesting, and many of them took little twists and turns I didn’t see coming. I loved that Geralt appears to be legendary in his occupation, but often solves the problems he encounters in ways one wouldn’t expect. So while there are certainly fight scenes where Geralt gets to display his skills, there are also times he uses cleverness; he sees some things are riddles where others cannot. He’s also no infallible or even necessarily impressive-looking while at work. The book is open about the fact he gets injuries and he gets things wrong and he gets things done, but he doesn’t always look cool and dignified while getting results. So there’s a human aspect (which is also interesting considering the emphasis on the fact Geralt is not, in fact, human).

There’s also a very layered feel to the book. There’s clearly a history to the world that isn’t on full display here, but the reader can see there are stories and legends and realms and all sorts of things waiting to be discovered. And there’s also a sense of change that brings to mind epics stories like Beowulf. Geralt senses an end of a era, a diminishing of the number of monsters and the need for witchers to deal with them. The world he knows is not going to last, and who’s to say whether that’s good or bad?

The writing is sometimes clunky, and while I suspect some of that might be because of the translation, some of it also seems to just be how the book is structured. A story will be going along and suddenly there will be an inserted explanation of some world building or other background information, and then the story carries on. This happened often enough I definitely noticed it, but it didn’t ruin my general enjoyment of the book.

In terms of plot and world building, this is a top-tier fantasy read. The misogyny, however, put me off and kept me from becoming fully connected to the world. While there are women with influence and impressive skills here, it’s really one of those instances where they’re like weird outliers with mystical powers to be vaguely feared and respected or sex objects. The women in the book rarely felt like people to me in the way that a lot of the male characters did, and this is really disappointing to me. I liked the book, but I don’t know if I care enough to read more of the series, which is a shame.

Note: I have not seen the show. This is my introduction to the Witcher.

Briana
4 stars

The Luminaries by Susan Dennard

The Luminaries book cover

Information

Goodreads: The Luminaries
Series: The Luminaries #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Purchased
Published: November 1, 2022

Official Summary

Hemlock Falls isn’t like other towns. You won’t find it on a map, your phone won’t work here, and the forest outside town might just kill you.

Winnie Wednesday wants nothing more than to join the Luminaries, the ancient order that protects Winnie’s town—and the rest of humanity—from the monsters and nightmares that rise in the forest of Hemlock Falls every night.

Ever since her father was exposed as a witch and a traitor, Winnie and her family have been shunned. But on her sixteenth birthday, she can take the deadly Luminary hunter trials and prove herself true and loyal—and restore her family’s good name. Or die trying.

But in order to survive, Winnie enlists the help of the one person who can help her train: Jay Friday, resident bad boy and Winnie’s ex-best friend. While Jay might be the most promising new hunter in Hemlock Falls, he also seems to know more about the nightmares of the forest than he should. Together, he and Winnie will discover a danger lurking in the forest no one in Hemlock Falls is prepared for.

Not all monsters can be slain, and not all nightmares are confined to the dark.

Star Divider

Review

In spite of the fact that The Luminaries begins rather morbid, with the protagonists detachedly retrieving corpses from the woods in which she and her fellow Luminaries live, I am most tempted to call it “delightful.” It’s a relatively short read at 300 pages and, while still fresh, in many ways feels like a callback to how YA fantasy used to be: quick story, a dash of romance, more to discover in the sequel.

I had no particular plans to read this book, in spite of the fact I have enjoyed Dennard’s Witchlands series, but I received it in the November 2022 OwlCrate box, and OwlCrate has once again not let me down! I side-eyed the book a bit as I was thrown into the character’s job picking up dismembered bodies and casually delivering them to the morgue, but luckily the book does get less gross as it goes on, even as it continues to make the case that the forest near Hemlock Falls is dangerous; people can and do die at any time.

In spite of the peril and the monsters, however, the real draw of the book is the characters. Winnie Wednesday wants more than anything to be a Luminary, but her family has been branded outcasts by the town. Her struggles being ignored and mocked by people who used to be her friends and family and her desire to get back her dreams and all else that is rightfully hers are gripping to read about. It’s debatable whether some of the decisions she makes are the best, but they’re understandable. I get her as a person, and I see why does things the way she does.

I do think the jacket copy is a bit misleading, as it implies Winnie and Jay spend a lot of time hunting a new monster in the forest, which isn’t quite true (though I’d be unsurprised if it’s true in the sequel), but the plot of Winnie training for the trials while having concerns about a new monster and having to navigate complicated relationships with her neighbors did keep me turning the pages. And I certainly want to find out what this new monster is!

Sign me up for book two, and sign me up for more Jay, as well, one of those perfect YA boys who seem aloof yet strangely perceptive.

Briana
4 stars

The Pearl Hunter by Miya T. Beck (ARC Review)

The Pearl Hunter book cover

Information

Goodreads: The Pearl Hunter
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: February 7, 2023

Official Summary

Set in a world inspired by pre-Shogun era Japan, this is a stunning debut fantasy in the vein of Grace Lin about how a young pearl diver goes to the ends of the earth to rescue her twin sister, who has been stolen by a ghost whale.

Kai and Kishi share the same futon, the same face, and the same talent for pearl diving. But Kishi is the obedient daughter, while Kai tries to push the rules, and sometimes they fight. Still, when Kishi is stolen and killed by the legendary Ghost Whale, nothing will stop Kai from searching for her, deep in the ocean, hoping for a way to bring her back to life.

But such a rescue is beyond the power of an ordinary mortal. Kai strikes a deal with the gods: she’ll steal a magic pearl in exchange for her sister’s soul. As she journeys across treacherous land scape, Kai must navigate encounters with scheming bandits, a power-hungry war lord, and a legion of conniving fox spirits. And when a new friendship becomes something almost as powerful as her love for her sister, Kai must make impossible choices and risk everything just to get home again.

Woven through with Japanese culture and legends, this many-layered story will grip readers of all ages.

Star Divider

Review

With immersive world building and a protagonist whose love for her sister cannot be stopped, The Pearl Hunter is sure to be a hit with lovers of middle grade fantasy.

Miya T. Beck drops readers into protagonist Kai’s world, where her family is tightknit but magic seems faraway because her family’s status as pearl divers makes them low class. However, legends quickly become real after Kai’s twin dies, and she encounters gods and magical beings she thought were only fairy tales. And she’s ready to bargain with them all if it means getting her sister back.

Kai’s bravery and determination are some of the things I loved most about the book. Even places where the plot slows or falters, Kai’s personality helps the book keep shining. This is, of course, another instance of a book where the strong sisterly bond is almost always in flashbacks because the one sister isn’t actually present in the story, but I love a good sister bond nonetheless, and The Pearl Hunter delivers.

I do wish some of this charisma had been present in the romance. The love interest is an interesting person in his own right, and I like him well enough as a character, but there isn’t a lot of development showing how he and Kai actually come to care for each other. It seems that one moment they’re enemies, and the next they’re all blushing and willing to risk their lives for each other. Possibly the target audience will not take issue with this, however. I remember being in middle school and thinking some books that have maybe 3 pages total of romance were wildly romantic, whatever that says about me.

The bold choices the author makes at the end of the novel, however, definitely earned my respect. Things didn’t go quite the way I might have hoped or imagined, but they’re memorable and make a lot of sense in the context of the book. I also don’t think there will actually be a sequel, but there’s a lot of room left for me to imagine the adventures Kai might go on next and how she might try to change fate, and I like that a lot.

This is strong, solid fantasy. The pacing is slow at times, but the heart of the protagonist is inspiring and the folklore woven in will appeal to a lot of readers, so this is one to check out.

Briana
3 Stars