Safiyya: For February’s buddy read, Hailey and I read Magic for Liars, by Sarah Gailey, an urban fantasy/mystery set in modern-day America.

 

Private investigator Ivy Gamble is called in to investigate the mysterious death of a teacher at Osthorne Academy for Young Mages. Although Ivy claims to hate everything to do with magic, she secretly longs to be a magician like her talented sister. She decides to take the case, live out her inner fantasy of belonging to the magical community, and reconnect with her estranged sister. In the course of her investigation, she comes across snotty teenagers, prophecies, secret relationships, and impossible magic.

 

I will get straight to the point – I did not particularly enjoy this book. It had an engaging mystery plot, side characters whom I found interesting, and fascinating world-building with regard to the magic. Nonetheless, I almost DNF’ed Magic for Liars because I was so utterly exasperated with the main character Ivy. Since everything after the prologue was written in first-person POV from Ivy’s perspective, there was really no way to escape her. As such, I mostly spent the book quietly seething at this annoying brat and her increasingly poor decision-making.

 

Just to be clear, Ivy is a fully adult woman in her mid-thirties, with a fairly good life:

 

  • She is a white, American, heteronormative, upper-middle-class woman. As far as we know, she has never experienced abuse, oppression, or discrimination or any kind.
  •  She has never been deprived of anything for her basic needs. She didn’t have any worries about food or shelter through her childhood, and her parents apparently paid for her college education.
  • Speaking of which, she has a loving family, and if she was ever in need support, or a home, or really anything, she could always go to her father or sister for help.
  • She has no physical or mental health conditions that would potentially restrict her abilities or life choices.
  • She seems to like her work as an investigator, and it seems to pay well enough that she still doesn’t have any concerns about money.

 

Ivy has more than most people will ever have, and yet she spends twenty-seven chapters of a twenty-seven-chapter book complaining that her life is ruined forever because she doesn’t have magical powers.

 

(Incidentally, Ivy doesn’t actually need magical powers. Most of the people around her don’t even believe in magic. She just wants to have magic powers, because her sister Tabitha got to have magic powers, and it’s not fair that Ivy can’t also be gifted, and she deserves to have magic powers too. Basically, this book felt like it was all about Petunia Dursley from the Harry Potter series.)

 

Aside from Ivy’s constant obsession about not having magic powers, she pursues a relationship by constantly lying to her romantic interest, tries to reconnect with her sister by accusing the latter of de facto killing their mother, and just generally spends a lot of time complaining about how teenagers are so ungrateful for all of the things they have. Blegh.

 

Protagonists are not always likeable, and I don’t need a protagonist to be likeable in order to appreciate a book. But a protagonist should at least be compelling enough to draw the reader through the story. I think the author meant to portray Ivy as a compelling and somewhat sympathetic character, and I think the reader is meant to root for her success. Unfortunately, I was not able to do so, and that is why I would struggle to recommend this book.

 

In spite of my overall feelings about Magic for Liars, there were some positive points:

  • Sarah Gailey has a good writing style and sense of pacing
  • She sets up the murder mystery and revelation of suspects quite well. She also plays with some classical fantasy tropes in an interesting way.
  • I liked several of the side characters, including Ivy’s sister Tabitha, the school nurse Mrs. Webb, and the practical magic teacher Rahul. I rather wished the book had been told from Tabitha’s POV, in fact.

As such, I would certainly be interested in reading some of Sarah Gailey’s other novels.

 

It is also worth noting, Magic for Liars has a pretty high Goodreads score, so a lot of people were able to connect with the story and the main character. If you aren’t sure where you stand after reading this review (which is fair, the ambivalence vibes are strong), I would suggest that you try the first three or four chapters, and see how you feel about the rest from there.

 

For my part, if you want to read a fantasy/mystery story featuring a compelling female protagonist who is determined to solve a mysterious murder, I would recommend Olivia Atwater’s Longshadow.

Title page of Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This time was going to be different. This time was going to be better. This time, I was going to be enough.

Sarah Gailey

 

When Princess Amythest (aka Amy) is born, she receives gift upon gift from her fairy godmothers: charm, wit, grace, courage…and to her parent’s horror, her most eccentric fairy godmother grants her the gift of being ordinary! Unlike her impossibly beautiful and perfect sisters, Amy likes climbing trees, exploring forests, and getting into all manner of adventures. But when her despairing parents go one step too far in their plans to marry her off, Amy decides she needs to take matters into her own hands.

 

I mainly read this book because:

(a) It was a recommendation from Amrita, of  Amrita By the Book (you can check out her Booktube channel here and her Bookstagram here); and

(b) I’ve been gobbling up every M. M. Kaye book I can find, after I fell deeply in love with The Far Pavilions earlier this year.

 

I’ll get straight to the point: The Ordinary Princess is a highly adorable story, and it’s a great reading choice for younger girls. Amy is such a determined little heroine, and she really takes control of her own life. She gets a job! She stands up for the kitchen maids! She refuses to let her parents destroy the countryside via dragon in an effort to marry her off! I loved her character so much.

 

I don’t mind reading books for younger readers, but I also really think that the book really holds up well for adult readers as well as children. It’s not too preachy or condescending, and it doesn’t have any major “yikes” moments, considering that it was written in the mid-1900s and published in the 1980s. Plus, the author drew all the illustrations in my edition of the novel, and her artwork is just lovely to behold.

 

There is a playfulness about the language and writing style of this book, which I hadn’t really seen in M. M. Kaye’s historical and mystery books. Dare I say it, it was reminiscent of Georgette Heyer’s lively and humorous writing style. All of which is to say: I highly recommend it!

 

– Safiyya

 

PS: Disney, please go make an adaptation of this movie! Or Studio Ghibli, which would be a very different and absolutely fantastic option!

Cover page for The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye

 

 

 

“Hmm!” said the Fairy Crustacea. “Wit, Charm, Courage, Health, Wisdom, Grace…Good gracious, poor child! Well, thank goodness my magic is stronger than anyone else’s.” 

– M. M. Kaye

 

 

Wendy Darling’s life was irrevocably altered when she and her two brothers were swept out of their bedroom window and spirited off to an island of pure fantasy. When they returned home to London, John and Michael were able to move on with their lives, but Wendy could not forget Neverland nor the impossible boy that brought her there. Refusing to deny Peter and Neverland has fractured Wendy’s relationships with her family and even resulted in her institutionalization in an asylum.

Many years later, Wendy is married with a daughter of her own and trying to finally put the past behind her. Until one fateful night when a boy who does not age, a boy with no shadow, slips through her daughters bedroom and carries Jane off to Neverland in Wendy’s place. Now Wendy must confront the unsettling truths about her past, in order to save her family and her future.

Wendy, Darling was exactly what I hope for when reading a fairytale retelling. I’ve always thought there was something sinister lurking behind the shiny veneer of Neverland and Peter Pan and A.C. Wise exploits that ominous undertone in dark and delicious ways. Decay, death and eldritch horrors replace mermaids, magic and childhood naiveté.

The book had a wonderful cast of strong and empowered female characters as well as queer and aro/ace rep (we don’t see a lot of this so it was very exciting!) I was also really impressed by the way that the author addressed trauma and trauma recovery in a very raw and realistic manner.

Thank you to NetGalley and Titan Books for providing a copy of this book for review. It was an incredible read that I highly recommend!

– Hailey

 

 

 

You have to stand up, even when you’re scared, because if you let the monsters frighten you and take away the things you love, then they win.

A.C. Wise

 

Cover page for A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher; gingerbread man holding a sword

Safiyya: This month, Hailey and I read T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, which is about as delightfully kooky as it sounds.

 

The story follows Mona, a teenage girl with a very unique gift: she can make baked breads come to life. Unfortunately, after Mona stumbles across a dead body in her aunt’s bakery, her special talent draws unwanted attention from a serial killer who is targeting magical people in her city. Mona is unwillingly launched into an adventure of political intrigue, prejudice, heists, murder and mayhem, along with her sidekick gingerbread man, her sourdough starter Bob, and a street-wise urchin named Spindle.

 

When you’re different, even just a little different, even in a way that people can’t see, you like to know that people in power won’t judge you for it.

– T. Kingfisher

 

You may or may not have noticed that the world is on fire, and indeed, it has been in this sad state for quite some time. I have a large extended family living in India, and the daily barrage of horrible news is….a lot to deal with. All of which is to say, for whatever reason, I was in exactly the right headspace to read an absurdist fantasy-comedy about a teenage girl with a gingerbread man sidekick.

 

Reader, I really enjoyed it. I liked Mona, and Spindle, and Bob. I liked the army of evil gingerbread men. I liked the creativity with which Mona used her unusual gift to resolve her problems. I liked the deeper themes about prejudice and scapegoating against a minority group, institutional violence, adults’ responsibilities toward children, and social inequity in a society of plenty. I liked the way that Mona came to understand and cope with the fact that societal institutions and people in power are not always interested in protecting the ones they rule.

 

This book is very much a classic coming-of-age story. I loved watching Mona’s character evolve as she has to step forward to save the city, when no one else was able or willing to do so. I also loved the weird specificity of her magical talent, which tapped into my unspoken musings about what happens to the X-Men who don’t have battle-oriented talents. (Hailey has informed me that there are, in fact, comic arcs about members of the X-Men who do not have the most tactically useful of abilities.)

 

I did have a couple complaints, the biggest of which relates to the tone of the writing. As mentioned above, this is an absurdist story, and it is very funny as a result. Unfortunately, the constant use of flippant humour also undercuts the story’s urgency. In theory, there are major consequences at stake here – for instance: the disappearance and death of people with magical gifts, corruption within the city’s highest levels of government, an impending invasion from an outside force. Yet it is hard to really take these issues seriously when the story’s narration doesn’t seem to take them seriously either.

 

Another complaint is the fact that some of the minor characters come across as somewhat flat, especially Mona’s aunt and uncle. These two characters serve a role in moving along the plot of the story, but they are quickly sidelined in order to generate higher stakes for Mona to overcome, and to allow her greater independence. A good example is what Hailey and I termed as the “Spare Room of Requirement”. Early in the story, we learn that even though Mona is only fourteen, she lives on her own because there is simply no room in her aunt’s house for another person to stay. Much later in the book, Mona drags Spindle back to her aunt’s place rather than leaving him to fend for himself on the streets. Mona’s aunt then insists that Spindle should stay in the never-before-referenced spare room, which was apparently sitting unused in her home while her fourteen-year-old niece lived alone in the city.

 

But at the end of the day, these complaints were not nearly enough to ruin my enjoyment of the book. It is also worth noting, T. Kingfisher intended to write this book for a younger audience of readers, maybe aged 9-12. She was thwarted by her publishers’ concerns about exposing children to discussions about serial killers, racial prejudice, and institutional injustice (which is nonsense, given that children aged 9-12 are very capable of understanding these things.) As such, it makes sense that the tone of the writing made light of some of the more disturbing material, and that the authority figures get short shrift so that the younger heroes have their moment to shine. In this manner, the book is closer to T. Kingfisher’s novel Minor Mage than it is to her more adult stories such as The Twisted Ones or The Hollow Places.

 

I found A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking to be a delightful, magical, and unapologetically absurdist journey, with some surprisingly deeper themes and ideas. I would particularly recommend it for readers who are looking for a magical adventure in the vein of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain stories, or for anyone who just needs a fun and enjoyable break.

 

 

 

 

 

Hailey:  Ok, so difference in opinion here.  I really wanted to love this book but it fell a quite flat for me.  I felt a bit like I was reading a first draft of a potentially interesting story that hadn’t been “polished” yet.  There were so many brilliant ideas and social commentaries waiting to be further developed, it just didn’t reach the mark yet.  As Safiyya mentioned, many of the side characters felt one-dimensional which is always a pet-peeve of mine.  Also, at one point Mona’s uncle is referred to by a completely different name, so clearly a bit more editing was needed.  As for the “Spare Room of Requirement”, that nearly drove me … well, spare.

 

I love middle-grade books so that wasn’t the issue for me, I just felt like there was something lacking.  I really had to trudge through the book to complete it by our book discussion date – I was very easily distracted and did not feel immersed in the story in the way I’d want to with a fantasy book.  To me it felt a bit like a poor imitation of a Terry Pratchett novel, but in A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking the irreverent tone was more distracting than humourous.  Ostensibly, a storyline about a magician-targeting serial killer should be pretty riveting, but to me it didn’t really feel like there was much at stake and I was left fairly ambivalent. 

 

I did really enjoy Mona’s pint-sized gingerbread familiar and plucky street urchin Spindle, they kept me pushing through the story (to be honest, I was more concerned about the safety of the little cookie than any of the other characters!)  Bob was also one of the funniest parts of the book but he has certainly put me off sourdough bread for the foreseeable future (yikes!)

 

So at the end of the day, this definitely was a miss for me.  However, one book not resonating with me is not sufficient evidence for me to form an opinion on an author’s writing.  I’d actually been wanting to read Paladin’s Grace before Safiyya had picked this buddy read so I’m going to give T. Kingfisher another go in the future.

 

Until next time readers!

 

After a minute, I said, “I never wanted to be a hero.”

His face was solemn. “Nobody ever does.” 

– T Kingfisher

 

 

The Lights of Prague was such a delightful read! The story follows Domek, a lamplighter who secretly protects the city from the monsters that roam the streets at night, and Lady Ora, a wealthy and seemingly eccentric widow. Despite their vast differences in class, the pair are inexplicably drawn to each other, though Domek does not realize that Ora is a pijavica – one of the creatures he is sworn to destroy. While Domek and Ora attempt to keep their secrets from each other, they both become embroiled in foiling a plot that would allow the monsters of Prague to overtake the city.

I love mythology and fairytales of all forms and I had not yet read anything featuring Czech myths so I really enjoyed reading about pijavice, bubáks and vodníks. I do wish that there had been a glossary of the mythological creatures at the end of the book that the reader could refer to, however, a quick google search of the Czech terms was easy enough.

I loved how Nicole Jarvis used the history and architecture of Prague as a part of the story – the setting was so vivid that the reader feels completely transported in both place and time. The characters were well written and there were also some plot twists that I had not anticipated. I was fully absorbed by the book and I sacrificed a good night’s sleep so that I could finish reading because I just had to know what would happen next. I haven’t read a vampire novel in a while and I’d honestly thought I was no longer interested in the trope, but The Lights of Prague was a fresh and thoroughly enjoyable take on the genre. I’m excited to see what else Jarvis has in store and I’d definitely read more of her books in the future.

Thank you to NetGalley and Titan Books for providing an eARC of this book for review.

– Hailey

When Domek had first started working as a lamplighter, he had been frustrated by all the people who continued to venture into the night. Didn’t they realize the danger? If everyone stayed home, Domek wouldn’t have to risk his life to protect them.  Over time, though, he realized that life couldn’t be contained to daylight hours. For every human or pijavica that used the dark to prey on passersby, there were a dozen people just trying to make it home. Prague belonged to all of them, and Domek would be damned if they would be made unsafe in their own city.

Nicole Jarvis

 

Sorrowland was certainly an interesting read. At the tender age of 15, flees from Cainland, the isolated compound where she has spent her entire life, and makes a life for herself and her twin children in the woods. The spectre of Cainland and its dark secrets continues to threaten Vern, Howling and Feral even in the wilderness and they find themselves in a fight for their very survival.

I was really taken with the beginning of the book, I was intrigued by Vern’s story and eager to learn the truth about Cainland. I was also incredibly impressed by the diverse representation in the book – albinism, disability, LGBTQIA2S+, BIPOC. I adored the characters especially Howling and Feral, and I was so happy when Vern and her twins built a “found family” with Gogo and Bridget.  Rivers Solomon  created empowered characters that faced racism, abuse, homophobia, transphobia, religious indoctrination, and yet refused to accept oppression or succumb to circumstance. I really wanted to give the book 5 stars … and then the big reveal. 

Warning – Spoilers ahead.

For more than half of the book I had assumed a supernatural/haunting theme to the story and then suddenly the book switches gears and we’re into government conspiracies, human experimentation and hybridization with sentient fungi.  That’s where Solomon lost me, it just seemed very disjointed and I just couldn’t suspend disbelief a as Vern turned into an immortal, psychic, exoskeleton covered fungus creature.  It became hard for me to remain engaged in the story and I almost DNF’d the book. It was unfortunate because Sorrowland had started out so strong. Maybe other people will appreciate the book’s twist, but it simply wasn’t for me. I did really enjoy the author’s rich storytelling and character building though, so I’d still be willing to try reading more of their work in the future.

Thanks to NetGalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing an eARC of this book for review.

– Hailey

 

She was a girl made of aches and she flung her body at the world in the hopes that something, anything, might soothe the tendernesses.

Rivers Solomon

 

The Space Between Two Deaths had a fascinating premise, very little modern literature focuses on Sumerian culture, religion and mythology. I thought that the story started off very strong with the sack of Uruk by the army of Nippur which throws off the balance between the land of the living and the netherworld. As a result of this imbalance a rift opens up in the earth leading down into the netherworld. Here is where I felt the author missed an opportunity – though the rift did play a role in the lives of the main characters, the larger implications of the rift on Sumerian society was ignored, it was as if no one else was affected by this supernatural event. It had seemed as though the author had set the scene for the dead to rise and overwhelm the living, for mythological creatures or deities to assert their influence, but none of this occurred.

The rest of the novel was, in essence, a family drama. Though some aspects were interesting, I personally found all the main characters to be rather unlikeable and as such I felt it difficult to become emotionally invested in the tale. Temen, Meshara and Ziz were all callous and self-interested without a sense of care or concern for the other members of their family. Temen was violently abusive and lacking in work ethic, Meshara was deeply resentful and happy to abdicate any sense of maternal duty, and Ziz thrilled in carrying out theft and violence with little sense of consequence. Themes of physical and sexual abuse, child marriage, slavery, mutilation and even cannibalism seemed to be casually thrown into the book without much commentary or critique.

I think my favourite parts of the book were the chapters narrated by the crow, who was the least problematic and most interesting character. I did really enjoy the ending, (at least for Ziz and the crow). Overall the book beginning and ending of the book are very strong, its just the muddle in the middle that I’m not sold on.

Thank you to NetGalley and GenZ Publishing for providing a e-copy of this book for review. 

– Hailey

 

 

So much had gone unsaid between them – to tease out one thread risked unraveling the entire tapestry.  Perhaps a story was for the best, one in which the outcome was predetermined.

Jamie Yourdon

 

All the Murmuring Bones is a gorgeously written tale about a young woman’s quest for self-determination as she fights to unshackle herself from a fate sealed generations ago, when her family made a deal with the mer. I found Miren to be a captivating protagonist and I so admired her fortitude even as she was faced by overwhelming grief and loss. Though she was consistently underestimated, she proved herself to be more than capable of meeting any challenge head on. The O’Malley family fables woven throughout the book added a rich sense of history and helped elucidate the pressures and expectations on Miren for simply bearing the name.

Although there were mer-folk, ghosts, fae creatures and certain magics in the story, to me, the book did not feel so much a “fantasy” novel, as a story about Miren’s personal journey with folkloric aspects woven in. The character development felt much more advanced than the somewhat sparse world-building, however I found myself not minding as I have a personal preference toward character driven stories and the prose writing was excellent.

Overall, it was a thoroughly captivating read that I didn’t want to put down. I will definitely be looking to read more books by A. G. Slatter in the future, I’m excited to see what other stories she creates.

Thank you to NetGalley and Text Publishing for providing this ARC.

– Hailey

 

 

Whatever soul I might have, O’Malley though I might be, it is mine and I’ll not sell it at any price.

A.G. Slatter

 

I am absolutely in love with this book. I expected it would be a fun read but I was blown away by how incredible it was. While it is marketed as a Middle-Grade book, the story is so well-written and nuanced that it will appeal to children and adults alike.

Discovering hidden worlds is a well explored trope in children’s stories and YA novels, from the Narnia series, to Inkheart to The Magicians for older readers, there are books a-plenty that follow plucky young adventurers through fantasy realms after they mysteriously vanish from our reality. There is a comforting familiarity to these stories that draws us back again and again, even if they are, in essence, just variations on the same theme. Then comes David Levithan, ready to flip the whole paradigm on its head.

The realm of Aveinieu and Aidan’s journey there, is not in fact, central to the tale. Rather, Levithan focuses on the emotional toll that is experienced by those left behind and the general upheaval that accompanies Aidan’s reintegration into his life when he reappears just as suddenly as he had left. The story is told from the perspective of Aidan’s younger brother Lucas, who keenly observes the reactions of everyone around him as he struggles with his own complex feelings. While others pressure Aidan for details about his disappearance, Lucas approaches his brother with a touching level of compassion, choosing to suspend disbelief so that he can offer support.

The book features excellent explorations of trust, betrayal, family, public scrutiny, and the fine distinction between what is true and what is real. I definitely recommend this book to readers of all ages! Fantastic read!

Thank you to NetGalley and Text Publishing for providing this ARC.

– Hailey

 

 

True or not, every story has something it wants you to remember.


True or not, every story has something it wants you to believe.

David Levithan

 

To be perfectly honest I was sold as soon as I saw the gorgeous cover art. Then I read the blurb which only heightened my excitement. I snatched this book up as soon as it was released and it not only lived up to my expectations but blew them out of the water.

I’ve never read anything by Alexandra Bracken before, but I’ve been madly in love with Greek mythology since childhood. I’m the type of annoying classics fanatic who cringes when people use the phrase “Pandora’s box” (it was either an urn or Pandora herself!) and no matter how amazing the soundtrack is, “Hercules” always irks me with how ridiculously off the mark it is (the least of its sins is the Romanization of Herakles). Suffice it to say, as eager as I was to read the book, I had no prior experience with the author so I was slightly concerned about how the mythos would be represented. I was pleased to learn that the book had been so well researched in term of both the mythology and Greek language. It was fun to learn that Bracken drew upon her own Greek heritage and her passion for the subject matter was so palpable throughout the entire novel.

I loved the whole premise of the Agon, it was such a wonderful way of reimagining Greek legend in a modern setting while maintaining the integrity of the original myths. Lore was the exact kind of strong and fierce female protagonist that I love to see and there was a diverse cast of supporting characters all intriguing in their own ways.

Bracken makes a powerful statement about the corrupting nature of power and prestige, as well as how history is often willfully misinterpreted to further certain agendas. To quote John C. Maxwell, “In most cases, those who want power probably shouldn’t have it, those who enjoy it probably do so for the wrong reasons, and those who want most to hold on to it don’t understand that it’s only temporary.” The entire structure of the Agon was so fundamentally flawed, yet the families were so desperate for power, for honour, for a lasting legacy that they did not care how fleeting their time in the sun was, nor how much violence or destruction was wreaked in order to obtain it. The fact that the families dictated that only men could ascend as new gods, even though members of the nine original gods were female, also illustrates how tradition and skewed interpretations have been used as tools of oppression against women throughout history.

This was such a brilliant book! Riveting, action packed, thought provoking and deeply emotional. I’m so glad I read it and I highly recommend it to fellow mythology lovers!

– Hailey

 

 

 

 

It’s not always the truth that survives, but the stories we wish to believe. The legends lie. They smooth over imperfections to tell a good tale, or to instruct us how we should behave, or to assign glory to victors and shame those who falter. Perhaps there were some in Sparta who embodied those myths. Perhaps. But how we are remembered is less important than what we do now.

Alexandra Bracken