Anna Zhdanov is the daughter of a scholar. She’s also a bond servant. So when someone steals a jewel from the Emperor, her master tasks her with recovering it—and earning her freedom. But the wilds of Eddalyon are an island paradise, filled with enemies, pirates, and magic.
Soon Anna’s status as indolent noblewoman is called into question, and she finds herself held captive by the notorious pirate caption Andreas Koszenmarc, who’s also searching for the missing jewel. With the Emperor’s guard and another brigand at their heels, Anna must decide if she can trust Andreas—before both of them lose the jewel and their promised rewards.
I enjoyed A Jewel Bright Sea. Pirates and magic? I am definitely there for that. There was so much going on behind the scenes in this novel, and that sense of a bigger picture gave a lot of depth to the story. The reader just knew that there was an explanation for everything—even if they couldn’t figure out what that was just yet. Anna has lived a tough life, and she trusts no one, so deciding whether to trust Andreas is a big deal for her. I loved the worldbuilding here as well, as that made the story truly shine.
Claire O’Dell is an award-winning author. A Jewel Bright Sea is her newest novel, the first in the Mage and Empire series.
(Galley courtesy of Kensington Books/Rebel Base Books via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.)
A handful of those were great reads, but three of the truly excellent reads included a book about three older women who changed their lives and found their dreams, a fantasy that started off with a girl who had never set foot on land, and a girl who has never really thought about her ethnicity and is forced to not just confront it but decide how it will shape her life.
Women in Sunlight, by Frances Mayes (she also wrote Under the Tuscan Sun) is about three older, single American women who become friends and defy expectations to move to Italy. While there, they truly embrace themselves and who they are as they create their best lives yet.
Crown of Coral and Pearl, by Mara Rutherford. Nor and her twin sister are the most beautiful girls in Varenia, so they know one of them will be chosen to marry the prince of Ilara. Nor longs to see the mainland, but when her sister is chosen, she knows that will never happen. Until her sister is injured and she’s chosen to replace her—finding Ilara a land of treachery, murder, and darkness.
Color Me In, by Natasha Diaz. Nevaeh has never really thought about her ethnicity, but when her Jewish father and her black mother separate, she and her mother go to live with her family in Harlem. One of Nevaeh’s cousins is angry because Nevaeh can pass as white and is oblivious to struggles of those around her in Harlem. Then Nevaeh’s dad decides she needs to embrace her Jewish roots, leaving Nevaeh struggling between two identities.
Their entire lives, Nor and her twin sister Zadie knew one of them would be chosen to wed the Crown Prince of Ilara, who ruled Varenia, where their people lived. When Nor was scarred years ago, she knew that honor would fall to Zadie, but Nor still dreams of seeing a city, a castle, and everything that happens on land.
Then Zadie is injured, and Nor is chosen to replace her. Now she’ll live her dreams of seeing far places. But Ilara isn’t the place she imagined. Instead, it’s cold and dark and locked in the heart of a mountain. And the Crown Prince is cruel and dangerous—and intent on destroying the Varenian way of life for his own ends.
Nor must learn to navigate the intrigues at court if she is to save her people and unravel the mysteries of Ilara—a murdered queen, a failing royal bloodline—and the prince’s half-brother, Talin, is the only one she can trust.
Crown of Coral and Pearl was entrancing from the very first page. I cannot imagine never setting foot on land, but the culture of Varenia is so vividly drawn that I felt comfortable there. Nor and Zadie’s love for each other, despite their mother’s hatefulness, is so loving and uplifting, and I rooted for everything to work out for them. Ilara is completely different, yet just as vividly realized, and, while I had no desire to visit there, the setting was just as much a part of the story as the characters. An excellent read!
Mara Rutherford is a journalist turned author. Crown of Coral and Pearl is her newest novel.
(Galley courtesy of Inkyard Press via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.)
Annaleigh Thaumus lives a sheltered life at Highmore. Once there were 12 Thaumus girls, but since her mother died and then four of her sisters, things are grim in the home. Even more grim are the whispers from surrounding villages that the family is cursed by the gods.
Her sisters sneak out every night to attend secret balls, but what is the glitz and glamour hiding? When Annaleigh starts seeing ghostly visions and a handsome stranger arrives, she starts to wonder if her sisters’ tragic deaths were really accidents—or something more.
The culture in House of Salt and Sorrows is vivid and imaginative, with hints of fairy tales and legends sprinkled about. I liked Annaleigh, but I didn’t connect with her as well as I could’ve. Some parts of this book were very creepy, and the myths and the gods were intriguing. I’d have to say I liked the culture itself—and the hints of the cultures of surrounding lands—the most.
Erin A. Craig lives in Memphis, Tennessee. House of Salt and Sorrows is her debut novel.
(Galley provided by Delacorte Press in exchange for an honest review.)
So…normally, I pick the top three books I read in a month. This time, that’s just not possible. Because I read some really good books in July.
The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck, by Bethany Turner. This was from my TBR pile, so I didn’t review it. What happens when a steamy romance writer gets saved and falls in love with a preacher? This made me laugh so much, as, apparently, Sarah and I were separated at birth.
Ayesha at Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin. This also didn’t get a review, as it was my cultural book of the month. Pride and Prejudice in a Muslim community? Yes, please! I enjoyed this immensely, and I loved the look at a Muslim community. And, of course, a good Pride and Prejudice retelling does not go amiss.
The Book Charmer, by Karen Hawkins. If i could physically give you a copy of this book—I would! I don’t even like small towns, and I’d move to Dove Pond. A librarian who hears books talk to her, a town in trouble, and the outsider who’s the only one who can save it. Please do yourself a favor and read this!
The Merciful Crow, by Margaret Owen. Have you ever read a fantasy novel that sucked you in from the very first page, that made the culture come alive, and had characters that lived and breathed on the page? This is that book. I’d have read this straight through except work. I could NOT put it down!
Fie is a Crow—a caste of undertakers and mercy-killers immune to the plague and despised and persecuted by society. When her band is tasked with disposing of two royal bodies, they encounter the conniving queen who plans to cheat them of their pay and cost them even more respect. But Fie thwarts the queen—and discovers the two royal bodies aren’t exactly dead.
Instead, the crown prince and his clever body double have faked their own deaths to escape before the murderous queen can kill them. If they can make it to their allies, they have a chance at overthrowing the queen. They strike a deal with Fie: if she sees them safely to their allies, the prince will protect the Crows when he’s king.
But the queen’s ruthless assassins are on their trail, and Fie might lose everything she cares about to fulfill the promise she made.
From the very first page, I was enthralled. I couldn’t put this book down, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’ve never read anything like this and found the worldbuilding both vivid and unique. The magic system was odd—teeth?—but compelling, and I adored Fie as a character. She’s tough and prickly and fierce, but she can, eventually, see reason. I fell into this world headlong and did not want to leave.
Margaret Owen is an author and illustrator. The Merciful Crow is her debut novel.
(Galley courtesy of Henry Holt and Co via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.)
Evie doesn’t feel like she fits in. She comes from the wrong side of the tracks, so she doesn’t really have any friends. One night, when she’s running through the woods, she falls down a hole and finds herself—like Alice—in a strange world. An angry gnome gives her a compass stick, and Evie must use it to guide herself through the strange, mixed-up world where fairies bite, unicorns attack, and mermaids are evil.
I loved the concept of this book. It’s creative, and all the different worlds Evie travels through are intriguing. I especially like the giant world and the snow elves. Evie herself is erratic, though. Her internal voice sounds normal, but occasionally, she veers off into some backwoods/Appalachian hillbilly dialect and sayings that feel forced and unnatural after her mostly “normal” voice. And, her feeling of isolation because of her wrong-side-of-the-tracks background is the motivation for her flight through the woods, but it isn’t really touched on again. Once she’s fallen into Nevermore, it’s her against the world (literally), but it feels more like a series of obstacles without an actual plot or antagonist to give it focus. I did enjoy the different settings, but overall, this felt a bit unfocused.
Evie and the Upside-Down World of Nevermore is the newest book by Birgitte Märgen.
(Galley courtesy of the author in exchange for an honest review.)
Maia Tamarin works as a seamstress in her father’s shop. She’d love to become a tailor, but she’s a girl, so marriage is the only thing in store for her. Even better if her future husband is wealthy enough to help her family out of their poverty.
But Maia still dreams of making beautiful clothes, and when a messenger from the emperor arrives commanding Maia’s father to the palace to compete for the position of imperial tailor, Maia disguises herself and joins the competition, knowing she’ll pay with her life if anyone discovers her secret.
The treachery and lies in the competition are one thing, but Maia draws the attention of Edan, court enchanter, whose dark gaze sees everything. Maia’s final task is to sew three dresses: from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. Maia has no idea how to accomplish this. She just knows she must.
I enjoyed this book immensely! I like the Mulan-like concept of Maia disguising herself as a son in order to save her family, but this is its own tale. Maia’s battles are more subtle—and just as deadly—and the magic here is woven so skillfully through the setting and the characters that it all just worked for me. Highly recommend!
Elizabeth Lim graduated from Harvard and completed her graduate studies at The Juilliard School. Spin the Dawn is her newest novel.
(Galley courtesy of Knopf Books for Young Readers via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.)
In Enchantia, fairy tales are real, but they are prophecies of the future. Everly Morrow is raised in the real world and has no idea she’s a princess until she starts to commune with mirrors. Then the truth comes out: Everly is destined to become the Evil Queen.
Except it’s not that simple. Everly meets Roth Charmaine—Prince Charming—and can’t deny she’s attracted to him. But as a sorcerian, she only draws his hate. As their fairy tale unfolds, she faces countless betrayals as she fights to save her family while deciphering the truth.
I generally love Gena Showalter’s novels, and I loved the idea of The Evil Queen. However. I found this one to be not up to Showalter’s usual high quality. Parts of it were very rough and juvenile—and I’ve seen lots of comments to the effect of “remember it’s YA so that’s okay”—but YA should still be well-written, and the characters should be believable and fully fleshed-out. These seemed very one-dimensional to me, and several times they completely did a 180 without us seeing any character growth to account for that. Everly was frankly quite annoying and egotistical and Roth wasn’t much better. I guess I just expected better from an author I generally love—and whose young adult books I love. I did like the actual answer for who each character was supposed to be in the fairy tale.
Gena Showalter is a bestselling author. The Evil Queen is her newest novel.
(Galley courtesy of Harlequin TEEN/Inkyard Press via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.)
Deo was born to fulfill a prophecy and save the world. Allegria is supposed to be just a priestess. Hallow is just an apprentice without a master. That was before invaders appeared in the land of the Starborn, threatening the entire world.
Now Allegria has left the priesthood for a chance to battle the enemy and wield the power of the sun. Hallow becomes the leader he always dreamed of becoming. And Deo wrestles with the power of the invaders, a power he doesn’t understand. Together, the three of them are the only ones who stand a chance at defeating the enemy and saving their world.
I loved the characters in this novel! I empathized with all of them (except whiny, angsty young-Deo.) and loved watching their growth. This books has everything from romance to comedy to magic, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
Katie MacAlister is a bestselling author. Fireborn is her newest novel.
(Galley courtesy of Kensington Books/Rebel Base Books via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.)