Indie Book Spotlight: Daughter of Shades (Mercedes)

It’s time for another…

No book can be Sabriel. But fans of Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series may want to pick this one up.

Main character Ayleth is a fighter. She’s possessed by a shade, a wolf-like spirit named Laranta—and that happened on purpose. As a member of the Order of St. Evander, she shares her body with a magically, musically suppressed shade so she can battle other shades from the Haunts. But giving her shade a name, and even identifying Laranta as female, is forbidden by the Order. In fact, young Ayleth’s bordering on heresy.

Ayleth, like her shade, is still a bit feral. She works on instinct, even after years of training under her mistress in a woodsy outpost. But she’s incomplete in other ways, too: Ayleth has no memory of her life before she was joined by Laranta. She knocks on the door of those memories from time to time, but no dice.

What she really wants is a post of her own. She wants to get out of her tiny, safe-ish world. It’s a classic story with an intriguing twist, thanks to its fantastic world building.

Better than just romance: Ayleth finds rivalry and curse-breaking smooches along her speculative journey.

Daughter of Shades really gets moving around chapters six and seven. Ayleth’s story benefits from new, long-term characters, who bring out qualities other than those in her defiant-teen dynamic with her mistress. Her newly independent status also comes with a touch of romance—thankfully, not too much, thought it threatens to be at first. Poor Ayleth never sees men outside her work, and she’s more than a bit overly impressed. That portrayal is awkward, because she’s no starry-eyed damsel. I don’t think most readers would want her to be.

Fortunately, her story veers in a far better direction: a rivalry blossoms where a soapy romance might, and gives the story further layers.

There’s a fun nod to the Sleeping Beauty folktale in a type of curse, a unique magic system of different types of shades, magics and poisons, and pleasantly chilling settings. From a cursed forest to the unwatchable glimpses of the haunts, it has enough of a touch of horror to make a really good campfire tale, but still left me still able to sleep at night. (Yes, I’m that big of a scaredy cat.)

My one issue, which probably kept me from getting into the book sooner, is the way Daughter of Shades begins with the possessed body of a dog. It’s not for the squeamish or the animal lovers, but after the first few chapters that plotline is over. I did find it hard to read before that, and while the world interested me, I think the opener (which included a little bait and switch from Ayleth) held it back. The hardened venatrix she first appears as is an interesting gal, and it takes a while for the real Ayleth to catch up.

Ultimately, Daughter of Shades leaves readers with a lot to wonder about (not in a bad way), and the growing action in the last quarter or so of the book keeps the pages turning. Both things, combined with the unusual world-building, made it an easy call for me to keep reading The Venatrix Chronicles.

(And to be honest, I’ll be waiting to see how that romance comes along, too…but don’t spread that around.)

Sure, you can find better writing out there, but that’s no guarantee it can build interest and suspense like this book. Ayleth’s spirited adventures are worth tagging along for—and sometimes, a person just needs a good (slightly!) scary story, with or without the campfire.

Indie Book Spotlight: Spindle (Gingell)

Today we slap a well-deserved gold star on…

Spindle Review Graphic

Spindle, by W.R. Gingell (Two Monarchies Sequence Book One, 2015, New Adult Fantasy/Fairy Tales/Romantic Fantasy).

Do you like fairy tale re-tellings, in which the original story is folded, spindled (ha!) and mashed into the unrecognizable and unique origami shapes of a drowsy heroine pretending to be the legendary sleeping princess people think she is, a little boy pretending rather convincingly to be a dog, an absent-minded wizard not even pretending to be listening (whose catchphrase might as well be “Huh. That’s interesting”), a malignant magical cube on a battlefield, a village in the shape of a spiral that’s bent by a jinx and an obvious but slippery villain?

Phew. That was one quirky mouthful. Today’s indie book spotlight lands on W.R. Gingell’s delightful Spindle, a fun and absorbing retelling of Sleeping Beauty that resembles the original almost not at all, in the very best way.

The magic system of Spindle is thread-based and interesting (and also literally hairy), with three different types of magic, each rarer than the last. The reader is dropped into it with no explanation. That leaves us catching up with what cursed heroine Poly (the non-princess sleeper) is discovering she can do as she discovers it, and as mystified as she is about what her rescuer, Luck, does with his magic. And he isn’t one to explain. It gives the world an authentic feeling, and keeps the pages turning, too.

Warm, silly, creative and clever: Not every book can surpass its typos like Spindle can. This wacky and wonderful book deserves all the stars I can chuck at it.

It isn’t a perfect book, but don’t let that stop you. The grammarian in me warns you that there are more typos in this book than the other high-quality indie books I’ve reviewed. Hyphens are almost nowhere to be found in the entire text, and the writing at the beginning left me as fuzzy as newly-awakened Poly. But its almost lyrical quality and the twisted presentation of an old tale cued me that this was worth reading. By the end I was beaming, and also leaving five star reviews without hesitation.

This isn’t a book that leans on its fun settings and quirky characters alone, either: it’s as imaginative as a fantasy reader could ever want. I continue to be amazed by the way little aspects of the plot and world-building came together at the end. It was clearly well-thought out and cleverly executed. And it’s enjoyable. You’ll find serious stakes and fierce fights here (and a bit of violence), but no endless doom and gloom.

Poly is also a heroine who gets kissed awake, then slugs her disinterested smoocher. She continually demands her personal space, which helps the romance feel earned. And she’s not a one-man gal, either; she has a couple forays into youthful romances, and who she ends up with is never truly a given (although a pair of time travelers threaten to spoil the suspense).

Spindle has more depth than just a romance plot, too. More than one kind of love is integral to the plot, and Poly’s development: there are parts about female friendship and kinship where there could have been a solid rivalry, a melancholic side-plot about the man who could’ve woken her, and a growing bond with the boy-turned dog that is crucial to Poly reclaiming a life after so many years of sleep. All of this advances the plot—and presumably sets it up for the next book in the series.

Well-rounded, often funny, carefully developed, with unique magic systems and a dive in-able magical world, Spindle is a fabulous book. Get past the opaque earliest chapters and typos, and you may adore it just as much as I do.

Indie Book Spotlight: Throne of Sand (Rookwood, Vince)

In today’s Indie Book Spotlight, we revisit Helena Rookwood, author of the excellent new adult fantasy/romantic fantasy The Prince and the Poisoner (see my review from March 2020 here), and are introduced to her friend and writing partner Elm Vince in:

Throne of Sand (Desert Nights Novels Book 1), by Helena Rookwood and Elm Vince (April 16, 2020; Teen/YA Historical Fantasy, Historical Romance, Asian Historical Fiction)

(Note: I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Familiar, then unexpected.  Throne of Sand is a book that caught me by surprise—in a very good way.

Its basic premise is not so unusual, with a tenacious, un-ladylike for the times female lead.  It’s written in familiar, contemporary language (not my favorite for a story in an older era, but it ended up suiting the action well).  As a retelling of Aladdin, it’s a story we’re well acquainted with (comfortingly so), complete with cheeky little nods to the movie adaptation and callbacks to the original folktale (this djinni is in a ring). But this time, the hero is a heroine: Zadie, the princess who reads, writes, rides bareback and knows her way around a trade agreement.  In other words, she is not the princess her fiancé expects.

Especially because Sultan Kassim was engaged to her sister.

Zadie hides a very large secret, having helped her sister elope with a commoner she loved.  But the replacement princess is not all virtue and romantic ideals: Zadie wants her sister to be happy, but she also wants a chance to rule, something she’s prepared for and never had a chance at until now.  She’s not above a little manipulation, and her servants are not above caking her with makeup to make her the legendary beauty Kassim was promised.

This Aladdin retelling is fast, full of action and fun–and even the djinni gets a backstory.

After a very tense meeting with the sultan, Zadie travels to her future kingdom, where she spends her time ditching her servants and trying to prove she can be a sultanah who rules, rather than one who just looks pretty on her powerless throne.  She has to balance her kingdom’s need for the marriage to go through with getting what she wants.  The tightrope act soon gets irritating, both for Zadie and for this particular reader.

Fortunately, Zadie’s adventurous nature gets the better of her and the best parts of the story come on fast, full of action and fun. Even rude, tradition-obsessed Kassim, whose sole virtues were his title and muscles, starts to soften after a bit.  The wooden sultan becomes a real boy, and it turns out he isn’t half bad.

I wasn’t familiar with Elm Vince before this, but I knew from The Prince and the Poisoner that Helena Rookwood can write amazing and unique female characters (resilient ones, to be sure).  Like the royalty in The Prince and the Poisoner, nobody’s a hero or flat-out scoundrel in the courts of Throne of Sand.  The characters in this tale are also more dynamic.  We see them grow, show their true colors and correct their mistakes throughout the story, and Zadie turns out to be a great deal of fun as a main character.

She certainly knows how to find trouble, too.  Like Rookwood’s Lira, she never crumples in the face of it (unless, you know, it’s physically impossible not to.  Again, there’s a lot of great action in Throne of Sand).  Zadie has intelligence, diligence and toughness to commend her, and whenever she has a sheltered princess moment or two, she manages to redeem herself with her cleverness sometime after.

This is one of those books that I really looked forward to picking up again, only to remember I’d just finished it, which left me really disappointed that I couldn’t go back for more.  (Thank goodness the sequels are now out.)  Our princess may start out helpless and a little on the scheming side (and a lot on the naïve side), but beneath all that is true, three-dimensional character, and just the right traits for someone who hopes to rule.  For all my grumbling when I started reading, it becomes impossible not to root for her—and important that I must read what happens next.

Indie Book Spotlight: The Purple Haze (Einspruch)

A little preface: These are tough times for all of us right now, and I hope all of you are staying well or recovering, and getting by. Recently, I found myself self-isolating in that special limbo of “is this flu or Covid-19?” It was too late for a non-healthcare worker or first responder to get tested for either, so my doctor’s office said I’d just have to let the virus run its course.  And that’s when I read today’s indie book spotlight:

(Note: I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

The Purple Haze just happened to be next on my reading list, and I couldn’t have landed on a better book. I was stressed, sick and anxious, and chapter one made me smile.  Princess Eloise and Jerome Abernatheen de Chipmunk (an actual chipmunk, albeit an anthropomorphic one) became a staple of my nightly wind-down routine.

But this is more than a zany, hilarious book.  Like Einspruch’s shorter work, The Wombanditos, The Purple Haze starts out amusing and the plot picks up steam as it goes, in this case replacing its endearing characters as its number one asset (which is no easy feat with such a funny, quirky and loveable cast). By its midway point The Purple Haze was getting very interesting and proved to be well-thought out, with a clever, neatly foreshadowed twist driving the action. And after that?

We have ourselves a page-turner.

The story follows Eloise Hydra Gumball III, princess of the Western Lands and All That Really Matters. She’s a shy homebody, hampered by compulsive behaviors and germaphobia referred to as her “habits,” and she’ll one day be ruler of their queendom, no matter how she–or her contrary twin sister Johanna–feels about it.  When a reliable court seer’s visions reunites Eloise with Jerome, her childhood best friend, the jester-phobic, quick-witted chipmunk becomes a peculiar choice for Eloise’s champion. Which may not be a bad thing after all, as Eloise’s short trip to retrieve her traveling sister becomes a massive quest, and Eloise is about to need all the help she can get.

Talking (or singing) horses might distract from the strong world-building, but while you’re smiling, laughing or shaking your head, it’s there all along. References to the other kingdoms, some of which will be important, are never forced, thanks to the fact that they are humorous asides. In one, a long description of the history and bureaucraticly hampered build of the Adequate Wall of the Realms sets a scene but mostly provides amusement: “[Eloise’s] reaction was the same as everyone else who saw it for the first time: ‘Yeah, that’ll do, I guess.'” But an entire chapter earlier in the story (chapter 8) centers on the travels of a disgruntled king, describing his kingdom, the purple haze and his other options to better his lot in royal life:

“Had he been a little more personable, Doncaster might have found a wife (or husband, he wasn’t choosy) from the royalty of the other four realms…So, yes, the Western Lands were off the table in the making-his-kingdom-suck-less department.”

You never quite know what will stay as a funny aside and what will be important.

And that works, because by the time Eloise and her retinue end up somewhere major, the reader already has a memory and impression of the place, which can then be upended at any time.  It’s not by chance that this story comes together so well.

All of this makes for a funny, skillfully told story that never lacks heart.  Einspruch’s greatest trick, however, is crafting a book that becomes so much to the reader, yet leaves them wanting more–without being the slightest bit disappointed.

Like Jerome’s prognostication says, “you’ll be happy about it.”

Indie Book Spotlight: The Prince and Poisoner (Rookwood)

Today’s indie book spotlight is on…

The Prince and the Poisoner (Carnival of Fae Book 1), by Helena Rookwood (May 14, 2020; New Adult Fantasy/Romantic Fantasy)

(Note: I received an advanced digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Four words: The Carnival of Stars.  The ultimate setting of Helena Rookwood’s The Prince and the Poisoner is unique, wonderful, and begs to be explored almost as much as Hogwarts or Lothlorien.  The morning after I finished this first installment of the Carnival of the Fae series, I woke up thinking I couldn’t wait to get back to the Carnival of Stars and see what happens next.  I was genuinely disappointed when I remembered I’d finished The Prince and the Poisoner the night before.

In addition to those four words, this book has four great strengths: it’s heroine (Lira), it’s near-constant plot developments (action and twists!), it’s realistic writing (the characters’ motives and dialogue), and its imagination (gorgeous, magical settings).  Those last two sound like contradictions, but Rookwood proves you really can have both.

When one character protests something, or offers troubling new information to another, the listener is quicker to believe it’s a lie than almost instantly believing what they don’t want to hear or accepting information from someone they don’t trust.  And the royals in the story are neither shining heroes nor ruthless tyrants (with one possible exception, though we see very little of that particular king).

The story begins with Lira in a small traveling circus.  Everyone in the circus has a specialty, and Lira’s is that she makes potions according to the specific ways her father taught her.  When she gets a headache at the back of her head, she knows that her potions will work.  And work they do, better than anyone else’s.  As Lira steals and scrapes to save money to flee the circus’s abusive masters, her talent draws the attention of a mysterious man on horseback, who whisks her away on a journey to the Carnival of Stars one night.

But her escape comes with a surprising catch: Lira must poison a princess and thereby frame a kingdom.  She then must balance the enormity of that task with her need to get away from her old circus, which the mysterious man threatens to return her to if she doesn’t fulfill her end of the bargain.  But this is Lira, which means there is plenty of unexpected adventure, a little romance, a helping of magic and very little navel-gazing involved.

Lira is by far this story’s greatest asset (that’s what you’d want out of a MC, right?).  She is both different and well-rounded, a secretive, bold, brassy, bratty, proud, secure, confident, flirtatious, headstrong, resilient, “preening,” braggadocios, and all-out marvelous female lead.  If the necessary quality of a main character is that they would want to tell their own story, Lira does it with a lot of flare and no self-pity.  She also has realistic motivations.

Lira rarely has a woe-is-me moment throughout the story, and when she does it’s almost always short-lived.  She tends to make brave and sometimes surprising choices, and it’s not because of generic heroism: her motives are self-preservation and unwavering belief in her own talents, and a lot of that comes from her difficult (but never overly dramatized) backstory.  It doesn’t mean she’s always likable, but she is never boring, either.  It was frankly refreshing to find a heroine who never doubts her abilities and actively promotes them.

All in all, The Prince and the Poisoner makes for one heck of a circus.