Mini-Review | The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo

The Language of Thorns cover
Love speaks in flowers. Truth requires thorns.

Travel to a world of dark bargains struck by moonlight, of haunted towns and hungry woods, of talking beasts and gingerbread golems, where a young mermaid’s voice can summon deadly storms and where a river might do a lovestruck boy’s bidding but only for a terrible price.

Inspired by myth, fairy tale, and folklore, #1 New York Times–bestselling author Leigh Bardugo has crafted a deliciously atmospheric collection of short stories filled with betrayals, revenge, sacrifice, and love.

Perfect for new readers and dedicated fans, these tales will transport you to lands both familiar and strange—to a fully realized world of dangerous magic that millions have visited through the novels of the Grishaverse.

This collection of six stories includes three brand-new tales, all of them lavishly illustrated with art that changes with each turn of the page, culminating in six stunning full-spread illustrations as rich in detail as the stories themselves.

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This collection of incredibly inventive, dark, and atmospheric short stories was completely enthralling, to the point where I didn’t even mind that I had already read a few of the included tales. Where the stories draw inspiration from classic fairy tales, such as The Little Mermaid and Hansel and Gretel, it’s just that: inspiration. This collection frequently subverts the source material in unexpected ways, creating a world where true love isn’t the solution to all problems. It’s one of the rare anthologies where I loved every single story and can’t wait to give it another read.

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Review | Before the Devil Breaks You by Libba Bray

Before the Devil Breaks You cover
New York City.
1927.
Lights are bright.
Jazz is king.
Parties are wild.
And the dead are coming…

After battling a supernatural sleeping sickness that early claimed two of their own, the Diviners have had enough of lies. They’re more determined than ever to uncover the mystery behind their extraordinary powers, even as they face off against an all-new terror. Out on Ward’s Island, far from the city’s bustle, sits a mental hospital haunted by the lost souls of people long forgotten–ghosts who have unusual and dangerous ties to the man in the stovepipe hat, also known as the King of Crows.

With terrible accounts of murder and possession flooding in from all over, and New York City on the verge of panic, the Diviners must band together and brave the sinister ghosts invading the asylum, a fight that will bring them fact-to-face with the King of Crows. But as the explosive secrets of the past come to light, loyalties and friendships will be tested, love will hang in the balance, and the Diviners will question all that they’ve ever known. All the while, malevolent forces gather from every corner in a battle for the very soul of a nation–a fight that could claim the Diviners themselves.

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The only thing that has disappointed me so far with this series is the constant cover changes (seriously, please pick a scheme and stick with it, I need my series to match). After what seems like a 240284 year wait, I’m thrilled to say that Before the Devil Breaks You was wonderfully creepy and utterly perfect; if this series wasn’t already on my “all-time-favourites” list, it definitely would be after this book.

Before the Devil Breaks You is the highest-stakes Diviners book yet, and it’s also the creepiest. There are plenty of ghosts to go around, and further exploration of the 1920s political climate (racism, eugenics programs and the treatment of mentally ill individuals) adds extra weight to an already dark read.

Instead of focusing on any particular Diviner duo, Before the Devil Breaks You is group-oriented, letting all of the characters take their turn in the spotlight. While Evie and Theta will always hold special places in my heart, all of the characters have significant (and often unexpected) character arcs, some of which made me gasp out loud. I can’t wait to see where they go next.

Review | The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass cover
Lyra is rushing to the cold, far North, where witch clans and armoured bears rule. North, where the Gobblers take the children they steal–including her friend Roger. North, where her fearsome uncle Asriel is trying to build a bridge to a parallel world.

Can one small girl make a difference in such great and terrible endeavours? This is Lyra: a savage, a schemer, a liar, and as fierce and true a champion as Roger or Asriel could want–but what Lyra doesn’t know is that to help one of them will be to betray the other.

A masterwork of storytelling and suspense, Philip Pullman’s award-winning The Golden Compass is the first in the His Dark Materials series, which continues with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

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I read The Golden Compass for the first time when I was about 10 years old – while I didn’t understand a lot of the themes, I loved the armoured bears, witches, and Lyra. Naturally, when I came across a beautiful hardcover copy in Shakespeare and Company, I just had to pick it up again and see if it was as magical as I had remembered.

Lyra was just as much of a treasure as I had remembered. She’s precocious and clever, a compulsive liar (this behaviour is reflexive enough to earn her the nickname “Lyra Silvertongue”), and is filled with such love.

It’s also very easy to get sucked into the magical world that Pullman created: the daemons, witches, armoured polar bears, and mysterious energy called “Dust” are vividly imaginative and completely enthralling. I was pleasantly surprised that I remembered so many of these magical details (including one rather intense scene involving Iorek), although as a child their associated religious undertones went completely over my head.

Overall, I loved The Golden Compass just as much as (if not more than) I did when I was a kid and can’t wait to re-read the rest of the series.

Review | La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1) by Philip Pullman


Malcolm Polstead is the kind of boy who notices everything but is not much noticed himself. And so perhaps it was inevitable that he would become a spy…
Malcolm’s father runs an inn called the Trout, on the banks of the river Thames, and all of Oxford passes through its doors. Malcolm and his dæmon, Asta, routinely overhear news and gossip, and the occasional scandal, but during a winter of unceasing rain, Malcolm catches wind of something new: intrigue.
He finds a secret message inquiring about a dangerous substance called Dust–and the spy it was intended for finds him.

When she asks Malcolm to keep his eyes open, Malcolm sees suspicious characters everywhere; Lord Asriel, clearly on the run; enforcement agents from the Magisterium; an Egyptian named Coram with warnings just for Malcolm; and a beautiful woman with an evil monkey for a dæmon. All are asking about the same thing: a girl–just a baby–named Lyra.

Lyra is the kind of person who draws people in like magnets. And Malcolm will brave any danger, and make shocking sacrifices, to bring her safely through the storm.

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I read His Dark Materials when I was about 10 years old, and it left as large of a mark on me as both the Harry Potter series and A Series of Unfortunate Events. To say I was excited for a prequel series was an understatement; that being said, I can’t help but be slightly disappointed by La Belle Sauvage.

The main area where La Belle Sauvage fell short for me was its pacing: not much happens, making it feel like it served merely as a introduction to the His Dark Materials series instead of being able to stand on its own. There was never a sense of urgency given that I knew exactly where Lyra ended up, and a surprising lack of magic (both in terms of mystical elements and my overall engagement).

That being said, I did enjoy several aspects of the book, including the nostalgia that Pullman’s writing brought; Malcolm and his daemon, Asta; seeing young Pantalaimon; learning more about the alethiometer; and the brief appearances by my old friend Lord Asriel.

Overall, La Belle Sauvage felt like an unfinished draft that just happened to contain characters that I loved. It doesn’t work as a standalone story, but if its primary intention was to convince me to reread His Dark Materials, it can be considered a success.

Review | The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye

Vika Andreyeva can summon the snow and turn ash into gold. Nikolai Karimov can see through walls and conjure bridges out of thin air. They are enchanters—the only two in Russia—and with the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs threatening, the tsar needs a powerful enchanter by his side.

And so he initiates the Crown’s Game, an ancient duel of magical skill—the greatest test an enchanter will ever know. The victor becomes the Imperial Enchanter and the tsar’s most respected adviser. The defeated is sentenced to death.

Raised on tiny Ovchinin Island her whole life, Vika is eager for the chance to show off her talent in the grand capital of Saint Petersburg. But can she kill another enchanter—even when his magic calls to her like nothing else ever has?

For Nikolai, an orphan, the Crown’s Game is the chance of a lifetime. But his deadly opponent is a force to be reckoned with—beautiful, whip-smart, imaginative—and he can’t stop thinking about her.

And when Pasha, Nikolai’s best friend and heir to the throne, also starts to fall for the mysterious enchantress, Nikolai must defeat the girl they both love…or be killed himself.

As long-buried secrets emerge, threatening the future of the empire, it becomes dangerously clear—the Crown’s Game is not one to lose.

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The Crown’s Game had been on my radar for a while since its description sounded like a YA version of The Night Circus – a book that is easily in the top ten of my #absolutefavourites list. My love for The Night Circus combined with my love for Russian history gave me very high hopes for The Crown’s Game, and I’m sorry to say that it was not even close to meeting them.

Here are just a few of the ways that The Crown’s Game disappointed me:
The characters lacked depth and never really developed
All the instalove = too many forced love triangles
– A lack of worldbuilding, especially as it relates to the magic system
– There are a few neat magic tricks, but the stakes feel far too low despite the whole “duel to the death” aspect

Its redeeming features were that it was a quick, light read that was (mostly) entertaining. I did enjoy the ending, although since there is a sequel, I’m sure that the finality of only one enchanter being able to survive the Crown’s Game will be modified.

Overall, The Crown’s Game had a promising premise but very poor execution. If you want to read a book about dueling enchanters, pick up The Night Circus instead.

Review | Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway

Emmy’s best friend, Oliver, reappears after being kidnapped by his father ten years ago. Emmy hopes to pick up their relationship right where it left off. Are they destined to be together? Or has fate irreparably driven them apart?

Emmy just wants to be in charge of her own life.

She wants to stay out late, surf her favorite beach—go anywhere without her parents’ relentless worrying. But Emmy’s parents can’t seem to let her grow up—not since the day Oliver disappeared.

Oliver needs a moment to figure out his heart.

He’d thought, all these years, that his dad was the good guy. He never knew that it was his father who kidnapped him and kept him on the run. Discovering it, and finding himself returned to his old hometown, all at once, has his heart racing and his thoughts swirling.

Emmy and Oliver were going to be best friends forever, or maybe even more, before their futures were ripped apart. In Emmy’s soul, despite the space and time between them, their connection has never been severed. But is their story still written in the stars? Or are their hearts like the pieces of two different puzzles—impossible to fit together?

Readers who love Sarah Dessen will tear through these pages with hearts in throats as Emmy and Oliver struggle to face the messy, confusing consequences of Oliver’s father’s crime. Full of romance, coming-of-age emotion, and heartache, these two equally compelling characters create an unforgettable story.

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“Well, that’s growing up, isn’t it?” my dad said. “You don’t always have to know. And things aren’t always fair. You just have to keep moving forward. A step in one direction.”

I’ll admit that Emmy & Oliver is a book that I picked up entirely for the cover. I went in expecting a cute romance, and instead got a coming of age story set in a small town. It’s about growing up and finding your path in life, and Benway perfectly balances heartfelt and sweet moments with moments of heartbreak.

Emmy & Oliver explores all kinds of relationships: friendships, family, and romantic. I loved how involved and present the parents were, and the evolution of Emmy’s relationship with her overprotective parents, in particular, was very positively depicted even in the midst of Emmy’s frustrations. I especially enjoyed the friendship dynamic between Emmy, Drew, and Caro – it was honest, authentic, and a lot of fun. And, of course, the tentative friendship turned something more relationship between Emmy and Oliver was very sweet. I appreciated that their relationship took time to form, and was based on mutual understanding and trust.

Overall, Emmy & Oliver is a beautifully written, heartfelt exploration of love in all its forms and the nature of growing up.

Review | Just Visiting by Dahlia Adler

Reagan Forrester wants out—out of her trailer park, out of reach of her freeloading mother, and out of the shadow of the relationship that made her the pariah of Charytan, Kansas.

Victoria Reyes wants in—in to a fashion design program, in to the arms of a cute guy who doesn’t go to Charytan High, and in to a city where she won’t stand out for being Mexican.

One thing the polar-opposite best friends do agree on is that wherever they go, they’re staying together. But when they set off on a series of college visits at the start of their senior year, they quickly see that the future doesn’t look quite like they expected. After two years of near-solitude following the betrayal of the ex-boyfriend who broke her heart, Reagan falls hard and fast for a Battlestar Galactica-loving, brilliant smile-sporting pre-med prospective… only to learn she’s set herself up for heartbreak all over again. Meanwhile, Victoria runs full-speed toward all the things she thinks she wants… only to realize everything she’s looking for might be in the very place they’ve sworn to leave.

As both Reagan and Victoria struggle to learn who they are and what they want in the present, they discover just how much they don’t know about each other’s pasts. And when each learns what the other’s been hiding, they’ll have to decide whether their friendship has a future.

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Is it too early to say that Just Visiting is my favourite contemporary of the year? It perfectly captures the uncertainty that surrounds post-secondary life – there are so many options and possibilities to explore, and it’s kind of overwhelming because what if you make the wrong choice? College is an opportunity to be independent and reinvent yourself – whether it’s changing your name to “Tori” like Vic did, or going from waist-length hair to a pixie cut like 18 year old me did – so I loved how true to my experiences this book rang. Most importantly, though, I loved the emphasis that Adler placed on finding the path that is right for you – that could be college/university, but the traditional choice isn’t the only choice.

Just Visiting is also very much a book about friendship. I loved watching the relationship between Vic and Reagan grow from people who are friends by default to true best friends, as they learned to share their whole selves, without reservations. And I also loved how Vic and her mom were incredibly close – it’s nice to have parents who are present and invested in their children’s lives.

Just Visiting also covers a lot of issues while remaining un-preachy, including poverty and having an unsupportive home life. The characters are very diverse, but they aren’t just there to fill a requirement; all of these characters’ identities are touched upon, even if just briefly. I loved how sex-positive Just Visiting is: it deals with consent, unprotected sex, and birth control, and is very clearly against slut-shaming.

The only aspect of Just Visiting that I didn’t love was the romance. I liked the banter and the love interest, but the way that Reagan treated him made it very hard for me to become fully invested in its success.

Overall, I have a feeling that Just Visiting will be one of my favourite contemporaries of the year. It’s diverse, sex-positive, and has a healthy and positive friendship – all of which are major plusses in my book.