3.5 star, adult

Review: A River Enchanted by Rebecca Ross

Series: Elements of Cadence #1

House of Earth and Blood meets The Witch’s Heart in Rebecca Ross’s brilliant first adult fantasy, set on the magical isle of Cadence where two childhood enemies must team up to discover why girls are going missing from their clan.

Jack Tamerlaine hasn’t stepped foot on Cadence in ten long years, content to study music at the mainland university. But when young girls start disappearing from the isle, Jack is summoned home to help find them. Enchantments run deep on Cadence: gossip is carried by the wind, plaid shawls can be as strong as armor, and the smallest cut of a knife can instill fathomless fear. The capricious spirits that rule the isle by fire, water, earth, and wind find mirth in the lives of the humans who call the land home. Adaira, heiress of the east and Jack’s childhood enemy, knows the spirits only answer to a bard’s music, and she hopes Jack can draw them forth by song, enticing them to return the missing girls.

As Jack and Adaira reluctantly work together, they find they make better allies than rivals as their partnership turns into something more. But with each passing song, it becomes apparent the trouble with the spirits is far more sinister than they first expected, and an older, darker secret about Cadence lurks beneath the surface, threatening to undo them all.

With unforgettable characters, a fast-paced plot, and compelling world building, A River Enchanted is a stirring story of duty, love, and the power of true partnership, and marks Rebecca Ross’s brilliant entry on the adult fantasy stage.

If I could use one word to describe A River Enchanted, it would be this: folklore. Cue the Taylor Swift music, please.

Although the synopsis makes it sound like there are only 2 protagonists, in reality, we follow 4 individuals pretty equally. This is Rebecca Ross’ foray into adult literature and I wasn’t sure at first what to expect from that. I love her YA fantasies so I hoped it would still be in the same vein but perhaps with different themes.

And boy, it was an interesting read indeed. I will quickly break down a couple of my thoughts that overall led to my rating.

Writing style

Fortunately for me, the writing was just the way I remember it being in Rebecca’s YA novels, so if you fell in love with her writing in her past titles, this one’s still got it and more.

The prose was so descriptive and lush that it really brought forth this magical isle full of different spirits and the people who inhabit it. You can also tell that the author did her research because the language she uses, especially certain vocabulary, is definitely not what we would regularly in modern times. It fit the feel of the world, something separate from what we know here and now, and reminiscent of the Scottish wilds.

In this way, I was really drawn into the story and the characters, which is what I will talk about next.

MCs and their unique characterizations

From the 2 MCs I thought we would follow, it became 4, and I loved it even more that way. Jack and Adaira were childhood rivals and that tension was still somewhat there upon Jack’s return to the isle after a decade away on the mainland. These two are in their early twenties but I can see the influence of the YA tropes in their story. They felt younger and worried more about their relationship and their future in the clan.

On the other hand, Torin and Sidra (in their later twenties or early thirties I believe) really made the story fit into the adult genre more. I actually loved their romance more than Jack and Adaira’s. They wed it seemed out of convenience when Torin’s first wife died, but it didn’t necessarily mean there was love between them. Their worries focused on Torin’s young daughter with his first wife, a particularly important worry as the isle has been losing their young girls recently, a point I’ll get back to later.

While I’m normally a HUGE lover of all the teen tropes and coming of age stories, I rather enjoyed the other themes drawn into the book because we have a range of protagonists. Each voice was unique as each individual struggled with different things. Jack never belonged on the isle, even more so after his absence for so long, and he fought his insecurities all the time. Adaira had the weight of the clan on her shoulders as the heiress, and fought to do what was right by them at even her own personal cost.

Torin struggled to keep his family a priority while also sacrificing so much of himself to keep the entire clan safe from their rival clan across the border. There was a lot of guilt hanging over him and it was an interesting exploration. Lastly, Sidra was probably my favourite character and brought the struggle of faith to the forefront as it seemed the spirits she believed in her whole life, especially for her healing abilities, were letting her down with the loss of each girl.

When I think of adult books, I still want to know the characters instead of just stereotypes. I definitely feel Rebecca carries this in her writing regardless of genre and I’m so grateful for that.

Plot and its downfalls

So why wasn’t this a 5 star read like the last book I read from Rebecca Ross?

Simple. It really ends up at the plot. This is a fantasy book and they’re generally plot-driven. Preferably, the best kinds are balanced with plot and character, and the character component in this book I have already extolled as great.

The plot wasn’t complex, although I did enjoy the mysteries surrounding the missing girls. I loved the world building, don’t get me wrong, and I never felt like a load of information dump was placed on me at any time. Everything felt organic.

It just came about really slow. Essentially, Jack and Adaira attempt maybe 3 things to get a lead on who was stealing the girls, but it’s split apart by a lot of talking. Of course, this lends to the character building but it just didn’t move things along very well.

Likewise, Torin does a lot of searching the entire lands but all it leads to is more questions and some off-shoot tidbits that MAY lead somewhere in the next book. Can a girl just ask for a little more speed?

That’s not to say that the entire plot was bad. It definitely wasn’t, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong about a simple main plot line. I did like the “twists” that came about near the end with secrets starting to unfold. I’m super excited for book 2 to come out to see where it all goes, but as a book within itself, I feel the plot may lose people at times as our 4 MCs meander their way to solving the mystery.

Overall Recommendation:

A River Enchanted marks an excellent adult fantasy debut for Rebecca Ross with its lush storytelling and world building that draws you into this magical isle filled with spirits living among the inhabitants. I was definitely not disappointed to see such amazing characterizations of not 2, but in fact 4, protagonists as they navigate the disappearance of several young girls from their clan. It’s part mystery and part folklore awe that drives you to continue reading, although the pacing was rather slow for a good portion of it. If you can stick through the slower bits, which on the other hand allows for excellent character building, this story delivers a fascinating tale of rival clans, magic that harnesses the spirits, and relationships running deeper than blood.

4 star, YA

ARC Review: Only A Monster by Vanessa Len

Series: Monsters #1

With the sweeping romance of Passenger and the dark fantasy edge of This Savage Song, this standout YA contemporary fantasy debut from Vanessa Len, is the first in a planned trilogy.

It should have been the perfect summer. Sent to stay with her late mother’s eccentric family in London, sixteen-year-old Joan is determined to enjoy herself. She loves her nerdy job at the historic Holland House, and when her super cute co-worker Nick asks her on a date, it feels like everything is falling into place.

But she soon learns the truth. Her family aren’t just eccentric: they’re monsters, with terrifying, hidden powers. And Nick isn’t just a cute boy: he’s a legendary monster slayer, who will do anything to bring them down.

As she battles Nick, Joan is forced to work with the beautiful and ruthless Aaron Oliver, heir to a monster family that hates her own. She’ll have to embrace her own monstrousness if she is to save herself, and her family. Because in this story . . .

. . . she is not the hero. 

**Only A Monster comes out February 22, 2022**

Thank you Edelweiss and the publisher for this copy in exchange for an honest review.

Vanessa Len’s debut with an anti-hero protagonist and a morally good “villain” has my head whirling around for all sorts of reasons. I’ve barely had time to digest everything but I wanted to put all my thoughts down in this post while it’s all super fresh. I will have to be vague to keep anything from becoming spoilers, but I hope you’ll bear with me.

Joan is a monster. Or at least, half-monster since her father’s side of the family, the Asian part of her, is human. But growing up, she thought monsters were just fairy tales. Who wouldn’t? She had wanted to be Superman as a kid (what an irony, am I right?). Her moral compass seemed on the straight and narrow. Which is what drew her to the hero.

Where do I even start with Nick? This star-crossed lovers romance was what I was here for. As Joan realizes more about her monster heritage, is Nick going to be able to differentiate between the parts of herself? Is she truly monstrous? I also thought it’d be like an enemies to lovers kinda thing since, well, he hunts monsters. Doesn’t get more enemy than that. But it didn’t quite feel like that in some ways.

Star-crossed romance…or a love triangle?

I had come in thinking Nick was everything. But he wasn’t – I will get into that in a bit. Due to some really fast paced events that occur LITERALLY right out of the gate, Joan is thrusted into the monster world with, well, another monster. A monster boy named Aaron from a rival stuck-up monster family. Who is exactly the kinda character you can totally see a romance brewing between.

We actually get to know Aaron, dare I say more, than even perhaps Nick because he just has more page time. He goes from a pretentious little bugger to a pretty decent guy (he probably wouldn’t like to be described that way, but oh well) over the course of the misadventures they find themselves on. I don’t normally like love triangles, but there’re certain heartstrings being pulled in his direction.

Nick is also more than he seems. While I would’ve liked to have known him more, there was enough for me at least to start softening to this boy who only fought for what he thought is right. I mean, he has a reason to hate monsters, and a lot of monsters are downright…monstrous. Are his actions justified? I wrestle with that a lot while reading, but I can see where he’s coming from, and more importantly, so could Joan.

However, most of the romance heavy parts are actually at the end of the book and I honestly have no idea what’s to happen next. I’m as stumped as a log and only Vanessa Len knows where she’s going with the romance. And at this point, is it weird to say I actually wouldn’t mind who Joan picks? (The blasphemy!)

Traversing the plot

This book doesn’t know what a slow start means. It really just GOES from page 1. Joan didn’t really know what monsters are as her mother’s family hid it from her all her life so she (and the rest of us) are quickly thrust into the monster world without knowing the rules or ins and outs of it.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because who loves pages of information dump? I like it when the world is organically built into the story so we learn as we go. Of course, this may mean it’s rather confusing in the beginning, but that’s the payoff.

There’s time travel in this story and the mechanics of such time travel is still a little fuzzy to me. But the rest of the world building was super great. I loved getting to know a little more about the different monster families, their specific powers and the machinations of this hidden monster world among the humans.

As I mentioned, the pacing is just GO GO GO. It definitely helped to keep me reading because Joan and co. Are constantly moving from one thing to another. The start is the rockiest because it threw me off with how much of the synopsis was revealed so quickly, but the story really picks up from there in directions unknown that was exhilarating to find out.

What’s the best part of this?

We don’t get to know many characters in this story well just based on the way the plot goes, but for character-driven lovers, I think we get to know Joan very well and that’s always a highlight for me. She was new to all of this and her heart was always set towards a moral compass that didn’t love the monster side. Seeing her wrestle with literally herself was an interesting take at certain crossroads.

Did she want to be a monster? Could she do what came so easily to her family and was her birthright?

And what would she do about Nick?

That really is the question, right? And with it, the epic ending that I didn’t see coming. I really can’t say much but I’m left with so many questions. I’m glad this is a trilogy because I really do need more. The world building has been a great intro, but I can see the potential for this to continue blooming.

There’s also the matter of the romance and the unknowns of it all. But most importantly, it’s the ramifications of Joan’s actions and who she becomes that intrigues me the most. I like both Nick and Aaron (and the rest of her small gang she meets), but it’s ultimately the decisions this anti-heroine makes that drives this story for me.

I absolutely cannot wait.

Overall Recommendation:

Only A Monster is an exploration into this new and fascinating world of monsters hidden within the human one as we follow anti-hero Joan in her discovery that she is in fact not a hero but a monster. The pacing just hits you from the very start with time travel and fights with the morally good hero, Nick. There is absolutely so much potential for this world to grow, and the knowledge we gain is organic as we learn alongside Joan how the Monster world operates. Romance lovers don’t have to fear because we not only get a star-crossed romance but potentially a love triangle brewing for Joan as monsters and heroes fight to save their own. While it can be rushed at times and more than a little confusing at the beginning, I love this debut by Vanessa Len and the ending makes me want to see more of who Joan is. I highly recommend you check it out (and if you’ve already heard hype, it’s definitely real).

3.5 star, YA

Review: Witchshadow by Susan Dennard

Series: The Witchlands #4

Susan Dennard’s New York Times bestselling, young adult epic fantasy Witchlands series continues with Witchshadow, the story of the Threadwitch Iseult.

War has come to the Witchlands . . . and nothing will be the same again.

Iseult has found her heartsister Safi at last, but their reunion is brief. For Iseult to stay alive, she must flee Cartorra while Safi remains. And though Iseult has plans to save her friend, they will require her to summon magic more dangerous than anything she has ever faced before.

Meanwhile, the Bloodwitch Aeduan is beset by forces he cannot understand. And Vivia—rightful queen of Nubrevna—finds herself without a crown or home.

As villains from legend reawaken across the Witchlands, only the mythical Cahr Awen can stop the gathering war. Iseult could embrace this power and heal the land, but first she must choose on which side of the shadows her destiny will lie.

Another installment has finally arrived in the Witchlands series, and in normal Susan Dennard style, it delivered multiple POVs and a plot that ties more people together, but also many more questions about what’s to come.

I will first say that I am on Susan’s newsletter list and that was so helpful in understanding some of this story. For starters, thank goodness she put up a recap of the first 3 books in this series on her website. Like any high fantasy book, there are so many character names, locations and backstories to keep track of that’s super hard to do when it’s been a while since the last one. So I highly recommend you read that – but ONLY if you actually read the first three books instead of spoiling it for yourself.

This one is about Iseult. She’s the darkness to Safi’s light. She was introduced right in the beginning of the series and now we finally get to focus more about her powers, and maybe some secret things she can do that no one else thought she could.

Right off the bat she seems to be morally grey, like she’s making decisions that didn’t quite seem like her from last we left her. It’s an interesting spot to start with, and it’s only through flashbacks of the last month that we get to understand HOW she got to this point.

Romance lovers, if you loved Bloodwitch because you shipped her with bad boy Aeduan so much like I did, fear not about their relationship but I will say that there weren’t a lot of moments present between them in this one. There’s definitely some relationship angst going on in there and you know I love that slow-burn angst, but fair warning, most of the book doesn’t focus on them.

Now, I appreciate the writing style of high fantasies, but there are a couple of things that just prevented me from loving each of these books that was different with the one novella, Sightwitch, in this series so far. I think most of it is due to pacing which was absolutely excellent in Sightwitch. Why is that? Let’s dig into it.

1) The flashbacks

This is a long book. I was able to get through it faster only because I was having some slow days at work. But the reality is something even Susan mentioned in her newsletter. This was supposed to be 2 books but was rewritten into one. So the solution was to plop the characters in the “second” act of the story and make the “first” act a flashback instead of cutting out so many crucial elements.

I understand the predicament but there’s just a bit of confusion as to how things occurred, especially at the beginning. It’s not necessarily a liability the whole way through but it makes the book choppier.

2) The multiple POVs

I don’t know where I land on this one but having so many people to follow really makes the story pause a lot when it gets exciting for one of them. Although this is considered Iseult’s story, obviously many of the other major players are up to something. We still have Safi out there trying to find her way back to Iseult (like, how did they get separated AGAIN?), and some Empresses on the run.

With my focus diverted all over the place, it just made putting down the book easier at times since the suspense was killed quite easily.

So what DID I like?

I’m not going to spend the whole time complaining here. I still thought it was a solid next book in a long series. Things are starting to be answered and I am seeing the threads (see what I did there?) linking certain plot points together from the previous books.

Something big is coming to their realm. Something might already be there. People are waking up with new memories they didn’t have before, and these people are either foe or friend. The history records do not have all the answers, and it’s hard to trust if they were written accurately or not to help our modern day friends decide who to trust.

Guessing which character we know who may be a reincarnation of someone from a millennia ago was super fun. I will ALSO admit I used some wiki page to help me keep track of all of them and their Witchery but there’s no shame in using guides.

There’s hardly any romance in here but that’s not the point in high fantasies. There IS, on the other hand, plenty of action, potential betrayal and empires on the brink of destruction or salvation.

If THIS is what you like, then I’d say you’ll continue to enjoy the latest installment in the Witchlands with Witchshadow.

Overall Recommendation:

Witchshadow is as I have come to expect from Susan Dennard and the Witchlands series. Following more of Iseult’s journey as she dives into her actual powers and tackles how far she’d go to save the people she loves, it’s an interesting continuation from the characters we’ve come to know in the first 3 books. Where it falters a little is the length and the pacing with so many POVs to juggle and confusing flashbacks. It’s also not much of a romance story but the action mostly makes up for it as connections are finally being made and the plot is really picking up. Powerful beings from a millennia ago are finally awakening in this world and something big is happening. The suspense and the fun in guessing who may be friend or foe propelled me through the drier areas. I can’t wait to pick up the next installment regardless if this wasn’t quite a 5-star read.