ARC Review: Esme’s Wish by Elizabeth Foster

Image of book cover from Goodreads
Image of book cover from Goodreads

Title: Esme’s Wish

Author: Elizabeth Foster

Category: YA Fantasy

Publisher/Date: Odyssey Books/30 October 2017

Edition: eARC

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33634667-esme-s-wish

Amazon: https://smile.amazon.com/Esmes-Wish-Elizabeth-Foster-ebook/dp/B07DBMD258/

Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/esmes-wish-elizabeth-foster/1127273417?ean=9781925652246

“A fresh new fantasy of an enchanting world.” – Wendy Orr,author of Nim’s Island and Dragonfly Song.

When fifteen-year-old Esme Silver objects at her father’s wedding, her protest is dismissed as the action of a stubborn, selfish teenager. Everyone else has accepted the loss of Esme’s mother, Ariane – so why can’t she?

But Esme is suspicious. She is sure that others are covering up the real reason for her mother’s disappearance – that ‘lost at sea’ is code for something more terrible, something she has a right to know.

After Esme is accidentally swept into the enchanted world of Aeolia, the truth begins to unfold. With her newfound friends, Daniel and Lillian, Esme retraces her mother’s steps in the glittering canal city of Esperance, untangling the threads of Ariane’s double life. But the more Esme discovers about her mother, the more she questions whether she really knew her at all. 

This fresh, inventive tale, the first in an MG-to-YA series, is an ideal read for 10-14 year olds.

Esme’s Wish recently won first place in the fantasy category of the 2018 Purple Dragonfly Book Awards, which recognises excellence in children’s literature.

I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Readers program. This book has content warnings for parental death/drowning/disappearance (lost at sea), grief, some violence, and some gender binarism.

This book was an okay read for me. The writing itself was really good — the book is on the cusp of being MG and YA, and it felt like it was well-written for its intended audience. I was also really enchanted by the worldbuilding; the alternate world that Esme ends up in where she learns her mother, who was lost at sea some years ago, had apparently spent a lot of time is a really well-developed setting. It’s immersive and leaves you feeling very curious about the people and beings and secrets that are hidden in this world, and the concept and execution of Gifts was something I also really liked. The world itself is really fascinating, and that kept me reading.

I was less entranced by the story itself. This book has a really slow pace and it doesn’t really map out where the story is headed as well as it should. It’s definitely character-driven instead of plot-driven, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing but for me it felt that it was a little bit too close to the former than the latter. Additionally, the ending itself felt like it came and went way too quickly, and while I get that this is the first book in a series I still felt like it wasn’t resolved enough and the rush of the ending of the book didn’t feel very satisfying.

The other thing that bothered me was how the gender of the sirens was discussed within the book. The sirens are apparently genderfluid, though the early part of the book claimed “Their sex is … indeterminate” (p. 55). There are at least two places in the book where the genders of the sirens are determined by their pronouns (“she’s not really a he” or “she became a he” or something of that sort), and that really bothered me as a nonbinary trans person because it ignores that pronouns aren’t gender and that there are more than two genders. If you’re sensitive about nonbinary erasure and genders being referred to by pronouns, this is something to consider before reading.

I didn’t mind this book, but it wasn’t the best read for me. If you’re looking for a light fantasy upper MG/lower YA with no romance and solid worldbuilding, this might be the book for you.

Final rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

ARC Review: Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope

Image of book cover from Goodreads
Image of book cover from Goodreads

Title: Song of Blood and Stone

Author: L. Penelope

Category: NA Fantasy

Publisher/Date: St. Martin’s Press/1 May 2018

Edition: eARC

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36347830-song-of-blood-stone

Amazon: https://smile.amazon.com/Song-Blood-Stone-Earthsinger-Chronicles/dp/1250148073/

Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/song-of-blood-stone-l-penelope/1127397977?ean=9781250148070

Orphaned and alone, Jasminda lives in a land where cold whispers of invasion and war linger on the wind. Jasminda herself is an outcast in her homeland of Elsira, where her gift of Earthsong is feared. When ruthless soldiers seek refuge in her isolated cabin, they bring with them a captive–an injured spy who threatens to steal her heart. 

Jack’s mission behind enemy lines to prove that the Mantle between Elsira and Lagamiri is about to fall nearly cost him his life, but he is saved by the healing Song of a mysterious young woman. Now he must do whatever it takes to save Elsira and it’s people from the True Father and he needs Jasminda’s Earthsong to do it. They escape their ruthless captors and together they embark on a perilous journey to save Elsira and to uncover the secrets of The Queen Who Sleeps. 

Thrust into a hostile society, Jasminda and Jack must rely on one another even as secrets jeopardize their bond. As an ancient evil gains power, Jasminda races to unlock a mystery that promises salvation. 

The fates of two nations hang in the balance as Jasminda and Jack must choose between love and duty to fulfill their destinies and end the war.

I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This book has content warnings for attempted rape, violence, death, war themes, sex, self harm (one short sentence), and racism (societal issue that is addressed).

This was a solid book! It read a lot like a fairy tale, and was a wonderful blend of love, family drama, and larger societal issues. Jasminda, the main character, is biracial (Elsira are light-skinned people who do not have magic, and Lagamiri are dark-skinned people who do have magic, and her parents came from both sides), and she has a complicated status within the society that’s well-explored throughout the book. The romance is very sweet and it was nice to see a healthy relationship with communication and apologizing for mistakes (although there are some lines in the sex scenes that sound more painful than pleasurable to me? Overall they were good, but they weren’t excellent), and I really enjoyed Jasminda and Jack’s interactions.

Although it’s set in the past, I also really loved how the book brought up contemporary issues such as racism on a societal level as well as refugees, and I think that it has a lot of potential for starting discussions around these topics. I thought these topics were handled really well within the text; there were no watered-down descriptions of how these things affect the people in the book, and I really want to see more of this because it’s all too easy to get stuck looking at the world from just one perspective.

My main issue with the book is pacing; I thought the pacing was excellent through the second half of the book, but felt that the first half was a little too uneven and slow. It held my attention and kept me reading, but I thought that if it were a little tighter my reading experience would have been better.  Additionally, there’s a part very early on in the text where Jasminda thinks about how she had worried about herself getting raped by some dangerous man but she became suddenly preoccupied with preventing them from raping Jack, and it sort of read like she felt it would be worse if Jack were raped than if she were, and that was a little uncomfortable. It’s not a persistent thing throughout the book; just one little moment.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and I would definitely recommend it.

Final rating: 4 of 5 stars

ARC Review: The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green

Image of book cover from Goodreads
Image of book cover from Goodreads

Title: The Smoke Thieves

Author: Sally Green

Category: YA Fantasy

Publisher/Date: Viking/1 May 2018

Edition: eARC

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34508382-the-smoke-thieves

Amazon: https://smile.amazon.com/Smoke-Thieves-Sally-Green/dp/0425290212/

Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-smoke-thieves-sally-green/1126941667?ean=9780425290217

A princess, a traitor, a hunter and a thief. Four teenagers with the fate of the world in their hands. Four nations destined for conflict. 

In Brigant, Princess Catherine prepares for a loveless political marriage arranged by her brutal and ambitious father. In Calidor, downtrodden servant March seeks revenge on the prince who betrayed his people. In Pitoria, feckless Edyon steals cheap baubles for cheaper thrills as he drifts from town to town. And in the barren northern territories, thirteen-year-old Tash is running for her life as she plays bait for the gruff demon hunter Gravell.

As alliances shift and shatter, and old certainties are overturned, our four heroes find their past lives transformed and their futures inextricably linked by the unpredictable tides of magic and war. Who will rise and who will fall? And who will claim the ultimate prize?

I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley during LibraryCon LIVE! This book has content warnings for some domestic abuse, violence, and death.

This book was just okay for me — it wasn’t awful, but it really struggled to grab my attention and I felt like I was dragging myself through it without much to hold onto. I didn’t care for most of the characters; the only character I connected with well was Catherine, and her POV chapters were the ones that most easily kept my attention. The other characters bored me to some degree; they were not very interesting and often made decisions that caused me to roll my eyes, and I really don’t like reading characters like that because then I tend to focus on the decisions that they probably should have made and it detracts from the story for me. A bad decision once in a while is one thing; when they’re repetitive I can’t really stand it — and most of these characters were constantly making oddball decisions.

I also struggled with the changing points-of-view in this book. The Game of Thrones comparison is pretty accurate in terms of the book’s structure, but the story hopped between settings with characters that I just didn’t like very much (and not the hate-to-like kind of characters from GoT — just ones that didn’t mesh with me), and that made getting through those chapters to get to the more interesting ones (Catherine’s chapters, primarily) a bit of a drag. The execution could have been better; I felt like I was being jerked around a lot in this book.

The premise of the book was cool and the plot was rather interesting; the characters in the book kind of detracted from that for me, though. It wasn’t a terrible book and I didn’t hate it, but it just wasn’t one that did anything for me. I think this book would work well with some readers, but it wasn’t the right book for me.

Final rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review: The Girl With The Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

Image of book cover from Goodreads
Image of book cover from Goodreads

Title: The Girl With The Red Balloon (The Balloonmakers #1)

Author: Katherine Locke

Category: YA Historical Fantasy

Publisher/Date: Albert Whitman Company/1 September 2017

Edition: ebook

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34448522-the-girl-with-the-red-balloon

Amazon: https://smile.amazon.com/Girl-Red-Balloon-Balloonmakers/dp/0807529370/

Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/girl-with-the-red-balloon-katherine-locke/1125796622?ean=9780807529379#/

When sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally time-travels via red balloon to 1988 East Berlin, she’s caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. She meets members of an underground guild in East Berlin who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall—but even to the balloon makers, Ellie’s time travel is a mystery. When it becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to change history, Ellie must risk everything—including her only way home—to stop the process.

This book has content warnings for war themes, concentration camps/death camps, martial law, suicidal ideation, racism, use of g*psy slur (not condoned; done for historical reasons in certain chapters), homomisia, building fire/arson, and murder.

I absolutely loved The Girl With The Red Balloon. At first I had a little trouble understanding the time/POV jumps between chapters, but that’s something I have trouble with frequently. I really loved seeing the different points of view; Ellie and Ellie’s younger grandfather were particularly fascinating to me. The book was solidly rooted in the history of the two time periods, and I felt that worked really well when paired with the fantastical elements of the story.

I loved Ellie as a character, and I really felt her struggle and terror at different parts of the book because she knew that she was in a very real danger that could leave her dead in a time period that wasn’t her own. She does consider suicide a couple of times in the book, which may be important for some readers to know — it was largely portrayed as something that could prevent her from being tortured by those who wanted to harm her, and while it popped up a few times it wasn’t a pervasive theme throughout the entire novel. I also really loved the connection to her grandfather and her Jewish heritage; I felt like I got a really good sense of her as a person.

I also really loved having a lesbian character (Mitzi) and a Romani character (Kai) who were central to the story; both faced oppression regularly (It was 1988 East Berlin), and yet they were both comfortable with themselves. It’s worth noting that Ellie’s grandfather uses the g*psy slur during his chapters; Locke explains in the afterward that this was because that was the word that was used in the 1940s and that there wasn’t a historically accurate alternative. The only other time it has been used in the story was when it was used in a derogatory manner against Kai in 1988, and it is explained in-text that the word is a slur.

I also really liked the romance between Ellie and Kai. It was quick, but it wasn’t forced and it felt like a natural progression. I really liked how they interacted and how they complemented each other as people.

Overall, I thought this was a wonderful book. If you’re looking for a really good historical fantasy, you should give this one a try.

Final rating: 5 of 5 stars

ARC Review: Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn Marsh

Image of book cover from Goodreads
Image of book cover from Goodreads

Title: Reign of the Fallen

Author: Sarah Glenn Marsh

Category: YA Fantasy (LGBTQIAP+)

Publisher/Date: Razorbill/23 January 2018

Edition: ARC/eBook

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/29906017-reign-of-the-fallen

Amazon: https://smile.amazon.com/Reign-Fallen-Sarah-Glenn-Marsh/dp/0448494396/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1514794056&sr=8-1&keywords=reign+of+the+fallen

Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/reign-of-the-fallen-sarah-glenn-marsh/1126317675?ean=9780448494395#/

Odessa is one of Karthia’s master necromancers, catering to the kingdom’s ruling Dead. Whenever a noble dies, it’s Odessa’s job to raise them by retrieving their souls from a dreamy and dangerous shadow world called the Deadlands. But there is a cost to being raised–the Dead must remain shrouded, or risk transforming into zombie-like monsters known as Shades. If even a hint of flesh is exposed, the grotesque transformation will begin.

A dramatic uptick in Shade attacks raises suspicions and fears among Odessa’s necromancer community. Soon a crushing loss of one of their own reveals a disturbing conspiracy: someone is intentionally creating Shades by tearing shrouds from the Dead–and training them to attack. Odessa is faced with a terrifying question: What if her necromancer’s magic is the weapon that brings Karthia to its knees?

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley while attending LibraryCon Live! This book has content warnings for death and addiction.

I absolutely adored this book. It started off a little slow, but I think that was more of a “me” problem than a book problem — I have a hard time while reading high fantasy because I am the literal worst at remembering names of places and people and things, and fantasy often throws a bunch of those things at me at once and I get lost really easily. Once I’d gotten a handful of pages read, though, everything started to pick up the pace, and I devoured it.

I was initially drawn to this book because of the queer characters, and I think Marsh did an excellent job of balancing the relationships between the characters with the rest of the conflict in the novel. Odessa, our MC, is bisexual, and multiple other characters are gay or lesbian as well. The relationships were prominent and important and had space to grow or have conflict, but they didn’t do it at the expense of the rest of the story. This felt incredibly well-balanced, and I really enjoyed it.

I loved the characters in this book. It felt like each character was given a lot of care and depth, and each had their own flaws and personalities. Even the villains in the story had their moments, showing that they were doing what they were doing because they believed it was best for the people. Even while we saw everything from Odessa’s point of view, we still got to really get to know the other characters.

I also really loved Odessa’s addiction arc. I thought it did an excellent job illustrating how addiction can start, why it continues, and how challenging it can be to quit and go through withdrawals and still crave. It was a little painful to read at times because I really empathized with her, and I think it was a nice touch.

While this is a story about necromancy and conspiracy, it’s also ultimately a story about grief and loss. This book is filled with heartbreak on multiple levels, and it tugs at your heartstrings as you see the characters work through their grief while trying to kill Shades and figure out why so many of them are showing up. It’s action-filled and magical and emotional, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

Final rating: 5 of 5 stars

State of the King Address: My Stephen King Reading Quest

Though I haven’t talked about it a ton, I am on a quest to read every Stephen King novel. While I’m not at all sure about how likely it is, I’d like to be able to finish this quest by the end of 2018. I’m a good chunk of the way through it already, which is good, but there are still a LOT more for me to read. Additionally, some King books are more dense for me than others (I swear it feels like it took me ages longer to get through Dreamcatcher than it did for me to get through Under the Dome…), so it’s hard to estimate how long one of these books will take me to read until I’ve actually started it.

Here are all of Stephen King’s published novels in alphabetical order (with The Dark Tower listed in chronological order) — the bolded titles are the ones I have read so far and the italicized titles are ones I still need to get to.

11/22/63
Salem’s Lot
Bag of Bones
Black House
Carrie
Cell
Christine
The Colorado Kid
Cujo
Cycle of the Werewolf
The Dark Half
The Gunslinger
The Drawing of the Three
The Wastelands
Wizard and Glass
The Wind Through the Keyhole
Wolves of the Calla
Song of Susannah
The Dark Tower
The Dead Zone
Desperation
Doctor Sleep
Dolores Claiborne
Dreamcatcher
Duma Key
End of Watch
The Eyes of the Dragon
Finders Keepers
Firestarter
From a Buick 8
Gerald’s Game
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
The Green Mile
Insomnia
IT
Joyland
Lisey’s Story
Misery
Mr. Mercedes
Needful Things
Pet Sematary
Revival
Rose Madder
The Shining
Sleeping Beauties
The Stand
The Talisman
The Tommyknockers
Under the Dome

According to this list, I have read 27 of King’s 49 novels, and I still have 22 left to read. This is a lot, but on the other hand at least I am more than halfway through the list. I am hoping to prioritize those 22 books in 2018 — I’d really like to get through the rest of these!

My partner is currently finishing up the Dark Tower series and wants me to start it too, so The Gunslinger is going to be one of my next few reads. I’m excited to start finishing up this quest I started so long ago!

Have you read all of King’s novels? Which ones are your favorites? Have you gone on your own quest to complete all of a different author’s works? Tell me about it in the comments!

ARC Review: Nevertheless, She Persisted edited by Mindy Klasky

Image of book cover from Goodreads
Image of book cover from Goodreads

Title: Nevertheless, She Persisted: A Book Café Anthology

Editor: Mindy Klasky

Category: Adult Science Fiction (Anthology)

Publisher/Date: Book View Café Publishing Cooperative/8 August 2017

Edition: ARC/eBook

Nineteen stories of triumph in the past, present, future, and other worlds.

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Those were the words of Mitch McConnell after he banned Senator Elizabeth Warren from speaking on the floor of the United States Senate. In reaction to the bitter partisanship in Trump’s United States of America, nineteen Book View Café authors celebrate women who persist through tales of triumph—in the past, present, future, and other worlds.

From the halls of Ancient Greece to the vast space between stars, each story illustrates tenacity as women overcome challenges—from society, from beloved family and friends, and even from their own fears. These strong heroines explore the humor and tragedy of persistence in stories that range from romance to historical fiction, from fantasy to science fiction.

From tale to tale, every woman stands firm: a light against the darkness.

I received an ARC via LibraryThing. Content warnings for Mindy Klasky’s short story “Tumbling Blocks” for graphic depiction of rape of a teenager, and for Sara Stamey’s short story “Reset” for graphic depictions of domestic violence.

This anthology was just okay to me. It’s partially that the stories just weren’t to my taste, but none of them really stood out to me in particular as my favorites. I enjoyed many of them while I was reading, but out of nineteen stories I can really only tell you about a couple of them because the rest were kind of forgettable.

I felt largely disappointed for the lack of intersectional perspectives in this collection — while there are a couple of Jewish authors and one of the story featured polyamorous f/f characters (in a story that was just… weird…), as far as my search skills could tell me, all of the authors were white. In fact, there were more stories written by white men in this collection than by women of color (there was ONE story by a white man, but one story by a man is still more than zero by WOC). As an anthology that is marketed as an anthology of stories about women overcoming challenges, there is a huge lack of stories by the women who face the most discrimination in our current society.

I also really want to bring up the racism present in Irene Radford’s story “Den of Inequity.” This is a quote from the story (content warning for child rape mention):

“And these?” Angela spread three more photos in front of us, all men, different ages, different races, different economic groups determined by expense of haircut and clothing.

“Sorry. We get a lot of people through here, regulars as well as strangers. I don’t remember any of these men.” But the ancient Asian man wearing elaborate silk robes brocaded in gold resembled someone who had stumbled through the door and straight into the fire without bothering with a drink. He’d been convicted of raping eighteen children; five of them died. He couldn’t live with his crimes (addiction) any longer and sent himself straight to Hell. Almost a redeeming act, except he’d taken control of his death and not left it to the big man upstairs.

The middle-aged black man in a well-made off-the-rack suit had drunk his fair share of special beer, sobbing about the people he’d made homeless by embezzling their mortgage payments to the bank he worked for. Gabe had set him straight and told him how to set up a trust fund to repay those he’d duped.

Ariel had taken care of the blond man with slightly up-tilted eyes suggesting Slavic origins, who’d fallen into the trap of selling drugs to young teens. She’d found the right rehab and job training for him and ordered him into volunteer work helping the people he’d lured into the downward spiral of drug addiction and escalating crimes to pay for them. (44%)

First of all, it’s PRETTY obvious how the white man is treated here compared to the “Asian” man (whose actual race is never specified) and the Black man. The white man here had “fallen into [a] trap” while the men of color are responsible for their crimes. The white man is obviously not at fault here, according to the story, while the men of color are clearly fully responsible. The contrast here is stark and it pulled me out of the text.

Here’s a fun fact: this “Asian” man and Black man are the only “Asian” and Black characters in the entire anthology that are specified as such. Not just men. All characters.

The men aren’t the only ones who are treated like this in this story; a Mediterranean woman is described as having “olive skin and dark, exotic beauty” (45%). Considering women of color to be “exotic” is a common Western maneuver to “other” them, as they are essentially being told that they are strange compared to “non-exotic” (read: white) women. This minor character, as far as I can tell, is the only non-white woman present in the anthology outside of the “Past” section, which are all stories set centuries in the past.

When you’ve got nineteen stories in an anthology about empowering women, your only depictions of people of color should not rely on negative depictions and stereotypes. As individual stories, many of these stories are quite good; “Unmasking the Ancient Light” by Deborah J. Ross and “After Eden” by Gillian Polack (both of whom I believe are Jewish — kind of shows how much I felt intersectionality was needed in this collection) were clear standouts to me.

The individual stories in this anthology themselves, for the most part, were not the problem for me. The problem I had was how the collection was presented together. It’s not a bad thing for a feminist anthology to have stories about white characters; it is a bad thing when almost all of the characters are white. This anthology rang a little too “white feminist” for me, and it could have been done better.

Final rating: 3 of 5 stars

ARC Review: Ripped Pages by M. Hollis

Image of book cover from GoodReads
Image of book cover from GoodReads

Title: Ripped Pages

Author: M. Hollis

Category: YA Fantasy (LGBTQIAP+)

Date: 22 September 2017

Edition: eBook (ARC from author)

Pages: 60

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35423342-ripped-pages?

Amazon: https://smile.amazon.com/Ripped-Pages-M-Hollis-ebook/dp/B075FH6RFN/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1509609162&sr=1-1&keywords=ripped+pages+m+hollis

Princess Valentina lives a reasonably comfortable life, but after her mother’s death, her father gets tired of taking care of her and locks her in a tower. She spends years on her own, talking to the birds on her windowsill, and reading books with adventures she will never experience. Her plans of running away are usually left for another day because she knows the vast forest surrounding her tower is too dangerous to cross alone.
Until one day, another girl passes by on her horse and Valentina wonders if she’s finally brave enough to seize her chance of freedom.

Ripped Pages is a Rapunzel F/F retelling in the format of a novelette.

 

I received an ARC from the author in exchange for a review.

There are so, so many things that I just adored about this novelette. The author’s included trigger warnings (which were appreciated) were helpful as it did delve pretty deep into those themes, but it worked in a way that was still heartwarming and sweet while still visiting those dark places. This felt like something I wish I could have read when I was fifteen, as I was a lot like Val myself and really would have appreciated the validation of different genders and sexualities that this story contained.

First off, I really appreciated that despite Val’s dad being a terrible person, the relationship he had with his daughter wasn’t described as “bad,” but “complicated.” Despite his behavior, Val as a child was still hoping that he would give her a chance. He wasn’t bad for the sake of being bad, but at the same time Val acknowledged that why he behaved as he did was a complete mystery to her. The complexity of this relationship felt so real to me, and it made an otherwise flat villain feel like a more rounded person.

I also appreciated that despite that this is primarily a book for gay/lesbian/bi/pan girls, it took the time to acknowledge nonbinary, asexual, and aromantic identities as valid as well. This was a very small part of the book, but in a book about validating the sexuality of a teenage girl it was very effective at acknowledging and validating the sexualities of other teenagers who read this whose sexualities and genders may not line up exactly with Val’s.

The depiction of families in this book was also very refreshing. I just loved how the “evil stepmother” trope, so commonly depicted in fairy tales, was turned on its head here to where the stepmother was one of the best parents in the book. The rest of Agnes’ family is large and supportive of each other, and the combined family automatically integrating Val into their lives was just so sweet.

I also really loved that the book acknowledged that the effects of child abuse don’t end when the child escapes from the abusive parent. After escaping from the tower, Val is still afraid because she knows that getting caught and put back in the tower (or worse) is still a very real possibility, and she shows some signs of PTSD after relocating to Agnes’ home. This added a significant amount of depth to Val’s character that I really empathized with, and I think that this kind of representation is really important to acknowledge.

And, of course, there’s the relationship between Val and Agnes. I loved how this relationship progressed. Val’s initial crush on Agnes was acknowledged almost immediately, but there was nothing forced about the relationship between them. They weren’t interested in each other’s company solely because of romantic interest – they wanted to get to know each other as people. I loved how slow-building the relationship was and how the two of them supported each other regardless of whether romantic interest was involved. This was a very sweet relationship, and the pacing and chemistry both worked very well.

I think what makes this novelette so great to me is that so much about what makes it feel real to me came from a lot of subtlety and carefully-crafted writing. This is an absolute delight to read, and I think it’s a story that queer teens (and others!) should definitely read.

Final rating: 5 out of 5 stars