Shadow City (The City of Diamond and Steel #2) by Francesca Flores #bookreview #YA #fantasy #TuesdayBookBlog

The stunning action-packed conclusion to The City of Diamond and Steel duology.

Aina Solís has fought her way to the top of criminal ranks in the city of Kosín by wresting control of an assassin empire owned by her old boss, Kohl. She never has to fear losing her home and returning to life on the streets again—except Kohl, the man who tried to ruin her life, will do anything to get his empire back. Aina sets out to kill him before he can kill her.

But Alsane Bautix, the old army general who was banned from his seat in the government after Aina revealed his corruption, is working to take back power by destroying anyone who stands in his way. With a new civil war on the horizon and all their lives at risk, the only way for Aina to protect her home is to join up with the only other criminal more notorious than her: Kohl himself.

As Bautix’s attacks increase, Aina and Kohl work together to stop his incoming weapons shipments and his plans to take back the Tower of Steel. To defeat them both, Aina will resort to betrayal, poison, and a deadly type of magic that hasn’t been used in years.

Through narrow alleys, across train rooftops, and deep in the city’s tunnels, Aina and Kohl will test each other’s strengths and limits, each of them knowing that once Bautix is dead, they’ll still have to face each other. If she manages to kill him, she’ll finally have the freedom she wants—but it might forever mark her as his shadow in a city where only the strongest survive.

I read the first book in this series nearly a year ago – an outstanding, action-packed debut novel – and couldn’t wait to see where the author took the story next, so when I was invited to read and review the conclusion to this duology, I jumped at the chance.

It’s always difficult to review a sequel without spoilers, so this may be brief. The end of the first book was filled with upheaval – political, religious, socioeconomic – and the struggles continue in Shadow City.

The complex relationship between Aina and Kohl was an endless source of fascination for me throughout this series. It’s a bizarre combination of mentor/mentee, love/hate, savior/worshipper, strength/weakness, and allies/enemies. They can’t seem to live with or without each other, yet there’s not an ounce of trust between them. Talk about your unhealthy relationships. Whatever their battles against each other are, they now face a common enemy who’s started a war to take over their city. As with the first book, this is a bloody tale – saying the body count is high is an understatement. Lots of action, lots of killing.

Aina is a gutsy, clever, and determined MC who trusts very few people, but she finds her crew in this story. They’re lovable, supportive, and ferocious when they need to be and add a lot to the story. The found family vibe is strong, and it’s easy to see how she’s grown and developed from the first book.

With power struggles, a touch of magic, fierce conflicts, and sky-high stakes, this is an action-packed, addictive fantasy series. I felt the ending was satisfying and perfect for these characters and had a hint of coming full circle. Whatever this author writes next, I’ll be reading it.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

The Project by Courtney Summers #bookreview #YA #suspense #thriller

Lo Denham is used to being on her own. After her parents died, Lo’s sister, Bea, joined The Unity Project, leaving Lo in the care of their great aunt. Thanks to its extensive charitable work and community outreach, The Unity Project has won the hearts and minds of most in the Upstate New York region, but Lo knows there’s more to the group than meets the eye. She’s spent the last six years of her life trying—and failing—to prove it.

When a man shows up at the magazine Lo works for claiming The Unity Project killed his son, Lo sees the perfect opportunity to expose the group and reunite with Bea once and for all. When her investigation puts her in the direct path of its leader, Lev Warren and as Lo delves deeper into The Project, the lives of its members it upends everything she thought she knew about her sister, herself, cults, and the world around her—to the point she can no longer tell what’s real or true. Lo never thought she could afford to believe in Lev Warren . . . but now she doesn’t know if she can afford not to.

The last book I read about cults featured the Manson Family, so it’s been a while. The way Charles Manson convinced people to follow him was disturbing and horrific, but also eerily intriguing. The cult in this book isn’t that extreme (thankfully), but there are still some similarities.

I like the way this story is contructed. Alternating between Bea’s and Lo’s perspective along with chapters from the past and present, the pieces of the puzzle gradually form a complete picture by the end – and it may not be what you expect. The Project has a different effect on both sisters, and their bond is demonstrated early and plays an important part of the plot.

The Unity Project initially sounds like a legitimate organization that does charitable work and community outreach. No one has been able to prove otherwise so far, and most of their members are unaware of the truth. It’s easy to see how they’ve won over so many folks. Lev Warren, their leader, is charismatic, empathetic, and knows exactly what to say to get into a person’s head. He preys upon those who are lost, vulnerable, and searching for something to cling to, a purpose. It’s hard to disagree with a lot of what he says – and that’s kind of unnerving. It’s nearly terrifying how quickly he is able to influence others.

As Lo investigates The Project and pushes for a reunion with her sister, she finds herself unsure of what or who to believe. Although determined to discover the truth behind the organization, she wasn’t exactly on sure footing before meeting Lev Warren, and he seems to understand her like no one else she’s ever met. And he takes advantage of this.

After a bit of a slow start, this book grabbed me, and putting it down wasn’t an option. I had to see what happened next. Parts of it are very emotional and ripped my heart out, so be prepared. It’s a compelling, addictive read you’ll still be thinking about days after finishing.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Curse of the Divine (Ink in the Blood #2) by Kim Smejkal #bookreview #fantasy #YA #TuesdayBookBlog

Return to the world of inklings, tattoo magic, and evil deities as Celia uncovers the secrets of the ink in order to stop Diavala once and for all. This eagerly anticipated sequel to Ink in the Blood is perfect for fans of Leigh Bardugo and Wicked Saints.

Celia Sand faced Diavala and won, using ink magic to destroy the corrupt religion of Profeta that tormented her for a decade. But winning came with a cost. Now Celia is plagued with guilt over her role in the death of her best friend. When she discovers that Diavala is still very much alive and threatening Griffin, the now-infamous plague doctor, Celia is desperate not to lose another person she loves to the deity’s wrath.

The key to destroying Diavala may lie with Halycon Ronnea, the only other person to have faced Diavala and survived. But Halcyon is dangerous and has secrets of his own, ones that involve the ink that Celia has come to hate. Forced to choose between the ink and Diavala, Celia will do whatever it takes to save Griffin—even if it means making a deal with the devil himself. 

I nearly DNFed the first book in this series, but hung in there, and it quickly became one of my favorite reads of the year. The followup in this duology is everything I’d hoped.

This sequel begins a few weeks after Ink in the Blood ends. Celia is determined to save Griffin (the plague doctor) from Divala’s wrath, but of course that’s much easier said than done. She’s still reeling with massive guilt and grief over the death of her best friend and begins to wonder if saving Griffin is even a possibility. Their bond has grown stronger and both are willing to sacrifice their life for the other – but neither expects to survive what’s coming.

Lies and coverups run rampant in this story, and it’s difficult to know who to trust and what their underlying motivations are. After Celia learns some shocking facts about the ink’s capabilities beyond tattoos, it’s hard for her to even know what’s real. The intricate world-building from the first book is expanded upon and delivers some surprises – things may not be what they seem.

My favorite character continues to be the completely charming plague doctor (Griffin). His Riddlish (meaning hidden in vague nonsense statements) may still leave you scratching your head, but there’s always an underlying message.

Startling twists, clever plans, and devious characters – all are present in this sequel I’m still thinking about days after finishing. The themes of religion and magic create a compelling, atmospheric story in this dark fantasy, and it’s one I’d highly recommend to fans of the genre.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Crown of Bones (Amassia #1) by A.K. Wilder #bookreview #YA #fantasy #TuesdayBookBlog

Raise. Your. Phantom.

For fans of epic fantasies and sweeping adventures, this ensemble cast will immerse you in a world of unique magic, breathtaking action and unforgettable characters.

In a world on the brink of the next Great Dying, no amount of training can prepare us for what is to come …

A young heir will raise the most powerful phantom in all of Baiseen.

A dangerous High Savant will do anything to control the realms.

A mysterious and deadly Mar race will steal children into the sea.

And a handsome guide with far too many secrets will make me fall in love.

My name is Ash. A lowly scribe meant to observe and record. And yet I think I’m destined to change us all.

I’ve read plenty of YA fantasies where worlds are in danger or on the brink of war. But raising phantoms? This was something I haven’t seen and I needed to know more. The lavish cover was a bonus.

I’m not sure what my favorite part of this novel was – the wildly creative world-building, the well-drawn characters, or the whirlwind pacing – but I was completely submerged in this story from the first page.

Marcus is the heir to the kingdom of Baiseen and has difficulties controlling his phantom (which are unique to the individual), something that could prevent him from ever taking the throne. He’s sent to Aku for intense training and accompanying him are savant (people who raise phantoms) friends and his best friend and nonsavant (can’t raise phantoms), Ash. They’re on a tight timeline – if they don’t make it there before the gates close, Marcus will never take the throne. During their harrowing journey, they’re met with one life-threatening obstacle after another. I was breathless and couldn’t read the pages fast enough to find out what would happen.

The world-building is intricately developed and unique – the author did an outstanding job. Without being info-dumpy, it’s masterfully woven into the story – and there’s much to take in – but a glossary is included at the end of the book if your memory needs refreshing while reading.

This cast of characters will steal your heart with how they’re so protective of and devoted to each other. The strong friendship between Ash and Marcus is done so well, and they offer each other unconditional support. An intriguing mystery surrounds one character the group picks up along the way, and I’m anxious to learn more about him in the next book and his connection to Ash. Ash experiences some stunning revelations, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for her.

Battles, magical creatures, ancient scrolls, secrets, compelling characters – I’d highly recommend Crown of Bones to fans of epic fantasy. It’s a series I’ll absolutely continue.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Bright Shining World by Josh Swiller #bookreview #YA #darkhumor #thriller

A darkly funny thriller about one boy’s attempt to unravel the mysterious phenomenon affecting students in his new town, as he finds a way to resist sinister forces and pursue hope for them all.

Wallace Cole is perpetually moving against his will. His father has some deeply important job with an energy company that he refuses to explain to Wallace who is, shall we say, suspicious. Not that his father ever listens to him. Just as Wallace is getting settled into a comfortable life in Kentucky, his father lets him know they need to immediately depart for a new job in a small town in Upstate New York which has recently been struck by an outbreak of inexplicable hysterics–an outbreak which is centered at the high school Wallace will attend.

In the new town, go from disturbing to worse: trees appear to be talking to people; a school bully, the principal, and the town police force take an instant dislike to Wallace; and the student body president is either falling for him or slipping into the enveloping darkness. Bright Shining World is a novel of resistance, of young people finding hope and courage and community in a collapsing world.

I got a strong Stanger Things vibe after reading this description, and dark humor gets me every time.

I cannot emphasize how much I adored Wallace’s voice. I couldn’t contain my laughter at his internal monologue and snarkiness, but it was also easy to sense his vulnerability behind the humor. His past is heartbreaking, and his present isn’t much better with his father moving him around the country every few months. His awkwardness at his new school is endearing, and the supporting characters are just as likable.

The strange occurrences in the town – trees talking, weird visions, the outbreak of hysterics – and how it all relates to his father’s mysterious job had me forming theories (all incorrect) for several chapters, and the way the teens come together to fight for a common cause is admirable and heroic. Then the story spirals in a direction that was difficult to understand. I have no problem suspending disbelief in books – most of the time it increases my interest – but it still has to make sense to me within the confines of the story. Throughout the last half or more of the book, I was confused about what was going on, but kept reading because I assumed a logical explanation waited at the end – which is so abrupt I felt sure pages were missing. Maybe there’s a sequel?

The first part of this book is fabulous with a comedic, endearing MC, enjoyable supporting characters, and a curious mystery, but for me, the last half was difficult to follow and the abrupt ending left me baffled. Overall, it was an entertaining novel, and maybe other readers will have a better understanding that I did.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

The Initial Insult (The Initial Insult #1) by Mindy McGinnis #bookreview #YA #thriller #TuesdayBookBlog

Welcome to Amontillado, Ohio, where your last name is worth more than money, and secrets can be kept… for a price.

Tress Montor knows that her family used to mean something—until she didn’t have a family anymore. When her parents disappeared seven years ago while driving her best friend home, Tress lost everything. She might still be a Montor, but the entire town shuns her now that she lives with her drunken, one-eyed grandfather at what locals refer to as the “White Trash Zoo,” – a wild animal attraction featuring a zebra, a chimpanzee, and a panther, among other things.

Felicity Turnado has it all – looks, money, and a secret that she’s kept hidden. She knows that one misstep could send her tumbling from the top of the social ladder, and she’s worked hard to make everyone forget that she was with the Montors the night they disappeared. Felicity has buried what she knows so deeply that she can’t even remember what it is… only that she can’t look at Tress without having a panic attack.

But she’ll have to.

Tress has a plan. A Halloween costume party at an abandoned house provides the ideal situation for Tress to pry the truth from Felicity – brick by brick – as she slowly seals her former best friend into a coal chute. With a drunken party above them, and a loose panther on the prowl, Tress will have her answers – or settle for revenge.

In the first book of this duology, award-winning author Mindy McGinnis draws inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe and masterfully delivers a dark, propulsive mystery in alternating points of view that unravels a friendship . . . forevermore. 

I’m such a fan of this author.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to pull my chin off the floor after finishing one of her books.  She’s a master at shocking surprises.

At the heart of it, this story is about friendship – the sparkly highs, ugly lows, misunderstandings, backstabbing moments and all.  Your initial beliefs about what transpired between Tress and Felicity to get them to this point will be destroyed and reformed by the end.  Their alternating POVs and the varying timelines are perfect and crucial to the story.  It’s mentioned the author drew inspiration for this novel from Poe and it’s creatively interwoven with a certain darkness.

McGinnis does an incredible job at portraying realistic teens.  The topics of drugs, sex, drinking, and the downsides of social media are prevalent throughout the story and dealt with authentically.  Characterization is exceptional.

The girls’ fading friendship is gradually revealed layer by layer, but there’s also the big question – what happened to Tress’s parents?  I listened to NetGalley’s audiobook version of the novel, but feel like I might have missed some clues.  If I’d had a book ARC, I definitely would have been going back and double-checking some details.  While in a state of shock over the ending, I forgot this was a duology, then was so relieved I’d be able to see what becomes of these characters.

This book is tragic, dark, compelling, and such a well done thriller.  Some chapters are very short and may have just a sentence – but that one sentence is powerful and conveys so much.  Just another reason why McGinnis is an auto-buy author for me.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Escaping Eleven by Jerri Chisholm #bookreview #YA #dystopian

In Compound Eleven, the hierarchy of the floors is everything.

My name is Eve Hamilton, and on my floor, we fight.

Which at least is better than the bottom floor, where they toil away in misery. Only the top floor has any ease in this harsh world; they rule from their gilded offices.

Because four generations ago, Earth was rendered uninhabitable—the sun too hot, the land too barren. Those who remained were forced underground. While not a perfect life down here, I’ve learned to survive as a fighter.

Except my latest match is different. Instead of someone from the circuit, my opponent is a mysterious boy from the top floor. And the look in his eyes tells me he’s different…maybe even kind.

Right before he kicks my ass.

Still, there’s something about him—something that says he could be my salvation…or my undoing. Because I’m no longer content to just survive in Eleven. Today, I’m ready to fight for more than my next meal: I’m fighting for my freedom. And this boy may just be the edge I’ve been waiting on. 

I’ve been a fan of dystopian novels for years, and I’m glad they’re making a comeback. With the MC being a fighter, I felt shades of Katniss from the description.

Saying Eve is a strong female protagonist is an understatement. She’s fierce, physically strong, confident, and occasionally independent to a fault. In her world it’s easier to keep your head down, accept your station in life, and not hope for anything more. But Eve isn’t much of a follower and doesn’t necessarily believe everything she’s been told about the world above. She’s also more curious than most cats I’ve met.

There are a number of tropes in this book, but some of them are necessary components for what happens later in the plot. When Wren steps in as the possessive-I’ll-fight-your-battles-for-you boyfriend, Eve lets him know in no uncertain terms she doesn’t need his help. The problem is that sometimes we all need help, but her flaw is not realizing it and refusing to ask for it in certain situations. A beautiful ex-girlfriend who hasn’t quite accepted the breakup is also in the mix, but serves a purpose. I’d hoped for more information about Wren. Hints are dropped about his backstory and a statement is made that I’d have serious questions about if I were Eve, but they weren’t addressed. I have to assume more details will be revealed in the next book.

With an immersive, fast-paced beginning, I was immediately caught up in the story, but there’s a long lack of action in the middle. In the last 20%, the plot moves at a break-neck pace, and those developments bumped up my overall rating.

Escaping Eleven is gritty, violent, and dark, but those aspects fit Eve’s and Wren’s world. It’s an enticing debut, and the next book will absolutely be on my TBR.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

I’ll probably be delayed getting to comments. I’m out of town and dealing with iceberg speed Wi-Fi.

The Gilded Ones (Deathless #1) by Namina Forna #bookreview #YA #fantasy #TuesdayBookBlog

Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs.

But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death.

Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki–near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire’s greatest threat.

Knowing the dangers that lie ahead yet yearning for acceptance, Deka decides to leave the only life she’s ever known. But as she journeys to the capital to train for the biggest battle of her life, she will discover that the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be–not even Deka herself. 

This stunning cover immediately caught my attention on NetGalley, but the description really sealed the deal of me requesting it.

Deka comes from a world where a woman’s worth depends on her purity and how well she serves the men in her life.  The most she can hope for is to be a dutiful wife and mother, but never have a voice for herself.  Compare that to the Deka at the end of the book – strong, empowered, and spirited – and you have yourself one magnificent character arc.  How thrilling to watch her realize her worth and know that she mattered.

Deka’s relationships with her blood sisters, her found family, is one of the biggest strengths of this novel.  I especially enjoyed the incredibly strong bond of friendship and loyalty between her and Britta.  Many of their training and fighting scenes reminded me of the female warriors in Wonder Woman.

World-building is complex and detailed, but interwoven into the story – no info dumps here.  Just enough was held back to keep me turning the pages to figure out what was going on with the plot twists.  Pacing was a tad slow for me in the beginning, but the ending comes rather quickly – enough to make me sure there would be a sequel since I had so few pages left, but then think it was a standalone because story lines were neat and tidy when all was said and done.

With unique world-building, a female-heavy cast of characters, and compelling plot, I’ll be continuing with this series.  A remarkable debut novel.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

These Violent Delights (These Violent Delights #1) by Chloe Gong #bookreview #fantasy #YA

Perfect for fans of The Last Magician and Descendant of the Crane, this heart-stopping debut is an imaginative Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, with rival gangs and a monster in the depths of the Huangpu River.

The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.

A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.

But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.

I was never much of a Shakespeare fan, but a retelling of Romeo and Juliet with rival gangs? How can you pass that up?

Roma and Juliette are heirs to rival gangs (White Flowers and Scarlets respectively) caught up in a blood feud in Shanghai. Although on opposite sides, both gangs have common enemies: a monster killing their people and foreign groups (British, Americans, French, and Russians) attempting to take over their land and cities. There’s too much bad blood between the current heads of the families to work together, but Roma and Juliette are intelligent enough to understand cooperation is required to eliminate these common threats. Each (especially Roma) is also trying to prove to their fathers and gang members they’re worthy heirs.

Although they had a brief relationship four years prior, I honestly wasn’t feeling the connection between these two. I liked Roma and admired the fact he wanted to take the White Flowers in a different direction in the future, and his relationship with his sister is adorable. Juliette is a different case entirely for me. Most of the time she comes across as a petulant child too hot-headed to ever be in a position of authority, and her cousins sense it. She tends to shoot first and think later. My favorite characters are easily Roma’s cousin Benedikt and Marshall (he has some killer lines). They support Roma no matter what and stand by him.

This is an action-packed, bloody, gory tale, which I didn’t mind, but other readers may appreciate trigger warnings. Although I enjoyed many aspects of the plot, some didn’t work as well for me, but that’s just personal preference. On the other hand, the diverse cast thrilled me, and I was actually shipping two male characters over Roma and Juliette and hope to see more of them in the sequel.

At over 400 pages, These Violent Delights is a chunk of a read, but an impressive debut (the author is still in college!) with important and timely overall themes.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Magic Dark and Strange by Kelly Powell #bookreview #YA #fantasy

The Bone Witch meets Sherlock Holmes in this thrilling historical fantasy about a girl with the ability to raise the dead who must delve into her city’s dangerous magical underworld to stop a series of murders.

Catherine Daly has an unusual talent. By day she works for a printer. But by night, she awakens the dead for a few precious moments with loved ones seeking a final goodbye. But this magic comes with a price: for every hour that a ghost is brought back, Catherine loses an hour from her own life.

When Catherine is given the unusual task of collecting a timepiece from an old grave, she is sure that the mysterious item must contain some kind of enchantment. So she enlists Guy Nolan, the watchmaker’s son, to help her dig it up. But instead of a timepiece, they find a surprise: the body of a teenage boy. And as they watch, he comes back to life—not as the pale imitation that Catherine can conjure, but as a living, breathing boy. A boy with no memory of his past.

This magic is more powerful than any Catherine has ever encountered, and revealing it brings dangerous enemies. Catherine and Guy must race to unravel the connection between the missing timepiece and the undead boy. For this mysterious magic could mean the difference between life and death—for all of them.

This cover immediately caught my attention, but it was the comp titles and a main character with the ability to raise the dead that made me request this book from NetGalley.

I especially enjoyed the time period and setting of this novel – it has the feel of a Victorian mystery.  The opening scene in the cemetery when Catherine awakens a dead women is absolutely gripping and had me excited to dive into the story.  Then I was disappointed that she never uses her magic again throughout the book.  The magic system isn’t explained, which left me with a lot of questions.  Although it’s mentioned several times in the description, it actually plays a small part in the overall story.

The characters are very charming, and the hints of romance between Catherine and Guy are sweet and accurate for the time period.  I liked how they became friends, bonded over the mystery, and helped Owen find his way.

At slightly over 200 pages, Magic Dark and Strange is a quick read and while I enjoyed this quiet mystery, I feel like a longer book could have offered more twists, higher stakes, and a deeper exploration of the magical system.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.