Queen of the Wild

Posted on March 29th 2021 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: Reviews

Today’s review is of Queen of the Wild by E.M. Howell. It is the first book in the Wildflowers and Evertrees series. I don’t remember exactly how I found this book. It may have been a Facebook ad (I fall prey to those a lot) or a Twitter promo thread.

Disclaimer: If you do not enjoy a moderate amount steam in your stories, this one is not for you. Additionally, this book does have some themes surrounding rape and sexual abuse. If you feel that may be triggering for you, I suggest you skip this one.

About the Author

E.M. Howell is a Canadian author hailing from Calgary, Alberta. She lives with her husband, their son, and two escape-artist felines.

She does some great Facebook livestreams (which is how I know the cats are escape artists). Like her page here.

About the Book

Queen of the Wild is available in for Kindle and in print from Amazon. At the time of this writing it is priced at $16.32 for print and $2.99 for Kindle. It is enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, which is how I accessed the Kindle edition.

My print copy is around 460 pages, and Kindle lists the typical time to read at 7 hours at the time of this writing.

I am not aware of any plans for translation or audio at this time.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Design

I like the exterior design. I vaguely recall that the cover was one of the things that caught my attention when I decided to download the book. Fun fact, the cover was created by the author’s husband. They seem to be quite the talented duo.

I will say that the style of the cover art feels more like a contemporary fantasy to me than the high fantasy romance the book actually delivers. And if I had to nitpick, the back cover is quite crowded. It’s a bit of a wall of text.

Still, I would give the exterior design 4 teaspoons.

The interior design is quite nice. The little flower art at the chapter headers and scene dividers is cute in both the print and the eBook versions. The decorative drop caps at the beginning of each chapter in the print edition are a nice touch of whimsy. There is a lovely map that very much suits the style of the book.

The interior design is a perfect 5 teaspoons.

Now. That being said, there is something to consider if you’re buying the print edition. Currently, a whole paragraph is missing at the end of Chapter Twenty-Eight. The chapter cuts off mid-sentence and Chapter Twenty-Nine starts on the same page, breaking the formatting pattern in the rest of the book. I was able to read the missing paragraph in the Kindle edition, and I will say it’s not exactly vital, but it was definitely something that took me out of my flow as a reader.

I of course reached out to the author. She let me know that they are aware and in the process of updating the print edition. For this reason, I am opting not to deduct from my score for the interior design. Likely by the time you are reading this any print copies going out will already be fixed.

Overall for design is 4 teaspoons.

3 teaspoons of tea leaves

Premise

Queen of the Wild plays on some classic romance tropes. We have the marriage alliance trope, the childhood friends trope, and the forbidden love trope. There’s nothing unique here that blows me away or intrigues me. As far the premise goes for a fantasy romance, it does the job.

3 teaspoons.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Characters

Let’s get the negative out of the way first. The names of the majority of the characters in this book drove me crazy almost to the point of distracting. I found many of the nicknames to be like nails on a chalkboard.

There is a generous side cast, including the king and all of his siblings. I found the different friendships and sibling relationships to be well written, but if I go into each in detail we’ll be here all day. Since this is a romance, I am going to focus specifically on the romantic leads.

I went back and forth with being annoyed and smitten with Andrew Oakes. Given the type of book I was reading, I suspect that was the author’s intent. In a lot of ways he really is the typical romantic hero. Obnoxiously tall, well muscled, etc, etc. A bit thick headed where women are concerned. Still, other than the first chapter, I found him to be well written, and his emotional unraveling was great to read.

Zenobia is another story. She definitely does not fall into the same annoying thought patterns I’ve seen in a lot of other romance. She doesn’t prolong the conflict by being obtuse and whiny to get a few more pages into the book. She very much sees Andrew’s BS and calls him on it. Which I appreciated.

4 teaspoons.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Plot

This one had a slow start for me. I had a little bit of trouble getting into it, for some reason. I’m not sure that the choice to open with Andrew pondering his distaste for Peoples’ Court was the best. If like me you have a hard time getting into this scene, please, keep going and give it a chance.

Once you get past the initial set-up, things really start to pick up quickly. Once I got into the meat of the story, I was enthralled and finished the book in a day.

I didn’t have a lot of trouble guessing the plot twist. However, I still think it was well done and the author did a good job sowing some doubts in me before the big reveal.

4 teaspoons.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Worldbuilding

I really enjoyed the depth of the world in Queen of the Wild. There were aspects I could have done without; the Evertrees nearly broke my suspension of disbelief, for example. On the other hand, the intricacies of Vayreland’s society and religion were fascinating. The way the church tied in with the political and socio-economic conflicts of the book was great.

I also enjoyed that Howell had some consequences for Zenobia’s mixed heritage. I haven’t seen that a lot in fantasy with half elves. Usually the consequences of mixed heritage are some sort of ostracization and social commentary. Howell, on the other hand, gives us real genetic consequences besides the usual perks. It was a very nice touch.

4 teaspoons.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Writing

One critique I have is that the use nicknames outside of dialogue was sometimes not consistent with the intimacy of the POV character. Cassopia being called “Opi” outside of dialogue in a scene from Zenobia’s POV didn’t feel right.

On the positive side, there are three things that I think Howell does very well in this book. The first is writing steamy love scenes that sizzle without going too far into cringe territory. No awful flowery euphemisms here.

Second, she really gives the reader some great laugh-out-loud moments. My husband had to come upstairs to see what all the noise was about.

And finally, I felt that once the story really got into the swing of things Howell built tension and suspense beautifully.

4 teaspoons.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Final Thoughts

I ended up enjoying this book immensely once it really got into the story. I laughed a lot, and even cried a little. There was plenty of plot and deep worldbuilding to enjoy, and just the right amount of heat. I’m really looking forward to picking up sequel, Queen of the Sea in the near future.

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March 2021 Update

Posted on March 26th 2021 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: News

This month was a busy, busy month. A lot got done.

Courting the Dragon is officially with the copy editor, and temporarily out of my hands. It will be back soon for the final polish and formatting for eBook and print. I will be putting out the official call for ARC reviewers soon. If you’re interested, please reach out through contact form on my website, or DM me via Facebook or Twitter.

Against my better judgement, I have started drafting Finding the Dragon. It will be my project for Camp NaNoWriMo next month. I’ve joined a fun group of campers from my Twitter social circle, so I’m looking forward to some digital writing camp shenanigans. Writing is always more fun with friends.

I also have a very full line-up for the blog in terms of reviews for April and May. There’s some really great books I can’t wait to share with you all. Here’s a picture of my TBR (to-be-read) pile, just to give you a sneak peek.

In non-writing news, Matt and I have made great progress on my office. It’s still very much a work in progress, but hopefully I’ll be able to do a full sort of “office tour” type post sometime in April. Assuming IKEA ever gets the bookshelves I so desperately want back in stock.

And last but not least, I also have an update on when Courting the Dragon will be available for those who prefer an audio format. I do not have a release date yet, but I have decided to do the narration for this one myself. The plan is to begin recording chapters as they come back from the copy editor. I’m a total noob at this stuff, so recording and editing will likely take me a lot longer than someone who knows what they’re doing. I’m sure I will have some interesting adventures in audio land to share with you all, along with links to some great resources for those who may be interested in audiobook narration.

And that’s it for March. I’d love to hear what y’all have been up to in the comments!

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The Shield Road

Posted on March 22nd 2021 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: Reviews

Today I am reviewing The Shield Road by Dewi Hargreaves. This one is a bit different from my usual reviews for a few reasons. The first is because I am working from a digital ARC. The second is because The Shield Road is not a traditional novel. Rather, it is a collection of interwoven short stories. This caused me some mental gymnastics with my categories, but we’ll get on to that in a minute.

Full disclosure, I did receive this ARC for free with the expectation that I would review it. This however does not impact my opinions in any way, shape, or form. My thoughts, as always, are my own.

About the Author

Dewi Hargreaves is a UK-based fantasy author and illustrator of absolutely stunning maps (yes, I’m editorializing and fan-girl-ing just a little bit. I love maps, leave me alone). Check out the amazing map he made of the world in The Shield Road.

As with most books I’ve reviewed lately, I wound up reading The Shield Road through my interactions with the author on Twitter. You can find him here.

About the Book

I don’t have the absolute final print version in front of me, but the PDF was about 154 pages to give you an idea.

It will be available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon and ebook from Kobo at the end of March.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Design

I can only speak to the digital version at this time, but I really like the cover on this one. It’s simple, clean and fitting to the genre. I love the blue-on-blue monochrome. The lettering is well contrasted and very legible. Five teaspoons.

This review is a little unusual in the sense that I don’t have a physical book, nor a final ebook. I’m reviewing from a PDF ARC. Now, the formatting of that ARC is beautifully done, but since it’s not the final book I am not going to count my rating for the interior towards the final rating. Still, it’s great.

So for design I give the book 5 teaspoons based on the exterior.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Premise

The Shield Road begins as a collection of interwoven short stories. Each character begins with their own goals and their own mission, introduced independently. At first, it’s really difficult to see how they will all come together, but still very intriguing. Although this is not stated outright, I took the Shield Road to not be the literal road the characters are following so much as a metaphor for the life they are leading and the adventure awaiting them.

Of the few short story collections I’ve read, none have really had this idea of forming a larger plot. Usually, you see something more like a collection of short fairytale retellings or even unrelated stories. I quite like the idea of weaving together a larger tale from independent stories. In a way, reading The Shield Road is not really all that different from reading a normal novel, but I could totally see reading any one of these in a fantasy lit magazine and enjoying it by itself.

Premise is 5 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Characters

The one downside to the format of this book is perhaps that there’s just so many named characters, and we don’t get to hang out with any one of them for very long at first. Still, Hargeaves manages to pack great pieces of characterization into each and every story. Each individual feels real and fleshed out in their moment. Then, as the stories come together, we start to focus in more on specific characters, such as the Bladekin and the Princess.

The single character with the most depth in my opinion is Talfrin, the Bladekin. Most of the later stories focus on him and the characters who join him in the main conflict of the series. The inner turmoil that Talfrin feels is palpable, and the changes in his character as he’s impacted by certain forces are slow and devious.

Characters gets 5 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Plot

What’s interesting about this book is because it is a grouping of short stories there’s really a plethora of plots I could discuss. There’s also a common thread weaving through them that is fascinating. As I read each story, I found myself wondering how its individual puzzle piece would fit into the overall picture. I was not disappointed.

I give plot on both the individual story level and overall 5 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Worldbuilding

I don’t know how Hargreaves crams so much worldbuilding into each individual story. The art of showing “just enough” is difficult when writing a novel, but in my opinion it is even more difficult in a short story. Each of Hargreave’s stories has enough worldbuilding to be enjoyable and understood as its own unit. And yet, together they create a sprawling landscape. Masterfully done. 5 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Writing

I am absolutely in love with Hargreaves’s prose. It’s just… chef’s kiss. Despite the tight format of the short stories, there’s so much evocative detail. I think the best way to describe it would be to say that there is a very “literary” quality to it. Once again, 5 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Final Thoughts

I very rarely give out 5 star reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. Part of the reason for this is because to me “meets expectations” is 3 stars. That means I found the story entertaining and the author hit the bare minimum for character and plot. A 4 is a book I genuinely enjoyed. A 5 is “blew my socks off.” To date, I have given only one 5 teaspoon review on the blog, although I also came very close with M.A. Vice’s Birthright.

So, a 5 teaspoon review is a very high bar to clear. Hargeaves cleared it with room to spare with The Shield Road. He pulled off what can be a very tricky format with grace and aplomb. I was fascinated right up until the very end of the book. And although the conclusion was satisfying, I was still left craving more. I really hope we get to see more of the rich world he has created in future works.

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Salerian Short: The First

Posted on March 19th 2021 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: Short Story

This is the first in a series of short stories I will be sharing to the blog collectively known as “Salerian Shorts.” These stories take place in the world of the Penelope’s Dragon series. Some will focus on the the characters from the series. Others, such as this one, will expand on the myths and legends that shape the world. This story is the first I am going to share, but it is also titled “The First.” I hope you enjoy!


The First

© Sara Cleveland 2021

Water dripped from the hem of Marta’s cloak. She’d done it this time. She’d let her anger goad her into foolishly getting herself caught in a summer storm. Now she had no choice but to huddle in this cave and wait for the season’s temper tantrum to run its course. She threw back the hood, and more water splattered the damp stone and dirt at her feet. She ran her fingers through hair that was already as soaked through. Marta hated wet hair, especially when she couldn’t comb it by the fire and dry it into neat waves. Now it would be a frizzy snarl. 

Damn her temper. And damn Gerald for stoking it.

Heaving a sigh, Marta removed the cloak entirely before the rest of her clothing went from damp to sopping. She tossed it back into the cave, away from the deluge of water coming down just inches from where she stood. Then she sat, back to the wall, staring through the sheeting rain towards the lake, which had become all but invisible.

It was incredibly dull, waiting out a summer storm by herself, and Marta soon found herself nodding off, lulled by the gentle whoosh, whoosh. She was almost asleep when she felt more than heard the sickening crunch of something striking the ground outside. 

Marta leapt to her feet, her hand going to the knife at her belt. It was just a small blade for eating, hardly even worth mentioning in a fight. Yet it was the only weapon her stupid ass had brought with her when she’d marched out of the cottage in a huff.

She squinted, trying to see what was out there that could have made that noise. Had that boulder been there before? She didn’t think it had.

“Don’t be stupid, Marta,” she muttered. “Don’t go out there and draw attention to yourself.”

But what if whatever was out there didn’t like the rain any more than she did? What if it was searching for a place to get dry? A place like this cave? She’d be trapped, with the monster between her and the only exit. And Marta knew this was the only exit. She and Gerald had explored every inch of their father’s holdings as children, and she knew the cave systems in these cliffs as well as the rooms of her own cottage.

“Damn it.”

Shaking the water and now mud from her cloak, Marta threw it about her shoulders and pulled the hood up. With her sad little knife in a death grip, she eased her way out of the cave and into the downpour.

The dark shape lay motionless not two yards from the mouth of the cave. Curiosity began to overtake Marta’s fear and common sense. She crept closer to it.

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The Marked Princess & The Searching Songbird

Posted on March 15th 2021 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: Reviews

This review is going to be a bit different from my usual posts because today I am actually reviewing two for one. Today’s review is for The Marked Princess and The Searching Songbird, books 1 and 2 of The Shendri Series by E.P. Stavs. And the reason I decided to do this is because book 3 of the series The Unclaimed Wolf comes out tomorrow, March 16th. So I want to encourage everyone to pick up all three on launch day!

I’m going to do my best to keep this review spoiler free (which is really hard when you’re reviewing the sequel at the same time).

Originally, I was going to post my review of The Shield Road by Dewi Hargreaves today, but since that’s coming out at the end of the month, I decided to do The Shendri Series first. So stay tuned for that next week!

As usual, I am not being compensated in anyway for this review. I purchased both books on my own. My opinions are, as always, my own.

About the Author

So, these books are another Twitter find for me. They came highly recommended by one of the other author’s whose book I featured recently. You can find that review here. I have not interacted with E.P. as much, but what interactions I have had were lovely, and I can recommend her as a great follow on Twitter.

From her author bio, I can tell you that E.P. currently lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters. She is originally from New York. And apparently she is also a coffee fiend like yours truly.

Check out more of her bio here.

About the Book(s)

The Marked Princess weighs in at 200 pages in print, while The Searching Songbird comes in at 217. Both books are available in print and Kindle eBook. If you have Kindle Unlimited you can read them both for free, or you can pick them up for $2.99 a piece. The paperbacks are $12.99.

I was rushing to get this review out, so I did not get a chance to ask the author about whether or not there are plans for audio editions. I will provide an update on that when I can.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Design

Exterior first. I love the covers on these. I love the beautiful simplicity. They also really feel like they belong together in the same series. My only complaint would perhaps be that I don’t know that they really convey the genre well. Since this was a (highly recommended) Twitter find I can’t say for sure if I would have scrolled past them or not. So I’m going to give cover design for both books four teaspoons.

Interior Design. Both books are formatted consistently, which I appreciate in a series. In the print editions the chapter headings are nice, and fit the vibe. The font choice is nice and legible. The use of italics for inner thoughts is consistent. The only real formatting issue I noticed was the occasional widows and orphans in the print editions, particularly in The Searching Songbird.

One minor thing that drives me a little crazy personally (and this is going to sound so nitpicky) is that book 1 is printed on cream paper and book 2 is printed on white.

Now. There is a map included in both books— and you all know how I feel about a good map. This one is alright. I don’t know if the style of it quite fits. I would have really liked to see something more hand-drawn in appearance.

All in all, I give the interior for both books 4 teaspoons.

That brings us to 4 teaspoons overall for design.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Premise

The overall premise of the series is that the female protagonists are descended from ancient warrior women who fought a demi-god and prevented him from taking over the world. Each girl has inherited the warrior spirit and powers of her ancestor.

All in all, the building blocks that Stavs uses are pretty standard YA Fantasy tropes. In addition to a “chosen few” we also have tropes such as “the rebellious princess,” “enemies to lovers” and “childhood friends to lovers” just to name a few.

That being said, the execution of these tropes is very well done, as we will discuss further when we get to worldbuilding and plot.

Premise gets 4 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Characters

Since these are YA Fantasy Romance, I’m going to focus specifically on the couples in this section. This may be minorly spoilery for The Marked Princess since early on there is an indication of a triangle. I don’t think it’s enough of a spoiler to really hurt the enjoyment of the book, but proceed with this section at your own caution.

Josselyn is the “Marked Princess” of Eldour. In some ways I think she had the shallowest arc of any of the main characters. Most of her character growth is centered on figuring out her feelings for Alex and Edmund. Her dialogue was great, though.

Alex is like Josselyn in the sense that much of his character arc is concerned with learning to fight for the things that he wants. In this case, what he wants is Josselyn. The change in him is honestly, somewhat abrupt, but believable given the circumstances. Still, I did not find him as interesting as some of the other characters. To be honest, I was borderline Team Edmund at one point.

Lily had a great character arc, probably the best in the series so far. Much of The Singing Songbird was about Lily coming into her own as a woman and discovering her own inner strength. I found her to be believable and well written. If had one complaint at all about Lily, I would say she forgives perhaps a touch too easily.

Draven is of course Lily’s love interest and would-be kidnapper. I found him to be a delightful counterpart to Lily. The dialogue between the two of them was quite snappy and fun. His change of heart as he gets to know her is well-written and does not feel abrupt or out-of-the-blue.

And as a bonus, there’s Edmund. Poor Edmund just keeps getting the short end of the stick. Although Joss’s childhood friend got relatively little screen time in either book, he was a charming character and I’m looking forward to seeing more of him. I suspect there’s much hidden beneath his playful exterior.

Overall, each character definitely had their own distinct voice. Reading about the leading ladies especially really felt like reading about two distinct personalities. I didn’t feel like Lily and Draven rehashed anything we already experienced with Joss and Alex (always a danger with serial romances).

At the end of the day, I found the main characters in The Searching Songbird to be much more interesting and well-developed than The Marked Princess. For this category, The Singing Songbird takes a full 5 teaspoons, leaving its predecessor in the dust with 4.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Worldbuilding

The worldbuilding starts off strong in The Marked Princess and only gets stronger in The Searching Songbird. The cities they visit– particularly in the second installment– feel like real places. When the characters talk about other countries and cities, it really feels like they’re talking about real places they have seen or read about.

I’m also pleased with how the author treated the subject of discrimination and the “Kalo” who seem to be somewhat analogous with the Romani peoples in our world. She has characters correcting other characters when they use a pejorative (at least, in the second book), and distinctly shows the Kalo people in a generally positive light. That said, if you find the word gypsy to be offensive, this may not be the book for you.

I give worldbuilding a solid 4 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Plot

This is a category where my ratings are once again going to diverge. I’ll start with The Marked Princess (ya know, since it’s first).

Overall, I found the plot of The Marked Princess to be predictable. There really weren’t a lot of surprises. Even so, it was a fun, well-paced romp that hit all the right notes and came to a satisfying conclusion. Plot for book 1 gets 3 teaspoons.

Now, The Searching Songbird on the other hand… you got me, E.P. I’m normally pretty good at predicting the direction things are going to go (although not as good as my mother, never watch a movie with her you haven’t seen) but I was a bit surprised in the end. I was delighted by resolution of the book’s main storyline, as it sets up plenty of new conflict for the upcoming books. Plot for book 2 gets 5 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Writing

I really adore E.P.’s writing style. Both her prose and her dialogue are snappy and fun. Her characters are generally well-written and delightful. Both books are well paced. If I had any complaints, it would be that I could occasionally do with just a bit more description. Still, I have to give E.P. Stavs 5 teaspoons for pure enjoyability in both installments.

Final Thoughts

The Marked Princess comes out to a final score of 4 teaspoons. Although immensely enjoyable, it is — in my opinion — a far weaker installment than its successor. There was much that I found predictable or standard for the genre. I would have liked to be surprised a little more often.

I have a whole discussion about why I don’t give out 5 teaspoons very often in next week’s review (that I actually wrote before this one) so I won’t get into that here. Nonetheless, The Searching Songbird is a rare, solid 5 teaspoons for me. Not only did it continue with the fun, snappy style of its predecessor, but it brought new depth and maturity to the table. Stronger, more interesting characters and a plot that manages to surprise lift it up to the next level.

Bring on book 3.

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