Ascension of the Phoenix

Posted on June 7th 2021 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: Reviews

Today’s post is about Ascension of the Phoenix by Jessica Piro, and it’s going to be a little different than usual. I’m veering away from my established format to do something a little more… casual because technically… I DNFed the book. Now normally, when I DNF a book I don’t review it at all, but this book was specifically requested for me to do a review, so I am going to honor that and explain why I DNFed, and why don’t think that should stop you from reading and enjoying the book.

Let me start by saying that this book has a phenomenal premise, which is one of the reasons I agreed to review it despite it being outside of my literary comfort zone. I still think it is a really interesting premise; there were just too many things that broke immersion for me that may or may not break immersion for you.

From this point forward there are some minor spoilers, so please forge ahead at your own peril.

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The Unclaimed Wolf

Posted on May 31st 2021 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: Reviews

This week’s review is of The Unclaimed Wolf by E.P. Stavs. I have already reviewed the first two books in the Shendri Series. You can find that review here.

As always, this review is my honest opinion and I received no compensation for it.

Book Details

The Unclaimed Wolf is available in paperback and eBook from Amazon. It is currently enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, so you can read it for free if you’re subscribed. The paperback cost $12.99, which is what I paid for it. Without KU, the eBook will run you $2.99. Considering that this book is slightly longer than its predecessors at 262 pages of story, I would say that’s a pretty fair deal.

The book is available in English, and I’m not currently aware of any plans for an audio adaptation. I do try to update these sections if/when translations and audio editions become available.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Design

As with the first two books in the Shendri Series, The Unclaimed Wolf features a beautifully simplistic cover. A gorgeous “fantasy-esque” font is layered over background image with mystical vibes. All of the text is easily legible. The series name and number are clear.

Personally, I enjoy the visual simplicity of these covers. They are very much about the fantasy “vibes” and I dig it.

As with the first two books, the interior is nicely formatted. I didn’t notice any major formatting flaws. Nothing new to say about it really.

Total for design is 5 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Premise

The Unclaimed Wolf picks up pretty much where the epilogue of The Searching Songbird left off. Sir Edmund is sent to search out the final, unknown wolf Shendri in a foreign country based on a rumor. That Shendri is a though-as-nails mercenary who doesn’t think too much of pretty-boy knights. He has a long road ahead of him if he thinks he’s going to convince her to come with him back to Eldour.

I’m not sure how to categorize this book. It’s not exactly enemies-to-lovers (although Maya certainly doesn’t like Edmund very much at the beginning). While the characters certainly follow some trope/archetypes I have a harder time putting the premise itself into a box. It’s certainly interesting, and I was looking forward to Edmund’s story.

I give the premise 5 teaspoons.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Characters

I’m just going to be blunt. I did not like Maya for about the first 50% of the book. Or rather, I didn’t like her for Edmund. This is easily my least favorite pairing of the series so far. Her devotion to her family and her home is admirable, but… I generally found her outlook to be narrow and short-sighted.

Edmund was very much Edmund. His role in the first two books was quite small (he spent most of book one in a dungeon, after all), but we did get a bit of a feel for his character. At times he is the consumate flirt, but underneath it all he really does seem to have a heart of gold. I’m really glad that it felt like Edmund’s character from the previous two stories was deepened, and not contradicted.

But as a couple? I didn’t get the chemistry. At all. I’m still not sold on them as a couple, if I’m being honest.

We also got to learn a little more about Fia and Bade. That relationship is… interesting. I’m really curious to see where things go in the final installment. I’m wondering if we’re being set up for a redemption.

Anyhow, individually I give the characters 5 teaspoons. They’re well written and enjoyable. I have to knock off a teaspoon though for the pairing. It just didn’t click for me.

4 teaspoons for characters.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Worldbuilding

This section is going to be difficult to talk about without spoilers, but I’m going to try.

Maya’s abilities beyond her standing as a Shendri and where they came from added an interesting element to the world and the story.

I wasn’t enamored with the Dirt Mercs and their home in the ground. The whole situation with the village also just felt weird to me. It was definitely an element of the world I could do without.

I didn’t feel like we got as much of a taste of the culture of this new place as we did in The Searching Songbird. The village near the Dirt Mercs felt very generic medieval fantasy world to me. However, There was some great foreshadowing with a children’s game played in the village. It added a layer of richness and history to the world overall. This is a living, breathing place where truth is lost to myth, and myth is lost to children’s nursery rhymes.

I give worldbuilding 4 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Plot

There were some surprises in this plot, for sure. I didn’t see the ending coming. Although Stavs did poor Edmund dirty AGAIN. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

Plot gets 5 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Writing

Stavs’s style continues to be an easy, fluid read. It’s descriptive and dynamic. The action scenes were well done without being over-done.

Writing gets 5 teaspoons.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Final Thoughts

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It’s not my favorite in the series– that distinction still goes to The Searching Songbird— but it did a lot to develop the overall plot of the series and was fun to read. I’m really looking forward to seeing how Stavs wraps things up in The Moonlit Warrior this fall.

My final score for the book is 4 teaspoons.

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Of Snow and Scarlet (ARC Review)

Posted on May 24th 2021 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: Reviews

Today’s review is for Of Snow and Scarlet by Katherine Macdonald. It’s sort of abbreviated review because I don’t have the final published version of the book in front of me. Unlike the ARC I received of The Shield Road, this was not a ready-for-print PDF, so I don’t feel comfortable speaking to the formatting or anything like. I’ll give a follow-up once I have a physical paperback in my possession next month. (Although, I seriously doubt there will be quality issues. I already own two of Macdonald’s paperbacks, and they are excellent).

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Cover Art

Some of you may recall that I wasn’t as impressed with the cover for A Song of Sea & Shore as some of Macdonald’s other gorgeous books. I wasn’t a fan of the different fonts and textures in the lettering on that cover. Of Snow and Scarlet does the same thing, but I think the effect on this cover is much more pleasing.

There’s something very magical in the pop of the scarlet cloak against the wintery background. I do wish though that the author’s name might have been made to pop a little more against those tree limbs. Maybe it’ll look different in print.

Cover is a solid 4 teaspoons.

 

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Premise

As with many of Macdonald’s books, this one is a fairytale retelling. It reimagines the story of Little Red Riding Hood. As many of you probably know by now, I’m a little bit picky about fairytale retellings. On one hand, I love them in general, but it can also be difficult for the premise to really stand out. In this case, Macdonald builds on a common theme with Red Riding Hood retellings, which is the introduction of shapeshifters and/or werewolves to the tale. What makes it interesting, however, is in this case we’re dealing with a whole pack of wolves, not one Big Bad Wolf.

I will admit, I was a *little* disappointed to read “omega” in the blurb because we’ve seen those sorts of pack dynamics in every wolf shifter book in the last 40 years and they are… well… kinda wrong. That sort of behavior does emerge in packs in captivity where wolves from different packs were thrown together but… I digress. Here’s an link that explains briefly how leader dynamics really work in wild wolf packs with links to other resources if you’re interested.

I give premise 4 teaspoons.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Characters

To me, Andesine read as a typical misunderstood fantasy romance heroine who just wants to be more than what her little village will allow. If this was Disney there would be a big “I want” song early on in the movie. Actually, the one from Beautiy and the Beast would be pretty close without many alterations. Andy is a well written character, but I don’t feel like she really added anything unexpected to the story until just before the epilogue.

Poor Finn. He had a rough life before he really met Andy. If you like really sweet love interests, I think you’ll love Finn. Personally, I would have like to have seen a few more rough edges early on in the story.

Weirdly, I would have liked to have seen more of Vincent, who was the real Big Bad Wolf of this tale. I enjoyed the plot twist around him (although I kinda saw it coming). It would have been nice to see him try just a little harder at being a wolf in man’s clothing to get what he wanted.

Granny was probably my favorite character. That’s all I’ll say about that.

I give characters 4 teaspoons. They were all well written and had great chemistry, but I still found myself wanting just that extra little something.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Worldbuilding

I mentioned before that I was a little disappointed in the alpha/beta/omega pack dynamics. This is true. However, I do appreciate the way that Macdonald used them. The added magical element really added some interest into what I kind of feel is a tried trope.

I enjoyed the way that we were given hints of the wider world, even though the bulk of the story takes places in a tiny village and/or the woods. The interludes giving us a glimpse into Finn’s life also give us a glimpse into the wider world. That added a lot of depth to a story with a traditionally rather narrow setting.

I give worldbuilding 4 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Plot

There’s plenty of plot to enjoy. I was able to guess some of the twists, but not all of them. The author really got me at the end. If there were any plot holes, I didn’t notice them. The pacing was largely fine. I thought the romance was actually pretty quick compared to A Song of Sea & Shore.

5 teaspoons for plot.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Writing

If there is one thing Macdonald does well, it is suck you in with her gorgeous prose. It’s enough that I don’t even care that the book flops between first person for most of the story and third person for Finn’s history chapters. This is very similar to the interludes in A Song of Sea & Shore (yeah, I know, I keep comparing them, sorry). If you find POV swapping like that jarring (which I usually do) that might bug you. However, if you can get past it, it’s so worth it. I could almost feel the winter’s bite while reading this book.

Writing is a solid 5 teaspoons.

Final Thoughts

Macdonald once again invited me into a world of magic and romance. I was once swept away into a story I struggled to put down and devoured quickly. I (thankfully) didn’t need a whole box of tissues this time.

I’m going to do something I’ve never done on the blog before. I am going to give a half teaspoons rating. Of Snow and Scarlet is a 4.5 teaspoons for me, and I will be rounding it up for platforms that don’t allow half star ratings.

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Mark of Favor

Posted on May 17th 2021 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: Reviews

Today’s review is of Mark of Favor by Kaitlyn Keller. I found this book via a recommendations thread on Twitter.

Warning: this review is slightly more spoiler-y than usual, so proceed with caution.

About the Author

According to her biography in the book, Keller currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two kids. She enjoys watching anime and playing video games. In addition to Mark of Favor, she is the author of a YA fantasy trilogy and a horror novel.

Book Details

Mark of Favor is available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle. It is currently enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. If you prefer to purchase, the eBook is $3.99 and the paperback is $12.99, which is what I paid for it.

The paperback is roughly 355 pages of story, and includes a glossary at the front.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Design

The cover for Mark of Favor is cute. I really enjoy the art style and the colors. It definitely drew my attention and influenced me to purchase the book. The font on the back of the paperback feels a little weird in comparison with the rest of the outer cover. 4 teaspoons for exterior design.

The inside of the paperback is well formatted. I didn’t notice any formatting issues. Scenes are nicely delineated and the font is very readable. 4 teaspoons for interior design.

Total for design is 4 teaspoons.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Premise

I was really excited about the premise of the story. A young American transfer student (who definitely doesn’t believe in Japanese myths) finds herself chosen to be the bride of a powerful Yokai. I can think of works of fiction with a similar premise. The first thing I thought of was actually a webtoon called Ghost Wife, although the similarity is very surface. Nonetheless, I found the premise intriguing. 4 teaspoons.

2 teaspoons of tea leaves

Characters

I did not like the main character, Ember Lockley. Her personality rubbed me the wrong way pretty much from the start of the book. Her love for her sister is admirable, but I honestly found that to be her only redeeming quality. The negative way that she views herself and the people around her was grating from page one.

Sakuya had all the personality of a doormat. He just seemed like he existed purely as a means of wish fulfillment. After all, what young girl doesn’t want a guy who is perfectly handsome and willing and able to do just about anything to make her happy, right?

2 teaspoons for characters.

3 teaspoons of tea leaves

Worldbuilding

There were definitely some interesting aspects to the worldbuilding. Keller’s vision of the Spirit Realm was interesting, at the very least. I found parts of it a little off-putting for my personal taste, but it was well done. I do feel like some of it was presented in a slightly info-dumpy way. I give worldbuilding 3 teaspoons.

2 teaspoons of tea leaves

Plot

I was bored through most of the middle of the book. As far as I could tell, most of the conflict could have been cleared up if Ember had simply told Sakuya what her hang up was. If she had just explained her home life and her concern for her sister clearly, I’m sure they could have come to happy resolution in about a quarter of the time. The whole time I couldn’t figure out why she didn’t just explain it to him. Of all people, Sakuya ought to have a lot of sympathy for her sister’s plight.

The ending also felt super convenient and a bit “well, let’s wrap this up” rather than a logical, satisfying conclusion.

2 teaspoons for plot.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Writing

Keller has a lovely, descriptive writing style. Any time she describes what was going on around the character is when I really felt like her writing shines the most. On the other hand, I found some of the dialogue to be a bit stiff in places, but not to the point of being unenjoyable. I give the writing 4 teaspoons.

3 teaspoons of tea leaves

Final Thoughts

I went into Mark of Favor really excited, thinking it would be right up my alley. I loved the animes Kamisama Kiss and Kakuriyo: Bed and Breakfast for Spirits. I also adored Annette Marie’s Red Winter Trilogy. While Mark of Favor did hit some similar notes to these favorites, it also hit some sour ones.

There were a couple of things about Mark of Favor that really turned me off. The first was Ember’s general attitude towards those around her at the beginning of the book. I feel like several missteps were made in the portrayl of her character and her hurt. Perhaps showing rather than telling her terrible home life would have been more impactful than showing off her teenage disdain for everything else around her.

My second issue with the book was how we never actually meet the sister until the last quarter of the story. It’s hard to empathize with Ember’s emotional bonds when the reader hasn’t been given a chance to form those bonds themselves. The whole conversation between the sisters when Ember and Sakuya visit feels stiff and contrived. It had zero emotional impact for me. This combined with how much Ember lingered over that point instead of just discussing it with Sakuya just left me irritated and bored.

I really, really wanted to love this book. And there were moments where I found it entertaining. However, all in all, it just wasn’t the enjoyable, romantic read I was hoping for. I am unable to give it more than 3 teaspoons.

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Darling, there are wolves in the woods

Posted on May 7th 2021 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: Reviews

This week’s review is of Darling, there are wolves in the woods by L.V. Russell. Better grab a cup of tea and a comfy chair, this review is going to be a long one.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Design

The exterior design of the new edition is breathtaking. I love the colors, the sense of motion, and just the beautiful little details. The only is fun and themed, but easily legible with good contrast from the background. I don’t have a single thing I can nitpick about this cover. In fact, I already had two copies of the old edition (long story, short: I’m bad at Amazon) and I had to buy a copy of the new edition for the cover alone. 5 teaspoons, easy.

The interior design is lovely. The cute little design at the beginning of each chapter is whimsical and fits the theme of the book. I didn’t notice any formatting issues whatsoever. In additional to being functional, the interior is pleasant to look at. 5 teaspoons.

Design overall is 5 teaspoons.

I do want to give a note about the previous edition. The art from the old cover is enchanting in its own was, although it lacks the polish of the new cover. The font is the same, but the letters have a 3D effect applied that I really don’t think was necessary. The interior is serviceable, but lacks the charm and whimsy of the new edition. Different spacing results in a larger overall thicker paperback. I probably would have given the design a low 4.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Premise

The premise of this book draws on the old folktales of people kidnapped by the fey. Specifically, it seems to have been inspire by Scottish folklore and the Seelie and Unseelie courts. Teya is merely a child when her sister is taken, and haunted by guilt as her family falls apart. Eventually, this guilt forces Teya back into the terrifying woods to seek out her sister and attempt to repair some of the damage she believes herself responsible for. From there Teya has various dealings with a wide variety of terrifying fey creatures.

This is not a particularly original premise. I can immediately think of another book that operates along a similar theme. Of Goblins and Gold by Emma Hamm involves a sister going into the faerie realm to rescue her sister who was apparently abducted by goblins (there’s a clear inspiration of The Goblin Market).

I don’t generally do direct comparisons in my reviews. I really enjoyed Of Goblins and Gold immensely and plan to read the sequel. If it hadn’t been on pre-order I probably would have purchased it immediately after finishing the first book simply because Kindle makes that easy. I didn’t, however, feel the same drive to run out and buy the paperback the way I did for Hush, the woods are darker still.

Now, I’m not saying that these books are interchangeable in any way, shape or form. Simply that they build off of a very similar theme/trope. Each author builds out her world of faerie very differently (I would say Russell’s fey are more malicious overall, while many of Hamm’s are merely misunderstood).

Anyway, all this is to say that the premise is a strong one that has sparked many wonderful books and Russell takes it in a direction that is all her own while weaving in additional elements of survivor’s guilt, mental health, and fairytales. I give the premise a solid 4 teaspoons.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Characters

A thought that crossed my mind frequently when reading the book was “damn, these two are toxic.” But to be fair, when you’re dealing with a relationship that involves the fey that is often going to be the case. I thought that a lot while reading Wendy, Darling as well. So while I would not hold Teya and Laphaniel up as a glowing example of what true love should look like for 90% of the book, their tempestuous relationship did make for entertaining reading.

There were times Teya’s action didn’t make sense/felt slightly out of character. The reason for this was explained and made perfect sense. However, I could see this frustrating some readers.

All in all, I give characters 4 teaspoons.

Worldbuilding

I really enjoyed the worldbuilding of Darling, there are wolves in the woods. Russell’s version of faerie felt distinct. Most of the worldbuilding was shown off through the characters and creatures that Teya met along the way. The market and the witches, for example, were a gorgeous (and yet vile) bit of worldbuilding. The world felt full and rich, with a history. It also felt like Teya and the reader have only explored a very small corner of it. 5 teaspoons for worldbuilding.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Plot

It seemed like the hits just kept coming through most of the book. Teya had a long, stressful journey with plenty of twists and turns. If I had any complaints about the plot, it would be that some of the end seems just a little bit too convenient. I give plot 4 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Writing

Russell’s writing is enchanting. The descriptions of the fey creatures could be beautiful paintings in the mind, or invoke every nightmare you had as a small child. I found her style easy to read and engrossing. 5 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Final Thoughts

This was one of those books that sucked me in and didn’t let me go. Once Teya’s adventure really began I was hooked. My intent was only to read the prologue through chapter 7 for the May read-along on Instagram, but that went out the window pretty much immediately. I devoured the entire book in less than 48 hours and immediately went onto Amazon to order the sequel.

If you were to average out my ratings, the book would probably get a 4.5 or something like that. However, I have to give it a 5 teaspoons on the pure enjoyment factor. I really, truly enjoyed this book.

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