The Everlasting Rose

Rating: ⭐
Author: Dhonielle Clayton
Genres: Fantasy
Pub date: Mar. 5, 2019 (read Mar. 2019)
Series: The Belles #2

Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

I liked the first book in this series, The Belles, so I was really excited to receive an advance copy of the sequel and had high hopes going into this book. Unfortunately, I did not find the sequel as compelling or captivating as the first book and it took me several weeks to trudge my way through The Everlasting Rose.

The Everlasting Rose starts off right where The Belles left off, with Camellia having fled the palace and Sophia being named as heir to the monarchy. Camellia is desperate to find Charlotte in order to prevent Sophia, with her twisted politics, from ascending the throne. Sophia is definitely an A+ villain, so this should have been super captivating, but I don’t think it was well plotted and I struggled to get through it.

Clayton definitely has a unique writing style. Her writing is quite flowery, which I think works really well in the beauty-obsessed fantasy world that she has created. The plot definitely seemed to move slowly in the first book as well, but there was a large mystery element in the first book that compelled me to keep reading and the last third of the book was super high stakes. The mystery was missing from this book, as was the twisted villain.

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I actually wanted more of Sophia in this book. She is incredibly twisted and evil, but she brought a lot of tension to the story. The Everlasting Rose is also a high stakes plot, but it relies on Sophia’s malice from the first book to carry the conflict through this story and I just wanted more. Sophia is a looming threat, but she doesn’t drive the conflict and plot in the same way as the first book and even though Camellia is forced to race against time to find Charlotte, I never really felt any fear for her character. Most of the book is spent travelling around Orleans, but never actually advances the plot of the story. Camellia accomplishes very little until she actually returns to Trianon towards the end of the book. The ending was pretty good, but it just took so long to get there that it actually felt rushed when we finally arrived back at the palace. The first three quarters of the story really just felt like filler to get us to the last quarter.

Some authors can really pull off “travel” stories (I’m thinking of Heather Fawcett’s Even the Darkest Stars series), but it lost me in this book. There are 6 Belles in the Camellia’s generation and we meet and interact with almost all of them, but never long enough to really care about them or get a sense of who they are. Coming into this book I only really cared about Camellia and Amber, and I was intrigued about Edel. But then the author seems to abandon the relationship conflict she was developing between Amber and Camellia, which I thought was a real shame because it was really interesting to examine the competitive relationship between them and how it manifested with their individual ethics.

The romance also threw me for a total loop in this book. It was unexpected and very ‘insta-love’ and I wasn’t into it. The first book ended with so many broken relationships and I just don’t think any of them were resolved well in this book. August was a bit of a mystery to me in the first book and I don’t understand what drove his character. It’s developed a bit further in the sequel, but was overall, unsatisfying.

Mostly I just wanted to see more interactions between Sophia and Camellia. I was really expecting for this to be a trilogy, but based on the ending of this book, it seems it’s a duology? But the whole time I was reading this I was like, “oh, this book is totally suffering from middle book syndrome, it’s just going to be a travel book and the third book is where we’ll get a really intense showdown between Sophia, Camellia, Charlotte, and the Iron Ladies.” But it seems like that is not to be and I didn’t think this worked as a final book.

One thing that bothered me was the assumption that Charlotte would make a good ruler. Everyone wanted her to be queen because she was the rightful heir and Sophia was so vile that literally anyone else would be better. But Charlotte was in a coma for years, so I thought she would probably be devastated when she awoke by all the lost time and would likely be stunted in development as she was essentially a child when she went into the coma. Something clearly went wrong with Sophia to make her the way she was, but why assume that Charlotte would naturally be better? She wouldn’t have even understood the drama and politics of what went on at court over the past years because she was effectively absent, and I feel like it would be hard for her to accept the narrative that she was told about her sister. Why would she trust the Iron Ladies, who essentially abducted her, over the word of her sister? It seemed really problematic to me.

So unfortunately, there wasn’t really much that I liked about this book. Clayton has a really interesting style of writing and I think this world had so much potential, but I was ultimately disappointed.

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The Crimson Crown

Rating:
Author: Cinda Williams Chima
Genres: Fantasy
Pub date: Oct. 2012 (read Mar. 2019)
Series: Seven Realms #4

I need to write my review for The Crimson Crown before I start forgetting things!

As I said in my review for The Gray Wolf Throne, I absolutely flew through the last 2 books! I got a little bit hung up on the first half of the series, but the second half totally blew my mind. And if I liked The Gray Wolf Throne, then I LOVED The Crimson Crown.

Cinda Williams Chima knows how to write a finale! The final book is non-stop drama, action, and romance. What I loved so much about this series is that is was the perfect blend of action, political scheming, world-building, and romance. Han and Raisa very much carry the story, but there is a vibrant cast of secondary characters supporting them.

Chima really ups the ante in this book and weaves so many different plot threads through the story. This book has really high stakes and I literally could not put it down! I felt like all of the other books could maybe have cut down the length a little bit, but even at 600 pages, I wouldn’t have cut anything from this book. I’ll try and keep this review spoiler free for the last book, but my review will contain spoilers from the first 3 books.

After Raisa’s coronation at the end of the previous book, she is suddenly tasked with trying to unite the peoples of the Fells, while simultaneously continuing to avoid her many would-be assassins and hope that the war in the south remains in the south. She immediately takes steps to clean up the river and integrate homegrown soldiers into their army, which until this point has been comprised mostly of southerners. Because of her Briar Rose ministry, she is beloved by the townsfolk, but struggles to fight against the wealthy and privileged wizards on her council.

The wizards, particularly Gavan Bayar, are desperate for more power, as are the clans. The Bayars seek to elevate their positions by either removing the Gray Wolf line or marrying into it. The clans also seek a marriage into the line, but they are driven more by the desire to bring more clan blood into the Gray Wolf line. And poor Raisa is stuck in the middle of their warring interests. Raisa has always known that she would likely have to seek a political marriage. Queens don’t have the privilege of marrying for love, they must marry for the good of the realm. She’s always been prepared for this, but her prospects for marriage both within and outside of the kingdom are disappointing, especially when faced with the reality of actually losing the person she really loves.

Raisa was my favourite character in the first two books, but I thought Han really started to come into his own in the last book and I adored him in this book! For someone who grew up in the slums, he is incredibly smart and self assured. He continuously seeks to better his position, partly in a desire to prove his worth, but also as a way to take down his enemies. Suddenly he is more powerful than he’s ever been. Han has always held his cards very close to his chest, reluctant to trust anyone. But he is really forced to grow in this book and learns that while trusting others can make you vulnerable, it is also rewarding.

Han never really struck me as a romantic or as a person who feels entitled to anything. But I loved his principals in this book. He’s both unwilling to give Raisa up, but also unwilling to settle for only a piece of her heart. At some point he realizes that he can’t fault Rebecca for lying to him because he’s never really been totally honest himself. It would have been so easy for him to hold on to his anger against Raisa, but I loved that he knew his heart well enough to decide to stay. After having lost everyone he’s ever cared about, I thought he was incredibly brave to be willing to love again.

I loved how some of the secondary characters grew in this book too. I am in love with Dancer, Night Bird, and Cat. Dancer is so willing to see the best in people and to be the bridge that the wizards and the clans so desperately need. I love that Night Bird is able to see past her prejudice and see people for who they really are, good or bad. And I love Cat’s unfailing loyalty and trust, both to Han and Raisa. I also loved how Chima grew Crow’s character in this book and reconciled the story between Hanalea and the Demon King. I wasn’t super into the historical aspect of the book and found it kind of confusing in earlier books, but I liked how it was integrated into and impacted the main plot in this book. History is very much written by the victors and just because something has been the same way for 1000 years, does not make it right. As people and communities, we need to learn to forgive and accept one another.

Overall this story just had so much depth. The characters go through such a huge transformation between the beginning and the end and I liked how Chima plays with the conceptions of good and evil and how perception sometimes is everything. The clans and the wizards have been at odds for 1000 years, with both sides trying to consolidate more power. The task of uniting the wizards and the clans is seemingly insurmountable, but Raisa, Han, and Dancer, individuals who were born of both factions, are brave enough to try.

We get a lot of new drama with the Wizard Council in this book, as well as with clan politics and Raisa’s tense relationship with her sister. Some characters from Oden’s Ford return in this book and help Han in shaking things up. Though I loved all the politics and the drama, I’m still a little unsure how to feel about the Bayars. I think that Gavan, Micah, and Fiona make for incredibly dynamic villains because they are united, but at the same time each working towards their own goals. They often work at odds against each other, posing multiple problems for both Han and Raisa.

Gavan has always been classically evil, while Micah and Fiona have been more nuanced. I’ve never really been sure how to feel about either one. Micah kept giving me whiplash in this series because he is at times evil and selfish, but he also clearly cares about Raisa. I definitely condemn his actions and thought he didn’t deserve the time of day from Raisa, but he is also a victim of his father’s ambitions and was in his own way, just trying to do the best thing for Raisa. I’ll admit though, I didn’t really love how things were resolved with each of the Bayars, particularly Fiona. I feel like I never really figured out who Fiona actually was and I don’t like how things ended with her story.

I also didn’t love how things ended with the clans. I always admired the clans and I was a bit disappointed with how things ended up with Elena, Averill, and Nightwalker. But throughout the course of the novel, the wizards were consistently the bad guys, so I do think it’s an important reminder that people on both sides have made mistakes and escalated the conflict between wizards and clan. The Bayars are definitely the villains, but to an extent, everyone is at fault in failing to acknowledge their prejudice against one another.

But, with the exceptions of these few minor criticisms, I absolutely loved this! I was really impressed with both the world building and character development. There is a follow up series to the Seven Realms series called the Shattered Realms series, so I’m definitely planning to read that series, but for now I’m planning to go on a little fantasy break for a while to work through some of the historical and literary fiction on my shelf!

The Gray Wolf Throne

Rating:
Author: Cinda Williams Chima
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: Aug. 2011 (read Mar. 2019)
Series: The Seven Realms #3

I liked the first two books in this series, but I struggled a little bit with some of the pacing and the books took me about a month each to read, which is a pretty long time for me. I did not have that problem with the last two books and flew through books 3 and 4 in less than a week!

I loved the ending of The Exiled Queen. I thought it was so deviously delicious that I couldn’t wait to pick up The Gray Wolf Throne and continue on the story. It picks up right where the last book left off, with Raisa and Han both trying (independently) to get back to the fells. I’ll do my best not to include any spoilers below for this book, but I probably will have spoilers for the first two books, so best to skip this review if you’re planning to read the series.

Pretty much the first 200 pages of this book are devoted to Raisa and Han’s journey back to Fellsmarch. Normally I don’t love when too much of a story is dedicated to travel or a “journey”, but it worked so well in this book and was pretty much the most fast paced and exciting part of the book. Raisa continues to inspire me. That girl knows what she’s wants and she just won’t quit. She wants to survive to continue the gray wolf line, but her motive is driven more by her desire to improve the Fells and bring her people together, rather than by any selfish motive.

The story wanes a bit after our MC’s epic journey, but I never found the narrative slow. By this point I was super committed to the characters and the plot and it never bothered me that the action slowed down. This book is super political and I enjoyed the contrast between the fast-paced action and fight scenes and the background political scheming. I haven’t really read that much high fantasy, but maybe I should, because I loved how intense and political this book was. The story had SO MUCH depth and Chima does a wonderful job at balancing multiple storylines and mysteries. At the end of this book I honestly couldn’t see how the story would be resolved in just one more book.

Because I haven’t read that much high fantasy, this series reminded me of beloved fantasy series like Game of Thrones. There were so many blood-thirsty characters competing at the games of kings and queens and it really was fascinating. Chima blends so many different elements together in this series and it really works. The wold building is really well developed and I loved the contrast between the conflicts within the queendom (between the clans, wizards, and valefolk), and well as the conflicts between neighbouring realms.

I read the last 2 books so quickly they are already starting to blend together in my mind, so I’ll try not to make this review too long to save some stuff for my review of The Crimson Crown. Again, I loved the main characters and how the secondary characters were developed further in this book. This was the first book where I really started to love Han as much as I love Raisa. He is blindsided when he learns who Rebecca actually is and understandably angry, but I loved his ambition. I don’t know where he gets he confidence from, but it makes him a really dynamic character.

Raisa, of course, kicks ass in this book again. She’s done hiding and ready to reclaim her crown. There are literally assassins coming at her from every possible angle, but she refuses to be cowed. My only complaint would be that there was not enough Micah in this book. I love the Bayars as villains and I loved the complicated relationships between Micah, Fiona, and Gavan. I also loved how Chima develops Cat, Dancer, Nightwalker, and Crow in this book. They’re all fascinating characters and I loved being surrounded by so many interesting relationships.

I shall end my review there for now because I want to write a full review for The Crimson Crown as well. However, this was definitely the book that sold me on this series and these characters. Loved it!

The Exiled Queen

Rating:
Author: Cinda Williams Chima
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: Sep. 2010 (read Feb. 2019)
Series: Seven Realms #2

At the end of the day, I really liked this book, but similar to the first book, I struggled with some pacing issues. Overall, this month was a really bad reading month for me and I’ve been in a bit of a book slump, so I’m not sure if it was the book or just the timing, but it took me over a month to finish this! Granted, I put it down for a good chunk of time in the middle of the month, but that’s still a really long time for me.

I thought the pacing was odd because I was really into this at the beginning when I was fresh out of reading The Demon King, but the action quickly tapered off and it wasn’t really until the last 200 pages of the book that I really got into it again. For comparison, Raisa and Han don’t meet again until the last 200 pages, so I’ve come to the conclusion that this series is at its best when Raisa and Han are together. I like them both in isolation, but together they are wonderful! I was so much more invested in the plot once they were re-united. Until that point it was pretty much two separate stories being told in tandem, bringing the two stories together made for a much more interesting and dynamic plot.

In relation to this, my second complaint would be that this book was just too long. Oden’s Ford was fascinating and I liked the way the world building and magic system are expanded – I also love the whole magic/boarding school vibes – but I think a little less time spent on this part of the story would have helped with the pacing issues.

Anyways, let’s get on with what I liked about it, because despite my complaints, there was a lot I liked about this. The Exiled Queen starts right where The Demon King leaves off, with Raisa and Han both traveling to Oden’s Ford to attend different schools. Raisa believes Han to be dead and Han still believes Raisa to be ‘Rebecca’. There’s a fantastic cast of secondary characters – Amon, Micah and Dancer return in this book – and we are joined by several new characters.

Let’s talk about the main characters first. Consistent with my review in the first book, Raisa is hands down my favourite character! I really like Han and his story as well, but I was always a little disappointed when the narrative would switch from Raisa back to Han. Raisa doesn’t have a lot of power, but she is still an incredibly strong character. She is small and people are constantly underestimating her, to their own disadvantage.

Romance is definitely a side plot in this book, but it works so well! I find romance to be hit or miss sometimes in fantasy, but somehow Chima has me loving every single relationship in this book! All of these characters have such great chemistry together. I’ll be totally sold on one relationship and then Chima will switch it up in the span of a few chapters and have me totally shipping the new relationship. Raisa is such an inspiring character in that she’s not afraid to love, despite having been hurt, and in how thoughtful she is about the ways in which she might hurt people. I do think she is to be admired as a monarch because she is very thoughtful and intentional in her actions, even though she just wants to be a normal 16 year old and have a little fun.

I do love Han too. He’s pretty suave and I loved how much he grew throughout this installment. While I love Raisa, I do think Han was really the one to drive much of the story. Han arrives at Oden’s Ford as a poor street rat surrounded by wealthy aristocrats and he really doesn’t fit in. He is rejected by many of his classmates and teachers, but he is a quick learner and has an inordinate amount of magic, which helps him win over the dean. Micah is also a wizard at Oden’s Ford and he doesn’t hide his disdain for Han. Han is forced to constantly watch his back and is always at odds with the Bayars.

I have to say though, I kind of love the Bayars. Fiona is still a mystery to me because she’s definitely different than Micah and it’s really hard to know where she actually stands and what she thinks. I think there’s a lot of room to grow her character in future books and I’m interested to see what Chima does with her character. Micah is very confusing to me. He represented a bit of grey area in the first book. He had some shady morals, but you still kind of wanted to like him and he seemed to like Raisa. His character is much less grey in this book and acts as a huge foil to Han, but I still kind of loved him. He’s still complicated and I think he makes a great villain because of the chemistry he has with both Han and Raisa. He’s definitely evil, but it’s a delicious kind of evil if you know what I mean? I loved all the banter between him and the other characters and he did a great job in elevating the tension throughout the book.

There is definitely a lot of anticipation in this book. It was a little slow going in the middle, but I was always anticipating when Raisa and Han were finally going to meet and if Micah was going to attack Han or discover Raisa’s presence. There is always tension running throughout the story because the reader is first worried about Raisa being discovered and later the threat to her throne.

Again, I thought the last 200 pages of this book were delightful. After how long it took me to get through this book, I was planning to set the series aside for a little while, but I was way too intrigued to take a break and I ended up jumping right into The Gray Wolf Throne. I’m about 100 pages in already and it is proving much faster paced, so I’m hopeful that will continue for the rest of the series!

All the Wandering Light

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Heather Fawcett
Genres: Fantasy
Pub Date: Dec. 2018 (read Feb. 2019)
Series: Even the Darkest Stars #2

I was REALLY REALLY hoping this would be a trilogy! I didn’t love Even the Darkest Stars that much the first time I read it, but since re-reading it, I’m pretty much trash for this series! I’ve read a lot of fantasy and to be honest, I haven’t been loving a lot of it that much. I took a 3 month break from fantasy and after reading mostly fantasy in January, I think I’m ready for another break.

But I LOVED this series! I haven’t felt this way about a fantasy series in a while and I loved the outdoor adventure aspect of this one. I can tell Fawcett loves the outdoors and I really related with Kamzin’s desire for adventure. I was really impressed with the depth Fawcett added to the plot and to her world building in this book. There were several subplots and a few mystery elements that ran throughout the series, like what is Ragtooth? What will be the long term impact of creating a contract with Azar-at? and what’s up with Tem and River?

But before I get ahead of myself, Even the Darkest Stars is a duology set in a fantasy world based on Nepalese culture and early exploits of Mount Everest. The legendary Mount Raksha is the focus of the first book, with Kamzin chasing after her dream to be a Royal Explorer by attempting to climb the treacherous mountain to claim a lost talisman so that the emperor can stop the witches from regaining their powers. In All the Wandering Light, Kamzin has succeeded in climbing Raksha, but failed in her task and the witches have regained their powers and now threaten the empire. When a falling star lands in the Ashes Mountains, Kamzin sets out to retrieve it and stop the witches from using it’s incredible power.

Even the Darkest Stars was told entirely from Kamzin’s point of view and in the second book, we get some more perspectives, mostly from River and occasionally Mara. Kamzin and River have split up, but because of Kamzin’s new contract with Azar-at, their fates seem to be closely entwined. Kamzin sets out with Lusha and Tem to claim the star, while River fights with his brothers about the future of the witches and empire. I wasn’t really sure what the focus would be of book 2, but I was glad it included more wandering around the wilderness. Kamzin eventually makes her way to the Three Cities, which changes the direction of the plot, but introduced some new elements and tension into the book. Up until Kamzin arrives in the Three Cities, the conflict in this book was mostly person vs. nature, with the exception of the internal and relationship conflicts. But the story becomes a bit more of a traditional fantasy when River’s brother Esha claims the witch throne and becomes the main villain of the story.

So what did I like so much about this book? Obviously, I loved the adventure element of the story and the fight against the natural elements. I really loved Kamzin as a character. I thought she was a fantastic heroine for the story. She is courageous, but extremely relatable. She makes a lot of mistakes, but is driven by a desire to shape her own destiny. She very much wants to be recognized and this desire sometimes gets her into trouble and causes her to make poor decisions. But ultimately she cares about those closest to her and will do everything to protect them.

I also really liked River’s character. He was so fickle in the first book and it always catches me off guard how detached he is. I like that Kamzin is driven by feeling, while River is mostly driven by logic, except in the case of Kamzin, who inexplicably holds a powerful influence over him. I think it’s because he’s never really been tested and is used to always being the best. Kamzin was the first person the challenge him. River is conflicted in this book and I loved the dichotomy of him wanting to free the witches, but also wanting to protect the empire he has grown to care about.

Like I said, the depth of the world building in this book surprised me. The first book was a little confusing, but the world building in this book felt fully formed, with just enough mystical elements to keep us guessing. Fawcett explores what is right and wrong and how our perceptions can be influenced by our experiences. The witches are undeniably evil in this book, pillaging villages and seeking revenge for the binding of their powers. But their rage is born out of having their powers stolen from them for the last 200 years by the emperor. At one point there was balance between the witches and the shamans, but that balance is lost and seeks to be restored. Kamzin struggles to think of the witches as inherently bad because of the time and experiences she had with River.

There’s also the question of what impact Kamzin’s contract with Azar-at will have on her soul and what kind of powers Ragtooth is actually hiding? I loved Ragtooth in this book (and the last book) and I was really happy to see Fawcett spend time on smaller plot points, because the culmination of all these thoughtful details is really what makes a book great. She also explores the power of the fallen star and whether power is always a good thing. All power comes at a cost and Fawcett repeatedly re-visits this idea in her characters.

My biggest complaint would be having this series only be a duology instead of a trilogy. I know now that the series was originally purchased as a duology, but I really think this series has the potential for a third novel and that it’s actually doing the series a disservice not to have one. I think the world Fawcett expanded on in this book outgrew it’s 400 pages. She took the story to more depth than she was able to resolve in the confines of this book.

The ending was very unsatisfying to me because I don’t think the conflict has been resolved. I no longer think Kamzin in interested in merely wandering the empire as an explorer, but rather that she wants to be an agent for change and for good in the empire. She’s one of the few people who understands the plight of the witches and questions the ultimate power of the emperor. I don’t think the witches would just roll over and move on after the showdown in the palace and I think there is so much room to explore more about the Emperor and where his powers come from. He’s a pretty big enigma in the story and it was never clear to me if he was eventually meant to be a hero or a villain. He’s up to some shady-ass shenanigans and I would really love to see his power explored more, as well as the relationship between the empire and the witches.

Mostly I just think this world and story has so much more potential. I’d love to see it expand and grow to include more character perspectives, like Tem and Lusha’s. I would say the character development of the secondary characters is probably the second flaw with this series. Kamzin has a wonderful character arc and I thought her development was really well done, likewise River. But I don’t think either Tem or Lusha’s characters were fully developed. Especially Lusha. She’s a bit of a controversial character in that she is so important to Kamzin, yet constantly acts as a foil to her. Lusha is really interesting and I’d love to know more about her history and the experiences that have formed her into who she is now. She’s a bit of a grating character, but I’d like to understand her better.

Don’t get me wrong though. I think this is an extremely strong debut series. I think there are ways it could be improved, but I had a great time reading it. Fawcett has already been signed for a middle grade series and you can bet I’ll be reading it! In the meantime, I’ll be lamenting the third book to this series that never was, but should be!