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Thornbound by Stephanie Burgis (The Harwood Spellbook #2)

Genre: Fantasy of Manners, Romance

Publisher: Five Fathoms Press on February 25, 2019

Source: Review copy courtesy of the author

Cassandra Harwood scandalized her nation when she became the first woman magician in Angland.

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Now, she’s ready to teach a whole new generation of bright young women at her radical new school, the Thornfell College of Magic…

Until a sinister fey altar is discovered in the school library, the ruling Boudiccate sends a delegation to shut down Thornfell, and Cassandra’s own husband is torn away from her.

As malevolent vines slither in from the forest and ruthless politicians scheme against her, Cassandra must fight the greatest battle of her life to save her love, her school, and the future of the young women of Angland.

Now, she’s ready to teach a whole new generation of bright young women at her radical new school, the Thornfell College of Magic…

Until a sinister fey altar is discovered in the school library, the ruling Boudiccate sends a delegation to shut down Thornfell, and Cassandra’s own husband is torn away from her.

As malevolent vines slither in from the forest and ruthless politicians scheme against her, Cassandra must fight the greatest battle of her life to save her love, her school, and the future of the young women of Angland.

  

Angland’s first female magician, Cassandra Harwood, returns in THORNBOUND. And this time, she’s opening a magic school!

Traditional gender roles are alive and well in Angland, a magical riff on Regency era England. The only catch? Women, cool-headed and rational, govern the country while men, emotional beings that they are, handle the sensitive magical arts. This genderbent approach is both fun and clever, and Burgis dismantles those sexist assumptions through our heroine Cassandra Harwood.

Thanks to a healthy dose of hubris and some massively poor decision-making skills, Cassandra has the dubious honour of being both Andland’s first certified female magician…and the first to lose her powers. With the help of her husband Wrexham and her best friend and sister-in-law Amy, Cassandra has mostly recovered from the devastating loss of her powers and she’s ready for the next adventure: establishing Thornfell College of Magic, Angland’s first college dedicated to training women magicians.

Serious question for all the fantasy readers out there: is there anyone among us who doesn’t like magic school settings? While I have yet to meet one I don’t like, not all magic schools are created equal. From what we’ve seen so far, the Thornfell College of Magic may end up being a favourite. There are fascinating lessons about practical spell casting and magical history, eccentric staff members, and the requisite romantic drama brewing between the students. Of course, since the college is for women only, that means there’s some pretty solid on-page queer representation in THORNBOUND.

Thornfell’s countryside location provides the perfect avenue to introduce readers to the magical realms bordering Angland, since everyone knows that the creatures are closest to the magical borders in the country’s forested areas. Cassandra is desperate to see her radical new venture become a success, and she’s not about to let age-old grudges between humans and other magical creatures spoil her plans. But when a faerie altar appears in the school’s library at the most inopportune moment possible, it seems as though someone is sabotaging the school…and imperiling its students in the process.

As much as I enjoy the world and politics of Angland, it’s the stellar character development that elevates THORNBOUND to greatness. In the span of only two novellas, Burgis has crafted a very satisfying character arc of personal growth, acceptance of harsh realities, and hope for the future. Cassandra still mourns the loss of her magic, and rightfully so, but she’s also learned that empowering other women to harness their innate abilities is its own type of magic. Hell yeah! Inclusive feminist fantasy novels are where it’s at, people.

Cassandra has also become more comfortable with leaning on others for support, like her husband (largely absent from the story due to Suspicious Circumstances) and her best friend Amy, formerly a very influential member of the Boudiccate. Opening up to Amy about her fears while also becoming more mindful of Amy’s own struggles is tough for Cassandra, but she does it. And their already epic friendship becomes even stronger in the process.  It feels a bit strange to say that I’m proud of a fictional character, but I really am.

If you’re wary of short fiction because you think it’s, well, short on character development and world building, have no fear. THORNBOUND is a sequel that surpasses the already-impressive first novella on both counts. I, for one, cannot wait to see where Cassandra and the gang get up to next!

What are your thoughts on novellas and other short fiction? Do you ever feel absurdly proud of fictional characters and their personal growth? Let me know in the comments!
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The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri

Genre: Literary, Magical Realism

Publisher: Titan Books on June 19, 2o18

Source: Publisher

Four old school friends have a pact: to meet up every year in the small town in Puglia they grew up in.

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Art, the charismatic leader of the group and creator of the pact, insists that the agreement must remain unshakable and enduring. But this year, he never shows up.

A visit to his house increases the friends’ worry; Art is farming marijuana. In Southern Italy doing that kind of thing can be very dangerous. They can’t go to the Carabinieri so must make enquiries of their own. This is how they come across the rumours about Art; bizarre and unbelievable rumours that he miraculously cured the local mafia boss’s daughter of terminal leukaemia. And among the chaos of his house, they find a document written by Art, The Book of Hidden Things, that promises to reveal dark secrets and wonders beyond anything previously known.

Art, the charismatic leader of the group and creator of the pact, insists that the agreement must remain unshakable and enduring. But this year, he never shows up.

A visit to his house increases the friends’ worry; Art is farming marijuana. In Southern Italy doing that kind of thing can be very dangerous. They can’t go to the Carabinieri so must make enquiries of their own. This is how they come across the rumours about Art; bizarre and unbelievable rumours that he miraculously cured the local mafia boss’s daughter of terminal leukaemia. And among the chaos of his house, they find a document written by Art, The Book of Hidden Things, that promises to reveal dark secrets and wonders beyond anything previously known.

Francesco Dimitri’s English language debut THE BOOK OF HIDDEN THINGS is a beautifully written story of intrigue, betrayal, and the abiding friendship between four very different men.

In the dusty town of Salento, located deep in the South of Italy, four teenagers sealed their unlikely friendship with a pact: each year on the same day, they’d all come home to see one another no matter where they were in the world or what they were doing. Every year, they’ve kept that promise. Until now. Art, the architect of the pact and of the boy’s friendship, has failed to show up. And the rumours in town of his recent erratic behaviour and saint-like ability to perform miracles have his friends Fabio, Mauro, and Tony deeply concerned. What exactly has their strange friend gotten himself into, and where is he?

I’m quite torn about this one, y’all. Francesco Dimitri’s writing is lyrical and lush, which is especially impressive given that English is his second language (and this is his first novel written in English). On the other hand, I found his characters sexist, selfish, and ultimately difficult to root for. Given that not a lot actually happens in THE BOOK OF HIDDEN THINGS, I need to connect with the characters in order to love the book. It definitely can’t slide by on accomplished writing alone.

The four men have deeply complex friendships, as expected given their long and storied history with one another. As Fabio, Mauro, and Tony’s perspectives are unveiled, I was shocked by the secrets and lies that seem to be almost foundational to their relationships. Yet even as these secrets are revealed to the characters, there’s a sense that their bond is truly unbreakable. The line between loyalty and betrayal is a fine one in THE BOOK OF HIDDEN THINGS, and as with everything else in their lives, that line is only made murkier by Art’s involvement.

Art is charismatic, frenetic, dangerous, and quite possibly insane. I found him the most interesting of all the main characters, simply because we know the least about his internal life. Since there are no chapters from his perspective, we’re left wondering how much of his explanation for his childhood abduction and his current predicament is fact and how much is delusion. Could his bizarre explanations be true? Francesco Dimitri doesn’t provide any easy answers on that score, so prepare for an open ending if you decide to pick up THE BOOK OF HIDDEN THINGS. The few female characters that populate the story are quite interesting, but their decidedly minor roles disappointed me. I’d love to read an entire book following Elena, Tony’s little sister and high-ranking mafiosa. 

Dimitri’s portrayal of the town of Salento is by far my favourite aspect of THE BOOK OF HIDDEN THINGS. The town is mercurial and beautiful, a place where the people are by turns warm and welcoming and hard as steel. Like most of Southern Italy, the town is riddled with corruption and not-so-secretly run by an organized crime outfit. The townspeople are staunchly Catholic and deeply superstitious, with mysticism running deep. Neighbours are just as likely to look out for one another as they are to share juicy gossip, and the one thing they can all agree on is how tourism is encroaching on the original charm of their home. Salento feels entirely real while retaining a sense of the otherworldly, which is a major accomplishment.

Fans of literary fiction with atmospheric settings will be completely immersed in THE BOOK OF HIDDEN THINGS, but those seeking more defined magical realism elements and those looking for lovable characters may find themselves disappointed.

Have you read THE BOOK OF HIDDEN THINGS? What’s your favourite book with a strong sense of place? Let me know in the comments below!
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Rogue Souls by Chelsea Mueller (Soul Charmer #2)

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Publisher: Jill Grinberg Literary Management on July 9, 2018

Source: Author

My thanks to the author for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.

Callie Delgado volunteered to apprentice to Gem City’s Soul Charmer.

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He’d forced the soul magic ability into her, but now it was hers. She’d learn to control her body’s reaction to rented souls or go up in flames. Literally.

She exchanged her chance to escape the darker side of Gem City to save her brother. Now she needs to keep him sober and safe, try to mend family ties, and avoid the mobsters who have too much interest in the magic of borrowing souls.

But when bodies begin dropping at the Soul Charmer’s door, it’s up to Callie and her partner Derek to track down the person killing soul renters. The Charmer wants retribution, but Callie is determined to get justice even if it means putting herself directly in the sights of the murderer.

If she wants to stay on the Soul Charmer’s good side, Callie must confront her enemies head-on and learn to command rogue souls.

…and hope someone she loves doesn’t become the next victim.

He’d forced the soul magic ability into her, but now it was hers. She’d learn to control her body’s reaction to rented souls or go up in flames. Literally.

She exchanged her chance to escape the darker side of Gem City to save her brother. Now she needs to keep him sober and safe, try to mend family ties, and avoid the mobsters who have too much interest in the magic of borrowing souls.

But when bodies begin dropping at the Soul Charmer’s door, it’s up to Callie and her partner Derek to track down the person killing soul renters. The Charmer wants retribution, but Callie is determined to get justice even if it means putting herself directly in the sights of the murderer.

If she wants to stay on the Soul Charmer’s good side, Callie must confront her enemies head-on and learn to command rogue souls.

…and hope someone she loves doesn’t become the next victim.

  

Callie Delgado, newly apprenticed to Gem City’s notorious Soul Charmer, can’t catch a break. As if her low-paying day job and manipulative family aren’t enough to deal with, now Callie’s new boss has her working with soul magic for real. Because in Gem City, sinners avoid judgement by using someone else’s soul, and the Charmer’s shop is the only spot in town. At least, it was…

Joined by the Charmer’s muscle and her new boyfriend, Derek, Callie has to track down a business competitor who’s encroached on the Charmer’s territory. I loved them together in the first book, and it works even better here because they actually know each other now. Derek can be cagey and obviously he’s on the morally grey side, but both can also be said of Callie. I think they’re lucky to have each other, especially given everything that’s happening with Callie’s finances. As depressing as I find her situation, I do appreciate the realism. I’ve often wondered how most urban fantasy protagonists pay their bills if they’re so often out of work or wreaking havoc. For Callie, the unsavory answer to that one is a bit hard to swallow.

Mueller’s done a great job expanding the gritty world of Gem City, with its mysterious and powerful clergy, seedy underbelly, and simmering magical tensions. When I read BORROWED SOULS last year, I wished that readers had been given more details of soul magic; with ROGUE SOULS, that wish came true. From controlling rogue souls to fashioning magical vessels for their containment, Callie’s behind-the-curtain look into soul magic is fascinating. Her apprenticeship with the Charmer might be unorthodox — not to mention volatile — but his cryptic and manipulative “teaching methods” certainly seem to be paying off. Best of all, we finally know where exactly it is that the Soul Charmer gets his souls from…and it’s a doozy.

These additions to the world building kept me intrigued even when the plot of ROGUE SOULS lagged, which happened quite a bit in the first half of the book. Callie and Derek tracking down the rogue soul dealer should’ve been non-stop action, but it was actually a lot of dithering and internal monologues about how low Callie feels she’s sunk. I get that she’s a tortured heroine with extremely low self-esteem – most of the time I like that about her because it makes her interesting! But her woe is me moments really slowed down the pace of the overall story.

Of course, once Callie and her man figure out who’s behind it all things really started to pick up. I just wish it’d come a bit sooner, you know? Thankfully things are going to move along quite quickly in the third book if the final chapters of ROGUE SOULS are any indication.

Overall, ROGUE SOULS is a solid second book in a promising and original urban fantasy series. I recommend it to fans of darker, more character driven series like Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghosts. ­

Have you read the Soul Charmer series? Do you ever wonder how urban fantasy protagonists (or those from other genres) pay their bills? Let me know in the comments!
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