The Midnight Queen
by Sylvia Izzo Hunter
432pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 4.1/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.53/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.5/5
 

Sylvia Izzo Hunter’s debut novel The Midnight Queen was published in fall 2014. Since then, a second book in the Noctis Magicae series, Lady of Magick, has been released. A third book, A Season of Spells, is scheduled for publication toward the end of this year—and I am delighted that there are more books in this series to read since I thought The Midnight Queen was quite charming.

Gray Marshall, an especially powerful mage studying at Merlin College, finds himself in quite a predicament after he and several other students do a job for Professor Callender: one of the other young men was killed during their outing and the others decided, rather unfairly, to blame his death on Gray. While recovering from this incident, Gray awakens and overhears part of a conversation between Professor Callender and another man outside his door that leads him to believe they are plotting to remove the Master of Merlin. Later, Professor Callender informs Gray he shall be spending the Long Vacation with him at his country home—and Gray knows this is not a request but a command, as the Professor also states he will otherwise have to agree with others that Gray no longer belongs at Merlin College.

After their arrival at the estate, Gray becomes acquainted with the Professor’s middle daughter Sophie. The two enjoy each other’s company but are each puzzled by the other. Sophie finds Gray very unlike the students her father has brought home in the past: he’s far more clever and less pompous and sycophantic, and it’s quite clear Gray and the Professor despise each other. Gray is confused to sense magick when the only other person nearby is Sophie, who—despite being interested in the study of magick—insists she has none of her own.

The longer Gray remains the Professor’s captive, the more he wonders exactly what secrets the man is keeping. After Sophie’s younger sister Joanna nearly falls to her death at the Temple of Neptune (a trap Gray is quite certain was intended for him) and a visitor arrives who sounds exactly like the man plotting the downfall of the Master of Merlin in the hallway, Gray begins to investigate, and later shares what he’s learned with others, including Sophie. As Gray and Sophie further unravel these mysteries, they discover a conspiracy with even larger, farther reaching consequences than they’d feared—and that the Professor’s plans involve revealing the truth about Sophie, previously unknown even to her.

The Midnight Queen is a delightful book. It’s not particularly complex with the major characters fitting rather neatly into “good” or “evil” categories, it can be predictable, and it’s a little slow to start, but it was completely enjoyable nonetheless. Though it took some time to get going, I was immediately interested in reading about Gray and Sophie, and once the secret about Sophie was brought to light, I was hooked.

It’s a difficult book to categorize. My first instinct was to call it “historical fantasy” since it’s set in British lands and feels quite like a Regency novel—the elaborate prose style, the expectations society have of women and Sophie and Joanna’s rejection of them, and the expectations Gray’s father has of him and the consequences of his rejection of them. However, despite the overall atmosphere seeming like it could have been Great Britain with magick, it’s very different from our world’s past and it’s altered enough that I’m not actually sure what era it would be. The current monarch is King Henry the Twelfth, and a variety of gods, including Greek and Roman, are worshiped since Christianity never became a major world religion. I really loved how the differences between our world and this fictional world were woven into the story: it was quite unobtrusive and integrated in quiet ways, through the language, traditions, local temples, and rituals.

The romance between Gray and Sophie is also a central part of the story. It’s a rather low key romantic relationship that grows through friendship and mutual respect, and as such it’s free from a lot of tension, angst, and drama. Sophie and Gray have alternating perspectives, and even when it’s clear to the reader that each admires the other, they are each oblivious to the other’s feelings. This is the closest to dramatic romance the story comes, but it’s still not terribly overwrought with misunderstandings galore.

Though they weren’t terribly complex characters, I enjoyed reading about both of them and thought they were great together. They’re both clever and brave people who want to do the right thing. Sophie not only finds someone who encourages her interest in magickal studies, but someone who appreciates her intellect and doesn’t feel threatened when she’s better at something than he is (which is the complete opposite of the way she’s been treated most of her life). I loved Sophie’s tenacity that kept her from letting obstacles get in the way of her desire to learn.

The two main characters aren’t the only ones who work together to prevent the Professor’s dastardly plans from coming to fruition, and the other characters are also wonderful. I especially loved Sophie’s bluntly outspoken younger sister Joanna and Gray’s kind sister Jenny. As much as I did like them, some more depth could have made them more memorable overall since they were rather black and white, though. The “evil” characters other than Professor Callender also weren’t terribly fleshed out, and he had no redeeming qualities at all that I could see. He was greedy, condescending, not particularly talented or clever, and commonly regarded as being laughably incompetent.

Although more complexity could have moved this book from “great” to “phenomenal,” I still enjoyed The Midnight Queen immensely. It’s less dark than the books I normally love, but I found it to be an engaging story with a likable main cast, family secrets, hidden identities, and plots to foil that kept me eagerly turning the pages.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

This book is March’s selection from a poll on Patreon.

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

This covers the last two weeks since not many books showed up the week before—but a book that I’m very curious about showed up a few days ago!

In case you missed any recent posts, here’s what’s happened lately:

I recently finished reading the March Patreon book, The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter, and am working on a review of it. Spoiler: I found it quite charming and enjoyable.

On to recent book arrivals!

Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

This debut novel will be released on May 17 (hardcover, ebook). I’m quite intrigued by the description, which mentions several elements that I like—fairy tales, art and sacrifice, and sisters.

 

Imogen and her sister Marin have escaped their cruel mother to attend a prestigious artists’ retreat, but soon learn that living in a fairy tale requires sacrifices, be it art or love in this haunting debut fantasy novel from “a remarkable young writer” (Neil Gaiman).

What would you sacrifice in the name of success? How much does an artist need to give up to create great art?

Imogen has grown up reading fairy tales about mothers who die and make way for cruel stepmothers. As a child, she used to lie in bed wishing that her life would become one of these tragic fairy tales because she couldn’t imagine how a stepmother could be worse than her mother now. As adults, Imogen and her sister Marin are accepted to an elite post-grad arts program—Imogen as a writer and Marin as a dancer. Soon enough, though, they realize that there’s more to the school than meets the eye. Imogen might be living in the fairy tale she’s dreamed about as a child, but it’s one that will pit her against Marin if she decides to escape her past to find her heart’s desire.

Additional Books:

The Fantasy Café Patreon account has a reward tier for voting on a poll determining the content of a blog post for the following month. (In most cases, this will be a review of a book that is not currently being discussed all over the blogosphere.) Since April will be the fifth annual Women in SF&F Month, I’m announcing the April book selection a little early. Also due to April being an especially busy month, the April book is a novella. It is…

Bone and Jewel Creatures by Elizabeth Bear

Bone and Jewel Creatures by Elizabeth Bear

Dark magic is afoot in the City of Jackals…

Eighty years Bijou the Artificer has been a Wizard of Messaline, building her servants from precious scraps, living with the memory of a great love that betrayed her. She is ready to rest.

But now her former apprentice, Brazen the Enchanter, has brought her a speechless feral child poisoned by a sorcerous infection. Now, Messaline is swept by a mysterious plague. Now the seeping corpses of the dead stalk the streets.

Now, finally, Bijou’s old nemesis–Bijou’s old love–Kaulas the Necromancer is unleashing a reeking half-death on Bijou’s people. And only Bijou and her creatures wrought of bone and jewels can save the City of Jackals from his final revenge.

I read and reviewed—and LOVED—the prequel novella Book of Iron so I’m looking forward to this one!

The theme for next month’s poll determining a book to be reviewed in May is stand alone fantasy books. Anyone who signs up for that reward tier before the end of this month will be able to vote on that poll, and one of the following choices will be reviewed in May:

Winterwood
by Jacey Bedford
432pp (Mass Market Paperback)
My Rating: 5/10
Amazon Rating: 5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.62/5
 

Book Description from Goodreads:

Set in 1800 in Britain, Mad King George is on the throne with Napoleon Bonaparte knocking on the door. Unregistered magic users are pursued to the death, while in every genteel home resides uncomplaining rowankind bondservants who have become so commonplace that no one can recall where they came from.

Meanwhile, Rossalinde Tremayne is satisfied with her life as a cross-dressing privateer captain on the high seas. But a bitter deathbed visit to her estranged mother changes her life completely when she inherits a magical winterwood box. Now, not only is she confronted with a newly-discovered brother, and an annoyingly handsome wolf shapeshifter, Rossalinde has to decide whether or not to open the box to free rowankind and right an ancient wrong—even if it brings the downfall of Britain.

This brand-new series is perfect for fans of Elizabeth Bear, D.B. Jackson, and Marie Brennan, as well as readers of historical fiction who are looking for an accessible gateway to fantasy.

Winterwood, the first book in Jacey Bedford’s Rowankind series, has been one of my most anticipated releases of 2016 ever since I hosted the cover reveal toward the end of last year. Both the book and the heroine sounded wonderful, and after reading the first chapter, I thought I was going to love it. Despite its promising opening, I soon found myself bored, and it only occasionally managed to recapture my interest for short spurts once I got further into it.

The first few pages introduce Ross, a widowed privateer captain who followed her heart and defied her mother’s expectations when they didn’t suit her—as well as society’s expectations about how a woman should dress and behave. I was immediately intrigued by her story as I read about her final encounter with her estranged mother as she lay on her deathbed. It shows exactly why Ross left home years ago as her mother hurls insults at her, but it also shows some of the life she’s lived as she thinks about her losses and the ghost of her husband that often appears to her. Their conversation also sets up a big part of the story as Ross inherits a winterwood box and learns that there is a family secret to be uncovered.

I was looking forward to finding out more about these mysteries, but I found the actual story rather dull. Ross encounters magical beings who spout cryptic information about her family’s past in a rather cliche scene, and there’s a lot of wandering around meeting characters who do not appear often enough to have fleshed out personalities. It’s especially unexciting as Ross tries to resist the task that was thrust upon her, but once she decides to pursue it, there’s a lot of time spent investigating that I didn’t find much more exciting: traveling, observing, discussing magic, and asking questions. The narrative spends too much time examining the meaning of what is learned, but I think the biggest problem was that there was a lack of personal connection that kept me from becoming invested in any of the characters.

I loved the idea of Ross as a character: a fiercely independent privateer captain whose crew respected her and looked to her for leadership. Yet, despite being the only character with much development and having her own arc about letting go of her own past, she’s not given much depth since there’s more focus on magic and mystery than her as a person. Even as the story does delve more into the personal when Ross discovers family she never knew she had, there’s still some distance. The closest it comes to a meaningful connection is the romance, but that too seems underdeveloped since it advances rather quickly. There isn’t time spent showing how the relationship grows since she and this other person barely even spend time together before it’s mentioned that he’s in love with her.

Winterwood contains some fantastic seeds for a novel, and the premise of a female privateer captain confronting both her own and her family’s past appealed to me. I also appreciated the emphasis on freedom in various forms that ran through it: literal freedom but also freedom from societal constraints and one’s own reluctance to move forward. Unfortunately, the novel in its entirety wasn’t to my taste due to the dearth of well-rounded characters, a bland narrative voice, and a rather uninspired storyline.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt (click link below cover image)

Other Reviews of Winterwood:

Today I’m giving away All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders! Since its release earlier this year, I’ve been hearing it’s wonderful, and I have one signed copy to give away courtesy of Tor Books. Those in the United States are eligible to enter this giveaway, and more details on the book and giveaway are below.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

ABOUT ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY (read an excerpt):

Every so often a book comes along that transcends genre and moves into literary territory, marked by the beauty and skill of the writer’s story telling. ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY is one such novel. Tor Books is thrilled to publish this wonderful tale by Charlie Jane Anders, editor-in-chief of io9.com, on January 26, 2016.

ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY takes place in a time much like our own, with the psychological realism of Lev Grossman, the near-future savvy of Cory Doctorow and the magic of Jo Walton. It is both fantasy and tech sci-fi, a story of outcasts and insiders and of love and hate. Told in alternating chapters, the story follows the lives of Patricia, a girl that can talk to birds and who, “misplaced herself in the woods over and over, until she knew by heart every way to get lost,” and Laurence, a nerdy science geek who runs away to MIT to watch a DIY spaceship launch into orbit. Outcasts in their middle school, they rely on each other to make it through the rough world of bullies — and a potential assassin who is out to destroy them by turning them on each other.

Fast forward 10-years and we meet our wunderkinds navigating young adulthood in hip, Mission District, San Francisco. He is a rock star techno Silicon Alley prodigy, and she is a magician that secretly repairs the world’s ever-growing ailments. As Laurence and Patricia reconnect, they find themselves getting drawn into the opposite sides of a war between science and magic. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, has brought them together to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.

ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY is a story of best friends, enemies, and lovers, as lyrical as it is enchanting. It is sure to be a tour-de-force that will go down in the annals of great genre fiction by one of the most widely read online writers today.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

CHARLIE JANE ANDERS is the editor-in-chief of io9.com, the extraordinarily popular Gawker Media site devoted to science fiction and fantasy. Her debut novel, the mainstream Choir Boy, won the 2006 Lambda Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Edmund White Award. Her Tor.com story “Six Months, Three Days” won the 2013 Hugo Award and was subsequently picked up for development into a NBC television series. She has also had fiction published by McSweeney’s, Lightspeed, and ZYZZYVA. Her journalism has appeared in Salon, the Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, and many other outlets.

Courtesy of Tor Books, I have one copy of All the Birds in the Sky to give away to a resident of the US!

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “Birds Giveaway.” One entry per household and one winner will be randomly selected. Those from the United States are eligible to win this giveaway. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Monday, March 28. The winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them by then a new winner will be chosen (who will also have 24 hours to respond until someone gets back to me with a place to send the book).

Please note email addresses will only be used for the purpose of contacting the winner. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Good luck!

Update: Now that the giveaway has ended, the form has been removed.

Last Song Before Night
by Ilana C. Myer
416pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 7/10
Amazon Rating: 4.2/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.33/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.53/5
 

Book Description from Goodreads:

A high fantasy following a young woman’s defiance of her culture as she undertakes a dangerous quest to restore her world’s lost magic

Her name was Kimbralin Amaristoth: sister to a cruel brother, daughter of a hateful family. But that name she has forsworn, and now she is simply Lin, a musician and lyricist of uncommon ability in a land where women are forbidden to answer such callings—a fugitive who must conceal her identity or risk imprisonment and even death.

On the eve of a great festival, Lin learns that an ancient scourge has returned to the land of Eivar, a pandemic both deadly and unnatural. Its resurgence brings with it the memory of an apocalypse that transformed half a continent. Long ago, magic was everywhere, rising from artistic expression—from song, from verse, from stories. But in Eivar, where poets once wove enchantments from their words and harps, the power was lost. Forbidden experiments in blood divination unleashed the plague that is remembered as the Red Death, killing thousands before it was stopped, and Eivar’s connection to the Otherworld from which all enchantment flowed, broken.

The Red Death’s return can mean only one thing: someone is spilling innocent blood in order to master dark magic. Now poets who thought only to gain fame for their songs face a challenge much greater: galvanized by Valanir Ocune, greatest Seer of the age, Lin and several others set out to reclaim their legacy and reopen the way to the Otherworld—a quest that will test their deepest desires, imperil their lives, and decide the future.

Although Ilana C. Myer’s fantasy debut novel Last Song Before Night, released in fall 2015, stands alone, there is a sequel in progress. I was glad to hear this news since this book was so absorbing that reading “just one more chapter” often turned into reading multiple chapters before being able to force myself to put it down!

Last Song Before Night contains tragedy, but it isn’t overly grim or completely hopeless even though all the main characters are touched by darkness, either from within or the actions of others (or some of both). This isn’t a book to read for the plot, which was basically a quest complete with many cliches, but one to read for the characters’ journeys. For better or worse, each of them end up in a different place than where they began and the end of their stories was not at all what I’d been expecting.

My favorite, Lin, is also the one I considered the main character despite being only one of multiple characters followed. She’s been through a lot and is simultaneously hiding from her cruel brother and pursuing her dream of becoming a poet—even though women are not accepted for training at the Academy and a female poet is quite uncommon. When she performs at a wealthy man’s home, she meets my next favorite protagonist, Rianna. These two do not spend much time together throughout the novel, but I loved their few interactions: how Rianna turns to Lin with her questions, knowing she’ll understand she doesn’t need to be sheltered from the truth like her father and fiance believe; how Rianna’s keen eye leads her to be the first to realize Lin’s true identity even though she just met her; how Lin sets Rianna on the path to learning to defend herself. Both women face great obstacles, and though very different from each other, both are determined survivors.

There are other protagonists, but those who get the most page time besides Lin and Rianna are two Academy-trained poets, Darien and Marlen. They were a team until Marlen betrayed Darien for his own gain, goaded by his father’s belief that he’d forever remain in Darien’s shadow. Marlen’s perspective is an examination of one who has followed a path that led to a descent into villainy.

Although I enjoyed reading Last Song Before Night very much, I did feel as though it were right on the brink of being excellent without quite reaching its full potential. The details of the actual quest didn’t particularly interest me, and the trope of the mysterious famous person guiding younger people toward a goal without providing much information, among other familiar elements, was dull. Though the writing was smooth and readable, it sometimes explained more than was necessary and told more than showed. The ending was rushed considering the amount that happened toward the end. Even though the characters, especially the two main female characters, were far from one-dimensional and were the reason I kept reading, I felt like just a little more depth could have taken them to the next level as truly unforgettable.

Most of all, I wanted more exploration of poets within this world since the book set up some intriguing aspects of this but didn’t actually follow through and examine them as deeply as I had been hoping. I was intrigued by so many of the protagonists being people who influenced through words and music, and earlier in the book, it did show the admiration others had for them, the power they had, and the limitations they had regarding their turbulent relationship with the king, their refusal to teach women, and their strict regulations concerning which songs could be performed publicly. Yet once the quest started, it seemed that these were dropped and it failed to fulfill my expectation that this was going to be a unique feature of this novel. In the end, I thought that Darien and Lin could have been mages instead of poets without changing that part of the story much.

Despite feeling that there were a few issues holding it back, Last Song Before Night was a strong debut that put Ilana C. Myer on my radar as an author whose future books are worth reading. The characters kept me engaged, making it a compelling novel that kept me turning the pages (probably long after I should have stopped for inconveniences like household chores or sleep!).

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt

Other Reviews of Last Song Before Night: