To Kill A Kingdom – Review

“Technically, I’m a murderer, but I like to think that’s one of my better qualities.”

When I said that 2018 was going to be the year of epic books, I’ll admit, I had no idea how accurate that statement was. To Kill A Kingdom is one of those epic books, that swam into my unassuming hands. I had no idea what I held. Had no idea that I was about to seriously fall in love.

To Kill A Kingdom is on the very surface a Little Mermaid retelling. Except that’s far too simplistic a description. The sea lore, along with other clever insertions make this book a complex web of myth and legend spun into something new. And oh so dark. All the delicious darkness! All the murderous, devious, absolute delightful darkness!!!

The book gives us the perspectives of Lira, a siren who is unapologetically cruel, and Elian, the charming rogue prince turned pirate. First, let’s check all the boxes that this book gives us:

Pirates – ✅

Sirens – ✅

Mermaids – ✅

Kingdoms – ✅

Legends – ✅

Magic – ✅

Then there’s the story packed full of treachery and betrayal, complete with a plethora of delightful sidekicks with all their sarcastic banter, who are, in Elian’s words, “insane and wonderful”. And as if ALL THAT wasn’t enough, Christo gives us an oh-so-slow burn forbidden romance that will melt the blackest of hearts!

Lira is such a captivating character. Not quite the villain, though she is vicious and homicidal, as we get to know her we realize she is her mother’s creation through a lifetime of cruelty and abuse. One of the things I love about her is how unapologetic she is. She isn’t warm and gooey on the inside, but fierce and determined and strong. Even though she kills princes for the power their hearts provide, it is what her kind does. She doesn’t question it, doesn’t try to find a way around it. The Sea Queen demands it, and she obeys.

“It’s the princes who hold the allure. In their youth. In the allegiance of their people. In the promise of the leader they could one day become. They are the next generation of rulers, and by killing them, I kill the future. Just as my mother taught me.”

Elian isn’t quite Lira’s opposite, as he is her alternate reality. A Prince who shirks the idea of ruling. That desires adventure and freedom more than power. He is a warrior, but does so out of a sense of duty and honor than the impulse to kill. While that may sound too Prince Charming to be likable, there’s something quite charming about Elian. He isn’t evil, he isn’t malicious, but he is also fierce in his own way. A pirate with a golden heart, who does bad things but for a good cause. He’s complex in his own right.

“There’s royalty in me, but stronger than that there is adventure.”

Lira is known as The Princes’ Bane, as she only preys on prince hearts for her annual trophy. Elian, a Prince, but also a notorious Siren Hunter carries the heart that is the ultimate trophy. Lira wants his heart, and Elian wants hers in return.

“There’s nothing in the world but pain and the rare moments that exist in between.”

Except Lira, though she wants to be the fierce, obedient warrior her mother demands her to be, she is much too independent to comply fully all the time. One misstep brings the wrath of the Sea Queen down on Lira’s head, and she suddenly finds herself given an ultimatum. Turned human, Lira can only return if she brings Elian’s heart to her mother.

Elian, following rumor that there’s a crystal that can destroy the Sea Queen hidden deep within an icy mountain, finds a girl, drowning in the middle of the ocean. But when they save her, she is something far from the damsel in distress that they expect her to be.

“She spits it like a weapon and her face twists. A sudden change from the innocent girl to something far crueler. Almost murderous.”

The way Elian and Lira snipe at each other is such fun. They are both sharp, acerbic, but never venture into the realm of being unlikable. They aren’t swooning for each other, but rather find a respect by recognizing the strength they each have. For all their flaws, you won’t be able to quite help finding yourself liking both of them. If you’re looking for a book where you need to root for one against the other, you won’t find it here. In fact, knowing the impossibility of the entire situation has nothing but tragedy and foreboding woven into every word.

Christo’s writing is something to fall in love with outside of plot. She uses words like daggers, some sharp, some blunt, each one aimed to cut. It is stunning, and bears the confidence of a far more tenured author rather than a debut.

“I feel maddened by the Midasan on my tongue. Its smooth sounds are too quaint to display my anger. I itch to spit the knives of my own language at him.”

This story is an examination of nature versus nurture. Are we who we are by choice? Or do things shape us? Whether that shape is something pleasing to the world, or something more violent and explosive, both Elian and Lira struggle with this question. Underneath everything they say and do, is the uncertainty of who they are at the core of themselves.

To Kill A Kingdom is, from beginning to end, stunning and spectacular. It is dark, devious, and murderous in its beauty. As soon as you finish, you’ll find yourself yearning to pick it up and read it again. To relish the writing. To revisit the characters. To simply submerse yourself in the dark world that somehow fills you with light.

Alexandra Christo has launched herself into an author I will follow with obsessive devotion. To Kill A Kingdom wooed me, but when you go to Goodreads, her next Untitled book set for release in 2019 simply has two words: Gangster Fantasy. Um, can I get a HELL YES???

If you love Christina Henry, Leigh Bardugo, or Pierce Brown, I highly recommend this book! It was released yesterday, March 6, and I will be screaming and fangirling about this one for a long time. Do yourself a favor and go grab a copy now!

Thank you NetGalley, Fierce Reads, and Feiwel and Friends for approving a copy to read and review!!!

The Hazelwood – Review

“My mother was raised on fairy tales, but I was raised on highways.”

The Hazel Wood is a remarkable creative blend of urban fantasy and twisted fairy tales with a touch of mystery added for flavor. This combination is incredibly creative and takes you deep into not just a fairy tale, or it’s retelling, but something far better.

We begin this tale through the eyes of Alice, a teenager who has spent most of her life running with her mother. What they’re running from is less clear, and only really referred to as bad luck.

“When we traveled I kept an eagle eye on the cars behind us, like bad luck could take human form and trail you like a minivan. But bad luck was sneakier than that. You couldn’t outsmart it, you could only move along when it had you in its sights.”

Alice, in true child form, becomes obsessed with her grandmother, a woman she’s never allowed to meet, and the book she wrote. Tales From The Hinterland thrust Althea into the light, but the book itself is rare, obscure and impossible to find. (Side note: I would adore this collection of fairy tales released, because oh how dark and delicious these tales would be!)

And this is where the mystery comes to light. Because in the beginning we get glimpses of this bad luck. We see Alice’s obsession with these tales and with her grandmother. Her life has the vague sparkle of something mystical lingering on the edges, but nothing defined. Is it simply Alice and her perceptions? Or is something else at play?

Whether it’s the bad luck finally catching up, or simply fate stepping in, forces conspire to drive Alice to the Hazel Wood, the mysterious estate her grandmother has hidden in. Alice finds herself learning all about these mysterious fairy tales and the woman who wrote them. More than she ever wanted to know. But once you fall down the rabbit hole, Alice learns the only way out is through. If the fairy tales will let her, that is.

“Most books’ power is in the abstract, but occasionally you’ll find one with very physical abilities.”

The first half of this novel is very much building the mystery. The mystery of the bad luck. The mystery of Althea herself and this elusive book of fairy tales. The mystery of Alice, her deep tendency to rage. The mystery of her mother and what she is so terrified of.

The mystery is what baits us. It sets the trap so that we are entangled into the core of the obsession with Alice. We feel her desire for knowledge. For something more. And once we are entwined, guaranteed to not be able to leave, the mysterious edges of what could be paranoia or fantasy begins to sharpen and reveal itself.

“Her final words had an extra resonance to them, a blur. Like they wore a mask to hide their true intentions.”

Beyond the world of murderous and violent fairy tales, this book is about so much more. I love how through this journey of fairy tales, this book really is a look at how to control your own story, to take back your voice and create your own narrative.

Alice runs because her mother tells her to. Because she is a child growing up, and children have no choice but to embark on the life their parents set out on. But when she is older, when forces plot to remove her mother from the equation, Alice has to figure out which path to set herself on. She has to decide where to go, and what to do.

A lifetime of warning from her mother, never talk to fans, never read the book, all culminate with a final warning: stay away from the Hazel Wood. Within hours she betrays the first rule, turning to fan Ellery Fitch for help. And while the book remains as elusive as ever, Fitch once owned a copy and could retell the stories with chilling accuracy.

Alice decides that even though her mother warned her, action is the only way forward. That she is the only one who can reclaim her story, who can face the bad luck and vanquish it.

“I did it because a girl doing nothing in a fairy tale ends up dead or worse, but a girl who makes a decision usually gets rewarded.”

Sometimes as children we can feel voiceless. We can feel lost in a world we don’t understand. Where our parents make rules that feel arbitrary and unclear. And while most of us don’t wake up to find our mothers missing and our world a blur between fantasy and reality, often we do find that we understand our parents only by defying them. We see their rationale and reason only after we make the mistakes they attempt to protect us from.

Fairy tales are told to teach us lessons. To help us understand the world at large in a way that will stay with us. This book does the same. It helps us understand the helplessness we feel as both children and as parents. How being an adult can sometimes lead to a reality less than we once imagined. It teaches us that we each have a voice of our own, and can choose to use it, even if someone more powerful tells us we can’t.

I loved this book for the dark and twisted path it led me down. But I loved it even more for the empowerment it quietly taught me.

Thank you NetGalley and Flatiron Books for approving my request to read and review this book!

Epiphany Jones – Review

“In Hollywood it’s not what you create that matters, it’s the image you portray.”

Before I start this review, I need to warn readers that this book has almost all the trigger warnings a book could have. It is dark, brutally so, and deals with very real but very horrifying issues like child sex trafficking, rape, abuse, and mental illness. These scenes, while not overly graphic in nature, are very realistic and chilling.

This review may also contain minor spoilers. I will avoid them as much as possible, but be warned, minor spoilers may find themselves below.

Epiphany Jones is a difficult book to describe. It feels strange to describe a book that so accurately explores grotesque topics as good. But for all its horror, it is a very good book. Grothaus balances the gut wrenching scenes with sharp dark humor, and the combination is both unsettling and entertaining.

Jerry, a unique unreliable narrator, struggles with mental illness. He is subject to hallucinations of a very visceral sort, believing that these people he sees are real at first. He also has a massive porn addiction. Of course, he’s been in therapy and these visions go away when he’s on medication. The problem is, he isn’t always on his medication. And it doesn’t really do anything for the porn problem.

“When you think something isn’t real you just don’t pay too much attention to it. But you sober up quickly when your imaginary friend stabs you with a spork.”

Unfortunately for Jerry, he finds himself off his meds and in the middle of the theft of a priceless Van Gogh. And he’s the main suspect. Which forces him into hiding with Epiphany Jones, a woman who hears the voice of God. She is his only chance at redemption.

But in order for Jerry to clear his name, he must solve the mystery of Epiphany and what she wants. And that takes him down a dark road into both of their pasts.

“I’m pretty sure Epiphany doesn’t have a three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule. It’s gotta be two, at most. After that she probably kills you.”

At the beginning, we don’t know how or why Epiphany has chosen Jerry to help her find whatever she’s looking for. It is a very violent path that we go down unraveling the mystery behind Epiphany and, surprisingly, Jerry as well.

Their two histories are intertwined in ways that Jerry refuses to believe until the evidence is overwhelming and pieces of his long buried memory begins to surface. This truth forces Jerry to confront the demons of his past and decide who he wants to actually be moving forward.

“People in real life, when something bad happens, they don’t turn into action heroes or detectives, like they do in the movies. In real life you take the path of least resistance. You do the easiest thing that ensures your survival.”

Even though this book was published June 2017, the subject matter is hauntingly relevant, given news coming out of Hollywood lately. Grothaus has taken the shiny veneer of off what we believe Hollywood to be and taken us into the dark, black rumors that have been whispered about for decades.

It isn’t even raising the idea that Hollywood executives could take place in sex trafficking, of children no less. It’s the entire dirty underside of Hollywood. How people in power abuse their power. Whether it’s the publicist who gets a young woman to sleep with his son over promises of stardom, or succumbing to the whims of a Super Star who must be given whatever perverse pleasure they demand. There is a side to Hollywood carefully controlled and very well hidden.

“The people with the real power in Hollywood don’t need to be recognized. They make the celebrities. And they know each star is just a cog in the wheel. A brand. Each star will be replaced when the time comes.”

What makes this book so good, even though the subject matter is so difficult, is that you can’t help but feel the truth in his words. Sex and power always go hand in hand, and abuse of both always follows closely behind.

But what makes the book even more exceptional, is the accurate examination of trauma and how these deep, deep traumas that occur in childhood, scar and haunt their victims forever. Both Jerry and Epiphany experienced traumatic shocks when they were young. And the extent of that trauma shows in their adult lives.

These fissures in their mental health are clearly shown throughout the plot to be attributed to their experiences as children. Sometimes it’s easy as a society to rank someone’s trauma as better or worse than others. It would have been easy to do that. To show that Epiphany had far more reason to behave in the ways she did than Jerry had. Instead, we get their mental illnesses shown to us as separate and unique as their personalities.

Their experiences shaped them, molded them, and we are shown their pasts in a slow reveal. Grothaus takes us down dark roads and blind alleys, making us assume opinions of both characters. It’s only after opinions are formed that he shines the lights and opens doors to give us more truth and fill in the missing gaps. It is an exercise in empathy. It is an exercise in judgment. And it’s bloody brilliant writing.

“The guy who’s heart you broke when you cheated on him thinks you’re a manipulative bitch, but the homeless person you gave five dollars to thinks you’re a gift from God. The thing is, in a way, everyone is right.”

There is humanity dripping off of these pages, demanding that you open your eyes and look around. It’s easy to hide from these dark subjects, to turn and pretend that it doesn’t happen, that it couldn’t happen. But Hollywood is literally the business of turning humans into a commodity. All Grothaus does is ask us to examine the possibility of what that can truly mean.

This book won’t be for everyone. As I mentioned, there are some dark parts that are very difficult to read. But beyond those passages, this book is stunning in it’s black humor and keen insight. This is a book that will change you, and stay with you long after you close the cover.

Thank you Orenda Books for sending me a copy to read and review!

Sip – Review

“The sun was up, so the dark could start. All about the ground, all in the same direction, shadows sprawled. And this is what he was after.”

Oh how deliciously dark Sip is! A novel where we find ourselves 150 years in the future. A future where people can drink their shadows and change their bodies to float and distort in ways not possible before. But there is a heavy price. Once you drink, you must always drink. And if you drink too much, you are lost forever.

We follow two main characters, Murk, a shadow addict, and Mira, a girl who can hide her shadow. Mira’s mother is a shadow addict herself, but her fate is far worse than Murk. For when an addict sips your shadow, if they don’t stop they can steal the entire thing. And you are left the shell of who you once were, forced to sip shadows or face the madness beyond.

Of course, Murk doesn’t have life easy either. His leg was stolen from him. Chopped and taken, sold to the black market to be kept alive for a time on a machine invented for creating shadows. But he lost his leg before he lost his shadow, which offers him some protection as his shadow will never be whole.

This world is dark and gruesome, full of violence,  and run wild with madmen. But within this world are pockets of people trying to live normal lives, away from these addicts. Called domers, for they live beneath a dome. Blocking the sunlight and moonlight so that the addicts can’t steal their souls. The perimeter blocked by a perpetually running train and guarded by soldiers trained to shoot if anyone gets too near.

“Bored soldiers slaughtering innocents predates the naming of war, will go on after the words we call it are broken.”

Mira’s ability to control her shadow catches the interest of a domer, Bale. But his interest is expensive, and he gets thrown out of his dome as a penalty for not shooting her on sight.

Now the three of them, an unlikely trio, set off to test the theory that if you kill whomever stole your shadow before Halley’s Comet appears again, after the comet passes, you will return to normal. Mira desperately wants her mother back, and so she sets off on her quest. Time running out, since the comet is due within days.

Sip does not hold back on the brutal reality of a world overrun with addicts. I actually found the use of shadow addicts an interesting way to show the desperation and extremes addicts will go through for one fix, for one more high, for just one more. In a world where they are the majority, things can become chaotic and bleak very quickly.

We don’t see the world outside of the rural Texas area that Mira, Murk and Bale live, but we hear hints of other dome communities scattered about. All with trains running in circles to protect them. I thought it was fascinating how the addiction was also like a virus, contagious and rampant, and hit before people knew how to fight it. It is a unique dystopian unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

This book is dark in nature but shines bright within the characters it creates. Mira and Murk, unlikely friends, but friends all the same. And even Bale, with his knowledge of nothing but life within the dome will cause you to root for them, to root for their success. Because the journey is difficult, and filled with unexpected stops and obstacles along the way.

If you can’t stomach gritty, raw violence or the stark yet simple brutality of an apocalyptic future dominated by ruthless addicts, this is not a book for you. It will make you cringe, and your stomach turn, for death and violence is simply the way of life in this world, and Carr does not shy away from immersing the reader into the full experience of it.

“Some madnesses are so bizarre that they entice witnessing. Those in the bar who had been preoccupied with debauchery, who had been lost in the melee of drinking and lustful deeds, tapered their pursuits in order to watch this grimy operation.”

It is a book that requires you simply accept things as fact without necessarily understanding them. I didn’t ever get the full sense of why people could drink their shadows, or how it made them addicts. It isn’t that Carr doesn’t offer a brief history through the characters eyes, he does. But it is done in the way you would expect stories to be told. Vaguely, details lost or misunderstood with each telling, the decades between the event and the present altering it, diminishing it, leaving only what they deem important. You don’t get science, or factual information. However, not understanding didn’t take away from the rich narration of this world, or make it’s reality any less detailed.

The before and the after are less relevant to this story than the here and now. Which, if anyone has ever dealt with addiction, first hand or otherwise, it felt like this focus on the present story was a nod to the adage ‘One Day At A Time’ that you hear in meetings and therapy over and over. For addicts, there is only today, and so in that same way, we get the present. It felt poetic to me.

If it feels that perhaps the book may be ‘too out there’, or ‘weird’, I assure you it’s my own reluctance to delve into too many details. The world sounds difficult to picture, and the concepts may be hard to envision, but once you dive into this world, as gruesome and violent as it is, it is worth the journey. Once you begin, the characters pull you in and the sheer determination they have to move forward will move you forward too. It is a dark world. A violent one. Full of mayhem and criminality that makes the Wild West look like playtime in preschool. But you still can’t help but hope with the characters that life can always get better.

For my dark readers out there, this is a novel you do not want to miss! I will be reading Carr’s short stories and will for sure read anything he puts out next. I am a fan!

Thank you Soho Press for sending me a copy to read and review.

Seance Infernale – Review

“All those things you fear will reach from into the shadows and pull you down there with them.”

Seance Infernale is an intense thriller following Alex Whitman on his journey to find a piece of film, only rumored to exist. In America, Thomas Edison is credited with building the first camera known to capture motion pictures. In France, the Lumber brothers. But one year before Edison filed his patent, a man named Augustin Sekular is rumored to have built and filmed the world’s first motion picture camera. Conveniently, or rather inconveniently, one year before Edison files for his patent, Sekular vanished from a train, never to be seen or heard from again, taking all signs of the camera with him.

However, the man hiring Whitman to find this lost piece of film isn’t interested in any of the film strips by Sekular known and catalogued. He wants one so rare, it is only whispered about: Seance Infernale. A film only referred to in a letter by a man known in history to be a conman of sorts.

This book is more than a hunt for rare art. More than a historical mystery yearning to be solved. We learn that Whitman lost his daughter ten years prior. Abducted in a park in Edinburgh and never heard from again, she haunts Whitman. His acceptance of this job, and this hunt for Sekular’s film takes him back to the city filled with ghosts. Whitman will have to face his own ghosts, while searching for Sekular’s.

“Sources failed to indicate Sekular’s exact Edinburgh address, they stated that the family lived in a perilous region, full of seedy businesses, dark alleys, and run-down tenements, a place “where wickedness loses its seductive appeal by manifesting in all its depravity.”

Whitman isn’t the only perspective we get; however. In addition to his hunt for this mythical film, a Detective Sergeant, Georgina McBride is hunting an elusive creature of a different sort. A serial killer prowling the streets of Edinburgh, kidnapping children and leaving their bodies in alleys. Georgina needs to find his latest victim while there’s still a chance they are alive.

Two different people searching for two different things, and yet their paths cross in unpredictable ways. But the more each of them discovers, the more they realize their searches are more dangerous than either one ever anticipated.

“Because a murder investigation is first and foremost a hired investigation; your client may be silent and dead, but he is still screaming out for justice.”

This book shocked me! I was expecting a hunt through time to solve a lost mystery. But, the present day twists with McBride’s serial killer hunt kept me on my toes! It was easy to lulled into the mystery of this lost film, and what happened to Sekular. As soon as you got comfortable in that story, you were slammed into the present day with the hunt for this killer. In addition, we get some narration from Elliot, the killer himself, told in such a way that you aren’t sure who he is going to end up being, or why he is important to Whitman and this film.

There is graphic violence in this book, both in what Elliot does to his victims and some flashbacks of other scenes in characters lives. One particular scene of animal cruelty was two pages I skipped, it was that grotesque. So, if that sort of violence unnerves you or makes you queasy, this may not be the book for you.

As far as dark thrillers, this book is crazy dark and crazy intense. I was climbing the walls, reading between my fingers, and definitely leaving the lights on to make it through this book! The author does a fantastic job weaving characters in and out of the plot, and just when you’ve forgotten about someone, they pop back in to play. He has a talent for making you look to the left and then hitting you from the right. Every twist and turn was like plummeting down a roller coaster blind folded. It is exhilarating but also terrifying.

My favorite parts are when we are taken below ground into ancient and forgotten parts of Edinburgh. Areas simply entombed over in the name of progress. Skariton does an insane job bringing places to life. I could taste the dust and smell the stale air as crypts and catacombs were discovered and explored. And nothing says creepy more than underground houses, forgotten tunnels and old graveyards.

“You could have walked past it every day on the way to work and you wouldn’t have noticed it, padlocked behind doors or hidden underground. It was right there, for everyone to see, yet it was unknown. But that was Edinburgh, revealing itself only in the constant vigilance of dark, steady eyes.”

I did read this as an ARC, so there were some pieces that seemed incomplete. I don’t mean the writing, it’s more the presentation of the book. This is a book that has art within the book, and with those pieces missing, it felt a little confusing. Some were there, but notes at the bottom and the notes in the back seemed to not quite be finished, so I didn’t feel that I got the entire experience.

The hardest thing, and again, this may be fixed in a final copy, is there weren’t any years in the chapter headers. The book is divided into sections with the date (month and day) listed at the beginning of each section. But, the narration jumps between the years quite a bit and it can get confusing, especially as we are reading between multiple points of view. It isn’t overwhelming, but I did have to backtrack a few times to figure out where I was supposed to be.

In all, this book was perfect for October reading and for the #spookathon. It will leave your heart racing and your stomach churning as you hold your breath waiting to read the outcome. If you like dark, if you love thrillers, and you don’t mind some intense violence, this book is definitely for you!

I won this in a giveaway from AA Knopf, and was not required or obligated to review.