Author: Lish McBride
A Firebug Story
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Ava and her friends Ezra and Lock are on a job–for the magical mafia, which, not their choice really but definitely their norm at this point. It ought to be a fairly simple task, present a sufficient show of force that the witch they’ve been sent to deal with pays up. Not too hard when you’ve got a werefox, a half-dryad, and oh, a girl who controls fire on your hands. But of course, things are never simple for these three.
I adore Lish McBride’s novel Firebug, so it was with delight that I discovered this digitally-released short story set in the same world and following the same three main characters. Chronologically within the story’s timeline, “Burnt Sugar” actually predates Firebug and gives us a good picture of an (honestly) pretty average mission for these three. Which isn’t to say the story’s average, by any means. It’s exciting and suspenseful, with a great sense of humor and some amazing friendships. Seriously, I just love these three and the relationship they share so, so much. And really, a plot that involves gingerbread houses, health-conscious witches, and a girl who can summon fire with just a thought–what’s not to love? Also, if you’re not familiar with this author/series and would like a sampling, “Burnt Sugar” actually provides sufficient information to appreciate the characters and what’s going on, while avoiding being a straight-up info dump. (Granted, if you’ve read Firebug, some of the information provided is unnecessary, but not annoyingly so.) I would definitely recommend this short story, honestly to a broad audience, although particularly to fans of quirky, funny urban fantasy.
Note: While this story is available for digital purchase, you can also read it for free on Tor.com at https://www.tor.com/2014/12/10/burnt-sugar-lish-mcbride/.
Author: Ira Levin
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Joanna’s life seems to be going just as it should. She’s got a supportive husband, has two healthy children who argue only as much as any others their age, her photography is beginning to be recognized and profitable, and the whole family has just moved to the quiet suburb of Stepford. Only, Stepford isn’t exactly what she was expecting. In fact, in the whole area, Joanna has only found two other women who are remotely normal . . . all the rest seem to be perfect housewives, actors in commercials almost, focused only on their housework and pleasing their husbands. It’s all terribly backward for the times, and something about it just doesn’t sit right with Joanna.
Fair warning that 1) I’ll probably spoil something about this story somewhere in the review, and 2) I’ll likely ignore a lot of things that are typically commented on or have different opinions from those that are popular. This book is iconic enough–and well enough known–that I’m not really trying to avoid either of the above. The Stepford Wives is a psychological thriller set in 1970’s suburban Connecticut. It’s also a solid example of what I would term “suburban horror”–the whole idea that in the suburbs no one will give you too much grief about [insert horrible thing you do here] so long as your house is tidy and your lawn neat and green. So yeah, basically throughout the whole town, all the women are being murdered and replaced by robots because the menfolk in this backwards place prefer that over real, modern women with opinions and personality and interests outside the home. Blah, blah, social commentary, you get the picture. It’s a great insight, this far out from when the story was written, into the mindsets and social atmosphere that were prevalent at that point. From a strictly storytelling perspective, this story is fascinatingly written. Much like Rosemary’s Baby, Levin limits us to what Joanna knows but also sticks strictly to the facts. This happened, that happened, in minute detail at times–we’re given occurrences, hints, the passage of time, and Joanna’s gradual horrifying realization, but we never actually delve into her psyche and emotions. It’s all objective and almost clinical at times, the clear, spare way in which things are written. But I really like the way it’s done; in some ways, it increases the horror of what’s happening as you begin to realize along with Joanna just what’s going down in this place. Also, the pacing of the story is deliberate, spelled out in minute daily events, in a way that makes the progression seem inevitable. I enjoyed The Stepford Wives quite a lot and would recommend it to those interested in psychological thrillers/horror. Just don’t expect a fast-paced, emotion-drenched story coming in to it.
Author/Illustrator: Ben Hatke
My rating: 5 of 5
Goblin is enjoying a nice quiet morning in the dungeon, hanging out and having fun with his friend Skeleton, when a group of adventurers randomly burst in, cause a ruckus, and take everything–including Skeleton. Goblin is determined to get his friend back, even though his neighbor warns him that nobody likes a goblin and he’ll only find trouble out in the wide world. And while he does find trouble aplenty on his quest, he also finds his friend . . . and a whole bunch of new friends as well.
I am convinced that Ben Hatke’s books are basically perfection, like, all of them. They’re cute and quirky and innocent and heartwarming in a way that just grips you and pulls you in. In Nobody Likes a Goblin, we’re presented with a flip-side of a common enough story. As both a D&D player and a reader of fantasy novels, I’m quite familiar with the whole adventurers raiding a dungeon thing . . . just not typically from the perspective of the dungeon’s typical residents. Generally, we’re led to think of goblins, skeletons, and such as villains (to, in fact, not like them); yet in this story, these characters are innocent protagonists while the adventurers are the troublemakers. Expectations are challenged, and (while not explicitly stated as such) a certain racism is revealed and also challenged in this story. And Goblin and his friends are presented in such a heartwarming, charming way that you can’t help but root for them. The art in this story is lovely as well, giving additional charm, atmosphere, and character to the work as a whole. Nobody Likes a Goblin truly is an adorable, beautiful picture book that I would highly recommend.
Author/Illustrator: Ben Clanton
Narwhal and Jelly, vol. 1
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Narwhal wanders into unknown waters and meets Jelly–who may or may not be imaginary, but who is definitely a good friend. Together, they do cool stuff like eat waffles (yum!) and make a pod of friends. And even though misunderstandings may sometimes lead to conflict between them, they’re the sort of friends who work things out together and still have lots of fun.
Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea is an weird but adorable graphic novel for younger readers (I would say early elementary, primarily) featuring two super-cute sea pals. It is extremely random and whimsical at times (okay, most all the time), but in a way that’s fun and relatable . . . although it’s still a bit too random for me to be wholly on board with it. I can see it being a really fun read for kids, though. Plus, it includes some fun sea-animal facts and features some helpful conflict-resolution skills–something kids in the primary intended readership definitely need to be exposed to. The art is appealingly simple, although the random (again) photographs of waffles and strawberries throw off the vibe a bit . . . or maybe they make the vibe. I don’t know. A bit weird for my taste, but cute and fun. Recommended for early elementary readers.
AO3 ID: 12592096
Status: Complete (22 Chapters)
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Rated T for violence/whump
Princess Allura has entrusted Lance with his very first diplomatic mission, to the cat-like people of Macka–a peaceful planet that has historically been allied with the Alteans. Lance is determined not to mess this up, although it should honestly be pretty easy, enough so that the team is only sending him and Keith to handle the meeting while the rest of them attend to another mission. Only, it seems the Mackans have changed a bit in the thousands of years since Altea last communicated with them, and now Lance and Keith find themselves dedicated as sacrifices to the Mackan goddess Lady Leora. And even when Keith manages to break them out, they must handle the harshness of the desert, Lance’s (magical) loss of his voice, his (equally magical) non-healing wound that’s bleeding all over, and a fierce group of Mackans fueled by religious fervor at their heels. But at least Keith and Lance are in all this together.
The Purity of Sin was the first of Icy’s works that I read, and it was brilliant then. It’s still brilliant upon re-reading. This story is definitely whumpish–there’s lost of violence and bloodshed, and Lance in particular just gets some really rough breaks. But there’s a ton of character development as well. The transition of Keith and Lance from awkward rivals-turned-allies to brothers is beautiful and touching, and the author does a great job of showing this in a myriad of little moments–new understandings, cuddles, sharing in hardships together. Also, I liked that the author didn’t make the Mackans some stereotypical “bad guys” but instead gave us a people with good intentions but misguided, fearful beliefs that lead them to terrible choices. The whole story is balanced well, and the writing is enjoyable to read–as long as you’re up for some pretty angsty moments. Recommended.
Note: You can find The Purity of Sin at https://archiveofourown.org/works/12592096/chapters/28681112.
Authors: Mac Barnett & Jory John
Illustrator: Kevin Cornell
The Terrible Two, vol. 2
My rating: 4 of 5
Best friends Miles Murphy and Niles Sparks, better known as the Terrible Two (but only to each other), have taken their school by storm with a series of madcap pranks. As a pair of dedicated pranksters, it’s what they do. But they realize they may have gone too far when their pranks get Principal Barkin fired . . . only to be replaced by his father, also Principal Barkin. And while their former principal made a fun target for their pranking, the new principal is quickly sucking the life and fun out of everything. He doesn’t even react, even to the most innovate pranks. And to handle this new principal and get their old one back, Miles and Niles will have to team up with an unlikely ally to pull off a prank of epic proportions.
For those who enjoyed The Terrible Two, this book is a solid, fun follow-up. The Terrible Two Get Worse is a charming, funny middle-grade story full of tricks, friendship, and good clean fun. I appreciate particularly that this volume addresses the idea of pranking while doing no real harm–and fixing the messes you make. Because yeah, while middle-grade pranking is humorous and ought to be relatively innocent, it would be pretty easy for kids to go overboard. As far as Niles and Miles’ friendship, we get something more developed and settled here. In the first volume, they’re in this rivals-to-friends stage, but by this point, they know each other and have done lots together. They accept each others’ quirks, have secret handshakes, and are generally comfortable together. I wish we had gotten more of this friendship aspect, honestly–like, it’s there throughout, but there’s enough focus on plot that it gets a smidge lost in the shuffle at times. Still, though, I enjoyed the friendship represented here. The plot can get a bit angsty at times, if only because there’s such a dour antagonist at play, but rest assured that there’s plenty of good fun as well. As an aside, I also really enjoyed the way the illustrations are worked in as actual parts of the text; you couldn’t read the story completely without the specific pictures in the specific places that they are. For those who enjoy humorous middle-grade stories, I would recommend.
Author: Elizabeth Peters
Amelia Peabody, vol. 11
My rating: 4.5 of 5
The 1911 season looks to be one full of drama for Amelia Peabody what with the weddings, the weird family drama between Nefret and Ramses, the political intrigue and drug dealers on the loose, the random child popping up claiming to belong to Ramses. And of course, the rash of forgeries attributed to Ramses’ best friend, David–falsely attributed, obviously, but proving that is being a bit challenging. Maybe it’s a good thing the only site Emerson was able to get this season is a bit boring on the whole.
I absolutely always love Peters’ Amelia Peabody books; there’s some great history combined with lots of thrills, good humor, suspense, mystery, and romance. Basically, they’re just good historical adventures all around. The Falcon at the Portal fills this excellently, although I do have to say that it’s just generally less cohesive than some of the other stories in this series. Honestly, there’s just so much going on that it’s hard to keep track sometimes of what’s actually important. Add to that the fact that you’ve got three separate narrators (even though I love having Nefret and Ramses’ perspectives), and the story can be a bit all over the place at times. But really, I feel like the actual mystery plot takes second place to the character development and drama in this volume anyhow, so it’s not such a big deal to miss plot threads at times. And wow is there some drama going on here! For one, we’ve got some actual development in one of my favorite (of all time, not just of this series) ships–Nefret and Ramses. Plus the whole mess with Amelia’s nephew Percy and the Americans who keep hanging around. And of course, this is where Sennia joins the family. So yeah, lots of drama, a good touch of heartache, but lots of fun, too. Recommended.