Review: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

Review: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi PatelKaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
Narrator: Soneela Nankani
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, mythology, retellings
Pages: 496
Length: 17 hours, 22 minutes
Published by Redhook on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

“I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions — much good it did me.”
So begins Kaikeyi’s story. The only daughter of the kingdom of Kekaya, she is raised on tales about the might and benevolence of the gods: how they churned the vast ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality, how they vanquish evil and ensure the land of Bharat prospers, and how they offer powerful boons to the devout and the wise. Yet she watches as her father unceremoniously banishes her mother, listens as her own worth is reduced to how great a marriage alliance she can secure. And when she calls upon the gods for help, they never seem to hear.
Desperate for some measure of independence, she turns to the texts she once read with her mother and discovers a magic that is hers alone. With this power, Kaikeyi transforms herself from an overlooked princess into a warrior, diplomat, and most favored queen, determined to carve a better world for herself and the women around her.
But as the evil from her childhood stories threatens the cosmic order, the path she has forged clashes with the destiny the gods have chosen for her family. And Kaikeyi must decide if resistance is worth the destruction it will wreak — and what legacy she intends to leave behind.
A stunning debut from a powerful new voice, Kaikeyi is a tale of fate, family, courage, and heartbreak—of an extraordinary woman determined to leave her mark in a world where gods and men dictate the shape of things to come.

My Review:

Kaikeyi is a story that gave me mixed feelings on top of my mixed feelings, much as the character of Kaikeyi herself has inspired multiple interpretations of her story and her character in the centuries since the Ramayana, one of the two important legends of Hinduism, was first written – or amassed – or compiled – or all of the above – sometime between the 7th and 4th centuries B.C.E.

The closest Western parallel is probably the Homeric epics The Iliad and The Odyssey in age, size and in the scope of their importance to the canon of literature.

And, like the recent spate of modernized retellings of Homer’s famous tales such as Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe, as well as Claire North’s upcoming Ithaca, the Ramayana, particularly the story of the reviled Kaikeyi, was ripe for a contemporary retelling.

Which is just what Kaikeyi is, an account of Queen Kaikeyi’s life from her early childhood to the terrible events that made her so despised in the Ramayana. But told from Kaikeyi’s own first-person point of view, we’re able to see the famous story in which she plays such an infamous part told from a feminist perspective rather than the patriarchal, male-centric version that was written by the all-male Sages who denigrated her during her life and controlled her narrative after her death.

While the Ramayana itself is the epic history of Kaikeyi’s son Rama, a reincarnation of Vishnu, in Kaikeyi’s part of that story we are at the end, where she poisons the mind of her husband King Dasharatha of Ayodhya, persuading him to exile Rama from the kingdom he is supposed to rule, for 14 long, bitter years. But that event – and the worse things that follow after it, are the last part of Kaikeyi’s story when it is told from her own perspective.

For her, the story begins at the beginning, the tale of a young woman, the only princess of Kekaya, with eight younger brothers and a disapproving father, the king who exiled her mother as a result of machinations in his own court.

Kekaya is a warlike kingdom, and Kaikeyi, in spite of her gender, learns many of the arts of war under the tutelage of her twin brother. But for all her agency and independence, she is forced to obey when her father marries her off to the King of Ayodhya, as Ayodhya is a larger, more prosperous country that Kekaya cannot afford to anger.

It is as one of the three Queens of Ayodhya that Kaikeyi finds both her purpose and her eventual downfall – at least according to the legends.

What we have in this fictionalized version of her life is the story of a strong woman who was forsaken by her gods for acts she had not yet committed, who began her rise with a little magic and less agency, but who eventually managed to carve herself a place at her husband’s side in war and in the highest councils of their kingdom in peace.

And who managed – in spite of the dire pronouncements of the Sages who denounced her as angering the gods by not staying in her “woman’s place” – to raise the standard of living and responsibility for many of the women of her kingdom.

Until it all went straight to something like hell – right along with damnation.

Escape Rating B: I said at the top that my mixed feelings had mixed feelings about this story. There were points where it seemed like a fairly straightforward feminist interpretation, where the conservative forces of the patriarchy who claimed they were speaking for the gods were just part of the cycle of men making god in their own image. In other words they wanted to maintain the status quo that kept them in power and women less than the dust under their feet by claiming that was what the gods wanted.

But then there are actual gods in this story who actually claim that those men are, in fact, speaking for their divine selves. Which does undercut some of that interpretation.

And on my rather confused other hand, as Rama and his brothers grow up, it’s clear, at least from Kaikeyi’s point of view, that knowing he was the avatar of a god from such a young age had done Rama absolutely no favors whatsoever. That he’s a puppet of divine forces beyond his control or understanding – and that he is just as much a pawn of men who get their hooks into him when he is young and corrupt him to their purposes – one of which is to strike Kaikeyi down through their control of her son.

In other words, these facets of the story read like an entirely different saying about the gods, the one that goes “whom the gods would destroy they first make mad,” variations of which go all the way back to Sophocles’ play Antigone – which was also written sometime in the 4th century B.C.E.

Because this is Kaikeyi’s story rather than Rama’s, this is not a story about a great man fighting great battles against great evil and having great adventures. In many ways it’s a much quieter story than that as Kaikeyi reaches maturity in Ayodhya, learns how to control her own magic, and makes changes in the ways that all women are treated in her adopted country.

But this is also a story that is effectively forced to serve two masters. On the one hand, it hits many of the same beats as epic fantasy. The use of magic, deities meddling in the affairs of their worshippers, the battles between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Howsomever, as the retelling of a foundational document in religions that have millions of adherents to this very day, the story must still conform to the major plot points of the epic poem it derives from. Kaikeyi the character can explain, to herself and to the reader, why events are remembered and recorded as they eventually were – but she can’t change the outcome no matter how much the reader might want her to or even expect her to because this does read much like epic fantasy.

Still, what makes Kaikeyi’s story so interesting is the way that she works through relationships, aided by her magic, to garner influence and power to help the women of her kingdom. One of the unusual facets of her story is that Kaikeyi herself is both Ace and Aromantic in this interpretation. Whatever her husband feels for her, this is not a romance. She comes to see him as a dear friend and a partner, but she has no romantic or sexual interest in him or anyone else in her life. She does not use ‘feminine wiles’ or seduction to make her point or to gather followers. It’s always fascinating to see a woman in a historical-type story that does not ever play those obvious tropes.

But as much as I found Kaikeyi’s campaign for increased women’s rights in general and greater agency and authority for herself in particular, the last quarter of the story fell flat for me. At that point, the bitter ending is coming fast, and Kaikeyi spends a great deal of time and energy castigating herself because she didn’t see it coming and can’t seem to stop the destruction that cannot be turned aside. She blames herself for absolutely everything that happens to a degree that just bogs down a whole chunk of chapters leading to the ending.

So I loved the first three quarters and was ready to throw the thing across the room in the long, drawn-out, “it’s all my fault, I’m to blame for everything” final quarter.

June is Audiobook Month and I listened to Kaikeyi rather than reading the text – which would have made throwing it across the room not just difficult but downright dangerous as I was generally driving while listening. And I’d hate to throw my iPhone out of the window. Seriously.

One of the reasons I kept going even when the story hit that big slough of despond at the end was because I was listening rather than reading. Stories that are in the first-person-perspective, as Kaikeyi is, lend themselves particularly well to audio when the narrator’s voice matches the character, as was certainly the case here. While I had mixed feelings about the story she was telling, the audio teller of the tale was excellent.

Review: By the Book by Jasmine Guillory

Review: By the Book by Jasmine GuilloryBy the Book (Meant to Be #2) by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, retellings
Series: Meant To Be #2
Pages: 320
Published by Hyperion Avenue on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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A tale as old as time—for a new generation…

Isabelle is completely lost. When she first began her career in publishing right out of college, she did not expect to be twenty-five, living at home, still an editorial assistant, and the only Black employee at her publishing house. Overworked and underpaid, constantly torn between speaking up or stifling herself, Izzy thinks there must be more to this publishing life. So when she overhears her boss complaining about a beastly high-profile author who has failed to deliver his long-awaited manuscript, Isabelle sees an opportunity to finally get the promotion she deserves.
All she has to do is go to the author’s Santa Barbara mansion and give him a quick pep talk or three. How hard could it be?
But Izzy quickly finds out she is in over her head. Beau Towers is not some celebrity lightweight writing a tell-all memoir. He is jaded and withdrawn and—it turns out—just as lost as Izzy. But despite his standoffishness, Izzy needs Beau to deliver, and with her encouragement, his story begins to spill onto the page. They soon discover they have more in common than either of them expected, and as their deadline nears, Izzy and Beau begin to realize there may be something there that wasn't there before.

Best-selling author Jasmine Guillory’s reimagining of a beloved fairy tale is a romantic triumph of love and acceptance and learning that sometimes to truly know a person you have to read between the lines.

My Review:

When we meet Isabelle Marlowe, it’s the first day of her dream job – or at least the starter job on her dream job ladder. She’s the new editorial assistant to Marta Wallace, one of the top editors at TAOAT Publishing.

That intro clues the reader into the two themes of this story. TAOAT stands for “Tale as Old as Time”, part of the chorus of the Oscar and Grammy winning song “Beauty and the Beast” from the 1991 Disney movie of the same name. By the Book is a contemporary retelling of that now-classic movie.

The second theme is conveyed by Isabelle’s passion for her brand new job. Isabelle loves books and everything about them. She loves reading, she loves editing, she loves writing, she loves looking for new books and she loves talking about books. Working in the publishing industry (also being a librarian, a nurse, or a teacher, BTW) is what’s commonly called a “passion job”. People go into those and certain other fields because they have a passion for the work. Or, at least, a passion for what they think the work will be. They know they’ll be overworked and underpaid, but they expect the joys of the job to make up for the many shortfalls.

As the story fast forwards two years, we see that Izzy’s passion for the work and everything that surrounds it has been ground out – and Izzy has been ground down – by the circumstances and drudgery that surround it. She’s even more overworked than she expected, as she is not only Marta’ assistant but also her gopher, AND as one of the very few POC on the staff of TAOAT (the publishing industry as a whole is still mostly white IRL), Izzy gets called in whenever someone needs to represent diversity in the office or the industry.

That her boss Marta seems to be modeling herself after the villainess of The Devil Wears Prada – or at least the lower budget publishing industry version – is nasty icing on top of the already tasteless cake. And Izzy’s heard from one of the other editors that Marta still doesn’t think Izzy’s up to the job – even after two years.

But Izzy and her office bestie Priya are on their way to a publishing conference in Los Angeles with Marta. They’ll still be overworked, underpaid and underappreciated – but at least they’ll be able to escape New York City’s frigid winter for a few days of California sunshine.

Izzy’s pretty much at the end of her last rope – and she’s getting sick of just hanging on. That’s when she overhears Marta complaining about a former child actor she signed for an autobiography who not only refuses to deliver a manuscript – he refuses to communicate at all. Izzy leaps before she looks into the fray, and volunteers to drive from LA to Santa Barbara to get in the would-be author’s face about his book and the lack thereof.

Driving to the beast’s coastal “castle” gets Izzy one more night in sunny California. Barging her way into the house where that beast, Beau Towers, has been holed up for a year gets her the chance of a lifetime.

A chance to read. A chance to write. And a chance to recover her passion.

Escape Rating A-: The heart of this story is in Izzy’s invasion of Beau Towers castle and what happens after. Because what happens first is that Beau is pretty damn beastly.

He gets better.

While the romance between Izzy and Beau is intended as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it hits the obvious beats of the movie pretty hard. When Izzy starts talking to her luxurious bathtub and she’s almost sure it’s talking back, the way that those familiar beats get pounded borders on overkill.

But the romance is just so damn charming that if you liked the original at all it’s impossible not to love this version as well.

While the romance begins with a meet cute, the situations they are separately in are both pretty damn ugly. We know about the mess that Izzy is in, and we already feel for her when she barges into Beau’s house. We start out sharing her opinion, that Beau is an overprivileged, irresponsible asshole – and he does nothing to counter that impression. Quite the reverse – he leans into it in an attempt to drive Izzy away.

He’s retreated into his very own “Fortress of Solitude” and is desperate to pull up the drawbridge behind him. But Izzy’s stuck – and he’s stuck with her. Or so it seems at first.

Their work into friendship into romance works because they both have mountains to climb and shells to climb out of. She needs to find her own voice again, and he needs to get past his own hurt and shame. And they both need to do it the same way, by writing it all out – even the hard parts.

Especially the hard parts.

The more they write – separately but together in the same space – the more they expose to each other. Beau gets to see Izzy’s dreams and how much she has invested in them, while Izzy sees Beau’s pain and how much he needs to let it out so he can forgive himself.

They fall in love because they get to really know each other all the way down to the bone. And just as in the movie, once Beau is able to let out all the terrible secrets he has been hiding, he stops being a beast.

While that part was beautiful, what was even better was the way that once Izzy let herself reach for her dreams she was able to find the passion she once had for her passion job – and the success that was her due.

If it worked that way for passion jobs in real life, the world would be a much happier place!

Review: A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow

Review: A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. HarrowA Spindle Splintered (Fractured Fables, #1) by Alix E. Harrow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: F/F romance, fairy tales, fantasy, retellings
Series: Fractured Fables #1
Pages: 128
Published by Tordotcom on October 5, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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USA Today bestselling author Alix E. Harrow's A Spindle Splintered brings her patented charm to a new version of a classic story.
It's Zinnia Gray's twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it's the last birthday she'll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no one has lived past twenty-one.
Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia's last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate.

My Review:

A Spindle Splintered is about the power of narrative to shape and warp people’s lives. And it’s about the power of sisterhood and friendship that helps them to break free.

Zinnia Gray is dying. For her, Sleeping Beauty is more than a myth or a fairy tale. It’s a dream of wish fulfillment. Sleeping Beauty went to sleep, and when she woke up her curse was broken and all was well.

Zinnia would be happy to sleep for a century if she could wake up and be healthy, with all of her loved ones around her. But it’s not to be, and she knows it. She has an incurable disease that is going to take away all the birthdays after this one.

Her best friend Charm is determined to give Zinnia the full Disney Princess Sleeping Beauty experience, complete with crumbling castle and defective spinning wheel. But the power of their friendship and the power of narrative and the multiverse turn out to be a whole lot stronger than either Zinnia or Charm could possibly have imagined.

Zinnia, like all the other Sleeping Beauties before and after her, pricks her finger on the spindle, but instead of sleeping for a century, Zinnia finds herself spinning out into the multiverse of all the Sleeping Beauties who have ever, or will ever, do the same.

Zinnia cries out through the multiverse, not for someone to save her, but for someone she can save. And her cry is answered in ways that Disney and the Brothers Grimm never imagined.

Escape Rating A+: First, this book is just plain wonderful. It’s a wonderfully twisted re-imagining of the Sleeping Beauty story, and it’s a terrific story of friendship, sisterhood and agency. I always love it when the princesses save themselves – as they should!

Most of the reviews make a comparison between A Spindle Splintered and the movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and that comparison is certainly there to be made. Just as Miles Morales teams up with variations of Spider-Man from across one multiverse, Zinnia teams up with Sleeping Beauties from myths and fairytales that spread across their multiverse.

There is, however, an element to A Spindle Splintered and the multiverse of Sleeping Beauties that wasn’t present in the Spiderverse. Come to think of it, there are two elements. One is that Spider-Man in all of his, her, and their incarnations, including Spider-Ham, is an active character with agency. Once that radioactive spider bites their victim, the resulting Spider-person becomes an active force for good.

Sleeping Beauty is a passive character. Her fate is to prick her finger and sleep for a century, only to be woken up by a kiss. She’s the progenitor of the woman in the refrigerator trope. She’s not even the protagonist of her own story.

But the original point I wanted to make about the royalty of princesses (yes, royalty is the collective noun for a group of princesses) who would be Sleeping Beauty is that many of them, and clearly the ones who answer Zinnia’s call, don’t want to be Sleeping Beauty. They are being forced or coerced or shoved into the role by the power of the narrative to shoehorn people into predetermined patterns or tropes. It’s a concept that has been used to power entire stories or series like Second Hand Curses by Drew Hayes, the Five Hundred Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey, and the Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman. The force of narrative, of its need to recreate timeless stories by shoving people into roles they don’t want in order to fulfill its directive, makes A Spindle Splintered a powerful story because we already know how the story is “supposed” to go and want to see it subverted.

And it’s wonderful – especially when all the Sleeping Beauties carry off the princess and save the day, not just for her, but for each other as well.

Speaking of stories that could use a different ending, the Fractured Fables series will continue next summer with A Mirror Mended. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, will Zinnia Gray save the sorceress or take a really big fall?” Or both. We’ll see what we see when we look in that mirror.

Review: Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters by Aimee Ogden

Review: Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters by Aimee OgdenSun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters by Aimee Ogden
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, retellings, science fiction
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom Publishing on February 23, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Gene-edited human clans have scattered throughout the galaxy, adapting themselves to environments as severe as the desert and the sea. Atuale, the daughter of a Sea-Clan lord, sparked a war by choosing her land-dwelling love and rejecting her place among her people. Now her husband and his clan are dying of an incurable plague, and Atuale’s sole hope for finding a cure is to travel off-planet. The one person she can turn to for help is the black-market mercenary known as the World Witch—and Atuale’s former lover. Time, politics, bureaucracy, and her own conflicted desires stand between Atuale and the hope for her adopted clan.
Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters has all the wonder and romance of a classic sci-fi novel, with the timelessness of a beloved fairy tale.

My Review:

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting with this one. I know it isn’t like anything I expected it to be – and that’s always marvelous.

OK, I was expecting it to be short and it was. This week kind of fell apart for me, so I was looking for something short to round out the week and get me back on track and this definitely ticked off those boxes.

Now that I’ve had a chance to cogitate on it a bit, Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters has left me with three sets of resonances that really shouldn’t gel, but somehow do.

First, there is a fairytale at the heart of this story, although I didn’t figure out which one until after the end. I was just not expecting an SFnal retelling of The Little Mermaid. And it isn’t obvious at first, but when you look back, all of the elements are definitely there, even though the happy ending in this version is way more bittersweet than Disney would ever have left things.

Although I think Atuale is actually a selkie rather than a mermaid, that isn’t clear in the story and it really isn’t necessary to know. What is known about her story is just about enough. She gave up her place as a Sea-Lord’s daughter because she fell in love with a land-dweller.

But Saareval is not a prince. And he doesn’t need to be. Love is love is love, as becomes even clearer as the story continues. Atuale’s shift from sea-creature to land-dweller was also the result of intervention by a witch with a hidden agenda, but the World-Witch is no Ursula.

And in spite of its fairy tale underpinnings, this story is no fantasy.

There’s a plague on Atuale’s world, and it is raging among the land-dwellers. Her husband and his entire family have been struck down with it and the healers are unable to find a cure. It’s up to Atuale to reach out to her friend-turned-enemy, the World-Witch, to make a deal to take her out to the stars in order to find a cure that her husband’s people won’t even want if she finds it.

But her journey among the stars makes her question every single thing that has happened since the day she left the sea. There’s an entire universe out there and Atuale is eager to explore it, along with someone who loves her exactly as she is and not just the parts of her that he finds acceptable.

“For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been’”. Atuale’s choices are both sad. She can save her husband’s people, knowing that they will never fully accept her or the cure she brings. Or she can travel among the stars. She can never do both.

And the choice, her choice, is both bitter and sweet.

Escape Rating B+:The above quote is by John Greenleaf Whitter from his poem Maud Muller, and it kept running through my head the entire time I was reading this story. It’s so clear that the story isn’t about the plague, but about Atuale’s choices about what to do about it.

She’s immune, she’s not going to get it no matter what happens. The process that made her capable of living on land did not fully make her one of her husband’s people, leading to their grudging tolerance of her but also her immunity to a plague that strikes only them.

So this is a story about what we sacrifice for love, because that’s the choice that faces Atuale at every turn. In order to have one love she has to give up another, and it’s a choice that tears her in two through the entire story.

I think I felt most for Atuale as she experiences the wonders – and very definitely the dangers – of exploring the wider universe. It’s a tease and a torment and she wants it and wants to share it, but the price is too high. Which does not erase that wanting at all.

But, and it’s just enough of a but to have kept this from getting an A grade, I wanted a bit more about Atuale’s people and their world, because it’s a much bigger world and a much sadder story than we see at first. It’s not that this story isn’t complete in itself, because it is, but rather that the relationship between Atuale and the World-Witch has SO MUCH history behind it and we get hints rather than a full picture. And I wish I had that full picture, complete with its story of love both requited and unrequited, royal privilege, royal politics and revolution. I felt teased and wished I had more to go on.

Initially, I said there were three things rattling around my head after reading this book. One was The Little Mermaid. The second was that quote from Whittier. The third is also from Disney, and was that ever a surprise. The ending of Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters and the post-credits scene from the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World’s End, encapsulates the ending to the romances in both stories in a way that echoes back to the bitter sweetness of that quote from Whittier. Love and happiness, pain and heartbreak, all jumbled together in a ball of tears.

Review: Ladies of the House by Lauren Edmondson

Review: Ladies of the House by Lauren EdmondsonLadies of the House: A Modern Retelling of Sense and Sensibility by Lauren Edmondson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Genres: relationship fiction, retellings, women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Graydon House on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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AN IRRESISTIBLE FAMILY DRAMA THAT PUTS A MODERN SPIN ON JANE AUSTEN’S CLASSIC SENSE AND SENSIBILITY
“I was absolutely charmed by Ladies of the House. A wonderful debut.” —Allison Winn Scotch, bestselling author of Cleo McDougal Regrets Nothing
No surprise is a good surprise. At least according to thirty-four-year-old Daisy Richardson. So when it’s revealed in dramatic fashion that her esteemed father had been involved in a public scandal before his untimely death, Daisy’s life becomes complicated—and fast.
For one, the Richardsons must now sell the family home in Georgetown they can no longer afford, and Daisy’s mother is holding on with an iron grip. Her younger sister, Wallis, is ready to move on to bigger and better things but falls fast and hard for the most inconvenient person possible. And then there’s Atlas, Daisy’s best friend. She’s always wished they could be more, but now he’s writing an exposé on the one subject she’s been desperate to avoid: her father.
Daisy’s plan is to maintain a low profile as she works to keep her family intact amid social exile, public shaming, and quickly dwindling savings. But the spotlight always seems to find the Richardsons, and when another twist in the scandal comes to light, Daisy must confront the consequences of her continued silence and summon the courage to stand up and accept the power of her own voice.
“A stellar novel that celebrates sisterhood and the way women can step out of flawed men’s shadows. I delighted in every page.”—Amy Meyerson, bestselling author of The Bookshop of Yesterdays and The Imperfects
“Warm, witty, and whip-smart. Edmondson’s talent shines in her expertly crafted story of two sisters breaking free of their father’s legacy. A sensational debut.”—Amy Mason Doan, author of The Summer List and Lady Sunshine

My Review:

The blurb for this book says that “no surprise is a good surprise.” While that’s true in the context of this story, I have to say that this book turned out to be a surprise, and for the most part it was a damn good one.

The subtitle of the book feels just a bit misleading, but also in a good way. With that proclamation of “A Modern Retelling of Sense and Sensibility” I was expecting something a bit more Jane Austen-like, and that isn’t exactly what I got. So if you’re looking for a version of Sense and Sensibility dropped whole and entire into the 21st century, that’s not exactly what you’re going to get.

Instead, think about what would happen if a family like the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility, or at least the female members of that family, existed in the present day. Or at least a present day before the pandemic restrictions.

Because the plot of the original story was driven by the circumstance of the widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters being forced into reduced circumstances by the death of their patriarch in an era when women’s only road to financial security was to be attached to a man – and they’d just lost theirs.

The story in Ladies of the House both has the same beginning as the original but differs widely and wildly in its execution because the world that the Richardson women inhabit is vastly different.

They may be reduced in circumstances, rather dramatically so, but they have choices that were completely unavailable to the Dashwoods.

The story of these Ladies of the House, rather than slavishly following its inspiration, follows the course of those choices. And in the process, creates a different, new and much more fascinating story than I, at least, originally expected.

Escape Rating A-: I’ll admit that I didn’t figure out what was going on until I read the Author’s Notes at the end of the book. At first, I saw very little of Sense and Sensibility and a whole lot of a contemporary piece of women’s fiction with a political twist for spice.

Although younger sister Wallis’ relationship with the fast-moving, fast-talking son of a political enemy certainly brought Marianne’s fast but equally  ill-fated romance with the equally smarmy Willoughby to mind.

But the heart and soul of this story is Daisy’s journey. If Wallis is “sensibility” as Marianne was, Daisy is playing the part of “sense” as Elinor did in the original. Daisy was her father’s favorite, and she’s the one who has followed in his footsteps into politics, as the chief-of-staff to a liberal Senator.

So when the late Senator Richardson was revealed to have had feet of clay up to the knees, it’s Daisy who suffers the most. Her job requires that she not become the story, her job is to make the Senator she works for be the story at every turn.

Her instinct is to deny, dismiss and minimize the scandal her father left behind him, even as she is forced to reckon with the part that she played in his downfall and her own. Her best friend is writing the investigative report of the whole sad affair, and the more he digs, the more Daisy buries herself.

It’s only when she finally and irrevocably steps away from her father’s shadow that she is able to find her own light.

But that’s part of what makes this modern retelling so different from its original. Daisy, Wallis and their mother Cricket all have choices that the Dashwood women did not. This is the story of what they do with those choices, now that they have them.

And how the making of those choices shapes them all – and very much for the better.

Review: Burning Roses by S.L. Huang

Review: Burning Roses by S.L. HuangBurning Roses by S.L. Huang
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy, retellings
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on September 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"S. L. Huang is amazing."—Patrick Rothfuss
Burning Roses is a gorgeous fairy tale of love and family, of demons and lost gods, for fans of Zen Cho and JY Yang.
Rosa, also known as Red Riding Hood, is done with wolves and woods.
Hou Yi the Archer is tired, and knows she’s past her prime.
They would both rather just be retired, but that’s not what the world has ready for them.
When deadly sunbirds begin to ravage the countryside, threatening everything they’ve both grown to love, the two must join forces. Now blessed and burdened with the hindsight of middle age, they begin a quest that’s a reckoning of sacrifices made and mistakes mourned, of choices and family and the quest for immortality."

My Review:

Just how many fairy tales can one story retell at the same time?

While the graphic novel series Fables may have answered that question by combining ALL of the Western fairy tales in one story, but it’s a story that requires 22 collected editions to encompass.

Burning Roses answers the question a bit differently. It combines the Western fairy tales of Little Red Riding Hood with a bit of Goldilocks and the Three Bears AND Beauty and the Beast and personifies them in Rosa, a Latina woman who has fled her home and family by going east to China. Where she becomes hunting partners with Hou Yi, a woman who is the personification of a Chinese fairy tale.

They are both middle-aged, they are both hunters, and they are both hunted. Or haunted. Or perhaps more than a bit of both.

Then the author packed the entire glorious tale into a novella. That’s a lot of packing, but the result is lovely. And haunting.

At first, it seems like a simple story. And in the present, it kind of is. Rosa with her rifle and Hou Yi with her bow and arrows are the ones who come to the aid of remote villagers when monsters come calling.

They’re both a bit past their prime – maybe more than a bit – and they need each other to take care of a job that they each, once upon a time, used to manage quite well on their own. But they are all the villagers have and they get it done.

But their past, individually rather than collectively, is complicated. And painful. And they’re both hiding from it – and hiding it from each other. Theirs is a relationship filled with silences where the truth is hidden.

Until the firebirds come for Hou Yi.

Not directly, because that would be too easy.

Instead, Hou Yi’s nemesis has sent the firebirds to hunt the local villagers, knowing that Hou Yi will be the one to respond, and then he’ll have her in the sights of his own arrows, whether they are made of magic, or wood, or memories.

But Hou Yi does not chase the firebirds alone. She and Rosa work together to track them. Along the way, they finally tell each other their versions of the truths they ran away from. Only to discover that those truths have been chasing them all along.

Escape Rating A-: The thing about novellas is that they need to pack a big story into a small package. often it works (Driftwood, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, The Empress of Salt and Fortune) but occasionally it doesn’t.

Burning Roses works because it mines backstories that we know, twists them a bit, adds something new, and weaves it all into a new whole thing. But those bits we know give it the weight it needs to make the story complete.

We don’t need all the details of any of the hinted at fairy tales, the suggestions are enough to give Rosa’s story resonance. It’s not a stretch to see Goldilocks as a right bitch. Those poor bears. Or to see the Beast as an abuser grooming his next victim. The original Grimm’s fairy tales were much grimmer than the sanitized versions that were popularized – or Disneyfied.

Even with Hou Yi’s story – which I did not know before reading Burning Roses – there’s a sense that there’s a deeper story there than she tells either Rosa or herself, and that all we have to do is find it. (It’s easy to find, it’s in Wikipedia)

But those originating tales are in Rosa’s and Hou Yi’s past, while the story we have is in their present. And that’s an entirely different story. It’s a “what happens after the happily ever after” story, even though neither of the tales of their youthful adventures ends happily.

And that’s the point. Those stories didn’t end well, and they are both living in the aftermath. An aftermath that each of them attributes to their own actions. An aftermath where they blame themselves for everything that went wrong.

They’re both running away from that blame. And they’re both running away from the lives and the loved ones they have left. Because they feel undeserving.

What they discover in this story is a kind of redemption. And it’s earned..

Review: The Heirs of Locksley by Carrie Vaughn

Review: The Heirs of Locksley by Carrie VaughnThe Heirs of Locksley (The Robin Hood Stories, #2) by Carrie Vaughn
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, retellings
Series: Robin Hood Stories #2
Pages: 128
Published by Tordotcom on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Carrie Vaughn follows up The Ghosts of Sherwood with the charming, fast-paced The Heirs of Locksley, continuing the story of Robin Hood's children.

"We will hold an archery contest. A simple affair, all in fun, on the tournament grounds. Tomorrow. We will see you there."

The latest civil war in England has come and gone, King John is dead, and the nobility of England gathers to see the coronation of his son, thirteen year old King Henry III.

The new king is at the center of political rivalries and power struggles, but John of Locksley―son of the legendary Robin Hood and Lady Marian―only sees a lonely boy in need of friends. John and his sisters succeed in befriending Henry, while also inadvertently uncovering a political plot, saving a man's life, and carrying out daring escapes.

All in a day's work for the Locksley children...

My Review:

I picked this up, admittedly rather early, because it combines two of my great reading loves, English history and fanfiction. And I really, truly was NOT expecting the second part of that equation.

I fell in love with English history at age 12, after seeing the movie Anne of a Thousand Days. I have no idea what drew me in so strongly. Certainly not any direct relationship to the history portrayed as I have zero English ancestry. Whether it was the pageantry, the politics or the power, I was absolutely hooked, leading to a life-long interest in British history, whether fictionalized or not.

Not that some of what grabbed me, like the Robin Hood and King Arthur, aren’t of dubious historical accuracy – at best.

But this particular novella duology – at least it’s a duology so far – does a terrific job of setting Robin Hood, Robin of Locksley, into a reasonably historical version of the time in which he was supposed to have lived, and skirts around the issues of exactly which, if any, of the tales about him might be true by making him a secondary character in these stories.

In these stories, Robin is no longer the outlaw of Sherwood. And he’s no longer a young man. Instead, he’s well into middle age, still powerful, still feared and hated and loved in equal measure, but also someone who recognizes that his time will inevitably draw to a close, sooner rather than later.

These stories focus on his children with Marian; his oldest daughter Mary, his son and heir John, and his slightly fey child Eleanor as they take their first steps into adulthood.

They also do a good job of giving bits of long-ago English history a face that makes them still feel relevant. The first book, The Ghosts of Sherwood, was a story about reckoning. About the nobles who favored King John still trying to eliminate Robin as a threat or a power, while the political maneuvering brought the negotiations surrounding the Magna Carta becomes personalized through his enemies attempt to kidnap his children – and his children manage to rescue themselves using the lessons their father and life on the edge of Sherwood have taught them.

In The Heirs of Locksley, the times have changed and the story has moved on a bit. It is 1220, and King John is dead. His 13-year-old son sits uneasily on the throne that he will occupy for the rest of his life. But Henry of Winchester, Henry III, is still a boy. A boy who never knew his father, but still stands in his shadow. The shadow of a man who seems to have pissed off everyone he ever knew.

Robin’s son John knows all about standing in a father’s long shadow. The two boys make a surprising common cause that leads them on an adventure that neither expected – to the consternation of all of the adults that surround them.

Escape Rating A-: I said at the beginning that this combined my loves of English history and fanfiction. The setting of these tales is between two of my favorite historical mystery series, both set in England and both occurring at times of great upheavals in history – as this series does.

I’m speaking of the Brother Cadfael series, by the late Ellis Peters, set in Shrewsbury, English between 1135 and 1145, at a time when the country was in the midst of a civil war. This series was also one of the first historical mystery series I have read, and the foundation of the popularity of the genre to this day.

The other series is the Owen Archer series, set in York in the late 1300s during the events that would eventually lead to yet another civil war, the Wars of the Roses. Both of these series, like these Robin Hood stories, do a fantastic job of drawing the reader directly into their time and place while still managing to comment on either our own, the immutability of human nature, or both.

(And now I’m missing Owen and will be moving the latest book in that series all the way up the virtually towering TBR pile!)

But I also referred to the Robin Hood stories as fanfiction – as the author does in the afterword to this book. It’s a concept that now that I’ve seen it, I can’t un-see it – and it resonates.

After all, the Robin Hood stories that we all know today weren’t written down until the late 1400s at the very earliest, three centuries after the adventures they portray. And even then, those written stories were merely printed versions of oral traditions that had arisen during the interim, sometime between Robin’s own time and the invention of the printing press.

As part of an oral tradition, the stories that were printed were the ones that were remembered, whether because they were the best stories, the most memorable ones, were just told by particularly charismatic storytellers – or all of the above. There’s no historical canon version, just a lot of stories that center around a larger-than-life character and his band of outlaws as they rebelled against an unjust authority.

It’s a “Fix-it” fic where the heroes fight wrongs and make things better in the end, as occurs when Richard the Lionhearted returns to his kingdom and the evil Sheriff of Nottingham is forced to leave Robin and his gang alone. The story conveniently ends before King Richard is killed and John takes back over, this time for good – or ill.

The Robin Hood Stories series are a kind of “next generation” fanfic where the author takes the beloved characters and tells readers what happened after the happy ever after, moving the story to the literal next generation, the earlier heroes’ children.

So she’s right. Not just that these stories feel like fanfiction but that the original Robin Hood stories were too. Complete with the “so many variations that the original canon is obscured” problem. In my review of the first book I noted that there’s a trend towards retellings going on right now. The world has gone mad and we’re all looking for the comfort of stories we know and love, in variations that may hold a few surprises but ultimately lead back to the tales that we already know.

And that’s what these Robin Hood Stories have been so far for me. A lovely comfort read with an interesting view of a historical period that I enjoy, an ultimately a visit with some old and very dear friends.

I hope there will be more.

Review: The Ghosts of Sherwood by Carrie Vaughn

Review: The Ghosts of Sherwood by Carrie VaughnThe Ghosts of Sherwood (The Robin Hood Stories, #1) by Carrie Vaughn
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fantasy, retellings
Series: Robin Hood Stories #1
Pages: 104
Published by Tordotcom on June 9, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Carrie Vaughn's The Ghosts of Sherwood revisits the Robin Hood legend with a story of the famed archer's children.
Everything about Father is stories.
Robin of Locksley and his one true love, Marian, are married. It has been close on two decades since they beat the Sheriff of Nottingham with the help of a diverse band of talented friends. King John is now on the throne, and Robin has sworn fealty in order to further protect not just his family, but those of the lords and barons who look up to him – and, by extension, the villagers they protect.
There is a truce. An uneasy one, to be sure, but a truce, nonetheless.
But when the Locksley children are stolen away by persons unknown, Robin and Marian are going to need the help of everyone they’ve ever known, perhaps even the ghosts that are said to reside deep within Sherwood.
And the Locksley children, despite appearances to the contrary, are not without tricks of their own…

My Review:

There’s a theory going around that people are re-reading and re-watching old favorites right now because they not only already know how they end, but that not-exactly-foreknowledge removes the tension of not knowing that everyone is going to be okay, because it’s already happened. So to speak.

There may also be a trend towards re-tellings as this uncertain season goes on. In a re-telling, we either already know how it’s going to go – and just want to see it told differently (By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar looks like it’s going to be one of those) or because we already know the characters and want to see them in new adventures. We don’t have to get to know new people because we’re already familiar with the cast. The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow falls into this category and does VERY WELL with it.

The Ghosts of Sherwood is also this particular variety of re-telling. We ALL have at least a nodding acquaintance with Robin Hood’s story – if only from movies like Disney’s 1973 animated version, with a surprisingly sexy fox as Robin. (Which is being remade as a live-action hybrid, Yikes!) Meaning that we all know these characters to some extent, and we know the outline of the original story. Making it ripe for an extension.

Leading to The Ghosts of Sherwood, the first novella in The Robin Hood Stories. Which, at least from this opening, read like “Robin Hood, the Next Generation”. Which has its bit of irony, as Star Trek Next Gen also did a takeoff episode on Robin Hood, but more in the vein of Men in Tights. The episode is best known for Worf’s line, “I am NOT a merry man.” I digress, but this does go to show just how ubiquitous the legend of Robin Hood is.

As The Ghosts of Sherwood opens, Robin and Marion are on their way back from Runnymede, from the signing of the Magna Carta, setting this story in 1215. Robin, as the Earl of Locksley, was one of the barons who rebelled against King John’s rule – yet again in Robin’s case – and brought him to the bargaining table. There is still no love lost between Robin and King John, not even 20 years after the events that made their way into legend.

But Robin and Marion have changed – as has King John. Robin and Marion are married, and are part of the nobility of England, as fractured as it was at that time. The surviving members of Robin’s band of outlaws are part of their household at Locksley. And they have three children, Mary, John and Eleanor. Mary, the oldest, is 16, Eleanor is 8 and John is somewhere in between.

They are all as familiar with Sherwood as they are with their own house, but Mary seems to be the one who is most like her father, and most at home in the forest that is part of their home and heritage.

This story is, not exactly a passing of the torch, but rather a story that shows that the younger generation is willing to pick up that burden when the time comes. The children are kidnapped in the forest by, not outlaws but rather men loyal to the barons who opposed their father over the Magna Carta.

But the children have no certainty that their parents even know they are missing. It is up to them to use the cunning they inherited from both their parents, all the talents they can muster, as well as the legends that make Sherwood a place of menace to outsiders – so that they can rescue themselves.

Escape Rating A-: First, this was a lovely little story. It does a terrific job of portraying Robin and Marion’s post-outlaw life in a way that seems fitting. They are older, occasionally wiser, and often tireder than they were back in the day. And that’s the way it should be.

The details also do a terrific job of placing the story firmly within a historical, rather than mythical, legendary or fantasy context. If Robin existed, he would have been one of the nobles forcing King John to the bargaining table and the Magna Carta. It’s impossible to imagine that the enmity they felt for each other during King Richard the Lionhearted’s absence on Crusade, especially Robin’s armed rebellion, would ever have faded. As this story opens, John is nearly at the end of his reign, and Robin and Marion are no longer the young rebels they once were. (I’m saying the above in spite of the story being billed as historical fantasy. So far, at least, there are no fantastic elements – in spite of Mary referring to her mysterious protector as “The Ghost”. Maybe in a future installment?)

The focus of this story is on their children, particularly 16-year-old Mary, as she faces the decisions of oncoming adulthood.

But the story also deals with the politics of the country as one king’s reign is about to end and his heir is a child of nine. That forces are jockeying for power, and that Robin will have influence and could possibly be influenced is a part of his times.

So the story has large implications for the future of England, and the future stories of the series. At the same time, it’s very small and intimate. Three children, kidnapped, forced to rely on their wits and each other, figuring out how to get the better of their captors in spite of the odds. By banding together.

That the story works so well on both levels gives me high hopes for the future stories in the series. I’m very much looking forward to reading The Heirs of Locksley later this summer. Because I want more.

Review: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

Review: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice HadlowThe Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, retellings
Pages: 480
Published by Henry Holt and Co. on March 31, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Mary, the bookish ugly duckling of Pride and Prejudice’s five Bennet sisters, emerges from the shadows and transforms into a desired woman with choices of her own.

What if Mary Bennet’s life took a different path from that laid out for her in Pride and Prejudice? What if the frustrated intellectual of the Bennet family, the marginalized middle daughter, the plain girl who takes refuge in her books, eventually found the fulfillment enjoyed by her prettier, more confident sisters? This is the plot of The Other Bennet Sister, a debut novel with exactly the affection and authority to satisfy Austen fans.

Ultimately, Mary’s journey is like that taken by every Austen heroine. She learns that she can only expect joy when she has accepted who she really is. She must throw off the false expectations and wrong ideas that have combined to obscure her true nature and prevented her from what makes her happy. Only when she undergoes this evolution does she have a chance at finding fulfillment; only then does she have the clarity to recognize her partner when he presents himself—and only at that moment is she genuinely worthy of love.

Mary’s destiny diverges from that of her sisters. It does not involve broad acres or landed gentry. But it does include a man; and, as in all Austen novels, Mary must decide whether he is the truly the one for her. In The Other Bennet Sister, Mary is a fully rounded character—complex, conflicted, and often uncertain; but also vulnerable, supremely sympathetic, and ultimately the protagonist of an uncommonly satisfying debut novel.

My Review:

The Other Bennet Sister (UK Cover)

The Other Bennet Sister is definitely NOT a book to be judged by its cover. I really hated that cover – and this is one of the rare occasions where the UK cover is just as bad. Both covers seem to picture Mary Bennet exactly as she was in Pride and Prejudice. She seems washed out in the US cover and judgmental in the UK cover.

But I loved the book.

The real Mary, or at least the version I want to be the real Mary, does begin her story as sermonizing and judgmental. But, and it’s a HUGE but, because this is Mary’s own story and not the story of her much more brightly shining sisters, we see that Mary’s behavior is the result of being shy and withdrawn. She’s retreated into herself because she’s the frequently overlooked and often denigrated middle sister, trapped between the gorgeously beautiful Jane and Lizzy and the shallow but pretty Kitty and Lydia.

She’s not really an ugly duckling in the midst of a flock of swans, but her mother sure as hell makes her feel like it at every turn. I didn’t like Mrs. Bennet in the original story – AT ALL – and I like her even less here. Actually, I loathe her even more than I dislike this book’s cover.

Mary isn’t a diamond of the first water, as her older sisters are. She doesn’t sparkle the way her younger sisters do. But she is as pretty as any other young woman of her time, and would have been fine in any family slightly more functional than the Bennets.

But this is not a parallel story to Pride and Prejudice. Instead, it’s more like an alternate sequel, as most of the events take place after the end of P&P. Not merely after those events, but also after the long-feared death of Mr. Bennet, leaving Mrs. Bennet and her remaining unmarried daughters, Mary and Kitty.

And that is where Mary’s story really begins, as she starts the process of taking control of her own life for her own self – in spite of her mother’s frequent interference and constant disparaging – and often melodramatic – pronouncements.

Once Mary is on her own the story takes flight, as she explores the limited varieties of life possible for a spinster and begins to craft her own beliefs about who she is and how she should live – whether she manages to marry or not.

That the end of her journey of self-discovery leads her to love and happiness is the icing on a delightful and thoroughly tasty little cake of a story.

Escape Rating A-: In the end, I enjoyed The Other Bennet Sister considerably more than I expected to at the beginning. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, but I’m not a fan or an aficionado. I found Mrs. Bennet in particular to be utterly appalling as a character, and Caroline Bingley and Catherine de Bourgh are not people I’d ever want to spend much time with. Certainly not enough time to ever attempt a reread of the book.

So one of the things I really liked about The Other Bennet Sister is that none of these petty villains are ever described as anything more than exactly what they are.

It does make for some fairly hard reading at the beginning of the story, as we pretty much suffer right along with Mary as she is first constantly berated by Mrs. Bennet, and then is forced to take on the role of charity case in the homes of both Elizabeth and then Jane as they subtly or not-so-subtly make her aware that she’s unwanted and unwelcome.

She has no place and she has no choice and that’s a difficult situation to be in.

But that’s when she takes things into her own hands and looks for other options, first with Lizzy’s friend Charlotte and her husband Mr. Collins – who was a figure of fun in the original, much like Mary herself.

It’s only when Mary takes herself off to her aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, that she finally finds a place where she is welcome and can work out her own future, whatever it might be. But all along Mary is brave and forthright, even in situations where those around her do their level best to keep her as far down as possible.

It’s fun watching her grow and expand her horizons. It’s also heartening to see her look hard at the easy way out but reject it as unworthy, over and over. She does a great job of exploring her limited possibilities and making her best choices.

In the end, Mary is a fascinating character, a woman with agency but one whose thoughts, beliefs and choices reflect her time and not ours. The Other Bennet Sister is a lovely story that uses its original as a springboard to something better!