I’ll be honest, I scheduled this post primarily to give myself a kick to finally catch up on my ARC reviews. Some were great; some were disappointing; some were in between — but as the name implies, they all deserve honest reviews.
If This Gets Out by Sophie Gonzales & Cale Dietrich
Eighteen-year-olds Ruben Montez and Zach Knight are two members of the boy-band Saturday, one of the biggest acts in America. Along with their bandmates, Angel Phan and Jon Braxton, the four are teen heartbreakers in front of the cameras and best friends backstage. But privately, cracks are starting to form: their once-easy rapport is straining under the pressures of fame, and Ruben confides in Zach that he’s feeling smothered by management’s pressure to stay in the closet.
On a whirlwind tour through Europe, with both an unrelenting schedule and minimal supervision, Ruben and Zach come to rely on each other more and more, and their already close friendship evolves into a romance. But when they decide they’re ready to tell their fans and live freely, Zach and Ruben start to truly realize that they will never have the support of their management. How can they hold tight to each other when the whole world seems to want to come between them?
The premise was a fun trope subversion — boy-band romance, but make it queer! — and I appreciated the diverse cast, whose diverse struggles were thoughtfully acknowledged. However, the plot consisted of romantic tropes upon romantic tropes upon romantic tropes, which I know will be a selling point for some readers but was somewhat underwhelming for me. It was also really obvious that the co-authors alternated chapters with their POV characters; the two narrators had distinct voices and worldviews, but at the same time there were minor inconsistencies throughout the narrative.
Classification wise, the book uncomfortably straddles the line between YA and NA, with repeated emphasis of the band members’ technical adulthood conflicting with the ~teen love~ vibes (read: romantic angst, incredibly poor decision-making, sometimes-cringe-inducing discussions of attraction and sex and sexuality) and the role of their adults. And to be fair, being eighteen IRL uncomfortably straddles that line. Specifically within the context of the novel, though, the in-between-ness made the themes and arcs feel muddled.
Overall this is still an enjoyable read but one with subjective issues. I didn’t love it as much as I hoped, but I’m sure others will find it delightful.
Within These Wicked Walls by Lauren Blackwood
Andromeda is a debtera — an exorcist hired to cleanse households of the Evil Eye. She would be hired, that is, if her mentor hadn’t thrown her out before she could earn her license. Now her only hope of steady work is to find a Patron — a rich, well-connected individual who will vouch for her abilities.
When a handsome young heir named Magnus Rorschach reaches out to hire her, she takes the job without question. Never mind that he’s rude and demanding and eccentric, that the contract comes with a number of outlandish rules … and that almost a dozen debtera had quit before her. If Andromeda wants to earn a living, she has no choice.
But she quickly realizes this is a job like no other, with horrifying manifestations at every turn, and that Magnus is hiding far more than she has been trained for. Death is the most likely outcome if she stays, the reason every debtera before her quit. But leaving Magnus to live out his curse alone isn’t an option because — heaven help her — she’s fallen for him.
Stunningly romantic, Lauren Blackwood’s heartstopping debut, Within These Wicked Walls, ushers in an exciting new fantasy voice.
Since Jane Eyre is one of my favorite classics, I was intrigued but ultimately disappointed by this reimagining. I know, objectively speaking, there’s nothing inherently wrong with an adaptation whose roots in the original are barely recognizable … but this was so unlike Jane Eyre — completely different plots, completely different character names, arguably very different moods — that I felt baited and misled by the marketing.
Setting all that aside, unfortunately I couldn’t get into this book on its own merits either. The fantasy elements felt disjointed, leaving me confused as to how it all fit together and how it affected the story. The drama felt one-sided and overexaggerated in many scenes. The romance, one of the pillars of Jane Eyre’s appeal, wasn’t particularly compelling either: the chosen terms of endearment were more awkward than endearing, banter seemed to take the place of much-needed relationship building, and I just wasn’t convinced that there was actual chemistry between the Jane and Rochester analogues.
The Ballerinas by Rachel Kapelke-Dale
Fourteen years ago, Delphine abandoned her prestigious soloist spot at the Paris Opera Ballet for a new life in St. Petersburg — taking with her a secret that could upend the lives of her best friends, fellow dancers Lindsay and Margaux. Now 36 years old, Delphine has returned to her former home and to the legendary Palais Garnier Opera House, to choreograph the ballet that will kickstart the next phase of her career — and, she hopes, finally make things right with her former friends. But Delphine quickly discovers that things have changed while she’s been away … and some secrets can’t stay buried forever.
Moving between the trio’s adolescent years and the present day, The Ballerinas explores the complexities of female friendship, the dark drive towards physical perfection in the name of artistic expression, the double-edged sword of ambition and passion, and the sublimated rage that so many women hold inside — all culminating in a twist you won’t see coming, with magnetic characters you won’t soon forget.
Having enjoyed the Tiny Pretty Things duology, I was cautiously optimistic about reading another ballet-centered thriller even though the genre is typically not my cup of tea. There was one eleventh-hour reveal that I liked, and it was interesting enough to keep me reading to the end, but what I thought was an anticlimactic Big Reveal (after a lot of suspenseful buildup) and the allo/cis/mostly-white feminism ultimately made this a “just okay” read for me.
The Sword in the Street by C.M. Caplan
Hired blades ought to be better at making ends meet. John Chronicle bleeds his patron’s foes in savage duels. While he’s disgusted by the petty grievances and corporate laws he champions, even the promise of security is better than nothing at all. But how long can he depend on a wage that barely pays enough to cover his rent?
His boyfriend Edwin is familiar with dependency. Reliant on his parents’ goodwill to supply the drugs that keep the spirals of his mind in check, he wants nothing more than to get out from under their thumb. A solution comes when he finds a document full of knowledge that was, impossibly, forgotten. But while he could use those secrets to rewrite the gentry’s unjust laws, it might cost him his relationship — or John’s life.
The two find themselves entangled in the web of intrigue surrounding the laws, the swordsmen, and their sponsors. They’re forced to question how bloody they’re willing to get for a shred of agency. But will they survive this tangle of deceit together?
I originally signed up for this blog tour because I was super excited about the bisexual and especially the autism representation in an intriguing fantasy setting. Unfortunately, that same representation led me to withdraw — though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it definitively problematic, I was very uncomfortable promoting this book due to the way the bisexual and autistic main character (Edwin) was portrayed.
Beyond that, I didn’t find the other protagonist (John) particularly sympathetic, even after learning about his Tragic Backstory, and honestly their relationship didn’t make sense to me: it was incredibly toxic, they were clearly mismatched, and I just couldn’t see how they initially got together or why I was supposed to want them to stay together.
There’s so much going on, but I felt alternately disconnected from the characters and plot due to the structure (short alternating-POV chapters) and kind of overwhelmed by Edwin’s obsessive thought spirals and anxiety. Only a single scene really brought everything together, after which everything seemed to unravel again.
If not for the blog tour, I almost certainly would have DNF’d the book.
A War of Swallowed Stars by Sangu Mandanna
A prince without his kingdom.
A kingdom without its princess.
The destruction of the stars themselves.
War is destroying the galaxy. Esmae has vanished without a trace. A terrifying, ravenous beast is devouring the stars one by one. Titania is offered a gift that may well be a curse. Alexi, the exiled prince, is asked to pay a heavy price for his mistakes. And far, far away, on a dark, mysterious planet, a sleeping god stirs awake.
War or family.
Pride or peace.
As the end of the world draws ever closer, Esmae and Alexi must decide how far they’ll go to win — and who they’ll sacrifice along the way.
Celebrated author Sangu Mandanna promises a gripping conclusion to the Celestial Trilogy in A War of Swallowed Stars.
It had been a while since I read the first and second books so I reread them in preparation for this one. That gave me perspective on all the long-term buildup, and also reinforced my tendency to get nervous about the final book in a series: Will it uphold the standards that kept me hooked on the series, and will it satisfactorily tie up all the loose ends? Will it involve a Final Battle; if it does, will I actually find it interesting? But in the case of this series, I needn’t have worried so much. (Yes and yes. Yes; surprisingly, yes!)
Mandanna maintains the engaging mix of sci-fi and fantasy that make this universe so uniquely engaging. There are so many parallels and callbacks and instances of foreshadowing throughout the entire trilogy, making it an impressively well-constructed epic. Every resolution and every revelation felt not just logically consistent with the previous books but earned. Which is to say, I literally cried through the last 10% of the book, with all the joy and grief and hope it entailed.