Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

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Let’s tear down the tower of Babel

Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang, published 23 August 2022. Yes, the title is a mouthful, but in keeping with the story and definitely one of the reasons I wanted to read this dark academia alternate history/historical fantasy.

The tower of Babel, the heart and centre of the Royal Institute of Translations, is also at the heart of this fictional early Victorian era story. Like the TARDIS it is bigger on the inside, housing more than eight floors of libraries, laboratories and lecture rooms. It is the centre of silver-working, engraving translations into bars of silver to cover all aspects of a certain word or topic, so that nothing gets lost in translation, for magical effect.

The story is told from the POV of Robin Swift, who is a half-Chinese orphan brought to Britain by Professor Lovell, a member of Babel, when he was about ten years old. He’s been learning languages since to prepare him for enrolling at Oxford University.

At Babel, Robin learns that silver-working is Britain’s main tool for its industrial revolution and imperial expansion. Which is why the secret society Hermes is trying to tear down Babel, because it enables the British Empire to keep colonising and exploiting other countries. That Hermes is doing so at all costs, resolving to violence, is what makes Robin waver about whether he’s doing the right thing over and over. What is Robin willing to sacrifice for the greater good? Will he resort to violence or find a different way to stop Babel?

What I liked about the book is that despite it being a dense read, it is a page-turner. It was easy for me to get immersed in the story and sympathise with the characters. The writing is easy to follow and I enjoyed reading every footnote and agreed with Kuang’s assertions about translations and the hard work of linguists.

Yet, the main message of the book, colonisation is bad, made for a tough read from about the half-way point of the book. It is being ham-fistedly hammered home at every opportunity and I found myself rolling my eyes more and more often.

Furthermore, and this is already hinted at in the subtitle, Hermes doesn’t shrink back from the use of violence. Violence that would be seen as terrorism these days. I’m not a big fan of ‘the ends justify the means,’ which is why it took me nearly two weeks to actually finish the last part of the book. This is not due to the writing suddenly lacking, it is just because the questions Robin faces and the decisions he faced made me uncomfortable. However, that was supposed to be the book’s purpose, to make you think while enjoying a good story.

3/5 Harpy Eagles

Witch! Witch! You’re a witch!

The very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna, published 23 August 2022.

Did you know that there are witches all over the world hiding in plain sight? All orphans, because their parents died soon after it was clear they were witches. Obviously this is due to an age-old curse which also requires that witches are not allowed to meet each other regularly or live together, because that could cause the “muggles” to notice them.

Mika Moon is a young witch who wishes things had been different for her during her lonely upbringing, but accepting the terms of the curse told to her by the witch who had adopted her, but not raised her.

Mika is offered the job of tutoring three young witches who, in the absence of their adopted mother witch, have no one to teach them how to keep their magic in check and an outsider is about to visit in six weeks’ time. Seeing that she is desperately needed, Mika packs her belongings, plants, dog and fish and moves to the warded and hidden manor house by the sea in Norfolk.

The three girls are wonderfully written and their interactions with the grown-ups often made me laugh out loud. Of course there is a grumpy guy who feels the attracted to Mika, and there are the meddling “grandparents” – the housekeeper, the gardener and his spouse.

The book reminded me of The House in the Cerulean Sea, there is magic and found family and love and heart break and deeply seated pain, and an outsider who could ruin it all. Yet, in the end all will work out if not how the MCs thought it would.

4/5 Harpy Eagles

Quick ARC Reviews – November 2022

If This Book Exists, You’re In The Wrong Universe, by Jason Pargin.

This is the fourth book in the John Dies at the End series. All the other books in the series were written under Pargin's pen name David Wong, who is also the main character of the stories. 

Like the three other books in this series, this book can be read as a standalone. Reading the other books in the series, in order or not, won’t help with that feeling of “what the … am I reading here?” It's a bonkers wild ride with aliens and magical soy sauce and parasites and a magical egg that demands human sacrifices and ...

In other words, a novel where you have to trust that the author knows what they were doing and go with the flow. 

4/5 Harpy Eagles


The Conductors (Murder and Magic book 1) by Nicole Glover, published 02 March 2021.

I liked the idea of the story, Underground Railroad conductors turned detectives, and there is magic involved. Sadly, I didn’t like the way the story was told. 

Too many characters are introduced at the beginning of the story and they all lacked backstory, so keeping up with who was who was difficult. 

The magic system is not well explained. It’s not clear what makes a magic holder and how exactly the magic works. All I understood was that constellations are used as sigils and those make up a spell. 

The mystery is interesting, but since there was too much telling, via dialogue between the two main characters Hetty and Benjy, it was not very engaging. 

This speculative fiction woven into a historical fiction story was not for me. Still, I am hoping the next books in the series are better. 

3/5 Harpy Eagles


The Immortality Thief by Taran Hunt, published 11 October 2022.

This is the story of that quirky side-character who seems to always stumble into situations without ever having had the ambition to be a hero. Alas, he's about to become the hero he never wanted to be and here is his story. 

There is a thousand year old space ship about to be sucked into a supernova. Sean Wren, refugee, criminal, linguist, and FTL pilot, and two other felons are offered a pardon when they rescue important data about the Philosopher's Stone from the space ship before it goes up in flames. What's supposed to be a quick job soon turns into alien encounters, sociopolitical debates and a rather predictable outcome. 

I liked the short chapters and the chapter titles. I did not enjoy the 600+ pages of the book. The story could have been told in half the page-count. 

3/5 Harpy Eagles


Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree, first published 22 February 2022, US publication 10 November 2022.

TheMarquessMagpie wrote a wonderful review about this book earlier this year. You can find it here. I agree wholeheartedly. 

This book is like a hot mug of coffee and a warm cinnamon roll on a blustery autumn day. Simply delicious, heart-warming soul-food. 

5/5 Harpy Eagles

Of Heroines and Yellow Jackets

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth has (of course) been sitting on my shelf forever. The virtual one, at least. Let‘s call it an e-reader-lurker. I started it when heading out for a vacation, because for me that‘s always a good opportunity to tackle some books that have been on my radar for a longer time. And in this case I think my vacation mood made me overlook a lot of things that would have had me bailing otherwise. This is a big “I liked it, and yet…“

The book is told in two alternating timelines. One is set in 1902, when two students of the Brookhants boarding school for girls share not only a passion for the memoirs of young writer Mary MacLane, but also for each other. Named after a quote from Mary‘s book, they form the “Plain Bad Heroine Society“. They are found dead in the orchard of the school, killed by a swarm of yellow jackets. More deaths will follow them.

The other timeline is set in the present day. Author Merritt Emmons has written a book about the events of 1902, and a horror movie adaptation is in the works. After a rather bumpy start, she forms a bond with actresses Harper Harper and Audrey Wells. But during production, talk about the curse of Brookhants gets louder and louder, and in the end it gets hard for them to distinguish truth from rumor and show effects.

Let‘s start with the positive things. The writing style was quirky and engaging, and I liked the omniscient narrator a lot. The use of footnotes made everything feel quite plausible. When starting it, I had the giddy feeling that I’d probably like it a lot. Introducing the different timelines had a lot of potential, and yet…

And yet I don‘t think the book delivered on that potential. I didn‘t notice it on my e-reader at first, but in print this book has over 600 pages. It is really long, yet the end felt rushed and didn‘t tie everything together in a satisfying way. The plot(s) moved along very slow, so it was hard to get a sense of building tension. Also, what little there was, just fizzled out at the end.

While it is classified as horror, it didn‘t really feel like it. Again, probably because it didn‘t grab me that much with its slow speed. There are a few gross scenes, and if you are already a bit nervous around wasps you may be more so after it.

3/5 Magpies

Half-thought through

Ruthanna Emrys’ A Half-Built Garden was published 26 July 2022. The blurb for the book reads as follows:

On a warm March night in 2083, Judy Wallach-Stevens wakes to a warning of unknown pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay. She heads out to check what she expects to be a false alarm--and stumbles upon the first alien visitors to Earth. These aliens have crossed the galaxy to save humanity, convinced that the people of Earth must leave their ecologically-ravaged planet behind and join them among the stars. And if humanity doesn't agree, they may need to be saved by force.

The watershed networks aren't ready to give up on Earth. Decades ago, they rose up to exile the last corporations to a few artificial islands, escape the dominance of nation-states, and reorganize humanity around the hope of keeping their world liveable. By sharing the burden of decision-making, they've started to heal the wounded planet.

But now corporations, nation-states, and networks all vie to represent humanity to these powerful new beings, and if any one accepts the aliens' offer, Earth may be lost. With everyone’s eyes turned skyward, everything hinges on the success of Judy's effort to create understanding, both within and beyond her own species.

Given the plot takes place roughly sixty years from now the most alien thing about the whole story was the humans. First off, in sixty years time? Really? That’s bloody soon. Major things must have happened for people on Earth to turn course and it must have happened within the next twenty to thirty years. What happened?

The corporations, who according to their own statements have ruled Earth for over a hundred years, have been banned to artificial islands in the South Pacific. Their Hunger-Games-District-One-like behaviour has brought them to a point where, apart from piling on money, gender-fluid representation seems more important than anything else.

Admirably, eco-friendly networks in North America are trying to save the planet by living very down to earth, reducing and even negating their carbon footprints. These eco-friendly people live in co-parenting, gender-fluid/transsexual households and are interconnected through dandelion networks that help them make democratic decisions. The networks seem to be based on how Reddit threads work.

The aliens, called Ringers, have been searching the galaxy for other sentient species that they can save from extinction. Earth is the first planet they arrive at in time to do so. The Ringers have been studying humans from radio and television broadcasts they received over the last 200 years. Hence the Ringers speak English fluently and have a broad understanding of how Western human culture works. They want to incorporate humanity into their system of symbiotic living on dyson sphere space stations light years from our solar system.

People from the dandelion networks make first contact with the Ringers. They don’t want to leave the planet. The US government wants a chance to expand into space. And the corporations hope for new technology and ways to make money. Now the Earthlings, made up of the three factions, need to try to ‘persuade’ each other and the Ringers what would be the best course of action.

Gender dynamics and parenting are topics that caused this book to be compared to the works of Ursula K. LeGuin and Becky Chambers. Yet, Chambers and LeGuin manage to interweave those topics into their stories in a far more engaging way than Emrys does. She intersperses the fairly interesting basis of her story with breastfeeding, pronoun badges, discussions about parenting, gender fluidity and non-binary gender pronouns, alien tentacle threesomes, and a few discussions about who of the three human groups might be right, and of course a few squabbles amongst the different Ringer factions.

I had expected to read a book about first contact, about aliens and how they live, about what makes Earth and it’s inhabitants important to preserve despite the problems the planet and humanity face.

What I actually read was a book centred on parenting and gender pronouns; democratic eco-friendly co-parenting versus corporations on artificial islands that are hiding their children and need five different gender pronouns depending on what kind of clothes they wear. Oh, yes, and there were aliens that looked like lizards and spiders and lived in symbiosis and had rather organic technology.

What rankled me further, there wasn’t any global representation; humanity is not just dandelion networks, the US government and some corporations in the South Pacific. Also, and this was mentioned briefly by the main character, Earth is made up of more than just humans, but the book centred on humans and their survival only.

2/5 Harpy Eagles

That’s how it ends?

The third and last book in the Scholomance trilogy, The Golden Enclaves, by Naomi Novik was published 27 September, 2022.

The first two books in the series weren’t as bad as I had originally thought. Meaning, I had expected YA dark academia romance, but in fact it was actually more dark academia than romance.

Book three on the other hand, was not the conclusion I had hoped it would be; El taking down the large and rich enclaves and offering save havens for all magical families.

[The following might contain spoilers.]

While her main objective is to open Golden Enclaves, El travels the world with her tiny entourage of allies to, find Orion whom she suspects isn’t dead after all. In her grief for Orion, El acts very out of character, for example she hooks up with Liesel, whom she neither likes nor trusts. Then, once she’s found Orion and rescued him from the dark edge he seems to be balancing on, she sends him back to his mother, fully knowing this is the worst idea ever.

The ending of the story is very “Elizabeth Swan & Will Turner”. El and Orion stay together, but apart from each other. El is opening Golden Enclaves all over the world and hunting maw-mouths, while Orion keeps the Scholomance free of mals.

The whole plot seemed as if it was thought up on a napkin after having watched a few films and played a few video games. El levels up with every stop on her journey and she acquires tools that help her in her final “boss-fight”. It all ends on a slightly high note by telling the reader that El and Orion are together after all and that Liesel was just a fluke to help El feel good in her body.

I’m not sure what I had expected, but it wasn’t this.

PS: El is from Great Britain, but her language is definitely American English. She uses Americanisms so often that I actually wondered why Novik gave her a British background.

1/5 Harpy Eagles

Be Gay – Do Magic

Yes, I shamelessly stole the headline from TorDotCom’s Instagram feed. Sorry-not-sorry.

A Restless Truth by Freya Marske, expected publication 01 November 2022.

The sequel to A Marvellous Light, the first book in The Last Binding trilogy, is set on an ocean liner travelling from America to Great Britain. This time Robin’s sister Maud is in the spotlight, she’s working ‘undercover’ trying to find the second piece of “the Contract”. [“The Contract” is a fae artifact made up of three magical items that allow the user to syphon magic from other magicians.] That’s why she’s accompanying an elderly lady, and her rather rude parrot, who supposedly has this second piece. But before Maud can find out anything, the elderly lady is killed using magic.

It’s clear that Maud needs help solving this ‘locked room mystery’. Fortunately for her Lord Hawthorne is aboard and grudgingly agrees to help her. She makes further allies in Violet Debenham, a magician and actress who’s wreathed in scandal, as well as the young writer Ross, who carries a suitcase of scandalous material. The group has to find out where the piece of the contract is hidden while also trying to avoid attracting the attention of the murderous magicians hiding among the passengers.

I truly enjoyed this LGBTQ+ historical fantasy/mystery/romance. It was a real page turner and, although I solved the mystery of where and what the second piece of the Contract was fairly early on, I enjoyed how the four amateur detectives puzzled it all out. Tiny note at the end: the cover is gorgeous!

5/5 Harpy Eagles

Nettle & Bone

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Well actually, kind of a bird…. It‘s the MarquessMagpie crawling out of her hole to finally write a review again.

Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher started out as my bedtime e-book, but grabbed me enough that it got promoted to my “main book“ pretty quickly. I think I picked it up after hearing about it on All the Books.

I would say it‘s a fairytale for people who are sick of them. Let me show you the ingredients that make this story special:

  • The princess: Marra is not sweet 16, but 30 and not the least interested in marrying. Instead, she‘s great at needlework and out for revenge.
  • The prince: Well, he‘s not the charming kind at all. He married both of Marra‘s sisters, killed the first one and abuses the second one. So of course we set out to kill him.
  • The gravewitch: While being a weapon all by herself, she‘s got a demon chicken and she‘s not afraid to use it.
  • The fairy godmother: She‘s better at cursing than at blessing, but she‘s doing her best.
  • The bone dog: A story is always better with an animal sidekick, so who cares if he rattles a bit.
  • The lumberjack-type love interest they pick up along the way: I already forgot his name. Gladly, the story centers on Marra‘s quest and the group dynamics.

The timeline was a bit confusing at first, but straightened out once the gang got together. At it‘s core, it‘s a revenge quest story with some adventures along the way. What worked really well for me was Kingfisher‘s clever and snarky writing style and great group dynamics.

4/5 Magpies

The Queens of Renthia Series Review

The Queens of Renthia series by Sarah Beth Durst took me a really long time to read. I read the first book The Queens of Renthia in July 2019, and the last book in September 2022. Each time I started the next book, I regretted that it took me this long to pick it up. But with a TBR as out of control as mine, what am I to do.

The first book introduces the reader to the world of Renthia. The land is full of elemental spirits held under control by the queen. The spirits hate everything and everyone in their normal state, only caring to destroy and kill. Under the queen, they can be coaxed to reluctantly create and build. Some young inhabitants of the land who show elemental affinities can at least control the spirits to do no harm. These become pupils in academias, and the best of the lot can become heirs to the queen if they are selected by the talent-seeking champions.

The story follows Daleina, an academy student, and Ven, a former champion fallen into disgrace. Daleina’s talent is not strong, and while she is under no illusion about the strength of her elemental affinities, she has a strong will to protect and use her powers for the best. What follows is a tale full of twists and triumphs, and while you might be able to guess the ending, there is a lot to explore in the pages between.

On the cover, this seems like a typical YA story of a young, often overlooked girl rising to power, but I can assure you that it’s everything but that. All the characters have deeply layered goals and motivations, and the second and third book are as far as possible from a young adult story.

In the second book, a large part of the story follows a mother with a strong elemental affinity, who is trying to protect her family. The central parts of the story focus on the duties of motherhood, the duties a mother has to herself, and the duty she might have to her threatened country. I won’t tell more because I don’t want to spoil everything.

The third book finishes the trilogy, turning the conflicts between people and spirits, as well as the political conflicts of two countries rivalling for resources to a climax. The author does some very interesting things to twist her take on a typical story solution much further than you would expect. I really, really like what she has done during the final chapters of the book, and I cannot recommend this series more.

5/5 Ducks

Quick ARC Reviews – October 2022

The Girl with the Dragonfruit Tattoo by Carrie Doyle, expected publication 31 January 2023.

I admit, I requested the ARC for this book solely because of the cover and title. Going in blind meant I didn't know that this was the third book in a cosy mystery series. Fortunately, it works as a standalone, even though the novice reader might miss out on some references to previous stories. 

I didn't like the main character Plum, a travel agent with no police training. Why would the police send her onto a yacht where there's a murderer on the lose?

1/5 Harpy Eagles


Georgie, All Along by Kate Clayborn, expected publication 31 January 2023.

This is a slow building romance that took me a while to get into. At first I thought it was the usual, small town girl returns home with her tail between her legs and then falls for the town baddie, whom she actually can't stand -enemies to lovers- romance. About a third into the story it really picks up. 

I've read previous books by Clayborn. So it shouldn't have come as a surprise that her MCs could be the people next door. They have to work through the issues in their lives, coming out stronger more stable people and a stronger couple in the end. 

3/5 Harpy Eagles


Death and Croissants by Ian Moore, published 01 July 2021.

British ex-pat Richard has a B&B in the Loire Valley in France where there might have been a murder. He, his guests and his cleaning lady set out to unravel the mystery. 

It's a cosy mystery with quirky characters and a lot of obvious clichés used for comic relief. The story takes some twists and turns that have no more obvious reason as to give the reader more time with the quirky characters. 

To sum it up, a perfect palate cleanser after a more 'substantial' read, but too cosy and quirky for me to actually enjoy. 

2/5 Harpy Eagles


One Dark Window by Rachel Gillig, published 27 September 2022.

I did not finish reading this book. 

1) I think it was marketed wrongly. I thought I was going to read an adult Gothic horror fantasy, but it read more like a Young Adult Gothic romance fantasy. 

2) The characters are supposed to find twelve specific Providence Cards, which enable the wielder with certain magical abilities. This will then help to overcome a magical plague that leaves children infected with dark magic which causes them to degenerate and die. [That's how I understood it. The premise might be more or less difficult.] 

3) The MC, Elspeth, was infected 11 years ago. She's been living with a demon in her head since then. She keeps repeating that using the demon, called the Nightmare, makes it stronger, and she won't let it overpower her mind. But as soon as she gets into a spot of bother she begs the demon to help her. 

4) The characters have no urgency to find those magical cards. Instead they have the 'usual' enemies-to-lovers insta-love romance that takes over the plot.  

That's when I bowed out. I read a few reviews and apparently the last bit of the story gets more action, but ends in a cliffhanger that will hopefully be resolved in the next book. 

1/5 Harpy Eagles


The Book of the Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran, expected publication 03 November 2022.

Lily Albrecht is a bookseller of antique and rare books. When one of her colleagues dies she takes over a commission to find an occult tome called "The Book of the Most Precious Substance" and sell it for a six to seven figure price to the anonymous buyer. 

Lily and another rare books selling colleague set out to find the buyer and find one of the few remaining copies of the 17th century book. A book about sex magic, granting the user a large boon when used correctly - or something like that.

So far this sounds good. Bookish people trying to find an occult book. And here's where the book becomes repetitive. The two fly to a city in the US or Europe to meet up with a book collector who might or might not have the book and sell it to them. They stay in a fancy hotel. Go out for an expensive -and described in detail- dinner with the book person. Find out details about the book. Go back to the hotel to have awkward sex. 

Not one sex scene is as sexy and erotic as the cover blurb makes you think it might be. Nor is the book as thrilling. The story is repetitive with a very predictable outcome that makes up the last 10-12% of the eARC. It all reminded me of that late 1990's film, "The Ninth Gate" with Johnny Depp; though not in a good way. 

1/5 Harpy Eagles

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