Robyn Reviews: Kingdom of the Wicked

‘Kingdom of the Wicked’ treads well-trodden ground but puts a fresh enough spin on it to become an intriguing and enjoyable story. It definitely reads like part one of a series rather than fully standing up on its own, but as long as the sequels provide some much-needed answers this can stand up as a solid addition to the YA fantasy genre.

The novel follows Emilia, one of a family of streghe – witches – living secretly amongst humans. Their family is one of twelve streghe families in Sicily, but following a powerful spell cast generations ago the families are discouraged from mixing. Emilia pays more attention to her family renowned restaurant than to magic – until she discovers her beloved twin, Vittoria, murdered, her heart ripped out, and a mysterious figure drinking her blood. Her quest for vengeance pulls her into the world of the Wicked – the princes of Sin her Nonna has always warned her about.

Emilia is a likeable enough protagonist. Previously a carefree girl whose only worries were new dishes at the restaurant and her flirtation with a completely unavailable man, she becomes a creature driven only by vengeance. She rushes headlong into situations without thought of the consequences and frequently has to be rescued. It’s slightly annoying that she spends most of the novel being pulled out of dangerous places by a man (and once her grandma, which is far more badass), but the idea of a teenage girl in over her head is certainly more accurate than most YA fantasy. Her motivations and struggles are always relatable, and hopefully as she starts to understand more about her abilities and situation in book two, she’ll become less of the damsel in distress and more the damsel of distress.

The other major character is Wrath, one of the seven Princes of Sin. Wrath is the typical mysterious male figure in YA fantasy – powerful, with many secrets and unknown motives, and also exceptionally attractive. However, I appreciate that, unlike in most books, Wrath and Emilia don’t immediately fall into a romance. Emilia’s priority throughout remains her sister, and she won’t allow herself unnecessary distractions. She also innately distrusts a Prince of Sin, a very wise decision not shared by most other heroines in her genre.

Kerri Maniscalco is known for her ‘Stalking Jack the Ripper’ series, a collection of YA mysteries. I’ve never actually read any of them, but her talent for writing mystery is absolutely on show in ‘Kingdom of the Wicked’. The plot twists and turns, with the culprit for the murders never entirely evident. There are dead ends, red herrings, and far too many potential murderers to count. When the killer is finally revealed, they come from a very unexpected direction. I appreciate that Maniscalo managed to weave a difficult-to-predict mystery without making it seem outlandish or implausible.

The highlight of this novel is the interspersing of Sicilian culture. There’s a strong focus on the food – Emilia spends a lot of time at the family restaurant, and she enjoys subjecting a Prince of Sin to mortal cuisine. Sicily is a more unusual setting for a fantasy novel, and it helped differentiate this from its peers and add depth to the characters and story.

Overall, this is a solid start to a series, albeit one that – as it doesn’t entirely stand on its own – will be greatly influenced by the strength of its sequel. Recommended to fans of A Court of Mist and Fury, The Cruel Prince, and similar story dynamics.

Thanks to NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 27th October 2020

Robyn Reviews: Queen of Volts

qov

‘Queen of Volts’ is the final book in the Shadow Game trilogy, a YA urban fantasy trilogy set in the fictional city of New Reynes – the city of sin. It’s a taut, high-stakes, fast-paced conclusion to an action-packed trilogy, filled with unpredictable twists and heartbreaking losses. The ending fits the trilogy perfectly and, despite the tragedies, made me grin with delight. The Shadow Game trilogy is horrendously underrated – hopefully with this book it’ll finally get the attention it deserves.

‘Queen of Volts’ has five main point-of-view characters – Enne, Levi, Sophia, Lola, and Harvey – and alternates between them in chapters grouped by tarot cards (or shadow cards), a lovely touch. Initially, I cared about some perspectives more than others – but by the end, I appreciated them all and the different angles they offered. Harvey especially is a peripheral character in previous books but adds a different flavour here, complementing the others perfectly. His relationship with Bryce is brilliantly depicted and dissected, and his character arc is probably the strongest. Lola also has an exceptional arc – very different to the arc I expected, but cleverly done.

The fictional setting of New Reynes – likely inspired by Las Vegas – is a town of street lords and casinos, conmen and gangs. Everything is a game, and everyone a player. Enne and Levi have come a long way from who they were in Ace of Shades – the uptight girl from finishing school and the egoistical crime lord packed away like ill-fitting suits – but they remain compelling, intriguing characters. The moves that they’ve made have given them powerful allies and even more powerful enemies – but figuring out which is which is more difficult than it might first seem.

It’s hard to discuss the plot without spoiling Ace of Shades or King of Fools, but the stakes have definitely been raised. Courtesy of King of Fools, no character feels safe, so the entire book is fraught with tension. It’s entirely implausible, but this is YA fantasy – plausibility isn’t the point.

The biggest strengths of this series have always been the creativity of the worldbuilding and the relationships between the characters. By the third book in the trilogy, the worldbuilding is established – but ‘Queen of Volts’ goes further than its predecessors in testing those relationships and really shines for it. As the characters are tested, their relationships entangle and fray in complex ways, and Foody absolutely nails the feelings and changes. While the plot might be farfetched, the relationships aren’t, and that makes the entire book relatable. I especially liked the family dynamics (although I won’t spoil the story by revealing whose).

Overall, this is a brilliant conclusion to a solid YA fantasy trilogy. I don’t understand why this series isn’t shouted about more – with a finale as good as this, I hope it gains its place on people’s shelves. Recommended for all fans of YA fantasy, urban fantasy, morally grey characters, and complex character dynamics.

Thanks to NetGalley and HQ Stories for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by HQ
eBook: 1st September 2020 / Paperback: 1st October 2020

Book Review: Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge

lastcall

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, by Paul Krueger, is an urban fantasy that I suspect may appeal especially to older young adults. Set in contemporary Chicago it plays tongue in cheek with the idea that the magic induced by ingesting alcohol facilitates the fighting of demons. The story asserts that, when correctly mixed, certain cocktails grant the drinker superpowers. These may then be used to fight the dangers that lurk in the shadows of city streets.

The protagonist, Bailey Chen, is a recent business graduate from an Ivy League college who has yet to secure the dream job she has been working towards since High School. She is living with her parents and doing bar work, using whatever tenuous links she still has in her home town to find an entry into what she regards as the grown up world. Even her bar job required nepotism. Her boss, Zane, is an old school friend, a former one night stand she lost touch with believing that she could do better than retain an attachment to someone like him.

Bailey discovers that Zane is a member of an ancient order of city guardians who work as bartenders. Using mixology and magic they seek out beasts called tremens before the dangerous creatures can feed on inebriated passers by. The bartenders are overseen by Tribunes answerable to the Cupbearers Court. As with any powerful organisation there are those within it whose aim is to increase their personal influence by whatever means.

Bailey joins the order and works alongside Zane to serve customers, grapple with monsters, and deal with the feelings they still harbour for each other. Their loyalties are tested when an old feud comes to the fore and it is unclear who they should trust.

Alongside the nighttime excitement, a well paid job at a tech startup becomes a possibility and Bailey must decide what she wants to do with her future. Saving lives is all very well but she has been dreaming of a secure job with benefits for a long time.

Throughout the book are scattered recipes for the cocktails the bartenders use along with background details on the ingredients and the powers endowed. These are taken from a book of ancient lore and include the impossible elixir, The Long Island Iced Tea, which enables the drinker to

“manifest more than one magical ability simultaneously, withstand greater amounts of pain and damage, and even cheat death.”

Naturally many have tried to mix such a drink and thereby achieve immortality. One would think they would learn from every such plot ever written that these endeavours are ill advised.

Bailey breaks the order’s rules and, in so doing, uncovers an audacious plan. Who can she turn to for help, and can they summon the powers needed to protect the lives of city revellers? Magic and mayhem ensue.

The plot is fast and fun with plenty of in jokes and goofy awkwardness. The cast of characters are effortlessly diverse, their self styled foibles gently mocking but always good humoured. The play on words and ideas never tries to be too clever, understating the obvious to effect.

An enjoyable romp that takes many old tropes and mixes them up in original ways. The bartenders and barristas of this world can indeed be life savers. And none should wish others to suffer from the tremens.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk Books.