mortal follies

It's been well over a year since I've posted a review here... but I'm back today to talk about a fun, slightly ridiculous, histori-magical romp of a romance: Mortal Follies by Alexis Hall! I really enjoyed Hall's breakout hit, the contemporary London-set Boyfriend Material several years ago, and so I've been eyeing his career ever since. The second book in this magical Regency series, the upcoming Confounding Oaths, had such a lovely cover and interesting summary that I immediately wanted to get caught up and read the first! And then of course, Mortal Follies, published a year ago in June, ALSO had an insanely beautiful book cover. End result: I ordered a copy even though I have literal stacks of other books on my summer reading list.  

mortal follies by alexis hall book cover
It is the year 1814 and life for a young lady of good breeding has many difficulties. There are balls to attend, fashions to follow, marriages to consider and, of course, the tiny complication of existing in a world swarming with fairy spirits, interfering deities, and actual straight-up sorcerers.

Miss Maelys Mitchelmore finds her entry into high society hindered by an irritating curse. It begins innocuously enough with her dress slowly unmaking itself over the course of an evening at a high-profile ball, a scandal she narrowly manages to escape.

However, as the curse progresses to more fatal proportions, Miss Mitchelmore must seek out aid, even if it means mixing with undesirable company. And there are few less desirable than Lady Georgianna Landrake—a brooding, alluring young woman sardonically nicknamed “the Duke of Annadale”—who may or may not have murdered her own father and brothers to inherit their fortune. If one is to believe the gossip, she might be some kind of malign enchantress. Then again, a malign enchantress might be exactly what Miss Mitchelmore needs.

With the Duke’s help, Miss Mitchelmore delves into a world of angry gods and vindictive magic, keen to unmask the perpetrator of these otherworldly attacks. But Miss Mitchelmore’s reputation is not the only thing at risk in spending time with her new ally. For the rumoured witch has her own secrets that may prove dangerous to Miss Mitchelmore’s heart—not to mention her life.

The story opens with Miss Maelys Mitchelmore, a very earnest, innocent, and goodhearted young lady of nineteen, making the rounds of society in Bath. Along with her cousin, Mr. Caesar, and flighty heiress friend Ms. Bickle, the three are making good inroads into that society… until Miss Mitchelmore is suddenly stricken with a curse. When this curse makes her dress unravel into nothingness at a ball, the Duke of Annandale, a scandalous and scorned woman of twenty-four (the Duke moniker is mocking, since rumors say she killed all of her brothers and her father by sorcery to inherit) comes to her rescue, and is dangerously charming in Miss Mitchelmore’s direction… and a fascination (and story!) is born. 


The most interesting and unusual thing about Mortal Follies is the world in which it is set – one full of curses, magic, and gods both old and new living alongside science and logic – but with more equality and progressive viewpoints. It feels as if the author Hall said, what if I set a lesbian romance in an alternate magical Regency era, but I also decided to mend many wrongs, and made it altogether a more welcoming and wonderful place for LGBTQ+ characters? This choice, along with others (a sprinkling of archaic language, lighthearted dialogue between characters, and the constant intervention of the supernatural) result in a frothy confection of a tale – sweet, easy to consume, and a nice escape from the everyday.


Within the world of the book, Hall amuses himself (and a well-read audience, if they catch the references) with an allusion-rich text. There are mentions of stories and traditions from Greek mythology and fairy tale and myth throughout, and Hall also alludes to Jane Austen (Ms. Bickle “tinging” Mr. Willoughby & Mr. Wickham, for instance) and adapts an Arthur C. Clarke quote about magic and science at another point as well. These Easter eggs will delight many readers.


Much of the airy and entertaining feel of the book comes down to the mythic bits interwoven in the tale (for instance, Miss Bickle is constantly suggesting unusual and dangerous fairy exploits), but also through Hall’s use of language. This can be formal and archaic at times: words like apposite, pettifoggery, and more pop up, and Miss Bickle uses several neologisms (creating the word “ting” for instance, which is analogous to the modern verb “to ship” – to want characters to engage romantically). If you can’t tell already, Miss Bickle will be a favorite character. She is a constant source of comic relief, as she always has something nonsensical to suggest, in the most charming manner possible. A frustrating friend to have at times, but marvelously loyal to Miss Mitchelmore, who can use her support given the curse she suffers under.


Alternatively, the love interest, Lady Georgiana Landrake, the Duke of Annandale, is not very likable: she is sarcastic, mocking, and snide to start, but also moved to be a white knight in Maelys’ awful predicament. This push-pull of wanting Maelys and responding to her, but putting her off by acting meanly and protesting that she cannot have good things because she will poison or ruin them, or that Maelys is too young or doesn’t know what she wants, comes off as condescending and callous. Contrasted with Maelys’ virtues (a strong sense of fairness, patience with friends, etc.) and slow-blossoming awareness that she is perhaps not heterosexual after all, Georgiana’s feigned indifference and insistence on her own wickedness makes everyone both confused and miserable. While it conforms neatly to the trope of Byronic and brooding heroes in the Regency genre, it is somewhat derivative here – and the reader may find themselves wondering if Maelys might've found a better object for her affections if she had looked around a bit more. Hall’s skill in mending characters’ misunderstandings does make for a satisfying romance by the end, and the story neatly makes the point that even morally gray almost-villainesses deserve love.


There was one very annoying element that almost ended the reading experience before it could truly get underway: the conceit of a fairy sprite narrator (in this case, Robin Goodfellow). After the fifteenth time he turned into a candle flame, or a vapor, or a shadow to spy on the characters it became tedious. The mentions of little acts of chaos, the omniscient asides that Robin provided about gods and goddesses and their foibles, and the recurring mention of getting kicked out of the fairy Courts did nominally add more magic to the story – but their repetitive nature and the constant shift between perspectives was exasperating. Beware!


In all, Mortal Follies is a lighthearted mashup of Regency romance and fantasy, and enjoyable in almost all aspects. Hall’s confection of a world has surprising depth at times, and will appeal to fans of the ever-growing field of romantasy.


Recommended for: readers who like the sound of Regency romance + curses + lighthearted fun + sapphic awakenings, and anyone in the mood for a summery, allusion-rich fantasy set in a world that isn’t as cruel or prudish as ours was in 1814.

witch king

Monday, June 26, 2023 | | 0 comments
One of my most successful reading recommendations (and most successful sci-fi series out there right now!) in recent years is Martha Wells’ Murderbot series. I got my dad and several friends hooked on it and never looked back. While I haven’t read any of Wells’ other work, I’ve heard good things about her fantasy fiction for… decades?! When my preorder of Witch King came in (and Wells is now at auto-buy status, because OF COURSE) I didn’t put it off until summer – I read it immediately and loved it.


witch king by martha wells book cover
After being murdered, his consciousness dormant and unaware of the passing of time while confined in an elaborate water trap, Kai wakes to find a lesser mage attempting to harness Kai’s magic to his own advantage. That was never going to go well.

But why was Kai imprisoned in the first place? What has changed in the world since his assassination? And why does the Rising World Coalition appear to be growing in influence?

Kai will need to pull his allies close and draw on all his pain magic if he is to answer even the least of these questions.

He’s not going to like the answers.

Kai is a demon who can never go back home, thanks to the mysterious and awful conquering Hierarchs. In the process of dominating the world as Kai knew it, the Hierarchs also destroyed his culture, family, and changed the course of the future. Although Kai himself can’t die, he also can’t go back to “before” and the innocence of youth. That’s the past. And now Kai has to deal with deception and betrayal in the present too – who tried to murder and trap him forever in a watery tomb? He’ll need to quickly eliminate suspects, gather allies, and survive those hunting him.


It's been a minute since I read a truly EPIC fantasy – one with so many characters that you need a cast list at the front of the book, and a map to keep track of the scope of their adventures. Wells asks the reader to immediately dive into her epic, and to juggle dual perspectives of baby Kai of the past and betrayed Kai of the present. It is gripping reading – after all, the past is slowly being unraveled and understood, and the present is all about figuring out who tried (and almost succeeded) in ending Kai. Kai himself has a limited omniscient perspective – he lived “the past,” but he wasn’t around for every single speck of it and didn’t get into the motivations of each of his allies and enemies. I wouldn’t recommend this read as an audiobook due to the sheer number of characters and the intermingling of past and present narratives, but I do think most everyone has the stamina to take it on, if willing to put in a little effort. You have Wells’ trademark loveable killers as a reward if you do!


So what are the tasting notes of this book? One of the most pervasive themes of Witch King is the effect and aftermath of empire, as seen through one demon’s eyes. Kai experiences profound personal loss and sees even more devastation in the world at large, but also (as an undying character) has unique hindsight/insight to evaluate both his own actions and those of others at a remove. Does outliving those who made the world as it is fundamentally change a person? It’s an interesting question, and one that Wells attempts to answer in the person of Kai.


Another important theme is that of found family, and what friendship is made of. Kai has trust issues after the murder attempt at the start of the book, and throughout the story he grapples with distrust and cynicism, while also longing to connect with those around him. The other characters that populate Witch King of course have their own desires and ends – and Wells does an excellent job of rounding them out and making the whole cast dynamic. I’d love to read a series of standalones based in this world – there is enough detail, backstory, and angst to fuel more stories!


One of the most interesting bits for me as a reader was unraveling what fueled the magic in Kai’s world. Magic = power, and of course the conquerors had their own sources, different than that of those they subjugated and destroyed. It was a complex and interesting puzzle. And a final note, I loved the way Wells played with gender and social constructs related to it – I feel like I need some visual aids (quick, someone go make fan art!) to really picture it all. But regardless, it was unputdownable.


In all, Witch King is an epic fantasy for those who love thinking about power, rebellion, and the different ways that humans respond to terrible events. In Kai, Wells has created a sharp-edged but lovable immortal who reluctantly charms both his book compatriots and readers.


Recommended for: fans of Martha Wells, and those who enjoy reading speculative epics in fully realized worlds like those of Herbert, Sanderson, Novik, etc.

the moth keeper

Author K. O’Neill may be familiar to graphic novel fans already as the author of The Tea Dragon Society series from Oni Press. I started reading O’Neill’s stories even before that, as webcomics! Now with a new publisher, The Moth Keeper is their most recent graphic novel, and a delightful one at that. The Moth Keeper is evidence of the evolution and maturation in O’Neill’s art, and as such it is a delight to behold, while maintaining the cozy charm inherent in their earlier works.


the moth keeper by k. o'neill book cover
Anya is finally a Moth Keeper, the protector of the lunar moths that allow the Night-Lily flower to bloom once a year. Her village needs the flower to continue thriving and Anya is excited to prove her worth and show her thanks to her friends with her actions, but what happens when being a Moth Keeper isn’t exactly what Anya thought it would be?

Night after night, it is lonely in the desert, with only one lantern for light. Still, Anya is eager to prove her worth, to show her thanks to her friends and her village. But is it worth the cost? And yet something isn’t right. When Anya glimpses the one thing that could destroy what she’s meant to protect, her village and the lunar moths are left to deal with the consequences.

K. O’Neill brings to life a beautifully illustrated fantasy with lush, gorgeous art and intricate world-building. A story about coming of age and community,
The Moth Keeper is filled with magic, hope, and friendship.


Anya lives in the Night Village, a small nocturnal community of animal-human hybrid creatures in the desert that depends on the Night-Flower and its Moon-Moths for survival. As the story opens, Anya is just starting an apprenticeship as a Moth Keeper. While it’s one of the most essential and important jobs in the village, it is also isolating and lonely – the Moth Keeper must be away from the community working during both the everyday and special ceremonies. Will Anya learn to make her peace with a life of solitude, or let her memories and the pressure of her new role overwhelm her?


While this heartwarming middle grade fantasy has many highlights, one of the most magical elements is its mythology. O’Neill has created a whole world, including a creation myth, festivals and rituals to celebrate important moments, an ecology and economy tied into the climate and nocturnal/diurnal rhythms, and characters with struggles and strengths, extensive backstories, and flashbacks. In other words, there are layers upon layers of history, care, and society in this graphic novel, and they are all skillfully interwoven and expertly illustrated. I particularly enjoyed how O’Neill revealed the history of the moths and the village’s dependence on them, and the moon-blinded ghost – those scenes were clever, poignant, and dreamy.


The Moth Keeper is a story told almost entirely in the visual medium. Dialogue is not missing, but on many page spreads is not the point – O’Neill asks readers to connect with the landscape, the dreams, and the multitude of details of Anya’s world through observation. Taking the time to fully take in the art is a must – this is not a volume to rush through. And the art itself does not disappoint!


Speaking of the art, the areas where I see the most evolution in O’Neill’s style are the linework, illustration of light (or lack thereof in a nighttime world), and in the illustrations of the desert landscape and ecosystem. In scenes where characters discuss the past or historical tradition, the linework is thicker and more smudged, paired with missing borders around each panel for a less finished look. This lends a dreamlike feeling to those images. In contrast, the rest of O’Neill’s artwork is contained neatly within hand drawn, black-bordered panels with a white gutter. Most pages have many smaller panels of varying sizes and shapes – there is a sort of magic in the studied irregularity throughout the book as a whole. Full two-page spreads are few and far between, and startling for that. O’Neill’s work with light – especially the bobbing lantern that Anya carries each night to lure the moths into following her, and the gradations of sunrise – is of especial note. I was enchanted following light sources from panel to panel (that might make me a special comics nerd, who knows!) almost as much as by the variety of creatures populating the Night and Day villages. At the end of the book O’Neill discusses her inspiration for the landscape and ecosystem of The Moth Keeper, and includes rough landscape and plant studies – these will help readers understand the many, many hours of work, research, and care that go into creating the details of a graphic novel world. The art as a whole is particular, full of depth, and at the same time dynamic and engrossing. It is an artistic feast.


On its surface, The Moth Keeper is a story about adjusting to adult responsibility, making peace with the past, and finding one’s place in the world. However, it invites deeper reflection and multiple rereads, and reveals more secrets and beauty each time, as only a masterpiece can. I adored it.


Recommended for: fans of K. O’Neill and the Tea Dragon series, Wendy Xu, Snapdragon, and The Witch Boy, and anyone looking for fantastical middle grade graphic novels with lots of heart and gorgeous artwork.


Monday, April 10, 2023 | | 0 comments

Goodness, it’s been months since I posted a book review! Life gets in the way – and it’s easy for me to prioritize anything else (especially as a schoolteacher during the school year!). I haven’t abandoned books… but I have been reading them more slowly than expected. What better way to ease into reviewing again than to pick up an excellent picture book? Matthew Forsythe’s Mina is a vibrant, funny, and inventive tale for the younger set. 


mina by matthew forsythe book cover
Mina and her father live in a hollowed-out tree stump on the edge of a pond on the edge of a forest. Nothing ever bothers Mina, until one day, her father brings home a suspicious surprise from the woods.

Should Mina trust her father—or listen to her own instincts?


Mina the mouse lives with her father, and mostly doesn’t mind that his ideas are big and not always… wise. She distracts herself with books and things turn out alright in the end, after all! But when her father brings home a squirrel – something doesn’t seem right. And that’s because the squirrel isn’t a squirrel at all! The book's marvelous detail and silly-serious adventure dovetail nicely with an important message: trust your instincts!


Mina is a funny and beautiful picture book with a twist, featuring anthropomorphic animal shenanigans and delightful details that will entrance readers of all ages. The story is simple, and the text brief – most of the plot is revealed through Forsythe’s lush art. There are several jokes throughout that rely on visuals for the punchline – antique art (stamps) on the walls of the mouse abode, the “squirrels” Mina’s dad takes in are cats – and one or two jokes that are a silly fun in their juxtaposition (stick bugs with charismatic voices who have stolen Mina’s books!).


That art I keep mentioning is uniquely lovely. The mice (and various other foregrounded characters) are fairly flat, two-dimensional figures against more meticulous and light-filled backgrounds. Fosythe’s linework changes colors and has a textured feel. Each spread looks a bit like a marriage between Alice in Wonderland and Studio Ghibli, if they were created using only pastels. The real star of the show is the subtle lighting and shadow Forsythe plays with, to create variations and depth. It is a delightful read, and a feast for the senses.


In all, Mina is a fun and funny book — perfect for springtime, with a bright color palette and outdoor adventures. It is sure to please as both a read aloud and an independent read for six- and seven-year-olds.


Recommended for: storytimes with kids ages 4 and up, fans of Kate Read and Bethann Woollvin’s picture books, and anyone who enjoys beautifully illustrated volumes with a sense of humor.

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