ARC Review: “The Stardust Thief” by Chelsea Abdullah

(thanks to NetGalley and Orbit for granting me an ARC of this book!)

Read if you like: found family, banter, adventure, betrayal, loyalty, hard choices, resurrection magic, elemental magic, ghouls, multicultural setting, desert setting, multiple POV, smooth pacing, storytelling as a theme, magical trinkets, merchantry, questing, daggers, cinnamon rolls, stoic bodyguards, well-kept secrets, character-driven narrative, imagination in spades

Triggers: murder, blood, death, implied torture, family loss, off-page parental neglect and abuse, violence, profanity

Goodreads Summary:

Neither here nor there, but long ago…

Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.

With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan’s oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.

Inspired by stories from One Thousand and One Nights, The Stardust Thief weaves the gripping tale of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince, and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp. 

(Goodreads book profile here)

My Review:

I read this book in one sitting.

For a fantasy book that rounds the 400 pages, that’s an incredible achievement on the author’s side.

This is also why the superb pacing absolutely made this book for me, and why I want to start off talking about that. Specifically, about how Abdullah’s mastery of tension across multiple POVs reminded me a lot of Stewart’s “The Bone Shard Daughter”, which I also read in one sitting. It’s a flex of a balance act to weave gradual tension into a secondary world narrative that spans across several personalities and multiple POVs, and Abdullah manages to do this with ease, hence why I read this book in literally one afternoon. Each chapter transition pulled me in so expertly.

In my opinion, balance is the keyword when it comes to creating the coveted “unputdownable” book—and Abdullah understands this, 100%.

The way that she creates tension also reminds me a lot of videogames. And I want to dwell on that for a bit. Firstly, the book is built around a quest narrative, meaning that the plot itself is reminiscent of many videogame plots. Secondly, there’s as much necessary exposition in this book as there is in any fantasy novel, yet Abdullah twists exposition into the plot in such a way that I felt like I was playing a videogame. One with various possible storylines splayed out in front of me, endlessly. I felt that anything and everything could happen, all the time, so I had to keep reading, you know? It felt like I kept leveling up, yeah?

This also applies to the worldbuilding. Specifically, the magic. The scope of the world and of the magic that governs the world constantly evolve on the page as the backstories of the characters are revealed and the history of the world is conveyed. It’s a bit like spoon-feeding. This means that we start out with a scope that feels narrow (but never lacking), and we end up with a scope that feels broad (but never overwhelming). Again, we have balance. On a knifepoint.

As for the theme of the book, Abdullah doesn’t beat around the bush.

This is a story about stories.

In particular, it’s about the way that stories empower those who take the time to listen to them.

It’s just like Mazen, our storyteller prince of the book, would say: “It’s in the details.”

Storytelling is how humans understand the world. How we understand power and the lack thereof. That’s what the “The Stardust Thief” is about. We have a group of people that become united by stories over the course of 400 pages. Their own stories. The stories of those they care about. Even the stories of the people that they don’t care about. There are no good or bad stories, Abdullah seems to tell us. And the power is not in the story itself, or even in the storyteller, but in the audience. That’s where stories have power; they empower.

A second theme that resonates strongly throughout the book is the theme that the dead are never truly gone. Rather, they live on in the stories we tell and the trinkets we keep. Abdullah takes this theme very literally, incorporating ghouls and thereby resurrections into the plot, but she also keeps it emotional. For starters, each character suffers from the loss of someone they loved. Additionally, we have Loulie, our business-savvy merchant, whose character arc and transformation in large part revolves around this same discovery; that the dead are never truly dead and that she must now change her way of life to account for this. How that comes to be and how she achieves that, I’ll let you read and find out (because it’s worth it, believe me, and enough that I initially spoiled it here out of sheer excitement).

Lastly, let me talk about voice.

As far as I am concerned, voice really boils down to the joy of storytelling. If the reader can feel that the writer truly enjoyed writing their book (even if it’s a sad book, yes), then the voice is there—and Abdullah has voice in spades. She has joy in spades. And it shows. And I personally can’t wait to see where her joy takes us next.


HACHETTE (official)

ARC Review: “The Book Eaters” by Sunyi Dean

(thanks to Sunyi Dean for granting me an unproofed ARC of this book!)

Read if you like: mystery, genre-blending, vampires/parasitic creatures, history, cults, books, family dynamics, queerness, dual timelines, ticking clocks, bad blood, secret societies, emotional burdens, hard choices, the struggle for freedom, sacrificial mothers, sassy kids “acting” old beyond their years, cursing, tension, suspense

Triggers: alcoholism, addiction, blood, murder, arson, human trafficking, drugs, profanity

Goodreads Summary:

Sunyi Dean’s The Book Eaters is a contemporary fantasy debut. It’s a story of motherhood, sacrifice, and hope; of queer identity and learning to accept who you are; of gilded lies and the danger of believing the narratives others create for you.

Out on the Yorkshire Moors lives a secret line of people for whom books are food, and who retain all of a book’s content after eating it. To them, spy novels are a peppery snack; romance novels are sweet and delicious. Eating a map can help them remember destinations, and children, when they misbehave, are forced to eat dry, musty pages from dictionaries.

Devon is part of The Family, an old and reclusive clan of book eaters. Her brothers grow up feasting on stories of valor and adventure, and Devon—like all other book eater women—is raised on a carefully curated diet of fairytales and cautionary stories.

But real life doesn’t always come with happy endings, as Devon learns when her son is born with a rare and darker kind of hunger—not for books, but for human minds.

(Goodreads book profile here)

My Review:

This is a genre-blending book that’ll stay a favorite of mine for years to come.

I’ll be buying every special edition of this book that I can get my hands on.

It ticked so many boxes for me, both on a structural and emotional level, and I’ll try to peel them apart below here, but I can only apologize if I fail. The books we love most are often the hardest to deconstruct, after all. It’s much easier to be specific about what we don’t like than what we like.

Let’s start with the emotional level.

This book absolutely ripped my chest open, pulled my ribs apart, and plucked my staccato heart from my body as if I was nothing but a deflated, fleshy reliquary for something bigger than myself—and I was totally fine with it, actually, don’t let my death rattle stop you on your way out the door. Put less viscerally, this is a book that depicts an ugly truth so beautifully that you can’t look away from it. The truth in question?

Love makes monsters of us all.

Even mothers. Especially mothers. Especially those that we love in return.

“The Book Eaters” is the first book I’ve read in a long while that handles this theme as delicately and thoroughly as it does. It always tethers on a tightrope. Too much love; not enough love. Too much loyalty; not enough loyalty. Too much sacrifice; not enough sacrifice. It’s ultimately a book about choice.  Every book is about choice, of course, in the sense that choice creates character engagement and investment—but this book specifically addresses the struggle of choice. The cost of choice. The cost of freedom. The promise of freedom.

This grand emotional toll of the book is in large part due to the complexity of characters, which leads us into the more structural aspect of why I loved the book. Dean writes characters that straddle your chest, clasp your face between their hands, and force you to look at them. To see them at their very worst, yet root for them regardless. This is a high demand to make of a reader, and it’s a hard balance to strike for an author.

Dean also peppers the character dynamics and interactions with a wry, uplifting sense of humor. It feels very “if-I-don’t-laugh-I’ll-cry”. It’s a humor that fits the theme of the book. After all, when your five-year-old son’s starvation for human minds makes you a serial killer, it’s hard to do anything but laugh off the pain.

What truly shone for me structurally, however, was how the dual timelines of the book slowly inch towards each other, finally meeting at the end, gradually unveiling (purposeful!) holes in the plot until everything suddenly makes sense. This suspenseful thriller of a book doesn’t deal so much in twists as it deals in mysteries—and I’m here for it. Dean masterfully distracts you from the obvious, from putting two and two together, and so when the obvious thing does happen, you slap your forehead and scoff at yourself—because you should’ve seen it coming.

Then, of course, there’s also the worldbuilding. This is technically a contemporary setting, but a lot of the worldbuilding stems from an older and more traditionally rooted age. An Arthurian-inspired age. In many ways, the world also mimics that of classic vampires in that the main characters are parasitic non-human creatures that feast on humans while living secretly among them. Only in this case, the feasting isn’t blood, but books and brains. Literally. And yet, while the world feels culturally steeped in old tradition, the origin story is distinctively science-fiction. This is a book that blends elements from so many genres that you never quite know what to expect. And perhaps it’s this unpredictability of the world that distracts you from the obvious and from figuring out the mysteries prematurely; you’re so busy piecing the world together that the plot itself kinda just cruises along, bringing you along for the ride. You need to understand the world in order to understand the plot, and Dean keeps both elements so close to her chest that you only really understand it when she wants you to understand it.

I could keep going, but I think I’ll leave it here with one last note: I’m not a mother, struggling or otherwise, but this book made me feel like one, and that fact speaks volumes.

If you like character-driven books that blend genres and keep you rooted to your seat despite (because of?) the trainwreck you know is about to happen, then this is a book for you.



ARC Review: “Saint Death’s Daughter” by C. S. E. Cooney

(thanks to Rebellion Publishing and NetGalley for granting me an ARC of this book!)

Read if you like: lyrical writing, necromancy, family, legacy, inheritance, thematic worldbuilding, setting as character, multicultural setting, linguistic detail, nontraditional gender norms, skeletons, ghosts, fierce women, soft men, birds, catacombs, whimsy, death magic, epic battles, history with consequences.

Triggers: animal abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, child neglect, child torture, mutilation, dismemberment, gore, blood (note: while these triggers are present, they’re not overly graphic, and since the main character is a necromancer, she doesn’t describe these things with a “horror” intent in mind, hence why this book can also be described as whimsical; this juxtaposition is part of its style)

Goodreads Summary:

Life gets complicated when Death gets involved.

To be born into a family of royal assassins pretty much guarantees that your life is going to be… rather unusual. Especially if, like Miscellaneous “Lanie” Stones, you also have a vicious allergy to all forms of violence and bloodshed, and an uncanny affinity for bringing the dead back to life.

To make matters worse, family debt looms – a debt that will have to be paid sooner rather than later if Lanie and her sister are to retain ownership of the ancestral seat, Stones Manor. Lanie finds herself courted and threatened by powerful parties who would love to use her worryingly intimate relationship with the goddess of death for their own nefarious ends. But the goddess has other plans… 

(Goodreads book profile here)

My Review:

What ultimately shone the most for me in this book is the way that theme, metaphor and worldbuilding all blend so seamlessly together to the point that I even struggle pulling them apart now, but I’ll do my best.

Let me start with the things that I enjoyed about the worldbuilding, specifically.

We’re dealing with a protagonist who performs death magic (Lanie Stones). This makes the setting and the plot inherently macabre, yet somehow Cooney manages to make death feel… whimsical and aphrodisiacal. There is a colorful whimsy to the world, particularly with the way that Lanie’s death magic works, and it gives me strong Studio Ghibli vibes. I’ve seen this book comped to Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, but I honestly don’t think that’s a good comparative title. If anything, it’s only a comparative title insofar as the necromancy itself goes. And I even hesitate to say this because Lanie’s necromancy doesn’t carry the same vibe as Harrow’s. Rather, it carries the opposite. Lanie’s necromancy—indeed, Lanie herself—is all about love. Lanie loves death as a mother, treats death as a mother, as the God that Death is—and she makes us love death in return. She helps up make peace with death. And that’s where the theme sneaks in, but I’ll save that for a couple of paragraphs just yet. So, let’s continue with what I enjoyed about the worldbuilding.

I enjoyed the multicultural setting. We have three nations whose cultures and histories are so interlinked that they become mirror images of each other. This doesn’t mean that they’re not distinct. On the contrary. They are incredibly distinct. What it means, is that we’re dealing with a setting where natural assimilation between cultures has occurred over decades, maybe even centuries, yet each culture still retains its own independence. From my own point of view, this reminded me a lot of the relationship between Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. To give an example: the nations share (some of) the same Gods, but call them by different names. To give another example: there are schools dedicated to one nation within another nation. Another example: each nation has wizards with wizard marks, but they all have a preferred type of magic, dependent on the God in question.

Speaking of the wizard marks, I found those to be a fun conceptual twist to the more familiar concept of a witch mark as these have been used both in fiction and in history.

But, going back to the multicultural setting, this also helped ensure that all the characters had incredibly distinct voices. One nation’s speech is built around rhyming and body language, to give an example. A lot of thought has gone into the linguistic elements of this book. Both in this sense, but also when it comes to placenames and people’s names. You have a constant sense of all these cultures mingling, yet staying distinct at the same time, all based on the terminology used.

Lastly, I loved the constant, but always subtle, subversion of gender norms both through clothing, make-up, and mannerisms. You won’t find traditional gender norms here—and it’s a delight to read.

Transitioning from the worldbuilding into the theme, this wasn’t really a book about death for me. This was a book about love. And that’s why I personally find Harrow the Ninth a misleading comparative title. This book has so much love—unfurling from Lanie’s own large capacity for love—that it didn’t give me the same vibe of Harrow the Ninth at all. But you also have to read a good part of the book before this starts to become apparent to you. The book opens with death, grief, echo wounds, and a literal allergy to death, but it ends with love as the answer to death. It’s about coming to terms with death through love. It’s a love-letter to funerals across the world where people smile through their tears.

Adding onto that, it’s also a question of where you put your love.

In the Gods? In your family? In your friends? In yourself?

Lanie uses love through death (magic) to set herself free from the bonds of her family legacy, all the while still honoring that legacy. And Cooney asks us, the readers, to remember that death is forever the sister to love. Or perhaps daughter, in this case.

As a last and slightly more critical note, I’ll say that the pacing and the plot both slow down at times. I struggled slightly towards the middle, personally. It’s a long book, basically, and that means it naturally will lose momentum at times. For most readers, that is. And especially for YA Crossover fantasy, which is what I would classify this as, age-wise, although there seems to be a general confusion about this (both from the audience and the publisher side). Cooney has magnificent prose, and that prose is allowed to flourish in this book, which can both be good and bad insofar as the pacing of the plot goes. Primarily, for me, it was good, even if I did struggle in places.