I’m not the biggest fan of writing reviews for books I didn’t love.
That said, I do it anyway. Just doesn’t feel right to read a book without reviewing it anymore, I suppose. But to spare my brain from getting too worked up about what I didn’t care for, and to spare you all from me going on at length, we’re changing up the format of the reviews for a moment. Today, we’re doing mini reviews, no more than a couple short paragraphs of highly condensed opinion!
Plus, I’ll also rec a couple of substitutes that I hope will prove to be better reads (for you and for me)!
The Court of Miracles by Kester Grant
In the violent urban jungle of an alternate 1828 Paris, the French Revolution has failed and the city is divided between merciless royalty and nine underworld criminal guilds, known as the Court of Miracles. Eponine (Nina) Thénardier is a talented cat burglar and member of the Thieves Guild. Nina’s life is midnight robberies, avoiding her father’s fists, and watching over her naïve adopted sister, Cosette (Ettie). When Ettie attracts the eye of the Tiger–the ruthless lord of the Guild of Flesh–Nina is caught in a desperate race to keep the younger girl safe. Her vow takes her from the city’s dark underbelly to the glittering court of Louis XVII. And it also forces Nina to make a terrible choice–protect Ettie and set off a brutal war between the guilds, or forever lose her sister to the Tiger.
DISCLAIMER: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Maybe if I knew more about Les Mis, I would have had a better time.
As The Court of Miracles is a retelling, I can at least count on the fact that some things escaped me. I know, I know, Les Mis is a big deal, how could I not have known more? But the point is, I was bored out of my mind reading this book, and I don’t know if having a better understanding of the source material would have saved it.
For the most part, I felt that plot was prioritized far more over character, to the point that most relationships between characters felt shallow at best, lost in the swirl of forward motion, scheming, and questing for favors. Particularly discouraging was the way Nina seemed to lose sight of her sister for so very long, only to suddenly pivot back to her at the last second. Not only that, but the prospective love triangle appears to be between Nina, a revolutionary student too idealistic to see the faults in his plans, and a prince who is directly complicit in violently stamping out a revolution. In light of current events related to police brutality and the associated protests, I didn’t have a great deal of tolerance for a book setting up a prince as a love interest despite his highly engineered slaughter of the people immediately beforehand.
There are absolutely outside life factors affecting this review, but I think they’re worth noting. If you’re looking for a read where revolution works and oppressors aren’t forgiven without proving true change, this probably isn’t it. Maybe as the full trilogy unfolds, it could become that, but as things stand? I don’t care for it right now, and I’m not sure when or if I will.
CW: alcoholism, child abuse, human trafficking, slavery, drug use, violence (including gun violence), gore, graphic injury, self-harm, child death
If you want the charm of a beloved story retold combined with characters with real depth, try picking up A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney!
The first installment in L.L. McKinney’s Nightmare-Verse, A Blade So Black is an Alice in Wonderland retelling with bi Black girl magic, richly reimagined characters, and worlds layered on worlds. There’s no skimping on plot or character, and the second book of the trilogy, A Dream So Dark is also out! We can expect A Crown So Cursed next year, too, closing out Alice’s story with a bang!
To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo
Princess Lira is siren royalty and the most lethal of them all. With the hearts of seventeen princes in her collection, she is revered across the sea. Until a twist of fate forces her to kill one of her own. To punish her daughter, the Sea Queen transforms Lira into the one thing they loathe most—a human. Robbed of her song, Lira has until the winter solstice to deliver Prince Elian’s heart to the Sea Queen or remain a human forever.
The ocean is the only place Prince Elian calls home, even though he is heir to the most powerful kingdom in the world. Hunting sirens is more than an unsavory hobby—it’s his calling. When he rescues a drowning woman in the ocean, she’s more than what she appears. She promises to help him find the key to destroying all of sirenkind for good—But can he trust her? And just how many deals will Elian have to barter to eliminate mankind’s greatest enemy?
Let’s play a game of cool concept, underwhelming execution.
I’ve been waiting to read To Kill a Kingdom for so long because anything to do with mermaids and sirens has me interested. I just have a soft spot for them, okay? Especially when their designs go beyond the classic jewel-tone tail and seashell bra. And here, I thought Alexandra Christo was going to serve me the murder mermaid escapade of my dreams. Hell yeah!
It turns out she gave me some pretty good snarky banter, a series of kingdoms that feel a lot like ancient Greece in their organization (look, my Classics heart is just a sucker for it), and…characters that make me want to bang my head against the wall.
Elian I didn’t care for because he claims to treat his crew like family, but we never learn the names of his engineer, his medic, the crew at large beyond his closest circle. More than that, for all his apparent compassion, he left a whole kingdom that engages in slave trade unharmed. Why? Because it was too hard and not getting involved was easier. Even though one of his closest friends was trapped in that slave trade before becoming part of his crew. I rolled my eyes so hard at this point I may have pulled something.
As for Lira, I didn’t mind her nearly as much in some ways. A ruthless heroine can be a really good time (see Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao)! But when it takes falling in love with a boring prince/pirate to make her realize compassion for her fellow sirens is a strength more than a weakness, I get bored. Maybe it’s the Romance Grinch in me hating that characters only become better people because of romantic love. Maybe it’s because I think Elian and Lira would have been more interesting as a platonic pair.
And deeply disappointing was the treatment of POC characters. Of the four I spotted that were named, Lira murders the first, the second spent a huge chunk of her life as a slave, the third is a slaver, and the fourth is a princess whose story might have actually been way more interesting than anyone else’s. Not really an outstanding showing here.
So there you have it: super cool concept about murder mermaids, super disappointing execution. Can’t believe no one warned me this one would let me down.
CW: violence (including gun violence), slavery, smoking, nudity, child abuse
If you want sirens in an alternate reality Portland instead of fantasy Greece, and you want them interfacing more directly with injustice and community, try Bethany C. Morrow’s YA debut, A Song Below Water!
Just released a week ago, A Song Below Water follows Tavia, a Black siren living in Portland who keeps her identity under wraps until a siren murder trial rocks her world. Tackling misogynoir through both contemporary and fantasy lens, it promises to have a place of pride on shelves everywhere. I haven’t read it yet, and can’t make my recommendation much more detailed than this, but that’s only because I’m eagerly waiting for my copy to arrive in the mail. Hopefully you’ll join me in seeking out a copy too!