Book Review: The Brightest Fell, October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: The Brightest Fell: October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

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Urban Fantasy: The Brightest Fell: October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

October Daye is part human and part fae. A “changeling,” she constantly lives with one foot in the mortal world and one foot in the fae kingdoms. After years of trying to balance between these worlds, she finally sees hope. Her love, Tybalt, King of the Cats, plans to marry her. Her friends are near and safe. She even gets to attend her own bachelorette party. Everything looks amazing, until her oldest and possibly deadliest enemy resurfaces: her mother.

 

The request itself is not unusual for a private detective: find a missing daughter. But August has been missing for more than 100 years. And Amandine does not simply ask. She demands. And to make sure October follows through, Amandine kidnaps Tybalt and Jazz, another friend of October. What follows is a dangerous journey through fae and mortal lands looking for someone who may not be alive, relying on an old enemy to provide assistance, and facing challenges that force October to confront questions about who and what she is, and just where she belongs.

 

Seanan McGuire is one of the hottest writers in science fiction and fantasy. She is a 2018 Hugo finalist for another series she writes, Incryptid. She also writes under the name of Mira Grant, and has had multiple works nominated for the major awards in science fiction and fantasy under that name as well. She won the John W. Campbell award for best new author in 2010, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2013 for her novella Every Heart a Doorway, and also in 2013 became the first person ever to appear 5 times on the same Hugo ballot. Despite her amazing output–or maybe because of it–her writing is crisp, exciting, and full of characters that are deep and surprising.

 

McGuire’s characters leap fully-formed off the page. They are passionate, infuriating, terrifying, tender, brave and cowardly. They are gay and lesbian and straight. They are human and inhuman. They are like anyone you might meet and unlike anyone you will ever know. October Daye is probably her best known character at this point, and in every book she grows and matures and becomes something new and something more. Some writers might lose their edge after 11 books. If possible, McGuire seems to be just hitting her stride.

 

McGuire’s plots also challenge. No one escapes a Seanan McGuire novel unharmed–especially her protagonists. She demands a lot from her characters, and she is not afraid to kill even major characters to tell the story.  (Fortunately, she usually doesn’t kill all of them. Well, except in Rolling in the Deep. Spoiler alert: it gets ugly.) The Brightest Fell has sacrifice and redemption, and in a major twist on an ageless theme, in this case one precludes the other. Normally sacrifice consecrates redemption. Seanan McGuire just doesn’t do normal.

 

You might be able to jump into the series with The Brightest Fell. McGuire is able to backfill the story without getting pedantic. But you will be rewarded by going back to the beginning and catching up. October Daye grows as a character throughout the series. And it is fair to say that Seanan McGuire grows as a writer through the series. Reading as a character matures and as a writer hones her craft can be a very rewarding experience, and the October Daye series is a delightful way to watch both happen.

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Book Review: The Brightest Fell, October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Theodora Goss

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

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Fantasy: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter was one of 2017’s most delightful novels. On the shortlist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award for best novel, Theodora Goss’s tale successfully turned Victorian horror fiction into a celebration of feminism and the triumph of individuals over their circumstances. Its 2018 sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, expands on that success and takes the members of the Athena Club on an adventure through Victorian Era Europe that highlights both the power of Goss’s writing and the absolute magic she weaves with her characters.

 

The main protagonist of both books is Mary Jekyll. The daughter of Dr. Jekyll, Mary is both intelligent and practical. Almost penniless after her mother’s death, she finds herself meeting and befriending an unlikely group of women who end up living with her and helping each other make ends meet and confront the horrors of their own creation. There is Catherine Moreau, a panther transformed into a human woman on the island of Dr. Moreau. Justine Frankenstein, created by Dr. Frankenstein to be the bride of his first creation, is a painter who has greater physical strength than any man. Beatrice Rappaccini was slowly exposed to toxins throughout her young life until she became poisonous to everyone else–including her would-be lover who died. And Diana Hyde, Mary’s half-sister, the daughter of her father’s evil alter-ego, Mr. Hyde. These women come together in the Alchemist’s Daughter, aided by the inimitable Mrs. Poole (Mary’s housekeeper) and by the famous detectives Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. Together they solve the murders of several women in London, discovering that some of their supposedly dead creators are actually still alive and practicing new experiments.

 

In European Travel, Mary’s former governess reaches out to her for assistance. She has heard of the Athena Club and enlists their aid in helping Lucinda Van Helsing, who has been imprisoned in an asylum in Vienna. So begins the new adventures of the women, sending them from London to Vienna and then on to Budapest. During their travels they meet other characters we recognize from other works: among them Irene Adler, Sigmund Freud, and Count Dracula. Goss enjoys defying expectations. Heroes/Heroines and villains get new interpretations, and often the true monsters are the most human. The result is surprising, satisfying, and heartwarming.

 

The stories are ostensibly told by Catherine Moreau, but she has help. Goss brings in other voices through interruptions to the narrative, indented to set them apart. Other characters will comment on the immediate passage (“I was not thinking that!”) or offer a differing opinion or aside about another character (“I should have kicked Diana”). These serve well as comic relief and giving us backstory on the characters that don’t fit neatly into the direct story. There are also several “ads” for the first book (“Only two shillings”) which usually bring objections from Mary (“I don’t think people want to read ads”). Although they are occasionally distracting, usually these interruptions bring a smile and add warmth to the story of these women drawn together by personal trauma and who find in each other mutual support.

 

I suspect this book might challenge some readers who like their Victorian heroes to be, well, heroes. This book is by a woman and is about women. Men do show up. Usually they are villains. Sometimes they are allies. But the book is not about them. Mary and her friends are quite able to handle themselves, whether facing vampires, spies, or former tormentors. If you have a problem with that…well, you have a problem. The good news, though, is that if you have a problem, the Athena Club has some awesome women who can come to your assistance.

 

European Travel is a long book–706 pages long! But Goss uses the length to tell a great story in great depth. At the end of the book I almost felt it was too short. I hated to see the story end. The good news, though, is the book sets up another sequel. The Athena Club has more adventures to come, more romps through 1890s Europe, and more monsters who are human (and humans who are monsters) to encounter. Given that the villain in the next book is already revealed to be Dr. Moriarty, it promises to be one that might challenge the most monstrous of gentlewomen.

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Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

Book Review: An Unkindness of Magicians, Kat Howard

Book Review: An Unkindness of MagiciansKat Howard

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Fantasy: An Unkindness of MagiciansKat Howard

What if magic were broken? In Kat Howard’s novel An Unkindness of Magicians, magicians from the major houses in New York are competing, sometimes to the death, to become the leaders of the Unseen. Magic and magicians exist largely unseen and unnoticed by the majority of the population. Very few non-magic people are even aware of the magic that surrounds them. Most who are aware are from magical families, but they themselves were born with little or no magical prowess, able to perform only parlor-trick type skills like lighting a candle. Magicians, though, carry extraordinary power. Periodically the time comes to hold a contest among the leading magical families for ascendancy. When that time coincides with a period when magic randomly does not work, you have the potential for a crisis–and for a very interesting novel.

 

Kat Howard has written numerous award-winning short stories, and her novella End of the Sentence (co-written with Maria Dahvana) was named a Best Book of 2014 by NPR. Her first book, Roses and Rot, was nominated for the Locus Award for Best First Novel. An Unkindness of Magicians is her second book, and was named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR.

 

Howard’s magical world is populated by the magical equivalent of “old money.” The leading families are patriarchal, dominated by white men who are unused to sharing power. Crashing into this world is Laurent, a dark-skinned magician from a non-magical family who has come up through the ranks with talent, intelligence, boldness, and will. He is ready to start and lead his own house, declaring he belongs at the table of power along with the older and established families. To compete, though, he needs a champion, a magician of extraordinary power who can represent his house in the magical duels and, if necessary, die for him. Sydney applies for the job with an extraordinary display of magic in the heart of New York City. She has come to New York from…well, nobody knows. She is a mystery, a mystery with exceptional talent. Laurent hires Sydney, and together they upend the tournament and the establishment.

 

Magic has always been reliable. Predictable. Controllable. But soon after the tournament starts, things begin to change. Even powerful magicians sometimes struggle with basic skills–candles won’t light. Other spells go completely out of control. An early tournament contest ends in a dueler’s death when the spell he cast surges in power and consumes him. For some of the established families, this is an opportunity to lay the blame at Sydney’s feet. She’s a newcomer. She broke the magic. Sydney knows it was not her. She suspects a much deeper and darker force at play, one that has been building in power for decades.

 

An Unkindness of Magicians is full of magic, but like many fantasy books warn, this magic has a price. How much would one pay to do magic? As the book progresses we see what the cost of magic is, and we see who is willing to pay that price. We also see who is willing to force others to pay the price for them. Sydney’s background is revealed, and we see what magic costs in her life and in the lives of others. We also see what the lust for magic does for those who are less willing to absorb that cost themselves.

 

Sydney is a strong protagonist, a magician with extraordinary talent and strength of character. She is also not alone in her quest to confront the challenges facing magic. She collects allies along the way, men and women who have also become concerned about the toll magic requires. I love the way Howard’s characters relate. In her fiction, just like life, strong women and strong men make each other stronger. By the end of the book, Sydney has gone from being a loner to being part of a team. I don’t know whether a sequel is planned for Sydney, but whether her future is written or just imagined, we can anticipate it being supported by her friends.

 

I enjoyed An Unkindness of Magicians, and look forward to future books from Kat Howard. An Unkindness of Magicians is indeed full of unkind magicians! But it also is full of strong characters, an interesting plot, and solid writing. Fantasy lovers (even mature teen readers) will enjoy this book.

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Book Review: An Unkindness of MagiciansKat Howard

Book Review: Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse

Book Review: Trail of LightningRebecca Roanhorse

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Fantasy: Trail of LightningRebecca Roanhorse

Southwest tribes are known for their traditional weaving skills. I have no idea whether Rebecca Roanhorse can whip out a rug or a blanket on a loom, but when it comes to weaving together Navajo folklore, dystopian sci fi, and kickass adventure, her creation belongs on any fantasy-lover’s shelf. Trail of Lightning has it all: a great story, great characters, a well-constructed and consistent world, and a heroine that can send any monster back home to mommy. If that’s best done by sending them in pieces, so be it.

 

Maggie has issues. Killing is not one of them. She is good at it. When monsters threaten the Dinetah–the land of the Navajo–she is fearless. When it comes to sorting out her relationships, though, the monsters are not quite so easily vanquished. Her mentor, an immortal hero from Navajo legend, abandoned her a year ago. Sorting out her life has taken the better part of that year, but now a child has been taken by a monster, a creature without a name, and Maggie’s services are required.

 

I love books that take risks, that go in unexpected directions, that feature complex characters and especially that feature strong women. Trail of Lightning does all of that. The easy, traditional fantasy approach would take awhile to say, “Maggie battled the monster and won, returning the uninjured child to her grateful mother.” Not here. Maggie feels bloodlust and violently, brutally, viciously kills and decapitates the creature. And not to get too detailed lest I require a trigger warning for my own review, there is no rescue and there is no delivery of an uninjured child to her grateful mother.

 

This begins a journey through the Dinetah where Maggie searches to find the source for this monster and others like it which start to attack Navajo settlements. She is assisted by a young healer who is more than he seems, an old medicine man, and a bartender who lives on the edge of the reservation. During her journey Maggie must face characters from Navajo legend and story including the trickster Coyote, and must face her own demons that often threaten to take hold of her life and twist it out of control.

 

Rebecca Roanhorse is a Native American author and lawyer. A graduate of Yale, she has already in her young career won a Nebula award and been nominated for the Hugo. Trail of Lightning is the first book in a projected series, with a sequel already scheduled for publication next February. In other words, Roanhorse is a terrific writer at the very beginning of a series that promises to get better. The perfect time to jump in!

 

The world envisioned for Trail of Lightning is a difficult and dark one. The United States is essentially gone, devastated by climate change and by the New Madrid fault splitting the nation and allowing the ocean to cover most of the interior. These physical changes also opened doors for ancient beings to resurface, and the old gods and devils, heroes and monsters, are once again participating in the lives of the “five fingered ones,” i.e. humans. Their release, though, has also awakened powers long latent in the Native people, powers which allow humans to compete more evenly with these ancient beings. Roanhorse is in many ways reinterpreting Navajo folklore for a new generation along the lines Rick Riordan has done with Greek, Roman, Norse, and Egyptian folklore–though the high gore and body count in Trail of Lightning should keep it off of the YA shelves at your local library.

 

Not a criticism, but it is fair to warn sensitive readers that if you are triggered by horror blood and gore, this is not the right book for you. If you like your fantasy with a touch of horror, if you enjoy seeing a different culture expressed in literature, if you enjoy a heroine who knows how to use a blade, Trail of Lightning delivers a rich tapestry to anyone who buys it.

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Book Review: Trail of LightningRebecca Roanhorse

Book Series Review: Arcadia Project Series, Mishell Baker

Book Series Review: Arcadia Project Series, Mishell Baker

 

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Fantasy: Arcadia Project Series, Mishell Baker

 

Mishell Baker has created a magical world with an extraordinary protagonist. In this world, the world of the magical Fae and the non-magical world we inhabit are inextricably linked. That is the premise of the Arcadia Project books, a series that tells the story of one member of the Arcadia Project.

 

Millie Roper is broken. Damaged goods. She has borderline personality disorder (BPD), a mental condition that expresses itself in sudden, sometimes violent, mood swings. She can be in turns emotionally fragile and emotionally manipulative. She is difficult on her best days and almost impossible on her worst. She is also physically damaged. A suicide attempt left her a double amputee with metal screws holding many of her bones and joints together.

 

These challenges make our world a difficult place for Millie. But they uniquely suit her for dealing with the fae. The metal in her body makes her immune to most spells and enchantments. It even allows her to nullify many of them with a touch. And her emotional challenges help her in unexpected ways when dealing with the fae, who bring their own emotional uniqueness to the party.

 

Borderline and Phantom Pains introduce Millie and the other major characters in the series. They also introduce us to the major conflicts between the fae and the human world, and between those within the Arcadia Project who are willing to enslave spirits (and others) to gain power and those who are unwilling to enslave others. Millie is a freedom fighter. She works with others in the Los Angeles office of Arcadia, and with her fae allies, to oppose the London headquarters of Arcadia. Awkwardly, London is the headquarters of the entire project, ostensibly devoted to keeping the peace and promoting the advancement of both humans and fae, but secretly enslaving fae to take their powers for themselves. In Imposter Syndrome the battle is fought on two fronts, our world and Arcadia (the home of the fae), and Millie is at the center of it all.

 

Imposter Syndrome truly is centered on Millie. Although the book tells the story of the conflict between the chapters of the Arcadia Project and between fae kingdoms in Arcadia, the story is really all about Millie. She is a powerful protagonist, though she seems to be the last to recognize her own power. Her struggles are the arc of the book: coming to terms with her power within the Arcadia project; coming to terms with her sexuality as she wrestles with relationships with men, women, and fae; coming to terms with both her brokenness and her strength. Millie cannot be categorized. She is neither gay nor straight, she is neither whole nor broken, she is neither a leader nor a follower, she is neither mentally ill nor mentally healed. She is weak and powerful, sexual and aloof, intelligent and foolish, and utterly remarkable and unlike any other figure I have encountered in literature or in life. In other words, Millie is individual, special, unique, both like and unlike everyone else. That, in many ways, makes her extraordinary.

 

Mishell Baker has created a special character in Millie Roper. In being unlike anyone else, she is possibly the most human character you will encounter in science fiction–or in fiction in general. Millie Roper’s “differences” give her a strength and power that leaps off the page. She is worth getting to know through the pages of the Arcadia Project.

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Book Series Review: Arcadia Project Series, Mishell Baker

Recipe & Review: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

Review & Recipe: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter Series, Susan Wittig Albert

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Book Series Review: The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter series by Susan Wittig Albert is filled with many delightful ingredients — cozy mystery, historical Lake District setting, fantasy elements. Albert uses the beloved children’s book author and illustrator, Beatrix Potter as her main character. As a single female Londoner, Beatrix gets a mixed welcome to her new home in the village of Near Sawrey where she goes to her farm to write and draw her books as well as grieve for the loss of her fiance and escape her domineering parents. Over the course of the series Beatrix solves mysteries large and small while slowly becomes an integral and respected part of the village community.

Each book features a main mystery as well a couple of smaller intriguing issues that are neatly concluded by Beatrix’s keen observation skills, quick wit, and compassionate heart. Albert adds a whimsical fantasy addition by including a parallel problem faced by the animals of the village community who act and talk in the same manner as Beatrix’s literary creations – helpful dogs, generous badgers, marauding rats, even a brave dragon makes an appearance. The language of this series is definitely within the reach of readers as young as upper elementary or middle school and the light fantasy element would be appealing to them.

Albert’s attention to historical detail brings you into the heart of village life of Near Sawrey, as her characters react and reflect on their daily life, enjoy meals, gossip about neighbors, apply manners according to social status, dress for outings, and work the land of the Lake District. The land itself, like the people and animals, becomes a character in how it influences village life. At least once in each book, Beatrix takes time to just appreciate the land with walks or picnics or sketches. The land feeds her need for beauty as well as provides a venue for reflections.

In addition, Albert provides historical commentary in Historical Notes, Resources, recipes, maps, character lists, and glossaries of Lake District dialect words. This series would make a fine bridge into historical novels and period literature for young readers. Readers interested in the life of Beatrix Potter will also enjoy seeking the biographical references listed in the Resources.

Even though, readers know that the series is fiction, Albert makes Beatrix such a plausible and real character that we want to spend time with her. We cheer her steps as she grows from her grief, matches wits with the local matriarch, and discovers the answers to local mysteries. We watch as her makes friends, rebels against her controlling parents, and finds a new romance. We want to become her friend and just sit down and share a cup of tea while she spins another fascinating story. This is the perfect series to read on a picnic blanket in front of a beautiful lake view with some tea and scones.

Tea

In The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Beatrix often gathers clues while sharing a cup of tea visiting different villagers. The tea served was probably a black tea where the leaves go through an oxidation process in order to produce a richer flavor. The heartier flavor of black teas enable it to be served with either milk or lemon. Ceylon or Darjeeling teas would be examples of teas that would be served any time of the day. If Beatrix went on a morning visit, a strong tea, such as Assam or English Breakfast would be served. A lighter tea, such as Earl Grey or Formosa Oolong would be served in the afternoon without the milk or lemon due to its more delicate flavors.

Scones

Scones are a traditional treat to serve with tea. In the Cottage Tales series, Beatrix got her scones from a friend that ran a village bakery. This recipe was originally developed for an office gift-in-a-jar exchange. The basic dry mix was layered in a glass jar topped with the dry ingredients for the cranberry orange variation and decorated with a pretty cloth bow and recipe card with the instructions. Note: the addition of an egg is not a traditional ingredient in scones, however, I found a prize winning recipe using an egg and have discovered that the texture less crumbly making it easier to spread toppings. You can omit the egg for a more traditional recipe with the addition of a TBSP or two of extra liquid in the wet ingredient section.

Basic Dry Scone Mix (can be mixed and stored in a jar)

  • 2 ½  C self-rising flour baking mix or buttermilk biscuit mix
  • 2 Tbs sugar
  • 2 Tbs dried milk powder (optional, unless using juice as a flavor add-in instead of milk/half & half)

Wet Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup melted butter
  • 1/3 cup milk or half/half
  • 1 large egg, beaten

Flavor Add-in Variations (Note dried ingredients can be stored with dry mix)

  • 3/4 cup cranberries & (choose 1) 1 TBS orange zest or 1 tsp orange extract or 1/3 cup orange juice frozen concentrate (defrosted)  in place of milk
  • 3/4 cup frozen blueberries & (choose 1) 1 TBS lemon zest or 1 tsp lemon extract or 1/3 lemon juice concentrate in place of milk
  • 1/2 cup dried cherries & 1/2 cup chocolate chips
  • decrease butter to 2 TBS, add 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese & 2 tsp herbs de provence
  • replace sugar with 3 TBS maple syrup & 1 tsp cinnamon & 1/2 tsp ground ginger or 1 tsp minced crystallized ginger

Preheat the oven to 400. 

Start with dry mix in a bowl.

Top with wet ingredients.

Add any flavor variations from above.

Mix gently with a spatula until the dough just comes together.   

Using a cookie scoop, drop dough balls on to a sheet pan and lightly pat down to flatten – makes about 12 individual or 24 mini-bite scones.

Optional: sprinkle sugar on the tops for a slightly crunchy, shiny topping that browns faster.

Bake for 8-10 minutes, depending on size, until the edges are just lightly browned on edges – tastes best warm from the oven.

 

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Review & Recipe: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

If you enjoyed this post also see:

Recipe & Review : Teatime with Mary Russell, Laurie R. King

Recipe & Review: Teatime with China Bayles, Susan Wittig Albert

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Mitford Books, Jan Karon

Booklist: If You Like Peter Rabbit… Bunny Books for Shared Reading with Children

Book Review: The Invisible Library Series, Genevieve Cogman

Book Review: The Invisible Library Series, Genevieve Cogman

Celebrating National Library Week April 2018

Fiction Fantasy Series

The Invisible Library, Book 1 in The Invisible Library Series

The Masked City, Book 2 in The Invisible Library Series

The Burning Page, Book 3 in The Invisible Library Series

The Lost Plot, Book 4 in The Invisible Library Series

The Mortal Word, Book 5 in The Invisible Library Series

How are you going to celebrate National Library Week? Try reading a book about or set in a library or better yet, a whole book series about libraries! I have read the first three books in Genevieve Cogman’s series about The Invisible Library, and I am very eager to catch up with the rest of the stories. Cogman’s books are fun, with a kick-ass heroine, a dragon side-kick (he looks human most of the time), a Sherlock Holmesian detective, and rich settings in imaginative worlds that are both fun and fantastic. The Invisible Library: a fantastic series to read in celebrating National Library Week.  

Irene works for the library as a book collector cum spy. Her job is to go into alternate realities and collect unique books. Not rare. Unique. Shakespeare may be read in multiple realities, but in one of those realities perhaps Hamlet has an extra scene. The library collects and preserves those unique texts, and in so doing preserves the uniqueness and separateness of the various realities.

Along the way she picks up an assistant, Kai, a young dragon who wants to become a librarian. Dragons can choose to appear as human, and Kai typically remains in human form. When needed, Kai can pull some dragon magic to save the day. Usually, though, it is Irene saving him.

Irene is opposed by a fearsome entity, a former librarian who has forsaken his mission and has turned to stealing books for his own purposes. As the book series develops, we learn that her enemy is trying to replace the library with a creation of his own. He finds, though, that Irene is more than formidable, and that whatever dangers she may encounter in the multiverse, she is capable of handling herself and rescuing her friends.

Cogman’s worlds are creative and well drawn. Irene may find herself traveling through time, traveling around the world, or traveling between worlds. She may find herself in a modern car, a steampunk dirigible, or riding a dragon. Wherever she goes, though, she is armed with her quick wits, her sharp tongue, and both the bravery and the skills to confront any challenge.

Although the series is written for adults, it is quite appropriate for teens as well. Irene is no wilting flower, no damsel in distress, no woman waiting for rescue by a man. She is a bold and sometimes headstrong heroine. She is quite capable of rescuing herself and leading her assistant bravely into battle when necessary.

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The Invisible Library

For Genevieve Cogman’s website on the series http://www.grcogman.com/books/

More ways to celebrate National Library Week, if you like this Book Review on The Invisible Library Series, then see our

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Booklist about Books for Shared Reading with Kids

What book will you read to Celebrate National Library Week?