The Gauntlet: A Review of Tear Down the Throne, by Jennifer Estep

            Romance is one of the oldest genres in the literary world, and remains one of the largest areas of publication, with multitudes of readers and books being published every year.  Romance is one of those genres that can be combined with so many others, resulting in some extremely creative and unique styles of writing.  While many books include romance, to call a book a romance is something completely different.  There may be a plot, but the main tension is a result of the story revolves around the love lives of the main characters.  By blending romance with a setting theme, such as fantasy, authors can create some fun combinations, brainstorming new romantic traditions and customs for their characters to engage with.  There is also something inherently romantic about using a fantasy setting, especially one with real world influences throughout history.  The idea of star-crossed lovers is extraordinarily popular, and what easier way to set that up than by pairing royalty from two enemy kingdoms?

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Perseverance: A Review of Destiny of the Dead, by Kel Kade

            Apocalyptic fiction can be a tricky story format to get right, and it usually falls into two broad categories.  Post-apocalypse stories are actually very common, for a variety of reasons, where the apocalypse has already happened and we spend our time following characters surviving or rebuilding after the fact.  The tone of these can range wildly, from hopeless in the face of a terrible world, or hopeful as rebuilding is underway.  Conversely, there are also stop-the-apocalypse stories, where the heroes of the story work to avoid the end of the world, either preventing or reversing the oncoming apocalypse.  Much rarer are stories where the apocalypse seems inevitable, but has not happened yet.  Where readers, and sometimes even the characters, know that the end of the world is going to happen, but the characters struggle anyways.  Conventional wisdom tells us that if a character wants something enough, then the audience will want them to achieve it.  But how does a story avoid disappointing readers when it seems like the protagonists will not get what they want?

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The Pull and the Take: A Review of Age of Ash, by Daniel Abraham

            Fantasy as a genre is incredibly varied, so much so that it is more accurate to say that fantasy has expanded well beyond a simple genre into a overarching category of fiction.  Fantasy can be combined with any other genre in existence seamlessly, and in fact often is.  Similar to science-fiction, calling something fantasy tells a reader very little about what to expect.  To help readers understand what they’re getting into, it is becoming more common to separate works of fantasy into two general categories: high fantasy and low fantasy.  High fantasy is the more traditional approach, with magic being very common within the setting and multiple fantastical creatures.  Low fantasy shifts that focus.  Magic may exist, but it is either rare or not understood.  The main characters are commoners rather than nobles or chosen ones.  By shifting the focus down, low fantasy can appear gritter or more “realistic” in some ways, while drastically changing what is important to the story from high fantasy.

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Caffeinated Comfort: A Review of Legends & Lattes, by Travis Baldree

            Not every story needs to have high stakes, or even high tension, to keep the plot interesting and the characters engaging.  There are entire genres of fiction dedicated to the small things in life, detailing the daily lives of people from all walks of life.  The most well-known of these genres is known as slice-of-life, which itself covers a wide range of storytelling methods.  More recently, there has been a new variation of this type of storytelling, simply known as “cozy.”  It started with video games that prioritized creating a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere for the player, and has since moved into books as well.  The hallmark of cozy is to make the reader feel safe and secure in the setting and among the characters.  A sort of comfort food of fiction.  The book’s setting, characters, and plot points all work in concert to create a special kind of reading experience, where there is still conflict, but the conflicts resolve in such a way that the main characters are allowed to be happy.  For obvious reasons, cozy fiction also draws a lot of queer readers, finding accepting and loving environments within a book’s pages.

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Sibling Bonds: A Review of Critical Role: Vox Machina: Kith & Kin, by Marieke Nijkamp

            The franchise tie-in novel is a staple of the entertainment business, often presented as a way to consume more of a given piece of media or provide more insight into certain characters and settings.  The larger the franchise, the more likely it is for tie-in novels to be commissioned, sometimes by truly talented authors.  While these types of novels, years ago, were not very good for the most part, overall, the domain of the tie-in novel has been getting better and better.  For example, the recent “High Republic” series out of Star Wars.  Dungeons and Dragons, commonly referred to as the most popular role-playing game in the world, is no stranger to tie-in novels.  From the very beginning, when Gary Gygax controlled the company behind the game, stories were being told in the various official settings, creating fan-favorite characters that still feature to this day.  Today’s book is not an official Dungeons and Dragons tie-in novel, but the game is baked intricately into its DNA, but elevated to the point of just being a great novel.

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Intent: A Review of Blood Like Magic, by Liselle Sambury

            Witchcraft in fiction is an incredible variable, mutable tool in storytelling, although not every fantasy story, or story with magic present, contains witchcraft.  It is one of those things where no one can agree on a single definition, aside from witches mostly being female or female led.  Even region of the world has its own folklore regarding witches, going back thousands of years.  In some, witches are benevolent, helping their communities with potions and spells.  In others, witches made deals with the devil in the pursuit of power and influence.  While authors do pull on some of that, depending on where they decide to set their stories, the lack of a single definition of witchcraft allows writers to create new takes on it, iterating and innovating from story to story. 

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Chosen: A Review of Cast in Secrets and Shadow, by Andrea Robertson

            One of the oldest genres, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, is the coming-of-age story.  A tale concerned with the transitions between eras of life.  Child to teenager, teenager to young adult, young adult to adult.  People are constantly changing and, hopefully, maturing as they grow older, and we all have stories that exemplify these transitional spaces.  Within storytelling, there are so many ways to handle this story, and it has been handled by nearly every author throughout history.  Characters spend the arcs of their stories learning from their experiences, ending the story wiser than they began.  There can be starts and stops across the journey, as we are all familiar with the concept that we have become our perfect selves, only for that notion to be proven false very quickly.  Sometimes, there are even characters who believe to have found the correct path, only to require course correction from a trusted voice.

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Rage: A Review of Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

Revolution has always been a major theme across literature, and nearly every young adult novel features the concept in some way.  Stories are full of characters challenging the status quo and pushing back against injustice.  However, there is usually a limit, a disconnect, which separates the injustices on the page from the injustices in the real world.  Mainstream readers can enjoy a series such as The Hunger Games without connecting the dots between the world in the novels to the real world.  Whenever a book comes along that does challenge its readers to think critically about our own reality and history, there can be hesitancy.  Publishers do not think it would sell well, publicists worry about potential backlash, and more.  Yet, there is an audience for literature such as that, literature that combines entertainment with real revolution, and that audience is getting larger and more vocal every year, hungry for more.

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Class President: A Review of The Last Graduate, by Naomi Novik

Telling a serialized story—a story where each installment is explicitly connected to the next, forming a cohesive tale across multiple chapters—is nothing new to the world of books, especially for those of us who read fantasy or science-fiction.  This format has also been steadily taking over the world of television shows and movies to the point where, when a movie ends, watchers immediately start asking about the sequel.  The concept of a serialized story also pairs well with the cliffhanger, where a book ends upon a revelation, twist, or in the middle of a conflict.  While this format can make it appear daunting for new people to get into the story if they arrive late, it also serves to hook readers and keep them invested and excited for each new chapter.  Naomi Novik’s latest novel certainly keeps us wanting more.

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Spycraft and Romance: A Review of Capture the Crown, by Jennifer Estep

There is an art to be found when crafting a sequel, a careful balance to be struck, which I talked about in several opening paragraphs in other reviews.  When it comes to creating not just a sequel, but a sequel series, however, that requires a completely different skillset and outlook.  Sometimes, after a series has concluded the story it wished to tell, there is room for additional stories.  Many authors will shift focus to a different character or a different region of their world entirely.  Often, the writer employs a time jump, catching up to characters and worlds many years after the original ending.  When writing a sequel series, a careful balance must be struck; a balance between retaining old readers and drawing in new ones.  Tip that balance, and you risk alienating one or both of these groups.  For the perfect example, look no farther than the Star Wars sequel trilogy.  The first movie, The Force Awakens, achieved this balance easily, introducing new characters and keeping one or two old ones.  However, the final movie, The Rise of Skywalker, wrapped itself in misplace nostalgia to everyone’s detriment, creating a finale that satisfied no one.  The balance was not maintained.

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