About me

I am a bookseller-turned-librarian with a deep love for reading fantasy, and all of its sub-genres. I have also been known to dally with a historical or literary novel or two now and then. I review for Library Journal and Netgalley, and have my nose into all manner of books, large press and small. If there is something you would like me to take a look at, please do drop me a line. aprilmsteenburgh @ gmail. com

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Dominion by C.S. Friedman

I carried battered, loved copies of the Coldfire Trilogy with me through multiple moves and a seemingly endless progression of life changes. After a devastating flood they were some of the first books I worked to replace. The characters of the trilogy are like old friends- every now and then I get the urge to check in on them, revisit scenes and passages I particularly liked. Occasionally I take a weekend and reread the series, and every time I wish there was just a bit more for me to dig into. My love of the antihero started with Gerald Tarrant.

So it was with unabashed glee that I stumbled upon Dominion and tossed aside all that I had planned for the evening to read. I had not expected a new Tarrant story, had not known one was in the works, and as a result reading was one of the most wonderful evenings I have had in quite some time. For fans of the original trilogy, it takes place well before the trilogy proper, detailing when Tarrant first enters the Forest and how he makes it his own. It is dark and beautiful and frightening and perfect. Dominion is true to the trilogy I love, while adding more meat for me to chew on. It is a novella- so it is short, but makes every word count.

It is only a matter of time before I give in and give the trilogy another read.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Coldfire Trilogy, it is a horrifying and satisfying look at human emotion and ambition all tucked in a science fiction/fantasy setting that is unsettling and different than anything I have come across since. I highly recommend giving it a read.

The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle

There is no way to decline a direct assignment from the Throne, so when Mal is ordered to be the bodyguard of the Skrayling Ambassador, the chief representative of a New World race he detests, he will have to work to get his feelings under control and learn to defend what he would rather avoid.

As he spends more time in Skrayling company, and grows oddly fond of the small, gentle Ambassador, Mal will have to work to juggle his duty to the crown, to the Skrayling, and to his own blood- and those interests are not always aligned.

It is no secret that alternate histories are a weakness of mine, and Alchemist of Souls preyed upon that weakness with gleeful aplomb. From seedy neighborhoods and seedier dungeons, to the back-stages and politics of the theater and into the lair of Walshingham himself, Alchemist of Souls slips between fascinating with an era long past, and condemning it.

Mal is a hero despite himself, and will appeal to readers fond of that sort of reluctant crossing from duty to conviction. He is by far the most developed of the book’s characters, some of the others fall a bit flat- more ideas than three dimensional individuals- but it is not hard to lose oneself in the story and gloss over the writing’s rougher edges. It is an enjoyable story and I look forward to reading more from the author.

Casket of Souls by Lynn Flewelling

Alec and Seregil are back, and waist-deep in the intrigue that they seem so adept at untangling. But this will be no easy knot to work with. In the middle of the usual unrest caused by a war that keeps dragging on,the higher classes have become restless as well. Cabals scrabble through treason and treachery in support of their chosen royal’s claim to a throne that still has someone sitting in it. And Alec and Seregil find themselves scrambling to sort it all out before they become the victims of the next power play.

At the same time a mysterious plague works its way quietly through the city, leaving no symptoms but a sort of catatonia until it’s victims finally slip away.

Casket of Souls is an excellent addition to the series. It is a high stakes adventure- in the wake of plague and ambition no punches are pulled and lives are lost. Flewelling again demonstrates her adept hand at writing well formed intrigue with believable consequences. Alec and Seregil’s world is realistic and just as wonderful as it is treacherous. If you are new to the series, pick up the first book, Luck in the Shadows. If you like your fantasy thick with intrigue, your world build rich and populated by a vast array of cultures the Nightrunner books are not to be missed. Especially if you don’t mind a welcome bit of romance thrown in, to raise the stake of every risk being taken.

Spellcrossed by Barbara Ashford

In the time since Rowan said goodbye to her at the Crossroads Theater Maggie has had a fascinating time adjusting to the new Board of Directors and the view of the theater from Rowan’s shoes as she plans and runs the theater season. But Rowan is a hard act to follow, and between missing him and trying to be him, Maggie is tying her own life in knots.

When Rowan reappears late one night, a battered human he recovered from the Borderlands between the human and Faerie worlds in tow, Maggie’s world is again turned upside-down. And again it will take Faerie magic and human hearts and hands to put things back together.

I don’t usually listen to music while reading, but Ashford’s Spellcast and Spellcrossed have had me digging through old Cassettes and CDs, looking for the musicals I grew up listening to and performing in. Spellcrossed is again thick and vibrant with a love and knowledge of the theater. It is a magnificent stage on which to set a suburban fantasy- containing a magic that is unique and fascinating, and at the same time familiar enough to catch us tightly and hold us close.

It is a romance between a human and something Other, where the Otherness is not glossed over, adding extra interest and tension to the writing. It is a book that exults in human imperfections, the beautiful way they all manage to fit together into something magnificent.

This one hit hard and perfect. It is a book about bonds and family. I lost a sister less than a year ago, a sister who was draped in the merry trappings of the theater. Ashford’s skillful, heart-felt writing wrung smiles and tears from me in equal measure. It was my little bit of healing, courtesy of the Crossroads Theater. I invite you all to give Spellcrossed, and its predecessor Spellcast,  a read and take away from it everything you can.

A Series of Ordinary Adventures by Stevie Carroll

They are the people you pass on the street, sit next to on the bus. They are the heroes of personal triumphs, victims of personal tragedy. This is a book of little things- small casts, snippets of lives- but the way Carroll writes them makes them so very grand. The fantastic is woven so adeptly into the mundane that you don’t even know it is there until you meet the Minotaur at the center of the Labyrinth, shatter a luck curse, hatch a fairy egg, or deal with the Devil at midnight.

It is that atmosphere that drew me in and kept me reading. Carroll’s deft hand at lending magical and frightening things a rather nonchalant air makes each story stand out from regular literary fantasy fare. Stories range from heart warming to horrifying, but whatever atmosphere Carroll is weaving, his adept web of words caught my attention and held me until the end.

There were a few stories that particularly got me as I was reading, either causing a rash of goose flesh to march up and down my arms or prompting me to seek out my cat for some impromptu (and probably unwelcome on the feline end of things) cuddling.

‘Breaking the Silence’ is about a close coterie of school boys who owe their successes in life to the bully they only half remember and an incident in a dusty attic of the school house. It is an absolutely, believably, horrifying piece. ‘The Woman Who Hatched A Fairy’s Egg’ may be my favorite in the collection. It is a story about self and belonging and confidence and love. And an egg found on the front step is the catalyst for it all. Simply a beautiful story. I am genuinely just very fond of ‘Mr. Singh Confronts the Minotaur’. It was well- written, fun, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Shady deals with the Devil are a staple of myth/folklore-based writing, and it was wonderful to see it represented in Carroll’s collection in ‘Seven For the Devil’. As usual, the deal does not go as planned for the mortals in the mix, and the protagonist scrambles to set things right. What set this story apart from others with the same theme is the protagonist- a genuinely likable person who makes human decisions- and the friend he continues to seek out, who happens to be a rocker-turned-preacher.

Grab a copy. Curl up somewhere comfortable. Enjoy your trip through familiar places turned strange in wonderful ways.

Candlemark & Gleam is running a Kickstarter for the collection. It is a wonderful way to get a copy and support both the publisher and the author.

Never Knew Another by J. M. McDermott

They slip in among the men and women of day to day life, the offspring of demons whose blood is acid and whose very presence can cause a person to sicken. Their deformities, reminders of their demonic heritage, can be hidden like the wings Jona’s mother cut from his back, or debilitating like the long forked tongue, black scales, and talons Rachel’s father left her.

To be a demon child is to be marked for death. So Jona works hard as a Kings Man,  passing for mortal day by day. Rachel moves from city to city with her brother, dressed as a mystic, ready to flee in an instant.

Never did either of them know that there were others like them until they met each other.

Never Knew Another is an eerie, beautiful book. The lives of the demon children unfold with a rare delicacy and awareness of just how precarious life is for them. The main narrator is one of two Walkers- wolves that can take the shape of man and who are holy hunters of the demon children- as she moves through Jona’s memories in pursuit of another demon child. It is a point of view that is more alien than that of the demon children themselves, and I think it strengthens the overall pull of the story.

It is a book about fear and loneliness, and need for connection and community and the comfort of things that are familiar.  It is eerie and wonderful and will linger with you long after you have turned the last page.

Vodnik by Bryce Moore

Ten years ago, something bad happened to Tomas in Slovakia. Something he doesn’t quite remember, but that left horrible burns on his body and prompted his parents to move the family to America. But a house fire leaves the family in a poor financial situation and they move back to Slovakia with Tomas, now 16, who sees things that could not, should not be.  Tomas is a reclusive American boy, who wants nothing more than to watch his movies. He is not at all prepared for fire vilas, water demons, or the prejudice against his own Roma heritage.

But none of that is willing to leave him alone. Least of all Death herself who offers him a bargain he cannot help but take.

Vodnik is an excellent read for those who are looking for fantasy with a spark of something new. I had a lot of fun reading a mythology less common than the usual fantasy/urban fantasy fare, and that newness made up for the slight pacing and predictability issues that snuck in and out of the chapters. Tomas is a reluctant hero that many a young reader will be able to relate to- and he deals with some hard issues like racial prejudice and bullying that are important for folks to read and think about. It is a book about growing up, as many young adult books are, but it avoids being preachy and remains pleasant. It is a book about family and love and everything that draws one person to another.

If you are looking for an enjoyable read, give Vodnik a shot. You won’t look at a tea cup the same way again.

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

Verity Price is a Cryptozoologist, someone who studies Cryptids (the things that science has yet to put a finger on), who moonlights in her cover identity as a competitive dancer. Her family broke away from the Covenant, and organization bent on wiping out the cryptids, a few generations back and has been studying and protecting them as best they can. This caused a bit of a vicious blood feud between the Covenant and Price family. Hence Verity’s cover identity- it wouldn’t do for a Covenant member to pin down her location.

Except one has. There is a Covenant member in her city, and Cryptid girls going missing. They must be connected.

Right?

I opened this book knowing I adore the author, all of her incarnations- from her music to Mira Grant. So I knew I was going to at least enjoy the read. Reading it at the same time as my partner added another level of enjoyment. We weren’t directly competing for page count, but at I got to use the phrase “Have you gotten to the waheela yet?” and chortle uncontrollably at his blank stare.

So I opened the cover and settled down knowing I was going to like what I saw, and I was not disappointed. Very is a fun character- simple as that. There is a wonderful lack of angst and emo to this urban fantasy chick. She is more concerned with the ass kicking and dealing with the loyal Cryptid mouse cult that has infested her apartment.

The first InCryptid offering is not as deep as, say, the Toby Daye books or her work as Mira Grant, but sometimes I want nothing more than I book I can just simply like reading, cover to cover. It is an excellent world build with some fascinating characters and dialog only Seanan could pull off. I laughed, I guffawed, I snorted various beverages ingested at poorly thought out intervals. All in all, it was a splendid good time. I will merrily say I had a blast and wait for the next book.

Nnedi Okorafor

This is an unusual post, as it is not a proper review by any means. But, as I was lounging this evening with warm beverage and a copy of Who Fears Death, I was struck again by how simply special Ms. Okorafor’s writing is. There is something starkly beautiful about her prose, about the stories she weaves with it.  So many books promise a strange and wondrous locale, but few bring along with them characters that are so much a part of their environment. And that is part of the magic for me. I am sometimes thrown off by books that go to great lengths to describe some place new and strange, I get distracted.

With Ms. Okorafor’s work, the place and the people are woven so tightly together that one cannot pay attention to one without noticing the other. It is part of what keeps me so enthralled. The strange and fascinating are described in ways that are so down to earth and mundane, because the reader is getting it all from the characters. There is no being pulled from the prose. And everything is all the more captivating as a result.

And the characters are truly wonderful. There is a vibrancy to them that is a rare find. I could spend time with these people- share thoughts, ideas, stories. I would consider myself lucky to do so.

There are no promises that everything will be okay, no easy win or way out. But there is the assurance that this too can be overcome- grit your teeth, gather your resources, and carry on. I gather those reassuring whispers close to me long after I have closed the book and have started the process of muddling through the day to day business of being an adult.

Her writing  just strikes me as so very important. I want more people to read it, both the adult and the young adult, and all the short stories in between. There is something so very essential in there, and I applaud Ms. Okorafor for capturing something to tenuous and giving it shape.

Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht

Liam has a talent for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and in Ireland during the Troubles this can be a fatal affliction. Having done his time for crimes he did not commit, Liam is finally driven to taking a political stance by being unwilling to take anymore. He volunteers with the IRA to get a job to support his new wife and to gain some measure of control over his life.

But Liam has never met his birth father, and it seems the man left him more than anyone could have imagined. Something dark and violent lurks within Liam, something the IRA is happy to have, but something that no one, least of all Liam, is able to consistently control.

Of Blood and Honey is historical fiction at its finest, taking into account the rich myth of Ireland and weaving in just enough of that magic to turn the book to please fantasy fans. It is a painful, loving tribute to those who struggled through the worst part of the Troubles. It is a book about family, in all of its permutations.

Liam struggles through conflicts with his stepfather, his wife, the priest who has all but raised him, the family he finds in the other Volunteers, and learning the truth of his birth father and the lineage that was kept secret from him. It is often a violent book, set during a violent time, and the wonder is the little joys and loves the characters find along the way.

And in the background of it all, a secret Order of the Church is engaging in a war with the Fallen, which followed them to Ireland. But their world view does not allow for the acceptance of Ireland’s Fey creatures as entities apart from the Fallen of their religion, and Liam has been in  precarious position since the moment he was born, and has never been aware of it.