Title:Edgewood Author: Kristen Ciccarelli Genre: Young Adult/Contemporary Fantasy Version: ARC – eBook Page Count: 384 Publisher: Wednesday Books Synopsis:GoodReads | StoryGraph Notable Notables: A bard-like protagonist; lesbian side characters Recommended Readers: Basic fantasy lovers and those who like stories about sentient woods CAWPILE Rating: 4.57 Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Edgewood by Kristen Ciccarelli is a contemporary fantasy YA novel about a girl named Emeline, who is on the cusp of breaking into the music industry as an established folk singer. However, she can never quite escape the creeping woods of her hometown, which permeate her performances whenever she sings no matter where she is.
When she gets word that her grandfather and caretaker has gone missing—potentially taken as a tithe to the mysterious Wood King—Emeline races back to Edgewood to find him. Braving the mysterious woods, she finds the Wood King’s court and strikes a bargain: she will become the Wood King’s new minstrel in return for her grandfather’s freedom. To do that, she must work together with the king’s tithe collector, Hawthorne, to recover the Song Mage’s lost sheet music and discover the cause of the wood’s corruption.
Title:Redemptor Author: Jordan Ifueko Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy Version: Hardcover – Illumicrate Edition Page Count: 441 Publisher: Hot Key Books Synopsis:GoodReads | StoryGraph Notable Notables: Diverse cast with a Black girl as the main character; asexual representation Recommended Readers: Liked the first book, Raybearer? See what happens next CAWPILERating: 4.57 Rating: ★★☆☆☆
I was convinced after finishing Jordan Ifueko’s Raybearer that the sequel, Redemptor, would be a five-star read easy. Yet here I am, presenting it with a two-star rating and sighing tiredly to myself.
I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.
This review may be best served to look back on my review for the first book and see what made me excited to continue with the second one. What was I anticipating? What was I hoping for? What did I want Redemptor to be? Maybe that way I can see why this much-hyped, lauded duology wound up being second-rate and unredeemed.
Obviously, spoilers for both books will follow here.
Title:Raybearer Author: Jordan Ifueko Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy Version: Hardcover – Illumicrate Edition Page Count: 476 Publisher: Hot Key Books Synopsis:GoodReads | StoryGraph Notable Notables: Diverse cast with a Black girl as the main character; asexual representation; good fae content; found family trope Recommended Readers: Are you tired of Western-based YA fantasy books? Here’s your cure. CAWPILERating: 7.86 Rating: ★★★★☆
Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko is an engaging bildungsroman full of heart, spirituality, and magic as its wonderful protagonist Tarisai chases these ever-important questions: Who do I want to be? Where do I belong? Can I be loved for who I am?
From the beginning, Raybearer captured my attention, the novel opening with a small Tarisai meeting her fairy father, Melu, and his wings of blue fire, where he tells her a few truths about her reason for existing. Using three wishes, her mother, The Lady, has bound Melu and conceived Tarisai for a greater, darker purpose, but Melu insisted on giving Tarisai her own name in the hopes she can find her own path and avoid The Lady’s unclaimed third wish.
Once I’d reviewed my year of reading and discovered the books that most surprised me in 2021, I knew I had to talk about the books that most disappointed me next. With the marketing hype machines that are publishing houses and authors’ Twitter accounts, you never can tell which books will become soured by disappointment upon finally experiencing them, no matter how excited or hopeful you were for them.
It wasn’t that these books merely fell short of the mark; they were depressingly bad in ways that made me feel like the hype I had for them was silly and wasteful. Many of these books also debuted in 2021, and that in and of itself is a depressing thought. Are books getting worse? Or are my expectations as a reader becoming unwieldy and unrealistic? In an era where stories are becoming bigger and bigger franchises with over-the-top visuals, rehashed plots, and plot-disarming twists, can we be surprised by anything anymore? Have we seen it all?
I don’t think so. While an original story can be groundbreaking, any story that is well-told will travel farther regardless if we have seen its like before or not.
How, then, did the following books fail to live up to my expectations? Time to find out.
Most Disappointing Books of 2021
Persephone Station by Stina Leicht
Look at that cover! Isn’t it cool? Well, that’s all the cool factor you get with Persephone Station. I was promised a high-stakes adventure and space opera in the vein of The Mandalorian and Cowboy Bebop with an all-queer cast. What I got instead was an incredibly dull 500-page slog with equally dull characters. Each character had a profession and sexuality assigned to them, and that was the extent of who they were. In addition, everyone’s relationships had already been formed before the novel, and nobody had friction with anybody. There was Some Evil Corporation the group had to overcome, but I never once was encouraged to care about it. I started off my 2021 with this book, so you can imagine how unenthused I was after the fact; that’s where Unsounded came in to save my life.
I mean, gosh, when are people going to learn? Never compare yourself to Cowboy Bebop; you’ll never be Cowboy Bebop.
You never can foresee how a reading year will go. There’s nothing that can truly predict what books will surprise you, how they will fulfill some part of you and occupy your thoughts well beyond their end. Or how they will just plain entertain and delight you.
2021 was such a roller coaster for so many, and that notion was definitely reflected in my reading. I didn’t get to nearly as many books as I hoped I would. While I participated in book clubs and reading challenges, I still don’t believe I made a dent in the books I actually owned. Despite all that, I discovered stories new and old to love, characters and worlds that will continue to shape me as a creative, and ideas that challenge my way of thinking. Some of these books, I wrote reviews for, extolling their virtues and being forgiving towards any vices. I wish I had reviewed all of them, but sometimes that’s not in the cards—so spotlighting them here feels all the more important.
But enough waxing poetic. Let’s highlight some all-star books I didn’t expect to love as much as I did because they absolutely deserve the praise.
Most Surprising Books of 2021
Unsounded by Ashley Cope
A few friends have threatened bodily harm upon me for years to finally read the webcomic Unsounded, and this year, I finally did—and became instantly obsessed. Ashley Cope’s wonderful art style and bold storytelling consumed my early months of 2021 as I raced to catch up to the ongoing series, first with the three published volumes and then continuing with the online chapters. I even wrote a fanfic for Cope’s between-chapter hiatus contest, which ended up winning based on popular vote, and I still haven’t gotten over that.
Title:Truthwitch Author: Susan Dennard Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy Version: Paperback Page Count: 430 Publisher: Tor Teen Synopsis:GoodReads | StoryGraph Notable Notables: Original magic system, female friendship-inspired yet unbalanced Recommended Readers: Casual fantasy readers CAWPILERating: 2.29 Rating: ★☆☆☆☆
Truthwitch by Susan Dennard was the latest pick for my book club I started this year with a few of my friends, and I had high hopes about delving into a once-hyped fantasy series I missed getting into back in 2017. The emphasis I was seeing from other reviews and the marketing of Truthwitch itself boasted female friendships as its main focus, bolstered by original world-building and a developed magic system about different kinds of witches. Unfortunately, reading the book led me to a crushing reality: over-hyped book was over-hyped and perhaps did not get better with age.
Title:Lakesedge Author: Lyndall Clipstone Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy Version: ebook – ARC Page Count: 384 Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. Synopsis:GoodReads | StoryGraph Notable Notables: Original fantasy world, a death god is here Recommended Readers: Young adult readers who like emotional stories CAWPILERating: 4.57 Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Thank you, NetGalley and the publisher, for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Violeta Graceling travels with her younger brother, Arien, to Lakesedge estate, expecting to be at the mercy of the Monster of Lakesedge. The lord of the estate, Rowan Sylvanan, is said to have drowned his parents and brother in the lake. However, once she arrives, neither lord nor lake are what they seem. She discovers that Rowan has a connection to the Lord Under, a sinister death god that makes bargains for a terrible price. She vows to save Rowan, the estate, and herself, all while discovering why she is also being drawn to the Lord Under.
I was so, so hopeful for Lakesedge by Lyndall Clipstone, a novel that promised to be about monsters and magic, told in a lush gothic style—but was it truly a gothic work in the end?
Title:Iron Widow Author: Xiran Jay Zhao Genre: Young Adult/Sci-Fi Version: ebook – ARC Page Count: 400 Publisher: Penguin Teen Synopsis:GoodReads | StoryGraph Notable Notables: Based in Chinese culture with a Chinese-coded cast; inspired by China’s only female emperor; polyamorous relationship Recommended Readers: Fans of mecha anime and revenge stories CAWPILERating: 7.14 Rating: ★★★★☆
Thank you, NetGalley and the publisher, for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao is a stand-out, explosive debut that is sure to capture the imaginations and whet the appetites of readers searching for female revenge stories. With sci-fi being a rarer sight in the YA genre, Iron Widow takes a bold approach with its mecha anime-inspired roots along with being steeped in Chinese history.
In Huxia, boys dream of becoming ace pilots of Chrysalises, which are giant, transforming robots powered by syncing up with female concubine-pilots. It doesn’t matter that the girls die of mental strain, only that the mecha aliens beyond the Great Wall are stopped. Wu Zetian volunteers as a concubine-pilot to assassinate the male pilot who killed her older sister, only to emerge from the cockpit unscathed and with her co-pilot dead after overcoming him through their psychic link. Instead of being his One True Match and Iron Princess, Zetian is an Iron Widow, a much-feared and often silenced female pilot who can sacrifice boys instead. To subdue her, she is paired with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial pilot in Huxia, but she is not interested in being cowed. Instead, she plots to use Shimin and their newfound notoriety to survive attempt after attempt against her life until she can discover why the pilot system works as it does and stop more girls from being sacrificed for male dominance.
This is going to be a somewhat different post from me because it’s a review of not one book but three: the entire Captive Prince trilogy by C.S. Pacat, comprising of Captive Prince, Prince’s Gambit, and Kings Rising. I consumed these books in a month after a Herculean effort of trying to pace myself, to absorb what I was reading instead of blazing through it in a “head empty, no thoughts” mindset. This has been the first trilogy I’ve read all the way through in quite some time, and I had nothing but a good time, a realization that thrilled me to no end.
For a few years, I’d been eyeing these books, staying away for a few reasons that all amounted to my own unfounded assumptions and others’ naysaying. These books were in the romance section, which means they likely weren’t well-written. They contained just sex covered by the thinnest veil of plot. They were hugely problematic in the way they glorify sexual slavery, rape, and other issues. The list goes on, but finally, I’d had enough of believing the fears. I picked up Captive Prince because current fiction and romance have been boring me to death lately, and before long I realized I was utterly—wait for it—captivated.
Title:The Will and the Wilds Author:Charlie N. Holmberg Genre:Adult Fantasy Version: ebook Page Count:267 Publisher:47North Synopsis:GoodReads, StoryGraph Notable Notables:Original fae lore, strong standalone fantasy, enemies-to-lovers Recommended Readers:Lovers of fairytales and trickster characters CAWPILE Rating:9.14 Rating: ★★★★★
A modern-day fairytale does exist that can sweep you away into adventure and make you sigh wistfully, and it’s The Will and the Wilds by Charlie N. Holmberg.
I’ve had my eye on this book for awhile, especially since a certain long-winded, so-called fae court series continued to disappointment me and fuel my hatred. Didn’t any author besides Holly Black actually know what fae are? Can’t anyone capture the sense of adventure and danger that comes with bargaining with magical creatures that exist beyond human understanding? Is enemies-to-lovers well and truly dead, with my choices being either “had an argument once”-to-lovers or animalistic alpha male rutting and mating bonds? “Nay!” said Holmberg. “I am here for you, my child.”